Category Archives for "Recording"

November 30, 2016

Crappy Sound Checklist

Crappy sound checklistWhether you’re in a live situation or in the studio, things can suddenly sound distorted, or there could be no sound output at all. You can spend a lot of time chasing your tail trying to find out what’s wrong unless you have an orderly procedure to follow that allows you to troubleshoot the system quickly so you can get back making music in short order. If something doesn’t appear to be working or if the sound is noisy or distorted, here’s a checklist to help you get to the bottom of the problem.

If There’s No Audio:

  • Is the mic plugged into the correct channel?
  • Is the Mute switch on the channel engaged?
  • Is the input button on the DAW selected?
  • Is the Mic/Line control raised high enough?
  • Is the master fader at or near zero?
  • Is there an outboard device connected to the insert of the channel or interface? Disconnect it to see if the sound returns. If it does, the fault lies with the outboard device or its cables. Is the device turned on?
  • Is there sound getting to the output? If you have meter deflection but no sound, the problem could be with the amps or speakers. Are they turned on?
  • Try another mic cable
  • Try another microphone.

If The Audio Is Distorted:

  • Are all mics distorted or just one? If all are distorted, then check to see if the amplifiers for the sound system are overloading. Also, check to seen if a speaker is blown.
  • Is the mic input trim control set too high?
  • Is distortion occurring somewhere else in the console or signal path? Use a PFL (pre-fader listen) to check.
  • Are any overload lights on anywhere in the system?
  • Try another mic cable.
  • Try another microphone.

Follow the above checklist and you should find your problem with a minimum amount of time spent.

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

Direct Box Basics

Radial JDI direct boxDirect boxes are something that we use every day in recording, yet take for granted because of their simplicity. Here’s an excerpt from my Recording Engineer’s Handbook that looks at the ins and outs of this useful recording tool.

“Direct Injection (DI or “going direct”) of a signal means that a microphone is bypassed, and the instrument (always electric or electrified) is plugged directly into the console or recording device. This was originally done to cut down on the number of mics (and therefore the leakage) used in a tracking session with a lot of instruments playing simultaneously. However, a DI is now used because it either makes the instrument sound better (like in the case of electric keyboards) or is just easier and faster.

Why can’t you just plug your guitar or keyboard directly into the mic preamp without the direct box? Most preamps now have a separate input dedicated for instruments, but there was a time when that wasn’t the case and plugging an electric guitar (for instance) into an XLR mic input would cause an impedance mismatch that would change the frequency response of the instrument (although it wouldn’t hurt anything), usually causing the high frequencies to drop off and therefore make the instrument sound dull.

Advantages of Direct Injection
There are a number of reasons to use direct injection when recording:

  • Direct Box transformers provide ground isolation and allow long cable runs from high impedance sources like guitars and keyboards without excessive bandwidth loss.
  • The extremely high impedance of the DI insures a perfect match with almost every kind of pickup to provide a warmer, more natural sound.
  • The length of cable can be extended up to 50 feet without signal degradation.

Direct Box Types
There are two basic types of direct boxes; active (which can provide gain to the audio signal and therefore needs electronics requiring either battery or AC power), or passive (which provides no gain and doesn’t require power). Which is better? Once again, there are good and poor examples of each. Generally speaking, the more you pay the higher quality they are.

An active DI sometimes has enough gain to be able to actually replace the mic amp and connect directly to your DAW.

An excellent passive DI can be built around the fine Jensen transformer specially designed for the task (www.jensen-transformers.com for do-it-yourself instructions) but you can buy basically the same thing from Radial Engineering in their JDI direct box (see the figure on the left). Also, most modern mic pres now come with a separate DI input on a 1/4” guitar jack.

Direct Box Setup
Not much setup is required to use a direct box. For the most part, you just plug the instrument in and play. About the only thing that you might have to set is the gain on an active box (which is usually only a switch that provides a 10 dB boost or so) or the ground switch. Most DI’s have a ground switch to reduce hum in the event of a ground loop between the instrument and the DI. Set it to the quietest position.”

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

The Long Lost Secret To The AC/DC Guitar Sound

shaffer-vega wireless systemWhen we listen back to those great early AC/DC albums like Back In Black and Highway To Hell we think of what may be the epitome of hard rock guitar sounds. While on the surface you’d look at Angus Young’s fingers on a Gibson SG into a JMP 100 Marshall amp and think that was the sound (and surely it’s a big part of it), there’s actually another major component that’s almost always overlooked – his onstage wireless rig, which he actually used in the studio for those projects.

At the time Angus was using on of the first wireless guitar systems called a Shaffer-Vega Diversity System (SVDS for short), which was quite popular at the time with widespread use by the likes of Ace Frehley of KISS, Van Halen, The Stones and Frank Zappa, among others. It was the way that the SVDS worked that really set it apart from any wireless system to come afterwards though.

The SVDS used a compander circuit to keep down the noise, which mean that it compressed the signal during transmission and expanded it upon reception before feeding it into the amp. Along the way though, it also boosted some of the mid-range that became lost in the process, and unintentionally added some pleasing distortion of its own to the signal. Essentially, it acted as an overdrive for the amp! When Angus couldn’t get the same great sound that he got on stage while recording in the studio, producer Mutt Lange suggested he revert to his on-stage setup, and the rest is AC/DC history.

Sadly, Shaffer-Vega stopped making the units in 1982 after the FCC changed the wireless regulations, making the frequencies it used illegal. That said, the device has been resurrected by a company called SoloDallas using one of Schaffer’s original units as a model to create the “Schaffer Replica.” The unit uses only the audio circuitry from the original SVDS, but it’s just what you want for that original AC/DC sound.

Another interesting twist to the story is that SDVS creator Ken Shaffer was indirectly responsible for being named in a big R.E.M. hit, being the subject of “What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?” which revolves around a mugging of news anchor Dan Rather. I know, the story’s hard to follow, but there’s a great article that covers it nicely on Dangerous Minds that’s worth reading.

The 5 Ways To Become A Studio Musician

The Wrecking CrewOn the journey to becoming a successful studio musician, a lot of roads lead to the same place, but the way it usually works is that someone hears and likes your playing and either hires you or refers you as a result. This excerpt from my Studio Musician’s Handbook (written with studio bassist Paul ILL) outlines the 5 ways it could happen (note The Wrecking Crew photo, the most famous group of studio musicians ever, on the left).

#1. Your Band
Your band is recording with a producer. The producer notices that you play really well and have a great feel and he calls you to play on other records. Sometimes it might be the engineer on the session that remembers you (and remember, many in-demand engineers become producers at some point). Either way, in the course of doing your own record, you show up on the radar of someone who can hire you later.

If you’re in a band and working with a producer, really pay attention and work with him to help him make that record sound better. You’re more likely to be called for another project afterwards. He might have had so much fun working with you in your band that he’ll think of you for a solo artist he’s working with. That’s how I developed myself. I worked with Tim Palmer in London with my own band, and that’s how I got the job playing with Tears For Fears. So I’ve developed relationships with all the producers I’ve worked with over the years in my own band.
Session drummer Brian MacLeod

#2. By Referral

If you have a friend who does a lot of session work who likes how you play, chances are that you’ll get a referral at some point. If the player can’t make a date or doesn’t get on with the client, a referral from someone established will get you in the door.

…if you’re looking to get into session work as a drummer, you can’t do it. You just have to play a lot of gigs and wait for the time where you get that opportunity.
Session drummer Bernie Dresel

#3. By Contractor

A contractor is a person that hires musicians for a gig. Most times he’s a musician on the session himself, but doesn’t have to be. Many contractors hire musicians for a variety of gigs, not just recording sessions. If you become a trusted insider for everyday live gigs, chances are that soon you’ll be hired on a studio date as well.

#4. By A Recording
Many times an artist or producer will hear you on a recording you played on and want your style or sound. It’s more likely you’ll be called if the recording you played on was a hit, since everyone likes to use the same team or sound of something already successful. If that happens, be happy that you’ve been lucky twice.

…(producer) Patrick (Leonard) said, “Hey Brian, if you lived in LA I would use you on the records I work on.” Ironically the engineer/co-producer on that record was Bill Bottrell (who eventually went on to produce Sheryl Crow, Michael Jackson and Shelby Lynn) and he said the same thing to me. So I had two top-of-the-line producers tell me that if I lived in LA they’d use me on their records. It became a no-brainer for me to run up to the Bay area, pack my things in a U-Haul, and get my butt to LA. Then it kind of expanded from there.
Brian MacLeod

#5. By Association

The old adage “all boats rise and fall with the tide” is really true. If someone within your circle of players makes it “big”, they’ll most likely take you with them, at least on some level. Maybe you have something unique in your sound or your feel that your player friend will remember. Maybe he just wants to help you out because you’re such a cool person. Maybe it’s some payback for a good deed long in the past. Doesn’t matter as long as you’re remembered and get the call. Once you’re called for one session and do well, chances are you’ll be called for another as word gets around and your resumé builds.

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

Choosing the Right Microphone For The Job

Choosing the right microphoneWhile it’s safe to say that most engineers rely on experience when choosing which microphone to use in a given situation, these are some things to consciously consider when selecting a microphone. Here’s a list of items to think about from the latest edition of my Recording Engineer’s Handbook.

  • There’s no one mic that works well on everything. Just because you have what could be considered a “great” mic doesn’t necessarily mean that it will be the best choice in all situations. There are times when the characteristics of that mic just don’t match up with the instrument you’re recording, and another mic will work better. In fact, sometimes even an inexpensive mic can work better than an expensive one.
  • Select a microphone that complements the instrument you’ll be recording. For instance, if you have an instrument that has a very edgy top end, you normally wouldn’t want to choose a mic that also has that quality, since those frequencies will be emphasized. Instead, you might want to choose a mic that’s a bit mellower, such as a ribbon. This is one of the reasons that a ribbon mic is often preferred on brass, for instance.
  • Is the mic designed to be used in the free field or in the diffuse field? Free-field means the sound that comes directly from the source dominates what the mic hears. Diffuse-field means that the room reflections play a large role in what the mic hears. Mics designed for free-field use tend to have a flat frequency response in the high frequencies, and as a result can sound dull when placed farther away in room from the sound source. Diffuse-field mics have a boost in the upper frequencies that make them sound flat when placed farther away. A good example of a diffuse-field mic is the esteemed Neumann M 50, which was meant to be placed somewhat away from an orchestra, so it has a high-frequency boost to compensate for the distance.
  • Select a mic that won’t be overloaded by the source. Some mics are sensitive enough that you must be aware of how they’re used. You wouldn’t want to put certain ribbon or condenser mics on a snare drum with a heavy-hitting drummer, for instance. Even some dynamic mics have little tolerance for high sound-pressure levels, so always take that into account.
  • Choose the right polar pattern for the job. If leakage is a consideration, then choose a mic with the proper directional capabilities for the job. If a mic is flat on-axis (at the front), it probably will roll off some of the highs when it’s 90 degrees off-axis (on the side). If it’s flat 90 degrees off-axis, it may have a rising high end when it’s on-axis.
  • Is proximity effect an issue? If you intended to place the mic within 6 inches or closer from the source, will the bass buildup from the proximity effect be too much? If you think that may be the case, consider an omni pattern instead.
  • A large-diaphragm condenser mic is not necessarily better than small-diaphragm condenser. Believe it or not, small diaphragm condenser microphones can sometimes capture the lower frequencies better, are generally less colored off-axis than large-diaphragm mics, and have a smoother frequency response. Large-diaphragm mics are a little less noisy, though.

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

The Drum Recording Checklist

drum recording checklistDrum recording is too often left to trial and error to when getting sounds. Here’s a checklist from the 2nd edition of my Drum Recording Handbook (written with Dennis Moody) that makes sure that the basics are covered (assuming that the drums sound great acoustically) before you open up the mics.

“Like the foundation of a house, the drums are the foundation of a recording. With a strong foundation, you can build almost anything on it that you or your clients can imagine. A little effort and time spent miking the drums and getting the sound just right can result in a recording that sounds better than you would have ever imagined.

Remember, take risks, experiment, take notes on what works and what doesn’t, be creative, and most of all, have fun!

Here’s a list of things to check if something just doesn’t sound right. Remember that each situation is different and ultimately the sound depends upon the drums, the drummer, the room, the song, the arrangement, the signal chain, and even the other players. It’s not unusual to have at least one of these things out of your control.

☐ Are the mics acoustically in phase? Make sure that tom mics and room mics are parallel to each other. Make sure that any underneath mics are at a 45° angle to the top mics.

☐ Are the mics electronically in phase? Make sure that any bottom mics have the phase reversed. Make sure that all the mic cables are wired the same by doing a phase check.

☐ Are the mics at the correct distance from the drum? If they’re too far away they’ll pick up too much of the other drums. If they’re too close the sound will be unbalanced with too much attack or ring.

☐ Are the drum mics pointing at the center of the head? Pointing at the center of the drum will give you the best balance of attack and fullness.

☐ Are the cymbal mics pointed at the bell. If the mic is pointed at the edge of the cymbal, you might hear more air “swishing” than cymbal tone.

☐ Is the high-hat mic pointed at the middle of the hat? Too much towards the bell will make the sound thicker and duller. Too much towards the edge will make the sound thinner and pick up more air noise.

☐ Are the room mics parallel? If you’re using two room mics instead of a stereo mic to mic the room, make sure that the mics are on the same plane and are exactly parallel to each other. Also make sure that they’re on the very edge of the kit looking at the outside edge of the cymbals.

☐ Does the balance of the mix sound the same as when you’re standing in front of the drums? This is your reference point and what you should be trying to match. You can embellish the sound after you’ve achieved this.

These are not hard and fast rules, just a starting place. If you try something that’s different from what you’ve read and it sounds good, it is good!”

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

Tips On Recording A Tabla

recording tablaWhen it comes to percussion, we sometimes tend to lump it all in with drum recording technique. That’s far from how it should be approached though, as each different type of percussion needs a special technique in order to optimize the way it’s recorded. Here’s a great video where tablaist Sirish Kumar Manji shows you how to record and use tabla primarily in an electronic production, but most of the information pertains to just about any music. Also, it shows how Ableton Live can be just as useful as a recorder as other DAWs.

The video comes courtesy of the Point Blank Music School.

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.

Time For Some Do-It-Yourself Reverb

Do-it-yourself reverbDigital reverbs have come a long way. It’s truly amazing what you can now get for very little money that rivals or betters hardware reverbs costing more than $10k. That said, sometimes there’s nothing like the real thing, even if a little DIY is involved. Speaking of which, the wonderful TapeOp Magazine recently posted a great article on making a relatively inexpensive do-it-yourself reverb.

Of course, the easiest DIY reverb has been a speaker and a mic in a live room, and that technique has been used almost since the beginning of recording (Capitol’s chambers are still some of the best ever, for instance). All you need is a live room like a bathroom, place any kind of speaker in it, and place the mic as far away as you can. Of course, it always helps if a stairwell is handy as well.

When it comes to-do-it yourself reverb, many of us would love to have a plate, and believe it or not, it’s not all that difficult to build yourself, if you have a little time. The TapeOp article does a good job in explaining how to build one yourself. Of course, depending upon your construction skills and ingenuity, your mileage may vary when it comes to the final project. Another more intricate way of building your own plate can be found here.

The article also discusses some other tricks that many of us have tried over the years, and mostly forgotten. Dropping a small speaker down the hole of an acoustic guitar (or even a 12 string) gives a very interesting effect. Don’t forget to detune the strings!

Also another oldie but goodie – dropping a speaker down the soundhole of a piano while the sustain pedal is held down yields a wonderful reverbish sound that can’t be duplicated.

Yes, digital reverbs are better than ever and something we’ll all continue to use, but sometimes a bit of good old fashioned do-it-yourself reverb, no matter how you get it, just can’t be beat.

[photo: Ionosonde Recordings]

An Interview With Drummer And Bassist Charlie Drayton

Charlie DraytonCharlie Drayton is a unique and special player in that he’s equally adept and in demand as a drummer and as a bass player, so his perspective is that of the total rhythm section. Charlie’s long and eclectic list of credits includes such names as Herbie Hancock, Keith Richards, Johnny Cash, Chaka Khan, Mariah Carey, Michelle Branch, Seal, Iggy Pop, Neil Young, Janet Jackson, Courtney Love, among many others, and he laid down the beat for the B-52’s irresistible hit “Love Shack.” In this excerpt from my Studio Musician’s Handbook (written with Paul ILL), Charlie gives us a look behind the curtain of his session work.

“Give me some background on how you got into session work?

My father guided me toward the studio at an early age while watching him produce jingle sessions in NYC. He would occasionally have me sing on spots which featured a young voice, either in a group chorus, or solo performance.

Before a session would begin, I would usually find a seat between the drum booth (this was back in the 70’s) and the bass chair and B-15 amp (which was the standard bass amp in any NYC studio back then). It only took sitting through a few sessions to know that being in the studio was like being in the best classroom you’d ever walk into, and your dad is the principle. My father then took the band I was playing in into the studio to nurture ourselves and grow in the studio environment. What a trip it is to hear yourself played back in high quality audio for the first time! I can still remember the first time experience, vividly.

If I remember correctly, my first professional recording session was playing drums for John Sebastian. He was brilliant and a huge supporter. Walking into the studio was easy, but that first day of tracking was one hell of a ride in my life! The scary part was trying not to be to overwhelmed that the bass player was Anthony Jackson (a highly regarded New York session player) and the guitar player was Steve Khan (I think Steve recommended me for that session). Needless to say, I was hooked and still am.

What do you bring with you to a session?

It depends on what the music or the producer requires and what hat I’m wearing on the session, but I’ll just list some of the items at random. I come with a sense of humor, an open heart and mind, and great deal of patience. If I’m a principle player or producer on a session, a song is also a wonderful thing to bring with you.

I also bring a hot water kettle and assortment of herbal and black tea, an endless amount of sugarless mint candy, some incense, chop sticks, cayenne pepper, hot english mustard, crushed red pepper, and fresh ground cardamom.

Also, there’s nothing better then having your own gear on a session! For me that could consist of, drums, cymbals, rags, hockey tape, bullet mic, Line 6 Bass pod, iPod for drum mute, and a few of my favorite pieces of hand percussion. Also basses, guitars, pedal  steel, amplifiers, stomp boxes, and a really good cable. I also bring my own headphones (Sony 7506 or Audio Technica TH-M50) along with an extension cable,

Sometimes I’ll bring my Black Pekingese,”Holiday” too. My introduction to her was during a session I was producing.

Do you tailor what you bring according to the session?

I try, because I’m lucky to have access to a large selection of gear which I would love to see as often as possible.

Is your stage rig different from your recording rig?

This depends on what will inspire me to execute a performance or what I have access to at the time. Sometimes I may reach for some piece of gear that does not belong to me, so basically anything that will guide me to feed the music.

What do you like in your headphone mix?

The freedom to dial it in myself. My first preference though is no headphones whenever possible. I like to sing with the speakers at low level. If playing live with a band, I’ll dial the entire group into the mix. If playing against prerecorded tracks, it’s possible that I may not play along with all of the elements on the track. I will try different combinations of elements in the mix until it feels good and I’m the most comfortable.

What do see that’s common with all good session musicians?

A good session player is not necessarily a better musician than a player with no session experience, but a good session player has the advantage of having more tools to choose from and is used to narrowing down the options. Dealing with adversity is key. If your talent is on loan and you’re having a shitty day but you’ve committed yourself to a session, guess what? You’ve got to show up and play the music!  The more I do it, the better I get at it.

What do you know now that you wish you knew when you were first starting out?

That we would come to live in a time where you would not need to have much talent to be successful in the music business. The art of playing music and being commercially successful in the music business are now two entirely different things.

I don’t know why humans would bring computers into the recording environment for some of the wrong reasons and deconstruct the craft of creating and making music. I’m not against computers, but I thought music was doing just fine without them. Didn’t Milli Vanilli try to hip us to that?

Any advice for someone starting out doing session work?

Don’t lose the connection or spirit of playing in a live environment. Spirit is a key ingredient that enables you to shine and make the right decisions in session.

Embrace the music with your heart, even if it’s not your cup of tea. Be in the moment, and that does not mean play everything you know.

Do you have any session musician tips?

Be a musician first without any title before the word musician. I’ll enjoy hearing your playing more. Don’t limit yourself. Be in the moment, because In the studio, you’re making musical decisions that can last a lifetime on record.

What kind of sessions are the hardest for you?

When the producer’s dreams are unrealized. Sometimes they don’t have the ability to play your instrument so he or she endlessly suggest the worst musical ideas possible for you to play, or how you should be playing them. Or when the food is bad, which in reality is the same answer.

What kind of sessions are the most fun?

When it doesn’t feel like work and you don’t want the session to end.

What do you hate about recording?

Not recording!!!”

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