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Sound Advice

Recording Acoustic Guitar by Tim Crich

December 18th, 2003

EQ
Properly miked, a quality well-tuned acoustic guitar with new strings should need little equalization. Perhaps to add some frequencies for sheen, or maybe to pull where the sound may mask other instruments.

When equalizing something with as many overtones as an acoustic guitar, pull the un-harmonic overtones and enhance the pleasing harmonics. This is when the musical recording engineer has the advantage. As a starting point, maybe:
– Roll off below around 82 Hz. The lowest note on the standard acoustic guitar is E, around 82 Hz.
– Sweep the low midrange, from 80 Hz to 300 Hz to find the boomy sound, then pull it using a narrow Q setting.
– Add somewhere between 80 Hz and 350 Hz for body, but only if there is room. Holding down the bottom end is normally not the acoustic guitar’s job.
– Add 300 Hz to 1 kHz for early harmonics.
– Add somewhere from 700 Hz to 1.2 kHz for more “wood” or pull here to ease the secondary harmonics.
– Add 1.5 to 3 kHz for presence. Pull for hollowness.
– Add 3 to 5 kHz for presence and attack.
– Add around 10 to 12 kHz for sparkle. It doesn’t take much to go from sparkle to brittle. Adding highs means adding noise.

Compression
The characteristics of an acoustic guitar might include wide dynamic range, semi-fast rich initial transients and substantial sustain. The acoustic may not have as many peaks as a snare drum unless the part is percussive, but it has peaks none the less. Closer miked sounds may need more compression than microphones placed a few feet away. Try:
– Attack. 10 to 20 ms. A very fast attack can control the initial attack transients of a sound.
– Release. Medium. Start at 250 ms and raise or lower as needed, depending on the tempo of the song.
– Threshold. Medium to high. A high threshold allows all the natural sounds and dynamics of the guitar to remain intact. A lower threshold might bring out more lower body.
– Ratio. Low, to begin with, maybe 2:1 or 3:1 dB of gain reduction. A higher compression ratio may be needed as a player may tend to move off axis now and again. Play with the ratio until the quiet bits as well as the loud bits can be heard. A higher ratio can increase the sounds density, so it fits in with other compressed tracks.

Choose to use two. If you choose to use two microphones on an acoustic instrument, often the one with more lows – usually the closest microphone – may need more compression than the distant one.

De-ess the guitar. Minimize fret squeaks and noise with a de-esser.

Defeat the proximity effect. Pull low end that may be created by proximity effect before sending the signal into the compressor or risk having the compressor react to the added lows, rather than the program.

Sympathy for the level. When the acoustic instrument is not in use, put it away, or loud levels in the room will cause it to ring out sympathetically.

Tim Crich 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, U2, David Bowie, Bon Jovi, Ozzy Osbourne, Cher, Byan Adams and many more. He has engineered for some of the biggest producers in the world. This article is excerpted with permission from his book Recording Tips For Engineers.

In-Ear Monitoring – refining your mix by Fred Michael

December 18th, 2003

Today, I want to enlarge on the topic of IEMs, with a focus on ways to enhance the experience for the performer while protecting their ears as much as possible.

It’s important to remember that IEMs are not only an excellent way to hear onstage; they also provide ear protection when used properly. However, the opposite is true as well: exposure to poorly set-up IEMs can accelerate hearing loss. An example of this is when you see vocalists performing with one of their IEMs pulled out. A closer look at this phenomenon is a good starting point for our discussion.

This situation is really the “worst of both worlds” and should be avoided. The musician has, for reasons I’ll explain, removed himself from the protective in-ear environment and is trying to get comfortable with a blend of the in-ear mix and the sound on stage. The problems are three-fold: the in-ear mix is now essentially useless, the onstage sound has probably not been set up for their vocal mix, and there is an increased risk of hearing damage.

Usually, the performer removes one of their monitors because the mix they are getting is completely out of whack, taking them out of the music rather than engaging them. Like a swimmer coming up for air, the performer does the one thing he knows will help. If you see this happening with your group, you need to take a look at your mixing techniques. First of all, allow time at sound check to set up a proper instrumental blend in their mix. The vocalist needs enough support from the instruments and other voices to get a tuning reference, but not so much that their voice gets lost.

Ask the performer which instruments they usually gravitate towards for a tuning reference and start your sound check with an emphasis on those. Remember, this is all about getting them comfortable in the IEM environment; that doesn’t necessarily mean you are building a CD-quality mix; rather, you are starting with the essential elements for the performer to feel comfortable and stay in tune. For some, this means a bare bones sound with dominant vocals, others want everything; experience will tell you what is needed.

Another factor that tempts performers to remove their monitors is the subjective feeling that the mix inside their head is very artificial sounding, removed from the “real” sound onstage. Again, the performer feels isolated and pulled out of the music. Most IEM engineers use ambience microphones to help their musicians stay connected to the stage sound. Usually, this is a matched pair of microphones, placed at stage left and right, and aimed in such a way to get a representative room sound. This is then blended into the mix, making it much more natural sounding. While you may not have the resources to purchase dedicated ambience microphones, any decent-quality stereo recording microphone will approximate the effect. Play with different locations until you have a couple of options to choose from.

Finally, avoid mixing to a level that irritates the performer; this is an alarm saying, “Turn it down!” Properly fitted IEMs, whether custom or generic moulds, can reduce the ambient volume by 15-20dB; this gives you all the latitude you need to build a comfortable, satisfying mix while minimizing risk of hearing damage. Never let your performer use standard ear buds as replacements for IEMs; they do not provide the isolation required for safe use of this technology in the live concert environment.

Fred Michael is President of Rocky Mountain Sound Production Services in Vancouver, BC. Fred can be reached at fred@rmsound.com, or via the Rocky Mountain Sound Web page, www.rmsound.com.

Graphics and Noise: Hiss & Hum

October 18th, 2003

Hiss (the steady ‘tssss’ noise – like escaping steam – made by the graphic itself) is not much of a problem on the more professional units. It’s most likely to be an audible problem on bad or low-budget designs, and older or damaged units. With a decent unit you shouldn’t hear any hiss at the FOH mix position at all, over the FOH PA, when the bypass switch is flicked in and out, and while the sliders are all at 0dB.

Of course the prevailing hiss level will be made more audible if you have to boost frequencies above 5 kHz, or if you’re in a small venue where some of the audience are unavoidably seated close to the FOH PA cabs. Hopefully, they won’t notice it over the music.

Lower-frequency noise (buzz and hum) may be induced if graphic EQs are placed (for any reason) near to ‘leaky’ AC transformers – meaning their magnetic fields leak outside their casing and affect other equipment.

Graphics are more likely to pick up hum than other units in the drive rack, so before finalizing a drive rack set-up, it’s a good idea to spend a little time experimenting with the relative locations and spacing of the units in the rack, with the graphic placed furthest (if feasible) from any other units that induce hum.

To make good and bad positions easier to locate, you can temporarily exaggerate the problem by fully boosting the sliders at 50, 150, 250 and 350 Hz (or in the US and wherever the local AC power frequency is 60 Hz, use the sliders nearest to 60 Hz and its multiples). For this test, nothing is plugged into the graphic – though any gear around it must be powered-up and switched on – and it’s simply plugged straight into a PA amp and a bass bin, or any bass speaker made to reproduce frequencies between 50 and 400 Hz.

Note: Although you can use the graphic to exacerbate hums in this way to help positioning, never use a graphic to eliminate hums. You’ll reduce the hum, but also cut an unnecessarily wide range of bass frequencies. For a suitably selective cutting you must use a parametric EQ (PEQ).

This article is reprinted with permission from The Live Sound Manual, published by Backbeat Books, www.backbeatbooks.com. All information is copyrighted and cannot be reprinted without the permission of the publisher.

Recording Tips For Engineers: Getting Work – by Tim Crich

October 18th, 2003

The music business is tough.Work is elusive, and will not come to you – you have to hunt it down. But there is work out there, you have to go and get it.
Check out all the studios possible. Leave a card. Try to get a rapport with certain studios, and try to always use it for your projects. If you bring in a few bands, you may get a break on the cost of the studio. As well, if they know you, and if they are familiar with your work, they may call you when they need an engineer.

Check your hearing. Before you seriously become an active, working recording engineer, get your head, er… hearing examined. If your hearing is questionable, it ain’t getting any better. It may be disconcerting if the client sees you adjusting your hearing aid in the session.

Have ears will travel. Place an ad in the local music paper that you are available to record bands at a very reasonable rate. Go to clubs and talk to bands about recording. Print up a demo disc of some of your best work – even if you must book studio time to do it – and mail it out or hand it out to whoever may be interested.
Include a business card with a contact number. Don’t scribble “This whole disc was recorded in half an hour in Dave’s Basement, with no overdubs, and lots of beer.” Use professional graphics.

I love the mall, I love them all. Get to know as many people in the local scene as possible by hanging around the music and recording gear stores, going to shows and supporting local artists. Other engineers, small time managers and local musicians become big name producers, studio owners and rock stars.

He shoots, he scores. Do you play hockey, baseball, bowling, curling, tongue wrestling? Many cities have music industry sports teams. This is how to network in the recording industry. There is nothing like getting sympathy work, so maybe a puck in the head now and again will help your career.

Intensities in ten cities. Attend the major audio shows and conventions such as the AES or NAMM. These shows are great to see what is on the horizon, but also to hang out with the audio industry and be seen.

Get outta town. You may want to move to a locale that has lots of studios, like LA, NY or Nashville. There are many secondary markets other than these three, but of course these ones are the main places. Note that even though there are more studios, there is more competition, and big cities aren’t for everyone.

And on this team. Many engineers today are teaming up with someone such as a producer or mixer, and starting their own production company. With the low cost of equipment, this may be a viable option for some people. Just working as a recording engineer today might not be enough. It is always good to have something to fall back on. I still have my hat from Burger King, just in case.

Use your computer to its fullest capacity. Use the Internet to access data on recording studios, new equipment and newest techniques. There are many Web sites available to research available recording studios in your area, as well as any new techniques that different engineers, equipment manufacturers or organizations post on the web.
Keep a file on all the studios including a list of the attributes and detriments of the studio. List how you laid out the instruments.
Create a Web site with your photograph, name, your credits, your availability etc. Upload your demo, perhaps parts of songs you have engineered. Check the legalities of this, and do not upload anything you don’t own that has not been released yet.

Tim Crich 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, U2, David Bowie, Bon Jovi, Ozzy Osbourne, Cher, Bryan Adams and many more. He has engineered for some of the biggest producers in the world. This article is excerpted with permission from his book Recording Tips For Engineers.

Guarding Gear at the Gig

August 18th, 2003

Usually the venue owner or the promoter is responsible for providing security for the PA gear while it’s on their land. You should make an agreement about where responsibility for the security of the PA is delineated – clearing up any “what if” circumstances.

Small valuable items of gear, particularly microphones, are easily stolen. Mics are not only relatively easy to pocket, but there are more potential buyers than for other parts of your PA – they’re attractive items in their own right and prize trophies to some artists’ fans.

If the stage is left unguarded before – or especially after – a performance, mics can disappear from stands very quickly, particularly if the stage is easily accessible. It’s not even unknown for them to be stolen while in use – especially if the audience surge onto the stage, or a mic-wielding singer jumps into the crowd.
To save the hassle and expense of lost mics, there are several lines of defense you could adopt:

– Make sure venue security personnel are aware of the risk to all portable items – they may not always realize, for instance, that mics need to be guarded at least as much as a guitar or a DJ’s records.

– Crew should remove all mics from the stage immediately after the set (or the encore) ends – giving priority to microphones near the front of the stage (usually the vocal mikes).

– Especially-prized microphones can be fitted with anti-theft devices – from simple “post-coding” or “zip-coding” with ultra-violet sensitive pens, to more elaborate radio trackers – or even a remote-controlled release of coloured liquid exploding from within the mike casing to mark and identify the thief… (Are we getting a bit extreme here? It’s a thought, anyway.)

This article is reprinted with permission from The Live Sound Manual, published by Backbeat Books, www.backbeatbooks.com. All information is copyrighted and cannot be reprinted without the permission of the publisher.

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

August 18th, 2003

Mixers Listen Up

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,” …ah, 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 every means possible to make you sound as good as possible, but one also has to be realistic with ones 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 2 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 their 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. Dery, 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.

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