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Sound Advice

“If It’s Not on Paper, It Doesn’t Exist!” by Doug McClement

December 18th, 2002

Audio engineers by nature enjoy setting up mics, getting sounds, making adjustments to equipment and capturing great performances on their audio storage medium of choice, whether it’s analog, digital tape, or hard-disk. They generally don’t like spending time writing stuff down. If they did, they would have gone into accounting or journalism. Nothing wrong with those occupations, but definitely not enough knobs and coloured lights to keep the readers of this magazine happy!

Yet proper documentation is a crucial part of any production, especially these days when it is common for an album project to do bed tracks in one studio, overdubs in another, mixing in a third, and mastering in yet another facility.

When I receive materials from another studio, I hate having to spend half an hour figuring out what is on the tape and what format was used. Here are some tips on maintaining the proper paper trail:

Every studio makes up their own custom tracksheets. Many include only the most basic information. The best one I’ve seen was designed by the staff at Power Station in New York. In addition to track number and instrument, their tracksheets contained a box for type of microphone, effects used, EQ settings, comments, engineer, and date of session (for each track). This makes it much easier to duplicate a setup if something needs to be punched in. It also shows you which track has the most recent version of a vocal or solo.

At the top of the form, there were areas to denote song title, counter start number, tape speed or sampling rate, SMPTE frame rate, name of engineer and producer, and date.

On the back, there was a section that allowed you to write down the various verse, chorus sections for each song, and their start times.

The track sheet should contain enough information that the second engineer can pull it out and tell exactly what’s on the tape and where it can be found. Never assume that your studio will be the last place to play back a tape. Someone may have to do a remix 10 years from now, and you may not be around to answer questions. Whenever possible, the tracksheet should stay in the box with the tape. This is more difficult with DA-88 and ADAT formats, due to the size of the medium. At LiveWire, we use white 7″ cardboard boxes originally designed for 4 track ½ inch analog tape. They hold up to four DA-88 tapes and all the documentation in a neat, easy to label package.

Cue Sheets
Cue sheets list the songs contained on the tape, with their times, and whether or not the take is complete (CT) incomplete (IT) or a false start (FS). A column for comments is a good idea as well. (“drummer slowed down”, “guitarist broke a string” etc.) Otherwise, if the band does eight takes of a tune, the odds on you remembering two months from now what makes take six different from take seven will be slim indeed.

Be sure to label which take was the “keeper” and which one was used for the final mix. If you are doing multiple mixes, be sure to label which ones are “vocals up 2db” or “bass down 3db”.

Tape Box Labels
The tape box label serves two purposes: it identifies what is on the tape, and it acts as advertising for your studio. All studios should have their own labels for reels, DA-88s, ADATS, cassettes, and CDs. The tape will end up on a shelf at the band’s management company or at a record label. It might as well have your studio’s name and address on it, as opposed to some big tape manufacturers.

Never let a tape or CD leave your studio without a custom label. You can preprint the most commonly written info, so that the engineer can just check off the appropriate boxes rather than having to write everything out each time (tape speed, sampling rate, SMPTE frame rate, master or dub, number of tracks, etc.). The exterior label should contain enough information that a 12-year-old could pull it out and figure out what is on the tape without having to play it. This would include the name of the artist, client (record label), engineer, date of session, etc.

At LiveWire, our DA-88 labels act as miniature track sheets for each tape. That way, if the overall tracksheet gets lost, you can still figure out what’s on the tape. There is software available from some companies that allow you to print up labels using your own computer, as opposed to using a print shop. Check the classified section of one of the popular recording magazines.

Your studio should also establish a clear method of identifying multiple tapes from the same session, especially in the case of ADATs and DA-88s. Most Toronto studios denote tracks 1-8 as A, 2-16 as B, etc. So if it was a 24-track session, spread over two sets of tapes, the first set would be labelled 1A, 1B, 1C, and the second 2A, 2B, 2C. It doesn’t matter what you use, as long as it makes sense and is consistent. I use coloured dot stickers on the spine of the tape box to make it easier to spot which tapes belong to which set. You can pick them up at any office supply store in the label section. This becomes really important when you are mixing a live album done of 48 tracks of DA88, where the band recorded 10 shows. Now you’ve got 60 tapes to keep track of. Just keeping the right tape in the right box is a chore. Colour coding makes it much easier.

To sum up, the session is not over until the tapes are properly documented. Don’t let the next engineer in the food chain be cursing you at 3 a.m. for not giving him enough information to do his job properly. Professional engineers have professionally labelled tapes. In the end, it makes you and your studio look good, and helps ensure return business from satisfied clients.

Doug McClement is President and Chief Engineer at LiveWire Remote Recorders, one of Canada’s premier audio mobiles. Be sure to check out their Web site at www.livewire-remote.com.

Installation and Design Tips by Devy Breda

December 18th, 2002

What are some important tips to keep in mind when designing a permanently installed sound system? (eg. a church, an arena etc.)
All the stake holders have to participate so you can measure up the exact expectation of those stake holders, that’s most vital. It’s not technical, well it could be technical nature, but let’s take the example of the church. Certainly the pastor may have different expectations then that music leader versus the financial or the business committee, or the building committee or the property manager, they all have different titles or names for their committees, so you have to make certainly that all of them are working on the same page. So they all have a clear vision of what the final product will turn out to be, that’s the biggest thing.

How do you select/test products to find the best system? Eg. speakers, amplifiers, signal processing equipment etc.
To a certain degree we rely on trade magazines. Most degrees is trial and error experience and open discussion with other people in the industry. Be it from a consultant’s point of view or another contractor, through trade magazines or at meetings be it the AES or the NSCA whatever it may be from those perspectives we do discuss products and evaluate them. Certainly some of the trade magazines have been instrumental in reviewing or at least allowing some open forum discussions of products from different perspectives. But trial and error is probably the most.

What are the most important questions to ask a client when beginning a system design? What must you know to do your job properly?
Well somewhat related to the first question to some degree, certainly we have to look at budget, timing, what is going to influence their buying decision, has the client set up a plan, a methodological plan, a strategy of what they are doing and make sure they communicate that to us. In other words, that they have written down their expectations, both technically, financially, what their long term objectives are, the rational why their decisions are being done, so we can participate in the evolution of what they are trying to accomplish. So we have the total picture, that’s critical.

Devy Breda is the principle and founder of Audiospec Inc.

EQ the Dudes Too by Jim Yakabuski

December 18th, 2002

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 PA’s. 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 mold 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 bitey 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 upcoming book entitled Professional Sound Reinforcement Techniques, was released in February 2001. It is published by MixBooks, an imprint of www.artistpro.com. Find it online at www.mixbooks.com and www.musicbooksplus.com.

Live Sound – What You Need To Know by Rob Howick

November 18th, 2002

How do you select the gear you take on the road?
Sometimes it has to do with, depending on the artist your working with, and depending on the style of music they have, and of course it depends again on what size of venues you’re going to be playing, and how much trucking is available and so you, a lot of times I just take that into consideration. There’s one or two types of speakers I like to use overall but 9 times out of 10 it comes down to the artist and the type of situation you’re in.

What problems do you listen for during soundcheck?
Definitely you’re listening for more so the room. If you are on a tour, the band is pretty much set in the way they’re going to play a performance or a song. So you need to see how the speakers work within the room and listen for different reflections off hard surfaces and see how much is being soaked up by soft surfaces.

What tips can you offer for recording bands live? What problems must be overcome?
Try to isolate your sounds as much as possible and use really high quality microphones because it makes a huge difference. Problems to overcome: a lot of it would be the bleed into the vocalist’s microphone or into any other microphones on the stage from other instruments … that is a huge problem.

How do you mix a band that insists on having a loud stage volume?
I’ve a lot of times I’ve just made up my little own baffles or as it were, a comb for a microphone and something you can attach either to the bass or the mic or the mic stand itself. You might want to make another box shape or a fan shape that surrounds the microphone but it also lets the tone of what you’re listening to come through. Especially for amplifiers, it will work great. That and a Plexiglas booth around the drum kit will work. Try to make it look hip and cool and the kids will love it. If they insist on a loud stage volume, then as long as you get the vocals up out front, then you just have to fill in the sounds that are coming from the stage. Each room is different of course, so some nights you may have to pan a guitar only to one side of the PA because it is so loud coming of the stage from stage left and so you have to pan it to stage right.

How accurately do you mix to an artist’s CD? Do you listen closely and try to mimic the album or do you try to find ways to make a live experience different?
That depends on the artist themselves, depends on how much free rain they give you. Some artists insist that they sound just like they do on the radio, while other artists are open to if you have ideas on special effects or different instruments being prominent in a mix for a certain song. Some artists are very willing to let you do that to a point and other artists are very stern and want it to sound just like the record they slaved on for 18 months or whatever so you have to respect that. They’re the ones paying the bills.

Rob Howick is a Concert Engineer who works with the Cowboy Junkies, Jewel among many other acts.

Tips from a Pro by Tom Young

November 18th, 2002

This issue, PS chatted with Tom Young, Technical Sales Engineer at Meyer Sound regarding some tips for designing sound systems and recording studios.

What are some important tips to keep in mind when designing a permanently installed sound system?

Ensure that the programming for each facility has been fully developed and is understood by all parties. A performance venue that will frequently host touring pop acts requires completely different (rider acceptable) equipment than one that hosts touring Broadway musicals, dance companies, ballet and folk or jazz artists. For how the design for both FOH and stage monitor systems is impacted is determined by the worship style and direction. Contemporary worship requires systems that are similar in function to those in concert sound, although they may be scaled down. Traditional worship and architecture typically focuses on spoken word intelligibility and minimal visual impact. One other aspect of permanent system design is the greater importance to provide acoustic consulting and/or improvements.

How do you select/test products to find the best system?

Sound system consultants and contractors must do their homework when it comes to equipment selection. All contractors should have the test equipment required to fully evaluate the design and functionality of the equipment they install. Consultants are not as likely to have test facilities, but they should still be on top of this through close relationships with manufacturers, getting out to trade shows and maintaining a close relationship with sound operators. Thanks to the Internet and sound system related listservs or newsgroups, there is another avenue for keeping up with trends and evaluations. By staying on top of this, the designer and contractor should be able to offer systems at several different levels of cost.

What are the most important things to remember when designing or building a recording studio?

That it is much more complex than simply throwing egg cartons on the wall and buying some good gear. Aside from selection of your nearfield monitors, they must be positioned to minimize reflections from the console and other boundaries. The wiring infrastructure and acoustic design of recording studios will make or break the facility over a period of time. Some equipment cannot be bought at the lowest possible cost.

How do you convert a room into a recording studio?

If forced to, one can end up with a reasonably good space that has been converted from its original intent. There are numerous incredible albums recorded throughout the past 30 years that give testimony to this. But for long-term use as a commercial recording facility there needs to be substantial and painstaking design for everything from electrical power to audio wiring to acoustics to air conditioning. The acoustics design covers noise isolation as much as it does room acoustics. Building from the ground up affords the most potential for a spectacular facility as long as one is committed to budgeting enough money for design and construction. One thing you can do from scratch that is virtually impossible when converting an existing space is floating the control room and/or studio floors.

What are the most important questions to ask a client when beginning a system design? What must you know to do your job properly?

You must ask anything and everything that impacts the facility from its opening through several years into its operation. Occasionally it is necessary to ask the client to substantially reduce their expectations or to increase their budget. Whether it’s for performance facilities or recording studios, the successful system designer must be very well trained in all of the technical aspects of audio systems design. But, he or she also must have a working familiarity with documentation and drawings, experience with participating on a design team plus a decent amount of real world operating experience. A system designer who has not mixed “under fire” and has not interacted with artists in these spaces has little chance of designing a fully functional and relevant system.

Tom Young has been involved in live sound for 29 years and has held virtually every possible position from working in the trenches to international tours to designing sound systems for major-league concert halls in North and South America and Europe. He currently is Technical Sales Engineer at Meyer Sound in Berkeley CA.

Where’s the Vibe, Man? by Karen Kane

November 18th, 2002

When does an engineer/producer feel like they’re in engineer heaven? Consider the scenario of my most recent recording project: a large, extraordinary recording room with beautiful ambience, tons of natural light shining through the skylight; eight of the most valuable vintage tube microphones on the planet by Neumann/Telefunken and AKG; dedicated, exceptional musicians willing to go the distance and a singer/songwriter with enormous talent. All the elements for a magical experience. And was it magical? You betchya! Recording projects range from being magical experiences to challenging and/or frustrating ones. So it’s especially wonderful when one is as magical as this one was — from start to finish! And does it show on the recording? You betchya again! Dreamwalker by Laura Bird — recorded, mixed and mastered in a total of nine very efficient days over a five-week period, pulled off almost completely without a hitch, is a very special album.

Recordings take on a life, a vibe of their own and without really knowing it, the listener can often feel the personal dynamics going on at the time of the recording. How it feels to be together making music really matters and shows up on tape (or whatever format you’re using these days!). We’re not just recording music and sound, we’re recording a vibe, an energy that was happening between people at the time of creating music together.

How do you know if the personal dynamics of the people you have chosen to work with is going to feel right? Short answer — you don’t! Just because you have chosen experienced, reputable people to work with does not mean you’ll get along with them. I’ve often heard horror stories of personality conflicts that really got in the way of a recording project. One time, an artist I know asked my opinion of her new album. This is an artist whose songwriting and singing I think very highly of. When I heard the album, I was surprised and disappointed because it seemed rather “flat”…no vibe, no passion. When she asked what I thought, my first comment was a question. What was going on at the time of the recording? For the next 20 minutes, I got quite an earful about the personality conflicts and outright arguments that were going on at the time of the recording. It effected the entire project, even though people apologized to one other and moved on to finish up.

In comparison, here’s an example of when greatly recorded vibes outweigh everything else. A few years ago, after a very long session of working on percussionist Ubaka Hill’s album, Dance the Spiral Dance, we were officially finished for the day. I put away the microphones except one that I couldn’t get to because so many instruments were in the way. I went to dinner and when I came back, I heard from inside the large recording room, an incredible after-hours drumming party going on with 10-12 people. I was so drawn to this intense, spontaneous energy that I couldn’t stay away. I walked into the room and felt an overwhelming desire to capture this “party jam” on tape so everyone could enjoy it later. I sneaked into the control room and not being fussy about what format I was going to record it on, (cassette, DAT) I popped the first blank tape I could find into a machine (it ended up being a DAT). I then realized there was only one microphone in the room left plugged in, and it was not in an ideal position for recording (it was pointing at the ceiling) but it didn’t matter, after all, it was “just a jam” and not for anyone else but ourselves. I didn’t want to disrupt the energy in the room by setting up more microphones or letting them see that I was about to record them. I turned on the EV RE-20 microphone that was pointing at the ceiling and recorded 11 minutes of this party jam. The recorded jam’s energy was SO intense and felt SO good that we decided to use 3:30 of this wonderful vibe on our final album, regardless of the “less than ideal” style in which it was recorded. Moral of the story — energy and vibes matter much more then technical/sonic perfection, ANY DAY!

I would like to acknowledge Escarpment Sound in Acton, Doug Walker Microphones, Pizazzudio and the Lacquer Channel for their participation in Laura Bird’s album project. Ubaka Hill’s album was recorded at Applehead Recording Studio in Woodstock, New York.

Karen Kane has been engineering and producing music since 1974. Her credits, profile, and other published articles can be seen at her Web site www.total.net/~mixmama.


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