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Demo Doctor

Reader Recordings Diagnosed
By John Harris

Duncan Rowe: Top Demo

Venue: Home

Equipment: Apple Mac G4 running Steinberg Cubase v4, Adaptec Toast, Mackie 24:8 desk, Tannoy DC100 monitors, Alesis ADAT XT eight-track recorders (pair), Alesis 3630 and Joemeek compressors, Roland RSP550, Lexicon MPX1 and Alesis Quadraverb effects, Rode NT1 and NT2 mics, Tascam DA30 DAT.

Demo Doctor Duncan Rowe.This project began as a recording of acoustic guitar and voice, and then grew as other instruments were added. Predictably, there were difficulties with overdubs as the tempo of the original guitar and vocal tracks has a tendency to drift. This is discernable in the way some of the earlier songs on the CD are mixed — with percussion and bass kept fairly low in volume. Click tracks were toyed with but abandoned because of Duncan's inexperience at playing to them. Some songs don't lend themselves well to being recorded with a click track in any case. Later on, the guitar, vocal and percussion were all recorded at the same time. It's a shame that this tactic wasn't used earlier in the making of the CD.

The better mixes sound fine in stereo, but in mono they sound quite muddy and, at times, there's some obvious phasing going on. Some of this could be blamed on the modulation effects being used. These effects often employ some kind of stereo phasing trick in order to artificially widen the stereo image, such as anti-phase feedback on one side and in-phase feedback on the other. Another possibility is that phasing is being introduced at the point where outboard compression is applied to the mix. To eliminate this possibility, the cables running to and from the compressor should be checked for phase compatibility. It's also worth checking the cables at other points in the signal path (such as the DAT machine) just in case.

In fact, the compressor was reported to be a little unpredictable by engineer Chris Bond, working sweetly on some mixes, but applying too much compression to others, even at what should have been low compression settings. There could be a couple of reasons for this. Firstly, some of the mixes could contain more transient peaks than others which would certainly cause the compressor to work harder. I suggest they check the gain reduction meter as the mix is playing; at the point where it's hitting its highest levels, they should to try to identify the sound or sounds that are driving the compressor hardest. It may then be advantageous to reduce the level of these sounds at certain points, which, of course, can be done with the mixer automation features in Cubase. If there are any suitable compressor plug-ins available, another option is to apply individual compression to the offending sound's mixer channel, in addition to the compression being used across the entire mix. Another possible reason why the compressor is working too hard at low settings is a signal level mismatch between stereo output and compression input. If the stereo output signal is at +4dB and the compressor is set to receive a -10dB input, this could be contributing to the problem.

With all this technical advice, I probably haven't said as much about the music as Chris and Duncan would like. In a nutshell, there are some fine songs here, showing good use of effects (the rotary modulation on the guitar and keyboards, for example) and I particularly liked the way the female backing vocal is arranged and performed. The album's title track, 'Surface Diving', is probably the best-produced song on the CD, but it cries out for real drums — perhaps it would have been worth the trouble of trying to record a real drummer.

Cosmic Puppet

Venue: Home

Equipment: Apple Mac G4 with Emagic Logic Gold v5, EXS24 sampler and Waveburner Pro, BIAS Peak, TL Audio 5021 compressor.

Cosmic Puppet

The opening track is tight and punchy thanks to some good programming, and the deliberate use of heavy quantisation gives the music a mechanical, quasi-industrial feel. Indeed, this is very much in line with the general concept of the CD, which is based around a novel by science fiction author Philip K Dick.

Track two of this entirely instrumental CD uses simple bass lines and loops, leaving enough space for the rhythmic echo effects on these sounds to come through. These effects create more activity and interest in the stereo image, and when the original sound is being filter modulated, the delay follows the resulting changes in tone.

Having said that, all too often the delay is set up and then just left to run throughout the course of a track. I wonder how effective it might be if the delay didn't follow the filtered sound, but was instead applied to a copy of the original that was unaffected by filter changes. This copy would have to be inaudible in all but its delayed form. This could be achieved by applying a delay plug-in to the copy with the Mix control set to 100 percent, or 'Wet'. Another idea would be to use a longer delay at key points in the arrangement, where space allows. This could even be set up so that the repeat occurs a whole beat or more after the original filtered sound. Needless to say, the part would have to be musically fairly basic for this to work successfully, but it could be used very effectively at certain points in the arrangement.

This is by no means a CD of warm-sounding mixes, but neither does it confuse the term 'industrial' with an abundance of harsh upper-mid EQ boost and distortion. Tension is created by the uptight, heavily quantised rhythm track, occasional slow attack sounds and repeated metallic notes, and there's some excellent use of detuned oscillators, in a manner reminiscent of a sci-fi movie soundtrack.

Overdubbing & Over-EQ'ing

One of the hardest aspects of learning your trade as a sound engineer has got to be mastering the art of overdubbing sounds and making them gel with the rest of the mix. It's a skill that can only be acquired through practice and there are no real short cuts. Yet some things immediately become obvious if you are able to take a step back from the track and give it an objective listen. One is that you simply can't record a lot of energetic or complex sounds that occupy the same frequency area without running into difficulties. Many of the recordings this month seem to be over-equalised in the upper-mid region. This is often an attempt to give the instrumentation clarity by the means of EQ boost. But EQ can only do so much and, rather than over-EQ'ing, some different and more complementary sounds should have been chosen.

Quickies

Fret

Quickies: Fret.It's clear from this band's name and sleeve artwork that this is a guitar-based project, and this CD album features some exceptionally good playing. There's some interesting use of electric guitar textures, in particular the creamy-sounding harmony lead guitar parts played over chords. Elsewhere the arrangements are tight and inventive, with just a touch of jazz rock creeping in to extend the scope of the CD beyond familiar classic rock territory. However, the mixes are generally bass light and it feels like there's a lack of confidence in the bass end of these recordings. This may well be down to poor monitor placement, as the monitors — Mackie HR824s and Yamaha NS10s — should be fine for the job. However, the equipment list includes enough post-production software to fix the problem without having to remix the album. I'd use a graphic EQ to bring up the bass at around 100Hz and I'd also cut a little mid range at around 800Hz where there are too many instruments vying for the same space. In combination with a maximiser or some limiting, this should bring up the overall level and give these tracks a sound as professional as the cover artwork!

Martin Rigby

Unusually for a guitar-based album, the instrument itself is pretty understated here unless playing an obvious solo, so much so that I can't easily pick out the rhythm guitar on either of the opening mixes! Despite this, the sequenced arrangements are very well programmed and the lead guitar work, although highly derivative of artists like Santana, is excellent. Overall, I felt that the mixes placed too much emphasis on the 800Hz-2kHz region, with clean guitar, bright keyboards and equalised drums all vying for space. Some more attention to sound layering is required, and a more mellow keyboard sound would allow the guitar to come forward in the mix without having to lift it in level. Despite this album's emphasis on guitars, there are some skilful solos from other instruments too, like the piano on track four, and there's a nice Latino feel to the drum and percussion programming which keeps the foot tapping.

Ben Mayer

Quickies: Ben Mayer.

Ben's written some good songs and performs the vocals well, getting a good sound from his Rode NT2 and Joemeek mic channel. The mixes are consistently good as far as the drums and voice are concerned, but the other instrumentation is just too low in the mix. The picture on the CD cover of Ben in his studio may offer some explanation as to why this should be. I couldn't help noticing that the mixing area is surrounded by flat, hard surfaces with no acoustic treatment. Naturally this would give the engineer a false impression of the mid-, and especially upper-mid frequencies in the listening area by over-emphasising them. However this doesn't explain the generally bright sound of the mix, unless Ben is trying to copy certain commercial albums in his collection. I'd suggest a little acoustic treatment (a couple of HF acoustic tiles would probably do the trick) and a remix.

Paul Rose

Quickies

Paul's CD is stylistically pretty diverse which makes me wonder who it's aimed at, or whether he's just recorded it for his own satisfaction. With no continuity in terms of musical style (even though it has a rock-oriented cover), it can't be pigeonholed, but neither is it that saleable on the open market. Image aside, he's done a decent job with a fairly basic setup. The AKG C3000 microphone is probably his most expensive bit of kit and it helps give the vocals a suitably classy sound. Like many of the other demos this month, there seems to be a tendency towards overly bright-sounding mixes, although Paul does manage to get a solid bass-end going on his, with a good balance between the punchy kick drum and bass synth sounds. I was a little surprised at how thin some of the synth sounds were given the sound sources — a Roland MC303 and a Korg Poly 800 recorded to analogue four-track — so this must be the result of over-equalisation in the upper-mid region. Some of the arrangements are a little self-indulgent and don't warrant their long running times, offering little in the way of development, and relying on the same bass groove throughout. At the very least, some extreme effects like comb filtering and delay here and there would help to vary the dynamic.

Published July 2003