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Thursday, July 24, 2014

Van Halen "Beautiful Girls" Isolated Bass And Drums

There's noting like listening to a great rhythm section and the original Van Halen duo of drummer Alex Van Halen and bassist Michael Anthony has proven to be one of the best in rock. Listen to them do their thing in isolation on "Beautiful Girls" from 1979's Van Halen II.

The song, which was originally titled "Bring On The Girls" on the band's 25 song demo, was produced by the great Ted Templeman, engineered by Don Landee, and recorded at the famous Sunset Sound in Hollywood. Like most albums from that era, it was completed in only 3 weeks. Here are some things to listen for.

1. Listen to how forward the snare drum is compared to the rest of the kit. Pretty beefy sound too, as well as a touch of some very smooth reverb.

2. The cymbals are very prominent in the mix to mostly fill in those upper frequencies since the band was a power trio. Their early albums were mostly guitar, bass and drums plus a guitar solo overdub with not much sweetening.

3. Michael Anthony's playing is a little behind the drums, rather than the other way around. This gives the band a sense of urgency.

4. Anthony's playing is far from perfect, not that you ever heard any of the very slight mistakes in the track. There is a pretty big one at 1:47 that wouldn't be left in today.

5. Alex VH has a couple of slow fills as well, like the ones at 3:28 and 3:40. In those days of analog tape and relatively quick recording, perfection was something that was rarely attained (except perhaps for Steely Dan albums, but they also cost a lot more to make and took much more time).


Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The 27 Foot Long Speaker

Audiophiles can be quite obsessive, and when you're an engineer it can make that obsession even worse. In the 1930s engineer Roderick Denman built a huge loudspeaker into the roof of his house that faced straight downward into an octagonal listening area that he used for the flare of his giant horn, which extended some 20 feet. There he placed a few reclining chairs. Basically, you were sitting entirely inside the speaker when you listened!

In order to get the best frequency response from the horn, it had to be large and straight. Many horns of the day were curved, which provided great low end response, but limited the highs, which why the only way Denman could could achieve such a large horn was to build it as part of his house.

Western Electric 555W driver image
The Western Electric 555W

The compression driver used to drive the horn was the then new Western Electric 555W, designed by the famous Bell Labs and said to be one of the greatest speakers ever made. They have run in theaters for more than 60 years and today are bought and sold for thousands of dollars.

The horn was used for demonstrations until a wall fell on it during WWII and it was almost destroyed. Since then it's been part of the Scientific Museum at Blythe House in the UK, but it wasn't until recently that sound artist in residence Alex Kolkowski decided to build a modern version of it according to the original specification.

After 8 months the speaker is finally operational and on display at the museum. It's also working again with the help of the original driver, and has a frequency response of 32Hz to 6kHz.
The 27 foot long speaker image
It's 27 feet long!
Those of us who grew up with horn-loaded speakers know how good they can sound under the right circumstances. They're very efficient and directional, which is great for live sound, but also pretty bulky, which is why line-arrays are used in virtually every sound reinforcement situation today. Too bad, because they sounded great.

That said, it's very cool that Denman's horn has been recreated and available for all to see and hear again.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Mastering Compression Tips And Tricks

Compressor attack and release controls image
Many engineers overlook the attack and release controls on a compressor but they can affect the sound more than you think, especially during mastering. In the latest edition of The Mastering Engineer's Handbook, I outline what these controls can do when used across a full mix either during mixing or mastering.

"The key to getting the most out of a compressor is the Attack and Release (sometimes called Recovery) parameter controls, which have a tremendous overall effect on a mix and therefore are important to understand. Generally speaking, transient response and percussive sounds are affected by the Attack control setting. Release is the time it takes for the gain to return to normal or zero gain reduction.  

In a typical pop style mix, a fast attack setting will react to the drums and reduce the overall gain. If the release is set very fast, then the gain will return to normal quickly but can have an audible side effect of reducing some of the overall program level and attack of the drums in the mix. As the Release is set slower, the gain changes so that the drums might cause an effect called “pumping,” which means that the level of the mix will increase then decrease noticeably. Each time the dominant instrument starts or stops, it "pumps" the level of the mix up and down. Compressors that work best on full program material generally have very smooth release curves and slow release times to minimize this pumping effect.

Compression Tips And Tricks
Adjusting the Attack and Release controls on the compressor and/or limiter can have a surprising effect on the program sound.
  • Slower Release settings will usually make the gain changes less audible but will also lower the perceived volume.  
  • A slow Attack setting will tend to ignore drums and other fast signals but will still react to the vocals and bass.  
  • A slow Attack setting might also allow a transient to overload the next piece of equipment in the chain.
  • Gain changes on the compressor caused by the drum hits can pull down the level of the vocals and bass and cause overall volume changes in the program.  
  • Usually only the fastest Attack and Release settings can make the sound “pump.”  
  • The more bouncy the level meter, the more likely that the compression will be audible.
  • Quiet passages that are too loud and noisy are usually a giveaway that you are seriously over-compressing.
Don’t just set those attack and release controls to the middle range and forget about them. They can make a big difference on your final mastered sound."


Monday, July 21, 2014

How The Ancients Used Sound

Hal Saflieni (ca. 3600 BCE)There's a little-known scientific field known as archaeoacoustics that studies the sound of historical environments and its effects on the human body. These environments can vary from ancient temples to caves, but it's been discovered that they all have a similar quality - a resonant frequency between 70 and 130Hz.

Most of the cavities that archaeoacoustics study are spiritual in nature, and the theory is that the exposure to the resonant frequency of the chamber has a physical effect on human brain activity, even to the point of triggering a different state of consciousness without the use of chemical substances.

One of these chambers currently under study is a 5,000 year old Hypogeum, an underground mortuary temple on the Mediterranean island of Malta with a space known as "The Oracle Room" that yields strong double resonant frequencies at 70Hz and 114 Hz. A deep male voice tuned to these frequencies can stimulate the resonances and create a bone-chilling 8 second reverberation that reportedly provides the illusion of sound reflecting from the body to the ancient wall paintings, but leaves the listener with a great sensation of relaxation.

What's especially interesting is that the acoustics of this chamber didn't come naturally. Man-made carving on the ceiling revealed what amounted to a wave guide, suggesting that the designers of the room knew much more about acoustics and their effects on the human body than we know or care about today.

W e often think that because we have such sophisticated gear that it automatically makes us superior to those that have gone before us. In reality it seem that there's been a vast treasure trove of knowledge that's been lost through the ages that we're lucky to discover enough bits and pieces of every so often.

There's a really great website at that has a lot of information and audio samples regarding this discipline and its work. Not only that, it's a lot more modern and accessible than most sites about scientific research. Check out the video below as well.


Sunday, July 20, 2014

New Music Gear Monday: UAD Valley People Dyna-mite Plugin

There are already so many cool compressors and limiter plugins available that you'd think there was none left to either invent or emulate. You might change your mind after hearing the new Universal Audio/Softube emulation of the Valley People Dyna-mite limiter/gate though.

The Dyna-mite was an interesting hardware device released by the short lived Valley People Inc in the 80s, which was the brainchild of the great audio designer Paul Buff. It was perhaps the least expensive pro unit available at the time, mostly because it was supplied in a plastic box instead of a 19 inch rack mount. It did have a couple of very unique functions and sounds though, and Softube and Universal Audio have managed to emulate them all.

First of all, the limiter is about as kick-ass on percussion as you can get. If you want an aggressive sound that really smacks, this plugin can really give it to you. Most unusual is the fact that the plug (like the hardware device) also has a de-ess and gate/expander function, and like the limiter, they react differently than most of the other plugs that you're probably using.

If you want a plugin with some real character and you already have the UAD hardware to support it, make sure you try the Dyna-mite. It's $199, but I think it's worth every penny. Find out more on the UAD Dyna-mite site.



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