Resident specialist John Harris offers his demo diagnosis and prescribes an appropriate remedy.
Recording Venue: Home
Recording Equipment: Apple Mac G4, Steinberg Cubase VST sequencer, BIAS Peak editing software, PPG Wave synth, Propellerhead Reason software, Shure microphone (unspecified model).
Both compositions on this CD are full of interesting production touches, such as clever use of stereo delay and reverb. For example, the snare drum on the second track, 'Pain', punctuates like a whip crack in some places and in others is preceded by backwards reverb. Like some other demos we've received recently, this one attempts to go for a big sound with expansive delay and reverb. It's mainly successful on this front, but a more punchy, direct sound could be achieved with a little less use of effects. Likewise, more light and shade could be given to the vocals by applying less of the delay and phase effects used throughout the entire track — the occasional drier vocal line would have some impact. However, there are many instances of good variation in the use of vocal effects, like the backwards delay and reverb applied to certain phrases. I particularly enjoyed the moments where the voice deliberately sank into the backing and became part of the sound texture rather than the main focus of attention. Obviously, the vocal delivery is structured to be performed with effects, and singer Mel Skye does a fine job of sounding ethereal yet menacing!
A matter of more concern is the tendency for the mid-frequency area of the mix to see a lot of action. This is a result of similar equalisation being applied to most of the instrumentation, as well as the sheer number of parts with a lot of mid-frequency content which are thrown into the mix. Listening to the first mix, there seems to be an emphasis on the 2kHz region and a bit of a hole between the upper mid-frequencies and the low end. In fact, the bass sound is pretty indistinct unless the track is played very loud and even then it's not great. A bass sound with more definition, similar to the one used on the second song, would also deal with that hole in the lower mid-range because it has more energy in that frequency area, and would bring the whole mix together nicely.
As it is, the over-use of upper-mid EQ emphasises the lack of quality in some of the sounds, especially on the first song. There is a grainy quality to the drum loop and you can hear something which could be high-frequency interference or the higher frequencies of a rather harsh-sounding keyboard. Looking at Ndot's gear list, which is not short of quality synth sound sources, I think it's more likely to be a poor-quality sample that is the culprit, possibly one downloaded from the Internet. A similar upper-mid EQ on the vocals pushes it towards sibilance, especially on the second mix, and it wouldn't reduce the impact of the vocal to back off the EQ. The EQ may be attempting to compensate for using a dynamic microphone on the vocals, but the microphone is not specified on the gear list.
Even so, this is a good demo with the second song getting my vote as the better of the two tracks, both technically and in terms of composition. Ndot have been around for quite a while and in that time have submitted a few CD's to SOS. They seem to be taking their music seriously too: they've got their own web site, which is simple and clearly laid-out, and their live show sounds well worth checking out.
In reviewing the demos this month I was struck by the different approaches taken to the use of vocals and effects. While the guitar-driven rock and pop tracks feature standard treatments of delay, reverb and occasionally overdrive, the dance mixes tend to be more innovative, using filtering, pitch-change and vocoder effects to manipulate the sound. While I'm not suggesting that a rock or pop vocal should be completely altered throughout by such techniques, perhaps it's time for a less conservative approach, at least on a line or two of a song?
Recording Venue: Home
Recording Equipment: Apple Titanium Powerbook 667, MOTU 828 MkI audio interface, Rode NT1, Shure SM58 Beta, AKG C1000 (x2) and AKG D112 mics, Soundcraft Folio FX8 mixer, TL Audio valve mic preamp, Genelec 1031 monitors.
The covering letter for this demo, was brimming with enthusiasm about new technology and the recording process. Vocalist and instrumentalist Chris Wang extols the virtues of portable computer recording and the joys of working with like-minded individuals.
The rock mixes on the resulting CD have many good points, and one of them is the excellent vocal sound. The Rode NT1 mic and TL Audio preamp combination is certainly one which suits Chris's voice. In the absence of an outboard compressor, he must have used a plug-in for compression. It's also possible that the vocals, which are placed right at the front of the mix, are being compressed quite heavily by the mastering process. Certainly, there are points in the first song where the voice rises in level and it's possible to hear the compression cutting in. Backing vocals are used sparingly and, in my opinion, they're mixed too low to make much of an impression when they arrive. I'm thinking particularly of the second song on the CD, where you can hear a nice harmony line tickling away in the background on the chorus. On the first song, harmony vocals would have been a bonus, and could have added to the strong melody line of the chorus, but I liked the emotive vocal cries blending into the keyboard mix towards the end of the song.
The weak point of this demo is the drum sound. In the first track, the snare has been mixed too low and, for a rock band, it's a very weak sound with no attack. It's possible that the slow action of a noise gate could contribute to this, robbing the snare of bite. However, many plug-ins have a 'look ahead' control to compensate for this, so there is no real excuse. If the plug-in has no such parameter you can copy the snare to another track, pre-delay it fractionally and use that snare to trigger the gate on the original snare track, making it open a fraction of a second before the original is hit. In fact there are a number of other methods available, but this has always proved the most reliable for me. I was also struck by the strange EQ applied to the snare, which seems to have a cut around 900Hz-1kHz. This allows more of the sound of the actual snare to be heard but at the expense of that valuable attack. This is particularly noticeable on the second track.
In spite of this, the songs are rather good, although none of them stand out as singles. Some of the acoustic guitar sounds are well recorded and it's a strong debut recording.
Here the drum sound and level of the opening track tend to bring down what is a fine rock song. The tightly compressed snare sound, in particular, is too loud and detracts from both vocal and guitar parts. In fact, contemporary rock mixes would have the guitars louder and would not allow the drums to sound so obviously sequenced. With a louder guitar mix, especially on the chorus, the whole song would have more impact and the fine vocal performance of Jen Wolstenholme would then be fully supported by the backing. The other tracks on this CD tell a similar story. Even though a variety of drum sounds are used (probably too many for continuity's sake, in a rock context at least) the emphasis is always on the snare. I also noticed some double triggering of the kick and snare on the third mix, resulting in a bit of phasing, and this needs to be removed. A reference for further productions is probably the last song on the CD, which had the best overall sound.
This duo offer a variety of different styles of electronic music, and are at their most successful on the fourth composition on the CD. Here the introduction of a vocal sample (I think it's the word 'me') adds an element of humour missing from their other mixes, and the choice of sounds and rhythmic drive are somewhat reminiscent of Yello. Elsewhere, they pick up the influences of Leftfield and Underworld without bringing in the ethnic instrumentation of the former and have the skill to combine sounds well. I particularly enjoyed the kick drum-triggered synth in the opening of the third mix. It's a real attention-grabber and the mix balance at this point is just about perfect. Elsewhere, I was concerned with the overload on the drum loop of the first mix, which seems to increase once the growling synth bass arrives. I wasn't entirely convinced that this was deliberate — a highly resonant filter sweep also overloads about a minute into the arrangement. In contrast, the other mixes are clean and punchy, comparing favourably against the professional mixes I listen to on my monitors.
In the review of Martin's last demo, I praised the sequencing and instrumental performances, but I also suggested that there was too much action in the mid-frequency range (800Hz-2kHz), leading to a lack of clarity, and that the rhythm guitar was too low in the mix. In response Martin has mastered this demo with what sounds like a mid-EQ cut, when I was really suggesting that he look more closely at his choice of sounds and their arrangement in the mix. In fact all three tunes I listened to on this demo have the same problem. The guitar is meant to take the lead melody, but is being obscured by the string lines at crucial points in the arrangement even when the string part is a simple harmony line. So, bring the strings down in level where necessary and look again at your guitar sound. On the second mix, the guitar has more attack and so doesn't disappear into the more mellow keyboards, and a reverb gives the guitar its own identity and results in a more successful production sound.
The dance and chill-out CD market is where composer Craig Simmons aims his work and it has to be said that he faces tough competition! The 'anthemic' tracks he seeks to emulate must have both drive and hook, and Craig's mixes seem to have the component elements but lack the energy. It's partly a question of confidence in the mixing and partly a case of recognising where the track's strengths lie and exploiting them. If Craig makes more of the hooks by using stronger sounds, and emphasises the dynamic lifts already hinted at, it will give the guys on the decks something to work with. Chillout mixes are probably easier to achieve with a fairly basic setup and this is where this demo hits the spot. His clever choice and manipulation of vocal samples on the third mix demonstrate an ear for a hook and the ability to use the equipment well. The use of a harpsichord sound here is unexpected but evocative, and the simple piano line could have had a longer reverb but is still effective. This is the best track on the CD and has some potential, but it needs a bit more work.
This CD has got everything right but the mixing! The artwork and sleeve design are excellent but the general sound is very tinny and must have been over-equalised in the upper mid-region at some point in the recording process. I only hope it was at the mastering stage and can be easily fixed, because there's plenty of good music here. Worthy of mention is the way composer Aiden Gallagher uses real instruments such as trumpet and violin, in what is essentially an art-pop context. I think this lends a freshness to the production and has an energy that works as a foil to his melancholy vocal performance. So a remix would be a good idea, and why not make more use of the analogue sound of that Soundtracs Jade console to bring out the organic qualities inherent in the compositions? If the setup allows, try mixing the signal through the channels on the Jade with some minor equalisation. That may be enough to bring back some warmth!