Category Archives: Music

Posts on my blog about music.

Equalization

The tool that seemingly does it all, EQ is commonly used, but often not very well. Maybe because it is used to compensate for something that came before it and that is never a good sign.

A useful lesson from EQ is that the very best use of any tool is to complement something. In normal use, you should only be applying minimal changes with it. If you have to resort to something drastic, then there is something wrong earlier in the chain and EQ is just another layer that can go wrong and not quite have that “radio-ready” sound you are probably looking for. Instead of thinking of it as useful treatment, think of it as a remedy to a problem and work backwards. Find the source and fix it there.

In the situations when you truly can’t do anything else, there’s another simple piece of logic that will do you worlds of good. When using EQ in any real-world situation, there are always going to be more frequencies that you want to keep than you want to get rid of. Hence this oldie but goodie: “cut, don’t boost” – meaning get rid of what you’re sure you don’t want, rather than amplifying what you think you like. Bad frequencies are likely something like footsteps, jewelry or keys, furniture, or other room noises. You can identify them easily and get rid of them easily. But good frequencies are much harder to understand. What is a good frequency? Even when you think you have found something awesome – like a particularly powerful sound in a vocal – you will be devastated when you find out the hard way that frequency problems are the main source of bad translation.

In essence: boosted frequencies will betray you, cut frequencies will no longer matter.

Mixing

Here is a common set of steps that happens to someone who is new at this…

  1. You are all excited about your first song and you put it online, but when you try to show it to your friend at their house, it doesn’t sound right. So you give up and turn on your favorite band and when it comes on, it is so loud, it almost blows you away. Once you turn it down, you realize how much better it sounds than what you were doing.
  2. You go home frustrated, determined to do better, but unsure where to begin. So the first thing you do is try to deal with the volume. “What’s up with that?”, you ask, “Why is mine so much quieter?”. Naturally, you go turn up the levels on your project and suddenly it is distorting. “It doesn’t go any louder!“, you scream. Ah, but it does, Watson …patience. 😉
  3. Fuming about how they do it, you turn to the internet for advice. Wise but foolish. You find that the answer lies in compression. So you throw one of those things on the track and it gets quieter, not louder, driving you up the wall. Or maybe it has built-in makeup gain and it makes things louder, but sounds all weird now either way. Grrr. Poor fella, the preset betrayed you.

This can go on for a long time – you try to fix a problem and it just creates another one, or doesn’t have much effect. Sadly, it is so easy to do in engineering, but you are getting ahead of yourself. You are attempting to create music with tools, when you should be creating tools (understanding) with music.

Take your favorite artist’s song and put it through the same paces you do to your own stuff. But this time, try to ruin it with EQ, compression, gating, etc. In doing so, you will learn where its important pieces are. If the original is bass-heavy, a high-pass filter will make it sound weak and wimpy. If it is already compressed, further compression might cause “pumping”, an unnatural sound that happens when volume changes (or not) in ways your brain doesn’t expect. If you set a noise gate with a high threshold on a track that has very few quiet parts, it will show you the edges of what is loud and what is quiet around a certain volume level. This is useful for knowing how much to compress by ear, as well as learning about the gate itself – which is the whole point.

 

Monitors

In the music industry, there are many types of speakers, all with their own purpose. Monitors are what you use to hear the details accurately and easily – as opposed to PA systems for loudness or so-called “entertainment” speakers (desktop, surround sound, etc.) for general enjoyment. Whereas other speakers try to sound good, monitors have a mission is to be realistic.  if a monitor sounds really nice, it may actually be a terrible monitor.  This isn’t always true – just food for thought.

Little else matters in a sound studio without a great listening system. But few people know what it takes to have a good one. So a common piece of advice that I give is to learn the basics of what makes a speaker do what it does. Then, you can understand better how to judge one.

Speakers move air using a cone that acts like a wall. It pushes and pulls the cone using a magnet that can turn on and off thousands of times per second. This creates waves in the air, which your ears perceive as sound.

Moving air is the most important process that a speaker does. How exactly it does that and the consequences of the waves that are created gets complicated very quickly. So here are some of the most important points for you.

  1. Separate your speakers from everything else. Preferably using acoustic foam and/or speaker stands. Give them room and space them the same amount of distance as you sit from them.
  2. Place speakers based on the height of where you sit so that the small cone (tweeter) is at ear level.
  3. While music is playing, feel part of the speaker box that is not near a cone. The less vibrations you feel, the better your speaker is – unless it’s just not putting out much bass or volume.
  4. Be wary of speakers that have vents or “ports”. It means their designers took the easy way out to get bass.

Because monitors are so crucial to professional music production, they are at the center of holy wars, just as much as any Mac vs PC debate. All you have to do is find something that is a reasonable price and makes sense scientifically. Believe it or not, some brands make both excellent and terrible monitors. Can you guess which end of the price range gets the bad ones? You would be wrong to say low, high, or anything in between. The reality is that some companies specialize in budget monitors with great value and go on to make so-so expensive paperweights. The opposite is also true.

If this is your first time around the block, there’s no better experience than sitting in front of a bunch of monitors side-by-side and experimenting. It will teach you so much about speakers, price, translation, music itself, and more. Some stores have setups to let you do this. Even websites that sell music gear will often give you a “free trial” of sorts for monitors via a “risk-free” guarantee or a generous return policy, etc. This isn’t even limited to monitors – it applies to amps, keyboards, and even high-end microphones.

Once you’ve chosen a set, be prepared for a symbiotic relationship. Your speakers will grow on you in certain ways and you will become intimately familiar with their imperfections.

Translation

Would you believe that music is like a language? You have a speaker and a listener and the sound is basically the conversation. When making music, all of your listeners need to be able to understand. In audio engineering, we call this difference between you and them translation. It happens because your equipment, ears, and room are very different than everywhere else.

Most people I meet are surprised by how dramatic this can be when it is actually demonstrated for them. So, I want to spell out how you can do something about it and run your own tests, to raise the quality of your work.

The first step is to know what bad translation sounds like. So record something complex without any processing – the more instruments, the better. It will be particularly evident if you have a lot of low bass frequencies from drums, sound effects, or a bass guitar on the track.

Next, if you can, set the volume levels of each instrument to just the right levels you want to hear them at.

When you are done, get the final version over to a completely different set of speakers, or a different room, or both. You can use headphones if necessary, but I don’t recommend it for this test.

Now give your track a listen and remember how it sounded while you were making it. Even better, try listening to them back-to-back as quickly as you can – on one system, then the other, back and forth.

At this point, you are probably amazed if you are paying attention. The difference between the two is likely massive. Yet how could this be?

They are identical, indeed. The problem isn’t you (though it is going to be your job to compensate for it), it is not the software’s fault or your computer or some setting. It comes from physics (acoustics) and speaker design. But you can overcome most of it fairly easily, with a bit of practice.

The key thing for you to understand is that the magical quality you are looking for actually comes from grasping the fundamentals, not from the little tricks you will pick up along the way. Those reduce wasted time and are what makes it look effortless with experience, but it is the basics you should be focussed on, not fancy plug-ins or new gear. You have to learn how to use it first before they will do you any good. It might take some time to sink in, for example, that volume spikes or peaks are not the same thing as hearing something that is loud.

Your work will translate better when it is more consistent and it will only be more consistent when you understand what it takes to make sound more consistent in the first place.

Compression

One of the most common music-related questions I get is, “What is Compression?”

Here, I hope to answer this for any of my customers, new employees, or anyone who is curious.

Many words have more than one meaning and “compression” is one of them. When it comes to music, there are two main types: data compression and dynamic range compression.

Data Compression

MP3 is the most common example of this type. When you need to store files like music, photos, or videos, and need to save space, you can shrink their size by compressing them. Different methods exist, each with their own pros and cons, depending on what you are working with and trying to do. WMA is better for music than MP3, but is not as widely supported by playback devices. Both are “lossy” methods of compression, meaning that you lose quality in the process in exchange for the small file sizes. If you have plenty of storage space, you can use WMA Lossless, FLAC, or other methods that – in theory – still save you space, without any loss of audio quality.

Dynamic Range Compression

This one is strange, because it is used for the exact opposite of what it does. If you ever hear a producer mention “compression” without specifying which type, this is probably what they mean. Dynamic range in music is the difference between the lowest and highest volume of what you are listening to and compressors bring those two things closer together by keeping volume from going up too much once it reaches a certain level. I like to think of it as a seat belt or rubber band that keeps sound in check.

But here’s the thing: hardly anyone realizes that compression makes sound quieter, not louder. The reason is that, after a signal is compressed, its level is usually raised in order to make the track sound as loud as possible without distorting. So in the end, the loud parts stay where they are and the quiet parts get raised.