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Sound Advice

The Old Versus The New

December 18th, 2002

Professional Sound dug deep in its past to bring you a variety of tips from a range of professionals in the audio industry on their views of old technology versus the latest developments.

“Very often, people will arrive here with a CD-R. We don’t want to work with the CD-R. It’s a tool to bring home and listen to. It’s not a professional (format). DAT would be more professional. With a pre-grooved CD-R, you are changing the colour of the CD and it gets paler and there is a chemical reaction doing all of that. After you are finished burning the CD, this reaction continues and the information changes and it causes jitter … you can burn three CD-Rs and they will all sound different.”
– Alain DeRoque, Technical Director at SNB Mastering (Montreal) (PS February 2001)

“I’m a lover of old analog synths. In this day and age it’s so easy just to go with samplers and loop libraries, but everybody starts to sound the same. I like to have some of the old analog synthesizers in tandem with some of the newer machines. The newer machines have all the detail and realism of actual instruments but the analog machines have a warmth that the new digital ones just don’t have.”
– Amin Bhatia, Owner/Operator of Bhatia Music Group (PS December 2000)

“I go discrete out of the ProTools rig, into my console, using all my tube and vintage analog gear that I love. I just like the way tube gear sounds on certain things – they’ve been described as sounding ‘warm’ or ‘very forgiving’ or whatever word you want to use. There’s just an excitement to the sound. It’s like film versus video. Video seems to have some sort of cold or cheap quality to it, while film seems warm, soft and almost airbrushed.”
– Arnold Lanni, Arnyard Studios (PS April 2001)

“They’re not ready … today there isn’t a digital console in the world for music that I would buy … in my opinion, analog consoles are superior in a multitude of respects.”
– Gil Moore, Metalworks Studios (PS October 2000)

“Spots are getting to be almost all delivered electronically where as five years ago we would have the FedEx trucks back up to the shipping door and haul out 100 boxes of ¼” tapes FedEx-ed out to radio stations. They are being almost exclusively handled electronically now where it is FTPing to a secure FTP site (say, at NBC) where they deal with the distribution from a central server to all the individual radio and TV stations. We started throwing up FTP servers outside our firewall to toy around with delivering approval copies to clients, where we used to send a stack of cassettes to everybody in the agency to approve. We can now put up a file and send them an e-mail saying here’s the URL for your approval copy – check it out at your leisure. The clients like that, the immediacy of it is great. You don’t have to wait for mail, FedEx or courier. But one thing that we realized is that you are not making money off of those cassettes. Suddenly you are giving away things that you were charging for. We needed to find a way where we could effectively make money using this infrastructure. The network infrastructure wasn’t cheap to build and like we pay for lights and water, we were paying for this network so we needed to be able to charge for that. What we eventually settled on was basically a ‘firewall fee’ where internal files could fly around from workstation to workstation inside the company, we can’t really charge for that because that’s part of what you are doing. We call it a ‘firewall fee.’ Basically anytime someone crosses the firewall with a file whether it’s us receiving something across our firewall like a client that delivers a V/O (Voice-Over) from out of the country as files or, putting something up on the server for them to download. It’s just something to help us capture what we would be losing on dubs and media that we used to be able to charge for, and a way for us being able to justify the cost of this infrastructure – so there’s a revenue that justifies the expense.”
– Erinn Thorp, Atlanta, GA’s Crawford Post. (PS August 2001)

Adventures in Straying from the Norm by Arnold Lanni

December 18th, 2002

I would like to tell you there is a huge scientific approach but I think it is a series of happy accidents. And that’s the way it ought to be. I think what I try to do before I bring a band in here [to the studio] is have a vision. Some sort of guides to follow — we’ve got this bus and we’re going to drive it. We want to end up at destination B and we are starting off at A. Do you want to take the scenic route? Do you want to take the fastest route? Or do you want to take the least expensive? What is it that we are trying to do here?

It’s hard to talk about recording if you have some knowledge of it already because it obviously starts with a microphone in front of some kind of guitar or drum or whatever it is you are using. And that sound ends up on a medium — in this case we use harddrives. Then it’s how you manipulate those sounds, how you process it, how you deliver it. Then the kind of instrumentation comes in. I give you the analogy where some instruments acoustically deliver a certain colour. I try to explain music in terms of colour, for instance. You don’t hear a lot of sad songs played on the Banjo and you don’t hear a lot of happy songs on the Oboe or the Cello. Those are very extreme examples but psychoacoustics plays a big part. Whether it is something I have developed or a gift, I can generally see colours when I hear music. I try to convey that through some of the artists that I work with — a lot of times they see those colours too. So if we are getting a guitar sound for a specific part, do I mic the centre of the cone”? Do I mic off axis? Do I put a couple of mics up? Should we use two different types of amps on the stage? All those things deliver a colour. So it really all depends.

Arnold Lanni is producer of bands Our Lady Peace and Finger Eleven, owner of Arnyard Studio, and former member of both Frozen Ghost and Sheriff.

Recording: The Basics by Karen Kane

December 18th, 2002

Some of the most innovative recordings come from daring to be different from the norm. Not that the “norm” doesn’t work — doing what is typically done is safe and almost always guarantees good sound.

What is the “norm”? Almost every recording engineer I know who was trained in the late ’60s or early ’70s (like myself) learned standard basic microphone techniques. In the ’60s, what was typically done was dictated by the lack of tracks available and therefore, distant miking techniques were used. For example, Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham was recorded with three microphones. By 1971, we started using 24 tracks. So now, the distant miking techniques of the ’60s were overshadowed by the newer methods of close miking (made possible by having many more tracks). Today, there is a better balance between these two microphone techniques, with a leaning in favour of the close miking method (especially for drums).

Recently, after months of recording and using many of the typical techniques that I know and love, I decided I was tired of doing the norm. My next project was about to start and I was quite bored with the ordinary. Fortunately, Fulign, the band I was about to record bed tracks for, was totally into experimenting. (Fulign is a rock band from Erie, PA). Now that several weeks have passed since this event, I can honestly say, had I not followed my instincts to try something different, the recording of this band would not have the special sound it now has.

For Fulign’s drums, the ingredients were all there for trying something new. A large, beautiful sounding recording room, a great sounding well-cared-for drum set and an excellent player who also tunes drums very well. Matt Gurley from Fulign uses a large drum set with five toms and lots of cymbals and the thought of using microphones on everything was not only unappealing but here was a chance to be inspired by the idea of distant miking, possibly without any close mics at all. Typically, the approach would have been to use one or two mics on a kick drum, top and bottom mics on a snare drum, every tom-tom miked separately, a mic for the high-hat and a pair of overheads to capture all the cymbals. Some engineers also use a pair of room mics to capture the sound of the room that the drums are in.

I sought out a fresh approach to that old technique. I started out with four distant mics in various places but I decided after experimenting that using a close mic on the kick and on the snare was a good idea — even if I didn’t use them in the final mix. So ultimately, six mics total were used. The four main distant mics were two Microtech Gefell M300 “pencil” condensers and two Microtech Gefell 1277 condensers. One of the M300s was placed on the drummer’s left side about 3 feet from the kit facing the snare, high-hat and small toms — at a height just below the high hat. The other M300 was placed 3 feet from the kit on the other side facing all the lower toms at a similar height. The room mics were placed about 8 feet in the air and about 12 feet away from the kit. For this style of music, in this particular recording room, this method worked like a charm. The band was thrilled and I myself, was very happy with this non-conventional drum sound — much more than I could have imagined.

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.

You Don’t Get Nothin’ For Free by James Yakabuski

December 18th, 2002

It’s very easy when using compression on vocals to think that you’re getting some free gain along the way. “If I compress this vocal a little more and then turn up the gain, I’ll have a louder vocal … right? Without those pesky too quiet and too loud parts … right?” Well the truth of the matter is, by knocking back the loudest parts of the singer’s level and turning up the compressor output gain a bit you will indeed get a little extra overall gain.

Just remember that the boosted output gain on the compressor is a boost in level whether there is any input into it or not. What I’m getting at is potential problems relating to level before feedback. If you get a singer’s mic tuned and EQed and you find that pushing the fader to +5dB on his channel starts to get you into feedback problems, then be wary if you start to go for extra gain from the compressor output. If you increase the compressor output to +5dB, you have essentially brought the channel fader’s threshold of feedback down from +5dB to 0dB. This problem happens a lot when you have a singer who whispers a bunch and then screams very loudly at other times. You find that you have to compress those very loud parts quite a bit, and when you see that you’re compressing 6 or 8dB of level, you try to get a little back at the output of the compressor for those whispery parts. This is fine as long as you don’t try to get too much back and get yourself into feedback potential.

The problem will occur when the vocal is not being compressed at all. This is when that 5dB of gain that you added at the output stage of the compressor is added to whatever level you have set at the channel input gain stage, plus the fader level. To test your true level before feedback, always be sure you are ringing out a mic with the compressor in line so that it’s boosted gain is part of the gain structure you’re EQing with. If the mic can sit on a stand with no compression occurring and still be ring free, then you’re doing great. This problem occurs most often when you’re doing a one-off and you haven’t got the time to do a thorough EQing job. If you get a five second sound check on the vocals you’re happy. So when the show starts you start inserting compressors and doing a little of the aforementioned gain boosting. Be aware that if the vocal starts to feedback halfway through a show when it was fine at the beginning, a good place the look for the cause of the problem is your compressor gain staging. If you really need a couple of extra dB of gain to have that vocal cut through, try increasing the threshold of your compressor so you’re not compressing quite as much. Then work the manual-fader compressor a little more. ‘What’s that?’ You say. Oh, that’s the process of using your finger to move the vocalist’s fader up and down to control volume; a novel approach.

“Pay attention to your gozintas and gozoutas!”

When you need more FX in your mix, be sure to think carefully about where you are going to get that extra level. It’s easy to just reach for the FX send on the channel, or the overall auxiliary output send, but be careful that you don’t overload the input to the reverb or delay unit. A lot of the gear we use these days passes much of the signal in the digital domain. When you clip the input to a digital device the resulting return signal can be quite ugly. This is especially true with digital FX processors. With the myriad of FX out there, from chorus and long delays to harmonizing and pitch changes, the amount of processing involved is quite intense within the circuitry of the unit. If you begin this process with an overloaded signal, the return can really sound nasty. If you need more overall FX return, you should first check that you are sending enough signal to the unit, so that you’re not trying to process a bunch of hiss (equally as heinous as overloading the input). You can then get the extra return level at the channel input gains on the console where you have the effect returning. You will be able to get that effect loud and ominous (and clean too) if you just follow the golden gain structure rule: correct level in, and adjust for necessary return gain at the point where the effect returns to the console. Be sure to check these levels periodically if you’re on a long tour as you can go through many gain structure changes and these ups and downs in channel gain will affect your FX in and out levels. Most of today’s FX gear has clearly identifiable input metering (green, yellow, and red), so the task at hand is to find the input level that hangs around the 0dB mark, only occasionally tickling +3dB or so. If the gain structure on the rest of your board is consistent and you haven’t over EQed anything drastically, you should have a nice clean result. Then, when the artist asks for eight seconds of reverb on his voice, you can deliver it with pristine clarity.

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

“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.


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