The Art of Recorded Music

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A canvas. A monitor. A block of clay.

Human imagination is more fertile and expansive than all of them. Human imagination is where the soundstage of recorded music is rendered.

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Creating sound for a recording takes planning. Even a simple voice over requires quieting the room, writing a script, and a doing a mic level check. Recording a band or larger unit requires extensive planning, both technical in nature and strategic from an artistic sense.

 

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How many sounds are we trying to create? How many instruments, voices, microphones, and additional dubs? How many tracks per song? How many songs per album? These are artistic decisions mixed with lots of technical hum-drum (a million cables).

 

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As the musicians and producer start to craft the songs they are already working on many layers.

The arrangement is one layer, actually each part within the arrangement is a layer.

The type and style of sounds emanating from the instruments are another layer.

 

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The feel or tempo of the songs is another layer.

The prominence of instruments in the mix is another layer.

The amount of soloing is another layer. I could go on [and some bands do indeed go on and on!]

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The point — there is complexity here that gets painted into the soundstage of the final product. These entire layers of creation are not only intentionally put there, but fretted over in emotionally draining recording sessions hour after hour.

There are screaming battles, insults, and hurt feelings as the artist sweats and bleeds for their art. Pure creativity buried in the mix. Artists layer sounds while recording engineers massage, place, and blend sounds through the recording system.

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The blend of the sounds is critical. Each sound works within, against, and through all other sounds.

Nothing – NOTHING, including color, mixes like sound. No medium has more depth than sound.

No other artistic medium works by fulling enveloping the participant. IMAX? IMAX is actually about 20% of your surroundings fixed in space with visible framing. A simple head turn or eye close makes IMAX no-max.

Sound has no equal. This is why I fight so strongly these days against the lossy crowd, against the phones are fine for music, buy new headphones crowd. Even my own friends. I have to remind them that reducing our music is reducing our soul and we should be very careful with such things.

 

A Tale Of Two Setups

I was in my new all-analog studio last night with a simple task – dump from the 4-track tape machine to something digital so I could share the tracks just recorded with the artists.


 

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First I needed to do a little bit of a mix on the tracks. I loaded up tape #1, went to my cue point, rolled tape, and worked on patching in some reverb and some parametric EQ. I twiddled with that for a few minutes in the speakers until I was happy. I switched between 2 sets of speakers and then realized my headphone amp wasn’t getting signal. I patched that in and tested my mix using 2 sets of headphones: good & earbud. OK all set, let’s get digital!


 

During the work above I was using devices made over nearly a 50 year range. They all plugged into each other using standard connectors and levels. These connectors are available everywhere cheaply, made by thousands of manufacturers. Almost every device had clear buttons, lights, and panels to understand and manipulate the audio. No drivers or software was needed.


 

Time to fire up my Focusrite interface, a nice piece of digital kit that’s about 4 years old now. It’s primary job is to convert analog to digital and vice-versa, back out to analog again. I attach the firewire cable to the back of the focusrite, plug it in to the wall, and then grab my mac.

Oh damn, where’s the firewire port on this thing? I got a new mac a couple months back and hadn’t used this one for recording anything yet. No firewire port. Not even Firewire 800. Not 400. None. I guess I need an adapter to get to the lightning port. Not available to me at that moment, not standard, not used for anything else. Great, I can’t connect the interface to this mac, not tonight.


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OK never mind the interface, I’m coming out of the mixer in 2 track so I can just go into the line-in headphone jack and let the mac do the conversion. Bedroom producers have been doing this trick for 20 years now.

I find a RCA-to-mini plug in the drawer and run tape out from the mixing board into the mac. Launch Garageband.  Back on track.


Garageband says “thanks for purchasing garageband from the app store!” I don’t remember purchasing this. Why the excitement?

“Garageband needs to download samples and loops in order to launch.” I don’t want samples or loops, I just need to record from the line in!

But I have no choice. Garageband goes about 15 minutes downloading and installing things I don’t want or need.

Meanwhile I turn to the tape machine and roll to the next track. I decide I want compression instead of the EQ on this track so I patch in a few different compressors until I find the one I like. Write down my settings on my log paper.


 

Garageband is done installing itself again. I get a wizard offering me everything under the sun except basic recording. I select ‘Hip-Hop’ thinking this might be closest to basic. Haha, stupid! No way I need MPC’s and a thousand loops. Delete this session.


 

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OK, I find basic recording and I try to arm track 1 coming in from line in. That’s when the bad news hits:  this mac has no line in. It has a port that looks like a line in, exactly like the previous model’s, but it’s not a line in.

The only sound the mac will accept is from it’s own microphone or a microphone on an iPhone headset plugged into the mac through this mystery port. I find the documentation to back it up – I need a USB or lightning port interface to get audio in.

Damn. Apple, what were you thinking? Yes lots of people have interfaces, but lots of people fall back on their line in during emergencies or for simple 2-track needs. Big Fail.


 

So the analog world managed to cooperate and work with over 4 decades of gear. My digital world failed in under 1.

To think that you continually need a new interface every 3 years just to get audio in makes the mac far less of a production machine, and bodes bad for the digitally-dominated future.

How quickly will things go obsolete, how much will our culture suffer from a lack of backward compatibility?

How You Hear Music

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Listening 101

1. Directionality – Where is that sound coming from? Where exactly is that hi-hat sitting in the mix? Is the band in front of me or all around me?

2. Delay/Roomspace – Am I in a large room, small room, outside? Was this music recorded in a large room or small room? Was the recording room rounded, square, long?

3. Quality/timbre of instruments – Is that an electric guitar? Do I like the tone of it? Do I like that keyboard patch? How about the singer’s voice?

4. Stereo soundstage – Do I hear 2 guitars doubling each other, or 1 guitar with a wide delay? Is the singer front and center, or is he singing 2 parts, 1 left, 1 right? How wide are the drums set in the mix?

5. Timing of musicians and recording – Do the various delays work together musically, or are they clashing and changing the feel of the song? Are the drummer and bass player locked in? Is the 2nd percussion player ahead, behind, or on the beat?

6. Quality of recording – Is this the best version of this song? Is the distortion in the track intentionally added by the artist or is it in the format?

7. Clarity and breadth of EQ – Are most of the pleasing frequencies present, and are the harsh, brittle frequencies diminished?  Do the various instruments and voices blend and work with each other as layers, or do they cover each other?

8. Noise floor – Is there a hum or buzz in this recording? Is it from a bad recording, or a loud instrument, or something wrong in my system?

9. Phase – If things were recorded in phase you don’t notice it. If things are out of phase with each other, various comb filtering and aliasing artifacts appear in your music.

10. Digital loss/compression – Has this file been reduced from the original? Did they remove things they hope I can’t hear to make the file smaller?  Are there compression artifacts in the mix.

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There’s 10 things to listen to without even thinking about frequency range. 10 things most internet audio experts never take into account.

Dawg Gone Analog

It’s happening. I’ve considered and planned and anticipated this for 15+ years. But always compromised.

I’m going analog at the studio. Direct to tape. Outboard gear. No DAW. No computers needed at all.

The real deal. Why wait any longer?

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YOLO sly, yolo

Why? One Word. Workflow. [whoo!]

New Studio’s Primary Rule: NO SCREENS = EARS MAKE ALL DECISIONS. EYES MAKE NONE.

MISSION STATEMENT:  NO SCREENS.  EARS MAKE ALL DECISIONS.  EYES MAKE NONE.

Here’s some initial thoughts –

  • I will track to tape.
  • I might live-mix bounces and direct to 2-track final mixes.
  • Patchbays!
  • I can only afford 4-track 1/4″ tape decks right now, but it could be a stepping stone.
  • Most of my vintage compressors, preamps, mics and processors can finally be put to proper use.
  • Yes…. there will be a digital interface and something digitizing stem mixes from the tape machine for backup, recall, and perhaps future use. It will be also be optional, hidden by default, and have no visible screen.

The bottom line is no screens — we will get a sound from the instrument(s), work with the mic(s) and the input, track to tape, then move onto next layer using only your ears and available dials and knobs.

 

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This is the analog version of a hard drive full of plug-ins. Except these sound better. And have knobs.

 

I know I’m swimming upstream here. It’s not my first time on that trip.

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Quality swimming up the river Convenience

 

Even the founder of the magazine Tape Op, the bible amongst analog types and tape ops, said on a 2014 panel “someone buying a 1980-era consumer-level 4-track is the least exciting thing to me right now”.

Someone buying a 1980-era consumer-level 4-track is the least exciting thing to me right now – Larry Crane, Tape Op Editor

A slap down from tape jesus himself! But alas, I will work to prove him wrong. My 1980’s era TEAC 4-track tape deck passed it’s exam last night and should be ready for sessions any day now. My studio is shifting into a new mode and it’s all about workflow, limitations, and performance pressure.

 

Best Thing Ever

Lofty headline, no?

Music is life. Perhaps we should all play music to each other, that might be a better world.

Instead we developed technology to record the music so we can play it on demand without musicians present.

After a few decades of standing in front of a microphone it grew into a new art form called recorded music. It’s the art form I probably enjoy the most daily, and one that I have practiced occasionally.

Here is an interesting wikipedia overview of what I love most, multitrack recording.

 

Word of the Day: Provenance

Provenance - Noun : originsourceplace of originbirthplace, fountrootspedigreederivationroot

You hear it on antiques shows and now you hear about it in digital music, and it’s actually pretty cool because it’s about credits and the people behind the music.

One of the many complaints about mp3 was “where are the credits?”.  Sorry, go to the website. But the website can update all the time, what if I just want the proper credits for my own music lover nerdiness?

There’s a more serious side to it also, one of attribution and authenticity. Algorithms can now determine what song is playing and credit the composer and lyricist, but they cannot determine origin of the file (which version from which mastering session).

As MP3 fades in popularity and we look to the next digital format, efforts are being taken to improve this issue of provenance in music. Sites like ProStudioMasters.com list details of which version you are buying but standardization is needed here.


My provenance proposal, off the top of my head:

Top level (spine):  Artist / Song / Cover art

Sub level (liner): Lyrics / Liner notes / Additional artwork

Physical level (provenance): Year / Composer / BPM / ISRC / Label / Label Number / Original Mix date / Original Mix format / Remaster Date / Remaster format


[This data could be used by next-gen streaming too, giving lots of interesting information and images to be displayed while the song streams.]

Take A Good Look At My Face

Smokey Robinson, one of American’s finest songwriters, has a new record out and it led me to find this gem:

10 years after smokey’s original, the seventies country rock thing was happening and a cutie by the name of Linda Ronstadt with a huge lovely voice was all over the charts with her legendary compositions.

Take a look at and listen to Linda in the studio doing Smokey, with just a touch of country on it. Perfecto.

No Turning Back With Cody ChesnuTT

Since I don’t really pay attention to anyone’s social media noise I know I miss stuff, but you know, I usually find it in good time.

From last summer, here’s a great peak into the Okayplayer studios with Cody Chesnutt noodling around with a new song.

I am waiting for Pono to come out so I can start buying records again. I feel like I’ve paid for my last mp3 or mp4, I just can’t justify spending money on the poor quality audio files. This new Cody and the new Bowie coming out could be the first ones I buy in High-Res digital.

 

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Quick Studio Funk with Larry Dunn & Foley

Just a glimpse into the sessions for Foley’s killer 1993 release “7 Years Ago….Directions In Smart-Alec Music” featuring some keyboard love from original EWF player Larry Dunn, with a quick glimpse of GC at the end.

Hey was that Foley playing drums for P-funk last week? He had a hoodie on the whole show and I was waaaay in the back.

Spring has sprung!

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So its been a long while i know
But much has been happening around me
Since i last opened my space
And your face to my reality

A new studio has sprung
Bigger harder stronger than the last one
The Flux-adel Recording Division
Is open for business. As they say,
Recording is progress

2merica is as vital as ever
Better late than never
El motto de skorpions!
Pedal hard my darlings
Cuz the devil is on our tail

Too many corporate bands biting
Our sound style idea hope
I ain’t mad at this compliment
It’s my fave way to cope
These days.

Although i admit no shortage of hope
In town and around the globe
I am watching the former foreign fear peddlers
Spin themselves into an American
Dream turned nightmare for their corporate sponsored
Worker fearing apocalyptic vision of our very beautiful
Present. Tense sense of relief.
And oh yeah we started a bad ass new band.

The Bushes have quietly waved
Goodbye and returned to Texas
and we survived.
God Bless us all, hallelujah!
Only stronger and perhaps
Smarter… yeah right
But at least our new prez
Don’t get stage fright
And talks to us like we’ve actually
Been walking on this earth more than a decade


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