All about producing and mastering audio for disc, the web and beyond

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Musicians helping musicians: benefit this Friday!!!!!

One thing that holds true in our system of capitalism in the US is that musicians are something of an underclass. In fact, all artists are. We are viewed as 'self employed' largely, and often as dispensible and a luxury afforded to an affluent society only when the budget allows. In other countries the artist has a much more elevated status in standing and in terms of income and benefits. There is not commonly such a thing as unemployment insurance for artists, nor salaried positions except in rare instances. So when musicians are in need it is often other musicians that see the plight and step up to do something about it.

Witness Hurricane Katrina. There are many musicians who live on the edge in the Gulf Coast region and many of them would have been swallowed up without Musicares (part of NARAS, the Grammy people)....a music industry funded relief fund for musicians that distributed MILLIONS of dollars to musicians in need.

With that as the backdrop an event arises an event Friday to assist one of our finest and very own Boston area musicians. Drummer John Sands (for some strange (or obvious) reason given the nickname Huggy Bear) suffered a massive heart attack last fall. It is a miracle he is with us at all, but he managed to pull through. His recovery has been slow slow slow and he was in the ICU in critical condition for weeks. Needless to say the bills have mounted. Cue the musicians....

John is someone who possesses what could be called a HUGE groove....a deep pocket...a....oh well, you get the idea. This Friday at the Paradise in Boston, a benefit concert given by some of those who have benefited from the association with MR Sands Pocket (and his hugs) including Aimee Mann, Lori McKenna, Ron Sexsmith and the Jess Tardy Band will help send love to John, and in doing so we'll help out a musician friend in need. More info at

Support your local musician. If you don't who will?

Monday, January 17, 2011


I feel as if I should be coming away from the NAMM convention with some sort of ground breaking news, or fresh insights, but while I did have a sense of an invigorated and optimistic music making community, nothing seemed like it was a sign of a coming revolution.

The demos I did together with iZotope were great fun and I really enjoy partnering with them, They are innovative, forward thinking and committed to building quality tools for the modern music makers...

In my last post I mentioned the Roland chip, and I certainly see steps in the direction of real-time interactivity in the new music making tools being developed. It's appearing via physical interfaces and i the software and firmware embedded in the devices. There were no new 'mix-engineer-body-suits-and 3D-surround-glasses' however. Maybe next year.

I feel compelled to buy the new Dangerous 'Liaison' when it arrives. I feel compelled to since it incorporates features that I have been wanting for some time. How can you say no when someone gives you something you asked for?

I will also buy the itrumpet app for apple mobile products when it arrives in a couple of days. I really enjoyed the developer and his work.

OTherwise I bring back a renewed sense of optimism, a slight hint of a tan, and connections, some renewed, some new.....

Friday, January 14, 2011

Report from NAMM

Survived day 1....well, really better than survived. The show is busy busy busy and there is a general sense of busy-ness and business taking place.

There is a LOT of innovation put on display here. Some of it leveraging existing technologies including software emulations of chaotic (read analog) signal processing, some of it new. Witness the continued evolution of instrument controllers, for instance ROland has a new VLSI chip that puts a layer of software in between a hardware controller and a virtual instrument that creates more 'authentic' performance by taking the input from a controller and adding instructions that are characteristic of the (virtual) instrument being played.

THere are guitars with sound holes at the top of the resonating chamber rather than the center, mini church organs, a 'black box' single rack space 24 channel recorder daisy chainable for up to 96 channels and much more.

The DAW continues to proliferate AND mature. Peak showed a prototype multichannel version designed with stem mixing and surround in mind. iZotope unveiled a new product developed with artist BT that makes the creation of the 'stutter' edit, characteristic of BT's work, easy for users to implement in their own work.....

While there was a lot of 'stuff' all round, I think the pervasive idea I notice on the floor in conversation and in products is collaboration. Using ProTools 9 as a prime example where users of the mainstay of audio production can now choose their hardware interface inevitably, MANY more companies are using ProTools compatibility in the messaging, front and center....and there is a lot of collaboration being discussed around business development, artistic projects and generally people coming together under the banner of music making that in other times might have chosen to work in isolation.

There were several Asian companies offering a HUGE variety of recording gear branded with names such as 'Just Right Sound' whose booths were empty. In one case there was a sign that read 'US distribution sought'. It's hard to know if these companies are selling high quality gear or not, but I suspect we'll see a greater influx of such products in the near future. It's very much in keeping with what I witness when I go to the music market in Seoul.

The Audio Mastering talk I gave in the 'H.O.T. Zone' was a blast. I had about 150 people in the room and for an hour we managed to overcome the horrible convention acoustics and had an interesting and dare I say meaningful conversation all about audio mastering. It was more fun that I dared imagine it would be.

On to the iZotope booth tomorrow to see if I can make anything out of a talk in the middle of the convention floor....

Monday, January 10, 2011

Next stop is NAMM!

As I write I am preparing to go to the NAMM convention in Anaheim, CA. My main activity while there will be to deliver a talk about 'audio mastering'. It's funny to say but even though it's a fairly small sub-specialty in audio production, the topic seems overly broad to me and so I will seek to put the talk into the context of what's happening now with regard to production styles, formats, distribution and other current topics. At the same time there seem to be 'truths' that never really change, they just migrate and so I'll talk about them too.

As much as anything I look forward to taking the temperature of the music making community. It seems the professional audio community, semi-pros, and the amateurs/consumers all converge on NAMM. The AES (Audio Engineering Society) convention has consolidated as the truly 'pro' studios have diminished in #, but music creation and consumption continues to grow as music production tools make there way into the hands of many in the form of laptops, small solid state memory recorders, etc.

I look forward to what I'll see, and what I'll learn. I'll keep you posted.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Tape to the rescue?

In the course of mastering a record, the obvious first step is to listen to the record, and listen to the client talk about the record in order to decide what, if anything, needs to be done to change it.

The 'what' in that sentence can include many things:

- adjusting relative volume
- adjusting absolute volume overall
- deploying dsp based processing (eq, compression, reverb, etc)
- deploying analog processing including solid state and tube based amplifiers

and then there's the more obscure tool such as running the audio through an analog tape record/play pass. This particular technique is something that has a reputation for being something like the 'Holy Grail' of audio in some circles. You'll see it played out in the marketing literature of modern audio systems that include tape simulations. Something like "that vintage tape sound" or "that professional sound you get from tape" will appear that seeks to glorify the process and imbue it with a sense of desirability such that 'if you do this you will undoubtedly elevate and improve your recording'.

It's hard to imagine resisting such a tool. Just turn it on and something good happens? Bartender make mine a double!

OK, ok, so once we come to our senses it's worth thinking about what tape does to audio. The short of it, in a word, is it creates non-linearity. It changes things. OBviously it adds noise (hiss) that is generated at the record 'head'. A small bit of distortion is added as a result of the process. It also changes the dynamic range, especially in the peaks as the signal applied to tape increases in level. The peaks are restricted, 'rolled off' if you will, as the level gets hotter and hotter. The frequency response changes. Tape machines do not record perfectly 'flat' from 20 Hz to 20kHz. If you chart the frequency response of a tape machine you will notice slight deviations from 'flat' of about 1/2 dB in a great machine and more in a good machine. A particularly noteworthy area where non-linearity occurs is in the bass.

There's a phenomenon called the 'head-bump' which refers to a resonant frequency of the record head itself. It will add emphasis in the bass and interestingly, the emphasis will change with tape speed. At 30 inches per second, usually this head bump is around 50 HZ. At 15 ips it is around 25 (1/2. Below this resonant peak the tape machine will roll off bass very steeply, almost like a high pass filter.

So enough tech talk. Suffice it to say that the process changes the sound substantially. So, let's say you have a mix you are REALLY happy with. Do the changes I mentioned above sound appealing? I hardly think so. Creating a bump in the bass, adding noise (and thereby losing reverb and imaging) and losing transients are going to change your mix in a way that is hard to control. These changes are not a panacea.

However....if your mix is too bright and spiky, lacking in bass 'punch' and definition, already 'noisy' in a way that a little noise added won't be a problem....then maybe tape is the way to go.

That's what happened last week when I mastered a project. Tape saved the day, adding desirable tonal color and compression in one fell swoop in a way that I couldn't have achieved any other way....maybe the ads should read -

"Tape might be the perfect mastering solution when your mixes are not"......

PS - in case it's not obvious, the piece above is written in the context of mastering. When considering recording or mixing where you can adjust, react to and minimize the sonic impact of tape, the choices and decisions might be different.