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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Sunday, September 4, 2016

Testing our mix on various sources

Hello everyone and welcome to this week's article!
Today we will talk about my routine when finalizing a mix.
The topic is transposition: how do our mix translates on the media that will be used by the majority of the consumers?
Will our mix made with super fancy monitors sounds the same also on some cheap laptop speaker or will it suck?
The answer is reverse engineering.

The rule of thumb is to use the best monitoring device we can, for example the best pair of monitors or the best mixing headphones, because the better they are the, the better they will translate to the other media, but this does not spare us the reverse engineering phase (although if they are good they will make it much more painless).

What do we mean by reverse engineering?
We mean having some critical listening session on a medium quality car stereo, on a private youtube video, on laptop speakers, on mobile phone headphones, and so on.
This because not only every hardware will emphasize some frequency which could potentially screw up our song, but also because software often applies some "post mastering", like some eq or some limiting, that could do even more damage (es. Youtube or iTunes), to the point that there are mastering courses today aimed just to prepare a separate mix for these specific media (which sucks).

Our aim here is, if we don't want to make a different mix for every media, to make a song with a limiting not too extremely pushed (with a ceiling of -1db to -0.2db), that can sound great from every source, so in my case I

1) listen to the song in my car taking notes of what elements of the mix pops out too much (or too little) compared to my studio monitors and I correct it (someone even connects the mixing laptop to the aux in of the car stereo and makes the corrections on the fly).

2) I do the same with cheap pc speakers

3) cheap pc headphones

4) mobile phone headphones.

Eventually I get back to the car stereo, which is my main source of music listening, and if it still sounds good after all the adjustments I upload the song on a private video on Youtube to hear if the processing affects the sound in any way.

If it still sounds good, the song is ready to be published.

Do you have a different mix checking routine? Let us know!

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Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Review: Behringer HA400 Headphone Amplifier

Hello everyone and welcome to this week's article!
Today we're going to talk about an useful tool in recording environment, the cheapest of its kind:
The Behringer HA 400 Headphone amplifier.

What is a headphone amplifier? 
Let's say that you are recording a singer and you don't have a console room separated from the recording room: you are in the same room in which the singer is performing, and you don't want the monitor sound to spill into the microphone: the only solution is to use two pair of headphones, one for the singer (or drummer, or guitar player, of any other microphoned musician) and one for the recording engineer.

This is the most classic use of this tool in a home recording environment, but the uses of this little box are various, for example even when recording a radio show or a podcast, in which there are more people talking and needing to hear the background music, commercials etc, or when recording a whole band.

This unit is basically a box that takes a headphone out from an audio interface (which usually has only one or two outs) and multiplies it in four separate stereo outs, each one with its volume knob, and it is powered by a dc adaptor that grants enough volume to make us able to hear the signal even when playing loud acoustic instruments.

Do I suggest this headphone amplifier over other, more expensive ones?
Yes, because we are not using it for the actual mixing, but only for live-tracking purposes, therefore no perfect reproduction is needed, we just need to hear the signal at a good level, therefore there is no use in investing too much money on this particular piece of gear, and maybe save some for more crucial tools like a pair of monitors.
How does it sound?
As I have said, it is not for mixing purposes: it sounds quite thin, it doesn't reproduce the full sound spectrum perfectly and probably the building quality doesn't give the impression of being particularly solid, but for static home recording purpoes does its dirty job, and as many other Behringer products it is really a good bang for the buck.

Specs taken from the website:

- Ultra-compact headphone amplifier system for studio and stage applications

- 4 independent stereo high-power amplifier sections

- Highest audio quality with virtually all types of headphones even at maximum volume

- Phones Level control per channel

- DC 12 V adapter included

- 3-Year Warranty Program

Sunday, August 21, 2016

The Focus of our Mix (a 5 points list)

Hello and welcome to this week's article!
Today we are going to talk about "the big picture", in facts often sound engineers are detail oriented nerds which focuses their attention on one detail at the time and refine it to perfection, and sometimes they can get to a point in which they lose a holistic view of the mix, for example after hours spent working on a synth sound.
The result is that when the producer hears a mix he focuses on certain things that the final listener won't even notice, and he could lose the general view of how is the song perceived.

This small list is useful to "keep the eyes on the ball", since the listener hears the complete song, not the single parts, so we will try to break down the elements that usually are more noticed in a mix, so that we will know where to put most of our efforts.
Notice that this list applies for rock, metal, punk, funk and most of pop music, but there are other genres completely different in which these rules don't apply, because they would make the song excessively rhythm based (es. jazz), so use it at your own risk.

1) Snare sound: the snare sound is the business card of the song.
It's the first thing that gets to the ear of the listener, because it is made, along with vocals, to resonate exactly in the most audible frequences for the human ear.
The snare sound alone can decide the genre of a song, imagine the typical reggae snare of the Bob Marley albums, the dry and snappy sound of the electronic dance music one, the shotgun sound of 80s rock or the acoustic vibe of '60s and '70s rock snare.
If the snare sound is botched, the WHOLE song will sound amateur, or unpleasant, even if the listener can't recognize why, so make sure to nail it.
Click here for an article about mixing drums.

2) Low end (kick and bass): this is the punch of the song, and one the core elements that makes the difference between a very amateur recording and a professional one, because to be nailed it requires expensive monitors and use of metering tools that usually amateur mix engineers doesn't consider important.
If we get right the balance both in levels and in frequences of the rhythm section, which is the whole drumset (especially the balance between snare and kick) and the bass we have done most of the mix, because the whole song will sound balanced and the listener will focus on the content, the music, which is our main objective.
Bass and kick should go as in sinergy as possible, and this assumes we have good tracks, played in time and well arranged, and the frequences should be complementary each other when mixing, so that the "house" we are building has strong foundations.

3) Vocals: Once we have a solid rhythmic section we must focus on vocals, because (unless we are mixing some swedish nineties death metal song) it will be the thing that will make the listener press play on our track.
If the vocals are bad, either because the singer is bad or because we have recorded or mixed him poorly, the song will be a failure, so we must treat it very carefully, considering that 70% of a vocal track happens during tracking; after that we can embellish it with reverb, delay, autotune, but if a vocal take sucks it cannot un-suck, so grab your best microphone, your best preamp, your best patience and record the track again if it doesn't sound perfect, because even if the song will be perfectly produced, if the vocal sucks, noone will ever want to listen to it.

4) Accompainment (guitars, piano...): now we must take care of everything is around the voice, such as guitars, or synths, or anything else, and we do it after drums and vocals, otherwise we would not be willing to sacrifice frequences or modify the perfect sound we have found to make room to drums and vocals. Keep your eyes on the ball guys!

5) Additional arrangement: This last element (such as adding small details like handclaps on snare here and there, some extra effect to underline a certain word, some lo-fi stop and go, automations etc), should be done once we have our general mix finished, and these details will be the candies we will throw to the listener to rise the attention when we are afraid he would get distracted, or to draw it towards a particular element of the song.
Use them with parsimony though, because otherwise if the song is too full of these tricks the listener will stop paying attention to them!

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Sunday, August 14, 2016

Review: Focusrite Saffire PRO 14

Hello and welcome to this week's article!
Today we are going to review an interesting audio interface, the Focusrite Saffire Pro 14.
This is a firewire interface, built in a very solid metal case and with 8 input (2 jack input with pre, 2 xlr input with pre, 2 line inputs, 1 midi in and 1 spdif in) and 6 outputs (4 line outs, 1 midi out, 1 spdif out), is one of the most common (together with its usb sister, the Scarlett serie) and used home recording audio interface in the market, due to its good quality to price ratio and rock solid reliability, both for the hardware and the drivers part.

The interface sounds well, the preamps are in line with the competitors (although I personally prefer slightly the sound of the ones in the Presonus Audiobox), the unit works at 24 bit/96 khz without problems, and the drivers are reliable (which is essential for an audio interface) and with a latency close to zero.
The unit comes with a lite version of Ableton live, and with a bundle of Focusrite Vst plugins that emulate the interface style of vintage processors, such as Equalizers and Compressors.

There are many competitors today in the market, especially in this medium price layer in which the quality is constantly rising and the prices are lowering: a firewire interface in the past was almost mandatory because Usb 1.1 interfaces were not enough reliable to manage big projects, the firewire connection was much more stable and let more data to run through without errors, but today the latest usb interfaces are as reliable as the firewire ones, without the nightmare of the hot plugging problem, which risks to destroy the pc motherboard (firewire interfaces can be plugged into the computer only with the pc turned off, otherwise it can burn the connection in the motherboard).

Is it a good idea today to buy a firewire interface

It depends on how old our pc is, if it is 5/10 years old it can often be a good idea, because firewire connection is more stable and doesn't rely on the cpu to manage the incoming and outgoing data transmission (unlike the usb connection), so it ensures a stable and soild stream of data that is essential in mixing. On the other hand, if we have a more recent pc I would suggest an usb interface, because today the pc cpu and the quality of the usb connection are good enough to mix also larger projects, and we don't have the constant risk of frying our motherboard due to accidental hot plugging.

Microphone Inputs 1-2
Frequency Response: 20Hz - 20kHz +/- 0.2 dB
Gain Range: +13dB to +60dB
Maximum Headroom +8dBu
Input Impedance: 2k Ohm

Line Inputs (Inputs 1-2)
Frequency Response: 20Hz - 20kHz +/- 0.2dB
Gain Range: -10dB to +36dB

A/D Dynamic Range > 109dB (A-weighted), all analogue inputs
D/A Dynamic Range > 106dB (A-weighted), all analogue outputs
Clock Sources: - Internal Clock - Sync to Word Clock on SPDIF Input (RCA)
Supported Sample Rates: 44.1kHz, 48kHz, 88.2kHz, 96kHz

Weight and Dimensions
1.5kg / 3.3lbs
215mm (W) x 45mm (H) x 220mm (D) (8.5 x 1.8 x 8.7 inches)
Analogue Channel Inputs (Inputs 1-2)
2 Mic XLR Combo (channels 1-2) on front panel
2 Line 1⁄4” TRS (channels 3-4) on rear panel
Output Level control (analogue) for outputs 1 and 2
Stereo Headphones Mix 1 on 1⁄4” TRS (also routed to Outputs 3 & 4) with independent volume control
Digital Channel Outputs (Outputs 5-6) 44.1 - 96kHz
Instrument input source selection LED for channels 1 and 2
Phantom Power (48V) switch and LED for inputs 1 and 2

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