Three Important Skills Essential for Better Recording Sessions

Often during recording sessions, audio engineers have their technical jacket on and can periodically overlook some of the psychological aspects of engineering a record. The psychology doesn’t only make a record, it also can transform the way an artist or band feels about the record in the end.

It is important to remember that there are certain realities in the studio that can discourage artists when making modern records.

1. Editing

Most modern music production nowadays consists of recording and rendering audio files and moving them around in some kind of DAW session. For example, you may want to move a percussion fill from the end of your first verse to the last verse. However, after this simple rearrangement, the percussion fill doesn’t lock to the groove of the drums and bass guitar the same way that it did at the end of the first verse.

Correcting this problem between the relationship of the percussion, drums, and bass might require a few simple adjustments on one or more of the tracks in question. As technicians in the studio, often times we don’t take this concept to heart as much as we should. Musicians and artists will often become self-aware the longer they are in the studio. The psychological affect this can have over time in the studio can kill inspiration and motivation.

The truth is, it’s not that the percussion is out of time or the drum and bass tracks were performed poorly. Slight feel shifts happen all the time during performances, especially when two or more musicians are playing live together.

One way to avoid this psychological hiccup from having an affect in your recording session is to make sure the artist and/or musicians take a periodic break from time to time while recording. Send them outside for a walk around the block to clear up their heads. It’s always a good idea to have your client’s take a short break after they’ve just recorded a bunch of takes anyway. The brief separation can lend objectivity to the overall project, keep emotions balanced, and ears fresh. This objectivity can help the artist or musicians hear their song from an outside listeners perspective as opposed to an inside perspective

Between a Rock & a Hard Place

As sure as the sun rises in the east, it’s quite likely that at some point in your audio engineering career you’ll have to edit a song or performance way more than you either wanted or planned to. This can be due to a few things in your control as well as a number of factors that aren’t.

Most of the time in the studio, you’re stuck with the band or musicians you are recording on a project. And most of the time in the studio, its not going to be possible to replace a musician or band member that isn’t carrying his or her own weight in the recording process. It’s just something that has to be dealt with, which means that you’re probably going to be doing a lot of editing and or secretly replacing.

The best thing to do is to get the band or musicians you are working with to leave for the day or wait until the end of the session when they leave before starting editing. You’re going to be doing major surgery, which can become quite a long and tedious job. Time and patience are required, which is something that doesn’t always sit well with an artist or band that is not familiar with the process. And if any of them are sensitive or thin skinned, watching you fix their performances could potentially make an artist or band member tune out and not focus their attention on the creative aspects

2. Getting Punchy

Generally during most recording sessions, punch-ins need to be made. It is definitely a time saver. Sure it’s nice to massage your client’s ego and do numerous takes until they nail the whole track in one take. But most times, doing this takes and wastes a lot of time in the studio. Clients who are booking time in the studio now usually don’t have the kind of recording budgets that people had 20 years ago. Time is definitely a factor when recording, which means punching in a performance has become an even more important step in the recording process than before.

If it’s one note or one phrase that you don’t like, just punch it in. It’s not quite as easy as it sounds though, however with computers taking over much of the recording and editing process, you don’t need to have the fastest fingers in the west anymore to do a good job. Always record a little more than what you need so you have space to edit what you are punching in cleanly and correctly. This will help give the performance that feeling like it was recorded all in one take.

Work Dat Sh*t

Do be afraid to practice counting and punching in. Remember, practice makes perfect. It’s important to know everything there is to know about the punch settings in your DAW, cause every audio system is different. Build your experience with both auto-punches and freehand punches. The goal is to make it effortless and sound natural.

Before the Roll, there was Pre Roll

This can be a real mind bender when recording. It’s important when you’re punching in or recording multiple takes that you use the same amount of pre-roll and a consistent starting point. Too much pre-roll can lead to forgetfulness or over analyzation from the artist or musician who is punching in. Not enough pre-roll can lead to an unnatural punch in which can destroy the emotion and character of a given recorded performance as a whole.

Starting randomly at different times in the beat will not put the artist or musician in a comfortable state of mind either. Pay close attention to your time ruler. Have a rule that you will either use one or two bars of pre-roll when punching in. Stay away from odd starting points unless the song is in an odd time signature.

The important thing is you always want the artist or musician you are recording to feel grounded 100% comfortable. If your start times are herky-jerky and inconsistent, you can and should expect weaker recorded performances overall.

Also, make sure the artist or musician you are punching in understands the aspects of pre-roll and punch ins. Practice it a few times with them so they can become comfortable with the punch in procedure. Practice makes perfect!

3. Markers

It’s important to make sure you label each section of the song. Do this as early in the session as you possibly can. Nobody enjoys hearing or watching you take the time to search for a specific section of the song.

Every DAW on the market has different options when it comes to markers. Systems like Logic and Pro Tools allow you to name and color code markers. You can even come up with your own system. Doing this for every song will make navigation much easier for each song because there is consistency, and you are building good engineering habits.

So remember, its all the small things that add up to making the studio experience more memorable and positive. If your goal is to become a better engineer for your clients, make sure you consider these skills.

Recording Audio with Mixing in Mind

Audio engineers play a critical role in three aspects of the process for creating music. These aspects are recording, mixing, and mastering.

Occasionally, three different engineers, who specialize in each kind of engineering, complete these tasks separately. Sometimes, one engineer might be responsible for all three.

Nonetheless, it helps the process of mastering to have a great mix. Just as well, it helps the mixing process to have a great recording. Therefore, it can be helpful to keep the big picture in mind. In this new blog, we’ll take a close look at the aspect of recording

Over time, I have come to believe that there are two common missteps to make in the process of recording.

The first blunder that many amateur engineers make is to assume that something recorded poorly can be fixed in the mixing process. While it is correct that signal processing tools such as equalization and compression are very powerful and can solve many problems, they can make some poorly recorded audio sound good. But just as well, those same powerful signal processing tools can also make good things sound great. To achieve the best results when mixing and mastering, there is nothing that beats beginning with an amazing sounding recording.

The second common mistake people make when recording is to concentrate on each individual sound of the song without acknowledging their context in the overall mix. This means that you are focusing too much on the fidelity of one particular sound in the song, without considering how it works spectrally with other instruments. For instance, you might put in significant effort to record drums that sound “clear” and “big” their own. However, this could actually cause problems when the drum tracks have to fit in with a full mix of other instruments.

Certainly, it is the fundamental responsibility of the mixing engineer to fit all the pieces of a song together. However, this can be better achieved if the original sounds in the mix were recorded with the intention to pocket together.

Here are some things to consider if you want to record with mixing in mind:

1) SONIC SPACE/DEPTH

If your mix has several various instruments, then it is common to want some instruments to be perceived as “close” to the listener and while other instruments are perceived to be “distant” from the listener.

There are a couple techniques when mixing that can be used to change the perception of depth in your mix. However, there are also different recording techniques that can produce similar results in a simpler and more natural way.

One method to achieve that upfront sound is to place the microphone close to your sound source when recording. Set up your microphone within a few inches of a vocalist’s mouth. Put a microphone angled at the top of snare drum. Place a microphone next to the grill cloth on a speaker cabinet.

If you want an instrument to sound far away and distant in your mix, set up microphones further away from the sound source. Moving a microphone several inches away from a guitar amp can make a big difference. Setting up microphones in the back of your live room when tracking drums can add to the perception of realism in your drum tracks. Occasionally, it means setting up microphones several feet away from the sound source.

2) STEREO IMAGE

In a stereo mix, there is a lot of dynamic and spectral space available in the horizontal plane. Not only can you pan mono sound sources to the left and right of your stereo mix, but there are other techniques that be used to ingeniously fill the stereo width. There are many stereo microphone techniques that can be used to obtain everything from a narrow to a wide stereo image when recording.

Another accepted and commonly used method to fill out the stereo width is to double track or mult a performance. If you are recording electric guitar, record it twice and pan one track to the left and the other track to the right. To go another step further, record each guitar track with different microphones so that each side sounds unique. Another common method is to also use different amp and guitar combinations when double tracking guitars

Similarly, to achieve a stereo vocal recording, one method is to use three separate mono tracks of the same vocal part. Start with the best vocal track panned to the center at a volume that will fit in the mix on its own. Take the other two vocal tracks and pan them to the left and right. Depending on how wide you pan each track will determine the width of the vocal performance. Blend the volume of these extra takes so that you subtly perceive the width. If you want the stereo image to be the dominant feature of the vocal, raise the volume of the panned vocal tracks so that they are louder than center panned vocal track.

3) SPECTRAL BALANCE/TIMBRE/TONE

Another aspect to consider when recording is the spectral balance or the sound of the mix. Do you want the overall sound of the mix to be bright or dark? Do you want certain instruments to sound clear while other instruments are meant to sound warm ?

One fast method to change the tone of a recording is to set up the microphone to be off-axis instead of on-axis. Another common idea is to choose between ribbon (typically warmer) or condenser (typically brighter) microphones.

The placement of the microphone in relation to the instrument you are recording can also make a significant difference in the overall tone of a track. If you would like to achieve a “full” and “tonal” sound with an acoustic guitar, place your microphone directly in front of the sound hole. If you would like to achieve a “crisp” and “percussive” sound, then point your microphone precisely at the 12th fret.

4) RENDERING EFFECTS

Motivation and creativity can occur at any point in time. If you are experimenting with certain effects during the recording process, don’t be afraid to push the envelope. Remember, the recording engineer’s main job is to capture the sound song, it might become easier to build that “signature” sound for a mix. This might be a specific delay, reverb, or modulation effect.

Rather than leaving this all up to your mix engineer, it doesn’t hurt to render or print both “dry” and “wet” versions of the signals. You never know if your mix engineer will be able to perfectly duplicate a great effect you created.

This novel idea also works for the re-amping of guitars. It can be advantageous for a mix engineer to have a reference (amped) version, even if they anticipate using re-amping after the original recording session. Its possible the original version ends up being better than the re-amped version.

Keep in mind that it can be beneficial to have both processed and unprocessed versions after recording has finished up. Only use what is known as destructive editing when you are certain that you want to commit to a particular effect.

Conclusion

In conclusion, it’s always good to have a solid vision of a song’s finished state before you start recording. It can make the recording process more constructive, and save a whole lot of time when mixing and mastering.

Mixtapes In Five Steps

Here at Studio 11, recording and producing the mixtape is what we do day in and day out. It’s an everyday occurrence, kind of like tea-bagging and the pudding dip, but that’s another story for another day. Over the last 17 years, we have recorded, mixed, and mastered close to 2000 different mixtapes for various rappers from Chicago and abroad. The writing is actually on our walls (come see for yourself). You’ll find that we have way more than a lot experience in the whole mixtape game. One thing that all this collective experience has taught us, it takes more than a well-produced mixtape to be heard. It takes a concerted effort from the artist, his or her manager, friends, family and even the fans. Here in this blog, we’ll discuss 5 detailed steps to producing, marketing, and promoting your mixtape so you can obtain the best and most impactful response out of its release.

Find The Right Studio

The first step on the journey of putting out a mixtape is finding a good studio in which to record your mixtape in. It’s important to find a studio that you are comfortable recording in, who understands your vision, and produces amazing sounding records. Always try and find out as much as you can when looking for a studio to record in. Who has worked in the studio before, what is the quality of the sound the studio produces, what is the speed of their workflow. Once you have found a studio you like and reserved the time you need, make sure that you come fully prepared. Write your rhymes at home to the music you are planning on recording to. Make sure all the lyrics you’ve written are memorized and well rehearsed before you arrive at the studio. Before you get to the studio, double check that you have all your beats with you in the best quality and format possible. It’s also important to have a back up plan just in case whatever device you brought your beats on such as a hard drive or cd doesn’t work.


Get A Good Mix and Master

After all the songs have been recorded, the next step in the mixtape journey is the process of mixing and mastering. To simply put it, mixing is defined as the process by which multiple sounds are combined into one or more channels. In the process, the source signals’ level, frequency content, dynamics, and panoramic position are manipulated and effects such as reverb may be added. This practical, aesthetic, or otherwise creative treatment is done in order to produce a mix that is more appealing to listeners. Always make sure your mixtape is cleaned up and mixed by a professional engineer who is experienced and knows what he or she is doing. Make sure that the sound is clear and crisp and that the sound levels are balanced throughout your mixtape.

Hire A Graphic Artist

When hiring a graphic artist to design your mixtape cover, make sure they understand your music and brand and that they can bring your ideas to life. Also be sure that they can bring forth their own creative cover ideas that will represent you and your mixtape effectively. So, with that being said, here are three tips to consider when hiring a graphic artist to design your mixtape:

Versatility: When choosing a graphic artist, make sure that they are versatile, creative, and have a wide range of design skills. The main thing is you want someone who can convey your individuality and the themes and messages of your music, not someone who has a pre-designed approach to designing mixtape covers.

Track Record: Request to see work they’ve done in the past. Additionally, when you’re hiring for services, such as PR, marketing, or website design, check track records too.

Professionalism: We know that the hip-hop/rap industry can be a little casual, but business is business. Make sure you have a timeline for the design job and ask that the graphic artist is being consistent and communicating effectively with you throughout the design process.

Use Social Media to Promote Your Mixtape Release

Engage: Follow other hip-hop artists, both established and up-and-coming, who have similar followers and fan bases. Additionally, follow DJs and other hip-hop influencers’, such as hip-hop editors, bloggers, etc. Keep track of who’s talking about you.

Fan Promotion: Constantly engage with your fans and include them on your journey. For example, you can ask fans for opinions regarding the title of your mixtape, which track to promote, mixtape cover art, etc. Join their conversations; don’t just always flood them with links pertaining to your music.

Plan: Plan an overall strategy so you do not get distracted from the main goal.

Find a DJ

When starting out, especially if it’s your first mixtape, don’t just look for DJ’s who are established to play your music. Go out and find Djs who are up-and-coming and who will truly believe in your music. The more Dj’s that have it, the more chances your mixtape will have to be heard. Power of the masses!

This list covers the overall basics. However, it is important to mention the viability of building your fan base prior to releasing your mixtape. Creating anticipation and hype prior to the release helps bring mystique and excitement to you as an artist and to the release as a whole. Don’t be cheeky, create that buzz!

All the best with your mixtape release!

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!

Skill Sets of the Chicago Recording Engineer

To become a prosperous recording engineer in Chicago, you must possess both a wide and unique set of skills in and out of the field. Nowadays, not only do you have to be a good musician, computer tech and gear junkie, but you also have to be an extremely good salesman, business manager, psychologist and even journalist. When it comes to the subtleties of sound, the engineer needs to have or develop a trained ear, master complicated analog and digital devices, be in the know on new technologies and methods that achieve specific artistic results.

It isn’t too surprising that most premier recording engineers in Chicago and elsewhere are musicians themselves. Many of them at one time were eager musicians who eventually realized their affinity for being in the studio, helping other artists make the most out of the projects they are recording.

One of the most important skills a recording engineer needs to master is having a sense of balance. No, I am not talking about standing up and falling down. We are not gymnasts. We are recording engineers, specialists of audio and sound. Mostly everything the recording engineer undertakes before, during, and after the recording session primarily has to do with determining and maintaining balance relationships with all the elements or parts that make up a song. The vocal can’t be too quiet. The drums can’t be too overpowering, etc.

One important thing to keep in mind with balance is unless you have learned how to use the tools to properly achieve it, having a good ear is pretty useless. A professionally experienced recording engineer will commonly say that the control board or DAW system is really just an extension of himself, a third hand that invisibly manipulates and paints the sound into a 3 dimensional sonic painting. Kind of like a jigsaw puzzle builder. You will also hear them say that to be a good engineer one must be able to see or visualize the song before it is finished. This visualization is key to understanding what the level of each particular element inside a song should be relative to the rest of the elements.

Commonly with powerful digital audio workstations (DAWs) like Pro Tools and Logic, there is an allurement to really go overboard and use every engineering trick out there on every track. A professional recording engineer will not only know how to balance levels in a session, but also how to balance compression, equalization, and effects through a vast array of editing tricks and software based plug-ins. There is, you know, that thing called being overproduced.

It is also important that a recording engineer should be intimately knowledgeable with every piece of equipment in the studio. This means understanding how each piece of equipment works, how each piece of equipment affects the sound of recorded audio, and what it’s strength’s and weakness’ are. For example, certain compressors sound good on drums, while others sound better on vocals. The engineer must also be a specialist on the varieties of microphones available to him in the studio (condenser, dynamic, ribbon), as well as the different pre-amplifiers and amplifiers that will be used to amplify signal from the microphones.

Another uber important skill that defines the good engineers from the bad is the ability to continuously maintain a strong work ethic while also paying incredibly close attention to detail. The profession of the audio engineer doesn’t always follow the usual 9-5 pm work routine found with most professions. It really isn’t that uncommon for a recording engineer to endure marathon studio sessions that last several days or more, even weeks! No matter what the working conditions might be, the engineer is always expected to make the best recordings he or she can while keeping everything in the session running smoothly.

It is also important that a good recording engineer learns how to work in the studio quickly. He or she must never be a bump in the road to the overall creative process in the studio. For the client trying to record new, spontaneous ideas, if the engineer isn’t ready to go, the client could lose confidence and creativity, thus creating frustration and tension during the recording session. Even though the recording engineer’s job can be incredibly complex, managing many different important tasks at once, it should never dominate the focus of the actual studio session. The focus should be on the creative process at hand as well as the prostitutes you ordered 10 minutes ago to help additionally ‘inspire’ your client.

This brings us to the final and perhaps most demanding skill that the Chicago recording engineer must master in and even out of the studio, communication. Recording artists, who each have their own style of communication, can sometimes make the job quite difficult for the recording engineer. It is important for the recording engineer to learn when to speak out and when to be quiet, as well as learn the intricacies of the words the client speaks. A good recording engineer will designate his or herself early in the recording session as a helpful resource in the creative process. If the client is a new client, the recording engineer will usually try to get to know the client a little bit before the session begins. This can take place by either inviting the client to the studio for a pre session meeting or tour, going to the client’s rehearsal space or home, or even attending a live show of the clients. By creating these personal relationships with your clients, you will ease the process of communication and make the overall recording session more pleasant for everyone involved.

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