Saturday, December 22, 2012

Gear? Or Skills?

As a recording engineer, gear designer, electronics dabbler, and overall geek I spend a good chunk of time thinking about gear, but occasionally something will happen that reminds me that while great gear is wonderful, sometimes you just gotta keep moving.

Yesterday, a buddy of mine dropped by the studio and brought with him a recent acquisition, a little 500-series compressor based, loosely, on the 1176.  We ran material through it turned knobs and compared it with one of my modified revision F 1176's (I must confess, I prefer the liquidity of the sound of the class-AB 1176's over the more aggressive edge of the earlier class-A version... but I digress).

It was an eye-opening comparison, as the little 500 module performed quite admirably, sounding downright excellent in many applications.  With a little careful tweaking of the 1176's more flexible parameters we were able to pretty much match performance between the units, though we both preferred my 1176's with their extended LF response and mildly smoother characteristic -- there was more of a bloom from fast release settings on the 1176).  But the truth of the matter is that I would be quite satisfied using his 500 unit probably 90% of the time, if I didn't have my 1176's.  I doubt the productions would suffer in any significant way.

The difference in price between these units is around $1200-ish on the market today, which makes the performance of little module even more impressive.

Sometimes we put on blinders, seeing only the gear that we have and forget that gear doesn't make records, people do.  A useful, good-sounding device does wonders in the hands of a capable engineer.  Likewise, killer gear in the hands of a novice has produced some of the most sonically appalling music I have been victim to hear. 

Let us love our gear, but let us sharpen our skills as well.

Merry Christmas!


Mixing Drums - Parallel Compression

Mixing Drums - Room Mics, a Second, More Aggressive Approach

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Mixing Drums - Room Mics

Mixing Drums - Processing Toms Part 2 of 2, Equalization

Mixing Drums - Processing Toms Part 1 of 2, Compression

Mixing Drums - Processing Hi-Hat

Drum Sounds - Consider the Source

I have been getting emails about my video posts on mixing drums, and many folks want me to do a series of videos on mic placement and tracking, apart from the processing side of things.  The appreciation for the raw drum sounds makes me feel really good, but when I consider the possibility of doing videos like that (which would require much more effort than a screen grab using Screenflow, btw), I am struck by the fact that, with no one actually in the room with the drums, hearing the raw drum sounds in that environment, instruction on placing mics has real limitations in its usefulness.

There is no shortage of instruction on drum miking techniques (including earlier, fairly comprehensive posts on this very blog).  But I fear too many folks value the technique, and the equipment the engineer uses, more than the quality of sound being produced by the drums and drummer in the room. 

How can I demonstrate for you, in a video, how a drum sounds in the room?  The only way you will be able to hear it is by my use of a microphone, at which point all the factors of miking have come into play.  Put simply, drums sound different through microphones than they do in the room.

I remember many years ago, when I was new to the studio environment, hearing a killer drum sound through some studio monitors and walking out into the room where the drums were and playing them -- they didn't sound much at all like what I was hearing in the control room.  I would have insisted that the snare was tuned too low and was too ringy, the kick too out of control, and the toms too bright (single-ply, coated heads on the top), but the miked sound was fabulous and big.  This is the rub when it comes to making videos -- trying to explain, with words, what a good drum sound is BEFORE you consider with mic selection.

I will attempt to address this in future posts and videos, but for now please consider that when you're getting drum sounds, push yourself to make necessary changes at the source rather than in the control room to better achieve the best raw tracks.  For example, if the snare sounds too dead or too short/not enough body, consider removing muffling (I personally use very little muffling on snares) and/or tuning it down a touch (tuning the top head too tight will create a staccato sound with no body... in fact, the bright, ringy snare sound that lots of people like is actually better had with a metal drum tuned just barely above its midrange (not cranked up like a marching snare!) with very little muffling... back off the mic a bit so the low-mid content doesn't dominate -- and then compresssss......). 

Some of the things you do to achieve your desired sound by manipulating the source may surprise you, but you will learn great things in the process.  Leave your processors and plugins alone -- get your hands dirty, and make your tracks sing!

Peace to all.


PS - fixing the sound at the source works well for all other instruments too, not just drums :)

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Useful tips -- Absolute Polarity

I want to take a moment to talk a bit about signal polarity and its importance to your mixing.

Firstly, what do I mean by "polarity?"   The polarity of a signal (also commonly called 'phase', though in truth the two are different -- whichever word you prefer is not critical for this discussion) can be described rather practically as whether or not the signal is perceived as moving toward you, the listener, or moving away from you.  Sometimes this effect is quite easy to hear.  For example, try miking an open back guitar cabinet from both the front and rear, simultaneously, without flipping the polarity on either mic.  As the cabinet's speaker moves toward one mic, it moves away from the other.  Now pan those signals hard left and right, and stand in the middle with your eyes closed, listening.

Feels like your head is being twisted off your neck, no?  The sound feels, on one side, as if it's coming toward you, while on the other it appears to be moving away from you.  They may both be the same level, but one will feel more present (the one coming toward you) while the other will feel more distant, or even quieter.

You can exploit this phenomenon to affect the perceived balance of elements within your overall mix.

With stereo signals out of polarity it is quite obvious to know which is moving in which direction, but what about mono signals?  Mono tracks don't reveal their absolute polarity quite so obviously.  For this reason I believe too many engineers dismiss the value of a signal's absolute polarity when mixing, since it may not be clashing obviously with another track, but its polarity can still be critically important to achieving the right balance in the mix. 

As I mentioned briefly above, when sound is perceived as coming toward a listener it tends to have more authority -- this is true even of mono tracks.  Put another way, sounds approaching the listener feel louder, even though amplitude and polarity are not related.  As a result, a signal's polarity can be manipulated as needed to alter the perception of its balance in a mix. 

If you find yourself raising the level of a signal trying to give it more importance in the mix, yet you find that at one point it is too loud, while any lower it feels too soft, try inverting its polarity to see what effect doing so may have on its presentation.  It can also be helpful to invert the polarity of other tracks that may be competing with it, particularly those that may share similar frequency content.  [There is also a good chance that you may need to add or alter some dynamics processing to balance things, but that is another post for another time].

One thing to realize is that the perception of absolute polarity is a visceral thing.  You feel it, you don't hear it (close your eyes as you listen, and try to feel the position of the track in the mix).  It is also useful to note that the more LF content in the signal, the more noticeable its absolute polarity tends to be (that is, it's easier to perceive its polarity).  Higher frequency signals aren't as obvious, though their polarity can still be critical when blending them with others. 

Absolute polarity isn't a sexy topic -- certainly not one that garners much discussion on audio forums and in magazine articles, but it is a powerful tool for mixing.  Oftentimes the most subtle tricks can have a profound impact on the final result.  Respecting absolute polarity, IMO, definitely qualifies as one such technique.

Happy mixing!


Friday, February 24, 2012

Gear Talk -- Perhaps THE Most Critical Piece of Gear In Your Studio...

It's always touchy trying to claim one piece of gear the most important piece in the studio.  After all, there are many critical pieces of gear -- monitors (your gotta be able to hear what you're recording and mixing!), microphones (first link in the chain), converters, recording platform, acoustic treatment, etc... all important to getting great results.  Of course there are the artistes of the engineering world who will always interrupt such conversations with the obligatory, "your ears are the most important piece of gear in the studio," or some other such truthful, yet completely off-topic comment to show the richness of the depth of their experience and wisdom.  Psshh.

I'm talking about gear here -- stuff you purchase.  Everyone with a recording program wants to know what gear they need to get great results, and with that ever-present question in mind I will venture an opinion -- one developed over many years of observation.

What is the most important piece of gear in a studio (i.e. where should you commit your dollars)?  The microphone preamp.

Not monitors?  Nope.  Every single day folks all over the planet do great work on modest monitors (NS10s anyone?).  They don't have to be full-bandwidth, killer, high-dollar, self-powered client impressors.  They just have to be familiar to you.  You need to be so familiar with their response that you can trust what you're hearing from them, so you can make mixing decisions with confidence.

What about the mic?  It's the first part of the chain.  Yes, your choice of mic is critical, but now, more than ever, there are tons of solid-performing, reasonably-priced mics on the market, from tube and solid-state condensers to dynamics and ribbons.  Most folks can assemble and impressive mic cabinet without too much difficulty or expense.  And I'd much rather record a modest microphone with a killer mic preamp than a killer mic through a modest preamp.  "Why," you ask?

Professional microphones produce a balanced, low level output signal.  For this signal to be useful it must first be amplified a LOT to feed the input of a balanced, line-level signal processor or recorder input.  Most any microphone signal will see a minimum of 20dB of gain to be useful.  That's a 10x increase over the mic's output.  If you require 30dB of gain, that is a 31.6x increase.  40dB is 100x.  And any signal that requires 60dB of gain has to be increased 1000x!  That's a lot of amplification, and the manner in which it is accomplished has everything to do with determining the quality of your signal when it moves to the next device in line. 

Comparatively, an inexpensive line-level device (such as a compressor) has both line level inputs and outputs (essentially a unity gain device).  If your gain reduction is around 10dB (which is a lot, actually), then the compressor's output stage has to produce only just over a 3x increase in signal to produce the same level of output on louder passages... a much simpler task that can be done well with even modest circuits.  But the mic preamp.... your microphone's low-level output, no matter how pristine it may be, will require such gain before it becomes useable that it is literally at the mercy of your preamp.  Skimp here and your $3000 tube mic could lose much of its pricey luster.  And once the damage is done there is no whiz-bang device that will restore what has been lost.  Nothing.

A quality mic preamp will produce a solid, focused, fully intact signal ready for recording or further processing.  Some designs produce solid, but accurate signals (sometimes referred to as a 'straight wire with gain').  Being a rock dog I'm personally a fan of preamps that bring a little sex to the party, and give the signal not only a solid focus, but some rich color as well to add some visceral spice.  For these reasons I'm a fan of older style designs with transformers that saturate, round transients, and generally thicken the whole affair in a glorious way. 

Mmmmm...... transformers....  (Okay, I'm getting off topic...)

Like I say, I'd rather record a modest mic through a killer preamp than a killer mic through a modest preamp.  Ideally both would be killer, but if I gotta choose one I'm going with the preamp.  It'll improve my results with every mic I plug into it.

Thanks for reading!

Friday, February 10, 2012

Mixing Drums - Processing Overheads (2 of 2)

In this video I process the overheads with EQ:

Thanks for watching!

Mixing Drums - Processing Overheads (1 of 2)

In this video I process overheads with compression:

Thanks for watching!

Tracking Tip - Gain Setting and Compression

Occasionally a thought will enter my mind of something that I think might be useful for other engineers.  Even the most experienced engineers make silly mistakes at times, so even a simple tip can sometimes have profound impact.  With this in mind I have decided to make posts of such thoughts when they occur (assuming I remember them when I get to my computer!).  This is the first such post.

A few years ago a friend of mine bought one of my JC1272 preamps and then called me a few weeks later asking if the distortion he was getting from it was normal.  The input meter on the track he was recording to wasn't hitting red, yet he was getting audible distortion on louder passages.

Now this dude is a talented musician and producer, but not the most at home turning knobs (as he will freely admit), so I began to ask questions to try to help determine what was causing the problem.  Basically, it came down to this:  he was setting gain for the mic preamp with a compressor engaged between the preamp output and the A/D input.  When I asked him to bypass the compressor his level pegged the meter -- clearly the thing was putting out a great deal of level (as it turns out he was actually overloading the signal path of the compressor, not the mic preamp).  Yet with the compressor engaged it was reducing the level (as a compressor does), and its output was below the headroom of the converter, so it looked to him like he had plenty of headroom.

Don't laugh, we've all been guilty of goofy stuff like this, but, FWIW, make sure you set your gain with no dynamics processing engaged, or you simply may not know what's actually happening with respect to your levels.  In fact, I prefer not to have a physical processor in line at all between the mic preamp and A/D input until I've got my levels.  Then I'll physically insert a compressor (or EQ) and adjust it as desired.  Some processors (such as Urei's much beloved 1176) can be 'bypassed', yet the input/output controls still affect the signal.  With level manipulation happening in other areas of your signal path it is rather pointless to try to set optimum gain at the mic preamp, so remove all that other stuff, get your gain settings happening, and then insert and set your processing.  Doing so will result in distortion-free audio and a lower noise floor.

More drum stuff coming shortly...

Thanks for reading!

Monday, February 6, 2012

Friday, February 3, 2012

A Good, General Approach to Equalization...

I'm about to post some video entries on processing drums that include my use of equalization (EQ).  I have a love/hate relationship with EQ (extreme on both sides), and I thought that is might be a good time (before I post those videos) to ramble briefly about my overall approach to EQ.  With regard to EQ while tracking, please see my earlier post on the subject.

Regarding EQ in general, I take a subtractive approach first.  This is pretty much what it sounds like -- subtracting (removing) frequencies that I don't want, rather than adding (boosting) the ones I do want.

Acoustic energy (anything you'd use a microphone to capture) is often very complex, formed from multiple fundamental and harmonic frequencies that interact dynamically to create each voice's unique timbre.  Almost no instrument can be radically shaped by manipulating a few frequencies -- that is, by tweaking a few bands on an EQ, even a very nice and expensive EQ, you're not going to convince a listener that an acoustic guitar is really an electric guitar.  It will just sound like an acoustic guitar with some EQ (even if the curve is so dramatic that it now sounds like a weird acoustic guitar).  You're not likely to affect enough harmonic content and interaction of the multiple, complex frequencies of the instrument to betray the fact that it is, indeed, an acoustic guitar.

Similarly, if an instrument is a bad-sounding instrument, you're not going to be able to manipulate a few frequencies with a quality EQ and convince people that it is a nice sounding instrument.  In this respect EQ is quite limited in its ability to 'fix' things in a mix.  This is why it is so important to record the best instruments you can, well maintained and tuned, and hopefully played by a competent musician.  Then, using a good-quality microphone that is an appropriate choice for the instrument, along with careful mic placement, capture the sound of the instrument as best you can.  Then, when you reach for EQ it will be to massage the frequency spectrum to better place the instrument within its spot in the overall soundscape of the mix -- not to 'fix it.'

If you ever hear an engineer say, "we'll fix it in the mix," it might be time to rethink things...

So the overall character of a signal is captured with proper instrument selection, tuning, mic selection and mic placement (yes, gain staging is uber critical too, but I'm this is a blurb on EQ, so I'll save my lecture on gain staging for a future post).  EQ will not change the overall character of the sound, but rather just the tonal balance of the instrument (remember, an acoustic guitar stills sounds like an acoustic even with EQ).  Therefore.... subtractive EQ makes a great deal of sense as a primary EQ approach.  

EQ's main strength is in helping you blend multiple signals together into a cohesive, balanced final mix -- featuring the frequency spectrums (spectra?) you desire in a given signal and attenuating others.  Since the basic character (timbre and 'quality') of an instrument is captured apart from EQ, an additive approach to EQ only serves to accentuate a portion of the signal you like.... but there is so much more spectrum information critical to the signal than that one section you wish to emphasize!  With a primarily additive approach, boosting frequencies ranges of signals throughout your mix, you will notice that while you 'hear' everything (once you've balanced the faders), you're not really getting the full timbre of the tracks, leaving the final mix feeling somehow incomplete or hollow.  Unfortunately, this trait is often blamed on bad converters or plug-ins, or 'recording to digital' in general (often stated by twenty-somethings who have, themselves, never spooled a single reel on an analogue multi-track!  But I digress...).  This isn't something to blame on digital.  Rather, it is squarely the result of poor engineering.

Subtractive EQ processing, however, tames the frequency ranges you don't want, leaving the whole of the rest of the signal, timbre and all, translating naturally within the balance of the mix.  

Another benefit of subtractive EQ is that while it leaves the timbre of a given signal relatively intact, it is actually removing amplitude from the signal, increasing that track's headroom.  When mixing I find that I remove LOTS of low and low-mid content from tracks that simply don't benefit from it.  These lower frequencies have a lot of power in them.  Removing them not only makes room for the tracks that are intended to own the bottom of the frequency spectrum (kick drum, bass, etc.), it also drops the power of all signals that are so processed.  After awhile I find that I can push up the levels of everything much more to use up the newly available headroom, which makes the mix 'feel' louder, even though it may be hitting the same level on your meters as a version of the mix done with an additive approach.  

The 'subtractive' mix will feel louder and more natural.

So I recommend subtractive EQ highly.  It's not as obviously sexy as pushing up the frequencies you want to hear, but in the end your mixes will sound more balanced, more complete, more natural, and LOUDER (without resorting to any dynamics processing).  That's a win, win, win, WIN!

Thanks for reading.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Mixing Drums - Dynamics - Isolating the Outside/External Bass Drum Mic

And here's one for isolating the outside (front) kick drum mic:

Thanks for watching!

Mixing Drums - Dynamics - Isolating the Internal Bass Drum Mic

Here, finally, are my entries regarding processing drums.  I originally intended to write this series, but quickly realized how almost futile it is to describe, using words, the sounds of things and the manner in which I'm processing to change those sounds.  So... after some searching I came across a nifty little software program called Screenflow that allows me to record my computer desktop, so you can see what I'm doing (I know, I know, Screenflow isn't a new thing.... I'm just an old dog, so I think it's pretty cool).

The tracks I'm processing are of a 1968 Ludwig 4-piece kit, tuned and miked up, with no processing whatsoever on them (no compression, EQ or efx).  This allows me to show you how I approach the processing of drums.

Mics are:

Kick - AKG D112 (internal) and modified Oktava MK319 (outside front)
Snare - Shure SM57 top and bottom
Rack and Floor toms - Audio-Technica ATM25
Hat - AKG C460/CK61
Overheads - Audio-Technica AT4060
Rooms - Coles 4038

This first installment deals with isolating the internal kick drum mic.

NOTE:  All the processing in these videos is done with plugins that come with ProTools.  In the video I'm using ProTools 8 LE with my Mbox 2 on a MacBook.  I'm actually an analogue guy when it comes to mixing (LOVE my analogue outboard gear!), but for the sake of demonstration I want to show what could be done with more commonly available stuff.

I tried to make the quality of sound for this video good (I'll have to check it on my system and see if it rendered properly).  I may have to adjust my method as we go, but try to listen with the highest quality, widest bandwidth speakers or headphones you have to get the full effect.  Computer speakers won't be of much use.

This processing series begins with isolating the various kit components (via dynamics control) and then moves into compression, equalisation and efx processing, so keep checking back for more installments.

Here's the first:

Thanks for watching!

Joel Cameron