Sunday, November 29, 2015

Ethan on Preamps

Ethan's response on preamps:

Input impedance is (one of) the big elephant(s) in the room when it comes to preamps.  How the input stage loads the source has a big impact on how it sounds and some sources are more affected by loading than others so some sources will sound almost identical with two different preamps while others might sound very different.  Output impedance also plays a role as the preamp will be loaded (or not) by whatever it's signal is feeding.

There's more to good gain-staging than just gain, and the subtleties of impedance matching are seldom explored nowadays.  Back when engineers wore white lab coats (and, in many cases, were actually engineers), a lot more thought was put into that sort of thing.  Through impedance matching or deliberate mis-matching, a lot can be done with how a preamp sounds that all sits outside of any "baked in" sound a preamp might have.  

That "baked in" or "native" or "default" sound that certain preamps have, combined with how stages are gained, further combined with how input and output impedances are taken into account are the triumvirate, and the first item on the list is often the only one that people consider.  It's one of the drawbacks of the recording renaissance we're living in; anyone can do this at home now and they have access to great gear for cheap and it's easier than ever to get good results, but they still have to know what they're doing to get better than good results.  Really understanding how things work is worth more to the "accumulation of subtleties" than how a preamp sounds.  That preamp sounds different depending upon how one uses it.  Most people recording at home don't understand any of that and even fewer have any inclination to learn about it.
My response to Ethan's response:
Yes. The input impedance is a thing. But most microphones don't get that much out of changing the input impedance. Oddly the ART preamp does indeed allow one to change the impedance. I play with it sometimes. It doesn't really do that much for me.
These days output impedance is virtually moot. All inputs are high impedance. I wonder how, say, Scully and Ampex machines used to be in the early and then the late 60's?
Preamps like the Neve have so much baked in that I don't even think the gain settings make that much difference until they start to break up (which honestly is not that pleasant a sound). I think that for the longest time recordists got away with being the 2nd tier in the studio because a mix engineer could fix almost any problem as long as the problem was recorded with good preamps and busses.
Completely counterintutively to me is the fact that lots of engineers have favorite EQ setting which they go ahead and just apply to everything. You'd think that would cause a buildup of certain things in the mix but... it doesn't. 

Friday, November 27, 2015

More Meamps

When you do a double blind listen to different preamps they can all sound really close to one another. So close that it might seem very logical to think "why does it matter?"
The answer is usually that there's an accumulation of subtleties* that build up on a multitrack recording and that mixing is easier when recordings are made with great mic preamps.

The problem is that theory is impossible to test. It's not like you can go back to 1968 and have the Beatles do precisely the same performance of some song but swapping out different mic preamps during their perfectly re-created robo-playing to see if it's really the preamps and not the slight differences in performance that make the difference in what you hear.

Another odd thing about the theory is that if two different mic preamps sound very similar when listened to one-on-one, but you figure that when you're multitracking those slight differences build up, wouldn't then a simple stereo classical performance do just as well with cheaper preamps because you're not multitracking and therefore the very slight difference is not as important?

Ha! Hmm...

Well it might be that for simple stereo classical music you want the most colored - sounding big, fat, tube limiters and juicy transformers on the planet. But the prurient classical guys would all freak out if you told them that. So we won't. Let's get back to rock and roll where it's safer and we're less likely to get knifed...

So if the notion that we're just trying to aggregate the subtleties of having a bunch of really good mic preamps on a recording, it means we can get away with some of the preamps being less than "great". I mean, realizing we're talking about a very subtle difference in the sound quality in the first place. And if we have 8 inputs but only 6 of them can have super expensive preamps, that means we're 6/8ths of the way of the last percentage of quality improvement. Right? Maybe it's exponential? Who knows? I feel fairly confident nobody will care what preamps you used for the toms.

So where are we with this? Well oddly we don't care so much about the microphones. Not that we're willing to use Radio Shack microphones but we don't mind if we're using SM57's on the guitars and the like. We don't care if that's a U47 or a Rode NT1a in front of the drum kit for some reason. But we do seem to care about the preamps.

I'd been using good mics for longer than I'd been using good preamps. And when I finally switched to good preamps I suddenly was making recordings that mixed well and mixed easily. They sounded like "real" recordings. Is this a scientific analysis? Is it a double-blind study? Is it mostly emotions? No, no, and yes. The microphones didn't put me over the edge, the preamps did.

So I don't really know what I'm doing. That's pretty much the conclusion here.


A vocal pop filter for the Edwina microphone is only $40.

*This is an Alan Douches bit of wisdom.

Monday, November 23, 2015

On Preamps and Recordations

I have no idea about preamps. Maybe these days cheap preamps are just as good as expensive ones the way A/D converters are all pretty much the same. I don't know. A few years ago SoundonSound did a test of a wide variety of preamps. The cheap ones did very well.
Listening to the Samanas performance there are moments where musically and recording-ly we approach something that's pretty good. Not all the time, but sometimes.
I used all Focusrite preamps. But I have a collection of pretty nice preamps I didn't use. Will they make a difference? Yes, we can say without doubt they will be different. The question is will they be better? I don't know.

Will the Focusrite preamps sound better than the Tascam preamps in the US2000? My instinct is to say they will, but who knows?
The isolated vocals (allegedly) from the Adelle performance on Saturday Night Live.

I've been finding there something sort of dead about the mixes of recent SNL performances. The iso vocal track sorta indicates there's virtually no live instruments on stage. I don't know what they're doing with the drums -- triggered pads where the heads would be perhaps? I mean, it's a Ddrum kit -- but how do they keep the strikes from making any sound which gets into the vocal mic?
I'm going to end up selling my little Focusrite interface. Also my eBow which I don't think I've used even twice. And maybe my Tascam interface. You know what I'm also selling? My M-Audio 2626. That makes me sad because it's a really nice interface but it's only Firewire. And none of my modern PC's like Firewire. And M-Audio has kinda just quit that interface. It'll still work on Macs though. But because I'm married to mixing in Samplitude that's just not gonna happen for me.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

November at 40 Knots

So the City Samanas played at a little bar in Red Hook Brooklyn on Thursday.

The rain was biblical. Poor Dave forgot his cymbal case and stick bag and had to go back home to get it. Returning to the bar he face-planted from his scooter in the rain. He's okay now but it was a bit harrowing.

What's funny about this band is that we'll write back and forth very detailed emails about exactly what we're going to do. And then we do something completely different when we actually get there. Two examples of that are that I was roped into singing ("singing") a song I'd never even played before (Franklins Tower) and a thousand emails about how we would play Favorite Things was immediately abandoned and a psychedelic section was added to the song.

Roll away the dew.

The best-laid plans for recording all went out the window as soon as we showed up. My guitar was miked with an Oktava 012, Greg's was with an SM57 (draped sideways over his guitar cabinet). The bass amp was close miked with a Rode NT1. Uh, the bass mic twisted off-axis at some point and then got fixed again.

The drum kit is three mics. I did that thing where the overhead is an Ear Trumpet Edwina, the "side" mic is an Oktava 012, and the kick mic is a cheap kick-drum mic. Over the course of the evening the Edwina got very "grainy" sounding. I don't know if we were just hitting it with too much volume from the drums or if the phantom power wasn't up to snuff for it.

But the thing of that is that I didn't use any outboard mic preamps at all. I used the Focusrite 18i20 for every instrument. At one point the bass actually started to get too loud and I had to repatch it into an input that allowed me to put a pad on the input.

I am digging Lily's new 5-string bass. I'm mixing on Ultrasone headphones so I don't really have an idea of where the bass actually sits in the mix. In the future I'll have that more worked out.

The thing where I play with an Electro Harmonics C9 organ pedal seems to work really well actually. Since I can blend the guitar sound in with the very compressed organ sound it'll do a thing where I can get a guitar sound when I'm playing loud and it turns into an organ sound on quieter sections.

Greg and me singing is a very interesting sound. We're so very different sounding voices but it seems to work. I mean, at least on Franklins Tower. At least to me.

The vocals. The absurd thing is that we didn't have a cable which would go from Greg's mini mixer to feed the Focusrite. So I set up a small stereo bar on the mic stand and we had one dynamic go to the PA and another 58 go to the Focusrite. Sort of amusing. But I think even if we do that again we'll use the Edwina as the vocal mic. At least for recording.

These mixes are all over the place. In the Basement is marred by an off-axis mic or two. Some of the performances are lost in places. Sometimes we even get back on track!

My conclusion is that although there's a lot of scratches in this leather but the the loose, drunken (not literally), swing we approach is just right. It's sort of fascinating how this group of people go about playing as an ensemble, like four sculptors who are not entirely sure what the sculpture will be until they all start working on it.

I think if we do this a few more times we might just have something special in the way of a recording. Especially if I practice guitar more in the meantime. ;-)

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Samana Recordation

A pair of Neves. A pair of ATI tube preamps. A Tascam US-2000 interface. The City Samanas. Recording live. I have to figure this out.
The drum kit is small and conservative. One tom. The band is situated fairly close to one another. It just occurred to me that I don't enjoy close-miking snare drums.

  1. The bass guitar I've been traditionally putting a Rode NT1 (which is sorta Neumann U87 looking and maybe even U47 sounding) up against the grill of the bass amp. The snare and a variety of other instruments will get into that mic. There's nothing I can do about it. Probably use a channel of the ATI on bass.
  2. I bet the other channel of ATI will be as the drum overhead. I don't know what mic to use. If I go large diaphragm I could use another Rode NT1. Or I could use a Ear Trumpet Edwina. 
  3. I get a Neve 1272 on my guitar amp. With an SM47 (not my Unidyne, I don't want to deal with bringing that mic out with me -- which is a joke because every other mic I have is more expensive but that one mic is a pain in the tuchus because everyone thinks they're so special now.) 
  4. Just for balance let's give Greg the other 1272. 
  5. Greg's vocal mic. Now that's interesting. We could give him another Edana. The signal will be hopped up with a Mackie mixer so it'll be hitting us at something around line level
  6. The tom will go direct into a channel on the Tascam
  7. So will the kick
  8. And the snare, what the heck... I mean I have a kit for miking things I may as well use it. 
Now I just have to figure out that I have the right interconnects to get from the two preamps into the Tascam. The thing I don't have to worry about is monitoring -- there just isn't any. Problem solved.
There will be a world of bleed from microphones. But I think I can live with that.

I feel we need some psychedelic lights though. We definitely need psychedelic lights.

Franklin's Tower

The thing about playing Dead tunes is that it really forces you into thinking modally. This is because their music sits somewhere almost exactly between rock and traditional Irish/English/Scottish (which means, perhaps, "bluegrass and country" but maybe not.)

The thing is that the blues does some modalesque things without even asking. They're not really from the western world except kinda. So blending the two together with electric guitars and (at least occasionally) great playing, and you have something interesting. And surprisingly hard to do.

But the City Samanas will be playing at 40 Knots come Thursday and we'll do it. That we shall.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Golden Ageism

I keep saying that we live in the golden age of whatever we're talking about when we talk about music and engineering. We're not living in the golden age of making money making music. No no no. But for making music, and recording music, ah. Yes.
So since the late '40's we've pretty well known what sort of microphones are the best sounding. Somewhere in the 50's we really got that all sorted out and in the 60's we made them balanced. But although now we make the best reference microphones, there are some older microphone designers (mostly, but by no means exclusively, designs by manufactures in German-speaking countries). The Neumann U47, The AKG C12, RCA ribbon mics, Coles, etc.
Squirrel. Stop being so pretentious and put the covers back on your humbuckers.

And those mics were expensive even before they tripled in price whilst becoming "vintage".
But now we have so many more interesting choices. There are Ear Trumpet Labs and others making their own new microphones.
But also there are also scores of companies making sort of cheap knockoffs of more expensive (and older) designs.
And there are small companies that do mods of those mics. Michael Joly's OktavaModShop mostly mods other brands than Oktava. JJAudio also does mods on a bunch of microphones and on the very extraordinarily priced ART VLA tube compressor.

And the thing is that yeah, you can mod all this stuff to your heart's content, but the original gear sounds flipping amazing. I mean, I've A/B'ed Schoeps CMC6's against Oktava 012's and although they sound slightly different (the Schoeps had a bit of an upper-mid "lift") you couldn't say one was in any way "better" than the other. And one could certainly EQ the Oktava to sound substantially like the Schoeps so you couldn't pick one out over the other.