Monday, July 9, 2018

CompPlus™ - Compression with Articulation

View on the CompPlus™ Website

In each mixing project we need to address two concerns; one, achieving overall dynamic balance, two, getting all parts heard.  It would be nice to have a tool that does both.  That is where CompPlus™ comes in. CompPlus™ provides compression as well as Articulation control, which actually rides the gain up to compensate as musical words and phrases trail off.  Yes, it can do the gian-riding for you!  And CompPlus™ is a unique compressor even without its additional capability of Articulation control. As compressors go, it provides very transparent dynamics control without the music sounding squashed or overly processed.  And since the dynamics stage can be automated, you can record the compression to an automation lane and then edit as required for just the results you are looking for.

To use the plugin, you place CompPlus™ on your track and adjust the threshold as needed.  The Ratio control gives you smooth amounts of depth to the compression without sounding processed.  The compression displays as a downward moving green bar, which changes to yellow, then red, for deeper compression.  You have both input gain, and output gain controls for maintaining your gain staging.

The Articulation control allows you to dial-in the amount you will like to have the plugin ride-up the gain to keep a part sitting just right in the mix.  The amount of Articulation applied is displayed on the meter as a rising blue bar, which changes to purple at greater amounts of gain.  So, you always have a good indication of what the plugin is doing with a quick glance to the meter.

And since Articulation is part of the dynamics stage, it is also recorded as part of the same automation lane as the compression.  So, in one lane, you can have compression and gain riding recorded, and available to edit if needed.  For vocal tracks and instruments, this will save you hours of manual editing of the gain.  This feature alone will pay for the plugin the very first time you use it.  But you will continue to use it because of its transparent dynamics control, making CompPlus™ a great value!

CompPlus™ gives you a compressor that also brings up levels to be heard in the mix!  A simple and easy to use dynamics tool. The plugin is available in VST, VST3, AU, AAX, for 64bit Mac and PC.
  • Full Disclosure: Direct Approach is my company, and I am the creator of the CompPlus plugin.

Monday, July 2, 2018

BoostX™ A Mixer's Secret Weapon

View on the BoostX™ Website

Wouldn't it be great if you had a way to keep the level consistent on a track without having to reach for a compressor, or do manual gain riding?  Enter BoostX™. The BoostX™ plugin, from Direct Approach, gives you a secret weapon in the battle to control the dynamics of your tracks. The plugin does its job by following the quieter parts of the track and boosting the level as musical words and phrases trail off in volume.  This neat trick is accomplished very transparently giving you a gentle, even subtle, increase in the level of quieter parts. BoostX™ is perfect for vocal tracks, but also any track where you need the track to be heard within the surrounding mix.  Thus allowing words, and those little musical nuances, to be heard, and not fade away.  BoostX™ is a great tool for getting a track to sit in the mix.

The difference with BoostX™ compared with a compressor, is that a compressor works by reacting to the louder levels and pushing them down in level, while BoostX™ only watches the quiet parts, and raises their level as necessary.  And a compressor can sometimes make the track sound "squashed" because of sudden volume reduction, while BoostX™ is much more transparent and subtle.  Since the louder parts are not boosted, you do not have to worry that you will exceed the desired levels for the mix.  And no need to worry about make-up gain, since, in most cases, the overall level will remain the same.

You use BoostX™ by placing it on a track and adjusting the threshold to the desired level of boost shown on the boost meter.  BoostX™ will then raise the gain as required to achieve the level you want.  If the track needs help with de-essing, you can adjust the Low Pass filter until BoostX™ is not boosting the higher frequencies.  This can reduce the need for a regular de-esser, or, in some cases, eliminate it altogether! 

And, as with all Direct Approach dynamics plugins, you get the unique ability to automate the dynamics stage.  So, using automation, you can fine tune the response of the plugin to give you the exact sound you want from every track!  This is a powerful feature and can save hours of manually editing gain-riding.  Simply let BoostX™ draw the automation, and then fine-tune, if necessary, for the exact needs of the track.

BoostX™ gives you a tool that allows you to gently boost the soft parts of your track, and have it sit in the mix, and even do some de-essing!  What's not to like?  The plugin is available in VST, VST3, AU, AAX, for 64bit Mac and PC.
  • Full Disclosure: Direct Approach is my company, and I am the creator of the BoostX plugin.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Mixing with SpecTrend™
Pink-Noise Weighted Metering

You may have read or seen something in the past year or so about using pink-noise as a reference for mixing.  The way it works is--- you listen to pink-noise while you solo each instrument or voice in your mix.  You then adjust the level of the part until it is just barely heard above the pink noise.  Once you have done this for each track, the mix should have an overall balance consistent with pink-noise.

The technique works because, as it happens, well balanced music follows the same frequency distribution as pink-noise.
  • Pink-Noise is random noise with level decreasing at -3db per octave as the frequency increases (also called 1/f noise).
In other words, well balanced music also decreases at -3db per octave as the frequency increases.  If you view the spectrum of high quality recordings you will see that they follow this -3db per octave pattern.

The problem with the pink-noise matching technique is that it is very tedious, requiring you to do each track, one-at-a-time.  It also requires a good source of pink-noise, which is surprisingly hard to find.  And, you must have good ears and/or a good listening environment to be able to hear it well---tedious and time consuming! So, it is easy to see why it is not a universally used technique, despite the fact that, theoretically, you should be able to achieve a balanced mix.

This is where SpecTrend™ comes in. What is new with SpecTrend™ is that the spectrum display is mathematically weighted to match a perfect pink-noise spectrum.  This means that the SpecTrend™ metering shows all 1/3 octave bars at the same level when the mix is balanced across all frequencies.

So, when using SpecTrend™, you just look to see that all the level bars are more-or-less equal, and you know the mix is balanced!  All the bars approximate a rectangle when the levels match, so it is visually easy to see that you have achieved your balanced mix.

And, of course, you are able to view the whole mix at once, without having to go through and solo each track.  And you never have to listen to pink-noise!  The metering is all done mathematically.

In addition, the 1/3 octave bars are color coded according to level, with green being the target range.  So achieving a frequency balanced mix becomes a matter of constructing a "green rectangle"!  How easy is that!

Frequency balancing the mix then, becomes just a matter of adjusting each track's level and/or EQ, until all the 1/3 octave bars are equal.  Done.

It is even a great tool for production and arranging.  Since the display allows to see each 1/3 octave band individually, it is easy to see when a particular frequency band is "overloaded", or maybe "empty".  So, you modify the arrangement, perhaps, raising a part an octave, to better balance the mix.  Or add another part in the "empty" frequency range to fill out the bands equally.

And, it should be mentioned that, although SpecTrend™ achieves its display mathematically, without introducing any noise, it does include a noise generator for testing and reference purposes.  The noise generator can produce pink-noise or white-noise.  There is an included level control.  And the output routing either sends the noise only to the meter, or to the output (speakers), or a mix of input and output.

It should be noted that in "Output" mode, the noise goes only to the output to be played, for example, over your speakers.  The input to the track is displayed on the meter.  You can then set up a microphone to feed the track and allow you to see the frequency response of your room and speakers.  So, in addition to mixing and arranging duties, SpecTrend™ can also be used to set up your mixing environment!

So, SpecTrend™ gives you a tool that allows you to do the pink-noise spectrum matching in an easy to use plugin (VST, VST3, AU, AAX, for Mac and PC).  It is no longer necessary to be born with "golden ears" to achieve that great mix. Check it out and see what it can do for your mixes!
  • Full Disclosure: Direct Approach is my company, and I am the creator of the SpecTrend plugin.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Mastering is not about loud!

There is an unfortunate preoccupation on the part of some people with making their recordings loud.  Some of it is understandable, we all want our recordings to sound comparable in loudness when played alongside other music.  But things have been carried to the extreme!  If you look at the wave forms for many tracks, they are completely maxed out and squashed.  I have even seen tutorials that actually claim that mastering is all about making your recording as loud as possible!?  No, its not.

Mastering is about three things.  One, correcting minor flaws to make the track sound as good as possible.  Two, evening out the volume of each song on an album so that they all sound consistent when played together.  Three, putting the songs in the order that works best for that particular set of songs.  And most of the attention and skill is applied to number one.

Notice that loudness is only a secondary consideration for the mastering engineer.  In fact, making all the songs on an album sound at the same relative loudness could actually involve turning the level on many of them down!

Mastering is about making each song sound as good as possible by itself.  And, then making all the songs on an album sound good together.  And mastering enginners have the knowledge, the experience, and the gear, to accomplish that.

Never lose site of the fact that everything we do is in service to the music.  Simply making a song louder is not necessarily an improvement.  The idea is to have all the tracks we record sound as good as possible!  In fact, if we do our job of recording and mixing really well, then no mastering is required at all!

Believe it or not, there are recording and mixing engineers who do their job so well that their finished mixes require no mastering.  And , yes, there are Grammy winning "Best Engineered" albums that needed no mastering.  Sure, they are exceptions, but they show that it is possible.

Of course, mastering engineers are very much aware that the track needs to be similar in level to other songs in the same genre.  But, just cranking everything up is not necessarily required.  As one engineer puts it ( and I think it was Bob Katz), "it is not how loud you make it, it's how you make it loud".

And this gets us to the technical part.  Just how do you make it loud?  And while there is no one specific answer to this question, think in terms of contrast.  In other words, remember that in order for something to sound loud, it has to also contain something soft.  Yes, that is where the magic is.  The magic is in having a soft part to compare with the loud part.  If everything is "loud", then the listener might simply turn it down.  But, if it has soft parts too, then they need to maintain some level in order to hear the soft parts, and so when the loud part of the song occurs, it stands out!

The bottom line is here is that the perceived loudness of your track is actually the difference between the loud parts and the soft parts (called the dynamic range).  That is the trick!  And you do it with judicious use of compression, and perhaps a little limiting to prevent overs (clipping).  You do not push everything as hard as possible in the limiter.  No.  That only makes things sound squashed, and what some engineers call "pre-distorted".

So preserve the dynamic range of your tracks.  Use compression to bring out the amount of level that each track needs.  Then a touch of limiting to make sure nothing is overly loud.

See, we've turned it all upside down.  Now the limiter is there to prevent things from being too loud, not to make them loud.  Making them loud happens in the way you manage the dynamics, the loud and the soft, of your track to make it sound as good as possible, and consistent with the genre.

Now you know.  Professional mastering engineers are very good at what they do.  But, making your music louder is not what they do.  What they do is to make your music sound better.  Louder has to be built-in to the way the track was mixed.  And the limiter is the tool of last resort.

All of this is good to know since many of us are in the position of needing to do our own mastering.  And maybe we will never be as good as the professionals.  Only time, and experience, and practice, practice, practice, will decide that.  But at least now you know where to start.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Make MIDI Work for You

For the recording musician, MIDI is a staple of the process.  Very few of us are lucky enough to be able to play all of the parts on our recordings on the actual physical instruments.  So, at some point we load up a MIDI instrument to add a needed part to a song.

Some of these MIDI instruments use sampling techniques of live recorded instruments, and some are synthesizers.  Whichever the part calls for, keep a few things in mind;

1) When you are choosing a MIDI instrument, there is often more then one choice.  Try to choose the instrument based on the sound and how it fits in the song.  This will make the part sound better, and make mixing easier!

2) Resist resorting to automation for controlling a note's loudness  Most MIDI instruments, especially the sampled ones, have multiple velocity levels.  In other words, a different sample was recorded for each note depending on how that note was played.  There are often several levels, with different samples for each note.  Make use of this to create a more natural sounding part.  When musicians play, their instrument sounds different depending on how hard they attack the note.  A softly played note will sound different on most instruments from a loudly played note.  JUst turning up/down the volume with automation will not sound the same.  So, use different velocity levels for the notes for different parts of the song.  Even varying the velocity from note to note within a measure will give it a more natural feel.  This will go a long way toward making the part sound more like it was played live, and less like a "canned" part.

3) Don't get carried away with notes!  MIDI can play a lot of notes at the same time---much more than a human can play.  But this should only be done if the song requires it.  On drum parts and percussion parts, in particular, keep in mind that a real drummer has only two arms and two legs.  If you want the drum part to sound "real", then restrict the part to what a live drummer is capable of playing.  We have all heard those drum parts that are too busy, and sound frenetic in the background of the song.  Avoid that effect by keeping your parts simplified to what can actually be played by a real musician.

4) Consider recording MIDI instruments as MIDI, rather than as audio.  Having the MIDI allows very easy editing, and polishing of the part.  It allows totally changing the notes, the key, or the instrument on the fly.  Maybe you start out with a piano sound, then later decide a Rhodes sound will suit the song better---a very easy change with MIDI.  Simply select Rhodes for the instrument sound.  If you recorded the audio of the part, you have to go back and re-record it using the Rhodes sound instead.  Will you get the same performance?  Maybe.  But, if you recorded the MIDI, the same performance is guaranteed!

And MIDI might be a help even before the first track is recorded!  What about the "click" track?  Typically, click tracks are very bland and monotonous.  They use some sort of beeps or clicks to provide the timing for you to follow as you play.  But, these sounds are not what we are used to playing to.  And, this makes them unnatural for playing along as you record the first tracks of a song.  You might end up with a very sterile sounding recording because there was no natural "feel" to the playing.

So, try abandoning the typical click track and replace it with some MIDI drums.  You do not have to do any radical drum programming at this point.  Just do a basic drum beat with kick, snare, and high-hat---maybe throw in a cymbal crash or two.  Use it to establish the initial rhythm and feel of the song.  Then repeat it as many measures as is necessary to play through to the end of the song.  I think you will find that it is much easier to play along with the drum track then with a click track.  And the more comfortable you are while playing, the better your performance will be.

And, as a bonus, if you were planning to use MIDI drums anyway, you have made a good start on setting up the part.  Just modify as needed for bridges, fills, and choruses, and you have your drum part!

So, we are leveraging MIDI to not only give our song instruments it needs, but to make them sound as good as possible too. Remember, everything is in service to the song. So create MIDI parts that provide what a good musician would play! Your songs will sound better for it.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Where to Start - The Performance

All of us have to decide where to begin when we record.  I'm talking about where to begin in our quest to make our recordings better.  The number one thing to do for better recordings is to capture a good performance.  Get the part right, so that what is recorded is right for the song and the mix.  A bad recording is less of a problem then a bad performance.  A marginal recording might be fixable.  But a bad performance doesn't work with the song, so it can't work in the mix with out a lot of effort...and maybe never!

This single bit of advice will go far toward making your recordings better.  Do what you have to do to make the performance a good one.  Rehearse.  Rehearse some more.  Work on the part until it is easy to play, or feels natural.  This goes for singing also---especially parts that may be slightly above or below your range.  Spend a week singing the part in full voice until it starts to sound right.

If you just can't get the part to sound right, maybe you need to re-work the part, or try something else entirely.  Arrangement is a big part of a good sounding mix.  You may need to tailor the arrangement to what is possible, rather than what you would like it to be.

Of course, you can always go out and find someone who can do the part the way you originally conceived it.  But, we are looking at things here from the perspective of the musician who prefers to do for themselves.

And remember, the arrangement, and the mix are both in service to the song.  Most songs can be arranged in many different ways.  If you are struggling with parts, maybe it is time for a re-think.  Perhaps there is a different direction from which you can approach the song.  Change instruments.  Bring in the vocals a differnet way.  Do whatever makes sense for the song to get over the performance hump.

And simplify---I realize this might not always work, but if you are struggling with performing some of the parts, maybe you should drop them, and see how it works; ---the "more-with-less" approach.  Maybe you are used to playing the song with just a guitar.  Now that you've added drums, bass, piano, percussion, and background vocals, it is not feeling the same.  Try removing some parts.  It might be that the song will work with just a simplified version that is more of a "guitar with a few short sections of other instruments" kind of a thing.  Try it.

We have the luxury of recording in our project studios without worrying about the big studio clock running.  So, experiment and find out what works for you.  In fact, your homework assignment is to take a day and try a bunch of things you've not done before.  Maybe you can try recording some parts in the bathroom, or hallway, ... or that walk-in closet full of clothes (hint: makes a pretty good sound booth).  Try recording a song with just guitar and tambourine.

Maybe those experiments work, maybe they don't.  Maybe they give you ideas.  Either way, you learn something.  And as your knowledge grows, the recordings get better.  That's what we are after here.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The Recording Musician

The purpose of this web site will be to provide helpful information to the recording musician.  And by that I mean a musician who records their own work.  I'm thinking mainly of individuals who do the whole process of creating a song themselves, track-by-track.  However, the information presented here will be helpful to anyone with an interest in recording.

I will have tutorials, and videos, and as much information as time permits to add to the overall body of knowledge, so that we can all make better recordings.  We'll cover everything from mic placement to using plugins, and getting that final mix to sound "mastered".

I've learned a lot over the years, and it is my turn to share what I know with others.  And that means I'll learn more too because I know a lot of you already have a great deal of knowledge.  And as we share what we know, we all get better.

If you'd like email notification of posts here, please enter your email in the box above and click Submit.

And, please note the look and feel of this site may change over the next few weeks as I fine tune the sites appearance.

I look forward to a great experience.  Thanks!