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TOOLS OF THE TRADE – SOME COOL STUFF TO CONSIDER ADDING

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There is absolutely no chance you’ll run out of cool stuff to consider adding, so you might as well get used to it!

They call it GAS – Gear Acquisition Syndrome.  I have terrible GAS.

I’ll just make a few suggestions, in the interests of our mutual sanity.

A MONITOR CONTROLLER AND A POWERED SINGLE-DIAPHRAGM SPEAKER

Studio monitor is the trade term for an amp and passive speaker, or a powered speaker (one with a built-in amp) that you use for playbacks of the music.  A stereo pair of these are stereo monitors.  One provides mono playback only.

Your monitoring ability should be as good as possible.  Remember that your playback amp and speakers are, to borrow a visual reference, the microscope you view your audio through.  I will talk at more length about home studio monitors on May 7.

Some playback systems are thin and bright, others warm, rich and full of bass.  Try not to have too much bass or too little bass – just an even transition from lower lows to upper lows at the place in the room where you are listening, the sweet spot between your speakers.

One of the MOST useful things you can do when mixing some music you have recorded, even if only a guitar and vocal, is to listen on different sets of speakers.   You typically need a monitor controller to do this, although the control section of small mixing consoles can usually provide some help in this regard if you don’t have one.

A monitor controller is a little box that you send  your L/R Main Outs to, and, very usefully, this lets you add additional sets of speakers to your playback options, while using only one stereo signal from your mixer or interface to do it.

A Radial MC3 is what I use.  Music stores usually carry Radial, and they’re a Canadian company making the MC3 in Canada.  It’s built like a tank, and I love it.  They came out earlier this year.

Radial MC3 Monitor Controller front panel

Radial MC3 Monitor Controller front panel

Actually, my primary monitor controller is the CraneSong Avocet but it’s an expensive professional product in no way intended for home recording songwriters on a budget.   I’m not sure if there is any competition to the Radial MC3 in a reasonable price range for songwriters, but maybe Behringer or ART make something. You will want it for it’s price, size and convenience.  It’s only been on the market a few months at this time.

I recommend you always do your own research too, and see what’s out there right now.

The MC3 is perfect for this application, in my view, but it’s just my opinion.

I use the MC3 to add a fourth set of speakers to my room, in my case an ancient but trusted pair of  Yamaha NS 10M STUDIO’s I’ve had around for over twenty years.   My Avocet monitor controller allows me to connect up to three sets of speakers to it.  I wanted four sets.

I added the MC3 to go after one of the Avocet L/R outputs – between one pair of speakers and the Avocet – thereby allowing me to inject an extra pair of outputs and a subwoofer output to that chain.  This gave me a fourth set of speakers and I use the MC3 to decide which speakers that  Avocet”s specific output controls.  Confusing to explain, simple in practice.

Having several large speakers around does influence the acoustics of the room, so when I’m mastering I remove the NS 10M’s and keep the rest, which I really need for mastering.

Easy to do, and it minimizes acoustic issues in the room itself during critical listening and mastering sessions.

The MC3 is smaller than a paperback novel, but quite a bit heavier!  It can let you add a subwoofer and two sets of speaker pairs, all fed from a single pair of L/R input signals.  It also provides a headphone amp and volume control for one set of headphones that will let you hear whatever is being sent into the MC3, usually the main stereo mix outs of your interface or mixer.

Little buttons turn the speakers on or off, and you can even have all sets playing the same music at the same time if you want to.  There’s a DIM button that drops playback volume way down when you press it – this is in case the phone rings and you need the playback to remain audible to you but not intrusive.  Mute wouldn’t work in this case.

There’s a mono button which sums the incoming audio to mono and feeds the same mono mix to both sides of the speakers.  This feature allows you to use a single mono speaker to make critical balance decisions.  This in turn makes your mixes much more professional-sounding in no time at all.

The technique to learn is this.  You listen to all your favourite recordings at quiet playback levels and get used to the balances you hear.

Try to mimic the balances of the vocals and main riffs and any drum parts and so on in your own music.   Balancing the loudness of different elements in the mix becomes very much easier to get right when you listen at lower levels. Obviously, this is not true for bass sounds, which need some power and energy to be conveyed and are therefore balanced better by listening at fairly loud levels on the biggest speakers you have available.  In short bursts, to protect your hearing.

Again, the secret of setting the lead vocal perfectly in the mix is to turn your monitors down and carefully LISTEN IN MONO at a very quiet level.  It works in stereo too but in mono you can trust the results much more and you can also check whether there are phase problems between your audio elements in your mix.

Problems like disappearing drums or bass or even most of the recording.  Not good.  This method is how you check for that as well as how you can get the vocal to sit properly in a mix.

The small yellow cube with a single speaker cone in this picture, left-of-centre at the very top of this image (to the right of the paired displays at far left), is what is known as a single-diaphragm speaker design.  This picture of part of my studio’s control room was taken about five years ago – my control room is no longer looking quite like this, although much of it remains the same.

The model shown is the Avantone Mix Cube.  This is a great design for critically assessing certain things, especially sounds in the area of our hearing which is most sensitive.  Nowadays they make a powered active version, and that would be a great purchase you will not regret when you mix music yourself.  Amazingly useful and a great investment in your mixing skills.

We’re finely tuned to detect and understand the typical range of frequencies and their overtones that we hear in human speech.  We can pick out human speech immediately in almost any sonic environment.  These speaker types are great in the speech frequencies.

By LISTEN IN MONO, I mean that you sum together the left and the right sides of your stereo signal and hear them BOTH at once played through a single-diaphragm speaker, which is by definition a mono playback with no crossover frequency issues to detract from performance.  The MC3 can do this for you on a budget, paired with a small powered single-diaphragm speaker, as well as letting you add another set of stereo speakers to your monitoring options when funds permit.

To repeat this important point again: this is how professionals decide if the relative balance of the instruments and the vocals remains right at all times during the mix.  It is far easier to do when listening at very low levels.  You’ll be shocked at how regularly you can get it right with this tool.  The voice will sit right on most playback systems.

Just play your favourite records you know really well and see for yourself where the vocal sits in those mixes.  It often seems outlandishly loud, and if you are the singer then doubly so to you.  Don’t worry!  It’s good to be clearly heard above the track.  Just try not to overdo it, as there is a point where you detach the singer from the music.  It’s a moving target in a mix, so make changes as you go through the song, keeping the vocal sounding right on the mono speaker.

First though, before you listen in mono, you should definitely sort out any stereo panning that is to be done, so that position in the stereo image is determined.  This is because things panned to the side lose level compared to things in the middle, the amount depending on the pan law applied.  Usually it’s 3dB quieter once hard-panned to left or right, relative to how loud the sound would be when kept at the centre pan position.

It is impossible to judge how a mix will behave when collapsed to mono if you have not settled on the stereo version.  The wider a (very) stereo track is panned, the more chance there will be phase cancellation issues.  By “very stereo”, a casual expression, I mean there are large differences between the two sides of the stereo signal.

Why do you care?  Lots of mono is still used today; for example, AM radio is mono.  Many in-house audio systems in restaurants and other buildings with multiple zones for audio are in mono because stereo is impractical – all 25 dining tables should get the same mix of background music, not the left side of the room hearing very loud guitar and the right side very loud piano!

Summing up, mono is still very, very important – things really must collapse as well as possible if meant for mass consumption.  Wherever you are in a restaurant or store, you’re almost always only hearing one speaker!

Very low frequency signals such as the low end of the typical synth bass line or kick drum part will be impossible to balance correctly at these very low levels of playback, because you have to turn it up to really tell with the bass end.  On these sorts of little speakers, you are hearing around 100Hz and above but not much lower.   It’s the upper lows you hear on these single-diaphragm speakers, not the sub-bass.

In fact, a spectrum analyzer plug-in on your DAW’s Master Fader (Main Stereo Out) will show you visually what frequencies you have present and which are most active, so you can use that sort of plug-in in your DAW to help assess low end.  That really helps you if you can’t play music too loudly where you are.

Check out your collection of music by commercial artists in this way and you will find that the vocal is always very prominent at low levels, and you will soon get used to where you should put it relative to the music behind it.  It will also teach you to treat the backing track as one unit, noty just a bunch of instruments.

The voice contains lots of energy in a frequency range that our hearing is most sensitive to, and this is a prominent frequency range when you turn the speakers low enough to make the bass a lot weaker.  Our hearing is tuned to hear cries for help from other humans.  They happen with a lot of energy focused around around 1kHz, where we hear things really well – where speech is.

These techniques together with a monitor controller and a single-daiphragem speaker will revolutionize your ability to get professional results when you mix at home.

Radial and Avantone websites are both well worth visiting for more information.

These are not especially cheap (nothing much is in recording) but they are inexpensive.

ADD ANOTHER MICROPHONE TO YOUR ARSENAL

Every mic is different.  You can never have enough mics – they give tonal variation and meet different needs.  They all have their own quirks.

If you have condenser mics, get a dynamic and if you have dynamics get a condenser.  A dynamic mic like an SM57 can take high SPL levels (sound pressure levels, like loud snare hits or really loud guitar amps, but can seem a bit hard-edged on the high sounds.  Condenser mics improve this situation but at the cost of being more sensitive to high SPLs.  Condensers usually need phantom power too, typically at 48 volts.  Some work on batteries, however, and occasionally new batteries will sound better than powering the mic with phantom power.  Compare and see with your own mic.

If you already have a condenser mic and a dynamic mic, then perhaps it’s time for a ribbon mic.

These have less top end, and sound darker, richer and warmer.  They suit brass and vocals especially.  Due to their working method they are susceptible to high wind blasts and loud noises.

The ribbon itself (a thinly stretched diaphragm of metal foil suspended in a magnetic field) is easily damaged by sudden blasts of air (a door slamming shut nearby) so you must be careful but they sound awesome on trumpet, sax and most mellow male vocals.  They give a darker, richer sound than condensers but they lack the condenser’s top end sparkle.

Miking an electric guitarist’s amp is, perhaps counter-intuitively, one of the most successful and popular uses for a ribbon mic.

RECOIL STABILIZERS

I’ll say it again at the end of the series, but this is the MOST bang for your buck you can get in a studio environment to improve things.  Google the phrase Recoil Stabilizers and buy them for every set of speakers you own.

Inexpensive and fantastic.  You hear the difference IMMEDIATELY.  You can trust what you hear a lot more after adding these babies.  If they are still a bit expensive or physically too heavy for you, there are less efficient but still very helpful foam platforms from Auralex that take a similar approach but use a lot less mass to do it

SE REFLEXION FILTER

This product and others like it are extremely helpful in controlling the sound of your voice entering the microphone during a vocal take.  You can really eliminate most of the unwanted influences of room sound from your vocal recordings.  I cannot recommend this strongly enough.  Check them out.

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2 Responses to TOOLS OF THE TRADE – SOME COOL STUFF TO CONSIDER ADDING

  1. Edi Cheung May 26, 2013 at 9:59 pm #

    Hi Michael,

    Happy to see your blog series is underway! Thanks for the heads-up with the recoil stabilizer and reflexion filter. Didn’t know about them before, and I’m glad you talked about them!

    • Michael Holland May 27, 2013 at 9:45 am #

      Thanks Edi, I’m very glad to have been helpful, and thanks for reading.

      All these little tweaks really do add up to noticeable improvements. Getting excellent audio is incremental that way. Watch the cents and the dollars take care of themselves, as they say. It all helps.

      Recoil stabilizers, in particular, are the best bang for the buck I know of in a studio setting. I love mine and I have quite a few pairs of them.

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