The Common Sense of High Resolution Audio

Here in Chicago, it is well known that we like our women dirty and our music even dirtier. So is it really worth it to record and produce music in Chicago or anywhere else at a high resolution when it is meant to sound raw and lo-fi, like hip hop and rap. While many audio engineers and producers would say there is just simply no need to, more and more of them are beginning to realize the benefits of higher resolution recording such as 96kHz and 192kHz. And I too realized it after eating two Chicago style hot dogs and one polish. You can too, so listen up!

Wandering away from the times of DADC (digital audio data compression), collectively the questions of why high sample rates could benefit the consumer delivery platform becomes increasingly important. We inside this audio community struggle with the notion of using sample rates that improve fidelity outside the limits of our ears. Why can’t we just stop at the 16 bit, 44.1 kHz digital format. 16 bit gives us the dynamic range to mask the noise floor while 44.1 kHz gives us the full 20 Hz – 20kHz frequency spectrum our ears can discern. Wasn’t the conclusion Phillips and Sony made back in the day good enough? A CD’s sampling rate and bit depth delivered the best sound possible over any other digital product. The answer today in the year 2014/2015 would be no.

High-Resolution Audio systems offer the assurance of an extended high-frequency range. These digital systems now operate at 2 to 4 times the sample rate of the standard CD. This means that these systems have the ability to extend the playback frequency range well above the 22 kHz limit of the standard CD. Does this added high-frequency range really improve the quality our listening experience? Yes, it definitely will. The problem is that High-Resolution Audio will only arrive when all the components in the playback chain can equal the resolution of playback.

For example, lets consider a digital audio playback system consisting of a CD player, preamp, power amp, and speakers. If each component has a frequency response of 20 Hz to 20 kHz, is this good enough to reproduce all the frequencies we humans can hear? The quick answer is no, and here is why.

An audio system’s real frequency response can be understood by adding together the frequency response of each component in the audio systems chain. If we look at our example above, we have four components total in the chain: CD player, pre amp, power amp, and speakers. If each component is -3 dB at 20 kHz, then in total, we have a system that is -12 dB at 20 kHz. Because this collective curve is so steep, it will begin to affect the audible high frequency information we humans hear, measuring at -4 dB at 10 kHz, -.66 at 5 khz, etc. In conclusion, this system will not even come close to matching the performance of what our ears can do.

So, if we want to accurately reproduce audio at 20 kHz, the frequency response of each component must continue well past 20 kHz. Is this what you call excessive and unnecessary? To argue this, let’s change each of the four components in our example above with components that have a 200 kHz bandwidth. Combined, the audio system now measures – 4 dB at 100 kHz, – 0.8 dB at 50 kHz, and close to – 0.2 dB at 20 kHz. This simple 4-component signal chain achieves a 100 kHz bandwidth and is consistent with the 96 kHz bandwidth of a 192 kHz digital sample rate. It can be argued that the region between 20 kHz and 100 kHz may offer little musical content, and even if it does, the only living thing in your house that could possibly hear it is the family dog or cat. The real asset is that we have preserved the entire 20 Hz to 20 kHz bandwidth after passing through four audio components in a typical playback system.

Nowadays, professional audio systems usually have analog signal chains that are much longer than 4 components. These operations place difficult requirements on the frequency response of each analog component in the chain. A chain of 16 analog components total, each with a bandwidth of 20 kHz, will produce an overall frequency response of about -48 dB at 20 kHz, 16 dB at 10 kHz and – 3 dB at 5 kHz. This really is telephone quality at best if you look at the curve on frequency graph! If the same system is built with 200 kHz components, the overall response will be – 3 dB at 50 kHz, about -1 dB at 20 kHz, and -.33 dB at 10 kHz.

All together, very high bandwidth is required of each component in the audio chain if we want to assemble a High-Resolution system that can handle sampling rates such as 192kHz. The proposed benefit of high resolution audio is not inaudible content, but better performance of digital systems within the 20 Hz – 20 kHz range. The idea of high resolution has now branched out to not only recording studio playback systems but consumer playback systems as well. Neil Young’s popular consumer playback system ‘PONO’ offers response all the way up to 250 kHz.

How does this all relate to recording and producing one of these lo-fi Chicago sounding record’s on a high-resolution system. Well if you think about it now after what was mentioned above, it’s going to be a better lo-fi sound. Not in the fact that it’s going to magically sound better because of the high resolution, but in the fact that it’s going to translate better across the consumer market because of the high resolution. What this means is for the first time, people are going to be able to hear the same sound at their home as what the artist heard when making the record in the studio. This is because from recording to mixing, mastering to final print and consumer playback, the full 20 Hz – 20 kHz spectrum will have been entirely preserved. This means the sound is accurate and unaffected from the process of making the record to hearing it. To all you audio engineers out there, take it into consideration, even if you’re recording lo-fi music such as hip hop and rap, especially hip hop and rap from Chicago.

So don’t be afraid to make those high-resolution records in 192kHz, that is, if your system can hack it. The consumer market is finally picking up the pace on affordable high resolution, or high definition playback systems. Really all we need now for high-resolution consumer audio to take hold is for a significant market progression away from the mp3 format. Lets keep our fingers crossed guys and girls!

The Music Producer

In the world of music production, the definition of the phrase ‘music producer’ can mean many different things to many different people. Some producers are musicians, some are just engineers, some are actually remixer’s, while others are all three. So what is it exactly that a music producer does then?

In the simplest and most cohesive terms, the producer is actually the project manager to the process of composition, recording, mixing, and mastering. He or she is in charge of directing and maintaining the overall vision of the project, defines the sound and the goals of the project, brings an exclusive mindset to inspire, and assists with the provocation of the artist. A good producer will make the record more than the sum of its overall parts. In a way, you could almost say he or she is a scientist trying to create musical chemistry.

Each producer brings their own set of skills and approach to the project, so this can make summarizing what they do quite difficult. In this blog, I will define several recognizable types of producers so I can hopefully make this more clear for you, the reader.



The Audio Engineer

The profession of the audio engineer is what usually defines the average person’s stereotypical notion of the ‘classic’ music producer. This definition is aided by the visualization of the engineer perched over the mixing console, sweating over equalization and compression settings, effects combinations like chorus and reverb, track phasing, headroom, dynamics, so on and so forth. To many in the music industry, the studio is almost like an instrument, and it’s the music producer who plays it like a true virtuoso. For them, the project isn’t finished until the overall vision has been 100% realized. Whatever and however long it takes to get to the end goal of a sonic masterpiece, they will attempt it.

The Advisor / Mentor

There are many producers in the music industry who unlike the audio engineer, don’t have much technical expertise to speak of in the studio. They usually don’t sit at the mixing console during production of the records they make, but instead hire the best engineer who can help achieve the overall vision of the specific project in production. These advisor/mentor producers usually focus squarely on the artist’s vision, inspiration, and performance, helping them to produce the best sound and music the artist is capable of. One good example of this kind of producer is Rick Rubin, who seems to have a knack for positively inspiring and energizing the artists he works with.

The Midas Touch

There are some producers in the industry who almost seem to have a magical touch with whatever artist they work with, a kind of mysterious recipe that assures the best chances of success for the artist. Flood, with his trademark “wall of sound”, is one good example of this kind of producer whose career has dominated alternative, punk, and rock music for over 25 years. Dr. Dre, a more recent representation of ‘the midas touch’ producer, was almost entirely responsible for the vast output of some of the biggest names in R&B and Rap. It is important to keep in mind though that a distinctive sound is only a good thing if the style of the producer fits in with the artist.

The Remixer

A lot of people from today’s generation think the profession of ‘remix producer’ is a recent evolution in the music industry. However, the origins of the ‘remix producer’ actually began in the mid 70’s with the fusion of edits in the disco genre. These edits would be comped together to form what are known as ‘dub edits’ or ‘dub remixes.’ In the early 80’s, artist’s like Grandmaster Flash invented the sound of cutting and scratching. Shortly afterwards sampling and midi took remixing to a whole new level. Now, remixing has become such an essential part in the evolution and marketing of a song, that the remix often becomes the top ten hit before fans have heard the original version of the song remixed.

The Musician

Musicality, while one of the least recognized, is probably one of the most fundamental skills required of a producer. A good producer will add to, remark and counsel on the performance, songwriting, and arrangement of a song they are producing. Many producers are usually great musicians as well. It is also not uncommon to find them playing on the albums they produce.

The Artist

Some artists take their musicality to a whole other level by actually being the producer of the project. One famous example of the artist taking on the role of producer is Chicago’s very own hit maker, R Kelly. Not only has Kelly produced a continuous stream of hit records for his own brand name, he has produced hit after hit for virtually every major label artist in the dance, pop, r&b, and soul genres. Another great example of the artist/producer is Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, who does everything from write to perform and engineer his own records.

RECORDING HIP HOP & RAP IN CHICAGO

When it comes to Hip Hop & Rap music, many music aficionados like to think of them in a negative context. Their argument, that these genres really aren’t music because they’re absent of any melodic structure and theory, could hold true if you were alive during the Baroque Period. But what they forget is rhythm is just as important as melody. Rhythm is what drives melody and harmony. It is its’ foundation or backbone.

Hip Hop & Rap music, driven largely by drumbeats and rhythmically spoken word vocals called “raps”, is an exploration into the sound and syncopation of rhythm. The drumbeat in rap music usually provides the basic rhythm of the song, while the “spoken rap” provides the intricately syncopated rhythms to the beat. Understanding & appreciating that these two core elements are central to the hip hop and rap genres are vitally important to the correct approach and methods of recording these styles of music.

While it’s true that recording Hip Hop & Rap may not be as complicated as recording a live Jazz Ensemble or Rock Band per se, the process of recording a good rap vocal is equally as complicated. It is not just about setting up a microphone or headphones and then pressing record. First, the room in which the rapper is recorded in must be taken into consideration. The sound or ambience of a room can have a major effect on a recorded vocal. When a rapper is performing, the waveforms coming from his or her voice bounce and reflect in many different directions around the room they are recording in. Depending on the size of the room and the materials it is built out of, will determine the length of time the waveform will reflect or reverberate around the room. This effects the overall tone of the vocal recorded, sometimes pretty dramatically. A room with a lot of reverb, or a wet room, isn’t preferable when recording good sounding rap vocals. A wet room can tend to smear the sound of the voice or rap, dulling out the rhythmical excitement and clarity of the performance. Recording rap vocals in rooms that do not possess reflective or reverberate qualities, also known as a dry or dead room, is most optimal when attempting to capture a good rap performance.

The next thing to consider when attempting to record a good “rap” performance is the microphone that will be used to capture the recording. The microphone, which is a transducer, is the most important piece of the recording process. It is the conduit that allows the rapper’s voice and message to be heard anywhere, anytime. Imagine if you could buy yourself a pair of ears, would you buy yourself a cheap or average pair of ears? No, you would get the best ears you could afford so you could have the best hearing possible. The same can be said for microphones, you want the best possible so the listener can really hear you. Good vocalist microphones should provide a crisp and smooth high frequency response, along with a warm and present midrange, and a warm but gentle low frequency response. Condenser microphones such as Neuman U47, AKG C12, Telefunken Ela M 251, or the Audio Technica 4060 (which is what we use) are great not only for Hip Hop and Rap, but Pop, Rock, and Jazz among many other styles of music.

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Recording Studio For Rap And Hip Hop In Chicago

The third thing to consider when recording a rap performance is the power and pre amplification source for the microphone. Good condenser microphones like the U47 Microphone or AT 4060 require either a direct power source like a power supply or phantom power, which is a power source built into your pre amplifier device. However, the best way to power your microphone is from a power supply. Good power supplies are built from high quality parts and electronics, which will in turn relay a clean and steady direct source of power to your microphone. Power supplies are the better option because their job is to solely provide power to the microphone and nothing else. With a pre amplifier, phantom power relays electricity to your microphone from the same circuitry that powers the amplifier. The power source is just not as clean and reliable because it is divided amongst the different circuitry within the pre amp. It’s kind of like moving water through one hose and then splitting the flow off into four hoses. Water will flow out of the four hoses, but the water pressure will be less reliable and steady than if it flowed out of just the one hose.

Now that we understand the importance of powering your condenser microphone with a power supply, it is now time to discuss the pre amplification of the microphone signal into your recorder. Microphone signals are often too weak to be transmitted to units such as mixing consoles and recording devices with adequate quality. Preamplifiers increase the microphone signal to line level (the level of signal strength required by such devices) by providing stable gain while preventing induced noise that would otherwise distort the signal.

Even though the microphone is the source to most of the coloration of the recorded vocal tracks, the microphone preamplifier also affects the sound quality of the signal. A preamplifier might load the microphone with low impedance, forcing the microphone to work harder and thus change its tone quality. It also might add coloration by adding other built in characteristics, or features such as vacuum tubes, equalization, and dynamics control. The preamplifier we use here at Studio 11 is the Manley Voxbox, which is a vacuum tube amplifier with both equalization and dynamics control. Out of the 18 years or so of recording both Rap and Hip Hop, we haven’t come across a better preamplifier for recording ‘rap’ vocals. The preamp delivers a warm sound, with good midrange at around 1k. The limiter is great for controlling rappers whose performances are rather dynamic.

The last step in the process of recording Rap & Hip Hop vocals is the consideration of the recorder that will be used to capture the performance. Back at the start when Hip Hop & Rap first found its way into the music scene across Chicago, the rapper’s performances, beat, and music were all recorded to analog tape in a professional music studio. This helped provide that rich warm dirty sound that characterized such early Chicago Hip Hop artists like Common, Crucial Conflict, Ten Tray, and Twista to name a few. As time progressed, digital media like the Alesis ADAT and the Tascam DA Series began to take over the recording market because of their affordability over analog tape machines. Smaller localized studios began to open up offering cheaper rates over larger professional studios, which in turn offered more artists the chance to get into a studio and record their projects.

By the early 90’s, companies like Digidesign, Synclavier, and Sonic Solutions began to develop software & hardware for the purpose of recording and editing audio on a computer based system. At first, these DAW systems were expensive and could only record and edit. But by the late 90’s, Digidesign’s flagship software & hardware system Pro Tools started to become the industry wide standard by allowing engineers to not only record and edit multi-track audio in real time, but mix, master, compose, and arrange it as well. No system could offer all these options to the degree of reliability and stability that Pro Tools could offer at the time. Also, projects and sessions became completely recallable which was always a tedious chore when using analog tape.

Now in 2014, the market for quality DAW’s has expanded due to the affordability of powerful computers. Virtually any audio software out there has the ability to record audio from a microphone source. However, Pro Tools is still the only software that allows the engineer to record multiple tracks at once with zero latency while using plug ins and other real time features. No matter what professional studio you go to, it will feature a Pro Tools system 99 times out of 100. It is the industry standard when it comes to recording & editing Hip Hop & Rap.

Another small thing to be concerned about when recording a rapper is the headphone mix that the performer or rapper will reference while recording their performance. Remember, microphones pick up all sound no matter how loud or subtle. You must be careful with how loud the level of the headphones are when recording, as the microphone will pick up the residual sound or bleed through of the headphones. This bleed through can add up in volume when recording multiple tracks of vocals and can alter the sound of the vocal over the track by creating issues with phase in the midrange, not only in the vocal but with the track itself. It is quite common for rappers to prefer a louder headphone mix so they can ‘get into’ their performance. A good way to achieve a loud headphone mix while reducing phasey headphone bleed through is to have the rapper or performer wear a stocking cap over their headphones when performing. This will keep the seal of the headphones tight to the ears and dull out any bleed through that is emitted. The recorded rap performances will be much cleaner and thus easier to work into your mix.

The last thing to be discussed when recording Hip Hop and Rap is the beat in which the rapper will be performing on top of. For the past decade or so, most rappers have been recording their performances on top of an instrumental 2-track that they either purchased or licensed from an online beat store or a producer. Every now and then, you get lucky and a client will bring in the individual stems or track outs to the song they are performing on top of. These individual tracks are usually produced and rendered down in production software like Ableton, FL Studio or Logic. The problem with these rendered tracks is that because there is the possibility they may have been created inside cheap production software, they can tend to take on a cold lifeless digital sound. Programs like Reason, Garageband, and Acid are notorious for rendering files that do not sound as good as they originally did in the session. If there is extra time in our clients session’s here at Studio 11, we like to take these digital track outs and transfer them over to analog tape, which in turn brings the digital files back to life by adding new characteristics such as warmth, saturation and even harmonics. Yes, transferring to tape might add a little noise, but noise isn’t always a bad thing. Sometimes, it can be the difference maker.

CHEAP RECORDING STUDIOS IN CHICAGO – THE TRUTH

We all know the classic adage “You get what you pay for”, well nothing could be more true when it comes to studio time – especially cheap studio time. While searching for cheap recording studios in Chicago there are 3 things you should consider.

First off, we must address the fact that we are in Chicago, the nations third largest city. For those of you that live in Chicago, you know that it is not a “cheap” city by any means. So factor this in to what you consider to be cheap studio time. Recording studios must pay rent in accordance with their location. So it is fair to assume that a cheap recording studio downtown may be pricier than a cheap recording studio in a low profile part of Chicago. Location, location, location as they say…

Secondly, mind the quality of equipment or “gear” the recording studio offers. A studio with high end mics, pre amps, digital systems, and post production equipment offers an amazing improvement in sound quality over the budget based studio with cheap low cost recording gear. For just 10-20 dollars more per hour you can access the same quality gear that major label records are recording on. Your music isn’t cheap is it? Why cheap out when it comes to sound quality? You will regret it.

Lastly, engineering skills are everything in audio. It’s great that young budding recording students set out to build cheap start up studios with cheap equipment, but these engineers cannot match the artistry and sound that is offered by seasoned professional engineers who have earned major recording credits. For a small amount more money you can offer your music an enormous improvement by hiring world class engineering talent. Fact is that a professional engineer will work much faster than a novice. This affects the bottom line of your recording costs. You may be paying for 3 hours of recording time at a “cheap” studio for a job that should only take 1 hour in the hands of a professional engineer.

Here at Studio 11 we offer the highest quality equipment, best engineering talent, and the fastest turnaround. You can’t beat that. Call us at 312.372.4460 or email studio11chicago@gmail.com for free consultation. Or use the contact form found HERE. Our rates start at 65/HR.

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