This website and these blogs

are a demonstration of my development and skills learned from university and early freelance work; this site was maintained to be graded as partial completion of a module. You may find something interesting if you read hard enough, and are a beginner!

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I I I! Me Me Me! Yada Yada Yada…

I strongly dislike people who only do things to benefit themselves. I also notice that after reading many people’s blogs (outwith the music industries), they’re posting vacuous content which goes nowhere, treated like an excuse for a good moan. After starting this blog, I read back at it and realise how much of a prat I look, probably ’cause I hate talking about myself and anything to do with showing off. Hopefully to all of you, I don’t seem that way and you understand the reason I’m doing this. This brief entry is going to take the spotlight off me for a change, and will be about promoting my uni companions.

These guys are great to work with and between them have produced some amazing stuff. Here’s a little bit about what they do:

Martin ‘Oz’ Oswald – Oz first told me about Mike Senior’s multitracks website which is great to use when you don’t have time to record. Check out OZ Audio’s work here

David O’Leary – He’s O’Learious (?!) about recording, and can see him being a future 5.1 mogul as he does a damn good job with it. The sky’s the limit with Dave – Very impressive and ambitious projects including the recording of a church organ! Check him out here

Neil Mackenzie – Excellent blogger. Highly-informative, in-depth tutorials on production techniques and produces some awesome acoustic music. ‘Ear ‘im here

Jonathan Park – Not known ‘J-Park’ for long, but found he drives from Aberdeen just for a two hour lecture! Commitment to the cause, can tell he’s serious about sound! You can find his sounds here

Stuart Condie – Didn’t know he could rap! Step aside, Solareye! Great sounding Rihanna cover also check out his comical take on Lady Gaga’s Pokerface here

Daniel ‘Squelch’ Welch – Well into his remixing as well as composing, Daniel likes entering competitions and is gaining a credible online profile in doing that. Admire him for it all here

Kevin Reeves – The Game

A couple of weeks ago I produced another track for assessment. It’s by a songwriter called Kevin Reeves and I found raw multitracks of his song The Game on Mike Senior’s website (definitely recommended for mixing practice!). Mike is a renowned engineer who runs Cambridge Music Technology – an outlet offering studio services and educational resource. He also writes for Sound on Sound and wrote Mixing Secrets for the Small Studio.

Here’s how the track sounded from a straight bounce after importing the audio files:

Before attempting to tackle this mix, I listened to his other work to gain an idea of his influences. Then, I was able to compare to other songs by bands, and research into their production. I found he had elements of ELO, Supertramp, Queen and a general Beatles-y vibe – particularly in this track. This led to about 20 minutes of reference listening so I build on (nick) ideas for my own mix. Dave Pensado (The Dude) provides some fantastic advice towards referencing.

Looking more in-depth, I began studying those behind the sound of Kevin’s influences and sounds. Interestingly, I found Jeff Lynn, longstanding member and producer of ELO, also having worked with The Beatles. The other man responsible for ELO’s work is producer/engineer Reinhold Mack – who’s also just as famous for his tenure with Queen! This is all too big a coincidence – I sheet you not, I definitely made that call before this discovery!

“Triple H’s new entrance music written by Mika?” (Liam Flaherty 2012)

I’ll point out a few things which I thought defined this mix

  • It became a matter of modernising the sound of Kevin’s dated inspiration, and is clearly a pop artist with a rock backline. I enjoy the tightness of the drums in tracks like Queen’s Dragon Attack, however to bridge the gap between these genres, I took heed of pop rock producers to note their work on live drums. Max Martin and Dr. Luke‘s production on Behind These Hazel Eyes by Kelly Clarkson is a typical example of this as it involves MIDI triggered samples. I enjoy the prominence of the kit and the impact it gives.
  • Using a subtle amount of parallel compression sprung the drums to life. I’ve learned a great deal since my blog on the technique as my examples are unconvincing and tasteless. By carefully selecting what drum channels (not just all) to send to the parallel bus, and by mixing in the Sends individually (i.e. not all 0dB), I resulted in achieving a way more impacting-but-not-impeding sound.
  • In terms of the Wurlitzer-type sound from the start and the clean broken-chorded guitar part, I thought it had Mr. Blue Sky written all over it.
  • The lead vocals I think were (as if Michael Bublé became a rock singer) best left with no effects until we get to the guitar solo. To make it sound ‘epic’, I tried to do something along the lines of Brendan O’Brien‘s production on Chris Cornell’s delayed vocals on Audioslave’s RevelationsShape Of Things To Come in particular (arguably one of the best rock voice sounds ever). I used the standard Extra Long Delay II plugin to achieve this, as well as double-tracking the vocals, one slightly offset. The parallel compression used on the drums in this track sound awesome too and also acted as a catalyst for mixing mine.

Should I even talk about the backing vocals? You guessed it, I ripped on Bohemian Rhapsody (2:54). Just like Kevin did. But we can’t be that narrow-minded. Suited a lot of the mixing of the BVs as between that and a lot of Supertramp’s material. I was going for a distant feel, but at the same time quite present. I just went for it, and shelved at 4.49kHz. Adding a bit of reverb helped create the distance and a

I think overall the placement of the vocals sits well – maybe a bit too ‘in your face’ at times. But it’s definitely a vast improvement in terms of vocal control from my mix a while back, Signe Jakobsen – What Have You Done To Me?, which was facking awful and sloppy. In Signe’s mix it got completely lost in the pre-/choruses and the intelligibility overall is non-existant. I’ve learned heaps off the back of that, and found the reasons for the improvement were definitely better control over the guitars (i.e. compressed), and I didn’t go bananas with the cymbals.

  • An effect to mention is on the middle section vocals (2:34). I started out with wanting something tape-echo-y like this. Not sure if I was happy with what came out of it though. I tried to see what George Martin was doing in Sgt. Pepper… but didn’t arrive at the desired effect. After a few plays though, it began to settle with me. Was aiming for that ‘typical breakdown in a song, then builds up’ kind of thing. I mix-automated the Send for the FX channel and the dry channel to intertwine, so on the last syllable of “life” the clarity is back and in time for the ‘epiphany’ feeling (got to believe your own bullskit sometimes…).

There’s a great SOS article all about vocal effects and its creative uses. I gained a lot from it, particularly about delays and the tape echo idea. You can find it here.

  • There came a point where I had to stop somewhere, and I’ve been practicing this recently to build on ‘mix-confidence’, as the inner perfectionist needs taming (going 8 hours without food/caffeine is not advised). After deciding to stop, I began mixing from stems which cleared the air and allowed for more global adjustments. After bouncing a few (i.e. ‘vocal up’), I started playing back on different setups to see how it sounds. The mixing process overall involved a lot of objective thinking i.e. gating spill, however I’d say the most part is down to experimenting systematically and working out what suits the genre you’re working to. There’s obviously no hard and fast rules, so it’s down to experience and good decision making at the end of the day.

“If it was an exact science everybody would be doing it and would become filthy rich.” (Reinhold Mack, iZotope interview)

Some really good advice I got on testing any mixdown came from Alex Fenton who runs Swanfield Studios in Leith. I worked with him before doing gigs at the Wee Red Bar and I found him in his car one day listening closely to some of his recent work. He said to be as broad as possible with listening back – To play it on as much consumer products available: car stereos, iPods/Phones and their (rubbish) earphones, docking stations for mono compatibility, home hifis, larger systems, etc. Basically anything which brings the mix out of the studio, as not everybody owns prime studio monitors.

To further-review my mix, I went into work early and played it back flat through the system. Here are my findings:

The general width seemed a little tainted through a larger-scale setup, and sounded different to headphones/home monitors. Perhaps my panning wasn’t too hot in this case, with phasing playing its part as I found the snare sounded a lot different, if a bit muffled. Although, the depth still appeared to emanate throughout the room representing all frequencies evenly.

Thinking back to early first year (October 2009) after being set our first studio task, I think I’ve come a long way since then in terms of sound production. Taking into consideration I didn’t even know what bounce meant, I’ve definitely learned a lot, however I’m still very much a rookie and have got a long way to go until I can hang with Pensado…

G

Career Path, HAH!

Got into a proper tiz the other day, wondering what the hell I’m actually going to do with myself after I leave uni. Lucky as I am, I’ve already got steady-ish work in a number of places, but when I have no loan to depend on and, eventually, a family to feed (don’t worry, I didn’t think that deep), I’ll have to think a little wiser about my decisions. As I’ve experienced already, live work can slowly eat away at your home and social life.

I’ll warn you this is a random post, but I vividly remember back in school when we were like 10 or something (Primary 6?), we were made to plan out our life goals and possible career paths. Since I was typically football-mad around that age, mine was focused on being a professional footballer (HAHAHA).

For a bit of fun, here’s roughly what I said

Age 11 – 18: Work hard within my town’s youth football club, training every week and playing matches and tournaments every Sunday. Actually gain an education as a backup plan.

Age 19 – 35: Be a professional footballer earning a six-figure salary (?!), enjoy a fulfilling career gaining a credible reputation on and off the field.

Age 35 – 55: Retire as a footballer, become a football manager and coach.

Age 55 – 65: Become a presenter/’pundit’/commentator/general Yoda of the game because I’ll have, by then, become a national figure and enjoyed a broad, successful career.

How naïve and innocent. And hilarious.

But come think of it, that was an important lesson learned – we must continually set goals (no matter how crazy they sound) and always look to the future.

Here’s what I’m getting at

Age 11 – 17: Get an education at secondary school, enough for university. Follow interests in music – excel in class subjects, learn instruments, do grade exams, play in school bands, found own bands, gig lots. Realise career as a musician isn’t as sustainable as first dreamt – Wait, who’s that guy behind that big confusing thing with all the buttons and lights? That is cool. Those mics look really nice. All this gear is making me a little horny. Holy shit! The sound of those subwoofers playing my favourite drum and bass record is awesome! Can I follow you around and learn what you do ’cause I want to do it too?! [You get the idea…]

Age 18 – 21: Go to uni, gain a degree in specific interests i.e. music industry. Get more experience within live sound engineering and event technicalities. Find work in small venue – realise the ins and outs of freelancing. Work work work. Study study study.

Age 22 – ??: Work as a professional live sound engineer. Tour the world and sail the seven seas enjoying a fruitful career, mixing for the stars, rock ‘n’ roll man. Keep interests in studio engineering as will need those skills throughout and in possibly later life.

That awkward age where people get married and start families c. Age 30: Depending on my situation by this point, and given my girlfriend hasn’t dumped me because I’m always working late/elsewhere, I may have to rework my plan more efficiently/on the fly.

Age ?? – 55: Keep recording project studio in the back burner (if they still exist in the late 2030s) begin to trade in studio engineering. More sociable hours and less physically grinding.

Rethink the whole live touring thing. Should probably have a family or whatever by this point. Revert back to venue work, maybe start my own sound company/work for one, carrying out more background/consultancy/teaching roles. Become a head tech within a concert venue. How many live guys can still lift amp racks past the age of 60?

Age 55 –  : Definitely wind down with any live work. Become an educator at an institution and play out the rest of working life with the reward of a guaranteed salary…

Obviously I got a little ahead of myself there, and maybe it’s a little personal, but you can see what I’m trying to do. It’s not impossible to achieve all of the above, and it’s always good to set high standards. It’s a matter of observing other people in this trade that I’m close to, and seeing how they fair.

In later years, I can see my responsibilities at home flying out the window if I’m not careful. Will need to balance my work out so that I can be flexible when need be. For example, if I have a kid, I’m able put touring on hold, and work with a local sound hire company. When they grow up, go back to touring/etc. until I become too old and then become a tutor or whatever. I dunno m8.

G

Insightful Words

This Sound on Sound article provides some great advice towards building a career within the events industry as a live sound engineer. It’s written by Jon Burton, FOH engineer for The Prodigy and regular SOS writer. It covers a great deal about getting that first foot in the door and making that transition from being a small-time engineer (like me), to securing worldwide tours with superstar artists. It’s also rather thought-provoking too, as you’ll soon find out.

Sex, Lies & Gaffer Tape: How to Become a Live Pro Sound Engineer

Some useful topics are mentioned, including an important one: How much currency does a First Class Super Duper Honours Degree in Live Sound Engineering hold? How far can that bit of paper get you? The obvious answer to that is – Not very much, you must prove your worth through practical exercise and namedropping… There are useful some case studies, too, of people first starting out mixing their high school shows, who now tour the world with household name artists.

Among these points, there are some general tips which I picked up too, along the line of “How sycophantic can you get before you start to annoy someone?” If you approach someone in hope of getting work, you must accept they’ll play a game with you – they know you’re wanting work off them, so it’s about saying and doing the right things. I’d like to say I’m as natural and genuine as I can be when talking to, well, anyone, but when you’re stood in front of someone who could end up paying your salary, then you may find yourself saying things which will help them favour you. It’s all a mind game, let’s face it.

Although I’ve probably engineered 100+ live shows and 75+ clubs, I’m still very much a rookie as most of these were carried out in the same two venues. I realise that (through past threats) the work will not be there forever, so I should be always looking further afield for more options, keeping a wide but close spread of contacts.

It’s also been on my mind recently – how the hell am I meant to sustain having a girlfriend/friends/wife/kids if most live events occur in such unsociable hours? I’ve always been against the 9 to 5 idea, but coming home from work at 11.00pm every night is only asking for trouble. I must work out what line of work suits my lifestyle best i.e. touring, music venue, theatre, and focus down that path to maximise my potential.

I also learned something which I thought never existed – an agency specifically for live sound engineers! Darryn De La Soul runs Soulsound and being an experienced engineer herself, she gives her advice towards aiming for that first big break:

“Say ‘yes’ to every opportunity that comes your way. Work for free if you have to; you never know who you might meet at that voluntary gig. Watching Cash In The Attic is no way to get your phone to ring.”

Darryn has also been confronted about her gender within her workplace. Sure, it’s predominantly a male trade just like joinery or bricklaying (and to be honest, her name does read as male), but I didn’t think it was that obscure – enough to write an article about it? Anyway, it’s quite cool to read about her experiences and how she reacts to any of the issues raised about her sex.

A man’s world? Darryn De La Soul on being a sound engineer

Some more wise words are expressed, regarding the importance of looking professional:

“Have a good Internet presence. Privatise your Facebook photos of drunk nights out, and present a more professional self. Join LinkedIn. Get a professional email address: Hotmail is for kids and inevitably ends up with you spamming everyone in your address book, so switch to something more professional.”

Funny, that. I better start working on my website and blogs, get rid of all my incriminating photos and stop selling myself as ‘greg_smart1991@hotmail.com‘. Thanks Darryn!

G

Ben Eames – Piano Recording

This week I got together with pianist Ben Eames. He is in 3rd year of the BMus (Hons) Music course at Napier and is a keen performer. For ages, I’ve been very interested in recording the concert grand Bosendorfer piano up at our campus. Coincidently, Ben was looking to get some solo recordings done.

We met on a night out to discuss what he’d be looking for, so that I had some idea on what to research before our session. I found out he is very much a classical pianist and he would prepare whatever he was semi-comfortable playing. I booked the Recital Room, borrowed some nice mics and had to bring down the uni’s Digidesign 003 to enable me with a recording platform and four mic inputs.

Although I only had Ben for a couple hours, I was keen to experiment with as many mic setups as possible. It was a nightmare setting up as my Pro Tools 10 threw a strop earlier in the day after installing the 003 drivers. So I went into uni anyway and spent nearly an hour setting up, not knowing if I was able to record because I was reinstalling the software…

Microphones Used

2 x Neumann TLM103

1 x AKG Perception 400

First setup

[TLM103s: spaced 1′ from soundboard, 3′ apart, Perception 400 (omni): to make ‘happy phase’ triangle 3′ from TLM103s]

The Neumanns were positioned at about G two octaves either side of middle C, and the AKG completed a triangle, pointing inward to the middle of the piano.

I believe this is a popular tri-micing technique, as it works well to cancel out any phase issues providing you create an equal triangular shape.

Second setup

[TLM103s: spaced 4″ from soundboard, 3′ apart, Perception 400 (cardioid): underside of piano 3′ from TLM103s]

Same position with the Neumanns only they were closely miced this time. The AKG was directed to the underside of the soundboard.
A slightly more unorthodox approach to a classical recording. It’s understood that close micing is more of a rock thing, as room ambience holds less importance in busier mixes.

Third setup

[TLM103s: spaced 1′ from soundboard, 3′ apart, Perception 400 (omni): 5′ from TLM103s and 8′ from ground]

Similar to the first setup however this time the AKG was used more for ambience as the mic is high up and further away from the source.

I think this particular setup was quite effective as it felt the Neumanns were doing a good enough job providing a stereo image. The AKG worked the acoustics to provide a good room sound, filling the space with a natural reverb.

When it got to mixing the recordings, I didn’t have the first damn clue how to go about it. Mixing a solo piano? Surely it naturally feels just… unnatural to do anything to such a beautiful sounding instrument. I realised that with this type of recording, most of the work and concentration takes place whilst recording, and I guess this is where I wish I had more time.

What I did do though, was by instinct delay the ‘third’ mics by about 3ms, 3ms and 8ms respectively – basically until they sounded in line with the other mics. The dampers were posing my biggest challenge (again, probably my poor placement), so I notched out very intricate frequencies at 2.19kHz, 2.23kHz and 6.62kHz which took out the worst of the damper sound. EQ-wise, I brought up about 2dB wide berth of c. 210Hz, lowered about 1dB of mid at c. 700Hz and raised the air a bit with 2.2dB at c. 7.5kHz. I used a very light compressor on each, which wouldn’t have done much and I brought up the loudness overall by a gentle limiter.

Overall, I felt the outcome was good and anyone who had listened to it had positive things to say. Because the talent was in the playing, I’m not going to take any credit for it as I really didn’t know how to make it sound any better!

G

Girls Under Glass – We Feel Alright

Part 2 of 2 of a mixing assessment from my Production & Professional Practice module at Edinburgh Napier University.

It’s by German gothic synth/electro rock trio Girls Under Glass. I chose to mix this track because it differed greatly to What Have You Done To Me? and it had a lot of interesting layered rhythms, basslines and atmospheric sounds. It also allowed me to develop my sidechaining abilities and vocal delay which is what I want to discuss.

You can hear the synths compressed throughout (1:01) and the guitars pumping to the beat in the chorus (1:31)(how old do I sound?), with the vocals having syllabic offsets delayed at times after the choruses (3:15). I also did a manual EQ sweep on the D-Command console before the second verse (2:06) which was cool as I felt like propa DJ lyk.

Producing this track was a bit of a challenge as I’d not really looked too much into mixing rock electronica (I’ll admit here to not knowing where to look for inspiration). I typically thought about Jacob Hellner and Rammstein when I heard the heavy guitars and German accented vocals with the layer of choral atmosphere. Then with the electronic side, I thought of The Prodigy’s Music For The Jilted Generation, only ’cause it carries a similar electro-industrial sound which Liam Howlett and Neil McLellan pull off so greatly, incorporating live band instruments like distorted guitars.

Slightly unrelated, but this link is so cool. Remember seeing this a couple years ago and was fascinated at the amount of samples used and the techniques applied towards the production of Smack My Bitch Up (explicit).

One of the main interests of this mix involves quite heavy use of sidechain compression. I wanted the verses to flow as standard, but the choruses to sound loud and pumping. Some of the synths and layers were compressed to the beat (1:00) which sounded good and added a greater dynamic to the piece. The guitars were lacking in impact when it got to the choruses, and by sidechaining to the pulse, it gave new life to them, creating an interesting throbbing effect. In electronic music, it’s important to utilise techniques such as sidechaining as  it bonds the track together in ways you can’t using standard methods.

This article by Paul White proved very useful when it came to researching sidechaining. He cleverly states the difference between using SC gating and compression to create the ‘ducking’ effect (i.e. my guitars and synths are ducking from the signal caused by the kick beat).

“The higher you set the ratio, the less the amount of gain reduction will be affected by the absolute level of the side-chain signal, as long as it is high enough to cross the threshold. For this reason, a compressor with a ratio control that goes right up to hard limiting is the best choice for ducking.” (Paul White, Sidechaining in the Software Studio)

Paul confirmed for me that I was going about it the right way, as my ratio ended up at 100:1. I tried using a gate, but it didn’t have as good an outcome (maybe I was doing it wrong?).

A lot of time was spent negotiating a suitable release time and threshold position. Because the tempo remained 125BPM throughout, I could have used a timing calculator to accurately pinpoint the release of the gain reduction, however I thought it was best to just stick with what sounded good and in time.

I think more has been achieved since my last post about sidechain compression. A bit more experimentation hopefully led to placing the technique more effectively in context with the genre. The SC compressed synths work well in that part, too – It was about training the ears to relax and listen more passively for the effect, having it subtly placed. (Tip – take a break from mixing every hour or so – your ears will start deceiving you!)

Another thing I only realised until tutor Dave Hook showed me was to simply automate the vocal channel Send to the auxiliary channel with the effect. This was in attempt to delay the vocal on “Alright!” but only capture the “…right!” ending up with “Alright!…right…right…right…” which can be heard throughout from c. 1:51. This time, the delay calculator was used to build the effect in 1/4 notes, which came out at around 480ms, nicely in time with the music.

The beef I have with this track is reverb on the vocals. During the verses when they’re a bit more exposed they tend to drag the rhythm out than the tight sound I aimed for, to compliment the bassline. I thought by gating it, it would stem the tail of the reverb and it did, but I realised the problem was the amount used. It sounds a bit sloppy and there’s too much reflections happening for it to still sound in time, never mind the vocals being in yo’ face.

G