AI: Autotune Intelligence

17 03 2011

Autotune has been around for donkey’s years. Every now and then it stirs up into mainstream media and everyone seems disapointed for 5 minutes that it’s been done to their favourite pop star or Glee actor. Then it’s all forgotten again the next day.  I would say, although I have no proof really, that every single pop/rock track released in recent times has some sort of pitch correction on vocals and the majority use Antares Autotune.  It’s not really a bad thing when used right, I have no objections to Autotune being used to help good singers get it perfect. Often it’s the tone, feel and emotion that makes a singer unique or marketable, not his/her ability to pitch 100% perfectly.

My issue is that slowly, over time, we are conditioning the listening public to not notice the Autotune and therefore we are getting braver and making it more obvious and it goes around in cycles.  Hell, we’re even conditioning ourselves to ignore it.  In casual conversation with various people (as I’m inevitably asked about it every time it’s in the news) I have found that many people now believe the artifacts caused by obvious Autotune as just part of some peoples singing voice!  “Doesn’t he just sound like that?” when referring to T Pain is one that springs to mind.

There are two main artifacts to look out for when using Autotune. The first and most obvious one is the clicking or blipping sound made famous by Cher and often now used as an effect. Heard here:

The second one is subtler and in someways is more guilty when it comes to duping the public. It’s a synth like tone that becomes noticable on longer notes as it seems to take over the natural voice. Heard here on the “yeah”:

I am going to discuss a couple of feature of Antares Autotune and how you can use it invisibly to improve your vocalists performance without robotizing it!

Retune Speed

This dial is the culprit of the blipping artifact when turned up too fast. The fear that some engineers may have is that if it’s too slow the Autotune won’t have time to tune the shorter notes. Although this is true to some extent it is often enough to just have a note moving towards the right pitch and never quite getting there rather than having it switch quickly and causing the jump blip.  My advice is to er on the side of slower.

Know your Key and Input Type.

I’ve seen these two really useful features overlooked to bad effect.  Autotune defaults the key to a chromatic scale, meaning it will retune the voice to the nearest semi-tone. This is fine if the singer is always within 25 cents (quarter tone) of the correct pitch. If they slip over 25 cents towards the next semitone then the odds are Autotune will retune the vocal to a note that is not in the correct key and it’ll sound awful. By selecting the correct key you’ll reduce Autotunes options when it’s selecting the retune note. If your singer is still over halfway towards the next note (likely 50 cents) in the scale then he’s not very good… but you’ll have to get in there and edit in in the graphical mode.  At least you know that every note Autotune thinks he’s trying to sing will be in key and sound superficially fine.

Input type is even easier to overlook (it’s in the top left corner, by the way). By selecting the right input you change the algorithm that Autotune uses to analyse the input and will greatly improve it’s chance of retuning naturally and accurately. Incidentally; notice the bass instrument option? Autotune on bass is a great idea for tightening up that rhythm section.

Here I’d also like to mention the “Targeting Ignores Vibrato” button, I nearly always click this on.  As it allows the singer some tolerance in performance. The natural wobble of notes can matter a lot to the feel of a song, particularly an emotive song.

Create Vibrato

This is designed to remove the droning tone I spoke about earlier on longer notes by creating a vibrato after a certain length of time.  Having a delay before the vibrato starts helps it feel more natural as it won’t vibrato quick notes and will come in after the longer notes have settled in.  But there is a massive problem: I once heard a Rhianna track (I tried to find it for an example but she’s released thousands over the last 3 years!) that had this very feature enabled. It wasn’t an obviously Autotuned song, but the vibrato came in at exactly the same point note after note after note, gave the game away… which leads me onto my next point.

Automation

This is where you can really get clever to make your Autotune invisible and your singer great! By automating the onset delay, shape and amount of vibrato the engineer can make it feel much more natural as it’s constantly changing every note. It doesn’t take long, and you don’t even have to be accurate, just change the settings around as it plays through.  This isn’t where automation stops helping Autotune though, try changing the retune speed to suit the lengths of the notes currently being sung.  A faster speed can be used throughout a sequence of shorter faster notes and then slow the speed down for the big long ones in the chorus.  The posiblities are endless, but there’s one more thing you should think about automating.  The bypass.  Sometimes I have found sections of vocals where no matter what else I do the Autotune can be heard, so I’ve simply excepted the natural sound on that sequence of notes and automated it back on later.





Dynamic Range Day 2011

11 03 2011

Ian Shepherd is a mastering engineer with over 15 years experience in the business, mastering many top names and big albums at SRT and now with his own company Mastering Media Ltd. He has also been a significant voice speaking against the Loudness Wars, a phenomenon of increasingly compressed music in an attempt to be louder than the last band.

Ian was kind enough to join me for a chat about Dynamic Range Day which will be celebrated on the 25th March this year.

Graeme Rawson: What are the goals of Dynamic Range Day? What do you hope to achieve?

Ian Shepherd: It’s awareness raising-that’s the main thing. There’s a community of audio engineers that know all about the loudness wars as an issue but there are many more people who don’t. The main thing I want to bring awareness of is that it’s all a wild goose chase, an urban myth – “tilting at windmills”. I’ve been trying to think of that phrase for weeks! Having your track with a really high average level – in quotes; “loud”- doesn’t really do any good any more. There was a time, in the early 90s, when CD Jukeboxes first became popular, when there was an argument that if you wanted your track to stand out in a pub or a club then it needed to be louder than everything else.

But now, that doesn’t apply. If you’re using something like Spotify it evens out the levels by default. I made a playlist with two U2 tracks on, a track from How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb (2004) and then there was Bullet the Blue Sky from the Joshua Tree (1987), the first has a dynamic range of 5dB and the other a range of 10dB – and it sounds like it. If you play one after the other, the one with more dynamic range sounds so much punchier and works better in so many ways. So it’s pointless on Spotify. Most MP3 players use ReplayGain, a piece of meta data built into the files to achieve a similar effect. The radio makes everything consistent and completely removes the internal dynamics of the songs. I’ve put up a post about this last week showing what radio compression does to music. The big thing is that if it’s distorted to start with it’s even more distorted at after radio compression. So… that’s pointless! And if someone is listening at home, the first thing you do is adjust the volume level to something you’re comfortable with. So it just seems to me that there is no point in having a high average level these days.

On the other hand there definitively is a point in getting the levels up to a certain point, in that “sweet spot”. There are as many problems with mixes that are too dynamic as there are with mixes that are not dynamic enough. I’m not saying “no compression, no limiting, if it peaks at 0dB or has had a brick-wall limiter on it don’t touch it”. I’ve spent 15 years as a mastering engineer trying to optimise things, to get the right balance between compression and level. And that’s what it’s all about – balance, or finding a “sweet spot”. But the levels that most things are at these days are just ridiculous.

There’s research, too – there’s an AES paper that shows that people prefer dynamic music, they don’t like distortion and they don’t notice level difference between songs, especially if they’re different songs. Level is just not something that features on peoples radar.

This year we’re trying to be positive. Last years Dynamic Range Day had a slightly negative vibe – and there is an argument that negative views travel better on the web! But we want a positive message this year and in particular when SSL got involved and donated an X-Desk to the competition they were keen to keep the message positive.

I feel that the Loudness War is this meme, this “idea virus”, that came out in the 80s and 90s. (And to be fair the meme was started by mastering engineers who hadn’t thought it through properly.) The meme is “louder is better” but it’s flawed. Louder is better but only if you have the headroom – as soon soon as you start turning it up into a hard limit like 0dB in digital there are inevitably consequences for that.

So Dynamic Range Day is trying to start a new meme – “Dynamic music sounds better”.

GR: We’ve already touched on this when you spoke about the SSL X-Desk. But the next question I wanted to ask is how are you celebrating Dynamic Range Day?

IS: First of all there’s the Award. I’m pulling together a panel of engineers to choose a great sounding dynamic mix from the last 18 months. There’s no actual monetary value to the award, it’s just for the fame and the glory (laughs). The idea is to highlight something that sounds great and is dynamic because there have been a few releases in the last 18 months that do that. It helps prove the point that you don’t have to have a ridiculously crushed dynamic range in order to be successful.

Then there’s the competition. Anybody can enter the competition where they can win the X-Desk, or some other great prizes. There’s going to be three different mixes of the same song on the website where people can listen to them or download them and measure them – however they want. They find out which is the most dynamic and enter the answer and they stand a chance of winning a prize.

GR: I think I’ll have a go at that.

IS: I think with a chance of winning an SSL X-Desk it’ll make sense! There’s loads of great prizes – some quite cool Alan Parsons DVDs up for grabs, for example.

(Editor: Other prizes announced on the DRD website are: Bowers & Wilkins CM-1 Speakers, a Shure mobile recording set, a mastering session at Fluid Mastering, Audio Mastering DVD from the makers of the TT Loudness Meter and a Home Studio Corner AV bundle.)

So there’s two things and the third thing is – and here’s an exclusive for you – I’m going to issue The Dynamic Range Day Challenge! Where I’m going to challenge everybody to commit to making their next project DR8 or more as measured on the TT Loudness Meter. If you are already somebody who does that, mixes dynamically, or masters dynamically, then the challenge is to find someone who doesn’t and persuade them to do it. The idea is that if anybody says that they’ll commit to that I will publicise that as much as I can.

I’m going to do a webcast on the evening of Dynamic Range day, late on Friday night UK time where I’ll announce the competition winners and who’s won the award. At that point I’ll flag up as many people as possible who’ve committed to the challenge and post up links, publicise them on Twitter or stream a video out on the webcast to basically give props to those who are making that commitment. I’m hoping people will be interested in that and they’ll find that doing a mix that way will sound great and everyone will be happy.

GR: Any reason why DR8?

IS: DR8 is my choice. I think if you consistently push things beyond DR8 the music suffers. If the material is right you can have a record that only measures 6 and still sounds great – there are some great sounding albums that only measure 6 or 7 – but it doesn’t work for all material. And when a whole album is DR6 it’s very tiring to listen to. If you put it under the microscope and gave it a couple more dBs to breathe maybe it’d sound even better. So 8dB seems like a good threshold or sweet spot. I think maybe next year we’ll make it 10 though, to keep it challenging !

GR: So at what point did you think that it’d have to be you to start all this? Rather than taking a back seat and waiting to see where the trends went?

IS:  I never decided it had to be me – it could have been anyone, and it still could. But there was a moment where I thought – well, why shouldn’t it be me? That moment came about through a couple of things. I watched a TED talk by Derek Sivers where he used a video clip of a guy at a music festival who just gets up and starts dancing like a nut-case. He’s going for 20-30 seconds or so before suddenly somebody nearby gets up and joins in and over the course of the next minute there’s a massive crowd of people who end up dancing as they decide they’re going to join the loonies! So Siver’s point is – this is how a movement starts. You have one person who stands up and dances but his point is that the person who follows is just as important as the guy who starts it, the first follower. Because then you have the potential for a snowball effect. So I saw that and thought it was an interesting idea but didn’t think of it in relation to me.

Then also there’s Seth Godin, who writes a blog and has written a famous book called Purple Cow and another called Tribes, I think he invented the term Permission Marketing; how you can have ethics and still sell a product, how you can do the right thing, believe the right thing and your business will be successful because of that. He put up a post that said – if you have a cause you believe in and you think other people will believe in it, invent a day. Make a day to celebrate it, it doesn’t have to be a worldwide thing, it doesn’t have to be huge, all it has to do is work for you and work for the people you’re talking too. It’s good for everybody – it’s good for you, it’s good for them and it celebrates a common cause and it creates a community. These two things sort of clicked in my head and I thought – Okay, I’ll do “Dynamic Range Day”.

GR: Any particular reason for the date 25th March?

IS: That was suggested by Dean Whitbread, we followed each other on Twitter and he’s heavily into the lunar cycle, and I think it’s an equinox or nearly the Spring Equinox. So it’s pretty random, although I said at the time it would have been nice to have done it on the anniversary of Death Magnetic‘s release! As it turns out Death Magnetic was released near the Autumn Equinox, so in a very round-about way we’re the exact opposite date to Death Magnetic.

(Editor: Spring Equinox is 20th March, Autumn Equinox is 23rd September. Death Magnetic was released on 12thSeptember… my birthday.)

GR: My last question, Ian, is do you have any tips or tricks for engineers, mixing or mastering about how to know when they’ve pushed it too far?

IS: This gives me a chance to plug my favourite thing! Which is the TT Loudness Meter. It’s a free download that’ll work with any computer recording system and it’ll give you a real time indication of what the dynamic range of your mix is. The really cool thing about it is that it’ll give you that indication no matter what your output fader is set to. Let say you clip all of your channels and compress the hell out of them and you’ve only got a dynamic range of 4dB going on, you see that it’s hitting 0, so you pull your master fader down. That might bring the peak level down, but all of that crushing will still be happening on the channels and in the sub mixes. The meter will give you the Peak level, plus the RMS level – the average – and then there’s this big bar in the middle that starts off green for a range of 14dB or more then goes yellow to orange and eventually red.

I think 8dB is the last point that the indicator is orange before it goes red. So if you’re mixing I’d recommend you keep it green and yellow all of the time. If you’re mastering then it’s okay to push it up into the orange for the loud bits and occasionally even red if you’ve got something really going for it ! But if you’re constantly putting the range measurement into the red then you’re likely over-doing what you’ve got. You do have to be careful, however, if you’ve got something like a flute, or an organ which has a really limited dynamic range naturally then it’ll look very flat. It’s like any meter, you have to learn how to read it.

(Editor: Here’s a video showing the TT Loudness Meter in action…)

Another rule of thumb of mine is that if the compressor doesn’t relax back to zero gain reduction several times in a bar then you’re over-doing it. As you wind the threshold down and down it’ll start off doing nothing and soon you’ll see the gain reduction begin to pump. If the gain reduction never goes to zero at any point in the bar then there’s too much going on. You’re just in a state of constant compression. Unless that’s an effect you’re deliberately looking for it’s unlikely to sound good.

Dynamic Range Day 2011 is on March 25th – More information here: http://www.DynamicRangeDay.com





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.