AF’s Weblog

August 2, 2011

Interview with Ned Douglas

Filed under: Recording reviews — Tags: , , , , , — audiofanzine @ 4:40 pm

Last may, we heard that Dave Stewart (Eurythmics) and Mick Jagger had teamed up to form SuperHeavy, an international “superband” also formed with Joss Stone, Damian Marley and AR Rahman (film composer, who previously scored Slumdog Millionnaire among others ND). We’ve had the chance to interview producer Ned Douglas, chief engineer at Weapons of Mass Entertainment recording studio but also responsible for some recordings and production on this new “super album”.

Ned Douglas & Dave Stewart

Hi Ned! I know that you’re Dave’s staff programmer and engineer @ Weapons of Mass Entertainment in Hollywood. You’ve been using the Dangerous D-Box along this project. How did you end up setting up this gear for Dave Stewart’s album?

I’ve been working with Dave for a long while now, nearly 15 years as engineer and programmer. He’s marvelously creative and diverse and it’s a constantly exciting and interesting job. When we moved studios last year I took the decision of losing the desk we had as the faders used to stay a zero most of the time, it felt like it was a waste of space. Having the D-Box has allowed me to keep an analog stage in chain which is great, it has also means I have quick hands on access to talkback, headphone levels and inputs.

How did this idea of creating a “supergroup” come to reality?

Dave has always done a lot of work with Mick Jagger and the idea of forming the supergroup came out of a session they did together about 3 years ago. We’d worked with Mick and Joss Stone previously on the Alfie soundtrack so we knew they sounded great together. Damian and AR were then brought in as they wanted to create a truly international and diverse musical project. Everyone worked together for a two week session at Hensons’s studio (former A&M in Hollywood, NDA) where the bulk of the tracks were laid down, all the songs were created in the studio and born out of jam sessions with the band. The rest of the album was finished in a variety of countries and studios (including on a boat and a Caribbean island) and I’ve been involved throughout the entire project. Keeping track of it all has been white a mission !

With all these sessions in different places around the world, how did you manage to keep a coherent vibe and sound ?

With the bulk of the band tracks being laid down in the initial monster jam sessions the backdown of the songs has remained pretty consistent (thanks to Damian’s drummer and bass player). For most of the the sessions we’ve done elsewhere we’ve had it so that we can pull up a great sounding mix with almost noplugins from a stereo Protools session (thanks to engineer Cliff Norrel!) which meant that I could turn up with a laptop anywhere and have things as they were last heard with full access to the parts. A lot of what we did outside of Henson’s were vocals and lyrics but some  songs like “Beautiful People” and “Warring People” were started fully programmed on my laptop and then recorded with the band later.

For this project, did you have to deal with unusual instruments or recording moments ?

AR Rahman has an interesting setup, he uses a midi controller called a Continuum which allows him to do micro tonal performances. He had it hooked up to a Indian sound module (who’s name I forget) which had the most bewildering midi setup I’ve ever seen. It meant he could do some pretty cool stuff though.

Now let’s take a closer look…

Is there something you try to achieve in every work you do ? From an artistical, technical and human point of view, which aspects in the music production process do you take care about the most ?

Something that I’ve learnt from working with Dave Stewart is that the vibe in the room in pretty much the most crucial element (and he’s a master at it) and that nothing kills a vibe faster than having to wait on technical reasons. Being able to quickly interpret people’s ideas and get things sounding exciting with a minimum of fuss is essential. In essence: people do their best work when relaxed and having fun and if that means recording in someone’s living room on a SM58 to get the best vibe then that’s the way it should be done (especially during the writing process).

The most important lesson I have learned however is: Always be in record!

As long as you can remember, what was your best studio moment ? And your worst technical nightmare ?

Be able to witness the writing process with great songwriters, as I’ve been lucky enough to, is always a magical experience. To start the day with nothing but an empty session and finish it with a song, created from thin air is something that never gets boring. Technically working in Jamaica has posed a few moments, unreliable power, blown speakers and the like… We ended up hiring a sound system from the local DJ when we worked with Shakira out there !

To read the full interview see:  Interview with Ned Douglas

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September 30, 2009

Understanding Reverb

When we hear sounds in the “real world,” they are in an acoustic space. For example, suppose you are playing acoustic guitar in your living room. You hear not only the guitar’s sound, but because the guitar generates sound waves, they bounce off walls, the ceiling, and the floor. Some of these sound waves return to your ears, which due to their travel through the air, will be somewhat delayed compared to the direct sound of the guitar.

This resulting sound from all these reflections is extremely complex and called reverberation. As the sound waves bounce off objects, they lose energy and their level and tone changes. If a sound wave hits a pillow or curtain, it will be absorbed more than if it hits a hard surface. High frequencies tend to be absorbed more easily than lower frequencies, so the longer a sound wave travels around, the “duller” its sound. This is called damping. As another example, a concert hall filled with people will sound different than if the hall is empty, because the people (and their clothing) will absorb sound.

Reverberation is important because it gives a sense of space. For live recordings, there are often two or more mics set up to pick up the room sound, which can be mixed in with the instrument sounds. In recording studios, some have “live” rooms that allow lots of reflections, while others have “dead” rooms which have been acoustically treated to reduce reflections to a minimum – or “live/dead” rooms which may have sound absorbing materials at one end, and hard surfaces at the other. Drummers often prefer to record in large, live rooms so there are lots of natural reflections; vocalists frequently record in dead rooms, like vocal booths, then add artificial reverb during mixdown to create a sense of acoustic space.

Whether generated naturally or artificially, reverb has become an essential part of today’s recordings. This article covers artificial reverb – what it offers, and how it works. A companion article covers tips and tricks on how to make the best use of reverb.

Now let’s take a sneak peak into the nitty gritty of reverb…

….

Advanced Parameters II

High and low frequency attenuation. These parameters restrict the frequencies going into the reverb. If your reverb sounds metallic, try reducing the highs starting at 4 – 8kHz. Note that many of the great-sounding plate reverbs didn’t have much response above 5 kHz, so don’t worry if your reverb doesn’t provide a high frequency brilliance – it’s not crucial.

Reducing low frequencies going into reverb reduces muddiness; try attenuating from 100 – 200Hz on down.

Early reflections diffusion (sometimes just called diffusion). Increasing diffusion pushes the early reflections closer together, which thickens the sound. Reducing diffusion produces a sound that tends more toward individual echoes than a wash of sound. For vocals or sustained keyboard sounds (organ, synth), reduced diffusion can give a beautiful reverberant effect that doesn’t overpower the source sound. On the other hand, percussive instruments like drums work better with more diffusion, so there’s a smooth, even decay instead of what can sound like marbles bouncing on a steel plate (at least with inexpensive reverbs). You’ll hear the difference in the following two audio examples.

Maximum DiffusionNo Diffusion

The reverb tail itself may have a separate diffusion control (the same general guidelines apply about setting this), or both diffusion parameters may be combined into a single control.

Early reflections predelay. It takes a few milliseconds before sounds hit the room surfaces and start to produce reflections. This parameter, usually variable from 0 to around 100ms, simulates this effect. Increase the parameter’s duration to give the feeling of a bigger space; for example, if you’ve dialed in a large room size, you’ll probably want to add a reasonable amount of pre-delay as well.

Reverb density. Lower densities give more space between the reverb’s first reflection and subsequent reflections. Higher densities place these closer together. Generally, I prefer higher densities on percussive content, and lower densities for vocals and sustained sounds.

Early reflections level. This sets the early reflections level compared to the overall reverb decay; balance them so that the early reflections are neither obvious, discrete echoes, nor masked by the decay. Lowering the early reflections level also places the listener further back in the hall, and more toward the middle.

High frequency decay and low frequency decay. Some reverbs have separate decay times for high and low frequencies. These frequencies may be fixed, or there may be an additional crossover parameter that sets the dividing line between low and high frequencies.

These controls have a huge effect on the overall reverb character. Increasing the low frequency decay creates a bigger, more “massive” sound. Increasing high frequency decay gives a more “ethereal” type of effect. With few exceptions this is not the way sound works in nature, but it can sound very good on vocals as it adds more reverb to sibilants and fricatives, while minimizing reverb on plosives and lower vocal ranges. This avoids a “muddy” reverberation effect that doesn’t compete with the vocals.

THE NEXT STEP: APPLYING REVERB

Now that we know how reverb works, we can think about how to apply it to our music – but that requires its own article! So, see the article “Applying Reverb” for more information.

To read the full detailed article see:  Understanding Reverb

May 23, 2009

Making a Studio Pt.3

Making a Studio Pt.3
Acoustics

Sound is a wave, much like the ripples on a still body of water when a rock is dropped into it. The larger the wave, the lower the tone. Lower tones, known as bass frequencies, travel in wide long waves while higher tones known as treble frequencies travel in a tighter, shorter wave. Frequencies heard by the human ear range from 20Hz to 20K. Just as an indication, a piano’s range, probably the widest range of any instrument, is from 39Hz on the low note and 3Khz on the high note.

Plan de groupe A typical 1/3 octave graphic EQ plugin with frequencies ranging from 20HZ to 20K

Sound is measured in decibels also represented as dB. An average concert is about 95-100 dB while a heavy rock concert or hip hop concert could reach levels of 130dB. This is above the threshold of pain; so don’t forget to wear your earplugs which are designed to protect your hearing when in extreme sound levels. Interestingly enough, whales can actually produce levels of up to 180dB. It should be remembered that taking care of your ears is the most important thing you can do to prevent damage and have a sustained career. So don’t hang out with any whales and put some protection in your ears when exposed to loud volumes.

Plan de groupe A typical 1/3 octave EQ spectrum analyzer with frequencies ranging from 20HZ to 20K

Now let’s take a closer look at other aspects…

Commercial & Private Studios

The commercial studio is there to provide the ultimate service for anyone who wants to pay. They are out to cater to the demanding Artist. The ultimate goal for the commercial studio is to make a profit. Top recording artists have healthy budgets to get that ultimate sound. Many artists like the no hassle style of recording that the commercial facility provides. The premier studios will have all the requirements needed to have a smooth production.

Plan de groupeCherokee Studios [1]

The studio equipment is always the latest and most technologically advanced to keep up with the never-ending race for the most groundbreaking sound creation device. Commercial studios are constantly purchasing new gear. The elite studios will also have a collection of vintage gear as well. Vintage gear has a certain character that can only be reproduced by the older technology. This becomes a very valuable asset in achieving alternative sounds.

The studio staff is available for what ever any artist, engineer, or producer may need. High-end full service studios can accommodate any possible situation from a simple rock band to a huge orchestral string section.Most studios have interns or runners that are required to do anything asked of them. At any given studio the interns may be seen washing cars and cutting grass.

The assistant engineer in most cases will have immense knowledge of how the room is setup and be able to quickly reply to any request that is commanded. He becomes the engineers’ right hand for connecting all the microphones and patching outboard gear. The Assistant Engineers’ job is basically limitless. Knowing how to make a good cup o’ coffee can definitely come in handy. Sessions can literally go for days at a time, and the commercial studios are setup and accustomed to the long hours. The technicians are on staff immediately if there is a problem with anything breaking down. Studio gear is very sensitive and delicate, therefore is does breakdown often. Many times user error may cause gear to be not working at times and if the Assistant can’t figure out the issue then a Tech will surely be able to troubleshoot the problem.

Upscale studios will also have security and respect for privacy for sensitive productions. Even getting into some studios without an appointment could be like getting into Fort Knox. All great studios will also have reliable recommendations for musicians, engineers and producers if they are not already on staff.

Plan de groupeVillage Studios [2]

What to look for

Look for studios that have recorded records that are similar to the Artist you are recording. Simply pick up the records you like and see where they where recorded and by who they were recorded. You will be surprised that you will see many names recurring. Check the discography of the studio to see how much experience the studio has. If many hits were recorded there it is a good sign that the studio is doing its job. That is one of the best references a studio can have. The Engineer should be consulted to make sure that all the proper equipment; software and microphone selection is available for the style of music that is being recorded.

If everything is clean and in working order that signifies that the studio will also take pride in your music. Quickly overlooking that all the lights are in working condition on the gear and console is a simple way to see that the equipment is properly maintained. Changing light bulbs is a simple task. If that is taken care of, that is also a sign that the studio is on top of their maintenance. Polite and professional atmosphere is of up most importance to the entire process. Nobody wants to deal with attitudes. Remember the Artist is the only star that shines in his booked studio time. Seeking a studio that has the vibe or atmosphere that makes the Artist or Producer comfortable is a key issue in determining where to establish the recording process also. Many hours will be spent within close quarters so décor and general atmosphere is a main concern.

The Private Studio

Many Producers and engineers have their own private studio. It is common nowadays that the recording budget is spent on purchasing gear for a studio. The benefit is that the equipment belongs to you in the end. Another major advantage is that you will not be charged by the hour for studio time. Average studio rates are from $50 to $250 per hour.

Privacy and secrecy is much more controlled in a private studio as well.

Privacy and Setting the Mood

Keeping all sessions under a vale of secrecy is highly important. New music is constantly being recorded in every studio. It is imperative that this music does not fall into the wrong hands. If it leaks out into the public before it hits the airwaves it could lose momentum for a successful single. Even worse the possibility of another artist stealing the song may be a factor without sufficient security and privacy.

To read the full detailed article see: Making a Studio Part 3


April 25, 2009

Making a Studio Pt.1

Studio Considerations

The magic of the recording studio has often mystified even the most seasoned professionals. With all the knobs, switches and buttons on various gear and large format consoles, no wonder confusion sets in to most non-techies. Many people, especially artists, composers, producers, and engineers, will end up putting together their own studio for writing and preproduction, with some eventually deciding to take the plunge and create a full-fledged recording complex that is capable of recording major albums. This series of articles will try to shed some light on the considerations to take into account when making a studio, be it a small home studio or a professional recording studio.

Ouverture

Is bigger better?

Is size important? Some may say it is so but this is not always the case. The dimensions of the studio are very important. A room too large may become over-reverberant or full of unwanted echoes. A room too small may sound tight and unnatural. It is important that the room size and room sound is relevant to the type of music you are recording. You don’t want to go into a very small tight room to record BIG rock drums. Although, big room sounds can be achieved by adding external reverb effects to simulate rooms at a later time when necessary.

It is best to find the room that suits the sound you are trying to achieve from the beginning of the recording process. The smaller the room, the smaller and tighter the sound will be; this is not necessarily a bad thing. Small tight rooms can be good for vocals, guitars and percussion if you are going for a tight clean sound. Larger rooms have more air for the sound to travel in, so it will be in fact a bigger more open sound. The sound has a longer travel time for the sound wave to move, therefore the reflection from the walls will take longer to bounce back creating a bigger more spacious sound. The decision of size and sound has to be made early on before the recording starts. One advantage that a larger room will have is the ability to be scaled down by closing up the room using modular baffles or gobos (go betweens). Gobos are structures that are partitions, that help to block sound by placing them in between the musicians, instruments, and microphones. Placing the gobos around the microphone at a close distance will help a large room with too much ambiance sound smaller. This will eliminate the reflections coming off of the walls that are further away.

Ouverture

Small rooms can produce big heavy tight sounds with the absence of the decay from the reverb that is caused from big rooms. Sometimes a large room can sound like it’s washed out, or far away. With a good engineer any room can sound amazing with a little adjusting. A poor sounding room can be manipulated to sound good, although it requires much more work and time. Deciding on the proper room size for your needs is critical to the sounds that get re-produced. This will highly dictate the type of sound the microphones will pick up.

Clapping your hands in a room can give a good representation of what a room will sound like. The reflection coming off the walls will be picked up by a simple hand clap. The true test is to try out some instruments or vocals and position them in various sections of the room until reaching the optimum sound quality. If one side of the room sounds bad try a different spot or move around into a corner until the sound is improved.

Experimenting with different sections of the room also keeps the sound fresh when recording many instruments. If the acoustic guitars are recorded in the center of the room, when the time comes to record the electric guitars you may try recording them in a corner of the room for a different room sound. This gives clarity on the final mix creating separation and providing more distinction on various sounds.

If you are starting your own studio, remember that the bigger the studio the higher amount the bills will be. The benefit is that larger studios can charge more for their studio rates.

Now let’s take a closer look…

Check List: Part 3

Plan de groupeA Sony CD Recorder

CD RECORDER

Records and plays back compact discs. Gives the ability to record stereo mixes and playback these mixes on other CD players. CD standard for consumer playback is a sample rate of 16 bit and a sampling rate of 44.1kHz. Sony, Tascam, Alesis, and Yamaha all make good studio CD recorders.

Plan de groupeStuder 24 Track Analog Tape Machine

TAPE MACHINES

Recording machines that use analog or digital tape for recording and playback of music. Some purists in sound recording prefer the sound of analog tape. There are many digital tape machines used for recording both music and video.

CABLING

Literally miles of various cabling could be needed for a single studio. Common cables in sound reproduction are XLR balanced mic cables and Unbalanced 1/4 inch instrument cables.

MONITORS / AMPS

Speakers in the studio are referred to as Monitors. Powerful clean amps are needed to run monitors. Many monitors are self powered, which means that they have built in amplifiers. Monitors usually consist of high frequency tweeters, low frequency woofers and cabinets that contain the speakers and components.

Plan de groupeActive Studio Monitors

HEADPHONES / DISTRIBUTION

By using a set of earphones this allows communication between the control room and the studio, also allows pre-recorded tracks to be heard during the overdubbing process. Headphones are also referred to as cans.

INSTRUMENTS / KEYBOARDS / DRUMS / GUITARS

These are more of the tools of the craft. You may have all the best studio gear in the world, but if the instruments sound bad you are starting in the wrong place. Anything could be considered an instrument if it makes noise that could possibly be recorded on a record.

AMPLIFIERS

This is often referred to as an amp. Amps increase the amplitude or volume of electrical signals from sound waves. These are used in powering speakers. Guitar and Bass amps can be used for many other applications such as running a vocal or snare drum through them.

Plan de groupe

MICROPHONE STANDS

A wide variety of sizes and styles are needed for a proper studio. The mic stand helps to get the microphone placed properly for the best sound quality possible.

STUDIO FURNITURE

There are many types of racks and furniture designed to hold consoles and outboard gear. The interior decoration of the studio completely sets the vibe of the working environment.

To Be Continued…

That’s the end of part one. For part two, we’ll be discussing electricity, A/C requirements, separate rooms, location, and more…

To read the full detailed article see Making a Studio Part 1

August 26, 2008

Sound Techniques : basics of acoustics

Filed under: Instructional articles — Tags: , , , , — audiofanzine @ 3:49 pm

With stopwatch in hand, our perception of time seems straightforward. But in everyday life we’re not always watching the clock, and everyone knows that the passage of time is relative. It differs from one person to another and especially from one activity to another: An hour spent watching a great movie doesn’t feel as long as an hour in traffic.

Read the article about basics of acoustics on Audiofanzine.

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