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Saturday, March 31, 2012

FREQUENCY / PHASE ANALYZERS AND METERING (Free Vst Plugins inside)


Metering is a very useful way to visually see what the audio is doing; checking the frequency range of a multi-track is a great way to see if your mix has an overabundance of some frequency or other, and where to make corrections. Using a Spectrum analizer is very important in the mixing phase in order to "assign" to each instrument a "core" range of frequencies they should tend to, in order to clean each channel of the useless frequencies (for example using high pass or low pass filters), avoiding to put too many sounds layered in the same area.
Making your track loud enough without squashing the dynamics, is also a priority in these days of over-compressed masters, so metering is very important in the Mastering Phase too, in order to check the whole  track and eventually apply some last-minute corrections.

When mixing or Mastering, it is crucial to use your ears, but it is also important nowadays to have a visual reference of what you are doing, to see how narrow your equalization cuts are, or to point out in an easier way the changes you are making (for example the Compression you're applying) is going to impact to the whole song or to the single instrument's wave.
Sometimes metering is very useful also to find where the muddyness of a song comes from, for example from a reverb applied to a single instrument, so that we can correct the problem by Eqing the effect.

Especially in the Mastering Phase, Metering comes handy to check out the Dynamic Range: using a Limiter, in facts, there is a strong risk of overcompressing the sound, ruining all the dynamics. Therefore when limiting is a good rule to check the analyzer, in order to keep a Dynamic Range (DR) of 10 to 14 db (Dynamic Range is the difference between the quieter and the louder parts). Squashing the sound too much will result in ruining the pleasure of listening.
It's very important to leave enough Dynamic Range, and to measure it there is a dedicated tool: TT Metering tool, which is created by the a fundation against the Loudness War (click here for a dedicated article).
As I often say on these articles, the best and most expensive DAWs often features some metering tool too, but if you need some free Vst frequency analyzer, the best around are two made by Voxengo: SPAN and AnSpec. Make sure to check them out!

In the Mastering Phase, another metering tool that can prove to be very useful is the Goniometer.
This type of spectrum analyzer basically works as a Phase meter, which means that it tells you if your track has any phase problems (any sound that has some frequency that "cancels" other frequencies, making them disappear, Click Here for an article about Phase Coherence). If the meter stays somewhat in the middle, with no parts creating any weirdness you should be fine, or you can check the Correlation Meter: if the meter is close to all the way to the  "+1 side", you shouldn’t be having any phase problems. If there are phase problems, instead, you should go checking your mix for any instrument and/or effect (e.g. the tail of the reverb) that may contain frequencies that may cancel some other. To discover which parts of your mix has  Phase problems, you must SWITCH YOUR MIX TO MONO, this way you'll be able to point out more clearly which frequencies may cause the phase erasement problems.
Goniometers are plugins that not often are found bundled in DAWs, so, among the many commercial ones, here is a free one: Flux Stereo Tool.

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Monday, March 26, 2012

COMPLETING THE MASTERING: DITHERING AND REMOVE DC OFFSET (with Free Vst Plugins)



This is the final part of our Mastering Tutorial, which takes place after all the dynamics are finely tuned, the last eq coloring has been given, and the overall volume has been raised to the desired level.
You could say you've finished... Wrong! There is still one last thing we need to do before giving our song to the voracious music business.

First off, if you think there is not enough headroom on your master, it may be caused by many things, and one of these things is the DC Offset. DC offset occurs when hardware, such as a sound card, adds DC current to a recorded audio signal. This current results in a recorded waveform that is not centered around the baseline, which is "-infinity", and for some reason takes away headroom.
Most of today DAWs have a "Remove DC Offset" function, that may be used to solve this problem.

Once we checked if we needed to solve this Dc problem, it's time to Dither.
This phase is when you bring your mix down to 16bit / 44khz, which is the audio cd standard, if you have recorded and mixed an audio with higher settings (e.g. 24bit / 48khz).
The first thing to check is to not have any clipping through the whole chain, so check the signal, and  it's a good rule to bypass and turn on again every plugin present on the chain in order to check how they affect the signal and if there is any plugin deactivated or that you need to remove.
Now check the meters at the end of the chain; is the signal clipping? Is your Limiter set too hard? Make sure that there is still a bit of headroom left to not lose completely all the dynamics of your mix.
Now you can apply Dithering, and remember to use it only if you have worked with tracks with a bitrate superior to 16bit / 44khz, to reduce the quality to cd standards, preserving the best headroom and clarity achievable.
Why do we need this process? Because when we reduce the bit depth of a track (for example from 24 bit to 16 bit) we could have some truncation distortion (or quantization error), which can be very unpleasant, therefore dithering adds some low level noise to avoid this problem, randomizing the quantization errors.

Now, once you have exported the track, load it again on your DAW or on another single track editor, like Steinberg Wavelab or Soundforge, and check the last details, such as the beginning and ending markers, check for peaks, and if needed, apply fade ins/fade outs on the track.
Most DAWs already features a Dithering Plugin, but if you need one, try LOSER and VOXENGO R8BRAIN, which are free, and absolutely worth a trying.

Now your song is ready to rock!!

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Sunday, March 18, 2012

HOW TO USE THE STEREO EXPANDER / ENHANCER (free Vst Plugins inside)


Hello and welcome to this week's article! Today we're going to talk about Stereo Expanders / enhancers / exciters / wideners.

A stereo expander is a tool used to increase the width of your mix; although you may have already set the pan on your single channels, sometimes the global mix may still sound "thin", not enough open when compared to your reference albums.
The reason is in the Mastering Phase: sometimes in this phase, along with the other processors, many producers add a stereo expander/enhancer, in order to open up the mix even more, and let it "breathe" and surround the listener.

Today the best commercial DAWs already features an in-bundle stereo expander, but here is a selection of the best free ones: UPSTEREO, that can also excite some frequencies to help the Mastering, BRAIN DOC STEREO ENHANCER lets you decide the width by frequency, FLUX features a vector display that shows you graphically the stereo imaging, and the WIDEBUG is a simple and low-cpu consuming widening tool.

What do we need to know about stereo expanders? That only some frequencies of the mix needs to be expanded, while others needs to stay modo: we need to expand the highs, from the 1000hz up nice and wide (just increase the Width setting until the mix is open like your favourite reference album), while going increasingly mono as we go down with the frequencies, until we are completely mono from around 512hz down.
We need to do this way since the larger the wave is (so the lower it is), the less directional it becomes, thus if we make it wide we risks to create phase problems.
The "phase problem" is the fact that certain frequencies may contrast others with the result of deleting them, so we need to use a Spectrum Analyzer if we can, in order to avoid such problems.

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Sunday, March 11, 2012

HOW TO USE TAPE SATURATION / TUBE SATURATION (free Vst Plugins inside)



Hello and welcome our weekly post! This time we're going to talk about Tape Saturation and Tube Saturation.
What are they? We're talking about plugins that tries to emulate the response of the hardware devices that were once used to record which added a distinctive tonality to the sound, that has gone lost with the arrival of digital recording.

- Tape Saturation: is a low-level distortion introduced when recording to tape, which used to add a particular Equalization cut to a recording. In the past, sound engineers used to achieve this effect raising the level of the tape recorder, so that when tape is driven in this way and the level meets 0db (or a little bit beyond) the level clips, but in the analog realm this is known as ‘soft clipping’. When digital recording became available, sound engineers tried to reduce the analog coloring and distortion as much as possible in order to achieve the highest fidelity sound available, but then they eventually realized that something was missing, and that part of the beauty of classic recordings was given also by the "lower fidelity" of analog devices. Tape saturation plugins emulates the sound of an audio recorded to tape, and can give you a punchier sound, since they basically add a very slight Compression and distortion, pushing the sound also a bit towards the mid-frequencies area, and works well on single instruments that requires to be brought forward in the mix, but today its main use is in the Mastering Phase, since to add warmth to single instruments we suggest to use the Tube Saturation we'll discuss further in this same article.

A great free plugin that simulates analog saturation/compression and can help you bringing your mix to life, and that can be used instead of a buss Compressor in the Mastering Phase, is FERRIC TDS, which has three main controls: DYNAMICS, that works as a gentle Compressor, SATURATION, that adds extra harmonics, and LIMITING, that controls peak performances. Another nice free and very simple Vst to try is 1-TIME.

- Tube Saturation: Tube saturation plugins instead, emulates the sound of an audio being processed by a tube preamplifier, and are great for adding analogue "fatness" and warmth to recordings, adding harmonics to the sound. Increasing the amount of drive you can obtain some nice distortion too, but this is not their first aim, so in order to add real distortion is probably better to use other dedidcated plugins. Tube saturation plugins are quite easy to use: the DRIVE control increases the digital input gain. Play with the balance between the drive and output gain to control the amount of saturation required, and you'll be able to add a pleasant, slightly mid-focused colour and harmonics to your GUITAR, VOCALS, SYNTH, KICK, SNARE and other instruments. Since these plugins tends to be a bit more invasive than Tape Saturators, I'd suggest to use them on single instruments, and then use a tape saturator for Mastering, but this is not a rule, just follow your ears.

Today many DAWs features an in-bundle tube saturation plugin, but here's a couple of good free Vst to try: RUBY TUBE, Nick Crow TUBE DRIVER, Voxengo TubeAmp and Hotto Vintage Tube Warmer/Maximizer.


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Sunday, March 4, 2012

HOW TO USE THE TRANSIENT DESIGNER / SHAPER / ENVELOPER (free Vst Plugins inside)



When recording, especially when microphoning, the mic placement is crucial, since it will affect the body of the sound we're playing. This body, the loudest and most characteristic part is called Transient (click here for a dedicated article that explains of microphoning affects the transient of a sound).

Transient designers (also known as "Transient Shapers" or "Envelopers") are sound processors that stands somewhere between equalizers and compressors, but the aim of T.D.s is to affect only the Attack and Sustain phase of a sound, so these effects are capable of enhancing or attenuating each of these with precise accuracy. For instance, using a transient designer we’re able to increase the attack of a snare sound or even reduce the sustain of a drum loop, in order to reduce the room sound in the recording.
These results can be achieved with other methods too, for example using an Equalizer, but the characteristic of Transient Designers is to leave the "core of the sound" unaffected and only process attack and sustain, which is quite hard to obtain with other methods.
First off lest's start saying that some of todays best DAWs already features an in-bundle Transient Designer, but here is our suggestion for the best free Vst  T.Ds: FLUX BitterSweet II, DigitalFish Dominion, Storm Transient Designer (this is mono). For an interesting example of how this kind of plugin works, check out the audio samples of the Native Instruments Transient Master, that can be found Here.

Here are the most common and fundamental controls featured on Transient Designers:

- Attack: With this control you can increase the punch of the initial part of the sound (for example the pick of a bass, the strum of a guitar to make it more "chimey", or the attack of a drum sound), or lower it to make it softer and less "in your face". This function adds or subtracts decibels like an equalizer, boosting or cutting the amplitude of the first part of the sound.

- Sustain: This control affects the "tail" of the sound, and is mainly used to remove (or increase) the room reverb for example on drums, vocals or acoustic guitars. The sustain control is useful to get the sound closer or farther away from the listener, increasing or decreasing the sustain as it works with a compressor. The nice thing with Transient Designers is that you can work of the sustain of a sound without compressing the sound itself and leaving it more natural.

- Gain: There is really not much to say about this control, other that is used to lower the volume of the sound when needed, especially when increasing the attack: the volume of the signal will be increased, so it’s well worth lowering the output level of the plug-in to avoid clipping.

Transient Designers are used also for creative results, like shaping the sound of a Synth (for example making it less aggressive) or adding space (or removing it) from a whole mix during the Mastering Phase: in this phase the shaping tools are used mainly to recover some body lost due to an excessive compression. Let us know if you have some other interesting use of this kind of processor to suggest!


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