Idea Harvesting

Where do your ideas come from? This is a common question asked of artists and other creative people. Austin Kleon, among others, is famous for encouraging folks to “steal like an artist”. In that spirit, I’ve found a couple NPR Tiny Desk Concerts that show some interesting audio production ideas that I thought were worth sharing. The Tiny Desk Home Concerts are interesting because the artists produce the performances themselves from their own studios, which gives us a chance to see different production methods and aesthetics that we can’t see when NPR manages each production at their studio.

The Billie Eilish concert is minimal: just two large diaphragm condenser mics, a guitar, and a synthesizer. The performance has minimal instrumentation and showcases Eilish’s quiet, affected vocal performance very well with the sensitive mics. There are so few effects in this production that Eilish’s breathing and coughing are highly prominent. There are moments that feel like a psychedelic ASMR video as high-fidelity breaths, mouth noise, and coughs mingle with the music. I like the simplicity of this production and performance. I’m not sure what post-processing or mastering occurred with this recording, but it was transparent, and left the recording feel live and impromptu, as well as very clean and professional, which was pretty neat to see and hear.

Contrasting Billie Eilish, the Tame Impala concert does a great job of making a largely pre-produced electronic show appear improvised and dynamic. Two people controlling mixers and electronic equipment, and a guitar & synth player blend a small army of drum machines, sequencers, and synthesizers into a striking lo-fi sound. The camera work feels like a classic MTV music video, and it also gives us a shot of the mixing board that is labelled with all the electronic gear in use during this 16 minute performance. Kevin Parker uses a DJ mixer to great effect in producing fills by high-pass and low-pass filtering the music bed, as well as using other extreme effects like echoes, repeaters, and down-sampling distortion to make the pre-recorded instrumentation, and the live performances, blend together and lock together in an interesting production. This production relies on the electronics to dramatically alter the audio and video, and I think this aesthetic works well here.

Both of these performances provide lots of ideas to use in your own productions: simple, high-fidelity mic’ing and instrumentation; good performance and mastery of the material and instrumentation; and over-the-top lo-fi electronics along with a DJ performance aesthetic. There are many techniques to borrow and try here.

Remove reverb & echo in Logic Pro X for free

I was editing a voice-over for a client recently, and it sounded like it was recorded in a living room or kitchen with hardwood floors. There was lots of resonance and room tone! With more recordings being done at home, I wanted to share how you can remove reverb and echo from some of your recordings in Logic Pro X for free. This also works in any other DAW that allows for polarity inversion and bus sends.

Here’s how to configure it:

  • Create a track with the recordings you want to process.

  • Create a send to a bus. Set the send level to 0 dB, and name it “De-Verb Bus”.

  • Add a “Gain” Utility plug-in to the bus, and invert the polarity of the L & R channels in the stereo signal.

  • Add a compressor to the bus with a very high compression ratio (20:1 or higher works well for this). We’re essentially making a customizable noise gate.

  • Decrease the compressor threshold from 0 dB, until you hear the reverb being removed, but the desired audio signal comes through cleanly. For quiet recordings, you may need to turn the threshold towards -50 (or -infinity) dB or increase the input gain towards 0 dB. For loud recordings, turn the threshold towards 0 dB, or reduce the input gain towards -infinity dB. If you turn the threshold towards 0 and the bus is un-muted, you will hear that it cuts out more and more of the output because the compressor cuts out any signal that is below the threshold level. Turning the threshold down allows more signal to pass, so we’ll hear more of the unwanted reverb, resonance, or echo.

  • Set the attack very fast (about 0 ms), and set the release fast too (5-15 ms). If we turn the attack up, we won’t process short reverb tails, although you might get some interesting effects doing this. If we turn the release up, our de-verb won’t remove reverb tails.

  • Set the compressor knee to 1, if you have a knee adjustment. This is the most gradual change in volume reduction, so the effect sounds natural. For a more noticeable, mechanical effect, turn the knee towards 0.

  • If you mute the bus, you’ll hear the recordings in their original form.

  • Another trick we could do: add an EQ to the bus to select which frequencies of reverb we want to remove from the recording.

  • This project is in stereo, but this process also works in mono.

  • This also works in any DAW that allows for sends and polarity inversion.

  • You can download a copy of the Logic Pro X file here: De-Verb Template.logicx

Note, this won’t fix all echo, resonance, and reverb problems because the desired audio signal has to stop before the bus can remove the unwanted signal. To remove the resonance and reverb from a person singing in a shower, for example, you’d need a spectral editor, which is a different tool than what we’ve built here. The cleanest solution is probably to record again in a more suitable recording space, like a vocal booth. Thanks for reading!

Mastering Audio, an anecdote

In this post, I want to talk about the master we received and explain some details to look for in mastering a recording. I was working on a mix for a client recently, and the client wanted to send it to another audio engineer for mastering before uploading it to their music distributor. I said, “Great! It’s a good idea to have someone else besides the mix engineer master your track.” But what we received from the mastering engineer wasn’t going to work for us. Read on, and I’ll explain why.

First, what is Mastering? Generally, it is the last chance to make a recording sound its best in the format listeners will hear it. Specifically, this involves making the recording sound as good as possible in comparison with other leading recordings in the same genre. This can include increasing the loudness with compression and limiting, adjusting EQ for the recording, and making small spatial adjustments to the recording before it is sent to the streaming distributor, CD factory, vinyl pressing plant, or cassette tape manufacturer.

So what about my mix? The master we received from the mastering engineer had over 30 clipped samples, its peak volume was 0 LUFS, and its “LU-I” measurement, or “Loudness Units, Integrated”was over -9 LUFS. What this means, in English, is that the recording’s loudness was boosted so high that nearly every streaming service would turn down the recording during playpack, so it would actually sound quieter than other tracks in the same playlist. This is because most streaming platforms use “Loudness Normalization”, which helps ensure that each track on a platform sounds about as loud as the other tracks.

Loudness Normalization is wonderful. It can help un-mastered music sound better because some playback services that use it boost quiet recordings during playback to make them louder, and it ideally helps all recordings sound better by helping end the Loudness Wars, in which music becomes too compressed, making it fatiguing and unpleasant to listen to.

However, Loudness Normalization requires us to change how we master recordings. It’s not enough to simply make a recording as loud as possible. And that never was enough to make a good-sounding recording, but it became the priority before loudness normalization change those priorities. Instead, a mastering engineer needs to pay attention to the levels at which playback services that use Loudness Normalized will turn down the loudness of a recording, and the mastering engineer needs to ensure that their recordings ideally don’t get louder than those levels. In addition, a good mastering engineer will help you determinine what makes a particular recording sound its best.

If you’re mastering your own recordings for streaming on Spotify, Apple Music, YouTube, etc. then use these values (as of July 2020):
– The peak value should be no higher than -1 LUFS
– The LU-I value should be no more than -16 to -14 LUFS
– Some services, such as Amazon Music, have a peak limit of -2 LUFS and a LU-I limit of -14 LUFS.
You’ll need to decide how you want to handle these varying standards as you master your recordings.

If you want help mastering your recordings, get in touch.

Gear Review: Beyerdynamic DT990 Pro 250 Ohm Headphones

This is a review of a pair of Beyerdynamic DT990 Pro 250 Ohm open-back headphones that I bought a month or two ago. Neither the store where I purchased these headphones, nor Beyerdynamic are supporting this review. This is my own opinion. I hope this review answers questions that others may have while shopping for headphones.

First, a tick list for those that aren’t looking for an in-depth review.

Pros:
– Prominent representation of frequencies at and above 1000 Hz. These headphones clearly indicate when mid and high frequencies need to be adjusted. These are a good tool for making mixing decisions.
– Tight bass response that is full without being boomy, flabby, or muddy
– Comfortable to wear for hours at a stretch
– These 250-ohm headphones worked fine with USB audio interfaces and the 3.5mm audiojack on a laptop

Cons:
– Prominent representation of frequencies at and above 1000 Hz. If you’re shopping for headphones for your hi-fi listening room, these might not be for you.
– The headband is a little small if you have an abnormally big skull, like me.

I bought this model instead of the DT880 Pro, which reviewers I trust rate quite highly, because it was on sale, in addition to their list price being less than the DT880’s. I figured the difference between the two models couldn’t be too severe, and the cost savings were considerable, about $100-140 USD (I don’t exactly recall). I use the Beyerdynamic DT990 Pro headphones as a supplement to a pair of KRK VXT 8 monitors for mixing, mastering, and critical listening. I want headphones with a flat frequency response that showed me where mixes and recordings are out of balance. I do not want a pair of headphones that alter the bass and high frequencies to make it sound “better”. The DT990 Pros fit this requirement very well.

I think of these headphones like an aural microscope: I get a very clear picture of the details in a mix with these headphones, but that detail doesn’t always make music sound “good” because they’re designed to highlight issues in a mix. This is why I list their mid-high frequency clarity as a possible drawback above. If you’re seeking a pair of headphones for your hi-fi listening room set-up, I wouldn’t buy these headphones, unless I also connected them to an EQ.

While researching these headphones, I read lots of questions from people asking whether these headphones would sound loud enough through a USB-powered audio interfaces. I have used these headphones with two USB-powered audio interfaces, a 2nd Gen Focusrite Scarlet 2i2 and a Behringer Uphoria UMC204HD. The headphones were plenty loud for my needs. I have also plugged them directly into the 3.5mm audio jack on a Macbook Pro, and they were loud enough there as well. I may have the volume level increased a bit more with these higher-impedance headphones than I would with a pair of 32-ohm headphones, but these headphones work fine for critical listening in all of the scenarios where other folks seemed worried these headphones might falter. However, it is not my goal to create high sound-pressure levels with these headphones. If you need to blast some death metal at a high SPL, you may need a headphone amp.

Some reviewers find the velveteen ear pads to be “cheap”. I’m all right with them. The ear pads are fluffy and comfy, just like they should be. In fact, I sometimes forget they’re on my head. I suppose they’re a plus, if you’re vegan because they aren’t leather. But if you want real leather ear pads clamped around your skull, you can buy after-market ear pads for these headphones.

The rest of these headphones’ build quality is good. The metal brackets holding the drivers are sturdy. I wouldn’t want to sit or step on them, but I feel like they’d survive getting dropped or banged against my mixing desk. I would feel confident travelling with them in a padded case.

The coiled cable is nice for my uses because I don’t have several meters of cable snaking around my mixing desk. But, as with the frequency response described above, this would be a drawback if I wanted to sit in a comfy chair in a listening room, several feet from the stereo receiver. I’d buy the DT990 “edition” headphones for that use case.

I would replace these Beyerdynamic DT990 Pro headphones, if they broke or disappeared. I like their frequency response: it helps me find and fix problems in my mixes. I wish my skull were smaller or the headband on these headphones had one or two more clicks in their ear piece adjustment. The build quality is good. I don’t feel like these will break with normal use. I’d recommend them to a mix engineer looking for a pair of headphones for critical listening.

(And if anybody has a pair of DT880 Pro they would loan to me, I’m very curious to compare how that model sounds to the DT990 Pro.)

 

Recording: “The First Lines of Emails I’ve Received While Quarantining”

Jessica Salfia’s poem, “The First Lines of Emails I’ve Received While Quarantining”, delighted me. I made a recording of it. Ms. Salfia owns all rights to the poem.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Vocal Booth: build or buy?

As promised, here is a longer post about building versus buying a vocal booth for voice over recording. This is a cost-benefit analysis of building my booth.

Cost

When making my decision to build or buy a vocal booth two considerations were at the front of my mind:

  • The cost of building a booth
  • The cost of buying a booth
  • The amount of income I could make doing voice over during the time I built the booth

In shopping for prefabricated vocal booths that were at least 4 feet by 4 feet, I found that an entry-level model for a leading brand of vocal booth, like a Whisper Room cost about $5000, and the costs escalated from there. Other models were less expensive, about $3250, but no prefabricated booth could come close to the cost of building my own booth. I built my booth for $700 in materials and about 30 hours of work. But was this actually a good deal? How much is my labor worth?

Because I planned to do the work of building the booth, I deducted the cost of my labor from the income that I couldn’t make from voice over work while I was building. Using the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ average hourly wage for a carpenter, about $21/hour, 30 hours of labor is worth $630. Additionally, I wasn’t get paid to audition, and I didn’t have any paying projects while I was planning to build my vocal booth. Because carpentry work cost me much less than buying a vocal booth, and I didn’t have any other paying projects, it was worth my time to build the booth, rather than buy a booth to get me back to voice over work as quickly as possible. In other words, I save money by spending my time to build a vocal booth, and I also like building things.

Quality

How does my booth sound? Did I trade the quality of a prefabricated booth for a lower-quality product that I built myself? I don’t think so. My booth has zero reverberation or room tone. You can hear samples recorded in it here. External noises are reduced by 25dBA or more, depending on the frequency, and the interior is dead with no boxy sound at all. I’m thrilled by the acoustics of the booth.

With a double-wall, more insulation, and a double-door, it would be possible to reduce external sound even further, but a design like that would exceed the specs of any industry leading booth, like a Whisper Room, which only have one wall and a single door. Maybe I’ll build something like that in the future, but for this project, I wanted to improve my recording quality as quickly and cost-effectively as possible. This booth met that goal well.

Watch This

As someone who creates things for people, this video is inspiring. It’s 70 minutes long, but it’s worth it.

It digests the complexities of creating things for people. I thought the most helpful ideas were:

– Make work you care about for people who care. Who do you want to work for? Who should you work for? Are you working for those people? If not, what can you change to meet those people?

– Make work for the smallest viable audience. In other words, you want to find the right people who need your work. Don’t try to make work for everybody, unless you want to make work for nobody.

– You need to fit your clients’ story. Depending on your industry, clients don’t care if you have the coolest tools or the nicest office, but they most certainly care if you produce the best work, however that is measured. Distinguish between what is important to your story and what is important to your clients’ story.