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 :)


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