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Thursday, March 22, 2012

Bob Ludwig On Mastering For Earbuds

Bob Ludwig at console image from Bobby Owsinski's Big Picture production blog
In the world of audio mastering, there's none more esteemed than Bob Ludwig. Bob was a classically trained trumpet player before becoming a mastering engineer for producer Phil Ramone's A&R Recording, then eventually worked his way up to chief engineer at Masterdisk. In 1993 he built his own Gateway Mastering in Portland, Maine, which even though it's not in a main media center, still has a who's-who list of celebrity clients.

Recently Bob did an interview with the Huffington Post regarding separate "iPod mixes" and the loudness wars. You can read the entire interview here, as well as find the link for the second part of the interview.
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"Given how many people listen to music on portable digital players, do you find that producers are mixing for earbuds? Is it common to find an "iPod mix" that you master separately?
Bob Ludwig: No it isn't. Dr. Floyd Toole (of Harman International, the makers of JBL speakers) showed that averaging all the different consumer speakers (some bright, some with too much bass or midrange etc.) one ends up with a very flat curve which is empirical proof that mastering with an extremely accurate and flat playback system yields a product that sounds correct on more systems.

Like speakers, earbuds run the gamut from the old stock Apple earbuds that sounded tinny and lacking warmth to top-of-the-line Shure earbuds that are extremely accurate, to "hip-hop" earbuds that are overly bass heavy. One must master to sound as good as possible on all systems.

Almost all pop mixes are mixed with the bass and kick drum panned to the center which is proper as many people will be listening on boom boxes which have limited power and having a powerful center channel bass available to both speakers is ideal. Very early recordings of The Rolling Stones and The Beatles (to name two groups) were totally intended for mono and were recorded on 2-channel or 3-channel tape decks solely for creating a mono-only mix. When stereo became popular these early multi-track tapes were re-purposed for stereo and the bass and kick drum were typically locked into either the right or left channel.

With earbuds and headphones, this is very unnatural sounding and sometimes it is decided to filter the low bass into the center by mono-ing the signal somewhat. This sounds much better. This is definitely a decision based on current widespread use of earbuds, and it remains an important philosophical question when doing re-issues of old recordings with this problem.

Can you explain how the "loudness" of a mix becomes a factor in mastering? Can you explain compression and how it affects you at the mastering stage?
Bob Ludwig: Compression uses a piece of hardware or software plug in which either enhances or most often limits the dynamic range of the music being fed into it. Compression is crucial to pop music. Live pop music is almost always performed at hearing damaging levels, way above the 85dB SPL OSHA threshold for start of possible hearing loss. In order for this immense power to be even somewhat realistically reproduced on consumer systems the pop sound pipeline must be compressed so that musically the performance has the extra energy that the live performance had. For pop music, this translates as a very musical thing. ("The Loudness Wars" video illustrates.)

This problem starts from the fact that human beings, when hearing two examples of the exact same musical program but with one turned up only +0.5 or 1dB, almost all listeners who don't know exactly what they are hearing choose the louder one as "sounding best." Fair enough.

So through the years, the louder example is eclipsed by a yet louder example winning the hearts and minds of the artist, the engineer and the A&R person. At some point, the music is so loud and unnaturally compressed that the aural assault on the ear, while very impressively loud, has sucked the life out of the music and makes the listener subconsciously not want to hear the music again.
At an Audio Engineering Society workshop I was recently in about loudness, Susan Rogers from Berklee College talked about the hair cells in our ears that receive music and she pointed out that loud compressed music does not "change" as much as dynamic music and notes that "we habituate to a stimulus if it stops changing. Change 'wakes up' certain cells that have stopped firing. This is cognitively efficient and therefore automatic."

In other words, there are very physical reasons why too much compression turns off our music receptors. Every playback system ever manufactured comes with a playback level control. If one is listening to an album, one should be able to turn that control anywhere you want and the absolute level on the CD should not make a difference. Another place level on a CD does not make the difference one would think is on radio broadcast. It can be shown that in general, loud CDs sound worse and less powerful on commercial FM radio than a CD with a moderate level that lets the radio station compressors handle the loudness problem. Non-classical radio station compressors make soft things loud and loud things soft.

Two areas where producers get upset about not having enough level is the iTunes Shuffle, or even comparing songs on the iTunes software itself, and that moment at the radio station where the PD is going through the week's new releases and deciding which two or three songs will be added to his playlist. Here, sometimes having a little extra level can make a lesser song seem a little more impressive, at least at first listen.

A great example of a contemporary recording that has full dynamic range is the Guns N' Roses Chinese Democracy CD where Axl Rose wanted all the textures of the original mixes to come through and he got his wish! A good example of one of the loudest most distorted CDs is the Metallica Death Magnetic CD where apparently 10,000 fans signed a web petition to have the album remixed because they got to hear how good it sounded on Guitar Hero which did not have all the digital limiters the final CD mix had."

Read more of the interview here. You can also read an interview excerpt that Bob did for The Audio Mastering Handbook here.
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Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Fun "We Are Young" Song Analysis

Here's an analysis of a song by Fun that's currently #1 on the Ultimate Chart and a former #1 on the Bilboard singles chart called "We Are Young." The band has the distinction of being the first multi-member rock band to have a #1 in over a decade. As with all song analysis, we'll look at the song form, the arrangement, the sound and the production.

The Song
"We Are Young" is a very unusual song in that it has two completely different feels. The song begins with one feel, then abruptly changes to another for the remainder of the tune. Although I'm sure other hits have done this over the last 60 years or so, I can't remember one. The form looks like this:

Intro, Verse, B section, Chorus (feel change), Verse, Chorus, Bridge, Chorus, End

There's only a single B section in the song and it sets up the chorus and feel change. The song is one of the few hits these days that actually have a real ending instead of a fade, which is nice for a change.

The Arrangement
The arrangement is more interesting for the instruments that are subtracted rather than what's introduced along the way. The songs starts with an intro of drums that suggests the feel that will come later in the song, then gives way to piano and vocal. During the second half of the first verse, the piano goes from playing whole note chords ("footballs" as we call them in the studio biz) to simple arpeggios. When the chorus enters, the vocals are doubled, which continues until the end of the song. Also notice the harmony vocals that happen on the last line of at the end of the chorus every time.

  * The Foundation: Drums and bass

  * The Pad: Synth and organ in chorus, strings on verse

  * The Rhythm: Piano playing 8th notes

  * The Lead: Vocal (doesn't singer Nate Ruess sound like Kevin Cronin of REO Speedwagon?)

  * The Fills: None

The Sound
This is a rather sparse sounding song that gets pretty dense sounding after the feel change. There's not a lot of effects layering as most musical elements have either natural room ambience or a short room verb for a little bit of space. It's meant to be in-your-face and personal in the beginning and the end, and that's exactly what happens.

The floor tom sound (maybe it's typmani) is huge and takes up a lot of sonic space, as a result, the bass is pretty undefined, but that's okay because it does the job.

The Production
What keeps this song interesting is the use of dynamics. The song begins quietly, then gets big with the feel change and the first chorus and basically stays that way until the last chorus, when it gets much sparser, and finally ends with just the vocal and a piano. Also, the feel change really makes the song what it is, while the bridge is also different because it features a new lead vocalist, Janelle Monae. It's not something that you expect, and you keep thinking that it will go back to the original feel in the beginning, but it never happens. In fact, "We Are Young" is an all around great example of maintaining listener interest during the course of a song.



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Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Peavey Autotune Guitar

Recently I posted an article about the creation of the Auto-Tune process and about how it's become a crutch for a lot of singers and producers, as well as an all-too overused effect. But this might actually be a great use for the process. I don't know how I overlooked this, but Peavey introduced the AT-200 Auto-Tune guitar at the most recent NAMM show.

When I first heard about an auto-tune guitar, I was very skeptical, but after watching the demo, I must admit that I'm intrigued. If it can get you an always in-tune and intonated instrument, I can definitely see uses for it. Plus, there doesn't seem to be any latency that would impede using it, and it even responds to bends and makes alternate tunings a snap.

Check out the video and tell me what you think.



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Help support this blog. Any purchases made through our Amazon links help support this website with no cost to you.


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Monday, March 19, 2012

Ken Scott On The Jeff Beck Group

Abbey Road To Ziggy Stardust book cover from Bobby Owsinski's Big Picture production blog
It's time for the first excerpt from Abbey Road To Ziggy Stardust, the upcoming autobiography by legendary producer/engineer Ken Scott, co-written by yours truly. This excerpt, which comes from a chapter about the other EMI artists he worked with besides The Beatles, is about Ken working with a more or less unknown Jeff Beck Group.

You can read more about the book as well as a chapter summary at AbbeytoZiggy.com.

By the way, if you're in Los Angeles, you can hear a lot more stories from Ken as he'll be giving one of his great presentations at Musicians Institute at 7Pm this Tuesday the 20th. It's free and all are welcome, but please RSVP on the event website.
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"Not too long after Magical Mystery Tour, I was assigned to do the first Jeff Beck Group album Truth, which featured soon to be superstars Rod Stewart on vocals and soon to be Faces and Rolling Stones guitarist Ron Wood on bass. They weren’t known at that point, but there was a great atmosphere and everything went rather smoothly, taking only about a week and a half, since most of it was recorded live. 

I was blown away by Jeff, of course, and the majority of Rod Stewart’s vocals were live and ended up on the master. He liked to use a hand-held mic so we accommodated him by wrapping a KM-54 with a lot of sponge to reduce the handling noise. The song “Morning Dew” also marked the first time I ever recorded bagpipes. I had no idea how to mic them up and I still can’t remember how I did it. I think I just listened around until I found were the sound came out and put the mic there.


During the first session when we were getting drum sounds, I remember thinking how good they sounded, only to discover after the fact that the drum mics had been moved from my standard positioning. And not just a little either. Someone moved the snare mic so that it was aiming at the shell instead of the head, which I never would have done. I have no idea if the mics were moved purposely or not, although I think they probably were since everything was placed a little too perfectly for it to be an accident. I left them placed where they were. It sounded fine, so why change a good thing?

Truth was supposedly produced by Mickie Most, who had previously produced hits for The Animals, Donovan, Herman’s Hermits and Suzi Quatro, but in this case he only came along for the mixes. The person that was there for most of the recording was one Peter Grant, who was Mickie’s assistant at the time. Peter later went on to become the high-powered manager of Led Zeppelin, but he didn’t have much to say in the producer’s role as he was there mostly to just look after the band. Many critics have gone on to say that the sound of Led Zeppelin was mainly derived from that particular Jeff Beck album, but it’s debatable whether Peter actually had anything to do with it."

You can preorder the book at AbbeytoZiggy.com.
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Help support this blog. Any purchases made through our Amazon links help support this website with no cost to you.


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


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Sunday, March 18, 2012

The World's Most Important Drum Loop

Depending upon which musical world you live in, you may or may not know about a short 5.2 second drum loop that has spawned several musical subcultures, from hip hop to jungle to hardcore techno to drum and bass.

The loop is what's knows as the "Amen Break," and comes from a short drum break on the B side of a 1969 record by funk band The Winstons. The song is called "Amen, Brother" and the drummer was Gregory Cylvester "G.C." Coleman. The break has been used on everything from NWA's "Straight Outta Compton," to Oasis "D'You Know What I Mean" to Nine Inch Nail's "The Perfect Drug," to Lupe Fiasco's "Streets On Fire" to car commercials and television shows The Amazing Race and Futurama.

As these things frequently go, neither the drummer, the band nor the songwriter (Richard Spencer) has ever received any royalties or clearance fees, despite the fact that the influence of this short break has had a profound effect on music of the last 30 years.

Take a look at this brief history of the Amen Break, and you'll instantly recognize it.



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Help support this blog. Any purchases made through our Amazon links help support this website with no cost to you.


You should follow me on Twitter 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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