When we did our last video for In The Studio we discussed the basics of microphones. Part of that discussion was that microphones were one of the entry points for inputting and capturing sound in your system. Today I thought we’d do a post discussing two of the next steps of ‘the chain’ (really two possible options for the next step of sound capture). My usual next step for capturing sound from a microphone would be to run them in to an outboard microphone pre-amp and then in to an outboard compressor. This is my personal choice as my mixing boards have inboard mic-pre-amps and compressors that could also be used. Again, we’re going to discuss this in relatively non-technical terms so anyone can have a basic idea of what the equipment does. I’m also not recommending specific brands or models. They all have their strengths and weaknesses and that’s a whole separate discussion.
Let’s start with the mic pre-amps. The simple explanation of a mic pre-amp is that it increases the signal from the microphone so that you have enough signal volume to get a good sounding recording. Let’s look at the pre-amp below:
This is a two channel unit so we’re only looking at one side. First, it has a button to activate phantom power. As we discussed with microphones, condenser mics put out less voltage than dynamic mics, so we need to use phantom power to add that voltage. If you use a separate phantom power unit in line before the pre-amp, you won’t need to activate this. The pre-amp has a dial where you will determine the volume added to the signal going in to the unit (Input) and a dial for adding volume to the signal leaving the unit (Output). The amount of power added to the input is measured by the LED lights at the bottom right and the output power is measured by the needle display in the upper right. You also have a button labeled ‘Gain’ where you can boost the input signal by another 20 decibels. You have a button to reverse the signal phase (if you want to know about signal phase, dig in our archives for the video on recording a snare and phase cancellation). The ‘HPF’ button is a high pass filter. You can use this to ‘roll off’ at a certain frequency – we’ll save a deeper explanation for another time.
This mic pre-amp is a little more high end and allows you to be a bit more specific in adding signal to certain frequencies. These are the toggle switches and dials to the right in the photo. Other than that, the mic-pre works in the same fashion.
After the mic pre-amp, the signal is sent to a compressor. The basic function of a compressor is to regulate the volume peaks of the signal before it moves to the next step. This can keep the signal from ‘clipping’ and adding audible ‘pops’ to the track if a volume peak is too loud. Let’s take a look at one and go through it’s options.
Going left to right. ‘Threshold’ determines at what volume the compressor takes hold of the signal. The ‘Ratio’ determines what the unit does with the volume once it reaches the Threshold. If you select a Ratio of 4:1 it means that once the volume level hits the Threshold, the compressor will allow the output to increase by 1 decibel for every 4 decibels of actual volume. The ‘Attack’ determines how quickly the compressor applies the Ratio and ‘Release’ determines how quickly it stops applying the Ratio when the signal drops below the Threshold. When you apply compression to a signal, you will reduce the overall top volume. The Output dial allows you to make up for this by increasing the overall output from the unit. Finally, this unit also has a ‘Gate’. The Gate allows you to select how much volume is needed to allow the signal to pass through. For instance, when you are recording a vocal, you don’t want anything from the mic to pass through when the vocalist is not singing. You would be picking up unwanted background noise. The Gate shuts off the signal when there is not enough volume going in to the mic. The ‘Rate’ dial allows you to adjust how quickly the gate takes effect.
The compressor in this photo also has a limiter (far right), which means that beyond applying the Ratio, you can set the compressor to cut off the output signal totally at a certain level.
Above and beyond controlling the signal level, mic pre-amps and compressors are used to add color, depth and tone to the signal you are putting through them. Mic pre-amps can use tubes or solid state circuits to accomplish their goal. They can run from affordable to incredibly expensive. Each type will add their own flavor to the sound you are recording. Compressors have been used as an effect to give certain sonic qualities to an instrument – you can find lots of info about using heavy compression on snare and kick drums to achieve a specific sound. Compression can be added at many stages of the recording process. You can add compression to tracks already recorded in the software. You will usually add compression to the final mix to even out the overall volume of the music.
We’ll continue to move through the recording chain in future posts. As always, let us know if you have questions or comments.
As you scroll through the internet you’ll find lots of videos, blogs, web sites, etc that present info on studio recording. There are a lot of great ones, some very high end studios and some very experienced, knowledgeable people. I’ve watched and read a lot of them myself. So I sat down and gave some thought as to what our place in this vast info universe would be. I’d like our videos and info to make you feel comfortable and at home. As if one of our friends walked in and asked “I always wondered how you……….”. That’s why we do mostly single take videos and record ‘live set up’ songs whenever possible.
This video gives some basic tips on recording the snare drum and the concept of phase cancellation. As you watch the video keep in mind that phase cancellation can happen with anything you record. It’s something to always keep in mind as you do mic placement or mixing. Keep your ears open and your eyes on your sound waves. And always follow the first rule – experiment, try different set ups and compare.
If you have any “I’ve always wondered…..” questions or situations, feel free to leave a comment/question or send us an email. We’re always up for a good ‘conversation’.
The idea of an ‘Inspiration Point’ always reminds me of standing on the edge of a canyon and looking down at the beautiful scenery below. Or shouting in to the canyon and hearing an echo come back. Here’s an In The Studio version of our indoor inspiration point (Episode 6):
We also have three new ‘Messin’ With The Music’ songs in production and hope to have something out soon.
We recently changed the placement set up for monitoring with our Yamaha NS10M Studio monitors. They were placed further away from the listening point and sound panels were placed at equal distances beside and behind the monitors. The idea was to get a wider stereo feel and to equalize the reflection surfaces around the speakers.
We do use other monitors during the mixing process but I like using the Yamahas for the initial mixing. For quite a while you couldn’t see a picture of a recording studio without seeing a pair of NS10s by the mixing console. Some people love them and some hate them. I like them but you have to know their strengths and weaknesses and use them accordingly. If you’re interested in more of their history, here’s an article from Sound On Sound that has a good discussion of their background:
Since the placement was changed, that meant it was time to redo the room tuning for them. Ahhhh yes, the joy of a night of listening to pink noise. So I broke out the real time analyzer and got to work. Make sure that the mic for the analyzer is positioned in the spot where you’ll be sitting – near field monitors have a tight listening field and accuracy matters. The sound from pink noise will fluctuate, so you have to study the levels while it is running then review the peak capture when you turn it off. Here’s the running sound and peak capture when the EQ going in to the monitors is flat:
NS10Ms tend to be weak at the low end, so the EQ is adjusted accordingly. The process takes a while since when you adjust one frequency it effects the frequencies around it. The final EQ setting looks like this:
Here’s the running sound afterwards (remember running sound fluctuates, so a snap shot at a particular time will not look flat):
The final shot of the peak captures gives a good representation of where we ended up:
I’m pretty comfortable with the flatter EQ at the end of the process. One other tip is to make sure you are hearing equal levels from both speakers so you don’t overload one side when you’re mixing. The real time analyzer should let you get actual equal volumes for both sides. I have some volume hearing loss in one ear – the result of playing in bands for a lot of years (fortunately it is not frequency loss). To check on this take one channel of the song you’re mixing and run it straight down the center of your stereo field while sitting in your perfect center listening spot. If it sounds like it’s coming more from one channel or the other, make the adjustment on the volume of your reference amp. It’s at the end of the sound chain so it equalizes volume for your ears without effecting the balance in your actual mix. I also check the final mix of songs through the Real Time Analyzer so I’m using sight as well as sound to get the frequencies where I want them.
After the NS10 mixing is completed we’ll make any mix adjustments and also do the mastering through the higher end monitors set up in a different listening station. It’s always important to take your time, ‘put the mix down’ and come back to it later for review to get the best results possible. A great song will shine through no matter what, but a great mix will always improve your song.
And because I like to leave a little music for you……..
Father John Misty – “Ballad of The Dying Man”
After I finished writing the last post I sat down to read through it and listened to ‘Heroes’ again. And again. Beyond the beauty of the song itself I was intrigued by a lot of the recording technique in it. I did a little searching on the internet and came across an article on the recording of ‘Heroes’ in Sound On Sound where they cover the recording of different ‘classic’ tracks. I really recommend reading the entire article. It’s not just nuts and bolts tech info; they cover the production of the song and how the recording ideas came about. I won’t rehash the whole article as I’ve attached a link to it. But since we were speaking of vocals the info on them was pretty amazing. The entire vocal part was written and recorded in five hours. The main vocal was recorded on a single track in one take (with a few splice ins here and there). For the main vocal there were three mics: one close, one about 15 feet away and a third at the other end of the very large room they were recording in. The close mic had heavy compression; the other two mics were gated and only opened up as the volume hit a certain level. As the vocal gets louder another mic in the room would open. So towards the end when the vocals are almost ‘shouted’ all three mics have opened up and all the reverb is natural from the room – and all three mics were recorded to the same track. Truly Amazing. Genius always finds a way.
Also check out how Robert Fripp got those high guitar feedback parts (they almost sound like a synth) by measuring the distance he stood from the amp to get the perfect feedback sound on each individual note.
Here’s the link to the Sound On Sound article:
Here’s another link to ‘Heroes’ sound you don’t have to go back to the last post to hear it:
This winter seems like a good time to lock myself in the studio and start to get some work done again. We’ve spent a good deal of time working on song ideas and turning some of them in to song demos. Now it’s time to focus in and work on the production tracks. Which in turn allows me to focus on the recording process from both technical and artistic points of view. As always finding a way to nail the vocal recording process is a high priority.
The first article I’ve attached is a quick and simple overview of some different methods of recording vocals. This really speaks to the performance aspect of recording as compared to the nuts and bolts tech of mics, mic placement, preamps etc.
Personally I like to record takes all the way through. It gives the singer a chance to have the full feel of the song and decide how to vocally connect the song together. But I’ve also worked parts of the song separately, maybe verses separate from chorus or separating vocal parts after an instrumental break. I think it really depends on the song and the vocalist. You have to be open to trying different approaches on different songs.
The next article discusses comping, which is mentioned in the first article (I don’t know if I’d call it a ‘little known’ recording trick) .
I think there are things to consider if you’re going to do a lot of cut and paste comping on a vocal track. If I’m going to put together smaller pieces of the vocal tracks I’d like to get them recorded in the same session. A person’s voice may change slightly from day to day. It’s not like setting up a guitar amp and then leaving the settings stand for another session. That’s not as much of an issue if you’re putting together larger pieces of the song. It’s also not as much of an issue if you’re going to multi-layer several vocal tracks on top of each other. Again, work with the vocalist and see what brings the best out of them. I think we’ll be putting down a lot more vocal tracks then usual in our upcoming sessions for both layering and comping.
Finally, I couldn’t let the passing of David Bowie go by without comment. For many of us music is much more than something we listen to. I grew up from a young age playing music and living music. It informed my life and many life choices. For those of us who grew up in that era, Bowie melded music with life and style. And showed that you could stop on a dime and change styles if you wanted to. Be fearless in your ability and right to change to whatever moved you. I picked the song ‘Heroes’ to put here because it shows the most important part of vocals – emotion. I feel the build in emotion created by the vocals in this song every time I listen to it. If you do it right it’s captured forever.
Well, spring isn’t here yet (at least in the northeast) but the sun was out today, it was over 40 degrees (whoooo) and daylight savings time has begun. All in all as close to nice weather as it’s been around here for quite some time. Spring turns a young persons fancy to…….acoustic instruments (it also helps bring some of us out of hibernation). Over the winter months we’ve been collecting instruments for the studio to add some variety to our in house recording. Pictured below are some of the items we picked up.
Not that we’ll use everything in a traditional manner. The options are limitless. As are the variety of ways you can mic, amplify or record acoustic instruments. Here’s a video with some ideas for recording banjo.
You can count on us breaking the rules whenever possible (hhmmmm – phase shifter on mandolin?). So much to look forward to.
To add to the acoustic flavor, here’s a video of Trampled By Turtles live on NPR. Can’t you just feel spring in the sound?
Hope the weather heads to spring where ever you are.
Well, I’ve certainly been AWOL the last couple of months. A lot has been going on, some good, some bad, some blah, blah, blah. Thought I’d throw a couple of things up for you to peruse.
First, for anyone who is interested in starting out in recording music there’s a site that shows you the basics of mixing and listening….and you get to play around with Peter Gabriel’s music..and post your own mixes in SoundCloud. I’ve only touched some of the basic parts (pretty hard to pull my butt out of my own studio) but what I’ve seen is pretty interesting.
On another note, recently spent a night with the legendary Reverend Horton Heat. Totally ass-kicking (and I so want that guitar). Here’s a live video for your enjoyment. Hope to post some pictures from the show soon.
Mastering is a topic we’ve covered before. It’s the cherry on top of your overall recording, but it can also make or break everything you’ve completed before this step. I found this article to be interesting because it looks at mastering from an aesthetic view as well as a technical view. It’s really necessary not to get too hung up on the tech and miss out on listening to get the specific feel of the project you’re working on. I also like the advice to occasionally move your self out of the ‘sweet spot’ that exists in any studio setup. The sweet spot can be very specific, especially when using close field monitors. The problem is that most people don’t sit in the perfect spot for hearing the music – this is amplified when listening in an average car stereo setup. You need to expand your point of view. I also like Appelbaum’s small room setup and some sweet equipment.
Here’s a couple of short video pieces taken from a much longer video class. Again, check out the control room and some of the equipment.
I came across a few interesting 2013 videos in an article I was reading. I like the music, but it’s the videos that are hypnotic. Some pretty cool visual techniques.
Fell free to stare directly at this and end up with your mouth open drooling..
Or you can stare at this and turn 2D in to 3D….
OK – this is the creepiest rabbit I’ve ever seen……
And can’t forget a ‘what day is it’ shout out. No cake and candles but….