MixCraft Part 1: Levels and Phase

This series will deal with mixing a live recording from start to finish. I’ll be covering a lot of essential mixing basics. So if you’re new to the craft, perhaps some of this will help clear up a lot of questions you may have and speed up your process.
The artist in the recording is Big Mean Sound Machine an Afrobeat band from NY. The session was recorded live at Telefunken studios. Download links are below and in the video description.

The entire multitrack project is available here.

BMSM

Full song and video.

 

MonoHive Sessions – Abhijeet Tambe with Tony Das live at Rooster Guitars

Abhijeet Tambe has been a part of various musical projects over the years. Most notably the Bangalore based act Lounge Piranha. He’s also explored sound design, performs live music for theatre and works with DSP. His latest foray into music making has led him to explore more traditional song writing if there is such a thing. This set includes four of his songs and some friendly banter about his musical and song writing process. He’s accompanied by Tony Das, an incredibly talented guitarist from Bangalore who’s also a highly sought after guitar instructor.

 

Rig rundown – Bruce Lee Mani

It doesn’t matter if you’re a tone snob, tone deaf, a riff junkie or the guy who spontaneously combusts if he doesn’t play a guitar solo on every song he writes. The one thing that unites all modern guitar players is gear. Please note that I use the term “unite” in the loosest sense possible.

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I caught up with guitarist and frontman Bruce Lee Mani of the Bangalore based act Thermal and a Quarter and we talked about guitars, practice and rigs. Bruce relies heavily on digital gear and for me this was a real eye opener in terms of what you can do with affordable digital processors and some critical thinking.

I would go so far as to say that he’s really pushing the limits of his current set of multi effects pedals.

But first a little about his guitar and playing history.

Bruce first started playing Stratocaster style guitars around 2006. Erisa who’s a custom guitar maker from Pondicherry built him the guitar that he’s been seen playing for nearly a decade now. Before that he had a Parker Nitefly and a Washburn MG-74 with a Floyd Rose which was a typical 80’s style shred axe.

The Parker Nitefly has some very unique features apart from the obvious contoured body that looks pretty cool. It comes with a Graphtech Nubone Nut, Parker Vibrato Bridge, Sperzel Trim-lok-in-line Tuners, Seymour Duncan Hum/Hum and Graphtech Ghost piezos. parker-nitefly-NFV2_0

The combination of regular magnetic pickups and piezo pickups allows for a wide variety of tones and the piezo offers a range of acoustic tones as well.

The current range of Nitefly guitars are also MIDI upgradeable.

The Nitefly allowed Bruce to experiment with cleaner tones and egged him toward evolving the sound he’s best known for today.

The Bruce Lee Super Strat

Pickups: Lindy fralin vintage hot

Hardware: Graphtech

All pickups are shielded with a thin copper sheet and a single ground running into one of the pots.

The pick guard is also shielded with an aluminium sheet.

The shielding along with great pickups and electronics make for one extremely noiseless guitar that performs spectacularly in the studio and on stage.

The entire thing works like a regular Strat, the only mod is that the tone controls also work on the bridge pickup unlike a traditional Strat.

The thing about the guitar that Bruce speaks very highly of is the tremolo. Its a Hipshot US tremolo.

What sets it apart from a regular tremolo is that it has hardened steel pivot points set into a bent top brass plate forming something like a ball and socket joint that reduces wear and tear considerably and increases accuracy. Over the last 10 years, he’s had to make little or no adjustments to it and it still works like a charm.

If you find your tremolo not working as well as you would like it to, the Hipshot is definitely worth looking at.

The body of the guitar is one piece red cedar, the neck is once piece white cedar and the finger board is satin wood.

Bruce spent a lot of time during his formative years as a guitar player working on exercises or “drilling” as he puts it. Like getting 16th notes and 32nd notes at 200 BPM. It’s something that is quite often overlooked by guitar players who aren’t into music that required you to shred. But, he says, this was a great foundation for him and allowed him to explore many styles comfortably.  Over time his guitar regimen has changed and now he focuses more on writing stuff that’s somewhat out of his comfort zone and trying to get really good at it through practise. There are many approaches to becoming a good guitar player, but a disciplined practice regimen when you have the time for it is never a bad idea.

You might be wondering why this article has yet to mention anything about his guitar rig. Firstly, its because writing about Bruce’s setup is daunting and I’m trying to put it off for as long as I can. And secondly because you can’t have great guitar tone without a great guitar player and a great guitar. And no matter how much I may rave about a certain piece of equipment I feel those two things always come first.

Alright, so finally lets get down to the rig (takes a deep breath)

Guitar : Line 6 POD X3 Live (Upgraded to Helix but used similarly) and a VOX AC30

Synth: Roland-GR55 Guitar Synth

Vocals: Blue Encore 300 Live vocal condenser microphone into a TC Helicon Voicelive 2 IMG_4800 (1)

The interplay between all these units is really interesting. At the core of all the processing is the Line 6 POD X3 Live so lets start with that.

You’ll notice the X3 has a lot of inputs and outputs. I will only be mentioning the ones Bruce uses in  his rig. Although the unit isn’t manufactured anymore, The documentation for the X3 is still available online and if you’re interested in knowing more about its routing capabilities you’ll find all the information on the Line6 website.

If you aren’t familiar with Line6 products the X3 is what’s called a digital amp modeller. It can emulate a range of guitar amps, cabinets, microphones and stomp boxes. Basically, you can create a virtual guitar rig and plug it straight into a PA system or a studio console for recording without the hassle of having to lug around a ton of gear.

At the time of its release in 2007 Line6 had taken full advantage of advances in digital processing and the X3 was a huge upgrade with a host of new amp models and effects but the feature most talked about was its Dual Tone function. It’s basically the ability to run 2 completely independent virtual rigs with 2 completely different effects and amps into 2 separate outputs simultaneously.

Bruce takes full advantage of this feature in what could best be described as a hybrid setup.

He has two signal chains setup on the X31627

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Signal chain A has no amp models or spatial effects. It’s essentially on bypass and it runs into his amp through one of the Live outs which are the 1/4 inch outputs right next to the guitar input. His VOX AC-30 is slightly driven at all times and a few stomp boxes are setup on this signal chain like boosts and drives. There’s an SM57 in front of the amp that sends this signal to the console.

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Signal chain B has amp modelling, effects and stomps. It’s the entire virtual rig with all its bells and whistles. This runs out of a set of XLR direct outputs which you can find right next to the Live outputs. Both these outputs run directly into to the mixing desk to form a stereo pair. It’s in stereo because Bruce has all his spatial effects running on this chain like reverb and delays. Effects like these usually sound better in stereo.

In addition to this the output from the FX loop which is set to pre FX runs into his vocal processor. It has an input to track your guitar chords as you play and can generate appropriate vocal harmonies based on the chord.

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The AUX input on the X3 is used on heavier songs and tracks with different tunings. Before I can get into details about that, a little bit about the GR-55 Guitar Synth.

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In order to use the GR-55 you need a pickup that sends individual string information to the unit. In Roland’s case they have the GK-3

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The pickup sits right in front of the bridge and tracks individual strings. It then sends that to the GR-55 through a 13 pin cable. The pickup is also designed to take the signal from the regular magnetic pickups and send that to the GR-55 and you’re meant to take the guitar output from the Synth and send that to your amp. However, Bruce has a Y cable designed that sends the GK-3 pickup to the synth and another 1/4 inch cable to his X3.

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This frees up the guitar output on the GR-55 for another really cool trick. Apart from generating a wide array of synth sounds the unit also emulates actual guitars and this feature comes under Roland’s COSM modelling technology. The algorithm is so well designed that the tracking is virtually instantaneous as opposed to the synth sounds which take a bit of getting used to.

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Essentially Bruce uses this feature to make up for not being able to tour with a guitar tech and 20 guitars. The COSM modelling allows him to change his guitar from a Strat to a Les Paul or a Tele instantly. Apart from emulating multiple guitars and their pickup positions it can also emulate different tunings. So instead of having to retune his guitar every time he plays a song in drop D, DADGAD or any other tuning for that matter. The GR-55 also stores the tuning of your choice along with the modelled guitar patch for a particular song and it lets you move between guitars and tunings at the flick of a switch. He also uses the acoustic guitar emulation on some tracks.
Brace yourselves because this is where the AUX input on the X3 comes back into the picture. The guitar out from the GR-55 goes into the AUX input of the X3 and on tracks where the emulated guitar output from the GR-55 is in effect the AUX input of the X3 runs both signal chain A and B.

If you catch them live you may notice some of the modelled sounds on tracks like.

If Them Blues, Edifice of Lies, Motorbykle, Dresden Drum Beat and Silicon Outhouse to name a few.

You’d think all of this would be more than enough to keep track of in a live situation but Bruce insists that he could be doing more with the pedals.

In any case there are definitely some really interesting take aways from this rig. And some great solutions to some common guitar conundrums.

MonoHive Sessions – Nikhil Narendra and Shreyas Dipali Live at Bflat

Kick starting a series of videos featuring artists that I feel are pushing themselves to explore some far out sounds. It’ll mostly revolve around live shows, but may branch out into other things. Here’s the first one featuring two very talented musicians from my hometown of Bangalore, India.

Reference tracks, loud mixes and Katz

Losing perspective

The longer you mix, the more fatigued your ears get and you find yourself immersed in the microcosm of your own mix while the bigger picture slowly slips away. You spend hours doing this only to wake up the next morning to a mix that sounds like something your cat coughs up after a bad night of clubbing or whatever it is cats get up to when they mysteriously disappear. Everyone who’s tried their hand at mixing goes through this. Yes, skill and experience go a long way in addressing the issue. But I also find that using the right reference material can help move things along quite fast.

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Using reference tracks to better understand the spectral balance and dynamics of your mix is one of the best ways to hold on to the bigger picture. Typically when someone wants to see how well their mix is coming together, they reach for their favourite records. But over time I’ve come to realise that not all tracks are appropriate for this purpose and unless you have the right material lined up, this is probably the least effective way to judge the quality of your own mix. And more often than not, it’s detrimental to your work. Here’s why.

The Loudness war and dynamic mixes

Engineers talk about the loudness war like its a post apocalyptic era in record production. Articles about the loudness war litter the internet, like craters left over on a battlefield that saw some heavy shelling. Whether heavily compressed mixes are good or bad for your music is ultimately left up to you and the genre you’re working on. But It can be said that super compressed audio makes for less than appropriate reference material.

 

When a good mix engineer works on a track they’re usually working keeping the artist and the song in mind. Trying to preserve the natural playing dynamics of the performers while trying to achieve the right depth and balance. The key word here is balance. A good mix engineer’s work isn’t validated when someone listens to the track and says “great mix”. Instead you want them to simply say “great song”.  The tools that facilitate the mixing are neatly tucked away, lifting the performances and the song into three dimensional space. A kind of smoke and mirrors act. This is a delicate and subtle process and is a culmination of many hundreds of minuscule movements that add up to tie a mix together.

Before a track is ready to release, though, it needs to see a mastering engineer. And while gifted mastering engineers can preserve the integrity of a mix while at the same time preparing it for the hundreds of platforms that we consume music on today, they’re usually at the mercy of labels. Over the past two decades nearly all major labels have adopted the louder is better policy. A mastering engineer will usually receive a mix with -6 to -12db of headroom but will have to send it out with virtually no headroom for it to be accepted by commercial labels.

What happens to the mix at this point is complete loss of dynamic range. And when you start comparing your mix to this kind of material and try to compete with loudness that was achieved by people with decades of experience and million dollar equipment, more often than not you end up destroying your mix with  a long chain of pirated plugins.

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Instead if you could listen to the relative levels of the elements the way they were meant to be and just concentrate on the balance of instruments rather then be distracted by how loud everything sounds, you’ll be getting much better results.

Bob Katz and pre loudness war music

While I was doing some research on what kind of tracks would be best suited for this kind of work I came across The Honour Roll. Bob Katz who’s a world renowned mastering engineer has taken the time to compile a list of albums produced before the loudness war that make for excellent reference material. The records are meant for you to calibrate your monitoring system to playback at the right volume for mixing based on genre. But I’ve found that its an excellent reference for mixing in general.

http://www.digido.com/media/honor-roll.html

I’ve compiled all of these into a project and they work splendidly. I highly recommend you pick your albums from the same list and compile a project of your own.

I received a track from a friend who needed some advice on his mix. I used this system of referencing to gauge where the track was at. After spending some time with the track and the reference material I sent him a mail with what I thought he could change. To my surprise it ended up making huge improvements over the previous mix. I’ve been using this system successfully for a while now and I’ve gotten great results every time.

Here’s a video documenting the process and how I set up my reference material.

TRIGGER HAPPY

 

The backbone of most bands is a solid drummer with a good kit to boot. But when you’re touring and don’t have the liberty to carry your own kit, you often end up getting drum kits that may not be in the best condition. Most engineers will acknowledge that once your kit sounds right everything else will fall into place. Of late, I’ve been spending some time working on an affordable drum trigger hack to deal with bad kits.

IMG_4781 have been around for a long time. But a good set of triggers usually costs a fat sum of money. While these work well, I wasn’t too keen on dropping that kind of dough on something I wasn’t sure would be useful in a live situation. Not to mention, there’s the added cost of a module to get the triggered sounds you need

IMG_4769.jpgBefore I continue let me elaborate a little on triggers and how they work. Basically they’re very simple devices mostly consisting of a piezo transducer and a mounting bracket that sits on the rim of the drum. The pickup senses vibration and produces an electric signal which is then converted to digital (MIDI) by a module which plays pre-recorded drum hits (samples) for every MIDI note it receives. The drum module can also be adjusted to accommodate a range of volumes, so you could in a sense reproduce the dynamic range of the drummer’s playing. IMG_4776.jpg

These became quite popular in the ’90s especially among metal drummers, but were still considered to be lacking in dynamics and unsuitable for other genres. However drum sample technology has come a long way since and triggered sounds have become commonplace in studio production today.

Getting back to using them live – since buying a bunch of expensive triggers was out of the question for me, a friend recommend that I get in touch with Naveen Ujre. Naveen is an audio engineer from Bangalore and he’s the go to tech guy for a lot of musicians in the city. You’ll see him behind the console for quite a few popular bands as well.

He had a trigger ready for me in a few days.  I decided to use my laptop and a sound card for a module. Basically, the trigger sits on the drum head on stage and feeds to the console through a DI box. From there, I just send the signal through my laptop and chose from a library of drum sounds. IMG_4772.jpg

After running a few tests I realised that the triggers work quite well but could use some refining in design and sensitivity. Because they’re running into a laptop and there’s a lot of conversion stages, the latency is noticeable and isn’t usable live in its current form. However I feel that the problem may be solved with a dedicated module and some adjustments to the trigger itself.

On the other hand this is a great addition in the studio. Instead of spending hours trying to get your triggered samples to line up to your recorded audio, having additional trigger tracks saves a lot of time. It’s not always necessary to have triggered drum tracks. But if you’re recording in a poor room on a cheap kit there’s no harm throwing a few triggers in there in case you want to use them later.

I made this video in which I highlight the use of triggers in the studio so you know what to expect if you’re using one for your projects.

Capture that space with room mics

Using room microphones on a drum kit is probably the best way to get a big drum sound. We don’t always get to record in big live rooms. But when you do, there’s no reason not to set up a few room microphones.

Room mics filter

There are probably as many ways to set up room microphones as there are major league engineers, but what you decide to use will depend entirely on the space you’re in, taking time to listen to the room and inspecting the studios mic locker.

Essentially, you could use any mic in a room. I’ve even seen engineers using SM57’s.
But typically a pair of condenser microphones is most common. A switchable polar pattern would be preferable because you may want to use these in Omni.

Sometimes tried and tested mic placement may not work. Here’s a video of a session in which the space outside the studio made for a more appropriate room sound in the context of that particular song. This is from a session I did with Bangalore based band Thermal and a Quarter on their album No wall too high.

 

I’d also like to take a moment to mention  Al Schmitt. He’s one of those legendary engineers known world over for his incredible microphone technique and extensive work on some of the best records ever made. He’s worked with Elvis, Sinatra, Ray Charles, Steely Dan and many more. If you’re interested in making records and you haven’t heard of him before I’d recommend watching the interview of him on Pensado’s place.

Tech 21’s Oxford: More Orange than Donald Trump

Everybody loves down tuned stoner doom guitars and people who say they don’t are most likely lying. As a guitarist and sound engineer, I often get asked about my preference of tone and gear and my reply is always the same – the simpler the better.

Shepherd guitar rigWorking on Bangalore based sludge band Shepherd had no exceptions. The guitarist Namit Chauhan originally tracked through a tube amp. And although it was a great amp it didn’t really fit the bill. I had worked on the mixes for a while before I decided the better alternative would be to re-record the guitars. At this point we didn’t have much time left and the guys wanted to put the album out asap. I needed a sure shot guitar tone for the album and going to a studio or renting an amp was out of the question.

Enter Tech 21’s Oxford. It’s from their Character line of pedals and is modelled after Orange amplifiers. This thing is all analog, true bypass. And best of all, it’s plug and play. The pedal has a cabinet function which allows you to plug it directly into a PA  or  sound card and you’re ready to go. It runs on one 9v battery and lasts seemingly forever. The controls are straightforward. Level, low, mid, high, gain and character. The character knob has a bit of a learning curve. To my ears it just adds saturation as you turn it up. What I love about this unit is that it’s easy to use and fun to mess with and nearly every setting sounds usable. Which is a far cry from its digital counterparts with their multiple screens and hours of tweaking in order to get the tones you want.

Although there is much to be said about digital multi effects units. When you want something that’s portable and requires literally 5 minutes of tweaking before you can get a tone thats ready to go you’d be hard pressed to find something better than a Tech-21.

All the guitars on the Shepherd album were recorded through the Tech 21 Oxford directly into a Scarlett 8i6 save a few guitar solos which were from the original recording. Namit currently plays a J&D Les Paul copy tuned 2 whole steps down. His current rig is Polytune>>Wah>>Oxford>>Akai Head Rush(delay). There’s a noise gate in there too, but it’s used as a power distributor and not really part of the chain.

If you want to listen to Stereolithic Riffalocalypse, check it out below.


Stereolithic Riffalocalypse by Shepherd