Monday, July 1, 2013

Reamping Guitars: An Introduction

In response to a question I was asked about re-amping on Twitter, I have decided to cover a short introduction to this recording technique here. Honestly, the whole concept is relatively simple in design but highly effective in a recording situation especially when you are unsure of which guitar amp tone you will end up using. Re-amping is a way to help alleviate some of the stress of possibly needing to re-record an entire track due to sound issues. By definition, re-amping is the process of running a recorded track through an external amp (outside your DAW) and recording the result.

Your first step will be to open your DAW (Pro Tools, Logic, Ardour, etc), and create two tracks. You will assign 2 inputs from your interface to those two tracks. One track will be used for your actual guitar amp tone which should already be mic'd up. The second track will be used for your completely dry, unadulterated signal.

The next step will be the outboard portion to actually get your guitar into the computer. You will need a reamping box such as the Little Labs Redeye, pictured in Fig. 1:

Fig. 1

I recently used one of these for a track and the results are awesome. When used for re-amping, these re-amping boxes are designed to reverse the impedance of the signal so the amp will respond as though a guitar were actually plugged in. 

Before recording you will want to plug your guitar directly into your re-amping device. At this point you have a couple of options: A. you can send your signal out of the 'mic level' output on the rear of the unit, or B. you can send it out both the 'mic level' output and the 'instrument thru' output input. The 'mic level' output will go into your interface for recording, and the 'instrument thru' output will go into your guitar rig. Just as a quick note, the input/output labeling may vary from unit to unit so be sure to check your documentation for clarification. Once you have chosen which inputs and outputs to use, you are ready to route the signal into your computer. 

Remember the two tracks we set up at the beginning of this post? You will need to plug your 'mic level' output on your re-amp device into your interface and route it within your DAW to one of those tracks if you haven't already done so. The other track will be used for a guitar amp (if you are recording both dry and effected in the same take). Once you have everything set up and you have checked for signal, you are ready to record your tracks. 

Once you have a dry track recorded, you will need to route the output of your dry track (within your DAW) to an output on your interface. You should then route the signal to the 'mic line input' on the re-amping device and then out to your amp. Once your amp sounds as you wish, you are ready to mic it up and re-amp to your heart's content! 

In addition to the RedEye (the model I mentioned in this post has been replaced by a newer one and you can check it out HERE), you can also check out these other re-amping devices: 

NOTE: If you need a diagram illustrating the signal chain for re-amping, message me with your email address. 

What do you use to re-amp? Do you have a different process? Post your comments below! 

Stay posted for next time when we discuss guitar modeling with plugins! 

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

EQ for Guitar: Finding the Nasty Frequencies

We have talked about sweeping EQs in earlier blog posts but this time we are going to get even more detailed. The goal for this post is to find the nasty frequencies in your guitar tone (or any other instrument) and reduce it in order to bring the savory nuances to light and allow them to cut through in your mix.

For starters, you need to have a flat EQ as shown in Fig. 1:

You will need to know the frequency range of your instrument in order to precisely adjust your EQ. For guitar, much of the juiciness sits between 250 Hz and 5 kHz. You will probably want to go ahead and use an HPF or high pass filter (the grey node to the left that slopes down sharply) and adjust to taste as shown in Fig. 2:

I have also tightened up the Q on the LMF node (orange) and maxed it out. You want the Q as tight as it can go because this mixing technique is about isolation and honing in on the nasty frequencies in a particular track. If you have a wide Q, there won't be as much isolation and it will be harder to tell which frequency is the bad one. Please note that this is NOT a pleasant setting to the ears, but that is the idea. You have to go bad, before you make it sound good. This EQ was used for a guitar track and I swept (moved the node) back and forth (the orange one in this case) until I found the worst frequency possible in the guitar. So go ahead and sweep your EQ and find the villain that is causing issues.

Once you have found the nasty, lower the gain on the frequency by moving the node down as shown in Fig. 3:

When it comes to how far you should lower the gain, you will need to use your ears. While that frequency when overused could cause issues in your track, it may contribute a small something that would be missed if eliminated entirely. When you think you have found the proper gain setting on your troublesome frequency, widen the Q a bit. This will help to grab any slightly troubling frequencies surrounding the one you dropped. However, if widening the Q seems to thin out the sound too much, then leave it alone. Again, use your ears and don't go overboard.

At this point, you might be done with your particular track in regards to EQ. Sometimes subtractive EQ offers just the right amount of sound to cut through the mix and therefore requires no further adjustment. However, if your track does need a little more proceed with caution as too much salt will ruin a meal.

How do you approach EQ and finding nasty frequencies? Please leave comments and responses below!

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Session Prep: Getting your guitars ready for the studio

Recently, a close friend of mine gave me the idea to write about session prep for guitarists. This may seem slightly out of place for this little GTRMix blog but keeping up with the GIGO concept (or garbage in, garbage out), I feel that it is definitely worthy of a run-thru and will certainly help with tracking cleanliness and furthering your mixes in the long run.

After working in several music stores growing up and then much later, working with some incredible tech people, I have come to realize that absolutely nothing beats a freshly cleaned and set-up guitar. I'm embarrassed to say that I didn't always clean my guitars like I do now. Once the comparison was displayed for me and I realized the vast difference in playability, intonation, and feel, it was absolutely impossible to not clean my guitars. The tie to recording/session prep is a very easy one: better intonation and playability = a better performance and a better recording. I cannot emphasize this enough . . . it does pay off and you WILL notice a difference.

Session prep for the studio starts long before any sort of recording is even conceived. It starts during your every day practice where your fingers become accustomed to a certain pattern on the guitar, or the response of a pickup, a new set of strings, and yes, a clean guitar. We should always practice how we are going to perform whether on the stage or in the studio. Practice with a clean and set-up guitar, perform with the same. Here are a few tips to work into your normal string changing/guitar cleaning sessions:

-Cleaning your fretboard-

This is usually one of the dirtiest parts of a guitar and contains the most build up. On your next string change (and maybe every other time, if not every time), use a little bit of #0000 steel wool on the entire fretboard to include both the wood and the frets. Be sure to put some muscle into the frets and shine them up a bit. They will look great and will regain their contribution to helping you produce a clean, crisp sound. Put a bit of muscle into the wood too, but be aware that it is wood and if you push too hard for too long, it will start taking off some of the wood. To reduce the amount of cleanup post-scrubbing, drape a paper towel over the pickups to keep the steel wool off of them. Steel wool tends to fly everywhere when used and since your pickups are magnetized, they will pick it up like glue if you don't cover them.

The next step in cleaning your fret board is slathering it with wood wax. I use SC Johnson's Paste Wax pictured below. You can find it at Home Depot.

Coat the entire fretboard with this stuff (both frets and wood), but don't let it sit on there. As soon as you coat it, be sure to wipe it back off. Use a paper towel or clean rag (I use blue industrial shop towels). Be sure to get every little bit, especially right along the frets.

Now you are ready to throw some strings on your guitar, check intonation, and then do some playing! Try to work this into your normal routine for guitar maintenance. You will get used to the feel and your guitar will sound ten times better and be much more consistent. This is one very important link in the session prep chain. 

-New Strings-

Even with a clean fretboard, older strings can cause a lot of issues within a recording context. Try bending overly stressed strings and see if it actually stays in tune. This a very simple one, but necessary nonetheless. Get yourself some new strings and throw them on your guitar a day or two before recording. If you are not in your own studio with all of your backup goodies, be sure to have some extra sets with you in the event of a string travesty.

-Checking you Gear-

It is really, really important for session prep to check your gear for crackles, pops, and unintentional noise prior to recording. Run through your signal chain starting with the following:

-Guitar - Knobs, switch, input jack
-Pedals - Inputs, outputs, knobs, switches, small patch cables
-More cables
-Amp - Input jack, all knobs, effects loop send and return, reverb can (if applicable)

It is essential to have good working gear when doing a session for someone else, or even laying down a few tracks in your own studio. In either case, you will save time and hassle if you check things first.

-Stuff to have on hand-

These may seem like no-brainers, but I've seen stranger things:

-Extra cables
-Batteries (if applicable)
-Backup guitar (Clean, freshly setup w/new strings)
*Note: I understand that not everyone will have a backup axe, but if it's feasible to bring one, do it.
-Extra favorite pedal
*Note: You know the distortion pedal that is just perfect for that new song you wrote? Guess what, it just crapped itself and you don't have an extra one. Sorry, I am a stickler for backups.

These are just a few things to do to get ready for the studio and there are plenty more, but following even a couple of them will definitely assist you in your recording efforts, make your life easier, and in the end, produce a much better product. Set yourself up for success!

What studio session prep routines/pointers do you have? Please share in the comments below!

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Reference Recordings: Getting out of your own mix!

And . . . I'm back at it after a short hiatus while on tour. So far we have only discussed some segmented concepts in the mix. EQing, depth, space, reverb, delay. Now, we are going to take things a step further, but not with adjusting your mix. This time we are going to actually get out of the mix for a moment and into something called reference recordings. A reference recording is anything that you feel you want your music to sound like (a finished, commercially produced product). By sound like, I don't mean copy cat. We are talking about mix, not song-writing. You should already have your song worked out and recorded (and possibly mixed to some degree) if you are delving into this step. At most, your reference recording should be within the same style. Here are a few things to think about before selecting a reference recording:

1. Instrument Sound  

You should ask yourself a few questions. How big are your guitars? What about your kick drum? Snare? Piano? Do they fit in the mix? Or do they sound segmented and out of place? Do specific instruments shine through the way you would like? Regardless of instrument, you need to think about what your mix sounds like when you hit the playback button and then what you WANT it to sound like. What are you going for? 

2. Depth

We have already discussed this in an earlier post and it is something to consider here. Is your track 'deep' enough? Is there enough distance between each instrument? Should there be more? Do you want more? Does the style call for a lot or a little?

3. Compression

I have not discussed the inner workings of compression as of yet in this blog (it is coming soon) but it is something to consider here (please message me if you don't understand this step and I can give you more of a synopsis). Do you want your track squashed and have everything as loud as possible with no dynamic range (lots of hiphop and rap records are mixed in this fashion)? Or do you want to maintain the dynamics of your original track and allow some ebb and flow? 

After thinking about these things, get ready for the mirror. Select a reference recording (or more than one) . . . then play it back to back with your track. Don't be shocked if the difference is pretty great. Keep in mind that a commercial recording is already mastered and has probably been mixed with gear that is worth more than most of your possessions combined. However, don't worry . . . one thing I was told when I first started tearing into audio production, was that 'your mixes aren't going to sound like everyone else's, and that's okay.' You are going to have your own sound, and that is a good thing and nothing to be ashamed of. However, you still want to have a quality product so listen to your reference recordings. Remember the concepts mentioned earlier? Instrument sound, depth, and compression? Analyze the references using these concepts except this time, use the info you find to tweak your own mix. One of the best ways to learn is to watch (in this case listen) what others have done and expand your knowledge and capability accordingly. I have used recordings from Prince, Bruce Hornsby, Whiteheart, Steve Stevens, and others to assist in this process. These artists (among others) have some of the best engineers alive working on their stuff and they are fantastic sources to utilize for learning. Also keep in mind, that this whole thing is very subjective. Finally, if you are unsure of yourself (and you should always be somewhat unsure because that is what will keep you striving towards perfection), let someone whose opinion you trust hear it.

And when you are happy with your mix . . . this is what you'll look like:

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Studio Basics: Coming Full Circle

At 5 posts into this corruptive little blog, I think it's time to visit a few concepts that as both a guitarist and audiophile, I often have to remind myself of, and in which a few of you may find some benefit.

As you might already know, this audio biz can get extremely maddening. Your mixes don't sound right, the guitars don't cut the way you would like, the drums are weak, etc. This usually ends with you standing in front of your recording rig with a baseball bat debating whether or not it's really worth it to have all of that gear. Just kidding . . . but it can certainly have that effect on your psyche. I know I have certainly felt that on numerous occasions. My purpose for this blog is to hopefully aid anyone in need of assistance in working on their own projects and in turn create a more competitive mix. It is very easy to get bogged down in all of the various technical sides of mixing, production, recording, etc. But, there is one thing to remember, especially for the guitarists (and really any musician who is dabbling in recording) . . . garbage in, garbage out or GIGO.

GIGO was a phrase/acronym I learned from a good friend (audio engineer) who took me under his wing when I started trying to record and mix my own tunes. This acronym encompasses the entire foundation of a good mix. In the spirit of GIGO and a good mix, you need several elements present (not necessarily limited to just these though):

1. Be able to play your instrument

This may sound harsh but it is true. Good audio production is not and should not be used as a cure-all for a lack of talent. This goes against the grain of today's musical ethics (or lack thereof) but I firmly believe it to be true. If you are going in to the studio (be it your own or someone else's) and you are going to record a song in the style of Yngwie Malmsteen, you had better be able to play it. In contrast, if you are a singer/songwriter and you play along on guitar (a la Melissa Etheridge), you should be able to execute that in a cohesive fashion.

2. Have a good song

Good song craft should be at the absolute core of any mix. To clarify, I'm using song craft to encompass the next top 40 pop hit, a progressive endeavor, a neoclassical symphony, or any other possible permeation of music in existence.

3. Known your gear and be competent at producing a good sound from your amp . . . prior to the recording rig.

It's very crucial that you know how your gear works and how to produce a pleasing tone that is not only useful in playing live, but also in a studio environment (trust me, they are different). We have all been guilty of this at some point or another, but it is really important to know how to tweak your gear based on the aural requirements of a situation. This could mean dialing in some more highs on your processor because the provided amp at the studio just isn't cutting it, or it could mean designing a new patch on the fly because the old one sounds really weak when recorded.

All this being said, it all comes back to item #1. There was a recent project I produced where an individual sent me their guitar tracks (his playing is absolutely incredible), and honestly I didn't have to do very much to them. Some slight carving in the EQ department, and a few tweaks to fit it in the mix and his tracks were good to go. This is the best scenario . . . both item #1 and #2 fulfilled. He plays extremely well and knows his guitar sound and how to capture it. If you are having to conduct edit after edit after edit, then it might be time to circle back to #1 with either yourself or the player(s) you are working with and rethink a few things. Now, this is not to say that you will always have a choice on who plays and who doesn't. Especially if you are only a link in the chain and a producer says that a certain individual is going to play on a particular recording, then that is a different scenario. Sometimes, you are required to work with what you have been given. However, that being said, much of this blog is centered around your own studio and your own projects.

Keep all of this in mind as you work through your endeavors and remember who you are in both playing and recording. These concepts will help you tremendously in the long run. Perspective is everything!

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Mix Depth: An Orchestra Conductor's Perspective

While we are cruising around the idea of spaciousness, let's discuss the idea of mix depth. To describe the semi-abstract world of mix engineering, I'm going to use a very real world example. For the guitarists reading this, set aside the guitar for a minute. No worries though; you can bring this back to guitar music and apply these concepts to many different areas.

Imagine a symphony orchestra from the conductor's point of view. This type of group can be around 100 players and requires (as I'm sure you can imagine) a sizable room in which to rehearse, and even more so to perform in. Each section extends row by row, further away from the conductor and eventually ends with the percussion section towards the back of the room (or in a performance setting, back of the stage). Due to the fact that every player in the room or on the stage, is sitting in a different spot with varying distances in relation to the conductor, the actual time it takes for the sound to travel between the two is going to vary greatly. The further away a player is from the conductor, the greater the delay in sound travel. So far, we have only discussed the physical delay between the players and the conductor. Now, there is reverb to take into consideration and depending on the size of the room and where you are standing, it will very widely. These factors create the very distinct depth that is associated with a symphony orchestra. We could spend a lot of time talking about that, however, I would like to just touch on it for the time being and head back to applying these concepts to a mix.

Stick yourself back in your mix chair, and imagine the conductor's position and his viewpoint. Now, considering we are in an artificial environment, there are lots of sneaky things one can do to establish depth in a mix. We are going to look at two of them. Remember the delay from the player to the conductor? You can add a small amount of delay to a track (or several) in order to distinguish them in the mix. Now when I say 'add delay,' I am talking about 20-30 ms. This is very specific to application though. It will all depend on what you are doing and how far back you want the track to sound (you don't want it to be out of time unless that is the vibe you're going for). Sound travels at roughly 1 ft. per ms so we are talking about mimicking sound traveling around 30 ft. If you have strings in your song, then this technique is crucial for a sense of both depth and realism (remember the orchestral imagery). This leads me to my second topic, reverb.

Reverb can be severely overused if you aren't careful so try to use it sparingly in the beginning. The use of this effect will place your mix (or elements thereof) in an environment. Be it a bathroom, a church, or a horse stall, it will be an environment that will have it's own characteristics which will in turn effect your mix a certain way. This is another topic that could become very drawn out so I will cut to the chase for this post. Depending on what I'm doing, I usually set up a reverb bus (normal bus with a reverb loaded into an effects send) and route whatever tracks I desire to it. As long as you use a 'send' on each track, you can control the send level to the reverb. To start establishing depth, only put a little (or no reverb) on the tracks that you want in the front of the mix. The tracks that you want further back, add a bit more reverb. The more tracks you have, the more you can (and should) layer to establish depth. So to wrap it up . . . based upon how deep you want your tracks to sound, and where you want to place your tracks in the mix, you can utilize delay and reverb to establish a sense of depth. Please feel free to comment or ask questions! This post was probably a little too short to explain certain aspects of depth so if there is something you want explained in a more detailed fashion, please feel free to ask away!

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

EQ your Mix: Creating Space

Aloha! After re-reading yesterday's post, I began thinking more about the other ways of creating space in a mix and I figured that right now might be as good a time as any for some more spacial discussion. So without further ado . . .

EQ, short for equalizer, is probably one of the most common forms of adjustment for music outside of the volume knob. Let's go old school for a moment . . does anyone remember the old boom boxes? If I remember correctly, mine had a 5-band EQ on it. At the time, I really had no idea what it was beyond making my cassette tapes sound different when adjusted. Even more basic is the typical car stereo EQ featuring treble, midrange (or mid), and bass. Often, we might change these settings based on the style of music we like and adjust accordingly to taste. What is really going on here though? Essentially we are adjusting the gain for a predetermined range of frequencies. As the names suggest, the controls on a car stereo (or basic home stereo) adjust the upper, middle, and lower areas of the frequency spectrum. Growing up, most of us have tweaked the sound of our favorite tunes in this fashion. EQ usage in mixing is WAY more in depth though . . . 

Hang with me here, this will connect to mixing. Guitarists are notorious (I count myself in this discussion) for adjusting their amps (treble, mid, bass) and sounds in the same fashion as mentioned above. For starters, this IS NOT WRONG. However, this perspective can get an aspiring artist into trouble on occasion when mixing his/her guitar tracks in with other instruments. Again, I will repeat . . . there is NOTHING wrong with adjusting your amp in this fashion when you are just hanging out and jamming. Recording, mixing, and playing with a band is a whole different story though. We guitarists love big, thick tone. At times, this tempts us to crank up the bass (for example) on our amps. In a recording situation, you can start running into issues with the bass track if you overdo it. Despite the temptation to crank the bass, the juicy parts of the guitar speak very vibrantly in the mid to upper range of the frequency spectrum. In a mixing environment, very few times is a guitar track ever going to need anything boosted down in the 100 Hz area (specifics are going to really depend on the style of music and taste, keep that in mind when reading these posts). The more you turn up a frequency that tends to sit in a different instrument's range, the more you can unnecessarily fill up space in the spectrum and overshadow important aspects of the mix. In order to combat this and help make space for your tracks, you can use what is commonly referred to as 'subtractive EQ.' All this means, is that instead of turning up a needed frequency, you turn down a different one that isn't as important or essential to that specific track in order to showcase the desired frequency to a greater extent. You could be subtracting in order to bring out something within the track itself, or you could be doing it to bring out another aspect of the mix. You can also use to it to aurally de-clutter your mixes. Check out Ex. 1: 

If you take a peek at the leftmost section of the grid (this is an EQ i used for a guitar track), you will notice that there is a high pass filter applied which, in this case, is sloping off the lower side between 300-400 Hz. The meatiness of a bass guitar tends to sit right around and below the area where we sloped off. What we have done here is used subtractive EQ to make space within the mix by removing some unnecessary frequencies in the guitar track. This paves the way for both the guitar and bass to coexist nicely within the mix.  This can help to make more space in your mix when not only used with guitar or bass tracks, but also when used on other instruments as well. Here is another example of subtractive EQ: 

Ex. 2

I used Ex. 2 to cut some of the low end boominess and some of unpleasant midrange coming through an overhead mic on a drum set. Subtractive EQ doesn't always have to appear this extreme, but sometimes you have to get nasty with the settings in order to get the right amount of space necessary to make other elements cut through. As always, it is subject to the style and the desired sound. To close, play with the settings, and use your ears. Also, use reference recordings. Listen to what other people have done to make their mixes rock. It just takes lots of practice.