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 http://www.org.net 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.





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.





Using Plugins (Part 1)

7 12 2011

Cubase already comes with a huge selection of plugins. Most of the plugins will be installed automatically. There are, however, also plugins that do not get installed as a default, but in fact have to be copied off the Cubase-CD. These plugins are mainly older models which are still shipped in case you have old projects that use them. If Steinberg didn’t ship these plugins, you would get an error-message when opening an older project that uses one of those plugins.

Cubase Reverence Plugin

Cubase Reverence Plugin

What happens here is that the old project (it does not have to be that old, actually)¬† would browse through a list of plugins that it needs to open, and when it comes to the legacy¬† plugin, it cannot find it and therefore shows an error message. This is easily avoided, though, by simply copying the plugins from the specific folder on your Cubase-CD into the plugin folder on your hard drive. If you can’t find the folder, refer to the pro tips in part 1 on finding something. If you use that knowledge, it will be easy to find the folder you are looking for. The information in part 1 is based on years of experience, but is, of course, provided as is. This is the valuable lesson I would like you to learn: if a pro recording engineer is prepared to share an information snippet, don’t hesitate. Make it your own and use it to the fullest.

But wait a minute. What is a plugin, actually? Let’s take a look…a plugin is a piece of software that you literally plug-in to your sequencer software, much like other things that are plugged in.
It is then ready to be used from within the host software, in our case Cubase. It becomes part of the software! In order for the plugin to be able to communicate with the host software, and give the impression as if it was actually one single piece of software, it needs what is called a protocol. A protocol is kind of a language that both the host software (Cubase) and the plugin agree to speak.

There are two basic protocols that are employed in the Windows world: one is called VST and the other is Direct X. Most of you probably know Direct X as something that has to do with graphics, but it also provides an interface for audio applications. But it is rarely used these days – Direct X has several disadvantages, that make it less desirable to be used in a professional recording environment. I won’t go into the details right now, because it’s such a wide and complicated topic and, honestly, it would be a little bit too much for a newbie to understand. As a beginner it is good to be eager to learn new things, but at the same time, you also have to know your limits, or you will get burned!

As I already said, most plugins use the VST protocol. This is an old protocol that was first introduced by the Steinberg company in the early 90s. Today it is the de-facto standard of plugin protocols, and every plugin manufacturer is better off using the VST protocol as opposed to other protocols, that are not supported by the big 6 of sequencer software. How could they hope to ever sell their product, if it can’t be used in any host software? The manufacturers know this damn well, and so they abandoned other protocols, that weren’t supported, and went straight to VST and Direct X.

VST standardizes the way the sound travels within the system and what the user interface of the plugin looks like. It is a whole language that only serves one purpose: to allow communication between the host software and the client software. It also does allow for some nifty routing tricks, that are not possible with Direct X. I will go into the details of side-chaining and other super-pro-tricks in a later tutorial.