Distortion, clicks, and pops can destroy an otherwise good recording session, and these problems 99% of the time are manufactured by something simple and easily avoidable. So here are a few quick things to check if you ever run into these situations.
Update Firmware, Software, and Drivers
The first thing that you must do is make sure your system has been completely updated. Lets say you just updated your OS to OSX Yosemite and you installed the drivers from the disc that came with your audio interface. You should always go to the website of the software you are installing and check for the most current software and drivers. With quick things move in the computer world, it is not always possible to possess the latest driver on the installation disc that comes with your software, even if you just purchased it.
It is also wise to make sure any audio applications, software synths, and plugins you own are up to date as well. Always go check the manufacturer’s website and update according to what they say in their instructions.
The next to check after you have updated your software would be your buffer settings. One of the simplest fixes for these types of problems can be changing your buffer settings. Understanding why you might possibly need to change the buffer setting can be a bit more difficult to understand and will be discussed separately.
For the simplest answer: If you are getting distortion, pops or clicks in your recording raise the buffer setting in your audio application. In Logic, click on Preferences > Audio. On the Core Audio tab you will see “I/O Buffer Size.” Regardless of what the buffer size is set to, move it to the next highest number. For example, if your buffer size is currently set to 32, change it to 64. If it is set to 64, then move it up to 128, etc. In GarageBand, it is a bit easier: Click on GarageBand & Preferences. Click on the Audio/Midi icon and you will see the following screen:
Change to “Maximum number of simultaneous tracks/Large buffer size.”
Pretty much every other audio application will have very similar settings. If you are not sure where to these settings then contact the software manufacturer or look it up on Google or YouTube. If switching the buffer doesn’t fix the problem, the next step is taking a look at other USB or FireWire devices you may have plugged into your setup.
Other USB or Firewire Devices
Quite often other FireWire or USB devices connected to your computer can cause problems if your audio interface is FireWire or USB. Conflicts with other audio interfaces, cameras, etc can usually cause the biggest problems, but external hard drives can also cause problems as well.
If you are having problems with distortion, pops, and clicks and you have other devices connected to your computer, try the following:
1. Turn off your computer and unplug all USB and FireWire devices except for your main audio interface.
2. After you turn your computer back on, play something from iTunes and make sure the audio you are hearing sounds clear.
3. If you have an external USB or FireWire device, connect it to your computer and try running your session again.
4. If you are still having problems it might be time to bite the bullet and reach out to the manufacturer’s tech support.
It is best to keep all other devices disconnected from the computer while working on audio. The new Mac’s on the market are amazing and extremely powerful. If your desire is to record professional quality audio then you might not be able to connect every USB and FireWire device that you own because there is a limit to what you can do with your computer and DAW. If that is not your desire, connect all your devices back up and just keep doing what you are doing.
If you are wondering what you have to do to break into the music industry as an audio engineer in Chicago, have no fear. Recording in Chicago is no different than pretty much anywhere else on the planet, except for language. Here is a comprehensive list of skills that you can aim to develop to position yourself as a top engineer in the future. Notice that four of these skills are what can be defined as “base skills,” meaning they are imperative for any job in the music industry or elsewhere. The other set of skills are known as “job specific skills” and relate categorically to your work in the studio.
1. Ability to read, write, and follow directions. So why is it so critical to follow instructions in a recording studio? For starters, you could fuck up the gear in the studio. You are also working with client’s master recordings that are the result of perhaps thousands of hours in time and financial investment. In Chicago, some of those clients might not be to happy if their masters get messed up, so it could potentially mean your life. More over, following instructions also means that you are reliable and dependable, which in turn brings confidence to the head engineer or manager that you can be developed and mentored to integrate and properly accomplish client requests. Following directions is crucial to discovering how to work successfully in any recording or production studio, let alone life.
2. Communication. There have been many times when I was engineering a session when the artist or producer turned to me and said, “It just doesn’t sound right. I’m not sure really what it is about it, but it is not grabbing me.” We often spend long hours trying to figure out how to understand our clients. In a way, one could say we are quasi-pyschologists. The ability to communicate clearly is crucial in order to be as productive as possible in the studio. Many delays and fuck ups in the studio are a result of a lack or breakdown in communication. Knowing when to and not to speak out comes over time through patience and practice, and understanding.
3. Ability to stay cool and calm. Musicians can get pretty emotional in the studio. In essence, they are dumping their emotional well being into their performance for all to hear. So they get very emotional. A good engineer must know how to stay calm and reserved when a musician voices their frustrations. I have seen many sessions where fights break out in the control room between band members or band members and management. These people have actually swung at each other, which generally is not helpful to the whole creative process. Remember, your job is to keep the project on track at all times, so it is important for you to always remain calm and relaxed, especially in Chicago. May the force be with you.
4. Basic computer knowledge. So, how much do you really need to know about computers to become a good recording engineer? Well, many ambitious producers and sound engineers have a good deal of experience and knowledge operating sound recording and editing software on a computer. It’s certainly a bonus. The more you know about computers, the more valuable your service will be in the studio. It is important to master the basics, such as word processing and data entry, as well as understanding spreadsheet functions so you can use the computer to do simple math. It is important to be comfortable with these basic three applications as well as the computers recording and production software. A basic computer course at your local community college can teach you these fundamentals. It’s also important to know both the Macintosh and PC platforms. Macintosh more so for composing, recording, and mixing. PC’s for business management and data entry. Initally, all the best computer editing software for sound and music was found on a Mac, but over the last couple years, the PC has been making strides in the audio department. Many programs that were once exclusive to Mac are now available on PC as well.
5. Critical auditory skills. If you haven’t heard or experienced sound in an acoustic setting, you might not know what you are listening for which can bring you problems as an engineer. You’ve got to use your ears and really listen to the sound or music. As an engineer, it is important to get out there in the real world and experience every type of music that there is in a concert setting, from country to jazz, rock to big band, and opera to blues, etc. Remember, musical recordings are really just sonic paintings. In order to be a competent recording engineer, you have to come to really understand what instruments sound like naturally, by themselves or together in ensembles. Look at your time spent developing these skills just as you would if you were doing homework. Go out as much as possible because it is important to hear it all. You never know when that time is going to come when a client steps into the studio with a certain kind of instrument, sound or musical skill that you might not be familiar with. This unfamiliarity can lead to poor engineering decisions’ which in turn lead to poor or undesirable recordings. That is why it is important to know how each instrument sounds naturally.
6. Audio aptitude. It is important to develop a comprehensive knowledge of audio, such as level, signal flow, phase, frequency spectrum, microphone selection/placement, and acoustics. Whether you went to a reputable audio school or learned on your own, it is important learn and understand the basic concepts of how to make a recording, do overdubs, correctly edit, manage a mix-down properly, and master. Even the knowing the process of duplication and distribution to stores and online retail outlets sure doesn’t hurt either.
7. Studio Chi. The overall tone or vibe that an engineer brings into a session with a client is vitally important to the overall energy and creative workflow in the studio. Some of the best engineers out there are the ones who create a climate that is conducive to positive and creative workflow. The equipment doesn’t really mean much if the vibe of the session is no good. Even with a half million dollar recording console, is it really doing any good if a client walks in and doesn’t feel right. When artists are babied or pampered in the studio, they tend to lose their inhibitions, open up, and perform much better overall. A good engineer will be able to help generate that vibe in the studio in order to capture and bring it out in the song.
Now you know the basic skill set needed to a good career in field of audio engineering. The first six you can learn in school, whereas, the seventh takes time and experience. It’s important, not only as an aspiring engineer/producer but also as a musician, to sit in sessions and watch how other engineers do their thing. Internships at major recording facilities are a great opportunity to see how things really work in a professional studio. After awhile, you will find that every session and client is different as well as what is specifically needed to create the right mood and vibe for each session. At the end of the day, you’ll probably find yourself playing psychologist as much as you are being an engineer, producer, songwriter, mentor, friend, fan. The list can go on and on.
You have come up with a great new song. Overcome with a great sense of pride and achievement, it is now time to ponder what to do next. After shoddily recording a few demos on your laptop, you decide that it is time to provide your music with the love it deserves – the professional treatment of a commercial recording studio.
Once you’ve slimmed down your list of local studios, you decide to choose a Chicago recording studio that is warm, economical and operated by people that go out of there way to making your project the most important. On the day of the session, your nerves start to unsettle as you make your way to the place that will help you immortalize your song. Upon arriving, the chill vibes and pleasant nature of the staff and engineer have a calm and reassuring effect.
A half an hour later, everyone is in position. The meters bounce and glow. In just a few minutes, the nervousness that you entered the studio with has now turned to jubilation as you realize that the sound that you are hearing is coming from you. It is your sound. And, paired with the proper recording environment, gear, and engineers, what started as a simple idea is now becoming a really good song.
Now that the recording of the music and lyrics has been completed, the engineer of the session tells you that they will need some time to mix your song so that it has that “radio” shine and is ready for distribution through Itunes and other internet stores. You listen to the sound that is coming out of the speakers in the control room. Faders are raised and lowered, knobs are tweaked, the audio engineer massages the computer keys and bends the software to his will. In a little less than two hours he plays the result for you of both his and your efforts. As a smile leaps from your face, there is only one word that comes to mind – “WOW!”. Going to Studio 11 to record your new song was the best decision you could have made.
The understanding of recording, mixing, and mastering hip hop, rap, and other kinds of music is no doubt a talent and an art form. Development of this skill takes time, and requires many mistakes, experiments and life lessons. To truly benefit and prosper in audio engineering, one has to have a hunger to go through and take in the vast amount knowledge out there on recording, mixing, and mastering.
Once you begin sifting through the knowledge and applying it in a real world setting, you will come to find there is a big difference between knowing something and actually getting it. The beautiful thing is, once you finally get something, the ability to master those techniques and others becomes exponentially easier. You will find that recording, mixing, and mastering isn’t really a job anymore, it is just a part of life.
Over the last 16 years, I have had to learn many hard lessons in the world of audio engineering. A lot of times I thought I understood what certain techniques were and how to apply them, but I often was wrong or just partially correct on those techniques. Some of my most memorable times in the studio were when I finally ‘got’ a certain recording or mixing technique. You can say these were my ‘a-ha’ moments.
1. Learning everything there is to possibly know about the hardware and tools I have at my convenience.
2. Compression: Much can be discussed about this subject, but one thing that is so crucially important is getting the attack and release times correct. Compression can really lift up a performance or it can shamefully destroy it.
3. The day I realized that pretty much anything in the studio could be automated in some form or another.
4. Low and High Pass filtering is truly my friend.
5. The first time I turned off my computer screen to listen back to a mix. Blew me away how much easier it was to listen, identify, and make changes to the mix.
6. The first time I recorded and mixed in a professional acoustically treated studio. The amount of detail and separation I could hear in the frequency spectrum almost startled me.
7. How simply cutting out a little 275-375 Hz on most close mic’d tracks can remove boxiness and really bring out detail to things.
8. Getting rid of frequencies, or subtractive equalization, is so much better than additive equalization. Its just easier and more natural to take out what isn’t needed than to artificially add it in.
9. Hearing live drums mic’d through a stereo pair of C12’s and PZM’s. I finally understood where the life and dimension of a recorded drum performance came from.
10. Discovering that the more plugins I use in a mix, the more digital and artificial sounding the mix will become.
11. Distortion is a form of compression and a good way to add harmonics.
12. The first time I threw up a quick mix of raw audio tracks instead of attempting to dial in the perfect sound on every track. It increased the overall quality of the mix while cutting down average mix time.
13. It’s always good to get feedback, even if its from somebody without any musical or audio engineering experience.
14. Getting stuck in a mix, zeroing the faders, trashing all inserts and sends and then pushing the faders back up again. Valuable learning experience and test to the ego.
15. Dynamic Equalization via side chain compression. The bees knees!
16. Realizing that knowing how you want things to sound in your mix is so much more important than just knowing cool mix techniques and tricks. The tricks can sometimes help you get there a little faster though.
17. Musical arrangement is vitally important to the outcome of a mix on a song. It’s where the song can really be made or destroyed.
18. “Fix it in the mix” is a term that doesn’t always apply to every situation. Sometimes it is faster and easier to just re-record something if it is not right.
19. Parallel compression allows for smoother, natural dynamics overall and less aggressive compression individually.
20. When, after what seemed like centuries of recording amateur artists and bands, somebody of superstar status steps up in front of the microphone and shows how it’s really done. Wow!
Are you a beat producer who always has problems finding good drum sounds or patches to use in your productions? Are you tired of using cheap ‘out of the box’ sounds? Well don’t worry. It is a problem that every producer has had some point in their career. There are literally millions of drum samples out there on the market for free and for sale. It can really be quite overwhelming finding those perfect sounds.
The first good thing, if you have realized you have this problem, then you are already on your way to becoming a better producer. So congratulations. What people who claim to be producers forget is there is more to producing then just writing the song, there are the individual tracks that make up the song to consider and how each one sounds not only by itself but in relationship to the song.
Nowadays, it is important for producers to go about their craft with an audio engineer’s ears. This doesn’t mean you have to learn to become a professional engineer to make good beats, though it helps. It means learning to understand and accept when a sound or a track isn’t working in a song and what to do to fix it. At the end of the day, putting care into the way each individual track sounds will make for a better sounding song overall. Your beats will be easier to mix and sound smoother and more musical, plus will probably sell better too.
A good rule of thumb, if a sound is getting in the way or lost in the mix, is to replace it with another sound that doesn’t get lost or in the way of the song. Simple enough, but this can sometimes take time and patience. Remember, just because a synth patch or drum sample might sound cool on its own, doesn’t mean it will work with the rest of your tracks. Choose your sounds by listening to how they interact with the other tracks in your arrangement. Never force a track, that will never work.
Now one of the best places to find good drum samples are on your favorite records. Yes that’s right, your favorite records. Some would say that’s stealing, but we say that’s just sampling. So don’t be scared. Sampling drums off of records has been done since the dinosaurs roamed the earth. Not dinosaurs like T Rex’s, but dinosaurs like Bruce Swedien and Bill Porter. The best thing about sampling drums off a record, is that the drum sounds you are sampling already sound really really good. Using good drum sounds that don’t need much treatment allow you the producer to better add in additional tracks and sounds into your song. All your tracks will pocket better and will make you or your mix engineer’s job much easier when mixing begins.
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