Parallel Compression on Vocals

Whether you are a recording engineer or in the process of learning to become one, chances are you have probably heard of the drum mix technique called ‘parallel compression.’ If you haven’t, let me quickly explain. This is when the recording engineer sends the drum mix out through a stereo buss to a compressor and mixes that signal back into the original stereo mix of the song. The method of ‘parallel compression’ can either be used in an extremely subtle or overt manner by modifying the extent and character of the compression and how much of that compressed signal is sent through the stereo buss. I have found that by using this technique the drive of the drum track performance really comes alive in the mix, even during quieter passages. It gives the drums that ‘in your face’ kind of sound while still retaining a smooth listenable quality.

The results vary from just compressing the tracks because at a low level you get both retained transients and an extra sense of loudness from the compression. When the song starts to get louder, the effect of the compression applied to the bussed signal will become less prominent due to the uncompressed track’s dynamic swells that can tend to dominate the mix.

However, the technique of ‘parallel compression’ doesn’t have to be used just on drums. I discovered a similar technique for myself many years ago for vocals, only to learn that other recording engineers before me used this technique too. The reason why I decided to use ‘parallel compression’ on the vocal was I wanted the lead vocal track of the song to be articulate at lower levels while still retaining a listenable quality at higher levels. In essence, what I had created was my own form of dynamic equalization.

So, I wanted my lead vocal track to be brighter at low levels to help it slice through the mix. However, I knew adding top end would only cause the vocal to be really harsh at higher levels. Adding compression to the vocal really didn’t create the sound I was looking for, it just sounded like I was sitting in the vocalist’s mouth. A little to intimate for what was needed in the mix of the song. Also, the amalgamation of compression and high frequency boost caused the vocal track to become really sibilant, which is usually not a good thing when it comes to lead vocals. Moving the compressor to the front of the vocal chain helped a little bit, but it still didn’t provide that magical sound I was looking for.

I wanted my vocal to be brighter at low levels to help it cut through a mix, but just EQ’ing it caused it to be too harsh at higher levels. Adding a compressor to the vocal did not create the sound I had in my head. It was still to harsh at high levels and the EQ caused the compressor to react in ways that I felt were inappropriate. The combination of high frequency EQ boost and compression often causes a well recorded voice track to become sibilant. Not a good thing. Placing the compressor in front of the vocal signal chain helped, but still did not deliver the “magic” I was looking for.

The solution to my problem presented itself after a few hours of mad science and experimentation. Since I work primarily on a DAW, I decided to duplicate the lead vocal track to a second track, so in essence, there were now two lead vocal tracks. On the duplicate lead vocal track, I first Eq’d all the bottom end out by running it through a high pass filter. I then boosted the top end of the duplicate lead vocal by about 5 or 6 dbs’s. My goal was to create a vocal track that didn’t have a lot of tone to it or vowel sound, just consonants. I then heavily compressed the duplicate lead vocal track to control and push back any loud passages, allowing for the softer passages to come through. Once this was done, I mixed the duplicate lead vocal track back in with the original lead vocal track. The end result was a lead vocal track that was now easy to understand at low levels because of the extra boost in the highs, while also be pleasant to hear at louder levels because of the reduction of the highs due to the heavy compression.

Now one thing you must pay attention to when using this technique on a DAW is processing delay. It can vary a lot from plug in to plug in. An easy way to correct this problem is by inserting the same plug ins on both the original and duplicate track. You would then set the plug ins on the original track to bypass so they don’t effect the sound of the original track. If your DAW already has delay compensation built into its software, then make sure this feature is engaged.

This technique can also be done using your analog console. Buss your lead vocal to two channels on your console and then assign both of those channels to the stereo buss. Insert a compressor that has both a quick attack and release onto the duplicate or ‘articulation’ vocal track. Insert an EQ or filter on the articulation track that can high pass everything below 3khz. Set your compressor on the articulation channel to an extreme compression setting with the fastest attack and release possible. Listen to how the consonants sound coming from the articulation channel and make sure they are clean and without and tone or vowel sounds. Mix the articulation channel back into the stereo buss mix until you can noticeably hear the articulation come up at lower levels while hearing the tone change to a warmer sound during elevated levels. Mix the articulation signal in to taste.

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.

The Life of an Audio Engineer

The profession of audio engineering is not only a very exciting line of work, but is also very challenging too. But not everyone knows what a real audio engineer does or what it takes to actually be an audio engineer. On any given day, the engineer can find his or herself working with many talented individuals who can possibly have strong ties to the world of music. And not only does the possibility exist to work with amazing vocal artists, but movie producers and video game designers as well.

As an audio engineer, the possibilities that exist in the audio world are endless. One of the most satisfying and rewarding parts of audio engineering is hearing your finished work on your ipod, favorite radio station or movie. Imagine the gratification and fulfillment one could get by telling all their family and friends that they helped in the production of that brand new song or movie.

If the thought has crossed your mind to pursue an actual career in audio engineering, it is important to know what the average salary of an engineer actually is. To a lot of people, the salary is one of the most important aspects of any career, not just audio engineering. Luckily, the average salary for an audio engineer falls between $80k to 90k a year, which is 24% higher than the national average. If you reside in California or New York, the average salary is even higher. So, at the end of the day, choosing a profession in audio engineering can be a good decision for your finance’s. Many other careers that are similar to that of audio engineering pay considerably lower salaries. For instance, a career as an audio or music producer pays an average salary of about $48k a year. That’s almost a little more than half what an audio engineer would make per year. So it is true that audio engineering is one of the more lucrative professions in the industry.

So, the profession of audio engineering really seems to have it all, great pay, exciting work, and even pretty good benefits. But what is really stopping people from choosing this amazing career and earning that good salary that audio engineers make. For starters, even though the profession of audio engineering is a great career for many people, it necessarily isn’t the greatest job for everyone. Just because you have a passion for music and audio, doesn’t necessarily mean you are going to be a great engineer. On average, a majority of the projects that come through the studio will involve music that the audio engineer might not like or prefer. This means that you might have to work on rock music when your preference might only be hip hop or rap. So as an audio engineer, it is important to know and understand what goes into each genre of music. This way the quality of your work isn’t based off your personal preferences, but off your skills as an audio engineer.

Another reason that turns most people away from a career in audio engineering is the amount of time that it takes to become proficient at it. Most people who are currently working as an audio engineer have said it took them a couple years just to learn and understand the basics of engineering. Nowadays, most folks don’t have the stamina to spend the proper amount of time it takes learning how to become a great engineer. It is a 24 hour, 7 day a week profession. The ones who become great engineers are the people whose lives revolve around their career as an audio engineer. If you really are prepared to go all the way and dedicate yourself 100%, then the profession of audio engineering might actually be a good fit for you. Then, just like us, one day you could be handsomely rewarded too.

The Rough Mix: The Art and the Risk

As an audio engineer, the start of a recording/production project is usually one of the best parts of the project; the teamwork is all there, everyone involved is optimistic, and the overall focus of the big picture is challenging, invigorating, and most of all fun.

However, when it comes to the end of the project, it usually is one of the most taxing and least gratifying parts of the project. This is intensified by shifting focus to each individual involved in the project; all the endless detail and waffling of editing; the infinite possibilities of mix tweaks allowed by our computer systems; etc.

Strangely enough, that pivotal moment in the project where things change between collective ideology and individual artistic vision is usually during the time of rough mixing.

THE LOVE AND NEED OF ROUGH MIXES

In an ideal audio engineers world, daily rough mixes would be an essential step in moving a project forward. However, this isn’t always the case due to things like session time constraints, client financial issues, release dates, etc. Therefore, the limited number of rough mixes made during the project become even more important to the overall scope of the project. Each rough mix must represent a significant advancement in the overall vision of the project; inspire future creativity within the project; and help determine how much more time is needed before final mixing begins. Here are a few guidelines to think of when you are at the rough mix stage in your project.

The first rough mix of a project is sometimes referred to as the ‘raw mix’ or ‘organic rough.’ This is because it allows a unique opportunity to hear what the recorded tracks really sound like together with natural dynamics and unused space. When it comes time to begin the first rough mixes, keep in mind these mixes should be nothing but a representation of the initial recorded performance. This means that the first rough mix should only focus on the balance of all the recorded tracks together with very few edits, EQ, and processing. No overdubs either. The rough mix is actually raw and unproduced, but if recorded properly, still hi-fi. Allowing the imagination to open up, the rough mix helps the engineer, producer, and especially the artist contemplate what to do next in the song and how to fill any open space.

As the process of overdubbing begins, the next batch of rough mixes will understandably increase in complexity. It is this second round of rough mixes where you can and really should try things out. Take some f’n chances. You never know when you might discover something new and useful that will help take what you are working on to the next level. Experiment with different outboard combinations, try a new plug-in, create an over the top effect or two. And the good thing is, if it doesn’t work out, you can just get rid of it. Knowledge is power!

After all the experimental foray’s have been successfully/unsuccessfully attempted, it is time to do some rough mixes that one could say are dressed up rehearsals of what the final mix will become. Using the collective knowledge from all the experimentation as well as the overdubs and initial recording, I’d fashion together my most glorified mix of the project all while attempting to locate and resolve any problems from poor recording to bad performances, bad editing, etc. These mixes are then aided by having the artist or band go and listen to them on their own preferred sound system in hopes of providing meaningful feedback.

One thing to keep in mind, the rough mix process doesn’t always work out so well for every client. It’s always best when making that first rough mix to verify if the artist or band would like to hear it raw and organic or if they prefer it polished up a bit. Some current musicians and artists wouldn’t even think of listening to their part or song without at least some kind of tuning, quantizing, Eq-ing, or manipulation. They would likely find the organic rough mix to be faulty to a point of questioning the engineer’s proficiency and qualifications. They would never question their own. If some of your recording methods rely on drum replacement, comping and editing, virtual amplification then you might have to do a fair amount of work before presenting the first rough mix to your client.

In the second stage of rough mixing, where it’s good to experiment and create options, the liabilities can sometimes be quite overwhelming. Remember, even though experimenting and over effecting is fun for us because we’re engineers, to an artist who fears hokey exuberance and manipulation of their sound, it can be an all out declaration of war. Once again, it is always good to check with the artist or band member before experimenting or radically changing their sound, especially a vocalist. For some vocalist’s, having their voice washed in effects can really chap their ass, driving them to question your judgement, which in turn prevents you from making simple recording suggestions like ‘you should double this or stack that.’

By the time the third stage rough mixes are complete, they better be almost as good as what one would hear on the radio. Having a near perfect rough is just the beginning, it is now also all about ‘temp mastering’ (EQ, compression, expansion, limiting) on rough mixes so artists don’t throw a fit over low levels in comparison to final mastered albums.

So what exactly is the flip side to all of this? If the rough mixes are too good, they might get prematurely distributed. This is either because of an anxious artist posting their rough mixes on the web, unintended airplay or unintended leaks via insider moles. If people think a rough mix sounds finished, then it might get overexposed and diminish any chances of success the final mix could have.

As important and fun as rough mixing can be, the modern audio engineer should always make sure his or her approach and overall intentions are acceptable to everyone involved in the project. A rough mix is sometimes going to create disharmony and strong opinions amongst everyone involved in the project, but that dialogue and concession is exactly what is required to bring about the best in our art. As time passes and you begin to build a stronger reputation as an audio engineer through success, people will begin to hold more merit to your opinions and experimentation, which at the end of the day means your job as an engineer is just going to keep getting better, and better, and better, and better………

Is College Necessary for a Career in Audio Engineering

Today I am going to address a very common topic I get here at Studio 11 almost on a daily basis. Is it worth it or not to go to an audio school to become a recording and mixing engineer. With so many young people discovering the passion for music engineering and production, the natural course of action for them is to want to work on music full time, as a job.

Just like many professions, it is believed that a degree is needed not only for the knowledge and experience, but for the resume as well. The idea of going to school to learn how to use mixing consoles, outboard gear, and microphones are very alluring. So if you have played around with these questions on your future profession, let me give you a few quick thoughts on the subject.

You Don’t Need A Degree For Sound Engineering

I will go ahead and just get straight to the point. You really don’t need a degree from a university or trade school to earn a living recording, mixing, or producing music. As a matter of fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if most of the top audio engineers out there did not go to school for engineering. Some might not have gone at all or, like myself, dropped out when they realized a degree wasn’t needed to obtain a good job as an engineer.

Audio engineering and production is an artform, not just a field of study. The most common and effective form of training for a young aspiring engineer is an internship where he or she works with a master audio engineer or producer in a professional studio environment. As an intern, your job is to watch and learn the master engineer’s every trick and move so you can eventually assist his sessions properly. This is how its always been done. What really matters most in the audio engineering business is experience and connections. Let me say that again, experience and connections.

Pretty much you can go to any studio around the world today, obtain an unpaid internship, and begin the long and hard process of becoming an engineer. Yes it is true you’ll probably run a lot of errands and sweep a lot of floors, but the compromise is that you might be able to assist the engineer in a session, do some editing for him, cable patching, microphone setup, so on and so forth. It’s how most of us began our careers as audio engineers. I just like many others before me didn’t need any kind of degree to begin the process.

After reading this blog, if you think I am against school, you should know I went to college for a year and a half to learn audio engineering. It was a five-year program, so with the little bit I did learn in that short time, it was definitely an invaluable experience. The beginning of the program focused more so on the physics of acoustics, music theory, and conceptual understanding. I will say, I probably wouldn’t have been taught these things in my internship, so I am glad I got a chance to learn the stuff in school. So, if you have the money to get accepted into an audio program at a major university or trade school, you should go!

On the other side of the fence though, if don’t have the money, its hard to justify the possibility of going into large debt for a degree in audio engineering. The messed up thing that no one tells you, even with that fancy degree, you still have to pay your ‘dues’ and get an internship at a studio somewhere. That internship is the same kind of internship you could have gotten even if you didn’t go to school. Chances are you’ll probably be the smartest and most experienced intern at the studio though, which means you might get more opportunities to sit in and assist on sessions.

Now whether or not you go to school, you don’t necessarily have to work your way up through the ranks to become an engineer. You can open up your own studio any time, all you need is a good source of capital to purchase some gear. So, after my internship had ended, I decided to open up my own little space out of my apartment in Chicago. It was small, the neighbors yelled at me everyday because of the noise, but I recorded, edited, and mixed many songs and albums for many bands and artists of all types. I learned a great deal, met lots of great people, and most importantly, made money.

So you see, there isn’t really much stopping you from starting a career as a recording or mix engineer. The biggest hurdle is building a client base. A good way to go about this is to do some free work to build up client portfolio, put it up on a website and promote your services. Then little by little, start charging for your work.

So at the end of it all, education really is a great thing. I am so thankful for all that I learned from my professors during my time at school. But looking back on it all, it was something that I didn’t need to do to get where I am at today. I learned 99% of everything I know about audio engineering by watching other engineers and producers work, and also through experience. So I guess what I am saying, is if I could do it, then you could do it. All that it takes is a lot of patience and a lot of passion. Pretty simple things compared to becoming a doctor or a lawyer.

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