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October 17, 2012

The Importance of Space in a Mix: Part I

Filed under: Mixing reviews — Tags: , , , — audiofanzine @ 12:26 pm

To read the full detailed article see:  The Importance of Space in a Mix: Part 1

When entering a new space, how often do we consider it’s sonic characteristics. And more frequently, when building a mix, how often do we think of space(s) as its own sonic element?

We spend a great deal of time considering individual sounds in a space. We prescribe attributes to the instruments and the players in order to organize our thoughts about the sounds and how they blend. We may often say a singer is “mid-rangy,” a snare is “ringy,” or perhaps the acoustic guitar is “warm.” We do the same for microphones, pre-amps, compressors, and what have you. It is surprising how little time is spent considering the sound of rooms, reverbs, delays, and whatever other spaces are coexisting within our mix. Considering that sound is defined by air vibrations within a space one would think the room would be held in equal importance to that which is resonating in it. But, when entering a new space, how often do we consider it’s sonic characteristics. And more frequently, when building a mix, how often do we think of space(s) as its own sonic element?

Perhaps more often than we realize. After all, why do we spend so much time rolling through reverb presets trying to find the perfect one – when we seldom know what the right one will be? And why does a plate sound good one time, but a hall sounds better next? Something instinctive is motivating these decisions. Like all sound sources, we are on some fundamental level listening for – and striving for – tone, rhythm, and coherence.

Reverb

The purpose of having customizable reverb is to find that which perfectly compliments the sound source – or the surrounding sound sources. We can pick and choose a reverb with a certain sound that highlights the tones or rhythms in our mix. And frequently, we will send multiple sound sources to the same reverb for the sake of coherence.

The complication comes in when there are multiple spaces present in the mix. After all, how can one element exist in two spaces at once? Or three? or, why is it that the choir sounds like it’s in a church while the lead vocalist sounds like she/he is in a concert hall?

Sonic Cues for the Listener

Of course, the end listener is not listening on such a discerning level. The end listener is only picking up on subtle sonic cues that either indicate the sound is coherent or disjointed. So our task is to lead the listener’s ear where we want it to go. Do we want a unified sense of space, or something surreal?

That’s our job as the artist, producer, or engineer. To orchestrate all the sounds and consider what feelings and emotions they evoke. They key word here being “orchestrate.” A random piling of sounds will certainly sound “unmixed” or perhaps more importantly, “ineffective.” Reverb and space are no exception.

Listening for Spacial Characteristics

The primary goal to understanding and sussing out any mix is listening. When listening to the drums, bass, vocals, strings, etc, perhaps we should also make a point of listening to the space in the capture. If you’re not used to listening to space then using a compressor as a listening tool with a fast attack and release and a low threshold will exaggerate the room sound in the capture. Everything has spatial characteristics. A bass DI’d has no space sound – but that is still a spatial characteristic and must be considered. After all, if everything is close miked in isolation rooms, or DI’d, the capture is going to come out very dry, for better or worse (usually worse).

While listening to spacial sound, we are inherently listening to our front to back sound field. A DI’d bass is going to sound extremely forward while our drum kit miked from thirty feet away will naturally sound way back. This is a major advantage when organizing the image of our mix – as it can be recorded strategically to do the front to back work for us.

Tonal Cues

The trickier part of listening to space is the tonal cues. This is an immensely complex task, but can effectively be dumbed down into frequency response and “texture.” This can be broken down into an even more fundamental question: Are the room sounds complimenting each other or clashing? A bright, open, Lex PCM 96 Hall reverb might sound fantastic on vocals, but if the acoustic guitar was recorded in a dark sounding, dense room, the two reverb sounds will clash (or at least sound incoherent). While every mix is different, by and large this example will yield something that sounds “unmixed.”

Mix the Ambience

A brilliant colleague of mine named Gregory Scott turned me on to a unique but supremely effective concept. He said that one of the fastest ways to improve one’s mix is to “mix the ambience.” I’ve taken this to mean mixing not just with the space sound(s) in mind, but actually take the time to get all your room mics, reverbs, and delays up front or in group-solo and mix them. Get the plate slap from the snare sounding like it belongs with the room capture on the guitar. Or – if you have a surreal space – make sure it’s orchestrated in a way where the entire sense of space is working in the mix, or focus of the space moves in an evocative way (more on this in the next article). Once all the ambience tracks are mixed start bringing in the elements that have the most space in them – drum OHs, and mid-distant strings for example – and focus specifically on their space and how it sounds with the other spaces.

Tools for Mixing the Space

As with all facets of mixing and recording, the source sounds are paramount.

Choosing the best reverb(s) for the job up front will ultimately determine the end result. So, even before we get into the mixing of the space, let’s talk about sound selection. In a musical piece, we can treat the reverb as any other sound source, with four basic components:rhythm, volume, tone and texture.

Rhythm

One of the key elements of any reverb is it’s decay. The length of the tail is often an indication of the expanse of the space. However, it also determines the time in which the reflections sustain in the mix – and that’s a rhythmic concern.

A long sustaining sound in a fast tempo piece, or rhythmically complex piece is going to mask elements of the mix and generally slur the overall rhythm. A quickly decaying tail in a slow piece on the other hand, will leave a lot of empty space with very little impact from the reverb. Find a tail length that compliments the speed of the piece.

Pre-Delay

Another rhythmic consideration is the speed of the pre-delay. Pre-delay is a key element in determining the front to back relationship of the dry sound and the space it exists in. In other words, pre-delay helps the ear recognize how close or far the dry sound is. Generally speaking, the longer the pre-delay, the closer the dry sound. A zero millisecond pre-delay means that the reflections and the dry sound are reaching the ear simultaneously – which puts the dry sound far away. This acoustic phenomenon could be an article all to itself, but we’ll leave it at that for now.

Pre-delay is also a rhythmic element – it determines a space of time from the initial dry sound before the early reflections show up. Anything within the Haas Zone (10ms or less), isn’t going to have much effect on the rhythmic sense of the sound. Once you start getting up to 20ms and greater, the slap back effect becomes distinct and there is a clear rhythmic effect. Find a pre-delay that compliments the speed or rhythm of the piece.

Lastly, some reverbs (particularly room and hall style reverbs) have a rhythmic space between the early reflections and late reflections. This is not always controllable, but listening for that “bulky” moment in the reverb sound is very important when selecting a reverb. Often times, plates are a good choice for drums partially because there are no “early” or “late” reflections – eliminating that particular rhythmic concern.

Volume

Generally, when I’m mixing, I prefer just enough reverb to add a little life to the elements in the mix. Often, I’m setting my reverbs 15 or 20dbFS lower than my dry elements. However, this isn’t to say reverbs can’t come to the foreground. It’s a very important aesthetic decision. Just remember that whether the reverbs are subtle or prominent, they still need to sound right. Tone and Texture – this is where we get into the gritty stuff. There are many factors in determining the tone and texture of a reverb.

First comes the style of the algorithm or convolution, then the three “D”s: diffusion, density, and damping….

Conclusion

This is definitely a lot of information to absorb (pun completely intended). Read, re-read, and play with different settings on your reverb units, and note the results.

Be discerning – the rhythmic, tonal, and textural choices are equivalent of choosing guitar amp settings or drum tunings. If chosen wisely, the mix will be easy, if not, you’re in for an uphill battle.

To read the full detailed article see:  The Importance of Space in a Mix: Part 1

 

 

October 10, 2012

The Mighty Kick Drum Microphone: Part 2

Filed under: Drums/Percussion, Microphones — Tags: , , , , , , — audiofanzine @ 12:28 pm

To read the full detailed article see:  The Mighty Kick Drum Microphone Part 2

Our survey of kick drum microphones through the years continues….

To read Part I please go here.

Optimized Response

In the 1990s, Shure debuted the Beta 52, the company’s first purpose-designed kick-drum mic, with its response specifically optimized for the task at hand using an internal EQ network.

Its integral mic stand adapter, oversized body (inside is a regular-sized capsule) and passive LC network are strategies that have been copied by many over the last decade. The idea was to make it easier by eliminating the need for EQ.

Shure even knocked itself off, after watching others do so, with its own PG series of inexpensive mics, and its PG52, at half the price of the Beta 52, is about what you’d expect. There have been many imitators of this ‘large body means big sound’ with varying results, but the concept of a contoured response, customized to the needs of the drum is here to stay.


Shure Beta 52 (left) and PG52

Manufacturers have gotten caught up in ‘big mic’ aesthetics, as users are easily invested with the false notion that bigger is better for a kick drum, or that a large diaphragm is better for low frequencies, which is only true in some cases for condensers – other factors really do play a part in determining how well a mics response is tailored for kick drum.

As such, there’s a proliferation of sub-$100 kick drum mics, and the old chestnut that ‘you gets what you pays for’ really applies. I’ve rarely found a cheap mic I could recommend to pro users, while a quality microphone will serve its owner for years while retaining its value.

New Kicks in Town

The following modern kick drum mics are favorites, and are designed to get a sound engineer most of the way there before ever touching the EQ. In efforts made great mics for floor toms, they never quite delivered the goods for kick drum.

The Audix D4 is just one example, but I can single it out because the company did such a great job on the D6, which immediately replaced the M 88 as a personal favorite.

The D6 is a second generation cardioid kick drum mic with a tight low end and smooth contoured response.

The beyerdynamic Opus 99 and M99 are really the same mic. hypercardioid and contoured with passive filters, but the M99’s switches allow the engineer to independently turn off the mid-cut and HF boost, making it useful for a wide range of applications beyond kick drum.

The Electro-Voice N/D 868 is a cardioid kick drum mic that sounds somewhat like an RE27, but with pre-contoured EQ built in. The Sennheiser e602 and newer e902 are both contoured cardioid dynamic kick mics, but the e902 has more high-end snap.

Now let’s take a closer look…

Really Different

Studio guys will tell you that a great technique is using a large diaphragm condenser (LDC) several feet away, often constructing a tunnel of sound, deadened to maintain isolation.

For live gigs this has obvious limitations, combined with the fact that they usually get increasingly omni-directional at low frequencies.

Some engineers have had good results using an AKG C414 fairly dose to the kick drum’s sound hole for lighter acts, but most chose to use their 414 inventory for other tasks before dedicating one to kick.

It’s worth noting that single-diaphragm LDCs like the C3000 maintain their directional pattern in the low end, making them better candidates for all kinds of full-bandwidth live applications, besides being less expensive.

The Audio-Technica AE2500 dual-element cardioid mic places a dynamic and a condenser element in the same housing. This invention borrows from the studio ploy of taping a 57 and a 451 together so they’re time-aligned, and capsules are borrowed from A-T products in both categories.

Some find it has more potential on snare and guitar cabinets, but many swear by it on kick drum. And yes, it costs about the same as two good microphones.

Yamaha SKRM Subkick.

A while back, Yamaha introduced the SKRM SubKick, a 10-mch drum shell with a 6.5-inch woofer inside. This kick drum mic’ing idea is borrowed from the old-school studio approach of using the woofer from a Yamaha NS10 near-field studio monitor (usually available because its tweeter was blown) as a microphone for the kick drum.

Different results are obtained depending on whether tile woofer is in the NS10 cabinet to dampen its response, or is in ‘free-air.’ The frequency response of the woofer naturally rolls off the highs, but this technique has always been used to compliment another, more traditional mic’ing technique, providing a fatness and thickening that complements the transient of a condenser.

It’s not for everyone, but many think it’s “da bomb.”

Earthworks Kickpad/SR25 combination is a kick drum solution from the company’s three-mic condenser drum mic kit. Rather than design a mic specifically for kick drum, the company provides an in-line XLR barrel for its SR25 cardioid condenser which pads it down and contours its frequency response.


Earthworks KickPad

The KickPad can be bought separately and can be used with other mics, especially helpful with condensers, and it can also be used with dynamics, but pre-contoured kick drum mics get far less benefit from a double dose.

Many consoles can achieve the same results by putting in a pad and a mid-range cut, as sometimes they’re just not options on the desk (i.e. PreFade = PreEQ).

Now that we’ve established two inputs as standard, the next frontier is obvious. Someone recently joked that it’s about time we added a third input, but I agree wholeheartedly.

We’re best able to evaluate various combinations and new microphone choices by simply allowing for a third experimental kick drum mic in the input list. You may find that you can replace the two mics you’ve been using with a single mic that works better.

Alternatively, you may prefer some two-mic combination to what you’ve used all along.

How else are you going to find out unless you put some play time and space into the daily grind? Most engineers plan an hour between line check and sound check.

Why not invest a little of that time every day to learn more about microphones that make it go bang!

To read the full detailed article see:  The Mighty Kick Drum Microphone Part 2

October 4, 2012

The Mighty Kick Drum Microphone: Part 1

To read the full article see:  The Mighty Kick Drum Microphone Part 1

Though there are other conventions, it is generally agreed that the kick drum goes into the first channel of the console, and for time immemorial, inordinate efforts have gone into tediously adjusting it.

Sound check never really starts until after this first input has been tweaked to satisfaction.

The kick drum is the cornerstone of rock. It puts the pop in pop music and is the one input that holds it all together. It’s the heartbeat of rock and roll.

With most input channels, the goal is to accurately recreate the original sound, but with kick drum an ideal is constructed from the available material.

Perhaps it’s in channel one because it defines ‘one.’

First Things First

If you want good sounding drums, the drums must first sound good. Though it sounds like a platitude, sound checks frequently grind to a halt while someone looks for a drum key. Crap drums always provide crap sound (garbage in, garbage out), but the same kit, properly tuned, sounds completely different.

You don’t have to be a drummer to know how to tune drums, though it helps. However, plenty of drum techs are living proof that anyone can learn.

When foldback speakers began battling it out with Marshall stacks and Sunn Coliseums, taking the front head off the kick drum became a necessity to provide a degree of isolation and allow the mic to capture the attack of the beater hitting the head.

The use of a pillow to dampen the head began, no doubt by a sleepy drum tech, and as years went by, the art of the hole in the front head evolved.

There are three ways of setting up a kick drum: with heads on both sides, batter head only, or with a hole in the front head. The latter compromise has become the rule, as it provides access for mic placement, while retaining some benefits of the resonant head, and over time the hole has gotten smaller and moved away from the center.

Countless back-lounge discussions have been logged on this topic. It’s generally agreed that anything larger than 6 inches (a roll of duct tape) releases too much air and performs like no head at all (other than to keep the pillow inside), and a hole in the center also releases too much pressure.

Cutting a hole with a utility knife can have disastrous results and is a job for the skilled or experienced. Heating a coffee can on a stove and pressing it into the head can melt a hole that’s even and smooth.

And in case you were wondering, the 4-o’clock position for an offset hole became traditional because a boom arm reaching across the head causes the weight of the mic to tighten the screw on the mic clip and keep the mic in position.

Batter head tension should be no more than a half-tum past taking the wrinkles out. The front head’s tension affects the batter head, and should be slightly looser for the fullest sound.

Now let’s take a closer look…

Classics

By the 1980s other mics contended for the first channel.

The beyerdynamic M 88, originally introduced as a premium hypercardioid dynamic for a wide variety of applications, was eventually discovered to be an outstanding kick drum mic.

However, repeated exposure deteriorates the compliance of the membrane and imparts a “wooly” sound that some actually prefer for the drum, but is no longer acceptable when combined with proximity effect on vocals.

Informed users therefore clearly mark their M 88s as to their designation for drums or vocals.

Top to bottom, EV RE20, RE27N/D
and the newer RE320, which includes
a switchable curve designed for kick drums.

The Electro-Voice RE20, heralded for bringing out the fullness of radio announcers, was also discovered to bring depth to the kick drum.

This mic was followed up a few years ago with the RE27 N/D which employs a neodymium-alloy magnet, hotter output, extended HF, a presence peak at 4 kHz, and provides two low-cut filters instead of one, plus a high-cut.

The AKG D 112 became the first “application specific” kick-drum mic, partly in response to complaints about expensive D 12E studio mics breaking down under high SPL in the kick drum. Today it remains one the most popular, and the first to marry aesthetics to functional contoured frequency response. It looks cool and sounds great.

The Audio Technica ATM25 followed as a great hypercardioid utility mic, and it has been compared to a highly directional rugged D 12E.

 

 

To read the full article see:  The Mighty Kick Drum Microphone Part 1

October 1, 2012

Blue Microphones Reactor Review

Filed under: Microphones — Tags: , , , , , , , — audiofanzine @ 9:09 am

The launch of the Spark, which we had the opportunity to review here, generated a lot of excitement. But Blue Microphones shows no intention of stopping there and has introduced a new microphone with a quite… different look?! Reactor enriches the product range of the US brand while staying faithful to the philosophy of offering affordable, but original products. Let’s dig into the details.

How Does it Sound?

Blue Microphones Reactor

 

Blue Microphones ReactorI find the Reactor does a quite good job in all four examples. There’s no doubt it’s a modern mic with high output level and emphasized highs. Regarding the preamp, we kept the same gain setting for both mics in order to show their different output level. In the mono drum-ambiance sample, the Reactor emphasizes the overall brightness of the drum kit. The cymbals clearly cut through, as does the attack of the toms, giving quite a lot of presence and attack to the overall sound. The sound is bright rather than sharp, although that depends on the cymbals… It would have been interesting to try out a couple of Reactor as overheads. However, I fear that the weight of the microphone makes it difficult to put it on a stand and place it in the right position…

Now let’s take a closer look…

Conclusion

Blue Microphones ups the ante when it comes to originality with this characterful microphone. The Reactor is bright both in terms of look and sound, and it will serve a wide range of recording applications. The microphone gives good results with many sound sources. However, do note that you have to use it with a sturdy stand if you want to place it in strange positions, in spite of its 90° swiveling head. Nevertheless, with this small rocket, you get Blue’s very good engineering and manufacturing quality for just $500.

Thanks to Red Led for his legendary guitar playing and to Marc Upson (Upson Studio) for letting us use his facilities… and for his patience. Red Led appears courtesy of LeftWing Beard&Glasses Publishing

Advantages: 
  • Look?! (it’s all a matter of taste)
  • Sound
  • Manufacturing quality

Drawbacks:

  • Weight?!
  • No pad… With such a high output level, a pad would be really helpful!

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