Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The right mic in the right place...

Valuable lesson time. Stuff you cannot learn from books. Here are three adages I've adopted that have shaped me and my engineering skills. Otherwise known as wisdom and experience. Learn from them, young grasshopper, for they do not come easily.

"A good song starts with the songwriter"

I forget where I heard this. But, it makes perfect sense. As engineers, we are lead to believe that we can make or break a song by how well we do our jobs. I submit we cannot. A good recording of a bad song is still a bad song, no matter how we polish it. Furthermore, how is it someone can be moved to tears by a song they heard on an AM radio with an inadequate 2" speaker? It's the song.

Of all the elements in the recording chain, we as engineers are last. In order, they are: songwriter, musician, instrument, room, microphone, preamp, all the other equipment, engineer. Our jobs as engineers is to capture the performance and not get in the way. Sometimes, we have to step in and offer our opinions. We can also become an additional member of the group. However, we cannot make a bad song a good song.

"The right mic in the right place"

Something a professor of mine taught me awhile back has stuck with me. Yes, Keith. You. The proper mic in the right place beats any EQ and compression. Anyday. It's the reason I will spend half a day (or more) setting up microphones and getting tones. Reaching for an EQ or a compressor is the last resort. If I can't get the sound I want with the mic and preamp, I'll switch mics. Switching preamps is also not out of the question.

So, what is the right mic? There isn't any single answer to that question. There isn't one magic mic that will fit every application. Every mic has its purpose. I've used everything from a $2 mic from a garage sale to vintage mics worth tens of thousands of dollars. Sometimes both at the same time.

Allen Sides, owner of Oceanway Studios (a.k.a Mr. Microphone), was once asked if he was limited to one microphone, which would it be. He responded with, "an AKG 414." While an AKG 414 is extremely versatile, it is not always the best mic in every application.

For example, I like the 414 as drum overheads occasionally. Depending on the drummer, the room, the kit or the music genre, I could use Neumann KM84's, AKG C12's, or in several instances, Royer 122's and Coles 4038's.

A good engineer has experience with many different mics and will pull from his/her experience which mic is best suited for the application. Several rules still apply. I wouldn't use a ribbon mic for a rock kick drum for instance, unless I really didn't care for the mic in the first place and needed a door stop.

If I'm recording a bright instrument and want to tone it down, there are mics better suited for the job. The inverse is also true. Some microphones are adept at accentuating harmonics to brighten a dull instrument.

Placing the mic in the right place is just as critcal as selecting the proper mic. One method I use is to move my head until I like the sound of the instrument. Then replace my head with the microphone. The other is to move the mic around while listening to the changes. If you have the right mic, eventually you'll find the sweet spot on the instrument where it sings. Experimenting is still the order of the day. We each have our methods for what works for us.

"Take the time to get it right the first time"

"Or it will come back to haunt you", is the second half of this phrase. I gleamed this bit of wisdom from Beno May and Karl Bischof while at Bernie Grundman's. They taught me to take my time and make sure I was doing everything correctly as I was doing it. If proper attention and time is not afforded, it may (and usually does) take longer to repair it. Sure, we all have deadlines to meet. It is still better to stay that extra few minutes to make sure the reference CD's are being made properly, than to come back the next day when the band calls the studio angry because one song was left off the CD and now theyve missed their deadline. And because they've missed their deadline, the replicator will charge them a "lack of proper planning" fee to get the CD's made in time for the release party they've already booked two weeks away. (Insert sarcastic tone here) This rarely happens. So, I wouldn't worry about it.

Actually, at Bernie's, careless mistakes were hardly ever made. Not only were we meticulous, but there were quality control measures put in place.

These lessons are words of wisdom passed along from some very wise people. We can choose to ignore their lessons. We'll still arrive at the same conclusion eventually.

Rock. Roll. Repeat.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Stereo Miking Techniques

Is it October already? I didn't post anything in September. Where did it go? More importantly, where did I go? It seems like I disappeared. Oh, well...I'm back!


I wanted to write this time about stereo miking techniques. Some of the best recordings use only two or three microphones. And as with all things audio, there are no hard and fast rules. Fortunately, there are some really good starting places. There are several "standard" techniques that are designed to capture an acurate stereo image of whatever you are recording. Some are simple. Some are not. One sounds very good in headphones. Regardless, a superb stereo recording is wonderful to listen to.


While stereo miking can be simple, the microphone selection and placement can be very tricky. Two microphones can be placed in so many combinations that the stereo image can change with just a centimeter difference. It's up to you to find what works best and what sounds most pleasing to your ear. These techniques can be used for acoustic guitars, pianos, string quartets, small chamber ensembles, horn sections, orchestras big and small, big bands and any other instrument or group of instruments you want to capture in stereo.

A/B (coincident/non-coincident)

Complete flexibility is the name of the game with an A/B technique. Take a matched pair of cardioid microphones and place them wherever you want to get the stereo image you want. When recording, pan one left and the other right. A couple of guidelines to consider. When placing them apart (non-coincident), place the mics at least three times as far apart as they are from the source. This is known as the 3:1 rule. Following this rule helps minimize phase cancellation. Another technique to minimize phase cancellation is to position the mics so the capsules are as close together as possible. This is known as a coincident pair. These are also called X or Y pairs as the mic placement mimics those characters.

Spaced Omnis

Coincident pairs sometimes aren't effective when trying to capture Mahler-size orchestras. A popular technique then is a variation of the A/B technique. Place a matched pair of omni-directional microphones far apart. Again, pan one left and the other right.

NOS

Nederlandse Omroep Stichting (Holland radio) developed a methodology to capture accurate stereo recordings. Using two matched cardioid microphones, angle them 90 degrees relative to each other and space the capsules 30cm apart. There are hardware devices with mic clips to help. Pan one left and one right. Accurate is the word that best describes this technique.

ORTF

Similar to NOS is Office de Radiodiffusion Télévision Français (ORTF). The difference is the two cardioid mics are positioned at an angle of 110 degrees and 17cm apart. And, just like NOS, ORTF is very accurate.

Decca Tree

Oh, boy. The Decca Tree. This technique was developed in the 1950's and used by Decca Records to create exceptional stereo recordings. It's bit of a slant and not a true "stereo" technique because it uses three microphones. Therefore, it requires three mic preamps and possibly a three-track recorder.

I have a friend who welded a Decca Tree frame out of old mic stands. It's possible to do it with three separate stands. As I already mentioned, to make a Decca Tree recording, you'll need three matched microphones. Three omni-directional mics to be exact. The left and right mics are spaced six feet apart. The third mic is postioned directly between those two and three feet out in front. This mic will be panned in the center. Decca recordings are accurate and pleasing to listen to.

Blumlein

Of all the stereo techniques, the Blumlein technique is my favorite. I did a recording once of a string quartet that sounds so wonderful and lush, I want to listen to it over and over. I like this technique when recording in a space with wonderful acoustics. I first used this technique at the suggestion of Fred Vogler who records the Los Angeles Philharmonic. He was visiting Beno May while I was at Bernie Grundman Mastering. I was telling him about an upcoming session I had. He told me that Blumlein was his main stereo pair for the LA Phil. I tried it and liked it. It worked so well, I didn't need to EQ or compress the recording at all.

To make a Blumlien pair, you'll need a matched pair of figure-8 or bi-directional microphones. Place one with the front facing left. Position the right upside down and directly on top of the other facing right. Pan them left and right respectively. What's different about the Blumlein is the rear of each mic is picking up the room reflections. It's not ideal when an audience is present because anyone coughing or sneezing will also get picked up. But, in a controlled environment, this technique is wonderful.

M/S

This is the trickiest technique to setup. It's not very accurate as it has some phasing inherent in it. But, the sound is very smooth. Almost ethereal. When recording a solo piano with a new age style or a solo acoustic guitar, this is extremely effective.

M/S or Middle-Side requires a figure-8 or bi-directional mic and a cardioid mic. Follow closely. This gets tricky quickly.

Place the figure-8 mic so the front points left and perpendicular to the source. The cardioid mic will go (as close as you can) on top and be pointed directly at the source. Now, split the figure-8 mic signal AFTER the preamp into two channels on your console or interface. Invert the polarity of one channel. Adjust the input gain until the signal cancels as much as possible. Pan one hard left and the other hard right. Now, bring up the third channel with the cardioid microphone. Notice as you bring this up, the center image tightens and the stereo width diminishes. You can adjust the center mic to taste. More center mic makes a tighter, narrower image. Less center creates a wider stereo image.

Binaural

Logically, it would appear that the best stereo recordings would come from replicating our own heads and put mics where our ears ought to be. That's precisely what binaural records are. You can buy the kits with dummy heads and mics already placed inside. Or, place your own matched omni-directional mics in a dummy head. Simply put the head where it sounds the best to your ears. Binaural recordings sound pretty good on loudspeakers. They are fairly accurate and don't have a lot of phase issues.

Where binaural recordings exceed are through headphones. It stands to reason they would. Binaural recordings through a pair of headphones puts you right there in that sweet spot. You feel like you're in the room with the group.

As you can see, there are a plethora of techniques for stereo recordings. I leave it to you to experiment and find one that works for you. There isn't one that works for every application. As I tell many people, recording music is an art form. If it were easy and/or scientific, everyone would be doing it.

Rock. Roll. Repeat.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Just When You Thought You Were Finished....

Have you ever watched a Star Wars movie without sound? Better yet, have you listened to a Star Wars movie without the picture? Neither experience is any fun. You also don’t get the full picture (pun intended). Now, translate that to a music video. Audio and video need as equal attention. To sacrifice one or slough one off as “good enough” does not serve justice to the other. I was fortunate enough to work with a production company that sought quality from both their audio and video teams. As a whole, we work well together. While the video team lacks expert audio knowledge, I am certainly not qualified to work the magic they do.

I’ve mentioned before the Leftover Salmon DVD I had been mixing. A couple weeks ago I spent the day with David Glasser at Airshow Mastering in Boulder mastering the final mixes for the project. Getting to listen to your work in another environment as incredible and his was a real treat. Even more uplifting were Mr. Glasser’s comments that he liked my mixes and noted he wasn’t changing them much at all. That’s praise coming from an award-winning mastering engineer.

Once the mastered mixes were finalized, both the surround and stereo versions were taken to the video production company and re-synched with the video. From there the authoring specialist worked his magic. He produced some reference DVD’s to verify everything was in order.

On Tuesday last week I had just arrived in San Diego when I received the call the reference DVD’s were ready. Unfortunately, I wouldn’t be back for a week, so I had to decline my copy until I returned. David Glasser was kind enough to check it out and kept me in the loop. He discovered that while the surround mix was fine, the stereo mix was in mono! In their haste to complete the project, the video team had neglected to pan the left and right channels. Ooops! I’m glad David was thorough in his listening.

To add to the drama, I got a call Wednesday evening from the executive producers. Their mood was severely grim. They didn’t like my mixes. They thought the mandolin/electric guitar was too quiet and the keyboards too loud. Remembering these were panned opposite (hard left and right respectively), I asked if they had listened to the mixes on more than one system. They hadn’t. They had listened once through a Bose system in the living room of one producer.* I proposed they listen on another system and verify their results. I received an email later that evening with an attached list of each song, time stamps and suggestions for fixing the mixes. Some suggestions were as much as 3dB!

I did mention I was out of town, right? I wasn’t in a position to fix anything. Moreover, after authoring has taken place is not the time to make mixing alterations. It costs $1,000 every time a change is made to the authored DVD master.

Da, dada, daa! David Glasser to the rescue! He invited the producers to come and listen on his system the next day. They listened to both the reference DVD and mastering session. To the producer’s chagrin, everything sounded fine.

Understandably, they were concerned. They honestly thought what they were hearing was accurate. As engineers, we make all of our decisions based on what we hear. That’s why it’s imperative to have a good listening environment. If you need to bring a boom box to a studio or listen on laptop speakers, go for it. However, it is not wise to make mixing decisions based on laptop speakers. They just aren’t that accurate.

Since the producers were concerned, I was a little concerned. One of them is a talented live sound engineer. I trust his ear. To have him say he didn’t like my mix was little blow to my ego. But, I noticed the consistent remarks and remembered how I had panned each instrument. Additionally, if the mix was off by that much, a mastering engineer of Mr. Glasser’s caliber would have certainly picked up on it. I deferred judgment on myself until I had more evidence.

Happily, it turned out well. No further mixing required and everyone is happy. I think the experience was educational for everyone involved, including myself. It helps to keep a level head and think things through clearly and rationally. Thankfully, we have a team that agrees with that philosophy. The DVD has been corrected and is in production. Whew! Now I can let that little piece go.

I would also like to reiterate that audio and video people need to work together. None of us exist in a vacuum. There’s a little cultural phenom out in the world where audio and video people think they’re better than the other. A little animosity and ignorance created this rift. The fact is, we need each other. The technology is so complex now that not one person can master both disciplines. I sometimes have a hard time remembering key commands for my audio programs.

Can’t we all just get along?

Rock. Roll. Repeat.


* Let me rant a little on Bose. I dislike their products. They might be a fine company, but their products leave a lot to be desired. I’m further irritated by their successful campaign in convincing the masses that their products are superior. I think most audio engineers would agree with me on this.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Three Ways to CApTure the Skins

Here's an article I wrote for a local magazine that was never published. At the time I wrote it, my foot had been in a boot for four weeks. Enjoy!

Three Ways To CApTure The Skins.
I was having trouble deciding on the best subject for my first article, and then the pain came. From my foot. I sprained it. Badly. That started me thinking about tracking sessions and how will I mic those pesky drum kits with my limited mobility? And then it occurred to me - this would make a great article.”
For this month’s installment, I’d like to share some ideas that hopefully you’ll find intriguing. As with all things audio, there aren’t any hard and fast rules. Instead, there are many variations on a theme (so to speak).
Since I’m a drummer, I believe that getting a great drum sound is the cornerstone to any good modern recording. As such, I use terms that even a drummer can understand. For example, I use the term kick drum in place of bass drum. I realize there isn’t really any kicking involved but, this helps me tell the difference on the console between it and the bass guitar. Having said that, here are three simple and effective ways to capture a great drum sound.
The Classic - Kick, Stereo Overheads
With this technique I generally like to place a dynamic mic inside the kick drum. A pair of matched condensers over the drums (hence the term Overheads) completes the setup. As to where to place the overheads, there are several options.
You might put them in an X or Y pattern over the drummers head pointed at the kit. Another method is to hang them over the kit in a similar pattern. The X or Y is a good way to get a stereo image without creating any phase problems.
Another pattern is the spaced pair. This can give you a wider stereo image, but there’s a trade-off -- watch out for phasing. The cymbals are the quickest way to tell if you have a phase problem. If they sound a little “wishy-washy” or “whooshy”, you’ve got issues.
The Glyn Johns - Kick/Room front, Floor tom, Left Overhead
Glyn Johns was a great engineer who worked with legendary recording artists such as Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, Rolling Stones and The Who. The drum method he was well-known for is also sometimes called the Bonham setup. Since I’m a huge Bonham fan, I think it’s kinda fun.
To start, place a large diaphragm condenser or ribbon mic in front of the kick drum. Typically, this is about two or three feet away from the kick and can be placed to pick up the front of the entire kit. Next a floor tom mic is positioned so that it is pointed towards the hi-hat or snare drum. Finally, an overhead is placed over the drummer’s left shoulder pointed towards the middle of the kit. Each mic is then panned and mixed to create the stereo image.
KSOH - Kick, Snare, Overhead
This is one of the simplest setups. It’s also a mono setup. Place one mic on the kick drum (inside or out), one on the snare (top or bottom), and one over the kit to pick up everything else. One placement method for the overhead involves placing the microphone in such a way that the drummer can lean over and almost touch it with his or her forehead.
These are just three tried and true techniques for recording a drum kit without using a dozen mics. I encourage you to experiment and play with placement -- have some fun without making it too complicated. There isn’t a session that goes by where I don’t change a mic’s placement, and some of my best drum sounds happened by trying something new. After all, there is more than one way to skin a cat.

Rock. Roll. Repeat.


Thursday, June 17, 2010

Bring back the dynamics!

A couple days ago, I had the pleasure of visiting a campus in Raleigh, North Carolina. Living Arts College is a modern educational facility with cutting-edge curriculums. Everyone was friendly and energetic. The faculty and staff were brilliant. The students eager to learn. An excellent recipe for success. Thank you LAC for your warm welcome and hospitality. I had a great time!

Tuesday evening I taught a clinic on audio mastering. The room was packed. The air conditioning wasn't effective in cooling down this mass of humanity. But, that didn't seem to bother anyone.

One of the topics we covered was compression/limiting. Within that, was the subject of over-compression/limiting. Ever since Brian Gardner at Bernie Grundman Mastering discovered the "NOVA" button on the UV22, we've had the (what seemed like) the NEBOL (never-ending-battle-of-loudness). I played examples of the negative effects of this practice.

However, NEBOL is not new. Before digital, the limitations of NEBOL were determined by the medium. For example, tape would reach a saturation point. Beyond which, was tape compression, high frequency loss and finally, square wave distortion. Vinyl was limited by the pitch as the side is being cut. Not enough pitch would create cross-cuts. On a turntable that didn't track properly, this would sound like a "broken record".

With digital, the limitation is hard and concrete. 0dBFS or 0 decibels -Full Scale. Given any bit-depth, 0dBFS is the maximum and the scale goes negative from there. Let's use 16-bits as an example, since it is the standard for audio CD's. If all 16 bits are ones, that's it. There's no room to go any higher. Taken a step further, with an audio CD's sampling frequency of 44.1Khz, one full-scale sample out of 44,100 per second is not audible. Two or three consecutive full-scale samples and it's arguable on some playback systems. Four or more, and the distortion is apparent and nasty. While analog distortion can be used musically and sound pleasing at times, digital distortion is just plain awful.

The problem posed to mastering engineers when digital first came out was how to master for this medium and get the most out of its dynamic range. The highest point needed to reach at least 0dBFS at some point. Otherwise, there was a waste of dynamic range. As the NEBOL surfaced, simply placing a hard limiter on the ADC (analog to digital convertor) was sufficient.

Then the A&R (Artist and Repertoire) people got involved and wanted their artists project to stand out. They mistakingly thought that by making the projects louder, it would appear louder on the radio. All radio stations have a slew of compressors and other processing before the final transmission because they have such limited bandwidth. Therefore, every track has the same volume. And because, the A&R people wrote the checks, it was pressed upon the mastering engineer to push the level. As much as we tried to educate, it fell upon deaf ears. Pretty sad for an industry that required listening for its survival, huh?

Anyhow, the problem became more prevalent when we started using compressors and digital limiters with "read-ahead" capabilities. These new techniques and technologies allowed for the increase in perceived loudness. Because digital has a hard ceiling, the only way to accomplish this is to chop the peaks and increase the average level. However, the negative effect is a decrease in dynamic range. Some push it too far and decrease the dynamics of the music altogether. This is over-compression/limiting.

A theory I subscribe to is that eliminating dynamics from music is detrimental to the music. It makes music boring. Of the four basic elements of music (melody, harmony, rhythm and dynamics), the only one we affect as engineers is dynamics. And, by reducing or removing that element, we are robbing the music of the impact the artist is trying to make on their audience.

Another symptom of over-compressing/limiting is the instruments appear to get smaller. When a snare drum in a rock band that should sound the size of a large trash can, sounds the size of a baseball instead, it's bad.

There has been a large backlash from the engineering community. There are groups of engineers whose sole mission is to educate and clear the myths and misnomers of this dangerous practice. Thankfully, people are listening.

Recently, there are new releases that return the dynamics back into music. Foo Fighters' "Echoes, Silence, Patience and Grace" is one of my favorite examples of this. They use dynamics to get your attention when they want. The listening experience is compelling and full of impact. It snares my attention and keeps it. I, for one, am glad for this. Let's keep it rolling!

Rock. Roll. Repeat.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Surround Mixing in a Non-Standards World (Part 2 of 2)

One of my favorite scenes from Jurassic Park is when Samuel L Jackson's character says "Hold on to your butts" with a cigarette butt hanging out of his mouth. What was about to unfold was a wild ride. Sometimes, I feel that way about this blog.

With all the standards surrounding surround sound (say that ten times really fast), the only consistency is the lack of one. I think standards are suppose to establish consistency. Unfortunately, everyone thinks their method is better and therefore, should be the "new" standard. The P&E Wing of NARAS have some excellent guidelines for surround mixing. They aren't trying to establish a single standard. However, the guidelines do help establish consistency.

Recently, I'd been asked to mix a music DVD in surround. The project was Leftover Salmon's New Year's Eve show at the Boulder Theater. It also happened to be their 20th anniversary show. A blue moon that evening added to the mysticism. Thankfully, I knew how it was tracked since I helped set up the recording rig.

When thinking about how to approach the project, I wanted to plan out my Pro Tools session for efficiency as well as creating the framework for down mixing. For those unfamiliar with down mixing, it is the way of creating a stereo or two-channel mix from the surround six-channel mix while minimizing phase issues, low-frequency buildup and other anomalies. We do it all the time in stereo mixing by listening in mono. If any instrument disappears, we have a problem.

I thought it best to start with a stereo mix and expand my astage from there. To start, I needed to build a series of sub masters. I created a 5.1 auxiliary return, a quad return, and two mono returns. The 5.1 return was for the reverb. The quad return is for everything and incorporated a low-cut filter. One mono return was the center channel and the other for the LFE (Low Frequency Effects) channel. The center channel had a low-cut filter. The LFE channel had a low-pass filter. Any track I wanted to be heard would be bussed through these sub masters. The sub masters in turn, were sent directly through the 5.1 master fader.

I know the Dolby Digital standard requires the crossover frequency for the LFE channel to be 110Hz. The DTS standard calls for 80Hz. See, already there's a conflict. Personally, I like the DTS standard. 80Hz still seems high to me. I can localize frequencies down to around 50Hz. But, I wanted my mixes to translate to as many playback systems as possible. Therefore, I chose 80Hz.

Now for the LFE decision. According ITU and SMPTE, the recommendation is to turn up the LFE 10dB. Most playback systems in people's homes follow this idea. It's the equivalent of the smiley face eq curve or leaving the "loudness" button on. Most people think it just "sounds better that way". At first, my thought was to leave the LFE channel alone. But, after playing some early mixes back on various systems, I decided to turn the LFE down 10dB to compensate for this bump. The only instruments I wanted in the LFE were the kick drum and bass guitar. So, I bussed the their signals through send outputs on their respective channels.

Now the center channel quandary. What to put in the center channel and how much? If I were mixing for myself, I'd have all the vocals in the center channel. Maybe a pinch of bass guitar and snare added for flavor. That's because I have a center speaker and it works. It works well. Apparently, I'm the black sheep. Most people either don't have a center speakers or if they do, is misplaced, misused or miscalibrated (not a real word, I know, but you get the point).

If the goal is to have these mixes play well on as many systems as possible, I needed to account for the mishandling of the center speaker on most environments. So, I opted for adding in just touch of the vocals and even less of bass guitar and snare. This effectively, tightened those instruments to the center. The vocals were brought up to about 10dB below the level sent to the front stereo pair. Bass and snare were around 25dB below.

The next order of business were the audience mics. At the show, there were two mics placed inconspicuously on the stage facing the audience. They were not placed in the back of the room. Okay, fine. I sent those tracks to the rear of the quad sub master. Initially, this sounded very cool, but quickly became tiring and distracting. I then moved those channels in between the front and the rears, favoring the rear slightly and turned them down a little. This added the "live" element and helped set the stage without detracting from what's happening on stage.

I then focused my attention on the stereo mix and was careful to not go crazy with panning and effects. I did bring the outside instruments further beyond the regular stereo field. This adds to the coolness factor of surround while maintaining phase coherency and down mixing compatibility.

The end result is a surround mix that sounds good in stereo too. By listening to just the left and right channels alone, I was able to gauge how it would sound on a stereo system. The room I used has GRace 906 monitoring system. This is extremely desirable for surround mixing. I could solo or mute any of the 5.1 channels. Now, if Blu-ray's 7.1 format ever takes off on the consumer level, I'll have to remix it. But, at least it will be close.

Next up for this blog; Over-compression and over-limiting. How do we fight back?

Surround Mixing in a Non-Standards World (Part 1 of 2)

I seem to have a lot to write about. I'm having trouble keeping the word count to a minimum. I always feel a little background is helpful when discussing complex topics. So, once again, this first part (and feel free to take out this part if you don't like it, Marx Brothers fans), will be background for Part 2. Here we go:

Mono was paradoxically easy and difficult. Your audience had one speaker. The best method to record was with one microphone. Easy, right? Just put the microphone in the room where it sounds the best. Ah, not so easy now. With one microphone, it's sometimes easier to move the musicians and their instruments to "mix" the song. Even if multiple mics were used, they would need to blend them to fit the frequency spectrum of a single speaker.

Along came stereo. A whole new world opened up. By using two speakers it was now possible to effectively and accurately reproduce a group's performance for the listener. The simplest method to record was to use two microphones - one representing each ear.

Some organizations developed standards for microphone placement. There was your NOS pair, your ORTF pair, the MS or Mid-Side pair, the proverbial spaced omnis and my two favorites, the Blumlein pair and Decca Tree (actually three mics). We can discuss these in another blog. The point here is more than one "standard" was created for recording and mixing stereo. Throughout the years more microphones were added and mixed to create a balance between the instruments.

And then, in the 1970's there was "quad". Quad, as the name implies, requires four speakers for the listener - two in front and two behind. The first surround sound system. With quad, it was now possible to place the listener inside the band. The be in the middle of your favorite rock group while they performed was cool. Unfortunately, producers and engineers took this to extremes. Some recordings had the drums coming from behind you to one side while the bass came from the front and opposite side. It was too weird. Quad went the way of the Dodo bird and stereo remained king for decades. Some would argue it still is.

In the 1980's, the movie industry decided to reinvigorate the surround concept to create a better movie-going experience. The early days of surround for film were variations on quad. Four speakers were used, but there were now three in front and one behind the listener. The center speaker was placed there to help focus the dialog while the "surround" speaker was for special effects and used sparingly. The format is known as LCRS (Left-Center-Right-Surround) The idea flourished.

Organizations such as SMPTE, AES, Dolby Laboratories and ITU got involved and began creating standards. Standards as to levels and speaker placement. LCRS gave way to 5.1. The surround channel became stereo and a subwoofer was added (the .1 in 5.1). Now it was easier to localize sounds and get the audience involved. Laser shots can be heard whizzing past one's head.

It was time for music to venture back into the realm of surround. This time we were more conservative in our approach to mixing and not confusing our audiences. When DVD's were born, the concert-going experience was more accessible than ever to the masses. We can now relive a concert we never attended from the comfort of our own living rooms, without having beer spilled down the backs of shirts.

Surround for music was here to stay. We needed to develop mixing standards to create the best possible listening experience. That is was Part 2 will be about. What do you put in the center channel? Which crossover frequency is best? What do you put into the surround speakers? How much?

Rock. Roll. Repeat.

Friday, May 21, 2010

File Management (Part 2 of 2)

So the previous blog was background for how we used to do things. I should also add that musicians were not often their own engineers. There are, of course, exceptions to the rules. But, generally speaking, recording equipment was expensive and complicated. Musicians rarely let the technology get in the way of their creativity.

With today's recording systems becoming more accessible to the masses, musicians are finding it to be more cost-effective to record themselves. The technology is easier to use. In fact, one could argue the technology is helping inspire musicians and realize their ideas.

With all that inspiration, it's easy to amass large amounts of data quickly. When the creative bug bites, there's not enough time to setup the projects properly and plan the file structure. Most often, the Getting Started guide for the recording system sits on the shelve collecting dust never to be opened until a phone call to the manufacturer's technical support department reveals the reason they've been so frustrated for the past week is because they didn't check a preference setting that is mentioned on p.17 of said guide and critical to efficiency of the system. The same eagerness to jump right in with both feet is applicable to production and creating music.

I understand the sense of urgency. When the mood strikes, the creative mind needs to continue being artistic. Taking a little time to plan ahead is a road block and can derail the creative process. I would suggest two things: plan ahead before the mood strikes and take a little time when it does to prevent major derailments down the road.

One of the best things I learned after college while working in Hollywood, was to take a little extra time to get it done right the first time. If you don't, hastiness will come back to haunt you. I had a couple of great mentors there at Bernie Grundman Mastering. Karl Bischof and Beno May. Both demonstrated the necessity for proper planning. Studio construction and maintenance is a topic for another day. On to prep work.

Before I work with a band, we have a pre-production meeting to discuss everything from instrumentation to workflow to new strings on a guitars and new heads on drums a day or two in advance of the session. If you are a musician and are planning to record yourself, it would behoove you to have that meeting with yourself. A couple of ideas to ponder.

Firstly, it's a good idea to think about creating a template or two based on your workflow to have on hand before creativity bounces into the studio. That way you can be creative and still keep everything organized.

Secondly, if the templates are not there, take the extra thirty seconds to create a folder in the thoughtful location to house your project. Simply starting and creating a new project based on an old one and saving it willy-nilly on any drive, is a recipe for disaster.

In Pro Tools, there can be literally thousands of files for one session. The best practice is to have a dedicated drive for your audio. Some people might have multiple drives attached to their computers at any given time. This can be quite hard to manage down the road. Simplicity is the key. This is true for any DAW.

The second best piece of advice I learned from helping others correct their mistakes, is to have two backups of everything. Try to keep your backups incremental. There are programs out there that can help keep track of all that. SuperDuper! is one of them. This program can look at your source drive and your backup drive and look for the "newer" files and backup only those files. It sure beats comparing the dates of each file and cuts down on the number of duplicate files.

The reason for two backups is simple; if something happens to your master, your first backup becomes your master. If you have no other backups and something happens to your backup, you don't have another backup. It's also a good idea to keep the backups in two separate locations. Some might argue to archive your projects in different formats to retain the viability of retrieving the data later. This could be useful.

Hard disk maintenance is another key issue. It is recommended to reinitialize a hard disk every week if it is used to record media more than forty hours a week. Doing so and restoring from a backup is the best method of de-fragmentizing the data as well.

By following the steps I've outlined, I'm confident you'll have many happy years with your drives and the art that resides on them. I have a 2GB Seagate Barracuda that is still running to this day and never complains. I don't play with him much anymore because he's a little loud. He deserves the rest for all the work he's done for me the last 15 years.

Be kind to your data and it will be kind to you.

I'm interested to find out what interests you. I've had one suggestion already about "over-limiting" or "over-compression"; what it is, what it means and how does it affect us? Let me know!

Rock. Roll. Repeat.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

File Management (Part 1 of 2)

Okay. I know I said I'd talk about surround mixing. Next week. I promise. This post is of a little more critical matter. File management. There's so much material to cover, this will be a two part series. I hope I can keep straight which part is the first part. That reminds me of a Marx Brothers movie.

I love the right brain. Its creativity and knack for problem solving are unparalleled. The stories it can weave are so out there. Our musicality comes from there. The right brain can take us to new far away lands when we read. And yet, as far as it can take use, it can also dig us a deep hole.

I've been involved with a project intermittently for over two and a half years now. Before I was involved it had been dormant for over twenty. It had its challenges from the start. Thankfully, analog tape keeps everything in one nice neat package. Of course, in the days of yore (I've always wanted to say that), we all kept copious notes as to what was on the tape, how fast the tape ran, what the calibration level was, who worked on it, when and where. Right? Right.

Today's digital medium has the same challenges. With the cost of hard disks so low, we can afford to be file junkies and pack rats. Most of us now don't give a second thought to having a more than one copy of a picture or a song on our drive. It wasn't that long ago we were careful to minimize the duplicates. Let's take a trip back in time.

During the 1960's, multi-track tape was coming around. The Beatles started recording on four-track tape machines. They would use a method called "ping-ponging" to combine three tracks to one. For example, they would record drums on one track, bass on the second and perhaps a guitar on the third. They would mix those down onto the fourth track. This would free up the first three tracks for further recording of vocals and keyboards or strings and horns. One had to plan which tracks to record and in which order. One also had to commit the mix. Once the guitar, bass and drums we combined to track #4 and their original tracks recorded over, there wasn't any going back.

Tape machines became larger and added more tracks. The first machine I ever multi-tracked on was a 1" 8-track machine. The first Led Zepplin albums were recorded that way. I figured if it was good enough for them, it was good enough for me. Soon after, I was blessed to have access to a 2" 16-track machine. I thought I was in heaven. There was no way I'd use all those tracks unless I had a guitar player who kept asking, "how many tracks are left"? You know who you are. I advanced to a 2"24-track machine and thought it was the bee's knees. I thought, "Bring it on guitar players!" Then, we were able to synchronize two 24-track machines together to get a ridiculous number of tracks. This was in case we wanted to have a mic for every other person in a Mahler orchestra (I really only need four mics for an orchestra)

The early days of digital were much like the early days of analog tape. Very simple, crude and yet huge advantages over the previous technology. The first digital audio workstations (DAWs) were basically two track editors. And, of course, they worked on the principles of analog tape. Hard disks were expensive then too. A 2G Barracuda would run $1,200. At the time, it would have taken a year to fill that up with audio. Now, a computer's operating system takes up more space than that.

Nowadays we don't take as many notes. As long as we keep our files organized in a decent manner, we're fine. But, how many of us keep our files organized? How much time have you spent looking for a file or an email?

In Part 2, we'll discuss how we can plan ahead and keep our digital files organized. I have developed a good method for backing up Pro Tools sessions and trimming the excess audio to save space.

Until then,

Rock. Roll. Repeat.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Studio Marketing in the Modern Music Biz

I recently had a discussion with a friend about studio marketing in today's economy. The discussion was about the viability of specific strategies. How does a studio promulgate its existence to potential clients?

One strategy is to let the engineers drive the business. This, in essence, is letting the engineers promote themselves concurrently with the studio. In my humble opinion, this does not necessarily facilitate loyalty to the studio. In my thinking, this does two things that are hindrances for a studio's growth.

Primarily, it puts an added burden on the engineers to drive their own success. This can be beneficial. However, it also forces them to spend more time finding work. Often times, if they are not well established, they will take a session at a reduced rate. This devalues their time and sets a precedent for future work.

Another obstacle to overcome by this method is locality. By that, I mean an engineer can only get clients locally and is subject to the local economy. Today's discipline of recording arts is saturated by the multitude of students graduating from trade schools and universities with advanced degrees. Some of these students are really talented and are trying to find work. I've heard stories out of L.A. where interns now pay to work at established facilities. This is a scary trend.

I guess it is really who you know. Not what you know.

This first method of marketing seems rather small-minded, in my opinion. If your aspiration is to have a home recording studio, congratulations! You've accomplished your goal.

Another strategy requires a little more vision and requires one to aspire to greater things. If you want to be a world-class facility, you have to think like a world-class facility. This isn't the Field of Dreams (it can be); they won't come just because you built it. You need to let the world know you exist. That's right, the WORLD.

What are some of the world-class facilities you know? Village Recording Studios, Record Plant, Airshow Mastering, Oceanway Recording Studios. While they are all established studios, they still take advantage of marketing. Clever marketing techniques lets you know about them without overtly advertising.

There are businesses like Glow Marketing that can help you develop plans and steer you in the right direction. Chandra Lynn is exceptional at her craft. She has some clever and modern thoughts on marketing. I like her tag line. It's simple and yet effective. Be Remembered.

I would agree that print ads are passé. They are hard to target your specific clientele. They may work for tangible products for the general public. But, let's face it, this is a fickle business and there's nothing general about it. And it appears to change daily.

My opinion? Studios need to take advantage of modern technology and social networking seems to be the current medium. Take a look at the most recent presidential elections. Whether or not you agree with President Obama's politics, he cleverly utilized social networking technologies to spread the word. I think this is how he was able to come from behind in the primaries.

And since the internet is worldwide, it is quite reasonable to reach outside your local market. Moreover, it's now more reasonable to be able to collaborate with anyone around the world.

So, whether you decide to hire someone or market yourself, thinking outside the box and utilizing modern technology seem to be the winning combination.

Next time - Mixing in surround; Thoughts from the sweet spot

Rock. Roll. Repeat.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Stem mixing

WhiteWater Ramble is a band I tracked and mixed a few months ago with producer Tim Carbone. It's a fusion of bluegrass and rock. Very cool in and of itself. Last week I received an email from the band requesting the audio files for a DJ friend of theirs (from here out shall be known as simply "DJ") who would like to do a remix of a couple of songs. I'm thinking this is gonna be fun. I'm anxious to hear the final results.

DJ does not use Pro Tools ™ (the DAW program I used to record the band), nor is his system capable of spotting the audio files to a time stamp. So, I was asked to provide him stems. No problem, right?

I mixed the band through an analog summing mixer and used various analog outboard gear. Thankfully, I kept notes on the settings (another blog for another day). The dilemma I was faced with was how to deal with effects and how discrete to make the stems. For example, do I include reverb and delay? Do I mix the kick and snare separately? Or do I mix them in with toms and cymbals?

Here's what I decided: Firstly, I left out all reverb and delay except for the delay that was used as a special effect. Secondly, I chose to bounce each instrument separately to its own stereo track; drums, cymbals, bass, guitar, fiddle, mandolin, lead vocals, and background vocals. The drums and cymbals were mixed that way per the request of DJ. Sometimes they prefer kick and snare separate from everything else.

In order to save DJ some time, each bounced file is precisely the same length from precisely the same start point. This way, DJ can align all the files to the beginning of his project and they will all line up.

Some other considerations to think about: What format does DJ want? What sample rate and bit depth? Thankfully, DJ asked for WAV files at my sample rate and bit depth of 88.2/24. Larger files sizes, but better resolution. Now, how do I get DJ the files?

The total size for the stems of two songs was 3.9GB. It will fit on a DVD-r. It will also fit on a flash/thumb drive. It's possible to send it over the internet, but that would take some time depending on upload speed. I could put it on an external hard disk if it were large enough. For this project, we chose to send a DVD-r via snail mail.

I'm excited to hear what DJ is going to do with the songs.

For next time, I'd like to open up the discussion to marketing in the music business. Is it possible to still make a living when the general public wants everything for free? Email me your thoughts and ideas. I'd love to hear them.