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recording

Add Life to Your Mix

Sometimes when I read about music production and audio engineering stuff I come across ideas that I personally wouldn’t use in my music, but nevertheless could be interesting – at least in theory – and perhaps someone else dare to try.

Here’s one: record your “as is” mix from your monitor speakers, using a couple of microphones, and then blend the recording with your final mix.

This could add vibrance and “realism”. It could of course also clutter your mix if you overdo it. If needed, try to poke the recording to play with the phase relationship.

Recording your mix like this can add some analog imperfection by revealing a little of the studio’s ambient, and the colors of the mics, preamps and monitors would also print this sound layer. And you need not to record in the studio, you could put the monitors in a (non-acoustic treated) reverbant room, or record with an opened window… You get the drift.

Mixer Setups

I wrote about my mixer some time ago, and you might wonder how it’s connected and how recording is done.

There are several options to route the signal flow of the Mackie 1202VLZ4, although my setup is kind of generic and should work for many different rigs. It goes like this: The DAW connects to the audio interface via USB, with communication in both directions. The audio interface, through stereo outs, connects to left and right audio ins of the monitor speakers. The main stereo outs of the mixer routes to the audio interface via line in pair. All instruments and mic go to different line ins of the mixer.

DAW > Audio interface > Monitor speakers
DAW < Audio interface < Mixer < Instruments and mic

In this setup, the main stereo out of the mixer is routed to the line in pair of the audio interface, and the monitor speakers are connected to the stereo output of the audio interface.

If you prefer to have all audio signals (software and hardware) going through the 1202VLZ4 mixer, you should be able to connect the XLR main outs to the monitor speakers, and route the TRS second main outs back to the line in pair of the audio interface. Also, on the 1202VLZ4, there are control room outs with selectable source (main mix, alt 3-4 stereo bus, soloed channels, or the tape input) that you can use to route to the line in pair of the audio interface.

Generally when recording in a DAW, you just create an audio track, and select line in of the audio interface as audio input. You can choose to record in stereo or mono. Don’t record too hot, keep some headroom.

Sometimes I miss being able to record to several audio tracks simultaneously (multichannel recording). Although with Overbridge (Elektron’s integration software) the Analog Four – which only has a stereo output – can now output all four tracks individually to Ableton Live. In that way it can function as a multi-tracking USB sound card of sorts.

My Mixer

During 2015 my hardware synth collection grew considerably while the audio interface still had limited input connections. This led to an investment not of a bigger audio interface, but of an analog mixer.

By then I was looking for a no-frills compact mixer that was able to make a clear, pristine mix with high headroom and low noise. I had no need for neither built-in effects nor USB connection, but wanted a small footprint mixer and great sound quality. So I got the Mackie 1202VLZ4.

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Even if I’m using the mixer merely as a patch bay, more or less a set and forget scenario, it’s a quite creative mixer. For example, the mute/alt 3–4 function serves both as muting and signal routing (where it acts as an extra stereo bus). This means that the alt bus can be used to route shit through serial effects as a stereo channel, which in turn opens up for further possibilities.

The 1202VLZ4 also has channel insert, and I’m now thinking of getting some effects, perhaps something from Strymon or Eventide.

In brief, I’m happy with the mixer, but I honestly haven’t had that many analog mixers, so I can’t really compare this one to others. Some say the 1202VLZ4 offers bang for the buck featuring Mackie’s flagship Onyx mic preamps and so on, but I, for one, can only say it works well.

P.S. There are times when I would have preferred an audio interface with like 18 input connections that could be mixed and recorded on separate tracks inside the DAW, true. But most of the time I only need the 4 voices of the Analog Four to be recorded individually, and with Overbridge it is possible already.

Recording Levels

Gain staging refers to the process of managing the relative levels – at each stage of the audio signal path – in the mix to prevent introduction of noise and distortion. This can have a profound impact on the quality of your recordings.

Generally, the goal is to keep the signal chain as clean as possible, that is, high above the noise floor without overloading. Proper gain staging is critical in setting the levels to maximize the signal-to-noise ratio of the input signals.

Treat every device in the setup as an opportunity to compound errors. Consider both hardware and software components of this issue (although headroom is not really a problem in the digital world).

So don’t run hot during mixing or the D/A converters will start to introduce clipping and artefacts. Still, you can clip shit, e.g. the drum channel (by doing so you can achieve some effect, some pop). That being said, never let the master fader clip.

Recording and Mixing Vocals at Home

This post is about recording and mixing vocal in your bedroom. As always, I’m not a pro, but neither are you reading this, I figure, and as an aspiring producer you could find this guide helpful.

With that outta the way let’s start. In most cases, the vocal is the focal point of a song, so it has to be properly heard in the mix and sound natural (if heavy effect isn’t an end in itself).

Now, the bedroom home studio might actually be a corner in a larger room or a noisy space – with no respect for your musical/scientific practice. When recording, try to eliminate reflections or at least minimize the room’s acoustic and ambient influences on your sound. The microphone not only picks up the voice but its reflection and noise from the room and interior. Try to isolate the mic – keeping away from the walls if possible. Be creative, there are several DIY solutions with pillows and blankets and such to sound proof your room.

A Good Mic Setup

The standard of today’s professional studios are large diaphragm condenser mics. And cardioid-pattern (or unidirectional) capacitors are the most common for voice recordings. However a dynamic mic – connected to a good preamp – should work just fine. Beside that we’re not in a real studio, we’re at your make-shift little joint and we don’t have room nor money. Moreover, most of us bedroom producers don’t have a pool of different mic types, we just have to do the best we can with what we’ve got.

If you’re getting a new mic, bear in mind that a condenser mic is sensitive and requirer 48 volt phantom power on the preamp/mixer in order to power the mic. Whilst a dynamic mic is less sensitive, but offer a more rounded sound and doesn’t need phantom power.

It’s usually preferred to mount the microphone on a stand. (If you don’t have space for that, then keep your hand clear of the rear of the mic’s basket to avoid affect the capturing.) Use a pop shield if you got one. If not, you need to carefully attend to unnatural pops on plosive sounds while recording, which might take your focus off-target. And if you got a shock-mount, use it to stop low end vibrations coming in to the mic.

Of course the singer ought to wear monitor headphones while recording so that the instrumental doesn’t beed into the mic.

Mic Placement

Place the mic at the right distance, 8 inches or so should be okay. You wanna capture what the voice sounds like, capture the whole tone of the voice. If you’re too close there’s a bass response – a proximity effect – rendering more low end. There’s also an increased risk of plosives, and the level will change more noticeably when you sway. But don’t go too far away from the mic either, because it will pick up reflections of your voice in the room and color the sound.

In brief, the mounting, positioning, distance and the angle of the mic all weigh on how the recorded vocal sounds.

Gain Staging

Don’t record too hot (loud), have some headroom. Optimize your input signal levels in order to maximize signal strength while minimizing noise. Record quietly but not danger close to the noise floor Try to find a good signal-to-noise ratio. A peak record level of -10 dBFS should do it if you record at 24-bit resolution.

Some people uses a subtle compression while recording. It’s not necessary, but if you go for a that, use a compressor with neutral characteristics and aim to achieve 5-8 dB of gain reduction on the loudest signal peaks.

Never gate the vocal while recording, instead do this at the mixing stage if needed. E.g. if you use a lot of compression on the vocal once it has been recorded, it’s possible that you need to gate the vocal track first; this would prevent noise build-up in the pauses between phrases.

Comping and Editing

Record multiple takes of the lead vocal part, then comp (short for compositing) together different takes, that is, copy and paste different sequences from multiple takes, and assemble them into one continuos lead vocal track.

At this stage you could do some basic cleaning (editing) by removing the noises et cetera, but don’t overdo it, or it would sound unnatural. Also make some performance correction such as timing and pitch.

Get rid of excess low end using a high-pass filter; roll of the bottom end below 80 Hz. (Too much low end makes the mix sound muddy.)

EQ-ing

Use EQ as a subtractive tool rather than an additive tool; cuts are generally more effective.

However, try boost some around 2-4 kHz for presence on the vocal track. If the vocal sounds boomy, cut between 250-350 Hz, and if it sounds boxy, cut around 400-500 Hz. If the vocal sounds nasal, cut somewhere between 1 kHz and 4 kHz. To give the vocal some air, boost some over 10 kHz. If there are too sharp consonants, like s, t, p sound, try to de-ess ‘em; compress sounds of a certain frequency (usually around 4-9 kHz).

Doubling and Parallel Processing

Vocals should be in the center in the mix. To make sure of this, first turn down the other instruments/buses, strive for a good overall mix balance.

To make your vocal pop out from the mix, try doubling. That means recording the same vocals again, to make it thicker. You could treat the new vocal track differently from the original. E.g. emphasize different frequencies to shape a new combined sound. Perhaps it sounds better if the second vocal is a bit lower in the mix, well just try shit out.

You could also try copy the original vocal track to a parallel channel and process it differently (compression, distortion and so on) and then blend ‘em both together. This could add some character to the sound while keeping the clarity.

Leveling and Compression

Level the vocal to sit correctly in the mix throughout the song. To even out the dynamics, compress the vocal track. Remember to EQ before compression, roll of the bottom end so that the compressor could behave more naturally.

For strict, consistent level control, set the compressor with a threshold just below the loudest portions. Use a ratio like 4:1. Keep the attack under 10 ms. Try to get an even sounding gain reduction.

Reverb

Reverb is really all about personal taste. That being said, many popular productions of today leave the vocal fairly dry. So use reverb sparingly. Still, a small amount of reverb adds some depth and a sense of space and reality to a vocal recorded in a dry acoustic environment. Some say that busy songs need less reverb than slower ones with lots of space in the arrangement.

About Dubstep Song Structure

Here’s the most standard dubstep algorithm, a kind of tutorial or walkthrough. (A noob tip perhaps.) I know that such dry decryptions can be disenchanting, so stop reading if you don’t want any spoilers.

  1. Intro (rhythm, stabs, melody…), 16 bars
  2. Breakdown (melody/riff, chords…), 8 bars
  3. Build up (tension, white noise, soundbite…), 8 bars
  4. Drop 1 (bass and mayhem), 16 bars
  5. Drop 2 (variations of Drop 1), 16 bars
  6. Bridge (variations of Breakdown and Build up), 16 bars
  7. Drop 3 (variations and/or inclusion of Drop 1 and 2), 32-48 bars
  8. Outro, (melody/riff, chords…) 16 bars

As always, breaking away from this anatomy seems legit. And even if the structure is kinda unimaginative, it’s really the content, the raw material, which separates the wheat from the chaff.

Work on da Semantics

Let me tell you this, I know nothing about marketing concepts or strategies, so I’m sitting here wondering why the hell manufactures of DAWs and VST plug-ins name their product like Logic, Reason, Live, ACID, Massive and so on?

How can one find the right keywords and hashtags and not ending up looking at philosophical issues or porn?

The next generation of software might as well take regular names; Mike the Drummachine, Nicole EQ, Ali Loop, Sampling Bridget, Compressor George Constanza… And hey, why not flip it around – name your unborn children to TR-808 and Jupiter-8. Just do it.

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