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Sound Advice

Recording Vocals Without Headphones by Doug McClement

June 18th, 2004

Sometimes you’ll find that a vocalist has a hard time monitoring bed tracks through headphones. Here’s a trick I use to overcome that problem.

I set up the vocal mic and put a pair of Auratones, or similar small monitors, about three feet on either side of the microphone; I use a tape measure to ensure that the they are equidistant. I place the speakers 90 degrees off-axis and point them directly at the microphone. I then feed the monitors from a mono cue mix buss, and flip the phase on one of them. Sometimes I roll off a bit of top and bottom as well. The vocalist will hear the speakers, due to the distance between his or her ears, but the speaker output will be 180 degrees out of phase at the mic capsule. Therefore, the bed track bleed, though not absolutely gone, will be down by about 30dB.

Take care not to feed anything to the speakers that you don’t intend to use in the final mix, and don’t run them any louder than necessary for the vocalist to sing in tune and in time. A little bit of bleed won’t kill you. No one ever decided not to buy an album because there was a bit of instrumental bleed in the vocal mic! If you degrade the hi-fi quality by 5 per cent, but improve the performance by 30 per cent, it’s a no-brainer. Always let the technology serve the art!

Doug McClement owns LiveWire Remote Recorders in Toronto.

The Importance of Logging by Marisa T. Déry

June 18th, 2004

Lately, I have been doing a lot of Forensic Audio – which inevitably means that I’ve been documenting all my efforts meticulously. In this field it is important to have every setting logged, and every scheme properly identified; when you are asked to be an expert witness in court, you are expected to back up your work.

All this has reminded me of something that I, unfortunately, don’t often see in the music world: logging of work done on a project.

When a project starts on a 4-track, gets bounced on to Pro Tools at Joe’s then uploaded at Sally’s on her Pro Tools system only to show up at a studio two months later for mixing, then the Mastering Suite 3 weeks later. Wouldn’t it be nice if all those events were logged?

Too many times I get bits and pieces in the mastering suite only to be asked to “match” everything. The Audio Engineering Society is trying to improve the situation by creating the “Recommendation for delivery of recorded music projects (2003).” This concept includes a CD insert (page 28-29 – http://aes.org/technical/documents) that would be placed with the master revealing the entire history of the project.

It would now be revealed that track 1 used a Waves Trueverb on the chorus or that 4 songs out of 5 are 16 bit while one is 24 bit.

When each song goes through so many different engineers, it is imperative for the sake of the integrity of the project to have a record of everything.

Besides, wouldn’t it be great to have all that info for the box set?

Marisa T. Déry, a native of Ottawa, ON, is the owner and Mastering Engineer for Tamar Mastering in Boston, MA. A graduate of Berklee College of Music, her clients have included the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, James Day, Tugboat Annie and RUSHYA; she has also mastered soundtracks and TV scores that have appeared on ESPN, TLC, Animal Planet and the Boston Film Festival. For more info check out www.tamarmastering.com.

Digital Recording In A Live Setting by Alec Watson

April 18th, 2004

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 one: 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.

Tech problem two: how do I go about getting tone onto tape? My first choice here is a digital console. I was originally turned on to the Roland VM mixers by Lee Warren from Michelle Wright’s band. Though not a winner at retail, the Roland VMs are an outstanding choice for live recording. Much like the Mackie D8B, the console is a control surface for an outboard brain. Unlike the Mackie, however, all the patching goes into the brain unit, allowing you to leave the rack (brain) up on stage so you can patch directly to the analog to digital mic pres. From here you can take the control surface anywhere up to 200 feet away without loss of fidelity. Cool!

Tech problem three: What, if any, processing to use? For my money, live recording is the ultimate “fix it in the mix” proposition. There are enough different things going on in the first 10 minutes that any processing, such as compression or gating, is just bound to bite you in the ass later. With the abundance of fairly good, high signal-to-noise ratio mic preamps in modern gear, and the fantastic signal-to-noise ratio of the digital recording medium, it’s better to be safe when setting the levels. (Set ’em a bit low)
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”. Any vocalist found breaking into head voice without a valid license will be fined. Find him online at alec@vinsynch.com.

Why Digital? by Mike Turner

April 18th, 2004

The opportunity to revive the age-old debate of analog versus digital in terms of fidelity is hard to resist, but really, it’s not the issue here. The issue is, in a word, affordability. Technology offered digital audio to the consumer in a way that analog can’t compete with in terms of old-fashioned bang-for-the-buck. In order to have an analog recorder, you bought one. If you wanted a compressor, you bought one (for each place you want one!) The same goes for an EQ and all of the other hardware you might want to use. In the realm of digital, the same piece of hardware becomes any or all of these things (at least a decent facsimile thereof), further, each piece of software can be used in multiple positions, for example, if you spring for the Bomb Factory Compressor package (recreations of great UREI 1176 and LA2A compressors) you can have as many of each as you have the power to run. Individual channels, bus compression, chain compression, whatever you need. For the price of a good computer and a few pieces of dedicated software you can get the use of what would have required a multi-track tape machine (don’t forget a couple of hundred dollars of tape), a console, some effects and the cables (which probably cost as much as a good computer) to patch it all together. This isn’t to say that it’s time to give up on the giant SSL consoles in favour of the new G5 when it’s time to make your major label masterwork, but for the average musician the new G5 (or PC if you really insist!) is around a quarter of a million dollars more likely to fit the bill for your equally brilliant personal masterwork.

Mike Turner is a Toronto-based producer best known for his work as guitarist in Our Lady Peace.

EQ the Dudes Too by Jim Yakabuski

February 18th, 2004

I’ve always believed that there is no “right” mix or “perfect” sound because we all perceive things a little differently, and our version of what sounds good may be completely different from someone else’s. Because of this I think that all of us who call ourselves sound engineers have a slightly different method of tuning and adjusting the equalization of our PAs. I like to use pink noise to make sure all of the various frequency bands (lows, mids, and highs) are even for the left and right side of the PA. Then I run some pink noise through the subs and lows to see what the response of the room is like when I boost some low frequencies. After that I blast the room with a quick shot of full-frequency pink noise to see what the reverb time of the room is. At this point I’m ready to listen to some program music on a DAT. I always use the same song or two so that I can relate what I’m hearing today to what my standard reference is. This is my method and I’m not saying it’s right, or the only way, but it has worked for me. One of the problems that can occur from using program music is if that song has certain particular frequencies that are predominate. This can give you a false reading of the PA system and room’s frequency response. You will usually learn what to look out for after using that song for a while, but what I suggest doing is “test EQing” (by boosting or cutting frequencies to see what effect they have) while the band is running through some songs during soundcheck.

You may sometimes have to explain yourself to the band as they may think something weird is going on (if they’re not in their plastic bubbles called “in-ear monitors”) as you’re boosting low-end momentarily in the house, but I think it is well worth the explaining. You can mould and shape the curve of your equalizers to fit the band’s frequency response in that room, that day. It’s also very useful for finding out what frequencies are harsh and bite-y on the top end. Try to do it quickly with quick bursts of boost and cut. While DAT tapes and pink noise are helpful for getting you close, the band you are mixing that night is going to determine how the PA should be tuned.

This article is excerpted from Jim Yakabuski’s book Professional Sound Reinforcement Techniques. Find it online at www.mixbooks.com and www.musicbooksplus.com.

Good Mixing Habits by Tim Crich

February 18th, 2004

Writing on mixing is a difficult task. Try explaining to someone, without actually being there, how to paint a picture, how to play the blues, or how to remove a spleen. These basic few points just scratch the surface of good mixing habits. Bottom line, the best mixes come from well-written, well-arranged, well-played and well-recorded songs.

Run the console at its optimum operating level. Pushing fader levels all the way up adds unnecessary noise. Keep all the gain trims as low as possible, and the master buss level at zero for clearer, more transparent mixes – crucial on budget consoles when distortion increases as gains are boosted. Plus, with the master fader always set at zero, you know if it has been moved or not, and lets you know where to return after every fade.

Turn down not up. Before changing a track’s level, see if you can turn something else down to make the track jump out a bit more. Continually raising certain tracks because they are getting lost means there may be an equalization problem. Check to see if frequencies are overlapping, or if any frequencies could be pulled rather than added.

Try this: Set the volume at a reasonable level. Plug your ears with your fingers, close your eyes and listen to the track. This seems to give a different perspective of levels, and is a good method of checking the vocal and snare drum levels. But sometimes you just lose the groove in the levels. Pulling all the faders down and re-setting levels doesn’t take long and may help you regain perspective as you bring each instrument back into the mix. Once you have your levels set where you like them, leave them.

Mix at lower volume levels. Lower volume protects your valuable hearing and the sounds tend to be more accurate. Plus the loud levels might wake up the producer.

As Time Goes By
Take a silence break every few hours. Ears need time to relax and rejuvenate every few hours. Your ears are organs, not muscles – overuse does not make them stronger. If that were the case, I would have a liver of steel.

As with the recording process, don’t go solo too often. It’s great to have the solo button to get a basic sense of an instrument, or to zero in on a problem, but get in the habit of changing equalization with the rest of the tracks in the monitor mix. When you can’t hear the other tracks, you can’t effectively equalize a track to fit in, yet stand out. Don’t spend too long on any single instrument Get a basic sound, then move on, tweaking each instrument as you mix.
Occasionally, listen to the mix through headphones to catch any buzzes, clicks, pops, hums etc. Tiny flaws sometimes not evident in the monitors can come through loud and clear in the headphones. At low levels, headphones may help give you a true feeling of the placement of all instruments. Many listeners enjoy their music through headphones.

Long hours benefit no one. Spending 20 hours on a mix will not make it twice as good as spending 10 hours on a mix. At some point, the best has been done, and continuing on is fruitless.
Finally, and most important, when deciding which instrument takes precedence in the mix, make the guy who signs your cheque sound best!

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


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