Archive for the ‘ Thoughts ’ Category

So what’s the point of expansion?

You’ve used gates, right?

If you’ve ever recorded something with a microphone, you’ve probably had a situation where the background noise was just a little too high (or the acoustic sound was just a little too quiet) and the background noise was bugging you in the mix.

So you reached for a gate, eh?

Set the threshold, maybe adjust the attack and release (I usually prefer an instant attack and fairly gentle release) and call it a day. Bingo! No noise in between playing!

That usually works fine for busy mixes where there’s always something going on, or there is a rich background texture. But in sparser mixes, you might notice that the difference between the silent and non-silent sections of a track is rather uncomfortable. When the instrument is playing, you get a rich subtle ambience (or refrigerator hum, if that’s how you roll). When the instrument stops, the life gets sucked out of the track.

Pure digital silence.

What an expander does is reduce the level of the background noise without killing it entirely. It makes the quiet stuff quieter. It helps you push the background noise out of the way when it’s not needed, but doesn’t totally suck the life out of your track.

Just be careful that you’re not using heavy compression after the expander. Expanders can be quite subtle in their effect, and compressing the resulting sound can destroy your careful balance of threshold and ratio. If you like following your tail in circles, lower the threshold of the expander to compensate for the heavy compression. In general, though, it’s not a good idea to have two processes fighting each other. If you want to use an expander, it’s probably because subtlety is important to you. Use a gentle compressor.


How awesome is doubletracking?

It’s pretty awesome.

Which is why it’s used so much. Chances are, you probably use it yourself. Doubletracking makes things sound bigger and thicker. Who wouldn’t want that?

Do I need to count the ways?

  • Guitars. Especially overdriven guitars. And distorted guitars. And overdriven distorted guitars. The more the merrier. And by ‘merrier’, I mean BRUTALLER. Bonus points for tracking each layer with a slight variation – pickup selector, amp EQ, speaker, mic position, etc.
  • Synths. See that ‘unison’ button hidden in the corner? Yeah, that. Try to use enough detuning that it doesn’t just sound like a big silly flanger. But don’t use so much that your sound is an angry swarm of bees. Unless you like that sound. Bonus points for adding a sub oscillator in there somewhere. And distortion. Don’t forget distortion.
  • Strings. Solo violin vs string ensemble. Need I say more? Bonus points for actually knowing how to score for a string ensemble. Bedroom ‘producers’ who haven’t had any theory lessons in their life, I’m looking at you.
  • Claps. Where would hip hop be without ridiculous unison claps? Doubletracking giant claps is like doubletracking giant baggy shorts. Too much is never enough. Bonus points for running the clap stack through a stereo ring modulator with a square wave carrier. And distortion. Don’t forget distortion.
  • Backing vocals. Do it. I usually hate doubletracked lead vocals, but it’s wonderful on backing vocals. Bonus points for compressing each layer individually but EQing them at a group. And distortion.

On the other hand, doubletracking diffuses the sound as well. Doubletracking will make your instrument sound more blurry and indistinct. It reduces clarity. That’s awesome when you want your double tracked instrument to be a supporting part in the background (or middle ground). Giant walls of guitars fill all the frequency gaps left by the vocals and drums. Unison is a great way of softening synth pads and rhythmic comps.

When isn’t it awesome? Probably any time you want the instrument to be front and centre. Of course, there are some stylistic exceptions (have you ever heard a trance lead that wasn’t massively detuned?) but generally doubletracking will push a sound further towards the background, and that’s often not something you’ll want to do for a foreground instrument.


Are singers more sensitive than other instrumentalists?

Have you worked with singers?

Have you worked with other musicians?

Have you found that singers – generally – are more sensitive than other musicians? Have you found that they respond differently to criticism? Perhaps they take it more personally?

If you’ve spent any serious time as a producer or engineer working with other musicians, this is probably the experience you’ve had.

And you might have assumed that it’s something unique to singers.

That’s kind of true, but not quite. It’s not because they’re singers. It’s because we usually see singers in the studio much earlier in their careers. It’s quite common to get a singer wanting to record some songs having only been seriously dedicated to their craft for a few years (oh, they may have been singing their ‘whole life’, but ask how long they’ve been taking lessons for…)

On the other hand, a session musician probably has about 5-10 years of playing in bands and gigging before they get anywhere near a studio. Even when recording bands (unless you’re working with teenagers).

Another difference, of course, is that singers are often singer their own songs. Song which represent their self-expression. And unfortunately many singers interpret criticism of their technique as criticism of their musical expression (which, by extension, is criticism of themselves as people). And again, experience is key. A singer/songwriter with ten years of experience is less likely to take criticism personally than one with two years of experience.

So what does this mean?

You probably need to be more sensitive with singers. But not because they’re singers. You need to be more sensitive with any inexperienced musician. And you need to be more sensitive with any musician that is expressing themselves in a very personal way.



Interesting things to do with delay

Ok, this time a few quick tips to try out…

You probably all know about the delay-> filter technique to make the repeats darker and sink back into the mix. It’s so common that most delays have a built in lowpass filter to gently push the repeats into the background. But there’s a lot more you can do with a delay. If you haven’t already, try out the following techniques in your next project:

  • Delay -> reverb. Set up a send channel with a delay (100% wet, of course) followed by a reverb. The goal here is to slightly diffuse or blur the repeats, so aim for a short reverb without much sense of space. A plate or other special effect reverb (such as ‘reverse’ reverb algorithms) will probably give you the best results. This will work especially nicely if the main reverb in your mix is particularly long and deep. The contrast will make the short reverb sound more like a subtle diffusion than part of the background ambience.
  • Double delay. Use a delay with two taps or set up a send channel with a 100% wet delay followed by a 50% wet delay. Synchronise both delays to the project tempo, but make one short (e.g. 1/8th or shorter) and one long (e.g. dotted 1/4 or longer). If the first delay is the shorter one, it will add depth and complexity to the dry sound, while the longer delay provides a cleaner echo. On the other hand, if the first delay is the longer one, the shorter delay will be closer to the echo than the dry sound, making the echo more complex (and keeping the dry sound cleaner by comparison).
  • Delay -> 100% wet chorus. If your delay doesn’t have any modulation built in, you can use a 100% wet chorus to add a little instability and subtle pitch variation to the repeats. Depending on the features available in your chorus, you can also use it to increase the stereo width of the repeats as well. Increasing the stereo width in this way is another way of adding some subtle diffusion to the delays to help them sit further back in the mix. If the delay is followed by the chorus (delay->chorus), each repeat will sound slightly different as it fades away. If the chorus is followed by the delay, however (chorus->delay), the amount of modulation will be the same but the repeats won’t change as they fade away. It’s worth trying both to see which approach will work best in your song.
  • Insert delay -> compressor. You might have heard of ‘ducking’ delays – these are delays that automatically turn down the volume of the repeats when the original sound is playing and turn the repeats when the original sound has stopped. This is particularly useful with vocals and other load melodies – the repeats don’t interfere with the lyrical or melodic content but add depth and fullness at the end of (or in between) phrases. Usually this is achieved with a delay that has a built-in compressor. The compressor processes the wet output of the delay, but its sidechain is fed with the original dry sound. If your favourite delay doesn’t have this feature, however, you can still produce a similar effect by using the delay as an insert effect (not on a send channel) and following it with a compressor. Make sure the wet level of the delay is quite low, and the compressor has a low threshold, medium ratio and medium-long release. You’ll also have to be careful that the compressor doesn’t adversely affect the dynamics of the original sound too much – you might need to back off any track compressors earlier in the signal chain.
  • Automate feedback amount. This is fun – set the feedback amount pretty low (fewer repeats), but automate the feedback to 100% for some sections of the song. For those sections, the repeats will stay at the same level (until the feedback level is brought back down again) instead of naturally decaying away. This is particularly effective at the end of phrases or leading into section changes. For an even more dramatic effect, use a delay that allows its feedback to be set above 100%. This will cause the repeats to get louder (instead of staying at the same level or decaying away). If the delay has a saturation stage, the repeats will also get more overdriven and distorted as they get louder. Don’t keep this going for too long, but for short periods it’s great for buildups and leading into section changes.


Everything you wanted to know about de-essing but were too afraid to ask

Simply, de-essing is a process for reducing the level of sibilance in a vocal recording.

What is sibilance?

Sibilance is characterised by ‘sss’ and ‘ts’ sounds (and, to a lesser extent, ‘t’ and ‘k’ and ‘z’ sounds) in the English language. Unlike vowels, sibilant sounds have a relatively low (in volume) pitched component and a high (in volume) unpitched noise component. The unhitched noise is also focussed strongly in the higher register (unlike ‘shh’ sounds).

Why would you want to reduce it?

Sibilance is essential for intelligibility. That is, we need to hear it in order to understand the words delivered by the vocalist. Too much, however, can unbalance a mix. Some singers naturally deliver sibilant sounds loudly (this often applies to singers who aren’t classically trained). Sometimes EQ or compression can enhance the sibilance in a vocal recording (especially when the high frequencies are boosted).

When listening to the voice on its own it can be difficult to know if the sibilance is too strong. This is because our brain naturally compensates for the difference in volume between the vowels and the sibilance. In a mix, however, you’ll notice when the sibilance is too strong. You’ll raise the vocal level until the vowels are at the right level but the sibilance is too sharp and ‘sticking out’ of the mix, or your’ll reduce the vocal level until the sibilance sits well but the vowels disappear under the mix. Sometimes strong sibilance can excite the vocal reverb, making the reverb much more noticeable.

How does de-essing reduce sibilance?

De-essers are usually set up as simplified compressors with a bandpass or highpass filter in the sidechain.

Most de-essors do not have the full compliment of compression controls (attack, release, threshold, ratio, makeup). Instead, there is usually just a threshold (and sometimes a ratio control). The other controls are tuned to work with sibilance and the human voice. De-essers are among the most specialised studio tools – they don’t need a lot of controls or a wide range of operation.

The filtered sidechain changes the compressor’s behaviour so that it only reduces gain when there is sibilance in the audio. The filter is tuned quite high (usually above 5kHz) so that the compressor doesn’t respond to energy in the low or mids (where most of the vowel energy is). The compressor, however, applies gain reduction to the whole signal – not the filtered version. This means that when the sibilance is being reduced, the actual tone of the voice is not changed. It’s just made quieter.

Some de-essors use dynamic EQ instead of a compressor. They’re usually designed so that instead of reducing the gain of the whole signal, they only reduce gain to the high frequencies. Imagine a high shelf or parametric cut that only comes in when the voice is sibilant. This kinds of de-essers require more care when they’re being set up because they work by changing the tone of the voice (rather than just the level). If not configured well, they can make the vocalist sound like s/he has a lisp.

How do I set up a de-esser?

I usually wait until the mix is almost completely finished before applying a de-esser. I’ll make sure the level of the vowels in the vocal are balanced well against the other elements of the mix. I’ll then use the de-esser just enough to bring down the sibilance to an acceptable level. Usually, I aim for the lead vocal sibilance to be at a similar level to the hi-hats, snare or other prominent high-frequency sound in the mix.

I almost almost insert the de-esser after EQ and compression (but before any time-based effects such as delay or reverb, of course). This is because I use the de-esser to slightly modify a sound that I’m already happy with. Applying compression after a de-esser can actually counteract the de-essing, as the rull-range compressor can bring the sibilance level back up.

What else is a de-esser useful for?

De-essers can be very useful for backing vocals. There are some situations where backing vocals (especially stacked backing vocals) are a little messy. Most of the time it’s fine, but it’s most pronounced in the sibilance. A de-esser will bring the sibilance right down, making the backing vocals sound less messy. Use this way, a de-esser can be applied much more heavily – the intelligibility and articulation is carried by the lead vocals. Just watch out for any sections where the background vocals are exposed – heavy de-essing will make them sound weird without the lead vocal.

De-essing can sometimes be useful on drum kits – particularly on overheads when balance of the kit is right but the crash cymbals are too loud. A de-esser can sometimes be effective in reducing the level of the crash cymbals while still retaining the sense of room and space. Again – subtlety is the key here. Too much de-essing will suck the air out and make the drums sound unnatural.



What makes a successful collaboration

Successful collaborations are amazing. You can create something that neither of you could have created alone. You can learn a great deal about music, each other and yourself. You can build a close friendship that’s unlike any other.

But successful collaborations don’t just happen. You have to do them. You have to create them deliberately.

Successful collaborations almost always share the following characteristics:


This is the big one. If you’re going to work with someone, you must communicate. Probably more than you think you should. You both need to be open and honest about expectations, creative goals and working processes (workflow). You need to be open about personal preferences for everything from your favourite tea to your favourite reverb.

This also means being unafraid to offend or upset. If you’re holding back an opinion because you think it won’t be accepted, you’ll develop a dissatisfaction which can easily grow into resentment and disengagement. If you think your opinion won’t be accepted, you MUST talk about it. Being unafraid to offend, however, isn’t an excuse to be disrespectful. It’s possible to voice an unpopular opinion while being respectful and constructive. Sometimes it’s not easy, but it’s an essential skill for building strong relationships.

If your collaborator has a habit of overruling you or dismissing your contributions you need to address it and turn that attitude around. It might sound weird or feel uncomfortable, but opening such a conversation should start with something like “I feel uncomfortable when you ___. If this is going to work, we need to ___”. It’ll feel awkward (it always does) and it’s hard to strike the right balance between being assertive and being respectful. But you have to do it. If you don’t, Bad Things will happen. Trust me.

Shared creative direction

You both have to be rowing in the same direction. You have to agree on where you’re going and how you’ll get there. You’ll run into all sorts of problems if you have disagreements about what end result you’re both working toward. You’re in for a nasty surprise if – for example – you think you’re recording an album and your collaborator thinks you’re recording an EP. Or if you want to make dance songs and your collaborator wants to go more experimental. You’ll get caught up in numerous minor disagreements before you realise that there’s a fundamental difference in what each of you are trying to achieve.

Having a shared creative direction, however, means you’ll both need to compromise. To achieve something together, you both need to believe in the outcome. And that means giving each other enough creative space. As a simple rule of thumb: you’ll need to compromise just as much as you’d expect your collaborator to compromise for you.

Complimentary skills

For a collaboration to be effective, each person should have complimentary skills – or at least make complimentary contributions. For example:

  • You might be a great producer and mixer, and your collaborator might be a great singer and songwriter
  • You might be a great songwriter, and your collaborator might be a great singer or instrumentalist
  • You might be great at coming up with new ideas and sounds, and your collaborator might be great at refining and organising them
  • You both might be great at post-production, so you agree for one person to mix and the other to master.
There are many different ways to cut and dice the responsibilities. The best way of negotiating and agreeing on this is to start with an understanding of workflow. Once you’ve worked out each step that you’ll (collectively) take to complete each song, you can then assign each task to each person. You should do this together with your collaborator – keeping in mind what skills and capabilities (and available time) each person has.

Having done this, it should be quite clear who is responsible for what. There should be very little ambiguity about when each person needs to make a contribution (and what that contribution is). Just as importantly, there should be very little ambiguity about when each person needs to cede. For example, you might be a great songwriter in your own right but working on a collaboration where the other person is writing the songs. You need to accept that you can (respectfully!) make suggestions, but the final songwriting decisions are ultimately made by your collaborator. Don’t get precious about it – let the other person flex their musical muscles and express themselves.

Appropriate equipment

This should be pretty self-explanatory. Between the two (or more!) of you, you need the equipment to actually do what you want to do. It’ll be hard for a laptop composer to collaborate with a pianist if there’s nowhere to record a good piano sound. You’ll run into trouble trying to put together a great rock mix if you don’t have a good monitoring environment. Good luck recording an intimate vocal performance if you live next to a freeway or airport.

If you’re reading this blog, it should be pretty obvious to you. Most ideas are achievable – especially with modern technology. Be aware, however, that acquiring capabilities that you don’t already have can take time and money. Look out for unrealistic expectations in your collaborators. They might have great ideas – and if they’re passionate and charismatic, they can drag you along with them. If you’re not careful, though, you could end up halfway through a project before you realise you’ve committed to much more than you initially thought. The extra time and expense to acquire capabilities that you don’t already have can be painful. It can put you in a difficult position if you’ve both already invested your time and money into the project.

By conscientiously addressing each of those four factors at the start of a potential collaboration, you should be able to create some interesting music with a minimum of bruised egos or black eyes. Of course, there will always be disagreements and misunderstandings (we’re human after all!), but they can be managed and worked though if you put in the groundwork ahead of time.


Using chorus to increase stereo width

Just a quick tip today – use chorus to make a sound extremely wide without changing the character of the sound. A simple digital chorus is often ideal for this – the one that came bundled with your DAW or a basic freeware plugin should be fine.

Use these settings as a starting point: 100% wet, 0% feedback, LFO rate below 1Hz, Depth 100%, Delay 0ms. You might also need to set the relative phase of each LFO to 180 degrees – this will make sure the left and right LFOs are cycling out of phase with each other. To reduce the pitch modulation, reduce the LFO speed.

Using a chorus like this is a little like using a Haas delay (delaying one side by less than 50ms) to increase stereo width. It’s better, however, because the chorus’s relative delay is constantly changing (whereas a simple delay is fixed). This means the illusion of direction (the Haas effect, caused by short delays) is changing, rather than static. This is more pleasant and less distracting to listen to.

I do this most often with pads and background synths when I want them to be ultra-wide – especially in situations where the source sound is mono. I’ll even use it when a stereo sound is already very wide but the left and right sides are too different for my taste, I’ll collapse the sound to mono and the re-stereoise it using a basic 100% wet chorus.