Friday, May 13, 2016

Recording Dynamic Vocals With The Dangerous Compressor


This is our first episode of tips and tricks. It was a good test run for us to get used to the cameras and workflow. The folks at Dangerous Music were kind enough to help us out and put some finishing touches on it. They are awesome and make amazing gear.

We have more of these videos planned for the year so it's pretty exciting. This first episode deals with recording a very dynamic vocal part. The issue this presents is that the vocal part goes from quiet to very loud affecting levels and possibly clipping converters.

It's all about the capture of the performance and letting a singer be inspired when they are inspired.

We use the Dangerous Compressor to show how it's not only a great mixing and mastering compressor but also a great tracking compressor. We use one side as a limiter and the other as a compressor so they work in tandem. This shows how you can get a massive amount of gain reduction with no artifacts. It's a great piece of gear.

This video also highlights the importance of having both clean and colored analog gear.

Enjoy.






Monday, April 25, 2016

Quick Master Fader Automation Tips


So you have this master fader. It's just sitting there begging you to do something with it, but is that really what you want to do? Maybe not. Here are some tips to think about before adding that automation to the master fader.

What are you trying to accomplish?

Think about it, what are you trying to do by automating moves on the master fader? This is the first step in determining if this is the right move or not. You may be surprised if you give it some thought.

This applies equally to mastering as well as mixing. So these moves are not just something that should be thought about during mixing. In this case it might not be a master fader, but just a regular fader move on a channel depending on your DAW.

Ultimately though it can come down to two things, are you trying to trying to create a volume effect or are you trying to change the feeling of parts?


Volume Effects

Volume effects are what I like to call overt volume moves that are meant to be heard. The most obvious of these are fade ins and fade outs. You may also want to really bring down the volume in an intro or other part of a song in order to create a stark contrast between two parts of a song.

Volume effects are the best candidate for master volume changes and automation since this is the single point at which these can be done.

Feeling Changes

Feeling changes are something else entirely. Maybe you are trying to change the feeling of a song from say the verse to the chorus. Many people reach for the master fader to change the volume balance between the verse and chorus. Maybe they do this because it's easy or maybe they do it because they don't know better, but depending on the situation this might not be the best way to accomplish this. This isn't just isolated to amateurs many pros do this as well.

If you think about making volume changes to the master fader is only going to change the volume of the part. If you have processing on your master bus it won't change the level going in to those processes. Say for instance you have a compressor compressing the signal on the master fader. The compressor is still going to compress the signal at the same level. If you automated the individual channels going in to the master the compressor would loosen up causing a different feel to the part.

Quite often it's these changes going in to the master fader that makes the changes we are looking for. By doing individual volume automation changes on the channels bringing down the volume in the verses will allow compression to loosen up a bit and give the part a different feel. This will also affect other types of processing like parallel processing as well allowing these to open up.

In many cases this is actually the change that people are looking for, not strictly the volume change. Sure it takes more work to automate the items in to the master fader, but these are probably the droids you are looking for.

Caveats

There are some caveats to the individual channel vs master fader volume changes. If you have no processing on your master bus, then other than changing the balance between individual tracks it won't have the larger impact that it would if you did have master bus processing. 

If you have really strong parts in a verse or there is very little dynamic change between a verse and chorus it may not have the effect you are looking for. It may feel like it steps down in the chorus instead of up since the compression will kick in harder. In these cases maybe a rebalancing my be too much work or something would be lost.

Of course, maybe you just like the way the master fader automation sounds for the particular part. 

Conclusion

Here are some general rules, well not rules, more like guidelines. As with anything audio though, whatever works, works. 

  • If you are performing volume effects, use master fader automation.
  • If you are trying to change the feeling from part to part (ie verse to chorus) use individual track automation.
Give it a try. See which method works best, but don't just grab the master fader because it's easy. Have Fun.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Automatic Audio Mastering Services are Bad at Mastering


Why are Automatic Mastering Services Bad At Mastering?


If you think about it with the exception of touch, what's more personal and human than music? It's something that people feel very passionate about. There aren't very many things that can both make you feel great, laugh, and cry all at the same time. Stick with me because I do have a point.

Computers and algorithms don't listen to music and no, Shazam doesn't count. Yet computers are being tasked to process music and create feeling from that content automagically. Now, this is certainly different than a computer-based tool that a human uses to make purposeful adjustments to audio material, these automated services are blanket processing tasks applied to pieces of audio to reach some predetermined endpoint.

There has been a rise in these services focused on automated mastering of audio material. It makes sense because it's an easy grab for cash and no humans have to be involved but isn't that the problem? That there are no humans involved?

The point I am making with this post is that automatic mastering services like LANDR are a bad idea, fundamentally from the start. I'm not saying this because I'm opposed to the technology, I'm saying this because there are certain things that an algorithm just can't fathom when it comes to artistic expression. The more disturbing thing as of late is that services such as CD Baby and TuneCore are now starting to push LANDR very hard and recently. I have recently seen a LANDR plugin for Studio One. I think it's important that people understand just what mastering is and what the drawbacks are when it comes to auto-processing algorithms.

What Mastering Is

Before we evaluate the effectiveness of an automated process to do a task, we need to understand the task itself. So what is mastering? I know it seems like an obvious answer but the lines have become extremely blurry the past few years and for many people, it's become a part of another process they have going on like mixing (which is a topic for another blog post). The perception is that mastering is just making things louder and brighter just isn't true. Although those two elements are certainly part of the mastering process, they do not define what mastering is.

Quite a few tasks happen during a typical mastering project. Mastering is the final step in the creative process and the first step in the distribution process. It's a pretty important step to get right and not something that should be taken lightly; however, it has in the past few years. It's the last chance to catch any errors or issues with a production before the world hears it. As you can imagine this encompasses much more than EQ and limiting. A mastering engineer can identify these issues and correct them or send them back to the mixer or artist for correction. This ensures what goes out to the world is the best representation of the artist and their material.

A mastering engineer also creates the content for delivery. This includes entering all of the metadata, DDPs, masters for various formats, and the list goes on.

Automatic Mastering Service Drawbacks

For people who care about the quality of their music and how it's perceived the drawbacks of these services are probably of high importance to you. People who don't care probably wouldn't have made it this far in the post anyway. This isn't an all-encompassing list, but it's a start.

Feeling

I think the biggest nail in the coffin for these services is that music isn't just about the way it sounds, it's about how it feels. The feeling of musical content is something that's hard to quantify and something an algorithm certainly can't do. Think about it, sometimes it's hard to articulate just why something feels better. You can have two pieces of the same audio material that sound similar but one just feels better. Every artist wants the people consuming their music to feel it. So this is an critical.

Comparing two different types of processing for the same activity may result in one feeling better. A human can easily A/B processing tasks and determine which one sounds and feels better, an algorithm cannot. In order for a computer processing material to make those types of decisions it would need to have specific parameters in place to determine that and of course code in place to make that decision.

Passion is another trait that is unique to the human side of the music process. Being passionate about something means going the extra mile and striving for the best results. Humans want to create partnerships that are mutually beneficial and will go above and beyond in cases where this passion runs deep. An algorithm doesn't care about you or your music, algorithms are cold like that.

We've already seen quite a bit of death of musical feeling lately. A lot of material is hard quantized to a grid or a loop that is clicked and dragged in to a timeline. So another step in the process removing humanity from the production process would just be one more chip away.

Context

Sometimes your computer is in a rap rock mood and you are in a folk kind of mood. Of course this statement is ridiculous, but it sums up an important point. Computers don't listen to music and do not have context for musical genres. Just think about that for a second, an algorithm for mastering audio has no idea what type of music it is processing.

A processing algorithm also doesn't have knowledge of current trends in these musical genres. There is an ebb and flow to musical aesthetics that constantly change. I mean is the genre more tolerant or less tolerant to compression? What about loudness levels? Does it typically need more low end and less mids? I think this stuff isn't easy to quantify consistently, which is a problem. Even if there is a preset for "X" genre the perception of what that processing sounds like will be different.

Beyond the genre context what about instrument context? I don't think any human would argue against there being a difference between a human voice, a guitar solo, or even a cymbal for that matter. So what happens when it comes time to balance these elements or balance them as much as can be done in the mastering process? There are times where a vocal may be a bit too sibilant but the cymbals sound fine. Many issues can arise in a mastering project and are something that a mastering engineer can identify and potentially fix and an algorithm can not.

Aesthetic Processing

Speaking of perception, perception is something that computers don't do either. I mean when was the last time you saw a Dell computer worrying about whether it looks sexy? The mastering process is the last opportunity to make aesthetic changes and enhancements to the overall sound of the material prior to release. There is no doubt that some processing works better for certain pieces of material than others. It's all program dependent. When do you use an Opto compressor vs a VCA? What about minimum phase vs linear phase EQ? What about saturation? These are just a couple of the many decisions that need to be made during the mastering process.


There are no one size fits all processing tasks in mastering. A mastering engineer is very purposeful in their processing using exactly what is necessary for the track. Some tools work better than others for certain types of material. This is why you can't just have an assembly line approach to artistic material. At the end of the day do we want all music to sound the same?

Quality Assurance

As stated previously audio mastering is more than just EQ and volume changes, it's the last step in the musical process and the first step in distribution. That means it's the last opportunity to catch any issues with the material or make any changes prior to being distributed to the world. This is something that automatic mastering services just can't do. Clicks, pops, and even other less obvious issues will just happily be processed by these services.

Distribution with issues are a clear drawback automated mastering services. Why would you create releases with audio issues?

Feedback

Automatic mastering services can't provide you feedback. That's right, they won't allow you to become a better mixer and they won't allow you to improve you skills. It has never been more easy to create audio and put it out there. A vast majority of this material is being produced in less than optimal environments. Acoustic issues and poor monitoring can lead to plenty of issues in a mix.

A mastering engineer can provide you feedback that allows you to improve your mixing skills and even help diagnose acoustical problems in your room. Quite often an experienced mastering engineer has insight on room acoustics from past studio builds and working with experts. That alone should be worth the price of hiring a mastering engineer. It's really hard to provide a value to this and yet often it's included with the price of a mastering job.

Say for instance that you typically have problems with a low mid build up or that frequently your bass is being masked by your kick drum. Having a mastering engineer as a partner can be a great way to identify issues like this and help you avoid them in the future. A mastering engineer can provide you feedback on these issues and help you identify issues with your room and mixes.

At the end of the day music in general is a very collaborative process and it's just not possible to collaborate with an algorithm. For some reason there is this badge of courage people wear nowadays where they say, "Hey look what I wrote, mixed, and mastered". But when you are so close to the project sometimes obvious issues will creep in to the final product. When you use an algorithm instead of a human these issues continue to persist.

Artifacts

Every move in audio mastering should be very purposeful. A good mastering engineer is never on autopilot just throwing processing at material because it has worked in the past. With many kinds of processing there are drawbacks to that processing as well. So blanket application of processing to material is a bad idea. Take equalization for example both regular and linear phase EQs have issues. These issues are items such as phase shift and pre-echo (aka pre-ringing). A human can identify when these become problematic and determine whether they are acceptable or not.

Even something that seems simple like multi-band compression. Multi-band compression uses a series of filters in order to create the various bands it uses for processing. Just like any other type of filtering this creates the same issues that crop up with EQ. When in a mastering context processing is only applied in a very purposeful manner. Each tool is chosen as the right tool for the job and used only where necessary. This reduces the overall artifacts from processing.

Revisions, Formats, and Stems

You can't converse with an algorithm or articulate an artistic vision. You can't tell an algorithm, I like what you are doing there, but I feel there should be more low end. This is certainly something you can do with a human. At the end of the day the mastering engineer works for the artist/producer. An algorithm can't work for an artist, it just does what it does.

Also maybe you need masters for various formats? You may be releasing a CD, digital distribution, and even online streaming. All of these formats require additional thought and processing in order to make them successful. Currently these services aren't set up for this.

There are situations where stems are provided for mastering or at least provided in some part. The mixer may provide a stem of the instrumental and a vocal stem. That way if something is too sibilant the mastering engineer can deal with that independently of the instruments in a mix. Obviously automatic mastering services don't handle these situations.

The Sound

If you think about what the algorithm is doing it's probably no surprise at the outcome of processing through these services. Running through an algorithm processes all material the same way. Algorithms aren't purposeful processing tools. Results from services like LANDR tend to be overly harsh with audible artifacts. Basically making for an unenjoyable listening experience. Is this what you want for your music?

Conclusion

Technology and advances have allowed people to be more capable than ever before. Full digital audio workstations are now at everyone's fingertips and it has never been more easy to create music. But there is a downside to technology and hopefully this blog post pointed out some of these issues. Algorithms can't determine things like pleasant levels of saturation or when a processing task enhances a mix and brings it more together to make it sound "finished". Only a human can.

Before you use one of these services ask yourself, do you really care about your music and how it's perceived? If you really care about your music than care enough about it to do things right. There are so many advantages to using a mastering engineer to prepare your music for distribution and hopefully this post summed a few of them up. Work with an engineer who is passionate about getting the results you are looking for. Create a partnership with your mastering engineer. Choosing a mastering engineer over an algorithm will make your music that much better and take it to the next level.


Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Why People Under 30 Don't Write Great Lyrics



You may have noticed that songwriters under 30 don't typically do a great job of writing lyrics. Have you ever wondered why that is? Is it a generational thing? Do people just not care anymore? Some of the current crop of popular songs may lead someone to believe so, but the fact of the matter is much more deep. There are many roadblocks (as well as a monumental amount of bad examples) out there for young lyric writers as they perfect their craft. Sometimes time and experience is the only thing removing those roadblocks.

Great lyrics will propel a song to the next level and allow you to create a connection with the listener, so it's not something to be taken lightly. With a lot of music these days lyrics are seen as an afterthought. This should not be the template and certainly isn't a recipe for long term success.

Now this post isn't meant to slam young lyric writers, only an attempt to call attention to roadblocks and symptoms so we can all recognize them. As with anything there are exceptions to every rule and I'm sure people can quote many instances where young lyric writers knocked it out of the park. I can assure you that for every instance where this is the case there are thousands and thousands of misses.

The modern music business seems to be about hit it and forget it. They don't care if a song has staying power. They want a hit and then move on to the next song and certainly aren't in the business of creating careers anymore. Not a position in the best interest of an artist's long term future, so now more than ever it's important for the artist to take the wheel on the lyrical front.

I've certainly been guilty of these at times myself so I'm not by any means sitting in a glass house throwing stones. As I call attention to some of my own mistakes I think it's fruitful to share the observations I've come across in part to make us all better.

So Why 30?

So where did I get the age of 30? Well, I didn't use any scientific method. It's just around the age where you've had an opportunity to live life for a while and start accumulating life experiences. You've probably spent a fair amount of time away from home and any shelter that has been provided. It's also an age where you've started to confirm and correct any bad information you may have been operating off of in your younger days. By the age of 30 many people have started to settle in to their own personal identity and be more comfortable with themselves.

First thing to understand is this has nothing to do with musical skill. Lyrics and melody are two totally different things. Lyrics are what you are saying and melody is how you say it. You can have a great song with sub-par lyrics, but it just won't connect with people on a primal level. It won't speak to them. Lyrics can take a great song and make it timeless. If you are writing music would you rather have someone like a song the first 3 times they listen then forget about it or would you rather have someone listen to the song again and again for years to come? I think that answer to that is fairly obvious.

As I mentioned previously, with anything there are exceptions to every rule. Some people pick up on things rather quickly and others will never pick up on it. Some people have lived a rougher, harder life than others and may be able to connect with people quicker. YMMV.

So why don't people under 30 write good lyrics, let's have a look.

Lack of Language Comprehension

This is something I see quite a bit. Lack of understanding of words, their meanings, as well as common sayings. Words mean something, even when using them in a metaphorical context they need to make sense. I see younger lyricists substituting words that sound similar but mean something different. This is a monumental mistake that leads to a huge disconnection with the listener and well, makes them look kinda stupid.

Saying something like let's be on the "save" side, instead of "safe" side or hearing someone say "Let's get the fuck out of the dodge" instead of "Let's get the fuck out of Dodge". These type of mistakes don't make for compelling listening and it's a big turnoff. So always make sure your statements are accurate.

This isn't something that 12 years of school will fix either, this is something that only real world interactions and conversations can fix. This is especially true when slang gets thrown in the mix. Sayings and slang often have a way of dating themselves as well. Before using slang that has a tendency to change and date your material ask yourself if it's worth doing.

Being Too Literal

Music is art and some of the most inspiring pieces of art aren't literal. Wouldn't it be much better as an artist to let people interpret their own meaning from your music? One of the best parts of being an artist is letting people interpret your music. In this case it's best to be suggestive rather than explanatory. Think about old school songs like "Afternoon Delight" and "Puff the Magic Dragon". The first being sexually suggestive and the second being suggestive of smoking. Those songs have endured because of their suggestive nature and not because they were literal, regardless of their actual subject or intent.

Some genres of music are much more tolerant than others to this than others. Religious artists are quite often some of the biggest offenders in this area. You can write religious music without mentioning God or Jesus over and over in a song, or better yet, at all. Quite often this is a turnoff, even to religious people. Keep it suggestive and your songs will appeal to a much larger audience and mean something much more personal to the listener.

Being Too Wordy



This is fairly self-explanatory. Being too wordy is typically a substitute for a false perception of being "deep". Being too wordy can be distracting and hard to follow. If you have something to say, choose your words wisely and make each word count. Sticking with less words also makes your music flow better and ups the singalong factor.

Lack of Focus

A song is not a novel. Pick a subject and stick with it. Here once again I think sometimes people go all over the place because they feel it makes the song more deep. It really doesn't and with a lack of focus the best song will lose a listener quickly.

Lack of Attention To Detail

When it comes to lyrics the devil is in the detail. Sometimes when listening to music even the most dull-headed of listener picks up on things. Even if they aren't quite sure and can't articulate why something is off, they subconsciously know and it affects the feeling of the song.

As an example of this, I have a song lyric where I say:
"I'm in the middle of an ocean, and I dive and I dive and I dive"

Think about how different this would be if I would have said:
"I'm in the middle of the ocean"

Saying "an ocean" better signifies a metaphor so it could be an ocean of anything. Ocean of trouble, problems, or anything else that could be imagined. Saying "the ocean" implies something much more literal. Like the actual ocean, so if you are using it as a metaphor it doesn't make as much sense unless you are diving deeper in to an actual ocean of course.

Lack of World Experience (Good and Bad)

There are some things that just take time. It takes time to travel and experience the world. You have to meet people and learn and even learn lessons. It also takes time to collect these personal experiences. In the world of today people want to just watch a YouTube video and get better at something overnight. Experience doesn't happen that way, you have to grind it out and work through things yourself. Travel and interacting with people broadens the mind and broadens your pallet of lyrical content. It helps you connect dots that you may have have otherwise overlooked.

Lack of Identity



We spend our younger years thinking that we have a very strong sense of identity. Quite often though we are really just conforming to fit in to groups around us. It's not until we get older and start caring less about what other people think that we begin to settle in our sense of identity, especially as a creative individual.

Writing great lyrics can take a lot of soul searching and situational awareness. This means that you have to understand yourself on a really intimate level. Let me tell you, it's not always pleasant either. Turning a microscope on yourself and sharing really personal things can take some time to be comfortable with.

Lack of Empathy

We live in a very "me" society. Younger people have never been more detached from real connections with other humans. Social networks, forums, and video sharing sites all allow non-personal communication that actually detaches feeling from the communication. Ever meet someone who is a dick online yet in person they act like a normal human being?

Putting yourself in someone else's shoes and thinking situationally can be difficult and can get better with time. You have to have empathy in order to write great lyrics. You have to form a connection with people and get them on board with what you are saying. Writing about yourself and your feelings is great, but after a couple of albums that will get old quick. Quite often a listener likes to take a song and try and make it about them. It's how they connect. Think about that while you are writing your music.

Not Accepting Challenge

Younger songwriters seem to be very averse to challenge. They see challenges as someone being negative or unhelpful. Challenge is what makes you better. If I would have surrounded myself with just people who agreed with me or thought everything I did was great I never would have progressed. Nobody would.

Social networks for all of their benefits have quite a few drawbacks. It's never been easier with social networks and forums to surround yourself with people who agree with you and think like you do. This is severely damaging to the growth of an artist. Probably one of the most important things that makes you grow as an artist is challenge. If you write off everyone who criticizes your work, then you are missing the point. Sure some people are just haters, but even with haters look for legitimate points they might make. After all it's about you expanding and growing no matter what age you are.

Not Caring

Out of all the points I've made this one is the most disturbing. It seems there has never been less of an emphasis on lyrics. I think because a lot of music out there nowadays does not have good lyrics then it's not seen as important.

Writing Better Lyrics

I have been singing and writing music for a very long time. 


I did everything the hard way, but I did try and make the most out of my experiences. I've learned quite a bit about writing lyrics throughout my life. So how does someone get better? If they are 19 do they just sit around and wait till they are 30? No, absolutely not. There are things that people can do to become better at writing lyrics almost immediately. Awareness is critical and the ability to challenge yourself. If you have those two traits, you are well on your way to writing better lyrics.

Say Something!

That's right, say something. Have a point to the song that makes sense and connects with people. Enough said.

Collaborate and Listen

Listening to other great songs as well as listening to people talk can be a great way to pick things up. Nothing will get you where you want to be faster than collaboration. Getting the feedback of others as well as being able to bounce ideas off of someone else is invaluable. You get the collective benefit and experience of everyone involved. This happens all of the time in the studio and with a good collaborator can take your song to the next level and spur ideas that you never would have came up with on your own.

Write, A Lot

Nothing makes you better at something than doing it over and over again. The more you write the better you get at it, so make sure you write as much as you can. Even if you end up not using any of the music and material, the act of writing makes you better.

This doesn't mean just writing music. You can jot down ideas and notes in a notebook and put them together. This doesn't need to be released anywhere and could be your own personal book of thoughts. Who knows, some of these written works could turn in to a great song.

Travel (if possible)

It's not always easy to just pick up and travel somewhere, even if it's planned in advance. If you can however, be sure to travel. Travel opens the mind. It can give perspective that may not be easily gained otherwise. If possible, travel outside the country. See other places, other cultures, and other history. 

Research

When pouring your heart out writing lyrics it's important to ensure that every word you are using means what you think it means. Even if you think you know what a word means, check it. You are creating something you are putting

Google searches are free so don't think you understand everything. Research and make sure you have it right, who knows it might even make for a better song.

Work with a producer

Work with a producer or at least someone who can give you some perspective on the lyrical content. Just like collaboration being able to bounce ideas off of someone with more experience can be invaluable.

Opposing Viewpoints

Don't shy away from people who have opposing viewpoints. This allows you to expand your creativity and challenge yourself when you are collaborating with them. They will provide a perspective that you may not have thought about.

Keep it Simple and Focused

Avoid using too many words and being difficult to sing along with. Quite often more simple and direct the better. Keep the idea focused. Don't keep interjecting subject and plot changes in your music.

In the end 

In the end, sure there are plenty of songs out there with bad lyrics, some of them are extremely popular. These songs should not be the template. Some people also feel it's better to rhyme than it is to make sense. In the end even though a couple of these songs may have short term appeal they fall off and become irrelevant very quickly. 

Writing better lyrics is a great way to ensure you connect with your listeners and ensure your music has emotional staying power. The Beatles were famous because they wrote lyrics that connected with people, things like: "I" want to hold "your" hand. Women felt that they were talking directly to them and men could sing those lyrics to their girlfriends.

So write songs, connect with people and above all reflect on your work and always improve. Good luck.


Further Insight:

For some additional insight take a look at these:

How Popular Music's Lyrics Perpetuate American Idiocy
http://theantimedia.org/how-popular-musics-lyrics-perpetuate-american-idiocy/

Hit Charade
http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/10/hit-charade/403192/

Mix Bus Processing Isn't Mastering

This week I thought I’d take some time to cover something I end up talking about quite a bit. It’s not uncommon to see people referring t...