Audio Myths: The Sound-Good Sauce

Maybe it’s because superstition has always played some small part in the world of music and musicians. Some people say Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil down at the crossroads in order to become a legendary blues guitarist. Jack Black was questing after the supernatural Pick of Destiny in hopes of dominating the world of rock and roll. And of course it’s never good luck to hire a bandmate’s girlfriend (or boyfriend) to be the band’s road manager (that’s not superstition, just common sense).

So superstition may be one reason why some people tend to believe there is genuine magical mojo inherent in a rare tube microphone or two-inch analog tape or the live room of Basing Street Studios in London. Another reason is marketing. Probably every recording musician of lesser means has at some point thought, “Too bad I don’t have this mic or preamp or channel strip for EVERY channel” …as if the quality of the equipment is the thing that takes music to the next level.

If enough time is spent digging through the audiophile forums on recording magazine websites, one will eventually stumble upon this notion: a talented engineer can make a great recording on a cassette tape multi-track with one $90 microphone. This, of course, flies in the face of the superstition/gear lust mentality we’ve already identified. But it is true. No amount of expensive gear will enable a person with uninitiated ears to create a better musical blend than a maestro with a cheap microphone.

The sound-good sauce is, therefore, largely a myth. In the same way that a runner will do far more to improve his time by shedding 30 pounds of excess weight rather than purchasing more expensive running shoes, an audio engineer will do far more to improve his mixes by listening. A lot.

The best advice a new engineer can receive is this: listen to the frequencies. Listen to the highs, mids and lows. Break out a parametric equalizer and sweep across the whole spectrum with broad and narrow boosts and cuts. Learn what 3 decibels of reduction at 200 Hz sounds like on a guitar, vocal and entire mix. Boost 2.1 kHz on the same sources. Roll off the lows at 80 Hz. Crank up the highs at 14 kHz. Discover how one sound may be masking another and find ways to fit them together without simply turning one up or down. Listen over a wide variety of speakers and headphones. Compare professional mixes with other professional mixes. Compare them to your own mixes.

Given this sort of experience, ears tend to get better over time. This progression also gives one time to learn what one particular microphone sounds like. Then another. And so on. Eventually it isn’t the secret sauce/hot piece of gear that takes things to the next level, it’s the aural experience that prompts a seasoned engineer to choose a particular treatment for a particular source in a particular setting. No superstition involved – unless it’s a Stevie Wonder reference track.

5 Drum Tips for More Tonal Options

 

It is perfectly acceptable to use a minimalistic approach when recording drums (like this). But when you want more options and/or a more modern sound, close mics are the way to go. Lots of them. On everything. Here are some quick tips for tonal flexibility.

1. Snare

Miking the top and bottom of the snare (check for phase issues and perhaps invert the polarity of the bottom mic) gives you body and punch from the top mic AND snare sizzle from underneath. Playing with the blend between these two mics (and EQ) gives the snare a lot of possibilities.

2. Bass

Try using a dynamic mic close to the beater for the attack and a large diaphragm condenser a foot back to capture the deep low end. Blend and EQ to taste.

3. Room

Using a stereo pair of room mics can provide even more flavor. It is common to compress the devil out of these mics and blend the slammed signal together with the rest of the kit.

4. Resonances

Some peak resonances are good and some are bad. Try to find these on the bass and snare with a narrow EQ boost. Sweep the spectrum from low to hi. If you hear a frequency ringing out with a bell-like tone, try cutting that frequency with a very narrow band of EQ and see if you like the sound. This can usually be done one or two places, but if you get too crazy with this technique, you’ll start killing your tone rather than improving it.

5. Buss Compression

Try running the whole kit to the same buss in your DAW, and put an appropriate compressor on that buss to treat everything. I like the Slate Virtual Buss Compressors for this sort of thing.

The main thing is to experiment. Just do it, as the sneaker people say. And compare your sounds with a good target reference sound from your favorite drummer.

Recording the Operatic Baritone

Operatic and bel canto singing present the audio engineer with an unusual challenge. Unlike a pop singer, the classical vocalist is regularly appreciated in concert without the aid of sound reinforcement. In the uncommon circumstance that a microphone IS placed on an operatic singer during a live performance, great care must be taken to retain the acoustic sensibility of the performance when reinforcing the sound.

The experienced classical listener knows that the space in which a singer performs is itself part of the instrument. The expectation is that the artistry of “ringing the room” will not be hindered by the sound system.

Capturing this aesthetic for a recording can be tricky. The inexperienced recording engineer must resist the urge to use a pop vocal approach with an operatic singer, as a large diaphragm condenser microphone at the standard pop vocal distance will sound much too close (even when pulled a foot or three farther away). In addition to choosing an opera-sized venue, here are some ways to retain the sense of space the savvy classical consumer expects to hear:

1. Use a stereo microphone as the primary vocal mic.

r88

Rather than using a standard mono microphone, we chose a stereo microphone in a crossed figure-8 pattern: the AEA R88 stereo ribbon microphone. Aside from the increased spatial cues that stereo provides compared to mono, the old ribbon technology is really tough to beat when the goal is a warm, smooth vocal tone. This primary vocal microphone was between 6 and 7 feet away from the singer. Because it is a stereo mic (with each ribbon element facing 45 degrees off-axis to either side of the vocalist), it sounds even farther away. A mono mic aimed directly at the vocalist would sound closer at the same distance.

2. Incorporate an ambient pair.

km184

We added a near-coincident stereo pair (30 centimeters apart at 90 degrees) 25 feet in front and facing away from the singer out into the hall. These mics were small diaphragm Neumann KM-184s, and they were receiving no direct sound whatsoever. These are the clinical, crystal clear mics of the group which makes them well suited for ambience retrieval. It might have been useful to space them wider, but we decided that with the 90 degree XY ribbon approach, it might be fun to keep things a little more in phase.

3. Add definition to the piano.

rn17

Additionally two small diaphragm condenser microphones were positioned over the piano in a 90 degree XY configuration. The position will be evident in the video. The sE Electronics RN17s were the choice here in an attempt to smooth out the potentially edgy piano. With the Rupert Neve designed transformer (that huge thing toward the back of the mic) these mics have a kinder, gentler sound than most other small diaphragms. The sE’s were brought in to add definition to the substantial amount of indistinct (yet spacey – in a good way) piano bleed that was present in the vocal microphone.

4. Finish it off with a little extra ambience.

 

qlspaces

Lastly we added a touch of artificial ambience from the convolution reverb plugin QL Spaces. It wasn’t S.Cal. Hall, as the image above suggests, but rather something a bit more Germanic! This is a fairly common practice, with only the purest of the purists abstaining from such post production flattery. The decay of the real room was essential to the sound (without it the artificial ambience didn’t sound nearly as nice), but the tail end of the natural decay was not adequately defined. QL Spaces allowed us to dial in the reverb tail we wanted.

Southern/Classic Rock

The above track is 1 of 7 tunes recorded in one day back in December on the stage of Lovett Auditorium. Lovett is such a great place to record because it is like the big recording rooms of old: high ceiling, wood floor, and a spacious main “room.” For a session like this, the players do most of the recording at the same time, in the same room, while listening to each other through headphones. The separation of sound from each microphone is mostly the result of the distance between musicians (they were spaced out evenly in a big circle), the close proximity of the microphone to its sound source, and the type of microphone.

It is of utmost importance that the reader realize who was being recorded here. Rob Ickes played dobro and lap steel guitar, for one. Rob is the International Bluegrass Music Association’s most awarded instrumentalist of all time. He is a grammy winner. He is quite literally one of the best 3 dobro players in the world (I made sure Rob was UP in the mix). Josh Coffey played fiddle. Josh is a seasoned player who studied music classically and took lessons from Chris Thile. Jason Lee McKinney is the songwriter and vocalist. He and the rest of his band have played hundreds of shows and toured nationally and internationally.

All that to say, it sure helps out the recording when the overall vision, song, arrangement, parts and players are rock solid. If any of those things are shaky, it will probably come through on the recording. The guys were professional musicians and they came ready to record, which is both a rarity and an absolute joy.

TRACKING

The drum set was captured with one large diaphragm tube condenser as an overhead, a SM57 on the top and bottom of the snare, and an AKG D112 on the bass drum. There were mics on the two toms, but those mics were almost never used as the overhead caught plenty of the tom sound.

The upright bass was originally recorded with a direct box, but was later re-recorded via a large diaphragm tube condenser in the studio. A collection of SM57s were used on the electric guitar amp, lap steel, acoustic guitar and a DI box for the keyboards.

The vocal was recorded with a Shure SM7b, which is another flavor of dynamic microphone. The purpose of all the dynamic microphones (rather than the pricier, high-end condenser or ribbon mics) was to reduce the sensitivity and the sound bleeding through from sources other than the one the microphone was set to pick up. Even when using a bunch of $100 mics, things can still be made to sound pretty decent.

MIXING

When mixing a session like this it is not always apparent what sort of sound each individual instrument ought to assume. It takes a lot of listening and experimentation. One safe bet is that there is usually too much low end bass energy in almost every track. EQ-ing the low end out of a track can, and probably should, be overdone. Then it can be undone right up until it sounds right in context with the rest of the mix. [It is interesting to note that not all EQs sound the same. Some have a certain quality that makes them more sonically appealing even though they are, for all practical purposes, doing the same thing as any other EQ. For example, when I use the stock Logic EQ, it never sounds as musical as the EQ in my Izotope plugins.]

There is a phenomenon called “masking” that is very important to consider when mixing. Masking is when one element in the mix is covering up or obscuring another element. A good example is when the bass seems to be either too quiet or too loud, but never quite right. It may be that there is another element (acoustic guitar, fiddle, keyboard, et cetera) that is masking the bass. When this occurred on the track above, I found that I needed to remove some additional frequencies in the acoustic guitar. The result was not a quieter guitar, nor a louder bass… but a more transparent mix in which more of the bass could be heard.

I spent a lot of time comparing this mix to professional mixes. Jason Isbell’s Southeastern to be specific. I wasn’t trying to copy the sound of Southeastern, I just didn’t want to bounce back and forth between the two and feel that mine was the clearly inferior mix. This technique was once referred to as “Kentucky voicing” – but it is really as simple as picking some reference mixes and trying to compete with them as best you can.

MASTERING

I opted to make this mix sound a bit less bright. Unfortunately, because Soundcloud converts all audio to 128 kbps mp3, you can’t quite appreciate where the full resolution wave file really left the final EQ curve. But if the reader compares Jason Isbell’s Southeastern and the iTunes lossless version of this (once it comes out), I think it will be apparent that the overall tonal signature (at least on the upper end) was influenced by Southeastern as opposed to many of the brighter mixes that are out there. I used Izotope’s Ozone and ToneBooster’s ReelBus on my master bus.

Behringer X32 Producer and Logic 9 – or more specifically OS X 10.6.8

The X-32 is a cool product in all it’s varieties. I use the X-32 Producer, and so far I’m blown away by the price to feature ratio. I did have a couple of minor issues, and I’ll answer them right here in case it benefits anyone out there.

First, the Producer shipped with out of date firmware. No problem. Just download the firmware update from Behringer’s website. Put it on a USB stick. Plug it into the USB slot at the top of the board and power the board up. The board is supposed to find the USB stick and automatically install the new firmware. It didn’t. I had to soft-boot the Producer (switch the sample rate back and forth from 44.1 and 48) in order to restart the console – AND hold the VIEW button for the USB slot while I did it. That did the trick. Firmware found and updated, and iPad remote control functionality restored!

More tricky is the fact that this update did not update the firmware for the X-USB card. If you plan on using the X-USB card with any Mac running 10.6.8 – you HAVE to install the update. Either update your OS or update the card.

I opted to update the card, but I couldn’t find any procedure for doing so. The USB slot on the console was not the way to do it. After a lot of useless web scouring I found a fellow on a few different forums who said you had to update from a laptop plugged into the X-USB expansion card. Sure enough, double-clicking on the firmware download file while plugged into the X-USB updated the firmware. Suddenly Logic 9 could see the interface and all my record enable buttons reappeared. These were the only two headaches I ran into.