Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Jacob on Acoustic Guitar Miking Techniques

When it comes to recording any instrument the choice of microphone, it's placement and the recording environment, will dramatically affect the final sound. Experimenting with these parameters provides the possibility of creating pleasing tonal properties. Whether you are recording in a professional studio or at home in your bedroom, experimentation will allow you to explore sound manipulation giving you more paths to the desired result. This blog entry will outline some simple microphone techniques for recording acoustic guitar. So, what are some of these techniques and how can we use them to create a well balanced sound?

For beginner producers it is important to understand the different microphone types and where they are typically used. The two main types of microphones are dynamic and condenser mics both of which have their own properties which make them more suitable in different situations. Condensers are the most common microphones found in studios as they have a greater frequency and transient response (the ability to reproduce the "speed" of an instrument or voice). They also require their own power source (phantom power) and generally have a louder output but are more sensitive to louder sounds. Dynamic microphones don't have a frequency and transient response as accurate as condensers however they are a lot less fragile and can handle louder sounds making them more suited for live recordings.

When recording acoustic guitar in a studio environment we would typically record using two microphones positioned at different parts of the instrument (stereo configuration). However, as many first time bedroom producers will only have the one microphone at their disposal, we will start by exploring a single microphone position. Using a condenser microphone with the polar pattern (which gives directional sensitivity information) set to cardioid, position the microphone around six inches from the guitar between the sound hole and the top of the fretboard. The cardioid pattern will concentrate the sensitivity towards the front of the mic giving a small amount of room ambience from behind the mic. By positioning the microphone closer to the sound hole it will become more sensitive to the bass frequencies giving a warmer sound. Placing it more towards the top of the fretboard will give brighter tones and string noise. By moving it between these two positions, you can determine the best position for producing an all round balanced tone. This will vary between guitars and microphones, so experimentation is crucial, but as a general rule the “sweet spot” is around the 12th fret. When deciding how far from the guitar to place the mic it is important to consider the proximity effect. This rule describes an increase in bass frequencies when the microphone is closer to the sound source and is covered in another of our blogs by Ryan Tynman under the title “The Proximity Effect.” You don't want it to sound too boomy and boxy which will lessen the high frequency detail but at the same time you don't want to loose the warmth. The single condenser technique can also be used for double-tracking where the performance is recorded twice and then each take is panned hard left and right giving a wider stereo image.

Once you have mastered the single miking techniques you can move onto the stereo miking techniques of which there are many variations. By using a pair of microphones we can accurately re-create the stereo characteristics of a recording. For the purpose of this blog we will concentrate on three of the main ones; Blumlein, Spaced Pair and XY.

The Blumlein configuration was developed by Alan Blumlein towards the beginning of the 20th century and requires two bi-directional (figure of 8) microphones placed at a 90° angle. Bi-directional mics are equally sensitive at the front and the back so with this technique a decent room ambience is important. The microphones are place one on top of the other as close as possible without touching. This technique produces a wide and clear sound that can accommodate most acoustic guitar tracking. However, if the room acoustics are not desirable it is probably best to go with another more directional technique.

The Spaced-Pair technique which involves two parallel directional mics, with one pointing at the sound hole and the other at the fretboard (around 2.5ft from each other), is a good example of a configuration which is more directional. When deciding how far from the guitar you should place the mics it is useful to consider the 3:1 rule which states that the microphones should be placed three times farther apart than they are from the sound source. So if the mics are 2.5ft from each other, they should be placed 0.83ft (around 10 inches) from the guitar. This guideline helps to minimise phasing issues. Just like with the single condenser techniques, you can play around with these distances to create the desired tone. This technique is be good for capturing fret detail like pull-offs and hammer-ons. Again see Ryan's blog entry “The Three to One Rule” for more detail.

The next technique is the XY configuration which is similar to the Blumlein technique as it involves two mics placed close to each other at a 90° angle. However, this technique uses microphones with a cardioid pattern which reduces the amount of room ambience. The XY configuration is more convenient to set-up than the Spaced-Pair technique as less time is spent deciding the best positioning for the mics although it creates a somewhat narrower stereo image. Like all stereo techniques phasing can become an issue if one microphone is slightly closer to the sound source than the other; some of the frequencies can cancel each other out. This can easily be solved with the use of a stereo bar (shown in the photo below). This ensures the mics are the exact same distance from the source.

When deciding on the technique for you it is important to consider a few things: the tone of the guitar, the frequency response of the microphone(s), the environment in which you are recording and how much time you have available. Only by experimenting with the various techniques can you learn about the tonal properties of your instrument, microphone and recording environment. These microphone placements have to be considered as guidelines, some of them will work better on different guitars, so sit down and play around with them. Your only limit is time and dedication!

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Friday, 18 September 2015

Jacob on Mastering Audio Techniques!

Mastering is the final process in post production before the audio is sent off for duplication. It is considered by many to be the most important step. Mastering engineer Howie Weinberg describes it as “Photoshop for audio.” This is an accurate statement as the process uses a variety of tools to enhance the recording to be as good as it can be. It needs patience and a meticulous ear for audio as the tiniest of adjustments can impact greatly on the final sound of the master. Moderation is key! Each engineer will have their own way of going about mastering however, they will all use the same kind of dynamic processing tools; EQ, compression, limiting, noise reduction and dithering to name a few. Unlike mixing which involves processing each individual track or instrument so that they fit together neatly in the stereo field, processing in the mastering stage is applied to everything.

The first step involves transferring the final mix into the preferred DAW (Digital Audio Workstation). The industry standard as always is Pro Tools, however there is a handful of software such as SADiE, Pyramix, Sequoia that have been written with mastering in mind. There aren't great differences between the DAWs, it is mostly dependant on the engineer's preferences. After that the “silence” between each track is edited. As CD players take a small amount of time to unmute after skipping a track, it is vital that there is a gap (around 300ms) of silence at the beginning so that the first transient of the song is not cut out.

The next stage is the most important and time consuming. It is the dynamic processing or “sweetening” of the audio to maximise the sound quality. This is done using the processing tools mentioned earlier. Equalization is applied in small amounts to balance the track. It is important that each frequency band is balanced with the rest so that they are complimenting each other rather than fighting for space. Compression is used to add punch and warmth to the mix as well as loudness. In mastering, a Multiband Compressor will be used. It does the same job as an ordinary compressor however it allows the engineer to compress sections of the frequency spectrum which makes it all the more accurate and efficient. Limiting will allow the loudness to be pushed further without peaking or clipping. Compression and limiting must be used in moderation, an overly compressed track that has been pushed too far will be left with a small dynamic range, making it sound flat and dull. The final stage in the “sweetening” chain is Dithering which is simply the application of a low level random noise if the audio is truncated. Truncation describes the reduction in resolution of audio i.e. from 24-bit to 16-bit. When this happens, the sound quality is diminished as the extra 8 bits are lost. By adding random noise, it helps in masking the distortion produced by truncation, making the many short-term errors much less noticeable to the listener. This is a very powerful tool should always be applied before truncation!

Once all of these steps are complete and both parties are happy, the final master can then be transferred to the final format (CD-ROM, half-inch reel tape, PCM 1630 U-matic tape, etc.) From this the song or songs can then be duplicated.

The success of mastering relies heavily on the monitoring and listening environment in which it was mastered. The better the speakers, the more detail is heard therefore the greater the accuracy. This goes for the processing tools used as well, professional standard EQ, compression and limiting help greatly in achieving a finer sound. This is why a professional recording studio set up is desirable. Mastering can be thought as the final push in highlighting what's great about a track or album. By carrying out each step correctly, it can make a good piece of audio into something well polished, professional sounding and marketable!

Friday, 4 September 2015

Nikki Loy

Nikki Loy can be forgiven for not seeing eye to eye with this industry. It is seldom kind to its inhabitants. It is fickle and common place, at times crude and mostly superficial; it seemly randomly rewards talent with a constant play on networking and a liberal amount of time spent clutching at straws. Despite all this Nikki chooses to work in this environment for one reason above all others. Because she has a gift and she has a God given right to express that gift for the good of her and all around her.

When I first heard Nikki’s voice I have to admit to being blown away by it. It has an ability to convey emotion which covers a range and depth seldom seen in an unsigned singer. Her choice of material and stage presence complements her vocal talent completely. It is her ability that she is focussed on and whether she is busking in Oxford town centre or singing to hundreds at large venues, she has the ability to make people stop, listen and for that moment believe in the narrative and nuances of the song.

With talent such as hers she has a duty and a responsibility to continue to work in music. Music touches people and has the ability, like no other art form, to make people better people. She understands this and knows that many paths lie here to the same place. Many doors, which seem randomly strewn by circumstance, here open to the same room. A place, a room, where she can change people’s lives for the better.

It is music that has that power. It is the musical art form as personified by musical artist's such as Nikki, that can inspire, persuade, inform and initiate great change in people. It is the recording studio and the live venue where the skills of the musical artist are presented to the world. Oxford has many great live venues for music to be heard. Perhaps you will see Nikki playing at one soon. You will be in for as treat if you do!


As I write this Dakota are late again for there practise session here at the studio. Yesterday they broke the studio record for lateness having planned to arrive at 10am but did in fact turn up at 4pm(!). But I don't mind. They are a very likeable bunch who play and sing fantastically and so it's a pleasure to have them when ever they can make it. When organising rehearsal services here we tend to find the band leader of the musicians in a band organise the session in the same way as somebody would try to heard cats.

Dakota are from Leamington Spa, a four-piece who have followed the success of their recent free download with the release of the their d├ębut single “Wild Child” through Genuine Records and Right Track Distribution/Universal Music. As if by design, Dakota's euphonious slice of self-styled ponce rock warms up the Autumn days and is marks this band out as one to watch over the next few months. A highly addictive chorus is combined with exuberant timpani drums and juxtaposed against a slightly sinister character assessment of an old flame courtesy of singer and chief songster Ben Talbot. All very impressive.

“Wild Child” is the first release from Dakota's debut album, “Here, There, and Everywhere” which is set for release in the autumn. A heavy contender for topping the album charts and joining the illustrious gang of Number 1 debutantes, HT&E was borne out of a broken heart and Ben's struggles to come to terms with the realities of heart ache. With such pieces of pop mastery aimed at the mass market, Keane, The Feeling and Scouting For Girls et al had better watch their backs.
I am looking forward to hearing them rehearse again, albeit over a short period of time than I would have hoped. When they arrive it is a 40 minute set of drum, guitars amps, and additional mixing kit for them to simulate there equipment in rehearsal as it would be live. Its a super sound that they generate and I would recommend checking them out live if you possibly can. Just don;t expect them top be on time to the gig!

The Golden Age of Recording

It seems that, despite advances in recording technology, many producers create records that sound like the hits of the '60s and '70s. This is understandable, as these are the records that helped form our opinions of what constitutes good-sounding music. From my own perspective, having also been brought up on music of that era, I have to say that there were some very good recordings made back then. Even in the cases where the musical performances were somehow less polished than we might expect from a modern record, and the sound was a hint lacking in top-end, or slightly on the noisy side, they still had that magical quality. So why is this so difficult to recreate today? Of course, all those old records were made using entirely analogue gear but, even though there are distinct differences between analogue and digital domains, both are equally capable of making great-sounding recordings.

I think a major reason for the difference in sound is that the recordings of the '60s and '70s were made by gigging bands comprised of experienced players, as I've mentioned in this column before. These days, many recordings are pieced together in project studios, rather than being captured using the live-recording-plus-overdubs method. No matter how good your playing or programming skills, the sound of a recording built up track-by-track will never have the same vibe as the recording of a real band doing what they do best.Those old recordings also tended to be made in fairly large spaces with significant amounts of spill, which produces a different sound to that of a garage studio, no matter how well-treated the latter is.Possibly the most significant difference between old and new records is the techniques used to actually produce them; 40 years ago, there were far fewer processing tools available to damage the material!

After all, what did they have in the early days of recording? Razor blades for editing, compressors and limiters to look after level fluctuations, a plate reverb, a tape-loop echo and EQ that was often no more than treble and bass. And that was pretty much it, so they had to get the performance right and position their mics to capture that performance as well as possible. Mix engineers used to be called balance engineers and that gives you a clue as to the process. When everything is miked properly, you don't need to do much more than balance the instruments and voices, which, back then, was often done on the way into the recorder, because the material was probably being recorded direct to mono, stereo or four-track.

Today we have plug-ins to fix everything from timing and tuning errors to excess noise, more EQ bands than we know what to do with, exciters to add top end, enhancers to add low end, vocal modellers, dozens of flavours of compressor and simulations of just about everything else, past and present. It takes time to learn what any piece of gear can do, so what chance do we have of using 300 plug-ins to their best advantage, even when they're actually needed? Perhaps if something is out of time or out of tune we should just play it again; if it isn't bright enough, move the mic or try a different one, and if it sounds wrong in the mix, try to figure out why, rather than beating it into submission with EQ. Maybe then we'll be able to make records that come just a little closer to what was achieved in that supposedly golden age of audio and all recordings will stop sounding the same because every producer uses the same plugins.

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In this fast pace world that we live in with creative clients wanting to produce audio for all kinds of reasons I find myself reflecting on the studios client base and thought I would share my thought on the studio recording process. It seems to me that clients who want to use the studio come in three categories. First there are the business clients who require audio for pod casts and audio books. They have specific recording goals and time frames and are therefore easy to work with. Usually the work involves reading from a script but can be an interview style recording which involves some form of improvisation from the participants. All very clear cut and easily achievable.

Then there are the business clients who require recording for the band they manage. They do have goals and time frames but this can, and often is, unrealistic. It is not that they do not know the process its the fact that there way is always the right way when they bring into the mix the added complication of their expert “producer”. He is human, usually, and so used to a specific work flow or set up. He therefore requires a certain amount of “retuning” to suit the studio he now finds himself in. This is well understood by Cooz's and is completely normal and so a good one will make this transition look easy by taking the helpful advice offered and is great to work with.

A bad one will criticise just about every aspect of the house and generally be grumpy for the whole of the session wondering how he can possibly work without compressor X or EQ Y. The final client type is the private individual/group. Again they can have a great deal of knowledge of recording and be excellent to work with but, just as the “producer” can be blinded by his expert knowledge. There can be groups that have alliances that are difficult to disband into effect work flow if they are unwilling to get off their high horse about what they do know and trust that the in-house guy knows best in the recording environment they have chosen to be in.

What I like about working with musicians and groups is there ability to play music. It is, after all, what they do and what they do best. What Cooz's records does is in the recording studio is record music. As Bob Katz points out this process is both an art and a science. It is something that requires experience, talent and hard work to do well. There is no one piece of equipment, technique or process which gives the best results. The organic nature of the process is what makes it so appealing to me and so interesting to work through in order to achieve the best results. In recording music, just as in playing it, best results are achieved when your ear directs you to what is possible to do with the group you work with. This is usually not what you would expect but in working through the process the session, if managed well, can achieve all that was initially desired and more.

Video Streaming

There is no doubt that today's recorded music is often part of a larger audio/video experience. Pop videos have been around for years with some costing nearly as much to make as feature films, but video equipment is now relatively inexpensive and this has enabled a huge number of musicians to increase their exposure via the likes of YouTube. However the presence of video streaming of music on the internet is still rather rare. Bands coming to the studio are interested in video production but live streaming seems a rather odd proposition.

At the studio we have the facility for bands to play their music whilst simultaneously being streamed live to the internet for their fans. It is a great way of promoting the bands sound and image to venues and A and R representatives. With video production and video streaming coming down in price it seems a cost effective way to promote bands and artists in the 21st century. When combined with other forms of promotion it provides a band with a great way of being noticed.

We have a first rate sound recording facility that processes audio to 2 track stereo very effectively. We have collaborated with associates who have knowledge of video streaming techniques so that video from the cameras and audio from the desk and protools hd is merged. Video production is a technical process that lends well to live streaming with all the material recorded and edited after the event to make a nice piece of video promotion material .

With bands striving to get a following in this technical age it makes since to use new media in all its guises. Bands who are able to do this posses a very good awarenesses of how to present themselves to camera; an all important skill in these video promotion rich times. Do get in touch if you or your band want to explore any avenue of video production and give video streaming some serious thought as a way of promoting your art to the masses.