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Thursday, May 23, 2013

Chicago's "25 Or 6 To 4" Isolated Parts

A while back I posted the isolated vocals from Chicago's famous "25 Or 6 To 4," a perennial hit from their second album simply titled Chicago. Here's another shot of the same with more isolated parts, this time from the lead guitar, horns and vocals. Here are some things to listen for:

1. The horns are in stereo, and the stereo is spread out more than normal during some portions of the song.

2. The vocal reverb is pretty long, slightly delayed, and sounds really good.

3. The harmony vocals are incredibly tight, not only pitch-wise, but articulations as well. I would image the singers (Peter Cetera, Robert Lamm and Terry Kath) were more aware than most vocalists of their time about those things thanks to having horns in the band.

4. The sound of Terry Kath's guitar doesn't sound that good by itself as it seems distorted and muddy with little sustain, yet works great in the track (no shock there as it happens often). That said, it has some really nice short ambience on it.


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Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Bruce Swedien's Mic Closet

Bruce Swedien at his Harrison console image
Bruce Swedien at his Harrison console
Bruce Swedien is truly the Godfather of recording engineers, having recorded and mixed hits from everyone from Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Dizzy Gillespie to Barbra Streisand, Donna Summer and Michael Jackson. He's a mentor of mentors, as so many of his teachings are now handed down to a generation now just learning (his interview in The Mixing Engineer's Handbook is a standout).

Bruce is also a collector of microphones and will not use one he doesn't personally own, so he knows the exact condition of each. Recently he posted a bit about the mics he uses on his Facebook page, and I thought it worth a reprint.

A couple of things stick out to me.
1. His use of an Sennheiser 421 on kick. I know it's a studio standard for some reason (especially on toms), but I never could get it work on anything in a way that I liked.

2. His use of the relatively new Neumann M149, because it's

3. His synthesizer advice (under the M49) is a real gem.

Here's Bruce.

Constantly being asked about my mics, so here goes:

My microphone collection, spanning many of the best-known models in studio history, are my pride and joy. My microphones are prized possessions. To me, they are irreplaceable. Having my own mics that no-one else handles or uses assures a consistency in the sonics of my work that would otherwise be impossible.” 

“My first application would be for first and second violins. It’s really great mic for the classical approach for a string section.”
Hear it on... the first and second violins in Michael Jackson’s ‘Billie Jean’.

Altec 21B
“This is a fantastic mic, and I have four of them. It’s an omni condenser, and [for jazz recording] what you do is wrap the base of the mic connector in foam and put it in the bridge of the bass so that it sticks up and sits right under the fingerboard. It wouldn’t be my choice for orchestral sessions, though.”
Hear it on... Numerous recordings for Oscar Peterson between 1959 and 1965.

RCA 44BX & 77BX; AEA R44C
“[The 44BX] is a large, heavy mellow-sounding old mic with a great deal of proximity effect. This is very useful in reinforcing the low register of a vocalist’s range if that is desired. If I am asked to do a big band recording of mainly soft, lush songs, I almost always opt for ribbon mics for the brass. I suggest AEA R44C or RCA44BX on trumpets, and RCA 77DX on trombones. Ribbon mics are great for percussion too.”
Hear it on... trumpets and flugelhorns in Michael Jackson’s ‘Rock With You’ (at 0:54); percussion in Michael Jackson’s ‘Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough’.

Sennheiser MD421
“The kick is about the only place I use that mic, and I mike very closely. I frequently remove the bass drum’s front head, and the microphone is placed inside along with some padding to minimise resonances, vibrations, and rattles.”
Hear it on... the kick drum in Michael Jackson’s ‘Billie Jean’.

Shure SM57
“For the snare I love the Shure SM57. In the old days it wasn’t as consistent in manufacture as it is now. I must have eight of those mics, and they’re all just a teeny bit different, so I have one marked ‘snare drum’. But the ones I’ve bought recently are all almost identical. On the snare drum, I usually go for a single microphone. I’ve tried miking both top and bottom of the snare, but this can cause phasing problems.”
Hear it on... snare drum in Michael Jackson’s ‘Billie Jean’.

Telefunken 251
“These mics have a beautiful mellow quality, but possess an amazing degree of clarity in vocal recording. The 251 is not overly sibilant and is often my number one choice for solo vocals.”
Hear it on... Patti Austin in ‘Baby, Come To Me’, her duet with James Ingram.

Telefunken U47
“I still have one of the two U47s that I bought new in 1953, and will still frequently be first choice on lead vocal. This is a mic that can be used on a ballad or on a very aggressive rock track. It has a slight peak in its frequency response at around 7kHz, which gives it a feeling of natural presence. It also has a slight peak in the low end around 100Hz. This gives it a warm, rich sound. For Joe Williams, another mic would never have worked as well. I figured out that it was the mic for him when I heard him speak. After you’ve been doing this for as long as I have, you begin to have instinctive sonic reactions, and it saves a lot of time!”
Hear it on... Joe Williams in the Count Basie Band’s Just The Blues

Neumann M149
“I have a pair of these that Neumann made just for me, with consecutive serial numbers, and they sound so great. That’s what I use now in XY stereo on piano.”

Neumann M49
“This is very close sonically to the M149, but not quite the same. It’s a three-pattern mic and the first that Neumann came up with which had the pattern control on the power supply... you could have the mic in the air and still adjust the pattern. I use these for choir recording in a Blumlein pair, which is one of my favourite techniques because it’s very natural in a good room. When I was recording with Michael and Quincy I was given carte blanche to make the greatest soundfields I could, so what I also did was pick a really good room and record the synths through amps and speakers with a Blumlein pair to get the early reflections as part of the sonic field. The direct sound output of a synthesizer is very uninteresting, but this can make the sonic image fascinating. You have to be really careful, though, to open up the pre-delay of any reverb wide enough to not cover those early reflections. They mostly occur below 120ms, so with 120ms pre-delay those sounds remain intact and very lovely.”
Hear it on... Andre Crouch choir in Michael Jackson’s ‘Man In The Mirror’, ‘Keep The Faith’.

Neumann U67
“The predecessor to the U87, and an excellent microphone, but it’s not one of my real favourites, as a purely instinctive reaction. It’s just a little bit too technical perhaps, and it doesn’t have sufficient sonic character for me to use it on a lead vocal, for instance. It’s a good choice of microphone for violas and cellos, however, and the U87 can also work well in this application.”
Hear it on... violas and cellos in Michael Jackson’s ‘Billie Jean’.

I'll post a bit of Bruce's interview from The Mixing Engineer's Handbook in a future post.

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Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The Ins And Outs Of Subtractive Equalization

Offending frequency image
One of the most effective ways of equalizing is to use a method known as subtractive equalization. While the natural tendency is to boost when using the EQ, subtracting can be much more effective and sound better as well. In this excerpt from The Audio Mixing Bootcamp (a similar explanation can be found in latest 3rd edition of The Mixing Engineer's Handbook), you'll see just how easy and effective subtractive EQ can be.

"While it’s natural to believe that by adding some EQ here and there that you’ll make the instrument or vocal sound better, that’s not necessarily the case. There’s a very effective EQ technique called “subtractive equalization” that works by attenuating frequencies instead of boosting them. Many superstar mixers love this method because it makes the sound of the track more natural than if you boosted any of the frequencies. This is because every time you boost an EQ, there’s an slight amount of something called phase shift that’s added to the signal as a byproduct of the way an electronic equalizer works. By using subtractive equalization, you completely avoid this artifact. As a result, the track is better able to blend with the others.

Here’s how to use subtractive equalization:
1. Set the Boost/Cut control to a moderate level of cut (8 or 10 dB should work.)

2. Sweep through the frequencies until you find the frequency where the sound has the least amount of boxiness and the most definition.

3. Adjust the amount of cut to taste. Be aware that too much cut makes the sound thinner.

Alternately you can try a different approach.
1. Set the Boost/Cut control to a moderate level of boost (8 or 10 dB should work.)

2. Sweep through the frequencies until you find the frequency that really leaps out above all others. That’s the frequency to cut.

3. Adjust the amount of cut to taste. Be aware that too much cut makes the sound thinner.

There are two frequency ranges that are particularly effective when using subtractive equalization; from 400Hz to 600Hz and between 2k and 4kHz. The reason why 400Hz to 600Hz is chosen is because most directional microphones provide a natural boost in that frequency range because of the proximity effect brought about by miking an instrument or voice up close. Likewise, many mics that are known as good vocal mics have a presence boost between 2k and 4kHz. Cutting those frequencies a few dB (more or less as needed) can make the track sound much more natural than if you were to try to boost other frequencies instead.

These two problem areas usually crop up when you’re recording everything with the same microphone, since there’s a buildup in the those frequency areas as more and more instruments are recorded. By cutting a few dB from these frequency ranges you’ll find that the instruments sit better in the mix without every having to add as much EQ."

To read additional excerpts from this and other books, go to


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Monday, May 20, 2013

My Top 10 Compressors

Universal Audio 1176s image
I was recently intrigued by a really good article on Beatport's Attack blog called "Top 20 Best Compressors Of All Time." Since the bog is primarily dedicated to electronic music, you can probably dismiss some of its seemingly dubious entries to the way they're used creating that type of music. The article did get me thinking about the top 10 compressors that I like though, so I thought I'd do my own version.

Although the other list was primarily hardware compressors, this list is a combination, since most of us live in a DAW world these days. Okay, here we go.

1. Universal Audio 1176: I don't care which version you use, the 1176 is about as close to a desert island compressor as you'll get due to its versatility. I like to use it on kick, snare, guitars, bass, vocals - just about anything. It can be aggressive sounding, but nothing pulls an instrument out of a mix in the same way.

2. Teletronix/Universal Audio LA-2A: Once again, I don't care which version of the hardware or software you use, the LA-2A has a sound and feel all its own. It can work pretty well on most instruments, but stands out for vocals, and is dead easy to use. I never use too much, as I like the sound of 2 to 3 dB in most situations.

3. Universal Audio LA-3: Perhaps the ultimate electric guitar compressor, I've used it successfully on piano and keyboards as well. Nothing works quite the same with electric guitars in a mix.

4. Fairchild 660/670: When it comes to buss compression, the Fairchild 670 stands is king of the hill for many kinds of music (especially retro or acoustic). It just adds a glue and warmth that you have trouble getting any other way. Just a little bit (a couple of dB) works a lot better than a whole lot. The 660 is the mono version of the more widely known 670, and was the sound you heard on many of The Beatle records (Ringo's drums, for instance).

5. SSL Buss Compressor: This is the sound that made so many pop and rock records in the 80s and 90s, and it still works great in those genres. I once worked in a studio that had the buss compressor on their 9k labeled as "The Good Button." Why? Because no matter how your mix sounded, once the SSL buss compressor was engaged, it sounded better.

6. Waves L1: You can't beat a classic and the Waves L1 is probably the first software limiter that worked so well that it was abused. If used correctly, few limiters are as capable of controlling the peaks of a mix. If used badly, it can suck the life out of a mix faster than you can say "hypercompression."

7. Empirical Labs EL8 Distressor: Few modern compressors have caught on so widely as the Distressor, and that's because there are few that are as versatile. I like to track with it on vocals to keep the peaks under control, but there are few compressors that are as effective on room mics, especially when it's set to "Nuke."

8. dbx 160: I just love the 160s; any of them. For a punchy drum sound, you can't beat the hardware 160X's (or even the A model). In software, the UAD 160 sounds great. My favorite for aggressive kick and snare, but it will pull a piano or acoustic guitar up front as well.

9. Neve 33609: This is another case of a buss compressor that really works well, especially if you only need a little to tighten up the bottom. It's not always my first choice, but it usually works in a situation when the previously mentioned ones don't.

10. FMR Audio RNC: The Really Nice Compress (RNC) is a great little hardware unit that provides tremendous bang for buck. I don't feel that it necessarily excels at any one thing, but it does work well in most situations. For a home studio with not a lot of money to burn, the stereo RNC (and it's companion RNL -Really Nice Limiter) is a must-have.

Honorable Mention. Pro Tools Native Digirack Compressor/Limiter: I personally think this is one of the most versatile compressors that you can find. It can sound transparent and it can sound aggressive, and since it doesn't take up much in the way of systems resources, you can use a lot of them in a big mix. Don't overlook it.

Once again, these are my personal opinions because these are what I always use. There's lots of other great ones out there (especially in software), but I've come to rely on these units because I know what they'll do in most situations.

Which are your favorites?

By the way, check this out for a good lesson on compressor setup.


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Sunday, May 19, 2013

New Music Gear Monday: Rupert Neve 5060 Centerpiece

Desktop mixers and summing amplifiers are all the rage these days and rightfully so. We live in a DAW world and well over 90% of all studio music mixing is done in-the-box. We've seen SSL and AMS-Neve recently introduce their own products in this category, but a new one from Rupert Neve Designs (not to be confused with AMS-Neve, his old company) is something completely different.

The Rupert Neve 5060 Centerpiece is basically a 24 channel summing amp with a monitor controller built in. What makes it unique is that it also has 4 stereo inputs each controllable by a fader as well as a master fader. Add a USB/MIDI transport section, and RND's totally unique Texture color control and the 5060 Centerpiece becomes a unit different from anything else on the market. Retail price is $7995. Check out this video for some of the details.


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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.


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