Archive for the ‘Enlightened Hand’ Category

Blocking when tracking

Saturday, August 23rd, 2008

Sometimes when a novice begins a recording project they don’t stop to consider the usefulness of recording the performance in bits and pieces and then assembling those pieces together to create the illusion of a live, single take performance. In an ideal world overdubs and multi-tracking would be largely unnecessary because each performance would be perfect on the single live take and all of the levels would fit just right and everything would be fine. In reality there are a few challenges to overcome with tracking a performance for a commercial release.

For starters there’s the room that one is tracking in. While a certain reverberant character might be suitable for tracking drums, it might not work ideally or as well for vocals or guitar and bass. So the engineer finds herself in the predicament of having to put instruments that are supposed to be playing together in separate rooms because of the desire for the ambiance of the performance space to fit the tracking goals for the instrument. While it would be ideal if every recording facility had the option of having many rooms to work with simultaneously, each with a different character that would suit each instrument in any given ensemble, this is not always the case. Along with the performance space being a challenge, there’s also the ability of a performer to remain consistent in their level of performance accuracy and feeling throughout the entire song, which is a difficult feat to achieve. Another issue to contend with is dynamics in a performance. Dynamics, refers to the changes in the perceived volume of a piece. While ideally all dynamics of a song arrangement can be performed in one take, in practice it’s difficult to get it all right at once so for all of these problems we find ourselves separating the parts of a song into sections. I call this specific practice recording in blocks or simply blocking.

Essentially blocking is taking the piece to be recorded and tracking the instruments that have to be captured in a certain way separately from everything else, in their own little arrangement block. Instruments that you want to be captured with a reverberant space are recorded in a reverberant space by themselves. The same goes for other types of room ambiances. Also, you break the song into manageable performance pieces so that the performer doesn’t have to remain consistent from start to finish of the song. They play in sections that allow for them to focus on the difficulties of the particular section at hand until they get it close to perfection. Finally, you break the song arrangement down into the quieter and louder sections so that you can allow for the adjustment of instrument settings and effects. This allows for the dynamics to really jump out at the listener when the need be. It also allows an engineer to keep a better handle on tracking levels, because they can adjust the preamplifier settings for each section.

What blocking does is allow for more control over the song elements. That’s a very good thing when a wide audience is the target. It’s always helpful to be able to tweak each element to the fullest if the need be. What you will end up with is a lot more tracks to mix but that’s generally not a big problem once you get used to it. I have always found that it helps to have the extra tracks to work with when I need it.

Happy recording,

Liz Corin

Take it one piece at a time and educate yourself

Tuesday, July 29th, 2008

So many times I see people thinking about upgrading their audio rig and they always wonder which of several places in their signal path that they should begin upgrading. I’m of the mindset that once you have a working recording rig that gets it’s basic function of tracking and mixing done well, then you only have to upgrade further as absolutely needed and one piece at a time.

Take the time to make sure that you have fully exhausted the capabilities of the pieces that you’re working with. This is a big deal as you have no reason to spend money if you’ve already got a good thing going that you don’t use fully. So in short, use it fully. Take each piece to the max. If you still need more then you’ll know exactly where you need to start upgrading and you’ll be in a much better position to want to research the specifications and capabilities of the piece that you’re interested in. There’s no need really for someone with experience to constantly be asking questions of others about what they might think of one’s upgrade ideas. Only you know exactly what you need and you’ll know that for sure when you use what you have to the fullest.

Say you have a pair of entry-level monitors. After a few weeks or months of mixing on them and fighting to figure out why your mixes don’t translate to the widest variety of playback systems then you will naturally seek out exactly why this is so. You will likely come upon the issue of room treatment and then you’ll notice that before any monitor can be fully useful it must be placed well in a well treated acoustic space. Thus, proper room treatment becomes a priority on your upgrade list. So you write down, “room treatment”, and you get on with the business of researching the types and costs of room treatments that will work for your acoustic space. After a while you will have a definite plan of action for what you need and you’ll know what you want without having to constantly ask people to tell you what you want. That’s the professional approach in my opinion.

The same goes for anything. Say you have a microphone that you use for vocals and you notice that everything that you record comes out sounding a bit harsh in the high end of the frequency spectrum. After deliberation you will likely start to research microphones that don’t sound harsh in the high end. You will likely come to the conclusion that many cheaper microphones suffer from this problem and that it’s difficult to find a cheaper alternative that happens to keep a smooth, classy sound when you’re shopping for microphones. That’s when you start looking to spend more money on microphones. Because you’ve found that you’re just not satisfied with many of the cheaper alternatives. You never had to ask people, “How much should I spend on a mic?”, because you already know that you’re likely to get what you pay for,(with a few notable exceptions). Also you easily know what to put on your upgrade list because you’re not just buying things to say that you have them. You’re purchasing because you know what you need and you’re not satisfied with the quality of the sound coming from what you already have and use all of the time.

When you take the time to go to the manufacturer websites and read about their products, go to the respected gear magazines and read their reviews, go to the forums and do searches for gear info. You educate yourself. You educate yourself not only about the gear you have in mind, but also the techniques of use and esoteric info surrounding that gear. That’s how you become aware of what you need and how to implement it in your rig.

It’s not enough to buy a piece. You need to know how to use it and how to integrate it into your setup before you put your money into purchasing it. That means that if there is a piece that you think you want, you should take the time to research how it’s used before you buy it. Trust me. It saves a lot of time and it makes you a better engineer. You’re no longer a wannabe who’s buying gear. You become an experienced user who knows what they need and want and knows how to ask for it and discuss it’s proper use. That’s commitment to your practice and education. That’s what needs to be done.

Specifically regarding signal processors and plug-ins, don’t go buying the hottest thing on the market if it isn’t going to be “the answer” to your problems. The vast majority of the time it isn’t going to be anyway so why are you fooling yourself? I recently saw somebody’s rig that had multiple thousands of dollars of big name, outboard signal processors and yet this person was using entry level monitors to mix with. I don’t get that. I think that if you’re going to be using expensive signal processors then you’d probably want to use some decent monitors so that you could hear what you were doing without having to second guess. Why spend thousands on processing stuff but only hear it through a couple hundred dollars in monitoring? It doesn’t add up to me.

As far as plug-ins go, why would one purchase a bunch of high dollar, big name compressor, EQ and reverb plugs when you can only master the use of a couple at a time? I find that I use the same two EQ plugs on about 80% of everything that I mix. What can I say? They work and they sound great. That’s why I keep using them. I can’t even imaging having to figure out the sonic differences between a dozen different EQs or compressors. I figure one should use a couple and master their use. After a few weeks of use on several mixes you will really start to get a feel for what they can and can’t do well and what they actually sound like and are doing to the sound. Then you’ll be in a better position to know what to look for in an upgrade. Also, when you compare them side by side you’ll know the differences between your plug-ins, and the new ones without having to second guess because you’ll be so familiar with them. That helps you by making you an “expert” on the use of your chosen software. You’ll know what to look to improve upon and what happens to be just fine. There’s no need for a million plug-ins when you’re, realistically, only going to use a few regularly. The rest is marketing hype that suckers those that don’t know any better. Don’t let it happen to you.

The bottom line is for you to use what you’ve got and use it to it’s fullest. Then research anything you wish to upgrade. Make sure you know how it works before you buy it and make sure you know exactly how to incorporate it into your rig. That’s the way to make smarter decisions on gear without having to be spoon fed by someone else.

Happy recording,

Liz

Everything is singing

Sunday, April 20th, 2008

Often times people wonder just what exactly is the most critical component in their signal path. I think it’s everything. There is no single element that is more important than the rest once everything is mixed together. All of the various components work together. It’s kind of like a choir of some sort, with each signal path component being an individual voice. Just like any good choir the components must work together in order to create a good whole. If a voice is out of tune or if a group is unevenly balanced together the entire piece won’t gel like it’s supposed to. This is why we have so many people saying that if you put garbage in then you’ll get garbage out. Every part matters as much as the rest of the whole. The thing that I’ve noticed that many people don’t see is that there might be more parts to the whole than one initially realizes.

For starters when a piece of music is performed there is more involved in the performance than the musicians and their gear. There’s also the room that the performance takes place in. It’s like it sings back to you. If you’ve ever heard a great performance in a great room then you are very acutely aware that the room is singing back. It’s adding it’s part to the performance. It fills the gap that is so desperately needed to make a performance other worldly. It’s as much a part of the group of musicians as the the players themselves. This needs to be accounted for when one endeavors to record any performance. Sometimes you don’t want a room to sing back. In that case you’d go for a more dead sounding space. Often times, however, you want the room to play it’s role and with that in mind you have to pick a room that sings well with the music that you are recording because it’s also going to be apart of the group.

Other members of the performance group include the settings on the actual musicians’ gear. Every twist of a knob is chiming in with it’s unique sound. Every vibration in the cabinets are adding to the chorus. It’s all singing. Nothing is silent. Even bypassed gear is singing because every circuit path has a sound to it. It might be a little one but just like a little voice it plays it’s part. Of course there’s the obvious microphones, pre-amplifiers, signal processors, converters, plug-ins, monitors, the mix room and the perceptions of the listener, but the point is that there is so much more than just that. You simply cannot isolate any one part and say that it’s the most critical because that’s the same as saying one voice in a choir is the most critical when everyone is singing.

When you mix you’re hearing everything at work. You hear the wood and stone of the walls in the performance space. You hear the gear, the performers, the microphones etc… You hear it all. You even hear your own room, your monitors, your plug-ins and outboard, everything. Everything is singing. Everything must be balanced together. You are conducting an orchestra of unusual instruments that you must make work together in the best way possible from start to finish. If a recording isn’t right then your ‘orchestra’ went wrong somewhere and you as the conductor must take full responsibility. Everything has a voice.

The most challenging thing for me in audio has been understanding this point. I had to learn how to hear everything and know how to get it all to work together. No, it’s not rocket science. It’s heart science. It’s from the center of your being and once you hear the voices of all of the constituent parts then you’ll know how the ‘chorus’ is supposed to sound. You’ll be able to approach projects with the right mindset. Everything is indeed singing.

The secrect of professional recording revealed.

Saturday, March 15th, 2008

We are in the middle of the project studio revolution. This is a time where the technology for recording is priced so low that virtually anybody can get into the game. Unfortunately for major recording studios this means struggling to keep afloat. But for the project studios it is the greatest opportunity in history to compete with the big boys. Since acquiring gear that works and can do the job isn’t really the issue anymore the subject of getting quality recordings has shifted in emphasis from gear to skills. The problem that I see is that many people new to the process of recording have many mistaken impressions about things. So I often read and hear about the woes of the novice or would-be recording engineer. Usually the story goes a little something like this.

I just don’t get this recording stuff. It’s a lot harder than I ever expected it to be. I perform well. I mic my performance the way they tell me to in the books and when I go back to listen to myself I sound like crap. If I do happen to get a decent performance recorded then when I go to mix it it sounds like crap after I’m done. It’s like everything that I do makes the mix worse and worse. If I take time to listen to my favorite commercial releases I find that they sound so awesome. This gets me to thinking that maybe I need better gear because I can never get my guitars to sound so big and my drums to sound so alive and my voice to sit so well and be silky yet powerful and in tune and with just the right amount of reverb. My snare drum sounds wimpy by comparison and my toms are lost in the mix. My bass guitar is all over the place leaving everything sounding muddy and the entire mix is never loud enough. I’m so frustrated. I just don’t know what the secret is. My band plays well. We record like we’re told to. We bought gear that some people at the music store told us was just enough to get a professional sound. Why then are we failing? What is the big secret? Is it the microphones or the preamps or the converters or my monitors or my room treatment? What?!!

This can be a frustrating situation indeed. I’ve definitely been there many times in the past. Now when I look back at that scenario I can’t help but chuckle a little because the funny thing about being new at anything is that you just don’t know. What’s worse than that is that you have no idea of what exactly it is that you are supposed to know but don’t. So in short, you don’t know what you don’t know. Sucks doesn’t it? I think so. The scenario usually doesn’t end with people giving up at that stage either. Usually what I see is persistent cats diving into the search in earnest for the “secret” piece of gear that’s going to make all of the difference. They go from one extreme to the next, asking everybody that they can get a conversation going with that seems like they might know anything, the eternal question, “Which piece of gear is my studio missing to take me to the next level?” The answer always at some point comes back around to a simple, “nothing really, just skills and experience.” New cats hate that answer. They want to beat the snot out of a professional whenever they are given that answer. They feel like the pros are just a bunch of arrogant asses that refuse to cooperate with a simple request. What the new cats don’t know and don’t want to accept is that skills and experience are the only things that can actually take your recordings to the next level. I’m going to go and just get it out there now.

IT’S NOT ABOUT THE GEAR.

It will never be about the gear. Before we had some of the awesome gear that we have at our disposal today we had, what could be considered by comparison, crap gear that people yet found ways to get fantastic recordings out of. I’m not saying that all of yesterday’s gear is crap. That’s certainly not the case at all. What I’m saying is that when technology was limited it was skills and experience that carried the engineers of the past from the same point that everybody starts at; nothing, to that wonderful conclusion that everybody longs for; sonic bliss. But how? Well there are many answers to that question but right now I’m just going to focus on one facet in particular and that is getting it right at the source.

Having good acoustics in a room combined with quality tracking techniques to capture well written, arranged and executed performances is the foundation of quality mixes. There are no secrets here. It’s all about maintaining a high standard of quality throughout every step of the process. It’s wisdom and experience that will allow an engineer to judge what an acceptable level of quality is in a given project and it’s skills that will afford an engineer the ability to extract quality out of a recording situation. You simply cannot excel in this process without having both skills and experience.

So to me, instead of which gear to buy, the questions that are the most useful for an individual or production team to be asking at the start of any project are:

What is the ultimate sonic/artistic goal in mind that every element of the following process should coincide with?

Where are we going to record? What room will be the live room? How are the acoustics? What are the materials that make up the ceiling, floor and walls and how large is it? Are we going for natural ambiance or dry sounds?

How are we going to record each element in the arrangement? What is the desired sonic outcome for each element?

What are the proven methods to achieve our sonic goals in each element of the arrangement that we intend to use?

All of these questions reside in the realm of preparation. Preparation is the most important aspect of any professional endeavor. It’s critical to getting the production to come out the way that you intend as an artist/engineer. It’s the key to getting things right at the source. After the questions above are each clearly answered, (which will take research, sometimes extensive research if you don’t have much experience), then the production team can focus on what specific pieces of gear they may need to acquire in order to achieve the desired result within whatever given budget limitation.

If the process throughout is supported by quality engineering practices then there will be a good chance of getting good raw tracks. This will make the mixing and mastering process much easier. That’s really the big mystery in a nut shell. It’s the quality of the source material supported by proven, good quality engineering practices that ensure that you won’t go wrong with your raw tracks. If you thereafter mix them poorly then you can always pull all the faders down and try again. At least then you’ll know it’s not due to having poor quality source material and you won’t wind up chasing your tail to end up banging your head against the walls.

Unfortunately I find that many newcomers don’t want to go through the process. Let me make one thing clear. You must go through the process of researching, planning and studying to get any reasonable level of quality out of your recording endeavors. The price must be paid and the process must be followed. You can’t rush a harvest just as you can’t rush your understanding of the recording process. That’s simply the bottom line. If you think that there’s a shortcut somewhere then you’re wrong. There is no machine or device of any sort that will make things any easier for you to understand and produce quality than your dedication to the study and practice day in and day out. There are things that function as cover-ups for lack of engineering ability and understanding. Technologies such as digital room-correction programs and multi-band compression, (which isn’t intrinsically bad just something that has a very narrow practical use unless you like destroying the natural sonics of recorded material), each fall into the categories of “band-aids” for engineering weakness. Don’t let yourself fall into this trap. Take the opportunity as a newcomer to learn how and why to do things the proven effective way. That will make all of the difference in your output later on.

I don’t want people to think that I don’t advocate experimentation however, I do. I think that every time you have the inclination to experiment then do so if the opportunity presents itself. Just don’t be surprised if it doesn’t come out good. If it does then that’s all good as well. Some of the most consistently useful practices have grown out of experimentation. That’s the soul of pushing the envelope. I am however, a firm supporter of learning the fundamentals first before going and breaking all of the rules.

So basically it all comes down to comprehensive planning, research, study, a lot of dedication and a little of experimentation along with a burning desire to get it right that makes the difference between the eternal amateur and the professional. Nowhere in that recipe is there any statement about specific pieces of gear and that’s because quite simply, it’s just not about that.