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October 30, 2007

Filed under: music»recording

The Groove

One can only hope that Wired's article on audiophiles choosing vinyl over digital formats is true. Not because vinyl actually offers a better sound. It doesn't: the noise floor is roughly 50dB higher than CDs, the high-end response is limited, the media itself tends to warp and erode, and the format is far larger than it needs to be. But at least this way, we'll have a more reliable sign of sound system gullibility. "Oh," you can say. "You've got a nice collection of vinyl. Excuse me, I have to go make up lame excuses for leaving this conversation."

Choice quotes from the piece:

Another reason for vinyl's sonic superiority is that no matter how high a sampling rate is, it can never contain all of the data present in an analog groove, Nyquist's theorem to the contrary.
I love that little jab at Nyquist. Because as I found while researching A/D converters last week, Claude Shannon's elaboration on Harry Nyquist's original paper means that a sampled analog recording does, in fact, contain every bit of information under the Nyquist limit. That's the whole point of the theorem--given a bandlimited signal, there is only one possible way to recreate it using the samples. Saying that digital "can never contain all of the data present in an analog groove" is not only hyperbolic, but it's also completely false.

This objection is often paired with the myth that people can somehow perceive frequency content beyond a CD's 22.05KHz Nyquist limit. And again, that's just bogus. The average adult's hearing flat-out stops at 16KHz, and above that it requires extremely high amplitudes for even the most sensitive ears. Considering the fact that modern digital recordings are probably captured and mixed at twice the sample rate of CD-quality audio (or higher), the whole argument is snake oil.

Golden-eared audiophiles have long testified to vinyl's warmer, richer sound.
Sure they have. They also buy $3,000/meter audio cables, so maybe we shouldn't be going by the word of these "golden-eared" listeners. It should be added, of course, that everyone claims to have near-magical hearing perception. At least one listening test, however, has shown that "expert" listeners actually vary wildly in their capabilities for detecting audio errors. There's no such thing as a naturally "golden" ear, in my opinion--merely people who have trained themselves to listen closely, or convinced themselves that they can hear the difference.
San Francisco indie band The Society of Rockets, for example, plans to release its next album strictly on vinyl and as MP3 files.

"Having just gone through the process of mastering our new album for digital and for vinyl, I can say it is completely amazing how different they really sound," said lead singer and guitarist Joshua Babcock in an e-mail interview. "The way the vinyl is so much better and warmer and more interesting to listen to is a wonder."

This could just be clumsy writing, but it sounds to me like he's comparing mastering for MP3 and vinyl--in which case, yes, I'm not surprised that it sounded good during mastering. How would the CD sound? How does it sound at home? How does it sound after 100 listens? And can we really consider people to be distinguishing listeners when, according to the Matador rep, they're enthusiastically pairing their vinyl purchases with MP3 downloads? I've come around some on MP3, but I don't think anyone has ever argued that it's a premium-quality format.

As far as I can tell, the point of all this vinyl frenzy (such as it is--Van Buskirk's evidence of a rebirth is far from conclusive) is the nostalgia of it all, not how the material actually sounds. The experience of putting a record onto a turntable, and hearing the inherent rumble and flaws of the medium, makes some people happy. It makes them feel like they're closer to an "authentic" experience. Just don't tell them that they could do the same thing with a plugin, or a cheap tube preamp with the tone turned down--in other words, don't explain that their authenticity is highly constructed and artificial. We wouldn't want to spoil their fun.

September 3, 2007

Filed under: music»recording»sketchpad

Musical Sketchpad, Session Twelve

Plenty More

Around 1996, the Squirrel Nut Zippers had a song on the radio from the album Hot, starting a tiny swing revival that lasted just long enough for high-schoolers to realize that swing music was really kind of a dorky fad. Hot sold a lot of records, but I don't think most people ever bought a copy of the previous album, The Inevitable. Which is unfortunate, because it was a dark, feverish little gem. I wrote a whole movie with it as a soundtrack in my head. "Plenty More" closed it out, and has long been a favorite of mine for its cynical swagger.

This is not a particularly original cover, nor is it flawlessly-executed. My copy of Sonar hasn't arrived for the new laptop yet, and so I recorded it on the Pro Tools rig at work, where the air-conditioning has been turned off all weekend. So I haven't cleaned up my terrible drumming or the other timing issues. But I've wanted to do at least a quick recording of this song ever since Something Awful called me a "a shakier, less confident version of John Flansburgh of They Might Be Giants (when he does his goofy lounge singer voice, no less)".

Yes, it's terribly cheesy. I have no taste in synths. Now go buy the original.

June 25, 2007

Filed under: music»recording»production

Arpeggios and Pedagogy

The next couple of days are all about the WBI Learning Week event--and more specifically, for my part, they're all about the expert interview podcasts. I wrote this theme on Friday for the podcasts, and then spent about an hour over the weekend beefing it up and remixing it. The defining feature is a three-octave arpeggio of a chord that I can't entirely place (I think it's a C major with a flatted 7th, the components are C, E, G, and Bb). I also hooked a drum map into the arpeggiator, latched the whole bunch, and then split the keyboard so that I could play the string accompaniment on the rest of the keys. It was a surprisingly effective way to put together a tune, and something I would have probably never done on my little two-octave keyboard.

Frankly, I'm writing more music nowadays on synth at work than I am on bass at home, and I still feel like my theory knowledge could be stronger (see limited chord knowledge above). So I have decided that I need to relearn how to play keys, and I might as well brush up on my reading while I'm at it. One of the video editors has a Yamaha DX27 that he brought in and abandoned, and I may see if he'll let me borrow it until I can save my pennies for a synth of my own. Next stop, Ben Folds transcription book.

In case you are wondering (you probably aren't), the arpeggios, string pad, high-hat, and kick in the theme are the X-Pand! synth--in fact, they're all on the same track, thanks to that split keboard trick and X-Pand's multi-voice patches. The indian flute, tamborine, cabasa, and choir are all Sampletank SE. I have to work around the bargain-basement palette of these two plugins most of the time--for example, I wanted the swells at the end of each phrase to be muted trumpets, but neither synth does them well, so instead they're a combination of choir and cello section. I imagine it would be interesting next year if my successor starts looking at soft synths come purchasing time, but it wasn't a priority this time around.

June 12, 2007

Filed under: music»recording

Not with an O

It's a little unfair for me to write a review of Guerilla Home Recording that pans its lack of digital awareness, without providing any information on the gaps I'd like it to fill. Here's a list of common problems that I've faced since I started learning about digital audio, and which I've rarely seen addressed in textbooks on production, either for pros or project studios.

  • Vocals: Getting good vocals is really, really hard to do on a budget. People are very sensitive to imperfections in the recorded voice, because we're wired to respond to the real thing. I'm never completely happy with my vocal recordings, although they've certainly improved. Doing it right seems to require developed skills with compressors, EQ, and technique--and might honestly be one of those places where you've got to spend some money on a good mike and even a preamp. Maybe this is one of those cases when it just takes practice, but it's rare that I read something that really changes the way I think about vocal recording.

  • Getting the most from a limited number of inputs: Books like Guerrilla Home Recording seem to be aimed at solo musicians, but there are a lot of people out there who need to record their bands. Inputs on digital audio interfaces are expensive, especially if you try to get past 8 inputs, because many 16- or 24-channel boxes are including lots of digital ADAT or S/PDIF connections in that count. That's great for people who want to expand using different preamps and A/D converters, but it's kind of a hassle for the beginning project studio. For reasons that I can never understand, it's easy to buy a box that will do 4 inputs and 10 outputs, but hard to buy one with 10 in and 4 out, which would surely be more useful to the average garage band. The extra outputs are meant to be used for mixing through an external console, but at project studio prices you're better off doing the bounce through software than through a cheap mixer.

    In any case, eight inputs don't go very far for a full band, much less four (or less). Some people use that just for the drums. If you're smart and mix in the box with plugins, you can manage to record a power trio with seven inputs (two drum overheads, snare/hat, kick, guitar, vocals, and bass), but getting fancy, recording a live show, or adding more people is going to take more than most budget interfaces offer. Something will have to be mixed down, and that means making decisions that will play into the mix later. Guidance on how to do that is something that's sorely needed, far more than learning how to cope with a limited number of tracks (something I doubt many modern musicians seriously consider).

  • Reverb: Reverb is another thing that totally mystified me when I first started. How much is too much? What's the difference between a hall, a church, and a room reverb? What's damping do, exactly? Why is it that I always find myself putting the reverb at 6%--what would I use the other 94% for? I know the answers to these now, but it always seems like the books I read want to talk about first reflections, the basic idea of a reverb, and the mechanics behind the scenes, and I was always grasping for practical information. It's taken a long time to feel like I've got a good feel for reverb, and I never felt like anything I read helped in any real way.

  • Soft signal routing: I'm proud of the ducking setup I created for our voiceovers at work, as well as the virtual effects rig I created for doing bass looping--justifiably so, I think. But figuring out how to route audio through a piece of software is crucial to bouncing tracks, setting up side-chains, and working around the restrictions of budget software. Using Senderella to get more flexibility in Cubase, creating aux sends in Ableton, or chaining VST effects inside of each other for higher plugin counts--that's the kind of thing that you have to do on a limited budget, and it took me a little while to put together what I needed.

  • Mastering: Most lessons treat mastering with a mixture of distaste and fear. To its credit, Guerrilla Home Recording doesn't. But most books are written from the perspective of people for whom a professionally-mastered CD is the final goal, as well as from the point of view that the "loudness wars" have become a detriment to pop music. Problem is, not everyone gets to that stage. Small, independent bands don't necessarily want to pay for the improvement in polish over a home mastering job, and a lot of bands may never even go to CD now that .mp3 files on MySpace are such a hit. But just because your tracks aren't being pressed en masse, that doesn't mean that you don't need the equivalent of mastering. I always wondered why my songs were so much quieter than everything else, even when I was pushing the peak levels. When I stopped treating mastering like something that only Bad People do and finally put Kjaerhaus's Classic Master Limiter in the mix bus, the apparent sound quality of my recordings jumped substantially. It's my belief that mastering should not only be covered by beginner textbooks, but it should be encouraged.
So if I had a book deal and a lot more experience, that's what I'd write. I guess you'll just have to settle for reading my complaints here.
Filed under: music»recording

Book Review: Guerrilla Home Recording

There is a virtue to the subtitle of Karl Coryat's Guerrilla Home Recording, which claims to teach readers how to get great sound "no matter how weird or cheap your gear is." I heartily approve of this sentiment, but it's a wide field to cover, and invariably something's going to get left out. Unfortunately for Coryat, the gap here is basically all of digital audio, and that's kind of a big revolution to ignore, especially for a book published in 2005.

But first, let's establish what the book means by "guerrilla home recording." Basically, it means tossing aside a number of established pro-studio techniques, like never printing effects to tape, in favor of more pragmatic small-studio use. Coryat is a big fan of using sampled drums, for example, and he recommends close-miking everything instead of investing in expensive (and often ineffective) acoustic treatments. Above all, the book aims to convince readers that a perfectly adequate recording can be produced without $50,000 worth of studio gear. So far, so good. All of this is good advice, and something that non-pro musicians need to hear more often.

When it actually comes to recording the sound, Guerrilla Home Recording treats the process as a "black box" that's the same whether you're using analog or digital--and that's where the book falls flat on its face, because digital isn't just analog inside a computer. It's a radically different beast, and it means that a lot of Coryat's advice just doesn't apply any more. For example, he recommends owning a mixer and several stand-alone hardware effects units, including a compressor and a reverb. Now, a mixer's a handy thing, and I love buying new effects. But a digital project studio doesn't need any of that--it can all be done in software, for free, at a quality level that easily rivals budget-level hardware (in the case of the SIR convolution reverb plugin and a few others, it even rivals pro equipment). Likewise, it's a little silly to talk about "printing effects to tape" in this age of non-destructive effects. Sure, some musicians might use bounces and printing in something like Ableton Live Lite or Pro Tools LE when they run out of tracks, but those instances are both rare and easily reverted.

Whether or not the "professionals" have embraced it yet, digital is a true revolution for music recording, much the same way that it changed filmmaking and photography. Everything's faster and cheaper. The software's cheap and excellent (Reaper may still be a little ugly, but it's incredibly sharp for only $40) or even free and more than adequate (Krystal, bundled apps like Cubase LE and Live Lite, Garageband for Mac users), the plugins are free or cheaper than the hardware equivalent, and all of it will run easily on least year's computer (or last decade's). And tracking using these tools isn't like using analog, anymore than linear editing on film compares to Final Cut and Premiere in HD or using a darkroom compares to Photoshop.

Now, I understand that there are still holdouts on the old technology. I've played at session musician for people who are using standalone hard drive recorders or even cassette four-tracks. And I agree that a book on supporting "weird or cheap" gear should cover their use, to some extent. But Guerrilla Home Recording devotes a significant portion of its text to using older technologies for mixing, and even includes diagrams for mixing "out of the box" with a digital system. It's not that the information provided won't work with both analog and digital systems, but there's almost nothing provided on the only-digital side, and that's where the real guerrilla musicmaking is happening nowadays, in my opinion.

So if you've got any kind of computer-based studio setup, and once you eliminate the "here's a wave, here's what a compressor/reverb/distortion does" advice that every sound textbook offers, what you're left with is about half a (thin) book. That half is pretty good, sprinkled with tidbits of cool advice (using a drum machine to trigger a synth bassline is clever, for example), but it's not $25 good. There are big, thick sound guides out there for $25--and while they're not "guerrilla," they're up-to-date and cover conceptual frameworks that even free computer studios can use effectively.

June 9, 2007

Filed under: music»recording»sketchpad

Musical Sketchpad, Session Eleven

Trouble, oh trouble set me free

It's been a while since I did any recording. And I've been meaning to do a new cover for a while, using more production instead of looping. So here's a punk cover of Cat Stevens' "Trouble," done just using the Variax and an assortment of Cubase plugins. I don't really have the voice for this kind of thing, but I like the rest, and I'm very proud with the drum programming.

April 30, 2007

Filed under: music»recording»production»post

Filmsound

For my own future reference, but others may find it interesting: FilmSound is a site devoted to sound design and scoring for films, including foley and post-production. There's a large section on Star Wars that's fairly interesting, including the method of creating the lightsaber (a mic was placed inside a long tube, then that was waved between speakers playing the lightsaber "drone" to create its doppler-like movement).

April 9, 2007

Filed under: music»recording»production

We Have a Theme Song

I love theme songs. If the Bank promised me I could write one a week, I'd never leave. I'd also never have time to write here, as you can tell.

Gender Statistics Theme

I like this one. It's for a narrated slideshow on gender statistics, aimed at policymakers. I spent an hour or two writing it, and although I really wanted formless female vocals to fill it out, there aren't a lot of singers in my department, and I think the Cello in Sampletank is lovely.

So I call the task manager in to listen, being very proud of myself. He gets through ten seconds, and then says: "No, no, no. This sounds like a theme for gender statistics. I don't want that."

You didn't?

"No. Gender statistics is exciting! I wanted something with a beat!" You didn't say that. I can only write for what I'm told. "What did we use for those instructional videos?" So I play him the crappy stock music, and "Perfect. That's what we'll use."

Anyone want a cello theme? Slightly used? But seriously, I'm thinking about fleshing it out a bit this weekend, and it could be a great backing track. Not a total loss.

Slum Upgrading Theme

This snippet is for a self-running slideshow on urban slum upgrading. In the next thirty years, urban areas will grow tremendously in the developing world, and most of them will be slums unless we do something about it. The slideshow is meant to give people a few options, and keep them from losing the political will to take action, because the solutions aren't honestly that difficult.

It's also being presented in Nairobi in a week or two, and the task manager wanted drums. I hate drums as a shorthand for Africa, and I always feel hypocritical doing it. So I worked with one of the team leaders from the project, and proposed doing something more like this instead. It uses a rhythmic synth drone to give the piece movement and an urban feel, a little West African-wannabe guitar, and kalimba to provide the "tick-tock" sounds. There's African instrumentation, in other words, but it doesn't scream "Tarzan." It also doesn't sound too depressed, too excited, or too martial, all of which would be inappropriate for slums.

March 19, 2007

Filed under: music»recording

Making the Doctor Who theme

This documentary of creating the Doctor Who theme is very cool. It shows how the music was assembled, piece by piece, using just analog synthesizers and a tape machine. What I love about modern recording, though, is that you can pack all the equipment required for the same kind of work into a laptop and a MIDI keyboard. When I write music for work, I do it almost exactly the same way, but it's all in software now.

February 19, 2007

Filed under: music»recording»production

Studio C

Post-weekend organizing:

That's a pretty good little home studio, if I say so myself. I got my virtual effects rig up and running again this weekend. It's all battery-powered now, so theoretically I could play live with it, but I think it's better suited for recording only. The laptop's battery life still isn't spectacular, and the audio interface sounds a little flat through the bass amp.

Future - Present - Past