Matt Wright



a blog on record production and studio life
Sep
21
2011

Mix Advice: Frequency space and Dynamic space

Hello everyone,

An acquaintance of mine was recently mixing a contemporary rock record, and sent me some draft mixes to get some advice. He had some really good tones going, and the musical balances made sense, but overall the mixes were getting a little crowded. After I wrote him back with my thoughts, I realized the advice I was giving him was general enough that it may be useful to some other students of the craft out there who can make great sounds, but have trouble getting their mixes to hang together as a unit. I’m glad I had the chance to write the email, because it sums up a number of ideas that have been vaguely kicking around my head for the last couple years. Let me know if these ideas are useful to you, or please ask any questions you may have. Cheers.

The main thing I’m hearing is that it sounds like most things are competing for the same space, both frequency-wise (high mids and highs) and dynamically (the “compressed” or “sustained space”).

As to the first question (frequency space), I get the feeling with some of the mixes that you are boosting the drums in the high mids (or cutting the lows) to get them to punch through, and then boosting the guitars in the high mids/hi end (or cutting lows, etc) to get them to cut through, etc on down the line (though it’s not as exaggerated as I make it sound, because I think you’ve done a good job sitting the bass in the low end). In particular, the drums sound thin to me, but then I compared to something off “Songs for the Deaf” and realized the drums on that album may be even “thinner” in some respects – but they are complemented by guitars that are very focused in the mids and low mids and don’t have too much hi frequency energy. Conversely, you could keep the guitars focused the way they are (cause they sound exciting) and allow the drums to sit more in the low mids, etc.

Keep in mind when dealing with these frequency issues: a) I never bought into that “rule” of boosting freq X on instrument A and cutting freq X on instrument B – sometimes, both instruments need a boost or cut at the same frequency and still will complement each other. b) No instrument lives in just one frequency range, in fact most have important information through most of the bandwith. It’s just about highlighting certain areas where it can come through with more definition or body and de-emphasizing areas where it clouds the mix. c) Be very careful when boosting or cutting that you don’t create a sound that is so scooped that the lo and hi range of the instrument are no longer “connected.” This is especially a danger when EQing in solo (though I do that all the time of course). For me when the midrange information is so deemphasized that you no longer hear it in the context of the mix, the low information just becomes random boominess or woof – you need the midrange to connect it to the sound so it serves as actual body. This is also an issue if the freq range you’re emphasizing in the low end is too low for that instrument.

If you do tend to EQ in solo, I highly recommend this technique: After you finish working in solo, put the sound back in the context of the mix, and bypass the EQ. Now put the EQ in. Is the mix better or worse? Rarely is it just better (in that case, move right along!) or just worse (zero the EQ and start again), it’s usually better in some ways but worse in other ways. Ask yourself what you like better with the EQ in and what gives you pause about it. Maybe you only need one or just some of the bands you’re using, and can zero the others. Maybe you just need to less boost and cut on all the bands you’re using. Maybe a frequency you cut actually needs to be boosted, and vice versa. Test out these possibilities and make your final decision listening in the context of the full mix. If you can’t decide, bypass the EQ and keep working on the mix, and eventually you may just hear in context, “you know I think I DO need that boost on that snare drum.”

The second question (dynamic space) is something that I learned from mixing live sound where I usually only had 1 or 2 compressors if any. A good mix is a balance of different frequency ranges AND different dynamic ranges; a mix of more sustained material with more transient material. Live I had to find the nice balance between the punchier transient material and the more sustained material, and I had no control over which was which. In the studio you have all sorts of lovely dynamics processors to change the dynamic shape of various sources and make sustained material more punchy, and transient material more sustain-y. The danger, especially given the contemporary drive for “LOUD,” is turning every instrument into a sustained pad, and robbing the mix of exciting punch and dynamics. In particular you’ve got to be careful with how you compress drums (both in amount and type of compression), because they are a very transient instrument. It may seem that in order to get a louder mix you’re going to have to compress the drums hard, because they are so transient they’ll eat up all your headroom. I find a few things happen when drums get too compressed: a) they start to lose tone, b) they don’t punch through the mix, so you either end up turning them up too loud, or c) they lose their attack, so you try to EQ the attack back into them and d) because they don’t punch through the mix, mastering compression and limiting tends to make them disappear.

My general advice for compressing drums:
a) on individual drums, try lower ratio compression with slower attack times and faster release times. If a drum is too big and woofy, try increasing the release time. If a drum is getting lost, try bypassing the compressor – it may punch more without! Or try adjusting the attack time or threshold.
b) be very careful with drum buss compression. If you’ve got a heavy-handed drum buss compression that you like, try it in parallel to an uncompressed bus and adjust the balance to favor the punch of the uncompressed bus, with the compressed bus bled in for excitement.
c) in some rock mixes, the overheads may sound better uncompressed.
d) in general, try not to be heavy-handed with both bus processing and individual channel processing. Try to compliment heavy bus compression with light (or no) individual channel compression, or vice versa.
e) be careful when setting up your drum mix to allow some headroom in your compression scheme. For example: you set up some a cool sounding drum mix, with some moderate compression on the main drum bus or a parallel bus. You move on and get the rest of the mix thumping, and your snare is no longer cracking, so you turn up your snare fader, but it doesn’t pop through any more than it was, so you turn it up louder, and EQ it some more, and compress it some more, only to get slightly more volume and a steadily degrading tone. The problem is when you turned up the snare channel it just started compressing the drum bus more. This is less of an issue when using parallel compression instead of compressing the main drum bus, but depending on how much you were relying on the parallel bus for your punch it can still be an issue there as well. Sometimes it makes sense to have a group made up of all tracks, but not busses, that you can trim down just slightly to reduce the overall amount of bus compression on everything (or trim up and increase) – you can move the fader just a little bit and hear a dramatic change as your mix alternately opens up and saturates, and find a sweet spot.
f) all rules were meant to be broken!

Hope some of this is helpful.

May
06
2011

Spring Session Update

Hi everyone, I thought I’d offer a quick update on what I’ve been up to this spring for this week’s blog, and try to tackle another educational topic next week.

The mixes for Salty De Vito’s debut record are done and the record’s moved to mastering. Keep tabs on the band’s site for details about the release date and upcoming shows.

Anadel are on the web now, as is their debut record Flying South, currently in digital release on iTunes and Amazon. The physical disc is on it’s way. In the meantime, click on my videos tab to see their new music video, featuring clips of the album production shot and edited by keyboardist Steven Bailey.

I was also happy to wrap up the mixing for the second album by Sonoma County acoustic duo Mr. December. On the album Jimmy and Andy round out their ukulele/upright bass one-two punch with drums, guitar, banjo, fiddle, zipper, and kazoo. I call it “ukegrassragpop.” I had a lot of fun working on this project, so here’s hoping it gets mastered and pressed in the near future so you all can hear it.

This spring I recorded and mixed the debut EP for Spark & Whisper, which you can find for sale on their website. Another acoustic duo, Spark & Whisper, along with Mr. December, are regular performers in the North Bay Hootenanny family of concerts. I cannot recommend these shows highly enough! With various concert series and one-off festivals, the Hootenanny is establishing a regular and loyal following for independent acoustic music in the north bay, and I’m stoked that these two groups, as well as my friends in The Brothers Comatose, Arann Harris and the Farmband, and The Barbary Ghosts have this venue to access new listeners!

Other projects this spring included finishing the new DD Felton record with producer Mark “Mooka” Rennick and recording and mixing a live album for Calvary Chapel’s “First Friday” worship service with producer Steve Fontano. And I was very happy to reconnect with my young friends The Lost Boys, who came in to record a couple tracks for an A&R demo.

Please support local music – check out some of these links, you may find something you like!

Cheers,

Matt Wright

Apr
29
2011

Rules for Recording on a Budget, Part 2 of 2

If you didn’t catch last week’s post, I recommend reading through part 1 of this series before diving into part 2.

Rehearse more, edit less

As an engineer, I have no moral objection to editing, tuning, quantizing, or otherwise mangling performances till they’re right. So you have a choice: spend the time in rehearsal to get your parts right, or spend money on studio time so I can get your parts right (hint – one option is cheaper and sounds better). Here are my guidelines for effective rehearsals:

  • Write out charts and lyric sheets, in whatever form of notation makes sense for your band. Make sure the charts at the minimum notate the chord changes and the song arrangement (ie 8 bars intro, 16 bar verse, 8 bar chorus, 4 bar interlude, etc.). Everyone in the band should have a copy of all charts and lyric sheets, and bring extra copies for the engineer even if he is not participating as a producer – it will enable efficient communication about the songs.
  • Everyone playing a melodic or harmonic instrument knows the chord changes. I can’t tell you how often I discover no one knows the changes except the rhythm guitarist.
  • Drummers can be excused from knowing the changes (though savy drummers will know anyway) but should, like everyone, know the arrangement like the back of their hand. Drummers rehearse the songs till they don’t miss a single arrangement change, ie if they are supposed to play the ride on the chorus, they don’t play the first half bar on the hat and then sheepishly switch over.
  • Prepare for the way you are actually going to track the material. It is shocking how often a band will rehearse one way, and then show up at the studio and struggle to perform under entirely different circumstances.
  • If you usually play an acoustic instrument and sing, but plan on overdubbing your instruments and vocals separately in the studio, rehearse them separately so you are ready to do so.
  • If you are going to track the band without a scratch vocal, rehearse the band without any vocals.
  • If you are going to record to a click, rehearse the band with a metronome pumping through your PA or into headphones. Hold your rehearsals to the same standards you will hold for the recording regarding the click. If you can’t hold to a click in rehearsal, it’s not going to get easier in the studio. Rehearse more or devise a new plan.
  • Record your rehearsals and analyze the band’s performance. These demos should be telling – yes, the sound will get better in the studio, but the performances will not. If you are grimacing and groaning while listening back, there’s a problem – track down the musical or performance issue and fix it in rehearsal.
  • Change up the parameters of rehearsals to give yourself a chance to hear the music in different ways. Don’t wait to get to the studio to hear what the bass part is, or what the keyboard player’s been playing. Try low volume rehearsals, no drums rehearsals, rhythm section only rehearsals, unplugged rehearsals, etc. You may discover issues that had been hiding in the rehearsal room volume wash.
  • Use your rehearsals as an opportunity to learn what you need to hear to play or sing your part cleanly and expressively. Many inexperienced musicians do poorly on stage and in the studio because they have not yet learned what they need in their monitors or phones, and thus can’t request what they need from the engineer. Don’t put yourself in the position of fighting your monitoring. Allow time to experiment in your rehearsal room, and make sure you get what you need in the studio – don’t suffer any BS from an inexperienced or insensitive engineer when it comes to cue mixes.
  • Lead vocalists should learn to play their vocal melody on an instrument other than voice. This is an incredibly instructive exercise that will help solidify the shape of the melody in your mind, train your ear, improve your pitch, and show you where there is room for inflection and expression.
  • Every background singer should learn his/her part to to the point you can sing it without hearing the lead vocal. To my mind if you can’t sing your part without the lead vocal, you have not yet written a part, you’re improvising.
  • Background vocalists should practice the same approach listed above for lead vocalists. Don’t wait for me to “discover” what your background part actually is while pitch-correcting it.
  • If yours is a “harmony band” or otherwise strongly features background vocals, hold vocal focused rehearsals. Work note by note till the parts are tight.
  • Lead players in any pop genre should write solos and rehearse them, without question. If you’re on a budget you need to nail the guitar solo in 20 minutes, not 2 hours. Improvising in the studio is imperative for improv-based genres, inappropriate for a pop/rock band on a budget.
  • As my music teacher used to say, if you rehearse a lick 10 times in a row and finally nail it the tenth time, that’s a 10% success rate – that’s an F. Even if you nail by the fourth try, that’s 25% – still an F. Go into the studio like that, and under the gun you may not nail the lick once. Remember – an amateur rehearses till he gets it right. A professional rehearses till he can’t get it wrong.

Keep a view of the big picture

Music tends to be an ego-driven exercise, and I know because production and engineering tend to be as well. When you’re on a budget, you literally cannot afford to let egos get in the way of your project and your goals. Remember that you have to set priorities, and you’re going to have to let some things go. Remember that when people listen to your record they hear music: not a guitar tone, or a drum fill, or a really cool automated delay effect (though I really want to nail that delay effect, too). Does the track groove and support the vocal? Does the vocal connect and tell the story? Does the song hold your interest? Does the mix fit your genre? Does the performance represent your band well? If you were to hand someone the disc right now, for what would you be making excuses? These are questions that will help you focus your efforts on the important tasks to reach your goals for the project.

I hope some of these ideas are helpful! Feel free to ask me to clarify any of these ideas. If you have your own guidelines for rehearsal or recording, please share them in the comments section. If you’ve got any questions about planning your next studio project, don’t hesitate to get ahold of me via the contact page.

Cheers,

Matt Wright

Apr
22
2011

Rules for Recording on a Budget, Part 1 of 2

Like most of you, I don’t like to be a slave to rules in the recording studio – one of my favorite things about record-making is having the freedom to find out where spur of the moment intuition and inspiration might lead. But here’s the sticking point – in the studio, you’re paying for that privilege by the hour. In the right situations this pursuit is worth the cost, but if you’re in the same situation as 90% of bands, you have very real limitations on the budget available to complete your record. I would much rather see you holding your record in shrink wrap than see you sitting on a hard drive with half of a really cool record on it.

I have seen records completed on every budget, and some of the best things I’ve worked on were finished under the shadow of limited time and finances. You can make a great record on a limited budget, but you have to approach your project from that mindset. This means it’s time to embrace your limitations, let them focus your creative energies, and adopt some ground rules to ensure your success in completing your project to your standards. In this spirit I offer my humble recommendations:

Balance your goals and your budget and develop a Project Plan

So we already know your number one goal: finish your project with the budget you have available. At this stage of the process you need to be extremely realistic about your funds, your aspirations, and who you are as a band. What kind of product do you want in your hands when you’re finished? What does you’re band need? Do you need product to sell at shows? Do you need a demo to book shows? Do you make the whole record quick and dirty? Do you make a nicely polished EP and come back for the other songs next year? Sometimes you may need to spend 3 days knocking out 12 tunes in a very raw form just to have something for your fans, and sometimes you may want to spend three days making one song everything it can be.

You can’t BS yourself through this part of the process. Your budget, goals, and session plan are three points on a very awkward scale, and if you knock it out of balance you’re likely to end up stacking more coin on there to keep your project from tipping over. Be really honest with yourself about how long you need to get the performances you want, knowing very few people can play as well in the studio as they do in rehearsal. Decide what you’re willing to compromise, and remember if your goals don’t allow for compromise, your budget’s going to have to ante up.

Be deliberate and make decisions in advance

Don’t wait until the week before your session to make important decisions about your recording methodology. This is where the help of an experienced producer, or the savvy of experienced band members, can be very useful. What are you going to track live? What’s going to be a scratch and what a keeper? What kind of isolation and sight-lines do you need? How many overdubs, and how complex are they? Are you going to use a click track (metronome)? Are you going to use your drummer’s kit or the studio kit? Are you going to use a real piano or a keyboard? An acoustic guitar on that one song or an electric? Is the lead singer going to do the backups or the bass player?

Now is also the appropriate time to discuss amongst your band members the sonic aesthetic for your project. There are many ways to discuss record sonics – “wet” vs. “dry,” “raw” vs. “polished,” “real” vs. “hyped,” “retro” vs. “contemporary” – but often the most effective way to communicate about sounds is to use records you know and love as touchstones. Put together a mix of at least 5-6 songs from different artists that represent your sonic “universe” – and get this disc to your producer/engineer.

Making these decisions well in advance is important, because the answers will help you choose the right producer/engineer, choose the right studio, and give your producer/engineer the tools to help you plan your sessions. Most importantly, the answers will also determine the proper way to prepare for the session so that you get the most out of your pre-session rehearsals.

Take responsibility and delegate responsibility

Take Responsibility

This may seem a little obvious and condescending, but you need to own your record. We train ourselves to shirk responsibility, but you need to fight this impulse. Every member of the band needs to take full ownership of his/her part of the record and not be the one ballooning the budget. This means that if you’re the drummer you don’t wait until the middle of the session to ask what groove you should play on the bridge. This means if you’re the keyboardist we don’t hear you say, “I’m not even sure what I play on this song yet.” This means if you’re the lead singer, you know the words AND bring lyric sheets anyway to fight studio amnesia.

If you hear something wrong in rehearsal, let everyone know and chase it down till you fix the problem. If you’re having trouble playing your part, spend some more time woodshedding solo or write a new part that you’re more likely to nail under the gun in the studio. If you’re having maintenance trouble with your instrument, make sure it’s repaired before the session, or arrange to have another instrument available and spend some time with it before the session. Don’t wait for someone else in the band (or the producer) to call you on your problems, take care of them. Any time you find yourself hoping – “I hope this part’s going to work. I hope I can play that. I hope we don’t miss that change. I hope my guitar stays in tune. I hope the drums don’t sound bad. I hope this sounds better when we record it” – Stop. Right. There. If you’re hoping, something’s wrong. Fix it. Don’t wait for me to fix it for you in the studio, because it’s going to cost more money and take time away from reaching your goals.

Delegate Responsibility

One of the more frustrating experiences in recording on a budget is realizing how little of your studio time is actually spent recording. In modern production the two activities that consume the most studio time are listening and talking. Talking about listening! Cut down on the chatter by putting people in charge. Democratically run bands are great when you have time to hear 5 opinions on every take, every vocal line, every mix decision. Set ground rules and delegate responsibilities on the way in. Even if one person is not the “producer” in the band with primary decision-making power, you can still have a division of labor. For example, bass player and drummer decide when we have a basic take. Guitarists coach each other. One person talks to the vocalist while he/she is singing. The fewer people in the room doing nothing, the faster things get done. During the mix, have the band discuss all mix notes amongst the members and have one member convey a clear directive to the engineer – it will be more efficient than five guys talking in his ear, and you’re more likely to get what you want.

Check back next Friday for Part 2, which will deal with how to make the most of your pre-session rehearsals.

Cheers,

Matt Wright

Jan
25
2011

My 1st real blog, only 5 months late…

Well, it’s been exactly 5 months since I created the blog on this site and I’ve yet to post anything. Where have I been? Locked away in the caves of course. So I thought the best subject for my first real post would be what the heck I’ve been up to for the last 5 months. I’ll work in reverse order:

I just recorded and mixed the debut EP for Bay Area band Abatis at Prairie Sun last weekend. You can hear it on the reverbnation page right now, and should soon be able to purchase online – fuzzy, loud rock, knocked out live, rough, and ready to kick some ass. They’re on facebook, too.

The previous two weeks were spent in Studio B at Prairie Sun where I produced, recorded, and mixed the debut album “Ver Le Sud” for Napa-based band Anandel. It’s a family affair based around the songwriting and vocal talents of JT Bailey, which demonstrate a maturity and skill pleasantly surprising for a first record. It’s acoustic rock/pop drawing on various colors with lyrics that are more or less explicit from song to song in their Christian and inspirational messages, but don’t lose track of emotional honesty (the big one for me). Look for a release in the coming months, and I’ll link a website when it happens.

At the end of October/early November I recorded and mixed the new album “California Gold” for Sacramento-based Southern Rock group Doolin Run. The record’s already out and available on the band’s website, where you can hear the tracks previewed as well.

In September I recorded a classical guitar album for Julio Reyes. In December I engineered for producer Steve Fontano as we started work on Mark Vigil’s next project (ongoing with one song done and three more ready for overdubs). In August Mark “Mooka” Rennick and I mixed the debut album for the Nolan Gasser Quartet, “Ode to Swing.” I’ve been working regularly with singer/songwriter Shadi Shamsavari on songs for digital release, and as usual there have been lots of one-days, assistant gigs, and other bits and pieces.

The big production that coincides with my blog absence has been the debut album for Sonoma County-based band Salty De Vito, for which I’ve been co-producing, engineering, and will soon be mixing. The music is definitely a cross-breed of alterna-rock, featuring strong songwriting and vocals – and best of all, lots of variety. The project started with basic tracking in August and we just last week finished the final vocal touches to wrap overdubs. We’re taking our time on this one, making sure we have the performances and the sounds on disk before moving to the next step. We’re tentatively planning for a final mix in February, and I’ll update on release schedules.

Cheers,
Matt Wright

Aug
25
2010

Blog Test

Hi everyone, I’m trying to test my newly designed blog template. If you happen upon this by accident, let me know how this looks in your browser. The real blog is coming soon. Thanks!

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