AES Report 2012

Nov 07 2012

The Audio Engineering Society (AES) held its annual conference in the beautiful city of San Francisco a couple of weekends ago.  It was the 133rd conference!  That’s a lot of shows.  I had the opportunity to visit the show room floor where manufacturers where hocking their wares.  It’s always a fun atmosphere in which to see, touch, and learn about the newest and coolest music production gear.

As a rule, when I hit the show room floor I’m keeping my eyes open for specific products, as well as anything groundbreaking that might make my job easier and inspire my music production work.  This year I was looking out for studio monitor control devices, mid-sized studio monitors with great bass response, MIDI controllers with finger pads, and innovative work surfaces.

The monitor controller that caught my eye was the Oculus by Shadow Hills.  Its fat, ergonomic level knob felt great, and its toggle switches for selecting input and monitor sources were a pleasant change from the usual push buttons.  Most impressive of all, it was wireless!  The company’s demo guy handed me the Oculus controller, sat me in front of an array of Barefoot Sound monitors, and asked me what I wanted to hear.  Of course I asked, “Got some dance music with good bass?”  He happily obliged my musical preference and the next thing you know I’m banging an EDM track while fluidly switching between three sets of speakers.  Selecting speakers with the Oculus was a real pleasure, and the Barefoot Monitors sounded amazing.  I was especially impressed by their smooth, consistent mid and high frequency response across three different sized speakers: MicroMain35, MicroMain27, and MiniMain12.  The large MiniMain12 and mid-sized MicroMain27 speakers both had excellent, tight bass response.  I was impressed.

Oculus by Shadow Hills

Barefoot Monitors

While fantasizing that I could somehow fit the MiniMain12 speakers into my home studio, much less afford them ($19,950 a pair, ouch!) I heard two people behind me say, “We’ve got these speakers in a room at Berklee.”  I turn around to see Mark Wessel and Leanne Ungar, both Berklee College of Music Associate Professors in the Music Production and Engineering department.  Pretty cool!  It’s always a lot of fun to meet people at these shows, especially fellow Berklee folk.

Akai also had a booth at which the new Akai MPC Renaissance and its little brother, the Akai MPC Studio were on display.  Of course I had to try out some finger drumming on the pads to see if they felt at all similar to the classic MPC pads.  I was not disappointed.  The MPC Renaissance felt especially good, with a solid feel, responsive pads that are velocity and after touch sensitive, and a bank of sixteen very grab-and-turn friendly rotary knobs.  The Renaissance is a surefire hit for folks wanting that classic MPC feel in a fully integrated MIDI controller and beat making platform.  The MPC Studio’s pads felt identical to the Renaissance, but its dials felt decidedly inferior to the Renaissance’s rotary knobs.  I found myself wondering why you would design a controller with dials that feel like mini plastic plates rather than knobs you can grab between your thumb and forefinger?  Maybe they’re for spinning rather than turning and I’m missing the point?  In any case, some knobs on the Studio would be nice.

Akai MPC Renaissance

 

Raven Multitouch Audio Production Console by Slate Pro Audio

One booth that always had a crowd was Slate Pro Audio, where they were demonstrating the Raven Multitouch Audio Production Console.  It appears to be a truly innovative work surface, a giant touch screen from which to control your DAW program.  I’m always wanting a bigger screen and this definitely fits the bill!  But wait, didn’t I just say I like knobs to turn?  This is more like a really giant iPad.  In any case, it’s a truly innovative concept and it will be interesting to see how the platform develops.  Really amazing technology.

Lucky Date Interview

Jan 15 2012

I recently had the opportunity to chat with up-and-coming electronic music producer and DJ, Lucky Date (Jordan Atkins-Loria). He uses Reason to produce these fantastically phat dance tracks and remixes. Plus he regularly shares his production secrets on his YouTube channel, luckydatevideos. The music that he pumps out of Reason is truly inspirational, so I wanted to ask him about how he gets such a huge sound and what other software besides Reason is part of his production and DJ arsenal. He gave a great interview and had a lot of wonderful insight and advice. Watch out for Lucky Date, I predict he’ll be producing many mega-dance-floor hits in the coming years.

 

Wondering how much compression you should use in the mix? Maybe you’re skeptical that compression really makes a difference? It’s a difficult effect to get a handle on and to really use effectively. It starts by being able to hear the difference between a mix that has compression and one that does not. To this end, I’ve cooked up a phat drum beat and given it a mix with lots of compression. In this video, I switch all of the compressors on and off while the beat is playing, so you can seriously hear the difference. And, at the same time I flip through the compressors on each channel so you can peep my settings. Enjoy!

PS — This video can be seen in full screen HD if you go to YouTube. Double click on the video above to jump directly to the full screen version.

When to Solo

Jun 27 2009

Every term, without fail, I get a few assignments handed in with all of a mixer’s solo buttons enabled. The usual problem seems go something like this, “I turned a solo button on and it muted all of the other channels on the mixer. I’m not sure what happened but in order to hear my mix again I had to turn all of the solo buttons on.” As ridiculous as this might sound to a pro, it’s a common mistake for beginners. If you don’t know what the purpose of the solo button is you’re not going to understand what’s going on when you press it. So, let’s clear this up once and for all.

At its core, the solo button on a mixer channel allows you to quickly audition a signal all by itself, or with a group of other solo enabled channels, without needing to mute all of the channels that you don’t want to hear. For example, if you see a signal on Channel 10 but you’re not sure what it is because you haven’t labeled that channel yet, press the channel’s solo button. Or, if you need to have a closer listen to the blend on a three part vocal harmony, press the solo buttons on all three harmony channels and instantly mute all of the other tracks in your mix. Then, to return your mixer to its normal monitoring mode, turn off all the solo buttons. Pro mix engineers are constantly switching back and forth between listening to soloed signals and the whole mix as they’re working.

The obvious reason why you don’t want to leave mixer channels in solo mode is because you might have a channel muted somewhere on your mixer that’s supposed to be in your mix. It’s easy to hear if you’re missing something really obvious like a guitar or vocal part, but you might not so easily realize that you’re missing an aux effect return channel. For example, if you’ve soloed a bunch of tracks your reverb return channel might be muted, and, consequently, you’d be missing much of the depth and space in your mix that was being created by your group reverb effect. (If you’re not sure about how a group reverb effect works, check out my earlier blog titled, “Let’s Talk Reverb“.)

At this juncture, it’s worth noting that there will be channels you never want muted when you press a solo button. For example, if you always want to hear a soloed track with its group reverb effect intact. Or, when you have a MIDI control track that always needs to be running in the background (such as a drum track or controller data). In these situations, you never want the tracks muted when you solo a mixer channel. So, to safeguard these tracks the best designed mixers have a function called solo-safe which allows you to disable the track mute action for those channels in solo-safe mode. For example, in Digidesign’s Pro Tools you press Command (Mac), or Control (PC) and click on a solo button to enable a channel’s solo-safe mode.

It’s also worth noting that there are several different types of solo modes, dependent on the level of mixer (hardware or software) that you’re using. Top of the line pro mixers may have three or four different solo modes that you can switch between, while a basic home studio mixer usually just has one set solo mode. The two most common modes that you need to understand are latching and canceling. They may have different names dependent on the mixer’s manufacturer, but they will always operate in the same basic fashion. On a mixer with latching solo the solo button stays on until you turn it off. You can keep pressing solo buttons and they will all stay on until you turn each one off. On a mixer with canceling solo pressing a solo button turns it on and pressing another solo button turns the last solo button off. Consequently, in canceling mode you can only have one channel soloed at a time unless you hold down a modifier key while pressing additional solo buttons (such as the Shift key in Pro Tools).

I wish every mixer had, at the very least, these two basic solo modes. However, more often than not most mixers only feature the latching solo mode. And, those mixers that do have both modes are usually set by default to latching. Though, I can’t help but think that having the default solo mode set, instead, to canceling would help beginners avoid a lot of confusion. This, and Mackie’s brilliant feature on their hardware mixers, the Rude Solo Light. It’s a big red indicator that let’s you know whether you have a solo button engaged somewhere on your mixer. Indeed, novices and pros alike can use this feature because when a mixer contains a ton of channels and a solo button is accidentally left on somewhere on the mixer, especially on a channel that has little or no audio, trying to figure out where all of your sound went can leave even the best producer scratching his (or, her) head for a minute.

Mackie Rude Solo 420
photo credit: inweaknessbe’s photostream

Do you think you’re set with one pair of professional studio monitors? If so, think again. Most home-studio owners purchase one good pair of powered reference monitors and that’s it. However, to truly hear how your music will translate to the outside world, the real world beyond the four walls of your comfy studio, you should be working on at least two sets of speakers: your main near-field monitors and a set of small, inexpensive desktop computer speakers (minimonitors). This dual monitor approach will let you hear how most listeners will be hearing your tracks—over a cheap home stereo system, a television, or computer speakers—instead of the precise, accurate, and “flat” sound of your pricey studio reference monitors.

Of course, chances are that your audio interface only has one set of monitor outputs (a pretty standard design). This begs the question, “Where do I connect another set of speakers?” The solution is to add an analog monitor control box to your system. The stereo mix coming out of your audio interface’s monitor output is then connected to this box and split (multiplied) into several monitor output paths, each of which can be sent to its own monitor destination (including headphones). Two of the most popular solutions on the market are the PreSonus Monitor Station ($400) and the Mackie Big Knob ($390). Each of these units is designed to sit on your desktop and provide ergonomic monitor control, making it easy to switch between monitors while you’re mixing without losing your “sweet spot” (the listening position between your monitors that sounds the best).

The point of near-field monitoring is to remove as much room coloration from your listening position as possible. Though it’s no less important to tune your room for better acoustics (a topic for another blog), a proper near-field setup can reduce much of the room tone that you would normally hear if you were seated farther away from your monitors, outside the sweet spot. Today, most well-designed studio reference monitors feature frequency fine-tune controls for tailoring a speaker’s response to best fit your listening environment. For example, to compensate for a room that adversely emphasizes low frequencies, you could roll off your monitor’s low-frequency response by a couple of dB. Foam speaker-isolation wedges (such as the Auralex MoPAD) are also an option and allow a monitor to be decoupled from what it sits on, preventing the speaker from transferring sound to the surface in a way that might adversely affect what you hear.

Now, for the speakers. Keep in mind that the size of the low-frequency drivers (the woofers) determines your monitors’ low-frequency output. The larger the woofer, the more bass you’ll hear in your mix. Consequently, you should stick with a 6-inch woofer or larger for your main monitors. In my opinion, the best enclosure-size-to-bass-output ratio for your dollar comes from monitors with 8-inch woofers (such as the Mackie HR824 or Event Studio Precision 8). Of course, you can add a subwoofer to augment monitors with small woofers, but for most music-production applications, having the bass in your face is preferable to having it under your seat or to the side of your workspace. By comparison, your minimonitors should have a 3- to 4-inch woofer (such as the Edirol MA-7A or M-Audio StudioPro3). And, for the sake of quality and convenience, the minimonitors should be self-powered, just like your main monitors.

How your speakers are set up is also crucial for good monitoring. For the best near-field monitoring possible, make sure that your speakers are upright and level with your head. When seated in the sweet spot between your speakers, your head and the two speakers should comprise the three points of an equilateral triangle. You can place the minimonitors just to the inside of your main monitors. Make sure that the speakers are as far away as possible from any walls to avoid potential low-frequency interaction with your room’s physical structure. Pushing your speakers against the wall or shoving them in a corner is never a good idea. Remove any impediments that might interfere with a clear line of sound from the speakers to your ears (such as plastic figurines and stuffed animals—really, I’ve seen it done). And, watch out for possible reflective surfaces just beneath the monitors (such as a large mixer or laminated tabletop) that may cause high-frequency reflections to bounce off and sully your sweet spot.

Between your main monitors, a pair of minimonitors, and a studio-quality pair of headphones (such as the Sony MDR-7509 or Ultrasone Proline 750), you can construct a clear picture of how your mix will sound in the real world without ever leaving your studio. Plus, with a good monitor controller you’ll never need to move from your sweet spot to switch monitors. Now, with all of this control at your fingertips, the only trick is to remember to get up and use the restroom every so often. Though, seriously, if that’s not inspiration enough, many an award winning mix engineer has been known to walk outside the studio, and down the hall, in order to hear how their mix sounds from a completely different perspective—for real, it really does work.

Proper Monitoring Diagram