HOW TO: RESONATE WITH GUITAR RECORDING

HOW TO: RESONATE WITH GUITAR RECORDING

From acoustic to electric guitars and everything in between, this tutorial will get you comfortable recording anything in the chordophone family.

SOUND BEFORE THE SOUND

Listening track: Kiss A Girl – Keith Urban

There’s no one way to record guitars. There are as many variations of guitar recording techniques as there are guitars. And when I say ‘guitars’, I’m not just referring to electric and acoustic guitars, but lumping in other chordophones like banjos, mandolins, resonators and ukuleles as well… which makes for a lot of techniques. The aim of this article is to get us thinking about the best ways to get the sounds we need, by focusing on our ideas and concepts first, then choosing our tools and techniques second, making the process as seamless and inspiring as possible.

Whenever you’re facing a situation with as many creative variables as guitar recording, the most important thing to do is not do anything. That’s right. Before you go plugging anything in, just stop! Spend a minute or two mapping out what you’re trying to achieve with the live take and any upcoming overdubs. Let’s take a country track as an example. Rather than just diving into the guitar tracks, stop and conceptualise them first, then make a detailed list that may read something like this:

• Double tracked acoustic guitars

• Twangy telecaster lead lines

• Long, timed, tremolo strums throughout

• Big grunty chords in the chorus; double tracked

• ‘Scene change’ Leslie guitar line in the bridge

• Guitar solo

• Imitation reverby ‘pedal steel’-type guitar throughout

• Banjo line in verses

• Mandolin in breakdown verse

By my count, that one song could involve up to 11 different instruments, a couple of capos and multiple recording approaches! It’s easy for the process to get convoluted. By laying it out, you have a clear sense of what you’d like to attempt. There’s no guarantee these overdubs will all work, but they will give you a pretty clear starting point, and certainly help you refine your vision as the overdubbing process evolves.

Top Tip: Make a guitar production plan first!

guitars_line-up

This applies to any guitar recording situation; whether you’re a solo singer/songwriter, or play an obscure form of Scandinavian metal. Even better; use sonic references to give the creative team a clearer understanding of when to use different recording techniques.

The most successful guitar sessions begin with a guitarist knowing where they want to go. I may play them a song once and they’ll say, “Telecaster for the main rhythm track with a ‘Mellencamp’ tone; Gretsch into the Vox, heavily compressed, as a secondary rhythm; the Strat into the Boogie with slight phaser for the solo; and 6- and 12-string acoustics, the latter with a capo on the 5th fret panned left and right to give that rhythmic shimmer.” Boom! They’ve basically given me a roadmap for the next two hours of work.

Listen to Keith Urban’s Kiss A Girl for an example of well-planned guitar tones that effectively build the track.

Right-Position

ACOUSTIC INSTRUMENT RECORDING TECHNIQUES & APPROACHES

As a producer, you’ve decided you want some acoustic guitar in your track. But what sort of acoustic sound are you after? Is it a nice and close James Taylor-esque vibe, or a ‘John Lennon-in-1964’ heavy strum, or the more ambientWar-era U2 acoustic guitar bashing? Behind these choices are three very different approaches but each starts with choosing the right instrument.

While electric guitars come in a variety of shapes and configurations that are easy to delineate from each other, acoustic guitars generally all have a similar configuration — body, sound hole, neck. And while a $200 acoustic may not look that dissimilar to a $50,000 acoustic, they’re often incredibly different beasts. Fortunately, as an engineer, there’s a few simple things you can get into the habit of doing to peel away the veneer and mother of pearl inlays and get at the sound.

The easiest is to just listen. If you have a general idea that your guitarist is going to gently finger-pick, get them to play something stylistically similar while they’re working parts out. Walk around in front of the guitarist — up close, pulled back a little further, near where the neck joins the body, down at the base of the instrument — and listen. If there’s a few different guitar options, get the guitarist to change them around every 20 seconds or so. I guarantee it will take you only about one minute, and in that time you’ll be able to make a decision about which guitar is the right one, where it sounds best and whether the part is working with your own ideas.

Conversely, if they’re playing a harder, heavier strumming part, step back even further and listen to how it’s exciting the room. You’ll also be able to work out quickly whether you want the sound to feel up close and tactile, or more ambient and enveloping.

A trap is thinking that just because a guitar is big with a commensurately big sound, it’ll sound ‘big’ under the mics. One of the most impressively loud and expensive-sounding acoustics I’ve owned came across as overly boomy, undefined in the mid range and hollow in the top end when recorded. Conversely, I have a moderately-priced acoustic that has a more closed and confined tone, and mics love it both up close and far away. Guitarists feel comfortable playing it too, because they can play hard into it without fear of the sound ‘running away’ from them.

Top Tip: First and foremost, find an acoustic that works for the part you have planned.

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RIGHT POSITION & RIGHT MIC

Picking the right mic for the job requires even more listening. I generally prefer large diaphragm condenser microphones on acoustics, especially for a big bold tone. But small diaphragm condensers give a different sense of focus and sometimes a cleaner top end. I’m always wary of proximity effect particularly on closer finger-picking, but even on the big strummy stuff. Too much bottom end is going to over work your compressor before it hits tape. I’ll often put my condenser mic into omni and move it much closer to the guitar, eliminating proximity effect while keeping the tonal focus of the top end. For more robust-sounding tracks, I love dynamic microphones pushed hard into a compressor. And of course, one of my favourite acoustic sounds is multiple guitarists all playing the same chords around one mic in omni, triple tracked!

Guitar-mic-diagram

Top Tip: Pick a mic with the right focus, but try an omni pattern if proximity effect is bringing the boom.

So how do you find that sweet spot for the mic? When I’m playing an acoustic guitar track, I’ll put up an appropriate mic (which can change) in a general position. But then, while tuning, practicing an idea or talking to the artist about the part, I’ll find myself moving around the mic. If my chair has wheels (which it almost always does), I’ll be changing my angle, my distance, sometimes even the whole positional relationship to the mic while listening with headphones on. Somewhere in all this shuffling around, I’ll find the sweetspot where the combination of the instrument, the mic and the air sound as close as possible to the sound I’ve conceptualised. At that point I freeze, and make a mental note of the position.

If I had to spell out a starting position, it would be with the mic at a 45-degree angle to the point where the guitar neck meets the body. But I always move around from that position. Sometimes I end up close to the guitar with a more acute angle. Other times I end up 90 degrees on axis, but back a metre! This part of the process is critical for you to dial in the right sound.

Top Tip: Swivel on a chair around the mic until you find the right spot for your guitar.

One-Mic-or-Two-a

ONE MIC OR TWO, OR MORE?

I’ve always found the more ‘strummy’ the part is, the less mics you need. Conversely I almost always use more than one mic for lighter finger-picked parts. Often it will be in a classic two-mic configuration, of one near the neck and the other behind the strumming hand, pointed at the lower bout of the instrument’s body. In this case, the second mic is supporting the first, and, because the sound will have a lot more bottom end, I may use a more ‘narrow’ mic, like a dynamic or a small diaphragm condenser. Generally I’ll pan the two mics hard left and right, resulting in a moderately narrow stereo image with a little stereo movement. Listening to James Taylor’s crystal clear finger-picking style on Carolina On My Mind, it sounds like the engineer used a two mic combination to capture the clarity of his articulation without sacrificing the body of the guitar tone. The guitar seems to have just enough width to indicate the two mics were probably panned hard left and right.

Another alternative might be to use a good mic/bad mic combination. Once you’ve found your sweet spot, put your good mic there, and supplement it with something weird, like a crusty dynamic, or ribbon mic or something really obtuse like the Copperphone. I’ve even put up a mic with a busted diaphragm and combined it with the original ‘good’ tone. You’ll be surprised at how much of this ‘bad mic’ you end up using. Seconds by U2 is an example of a guitar tone that has been chosen to feel grittier and tactile. Perhaps a combination of a smaller, boxy-sounding guitar and a dynamic mic.

I regularly mix sessions that come in with two tracks of acoustic guitar. I assume they’re two takes, but it’s actually one guitar with two mics playing big strummy parts intended to ‘lift’ the choruses. Panning these tracks hard left and right usually results in a big slab of mono, right where the vocals and bass are sitting in the mix. My recording approach is to double track the strummy acoustics to lift a section, rather than expecting a stereo configuration to do that job. Conversely, if you’re looking for intimacy in your finger-picking, double-tracking may not only depersonalise the part, but also be quite time consuming; stereo miking may be more appropriate.

Top Tip: Multiple mics can give width to a detailed finger-picking part, but try double-tracking heavy strumming if you want width.

Drawing-the-lower-string


CAPOS

Some people love them, other people not so much. I love them because they allow you to play chord progressions in easier to play positions with more open chords. These sorts of chords tend to ring out more fully, yielding a more substantial tone. Double-tracked guitars make a great case for slapping a capo on one side, showering you in rich harmonics and good overtones, and helping emphasise the size of your acoustic contribution.


COMPRESSING THE LIFE INTO IT

Compression can be vital for turning an unamplified acoustic guitar sound into something larger than life. There’s no rules for this. Some will favour transparency, while others want to hear the gain reduction. I’m firmly in the latter group. Ensure your attack times aren’t completely killing the front of your strumming or picking, and your ratios help determine how aggressive your compressor will sound. The acoustic guitar on Steve Earle’s Transcendental Bluesis being smashed with loads of gain reduction, effectively electrifying this acoustic tone.

Going even further back to John Lennon’s acoustic guitar tones on The Beatles’ records, what you’re generally hearing is a Neumann U47 into an Altec or Fairchild compressor, being hit pretty hard with a moderate attack, then adding the tape machine’s own saturation on top before hitting the master bus compressor again at mix time. These various layers of compression, in combination with a killer right-hand strumming technique, are a huge part of the sound of The Beatles’ records throughout their career.

Top Tip: Compression can make an acoustic sound larger than life, but watch those attack times if you want to hear that pick.

DRAWING THE LONGER STRING

These concepts are all applicable for the rest of the pack like High Strung/Nashville guitars (a 6-string with only the thinner strings from a 12-string pack), banjos, resonator guitars or mandolins. Listen to the instrument, place the right mic where it needs to be, and work out if it’s a single or double mic track, or a double-tracked overdub. Be wary that the sound may emanate from a different part of the instrument. For example, Resonator guitars and banjos seem to come across better with a mic closer to the bridge. Some open back banjos even sound better from the rear of the instrument. Mandolins may sound better with the mic nearer to the F hole. There’s no magic technique — just define the sound, and move around until you get close to it.

Conceptualisation is just as important with electrics as it is with an acoustic track. There’s simply a bigger arsenal: guitars, pedal boards and amplifiers, both real and virtual. The tonal combinations a good guitarist can access is astounding.

Gearing-Up

GEARING UP

When I’m called in to do sessions, there are some default colours I need to have covered. For an album project, it wouldn’t be unusual to take at least six guitars. Remember, the actual guitar is your first physical point of creative connection with the part you’re about to play. If an instrument inspires you to play in a way that suits your production aesthetic, you are truly halfway there.

To cover the bases for an album recording project, I would usually take the following:

• A guitar with humbuckers for thicker tones — perhaps a Les Paul or SG.

• A guitar with single coil pickups — usually a Telecaster.

• Something in between — either a Grestch or something with P90 pickups.

• One or two ‘specialty guitars’ — a 12-string, or a guitar with a higher action for slide playing.

• A guitar with a weird combinations of pickups — my current favourites are Goldfoil pickups; or a specific tone — like a Rickenbacker.

• A B-Bender if I’m doing a country song that requires it.

Even though guitarists often agonise over their pedal boards, if you’re a producer/engineer it’s worth having a few trustworthy basics on hand. A couple of different overdrive/distortion options, and a delay and tremolo can regularly get you out of a bind. Do some research into the boxes that regularly appear on good guitarist’s boards, and invest in your own board. It can save a situation when the guitarist is struggling to nail his own combination.

It’s a similar story with amps. Once upon a time you needed to have a few amps around to cover as many bases as possible. These days, I have a couple of amps, but also know my way around amp simulators. If you’re struggling to get the tone you want from your amp, plug in a DI to stop the session from stagnating and get a ‘placeholder’ sound that you can refine within your DAW or re-amp when the pressure’s off. A lot of guitar players are still on the fence about the validity of amp simulators, but they’re pretty good these days, and rather than being in a situation where you have to choose between one or the other, embrace both worlds and make them work for you in the creative environment.

Top Tip: There’s a lot of electric guitar gear to choose from, so if you’re a producer, make sure you have the basics well covered, including handy virtual options.

GUITAR AMPS: IS SIZE EVERYTHING?

Once upon a time, it was assumed the only way to get a big sound in the studio was through a big amp turned uploud. But as guitar recording has evolved, so has our approach to amp size. The ‘secret’ to recording any guitar amp is to find its ‘sweetspot’ — the point where it is being pushed in its circuitry hard enough to sound big and full. Below this point volume-wise, the amp is being under worked, which is rarely the sound you want. Beyond the magic gain area, the amp goes in to a form of distress, which may be exactly what you want.

While I don’t have any issue with louder amps, an amp with a moderate output will generally do the trick in the studio. Getting a 30-50W amp into its sweet spot will usually give you what you need. A lot of guitarists and engineers find smaller amps more manageable in the studio; you can get the right gain level without ear-bleeding volume issues.

Not all amps sound the same. Here’s a small list of a few iconic examples of popular guitar amps and their users:

Vox AC30 – The Beatles, Brian May, The Edge.

Fender Dual Showman, Deluxe, Twin – Keith Richards, James Burton, Mike Bloomfield, Pete Townshend, Neil Young.

Marshall – Angus Young, Billy Joe Armstrong, Eddie Van Halen.

Top Tip: Get to know the level where your amp is happiest and record that!

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MIC IT UP

Assuming we’re plugging into our amps and we have our first killer sound coming out of our cabinet, it’s time to put some mics up and get recording. I know one main thing; if it doesn’t sound great at the source, there’s nothing an engineer can do to fix it. And if it sounds great it’s hard to mess it up! I can’t stress how important it is to make sure the sound is the right sound coming out of the amp. Don’t be scared to get down to speaker level to listen. A lot of guitarists only ever hear their amp pointing at the back of their legs. When you put a mic on the speaker cone, they often complain about the sound being too bright. So before you put any mics up, it is essential to go and listen to the guitar amp every time!

Once you have listened and made any necessary adjustments, go back and think about what you had in mind for the sound of this particular guitar part. Think about not only the tonal aspects, but also ambient aspects. Does it need to feel fleshy and tactile and close, or a bit more roomy and ambient? These desired characteristics will have a huge influence on your mic selection and positioning. Not only that, go up moderately close to the amp and just move your head around and back a bit. You’ll soon find some spots where the sound seems to have a ‘purer’ voice. I usually recommend putting a mic there, wherever that might be, regardless of whatever else you do!

Top Tip: Get your ears down to the speaker level to find the sweet spot and put a mic there.

TUNE YOUR EARS

Having a reliable tuner plugged in and ready to go at all times is critical in a recording situation. Encourage your guitar players to check tuning regularly. Never assume that just because all strings are in tune at the open string that you’ll be in tune once you start playing chord shapes. It’s a much better idea to get used to being in tune at the open strings, then running through the combination of chords and shapes you’ll play during the song and see if they’re in tune, adjusting and ‘averaging’ your tuning so you can get through the song. You’ll soon start to find ways to shape their chord positions to sound more ‘in tune’.

There’s nothing worse than listening back to guitar parts where every time a D chord is played you realise the A note on the second fret of the G string is out of tune. Train your ears to be vigilant in spotting tuning issues, get used to the tricks to make guitars feel more in tune — like different chord shapes and positions — and don’t be scared to retune troublesome guitars and drop in every time there’s an out of tune D chord.


I’ve tried many different approaches to amp miking. For a long while, I would put a single mic back a metre or so, in the spot where the sound waves of the amp have developed a bit more. The mic is usually a dynamic, but not always — it’s not unusual to use a large diaphragm condenser in this spot. If the amp sounds good, it’s a simple way to capture a realistic representation. The other technique I’ve been using is to combine two very different tonal mics together reasonably close to the speaker cabinet. It always involves one ribbon mic, which is usually a little duller, pointed right at the centre of the speaker, in combination with another more ‘toppy’ mic. Usually that’s a Shure SM57, but it may also be a large diaphragm condenser, and this will be a little away from the centre of the speaker, to soften the tone a little. The critically important factor is that the diaphragms of both mics have to be at the samedistance from the speaker, to maintain the phase relationship between the mics. This way you’re getting the best of each mic representing the best bits of the amp sound.

The thing I love about this technique is that, if recorded on to two tracks on a DAW, they essentially act as ‘bass and treble’ representation of the guitar sound, that you can balance appropriately against the track as your production develops. In other words, if at some point the guitar sound is a bit too gnarly, reduce the 57 and favour the ribbon mic, and vice versa if the sound is too cloudy or thick. These slight 3-5dB changes when you’re balancing the guitars against each other in the production can go a long way, without you having to reach for an equaliser!

Top Tip: Try balancing the sound of two different mics to give you the right blend, rather than reaching for an EQ.

Lastly, you might want to consider a ‘room mic’. Often I record guitar amps in our vocal booth, so there’s usually some sort of vocal mic already plugged in, going to a preamp and compressor. When I need a guitar sound to have a little more ‘air’ I’ll open up that channel onto another track. Sometimes it can be left where it is. But other times I’ll go and point it away from the amp, put it into an omnidirectional pattern, or push it right up against the window or into a corner for some weird reflections. If you do this, always check the phase.

I use this a lot when I’m going for that Neil Young Alabama sound — often I’ll put a delay only on the ambient mic to separate it a little further from the close mics, and maybe even pan the close mics one way and the delayed room mic the other for maximum width. It can be a fun way to push your guitar sound beyond just a good sound into something really special.

Top Tip: Try adding a room mic for a bit more air. Get fancy with some delay to push it even further away.

Mic-it-up


LAYERING IS THE NEW DYNAMICS

Having an understanding of how guitars are layered is a critical component to producing better guitar tracks. The two examples by Green Day and Everclear are virtual masterclasses in guitar layering, with each layer having a slight tonal and drive variation, resulting in the dynamics of both songs changing, pushing and pulling, and building.

When you’re mapping out your guitar parts at the start of your session, discuss whether you’ll be building up the song with overdubs or going for a simpler ‘guitars and a solo’ approach like The Black Crowes’Remedy.


EQ & COMPRESSION

If everyone has done their job right, at this point you should barely have to do anything! Bring the mics into some good preamps that you know and trust. I don’t usually EQ these mics at all, beyond possibly a hi-pass filter at between 80-110Hz. In terms of compression, my own ‘rule’ is simple — the cleaner the guitar tone the more compression you need! So for those clean funky rhythm parts, don’t be scared to get the gain reduction knobs moving as you track, and play into the sound. But for the big rock things where you’re overdriving your amp, keep the sound big and open, and let the amp breathe.

Mr Tambourine Man by The Byrds is an early example of deliberately using studio compressors to influence a guitar tone, with the sound being run into several compressors to flatten the dynamics of the playing. The moderate attack and release time, and high ratio of compression provide maximum note articulation and sustain, unheard of before on the electric guitar. It’s a masterclass in guitar compression!

Top Tip: Electric guitar recording doesn’t require much post work. But sometimes compression can create a different sense of movement.

LAYING IT DOWN

At this point, you’re largely ready to roll. With preparation like this, not much can go wrong. Just keep checking your tuning, and sit back on the groove! A lot of musicians have a tendency to push the front of the beat pretty heavily. That’s fine if that’s the vibe you’re going for. But in general, make sure they’re hearing their overdub in a good balance with the rest of the track, and remind them to listen and sit in with the existing tracks. It’ll make your tracks feel like they have more authority and confidence, and make them easier to work with.

Whatever you do, just remember to think about what you’re doing first. Then make sure your sound is happening and your guitar in tune. After all that, recording the guitar is the easy part.

Originally published here: http://www.audiotechnology.com.au/wp/index.php/how-to-resonate-with-guitar-recording-part-1/ and here: http://www.audiotechnology.com.au/wp/index.php/how-to-resonate-with-guitar-recording-part-2/

LANDR DJ Engine: Mastering For Your DJ Sets

Back in December 2014, a new automated mastering service, LANDR, launched – allowing producers to submit unmastered WAVs and MP3s to an online algorithm that quickly processes the track and produces a basic mastering of their song. Now the company has launched a new service, in partnership with Native Instruments and Serato, that masters full DJ sets. Read on for the details, a listen-for-yourself comparison, and a quick Q+A with the LANDR team.

How Does This All Work?

Waiting for a preview in the LANDR app

Waiting for a preview in the LANDR app

To get started mastering a DJ set with LANDR, you have to first download their desktop companion app – it’s a small download and is primarily an uploading tool. Something cool that the app enables are Bounce Folders – folders on your computer where the app is watching for new files to appear, and it will automatically upload those files to LANDR when they appear.

  • When you’ve finished a DJ mix, simply upload the audio file with the app
  • LANDR will create a 30 second preview so you can “try before you buy” (DJ sets are free to master as a temporary promotion for the new service) – this takes a few minutes.
  • You choose a final format for your mastered set (WAV, MP3, etc)
  • The file processes with their service and creates a final mastered file to download to your computer.

Before And After: LANDR DJ Mix Mastering Compared

I decided that the best way to get a good idea of how well LANDR’s DJ mix mastering algorithms work would be to run one of my own mixes through it and hear the results firsthand. So here’s the before and after comparison with a drum and bass mix that I recorded last year. Worth noting that on the original, below, I only did some basic mixing adjustments after recording it – primarily to compensate for turning up the gain at one point. Other than that, no mastering was applied to the mix.

Before / No Mastering: 

After (LANDR DJ Set Mastering):

You can also take a look at the two files compared side-by-side in Audacity below – (mastered version on top) and it’s clear that LANDR has done a significant amount of work to the volume and dynamics. But what do YOU notice when comparing the two mixes? Let us know your thoughts in the comments at the end of the article.

Screen Shot 2016-04-06 at Apr 6.11.40 PM

The two sets compared (LANDR’s version on top)

Originally posted here: http://djtechtools.com/2016/04/06/landr-dj-engine-master-dj-sets-free/

 

7 Tips to Humanize Your EDM Productions

7 Tips to Humanize Your EDM Productions

Electronic music — some love it, some hate it. Those who love it tend to love the big diverse sounds and the intensity. Those who hate it typically describe it as repetitive, mechanical, or even fake.

So, what can we do to enlighten those who would call EDM boring? Well, my approach is to bring humanity back into electronic music.

Here are a few of my favorite techniques for bringing new life into EDM productions:

1. Loosen Up the Timing

Humanizing the timing, particularly on drums, is one of the best ways to give your otherwise rigid sounding tune some groove.

There are a couple of ways to do this. Moving everything slightly off grid manually, while tedious, gives you the most control over the groove. The fast option would be to use the humanize option in your DAW if it has one.

Don’t restrict yourself to just drums though, you can humanize pretty much anything. My favorite thing to loosen up is piano.

Changing the velocity of each note and offsetting the timing of each chord by a few milliseconds can really bring your piano into reality (more on this in tip #4.)

2. Play Slightly Out of Tune

I know this one sounds crazy but stay with me!

When recording live instruments, there is always a probability of them being just ever so slightly out of tune. Even if you tune between every take, strings may stretch or intonation may be slightly off. This just adds to the “liveness” of the track.

If you take a tuner and watch the pitch on a vintage analog synth, you will see that the pitch fluctuates slightly. This is one of the reasons old synths have so much charm. To recreate this, try tuning your synths a cent or two sharp or flat; better yet, try adding a slow LFO that slightly modulates pitch.

Subtlety is key here — too much and the track will just sound sloppy. The idea is to add just a subtle touch of realism, but not enough to sour it.

3. Real Instruments

I am lucky enough to have a late 19th century Steinway piano in my studio that frequently finds it’s way into my productions. Even if you don’t have a real piano, you can still use real instruments.

Electric guitar is an obvious choice, as is live bass.

Apart from those, try adding some real percussion. Shakers, tambourines and claps are easy to track and will beat pre-fabricated loops most of the time. If you’re feeling adventurous, grab a mic and find some random sounds to record. I once made an awesome bass pluck by recording an aluminum tube dropping vertically onto a rubber mat with an SM57.

4. Play the Parts

I always seem to write better melodies and chord progressions when I play them on a keyboard as opposed to writing them in a keyroll. Even if you aren’t a master on the keyboard, record your MIDI data and use that. This will save quite a bit of effort and you’ll spend less time working on tip #1.

Play around on different instruments to find new inspiration. A melody written on guitar will give you a completely different feel, even if you later transcribe it to a keyboard-based instrument.

5. Get Out of the Box

Most electronic music is produced entirely in the box these days, and while digital is sounding better than ever, you can still add some warmth to your sound by taking it into the analog domain.

Guitar pedals are great on synths and most of the time they force you to collapse the sound into mono which by itself can add a cool aesthetic to the sound.

I love running bass patches through a Boss CE-1 chorus pedal. Another option is to have your music mastered by an engineer that uses hardware, just to give it that special edge.

6. Vocals

It may seem obvious, but so many EDM tracks are left as instrumentals. Bringing a fantastic vocalist into the mix usually turns a good song into a great song. If the song is already sounding huge, have your vocalist sing in the breakdowns and let the drop work as the chorus.

Try experimenting with mixing as well. To contrast a spacey mix, try having the vocals quite dry. Alternately, if the song is tightly produced and has a very clean sound, adding loads of delay and reverb can create a cool effect.

I’m a sucker for tape delay on vocals. Check out Gabriel & Dresden’s remix of Way Out West’s “Mindcircus.”

Even if the vibe of the song doesn’t lend itself to regular vocals, try a vocoder or talkbox, or put some crazy effect chains on your own voice.

The human voice is an amazing instrument and even if you mangle it with effects, it still adds an otherwise unobtainable humanity to music.

7. Dynamics

In electronic music, it’s pretty easy to get away with heavy compression on just about everything. While the pumping may help give the track a higher perceived volume, the lack of dynamics may also take some life away, especially on larger sound systems.

If your target audience is in a club or at a festival, back off on the compression, especially on the 2-buss.

To get back some of the loudness that you might lose if you dial back the compression, try using a saturator, particularly on the high-mids. Of course this runs the risk of addingharshness, so, as with many of these tips, subtly is key.

Bringing it All Together

Sometimes all your production needs is a touch of life to get things meshing. Try these tricks and see what they can do for you.

Originally published here: http://theproaudiofiles.com/7-tips-to-humanize-your-edm-productions/

What is Mastering in 2016?

What is Mastering in 2016?

All mastering techniques aside, mastering has gotten rather complex in the last 10 to 15 years when it comes to outputting final master files for all potential release formats.

In the 90’s, vinyl and cassette sales were nearly non-existent compared to previous and future decades (who would have guessed?), and the Internet was far too primitive to be considered a means of professional or legitimate music distribution. This meant that the mastering engineer’s primary focus in the 90’s was the compact disc, and pretty much only the compact disc.

Back in the day, there was a clear divide between a recording/mixing studio and a dedicated mastering studio. When the loudness war was in its early stages, you pretty much had to use a dedicated mastering engineer to avoid having a weak and quiet sounding master compared to professionally mastered albums. The tools needed to enter the loudness war (and most mastering tools in general) were not easily accessible or practical for a recording/mix engineer to own in most cases.

These days, it’s extremely easy to obtain the tools needed to create your own masters if you have the confidence, knowledge, and skills, using nothing more than a computer and the right plugins/software. I don’t necessarily advise it, but it’s certainly possible, which is pretty remarkable when you think about how things were 20 years ago.

People were still making vinyl in the 90’s but since the loudness war wasn’t too extreme for the majority of the 90’s, a lot of compact disc masters translated well enough to vinyl to call it good. I think the digital loudness war prompted mastering engineers to make special vinyl pre-masters because loud digital masters are usually far too loud to be considered “vinyl friendly”. I’ll explain that in more depth later in this article.

Digital Distribution Age

Napster and other peer-to-peer file sharing services popped up around 1999, but nobody was considering Napster’s technical limitations when mastering an album. Internet bandwidth was still a major limitation for uploading and downloading larger files. I believe that’s why the bar was set so low for compressed/lossy file formats to begin with. These days, most broadband and even LTE cellular data connections can comfortably stream 320kbps audio, and downloading full WAV files of an album is generally a quick process. Many Internet providers in the US still tend to skew upload speeds to be noticeably slower than download speeds though which is annoying for those that do more uploading than downloading.

In 2003 the iTunes Store launched, but again, mastering for compact disc was the mastering engineer’s primary focus, and digital distribution was more of an afterthought. It’s hard to say when, but sometime around 2009 I started noticing people caring specifically about the master files that were submitted for online distribution, and how they might differ from the “normal” CD master. I think what expedited this is when people largely stopped actually listening to CDs and merely imported the CD into their iTunes library and never again touched the actual CD.

In recent years, mastering for digital distribution has been broken down even more, as you can optimize master files for each retailer if you really want to get technical. Unfortunately, as it sits now, the same master WAV file you submit to CD Baby/Tunecare/Orchard etc. will be used for the standard iTunes release (not to be confused with Mastered For iTunes), Amazon, Google Play, Spotify and all others so you really have to pick your battles about how to optimize your masters.

It’s honestly kind of a mess, but it’s a good mess and it’s worth understanding if you are a mastering engineer, or the last person in charge of master files for a project (mastering engineer by proxy).

Although its complicated my job a little bit, I’m a fan of websites like Bandcamp and SoundCloud because they accept higher resolution master files than the 16-bit/44.1k WAV files that are needed for most of the bigger retailers and streaming services at this time.

Mastered For iTunes

There is a special program known as Mastered For iTunes. I admit that when I first heard about Mastered For iTunes, it sounded like a somewhat of a gimmick. It is not a gimmick. I do think that people over-think what it entails though. It doesn’t involve any special EQ techniques, or any wild changes from the basic mastering. The purchaser of your music still receives the same 256kbps AAC file from the iTunes Store that they’d get from any normal iTunes release that isn’t Mastered For iTunes.

The difference is that the master WAV file submitted to the digital distributor for iTunes sales is a 24-bit WAV file at the same sample rate and bit depth as the mastering session (often higher than 44.1k). That WAV file has been tested by the mastering engineer through the same encoder (iTunes+ Codec) that the WAV file will eventually pass through before it’s for sale in the iTunes Store to be sure it qualifies to be a Mastered For iTunes master.

It also future-proofs your master files because as many people have speculated, Apple and other digital distributors may eventually offer high resolution downloads of purchased music and if you have already submitted your masters in this format for Mastered For iTunes, you’re likely good to go already.

The main thing a mastering engineer is looking for when “Mastering For iTunes” is that after the encoding, there are no digital overs or clipping present in the encoded file. What some people don’t realize is that encoding a WAV to mp3, AAC, and other compressed formats will change (increase) the peak levels of an audio file.

This can be problematic when working with a mastered file that is regularly hitting or very near 0dBFS (also known as the digital ceiling), as most modern digital masters do. The most common way to avoid overs/clipping after lossy conversion is to lower the output ceiling of your final limiter. Some limiters have features built in such as oversampling or intersample peak detection to help prevent overs from occurring when they are converted to a lossy format but you still must double check your files to be sure.

All this results in an arguably better and clearer sounding file for the end user. The results are not always night and day, but it’s something worth doing in my opinion. You must be on Apple’s list of approved Mastered For iTunes mastering studios to be able to submit Mastered For iTunes master files.

I hope this changes, but as of this writing, an artist or record company must setup a separate digital release for the Mastered For iTunes version in addition to the basic digital distribution release for all other digital retailers, resulting in more upfront costs.

Apple was smart to get ahead of the curve and come up with the Mastered For iTunes program, and I’m surprised none of the other digital retailers and streaming services haven’t followed suit, because it is effective.

Where is Your Ceiling?

When CDs were king, the unofficial standard was to set your limiter’s output ceiling to -0.2dB to leave a little headroom for cheap digital to analog converters of the day, and to not sound like total garbage and produce easily audible distortion.

To avoid overs and clipping on lossy formats, you may have to lower your limiter’s output ceiling as much as a full decibel depending on the material, how loud you are trying to push it, the target encoded bit-rate, and the settings and features on your specific limiter.

For example, if you set your limiter’s output ceiling to -0.5dB and render a master WAV file, it may not contain any overs when converted to a 320kbps mp3, but may contain lots of overs when converted to 128kbps mp3. It’s really a trial and error process but tools like Sonnox ProCodec have made it so much easier to analyze and optimize masters for various codecs.

You have to consider the target codec bit-rate when thinking about how much to lower your output ceiling. This is where it can get extremely convoluted. A master WAV that works for one digital retailer’s file specs may not work for another. For example, SoundCloud only streams at 128kbps.

SoundCloud accepts 24-bit/native sample rate master files just like Bandcamp does, but with Bandcamp, the customer can choose to download mp3 files higher than 128kbps and a variety of other formats. This opens up a can of worms as far as how to set your limiter’s output ceiling and what to test for. Again, you have to pick your battles and can’t win them all unless you go to extremes with reducing your output ceiling levels.

In my opinion, the better way to avoid clipping and overs when your WAV files are encoded lossy files is to ease up on the initial overall level in the first place, rather than going up only to come back down in the end. As silly as that sounds, it happens a lot with clients that are more obsessed with loudness vs. clarity and dynamics. You know the saying, “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink.”

There may come a time when extreme loudness isn’t a priority anymore with digital audio, and digital masters reach nowhere near 0dBFS. Aside from bringing dynamics and breathing room back to music, this would greatly simplify the issues caused by various lossy encoders because any changes in peak levels for the codec would not endanger the loudest peaks hitting or exceeding 0dBFS.

I’m already seeing a slight downward trend in loudness, and streaming services normalizing to a certain level is making the loudness war less relevant.

Leave Some Headroom

Speaking of loudness and ceilings, one main part of my job as a mastering engineer is communicating with the client to get the best possible files to master from. I personally believe the best file for mastering from is a 32-bit float WAV at the same sample rate as the mixing session, with no digital limiting or clipping applied.

I’ve had people send me all kinds of inappropriate files to master from such as mp3, WMA files, Logic Pro sessions, a physical CD that was already mastered years ago and WAV files that are already as loud or louder than I would have mastered them.

I don’t discourage mix engineers from adding EQ or compression to their master fader/2-buss but once the peak levels start hitting 0dBFS or even clipping, it really paints the mastering engineer in a corner. There’s really nowhere to go from there. I’ve had to reject files or turn away projects because they couldn’t deliver mix files that had any headroom left to work with loudness-wise.

The point here is if you’re going to send a project to a mastering engineer, don’t use limiting and clipping for the sake of loudness. Leave this to the mastering engineer, especially if you want them to use their analog equipment. If you’re attached to the limiting, clipping, or extreme processing that may have applied to your mixes, I recommend sending that version as well as a version without the loudness processing and let the the mastering engineer decide which to work from.

In these cases, I normally work with the version that doesn’t have limiting/loudness processing applied, but having the mix engineers “rough mastered” version helps me understand what the client is used to hearing and provides an idea of what to shoot for.

I have had some projects where the files are so loud and maxed out that all I could do is put the album in sequence, enter the CD-Text/Metadata and render the master files. There was no room or need to do anything else. In these cases, I asked not to be credited for mastering because I had nothing to do with the sound of the album.

I could write an entire article about this topic but the bottom line is that if you plan to hire a mastering engineer, leave them some room to work with. It’s in the best interest of both parties.

Software Talk

I read a lot of audio forums and people frequently mention that they’re mastering in Logic, or Cubase, Pro Tools etc. That’s fine, you can do the sonic aspect of mastering in any DAW really, but I highly recommend using a specialized mastering DAW/audio editor for the final sequencing and rendering various master files.

I personally use Pro Tools for phase one of my mastering process and run unmastered material through my analog mastering chain. I usually apply some plugins to the audio before it hits my analog chain but not always.

For phase two of the mastering process I use WaveLab, a dedicated mastering application. With something like WaveLab, you can easily sequence the album, add track markers and all the CD-Text/metadata and then render all your master file formats.

I apply a final digital limiter and dither in WaveLab as well as any subtle EQ tweaks or slight adjustments in levels of a certain song or portion of a song, but any major changes to a song or song(s) usually requires reprinting through the analog gear. I like the hybrid analog/digital workflow that I have set up.

There are lots of great sounding plugins available these days but I haven’t found anything yet that rivals gently or moderately clipping the input of my Crane Song HEDD A/D converter to achieve loudness and generate harmonic distortion, especially for more aggressive sounding music. I’m sure I’ll be mastering all in the box someday but now is not the time for me.

Once I have each song for a project printed through my analog chain back into Pro Tools, cleaned up, properly trimmed and named, I then load the files into WaveLab and finalize the project.

I chose Pro Tools for the first step in my mastering workflow only because I spent 10+ years as an engineer/producer using Pro Tools so I can edit and trim files very quickly in Pro Tools. I also really like the playlist feature in Pro Tools for quickly reverting to previous untouched versions of a file, or different variations of a file. Also, the AudioSuite function is great for doing spot processing operations such as noise reduction, click removal, and other repair work. Using the AudioSuite version of iZotope RX5 in Pro Tools for this type of work is very powerful and WaveLab doesn’t quite have the same workflow possibilities as Pro Tools does regarding playlists and AudioSuite.

With all the various tweaks and specs needed for different release formats, your life will be easier if you are using a mastering DAW that is designed to sequence an album and spit out a variety of formats such as DDP, 16-bit/44.1k WAV, 24-bit/native sample rate WAV, reference mp3s, and special vinyl and cassette pre-masters while keeping the things that need to have cohesion intact between all formats, like spacing between songs and CD-Text/Metadata.

Sample Rate Conversion

Much like converting a WAV to mp3, changing the sample rate of a WAV file such as converting a 96k WAV to 44.1k WAV can increase the peak levels ever so slightly. Again, this is usually only a potential problem on material that is extremely close to the digital ceiling. A WAV file with a maximum peak value of -0.2dB could actually have peak levels higher than 0dBFS after sample rate conversion is applied depending on the variables.

This is another reason to use a dedicated mastering DAW that can easily handle all sample rate conversions before your final limiter where you typically set the final output ceiling to your liking. Doing the sample rate conversion before the final limiter helps maintain your final output level.

I personally use 3rd party software for sample rate conversions. Typically speaking, most DAWs and even some dedicated mastering software do not have what is considered “mastering grade” sample rate conversion. I normally prefer the transparent processing of Weiss Saracon for sample rate conversion but some other good options are the iZotope Resampler found in their RX bundle, or Goodhertz SRC found in Audiofile Engineering products such as Myriad (formerly Sample Manager) and Triumph.

If you want to learn more about sample rate conversion quality and variables, I suggest this website: Infinite Wave

The Art Of The Vinyl Pre-Master

The last thing I’ll touch on in this article is the art of the digital vinyl pre-master. I’ve already written an extensive article on how important the lacquer cutting process is when pressing vinyl.

I acknowledge that pressing vinyl on your own or with a small record label (especially for the first time) can be intimidating, confusing, and time consuming compared to a CD/digital release. I can see the attraction in just handing the entire project off to a broker, middleman, or pressing plant sales person and letting them deal with it all, but their job is really to sell plastic in a cardboard sleeve as quick, cheap, and easily as possible. This approach is usually not in the best interest of your audio quality. There are a few pressing plants that do good lacquer cutting in-house but that’s a rare exception.

There is a critical step between your digital mastering engineer and the actual vinyl pressing, and that is the initial lacquer cut (or DMM for those pressing plants that use that process instead of lacquers). There are lacquer cutting engineers that specialize in this process that have no pressing plant affiliations. Their sole job is to transfer your digital vinyl pre-master to a production lacquer, which is the first step in the vinyl manufacturing process. From there, metal plates also known as stampers are made to do the actual vinyl pressing. All of these steps can have a major influence on the sound of your record and should not be overlooked.

The best digital vinyl pre-master in the world can still be destroyed in the lacquer cutting process if it’s not carefully and skillfully done. I see too many clients take the cheap and easy way out and send their audio to a pressing plant or broker and let them handle the entire process.

The digital vinyl pre-master typically translates best when it’s not pushed as loud as your digital master may be. The loudness of the actual vinyl result is not related to how loud the digital pre-master is. The length of the side, RPM and size of the record, and low frequency content are the biggest factors as to how loud and good your vinyl will sound. In fact, a digital vinyl pre-master that is very loud with high RMS level and low dynamic range can actually appear quiet and wimpy compared to something with a more natural dynamic range and RMS level.

A good lacquer cutter will use their skills and knowledge to get the loudest lacquer cut before problems occur if a loud record is your goal. Cutting a lacquer at more conservative levels can minimize sibilance problems, distortion in general, and inner groove distortion on the end of longer playing sides. So unlike pressing CDs, there are still artistic decisions to be made after a mastering engineer like myself hands it off to the next person in the chain.

I tend to create my vinyl pre-masters with more dynamic range and headroom for the lacquer cutter to work with. I remove the digital limiter from the chain in most cases. If I do leave it in, it’s not doing nearly as much as on the digital master.

One potential problem is that depending on your workflow, removing the digital limiter can significantly change the balance of instruments and other things depending on how aggressive you have set the limiter. With a typical rock master, removing the limiter can make the drums seem louder and guitars seem quieter because the drum peaks are no longer getting chopped off so abruptly, and the feel of the album can become different.

Aside from these overall level optimizations, I may do some more aggressive de-essing treatment in the center channel on the vinyl pre-master because sibilance that isn’t an issue in the digital world may cause cutting and playback issues in the vinyl world.

One other important variable in the vinyl pre-master world is that lacquers can be cut from high resolution 24-bit files of any sample rate. I always make my vinyl pre-masters at the native sample rate of the mastering session (usually 88.2k or 96k) and they are one continuous file for each side to ensure the spacing between songs stays intact. This is how most lacquer cutters and pressing plants prefer to receive the audio. I also make a PDF file to accompany each audio file so the cutter knows where songs start and end; something that is not always as obvious as you’d think.

Dos And Don’ts When Pressing Vinyl

There are a handful of pressing plants that for various reasons, ask the client to submit the vinyl pre-master on an audio CD. This is arguably bad because there is no need to reduce the audio to CD quality since vinyl being analog, has an infinite sample rate and bit-depth whereas CDs are stuck at 16-bit/44.1k sample rate. This is especially true if the lacquer cutter needs to apply some additional digital processing to your audio before cutting. 16-bit/44.1k is a lousy starting point for this. Staying hi-res at 24-bit or 32-bit float and the highest possible sample rate can go a long way.

If you are going to spend the time and money to release your music on vinyl then I strongly recommend working with a lacquer cutter that can cut your lacquers from audio that is better than CD quality, and more importantly, somebody that you can communicate with and you know does good work. Like most things, there are lacquer cutters that specialize in certain styles of music. It would be worth finding out who cut some of your favorite sounding vinyl records. It’s a relatively small world if you research it.

Most lacquer cutters are audiophiles that really care about your project and how it sounds in ways that a pressing plant may not have the time and resources to do so. The ideal scenario is using a lacquer cutter that your digital mastering engineer has a relationship with so all three parties can easily communicate regarding the goals and vision for the vinyl release.

You wouldn’t send your unmastered mixes to a CD pressing plant, let them handle all the mastering, and do a few expensive and time consuming manufacturing steps before listening to it would you?

One other benefit of using a lacquer cutter of your choice is the option to get a reference lacquer/test cut (not to be confused with test pressing) to hear what it sounds like before getting too deep into the project. If anything needs to change with the audio quality, this is the time and place to do it because at this point there is minimal time and cost involved to make changes relatively speaking.

Most people wait until the test pressing to listen to their vinyl project, By the time the test pressings are made so many things have happened (lacquer cutting, plating, test pressing, and lots of waiting) that fixing anything at this point means major backtracking, and likely additional costs and delays.

Because of all these variables, making a digital vinyl pre-master that translates well to the lacquer and ultimately the vinyl itself while still remaining true to the digital master has become an art in itself.

Originally published here: http://theproaudiofiles.com/what-is-mastering-in-2016/