Sunday, February 1, 2015

Home Recording Tip 47: To create depth in a mix use high and low pass filters to make certain sounds seem farther away

Filters are often one of the least used features on a console or a plugin. Most of the time they’re thought of as something you use only when there’s a problem. But the fact is they can be one of the best tools you have.


I use them a lot when mixing something which is supposed to sound like an orchestral recording but recorded in a studio. I figured this out when mixing one of these recordings and was trying to get woodwinds to sound like they were back in the orchestra. When recorded, the mics for the woodwinds had been placed close to them and while they sounded good, they were too bright and present as compared to the strings. Adding reverb didn’t do the job. They just sounded like close mic-ed instruments with reverb as opposed to having real depth.


We judge size and distance of what we hear based on how air transmits sound waves. When a gun is fired close to us we hear lots of low and high frequencies. But put that gun fired a few hundred yards away and not only is it softer, but the low and high frequencies have dropped off. Sound effect mixers know this and that’s one way they make a gun sound close or in the distance. Roll off some bottom and top, add some verb and turn it down, and there you have it….a gunshot far away.


So....back to trying to fit the woodwind section in a mix. Since I was trying to make it sound like the listener was in the audience 100’ away from the players, I grabbed some low and high pass filters, rolled a bit of each end, put some reverb on and tweaked till I got that sense of distance I wanted.

That works well for making a studio orchestra sound better, but the fact is heavy, even unnatural filtering is one of the tricks great pop and rock mixers use all the time to give depth and clarity to a mix. If I have a song with lots of background vocals, I’ll put both high and low pass filters to help the parts come through. Sometimes I’ll do it so severely it almost sounds like they’re singing through a telephone. Same thing goes for electric or acoustic guitars. Really, you should consider everything in the mix as something which might benefit from this trick. And when you do this, pick carefully what should have this effect. Do it on too many things though and you’ll lose the contrasts and depth you’re trying to make.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Recording Tip 46: Do you prefer drums panned audience perspective, or drummer perspective?

For all you air drummers

Now this isn’t so much a tip as it is a poll of preference. But right out the gate, I’ll say I prefer the so-called “audience” perspective with drums and orchestra. That of course, assumes a traditional setup with a right handed drummer, and the orchestra arranged in the typical setting where violins are on the left, violas in the middle, and cellos and basses on the right.

Most all of my mentors placed the drums in the audience perspective and I found that was my preference as well. (Probably because that’s what I was used to.) So when recording I’ll have the mics set that way, and in mixing, even if someone recorded the drums in the drummer perspective, I swap them to my preference.

Of course at a live concert you really don’t hear the high tom far right and the floor tom far left.  The drums really sound mostly mono and the ambience of the room does most of the work making things sound wide. Still, when making a mix, we’re really not seeking to recreate reality. Reality has it’s own extra magic seeing the performers and sitting in a room with its own acoustics. Our job in mixing is to deliver as much emotional impact as possible. We need to make it larger than life since we don’t have the added dimension of the live performance. So super-wide panning of the drums is what we often do to help create that extra excitement.

Sometimes I’ve had conversations with mixers about this and the question of how to pan a stereo acoustic piano comes up. After all, what’s an audience perspective for that? I prefer to pan it as if I’m playing. I get told it’s backward from my philosophy of the drums but for me it feels best to have the piano in the player’s perspective. After all, you never see a piano on stage with the tail facing the audience. So that comparison doesn’t work. And while most often I’ll pan the piano hard left and right, there are times I’ll pan in inside a bit if it feels better. Sometimes I’ll even mix the piano totally mono depending on what kind of record it is and what role the piano has in the arrangement.

There’s no right or wrong in this. And with everything in this craft, what matters most is that the mix communicates the emotion of the song and listener can feel it. The take-away with this is to at least think about panning when setting up your mix. Have some fun with it and try something new.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Recording Tip 45: Dont be fooled by plugins that look like analog gear. The pic has nothing to do with the sound.

“It’s easier to fool people than to convince them that they’ve been fooled-Mark Twain


It’s really amazing how our perceptions can be influenced by what we see. A number of years ago I was working in Ocean Way LA Studio One. This is one of the legendary studios in the world, designed by the legendary Bill Putnam.
Oceanway had one of the greatest mic collections on the planet, and one of the first Focusrite Consoles in the U.S. I was recording some of the best musicians in the city and believe me, like Al Schmidt’s quote from earlier, if I couldn’t get at least decent sounds in such a circumstance, I had real problems!


That day I brought a number of outboard mic preamps which were sitting alongside the console.  I didn’t need them. The console’s mic preamps were fantastic. But I was considering purchasing a few of them, so I was having a shoot-out to see how they fared against Rupert’s creation.


The band played down a take and things were sounding very good. Although most of the mics were going through the Focusrite, a few were going through the gear I brought in. On first playback the guys came in and noticed the large pile of mic preamps. “What is all that?” the drummer asked. I told him what they were and why they were there. As the playback began the drummer looked at the mic preamps, up to the speakers, back and forth a few times. He nodded in approval and said, “YEAH! Sounds great!” Now this was a very famous and seasoned studio musician who worked with some of the greatest artists and engineers in the world. Frankly I was surprised at what I saw him doing. A large part of his impression was not what he heard, but what he saw. Back in those days the large racks of outboard gear were a bit of a rarity so it was rather impressive seeing that extra stuff piled in the room. I got many kudos that day and more gigs. So from then on I always brought as much extra gear as I could! And yeah, I kept my mouth shut when the drummer gave the compliment. If he thought I was especially brilliant for bringing that gear in, who am I to say he was wrong?


Fast forward to the DAW age. A plugin creator can make a plugin GUI look any way they want. No longer are we dealing with physical knobs, transformers and the like which caused certain gear to have been made the shape and size it was. A GUI is only made for the movements of a mouse. So as plugins were created, I found it interesting what the designers chose to do.


George Massenburg made one of the best GUI for an equalizer in my opinion. It really makes much more sense than a recreation of a physical knobs. It’s clean, simple, and easy to use. Just push up or pull down. Nothing sexy with that. And while not visually beautiful, it does the job very well. Colin McDowell at MdDSP did a very similar thing. Again, not sexy, but works great.


Many other plugin designers however have chosen vintage looks, especially when attempting to replicate vintage gear. I don’t fault them for that, except when the controls don’t work well and a game of cat and mouse begins in the attempt to get the knob where one wants it to be. But the key thing to remember is that the look of the plugin has nothing to do with how it sounds.


I bet if Waves or UA had some hacker at their company swap the GUI of their Pultec emulator with their SSL most users would not hear the difference. They’d be mixing away, convinced a great classic Pultec emulation was being applied, even though it was emulating an SSL. Which sounds NOTHING like a Pultec!


So of course what I’m getting at is we, duh...have to always listen with our ears and not our eyes. Most of us won’t have a hardware Pultec, Fairchild, or whatever lying around to compare to a plugin. And while it’s interesting to do that, what matters is which one is right. Maybe you’d pick the hardware...but maybe not. Hearing if the plugin you’ve selected sounds right for the mix is all that matters no matter what the plugin is or how it looks. That’s why blind listening tests are the best way to make evaluations. My earlier post, “Perception is Reality?” talks about this.  

Critical listening is an art and something one gets at better with practice. When the mix is done no one will know what I used, nor will they care. They want to be moved emotionally by the mix and that’s all that really matters.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Recording Tip 44: Try acoustic filters. Cut a hole in the end of a Styrofoam or paper cup and stick the tip of the mic thru it

This was something I first heard Tchad Blake did. It’s a fun thing to do and can give you an atypical sound when needed.  

Everyone has heard what a voice sounds like when you cup your hands around your mouth or hold up an old cheerleader megaphone and talk or sing. When you do that you’re hearing acoustic filtering which makes a cool sound when recording.

I’ve recorded singers using a paper like a megaphone, styrofoam cups around an SM57 for a snare...I even put a mic in the hole of a cinderblock brick in front of a kick drum. Sure, you can try to make an odd sound later with EQ, but there’s nothing quite like doing it in the moment and letting nature create the sound. And no matter how good you are with EQ, there are very few times it sounds as interesting as it does with an acoustic filter.

So when looking for a different sound, take a styrofoam cup or whatever, cut a hole in it and place it over the mic, holding it with some tape. You’ll never know how it will sound till you hear it, but I’ve found more often than not it works. You’re obviously looking for something out of the ordinary, and that is what you’ll get!

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Recording Tip 43: I have a friend who put a bass cabinet face down on the floor with a KM84 under with great results

This tip has raised lots of questions, as I knew it would. I just couldn’t put enough information in a tweet, but hopefully it may have gotten a few of you to try some less typical things when recording.  

The friend of mine who did this is a very good engineer. We’ve known each other for a long time and often talk about different ways of doing things. I will say however, that while I’ve always liked his results, I’ve yet to find one of his ideas to work for me. That’s part of the nature of the recording. As you try different ways of doing things, you’ll find someone who’s recording methods line up with yours, and some just don’t. So the first lesson here is don’t fret it if some tip you learned doesn’t work when you try it. It’s no different than a musician trying to emulate some other player, but that person’s style doesn’t feel right to them when they try it. We’re all different. We come to this craft with our own musical loves and preferences that may be very different than those whose tips we wish to emulate.  

But as you’re different than me, you might find this tip to work for you, so here it is.

As best I recall, the bass cabinet was a small one. He’d tried a few normal techniques to no avail. Finally in desperation (often a good source of good ideas) he took a KM84 and placed it flat it on the studio floor. He then laid the speaker cabinet face down on the floor OVER the mic and turned up the amp till it “farted” a bit, and there was the sound. Go figure! I’d have never thought of such an idea. But it was a great sound.

So lesson #1, don’t worry if something some idea you heard doesn’t work for you. Find someone whose methods relate to what you do and follow them.  

So, lesson #2 the total contradiction to #1….Try anything! You may find something so bizarre as my friend that works for you.  Always keep looking. You just may find a wacko idea that does work.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Recording Tip 42: Caffeine later in the evening has a point of diminishing returns. I find a carbonated drink works in late hours

Coffee! The engineer’s extra assistant. It’s been in the studios for decades and thankfully now days it’s usually pretty decent. Back when I started (pre Starbucks...yes, I’m that old) good studio coffee was a rarity. (Think of a shabby office coffeemaker, styrofoam cups and powdered creamer) But we’d still drink that mud in the late hours to help us keep going.

One thing I’ve found that at a certain point there’s a kind of caffeine saturation. Especially in hours after midnight when I’ve had a few cups the coffee doesn’t help me wake up...it just begins to bother my stomach.  

I’ll usually turn to a Diet Pepsi for those hours. The carbonation wakes me up pretty well on it’s own, and the caffeine is somehow different and I don’t need the sugar. Of course other kinds of drinks can do the same thing.  Any sparkling drink would have a similar effect. I’ve tried the Five Hour energy drinks. They seem to work also, but I really wonder what’s in it!

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Recording Tip 41: Thinking of mastering your project yourself? There’s a reason why the great mixers don’t.

Okay...I’ve been blessed to have many of my mixes mastered by some of the best in the world so I know the difference. My first efforts were mastered by Doug Sax who taught me the most about what mastering is, what they do and why their work is so valuable. Since then Bernie Grundman, Bob Ludwig, Howie Weinberg, Andrew Mendelson, Gavin Lurssen, Greg Calbi, Ted Jensen, George Marino, and even the late Chris Blair of Abbey Road. (Bohemian Rhapsody anyone?) all have done their best to make my mixes sound good. And let me tell you, what they do is a big deal. If you think it doesn’t matter, then ask yourself why do virtually all of the best mixers have someone master their work? You know their mixes will be as good as it gets. And if they think it’s needed, the rest of us mere mortals need it too.

Now a legit reply at this point would be, “Sure. If I had the money I’d use them. But I can’t afford it so I have to do it myself or find some local guy or gal who’s just starting out.” Fair enough. And I do get that sometimes a lesser skilled engineer can make your project sound worse. Additionally I’ve found some of those to be much more hard headed about what they think things should be than the famous guys mentioned above. (Odd that great talent and skill know better how to handle their ego. Probably because they’re more secure in who they are...something I’ve covered in a previous blog. Just remember this, one of the best reasons to have someone else master your work is you get another set of ears to evaluate it. They don’t come to it with the baggage of all the work that came with the making of the project. They don’t know any of the battles over sounds, vocal levels, etc that so often color the view of what has been done or what it should be. They just hear it for what it is and will make their judgements solely based on that. Also as the music is being heard in another room (hopefully sonically accurate and with a clean audio path) whatever flaws there may be in the mix room aren’t reinforced in mastering.

Okay. So there’s my sermon on why you should have someone else master your project. But at times I understand that simply isn’t an option. So what advice can I offer for those of you who have to master your own project? First of all, unless you’ve invested some serious time and research into the subject you probably need to forget everything you think you know about mastering. Mastering IS NOT just loading your mixes into your DAW, slapping on some EQ and mulitiband limiters till the mix is loud and squashed. That’s a sure way to make your work sound amateurish. Anybody can do that, and Lord knows the great mastering engineers don’t do that. Just as you’d dig though Pensado’s Place and other sites on the web to learn from great mixers in order to make your work sound better, so you should scour the net for good information from experienced and trusted sources on mastering before start.

Now such sites are few and far between. But there is one I can’t recommend highly enough. It’s run by a fellow in England named Ian Shepherd and his site is Production Advice. At this excellent site you’ll find tons of great articles, videos, and links covering almost anything you’d ever think of and some things you never imagined. Ian also wrote a great e-book you can purchase and perhaps the best thing of all is his Online Mastering Course which is held several times a year. I’ve taken the course, and despite that I’ve been at this a long time and been a part of hundreds of mastering session, I learned a ton from it. Best of all the course shows Ian actually mastering various songs and talking his way through what he’s doing and why….all on various DAWs that you probably already own with plugins you likely have. I can promise you it will easily be one of the best investments you’ll make. And no, I’m not compensated by Ian. But if you sign up, please let him know you heard about it from me. He’s an online buddy and I’d love for him to know.

So again, if you can hire a great mastering engineer do that. But if you can’t, begin learning what mastering is before you take a whack at it.