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Preamp into a Preamp

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Preamp into a Preamp

Postby lordmike » Tue Mar 31, 2020 1:47 pm

Good morning everyone! This is my first post on the SOS forum. I've been reading for years, just never felt the need to ask anything... until now. So, I believe I have a pretty great setup (which I will list below) but as I'm mixing/mastering I'm finding that my tracks don't have that certain "sparkle" that you really want from a top notch recording. Mind you, I'm generally happy with everything (we're often played on the radio and we sound more polished than the other local acts) but I'm looking to make that bump to the next level. I also understand that I'll never get a million dollar studio sound out of my home studio. Aside from any skills I lack (poor craftsman blames his tools...) I think some of the lifelessness comes from my interface, a 2nd gen Scarlett 2i2. It has been a great little unit but I'm questioning if it reproduces audio at a level required for critical listening. With the help of my salesman at Sweetwater, I've really settled on getting an Apogee Element 24. It sounds great in every demo I've heard and I read it is really well suited for rock (my band sounds like NIN and Blondie had a baby). But then I noticed the MOTU UltraLite-mk3 Hybrid and the MOTU 8A 16x18 and now I'm lost. One of the things the Apogee really touts is how great the preamps are, but I already have a Blue Robbie preamp that I really like. So how much sense does it make to pump one great preamp into another great preamp? That is is why I'm considering the MOTU stuff, they have line level inputs WITHOUT preamps. Plus, they have more outs for more routing options like reamping and the like. I used to work at a studio with a MOTU interface and it was so so so clear, but I have no idea if the converters in the ones I listed are even close to the old one I used. So, after settling on the Apogee, I'm confused. What do you guys think? Also, if you have another suggestion, I'm all ears. I can spend a lot more than either of those options, I just don't need a ton of inputs. Oh, I'm also more interested in mixing than mastering. I understand that mastering is a completely separate art that requires a unique skill set and lots of high end gear. I'm perfectly content sending my mixes out to be mastered.

Setup
Mac Mini - Catalina, 3.2Ghz 6 Core i7, 32gig Ram
Reason Studios Suite with gobs of rack extensions and vsts for Recording/Mixing
Ozone 9 Advanced for Mastering
Focusrite 2i2
Blue Robbie
Blue Baby Bottle
Blue MixFi headpones
KRK Gen 3 Rokit 5s with a KRK Sub
Mostly treated room, it is pretty dead but I'm getting more panels soon.
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Re: Preamp into a Preamp

Postby James Perrett » Tue Mar 31, 2020 3:19 pm

I can almost certainly say that the Focusrite is not the limiting factor here. Polished recordings come from polished performances where all the details are taken care of. The key is getting the sounds and arrangement right at source and making sure that your monitoring allows you to hear all the details. If I was in your shoes I'd be wondering whether the mic was the most appropriate for the sources I'm recording and whether my monitors were really telling me everything?
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Re: Preamp into a Preamp

Postby The Elf » Tue Mar 31, 2020 3:50 pm

As above; this isn't about your interface.

8 Times out of 10, when I'm called in to look at underperforming recording systems I find that the user is recording everything much too loudly. It is here that the trouble starts, usually followed by a lack of understanding of gain-staging. If you are recording with peaks louder than -10dBFS and/or you ever find yourself having to turn signals down at the mix because your master meters are hitting 0dBFS then we have the likely culprit.

If anything I've mentioned here begins to ring alarm bells then let us know and we can offer practical advice to help you get it sorted out.
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Re: Preamp into a Preamp

Postby lordmike » Tue Mar 31, 2020 4:03 pm

James Perrett wrote:The key is getting the sounds and arrangement right at source and making sure that your monitoring allows you to hear all the details.

But wouldn't a better interface address the monitoring issues? Wouldn't something with a better converter just inherently make my monitors sound more detailed?

The Elf wrote:If you are recording with peaks louder than -10dBFS and/or you ever find yourself having to turn signals down at the mix because your master meters are hitting 0dBFS then we have the likely culprit.

I do record pretty hot but I keep the levels pretty low in the mix. I never have to push anything too hard to make them sit right in the mix. Additionally, some things are built in Reason synth sounds that haven't been recorded.

And there remains the question of if it is weird or pointless to up a nice preamp into a cheap one...
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Re: Preamp into a Preamp

Postby Sam Spoons » Tue Mar 31, 2020 4:46 pm

lordmike wrote:
James Perrett wrote:The key is getting the sounds and arrangement right at source and making sure that your monitoring allows you to hear all the details.

But wouldn't a better interface address the monitoring issues? Wouldn't something with a better converter just inherently make my monitors sound more detailed?

Depends how good your monitors and room are but unless they are very good then no. What are your monitors and do you have a good mixing room with appropriate acoustic treatment?

The Elf wrote:If you are recording with peaks louder than -10dBFS and/or you ever find yourself having to turn signals down at the mix because your master meters are hitting 0dBFS then we have the likely culprit.

I do record pretty hot but I keep the levels pretty low in the mix. I never have to push anything too hard to make them sit right in the mix. Additionally, some things are built in Reason synth sounds that haven't been recorded.
[/quote]

It's likely you are tracking too hot then, once you get issues you can't remove them later. Listen to The Elf and record at -20dB or less and you'll have better sounding tracks to mix.
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Re: Preamp into a Preamp

Postby MOF » Tue Mar 31, 2020 4:58 pm

You have a ‘warm’ vintage sound mic’ (paraphrasing the Blue site’s description) going into a valve (more ‘warm’ sound) pre-amp.
This might be why your sound lacks ‘sparkle’.
I’d be tempted to use the mic’ or a more neutral one into which ever interface you choose and use the pre-amp or a plugin to colour the sound/s with the valve circuitry after recording.
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Re: Preamp into a Preamp

Postby The Elf » Tue Mar 31, 2020 5:07 pm

lordmike wrote:
The Elf wrote:If you are recording with peaks louder than -10dBFS and/or you ever find yourself having to turn signals down at the mix because your master meters are hitting 0dBFS then we have the likely culprit.
I do record pretty hot but I keep the levels pretty low in the mix. I never have to push anything too hard to make them sit right in the mix. Additionally, some things are built in Reason synth sounds that haven't been recorded.
There you go. If you can't leave all your faders at 0dB without hitting the red then you're recording too hot and probably pushing your interface's pre's harder than necessary. Multiply this up and your whole mix will be edgy. Buying another pre won't help.

Sort that out and you'll notice the difference - promise! I've been here many times!

Peaks no higher than -10dBFS (including virtual synths! Turn them down as necessary) and maintain those peaks at every stage through the DAW to the final mix bus.

And no, I wouldn't stack pre's.
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Re: Preamp into a Preamp

Postby James Perrett » Tue Mar 31, 2020 5:10 pm

lordmike wrote:
James Perrett wrote:The key is getting the sounds and arrangement right at source and making sure that your monitoring allows you to hear all the details.

But wouldn't a better interface address the monitoring issues? Wouldn't something with a better converter just inherently make my monitors sound more detailed?

If your gear list included top class monitors then you'd be right but KRK's tend to be described as good value for money rather than top class. I'd rather use a budget Behringer interface with expensive Neumann monitors rather than an expensive Prism interface with budget monitors. The differences in DAC's between expensive and budget devices is far smaller than the difference in monitor quality.

I've just set up a studio in the house and I ended up having to drag the nearfield monitors from my main studio home because none of the other speakers I had (including NS10's) could tell me what I needed to know in order to work effectively.
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Re: Preamp into a Preamp

Postby Tomás Mulcahy » Tue Mar 31, 2020 5:19 pm

What James said :)
lordmike wrote:But wouldn't a better interface address the monitoring issues? Wouldn't something with a better converter just inherently make my monitors sound more detailed?
Only if the room acoustics are absolutely perfect and the soundproofing is stellar. Then, you MIGHT hear a difference between the Focusrite and the Apogee, in a blind listening test. So what James is hinting at in his first post, is you will get much better results by doing some basic investigation into how to layout your speakers in the room, if the room has resonances (it most certainly does if you have not acoustic treatment) and build some bass traps, and some broadband absorbers.

Problem with that is, it requires work and thinking, whereas it is much more tempting to the human brain to allow yourself to be convinced by a salesman that x piece of gear will bring your mixes to the next level. And just throw money at the problem, without questioning the details. Especially if you are not doing blind listening tests- we are very easily influenced by factors outside of sound quality, if it is not a blind test.

That said- a decent pair of headphones and Sonarworks Headphone Edition actually will give you a truthful, accurate monitoring system. It's not a panacea, but my guess is it would help improve things greatly for you. I find it very effective with a first gen Scarlett 6i6 and Sennheisser HD-25ii.

lordmike wrote:I do record pretty hot but I keep the levels pretty low in the mix.
Two different things. Elf's advice is spot on, listen to it. If you're "pretty hot" is above -10dBFS, then that is a problem. For recording via a mic, -10dBFS is the absolute peak. Almost all gear will clip at that point. For the plugins and stuff, it is less critical as they are working within the mixer's 32bit fp environment, where it's hard to get clipping- until it is output to the DAC. So (without getting into the nitty-gritty) ya just turn those down til it sounds good.
lordmike wrote:And there remains the question of if it is weird or pointless to up a nice preamp into a cheap one...
Probably not, but it won't get you a better sound. Check out the SOS mic preamp shootout. Unless you're deliberately exploiting clipping, they all sound pretty much the same. Again, beware of salesmen (and gearslutz).
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Re: Preamp into a Preamp

Postby lordmike » Tue Mar 31, 2020 5:27 pm

This is like a ray of sunshine guys! I think you're absolutely right and I don't have to spend any more money on an interface! :bouncy: I just went back into one of my mixes and dropped my gain down by 10db across the board. Each track sounded much more defined but now my mix is god awful... I went to school for engineering in the 90s and then never did another thing with it. I think I'm trying to mix on a digital system like it is an analog where everything needs to be hot. Even though nothing is red-lining on my system, all recordings are made as hot as possible and my master bus cannot get any closer to 0db. On my next track I'm going to try these tips out.

So to recap...
1.) ease off on the gain on my recording
2.) no more than -10 db on every track (again I don't clip anything anywhere so this reduction in gain will take some getting used to)
3.) Monitors > interface - Better monitors are the better investment
4.) Preamp into preamp is dumb... this one makes me sad because I like my Robbie and have no way to record it now....

Am I missing anything? Suggestions for a nice pair of monitors?

Oh and again, while my room isn't perfect, I do have some acoustic treatments and I'm always adding more. And I took several hours with a db meter to set my speakers and sub. I really feel I put in the time in that regard. As well as owning really nice headphones...
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Re: Preamp into a Preamp

Postby Tomás Mulcahy » Tue Mar 31, 2020 5:46 pm

Cool! We're getting there.

1. My cheat with a mix is do a rough mix ignoring clipping, then use the All Group in Pro Tools to scale everything down, away from clipping. Usually the vocal stays at 0. Then I start doing automation/ compression. In Pro Tools, if the mix is clipping you can just lower the master fader until it stops clipping there (I think most DAWs work this way now). That gets rid of the clipping since it's (a) really only controlling all the other faders and (b) has massive dynamic range until it's rendered to 24 bit for the DAC. ThenI stick a limiter on it :lol:

2. The KRKs are OK. I would look at acoustic treatment FIRST, and a little soundproofing too. Just making sure the seal around your windows is good, and putting in fire seals on your doors, makes a big difference. Less noise coming IN to the room, let's you hear more detail.

3. Most regular rooms will need bass trapping- which is kinda hard to do. But just a basic broadband diffuser made of rockwool will help a lot. Ceiling, mirror points, rear wall.

4. Then, go spend at least 1000 on new monitors if you feel like it. That seems to be the price-point where you get real improvement. Or spend a lot more and get the Neumann's, any of them. And then maybe add Sonarworks Speaker Edition.

Edit: just read you have a sub. OK, well if that's set up perfectly, you're good. They cause more problems than they solve, at times. I personally wouldn't fancy one with KRKs because they have a fairly tubby sounding port.

4. With the 2i2, the line input is just the mic pre-amp with a pad on it. So everything goes through the built in pre-amp. With the 6i6, it's a proper line input around the back, so you might be able to hear if there really is a difference with your outboard pre-amp. But the Focusrite pre-amps are really good. They are surprisingly quiet, especially surprisingly quiet at high gain, which is great for dynamic mics. But the Robbie won't really "do" anything unless it is clipping. Again, check out the SOS mic pre-amp shoot out.
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Re: Preamp into a Preamp

Postby The Elf » Tue Mar 31, 2020 6:04 pm

Tomás Mulcahy wrote:if the mix is clipping you can just lower the master fader until it stops clipping there
I really need to pick up on this! :D

I accept that technically this is fine, but if you have to do this it says to me that you have lost control of the mix.

So I say NEVER touch that master fader - leave it at 0dB.

As you were! ;)
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Re: Preamp into a Preamp

Postby lordmike » Tue Mar 31, 2020 6:06 pm

I'm guessing normalization is bad too... Again, my mixes aren't terrible, they just lack sparkle.
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Re: Preamp into a Preamp

Postby Hugh Robjohns » Tue Mar 31, 2020 6:53 pm

There's been a lot of really good advice here, and it seems at least some of it has started to ring true.

Just to add my own two-Penn'eth

1. From a technical perspective, It's not ideal to run the output of one preamp into another because the gain structuring involves introducing attenuation followed by gain. However, we're only talking about 20-30dB of each, so the resulting noise distortion is inaudible and in many cases bordering on unmeasurable. So unless the second preamp is a particularly coloured one it's not something I'd give a moments thought to. There are much bigger and more important quality bottlenecks in the system.

2. I can certainly appreciate the attractiveness and desire to 'upgrade' the shiny toys but, as others have said, any 'improvements' in sound quality will be vanishingly small, and only audible on top-end monitors in a really well-sorted room. Upgrade for additional I/O, new facilities, or better support, by all means, but hoping miracle 'sparkle' will magicaly appear with a new interface is purely wishful thinking.

3. Maintaining a generous headroom margin, as the Elf described, makes a massive difference regardless of the interface. In the old-school analogue world we work with a nominal level of +4dBu, and the electronics had 20dB of largely unused headroom above that to cope with brief transient peaks, which would typically not exceed +10dB over the nominal level -- so 10dB below clipping.

That's the thinking behind maintaining 10dB of headroom in the digital domain, with average levels around -20dBFS and peaks to -10dBFS. It brings big benefits in making many plugins sound better (especially types modelling non-linear processes), and -- even more importantly -- it ensures normal analogue signal levels are passing through the monitoring and recording chains (rather than 'ultra-hot' signal levels), and it means you can run the mic preamps with 10-15dB lower gain than would otherwise be the case. These things all reduce distortion and often eradicate any concerns about a 'hard digital sound'.

4. 'Lacking sparkle' can mean very different things to different people. It could be that your mic/mic preamp isn't giving you the airy top end you seek. Or it could be that the acoustics of the recording environment are degrading the source sound quality. Or it could be a monitoring issue... Or a mixing/processing issue... Or any of a dozen other things. Impossible to say without hearing the source material and mix.

What I can say with 100% confidence, though, is that it won't magically improve with a swap of interface converter chip!

5. Normalisation isn't necessarily bad per se, but it really shouldn't be needed, and normalising to a high level (-1dBFS etc) reintroduces all the ultra-high level stresses in the analogue monitoring paths.
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Re: Preamp into a Preamp

Postby The Elf » Tue Mar 31, 2020 7:18 pm

lordmike wrote:I'm guessing normalization is bad too...
I wouldn't.

Follow the simple advice here and you are on your way to not only better-sounding mixes, but a much easier life in making those mixes.
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