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Sound Advice

Digital Recording In A Live Setting by Alec Watson

April 19th, 2006

With a plethora of portable digital recording solutions at our disposal, some that you can tuck under your arm, I thought maybe I would pass along some findings and considerations. Let me also qualify these thoughts by saying that I have a wall full of shiny discs for studio recording; however, my experience with live recording is minimal. So let’s just say that these thoughts are slightly skewed towards the controlled environment. So, before you run out and buy a portable system to put out your live record, you might want to consider the following:

My first thought on hearing the tone coming back of tape: “Holy Crap! Not only do these microphones sound bad, but we have iffy cables and I can’t keep up with the sound guys’ re-patching. All I can hear through the drum mics is bleed from the monitors…” The list goes on and on. You would be amazed at what we accept sonically, in a live show, when the Front of House starts using compression to eek out more power from the billion-watt audio system and the lighting guy diverts power from the eastern seaboard (Ottawa to New York) to dazzle us with visual spectacle. No surprise, the recorded tones were small, there was more bleed than a TLC special on open-heart surgery and as much fidelity as the original mono version of the “Sound Blaster” audio card.

Maybe none of that is news to you. Maybe you are wondering why you have spent two minutes of your life reading this. Maybe you are also wondering: “Alec, where is the technical stuff?” For those that wonder, here you are:

Tech problem: which of the many formats to use? For sheer no-nonsense reliability, you are going to be hard-pressed to beat the old stand-bys: the ADAT and DA-88. I am apparently the only person in the history of DA-88s that has had a tape completely eaten; yet, when the pressure is on, I would still go back to the archaic helical solution. When it comes to computer systems, and I do love them, they do fail. That once-a-week crash on a good solid system is going to be a ticking time bomb at a live venue. There are of course hard-disk solutions these days; I am waiting on time to prove these units worthy of capturing a “one-time only” event.

Important thought: just like a good live sound guy, as the songs start up, watch your meters in the order of importance. The lead instrument, whether vocal, guitar or piano, is the first level you need to assess when you see those dreaded red lights on the meter bridge. Conversely, as things get under control, there is the overwhelming need to “optimize” low levels going to tape. Unless it is absolutely necessary, I would leave the levels low until the end of the song. You are going to have to mix this abomination sometime in the near future and level changes within a song are going to significantly compound the complexity of your task.

Quite simply, getting access to the recording gear and getting it to the venue is now, by far, the easiest part of the live recording. And for all you young bands out there contemplating big returns on a quick and easy recording, I guarantee that what you save on tracking time, you will more than make up for on overdubs and mixing when it comes to making a good live record.

Alec Watson has recently appointed himself the head of the “yodeling licensing bureau for pop musicians”. Find him online at www.alecwatson.com.

Group Rates

April 19th, 2006

Okay. Let’s face it. It’s all about money, right? In this day and age of cutting back on costs, we have all been forced to cut corners and rethink how we approach the necessity of certain equipment. We’ve also been asked to minimize our footprint on the Front of House riser. One way that space can be saved is by cutting back on the amount of compressors you take on the road.

On a recent tour, I put the main instruments and most of the vocals that needed to be compressed into stereo subgroups and then inserted stereo compressors across those groups. One rack space, one stereo compressor, and a whole group of vocals or instruments are processed. End result: a lot of space was saved. With the new consoles on the scene now, loaded with virtual dynamics and onboard software-driven signal processing, the days of racks and racks of gates, compressors, and effects units are soon to be gone. We are also seeing “8-in, 8-out” interface devices, such as BSS Soundweb, that process the signal in a bunch of ways; this further eliminates rack-mounted compressors and EQ units.

I agree with this philosophy of downsizing when it comes to tours that go for a long period of time, where things get set and pretty much left alone. When I do a one-off and have very little time to get set up, however, sitting down with a mouse and new software is a scary thought, and definitely not the fastest way to go. That being said, the onboard stuff is really close (at the time of this writing) to being just as great sounding, and user-friendly to operate, as the rack-mounted stuff. We are already seeing rack mounted consoles that operate with a mouse and screen, or small mainframes with a few VCAs and channel strips to replace the monoliths we now mix on. The learning curve may be a bit steep, but when the first big tour goes out there with a front-of-house riser that is 8′ x 8′, we are all going to have to follow suit. Because I’ve seen this coming, I have tried to consolidate my rack space and get used to the “downsizing mindset.”
One great way to accomplish this is to gang those compressors up into subgroups. It works well. You may lose a little control over individual vocals or instruments, but on average you will be just as pleased and keep costs and real estate requirements down. Let’s get with the new way of thinking and keep ourselves employed. And if you’re still not convinced, think of all the P-touch labels that you’ll save not having to mark all those compressors at the start of the tour.

This article is taken from Jim Yakabuski’s book entitled Professional Sound Reinforcement Techniques. The book is published by MixBooks, an imprint of artistpro.com.

Guitarists, Lend Me Your Ears by Jim Yakabuski

February 19th, 2006

It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that the sound coming out of a guitar player’s speakers at the microphone is exactly the tone he is trying to achieve. It may be closer to the truth to say that most of us don’t know what the guitar sound is like right at the point where the speaker meets the microphone because we usually don’t stick our heads that close to a screaming speaker. All we have as a reference is the sound that reaches our console through the mic.
What the guitar player usually perceives as his sound is the tone that meets his ears at the place where he stands, or the pocket he moves around in for most of the show. He generally will make tonal changes and level adjustments to the amp controls to please his ears, which are at a much greater distance from the speakers than where the mics are placed. For this reason it is not enough to simply turn up the guitar mics in the PA, and upon discovering the sound is not quite right say, “this is how he wants his rig to sound or he wouldn’t have EQed his guitar speakers this way.”
What you should do, especially the first few times you are soundchecking a new band, is walk up on stage and have a listen to how the rig actually sounds from where he is hearing it. It is usually considerably darker and warmer than what is going into those guitar mics. If you only have to move the position of the guitar mics in relation to the speakers, then your life is easy and you’re done. More likely you will have to also go back to the mixing board and EQ a little bit until things sound more like they did on stage. The point is that the guitar player has spent countless hours getting the sounds he wants from his rig, and if you were to ask him how he wants his guitar to sound, he would most likely ask you to come on up and have a listen. So it’s a good idea to beat him to the punch and get an earful of what he is hearing, so you have the reference to make his guitar sound the same through the PA as it does on stage.

This article was excerpted from Jim Yakabuski’s book entitled Professional Sound Reinforcement Techniques, reprinted with permission of the publisher.

Drum And Bass Mixing by Alec Watson

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

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

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.

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