Take Your Mixes To The Next Level

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Want To Know What's Wrong With Your Music?

What's Wrong With Your Music graphic
Here's something that I just have to get off my chest - again. I posted this 3 or 4 years ago, but it bears repeating once more.

Readers often send me their music to comment on, and while I'd love to get to everything, it's just not possible. That said, there are a number of traits that I notice among the songs that I do listen to that I thought were worth a mention, since they encapsulate the typical problems when they do appear.

Before you send me a link to something to listen to, make sure that your song doesn't have any of these following problems first, which will save us both some time. We're assuming that the song is good in the first place, of course, since everything starts there (that's another discussion altogether).

1. No groove: Every song has to have a pulse and it has to be made obvious so the listener can feel it. Every genre of music has it. If it's not there, nothing else counts. Sometimes I hear songs where the groove just isn't there because of poor playing, or it's not made obvious in the mix.

2. Bad drum tracks: I don't mean the sound, but the actual playing. A number of people have sent me their "masters" recently that have such horrible playing that the only person that's ever going to like it is their mothers.

What do I mean by bad playing? Rushed or slow drum fills, uneven tempo that's way too noticeable, and floppy uneven kick and/or snare hits won't cut it.

The problem is that most musicians who've never worked on a real record project before are just not critical enough and let too much go that should have been re-recorded, fixed or edited. Your basic track is the most important thing you'll record next to the vocal. Make it as perfect as you can before you move on.

3. Tracks out of the pocket: This means that a part doesn't groove against the rest of the track. The number of songs I get with vocals that rush, or the bass being out of the pocket against the drums, or another instrument that way too early or too late is really a shame. Usually the songs I get have their owners more worried about the sound than the playing, but great playing beats great sound any day.

4. Out of tune: Tuners are cheap. Use one. There's no excuse in this day and age.

5. Bad recording: The real key to a great sound is a great player first, then a great instrument, although a great sounding instrument can make a mediocre player sound a lot better. Get those two first and everything else will take care of itself.

6. Bad mixing: Mixing is so much more than balancing instruments and adding effects. It's finding the groove and building around it, then finding the most interesting element and emphasizing it. There's a lot of really good info out there if you're mixing chops aren't up to par. Try my Audio Mixing Bootcamp course on Lynda.com for starters (here's a free 7 day pass), or learn some tricks of the pros with my 101 Mixing Tricks program (you can start with 4 free tricks).

Here's the bottom line. There's a reason why pros exist. Spend the extra money to work with one, at least for one project. You'll be surprised how much you'll learn.

Oh and by the way, if you're going to ask that I critique your song, send me a link that I can stream (even YouTube is OK). DO NOT send me a file. There's a legal issue involved and it fills up my hard drive and takes time to download. I can't promise that I'll listen as my time is limited, but I will try.

Also understand that sometimes there's just not much to say about a mix. You made some decisions that reflected your creative taste. They're not right or wrong, but they're probably different from the way others might've made them. They're not right or wrong either. Some questions just don't have an answer.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

What Is A Speaker Baffle And Why Is It So Important?

Whether it's a guitar or bass cabinet, your monitor speakers or the speakers in your car, one of the most important elements to how a speaker ultimately sounds is the way it's mounted. Here's an excerpt from "The Ultimate Guitar Tone Handbook," which I wrote with Rich Tozzoli, about one of the more important parts of a speaker cabinet - the baffle.

A Typical Speaker Baffle
"One of the most overlooked parts of a cabinet is the baffle (seen on the left), which is the board that the speaker is directly mounted on. Perhaps more than any one piece of the cabinet, this has the most influence on the sound. The type of material (pine, birch, MDF), the thickness, and the way it’s mounted all contribute to the sound.

Thin plywood tends to be louder and have better low end than pine of the same thickness. 3/4 inch birch has more projection and gives you more of the speaker sound and less of the cabinet itself. Closed-back cabinets will be tighter and have a slight edge with birch baffles.

The thickness of the baffle has a great deal to do with the sound. For instance, most tweed amps from the 50’s used either ¼ inch or 5/16 inch pine, which sounds open and loose. Amps made in the 60’s generally have a thicker baffle and have a tighter, cleaner sound as a result.

The way the baffle is connected to the cabinet also makes a big difference. Fender used what’s known as a “floating baffle” for a long time, which provided a bigger, more “organic” tone. 
  • A floating baffle is attached at 2 points either top and bottom or side and side. The 1959 Fender Bassman is a good example of a top and bottom floating baffle while the Super Reverb is a good example of a side to side floating baffle. 
  • The Bandmaster 2×12″ speaker cabinet does not have a floating baffle. It is attached on all 4 sides to be very rigid and tight.
  • A thinner baffle works best for a floating baffle because it vibrates more and those vibrations blend with those of the speakers.
Center Stabilizer Piece

If you ever open up a closed-back cabinet, you’ll notice that there’s a piece of wood in the center of the cabinet that connects the baffle to the back panel (seen on the left). That’s designed to allow the baffle and back panel resonate in phase, and without it you’d have a lot of phase cancellation, and a cabinet with a lot of frequency response peaks and dips as a result."

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Use An Audio Tone To Share Your URL

Google Tone image
I'm not so sure how useful this is, but Google has built a way for you to share your URL via an audio tone. It's called Google Tone and it will work with any computer using Chrome and the Google Tone extension.

What happens is that if you click on the Tone icon, it sends out an audio tone that will be detected by other audio computers in the room, which would then switch their browsers to the same URL.

Apparently the Google Research team worked pretty hard on this. The first codec sounded so horrible that no one would use it. The second codec was beyond the range of hearing, and some built-in computer microphones wouldn't track it.

This current codec uses a system that most telephone systems use called dual-tone multi-frequency signaling, which is much more pleasant to the ear and much more effective as well.

You can download the extension here if you're interested.

Can anyone think of a use for this?

Monday, July 27, 2015

Engineer Billy Klein On My Latest Inner Circle Podcast

Billy Klein image
Commercial studios of the future will be different than what we've been used to in the past and Hybrid Studios may well be a look into what we can expect.

I'm lucky enough to have co-founder Billy Klein on this week's podcast to talk about the concept and marketing of the facility. Billy also has some great credits, from Adele to Keith Urban to Shakira and many more, which we'll also talk about.

In the intro I'll take a look at the 8 social media mistakes that many artists, bands, songwriters and musicians often make, as well as answer a common question I get about building your own studio, and look at some basic acoustic treatment elements.

Remember that you can find the podcast at BobbyOInnerCircle.com, or either on iTunes or Stitcher.

New Music Gear Monday: MOD Kit MOD 102+ Guitar Amp Kit

MOD Kit MOD 102+ guitar amp kit image
There used to be a lot of companies that offered DIY kits for audio gear at one time, and many of us in the business were introduced to electronics that way (myself included). Alas, over the years these companies mostly fell by the wayside once gear became so inexpensive that it took much of the incentive away from building your own. Then there was the liability issue of someone potentially hurting themselves either in building or operating a kit that scared many companies away.

It looks like a number of companies are now willing to get back into this market, and one of them is MOD Kit, a division of Amplified Parts. Although the company features a wide range of pedal kits, one of its cooler products is the MOD 102+ guitar amp kit.

The MOD 102+ is a simple circuit based upon the circuit design of an old Gibson GA-5 amp from the 50's. It's about as simple as you can get with just two tubes, but that will get you around 8 watts of creamy guitar heaven that's perfect for recording.

The Class A circuit is based around a standard 12AX7 preamp tube and an EL84 power tube, so it has more of a Vox "British" sound, which could be a perfect compliment to the more common 6L6 (like  a Fender) or EL34 (like a Marshall) that you might have around.

The "+" version of the original MOD 102 has a number of features that customers inevitably asked for or added themselves, such as a standby switch, and push-pull switches for the bass control that provides mid-boost, the treble control for top-boost, and a "turbo" setting on the volume control.

You have to supply your own speaker, but at a cost of only $265 and a few hours of your time, this thing looks like a winner. And you'll learn a bit about electronics along the way.

Check out the other kits available, including other amp versions, at MOD Kit as well. Here's an older video from MOD Kits that doesn't feature this current product, but you'll get the feel for what they offer.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Deep Purple "Smoke On The Water" Song Analysis

Deep Purple "Smoke On The Water" cover image
It's time for another song analysis and this time it's a real classic that's one of the first songs that most guitar players learn to play - Deep Purple's iconic "Smoke On The Water."

A song about a true event, “Smoke On The Water” went on to become not only the breakout song for Deep Purple’s career, but their best seller as well. The song illustrates the story of the recording of the Machine Head album, and the many twists and turns involved along the way.

The band recorded the album in Montreux’s Grand Hotel, which was vacant for the off-tourist season, after an aborted attempt at recording in a local theater when they was forced to find a different recording venue after the neighbors complained about the noise. The basic tracks of “Smoke” there first were recorded there first, but the vocals, as well as the rest of Machine Head, were later finished in the makeshift recording environment of the Grand Hotel.

The Song
“Smoke On The Water” is a fairly simple song consisting of the basic guitar riff that acts as an intro and interlude, along with verse and chorus sections. There is no bridge, but a twist at the end of the guitar solo acts as a bridge in that it adds tension and release to the song. The guitar solo, and later the outro organ solo, is over a verse with an altered arrangement. The song ends in a fade, although a later live version released as a single several years later has a hard ending.

As stated previously, the lyrics outline an event during the making of the recording. The lyrics seem a little forced in places, but generally sing well, while the melody is very memorable, especially the hook during the chorus. The song’s form looks like this:

intro | verse | chorus | interlude | verse | chorus | interlude | solo | tag | interlude | outro

The Arrangement
The song begins with a fairly long intro that starts with the guitar playing the main riff by itself twice. On the third time through, a double time high hat enters, followed by the snare drum on the next. On the next two times through, both the bass and organ enter.

The verse keeps all instruments in the mix, although the parts change; first with a fairly discipled part for the guitar, and fairly free-form parts for the bass and organ. During the chorus, the drums change the part slightly, while a second harmony vocal enters. The next verse and chorus are virtually the same, except for an organ fill towards the end of the second verse.

The guitar solo is interesting in that it’s basically a verse except that the drums switch to a galloping snare drum pattern and the bass switches to a much more active pattern. The end of the section also has an 4 bar tag that acts like a bridge where the guitar solo plays across the next intro/riff section. The last verse and chorus are again identical to the previous.

During the outro, the organ takes the lead as the song fades out, as the drums change their pattern once again.

Arrangement Elements
The Foundation: bass and drums
The Rhythm: high hat in the intro, bass during the verses
The Pad: organ during the chorus
The Lead: vocal, guitar and organ solo
The Fills: organ

The Sound
Even though “Smoke On The Water” wasn’t recorded in a “proper” recording studio, the sound is generally excellent, especially the drums. In fact, the drum sound is closer to something that you might hear today than the norm of the day.

The record was recorded using The Rolling Stones mobile recording studio which was packaged in a large truck and responsible for quite a number of big selling albums from the 1970s, include several Led Zeppelin albums as well as albums for Fleetwood Mac, Bad Company, Bob Marley and many others. The truck was equipped with a 16 track tape recorder, which was more than enough for Deep Purple to record on, since the band wasn’t noted for highly embellished tracks at this time.

While you’ll hear only a single short plate reverb on the recording, the echo on the guitar solo was supplied by a Revox tape recorder that was a permanent part of Ritchie Blackmore’s stage setup. As well as adding echo when needed, it also added an additional level of overdrive that the guitarist liked.

The guitar is panned to the left, but you can hear the reverb on the right side during the intro when it plays by itself. The organ, which is run through a Marshall amplifier stack to sound more like a guitar, is panned to the right.

  • To the excellent sounding drums, especially the snare
  • To the tape echo on the guitar solo
  • To the organ sound that emulates a guitar
  • To the precision of the drum fills going from section to section
The Production
“Smoke On The Water” is a very simple song played exceedingly well but a group of superb musicians. Listen to any garage band play the song and you’ll understand that the nuances make the recording, and that’s usually what’s missing in just about any cover of the song that you’ll hear.

While the spotlight is on guitarist Blackmore and vocalist Ian Gillan in this song, it’s the drumming of Ian Paice that pushes it along. The precision of his drumming frequently goes unacknowledged, but a serious listen shows what he master he really is. Listen to any drum fill that bridges the various sections of the song and you’ll find massive technique along with unassailable taste. The fact that he makes it sound and look so easy is exactly what makes the parts work.

The other part of the song’s production that’s interesting is the disciplined guitar part that Blackmore plays during the verse of the song. While organist Jon Lord is left to improvise, Blackmore’s part stays rock-solid throughout, something that’s usually missed by your local cover band."

You can find more song deconstructions from all eras and all genres in my Deconstructed Hits series of books. You can read additional excerpts from this and my other books on the book excerpts section of my web site.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

10 EDM Production Tips

eEDM image
If you're into electronic music, then you know that the rules that we use when recording and mixing live musicians are sometimes bent to fit the genre. BuildYourSound.com had a great post providing 50 production tips from EDM's hottest producers, and here are 10 of them from the article. Be sure to check out the original post for the rest.

1. “I mix my snares quite oddly in anticipation of my mastering. I’ll always test my drums with a mastering chain on to make sure they still feel punchy and snappy.” – Madeon

5. “It’s all about the three pieces that make a really nice drum sound. You need a nice transient in the beginning, and then the note around the 200-hertz frequency that gives it that boof, and then a tail, which can be anything.” – Skrillex

13. “getting the relative volume levels of each instrument correct is a more important task than EQing. new producers often prefer a sound after it’s been EQed and in many cases it’s only because the levels have changed” – Porter Robinson

17. “Here’s something I like to think about concerning loudness… You have a very discrete amount of digital headroom with which to fill before you begin to clip/distort right? So as you begin to layer layer layer layer sounds, essentially you are necessarily bringing the volume of each individual noise DOWN to make room. This has a significant effect on “perceived loudness.” The easiest example to see this in action is to listen to an artist like Arojack — dude often writes tracks that are simply drums and a lead synth. As a result his music is often Noticeably “louder” then someone like ours (for example) even tho we are both filling up the same amount of digital space. The rule of thumb then… simpler is often louder.” – The M Machine

27. “Parallel compression allows you to draw out different characteristics of a sound an combine them together. For instance say you want a snare to have a very snappy attack, but you also want it to have some body to it. If you parallel compress it with one of the paths set to a 10ms attack and the other set to around 150 that enables you to blend body with attack.” – Nick Thayer

28. “Most lead sounds will have a saw or square wave as a basic as these tend to cut through in a mix as that appear to take up more space. The other oscillators are what you can use to add the colour to the sound to make it unique.” – Nick Thayer

34. “We find to get like a really, cool sort of groove, and swaying kind of effect – you pull back like the seconds here [mouses over Ableton track delay] so it makes the hats or claps or the percussion a bit lazy, rather than having everything so regimented and right on the beat” – What So Not

43. “Stop listening to the music and begin feeling it. Don’t move to it, let it move you. Fully surrender yourself to the sound and break free of the ideas you attach to genre and production” – Au5

46. “1. The lower the frequency the more power it requires in your master bus so cut out any bass not needed. 2. Try to bring out the thing that the track is saying. It might take a while to figure out what this is exactly, but once you do you can focus your whole mixing process around that as opposed to following standard rules.” – Noisia

50. “Usually 1 top main clicky sounding kick with no low end, a separate low end kick that’s relatively short (and usually pitches down sort of, so I don't worry about it being in key) so I can mix my sub bass around it. Then I sometimes have a tonal kick, like something acoustic so it doesn’t sound so digital; that can sometimes be 1 or 2 layers.” –Pierce Fulton

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The 3 Building Blocks Of Acoustic Treatment

While soundproofing the space where you have your recording gear set up can be an expensive and time consuming proposition, treating the acoustics of your room luckily can be quite the opposite. Believe it or not, it’s not that expensive and can be done in only a matter of hours if you have all the building blocks on hand.

So what are these building blocks? Here's an excerpt from my Studio Builder's Handbook (written with Dennis Moody) that explains just what they are.

"Acoustic treatment for your room is built around three main components: acoustic panels, bass traps, and diffusers. Let’s take a brief look at each.

Acoustic Panels
Acoustic panels are the major way that reflections are kept from bouncing around the room. If your walls are hard (meaning there’s no absorption), these reflections are going to cause certain frequencies to cancel themselves out as they bounce around, causing those unwelcome dips and peaks in the room response as well as an uneven reverb decay time.

You can think of an acoustic panel as a very large picture frame that has sound absorbing material inside instead of a picture. Although you could permanently attach the sound absorbing material to the wall (like most commercial studios do), using a sound panel allows you to move it as needed and even take it with you if you move.

Acoustic panels are easy and inexpensive to make (check out this video on my YouTube channel for information how), but they’re also available pre-made from a variety of companies like Ready AcousticsGIK Acoustics, RealTraps.comATS AcousticsMSR, AV Room Service and many more.

Bass Traps
Most control rooms use what’s known as a “bass trap” to control at least some of the low frequency energy in the room. In most rooms, the main problem at low frequencies is due to one or more deep nulls or peaks in the range anywhere from 40 to 200Hz. Bass traps reduce the depth of the nulls and attenuate the boomy sounding peaks, and the overall response of the room is flatter as a result. Even though your brain intuitively thinks that you lose low end by attenuating it, the room will actually sound tighter and more predictable, with less change in the response when you move away from the sweet spot.

Bass traps work best in corners because bass tends to collect there, but they can also work well spaced off the front and rear walls. Since bass is omnidirectional, the traps don’t have to be paired or symmetrically placed, although believe it or not, the smaller the room the more you will need. The most effective ones extend from floor to ceiling. If that can’t happen, the next most effective method is to just treat the 8 individual corners of the room.

As with acoustic panels, pre-made bass traps are made by a number of manufacturers like the ones mentioned above.

A diffusor scatters sound to reduce the direct reflections from the speakers back to the listener. There are two types of diffusers; 2D and 3D. A 2D diffuser (as seen on the left) scatters the reflections in the same single plane that they were received, while a 3D diffusor scatters it in random directions at random times. If made well, the 3D diffuser is better at scattering the reflections, but more difficult to build so it’s more expensive.

While diffusers can be used anywhere in the room that doesn’t already have an acoustic panel, a common strategy that’s used by many large commercial studios is to use a diffusor on the rear wall. Doing this is controversial, as there are as many designers who believe that the rear wall should be non-reflective as there are that believe it should be diffuse.

In small rooms where the rear wall is closer than six feet from the listening position, you're likely to have more success trying to absorb the sound with deep traps than you are diffusing it. A bookshelf filled with books is a great natural diffusor (and adds some absorption as well), but shelves randomly filled with objects, or small angle wood blocks can work too. Companies like RPG, Real Traps and MSR also make both off-the-shelf and custom diffusors as well.

With any of these acoustic components, you don't need to spend a fortune to achieve tangible results. That said, it isn't easy to predict in advance just how much of an improvement there will be for any given approach (even for the pros studio designers), so some experimentation is required."

You can find out a lot more about how to build a home studio effectively and inexpensively by consulting The Studio Builder’s HandbookYou can also read some excerpts from this and my other books on excerpt part of my website.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Producer/Engineer/Artist Carmen Rizzo On My Latest Inner Circle Podcast

This week I'm pleased to have producer/engineer and recording artist Carmen Rizzo on my latest Inner Circle Podcast.

Carmen has a rich history as an engineer (especially working for uber-producer Trevor Horn), before graduating to producer, then making the jump to being an artist himself.

In the interview, Carmen describes the current state of electronic music and where he thinks it's going, as well as some of the pitfalls of being a producer today.

In the intro I'll describe how a local tax on digital cloud-based entertainment in Chicago can lead the way to more taxes on our Internet use, as well as an unwelcome new development - a Peavey mixer with Autotune built in.

Remember that you can find the podcast at BobbyOInnerCircle.com, or either on iTunes or Stitcher.

The Difference An Acoustic Environment Can Make

Different Acoustic Environments image
We're very used to creating artificial acoustic environments in mixing all the time, many times without actually thinking about how this new environment might actually interact with the voice or instrument in nature.

Here's a great video where you hear Joachim Mullner (also known as The Wikisinger) cleverly sing in a variety of different environments.

Thanks to Mike Verzi for the heads up on this.

Monday, July 20, 2015

New Music Gear Monday: AKG M90Q Quincy Jones Headphones

Quincy Jones AKG N90Q Headphones image
There are a number of speaker systems, monitor controllers and stand-alone apps that will analyze the listening environment and tune your monitors to it accordingly. This used to be something akin to voodoo but it's so widely and inexpensively available now that we hardly blink an eye.

What is different is the new AKG N90Q by Quincy Jones headphones that feature something called TruNote, that uses the same analysis technology to customize the headphone's to the shape of the wearer's ear. Of course, Q himself was heavily involved with designing these phones, hence the name.

The N90Q is truly a work of engineering. Besides tuning themselves to your ear via a pair of tiny mics in each earcup, they also provide a built-in 96k DAC and a USB port so you can plug in directly to your computer's digital stream and bypass the limited internal DACs for a better sound.

Then there's the fact that they're noise canceling, have bass and treble controls on the left earphone and volume, On-Off, and DSP settings (Normal, Studio, Surround Sound) on the right cup.

The phones carry about an 8 hour charge, and can be rejuiced via the USB connection or via a supplied backup battery called a Powerbank that connects via USB as well, for much more control of the audio than the normal headphone.

The AKG N90Q by Quincy Jones headphones comes with a travel case, travel pouch, Powerbank battery, and various cables and adaptors so that the phones will work in just about any setting. These aren't for everybody however, thanks to the $1,500 price tag, which puts them out of the range of most studios. That said, if you're looking for the best and money is no object, they'll be worth checking out when available in early September.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Wilton Felder's "I Want You Back" Isolated Bass

Wilton Felder image
I always question myself when I post old song nuggets, because I don't want to seem like I'm dwelling in the past. The fact of the matter is that so many of these isolated tracks are interesting and fun to listen to, not to mention occasional teaching moments. Take for instance today's track - Wilton Felder's bass track on the Jackson 5's first hit "I Want You Back."

Felder was not only a great bass player but was actually better known as a tenor sax player, as he was one of the founding members of the great Jazz Crusaders. He was also part of Motown's studio team when the company moved to Los Angeles.

There are lots of cool things to listen for on this cut.

1. Listen to the tone of the bass. There's not a lot of really deep bottom to it, which was the case with many records of the time. Engineers didn't concentrate on the bottom end back then like they do today.

2. There's a lot of compression on it. The bass sits at the same level for every note, something also common from the era, especially from the major studios of the time.

3. The playing is very clean, but not perfect. It's about as good as you could get in the days of tape and few tracks, but it's something that we'd fix a little today (although that didn't stop anyone from enjoying the final record).

4. Check out the bridge at around 2:15. Felder plays a difficult part with ease and makes it flow like water.


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