TUTORIALS IN WRITTEN TEXT BY LINDEN HUDSON
This section features short instructional articles and discussions about music and sound recording. These tutorials are written with indie recording and basic sound engineering in mind.
Reflections: Sound Engineering As A Profession:
- It’s not really like a job, at first, for most people, but rather a passion. When a person decides to be a sound engineer he’d better be willing to starve for a long time. Most sound engineers, in my opinion, start as musicians and then they transition into sound engineering. I was hired for my first recording studio job at the age of nineteen. It was Andrus Studios in Houston, Texas. A legendary band by the name of The 13th Floor Elevators recorded their album “Easter Everywhere” in that studio. I recorded my own music more than I recorded clients, spending hundreds of hours there late at night, usually until sunup. Andrus studios had a really nice, live reverb chamber (there was no digital reverb back then) and one night, after a session, me and a couple of studio musicians drank too much beer and sat in the reverb chamber popping firecrackers until we were almost deaf (insane, yes).
- I lived in many of the studios that I worked in during my youth. In the low end studios there was never much pay offered, so I would ask “can I live here if I take the job?” They would usually say “sure, if you can find a place back there to sleep”. I once worked in a little studio for a year in San Antonio and slept in the tape storage room. However, some nights I got so involved in working my own recording projects that I would often fall asleep under the recording console in the control room. After the San Antonio job I worked in a studio in Oakland California and slept in the reverb chamber toward the end of that stint (singing while going to sleep in a reverb chamber is dreamy). That Oakland studio was in a really bad neighborhood so the studio management had two guard dogs that had the run of the studio at night. However, one of the dogs was a lot more dangerous than anything that was trying to get into the studio (undpredictable Doberman, not right in the head).
- Please allow me to give you a long paragraph (or two) about the economics of the recording biz, from the perspective of those days. If you’re a musician, don’t get pissed, just let me put it out there, everything is cool. The worst part of working in low budget recording studios is trying to get musicians to pay for their sessions. They’re mostly broke (I was broke too). When I worked at the studio in San Antonio I once had a young and beautiful Hispanic woman (low cut dress) walk into the studio and say “I need to cut an album and I need a mariachi band with violins, and the album has to be really good, but I don’t have any money, how can we do it?” I just sat looking at her, unable to speak (What can you say? She was beautiful, but I’m not a magician). Another client, there in San Antonio, booked a session and told me in advance “I’m doing conga overdubs”. He showed up for the session and asked me ”where’s the conga player?” “That’s your expense, you’re supposed to bring him” I said. “But I don’t have any money” he said. “Ok, then I’ll play congas” I told him. I wasn’t very good but I gave it a shot (and I was FREE). He said “you’re not good enough, I need a good conga player”. I just shrugged (what could I do, this kind of thing went on all the time). On another occasion, a three man rap group came into a studio that I worked at (in Houston) and booked a session for the next day. They gave me a deposit and then asked “who’s doing the music track?” I said “you”. They got all pissed off and mad and implied that I was trying to rip them off (wtf), “we don’t have any synthesizers, you have to make the music track, that’s what studios are for”. I said “we just record people”, then I gave their deposit back. They yelled at me and threatened to report me to the Better Business Bureau (again, wtf). Oh well, I guess the great spirit in the sky will pay for the studio equipment and feed the engineer (not) and make free music tracks for everyone. Peace, love, free music. Musicians love free stuff, but when they go play a gig, they wanna get paid too. Uh huh. Do you feel me?
- The studio owners (musicians as well), in the small studios that I worked for back then, were always struggling to keep their studios open and to buy and maintain the equipment, so it was tough when musicians (clients) didn’t pay their bills or wanted huge discounts. In that climate it’s rough for all parties. No one was really in it for the money (what money?), but being able to feed yourself would have been nice. I’m truly sorry to say this, but: if you have to rely on musicians for income, you’re in trouble. It’s ok for me to talk this way about musicians, because I too am a musician (of sorts). I’m what I would call an “engineer-sician” (a slightly different variety of musician). But I always fit the mold, and yes, I had holes in my jeans too.
- At one point, I was almost fifteen years into my rocky music engineering career (if you can call it a career). I was almost three years into a lawsuit against one of the most famous bands in rock history and the lawsuit involved matters with one of history’s most famous record albums. I was burned out, tired, disappointed and broke, and I just wanted to get some of the money I was owed (the biggest motivation was that I had a newborn son). The question still remained “what money? (what glory? what respect?)” Even famous bands thought it was all about “free love” (wtf). I finally moved over into engineering sound for film and video (freelance) and things got a little better. I was still depressed and a divorce and an emotional breakdown followed. But, I gradually got better and the sound biz for film and video gave me a way to pay my child support. I didn’t make much money, but it was enough and I went on from there. Enough of this personal drama stuff, I just wanted to show that not everything in a media career is all fun and games. Any career pursuit can be a struggle.
- These days, when it comes to my own music, I’ve learned the joy of recording myself at home using affordable technology and getting the same quality that I got in recording studios. Why would the quality be any different? In theory it’s not.
- So, if you’re a musician then I’m here to actually give you something free. I’m here to give you information about recording your own music, studio not needed. Even if you never figure out how to do it, there’s lots of real information in my tutorials. So: please, let’s have no complaints. Again, the information here is free. Have fun.
Microphones (Intro – Dynamic vs Condenser):
- There are two main types of microphones for musical and voice recording, dynamic microphones and condenser microphones. Dynamic microphones are passive (they require no power and have no active electronics) and condenser microphones require power and have internal electronics. Because dynamic microphones use no power and have no electronics, they are low output. They’re not very sensitive. However, condenser microphones use power and have electronics and in general they have more output per sound level and are considered more sensitive, and they have more high end in general.
- Dynamic microphones usually need to be very close to the sound source. Condenser microphones can get sound at more distance from the source. Dynamic microphones are generally of the directional type, whereas condenser mics are easily available as omni or directional (or both).
Pro Mic Cables -VERSUS- Non Pro Mic Cables
(for analog mics, not usb mics)
- This topic is for the total beginner. There are two general (very general) types of microphone cables, those that a pro would use and those that a non pro might use. Pros use what is called “balanced” mic cables and non pros often use what is called “unbalanced” mic cables.
- So, to put it simply, a pro mic cable will have xlr connectors on the ends. Your equipment (mixers, recorders, mics, etc) must have xlr interfaces as well, or you cannot use these types of mic cables. These XLR connectors have three pins. The type of cable that is used with these xlr audio connectors is specific to this pro audio use. This type of cable has two signal wires inside and a shield wire. The shield is important in this pro scheme as it surrounds the two inner signal wires and keeps out 60 cycle hum and electromagnetic interference. That shield mesh is inside the insulation, but outside the 2 signal wires, and this shield is hooked to pin 1 on the xlr connectors, whereas the 2 inner signal wires are hooked to pins 2 and 3 on the xlr connectors.
- To explain mic cables further, non-pro mic cables have two pin connectors on the ends of the cable. Those connectors are often 1/4 inch phone connectors, or also can be 1/8 phone connectors. These cables only have one wire in the center of the cable with the second wire being a shield. So, there are two wires in these non-pro (or unbalanced) cables, one is the shield. These cables are not good at keeping hum or magnetic interference out of the audio signal. If a mic cable like this gets longer than four feet it will begin to pick up hum and static (especially as it gets longer and longer). Again, I repeat, if you use these types of cables, keep them very short.
Multi-Track Recording – What Is It? (Beginner):
- For those who do not know what multi-track sound recording is: Multi-track recording was invented in the late 1950′s and was in full force in the 1960′s as a powerful tool in music production. In those years it was analogue recording on wide tape. It is a process by which sound can be recorded on different tracks to keep them isolated, but they are intended to be finally mixed together to be one song production. The tracks can be recorded all at once, or one at a time to be synchronized with each other.
- In the early sixties the 8 track recorder (on one inch oxide tape) became popular in recording studios. Along came the 16 and 24 track machines which were very popular (on two inch oxide tape). Home studios made use of 4 track recorders to a large extent. Digital recording came along and now all this can be done on a laptop pc (with proper interface and software). Some people refer to the process of using multitrack recording as “sound on sound” or “stacking tracks”. If a musician can play several instruments, he can actually create an entire recorded musical production by himself.
Disadvantages Of Pro Recording Studios (For Recording Music)
- Years ago when I worked in recording studios, I formed an impression of the clients and the studios and the approach.
- Recording studios are in the zone I call “Jack In The Box” recording. This is because most clients can’t afford to be in the studio very long so they’re in and out as fast as possible. Plus, most studios are designed for quick in and quick out sessions. This means that the average musical client who records in a recording studio will never achieve a true production (only big clients with money can settle in long enough to get a produced product). This is because true productions require “time spent” in the recording studio. So, the every day poor musician/client tries to be well rehearsed so he won’t waste studio time. But it’s still not enough. Plus, the engineer is usually not there to produce the session (real producers cost extra, real music productions are produced not just recorded). The main advantage of most recording studios is that they are a place with lots of mics, sound processing equipment, and the most important thing: a recording engineer (however, many studios are poorly designed and probably have marginal or poor engineering staffs).
- The other approach (it’s not easy, but it’s a learning experience) is to learn how to make great recordings at home. It’s truly possible to make pro recordings at home. If it’s done properly, it will sound exactly like a recording studio product (it’s true, but it takes knowledge). This is made possible by modern technology. If a person actually learns the art of home recording and production, he can have almost unlimited production time for his projects. Some of the inexpensive multi-track recording software that is available for use on pc and mac is amazing and packed with sound processing power. For example, Sony Acid let’s you stack tracks, apply compression/limiting, apply eq, apply reverb, echo and more. Of course, with this plan in mind, you will need to learn about mics, recording, sound processing AND music production.
- Some people succeed at this and some folks just don’t have the technical mind or the talent to make it work to their advantage, or they just don’t have the determination to stick with it until they learn.
- Again, don’t think this home scenario is a piece of cake. But, start simple, stick to basics, work your way up to the complicated stuff, and: above all, have fun.
Guerrilla Music Recording. Super Cheap. At Home:
- For some types of music recording you do not need a studio to make good music recordings. For one-man-band recording (as an example) there’s no studio needed for some scenarios. And, the quality of recording at home with software is exactly the same as recording studio quality. If you do not believe it, listen to this musical production that I (Linden Hudson) made on a laptop pc in my home using one microphone: https://vimeo.com/56661831
- If you want to try one man band recording you will need a working pc with some working multi-track software. You don’t need Pro Tools. You can do this cheap and use Sony Acid or Music Maker or anything on sale (that works) that allows you to stack sound tracks. Or, you can use a self contained multi-track recording unit. This discussion is not specific to that type of self contained device but this information could still be helpful with that scenario.
- You’ll need a microphone. One of the best microphones for budget recording is the Shure SM57. It actually sounds professional and is only about $100 new or $50 used (and you can use it on stage at gigs). Watch out for used microphones as some of them may have lost their high end because of spit or dust on the pickup capsule. Another great thing about the SM57 is that it’s very directional. This is a plus when doing home recording. Recording at home brings with it outside noises and marginal acoustics. If you use a very directional microphone these problems can be minimized. Work close to the mic. Use pop foam to control wind on vocals. Be aware: The SM57 is a passive microphone (dynamic). It has no electronic gain built in, so it’s only for working up close to an instrument or voice. It will sound pretty crappy if it’s very far from the subject.
- Let’s talk about producing a recording in the “one man band” mode. For this mode start with percussion, or a click track. Determine the arrangement of the song first. Then lay down the percussion. It can be real drums, drum machine, or click track.
- Lay down some rhythm next. Piano, guitar, or just reference chords from any instrument. If you are writing this song on the fly, then this is the step in which you would write the chords. You should probably think of the vocal melody when writing the chords. But you don’t have to.
- Lay down lead vocal (or lead instrument) next. You can re-do the vocal later, because this is mostly a writing phase of the process. If you get a good vocal right away, then you do not have to worry with it later. The idea is that you’re trying to get the song written. If you get good tracks along the way, then that’s nice.
- Record the bass track next. It’s nice to have it in there when you’re fleshing in other instruments.
- Jump around and re-record tracks that could be done better. Be patient. Never say “that’s good enough”. Remember, one good song production is a million times better than six crappy song productions. No one will listen to the crappy stuff, but they’ll give a listen if it’s somewhat good (or great).
- Do not over produce the song production. Too many instruments just makes for nasty clutter. Make each track count. There’s nothing more amateur-like than too many instruments. Lots of instruments is ok if you understand arranging. Otherwise, keep it simple.
- Do not add bass (eq) to your tracks as you record them. Trust me, you will end up with the famous “wall of mud”.
- When you’re finished your track you’ll need to go into the mixing phase. When mixing with multi-track software you can try it over and over again until you get a mix you like. Actually, it’s smarter to make many mixes that are different and pick a good one. Show them to your friends and let them tell you which mix they like. Never argue with them about it, just listen. You don’t have to take their advice in the end anyway.
- If your recording software permits automation, in the form of volume envelope control, then you can learn how to use this feature to bring nuances up or down in volume on vocals and other tracks while mixing. Some software allows even more automation such as eq, reverb levels, and much more (Sony Acid Pro is an example of software with lots of automation options).
- Here’s a good tip, the best I know of, A/B your mix with a commercial product of your choice and make adjustments to your track accordingly. The way to do this is to have an amplifier that has different inputs then switch back and forth between your mix and the commercial mix (with them at the same volume level). While you are comparing your mix to the commercial mix, if you are unable to make yours seem as loud as the commercial mix, then you need to compress it (dynamic compression) by using a pc audio program. A good cheap-o program that actually works pretty well is “Audio Cleaning Lab”. If your mix sounds muddy compared to a commercial song mix, then you need to get rid of some bass, and so forth.
- Use more than one set of speakers to make your comparisons (if you have more than one set). It’s good to have at least one good pair of speakers, but switching to some crappy ones for quick tests is good as well.
- Remember, be patient. Perfect your overdubs. If you hurry, it will show in the final product. 95 percent of professional studio work sucks because people are in a rush due to studio expenses and lack of patience. If you’re working at home you can take your time. There’s no hourly rate sucking up your money.
- Incredible music productions are the result of weeks or even months of work. Nothing really great happens quickly without lots of work.
- Have fun.
“CHEATING” in the Recording Studio (a rambling article about recording music):
- Is it ok to “cheat” in the recording studio? When I say studio, I mean the place where you will record your music (pro recording studio, or home recording studio). So, again the question: is it ok to cheat when you record your music? You’d need to define cheating. Everyone perceives it differently.
- Let’s compare making movies with making music recordings. Do they cheat when they make movies? Of course the answer is obvious and everyone has a pretty good idea of how movies are made. Movies are made in teeny pieces to maximize the look, and they use every trick and technical method imaginable to create the media product that you call a movie (if budget allows). So, why can’t musical recordings be the same? Well, in many cases, most famous pop musical recordings are perfected in much the same surgical way as movies, piece by piece, note by note, and so on. Of course the extent of this depends on the musical act we’re talking about, the producer involved and the budget involved. Oh, and by the way, the producer is the mastermind of the procedure for stacking the tracks and getting it all the make sense in the mix.
- Over the decades I’ve talked about music recording with lots of people, both musicians and non musicians. There are a lot of opinions held about the topic of music production. Some folks think it’s cheating if a musician records the vocals a phrase at a time. Some people think it’s cheating if there’s too much processing on the final song mix. Some people angrily believe that the band should only record the song just they way they play it on stage, “no cheating” they might say. However, most of us live in a free society, so we can go into a recording studio and do anything we want, except blow the place up. So, again, it all depends on your definition of cheating.
-One good, strong example of a musical act crossing the line was: Milli Vanilli. I think we all agree. They really cheated in the studio (they weren’t even in the studio) and they truly cheated on stage, big time. It was true misrepresentation and many folks were outraged. Of course the two guys in that group were just pawns in the game. One of them later went deep into drugs, crime and death. As you can see, it all went south.
- I’ve written this short, rambling article just to help contemplate the goal of music production. Think about what you’re doing before you produce your songs. Do big musical acts “cheat” in the studio? Hell yea they do, but only to a point. The general public knows that. It’s kind of like a girl putting on her make-up and doing her hair. Is that cheating? Who knows, but it can make a huge difference in how you perceive the girl. When you hear a high end commercial recording of a band, you know that everything has been done to maximize the “fantasy factor” of the band, or the act. It’s just understood that you’re putting lipstick on a pig. If the pig is already pretty, then it’ll be even prettier.
- If you don’t believe in enhancing the concept of your music and your performance when you record and produce your music, then you must decide how plain (or boring) you want the production to sound. Yes, that’s what it amounts to. I’ve had musicians in the studio insist “I want it to sound natural”. My first instinct is to ask “you mean plain?” Any experienced recording engineer will expect that smarter musicians want to perfect a song and perfect a sound when they’re in the studio. A studio “producer” will REALLY think that way. There’s a huge difference between a “produced” song recording and a “plain” recording of a song.
-Just look at what George Martin did with the Beatles. George was a musician, composer, recording engineer, orchestra conductor, classical and pop arranger, producer and (Oh my God) way more than that. Really take a look at who George Martin was, who he had already produced, who he’s produced since. Some are: Elton John (Candle In The Wind), America (Tin Man, Sister Golden), Shirley Bassey (Goldfinger), Gerry And The Pacemakers (Ferry Cross The Mersey), Beatles (Yesterday, Help) and much more (more than 30 hit singles). Then try to understand what he truly did for the Beatles and where they would have been in music history without Mr Martin. Try to get it and try to understand it.
Home Music Recording – Reverb Or Echo In The Mix? :
- The two most use most popular effects in a music mix are reverb and echo/delay. Before you mix your song you might want to do some research. Listen to some of your favorite recordings and make notes as to the types of effects used in those recordings. Make notations as to whether your favorite recordings use reverb or echo or both. Then make more specific notations as to which instruments use reverb and which use echo and which instruments use both. After a bit of research you’ll begin to see some trends with regard to effects that are used in your favorite style of music.
- Make further notations about the music you are researching. If the recordings use reverb, is it wet reverb or dry reverb? Wet reverb is very dense and dry reverb is light and not very dense. Caution, wet reverb tends to muddy up a mix (in fact, all reverb, wet or dry, will take up spectral space in the track). Is the reverb long sustain, or short sustain (this is called decay, longer decays tend to obscure content). When describing echo, is it single slap echo or multiple slap echo? After performing this research you’ll know more about what effects you want to use on your song mix.
How To Fix Muddy Reverb
- My opinion is that muddy reverb, or reverb that clutters, needs EQ. If you generated your reverb using a good method or device and it sounds bad, try some eq (assuming the reverb is generated in a quality way). If the reverb plug-in (for multi-track software) or the reverb unit (outboard) has eq control, try rolling off some low end. Reverb doesn’t need to be full spectrum to give the impression of reverb. If reverb is spectrally thick, it’ll take up spectral space and compete with the instruments. Roll the lows off (below 800 cycles if you have that capability) and roll the highs off (above 5 thousand cycles, or whatever). If your reverb plug-in doesn’t let you eq, try another reverb patch, or record bare reverb to a track and eq it on playback. If it’s still covering up stuff, try shorter decay time.
Home Music Production – The Mix / Stereo Image Considerations – (Beginner):
- If you are learning to record your own recorded music productions at home, then there are many considerations. One is how to consider the stereo “image” of the final mix. This is mostly determined by “panning” from each instrument track. Here, in this short article, we will just throw out some basics and some tips. These tips are based on traditional thoughts in commercial song mixing. There are actual technical reasons for some of these suggestions, but not all will be described fully in this little article because of scope.
- So, as for your final mix: first tip: put the bass (bass instruments: bass guitar, bass drum, etc) in the middle. There’s no law that says you have to, and you can do it another way, but you may be sorry later. But, note that overwhelming numbers of final commercial song recordings contain the bass instruments in the middle. In digital media the bass can technically be shifted to the left or the right, but in old technology, namely vinyl (phonograph records) the bass content below certain frequencies is always in the middle. Yes, it’s true. There’s no argument about this. Bass content below certain frequencies causes the cutter head of the vinyl mastering lathe to jump off the platter. So, people are probably used to hearing bass in the middle. Some people will argue: ”the Beatles panned bass totally to one side on one of their albums “. Yes, it sounded that way, but on vinyl the very low end was still electronically panned to the center. It didn’t sound that way, but it was an illusion.
- More: It’s pretty standard to have high end sound similar on the left as to the right channels as well. In other words make the “sizzle” similar on the right as it is on the left. Therefore, if you have “sizzle” from a high hat on the left, then place something with similar “sizzle” on the right. The whole idea is to keep people from thinking that they have a problem with their ears when wearing headphones, or a problem with a tweeter on their speaker system. It’s spectral balance. Spectral balance in the lows, mids and highs creates a pleasing sensation and utilizes both channels without wasting spectral space on the left or the right.
- Along the same line of thinking: work to make the left and right channel reach the same peaks on the VU metering system. Again, utilization of both channels. One reason (among many) is that people will think something is technically wrong with your recording or with their playback equipment if one channel is lower than the other.
- There are many traditions in stereo panning during a mix. One is: placing the lead vocal in the middle. Or, if a guitar is the primary “star” of a recording, place it in the middle, unless it’s dueling with some other lead entity.
- There’ll be more on this at another time in another article. Those are a few things to think about.
- Have fun.
Home Recording – Recording Vocals In Bad Acoustics:
- If you are trying to perform voice overdubs for a song track and you’re in bad acoustics (home acoustics) then remember two things: 1) Directional microphone and 2) Work up close. Those are the two big things to remember. The directional microphone will help limit crappy sounding reflections from hard walls. And, by working up close the “voice to wall reflection ratio” will help keep the bad acoustics from being a factor. It will also limit problems from room sounds: like refrigerators (stay away from them anyway), ticking clocks, air conditioners, heater fans, etc.. And, when you work up close make sure you understand wind protection (pop screens, windscreens, pop guards, etc.). One more very important thing to know is: directional mics achieve exaggerated low end when sound sources are close (proximity effect). This will mean that you need to be willing, ready and able to roll off low end before mixing. Many people don’t understand that and they end up living in the world of mud.
Vocal Sibilance – What Is It – How To Fix It:
- Sibilance results from the hissy sound that occurs when a person says something with an “S” into a microphone. This occurs during singing or announcing. Sibilance is not a problem with some people, but could be worse with others, as it varies from person to person. Sibilance also tends to be worse when using condenser microphones as they have more response in the high frequencies. If an “S” sound is distracting on playback of a recording, then it probably needs to be dealt with in post production (after recording when making the final mix or dub).
- There are several ways to deal with this problem. One way is to use a de-esser. This is an audio processor, either analogue or digital, which dips the upper-mid and high frequencies when they hit a certain level (or threshold). A second way to control sibilance is by using a multi-band compressor which is set to work in the proper frequency range (it’s similar to a de-esser only much more versatile). A third method for controlling sibilance is to simply dip the sound level using mix automation for a split second when the offending sibilance occurs. If sibilance occurs and gets over-driven on recording, it will “splatter” (high frequency distortion) and that is hard to get rid of later. Take care to record properly.
Vocal Microphone Popping – Fixing It In The Mix (In Post)
When a person is singing up close to a microphone they can pop it on their P’s and at other times as well. It’s best to learn how to use wind protection on a microphone (and learn it well). But, even with good practices sometimes there’s a P that gets popped. This burst of wind into the microphone causes a sudden burst of low frequencies. If it’s not too intense it can be fixed in the mix (post production). Fixing this is kind of similar to fixing sibilance, only instead of high end, we’re dealing with really low end. Sometimes this problem can be fixed with a multi-band compressor set to compress low end (often below 300 cycles or so). Or, you can use an automated eq filter to dip the low frequencies for a fraction of a second at the right spot (this requires multi-track software that supports automated filters such as Sony Acid Pro). There are several ways to fix the problem, but it amounts to dipping the low end for a teeny bit of time. If the wind pop is too intense it will inter-modulate the other frequencies and then you’ve got a problem (harder to fix).
Audio Compression – (dynamic range compression):
- There are two general types of compression for music and audio tracks, one is dynamic range compression, the other is data compression. In this very short discussion, we’ll touch on dynamic range compression.
- Recording / Sound engineers use dynamic range compression as a tool to manipulate the apparent loudness of a music or audio track. There are different flavors of compression but we’ll just describe the general definition here because when it comes to audio dynamic range, compression is a general term.
- Dynamic range compression is a process applied to a sound waveform. The process is actually keeping the loud parts of the waveform from getting too loud. However, when the resulting waveform is turned up (automatically or manually) the quieter parts are louder, but the louder parts are not louder. There’s less dynamic distance between the quiet parts and the loud parts. I hope that’s not confusing. Simply put: the lower parts of the sound are easier to hear. This results in the entire track appearing to sound louder at any given volume setting.
- This process of compression is good for controlling the swinging volume range of human vocals, bass instrument fluctuations, or any instrument with too much volume fluctuation. Compression is also used to make finished musical products seem louder. If compression is mis-used it can cause harshness or distortion. It’s a great tool when used properly.
- NOTE: Earlier in this discussion there could have been some confusion generated by saying that “compression keeps things from getting too loud” or that “compression makes things seem louder”. There are a couple of terms that are used sometimes when referring to compression: 1) downward 2) upward. Compression is still the simple process of making the louder parts and the quieter parts closer together in dynamic range. Downward compression results in the entire waveform getting squished downward from the top. Whereas upward compression results in it getting squished upward from the bottom. The same result is achieved. A setting on a compressor called “make up gain” is the key to causing upward compression to take place.
Compression Threshold – (dynamic range compression)
Some compressors have a way to adjust the compression so that it doesn’t kick in until the sound reaches a certain level or “threshold”. The threshold can usually be set higher or lower.
Audio Limiting – (as in dynamic range limiting)
- Simple explanation: Audio limiting is more aggressive compression which usually kicks in at a threshold. This is the way I like to think of it.
When To Use Compression (dynamic range compression, analog or digital audio)
- This is opinion based on experience. Let’s just say that you’ve recorded all the tracks of your song and you’re trying to mix it. What needs compression?
1) Vocals: almost always. It can help poor singing technique (voice dynamics are all over the place), or the song has lots of dynamics with soft parts and loud parts. Compression is important for vocals.
2) Bass Guitar: This helps the quieter parts of the bass continue to be heard through the track. This can help control hard pops of a note.
3) Lead guitar: This can help make the guitar sound like it’s in a stable volume range.
4) Other: Anything that drops and rises too much in volume and is hard to keep in the sweet range.
- Some people believe that you should not compress drums. This is often true, but proper drum compression for the right reason can work. Don’t do it if you don’t understand it. However, experiment with it at will (if you live in a free society).
** Interesting note: There are people out there (a cult?) who believe that dynamic compression is a horrible thing (some describe it as evil and are truly agitated about it). This is amusing to an experienced sound engineer as compression is a very common and useful tool to a sound engineer. There are many people who actually say (in blogs, or to your face) that no-one has the right to process “our music”. This is interesting because the music is not the people’s music, it’s the music and property of the artist and or the legal owners of the “musical property” and the musician or band is just letting you listen (for Christ’s sake). If you buy the music to listen to, you’re only paying for the right to listen (not the right to tell the friggin owner of the musical property how to do anything). It’s truly simple. So, they (the owners of the musical property) can compress it, eq it, add reverb to it, change it, play it backwards, distort it, overdub farting sounds on it (if they want to) and the listeners have no rights in this matter (none at all). It’s just a hard, cold fact, get over it. Bottom line, if you have a radical friend who shouts out against you compressing your musical production, you may ignore him (he’s a fanatic, he’s got too much time on his hands, etc.). Process your music however you like if it’s your music, however, you cannot do what you like if you DO NOT live in a free society. The matter I’ve just touched upon, with regard to people who are freaked out about dynamic compression is real, I’ve encountered these people, I’m not joking. Maybe those people can get the president, or congress, to pass laws about dynamic compression of music. Then there could be “compression police” who would knock on your door at 2 am and drag you out of your house for using too much compression on your music. Oh, I’ve gone too far (do you see how completely crazy it all is?)
Audio Compression – (data compression, relates to digital audio only):
- There are mostly two types of audio compression, dynamic range compression and data compression. Here, let’s just quickly discuss what data compression is for audio.
- Data compression is the process of making a digital audio file more compact and smaller by getting rid of some of the quality (lossy file, example: mp3). The most popular data compressed audio file is probably the mp3. Another very popular data compressed audio file is the WMA file. Both are considered lossy because they sacrifice some of the quality of the original recording in order to make them smaller so they can be sent over the internet more easily (and for easier storage).
- An example of a non data-compressed audio file is the standard WAV file. Another tidbit of information of note for the MP3 file is that the amount of data compression is often adjustable during encoding. The more data compression that is used on and MP3 during encoding, the lower it’s audible quality will be. When an MP3 has been data compressed too much, it will sound really crappy.
Multi-Band Audio Compression (dynamic range) - What Is It?
- We’ve defined audio compression already (dynamic range compression), so what is multi-band compression (dynamic range)? Well, regular compression is the act of keeping the overall volume envelope of an audio signal from getting too loud, but multi-band compression is the act of keeping frequency ranges in that envelope from getting too loud.
- Imagine a graphic equalizer that monitors the levels of the frequency ranges and only acts on those frequency ranges that try to get too loud (instead of the overall volume envelope). Usually multi-band compressors are adjustable and flexible so that you can set ranges that you want to be acted upon and adjust how they are to be acted upon.
- Multi-band compressors come in analog and digital versions (they’re built into some audio processing software, such as Sony Acid Pro). Multi-band compression can be used to make a track sound louder (example: compression in 3 or more bands) or it can be used to keep a certain range under control, such as the low frequencies. If this type of compressor is activated to control upper midrange and high frequencies it can be used as a de-esser.
- Side-chain compression is an interesting beast. I’ve always called it “cross ducking”. It is a configuration of a compressor, or compressors, or a specifically built device or software plugin that: turns down a signal based on the level of another signal. In other words, if you were mixing a bunch of music tracks down and you wanted the guitar to get quieter every time the voice occured, you could do that automatically with side-chain compression. Thus my term “cross ducking”. One sound or track ducks another. I’ve always used this gimmick to make the voice or an instrument seem to cut through other instruments, but it’s just turning the others down for an instant.
What Is A Noise Gate? (Audio Engineering)
- A noise gate is a processing tool for audio. Noise gates have been around for decades and were first used in the analog realm, then they were built into digital processing software. A noise gate is a device or process which turns on a track of sound (or sound signal) when the audio level reaches a certain level (adjustable threshold), then turns the sound signal off when the sound drops below the certain level (a decay time can be adjusted for turn off on some gates).
- I believe noise gates were used primarily in early analog days to help gate out hiss from recording tape. In those days we fought hiss build-up when stacking 8, 16 or 24 tracks of tape recorded sound. With soft noise gating you could help get rid of some hiss build up. A famous band “The Cars” were known for recording their albums on a 40 track Stephens recorder which used 2 inch tape. This means that the tracks were narrow and there were lots of them, so there must have been tape hiss build up, thus I’m sure they must have used noise gates and/or noise reduction (analog noise reduction such as dolby or dbx).
- Noise gates can be useful for other things such as controlling the decay of percussion instruments. You can tighten up a kick drum or snare sound with a noise gate (but it can cause strange effects with mic crossbleed). You could cut out ac buzz on a guitar track, but it’s tricky (sounds easy, but can be tricky). I’ve heard lots of tracks in my time in which I could hear poorly used noise gates cutting in and out. Again, they’re sometimes tricky. In the hands of a real recording engineer, noise gates are just another tool that can be helpful in reaching a production goal.
- A more technical term for noise gate is ” keyable expander “.
What Does The Term ” Normalize ” Mean? (Audio Engineering Terminology)
My definition of normalize pertains to audio recording when using computer software. If your waveform (of recorded music or sound) is not turned up all the way, the normalize feature (in software) will maximize the volume of that track. You do not gain any resolution or quality, it just helps you get the sound of that track into a louder mode for the mix process.
Recording A Band - Sound Isolation – Suggestions
- When recording a band, or group of musicians at home (or in a studio) one of the problems that often wrecks the quality of the recording is microphone bleed. If you were in a room with perfect acoustics (whatever that is) then microphone bleed wouldn’t be so bad. But, most home recording situations are problematic with regard to acoustics. In fact, many recording studios have the same problem due to poor design or low budget operation.
- In order to minimize microphone bleed, isolation is often the answer. This means getting the instruments in different “acoustically” isolated areas and letting the musicians see each other through windows and hear each other through headphones. A general example would be if you had two guys playing guitar and singing and they were in different rooms looking through a window at each other and listening to each other on headphones. In that situation you would have isolation between the mics. This gives you low (or no) microphone bleed which accomplishes two (or more) goals. (One): better sound quality by limiting bounce/bleed and (Two): better control over the mix (because of limited cross mic bleed).
- To expand on that: the drums could be in a separate room, the guitar amplifier in a small room (booth), etc.. The other reason to limit bleed (for serious multi-track music production) is that it gives you a chance to re-do instrument tracks separately later (in re-overdubs) without hearing bleed from the musicians on the original play-through.
Vocal Overdubs Without Headphones – How To
- Usually, when performing vocal overdubs, the singer wears headphones to prevent earlier track sounds from bleeding onto the vocal track that is now being recorded. One problem with wearing headphones is that when they are worn on both ears the singer may tend to sing a little flat, even with his voice fed into the headphones.
- Some singers will use a single cup headphone and just hold it up to one ear and sing (or wear 2 cup headphones with one side off the ear). This is not a natural thing for an inexperienced singer, but it has the advantage of letting the singer hear his voice directly to the open ear, helping with pitch.
- Another method (the subject of this mini-article) is to work with no headphones (for short sections) and use a directional mic with small speakers turned way down and not facing into the mic pattern. The first time I saw this done was in Nashville at a small studio. There were two small speakers on stands facing the singer and they were hooked up out of phase, and the directional mic was facing the speakers (kept the sound out of the mic pattern). The speakers were kept very low in volume. The combination of out of phase speakers with directional mic facing properly kept the bleed from the speakers so low it was not a factor (as low or lower than headphone bleed). This technique is only for advanced singers with lots of studio experience. However, I’ve found that using one speaker (instead of two), with low volume, not pointed into the mic pattern, works fine with virtually no bleed from the speaker. This works only if the singer is really close to the mic (voice to background ratio is high).
- There are people who swear that this is the wrong way to do it, but sorry guys, I do it all the time and it works fine (get over it). I’ve done it hundreds of times while recording my own vocal tracks over the decades with perfect results. It takes an understanding of everything involved to do it this way, but achieves good pitch results (especially on delicate singing, or ballad stuff). This technique must be used in a dead area with minimal wall reflections. On playback, solo the new voice track to make sure the speaker bleed is low or non-existent. Try it (or don’t try it).
Microphone Tips – Think Mic
- When it comes to recording sound too many people are worried about how things sound to their ears. But, never mind that, how does it sound to the mic? That is the real question to ask. For example (in music production, acoustic guitar), a guy says “this guitar isn’t bright enough”. However, how does it sound to the mic from specific points in space? If the mic is close to the point where the pick hits the strings, you’ll hear more pick clicking. If the mic is right over the sound hole then it’ll have more bass. In video production, this tip should hold true in getting sound from an on camera announcer as well. If the director says “we’ve gotta cut (stop recording) the hiss from the air conditioner is too loud”. The reality of this situation is: if the sound guy is really good and he’s placed the mic really close to the guys’ mouth, it may be just fine. In sound recording it’s always about what the mic is hearing. Many people would think that this is a no brainer, but some people have trouble getting that mindset going.
- Along this same line of thinking: besides the mic placement issue, microphones do not hear things like ears do. An example might be: sizzling bacon may sound like rain to a mic, or rain may sound like sizzling bacon to a mic. Or the sound of a person slowly letting air out of their lungs with their mouth wide open may resemble a roaring crowd to a closely placed condenser microphone. There is a whole, huge world of micro-phone-ology.
Copyright Your Songs – IMPORTANT !!
- Warning, this is non-lawyer advice: Let me talk about something that I think is very important. If you write a song and some band steals it and makes money with it, and you take them to court, the judge probably will not give a crap about what you say if you do not have a Library of Congress copyright (for USA). Before I go any further, just follow this link and read this article: http://www.dallasobserver.com/1995-02-02/music/case-dismissed/ . This article made me mad. It made me mad at the legal system and mad at the band that was being sued. But, this appears to be reality. It’s the real world. Again, it appears to be a fact that the judge doesn’t give a crap about you, just show him the proof of official government copyright (or walk away empty handed with your tail tucked between your legs).
- When this topic comes up at a gathering or party, there’s always some guy who tells the others ”oh, you can just mail yourself a letter with a recording of your song in it, that works as good as a copyright”. Please research this for yourself, but this appears to be bad advice (the evidence is pretty clear). Mailing a tape or cd of your song to yourself is not a copyright (verify this yourself, don’t listen to me, what do I know).
- Library of Congress copyrights are recommended, but the problem with Library Of Congress copyrights is that they cost money. The old black blues songwriters who were ripped off so many times had no money to copyright their songs officially (in so many cases). They were just cranking out cool stuff, and then taking it up the backside. Some of them did have copyrights, but couldn’t afford lawsuits (or didn’t know what to do to start a lawsuit, or had no money for a lawsuit). Lawsuits aren’t free (been there, done that) and you’ve got to figure out how to do it (not so easy). Justice is not for the poor or the uninformed. The court system is slow (anything government is SLOW), time consuming, intimidating, often doesn’t yield a good result, and usually only the lawyers benefit. A lawyer once told me “one man’s mountain of troubles is my ski slope”. Again, on the matter of getting copyrights for each of your songs, $35 or $45 to copyright a song is hard to do for many musicians and starving songwriters. But, copyright your songs if you can. You can save money by copyrighting a whole group of songs instead of one song at a time (and pay a one time fee for the group of songs). You can save a little more money by copyrighting online instead of by mail. Get the official info and advice about this subject at copyright-dot-gov. (Again: This is non-lawyer advice).
- One thing I do know: musicians, even famous musicians, will take your songs. Jake Holmes knows this (so do I, first hand).
Seven Common Mistakes In Home Music Recording
These are some of the most common mistakes people make when recording their own music at home. These mistakes, or a combination of these mistakes can wreck your recorded music productions.
1) Bad Acoustics: If your room sounds bad, learn to overcome it or move to another room. You can deaden the recording area and/or use better mic technique to minimize the sound of bad acoustics.
2) Over-Driving / Under-Driving: Over or under driving the mic preamp. Over driving the mic input preamp will cause distortion. Underdriving the mic preamp (or mic) will result in poor signal to noise ratio (hiss) and will produce weak sound.
3) Unwanted Noises: Air Conditioning sounds, refrigerators, clocks, dogs barking, people sounds, etc.. Some of these sounds won’t be apparent until you try to mix your song. Think about it.
4) Muddy Sound: When working up close to directional microphones there’s over-accented low end (proximity effect). It results in a build up of mud (muddy sound, too much low end). Too much bass on tracks is one of the biggest mistakes made.
5) Poor Musical Arrangement: This results in clutter, musical chaos. Instruments cover each other up. Vocals compete for instruments.
6) In A Hurry: Be patient with the process of recording your music. To do it well takes time. One good production is better than fifty bad productions.
7) Complicated Recording Equipment: If you don’t understand you recording gear, how can you make good recordings?
What Is An EQ Filter (As Used In Audio Engineering)
- The term EQ is shorthand for “equalization”. An EQ filter is an analog or digital device (or a digital process in software) that changes the frequency curve of an audio signal. Example: on a sound mixing board the knob that controls the bass or treble could be referred to as an eq control (or tone control, or tone filter). The term “eq” is a very general term and there are many many types of eq devices.
What Is A High Pass Filter? (As Used In Audio Engineering)
- A high pass filter is a general term for an eq filter that turns down low frequencies and lets the higher frequencies pass through (thus the name: high pass). It’s a general term because it does not imply frequency ranges or roll-off characteristics. It just generally means turning down low frequencies (or chopping them off, or rolling them off). The term can refer to filtering in the analog realm or filtering in the digital realm. Some people would call this a low cut filter (works for me too). You could use either term when speaking to a tech or engineer and he would know what you mean. (This term ”high pass filter” can be used in mathematics as well.)
What Is A Low Pass Filter? (As Used In Audio Engineering)
- A low pass filter is a general term for an eq filter that turns down high frequencies and lets the lower frequencies pass through (thus the name: low pass). It’s a general term because it does not imply frequency ranges or roll-off characteristics. It just generally means turning down high frequencies (or chopping them off, or rolling them off). The term can refer to filtering in the analog realm or filtering in the digital realm. Some people would call this a high cut filter (works for me too). You could use either term when speaking to a tech or engineer and he would know what you mean. (This term “low pass filter” can be used in mathematics as well.)
What Is A Band Pass Filter? (As Used In Audio Engineering)
- A band pass filter is a general term for an eq filter that passes a certain frequency range (a chosen frequency range, general). A “band” is sometimes used to refer to a frequency range.
What Is A Notch Filter? (As Used In Audio Engineering)
- A notch filter is a general term for an eq filter that dips (turns down) any given or specified frequency range. Some engineers might automatically assume that when you say “notch” that you’re talking about a steep dip in a range, but it’s still just a general term (mostly).
What Is Mastering? (As Used In Music Production)
- Mastering is a process that happens after the song is mixed. Normally when a musical recording or album is produced then the final result will be a mix (or mixes, if it’s an album). If the final product is going to be put on a CD or vinyl then the final mix (or mixes) goes through a process by a specialized sound engineer in order to tweak the eq and dynamics to achieve a professional finished sound. It’s just a final tweak of the mix.
What Is Plate Reverb – (Topic: Music Recording / Recording Studio Technology)
- The reason I address the term “plate reverb” is that some brands of recording software for pc include a plugin called “plate reverb” for the mixdown. The question has been asked “what is plate reverb?” In the 60′s there was no digital reverb, but there were some very nice ways to obtain extremely high quality reverb in recording studios. One obvious way to achieve reverb was with a live chamber (a room with highly reflective walls, with a speaker and a mic or two for post production). Another way to achieve high quality reverb was with the EMT plate reverb unit. It was a brilliant idea and it worked really well.
- EMT plate reverb units were made in Germany. The unit consisted of a large plate of smooth steel (about 4 feet by 6 feet, or something like that). The steel plate was hanging by the edge in a wooden isolation box and it had a sounder element (like a speaker) attached to it which injected sound into the steel and there were mic pick-up devices attached to the other end of the plate. There was a damping device attached that was remote controlled so the recording engineer could change the reverb sustain time of the plate while mixing a song. The unit sounded awesome and took up less space than a live chamber (although the unit had to be isolated because it would pick up outside noise).
- In those days the drawback to a plate unit was it’s expense (nine or ten thousand bucks, which was more back then when adjusted for inflation). Mom and pop recording studios just couldn’t afford the device. In those days most little recording studios just used a small live chamber or some sort of spring reverb device. High end spring reverb units pretty much sucked, although they were ok for surf guitar.
60 Cycle Hum – Dealing With It
Have you ever recorded music or performed an overdub on a song production and noticed hum? If you stack tracks and you have a hum problem, it’ll build up and get even worse. Most of the time it’s caused by failing to keep your audio signal cables seperated from your power cables (110 volt 60 cycle or 220 volt 50 cycle in Europe). Look on the floor and get the mic cables and all signal cables away from power cords. Especially keep guitar cords away from power cables (they’re unbalanced, they pick up hum very easily). There is more to this topic, but’s that’s all for this module.
(MORE TO COME — THIS SECTION UNDER CONSTRUCTION)