Monday, July 28, 2014

More Mono Vinyl For The Beatles

Most Beatles albums were mixed primarily in mono until The White Album, according to engineer Ken Scott in his Abbey Road To Ziggy Stardust book (which I was most honored to co-write), with the stereo mixes done as an afterthought, since stereo was such a new technology at the time. This practice continues until the band discovered that some fans were actually buying both mono and stereo copies of their albums because of the slight mix differences between them. At that point, the Boys determined that it would be a good idea to spend more time mixing the stereo versions, which they did from that point on.

That said, most people heard only the mono mixes of those records originally when they were released, but over the years those mixes have been replaced with the stereo mixes. Now those original mono mixes of the 9 UK albums are being released on vinyl in a 14 album box set mono masters collection which will be released in early September.

The albums are being pressed on the best 180 gram vinyl available, and were transferred from a Studer A80 machine to a 1980s era Nuemann VMS80 lathe using the original transfer notes made by the original mastering engineers. The album also comes with an exclusive hardbound book using rare studio photos of the band, archive documents, and articles and advertisements from 1960s publications.

This is not inexpensive at $375, but it is a definitive look at a piece of history that almost everyone in music still reveres. Check out this video for a bit more about it.




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Sunday, July 27, 2014

New Music Gear Monday: CEntrance MixerFace

High quality field recorders are fairly inexpensive these days but sometimes you just don't want to carry around another piece of gear. On the other hand, it's not easy to get the best audio audio quality with your iPhone. That's where the CEntrance MixerFace mobile recording interface comes in.

The MixerFace is an outboard stereo preamp that provides 192kHz/24 bit recording directly into your iPhone or iPad, and also provides a USB connector for your laptop or Android device as well. The unit has a form factor that allows it to sit right under an iPhone, making it an easy to strap it to the device so there's only a single package.

The inputs use Neutrik combo jacks that can accept either XLR or 1/4" phone jacks, and each channel has a defeatable limiter and can supply 48V phantom power as well. There's also a headphone output with monitor mix controls and pan controls.

The unit has a battery life of about 7 to 8 hours, which is plenty for most applications. Another version aimed at DLSR recording is also available.

CEntance ran a successfully funded Indie-Go-Go campaign to fund the MixerFace, and the price there was $199, but it has since returned to a retail of $599-699 (it seems to vary on different press releases). Regardless, this is something that many recordists have been interested in for a long time. It's finally come to pass.

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Thursday, July 24, 2014

Van Halen "Beautiful Girls" Isolated Bass And Drums

There's noting like listening to a great rhythm section and the original Van Halen duo of drummer Alex Van Halen and bassist Michael Anthony has proven to be one of the best in rock. Listen to them do their thing in isolation on "Beautiful Girls" from 1979's Van Halen II.

The song, which was originally titled "Bring On The Girls" on the band's 25 song demo, was produced by the great Ted Templeman, engineered by Don Landee, and recorded at the famous Sunset Sound in Hollywood. Like most albums from that era, it was completed in only 3 weeks. Here are some things to listen for.

1. Listen to how forward the snare drum is compared to the rest of the kit. Pretty beefy sound too, as well as a touch of some very smooth reverb.

2. The cymbals are very prominent in the mix to mostly fill in those upper frequencies since the band was a power trio. Their early albums were mostly guitar, bass and drums plus a guitar solo overdub with not much sweetening.

3. Michael Anthony's playing is a little behind the drums, rather than the other way around. This gives the band a sense of urgency.

4. Anthony's playing is far from perfect, not that you ever heard any of the very slight mistakes in the track. There is a pretty big one at 1:47 that wouldn't be left in today.

5. Alex VH has a couple of slow fills as well, like the ones at 3:28 and 3:40. In those days of analog tape and relatively quick recording, perfection was something that was rarely attained (except perhaps for Steely Dan albums, but they also cost a lot more to make and took much more time).



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Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The 27 Foot Long Speaker

Audiophiles can be quite obsessive, and when you're an engineer it can make that obsession even worse. In the 1930s engineer Roderick Denman built a huge loudspeaker into the roof of his house that faced straight downward into an octagonal listening area that he used for the flare of his giant horn, which extended some 20 feet. There he placed a few reclining chairs. Basically, you were sitting entirely inside the speaker when you listened!

In order to get the best frequency response from the horn, it had to be large and straight. Many horns of the day were curved, which provided great low end response, but limited the highs, which why the only way Denman could could achieve such a large horn was to build it as part of his house.

Western Electric 555W driver image
The Western Electric 555W



The compression driver used to drive the horn was the then new Western Electric 555W, designed by the famous Bell Labs and said to be one of the greatest speakers ever made. They have run in theaters for more than 60 years and today are bought and sold for thousands of dollars.



The horn was used for demonstrations until a wall fell on it during WWII and it was almost destroyed. Since then it's been part of the Scientific Museum at Blythe House in the UK, but it wasn't until recently that sound artist in residence Alex Kolkowski decided to build a modern version of it according to the original specification.

After 8 months the speaker is finally operational and on display at the museum. It's also working again with the help of the original driver, and has a frequency response of 32Hz to 6kHz.
The 27 foot long speaker image
It's 27 feet long!
Those of us who grew up with horn-loaded speakers know how good they can sound under the right circumstances. They're very efficient and directional, which is great for live sound, but also pretty bulky, which is why line-arrays are used in virtually every sound reinforcement situation today. Too bad, because they sounded great.

That said, it's very cool that Denman's horn has been recreated and available for all to see and hear again.
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Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Mastering Compression Tips And Tricks

Compressor attack and release controls image
Many engineers overlook the attack and release controls on a compressor but they can affect the sound more than you think, especially during mastering. In the latest edition of The Mastering Engineer's Handbook, I outline what these controls can do when used across a full mix either during mixing or mastering.

"The key to getting the most out of a compressor is the Attack and Release (sometimes called Recovery) parameter controls, which have a tremendous overall effect on a mix and therefore are important to understand. Generally speaking, transient response and percussive sounds are affected by the Attack control setting. Release is the time it takes for the gain to return to normal or zero gain reduction.  

In a typical pop style mix, a fast attack setting will react to the drums and reduce the overall gain. If the release is set very fast, then the gain will return to normal quickly but can have an audible side effect of reducing some of the overall program level and attack of the drums in the mix. As the Release is set slower, the gain changes so that the drums might cause an effect called “pumping,” which means that the level of the mix will increase then decrease noticeably. Each time the dominant instrument starts or stops, it "pumps" the level of the mix up and down. Compressors that work best on full program material generally have very smooth release curves and slow release times to minimize this pumping effect.

Compression Tips And Tricks
Adjusting the Attack and Release controls on the compressor and/or limiter can have a surprising effect on the program sound.
  • Slower Release settings will usually make the gain changes less audible but will also lower the perceived volume.  
  • A slow Attack setting will tend to ignore drums and other fast signals but will still react to the vocals and bass.  
  • A slow Attack setting might also allow a transient to overload the next piece of equipment in the chain.
  • Gain changes on the compressor caused by the drum hits can pull down the level of the vocals and bass and cause overall volume changes in the program.  
  • Usually only the fastest Attack and Release settings can make the sound “pump.”  
  • The more bouncy the level meter, the more likely that the compression will be audible.
  • Quiet passages that are too loud and noisy are usually a giveaway that you are seriously over-compressing.
Don’t just set those attack and release controls to the middle range and forget about them. They can make a big difference on your final mastered sound."

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Monday, July 21, 2014

How The Ancients Used Sound

Hal Saflieni (ca. 3600 BCE)There's a little-known scientific field known as archaeoacoustics that studies the sound of historical environments and its effects on the human body. These environments can vary from ancient temples to caves, but it's been discovered that they all have a similar quality - a resonant frequency between 70 and 130Hz.

Most of the cavities that archaeoacoustics study are spiritual in nature, and the theory is that the exposure to the resonant frequency of the chamber has a physical effect on human brain activity, even to the point of triggering a different state of consciousness without the use of chemical substances.

One of these chambers currently under study is a 5,000 year old Hypogeum, an underground mortuary temple on the Mediterranean island of Malta with a space known as "The Oracle Room" that yields strong double resonant frequencies at 70Hz and 114 Hz. A deep male voice tuned to these frequencies can stimulate the resonances and create a bone-chilling 8 second reverberation that reportedly provides the illusion of sound reflecting from the body to the ancient wall paintings, but leaves the listener with a great sensation of relaxation.

What's especially interesting is that the acoustics of this chamber didn't come naturally. Man-made carving on the ceiling revealed what amounted to a wave guide, suggesting that the designers of the room knew much more about acoustics and their effects on the human body than we know or care about today.

W e often think that because we have such sophisticated gear that it automatically makes us superior to those that have gone before us. In reality it seem that there's been a vast treasure trove of knowledge that's been lost through the ages that we're lucky to discover enough bits and pieces of every so often.

There's a really great website at archaeoacoustics.org that has a lot of information and audio samples regarding this discipline and its work. Not only that, it's a lot more modern and accessible than most sites about scientific research. Check out the video below as well.


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Sunday, July 20, 2014

New Music Gear Monday: UAD Valley People Dyna-mite Plugin

There are already so many cool compressors and limiter plugins available that you'd think there was none left to either invent or emulate. You might change your mind after hearing the new Universal Audio/Softube emulation of the Valley People Dyna-mite limiter/gate though.

The Dyna-mite was an interesting hardware device released by the short lived Valley People Inc in the 80s, which was the brainchild of the great audio designer Paul Buff. It was perhaps the least expensive pro unit available at the time, mostly because it was supplied in a plastic box instead of a 19 inch rack mount. It did have a couple of very unique functions and sounds though, and Softube and Universal Audio have managed to emulate them all.

First of all, the limiter is about as kick-ass on percussion as you can get. If you want an aggressive sound that really smacks, this plugin can really give it to you. Most unusual is the fact that the plug (like the hardware device) also has a de-ess and gate/expander function, and like the limiter, they react differently than most of the other plugs that you're probably using.

If you want a plugin with some real character and you already have the UAD hardware to support it, make sure you try the Dyna-mite. It's $199, but I think it's worth every penny. Find out more on the UAD Dyna-mite site.


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Thursday, July 17, 2014

Eric Clapton "Layla" Isolated Guitar And Vocals

Here's a rare treat. It's the isolated lead guitar and vocal track from Derek and the Dominos (Eric Clapton's band with drummer Jim Gordon, bassist Carl Radle, and keyboardist Bobby Whitlock, and supported by guest guitarist Duane Allman) hit "Layla" from the band's one and only album Layla And Other Assorted Love Songs.

What you'll hear is a combination of a number of tracks - one of the rhythm guitar tracks in the chorus, the lead in the verses and choruses, the slide lead solo at the end of Part 1, one of the slide leads in Part 2, the end acoustic guitar, and the Leslie guitar at the end. Of course, you'll also hear Clapton's lead vocal as well. Here's what to listen for.

1. The high lead guitar in the intro and choruses is doubled, which isn't apparent on the final mix of the record.

2. The high lead guitar leaning to the left plays throughout the verses against Clapton's vocal, which is a violation of basic arrangement rules since it takes attention away from the vocal. Didn't seem to matter in this case though.

3. Clapton's vocal is doubled on the choruses, which again isn't very apparent on the final mix of the record. There's also a lot of reverb on it, and the verb really doesn't sound all that good, which is unusual for the time when everyone was using plates or chambers.

4. Duane Allman's slide solo at the end of Part 1 is truly killer, as he plays up much of it above the fretboard.

5. There are two slide leads on Part 2 (drummer Jim Gordon's piano part of the song). You hear Clapton's part here, which changes to an acoustic guitar during the last verse.

6. Check out the Leslie guitar at the very end at 5:25. Criteria Recording (where the song was cut) had one of the first guitar input devices for the Leslie that could vary the speed with a footswitch and Clapton loved it (and reportedly absconded with it back to England after the session). There's plenty more on Leslie guitar on the final mix, but you only hear that one piece here.



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Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Celebrating The Legacy Of The Ramones

The Ramones image
Today’s post is for celebrating the legacy of The Ramones, a band that managed to change the face of music in some small way by staying true to their vision.

This all started when I read with great sadness that Tommy Ramone (real name Tommy Erdelyi), the last founding member of band, passed away over the weekend. I only met him once at a Grammy event a few years ago, but he was a charming, soft spoken man if our brief conversation was any indication. Tommy played a major part in the success of the band, acting as their drummer for the first three albums and as one of their producers on several others, but also primarily responsible for their sound in the studio in the early days.

I hate to admit that I was never a big Ramones fan while they were at their peak. I shared a stage with them a few times and experienced their bandstand fury up close, which eventually led to a growing admiration for their singular journey through the music business, as they chose to stay the course of their vision at the expense of major commercial success.

Years later I was lucky to work on three Ramones DVDs (Have A Nice Day Vol. 1, Have A Nice Day Vol, 2, and Around The World) that definitely gave me a different appreciation of the band. Around The World was comprised mostly of behind the scenes footage shot by drummer Marky Ramone (Tommy’s successor) while the band was on tour, which gave an inside look at what the band was really like. So many artists have a different stage persona than their real lives (and there’s nothing wrong with that), but The Ramones were always just a garage band from Queens at heart, and that never changed during the course of the band’s existence. 

For a glorified garage band, The Ramones made a major mark on the music world that we’re still feeling. “Blitzkrieg Bop,” “I Wanna Be Sedated,” and “Rock n’ Roll High School” are songs that will survive for generations, which is more than 99% of so-called “hit” artists can say. There was a quiet genius in their music though, which is a good lesson for anyone getting into the music business today or any other day. Read more on Forbes.
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Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The 4 Families Of Compressors

compressors image
Ever wonder why there are so many different compressors and why they all sound different? That's because back in the analog days there were a number of different ways to achieve compression depending upon the type of electronic building block that you used. Here's a brief excerpt from The Mixing Engineer's Handbook that covers the 4 families of compressors that we generally use today.

"In the days of analog hardware compressors, there were four different electronic building blocks that could be used to build a compressor. These were:
  • Optical: A light bulb and a photocell were used as the main components of the compression circuit. The time lag between the bulb and the photocell gave it a distinctive attack and release time (like in an LA-2A). Optical compressors don't react very fast to the oncoming signal, but that actually makes then sound pretty smooth, which is why they've become a favorite on vocals and bass.
  • FET: A Field Effect Transistor was used to vary the gain, which had a much quicker response than the optical circuit (a Universal Audio 1176 is a good example). FET compressors are often used on drums because of their quick response.
  • VCA: A Voltage Controlled Amplifier circuit was a product of the 80s and had both excellent response time and much more control of the various compression parameters (the dbx 160 series is an example of a VCA-type compressor, although some models didn’t have a lot of parameter controls). VCA compressors can be very aggressive, which is why the dbx 160 series have long been a favorite on rock kick and snare.
  • Vari-Gain: The vari-gain compressors are sort of a catch-all category because there are other ways to achieve compression besides the first three (like the Fairchild 670 and Manley Variable Mu). You might think of a vari-gain as the ultimate smooth sounding compressor because it was originally made for a radio signal chain, something that had to be as transparent as possible. That said, it's hard to beat a vari-gain compressor across the mix buss for the added "glue" that's difficult to get any other way.
As you would expect, each of the above has a different sound and different compression characteristics, which is the reason why the settings that worked well on one compressor type won’t necessarily translate to another. The good thing about living in a digital world is that all of these different compressor types have been duplicated by software plugins, so it’s a lot easier (not to mention cheaper) to make an instant comparison on a track and decide which works better in a particular situation."

To read additional excerpts from The Mixing Engineer's Handbook and my other books, go to the excerpts section of bobbyowsinski.com. Also check out The Audio Mixing Bootcamp video course on Lynda.com.
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Monday, July 14, 2014

Another Historic Nashville Studio May Fold

Ben Folds Nashville Studio - the old RCA Studio A image
Industrial progress has been cruel to some of the great old recording studios where so much history was once made. We've seen wonderful rooms in every major city disappear because of rising real estate costs, while the amount of money that a studio can charge a client has actually dropped.

I was recently in what used to be the old RCA Studio B space in Hollywood to sit on a panel about YouTube. Everyone from Sinatra to The Stones recorded there at one time. Now it's a very nice theater owned by the LA Film School. Not one person I talked to knew they were standing on hallowed ground.

Now it looks like RCA Studio A in Nashville will meet the same fate. The studio is now rented by singer/songwriter Ben Folds, who has just been informed that the studio will be sold to a developer who plans to turn the space into new condos, an awful fate for a studio that once hosted the best of the best of Nashville, from Waylon Jennings to Eddie Arnold to Roy Orbison and many more.

Ironically, the studio is owned by Harold Bradley, a former member of the famed A Team of Nashville studio musicians who played on literally hundreds of hits. It was Harold and his brother Owen, along with Chet Atkins, who created the "Nashville Sound" and built the city into a music powerhouse.

Bradley is quite aware of the history of the place, but states that he's wanted to sell the studio for more than 20 years and it's only coming to fruition now. He's also not as sentimental about the space as many others are, stating that the music made there will still live on.

That said, Folds is trying to get the studio designated as a historic site and have the developer incorporate it into the project that will be built.

Many of the other great studios in Nashville have been bought by Mike Curb (like RCA Studio B and Oceanway) and donated to Belmont University when threatened with a similar fate. Will he come through again?
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Sunday, July 13, 2014

New Music Gear Monday: The Hammer Jammer

It's really hard to create a guitar product that's completely new and not just evolutionary. We see this every NAMM show where we hope to find something new and cool, but are usually disappointed. The Hammer Jammer is different though, as it's both new and evolutionary at the same time, and will definitely give you a sound that you really can't get any other way. It's an easy way to get the hammering effect on a guitar, but with much more precision and dexterity than ever before.

The Hammer Jammer is the brainchild of Ken McGraw, who initially developed the idea in 1985. He formed a company called Guitarammer and received some input from both Ricky Skaggs and Chris Martin (of Martin Guitars) in 1990, but abandoned the idea after initial manufacturing problems and when other business opportunities came about. Now he's back with a new Kickstarter campaign to get the project rolling again.

For only $65, you can get in line for one of the first models. For another $25, you can have one donated to a disabled person (since this is a great way for someone with disabilities to enjoy the guitar again).

We spend so much more money on pedals that we generally don't need, since they more or less do the same thing. Spend a little to get a new sound and help a company get rolling. Go to Kickstarter to check it out, or to the Big Walnut Productions website for more into.



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