Thunderbolt arrives for the UAD Apollo – huzzah!

A large box for a small card. That image of the card is pretty close to “actual size”

Further to my recent review of the UAD Apollo, I finally received my Apollo Thunderbolt interface card today. (More on what Thunderbolt is on Intel’s site and on Apple’s site)

There’s a lot of chippage going on in this little card.

That means I can now use the fancy little Thunderbolt port on my Mac Book Pro instead of the Firewire 800 port.

So much simpler – only three cables needed now.

So what are the benefits?

Thunderbolt has blisteringly fast bandwidth compared to Firewire
That means there are virtually no bandwidth limitations on the number of Apollo-hosted UAD plugins you can use. This wasn’t too much of a problem with Firewire anyway – unless you wanted to share your Firewire port with, say, an external hard drive. Which you tend to do quite a bit when you’re recording/mixing music.

Thunderbolt gives way lower latency times than Firewire – I can now run Logic quite happily with a 32 sample buffer, (as long as my project isn’t too huge). It used to choke a bit before.

I’ve also noticed Logic feels a little snappier and more responsive when starting/stopping playback, and the songs load and close slightly faster – perhaps due to the UAD plugins loading and unloading faster. Perhaps it’s just my imagination – further testing will reveal whether this is the case.
I also haven’t taken the time to check out the higher sample rates yet.

Convenience
A cool thing about Thunderbolt is that it’s daisy-chainable (as is Firewire, by the way).
But what I particularly like about it is that I can plug my laptop into the Apollo’s new Thunderbolt port, and then there’s still a second Thunderbolt port on the card which I can then plug into my studio’s LCD monitor – just using my usual laptop DVI-VGA adaptor. Magic.

Even better – the two Firewire 800 ports on the back of the Apollo now become a Firewire hub, so one of the ports can now be plugged into my external Firewire hard drive – and it all goes through the Thunderbolt cable into my laptop.

So that little skinny little Thunderbolt cable is handling audio going to and from the Apollo, UAD plugin data going to and from the Apollo, video being sent to my studio LED monitor, and data to and from my external hard drive. That’s a lot of stuff going on.

For me, convenience is a big thing. I want a simple, tidy connection setup – especially as I use my laptop as my main studio computer and want to be able to come home and plug it into my studio setup with a minimum of fuss. As you can see, Thunderbolt does this really well.

Installation
This was easy – unplug the Apollo’s power, use the included allen key to take the little slot cover off the back of the Apollo (make sure to remove any static from yourself), then slide in the Thunderbolt card. Put the screws back in. Plug the power back in, connect Thunderbolt cable and turn it on. Took about 2 minutes.
It showed up in the computer exactly the same as before, but without the Firewire bandwidth meter and settings in the Apollo Control Panel.

Note that you will have to update your UAD software and the firmware in the Apollo before fitting the card if you haven’t already (I had). You also can’t connect to your computer with Firewire AND Thunderbolt at the same time. It doesn’t like it, apparently.

Downsides
Expense. It’s currently about $700NZ for the interface card – I think that’s still a little over-priced, but perhaps the price will drop as they produce more of them.

Thunderbolt cables are also a little expensive at the moment – $78NZ for a 2-metre cable.
Ouch. Still – not as bad as the first Firewire cable I ever bought – that was $300NZ!
Also – for those that didn’t go and check out the Thunderbolt links at the top – the cables are in part so expensive because they have circuitry in each of the connectors so they can combine (and then separate at the other end) the video and the data.

Conclusion
Most people will probably find that the Apollo is just fine with the existing Firewire 800 option.
Those who are pushing the limits of their setup all the time (like I am!), or want ultra-low latencies for tracking, or who prefer a simple and tidy studio cabling setup, would definitely benefit from this Thunderbolt card.
And as more and more Thunderbolt-compatible devices become available, the convenience of being able to daisy-chain all these devices together will be even more of a priority. 

8 Top Logic Pro 9 Features

Bounce Track in Place

Here’s 8 of my top features in Logic pro 9. If you have any others – feel free to comment!
Click on the pictures for larger versions.

 
8 Bounce-in-place, for either track or region. Bounces down either your audio instrument MIDI regions or your audio regions – with or without plugins – to new audio regions and then mutes the original track or region. Great for rapidly “printing” any special processing or pitch-fixing plug-ins like Melodyne into a solid file. Note you can also do this for EVERY track simultaneously should you wish to export all your tracks into a different DAW program for mixing or something. Closely related to…

Freeze Track – the Two Modes

7 Freeze Track – you can freeze a track either just after the instrument (or less-usefully after an audio file I suppose), or after all the plug-ins and the fader, depending on how much load you want to take off the processor and how much control you want over tweaking plug-ins. Basically it does a cunning invisible 32-bit float bounce of the track (which you can go and copy from its folder if necessary) and then disables plug-ins/instruments on that track – in other words swapping processor power for hard-disk speed. It still sounds exactly the same but now you have more CPU power to do stuff. You can still un-tick the freeze button at any time to do some editing etc. Essential when you inevitably have so many plug-ins and instruments in your project that it won’t play!

Replacing or Layering Drum Track

6 Replace or layer individual drum tracks – need to fix up or bolster those poorly-recorded kicks, snares or toms? Logic can automatically detect the drum hits on an audio track (you can adjust sensitivity), then you can choose a replacement (or layered) drum sample which is then automatically imported into a new EXS24 sampler which is placed underneath the original track with a handy MIDI trigger region to play it.

Convert Audio Region to Sampler

5 Convert to sampler – this is cool and ridiculously easy. You can either select a strip-silenced bunch of audio regions on a track, or you can let Logic identify the transients in the audio region/s, then it will automatically pack all those audio chunks into a sampler assigned to MIDI notes ready to play. And then mute the original audio regions. Oh, and it conveniently creates a MIDI region that plays those samples exactly as if they were still the original audio files – so it recreates the source audio exactly. You can delete this if you want to do something different.

Select Sampler Options

Final Converted Sampler Track with MIDI region

Making Groove Template from MIDI Region

 4 Create your own grooves, or match your MIDI stuff to live drums. You can do this in a few ways – using the “Audio-to-MIDI” groove template under “Factory” in the Sample Editor window, or recording a MIDI track while you tap along with every 8th or 16th note on a MIDI keyboard, or use the drum/replacement doubling trick above. Once you have a MIDI file, select it and go to the region inspector pane, click on the “Quantize” drop-down menu and select “Make Groove Template”. This can then be applied to any other MIDI or Audio regions.

Audio to MIDI Groove Template

 

Region Gain

3 Region Gain – many users of Logic still don’t know you can use the little region inspector panel top left of the Arrange window to adjust the individual gain for each audio region.  It can replace the use of automation in some cases – just cut up your regions and set the gain for each one. It handily does this before it goes through any plug-ins in the channel strip (although this can be a problem if you have compressors inserted and you’re trying to use it instead of automation – the compressor may “fight” any gain changes).

 

Capture Record Button

2 Capture Record. This mysterious little button is like magic. Say you’re just been jamming along on your MIDI keyboard or controller in Logic, then you realise you’ve just played something absolutely amazing, but “oh no!” you haven’t been recording!

Fear not, just press this little button and what you just played will magically appear as recorded. If the button doesn’t show up for you – Ctrl-Click on your Transport bar and add it.

Tip – use “Take Folder” mode for your MIDI cycle recording – even more useful.

NB: This doesn’t work with audio unfortunately – unless you use the sneaky “Punch-on-the-fly” mode trick. When “Punch on the Fly” mode is selected under the Audio menu, Logic is ALWAYS recording any armed audio tracks whilst playing-back. You just need to actually hit “record” for a second while it’s still playing to let Logic know you want to capture and hence retrospectively grab what you just played.

Take Folder

1 Take Folders. Most people know about this one but it still bears mentioning. Record while in cycle mode, then just swipe the bits you want to keep from each take. It’s a fantastic way to get great vocal takes and Apple really has this one nailed better than the competitors. Many people aren’t aware of all of its cool features though.

Some additional tricks are; creating alternate versions of your comp (good for backing vocals or doubling lead vocals), exporting particular comps to duplicate tracks, editing the audio itself (eg trimming or moving parts) while comp’ing a good take, tagging the best bits as you go, or editing the size of the looped section (and folder) if it chops off the beginning of the loop each time.
You can also manually create a take folder out of various selected audio regions for creative purposes and you can also cut the take folder into chunks if needed.

What are your favourites?

Zed’s Digital Audio Top 10 of 2011

Window
Uploaded with Skitch!

This list is made up of those plug-ins and digital apps I used the most this year and/or made me the most excited. Most are available for both PC and Mac, and only a few are still stuck in 32-bit mode – hopefully that will change soon.

10) Izotope Ozone 5. Link This is the Mastering app of choice for most semi-pro engineer/producers and a great update to the ubiquitous Ozone 4 multi-processor – albeit slightly expensive for the “Pro” version without the introductory discount. The Pro version allows you to insert each module as a separate plug-in if you so desire, and has awesome audio visualisation options (plus a few extra features per module). Within this plug-in you get all the essential tools to repair a finished mix – a mastering limiter (Maximizer),  multi-band compression, multi-band exciter, multi-band width controls (Imager), mastering reverb, and an awesome EQ with handy frequency “solo” for ease of locating those crazy out of control frequencies. Oh, and you can go stereo or mid-side depending on your needs, and you also get all sorts of dithering and metering options.

9) SoundIron Emotional Piano 2Link It’s amazing how often you need a piano in a mix, and because I don’t have access to real one, I’m always struggling to find one that sits nicely in a song, especially as the ubiquitous grand pianos that seem to come with various packages don’t always work with the track. This piano is meant to be more “soundtrack-ey”, it’s warm, has character, and seems to sit much better than any of the others. If I want a clean sound I use Modart’s Pianoteq Link – a very nice modelled piano.

8) Avid Pro Tools 10Link Just so you know, although I’m a Logic Pro afficianado, I’m also a trained Pro Tools user and it’s good to see Pro Tools coming along so well and, although they’ve had the studio-recording side totally nailed for so long (and are the industry-standard for recording in the studio), they are still catching up somewhat with everyone else in the compositional features stakes. Also – now you don’t need to have a piece of Avid hardware to run it, it simplifies (and cheapens) your setup. Still a bit overpriced (especially as you have to pay quite a bit extra for much of the really cool stuff), but if you want to work with a variety of studios, you will probably need to use it at some point.

7) Arts Acoustic ReverbLink This algorithmic reverb is not only easy on the CPU, it sounds fantastic. I think our love-affair with the impulse reverb is fading, because as good as they initially sound, they are inherently linear – the sound doesn’t change based on level going in, so they can end up being a bit sterile. I think of them as “precision reverbs”. The Arts Acoustic can still sound clean, but you can get some pretty twisted sounds out of it if you need to, or some gorgeous Lexicon-like warmth. I use it a lot for dark and twisted drum reverbs, and for clean and open vocal reverb.

6) Logic Pro 9Link Notice it’s not at number 1, because as much as it’s my main tool in the studio, and it IS pretty damn awesome, (and ridiculously good value for money BTW – especially as you can now buy it on App Store for $200 USD) Apple have let it sit in the background for a while now, with very few updates, and some bugs that have been there for several years. I’m hoping that they release version 10 soon, without destroying what makes it so good – like they almost did with Final Cut Pro X. Runners up – Ableton Live Link – you’d have to have your head in the sand not to notice this DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) app increasingly dominating the market – although mostly in DJ, electronica and live performance realms, and Reaper Link – an inexpensive and increasingly fully-featured application that’s really taking off.

5) SoundToys Devil-Loc DeluxeLink Actually the entire Sound Toys native bundle is also fantastic (and pretty well priced if you’re a student and can get the Academic pricing), but I’ve found this particular compression-with-distortion plug-in an essential for big fat drum sounds. You can get it pumping in a really good way, and it sure adds instant excitement to the drum mix.

4) D16 Group ToraverbLink This plug-in reverb can get the biggest, widest, lushest chorused reverb sounds ever. It’s very impressive, and once you hear it, you’ll want it. I use it every time I need a huge sense of space and distance on something in my mix. Actually the D-16 Group do some fantastic plug-ins – I have the rest of the Silverline collection and also use the Decimort (which can emulate the colouration from various older samplers) and Devastator (a multi-band distortion unit) plug-ins a lot.

3) Slate Digital VCC (Virtual Console Collection)Link The idea with this plugin is that you put it on every channel strip and/or the busses to simulate one of four (now five!) analogue mixing consoles. It’s very subtle per channel strip, but somehow adds up to making a mix sound great and just “gel”. Runner-up to this is the very affordable Sonimus Satson Buss Link.

2) Celemony Melodyne Editor 2Link When it comes time to transparently fix poor intonation in vocals, without the obvious side-effects that you might want for some styles of music, then Melodyne is the one. It retains the nuances of phrasing and vibrato, and allows you to just fix the gross pitch errors if you like, or you can still go more extreme if you really want to. Also great for matching and creating backing vocal lines, repairing guitar tracks (got one string out of tune?) as it can now do polyphonic tracks, and my favourite; fixing poorly-played bass lines, because you can quantize to a time grid as well as fixing poor intonation on cheap basses. There are a bunch of products that Celemony put out, including the multi-track Melodyne Studio, but I like this one as it’s a pretty full-featured plug-in that can also do Rewire. An absolute essential!

1) Anything by UADLink This was my big “Eureka” moment this year. I decided to buy the UAD-2 Solo Laptop card to get some more processing into my overstressed Mac Book Pro laptop. Here’s what I found – the UAD plug-ins sound so much better than any other versions of the same plug-in, and sound so very close to the real hardware units that they’re modelling. You don’t need “golden ears” to tell the difference either. It might have something to do with the way the plug-ins are up-sampled for processing, or it might be the ridiculous huge amount of detailed modelling that they’ve done to recreate the vintage equipment so realistically. My favourites so far are the good old Pultec EQ – it really does just make things sound better – even without adding any EQ (although you probably will), the Ampex ATR-102 reel-to-reel, the Fatso Jr/Sr for, well, fatness, and the SPL Vitalizer for adding character to synths. My credit card is still hurting from going a wee bit crazy on these plug-ins this year, but I don’t regret it.

Notable mentions: the free Michael Norris effects collection Link for some quite radical granular processing options – especially useful for sound design. Some of the cool Waves plugins Link; for example the Kramer MPX reel-to-reel tape recorder and the Vocal Rider Not cheap, but good. Xfer Records’ LFOTool Link – adds tweakable sync’ed modulation to just about anything. Great for locking-in, enhancing or creating grooves in any track. Izotope’s Stutter Edit Link – awesome for adding those extra crazy head-sounds to your mix and for creating some extra action when it gets too boring – and you can play it in from a MIDI keyboard. The Sonnox collection Link – every single plug-in is useful and just sound awesome. And they’ve dropped the prices so real people can now almost afford them. Cytomic’s “The Glue” Link – a really excellent analogue-modelled master bus processor that you just set and forget.

The Lucky 13 Song Mixing Tips

Before I get started I just want to reinforce something I’ve mentioned in earlier posts – sometimes a reduction in parameters actually generates more creativity. Being aware of a set of limitations, or guidelines, can actually allow you much more creative control over your final mix.This could mean limiting the amount of effects that you allow yourself to use, or a more obvious one is to only use a particular set of effects that suits the genre or style. If you have the permission to do it, perhaps editing tracks or even removing “surplus” instrumentation or vocal is the first step.

Approach-wise, ideally you want all aspects of a song to reinforce together and create a stronger impact, and if you aren’t aware of what you’re doing, it’s very possible (in fact more common than you think) to get a generally nice balance of instruments that somehow doesn’t “gel”. You can hear everything, but it lacks emotional impact.

So here’s a bunch of ideas to think about next time you’re mixing a song – there are many more ideas and concepts to experiment with than these, but I stopped myself before the post became a novel.

1  Know what the song’s about. Clues are in the lyrics. Knowing what it’s about gives you the opportunity to amplify the concept rather than inadvertently fighting it. That doesn’t mean you have to “follow” the lyrics with the mix in a literal sense – you might do nothing at all in that regard, but at least you won’t be fighting the meaning of the song without even realising it, and when it comes to trying to think of creative mix directions, it’s yet another clue to help you.

2  Know the context of the music. What’s the genre or style of the artist. How does it relate to the artist’s identity? Being aware of this really makes it much more likely that you’ll promote that artist’s identity and overall concept, plus the artist will be more likely to appreciate what you do with the mix. For example does the artist exemplify “authenticity” where a raw, “character” sound with any intonation problems remaining unfixed is most desirable? Or is it about slick and smooth production?

3  Be adventurous. A mix is not a simple balance of levels of the instruments in a mix, it’s about featuring various aspects that you think the listener would like to hear, or more accurately needs to hear at any given section of the song. Pretend it’s a movie – how do you present each section of the song? Don’t be scared to go “over the top” with effects, fader moves and featuring of mix aspects – you can always tone it back if need be. Don’t be scared to turn vocal up loud – trying to hide weak vocals makes it even worse. Even ugly actors have to have close-ups in a movie to make it all work.

4  Think about texture and tone. It’s partly tone, partly level, partly how dominant something is in the mix. If you compress something – its texture changes. Listen out for it tonally as a sound rather than just checking it’s variation in level. How pervasive is it compared to everything else, despite its volume in the mix?
How does it link into the overall texture of the song? Textures are like a tonal colour palette – you probably don’t want to mix a neon green element in with some nice earth tones (remember there are no rules!), but then again you don’t want everything the same shade of beige.

5 It’s about melody In even the most distortion-fest mixes, our human nature will use our built-in pattern-detecting algorithms to extract a melody out of it somewhere, whether it be in the movement of the harmonics in the wall of guitar noise or in the groovy bassline. Make sure there’s one dominant melody at any given instant, or if there’s more than one, that they aren’t fighting each other and canceling out.

6 The pocket. It’s more than something to put your wallet in. It’s that magic interaction of instruments when it all suddenly locks into a groove. Spend some time adjusting relative timing of instruments to see if you can help the groove “gel”. You’ll know when it happens because it’s magic and you’ll start moving with the music whether you want to or not. Note that Beat Detective and other forms of quantization can fight this effect – it’s “felt” rather than being on an exact grid. Saying that, if the playing is too loose then a timing grid is definitely a step up.

7  Keep it simple stupid. Less is more. These things are fundamental truths, despite our over-familiarity with them often leaving them as meaningless statements in our minds. Think about the mix as a photo – the more people you want to appear in the photo, the smaller they’ll have to be. Don’t be scared to bring the main things to the foreground, and push other things back to the point of blurriness or being hidden behind the main elements. A good mix is not about individual band members’ egos, it’s about the overall blend. When you think about it, the individual band members have the least idea about what the mix should sound like – they all hear completely different versions of a mix depending on where they stand/sit when they perform.

8  Three “Tracks”. Back in the olden days, after mono and stereo, there were three tracks. One was for “Rhythm” (and could include drums, bass, percussion and rhythm guitar for example), one for Vocals and one for “Sweetening” which might be things like brass, strings, lead instruments etc. This strategy is still a great one to keep in mind for mixing. It forces you to think about your rhythm section as one single thing, and you need to make it all gel. Bass needs to lock in the pocket with the kick drum. Sweetening nowadays is whatever else you need outside rhythm and vocals. Think carefully about which mix elements fit into each of these three roles, and if all three are already populated – maybe it’s time to do some cutting. Note that some instruments such as guitars might switch between modes depending on what they’re playing at the time – rhythm, fills or lead.

9 One thing at a time. Rather than thinking of one of the aforementioned three tracks as just “Vocals” perhaps it’s better to look on it as “Melody”. The melody line often chops and changes between vocal, instrumental fills and solos. If you think of these three elements as playing a similar role at different times in the song, it makes it easy when trying to decide on levels/sounds between the three. It also highlights that you shouldn’t have any of those melodies crossing over each other and fighting at any point – keep ’em separated!

10 Getting the bass sitting right is tricky – especially when it needs to work on both large and small speaker systems. Try mixing the bass while listening on the smallest speakers that you have, to get it sitting at the right level. Then adjust the tonal balance while listening on bigger speakers to reign any extreme frequencies back in. Sometimes you might need to layer the bass sound to get this to happen effectively.

11 Don’t over-compress everything. Listen to the TONE while compressing each instrument and keep it sounding natural if possible. Pay close attention to the start and end (attack and release) of the notes of each instrument you compress. Your final mix should be sitting at an average RMS level of about -12 to -18dBFS with peaks no higher than around -3dBFS. Leave the mastering engineer to do the final compression and limiting. Remember to leave dynamic range in the mix – contrast! Our ears need some sort of contrast to determine what’s loud and soft. If you hammer all the levels to the max you may as well just record the vacuum cleaner at close range and overdrive the mic/preamp. Hmmm. Might have to try that.

12 Easier than Automation. In these days of automation, it’s easy to spend inordinate amounts of time tweaking automation changes on instruments or vocals between different sections of a song (eg adding more reverb to the vocals in the chorus or adjusting rhythm gtr levels in the bridge). With today’s digital audio workstations, extra tracks are usually in ready supply, so rather than fluffing about with automation for a specific section of the song, why not just move that part over onto another duplicated track instead, then just make whatever changes you need to suit that section. Much quicker than continually mucking around with automation on the same track. By the way – make sure your mix is dynamic. A mix is a performance in itself, not a static set of levels.

13 Use submix busses for each element of the mix. Eg drum subgroup,  guitar subgroup, vocal subgroup etc. Rather than send all your drums straight to the L/R or Stereo mix, first send them all to an Aux return channel instead. Then send that Aux to the LR/Stereo mix. (Tip: disable solo on the Auxes) This makes it simple to do overall tweaks to your mix even after you’ve automated levels on individual tracks.
You need to be careful about aux effects returns and where they come back though, as their balance might change slightly if you adjust the instrument subgroups.
And hey, what about creating just three subgroups – Rhythm, Melody, Sweetening? Let me know if it works ;o)

Sources: Stephen Webber, Bob Katz, Mixerman, Mike Senior.

The Apogee Gio and Mainstage Experiment

I have a solo gig coming up and have decided that being yet another singer-songwriter is boring as hell. Especially as I haven’t been blessed with one of those voices that could make singing the shopping list sound awesome.

So I need to use everything in my power to add value and variety to the gig – hence the MainStage experiment.

I wanted to be able to go from simple vocal and guitar to full-on backing based on my recorded songs. While keeping it all “live” and interactive so I can jam it out a bit if the opportunity arises.

The beauty of MainStage 2 is that it’s basically the guts of Logic Pro bundled into an application for performing live. That means you get the same instruments and effects, plus any of your third-party plug-ins as well.


It means you can also add bounced backing tracks for your songs – with markers that you can loop around or jump to. The markers allow you to see what song section’s coming up next in case you forgot.

And there’s a cool Looper plug-in that allows you to recreate the current trend of having those dinky guitar pedals that allow you to build up your own musical or percussive layers during a live set. You just play something in, hit the pedal and it loops around while you play something over the top, or you can just keep recording more layers, undo the last one, or clear it all and start fresh.


MainStage allows you to create your own user-interface – you can customise what you are looking at on the computer screen, and also create objects that will be controlled by whatever pedals, buttons, knobs, faders or keyboards you have connected to it in the real world.

Hence me also getting an Apogee Gio – this allows me to have 12 buttons on the foot controller that I can assign to whatever I need to per song, and I can also plug in my expression pedal to do my chucka-chucka-wah-wah thing.


The Gio also has a built-in audio input for guitar or bass, which actually sounds great. Apogee are renowned for their great-sounding converters and it’s nice to find even their cheap-ish ones are good. Definitely a good way of getting your instrument into MainStage.

The only hassles I had were when I wanted to plug in a microphone as well as my guitar – meaning I had to use another audio interface as well – in this case an M-Box Pro.

Apple’s OSX allows you to combine two separate interfaces together as an aggregate device so they appear as one source to the audio application, but no matter which way I did it, they didn’t play nice with each other, eventually degrading the audio quality.

So I had to ditch the awesome sound of the Apogee for the more average M-Box one.
Oh well – at least the Gio buttons still worked and looked pretty.
The little LED indicators change color to suit what the pedals are mapped to in MainStage – ooooh aaaaah….

When you use the Gio with Logic, and apparently GarageBand as well, the foot controls are automatically mapped to Record, Play, Rewind, Fast Forward etc for hands-free recording which is a bonus.

Build quality of the Gio is great by the way – it’s a solid little unit – quite heavy in fact, so it’s going to stay put on stage, and feels fairly indestructible.

So, for the moment I’m still wrestling my way through customizing MainStage for the upcoming gig – there’s still a trick or two I need to learn. There’s a Concert/Set/Patch hierarchy that is important to get your head around otherwise the backing stops when you change guitar patches for example – and the synchronisation options with backing tracks and loops has some quirks.

But I’m getting there bit by bit, so I’ll let you know how it goes…

Links:
The Gio
MainStage

Digital Recording Levels – a rule of thumb

Okay, I mentioned this as one of my tips in a previous post, but there’s confusion and many heated debates out there about the ideal level to record into your digital audio workstation.

I’m just summing up the information readily available elsewhere (if you are willing to wade through endless online debates and the numerous in-depth articles), for people who just want to know right here and now what the best level is to record into their digital audio systems.

So I’m going to start with just a quick easy rule of thumb for these people, followed with a little bit more detail after that to explain why I’m recommending these numbers.

I apologize for simplifying some of the math – but if you’re really interested there are plenty of texts and in-depth articles available with a bit of searching. I’ve included a few references and links at the end of the article.

The rule of digital thumb

  1. Record at 24-bit rather than 16-bit.
  2. Aim to get your recording levels on a track averaging about -18dBFS. It doesn’t really matter if this average floats down as low as, for example -21dBFS or up to -15dBFS.
  3. Avoid any peaks going higher than -6dBFS.

That’s it. Your mixes will sound fuller, fatter, more dynamic, and punchier than if you follow the “as loud as possible without clipping” rule.

For newbies – dBFS means “deciBels Full Scale”. The maximum digital level is 0dBFS over which you get nasty digital clipping, and levels are stated in how many dB below that maximum level you are.

Average level is very important – people hear volume based on the average level rather than peak. Use a level meter that shows both peak and average/RMS levels. Even better if you can find a meter that uses the K-system scale.

Some common questions:

Q: Why do we avoid going higher than -6dB on peaks? Surely we can go right up to 0dBFS?

Answer 1 – the analogue side.
Part of the problem is getting a clean signal out of your analogue-to-digital converter. Unless you have a very expensive professional audio interface, or you like the sound of the distortion that it makes when you drive it hard, then you’re going to get some non-linearities (ie distortion) happening at higher levels, often relating to power supply limitations and slew rates.

Most interfaces are calibrated to give around -18dBFS/-20dBFS when you send 0VU from a mixing desk to their line-ins. This is the optimum level!
-18dBFS is the standard European (EBU) reference level for 24-bit audio and it’s -20dBFS in the States (SMPTE).

Answer 2 – the digital side.
Inter-sample and conversion errors. If all we were ever doing is mixing levels of digital signals, we would probably be fine most of the time going up close to 0dBFS, as most DAWs can easily and cleanly mix umpteen tracks at 0dBFS.

EXCEPT there are some odd things that happen;

  • Inter-sample errors can create a “phantom” peak that exceeds 0dBFS on analogue playback.
  • When plug-ins are inserted they can potentially cause internal bus overloads. These can build-up some unpleasant artifacts to the audio as you add more plug-ins as your mix progresses. They can also potentially generate internal peaks of up to 6dB – even if you’re CUTTING frequencies with an EQ, for example.
  • Digital level meters on channel strips seldom show the true level – they don’t usually look at every single sample that comes through. It’s possible to have levels up to 3dB higher than are displayed on the meters.

Keeping your individual track levels a bit lower avoids most of these issues. If your track levels are high, inserting trim or gain plug-ins at the start of the plug-in chain can help remove or reduce these problems. Use your ears!

Q: Aren’t we losing some of our dynamic range if we record lower? Aren’t we getting more digital quantization distortion because we’re closer to the noise floor?

Short answer. No.

Really, both of these questions sort of miss the point, as we shouldn’t be boosting our audio up to higher levels and then turning it down again. So there’s nothing to be “lost”.

It’s the equivalent of boosting the gain right up on a mixing desk while having the fader down really low, giving you extra noise and distortion that you didn’t even need. You should leave the fader at it’s reference point and add just enough gain to give you the correct audio level. This is what we’re trying to do when recording our digital audio as well – nicely optimizing our “gain chain”.

The best way to illustrate this is to throw a few numbers up;

Each bit in digital audio equates to approximately 6dB.
So 16-bit audio has a dynamic range of 96dB.
24-bit audio has a range of 144dB.

With me so far? Probably doesn’t mean a lot just yet.

Now, let’s look at the analogue side where it becomes slightly more interesting.

The theoretical maximum signal-to-noise ratio in an analogue system is around 130dB.
Being awesomely observant, you picked up immediately that this is a lot less than 24-bit’s 144dB range!

In fact, the best analogue-to-digital converters you can buy are lucky to even approach 118dB signal-to-noise ratio never mind 144dB.

So – let’s think about this.
If we aim to record at -18dBFS, how many bits does that give us?

24 bits minus 3 (each bit is 6dB remember). That’s 21 bits left.
What’s the dynamic range of 21 bits? 126dB
What’s the dynamic range of your analogue-to-digital converter again? 120dB-ish.
Less than 20 bits.
One bit less than our 21-bit -18dBFS level.

The conclusion is that when recording at -18dBFS you are already recording at least one bit’s worth of the noise floor/quantization error, and if you actually turn your recording levels up towards 0dBFS, all you’re really doing is turning up the noise with your signal.

And most likely getting unnecessary distortion and quantisation artifacts.

Apart from liking the sound of your converter clipping, there’s NO technical or aesthetic advantage to recording any louder than about -18 or -20dBFS. Ta-Da!

Mix Levels

If you’ve been good and recorded all your tracks at the levels I recommended, you probably won’t have any issues at all with mix levels.

The main thing is to make sure your mix bus isn’t clipping when you bounce it down.

Most DAW’s can easily handle the summing of all the levels involved, even if channels are peaking above 0dBFS. In fact even if the master fader is going over 0dBFS, there’s generally not a problem until it reaches the analogue world again, or when the mix is being bounced down.

Most DAWs have headroom in the order of 1500-2500dB “inside the box”. You can usually just pull the master fader down to stop the master bus clipping.

Saying that, it’s still safer if you keep your levels under control.
Like I mentioned before – a key problem is overloads before and between plug-ins. If your channel or master level is running hot and you insert a plug-in, it could be instantly overloading the input of the plug-in depending on whether the plug-in is pre-or-post the fader. So use your ears and make sure you’re not getting distortion or weird things happening on a track when you insert and tweak plug-ins.

Try to use some sort of average/RMS metering, and try to keep your average mix level (ie on your Master fader) between about -12 to -18dBFS, with peaks under -3dBFS.

Mastering will easily take care of the final level tweaks.

To conclude – when recording at 24-bit, there is a much higher possibility of ruining a mix through running levels too high than having your levels too low and noisy.

As Bob Katz says, if your mix isn’t loud enough – just turn the monitor level up!

PS – say “no” to normalizing. That’s almost as bad as recording too loud.

References:
Bob Katz’ web site.
Plus Bob’s excellent book “Mastering Audio – the Art and the Science”.
Paul Frindle et al on GearSlutz.com
A nice paper on inter-sample errors

Download a free SSL inter-sample meter (includes a nice diagram of inter-sample error )

12 Tips for improving the quality of your recordings


1. When recording to digital – keep your levels a bit more conservative. Aim for -18dBFS when recording at 24-bit. And at 16-bit? Best to just stick to 24-bit. Don’t worry about levels looking low on the meters, and don’t worry about “having less bits available”. You’re still getting 21 bits, which is about the maximum you can actually encode from the analogue side anyway. You’re not losing anything, and you’re getting decent digital headroom and much bigger/more dynamic sound. Try it!

2. The best EQ you’ll ever get is on the end of the microphone. Spend time getting an awesome sound from the microphone itself, and your mixing will be much easier. Get the mic/instrument position nailed and try different mics if the sound’s not working for you. Omnis are awesome. Don’t think the most expensive mic is always the best, either – the humble Shure 57 and Sennheiser 421 are more than just drum mics.

3. Don’t over-compress everything. Be judicious when you compress – be aware of what you are trying to achieve. Are you even-ing out the performance of a bass track? Or compressing the drums to get a particular texture? Don’t just do it to “turn it up”. That’s what the faders are for. If you want your overall mix to sound louder – get the mastering engineer to do it. Over-compressing will rob your song of “punch” and fatness.

4. Set the compressor release-time so it works with the rhythm of the track. Set it as long as possible but so level reduction still manages to get back up to unity before the next beat/phrase. Then fine-tune so it adds to the groove. It’s tempo-based.

5. Work with the song arrangement. The maximum volume in any given song is divided into however many sounds/instruments you have playing at the same time. 20 small guitars do not usually sound as impressive as one big guitar. (They might have an interesting texture though). The instruments in a 3-piece band will sound bigger than those in a 12-piece band UNLESS you deliberately leave space for each instrument at different parts of the song. Don’t be afraid to cut things out, or to have musicians not play at various points – which leads into…

6. Create contrast. On the subject of arrangement – take a leaf out of Nirvana’s songbook – create big contrasts between, for example, verses and choruses. “Loud” only sounds loud if it’s got some “quiet” to compare against. Another reason to watch your compression, too. Try subtly easing down the rhythm guitar level as you go through the verse, and then suddenly bring it back up to the original level for the chorus. Sounds loud again, doesn’t it?

7. Commit. Don’t record 70 takes of a vocal track and then edit it later. Why didn’t you just keep doing punch-ins until it was right? Now you’re going to have to spend 6 hours trying to edit vocals when you could have got a decent take in probably an extra half-hour. Murphy’s law will also make sure that NONE of those 70 takes contains a good first line of the third verse.

And if you think that the rhythm guitar sounds perfect with that grottelflange pedal on it – record it like that! If you’re paranoid – capture both versions – and keep the clean guitar track in a backup session.
In other words – don’t defer all your decisions till the mix – make a call and go with it.

8. Be daring. Bands don’t usually become famous for sounding just like other bands (maybe in the short-term). They become famous for being unique. If the band sounds like everyone else, you’d better be trying hard to find something unique in there and be highlighting it. Or find a unique way to present them in the recording by your approach. Don’t be scared to go “over-the-top” with effects – you can always make them more conservative if you have to, but it’s almost impossible to go the other way once you’re used to the sound you have.

9. Err on the side of performance. There’s magic in a good performance. Does it give you goose-bumps? Better to have a piece of music that moves you than something that’s technically perfect but “cold”. This is where an experienced band can nail it – they can give a good performance early-on, before they get bored. By the way – don’t run-through the whole song when sound-checking otherwise the performers get stale before you’re ready. And why weren’t you recording already anyway!?!?!

10. Highlight character. Often it’s the imperfections that make our ears prick up. Ideally the imperfections shouldn’t be big enough to ruin the song, though. Have you often thought the demo of a song is better than the final recording? What made the demo unique? Don’t try to make every instrument “perfect”. Don’t EQ instruments while they are solo’ed – you’ll end up trying to make everything sound fat and full, which adds up to “bland”. Try to make at least one sound unique in the mix.

11. The mixdown is a performance too. If the levels are static in your mix, it’s going to sound boring. The human brain is wired to detect change. You better have some stuff changing through the song to keep the listener’s brain stimulated. If you have an interesting arrangement, you probably don’t need to worry so much about eg levels changing through the mix, but if your mix lacks contrast, you’d better be riding those controls. Think of the song like a movie – what’s the camera looking at now?

12. Use your ears – not your eyes. One of the dangers of digital recording is that we can see what the waveform looks like. And what the levels look like. And what the EQ curve on the plug-in looks like. Turn off the display when you’re doing your critical listening. Don’t move all the drum beats and bass and guitar perfectly in time – they’ll sound tighter but thinner. Don’t tweak your EQ until it “looks” better. Have you noticed how you notice things differently while you’re bouncing the final mix?

Songwriting – can it be taught?

I just spent the weekend at a songwriting workshop by Jason Blume. It was awesome.

This is the second one I’ve participated in, and to be honest because I’d helped organise my workplace to host the workshop, I got to go for free.

I’d always been a bit hesitant about going along to workshops and training seminars about songwriting, because I always figured “I don’t want somebody to give me rules that I have to stick to – I want to make my own ORIGINAL music, maaaan” (That last because I’m kind of whining as I think that).

This is also why I resisted learning music theory ;o)

Anyhoo – now that I’ve been to a few of these things, I realise that they DON’T rob you of your unique voice and creative centre – in fact it’s more liberating if anything, because one of the main things that Jason expounds is that there are no rules. You can make whatever music you want, and it’s all great.

However – he is a storehouse of astute observations about songwriting (as well as the music and song publishing industries). So rather than saying what is right and what is wrong, he will point out that most of the popular songs have certain things in common – for example a chorus that has a memorable melody and lyric, and that can deliver an appropriate emotional reaction.

Jason will not tell you how to write your chorus, but he might certainly observe that it doesn’t really sound different from the verse, or that the song drops rather than lifts at that point, or the words or phrasing don’t’t make sense, or something along those lines.

He also makes a distinction between songs written by people for their own pleasure, and those who write for the public – if you are writing for yourself feel free to do whatever you want, if you are doing it for others, then it’s probably good to make it easy for them to engage with, and hopefully remember your song.

One of the most interesting things Jason does is to critique songs that people bring along to the workshop (either on CD/iPod or playing them live).

This is a real eye-opener, as you can see and hear yourself all the flaws in other people’s (and your own!) submissions, especially by the end of the second day, where you are more aware of the aspects to look for.

It becomes obvious that a good song not only has to be a unique, creative and detailed viewpoint of something, but also needs to be well-crafted to highlight its own good points rather than destroy them.
After so many meandering singer-songwriter instrospectives (I’ve been guilty of doing this for many years as well), it’s actually refreshing to hear simplicity and repetition. Half the problem is that everybody wants to be “clever”, and instead they end up with cumbersome and meandering and forgetful.

Last year my own submission, which of course I was sooooo proud of – (then my current latest and greatest!), was exposed as having three different verses that all had different structures, and lyrics that mostly failed to be a unique way to say what I wanted to say. It was true – it wasn’t a bad song by any means, but all you songwriters out there must know what it feels like to play your song to somebody and hear it though their ears as you listen? I was cringeing.

Over the last year I have taken on board a lot of what Jason taught me at the last workshop – I had written what I felt was a much better song – simpler verses, more repetitive, stronger melodies, a great chorus line. But I was anxious about the verse lyrics, having already thrown them all away a couple of times already and going back almost to the original idea. The lyrics still needed a lot of work to create a solid setup for the choruses, though.
A couple of the lines were even the original scratch lines I jammed along to it when I was first writing the song. One line was a complete throw-away and a bit of a joke. “Check one-two”. Whaaaat?

I had hoped to fix a couple of these lines before the second day of the workshop – but some problems with an Apple OSX update corrupted my Logic song session, so I had to submit it as it was.

I actually began to regret putting my song in the submission pile – as the stack grew shorter towards my own disc I grew more and more nervous. “Check one-two!?!?!!” Oh my god, what a stupid line!

Finally, Jason worked down to my own submission. My heart was racing. He put my lyrics up on the projector. There were some snickers and giggles – oh the humiliation!
He flipped the disc in the player and hit play.

Doesn’t sound toooo bad, nice hooky intro rhythm, clean verse lines (Argh those lyrics! Argh I hate the sound of my own voice). Kicks up into the pre-chorus, then bang into the chorus – phew – relatively safe. Then suddenly STOP!!!!!!

Jason cuts the song. He says “There are two major problems with this song”. My blood pressure has skyrocketed, my heart rate is so high it’s like I’ve sniffed Amyl Nitrate and the blood has drained from my face. I’m now sure I’m going into cardiac arrest and I’m almost welcoming the unconsciousness that will soon release me from this embarrasment. I’ve failed again!

“There are two major problems with this song – it’s not on the radio and my name’s not on it”. The room breaks into applause. My friends laugh at me. I manage a feeble “woo-hoo” and a shaky unconvincing smile. I feel a sense of relief – almost like managing to pass my driving test or an exam.
It’s not until later on when we have a break, when people come up to me to congratulate me and teenagers get my email address that I feel like I’ve achieved something special.

I guess for myself, songwriting workshops have been a relatively positive thing so far.

Edit: Oh if you want to have a listen: FallingMix3 by Mr Zeberdee

Five Tips for increasing your Creativity

Creativity flourishes under arduous conditions

It’s no secret that some of the most amazing ideas come out at the most stressful or restrictive times and places. History is full of amazing art and writings that came from the most desperate and depressing times.

Even the most procrastinistic (is that even a word?) amongst us has probably found inspiration when having to do a dull or dreary task. “I can’t carry on washing these dishes – I have a great melody for a song in my head!”

Lets face it, some of the greatest innovations have come from simple beginnings as a solution to a specific problem, whether it be in war, survival or even space travel.
One of the key concepts to all this is in the amount of parameters that surround a given problem. Tighter, fewer and more defined parameters make it easier to zoom in and locate a solution. This all sounds a bit left-brain, but it works almost exactly the same in the more right-brain creative environment as well.

There are two similar and overlapping concepts in action here – the first is that an environment not apparently conducive to creativity somehow seems to generate ideas. The second is that there needs to be a restriction in options to enable a better flow or focus of ideas.

In regards to creativity, the environment issue might be simply that we desire to do anything other than what we are currently doing. The more distressing or boring the task, the more our minds try to find an escape or some form of internal freedom, especially if our bodies are trapped somewhere. (eg in a meeting at work, on a production line, or even just stuck on a bus or train)

1) Capture the ideas when they flow

One of the key things we can take from this is that we need to have a handy system for capturing those ideas for later use. Some people carry notebooks, some carry voice recorders, some, like me, use their cellphone. Having voicemail on your own phone number can be a handy thing! The cellphone is useful in that nobody can tell who you’re talking to – even if it’s to yourself ;o)

2) Store ideas for later use and retrieval

This is kind of obvious, really. No point in having all those good ideas if you can’t retrieve them later on. This part is a little left-brain again – sorting, storing and keeping an index of some sort. There are apps out there for the computer that can help in this regard. For songwriting I recommend Masterwriter, but there are numerous apps and techniques out there that may suit your own style.

3) Work to a fixed idea.

One example of this is when I was having trouble finding new ideas for writing songs when I was writing a song every week – I canvassed my friends for ideas. One idea I was given was “what if Winter was a woman?” This is a great way to focus your writing, and there’s no rules about changing direction once you’re going. Use “what if” as much as possible, and remember people love stories.

4) Keep the equipment basic

There are so many people out there who feel that they need to have the latest gear or equipment to get the best sounds or compositions happening. The advent of the internet downloading culture has turned people into software collectors rather than music makers. Some of the most prolific and successful producers of music are not even using the latest technology – they’re using vintage equipment that they know intimately and are able to overcome its limitations. Don’t keep postponing your real writing until you get the right technology. It’s YOU that creates, NOT the technology. (Although occasionally a new sound can trigger off an idea, of course)

5) Limit your creative options to find direction

There are some big traps for composers on modern computer systems – the main one being way too many options. It’s hard to find direction when you have the entire compass at your disposal.
When writing a song, it’s easy to get bogged down on paltry things like hunting for the perfect patch on a synthesizer, or just the right reverb chamber – and sometimes there are thousands.
It’s better to make a call beforehand about the creative palette that you will use – choose the instrumentation or style in advance so you can stay focused.

There you go – this is just a simplistic set of ideas that may help you get past your writer’s block. These are not hard and fast rules – in fact there are no rules, apart from rule-of-thumb, and there’s exceptions to everything.

I was just now wondering whether it’s the reduction in hardship that impacts on bands and artists who have trouble with their later efforts in music – the first album is born of struggle and turmoil, but later efforts have more funding, more time, better studios etc – maximising their quality but reducing their creativity. Just thinking out loud really.

My Top 5 Essential Plugins

Everybody has their own favourites, and here’s mine right at the moment. (It may change next week!)

Melodyne Plug-In

Because I write and produce completed demos so fast (up to a song a week for a quite a while), I’m often generating vocals from one pass. Or starting my song idea from a sung vocal.
So Melodyne is awesome for tweaking what I already have, or changing to a different key. Or generating harmony ideas. Or fixing poor bass playing and intonation (most basses have poor intonation on certain frets).
Unlike Autotune, it preserves vibrato and pitch slides, is fantastic for stretching notes or fixing phrasings, and doesn’t create that odd phasing sound when it’s inserted.
People have the wrong idea about apps like Autotune and Melodyne – sure they can be, and are, abused by talentless losers, but they are also essential tools when it comes down to a choice between a perfect emotive delivery marred by a wrong note, or a technically pitch-perfect and soul-less performance. Give me the first option anytime.

Izotope Ozone 4

Long considered as the perfect all-in-one mastering tool for the semi-pro or lower-budget mastering engineer, this version has taken another step in the pro direction with the addition of mid-side processing options and a slew of other cool features. One of the highlights for me is the ability to solo a frequency by option-clicking in the EQ window. It’s seldom I have to pull in other plugins or external processing to complete a mastering job.

Logic’s Compressor

Wow – with the advent of Logic 8, they have really upgraded this plugin significantly. It now models five new types of compressor, including two class-A types (including Urei), VCA, FET, and Opto. My favourites are the Urei and the FET. It has some cool extra features – overload clip type, EQ on the sidechain (for frequency-selective reduction), and a “mix” slider. This last is way more powerful than you can imagine – with just a tweak of this you can easily recreate parallel compression within the channel signal path – set the compressor to “smash” settings and then mix it back a bit.

Arts Acoustic Reverb

This is a digitally generated reverb effect rather than one of the currently popular impulse-based units, but somehow it it just sounds great. It has plenty of parameters to tweak and almost every patch has that beautiful analogue quality to it. Low on the computer resources too. Try it – you’ll like it.

Logic’s Tape Delay

Okay, now Logic has the new Delay Designer – it’s flashy and cool. But I still love the ol’ Tape Delay. It does the most awesome dub effects, and is just made for tweaking as the mix progresses. It has filters that work on the feeback section so that each echo progressivley grunges out more and more, and an authentically perfect feedback that goes crazy in a sweet analogue way when you wind up the feedback slider.

So what are YOUR favourites?