Sunday, March 1, 2015

Home Recording Tip 50: In music production give moments where one thing takes center stage. Let the scene change

Time for a change

This tip and the next are from a few lessons I’ve learned from Chris Lord-Alge. And one of them, rather painfully.  

Back in my LA days I worked on TV show called “The Heights.” It was about a mythical band in the Pacific Northwest and their adventures in trying to make it. I was recording and mixing the music for the show and was soon to begin mixing a subsequent album. It was pretty much rock-pop stuff, and a lot of the music was pretty good. One of the songs in the show was “How Do You Talk To An Angel” which ended up as a #1 Billboard hit.

There’s an interesting story about how the song got to be #1. As the show was on FOX, their marketing crew had previews for it running in movie theaters across the country. “How Do You Talk to an Angel” was the musical bed to the preview and theater-goers liked it so much they began cheering and clapping when it came on the screen. Soon radio stations began to get calls to have it played on the air. Well, it wasn’t long before we got a call to get a mix of it out NOW! That of course shifted everything in the mix schedule for the album. Not surprisingly, the A&R guy from the label wanted Chris to mix it. I begged the producer to give me a fair shot and let mix it as well. Then he and the A&R guy could choose which mix they preferred.   

Now if you ever find yourself in such a situation, you must remember a few things. One, the big mixer you’re competing against has a track record, so you’re already at a disadvantage.  The fact is ESPECIALLY people in the major labels rarely use only their ears to make a decision on mixes. Guys at the labels are always in jeopardy with their job, so when in doubt, they’ll take the safest choice. After all, if the song is a flop, their boss can’t accuse them of not hiring a good mixer. And what if the unknown guy’s mix was better and they used it, but it wasn’t a hit? Then they’d look like an idiot. The labels don’t care about how good a mix is. They just care if it sells. But even if it WAS a hit, the question they’d face would then be, “Why’d you spend all that money on a mix you didn’t use? All to say I knew if my mix was to be selected over Chris’ it would have to be MUCH better than his. But even that didn’t guarantee anything. So I knew the odds were against me even before I started.

Still I did get my chance. When the mix was done the A&R guy came over for a listen right after hearing Chris’ mix. He was a very fine A&R guy with a great track record, and to his credit it wasn’t just a polite, courtesy listen. He sat down with me and really paid attention to what I’d done. “This is really good,” He said. “I gotta say these mixes are a lot closer than I thought they’d be. I think yours is more musical” as he nodded approvingly.  

Well, of course in the end they picked Chris’ mix. And I gotta say his mix was better. One thing which really separated his mix from mine is what Chris did in the instrumental bridge. There was this arpeggiated electric guitar part which he really pushed and made it a feature. In my mix it wasn’t buried, but I didn’t make a big deal out of it like Chris did. There may have been other things he did better, but that was the one big comment about his mix and for sure it made his mix better than mine. He made a real moment of that section and it made a huge difference. Of course I offered to remix my mix and do the same, but the decision had already been made. Lesson learned!

Monday, February 16, 2015

Recording Tip 49: When tuning remember the doctor’s oath. DO NO HARM! Don’t overdo it

If a little bit is good, a lot more must be gooder!

Speaking of tuned vocals, over-tuning a vocal is one of my pet peeves. While tuning can be a great thing and turn a great take into a spectacular performance, we all know too well the misuses of the technology. Some may say it’s not a real performance. I disagree unless they mean a whole take with no fixes, and that rarely happens with any artist. I’ve sat for hours with a singer singing a tough phrase over and over on multiple passes and then comp five or more takes to make the final version. In my view that’s no more an honest performance than a good emotional take which needs some pitch correction in places.

I recall a country hit a few years ago which had a vocal so over-tuned I could hardly believe it was released. I couldn’t tell if she was a good singer because her vocal was tuned so hard it was unlistenable. It was a hit, but I think it would have a much longer life had the vocal not been tuned so hard. It just sounded too much like a fad, and made no sense for the genre.

Thinking of this brings to mind a story an artist friend told me about an album she did a number of years ago. Now this gal is one of the top female singers in Christian music and has won several “Vocalist of the Year” and Grammy awards. I’ve recorded her a number of times and believe me...she doesn’t need much help in the tuning department. I once recorded her singing live on a tracking session and her performance was so good it was released without a single punch or tuning. Well in this particular case her producer was one who tended to go overboard with auto-tune. She came in to hear how things were going and was horrified to hear the over-the-top the tuning which had been done. She immediately cried foul, saying she hated it. The producer, thinking on his feet said, “Wait! That’s not the right vocal. That’s for the Electronica version!” Well she knew there was not going to be such a version...she wasn’t that kind of artist. The producer mumbled a bit about the right vocal not being in that session. “Can you come back tomorrow? I’ll have it for you then.”  

We’ve all heard the T-Pain effect. When that’s the case, then, yeah...go for it. But when it’s not that kind of song sometimes a bit of sliding into a note can really carry emotion. Flat-lining the note can perhaps be more technically right, but doing too much of that can suck the life right out of the performance. Most often we don’t get to work with a killer talent like the gal in my story. But I still find it better to err on the side of doing less when tuning. You can always go back and tweak a line that isn’t right. And it’s much easier to tweak something again than it is to work backward. Once you flatline that note you can’t undo it. You have to go back and get the untuned vocal and start all over.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Recording Tip 48: Use a tuned and untuned vocal together to make an effect that no plugin can do

A good and a bad can make it great

This is another thing I came upon by accident. By now you’ve probably noticed that many of the tips I write about are from things which happened unintentionally. Sometimes a random mistake will be the best thing for the record if you’re open enough to use it. A lot of good ideas on great albums have resulted from accidents.  

I had just finished tuning a vocal and resumed mixing. I had the tuned vocal up but hadn't yet muted the untuned vocal. When I hit play, the two created a great sound together. It wasn’t something I wanted for the entire song, but it was a great sounding effect which I used for the breakdown during the bridge. This won't always work, of course. Depending upon the singer and how much tuning was done, this trick may not sound good. However, it’s sometimes worth a listen when you're searching for a vocal effect.

You know it just occurred to me...I’ve been telling you I prefer to not have anything in the session that’s not going to be in the mix. I think I should make the un-tuned vocal an exception!

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!