Fixing Phase problems


Recently I have noticed that there have been a growing number of searches coming to my blog that relate to fixing phase problems. Although I have mentioned the importance of phase in recording I do not believe that I addressed fixing phase problems.

Ok let’s get started.  You have a multitrack recording and somewhere there seem to be phase problems. Are you sure? Probably not.  Let’s review for a second.

Phase is caused by two or more microphones being used on one item that you are recording. In some cases the varying distances between the mic cause the sound waves to line up peak to trough and this means they are out of phase.  If you are in the process of recording this sound then you fix the problem by moving the mics around until the sound falls into phase.  Also it should be noted that EQ adds phase problems to any signal it is used on. This is an absolute as far as I am concerned although I have been corrected by engineers on this point they are wrong and I am right damn it. If you add EQ it adds some phaseyness. Usually this is acceptable and part of the sound. Sometimes too much EQ makes a thin phasey mix.  How do you fix this problem? Drop all of the EQ it’s that simple.

The most common situation for phase problems is recording multiple tracks of one particular instrument on one pass. When do you do this? Every time you cut drum tracks. So let’s assume that you cut four simultaneous tracks of drums last night and know it’s time to mix and damn it sounds out of phase.

The first thing you do is prove it to yourself. Drop every track except one. Now listen carefully. Does the track sound fat? Does it have bottom? It does, ok move on to the next track. Most likely all of the individual tracks will sound fat and have bottom. Now start putting up combinations of tracks two at a time. One you happen upon one combo that sounds thin, phasey and has no bottom mark it down and move on.  There may be multiple problems. Sometimes, but not usually the problems may be between two tracks recorded at different times.  Remember listen closely.  You are looking for thin sound with no bottom. If you are unsure what phase problems sound like put up a track and then switch the positive and negative wires on your studio monitors. Step back away from the speakers and play the track. That’s the sound of a phase problem.

So now you know what phase sounds like and you have two or more tracks that are definitely out of phase with each other. Can you rerecord? No ok then let’s fix it.

In all likelihood the sounds are not perfectly 180 degrees out of phase. They rarely are.  It doesn’t matter. If it is enough of a problem to be heard as out of phase correcting the phase will help.  In short what you need to do is reverse the phase on one track and then listen. Does your board or software have a phase switch? If it does you are all set. Switch the phase on one track , it doesn’t matter which, and then listen to the offending tracks. When it comes into phase you will hear much more bottom and the thin wavy quality will disappear. If you have more than two tracks at issue you may need to mess around with various combos of phase switching in order to find the best phase situation.

What do you do if you don’t have a phase switch, which is common with many boards. Does the board have an insert section with paired plug ins/outs? In this case you take a cable open one end up and cut the two or three wires. Switches the connections on the positive negative. Now use this cable to flip the phase on the individual channels. Use the same process I outlined above.

What do you do if you have a board with no phase switch and no insert section? Shot yourself? No, calm down.  Try doing the same trick with a basic guitar cable. Then send the sound out of one channel and record it on the next open track with the phase reversed.

Now I will address the more complex method since someone that thinks they are smart will certainly post a comment about it. I may even decide to approve said comment if it contains a good joke or the new home phone number of my high school girlfriend.

There are phase relationship altering outboard and inboard equipment. They allow you to dial the phase around 180 degrees. They are magic. Let an engineer run them, preferably an engineer that would never record two tracks out of phase.

Finally I’ll talk about phasing in a mix. A depressingly common problem is a mix that sounds shitty. It sounds muddy, or phasey or both. How do you fix this? Well if you are trying to fix a mix that is done and is a stereo master than take it to a good mastering house. If you are trying to fix a mix that you are working on then there is still hope.

Let’s say you have a home studio. You do a mix. The next day you take the CD of the mix and pop it into your car stereo and, jeez, does it sound like shit. Don’t worry everyone does shitty mixes. It’s only a problem if you release it  to the world.

Ok try this. Put up the mix. Eliminate every EQ that is engaged. This alone may solve your problem. After you remove the EQ’s the sound may very well clear up. Try running a mix with no EQ on anything just rebalance the tracks and call it a mix. No compare the two. Which one sounds better? The most common problem I have seen in mixes is too much EQ. If this doesn’t help the mix try adding the tracks one at a time listening specifically for the phase problem to appear. When you find the offending track strip it down to the basic track without effects. How’s that?  If it isn’t caused by some kind of outboard effect then the most likely problem is that the offending track(s) sound too good. What!!??? That’s right. A common problem with recordings is that every single track is recorded as if it the only track on the recording, that is to say tons of bottom, tons of mids tons of top. If you do this on every track then the mix will sound like shit. Remix engineers make great money taking multitrack tapes and removing various frequencies in order to make them sound clearer.  Try removing a little bottom from a few tracks with the eq. Try cutting some of the mids. EQs are much more beneficial when used to remove frequencies then when they are used to add frequencies……..

© Brad Morrison/Billiken Media 2013

How to create a final mix (pt 2)


So now we move on to adding the effects, compression and fader moves to your mix. I am assuming that you have read and understood part one. You have your mix up and running and it sounds completely balanced with drums, bass, guitars and vox. Now it’s time to add in all of the other ear candy such as background vocals or car crashes – whatever is left. As you do add elements find their proper position in the stereo field first, then find their level. This is important. If you set level first and then pan it somewhere it will be very hard to achieve balance.

This is the point where you sit back and think about the mix. Does it feel right?  Too dry? What does it need? This is the point where you may decide to add effects to instruments to achieve particular colors or atmospheres. Don’t add reverb to the vocals because all vocals have reverb. First this isn’t actually true and second it should be added in an attempt to achieve something particular.  Over the years I have spent endless hours screwing around with effects at the demand of musicians, all of that time was wasted. It rarely comes out better. On the other hand when a musician has something in mind you can quickly move towards a better mix. For example the singer might say “the vocal needs to sound more lonely”. Well that might seem vague but it gives you somewhere to go. You might add a small room reverb and pan the instruments slightly away from the vocal so it seems like it’s by itself.  By contrast the guitarist might say “the solo needs to sound grand, like a choir or something” . This leads you to push it back in the mix and add big church reverb. Most musicians understand how things should feel. They all use different terms to describe these variables. You need to take the time to understand what they mean by “it needs punch” or “it has to rock more”. Everyone seems to use these kind of terms differently. if, on the other hand, the drummer says, “I wanna sound like Bonham on When the Levee Breaks remind him that he plays like a pussy, Bonham was no pussy and that he still owes 9 bucks for last night’s food. In short ignore him.

Now is the time to think about EQ changes. Does the bass lack bottom? Is the vocal dull? When you identify a problem like these two attempt, at first, to remove things from the mix to see if the problem goes away. The most common problem that I have seen in mixing is caused by each individual element having too much top, bottom and mids. When you put it all together it makes mud.  THIS IDEA IS IMPORTANT. LEARN TO THINK ABOUT IT!

All of the great remix engineers spend most of their time removing frequencies from tracks to achieve clarity. Muddy mix? Take things out.

Now this doesn’t mean you need to lose the guitars. Instead you may need to EQ them and remove some well-defined frequencies. As you rebalance the mix and add in effects be careful to carefully remove bits and pieces of the different tracks frequency spectrums to allow other elements to shine. If you follow the rookie system of adding top and bottom to every track as it enters the mix you will end up with mud that smells of shit. I guarantee it.

Another important point about effects. Less is more and whenever you add reverb to a track it makes that track LOUDER. That means you must lower the dry track and add the reverb return track. Then rebalance the two elements, then rebalance the whole damn mix. If you put effects on everything then the mix will become an insoluble rubic’s cube. So don’t do that.

Next element to consider is compression. I am a big fan of compression. It makes tracks flatter dynamically and as a result adds detail which makes them stand out in the mix. It also controls big jumps in volume (very useful on vocals). This allows you to get a balance that continues throughout the whole mix. Again, if you compress a track you need to rebalance the mix.

Often I will run the mix through matched compressors to flatten the whole mix and make it all sound louder.  In this case both compressors must be the same with one unit “slaved” to the other so that only one set of controls runs both units. If you know how to do this and have two nice matching compressors give it a try. If not it’s best to leave this to the mastering engineer.

One final comment – always listen to the mix on as many different stereos as possible before deciding it is done. Play it in the car. Play it on your iPod through your girlfriend’s clock radio, play it on your kid brother’s karaoke box, play it anywhere that is a challenge. This will show you what needs to be changed and will show you how it will be listened to by your fans. Remember, no one is going to listen to your mixes on a studio rig so get used to it and mix it so it sounds good on ANY system……….

©Copyright 2011 Brad Morrison/Billiken Media

How to create a final mix…….(stage #1)


I spent a good portion of today driving on the marginal highway system of New York’s five boroughs.  Driving is a great way to think. It is also a great space to work on mixing down recordings. I am about to rerelease a few records from the mid 1980’s on I tunes so the task of listening to final masters falls on me. 

In this case the recordings were originally 24 track 2″ multitracks that had been mixed down to 1/4″ two-track masters.  Back in the good ole days this was a standard set up. The masters were then used to cut “lacquers” which are a negative copy of the actual vinyl LP. These lacquers were then used to create metal master copies. The metal masters were then used to create a metal stamper. This, of course, was used to press vinyl records.

In the old days mixing was done with the various stages of mastering, lacquers, stampers etc. in mind.  I’m tempted to claim that there was some exacting scientific system that was used to anticipate all of these processes. If I did claim that it would make producers and mastering engineers of the 70’s and 80’s seem like evil geniuses. (the best kind) Of course, this was not the case. The system used was called “a good ear”. in short, by trial and error you learned how much extra top and bottom you needed to add to recordings in order to end up with a vinyl record that sounded great.

Remember grasshopper - balance...it's all about balance..........

Now, twenty-five years later, I find myself trying to recreate that sound by remastering the recordings for the digital age. Once again it is a matter of “a good ear”. Sadly it is impossible to put the warmth of analog recording back into digital masters. I know that everyone tries. I know that I try and my mastering engineers try but it is never the same. Digital sounds like digital and analog sounds great. If you are young and you are recording you have probably never heard really great sounding analog recording. Take my word for it – it blows digital away.

I started by mentioning working on mixes in my car. This wasn’t some form of fiction I was actually working on mastering. How did I do that? I was using my crappy car sound system as a reference. What the hell does that mean? Well, I was comparing the sound of the mix on the car’s sound system to my memory of the same mixes in my home studio, my home sound system and a cheap boom box in my barn. In the ideal world the mixes should sound about the same on all of these different playback systems.  This is a critical measure of any mix.

Look at it this way. If you mix down a multitrack and play it back on a $50,000 audiophile system it will sound great. Of course it will. The system adds in its own clarity and resolution. The bass sounds huge, the high-end is crisp and clear and the mids are beautifully defined and warm. It’s so easy to make a great playback system sound great. A really great mix should make your 10-year-old cousin’s fucked up stereo sound great. How is this rare magic created? Balance, careful, meticulous balance and compression. These two items make a rock mix rock.

So now I will continue on with attempting to write about mixing. As I started this post I realized that explaining in words the process of mixing may prove impossible. I am going to try real hard and I hope that my determination will win through. As usual I encourage questions. This will help me fill in holes in my explanation.

For the sake of this blog let’s assume that you have already created a multitrack of a song. This multitrack has all of the meat and potatoes of great recording, that is to say, drums, bass, a couple of guitars, lead vocals, background vocals, Hammond organ, the sound of guinea pigs being run through the spin cycle of a dryer and, of course, tambourine. All of these tracks have been recorded properly. When I say properly I assume that there are no phase problems, and all tracks are recorded on decent mics and then compressed.  Let’s also assume that none of the tracks are recorded with effects on the original track.  There are times when recording effects on the original track makes sense but in this discussion we will assume that each track is dry. So now that you have all of these tracks how do you put together a mix?

Here goes… you can follow along on your console if you have a mix that needs mixing.  First, make sure that all EQ and effects are not in the mix. The early part of any mixing process should be FLAT. I am deadly serious about that. trust me ’cause I have done this a couple of thousand times. With all of the EQ’s and effects out bring up the individual channels in groups. Drums are usually first. Bring up all of the drum tracks and listen for BALANCE.  When I use the term balance I mean that the tracks when played back seem to fill up the stereo field without leaning to the left or right speaker. Here is a typical drum arrangement with the idea of balance being foremost in your mind. The kick should be panned to 12 o’clock. (that means the pan pot is straight up the center) The snare drum is also panned at 12 o’clock, straight up the center.  Now we add in the overhead mics. There should be two of them and they should be panned hard left and right. (we’ll call hard left 8 o’clock and hard right 4 o’clock) As you add in the drum tracks be careful to listen for phase problems. Drums are notorious for phase problems since it is the one instrument that always has multiple mics recording the same sound source. This is the classic set up for phase problems. (please read my posting about phase problems if this doesn’t make sense to you) When I say listen for phase problems I mean to say listen for an apparent loss of bottom end when a track is added to the mix. This is often the most obvious indicator of phase problems.  As you add in the overheads try flipping the left and right pans to see which arrangement sounds more balanced and natural.  Next add in the hi hat mic if you have one. This will usually make the snare drum seem to move in the stereo field. This is caused by the hi hat mic having tons of snare in it and as a result will mess with the snare balance. The usual solution is to lean the hi hat a little to the right and the snare a little to the left. This should bring the snare back to the center of the stereo field. It is important that you maintain the snare up the center since it is often the loudest item in the mix. Yes, the Beatles put the whole drum kit in the left speaker and the sound of tripping Scotsmen in the right speaker and it worked. But you are not the Beatles. If you are one of the surviving members of the Beatles you do not need me to tell you how to mix. Sorry I digress……..

Ok so now you have the kick, snare, hi hat, and overheads in the mix. Ask yourself, “Do I need more?”. Often you can have a smokin’ mix without the tom mics. If you feel that you must have the tom mics then carefully add them in making sure to pan the individual drums so they appear to be in the proper place in the stereo field. What is the proper place? They should sound like they do on the kit, floor tom to the hard left (maybe 9 o’clock) rack #1 at 1 o’clock and rack two at 11 o’clock.

Now that all the drum tracks are up and running play with the relative volume of each track until the kit sounds BALANCED and the apparent volume of each element of the drum kit is where it should be. Remember Do Not add EQ or effects at this point. The whole early part of a mix should be about balance.

The next item is the bass. This gets added straight up the middle.  Often bass is recorded with both a DI (as in direct line input) track and a mic track.  I personally think that this system sucks. If you record a DI and a mic of the same instrument they will be out of phase. The difference in phase will be small but will be significant nonetheless. I have solved this problem by running the DI line through a very fast delay and messing with the delay timing until the phase issue disappears. It is much easier to make a choice use a DI or use a mic. The more experience I acquired the more often I choose the mic.  No matter which method you use the bass gets mixed straight up the middle.  If you try to pan it the whole mix will start to lean-to one side. This will make the mastering engineer use your name as a common cuss word for years after completing your project.

As you add in the bass pay careful attention to the balance between the kick drum and the bass. Neither the kick or the bass should dominate. Instead they should work together and feel…you guessed it….balanced.

Ok, time to move on to the guitars. At this stage you can start to think about how the final mix will be balanced. For example, you might have two rhythm guitars that work against each other. These could be added as left and right in the mix, say at 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock.  Or you might have one dominant rhythm guitar and this is added in at 2 o’clock. In a situation like this it may be balanced with the lead vocal being added at 11 o’clock so the mix seems full.

As you add in the next elements use the pan pots to place each track in its own space in the mix. Stereo is a wonderful thing. Use it. I have heard many mixes through the years that sounded lame solely because the mix engineer never bothered to pan the various tracks so that they used up the stereo field in a creative way.

So the drums bass and guitars are all in the mix. They all feel balanced and their relative volume is where you think they will work. Now add the lead vocal. Skip the background vocals for the moment. After you add the lead vocal and find the proper level for it drop out the bass and guitars so that you are listening to drums and vocals.Listen to this down through the whole track paying close attention to the way the drums work with the vocals. Make sure that there are no moments where the kick and snare interfere with the lead vocal. The most common problem is that the kick or snare are “out of the pocket” and make the lead vocal seem out of time. Sometimes it is the other way around. If you find any of these kind of problems mark down the time and make a note that you will need to move either the drums or the vocal at that spot to make up for the problem.

Add the bass and guitars back in. Now add in any other elements. You should now have a well-balanced mix with all of the little things that often put the polish on a recording.  Spend some time moving different elements up or down to achieve a mix that works without having to touch the level of any element. Yes, i know that everyone has programmable faders nowadays but the key to a good mix is that the whole mix should be balanced and clear WITHOUT ANY FADER MOVES. If you achieve this goal then you are on your way to a great mix.

This is the first place where it is time to take the mix out of the mix room and listen to it on a car stereo or a boom box. Print a disc and take it somewhere to listen to it. Listen for…you guessed it again…Balance and, now, as the mix is starting to be complete, listen for clarity. Does it sound dull? Does it sound muddy? Does it have too much top end or too much bottom? When you identify a problem go back to the console and try to alter the fader levels to solve the problem. Do this first. Do this before you even consider using EQ.  Many general EQ problems in a mix can be solved by playing with the levels.  Change the mix slightly and once again take it to another sound system. The goal at this stage is for the mix to sound SIMILAR on every system you play it on.

As you finish this stage of the mixing process you should reach a stage where you have gotten everything that you can get out of balancing the fader volumes and the pan positions. When you feel that any improvement must come from somewhere else and that the MIX ALREADY SOUNDS PRETTY FUCKING GOOD then it is time to move on to EQ, compression and effects. These processes will be covered in the next blog. I hope to have that blog up and running in a day or two.

© Brad Morrison/Billiken Media 2011

oodles of recording noodles……………..


So let’s swing back to the core of what a band does to promote itself – recording music.  Recording, the private, back room activity that an active band engages in, should be central to a your band’s development. You should always be setting something down on tape. This could be demos, live tracks as the band plays out, major sessions with a producer, a running project to rerecord “Dark Side of the Moon” as a salsa album or collaborations with other artists. It all counts. It is all central to being a great band and it all should be DONE WITHOUT DELAY!!! Stop fucking around and make the record.

Over the course of my career I heard the same lame excuse with sickening regularity. There are many variations but it basically goes like this ” We’re waiting for Tyrone Mablamawitz to find time in his schedule so we can work on some tracks” The key word is “waiting”.  Your waiting for the studio. Your waiting to finish writing two more tracks. Your waiting for label to show some interest. Your waiting until you buy that new compressor. Your waiting for your lucky groupie to get outta rehab…..Bullshit. Why wait? Never wait. If you are going to be a band that records songs then FUCKING RECORD AND DON’T BE AN IDIOT ABOUT IT! Great records are made by bands that actually push the RECORD button. If you are too timid to do it, if you are always finding an excuse why you’re not ready, then you’re not a great band.

You have to feel the fierce urgency of NOW!

Look at it this way. You’re in a band. You have the lives of four or five people tangled up and committed to the crazy campaign to make great rock. How long can this last? How long will the band hang together? How long until someone pisses off everyone else and things change? I have thirty five years experience in this subject and I can tell you with no reservation that answer to all of those questions is “Not long at all”. All bands are temporary. The only ones that stick around for decades are the ones that make it big. Once that happens you will have already figured out that you need to get it down on tape.

All of the arguments that you are not ready don’t really add up. For example if you find yourself arguing that the tunes need to be practiced in order to have enough polish then get to it and knock out the practices. That is part of the recording process. There is a subtle but important difference between “Yeah we have just been practicing” and “We’re doing preproduction practices”. One is the humdrum pace of a band wasting its time and the other is a band working towards a short-term goal.

Let me sum up this rant. ALWAYS RECORD WHAT’S GOING DOWN IN THE BAND. It all has use and if you are not recording then you damn well better be playing out live. Oh yeah, if you are playing live you damn well better be getting some of the shows on tape. Listening back to a live shows tape is a great way to figure out that it’s time to fire the drummer or that “I’ll cry over your puppy baby” really sucks and the band should finally drop it from the set list. (which, of course, will mean you can finally fire the drummer since it is his only song)

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This post looks like a few random recording topics. Since there are always lots of brief comments rattling around in my skull I will occasionally spit out these disjointed posts. I hope that they fit in with all of the other more structured posts.

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How do you get good tracks in the studio? How do you make a recording really special?

Getting great tracks

This, of course, could be a huge post with lots of subchapters and scores of stories. Tonight, at least, I am going to give a few quick and dirty tips and rules to help ensure cutting great tracks.

1. Great tracks are based on great, relaxed, well centered playing. It all starts with everyone in the band being in a great mood (by great I mean appropriate and intense in some way) Everyone should be well fed, and focused. The band should try to record at the hours where everyone involved is working at their best. If your bass player just spent 14 hours unloading UPS trucks and arrived with no sleep and utter exhausted then you are on course to cut lousy tracks. Another piece of this core idea is that you should never work really long sessions. I have seen it tried hundreds of times and it has never worked. The best tracks are always cut when the band is relatively fresh and everyone’s ears are fresh.

2. Always keep practice takes and shoot for cutting the base tracks in one or two takes. If you find yourself playing a song again and again then you either need to go back into the preproduction rehearsals or the band needs a break.  The ideal session should run around 10 or twelve hours maximum. This is important. If you think you are smarter than me on this one good luck. You will spend lots of studio time banging away at the same song  and the tracks will sound lame when you go back and listen with fresh ears.

At my residential studio, Morrison Hotel, I always recorded from noon til twelve with a two-hour break in the middle. During the break I would cook a big meal. Get the band loose with substances of their choosing and tell them a bunch of rock stories to get everyone in the proper mindset. 80% of the tracks on my recordings at Morrison Hotel were cut during the two or three hours after coming back from break. The really great tracks, the ones that I can look back at and say they really rock were first or second takes.

If things start to get stale while recording take a break and do something fun. Go throw snowballs at the Hookers on the Avenue or go to the piggly wiggly as a group to see what trouble comes up. Stick together but take a break.  When the lead singer needs to “go for a pilgrimage into the woods for five hours then you are going to be getting a new singer soon.

3. Break the rules and experiment when you hit a roadblock. Every band finds themselves frustrated and stalled at some point while trying to record. When this happens use some strategies to break out of it and reenergize the session.  I think the key here is to do something creative and impulsive.  Try to rewrite a Beatles song. Record the song with the structure backwards. Cut out the chorus and try rewriting a quick and dirty version of the song with new verses and a new bridge.

Brian Eno, one of the world’s most creative producers, invented a set of cards called Oblique Strategies in the early 80’s. The purpose of these strange Tarotlike cards was to shake up the creative process. I believe you can still buy them if you are curious.  They looked like a Taro set. On each one was printed a command like “Erase and Start again” or “Take a minor element and make it a primary element”. When you got stuck you cut the deck and did what it commanded. Simple, brilliant, inspired. If you want to hear the result listen to “The fly” by U2 or any of the tracks on the Talking Heads “Remain in Light”.

4. Work on the band’s sound and get it to sound amazing before you put mics on it. Yes, the recorded tracks should be cut with the best mics and compressors you possess but the secret to a great sounding recording is to get the band sounding amazing and then capturing it. The mics, compressors, recording console and effects will not create world-class recordings by themselves. They can add to the sound. They can sculpt the sound but they can’t make it sound great when it sounds like shit in the tracking room.  THe first thing you do is get the drums, guitar amps, bass amps, leslie cabinets etc. sounding like the Voice of the Great God Jupiter. Once you do that it becomes a simple process of capturing the sound on tape.  Another way to put it is great tracks are not created in the mix room they are created by the players themselves using gear they understand.  GET IT RIGHT IN THE RECORDING ROOM FIRST. MAKE THE AMPS AND DRUMS SOUND LIKE MAGICAL SPIRITS AND THEN PUT MICS ON IT AND HIT RECORD!!! That’s the way professional, world-class records are made.

OK that sums up tonight’s advice. Of course there will be more to say in the coming weeks…. stay tuned…..

© Brad Morrison/Billiken Media 2011

Demos and the fine art of getting it down on tape………


About a month ago I ran a posting asking people to send in their demos. As I mentioned in that posting the idea was for me to criticize the demos in an effort to teach you, the reader, something about songwriting and recording. I got quite few submissions and, in general, there was some good stuff. Nonetheless I intend to kick the stuffing out of the songs I have picked. I am not doin’ this to discourage the musicians that were brave enough to go through this process. Instead I am going to give you an idea of how tapes are torn up by label people and producers.

As I mentioned in one of my earlier blogs almost everyone in the music business can come up with one solid criticism of anything they hear and that is that whatever it is, no matter how good or bad, it would have benefited greatly if the person doing the talking had been involved in its creation.  The music business is full of people who are firmly convinced that they know everything there is to know about writing songs, recording music and turning that music into a mega popular world-wide hit.  In the few cases were I have seen this actually happen it usually results in something like “The Witch Doctor Song” as sung by Alvin and the Chipmunks or the Macarena. It is useful to remember that very few of these people actually have any talent. If they did they would be musicians. During the Golden Age of record companies there were A & R people who really knew their stuff. There are even a few of them alive now. ( I’ll mention Joe McEwan and leave it at that…Hi Joe..How’s the wife?)( I should also admit that this whole blog is based on the premise that I know something about writing songs, recording songs and creating hits. At least I have succeeded in all three activities so there is a chance I am qualified)

Sadly, if you are determined to be involved with a large label then you will end up dealing with dullards, power mad gay hobbits, Human version of Jabba the Hut and slimey limey Simon Cowell types. You may even get lucky and find yourself attached to one of the people in the business that understand that it is a business but at its heart it’s about music. Good luck.

Tonight’s blog is not going to actually get around to presenting some music and then pulling it apart. In order to reach that point I must talk about what demos do and don’t do for a band. I must also address some of the stupid misconceptions about demos.

The first grand misconception..”In order for a demo to be effective you’ve gotta break the bank and spend as much as you can on recording and producing it”. This is completely untrue. I suspect that this fallacy is kept alive by studio owners and indy producers that make serious coin when they run into a band with a rich daddy that will pay the bills. The truth is that the value of a demo is determined by the quality of the songwriting and the fire in the belly of the band that cuts the track. It’s that simple. Good recording, bad recording, 24 track digital, two-track kids cassette deck it doesn’t matter.  If you can’t hear the song, if you can’t really hear the band then that’s a lousy demo. If the band spends lots of money and time recording a demo they will get nothing other than a lesson. The lesson will end up being that it was a waste of time and money.

Second misconception “The formula for a demo is ____________. ” I’ve heard many things used to fill in the blank. “It’s gotta be just three songs” “It should be two upbeat songs and a ballad” “It needs to have a hundred-dollar bill and a gram of coke tucked into the CD sleeve” . This last one might actually get you the attention of the kind of record executive that will spend your whole recording budget on coke.  Truth is there is no formula. Demos shouldn’t be really long since it will never get listened to all the way through.  Demos should consist of a few great songs with enough material to show exactly what a band sounds like.

Third Misconception – ” A great demo will start a bidding war and land a deal overnight” I’ve heard this one ever since I entered the music business in 1978. That’s …hmm let me think…32 years ago. In all of that time I have never met a band signed as a result of a demo. I think that ends that rumor.  The way that a band gets signed is a result of many factors adding up. This has to be matched by having contacts and interested people working for you. When you put great shows, great songs, great demos, popularity (the most important factor), buzz, press attention together with a network of people who know about you , you end up with a recording contract.

In short your demo can have things about it that sucks but if the band is great that should shine through. If, as is usually the case, the band is just OK, perhaps good in some ways and not so good in others, then you will not get a deal due to those factors and the demo will just show other people the band’s weaknesses.

So now we reach the question “What do record companies do with demos? Who listens to them? How do I get them listened to?” These are all part of the same subject.

All of the major record labels do not accept unsolicited demos. Why do they do this? Why are they so mean? It’s simple really. They believe that any band that is worth listening to will have people promoting them. They will have a manager or a lawyer or they will have devoted fan that IS IN THE MUSIC BUSINESS. They believe this because it is true.  Promoters, agents, managers, producers, lawyers, road managers, film makers, DJs, studio engineers etc. all have their ears open for a great band. These people insulate the major labels from the mountain of demos that are not worth listening to. All of these characters have their ears open in an effort to find the band first and get onboard to make some money as the band succeeds.  Many musicians have a problem with this concept. They view all of these people as parasites. This is a stupid, self-destructive attitude. These people are not parasites they are symbiotes. What does that mean? It means that they do not feed off of the band and bleed the band and weaken the band, no, instead they work alongside the band and help them succeed. They teach the band the craft of being rock stars and the tricks of the trade. They produce and promote records. In general the further a person is from the major labels the greater the native talent they need to survive. An independent producer must search out and discover band after band and then convince them to let him produce a record. Then promote this recording. These are all valuable services for the band.

Now I can hear a certain number of you out there saying “Not me, I’m the next demigod of rock and no one knows it. All I need to do is walk on stage and the world will crawl to my feet.” Gee I hope that is true, for your sake. Even if you are Loki, the god of the underworld, you need to learn how to put on a great show and how to arrange your songs. You need to learn how to record. You need to learn how to talk to a writer and how to do a radio interview without sounding like Bozo the Clown.

So now that you know that you can’t just send in your demo – why should you make a demo? Well, you need the demo to get the other characters interested. You need to make a cheap, dirty beginners demo to turn on a producer or engineer. This allows you to make a better demo that ends up getting you a lawyer and catches the ear of a booking agent that will pick you up as your audience starts to grow.  This gets you to a label that finances some development demos that lands you a publishing deal….Are you starting to see the sequence?

So let’s go back to demos and the major labels. I will take the time to answer a few basic questions just to get them out of the way.

“How do I get them listened to?” Demos that make it to an A & R department of a major label get there by being passed on by an established manager, lawyer, producer or booking agent.  They are the gatekeepers. The status of the person that submits the demo determines who will listen to it.  For example I managed three different acts on Columbia records at one time. The PResident of Columbia was (and I think still is) Don Ienner. Don and I have met professionally many times. We’ve met to discuss promoting my acts, releasing various items from these acts, coordinating tours of these acts etc. If I were to call him he would pick up the phone. He would do this for two reasons. First he knows me professionally and respects the fact that I manage bands that have enough clout and status to be signed to Columbia. Second he knows from his experience with me that I only call people when I have something concrete to talk to them about. He also knows that whatever I want to talk to him about WILL LIKELY BE ADVANTAGEOUS TO HIM AND COLUMBIA. This is an important point. Always call people with something that might help them. This will make your phone calls wanted rather than an annoyance.

If I were to call Don Ienner and ask him to listen to a tape he would tell the VP of A & R to listen to the tape and give him his opinion. Then, if that opinion was favorable he would listen to it and call me up with a reaction.  If the music seemed like something Columbia might want he would suggest a showcase and ask questions like “Are you planning on managing or producing?” You might be surprised to know that, although I have known Don Ienner since 1988 I have only called him about a tape twice.  Why? Because I have only found two occasions where I was in the position to pitch him a tape that fit with Columbia’s interests and I had the job of pitching the band. In both cases Columbia did not offer the band a deal. Since one of the bands was the band Phish and they went on to be one of the biggest bands of the 1990’s I expect that the next time I call him he will listen to whatever I send him.

Let us compare that scenario with a different, fictional one to help explain how the system works. Let’s say that a junior lawyer at an Entertainment Law Firm in Minneapolis,MN calls Columbia to pitch a tape.  Columbia will take him seriously since he is a professional and is in the business. They will probably tell him that someone will call him back. This call will get routed to an A & R co-ordinator. This is a person in the A & R department that works out all kinds of things like flights for A & R staff, showcase arrangements and, as in this case, calls from unknown law firms and managers. They won’t ignore the call. What if this band turns out to be the next Phish? Every major label is haunted by stories of how they turned down an artist that went on to fame. As a result they try to at least chalk up a rejection for everything that someone in the business shops to them.

In this case the A & R co-ordinator will pass on the contact to a junior A & R guy. He will call the lawyer, listen to the pitch and tell the lawyer to send in the tape. He then lists the tape in the incoming demo log. He is supposed to listen to the tape shortly after it arrives. Unfortunately he may make ten calls like this every day. The stack of unlistened to tapes grows and grows. As it does he pushes his boss to let him hire a “listener”. This is a person, usually an intern that gets cheap wages to listen to mountains of tapes. For each tape he writes a little blurb and rates it. He may get to pick out three or four as his favorites which the Junior A & R guy will then listen to.

So, it’s obvious that your chances of getting a deal through the junior lawyer in Minneapolis are slim. Even if the tape does get someone interested this is just the beginning of a long process with showcases, various demos and finally the word that they are gonna pass.  During that time you can grow old and die. NEVER WAIT TO GET SIGNED!!! It’s fine to pursue getting a deal but  never put of making records and playing live while waiting to get signed. This is a common and deadly mistake.

Next blog I will post two demos, one from the band Spiral Jetty Club and the other from the ever-present reader Oliver from Australia. I will then pull them apart and tell you how a label would view them, how a manager might view them and how a producer would hear them so stay tuned…………………………………………….

Enslave the digital dwarfs!Lubricate your livingroom and compress your head!


So this is a blog in the continuing series covering recording techniques, gear, attitude, strange events in the studio etc.  The last blog was a run down of a track explaining how it was recorded. Tonight I think I will continue on talking about different pieces of electronics in the studio and how they are used to create pro sounding tracks.

Since I have covered microphones extensively I will tackle the next step in the chain, the microphone preamplifier, commonly called the mic pre. The Mic Pre is an extremely important piece of the puzzle. It is exactly what it sounds like, an amplifier for the microphone. The signal from the mic travels down the wire and enters the board. Here is where the Mic Pre does it’s magic.  It is a little, very powerful amplifier circuit. On the top of the board you have a simple volume control.  As part of the section dedicated to the Mic Pre there are often a few other controls. One may be labeled “Phantom” or “+48”. This switch turns on the phantom power. I covered this in an earlier blog so you can refer back to more in depth comments but let me just say that most condenser microphones require power. This is supplied by the phantom power system of the mixing board. In some cases there is one switch on the back of the board that turns on the power for all mic pre’s and on other boards there is an individual switch for each channel. If the power is not on the mic will not work. If it is on and the mic doesn’t require power it will have no apparent effect. Another possible control on the Mic Pre section is the Phase switch.  This is an extremely important switch and is often ignored or misunderstood by users. This is unfortunate since it has a really specific use that, once you understand it, can really solve certain recording issues. The switch is usually labeled like this ø. I have even seen it labeled like this ∞. which is completely wrong.  There are other places on boards where the second symbol, the symbol for infinity is appropriate. The Phase switch just isn’t one of these places. 

The concept of phase in recording is important so follow along closely. Sound is made up of waves. Just like waves in the ocean the sound waves have peaks (high points) and troughs (low points).  If you take a piece of paper and draw a perfect series of up and down waves with nice round curves that are all exactly the same you will have just drawn a sine wave. There is no need to discuss the math involved with a sine wave but just know that you can write out this wave using math.

That’s what it looks like.  Now let’s imagine that this sound is being played into a mic which is running down the wire and entering the mixing board through the Mic Pre. Now we switch the phase switch.

This reverses the phase of the incoming signal. Now the peaks are where the troughs were a moment ago. Since we are also listening in this imaginary scenario where we have an imaginary signal going into our imaginary board with our imaginary phase switch and the world is ruled by Damn Dirty Apes! Fight them! Be proud you are human dammit!!! You think all of those bananas in the super market are just a coincidence? No! It’s a conspiracy!… Sorry I got off track for a second. I am prone to losing track of fantasy scenarios.

Right so we are listening. What change do we hear? None, nothing, zip, nada. The phase switch just changes the way the signal is being processed. Since we are hearing a wave form that is identical except for the placement of troughs and peaks we hear the same boring sine wave. (a sine wave sounds like a really boring flute tone)

Now let’s imagine that we have two sine waves being played into two mic pre’s side by side. We are listening to these two signals in the monitor speakers. If these two sine waves entering the board with their phase patterns just like the two illustrations above, that is to say, where the peaks and troughs of the two signals would be opposite from each other we say that they are “out of phase”.  Since sine waves are mathematically perfect and regular if we actually try to listen to two sine waves that are “out of phase” with each other than the result is —————- Silence. The peaks cancel out the troughs and the troughs cancel out the peaks. This is caused by the signals being “perfectly out of phase”. In math terms they are 180° out of phase.  It doesn’t matter if you don’t quite get the math argument for this situation. What is important is that you understand that peaks and troughs are interfering with each other and it is changing the sound.  Let’s take this stuff and apply it to music.

Let’s say that you have a bass being recorded by a mic on track 3 and a guitar being recorded by a mic on track 5.  What happens when these two instruments and tracks are out of phase? Nothing. Why? Well it’s sort of a trick question. The two instruments are being recorded separately on two different  mics on two separate tracks. In this case what the phase of each track is doesn’t matter. PHASE ONLY MATTERS WHEN YOU HAVE TWO OR MORE MICS RECORDING THE SAME SOUND. When there are more than one mic catching a sound then the possibility comes up that the troughs and peaks of the sound may be out of alignment with each other. Let’s look at a situation that comes up often in the studio.

You set up a drum kit and put mics all around the drum kit to capture all the different pieces of the kit when you drummer finally gets out of jail, finishes fighting with his girlfriend, wolfs down the meatball hero her borrowed 7 dollars from you to buy, drinks all of your beer while your not looking and then finally decides to put down that smokin’ groove that opens your latest masterpiece “Fish eye soup”. Every hit of the snare or the kick or the hi hat or the cymbal will be picked up on all of the mics. Each mic will get more or less of the sound. This doesn’t matter and doesn’t cause the problems. All of the mics will receive some of the sound of the snare drum hit at SLIGHTLY DIFFERENT TIMES.

  The key here is to understand that the little graph is the pattern of a sound plotted ALONG A TIME LINE. So when peaks and troughs end up canceling each other out it is because the signal is happening at a slightly different TIME.

Get it? It’s ok if it’s a little fuzzy. What counts is that you learn a couple of simple rules and then learn to THINK about what is going on with your mics and channels. Then you can figure out when you might have possible phase problems

Here’s the rules:

1. Phase problems happen when two or more mics catch the same sound at different times.

2. Phase problems can also happen when two or more tracks are playing back the same sound with different effects on the different channels.

If you know these two rules then you will know when to suspect that the EVIL MUNCHKIN GOD OF BAD PHASE IS HAUNTING YOUR RECORDING. So now you suspect that the munchkin god is consuming your drummer’s soul. Damn that sucks. How can you be sure? How can you fix it? Easy.

Let’s say you think two mics are out of phase. They are both pointing at the snare drum. Listen to the two mic channels by themselves together. Does that make sense?  Ah, let me put it in better Engrish. Press the solo buttons on both channels or turn all the other channels down so that you can only hear those two mics while the drummer plays a beat.  Now, listen while he plays and SWITCH THE PHASE BUTTON ON ONE OF THE CHANNELS. It’s got to be one of the channels not both. If you switch both you will just create the mirror image of the same problem. [ Deep Purple’s Highway Star just started on my Ipod. It smokes…Man can Ian Gillian sing the high metal god shit!] So when you switch the phase button listen to see if more bottom appears. That is to say more bass frequencies, more low frequencies.  The most obvious sign that you have a phase problem is that the sound will be thin with no bottom. It may also have a flangy, phasey kinda sweep sound changing as the sound goes on. This happens sometimes not always but the lack of bottom is sure sign.  If you find that pushing one of the phase buttons in gives you more bottom in the sound then the two mics were out of phase. You can leave the button pushed down and record that way OR you can move the mic slightly to try to find a sweet spot that doesn’t suffer from phase problems. Both solutions work well.

What if your mixing board doesn’t have a phase button? It happens. I recorded two records on an extremely expensive English mixing board that had no phase buttons. In that case you soldier together a wire that switches the phase. If you need an explanation of how to do that post a comment or write me an email.

It’s extremely important that you learn to identify and eliminate phase problems when you record. This will help you tracks sound fat and happy.  I need to add that all recordings of multiple instruments using multitrack recording are going to have some phase problems somewhere in the mix. It’s impossible to get everything to be “perfectly in phase”. You only need to eliminate glaring errors. Get in the habit of checking for phase and moving mics, switching phase buttons to try to police these things out of your recordings.

 I once was asked to do a mix at a semi pro studio in Albany,NY. I was remixing some figgs tracks and another band offered to pay me to remix one or two of their tracks to hopefully make them sound a little better than the mixes they had.  I listened to their mixes and they were really muddy and it was hard to hear any individual instrument. I suspected that they were using too much EQ when they mixed. I turned up in the studio and asked them to pop in a CD of “Zeppelin’s “Houses of the Holy”. The studio owner/engineer was really testy about me even working in his studio and lectured me about being careful not to break anything or mess up the careful set up and balances of all his gear.  At first he was really annoyed that I wanted to listen to Zeppelin. Eventually he put in the disc. I cranked it up and listened for about thirty seconds. I then clicked through about 20 seconds of  a few different tracks.

I got up from behind the board and opened the closet that was next to the wall where the monitors were mounted as recessed units. I reached behind one of the monitors and reversed the wires on one of the speakers before he could stop me. He was furious. An argument ensued. While he was still yelling at me I hit play on the Zeppelin CD and turned it up. He stopped dead in his tracks. It sounded great and he knew it.

His main monitor speakers were out of phase. He had one speaker wired with the positive wire to the negative and the negative wire to the positive terminal. If he had wired both speakers wrong he would have gotten it right but he had miswired one of them. For over a year he had been charging local bands decent money to mix recordings on an out of phase speaker system. As a result every band put tons and tons of added bass and bottom on their recordings. When they got home the recordings sounded like crap, muddy, indistinct and boomy. He had heard the complaints and thought that the bands were all idiots.

When his ego had recovered he apologised and offered to make the session free.  A few days later I was interviewed for the local arts paper. They asked me what I thought of the studio and I said “It sounded great! Our mixes came out great!” which was true.  It doesn’t help to buy $2000 monitors and then wire them wrong. The simple methods I have just outlined are easy to learn and will help you insure that your mixes sound good. There are pro tests using oscilloscopes and other do dads but leave that kind of stuff to pro engineers…..

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So the next piece of the recording puzzle is the next piece of the recording chain, the compressor. If you have read many of my other blogs you’ve heard me mention these items in various ways.  This is the most underused, overused and completely misunderstood piece of gear in the recording studio. (or on stage for that matter)

I love compressors. It didn’t always love them. I came to love them slowly, over time. I always used them but it wasn’t until I started to attend mastering sessions with high paid mastering engineers that I started to fully grasp their power and understand why they were so damn cool and so important to making a smoking rock record.

In 1997 or 1998 (my memory is poor) I won the RIAA Rock Record of the Year for producing Graham Parker and the Figgs “The Last Rock n Roll Tour”. I was flattered. I was a little confused since I felt I had made more important records and that some of the records I had made sounded better.  Like all stupid award kinda things it had to do with Public Relations, the way the wind was blowing in the rock business and all kinds of strange useless trends that added up to me winning over lots of people with huge names working with huge acts.

I remember turning up to the mastering session (mastering is where you go to a pro studio to adjust the EQ and Compression on a whole record. You should end up with a pro sounding recording) [Red Baron by Billy Cobham on the Ipod now. The electric piano solo is ridiculously good]  The mastering Engineer set up the tape and hit play. Then he turned to me and joked ” So do I even get paid for this?” He was flattering me. The record was mixed really well.(thanks to Eric Rachel who helped out) and it was compressed so much that the needles on the main meters shot up to +1 and stayed there for the whole record. This is a good thing for a rock record.  what i had done was compress the mixes. This makes them sound great.      (Here’s graham and the figgs at South By Southwest 2007)

When MIX magazine interviewed me about the record the first question the writer asked was ” This record is slammed. How much of that was done in the mix and how much did you add in mastering?” Again, the point here is that the writer knew that the reason the record sounded so damn loud was the compression.

So what is it? What makes Compression and Compressors so important? Let’s look at the gear and I think we can find and answer.

Compressors and limiters do two basic things. Limiters limit how loud a track or track is allowed to go. Compressors on the other hand make loud things softer and soft things louder.  That’s all. It’s simple really.

When you take a sound and put it through a compressor unit it changes the dynamics of the sound. It takes the louder parts of the sound and pushes them down and it takes the softer parts and pushed them up. It squeezes the dynamics together.

From the standpoint of how it stands it makes the sound stick out. It gives it an “in your face” quality. The harder the compression the more obvious the effect of making it push into the front. Heavily compressed music has a tendency to jump from the speaker. It makes a voice, for example, pop right out of a speaker. The vast majority of classic records that you and I love are compressed. They are compressed when they are recorded. They are compressed when they are mixed. They are recompressed when they are mastered and often, when remastered they are compressed yet again.

Many lousy engineers have railed at me, usually at length, about the evils of compression. They seem to be fundamentally opposed to the idea on philosophical grounds.  Their rant usually goes something like this:

“I never use them. I like my music to breathe. Why would you want to take any of the dynamics out of music? Dynamics are what make music sound real!! I hate compressors. Only lazy engineers and producers use them to cover the fac that they don’t know how to record!”

This rant is the exact opposite of the truth. In my experience the philosophical rant from anti compressor engineers is cover for the fact that they do not know how to use a compressor and as a result whenever they have tried to use them one of two things happens, they either have no effect and this leaves them confused or they make the track sound duller and this leaves them confused. So they make up a speech about the importance of dynamics.

Dynamics, the loudness and softness, in music are, of course, important. In the world of recording classical music musical dynamics are taken extremely seriously. Classical recordings often sweep from a whisper to a crashing crescendo. Classical recordings rarely use any compression. They stick to the absolute scale of dynamics. (that’s a complex argument that I won’t get into, just accept it and let’s move on) This is inappropriate for rock music. In the world of rock recording the trend through the years has been towards more and more compression.

In 1993 I hired Don Gehman to produce the Figgs for Imago/BMG records. Don has produced lots of hits. The Bee Gees, John Cougar Melloncamp (that self-righteous prick), Hootie and the Blowfish etc. Don is a decent engineer and that is his main contribution to “production”. He has certain technical tricks and methods and if you add all of them up that’s his “sound”. One of these tricks is Bus Compression. This is his trick alone but he is one of the converted ones that will fight to the death for Buss Compression.  What the fuck is Buss Compression?

When you are mixing down a multitrack tape into the final mix that will be released to the world the final two stereo tracks that are coming out of the mixing console and being recorded as a mixed two track tape or stereo file on a computer are referred to as the Stereo Buss. This is just the two tracks that make up a mix, right and left. The main outputs of the mixing board, left and right are the Busses. This is a bit of a misuse of the term but we won’t worry about that just accept that when an engineer talks about the stereo busses he is referring to the stereo signals that come out of the mixing board. Is that clear? I’m not certain I can explain it any other way.

Don and I and most of the producers in the rock world send this mix into a stereo compressor and compress the whole mix before it gets recorded as a final mix. This is called Buss Compression.

I remember turning up at Dreamland Studios in Woodstock NY in 93 to check on the Figgs album project. Don took me in the main control room and cued up a mix. He hit play and the mix blared out. He had a twinkle in his eyes and he was pointing at the meters for the final mix. They were old fashioned big meters with real needles. I kept looking at them and shrugging. I had no idea what he was trying to tell me. Finally he stopped the tape so I could actually hear what he was saying.

“That’s what I call compressing for success!!” he joked. He then hit play again. The needles Jumped up to +1, wavered for an instant and then just stuck there quivering as the mix played on. His point was that the mix was compressed so hard that the recording jumped up to maximum and stayed there. Later he commented that mastering engineers loved him since he did all their work for them. When you compress a signal, track, mix, microphone input etc heavily it is called Slamming it. Well readers prepare to Slam the Shit out of your recordings!

The reason that many people shy away from compressor and often misuse them when they do use them is that they don’t understand the basic system and controls of a compressor. You guessed it, I’m going to cure you of that problem right now.

When a signal enters a compressor the compressor squashes the sound. It takes the soft bits and makes them louder and it takes the loud bits and makes them softer. It is pushing everything towards the middle of the VOLUME CURVE. It looks like this:

The signal in the picture is our friend the sine wave again.  Notice that there are three sections of the graph. The Attack, the middle section which is just the signal while being compressed and the release.  When you look at the front of a compressor you will find (not on all but on some) controls that say things like attack and release. There is also two important ones called threshold and ratio. Some simpler units may just have ratio and threshold. The final control knob, or dial or key pad is output or trim.  This is how it all works.

A signal enters the box, the threshold control adjusts the level at which the compressor starts to compress things. It does this based on VOLUME. Always remember that a compressor is doing things in the world of volume, nothing else. When you adjust the threshold you are setting the unit to kick in at a certain volume.  Look at this picture of a classic Urei compressor the 1176, the king of guitar compressors.

[The passenger by iggy pop just came on my ipod. Damn is it compressed! Sounds great! ]

The meters measure two things. This is usually what gets people confused. When the compressor is set one way the meter measures the incoming signal. you set this so that the signal hits zero pretty regularly. Then you switch the meter control to change what the meter measures. Now it will show you how much compression is happening. As you turn the threshold knob the volume of the incoming signal crosses the “threshold” of when the unit starts working. That’s why it’s called THRESHOLD. Duh! (if you don’t get it keep rereading this blog. I stared at my first compressor for most of 1979 before the instructions, the nasty comments of a few engineers and logic all came together in a flash of insight)

Once the unit kicks in the meter is showing you how much volume is being squashed. The more the meter moves in this setting the more you are compressing the signal.  Once you start to squash the signal it will start to get softer. This is supposed to happen. This is when you use the output/trim knob to turn the volume back up to exactly where it was before. Now you have a signal that is the same apparent volume but the internal dynamics have been crushed together.  This is what you are after.

How hard the unit crushes the sound is determined by the ratio switch. This is set at 2 to 1, 3 to 1, 4 to 1 etc. The larger the first number the stronger the effect. Start out at 2 t 1 and work your way up from there. The only other controls on a compressor are attack and release. To explain these I must talk about how compressions SOUNDS.

Once your ear gets used to hearing the compressor doing its magic you should start to hear the unit come on and go off. You will hear this as an unnatural change in the volume. Engineers refer to this as PUMPING. The cheaper the unit the more obvious this effect is. After you get really tuned to it you’ll start to hear it all over everything coming out of your stereo and radio. In fact DJ voices are extremely crushed and compressed and recompressed and limited.  This gives them that deep boomy, in your head kind of quality. THIS IS WHAT PROPERLY COMPRESSED SOUND SOUNDS LIKE!

Ever hear Pink Floyd “Dark Side of the Moon”? Slammed, slammed, slammed! “Led Zeppelin? Same thing. Beatles? Jesus the Beatles set the standard for highly compressed music. So if compression creates an effect that you can hear and sounds unnatural why is is used? Because it brings out all the detail of the instruments and voices. Ever wonder how engineers get that cool grainy, crisp sound to lead vocals? Compression. How about the guitar sound that roars out of your speaker? Reverb? Nah! Compression! How about the cymbal sound that seems to shimmer and drift away in long sustain. You guessed it. Do I need to do on? Trust me. This is how pro audio is done.

So let me review how you dial up the voice of god on your compressor.

1. take a signal from a mic, route it into the compressor input. From the compressor output it goes straight to record. Tape, computer whatever it doesn’t matter.  Now turn on the unit and listen. Set the meter to measure input. Turn up the input control until the meter is hitting zero regularly.

2. Set the unit to 2 to 1 ratio. Change the meter control so that it now measures compression. Now slowly turn up the threshold until the meter becomes active. The unit is now compressing the signal. You should hear the sound get softer and duller. Get a decent amount of compression happening. At this point it doesn’t sound so great.

3. Adjust attack and release. For the moment you can set both of these to fast. This means the unit will engage really fast and release as quickly. If you are trying to add sustain to a cymbal make the release long. If you are trying to tame a bass that booms sometimes but otherwise sounds cool set the attack to slower so the unit kicks in when the bass gets out of hand.

4. Now turn up the output/trim control until the volume is back where you started. At this point you should have a sound that is the same volume as what you started with but will sound kinda crunched. It will still sound a little dull.

5. Now turn on the EQ on the board. Add a little high frequency. Each kind of compressor sounds a little different. They all remove some high frequency content so you need to add some top back in. In the ideal world you are trying to make the EQ the same as when you started.

If you do this right then the final track will stand out in the mix. It will have lots of detail and life. When I record I compress almost every track. The only tracks I don’t compress are Kick and Snare. Sometimes I compress them as well.  Butch Vig, the famous producer of Nirvana and tons of great Sub Pop bands uses gobs and gobs of compression. Especially on the drums. That’s how he gets those drum sounds that leap out at you.

Ok some final, important words about compressors. You may already own a few compressors. Perhaps one of them is a guitar pedal. This is not a compressor it is a paperweight. A box like that is used to add some sustain to your lead guitar sound. It is not a studio compressor.  You may own a rack unit with eight compressors in a long unit. You bought it for about 200 on ebay. This is not a studio compressor. It claims it is but this is a bald faced lie.  You may own a reverb unit that has a setting called compression. This is not a studio compressor it is a cheap, lousy sounding reverb unit.

When buying studio equipment it is always better to buy less channels of higher quality. The best compressors can cost thousands of dollars for a single unit. This is not overkill.This is quality. It makes a big difference when it comes to compressors. Urei is the most common high quality studio compressor.  I like the LA4A myself. They are not cheap, about $500 for a single unit used.  DBX makes great compressors as well. These are cheaper and can had for around $300 per channel for a high quality one. I’m partial to the DBX 160. They are really nice on electric guitar. These are many, many others. Some are cheap and some are expensive. It’s up to you what you can afford to spend.

Think of it this way. If you own one high quality compressor for your studio you will use it on EVERY OVERDUB. This means that lots of tracks will benefit from the magic of compression. If you can afford two you are in even better condition. Make sure you buy matching units that have a feature called stereo strapping. This is a feature that allows you to hook the two units together. when you do this one of the units controls operates both units electronics. This allows you to run the outgoing mix (Hey we’re gonna do BUSS COMPRESSION just like the pros) through the two channels. Since the units do the same thing to both channels it gives you a compressed stereo mix without any weirdness from having one side compressed and the other side not compressed or half compressed.

Finally I will talk about limiters. Sometimes these are part of a compressor unit. This is called, oddly, a compressor limiter. A limiter is a compressor that can be set to not allow any signal to exceed a certain limit. When the signal hits the limit the unit kicks in and pushes it back. These kind of use are used by mastering engineers to insure that they can push a mix right up to the limit of their system and it will never jump over the line into distortion.  There are uses for limiters in rock recording but they are rare and unusual. I will leave that topic for you to figure out when you’ve mastered compression and mixing…and when you’ve mastered compression and mixing then you are well on your way to Succeeding at Rock.

©Brad Morrison/Billiken Media

Studio rundown of a track………


Tonight’s blog, and yes Happy St. Patrick’s Day, is going to be different. I hope it doesn’t turn out in that “smelly kid with the stray eye” kinda different. Instead I’m trying for “cool idea that I didn’t know would be useful until I saw it” kind of different.

I am going to post a track that I produced and then run down what went into it and how we recorded it in the studio. The track is a song by Super 400. They are a Troy NY band. I signed them to Island Records and Managed them for about a year. I produced their first record.  Unfortunately for them their record came out a week before Edgar Bronfmann bought Island  Records. The first thing he did was drop 1/3 of the roster. Since the record was a month old when this decision was made they got the axe. So they returned to obscurity and left behind a fine major label record that no one has ever heard.

I signed this band when I saw them open for the Figgs on New Years Eve. They reminded me of a mix between Stevie Ray and Cream. They are a power trio with a hot woman on bass that really can groove, a monster drummer (his brother plays bass for Lenny I stole it all from the Beatles Kravitz) and a great guitarist. The guitarist plays a 50’s les paul tv model. At the time we made the record he was using an interesting rig for his sound. He had a Fender Bassman, set up for a pretty clean sound and a gibson Leslie cabinet. If you don’t know Leslie cabinets you should. They are a speaker system that was designed for organ. Although they often contain an amp that’s not what is unique about them. The real trick is the actual speaker system. It is split into two channels, highs and lows. All of the high part of the signal goes to a horn that resembles two small trumpet horns fused together. This is hooked to a motor. When you click on a switch [I’m listening to “To Love Somebody” By the Bee Gees. Yeah the fuckin’ Bee Gees! It’s a classic. Try writing a song that good some day…], right so when you click on the switch the horn starts to spin. It takes a few seconds to come up to speed and when you hit the switch again it spins down slowly. This gives you this beautiful warbling tone to all the high frequencies.  All the bass tones go to one 12″ or 15″ speaker. This is facing DOWN towards the floor. Yup, down..Crazy huh? Well this shoots the sound down into  a circular baffle system that also spins. This causes the bottom notes to warble at a different rate with a different spin up and spin down speed from the high-end. {Now I’m listening to “Academy Fight Song by Mission of Burma]

Ken Hohman of Super 400 used this beauty as the main speaker system. sometimes he would use the bassman alone, sometimes the leslie, sometimes both. He didn’t think this idea up. He picked it up from Stevie Ray Vaughn. I have no idea where Stevie got it but it’s been around for a long time.  The Leslie cabinet and the effects it produces have been used for at least sixty years on organs. In the sixties bands started to use them in the studio to get numerous cool effects. If you listen to Sgt. Peppers album by the Beatles they use leslie on vocals, guitars, drums – they use it everywhere. There is one simple reason that they do. It sounds really cool.

Ken’s set up was Les Paul into a splitter ( I think he had a rat pedal he used at times). One side of the splitter went to the amp the other to the leslie. Simple, foolproof, sounds great.

Super 400’s drummer Joe Daley was in love with Ludwig Lucite (sp?) kits at this time. He owned two or three of them. They were manufactured in the early seventies with the Rock Band market in mind. They have a unique sound. They don’t have rich tone like a wood shell drum. Instead they have a flatter more aggressive sound. He used remo coated skins for the whole session. This, I believe, was at my insistence. The drum kit had fresh skins almost every day. Especially on the snare drum. This is the only way to get a snare sound that consistently has snap and bite. Ludwig Vistalite kits appeared in a very famous TV appearance by a world renown nutcase drummer. They were also played by John Bonham of the unknown super group Led Zeppelin. To make these kits sound good you must play hard. These are not the kind of kits you use for light jazz gigs at Sunday brunch.

The Bass player Lori Friday played classic Fender basses. She played vintage Precision and Jazz basses. I don’t recall which bass she used on this track but it’s likely that it was her Precision. During parts of the session she played through an Ampeg b15 flip top amp. On this track she was playing her stage rig which was a large twin 15″ cabinet with a Vintage Ampeg head. It shows since her sound rocks through the whole record.

Now for the set up rundown. I’m going from memory but this should be close to the final setup for the song.

Drums: We were using a sixties attitude for miking the drums on many of the tracks for the album. The basic tracks, drums, bass guitar were being recorded in an old onion barn at my farm. This is a large (24 x 32) room with a 17 ft peaked ceiling. The whole room is made from 200 year old wood including the floor. This gives a very warm, rich sound.

On late sixties recordings the drum kit was often recorded with three mics. One about three feet in front of the kick. It’s set up high enough to get lots of kick but some of the general kit as well. The second mic is set up over the high hat about three feet above the hats pointing at the snare so it picks up snare and hi hat as well as the cymbals and general kit sound. The third and final mic is set up at the EXACT same height as the second mic but over the floor tom side. It points down and in towards the drummer. These two mics are designed to be panned hard left and right with the first mic panned in the center. This gives you basic fake stereo. The nice thing with this set up is, although it gives you stereo imaging on the drums, the fact that there are only three mics on the drum kit means there will  be almost no phase problems from the multiple mics. This is not the case with a drum mic arrangement with lots of close mics. [Neil Young -Cowgirl in the Sand] On this session we decided to add one mic which was a Shure sm57 close in on the top of the snare to make it pop in the mix and sound a little more modern.

The Bass was close miked about 3 ft out with a EV Pl20. Simple – sounds great.

Ken the guitarist was miked in two ways. The Fender Bassman had two AKG 414 mics close in on the speakers. We monkeyed around with them quite a bit until they seemed perfectly placed and in phase with [Beach Boys -Sloop John B -Great instrumentation!] each other.  For the Leslie set up we used to AKG 460 condenser’s in and X, Y stereo pattern (see first recording blog for an explanation). These were set about twelve inches out from the high frequency horn. For the bottom end we used one Neuman 87. One? Why one? The bottom speaker rotates and as a result has strong stereo effect. Wouldn’t you logically mic this in some kind of stereo? The correct answer is NO. The human ear cannot hear direction in sound below about 400 htz. This is why it’s often hard to perceive exactly which way distant thunder is coming from. Miking the bottom baffle system in stereo would be a waste and wouldn’t add to the cool effect. In fact the single mic works great since the warble in the bottom of a Leslie cabinet is perceived as changes in VOLUME NOT DIRECTION.

All of the mics were plugged into a late Seventies Yamaha 1604 recording console. This is a low end pro console that is often available for cheap. I bought it when it wasn’t so cheap. Great console. Very musical EQ’s. Decent routing. Really nice sounding preamps. This is the most important piece of any console.  From the mic preamps ALL MICS went into good quality compressors. For Bass, vocals, and drums the compressors were Urei LA4A. For the guitars I used DBX 160 and 160X. In general I compressed them pretty hard with a 4 to 1 ratio. I will discuss compression which is extremely important in rock recording in a future blog. All of the tracks that were compressed were then EQ’ed slightly. I added back about 1 or 2 DB or 6K, or 8K or 12K depending on what sounded best.  I did this because compression removes about that much of those frequencies. I was attempting to bring them back to FLAT EQ. This is a concept I will discuss in later blogs.

From the compressors the tracks went straight to a TAPE MACHINE. Yes, tape. This was , after all 1997. I still use tape but that is a luxury for most people nowadays. The tape machine I used was a Tascam 16trk 1 inch with no noise reduction.

This song was RECORDED LIVE. This is extremely important. The song varies a little from flat time but I think that the live feel works wonders on this song. We cut Drums, Bass, and guitars with a scratch vocal that we threw out later. Lead Vocals were overdubbed using a Neumann 87, into the Yahmaha console, into a Urei LA4A compressor set to 2 to 1 and then straight to tape.

The whole album was mixdown from the 16 trk 1 inch tape at Trax East Studios on an API console with automation and all the normal bells and whistles. There are not that many effects or EQ’s or tricks in the final mix. Most of the mix consisted of getting a careful balance.  So that’s it. A top to bottom description of a recording. Here’s the recording. See if you can hear the way the miking is done. Don’t worry if you can’t. The goal of a good recording is for the studio to be transparent, that is to say, what the studio does to the band shouldn’t be very apparent. That, of course, is my viewpoint. It is a decent recording, not the best but certainly good enough to appear on a major label and it was created using pretty basic gear. And what really counts when you’re trying to succeed at Rock is how great is the song and the band????

Super 400 – Drawing Circles                                                                                                                                                                                               Super 400

©Brad Morrison/Billiken Media 2010