How to make it in the music business (part 2)

30 04 2013

In the first part of this tutorial I mainly talked about the foundations. It is absolutely vital to have a good basis from Korg_OT_120_Tunerwhich to operate. I cannot stress this enough. I have met a lot of people who don’t take this rule seriously and think they know better. Oftentimes their enthusiasm leads to a quick minor success. They then think they know it all. They think they made the right decision and that all the the other guys, who take their time and follow the advice of the real pros out there, are wasting their time. These people burn like the proverbial moth in the fire of reality!

First of all: by all means, tune your guitar. This sounds basic, but you would be surprised at the number of guitarists who show up with their guitars out of tune. If you are in hurry and don’t have a tuner at hand, you can find a guitar tuner online, which you should put to use to tune your guitar. That is the first thing at every job. No matter if you’re playing a live gig or if you’re booked for a recording session. Professional players always have their guitar tuned spot on. They don’t mess around.


What they know is that even the slightest detuning can mess up a whole recording. With singers it is pretty much standard procedure these days to correct their pitch with Autotune or a similar product. The use of autotune is so widespread that you would probably have a hard time finding a pop recording from the last 10 years, where it isn’t used. Application of a pitch correction software or hardware is rampant. Sometimes Autotune is even used as an effect on its own. You can hear it on many recordings by a whole variety of famous artists. I myself used it a couple of times when mixing an album by an absolute top artist (Cher).

However, Autotune does not work for guitar! You have to play spot on or you will get creamed. Any deviation from standard pitch, however slight, is going to wreak havoc on the final mix. It is a surefire way to Valhalla. The thing is: you often don’t even realize that a guitar is out of tune, until it’s too late. Oftentimes a detuned guitar, when played on its own, sounds perfectly fine if it is tuned to the lowest string.

Also slight detuning of single strings might be inaudible on its own. It sounds ‘good enough’ and so neither the tu_2_mainband members nor the recording engineer notice the ticking time bomb. And then in the final stages, the guitarist might already be on the plane home, it goes Ba-Boom in their faces. The work of days might be in danger and there nothing you can do about it. The guitarist played his riffs and solos…little did he know that he was heading down a steep hill. And Valhalla awaits in the valley. A tuner is the number one tool in the arsenal of every serious pro-player.

Nowadays with the internet being at an all-time-high, many guitarists prefer to use an online guitar tuner for convenience sake, but it doesn’t matter what you use, as long as you use it! Most pros use a good old Boss tuner for example, but there are a huge number of brands to choose from. See what fits you. It is no use to buy a certain tuner just because player X or Y uses it too. Choose the tuner that YOU want and you will be off to a good start.


Case study: recording an electric guitar

4 06 2012

I recently went to Nashville for a high profile studio job. I already knew the studio because I had worked there countless times. Your typical big Nashville studio…
No need to familiarize with the gear they have. As a recording pro with years of experience under my belt I can tell you: I know my LA-2A, believe me.

I had the studio techs put the mics where I wanted them and ordered the guitarist to play some riffs so I could make my basic settings and simply get in the mood. It soon turned out that this guy was not exactly a session cat, I can tell you that much. His playing was sub par to say the least.
His clumsy and unoriginal riffing was of the sort that makes you want to become a guitar player yourself. Just because he makes it sound so easy. Because it is. At least the stuff he was playing.

To top that off, the guitarist did not care to have his guitar tuned when he showed up for the session. The reason he gave me: ‘my guitar tuner is broken.’ Now, back in the day this might have been a superb excuse, but nowadays, in the age of this certainly does not cut it.

There is a website for everything. There is a website solely devoted to Eb tuning and how it affects the sound and the feel of the guitar. And finally there even is an ‘online tuner Eb (E flat)‘ giving reference note that you can tune up against.

As a musician, and even more as a recording engineer, you have to utilize the power of the internet. There are so many great sources of knowledge, like this very site, where you can learn in hours what would normally take a lifetime.

If all the knowledge I give away for free here, would have been given to me when I started out…boy, I don’t know where that would have led me! It is beyond all imagination.

So, the guitarist played his riffs and the first thing I did was to engage the high-pass-filter of the SSL console. This way less of the guitar signal is coming through, which is exactly what I wanted.
But this only affected the lower frequencies, of course. To target his signal from the high frequencies as well, I used a low-pass-filter in an old tube EQ they had lying around there. Now he was cut from both sides. No escape here.

I then engaged the Massenburg EQ and cut some 18dB at the 7kz range. This put a serious dent in his sound.

To get the sound I was going for I dialed in at 2kHz with a Q of .5 and lowered that by 9dB.

I then grabbed the fader and started to lower it until the guitar signal was barely discernible. I was looking for the point where you couldn’t tell the guitar is there, but when you mute the track, you can tell something is missing.

Needless to say the guitarist did not like the result, because he thought he should be clearly audible. As a pro recording engineer it is you has to make the decision. And you have to be ready for it. No messing around. If you have envisioned the sound, you have to go after it.

Cubase Pro Mixdown – Part 1: faders

23 05 2012

OK, in the previous tutorials we have recorded the basic audio tracks. Now, it is time to do some mixing. That’s what we’re here for, that’s what we do, brother. Mixing the song in Cubase, that is our mission. Are you ready?

During the mixing phase you try to blend everything together so that the whole song sounds like a unity, rather than many individual tracks that don’t really belong together. For most people this is harder than it sounds. I often have to remind myself of the fact, that not everyone is a seasoned pro with years of experience under his belt. It is easy to forget sometimes that most people have no clue as to how mixing is done correctly. Some people have a hard time learning even the most basic mixing skills. They struggle to get a grasp, but to no avail. These people will never make it to the top!

First of all, we have to set the faders just right. The faders are sliders that serve as the volume control FOR EACH INDIVIDUAL TRACK! Are you with me? If you move a fader, the volume of the track that the fader is pointing to will go up or down, depending on the direction you move the fader. Up means louder and down means the opposite.

You have just imported a drum loop and recorded a bass guitar. Upon listening to the tracks you find that you can barely hear the drums. The volume is too low. Now you have two options, or actually three options: you can either grab the fader of the drum track and move it up, or you could grab the fader of the bass track and move it down. The third option would be a compromise, kind of a best-of-both-worlds approach. You can both move the fader for the drum track up and the fader for the bass track down, but not as much as you would have if you had only adjusted one fader. That’s an absolute pro-tip right here. But you should be careful. If you overdo it, you can end with the drum track being way too loud and the bass track being inaudible.You would then have to reverse the fader positions and start all over again. You would be back to square one!


There are other ways to make something louder as well. With a compressor for example you can raise the average loudness of a track considerably. Many youngsters this approach, but they fail. Because it is easy to fire up a compressor and turn a couple of knobs. But it is much harder to do it correctly. Check out my compressor tutorial for the no-frills approach to using the compressor correctly.

My mentor, legendary recording engineer Herb Bjornsen, once told me: ‘a recording engineer rides the faders, and he rides ’em hard!’ I learned this leson very well. When people came to my studio and saw the faders of my Neve console they could barely contain themselves. The faders showed the signs of years of hard labour. They told a story. Each fader was like a person – with it’s own history. That’s something you can’t get with digital sequencers like Cubase or Pro Tools. Or any other software for that matter. The experience of touching a knob, gripping it so hard that your knuckles show, and then start riding that thing like it was never ridden before!

A software will always be the same. No matter how often you change the levels, the fader will never look any different that it did when you first installed the host software.

See you…

Finding the right plugin for the job (Part 2)

17 05 2012

Let’s say you have recorded the first track and you are pretty proud of yourself. You listen to your recording and the first impression is kind of OK.

Then you will start to listen to the recording again. And again. You will listen to it over and over and over, because, let’s not kid ourselves here, you’re not a pro. You’re a beginner. And that’s what beginners do. Your brain needs time to adapt and comprehend all the information given in this tutorial series.

After you have listened to your recording in Cubase for some time, you will notice a slight difference between you recording and your favorite commercial recordings. But..wait a minute. WAAAIT A MINUTE!!! What did I say here? Yes, you are correct, you should always compare your recordings to another recording which you choose as a reference. This reference recording should be made by a true recording pro. Do not try to get away with less. In order to drag yourself out of the mud, you have to mess with the best. Or you will die like the rest!

So now that you compare your recording to a pro recording you will probably find, that your recording is lacking a certain something. You might not yet have the words to describe what it is exactly that your track does not have, but you feel that there is something slightly off. A little itching in the back of your mind tells your, that there might be something missing here.

That something are effects!

Effects are necessary for a professional music production today. You will simply not find any commercial production these days that doesn’t use at least SOME effects. Even if you’re not able to hear them. Your ears are not yet accustomed to the subtle details, and don’t blame yourself. These skills take time to develop. So even if you think that a particular song does in fact have no effects on it whatsoever, you are probably wrong.

The different types are plentiful and complicated. It takes a lifetime to really see through the plugin forest and use them to fullest. As a recording pro with years of experience under my belt I use can say that I now have achieved this state. Actually I achieved it a couple of years ago.

But for an ordinary recording engineer to look at the vast amount of compressors, limiters, EQs, delays and all that, for such a person not to get confused takes some time and dedication.

Another thing is that nowadays people start out recording with digital tools. They never had the chance to learn the craft from the ground up. They never worked in a big major studio, where the huge stars would record their legendary albums. Here they would have learned how to use effects. Believe me that. Talking about school of hard knocks.

Finding the right tool for the job is paramount. But it is also hard. In the next section of this hands-on pro-tutorial I will share some secret tips and tricks about how to pick the right plugin. These surprisingly simple rules of thumb will make your life a whole easier. So stay tuned…

Finding the right plugin for the job (Part 1)

11 12 2011

For me, as a seasoned pro with years of experience under my belt, it is pretty easy to find the right plugin for the job. Most of the time I run on auto-pilot.
But for somebody like you, who has just started out, and maybe will never make it to the top, choosing the right plugin can be an overwhelming task.
It is important that you believe in yourself and give it an honest try. Don’t give up too easily. There are lots and lots of examples, where people with even less talent than you, have managed to find themselves a niche in the recording industry and have their little outcome. It’s not the best of lifes, but it is a life.

A case study

I was recording a hard rock band, and things went pretty smoothly, as is most often the case when you put a bunch of pros together. Real professional don’t mess around, they mean business. There is on room for people who want to have small talk for a couple of hours, then go off to have a coffee, and then come back at 9 o’clock in the evening to start working. That’s not how things work in the recording business.You have to be ready. You have to work hard and give your best. That’s what counts in the end, because that’s what brings the professional production to life.

So, I had already recorded the drums and the bass, but, although the tracks sounded good when played by themselves, I wasn’t quite satisfied with the way the sounded when played together. Something just didn’t seem quite right here, and knew immediately what it was. I had recorded the drums on several different tracks. I usually use one for kick drums, one or two for the snare, two for the toms and two for the overheads, also called cymbals. I had recorded the bass on one mono track by directly plugging it into my SSL console.
In order to keep the peaks under control, I used a little bit of compression from the built-in compressor. The SSL compressor sounds pretty nice. I only use a little, because it is easy to overdo. Compression, once applied, can not be taken away. You can not bring back something you have taken away before recording it. The recorded signal does not contain the information about the peak values anymore, and there is no way to bring them back. No matter how good the overall quality of the recording is, these are the universal rules or audio recording.

I had also applied a little bit of EQ. Not much, just a tad of highs added and some cutting below 33Hz in order to control the very low frequency range. That’s all I did. Now I had the tracks on my hard drive and loaded into Cubase. I had given the project a name and set up the input devices correctly. I was ready to go. The tracks did not blend together very well, and I knew that I had to do something about it, because if the tracks don’t fit together, it will be very hard to make a decent song. Everything should blend just fine, and appear to be part of the same song. That’s absolutely key for every single one of my productions.

Cubase Compressor[/caption]

I decided to use the Cubase compressor plugin. I selected the first tracks and fired it up. Bam! Instant gratification. I knew from experience what the right settings would be. There is always room to experiment, but it is good to have a rough idea of what the settings could be, to have a starting point. Otherwise you could try endlessly to get the track to sound better without any success. You would be completely lost. Maybe as a beginner you would even come to the conclusion, that a compressor is in fact not the right tool for the job, and start to look for alternatives. That would be a huge mistake, and it is of vital importance to void it. A beginner has to learn how to use a compressor, as it one of the most important tools in every mixing engineers arsenal. This includes being able to dial in sensible settings right away, and then go on from there.

I will continue this case study in part 2 of this tutorial.