AF’s Weblog

May 10, 2012

Avoid Common Recording Mistakes

Filed under: Recording reviews — Tags: , , — audiofanzine @ 1:07 pm

To read the full detailed article see : Avoid Common Recording Mistakes

Why is it so hard to get tracks that kill? Mixes that scream with emotional impact–music that holds up to the work of the masters of our craft?

Experienced pro or newbie neophyte, we all share a desire to improve the sound, relevance, and “vibe” of our recordings. But sometimes the way to do this isn’t just by doing the right thing, but avoiding doing the wrong thing–and that in turn will indeed make things easier.

Bad Gear

Everyone’s favorite whipping boy, bad gear is often the first place many of us look to and point the finger at when something about our recordings doesn’t knock us out. And let’s face it: First-class gear sounds great, and that can’t help but make things sound better–but only if you know what you’re doing with it. I’ve been amazed by the quality of some recordings I’ve heard that were done on primitive or inexpensive gear, however, that says more about the engineer than the gear. Still, it’s important to scrutinize your system from time to time and probe for weak links. Did you upgrade your mixer, but not your monitor speakers? Do you have a great microphone, but are using it with an old, noisy mic preamp? Nothing works in isolation, so consider where the best improvements can be made to enhance your system’s sound quality as a whole, and don’t obsess on any single area (like having the best mic cabinet in the world if you don’t have preamps that are equal to the task).

The Curse of the Adaptive Ear

Even in a well-designed control room with great monitors, our ears adapt to EQ changes very quickly–that’s how you can enjoy hearing your favorite song on a cheap TV speaker or a high quality system. Our ears perceive the extremes of the audible frequency spectrum differently at different playback levels, with the flattest response being at about 85dB SPL. Our ears also tire after long hours, especially at unsafe monitoring levels. That EQ tweak that sounded great last night after 10 hours of playback at 105dB might not sound so hot the next morning. Having high-quality reference material that you can A/B with your mix can help you get back to reality when EQ changes start to throw off your perspective over time, and so can watching your levels and knowing when to quit when your ears have had enough for the day.

Now let’s take a look at some other mistakes…

No Substitute for Performances

I consider myself to be a pretty good editor with tape or DAW; I’ve been doing it for over three decades, and I’ve gotten a fair amount of kudos from clients over the years. But I still need “something to work with”, and the best edit is a performance that doesn’t need one. If you have to edit, it’s a lot easier to do if you have tracks with generally solid performances with few errors and great feel. Piecing something together from sub-standard performances is not my idea of a good time, and the musicality of your work is going to be much better if the musicality of the people you’re working with is already happening. When I work with brilliant musicians, my work sounds better – and so will yours. If things are not quite “there” with the artists you are working with, take some time to do some pre-production rehearsals before you get into the studio so that you can help get things as tight as possible before you start waxing tracks. Rehearse more, edit less.

Number one, with a Bullet

Probably the number one issue is material. A so-so recording of a great song still leaves you with a great song. A great recording of a so-so song leaves you with a so-so song. Of course, we’re not in the business of making so-so recordings, and everything matters, so take a moment to evaluate the weaker areas of your whole rig – and that includes your personal skills and musicianship – and plan out a strategy for improving each of them. Your recordings and productions will only get better as a result.

To read the full detailed article see : Avoid Common Recording Mistakes

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March 14, 2012

Exclusive Interview with Chris Lord Alge

World renowned mixer/producer Chris Lord-Alge granted Audiofanzine an exclusive interview. The man behind Green Day, Paramore, Deftones, Madonna, Tina Turner, James Brown, among others, shared his working methods and ethics from his studio in Tarzana. Let’s see what the master has to say.

The Beginnings

AF : Hi Chris, can you tell us what are you currently working on at the moment?

CLA : What I am currently working on right now is finishing up an album by a band called Shinedown, just wrapping that up. The single is already out to radio and then the record comes out. Just before I finished Shinedown, I just finished mixing Bruce Springsteen. I kinda co-mixed that with Bob Clearmountain. Bob mixed it himself and then Bruce wanted me to mix a few songs. I literally just had dinner with Clearmountain last night and we were definitely having some good laughs about it.

There’s a good partnership between engineers! I’d like to go back to the beginning of your career, and just to know a little bit more about how you started and the reasons for why you do this job today?  What pushed you to become a sound engineer?  Specifically, a mixing engineer…

It started with my mom having a band. My mom is a Jazz musician and a professor of music theory.  She’d have her trio set up at my house, so here I am 12 years old and there are musicians rehearsing every day at my house, with tape recorders, a small board and a few microphones. Every chance I could get, when they would leave to go do a gig, I would take the gear down into my basement and let the experiments begin there.

So it’s a family thing?

Yes, absolutely, my mom is a musician, I’m a musician, it was just what I wanted to do since I was young, and by having some gear to tinker around with it was fun to start there. I already had my own band when I was 12, I just used that gear to start recording it. At that point I played keyboards, and then I moved to drums; I kind of filled in where the weaknesses in the band were.

Is there any personality or mentor who showed you the path or took you under his wing?  Showed you some tricks, who gave you the will to do this, someone apart from your family?

Yes, of course! So what had happened was that my mom had realized that I really wanted to do this, so she took me to a studio to interview for a job. I got a job at H&L Records under the mentorship of Steve Jerome(GrandMaster Flash, Bobby O, Pet Shop Boys, NDA). They had hired me for $50 a week to be a runner, an assistant. I started with the toilets, to the tea, to the coffee, to the track sheets, until I finally became an assistant and then Steve Jerome had trained me and showed me how he’d like me to do it. He was in essence, my mentor at that time. When I was at a young age 13/14, he showed me the ropes, all the disciplinary moves that became embedded in my life.

So then I read that you’ve been working at Unique Sound Studios?

Well, let’s not cut to that straight away. I put in a bunch of years right there with Steve with Hugo and Luigi, and that studio ended up being taken over by Sugar Hill Records, which in essence was the birth of rap.  So I was right at the beginning of rap, with Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight”, GrandMaster Flash’s “The Message” and  “White Lines”; all the big initial rap records were all done under that roof with Steve or with Eric Thorngren. So I was there for all of that.

What a period! So then Unique Sound Studios came later on?

At that point I started to work in New York freelancing with a few artists, and then I actually apprenticed to get a job. I went back down the food chain to be an assistant at Unique because I saw it as the cutting edge hip studio that was happening at New York at the time, at 82’- 83’. It kind of ended around 87’- 88’. I became an assistant and then staff, basically kind of took over, had a few reasonable hits, and then I just kind of took over working there. Just doing what I wanted.

So it was kind of the normal evolution : you started as a runner, then an assistant, and then as an engineer, very naturally.

Exactly. But you can always go back from an engineer back to an assistant, it helps put you in your place.

Part 4: The Bernard Pivot Style

What’s your favorite memory from mixing an album or working on an album?

My favorite memories would probably be from records I produced. They are all favorite memories, it is hard to say “this was the best”. I think the ones I got the most laughs on were albums I produced by Tina Turner, or John Miles or Rick Price or Joe Cocker, where being the producer, it was basically tweaking your last rough mix, with the artist in there and having some laughs and some fun with it. Knowing that you are playing on it and you’re producing it… And it came out great and you are excited. Rather than, mixing something that you didn’t produce. Of course, working on “American Idiot”, which went by so fast… It was exciting because the songs were so good and you didn’t really realize it at the time. But the best memories are definitely the ones I produced because there is more at stake because you are a producer. Human wise, because you are artistic about it, you play parts of it, there is more “blood” on the tape, than you just mixing someone else’s record.

You mean that this job is 60, 70% human aspect?

It’s 100% human. It’s not a business at all. It’s a personal, emotional business, that unless your heart is into the song, you’d might as well go back into the car and go home. You have to be emotionally attached to the music or there is no point in doing it.

Your worst memories/moments from mixing of all time?

There have definitely been some moments, I am not going to name the bands, but that had full-on fights in here internally with the band mates. No one agrees with what you are doing. Each guy leaves the room and comes back with a different idea. It makes it really difficult when the band doesn’t get along. There have been a couple where the band is breaking up or fighting at the time you are mixing it, or completely unsure of what you are doing. It’s not you, it’s them, and that’s what makes it difficult. A lot of the best records I ever mixed are when nobody is here but me, and I say this to them. Sometimes, they are their own worst enemy. It’s not their fault. They are really better off coming toward the end. When they want to come in here and do battle with it, sometimes they can unglue some of the magic that you’ve put into it by isolating their favorite parts.

Which artist would you still like to work with and why?

I want to work with Paul McCartney, I want to work with Coldplay; I want to actually mix a full fledged U2 album, not just one or two songs like I have done in the past, I want to be in the room with the band. I’d like to mix a new Rolling Stones record with the whole band in here. I want to go after the last of the mohicans, the biggest guns that are left while they still have something. It’s more the absolute legends of rock and roll that I prefer to be working with. Of course, I want to work with Muse and Foo Fighters and all the newer bands, but still they have some time. I want to get the old guys while they still got some action. I want to get it while there is a chance.

You’re engaged to mix an album for an artist you love but the requirements are : less is more. You have to pick only 5 pieces of your equipment.  Which do you choose and why?

If I can pick only 5 pieces of equipment, I’d pick my favorite vocal limiter, I’d pick my favorite vocal reverb, drum reverb, that’s three…

Which ones?!!

It would be my Urei Blue1176, my original EMT246, my Sony DRE 2000, then it would be a pair of Pultecs on my bus, and my Focusrite Red. The Pultecs I say they are one piece of gear cause they are a pair.

You are cheating! (Laughs)

They come as a pair.  With those 5 pieces of gear in a rack, I can go anywhere !

Just to finish up this interview, do you have any leitmotiv or quote/catch phrase about music that you like to use?

One of the things we say in the studio is “Don’t try this at home”! (Laughs) Everything I have here is not going to work at home. It’s really meant to be in the proper facility, in a temple of sound. Not your garage. For me it doesn’t work!

To read the full detailed interview see:  Mixing with an Attitude

 

June 9, 2010

Audio Mastering

Tom Volpicelli of The Mastering House answers the top 10 common questions about mastering.

What is mastering and the role of the mastering engineer?


Mastering is essentially the step of audio production used to prepare mixes for the formats that are used for replication and distribution.  It is the culmination of the combined efforts from the producer, musicians, and engineers to realize the musical vision of the artist.  Each stage of the audio production process, from pre-production to mastering, builds on each other and is dependent on the previous process.  Mastering is the last opportunity to make any changes to positively affect the presentation of your music before it evolves from a studio environment to the outside world.

An awareness of the differences between the roles of mixing and mastering engineers should be noted.  While the tools may be similar, the perspectives between mixing and mastering are very different. When mixing, the focus is on the internal balance of individually recorded tracks and effects used both sonically and creatively for a single piece of music.

An album cannot be heard in its entirety until the job of a mix engineer is completed. The mastering engineer picks up where the mix engineer leaves off. Mastering is geared toward creating the balance required to make the entire album cohesive. The mastering engineer is most concerned with overall sonic and translation issues.  A mastering engineer works with the client to determine proper spacing between songs and how songs will be ordered on the CD. The flow of an album must appeal to the listener; it should engage them and take them on a musical journey as determined by the artist. Any final edits will be addressed during the mastering process as well.

Finally, the role of the mastering engineer is to provide preparation and quality control of the physical media send to the plant for replication.  This includes listening to the premaster CD to verify integrity, along with the more technical aspects such as encoding text, UPC/EAN and ISRC codes, checking for errors within the media and providing any necessary documentation such as a PQ list.

Is mastering always necessary?

A writer’s words are not complete until the editor approves them. A painter’s work is not complete until it has been matted and framed.  A musician’s work requires the same treatment. Audio production should not be rushed, finished haphazardly or completed “just to get it out there”. A finished product should reflect all of the work of the artist, producers and engineers that carry that vision forward.  Even a “perfect” mix needs mastering to a degree. In this case, you want the mastering to be as transparent as possible so that the original sound is maintained while preparing it for the final media.

As mentioned earlier, it is difficult for a mixing engineer to know how an entire album will sound in its entirety while mixing an individual track. In some cases a given track may be perfect on its own.  However, when that track is placed within the context of an album, slight adjustments in level or frequency balance may be required.  Given the amount of music distributed online, an album needs to stand out from start to finish to be noticed in such a competitive market. If the final goal is to create a product that is ready to be played on the radio, distributed online, or sold as a physical product, it should be mastered.

Mastering helps say something about the professionalism of the artist, from the arrangement of certain styles of songs to the volume of the recording to the pacing of the tracks. If an artist is serious about their music, they should make sure that someone with experience signs off on the finished product.

What kind of improvements can be expected from mastering?

Mastering can help to achieve the correct balance, volume, and depth for a style of music. It can add clarity and punch to music, giving it more vitality.  The idea behind mastering is that a product will sound better after it is treated by the mastering engineer. The degree with which a mastering engineer can achieve this is dependent on the given mixes. In some cases there may be limitations or compromises that need to be made.

One limitation of mastering is the inability to restore severely distorted material. Distortion in a mix is like corrosion; once present it cannot easily be removed and has permanently destroyed a part of the material.  While mastering can mask the effect of some types of distortion, it is essentially covering blemishes that should be addressed before the mastering stage. A common misconception is that mixes should be as “hot” as possible. With the advent of 24 bit digital technology there is no reason why mixes have to “go into the red.”

Most mastering engineers recommend a cushion of anywhere between -6 to -10 dBFS from peak level to help ensure that clipping does not take place and to allow room for processing.  In addition to peak level, the crest factor (peak-to-average ratio) is very important. While dynamic range can always easily be reduced, it is very difficult to undo the effects of over compression or limiting.

If the internal balance of a stereo mix is off, there may be compromises in the sound of the mastered track that will need to be made. For example, if cymbals or a vocal is very sibilant and bright while other parts of the mix are dark, it can be difficult to balance the overall sound in a way that enhances all elements.

In addition to frequency, levels between tracks may also be an issue. If the mastering engineer is given a stereo mix (as is usually the case) specific individual components of the mix cannot be completely isolated and processed separately.  While there are techniques such as de-essing, mid/side processing, equalizing or compressing for a specific imbalance, the results will likely not be as good as with a mix not having these issues and allowing the mastering engineer to address the balance on the whole.

One method of getting around internal balance issues is to provide alternate mixes. Some examples are vocal up/down mixes or mixes where one EQ is favored over another. Another method is supplying the mastering engineer with “stems” or sub mixes of the stereo track.  These might include a separate stereo mix of the vocals or instruments that when summed together are the same as the stereo mix minus any stereo bus processing.  In this case the mastering engineer is placed slightly in the role of a mix engineer and can make adjustments that wouldn’t be possible with a stereo mix alone. Another advantage with using stems is that alternate masters can easily be created such as radio edits, instrumental and vocal-only masters.

Another area where “fixing it in the mix” is better than “fixing it in mastering” is when dealing with the issue of noise. Mute automation on individual tracks should be used where there are noises during sections of a track that are not contributing to the mix.  Some examples are electric guitar hum/buzz on intros, outros, and breaks, bleed from headphones on the vocal track when the vocalist is not singing, drummers laying down their sticks after cymbals have faded but while other instruments are still playing at the end of a track.

Should you choose an engineer based on their “style”?

nevermindTen different mastering engineers working in the same room with the same equipment will create ten totally different masters, each sounding great on their own.  If you ask those same engineers to go back and reproduce any given master, you are likely to get ten almost identical masters back.  While each individual mastering engineer has his own style, it is important that he is able to separate himself from his style when needed.  An engineer should never let his personal taste interfere with the goal of the artist he is working with. Again, this is where communication with the client is a crucial element.

A good mastering engineer should be well versed in a variety of different categories of music. In general, there is no reason why an engineer known for creating great Country albums cannot produce a great Rock album.  While an engineer’s work should be able to transcend musical genres, if a mastering engineer has a certain style that is appealing to you as the artist, you should consider working with him.  It is important that both the engineer and the artist can communicate in a way that is complimentary to both individuals.

Which is more important, a technical background or musical one?

A mastering engineer should be well versed both technically and musically. The craft of the engineer is to be able to know good music and know how to make that music sound better.  Still, while a technical background is extremely important in the mastering world, that background should not interfere with the aesthetics.  Likewise, any personal feelings an engineer has about the stylistic choices of the music he is mastering should ultimately be discussed with the musician. It is because of this that an engineer’s musical background should not hinder his craft.

Given a technical background, some mastering engineers are capable of making modifications to equipment to create a more transparent sound, or provide color according to their taste and needs.  Having a musical background, particularly in the area of pitch, allows an engineer to identify frequency issues relating to musical notes and can speak directly to the musician about these issues in their terms.

An engineer should make sure that he strays away from favoring either background. While most engineers come from one or the other, their craft is in combining the two.  A mastering engineer should remain as objective as possible while still providing necessary feedback and insight from both a musical and technological perspective.

To read the full detailed article see:  Audio Mastering

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