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Mighty Quinn “Fear” Single Out Now

Check out the new single “Fear” off Mighty Quinn’s upcoming EP “Young Ninjas,” co-written and produced by Brian Lee White. Get in on iTunes.

This entry was written by Brian, posted on July 3, 2012 at 9:26 am, filed under Articles, News and tagged , , , . Leave a comment or view the discussion at the permalink and follow any comments with the RSS feed for this post.

Your kick drum doesn’t really sound like that. Room acoustics vs. sample selection.

These days, more and more producers, songwriters and bands are working their way through the production process outside of the traditional studio, often making all of their sonic decisions in less than ideal listening spaces. As a mixer, I am expected to have a critical listening space that minimizes the effect of the room’s acoustics on whatever I am listening to. Tons of attention is paid to the mixer’s acoustic surroundings. Expensive products are sold, pricey consultants are consulted, speakers are moved four inches, only to be measured and moved again another two. Not only is an acoustically accurate monitoring set-up critical to my ability to get a mix completed efficiently and accurately, it allows me to focus on being creative instead of second guessing my every move. But when components of the production have been recorded or conceived in a less than ideal acoustic space, making final decisions regarding balance and tone can create a variety of challenges during the mixing and mastering stage.

Many of the clients that I mix for employ me to clean up a variety of frequency issues picked up during the recording and production process. This is quite normal and a big part of the “value add” in having your work professionally mixed. But because they are often working on laptops in bedrooms, hotels, coffee shops and anywhere other than a traditional studio, this lack of an acoustically neutral listening space can heavily influence the sample and tone selection process and in turn, challenge me to make difficult decisions regarding key sonic components in the mix.

For example, think about a producer selecting what they assume to be is the perfect kick drum sample for a song. As we all know, the kick drum sets the tonal mood of the entire rhythm section, and in most genres, heavily influences the message of the song and the groove. Is it deep? punchy? scooped? mid-forward? or ridin’ dirty? All these little characteristics will go on to define the listening experience and ultimately, how the listener reacts to the song. But how can that perfect kick drum sample, painstakingly selected by the producer, end up being a frequency nightmare come mix down? Because the room in which the producer chose that sample was in effect, EQing the sound of the sample coming from the speakers, the tonal reality of that kick sound in a more critical listening environment may be radically different.

Those of us familiar with basic acoustic principles know that a room’s dimensions and speaker placement will heavily influence the perception of low frequencies, due to modal resonance, resulting in peaks and valleys sometimes as big as 20dB and as narrow as only a few hertz. For example, a sharp peak of 14dB at 55hz, may cause you to favor one drum sample that interacts in a positive way with your room’s modal response over another sample that reacts differently. Come mixdown, this sample that sounded great with one room’s weird modal response may not offer the ideal tonal balance to support the song. At this point, the mixer is faced with the following difficult questions: 1) Is this really the sample and tone that the producer intended or were they hearing something different in their room? 2) If the latter, do I alter (or even replace) the sound with a sound better suited to the mix and spirit of the song and by doing so, do I risk making a subjective decision that will upset the producer? 3) Regardless of 1 or 2, will the producer ultimately end up reviewing the mix back in his/her acoustically challenged room, potentially creating a viscous cycle of revisions?

There is no doubt that some of the “magic” or “gloss” is going to come from the subjective hand (ear) of the mix engineer and the producer/artist will expect that. Don’t confuse this discussion with a mix engineer looking to get out of the hard labor of a great mix. On the contrary, I concern myself with these issues because I want to connect with and realize the artist’s vision as closely as I possibly can, while hopefully adding my own unique touch that makes it even better than anyone could have originally imagined. But to do this, I need to know when something is a problem that needs fixing or a subjective difference in opinion. In other words, either your room caused you to make some questionable decisions regarding sounds or mic placement and you need my help fixing them, or you really want your kick drum to sound that way and will be pissed if I try to change it. Either way, I want to know and you should want me to know.

So what can we do? Obviously, many of these issues are resolved by having attended mix sessions, where the client gets to listen and make comments in the same space as the mixer. But with budgets being stretched and time in short supply, many professionals are now working over the internet, almost exclusively even, making attended session difficult if not impossible. Almost 90% of my mixing work is now done unattended, so for me to ensure clients are happy I need to make sure that in addition to a dialog regarding the esthetic direction of the mix, we also discuss the source material itself. Was it recorded in a professional studio or recorded in a bedroom? Who engineered the recording sessions and what is their experience level? Is the producer a seasoned arranger who is likely to be intimately familiar with their sound palette and how it translates, or are we dealing with a less experienced song writer with a brand new sample library?

In addition to having a solid ongoing dialog with the producer and artist, as the mixer I should be able to extrapolate a lot of what I need to do without constantly needing my hand held, just by getting a broader sense about who I am working for and where the material is coming from. But this doesn’t have to be a one way street. Here are some tips that I like to consider when I switch hats and become the producer.

  • As a producer or song writer, you should strive to be familiar with basic acoustic principles and speaker placement techniques and how they might effect your sense of tone and space when producing and arranging. While you certainly don’t have to go spend $20K  having your room tuned to write and produce a great sounding track, don’t assume that your listening space doesn’t matter because some mixer is going to take care of it later. Do some googling and spend and hour or two reading up on the topic.
  • If you know you’re working in a questionable space or on headphones, work towards familiarizing yourself with your sound library and how it translates across different speaker systems and rooms. Did you find a kick drum sample that seems to sound really great in the club and the car, or one that only sounds good in one or the other? Great, remember that for later.
  • Talk to your mixer and/or mastering engineer, ask them questions with the specific goal of improving your recording and production sonics. Things like, “do my kick drums or bass instruments seem a little hot or awkward in my demo mixes?” and “do my live recorded instruments sound reasonably balanced, or do they contain troublesome resonances?” You’d be surprised, often times we can make inexpensive mic and mic placement recommendations, as well as help you understand some of the major problems your room might have, just by listening to your rough tracks and mixes. I’m always begging the mastering engineer to tell me what frequency ranges they needed to work the most, not to steal their presets, but to better understand what I wasn’t hearing in my room.
  • When you are confident in your tones and know you are taking some risks with a certain sound or piece, create a dialog and discuss it with your mixer. If they are aware of what you’re going for, even if it’s a little out there sonically, they can probably help you get even closer to where you want to go.
  • Make sure when selecting samples or getting tones to double check them at reasonable and even low listening levels (e.g. not 110 SPL). Most kicks, guitars, basses, etc. sound great when cranked, but can be a bit dull at lower listening levels.
  • Most importantly, try not to pass the sonic buck. If that vocal sounds lousy coming into the mic, don’t pull the “it will get fixed in the mix” B.S., because a lot of times it can’t be fixed, just made marginally better. Always strive to get great sounding recordings from the source, without EQ or compression first. If something doesn’t sound right, it probably isn’t, so don’t be lazy and do something about it.

As you’ve probably realized by now, this isn’t a scientific discussion of room acoustics or a primer on acoustic treatment, but rather a discussion of consequences that are the result of being unaware of such topics. Whether you are mixing, recording, producing or doing it all yourself, it just makes sense to understand how the space around you is altering your sonic perception and ultimately, how your work will translate from each stage of the recording process and on to the end listener. Laptop producers and bedroom studios are here to stay, and I couldn’t be more excited at the possibilities. But do yourself a favor a spend a little time studying acoustics and the science behind sound waves. It doesn’t take a PHD to grasp the basic problems and work towards basic solutions, and in many cases, just knowing that the problem exists gets you half way there.

Here are some resources regarding basic acoustic principles and treatment solutions that I have found useful:

Be sure to check out my course Foundations of Audio: EQ and Filters at lynda.com for more information on sound waves, EQ and how room acoustics can alter our decision process.

This entry was written by Brian, posted on January 18, 2012 at 10:58 am, filed under Articles, featured, News and tagged , , , , , . Leave a comment or view the discussion at the permalink and follow any comments with the RSS feed for this post.

Having trouble hearing compression? Turn your monitors down.

The speed at which a signal comes and goes as the compressor grabs and releases the program material is controlled by the processor’s attack and release controls. While a compressor’s envelope can be used to shape a signal in creative ways (e.g. make a snare drum punchy or a vocal extra breathy) it can also work against us if used improperly. When first learning to use compressors and limiters, it can be difficult to hear the compressor’s envelope, or attack and release settings, making them difficult if not impossible to set correctly by ear. While there is a certain amount of practice and experience involved with hearing the subtleties of attack and release, especially at low levels of gain reduction, one thing that I find that helps me hear these parameters working is to monitor at lower listening levels.

Our monitoring equipment (speakers and amplifiers), as well as our human auditory system, begin to naturally compress material at very high SPLs (very loud listening levels). While monitoring your mix at extreme levels is not a great idea for a variety of reasons, namely fatigue and hearing loss, it is especially difficult to hear subtle envelopes in your compressor’s attack and release settings when so much gain is competing for your speaker’s (and ear’s) attention. In other words, if your speakers are so loud that your ears and amplifiers are also adding compression to the signal, how can you expect to make critical decisions about compression?

This is not to be confused with discussions over equal loudness contour graphs and the frequency response of our hearing at different SPLs (there is a whole explanation/discussion of that in my Foundations of Audio: EQ and Filters course ). I am talking about the ability to accurately hear subtle gain changes in a signal over fractions of a second. While I might crank up the volume when EQing my bass and kick drum, to take advantage of my ear’s flatter frequency response at higher SPLs, I will work at much lower levels while listening for subtle changes in a signal’s envelope during compression.

Another trick I find useful when trying to get a sense of my compressor’s timing is to initially use deeper threshold and ratio settings, then ease back when I find something that works. Working the compressor harder creates more push and pull and can help you hear the envelope of the gain reduction, because a greater gain change is happening during the attack and release phases.

It is important to note that compressors attack and release cycles (while often labeled in milliseconds) can be radically different from one another, even varying with the type of signal and the amount of gain reduction being performed. In other words, one compressor plug-in with an attack of 10ms may react entirely differently than another compressor set for a 10ms attack, and the same compressor’s envelope may react differently to one instrument versus another. This is why I suggest that instead of trying to acquire and learn every compressor on the planet, you set aside a few “go-to” processors to learn extremely well. This way, you will be able to predict how they will react under different mixing scenarios, allowing you to translate the sound in your head faster.

At the end of the day, manipulating a signal’s envelope using a compressor’s attack and release controls is an entirely subjective task, with one man’s punch and swagger sounding like another man’s unwanted pumping and breathing. The sooner you can clearly hear the envelope working, the sooner you will be in control of your own esthetic, and form your own opinions about which compressors you prefer on specific material.

To learn more about attack and release, as well as other compression and limiting techniques, be sure to check out my course Foundations of Audio: Compressors and Dynamic Processing @ lynda.com

This entry was written by Brian, posted on January 15, 2012 at 12:17 pm, filed under Articles, MixTips, News and tagged , , , , . Leave a comment or view the discussion at the permalink and follow any comments with the RSS feed for this post.

Mixing for the first time listener

As a professional mix engineer I spend a lot of time mixing other people’s songs. These songs are like their children, so it is of the utmost importance that I respect their vision as an artist and song writer, because at the end of the day, I am providing a service to my clients and I want to keep them happy and returning customers of my business. But just as mixing a song is an art form in and of itself, allowing your song to be mixed is an art form too. You see, the reason why most artists, producers, managers and record labels seek the help of professional mixing and mastering engineers is that we can bring a fresh set of ears and skills to the table. We strive to truly listen to the song as a “first time listener” and hopefully serve up a mix that hits the real first time listener (the potential fan) like a million bucks, leaving them begging for more.  Let’s face it, if the listener doesn’t get even a tiny hint of what your trying to sell on that first listen, subsequent listens don’t matter, because there won’t be any.

But let’s back up a little to this “artist’s child” parallel. If a song is like the artist’s child, I’m sure you’ve experienced many examples where, despite their best intentions, parents just aren’t living in reality when it comes to their kids. In most cases, when it comes time to finally mix the song, the artist or producer have familiarized themselves with the elements of the song at such an intimate level that the objectivity of a first time listener has completely disappeared. While many seasoned professionals recognize this plight and call upon mix and mastering engineers specifically because of it, I find that some of my less experienced clients become the first listener’s, and ultimately there own, worst enemy during mixing. By focussing on the micro elements, or “shiny objects” that they have personally attached themselves to, it often causes them to lose site of the big picture. This lack of objectivity can ultimately lead to mixing decisions that ostracize every listener but themselves.

Some call this phenomena (disease?) “demo-itis,” referring to the irrational clingy-ness an artist has to the demo mix, which generally has the last element recorded turned up the most (be it that fifteenth synth line, an over zealous layering of background vocals, a lead “run,” etc). Because this was the last idea to get added, it has the tendency to stick in the artist’s mind as the “best” idea, even if only subconsciously. But many times, this “best” idea ends up being the worst idea, the one that train wrecks the song into a crowded mess of arrangement vanity, destroying the core message and confusing the first time listener.

For example, say you’re at a party and you are stuck between the middle of two different conversations taking place. Each conversation is taking place at the same relative volume level but you find it hard to pay attention to both conversations simultaneously, so you use the magical powers of the human auditory system to tune into one of the conversations and tune out the other. While it is pretty cool that we can “hone in” or focus on elements that we desire, you can’t help but wonder if that other conversation was more interesting or more important, and in some cases your ear drifts back and forth between the two, just in case something interesting is happening. Of course, if you could record both conversations and play them each back 200 times, you could probably listen to both simultaneously and know exactly what was going on at any given time. Furthermore, if you were the architect of each of those conversations, you could probably recite them verbatim without hearing them back.

Now think about how this example relates to the first time listener of a song. Because the listener is presented with a variety of elements to focus on, if the presentation of the elements doesn’t guide them towards the most interesting or important components and hold their attention there, they may be left at best, a bit uninspired or at worst, confused and turned off to the whole thing. In other words, they might think, “geez, the conversations at this party are boring, I’m leaving,” when they really just weren’t tuned into the right conversation. It is the job of the mixer to work with the producer and song writer to find and best present the song’s most interesting “conversation,” so that the first time listener has no trouble grasping the core concept. If we can sell that core idea in the first listen and hold their attention, the listener is sure to come back time and again to enjoy the various other conversations and components the song has to offer.

Now at this point, you might be thinking that I don’t value or appreciate the vision of the song writer or producer, and that their thoughts regarding the presentation of the song should be sacred and always “right,” regardless of what the first time listener thinks. Hey, it is “their art” isn’t it? Who is this big shot, “first time listener” to say that the song or mix isn’t good? Don’t get me wrong, there are times, places and genres of music where respecting the ultimate vision of the artist, regardless of whether or not it polarizes a listener is respectable, and I absolutely love making those kind of records, I really do. But 95% of my clients come to me as a mixer with the primary goal of making the song a commercially viable piece of art, with specific statements like, “make this thing a hit” or “make it knock and ready for the club.”

While I will admit that there are historical examples of records that, despite their best efforts to ostracize the average listener, have still been wildly successful commercially. I guarantee you that those are the exception, rather than the rule. To that you say, “Brian, it’s not all about making money, we have to respect the art.” And what I am saying is, you’re right, it’s not all about money, the art is important too. But when the client who is fighting me on a wild background vocal that just needs to get muted is the same client who is demanding that I give their mix the best chance at commercial success, I am stuck between a rock and hard place. It’s like the parent who swears that “they want their child to be happy ” but insists that they attend an ivy league school, when in reality they would be happier and better suited to a trade school.

I want to clarify that mixing for the first time listener doesn’t necessarily mean dumbing the song down to a single layer or the lowest common denominator. I love songs that can be peeled back like the layers of an onion, finding buried treasure with each additional listen (Beatles anyone?).  I also love songs that take several listenings to appreciate. Some of my favorite records took upwards of ten listens to even “sort of like.” All I am suggesting is to keep your priorities in check and the big picture in mind. Just like there is nothing wrong with art for art’s sake, or records that take 20 listens to “get,” there is also nothing wrong with staging a song for commercial success, or writing/producing/mixing to please a non music-junky audience with a shorter attention span. At the end of the day, I am all about serving the goals of my clients, even if that client needs a little help staying out of their own way.

But what if you’re an artist or producer mixing and finishing your own work, without the help of a third party mixer? The same ideologies apply, it will just be a little harder to find that objective headspace of a first time listener. When I mix music that I have also written and recorded, I find that taking a clean break from the material gives me the best chance at bringing an objective ear to the project. Because it is vital to my trade as a mixer, I have spent the better part of a decade learning how to listen for the first time, every time, even after dozens of playbacks. Let’s face it, practicing big picture objectivity is not only helpful during mixing, but in all parts of the production process. To accomplish this, I like to think of my ears like a camera lens that can go from super wide angle, big picture listening, to telephoto 100x zoomed-in precision on tiny little elements. When working on your own material start to finish, be prepared to seek objective feedback from non-biased third parties (e.g. not your best friend or your mom) and take the feedback you receive to heart, without getting defensive or making excuses. Think about your goals, both creatively as well as commercially and question how the two may compliment or conflict each other, and don’t be afraid to reference other artist’s work as a guide in either direction.

Ultimately, you may be the type of person who enjoys playing the long game, investing in the music you listen to and create over many subsequent listens. Or maybe you love the instant gratification of the latest pop hit, that rush you get from hearing a sugary hook that sounds like it was purpose built to infect your ears instantly. If you’re like me, you love and seek both levels of appreciation in a song, as well as everything in between. Either way, the best approach to preserving artistic vision, while simultaneously maintaining that “first time listener” objectivity, is found in a mutual respect and balance between the intentions of the artist, the commercial goals they wish to achieve, and the goal of the mixer to best serve the song. This is why I say there is just as much art to having your music mixed as there is in actually mixing it. “Help me help you.” I promise not to inject my own personal agenda and serve the best interests of the song and your greater goals as an artist, if you promise to stay out of your own way and allow others to help you out.


This entry was written by Brian, posted on January 13, 2012 at 2:43 pm, filed under Articles, featured, News and tagged , , , . Leave a comment or view the discussion at the permalink and follow any comments with the RSS feed for this post.

Understanding EQ: Hi and Lo-pass filters (video)

A “pass” filter affects all energy above or below the target frequency, often referred to as the “cut-off frequency,” by removing that frequency content in a continuously decreasing downward slope. Pass filters are extremely valuable tools in mixing because they allow us to”bracket” the frequency energy of a given signal in the mix. We can use hi-pass filters to remove low-frequency mud or rumble from the recording process, or lo-pass filters to shave off hi-frequency content, pulling the signal back in the mix.

While most intermediate mixers are familiar with using hi-pass filters to remove mud and clear out unwanted frequency content in the low-end of a mix, many are unaware at how valuable low pass filters can be at smoothing out your mix’s frequency response and creating clarity and contrast amongst tracks. Unlike an analog mixer or analog tape, a DAW’s mixer is 100% frequency linear in it’s summing process, meaning that no frequencies are altered or “soaked up in the circuitry” during the summing process. Combine this with the fact that many modern virtual instruments and loop collections have an insane amount of high frequency extension (have you heard some of the “paint peeling” top end of plug-in synth presets lately?) and a mix can gather a boat load of fatiguing top end very quickly.

Aside from creating context (or lack there of) issues between the focal tracks in a mix (e.g. if everything has a ton of top end, the mix can lack a sense of depth of focus on the elements that you want to have pop out),  I find that this build up of ultra high frequency content tends to do a few nasty things. First, all those high frequencies, if left un-checked, ram into the D/A’s anti aliasing filter all at the same time, and depending the quality of your D/A converter, can result in a nasty haze in the top end that muddles the stereo image and becomes very fatiguing to listen to over time. Second, and most important for a lot of the commercial work I am doing, I find that feeding a mix with way too much un-checked top end into  mp3 (or any other compression) algorithms tends to force the algorithm to sacrifice important mid band bits in an attempt to retain a top end you can barely hear. In other words, mixes that aren’t insanely bright will tend to fair better under heavy audio compression.

Now I am not saying go and filter every track in your mix down to 10K, but I do find that subtle lo-pass filtering at very high frequencies with transparent EQ filters (e.g. filtering 6dB/oct at 12K, 15K, 20K, etc on certain non-focal tracks) can help give me a more analog feel and ensure that my mix sounds better when run through youtube’s compression algorithm 50 times.

To learn more about hi and low pass filters, check out this free clip from my Foundations of Audio: EQ and Filters course or watch the whole course at here at lynda.com

This entry was written by Brian, posted on January 12, 2012 at 10:43 am, filed under Articles, Audio and Video, MixTips, News, video and tagged , , , , , . Leave a comment or view the discussion at the permalink and follow any comments with the RSS feed for this post.

How many ways can you make change for a dollar?

Using pennies, nickels, dimes, quarters, fifty cent pieces, and one dollar coins, there are 293 ways to make change for a dollar. But what does that have to do with mixing records? A lot actually.

To preface this little op-ed/rant, I have been watching a lot of Pensado’s Place recently. If you aren’t familiar with this excellent show, it’s an online, weekly talk show hosted by mixing legend Dave Pensado. On the show, Dave interviews and does Q&A with the who’s who of the music production world, and the insights that the guests offer are often priceless pieces of wisdom, ripe for any skill level to consume.

Watching these interviews with all these amazing mixers, engineers, producers and song writers has further solidified something I have thought a lot about, even struggled with, over my years as an educator and artist. Some may be familiar with the term, “there’s more than one way to skin a cat,” but since I love my 2 cats far too much, I like to think of it as, “how many ways can you make change for a dollar?” The best thing about watching the show in binge increments is that you quickly notice that each heavy-hitter interviewed on Pensado’s Place has a unique approach to making a record, and at times, these techniques, insights, and ideologies are at direct odds with the person who was on the show just one week prior. The point that this continues to reiterate (to me at least) is that making great records/mixes/art isn’t about one specific technique, or a special piece of gear, or whether you are mixing inside or outside the box, it is about having a unique vision in your head and using the tools and techniques you are familiar with to achieve that vision. Just like there is more than one way to make change for a dollar, there is certainly more than one way to achieve an artistic goal and create a great piece of art.

Just in case you don’t believe me, let’s look at an example. In the Bruce Swedien interview, Bruce is adamant about not using compression in most recording and mixing scenarios, going as far as saying “compression is for kids” and stating that it destroys your transients and transients are what make a record special. Now there is solid wisdom in that statement, no doubt, a compressor when used improperly will destroy your transients and the music within, I can personally attest to that. But if we just stopped there, one might think, “alright, Bruce Swedien, mixer for Michael Jackson’s Thriller and a ton of other multiplatinum records, is telling me that I am whack for using a compressor, I better just STFU and trust this dude.” But in the Jack Joseph Puig and Michael Brauer interviews, those  two guys, with equally impressive credits and (IMHO) just as much sonic swagger and credibility as Swedien, can’t stop talking about how much compression they use, anywhere and everywhere they seem to have a compressor doing something.

Now I certainly wouldn’t say that Jack or Michael’s records are “for kids,” both have done stuff that blows me away sonically, while at the same time is commercially accessible and sells records. So clearly what this tells me is that Swedien, Brauer and Puig all use and conceptualize compression radically differently in their workflows, but each is successful both artistically and commercially while simultaneously leaving a distinct “sonic footprint” on anything they do. I would also argue that if put in the same room, each would be able to digest and understand the other’s wisdom and put that in the context with their own ideas and techniques.  In other words, even though Bruce makes change for a dollar differently than Jack or Michael, I doubt anyone would argue that, at the end of the day, they weren’t each making that dollar (both philosophically and literally speaking!). Furthermore, one man’s dollar could be another man’s pound, or yen. On a given day, I might like a Brauer mix better than a Swedien mix, tomorrow I might like both equally, and that is just my personal opinion, not a fact. Ultimately, everything is relative and entirely subjective, so you must take any wisdom or insight you glean from the world at large and filter it through your own unique esthetic lens before applying it.

As a teacher and mentor, I have found that these kind of discrepancies from such authoritative figures can really screw up a budding engineer or producer who is still trying to figure everything out. Someone who is still trying to wrap their head around their tools, how to use them and what their unique sound is can be heavily influenced by the commanding authority of a seasoned veteran, blindly following another’s statements to the extent that they don’t consider all their options and their own unique take on them. Because most of the questions from the audience in Pensado’s Place are centered around things like, “WHAT specific compressor do you use for this, and WHAT plug-in is BEST for that” I fear that people, even given the ability to compare and contrast the unique views of each of these amazing interviewees, don’t get that it is the WHY combined with the WHAT that is interesting. In other words, I don’t so much care about WHAT change you used to made that dollar, but WHY did you use 4 quarters, instead of 3 quarters, 2 dimes and a nickel? WHY does Brauer use compressors the way he does? Not the specific model numbers. And WHY doesn’t Swedien like to use them? and how are those unique personalities reflected on the work that they do. That is what is interesting.

To be fair, I have to give props to Dave for pointing out exactly what I am talking about on almost every show. To quote Dave, “I can teach you how to get a great vocal sound, but I can’t teach you what a great vocal sound is.” He always suggests that you take the ideas you learn and make them your own, and encourages the audience to pursue their own unique sound and vision. But as the questions pour in at the end of each segment, I can’t help but wonder how many of the viewers are actually taking this wisdom to heart. To me this would be like sitting with some famous dead author, say Charles Dickens or Mark Twain, and asking them “What specific words and grammar rules did you use to write this great book” and they sort of look at you all cockeyed and say, “are you serious?” That parallel might be a tad bit exaggerated, but you get the point.

Now I am not saying that the tips, tricks and techniques aren’t cool or useful. I absolutely love them and my mixes are certainly better for them, but I know how to responsibly digest them into my own unique workflow. I know that if I don’t remember why I sat down to mix in the first place and I just blindly put some random technique into place because Michael Brauer said it worked for him, then I am not really doing my job as an artist and I am missing the whole point of the creative process, and no doubt, my final product will reveal that. It’s true that the HOW or WHAT gives us insight into an artist’s technique, but it’s the WHY that gives us insight into an artist’s unique vision or “soul” and how they hear things. Regardless of how many tricks you pick up, or how many pieces of gear fill your rack,  if you can’t piece the HOW and the WHY together in your own head when it comes time to write a song, mix a song, or create any piece of art, you won’t be able to reach the kind of head space that these industry icons are achieving when they create.

I understand the urge to seek easy answers and magic bullets, I really do. Unfortunately, you can’t buy inspiration, and there is no guarantee that you’ll be able to learn it even after years of practice. So when this “on-demand” world of instant gratification tells us, “sorry, it’s gonna take a lot of time to understand these concepts and develop your own opinion, and I’m afraid you can’t skip that part or BUY something that allows you to bypass that,” I understand that it’s not what most people want to hear and there is a whole industry out there preying on those who seek that magic-bullet, ready to sell you the next great thing. Learning to listen is hard, learning to have a opinion about sound is even harder, and learning how to take that opinion and turn it into a record is a struggle that even the best will continue to face until the day they retire, no matter how good they get.

Why do you think all these famous engineers aren’t worried about telling you how they did something? Why aren’t they worried you will learn all their tricks and take all their work tomorrow? Because they know that you can never be them. But guess what? They can never be you, and that is what makes the world and art so great. We are all unique and hear things differently. We all have different opinions about what sounds good and what doesn’t, don’t fight that, embrace it. Learn what you like, learn what other people like and if you don’t like it, ask yourself why. Form an opinion, and from that opinion forge a vision. Use that vision like a GPS to find your destination. Sometimes you will get lost in the fog and find yourself dissatisfied with your work, believe me, even the greats face this challenge daily, but never stop growing and refining the things that make you unique.

In closing, be sure to constantly ask yourself WHY when learning about the HOW or WHAT. It might be hard at first, but the sooner you can make change for that dollar, pound, yen, or *insert your own currency here* all by yourself, the sooner you’ll be able to buy something really special with it.


As an aside, I discussed some of these ideas in my interview with Lynda.com check it out if you’re bored sometime.

This entry was written by Brian, posted on January 11, 2012 at 3:17 pm, filed under Articles, featured and tagged , , , , . Leave a comment or view the discussion at the permalink and follow any comments with the RSS feed for this post.

The importance of understanding a compressor’s threshold control (video)

As humans, we have tons of built in “thresholds” surrounding all of our senses. What do you do when the shower gets too hot? As the temperature rises, it eventually gets to the point that your nerves tell your brain “ouch” and your brain tells you “too hot!” and you turn down the hot water. That point of “too hot,” be it 110 degrees or 120 degrees,  is your skin’s personal threshold for water temperature.   In the case of a compressor, the threshold control defines the point at which the compressor will begin to alter the dynamics of the signal, or compress. If the signal breaches the threshold or gets “too loud,” the compressor reacts by compressing or “turning down” the level of the output, just like you turning down the water temperature in the shower. In other words, It’s the threshold control that tells the compressor when to compress and when to leave the signal alone.

All dynamic processors work on the simple principle of a defined action resulting in a prescribed reaction. Think of it as an “if..then” statement of sorts; if the incoming signal level reaches “X” or higher, the processor will react in “Y” way, if the signal remains below X then do nothing. The threshold control in a dynamic processor allows us to define the reaction point, or the “if” part of the statement, setting the level at which the processor reacts, sometimes by reducing (compressing) or increasing (expanding) the level of the output.

I know what you’re thinking, you’ve seen that threshold control just sitting there, but the presets you pick automatically set for you, so what’s the big deal? Indeed, most compressor plug-in presets include a preset threshold value, and while it might be tempting to use that level,  it is very important to understand that the preset threshold may not be affective for your specific compression task. If the threshold is set too deep, it might over compress the signal, removing all the dynamics. If the threshold is set too light, the compressor might not engage at all. Of course, sometimes you get lucky and everything works out, but remember, the preset has no way of knowing what your input level looks like or how much compression your signal needs. Until we have intelligent processors that can adjust their threshold automatically to accommodate the input signal, you will need to adjust the threshold control manually. Even if the processor could detect and adjust the threshold automatically based on the input signal, the preset couldn’t  know how much compression you needed or desired, just like no one else would know just how hot you like your showers on any given day.

Ultimately, whether you set up your dynamic processors from scratch or from a preset, it is imperative that you understand and use the the threshold control to achieve the desired amount of processing. If you want to learn more and see some cool animations, watch the following free clip on understanding threshold from my new course lynda.com, Foundations of Audio: Compression and Dynamic Processing. Be sure to check out the entire course for more tips on using threshold and other compression controls.


This entry was written by Brian, posted on January 1, 2012 at 7:54 pm, filed under Articles, Audio and Video, MixTips, News, video and tagged , , , , . Leave a comment or view the discussion at the permalink and follow any comments with the RSS feed for this post.

Mixing with Transient Shapers to control drum envelopes (video)

When you use traditional compressors to alter a signal’s envelope shape, you often trade one problem for another. Spiking out the attack uses deep threshold settings that alter the tone and shape of the decay, sometimes in an undesirable way, forcing us to use “mults” or parallel chains to achieve the perfect attack and sustain characteristics for a given instrument. Transient shapers allow us to modify the transient and sustain portions of a signal’s envelope in very transparent and discrete ways, without altering the tonal character of the signal. To learn more about this topic, check out the following free video from my new lynda.com course Foundations of Audio: Compression and Dynamic Processing.


This entry was written by Brian, posted on December 30, 2011 at 1:10 pm, filed under MixTips, News and tagged , , , , . Leave a comment or view the discussion at the permalink and follow any comments with the RSS feed for this post.

What is a Dynamics Processor? (video)

Dynamics processors are little more than automatic volume controls, responding to changes in signal level over time. If the input signal’s level meets a specific criteria (threshold) then the processor reacts by changing the output signal level in a prescribed way (turns it down, turns it up, etc). Here’s another clip from my new Lynda.com title Foundations of Audio: Compression and Dynamic Processing. Check it out.


This entry was written by Brian, posted on December 28, 2011 at 4:24 pm, filed under MixTips, News, video and tagged , , , , . Leave a comment or view the discussion at the permalink and follow any comments with the RSS feed for this post.

Using gates and expanders to remove bleed from a drum kit (video)

Fresh from my brand new Lynda.com course Foundations of Audio: Compressors and Dynamics Processors, here is a free video on gating a drum track. You can watch all the videos in this new course by signing up for a free 7 day trial.

This entry was written by Brian, posted on December 27, 2011 at 1:14 pm, filed under Articles, MixTips, News, video and tagged , , , , . Leave a comment or view the discussion at the permalink and follow any comments with the RSS feed for this post.