Saturday, October 22, 2016

The difference between tube and solid state amps

Hello and welcome to this week's article!
Today we are going to take a look at the difference between tube watts and solid state, why does everyone say that there is a big difference?
Why does a 100w tube amp overshadows a 100w solid state one in a live environment?
I am no engineer, but we will try today to make a little clarity and to separate the facts from the myth.

Note: this article is an addition to our articles about, speakers and tubes.

Fact: 100w tube = 100w solid state.
The main difference is that a tube amp uses one or more vacuum tubes to amplify the signal while a solid state one relies only on diodes, transistors etc (for the sake of simplicity we won't talk about the many hybrids that uses a solid state power amp adding a tube just to add some harmonic warmth or those who uses digital emulation of tube response).
Then why in a live environment the tube amp usually sounds much more powerful than a solid state amp? For a serie of reasons, which involves the fact that tubes can increase certain harmonics (therefore push a little more the sound on frequences that appear to cut throught the mix better) and the break up limit.

What is the break up threshold?
When playing at a low volume with both a solid state and a tube amp we will notice that the difference between the two amps is not that noticeable, both amps have a certain amount of headroom (the space in which the volume can be increased without causing distortion), but then when we will turn up the volume we will notice that we will reach a level in which the headroom will finish and the amp will start distorting.
It's at this point that a solid state amp will start sounding really bad, therefore the volume excursion ends at the break up limit or a little over, while a tube amp can easily surpass it, since after the breakup the tubes really starts warming up adding a sligh compression and harmonic warmth that actually makes the sound even more pleasant.

What is a workaround that amp manufacturers usually choose to make solid state amps to sound comparable to tube amps? Easy: they add more watts, to let the preamp do his job with no interference.
Examples: the Marshall Mode Four head, which has 350 watt, which is used for example by the Testament guitarist Alex Skolnick, or the Fender Metalhead, which produces 400w, starting from the assumption that usually in order to match a tube amp at full volume a solid state one should usually have the triple of the wattage.

So far we have only talked about guitar amps, but with bass amps the wattages are even more extreme, because it takes even more power to deliver bass frequences with the right clarity, so the same rule applies to bass amplifiers too, and the wattages are even higher.

Myth: tube power amps sounds better than solid state power amps.
This assumption is true as long as you want/need the sound effect of tubes, which is, as we have said, a harmonic enhancement especially in the mid and high frequences and a sligh compression that influences the dynamic range. This is an effect that is often desired in rock, blues and other genres, while many jazz or funk players prefer solid state amps because they sounds usually more "clean", like the Roland Jazz Chorus, which is in production by 40 years and it is still considered an industry standard for the genre. The final word is that you should really try both solutions and find the right one for your music genre, keeping in mind that it's not mandatory to use the power amp type that everyone uses in a certain genre: heavy metal is a genre typically dominated by tube amps, but some of the most influential icons actually have shaped their tone with solid state amps (for example Dimebag Darrell of Pantera or Chuck Schuldiner of Death).

Difference between Peak and Rms wattage: some amps have the wattage calculated in rms (root mean square, which put in simple words is the average volume actually perceived by our ears), and often tube amps have their wattage reported in rms, which means that if they are 100w rms, they can play at 100w for hours, while other amps (often solid state ones) have their wattage expresses in peak: this means that if an amp is 100w peak, it can sound 100w for one fraction of a second, for example, while for most of the time it will play at around 50w rms. This is more of a marketing gimmick, and we should really be careful when reading the specifics of two amps when comparing them, or when choosing which one to buy.
This is another of the most common reasons why tube amps usually seems to sound much louder than solid state ones: the wattage is reported in a different way.

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Saturday, October 15, 2016

The most famous song structures in modern music

Hello and welcome to this week's article!
Today we are presenting a new blog category: songwriting!
With these articles we are going to break down some of the creation processes behind the most successful songs in terms of chords, sound choices, structures and arrangements (I have deliberatly left out lyrics because... ...well because good lyrics it's something that either you have it in you, or you don't have it).

Let's start by saying that by no mean these article wants to become a guideline on how you should write a song: a song is an art composition, and the main content it should convoy is INSPIRATION, not following guidelines.
If you don't have a musical or lyrical message to deliver, it's totally useless to apply the most effective structure, the most common chord progressions and the most modern sounds: music is not marketing, and the "fake" products, those created just with the cookie-cutter are easy to spot and will never remain in the heart of the listener.

Let's focus on the most common song structure: a rock or a pop song is often composed by 5 parts:

A) intro: the introduction of the song
B) verse: the part in which the bulk of the lyrics are
C) bridge: the part used as a connection between the verse and the chorus
D) chorus: the fulcrum of the song
E) instrumental: a part of the song without lyrics, e.g. a guitar solo

By listening to your favourite pop/rock/metal songs you'll notice that statistically, the most common structure is A-B-C-D-B-C-D-E-D-D, or some variation of it (for example the first verse can be longer than the second one, or there can be a bridge before the last choruses after the instrumental).
This song structure allows usually the artist to get to the first chorus within the first 90 seconds mark, which is a standard in writing songs for radio airplay, and to keep the overall song lenght under 3/3.5 minutes, which is also another standard obtained by studying the average attention span of the casual listener.

Now, we know that most of the songs follow those rules to be more effective, but there are many others that prefer other structures. Some of them for example do add or subtract some element, for example by adding another part:

F) Special: a verse that is totally different from the others

Therefore another very common song structure that we could find is the following, with all its possible variants: A-B-D-A-B-D-F-E-D-D
This structure is without the bridge, therefore the song is more agile, it takes less to get to the chorus and the variation element is the special before the instrumental part, or sometimes replacing entirely it.

Let's now do a training with a couple of famous songs, let's start with a pop one: Baby one more Time by Britney spears. In this case we can clearly see a structure A-B-C-D-A-B-C-D-A-F-D-D
which is a very common pop variant of the classic structure, in which intro + special takes entirely the place of the instrumental part to make the song even more focused and vocal-centric.

Moving towards rock/metal territories, let's check out this beautiful Iron Maiden single: Flight of Icarus, one of the most famous songs of the band. In this case the structure is A-B-C-D-A-B-C-D-E-D-E, with two guitar solos alternating with the choruses in the last part of the song, since guitar solos are (unlike in pop) a trademark in heavy metal.

As you can see the most common structure can be found in many different genres, and we encourage you to listen to your favourite songs and write down the structure, then compare them among them and with yours: it's a very interesting exercise in understanding the various dynamics inside the songs, to learn what we can do to make our songs flow more effectively, and especially to learn that in this world the rules are made to be broken and completely changed!

Additional awesomeness: there are some particular bands of less commercial genres like progressive, djent or some type of extreme metal, who deliberately change the structure from song to song making them much more complex and articulated (but often less easy listening). The structures can have different type of verses rotating (es. Verse with riff 1, verse with riff 2, verse with riff 3...), or with more than one chorus alternating. Let's try to break down the incredible Make Total Destroy by Periphery: A-B1-C-D-B2-B3-B4-E-D-E-F-B5-B1 !!!

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Saturday, October 8, 2016

5 way to achieve better separation when mixing

Hello and welcome to this week's article!
Today we are going to take a look at 5 ways to achieve a better mix separation, and this article will be particularly useful to those who feel when mixing that they can't separate exactly the various instruments, letting them mask one another and creating muddiness.

This article is connected to our "the focus of our mix", "how to use equalization" and  "ear training" articles.

1) Choose carefully what to leave in the top end area: especially in crowded mixes (those with a lot of high pitched instruments like cymbals, shakers, high vocals etc), having a high end area full of eq masking and conflicts can lead very easily to a bad mix.
We don't want our mix to be confused, so we must keep it clean by using a low pass filter on almost every instrument to free up frequency space for the chosen 2 or 3 elements that we can leave to roam in this area.
This way the selected elements of the mix will be much easier to understand and in the overall sound will result less harsh.

2) Achieving separation in the low end area: similarly to the high end area, we cannot leave each element of the mix to roam free in the lower area, therefore we will have to high pass almost every track to move them further in the mix and again avoid eq masking: we should leave in this area mainly bass and kick drum, and anyway also the kick drum doesn't need to go too much low, where the bass instead could. Definitely guitars should free up some space here.

3) The most sensitive frequences to the human ear: Top end and low end are crowded, but no area of the frequency spectrum is crowded as the most sensitive one to the human ear, the one around 2000hz. This area is the one in which we should find 2 or 3 elements that will be in the front, and lower or carve the eq of the other elements of the mix. Usually the elements of the mix that must stay in front are vocals, snare and kick, but this rule can change from genre to genre.

4) Route everything in groups/busses: creating groups of tracks is good to process them together, for example routing all the vocal tracks in one buss, all the drum skins in another one, all the rhythm guitars in a third one and so on. The purpose is yes to free up computer resources, but also to give a sense of homogeneity to all the tracks inside a group processing them together, and to separate them better: it is easier to have only 5 or 6 groups to manage with eq and compression when finding the right place to every mix part, rather than 30 single tracks.

5) Don't boost too hard: if you need any boost harder than +6db you must or reconsider your starting sound, or free up place among the other instruments in that area: when you boost a sound the computer creates a digital reconstruction of what it imagines that sound would be if it was louder in that area, but the more you boost the farthest it gets from reality and it becomes twisted and unnatural.
The ideal boosts should be 2-3db if we want to obtain a pleasant, natural sound that is representative of the source sound.

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Sunday, October 2, 2016

REVIEW: Behringer V-Amp 3

Hello and welcome to this week's article!
Today we will review a guitar amp simulator, clone of the Line6 Pod: the Behringer V-amp 3.

Someone asked me: why are you reviewing so many Behringer products?
The answer is easy: it is the less expensive company for audio equipment, therefore many amateur musicians on a tight budget often are interested in these products, plus all the units I review are products that I have personally spent some time in trying, whether they were mine or they were lent to me by some friend to write the review: basically I review what I can can get my hands on for a reasonable amount of time, and this company happens to be one of the easiest to find among the people I know.

Moving to the review, this is one of the countless guitar amp / effect simulators that have flooded the market after the digital revolution created in the early 2000 by Line 6, which has changed the paradigm about digital amplifiers bringing it to the masses, and features 32 guitar amp models, 15 speaker cabinets, a wide array of effects and can be used, like the Pod (which shares even an almost identical shape and colour), as an audio interface to record and mix straight into the pc via Usb.

Tonally this unit (which is a slight evolution from the popular V-Amp 2, clone of the legendary Pod 2.0 and which was sold also as combo version with the name V-Ampire) is really, really similar to the old Pod: the simulations are not in line with the latest (and extremely expensive) guitar amp modelers as Axe Fx, Kemper, Bias or even the recent Line6 Helix, but it can still achieve sounds surprisingly usable, especially in a live environment (in studio the most trained listeners can still find the lack of harmonic richness, which was also a problem of almost all the simulator and that only the newest ones are finding a way to overcome) or for playing at home-rehearsing, therefore under this point of view the unit passes brilliantly the test the same way the old Pod would; the downside unfortunately is the same one of all Behringer products: Build quality.

This unit falls short in terms of build quality, there is not much more to add; this is where Behringer really economizes, but this in the long run is the biggest issue with all the products of this manufacturer.
I have heard countless times about pots falling off, I have even seen on my V-ampire combo that just a sligh hit of the hull on a hard corner made most of the pots fall off, and this building problem is the same for the combo version, the rack version and the desktop version, appearently also this V-amp 3 seems to suffer the same problem.

As for other products of the same company that I have already reviewed, the final judgement comes to what is the use you intend to do with this unit: do you need it for touring, rehearsing, carrying it around? Look somewhere else, these products are too easy to break (and surprisingly expensive to fix).
Do you need it just to keep it on your desk, plug and play with the computer? At a street price of 90€ more or less (c.a. 100$), this unit can still provide some good tone and versatility, so in that case you can give it a shot.

Specs taken from the website:

- 4 all-new plus 28 improved amp models multiplied by 15 speaker cabinet simulations give you a total of 480 virtual combos

- USB audio interface included, featuring stereo I/O, optical S/PDIF out, direct monitoring and separate control for phones out

- No-latency guitar-to-PC recording—edit and monitor your sound on your V-AMP 3 and record straight to your PC

- Studio quality multi-effects including reverb, chorus, flanger, phaser, rotary, auto-wah, echo, delay, compressor and various effects combinations

- 125 memory locations pre-arranged for many popular styles and embedded in the acclaimed intuitive V-AMP user interface

- Tap-tempo function and many other parameters directly accessible on the unit

- Presence control adjusts a high-frequency filter, simulating the negative feedback of tube amps

- Preamp bypass function allows use as a stereo effects processor without amp modeling

- Stereo Aux input lets you play along to a cue from your PC, CD, MP3 or drum computer for practice, teaching and home-recording applications

- Balanced stereo Line output can be configured for many recording and live applications

- Adjustable auto-chromatic tuner plus effective global configurations and equalization easily adopts the V-AMP 3 to any situation outside your home studio

- MIDI implementation includes program changes, control changes and SysEx, allowing complete MIDI remote control or automation with your preferred DAW

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Sunday, September 25, 2016

Recording two vocal layers for thicken up the song

Hello and welcome to this week's article!
This article is related to our Vocals mixing article and our Vocals recording one. 

We are talking about a technique that is sometimes overlooked but that adds weight to a vocal track in the same way we record different layers of guitar to thicken up the "wall of sound".
We are talking of tracking two exactly identical takes of a same vocal track (sometimes of ALL vocal tracks), to give more weight and thickness to the performance.

This technique requires a singer with a perfect sense of timing, otherwise it will force the mix engineer in a huge editing work, sometimes almost impossible, with the result that he will just mute one of the two tracks.
If the performance is good and well timed the vocals will sound like they are recorded with a chorus effect, but unlike using that effect the sligh imperfections made by a real second take will make the sound much more alive and thick, and less '80s pop.
This technique of doubling the vocal track is also important to cover better some performance imperfections, since the two tracks will give the impression of masking each other's weaknesses.

This technique is used very often in r'n'b music, sometimes also in rap, and it is very effective in general in every "vocal centric" genre.
If vocals are distorted (es. growl, scream, rasp, false chords), the thickness effect is exaggerated, like doubling a very distorted guitar track: the number of voices will seem to be more than two, and it is very often used in choruses.

When doubling vocals we can both record 2 identical takes or get creative using 2 different ones (for example one sang 1 octave lower and one 1 octave higher, or one in deep growl and one in scream, or one sang from one singer and one from another - this last one requires even more skill from the 2 singers to get each take exactly at the same time one another): in this case we can get crazy with creative automations, deciding for example that during the verse we want to add a couple of db to the lower track and put the high pitch one in the background and then during the chorus we can switch them, but the usages of this tools are really infinite, and it will really add a new dimension to our songs.

Once we have started recording more takes, we may even arrive to see the classic way of recording just one vocal as dull or limiting (for certain genres, obviously if our singer is Freddie Mercury it is sufficient his own voice raw and without background music, and the album will be perfect :D ).

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Saturday, September 17, 2016

Review: Behringer HPS5000 Studio Headphones

Hello and welcome to this week's article!
Today we are going to talk about a very inexpensive model of headphones that can turn out to be handy for recording: the Behringer HPS5000.

When it comes to music production there is some people who prefer (or cannot use monitors in their bedroom studios) to work with headphones;
for this reason many producers have started offering "studio grade" headphones, with a serie of features that could make them usable also for mixing, although a realistic representation of the final sound is hard to obtain even with the most high end ones.
Among the various producers there are also some like Behringer who rely on the price as main selling point: their products are usually very economic and draws the most money attentive users.
Unfortunately as we know there are some elements in our home studio that can also not be "top tier" without affecting too much the final result, but mixing headphones are not one of those elements.

These headphones are marketed as "mixing level", but the truth is unfortunately different: the reproduction is not reliable for mixing, since they cut out most of the bass frequences and boost the medium-highs, but nevertheless they can turn out to be useful for example when recording a singer, or when sending the click to the drummer.
Construction wise they are not very solid either, with the "plastic-leather" earpieces breaking down quite fast after the purchase.

Our suggestion is to look for other producers, who provides also budget headphones without the poor building quality of these ones, for example Sennheiser.

Specs taken from the website:

Ultra-wide frequency response

High-definition bass and super-transparent highs

High-efficiency cobalt capsule

Single-sided coiled cord with oxygen-free copper wires

Optimized oval-shaped ear cups

3-Year Warranty Program*

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Saturday, September 10, 2016

Dynamic volume fader riding (creative automations)

Hello everyone and welcome to this week's article!
Today we are going to talk about a topic that is connected to our Automations article and to our "The focus of our mix" one.
We are going to talk about a practice that was very common in the past ('60s, '70s, '80s) but that with the advent of the digital domain has become less used, and that it has remained more as an arranging tool than a real technical need: riding the volume faders.

There was a time in which compressors were not as effective as today, or harware studios did not have many compressors to stack one above the other to make a track steady as a rock, therefore volume peaks, especially with songs with a high dynamic range as a vocal track with whispered parts and screamed parts, had to be manually trimmed down by raising and lowering the actual volume fader at the right moment: this practice is also known as "riding the fader".

Today as we have seen in the automations article we can still do it in real time, recording the changes, or programming it not in real time, letting all the changes to take place at the specific moment.

What is important to say it's that today this practice is an arrangement tool, and rarely a professional album can be considered completed without some volume automation to polish the final result: we need to draw the attention of the listener to the focus of that particular part, in a way that he will not even notice that we are putting something in the front or in the background.
We can also arrive to the point of bumping up one or two db a single word in a verse to give it importance, or lower the guitars in the verse to make the listener focus on the lyrics and bump them up in the chorus to give more of an explosion effect, emphasize the kick drum on a more "dance-like" part and then switch it back to normal when the part becomes back more classic... The examples are infinite, the concept to remember from this week's article is to use the volume automation to further arrange the song and make it even more understandable, more easy listening, to increase the dynamic range underlining stop and go, drops, explosions, and to make it in general more exciting, instead than relying excessively only on compressors.

Don't be shy to experiment!

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