Saturday, April 27, 2013

GUITAR SPEAKERS! Everything you need to know

the secret to great sound is to understand where it starts for the listener and work your way backwards.”

(Ray Thomas Baker, Queen producer)

Hello and welcome to this week's article! Today we're going to talk about guitar amp speakers!

Speakers are a very important part of a guitar (and bass) tone, and like every other item in the Signal Chain they colour the tone by altering the EQ, harmonics, and sound envelope of anything is in front of them.
Speakers can be an excellent way of solving tonal problems that many spend thousands of dollars trying to fix: we like the tone of our amplifier but we need a bit more body in the low-end area (possibly because we have a bright sounding guitar)?
We can try changing the speaker: there are more modern sounding, more vintage sounding, with more or less low-end, more suited for overdrive or for clean tones (in the manufacturer's website there are often comparison charts with the brand's speaker models, in order to understand the differencies of Eq and timbre among them).

This article does not intend to go too deep with the physics that rules a speaker, but there are a couple of important parameters to bear in mind when choosing the right one: Ohms and Watts.

- Ohms (often represented with the greek letter for Omega "Ω") it's the measuring system for Impedance, which is basically the resistance applied between the Output transformer of the amp and the speaker. Ideally, the lower the impedance is, the louder the sound will result, but the more stressful the task will be for the amplifier (although most of modern amplifiers are perfectly suited to work even with 4 Ohm).
Guitar cabinets are usually built with the following impedance values: 4 Ohm, 8 Ohm or 16 Ohm and some of them lets us switch betweek the values, while others instead can only work in one or two modes. 

The ideal situation would be to connect the speaker cable (which is not a common instrument cable, don't mistake!!) from the amplifier's output to the cabinet input of the matching Ohm impedance, but this is not always possible.
If we must use a non matched amp-speaker combination, it is possible to use the cabinet with higher impedance value with the amp using a lower setting (e.g. 8 Ohm cabinet with 4 Ohm amp setting).
This type of connection will slighly modify the overall instrument timbre due to the fact that the output transformers will have to deal with different load (this is true for tube power amp section, not the solid state one), but it won't cost any harm to the amplifier.

A combination to avoid, instead, is when we have a lower impedance value cabinet connected to the higher impedance value amp. For example: 4 Ohm cabinet connected to the 8 Ohm amp; this will stress the output transformer and may cause damage to the amplifier.

- Speaking of Watts, instead, it's important to check out the maximum load accepted from a cabinet (intended as the sum of the single speakers mounted): it must be equal or if possible higher than the maximum Rms output of the amplifier, in order to avoid damages to the speaker.
For example: if we have a 120w rms head, we must connect it to AT LEAST a cabinet with 1 120w speaker, or 2x60w speakers, but if possible it would be even better to connect it to a 4x60w speakers, so that the power load is divided by four (120w / 4 = 30w), and sent to 4 speakers with a 60w maximum power rating, so that we are sure that even if we drive the amp to the maximum, the speakers won't get damaged.

Today there are many speaker manufacturers, which builds loudspeakers of any kind, any dimension (the most common for guitars is usually 12 inches, but for bass is also popular the 10" or the 15" size) and any material (the most commons are Ceramic and Alnico), and the most popular brands are Celestion, Electro-Voice, Eminence and Jensen. Each brand and each single model has a unique sound, and as always our suggestion is to go to a shop with your own guitar (and if possible, amplifier), and to try as many speaker-cabinet combinations as you can, in order to choose the cabinet more suited to your own taste.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

The Loudness War: The TT Dynamic Range Meter (Free Vst Download Inside)

Hello everybody and welcome to this week's article! 
Today we're going to talk about the Loudness War! What is it?
In the last decades, music productions have become louder and louder, why? 
Because if the artist "A" wants to be heard in the radio louder than the artist "B", he will want a louder mastering. 
Then artist "B" will want an ever louder mix to be heard even "better" than artist "A", and this mentality ignited a "war" (or a downward spiral): every artist wants to sound louder than the others, so in the last decades we have witnessed to a general increase of the average loudness in music.

Is there any downside of this war? Yes. more than one: As we have seen on our article about Limiters (Click Here for a dedicated article about Limiters), the ceiling is always the same: -0.1db, so the only thing that can be used to push a mix is the the threshold; the more we lower it, the less headroom the mix will have, the more we will lose transient, and in the end the result will be (and it often is) a distorted, lo-fi mess, as can be heard on Metallica's "Death Magnetic" album,  which is often taken as an example of excessively loud mastering.

During the last few years a group of mastering engineers have created the Pleasurize Music Foundation, a foundation with the aim of explaining to the people, and expecially the producers, how an excessively loud mastering can ruin a song and result unpleasant and ear-fatiguing.
This foundation (which also sometimes promotes a "Dinamic Range Day" in which people on social networks tries to sensibilize the others about this problem that is said to be ruining modern music) has also created a tool, called the TT Dynamic Range Meter, which is a free standalone program, and a Vst Metering Tool (click here for a dedicated article about metering tools).

This tool should be put on the last slot (which usually is the post-fader one) of the Master Channel of our Daw, during the Mastering Phase (click here for a dedicated article about the mastering phase), in order to check out the final levels of our song: the particularity of the tool is that it not only it tells us about the volume of the song, but also about the headroom. If the central strip is too short and red, it means that our mix and/or master is over compressed, and this will lead to listening fatigue. When the meter is in the yellow area it means it's acceptable, while if it's green it means that there is a lot of headroom, and the final result will be pleasant and with all the transients perfectly audible (Click Here for a dedicated article about transients).

In conclusion, my suggestion is to check out the Pleasurize Music Foundation, to dowload their metering tool from that page and to master your song according to this tool's judgement: it will really improve the quality and enjoyability of your music.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

GUITAR AND BASS STRINGS! a guide for dummies.

hello and welcome to this week's article! Today we're going to talk about the part of our instrument that is directly touched by our fingers and our pick: the strings.
In order to decide which string to use, besides the particular characteristics of the various manufacturers, there are three general aspects that we need to understand: the Winding, the Material and the Gauges.

- The Winding: the two main string winding types for guitar and bass are the Flatwound type and the Roundwound type. 
All wound strings are made by wrapping layers of wire around a core wire. Roundwound strings use a round wire as the wrap, flatwound strings use a flat ribbon wire.
Roundwound strings deliver a brighter tone, but can also emphasize squeaks.
Flatwound strings have a duller sound, with less extra noise, and tend to keep a more consistent tone longer.

- The Material used to wrap the strings is also a crucial aspect, here are the three most used for electric guitar and bass:

Pure Nickel Wound String: Most strings of the '50, '60 and '70s were wound with an alloy called Pure Nickel; this kind of strings have a soft feel and produce that warm, vintage tone.

Nickel plated steel (commonly known as NPS) is the alloy most widely used in string making today. It is a steel winding with a nickel plating applied, which enhances the feel and reduces finger noise and fret wear. NPS strings are hotter and provide greater sustain and a brighter sound than the pure nickel ones.

Stainless steel strings are the hottest and brightest, and provide more sustain than either pure nickel or NPS. They are more resistant to oils, acids and sweat and are, hands down, the longest lasting strings. Used on most Flat-Wound sets, Stainless steel is a hard material, so it feels a little different and can cause more fret wear.

- String Gauge is the last general criteria we should use when choosing which strings to use on our beloved guitar or bass; the measure is in thousandths of an inch: the first number is the gauge of the thinnest string, the second number is the gauge of the thickest one, and the bigger a gauge is, the fatter and "mid-lows oriented" the tone will be, while smaller gauges will produce brighter tones. Most brands have string gauges that ranges from light to heavy, and also composited sets: for example if we are trying to obtain the typical Jimi Hendrix tone, we would use 10-38 pure nickel set, if we want to play death metal we can use instead a 13-56, or 13-60 stainless steel one, but we can also use composited sets with the highest strings of a thinner gauge and the lower ones of a thicker set, in order to obtain fat rhythm tones while retaining a certain softness for bendings, and a common example for this kind of set would be the 10-52 one.
For Bass the range goes from 40-100 to 55-115 for a four strings one, but a fifth string can become as big as 145.

String Brands: After we have chosen the right material, the winding type and the right gauge compromise that will let us play confortably our guitar and obtain the right tone, it's time to choose a good string brand. There are many brands on the market, and among them the most commons are: D'Addario, Ernie Ball, Elixir, Fender, Dean Markley, Rotosound, Ghs... The only criteria here is to try different brands and to choose with our own ear and fingers, until we find the right strings for us; in the end is all quite subjective.

Once we have our brand new strings it's time to mount them on our guitar or bass (click here for a dedicated article!).

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Saturday, April 6, 2013

HOW TO USE THE TIME-STRETCHING TOOL (with Free Vst plugins inside!)

Hello and welcome to this week's article! This time we have a question submitted by Ross, a big friend of mine and a great singer, which I found to be very interesting: how do I slow down a song, in order to be able to exercise better with my guitar?
Expanding the topic, how can we slow down or make a song or a loop to match the bpm of another song?
Time Stretching is a very interesting subject also for electronic music producers: when writing a song they often use loops of different bpms, and they need to change the tempo in order to fit them in their song, or even a dj may need to Automate the tempo of two songs in order to smoothen the transition between them (click here for a dedicated article about automations).

Getting into business, this tutorial is specific for the Cubase/Nuendo interface, but it can be applied to just about any DAW in the market (even the free ones ;D).
First off we will have to set the left and right locators (find the right metronome of your loop and select carefully the measure, if you're interested into changing a single loop tempo), then right click on the track, and from the resulting scrolling menu click on Process->Time Stretch.
Now that we have our Time Stretch window open, we can modify the lenght of the track in different ways: we can choose a target bpm to follow (we can for example set in original lenght the track's tempo for example 120bpm, and in resulting lenght 90bpm), or we can modify the speed deciding a certain percentage, in the Time Stretch Ratio box.

Another very interesting feature is the "Use Locators" box: by enabling it, if we have selected with our locators, for example, a smaller portion of our track (instead of selecting its totality), the software will automatically shrink the track or enlarge it in order to fit the selection;
this feature is very useful if we need, for example, to slow down a track of half of its tempo: we must just select with the locators a portion of our project that is twice as the track we wish to slow down (e.g. the track is 4 measures, we select 8), and process it.

If the track is not excessively modified, the pitch and the overall quality should remain decent, and help us to satisfy our creativity or study needs.

As previously stated, today most of DAWs already features a built-in time stretching tool, but in case you want to try some cool free Vst, here's a couple of good ones:

Paul's Extreme Sound Stretch - A tool suited for extreme sound stretching (even 50x!)

Slower - a tool to stretch timing and pitch, with 16 presets, good also to create special effects.

Hope this was helpful!

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