Friday, March 22, 2013

Audio Engineering Questions

Once upon a time back in days of yore, I was asked by Terry Tompkins to record an album for his band The Now Feeling. It featuring guest vocals by Lisa Boudreau.  We made the album, my first, Lisa and Terry got married (the abbreviated version of this story) and now one of their progeny, Jody, works in audio.  He asked me some questions:

JT:  For me drums seem to be my weakest point in the mix, lets say we have a well recorded rock drum kit 2 kick mics one in, one out ,Snare top and bottom, a mic on the top head of each tom overheads and a stereo room pair. The Kicks a little pillowy and the snare is lacking that beautiful crisp crack that are in all the big records. Is there anyway to explain your process of starting to tackle that whole beast. (let me know if it would even be possible to answer ahah its a loaded question).

OM: Someone asked a well known engineer ( don't recall who) how he got a great drum sound, and he answered: "the three critical ingredients are a good drummer, a good, well-tuned drum kit, and a good room."  I agree. Start with the source.  If those three elements are in place, and it's recorded well then you almost have to do nothing more than turn up the faders.

My process of rescuing a poor drum sound would start with seeing what I could do with gating, compression and eq.  I would also try parallel compression.  Sometimes I'll mult the snare and/or kick to another channel, heavily gate, compress and eq that channel and blend it in.  Reamping the drums in some way can help.  One trick is to place your reamp speaker underneath another snare and  mic that snare.  Last resort would be to replace the drums with samples or add in triggered samples.  I rarely do that.

You're right, it's not really possible for me to answer the question except generally and vaguely, you just have to do it .... a lot!  Animators have something they call pencil mileage - skill at drawing comes from doing it over and over again.  So I recommend getting mixing mileage.  When I started  mixing recordings I felt all my mixes sucked.  One day they stopped sucking.  I don't know why except maybe for mixing mileage.

Also don't recommend getting fixated on any one component of the mix.  Maybe the drums don't sound good on their own, but can they work in the context of the whole track?  Bob Clearmountain, a mixer I highly respect, once said that he doesn't listen to the tracks in solo.  He brings up all the faders then makes adjustments based on the overall picture.  I'm not that extreme, I listen to the individual tracks as a staring point but always consider them in the whole context. 

The real power of a rock drum sound lies in the room tracks.  You can try triggered gating, phasing, flanging, pitch shifting, and/or distorting them with something interesting like an old reel to reel mic preamp or a boom box but with subtle taste so it doesn't sound unnaturally processed.  The classic, ultimate, rock drum sound, according to many, was played by John Bonham in Zeppelin's When the Levee Breaks recorded by Andy Johns with one mic at the top of a stairwell.  One mic, a top rock drummer, good drums, and a great live space made music history.

JT: Favorite Hardware and plugin Compressor for Vocals

OM: Hardware - Fairchild or Urei LA2A.  Plug-ins - Not familar with all the plug-ins as I still mix mostly out of the box.  I like the Massey compressor and also use the "Fairchild" plug-in from the Pro Tools pack. 

 JT:   When you have a session with 7-8 guitar tracks how do you go about placing them around in the stereo field. I always seem to end up with just this wall of guitars. but not in the good metal kind of way it just becomes a noise. I've tried carving Eqs and other techniques but nothing seems to give me that strong and powerful guitar while still allowing the vocals and drums to come through

OM:  I hard pan all of them evenly to begin with. One might go in the middle or off to one side not hard panned if there's an odd number of tracks.   I'm also not afraid to mute tracks if they are not contributing.  When sound waves interact with each other you get either destructive or constructive interference.  If it's destructive, then taking out that track will make the rest sound bigger.  Short delays (50 ms or less) will make muted string parts sound bigger and add to the rhythm.  Sometimes subtle chorusing, phasing or flanging can help depending on the parts but you never want it to sound artificial.  I've haven't heard any plug-in frequency modulators that I've liked that much, and a lot of those programs in multi-processor effects boxes like TC's M2000 sound very cheesy to me.  The best phasers/flangers are the old MXRs.  You'll find your best tremolo in a pedal or a vintage amp.

JT: Is it truly possible to get that console Warmth and summing capabilities through the plugins such as Waves NLS, Waves ReDD and the various UAD plugs. ( The UAD stuff sounds AWESOME)

OM:  This reads as a bit of a strange question because I'm not aware of any plug-ins with summing capabilities.  I don't recommend mixing in the box.  The sound starts to get smaller and flatter with more tracks because the summing bus in DAWs don't do well with lots of tracks.  If a console isn't available then I suggest an outboard summing box like the Dangerous D.  Neve makes a good one too though more expensive.

I like UAD plug-ins, Waves are ok but don't have experience with those particular ones.

JT:  Favorite Reverb and Delay

Different favorites for different kinds. Favorite small room reverb: reamping the Waits room at Prairie Sun Recording where I work a lot.  Reamping into a good live room, stereo micing for the room sound ie mics in the corners or focused away from the reamp sounds better to me than any kind of digital or analog processor.  I like the old EMT plate reverbs, Prairie Sun has two.  Masterworks makes a very beautiful sounding Spring reverb.  As for digital reverbs, Bricasti sounds very natural.  I still like the old AMS and Lexicons 224 and 480 a lot.

Favorite delay is a Studer A80 quarter inch tape delay.  Tape delays in general - the old Roland 201 Space Echos ( but not their reverb).  Fulltone makes a good modern tape delay.  Best digital delays are the Lexicon PCM 41 and 42s.  I like some of the weird reverbs, delay and modulation programs from the Eventide H3000 series.

Question for you: what processor or piece of equipment in a recording studio would you spend the most time learning and studying to optimize your mixes?


  1. Hmm, thats a tough question, the only times i got to actually mix in a studio was at my school. I spent most of my time learning the console, though I think was a little to inexperienced at the time to fully grasp every concept being thrown at me.

    Though I can now run an SSL fairly well. I don't know if I can put it down to one thing. I really want to learn how to get the amazing depth professionals can achieve. Its amazing how the song breathes and envelops you in the room that the engineer has designed for you.

    I also want to watch a pro go about Eq'ing and compression throughout and entire track.

    Sorry, I tend to ramble on things that stray from the topic at hand. Ah, I think I found it. I would like to record a few songs to tape mix them in complete analog editing with a razor blade.

    I think that beyond anything would teach me more than anything else. I feel like once you take the need to look at something out of the equation your ears focus that much more .

    Sorry again, I dont even think I properly answered the question, No wonder I sucked at tests in school.

  2. Well, this is good timing as I've just finished mixing alldayandnight on an SSL and remember a few more tips for drum sounds. Glad to hear you're working on an SSL, that's my preferred desk to mix on except when I record real audiophile projects that don't require as much manipulation then I'll mix on a vintage Neve.

    You can do a lot with the SSL dynamics section to get more attack and tailor the decay of your drums. Also, check the phase relationships of the drum mics. Reversing the phase of the hi hat mic can make the sound of the snare warmer and punchier. Flipping the phase on both overhead mics can do the same for he kik drum. You always have to listen closely, of course, to determine which works better.

    Another good trick for the drums - run the snare boom mic ( I always try to record close and far stereo room mics - the snare boom can be an M49 high over the drummers head - about 8 - 12' focused on the snare drum) into an vintage Neve 1066 mic pre and eq strip and turn it up until it nicely distorts, eq top taste. Then use a send from that channel to feed a Publison Infernal pitch shifter detuning it 800 cents with a 2ms delay on the left side, and 900 cents, 4ms on the right side and blend that it in. It worked great for a uptempo syncopated rhythm played loudly with brushes.

    My answer to the question, the piece of studio gear that much study and experimentation has rewarded well, is the human brain and nervous system. The amazing depth you're looking for comes from knowing how to spatially design - intuitively, with out thinking too much about it, and apply that design to the architecture of the audio environment. To do that, you require not only require optimal concentrated hearing, but also the ability to sense and feel when the music works with the mix. That also comes with experience.

  3. Hello, thanks for sharing this post. Its some good info on Audio Engineering. I currently am studying Audio Engineering Courses New York. :D

  4. Wonderful Post Guys this needs to be shared for good audio editing and recording good engineering is always an essential must have

  5. Hello - Great post. Oz do you ever use a Mix bus compressor? if so, do you have a favourite? Cheers