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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.

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.

Drum Recording Checklist

drum recording checklistProbably the single most troublesome instrument when it comes to recording is the drum kit. Engineers obsess over the drum sound, and well they should since the drums are the heartbeat of virtually all modern music. It’s a fact that drums that sound small in the track will make the rest of the track sound small as well, regardless of how well everything else is recorded. The drum recording must go well and a great sound kit is the first step.

While it’s true that different people have different ideas of what constitutes a great sounding drum kit, in the studio it usually means a kit that’s well-tuned and free of buzzes and sympathetic vibrations. Free of sympathetic vibrations means that when you hit the snare drum, for instance, the toms don’t ring along with it. Or if you hit the rack toms, the snare and the other toms don’t ring along as well.

The way to achieve this is all in the tuning and the kit maintenance. Here’s a simple checklist from The Recording Engineer’s Handbook that outlines how to get a drum kit up to speed before you even set up any mics.

  • Have the heads on all the drums been changed? Be sure to change at least the top heads before recording
  • Have the drums been tuned? Are all drums tuned to work both by themselves and with each other?
  • Are there any sympathetic vibrations occurring? Tune the drums so that any drum that’s hit does not cause another to ring.
  • Is there an unwanted ring? Suppress it with tape, a muffling ring, or MoonGel.
  • Is the hardware quiet? Spray with a lubricant like WD-40 if not.
  • Is the level of the cymbals all the same? Balance the level with lighter or heavier cymbals as needed.
  • Is there another snare drum available? A song may call for a different snare drum sound.

If the drum kit sounds great in the room, it’s that much easier for it to sound great when recorded. Spend whatever time is required to get your kit to work acoustically and your drum recording will greatly benefit.

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

5 Great Session Tips That Will Save You Time And Money

5 Session TipsWhen you’re recording basic tracks, especially in an expensive commercial studio, it’s easy to get off track in a way that not only causes you to waste time, but money as well. These 5 session tips from the latest edition of my Music Producer’s Handbook will ensure that not only the tracking session, but all the overdub sessions that occur afterwards, run efficiently.

“There are a number of things to remember when the session gets up and running that will keep every happy and motivated, with their full attention on playing and singing.

1. Start off with the easiest song. This is usually something that the band knows backwards and forwards. It will help everyone to get comfortable in a new environment, get into the groove of recording, and make it easier to move on to the more difficult tunes later.

2. Record a tuning note. This may seem a bit old fashioned, but it could be a lifesaver later. Before each session, be sure to record a 10 second tuning note before each song as something to reference to later, especially if there are no keyboards involved. This way, if for some reason you happened to use a tuning that was a couple of cents flat, you have the tuning note as your reference. Even with today’s tuners, sometimes the tuning note just makes things easier.  This seems like such a small thing, but you wouldn’t believe how much time it can save you down the road if a situation arises where you just can’t figure out why everything sounds out of tune.

3. Don’t forget to record a count-off for every song. If someone gets a great idea for adding something to before the song begins, you’ll have a tempo reference point to work with. Even if you’re playing to a click that’s being generated by the DAW itself, recording the click at least four bars ahead of the downbeat is a foolproof way to make sure that any pickup or opening part is easily executed.

4. Take frequent breaks. One of the best abilities a producer can develop is knowing when it’s time to take a break. It’s hard to keep anyone’s attention for more than three hours, so be sure to take frequent short breaks. Sometimes just bringing the band in to the control room to listen to a playback can break it up just enough so their minds don’t begin to wander. A ten-minute break can pump new energy into a flagging session, so the producer always has to keep his finger on the pulse of the players to gauge their concentration.

5. Keep the food light and have it delivered. When it’s finally time for lunch or dinner, going out to eat will waste a lot of time, and sometimes it’s impossible to get back in the flow of things afterwards. If the break is too long, it may take an equally long time for the players to get their focus back. One of the biggest problems to avoid is having a large meal, since normal digestion naturally slows down a player’s ability to concentrate. Keep the mealtime short, the portions small, and allow absolutely no alcohol so that everyone stays fresh and the session is kept on track.

These 5 session tips will keep you session running smoothly and keep all involved happy and motivated.”

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

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.

Resolving A Conflict In The Studio

Resolving a conflictIt’s inevitable that it’s going to happen during some point in the project. There’s going to be a strong disagreement between two of the parties involved, and the producer is going to have to diplomatically sort it out. Even worse, the conflict can come between the artist and the producer, which requires a deft hand at getting the job done yet keeping everyone happy. Here’s an excerpt from the latest version of my Music Producer’s Handbook that covers the steps to take when it comes to resolving a conflict in the studio.

“Being in any relationship requires at least some compromise, and working with a group of musicians is no different from what you’d expect between family members, friends, bosses, and co-workers. There are times when you just have to bend in order to keep the peace.

While compromise is easy for some people to do, others have a personality that seldom allows it and a conflict occurs. Here are some effective steps that you can take to state your case in a way that should resolve or mediate the conflict.

1. Cool off first. Conflicts can’t be solved when emotions are running hot. Take some time to get away from the problem for a bit and brainstorm on exactly what the conflict is, how it was caused, and most important, what a possible solution would be.

2. Present accolades, support, and respect. The first thing to do is acknowledge the person’s accomplishments and talent. Something like “I want to start by saying that I think the tracks we’ve captured are really great, and you’re playing your parts way better than I ever thought possible.”

3. Analyze why the problem occurred. If you give a clear explanation of why you think there’s a problem or why the problem or conflict has occurred, you set the initial groundwork for solving the conflict. If the other person knows exactly what your side of the story is, you might find more often than not that you’re both on the same page, but on different sides of it.

4. Take responsibility and use “I” messages. If you are involved in a conflict that you’re aware of, take responsibility and own up to it, but make sure that everything is from your point of view. For instance, it’s best to say, “I think you were flat on that part,” rather than “Everybody knows that you always sing that part flat,” or worse, “You’re singing sucks, man.”

5. Describe what “I” or “we” need so that the problem doesn’t happen again. This is the solution from your point of view. “We really need you to be here a half hour before the session so that you have time to warm up. That way we won’t waste any studio time, which is costing us money.”

6. Support their success. Tell him that you want him to win, because if he wins, so do you. “The better you sound, the better we all sound” or “Do you know how great this is going to sound once you get that part down? It’s going to kill!”

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

 

David Bowie “Ziggy Stardust” Isolated Vocal

Ziggy Stardust album coverHere’s a real treat. It’s the isolated vocal track from the title track of David Bowie’s iconic Ziggy Stardust album and it features not only David’s excellent vocal skills, but producer/engineer’s Ken Scott’s impeccable production as well. For those of you who don’t know or don’t remember, I co-wrote Ken’s autobiography Abbey Road To Ziggy Stardust and there were so many great Bowie stories that he related while doing it that it’s difficult to pick just one, so I’ll include a few.

Since this is all about the isolated vocal, a great story from the book is about David doing vocals. According to Ken:

“David was always exceptional with his vocals, since 99% of the time it was the first take, beginning to end, with no punches. I’d get the level and he’d sing the song down and that would be it. Sure made my job easy. You’d think there was a mistake when he was laying it down, but when we’d listen to the playback we’d find that what we thought sounded odd the first time through was intentional and worked perfectly.”

OK, how about the technical bits of recording Bowie. Again from the book:

“What I quite often did while recording David’s vocals was use an AKG C12a and a U67 and place them at a 90 degree angle to each other so he was singing in-between them. I came up with this method so I could instantly switch between the two to see which mic sounded better (and maybe even use both), instead of having him stand in front of one mic and sing a bit, then go in front of the other mic and sing a bit. It also had the added benefit of helping suppress any popping and sibilance as well. We didn’t have many tracks at that time, so even if both mics were used, they were mixed together to a single track. Unlike many other recordings of the time, we never recorded the effects because David only did one take, so there was never any time to set them up.”

How about mixing? Again, right from the source:

“The album, like the others that followed, was mixed on a 20 input Sound Techniques console, using moderate board EQ, a single EMT plate reverb, and just a little compression on the overall mix. Compression came from two UREI 1176’s and two Teletronix LA2A’s. The multitrack machines were an Ampex 8 track and later a 3M 16 track. Any delay came from a Studer C37 stereo tape machine with a varispeed.”

Just a little bit about Ziggy Stardust the album, which everyone mistakenly mistook for a concept album. According to Ken:

“There’s always been this whole thing about Ziggy being a concept album, but it really wasn’t. There are only two rock albums that I would 100% consider concept albums; Tommy and Quadrophenia by The Who, and that’s because they were written as a complete piece, whereas Ziggy was just a patchwork of songs. Yes, they fit together very well and one can weave a story from some of them, but when you consider that “Round and Round” was originally there in place of “Starman,” it doesn’t make much sense as a concept. How does “Round and Round” ever fit into the Ziggy story? It’s a classic Chuck Berry song. How does “It Ain’t Easy” fit in with the Ziggy concept? That was taken from the Hunky Dory sessions. All this about Ziggy being Starman is bullshit. It was a song that was just put in as a single at the last minute at the record label’s insistence. So while it’s true that there were a few songs that fitted the ”concept”, the rest were just songs that all worked well together as they would in any good album.”

With those things in mind, here are some things to listen for:

1. Listen to how much reverb is on the vocal during the verse, then how dry it is in the chorus.

2. Listen closely for when the vocal is doubled, and when it sits by itself.

It’s so cool to be able to go back and listen to this again with a bit more of an x-ray on the vocal. Bowie was a exceptional once-in-a-lifetime artist and this is just one of many, many examples of that.

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.

The Costs Of Hiring A Mixer

Hiring A MixerAn ever-important aspect of production is mixing, which can make or break a song. A brilliant mix can put an otherwise average production over the top, while a mediocre mix can bring down a brilliant production (although sometimes the song itself is so brilliant that nothing can detract from it). If you’re not an engineer yourself, an engineer without a lot of mixing experience, or you just want to bring in the A-team to finish an important project, it’s important to understand the costs of hiring a mixer when you create your budget. Here’s an excerpt from the latest edition of my Music Producer’s Handbook with some advice.

“Mixing engineers are all over the board price-wise, especially in the current depressed music market. At one time there was a mixer (who shall remain nameless) who was charging as much as $10,000 per mix, plus a percentage of the sales to mix just one song. Even more outrageous was the fact that he’d do as many as three mixes a day, since his setting for each instrument never changed much because it was his “sound.” Very few budgets can support that kind of excess anymore, and virtually all mixer’s prices, although still at a premium, have come down in recent years.

While some mixers charge by the song, others charge a daily rate, and so the price can escalate quickly if there are fixes or the mix goes longer than expected. The rates might be as low as $250 a day, and can run up to $2,500 or more (although most rates are somewhere in the middle these days). These rates may not include the studio costs if a mix using a studio console is desired, which are separate from the mixer’s rate. That means that mixing could theoretically cost as much as $5,000 a day with the mixer included, although this is a rate that only a very few A list projects can support.

Because budgets are so small these days compared to what they once were, mixing specialists have been caught in a dilemma—the client (you, the producer) can afford only the studio or the mixer, but not both.

As a result, many mixers have resorted to creating their own mixing environment and giving an all-in price that makes the process much more affordable for the producer. This is one of the advantages of the digital age and DAWs: it was impossible to build and equip a suitable mixing room for less than a half-million dollars back in the analog days.

Since the music business is weak at the moment and budgets are way down from what they were before, present an offer to your mixer. If you’re willing to wait for when the mixer can fit you in during his or her down time, or if you agree to let him mix alone without you or the artist attending, you might be surprised at the rate you can get. Even if the price you offer is below his rate, chances are he can work something out with you that will get you a great mix for a price you can afford.”

The costs of hiring a mixer may be less than you think, and every penny can be truly worth it if it takes your mix to the next level.

You can read more from The Music Producer’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.