Sunday, August 21, 2016

The Focus of our Mix (a 5 points list)

Hello and welcome to this week's article!
Today we are going to talk about "the big picture", in facts often sound engineers are detail oriented nerds which focuses their attention on one detail at the time and refine it to perfection, and sometimes they can get to a point in which they lose a holistic view of the mix, for example after hours spent working on a synth sound.
The result is that when the producer hears a mix he focuses on certain things that the final listener won't even notice, and he could lose the general view of how is the song perceived.

This small list is useful to "keep the eyes on the ball", since the listener hears the complete song, not the single parts, so we will try to break down the elements that usually are more noticed in a mix, so that we will know where to put most of our efforts.
Notice that this list applies for rock, metal, punk, funk and most of pop music, but there are other genres completely different in which these rules don't apply, because they would make the song excessively rhythm based (es. jazz), so use it at your own risk.

1) Snare sound: the snare sound is the business card of the song.
It's the first thing that gets to the ear of the listener, because it is made, along with vocals, to resonate exactly in the most audible frequences for the human ear.
The snare sound alone can decide the genre of a song, imagine the typical reggae snare of the Bob Marley albums, the dry and snappy sound of the electronic dance music one, the shotgun sound of 80s rock or the acoustic vibe of '60s and '70s rock snare.
If the snare sound is botched, the WHOLE song will sound amateur, or unpleasant, even if the listener can't recognize why, so make sure to nail it.
Click here for an article about mixing drums.

2) Low end (kick and bass): this is the punch of the song, and one the core elements that makes the difference between a very amateur recording and a professional one, because to be nailed it requires expensive monitors and use of metering tools that usually amateur mix engineers doesn't consider important.
If we get right the balance both in levels and in frequences of the rhythm section, which is the whole drumset (especially the balance between snare and kick) and the bass we have done most of the mix, because the whole song will sound balanced and the listener will focus on the content, the music, which is our main objective.
Bass and kick should go as in sinergy as possible, and this assumes we have good tracks, played in time and well arranged, and the frequences should be complementary each other when mixing, so that the "house" we are building has strong foundations.

3) Vocals: Once we have a solid rhythmic section we must focus on vocals, because (unless we are mixing some swedish nineties death metal song) it will be the thing that will make the listener press play on our track.
If the vocals are bad, either because the singer is bad or because we have recorded or mixed him poorly, the song will be a failure, so we must treat it very carefully, considering that 70% of a vocal track happens during tracking; after that we can embellish it with reverb, delay, autotune, but if a vocal take sucks it cannot un-suck, so grab your best microphone, your best preamp, your best patience and record the track again if it doesn't sound perfect, because even if the song will be perfectly produced, if the vocal sucks, noone will ever want to listen to it.

4) Accompainment (guitars, piano...): now we must take care of everything is around the voice, such as guitars, or synths, or anything else, and we do it after drums and vocals, otherwise we would not be willing to sacrifice frequences or modify the perfect sound we have found to make room to drums and vocals. Keep your eyes on the ball guys!

5) Additional arrangement: This last element (such as adding small details like handclaps on snare here and there, some extra effect to underline a certain word, some lo-fi stop and go, automations etc), should be done once we have our general mix finished, and these details will be the candies we will throw to the listener to rise the attention when we are afraid he would get distracted, or to draw it towards a particular element of the song.
Use them with parsimony though, because otherwise if the song is too full of these tricks the listener will stop paying attention to them!

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Sunday, August 14, 2016

Review: Focusrite Saffire PRO 14

Hello and welcome to this week's article!
Today we are going to review an interesting audio interface, the Focusrite Saffire Pro 14.
This is a firewire interface, built in a very solid metal case and with 8 input (2 jack input with pre, 2 xlr input with pre, 2 line inputs, 1 midi in and 1 spdif in) and 6 outputs (4 line outs, 1 midi out, 1 spdif out), is one of the most common (together with its usb sister, the Scarlett serie) and used home recording audio interface in the market, due to its good quality to price ratio and rock solid reliability, both for the hardware and the drivers part.

The interface sounds well, the preamps are in line with the competitors (although I personally prefer slightly the sound of the ones in the Presonus Audiobox), the unit works at 24 bit/96 khz without problems, and the drivers are reliable (which is essential for an audio interface) and with a latency close to zero.
The unit comes with a lite version of Ableton live, and with a bundle of Focusrite Vst plugins that emulate the interface style of vintage processors, such as Equalizers and Compressors.

There are many competitors today in the market, especially in this medium price layer in which the quality is constantly rising and the prices are lowering: a firewire interface in the past was almost mandatory because Usb 1.1 interfaces were not enough reliable to manage big projects, the firewire connection was much more stable and let more data to run through without errors, but today the latest usb interfaces are as reliable as the firewire ones, without the nightmare of the hot plugging problem, which risks to destroy the pc motherboard (firewire interfaces can be plugged into the computer only with the pc turned off, otherwise it can burn the connection in the motherboard).

Is it a good idea today to buy a firewire interface

It depends on how old our pc is, if it is 5/10 years old it can often be a good idea, because firewire connection is more stable and doesn't rely on the cpu to manage the incoming and outgoing data transmission (unlike the usb connection), so it ensures a stable and soild stream of data that is essential in mixing. On the other hand, if we have a more recent pc I would suggest an usb interface, because today the pc cpu and the quality of the usb connection are good enough to mix also larger projects, and we don't have the constant risk of frying our motherboard due to accidental hot plugging.

Microphone Inputs 1-2
Frequency Response: 20Hz - 20kHz +/- 0.2 dB
Gain Range: +13dB to +60dB
Maximum Headroom +8dBu
Input Impedance: 2k Ohm

Line Inputs (Inputs 1-2)
Frequency Response: 20Hz - 20kHz +/- 0.2dB
Gain Range: -10dB to +36dB

A/D Dynamic Range > 109dB (A-weighted), all analogue inputs
D/A Dynamic Range > 106dB (A-weighted), all analogue outputs
Clock Sources: - Internal Clock - Sync to Word Clock on SPDIF Input (RCA)
Supported Sample Rates: 44.1kHz, 48kHz, 88.2kHz, 96kHz

Weight and Dimensions
1.5kg / 3.3lbs
215mm (W) x 45mm (H) x 220mm (D) (8.5 x 1.8 x 8.7 inches)
Analogue Channel Inputs (Inputs 1-2)
2 Mic XLR Combo (channels 1-2) on front panel
2 Line 1⁄4” TRS (channels 3-4) on rear panel
Output Level control (analogue) for outputs 1 and 2
Stereo Headphones Mix 1 on 1⁄4” TRS (also routed to Outputs 3 & 4) with independent volume control
Digital Channel Outputs (Outputs 5-6) 44.1 - 96kHz
Instrument input source selection LED for channels 1 and 2
Phantom Power (48V) switch and LED for inputs 1 and 2

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Saturday, August 6, 2016

MID / SIDE EQUALIZATION on MASTERING, done the right way.

Hello and welcome to this week's article!
This time we will talk about that which is probably the only reasonable way to eq during the mastering phase (click here for a dedicated article on the basic mastering chain, or HERE for another one dedicated to the MINIMAL mastering chain).

I know, I have said in the past that in theory the mix should be perfect and arrive to the mastering phase with such a perfect balance to the point that there will not be need to eq during mastering, because at that point one should correct the mix problems, rather than actually enhancing the sound.
If the balance needs to be enhanced, it's better to go back to the mixing phase and make the corrections in the single tracks.

What I meant was that an eq in the mastering buss affects the whole track, therefore we cannot for example tweak the mids out of the guitar without affecting the body of the snare or the vocals, and so on.
It is really a castle of cards.
A solution in these cases comes with the mid side equalization (click here for an in depth article, with a list of free plugins): an equalizer that lets you choose what part of the sound process, the center of the sides.
This way you can work on the bass frequences, like bass or kick drum, tweaking the bass as you normally would, and filter the bass freq out of the sides (for example from 100hz down), where guitars and drum overhead lays, and here we can also add some sparkle in the high end (obviously, since we are talking about mastering eq these correction must be subtle, not more than a couple of db): this way the bass will sound more focused in the mix, while the sides will sound more bright and open, all without touching the precious balance in the mids and upper mids of the center of the mix (vocals and snare).

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Saturday, July 30, 2016

Mixing with channel strips, console simulators and other analog simulations

Hello and welcome to this week's article!
Today we will talk about mixing using virtual channel strips, and it is an addition to our virtual channel strips article, with links to download many virtual Vsts to try (CLICK HERE TO READ IT).

This time I would like to go more in depth in the matter: why does anybody need in the digital age to limit himself by using channel strips, that limit our flexibility, our total control over a tone?
Why should we restrict ourselves in a more limited environment, forcing ourselves to recreate the technical limits of the hardware consoles of the past?

The answer is not silly, and it has one psychological and one practical side.

The practical side is the fact that analog consoles have certain properties given from the materials and the construction, which have given to the sound of the albums we loved of the past decades a very unique and euphonic coloring.
The combination of very sligh compression, saturation and harmonic enhancement given by those that once were even considered limits of the hardware, today are pushing us in using at least some console simulator on our busses (for example a kick buss, or a bass track, click here for an in depth article) or a tape saturation plugin (click here for an in depth article) to obtain a limiting in the amount of low end in a very musical way.
Through these classic hardwares, or their virtual simulators, the low end will sound more compact, in focus and smooth.

The only problem is that this nice effect is based on the quality of the hardware or the simulator; it's obvious that if we pass our mix through a mixer that was crappy even when it was purchased 30 years ago our mix won't benefit at all, same is if we use crappy plugins: the sad truth is that the quality is paid, and only the best ones, the most expensive ones such as the Slate or the Waves ones, or others, can really deliver a good result (although I think that Sonimus Satson is an excellent bang for the buck).

Under the psychologic point of view instead, deciding to use channel strips instead of the classic array of plugins we fill every track's slot with, brings us to an interesting challenge that eventually will turn into a growing experience that we will be able to use also in the future mixes: it teaches us to think strategically, especially if we try to mix it like on a small desk, for example 16 or 24 single channels, and some buss, like one for vocals, one for drum skins, one for cymbals, one for guitars, and do the most of the work mainly on the busses. this will force us to find a homogeneous coloring of each group, and eventually it will help us in improving the separation between sections too: the whole drumset will have a coherent sound, all the vocals will have a coherent sound, and it will be easier to separate each section one from the other.

If we do our group tracks properly, after the editing phase, we will have to add really few plugins in the single tracks, mainly for filtering or for doing some dynamic correction, and then we can do most of the work directly in the few groups we have created, which was the normality when using mixing desks from the 60s to the 90s, and I guarantee that this experience will change your workflow and approach when mixing your future projects: you will learn that you can achieve the same result as loading for example a processor in every track, by grouping them and using less processor instances as possible, or loading one or two delays into an fx track and sending them to the tracks or groups instead of loading an instance of the delay in every track, overloading the cpu.

I guarantee the result will be better and more natural, and the workflow will be much less stressful.

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Saturday, July 23, 2016

Keyboard Shortcuts (for Presonus Studio One, but also for other Daws)

Hello and welcome to this week's article!
Today we're going to talk about keyboard shortcuts, which means assigning a function of the Daw to a key or combination of keys of our keyboard.
Obviously every Daw has a (at least slighly) different serie of key commands: some Daw that are particularly greedy have them mapped in a totally different ways than the others (cough cough... Cakewalk...) in order to make sure that once you got used to theirs, you won't switch comfortably to another Daw, while other producers tend to use a more "standard" approach, to make sure that even if you come from another Daw, you will feel more or less at home.

Presonus Studio one is particularly good in this, since it lets you choose between several keyboard mapping schemes (like the one of Cubase, Pro Tools, Logic...), so that you will be able to use the shortcuts you're used to from your previous Daw, and obviously it lets you customize everything with ease if you want to create a custom mapping that suits your needs.

Here you can find a map of the Studio One standard keyboard Shortcuts; we know that is impossible to memorize all of them, and only by using them with time we will get acquainted, neveretheless we have chosen the 10 most important keyboard shortcuts to know (in our humble opinion) to really improve the speed of our workflow:

1 - Select arrow tool

F3 - Show Console

Alt+X - Cut

Ctrl+Z - Undo

Num pad * - Record

Spacebar - Play/stop

Q - Quantize

O - Preroll

R - arm track

G - consolidate parts

There are also layouts like the one in the image, that can be printed or purchased on sticker paper, ready to be attached to your keyboard to help you finding the right key for the right function.

I hope this was helpful!

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Saturday, July 16, 2016

Review: Behringer Ultragain Mic200

Hello and welcome to this week's article!
Today we are going to talk about a tool that is considered the cheap "swiss knife" of Di/Preamps: the Behringer Ultragain Mic 200.

Every musician knows Behringer: a big german producer that has as a target the cheapest layer of the market, and that creates products, often clones of famous hardware from more expensive brands, affordable for those who are first approaching the world of music or music production and need some dirt cheap tool, such as mixers, stompboxes and so on.

It has happened, especially in the past, that Behringer has put in the market products with such a poor construction that it made them almost unusable, or prone to break after a really short time, but in recent times it appears like the company is working in the direction of improving its product quality, especially creating a guitar amp sub-brand called Bugera, which produces affordable clones of famous amplifiers, and that represents a big step forward from the extremely poor quality of the previous Behringer branded guitar amps.

Asking to professional audio engineers on whether or not to use Behringer products on your record would often result in a negative answer, yet many thinks that this brand has actually some (very few) product that can be used also in a professional environment, and I am talking specifically about the Ultragain serie, both rack or this small desktop version.

The Ultragain Mic is a small Di/preamplifier with 2 inputs and 2 outputs, one Xrl and one line, and it is appearently a clone of the Art Tube Mp, a beloved, multi purpose Di and Preamp.
The unit features a 12ax7 preamp tube, an input (from -28 to +60db) and output control, the phantom power control obviously, a -20db pad, a low cut filter, a phase switch and a preamplifier that features a serie of presets usable for vocals, guitar and so on.

I have approached this unit with not much expectations, considering the price, and yet I am still using it after many years with satisfaction: it has never let me down, doing its job diligently and without excessive background noise, which was my main concern due to the cheap materials.
I am using it usually as a Di/signal splitter: I go from my guitar to this unit, and from there one cable goes to the amp, which is microphoned, while another goes straight into the audio interface, so that for each guitar track I record, I will have one or more microphoned tracks and one clean line track.
It is always a good thing to record also a clean track, because sometimes during the mixing phase we might find out that the microphoned tracks have some issue and cannot be used, so we have to use the line track to reamp it with a real amplifier or with a guitar amp simulator.

In conclusion I find this unit useful, it is reliable (although I wouldn't use it on tour) and it sounds good, plus for the price, it is a real bang for the buck.
Final verdict: recommended!

- Ultra-flexible Preamp Modeling allows you to optimize your recordings
- Choose between 16 preamp voicings designed for electric and acoustic guitars, keyboards, bass guitars, drums, vocals and more
- Hand-selected 12AX7 vacuum tube with UTC technology for exceptional warmth and lowest noise
- Ensures outstanding signal transparency when used as a high-end DI-box
- Sophisticated output limiter prevents the output signal from being distorted
- Dedicated low cut filter eliminates unwanted noise, e.g. floor rumble
- +48 V phantom power, Phase Reverse switch and 20 dB Pad for utmost flexibility
- Highly accurate 8-segment LED level meter
- Balanced inputs and outputs on ¼" TRS and gold-plated XLR connectors

Saturday, July 9, 2016

How to use Folder Tracks (practical uses)

Hello and welcome to this week's article!
Today we're going to talk about a way to organize our project (so we are in the Project Preparation phase, the one between the recording phase and the mixing one), grouping two or more tracks in one same folder (e.g. Toms) so that we can reach more easily the track we need instead of having to scroll down the tracklist all the time; this is really the best way to tidy up our session.

In large projects (especially those with big orchestral Midi parts), we can find ourselves with literally hundreds of tracks (I have personally worked on a project with more than 100 AUDIO tracks), so a good organization of the workstation is essential.
All the most advanced Daws have some way to visually group tracks in smaller folders that when needed can be collapsed, and each producer calls them in a different way (for example in Logic they are called Track Stacks), but today we are going to focus on the Presonus Studio One interface, because the Track Folder tool offers the same function of the others, plus some unique feature.

The first thing to do is to choose the tracks that we want to pack in the same folder (holding Shift), and then right click on the wave symbol of the first selected track and choose from the menu PACK FOLDER.
This way the Daw will create a folder track that we can name as we want (e.g. "Vocals", containing all the vocal tracks); note that this folder is NOT a group track, so if we click on the folder icon on this track it will show us all the included tracks and they can be processed individually, although we can mute or solo the folder track and it will apply on all included tracks.

An interesting feature that is more rare to find in other Daws is the fact that you can click on the folder track and select (where initially there is written "None") "Add Bus Channel", and it will create a Bus Track in our Console.
Doing so, we will also be able to control the bus volume directly from the folder track.

One last feature, which is exclusive of Studio One, is the Group function. In the folder track there is also an icon with 3 human figures:

Let's say we have in our folder several audio tracks with the recording of an acoustic drumset that we need to edit: by clicking that button we have all the tracks inside the folder grouped together and we can edit all of them at the same time, then clicking on it again they will be ungrouped so that we'll be able to edit individually each single track.
This function can speed up our workflow immensely, when editing.

I hope this was helpful!

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