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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.

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! – [email protected]

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.

“Ready, Able” by Grizzly Bear: A Compositional Analysis

Posted by Keith Freund On November - 14 - 200932 COMMENTS

Key Signature: A minor, C Lydian
Time Signatures: 3/4, 4/4, 6/8
Special Songwriting Devices Used: Three-bar phrases, Polymeter, Polyrhythm, Modal harmony
Structure: Verse-Refrain-Verse-Refrain-C-D-C-D-C-Outro

Hover your mouse over terms underlined with dots (like this) for more information. If you’re following along with the album version rather than the video, subtract 5 seconds from any time stamps listed below to account for the video lead-in.


This blog mostly concerns itself with what can loosely be considered pop music, but today’s song violates what is perhaps pop’s most sacred and universal characteristic: structure. It’s not that “Ready, Able” has no structure, but it certainly isn’t your typical verse-chorus-verse. While a traditional pop song is designed to grab your attention and get to the hook ASAP, Grizzly Bear has no patience for people with no patience. And to those who wait, the payoff is that much sweeter.


A Narrative Of An Average Listener Experiencing This Song For The First Time (click to enlarge:)


A structural analysis of Ready, Able by Grizzly Bear.


“Ready, Able” starts with a sparse and confusing instrumental passage, which you eventually realize is part of the verse. Like the claymation monsters of the video that appear both happy and sad, you can’t tell whether to be scared by the droning, tribal mysteriousness of the rhythm section, or amused by the playful, almost upbeat vocal melody. You’re relieved to hear a chord–the first one in the song–at 0:42. This is the start of a new, more palatable section: the refrain.* Here Grizzly Bear builds anticipation for something that never comes. Right as the music sounds like it’s about to reach the tonic, the whole damn thing cuts back to the verse like a movie that ends on a cliffhanger, cutting to black at the most crucial moment. (And you still have no idea what “Rosebud” means…)

And now you’re brought right back into the verse. A push-and-pull dynamic is created with two different kinds of tension:

  • The verse draws its tension from rhythmic confusion, sparseness, and lack of harmony.
  • The refrain creates tension with full, but unresolved harmony.


After the second refrain, you are led to a surprising, but also cohesive and highly gratifying climax at 1:53 (the C section) which starts on an A minor chord and continues to build throughout the second half. It’s gratifying not only because of the lush production and arrangement elements that kick in, but because it took 2 damn minutes to get to the I chord! As shown in the image above, the music video works in the opposite manner. It starts off a little odd and then morphs into something truly bizarre. To better understand what’s so off about the verses, let’s go right into a rhythmic play-by-play:


Two Time Signatures Simultaneously – Polymeter



Disclaimer: Phil pointed out to me that the verses of this song could be more succinctly written and understood as 12/8, rather than my more complicated explanation of calling it 3/4 and 4/4 (with the later sections in 6/8 half time). If you count the verses in 12/8, they begin to make a lot more sense. I instinctively heard this section in small beat groupings (possibly because of the odd rhythmic patterns and lack of a steady drum beat), however, so I’m keeping this section as is for the sake of posterity.


The verses consist of 24-beat phrases demarcated by a kick drum. It’s hard to tell what’s going on: the vocals don’t quite match up with the percussion and those harp glissandos seem to sneak up and jump out at you from behind the bushes when you least expect them to. What’s going on here?


What you’re hearing is called polymeter–the simultaneous use of 2 or more time signatures sharing a common pulse. The verses in “Ready, Able” juxtapose a 3/4 waltz (the vocals and harp) on top of 4/4 (percussion). In this case, the shared pulse is the duration of the quarter note. Only after 24 beats do both time signatures start their down beats at the same time.


24 is a good number for polymeter because it can be evenly divided by the most common beat groupings: 2, 3, 4, 6, and 8. As a consequence, these 24-beat phrases also transition nicely into the refrain in 6/8 at half tempo. Now let’s move on to polymeter’s evil twin sister: polyrhythm.


Two Types of Beat Divisions Simultaneously – Polyrhythm


Congratulations, you’re about to dive head first into the metaphorical deep end of music theory. Drummers and music nerds, get ready to geek out.


Polyrhythm is when two different kinds of beat divisions are used simultaneously (not to be confused with beat groupings–that’s polymeter). In Western music, beats are typically subdivided in half.** This type of division is called duple meter and looks like this:

One whole note = two half notes = four quarter notes = eight 8th notes = sixteen 16th notes = thirty-two 32nd notes

But there are other types of divisions, the most common of which is a triplet: when two beats are divided into three beats. For example, three 8th note triplets take up the same amount of time as two regular 8th notes.


During the C section (1:53), the lead synth (a Synclavier?) has a tremolo effect that creates 16th note tripets over the regular 16th notes of the other instruments. Here’s a simplified notation of this rhythm (click to enlarge):


UPDATE: I think it’s safe to say that this is an Omnichord, not a Synclavier.


Grizzly Bear "Ready Able" Polyrhythms


Welcome to Polyrhythmville. And what’s really trippy is we’re in 6/8. While 6/8 rhythms are grouped in sets of 3, each beat is still normally subdivided by multiples of two. But here the total number of 16ths per measure is 18–you don’t see that number often in music–and all this on top of 12 beats–a concept so mindblowing that only underline and italics at the same time could possibly come close to expressing the insanity. Half way through the D section, we hear this pattern again with a lofi hi hat sample. We’re beginning to see the number 3 take shape as a major theme in this song: beats grouped in 3s, beats divided by 3, and finally, 3-bar phrases:


Unusual Phrase Lengths
(See our explanation of bars, measures, & phrases for help with this section.)


In pop music, chord progressions and phrases typically last 1, 2, 4, or 8 measures. Deviating from this is a great way to shake up your songwriting without venturing into odd time signatures, which often means sacrificing accessibility. It’s hard for the average music listener to dance or rock to something in 5/4 or 7/8,*** but they will have no problem dancing to 5- or 7-bar phrases in 4/4.


That being said, when great songwriters use a device like this there’s a reason for it, whether they’re aware of that reason or feel its effect intuitively. “Ready, Able” uses 3-bar phrases throughout most of the second half, providing two advantages:

  • Vibe: We’re expecting 4-bar phrases, so 3-bar phrases have a cyclical, hypnotic effect. It feels like the thought is not quite finished.
  • Lyrics: If the D section had 4-bar phrases, there would be a big empty space when the lyrics finish, or they would have had to write more lyrics and extend the melody. By using 3-bar phrases, Grizzly Bear is able to keep interest high while retaining their original lyrical and melodic idea.

But there’s a problem. In addition to being super weird and hip, these odd phrases are leaving people hanging. There seems to be no destination. Solution? A 4-bar phrase at the end of each section. Consider your thirst for finality quenched. There’s also an extra bar at the end of the refrain (normally 4-bar phrases) to make room for a IV-7 (D minor 7) which has a strong pull to I- in this case.


»

  • Verse 1: Polymeter … 24-beat phrases
    • Vocals/harp: 3/4 (waltz) … 8-bar phrases
    • Drums/muted guitar/etc.: 4/4 … 6-bar phrases
  • Refrain 1: 6/8 half time … 4 bars+4 bars+1 bar
  • Verse 2: (same as Verse 1 except the first 24-beat phrase is cut short by 1 beat).
  • Refrain 2: (same as refrain 1)
  • C section 1: 6/8 half time … 3 bars+3 bars+3 bars+4 bars
  • D section 1: 6/8 half time … 3 bars+3 bars+3 bars+4 bars
  • C section 2: 6/8 half time … 3 bars+3 bars
  • D section 2: 6/8 half time … 3 bars+3 bars+3 bars+4 bars
  • Outro: 6/8 half time … 3 bars+4 bars

»

  • Bullet With A Butterfly Wings” by Smashing Pumpkins – 6-bar phrases during the choruses.
  • Radiohead‘s “Idioteque” – 5-bar phrases.
  • Just Like You Imagined” by Nine Inch Nails (aka “that song from the 300 trailer”) – bar of 4/4+bar of 12/8.
  • The phrase of OutKast‘s mega-hit “Hey Ya” reads like this (in quarter notes): 4+4+4+2+4+4


Single-Chord Harmony
(See our guides to chord abbreviations, tensions, and modes for help with this section.)


If you follow this blog, you’re already aware of the trend of rap songs without music. To the music snobs and hipsters frowning upon that concept, I am pleased to inform you that Grizzly Bear essentially does the same thing during the first verse of this song–there is no progression, only a vocal melody, lost in an enchanted forest of polymeter and the occasional harp gliss. But of course, context is everything. I doubt we’ll be seeing Ying Yang Twins comparisons any time soon.

“Wait’ll You See My D… minor 7.”


During the second verse, Grizzly Bear seems to have added a very faint guitar or bass on the note C. It seems that the key is now C major, the relative major from A minor. With the vocal melody notes included, the overall harmony of this section seems to be a single, but very colorful chord normally reserved for Jazz: Cmaj9(13) (C, E, G, B, D, A). In other words, every note in the key except F, which would be tension 11. 11 is usually considered an “avoid note” on a major 7 chord.


But listen again. There’s a drum tuned to F#, which would be the tritone of the C major. In the absence of a natural F, I’m prepared to say that we’re not in the relative major at all, we’re in C Lydian and the chord is Cmaj7 (9 #11 13), which includes every single note of the key signature. Lydian mode can be described as foreign and magical-sounding and the second verse of “Ready, Able” is no exception. This mode is often used by film composers for dream sequences. What’s even more bizarre is that the #11 drum is the lowest note in the section, making it sound especially dissonant. I wouldn’t call the chord an inversion though, because the drum comes on very weak beats.


Other than C and tension #11, the lead vocal provides every other note in this chord. Don’t get me wrong: not all melody notes should be considered part of a song’s essential harmony, but in this case the tensions (9 & 13) come on down beats at the beginning of the 8-bar vocal phrases, the strongest beats possible during this section.


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For further reinforcement of this harmony, there’s a background harmony with 3, 9, and 7, and the harp hits 7 on its way down to 13. Also listen for faint pizzicato strings plucking between C and G, with a few interjections of perfect fourth dyads (DG and BE) for some exotic flavor. It’s also worth noting that based on the way these notes are stressed dynamically, the string arrangement sounds displaced by one beat–that is, its down beat begins one beat after the drums and palm-muted guitar. This gives the strings a light, playful feeling but also makes them sound somewhat detached from the rest of the music.


As stated earlier, the refrains create tension by never landing on I-. It’s also worth noting that the vocal melody single-handedly changes the chord progression with a major 6 interval on F, creating a second inversion D minor chord.


The C and D sections use one of my favorite progressions: I-, V-, IV- (see also: “My Love” by Justin Timberlake and “Ayo Technology” by 50 Cent). As I talked about in my Kanye analysis, the V minor usually sounds peculiar in a pop context, but it sounds at home in “Ready, Able.”


I was unable to find good guitar tab or piano transcriptions for this song online, so this will get you started if you’re a Grizzly Bear fan and want to cover this for YouTube:


“Ready, Able” Chords – Simplified For Rhythm Guitar & Piano
(See our chord abbreviation guide for help with this section.)

Verse 1: C (single note only)
Refrain: F, Fmaj7, to E- (plus D-7 during last measure)
Verse 2: Cmaj7(no5)
C section: A-, E-, D- (pianists: start on A-/E)
D section: A-, E-7, D-7


“Ready, Able” Chords – Full Harmony

Verses: Cmaj9(13)
Refrain: F, D-/F, Fmaj7, D-/F, to E-7 (plus D-7 during last measure)
C Section: A-, E-add11, D-
D section: A-9, E-7, D-7(13) (add tension 11 to these chords when the string quartet comes in)


“Ready, Able” Chords – Functional Analysis

Verse 1: Imaj9(13)
Refrain: VI, IV-/3, VImaj7, IV-/3, to V-7 (plus IV-7 during last measure)
C Section: I-, V-add11, IV-
D section: I-9, V-7, IV-7(13) (add tension 11 to these chords when the string quartet comes in)


This concludes my analysis. If you’ve read this far, you’re probably an ultra music nerd like me and for that I salute you. I might be imagining or missing some of tensions, so if you hear anything different or disagree with my analysis, feel free to leave a comment.


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*While some sources refer to choruses and refrains interchangeably (Wikipedia included), but there is a difference. I’m calling this section a refrain because it sounds like an extension of the verse music, whereas choruses typically either repeat the verse music with more production elements, or introduce an entirely new idea altogether. This section is fairly long for a refrain, but more importantly the movement is not harmonically strong enough to be a chorus.


**With the very notable exception of swing and shuffle grooves.


***In some cultures, dancing to odd meters is commonplace (Indian and Greek music, for example).


BONUS: In case you were wondering how much meth I had to smoke to write something this long, there’s method to the madness of those harp glisses:

  • During the instrumental portions of the verses, they come on beat 2 of the 5th and 7th measures of the phrase.
  • During the vocal portions of the verses, they come on beat 3 of the 3rd and 7th measures of the phrase.

Bars, Measures, Phrases, Motifs, Riffs, & Licks

Posted by Keith Freund On November - 11 - 20091 COMMENT

theory-lesson2Some musical terms are so basic and widely used that we never stop to ask ourselves: “Hey, what is a measure? What is a riff? What is a phrase? What’s the difference between a bar and a measure?” This article should answer all of those questions for you and more.


Summary:
• Bar = measure
Phrase = long(-ish) musical idea
Motif = short musical idea
Riff = lick


Bars & Measures


A bar is the same thing as a measure. What determines the length of a measure can vary depending on the time signature of a song, but generally speaking you’re going to be able to tell by the snare pattern. For most pop applications, you’ll be dealing with either 4/4 or 6/8 time.


In almost every song in 4/4 time, there will be 2 snare drum hits per measure. These hits indicate beats 2 and 4. This is called a back beat. In addition to the back beat, there will often be snare accents, but they will not feel as strong as the snare hits on beats 2 and 4. The back beat is so universal that it almost seems silly to provide examples, but here are a couple for your reference.


“And Then What” by Young Jeezy:



“Whatever Happened To My Rock ‘N’ Roll” by Black Rebel Motorcycle Club:



In the first example, each measure is almost twice the length of time of a measure from the second song. In other words, the tempo of the second song is considered about twice as fast and you can tell because of how often the back beat repeats.  For hip-hop, claps and snaps may provide the back beat rather than a snare drum.


In a 6/8 song, the strongest snare hit comes only once per measure, on beat 4. Take D’Angelo’s “Untitled (How Does It Feel?)” for example:



Some people think a measure is just the time in which a chord progression or musical idea repeats, but in fact what they’re really thinking of is called a phrase.


Phrases


Phrases are mysterious creatures. The most basic definition is a musical idea. Doesn’t really explain anything, does it? Well that’s because a phrase can be just about anything. They don’t even necessarily have to be repeated. Songs can have phrases within phrases within phrases. To understand phrases, you just have to learn by example.


It can be daunting to understand what constitutes a phrase in Classical or Jazz context, but when talking about pop music it’s a little more intuitive–generally we’re talking about a section of a song with a chord progression, usually one that repeats. For example, the introduction to “Learn To Fly” by Foo Fighters uses 4-bar phrases:



If you play in a rock or pop band, using the term “phrases” is often much more useful than talking in measures: “Hey, I love that lick you play at the end of every other phrase” is much more concise and less awkward than “Hey, I love that lick you play at the end of every 8-bar section.”


Motifs


A motif is any short, repeated pattern. Usually both the melody and rhythm of this pattern are repeated–also known as a lick or a riff. If you have a motif which is purely rhythmic, it can be called a “rhythmic motif”.


“Today” by Smashing Pumpkins uses a 1-bar guitar riff:



During the introduction to “Meant To Live” by Switchfoot, the riff is the same length as the phrases (2 bars):


Keith’s Guide To Chord Symbols & Shorthand

Posted by Keith Freund On November - 11 - 20092 COMMENTS

theory-lesson2Note: this post requires a basic knowledge of intervals.


To understand why some chords have intervals of 9, 11, and 13, read our explanation of tensions.


This post will give you abbreviations for the most common chords we’ll be dealing with in our Compositional Analysis series. While some of the naming conventions and rules are confusing, this list should get you started. Also note that our analyses usually use Roman numerals instead of note names (e.g. C minor 7 in the key of C would be written I-7). This is called ‘functional analysis.’


Sample:

  • How the chord is written … Full chord name … Notes in the chord, listed by intervallic relationship with the root of the chord. These notes can be in any order.*

*See inversions below.


Triads (three notes):

  • G … G major … 1, 3, 5 (i.e. G, B, D)
  • G- … G minor … 1, b3, 5
  • or Gdim … G diminished … 1, b3, b5
  • G+ or Gaug … G augmented … 1, 3, #5
  • Gsus2 … G suspended 2 … 1, 2, 5
  • Gsus4 … G suspended 4 … 1, 4, 5


Seventh Chords:

  • Gmaj7 … G major 7 … 1, 3, 5, 7
  • G-7 … G minor 7 … 1, b3, 5, b7
  • G7 … G dominant 7 … 1, 3, 5, b7
  • Gø7 … G half diminished 7 … 1, b3, b5, b7
  • Gº7 … G fully diminished 7 … 1, b3, b5, 6


Extended Chords (seventh chords+tensions):

  • Gmaj9 … G major 9 … 1, 2, 3, 5, 7
  • Gmaj9/13 … G major 9 with 13 … 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 7
  • G9 … G dominant 9 … 1, 2, 3, 5, b7
  • G-9 … G minor 9 … 1, 2, b3, 5, b7
  • G-11 … G minor 11 … 1, 2, b3, 4, 5, b7,
  • G-13 … G minor 13 … 1, 2, b3, 4, 5, 6, b7


Other Common Chords:

  • G5 … G with no third (guitarists: a power chord) … 1, 5
  • Gmaj7(no3) … G major 7 no third … 1, 5, 7
  • Gadd9 or G2 … G add 9 … 1, 2, 3, 5
  • G6 … G major 6 … 1, 3, 5, 6
  • G69 … G69 … 1, 2, 3, 5, 6


Inversions:

  • G/3 or G/B … G major first inversion … 1, 3, 5 – 3rd must be the lowest note, others can be in any order
  • G/b3 or G/Bb … G minor first inversion … 1, b3, 5 – 3rd must be the lowest note, others can be in any order
  • G/5 or G/D … G major second inversion … 1, 3, 5 – 3rd must be the lowest note, others can be in any order


Things To Know…

  • When referring to a note or Roman numeral, the sharp (#) and flat (b) symbols come after the note or Roman numeral they are modifying.
  • When referring to a pitch interval, the sharp (#) and flat (b) symbols come after the number they are modifying.
  • These chord symbols are used by musicians and scholars trained in Jazz (and Pop). The Traditional/Classical school of thought uses a different nomenclature.
  • If you find a chord that is written (chord)/(note other than a chord tone), it’s not an inversion, it’s a polychord, which means you should play both chords simultaneously, with the top chord above the bottom chord. For example, a C/F chord is a C major chord with the note F in the bass.
  • For chords with perfect 5th intervals above the root, these 5ths can generally be omitted and it will still be considered the same chord.


For a more extensive list of chords, check Wikipedia: Types of Chords (they actually did a pretty good job with this one).

Keith’s Easy Explanation Of Chord Tensions

Posted by Keith Freund On November - 11 - 2009COMMENT ON THIS POST

theory-lessonsNote: this post requires a basic knowledge of intervals.


A chord tension is any note in a chord that is not considered integral to the chord (the integral notes are called ‘chord tones’). Tensions are also referred to as ‘added colors’ or ”non-chord tones’ (I try to avoid using the latter term because means something different in Traditional/Classical harmony).


There are only three possible tensions: 9, 11, and 13 (in other words: 2nds, 4ths, and 6th, respectively). But these notes are not considered tensions on every chord–the only way to know for sure is to have a good knowledge of chords (to get started, read our article on chord abbreviations). These tensions may also be modified by a # (sharp) or b (flat).


Chord tensions are written up an octave (by adding 7 to the interval number) because chords can sound muddy or cluttered if the note intervals are too close together. Tensions tend to come in between chord tones, so these notes are often placed in higher octaves to keep things clean (not to say that chord tones are usually all within one octave-they aren’t). The only exception that comes to mind is that a Cadd9 chord (C major chord with a major 2nd added) is sometimes written C2.

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.

Client Feature: Lazy Mane & Kosherbeets

Posted by Keith Freund On September - 18 - 20092 COMMENTS

Kosherbeets and Lazy Mane

It was 2003 when I first discovered Lazy Mane & Kosherbeets through the grapevine as they began to generate a buzz in the North Atlanta area. I got Kosherbeets’s number from a mutual friend, picked his brain about music, recording, etc., and the rest is history. I cut my teeth mixing his solo release, Dude, College, and now his joint effort with long time collaborator Lazy Mane: Supreme I.N.K.


They’ve since shared the stage with a number of hip hop notables including Atlanta mainstays the Ying Yang Twins and quintiple-platinum act Nappy Roots (of “Awnaw” fame). Tonight, Friday, Sept. 18th, 2009, you can catch the duo at Lenny’s in Atlanta performing with Dungeon Family* artists Killer Mike (featured on a number of OutKast songs), Cool Breeze, and Rico Wade of Organized Noize.


Lazy Mane and Kosherbeets at Lenny's

I don’t know exactly where to pin down their sound-a little Bone Thugs here, some early OutKast there, and a combination of all those jazz records, photographs, and history books they’ve got lying around the studio. The result is a classic sound that spits in the face of trends and resonates on both an intellectual and primal level.


Supreme I.N.K is their best to date, particularly The Springtime, which is a sample-based, major key uptempo song with “instant classic” written all over it, and The Galaxi, a trippy, dark, futuristic beat with lyrics and live sax to match. 


In honor of the album’s release, I’ve thrown together a sampler with some of my favorite cuts from the album:


Stream the Fix Your Mix Supreme I.N.K Sampler (NSFW)


Mixing In An Unfamiliar Environment


Mixing in an artist’s studio is kind of like becoming fluent in Pig Latin. You’ve already got all the skills you need, it just takes a little bit longer to get your ideas out at first. To get familiar with their speakers (Event 8s) and room, I referenced their influences for similar instrumentation/arrangements but used more recent mainstream songs to get the low end sounding current. We also checked mixes in a number of consumer environments including a few vehicles with decked-out audio systems and took notes for revisions.


Supreme I.N.K. is the only full album that I’ve mixed entirely independent of my own gear and rig.** It was done entirely in the box (plug ins only, no outboard gear) using primarily the Waves Diamond and SSL plugin bundles in Pro Tools.


Fixing Their Mix


I consider all of my projects to be collaborative efforts, but especially in this case–they did the rough mixes and final tweaks, I sculpted the sound into a more professional and cohesive arrangement. So this was one of those cases where I literally “fixed [their] mix” rather than playing the traditional mix engineer role.


I read that one of my favorite engineers, Rich Costey, did this on Foo Fighters’ latest, Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace. The tracking engineer did the initial mix work if I’m not mistaken and RC was brought in to finish it off.


They’ve intentionally eschewed iTunes and Amazon in favor of a more grassroots approach by giving away the album for free online and selling physical copies at shows. So check them out at Lenny’s if you can, and grab the album. It’s free!


supreme-ink-album-coverDownload the album for free @ SupremeINK.net


*I owe Will (Kosherbeets) a special debt of gratitude for introducing me to my favorite rap album of all time, Dungeon Family’s Even In Darkness. Dungeon Family is a more or less defunct (hibernating?) collective which includes OutKast, Goodie Mob, Cee-Lo, et al.


**For my clients reading, note that I don’t generally do attended sessions–the time we save from this is one of the ways we can provide an incredible value at a rate that’s affordable for independent artists–but I made an exception for these guys because of our long time relationship and hey, it gave me a good excuse to go back to Atlanta for a few weeks.

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