Friday, March 25, 2011

Recording Tip 15: Make sure each track has only one instrument or part of a kind on it.

I realize a lot of my comments are based around preparing your sessions for an outside mixer. That’s because as a mixer these are things I see a lot. But even if you’re mixing your own projects these suggestions will help you as well.

What I’m talking about with this tip is track management. I think its much better to have individual tracks for each part. With most DAWs these days there are plenty of tracks you can create. And when you have separate tracks for each kind of sound you can more easily mix them instead of having to write automated pans and eq. It’s also helpful in that you can eq, compress or whatever specifically for that sound.

If you’re on a PT LE system and have run out of tracks, then you may need to put more than one thing per track. If you do, then manually rename the region so it’s clear that the sound has changed. Your mixer can then opt for creating a new track if they desire. But at least they know that track does have more than one kind of sound when they begin.

Recording Tip 14: Make sure every track is properly and logically labeled. No “Audio 1” garbage

I know it’s easy to jump right in and forget to do this, but I highly recommend labeling every track before recording. Of course you can do it later, but the reason for doing it first is then the regions will be labeled properly. This can really save your neck if you have some sort of disaster and either accidently drag a file to a wrong track or delete it from the edit window. If it’s labeled properly you can still pull it from the region bin back to its proper track. Once there, hit “Spot” and it’ll return to its place in the track

Also when you share a session with another player or it's mix time, then that will help as the track is seen in the regions as well as the track. That makes life much easier for your mixer as they get familiar with your song.

One last thing, try to title the track something that makes sense to an outsider. Labels such as “Gtr 1” “Gtr 2,” etc are better than nothing, but I’d recommend something descriptive like “Main Gtr” “Rhy Gtr” “Gtr FX.” These titles make a lot more sense.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Recording Tip 13: In Protools, the “Equal Power” crossfade will usually work best

You have a few options in making your crossfades. This is the one that I prefer, and again is also Bob Clearmountain’s preference. Using this setting will make it much more likely that the crossfade is inaudible. You can make it the default settings in the Preferences

Recording Tip 12: Never consolidate your files for your mixer. If they need to fix an overlooked bad edit, they can do it

This is one of those things in which some may disagree. But this is also the preference Bob Clearmountain states on his website. If you’re really good and listen carefully, then go ahead and consolidate the file. But you better be very sure all punches, etc are good before you turn in the fiiles to be mixed. I don’t mind mixing files which have punches. And I can’t count the number if times I’ve fixed bad breaths and other bad punches so please clean them up. But if in doubt, don’t consolidate the regions. If you do, you may have your mixer call you up asking you to fix it.

One last thing, when you’re done, select all the regions and use the “Lock” command (this is in Protools) so that during the mix, there won’t be any accidental deletions of a file. If the mixer wants to change something, they can still do it.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Recording Tip 11: When done recording, clean up your regions. Delete things not to be heard and clean up all punches and edits

There are few things which can bust a groove more when mixing than to have to stop and cleanup all the garbage left over from the recording session. Remember your mixer is getting paid for their time. And cleaning up regions is about as musical as doing taxes. It’s not a part of the mixing process and requires your mixer to stop thinking musically, but go into "cleanup mode" and you lose precious mix time.

Put fade ins and outs on all regions. And where there are punches, crossfade with the "Equal Power" fade and make sure they all sound good and natural. Also, I prefer any region not to be used to be deleted, not muted. If I see a muted region I then wonder if it’s something you may want, but not sure of. If that’s the case, and you're not certain, put it on a separate track marked “alternate” or something like that. I also ask that all extra takes and tracks, including midi tracks, to be deleted so the only things in the session are things to be used. Your mixer isn’t a mind reader. Let them know that what you want is what you give them.

Recording Tip 10: Always use a good pop filter when recording vocals

This seems pretty simple that most people know this, but it’s really worth a discussion. When some singers sing they can really hit certain consonants very hard. The ones to watch for are “b” “p” “th” etc. When those consonants are hit hard there will be a big bunch of air that rushes to the mic capsule and causes a pop. Some singers are better at not doing this than others, but you as the engineer need to put a pop filter in place to help that not to happen.

You can buy a pop filter, be it a metal one or one with a nylon mesh. You can even make them yourself with a needlepoint ring and pantyhose. By the way, if you do that, please use an unused pair. A good friend of mine once had an engineer in his home studio make one with a pair of his wife’s used pantyhose. My friend was about to sing, approached the mic, breathed in, and as he said, “Got a big whiff of foot” and almost gagged on the spot!

If you’re mixing and find a pop, you can used a filter at the offending spot and write over it with a high pass filter. Audiosuite in PT is a good way to deal with it. Put the filter at the point where the pop is gone and write over the file. Leave some space on either side to do a crossfade.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Home Recording Tip 9: If you get an analog tape machine, have it gone thru and setup by someone who’s learned how it’s done in a professional environment.

This is sort of an extension of my last post. As I said, I grew up in the analog age and know well the challenges of recording to analog. Different tapes, philosophies of recording levels, opinions of alignment, overbias, eq curves- be it RIAA or CCIR, head gaps, degaussing, tape tension, etc are all just part of what one needs to understand to properly setup and use an analog tape machine. Can you setup and record without knowing all that and get good results? Maybe..and if the machine arrived in good shape, probably. But it’s sort of like banging out sounds on a Nord when you have no clue what the knobs do. You’ll may get lucky and make some good sounds, but if you want something in particular or get a sound back to what you had two days ago, you need to know your gear.

You, or somebody really needs to know this stuff if you ever decide to buy an analog tape machine. When it arrives…OH YEAH! Your baby has finally arrived and you want to get right at using it. Forget waiting on the tech to show up! “Let’s record” you boast bravely, thinking you’re being cool and rock n roll, not wanting to get “bogged down” with the technical things.

It may work ok, and may sounds good. It even may be close to aligned for the kind of tape you happened to buy….for a few days anyway. You see tape machines don’t stay aligned. They will drift like a piano and need to be realigned regularly. Also each tape needs a specific kind of alignment. And each tape machine does even that differently.

The thing you may not know, is those great bands, the Beatles, Stones, Led Zepplin, etc had great engineers who made sure that EVERY DAY the machine was setup and aligned properly by technicians who’s job it was to take care of these machines. That’s part of why those albums sound the way they do. Of course it’s not all, but it is significant part. To not get a good setup of your tape machine makes as much sense as having your Dead-Head cousin refret and overhaul the ‘63 Les Paul Gold Top you just found in your uncle's attic. You’d have an expert setup a guitar. Your tape machine is no different.

My original tip said to have the tape machine “..gone thru and setup by someone who’s old enough to have been around when it was made.” I got challenged for that by one of my twitter followers as espousing ageism, so I changed it to say, “someone who’s learned how it’s done in a professional environment.” Of course the original statement is tongue in cheek, but I would maintain it’s not a bad idea. It is a bit natural that older guys know better how to keep an analog machine humming simply because younger folks haven’t been around them as long or at all. While it’s certainly true that young talented guys and gals can become competent doing this, it’s not something one can learn from a book. It’s much more a black art and is best learned by an apprenticeship. And there’s nothing like the experience of a guy who’s wrestled one of these babies around for years. But whether you pick and old fart or a young gun, just be sure they have put in the hours and know their stuff.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Recording Tip 7: Use a dark mic with a bright singer. Sibilance problems will haunt you forever. De-essing should be a last resort

The correct microphone choice for a singer is perhaps the most important decision one can make when making an album. Decent sounding albums can happen even with mediocre tracks if the right mic is chosen for the vocal. The opposite is also true. A beautifully recorded track with a badly recorded vocal will probably never sound great. And one of the biggest factors in that decision in choosing a mic is to find one which is favorable to the singer’s particular sibilance issues if they have them.

Just so we’re clear on terms, “sibilance” is the unique sounds which are made in singing or saying the brighter consonants such as “ess” ,“tee”, “tha” etc. It occurs when the air rushes through the teeth creating a bright sound. Not all people have this issue. But some do and it’s a hurdle to jump.

It all has to do with how one’s teeth are aligned. Some people’s teeth make a bright, sometimes almost a whistling sound when singing or saying certain consonants.

As an aside, I’ve found singers with a theatrical background can over enunciate and give similar problems, and not because of teeth alignment. It’s because they were trained to reach the back row with their voice, and of course with a mic a few inches away, that’s not needed. If that’s the case and it’s not a true sibilance issue, I’ll tell them to think of recording like a close-up shot in film. They don’t need to overdo their facial expressions as the camera is up close. Similarly, the mic is right there and they should back off enunciating so hard.

Outside of that, if you’re recording someone with lots of sibilance issues there’s really very little they can do little about it. If you mention it, in all likelihood their performance will suffer, SO SAY NOTHING!

Most singers are already nervous when recording so the last thing you should do is make them aware that there’s some “flaw” in how they sing. Comments like that can make them paranoid and distracted. Suck it up and find a darker mic which doesn’t accentuate those bright consonants. Mics such as a U-67 or U-47 are a good call for such singers. If you don’t have access to such great mics, then it’s up to you to find whatever darker mic you can get your hands on.

But whatever mic you choose, be sure to not push the mic preamp to hard. (Tip #5) If you do, the sibilance will end up as distortion as these frequencies are much louder than the rest of the vocal. You won’t see it, even with a true peak reading meter. ( Tips 3-4) But it WILL distort if the mic preamp is pushed. Once that happens, even your best attempts at de-essing, either manually or with a plugin will be mostly unsuccessful because at that point, you’re just limiting distortion.

When I find a singer with sibilance issues, I’ll try to get one of the mics I mentioned or a ribbon mic. Another choice especially good for females is the Shure SM-7. In my experience I’ve found women to be more likely to have this issue than men, for the obvious reason that they have higher frequencies in their voices. So when you begin recording, don’t assume that the best mic at your disposal is the mic to use. I have a gorgeous C12 than can be absolute death for some singers if they have sibilance problems. So insteand, I’l use my $300 SM7 and get much better results. I’ll listen to them as they speak to me to get an idea even before the recording begins. More often than not, if it’s a problem I’ll hear it right away. But you never know and I’ll pick a put up mics to try and pick the best before I begin recording in order to see what works.

If you do find you need a de-esser, my favorites are the Massey and Eiosis de-essers. The Massey is very good, easy to use and inexpensive. The Eiosis is expensive, but you can really get into the guts of the vocal and tweak to find the exact problem frequency. Both of these companies make great plugins and I highly recommend everything they make.

Massey De-esser
Eiosis De-esser

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Recording Tip 8: Just because something is analog doesn’t mean its better. Bad analog products have been around for decades

I grew up in the analog age. When I began as an assistant at Bill Schnee’s Studio it was an analog world. But don’t think we loved it all. There were never ending debates about what console or tape machine was better than the other. Some differences were striking. The fact is that not all analog is good.

There’s a disturbing trend I’ve seen in the last few years. Some young engineers and producers will eagerly use any analog device, especially consoles and tape machines, without even listening critically to see if it’s better than their digital whatever. I understand it, and I admire their desire to make a better sounding album. But sometime the “cool factor” gets in the way of good judgment.

Recently someone called to ask my opinion of them wanting mix to a 15ips tape machine. It was a dreadful sounding semi-pro machine who’s true calling in life was to be a boat anchor. They were convinced it was a great idea because it was analog. My advice to him was to NOT use the wretched beast, but go with their digital output and get a good mastering engineer. The fact is that decent digital is sometimes much better than average analog.

All that to say, when considering an analog option LISTEN! As I said, bad analog has been around for decades. Don’t pick it JUST because it’s analog. Pick it because it’s better.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Recording Tip 6: When recording with a compressor go easy. Use lower ratios and less compression.

This is an extension of Tip #2 and assumes you feel good about recording with compression. But always remember when using compression it’s not only how much you compress, but how you compress.

Most compressors give you a range of compression ratios to use. Without getting too deep into the technicals of that, just know that 2:1 is a lighter setting than say 6:1 or 10:1, or 20:1. So what that means for you us that you get less squash with a lighter ratio. So a lot of compression at 2:1 may sound less severe than half that amount with a setting of 10:1. Find which you like, but unless you have some good experience, the lower ratios are more forgiving and like I said in Tip #2, it’s the most permanent thing you can do when recording, so go easy. There’s no undo.

The attack and release controls also will have a big factor in how compressed something may be. If you set too fast an attack, you’ll lose the front end of the transient and lose the power of the signal. If your release setting is too slow, then the compressed signal will be too slow in coming back up. You’ll need to play with these and see what’s right. But in general, keep the attack open enough for the front of the signal to pop thru and the release quick enough to come back in a natural way. By the way, the faster the song, usually the faster the release time.

Home Recording tip 5 Set recording levels without a compressor or anything else that changes gain in the signal path.

It’s really common sense and you may get away with not doing this at times. But to get your mic preamp at it’s best level, remove or bypass any gain changing devices in the signal path.

If you have anything in line, you don’t really know what level your preamp is giving you. For example, if the compressor is in the path and it’s input or output is low, the level at the DAW may look fine, but you may hear distortion because the preamp is too high. Remove the compressor and BAM! You find the levels are in the red. The reverse, preamp low, compressor output way up, can result in a noisy signal. So remove or bypass anything in the path when setting levels.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Home Recording Tip 3-4: Only drums and percussive instruments should come close to filling up the meters in ProTools or any DAW

Meters. Even back in the analog days knowing how to read them was a skill. The same is true today. Back then there was a process of apprenticeship where engineers would teach their assistants about such things. The how and why of why meters responded on various instruments would be explained, and engineers were taught what they were seeing. Today however, there is precious little of that. Musicians and wanna-be engineers buy various DAWs and jump right in, doing the best they can from what they learned on their own and from friends…and not always for the better.

The key is remembering that this is all about getting the best level from your mic preamp. It’s the first stage of amplification and most often where distortion originates. And the intent of this blog is to help you get the best performance from your mic preamp. Once that is set, everything else will work better. Be it compressors, eq, whatever.

Most meters in a DAW are a combination of peak and averaging meters. Some of you may not know what that means, so here’s a brief explanation: Peak meter only look at the peak of a signal. It only shows the highest point of voltage….nothing else. That’s a useful thing for percussive instruments, like drums, but not for other things like vocal, strings, keyboards, etc. For those instruments, an averaging meter is better. Such a meter is what it says…it displays the average level if a signal.

The old VU meters that you’ve seen on tape machines and analog consoles were almost always averaging meters. The peak information would never show and we engineers were trained to know that. We were taught that certain things like tambourines were not showing the true peaks which were occurring. So when we’d record them, -10dB was the proper level of a tambourine because their peaks were at least 10 dB above the meter response. Were we to allow the meters to hit 0 we knew it would end up with distortion in the recording, most of the time both at the mic preamp as well as the tape. However with other things like vocals and the like, 0 was correct. (I’m ignoring super-elevated tape levels…that’s a lesson beyond this conversation and not useful for digital recording.)

So when DAWs came out, a decision needed to be made about metering. The choice was correctly made to create meters which were a combination of peak and average metering. These digital meters are somewhat of a compromise between the two. They show peaks and average levels. So percussive instruments will show their peaks. No longer do you need to have tambourines at -10 for a proper level. A meter reading close to 0 is probably correct. (This is assuming your preamp has enough headroom) And the other non-percussive instruments should NOT go up to 0dB, anymore than you’d record a vocal all the way into the red.

So basically, things you hit, be it a drum, funky guitar parts…anything with strong transients, those things can fill up 70-80% or so of the DAW meter. Anything else, vocals, keys, power electric guitars, acoustic guitars, etc, should really stay around 60% of the meter. Now having said that the key thing is always USE YOUR EARS! Depending on the mic pre you have you may encounter distortion even at lower levels. Class A mic preamps, like vintage Neve mic preamps will distort earlier than other kinds. So be aware…there’s no need to push your mic preamps. Digital has plenty of headroom and no tape hiss problems, so there’s no need to ever fill up the meters.

Recording Tip 2 When in doubt don't compress. You can do that later

I recall one weekend night many years ago when I was an assistant my boss, Bill Schnee was mixing a song and one of the tracks of the mix was severely compressed.  He kept working on it, trying to get it to sound the way he wanted with little success.  Finally, in frustration he gave me one of the greatest lessons I ever learned. “Compression is the most permanent thing you can do.” He said.  “Bad EQ, even distortion, can be gotten around.  But when someone compresses things this hard, there’s absolutely nothing I can do with it!”

Bill has never been a fan of heavy compression.  But even for those of you who do like it, the fact remains that when recording, it’s much better to use moderate compression so you’re not backed into a corner and screw things up.  A 4:1 ratio, and 3 to 5 dB of compression should do it.  This will give the mixer, even if that’s you, the freedom to compress it as much as you want later on.   And you’ll then have the advantage if hearing it in context of the mix so you’ll know what’s best.  But if you hit it too hard when recording, you can never take it back.

I’m not going to battle the idea of compression.  If you want to have your final mix compressed to death that’s up to you.  And I’m often one who will print effects as I go, but I rarely ever compress something to death unless it’s some sort of effect and there’s no doubt about it.   But 99% of the time, since you’ll have the chance to compress when mixing, it’s really better to leave the final squash till mix….and avoid your mixer cursing your name and thinking you can’t engineer your way out of a paper bag.

Day 1! Welcome and thanks for coming by

Welcome to my blog. We'll discuss my posts and most anything interesting here. The site is a work in progress, but I didn't want to wait any longer to get it up and running. (The chase for perfection is in one of my recordingtips...more on that later) You'll see some things added as the days go by.

Peace and all the best!

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Recording Tip 1 When in doubt, use an SM57

The most common mic you’ll ever see or use is the SM57. You see it in front of every Presidential speech, in almost every session on a snare or electric guitar, and almost every live gig. It’s easily the most popular mic ever made. No matter where I’ve worked, from the dumpiest home studio, all the way to Abbey Road, I’ve always found it. And found it not lying neglected deep in a mic locker, but in daily use.

I can be a bit of a mic snob and it’s easy to overlook such a pedestrian piece of equipment. But I’ll say this; In a pinch, this mic can give good results for almost any recording need in almost any genre except classical music. It’s really easier to say what it can’t do that what it can.

It’s terrific on almost any percussion instrument, from drums to congas. Electric guitar? Are you kidding? If the recording gods removed every recording which used an SM57 on electric guitar, we’d have maybe two hours of recorded music. Okay…that’s an exaggeration, but you get the point.

I’ll not blather on about what else it can do, but I’ll just say again, when in doubt, use an SM57. Don’t use it on a kick drum, overheads on drums, or most instruments you’d find in an orchestra. But on most anything else, it will do at least a decent job. There are better choices at times, and hopefully your mic cabinet has better solutions when the need arises. But when in a corner, I’d pick it in a heartbeat.

History of the SM57