Make Your Guitars LOUD!!!

[Editors NoteThis article was written by Chris Gilroy, producer and house engineer at Brooklyn-based Douglass Recording. Chris earned his degree in Sound Recording Technology from UMass Lowell.  Chris has worked with a diverse range of artists including Ron Carter, Mike Stern, The Harlem Gospel Choir, Christian McBride, to name a few.]

 

I love guitars. Something about them excites all my nerve endings. From softly picked acoustics to a mountain of amps at full blast. These nuanced instruments can be tricky to record. Luckily for you, I’m setting up for a session right now where we will be tracking distorted guitars for the next 3 days. Let’s talk a bit about getting some of the best results you can while recording and the things I will be doing for this session.

Before you even get into the studio to shred, find a few different examples of recordings where you, the artist, producer, or whoever is in charge of the project, are inspired by for this session. Guy Picciotto of Fugazi has a very different tone then Matt Pike of Sleep/High on Fire. Talk to your engineer about how these different sounds speak to you and how they were achieved. What amps, guitars, pedals, etc etc were used for tracking.

If you are engineering, you need to learn the different sounds between guitars. Why grab a Fender Stratocaster over a Telecaster? What’s the draw of a hollow body guitar? Each instrument sounds very different. Then there are amps! A Fender Deluxe sounds AMAZING when cranked, but very different from a Marshall JCM50. It is a never ending task for us to learn these differences. I’m not a guitarist (my mind was simpler and could only handle smashing two pieces of wood against a drum) so every session I work on I make sure we try a few amps and guitars. Mostly so we can make sure that we have a sound we are happy with in the room, but partially so I can listen to different combinations of instruments and amps, learning it and internalizing it.

Luckily I am fortunate enough to work in a place that has a bunch of great sounding amps. When you turn the gain till the pre amp starts to clip, we reach a magical land. Which is emulated through so many pedals. To get geeky for a second, a lot of distortion pedals are trying to recreate the sound of tube amps distorting. Housed in much smaller and cheaper enclosures they are create to throw a few flavors in your bag for a gig.

But these boxes use transistors and diodes to compress and clip your sound, which will flatten your dynamics and take a ton of life out of your guitar. Live they totally rule, but if you are in the studio and have a Marshall Bluesbreaker, you probably also don’t need that OCD pedal on. Turn up the amp, and rock out.  

A hard balancing act while tracking distorted guitars is not OVER distorting. When we play live we have the benefit of watching the player’s hands on the instrument. We don’t get that same luxury through a recording. Our guitar sound must be clear enough to make out all the notes and harmonies played. For listening example, blink-182’s Enema of the State is laden with giant and punchy sounding guitars that we hear everything Tom DeLonge is playing. Back a few albums to Cheshire Cat, it is much more difficult to hear exactly what he is playing. His sound is muddied and a bit too crunchy to full hear everything. When we are tracking back down the amount of distortion a little less then when we play live. The clarity will come through but we still have the amp growl.

Kurt Ballou of Converge is a master at getting an insanely aggressive sound while still maintaining note clarity. Don’t get me wrong I LOVE horribly recorded black metal records. But after a short period of time my ears get fatigued because the guitars basically almost white noise (which then I wonder why I didn’t put on a Merzbow record).

When I double guitars I first make sure I know why we are doubling. Recently I finished mixing the new Nihiloceros EP. I wash’t involved in tracking, so during mixing I heard sections that I wanted a slight energy boost like after a bridge into the final chorus of a song. To solve this we tracked a meatier guitar sound to blend in slightly behind the rest of the guitar assault. Mixed in you can’t quite tell that there is another guitar, it just feels like the part swells a little more.

For another record, a new band from Philadelphia called Puriden, we wanted to have a massive wall of hard panned guitars. They had recorded an SG through a Vox AC30 as the main guitar. Since the guitarist has that rig as his tone, we didn’t want to lose the Vox sound so we doubled using the same amp and a Telecaster. This gave us enough sonic difference to know that we had two guitars, but have no phasing issues between the two.

Steve Albini spoke about this very eloquently in Mix with the Masters. In short, if you have a different initial sound source with a different timbre you decrease the chances of having phase issues. Even if it is a different amp, mic, etc, the initial harmonic character is the same. For the most clarity and less phase related issues down the line change your instrument. If you have the ability then change your whole rig but at the very least try a different guitar.

Micing amps is a whole other beast. This section alone can be a whole book so I will only briefly gloss over some ideas here. Or buy me a beer at a show and we can chat all night.

The placement of an amp in the room affects your sound dramatically. Having an open back amp against a wall will increase the amount of low frequencies in your sound. Having a small amp on the floor will increase first order reflections. Is the room large and live (reverberant) or tight and dry? Often the room sound will slip into your mics and affect your recordings. Speaking of mics, each type of mic responds differently and adds or subtracts to our sound.

The SM57, love it or hate it, will always be around and serve it’s duties wonderfully. Learn it and how to use it. Ribbon mics, like the Royer R-121, will add extra lower mids to your sound and often tame harshness. Condenser mics also sound incredible on amps. I love the sound of a Schoeps M22 (tube small diaphragm) on amps like a Fender Deluxe. Or a Soyuz 017 slays on guitar amps, as do so many other large diaphragm options.

Be mindful that each mic has a limit of how loud it can handle. If you have a Marshall Plexi at full blast some mics won’t be happy and give you thinner or distorted tones. You could also damage the microphone, like the sensitive ribbon mics, rendering them into very expensive door stops.

Placement of the microphone on the cabinet has a big change of sound. The more on the center of speaker cone you get, the brighter a sound you capture. As you move off axis, the sound gets a little darker, or warmer. How far or close your mic is will also change the timbre and room tone. Among other reasons, if you place a cardiod mic too close you will get a bass bump known as proximity effect. Listen to talk radio to hear this overused. Justin Colletti, of Sonicscoop, has this wonderful video exploring the different sounds we get with just this principle alone.

Originally I was hoping to get into mixing guitars, but that must wait till next time. The last point I want to drive home is that this is a skill set that we can always improve on. We are constantly learning. Go to conferences (AES), workshops, talks. Read magazines (Tape Op!) and watch videos. Talk to peers at all levels. Whenever possible I try assist other engineers. It lets me see how other people do things and handle situations. The amount I have learned from that or the conversations after the session about techniques and decisions used in the session has been monumental.

Master Your Tracks Instantly With Promaster by Aftermaster

If you’ve been using TuneCore or reading our blog for the past few years, you know that we’ve tried to highlight the benefits of well-mastered releases. Mastering is an art that can vastly improve the sound of your recorded music – and it once took knowing an audio engineer who specializes in this process to make it a possibility. It could also be more costly for those releasing on an indie budget.

In an effort to solve this, a little while back TuneCore began offering Aftermaster in our suite of Artist Services – a brilliant program that connects independent artists in need of mastering with GRAMMY Award winning engineers at a reasonable cost. Artists without the local resources or connections to high quality mastering options could now use Aftermaster to easily coordinate this studio magic-making in advance of their release.

Now, we’re psyched to announce a new and even more cost-friendly solution for instant mastering: Promaster by Aftermaster. TuneCore has expanded its partnership with Aftermaster in order to offer our artists the finest instant mastering tool on the market right now to polish their recently recorded tracks.

Promaster by Aftermaster is unlike any other instant mastering product in that it was wholly developed by artists, producers and audio engineers to streamline the mastering and storage process without compromising quality or creative intent. It uses cutting edge audio processing systems developed internally to instantly master audio to the highest standards.

Since we’re in the business of hooking artists up, Promaster by Aftermaster is ready to offer special rates exclusively for TuneCore Artists. For $9.95 per single and $24.95 per album, TuneCore Artists can also enjoy the following features:

  • Receive four versions of each track: ‘Powerful’, ‘Radio Ready’,’Bass Enhanced’ and ‘Vocal Enhanced
  • Free preview of your masters before you purchase
  • Master an entire album at once, ensuring consistency
  • Monthly and annual subscriptions available

Whether you just wrapped up in the studio, recorded a new single in your bedroom, or feel like revisiting some never-released tracks – polish ‘em up fast at a price that doesn’t break the bank.

Learn more about TuneCore’s partnership with Promaster by Aftermaster here, or if you’re ready to start instantly mastering your tracks, get after it!

From the Stage to the Studio: How To Adapt Vocals For Recording

[Editors Note: This blog was written by Sabrina Bucknole. Sabrina has been singing in musical theater for over eight years, and wrote this as a deep dive into how live and theatrical singers can adapt their vocals for the studio and offers five practical tips for singers recording in the studio.]

 

Singers who have a lot of experience performing live can often find difficulty in bringing the same level of performance to the studio. Whether this is because of the space itself, the lack of an audience, the different approaches to singing techniques, or the range of equipment found in the studio, singers must learn to adapt their vocals for the studio if they want to create the “right” sound.

Introducing the Stage to the Studio

There are many elements about the studio that cannot be re-created on stage, but with technology advancing, this gap is closing, especially where vocals are concerned. For instance, loop pedals are becoming increasingly popular in live performances among the likes of famous artists including Ed Sheeran, Radiohead, and Imogen Heap. Loop pedals are used to create layers of sound and add texture to the performance, allowing a solo artist to become anything from a three-person band to an entire choir.

Vocals are recorded similarly to how they are recorded in a studio except they are recorded in the moment during live performance. It could be said that recording vocals in a studio is more intimate and requires more focus due to the enhanced sensitivity of the mics used in these spaces.

Both dynamic and condenser mics usually come with a specially designed acoustic foam windshield which absorbs the soundwaves coming from the voice. Duncan Geddes, MD of Technical Foam Services emphasises the importance of choosing the correct type of foam for the microphone windshield when recording in the studio. He explains that “having the right microphone windshield is essential to ensure an effective barrier against specific background noise while still allowing acoustic transparency. The critical aspect is the consistent pore size and density of the foam, to ensure complete sound transparency”.

To avoid picking up any unwanted sounds including plosives (“b” and “p” sounds created by a short blast of air from the mouth), acoustic windshields can be very effective. These air blasts strike the diaphragm of the mic and create a thump-like sound known as “popping”.

From Broadway to Booth: Vocal Differences

Singing in a recording studio can be daunting, especially for those who are used to singing live in a theatre. This could be because every tiny imperfection of the voice is picked up in the studio, including things that go unnoticed when performing live. Faced with these imperfections, some singers try to smooth out every little bump or crack in the voice in the pursuit of “perfection”.

Others embrace the “flaws” of the voice to create a sound unique to them. For instance, the well-known artist Sia embraces the natural cracks of her voice. This is apparent in most of her songs, especially in the song “Alive” on her 2016 album, This Is Acting. At 4 minutes 10 seconds you can hear her slide up to a higher note. To some, this might sound a little strained, but to others and Sia, this may simply be a natural and welcome part of her sound and performance.

Volume control can also be something to think about when entering the studio from the stage. Theatrical singers are taught to project their voices even in soft, quiet parts so they can still be heard. It could be argued that belting high and powerful notes becomes almost second nature to them, which is why they may find themselves having to reign it in slightly when adapting their voice for the studio.

For instance, according to multiplatinum songwriter and producer Xandy Barry, vocalists need to tone down their performance when recording in a studio. He reveals, “In certain quiet passages [singers] may need to bring it down, because in the studio a whisper can be clearly heard.”

It could also be argued that when performing live, the stage is a space where a certain type of energy is released, something that cannot be re-created in the studio. Playing to a crowd may bring something out of an artist. Some performers feel they can express themselves more on stage compared to in the studio. A live performance is ultimately, a performance after all.

This does not mean that the studio is restricting; instead it could be argued that other techniques are evoked when recording in this space. For instance, some singers display more finesse and subtlety in their work, something that cannot always be re-created on stage.

Five practical tips for singers recording in the studio:

1. Warm up

Studio time can be expensive which is why it’s best to warm up before entering the studio. As well as being prepared vocally, make sure you’re prepared with how you’re going to approach the piece. Some recommend knowing precisely how you’re going to sing every section, but this can come across as being over-rehearsed and may not sound natural. To avoid this, approach the piece differently each time and try experimenting with different sounds, textures, and volumes.

2. Record, record, record

Try and capture everything you can. If you vocalise something you like the sound of, but no one hit “record”, it can be frustrating for you as the singer, trying to re-create that same sound.

3. Keep cool and have fun

If you feel like you’re getting frustrated because a take isn’t going well or you’re not hitting the right notes, or you’re sounding rather flat, take a break. Take some time to clear your head and start afresh, so the next time you hit record, you’ll almost certainly get the results you were after!

4. Be emotional

Conjuring up emotions in the studio can be harder to do than on stage. This can be due to the lack of atmosphere, people, and the confined space. To avoid lyrics coming across bland or meaningless, try to focus on the lyrics themselves and decode them.

To stir the emotions you’re looking for, personalise the material by asking yourself “What is the meaning behind these words?”, “How are these lyrics making me feel?”, and “How can I relate these lyrics to my own life or the life of someone I care about?”. Like an actor and their script, discovering and analysing the intention of the words can have a great effect on the performance.

5. Manage the microphone

Singers with experience behind a mic know how to handle one. Skilled singers know where and how to move their head to create different volumes and sounds. For instance, by moving closer to the mic as they get softer, and further as they get louder they can manipulate the volume of their vocals, reducing the amount of compression required in editing later.

Singing into a mic when recording can be different from singing into a mic on stage. The positioning, mounting, angle of the mic, and distance from the singer, can all effect the captured vocal sound. Live singers usually hold the mic close to their mouth especially for softer parts, but in a studio, the mic is usually more sensitive to sound. This is why it’s best to keep more distance between yourself and the mic, especially for louder sections.

10 Ways to Make Vocals Sound Modern & Professional

[Editors Note: This is a guest blog written by Rob Mayzes, producer, mix engineer and founder of Home Studio Center, a site dedicated to providing valuable tips around recording from home studios.]

 

In most genres, the vocals are the most important part of the mix.

Especially in modern pop styles, there are a number of techniques that make a vocal sound modern, expensive and professional.

Once you apply these ten techniques, your mixes as a whole will improve.

1. Top-End Boost

This is perhaps the easiest and fastest way to make a vocal sound expensive.

Most boutique microphones have an exaggerated top-end. When using a more affordable microphone, you can simply boost the highs to replicate this characteristic.

The best way to do this is with an analogue modelling EQ, such as the free Slick EQ. Use a high shelf, and start with a 2dB boost at 10kHz.

Experiment with the frequency and amount of boost. You can go as low as 6kHz (but keep it subtle) and boost as much as 5dB above 10kHz. Just make sure it doesn’t become too harsh or brittle.

2. Use a De’Esser

When you start boosting the top-end, the vocal can start to sound more sibilant. To counteract this problem, a de’esser can be used.

These simple tools are a staple of the vocal mixing process, and required in at least 80% of cases. I find they usually work best at the very beginning or end of the plugin chain.

3. Remove Resonances

If you’re recording in a room that’s less than ideal, room resonances can quickly build up.

Find these resonances using the boost-and-sweep technique and then remove them with a narrow cut.

4. Control the Dynamics with Automation

For a modern sound, the dynamics of vocals need to be super consistent. Every word and syllable should be at roughly the same level.

Most of the time, this can’t be achieved with compression alone. Instead, use automation to manually level out the vocal.

I prefer to use gain automation to create consistency before the compressor. But regular volume automation works well too.

5. Catch the Peaks with a Limiter

Using a limiter after compression is another great way to control dynamics.

You don’t need to be aggressive with it (unless you are going for a heavily compressed sound). Aim for 2dB of gain reduction only on the loudest peaks.

6. Use Multiband Compression

As vocalists move between different registers, the tone of their voice can change. For example, when the vocalist moves to a lower register, their voice might start to sound muddy.

Instead of fixing this with EQ and removing the problematic frequencies from the entire performance, you could use multiband compression to control these frequencies only when they become problematic.

For any frequency-based problem that only appears on certain words or phrases, use multiband compression rather than EQ.

7. Enhance the Highs with Saturation

Sometimes EQ alone isn’t enough to enhance the top-end. By applying light saturation, you can create new harmonics and add more excitement.

8. Use Delays Instead of Reverb

For a modern sound, the vocals need to be upfront and in-your-face. Applying reverb to the vocal does the opposite of this, so is undesirable.

Instead, use a stereo slapback delay to create a space around the vocal and add some stereo width.

Use a low feedback (0-10%) and slightly different times on the left and right sides. I find that delay times between 50-200ms work best.

9. Try Adding a Subtle Plate Reverb

To add more width and depth to the vocal, try adding a subtle stereo plate on the vocal.

You don’t want the reverb to be noticeable, as discussed in the previous tip. Instead, bring the wetness up until you notice the reverb, then back it off a touch.

Start with the shortest decay time possible and a 60ms pre-delay to give the transients a bit more definition and room to breathe.

10. Try Adding a Subtle Chorus Effect

Another way to give the vocal a bit of depth and shimmer is to apply subtle chorusing.

Again, you don’t want the effect to be noticeable. Add a stereo chorus to the vocal and increase the wetness until you notice the effect, then back it off a touch.

Conclusion

The vocals are extremely important and will require more time mixing than most other instruments.

But once you apply the 10 techniques in this article, you can take a big step closer to a modern, professional sound.

Slapback Delay – A Must Have On Vocals & Guitars

[Editors Note: This is blog was written by Scott Wiggins and it originally appeared on his site, The Recording Solution, which is dedicated to helping producers, engineers and artists make better music from their home studios.]

Slapback delay is a very common effect on tons of hit records. It’s really easy to set up!

When you think of delay, you probably think of yelling down a long canyon and hearing your voice repeat over and over. In my mind that’s an echo.

That’s what a slapback delay is, except it’s one single echo. One single repeat of the original signal.

It’s more like you clap while standing in a small alley between 2 buildings, and hearing a very quick repeat of your clap.

It’s a super fast repeat that adds a sense of space.

Guitar players love it when playing live, and I love using it on guitars and vocals in the context of a mix.

It just adds some energy and sense of depth without having to use a reverb and running the risk of washing out your dry signal.

I tend to use more effects after the slapback delay, but I more times than not start with it to set the foundation of the sound I’m trying to achieve.

A little Goes A Long Way

This effect is used more as a subtle effect on vocals or guitars.

It can be used on anything you like, but those tend to be the most popular in my opinion.

BUT… there are no rules, so if subtle bores you, then go crazy!

Also you can start with a preset on most delay plugins, and then tweak to taste.

If you are tweaking your own slap delays, just make sure your delay times are not in increments.

For Example: 32ms and then 64ms.

That would put the delay on the beat and that’s not technically a slap delay.

I learned that tip from the great mixer and teacher Dave Pensado,  so  I wanted to pass it on to you.

Watch the video above to see how I set all this up inside a real mix.

Comment below and let me know your thoughts.

Two Monitoring Tips For Mixing in the Home Studio

[Editors Note: This is a guest blog written exclusively for us by Scott Wiggins, founder of The Recording Solution, a website dedicated to helping producers, engineers and artists make better music from their home studios.]

I’m sure you’ve heard or read in audio forums, or books from professional engineers that you need the BEST monitoring or listening environment possible when mixing your music. You may think you need the best monitors, the best converters, or the best acoustically built room.

Although I agree with needing a good listening environment, I don’t agree that you need the “best” gear to pump out good mixes. The “best”, most times, means expensive. For most home studio owners, we simply don’t have the budget to buy the best gear available. This high-end gear would definitely help, but it’s not the end all be all.

Most of us home studio owners are not in the ideal mixing environments. You probably are in a spare bedroom, a garage, a basement, or whatever space is available. These rooms were typically not built with the idea of recording and mixing music in mind. That’s ok!

If you can just get some decent affordable gear and some strategically placed acoustic treatment, you will be on your way to a great mix. I’ve been mixing on KRK Rocket 5 monitors for years, and have happy paying clients!

I also have some DIY acoustic treatment strategically placed in my listening room. I could go into acoustic treatment and where to put it, but that’s a whole other article. Today I want to focus on two simple hacks for monitoring in your home studio.

1. Turn your mix WAY down

First off, you should not be mixing at super loud volumes. We, as humans, perceive louder as better. Don’t trick yourself, or I should say, don’t trick your ears. You should be monitoring at a level where you could still have a conversation with someone and not have to turn the mix down or raise your voice to be heard.

The problem with loud monitoring is you may think the mix is balanced, but your ears are just adjusting to the volume, and long story short, fooling you.

This low volume hack gives you a better perspective of balance between the instruments in the track.

For example, when I’m nearing the end of a mix, I turn the volume WAAAAY down and listen to how the vocal and snare are sitting with each other. I tend to like a loud snare, and this low volume lets me know if I’ve set it too loud compared to the vocal. This super low volume also helps tame the weird room reflections and resonating frequencies we all have in our not so perfect mixing spaces.

Another tip when I’m nearing the end of my mix is to listen to the mix as a whole . I will listen to the song from start to finish at this low volume, and take mental notes (or written), of the balance between everything. You then can go and turn things up or down where needed. We are essentially “balance engineers”. It’s our job to make the tracks sit well with each other.

Don’t stop the mix, listen to it in its entirety so you get a better perspective of the balance of the whole song. Poor mixing decisions tend to come when we are too laser focussed on one tiny part of the song, that we lose perspective of the whole picture. Act like you’re a casual listener just enjoying a song. Then go back and fix the things that stick out.

2. Listen on a different set of speakers or headphones

I monitor on my KRK Rocket 5s, but then I will switch to my headphones. Don’t get caught up in what type of speaker or headphones you switch to, the point is to “wake your ears up”. Just pick something new to listen on even if it’s a crappy little mid range mono speaker. Don’t ask me what the best crappy speaker to buy is.

When listening to the same speakers for a long time, our ears adapt and start getting used to the problems that may be occurring in the mix.

For example, your ears may get used to way too much bass or low-end in your mix, and you will perceive this as OK. Switching to a new listening environment will wake up your ears and you can instantly hear things that are out-of-place. You can also bring in your favorite professional mixes and reference how they are responding on your monitors and your headphones. Take notes and adjust your mix.

I tend to set my reverbs and delays too loud on my KRKs. When I switch to my headphones, I immediately notice this and adjust. Then when you switch back to your first monitors your ears wake up again. Just periodically switch to something new, and this can be a very useful technique to help you make accurate mixing decisions.

So to recap:

  1. Mix at low volumes
  2. Reference your mix on different monitors or headphones

These are two very simple hacks that will give you better perspective and help you make better, more accurate mixing decisions. Another hack that took my mixes to the next level was learning how to mix music in mono.  I hope this helps you in the future.

Just keep mixing!