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Sound Advice

EQ And Mixing Made Easy – by Gary Stokes

October 18th, 2002

EQing individual channels: “Try to keep in mind, that all sounds have all frequencies and any EQ you do is always a trade-off, or compromise, so it’s important to pay attention to what you’re losing that’s desirable, when you start mercilessly notching out something that offends you. I think a good example is electric guitar because sometimes it’s better to boost either side of what tone is offensive and thereby preserve more of the overall tone rather than notching out something that bothers you.”

Mixing: “Everyone’s first impulse when listening to a band playing, and you’ve got complete control over the mix, is to turn up whatever element of the mix that is too quiet. I think the first thing you should ask yourself is what elements are too loud and are masking what you want to hear. What is bothering you if you can’t hear the guitar for example. Find what’s covering the guitar. See if you can get away with turning something down first before you move something up. Usually in the end, you’ll be less likely to paint yourself into a corner of always trying to turn everything up louder than everything else and consequently running out of headroom and making the overall mix too loud for the audience and everything else goes along with that. Before you turn something up think of what you can turn down to make it sound better.”

Gary Stokes is Sarah McLachlan’s sound engineer and is featured in this issue of Professional Sound.

Upgrading the Dolby 363 SR by Barry Lubotta

October 18th, 2002

As a firm believer in the superior sonic qualities of ½” analog versus DAT as a two-track mixdown format, I was excited several months ago to purchase a used Dolby 363 SR two channel noise reduction unit to complement our ½” machine. Since we already had Dolby SR on our 24-track recorder, I expected the same kind of performance when I wired in the Dolby 363. To my surprise, I found the sound quality of my tapes through the 363 somewhat disappointing. The problem was that the high end seemed to lose its sparkle and the soundstage shrunk. These less than flattering results made me question whether I was better off with or without noise reduction on our two-track machine. And then it struck me as to why I have seen so many used 363s offered for sale over the past few years – probably unhappy owners.

Now my short-term memory isn’t quite as good as it used to be, but there is nothing wrong with my long-term recall. And sure enough, driving home that night I remembered reading an article that appeared in REP magazine several years ago which dealt with modifications to the Dolby 363 SR. Later that evening I was knee deep in old magazines and had just about given up hope of ever finding the piece in question. Down to my last REP I scanned the index and there it was on page 62 of the May 1991 issue – “Upgrading the Dolby 363 SR” by Jim Williams. Seems like I was not the only one who found that the original unit was somewhat lacking. This excellent article described the less than exceptional parts used by Dolby in manufacturing the 363, and went on to give detailed instructions on how to modify the unit so that it would regain it’s clarity, transient response, and sparkle.

I contacted David Miller at Digital Ears in Toronto and asked him to perform the upgrade for me since I knew it was beyond my modest capabilities. When I dive into a piece of equipment, my philosophy has always been that I will either make an improvement or destroy the thing entirely, and in this case the odds seemed to favour the latter result. Dave and I discussed the mod and agreed that we could take the improvements one step further by replacing some capacitors and other ICs in the signal path. Since the Dolby 363s are no longer under warranty, there was no risk of alienating Dolby the company.

A week later David delivered the upgraded 363 and I plugged it in for a few days so the new components could break in. When I got around to recording music through the system, the improvement in sound quality was immediate and easy to hear. The detail and sparkle from my source came through unchanged, as it should have in the first place. I’d have to say the unit now sounds better than our 24 channel Dolby SR.

If you already own a Dolby 363 SR unit, you owe it to yourself to experience a significant improvement for a modest price. The cost of the mod was just under $400. Now the 363 can do the job it was designed for.

I find it surprising and disturbing that Dolby utilized such low quality audio parts in a device that was never cheap to begin with. By investing in this modest upgrade, you can play your part in keeping analog sound quality alive and kicking into the next century.

Barry Lubotta is the owner of Pizazzudio Recording Studio in Toronto, ON.

Listen To The Artists by Gary Stokes

October 18th, 2002

“You need to be intimately aware of what is stage sound and what is coming from the PA you’re controlling. I think all sound engineers like to have total control of the sound.

“There’s sort of a natural desire to do the best job possible but you have to be aware of what sound you’re actually controlling with the knobs under your fingers, what sound is coming off the stage, or just inherently in the venue. A good exercise is to mute the main PA and just listen to the sound of the band on the stage from the audience. It’s also very important to go and listen to the sound onstage as well. This gives you a better awareness of what you’re trying to achieve, as well as what you can and can’t achieve. Sometimes it’s good to know if you’re sitting out in the audience, if all the drums are balanced from that perspective without you turning the PA on, or if the snare drum or guitar is too loud.

“You have to have a constant awareness of these things when you’re mixing. It’s good to work with the musicians onstage, and the monitor engineer if there is one to control the stage levels, but don’t be so self-centered that you’re only doing it so you have absolute control. It’s important to help them do the control levels not only to protect their hearing onstage but to get a good mix in the house. It’s also important not to be so autocratic and announce their onstage levels that they actually try to make it sound better by turning it down so much that they can’t actually perform well.

“It’s important to not be so harsh that you actually change the stage sound to such a degree that musicians who have been playing for years, and have their act together, start playing worse. I think a lot of people go that far because they’re trying to be in control over the sound in front, and they don’t pay attention to what the musicians need onstage to play the best music possible. The key is knowing what is stage sound and what is not. It’s better to sound good at a lower volume and only have partial control and supplement the stage sound, than it is to get complete control by turning it up two or three times as loud so that you have control over everything. That’s not always a better solution. In fact often it’s worse. You can find a way by listening to the sound onstage without the PA on. You may decide that something sounds pretty good that way. Some things don’t necessarily need a lot of help from the PA. Don’t just assume that everything has to be completely under your control at all times.”

Gary Stokes is a live sound engineer from Toronto, ON who has recently done sound for Sarah McLachlan on her Lilith Fair tour.

Protect Yourself From Solder Fumes by Barry Lubotta

October 18th, 2002

Most everyone who works in the recording industry has had the occasion at one time or another to come into contact with solder being melted by a soldering iron.

Whether it was a bad cable, wiring up a patching bay, or making an equipment repair the solution required a hot iron and solder.

The downside of this invaluable studio tool is that the very process by necessity spews out poisonous chemicals such as salicylic acid and pinene. The person doing the work by definition is in close proximity to the byproducts of the soldering process. Anyone breathing in fumes containing these noxious components can experience headaches, nausea, eye diseases and worse.

There have always been solder smoke removers available for purchase. Trouble is they cost about $700 Canadian and up. My experience has been that when that type of money is lying around in a studio environment, it almost always goes for a new piece of gear rather than anything related to extending one’s life expectancy.

Recently I came across a less expensive device that claims to remove 80% of the harmful pollutants from solder. It is a new product that claims to absorb noxious lead fumes using an activated carbon filter and a high efficiency fan. I ordered this portable device and it works beautifully. While not as good as an expensive professional absorber, it is nonetheless very effective at drawing the solder smoke away from the user and absorbing most of the bad stuff into its filter. This product is available through Techni-Tool at (610) 941-2400. Extra filters can also be ordered.

Barry Lubotta is the owner of Pizzazudio in Toronto, ON

It’s All About Communication by Karen Kane

October 18th, 2002

In my opinion, one of the first necessities for being a good Producer /Engineer/Arranger is to establish good communication with the artist. You really need to understand what the artist desires musically. Only then, can you work together and create a production that’s appropriate for the music. One of the biggest challenges in recording music is to not only pick the right musicians for a particular project, but to communicate to them exactly what we want from them musically, (in terms of the arrangement of their part). Contrary to what some people think, a lot of producers today are NOT arrangers. Either they are not qualified to be arrangers or they choose other options to communicate specific musical ideas to the musicians. In today’s world of computers and keyboards, where you can create a bass/drum/keyboard part without extensive arrangement skills in a matter of minutes, the producing/arranging arena has changed drastically. This is not to say that this is bad, it’s just a different world then it used to be.

One of my own personal styles for “arranging” works in this way. After pre-production, when the song structures are finalized, I make a home recording and a bar/chord chart of each song (even a boom box will do for this). I send each musician a cassette and charts of the songs that they are playing on. They then can get familiar with the music on their own time before coming to the studio session. One tip here: make sure the cassette machine that you use records at “concert pitch”, so that the key of the songs on the tape matches the key of the chord chart. I like to send these tapes 5-6 weeks in advance of the recording sessions. If budget allows, rehearsals with the studio players are helpful but not always necessary. Usually, these kinds of musicians are so talented and experienced, that they play amazing things even seeing and hearing a song for the first time.
After working closely with the artist during pre-production, by the time the studio session comes around, we have a very good idea of what we are wanting from each musician. As each musician comes in to do his/her part, I am confident about communicating to them what it is that we are after musically. With the valuable preparation time that the musicians have done rehearsals with the studio players are helpful but not always necessary. Usually, these kinds of musicians are so talented and experienced, that they play amazing things even seeing and hearing a song for the first time.

After working closely with the artist during pre-production, by the time the studio session comes around, we have a very good idea of what we are wanting from each musician. As each musician comes in to do his/her part, I am confident about communicating to them what it is that we are after musically. With the valuable preparation time that the musicians have done on their own and the combination of artist and producer knowing what they want, the production ‘team’ can usually fine-tune a musician’s part right there on the spot. All it takes is good communication skills. On a rare occasion, if the musician can read music, a capable artist or producer will write out a specific part that they hear in their head during the session. On other occasions, I have seen fully written out charts scrapped completely for a more “improvised” feel.

Some producers who are exceptional arrangers (like David Foster), will most likely write out all the arrangements. Similarly, other producers who do not like input from musicians, and want them only to play what’s written – whether it’s what they have written or a hired arranger’s part – I’ll also use fully orchestrated parts. One nice thing about the less strict, written out method is that I can integrate a musician’s creative input to the project. In fact, it opens up the field of producing and arranging to anyone with good musical instincts and communications skills. Never again will producing or arranging be just for people who can read and write music. Since the studio musicians that I hire excel at this kind of creative format, I always get amazing results. All in all, in my opinion, it makes for a richer project.

Freelance Recording Engineer and Producer Karen Kane is a transplanted American, now based in Toronto, ON. She can be contacted via e-mail at mixmama@astral.magic.ca

Recording with “Personality” by Daniel Lanois

October 18th, 2002

“I find that the tape recorder, or the recording device, is almost the link of the chain with the least personality. It’s the link in the chain that gets talked about the most – like ‘Are we going to do it digital? Are we going to do it analog? Should we use dolby SR? Or do we go dolby A? Should we do it at 15, or should we do it at 30? Should we use an Alesis? Should we use Tascam? Should we use the radar system?’ You know, there’s 20 different really great recording devices out there, and they all sound good to me. I did some recording recently on a little 8-track digital TASCAM, and it sounds great. I record on my 24-track with dolby A, at 15 ips, and it sounds amazing.

“So that link in the chain is not nearly as important as all the other links. If you start at the front, the front would be the instrument or the voice – talking about acoustic recording — the instrument or the voice; microphones are next on the chain. If you were to put a Cole’s mic against an AKG 414, the sound difference would be astronomical. You’re going to hear like a 700 percent sound shift. Whereas if you were A-B, the difference between an 8-track digital TASCAM and a 24- rack Studer with dolby A at 15, you might hear a 2% personality shift.

“The kind of harmonica, or how you tune the drum, is real important. The kind of microphone you use and where you place it is real important. I use a Neve 1066 pre-amp. The early ’70s models are really great, with great EQs.

Daniel Lanois in an interview with Nick Krewen (Canadian Musician, July/August 1997)

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