Category Archives for "Engineering"

More Headphone Freakout Solutions

more headphone freakout solutionsI’m always amazed how musicians react to their headphones and cue mixes while recording. Some are extremely picky, needing everything to be as perfect as possible before performing, while others can make do with just about anything that closely resembles a mix and a working headphone or two. Rob Tavaglione recently wrote a nice piece at ProSoundNetwork regarding “Headphone Freakout Solutions” that covered a few things that I never thought of, which prompted me to fill in a few more solutions and tricks that I’ve learned through the years. Here we go.

First from Rob:

  • Try flipping the phase of the mic. This might open up a hole in the center of the cue mix where the vocal can sit better both frequency-wise, and if you’re providing a stereo mix, panning-wise as well. Just remember to flip the phase of the track back for a playback or when you mix.
  • Try some open-back headphones. The isolation of the cue mix might seem too foreign to some players who don’t have a lot of studio experience, so open-back phones might make them feel more comfortable. Watch out for the level so you don’t get too much headphone bleed, or even feedback with vocalists.

Now some of my own.

  • Set a mix up for the players. In these days of personal cue mixers, you’ll find that some players just cannot dial in a mix to save their lives. They know what they want, but just don’t know how to get there. That’s why it’s always best if the engineer sets up a basic mix first, then helps each player tweak it as needed. Remember, in a situation like this, fewer choices work the best.
  • Give the drummer some isolation headphones. Drummers need their headphones loud (especially the click) because they’re usually right in middle of a big ruckus of their own creation. Save everyone some grief with leakage by having the drummer wear some good iso phones.

For vocalists and overdubs in general.

  • The kick, bass, and one main instrument should be prominent in the mix. The kick will keep the singer in the pocket, the bass is the key center, and keeping one basic backbone instrument high in the mix (like a piano or guitar) will help the singer find the pitch.
  • Eliminate chorus or modulation effects. Anything that varies the pitch even a little makes it really difficult for some singers to find the pitch center, so they end up not being able to sing in tune. That nice wide chorus on the keys might be a great effect, but a boring mono part will probably help the singer a little better.

Setting up a great headphone mix is an art in itself, but it’s so important to a player or singer’s performance. Follow these tips and take enough time to get the phones right, and you’ll have happy players, singers and producers.

A Foolproof Method For Miking A Guitar Amp

Sometimes getting an electric guitar sound is dead easy and other times getting it to fit into the track seems nearly impossible. Here’s an excerpt from my Audio Recording Boot Camp book that provides an almost foolproof method for miking a guitar amp.

“Electric guitar recording has evolved through the years, from miking the guitar amp from a distance, to close miking, to using multiple mics, to recording direct and finally using an amplifier emulator. No one technique is better than another. In fact, multiple techniques are frequently used on the same recording.

Electric guitars don’t have need anything fancy to capture them. The frequency response doesn’t go that high or that low, and the more distorted it is, the fewer transients the signal has, making it somewhat easier to capture than other instruments. As a result, dynamic mics are frequently used with good results. That said, sometimes it’s surprising just how good an amp can sound when a large diaphragm condenser or ribbon mic is used, so don’t be afraid to experiment.

Miking The Speaker Cabinet

While many engineers like to use our friend the Shure SM57 in this role, just about any mic can work if you know the sound that you’re looking for and the best way to approach it.

Classic Setup One – Close Miking The Cabinet

Standard guitar amp miking
Figure 1: The standard cabinet miking technique

A) If there’s more than one speaker in the cabinet, listen to them all to find the one that sounds the best (make sure to wear some ear protection). Is one scratchy sounding or distorted? Is one muffled with no high end? Does one have no low end? Find the one with the best balance of frequencies that’s not unintentionally distorted.

B) Place the mic about one inch away from the best sounding speaker in the cabinet and about three quarters of the way between the edge of the speaker and the voice coil (away from the voice coil). Have the guitar player play the song you’re about to record and listen on the monitors. Does it sound like what you heard in the room? Is the sound full enough? Is it too edgy? Is it too bassy? 

C) Move the mic towards the voice coil (the center of the speaker – see Figure 1)). Is the sound still full? Did it get brighter? Did it get bassy?

D) Move the mic towards the outside edge of the speaker. Is the sound still full? Did it brighter? Did it get bassy?

Classic Setup Two – Distance Miking Where The Speakers Converge

Distant guitar cabinet miking image
Figure 2: Distant miking

E) Move the mic about at least a foot away from the speaker or speakers to capture some of the room sound. The ideal distance on a cabinet with two speakers is where the output of both speakers combine (see Figure 2). Does it sound bigger? Can you hear the sound of the room in the recording? Can you hear some frequencies cancel out between the two speakers?

F) Move the mic to the side to capture more of the sound of one of the speaker’s voice coils if more high end is required.

Classic Setup Three – Close and Distance Miking

Close and distant guitar cabinet miking image
Figure 3: Close and distance miking

G) Move the mic back to the best sounding position close to the speaker and add an additional mic at the spot where the sound of the speakers converge, which should be around 18 to 24 inches away. Is the sound still full? Did it get brighter? Did it get bassy? Did it get bigger sounding? Is it closer to what you heard in the room? Is there more of the room sound?

H) Increase the distance to 6 feet if possible (Figure 3). Is the sound still full? Did it brighter? Did it get bassy? Is there more of the room sound?

I) Place both mics at the point where they give the sound closest to what you heard in the room, or what best fits the track when the other instruments are playing.”

As you can see, miking a guitar amp doesn’t have to be a heartache. By following this outline, you should end up with a big and bitey guitar sound that fits your track well without needing to add a lot of EQ or effects.

To read additional excerpts from the Audio Recording Basic Training book, go to the excerpts section of bobbyowsinski.com.

3 Tips To Make Your Online Music Sound Better

3 tips for online musicEveryone wants their music to sound great on Spotify or Pandora, but making a master requires a little more forethought than just getting a loud master. In that spirit, here’s an excerpt from the latest Mastering Engineer’s Handbook 3rd edition that provides 3 tips for a better sounding online music.

1. Turn it down a bit. A song that’s flat-lined at -0.1 dBFS isn’t going to encode as well as a song with some headroom. In iTunes for instance, the AAC encoder sometimes outputs a tad hotter than the source, so there’s some inter-sample overloads that happen at that level that aren’t detected on a typical peak meter, since all DACs respond differently to it. As a result, a level that doesn’t trigger an over on your DAW’s DAC may actually be an over on another playback unit. This is the same for most encoders.

If you back it down to -0.5 or even -1 dB, the encode will sound a lot better and your listener probably won’t be able to tell much of a difference in level anyway. 

2. Don’t squash the master too hard. Masters with some dynamic range encode better. Masters that are squeezed to within an inch of their life don’t; it’s as simple as that. Listeners like it better too. And then there’s the fact that on many services (like Apple Music), normalization occurs so all songs play at the same level. Songs with too much compression sound a lot worse than when there’s just a modest amount.

3. Sometimes rolling off a little of the extreme top end (16kHz and above) can help the encode as well. When any type of data compression is involved, it requires the same common-sense considerations. If you back off on the level, the mix buss compression and the high frequencies, you’ll be surprised just how good your online music can sound.

 Remember that iTunes still does the AAC encoding if that’s one of your intended distribution targets. You’re just providing a file that’s been prepped to sound better after the encode.

Staying Away From Bad Solder Joints

Solder jointsOne of the first things I learned to do when I was a young musician was to solder so I could build and fix my own cables and gear. The number of hours I spent in my parents basement burning my fingers while learning the art is forever seared in my brain.

I rarely do it any more, mostly because we’ve learned to build better cables and connectors that break less frequently, and because I don’t gig anymore so my cables don’t take the abuse they once did. And I no longer build and repair the electronic gear that I use. I hate to say it, but most of the time it’s cheaper to buy something new, and in the case of digital gear, you can’t easily repair a multi-layered board. Ah, for the days of point-to-point wiring!

All that said, soldering is still a valuable skill to master, and it’s something that every musician and everyone that works in a studio should not only learn, but get good at. It does you no good to repair something with a bad solder joint that either won’t work or will fail soon.

This excellent article on common soldering problems is a must for anyone who practices the art to take a look at. The pictures of both good and bad joints are well worth the time and even a bookmark. Some of the examples of ugly solder joints make me cringe, but these are things that you see occasionally. Best to identify and fix them before they cause you a problem down the road. The side graphic tells you a lot, but the article is even better.

There’s nothing like fixing that bad cable yourself while saving a few bucks in the process, but it doesn’t do you much good if it keeps breaking, and this article will help make sure that doesn’t happen.

Engineer Rudy Van Gelder Passes

Rudy Van GlederJazz engineer Rudy Van Gelder passed away last week at age 91, and although many won’t recognize the name, he was a giant in the industry. He was responsible for recording some of the greatest jazz albums ever by artists like John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Donald Byrd, Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins, Wayne Shorter and hundreds more.

While we look to Bruce Swedien as the Godfather of modern engineering, Rudy actually predates him in that he started his career in the mid-1940’s in the days even before tape. He was never a luddite though, as he was always involved with the latest that technology had to offer right up until his final session.

Van Gelder was unique in a many ways. He was the first independent engineer able to make a living from his passion, and like many today, he was self-taught in that he never had a mentor or worked directly for a record label or studio. For the first part of his career, he used a day gig as an optometrist to finance his recording habit (sound familiar). He also had the first home recording studio as well in that he recorded many of his biggest records in the living room of his parent’s house prior to building his own studio.  And on the tech side, he owned one of the first three true recording consoles every built, the others going to Les Paul and a studio in New York City.

Speaking of tech, to the very end Rudy guarded his recording techniques like they were nuclear secrets, never telling or showing anyone any of his methods. Even when photos were taken of recording sessions in his studio, he would move the mics so no one could see their placement. Only in his last years did he finally get an assistant to help. I wanted to get him to do an interview for the Recording Engineer’s Handbook but he would never agree, one of the few engineers that I’ve encountered that ever felt that way.

Rudy was also a big proponent of Neumann mics, being the owner of the second U47 in the United States. Very early he decided that the microphones where a huge part of the sound and deserved special care, so he always handled them with gloves and would never let an artist touch them.

So let’s give it up for Rudy Van Gelder, truly one of the giants in our business. A pretty amazing guy who made some equally amazing recordings.

Record Making With Duke Ellington

Record-Making-with-Duke-EllingtonHere’s a priceless film from 1937 that shows Duke Ellington in the studio recording, and the process of making a vinyl record release afterwards. There’s a lot to notice in the video that will make you appreciate the recording process from back then.

First of all, notice that the band is recorded on a single microphone. The balance of the band is determined by how far away the players are from the mic, so you see the bass, guitar and piano fairly close. You also see the soloists getting up near the mic when it’s their time to wail. It’s amazing how balanced everything is.

The other thing to notice is that everything is being recorded directly to vinyl. This was the era before magnetic tape, so there was no intermediate process in between the band recording and the master.

Finally, the process of making a vinyl record has not changed since 1937, except that there are now automatic stampers. Other than that, it’s still the same!

Oh, and notice that the studio engineers all wear a coat and tie. A little bit formal for making music, don’t you think?

To find out more about this legend, visit the official Duke Ellington site.

 

 

Engineer Ed Cherney On Episode #120 Of My Latest Inner Circle Podcast

Ed CherneyEd Cherney has become one of the legends of the audio end of the music business, having won 3 Grammys, an Emmy award, 5 TEC awards and been inducted into the TEC hall of fame.

His client list is a who’s who of great artists that include Bonnie Riatt, The Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Elton John, Bob Seeger, Sting, and even Spinal Tap, among many more.

Ed’s interview on Episode #120 of my Inner Circle Podcast may be one of the best ever on the show, as Ed tells stories about his struggle as a journeyman engineer before breaking through, the big lesson of his career that came from Ry Cooder, and working with The Rolling Stones and Quincy Jones. A very enjoyable listen!

In the intro I’ll discuss the implication of the quickly falling CD market, and how a new study with a lost Amazonian tribe has lead researchers to believe that the music and tones that we like may be more learned than biologically embedded in us.

You can listen to it at bobbyoinnercircle.com, or via iTunesStitcher, Mixcloud or Google Play.

4 Surround Sound Miking Techniques Perfect For Virtual Reality

With virtual reality becoming more and more popular, surround sound is making a comeback. While most of the concentration on the audio side of things is on mixing, the fact of the matter is that there’s a lot of interesting information that can be captured during recording. Here’s an excerpt from my Recording Engineer’s Handbook that outlines 4 surround sound miking techniques that don’t require anything fancy in terms of microphones or encoders.

Remember that at it’s most basic, surround sound miking is just an extension of normal stereo miking techniques.

1. OCT Surround

Optimized Cardioid Triangle (OCT) is a modified Decca Tree that uses three cardioid microphones in a triangle with the center mic about three inches or so from the center, and the side mics (which face out towards the sides) 15 to 36 inches away from each other. By adding two additional rear cardioids 15 inches back from the L and R and eight inches farther outside the L and R and pointing to the rear, a surround version of OCT can be derived. For better low end response, omni’s may be substituted.

OCT. surround mikingjpg

2. IRT Cross

IRT stands for the German-based “Institute of Radio Technology” where this technique was created. This configuration is in essence a double-ORTF-setup (see ORTF in Chapter 5) with four cardioids arranged in a perfect-square-shape with an angle of 90 degrees to each other respectively. To compensate for the narrower angle compared to ORTF (which is 110 degrees), the distance between the mics is greater (eight inches compared to six inches with ORTF). Strictly speaking, the IRT microphone cross is an array for ambience recording. Its prime characteristic is a transparent and spatial reproduction of the acoustic environment, and was used for many years on NPR’s “Radio Expeditions” spectacular recordings.

IRT cross surround miking

3. Hamasaki Square

The Hamasaki Square configuration is similar to the IRT Cross except that figure 8s are substituted for cardioids. The length of each side is much wider, at about six feet, and the figure-8s have their nulls turned to the front so that this array is relatively insensitive to direct sound.

Hamasaki square surround miking

4. Double M-S

The method uses a standard M-S configuration with the addition of a rear facing cardioid mic.

Double MS surround miking

The aim of any recording is to capture the environment as well as the source, and surround miking accomplishes this goal to the extent that we have never heard before. Any of the above methods add a spaciousness that you simply can’t even approximate with outboard processors or any other previously mentioned miking techniques.

You can read more from The Recording Engineer’s Handbook and my other books on the excerpt section of bobbyowsinski.com.

Measuring Sound Isolation

Measuring Sound IsolationOne of the things that many musicians and engineers don’t realize is that there’s a way to actually measure sound isolation, and this excerpt from my Studio Builder’s Handbook (co-written with Dennis Moody) shows a real world comparison between different materials and isolation levels.

“Before we get into how sound isolation is accomplished, we need to take a small detour into the world of sound transmission measurement to understand why some techniques work better than others.

All materials have what’s known as an STC rating, which stands for Sound Transmission Class and is the measurement of a material or a partition’s ability to block sound over a range of 16 different frequencies from 125Hz to 4kHz (see Figure 4.1 for some examples). The higher the STC rating, the more isolation it provides at certain frequencies.

Isolation Comparisons

It should be noted that there is no single material that will block all frequencies, and that STC measurements only go down to 125Hz. Frequencies below 125Hz (the ones that usually cause the problems with neighbors) are the most difficult to block, while the higher ones past 1kHz are the easiest. That means that STC measurements aren’t the best for determining isolation because they assume that there will be equal energy dispersion and don’t consider low frequencies. To make matters worse, STC measurements sometimes vary widely from testing facility to testing facility.

That being said, STC has been around since 1961 and it’s the standard measurement that laws have been written around, so even though a few new measurement techniques have been designed (the one called MTC, or music transmission class is the most promising), there’s little support in the design industry for it’s adoption. That means that we’re stuck with using STC. The good news is that humans just don’t hear that well at low frequencies so a wall with a high STC usually attenuates the low frequencies enough to provide adequate isolation (providing other factors in transmission are taken care of, like we’ll see later in the chapter).”

You can read more from The Studio Builder’s Handbook and my other books on the excerpt section of bobbyowsinski.com.

7 Traits Of A Great Assistant Engineer

Great Assistant EngineerYou may never work in a studio that has an assistant engineer, and if you own your own gear, you may never be one yourself, but it’s good to find out what an assistant in a major facility like the Record Plant, Capitol, Oceanway or Avatar really needs to know. These 7 tips are excerpted from my Recording Engineer’s Handbook, and many come from the legendary Al Schmitt (who’s won more Grammy’s than any other engineer). They will help you understand what’s expected of an assistant and how to run a professional session, regardless of the level that your on.

1. Good assistants are well-versed in Pro Tools. There are a lot of great DAWs available, but as of the writing of this book, Pro Tools was the standard in every major recording and post studio in the US. Most assistants will also be in charge of running the DAW, and they are better at it than everyone else in the session.

2. Good personal hygiene is a must. No one likes to be in a room with someone who has body oder or bad breath, and artists and producers won’t put up with it. Take a bath, put on clean clothes every day and keep the breath mints handy if you want to keep your job.

3. Good assistants are transparent. When you need them, they’re there; when they’re not needed, they’re in the background. A good assistant is always seen but not heard. He never offers an opinion even when asked. He always has a great attitude and leaves his ego at the door.

4. Good assistants admit mistakes. If you make a mistake, admit it as soon as possible. You may have to take your lumps, but we’ll fix it and move on.

5. Good assistants don’t guess. If someone asks you something that you don’t know, be honest and don’t guess. There are plenty of ways to find something out in a hurry if you don’t know right now.

6. Good assistants keep a notebook. They keep track of all the details of the session, from the setup to the players to the mics used to which songs were recorded in what order, to everything else. It’s a great learning tool, but it may also come in handy later in the project, or the next one.

7. Good assistants know how to make coffee. Coffee is still the fuel that powers a recording session. The better the coffee, the happier everyone will be.

If an assistant engineer exhibits the above traits, it’s likely that they won’t stay an assistant for long if they work hard and have the right attitude. Are there any traits that I missed?

You can read more from The Recording Engineer’s Handbook and my other books on the excerpt section of bobbyowsinski.com.