Sunday, February 26, 2006

If You Node What I Mean

Aha. Nodes. Nodes are the Devil. Nodes are coloring my mix. They must be stopped, but will our hero buy wall treatments in time? Possibly. I had reached an impasse with the mixes. They sounded pretty good, but were bass-shy and the vocal was too compressed. Living in Nashville, where you can't throw a biscuit without hitting a studio had it's advantages. I called on Dave Martin, proprietor of Java Jive Sudios in nearby Joelton to perform a sonic exorcism. He discovered that the very spot where I m sitting is in one of the null points of my room. Frequencies are cancelled out and I hear less bass (so I compensate by adding bass), which makes mixes out in the real world way too bass heavy. Solution: push back from the desk 2-3 feet and listen. Voila. It sounds good again.

The over-compressed vocal problem is solved with good old fashioned vocal rides with a mouse on a virtual fader...which brings the issue of having a hardware contoller front and center again. Dave spent four hours here sizing things up and gave me some things to work on. I have, and the improvements are readily apparent.

I re-tracked a couple of acoustic guitar parts that sounded thin, and that certainly helped. At the time I first tracked them, I used the handiest pre the studio had, a Focusrite Green Series, which is OK, but very different sounding than the Universal Audio LA-610 that I now own. The LA-610 is a tube channel that mimics the legendary UA 610 mic pre and LA-2A compressor. Very fat and punchy. The J-45 that I used for the initial tracking was replaced by my 1968 Epiphone El Dorado, a much more "Martin-y" sounding acoustic guitar.

DVD rental tip of the day: Find a copy of "Tom Dowd: The Language of Music". Dowd was the engineer/producer on most of the music that mattered in the late '50's through the '70's - from Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, and Otis Redding to Derek and the Dominos and Cream. Oh, and he was a member of the team that worked on the Manhattan Project during WWII. An amazing American life story.

As Ray Charles says in the movie - "How does it sound, baby? How does it sound?"

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

You Better Leave My Mixes Alone

If you don't want, you don't have to get in trouble. You can leave the mix alone. You can resist tweaking it again and again. You can ignore the lure of the perfect mix. You could do that. Or you could do what I did.

After repeated listenings, I decided to mess around a bit with a mix I had previously considered done. Now, I don't think making tiny volume adjustments or effects adjustments is a big deal. I thought I simply needed to re-EQ some guitars. I expected to just make the changes and all would be well. Ooops. I had forgotten the Golden Rule of EQing. Every sound has an effect on every other sound. Cutting some mids out of a boomy guitar can make the vocal sound different. Or the drums.

But I went ahead and messed around too much and had to re-do most of the track. I ended up leaving the chaotic one and reverting back to a saved version of the previously untweaked "finished" mix.

The toughest issue for me right now is keeping the lead vocal on top of the mix and having it sound warm and intimate, even on louder, faster songs.This is an acquired skill and I am putting in the time this hands are crampy from scrolling a mouse around a monitor all day.

I may re-think this decision to not use an external controller, which was based mostly on the cost issue in the first place. I have access to a good deal on a controller, and I am leaning toward getting one. A hardware upgrade is definitely something that can change the pace of this project. I would have to learn the layout of the controls and their relationship to Cubase parameters, but in the long run, the speed and convenience of a dedicated controller will be worth the effort. I am fairly fluent in Cubase these days, though I don't demand much of the program and therefore have not explored it's deeper functions.

I can record, cut, paste, process and mix with it. And at present that is all I need it to do. The hardware controller would put physical faders under my fingers, and comes complete with a Fire Wire digital audio interface, which would make my MOTU 2408Mk3 redundant. There are actual knobs to twirl and real buttons to push. It doesn't replace the mouse, but it puts the mouse back to doing tasks it was designed to do,not pretending to be an ersatz mixer fader caressing a slow fadeout or jumping around on a vocal joy ride.

Of course, all those moveable, twistable, slidable things will glitter like grey plastic gems, adding more temptation to re-visit a mix. I hope not. I hope I have learned my lesson and can let a done mix stay done.

They are sounding great, BTW. We are very happy with everyone's playing so far, and with four songs getting pedal steel overdubs a coule of days ago, the sonic character and "vibe" of the album is becoming clearer. I think a lot of people will like it, and some of them might even get it. We shall see.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Music Machine

I've been spending 8-10 hours a day mixing my wife's record. It's the second album production I have done where I tracked/mixed/produced all by myself. I am learning a new DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) called Cubase SX2. It's been out a couple of years, but I have done all of my previous engineering on a harddisk recorder of one kind or another. Essentially the digital audio equivalent of a tape deck, HDRs are computers that simply record audio, with minimal editing capabilities. The DAW is an integrated system of recording and mixing using only the computer. Hardware controllers exist, but I am mixing it totally ITB -"in the box"- -no controller, no hardware effectors.

Since the DAW, Cubase, acts as both storage medium and editor, I had a lot of reading to do to catch up. Like H.I. in "Raising Arizona", I have an infant in one hand and the Dr. Spock equivalent in the other. Read a little, record and edit a little. It's a blast. I am amazed at the power of the recording technology in the present day. I remember lusting after the Tascam Portastudio, an early multi-track (4) cassette recorder. I had to settle for the vastly inferior PortaOne, but it was a start. Combined with a horrid Korg drum machine (I think it was the D-110), I made a few noisy demos in college.

Today, you can get a full-blown home studio for around $5k. And that's with having some pretty nice gear.

While taking a break from mixing, I like to read about other methods of making and recording music. Programs like Propellerheads "Reason 3.0" and Ableton's "Live 5.0" have a different take on it. I suggest anyone interested go the the Propellerhead web site, click on the Listen to Reason button and download the tiny app that plays music. There are 23 demo songs to listen to, all of them excellent. All done using Reason.

This kind of creative power is bound to have a major impact on musicians and music in the long run. Sure, everybody with a Dell will try to make music with these programs, but when you give artists access to the known universe and the galactic DNA to create new universes and store them as Favorites, we listeners are sure to reap great benefits at a great rate. Never before have the historically less affluent members of society had the ability to make heard the sounds they hear in their heads. Without the huge expense of having those ideas -and all of the fertile side experiments that any project generates - holding them back, today's musicians are taking great advantge of the technology.

I intend to learn Reason well enough to compose on it and integrate it into my future productions. It "sits" on top of Cubase with a click of a button. Anything composed in Reason can be downloaded directly into Cubase for editing or adding live audio tracks.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006


I just watched this film of Django Rheinhardt at YouTube. I had never seen any video footage of him before. Wow. What an absolutely unique and unsurpassed musician he was. The story of his accident and subsequent loss of most of the use of his left hand ring and pinkie finger is well-known: a fire broke out in his caravan when some plastic flowers (that his wife sold)were ignited by a cigarette. Django suffered massive burns on his hands. He had to re-learn the guitar after his wounds healed, and according to Les Paul, they never did heal.

His brilliant technique, sense of humor and uninhibited spirit made him perhaps the greatest jazz guitar improviser, and certainly one of the earliest. Like Chet Atkins, Jimi Hendrix and Eddie Van Halen did in their respective genres, Django completely re-wrote the book on what a guitar was capable of - in Jazz and in general - and influenced every guitarist that followed him, whether they knew it or not.

His playing makes me laugh, it's emmanation of pure joy is palpable.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Performance = Art?

My wife and I were watching GAC (Great American Country) the other night and discussing the aspects of what makes a good live performance. It's my opinion that an imperfect rendition of a song, if delivered with passion and conviction is preferable to the Auto-tuned, lip-synched stuff that passes for live music these days. The Rolling Stones at the Super Bowl were loose and sloppy, their natural state. Coldplay was on last night in an SNL repeat. They sounded great, not perfect.

We talked about songwriting and what is expected of the writer from the audience's perspective. What is it about some writers/performers that makes an audience connect with them? I think it is something akin to "tapping the Universal in a personal way". It's not writing about what makes you special, it's talking about what makes us all similar. The listener must relate in some fashion: emotionally, physically, intellectually. It can be the lyrics, the melody, the texture of the voice or instruments, or simply the beat. The more elements that connect, the "better" the song and the more often people want to hear it.

When critics and fans talk about a song being "a great record", I think they are talking not only about the technical production of the song, but also the synergy of two or more of those elements, combined with the personal experience of the listener.

Thin Lizzy's "The Boys Are Back In Town" has always been a favorite of mine for several reasons. First of all, it rocks, so the beat and the drive appeal to my basic senses. The lyric and melody flow along nicely, weaving a story about local bad-asses coming back into a town. My hometown never had anything of the sort happen, so it all seemed so cinematic and exotic to me, listening in rural Wisconsin. The twin guitar solo was something of a signature sound for Lizzy, and they used it to great effect on this tune. The call and response chorus invites you to sing along...maybe not the lead vocal, if you are too shy, but at least the response to the lead.

The reference to "Dino's Bar and Grill" is very American, coming from an Irish band. This is the post-Watergate, post-Godfather period when gangsters and hoods were seen as more than criminals, misfits who seemingly had more of an honor code than the government at the time. The song takes a practical view of letting the boys fight if they want to, after all they're just boys. It appealed to my fifteen-year-old hormones to have brawls and bars and "Chicks that used to dance a lot, shakin' what they got".

Add all that up, add some nostalgia to give the patina an extra shine and "The Boys Are Back In Town" remains one of my favorites to this day.