Trying Something New

August 11, 2009

In recording and pro-audio it’s all too easy to fall into a rut and never try new things. You have found a variety of mics that you like for certain instruments, particular pieces of outboard gear you always fall back on, and mixing techniques that you constantly use.

There are a number of reasons for that, of course. The biggest is probably time, which often equals money. In live situations, there usually simply isn’t time to experiment, unless you are fortunate enough to work with an act big enough where you can have technical rehearsals and full-blown dress rehearsals. In the studio, you are most likely working with a band who is under very tight budget constraints, and that is not conducive to being able to spend time trying different things.

When you have the time, though, it can be extremely rewarding, and can result in some stunning results.

There is also a trend started by some “how to” books to sort of ‘mix-by-numbers.’ They tell you that the kick drum should be at about -3VU on the stereo bus meters, and the lead vocals should be -5VU, or some such thing. Nonsense. Only your ears can tell you how loud something needs to be in the mix. There are some shortcuts you can sometimes take. For example, if you’ve mix a particular band often enough, you usually have a pretty good idea of where things are going to be panned, so it wouldn’t hurt to set the pan pots where you think they’ll end up. But, don’t be afraid to play around with those while you are mixing. You just might find a location for something in the stereo spread that works better for that particular mix. There are a lot of very stunning effects that can be accomplished with phase, delay, and panning, and you will never stumble across any of them if you don’t take the time to try something new.

Sometimes your mic selection and placement has gotten to be such a habit, that you don’t even consider something really different. The absolute best cranked Les Paul/Marshall tone I’ve ever heard was accomplished by a mic selection and mic placement that I NEVER would have tried. But someone took the time to try it, and found that it really worked.

Another, often ignored reason is that digital equipment makes it difficult, if not impossible, to do much “creative patching.” In the old days, you had a patch bay, with a number of mult points, and you could patch anything to anywhere, combining with other things or splitting the signal along the way. With a digital multi-effect unit, this is simply not possible. Most digital mixers and digital audio workstations impose rather rigid signal flow ideas. Beyond that, it is simply not possible to really explore parameters of the equipment that weren’t programmed into it by the developers.

But whatever your situation, try different things. The next time you are tracking a guitar, use your regular mic and placement, but also set up a completely different mic, and use a different placement. Record it on a separate track so that if you don’t like it, you haven’t cost anything, and compare the two. You might just find that it offers something you didn’t expect, and maybe something you can use alongside the other track in the mix.

Digital Doo-Dads

June 23, 2009

Every time I listen to a digital gadget at the local music store, I am overwhelmed by the mushiness of the patches. Or, maybe a better way to put it is that I am underwhelmed with the usefulness of the gadget. If you assume that the factory patches are the best that it can sound, you probably won’t buy it. Be assured that these factory patches aren’t representative, and are probably almost the worst that it can sound.

Plug a guitar into the latest whiz-bang modeler, select any of the factory patches, and you will assaulted by the combination of every effect known to mankind. All at once. With NO dynamics. How can the people who make these things go to all the trouble to “model” all of those vintage effects pedals and amps, and then have NO CLUE as to what they should sound like when you use them?

This holds true on the guitar modelers as well as digital synthesizers. I’m not saying that they CAN’T sound good. Some of them are capable of sounding very good indeed. It’s just that, if you expect to unpack the thing, select a factory preset, and have it sound good in your band’s mix, you are in for a big disappointment.

There are examples of this in all of them, but one standard factory preset on guitar modelers that seems to transcend brand name is the heavily distorted AND highly compressed patch, with a ton of fizzy distortion, always a lot of chorus, some reverb, and a really scooped EQ. It might sound fun in a music store through some little transistor amp played at 60dB, but it’s not going to work through a 4×12 cabinet, crunched tube amp, played at 110dB, and it’s CERTAINLY not going to fit in the mix. Because of all of the extra compression and time-based effects such as chorus and flanging they always add, there will be NO articulation and dynamics.

But, if you build your own patches from scratch, you can come up with some good sounds. Don’t expect them to sound exactly like your guitar through a cranked Marshall with a pair of 4×12 cabinets, for example, but you can create some patches that sound good in their own right, are quite useful, and will sit well in a mix.

The same holds true for digital synthesizers. You sit down in the local music store to try one out, and every factory patch sounds lush, rich, and full. And almost totally useless in a band setting.

However, if you take the time to learn how to build your own patches, you will probably find that the raw samples and waveforms are pretty usable, and some very good sounding patches can be built from scratch, which are extremely good, are more realistic, and will work well in a mix.

There is something else to consider in the synthesizer patches that claim to be realistic samples of real instruments – and that is that they almost always far less high end and upper midrange than in the real instrument. This adds to the difficulty of getting your instrument to fit in the mix. There are other limitations which, in my mind, are design flaws. One of these is the stubborn refusal by synthesizer makers to put effects in a logical place in the signal chain. A great example of this, and the one that is a huge limitation on Roland synthesizers such as the JV-1080 and XP-50, is Roland’s insistence that a Leslie is an “effect” rather than a “speaker.” As anyone who has ever played a Hammond Organ knows, a Leslie is a SPEAKER, and is therefore the last thing in the audio chain – AFTER the amplifier. The Roland Leslie simulator is not too bad, but by putting it so early in the chain, they’ve made it almost useless. It is such things that make building good patches a real challenge sometimes.

While you can get some patches that will, in a mix, sound “kind of like” another instrument, such as, say, a trumpet; there are some instruments which you will never get close to, no matter how much time you spend creating a patch. A great example of this would be, of course, guitar.

So, know the limitations of the technology and your equipment, take the time to build your own patches, and you will get some very usable patches. Don’t expect to fool anyone into thinking that they are listening to a real vintage synth, a real orchestra, or a real guitar. Just get sounds that will accomplish the same purpose, and that sound good in the mix.

After all, the mix is what’s important. Nobody cares what an instrument sounds like soloed, because nobody but you can solo it. Everyone else in the world will only hear it in the mix.

Social Commentary in Music

April 22, 2009

I’ve been an avid listener to music since I was about 10 years old. My parents listened to Big Band music (Glenn Miller, Dorsey Brothers, etc) a lot when I was young, so it’s been a part of my life as long as I can remember, but when I listened to my favorite type of music as a teenager, I quickly noticed something: there was almost always ‘social commentary.’ I don’t mean ‘teenage angst’ or love songs, or party songs – those things were present in the Big Band music of my parents (they didn’t listen to Cab Calloway).

I liked rock music. Specifically, what we called “hard rock.” A good portion of that music talked about government oppression, but even more devoted itself solely to the war (Vietnam, for you youngsters out there), or to the draft, racial and gender discrimination, unjust laws, unjust taxation, an out of control federal government, and a host of other societal problems. In many of the songs, there was anger. In fact, in many of the songs, there was a LOT of anger. But it was focused. There were also protests – a lot of them. They weren’t usually polite affairs, with proper government-issued ‘permits.’ In fact, if you had suggested that they ask the government for permission to protest, you would have been laughed out of the room.

And things changed. People came to see the war in Vietnam as the injustice it was. Gender and racial discrimination were tackled. The draft was eliminated. When the war and the draft were no longer an issue, most of the people in that generation basked in a brief glow of satisfaction, and then immediately went on to other things, like having a life, raising a family, a real job, etc.

Fast forward several decades, and now we once again have a war on foreign soil (two fronts this time), there is talk of mandatory ‘national service’ ( a draft, by any other name is just as repressive, and this one will be gender-blind), global narco-wars, fueled by the enormous profits created mostly by US drug laws, which has made it so profitable that entire countries have been corrupted simply by the huge profits to be had in the growing, manufacturing, transportation, and selling of the stuff.

Where is the social commentary? I see a lot of young white guys driving BMWs blaring rap “music,” and singing along about how bad it is to be a poverty-striken black youth in the inner city. Of course, the white guys in the BMWs are usually pulling up in front of a GAP store to get a new pair of $200 jeans, but the irony never seems to sink in. I see teenage white girls singing rap lyrics about how thrilled they are to be a young black drug dealer who shoots other black guys for fun before raping his girlfriend.

What I DON’T hear is music expressing anger against the war in Iraq, or the war in Afghanistan. I don’t even hear music expressing outrage over 9/11. Why? I wish I knew.

My band did a “protest song” a couple of years ago. I don’t want to think that only a bunch of guys over 50 are pissed off enough to write protest songs.

Finally Heard the Bose “Poles”

February 25, 2009

After reading the impossible and improbable claims in recent Bose ads about their new system that looks like a couple of black poles, I was, to say the least, skeptical (what? ME, skeptical??).

To be honest, I’ve never liked Bose stuff. Historically, most of it has consisted of a shitpot full of 5″ speakers in some sort of vented box, that, if given a few hundred watts, would get slightly above the level of a conversation while having no low end whatsoever, and no real high end either. They introduced some sort of pre-processing unit which I suppose was intended to smooth out the frequency response of the little 5″ speaker arrays, since they always had a horribly erratic response curve, with a peak in the 2KHz-5KHz area, which is not exactly pleasing to the ears. When you add one of the Bose processors to your system, it still sounds really bad, but now it also sounds really processed.

The Bose amps that they came out with years ago were grainy sounding and fragile. They apparently haven’t changed much, from what I heard.

To be fair, when I heard them, they were being used by a “DJ” who was playing MP3s, which don’t need much help sounding bad. But the overall sound quality was pretty dreadful.

Once again proving that “if it sounds too good to be true, it is.” Never believe marketing hype. Also, as I’ve said before, examine any spec sheets with care. And, above all else, LISTEN to something first if you think you may be interested in it. Preferably NOT in a music store. Find a band who uses the piece of gear you are interested in, and go give an extended listen. Also, talk to the soundman (NOT one of the band members). He can give you some insight into ease of setup and use, reliability, ease of repair, etc.

Free time, Linux Audio, and Songwriting?

February 4, 2009

It’s been a while since I wrote much of anything. I still keep an eye on the server, but it just seems like I haven’t been able to find the free time to sit down and write much of anything. Two things have appeared that have eaten ALL my spare time lately: A PS2, and a new version of Rosegarden.

Someone gave us a PS2 for Christmas. I played a couple of the games popular today and was pretty underwhelmed. We got a couple of educational games for Paul and he likes them a lot, but as far as I was concerned, I couldn’t see all the interest. I’d see people talking about various games but just figured they weren’t for me. And then, I found a game called ‘Call of Duty.’ The first time I tried it out, before I knew it, 2 hours had gone by. No matter what, every time I sit down with it thinking that I’d play it for 20 minutes or so, before I know it, hours melt away.

As for Rosegarden, it’s at least a much more productive endeavor. For those of you who don’t know, Rosegarden is a multitrack MIDI and audio recording program for Linux, much like Sonar is for Windows. I have Sonar, and it served me well until a couple of things came along. Firstly, I started the web page and blog, which meant that if I wanted to use Sonar, I’d have to take down the server, reboot into Windows, and then when I was done, boot back into Linux, and make sure the server came back up just fine. In the meantime, the web pages and blog would be unavailable, which is something I wanted to avoid if I could, out of my (probably unnecessary) determination to keep them running 24 hrs/day. It was a nuisance, to say the least, and one which conspired to prevent me from using Sonar very often. And if I didn’t use Sonar, that meant that I wasn’t writing songs, or working on recording demo tracks of ones I’d already written. It took so long to get everything set up to do anything that I just tended not to do that very often. And then I started having even more problems than usual with Windows. I had learned my lesson early on about allowing automatic updates, and had turned those off, but one day, my stupid Windows decided to install some “updates” anyway, and those resulted in me no longer having administrator privileges on my own computer. That was a real pain to fix, and really irritated me. A couple of months later, the same thing happened, and Microsoft, in its infinite wisdom, forced another update on me, which totally screwed up audio on my machine. So, no longer was it merely inconvenient to do anything with music on it, it was no longer very productive. I had pops and crackles, and my 2GB machine now claimed that it didn’t have enough memory to load the very same soundfonts I had been using for years. Since I once again didn’t have “Administrator” privileges on my own computer, thanks to Microsoft, fixing it was a real burden. With my bizarre work schedule, where my “spare time” might only be between 2 and 3am, it was just too much of a pain trying to do anything, and trying to keep up with Windows’ repeated insistence on breaking itself was just too much. I started looking for programs for Linux that would do everything I needed. I found quite a few that were available, and started trying them.

I found a couple of command-line multi-track recorders. Now, I’m not a HUGE fan of GUIs, but trying to control a multi-track recording program from the command-line is not something I really want to experience.

I found Ardour, which is a multitrack DAW (audio only). It was REALLY nice, and worked well, but I needed MIDI for composition (yes MIDI had spoiled me, and I found that trying to write with audio-only tools wasn’t working for me anymore). While it’s possible to sync it with various Linux MIDI sequencers, it was cumbersome, to say the least.

I found QTractor, which is audio and MIDI, and it worked really well, but it was lacking some features I really needed. It is written by one person, and he just can’t add features fast enough to make it a viable equivalent to Sonar.

I found Rosegarden, which did everything I needed, but had some bugs. A week or so ago, a new version came out so I decided to give it a try. I got it compiled and started testing it, and found out that the really irritating bugs had been squashed. I tried various things with it, and found out that I can have it running, plus a couple of software synths, in addition to the web server, blog program, the email server, and all the other things I run regularly (Firefox, Thunderbird, etc), and never use any virtual memory (swap file). Heck, on Windows, running Sonar with virtually nothing else running, and all other services turned off, my 2.6GHz machine was almost maxed out and using a LOT of virtual memory! I’m still fine-tuning the various parameters in the program, but so far, it looks very promising. I’m actually writing music again, which is what I’ve been wanting to do for months.

All of this means that time I was spending listening to what the thieves, crooks, and tyrants in government are doing is taken up by, in one case, something MUCH more productive, and in the other case, by something that is a total waste of time (but addictive). It’s something that I don’t think anyone needs me to point out, and most of the time it’s something that it seems like nobody really even cares about.

My blog is something that I use to simply get things off my chest. If I hear one of our so-called “representatives” say something totally inane, or just simply wrong, which covers 99.9% of everything they say, I would write in my blog to get it off my chest.

Other times, I would just write about things I had learned in my over 30 years of doing pro-audio and recording.

So, in a nutshell, I’ll keep writing in the blog, but I’m spending more time actually writing MUSIC than I have for almost a year, and playing with Rosegarden.

(For those of you unfamiliar with Linux audio applications, there are MANY – probably more than are available for WinXP. Some are excellent. Some are odd. Some are buggy. But, all are free. Linux itself is free, of course. You can put together a system consisting of the O/S itself, an Audio/MIDI recording program such as Rosegarden, a softsynth (QSynth/Fluidsynth), some VST/DSSI synths and effects plugins, a sampler (Linuxsampler), and whatever else you need, for a grand total of $0. And the hardware requirements are FAR less than what you would need for Windows.)

How Loud Should a Mix Be?

January 11, 2009

The answer, of course, is a resounding “it depends.” If you are talking about a live situation, then the answer is somewhere around “whatever is appropriate for the genre of music you are mixing.” You wouldn’t mix a traditional bluegrass band at 120db, and likewise, a heavy metal act at 70db would be pretty silly.

If you are talking about mixing in a studio, then the answer is a little different. There is no “one” answer, for several reasons.

First though, consider “Fletcher Munson.” In essence, what this means is that your ears have different sensitivities at different volumes – i.e. your ear’s frequency response changes with volume. At lower volume, your ear is most sensitive to frequencies which coincidentally are those which add intelligibility to speech (2KHz – 5KHz), and at low frequencies, your ear is not very sensitive at all. At high volume, your ear is much more sensitive to low frequencies, and to a somewhat lesser degree, the high frequencies. So, at 60dB, a mix will sound thin, with no low end. Turn that same mix up to 110dB, and it will have a ton of low end and much more high frequencies.

If you are thinking that there must be a volume range somewhere in the middle where the ear has a fairly “flat” frequency response, you would be right. And that mid-level volume, that is neither too loud nor too quiet, where your ear has the flatest frequency response is around 80dB. If you get your sounds and do your initial rough mixing at 80dB, then your mix will have a frequency response that should be fairly representative. If you get your sounds at 65dB, then when you turn your mix up, you will have WAYYYY too much low end! Likewise, if you start out at 110dB, when you turn it down, your mix is going to be thin and lifeless (sounds like a commercial for a hair care product, doesn’t it?).

However, every once in while, you need to vary the volume you are mixing at, again for a couple of reasons. One is to double check your mix at different volumes, but the other is because the ear develops “ear fatigue” when listening to something at the same level for long periods of time. Never listen for too long at any one volume – it will all start to sound the same, because your ear is developing fatigue. In fact, you should completely take a break fairly often. Leave the control room, walk outside (unless the sun is shining!), get a drink, play a video game. Just do something different for a while. Then, when you return to your mix, you will “have a fresh set of ears on.”

Along with checking your mix at different volume levels as you go, you also need to check it on different speakers. Try some near-fields for a while. If you have a different set of monitors, use those for a while. Some people even have an average (i.e.-crappy) car speaker, and will listen to a mono mix on that. Play it on a system in another room. All this is to verify that the mix holds up well on a variety of speakers, at different volumes, and in different rooms. Sometimes it will sound pretty good in every situation, but sometimes you will hear something on another system that just sounds somehow wrong. Go back to the mix, fix that problem, and try again.

Don’t drink alcohol before mixing!!! Alcohol does horrible things to your hearing, PLUS is makes you much more susceptible to hearing loss. The same thing holds true to a lesser degree with caffeine, but there are limits to what you need to put yourself through to mix, and caffeine deprivation is beyond that limit. Also, lack of sleep can affect your hearing.

Notice that I have said nothing about what the band has to say while all of this is going on. There is a very good reason for that – it’s a whole ‘nuther can o’ worms which would take many more paragraphs to go into.

Random Stuff About Speakers

January 1, 2009

Speakers are the last link in your audio signal chain, and can have the most dramatic effect on the overall sound of your system. They not only determine how efficient your system is overall, but also the frequency response, transient response, and how loud you can be.

A speaker consists of a very few parts.

1) The frame – simply the metal frame in which everything else is mounted. They can be stamped metal, which is the cheaper method, lighter, and potentially not as rigid; or they can be cast metal, which is usually used in the more expensive speakers.

2) The magnet – a magnet attached to the rear of the frame. The heaviest part of the speaker. The heavier the magnet is, the better the efficiency and low end response.

3) Voice coil – A coil of wire wrapped around a “bobbin” to form a cylindrical coil, which rides in a gap in the magnet. The two ends of the coil are connected to terminals on the frame of the speaker. The output of the amplifier is connected directly to the voice coil. When power is applied to the voice coil, the magnetic field in the gap causes the voice coil to move. (the stronger the magnetic field, the more movement for a given power input, all other things being equal)

4) The cone – The conical shaped thing that faces the front of the speaker. Traditionally, these are made from a type of cardboard. Sometimes you will see metal or plastic used as cone material, but not usually in pro-audio applications. The cone is attached to the voice coil, whose oscillations are transferred to the cone, which in turn, moves air.

5) The surround – This is the wavy part around the outside edge of the cone, just inside where the cone is glued to the frame. Is is most often cardboard, but in some speakers can be cloth, or foam rubber(!). The surround doesn’t really serve any audio purpose – it exists merely to connect the moving cone to the non-moving frame.

6) Dust cover – the little dome in the center of the cone. This keeps dust from getting into the voice coil gap. These can be vented, having a small (1/2″) section of screen in the center, to aid in cooling and to allow more unrestricted movement.

Barring physical damage, such as dropping the speaker, the most common parts of the speaker to fail are the voice coil, cone, and surround.

How they fail, and why

The surround can fail due to a couple of causes, neither of which is much of a mystery. The surround can just simply wear out. The cardboard of the surround is much thinner than the cone material, and, by necessity much more flexible. Over time, the constant flexing of the surround weakens it, and it can eventually just start developing rips radially. Or, in some closed-box applications, the air pressure inside the box can actually blow a hole in the surround. A hole in the surround doesn’t necessarily make a noise itself, but it can change the frequency response of a cabinet, since it is effectively a port. Also, once the rip or hole in the surround gets bad enough, the cone can become misaligned (off-centered) which will cause the voice coil to rub, which you will definitely hear.

A cone is more trouble-free, as long as you don’t stick a screwdriver through it while installing the speaker. Unlike the surround, a cone’s job is to remain rigid, so the entire surface area moves as one unit. Like the surround, a cone can, after time, wear out from the constant movement and humidity. The cone becomes flimsy and “soft.” Once this happens, the cone no longer moves as a single unit, which will affect the frequency response and efficiency.

Check your speakers every couple of months to make sure the cone and the surround are intact. If you are REALLY paranoid, rotate your speakers 90 degrees. Yes, if they hang the same direction over a long period, and are also exposed to travel bumps, the weight of the cone over a long period can possibly cause cone misalignment.

The dust covers aren’t usually a source of much trouble, although they can occasionally come loose because the glue holding them on dries out, and the combination of the dust cover’s inertia and the air pressure behind it can cause one edge to come loose. Do NOT try fixing them with tape (even duct tape isn’t going to work, believe it or not). Even if you can get it to stick, it’s not going to hold the dust cover firmly enough to keep it from rattling, so not only will the dust cover still rattle, but now the tape is going to rattle as well. If you have a rattle and find out that it is a dust cover, you can get through a show by CAREFULLY removing the dust cover entirely. Take it to your recone expert the next day.

Voice coils are the most common part to fail on a speaker, and there are two different results when they do: The speaker will rattle; or the speaker will be silent. (There is also the not entirely un-humorous “flaming speaker” which was usually caused by a Crown DC-300 dumping its DC supply into your speakers, but that’s another story)

All of the current flowing through the wire of the voice coil causes heat. This heat is mostly transferred to the metal of the magnet, which has a heat sink to dissipate the heat into the surrounding air. The movement of the speaker itself also helps keep it cool. However, if you exceed the power handling of the speaker continuously for an extended period, the voice coil will overheat. This overheating causes the adhesive used to bind the wire to the “bobbin” to come loose, the wire will partially unwind, and will either rub the voice coil gap, which you hear as a severe rattle, or will bind completely, which you hear as silence. There’s nothing you can do at the show venue. Replace it with a spare and take it to your recone expert when you can.

The voice coil can also jump out of its gap. If it remains aligned while it’s out there, it may slip back into the gap with no ill affects, other than you will hear distortion caused by the non-linear response of the speaker. If, however, it doesn’t quite remain aligned perfectly, it won’t hit the gap, and will instead slam down beside the gap, and will be essentially “locked up.” It will be silent. The cone won’t move when you push it. You MAY be able to pull the cone outward carefully (putting equal pressure on all sides of the cone) and get it to slip back into the gap, but don’t bet on it. Be aware, that since the speaker will not move, it will draw more current than normal, and since it doesn’t have the cooling action of the movement, will overheat more easily. In other words, if you notice a speaker not working, troubleshoot it as soon as possible.

As with all repair and maintenance work, if you have to open a cabinet, while you’re in there, check all electrical connections, and check the cabinet integrity. If you see any loose braces or stripped screws, FIX THEM. If they remain unfixed, they WILL be a future source of a rattle.