The analog vs. digital debate is a topic unto itself, and I don’t have any interest in engaging that; I use analog tools where appropriate, and digital tools for the same reason. However, a little backstory is appropriate. When you’re recording entirely in the analog domain, every action you take loses you some high frequencies. Run it through a desk? Lose some HF. Run it through a compressor? Lose some HF. Record to tape? Bounce to tape? Play the tape? Lose some HF. Along the way, we got used to the tone that came from all those analog passes. Then along came digital, promising superior fidelity with no signal loss. Bad converters aside, the consensus? It’s “harsh,” cold,” and “brittle!” Digital, with all its superior fidelity, often seems to be missing a little charm.
These days we have the best of both worlds; if you want the sound of tape, tubes or transformers, you can record through tape, tubes and transformers without having to worry about signal loss down the road. I don’t have any nostalgia for low fidelity; however, there is something to the way analog gear handles high frequencies. I’m going to explore a couple of options for emulating that response with more precision. Continue reading “Digital Tape: Smoothing Out Tone”
Note: the following post makes use of Klanghelm VUMT and TDR Limiter 6. To get the most out of these posts, head over to their sites and support some awesome developers!
In our last post we covered how to apply analog gain-staging practices to melodic material. However, our ears respond much differently to percussive material, which is composed of transients instead of tones.
A PPM meter responds much more quickly to level changes, and as such it’s better suited to drums and percussion. Using VUMT, pull up a simple DIN meter and apply it to a snare or kick track. Adjust the pre-fader clip volume so that the needle is reading a little under 0.
Here’s an example of a snare track after I’ve adjusted the gain:
You’ll notice that while the hits are fairly consistent, there are couple hits around the 1/3rd mark that are much louder than the rest. In our last post, we dealt with this problem by manually adjusting the volume; while this is a completely valid approach, it’s not always an option to go through hundreds of hits by hand. Instead, let’s take an analog approach. Continue reading “Digital Tape: Gain-Staging Drums”
Note: the following post makes use of Klanghelm VUMT, an incredible plugin that costs about $15 USD. To get the most out of these posts, head over to the site and support an awesome developer!
Hugh Robjohns begins his article on VU & PPM meters with the following quote:
These are both, strictly speaking, obsolete analogue metering formats! In short, the VU meter shows an averaged signal level and gives an impression of perceived loudness, while a PPM indicates something closer to the peak amplitude of the input signal. However, in our modern digital world, neither meter really performs adequately.
He has a point; if you’re mastering for broadcast, you want a digital meter that’s able to respond with pinpoint accuracy. However, I’d like to focus on part of that quote:
The VU meter … gives an impression of perceived loudness.
While digital meters do a great job of letting you know if your signal is clipping, they don’t correlate much with what you’re actually hearing. One of the reasons people love mixing outside the box is that analog meters move the way the music does. So let’s set up some analog meters.
Klanghelm VUMT is my favorite meter plugin, and it has far more features than we’ll need today. For now, just bring it up as a simple VU meter and apply it to a vocal track. Adjust the track volume (pre-fader) in the DAW so that the meter is reading around 0VU for sustained vocal phrases. Continue reading “Digital Tape: Gain-Staging Vocals”
In my opinion, gain-staging is the most important step of the mix process. Properly preparing your audio sets the foundation for your mix; unfortunately, this step is often neglected or misunderstood. I’m starting a series of short articles on how to apply analog mixing practices to the digital domain, in the hopes of simplifying this fundamental process.
One of the biggest differences between analog and digital is the way the equipment responds to level. When recording through tape & tube equipment, there’s a sweet spot in the middle of the range where fidelity and signal-to-noise is optimized. Get the level too low and your signal gets lost in hiss; get the level too high and it’ll distort. 24-bit digital is an entirely different picture; get the level too low and it’s not much of a problem, as long as your peaks aren’t clipping. Compounding this problem is the fact that digital meters don’t do the best job of representing what we actually hear.
Because we’re not fighting for a smaller sweet spot, we tend to be more relaxed when it comes to gain-staging in the digital world. This is fine for recording, but it creates big problems when you enter the mix stage, because:
- if your levels aren’t consistent, your faders won’t be representative of the actual mix.
- if you have multiple tracks that are close to peaking, they’ll clip your master bus when combined.
- saturation, distortion, and analog-emulation plugins are level-dependent just like analog gear.
What we want is tracks whose levels are consistent in relation to each other, high enough to optimize signal-to-noise, low enough to leave plenty of headroom on the master bus, and gain-staged for use with analog emulations. How do we do this? Read on…
>> Digital Tape, Pt. 2: Gain-Staging Vocals
I’m a firm believer in using a small set of tools that you know inside & out, and this applies very strongly to my audio workflow. Rather than downloading massive plugin bundles, I’d highly recommend learning to work with just one DAW, one EQ, one compressor, and one reverb until you’re intimately familiar with the principles of each. 90% of my work is done with 4 very powerful pieces of software that I’ve listed below, and I’d highly recommend them to anyone who’s doing audio work at any level.
DAW // REAPER ($60)
Your DAW is your workflow, and workflow is the most important part of the mix process. I’ve been using REAPER for years, and I wholeheartedly recommend it for everything from editing podcasts & recording live shows to mixing & mastering studio albums. REAPER isn’t just cheaper than Pro Tools & Logic; in my opinion, it’s better. There are so many things I love about this DAW; free updates for life, incredible stability, fast & intuitive clip editing tools, flexible audio routing, great hardware integration, and perfect audio quality. I was able to use it competently after a few days of experimentation, but 2 years later I bought a hard copy of the manual and realized how many incredible features I hadn’t even discovered. Continue reading “Tips: Yes, You Can Mix for $500”
It took me a couple years to realize this, but you can buy audio software secondhand. Used software is the same as new software (for obvious reasons), but with a little patience you can buy your plugins for far less than their sticker price (usually about 50% off). Here’s a list of places where you can buy your licenses; all of these are reputable communities with checks & balances to make sure you’re not paying for pirated software.
As always, make sure to pay via PayPal. I’ve been buying from these forums for a few years now, and I’ve only had good experiences!
Around a year ago I came across an enlightening post by Bob Macc on the consequences of treating your tracks with aggressive filters. You should go check it out yourself, but the big idea is that using steep filters causes phase distortion that reaches all the way up and down the frequency spectrum. Phase distortion removes clarity and impact from your mix, so in short, it’s not good. With that in mind, I’ve come up with some good practice points for filtering your audio.
First, use gentle filter slopes. 6db/octave is my go-to for LPFs, and 12db/octave is my go-to for HPFs. This lessens the impact of phase distortion, but most importantly, it sounds more natural and there’s less risk of accidentally cutting out some good stuff.
Second, use a Bessel curve. Bessel filters are linear phase, which means there’s near-zero phase distortion when they’re implemented correctly. While some EQs have linear phase DSP options, remember that if you’re using steep filter slopes, linear phase will cause distortion too; it’s the combination of gentle slopes and Bessel curves that’ll preserve your audio.
This advice is in line with the Hippocratic philosophy of mixing, e.g. “do no harm.” I’m mixing mostly acoustic music, hut it doesn’t matter if you’re mixing orchestral, folk, punk, or EDM; phase distortion from filters is rarely something you want. Following the two points above will save you a lot of mix clarity and let you put the distortion where you want it.
I want to take on the mindset that recording is additive.
Here’s what I mean; when musicians are shopping around for a studio, it’s common for the engineer to mention that such-and-such gear was used by such-and-such artist. They do this because it works; people love to hear it. There’s a mythology around famous gear that usually sounds like this: If you sing through Sinatra’s mic, you’ll sound like Sinatra. If you’re mixing through a Neve, you’ll sound like Steely Dan. It might not be explicit, but it’s often implied that the sound comes from the gear. Selling a studio based on its gear is a problem unto itself, but this all stems from the idea that recording is additive; that every piece of gear you record through is going to add something to the sound until your music comes out the other end sounding like a finished product.
But it’s actually the opposite. The microphone, the first item in the signal chain, is essentially a filter. It’s rolling off the frequencies at both ends of the audible spectrum, and adding resonance and noise. The next item is the microphone preamp; a “clean” preamp is going to do its best to preserve all the information in the original signal, while a “colored” preamp is going to lose some information, usually transients & high frequencies. If you’re tracking through a compressor, you’re decreasing dynamic range. If you’re recording to tape, you’re adding noise, losing more transient impact, and further reducing the frequency range. If you’re recording to digital, you’ll need high-quality conversion to translate the analog signal without degradation. Continue reading “Audio Myths: Gear is Additive”