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Archive for the ‘Production’ Category

What The Hell Is 0 dB? (A Quick Word About Decibels)

Posted by Keith Freund On January - 19 - 20124 COMMENTS

(Updated 2/4/12) Despite a formal education and real world training at some serious recording studios, I’ve always been amazed at how far along I had to come as an engineer just to learn some very basic information and points of confusion (a big reason for starting this blog by the way). When you do something for the better part of your life, you sometimes forget how much you really know. That’s part of why the best audio engineers are not always the best teachers.

When I started out, the decibel confused me.

I had read that a jet engine was 140 dB, a library was 30 dB, a rock concert was 115 dB, etc. Why then, I wondered, do digital and analog meters go from negative infinity (silence) to 0 dB (absolute loudest)? And why is it that track faders can go up to +6 or +12 dB?

I’m not going to get into all the gruesome details here, I’m just going to set forth one basic, but extremely important concept: there is more than one kind of decibel.

Decibels in the digital realm are called dBFS or “Decibels Full Scale.” Decibels in the real world (the kind used to measure a jet engine) are called dB SPL or “Sound Pressure Level.”

Now let’s apply this knowledge to a WAV file you might receive back from a mastering engineer. In the end, how loudly people hear your master is going to be determined by the playback system (iPod, car stereo, studio monitors, etc.) and whoever controls the volume knob.* This means that in the real world, even a recording that peaks at 0 dBFS and is -5 dBFS on average (very loud) can be as quiet as a library or as loud as a jet engine upon playback.

So the dBFS of your master really only indicates how loud your song will be relative to other songs when played back under identical circumstances. So if someone plays a Notorious BIG track that’s -8 dBFS on average, and your track is -6 dBFS, you’ll be louder than Biggie every time (unless some asshole decides to turn it down when your song comes on).

dB Adjustments Within Pro Tools and on Actual Recording Consoles

It’s also important to note that when you set your snare drum’s volume fader to +6 dB in Pro Tools or on a console, you’re not making the snare 6 dB SPL, your snare has not become one twenty-third of a jet engine or one fifth of a library. You’re also not making it 6 dBFS (which doesn’t exist) either. You’re just adding 6 dBFS to whatever the sound file’s initial volume was. So if you record that snare into Pro Tools hitting -5 dB on the meters, and set the fader to +4 dB, your snare is now -1 dBFS. And like I said before, the loudest anything can ever be in the digital realm is 0 dBFS. This also called “digital zero.” (Going over digital zero is what causes clipping.)

There are other types of decibels, but these two are the most important to grasp for now.

Any questions?

*Further still, final perceived loudness must also take into account the distance between the listener and the speakers, as well as dB SPL.

UPDATE: The graphic and article have been updated with a more accurate explanation of limiting.

Last night, I was giving one of our mastering clients some mixing advice regarding vocal compression. I thought I’d post the email here for those of you who might still be struggling with the concept (I know I did for years) or to refer your friends to. Also note that this article is about sound compression or even more specifically “dynamic range compression” and should not be confused with data compression (mp3, zip, rar, etc.) This isn’t a comprehensive explanation of compression, you can find that elsewhere. This is just the bare bones essentials.

I used drums instead of vocals in the diagram below because I felt that would be the easiest to understand visually. Click for full size:

What’s the point of compression anyway?

Back in the old days, vocal compression was used for one purpose:

Compression makes the volume of a vocal more consistent overall.
In fact it was originally called “Automatic Level Control.” So if you’re singing or rapping some words louder than others, compression makes for a less drastic volume difference between the loud and quiet parts.

So above all else, vocal compression makes the lyrics easier to understand and helps to keep the words from being drowned out by the music. Obviously you could just turn up the vocal track to solve this problem, but then you’d have a new issue: when the singer hits a loud note it will now be way too loud compared to everything else, startling the listener and causing them to turn it off because they don’t like being startled. Or more likely they just turn it down. And you want people to blast your music right?

How compression works.

It’s pretty simple: Every time the compressor hears a sound that goes over a certain volume level (that’s your “threshold”), it turns down the volume for that moment.

Makeup gain.

After compressing a vocal track, it will be quieter than what you started with. To make up for this lost volume, most compressors have an output volume knob or “makeup gain” knob. (For our purposes, gain and volume are the same thing.)

So although technically compression turns down the loud parts with the quiet parts unaffected, if you raise your makeup gain enough you’ll effectively be turning UP the QUIET parts instead.

Threshold.

As I said before, your threshold is setting the cutoff point. Any word that’s quieter than the threshold will remain untouched. Everything above it will be turned down somewhat. For rap, you probably want to set the threshold so you’re compressing everything but the absolute quietest words. Until you get to the point where you can actually hear compression working (this can take years), you’ll want to use your gain reduction meter for this purpose.

Gain Reduction.

How you set your threshold will be relative to how loudly or softly your vocal was recorded. That’s a big part of why presets are only meant to be used as a starting point. The truly important value to watch is gain reduction, because a gain reduction meter tells you how much your vocal is actually being turned down at any given time.

If your compressor doesn’t have a meter, it’s hard to say where you should set your threshold. As I said before, compression is very hard to hear starting out. And your listeners will only hear it subconsciously. Or they might notice when it’s not there because it sounds like a demo and it’s not as smooth/consistent as a professional mix. But they won’t know why it sounds that way.

Ratio.

After using compression, the loudest notes will still be louder than the threshold, but not as much over it as before (see the diagram above). So post-compression, the difference in loudness between the loud and quiet words will be smaller. That difference is called “dynamic range”  and the ratio determines how drastic that difference is. High ratios (8:1 for example) make for a smaller range. Small ratios (2:1 or 3:1) will allow a bigger range.

Compression Today and the Effects of Attack & Release.

Today, compression is still used to make lyrics more understandable, but back in the day it pretty much only had one knob. More compression, or less. Today you’ve got more controls, so you can have different flavors of compression using attack and release. At the risk of oversimplifying, here’s the effect attack and release settings have on vocals:

Shorter attack and release times (smaller numbers) will make vocals sound more “energetic,” louder, and will also bring out the breaths between words.

Longer attack and release times (higher numbers) will make the sound “punchier” which obviously isn’t as important for vocals as it is for other instruments like kick and snare.

For vocals, generally you’re going to want the attack to be quicker than the release. It’s not worth getting into why for now. I will occasionally set the release time to its absolute shortest value if I’m having trouble getting a vocal to cut through or going for an extreme effect.

What a Compressor’s Attack & Release Knobs Technically Do (Versus Synthesizers and Drum Machines).

If you’re used to working with synthesizers and drum machines, you may be confused about attack and release settings for compressors. Unlike on a synth, the attack and release settings on a compressor do not tell you the attack and release times of the instrument the compressor is affect. You’re setting the attack and release of the compression itself.

Compression doesn’t turn on and off instantly. So attack is the length of time it takes your compressor to start compressing at full force. (How long it takes to go from zero to sixty, so to speak.) Release is the amount of time it takes for your compressor to stop compressing.

So what does all this mean in layman’s terms? Let’s say you’re compressing a snare drum and you’ve set a relatively slow attack time–80 miliseconds. And let’s also say you’ve applied this compression permanently to your sound wave and you’re looking at the waveform before and after. Visually, your snare drum probably already had a big volume spike at the beginning which trailed off, but now it will cut off even more abruptly since it was grabbed by the compressor after 80 miliseconds and taken way down in volume. You may hear this resulting sound as a punchier snare drum.

Now let’s say you set the attack to an EXTREMELY slow speed, like 1 second (1000 ms). You’re not going to be compressing the big pop of the snare drum much at all now because that pop lasts less than a second. We’re talking fractions of a second here. So by the time the compression kicks in you’ve already missed that spike.

If you want to control the attack and release of a recorded sound directly (like you would with a synth or drum sample) what you want is an “envelope follower” or “transient modulator,” such as Waves Trans-X, Envelope (built into Logic), or Oxford Transient Modulator. The most popular hardware version of this is called the SPL Transient Designer–for some engineers it was the secret to the 90s drum sound.

Limiting.

Limiting is the final effect in every mastering engineer’s chain but is also commonly used on vocals (most limiters are better suited to certain applications over others).

A limiter is a type of compressor which has an “infinite ratio”* which means that everything that goes above the threshold gets set to exactly the threshold’s level.

The controls on a limiter are also slightly differently from a compressor. Instead of using your threshold to push down the peaks and then compensating afterwards with makeup gain, for limiters you set the input gain, which pushes up the volume of everything at once, while the threshold is fixed at 0. (Go here to get unconfused about decibels.)

The end result is that although everything has been boosted by the same amount in theory, the volume of the quiet parts is effectively increased much more than for the loud parts, because the loud parts were closer to the threshold to begin with, and as I said before, a limiter doesn’t allow anything to get louder than the threshold.

If you’re working with vocals, you’ll probably want to use the limiter’s output gain control (if it has one) to turn the final result down.

A NOTE ABOUT LIMITING PLUGINS: Very confusingly, some of the most popular limiter plugins (including the Waves L1, L2, & L3) call their input gain control a “threshold” and use negative instead of positive values. In fact, the true threshold cannot be controlled at all–it’s fixed. Your L1 threshold is actually an input gain. The reason they’ve set it up this way is because it’s easier to understand visually. Unlike with most analog limiters, many plugin limiters have a vertical volume meter and use sliders instead of knobs. So the slider is positioned beside the volume meter, and you can drag the slider down as you watch the meter bounce in order to visually choose which peaks are limited and which are not. This allows you to use your eyes instead of your ears to decide how aggressively you want to limit something–do you want to flatten out the volume completely or only the loudest peaks? Or somewhere in between?

Feel free to leave questions in the comments.

*Some engineers consider anything with a ratio of over 10:1 to be limiting.


Use Bandcamp To Release Dynamic Versions Of Your Mixes

Posted by Keith Freund On March - 20 - 20103 COMMENTS

For a thorough explanation of dynamic range and the “loudness war,” read: An Explanation of The Loudness War That Even Your Dad Will Understand. But here’s the gist: in order to make a mix louder, mastering engineers have to increase the volume of the softest points in the music to be closer to the loudest points. This is called decreasing the dynamic range.

Today, March 20th, has been declared “Dynamic Range Day” by Ian Shepherd, the guy who broke the Death Magnetic / Loudness War story. His proposal? EVERYONE SHOULD TYPE IN ALL CAPS ON TWITTER AND SCREAM EVERYTHING ALL DAY IN ORDER TO SHOW NORMAL PEOPLE HOW ANNOYED THEY SHOULD (THEORETICALLY) BE WITH OVERCOMPRESSED/OVERLIMITED MUSIC… BECAUSE BY YELLING ALL DAY YOU ARE DECREASING THE DYNAMIC RANGE OF YOUR OWN SELF EXPRESSION AND THEREBY PISSING PEOPLE OFF.

From what I understand, the idea is to protest the loudness war, raise awareness, and ultimately persuade others to join the effort to preserve dynamics in future recordings, without the fear of being quieter than everyone else’s record.

Sad_Waves_L2

As musicians and audio engineers, we bitch and moan about a lot of things that 98% of the population really doesn’t care about. But we got them to hate Auto-Tune, didn’t we? While it may be a tougher sell, the “Loudness War” could be next, even if on a smaller scale.

Personally, I’m not as averse to extreme mix compression as some engineers are, but I certainly appreciate big dynamics when it makes sense. The problem is that a bigger dynamic range means lower average loudness (RMS). And loudness is one of the few things non-musicians notice about our line of work. (They only notice it when it’s too quiet, which apparently makes the song sound “amateur” to them.)

TurnMeUp.org is proposing that artists release more dynamic recordings and display their “Turn Me Up!” logo in the packaging.

Turn_Me_Up_Logo_Small

But I’d like to suggest an alternative to experiment with:

Let your fans decide what they want using Bandcamp’s “hidden tracks” feature.

Bandcamp is by far the coolest and most artist-friendly online music retailer out there. It’s free to sign up, they take no percentage of your sales (except PayPal’s standard transaction fee), and it doesn’t require your fans to create an account in order to purchase your music. (More on Bandcamp at the bottom of this post.)

One of their coolest features is the “hidden tracks” option. This allows you to include songs that your fans won’t be able to preview or purchase individually.

So I’m proposing that you have your mixing or mastering engineer give you two passes for each song. One squashed to living hell and one that is on average about 3 dB less squashed to hell.

Now I know what you’re thinking. “But Keith, Stephanie Status Quo doesn’t know about dynamic range, won’t she just pick the louder versions and get confused about the other ones?” She may. But many of your fans will get curious and do some research. Perhaps you’ll explain it briefly in your liner notes. And if a bunch of artists do this, hardcore music fans will appreciate it, people will start talking about it, and eventually insist that their favorite artists include masters with some dynamic range. That is, if the masses come to a consensus that they don’t like the lack of dynamics in today’s recordings.

It also ties into this power shift in the music industry we’ve been experiencing–away from the major labels and towards the artists. The ‘suits’ mainly cared about whether you got hooked enough in the first few seconds to buy it, so A&R would push mastering engineers to their limits (although artists do this too now). Repeat listens didn’t matter much except for selling the next record. Artists, on the other hand, stand to gain much more if their record is your favorite, not something you forget a week later, because it brings you to their shows, gets you to buy merch–pots that labels don’t have their hands in. If people become more informed on this issue, certain types of artists may rethink how loud they want their record to be, in terms of longevity vs immediate attention grabs.

A Philosophical Counterargument

Another, more subjective counterargument, could be the philosophical one–that artists must be (or at least seem) decisive in how they intend their music to be. This may be valid, but perhaps my proposal would still work as a transitional step. The more awareness that is spread, the less necessary it will be to include louder versions. Plus, blogs will totally blog you for being so innovative, so that’ll make up for it.

I hope some of you will try this out and let us know what the response is. And send links! – blog@fixyourmix.com

The Soundcheck Solution

My solution comes from the artist’s end, Ian’s comes from the artist+listener+engineer end, but there is actually another type of entity that can effect change in this arena: the companies who control the manner in which people listen to music. Audio software developers and hardware manufacturers.

Apple has already helped in the fight against overcompressed records by enabling their Soundcheck functionality by default in iTunes. Soundcheck calculates the average (RMS) loudness of every song in your library and adjusts them accordingly so that all songs will be the same average volume. This means Death Magnetic gets turned down and your record stays the same–but with more punch and dynamics.

More About Bandcamp.com

Here’s why Bandcamp is the only existing online music store that can compete against iTunes and Amazon MP3:

  • Fans don’t have to create an account to purchase music.
  • Flexible sales options:
    • Free
    • Free if the fan provides their email address
    • Artist sets the price
    • Fans name their own price
    • Artist sets a minimum price, but fans can pay more if they choose (Bandcamp says that on average, fans pay 50% more than the minimum price unless you give them a free option)
  • No approval or wait time–songs can be purchased immediately after they have been uploaded.
  • Fans can choose from a number of file formats (MP3, AAC/M4A, FLAC, etc.)
  • No signup fees
  • No percentage taken (except PayPal transaction fees, approx 5%)
  • No ads
  • Embeddable streaming player with advanced song stats (including full vs partial song plays)
  • Allows you to include multimedia content
  • Can optionally embed your lyrics and artwork into the files themselves, which
  • Clean layout. No Myspace-esque clutter or distractions (see Miss Geo’s Bandcamp page)
  • Allows you to create “download codes” for promotional offers and digital sales in person
  • Hidden. Freaking. Tracks.

*One of my first audio-related memories was when I first bought The Cure’s Disintegration. I bought the CD, sat down on my living room couch, popped it into my CD player, put on headphones, and got lost in a swirl of effects and extended instrumental intros as I listened to the album in its entirety (okay technically I fell asleep but it was a great nap). As I listened, I stumbled upon something peculiar in the liner notes:

“This album was mastered to be played loud, so TURN IT UP!”

Now in those days I didn’t know anything about engineering, so I grew curious about what it meant to master an album to be played loud. In the end I decided it was just some BS their audio engineer told them that they decided to run with. And who doesn’t want their fans to blast their album at full volume?

Of course I now know that the reason is because the album had a very large dynamic range and therefore had a lower average loudness (RMS) than other releases at the time.

Audio Editing Tip: Use Compression & EQ

Posted by Keith Freund On February - 7 - 20103 COMMENTS

Editing is sort of like the breakfast of the production process. Although people don’t covet and fetishize it they way they do mixing (the dinner), it is absolutely essential for a well-balanced diet. You might say mastering is the dessert, but I’m inclined to call it a breath mint that you grab on your way out of the restaurant. Or maybe editing is the house salad and pre-production is breakfast since people skip it when they’re in a hurry even though it’s the most important meal of the day and even though they could at LEAST take a Nutri-Gain bar on their way out the door…


meals

Anyway, here’s what I’m really getting at: you wouldn’t eat breakfast and dinner at the same time, would you? That’s gross. To this end, the absolute top of the top mixers (i.e. the ones that charge $10K/song–there are about 20 of them in the world) make sure all of the editing is done before they begin by having their assistants prep all their sessions.*


And that’s how it should be. Not only is it gross to mix and edit at the same time, but multitasking is actually less productive than doing things one at a time. (My freelancer readers will know what I’m talking about here.**) Technical difficulties are the arch-rival of creativity. They will throw you off track and kill your creative flow. So get rid of them ahead of time. But many times you don’t hear things that need editing until the mixing process has already begun.


So whether you’re a mixing a project yourself or handing it off to a mix engineer, the following technique will save you time and headaches by enabling you to quickly simulate a mix and get all the editing done beforehand:

  1. Before you begin editing, put some compression on each track you’re working on and mess with the settings until you’re really, really hearing the compressor work (try using the fastest release and a ratio of 10:1 or higher).
  2. Boost the treble on your master fader with an EQ plugin. A lot. Particularly the 8 to 13kHz range.

There are two reasons why we often don’t find noises and bad edits until the mixing phase. The first is that these noises are generally very quiet and occur during a section where that particular instrument is not sounding. Since compression effectively makes quiet sections louder, the mixing stage can bring noises to the front of the mix which were previously inaudible. For example:

  • The guitar part hasn’t started yet, but the noise of the guitarist putting his hand on the strings makes it onto the recording.
  • The drummer has stopped playing but he moves and his throne squeaks faintly.
  • While editing vocal takes together, you’ve made an edit in the middle of a breath without realizing.
  • You’ve edited guitar solo takes together and made an edit in the middle of a note without cross-fading, creating a pop.

These noises are often audible only in the very highest frequencies, which is why I’m also advocating a treble boost.


More Editing Tips & Common Mistakes

  • I’ve found that rap producers who work in Pro Tools like to edit and consolidate everything exactly to the downbeats, sometimes for looping purposes but other times it’s just an obsessive compulsive thing. DON’T DO THIS. I know it looks gorgeous and symmetrical and all that, but it’s not worth it. Musicians and samples rarely start and end exactly on a beat, so you’re usually harming the attack of the first note and the decay of the last. And by consolidating those edits, you’re also making it impossible to remedy the problem later by cross-fading.
  • Before you consolidate regions in Pro Tools, cross-fade at every edit or cut point, even if only for a fraction of a second. Pro Tools automatically adds tiny cross-fades on edits during playback that are not preserved when consolidating regions.
  • One of John Mayer’s engineers recommended that instead of cross-fading, you should make cut edits by aligning the two sound files at a zero crossing***. I haven’t found that to be effective most of the time, but it’s something to try if cross-fading isn’t working out.


*This includes pitch correction (in the rock world, Melodyne is the tool of choice, not AutoTune), Vocalign for getting background vocals tight, Beat Detective for drums, and fades. Some mid-level producers do their own editing for creative reasons, or sometimes no editor is listed at all (the band must be perfect!)


**Why multitasking is bad: http://freelancefolder.com/5-creativity-killers/


***A zero crossing is that middle line on a waveform that represents 0.

I got an email from my father today directing me to an internet forum debate regarding how over-compression in mastering is ruining music today and I responded with what you’re about to read–the simplest, most easy-to-read breakdown on this topic I could come up with–an explanation that anyone will be able to understand. No flowery or abstract adjectives, just the meat and potatoes. If something still isn’t clear, leave a comment. I’m mostly posting this article to save myself some time (to direct our clients to) but this post may be helpful for other mastering engineers who’d like to do the same.

Note: this post refers to sound compression, not MP3 or zip compression. Learn more about the differences between sound compression and data compression here.

What Is Mastering Compression?

squashed waveform 2

Mastering compression* (“limiting”) reduces the dynamic range of a recording. Dynamic range is the range between the loudest and quietest point in a recording or section of a recording. Dynamics and loudness are inversely proportional: the less dynamic a recording is, the higher the average loudness of that recording can be, and vice versa. Today, there is said to be a ‘Loudness War’ between labels trying to release the loudest records possible.


The Pros and Cons of Loudness


When we’re talking about the consequences of loudness, we’re really talking about two different things:

  • From a macro perspective: A louder/less dynamic recording means all of the sections of the song will be about the same volume. For ‘Verse Chorus Verse’ style songs, the benefit is that the song comes in loud right off the bat and stays loud from section to section. The downside is it means the chorus doesn’t “hit you” or sound as big as it otherwise might because there is little or no change from the verse to the chorus. In fact, if there’s more stuff going on during the chorus, individual elements may actually get smaller. For example, heavily compressed rock mixes tend to have a bigger snare sound during the verses than the choruses.
  • From a micro perspective: Compression from one beat to another is hard for the untrained ear to hear, unless it’s very extreme. And even then it is hard to explain what it is you’re hearing–you just know it sounds bad. At this scale, compression makes the mix sound more “exciting” right away, but if overdone can be fatiguing on the ear to listen to. Perhaps more importantly, the drums will often be less punchy if a mix is more heavily compressed.** A former coworker and assistant to one of my all-time favorite mixers once said to me, “mastering ruins everything.”


Is Louder Better?


There was a psychological study which showed that people consistently prefer recordings that are louder, even by an increment as small as 1 dB, even when they’re not told what the change is. (Anyone want to find the link for me?) If you want an extreme example of over-compression, just listen to the radio. They use a more complex system of compression to get recordings even louder than CDs. And yet for every person who puts up a fuss in the blogosphere/messageboardiverse about mastering ruining music today, I have a memory of someone in my childhood telling me how they like the sound of radio. It just has that magic je ne sais quoi. There have been studies which indicate that loudness has a strong effect on which radio station a person will stop on when channel surfing.


While I consider myself to be more of a ‘new school’ engineer rather than one pining for the days of yore, I sometimes wish more records today had bigger dynamic changes. My favorite example is “Quiet” by the Smashing Pumpkins, which came out in 1993 before the Loudness Wars really began. It will probably be hard to tell on YouTube, but when the guitar solo comes in on the record, the song just gets so much louder. If you already have the song cranked, the solo will hurt your ears a little bit. Now that, ladies and gentlemen, is rock & roll.


For a case study in consumer backlash against loudness, check out my post about the Metallica album Death Magnetic.


*The type of compression I’m talking about here is “limiting”, a specific type of compression that comes at the end of every mastering engineer’s signal chain. I’m using the term compression throughout the post because it will be more familiar to musicians and readers.


**If I know that a project I’m mixing will be mastered by someone else, I usually try to make my drums a little punchier than I want them in order to compensate for the effect that mastering will have, unless I know the mastering engineer tends to go easy on the compression. This is also why it is usually best to select a mastering engineer that your mix engineer has worked with in the past, so that the mix engineer can anticipate what will happen to the mix in the mastering stage and mix accordingly.

Re-thinking the Death of Record Labels: Gigging

Posted by FixYourMix On September - 22 - 20092 COMMENTS

cave01A friend of mine is an exceptionally talented bass player.  He’s played all over the world with musicians from Michael Brecker to Andy Timmons and he’s also an excellent storyteller.  One day we were hanging out and he started reminiscing about this gig he played during apartheid in South Africa.  He began by saying that he had this six-month contract to play as the house band at a nightclub.

 

Everybody listening had to stop him before he made it through his first sentence:  A six-month contract to play at a venue?

 

We were stunned.

 

“Was that just the way they did it in Africa back then?”

 

“No, that’s the way everybody used to do it back then.”

 

Thirty years ago, young local groups were actually contracted to play at a venue for numerous dates at a time.  Allegedly, you could actually make a decent living doing it too.  You’d play a bunch of small gigs and build a local reputation for yourself or open for a bunch of bands as they passed through town and get some exposure to managers and label reps on the way.  

 

My wheels were spinning from his comment and I missed the rest of the anecdote (fortunately, like all great musicians, he’s prone to repeating his best stories so I got many other opportunities).  This just seemed so crazy in comparison to what is going on in the live music world today.   Another friend of mine, a very talented sax player, just got back from a gig up in New York and told me that insanely talented, well-connected musicians are playing at venues in New York for a free meal…

 

Look at the picture above from the Cavern Club: “THE BEATLES PLAYED HERE 292 TIMES”… 

 

The musical landscape has changed dramatically over the past thirty years.  Once upon a time, musicians were able to be musicians and support themselves with their music through a fertile, logical local system.  Now the clubs are gone, the gigs pay so little that they aren’t even worth the gas, radio doesn’t care about the local scene any more, and (as previously discussed) it’s pretty hard to make it big unless you are already big in the first place.

 

During an interesting segment on NPR’s All Songs Considered, Carrie Brownstein and a panel of music bloggers discussed whether or not labels were useful in discovering new music.  In a brief aside, Carrie mentioned that the label Kill Rock Stars almost passed on her band, electroclash darlings Sleater-Kinney, because they thought it was “just a side project”.

 

Now in Brownstein’s case, the group was a side project to her other band Excuse 17, but there is a prevailing philosophy among the decision-makers at labels that there should be some considerable measure of success derived specifically from the band in question in order for it to merit consideration.

 

That’s pretty difficult to do in today’s musical climate.  I’ve always encouraged people to not define themselves by their day job—do enough to pay the bills and support your passions.  The music business is now saying that that’s not enough.  You have to be professional before going pro.

 

The problem is that we no longer have a system where amateur musicians can cultivate and support themselves in the process of turning professional.  The issue is partly one of supply and demand.  Back in the 60s, venues wanted bands and there simply weren’t that many out there.  It was more difficult to even get an instrument, let alone be good enough at it to play for two hours.

 

All their success aside, Ringo Star and Mick Fleetwood would each tell you that they are not the most talented drummers (Mac Fleetwood doesn’t even know what 4/4 time is and he labored to explain that fact in Ken Robinson’s The Element).  The fact is that they were the guys in their local area with a drum kit.  Drums at the time were exceptionally expensive and too large for most in urban England to store.  If you had the instrument, you were in a band.  If you were in a band of any caliber, you were likely to land a gig playing at some venue with some regularity.

 

Every band needs somewhere to play.  Unfortunately, these days venues are so financially strapped that they’d often rather put the iPod on shuffle than hire four teenagers and a sound guy.  Consequently, the venues with live music are overrun with demos of musicians willing to play for peanuts.

 

In a world where it is virtually impossible to support yourself as an amateur musician, labels are left looking to people who are already famous to fill out their rosters: solo artists from previous hit-making bands like Gavin and Gwen, celebutantes, and contestants from reality TV.

 

Some amateur bands are lucky enough to catch a label’s attention and they land one of the precious few spots on a national tour playing a hundred dates with one band.  Obviously these gigs are rare, but they also reduce exposure to only the fans of a certain band.

 

It has been said that all business is local.  In the Digital Age, there is such a focus put on national and global considerations that the local concerns fall by the wayside.  But ultimately, a return to a fertile local music environment is what will repair the music business.  Labels have an interest in seeing musicians cultivated in their home environments, winning over a local demographic, and climbing a logical ladder toward regional and national success.

 

This was the model that worked thirty years ago and I believe it can still work with some adjustments for the digital age.  In many ways and to their detriment, record labels are stuck in the old ways of conducting business.  In this instance, I fear that they have overlooked a useful lesson from the past.  Emphasizing a fertile local music scene and a logical progression from there toward a national spotlight is what encourages a diverse and creative musical landscape.  There is no one better suited to make this happen than the labels themselves.

What is a Red Book CD? (Producer Speak)

Posted by FixYourMix On September - 17 - 20094 COMMENTS

468082-FBDespite the democratization of music production technology over the past ten years, most of the mastering process is still a black art to most people.  You can buy a cheap microphone for your computer at Wal-Mart to record your bedroom demos, but for some reason you still can’t get your music as loud and clean as Kanye.  The brave can attempt a lot of it at home with varying degrees of success, but an esoteric lexicon still exists that causes many to second guess their ability to deliver a professional product.  “Red Book” falls into this category.

 

If you just google “Red Book CD” or “Red Book Master” you’ll wind up with a bunch of questionable mastering sites offering a lot of warnings but not a lot of information.  They say “Oh, you can make a CD at home, but is it a Red Book??!?!”  Then they proceed with obfuscating generalities that encourage you to accept the fact that you are out of your depth and that you should use their service, in part, to obtain such a mystical artifact.

 

Well allow me to demystify the term and you’ll see that getting a Red Book master is not reason enough to choose a mastering house.

 

“Red Book” refers to a document created in 1980 by Sony and Philips.  A team of about 8 researchers was tasked with creating the specifications for standardizing compact discs (CDs if you’ve been living under a rock…on Mars…with your fingers in your ears and singing “la la laaaaa” to yourself at the top of your lungs for the past 30 years).   Researchers in the companies had a propensity to house their reports on the various forms of CDs in color-coded folders or books and refer to them as such.

 

folders03colored

These eventually became known as the “Rainbow Book Series”.  Lesser-known standards also included “Yellow Book” for CD-ROMs, “White Book” for video discs, “Beige Book” for photo discs, and “Scarlett Book” for super-audio discs.  The specifications found within these books dealt explicitly with standardizing production for the companies.  With Red Book, the virtual monopoly in CD technology at the time by Sony and Philips contributed to most of the other manufacturers adopting the same standards for compatibility across the board.

 

The Red Book stipulates that a standard CD should be 120 mm in diameter, 1.2 mm thick, and composed of specific materials (polycarbonate plastic substrate sandwiching some form of thin metal and coated in lacquer if you want to be explicit).  Pretty much every commercially available CD conforms to these physical standards.

 

BeethovenInteresting aside:  the companies originally wanted 60 minute of play time with 100 mm to 115 mm discs.  The ultimate choice of 74 minutes came from the suggestion by Herbert von Karajan, conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, that the CDs should accommodate Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, which was recorded in 1951 at the Bayreuth Festival in Germany.   This increased time necessitated the increase to 120 mm diameter discs.  The first test disc ever made was pressed in Hanover in 1981 and featured Von Karajan conducting the same group, so his opinion must have been important to the researchers.

 

Additionally, Audio CDs must have three areas: the lead-in, the program, and the lead-out.  Every disc-burning program that writes audio CDs uses these areas.  The lead-in contains the table of contents and directs CD players to the track markers and song titles and so forth.  The program area is where the actual audio is housed (in Audio Engineering, program is just a term used to describe any kind of sound content).  The lead-out contains no data and indicates to players that the CD has ended.

 

Lastly, the Red Book stipulates what kind of files can be used and how they should be encoded and organized on the CD.  Discs can contain up to 74 minutes of audio, up to 99 tracks with a minimum of 4 seconds per track, with the possibility of 99 separate sub-divisions within each track.

 

The program content must be the standard 44.1 kHz sample rate, 16-bit depth and be two channel stereo.  Data is stored in frames of 1/75 second length and data is written in sector sizes of 2,352 bytes per frame.  Frames are encoded in such a way to minimize the effect of damage to a CD and house error correction and display information.

 

That last bit is a little abstruse, but basically all of these are the standard for every disc-burning program out there.

 

So what’s the big deal with Red Book masters?  The short answer is that there isn’t one—at least not today.  Understand that the Red Book was written in 1980, before commercial audio CDs ever even hit the market.  These were the standards the companies decided on before ever releasing a CD and were to be used as the template for mass producing CDs for the future.  In a large part, the Red Book is merely a description of what an audio CD is, not some uber-special type of audio CD that you need to have special gear to create.

 

Once upon a time, the means of creating audio CDs existed only in big manufacturing plants and the common-folk had to patronize these establishments to get their discs reproduced.  Now, technology has come so far that virtually every disc making tool available to the consumer can and does follow these standards.

 

I suspect that the only reason this term even exists anymore is because of stand-alone hard disc recorder/burners like the Alesis Masterlink, which give the option to record different kinds of discs.  Since many recorders are capable of recording at much higher (and some at much lower) quality than standard audio discs, the Red Book option is selected so that whatever you’ve recorded comes out playable from the burner.  I speculate that the “Red Book” option on these recorders is meant to be a short-hand for burning a playable disc as opposed to a data or archival disc.  Also, since many of the professional hard-disc recorders were made in the 80s and 90s, companies were still tinkering with Super Audio CDs and other forms of discs that might have been included as options.

 

Think back 10 years ago when you were burning CDs, maybe one in every ten or twenty didn’t work or some would only play on a certain brand of CD player, or maybe it only played on your computer but not your car or in your car but not your CD player.  Across the board, these problems have been reduced with error correction and more intuitive interfaces, not to mention the fact that the average consumer now knows the difference between a data disc and an audio disc and can recite the sample rate and bit-depth for Audio CDs.

 

The Red Book standard is in many ways simple antiquated jargon for specifications that we can safely take for granted anyway.  Some might latch on to this term because it’s something they can use to sound more professional than you.  Of course, by and large the people employing the term don’t know any better, they just know that they can push the “Red Book” button and make something without knowing what it is. 

 

If you burn your disc using an audio-CD writing program, using a normal CD-R, and using a modern CD Burner, then you’ve got yourself a Red Book disc.  I would suggest burning at the slowest speed possible to minimize errors, but other than that you are golden!

Mac or PC for Music Production?

Posted by FixYourMix On September - 15 - 200912 COMMENTS

Whether you are an at-home audio hobbyist or a seasoned and professional Pro Tools operator, everybody yearns for the optimum working environment to produce music. Over the next few weeks I’ll take you through the various components of the digital audio workstation and offer some suggestions for maximizing its performance.


This is by no means the end-all-be-all of how-tos on the subject and I invite all of you readers out there to contribute to the body of knowledge with your personal expertise. As for me, I can only speak from my own experience as a professional audio engineer. So please offer your opinions or questions in the comments below if you are so inclined.


I should admit right off the bat that I am a supporter of Macintosh computers and Pro Tools in the professional environment. The realities of the professional world decree that this is how you must go if you wish to have a successful career. I do swing every which way: I have done high-profile professional projects on Microsoft computers, Nuendo, Logic, Cubase, and tape. By and large, however, contemporary creative demands as well as the desire for portability and universality demand a Macintosh and Pro Tools combination.


Mac or PC:
macpcForget the I/Os, forget the gear (for now). Heck, even forget about the talent. In today’s music production world, you cannot record anything of any kind without a good computer. For the audiophiles out there, I too am a tape guy when the opportunity presents itself. However, the availability of the medium coupled with budgets and real-world artist demands often preclude the use of our beloved reel-to-reels.


So before you choose between Pro Tools and Logic and Nuendo, you have to pick the optimum machine to support those programs. When the question is posed to me there are three main distinctions that I like to draw:

1)  This one is kind of arbitrary but is necessary exposition because, when talking about technology, you will often get the conscientious objector who takes issue with the nomenclature: a Macintosh computer is a PC.


PC stands for personal computer, so the question really comes down to Macintosh or Microsoft. That kind of has a nice ring to it, so I’m curious why the debate is framed in such a manner. Apologies to those Linux supporters out there, but Linux isn’t even a wildcard in this tournament.


2)  A much more substantive and important distinction to draw is that Apple produces an operating system (Macintosh) so that it can sell its computers. On the other hand, Microsoft produces computers so that it can sell its operating system.

This is a subtle difference, but very important. When your Macintosh computer crashes and you need to rebuild from scratch, you can use any OS installer on your computer. Mac doesn’t even ask for a serial number. That is because Apple is in the business of selling computers and the OS itself is simply a construction so that they can sell them machines themselves. That means that every component that is in the machine has an express purpose, specific to the operating system. Likewise, every line of code that exists in the operating system has an express purpose in the functioning of those components.


On the other hand, when your Microsoft (or rather Microsoft-based) computer crashes, you’ll need to have your officially sanctioned serial numbers and identifiers because Microsoft’s sole desire as a company (for our purposes) is to sell an operating system. Not the computer. If you actually go to the Microsoft store, you will not see a single computer “made” by Microsoft. The actual computers that run Microsoft Operating systems are produced by Dell, Asus, Lenovo, and *shriek* even Macintosh. Of course, the high competition for producers running a Microsoft-based platform means that the price can be significantly cheaper, but ultimately that means that the company creating your computer has little at stake in how the operating system functions with the computer itself.


3)  The third distinction deals more with what your computers are actually doing: The computer and the operating system itself has no idea what operations you are performing.


Whether it is a Mac or a Microsoft or Linux, no computer has any real idea whether you are watching a movie, editing a family video, touching up a photograph, or recording death metal. It is just doing calculations. The real question when dealing with music production is how quickly can VERY LARGE chunks of information accessed, transferred, and put to use.


Macintosh realizes this. For a very long time, the talking point about Macs was that they handled big calculations and files better than Microsoft. While this may be true from an OS standpoint, a processor or hard drive or stick of RAM doesn’t know whether it’s running on OSX or Vista. The real distinction is that with Macintosh, you can accept as a given the fact that the components within your machine are top of the line and designed to handle tasks that require large computations and throughput. Macintosh knows that their demographic has long been “creative” types rather than business professionals, so the OS and machines are all designed to handle labor intensive processes.


Microsoft on the other hand, after a certain baseline, frankly doesn’t give a damn about the components that are in the computer. There are Microsoft computers out there on the market that are designed only for web-browsing and word-processing. And rightly so, Microsoft has a huge and broad market that caters to businessmen and soccer moms and even creative types, so some machines handle large computations and have max throughput while others do not.


So from these three distinctions, it should be clear that you can buy a Microsoft, and with the right tweaks and customizations, it can perform equally to a Mac or better. There are plenty of options available due to the gaming community (which overwhelmingly uses Windows-based computers) and these add-ons will likely be cheaper due to vast competition in the Microsoft peripherals market. However, this will require more thoughtful consideration on the part of the consumer than buying a Mac with a very small set of top-of-the-line variables.

The Rise & Fall of the Southern Rap Empire

Posted by Keith Freund On August - 28 - 20094 COMMENTS

atlanta-skyline-3From crunk to snap music, Southern rap has reigned supreme over the charts for the last half decade. When ATL stole the crown from NYC as the Mecca of hip hop, aspiring rappers and producers made the pilgrimage from all over to find a better, more trill existence. (Most would fail upon realizing it’s not enough to simply rhyme ‘grind’ with ‘shine’ as many times as possible.) After everything Lil Jon and TI did for Atlanta’s growth, the Georgia Department of Tourism should write them monthly checks.


For my fellow Atlanta natives, I should point out that what old school ATLiens may think of as Southern rap is not really what I’m talking about in this article. The OutKasts and Goodie Mobs of yore are not what made the Atlanta Braves hat the new Yankees cap. What I’m talking about here is a little more, well… basic. Let’s have a look:


Characteristics of (Mid-2000s Era) Southern Rap

  • Party-oriented lyrical themes including sex, alcohol, dancing, strippers, and nightclub activity (a shift away from violent or macho ‘street’ lyrics of 90s rap)
  • 808 kicks
  • Claps & snaps on the backbeat (more on this: Claps & Snaps: The Death of the Snare Drum)
  • Single note or nonexistent basslines
  • Slower tempos (70-78 BPM)
  • Synth-based instrumentation (versus sample-based)

Pop music is often scoffed at and generally regarded as simple by music buffs, but obviously these music buffs have never gotten their swerve on at The Cheetah. Simplicity works especially well in club settings. The reason behind this can be explained using a maxim that (FYM blog cowriter) Phil first posited to me many years ago, which is that in order for something to be big, something else must also be small. Put another way:

The less stuff you have in a mix, the bigger each individual thing can be.

And of course in rap music the quest is always for tighter and deeper low end, whether that be a kick drum or bassline. An 808 kick sound is special because it’s somewhere in between the two in terms of its role. The drawback is that an 808 is so deep that it usually cannot be heard on smaller speakers and headphones that do not produce sub-bass frequencies. The benefit is you don’t have two instruments competing for that all-important frequency range where a mix can easily get cluttered. When the only other stuff you’ve got going on is a snap, vocal, and single-note synth line, huge low end is in the cards. The result is a hypnotic (post-apocalyptic?) dance sound that can be baffling to the uninitiated but works like magic in clubs because of their better low end reproduction capabilities.


Key Songs


“It’s Goin Down” – Yung Joc


Get Low” – Lil Jon feat. Ying Yang Twins

Yeah” – Usher feat. Lil Jon

Crank That” – Souja Boy Tell Em

Laffy Taffy“* – D4L


Today, it’s hard to say that Atlanta is still the international capital of rap. Over the years, rap has traveled back and forth from East Coast (actually the Northeast) to West Coast, and eventually to the South. With collaborations between people like Kanye and Young Jeezy, you could say we’re overdue for a shift back towards the East Coast sound. But history rarely repeats itself so directly.** No, I believe Top 40 rap is taking a step in a macro direction: away from regional sounds and towards pop crossover.


The Decline of the Southern Rap Empire


atlanta-capRight now, we are in the middle of a shift. The South isn’t dead yet–many of its calling cards and idiosyncrasies are still in effect. But hip-hop is shifting away not just from the South but regional sounds altogether, with even the hardest, street-est rappers going in a homogeneous pop direction (blame it on the Goose economy). Contrary to what Jay-Z wants you to believe, things are not going back to the New York sound. Here is the current state of affairs:

  • There’s no doubt the snare drum is making a comeback, particularly syncopated patterns and rimshots (see: Drake’s latest “Forever” feat. Lil Wayne, Kanye, & Eminem).
  • Basslines are now back in full force but are often used in conjunction with 808s. This was one of my main qualms with crunk and snap music; a bassline is what gives a song its soul.
  • Arrangements are becoming more dense and musical.
  • Auto-Tuned, sung choruses are taking the place of repetitive chant hooks.
  • Examples: “Fire Burning” by Sean Kingston and “Blame It” by Jamie Foxx feat. T-Pain


Am I missing anything? I want your input on what typifies the Southern rap genre and where music is headed.*** With a new president and the turn of the decade steadily approaching, music almost certainly has more surprises in store for us and I’ll be reporting live from the trenches every step of the way.


*This song is bewildering even to me.


**I believe I’m paraphrasing Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond but I’m not entirely sure.


***Many of the changes listed in this article also reflect the return of R&B, but that’s a story for another day.

Common Terms in the High Frequencies, part 14

Posted by FixYourMix On July - 30 - 20092 COMMENTS

Airy:  Spaciousness, often a pleasant mostly treble-based reverb sound.  Extended frequency response that runs up through the top end of the bandwidth.

 

Brittle:  Peaking in high-frequencies, weak fundamentals with slightly distorted or harsh highs.

 

Crisp:  Good high-frequency response with good transient quality

 

Crispy:  Constant, but perhaps random high frequency sounds not unlike frying foods.

 

Delicate: Extended high frequency range without being harsh.  Emphasis on high frequencies extending to 20 KHz, but without the peaking. 

 

Edgy:  High frequency emphasis from about 3.5 to 6 KHz with harmonic content overly strong in comparison to fundamentals.  Can deal with high frequency distortion and rasp.

 

Piercing:  Hard on the ears, screechy and sharp.  Narrow peaks occurring between 3 and 10 KHz.

 

Raspy:  Harsh sounds in the 6 KHz range that sounds like a scratchy voice.

 

Sibilant:  S and Sh sounds are overly emphasized. 

 

Sizzly:  Similar to crisp, like the sound of the decay on a riveted cymbal.

 

Steely or Shiny:  Lots of top end from 3-6 KHz with peaky highs (as opposed to flat but boosted top end)

 

Sweet:  Flat high-frequency response without distortion and extended the full bandwidth.  

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