Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Audio Recording Issues – It Sounds GREAT On Its Own, but... Part Three

Our poor track. It sounds awesome, but either the rest of the mix is a bully, or it doesn't want to play fair. Before getting into a political topic of individualism versus collectivism (don't even get me started!), let's stick with a finite list of situations that we can identify as a root cause for mix injustice. It can be a timing issue. The song is not being mixed wrong, and the track is excellent, but we may be dealing with the way that the brain interprets sound signals. If we record something incredibly precise in a dry environment with very little character from the room, then we can get a recording that is amazingly present, in your face, intimate, and measuring somewhere between realistic and super-realistic. If we record something else that has some distance to it, then the complexity of the sound that bounces around in that environment will get measured in the context of the whole mix, and this may not be a good thing. One problem can be that when added, our brain says “nope, that isn't realistic.”

I don't mean to say that it is fake or bad sounding, but that the idea that a lot of sounds came from one place and another is from somewhere else that does not fit, can mean that a perfectly blended mix is not working from a completely conceptual, functional standpoint. If this is the intention, then obviously we don't need a solution. But, if you think the problem with balance is coming from two environments that do not belong together, then we may be on to something. But wait, what if there is some room presence, reverb, or liveliness that is making the new track conflict? Now what?

It may be possible to reduce only the part of the room's character that is feeding the majority of information to our brains. This can have multiple benefits, but some of it is covered in a later topic. We may be tricking our ears into re-interpreting tracks that we were happy with before, because those Frequencies that are the most obvious in carrying the room's qualities may also fluctuate in a different rate or pattern than they occur in the balance of the mix, so now our brain says “not only is it coming from a different location, but it carries information that doesn't fit into the groove of the song.”

Isolate your Frequencies with a narrow boost signal, control your output with a limiter for safety to your ears and monitors, and see if the issue is the most noticeable in the lows, mids, highs, or all of the above? Find the problem Frequencies, figure out the width of their “Q” if necessary, and reduce only the amount that reduces the complexity in the context of the mix. This means to solo the track and also check it with the mix, both while making adjustments all along. Did this help? Then, maybe the only problem was timing from the complexity of a room signal. Excellent! Did it help, but not enough? Likely so. Maybe we should see if there is something else going on here. I will cover these other possibilities in Part Four.

Audio Recording Issues – It Sounds GREAT On Its Own, but... Part Four

Maybe the room was part of the issue in our track that won't work quite right in context. Maybe there are other timing issues as well. What if we are looking at the way we interpret timing as it relates to dynamics. What I mean here, is that there is the natural flow of the song, and there is the rate of expression that comes from each track in the song. You may have punch from drums and melody from bass and vocals, or you may have sustain on drums and cymbals and more rhythmic elements from percussion or busy bass and guitar. There are numerous things in the musical arrangement that affect our interpretation of sound. When we put it all together, there may be the wrong punch or sustain in Frequencies that otherwise sound wonderful. For example, a great vocal is intentionally recorded up close with a cardioid pattern large diaphragm condenser microphone.

The presence of the recording fills out the low Frequencies of an amazing vocal performance, we also have this incredible sustaining bass guitar with energetic sub-bass Frequencies that sit beautifully on top of a clean, clear, punchy kick drum. But now, the smooth low end of the vocal makes you reinterpret the perfect blend of sustain and punch that was there before. Should we reduce some of the bass on the bass guitar? Should we take a little out of the vocal and bass? Or maybe, a little compression on the vocal would serve well? Maybe the vocal compression should be grouped with the bass and kick? Perhaps this group compression could lock the timing together and re-orient our listening to hear these elements as a unified process?

This works sometimes, but usually we have more do deal with. I've found that often the simplest solution is also the best solution. I have developed a process that I will write about with more detail at a later time (would anyone read a full book if I wrote one?). I will mention it briefly here. Using a little low shelf EQ in this instance may be the perfect solution. You can use the same wide slope, like something found on the “Cooltec EQP-1A3S” or the “ARQ,” or you can try a combination of two different slopes, like the “115HD” for one instrument and the “AMK9098” for another.

The idea is to reduce a very small amount of a very wide Frequency range down to its lowest point so that we still feel the energy that is there, but it reduces the focus and allows us to concentrate on the other instruments in that range. What I add to this, is to listen to other mid and upper mid Frequencies on the same tracks and see if there is something that has a similar quality that impresses you the same way as the lows. For instance, the low may emphasize an incredible “pluck” of a pick on the bass guitar or the moody sustain of a vocal. Is there another place in the different Frequency registers that are complementing this trait? If so, there is a good chance that you can reduce the lows slightly for one instrument and boost a tiny amount somewhere else that gives the same energy but from a different range. A “pluck” may sound great in a fast attack at low Frequencies, but it may also give precise information in the upper mids, and we might re-orient the conflict from an offending Frequency to one that doesn't clash, and now we can have everything that sounded so nice without conflict.

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