Tuesday, September 06, 2016

Wow, I haven't updated this blog in years!

In case you're wondering what I've been up to, I have 2 sons now (part of why this blog slipped off my radar!), and run mixoff.org. I'm still recording, though I do sessions at a friend's place, audioconfusion, and mix at home. I also wrote a book about make money as a mixing engineer, called Make (More) Money Mixing Music. It's all about how to brand your mixing skills, why focusing on one genre makes sense, especially at the beginning of your career, and how to reach out to artists in need of mixing.

I also have been doing business coaching, for studios, as well as other small business owners, for the last couple of years. If you have a studio or business, and would like some help taking things to the next level, set up a free call: jpmckay.com

Lastly, if you have a studio, you should join my Facebook group, The Recordings Studio Business Mastermind, where I post articles about the business of running a studio, and we have interesting discussions about all sorts of studio biz.

I think that's it for now!

Monday, November 09, 2009

Fun with Gates!

Occasionally, I work in a room that doesn't sound all that great. But, I find that the snare drum sounds fantastic in the room mics, even though the hihats, cymbals, etc, are sounding trashy or out of focus. What to do?

Well, if you have a noise gate with a sidechain input, there's a simple, and very cool, solution. Use the close snare mic as the sidechain input, and insert the gate into your room mic signal chain. This way, the room mics open up only when a snare hit occurs. You can play with the attack, decay, hold setting, and if you're using an Expander rather than a gate, you can set it to leave the room mics up a little bit all the time. If you only have a gate, you can always mult the room mics to a separate channel, and just leave that up a little bit.

Compressing the snot out of the room mics can sound amazing, too, but again, you might only want them to open up on the snare hits, to give the snare some body. Or you could feed a group of the snare and toms to the sidechain input, if you want some boom from the toms.

You can take this idea in another cool direction, too. Try setting up a mic a few feet away from the snare. It can be up high over the drum, or out in front of the kit, or even behind the drummer. This mic might pick up a lot of garbage, but by gating it with the key signal from the close snare mic, it can add some serious tone and depth to an otherwise flat sounding drum.

Try it out, and see what you think. this is the kind of technique that can take your drums to another place, and experimenting is the only way to grasp the possibilities!

Friday, October 30, 2009

The RE20 Repair Story

The RE20 is probably the best all-round mic I own. I have condensers, dynamics, 57s, 58s, etc. But no mic seems to work as well on different sources as the RE20. It's great on a bass cab. It sounds great on a kick drum, especially if you're after a vintage sound, or something not metal. It kills on guitar cabs, meaty, with just the right edge. And it is far and away, the vocal mic I turn to the most. I don't know why, but it seems that anytime I have a vocalist who doesn't sound great on a condenser, they sound awesome on the RE20. So, what's my repair story?

A while back, I was looking around at RE20s, they were selling for around $450 new, so I thought, what the heck, I'll buy a used one. Got it off eBay for $250! Sweet!

So, it shows up and seems fine, it even came with the funky spider mount that you see in radio stations. I sold that on eBay for $50 or so. But then I notice something. When I tilt the mic, I hear a thud inside. Like something heavy moving around. The mic still sounds fine, I think, but that thud is a problem! I do a little research and find that Telex is the only place that services them or sells parts. I can't find an allen wrench that will open the thing, but I'm convinced that it's the deteriorating foam issue that I've read about. So I call 'em up and order replacement foam, and they throw in the required allen wrench for free. That all costs around $25.

It comes, I open the mic, sort of, but it's not at all easy to do. After breaking the XLR connector, and never actually getting the thing open enough to replace the foam (there are two pieces) I decide to send it back to Telex, to have them do the repair.

A week or so later, a box arrives! My RE20 is back and looking good! The paperwork indicates that they replaced the foam (which I'd included in the package) along with the XLR and the Capsule (which was presumably damaged by all the powder from the deteriorating foam.) All good.

Then a while later, I get an invoice indicating how much this had all cost, over $200. They went ahead and charged my card since they had it on file from the foam order. I was a little irritated that they hadn't bothered to check and see whether I was ok with that, but I understand they were working under the assumption that I wanted the mic fixed, so whatever.

End of story, I got a used RE20 for about $25 more than I would have paid for a new one, and it only took about a month longer!

Even so, I love my RE20, and wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to anyone looking for a versatile mic that sounds as good as anything out there. Hey, Stevie Wonder uses one!

Huge Price Cuts at MusiciansFriend.com

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Stupid Reverb Tricks

One of the hardest things for most new engineers to get a handle on is using reverb in ways that accent the music without distracting from it, or overwhelming it. Part of what makes this hard is that most reverb units and plug-ins aren't terribly useful in their stock incarnation. While you can insert a reverb on a vocal track, for instance, unless it's a rather advanced unit, it won't have some of the things that make it work with the vocal instead of just wrecking it.

So, here's a quick list of ways to use reverb that will at least open your ears to the many sounds you can get quickly that will add polish and vibe without being obvious.

Send it out.
First, you should almost always put the reverb on a send, or aux channel. If you don't know how to do that, look it up. This does two things, it reduces the strain on your computer's processor, and it allows you to blend multiple instruments into one reverb 'space,' which can makes them sound more coherent. In the analogue world, sends are usually used simply because many studios have only a few reverb units available.

Pre-delay. You will usually want to have some pre-delay on your reverb. This can be done using a delay plug-in, though some reverb plugs have the function built in. Set the delay to be in time with the music, maybe an 1/8th note, to start with. You can calculate the delay once you know the tempo. 60/BPM gives you the length of a 1/4 note in seconds. So, at 120 BPM, a quarter note is .500 seconds, or 500 milliseconds. An 1/8th note is then 250 milliseconds, a 1/16th note is 125 milliseconds, etc.

Using a pre-delay just gives the source instrument a little room to breath before getting bathed in reverb.

Narrow The Band.
I like to use both a high-pass and low-pass filter to narrow the bandwidth of the reverb. Cutting the lows reduces the mud that you'll get, while cutting some of the highs can reduce sibillance, and help to make the reverb less obvious. Experiment with the frequencies. I usually start by cutting below about 400 hz, and cutting above 4khz.

Inserting a modulation effect after the reverb plug will give some more space to the verb, this can be nice when you want something big and lush. You can also insert it before the reverb, if the effect is too dramatic. I use a mod delay set to a very slow rate, but you could also try a chorus, phaser, flanger, etc. Try it, you might like it.

Distort the reverb. If you have an amp simulation plug in, combining it with a reverb plug can give very cool results. Using the amp sim before the reverb gives a sound similar to reamping the source in a live room, something that was very common in the days before digital reverb. Inserting the amp sim plug after the reverb plug will give a sound more like the reverb in a guitar amp. This can sound a lot more natural than adding a clean reverb to a guitar with a little grunge.

Gate It.
My last trick for today is an oldie but a goodie. Of course, you've likely heard of gating a reverb, to get that 80's snare sound. What I'm talking about, though, is the opposite. Put a gate BEFORE the reverb plug. This way, only loud sounds will have reverb added. This can work on a vocal to accent the sections where the singer is really belting, or you can use it on a snare drum, to add some long verb to hard hits while leaving ghost notes dry. I use this trick once in a while on drums, and it can be very cool.

That's it for today, get out those reverb plugs and start messing around. It helps to think about what you're trying to do before you start, so spend some time with that, too. And automating your send levels can add a whole new dimension to songs, as well.

Monday, March 12, 2007

The Drum Tuning Bible

Every engineer knows that one of the biggest hurdles to a great recording is bad sounding drums. Therefore, it behooves (love that word!) us all to be somewhat knowledgeable about the dark art of Drum Tuning. I've read a few things out there, and learned quite a bit. Tuning a drum isn't rocket science, and in fact, isn't terribly difficult. I think you can get 90% of the way to a perfectly tuned drum in a just a few minutes and with just a few basic principles. The Drum Tuning Bible is a site maintained by Scott Johnson and it include loads of good info. The gist is that you should tune the top head of a drum for feel, the bottom head for pitch. Get the lugs even, and you're in business!

So, read it, learn it, memorize it, and watch as your recordings improve by leaps and bounds: The Drum Tuning Bible

Monday, July 17, 2006

Kick and Bass Alignment

One of the things I notice frequently when recording bands is the kick/bass guitar alignment (or more commonly, misalignment.) I realize that during practice, it's often hard to hear what the drummer is doing on the kick, and it's equally hard for the drummer to hear what the bass player has in mind. But, to make a tight, professional-sounding recording, it's important that they know what each other is doing. I often hear, upon playback of a first take, "Oh! I had no idea you were playing that! That totally changes what I should be doing!" And while it's nice to be a witness to such revelations, it'd be more cost-effective for the band to work these things out in advance.

Bass players are often former guitarists, and approach their instruments as "the low-end of the guitars," which is definitely a part of their function. But, as a part of the rhythm section, they are also an extension of the drums. The best bass players realize this, and are very much aware of what the drummer is doing, and vice versa.

If you ever see the Pixies live, you'll notice that Kim Deal stands right next to David Lovering, and they make frequent eye contact, almost oblivious to the rest of the band. They lay down a solid, tight line, that anchors the wanderings of the others.

You have to think about it like it's one instrument. If the kick is hitting in a certain pattern, the bass should work with that. Play at the same moments, or in between, but in a way that works together. A bassist banging away on 8th notes all the time will often sound wrong, no matter what Van Halen might have done.

So that's my rant for today. Bass players and drummers should practice together, without the rest of the band. Record your rehearsals, pay close attention to what the others are playing. But mostly, ask your self whether your bass line is working with the drums. Do you know the kick pattern? Do you know where the fills are, and how they are counted? Learn it, figure out EXACTLY what is going on.

You'll be much happier with the recorded results, and your live show will benefit tremendously, as well.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

How close to place the mic?

One of the things I see many beginning engineers do that causes problems involves the placement of microphones. On guitars, amps, drums, vocals, everything.

When placing a microphone, you should consider the microphone's pickup pattern (omni, cardioid, etc), whether it has a proximity effect, and what sort of sound you're after.

Generally, in rock, we think of most sources being close-mic'd. That is, we place the SM57 just in front of the speaker grill, closer if we can get it! The same logic is used on drums, with close micing, the vocals, and the bass DI'd. While these may make sense in theory, you rarely get the best tones solely by close micing, and in many cases, you overpower the mic so that you're adding distortion.

My general technique for micing a guitar cabinet is to start about a foot away, with the mic pointing directly at the speaker. Listen to the signal and move back or closer to get a fuller or thinner sound. Contrary to logic, you get a fuller, meetier sound by moving away. This is because bass frequencies have longer wavelengths, and require more air to develop. Proximity effects counteract this somewhat, so some experimentation is necessary.

If the signal is weak, try turning the amp up. Listen to the amp with your ears plugged. You should be able to get a sense for the type of distortion coming from the amp. Whether it's overdrive or speaker breakup, a distortion pedal, etc, they all have distinctive sounds.

Now, listen to the signal coming through your monitors. It should have the same distortion, but no more. If you're hearing high end distortion that wasn't there at the amp, you need to move the mic back farther, or turn down the amp. You're likely overdriving the mic.

With bass amps, it's the same theory. I usually use a Large Diaphragm Condenser, about 3ft back from the cabinet. You have to listen carefully for distortion, it's easy to overdrive a mic with loud bass. Move in or out to get more presence and bass.

Drums are a whole other game. There's no easy way to mic a tom without getting right on top of it, if you want any degree of isolation. Adjust your tom and snare mics to get the best tone, watching to avoid overdriving the mics. If you're using condensers, be sure the pad is switched in. Dynamics are more resistant to being overdriven, which is a large part of their popularity for this application.

The kick drum, on the other hand, does require some experimentation, and because of it's location, you have a lot more freedom. You'll find that as you get closer to the kick head, you get more attack, more "boing" from the head itself. Moving away, as far as several feet outside the head gets you more bass and more sustain. Many engineers prefer to mic both, which gets you a full spectrum to work with. Be careful to check phase though.

Overheads are another place where you have lots of room to experiment. I won't go into too much detail, but keep in mind that the farther you get above or in front of the kit, the more reverberant the tone will be, and the more you will hear the room tone. If the room is good sounding, go with it. If it's not, get the overhead mics in close.

For vocals, you often need to have the mic a few inches back from the pop screen. Experiment with different distances, as the proximity effect of cardioid mics can have a big impact of the tone of the vocal track.

Room mics are another big part of the equation. I like to use room mics during tracking, to get the sound of the whole band on one track, which can be compressed, eq'd, etc. This way you can make the room more of the mix or less of the mix, to emphasize different parts of the song, or just get the right feel.

With vocalists, I'll often set up a room mic during their overdubs. Mixing a little of this natural room sound in can help glue the vocals to the rest of the backing tracks, helping them fit in the same "space".

Generally, you should experiment with mic placement, by starting as close as you might imagine is practical, then moving farther away. I've tracked acoustic guitars from 10 ft with great effect, backing vocals from 15 ft, and drums from across the room. Walk around and listen with your ears. If you find a spot where things sound great, stick a mic up.

Expensive mics and gear provide some of the colors on the audio engineer's pallet, but simple things like mic placement can provide more variation than you might imagine.