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 center – 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 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 cringing.

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 embarrassment. 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.

Getting creative with Multi-Band Compressors

What many people don’t realise is that conveniently bundled into each multi-band compressor is a multi-band crossover that splits the overall spectrum into two or more frequency bands – 4 or 5 bands are quite common nowadays.

This gives us the ability to do some cool tricks in our digital audio workstation of choice. For example, having a duplicated instrument track with different crossover bands cut on each track allows us to process different frequencies in different ways for the SAME instrument.

This allows us to add a plugin that might only affect the high frequencies of a guitar or bass without affecting the lows, for example.

All these tricks rely on disabling the compressor part of the plug-in by setting a 1:1 compression ratio (ie no compression) – we only want to use the crossover part of the plug-in.

Say you want to put a flange or chorus on the bass guitar without robbing the bottom-end fatness. Usually inserting delay-based effects on an instrument causes comb filtering, which greatly affects the frequency response over the entire spectrum – with some pretty major frequency cuts going on. This is particularly critical on any instrument where you wish to retain the low frequencies.

Duplicate your bass region to an extra track then insert a multi-band compressor on both tracks. You really only need two frequency bands for this.

Cut the top band on the “bass” version of the track, and cut the bottom band on the other one that you want to insert the chorus/flange on. This will be inserted after the multi-band plugin by the way.

This assumes that you have your crossover points set the same in each multi-band plug-in. Set the crossover frequency to around 200 Hz for starters, then tune for best effect. Remember – make sure you match this crossover point on both multi-band plug-ins.

Tip – fine-tune the delay time in your chorus or flanger to make it sound the most “musical”.

Note that this trick also works really well when adding distortion to a bass – although in this particular case you may want to set up one of your two duplicate bass tracks to distort the entire bass guitar spectrum, and have the other track so it just blends in the clean low bass.

Another trick – tweaking the “EQ” by boosting and cutting bands rather than using conventional EQ. This is great for just fixing up broad EQ problems – eg too much top or bottom end, but with no real peaky frequencies that need fixed. Using the multi-band keeps the sound smooth.

Need to fix a sibilant frequency? Obviously if you have a dedicated De-Esser plug-in, this will probably do the trick, but if you don’t have one – try using just a single band on the multi-band compressor instead. Make sure the other bands are set so they don’t activate, then set one band between eg 3kHz and 8kHz (use your ears). Stick a high-ish ratio on it (say 8:1), set the threshold quite low; -20dB to -30dB. Tweak to suit.

Note that although de-essing is the most obvious use of this kind of technique, this will also work on other “resonant” frequency problems – perhaps a single bass note that goes wild, or boomy mids on an acoustic guitar.

DJ Hi-and Lo-Cut techniques.
Most DJ mixers have a fairly extreme set of filters built in for completely removing lows or highs from a track. This can be simulated in your DAW by using two duplicate tracks – one with the lower bands cut in the Multi-band compressor, and the other track with the highs cut. Both tracks together should sound like the original, but muting one or the other tracks will apply the “filter”. You can of course do this with a matching pair of high and low-pass filters instead – one on each track, but these may not be as “symmetrical” as the multi-band, so both tracks running together may not sound as “pure” as the original.

Any other tricks you know of?

Making your own reverb Impulses

For those who aren’t in the know about Impulse or Convolution reverbs, they take a “snapshot” of the ambience of a room or other space (or even audio equipment) that can then be used within a specialised reverb plug-in. (eg Space Designer, Altiverb, Waves IR1, TL Space, Voxengo Pristine Space, SIR, Nebula)

This gives a scarily accurate reproduction of the space, but it does have it’s down sides as well.

It’s very heavy on processing power – every bit of each impulse sample has to be processed against every single bit of each audio sample you’re putting through it. For 24 bit source and 24 bit impulse that’s 24×24=576 calculations for EACH sample. This means impulse reverbs not only suck the power from your computer’s CPU, they also have a high latency – and no sound comes out of the other end of the reverb until the first sample gets processed through ALL the samples in the entire impulse. This means if you change a parameter in the reverb plug-in, there’s quite a delay before you hear the effect.

Anyway – enough of the scary maths, let’s talk about how to actually make your own impulse “recordings” of rooms. I’m going to focus on using Space Designer in Logic Pro, because Apple have very kindly created an Impulse Utility that makes the whole process stupidly easy – even for making surround-sound impulses if you feel the need.

What we’re going to do:

We’re going to play a swept tone into a room, record it through a couple of microphones, trim the resulting file and finally deconvolve it into your beautiful reverb patch.
Note: Grabbing responses from equipment is better with a single-full-volume sample “click” rather than a sweep, but a sweep is usually better for spaces because it has better frequency response, and better record levels – watch out for items resonating in the room though!

What we’re going to need:

  • A Mac computer with Impulse Utility. A laptop is the most convenient.
  • Good quality audio interface with Mic preamps. With phantom power for the mics.
  • Powered full-range speaker – to feed the swept tone into the room. Bigger is better so you can generate the lowest frequencies and it can fill the room with sound without distorting.
  • At least one good quality microphone – a stereo pair of small-diaphragm condensers is ideal.

Setting up:

The first thing is to set the correct input/output devices.

Then decide how many channels you want to record – I’m just using “Stereo” since I’m only using one source speaker (True Stereo is for two speakers/two mics).

Choosing the positioning of the mics and speaker/s is a whole book in itself, but as a starter I recommend you have the speaker next to you at one end of the room (pointing into it), and put the mics two-thirds of the way back, pointing away from the speaker. This avoids direct sound from the source in your reverb patch – giving more room colour. Feel free to record a whole bunch of different combinations if you have the time – there’s no right or wrong.

Then you have to send some tone to your speaker to set the playback level. Press the tone button, adjust levels as fast as possible before the tone drives you crazy.

Recording the file:

Arm your track/s. (You could theoretically record each track at different times, for example if you had only one good mic).

You can set the expected reverb time for the capture – it gets added on at the end of your sweep.
Be very quiet. Shhhh.
Hit the Sweep button. (Where does your hearing cut out on the tone sweep?)

Voila! The Impulse Utility forces you to save the session/captured file now, so you could always finish this later if you have to quickly pack up and escape.

Trimming the resulting impulse:

You’ll probably need to trim the silence from the start and end of the impulse file – you’ll want a tightly-edited front, and why waste CPU cycles processing any silence at the end?

I recommend you do a fade into silence at the end.
Hardly-know factoid: One of the benefits of trimming the beginning of the impulse file, from a swept tone rather than a click, is that it removes any harmonic distortion that was generated during the process of playing the swept tone. The distortion conveniently ends up BEFORE the impulse click. Awesome.

Auditioning the Impulse:

Pressing the Audition IR button will allow you to play some preloaded sounds (or you can load your own waves) through your new reverb to see what it sounds like before saving it as a patch.

Exporting as a Space Designer patch:

Hit the Create Space Designer Setting button, name your patch, done!

It magically appears in your Space Designer patch list.

Once you’ve been through this process once, you’ll see just how easy it really is, and you’ll probably start noticing the reverb sound in stairwells a lot more.

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.

No bass out of your home stereo?

I don’t know how many times I visit friends’ places or go to parties and their stereo speakers are out of phase. Even worse – they don’t even seem notice how horrible they sound.
They’re probably so used to it that they think that’s what the system’s MEANT to sound like.

As an audio engineer, I can usually tell straight away and it drives me crazy. Usually so crazy I can’t even even pay attention to what people are saying or even enjoy my drink until I fix it.

How can you tell the speakers are out of phase?
There’s a distinct lack of bass frequencies (that’s the low rumbly ones), unless you’re close to one speaker only.
When you walk across from one speaker to the other, parts of the song seem to follow you, or “swim”.
It feels like there’s a “hole” in the sound in between the two speakers.

Here’s the easy test.
Move both of the speakers together, side by side. Is there more or less bass?

If there’s more bottom-end, then it’s usually all good.*

If the sound gets thin and harsh, then your speakers are out of phase.

How to fix it? Easy.
1) Turn OFF your stereo.
2) On the back of ONE of the speakers swap the two wires.
3) Power up and enjoy a better sound!

*Sometimes, on a Friday at five minutes before the end of work, an apprentice speaker assembler can solder the wires around the wrong way on only ONE of the speakers in your speaker box. This makes it a nightmare to figure out what’s wrong, and takes some higher-tech equipment to analyse.

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?