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Sound Advice

Recording Vocals Without Headphones by Doug McClement

November 18th, 2002

Sometimes you’ll find that a vocalist has a hard time monitoring bed tracks through headphones. Here’s a trick I use to overcome that problem.

I set up the vocal mic and put a pair of Auratones, or similar small monitors, about three feet on either side of the microphone; I use a tape measure to ensure that the they are equidistant. I place the speakers 90 degrees off axis and point them directly at the microphone. I then feed the monitors from a mono cue mix buss, and flip the phase on one of them. Sometimes I roll off a bit of top and bottom as well. The vocalist will hear the speakers, due to the distance between his or her ears, but the speaker output will be 180 degrees out of phase at the mic capsule. Therefore, the bedtrack bleed, though not absolutely gone, will be down by about 30 dB.

Take care not to feed anything to the speakers that you don’t intend to use in the final mix, and don’t run them any louder than necessary for the vocalist to sing in tune and in time. A little bit of bleed won’t kill you. No one ever decided not to buy an album because there was a bit of instrumental bleed in the vocal mic! If you degrade the hi-fi quality by 5 per cent, but improve the performance by 30 per cent, it’s a no-brainer. Always let the technology serve the art!

Doug McClement owns LiveWire Remote Recorders in Toronto.

Digital Reverb… by John Klepko

November 18th, 2002

Close-miked vocal tracks can often produce strange splatters of high-frequency noise when fed through a digital reverb algorithm. If your goal is a smooth and natural reverberation, then this effect can be distracting. This effect doesn’t really happen in natural reverberant environments like the concert halls and cathedrals that these algorithms are modelled after, unless you are feeding a close-miked vocal through a loud PA system in such an acoustical space. The problem lies in the “s” and “t” sibilant consonants that are aggravated into a type of high-frequency overload distortion by the microphone itself. The simple solution here is to insert a de-esser into the aux send signal path. This will suppress the sibilants that would over-excite the reverb.

In a recording situation, another solution is to place an additional microphone to the side or behind the singer, with the signal acting as a reverb feed only. The sound from these microphone positions will not have any sibilants.

Close-miked acoustic guitar signals can also play havoc with digital reverbs: they exaggerate the squeaks produced by the fret board hand movement. Here again, you could use a spare microphone (or two) placed behind the player as a reverb send signal. The sound, as picked up from behind, will be less detailed but fuller and rounder. This will provide a more indirect “average” feed to the reverb that will be void of those extraneous hand noises.

Another solution I have often used is to place a (cheap) transducer-pickup on the guitar. In this application the pickup signal again lacks the highs and squeaks present in a front placed main microphone. This smoother, more average sound is better suited as a reverb feed.

John Klepko is a sound engineer/producer and musician based in Montreal, PQ. He is currently in the final throes of his Ph.D. music degree (from McGill University) in the area of surround-sound. John also teaches courses in sound recording at McGill University and Concordia University.

Don’t Let The Software Push You Around! by David Green

November 18th, 2002

There are many well known postulates to Murphy’s Law, but none so thoroughly corroborated as ‘Interchangeable Parts Won’t’ in the wonderful world of digital audio. We are all aware of the attributes of DAW’s (Digital Audio Workstations) and the virtually (an interesting choice of word) exponential growth in their functionality, but what happens when you want to interface with someone or utilize a feature on a different platform? Welcome to the world of file exchange.

This has been a major problem particularly for those of us who regularly collaborate on projects and finally there is a light, actually several lights at the end of the tunnel. The voice that has caught the attention of the manufactures is H-TAC (Hollywood Technical Audio Committee). Their group has come up with a proposal for a universal rendered file format that they call ProWave. In addition, the AES (Audio Engineering Society) has formed a committee to develop a recommended standard that they are calling AES-31, and Microsoft (Microsoft) and Avid (Avid) are working together on a AAF (Advanced Authoring Format).

All of that is down the road apiece as the song goes, but in the short term TimeLine recently introduced TransAudio PipeLine, a Windows or NT-based utility program to provide file backup, export and TapeMode conversion. The initial release will read ProTools, Akai, WaveFrame, OMF/SDII, DEVA and Sonic Solutions. Export formats include WaveFrame, OMF/SDII and ProTools.

All TLA’s aside (Three Letter Acronyms), this is an area that is finally receiving the attention it requires. The ability to exchange file data will become increasingly important as our industry grows. If you’re considering upgrades or changes that involve digital audio, it would be worthwhile to check where each of these initiatives are, and/or ask the manufacturer some pointed questions on the subject.

David Green is Vice-President of Audio at Magnetic North, a Toronto post-production facility.

Using a DAW to Remix an Analog Multitrack Tape by Bruce Bartlett

November 18th, 2002

A rap group recently gave me a multitrack analog tape that they wanted to remix. On two tracks of the tape was a synthesizer playing a stereo mix of MIDI sequencer tracks. On three other tracks were the lead vocal and backup vocals. The group wanted to change the mix of the synth tracks and re-do the mix with the vocals. That was going to be difficult since the MIDI instruments were already mixed to two tracks.

I asked the group if they still had the original MIDI sequencer file. Fortunately, they did. We were able to remix the synth tracks after recording them one at a time onto a hard drive through a 2-channel sound card. The procedure went like this:

1. In the synth, turn on only the bass voice in the sequencer.
2. Record the bass onto one track of a digital audio workstation.
3. In the synth, turn on only the drum’s voice in the sequencer.
4. Record the drums onto another track of the workstation.
5. Repeat these steps for each voice or instrument in the sequence.
6. Copy the vocals, one track at a time, onto tracks in the workstation.
7. In the workstation, slide each track in time to align all the tracks.
8. Using the workstation’s mixing facility, remix the tracks.

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

From School to Studio by Phillip Demetro

November 18th, 2002

Pretty much every engineer has a different story about how they broke into the industry. Some engineers fell into it accidentally, others have been into audio for as long as they can remember. Older engineers had little, if any, formal training. Most of them showed up at a studio somewhere, got themselves endeared to a manager or an engineer there, started running errands for them and 10, 20, 30 years later find themselves the revered elders of the industry.

For young engineers, it is not quite like that. Many audio facilities, while willing to give a new engineer a couple of breaks, usually do not have the time to teach someone from scratch how to record, mix or master. These days you have to learn audio engineering pretty much outside of a professional studio. There is the formal education option of going to technical school and then slaving away doing school-arranged studio internships. The other option is a bit more free spirited by buying whatever new — or used — equipment you can afford, throwing out the instructions, re wiring it and in a Zen-like fashion trying to become one with it.

If you want to become an audio engineer, chances are you’ll take both these options. Maybe even at the same time.

Many up-and-coming engineers will have anywhere from one to four years of technical education and a couple of internships before landing their first full-time audio engineering job. I took a one-year diploma which gave me a background in both the technical and business sides of audio engineering. Some might say that a formal education in audio engineering is not important. That you should spend the money you would have spent on tuition to get the equipment, work with it, go out and meet people and try to do a few projects independently. But I think that going to school gave me direction. It gave me the opportunity to learn on some of the equipment, to interact on a daily basis with others with similar interests, and it also gave me the opportunity to intern at professional audio facility.

My mindset when I went into a studio for an internship was to go in and try to take work of off other people’s plates and generally make life easier for them. By finding work to do in the studio and developing my own niche tasks which no one else could or wanted to do, I hoped they would quickly realize they couldn’t function without me.

For me, the process of interning in a studio, Lacquer Channel Mastering in Toronto, was particularly prophetic as this is also where I finally landed my first full time engineering gig (some two years after my internship.) When I started interning there, I pretty much knew from the beginning that there was no job waiting for me at the end of my internship. But I went into it wanting to learn and figuring this was one way to pay my dues which I could somehow collect on later.

In the two years between finishing my schooling/internship and getting my first full-time engineering job, the trick was always to stay interested and involved. I got a job at music equipment dealership and that permitted me to deal daily with people in the industry and people like myself trying to break into it. And it was while working there that I bought some of my own equipment and started freelancing.

Debt is a freelancer’s best friend. If it wasn’t for debt, I don’t think many audio engineers would ever get started. Debt bought me my killer Mac 9600 with Pro Tools 4.3. By that same logic, a Focusrite Blue EQ and a Summit EQ also came my way a little later on with the help of some creative financing.

If you want to have a go at freelancing, you assume the attitude that you would be doing what you’re doing and spending money on the gear even if you were never going to see a single penny from it. Otherwise you’d go nuts when all the bills start pouring in. It may not pay off financially but it sure does pay of morally when you’re able to land a couple of gigs and start climbing that very steep learning curve on your own. And when you’ve invested some serious cash into some nice gear and you start hearing the music coming out of it … well let’s just say that the sound of the music helps drown out the sound of the collections agency.

Freelancing helped me further develop my chops. I also schmoozed Lacquer Channel and gained access to their studios whenever they were closed to use their equipment. This is tough because they have to trust you first, but once your able to get into their good books, having access to a professional studio either in exchange for slave labour during the day (which is what I did) or for a reduced rate can go miles in developing your credibility.

Then after doing that for a couple of years, I had some pretty decent equipment, a pretty decent debt from buying all that equipment and some pretty decent credits to my name. I maintained my friendships at Lacquer Channel and made some friends at a few other studios so when Lacquer Channel needed a new second engineer, I had credits, contacts, gear and a desire to master some cool music.

Phillip Demetro is studio operations manager/second mastering engineer at Lacquer Channel Mastering in Toronto.

Financing Your Way To Success by Corinne Light

November 18th, 2002

One of the most prevalent problems in the production audio business in Canada is a lack of capital to obtain the right equipment to do the larger and more lucrative venues. While the banks seem to take the brunt of the blame for this, they alone cannot be faulted for not understanding how the industry works and who will survive long enough to profitably pay them back. It is up to the individual business person to clearly show why a financing situation is a safe bet and to obtain the funding from the correct sources.

The production industry, whether it is audio, lighting, video or staging, all operate on the same principles. Say you have $1,000,000 in equipment, you earn about $1,000,000 in revenues each year in total for manpower, transportation and equipment rental charges and make about 5-10% in net profits after wages and all expenses are paid. If you wanted to grow by 25% in the next year, you would need more equipment and manpower. Typically, this could mean an additional $250,000 in equipment to achieve this, which can be very difficult to purchase without external financing if you only made 5% or $50,000 profit the year before. Of course, you could always cross-rent your equipment from your competition but somehow this doesn’t make sense to do on a large scale as you are really helping them pay off their equipment and it takes an enormous amount of manpower and cost to do this.

Sometimes it appears as though some businesses have endless amounts of capital available while others, who have been around just as long, can’t seem to borrow even a small amount of funds.

Most companies that get major funding have worked hard to make sure they have presentable financial information on their company that shows clearly that they will and have previously made profit from this kind of investment and have approached the correct funder for the task. This is something that the majority of businesses could do and it is surprising how few actually do it. Because of the enormous inventory requirements needed in the production industry, very few companies can grow to their potential without the aid of external financing, although many try because of their lack of comfort in this area. Care must be taken to obtain financial backing in the correct sequence and to use the correct form of financing for each task.

Many business people first go to the bank to get funding, as they are familiar with them from their daily banking tasks. While this appears to be the logical first choice to most, borrowing from a bank does have its drawbacks and can often limit the overall amount of credit you can obtain. This is caused by the method of securing loans that banks use as in many cases they will attach collateral security to everything you and your company owns to loan an amount of money. These are the dreaded GSAs or General Security Agreements and personal guarantees that allow them to take any or all assets you may have to pay off a loan in case of default. If you have confidence that you can pay back the loan this is not a problem, except that other financiers may not like the idea that if something went wrong, the bank gets theirs and they may get nothing.

Although this looks unfair, it is reasonable to the bank. Banks are in business to loan money and receive money back as payment. They don’t want the item you purchased, they would much rather take easily disposable assets like new inventory, cash, accounts receivable and your house. Product suppliers, while they too would like to be paid in cash, will often give you short-term credit as, being in the same business, your items of inventory have some value to them. However, they have the same problems as retail dealers, they are not banks and usually don’t have the resources to give long-term financing to everyone, even if they wanted to. Supplier credit should be used only to finance short-term inventory turnover and sales not your long-term inventories.

While product suppliers can be more liberal with credit than banks, even 12 month financing on production inventory can be detrimental to some companies; it is difficult to grow when the profit earned on an item is less than the ongoing payments to obtain the item in the first place. Many have built their business on the “leap-frog” method of financing but it is a painful way of doing it and just as many businesses have suffered years of cash flow and personal income pain because of it. Besides, product suppliers love cash and some will give additional discounts to get it quicker.

DInvestors are wonderful if you can find one but are really expensive if you do actually make the profits you promised them. Reasonably, an investor wants to make more than interest on their money for the risk they are taking.

Lease companies are ideal for long term financing but are not easy to obtain funds from unless you want a car, computer or photocopier. In our industry, it can sometimes be hard to obtain funds for inventories. Understandably, lease companies can be nervous about leasing equipment that does not stay in one location. As well, restaurants and bars do not, on average have a reputation of longevity and they are often confused or identified with our industry.

However, properly approached, leasing companies can be an invaluable source of capital, especially for production inventories.

One of the principal differences between leasing companies and banks is that while banks loan money, leasing companies buy the goods for you and charge you a monthly fee to use it. While this sounds like you don’t actually own the item, which you don’t, the leasing company doesn’t really want to own the item either and it is usual to pre-arrange a buyout at the end of the lease term.

In reality, leasing is just another format of lending funds and earning money because of it. A lease is more of a long-term rental contract rather than a loan document and lease companies have less security to collect funds, in case of default, than banks if something goes wrong. The bank usually can take everything, except the leased items, which the lease company owns. Lease companies like the idea that you were approved for bank credit but know that they stand to lose everything, except the item itself, if you owe the bank too much.

By using the bank line of credit for short-term financing of purchases and accounts receivables and leasing for production inventories, a combined larger amount of credit can usually be obtained.

Many make the mistake of focusing in on the cost of leasing versus bank loans. It is easy to forget that you are in business to make money, not to save money. Banks alone are fine as long as they can provide all the funds you require when you need it. While leasing can be a few percent more, this should not affect your profits nearly as much as not having the funds at all. Too many companies use up their available bank credit to buy inventory items then suffer from missed cash payments discounts, paying supplier interest and bad credit ratings, all of which are very costly. If you lease first, the leasing company looks at you in a healthy position. Once the bank comes in, the leasing company probably won’t give you too much more lease equipment because they are aware that the bank is in first position.

Logic dictates that if you can’t make more than 12 or 14 % on your money, you shouldn’t be borrowing it anyway.

Another problem is that, unfortunately, many companies decide to overly depreciate their production equipment inventories to save paying corporate tax. While this is very inviting if you are cash tight it makes you look unprofitable on your statements and nobody wants to lend money to an unprofitable business. Besides, if you intend to sell and replace these items, you are not really deferring much and if you do any major changes, you may inadvertently exceed the corporate tax relief level in a given year and cost yourself excessive tax payments.

In this perspective, when it comes to financing, showing a profit and paying tax is a good thing. It will help get you the financing you require to achieve your potential. Remember that it is difficult to see the difference between a company who is trying to avoid paying tax and one that just can’t make a profit.

In our industry, growing 20% can mean 20% more equipment need to be purchased so proper financing can be critical.

Understanding a bit about financing and working with your company’s financial information to maximize your credit capabilities will help you grow and profit using other people’s money.

Corinne Light is the President of Light Financial Corporation. She can be contacted at c@lightfinancialleasing.com


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