Is Vinyl Better than Digital?

A recent NY Times article, Digital Culture, Meet Analog Fever discusses the recent fascination with more retro analog devices and media, in particular vinyl records. There is an ongoing dialog on the gear forums about the superior of one format or the other, which is really not the point. Vinyl, as an example, is a trend that is the result of a new generation discovering the sound and superior physicality of a record album. For us boomers that is not news, but one may ask what is behind this resurgence? Vinyl manufacturing plants, like United Record Pressing in Nashville, which I have visited twice, are running 24 x 7 these days.
United Record Pressing

United Record Pressing

So is analog vinyl really superior to digital music files?  In the case of mp3’s the compressed audio format degrades audio fidelity to a degree, although not many users can tell the difference between a compressed and lossless file format. Vinyl requires some roll-off  of the low end frequencies to avoid the needle jumping out of the groove on loud passages. What remains is somewhat band limited but faithful to the frequencies in a way that digital can come very close to and in many ways exceeds.  So why do some people prefer vinyl?
  1. To many it sounds better. If you grew up with it you know THAT sound, and prefer it over the exacting and sometimes overly clinical digital recordings.
  2. If you did not grow up with it, its a new thing that offers a tangible product, something you can show off if you are in a band. And it sounds better than MP3’s played through ear-buds.
  3. There is more room for liner notes and info about the band or recording that you can typically get onto a CD jacket.
  4. It’s cool, trendy.
The downsides:
  1. More expensive to manufacture, typically, 3-4X more costly than doing CD’s
  2. Somewhat limited frequency response, especially in the bass region
  3. Tendency for pops, ticks, hiss, and of course the dreaded skip when a groove is damaged. Some people like this so much that plugins have been devised that simulate bad vinyl!  Really, and I have one…
  4. LP’s in particular store fewer tracks than CD’s, typically no more than about 40 minutes total. CD’s can get up to 70+ minutes.
  5. Difficult to get into digital form unless a download card is included in the packaging (you see this more often now)
  6. Requires an old school stereo system and turntable with a RIAA balanced input, or a turntable with RIAA built in.

DiskcutterJim_s

Disc Cutter at Welcome to 1979 studio in Nashville.


RIAA equalization is a little known aspect of vinyl, explained here in a Wikipedia article:

RIAA equalization is a form of pre-emphasis on recording and de-emphasis on playback. A recording is made with the low frequencies reduced and the high frequencies boosted, and on playback the opposite occurs. The net result is a flat frequency response, but with attenuation of high frequency noise such as hiss and clicks that arise from the recording medium. Reducing the low frequencies also limits the excursions the cutter needs to make when cutting a groove. Groove width is thus reduced, allowing more grooves to fit into a given surface area, permitting longer recording times. This also reduces physical stresses on the stylus which might otherwise cause distortion or groove damage during playback.

A potential drawback of the system is that rumble from the playback turntable‘s drive mechanism is amplified by the low frequency boost that occurs on playback. Players must therefore be designed to limit rumble, more so than if RIAA equalization did not occur.”

There is an even more “trendy” approach of doing studio recording direct to vinyl, without any digital intervention. That requires taking the stereo mix from the mixer or console, directly to a vinyl cutting machine, in real time.  Each master disc costs around $150.00, versus $< $1.00 for a CD. The band has to play perfectly, and there are no re-takes or editing. I would call this “extreme recording”, not for the faint of heart or the lesser of chops.

So really the issue comes down not vinyl versus CD, as each has their pros and cons.  Unless you really want to spend the extra money, you will stop at the CD level, maybe with some MP3’s thrown in for your web site.

Instead, how can we best integrate analog sound into digital recordings to get the best sound out of digital, regardless if the final product is vinyl or CD?  The answer for many audio engineers today is a “hybrid” studio setup, which I have discussed before in an earlier blog post. A professional hybrid setup offers the following:
  1. Really high quality microphones recording into high quality preamps and other outboard gear such as compressors and EQ’s.  Tube preamps are often preferred here, depending on the sound source, voice timbre, etc. The idea here is to capture it in the best analog sound up front.
  2. High quality analog to digital conversion going into the DAW (Digital Audio Workstation, AKA the computer), so that the sound is not degraded. This is not hard to do these days as the cost of A-D conversion has come down significantly. Some would argue that typical computer sound cards such as the Sound Blaster are sufficient, but I disagree mostly because they are very limited in what they offer for inputs, in addition to having inferior clocking which can influence the sound to a degree.
  3. Mixing tracks via an outboard analog “mix bus” or chain of, again, high quality tube or solid state EQ’s and compressors before doing one more D-A back into the master stereo track. This involves both analog “summing” of the individual digital tracks using a console or some other outboard device that takes however many tracks are in the recording and sums them down electrically to a stereo master track. Some engineers would say that staying ITB (In the Box, i.e. no round trip to the analog domain during mixing) is better.  It really depends on how you work, but I prefer the outboard mixing approach before applying any plugins ITB, if at all. I just prefer what my analog outboard gear brings to the mixing process, and it’s often easier and more consistent than using plugins (albeit more expensive initially).
If the final product will be produced on CD we will master using 24 bit files for headroom. For CD we will need the master to be at the Red Book standard 44.1 KHz sample rate, dithered down to 16 bits as the last step. Often engineers will mix and make the analog round trip at high sample rates such as 96.1 KHz and then down-sample for CD. This requires a very fast computer and lots of disk space, but fortunately that is much easier to obtain these days.

If the final product will be on vinyl, an extra mastering step is required to attenuate the extreme highs and lows, as needed, before sending the master disk to the cutting engineer. This takes much skill, and there is a small but growing cadre of young, professional vinyl mastering engineers that are servicing the trendy LP market.

So the take away is, not all digital is created equal! Adding a bit of analog spice makes the final dish taste better, to mix my metaphors (pun intended).


Telluride Rag using Notion

Telluride from Gondola in Winter
I recently completed my first tune in the Scott Joplin ragtime style, Telluride Rag. Say what? Well I was inspired by the purchase of a new “old” violin from Telluride Music, and wanted to create something that would show off this fiddle. I have always wanted to do a ragtime style tune, so I just decided to write one, but how? The music notation program, Notion 5, was the ticket. I had the basic tune in my head and could pick out the melody notes using my mandolin.

Creating a piano part in Notion was a piece of pie. This is a great composition tool, one used by my good friend and local (nationally known) composer, Gary Smith. When I saw how Gary had created multi part scores for his jazz and orchestral compositions, I decided to give it a whack. I entered the notes using a mouse click, after selecting the note type (quarter note, half note, etc.). Notion lets you create ties, slurs, add key changes, and best of all, you get to select from some fine, real (sampled) instruments from the London Symphony Orchestra. I liked the stock piano sounds, so I went with that, and then created both the melody line and left hand chords. Now bear in mind that I am in no way a trained piano player, so I was constructing this simply by picking out the notes and chords from what I wanted to hear.

Once I had the piano part to where I liked it, I exported the stereo .wav file played by Notion, and dropped that into a Cubase stereo track for my new Telluride Rag project. Then I recorded a couple of fiddle overdubs of the melody line, using both “Telluride” (the name of my new “old” fiddle), and my go-to violin, “Reno”.

After tweaking these parts I then let Lynn (wifey) critique it. The tune consists of an A, B1 and B2 parts, then repeated again A-B1-B2. I let the piano play all the way through these parts once, then again with the fiddle overdubs. Lynn said I should have the fiddle parts come in sooner. Well I had originally recorded them from the beginning, but took out the first set of A-B parts so the listener could hear just the piano part establish the tune and rhythm. So we decided to bring the fiddles in during the first B part, then have them play the rest of the way. That sounded good, but then what to do to the second go round to make it build interest?

Bring on the horns! OK I could have really used some actual horns here, but did not have the time or inclination to bring someone into the studio. I was hearing some pumping tuba, and jazzy slide trombone. So I found something that worked using the Garritan Personal Orchestra patches for trombone and tuba. These are played on the keyboard, of course, with the mod wheel on the trombone to simulate the slide. The sounds are pretty good as they are, like the piano part, samples of real instruments, not synthesized.

After some final mixing here is the result: Telluride Rag on Soundcloud I have received some nice comments after posting to Facebook. Here are a few:
  • “It sounds like- what a nice warm autumn day in Telluride feels like. Jim’s music feels like he is happy!” Teresa, Grand Junction, CO.
  • “Very cute tune Jim. I like it and think I’ll give it a try” Sarah, Oracle, AZ.
  • “Great traditional rag with the ‘diamond jim’ twist!” Kate, Oracle, AZ
  • “Makes me wanna put on a white linen suit, stroll out to my home’s wrap-around porch, while entertaining my guests as I sip my mint julip, and act all genteel.”  Mike, California.

Fixing a hole in the ocean

Mixing songs with bass content has always been problematic for me. Often when I do a mix where I thought I had hit the sweet spot with a bass guitar or bass synth pad, once I listened on my home or car stereo it was boomy. I recently put in some high end speakers, Meyer HD-1’s to replace my bass light Genelec 8040a’s, thinking that might fix the problem. Well they helped certainly, but in the process I unplugged my sub-woofer thinking I would not need it any more. So hear I am again, chasing the gear tiger, trying to get my mixes tight in the low end.
So it was with great interest that I read an article by Carl Tatz in the Nov. 2015 Sound-On-Sound, one of my favorite recording magazines. I have been following Carl’s newsletters about his Phantom Focus system with some interest, but felt that this level of acoustic treatment was way beyond my budge or needs. What caught my attention in this article was the simple fix for a hole in the bass response that is due not to speakers, but to the cancellations that occur when speakers are mounted on stands near the mixing desk. In my instance I have the Meyer’s on acoustic isolated stands positioned for near field monitoring, as shown here.

Studio with Meyers and REW setup3 Looking at the frequency plot in Carl’s article I saw the big dip in the bass response from around 63-125 Hz, which is a critical range for low bass frequencies. What is happening is cancellation of frequencies due to the bouncing around of the low bass from the floor, ceiling, mixing desk, basically a chaotic environment at the critical listening position and very difficult if not impossible to fix using acoustic treatment without spending big bucks. I had already invested around $4000 in bass traps, absorbers on the walls and ceilings, and diffusors for the live end of my long, narrow studio space. I was hoping to find an easier fix, and this article provides it. The secret to fixing the hole in the ocean of audio is, SUB-WOOFERS. The rationale is that a sub can “fill in” those problematic frequency areas when set correctly for sufficient loudness and frequency crossover. That being the clue I was looking for, I pulled out my lap top with the free Room EQ Wizard program, set up and calibrated by Galaxy CM-140 SPL meter which has an output that can be fed into the computer for measurement purposes, and because taking measurements. I was mainly interested in sweeping the low end, so I accepted the default range of 200 Hz and below. Here is what I got without a sub-woofer.  The red arrow shows clearly the “hole” in the bass response from about 90 – 120 Hz, very similar to what Carl talked about in his article. no sub
This can be visualized nicely as a waterfall plot. The “hole in the ocean” is pretty obvious above 90 Hz. That is what has been messing with my mixes!  Time to fill it in. no sub waterfall So next I dug out my trusty KRK Sub-Woofer, hooked it up in line with the Meyers using a high pass filter set at 80 Hz. That means that the sub will put out the majority of the bass frequencies below 80 Hz, effectively bolstering the low end. I did not want to set the cross-over too high because the Meyers have a pretty decent bass response as well, and I am not looking to shake the room. After experimenting I set the relative level on the sub to +3 dB, and ran some tests, playing around with the cross-over and sub level. The results are shown here: sub 80 hz xver sub 80 hz xver waterfall Looks like most of the hole is filled in now. I will continue to experiment with the best settings for the sub, but for now I am excited this solution actually worked. Thanks to Carl Tatz for his great and very useful article.

New free library studio in GJ will likely benefit, not hurt, local recording businesses

I was at first very concerned when hearing, second hand, about a free studio that is being built by the Mesa County Library in downtown Grand Junction, CO.  I was so concerned that I wrote a letter to the editor after reading this article in the local Sentinel. My biggest issue was the impact it would have on new bands looking for a place to record. Local, government funded agency completes with local businesses?  That’s a headline for sure.

After speaking with both a library foundation board members and the library head, Joseph Sanchez, I have pretty much decided that this is not necessarily going to take away business, and in fact it may increase it.

  1. The library studio will focus more on video technology than audio recording, at least for now. That may change but the perception of this as an audio recording facility is inaccurate; a better description is a “multi-media” facility.
  2. Use of the studio for bands who have a local library card will be free, based on availability. While that may entice some bands to use the space in lieu of paying to record, my feeling is that it will draw more people into the process of making a record, and they will discover just how difficult it is.
  3. Complete production services may or may not be included, but based on the mission and focus of the library, it looks more like an entry level space, or “Maker-Space” in the words of Mr. Sanchez. Bands seeking more complete production services will still use local studios based on their needs for better gear and professional skill sets.
  4. The library will offer archiving of projects, and local musicians will be able to provide copies of their work to be placed in the collection “in perpetuity”. That means, 50 years from now, someone may just discover some music that would have otherwise died out much sooner.  With the permission of the artists, streaming of music will be offered on their web site, which will provide a way to get the word out for musicians seeking local recognition. It is still not certain if the library will pay a license fee for the use of the music, but that remains a possibility, according to Mr. Sanchez.
  5. Finally, the opportunities for networking among both musicians, private studios, and the public will be greatly enhanced. What that means to me is the possibility of referrals from musicians needing a more professional treatment of their tracks. While the library cannot formally endorse specific businesses, they can make available information on other services available locally.

So I am taking a wait and see attitude. Mr. Sanchez has asked me keep him informed if I find any specific instances of lost business for my studio. That shows me the library is taking an active role in promoting music production in the community, while at the same time treading carefully where they might come into competition.

I am counting on this as being a Win-Win for everyone. The studio will open in early January, 2016.

When is enough “enough”?

HighlineCanalWinter

I took a long morning walk with Willie (Little Red Dog, avid watcher of TV commercials with animals) listening again to my latest creation, Rivers of the Sky, through my BOSE noise cancelling headphones. I know you have to be careful when walking near streets with these kinds of headphones, so I headed for the High Line Canal that borders our subdivision. While technically off limits, everyone walks and rides their bikes along this stretch of water, one that strives to make Grand Junction the Venice of Colorado. So other than the occasional “other dog on leash” to deal with, I could focus on the details of these recordings.

And of course I notice the little flaws, the low frequency imbalance here, the slight off beat keyboard hit there. When I mix I try to catch every little thing, and I think I get most of it the way I want, but there is always more to do. When is enough enough? I guess that depends on what you think too. If you have a copy of the CD Rivers of the Sky, drop me a line via my contact form and let me know what you think.

I am already at work on my next collection, Hi Fiddility, so enough about the past, let’s get on with making more music!

 

Rivers of the Sky now available

Jim Hewitt’s latest CD project, Rivers of the Sky, is an album of instrumentals available for purchase or download at CD Baby.  If you enjoy imaginative and mesmerizing music for mediation, background for work, or just relaxation, check this one out. The physical album is $15.00 plus shipping, or you can download it for $9.99, or purchase individual tracks. This project has been 2 years in the making and combines electric violin, viola, octave mandolin, electric mandocello, and electric bass with keyboard parts played using the Omnisphere 1.5 and Chromaphone synth instruments. Click on the link above, or go to CDBaby.com and search for James Michael Hewitt.

Cover for CD Baby

Caitlin McMillan records at Barn Jazz

Caitlin McMillan is from LA, recently moved to Grand Junction. She will be returning to perform at the last ever set at the House of Blues before it is torn down. Caitlin is joined by Hekter Gallardo on guitar and harmonica on her new CD project.Caitlin Guitar

Notes on Original Barn Jazz CD

I get asked a lot about the term “barn jazz”. Just ran across these notes from 7/16/2003, about the time of my first concert at Oracle State Park in Oracle, AZ for the Barn Jazz Vol. I CD release.

BARN JAZZ NOTES

Garden Dreams

A dream state experiencing altered realities or visions

What is it about Oracle and the High Desert that leads us there?

The cat is metaphor for our letting go and experiencing something beyond the mundane, so Barn Jazz is a way of interpreting music that is seen from the perspective of a cat dreaming about insects playing a different kind of music

With the participation of the Yuccas and animals and other critters of the high desert, Annie the cat spins a tale of fantasy. It starts in one of the gardens of Oracle.  The cat wanders in the summer heat through the garden looking for a place to nap

Barn Jazz – The theme song arising out of the idea music in the transition zone, blending elements of blue grass, folk, fiddle jazz, and classical-new age styles, a messy kind of melding, but then cats are not that picky about these things.

Fire on the Ridge – (Oracle Hill Fire) – the cat dreams of a vast holocaust of fire causing animals and insects to evacuate their habitat, much coming and going, disturbance, but ultimately a once familiar part of nature and so not a nightmare.

Oracle Wildfire

Fire on the Ridge

So the animals are seeking safe havens.

Don’t Tread on Me – imagine a caterpillar undulating along in the garden, underfoot, trying his best to get to the Barnagle, along with other bugs and critters, a great movement is afoot, also snakes undulating, but the other implication is the flag of Vermont during the American Rev, and the motto.

March of the Yuccas – actually has some words, unspoken: “I’m a Yucca, I’m a Yucca, I’m a Yucca, not a tree. I stand upon the mighty desert, king of all that I foresee.”  (but cannot foresee man – the bulldozer). Also marching to get to the Barnagle.

March of the Yuccas

March of the Yuccas

The Barnagle – this is focal point, insect hoe down. I had the image of a spider with 8 batons conducting a rag-tag group of insects and arachnids playing on their web-strings, grass-hoppers blowing on blades of grass making horn sounds, small mammals blowing thru flower-bell trumpets, etc.  The deal is that these musicians are somewhat unruly and competing at first, but eventually falls together at the end. This all takes place after midnight of the summer solstice full moon shining in the broken window glass of the barn/shed.  Here is the image as captured beautifully and faithfully by Oracle artist, Kate Horton.

The Barnagle

The Barnagle

 

Contours – this is a long, new agey piece that represents the time just before dawn as the outlines of the mountains and hills become apparent, the barnagle is over and everyone is dispersing, the cat is stirring, but not yet awake.

Sweet Annie – The cat dreams of romping after the field mice, pocket gophers, lizards etc who are leaving the Barnagle, basically just running and leaping and having fun but still asleep.

Sweet Annie’s Dream – the awakening and realization that all of this was just her dream, or was it?

NB: “Sweet Annie” was Linda Leigh’s cat. Linda was one of the original Biospherians. Annie was indeed a sweet, gentle, if not somewhat finicky creature.

Also the original Barn Jazz Vol. 1 is out-of-print. I have a few copies remaining in my archive available for an exorbitant price. Contact me if interested.

Instagators CD Released

Instagators CD
The first CD from The Instagators in over 20 years features rock wizard Jimmy McNally on guitar, vocals, keys, and harmonica, Mike Williams on Bass and vocals, Robb Lasater on drums, with appearances by several other local guest artists, including yours truly, “Diamond Jim” on fiddle and mandolin. The project took 4 months to record and mix at Barn Jazz Studios.
The songs are mostly classic rock covers from the Beatles to Roy Orbison, reflecting the kinds of music that local Grand Junction fans have come to expect from these talented musicians. However track 2, “My Kind of Girl”, is an original by McNally. This is by far the most interesting track and is worth the price of admission. Hopefully their next CD will have more of Jimmy’s original tunes.

The CD is available directly from Jimmy McNally. If you would like to order a copy send a check for $12.00 to Barn Jazz Productions, PO Box 1826, Grand Junction, CO 81502 along with your address and I will make sure Jimmy gets one in the mail to you right away. In the meantime if you are in the Grand Junction vicinity you can catch the Instagators (and their new CD) most Friday and Saturday nights at Le Rouge downtown. See their Facebook page for more into (just search for Instagators, and mind the spelling).
Instagators CD back

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