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.

This tip seems rather obvious. But it’s really amazing how our perceptions can be influenced by what we see. A number of years ago I was working in Oceanway LA Studio One. This is one of the legendary studios in the world, designed by the legendary Bill Putman.

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, if you couldn’t get at least decent sounds in such a circumstance you had real problems!

That day I brought a number of outboard mic preamps which were sitting alongside the console.  Now I certainly didn’t need them. The console’s mic preamps were fantastic. But I was considering purchasing some, so I was giving them a test to see how they fared against Rupert’s latest creation.

The band played down a take and things were sounding pretty 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. Clearly 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 some 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 he or she chooses. No longer are we bound to 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 began to be created, I found it interesting to see what plugin 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 a vintage piece of 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 dare say that Waves or UA had some hacker at their company swap the GUI of their Pultec emulator with an 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 with which to make a comparison to the plugin. And while it’s interesting to make those comparisons, the point is which one is right? Maybe you’d pick the hardware...but maybe not. What matters is listening and hearing if the plugin you’ve selected sounds right for the mix. It always comes back to using your ears and no matter what the plugin is or how it looks. Does it do what you need?  This is why blind listening tests are the best way to make evaluations. My earlier post, “Perception is Not Reality” talks about this.

Critical listening is an art and something one gets at better with practice. Even when I’m in a analog mix room and think, “I need that vintage 1176 on this.” I still have to listen carefully and see if indeed what I thought it needed was right. Sometimes a plain-jane console compressor is the better choice. After 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.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Recording Tip 40: When mixing better to have your faders plus or minus 10db of “0.” Insert trims if you find them far from that

This tip came from a project I mixed a few years ago, and I’m finding the problem happening pretty often these days. I was mixing a project which had been sent to one of the best guitar players on the planet for him record his parts. The tracks he recorded were mostly power/crunch guitars and they sounded great. The problem however, were that all of them were recorded at near full scale, almost totally filling up the meters. (This relates to TIP 3-4.  where I advise to only record percussive instruments that hot.)

This was a problem because I had to pull the faders almost to the bottom of the fader track in order to balance them in the mix. The reason this is a problem is at the bottom of the fader track, there’s not enough resolution to make small changes. You can easily see this on the faders with their dB marks. When the fader is near 0 the distance between dBs is fairly large. On my screen moving the fader about an inch near 0 gives about 7-8dB of gain change. But at the bottom of the fader track, an inch is maybe 15dB or more. I’m not going to get into the math of that. You can search that if you want more information. The bottom line of it all is there’s more resolution a the top half of the fader track than near the bottom. So if the fader is down near the -20 mark it’s really hard to make a small level change...and consequently, hard to get the balance of that track just right.

All to say, I needed better fader resolution for my rides. So what I did was to put a Trim plugin on those track at -20dB. That allowed me to raise up the fader so it was more like -5dB or so for a good balance. From there I could make the small rides more accurately.

Using the trim plugin in this situation will also help keep from any plugins from overloading, especially if you add a good bit of EQ. Maybe you’ve wondered why an equalizer overloads when you add EQ. If the level going in is too hot, when you add gain at certain frequencies, you’ve maxxed out the plugin. Lowering the level will also give you more room with the threshold setting if you’re compressing it. When you find tracks like this, put the trim plugin first, so the following plugins have better gain structure.

One last thing. Don’t deceive yourself that hot recording levels will make for a loud record. That will happen when you mix. Super hot recording levels are likely just to give you unintended distortion. While you may get a thrill seeing all those lit up levels, all they’re really doing is making it harder to make a great mix. Healthy recording levels are important for sure. But again, re-read TIP 3-4.

So use that Trim in and get those faders back up to where they should be. Your moves will be much more accurate, you’ll not be as likely to overload your plugins, and your mixes will sound better as a result.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Recording Tip 39: Once you have basic levels and pans, listen in mono, THEN adjust pans. One small move may help something pop thru

This is a wacky tip and a bit more advanced than some of the others. And while the end goal is to make your stereo mixes better, your mixes heard in mono will be better as well.


Of course 99% of the time your mix will be heard in stereo, but checking your mix in mono is still a good idea for a few reasons, the most obvious being that if your mix is heard in mono you want it to sound good. And if you’re lucky enough to mix a big hit it will be heard in mono a lot more than you imagine. Playback from a smart phone’s speakers or in stores at the mall are a few places where songs are heard in mono by a lot of people. While mono isn’t common, it’s not totally dead. The fact is a great mix sounds good in both mono and stereo and it’s worth your time to check it.


So that’s my little sermon on why it’s good for your mix to translate well to mono. But for this tip that’s really the icing on the cake. The point is to listen in mono so your stereo mixes sound better.  So now you may be wondering, “How do panning changes in mono help my stereo mix?”  


The reason is that mono gives another reference for hearing how your levels, pans, and eq are working. If things are fighting in mono, they’re probably fighting in stereo as well. You may not hear it so much as things are spread across the stereo image, but it’s still there.  


The idea is this. Once your mix is in good shape, hit the mono button on your monitor section and make small panning changes. (Now I’m not talking about changing your pans to mono and then listening.  I’m talking about using your monitor’s Mono button so it combines the stereo mix to mono in your speakers. If you don’t have a mono button on your monitor this tip won’t work for you. You have to have a Mono button in your monitor section to do this.)


So get your mix in good shape, preferably before you’ve begun automating the faders.  TIP 37.  By then you’ve panned all your tracks the way you want them so now hit the mono button on your monitor section and listen. Are all the tracks in a good balance? Does the mix still sound like your mix, or something dreadful?  Hopefully it’s still pretty good. If not, go back to stereo and work a bit more, checking things in mono. Once it sounds pretty good in both, then take the next step. While listening in mono, select a track and move the pan a bit.


Now I’m not talking about making big changes. In fact when I go back to stereo I might not even be able to tell it’s moved at all. The idea is to give a small bump to the panning of the track a bit and see if it pops out better while listening in mono. One thing also...while panning is mostly what I’m working on, level and eq are also something I’m paying attention to, and often I’ll make changes to those as well.  (This is also why it’s good to do this before automation. If you need to make real changes to level you won’t have to backtrack fader automation.)


When doing this I tend to focus more on tracks panned between L-C-R, but those panned hard left and right might need a change as well. It may be that panning a bit less than hard left or right is better. I’ll make my final decisions and passes in stereo, but like listening on a second set of speakers, this gives another perspective to hear relationships of the tracks.


If I hear a problem right off the bat, I may swap back and forth between mono and stereo to find it. But mostly I stay in mono for this little exercise. I’ll take a pass or two like this and once it sound good I’ll go back to stereo and see how things sit.


Almost always when I go back to stereo I find my mix is much more open and sounds better. Of course a great stereo mix is the goal, so if what I heard in mono doesn’t work as well in stereo, I’ll change it for the sake of the stereo mix. But as I said before, a great mix almost always sounds great in both stereo and mono. Check out your favorite mixer’s work. You’ll hear that’s true.


One thing you must remember when doing this. Anything panned dead to center will sound louder when listening in mono because it adds equally from both sides. So expect the bass guitar, kick, snare, and vocal, etc. to be a bit louder. If it does a little bit, that’s normal. But if it’s radically louder, you need to work some more. Listen back and forth between stereo and mono and find the place where those things sound right in both. In mono you’ll also usually lose a bit of stereo reverb so things may sound a bit drier. That’s also due to the things in mono, like the lead vocal are louder in mono, so that relationship with the reverb is different. This may sound a little odd, but with a little experience, you’ll find what works between the two and your mixes will be better.

Give this rather nutty method a shot. I bet you’ll find good results. And if nothing else, it’s a good way to hone your chops.