Friday, June 12, 2009

Blend, Separation and Clarity: Arrangement

Probably the single most impactful aspect of maintaining a desired combination of blend and separation is the arrangement of the musical elements. In this context, I am referring not so much to harmonic arrangement, but rather to the rhythmic arrangement.

At this point, engineers who would read this might say, "Wait a minute! I didn't write this stuff; I don't have control over the arrangement!" In many situations, this may be the case. However, an awful lot of folks wear various hats in the music production process; you may be an all-in-one writer/musician/arranger/producer/engineer (or some subset). Also, even if you are working with someone else's material, it is not at all uncommon to have some creative input on the tracks as they are being created.

The key aspect to using arrangement in this context is the alignment of the elements. Simply put, elements that play on top of each other, tend to blend together. A good example of this is two rhythm guitars. If they are played in precisely the same rhythm, the result is something that sounds like a single instrument that has the tonal characteristics of both guitars blended together. The effect is most strong if the tonal characteristics of both are similar; it is somewhat less apparent if the tonal characteristics of the instruments are very different (e.g. Les Paul/Marshall Stack layered with an acoustic 12-string :)

The inverse here is that playing very different rhythms will help separate the instruments. If one rhythm guitar is playing straight eighth-notes, while the other is playing whole note power chords, even your grandma will be able to tell there are two guitars playing. Also keep in mind that this is another case where combining the technique with others such as pan can be very effective.

I'm using very blatant examples for the sake of explanation, but of course remember there are lots of possibilities for more subtle way to use this technique. One example might be that two instruments that play together most of the time, but diverge once every four bars during a turnaround. Like everything else with audio production, each situation is different, but use of rhythmic arrangement is one more powerful tool at your disposal in the quest for those magical mixes.


Thursday, May 28, 2009

Blend, Separation and Clarity: Pan

(Please see this post for the introduction to this series)

One of the most basic ways to either lay sound elements together or separate them is through the use of pan. Yes, I know, it's not exactly rocket science, but there's no reason to overlook a useful approach just because of simplicity.

If you're trying to stick elements together, put them in the same position in the pan spread. This is actually considerably more effective if you can place the elements somewhere OTHER than the center. This is simply because typical production approaches generally center up the most prominent elements such as kick, snare, bass and lead vocals. If the elements you're trying to stick together are in the exact same positioning at 9 o'clock rather than straight up the center, the binding effect is stronger because the listener sub-subconsciously notices the positioning more readily because of it differing from the norm.

Somewhat more obviously, if you are trying to separate elements, place them in different pan positions. Remember that it's not just a matter of hard left and hard right; if you give each element a different pan "slot", (e.g. 8 o'clock, 10 o'clock, center, 2 o'clock, 4 o'clock), it can be very helpful to create a full sound where multiple elements each maintain their own space.

Also remember as we talk about different ways to blend or separate elements, that various techniques can be used in combination; e.g. pan and volume. Stay tuned for more mini-posts!


Thursday, May 14, 2009

Blend, Separation and Clarity: An Introduction

As an audio engineer, or even just a music lover, I'm sure you've noticed how some mixes seem to have this magical quality; where the overall sound is tightly integrated, balanced, clean and transparent, yet each element has its own character and can be perceived on its own. In contrast, lower quality mixes sound busy, muddled and confusing. It's not always easy to point out what the specific differences are between the good and the bad. I'd like to talk about some principles that you can use in your effort to continually improve your mixes. This will be a series of mini-posts, each discussing different aspects of this topic.

In my experience, probably the key overarching concept to keep in mind is blend vs. separation. One primary task as an engineer or producer (or for that matter, as an arranger) is to make good choices as to which elements you want "stuck together", and which you want separated. A classic example of elements you might want stuck together would be a kick drum and a bass guitar. Because a typical rhythm section beat might have these two elements playing in lock-step on nearly every 1 and 3 of nearly every bar, we would typically want those elements to be perceived as stuck together rather than separated. In other words, we would want their sonic characteristics to blend in such a way as to be perceived as a single element within the overall mix presentation.

In contrast, an example of elements you might want separated would be a distorted electric guitar and an acoustic guitar. They have completely different natural sonic profiles, and in most cases would be intended to provide distinctly different flavors in the overall mix; perhaps a meaty solidity contributed by the distorted electric guitar, plus a light clean gloss contributed by the strumming acoustic. In either case, you have a range of tools at your disposal to either blend or separate the elements as desired. In the upcoming posts, I'll work through a handful of theses tools and approaches.

By the way, it's important to remember that for this series, as well as in nearly all discussions about audio production, we are talking about principles, not laws. For me, one of the continually satisfying aspects of audio production is that, like music, it is a combination of art and technique. The technology can be sophisticated, and yet in the end, the human ear, guided by passion and inspiration, is required to produce great work. As a result, while I have found these principles to be invaluable, there will be times when doing something that completely violates one or more of these principles is the perfect choice. You should always feel the freedom to apply or ignore the "rules" as needed. In other words, caveat emptor, YMMV, etc.

Watch for more coming soon!


Thursday, May 7, 2009

To Solve a Nasty EQ Problem, Make it Worse

You're constantly working with EQ. Part of the time, you need to add some desired aspect to the tone. However, many times, you instead need to remove something; harshness, tubbiness, resonance, or some other piece of nastiness. What's the best way to zero in on your target? Make it worse!

A typical approach is to start cutting in a frequency range that you're guessing contains the objectionable aspect. This can work, but sometimes a better alternative is to instead make it worse. Grab a sweepable EQ, and create a nice, big 6 or 8 dB boost, (and if you have a true parametric, make the slope fairly narrow - i.e. high Q) and slowly sweep it across the range of frequencies you suspect. Because your ear is already telling you something stinks in the spectrum, it's usually obvious when you hit the range of crap you're trying to remove; that horrible sound gets markedly worse. This allows you to really zero in on the center point. Once you're zeroed in, then simply turn that boost into a cut, and voila! Vastly improved tone. At this point you might want to play with the slope (again if it's available) to make sure you're not removing more tone than you need, and you're done.


Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The Rookie Singer in the Studio

Have you ever worked with a singer who was experienced on stage, but inexperienced in the studio? Even if they're reasonably talented as singers (and if they aren't, well, it's going to be a long session for you anyway :), there are sometimes some challenges that occur.

One problem that sometimes arises is rookie singers not knowing what to do with their hands. After years on stage, some singers are so used to holding a mic that they feel uncomfortable with empty hands as they stand in front of your nice large diaphragm condenser or tube vocal mic. You sure don't want them handling that for multiple reasons, but you don't want them distracted thinking about the problem either. Solution? Grab a old SM 57 or SM 58, or any handheld stage mic, and let them hold it as a dummy mic while they sing. They get something to hang on to, and you get a singer with one less thing to worry about.

Another issue you may run into with a singer new to studio work is if they try to sing too directly up into your mic. Again, this is a holdover from the normal live behavior of "eating" the mic. If you're not already using a pop shield, this is definitely the time to bring it out. If you are using one, but the singer is still getting too close to the mic, simply swing the pop shield further from the mic so that if the singer eats anything, it will be the shield and not the mic. Related to this, remember that if the mic face is just higher than the plane of the singer's breath (usually about nose height), but still angled down toward the singer's mouth, you will have less breath blast or proximity issues to worry about while still maintaining excellent positioning in the mic's pattern.

Oh, and if that singer can't hold pitch, grit your teeth and plan on utilizing your pitch correction plug-in :)


Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Most Important Live Sound Principle

As audio engineers, most of us have a long history of passionate enjoyment and pursuit of great sounds; a fat singing lead guitar tone, or a nice chewy Rhodes, maybe a beautiful transparent sheen on cymbals.  It's easy for us to get focused on specific tonal treatments, or tasty effect applications, and of course there's nothing wrong with that. However, in live sound, during a performance, every second counts, and there are no retakes for you as the house engineer. 

Think about the audience. Most of them will never consciously appreciate the tonal subtleties that we as audio engineers often salivate over. As long as the overall tonal balance is even in the ballpark, 98% of the audience won't even think about it. However, even the most casual listener can easily recognize a volume balance that is off, especially when it comes to lead vocals. In other words, 2% of perceived tonal improvement is not worth a perceived 20% degradation of the overall mix.

What does this mean for us? Never lose sight of the overall mix volume balance between elements, especially the lead vocals. How do we make sure of that? What's necessary is the ability to shift focus CONSTANTLY! Never take more than a few seconds to work on a subtle sound element that you would like to improve; once you've burned those seconds, immediately return to reconfirming overall balance and blend. Force yourself to keep shifting; confirm the mix, check that crackle you thought you heard on the guitar, confirm the mix, pull the backing vocals a tad, check the mix, whoops! time to push the solo after the bridge, check the mix, wow that floor tom sounds papery-check if the drummer knocked the mic out of position, check the mix; you get the picture. If you keep this pattern, your live mixes will come across MUCH better than if you lose focus on the overall in order to spend 30 continuous seconds tweaking the drum verb.  



Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Your Ears' Natural Compression

You may not be aware that your ears (along with your brain) have a built in compressor. When the volume is high, your ears "go into" compression mode. Understanding little things like this about the incredible mechanism of sound perception gives a creative engineer ideas about how to use them to our advantage, and this is a good example. Monitoring loudly feels good (especially if you're working with talented musicians!), but if it's loud enough for your ears to go into compression, you're not hearing the actual volume balance of the mix, because that natural compression effect is "flattening" your perceived mix. So whenever you're doing a mix session, make sure to occasionally turn the volume way down. Any elements that are too soft or too loud will tend to become immediately perceptible.


Checking Pitch? Turn it down!

You're in the studio, listening to a track or mix. You're arguing with yourself as to whether that instrument or vocal is just a bit out of tune. If you're monitoring at a pretty loud volume, the solution is simple; turn it down!

This is not widely known, but here's the deal: your perception of pitch can be affected by volume. At high volume levels, your ears/brain will sometimes perceive a slightly out of tune pitch as being in tune. As a result, turning down the volume will help you get a better sense as to whether the performance in question is in tune or not.

You can test this yourself by playing back two test tones that are about an octave apart (i.e. the higher pitch double the frequency of the lower pitch). If you set them so they are just a little out of tune, you will be able to hear that clearly at a moderate volume. However, if you turn up the volume significantly, it will sound as though the pitch corrects itself.

By the way, there's an interesting corollary to this. Have you ever been to a concert, experienced it live, and then been surprised by how bad the recording of the same concert sounded when you heard it later? While a number of factors can be involved, this "volume fixes pitch" perception is almost certainly involved!


Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Welcome Aboard!

Over the years, I've been privileged to spend a lot of time behind mixing consoles, speakers, DAWs, and even tape machines (yes, I am that old!) I've also had the chance to pick up a lot of little insights and tricks from others. In that spirit, this blog is being created; a way to pass along some of what I've learned, and point you to other related resources that may be of interest.

Please be aware there are LOTS of great resources for learning about the typical basics of audio engineering. I won't be trying to replace those, and in fact, I am providing access to some of those resources as well. However, my contribution is in the form of some lesser known approaches and insights that any engineer will be able to use. Here's hoping you find them useful!


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