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Archive for November, 2006

Sifting Through the Clutter

Sometimes in the rush of doing projects and generally being busy, it’s hard to have perspective about how you’ve set things up, and how you function in your studio. But over the Thanksgiving weekend, I had a little more time than normal to muse about those issues, and I realized that there were a number of things I was doing inefficiently.

For one, I was not using sequencer templates. Because of my job, I have to work in a number of different sequencers, and I was wasting a lot of time setting up tracks and auxes and so forth each time I started a project. I even had a couple of occasions where I accidentally started a project with my sequencer set to 16-bit rather than 24-bit resolution–a distressing thing to discover once you’ve already started recording. I know that using templates is a better way to go, and I used to have them setup for my various programs. But after having to trash preferences in one app, and reinstalling another, I no longer have my templates available, and haven’t found the time to set them up again.

I also took a closer look at how I had my outboard gear setup and saw some ways to improve things. (Yes, I still have some outboard gear, although mostly input-related devices like mic pres.) For one thing, my PODxt was sitting on a rack shelf where I couldn’t easily see its display, and it was too far from my patch bay. So I moved it to a more convenient location atop the back of my keyboard controller. In retrospect it was an obvious change to make, but in the heat of working I hadn’t thought of it.

Probably the most annoying part of my studio, though, is its constant state of clutter. Because it also functions as my office for my EM work, and it’s where I keep all my financial records and files, it’s an ongoing challenge to keep it from looking like a complete disaster. Cables are strewn about (despite what seems like a never-ending effort to coil them up and put them away), papers–especially the dreaded Post-it Notes–litter my desktop, my shelves are overflowing with books, and there are instruments all around.

Could I do a better job of organizing? Yes. Do I have time? No. I kind of feel like one of those old cartoon characters with the angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other. The angel is saying, “A clean and well set up studio is a more efficient place to work.” The devil is saying, “Screw that, just start recording. “

Well, at least I do think about it constantly, and try to improve things where possible. I will go on record with an early New Year’s resolution to try extra hard to make my studio a leaner, meaner, more efficient place to work. As the devil on my shoulder might say, “Yeah right.”

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Let your ears be your guide

I teach an introductory course on recording at a local college, and the days I cover microphones are always the most exciting for the students. Because the course is set up around Digidesign Pro Tools and a 2-channel Mbox, I spend one of the class sessions on recording a drum set using 1- and 2-mic configurations.

The plan is not to teach them the correct way to record drums, but to give them the critical tools needed to find the correct way. The sound an engineer looks for depends on a variety of factors, such as the drum kit, the recording environment, and the song.

A bonus is that this lecture demonstrates how different each model of microphone sounds when used on the same instrument — drums are the perfect subject for mic comparisons. It’s an opportunity to break down expectations, especially when the students have preconceived notions about particular mics.

First, I create a Pro Tools session with a click track and ask a student to play a simple drum beat using hi-hat (or cymbal), kick, and snare. I ask the drummer to play the same beat for several takes, and I change mics and their positions after each. Typically, I start with one mic placed a couple of feet in front of the kit, about waist high. Next, I may set up a stereo pair a few feet in front and above the kit. Next, I’ll place one mic on the snare and one on the kick drum. Which mics I use for each setup depends on what the students are interested to hearing.

When we listen back to all the takes, I selectively mute and solo various mics to hear how they color the sound of the drums. The results are always an ear opener–even for me.

This semester, I brought in some extra mics–a prototype of the omnidirectional Rode NT55 and a Joemeek JM27–and compared them to what the school already has in its mic cabinet (which includes a Neumann TLM 103, a pair of AKG C 1000s, an AKG C 3000, and a Studio Projects T1 tube mic, among others). And, of course, we have pairs of the most widely used dynamic microphones in the world, the Shure SM57 (still in production after 40 years) and SM58.

With a frequency response of 40 Hz to 15 kHz (+/- 10 dB), and more than a 5 dB rise around 6.5 kHz, the SM57 is tailor made for recording certain instruments, such as drums. (Come to think of it, except for the frequency bump, the SM57′s overall frequency response resembles that of many ribbon mics. Interesting…) Nonetheless, this ubiquitous transducer often gets a bad rap, probably because, at some point, nearly everyone has worked with a beat up SM57 running through a cheap preamp onstage or in a studio.

It’s interesting to compare the reaction of the students when they first hear the SM57 as a snare mic to when they hear it again after listening to other mics in the same position. The SM57 offers a band-limited, controlled “thonk” that says Rock Snare Drum like few other microphones do. However, this time around, we found placement was also critical: about four or five inches back from the snare head, rather than right on top of it, gave us the best snare sound, considering the dead acoustics of the classroom.

With an SM57 on the snare and the dynamic portion of the Audio-Technica AT2500 dual-capsule mic on the bass drum, we captured a tight and punchy drum sound. That was a pleasant surprise, because in the room, the kick was boomy and had a long ring to it. We were recording an 18-inch bass drum that had both heads on it, with no opening in the front head and no internal dampening. Not your typical rock bass-drum sound.

On the other hand, the TLM 103 (placed waist high a few feet in front of the bass drum) gave us a wonderfully live and balanced full-kit sound that would be perfect for a jangly pop song or a big-beat rap sample. The overall vibe was reminiscent of Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life.” And it took us only five minutes to set up.

But I keep thinking about the much maligned SM57 and how versatile it can be in the studio. I recently edited Michael Cooper’s “Six String Strategies,” the December 2007 cover story about recording acoustic guitar. In it, a couple of the engineers he interviewed suggested that the SM57 would work well on acoustic guitar in certain situations.

For example, world-class engineer Richard Dodd noted that an SM57 “only sounds like an inexpensive microphone when it‘s paired with an inexpensive preamp. You pair it with an extremely sensitive, musical preamp, like a Telefunken V76 or Neve 1073, and the balance of the two is a wonderful thing to be heard.” (Dodd’s credits include engineering and mixing for Johnny Cash, George Harrison, Green Day, Tom Petty, Roy Orbison, and Sheryl Crow, among many others. In other words, he knows how to record acoustic guitars.)

It just goes to show you that, when it comes to microphones, you have to keep an open mind and let your ears guide you (rather than spec sheets or price). For some historical background on the SM57, visit Mix magazine’s TECnology Hall of Fame. For info on recording drums, check out Brian Knave’s article “Capturing the Kit.”

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Related Topics: Emusician, Gino Robair |

Analogue Heaven California 2006

The annual Analogue Heaven – California (AHCali) gathering took place yesterday (Sunday, November 12, 2006) at the College of Marin in Kentfield, California. The name of the event comes from the Analogue Heaven mailing list, which, as you would expect, focuses on analog instruments, new and old.

Although the list has an international membership, regional gatherings are often scheduled around the U.S. so that members can meet face to face as well as get some hands-on time with instruments they may have only read about. The California shows tend to be located in the Bay Area, which is handy because a number of manufacturers and instrument designers are in the general vicinity. However, over the years, we’ve had attendees drive from as far south as Los Angeles and from as far north as Seattle.

AH events are informal, and people tend to bring things they want to share with others. Typically, the gathering attracts a wide variety of musicians, collectors, DIYers, and manufacturers, so you never know what you’ll see and hear. For example, a number of DIY modular synth modules were present, not to mention some prototypes (The Magic Smoke Mankato filter), and various other home-brew creations.

Although a number of exhibitors used speakers to demo their gear, the overall volume level was tame compared to past events. However, the volume rose substantially near the end of the day, especially at the table where the CV output of a vintage Korg was being used to control the image on an old Commodore video monitor. (After an afternoon of keeping levels to a minimum, you just can’t help but crank it up before tearing everything down to go home!)

Modular systems represented this year included new ones (Buchla 200e, Synthesis Technology MOTM, Doepfer, PAiA, Analogue Systems, Analogue Solutions, Blacet), and vintage ones (Delta Music Research and EMS). Vintage keyboard synths (Oberheim OB-1 and Matrix-12, and Roland System 100 and Jupiter-4 Compuphonic) and modern synths (Dave Smith Evolver Keyboard) were also present, as were a few drum machines. Mike Brown of Livewire Electronics brought along his vintage tube-based oscillators and noise generator, a small portion of the system he uses in his music. Although I usually bring something from my own collection, this time I brought some boutique instruments that I’m currently reviewing: a Bleep Labs Thingamagoop, a Monotonic Labs Type-U73 oscillator, and an Eowave Persephone ribbon-controlled synth.
EMS Synthi at AHCali 2006
Instrument designers visiting the show included Don Buchla, Dave Smith, Mike Brown, and Eric Barbour of Metasonix. Composer/performer Robert Rich was kind enough to bring along his large MOTM system. And San Francisco-based retailer Robot Speak was also present with plenty of Moog-related hardware and software items on display.

Dave Smith and Robert Rich at AHCali 2006

List member Brian Comnes, who coordinated the gathering, set up a raffle to raise money for the Bob Moog Memorial Foundation. The donated prizes included hats and shirts from RobotSpeak, a Metasonix TM-6, a gift certificate to Analogue Haven, and a vintage Korg MonoPoly synth (donated by sound-designer and EM author Nick Peck).

Personally, the most interesting aspect of an AHCali meeting is hearing what people have to say about their instruments, finding out what they like most about them, and hearing how they use them. I was particularly interested in learning more about the Buchla 200e, and Chris Muir was patient enough to explain some its deep feature-set to me.

Images from AHCali 2006 participants can be found here, here, and here.

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Related Topics: Emusician, Gino Robair |

Partitioning Blues

I just had an interesting experience when adding a new recording drive and backup drive to my system (a Power Mac Dual 2 GHz G5 running OS X 10.4.7). I partitioned the drives in order to create a separate area for storing my samples and loops. I used Apple’s Disk Utility to do the partitioning, and all seemed to go smoothly. After copying all the data to the new drives, I opened up Pro Tools LE and when I hit Play, nothing happened except for an error message “DAE Error-9131″.

I thought perhaps it was something about that particular song file, so I opened another one, but the same thing happened. I wondered if perhaps my new drive wasn’t supported by Pro Tools, but that seemed unlikely. So I got on the Web and started researching it. It turns out that there’s a preference hidden in the Options section of Disk Utility that selects a partition scheme, and for some reason it defaults to “Master Boot Record,” which is designed for drives that will be used “to start up DOS and Windows computers, or to use with devices that require a DOS-compatible or Windows-compatible partition.” Why this is the default is mystifying to me.

Apparently, disks partitioned with this scheme are not compatible with Mac Pro Tools systems. So I chose the “Apple Partition Map” option instead, and had to repartition the drive (and, of course, re-copy all the data. What fun.) After doing so, my Pro Tools sessions worked fine. The moral of the story is: check the Options tab in Disk Utility before you partition a drive. BTW, my research also revealed that if you have an Intel-based Mac, you have to use a different partitioning scheme, the GUID Partition Table. For more info about partitioning schemes, go to this page from the Apple Developer Connection site. Also check this page, which I found cached on Google from the Digidesign site.

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Related Topics: Emusician, Mike Levine |

Trouble in Paradise, Part 1

It‘s a problem that that might affect a few thousand EM readers, concerning a consumer product that no longer works as it should. I‘m talking about a device that many musicians own and love, the Apple iPod, or more specifically, the current software that serves as its computer interface, iTunes 7. If you own an older iPod and you download or subscribe to podcasts, listen up.

As far as I‘ve been able to determine, it’s impossible to view or delete podcasts on your 1st, 2nd, or 3rd generation iPod using iTunes 7. I thought Apple would certainly address the problem with last week‘s iTunes 7.0.2 update, but no dice. Podcasts simply don’t appear in iTunes when you view your iPod’s Music Library; they’re invisible. You can click on the Podcasts Library to view and delete podcasts that reside on your computer, and you can copy them to your iPod, but you can’t view or delete the Podcasts Library that resides on your iPod unless you have a more recent model.

That means there are only two ways to delete a podcast from your 1G, 2G, or 3G iPod. One is to reformat your iPod, which is unacceptable unless you have a lot of extra time on your hands. The other is to remove iTunes 7 from your computer and reinstall iTunes 6. But what if you like all the new features that were introduced in iTunes 7? Apparently, you‘re out of luck.

Hey, Apple! Early iPod adopters deserve support, too. It‘s been almost two months since iTunes 7 appeared. Could you please hurry up and fix this problem?

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Related Topics: Emusician, Geary Yelton |

Aggregate Devices

Hello, and welcome to the first installment of my corner of the Bus. I‘d like to see this blog become a place to discuss advances in audio technology, to share tips for using the technology that‘s available, and to make comments about what technology works and what technology doesn‘t (and recommendations regarding what can be done about it). Considering that EM authors often get the scoop on new products before our readers do, it will also be a place for news about hardware and software that might not be on your radar.

Let‘s begin with a tip for Mac users. Anyone who knows me knows that although I use Windows XP when no alternative is available (for example, when I want to run Sony Cinescore or Cakewalk Z3TA+), I am an enthusiastic Mac user and have been since I bought my first Macintosh (the original 128K model) a few weeks after its introduction in 1984.

Computer operating systems do so much in 2006, you might not realize your OS has certain capabilities unless someone points it out. Did you know that Mac OS X can handle as many simultaneous audio channels as you have audio interfaces to provide them? Using Core Audio‘s capability to recognize Aggregate Audio Devices, your Mac will work with two or more audio interfaces as if they were a single device.

If you have more than one audio interface and want to combine their inputs and outputs, begin by installing any appropriate drivers and either connecting or installing the interfaces (if they are class-compliant, no drivers will be necessary). Power them up and then open the application Audio MIDI Setup. Click on the Audio Devices tab and pull down the Properties menu for each interface to specify its Audio Input and Audio Output Format (the sampling rate and bit depth). If you‘re going to use more than one device, make sure they have the same bit depth and sampling rate.

Now select Open Aggregate Device Editor from the Audio menu. When you click on the Add (+) button, you‘ll see a list of available audio devices. (Note that one of the listed devices is Built-in Audio, which means that you can add your Mac‘s built-in S/PDIF ports to the mix, if it has them.) Click on the checkboxes next to the devices you want to include, and select one as the master clock source (note that all interfaces must have a selectable clock source). If you hear anything that might indicate clocking problems, you can click on the Resample checkbox; otherwise, leave it alone. In the System Settings near the top of the window, specify your new Aggregate Device as your Default Input and Default Input, and finally, close Audio MIDI Setup. Open your multitrack audio program and specify the Aggregate Device as your audio system, if necessary. When you go to assign audio channels, you‘ll see that you have more choices than you did before.

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Related Topics: Emusician, Geary Yelton |

Mix Procrastination

While mixing a recent CD project, I found myself running into the problem of endlessly tweaking the mixes without ever finishing them. I would work on one song, tweak it for a while, figure I’d go back to it later, and then move on to another. It became kind of an endless cycle, and nothing ever got completed. Part of the problem was that it was my own music, and I’m a total perfectionist. But what I was experiencing underscores one of the pitfalls of a sequencer’s ability to completely recall a mix: you can endlessly postpone finishing it, hoping to make it better with further adjustments.

So I decided to force myself to make some progress. At the end of every mix session (when I was out of time, or had “lost my ears”), I started printing the mix to disk, rather than just saving and closing the sequencer file. I would then burn it onto an audio CD or transfer it onto my iPod, and the next day, I’d check the mix (usually in another location, such as my car) and make notes about any problems I heard. I’d then go back into my studio at the first chance I had, refer to the notes, and immediately fix the problems (e.g. the crashes were too loud on the choruses or the kick was too boomy). Next, I’d bounce another version of the mix, and hopefully would then have a finished or near-finished mix.

By getting into a routine of printing a mix at the end of each session, then listening for and correcting any problems shortly thereafter, I’ve been able to finish a number of the songs and am now on the way towards completing the project.

Of course, had I been mixing somebody else’s material, I would have probably had a deadline and would have been forced to move more quickly. But for those projects where you don’t have time constraints, it’s good to develop a system to force yourself to make progress. Otherwise, there‘s always another plug-in you can try.

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Related Topics: Emusician, Mike Levine |

A Day in the City

I had an interesting day today, starting off with a visit to the NYC office of Ableton for a demo of Live 6. I hadn‘t yet seen the new version, and I was duly impressed. Live continues to get better, and more fully featured, yet never loses its cutting-edge vibe. I was glad to see that Ableton has added video support. Now, it will be usable as a standalone app on a scoring project. The Instrument and Effects Rack features are way cool, allowing you to chain together combinations of either. Live 6 also debuts a new soft sampler, and the Deep Freeze feature that lets you freeze a track but still edit it. Overall, lots of good stuff.

After the Live demo, it was off to a Barnes and Noble location just a little north of Columbus Circle, where I was moderating a panel discussion for the CMJ Music Marathon, a music festival and conference for independent musicians held every year in New York (kind of like the New York equivalent of South-by-Southwest ).

Sitting outside the Barnes and Noble on Broadway was one of Gibson Guitar‘s tour busses, which was being used as a “green room” for the panelists. The bus was filled with guitar-shaped tables, photos of guitar stars, guitars, lamps made from Slingerland toms (Gibson owns Slingerland), and lots of cool stuff.

Anyway, the panel was titled, “Gearheads Unite,” and was focused on new gear for musicians. Panelists included Yamaha product specialist Phil Clendennin, Ableton general manager Dave Hill, Gibson CEO Henry Juszkiewicz, M-Audio Northeast Sales Manager Gary Karlsrud, and Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) VP Michael Petricone. The CMJ schedule gave us only 45 minutes for the discussion, which is really brief, as these things go. So after I gave a quick intro, each of the panelists took the floor for a short presentation.

Clendennin talked about Yamaha‘s digital mixer line, and their Motif keyboards. Hill discussed the new version of Live. Juszkiewicz brought up Gibson‘s new digital guitar, which outputs to an Ethernet cable and offers individual outputs for each string (it currently comes with a breakout box that converts the signal to -inch outputs for each string because there are no input devices designed for the guitar as of yet).

Karlsrud brought in some of the new M-Audio devices including the new NRV10, an analog/digital mixer hybrid that features a 10×10 FireWire interface. He says the mixer should be shipping within a few weeks. I look forward to checking it out.

Petricone was the only member of the panel (other than myself), who didn‘t represent a specific musical instrument manufacturer. The Consumer Electronics Association is an industry group that represents 2,000 companies related to the consumer electronics business–including the major manufacturers. The group is fighting against such trade groups as the RIAA, which the CEA says is inhibiting the business growth of its membership with lawsuits over piracy and copyright infringement. I wish there had been more time to really get into the whole issue, because it‘s a fascinating one.

After the presentations, we took questions from the audience–many of whom said they had home studios–and then the discussion wrapped up. All in all an interesting and productive day.

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Related Topics: Emusician, Mike Levine |


The Bus, EM's editorial blog, features posts from all the EM editors on topics related to gear, recording techniques and much more. It's also home to posts from a selected group of guest bloggers.


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