Article about suitable x-mas presents for musicians. Published in Atari Magasinet #3/4, 1998 (swedish magazine). Translated into english by the author.
Suitable x-mas presents for musicians
Hello and welcome to a new article about some musical issues. X-mas is a time for presents, but the expensive presents you need for the studio will probably have to come from yourself...
Whether you have a regular ST-machine, synced to a tape recorder of some kind or a Falcon with HD-recording, you always want to have as good a sound quality as possible, don't you?
Let's start from the beginning
You want to be able to record vocals in your creations. This means you need a microphone. There are very many microphones available and it's hard to recommend a specific one, both when it comes to price and quality - but the ones I use myself is a swedish microphone; Milab LC-25, which is nothing but great! Other nice mikes are Beyer Dynamic TG-X60 and also Behringer XM2000 (in spite of what the extremely low price suggests). When it comes to mikes, you can expect the best performance from condenser microphones and especially with large membranes, but naturally it's a matter of taste and something you have to try before you decide on a more expensive model. Generally, dynamic mikes have more reduction of hand-noises and that's why they're often used on stage, but they're also useable in a studio environment. Mostly (but not always) you get what you pay for - i.e. the more money you spend the better mike you get... Of course, you'll also need a pop-screen to reduce the risk for popping sounds from the mike.
The next step
Of course, you need to get the sound to the recording media somehow. You need a mixer to be able to mix the synths together, so you probably have one already, but otherwise I can recommend Behringer's mixers, which have a very high sound quality for a reasonable price (I have a Eurodesk MX8000 myself and I'm very satisfied with it). The mixer can be used to record from the microphone too - under the assumption that you have the possibility to listen to the already present music at the same time you're recording the new track... This means you have to be able to extract the channel you want to record from separately, without recording everything else at the same time - so you'll need sub-groups or a separate output from the channel (something that's not very common on small or cheap mixers). Another possibility is to use a separate microphone preamp. A mike preamp will give you a much higher sound quality and removes the necessity of sub-groups on the mixer. One of the weak spots on cheaper mixers is actually the microphone inputs and this is another argument for the mike preamp. I use a Behringer Ultragain myself and I'm very satisfied with it. If you use a portastudio, there is usually a direct input where you can connect the preamp - otherwise you'll still have to use the poor inputs and go through the equalizers in the portas' mixer, producing more noise than necessary.
It's mostly best to record as "clean" as possible on the media - whether it's a cassette portastudio, hard disk or an ADAT, since you can count on having full control of the sound when you're making the mixdown. If you're very used to working with your equipment, you can go through an equalizer to compensate for problems you're aware of at another place in the sound chain. Usually the result gets better if you make such adjustments in two small steps than if you make them in one large step. This is however nothing I'd recommend for a "normal" user. If you want to use an equalizer, it's very important to use one of very high quality (I use a Behringer Ultracurve), since all equalizers - except digital ones like the Ultracurve - add noise, something that's taken away many smiles...
The Falcon's poor original input
If you use a Falcon with Cubase Audio, there are some other things to consider. The audio input doesn't keep up with the quality you'd wish for, since it 's one of the things Atari saved money on - in spite of the fact that the Falcon was intended to be a music machine. Because of this, you probably want another way to get the audio into the Falcon. The first thing to get is an S/Pdif interface, which makes it possible to receive digital audio. The next thing is an A/D-converter. The one that probably is of most use in a studio is a DAT - otherwise there are many separate A/D-units available, with various price tags, but hey usually cost as much as a DAT. I can't imagine there's a noticeable difference between different models, since the Falcon only handles 16 bits and can't make use of the more expensive 20 or 24-bit converters. Another alternative to use is Line Audio Design's JAM-IN and FAD-units, which contain professional converters at reasonable prices.
Further on into the unit-orgy
If you want a really professional sound, you also need a compressor/limiter - something many people forget. What does the compressor/limiter do? Well, to put it simple it evens out the difference between strong and weak signals. You set a level where the compressor should start working, how much it should influence the signal and some other adjustments. The limiter's function is to make sure the level never exceeds a certain level - when this happens, the limiter clips the signal in an orderly fashion so that clipping doesn't appear on the recording media. The finishing result is that weak signals are amplified more than strong ones and at the same time you get a protection against too strong signals (something that's absolutely necessary when you record digitally) and it results in giving you more energy in the final mix.
Compression can be used both on the final mix and on separate instruments. To get the best result on separate instruments, it's mostly best to compress the signal in two small steps rather than one large step (just as I described about the equalization previously) - once at recording and once at mixdown (which means you may need lots of compressors). An alternative to the many separate compressors is to use one compressor for the complete mix (which is a cheaper solution, but not as good as having separate compressors). The most common in professional studios is to use a combination - compression at recording, as well as separate compressors on some instruments at mixdown and a really good compressor (read: expensive) for the complete mix. For the final mix, it's naturally best to use a multi-band compressor, which divides the frequency spectrum into a couple of bands, enabling the unit to treat those bands separately. Otherwise you have the risk of the bass drum affecting the compression and limitation of the whole mix instead of only the bass register. The compressors I use myself are: Behringer Autocom and Composer (I'm currently waiting for the new Ultra-dyne, a digital multi-band compressor which is planned to be released some time after the summer 1999). They both work well with separate instruments, but on the complete mix, there are some peaks that go through unexpectedly - as well as the fact that they're not multi-band compressors, which makes them a little hard to use on final mixes.
That's it! Now you have the stuff that hits are made of - at least when it comes to sound quality...
Time for the mixdown
Now we'll put the mixer to good use again and if you use a Falcon, you'll want better D/A-converters than the built-in ones - and you'll probably want to be able to get the audio tracks out separately instead of having them in a stereo mix. The units available for such jobs are Line Audio Design's JAM and FAD units, as well as SoundPool's FA-8 and FA-4 units.
The extra equipment that's useful at mixdown can be rather overwhelming. I'll make a short description of some units that are realistic for a normal home- or project-studio. Of course you need some effects units which are connected to the effects send/return on your mixing console (if you don't have a mixer with built-in digital effects). Worth to mention are (among many others): Alesis Quadraverb 2 and Midiverb 4, Digitech Studio Quad 2 and Behringer Virtualizer. There are many other very good effects units, but I can't mention them all here. I've tried the ones I mentioned and found them very useful, with a good sound quality and I have all but the Quadraverb in my own studio. These toys makes it possible to create various rooms and effects that make details stand out from the rest in a (hopefully) tasteful manner.
Furthermore I can mention some post-production effects. Postproduction is what happens after the final mix has been made, but naturally it's possible to do the final mix and the post-production (or parts of it) at the same time - why limit your creativity? You can use the compressor/limiter as a post-production effect as I described previously, on the final mix. Be very carful when using it on the final mix since unwanted pumping effects can be caused by faulty settings. Another nice effect is an enhancer. The enhancer adds brilliance and depending on the model, it may also be possible to make adjustments in the low range too, to get a more "punchy" bass. I use a Behringer Ultrafex II for this and it sounds terrific. If you can't afford a digital equalizer, I can strongly suggest that you get an enhancer instead of a cheap equalizer, since it adds less noise than the eq.
Another post-production effect that's a lot of fun is BBE's line of units which already at mixdown can compensate for the phase errors which will occur in the speakers that are used when playing back the music... I can only add that it's an impressive effect which does very nice things to the sound - and it's an absolute must have for unit maniacs (like myself).
If you want control over the stereo image, you can get a Behringer Edison, where you have the possibility to adjust the stereo image from mono out to very extreme stereo. Besides this function, it can to some extent move sounds closer or further away in the image (at least things that are placed in the middle, like bass, bass drum etc) if you notice a small fault that was made at mixdown - or if you want to experiment with a different sound. Many of those strange effects play around with phase shifting techniques, which may cause some problems with phase faults (sounds logic doesn't it?). I'll try to explain. If you have too much phase faults in the mix, you'll get a result that may sound really great - but it won't be mono-compatible, so if you listen to it in a TV with mono sound or a small radio with a mono speaker etc, you'll loose parts of the sound. Because of this phenomenon, you need to be a bit restrictive when using those effects, but Edison has a savior in your time of need - in the form of a phase correlation meter - which is an instrument that shows the phase problems with a LED display, so you're warned before it's too late.
Even more gadgets
Aren't there any more things to get add to the wishing-list? Oh yes! There's practically no limit... You can add a Behringer Ultrabass, which adds some weight to the music by duplicating the lowest octave and adding it up to two octaves down. To give the subwoofers half a chance of living through such an experience, there's also a limiter built into this unit. Since the whole original signal is unaffected and the processed signal is added to the original, the sound gets very natural and HEAVY!
Now we get back to the unit we used from the start - the equalizer. If you don't have a really good equalizer (rather expensive one), it's probably better not to use it at all. If you have the economic means for it - go for a digital equalizer instead of an analog. With it you can make subtle adjustments of the frequency bands by for example comparing in the analyzer with an existing recording which ahs a sound somewhere close to what you want to achieve.
Is it over now? Calm down! There are lots of units left... One of the units that are on my current wishing-list is SPL's Vitaliser, which compensates for your ears' masking effect. Sounds strange, doesn't it? Ok, here it comes: If the ear hears two signals that are close to each other in frequency, the quieter signal is masked out, so you'll never hear it. SPL's process sorts the same way that the ear does, but after sorting out the weaker signals, they're somewhat phase-shifted and suddenly you'll hear all the details again! A useful unit which sadly enough hasn't found it's way to my studio yet, but it's only a matter of time... ;)
Many of the post-production units I've described can be used on separate instruments too - but you must keep in mind that most of them have no meaning at all if they aren't recorded in stereo (which means more mixer- or recording channels).
So far, I've only treated the electronic magical gadgets that can be bought at a (sometimes) senseless sum of money, but I've neglected to mention one of the most important parts.
When you listen to your masterpieces and try to make a good master mix, it's extremely important not to make your ears tired. By choosing the right monitors, you'll reduce this risk and the monitors should give you a frequency response that's as straight as possible, since that's your chance of really hearing all the details and the chance of getting the mix to sound great in all other speakers increase as well. There are many monitors available - for example Alesis, Tannoy, Genelec, JBL and a number of other manufacturers - both with active (which have built-in amplifiers) and passive speakers (which need external amplifiers). I've stuck with Alesis Monitor One for quite some time now, with the matched amplifier RA-100. They give a very neutral sound image and my ears don't get tired regardless of how long I work with the music. The only thing I can complain about a little is that they're a little weak in the low bass, but they're good enough to make really great mixes.
Monitoring when you're singing can be a bit complicated. You should avoid getting the music from the speakers recorded via the microphone and in the worst case get feedback between the speakers and the mike. You'll need a couple of headphones, but thy should be the "closed" model and not "half open" or "open", since you'll have the music leaking through the mike into the track you're recording the song on - which leads to worse control over the mix.
Doing the final mix when listening through headphones is not a great idea, since you have a much worse frequency response in them and don't get the natural sound you have in studio monitors. I'm sure that if you're never really pleased with the sound of your mixes, it's probably due to a poor listing environment - especially when it comes to the speakers. Ordinary hi-fi speakers are a cheaper alternative, but I can't say I recommend them. The risk if you use such speakers is that the mix sounds good in them - but terrible in most other speakers!
The recording room
The room you record in can be a big problem for home-based studios. What can be done about it? The easiest thing is to try to have as much drapes, rugs etc as possible where you record, since they absorb sound reflections. If you have to be in the same room your computer, tape recorder etc are located in, you should use a directed microphone which is directed as much as possible away from these sources of noise (fans, hard disks etc). Apart from this, you should place the mike some distance from the noise-creators. If you notice that strange reflections occur, you can try to change the direction of the mike a little bit (sometimes very small adjustments can work wonders). You can get some screening walls (the kind they use in office landscapes) and place them on two or three sides of the mike - or place egg cartons on the walls. Since egg cartons aren't very beautiful to look at, you can maybe consider hanging some extra drapes to absorb more of the sound. However, you should never place absorbers on all walls, since the sound may feel "dead" and dull even if you add reverb later on. I know of people who stand in a closet full of clothes when they record the vocals, but that's no method I believe in. It's very uncomfortable and therefore not very funny - the world is full of thrown-in towels and lost spirits - and I think the sound gets too muffled to be enjoyable.
When we're talking about egg cartons: they work very well for damping reflections, but they don't damp the sound going through to your neighbor's wall, so to damp the acoustics that way, you'll need heavy stuff. Heavy drapes is the hot tip, maybe even in many layers (if you don't have the skill (or place) to build an extra wall with real insulation of course... A floating room is naturally the best, with insulated walls all around it and a heavy concrete floor to get rid of most vibrations - preferably with bass traps (VERY complicated) and foam profiles at well chose places - and preferably no parallel walls at all. This is absolutely nothing for an apartment... ;)
This is how far I go this time. Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you all.
As usual, questions and suggestions are welcome - I want to write about things I know the readers are interested in.
Take care until we meet again!