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Sound Advice

A Mastering Primer by Karen Kane

November 18th, 2002

In the days of the vinyl record, the mastering facility was a different animal than it is today. Typically back then, we sent our master analog tapes to a disc cutting mastering studio and hoped for the best when we received back our “reference lacquer” or our “test pressings”. Many of the albums I worked on in the ’70s and ’80s were done in this manner, where producer and artist were not in attendance at the mastering session.

Today, it is unheard of for a producer or artist not to be at the mastering session. At all levels, we have gained the creative control we always should have had. This is due in part, to the way mastering is currently done and the number of mastering facilities that are now available.

These days, one has to be cautious not to get caught up in the illusion that someone with a computer music editing program and a CD burner is a “mastering” studio. While this type of “facility” can be useful in certain situations, this is not the place to go to for proper CD mastering.

To properly understand the differences between mastering facilities we could say that there are three categories: World Class, Professional and Non-Professional. A world class mastering facility has a well designed, large, accurate listening environment; a pair of awesome, accurate speakers; a variety of 2-track playback systems (analog ½”, analog ¼”, DAT, etc); ultra high-quality EQs and compressors; and a high quality computer editing system. (While ProTools is an extremely popular computer mastering program, a lot of world class facilities opt for Sonic Solutions or Sadie). Very often, the mastering engineers at these places are known for their “famous ears” and have many gold/platinum records on the wall from past clients. The cost of this kind of facility can be as high as $3,000/day US for the most “famous ears” and as low as $1,000/day.

While professional mastering facilities can provide excellent results, these types of rooms differ from world class rooms in that they have less awesome gear, less awesome speakers, smaller rooms and usually no “famous ears”. The cost is also more in line with what indie projects can afford ($65-75/hour).

Whether professional or world class, it all still comes down to PEOPLE. The wrong person in a world class mastering may not do any better than as the right person in a professional mastering room.

As I mentioned earlier, a non-professional mastering room is usually a home studio with someone who happens to have a few of the main ingredients to be able to “master” a project. Many times, when I have worked on a demo project, I actually do look for this kind of situation. Since the “mastering” needs of a demo are limited to putting the songs in correct order and basic volume matching, this type of situation will often suffice. However, in today’s world, there are so many musicians and budding engineers able to afford this kind of equipment, you must be careful who you are dealing with … successful results are not necessarily guaranteed.

To clarify the basic functions during a mastering session, here’s a list of mastering’s 5 main jobs:

1. To EQ and compress each existing mix. This allows you to
a) enhance an already good sounding mix and/or
b) make up for any inconsistencies possibly due to an inaccurate listening environment at the mix studio, late night mixing, etc.
2. To Edit … clean up the head and tail of each song and smooth out or create fades. Often, we’ll have more than one version of a mix and we can use bits and pieces from those different mixes. Thanks to editing programs, we can cut and paste pieces of several mixes together as easily as cutting and pasting text in a word document.
3. To put songs in correct order and decide amount of seconds in between each song.
4. To match levels song to song. Consistent matched volumes all the way through the album is important so the consumer doesn’t have to turn the volume up or down for each song.
5. To put program material into the format required by the CD manufacturer. (CDR, exabyte)

Mastering is often referred to as the “court of last appeal” or the “icing on the cake” and it is VERY TRUE. This is the last opportunity to make your project sound as good as possible. Never skip — or skimp — on this on this very important last step.

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.

Adventures in Straying from the Norm by Karen Kane

November 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.

Preparing To Tour From A Sound Engineer’s Standpoint by David Norman

November 18th, 2002

Long before the band comes in for the final tour dress rehearsals, they should have rehearsed on their own so that the time for production rehearsals can be used to get the band and crew on the same page on the look, design and flow of the show.

The production rehearsals should be used for several different things; making the final list of equipment that will be needed BEFORE the tour starts, making an equipment manifest, learning the show for sound cues, becoming familiar with the song order, working on making work tapes for all concerned for light programming and mixing purposes and there’s tons more.

Make sure to have all road cases colour-coded, stenciled, numbered and listed with Destination (Dressing Room, Stage Left, Stage Right, Production, Do Not Tip, Up/Down Arrows, etc.). The order of the truck pack can be easily identified with numbering of each case.

During these rehearsals, the sound crew should have as many cables as possible loomed together and labeled clearly. This reduces patching on a daily basis, because patching often has to done with limited lighting and space in dark corners on and under the stage. The crew should also have all consoles clearly labeled per their respective input channels and all outboard gear should also be programmed and tested for each particular song. Rehearsal time also should be used to get the crew working together as a team. The setup schedule should be discussed so that everyone knows how each day of the tour will progress. The lead in these conversations will usually be with your Production Manager and your Stage Manager. The time taken for brief meetings with all crewmembers saves arguments or discussions during setup.

During rehearsals, make sure you have huge poster boards to write the songlist down so that everyone can see it. Tape it pretty high. That way, you don’t have to have several set lists lying around that people are constantly losing. Make sure to record all of the rehearsals as well.

A final drafting of a stage plot and input list should be done during rehearsals so that you can give to your production manager and/or send to venues in advance so they’ll know what to expect with regards to your setup.

David ‘5-1’ Norman has tour managed and/or production managed and mixed such acts as; Ani DiFranco, Aaron Neville & The Neville Brothers, Roger Daltrey, The British Rock Symphony, John Tesh, They Might Be Giants, Arrested Development, Better Than Ezra, B.B. King, The Fugees, Wyclef Jean and many others. He is currently off the road and doing freelance production work for Concert/Southern Promotions as Production Manager and has worked shows with ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic, Ratdog and Megadeth. He can be reached online at david994@aol.com or you can check out his web site athttp://members.aol.com/david994/.

Finding the Perfect Studio an Interview with Bryan Adams

November 18th, 2002

Professional Sound’s sister publication Canadian Musician recently interviewed Bryan Adams on how he built his studio, the Warehouse Studio, and some of his best recording experiences:

After recording so many albums and working in some of the best recording studios in the world you must have learned a great deal about what makes a studio great. How did you incorporate this experience into the design of your facility?

Bryan Adams: My “role model” was the 1980s Power Station in NYC (before it changed). All the isolation booths, the style of desks (SSL and Neve), live chambers, informal atmosphere and a really top technical staff. But most of all … the location. I wanted my studio to be in the centre of the city where all the action is, not tucked out in the middle of nowhere. Musicians want to party and have a little bit of a life. You don’t get that with most studios because they are normally tucked away in industrial complexes or in the rural countryside! Who wants to work in place like that? Not me. I want a little interaction with the world.

When you didn’t own your own studio what considerations were taken into account when choosing a studio to work in? How did you know when a studio was right for you?

BA: That was mostly a decision Bob (Clearmountain) and I would make. We ended up recording in my house a lot before the studio was built downtown [Vancouver, BC]. We’d just rip whatever place we were at apart until we got what we wanted.

What do you think are the major pitfalls in the traditional commercial recording studio?

BA: You’ve got to have someone that really cares about studio life if you want it to work. A lot of the best studios are run by people who were either engineers or producers at one point, or they are technically minded. My studio was designed and is run like a battleship by Ron Vermuelen, who has worked with me since the mid-’80s. I’d have no studio if it wasn’t for him.

Interconnecting Multiple Sound Systems by Bruce Bartlett

November 18th, 2002

At concerts, you often see three audio systems in use: house PA, recording, and broadcast. Here are some tips on connecting those systems without creating ground loops and hum.

Consider using a single power distro system, and connect all three systems’ power cables to that distro. Make sure the distro can handle the total current requirements of the three systems.

If you hear hum or buzz when the systems are connected, first make sure that the signal source is clean. You might be hearing a broken snake shield or an unused bass guitar input.

If hum persists, experiment with flipping the ground-lift switches on the splitter and on the direct boxes. If there is no ground-lift switch, insert an adapter that lifts the cable shield at the input of the system you’re feeding. On some jobs you need to lift almost every ground. On others you need to tie all the grounds. The correct ground-lift setting can change from day to day due to a change in the lighting. Expect to do some trial and error adjustments.

Often, a radio station or video crew will take an audio feed from your mixing console. In this case, you can prevent a hum problem by using a console with transformer-isolated inputs and outputs. Or you can use a 1:1 audio isolation transformer between the console and the feeds. Some excellent isolation transformers are made by Jensen (phone (818) 374-5857, (www.jensen-transformers.com). Finally, try a distribution amp with several transformer-isolated feeds.

Bruce Bartlett is the Senior Microphone Design Engineer at Crown International.

Helping The Master by Nick Blagona

November 18th, 2002

“Could you make this bigger, louder, heavier, tighter, brighter, polite, less polite, more blue, less green, etc.,” – these are the types of questions I’m asked on a daily basis in connection with mastering. And yes I can do it, with one fundamental catch: in most cases, the mixes I get sound better on analog.

Mixing to DAT is by far the cheapest way of making a decent record, particularly if you use the great converters on today’s market and 24-bit DAT machines. Always – and I can’t stress this enough – ID your mixes properly, highlighting the mix you want mastered. If you can’t be there in person, write/fax the engineer your thoughts about what needs to be done to any of the mixes, the order of the songs and desired space between the songs. Make sure to tell the Mastering Engineer which tools were used, such as the console, DAT recorder, the converter and so on. Never send a compiled DAT of the album. I’ve had DATs sent to me that were maximized, ends being chopped off and a whole lot of other things that cause me to utter expletives. Always record at 44.1 kHz. All CDs are clocked at that frequency and changing from 48 to 44.1 kHz degrades the sound. And it’s always a good idea to make safeties of your DAT. Record a 1 kHz tone for about 30 s econds at the top of tape, because that tells me about the left-right balance of the mixing console. What level should I record the tone at, you ask? If the peak average of your mix is, for example, 12 dB, you should record a tone of … 12 dB. This gives you 12 dB headroom above 0 dB from your mixing console before clipping. The difference between 0 dB analog and 0 dB digital is that, in analog recording, 0 dB is normal level and 0 dB digital is the max. That’s why analog is great. When you start hitting stuff above 0 dB the tape starts to saturate. Somehow the music has some “glue” to it. When passing through -12 dB with digital, you’re passing through air. Passing through 0 dB digital, you’re dead.

Nick Blagona is Chief Mastering Engineer at Metalworks Studios in Mississauga, ON.


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