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Thursday, September 20, 2012

A Vocal Recording Checklist

Vocalist image from Bobby Owsinski's Big Picture music production blog
Here's a series of things to check before recording a vocal that I culled from the Recording Engineer's Handbook and The Music Producer's Handbook. They cover everything from mic position to signal path to singer comfort, but you'll find if you following them you should have a pretty good session (providing that you have a great vocalist, of course).

  •  Did you select the correct mic for the singer’s voice? Choose a mic with a lot of body for a thin voice and one with enhanced high end for a dark voice. 
  • Did you select the correct microphone preamp?  Certain mics come alive when they’re paired with the right preamp. Also, a certain mic/preamp combination can be just the right color for a vocal.  Experiment.
  • Did you select the correct microphone pickup pattern? Not every vocal needs to be recorded with a cardioid pattern. An omni pattern will cut down on proximity effect and a figure 8 can help with isolation from speakers or other instruments.
  • Is proximity effect wanted or needed? Remember that the closer you get to a cardioid mic, the more the low end will become exaggerated. This could make the vocal too big for the track. Try the mic on omni if you really need to get a close and intimate sound.
  • Is the singer the correct distance away? Too far away and you’ll hear more room, which could change the vocal sound or take away the intimacy. Too close and the vocal might sound too big or too close due to the proximity effect of a cardioid mic. If the singer is singing softly and breathy, keep the singer close to the mic. If the singer is shouting, screaming, or just plain loud, back the singer off the mic from two to three feet.
  • Is the singer drifting off-axis? Some vocalists drift around the room and off-axis of the mic if they feel it’s too far away.  Put up a dummy mic that they can get close to so they can feel anchored. This also helps when putting up different mics to determine which one works best for the vocalist.
  • Is the singer popping the mic? Place the mic at eye level and point it down at the singers mouth, turn the mic slightly off-axis, switch the pattern to omni, back the singer off the mic until the pops disappear or use a pop screen.
  • Would a handheld mic work better? Some singers aren’t comfortable unless they feel like they’re on stage. Give them an SM 58 and don’t worry about the sound. A great performance beats a great sound any day (and a 58 isn’t all that bad combined with the right preamp).
  • Are you limiting the signal? Just a few dB of limiting can help keep the vocal under control and stop overloading the signal chain. Don’t use software compressor/limiters because of the latency.
  • Is the headphone mix at the correct level? The phone mix is crucial to a good performance. If the track is too loud, the vocalist may sing too hard which might not be the sound you want. He may also sing sharp as a result. If the track is too soft, the singer may not sing aggressive enough.
  • Is the ambience conducive to a good vocal?  Most singers like the light down low when they sing.
For additional tips and book excerpts go to the excerpt section of


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Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Get That Vintage Sound From Fungi

Fungi image from Bobby Owsinski's Big Picture music production blog
Trying to determine why a vintage instruments sounds better than one recently made has gone back seemingly forever, with almost every violin maker wondering why a Stradivarius sounds the way it does to every guitarist wondering why that 1955 Martin beats a new one from the factory.

It's long been known that as an instrument ages it purges the moisture within, making it lighter in the process. Also, the more it's played, the more it begins to resonant as the vibrations are set in the wood (you can get more detail from The Ultimate Guitar Tone Handbook). But there's more to it than that, as any vintage collector will tell you. There are some vintage instruments that just sing while others aren't on the same level.

Now a team at the Center for Molecular Medicine in Berlin believes they've found the answer - fungi. After analyzing wood from various vintages of violins, Professor Francis Schwarze discovered that the one thing that everyone has been overlooking all these years is the fact that back in the Stradivarius' day, two species of fungi (think mushrooms) were normally found in the wood, and it decayed it in such a way that an instrument's tonal properties improved. The fungi reduce the density of the wood (just like the moisture being naturally purged) and increased the speed that the sound traveled through it. The interesting by-product is that the wood still remained as strong as ever.

So why don't we have natural wood fungi today? Most wood today is treated with an ethylene oxide gas before it's processed, which instantly kill all the fungi.

To put it to the test, the team exposed a new violin to the two fungi for a period of 9 months and then held a blind test against a Stradivarius. Although a test like this is always subjective, a panel of experts were fooled into thinking that the new violin was also a Strad.

Will this work on acoustic guitars as well? Maybe. Violins are typically made out of spruce and sycamore, and acoustic guitars typically use spruce for the tops, so it seems like an exposure to fungi might work (more on acoustic guitar woods in this post). Any takers out there?


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Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Make Your Videos More Interesting With The L-Cut

A few years ago I wrote a book called The Musician's Video Handbook which outlined the many things that I learned while producing music television shows like Guitar Universe and Desert Island Music (check out my YouTube channel to see some segments). In the book I tried to show some of the common techniques used by Hollywood producers, directors and camermen to make any type of video that an artist or band might need (music, concert, interview, EPK) more professional looking.

Recently I came across a video on reelseo (of all places) that outlines a well-used story telling technique called an L-cut, which is the shape that the edit makes on your video editing timeline. What it means is that the video from a new clip begins to play over the audio from a previous clip, like in the case where you might hear the end of the dialog from an interview from the previous scene but see the band on stage. There's also an opposite of this called a J-cut where you hear the audio from the next clip while you see the video from the previous one.

While these cuts won't help you too much in a music video where there's music over the top, they can make any interview footage seem to move a lot faster and feel more professional. Here's the video that shows how it's done.


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Monday, September 17, 2012

The New Bronze Music Delivery Format

Bronze Format image from Bobby Owsinski's Music 3.0 blog
I rarely cross-post to this blog from by Music 3.0 music industry blog, but I thought that this topic is worth it. It's about a new online music delivery format called Bronze that's pretty interesting. Is it "take over the world" interesting? Probably not, but I think that there will be a place for it in many genres of music in the future.

Why? I'm glad you asked. Bronze is the first format that can alter the mix of a song with each playback. It's non-interactive, so the user has nothing to do with how it's played back, but each listen is different, just like a live performance.

Supposedly the chance of hearing the same version twice is about the same as winning the lottery, and it's not possible to freeze any version to listen to it again. Just like a live performance, once it's gone, it's gone forever. That said, it's possible for an artist to continue to update a song with new tracks long after it's been released. Considering that some of the artist's that I've worked with in the past can never let go of a song, this could certainly cut down their overall output of songs.

Regardless of if you like a song or not, Bronze is probably better suited for some musical genres than others (think electronic music). As a mixer, I'm pretty suspicious of the format, since what we do is to try to freeze a moment in time, but as a consumer, I'm very intrigued. A great mixer can bring certain things to the table that makes it a hit that you might not have in another mix. On the other hand, if you really dig a song, you'd probably want to listen to it over and over to see how it would change every time. That said, that means you'd probably not want to look for new music as much, since the music you already know is somewhat new every time.

That said, as a business, Bronze probably doesn't make much sense. A record label sells a frozen archive as a product, so this wouldn't appeal to them. And legally, how to you copyright a product  that's not a fixed recording?

But the idea of Bronze is pretty cool in that it's a unique use of existing technology. Now let's see if anyone will play along. The first song released in the format is by ex-Golden Silvers frontman Gwilym Gold called "Flesh Freeze." Check it out on the website.

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

Sunday, September 16, 2012

New Musical Instrument Monday: Auria iPad DAW

Auria iPad DAW app image from Bobby Owsinski's Big Picture blog
For those of you who love your iPad and want to do more actual audio work on it, here's an amazing digital audio workstation app by WaveMachine Labs called Auria. It's easy to take a mere iPad app lightly when it comes to some heavy duty audio lifting, but Auria can play back up to 48 mono or stereo channels at up to 96kHz/24 bit, and can record up to 24 tracks at the same time, as well as having a feature list that can rival many widely used DAWs.

The Auria DAW has both a full channel strip and master strip package designed by the clever guys at PSP Audioware (thanks, Antoni, for turning me on to this gem). It's excellent in both look and function, and sounds great, just like all PSP plugins. I only wish that they were available as a plugin for Pro Tools as well.

But the Auria is not only a full-on mixer, it's an editor too, just like your favorite computer-based DAW. It's a little clunkier to do with your finger and a touch screen, but you can always use an Apple wireless mouse for more precision if needed.

The Auria iPad DAW is available from the App Store for only $49. There's a variety of approved interfaces that work with it (some a little easier than others), but just about anything will work as long as it works with Core Audio and doesn't require a driver.

Check out the video.


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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