header image header image

Sound Advice

It’s All In The Ears by Laurence Currie

April 19th, 2010

While teaching as a guest speaker at Dalhousie University and at the community college in Halifax, I had so many students ask, “What setting do you use on that?” I would have to tell them every time, “I don’t have a setting. The setting is whatever my ears tell me it should be.”

To think that every single base-track has to be used through a particular type of compressor EQ and have this on it or that on it is a total misnomer. It’s on a case-by-case contingency. Anyone who’s thinking about becoming an engineer should either find someone who’s willing to tutor you, or, find a reputable place where you can learn a little bit about it. I originally learned the trade of sound engineering from a school that relied very heavily on technical knowledge. If you want to become a really good engineer, you have to know all of that stuff. Above and beyond that, it’s a lot of experience, a lot of trial and error. The most important tools you have are your ears. Using them is the main thing – and have a good head on your shoulders that houses those ears.

Laurence Currie is a professional sound engineer, and Co-Host of MasterTracks, currently airing on AUX.tv.

Controlling Feedback Onstage Using Phase To Your Advantage: Part 1 by Peter Janis

April 19th, 2010

Anyone who has played an acoustic instrument onstage knows that feedback can be a serious problem. What few realize is, there are solutions beyond radically altering the EQ. The following looks at the various problems and solutions at hand. For simplicity, we will discuss an acoustic guitar – but the same principles apply equally to a violin, mandolin, banjo, and contra-bass.

Before we get too far ahead of ourselves, we need to first identify the problems. There are basically two types of feedback that occur onstage: high-frequency whistles and1low-frequency resonance. Both are caused by the sound emanating from the loudspeaker being so loud that it overtakes the instrument by feeding itself back through the pickup, causing the sound to feed back into the PA system forming an audio loop. This endless cycle is called a feedback loop, or feedback for short.

High-frequency feedback is often caused by sound from a wedge monitor going directly into the instrument’s microphone. This can also occur with piezo-type transducers. The usual fixes for high-frequency feedback are to turn down the volume, reposition the microphone, or employ some form of equalization to eliminate the problem frequency.

Low frequency feedback occurs when bass energy from the speaker system causes the instrument to vibrate. This is also known as resonant feedback. The sound system causes the soundboard (top of the guitar) to vibrate in sympathy with a particularly loud bass frequency. The vibration is picked up by the instrument pickup and recycles itself as feedback. Some musicians will seal the sound hole using a rubber plug. This can reduce feedback, but also degrades the sound quality of the instrument.

The Down Side To Using EQ To Solve Feedback Problems:
The most common approach to eliminating feedback is to use some sort of notch filter to find the offending frequency and remove it with a narrow band EQ. The problem with this approach is it winds up as a catch 22. For instance, if you reduce midrange to eliminate feedback, you are actually removing the “meat” or most important part of the sound out of the monitors. To make up for the loss in the midrange, folks invariably increase the stage volume and guess what … more feedback.

To make matters worse, some will introduce a form of automatic feedback filtering system to “magically” solve the problem. These devices introduce a series of very narrow filters that rapidly move around to squash feedback as soon as it occurs. The resulting sound is best described as comb-filtered, an effect that studios spend thousands trying to eliminate!

Does this mean that using an equalizer is bad? Of course not. The number one rule with EQ is and will always be less is best. In some situations, the only option you may have will be to introduce some radical EQ curves into your monitors, but when you do so, keep in mind that you are moving further and further away from the natural sound of the instrument instead of actually solving the problem.

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

Choosing a USB Audio Interface by Alec Watson

April 19th, 2010

Computer recording keeps getting easier and more accessible.

Just a few short years ago, in order to do any “real” recording, one needed some kind of expensive internal controller card (and the guts to break open their computer to install it), a digital converter, and some good outboard microphone preamps; and we’re not even touching on the gear necessary to monitor your music. Today, there are so many choices for getting pretty darned good audio into your computer (at a good price) that it has once again become a little confusing when it comes to making the right choice. In fact, I was “Ebaying” last night and found a “Professional Engineer” who is willing to sell you his thoughts on purchasing the “right” USB audio interface. Not that I want to go denying dude his Ebay income, but as a little gift from CM to you, save your $16 US, (you can apply it to your new interface) here is what you need to know…

USB or Firewire?
I am almost certain I am going to get some hate mail from some better informed tech guy as to why I am wrong, but the honest truth is – it doesn’t really matter. That said there are a few considerations. No, USB and Firewire aren’t going to sound any different, but there may be some usage differences. If you have a computer that has all sorts of USB peripherals plugged in – printers, hard drives, card readers, USB Coffee Maker … and you have a Firewire port sitting empty, then it would probably be wise to go with a Firewire audio interface; you will never receive the dreaded “USB device not recognized” message AND you are likely to be able to achieve lower latencies due to less bus traffic … if that sounds like a bunch of techno crap, apart from the fact that it is (techno crap), rest assured I will explain it later so that you too can impress your friends!

On the flip side, I would tend to go with a USB interface if I was using it with my laptop. Yes, my laptop does have a Firewire port, but it also has six USB ports. A lot of the USB interfaces run off the power supplied by the USB port and as I don’t have a lot of USB peripherals plugged into my computer and I don’t want to carry a wall wart (power adapter) around with me, the USB interface is likely the more robust choice when it comes to powering external devices from my laptop.

Latency – What The Heck Is It And Why Do I Care?
Between the manufacturers of the USB audio interfaces there is a lot of hype about latency. Latency, in practical terms, is the delay that occurs between the moment your audio enters the interface, travels to the CPU (the main processing chip in your computer), is processed (effects and/or EQ that are applied to your audio), and then returns to your USB audio interface to be played by your speakers or headphones. Some USB interfaces have lower latencies than others; for me, however, any latency is too much! I prefer to “direct monitor”; most interfaces achieve zero latency times through this process. Direct monitoring really means that the USB interface is really splitting the audio into two paths, one path goes to your computer, the other goes directly to your headphones; the result is zero latency. The drawback is that you won’t be able to hear your vocal or guitar etc. with any of the cool effects that your computer can apply to them. For me, I would rather hear my voice dry than gooped up with effects and late.

Alec Watson is a Producer/Engineer that lives in Reno-hell Vancouver Island. He can be contacted at alec@alecwatson.com.

Something New Or The Same Old Thing? by Simon King

February 19th, 2010

Being a recording engineer these days can be boring. I think the era of affordable,
disruptive technologies has blunted peoples’ artistic and creative energies. In addition, the user is overwhelmed by so many choices. Our industry is awash in poorly-designed gear, with terrible user-interfaces. As a result, an inordinate amount of time
is wasted on “learning curves” as opposed to making music. Even worse, the gear in question may be destined for obsolescence.

Most professional studio engineers are schooled in the “tried and tested” industry
standards, but the convenience of recording and mixing inside the box is leading to terminal brain laziness. Consequently, the music charts are littered with recordings that have been tooled, based, looped, cut, pasted, and edited to death. The aural art of music recording has been replaced with mouse-driven video games.

Anyhow, in my neck of the woods, creativity, artistry, and innovation still rule. Here are some of my “mad” studio experiments:

Take 0
First, I thoroughly revised everything I knew about mono and stereo mic techniques. I then stepped out of my comfort zone, and embraced more exotic techniques like Ambisonics (Soundfield), the Decca Tree, the Fukada Tree, etc. (thanks DPA). It became clear to me that the overused standbys are not enough anymore.

Take 1 – Drums
Instead of the usual set-up, I have successfully deployed Crown GLM-200s on the kit, and Crown SASS models stuck on walls to capture room ambience. With artistic liberty, I have added MIDI triggers to the drums, and recorded the data to a sequencer. Under MPTE/MTC control, drum machines like the TR-909 and Korg ER-1 can be added to the acoustic kit with great results. Sometimes, an electronic kit with some insane “treatment” is what Dr. Drums ordered.

Take 2 – Acoustic Guitars
I usually position the stereo condensers at the sweet spots when tracking. If the guitar is pickup-equipped, the line output goes into a Roland JC-120 Chorus amp for further recording and sonic manipulation.

Take 3 – Electric Guitars
I normally make modeled amps (Line-6, Vox, Roland) part of the picture. Distorted digital amps sound horrible, but usable. For more fun and sonic assault, the vintage Roland GR-100 guitar synth (and G-series guitar) is hauled into the fray. With its hex fuzz/distortion, chorus, and filter (read HUGE wah), this old-timer loves to hang with Marshalls and Boogies; furthermore, the Supa-Fuzz and Supa-Wah pedals by Marshall may be added for more mayhem.

Take 4 – Electric Bass
First, I try to convince the bassist to think like a musician, and then plead with him to try the 6-string bass. Tuned to B-E-A-D-F#-B, the 6-stringer is a powerful musical tool. Now, our newly-forged bassist suddenly becomes creative; he’s thinking about how he can use the studio’s Boss GT-10B, Roland V-Bass, and the Moog Taurus Bass pedal.

Take 5 – Vocals
OMNIS are cool vocal microphones; however, I am always eager to see what DPA, Sanken, Schoeps, and Pearl can bring to the table. I might eventually settle on the Fostex M88-RP or the Milab VIP-50.

As Joe Meek once said… “If it sounds right, then it is right.”

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.

Some Tips For Working Efficiently With The House Tech by Owen Whitehead

February 19th, 2010

  • First thing: always remember to be respectful. The house tech has seen all the things that have gone right and wrong in that specific venue. A five-minute conversation can save you hours of aggravation and also brings everyone on your side. Now, you still may want to do things your own way, but giving the five minutes
    brings everyone to your team.
  • Be direct with your demands, questions, and comments, though keep in mind that barking orders usually yields shotty work.
  • Above all, treat them as you’d like to be treated (as is usually the case). I have been on both sides of the situation and the best day is the day where everyone
    is enjoying himself or herself. It doesn’t matter how hard the work is – so long as you’re happy doing it.

Owen Whitehead is Production Manager for Mississauga, ON’s Metalworks Production Group. Visit www.metalworksproductiongroup.com for more information.

Affordable Gear, Big-Budget Sound by Simon King

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.

Contact

4056 Dorchester Rd., #202,Niagara Falls, ON
Canada L2E 6M9 Phone: 905-374-8878
FAX: 888-665-1307 mail@nor.com
Web Site Produced by NWC