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Getting Better Analog Sound

permalink   Fri, May 2, 2014 @ 6:24 AM
The most important piece of gear in the signal chain is the ears of the producer. When you start producing with your ears instead of paying attention to the numbers on the knobs the quality of your tracks will improve. - Mike Shipley

Mike was a multi-Grammy winning producer well known for capturing acoustic instruments with microphones and mixing them using a digital work station with amazingly realistic results. I’ll be the first to admit I do a pretty poor job of that task, maybe you’re in the same boat. So, recently, I had a digital conversation with unreal_dm and Scomber (Paul and Gary) to find out what they’re doing that I’m not. Both consistently produce tracks with a rich, present, warm analog sound with a lot of depth to the aural field.

This is not a gear shoot-out or a competition to see whose technique is better. It’s more of an attempt to see which areas they agree on because there’s a good chance if you and I use the same techniques we’ll get good results, too. Recording voice, guitar, piano, harp, ukelele with a microphone takes a special set of attention to detail to get good results but just a few changes can make a huge difference.

For the sake of space I’ve summarized what Paul and Gary have to say on the subject, instead of using an interview format. I’d like to thank both for taking the time to share their insights. Hope it helps in your next recording.

Room Treatment

No Question about it, this makes a difference. Acoustical foam, bass traps, go-bo’s, Rockwul clouds all tame early reflections but you can get similar results using items you already have at home.

The most important area to work on is the wall behind the performer. Hanging a duvet from hooks or placing pillows in the corners of the wall will not eliminate stray bass frequencies, but you’ll notice an improvement when using them. Placing blankets over the backs of two straight backed chairs placed in a y-formation on either side of the mic helps, too. You may want to try attaching a 10”x10” piece of upholstery foam or using a hand towel over the top of the mic.

The old bugaboo EQ

Paul and Gary agree that the less you use EQ, the better. Usually, a change of 1-3db is plenty to tame a frequency that’s spoiling the signal. And better to cut frequencies rather than boost. The goal is to leave the signal as close as possible to the actual voice or instrument rather than try to match the sound in a reference track. The usual chain in pro studios is gain>noise reduction>compression>eq. But it isn’t always necessary to do every step to every track before putting a final mix together.

Each use of a plug-in gets you farther from a realistic sound. Many of them have built in 1db boost, or boost or cut certain frequencies. But for certain if you use too many plug-ins, or pile them on top of each other, or over eq the mid-range you’ll get a track that’s muddy or shrill depending on how you used them.

Speakers vs Headphones

Okay, everything sounds better through phones. But even a cheap pair of desktop speakers can help improve your mix. Comparing the sound in your phones to the speakers set on low volume will identify unruly frequencies that ‘jump’ out of the mix. Even pro studios use this technique so that cd’s played on stereos and car cd players sound balanced.

Normalize or Limit?

The consensus here is that controlling the peak limit gives a more natural sound. There is usually 8db of headroom above 0db in most daw’s before distortion occurs. The Stones mix a lot of their tracks at .2db (that’s point two db) so they jump out and grab you. If each track on your final mix is sitting well in the mix, you can set the master limiter anywhere from -1—3 db and not experience any bass rumble or distortion.

If after comparing the sound of your track on phones and speakers you want to tame a frequency range use a spectral analyzer (Melda Free Production pack is a good one) to identify the culprit and apply a bit of eq to clean things up.

Hope some part of this helps at least one person. And thanks again to Paul & Gary for taking time to help out.

Digitally yours, panu
permalink   Fri, May 2, 2014 @ 8:41 AM
Thanks Panu! Great information…… :)
permalink   panu Fri, May 2, 2014 @ 9:02 AM
Our pleasure… . .
permalink   Fri, May 2, 2014 @ 10:39 AM
Thanks Panu! This is great information. I certainly appreciate the time and effort you took to share all of this with us, and I will certainly keep some of this information in mind next time I get to work!

(by the way — I created a mic booth by using a room divider covered with an old sleeping bag set up behind me — it seems to work wonders! And it is highly mobile/flexible for space reconfiguration)
permalink   panu Fri, May 2, 2014 @ 4:27 PM
permalink   Tue, May 6, 2014 @ 3:53 PM
I don’t know if this helps but I wrote a How I Did It for one tune.

I was taught to mix to each Track -12dB and I use the Voxengo Span on K-12 settings for this. Then for EDM get the Kick to -10Db, and mix the rest of the track to mix at -6dB.

For non EDM I mix to -6dB.

Then going on to mastering the last part of my mastering chain I apply a gain of 8 to 14 dB until my track starts limiting, I use an Airwindows ADClip as my Limiter. After that I apply a gain of -0.03 dB.

On the master bus, first I use a FabFilter Pro-Q with 60Hz and 16 KHz limits. I can’t hear much above 12kHz, so my high setting is quite low. If you can hear it, set it to 18KHz.

Next is a parametric EQ which I boost and cut small bands by no more than +/- 2dB. If its any more than that I go back to my mix.

Then a gain which I mentioned before is 8 to 14 dB boost.

Next is a Tokyo Dawn EQ which includes an analogue style saturator. That goes into the limiter.

At the end of my chain is monitoring, oscilloscope, frequency display, etc.

All tracks have a Statson analogue desk emulator.
permalink   panu Fri, May 16, 2014 @ 2:37 PM
Hans Atom
permalink   Thu, May 8, 2014 @ 2:21 AM
Thanks a lot panu for your research, much appreciated!
permalink   panu Fri, May 16, 2014 @ 2:37 PM
permalink   Fri, May 9, 2014 @ 1:36 PM
I too thank you. Very informative page here.
permalink   panu Fri, May 16, 2014 @ 2:37 PM