The rise of disposability in popular music

5 04 2011

There is a fundamental issues that has been brought about by the rapid development in technology over the last 15 years.  The one core instigator of the revolution and strife that is currently in the music industry and consumer market is ‘disposability‘.  Disposability is based around the idea that either technology or any type of media can be easily discarded due to the fact it has lost its value and is no longer wanted by the consumer.  The phenomenal progress of technology has not only made music depreciate more quickly, but has also made the technology itself very disposable as it is replaced by new developments on an almost monthly basis.

The roots of disposability in music today can be discovered in two different areas of development.  The first is the Internet and the second is the development of music production technology.  The Internet has facilitated the increase of fast downloading of music to people’s computers and as a consequence, because still the majority of music downloaded is not paid for, it appears to have less value to the consumer.  With this decrease in value, comes the mentality that music can be discarded as easily as yesterday’s newspaper.  The contents of the physical formats of music have changed little, however, while the explosion of content on the Internet has been its driving force.  People have come to expect more from their consumable media, music has consequently lost a lot of its inherent value.

It can be argued that regardless of the apparent loss of content in music compared to other forms of media, what is music apart from a collection of acoustic vibrations?  Therefore, what else should music provide apart from its constituent elements?  Since, the conception of music many thousands of years ago, people have enjoyed music in its pure live form and in the 20th Century, it could be enjoyed in recorded forms.  Music has had no need to complement itself with other practices apart from other legitimate art forms.  So, it can be argued that music has become disposable not because of the Internet but because of the reduced quality of the music itself, especially mass market contemporary popular music.  The relative merits of which will not be discussed further here.

In many ways, progress can be considered to be a vital part of the natural evolution of music.  Originally music would be recorded onto tape, and all studios were equipped with a similar type of equipment which meant that operation in whatever studio was relatively generic.  The rise of computing power opened up a whole new world in music production and recording.  The huge advances in digital audio and MIDI sequencing capabilities have made professional and amateur music making easier, more flexible and cheaper than ever before.  However, progress in this sector is accelerating at such a pace that music makers are in danger of being caught up in the shock waves caused by it.  Not a week goes by without a new piece of software being released that has yet another new development.  By the time a composer, producer or engineer has mastered one operating system, it is obsolete.  The recording media which is used for sound itself changes at such a rate that it is uncertain that there will be hardware players in a few decade’s time to playback the music of today’s formats.

Technology is not being exploited to its full potential before progressing, so the real needs of musicians can be clearly identified before the technology evolves to its next logical level.  When a piece of technology it being exploited to its full potential the musician is maximising the music potential in it and not just skimming the surface.   The Beatles, for example, were forced to improvise with the studio equipment in Abbey Road, forcing the maximum potential of their technology.  The Beatles’ producer George Martin was known to rewire a Farfisa organ to create new sounds and rewind echo tapes during a recording pass due to there not being enough tape in the echo machine.

There is little chance to consolidate music making.  Everybody is pushing to create something new, as with the Internet and forms of new media.  however, it seems few people want to maintain what is worthwhile.  So, it is no surprise that the music of today is as disposable as the technology it is created on.

By Nino Auricchio




Mixing By Numbers (Part 2)

31 03 2011

Yesterday I ranted about the dumbing down of mixing. Today I hope to provide a more balanced view on the new One Knob series from Waves.

Whilst writing my post yesterday I had the idea to do a One Knob mix to see how versatile these plug ins can be.  The One Knob mix took about 35 minutes to do.  Here’s a quick outline of what was used where and roughly how much the dial was turned to in brackets.

Overheads – Pressure (3)
Kick D112 – Phatter (7), Pressure (5)
Kick NS10 – Pressure (6)
Snare Top – Phatter (6), Pressure (6), Wetter (3)
Snare Under – Pressure (3)
2x Toms – Phatter (6), Pressure (6)
Drum Bus – Pressure (2), Wetter (2)
Bass – Phatter (3)
2x Acoustics – Brighter (7), Wetter (1)
2x Crunch Guitars – Wetter (1)
L Dist. Guitar – Brighter (8), Wetter (1)
R Dist. Guitar – Wetter (1)
Solo Guitar – Driver (4), Wetter (2.5)
Lead Vocal – Driver (1.5), Brighter (7), Pressure (4), Wetter (3)
Backing Vocal – Driver (1.5), Filter (8), Pressure (3) Wetter (3)
Master Bus – Louder (4)

Please don’t go judging my general working practices on this…

So as you can see I used all the plug ins and tried to do what I would normally do in a mix.  The first weakness I’d like to address is that Wetter is designed to work as an Insert, not as a send, meaning I had to drop loads in on the session.  By dialling up Wetter you’re not only increasing the mix of the reverb but the size and length of it too.  So in my mix, where I have several different reverb settings it has become a mess.

Pressure is much better used as a bus compressor, it really didn’t work on the close microphones on the drums. At lower settings the compression is quite subtle but it soon gets out of hand and when I dialed the master bus Pressure up to 10 something very strange happened… I actually felt physically sick! It was the same kind of weird sickness I get when I hear serious phase problems.  I had to dial it down pronto.

Phatter makes things bassier… not much to say there. I think it might do some low end compression too. Not sure so I won’t guarantee that.

Brighter is a really nice clean and transparent high boost. But I recommend getting a good parametric EQ and using that.

Filter is really for use on Dance tracks. Like Brighter and Phatter it does sound nice, but it does nothing that many other quality filters and EQs do already.  I’d also like to point out that Filter has a resonance selection button! I wanted One Knob, not One Knob And A Button.

Driver. This is the one I liked the most. The very low settings worked nicely as a lo-fi effect.  Higher gains were pretty good a boost to guitars but it’s not good enough to be the whole guitar tone.

Louder is the ultimate nemesis of Dynamic Range Day, Turn It Up.org and friends.  It’s a limiter that sounded like it was limiting very quickly and didn’t actually stop my master output from clipping anyway… so… why?

So in conclusion; I don’t get it. I don’t think you can deny the quality behind each one of these little things, individually they sound good. But with multiple instances of these plug ins they seem to clash with themselves, especially Wetter. So as a one off effect for one channel in your mix, a couple of these plug ins would work well. Namely Driver and Filter.  The EQ two Phatter and Brighter are really nice, but if you own any good parametric EQ plug ins already they’re pointless. I would seriously stay away from the compression ones and I can’t see the use in a one-trick reverb.

By Graeme Rawson




The Art of Pre-Production: Band Recording

7 03 2011

So you have access to a nice recording space, you know you will have enough I/O for the project, and you have secured enough time to fully record it.

For some people, this is enough. They go blind into a project and whatever happens, they make it work. This tends to be the route of super professionals or arrogant posers. There are several steps that I take to make sure that sessions will not only run smoothly, but are recoverable from disaster.

Meet The Band

I cannot stress this enough. Meet up with the band, preferably at a rehearsal or show. Listen to their songs, and discuss with them their favourite recordings and what they consider to be their strongest tracks. Learn who can take a joke, and who wants to be treated regally.

This meeting will allow you to identify the band’s weak links, and start to gain their trust. By taking an interest in their music, the band are more likely to trust your opinion in terms of arrangement and instrumentation later down the line.

Here are several things that you may learn that will aid your first tracking session;

  • The overall timing and feel of the drummer – How does the drummer feel about using a click track?
  • Live or Multitrack – Are the band strong enough to perform to a high standard live? Does it suit their genre?
  • The band’s dynamic  – If multitracking, will the band members perform better if everyone is at the studio, or do they prefer to track in isolation?
  • The band leader – Every band has a leader, whether they are appointed or not, there is always someone making the final decisions. Identify this person and gain their trust and respect
  • Instrument quality – Do any of the electric instruments buzz? Do they hold their tuning? Make sure to ask your band to re-string any guitars before the session to minimize breakage

Bring your own Engineer Toolbox

My ‘Engineer Toolbox’ is a pencil case containing a great deal of extremely handy things. The size of your toolbox is entirely dependent on how paranoid you are versus how much you can be bothered. My ideal Engineer Toolbox is listed below

  • Sharpie Pen
  • Masking Tape
  • Gaffer Tape
  • A pair of headphones you know well (obviously it won’t fit in the pencil case)
  • Headphone adaptor
  • XLR to Jack adaptors
  • Microphone Clip adaptor
  • Spare Microphone Clip
  • Guitar Slide
  • Whiteboard Marker
  • Moongel (An extremely handy drum dampener)
  • A book for taking track notes or several track sheets
  • External drive (I take two, a small USB key at 16GB, and an external fire wire drive at 1TB)
  • Guitar Strings

Know your Equipment

In a high-pressure situation such as the first day of tracking, it’s important to make sure the band’s impression of you is a good one. Any problems or fears they have at this stage are likely to exacerbate as the sessions continue. The quickest way to undo all of the good work achieved at the first meeting is to be unsure of how to run the equipment.

Occasionally you will be faced with a problem beyond your immediate knowledge. If you are working with anything hardware that you are unfamiliar with, there is the possibility you may run into problems. DAW’s and plugins all tend to store their manuals on disk, so you can check things for reference. Having the hard copy manuals for the desk you are using, or the soundcard or preamp, means you can fault find much more quickly and easily, decreasing the amount of time you are not recording for, and showing the band that you are in control.

Prepare Session Files in Advance (Optional)

This took some time for me to fully appreciate, but if you fully prepare the session files for each song, then it will undoubtedly save time while tracking. It usually involves importing all the necessary backing tracks for each song, setting tempo’s, and using Memory Locations (Markers in the Logic equivalent), dictating the different sections along the play head, and then marking a 2 bar drop in position for each.  I used to waste 10 minutes a session trying to understand which section a musician wanted to go from, as our terminology didn’t always match up.

To be honest I only usually prepare session files for a particularly challenging project, such as a track that has many time signatures and feel changes.

The Night Before…

It’s obvious really, but being a recording engineer or producer is a proper job, and should be treated as such. Go to bed early, fully prepared, and when you wake up in the morning the session will be easy. You will find it easier to problem solve and will be easier to get on with.

Throwing alcohol into this mix isn’t recommended, as being hung-over can potentially affect your judgement in all areas of the process.

Summary

A great deal of the things outlined here are pretty straightforward. By taking the time to get to know what you will be working with, you can free up time to be creative with a band (which is why we all do this anyway!), and achieve far more in a standard session than you would have. You will become a better producer as a result, and it will improve your overall work ethic and potentially overall demeanour in the studio environment.

By Max Woodhams





Kick 1, Snare 2. Overhead neglect?

5 03 2011

Since the advent of hard disk recording the kick has found a new home with many engineers, channel one. Gone are the days that tape wear pretty much forced the hats or a tambourine down the first strip. This, for me, has had a psychological effect on how drums are recorded and mixed. The focus has shifted away from the overall sound of the instrument to the individual sounds of the drums. Nowhere is this more clearly seen than in popular metal bands who have quantized and hit replaced their drummer almost entirely out of the record and the natural feel of the drummer is completely lost. In this article I wish to give my view on opposing this, I won’t talk about techniques, that’s up to you and there are hundreds of “how to record drums” articles out there if you want them, I will just discuss some ideas and principles I like to work with.

The most important microphones in your set up are not the kick and snare, but the overheads. They should not to be turned up last as cymbal channels, almost an afterthought after you’ve crafted your sound on the close mics. Doing so can have a profound effect on the sound of the close mics, the snare in particular, and you might just find yourself back at square one pretty quickly. In order to avoid ruining the close mic mix you might find yourself putting the overheads low in the mix. This leads to the disconnected instruments feel as the overheads act like audio glue to keep the drum kit together as one instrument in one place on one recording. This is how I go about dealing with my overheads to create a cohesive drum recording:

Recording

It has to start here.  Try to plan how you want the recording to sound well before you enter the studio, this will help you make the correct calls with microphones and placements, saving time and producing a better capture. We’re trying to create a complete drum sound from the overheads.  So select microphones with a decent flat response, maybe a boost in the top end to accent the cymbals as the drums will get help from the close mics later.  Don’t apply any high pass filters that might be on the mics, we want the kick to sound good too.

When placing the overheads there is one crucial thing to remember, no matter which technique you’re using.  The distance from snare to each overhead must be equal so that it appears central in the stereo field. The same is also true with regards to the kick. If you have set up your overheads correctly the centre line of the image will pass diagonally across the kit through kick and snare.  I have often seen overheads set up with the centre line straight through the drummer and kick, this will cause the snare to be left in the field. Occasionally I see the line placed through drummer and snare which will move the kick to the right.

Next up is checking levels. Start with the overheads and ensure that the kick and snare are coming across clearly and central in the field. Make any adjustments to the overheads now before setting the close mics. This also will help you make good choices when placing and levelling the close mics. For instance, you’ll be made aware that the overheads have great attack, but less body, so you can then position your close microphones to capture more of the drum resonance.

Mixing

Here’s where your overheads can really come to life! Try to get your snare cutting through the cymbals using compression, it’s all about finding the sweet spot with the attack, usually slower than faster, but it changes depending on the snare and cymbals in question. I have, in the past, completely removed my close mics as the snare sounded great and clear on the overheads. The kick is unlikely to sound complete at this point, but if you can persuade some attack and slap out of it and the toms you can achieve a decent drum mix just from two well placed, correctly compressed microphones. There shouldn’t be any need for EQ on the overheads.

Now when you add your usual gates, compressors and EQ on the close mics you can check them by rolling them up slowly into the overhead sound. You’ll hear a balance point as you bring the levels up, soon after that point the close mics will dominate the mix. We want to roll back to that balance point where they’ll add punch and depth to the mix but the drums will sit together as one instrument. A great, powerful, natural sound with a distinct location and place in the mix.

Editing

And finally, if you don’t mind, just a short word on drum editing. DAWs have made it very easy to move and replace every hit in a drummers performance. This is a fantastic tool for correcting genuine errors that weren’t spotted in recording. Or, god forbid, help rescue a drummer that really should go find another career. But try not to over edit the drums for any decent drummer, eventually you’ll just remove the feel of the track. Hits that are milliseconds early or late are part of the performance and are not perceived as errors. They genuinely aren’t detrimental to the music at all. Let them be and give yourself more time getting the recording and mixing right. I’m not saying don’t edit, just don’t do it because you can, do it because you must.

So,next time you plan out your channels for a session, put the overheads down one and two. See if it can change the way you think about the hierarchy of drum channels, and see if that can give you a new drum sound.

By Graeme Rawson.