Monday, March 29, 2010

Studio Monitor Controllers

Home studios are growing hugely in popularity. Smaller budgets for projects and far cheaper professional equipment are making the home studio more and more appealing for many engineers today. We do quite a bit of Yosh mixes at home. We wanted to talk about one important component of a studio: the monitor control section.

The monitor controller has a number of important jobs in a DAW based studio. It allows the engineer to control the volume at which he listens, select reference monitors, select inputs, provide talkback, cut the speakers, listen in mono, and (maybe most importantly) convert the audio to the analog realm.

An engineer’s ears are his greatest tools and he has to be able to trust what he hears. This is why engineers buy very high quality monitors and keep them around for years after they “get used” to them. It is also why high quality processing is key. A signal path is only as good as it’s weakest component. Here at French Beach Studio, we use the PreSonus Central Station. One of the main reasons for this choice is its completely passive circuitry. It provides a very clean signal path, allowing the listener to trust the mix being heard is the actual mix, not the mix through another box.

The Central Station also allows flexibility to use powered monitors, a power amp with passive monitors, a cue system …whatever the studio requirements are. We use their digital input and high quality converters to feed our powered Adam A7 monitors.

Before we get too carried away selling one particular unit, however, there is one issue with it. We have used the Central Station in many studios, including our own, and have been very pleased with it. Nevertheless, we recently purchased a second unit, and found the folks at PreSonus made a change. The “dim” feature, and single button to pad the output, now attenuates the monitors by a whopping 20dB, rendering it pretty useless. It’s very convenient to listen on dim and then press one button to listen loud for a while, and go back to the previous level, without moving the knob. With a 20dB attenuation though, there’s just no use for it. If you start at a reasonable volume it’s practically inaudible when engaged, or blasts your ears if you disengage it. It is a severe disappointment in the unit, and PreSonus was less than helpful with the issue.

When shopping for a control section, it’s important to find a product that you can trust to process your audio and has all the functionality and flexibility that you need in your studio. Thankfully, there are many great products available today. Besides the PreSonus we have, there is the ever popular Mackie Big Knob, JBL makes a handy little desktop model with built in “room mode correction technology,” and there are even really affordable models such as the Samson C-Control. Whatever you choose, the unit has to work for you and aid in how you work, have the right inputs and outputs, be easy to use, etc. We’re mostly happy with the PreSonus, except for the new one. It doesn’t adequately aid in how we mix music, in the workflow.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Nashville Recording Workshop and Expo

I had the distinct pleasure of attending the Nashville Recording Workshop and Expo hosted by the Audio Engineering Society last weekend at Belmont University. The two-day event featured panels, master classes, and demonstrations with some of the industry’s dominant professionals, and during any downtime between these events several companies and organizations were represented to exhibit their products.

NRW+E was kicked off in great fashion by renowned artist and producer Ben Folds. He delivered the keynote address; discussing the making of his new album he is just finishing now. From the recording techniques he and his engineer, Joe Costa, used for the strings, to his process for writing some of the songs, and struggles he had to complete his first major album without record label deadlines, Folds captivated the audience with humor and great insight.

From the moment the keynote ended, the cast of amazing music professionals began delivering information rich presentations. The list is too long to give credit to everyone deserving, but to name a few: Nathan Chapman (Taylor Swift, Jewel), Lynn Fuston (DC Talk, Michael W. Smith), Trina Shoemaker (Sheryl Crow, Iggy Pop), Mills Logan (Toby Keith, Rascal Flatts) Bob Bullock (George Strait, Reba) … I feel bad leaving so many out, but the list goes on.

The discussions covered a lot of ground. There were panels to discuss mixing, recording electric guitar, long distance collaboration, and developing a song in addition to several others. John Mayfield, well-known Nashville mastering engineer gave a master class on the basics of mastering. John Storyk, internationally known, New York based studio designer gave a presentation of practical acoustics. AES Nashville’s own Mike Poston gave a master class with Michael Fleming on home studio tech essentials.

Several retailers attended the NRW+E to exhibit their products and services as well as many manufacturers. AEA Microphones, Mackie, Endless Analog’s C.L.A.S.P., CAAB Audio, Whisper Room … Harrison, the legendary console manufacturer was there to demonstrate their audio editing and mixing software Mixbus. All in all there was a fairly decent turnout of exhibitors supporting the workshop.

For engineers it was a great opportunity to network with other professionals and catch little tips and tricks that may be of use. So often people in the same line of work don’t have the chance to talk with one another very often because they’re working at different places, but the benefit of seeing others work and hearing other’s viewpoints is undeniable. For students it was a huge learning experience. The wealth of knowledge represented was staggering and information was freely given.

I and the community owe the Audio Engineering Society Nashville Section a huge thank you and a round of applause for their highly successful second annual NRW+E. I would encourage you all to attend the 2011 edition. -Jon Blass

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Recording Drums... a few tips.

The drum recording can make the mix a joy or a gigantic hassle. The drum kit is one of those key elements of a mix that really make great music shine, but it all starts with the recording. What mics, where are they placed, how does one get the amazing drum sound they’re after?

First of all, it doesn’t matter if it’s a live recording with audience, a PA, and far too loud floor wedges, or if it’s a studio recording in any of the best drum rooms in the world, the most important component of a great drum sound is the drummer. Get a good drummer! He’s got to feel the pocket and hit the drums the way only a true drummer can. Additionally, a good drummer knows his instrument; he knows how to tune the drums, how to play the right cymbals, how to hit the drums, and how to make the kit itself sound right. Without a good drummer, any of the following advice may help, but won’t get that sound your mind craves.

Let’s start at the bottom. The kick drum is crucial. Ask any two engineers what the right way to mic a kick drum is and you’re sure to get at least two different answers. I’ve miked a couple kits with Yosh and he is not one of those engineers with “one right way.” I’ve seen him use an RE-20, and MD-421, a Beta 52, an Audix A6… It really depends on the drum and on the style. It takes a good engineer to know the microphones, know how they’re going to respond, and know how the sound they pick up will translate in a mix. The Beta 52 is a really consistently good microphone inside a kick drum, however, and Yosh likes to use it, especially in coordination with the Yamaha Subkick. It gives nice support for the bottom.

Next in line: the snare. Usually double miked, one from the bottom and one from the top, the snare is another really crucial part of a recording. As such, usually the snare, along with the kick go through the choice pre’s the studio offers. Yosh sometimes even brings his own favorites, Neve 33114’s. These pre’s are from an old Neve broadcast console and really help punch out those elements of the kit. Typically the top snare mic is a SM57 or sometimes a good pencil condenser like a KM 84 that has a 10 dB pad and high SPL handling. Typically this would be angled in from under the hi-hat, keeping it as off axis to the hats as possible. The same mics make excellent choices for the bottom, angled in at the snares to get that sizzle.

Speaking of the hi-hat, Yosh often mics it with a small-diaphragm condenser, but not too close. He keeps it a good 3 inches, or so above the hat.

Toms are usually MD-421’s, a classic. Again, don’t put them too close, the tone of the drum needs a little space to develop, but we’ll typically put one of these on each rack tom, and then on the floor tom we put one above and one underneath the drum. This technique really allows the power of the floor tom’s lower end to come through and fully impact the sound of the kit. Make sure that the bottom mic on the snr and the floor tom are electrically out of phase by inserting the phase switch on the pre.

It’s important to remember when dealing with a drum kit that the kit itself is an instrument as a whole. Each drum is not treated as an instrument but as part of the one instrument. This is one of the reasons why the overhead mics are really an important part, and often a good place to start listening. Though overheads are used primarily for cymbals, it makes such a difference when the engineer is careful to make sure the whole kit sounds good through them. The overheads can help a tom drum sound full and big and can add the perfect ambience for the snare track.

The method Yosh uses for his overheads vary, once again, on the style, situation, and room. In a studio situation, he typically uses two large diaphragm condensers, one on either side of the kit, above the crash cymbals. Quite often he’ll keep these rather low and close to the cymbals. Of course, with this technique, take great care to make sure the microphone can handle the high SPL of being so close when the drummer feels inspired. Another problem that can arise if the engineer is not listening attentively is the whooshing noise of the air as the cymbal moves after being hit. Really good microphones such as U-87s make great selections. Another technique we sometimes use is the XY pattern over the drummer’s head. This is a bit more spacious and doesn’t always achieve the same stereo width, but is sometimes the right method for the situation. However, in a live situation, Yosh uses three condensers: left, right, and center. This allows him to bring them in rather close to the kit to achieve as much isolation from the live elements of the PA as possible without losing the center in the mix. This is done because sometimes vocals are fixed in the studio and by keeping the original vocal out of the overheads it it is easier to repair the vocal without the bleed.

Where to put the room mics completely depends on the room. We try to find a place in the room to put two microphones that will capture the sound of the room and add reality and great space to the kit. Often, Yosh will select a pair of good ribbon mics that respond smoothly and evenly.

Beyond that, it’s up to the creativity of the engineers to get the sound they’re looking for. Sometimes what’s needed is the sound of a 57 pointed at the glass and then run through the worst sounding guitar amp the studio can manage to find. Most importantly, use your ears. If it doesn’t sound good, don’t do it because you read it in a textbook or on a blog. Each day in each room with each kit is going to be so different that there is no one right way, the only right way is the way that sounds great.

This will be an ongoing discussion with some more interesting techniques to follow.