Thursday, May 24, 2012

How Stereo Drum Recording Started

George Massenburg image from Bobby Owsinski's Big Picture production blog
We take stereo drum recording for granted these days, but you have to remember that for a great many years, the drums were always recorded in mono. The popular miking method at the time was just an overhead mic and another on the kick drum, and that was it.

But stereo drum recording came about in a most unusual way. Here's how the legendary engineer George Massenburg tells it in the interview section of The Mixing Engineer's Handbook.
"I’ve been working with Glyn Johns, and Glyn is a master of the accidental big airy drums, of course with Led Zeppelin. It’s a great story.  
I was having dinner with Glyn and Doug Sax (mastering engineer extraordinaire) one night, and he was telling us about the first Led Zeppelin record and how they set up the drums in mono. They had one 67 right over the snare, but they always needed a little bit more floor tom, so he stuck a mic at elbow level, kind of off by the floor tom, pointing into the snare.  
After he finished the track, he grabbed the mic and put it on the guitar and panned it. When he put it back on drums, he forgot to pan it back. “Oh, that sounds great. I wonder what happens if I take the overhead and pan it right?” 
And Doug and I looked at each other and said, “You got stereo drum miking by accident?” And in that case he became well known for that big airy Led Zeppelin and The Who sound. It was a different sound than what was being done in New York, which was almost all mono, or California, which was a spaced-pairs kind of thing. The earliest stereo that I knew didn’t even include stereo drums." 
Glyn's Led Zep 3 mic stereo drum method still works today. Give it a try sometime. You might really like what you hear.

For more book excerpts from The Mixing Engineer's Handbook and my other books, go to my website.

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Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Virgin's Airport Studio

Let's say your flying back to the US and have a layover at Heathrow Airport in London and you have a song that you just can't wait to record or edit. Of course you can get your laptop or iPad out with a set of headphones, but sometimes you just have to get on a full Pro Tools X system to get some real work done.

Now there's a solution. Virgin Atlantic recently installed a studio "pod" in their Upper Class Lounge at Terminal 3 at Heathrow. The studio is aimed at the many music celebrities that regularly fly from London to the US, as is designed much like one of their sleeper pods found in Virgin's upper class cabins.

The downside is that there's only one of them, so you might have to wait your turn, and that they really don't have a traditional studio manager or tech. The idea is that if you're able to fly Virgin Upper Class, you probably know your way around PT X already.

The first band to use the suite was aptly named Cloud, who used it to edit their first single.

Without seeing it for myself, I can't say whether this is a good idea or if it's implemented well, but it is intriguing. With the number of times that I've tried to get some work done under a deadline while traveling, I could definitely have used it.

Anyone get a look at this or use it yet?

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Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Nikki Manaj "Super Bass" Song Analysis

Will W. requested a song analysis for Nicki Manaj's "Super Bass," the 5th single from her debut album Pink Friday. The song is interesting because it draws from R&B, hip hop, and electronic music, fusing them into the perfect pop tune. The song made it to #3 on the Billboard charts, but it turned out to be a much bigger online hit, with the video getting over 250 million views. Like all song analysis, we'll look at the song itself, the arrangement, the sound and the production.

The Song
"Super Bass" is a pretty straight-forward pop song with the standard 3 sections - verse, chorus and bridge. The form looks like this:

Intro, Verse, Chorus, Verse, Chorus, Bridge, Chorus

No section is repeated and the song has a hard ending, which is unusual for a pop song. But the most unusual aspect of the song form is that there's a breakdown half-way during the chorus for 4 bars, then the hook is repeated for the last 4.

There won't be any awards won for the lyrics of this song, but pop songs are usually sold on their hooks, not their lyrics, and "Super Bass" has a good one.

The Arrangement
The arrangement of "Super Bass" is different than most pop songs. The song begins with a short intro where a chorused electric guitar with an autofilter (sort of an automatic wah that opens and closes with the dynamics of the playing) plays a line (which is never heard again in the song, by the way) over a low piano pad, a high arpeggiated string part and percussion. Halfway through Nicki enters with the vocals. The song then breaks down to an electric piano pad, tuned percussion, and halfway through, synth bass. Throughout the song, claps are used instead of a snare drum for the song's pulse.

For the chorus, Nicki's voice is doubled and spread to slightly to the left and right, the bass enters playing quarter notes, and the 1/8th note arpeggiated string line plays again. The claps are doubled while the kick plays a 4 on the floor pattern for the first 4 bars, then plays a "boom daboom" pattern for the rest of the section..

The second verse is identical with the first except for the arpeggiated strings that enter half-way through the verse. The second chorus is identical to the first.

Then the bridge starts with a breakdown that features a 1/16th note synth over a lower pad. The claps enter on the 3rd bar, and the kick and 1/4 note arpeggiated strings at bar 5 and remain in the song for the rest of the section.

The last chorus is identical to the first.

The arrangement elements look like this:

  * The Foundation: bass synth, kick, high hat and claps

  * The Rhythm:  the tuned percussion, arpeggiated synths

  * The Pad: synth pads, synth bass and electric piano

  *The Lead: lead vocals, guitar in the intro

  * The Fills: Background vocals in the 2nd verse

Another interesting point is that "Super Bass" is one of the few songs where the choruses remain identical throughout the song. Usually additional instruments enter over the course of the song, making the last one much bigger sounding than the first, but that's not the case here.

The Sound
"Super Bass" has a very modern layered mix, meaning that the mix elements are put into different environments with the help of effects like reverb and delay. The stereo electric piano (which plays throughout the song) is pretty dry as is the high hat, but most other mix elements have some sort of an effect, which pushes them further back in the mix depth-wise. The vocal has both a long reverb and a fairly long timed delay you can't hear during the verses and choruses, but which is very apparent during the bridge. The arpeggiated strings seem to have a different timed delay on them as well.

The song is very compressed, although most of it does sound pretty natural as you don't hear any pumping or breathing or compressor artifacts, especially in the vocal. Although most mixers and mastering engineers compress a pop song as standard operating procedure these days in order to make it as loud as possible, I bet "Super Bass" would sound a lot better with a little more natural dynamics, although there probably isn't much to begin with considering that all the musical elements except the vocals, intro guitar sound and maybe the electric piano sound programmed.

The Production
This is a song made for Top 40 radio. It's catchy, with a pretty good hook, but oddly, it never settles into a groove. At the beginning of every chorus when the kick begins with a 4 on the floor, it begins to groove, only to deviate from it after 4 bars. This is highly unusual for any Top 40 hit, especially one aimed at the dance community, yet here it is, still a hit.

Like with most hits, there's a lot more going on than meets the ear. Listen to the tuned percussion and how it pushes the song along. Listen to the electric piano and how it subtly ties the song together. Listen to the arpeggiated strings in the chorus. Listen to the cymbal swells at the beginning of the song and the end of the bridge. The way these elements work in the the song is how a rather simple tune becomes a hit.

Send me your song requests!


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Monday, May 21, 2012

Timing Reverbs To The Track

reverb image from Bobby Owsinski's Big Picture production blog
Since my post last week on timing delays to the pulse of the track, I received a number of requests about how to do the same with reverbs. Why would you want to time the verb to the track? Because it adds depth without sticking out and makes the mix seem more polished.

Here's what to do to time the decay:

Trigger the reverb by adding it to the snare and adjusting the decay parameter so that the decay just dies by the next snare hit. The idea is to make the decay “breathe” with the track. You can use this decay time for the other reverbs, but you'll probably have to adjust them slightly because the decay response of every reverb or reverb setting (like hall, plate, chamber, room) is a little different.

Here's what to do to time the predelay:

Predelay is the slight delaying of the reverb entrance after the source signal. The reason to use it is  so that the source signal doesn't sound washed out in ambience since you hear it's attack, then the reverb, so there's more definition as a result.

The same way that you determined the delay time for the track (check this post out for that) will give you the timing for the predelay. The difference is that you usually need a smaller increment than you might've used for a delay, and it's usually under 100 milliseconds (normally way under).

For instance, if you determined that a suitable 1/16th note delay time is 150 milliseconds, cut it in half (75 ms), then cut it in half again (37.5 ms), and maybe even in half again (19 ms, rounding it off). That's probably going to be the best timing, but don't be afraid to try longer or shorter variations.

Usually predelay in the 20 to 40 ms range works best. If in doubt or you don't won't to time it, just start with 20 ms as a good compromise.

Of these 2 parameters, the predelay is probably the most important in that the reverb seems more a part of the track when it's timed. If you really want the reverb to stick out a bit, just randomly select a predelay time.

That's how it's done. If you want more info on using effects, check out The Mixing Engineer's Handbook, or The Audio Mixing Bootcamp book or video course from Lynda.com.
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Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Feds Threaten Gibson And Artists Again

Gibson logo image file from Bobby Owsinski's Big Picture production blog
Last year I reported about how the US Department of Justice and the US Fish And Wildlife Service raided Gibson Guitars not once, but twice on the grounds that the company was using protected wood from overseas in the making of their guitars (you can read about it here, here, here and here). During the raids, not only were pallets of wood confiscated, but computers containing information about the wood as well.

The Justice Department claimed that Gibson somehow violated the 112 year old Lacey Act, which was originally instituted to regulate the trade in bird feathers for hats, but was amended in 2008 to include wood and plants, with the express intent of protecting certain species of wood from being over-harvested. Gibson claimed that any exotic foreign wood that they use in the creation of instruments came from certified Forest Stewardship suppliers, so there was never a violation.

After Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander got involved, it seemed like everything was smoothed over; until now.

It seems that word has recently come down from the Justice Department that it's planning to raid summer concerts in order to seize what they deem to be illegal guitars made from banned tone woods. Another possibility is that guitars could be seized from musicians returning from out of the country tours at the border by Customs agents.

The governments actions seem to make no sense on so many levels.

1) Gibson seems to have presented adequate proof that the tone woods used were legally sourced.

2) Even if that's not the case, seizing an instrument from an end user that's unknowingly paid a good deal money in a purchase without any compensation is just wrong. Seize the guitars at the factory if you must, but don't treat the end users as criminals too.

3) Expand that to the concert scene. Imagine going to see an act that suddenly had their favorite instrument confiscated by the government. That's not going to help their performance any; one that you paid a lot of money to see.

4) It's an election year. This action can't possibly make many many friends for the administration, and will most certainly alienate a number of solid constituencies.

Come on, Justice Department. Let's concentrate on more important things. Everyone is for protecting endangered forests, but there's got to be a better way than this.

Thanks to Rob Carty for the heads-up on this story. You can read more about it here.

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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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