Cinco de Mayo

“Who accidentally comes to Orlando on Cinco de Mayo?” the guy at the motel asked us. Except more politely.

We did.

All we wanted was to get catch our flight in the morning. Not party. S didn’t even want to eat. But I voted with my stomach, and this time common sense was on my side.

The main street was crowded, but head five minutes in any direction and it was quiet again. We asked for directions, but didn’t know where we were going. What did we even want to eat?

At least we could get around on foot. Six hours of jetlag to go to a wedding on an endless road called Gainesville. At least here we had sidewalks, and didn’t have to deal with six lanes of traffic.

Somehow we decided on sushi.

It was pretty good, and the sake woke us up a little. But not enough for Cinco de Mayo.

Flight in the morning, and we weren’t going to rest at the other end, so best to rest up now.

It didn’t work, but at least we tried.

Two channels, two mics and a rock band. What do I do?

You’ve got some new songs you want to share with the world. Maybe it’s just some friends for some feedback or to send around to get some gigs. You look around your rehearsal space. Drums, check. Guitar, bass, check. Recording equipment? All you’ve got is basic 2-in/2-out soundcard and a mic or two, maybe a mixer. No engineer other than the space between your ears? Ok, we can work with this.

Step zero is to get the sound you want in the room. The song should be tight, ready to be recorded. Your kit should be in tune, sounding the way you want. Any creative decisions that need to made have to be made now, almost nothing can be done in post now. Many of the great tracks from the 60s and before were limited to four tracks and what comes through is the quality of the songwriting and the performance. Yes, with some tracks there may be a lot more going on, but if things are sounding good when you start simple you can scale up from there. You can use a DAW or something simple like Audacity.

First up, record an instrumental

You know I said four tracks, this is why; vocals are almost always recorded after. I’ll talk about this below.

Using the mics you have it’s all a matter of positioning them and your kit so that the sound on the recording is balanced. If you’ve got a mixer, use that. If all you have is two mics set them up next to each other angled 90 degrees apart, pointing at the edges of the drum kit, and turn things up or down in the room so they fit with the drums.

Once you’ve got the room sounding good hit record. Listen back and don’t move on until you’ve got a take you’re happy with from start to finish.

Then, overdub vocals

This is where your virtual four track comes in. You get no bleed from the instrumentation and you don’t have to worry about monitoring nearly as much when you don’t have to compete with the drummer. Again, I prefer getting a good take from start to finish, but you can punch in and out if you’re set up for it. You’ve got a fixed take for the backing track, so as long as you have the cues anything’s game.

Have you ever watched some old videos of people like James Brown performing live?
Or even some of the more modern singers on the top of the game? Did you may notice that they move around the mic a lot? These guys know how to make a belt or a whisper sound a similar volume once it’s picked up by the microphone. This is is called working the mic and it’s a skill that doesn’t come naturally and I’ve not mastered yet. For the rest of us there is compression, or riding the volume fader. The target is to have the quietest part of the performance understandable without the loudest parts sticking out. Here I suggest getting the best performance and tweaking in post.

Once you’ve got your take, set the relative volume between the band and the vocals, maybe add some reverb (but less than you think) and hit print. If you’re tight then this is a quick and simple way to get your music out there.

What Does it Mean to “Trust your Ears”?

We’re all just trying to get the best mix we can, but sometimes it can be hard to tell whether we’re making things better or worse. Or even more disheartening; making a change one day and then playing at a friend’s or client’s and it sounding nothing like you expected.

There are as many ways to approach a mix as there are mixers, but once it’s bounced it doesn’t matter if you used the analog modelling plug-in or the modern, transparent one. As long as it serves the song and sound better for it, who cares? Since every song is different advice can only be so specific, we often fall back on the maxim “trust you ears”.

But how can we trust our ears if they tell us one thing one day, and something different the next? The first step might be the simplest; tame your listening volume.

Not all sounds are created equal

Studies have shown that the ear is non-linear in it’s response. This means that a mid heavy sound will appear louder than a signal of equal power that is mostly lows or highs. More than that, the difference in perceived volume will change based on how loud the signal itself is. What does this mean for mixing? Good question. First, let me introduce you to Fletcher and Munson.

These two guys did a series of experiments where the participants were played two pure tones; a 1kHz test signal and one at another frequency. The subject then changed the volume of the second signal until they perceived it was the same volume. For some frequencies the signal needed a mich higher absolute volume.

What they found has been condensed into what we call Equal Loudness Contours, the most well known being the Fletcher-Munson Curve. It describes how my ears behave, how your ears behave and how your listener’s ears will behave. Armed with this knowledge we can predict the effects of our listening volume and take steps to avoid problems down the line.

Fletcher-Munson Graph

Sorry if you’ve seen this diagram before, but there’s useful information in this graph. Along the bottom we’ve got the frequency, and along the side we’ve got the power. The lines show the actual output needed to sound to feel like it’s the same volume as the 1kHz test tone. The further from the bottom the louder the test sound needs to be.

Simply put, we suck at hearing low frequencies and anything above 5kHz is a bit screwy too. And as the volume gets louder, looking at the higher up lines, something else happens. At higher volumes the curve changes shape and becomes flatter. Meaning that turning up the volume in the mids will have a fairly regular, predictable effect, but turning up the bass… The bass will still sound quiet at higher volumes and then suddenly get a lot louder quickly.

What does this mean for my mix?

The good news is that this is a shared response between us all. We can reverse engineer this graph into a good rule of thumb:

Good sounding mixes mixed at low volumes will sound good at high volumes, but with a bit more bass. Good sounding mixes mixed at high volume may sound thin and lacking bass at low volumes. The fix is simple; do 90% of your mixing at low volumes, only going loud to double check, but not to fine tune. A good volume I’ve heard suggested is the volume you’d have background music; loud enough to hear, but quiet enough to talk over without raising your voice

You can also keep this in mind when playing with individual effects. Any time an effect changes the volume of the source A/B the effect at the same perceived level as the input and make your changes before setting the output level. For example, listen to how your compressor sounds before taking up that headroom you just created. Don’t rely on your meters for this.

If you keep your volumes low and consistent the next time you reach for the controls you’ll be one step closer to hearing just the song and not your ears. And as an added bonus your ears will fatigue less quickly, meaning you can mix longer at a stretch.

I’ve had mixes suffer because of this in the past myself. A band mate once complained that my bass was lacking when he was checking mixes on his headphones. He suggested that it was my speakers bass response, and I think he was half right. Looking back, I may just have been monitoring too hot and turned down the bass when I should have turned down the whole mix.

Don’t forget to listen to other material at these volumes too, to learn what they sound like in the same environment you’re mixing in. I’ve wilfully neglected acoustic treatment here because the same rule applies if you’re using headphones. No listening environment is perfect, but you’re using the same ears in every situation.

Shrinking Plug-in Headers in Logic Pro X

I’ve been doing some producing on my laptop recently and here’s a useful tip I’ve found for saving space on those smaller screens. When you open a plug-in window in Logic Pro it wraps the GUI itself in a black window with some extra options on.

You could always enlarge a plug-in window (although I’m not sure why you would want to), but since Logic Pro X you can also shrink them. On the top right there’s drop-down list of sizes you can choose from. But did you know you can also hide the header itself?

With Header

To do this just click the black-on-black button. This will shrink the plug-in’s header bar. You can find the top of the header and click the boarder itself, but I find this temperamental. Pixels saved! The only thing I find myself missing from this view is the power button for A/Bing plugins.

No Header

Bouncing Aux tracks in Logic Pro

Say you’ve got a few tracks grouped and bussed and you want to take a bounce to create a stem. The bounce in place feature is useful, but works track by track, and if freezing isn’t what you’re after. What if we want to bounce the whole drum group? How can we take the processed audio, effects and all, and bounce that to a stem?

Logic’s audio tracks hold the answer. You can set an audio tracks input to be any bus. By sending the tracks or groups to an unused bus we can capture the output by simply recording the output. Step by step:

1: Select the track or tracks to bounce

2: If the tracks are not already bussed together, pick an unused bus. Either change the outputs to the bus or add a send to the bus, setting it to line level.

Send to Bus

3: Create a new audio track. Change the input to your bus and record the section. The effects chain on the chosen bus will be skipped.

And all that’s left is to clean up your input tracks, if you want. Usually, the Bounce in Place is an easier solution (^b), but for those times where your setup up is a bit more complicated routing to an audio track may be just what you need.

A Project Begins – An Arduino Unboxing

There’s a Maker‘s Space at the DAI in Heidelberg that’s just started up. I’ve been to the DAI a couple times. It has an awesome collection of (English language) books and I want to read them all. It’s an inspiring place by itself and I came away from the maker’s meetup wanting to do more.

The group is new there. They’ve invested in a 3D printer and some 3D pens, and the gaggle of people had a buzz about them too. After looking some 3D dresses and some people messing about with Arduinos the host and I got chatting. They’re planning a launch at the end of April and were looking for people to demonstrate. Without a concrete plan of what to do I volunteered.

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Arduino Starter Kit unboxing

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So I bought the official Arduino Starter Kit. And it comes in a really pretty box. I want to make something that makes some noise, but I’ll need to go through the Hello World stage and I’ll want to mess about with other things too. The project book it comes with looks really well laid out and the components are just what I need to start with.

I’ve set myself up GitHub Repo and will be keeping you updated here.

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Arduino Starter Kit unboxing

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Arduino Starter Kit unboxing

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Arduino Starter Kit unboxing

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Thoughts on Hip Hop?

Recently, a friend asked me what I thought about Hip Hop. Big question. I paused and shrugged it off. I probably mentioned a couple of artists. I usually don’t like broad questions, but this one stuck. The question may be superficial, but what do I know and think of hundreds of individual artists? That’s worth exploring.

I don’t have much to say about Hip Hop as a subculture. Being a Brit born in the late eighties the closest I got was reruns of The Fresh Prince. Or through Toejam and Earl (enough to get me excited about making a sequel). But music is something I have an interest in. Some Hip Hop has been unavoidable, and some I have sought out.

My musical coming of age happened in the time of Nu-Metal. By the time I was paying attention to the genre, drop-tuned guitars had become blasé and artists were looking wider for new sounds to pull into the melange. As well as singing and shouting, a lot of the bands were rapping over rock beats and using DJs or other electronics.

In this mix Linkin Park took the world by storm with their debut Hybrid Theory. This was a polished and fully integrated mix of sounds and styles. In The End got the most play and the Hip Hop influence is clear with the sound of the beat and the rapping during the verses. They even followed this up with a Jay-Z collaboration. It works, but it’s more of a mash up than the DUN-DMC/Aerosmith or Anthrax/Public Enemy reworkings that had come before it, which put me off at the time.

Since then my exploration has been tangental and at the fringes. Often only going one leap from an artist I know already. I discovered Saul Williams through his collaborations with Trent Reznor. I’ve gotten into B-Dolan and Sage Francis through their work with Scroobius Pip. (I’ll probably check out the rest of the Strange Famous artists at some point too.)

But I’ve also picked up stuff just by being interested in music. Some exposure was unavoidable, even mostly staying in the rock-centric world of MTV2. Everyone knew how many problems Jay-Z had and the singles off The Marshall Mathers LP were played to death. Even if bits seemed more censored than uncensored. When Scroobius Pip says guns, bitches and bling aren’t part of The Four Elements I get the reference. When Blondie says “Flash is fast, Flash is cool” I get the reference.

But the stuff I’m interested in (or at least seek out) tends to be complex and intelligent. Or really personal. The first time I really listened to Me ‘Em Purr (a hip hop song about unemployment and depression) it almost brought me to tears. More like this, please.

But I do love a good beat, and I do have an appreciation of flow. And not completely agreeing with the material doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate it for what it is. The first Kanye West album I’ve given a proper listen to is Yeezus. The talk of it’s harder, more industrial sound pricked my ears up. I quite liked the album (but I’m still not sure about Bound2 or it’s video) and thinking back I’ve enjoyed what I can remember of his previous singles, even if they haven’t made me check out the rest of the album. There are probably many artists that I’ve written off more than I should due to only being exposed to their club hits. Beyonce also come to mind for some reason, but I’m sure the list is way longer.

In a world where pop steals from every genre (and a genre might be defined by how you make your kick and snare sounds) they are becoming ever diluted and irrelevant. There’s rap as a technique and Hip hop is a school, or approach, to making music. Everything is influenced by everything else and I’d like to go deeper.

During my research Spotify helpfully gave me a playlist of songs to explore, YouTube too, but there’s much I’ve missed. What are the seminal classics and why are they important? Who’s pushing the boundaries past and present? Who’s just to damn good to ignore?

Much exploring ahead.