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Sound Advice

Figuring Acoustics Into the Mix by Steve Parton

August 18th, 2002

What happens when an acoustic guitar is added to a typical electric rock band’s setup? With drums, bass, vocals and electric guitar, things are pretty much blended together for a sound that everyone is already familiar with. Often, audience members who can see an acoustic guitar onstage can’t hear it, usually because it’s too tinny and the sound tech just turned it down; or it’s feeding back and the player turned it down; or – it’s just a prop.

If an acoustic guitar is next to an electric one, rather than trying to compete for volume (the acoustic will usually lose), I prefer to layer them. Where an electric guitar’s presence is found around 3 to 5 kHz, an acoustic’s clarity and sparkle can be enhanced – or even pushed – to 6 or 7 kHz. The fundamental body of both guitar sounds begins at around 300 Hz, so I usually grant this area to the electric guitar, as too much 300-350 Hz causes feedback in an acoustic guitar anyway. Bob Mould uses this production technique with great success on his Sugar recordings.

Steve Parton, is a Montreal-based sound tech recently returned from a Western Canada tour as live sound engineer with the Mahones.

Calling Spot Cues by Howard Ungerleider

August 18th, 2002

Calling spot cues usually involves remembering the names of at least 12 IATSE union workers who change on a nightly basis!

So that you are not calling the name of a prior evening’s spot operator, it’s a good idea to produce a visual spot chart handy at your lighting console. This can sometimes be the most disappointing aspect of the show for a variety of reasons; namely, these individuals do the same job every time for different shows and can be less than enthusiastic about your show or the standards you like to uphold. Novices have trouble with timing and have been known to pick up the guitar tech for a solo rather than the artist. Seasoned veterans, on the other hand, sometimes like to sit in their chairs expecting two or three cues; because I sometimes use spots to create part of a look, I may call 30 or more cues they’re not expecting. I often hear them say I’ve given them a good workout. Some directors use computer-operated spots controlled from the console. I don’t use this method for two reasons: one is that the look becomes very mechanical and does not have the element of subtlety. The other has to do with lack of control when the computer inevitably crashes!

Howard Ungerleider, (Art in Motion, Internal Affairs International) has designed shows for Rod Stewart, Rush, Def Leppard, Queensryche, Tesla, Kim Mitchell and Larry Gowan. He also designs for movies, videos, television, corporate shows and architectural structures.

Making Music With Our Ears by Ron Skinner

August 18th, 2002

Over the past decade we have seen the recording industry become more and more dependant on the use of electronics in the creation of our music. The advent of the computer has added a new dimension to the way we record and listen to music. We now have a large selection of inexpensive samplers, keyboards and music sequencing programs at our disposal. For a relatively small investment, a musician can now create high quality recordings in his/her basement. This new technology has spawned a revolution in the music industry and has brought music out of the studio and into the home.

But as we all know, with every positive action there must be an equal and opposite reaction. The development of these new technologies has allowed us greater freedom and creativity; but, at the same time, we may be getting spoiled. When you can hit a key on a keyboard and get a killer kick drum sound, why bother learning how to tune an acoustic drum kit? Or, if you know that you can always rely on your guitar tuner, why bother learning how to tune the guitar? This constant reliance on electronics may actually deter us from making real music.

The use of electronic devices and computer technology now touches every aspect of our industry – studio designers use computers as a ‘quick fix’ in the acoustic design of recording studio control rooms; recording engineers depend on Real Time Spectral Analyzers to ensure that their mix ‘looks’ like everyone else’s; and musicians may have never actually played an acoustic instrument! These are all examples of how technology could be misused. Instead of relying on technology, we should use it to enhance our skills and increase our artistic potential.

Technology is a tool that allows us to be more productive and creative. It allows us greater flexibility and the ability to be precise in our work. However it’s important to remember that it is only a tool. The final determining factor of the quality of our work should always be what we hear with our ears. We should all make an effort to stop looking at our computers and listen. This way, we can once again start making music with our ears and not our eyes.

Ron Skinner, CBC Radio Technician, Toronto Broadcast Centre, Independent Producer and Recording Engineer

Creating Timeless Recordings by Daniel Lanois

August 18th, 2002

A timeless recording feels right. And a recording that feels right it usually made up of some kind of truth – for example, a true documentation of how people were playing in the room at that time, uninterrupted by external opinion. If something has a netural feeling, then that’s also a real good ingredient for timelessness.

The irony of timelessness is that sometimes, the most dated things are timeless. You listen to a P-Funk record from the early 70’s – and there’s a crass wah-wah pedal that is dated specific to the day – and everybody thinks it’s wonderful and timeless! I think it’s because there was so much commitment that went into it; it was so much the ‘sound of the moment’ and done with such naivete that it is timeless. Naivete is not something that you can be aware of when you’re trying to work, it’s something that you’re aware of maybe a year down the road; but it’s also a pretty important ingredient to recordings you want to keep listening to.

Daniel Lanois, recording artist, producer (U2, Robbie Robertson, Peter Gabriel)

Recording Vocals Without Headphones? by George Kourounis

August 18th, 2002

What? Is he crazy? You can’t record vocals without headphones! That would be absurd… Well, why not? Once you know the rules then you can start to break them – and anyway, some singers hate wearing them.

First of all, yes, it is easier to record vocal tracks while the singer is wearing headphones because you have more control over the recording environment. Dealing with things such as feedback, headphone leakage and communications with the control room are much easier when the singer has a pair of cans strpped to the side of his head. But there are other ways to record singers that may be less ‘orthodox’, but worth experimenting with.

Set up your vocal mic as you normally would, but instead of using headphones, use the studio speakers for you audio playback. Don’t send much (or any) vocals through the cue feed in order to revent feedback and adjust the volume of the speakers so that the singer can hear himself and is comfortable with the level. Now what you need to do is set up another microphone and point it away from the vocalist towards the studio speakers. This mic is there to pick up the sound of the speakers, which is basically the same as the unwanted leakage entering our vocal mic. Once in the control room, take the signal from the second microphone, invert its phase by 180 degrees and combine it with your vocal signal. This will cause your leakage to cancel itself out, leaving you with your original voice… sans leakage.

Granted, this technique is not foolproof and you definitely wouldn’t want to use it on every session, but you’d be surprised at how good the raw sound can be. Also, since many singers don’t like the unnatural sensation of singing with headphones on, this is a viable alternative. After all, most singers don’t practice with headphones on, at least the ones I know.

George Kourounis, Recording Engineer & Studio Instructor – Trebas Institute

Recording Electric Guitar Feedback by George Kourounis

August 18th, 2002

The sound of a piercing, overdriven guitar on the brink of feeding back into a chaotic, sonic assault is music to many people’s ears. To some, it means early eviction from their apartment and disturbing the peace charges. Nevertheless, recording electric guitar feedback can be a challenging endeavour due to the unique nature of the sound source.

The usual method of obtaining feedback from an electric guitar is to position the player in close proximity to their amplifier and turn it up to 11. The sound from the amp is loud enough to enter the guitar and gets amplified again, exiting the amp’s speakers and cousing a feedback loop. It is often difficult for the guitarist to control the feedback because he/she has to find the exact spot to aim the guitar in order to get a rich,, useable feedback tone without causing screeching howling. It is this unpredictable tendency that makes feedback tricky to record.

One thing that you might want to try is riding your level to tape. If you are manually riding your record levels, then you have the option of fading the feedback in and out, thus eliminating extraneous thuds, squeaks and ringing open strings which tend to pollute your tracks and are nearly impossible to scrub out later. It also allows you to vary the quitar’s levels to suit the mood of the song. This all might sound obvious, but it’s the little things that separate the good recordings from the great ones.

Also, in order to get the guitar to feed back properly, the amplifier must be set to rather high volume. Now, because the guitarist needs tobe close to the amp, his/her headphones need to be loud enough in order for them to actually hear the song that they’re playing to. You could just crank up the headphone feed and hope you don’t kill anyone, or you could give them a pair of earplugs to wear. The earplugs will bring the volume down to a bearable level so that your player doesn’t go deaf while recording those feedback-soaked solos.

George Kourounis, Studio Instructor, Trebas Institute.

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