Wednesday, January 11, 2017

How to Get a Better Mix: The Mics

"In general, also in mixing I use very little EQ. 
My mics are my EQ." --Al Schmitt

Hopefully you've heard this before...mixing starts at the mic. I think I've proven it starts well before that, but I digress. Picking the right mics, their placement and proximity to each other is crucial in making records. Even if you're working with synthesized music and a pop vocalist singing over the top of the production...your mic choice could be the difference between a soothing compelling vocal that works for the song or an out of place element on the track that sounds cheap and distracting from the experience of the song. 

There's so much to be said for proper mic technique and though some of the fundamentals can be gleaned from credible books on recording, much of it like any skill is practice, practice, practice. Don't be afraid to take time and find the right spot for that SM57 over the snare drum. Try something new altogether and look up to those who've proven their salt at the skill.

The same mic can sound different at difference distances and angles from the source. So, even if you have the most limited microphone locker, there's still a world of possibilities for you to discover and try on your next recording.

Recommendation: I tend to value books over YouTube videos when it comes to audio instruction, as they've survived the test of time. One that I can recommend to you is "Modern Recording Techniques" by David Miles Huber. It's a great primer into audio engineering and will give you the fundamentals you need to start micing things up with confidence.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Contrasting Art: Al Schmitt & Mike Dean

Inevitably, I find myself in a lot of conversations with engineers on the record making process. When we land on the topic of favorite albums I sometimes cause some eyebrows to raise. A few of my favorite albums are not always technical masterpieces, sometimes far from it, but it doesn't ruin my enjoyment of the music in any way. I love albums like...
  • "St. Anger" by Metallica 
  • "Doolittle" and "Surfer Rosa" by The Pixies 
  • "It Takes a Nation.." by Public Enemy 
  • "Either/Or" by Elliott Smith 
  • "Cypress Hill" by Cypress Hill 
  • "Tim" by The Replacements get the idea... 

Most of these albums you might be able to argue sound 'bad', yet that doesn't stop me from playing them back over and over.

On the other side of the coin, I love some incredible sounding records like...
  • "Eat a Peach" by The Allman Brothers 
  • "Talking Book" by Stevie Wonder 
  • "Bad" by Michael Jackson 
  • "A Love Supreme" by John Coltrane 
  • "Wrecking Ball" by Emmylou Harris 
  • "Da Good, Da Bad & Da Ugly" by Geto Boys 
The only thing some of these albums have in common is that they're made up of music and that I like them. And you may look at these lists and want to rewrite them for me, and that's okay. 

That leads me to my next audio engineers working in the music industry, our job is to help facilitate art. This is art and just like these paintings can exist under the umbrella of art... 

So can these albums...



Many times as engineers, we need to be asking ourselves what tells the story for this artist better, a clean class A preamp or a dusty blown guitar amp. 

There's room for distortion and clarity, and the skill of an engineer is to know how to facilitate both those needs. And the role of the producer is to know which one is appropriate for the project. 

Whether you use Ableton Live or an original Neumann U47's to create your music...the goal is the same...great art. And there's plenty of room for both. 

Sunday, January 8, 2017

How to Get a Better Mix: The Performance

Don't wait for mixing or mastering for your song to feel like a great song, record it that way.

Last year I was lucky enough to get to sit in and watch some master session players in Nashville cut a tune. It was incredible. What came out of the speakers sounded mixed at the onset. Everything just sounded as it should. The engineer leaned over to me and said, "I have the easiest job in the world". And he was right. Great performances make the rest of the process easier. If you have a great song, arrangement and performance, the job of the engineer can just be presentation.

All too often I've seen artists rush in and out of the studio with decent, but not great performances recorded. They might have fronted the cost to track at a world class facility, mix with a chart topping mixer and master with one of the greats, but the album only sounds 'okay'. Their album releases, but is not met by the level of excitement they hoped for.

Where did they go wrong?...

People are still triggered by emotion and experience. If the performance isn't there, no amount of fancy microphones, vintage gear, experienced processing, or level balancing is going to add that into the track.

Great performances of great songs arranged well make for great records. Put in the time required to get these three 'pillars of the production process' right and the rest of it will be much easier.

"Sing from your soul...that's where the magic is"--Quincy Jones

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Plugins Debunked: Slate Digital VTM

Based on two well known Studer tape machines, NRG Recording's A827 and Howie Weinberg's A80, the Slate team took a solid year and a half to capture the idiosyncrasies of these two beloved machines.

Some back story before we continue...

I've spoken to a few engineers, such as Bob Ohlsson of the Motown fame about tape, and his thoughts were, that tape was a cumbersome experience that engineers fought with when it was the only medium for recordings. It had a 'sound', but sometimes that sound interfered with the clarity of the recorded performance. Other times it provided a rich low end and compelling low-mid presence that missed when everything went digital in the 80's.

In recent years, a generation who never experienced working with tape have become nostalgic for it and are incorporating tape emulation plugins into their mixes and productions.

In the early 2000's, first emulations of it were pretty bad...adding a saturation, but not in the least bit accurate to what it aimed to model.

Years passed and companies like Waves and McDSP tried their hand at it and found more success in capturing a similar energy of the original tape machines. For my taste those plugins were too over the top and not consistent with my experience with tape machines, but to each their own.

But haste isn't something the Slate Digital team are known for, from 2010 to 2013 the Slate team only had 5 products in its lineup.

It wasn't until Christmas of 2013 that the VTM was released.

Their aim was to replicate; the dynamics, saturation, frequency response, and characteristics of these two machines. I've never worked with these two specific machines before for myself, but to my ear, I think the job was accomplished.

The specifics... 

There's not a lot of controls on this unit which for my style is a good thing.

You get two 'machine type' options...

  • 16-track 2" machine 
  • 2-track .5" with a quarter inch master deck

You can choose between 15 and 30 ips and there's controls for...
  • Noise Reduction 
  • WOW 
  • Bias Alignment 
  • Bass Alignment 
  • Input/Output Trim 
In my opinion it sounds great with drums and bass, but not all instruments and not all styles, as it was marketed. 

I would likely never use it on a sub-mix and definitely not use it for mastering, but I'm sure there are successful engineers who have and do. 

My recommendation is to try the demo and see how it suits your ear. 

Verdict: The Slate Digital VTM is among the top 2 tape emulation plugins, the other being the UAD Ampex 102. It adds a nice robust low end to some instruments, but will alter your mid and high frequencies in a sometimes unpleasant way. I personally don't see myself purchasing it, but don't let that stop you. If it gets you to your preferred end result then use it however you see fit. 

I found this video plenty informative if you want to spend the 8 minutes of your life watching it. Fabrice Gabriel, the head developer at Slate Digital goes into great detail on what it took to create this plugin. 

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Plugins Debunked: Waves L2 UltraMaximizer

What happens when an audio engineer who tends to be skeptical of plugins reviews them? 
Let's find out.

In 1999 Waves Ltd. released the rack mount L2 UltraMaximizer.

Mastering and mixing engineers picked them up and incorporated them into their rigs by the droves. 
Among the early adopters were; Dave Collins, Stephen Marcussen, Ted Jensen, and Bob Ludwig. 

And why not? It has 24/96 conversion, a 48-bit digital signal path, bit-depth output to 24 bits, S/PDIF and AES/EBU inputs, and controls that make it comfortable for the most die hard analog stalwart. 


The appeal of the L2 was the ability to raise the level of program material without the audible side effects. Among some of the interesting features were ARC (Automatic Release Control), IDR (Waves proprietary dither and noise shaping engine), and the unique look ahead feature of their brick-wall limiter. 

In 2002, Waves Ltd. released a plugin for ProTools TDM that emulated their award winning rack-mount version. I remember at the time, the authenticity of it being argued in forums online, but despite the critics, the L2 became a staple for; producers, mixers, and mastering engineers. 

Some Facts: The L2 plugin (like its hardware counterpart) uses a double-precision algorithm with a 48bit integer. Meaning if you use a high grade AD/DA and word clock there should be no difference between the plugin and the hardware unit.

Some time in 2006 the hardware unit was discontinued and your only option for that now famous L2 application was to find one second hand or to use the plugin, which ran you $600 at the time. 

Now, in 2016 there are software limiters that can raise the level of audio with less side effects then the Waves L2. Software developers like FabFilter, iZotope, and Sonnox have taken the reigns from Waves when it comes to making things loud transparently, but the L2 still has a place in at least my workflow. 

The L2 though promoted in years prior to be a transparent way to raise the level of your program material, actually has a tone it imparts to the audio. It pushes forward the mid frequencies, some call it distortion, but nonetheless it's a useful thing for snares, guitars and vocals if you want to avoid using an equalizer. 

Verdict: The L2 is still a viable plugin, but if your purpose is to use it to reach more level transparently, there are better products for that these days.

Some Tips for using the L2... 
  • Try it in un-linked mode. Sometimes unlinked allows for less obvious 'pumping'. 
  • It shines between 1-1.5 of gain reduction. 
  • The dither/noise engine is on by default, turn that off. 
  • It's best when used on material that's already seen some compression.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

How to Get a Better Mix: The Arrangement

If there's one thing that doesn't get enough attention and in my book is THE MOST important to getting a great end result, it would have to be arrangement. Not only the song structure, but what instruments are paired with other instruments, the timbres they provide to the sonic structure of the song, where they're placed in the stereo field, the melodic and rhythmic decisions made for each instrument and last but certainly not least...the space between each note. These are the next biggest deciding factors to if you have a great song or not. These make the job of mixing and mastering much easier and are where the majority of your time should be spent. 

We often forget that some of the greatest albums were made on the most primitive of technology, from The Beatles at Abbey Road to the recordings of Count Basie's Orchestra to Miles Davis "Kind of Blue", if you focus on these first three things you're bound to make a more professional sounding recording even if you don't have the highest quality recording gear.

"It's not the notes you play, it's the notes you don't play"--Miles Davis 

How to Get a Better Mix: The Song

It's easier to make a great song sound great then to polish an okay one. I'd venture to guess that if I were to ask you what's your favorite production or mix it would probably also be a great song. I don't know many people who like the production/mixes on bad songs. This is one of the biggest difficulties with new clients, having them pick a song to reference specifically for the sonic characteristics of it and not just the songwriting.

Great songs grab us and bring us to a 'space' maybe emotionally, maybe mentally, perhaps both. This makes the job of the engineer so much easier, because you don't have to try so hard to illicit a response from the listener, the song already does that.

This is where I would invest THE MOST of your time in the production stage, write a great song.

Tip: I once heard a quote from Nashville songwriter, Monty Powell (Keith Urban, Tim McGraw, Billy Ray Cyrus) say to write your song and then look at it again and work the weakest section to be as strong (if not stronger) than the strongest section. Then to look at the new weakest section and revise that till it's as strong or stronger than the strongest section. Do this through the whole song for as long as you can. Walk away and revisit all your revisions and evaluate what you have.