Updated Portfolio

Holy inactivity! It’s been awhile, but I’ve finally updated the portfolio. Hope you like the new pieces!

Dynamic Range Day

March 16th is Dynamic Range Day. If you are wondering why the heck we need to dedicate a day to dynamic range, take a second to read this and learn a little bit about it.

In brief, the music industry has been in a “loudness war” for the last 30 years. The idea is if a record is louder than others, it will stand out and ultimately sell more copies. But this way of thinking ignores any principles of musicality; instead it produces increasingly flat, squished, and one dimensional productions. Changes in dynamics build excitement,create interest, and

The goal of Dynamic Range Day is to raise awareness of the issue and once and for all convince people to stop compressing the hell out of everything. Ease off the limiters and give the music some room to breathe. If this piqued your interest I urge you to go to http://dynamicrangeday.co.uk/ and hear the full story. Pass it on to your friends. There’s also a contest to win some sweet prizes there, so if you need some extra motivation, check it out.

The Importance of Pre-Production

Time is money, and nowhere is this more true than in the studio. If you let a few sessions get away from you, you can find yourself in a pretty big hole without much to show for it. Make the most out of your studio time by preparing as much as possible before stepping in to record.

Obviously, a big part of pre-production is rehearsing. Having your parts down before you walk into the studio is going to lead to a more confident performance that resonates with the listener. When everyone can deliver their parts in just a few takes it allows you to give more attention to enhancing the good parts rather than fixing the bad. Of course, fewer takes means less time in the studio and more money in your pocket.

Another important element of pre-production is perfecting the arrangement. One of the worst feelings in the studio is to finish recording a song and realizing there is a big hole in the arrangement. My advice would be to do a rough recording at home before coming into the studio. This will have the dual benefits of providing a scratch track for the session and give you a preview into how the song will sound. I find that even the roughest recordings give you a good idea of the songs layout. You may find that the arrangement is too sparse, and you need to create new parts, or it could be crowded and in need of some serious editing. Both these problems can be cost you more time if they are left to be dealt with in the middle of a session.

When you plan your next session, don’t neglect the importance of pre-production. Sessions run smoother and create less stress when everyone is well prepared, and ultimately leads to a better recording in less time.

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Parallel Processing

Parallel processing is a versatile tool that every engineer should have in his bag of tricks. Essentially, parallel processing is taking a track, duplicating it, processing the duplicate, and blending it back in with the original track. The duplicate track can by made by a buss send, or by making a copy of the audio track.

There are several advantages to this compared to just processing the original track. Blending in a heavily processed track behind a more ‘natural’ sounding one will give you the benefits of the processing without compromising the natural sound. This effect can be used in a more subtle way than direct processing. You can also automate the amount of the effect by simply adjusting the volume on the duplicate track.

The possibilities for parallel processing are endless, but one of the most common uses is parallel compression. By blending a heavily compressed track with the original, you can get the direct, focused sound of the compression without it sounding squashed or unnatural. This is especially effective on vocals, as it allows them to cut through without negatively affecting the natural dynamics of the performance. Boosting the volume of the compressed track for the chorus is another good way to increase its impact. Another favorite of mine is parallel distortion. Riding the fader on the distorted track can allow you to use the distortion to enhance the nuances of the performance. Also, using a smoother distortion like tape distortion (for a good free plug-in go to masseyplugins.com for a unlimited demo version) and cutting everything below 1Khz can act as a harmonic exciter to brighten up the vocal.

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Let the Music Define Your Vision

As engineers we often spend an inordinate time focusing on what gear or plug-ins to use, or getting each track to have the best sound regardless of its role in the song. We can get caught listening to the tones and frequencies presented to us and letting those define our mix. In reality though, these are all secondary to the song itself.

If you throw all your tracks up and create a quick static balance before diving into the nuances of each track you can hear the song as a whole and listen to what the song is asking for. Your goal isn’t to make a mix that engineers love; it’s to maximize the impact of the song. When making each decision you should be asking yourself: is this just helping the individual tracks or is it making the song better?

Good mixing that lets the song speak is all about context. It doesn’t matter if you created the most beautiful big room delay chain of your career, it won’t work for your punk album. If you hear the kick drum insistently hitting every beat you’ll probably want to make sure the kick is prominently mixed so the listener cannot ignore it.

A well crafted song will always tell you what it needs. So, when in doubt, back out of the details and look at the big picture. Once you know what role the track is playing you can work to make it fit the context of the song. This will lead to a more cohesive, compelling mix every time. Like the Isley Brothers said, listen to the music.

The High Pass Filter

A few weeks back I talked about the benefits of subtractive EQ. Today, I’d like to touch on a porwerful tool every engineer  should be using: the high pass filter. A high pass filter (or low-cut) allows frequencies above the selected frequency to pass through , and cuts everything below. It isn’t a brick wall though. There is a slope that is usually adjustable and tapers off gradually. This allows for a more natural, less abrupt, sound.

The key to a good bass sound in a mix is clarity, so I recommend putting a high pass filter on any instrument that doesn’t need bass response. Once you’ve put a high pass on a track slowly increase the cut-off frequency until you’ve eliminated the bass, but don’t go too far so the track sounds thin and weak. The result on each track will be very subtle, but once applied through the whole mix you’ll find the bass and kick now have room to breath and stand out.

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Superlux HD668D Headphones: A great buy

I won’t make a habit of promoting products in this blog, but if you’ve got some Christmas money leftover and are looking for some quality headphones for cheap ($50!) the Superlux HD668D is a great buy.

A local music store owner told me about these, and for the price I had to give them a shot. These aren’t the most stylish headphones, but the performance quality surpasses headphones over twice the cost. The sound isn’t completely closed off to the outside, so I wouldn’t recommend them for any thing requiring isolation like micing. However, they are perfect for mixing. They have an incredibly clear and accurate sound with impressive low end. You won’t get epic brain rattling bass, but you get a full, defined sound that stands out without becoming muddy or overwhelming. These headphones do nothing to color the sound; no added warmth will be found here. They just give whatever you’re putting into them. As a result they may feel a hair too crisp and clynical, but that’s a small complaint for a great product at a great price.

The New York Compression Trick

The New York Compression trick is a technique that can give you punchier, more in-your-face drums. I recently wrote an article on it for Audiotuts+, a great website with tons of useful information on audio and production.

Punchier Drums with the New York Compression Trick

Hope you find it useful!

Subtractive EQ

When you pull up your favorite EQ (plug-in or outboard) your first instinct is usually to turn something up; like boosting 2 Khz to give your guitar a little more edge. How often have you started turning things down? Subtractive EQ starts with cutting out sounds or tones that you don’t like. Too muddy? Take a little 300 Hz out. Vocal sounds a little boxy? Try bringing down 1 Khz a bit.

When you simply boost frequencies you like and ignore the rest it leaves a lot of unnecessary/unwanted frequencies in the mix. When you look at the mix as a whole there’s only so much sonic real estate available. If every instrument is just boosted there will be a lot of competing frequencies that cover each other up. Using subtractive EQ can help give your mix added clarity and allow every track to be heard.

So the next time you’re looking to EQ a track, first ask yourself what you don’t like, or what you don’t need, and then cut some frequencies before you start boosting. It might be all you need.

Microphone Basics

Everyone has an opinion about microphones. They have their favorite mics, set-ups, and rules they believe get the best possible recordings. The truth is, there is no steadfast rule or microphone that gets good results every time. In today’s post, I’m going to give you a brief overview on different microphone characteristics to help you make your own ideas on what microphones you want to use for your projects.

First off, a microphone is a transducer that changes one form of energy into another (sound waves into electrical signals). There are three main types of microphones: dynamic, ribbon, and condenser; each of which makes this conversion through a different process.

Dynamic Microphones use electromagnetic induction by suspending a wire coil in a magnetic field. When sound waves hit the microphones face it displaces the coil in proportion to the amplitude and frequency of the wave. The interaction between the coil and the magnetic field creates an electrical signal that goes through the output and is recorded. Dynamic mics are designed to be able to withstand high SPLs (Sound Pressure Levels) which makes them well suited for snares, toms, and other loud percussive sounds. Dynamic mics also work great on guitar amps and tends to produce a thicker, more rugged sound than condenser mics. They are best used for capturing low and midrange information; the high frequency information isn’t as accurate as with ribbon and condenser mics.  Although dynamic mics are not typically used on vocals, there are certainly situations where they can work well.

Ribbon Microphones also use electromagnetic induction; however instead of a coil they use an extremely thin (2 microns) aluminum ribbon. The ribbon is very fragile, and is definitely not suited for high SPLs. The ribbon can also be ruined by phantom power, so be careful to make sure it is not engaged on any channels with a ribbon mic. The ribbon mic has a fast response and is able to accurately track sound waves over the entire frequency spectrum. Ribbons tend to have a slightly darker quality than condenser mics which makes them ideal for recording bright instruments without creating a harsh sound by over-emphasizing the higher frequencies.

Condenser Microphones operate on electrostatic principle; the capsule consists of two plates, one movable, one fixed. Once powered, the plates are charged and reach equilibrium with each other. To oversimplify, when sound waves hit the front plate it is displaced and the capacitance between the two plates changes. This information is sent through the output and recorded. Condenser microphones are the most commonly used microphones are able to capture most instruments accurately. Because of their high sensitivity they are also able to capture quiet or distant sounds better than dynamics. Be careful though, as they are less sturdy than dynamics and can be easily damaged my mishandling and condensation. It is always a good idea to keep condensers boxed up when not in use.

Microphones also vary in their directional response. Omnidirectional mics respond well to sound waves coming from all directions. Cardoid pattern, the most typical pattern, tend to respond best directly in front of the microphone, but also takes waves from the side, diminishing to a null point in the back of the microphone. Bidirectional microphones capture waves in the front and back of the microphone, with null points to the sides at 90 and 270 degrees. When placing directional mics, keep in mind that you can use the null points to block out other instruments and help cut down on bleed when recording multiple instruments at once.  Directional microphones (all types except omni) also have what is called a proximity effect which causes a boost in the low end when the mic is placed within a foot of the instrument. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but you’ll want to be careful to make sure the sound isn’t too boomy or muddy.

Knowing how the different microphones respond can give you some guidance on how to choose a mic and position it. Don’t be afraid to break the rules though and experiment.

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