Why vocal booths suck and what makes a good control room

I just found a nice explanation from L.A. recording engineer Ronan Chris Murphy as to why its not always a good thing to record vocals in a small vocal booth. I had considered adding one at much expense. Instead I employ a small absorber called a “reflection filter” around the back of the mic as shown here. This gives the mic more focus without complete isolation.

Jimmy McNally of the Instagators recording with an SE Reflexion Filter

Jimmy McNally of the Instagators recording with an SE Reflexion Filter

Also Ronan touts the advantages of having a longer, narrower control room/tracking area instead of a small box control room. That is exactly what we have created at Barn Jazz, and the sound of the room is, I think, more open with plenty of room for bass frequencies to develop. Check his video blog out at Ronan Chris Murphy

The Instagators inciting rock and roll in Grand Junction

Jimmy McNally recording Holly Jolly

Jimmy McNally recording Holly Jolly

Just added a new client, The Instagators, a Grand Junction favorite rock group. These guys are for real. Jimmy McNally is a very talented guitarist, singer, composer, keyboard player, you name it. With Mike Williams on bass and Robb Lasater on drums, they rock downtown GJ on a weekly basis. I have played with them on occasion and enjoy their energy and musicianship.

So a few weeks ago I get a call from Jimmy. He wants to make a CD of tunes that they play regularly at their gigs. So we get started recording 10 tunes. You can see some pics from the studio work in the slide show. The CD should be finished sometime in early 2015. I posted the first complete song, Holly Jolly Christmas, on the playlist on the home page. Holly Jolly is a favorite with the locals, especially when played on a hot summer night in July! You may be hearing it on the local community radio station, KAFM.
More to come….

Robb Lasater in the drum room

Robb Lasater in the drum room

Mike Williams on Fender Bass

Mike Williams on Fender Bass

Mastering Audio Through Adult Education

Yes you can teach an old dog new “tracks”. These days many if not most independent engineers and producers are self taught. We learn to mix by accident, mostly. We buy exotic gear, trendy plugins for our DAW’s (“Digital Audio Workstations”), haunt the music and gear forums looking for tips and tricks.

20 or 30 years ago an aspiring audio engineer interned for a local music studio, making coffee, cleaning toilets, and maybe after a few months got to mount tape, set up mics, or push a few faders on the console. Eventually that (young) person was asked to record an entire session, often with a critical senior engineer watching and listening. If you did a good job you got to work with major talent, maybe even get some credits on an album.

Well those days are mostly gone. Yes it still happens but you need to be willing to put in the time for free or low pay and earn your bones. Woof! Not my style.

So how does an old dog continue to hone his chops? One way is through on-line audio education. Another is through workshops and recording “boot camps”. I have done both. So far the most rigorous and rewarding school has been the Audio Master Class courses offered by David Mellor (Oxford School of Audio) out of Thame, England. I have completed the professional courses in Mixing and Equalization, and am currently working through the course on Compression.

These are certificate-track courses that take a minimum of 6 months to complete. You download professionally recorded tracks with the assignment to make them sound a certain way. One recent assignment in the EQ class was to remove hum, buzz, and broadband noise using just EQ filters (no fancy noise removal plugins allowed). This is the hard way, but it is a great learning experience.

So far I am doing quite well, and will continue taking these “adult education” courses because I am serious about improving my skills. Next up will be courses in reverb and mastering. Of course, I already “knew” how to apply EQ, compression, and reverb, but there is always more to learn, often those unexpected things you did not know you did not know.

The feedback I get from Mr. Mellor is the next best thing to “being there” in the role of intern. Highly recommended, if you are interested check out www.audiomasterclass.com.

The Next Wave

There was an interesting post on Gearslutz.com, my favorite hangout for pro audio information (and misinformation, you have to be very selective). Lately there has been much analysis (and complaining) about the state of the music industry. Lack of recording opportunities, the shift from physical media to streaming music aggregators like Pandora, Spotify, Google Play, etc.

If you look at the trends in music sales for the past 40 years, there is an interesting pattern.

trends in music sales

Trends in music sales

8-Tracks cassettes, vinyl, 2-track cassette tapes, CD’s, all seem to follow a pattern similar to ocean waves. Initial acceptance, peak, and slow decline. Unfortunately this graph, by Michael DeGusta with data from the RIAA, does not show the data up to present. However we can speculate with some confidence. Digital media started out with a rapid acceptance during the Napster and file “sharing” (re: stealing) years, then declined somewhat as the majors cracked down. However the shift from downloads to streaming services has started in earnest.

I expect that wave to continue peaking for the foreseeable future, especially as bandwidth increases and higher quality audio is made available (e.g. tidalhifi.com). The question is how high and how long will the wave be?

What does this mean for the independent musician? Are physical media dead entirely? I don’t think so. Vinyl is making a come back in a small way (more like a secondary wave) as people are demanding more physical contact and ownership of their music. Streaming services are convenient and will be around for a long time, but there will always be a demand for something you can put in your hand. The real question is this: who is in control of your music selection, and can you count on having your favorites around in 20 years? I personally do not trust iTunes to be my only music source for retaining control of my digital tracks.

We no longer consume music just for listening sessions like my generation did back in the 60’s and 70’s. It is more likely background for work, parties, or used for TV and film cues and sound tracks. Touring bands still sell CD’s but just as likely will have download cards for mp3’s.

Will we see a big resurgence of the music album as art for its own sake? Not until we can package digital media and associate images and liner notes with it. In the meantime independent small-time producers like Barn Jazz will continue to labor in the eddies of the ocean doing work the way we want to do it.

So what is the next wave? Maybe 3-D holographic surround sound with direct implants to our neurons? While we are waiting for the musical industrial complex to shake out, I think I will just go put an album onto my high quality turntable, flip on my 1973 Marantz receiver, and chill.

Shedding the Past

So I have this great old (vintage 1973) Otari MX7800 1″ reel to reel deck that I have used sparingly over the past few years (Lynn calls it Godzilla because its the largest piece of pro audio gear I own, weighing in at about 250 lbs.). It sounds great but takes a bit of TLC. New 1″ tape is not cheap, about $150.00 per reel, and I am grateful that it is still available from places like ATR.

The beast, Godzilla

The beast, Godzilla

So when I found 5 reels of used 1″ Ampex 456 Grand Master Tape for $30.00 per reel shipped from Canada, I said, hey that sounds like a helluva deal, right? Tapes arrived today and I put one on with the intention of erasing the old program material. These apparently were used at a television station in Ontario, Canada but the owner did not know how old they were or what kind of condition they were in. I decided to take a chance.

After about 10 minutes of running the first reel through Godzilla, the old lady started slowing down, slowing, slowing, until eventually she would not rewind or fast forward, and could barely run the tape at play speed. I was of course alarmed, thinking that some part had finally failed, some obscure capacitor or relay was fried, and the closest repair depot for tape machines was, of course, in Denver!

After a few frantic calls I was able to get back with Mike Everhart, a very talented engineer and audio tech in Portland OR. Mike had been the tech for this machine for a while when it was owned by Jordan Richter, a young Portland recording engineer. Jordan had sold me the machine back in 2007 I think it was. This old lady has a storied past, previously owned by the famous American punk band, Sleater-Kinney (with Carrie Brownstein from Portlandia no less).

When I arrived in Portland to pick it up Mike was there still doing some last minute tinkering! Talk about dedicated. Anyway to make a short story longer, Mike walked me through some basic questions over the phone and told me that old Ampex 456 formulations were very prone to excessive SHEDDING due to a breakdown in the tape chemical adhesive over time. This causes a buildup of brown gunk over the tape guides and heads, which was immediately apparent once I removed the tape. Mike suggested I thoroughly clean the guides and heads and try again with some newer tape. Brilliant, KISS is the lesson here.

Yes that worked, of course, now Godzilla is cranking along running newer tape just fine. Sometimes vintage is great, sometimes old stuff is just old, and you learn the hard way. Fortunately the price was not too dear this time. Now its time to Shred, not Shed!

New music video: Event Horizon

This started out as a spacey electronic audio work that imagines a lost space probe encountering a black hole. Then coinciding with the 45th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, I added footage from NASA and some visualization to spice it up as a video. As a child I built lots of space ship models and still read lots of Sci-Fi. Think of this music video as a requiem for our abandoned space program.

Event Horizon from Jim Hewitt on Vimeo.

Prairie River plays at Peagreen

I recently hooked up with Len Willey and the Prairie River Band as their lead fiddler and mandolin player. This is a fine group of acoustic musicians, playing old timey songs with a dash of Celtic and bluegrass. Our first gig is coming up at the end of April. Peagreen is an old fashioned grange hall located out in the farm and ranch country southwest of Delta, Colorado. At these Saturday night concerts the place is packed. Hope you can come out for great music and food.

Here is the word from Len:

“It’s time for another evening of old-time and bluegrass music at our
Pea Green Saturday Night concert series, and you all are invited. The
event will be held at the Pea Green Community Center from 7-9:30 pm
on April 26. This month will feature The McCoys, the Prairie River
Band, and Colorado Divide, all for only half a sawbuck ($5) at the
door.

The event is held between the villages of Delta and Olathe at the
crossroads of Hwy. 348 and Banner Rd. Some folks bring a snack to
share, and so can you if you want to. Seating is limited. For more
information call Len Willey at 970-874-8879. “

PONO nono?

There has been quite a buzz lately about Neil Young’s new PONO compact audio player that promises to deliver 192 KHz sample rate audio, which is a much higher rate than most studios use for recording or mixing.
Young claims he can clearly hear the difference. But between what? An mp3, sure. But that is not the whole story.

Here is a great little article (albeit a marketing piece for Benchmark, a company whose converters is use daily). This dispels some of the hype involving high resolution recording.

What Is High Resolution Audio?

My take is that a high resolution audio player is a welcome addition to the market, but it is not necessary to use the computer resources necessary to record at 192 kHz sample rate. More than sufficient is 96 kHz (24 bit), and even that might be overkill. Yes I can hear the difference between 16 bit CD quality (44.1 kHz) and high resolutions. I would welcome a player that allows me to hear my masters recorded and mixed to 88.1 kHz or 96 KHz at 24 bit, so they sound like they do in the studio, and that is what it’s all about, right? Anyway the future of audio delivery is about streaming high resolution formats anyway, so bring it on!

The Magic of the Minimum Dose

I have been taking an online professional mixing class from Audio Master Class out of England, and it has been quite an eye opener for me. I have completed 11 of 12 modules, working on the last one this week of Christmas, 2013. I am getting much better results as I get near the end.  The last module I submitted was rated 5 out of 5 in all categories. It was a rock mix that started out with an acoustic guitar and vocal, and built up to a full slammin’ drum, bass, Hammond B3 and electric guitar screamer, then came back down again. Quick difficult to get right, actually, due to the extreme dynamics.

Why take a class like this?  We project studio recording types tend to work in isolation, and getting feedback from other professionals really helps polish our chops. In my case I thought I was pretty good at mixing, but I found out I really had a lot of room for improvement (don’t we all?).

First of all, if you are not in the field of audio engineering you might ask what is mixing in the first place? A mix engineer takes recorded instrumental and/or vocal tracks from a session and makes adjustments in level or loudness, frequencies or tones, and sometimes adds to or takes away portions of the recording.  If you listen to raw recorded tracks often the sound is awful, with instruments, electric guitars especially, competing for the same sonic space. The role of the mixing engineer is to bring balance and musicality to the overall sound of a song. This can involve raising or lowering the loudness or level of tracks, adding EQ (adjustments to tone), compression (lowering dynamic range in order to raise the overall punchiness of a track), adding reverberation, and sometimes leaving out sections of a recorded track, or an entire track, if it did not fit well into the mix.  The mix engineer can take it further if the producer desires it by applying technical fixes to intonation (bringing an out of tune note back into proper tuning), fixing timing or rhythmic problems by editing sections of audio, removing clicks or pops that may have gone unnoticed, and in general just polishing up the tracks.

In particular I have learned though experience something that is often stated by engineers, but may go unappreciated until you try it.  That is, very small adjustments in EQ and volume can make a huge difference in how a track melds into the overall mix. In the field of Homeopathy (an alternative medical practice that has been around for 150 years or so) there is the principal of the minimum dose of medicine.  When applied correctly, the minimum dose is often more effective than drugs given in larger amounts (think vaccination, for example, where a very small amount of what could ail you can be preventative of the same illness).  I think this principle of the minimum dose can be applied to music as well.

We measure changes in loudness in units called “decibels”, or dB.  These are relative measures of loudness when applied to sound as it reaches your ears. Our ears are incredibly sensitive to changes in both loudness (in dB) and EQ (equalization or adjustment of the relative loudness of certain frequencies or tones).  Sometimes all it takes for a track to “gel” in the mix is as little as 1/2 of a dB, or a slight bump or dip in the center frequency or gain of an EQ knob.  Before I took this course I had a hard time discerning these differences. Now I am amazed at how much better my tonal  comprehension is as I compare my work to the feedback received from my submitted mixes.  Yes, that egg shaker was a bit loud, I can hear that now.  Let me pull that fader down just a smidge!  Ahh!  The magic of the minimum.

The same principle applies to reverb, something which I have always loved to have in my mixes.  I always thought of reverb as an effect, something to bring attention to a track.  I guess that comes from playing and recording a lot of acoustic instruments, such as violin, which often sounds lovely drenched in reverb.  And hey, it can smooth over mistakes and intonation problems (secret, don’t tell anyone!). But a high dose of reverb can also make a mix sound muddy.

I have learned how to add just a touch of reverb to a vocal to get it to gel. If you can hear the reverb, if it stands out, maybe that is not what you really want.  So turn down the reverb send for the track, and then listen. Does the vocal still sound sweet?  Then take it away altogether. The minimum dose is often the amount of reverb that makes the track gel or fit into the musical space of the other instruments, such that when you take it away you notice its absence, but only when you take it away.  This is not to say that you cannot use reverb as an effect, but too much makes for a muddy mix more often than not.  This is another important lesson learned.

If you are a budding recording musician or engineer, you might want to check out this class at www.audiomasterclass.com.  The course is not cheap but I have found it to be extremely beneficial. Now turn up that kick drum  1 dB and you will have it!

New Studio Completed

Barn Jazz Productions is proud to announce that our new recording studio is open for business! All the hard work of wiring, construction, acoustic treatment, and configuration of gear took some time but the wait was worth it. Here is a photo of the new space. We now have room for an entire band, a luxury that we did not have in our prior space. If you would like to book some time please send me a message using our Contact Page and I will get back to you promptly. Here are some before and after photos.
StudioBefore
FinishedStudio3-s