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Drum And Bass Mixing by Alec Watson

Monday, December 19th, 2005

Like building a house, you need to start with a solid foundation – the kick drum and bass. Working with just these two tracks, zoom in tight so that you can easily see the waveforms. I like to cut each bass note and place it just behind the transient of the kick (a well-played track means much less cutting and moving of course). This allows the transient and upper harmonics of the kick’s attack to come punching through your speakers before the bass note starts to ring.

If the bass guitar precedes a kick, the punch in the track is lost.

In the mix, you might not hear that the bass is ahead of the kick, but this beat will noticeably lack the punch of a bass note sitting behind the kick transient. Conversely, if the bass note is too late, the attack becomes too long to be punchy or becomes a separate note. A little experimentation here is good, as this can sometimes be a nice effect, giving the track a relaxed quality.

The real magic happens when the two instruments blend to become a single punchy low-end transient that transforms from a kick into a thick fat bass note. If you are a real stickler for “perfection” and have LOTS of time on your hands, there is something to be said for zooming in really tight on your kick and bass waveforms and making sure the transients of both instruments are “in phase.” I strongly recommend finding a niece or nephew that you can trust and bribe with ice cream to do this tedious task … if they mess up even on note: “No ice cream for you!”

In attempting to phase align the two tracks, you are not likely to get all the peaks and valleys to line up because the bass wavelengths are going to vary with frequency. The important ones to line up are the early ones where the amplitude is highest. The science here lies in the fact that theses waveforms represent the voltage output from your digital to analog converters. If you prefer a more “physical model,” these waves symbolize the direction your speakers are going to be pushed (the flat line in the centre being the zero crossing where the speaker sits at rest). On a vast number of systems these frequencies are going to be played by a mono subwoofer. As the subwoofer can only go one direction at one time, if the bass and kick waves are in phase (pushing in the same direction) the mix is going to be much punchier than that of a mix with a bass and kick that are out of phase. Unfortunately, this magical fix is not going to save bad tone and sloppy playing.

In closing, I would like to point out to the percussive purists (drummers) that I didn’t even mention lining the kick drum up with the click track before going on to align the bass. Only an engineer that believes the covers of Maxim and Stuff are works of art would do such at thing! Hmm…

Alec a producer/engineer in Nanaimo, BC. He can be reached at Alec@Vinsynch.com.

Music First! by Bruce Swedien

Monday, December 19th, 2005

With downloadable music becoming as significant as it has in terms of getting music to the public, has this changed the way you think about mixing?

Answer – not a bit! A good mix is a good mix! I’ve been around the block a couple of times. I’ve seen our beloved music recording business go through some critical changes. What I find most promising now, is that musicians, bands and composers, have easy access to recording technology that is far better than at any time in the past. I have a strong belief that the music recording business, is going to be put back in the hands of the people that truly love music for music’s sake.

Music has always seemed to be organic in myself. I think it’s that way, to some degree, in the soul of every human being. That’s why I’m confident that recorded music in the new millennium will emerge at least as strong and healthy, as in the previous. However, I do think that recorded music will always be a wonderful area to work in, in the future, as long as we keep the melody in focus. The song is the important thing. Keep that in mind and we can’t go wrong.

Remember this! “MUSIC FIRST!”

Bruce Swedien is a recording engineer whose credits include working with artists such as Dinah Washington, Michael Jackson, Mick Jagger, Muddy Waters, Duke Ellington, Oscar Peterson, Barbra Streisand, Donna Summer, Count Basie, B.B. King, John Lee Hooker, Paul McCartney, among many others. His first big break came when he engineered Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons’ million-selling single “Big Girls Don’t Cry”, which spent five weeks at number one in 1962. Swedien has conducted classes in music engineering at UCLA as well as lecturing and hosting recording seminars at various universities, colleges and industry organizations in both the US and overseas. He currently resides in Connecticut where he continues to explore aural possibilities and taking on top-level engineering assignments.

What’s Up With Dither? by Alec Watson

Wednesday, October 19th, 2005

Most of our recording gear now records in 24 bits. A 24-bit “word” looks a lot like 110101101000110110011010. In base-10 this can represent any number between 0 and 16777215. Here is the catch. 16777215 doesn’t represent a LOUDER sound. We are not adding “dynamic range” when we record in 24 bits. We are actually adding more resolution. Think about it in terms of the page you are reading right now. If we think of this page as being a finite size, by increasing the dots per inch of the printing, we see a higher resolution; a more realistic page. That is the difference between 24 and 16 bits.

The problem with recording in 24 bits and then reducing the recording to 16 bits isn’t a change in dynamic range (or loudness), it is how best to reduce the resolution from very good to good. If you have a nice digital camera and take pride in your pictures, there is usually a disappointment when you click the “e-mail my picture” button. The result is often good, but sometimes that reduction in size and resolution makes your picture look grainy or jagged. This is VERY similar to the bit-depth problem found in reducing 24-bit recordings to 16-bit. Now just like certain pictures don’t reduce well and others do, some audio reduces well while other audio doesn’t. It gets worse! The audio that doesn’t reduce well is the audio that looks “spiky.” It is the sharp transients – drums that suffer most; especially cymbals! If you think about audio as being like a “dot to dot” drawing, when you have a whole bunch of tightly spaced dots (like there are in 24-bit audio) when you take dots out periodically (to reduce the data as you would going from 24 bits to 16 bits) how do you take the right ones out in order to keep the same shape? This is the “big deal” about dithering.

How do you choose a dithering option? Well this is where (as an engineer) you get to be like a wine connoisseur. You know that “uncomfortable” moment you can feel at a fancy restaurant when you are presented with the wine and you have to “taste” it properly? This is not all that dissimilar. You can actually use your ears to decide on dithering provided you know what to listen for. Don’t listen to the bass; you can listen to the top end, the little tweeters do respond quick enough to actually show a difference in resolution, but the real place you are going to “hear” dithering (if at all) is going to be found in the punchiness. No, it is not necessarily going to make your mix “punchier,” rather, dithering will show up as maintaining the realism of the snare or cymbals. The “crack” of a snare drum is simply more realistic in 24 bits than it is when captured by 16 bits. Once you catch on to the difference, it will become fairly obvious which choice you should make. If you’re recording acoustic drums or instruments, dithering can be quite important. I will end this by saying, as usual, that these differences are pretty small; the biggest differences you can make in a recording are by getting good players to give you good tones. The most impressive recordings capture performances. The correct dithering can maximize the tonal quality of the performance, but it is not going to fix (at all) a poor sounding recording. A crappy 24-bit 192 kHz recording is still crap … it’s just high-resolution crap!

Alec Watson is a Producer/Engineer that works from his destination studio on Vancouver Island.

Mixing Live… by Bruce Swedien

Wednesday, October 19th, 2005

Mixing Live… by Bruce Swedien

Have you ever mixed in a live setting? If yes, has this taught you anything helpful when recording artists in a studio?

I absolutely HATE live recordings! I think it’s because I hate surprises! I will do anything I can to avoid doing a “live” gig! I also think it may be because I am by nature, a control freak!

However, my old pal Quincy Jones and I did do a live album for Qwest/Warner Brothers with Lena Horne doing her Broadway Show, The Lady And Her Music, in 1981. We ended up going in the studio to fix most of it!

I do remember one interesting little thing about my work with Lena Horne. During all the recording sessions that I have done with her – (“Stormy Weather”, “From This Moment On”, etc.) she asked me to turn off the air conditioning in the studio, because she is ALLERGIC to the freon in air conditioning systems. If she came into an air-conditioned room her throat would close up and in a few minutes she wouldn’t be able to sing a note! (Of course that fact alone probably made Lena hate the air-conditioning.)

Of course, one look at Lena Horne, one minute of listening to her sing, and any man in the room would do anything she asked!

By the way, nothing that I ever did recording in a live setting ever taught me anything about recording music in the studio. At least, I don’t think so…

Bruce Swedien is a recording engineer whose credits include working with artists such as Dinah Washington, Michael Jackson, Mick Jagger, Muddy Waters, Duke Ellington, Oscar Peterson, Barbra Streisand, Donna Summer, Count Basie, B.B. King, John Lee Hooker, Paul McCartney, among many others. His first big break came when he engineered Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons’ million-selling single “Big Girls Don’t Cry”, which spent five weeks at number one in 1962. Swedien has conducted classes in music engineering at UCLA as well as lecturing and hosting recording seminars at various universities, colleges and industry organizations in both the US and overseas. He currently resides in Connecticut where he continues to explore aural possibilities and taking on top-level engineering assignments.

What’s A “Good” School Sound System Anyway? by Don Barber

Wednesday, October 19th, 2005

The sound system purchase decision is often left up to the Principal or maybe the gym teacher, people who know what they’re about in the teaching profession but usually don’t know what to look for in a sound system. The drama teachers most often know about the visual elements of lighting, set, costume and make-up and the music teachers know about band instruments and singing but very little about what constitutes a good sound system for their needs.

St. Andrew’s College, in Aurora, ON, was in the process of outfitting two gymnasiums and a swimming pool with sound systems. They initially based their budgets on quotations from two local music stores, but realized that firms supplying car audio and home theatre equipment were not capable of specifying or supplying a proper system. They got a quote from a professional sound shop, but it was well beyond their budget.

All three spaces were specified identically even though the pool was much smaller and had only a nine-foot ceiling. The systems each consisted of four plastic 15″ boxes with about 1,200 watts of power, and an 8-channel mixer with slider volume controls – less than ideal in a sweaty gym environment and worse in a chlorine treated pool, because the open faders will tend to get dirty and corrode over time. They only needed the capability of controlling 2 mics and a CD player. A Symetrix 450 mixer gave them the control of a wireless and a wired mic and a CD player, with remote control. The built-in VCA controls of the 450 also gives them the remote volume control that they wanted. The plan to mount all those speakers on the far wall from the bleachers would have blasted sound all the way across the gym floor, reflecting off every hard and flat surface on the way. A single Soundsphere speaker was positioned right above the bleachers providing clarity and speech intelligibility at modest levels. They also saved about $6,000.

Don Barber is an audio consultant with Sound Design & Consultant, and can be reached by e-mail at don.barber@sympatico.ca.

Drums Compression Part II by Tim Crich

Wednesday, October 19th, 2005

Professional Sound continues tips on drum compression that was started last issue…
Compressing the room. Run the room microphones through a compressor on high compression and fast release. When the player is playing, the ambient microphone level is lower, removing any unneeded cloudiness. When the player stops, the ambient microphones open, making it sound as if the player is in a large ambient room. As with many things in the studio, compressing room tracks is your personal preference. Do what you feel works with the song.

Level the drums. If the drummer is playing with both sticks on the snare drum, some of the hits may be louder than the rest. To raise the level of the lower ones, split the signal into two. Affect one of them how you normally might, gating out all but the main or loudest hits.
Send the second signal to a limiter, and compress the loudest part. Send a buss output from the first snare channel into the side chain of the limiter. When the snare on the first track hits, that controls the compression of the limiter. Blend the two tracks until both the crispness of the loudest snares, and the subtle in-between parts are properly audible.

Drum gates. With proper microphone choice and placement, leakage from one drum microphone to an adjacent microphone can be minimized. Before you reach for the noise gate to eliminate leakage, choose the right microphone and place it properly. Messing with gates during recording can result in painting yourself into a corner. Sometimes it’s better to wait and gate during the mix, especially when recording a dynamic drummer. Sometimes noise gates are not even needed.
Gate the drum. It is not uncommon to add some degree of gating on the kick, snare and tom-toms, but the cymbal microphones are not normally gated during recording. If the internal trigger on a drum gate isn’t fast enough:
(1) Mount a small contact (pickup or lavalier) microphone to the rim. This tight microphone will open the noise gate faster.
(2) Listen to the contact microphone, sweep the equalization to find the drum’s most prominent frequency, and accentuate it.
(3) Run the signal through a tight noise gate to make it sound like a click.
(4) Plug this into the side chain input of the noise gate on the drum.
This really only works when the player hits solid drum hits. A drummer lightly tapping the drums may not trigger the gates as planned. If the drummer uses brushes, forget about using a noise gate.

Gate the tom-toms. Eliminate leakage in the tom-tom tracks without using a separate microphone as a trigger.
For each tom-tom:
(1) Split the signal coming from a tom-tom microphone into a second channel
on the console. Insert a noise gate on the first tom-tom channel.
(2) On the second channel, determine the fundamental frequency of the tom-tom. Accentuate it by setting a thin Q, then pulling the other frequencies.
(3) Gate and equalize the signal so all that comes through is a solid click when the drummer hits the tom-tom. Leakage from any other instrument, even other tom-toms, should be dialed out.
(4) Run this output into the input of the sidechain of the noise gate that was inserted on the first tom-tom channel. Any time the drummer hits the tom-tom, the trigger opens the noise gate, allowing the signal through. Due to the slow build of a tom-tom sound, try using a contact microphone.

Tim Crich wrote the bestseller Assistant Engineers Handbook. He has over 20 years of experience in the recording studio, and has worked on records by Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, John Lennon, KISS, Billy Joel, Bryan Adams, Cher, Bon Jovi and many more. This article is excerpted with permission from his new book Recording Tips For Engineers, available through www.musicbooksplus.com. For more information, see www.aehandbook.com.

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