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Sound Advice

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.

Recording Acoustic Guitar by Tim Crich

December 18th, 2003

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.

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.


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