Friday, July 29, 2011

Recordingtip 28 Be cautious using brickwall limiters like the L2. If your mixes resemble a brickwall, back it off

The advent of digital recording brought in a whole new playground of toys with which to play for mixers. And in my view with all the myriad of processors now at our disposal, nothing has really changed the sonic landscape as much as the so-called “Brickwall” limiter. I remember the first time I loaded a modern, mastered CD into Protools. It was a project I’d mixed in an analog console and mastered by Bob Ludwig. The move to “in-the-box mixing had yet to really happen, though most of us were recording in a digital DAW of one kind or another, most mixing was still analog. So I loaded it in. And there it was...the waveforms cut like a finely cut hedgerow garden in England. ALL the transients lopped off and looked like nothing I’d ever seen before.

Of course Ludwig is one of the most respected mastering engineers in the business and it sounded great. But I was amazed at what I saw and wondered if such an approach made sense on all types of music.

It’s been a good many years since that day. And since then mixing in the box isn’t that uncommon at all. In fact, almost every mixer uses some form of it and with that comes the opportunity to put an L2 or any other limiter which can smash ever single transient to smithereens. The trick is knowing how much to apply.

I’m fortunate that most every mix I make is mastered by a really great mastering engineer. So all I really need to worry about is making a great mix and letting the mastering engineer do their magic. The caveat of this is most labels judge mixes before mastering. So there’s the temptation to put a hard limiter on the mix so it gives some semblance of what it will be when mastered in order to please the label gang.

This is especially a problem when an album is mixed by several different mixers, such as the last album I did. One would think that professionals at the label would understand that mastering will even out the levels of the different mixes and apply their processing to them. Unfortunately that’s often not the case. And if you give your mix some dynamic range and the other guy smashes his to death, it’s often that mix, sounding louder and more aggressive, may make your mixes seem not as good. You’d especially think that professional folks at major labels know and understand all this, but it’s rare when they do.

This reality puts many engineers in a bit of a quandary. Do we do what we think is right, and know the mix will sound good once it’s mastered and hope the folks at the label realize this? Or do we make a “label” mix, squashing it a bit for a sense of what it will be like when mastered, and turn into mastering the version we want? I can see that as a good option, provided that mastering makes it better. But what if your version of what mastering will be isn’t that good? After all, a good mastering engineer will probably do a much better version of that than you ever will. You could in the end not helping your cause.

One of my mentors, Jack Joseph Puig commented in a recent Waves webinar that he prefers to get his mixes as close to a mastered version as possible. So he’ll go ahead and hit the limiter as hard as he feels right for the final result. But let’s face it...very few of us are JJP. Jack is a very serious student of many things, including how his mixes end up when mastered by Bob Ludwig and the like. So I give Jack full reign with such things. But my suggestion to all those learning the ropes is to remember that JJP has many years of work and is much better able to know how much is right, and how much isn’t right. Remember, compression is the most permanent thing you can do. It’s better to leave some room for your mastering engineer.

So while I why understand why mixers want to compress their mixes hard, more often than not I hear mastering engineers complain that they have nothing to work with when they get mixes squashed to death. I heard a reaction to one such mix from one of the guys at Sterling as, “All I can do is turn it down!” That’s not the response of a guy needing to validate his reason for being there. This is a guy who’d be happy to have a great mix show up and he do nothing but a straight transfer. His is the voice of frustration of the loudness wars and that he can’t make an album feel and flow the way he hears it in his head were he given a bit of room to do something with it.

Now while I almost always use an L2 or some sort of limiter as a final stage on the stereo buss, it's purpose is to capture those peaks that a normal compressor misses. I’ll rarely have it do much more than a few dB of limiting. I have it there to catch an irregular drum hit or something like that. I'm not saying you should never use one. Just be careful in how it’s used.

One other thing. Before I begin a mix I ask who will be mastering so I have some idea of what will happen once I turn my mixes in. Knowing their particular mastering style helps me know what I need to do. And more often than not, I’ll send a mix to the mastering house for some helpful comments about my mix. If I can, I’ll even go down there and hear my mixes before I’m done. This is a great thing to do and virtually ever mastering engineer I’ve worked with not only allows this, but encourages it. Just give them a call, tell them who you are and that they are mastering something you're mixing, and would they mind if you dropped by at a time convenient for them to hear it. Sometimes the mastering house may not be in the city you live in. In that case, ask if I can upload a mix to them and then have a phone conversation about it. That works too. You’ll be surprised at the things you learn by doing this, and your project will be better for it.

That being said, I realize that many of you won’t have the opportunity to have your mixes mastered by the likes of Bob Ludwig, Andrew Mendelson or Doug Sax. If that’s the case what is the best thing to do?

The best approach is still to not overdo limiting when mixing. This is even more important if you don’t have a A level mastering engineer. At least the top level guys can probably handle over-compressed and limited mixes better than the others. One of the great secrets of a great mastering engineer is knowing what NOT to do. A lesser experienced mastering engineer may feel it's their calling in life to limit the hell out of every mix, thinking that is good.

Which brings me to my final point. As much as possible, attend your mastering sessions. You will learn a lot. Back in the old days of Abbey Road, young engineers began in the mastering room so they could learn what things were like when mastering good and bad mixes. I've learned as much at mastering about my mixes as I have anywhere else. And you just might save your mix from sonic annihilation!

While I understand the desire to have a really great sounding and loud CD, if you whack it too hard it'll probably sound not nearly as good as you’d hoped.

And remember, any fool can hit the limiter hard. But only then great ones know when to stop. You’ll have one more stage at mastering. Give some room to do the crush then.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Recordingtips 27: Don’t record in stereo unless your source is truly stereo

Of all the tweets I’ve posted I get the most questions on this one. People ask, “What do you mean by truly stereo?” I think the question comes from a lack of understanding of what stereo is. So what is stereo?

It’s a pretty straightforward question with a simple answer.
But let’s look at a few aspects of the subject before I answer that question.

First of all, why stereo? As you probably know, the earliest recordings were made in mono. It wasn’t by choice. It was all technology was capable of at the time. Mono wax cylinders gave way to mono wire recorders, and then mono magnetic tape.

Speaking of wire records, the great Al Schmidt told me once that wire recorders were the machines he began his career with. (Wire recorders worked basically like a magnetic tape machine. A supply and take-up spool passed a thin flexible wire across a record and playback head.) Humorously enough, with those machines you’d sequence the songs in order for the album by literally tying the ends of the wires of two songs together in a little knot!)

One thing I must say, it's remarkable to consider that a man who began his career in the 50's with wire recorders is still widely considered one of the top engineers in the world today. Al's recording and mixing of Diana Krall's "Quiet Nights" is one of the best sounding records you will ever hear. And the mastering engineer, Doug Sax, told me that it was a flat transfer. No eq. No compression. A rather astounding feat.

Once magnetic tape arrived, the technology of recording in stereo was developed. By then the vinyl LP had come on the scene, but it was also a mono device. However, forward looking folks began to develop stereo recording techniques (particularly in classical music) and recording in stereo, knowing that at some point stereo LPs would take over. Interestingly, those techniques are still the standard for today. No one has really discovered anything better. The Blumlein technique is a prime example as well as the M-S (Mid-Side) technique.

Pop music was something altogether different. Most of the early stereo mixes for pop music weren’t really stereo in a true sense like the classical recordings. (Two or three mics capturing a single source, creating a stereo field) Most were really a kind of discrete mono. Some mixes would have a bass and guitar coming from one speaker, drums and piano or whatever from the other, and a vocal in the middle…sometimes.

It can be easily argued that the real ground-breakers in the creation of stereo pop music were the Beatles and the Beach Boys. Of course others were doing it as well, but these guys were the leaders. Some of the early Beatles albums were released with these “discrete mono” mixes, but that was never the intention of the group, thus the remixing of those albums in mono by Geoff Emerick and George Martin a few years ago. Back in those days AM radio was king, and mono mixes were where the most attention was given during mixdown. It’s interesting to think of this. While the classical world was recording away in stereo, AM radio kept pop music continuing to bow to the mono god.

Okay…there’s the history lesson for today. Now about this thing stereo….

Stereo is really the most natural format to listen to music for the obvious reason that we hear in stereo. Stereo fits the natural sensibilities of our species. Our two ears localize sound sources from the environment we’re in. When we hear a sound on our left side, the left ear hears it ever so slightly first, and with a bit more clarity. The right side hears it as well, but a bit later in time and with less high frequency information and with more reflections. Our brain is amazingly capable of interpreting these time delays and frequency differences and give us the ability to very accurately determine where a sound source is. With one ear it’s much more difficult to do that. Similarly, in an anechoic chamber you’d not be able to easily localize a sound source, as there are no reflections giving you those spatial clues.

So, to the original question…What is stereo? The answer is essentially this. Mono is the exact same thing in both speakers. Stereo is anything else.

Some stereo recordings, such as an acoustic guitar can sound very stereo or somewhat mono depending on how it was mic’d. When it’s not very wide I call that “The big mono.” That means that while it was recorded with two mics or a stereo mic panned left and right, the image appears almost purely up the middle between the speakers. Maybe not totally dead center as recorded with a single mono mic, but not a wide stereo image. Now on a singer/songwriter album where very few other instruments are playing, such as a James Taylor album, that can sound fantastic. The guitar is a bit wide and the singer sits inside the stereo field. Such an approach is good and gives space for the vocal to be reside.

However there are times when I’ll be mixing a song with tons of instruments and a guitar was recorded in that “big mono.” While it may have sounded good on the tracking date, at this point in time that spacious stereo field is lost. With all that other instrumentation taking up space, the stereo guitar gets lost in the arrangement.

Other times I’ll get a so-called stereo synth patch…but it’s really mono but recorded on two tracks. I get it. As an engineer you’re taking the two outputs of the source and the programmer of the sound just didn’t make a wide stereo image. It’s close to mono, or in some cases, pure mono. In these circumstances, like the stereo guitar mentioned above, I’ll delete one side and pan it wherever it makes sense. I don’t need both tracks, and don’t need it eating up DSP or faders.

So at least for me, if the sound isn’t really stereo..i.e. I can’t really hear a decently wide image in the stereo field that makes sense for the mix, I’ll not record in stereo. There’s simply no point. And similarly, if I’m recording a very densely produced track, I’ll be very careful about recording in stereo, even if it’s a nice and wide sound. You need to use your ears and hear if it’s useful to record that way. And you don’t need to leave every decision to the mixer. Get some guts and make a choice. Nine times out of ten you’ll make the right one.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Recording Tip 26: If you keep getting your mixes wrong, it's probably your room

There’s probably nothing more important in the mixer’s arsenal than having an accurate room. But before you go spend a thousand dollars to have some guy come out and tell you how screwed up your room is, know this; plenty of flawed mix rooms have had fantastic sounding mixes made in them. And...there are lots of rooms which measure as “flat” which sound awful. "Flat" does not equal "good!"

That being said you really need to get your room reasonably close to flat as you can. The biggest problem you are likely to experience is bumps or dips in the lower frequencies. This usually happens from 500 Hz down. You may have a either a bump or a dip, or even God forbid, both!

If your room has large bumps or dips in it you'll never really know what you're doing. And even if you're aware of these problems, you'll never be confident in what you're doing and be inconsistent with your mixes. This can really be a huge issue of the bump or dip is in the key of the song! For example if you're in the key of "C"and your room has a dip at 132 Hz (that's the frequency of a low "C") every time the bass player plays the root, it will sound like they played softer! Not good!

One thing you can do to help find out of you have bumps or dips a home-brewed frequency test. Pull up the oscillator plugin on your DAW and sweep your room. (No, I’m not saying to start cleaning...though your room probably needs it!) What I mean by that is to slowly move (sweep) the oscillator frequency from the lowest frequency up to the highest. Listen carefully listen and see if you find certain frequencies which are suddenly louder or softer than the rest. Listen at the mixing position and then have some one sweep while you move around the room. If you find you have certain frequencies getting louder or softer then you have a problem. Some kind of room treatment is needed.

Specific explanations is beyond the scope of this blog, but the article from the Universal Audio site which I tweeted on Tuesday is an excellent help for this. There’s also an article in Sound on Sound which is great.

There are plenty of other resources by manufacturers on the web such as the Auralex site. One product I will say I’ve heard amazing results with are Tubetraps. They can’t solve every solution. But I have heard them work wonders more than once not only in a control room, but also in a roomy studio.

Now it's one thing to have a so-called "flat" frequency response's another thing to have a room which sounds good. I like a room that’s not too dead or too live. I don’t like feeling I’m mixing in a box of cotton nor in a room with lots of reflections. If I had to error, I’d error on the deader side of things, but again, not too much.

Just remember the best pieces of equipment are your own ears. Start by spending a lot of time listening carefully to good mixes of albums you know well. Move your speakers around, try pointing the room a different direction. Bring a couch in...or take it out, rug, no get the idea. Listen for a smooth transparent bottom end and good clarity in the mids and highs. And make sure you’re listening to a known quantity of a great sounding album that’s musically along the lines of what you do. Diana Krall’s last album is one of the best sounding albums you’ll ever hear. (Mixed by Al Schmidt and at mastering had NOTHING done to it. No level adjustments, eq, compression..NOTHING) However, if you’re mixing rock bands or rap that shouldn’t be your reference. By the way, if you want to get the Diana Krall album, buy the CD. It's well worth the sonic difference!

Ok...let’s say you’ve done all the work and feel good about your room. Now what do you do?
Run these reference albums while you mix and switch between that and what you're doing. Do your best to make your mix sonically like your reference. Of course those mixes will probably sound better than yours. But at least get the relative sonic balance, from highs to lows, similar to your reference. Then take it out to your other listening, a friend’s studio, wherever and begin to learn your room. Now of course even in a great room you are the biggest variable. Depending on your work on a particular song you may be happy or not. But begin that process.

Of course you may choose to hire in an expert to analyze your room and treat it. If you are in a city with a good music community and reliable people who do such things, it could be a good use of money, but I’ve yet to do that. I’ve done my own work and have good results. There is a company in town which recently called me for a second time trying to get my business. They’re very expensive and their rooms sound fantastic. However for some reason whenever I’ve worked in them I’ve never been happy with the bottom end. I can’t explain that...but it is what it is. So again, even a “flat” and well treated room doesn’t always work for me.

Bottom line..again...use your ears! And before you shell out your cash on experts or gear, listen to great mixes and try doing your own work. The solution you need may cost you nothing.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Vocal Recording 102 Technical Matters

Vocals are some of the hardest things to record well. They are often the most dynamic and can have all sorts of variables from sibilance problems to p-pops and all things in between. And it’s a rare singer who sings with the same tone and consistent volume from the first pass to the last. More often than not they’ll move on the mic, get louder (as they gain confidence) and each pass can be different than the one before. So it’s up to you to hear and anticipate what’s happening on the next take. the technical aspects. Step one is to recordingtip #7 Find the right microphone. Every singer is different and choosing the right mic depends on their voice as well as the style of music. Put up a few mics and see what sounds right for what you’re doing. What is needed for a rock vocal is usually different than what you’d pick for a pop, jazz or R&B vocal. For some rock vocals you might even choose something like an SM57. For a jazz or pop vocal a high end tube mic may be better. You’ll need to listen and decide.

Next, recordingtip #10 Always use a good pop filter. You can make one or use one like the Stedman pop filter. You want to find one which does the job of preventing consonants like “p” and “b” from creating a low frequency pop sound on the mic. Now I will say that there are times a slight pop can sound exciting and add drama to the performance. But in general, they’re not a good thing.

One other trick I forgot to mention that I use when recording a singer who pops the mic even with a pop filter in place is to tape a pencil on the mic. Tape it to the mic where the body of the pencil is in front of the capsule of the mic. The idea of this is that the wind created from the singer’s mouth will hit the pencil and be diverted a bit so it doesn’t hit the capsule straight-on. This can also be used with no pop filter but only in the right circumstances. The singer has to be very good about not creating the ‘plosives for that to work. Frankly, I’ve never had such a singer. I’ve always used a pop filter.

One last comment about pop filters. They will color the sound if they are very dense. Some nylon pop filters have a double layer. Such filters will take off some of the high frequency detail, so I use a single layer. The Stedman is good in that it’s effective and transparent. But at times you may have to resort to the double layered nylon types.

By the way, if I’m mixing have a recorded vocal which has ‘plosives issues I’ll often highlight the offending spot, go into Audiosuite and select a high-pass filter. I’ll find the frequency where the problem is solved and write the filtered audio over the problem area. Make sure you cover more than the problem, then edit back and crossfade so it sounds natural.

One the most important aspect of recording vocals which can be overlooked is a good headphone mix for the singer. I cannot overstate this enough. It’s often that the engineer is so busy they don’t take proper care with this. But the fact is it’s almost impossible for a singer to make a great performance when they have a bad headphone mix.. You must remember that singing with headphones is a very unnatural experience. For most of their life singers have heard themselves with their own ears, giving them feedback as to what they’re doing. When they put headphones on it’s a very unnatural experience. So take time, listen to their mix and make it as good as you can. And also be sure they have some good sounding headphones. A good mix in bad phones still sounds bad. The ones I have and have good success with is the Sennheiser HD280 Pro. They sound great and are not expensive. I also use them to check my mixes.

One of the comments made on this subject was in regard to headphone bleed. I do prefer singers to have headphones which are closed so the headphone bleed is at a minimum. Some singers do prefer to have one ear off. That’s fine. Just make sure they don’t pull it out and point to the mic. Ask them to leave it resting against their head so you don’t get the bleed into the mic.

Another essential piece of equipment I use for vocals is the SE Reflexion Filter. One of the challenges in home recording is that often the space in which one records isn’t acoustically treated properly. But I like it even in well treated rooms. It’s just one of the best investments you’ll even make in a home recording environment. It knocks down room reflections so you get only the singer’s voice, and not unwanted ambient reflections from your recording space. And of course it’s not just for vocals. Recording most any acoustic instrument will sound better with one of these in place. I’ve seen cheaper versions in the stores, but if at all possible go with this one.

Lastly, you must pay attention to the singer’s dynamics. Often the beginning of the song can have the singer singing very softly in the verse, and then loudly in the chorus. As I said before, singers will often get louder as they become more confident as they work through the song. So pay attention and listen. Anticipate those moments and back down the preamp when you hear them getting stronger. Now that can be tricky. If you wait too long then it can be hard to make the lines match and the singer may sing differently as you’ve lowered their volume in their phones. So...when you lover the mic pre, turn up their volume in their phones before they notice.

Vocals are clearly most important as it carries the message of the song. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again. A song with a good, well recorded vocal can usually be mixed to sound decent...even if the tracks are poorly recorded. But even the most killer sounding tracks won’t sound great with a poorly recorded and sung vocal.

And if nothing else...remember recordingtip #58 and 59. ALWAYS be in record and ALWAYS keep the first pass. Even if everyone tells you to dump it. Tell them you did, but keep it anyway. If they want it later, you’ll be a hero.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Six Thoughts for Beginning Engineers

1. Try to narrow as much as possible what your goals are. As it's said, "If you have no target, you're certain to hit it."
2. I can't state enough that the future of recording will be mostly dominated by musician/writer engineers. Those who make a living solely by engineering will be rare. Already I compete with musicians who own home studios...some good studios, and some are decent engineers. You have to realize that the future of this biz is going to be run by multitaskers.
3. A good school is usually a good idea. A good school with links to the pro world is a good call, but NOT essential
4. If you can get into a studio as an assistant/runner that's the very best thing you can do. From there you learn, but more importantly, you make connections.
5. Practice, practice, practice! Learn from anywhere you can, whomever you you can and have a pleasing personality! (There's a blog I wrote on this called "Attitude." Read it and take it to heart)
6. Luck will have a huge factor in this. But as the great golfer Gary Player said, "The more I practice, the luckier I get."