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Sound Advice

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.

Mixing Live… by Bruce Swedien

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

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

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.

Misconceptions and Expectations of the Mastering Process by Marisa T. Déry

June 19th, 2005

A while ago, I was in the middle of a mix session when the engineer – looking at the clocking ticking away – said those dreaded words: “You can fix it in the mastering process” … aaahhh, memories!

Just a few years ago, people were saying, “We’ll fix it in the mix.” First of all, not everything can be fixed in the mastering process. Granted, a lot can be done, but isn’t it better to use your mastering time to make things sound great and not just good enough?

More than once I’ve had people hand me CD masters and an old normal bias cassette (distorted, of course) with the question: “Can you match these?”

Mastering engineers do have a lot of toys and (hopefully) creativity. We will go a long way, using all means possible to make you sound as good as possible, but one also has to be realistic with one’s expectations. Clicks, crackles and pops can be removed, but if they are too long or are on top of key words, then you have problems.

I’ve had old reels given to me that speed up and/or slow down randomly at various speeds; this predicament can be fixed, but it does take time. People must be aware that although we have the tools and the skills to repair problems, we still need time to do it right. We live in an instant-gratification society where people mistakenly think that if we aim the mouse on the screen and click, everything fixes itself instantly. That is not so.

Regardless of the DAW or software that you have, you need time, training, expertise and instinct to do it right. A 10-minute track just might take an hour to clean up properly, so please be aware of that when setting up your budget.

What Can Mastering Engineers Do?
We can add bass, highs, mids; make it sound clearer and LOUDER; clean up the fade ins and the fade outs; balance the levels of the songs; put in the appropriate silence (if required) in between tracks (“if required” because I haven’t put a single second of silence in between two hip-hop songs in the last year). We can also add special effects (rain anyone?) and reverb; add post-production tracks, edit, loop, reverse, chop etc.

Most mastering engineers are creative. We love music. We love sound. We would rather use our focus and energy on “the song.” We don’t just want it to sound good; we want it to sound GREAT. We get our high when the artist’s eyes light up because we were able to interpret sonically what was in his head. A master must sound as good as possible when it is given to the mastering engineer; with the right mix, a mastering engineer can concentrate entirely on the music and not worry about being a (sound) doctor.

When everything is set up properly, we get that little piece of music we all know and love … those eyes are lighting up again!

Marisa T. Déry, a native of Ottawa, ON, is Chief Mastering Engineer at the Tape Complex in Boston, MA and owner of Tamar Mastering. Her clients have included the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Tugboat Annie and RUSHYA. For more info check out www.tamarmastering.com.

Drums Compression by Tim Crich

June 19th, 2005

Only the very best drummers can hit the drum the same every time, so using compression is almost a necessity. Proper compression can bring up the lows and help deliver solid drum sounds. Commonly, drums can be compressed more than other instruments because they are less musical and more percussive. Overdo it, though, and risk diminishing the impact of the drums because the low-end can’t really push the speakers. You don’t get that thump in the chest no matter how loud you turn it up.

Try these starting points:

Attack. Start with a fast attack, 5-10 ms or maybe faster. A slower attack time can allow initial peaks to sneak through before the compression kicks in. This may give a nice added crack to a snare sound, but watch for overload. Set the attack time slower on the kick drum, as it may take a few milliseconds to build to its full potential. Fast attack and release times bring up the body of the drums and cymbals. An attack set too fast may diminish the initial crack of the drum.

Release. Start at 250 ms, then move to suit the song. A fast release time can bring up the level of the decay and raise the sound of the snares.

Ratio: 3:1 or 4:1. Drums, due to their nature, have fast natural attack and release times, with plenty of peaks. A high ratio levels the dynamics while delivering the meat of the sound. Control the signal enough to record it, yet don’t over compress it so as to lose the initial transient crack. Of course, as the ratio gets higher, past 8:1 or 10:1, the compressor becomes a limiter. A limiter is great for eliminating transient overload on digital input circuits.

Threshold. Low. A lower threshold preserves the full impact of the drums, and can sustain the cymbal’s natural decay.

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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