AF’s Weblog

March 24, 2011

Live Sound: 53rd Annual Grammy Awards

Filed under: Live Sound — Tags: , , , , , , — audiofanzine @ 9:18 am

It wasn’t the promise of a performance by Lady Gaga that drew me in to watch the Grammys this year, but rather, some added motivation in having the opportunity to check out the live and broadcast sound systems during a visit to rehearsals at the Staples Center in Los Angeles a couple of days prior to the show.

Lady Antebellum performing with Sennheiser

SKM 2000 transmitters with MMD935-1 capsules

at the show.

 


Did you watch the Grammy Awards show this year? I did for the first time in several years, and it seems many others tuned in as well, with the mid-February live broadcast (including 5.1 surround sound) on CBS garnering about 27 million viewers and the highest average viewership since 2001.

Still, the entertainment bill for this year’s show proved a compelling mix of currently hot (and Grammy-nominated) pop/rock/country stars (Arcade Fire, Katy Perry, Justin Bieber, Lady Antebellum, the aforementioned Ms. Gaga, and so on) with some true legendary performers in what has thankfully become more of a concert than an awards show.  One particular highlight had soon-to-be 68-year-old Mick Jagger in his first-ever Grammy performance, moving like a man less than half his age in stirring the crowd to its feet as front man for “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love,” a tribute to soul legend Solomon Burke.

 

The sound crew working the Grammy Awards is veteran in terms of both overall experience and in service to the event.  Shortly after entering the Staples Center, I was greeted by my friend and all-time great guy Andrew “Fletch” Fletcher, who serves as a live system manager/tech for the show, and he commenced with a first-rate tour of key points and people involved with the audio production for the 53rd annual Grammy Awards, which is presented by the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences (NARAS).

Well Organized

Some of the flown JBL VerTec line arrays serving the

Grammy Awards show at the Staples Center.

The show benefits from a winningly efficient formula for presenting an average of 20 live acts in the course of just three or so hours.

There’s an A and a B performance stage, side-by-side on the front platform, so while an act is appearing on one stage, the other stage is being prepared for the next performance. Every bit of audio equipment, as well as instruments and stage/set/production elements, are meticulously organized on rolling carts backstage in the days leading up to the show. When one act is done, their stage goes dark and everything is rolled off, replaced by the next act’s gear.

The house sound system for the 16,000-plus attending the show at the Staples Center is designed and supplied by ATK Audiotek of Valencia, CA, which has made an art of serving awards shows and special events.  While the system followed the same form of the past several years, the ATK team consistently implements upgrades and also accounts for inevitable set and production changes from year to year.

A look up from the front seating rows at one of the

JBL VerTec line arrays that are capable of providing

coverage almost up to the front edge of the stage.

The overall mantra driving the design is “the broadcast is the thing” – the system must stay out of camera sightlines as much as possible, and what’s happening audio-wise in the house cannot impact the broadcast sound.  Still, the house also has priority, with Jeff Peterson of ATK performing expert tuning and optimization of the main system.  Standing with Fletch at the house mix position, I could just barely make out the silhouettes of the JBL VerTec line arrays flown high above the front platform, and that’s on purpose. Still, they’re there, and do an excellent job in terms of fidelity and overall venue coverage.

ATK deployed 70 VT4889 full-size line array elements in four main arrays, two for the central seating regions flanked by two more splayed outward for expansive areas on each long sides of the multi-level arena. The bottom of each array has curvature so steep that it pretty much handles the front rows.

“We’ve enjoyed tremendous success with VerTech line arrays for the Grammy Awards in the past and this year was no different,” notes Scott Harmala, CTO/VP engineering for ATK. “They provided powerful and accurate sound throughout the arena.”

VerTec subwoofers joined the arrays, flown centrally on a platform, with front fill supplied by VRX932LA compact loudspeakers. Placement of these were largely dictated by the stage/set design, so the sound team worked within the parameter of keeping them largely out-of-camera-sight while insuring coverage right up front. More VRX932LA loudspeakers on delay were distributed around the arena to bolster mid/high coverage to shadowed and other difficult seating areas.

Now let’s take a closer look…

The Bigger Picture

Some of the myriad wireless transmitters

stagedseparately for each artist.

Microphones are the choice of each individual artist, and there’s a wide range of wired and wireless microphones from Shure, Audio-Technica, AKG, Sennheiser, Audix and many others on hand.  Several of these companies have a representative on hand throughout rehearsals and the show to be sure all of their respective artists needs are being served. The wireless microphone situation is managed by Dave Bellamy of Soundtronics of Burbank, CA, assisted by Grant Greene, posted with the system receivers in an area just outside the arena bowl.

 

Bill Kappelman organizing every wireless microphone

being used by performers at the show into trays to

facilitate smooth transitions from act to act, and to

prevent confusion.

Parker points out that one of the biggest aspects of his and Pesa’s gig is fostering a comfort factor and rapport with all of the various engineers on site, working in the interest of their artists.  “Some of them haven’t done TV work, so it’s imperative that we take the time to explain to them how this all works, the setup and layout, to help bring them into the fold,” Parker says.  “We address their issues and concerns as much as possible within the format of the bigger picture so that they can relax, because if they’re relaxed, then their artists are going to relax, and that’s going to help result in the best performances. It’s unseen, but is really one of the most important parts of the gig.”

 

This year, artists such as Barbra Streisand, Arcade Fire, Eminem and several others were his responsibility, and it all went off very well. “There was nothing out of the ordinary, which is good news,” he says.  “The Aretha Franklin medley that kicked off the show really sounded good to me this year – those ladies really brought their A game – and that set the pace.”

Grammy Awards Audio Production Team

A look at two of the JBL VerTec line

arrays providing main coverage.

Michael Abbott, audio coordinator
ATK Audiotek, live sound company
Mike Stahl, president, ATK Audiotek
Scott Harmala, CTO/VP engineering, ATK Audiotek
Ron Reaves & Mikael Stewart, live front of house mix
Michael Parker & Tom Pesa, live house monitor mix
Andrew “Fletch” Fletcher & Jeff Peterson, live system managers/techs
Dave Bellamy (Soundtronics), RF frequency coordination
Bill Kappelman, RF microphones manager
Steve Anderson, “split world” manager
Leslie Ann Jones (The Recording Academy), house audio supervisor
M3 (Music Mix Mobile), broadcast music mix
Joel Singer (M3), engineer in charge, Eclipse mix truck
Mark Linett (M3), engineer in charge, Horizon remix truck
John Harris & Eric Schilling, broadcast music mixers
Tom Holmes, overall broadcast mix
Phil Ramone & Hank Neuberger, broadcast audio supervisors

To read the full detailed article see:  Live Sound @ the 53rd Annual Grammy Awards

March 21, 2011

TC Helicon VoiceLive Touch Review

Vocal effects are present more than ever in modern music, but if you want special effects, you don’t give the control to the sound engineer. Loopers are also hip, especially for artists making solo performances on stage. So, when such a serious manufacturer as TC-Helicon offers a voice processor, harmonizer and looper in one single box (everything you need for a single voice, voice + guitar or voice + keyboards performance) it is worth taking a closer look at it. Let’s go!

Who is TC?

TC-Helicon is a Canadian company belonging to the TC-Group, a holding that controls several prestigious pro audio manufacturers like the very famous TC-Electronic, but also Lab.gruppen amps or Tannoy speakers… TC Group merged with Gibson in 2008. TC-Helicon specializes in voice gear, from processors to mics. Their products have a good overall quality and a rugged construction plus they sound pretty good.

The VoiceLive Touch is a variation of the VoiceLive 2 footboard, which offers more possibilities (to a certain extent) and is also 60% more expensive. The street price of the Voice Live 2 is around $800 while you can get the Voice Live Touch for only $500. And unlike the VoiceLive 2, the VoiceLive Touch includes a looper. And not a toy one.

The VoiceLive is not just a light version of its predecessor. In fact, its designers had the idea of developing a concept with a radically different user interface based on a “touch” interface. Definitely trendy, but is it a good thing? We’ll have to discuss the matter further. Let’s start discovering the unit!

Heavy Duty!

TC Helicon VoiceLive Touch

At first hand, the VoiceLive Touch gives the impression of being quite sturdy. Its heavy weight, in spite of the compact size, is responsible for that, but also the materials. The housing, except for the front panel with the touch interface, is made out of some sort of rugged rubber plastic. Why this material? Because the VoiceLive Touch’s special shape allows you to place it on a table or on a microphone stand, which is a very convenient solution to always have it at hand. The fixation system is well thought out as you can see from the pictures. However, the rear handle used to fix the unit to a microphone stand makes connections a bit harder, even if it hides the connectors from the audience. You can’t have everything, right? Long jacks can be problematic.

Although the overall design of the VoiceLive Touch is very nice and original, the touch interface looks a bit awkward, as if it had been designed in the 80’s. In some (rare) circumstances, you’ll be dazzled by the reflections. The external PSU is the same as for many consumer products, which is hard to understand for a stage device, especially at this price. An adapter plugged into a multi-outlet power strip or an extension power cord is not exactly what you want to have or see in the middle of the stage. Luckily, the length of the cable should be enough to hide it behind a monitor speaker. I know, it’s an insignificant detail, but once you discover its features you’ll agree with me that such a product deserves better.

An All-Rounder?

The features of the VoiceLive Touch are very comprehensive. Just take a look:

  • Voice effects processor
  • Automatic tuning correction (so you can sing in tune)
  • Harmonizer (to add a choir to your voice)
  • Basic guitar effect
  • Looper
  • Phrase sampler

Phew!

TC Helicon VoiceLive Touch

Let’s just mention the tuning corrector briefly: it offers a single “strength” control (in %). If you sing like an angel you’ll set it to 0 if, but if you are a shower singer you’ll probably have to set it to 100. As always with such tools, the performance looses its natural expression with higher settings. In extreme cases you’ll even experience bizarre results (like the famous “Cher” effect). But it’s a very handy tool: it is not easy to sing in tune with choirs and effects added to your own voice. The tuning corrector makes up for this. Since it is global, we prefer to use the one included with some effects for presets that require it. Do note that the samples were recorded without tuning correction (I guess you’ll hear it anyway!).

The processor includes six effect categories: harmonizer, modulation (chorus, flanger, …), delay, reverb, “double,” and “FX,” which includes different effects (only one can be used at a time). The effect chain has independent sections you can switch on/off individually (like separate stompboxes). Each section offers several (quite) basic parameters. Let’s take the delay as an example: you can choose from 18 different delay types, set the effect amount added to the mix, the stereo width, and the tempo. And that’s it. No direct feedback nor damping nor feedback delay time: just select the delay type number to change to a new sound. The 18 delays cover a wide range of effects but don’t allow the precise processing you get with standard parameters. Below you will see that that wasn’t the goal of the VoiceLive Touch.

TC Helicon VoiceLive Touch

You also get a “lead level” setting for each effects section. It allows you to attenuate your voice when only that effect is active. It is similar to a standard dry/wet setting but the fact that it activates only when no other effect is on allows you to create (very) interesting special effects.

Some sections offer more settings, but some are very basic. Besides the “lead level,” the reverb provides you only with a send level (routing to the mix) and a selector to choose among 30 reverb types, which is quite a lot considering that they all have different colors and duration. This approach is good because of its simplicity (some people don’t know what all parameters of a delay or a reverb are for), but it can be frustrating for people who are used to tweaking effects. Especially given that the effects are identified only by a number rather than a name, which makes it difficult to find them and often requires you to try all of them.

Thus, fine tuning your presets with the VoiceLive Touch demands quite some time before going on stage. Even though most factory presets sound very good, they require you to at least adjust levels.

Now let’s take a close look…

Conclusion

While I was very enthusiastic about the concept in the beginning, I ended up with mixed feelings because the VoiceLive Touch has some excellent features as well as some irritating ones. The touch interface didn’t quite convince me. In fact, I was surprised by some design faults, as well as by some very nice ideas and some complexities. But the VoiceLive Touch has many advantages too: besides its perfect sound quality, some very intelligent features and its versatility (I couldn’t mention many of its applications in this review), it has a very powerful harmonizer and an excellent looper. Both are crucial in the decision to buy the unit. When I was a solo performer (voice+guitar), I would have been delighted by such a product.

Advantages:

  • Original concept
  • Clever features
  • Irreproachable manufacturing quality
  • Very professional sound
  • Excellent harmonizer and effects
  • Awesome looper
  • Affordable optional footboard

Drawbacks:

  • Questionable “full touch” interface
  • No possibility to tweak effects live on stage
  • Improvable ergonomics
  • Lousy display
  • Settings sometimes too complex

To read the full multimedia article please see:  TC Helicon VoiceLive Touch Review

March 17, 2011

Panning Laws Revealed

The idea of panning seems pretty obvious, right? You turn a panpot (real or virtual) to place a sound somewhere in the stereo field…

But ignorance of the law is no excuse – in this case, panning laws. These laws govern exactly what happens when a monaural sound moves from left to right in the stereo field, which can be different for different pieces of software. As a matter of fact, not knowing about panning laws can create some significant issues if you need to move a project from one host to another. Panning laws may even account for some of the online foolishness where people argue about one host sounding “punchier” or “wimpier” than another when they loaded the same project into different hosts. It’s the same project, right? So it should sound the same, right?

Well, not necessarily…keep reading.

Origins of Panning Laws

Panning laws originated in the days of analog mixers. If there was a linear gain increase in one channel and a linear gain decrease in the other channel to change the stereo position, at the center position the sum of the two channels sounded louder than if the signal was panned full left or full right.

To compensate for this, it became common to use a logarithmic gain change response to drop the signal by -3dB RMS at the center. You could do this by using dual pots for panning with log/antilog tapers, but as those could be hard to find, you could do pretty much the same thing by adding tapering resistors to standard linear potentiometers. Thus, even though signals were being added together from the left and right channels, the apparent level was the same when centered because they had equal power.

But this “law” was not a standard. Some engineers preferred to drop the center level a bit more, either because they liked the signal to seem louder as it moved out of the main center zone, or because signals that “clumped up” around the center tended to “monoize” the signal. So, dropping their levels a little further created more of an illusion of stereo. And some of the people using analog consoles had their own little secret tweaks to change the panning characteristics.

Panning Meets the Digital Audio Workstation

With virtual mixers we don’t have to worry about dual ganged panpots, and can create any panning characteristic we want. That’s a good thing, because it allows a high degree of flexibility. But it also adds a degree of chaos that we really didn’t need.

For example, Cubase SX3 has four panning laws in the Project Setup dialog; you get there by going Project > Project Setup.

 

Loi de panoramique dans Cubase

The default pan law for Cubase is to drop the center by –3dB, which is the classic equal power setting.

 

Setting the value to 0dB eliminates constant-power panning, and gives the old school, center-channel-louder effect. Since we tried so hard to get away from that, it’s not surprising that Cubase defaults to using the “drop the center by -3dB” classic equal power setting. But you can also choose to drop the center by -4.5dB or -6dB if you want to hype up the extremes somewhat, and make the center a bit more demure. Fair enough; it’s nice to have options.

Adobe Audition has two panning options in multitrack mode, accessed by going View > Advanced Session Properties.

Loi de panoramique dans Audition

Adobe Audition lets you choose from two common panning laws.

L/R Cut Logarithmic is the default, and pans to the left by reducing the right channel volume, and conversely, pans to the right by reducing the left channel volume. As the panning gets closer to hard left or right, the channel being panned to doesn’t increase past what its volume would be when centered. The Equal Power Sinusoidal option maintains constant power by amplifying hard pans to left or right by +3dB, which is conceptually similar to dropping the two channels by -3dB when the signal is centered.

Now let’s take a closer look…

Conclusion

We can’t sign off without mentioning one more thing: The pan law you choose isn’t just a matter of convenience or compatibility, although I’ve stressed the importance of being compatible if you want to move a project from one host to another. The law you choose can make a difference in the overall sound of a mix.

This is less of an issue if you use mostly stereo tracks, as panning in that case is really more of a balance control. But for many of us, “multitrack” still means recording at least some mono tracks. I tend to record a mono source (voice, guitar, bass) in mono, unless it’s important to capture the room ambience – and even then, I’m more likely to capture the main sound in mono, and use a stereo pair of room mics (or stereo processing) that go to their own tracks. And if you pan that mono track, you’re going to have to deal with the panning laws.

In any event, you now know enough about those laws to make sure you don’t get cited for contempt of court. Happy panning!

To read the full detailed article please visit: Panning Laws Revealed

March 14, 2011

Red Witch Fuzz God II, Medusa, Pentavocal Trem and Titan Review

Music is universal — even people in New Zealand, who live down under, play music. They even make guitar stompboxes. And of course, that’s what interests us more here at AudioFanzine. Focus on four analog stompboxes…

While sheep proliferate in the wide, green and shimmering plains of New Zealand’s countryside, a small company based on the east coast of the North Island manufactures and sells fully analog guitar effect pedals. Why? Who knows! Perhaps they love guitars, or they hate woolly animals, rugby and netball — a female sport similar to basketball. However that may be, their stompboxes crossed half the earth to land up on my desk. After an appropriate Haka (the Maori ritual dance), I grabbed my knife and opened the cardboard box (which, surprisingly, came the right side up!)

All Beige

Red Witch

Something is sure: New Zealanders make things very good! Inside each small box, you’ll find the product itself and a nice denim bag to protect it against dust and during transport. The weight of the pedal and the rugged metal housing give you an immediate feeling of robustness when holding it in your hand. The unit features high-quality controls, connections and switches. The silkscreen is easily readable even if a bit enigmatic. As hard as you try you won’t find manufacturing faults!

Just like James Cook did when mapping the sheep island back in his time, we will look into every detail of the products we received. We’ll start with the golden Fuzz God effect…

Oh My (Fuzz) God!

Red Witch Fuzz God II

The stompbox offers basic connections (one in, one out) as well as four controls, two switches and two footswitches. On the left, the volume control determines the output volume, but not only that: through the last 20% of its rotation it adds a treble booster so that the tone becomes more aggressive. The Fuzz setting allows you to control the distortion amount from a gentle fuzz to steamroller sound. To activate the Fuzz God’s Wrath you’ll have to press the footswitch on the bottom right (the one with the lightnings). This will result in a even more chaotic sound that will make your guitar scream (the other footswitch controls the true bypass). Note that the Wrath control interacts with the Fuzz and Sputter settings. With higher values, you get a very long sustain and interesting low-frequency harmonics. The Sputter setting allows you to shred the sound or smooth it. Just try to find out the setting you like most. Considering that the controls interact, you’ll have to proceed by trial and error! Finally, the small switches above the controls allow you to double the gain amount (!) and to activate a high-frequency boost. A LED indicates that the effect is on. The pedal can be powered with a 9V battery or a Boss-type external PSU.

All in all, we like the sound of this fuzz pedal. Its settings allow you to get a very wide sound palette, ranging from smooth and creamy to aggressive and rough. Some controls affect the bias directly and thus generate crackles when you turn them — don’t panic, it’s totally normal! Moreover, you can open the housing to set the general bias of the transistors to get an even smoother sound. We love the lightning mode that allows you to create really interesting sounds via the Wrath control — somewhere between a huge feedback and a theremin, thanks to an oscillator. Noisy guitar players will love it! The Sputter control works a bit like a rough gate that breaks up the guitar sound. Awesome! Only the high-frequency boost switch didn’t quite convince us because we couldn’t really hear any difference…

Kiwi Medusa

 

Red Witch Medusa

The last stompbox we reviewed is called Medusa and combines two different effects in one stompbox. After five long years of absence —in spite of its huge success among guitar players— the Medusa is back to allow guitar players to activate a tremolo and a chorus effect simultaneously or separately. In fact, only very few people could get the first Medusa launched in 2004 — there were only 74 units ever manufactured. But it doesn’t matter now because the guys at Red Witch decided to take the circuit diagram out and launch a new version… which is even better!

The pedal provides no less than six controls to set the chorus and tremolo. Note that both effects are perfectly in sync when they are activated simultaneously. The pedal is equipped with an input, an expression pedal connector and a stereo out with two 1/4″ jacks. The sound samples are mono because we had only one amp for the review. Note that the stereo mode works only when the chorus effect is activated, i.e. the tremolo always stays mono. In stereo mode, the effect signal is delivered through the first output while the dry signal comes out the second output. In other words, the chorus effect is not really stereo and its name is inappropriate. On the other hand, this mode allows you to make interesting things if you own other stompboxes.

Red Witch Medusa

On the left hand side, you’ll find a Blend control to adjust the balance between chorus and dry sound. The Guise three-way rotary selector allows you to choose between the Tremolo, Chorus and Tremolo/Chorus modes. The Bathos knob adjusts the depth of the chorus effect. On the right hand side, you get an Iridescence control to get a subtle and clean chorus effect or a muddy lo-fi sound. Everything in between is also possible… The Magnitude control adjusts the depth of the tremolo effect while the Velocity knob determines the speed of both effects (tremolo and chorus for readers who don’t follow me). Finally, note that the stompbox can be powered with a 9V battery or an external PSU, and that you can access a clean booster on the inside of the stompbox. Nice!

The chorus effect seduced us with a rather wide sound range, courtesy of the Iridescence control. The fact that this effect can be coupled and synced to the tremolo is really interesting. We created the sound samples in a way that you can check the impact of the different settings on the sound: you’ll notice that the Iridescence setting can add some hum with extreme settings and that the Magnitude control makes the overall volume decrease quite a lot. As a consequence, we miss a volume control like the one on the Pentavocal tremolo…

Now let’s take a look at some of the other stompboxes…

Conclusion

With prices ranging from about $250 (Fuzz God II and Pentavocal Trem) to about $400 (Medusa and Titan), these stompboxes are definitely high-grade products providing a perfect construction and a high-quality sound. They are made for analog sound fans who want more than what they usually get. The Titan allows you to get very interesting results in spite of its limitations. The Medusa is an original and very good sounding product, even if it’s not perfect. The Fuzz God II is our favorite model because it is not so expensive but still provides interesting possibilities. The Pentavocal Trem is also a very interesting tremolo effect pedal, whose different voicings and Bottom control make it very original.

To read the full detailed review of all 4 stompboxes with sound samples see:  Red Witch Stompboxes

March 11, 2011

Mixing in a Plug-In World

Filed under: Mixing reviews, Plugin — Tags: , , , , , , , — audiofanzine @ 9:17 am

You gotta love plug-ins, but they’ve changed the rules of mixing. In the hardware days, the issue was whether you had enough hardware to deal with all your tracks. Now that you can insert the same plug-in into multiple tracks, the question is whether your processor can handle all of them.

Does it matter? After all, mixing is about music, balance, and emotional impact—not processing. But it’s also about fidelity, because you want good sound. And that’s where Mr. Practical gets into a fight with Mr. Power.

The Plug-in Problem

Plug-ins require CPU power. CPUs can’t supply infinite amounts of power. Get the picture? Run too many plug-ins, and your CPU will act like an overdrawn bank account. You’ll hear the results: Audio gapping, stuttering, and maybe even a complete audio engine nervous breakdown.

And in a cruel irony, the best-sounding plug-ins often drain the most CPU power. This isn’t an ironclad rule; some poorly-written plug-ins are so inefficient they draw huge amounts of power, while some designers have developed ultra-efficient algorithms that sound great and don’t place too many demands on your CPU. But in general, it holds true.

Bottom line: If you need to use processing in your mix, you want as much available power as possible. Here are the Top Ten tips that’ll help you make it happen.

1. Upgrade Your CPU

Let’s get the most expensive option out of the way first. Because plug-ins eat CPU cycles, the faster your processor can execute commands, the more plug-ins it can handle. Although there are a few other variables, as a rule of thumb higher clock speeds = more power for plug-ins. Still running in the sub-GigaHertz range? Time for an upgrade. Cool bonus: Pretty much everything else will happen faster, too.

2. Increase Latency

Réglage de latence

Fig. 1: Click for full image and description.

And in the spirit of equal time, here’s the least expensive option: Increase your system latency. When you’re recording, especially if you’re doing real-time processing (e.g., playing guitar through a guitar amp simulation plug-in) or playing soft synths via keyboard, low latency is essential so that there’s minimal delay between playing a note and hearing it. However, that forces your CPU to work a lot harder. Mixing is a different deal: You’ll never really notice 10 or even 25ms of latency. The higher the latency, the more plug-ins you’ll be able to run. Some apps let you adjust latency from a slider, found under something like “Preferences.” Or, you may need to adjust it in an applet that comes with your sound card or audio interface (Fig. 1).

Now let’s take a closer look…

9. Use Snapshot Automation

Plug-ins aren’t the only things that stress out your CPU: Complex, real-time automation also chows down on CPU cycles. So, simplifying your automation curves will leave more power available for the CPU to run plugs. Your host may have a “thinning” algorithm; use it, as you generally don’t need that much automation data to do the job (particularly if you did real-time automation with fader moves). But the ultimate CPU saver is using snapshot automation (which in many cases is all you really need anyway) instead of continuous curves. This process basically takes a “snapshot” of all the settings at a particular point on the DAW’s timeline, and when the DAW passes through that time, the settings are recalled and applied.

10. Check Your Plug-in’s Automation Protocol

Our last tip doesn’t relate to saving CPU power, but to preserving sound quality. Many plug-ins and soft synths offer multiple ways to automate: By recording the motion of on-screen controls, driving with MIDI controller data, using host automation (like VST or DXi), etc. However, not all automation methods are created equal. For example, moving panel controls may give higher internal resolution than driving via MIDI, which may be quantized into 128 steps. Bottom line: Using the right automation will make for smoother filter sweeps, less stair-stepping, and other benefits.

Okay . . . there are your Top Ten tips, but here’s a bonus one: Any time you go to insert a plug-in, ask yourself if you really need to use it. A lot of people start their mix a track at a time, and optimize the sound for that track by adding EQ, reverb, etc. Then they bring in other tracks and optimize those. Eventually, you end up with an overprocessed, overdone sound that’s just plain annoying. Instead, try setting up a mix first with your instruments more or less “naked.” Only then, start analyzing where any problems might lie, then go about fixing them. Often tracks that may not sound that great in isolation mesh well when played together.

To read the full detailed article see:  Mixing in a Plug-In World

March 7, 2011

Schecter Diamond P Custom IV Review

Filed under: Bass — Tags: , , , , , , , — audiofanzine @ 12:21 pm

Following the Schecter Ultra Bass review published last summer, here we have a brand new product from the Asian manufacturer.

Coming directly from South Korea (read the history of the brand in the previous review), the Diamond P custom IV is a variation of the Precision Bass concept based on two dual-coil pickups. After some bizarre experiments, the manufacturer adds a standard bass guitar to its product catalog.

Classic Piece

Schecter Diamond P Custom IV

Many manufacturers add products inspired by Leo Fender to their product portfolio. You can find lots of Jazz Bass and Precision Bass copies on the market right now. I won’t discuss that, because every market segment has its own classic pieces. For example, nobody would blame violin manufacturers for flagrantly counterfeiting Giovan Giacobo della Corna’s or Zanetto Micheli’s work. The same applies to the bass guitar market. Geniuses are as influent in art as they are in the industry. The thing that interests people like me — musicians who love their creative tool — is the reinterpretation of classic instruments, considering that all manufacturers try to give a personal touch to the “standard” bass guitars, either in the body shape or the pickups, thus trying to differentiate it from the original masterpiece. Why? Because genius can be reinterpreted. More or less successfully.

Schecter Diamond P Custom IV

So, what about this Diamond P, which is, as its name suggests, a variation of the Precision Bass? Our first impression is that the manufacturer doesn’t really invent anything but rather mixes everything. And we don’t mean that in a negative way — a good synthesis is better than a bad invention! But it’s important to say things as they are: the Diamond P takes the neck and the body of a standard Precision Bass. The pickups combination is the same as on the former Precision Deluxe US (equipped with a dual JazzBass pickup originally conceived for Roscoe Beck’s Signature bass). It is precisely the presence of this kind of humbucker that made me want to review this four-string bass guitar. That’s because the Precision Bass I’ve been playing for 11 years has the same humbucker. I like this pickup for its consistency and its powerful sound when I play finger picking style. So I’m curious to see how another manufacturer makes use of this pickup configuration (dual Precision plus dual Jazz Bass), especially on a low priced instrument.

Fender went half way with the Mexican Big Block which had a Precision humbucker in the middle position. But it lacked its counterpart on the bridge. Enter Diamond P with humbuckers in center and bridge positions.

Schecter Diamond P Custom IV

The bolt-on neck (four screws) has almost the same dimensions as the original: 42 mm @ nut, 57 mm @ 12th fret and 34″ scale. The fingerboard has the same length and width as the original, a modern C-profile and one more fret (21 frets) than the American Standard Precision Bass. Featuring an Indian rosewood fingerboard, the neck is easy to play but not quite that comfortable for small hands. The white nut is made out of plastic… nothing to brag about. Quite the contrary.

 

Although the instrument is new, I noticed some white marks around the G string, which goes to show that the nut material is too soft. A first drawback indeed. The solid Grover Vintage tuners are reassuring — they are the standard machine heads for this kind of instrument.

The alder body has a black glossy finish. It is also available in white (Vintage White) and blue metallic (Dark Metalic Blue). It’s true that black is beautiful, but watch out for finger marks, especially if you’ve had a greasy meal! A black pickguard is screwed onto the body. The bridge allows the user to choose two different stringings: either the traditional “top load” or the more modern thru-body. This way, you can emphasize either attack or sustain depending on your taste and needs. The massive bridge has an irreproachable manufacturing quality and seems to be better than the bridge on the original American Fender bass guitars. The strings on the instrument are medium D’Addario, probably a 45-105 set.

The passive electronics for the two pickups offer two volume controls and one tone control. The latter is a push-pull pot that allows you to split the bridge pickup. The instrument uses Schecter pickups: one dual Precision and one dual JazzBass with ceramic magnets. The overall finish of the instrument is good.

For the review I connected the bass guitar directly into my Novation audio interface. I apologize for my rather poor playing: I twisted my wrist during Christmas holidays. (I might have had too much booze…)

Now let’s take a closer look…

Conclusion

Talking money, you can get this Schecter for $499 in stores. The price is adequate for a passive bass guitar with bolt-on neck and two dual-coil pickups made in Korea (products coming from Incheon offer a good manufacturing quality) and sold in a cardboard box. This Schecter can be very interesting for a wide range of bass players.

Advantages:

  • Well-balanced instrument either in standing or sitting position
  • JazzBass humbucker
  • Good manufacturing quality
  • String-thru massive bridge
  • Five-string version available
  • Available for lefties
  • Push-pull pot for pickup splitting
  • Versatile and effective sound range
  • Output power

Drawbacks:

  • Pickups set too high
  • Nut too soft
  • Lacks some personality
  • Sold in a cardboard box

To read the full detailed article with sound samples see:  Schecter Diamond P Custom 4 Review

March 4, 2011

Noise Gates Don’t Have to be Boring

Noise gates aren’t as relevant as they were back in the analog days, when hiss was an uninvited intruder on anything you recorded. But noise gates can do some really cool special effects that have nothing to do with reducing hiss. This article shows how to make them a lot more interesting, and throws in a bunch of fun audio examples, too. But first, let’s do some noise gate basics for the uninitiated.

Noise Gates Basics

A noise gate mutes its output with low-level input signals, but higher-level signals can pass through. Following are the typical adjustable parameters found in a noise gate, whether analog, digital, or plug-in.

  • Threshold: If the input level to the gate passes below the threshold, the gate “closes” and mutes the output. Once the signal exceeds the threshold, the gate opens again.
  • Attack: This determines how long it takes for the gate to go from full off to full on once the input exceeds the threshold.
  • Decay: This sets the time required for the gate to go from full on to full off once the signal falls below the threshold. Since decaying signals often criss-cross the threshold as they decay, increasing the decay time prevents “chattering.”
  • Key input: Normally, the gate opens and closes based on the input signal’s amplitude. The key input allows patching in a different control signal for the gating action (for example, using a kick drum as the key signal to turn a sound on and off in time with the kick’s rhythm). Note that in most cases, you won’t find this in plug-ins, only in hardware units.

All right, let’s get into applications.

Selective Reverb

I was using a premixed drum loop from the Discrete Drums Series 2 library, but in one particular part of the song, I wished that the snare—and only the snare—had some reverb. Although Series 2 is a multitrack library, I didn’t want to go back and build up the drum loop from scratch. So why not just extract the snare drum sound, put some reverb on that, and mix it in with the drums?

Referring to Fig. 1, I copied the drum loop in Track 1 to a second track in my sequencer (if you were doing this in hardware, you’d split it into two mixer channel inputs). In the second track, there’s EQ inserted to roll off all the low end, which took most of the kick out of the signal, as well as the high end, to reduce the level of cymbal crashes.

Reverb sélective

Fig.1

The next step was to insert a noise gate in Track 2, and raise the gate threshold so that only the snare peaks made it through (the screen shot shows a Compressor/Gate plug-in, but the compressor was disabled by setting the ratio to 1:1). These peaks fed the reverb, which dumped into the master bus along with the original drums. The end result: Reverb on the snare only, added in with the rest of the drums.

Now let’s take a closer look and listen to some samples…

Kick Drum “Hum Drum”

Here’s a trick for hardware noise gates. Suppose you want to augment an existing kick drum sound with a monster rap kick, like that famous TR-808 rap sound. Here’s a sneaky way to do it:

  1. Set a sine wave test tone oscillator somewhere between 40 and 60Hz, and plug it into a mixer channel module containing the noise gate.
  2. Patch the kick drum into the gate’s key input and set the threshold relatively high, so that the kick exceeds the threshold for only a very short amount of time.
  3. Set the noise gate decay for the desired amount of oscillator decay. Hopefully your gate decay can go up to about 2 seconds, but even 1 second can do the job.

Now whenever the kick drum hits, it opens up the gate for a fraction of a second and lets through the sine wave; the decay time then provides the desired fadeout.

Real Time Manipulation

This real-time performance tip can sound very cool with hip-hop, techno, and other types of music that rely on variations within drum loops. With most loops, the snare and kick will reach the highest levels, with (typically) hi-hat below that and percussion (maracas, shakers, tambourine, etc.) mixed in the background. Tweaking the noise gate threshold in real time causes selected parts of the loop to drop out. For example, with the threshold at minimum, you hear the entire loop. Move the threshold up, and the percussion disappears. Move it up further, and the high-hat drops out. Raise it even higher, and the snare and kick lose their decays and become ultra-percussive.

To read the full detailed article with sound samples see: Noise Gates

 

March 2, 2011

Tips for Mixing Rap Vocals

If I had to pick the most frequent question I get asked on a regular basis – it would have to be “how do I mix rap vocals?” Or some variation thereof. At least once a week, if not more often.

I mix a new rap vocal four or five times a week – much more if you count different rappers on the same song. I have developed an approach – sort of a formula to create a formula. In truth, we know that all songs, vocals, captures, and performances are different. There can never be one formula to mix all vocals effectively. And there are many approaches to conceptualizing a vocal treatment – mine is one of many.

The Concept

It all starts with the concept. I say this time and time again, and it only gets more true as I say it – in order to mix anything – you need an end game. There has to be some kind of idea of where the vocal is going to go before you start getting it there. That idea can and probably will change along the way, but there has to be some direction or else why do anything at all.

The big problem most people have with mixing rap vocals is that they think of the word “vocals” without considering the word “rap.” Rap is supremely general – there are big differences between 1994 NY style rap vocals, and 2010 LA style rap vocals.

Now let’s have a listen to some mixing samples…

Processing

Now you have the vocals clean (or maybe they came in clean to begin with). It’s time to decide what to do with them. Now, I can’t write how you should or should not process your vocals, but I can give some insight into things to consider and think about.

Balance

Figuring out the relationship between the vocals and other instruments in the same frequency area is extremely important. Quintessentially, Hip Hop is all about the relationship between the vocals and the drums – and the number one contestant with the voice is the snare. Finding a way to make both the vocals and the snare prominent without stepping on each other will make the rest of the mix fall nicely into place.

In “1nce Again,” you’ll notice that the snare is a little louder than the vocals, and seems to be concentrated into the brighter area of the frequency spectrum, while the vocals are just an inch down, and living more in the mid range. This was a conscious decision made in the mix. But mixes like Loungin’ have the vocals on par with the snare. And Massive Attack has the vocals up – but it’s not really a snare, it’s a percussive instrument holding down the 2 and 4 that lives primarily in the lower mid region.

“Air”

Hip Hop vocals generally do not have much in the way of reverb. There are three reason for this primarily. 1) Rap vocals tend to move faster and hold more of a rhythmic function than sung vocals – and long reverb tails can blur the rhythm and articulation. (2) The idea of Hip Hop is to be “up front and in your face”, where reverb tends to sink things back in the stereo field. (3) Everyone else is mixing their vocals that way. Not a good reason, but kind of true.

 

However, vocals usually do benefit from sense of 3-D sculpting, or “air.” A sense of space around the vocals that make them more lively and vivid. Very short, wide, quiet reverb can really do the trick here. Another good thing to try is using delay (echo) – and pushing the delay way in the background, with a lot of high end rolled off of it. This creates the sense of a very deep three dimensional space, which by contrast makes the vocal seem even more forward. Lastly, if you are in a good tracking situation, carefully bringing out the natural space of the tracking room can be a good way to get super dry vocals with a sense of air around them. Compression with a very slow attack, and relatively quick release, and a boost to the super-treble range can often bring out the natural air.

Shape & Consistency

A little compression is often nice on vocals, just to sit them into a mix and add a little tone. On a sparse mix, a little dab’ll do ya. The most common mistake people make when processing vocals for Hip Hop is to over-compress. High levels of compression is really only beneficial to a mix when there is a lot of stuff fighting for sonic space. When you read about rapper’s vocals going through four compressors and really getting squeezed it’s probably because there are tons of things already going on in the mix, and the compression is necessary for the vocals to cut through. Or because it’s a stylistic choice to really crunch the vocals.

Filtering

What’s going on around the voice is just as important to the vocals as the vocals themselves. Carefully picking what to get rid of to help the vocals along is very important. For example, most engineers hi-pass filter almost everything except the kick and bass. That clears up room for the low information. But often the importance of low-pass filtering is overlooked. Synths, even bass synths, can have a lot of high end information that is just not necessary to the mix and leave the “air” range around the vocals feeling choked. A couple of well placed low-passes could very well bring your vocals to life.

 

Also, back to the subject of hi-passing, unless you are doing the heavy handed Bob Power thing, you really don’t need to be hard hi-passing your vocals at 120hz. The human voice, male and female, has chest resonance that goes down to 80hz (and even under sometimes). Try a gentle hi-pass at around 70 or 80hz to start with if you’re clearing up the vocals. Or maybe no hi-pass at all…

Presence

Deciding where the vocal lives frequency wise is important. Mid sounding, “telephonic” vocals can be cool at times, low mid “warm” sounding vocals certainly have their place. Commonly, the practice is to hype the natural presence of the vocals by getting rid of the “throat” tones and proximity build up which generally live around the 250-600hz range (but don’t mix by numbers, listen listen listen). This in turn exaggerates the chest sound, and the head sound – particularly the sounds that form at the front of the mouth, tongue, and teeth – these are the tones that we use to pronounce our words and generally live in the upper midrange (2k-5k, no numbers, listen listen listen).

I think that about covers the basics of what to listen for when working your vocals.

To read the full detailed article with sound samples visit:  Mixing Rap Vocals

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