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Affordable Gear, Big-Budget Sound by Simon King

Saturday, December 19th, 2009

There is no free lunch, especially in the music industry where paying one’s dues is a required rite of passage; however, there is one important exception. The most powerful piece of equipment in our profession is the human brain, and it is given to each of us at no cost; however, the brain needs to acquire useful and applicable information to function.

Audio books are the most cost-efficient tools any engineer can buy, and the information they contain will never go out of fashion. If you are temporarily short on funds, the local library is always a viable option. Check out these for your studio bookshelf:

  • Audio Cyclopedia by Howard Tremaine
  • Music, Physics, and Engineering by Harry Olson
  • Sound System Engineering by Don and Carolyn Davis
  • Principles of Digital Audio by Ken Pohlmann
  • Microphone Manual and Modern Recording Techniques by David Miles Huber
  • Mastering Audio by Bob Katz

The focus of this piece is using inexpensive gear that performs like pricier alternatives. A guitarist-songwriter buddy wanted to make an album, using affordable gear. We visited a few local music stores and picked up these “used” goodies:

  • Alesis ADAT XT-20
  • Two Mackie 1202 VLZ mixers
  • TC-Electronic M350 processor
  • Aphex Easyrider compressor
  • ART tube compressor pedal.

Our mics are an Audio-Technica 3035 and 2020, Apex 180 pair, Shure SM57 and SM58, and an E-V PL-9. We soon set to work with our newly-acquired gear. The Apex 180s omnis were set up in the L/R position, in front of and above the drums. The PL-9 was placed in the kick drum. The ART comp/DI box handled the bass guitar. The 2020 and SM57 were mounted on appropriate stands, and placed in front of a Traynor YCV-20 tube combo for all the guitar tracks.

All the vocals were cut with the 3035 and SM58, choosing whichever was applicable for the appropriate vibe. The compression duties were handled by the Easyrider via the mixer inserts. The M350 provided all the needed spatial effects. An Alesis RA-100 amp powered a pair Tannoy PBM-8s and Fostex headsets were pressed into service when necessary. It was a fun-filled session. Good vibes, great jokes, inspired performances.

Working with this minimal set-up reminded me of the old four-track days, when the TASCAM 3440 recorder, Model 3 mixer, MXR stompboxes, and Tapco units were the power tools. A young, talented Moe Berg (The Pursuit Of Happiness), Neo-A4 (Duke St. Records), and other local musicians cut their demos on that system in the early ’80s. Time sure flies when you are having so much fun.

Anyhow, after tracking, the “listening session” was moved to my current home studio, powered by a large automated Trident desk, Bryston power amps, and Quested and KEF monitors. In this more controlled environment, all the recorded tracks sounded terrific. They will be released just as they are – live, raw, and punchy.

Conclusions: The A-T 3035 and 2020 are good mics, though they won’t replace my AKGs, DPAs, or Schoeps anytime soon. The Shures are, of course, the perennial favourites, but the PL-9 was quite an ear opener. The Apex 180s won’t push my Earthworks aside yet, but they worked quite well on the drums. The TC-M350 is a very useful toolbox. This sibling of the TC-2290 delay and M-Series reverbs is just the perfect Swiss Army knife of studio effects. It even plays well as a computer interface for recording. The 4-channel Aphex Easyrider is a great plug-and-play compressor that shares the same DNA (Aphex 1001 VCA) as its bigger relatives: the Compellor and the Dominator.

The Mackie 1202 VLZ rocks. This pint-sized mixer has great mic pres and phantom power. Use it as a re-amp tool, a DI box, a patch bay, and a mic-splitter. Ultimately, you can always use it as a sub-mixer when you buy that big console.

Really, who says you can’t have fun with affordable gear?

Simon King is a producer/engineer based in Edmonton. He has recorded Moe Berg, Neo-A4, and other Alberta-based bands. He currently works as a composer in his private studio, Leo Project-Techworks.

Miking The Audience During Remote Recording by Doug McClement

Saturday, December 19th, 2009

When miking a crowd at a big show, I always use at least eight microphones, and often 10 or 12. If you only put up two mics at a hockey rink, it’s going to sound like 500 people – not 18,000.

I’ll put a shotgun and a cardioid on each side of the stage beside one another, usually parallel with the front of the PA speakers so there is no audible time delay. The capsules will be touching, to prevent phasing, and they’ll be pointed at 10th row centre. Each mic has a distinct sound. The shotguns give me specific clapping, and voices if the audience is singing along, without introducing too much bleed from the PA system. The cardioid provides a big wash of non-specific applause.

If the show is rigged, I’ll try to hang mics five and six from the ceiling to get that big ambience. I always ask myself, “If I were trying to light the entire audience with two lights, where would I put them?” That’s where the hanging audience mics should be placed, and the higher the placement, the more people you’ll hear. If it’s not possible to fly the mics, then I put them on tall stands along the boards at the blue line, pointed up at the crowd.

The seventh and eighth audience channels will be from a stereo mic at the FOH position, pointed back at the band. A stereo mic only requires one stand, and the two channels will always be in phase. FOH is a safe location to prevent theft, as it is usually roped off from the crowd.

If there’s time, I will fly another couple of pairs of mics in the lighting grid, trying to cover as much of the audience as possible. Obviously, you want to test your cables and mics before they are flown, because you won’t be able to get to them later on.

This technique gives the mix engineer a whole bunch of different options, especially if the mix is being done in 5.1 surround. The stage mics are panned 100 per cent to the front speakers, the hanging mic pairs are 50/50 front/rear, and the FOH stereo mic is routed entirely to the rear speakers, creating a very realistic sound field for the listener. We want to create the illusion that the listener is sitting 10th row centre.

During the mix, I might take the tracks containing the signal from the rear mic up a few dozen milliseconds to get it all in synch. For example, if the rear mics are 100 ft. from the stage, I would shift those tracks up 100 msec, as sound travels about 1 ft. per msec.

I usually end up rolling off everything below 200 Hz, and adding a bit on top at 10 kHz for clarity during the mix. The front mics will be louder in the mix than the rear mics.

Doug McClement launched LiveWire Remote Recorders in the summer of 1994, and has been doing location recording ever since. He’s been nominated for several awards and has several platinum albums under his belt. Visit www.livewireremote.com.

Using The “Import Session Data” Function In Pro Tools by Brian Moncarz

Monday, October 19th, 2009

Not a lot of people seem to know about the Import Session Data function in Pro Tools. It’s really a “how to make your life a lot better” Pro Tools function. Basically, we use it at the studio as an extreme. We have templates, so if you’re recording vocals and the artist wants a cool reverb, there’s a template. You just import the session data, an option that’s just under the File menu. You import it from the template and up comes a vocal track with a send and an aux track to a vocal reverb. It saves you 10 minutes of adding all the tracks.

I use it a lot in mixing, so if I’m mixing a record what I’ll do is I’ll mix the first song and use that as a template, and then I can import the session data from one mix to another. Obviously, I’m not going to import volume changes and pan automation, but I’ll import all of my plug-ins and they’ll all come up exactly the same as they were in that first mix, and then I’ll use them as a starting ground for my next mix. Mixes kind of grow that way. For me, the Import Session Data is a total lifesaver.

Brian Moncarz is a Co-Owner of Rattlebox Studios in Toronto, and has worked with artists like Moneen, The Junction, and Silverstein. Contact him at bmoncarz@rattleboxstudios.com.

Miking Techniques For Recording Grand Piano by George Semkiw

Monday, October 19th, 2009

Not long ago, I was recording a live grand piano, situated right next to a drummer and a bass amp, so there was a lot of sound interference. We wanted to get a good mic sound on the piano, so I used an old technique I used to use at Amber Sound. I took two omni-directional mics, and clipped them onto the stick that would usually hold the lid up when the piano was open. You get the mics clipped on, fold the stick down, close the lid, and you get a great piano sound with minimal leakage.

You need to use omni-directional mics with this technique, though; if you use cardioid mics, it’s going to sound muffled, because, like a pair of flashlights pointed in two areas within the piano, you’re only going to get clear sound from two focal points. I went through the experiment a long time ago with the cardioid mics, and it sounded like crap. You get good separation, but the sound is just awful.

Somebody else suggested the switch to omni mics, which made a lot of sense, and when I put those in – beautiful. Even with the drummer right next to the piano, you get very little leakage – not enough to worry about, anyways.

George Semkiw is a veteran Canadian engineer/producer, and built Amber Sound in 1979 after working with several big-name studios. His career spans four decades and every conceivable genre of music.

Using A Phazer On Live Bass Guitar by Peter Janis

Wednesday, August 19th, 2009

A common request I get from engineers is to help solve the problem of bass signal phase cancellation in a live venue. This problem is caused by the bass amp (stage volume) mixing with the bass signal in the sound system, which, depending on where you are sitting, will either cancel out or be amplified.

Because of the enormous power required to generate bass, the bass amp on stage will often be three to six times greater than the power employed by the electric guitar. For example, the Ampeg SVT is 300 watts, while a Marshall 50-watt half stack can easily keep up. Once powerful bass energy is generated, it travels further and of course sends out a wider dispersion pattern, particularly at lower frequencies.

Because the two sound sources are positioned differently with respect to the FOH mix position, they arrive at a different time and therefore become out of phase. This not only happens at the fundamentals, but also at the harmonics, which of course send information to the brain such as slap, tone, and localization. As the bass level coming off the stage increases, the resulting effect (called comb-filtering) makes mixing the sound all the more difficult. Unfortunately, when the stage volume exceeds the sound engineer’s ability to control the signal, the bass is often turned off (muted) in the FOH mix and bass definition is lost for most listeners.

As it is impossible to “solve” all of the phase problems in a room (due to reflections off walls and ceilings and seating position), the intent is to at least provide the mix position with the best sound possible so that the end mix is balanced. This is where a phase correction tool comes in.

A typical stage set-up is as follows: the bass connects to a DI box, which feeds the PA. The bass signal then goes to the stage amp. As sound travelling from the DI to FOH will travel at speeds approaching light, it will arrive, be mixed, and sent to the PA almost instantaneously. This signal will reach the sound engineer’s mix position based on how far he or she is stationed away from the PA system. Sound travels through the air at 1,130 ft. per second. Let’s assume the mix position is 50 ft. away from the PA. This means that the sound will arrive in about 40 milliseconds.

The sound from the bass amp will also be generated almost instantaneously, but since the bass amp is positioned at the back of the stage, well behind the loudspeakers, the bass signal will arrive 10 or 15 milliseconds later. By phase-adjusting the signal going into the PA system, we can time-align the two signals so that it sounds better; they will be in phase. Bass is like the foundation of a house. Fix the bass and all of a sudden, everything gets easier to manage.

Peter Janis is the President of Radial Engineering, the Port Coquitlam, BC-based manufacturer of music and audio equipment, including the Radial Phazer, offering variable phase control. Visit www.radialeng.com for more information.

Four Key Tips For Mixing An Outdoor Festival by Pete Bartlett

Wednesday, August 19th, 2009

1. Well, outdoors or indoors, you apply your modus to your mix. We all have our tricks we’ve picked up along the way, and so just because you’re outside doesn’t mean this should change.

2. It’s always nice not to be fighting with some dreadful hall or bad mix position, which is helpful, but it means that outside there are less excuses.

3. If you have a good system tech (the guys at Toronto’s Virgin Festival were superb), you have to trust him.

4. Most of all, remember you’re not mixing for audio engineers – you’re mixing for kids who have the record and want that same experience, only bigger, better, and louder. Be bold.

I don’t dig the “chin scratching” static-sensible mix, where people are going, “Hmm … nice mix.” Give me excitement any day. I try to remember the way I felt when I was 17 (that was some time ago), when your life depended on this gig. If the kids walk out saying, “That was fucking amazing,” then the job is done…

Pete Bartlett is FOH engineer for UK-based indie rockers Bloc Party, recently in Toronto for the Virgin Festival. He can be reached at fohpete@aol.com.

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