9: Use of Dynamics on Vocals – Research and listening

After searching for some time, it has astounded me how much bad advice there is regarding compression. It seems that many people don’t quite grasp the basics of its implementation. Given that I feel that I have a good theoretical understanding of compressors and their uses, I feel confident in being able to sort good advice from bad. Expanding on this, it seems difficult to find straightforward advice on the matter, perhaps due to the fact that good compression is more down to your ears than your brain.

The best research I could undertake was into more “quirky” techniques, and listening tests.

A good example is this SOS article: http://www.soundonsound.com/sos/apr09/articles/cubasetech_0409.htm

This covers Michael Brauer’s technique of compressing a vocal 5 times in parallel, and then blending these with the original signal. Listening to his work with James Morrison and Coldplay, it seems that his technique works very well if done correctly, giving vocals a very “up-front” sound without removing the sense of dynamic. This is something that I will experiment with during my mix sessions upon my return to LIPA after Easter.

http://therecordingrevolution.com/2013/03/22/5-minutes-to-a-better-mix-iii-vocal-compressor-options/

The link above also shares some interesting thoughts on compression, albeit in a much more simple manner.
The video in the link compares the use of 3 digital compressors, an SSL channel, waves’ LA-2A replica, and the standard pro tools compressor. This ties in quite nicely with the SOS article, as it seems to concentrate on the “tone” imparted by various compressors (an important consideration when picking compressors for Brauer’s technique). It seems the LA-2A gives a warmer, LF/LMF presence to the vocal used, whereas the SSL gives it a nasal quality, and the PT compressor adds HF ‘air’ to the source material. These are considerations that I will check in my upcoming mix sessions.

Aside from this, I feel that good vocal compressions is something that comes with experimentation rather than theory. I shall return to this at a later date, and test my thoughts on a mix.

8 – Outlining my next 3 key areas

After some thought, I’ve identified the key areas that I feel need improvement.
My feedback threw up a lot of the same issues as before, so this is mostly from my own experience of where I feel I could improve.

1. Creative use of Reverb

-Making use of contrast in the right places

-Using Reverb in “un-realistic” ways

-How “Big” should a space be?

 

2. Mixing & Tracking Electric Guitars

-Working with tone during tracking and mixing

-Best use of compression

-Adding interest to Rhythm sections

 

3. Pianos

-Using appropriate pianos (or samples) for material

-Use of stereo space

-What compression is appropriate?

 

In addition to this, I’ve been informed of an app called Quiztones which gives quizzes on spot frequencies and EQ boosts.
I feel that this ties quite nicely into what I mentioned in an earlier post about improving the resolution of my frequency recognition. So, further to this, and also in preparation for my exam, I shall spend some time this afternoon testing myself with this app

7. The use of EQ “In the Mix” – Cutting frequencies to clean up a sound

I’ve found it rather difficult to explore this topic in a sense of purely listening, as I only have access to the finished product of professional recordings. Obviously this means that I can’t hear the “mess” that was cleaned out of a signal through use of EQ, only the cleaner, processed finished product.
However, what I can do is establish a few key traits of Indie rock as a genre, by listening to the broad range of instruments, and their general bandwidths. I think this would be a good starting point, with further research being necessary into the way that various engineers work.

For this I’ll be using the same project file as in my last post, comprising the following songs:

  • Arcade Fire – Reflektor
  • Kings of Leon – Four Kicks
  • Arcade Fire – The Suburbs
  • Kings of Leon – The Bucket
  • Elliot Smith – Waltz #2
  • The Fray – How to Save a Life
  • The Strokes – Machu Pichu
  • The Strokes – Someday

My immediate first impression when listening for EQ cuts was that the majority of these songs tend to be rather aggressive (or at least rather more aggressive than myself) when high-passing (or low shelving) guitars. My usual instinct during a mix is to balance the guitars sound, especially in the case of electric guitars, as these can often be a key point of focus in this genre.

This tendency on my part to retain this low-mid warmth and roundness (for want of better descriptive terms) of guitars made my findings quite surprising. I’m unsure whether it is in-fact the case that the low mid frequencies were almost completely removed from the guitars in these songs or whether it’s just that it’s masked by Bass guitar, piano and other instrumentation. But in the finished product, the guitars come across as much more “sharp and scratchy” than I had otherwise anticipated or remembered from previous listening.

The only exception seems to be when a guitar is playing a solo/melody/lead line rather than strummed chords. In this case, the 200-800Hz region seems more prominent, as a way of giving these melody lines more weight and substance.

In broad terms, running these mixes through a brick wall low pass, and moving it down until all features of the guitar are inaudible, it seems that the lowest it seems to reach is around 200Hz at a push, with the guitar being almost inaudible by around 300Hz in most cases. This to me signals the use of a low pass filter with a relatively sharp slope, having its cut-off frequency set to around 300Hz, or maybe a shallower slope with a cut-off frequency nearer 400-500Hz. This is much more aggressive than I have been in the past, and I think that this has contributed to my difficulty in controlling low frequencies during a mix, as the extra (un-necessary) weight in the electric guitars in masking the bass guitar at this frequency, causing me to process it in an in-efficient manner.

As far as drums go, they vary wildly from song to song. The snare drum in particular seems to be down to the preference of the engineer/producer. One thing to note about kick drums though, it tends to be that more frequent kicks tend to have less LF (60 – 100Hz) weight to them, and songs with less frequent kick drum hits tend to make more use of these low frequencies, opting instead for the kick drum to stand out in the attacking “snap” range (3 – 6Khz at a rough estimate). There are of course some exceptions to this, but it seems to ring true for most of the material.

Other patterns in the use of EQ are not so obvious to me at this stage, and I think that more research is needed into the production of this material, and other works that fall under the same genre.

6: Use of EQ “In the Mix” – The “Tone” of songs in this genre

When referring to tone, I of course mean the general distribution of frequency content in a wide-band sense. All genres have a certain tone in my experience, for example Hip hop tends to be bass heavy, with a crisp top end (something like a smiley face?), whereas metal tends to have less low end, and more low mid high mids by comparison. This is not only due to the tastes of the target audience, but also down to the nature of the material being presented (with hip hop often having long, extended sub tails on kicks and crisp attacking snares, and metal having “chugging” guitars and less emphasis on the kicks low end punch, more the high mid “slap” or “attack”).

Of course, while talking in the broader sense of tone, the only fair way to examine this is to make comparisons with a wider range of material, as it’s often only by comparison that a lot of these broad frequency spectrum changes are more easily noticed (hence references during mixing and mastering).

I’ll be comparing my own thoughts against a spectrograph, taking a chorus section from each song, and using Ozone 5’s meter bridge spectrum analyzer set to “critical band” display, with a 3 second averaging time and an Infinite peak hold time. Playing the chorus of each song into this, viewing the resulting frequency data should give me a reasonable visual comparison for each song to test against my own thoughts.

I’ve selected some songs from my music library that fall into the category of  “Indie Rock”:

  • Arcade Fire – Reflektor
  • Kings of Leon – Four Kicks
  • Arcade Fire – The Suburbs
  • Kings of Leon – The Bucket
  • Elliot Smith – Waltz #2
  • The Fray – How to Save a Life
  • The Strokes – Machu Pichu
  • The Strokes – Someday

My process shall be to listen to each song and write my thoughts, then run a verse and chorus of each through the spectrum analyzer with hold on infinite, to give a broad overview of their frequency content, resetting between each song. I will then compare the spectrum to my expectations and conclude.

Arcade Fire – Reflektor:

There seems to be a lot of energy sub-80hz, although this is well controlled.

The song sounds “warm”, giving me a feeling that there is no excessive boosts in the 2-5k region.

Vocals are somewhat sibilant, but enough so to make them intelligible. Possibly done to make them audible over the cymbals, which seem to have a lot of “hiss” in this 4-6k region.

Image

Kings of Leon – 4 Kicks:

The bass has a lot of sub 80hz energy. This song sounds “harsher” than the last, so I expect a bump around 1-2k. Seems to have more mid, sounding more lo-fi. This could be a bump around 500Hz, or a deficiency above 8k giving this impression.

Image

Arcade Fire – The suburbs

Sub 80hz energy is again very present. Snare is quite rattly, maybe expect a hump around 5-7k. Again, lo-fi, perhaps a deficiency above around 12k?

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Kings of Leon – The Bucket

Guitars are particularly edgy and harsh, 2k hump?

Lo-fi, deficiency above 12k?

Bass has a lot of low mid/mid, as well as kick. 500-700hz Bump?

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Elliot Smith – Waltz #2

Much less sub energy than other songs, expect to see less below 100hz, and more in 100-300Hz.

Vocal harmonies teamed with snare and acoustic guitar get quite harsh at points, expect a hump around 1-2k

Quite bright, expect more 12k+ than other songs

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The Fray – How to Save a Life

Song seems much more of a pop production than others. Seems quite well balanced, if not a little heavy on sub frequencies compared to other songs. Expect a lot of energy below 100Hz. Snare is quite cutting, perhaps will cause a 1-2k bump? Piano sounds slightly warm, maybe expect a hump at 400Hz?

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Arctic Monkeys – Fluorescent Adolescent

Quite bright, especially high hat, expect a lot above 7k. Bass and kick have a lot of low energy, a lot going on below 100hz? Kind of harsh, maybe a 1k hump? (very slight)

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Radiohead – Karma Police

Bass is very low heavy, quite rumbly, expect a lot sub 100Hz. Quite soft, deficient above 12k? Bass is warm, hump at 400-600hz? Well balanced, expect rather smooth frequency curve otherwise.

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The Strokes – Machu Pichu

Kick and snare have a lot of low energy, sub 100Hz will be raised. Guitars are quite warm as well as bass. 400-600Hz hump? Kick and snare have a lot of snap and guitars can be a little harsh, 2k hump?

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The Strokes – Someday

Quite bright, expect a hump around 12k. Guitars are kind of harsh, 1-3k hump? (seems wideband). Bass is warm and middle heavy, and not as energetic in sub. Same for kick. Expect less sub 100Hz activity. Maybe more around 100-300Hz.Image

Overall, after reviewing my notes against their respective spectra, I am pleasantly surprised at my ability to notice frequency content.
Of course this can still be improved upon, and I would like to narrow my estimates somewhat, as my guesses were quite wide-band, and not very precise.

In aid of this, and in reference to some of my difficulties regarding compression, my next step will be to complete some Alton Everest exercises for frequency and amplitude material.

5: Control of LF – Researching Techniques

Given that my chosen genre is “Indie” (with particular reference to the standard guitar, drums, bass and vox setup), I thought that a good start to my research would be to look up specific techniques used in recording and mixing bass guitar, before broadening my research to Low frequency control in general (in both mixing and mastering).

My first source was Sound on Sound, as I trust that any information provided there would be accurate:
http://www.soundonsound.com/sos/apr07/articles/betterbass.htm

Their thoughts on compression have given me a few things to think about:

“The attack and release settings in particular are critical. Too short an attack, and you’ll squash the important attack phase of the note. Too long a release time and you’ll ruin the groove. If you let the attack phase of the note through, then it’s also a good idea to place a limiter after the compressor, in order to catch any wild peaks, and leave you more room for make-up gain so you can increase the level without peaking.”

The idea of using a release time to “groove” in sympathy with a song is one that I shall take forward to future mixes. Similarly, the idea of using a limiter to catch the “pre attack” transient spikes is one that interests me quite a lot, as it allows for extra control over the ratio between attack and sustain portion.

I was also interested by the idea of parallel compressing the Kick drum and Bass guitar together:

“A common trick to increase the impact of the bass is to send the kick and bass to the same compressor and bring the compressed signal back in quite low, just to glue things together.”

This again, could help maintain some “stability” in the low end of a mix.

As far as equalisation is concerned, their take on high-passing is a little more aggressive than my own:

“As most consumer systems start to roll off around 80Hz, you can tailor your sound to them by placing a sharp high-pass filter at about 50Hz and applying a gentle boost around 80Hz.”

I usually HP at 30-40Hz, being somewhat scared to push any higher and lose too much energy from the signal, but after taking into consideration the limitations of most consumer systems, it makes sense to push this higher and obtain some extra headroom in the mix. Putting a boost in at around 80Hz is a good idea also, although it’s usually around 80-100Hz that I usually like to make my kick drum punch through, so a boost in the bass in this area should be handled carefully I feel, so as not to cause masking of the Kick. Overall though, these are techniques that I use for equalising bass, although I tend to put these figures slightly lower, and perhaps this is what is causing me to have difficulties with LF control.

I generally use distortion as a way of subtly enhancing low frequencies, but this article suggests tube amps in particular:

“A common trick is to use distortion as a send effect, mixing the distorted sound back in at a low level. Tube amps (or their software equivalents) are perfect for this sort of thing.”

I feel that this is another thing worth trying during future mix sessions, as it may allow me to lower the overall level of LF signals in my mixes somewhat, whilst allowing them to still be perceived.

Teaming a Sub synth, gated by the bass guitar is also recommended in this article. I see this not as a primary option, but a good go-to if it’s becoming difficult to generate a full and most importantly stable and controllable low end.

A common theme running throughout many articles is that you should only attempt to mix LF content in a properly treated room with correctly positioned monitors, which is something that I make sure to do. (It’s nice to know that I’m doing something right!) Evidenced:

http://blog.indabamusic.com/2011/01/12785-tutorial-12-common-mixing-mistakes/

http://www.tangible-technology.com/articles/loudness/bassmanage.htm

Many sources make a point of enforcing the importance of assessing the mid-range frequency content of any bass element such as this article:

http://theproaudiofiles.com/mixing-low-end/

I feel that this particular phrase is something to keep in mind to help resist the temptation to simply boost low frequencies; “Boosting mid-range won’t make the low element bassier, but it may give it more presence in the mix and draw attention to the low end.” I feel that this is an important consideration to keep in mind, as although I do make an effort to use distortion to create harmonics, it would be helpful to keep an ear on how the midrange affects the low and, and whether it does in fact draw extra attention (or perception) to it.

I tend to be quite tentative with my use of compressors, as I find that my hearing is not particularly well tuned to picking out very subtle dynamic changes, but this particular article urges the reader to “be aggressive” when working with LF:

“The low end is an open canvas for heavy processing. Even a completely flat, sustaining bass instrument can sound awesome over-driving into a compressor. The overtones activate and you get something just as flat, but a lot buzzier.”

I’m slightly dubious of this advice, as being too aggressive with compression could be detrimental to the mix, and completely flattening LF would in my opinion take much of the energy out of a mix, but it’s still a point worth considering, as my tentative approach to bass compression in the past has not helped my mixes.

To conclude, I would say that my research has given me a lot to think about, and even more to play with during future mixes.

The main points I will walk away with are that I should not be so scared of “flattening” LF with compression, that VERY low frequencies are not of as much importance as I thought they were, and to pay close attention to the effects of the mid-range harmonics of a signal, and the ways in which they could help draw extra attention to LF content (without excessive LF boosting). Parallel distortion, compression and sub synth lines are also some tricks that I will definitely try next time I’m struggling with bass in my mixes.

4: Control of LF in a mix – Overview of Low frequency control in a mix

After an extended absence from this Blog, in part due to my attention being on other works, I return with a better understanding of how to keep a mix “Balanced” (Evidenced by my recent feedback from recorded and live assessments).

Therefore I feel that one of my points in this topic: “Balance of LF in the mix overall” (see 1st post) is of slightly less importance now than it may have been upon it’s conception. Nevertheless, I find that this point ties quite nicely to the use of dynamics to control bass within a mix, and therefore shall discuss this as one broad topic.

After listening again to the songs from my previous post, I noticed that “4 Kicks” by the Kings of Leon has some interesting topics for discussion in this area.

Firstly, I notice that the electric guitars tend to be lacking much of their lower frequencies. This is more than likely designed to allow the bass guitar to stand out more in the mix without being masked by the crossover of the two instruments. This seems like a key point of this mix, as the bass guitar is particularly “weighty”, having a lot of very low frequency content (although I think this is aided somewhat by clever use of distortion, allowing harmonic content to imply more low frequency content than may in fact be present).

Aside from the sheer “weight” of the bass tone, I notice that the bass’s low frequencies tend to “bloom” up more as the instrumentation becomes sparser for short sections of the song. I feel that this exercise was in anticipation of mastering, as low frequency content needs a lot of “energy” to be perceived as being as loud as higher frequency content. As the guitars and drums fade out, there is more “room” in the mix to push up LF from the bass guitar. I feel that this “juggling” of frequency content could be useful to keep in mind during future mix sessions.

Aside from this, overall low frequency content seems “controlled”, despite its weight and tendency to bloom up in the mix. I feel that this is due to not only well informed tone sculpting through use of recording technique and EQ, but also largely due to appropriate use of compression.

To compare these findings, I searched for a more recent release that falls within the wider bracket of “Indie”. My thoughts went immediately to Arcade Fire’s latest album “Reflektor” and in particular it’s title track. Personally, I feel that this is an extremely well-produced and well-engineered track, therefore making it a good reference for this exercise.

My first impression was that the Kick drum seems to have more low frequency content; sounding a lot “bigger” in general (a logical result of the songs four on the floor beat). This has relevance to this discussion, as it will be interesting to delve into how the bass (be it guitar or synth) and the kick drum mingle in these lower frequencies without masking one another.

At first listen, it’s rather difficult to decipher these low frequency elements (especially in my far from perfect listening environment). For this reason, I thought that filters and a spectrum analyser would be useful analysis tools. As shown in the image, I used Ozone’s “Brickwall Lowpass” to concentrate my listening on the sub 120Hz range, and a 1/3rd Octave band frequency analyser with a long FFT window size to give me increased frequency content accuracy. Switching between real time and longer averaging times also aided in comparing the overall long-term LF content against the way it “pumps” in the mix.

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What I found was that the kick drum tends to have a lot of low frequency energy, whether the song is in a particularly bass heavy section or not. To allow for this, the bass guitar and synth elements are compressed with a sidechain from the kick to pump them in sympathy with it. This creates a lot of the energy within the track, but the relatively long release time of this sidechain would not be suitable for many songs, and therefore I feel that the thing to take away from this is that sidechaining of bass is useful for low end control and clarity, although careful attention should be paid to release times to make it appropriate for the song and/ or genre in question.

Although useful, I found that this listening session didn’t shed much light on the subtler uses of compression to control low end. Therefore, my next step shall be to research the techniques used by others in this capacity, and try them out for myself on a variety of content.

3: Use of FX to present a Vocal – Multiple songs

Since my last blog post, I have been working on Alton Everest Exercises, and have noticed that my ear for spot and relatively narrow band frequencies is quite good. On the other hand, it seems I’m still not as good at sensing overall tonal balance as accurately. I’ve also not done as well in the dynamics based exercises. I shall focus my efforts more towards these areas, by repeating these exercises a few times over the coming weeks.

After sitting down with my monitors correctly positioned in a nearfield listening setup and headphones to hand, I listened to the following songs:

Kings of Leon:

  • 4 Kicks
  • Day old blues
  • The Bucket

Arcade Fire:

  • The Suburbs

The Fray

  • How to save a life

Arctic Monkeys

  • Fluorescent Adolescent

My overall impression of the listening experience (centred around Vocal FX) was that a large portion of the songs kept the vocal quite “dry, upfront and transparently processed”, with exceptions tending to go for a “retro” sound.

Beginning at the “exceptions”; the most obvious by far is Fluorescent adolescent, which appears to use a “retro” sounding slapback delay with a small feedback. Aside from this, I found it difficult to hear if any other effects were used on this vocal, but would hazard a guess that there was a very small “room” reverb, as I could not hear any obvious tail, but the vocal has a definite sense of space.

Arcade Fire – The Suburbs follows a similar approach, with a slap back effect used on the vocal, although opting to use a little more reverb than the Arctic Monkeys’ offering. The vocal still remains relatively dry of reverb, but there is a definite tail audible, which increases during choruses.

The Kings of Leon tend to leave the vocal very dry, and extremely forward in the mix. On the whole, from the material I listened to, it seems that they tend to opt for a medium sized reverb which I would describe as a hall, or plate with slight predelay. This is slotted very low in the mix, and only subtly surrounds the vocal, always rather dark sounding. Of the 3 songs, the Bucket was the driest by far.

The Fray seem to take a similar approach, with quite a tight reverb sound low in the mix and slightly pre delayed. It was difficult to pick out some of the time, but it seemed a much smaller tailed reverb than in some of the Kings of Leon songs. Again, apart from this the vocal was largely untouched, and sounded natural (if not maybe a little “warmed up” by proximity effect or something similar).

Overall, I would say that choosing the “right” reverb and keeping it subtle in the mix is most important when presenting a vocal in this genre. In my past experience, bad reverb choice can quickly make the vocal sound “out of place” when played on differing playback systems.

Another point I’ve taken from this is that obvious use of FX is okay as long as you commit to it, and it suits the song. Slapback delays (and other short delays) seem like an oft used tool in this genre, so I will keep this in mind when mixing.

We are fast approaching the Vocal overdubs session for our AST recording, and having this information at hand will help me mix the result, as well as create a pleasing headphone mix for our singer.

2: General work overview – Feedback and listening activities

After a review session some time ago, I believe my points to improve upon are relevant. But there remains one large oversight on my part:

What genre am I focusing my development on?

From the top of my head, I was able to pin the genre down to a rather broad category of “indie” based on the artists that I have recorded, and continue to record. But Indie is an extremely wide ranging genre, with everything from simple 3 piece bands to much larger groups encompassing synths and heavily processed instruments. It was clear that I needed to narrow my field of research.

After talking to Emilio (the frontman of a band whom I’ve recorded numerous times and am currently recording for further assessments), I was able to pick apart the areas that he finds inspiration from, and more accurately pin down the category that his music could be defined by.

Rather than label a genre or subgenre (something that I find very hard to do within the bracket of indie), I’ve made a short list of artists/songs/albums which reflect areas shown within the music I will be recording over the coming months:

  • Kings of Leon – Aha Shake Heartbreak (Album)
  • Arcade Fire – The Suburbs (Album, but in particular the title song is very similar to one song I will be submitting)
  • Arctic Monkeys – Fluorescent Adolescent (Song – although some of their other material is also applicable)
  • Elliot smith – Waltz #2 (song)
  • The Fray – How to save a life (song)

The works in this list were picked due to their instrumentation and/ or general “vibe” being similar to what I’m currently recording.

Now that I’ve established a firm base of songs to analyse, I would also like to mention that I will be beginning the Alton Everest listening exercises this evening.

I shall start by concentrating on the vocal qualities of the songs mentioned and completing a few of the listening exercises. I will post my findings over the coming weekend.

1: Reviewing my feedback and setting goals for myself

This evening after numerous activities designed to distract me from my task, I eventually sat down to create my blog and assess my feedback. Within the first few pages, I discovered that their was only a handful of assessments from which the feedback was really useful for this blog, although there was enough content within this to draw from. Having all of my feedback laid out in front of me for the first time, a few common themes appear to crop up. These, coupled with my own understanding of my limitations were what created the following (far from exhaustive) list:

  1. “Control” of Low Frequencies
  2. Vocal recording and Presentation
  3. Use of EQ “In the Mix”

I was almost pleased to see these issues come up commonly in my feedback, as these were some of the issues that I have personally encountered in projects outside of class.

Obviously it’s of some use to be aware of these problems, but it’s not enough. I’ve been aware of these problems for a number of weeks now, and have not improved upon them significantly. By assessing these areas, and thinking of the solutions that a proficient engineer would use to solve them, I created the 9 bullet points that will guide my learning over the course of this year, and will form the basis of this blog:

“Control” of LF:

  • Dynamics tools
  • Effect on “the rest of the mix”
  • Balance of LF in the mix overall

Vocal Recording & Presentation:

  • Use of dynamics
  • Getting the right vocal tone & frequency balance
  • Use of FX to present a vocal

Use of EQ “In the Mix”:

  • Which frequencies to “cut” and by how much when “cleaning up” a sound
  • Keeping an ear of “balance” of frequencies when tracking and mixing
  • What should the “tone” of this song/genre be?

I will of course delve deeper into these points as I explore them individually, as each requires a fair chunk of text to describe and analyse it. But in the interest of keeping these posts down to a readable length, I shall end here.