We travel to Kent to identify some problems with a reader's mixes, improve his electric guitar recordings, and help him create a more trippy vocal sound....
Jason How needs little introduction in the music business, as he is the man behind the Rotosound guitar-strings company, based in Kent. I met him at a trade show a couple of years back, we got talking about recording (as you do), and he confided to me that he was having trouble getting his mixes to sound the way he wanted them to. He confessed to having little recording experience, but he knew how to arrange songs and how they ought to sound. Time passed, but earlier this year I met up with Jason again and he asked if we'd consider doing a Studio SOS visit, as he was still having problems. The promise of a curry swung the deal, so Hugh and I arrived at his home armed with test CDs, bits of foam and a bag of tools. Our plan was to first give the monitoring system a health check, address any room-acoustic issues, and then to run through some of Jason's mixes to see if anything was going awry there.
After our long journey, Jason made us some coffee and, before we went up to the small spare bedroom he was using as his studio, we listened to some of his mixes on the hi-fi system in the living room. Jason's songs are well constructed and well performed, with a pretty decent balance between instruments, but they sounded a little stark and very aggressive in the upper mid-range, making them almost painful to listen to at any decent volume. The same songs sounded less abrasive over his studio monitors but still had a noticeably forward character, so the first thing we requested was to hear some commercial material played back from iTunes over the monitors.
Jason's computer was hooked up to an M-Audio interface for recording purposes, and this fed a pair of KRK Rokit 6 monitors, which were standing directly on a small desk on either side of his large-screen iMac. He was running Logic Pro 9 and using no third party plug-ins other than BFD for his drums. The Mac was set up to replay iTunes songs through the internal speakers, rather than his audio interface, so a quick visit to the Sound Preferences window allowed the M-Audio interface to be selected as the default option for the Mac's sound system. Then we were in business...
When we first listened to the KRK speakers, they sounded slightly on the dull side of neutral, and that might have exacerbated Jason's tendency to make his mixes overly bright. We thought the reason they sounded dull was partly their position on the desk, with the tweeters placed well below the level of the listener's ears, and partly that they weren't angled in towards the listening position to an adequate degree (the level of HF naturally falls off as you move off-axis from the tweeter). These Rokit 6 speakers have HF adjustment switches on the rear panel, which were set to the flat position, but we set them to their +1dB position, as that seemed to give a more natural balance once we'd repositioned the speakers and isolated them from the desktop. We'd run out of speaker-mounting pads, so we improvised some using a couple of small Universal Acoustics wall tiles placed face-to-face, to both raise and decouple the speakers from the desk. They'd have been better with thick floor tiles on top, to add some mass and compress the foam a little more, but the solution worked well enough to give us a fairly well-balanced playback from iTunes.
The whole monitoring system was offset towards the right-hand side of the room as a set of shelves to the left precluded moving further in that direction. That left the right wall as the most likely reflecting surface to cause problems, so we wedged a couple more small Universal Acoustics foam tiles beneath the shelves fixed to that wall. At least the speakers were firing down the long axis of the roughly 11-foot x 9-foot room, and the combination of shelves full of gear at the back of the room and some soft furnishings helped break up any strong reflections. In fact, in the light of the almost total lack of formal acoustic treatment, the combination of Jason's modestly-sized KRK monitors and the room worked surprisingly well, without any obvious bass-mode problems at all.
Replaying some of Jason's own mixes showed that they still sounded pretty harsh and abrasive, however, so we concluded that the monitoring was reasonably reliable and that the problem must either be in his recording or in his mixing. We thought the best way to tackle this would be to go through one of his song projects, checking every stage so that we could find out where it was all going wrong. So Jason pulled up a Logic Project of a song called 'Land Of Nod', a song composed in the psychedelic '60s pop style that Jason particularly likes.
The first thing Hugh and I noticed was that the mix was running very hot, with the individual channel levels pushing towards the top of the meters and causing large and frequent overloads in the main mix bus. The quick remedy was to select all channels in the mixer window before pulling down one of the faders. With all the channels selected, all the faders come down by the same amount, maintaining the overall balance — but we had to drop the levels considerably to avoid maxing out the stereo mix bus. However, while this instantly cleaned up the sound quite noticeably, the mix still had a harsh edge, so it was time to look at the individual track processing.
Jason confessed that he relies fairly heavily on using plug-in presets — particularly for EQ — and a glance at the EQ settings for his mix showed that many of the tracks had a significant boost in the 3 to 4 kHz range, which is exactly the area that makes a mix sound harsh. He'd also used an exciter plug-in on some tracks, making them sound even more edgy. One of the problems with presets is that they seem to be designed to make individual channels sound big, bold and up-front, often by boosting in that 3-4 kHz area, which is fine as far as it goes, but if you do it to all of your tracks, they'll all end up pushing to get to the front of the mix, and the end result will be extremely fatiguing to listen to.
A well-constructed mix puts the various sounds in a hierarchy, with vocals (which are generally the most important element) at the front, and the other sounds occupying various positions behind them. Bypassing all the EQ plug-ins (other than the kick-drum EQ, which did seem to be helping) brought about an instant improvement to the overall tonality of the mix, and gave us a better base from which to start rebuilding his track.
Another plug-in issue that came to light was the use of many different reverb plug-ins inserted on different channels, rather than having just one or two reverbs fed via the aux-send buses. So we showed Jason how to set up aux buses in Logic, initially setting up three: the first fed a Space Designer plate reverb, the second a tape delay, and the third was set up as a parallel compression bus, a technique we intended to cover a little later in the day. Any individual tracks that require a unique reverb can be treated with a suitable insert plug-in, but the send-return approach simplifies things and reduces the workload on the computer's processor quite dramatically. Jason understood the aux concept, as he was familiar with analogue mixers, but he'd never worked out how to do it in Logic, as it seemed easier to use direct channel plug-ins.
Our next step was to simplify the mix by subgrouping various sets of sounds via their own buses, rather than simply sending everything directly to the main mix bus. As Jason was using BFD with multiple outputs feeding multiple mixer tracks, we created a stereo bus for the drum channels, so that, once balanced, the whole drum-mix level could be controlled from a single bus fader. This approach also meant that we could insert overall drum-bus processing plug-ins into the drum bus if necessary. Other groups could be set up for backing vocals, supporting guitar parts, keyboards, and so on, making it much easier to balance a mix.
On listening to the vocal parts, we found that they sounded pretty good generally, but they suffered from a little spill from the backing track bleeding from the headphones, so we set up a gate to mute the pauses between sung phrases. We also extolled the virtues of doing a bit of housekeeping before mixing, such as trimming guitar-solo tracks so that you don't hear the buzz of the guitar amp coming in two bars before the playing starts. Next, we showed how a little high-shelving EQ boost, with the frequency set to around 8kHz, can add a breathy airiness to vocals without producing mid-range stridency.
In order to make the song easier to navigate on a single computer screen, we set up two Logic 'screen sets' on the numeric 1 and 2 keys. These flipped instantly between the arrange and mixer views, which always seems more satisfactory than the split-screen viewing option that Apple added in recent years. And now we could have some fun, as psychedelic pop gave me the opportunity to bring out my trick bag of weird and wacky effects!
Jason observed that he could never get his handclap tracks to sound loud enough. Although they were real handclaps, overdubbed four times, they didn't have the density or tone of a Roland drum-machine clap, which we thought was the sound he had in mind.
First, all four clap tracks were bounced down to one, and then we added some early reflections from Logic's Platinumverb plug-in, treated with enough pre-delay to give the claps a slightly ragged quality while also increasing the overall amount of energy in the sound. We then showed how a distortion plug-in placed before the reverb could work wonders on thickening handclaps, before finally passing the signal through an EQ with a strong mid-range boost. By sweeping the boost between around 1kHz and 5kHz, we could find where the sound character changed from a popping champagne-cork type of timbre to a bright and snappy handclap, making it easy to choose the tonality we needed. It's also a good idea to roll off the low end to take any 'knocky' quality out of the sound (in this case there were a few pops where the rush of air escaping from between the hands blasted the mic). Finally, we put a limiter on the clap track to prevent overloads and raise the level a little.
After dealing with the handclaps, we got to work on the foundation of the mix, which, for me, is almost always bass, drums and vocals. Everything else just slots in. BFD drums sound great straight out of the box, although we did modify Logic's kick-drum EQ preset to add some more low-end density and also to emphasise the beater click at around 3.5kHz.
Jason's vocals have something of an '80s quality to them, and they sit beautifully in a mix once given a gentle polish. Although his vocals were actually very consistent, I explained that where the vocal levels vary more than they should, it's often best to try to level them using automation before adding compression. That minimises the work the compressor has to do, which helps to maintain a more consistent tonal character. Jason's pitching was marginally out in one or two places, so we dropped in Logic's Pitch Correction plug-in, which follows the Auto-Tune paradigm where you set the 'legal' scale notes on a piano keyboard and then adjust the pitch correction speed so that it is fast enough to tame errant notes, but not so fast as to strip away the normal vocal inflection. We've all had quite enough of the 'abused Auto-Tune' sound, thank you very much!
We also demonstrated that although compressor presets of the type Jason had chosen are often perfectly usable for vocal and instrument treatment, you still have to adjust the threshold control to get the required amount of gain reduction, as the person who designed the preset has no idea what level your source tracks have been recorded at, or what their dynamic range actually is.
Hugh and I had just done a vocal processing workshop at Alchemea the week before we visited, so we decided to try some of the techniques we'd described there on Jason's vocals, to see if we could get the 'trippy' sound he was after. We'd already pitch-corrected the vocal, but it was a simple matter to copy the original vocal part again so we had one clean and one corrected version. We then dragged the pitch-corrected version so that it played a few tens of milliseconds later than the original, giving a rich and very natural-sounding double-tracking effect. To give that mid-heavy, psychedelic, John Lennon type of sound, we added a generous amount of tape echo, with quite strong top and bottom EQ filter cuts.
As an alternative to conventional reverb, we also demonstrated how using a delayed burst of early reflections from Platinumverb could add depth to a vocal without filling up all the space in the mix with reverb tails. Changing the room size and room shape parameters changes the duration and tone of the early reflections.
Another interesting effect we'd explored at our Alchemea workshop was adding a ludicrously long reverb to a vocal, and then processing this using a rotary speaker simulator. We also showed how a rotary simulator could be used to make backing vocals sound more spacey. Jason thought these techniques might be useful, and filed them away for future use.
Our next trick was to to chop this extended reverb tail using Logic's Tremolo plug-in, set as a 16th-note chopper. He really liked this effect, so we also demonstrated it on an overdriven guitar part, where it created a strong and unusual rhythmic element that could be introduced in the chorus or elsewhere to help ring the changes. Again, this got Jason's seal of approval.
Jason's guitar parts were generally sounding pretty good, other than one part that had been DI'd and was clearly overloading the input stage. Like so many musicians, Jason thought that it was important to peak signals close to the peak level — something that Logic's terrible meter scaling encourages you to do — and then found that with the added level that comes from enthusiastic playing, the final recording ends up being clipped. No amount of amp modelling could rescue the nasty clipped sound, so we got Jason to play the part again by miking his Orange Tiny Terror amp from around 12 inches away, using an AKG C1000 microphone. This time we left plenty of headroom (peaks reaching no higher than-10dBFS), to ensure that the risk of clipping was eliminated and there were sensible levels for the mixdown. This sounded infinitely better than the original version, so Jason resolved to record all his future guitar parts by miking the amp.
We delved into a few other techniques appropriate to the genre, such as putting the whole drum bus through a drum chamber reverb with the lows rolled off, which gave a natural 'kit in a room' quality that felt like the right sound for the era. We also brought that parallel compressor send bus into play by feeding into it from the stereo drum bus, the bass and the main vocals. We then bled just enough of the compressor output back into the main stereo mix bus to add a little girth and weight to the sound. The acoustic guitar parts were thinned out with a high-pass filter to stop their lows muddying the mix, and they were compressed slightly to give a more even sound, but we didn't do anything radical. I have to say that he writes some cracking good songs, and really nails that late-1960s 'whimsy' sound.
Our last job was to set up a practical song template with aux sends already configured for reverb, delay and parallel compression, plus a ready-to-go BFD drum kit sent to its own bus. Track colours and icons were added, and we even turned a photo of Jason into a Logic icon, so he could have his own smiley face on his vocal tracks. And, of course, we set up a few screensets to jump between screens. Creating one or more starting templates in this way is an absolute must, and avoids an awful lot of wasted time 'reinventing the wheel' whenever you start a new song. This is true regardless of which DAW you use.
Though this was a relatively straightforward Studio SOS visit, there were still some very important points for Jason to take on board. The monitoring system must be set up to give the most accurate results possible, and it is vital to be able to play commercial material through the same speakers that you mix with. DAWs generally sound better if you leave plenty of headroom when tracking and mixing, while cleaning up supposedly silent sections prior to mixing is always time well spent.
EQ presets are generally to be avoided, as they're often much too 'forward' sounding to play nicely in a mix. Compressor presets are much less risky, but it is still crucial that you adjust the threshold manually to achieve the required amount of gain reduction, while keeping an ear on the result so that you can dial in just as much compression as is needed.
Reverbs are more economically deployed via aux sends, and mixes are easier to handle if you group together logical combinations of sources and send them to their own submix buses. Finally, of course, a good template song means that you can be recording and getting creative in minimum time. And in case you were wondering, yes, the curry was worth waiting for!
Jason: "I bumped into Paul a couple of years back at the Nashville NAMM show while out there on Rotosound business, and we had a quick discussion over a beer about mixing and recording. Back then, I'd only really just started getting my head around Apple Logic; I had a lot of songs and lots of ideas, but could never quite get them to sound right. I could hear in my head how I wanted the tracks to sound but I was having trouble with EQ, compression and so on.
"When Paul and Hugh arrived, I played them a couple of my songs through the hi-fi system in the lounge. I thought I might as well let them know what kind of music I was writing and the sounds I looking for (late '60s West Coast US psychedelic pop). They said the songs sounded OK but some of the EQ needed work, so we headed upstairs into my studio. Apparently, the room and monitoring wasn't too bad, so Paul started work showing me how to EQ the things that mattered, instead of applying standard presets everywhere, and the advantages of send-return loops and bussing.
"Overall, I found the day very interesting and I feel like I learnt a lot. It has really made me look at it all quite differently and I will probably go back and try to do some remixing using my new-found skills on the songs that I really like. If you want to hear some of my music, please check out either www.soundcloud.com/jason-how or my website www.jasonhowmusic.moonfruit.com. I would welcome your comments!
"Once again, a big thanks to Paul and Hugh for a great day. I was so keen to keep them at the house I refused them a visit to the Rotosound factory, which is around 10 miles away. Next time, guys!”