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Sound Advice

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.

Live Sound Tip by Jim Yakabuski

April 19th, 2005

Darth Vader You Don’t Need

Effects can take an average show and add all the glitz and sparkle that make a great show. If you have a nice, acoustically dead environment to mix in your choice of effects, it can make or break your mix. One of the bad habits I’ve found myself getting into over the years is checking effects returns during the day and then assuming the parameters are not going to change at all before the show. You can be pretty sure that all is okay with most effects units because you physically have to call up edit parameter pages to get in there and muck around with things, but some units have parameter adjustment wheels on the front, and they have been known to get bumped here and there which can cause some embarrassing moments.

One unit in particular that I am speaking of is a certain kind of harmonizer. It has a spinning wheel on the front panel that is very easy to turn, and on one occasion I just happened to catch myself before I made a horrendous mistake. The last thing that I was editing that afternoon was the pitch of the harmonizer. Without changing that edit page, the wheel got bumped later on in the day and just before show time I happened to listen to my effects returns and catch the mistake before the show started. If I had not, the two lovely ladies who were singing backup vocals for the show would have resembled Darth Vader much more than their normal sweet-sounding southern selves. The edit wheel had spun down and the pitch dropped considerably.

Another way that you can get caught is if someone, like an opening act engineer, makes adjustments to your effects during his show and forgets to tell you, or you forget to recall your program or parameters. Usually these days most opening acts get their own effects gear, but in many club situations everybody is sharing effects. Be sure to store your settings, and in those types of situations, double-check that nothing is out of whack. It’s a good habit to get into. Unfortunately, aside from the benefit that all these programmable units have given us, they can catch us once in a while because we rely too much on their stability. Add this to your pre-show checklist. And use the force!

This article is excerpted from Jim Yakabuski’s book entitled Professional Sound Reinforcement Techniques. The book is published by MixBooks, an imprint ofwww.artistpro.com. You can also find the book online at www.mixbooks.com and www.musicbooksplus.com.

Equalizing the Drums by Tim Crich

April 19th, 2005

Last time we conquered microphone setup of the drums, now let’s look at equalizing those drum sounds. Equalizing drum tracks can be tricky because you don’t know how the rest of the tracks will sound until mix time. Equalization, or simply EQ, is often used in tandem with compression or limiting. Drums are often the pillars of a song, and must be sturdy enough to carry the load. Equalization and compression can bring out the natural crack and boom.

When getting drum sounds, set the monitor mix at a reasonable level. If the drums sound full and clear at a lower level, imagine how great they’ll sound when the volume is turned up. Plus low drum levels delay ear fatigue.

Don’t set the equalization and then leave it, but tweak the sounds with other instruments in the monitor mix. For example, if you are adding 5 kHz on the snare, check that you aren’t also adding 5 kHz on the guitar, the bass and the kick drum, or all will lose distinction.

Of course, the following are for reference only, and every situation is different. No matter what your settings are, they will change when the rest of the instruments are introduced into the mix.

Kick Drum Equalization
Proper Q settings can help define each drum by minimizing frequency overlap.

Starting points might be:
· Pull below 40 Hz.
· Boost around 60-100 Hz to bring out the thud of the kick, maybe even lower in certain circumstances such as some dance mixes. Set the kick drum frequencies in tandem with the settings on the bass guitar. These two instruments carry the low end of the song and each should be distinct. Add a frequency on one and pull the same frequency on the other. Note that a tight kick skin won’t have the low end of a looser skin.
· Pull around 164 Hz in the kick drum to bring clarity to the bass track. 164 Hz is a harmonic of the bass guitar’s fundamental low E note, 41 Hz.
· Add up to 200 Hz for body and fullness. Watch overlap.
· Pull from 200-600 Hz or higher to remove unwanted cloudiness and to open room for other instruments.
· Boost around 2.5-5 kHz for solid thwack.
· Boost at 5-8 kHz for crispness or a clicky sound. With faster tempo songs, the kick may need more click to be heard, while slower tempo songs leave room to allow solid lows to come through.
· Pull 8 kHz and up. These frequencies contribute little. Pulling them won’t affect the sound much and may reduce hiss.

Snare Drum Equalization
· Roll off up to 100 Hz to reduce muddiness.
· Boost somewhere between 100-300 Hz for the body of the snare drum to come through.
· Boost somewhere between or around 500 Hz-1 kHz for that nice woody crack sound.
· Boost around 1 kHz for a “tink” sound.
· Boost between 5-10 kHz for crispness.

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.

Miking Drums by Tim Crich

February 19th, 2005

Miking The Kick

The best way to find the perfect spot is to listen in the control room while your assistant moves the microphone around. As the drummer plays the kick drum, you listen for the sweet spot – you will know it when you hear it. When you hear it, tell the assistant to stop. That is the best starting point.

For a heavier rock sound, you might put the microphone a few inches from the inner head, then baffle off the kick drum. For a more jazzy sound, you might leave the front bass drum head on, then place the microphone a short distance from the front head in a more open environment. Don’t underestimate the importance of a good kick drum sound. It carries the downbeat of the music. This is what people dance to.

Miking The Snare Drum

A loud snare drum’s high transients mean that a dynamic microphone may work best. Start by aiming the microphone across the drum head toward the center of the drum where the stick meets the head. Keep the microphone about an inch above the rim. Maybe aim the microphone off-centre to eliminate some of the click and to coax more of the tonality from the drum. Listen and move the microphone to suit your needs. Aim the snare microphone off-axis to the high-hat to minimize leakage.

When I worked on Bon Jovi’s Slippery When Wet, Tico Torres would remove pockmarks from his snare drum skin by slowly moving a lit portable lighter above them. The heat caused the pockmarks to recede, reviving an otherwise dead drum head for one more pass.

Miking The Tom-Toms

Dynamic microphones work well on close-miked tom-toms where the player hits hard. Condenser microphones sound good on less aggressive styles, as they capture the player’s rich subtleties and dynamics. Close-miked condensers may overload…

If possible, use the largest capsule microphones on the lowest tom-toms. Pull the microphones back some to capture resonance from the tom-toms that may be lost with close-miking. The farther away they are, the more the rest of the drums affect the sound, picking up more of the bulk of the drum, rather than the initial hit.

To get a larger sounding floor tom-tom sound, place foam pads under the feet of the drum. The tom-tom won’t lose as much low resonance through the floor.

Lower the ringing in the toms by tossing a handful of cotton balls inside the toms. Ringing decreases depending on how many balls are tossed in. Even properly tuned toms can ring out. Try hanging the drummer’s stick bag off of the side of the floor tom to reduce rattle.

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.

Touring Tips by David Norman

February 19th, 2005

A final drafting of a stage plot and input list should be done during rehearsals so that you can give to your production manager and/or send to venues in advance so they’ll know what to expect with regards to your setup.

Make sure to fax this ahead of time so the local sound crew can position monitors and mic stands where you want them, before you get there. Show locations on stage of all band gear and monitors with mix numbers clearly marked. Don’t forget the location of AC drops for your band gear.

In addition to stand and microphone type (plus alternatives), each channel should indicate channel inserts. Make sure to bring any piece of equipment that is important to your show. Also, make sure the contact person’s name and phone numbers are on the stage plot itself.

Make sure to carry spares. Here’s a list of things that always seem to break down or get lost during a tour: fuses, tubes, cables, plugs, jacks, batteries, disks, cartridges, bulbs, cassettes, DAT tapes, sharpies, board labelling tape and Superglue.

Also for those outside shows, make sure to pack mosquito repellent, sun glasses, sunblock, reflective space blankets to cover your consoles, a Maglite, a warm coat and a towel. If your tour is going to take you abroad, inform promoters and production managers that you require 110 power for stage equipment. You would be surprised how often this is overlooked.
Here’s a little secret for bands that have a keyboard player that plays a Hammond B-3. If generators will power the gig, specify that they have built-in cycle converters. This is necessary in case the generator doesn’t run at the standard 60 Hz. The Hammond B-3 gets its pitch from the cycles, so it will play flat if the power cycles at 50 Hz. I’ve had two acts on the road that with doing outdoor shows we had to monitor the generators constantly.

David ‘5-1’ Norman has tour managed and/or production managed and mixed such acts as; Ani DiFranco, Aaron Neville & The Neville Brothers, Roger Daltrey, The British Rock Symphony, John Tesh, They Might Be Giants, Arrested Development, Better Than Ezra, B.B. King, The Fugees, Wyclef Jean and many others. He is currently off the road and doing freelance production work for Concert/Southern Promotions as Production Manager and has worked shows with ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic, Ratdog and Megadeth.


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