Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Who "Pinball Wizard" Isolated Guitars

If you grew up playing in bar bands back in the 70s/80s, chances are you played "Pinball Wizard," the seminal hit from The Who's Tommy rock opera. But how many of us actually played it correctly?

Take a listen to the isolated acoustic and electric guitar parts in the song. Here's what to listen for.
1. There are two acoustic guitars, one playing the low 8th note pedal note on the intro parts, which then doubles the other acoustic during the strumming.

2. The electric guitar, which plays on the intro, first verse and chorus.

3. Take notice how the electric drops out in the second verse, and one of the acoustic guitars changes to different chord inversions so it's slightly different from the first and last verses.

4. There's a nice long delayed reverb on the guitars that give them that big sound that we're familiar with.



Wednesday, April 16, 2014

An Interview With Bassy Bob Brockman

"Bassy" Bob Brockman image
“Bassy” Bob Brockman has a wide range of awards and credits, including more than 30 Grammy nominations with two wins, and an Oscar nomination. His many credits include Mary J. Blige, Toni Braxton, Brian McKnight, Faith Hill, Korn, Christina Aguilera, P Diddy, Santana, and Sting among many others. In this excerpt from The Mixing Engineer's Handbook 3rd edition, Bob discusses what he uses for plugins and his use of the mix buss compressor.

"Can you hear the final product in your head when you begin to mix?
Yeah, probably. I think that I probably make some subconscious and non-verbal judgements when I first hear a song. I make a judgement on style and then go through a couple hours familiarizing myself with all the parts, then I try to see what’s really crucial and what could be wallpaper. I then find whether there’s something that’s really important that I should make the listener aware of. 

The first 20 years of my career I had a producer standing right next to me, telling me what parts were important. It’s less so now because I see so fewer people. I get sent digital files and I sort of end up making those mix/production decisions on my own and end up delivering a more or less finished mix to the producer or the band, then I’ll get notes on what to tweak.

Are you mixing on a console or in the box?
I can mix in the box if I have to but it’s certainly not my preferred way of mixing. What I’m into is a sort of hybrid mixing. I have a Neve 8816 [analog console] with 16 channels coming out of an Avid 192 D/A with an Alan Smart C2 compressor across the mix buss. 16 channels of analog makes a big difference to me in terms of power and depth of field. I still do mix quite a few things in the box though, especially when I’m out traveling.

How much of the DAW do you use?
I’m very deep into the whole digital mixing process and do all of my work in Pro Tools. The plugins have stepped up a lot in the last few years, with the distortion and saturation plugs having improved immeasurably. They’re now more transparent and not adding a lot of phase shift or distortion when you insert them. That was my problem with plugs before and why I would tend not to use them on phase dependent things like drums and guitars. At a certain point, maybe the seventh or eighth hour the mix, the whole thing would start to sound crunchy to me, so I would go in and bypass the plugs and realize that I was using them as crutch to make things speak. Once you get things dialed in, by the end of the mix you don’t need them as much, so there’s a lot more sonic purity.

I often encourage young mixers to bypass their plugs and listen to what they have, especially in a program like Logic where when you open up a session it’s already got three or four things inserted across every channel as a default. 

Do you have certain effects that you always set up before you begin a mix?
I typically transfer all of my effects from one song to the next. I’ll usually use an [Soundtoys] Echo Boy or a [Massey] TD5 for delay. The [Waves] H-Delay and the [PSP] lexicon PCM42 are really nice as well. I usually have four or five delays which vary from very tight to slap delays to timed things. I tweak the timing so its either pushing or dragging a bit behind the beat. I usually have four or five reverbs all plugged in as well. I don’t have any analog effects processing. It’s all done in the box.

I do have a pair of Neve 1073’s that I might insert across the stereo buss, but for the most part I’ll just leave the equalization to the mastering guy. I try to get the EQ and the sound from what I’m doing to the individual tracks in the mix. I’ve never been much of a user of equalization over the years. I’ve worked with a lot of master buss equalizers like the Massenburg stuff, but there are so many equalization things that happen to the sound just by making adjustments on the Alan Smart [SSL-clone compressor]. It’s such an amazing compressor with the way it grabs the low end and accentuates certain parts of the mid-range or upper mid-range depending upon how fast or slow and the ratio. 

I usually spend the last two hours of my mix not doing much mixing but listening and then making little adjustments to the master buss compressor and hearing what the impact is to all the parts. I definitely don’t have a stock compression setting. I’m always moving the setting around on everything that I do. Each song has to have it’s own contour I guess.

How hard are you hitting it?

That depends on the music. If I’m doing a dance record I’m probably hitting it pretty hard. If I’m doing an aggressive rock record then I’m sinking into it about 3 or 4 dB. If I’m doing something much more open or acoustic I’m barely hitting it. Most of the effect is how it’s putting the low frequency information in check, which it does without the meter moving at all. Even when you’re hitting it very lightly it still has a dramatic effect on the music."

You can read additional excerpts from The Mixing Engineer's Handbook and my other books on the excerpt section of bobbyowsinski.com.


Tuesday, April 15, 2014

3 Advanced Techniques For Miking An Acoustic Guitar

Miking the guitar neck and body image
Figure 1: Miking the guitar neck and body
Many times it's surprising the difference an extra mic can make when miking an instrument. A second mic can add depth and ambiance even without resorting to a stereo configuration, which can be perfect for the right track. Here are 3 techniques for using two mics when recording an acoustic guitar, culled from The Ultimate Guitar Tone Handbook that I wrote with my good buddy Rich Tozzoli.

"The use of a second microphone on an acoustic guitar opens up numerous tonal options. Remember, the sound does not come from the soundhole alone; it’s a combination of all the elements of the instrument – its body, neck, strings, and the integration of the overall design. 

The two mic option has many alternatives in terms of positioning, where each mic can be placed on a different part of the guitar. Several mics can be also be placed directly next to each other in order to create a wider sound field. You can also separate them where one captures the direct sound of the instrument and another records the room ambience or is placed over the guitarists shoulder. 

Although the mics can be grouped onto just a single track, recording the mics on individual tracks provides more options during mixing.

Two Mic Technique #1 - Recording Different Parts of the Guitar 
Many excellent recordings have been made by placing a single mic where the soundhole and neck meet, and another on the body (see the Figure 1 on the left). For example, you could place a small diaphragm condenser such as the AKG C451 on the soundhole/neck to capture the brightness of a guitar, while placing a ribbon such as the Royer 121 near the body of the instrument. Or, you could choose to place the ribbon on the soundhole and the condenser on the body – or any combination of mics. 

You can also experiment by moving the soundhole mic further up the neck to increase the brightness captured by that mic, or further towards the bridge to darken the tone. When placing a mic on the body, it’s best to listen to the instrument first, as every guitar has it’s own unique projection. Once you’ve listened and found what you think is a sweet spot, place each mic the same distance away from the instrument.

The reason you should try to place both mics at the same distance from the guitar is so that they record in time with each other. Any slight time delay between the mics, even if not noticed during recording, can cause the mics to be slightly out-of-phase with each other, which will cancel out certain frequencies and cause an almost ‘washy’ effect. An easy way to check phase is to listen to one of the channels in and out of phase, either by applying a plug-in (with delay compensation!) that has phase reversal or selecting it on your mixing console or microphone preamp. If you notice one of the mics is out of phase, you can either move the mics or try to visually adjust the waveforms in your DAW.

With the old adage ‘there are no rules’ in mind, the above information should be taken with open ears. Some very cool guitar sounds can be had by actually recording out of phase, or better yet, by sliding separately recorded tracks on your DAW by a few milliseconds. This can create a short delay sound, which in certain productions, may actually work sonically to lift the guitar louder in the mix. A few minutes of experimenting should tell you what works and what doesn’t.

One last thing to think about with recording separate parts of the guitar. If you have one high quality mic and one that’s simply mediocre, it makes sense to put the good mic in the most important position, which is usually the neck/soundhole. By letting the quality mic do the ‘heavy lifting’ of capturing most of the sound, the other mic can then be placed either on the body or the strings to complete the overall sound.

Close and ambient miking image
Figure 2: Close and ambient miking
Technique #2 - Close And Ambient Miking
Another technique using more than one microphone involves placing a mic close to the guitar and another in the room to record the ambience (see Figure 2). The first mic, which can be placed either at the usual fretboard/soundhole position or near the body, will capture the more direct sound of the instrument. The second mic should be placed at least three feet further away from the first mic (out in the room) to maintain proper phase integrity. 

This method is quite effective when using either a small diaphragm condenser or ribbon mic up close, and a large diaphragm or omni mic as the distant mic. Make sure to achieve a good recording level on the room mic, as the sound level will obviously be less due to the distance from the source. This technique depends upon the quality of the room and the actual amount of room space that’s available. 

Two Mic Variation #1

Another optional placement of the second mic in the room is to position it above the shoulder or head of the player, facing towards the front of the guitar. This approximates what the guitarist hears at the playing position and can add a nice sense of depth to an acoustic recording. Try using a shotgun mic, if available, placed above the player’s head or shoulders. By virtue of its design, shotgun microphones are highly directional and will minimize the recording sensitivity to the left, right and rear, focusing on the sound projecting in front of the guitar."

To read additional excerpts from The Ultimate Guitar Tone Handbook and my other books, go to the excerpts section of bobbyowsinski.com.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Can This Be The Speaker Breakthrough We've Been Waiting For?

Graphene speaker diagram image
Loudspeaker technology hasn't changed all that much since Alexander Graham Bell invented the first speaker in 1876. Sure it's evolved to become much more efficient with a flatter and wider frequency response, but we're still talking about the same coil of wire mounted to a diaphragm that moves through a magnetic field that was used 138 years ago. Electrostatic loudspeakers were introduced in 1959 and while they remain the darling of audiophile set, can't take the beating of professional use and have an inherent low frequency response problem.

But that all could change thanks to a new breakthrough by two researchers from the University of California Berkley. The pair have made what is essentially a solid state loudspeaker using the ultra light and thin substance graphene sandwiched between two silicon electrodes to produce a transducer that has a fairly flat 20Hz to 20kHz frequency response.

One of the difficulties for loudspeaker engineers is that speaker design revolves around damping the various resonances in order for the speaker to have a flat response. This usually makes it less efficient and limits the response to a somewhat narrow frequency band. With a graphene speaker, there are fewer resonances to begin with, and what there is can be electronically controlled rather than mechanically, as is needed with electro-mechanical speakers today.

The new transducer is small and can only be used in ear pieces at the moment, but the technology is advanced enough that it can be applied to headphones in the near future. We might not see our concert halls, clubs and studios filled with graphene speakers in the year, but we could have them in our ears before you know it.

You can find the paper here, if you'd like to read more. Thanks to reader Paris in Greece for the heads up.





Sunday, April 13, 2014

New Music Gear Monday: Sonnet xMac Pro Server Expansion Chassis

Sonnet xMac Pro Server Expansion Chassis image
Ever since the latest Apple Mac Pro was announced, it's been looked upon with a combination of lust and apprehension. The lust comes from the fact that the unit is a beast of a performer that should make any DAW fly like it's on steroids, but the apprehension comes from it's shape and the fact that the only connectivity is via USB or Thunderbolt. Those of us with legacy PCI cards are just out of luck. Or are we?

Sonnet has introduced a new chassis called the xMac Pro Server that allows you to easily rack-mount the new "trash can" Mac Pro, provides 3 PCI slots for those legacy cards that you don't want to give up just yet, and has room for a variety of internal add-ons like hard drives, SSDs, or tape or optical drives. It even brings out all of the Mac Pro connections (Thunderbolt 2, USB 3.0, HDMI and Gigabit Ethernet) to the rear of the unit, plus supplies a handy Thunderbolt lockdown so you never have to worry about those important connectors accidentally slipping out.

The unit retails for $1499 and is supposed to ship in June, right around the time when the next batch of Mac Pros ship. Sonnet has loads of tech information about the xMac Pro Server on their website. You have to go to around 2:50 in the following video to actually see the unit.

Thanks to my buddy Biff Vincent for the heads up on this.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Michael Jackson's "Beat It" Demo

Establishing a groove on a song is usually the job of the rhythm section, but not always. Sometimes a rhythm guitar part or a percussion track makes the groove and everything is built around it. Quincy Jones once told me that Michael Jackson's sense of time was so good that he could establish the groove with his vocal.

Here's a great example of that from the demo of Michael's huge hit "Beat It," where there are only vocals and no instruments. Since Michael didn't really play an instrument, many of his demos were done just by vocals alone. Here's a perfect case.

Take notice of the great sounding long delayed reverb, and how intricate the harmonies are in this embryonic version of the song.




Wednesday, April 9, 2014

How To Wrap A Cable

One of the most overlooked parts of recording is treating your equipment properly and it all starts with your cables. Here's a great video on one of the most basic operations in the studio - how to properly wrap a mic cable.

This used to be the very first thing that you were taught when you started at a studio, but with fewer commercial studios around, there are fewer places to learn the proper technique. Here are two techniques that will keep those cables from getting kinked and extend their life.

 

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

14 Studio Etiquette Tips

Recording Session image
Knowing the proper etiquette while recording is almost as important as doing your gig. If you make people uncomfortable or do something that's considered out of place and chances are that you won't be asked back.



Let's look at the way everyone expects you to act during the session with these 14 points taken from The Studio Musician's Handbook. Most of them apply to just about everyone on a session.
"1. If there’s creative dialogue with the artist, songwriter, producer or engineer, make sure that your opinions are wanted and warranted before you offer them. 
2. Be careful about musical references. You may think that the track you’re working on is great because it reminds you of Dusty Springfield’s classic “Son of a Preacher Man” only to find out upon your mention of it that it’s on the artist’s “Ten Most Overrated Songs” list. 
3. Whether you’re on your own or part of an ensemble, focus on your work first. If you have input for other players, make sure it’s warranted and you can actually help them out. Players often tweak each other’s parts or help one another to understand a written passage, remember a song’s form, or get a sound. 
4. Remember – always defer to whoever is in charge. That person is usually the producer, but you may be receiving guidance or input from a musical director, the artist, or the engineer. 
5. Keep an open mind. Greet suggestions with willingness and always respond positively. If you’re receiving input from more than one source and they contradict one another, diplomatically point that out and let them resolve it. 
6. And don’t forget – if you can’t keep your cell phone outside the studio, TURN IT OFF (not just on vibrate - that’s a distraction too). 
7. Put away the magazines, computers, iPhones, and anything else that can be a distraction. The last thing a producer wants to see is you updating your Facebook status in between takes! 
8. If you need time to check your messages or Facebook, make sure you ask first. Most sessions have timed or natural breaks when you can meet you individual needs, but be sure to always ask if you wish to leave the recording environment while there’s work being done, even if you’re not directly involved at that moment. 
9. Your behavior should always be positive, and you should strive to be “present for the moment.” 
10. There’s a time and a place for everything, but sometimes cajoling, goofing around or humor doesn’t belong at a session. Then on another day with the same people, the session may be all about the gags and laughs. Studio pro’s know how to “go with the flow” and are experts at reading people and situations. 
11. If people are conversing, treat the session like any other workplace and try to avoid potential conversational “hot spots”: politics, religion, family and money. 
12. Everyone likes a good conversation and a funny joke, but it’s best not to risk being misinterpreted or misperceived as offensive. 
13. Earn and honor rank. That means if there are players on the session with more professional or personal history with the artist or producer than you have accumulated, let them lead. Everyone benefits when everyone gets along and knows their place 
14. Always wait until the job is done before you ask the powers that be if they are open to your creativity. It’s appropriate to do so before you offer your ideas. Always ask first if they are open to your input. If so, and you hear it in your imagination, let them know."
 The best way to endear yourself to everyone on a recording session is to act like a pro. Follow these 14 etiquette tips, and you'll encounter very few problems along the way. What are your tips?

To read additional excerpts from The Studio Musician's Handbook and my other books, check out the excerpts section of bobbyowsinski.com.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Could This Be The Future Of Acoustic Tiles?

Baux Acoustic Panels image
One of the things that's way to frequently overlooked in a listening environment is the acoustic properties of the room. As I've outlined in my Studio Builder's Handbook, just about anyone can improve their room without spending a huge amount of money if you're willing to construct some basic wooden frames. That said, here's a company from Sweden that's offering some highly decorative acoustic panels that make it even easier to treat your room and make it look good as well.

Baux makes a variety of what looks like either rockwool or tectum colored panels (they call it woodwool) that are very hip and appear to do a very good job of acoustic control and heat regulation. Another Swedish company called Offecct offers something similar, but with a different design ethic.

The only problem is actually getting these, since they don't seem to be widely distributed outside of Europe at the moment. Here's a brief video on the company and what they have available.




Sunday, April 6, 2014

New Music Gear Monday: Harrison 950mx Console

When you think of Harrison consoles you conjure up thoughts of film consoles and 1980s records, but the company has been making consoles all along, we just haven't seen them much in the States in recent years. Harrison has been strong in broadcast overseas, so the company has never gone away, just lowered its profile in the recording end a bit. Now it's back with a small format desk designed for the DAW studio with its new 950mx.

The Harrison 950mx is designed to be the analog front and back end to the signal path that so many engineers crave. It features the same sweet 3 band EQ from their legendary 32 series (the one that Bruce Swedien loves so much), a mix of mono and stereo modules, 4 aux buses and two stereo buses. The mix buses are unique in that one is transformer-based and the other is transformerless for different flavors, and they can be both summed during mixing for easy parallel compression. They also have built in bus compressors.

A 24 input version is standard, with additional sidecar buckets also available, as well as a line of matching studio furniture as well. Prices range from $24,000 to $45,000.

Harrison joins most other analog console companies in offering a smaller desk suited for today's studio, and it's prices and features are very comparable. Check out the video below or go to Harrison's 950mx webpage for more info.


Thursday, April 3, 2014

Fleetwood Mac "Rhiannon" Isolated Guitars And Vocals

Today we'll listen to the first hit from the reconstituted Fleetwood Mac  - "Rhiannon" from the big selling self-titled album that made the band a household word. Here's what to listen for.

1. The playing is extremely precise. This is one of the records that led to the modern production techniques of today, but remember this was done without a DAW. The precision came from playing or singing it over and over until you got it right (ah, the good old days!).

2. There are 4 guitars playing throughout: a low string guitar toward the left, the riff guitar towards the right, a harmony riff guitar and a strummed guitar. These enter in varying amounts throughout the song as needed keep it interesting. Take notice that all guitars have basically the same sound, yet they all work extremely well together.

3. The vocals are about perfect, and the doubled background vocals on each side are gorgeous. There's a nice long plate verb on them which also sounds great. You can see why this record was such a huge seller.

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You should follow me on Twitter and Facebook for daily news and updates on production and the music business.

Don't forget to check out my Music 3.0 blog for tips and tricks on navigating social media and the new music business.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

7 Reasons Why Your Song Isn't Making It

Top 20 Songs image
Songwriting isn't easy, and learning how to do it well takes time and experience. That said, there are some common song problems that crop up very frequently. Here's an excerpt from The Music Producer's Handbook that outlines the 7 most common reasons why a song just isn't quite cutting it.

"While this book is not a songwriting handbook, let me point out a number of common points that stick out when an artist or band that’s inexperienced at songwriting and/or arranging first play me their songs. Keep in mind that we’re talking about songs from any genre of music. No matter what it is, from rock to country to goth to rock-a-billy to alien space music, you want the song to be interesting to your particular audience, so beware that any of the following apply.

1. It's too long: One thing I hear a lot are songs that have sections that are way too long.  Two minute intros, three minute guitar solos and five minute outros are almost always boring. The idea is to keep everything interesting and to the point. You are always better off to have a section too short rather than too long. The only exception is if you can actually make a long section interesting, which usually takes a lot of arranging skill and even then still might not keep the audience’s attention. One really long outro that does work, for example, is the outro to Lynard Skynard’s classic Free Bird, with slight arrangement changes, kicks and accents every 16 bars. A great band, great performance and great arrangement keeps the listener’s attention to the very end, and that’s your goal after all.

2. There's no focus: Beginner songwriters often have no focus to their songs which means that the song meanders from chord to chord without an apparent structure and no clear distinction between sections. This is usually the result of not honing the song enough and thinking it’s finished way before it’s time. Sometimes there’s really a song in there if you peel it back a bit, but usually the only way to fix it is to go back to the drawing board for a major rewrite.

3. The choruses are weak: In a lot of songs I hear, it’s hard to tell when the verse stops and the chorus starts, they’re basically the same. An interesting chorus has something different from the verse. It may be just a little different, like adding background vocals or another instrument, or an accent or anticipation to the same chord changes and melody (like Robert Palmer’s 80’s hit Addicted To Love with the harmony vocals, or Stevie Ray Vaughn’s Crossfire with the horn hits and guitar fill, or Michael Jackson’s Don’t Stop ‘Till You Get Enough with the string pad and horn fill). Or it will be a lot different, like a different set of chord changes or melody combined with the arrangement changes previously mentioned like Vertigo by U2, This Kiss by Faith Hill, or our oft sited favorite Hotel California. Either way, something has to change in the chorus to lift the energy and keep the song memorable.

4. There's no bridge: Another common songwriting mistake is no bridge. In song writing, a bridge is an interlude that connects two parts of the song, building a harmonic connection between those parts by increasing or decreasing the tension. Normally you should have heard the verse at least twice. The bridge may then replace the 3rd verse or precede it. In the latter case, it delays an expected chorus. The chorus after the bridge is usually the last one and is often repeated in order to stress that it’s final. If and when you expect a verse or a chorus and you get something that is musically and lyrically different from both verse and chorus, it is most likely the bridge (Van Halen’s Panama comes to mind).

A bridge is important because it provides a basic quality found in all art forms - tension and release (in music going from loud to quiet or quiet to loud, in painting going from dark to light colors, in photography it would be light to shadows, etc.). Tension and release keeps things interesting. The bridge is sometimes the peak of the song where it’s at its loudest and most intense (check out the bridge of the Police’s Every Breath You Take), or it could be its quietest and least intense point (The Who’s Baba O’Riley where Pete Townsend sings “...It’s only teenage wasteland,” or The Doobie Brother’s Black Water). 

Almost every great song has a bridge, but there are the occasional exceptions. Songs that are based on the straight 12 bar blues frequently don’t have bridges but might use dynamics or arrangement to provide the tension and release. An example would be the ZZ Top classic Tush. There’s no bridge in the song, but the snare fill by itself after the last verse into the outro guitar solo supplies the release. Another would be the Guess Who/Lenny Kravitz song American Women where there’s just four bars of a different guitar rhythm and a stop.

And then there are the songs that can get by without a bridge by virtue of the fact of how they’re arranged or how long each section is. Fleetwood Mac’s Dreams has only two verses and three choruses but listen to how everything builds so that the peak of the song is the last chorus. 

5. The arrangement is poor: Even with great songwriters, this is the most common mistake I hear. Usually this means that the guitar or keyboard will play the same lick, chords or rhythm throughout the entire song. Now this can work perfectly well and might even be a great arrangement choice if another instrument plays a counter-line or rhythm, but normally it just means that the arrangement will be boring. You’ve got to make sure that the song stays interesting, and that means the addition of lines and fills. An example where a structure like this does work is American Women again.

6. There's no Intro/Outro hook: If we’re talking about modern popular music (not jazz or classical), most of the songs have an instrumental line (or hook) that you’ll hear at the beginning of the song, maybe again in the chorus, and any time the intro repeats in the song. A great example would be the opening guitar riff to The Stone’s Satisfaction or the piano in Coldplay’s Clocks. It seems that developing intro/outro hooks are one of the major jobs confronting a producer.

7. The song has no dynamics: Once again, one of the secrets to an interesting song is tension and release. In the case of dynamics, it’s getting loud then soft (or vice-verse). The song breathes in volume from loud to quiet, to louder to quiet, to louder to really loud and the intensity builds. That’s tension and release. Even if the song doesn’t use this song structure, you always have to consider the volume envelop of the song before recording it. It’ll sound better and make the arrangement a lot better right out of the box.

The next time you listen to a song, notice how something different happens in every section. Either an instrument is added or subtracted or is played a little differently, like on the drums between the high-hat and ride cymbals. Not only does this arrangement make the song naturally dynamic, but it make the song a lot more interesting as well. Compare the this outline to many of the big hit songs from the last 40 years or so and you’ll find they all use some variation of the above. If it’s worked so well before, it will work for you too."

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You should follow me on Twitter and Facebook for daily news and updates on production and the music business.

Don't forget to check out my Music 3.0 blog for tips and tricks on navigating social media and the new music business.

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