19: Mixing & Tracking Electric Guitars – Practical application of ideas

This activity is working with guitars that I recorded in a recent recording session, including a heavily distorted rhythm part.

My first test was of the theory that attenuating around 800Hz makes the guitar sound less “cheap”. It seems that in my previous mix pass, I had already attenuated at 760Hz with a relatively wide Q, so this seems to come instinctually. Although, after testing, I can say that for this particular example, this theory is true. I’ll keep this in mind during future mixes, but not rely on it, as I don’t think it will be applicable across the board.

Stereo “wideners” and stereo delay based effects can also be very interesting to experiment with, although I feel that these should be used with mono compatibility kept in mind.

Parallel compression worked well to add an extra dynamic to the distorted rhythm part, as the heavily compressed parallel signal with an attack that allowed the “chug” of the guitar through was good to blend with the original signal, and gave the riff a more dynamic, rhythmic feel without running the original guitar with over-compression.

I’d say that overall, my research was very useful, and I shall use these small tricks in future productions.

18: Creative use of Reverb – Exercise in creating unusual reverbs

I thought I’d spend a session testing some of the things which I have learned through my process.

Firstly, I tried loading various randomly picked noises as IRs into Logic’s Space Designer. Some gave almost unusable results, but the properties of the sounds envelope were of great importance to its suitability. An elephants bellow, with an artificial fade out added to envelope the sound gave particularly interesting results. This is something I would like to experiment with again in the future, as the results can be not only wildly unpredictable, but sometimes breath-taking.

After this, I tried some experimentation with using IR-1 and filtering, gating, modulating, distorting and generally mangling its output with a range of input material. There was too much for me to easily document, but I feel it’s enough to say that I have gained some good ideas for how to make a “point of interest” reverb for future productions.

17: Pianos – Compression exercise

After some light research, I had a short session of compressing pianos and keyboards that I had recorded in previous sessions.

It seems that pianos are made to already have a good balance of attack to sustain, especially when using samples as these are often key considerations when choosing samples that fit a song. Therefore, it seems that piano compression is more about simple controlling the level of the piano on a broader time frame, and making sure that it doesn’t jump out of the mix too much. Low compression ratio and low threshold can work quite well at “smoothing” the sound, but can sound a little un-natural. I seem to prefer the approach of setting the threshold to just catch the problematic peaks, and setting the compressor with a slightly higher ratio (maybe around 3 or 4:1) to just pull down those “jumpy” spikes, with an attack time that allows the preservation of the transients. Release time seems to be dependent on the material, and should be set to “groove” with the track.

16: Pianos – Research and Listening

Initially, I wish to establish a knowledge of the different types of piano.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZD1QxoxabMQ

This video was a good introduction into the differences between a grand and an upright.

The Nord website sample libraries also have good examples of different types of piano:

http://www.nordkeyboards.com/sound-libraries/nord-piano-library/grand-piano/italian-grand

To my ear, I couldn’t necessarily tell a huge discernable difference between uprights and grands in general. These differences were subtle. The main difference was in the size of the piano overall, and I think this is more of a concern when picking a piano that will be appropriate for a song, rather than upright vs. grand.

Regarding electric pianos, there seems to be many similarities between different types, with the main differences being in the ways that they distribute their frequency energy. Some are warmer and darker, and some are brighter/thinner. There is also a marked difference between the way that differing models of E-piano distort when played heavily, with some having harsher, more distorted peaks, and others rounding off more softly. These are considerations that I’ll make in the future when picking pianos.

Now for listening:

Arcade Fire – The Suburbs:

There are two distinct pianos, a smaller, more honky tonk piano playing the “lead” section. Quite thin, maybe upright? A larger, more grand piano is playing the sustained low chords. The lead seems relatively wide, drawing attention to itself, whereas the lower piano is less wide, and panned slightly off to the left.

Elliot Smith – Waltz #2:

“Lead/hook” piano is a wide, medium sized piano. Width draws attention to hook riff. Possibly double tracked?

Piano accompaniment in verse is mono (or close to it) less obvious. Same size of piano as main riff.

Quick use of an organ, or heavily altered piano sound nearer to end of song. Adds variation.

The Fray – How to Save a Life:

Very grand, super wide. Bright and deep. Sustained. Quite “pop”. More instrumentation added, piano is bandwidth limited to make room.

Radiohead – Subterranean Homesick Alien:

E-piano, soft. Reverb makes it have a “pad” quality, not very dynamic. Soft distortion. Tremolo and movement.

Radiohead – Karma Police:

Bright, quite small piano sound. Honky-tonk-ish. Maybe two or more piano sounds layered/alternated? Or at least alternation, as tone varies throughout different sections. Quite wide, although not as wide as acoustic guitar.

15: Pianos – Researching the choice and mixing of pianos

I’ve found that my choices of pianos tend to be very samey, and my treatment of pianos in the mix is rather boring (for want of a better word). I believe it’s down to my lack of a deeper understanding of the subtler differences between differing types of piano, which I find makes me rather reticent to make informed decisions.

For a start, an interesting mix choice is presented in this article:

http://music.tutsplus.com/tutorials/quick-tip-creating-a-radiohead-like-tremolo-piano–audio-5359

Despite the boring audio representation (I feel like a better job could be done with the effects applied), I like the idea of tremolo on a piano, as it makes it less of a boring, static instrument. I feel that maybe thinking about a piano in the same way that I may think about a guitar in terms of creative processing may open my mind to these types of interesting FX, and bring more interest to my mixes.

http://bobbyowsinski.blogspot.co.uk/2011/10/radiohead-subterranean-homesick-alien.html

The above link, again Radiohead related, talks briefly about the piano used in “Subterranean Homesick Alien”. This is a very interesting use of a piano, as its used as a melodic element, as well as a pad, due to the type of piano used (e piano) as well as the combination of long reverb and delay used. This is another interesting way of using a piano, and once again, points to the fact that I should maybe think about piano more like an electric guitar in the sense that the tone should be picked to compliment the song and add interest, rather than just sounding like “ooh that’s a piano there”. This frame of mind could definitely help me in the choice of piano “tone” as well as processing.

This train of thought is a good start to a better approach to pianos, although I feel I should gain a better understanding of the mechanics of different pianos, in order to better understand their distinct aural characteristics. This will be a topic of deeper research.

14: Mixing and Tracking Electric Guitars – Research (Adding Interest)

There is a LOT of advice regarding guitar mixing, which is rather overwhelming. I tried to allow my interest to lead me during this research, with the material that challenged my usual workflow being the material I shall present here.
Firstly, this episode of “Into the Lair” is has some good methods for adding width to electric guitars:

http://www.pensadosplace.tv/2013/09/30/how-to-mix-rock-guitars-and-get-them-wide-into-the-lair-86/

In particular, his use of pitch shifting and doubling are things that I shall keep in mind for future mixes.

Unusually for SOS, this article has quite a lot of obvious tips, but there is one thing in particular that I found useful:

http://www.soundonsound.com/sos/aug98/articles/20tips.html

It gives a tip about using DI electric guitar signals, and compressing and using an exciter to attain a “glassy” clean sound.
I feel that even if this didn’t do the trick on its own that layering this over a desirable amped tone would give some beneficial high end “sparkle” to the sound. This is again, something I shall keep in mind.

http://soundpropaganda.com/2011/08/12/recording-and-mixing-rock-guitars/

The article linked above is similar to the SOS article, as it has a LOT of advice which, to me, is rather obvious at this stage. One piece of advice it gives is interesting though; Parallel compression of guitars. Although I use parallel compression quite frequently, I would never think to use it to “fatten” guitars, but it makes a lot of sense to do so. I think that I will have to change the way I think of parallel compression in general to allow me to utilize it more effectively and frequently.

http://www.osirisguitar.com/10-tips-for-great-guitar-mixing/

The above link is a short blog, but has one tip that I’d like to test out. It calls the area around 800Hz the “cheap” spot, saying that this area makes guitars sound “cheap”. I’m intrigued by this idea, and shall listen closely to this when I can. Perhaps cutting this frequency band could help solidify my guitar recordings? (can’t hurt to try). It seems a little “gimmicky” and too easy, but I’m open to trying the idea.

13: Creative use of Reverb – Research

An afternoon spent researching creative ways of using reverbs has thrown up some very interesting ideas.

http://designingsound.org/2012/12/creative-uses-of-reverb/

This article, although not related directly to music makes some very interesting points. I find their tips on the use of unusual IR’s in convolution reverbs particularly interesting, and their way of relating reverb to the emotion of a moment and the ways in which the sense of space (or lack thereof) can evoke certain feelings is certainly something to consider.

I’m also VERY intrigued by this idea, presented in drum magazine:

http://www.drummagazine.com/plugged-in/post/trashy-reverb-a-cool-way-to-mess-up-your-drum-sound/

It suggests that using microphones dangled inside containers such as metal trash cans etc in the room with a drum kit (or conceivably any sound source that is loud enough relative to the container) can create an interesting “trashy echo chamber”. Sadly, the link lacks any audio examples, but I shall definitely experiment with this in future recording sessions. It’s definitely a way to add more interest to drum recordings in the neutral (dare I say boring?) live rooms at LIPA.

https://www.soundonsound.com/sos/aug08/articles/reverbpart2_0808.htm

The SOS link above is full of useful tips and quotes, although I found the article’s final thoughts about automation to be of the most benefit. Automating reverbs in and out through simple volume automation is a great start for dynamically altering a mix, but I feel that, when working with “in the box” verbs, automation of various other parameters such as room size and pre-delay could also have some interesting effects.

Overall, I’d say that my research has given me a lot to think about, and has altered the way in which I will think about reverbs and their uses in the future.

12: Vocal Recording and Presentation – Mic Comparison

A friend directed me to an extensive, rather well conducted microphone “shootout” style test. This website (linked below) will be the basis of this exercise.

http://bradfordswanson.com/mic/index.html

The website offers a range of content, but I’ll stick to the isolated, sung vocals for the purpose of this exercise.

The rest of this post will be my own quick notes based on my feelings about each of the examples, categorised by source material and mic type and polar pattern.

Female Vox (Isolated)

  • AKG C414-XLS, Cardioid: Clinical, breathy, sibilant, slightly thin
  • AKG C414-XLS, Omni: Similar tone, more early reflections from room
  • AKG C34, Cardioid: Warmer, less sibilant, slightly harsher on higher pitched notes
  • AKG C34 Omni: Similar tone, more sibilant, early reflections
  • Neumann U89, Cardioid: More presence, high mids, slightly hollow, buzzy, more throatiness and croak
  • Neumann U89, Omni: Less present, early reflections, slightly harsh, not as much ER as other cardioid patterns
  • Rode NT2, Cardioid: A lot of air, less low mid warmth, less croaky/throaty, seems like it would “cut through” better, edgy sounding
  • Neumann TLM103, Cardioid: Warmer, breathy, less harsh resonances than some, balanced, not much “air”
  • Shure KSM-44, Cardioid: Airy, more throatiness to sound, resonant, slightly harsh at points, transients seem more present
  • Audio-Technica AT-4050, Cardioid: Warmer, still throaty and airy, some noticeable resonances on higher notes, seems to jump in level
  • Audio-Technica AT-4050, Omni: Same, but with a slight hint of ER, but not much
  • Rode NT1A, Cardioid: Resonant and harsh, quite airy, lip noise is obvious, quite tiring to listen to
  • Marshall MXL 2003, Cardioid: Very airy, lots of HF and High-mid, pretty harsh, picks up transients well
  • Shure KSM-141, Cardioid: Very airy and breathy, quite thin, lip noise and plosives are obvious
  • Shoeps CMC6/MK21, Wide Cardioid: Quite thin, Airy, Slightly harsh, sibilant
  • Neumann KM140, Cardioid: More balanced, slight resonances although not too tiring, warmer than last
  • Shoeps CMC6/MK5, Omni: Airy, resonant in high mid, not too thin but not particularly warm
  • Neumann KM-183, Omni: Pleasing warmth, quite throaty sounding, breathy
  • DPA 4006, Omni with Ape: Sounds slightly phasey? Something hollow and off-putting about the sound
  • Earthworks OM-1, Omni: Well balanced, more obvious room sound, quite a pleasing tone
  • Shure 55sw, Cardioid (Dynamic): Little air, bad transient response, warm, resonant on some notes in mid freq range, expected result from a dynamic mic
  • AKG C535, Cardioid (Condensor): Sibilant, resonant at 2-4k making it quite harsh, breathy sounding, not too thin
  • Sennheiser MD-409, Cardioid (Dynamic): Surprising transient response, resonances at MF, not very airy, quite dead sounding
  • Beyerdynamic M88, Cardioid (Dynamic): Level is not consistent, quite breathy, more airy
  • EV RE-20, Cardioid (flat): Very sibilant and breathy, harsh 2-5k resonance, not very pleasant, quite tiring, throaty
  • Sennheiser MD-421, Cardioid (flat): Hollow, inconsistent level, very breathy
  • Sennheiser MD-441, Super-cardioid (flat): Much Low mid, picks up some rumbly throat noises, not particularly pleasant
  • Shure Beta 57A: Very breathy and throaty, quite harsh, not flattering
  • Shure Beta 58A: Sibilant, breathy, very present, not too thin, good transient response
  • Shure SM-57: Low- mid hump, relatively balanced, transients sound boomy
  • Shure SM-58: Weird “phaseyness”, quite harsh and breathy, not flattering
  • Beyerdynamic M160, Hypercardioid Ribbon: Very boomy/warm, not much air, quite muddy sounding
  • Royer R121, Bidirectional Ribbon (Front): Sounds rather distant, ER is present, better transient response than M160
  • Royer R121, Bidirectional Ribbon (Back): VERY similar, almost indistinguishable, maybe ER is less bright
  • Alsesis AM-62, Cardioid Tube: Very up-front and present, slightly tiring due to HMF resonance, quite clear transients
  • Alesis AM-62, Omni Tube: Similar, but breathier, and ER is quite obvious
  • Alesis AM-40, Cardioid Tube: Very breathy and airy, presence in LMF, quite “scooped”, slightly harsh at points
  • Neumann M147, Cardioid Tube: Warm, present LMF, quite breathy, good transient response, good presence
  • Audio Technica AT-4060, Cardioid Tube: Throaty and rattly sounding, still quite warm, a little harsh

 

I was intending to test the male vocals hosted on this site also, but the singer is very weak, pitchy, and actually quite annoying. I don’t think I’d give the test a fair run for these reasons. However, I believe that the female vox has given me enough to consider.

11: Creative use of Reverb – Listening Exercise

 

In this exercise, I’ll be looking for uses of reverb that go beyond putting a sound into a “room”, that would classify as a creative or artistic addition to the production. For this, I’ll be listening to the following material:

  • Arctic Monkeys – Fluorescent Adolescent
  • Radiohead – Exit Music (For a Film)
  • Radiohead – House of cards
  • Kings of Leon – Knocked Up

Starting with Fluorescent Adolescent, I’ve noticed that most of the reverb used is very subtle, and comes under the category of creating a “space” for the production. One interesting use is on the vocal, which is more of a slap-back delay than a reverb. Although this doesn’t necessarily apply directly to my goal, I think it’s important to know when other methods can be used in place of traditional reverbs, and this is a good example of that. The vocal is the obvious focal point of this song, and therefore the use of an interesting slap-back effect gives the whole song an interesting retro tinge. I think that this re-enforces the point that identifying the most “important” features of the song, and treating those with your “special effects” is a key consideration for good production.

Radiohead’s “Exit Music (For a Film)” is an interesting production in terms of reverb. The acoustic guitar has a large space around it, but has a fairly “natural” sounding reverb. I’d assume that it was either recorded in a large, somewhat reflective space, or that some form of hall or chamber reverb has been used. It’s far from dry, but has just enough to give the guitar the sense that it’s in a larger space. The vocal on the other hand is treated with a much more obvious reverb, or recorded in a much larger, more reflective space. It’s very obvious due to the long low-mid and mid RT. There is a moderate pre-delay, which keeps the vocal at the front of the production, and it seems the reverb has been somewhat darkened, as the obvious plosives and “lip noises” present in the sound of the vocal are extremely dry, adding to the sense of the vocal being right in front of you. Something also worth noting is that when the choral singing enters the song, it’s comparatively much drier than the other elements. This fits well, presumably due to the sustained nature of the sound, and the more up-front sound this gives on the periphery of the sound field adds to the sense of space and depth through contrast.

Radiohead’s “House of Cards” is again, an interesting production. It’s use of contrast is obvious, but well implemented. The opening guitar riff is very dry in comparison to the rest of the song. Then a “springy” delay is added, but only to the “string slaps” which is an interesting special effect. At the same time, there is some pseudo-random guitar buzzing/tapping that is heavily reverbed, with both these additions being panned far left and right. This opens the production out a lot, and greatly contrasts the dryness of the first few seconds. A vocal line is then added, with an extremely wet, long-tailed reverb. The main point of interest is the lead vocal, which uses a reverb with a long RT, and an unusually long pre-delay time, which seems to “groove” with the song. This idea of using a pre-delay to groove in time with the song is one which I find very interesting, as it breaks the convention of using “realistic” reverbs, and instead uses them as a tool to enhance the production in an interesting. Other elements are very wet, and maintain this extremely spacious feel that the song has, while the original riff remains present, still very dry as a point of contrast.

In Kings of Leon’s “Knocked Up”, reverb is very much used as a creative tool. The kick drum has a hall-ish sounding verb, which softens it. Due to its consistent nature, I feel that this helps the song to not sound to “housey”. The guitar riff that then enters has a very “ethereal, crystalline” sounding reverb, which may be some sort of bright plate. This reverb seems to have some movement to it too, which is a nice idea, and a good consideration for me to apply to future productions, as giving reverbs movement isn’t something which would usually cross my mind. The vocal reverb seems to also be some sort of plate, with an added pre delay. The tail is very smooth and despite it being mixed quite loud, it doesn’t distract from the vocal, and adds a nice “frame of space” to it, whilst keeping up up-front. Using plates with a pre-delay is also something that I would like to experiment with, as typically plates have an instant response, but I feel that this effect could work very well to make a “point of interest” reverb.

Overall, this exercise has taught me that some considerations in using reverb in a more interesting matter are to carefully select the instruments you’re using them on, and see them as manipulate-able effects rather than static senses of space. Also, long reverb times are not necessarily a bad thing as long as the production suits it, and it’s used tastefully.

10: Mixing and Tracking Electric Guitars – Best use of compression (research and listening)

After some research, it seems that my own thoughts on this matter are valid:
Distorted guitars need little compression, if any at all!
This is due to the way in which distortion and amplifiers already limit dynamics.

But what about cleaner electric guitars?
Should compression be used for effect on more distorted lines? Or to accentuate certain qualities?

http://www.soundonsound.com/sos/aug05/articles/logictech.htm

This SOS article makes an interesting point, saying:

“You’ll often find that using as much distortion on a recording as you do live results in a very messy sound that spreads right across the frequency spectrum, so a useful trick is to use less overdrive on the guitar and then add compression to get the sustain back.”

I like this idea, as it allows an extra level of dynamic control to guitars after tracking.

For a classic “overdrive rock guitar” sound, it’s advised that compression is not really needed, as it has such a small dynamic range anyway.

 

Another good point made by this article is this:
“Using a faster release time in combination with a high degree of compression can cause audible level pumping, but this may be used creatively to enhance the sense of power and loudness.”

This is a very interesting idea, as it’s not necessarily the technically correct approach, but instead plays on our perception of dynamics.

 

Aside from a few interesting points in this article, I found a lot of extremely simplistic, and some plain BAD advice out there regarding guitar compression.

Listening to various recordings shed no light on the matter either, as compression tends to be rather transparent, and without the source material to reference, it’s almost impossible to uncover what their compression is doing to the guitars.

The most important thing that this exercise has taught me is that you should think about what you need from a guitar before reaching for the compressor. Some clean, and rhythm parts simply need smoothing out, although for some lead parts, you may want to accentuate or squash sustain, depending upon the material. The way in which a compressor affects tone should also be considered, as it can sometimes be easy to miss when you’re not listening for it, and can quickly disturb the tonal balance that took so long during the tracking stage.

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