Sunday, August 26, 2012

HOW TO USE GUITAR OVERDRIVE (with Free Vst effects inside)

Hello and welcome to this week's article!
Today we're going to talk about Guitar Overdrive Stompboxes!
Overdrive is the sligh distortion effect generated, at the beginning unintentionally, from the tube amplifiers used around the fifties/sixties on a live environment: in order to produce a higher volume, they were driven at maximum, and the musicians started to notice that the sound was changing: it wasn't anymore clean and full of headroom like it used to sound at low volume, it was angrier, with more harmonic overtones, more compressed and the hot rodded tubes were producing a roar-like effect on the lower frequencies.
This effect became more and more sought after through the years, so the producers started manufactoring tools to add Saturation to the amplifiers without driving their volume to the maximum, therefore preserving the life of the Tubes;
these tools consisted basically into adding an Overdrive Channel to the amplifiers, with a higher input level and a sequence of Gain Stages in order to make te signal more and more distorted, and also in creating Overdrive Stompboxes of various kind, in order to push the level before even entering in the amplifier input.

Today Guitar Overdrive stompboxes are used basically for two reasons:

1 - To add sparkle and a little grit to a clean channel, especially by blues, jazz players and anyone who is looking for a vintage sound.

2 - To boost an already overdriven sound, in order to make a guitar solo cut more through the mix, or to play with the interaction between the overdrive and the distorted channel of the amplifier. This last method is mainly used by hard rock and heavy metal players: to get in the amplifier input with an already high level sound, but with no distortion, adds to the distorted channel of the amp a pleasant boost effect on the mid-hight frequencies, helping to achieve the "chugging" sound requested by the most modern and extreme metal genres.

Focusing on a Rock-Metal sound, the boost effect is achieved setting the overdrive with the level at maximum, the gain at zero, or anyway very low (this control is often used when trying to drive a clean channel, not when boosting an already distorted channel), and with the tone control around 12 o'clock. You can anyway cut or boost the tone setting in order to bring out more or less the mid frequencies, especially when using a strongly mid-oriented overdrive like the most famous of all stomp boxes: the Ibanez Tube Screamer.

Click here for a comparison between an Ibanez Ts-808, a Ts-9 and a Ts-9Dx!

There are many Vst simulations of guitar overdrive stomp boxes, reproducing virtually any overdrive pedal on the market, included the legendary Tube Screamer, and among those, we suggest you to try these free ones, which are impressingly good, especially when used for boosting a virtual amp:

Ignite Ts-999, based on a modded version of Ts-9

TSE 808, very realistic, now version 2.0

TS Secret, another good Tube Screamer emulator

Fretted Synth Drive Stomp, a guitar overdrive stompbox emulation

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Saturday, August 18, 2012

HOW TO USE THE MIX BUSS COMPRESSION (with Free Vst Plugins Inside)

Hello and welcome to this week's article! Today we're celebrating 10'000 visits to my blog, so I've made you a small gift, by updating many articles (such as the ones for Bass, Acoustic Guitar, Vocals...) with more precise settings in terms of Compression, Equalization, Reverb and so on, in order to make them even more helpful than ever :)

Today we're going to add another chapter in the Compression-themed articles, and talk about the Buss Compression. What is it? It's a Compressor loaded on the Stereo Mix buss, with very low settings, that if used since the beginning of the mixing phase, it will help us by giving the mix a more "glued" feeling, and will also make us use lower settings on the single instruments Compressors.
We must keep in mind that sometimes an instruments, e.g. the Bass, will need to pass through many compressors: the single instrument Compressor, or maybe a Compressor and a Limiter, the Buss Compressor, the Mastering Compressor, and the Mastering Limiter, so the various compression stages will stack up and in the end it will be VERY easy to have an oversquashed final sound. On the other hand, having more compressors stacked with lower settings, will lead if set carefully to a more pleasant result, at the same final level of compression.
It's wise to dial the single instrument compressors keeping already in mind (and in our monitors) the mixing Buss compressor, so we will have an immediate feedback on their interaction, thus we will not overdo with the single compressor settings: a slighly lower dynamic range on our mix will lead to less aggressive single compression settings, thus to a more effective and balanced Mastering phase. If the sound arrives already too squashed to the Mastering phase, we need to revert to the mixing phase and fix the problem :)

So, after this important introduction, let's talk about Business: the Buss Compression takes place right at the beginning of the Mixing Phase, and immediately after the Project Preparation Phase, when we have just the levels roughly balanced and the Panning set. Now take your Mixing Stereo Buss (sometimes called Master Fader, is the fader of your DAW that sets the output level of the entire mix), set it to around -10 to -6dbs to avoid any kind of clipping and to have a not too loud final mixed track, and put on the insert a Compressor, so that every single track will pass though it having its dynamic range slighly reduced.
Set the Compressor with low settings, for example an Attack of 30ms, a Release of 100 to 300ms (or, if possible, Automatic), a 2:1 Ratio, and lower the threshold enough to make it activate but without compressing everything.
The more aggressive is the music genre you are mixing, the lower you can go with the gain reduction, for example from 2,5 to 8db of gain reduction, (4db is the perfect "work with anything setting") but bear in mind that this needs to be compensated by using less aggressive settings on the single instruments, in order to avoid ruining everything :)

It is anyway still possible to mix without Buss Compression: we can just compress the single instruments we need and leave the others (like for example the cymbals) alone and then add the final Compression in the Mastering phase: the sound will be more dynamic, but less cohesive, and it will take a hard work of fine tuning to match the result of a project that uses Buss Compression. Often you'll find that if you want to leave some dynamics on your mix it's even better not to sum up mix buss compression with the Mastering one, therefore if the sound it's too squashed, once you have mixed with a mix buss compression, just turn it off and let the mastering compression to take its place. 

Any Compressor can be used on the Mixing Buss (Multiband Compressors too, altough they are not suggested), but there are many dedicated Buss Compression plugins around nowadays, and the best ones (which are not free), such as the Waves SSL, recreates the sound of historical analog units, but there are also many Free ones, and among them, here are the best:

DC1A, effortless character compressor (nice sound, and only 2 controls!)

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Sunday, August 12, 2012


Hello and welcome to this week's tutorial!
Today we're going to talk about Harmonic Exciters / Harmonic Enhancers.
First off let's explain what we are talking about: harmonics are multiples of the same frequency (x2, x3, x4...), so harmonics of 50hz are 100hz, 150hz, 200hz...
We could say that an Harmonic  Exciter is a tone shaping tool similiar to an Equalizer that adds or boost multiples of a given frequency or frequency range, in order to make it sparkle more.

Usually Harmonic Exciters are used in the Mastering Phase, similarly and alternatively to Tape Saturation tools, in order to enhance certain frequencies, and are used mainly to excite the lower frequencies, and the highs, but we can as well use these processors (like the Tube Saturation plugins) on single guitars tracks or some drum part too.
Clean guitars and drums can benefit a lot from a bit of harmonic excitement: it helps the higher frequencies to cut through more, without the need to modify the tone too heavily with the eq, and preserving the original tonal structure, without making it too dirty as a Tube Saturator would.

Harmonic Exciters often features different bands control, in order to manually select the amount of processing to assign do the lows and to the highs separately, for example.
The best Harmonic  Exciters, such as Izotope Ozone, even lets you manually pick the frequencies to process and which band to bypass, instead of giving fixed bands.
The interesting thing about this kind of processing is that, in order to enhance the lower harmonics for example, these processors will raise their multiples even in the mids and in part of the highs; this is the main difference from a regual Equalizer, and that is why these tools are used mainly to give sparkle to certain higher frequencies, and some thump to the lows. Beware though, for it is very easy to overdo, and to have a harsh, out of control final result, a good suggestion would be to blend this effect through the Wet/Dry control.

There are different type of Harmonic Excitements, given by Tubes, by Tape, Aural Exciters (a transistor type of processing used in the mid '70s) and other types, and their result is pretty different in terms of eq.
The most important thing to remember is just to not exaggerate with the lower frequencies control, and just to give a small sparkle with the highs control, remembering also that these excitements will raise the level of the track, so compensate by lowering the Master Volume.
Sometimes there is a Bass Delay control too, which is a short Delay used to thicken the lower frequencies, but it must be used very carefully to not mess up the lower spectrum of your track, so when in doubt, avoid using it.

There are many Free Harmonic Exciters / Enhancers Vst available around, here is a selection of the most used:

Harmonic Enhancer by HgSounds

Exciter, an emulation of the Aphex Aural Exciter

X-Cita, inspired by the BBE Sonic Maximizer

Exciter, by Christian Budde

Antress Modern Exciter

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Sunday, August 5, 2012

HOW TO: THE BASIC MASTERING CHAIN (free Vst Plugins included) PART 2/2


- Now it's time for a Stereo Expander (here you can find many of them for free): this is a useful tool that lets you spread the stereo image of your mix, or just some parts of it. You can choose to spread your mix as much as you want, my only suggestion is to expand only the upper frequencies of your mix leaving the lower end of your spectrum intact, in facts the lows should be as "mono" as possible, in order to stay tight and defined. Otherwise, the mix may get confused.  

- The last ring of the chain is the Limiter (there are many freeware plugins of this kind too, you can try for example this one, the Betabugs W1 Limiter), which is needed to raise the perceived volume trying to avoid distortion. The effect is called "brickwall", and it basically consist in setting a volume limit (usually -0.10 db) and raise the input gain in order to compensate the (for example) -10db of our starting mix with the desired -0.10 db of our final mastered track, so let's raise the input knob (or equivalent, according to the plugin interface), until we get to a fair amount of output volume, but not so high that we lose the dynamics of our mix: we don't want to squeeze and distort all of the surgical job done so far!! 
We can also use more than one limiter instance: the first one to raise the perceived volume, then an EQ to compensate if the limiting is taking out some lower frequencies (which may happen sometimes), and then another limiter to trim the volume, just remember that a limiter should Always be the final plugin, and the last limiter should be POST FADER (on the Cubase/Nuendo interface this means that should be placed on the last 2 slots of the effects insert).
Instead of a limiter we can also use a Clipper. This is a tool very much similar to a Limiter, but it works a bit differently: it's harder on its cut but the result is that it retains more the snap of the snare, for example, which is one of the first things that gets degraded when limiting
Click here for a dedicated article, to understand when and how to use a Clipper.

- Once we  are satisfied of all of the processing done, it's time to Dither (Click Here to learn more), and eventually, to Remove Dc Offset. This is the final part of the mixing and mastering phase, and it's needed if you have recorded in a format superior than 16bit and 44khz (for example 24bit and 48khz); it brings your track down to 16bit and 44khz (which is the standard format for the audio cds) trying to apply as little data loss as possible. Almost every DAW has a dithering plugin bundled, but if you don't have one, here is Loser, a freeware one, and here's another, Voxengo R8brain.

- Once the track is converted in 16bit and 44khz you're ready to trim it, setting the markers at the beginning and the end of the project, set the eventual fade ins and outs, and export the WAW track, which is ready to rock!! 


Keep in mind that this chain is no law, anyways, so feel free to try different combinations for the single effects, or even take some of them off the chain if you think they're unnecessary!


- Make sure you are checking everything with METERS and Frequency Analyzers, since, especially through mastering, these tools such as the Goniometer, are important in order to avoid Phase problems. You can point out such problems and solve them also by switching your master to MONO and checking if there are any areas of the mix where some instrument gets cancelled by others. Make sure to use TT Metering Tool to make sure there is enough headroom left.

- If you feel your sound is "oversquashed", the buss compression, summed with the other compressors you've used on your single tracks used in the mastering phase is too strong.
You can try different settings, especially on the mastering compressor, or you can even take it out completely if you think it's useless.

- Cheat: If you feel you need a litte bit more presence or loudness, keep in mind that the ear is most sensitive in the 3-4 kHz range, so use EQ to boost that range by a tiny amount, especially in quiet parts. E.G. If you boost a very small amount (0.5 db) at 3.2 Khz, you can achieve some punch to the overall mix, but be very careful, as it's easy to go from a small boost to an annoying stridency. Even 1 dB of boost may be too much.


Click Here to Check Out an article about THE MINIMAL MASTERING CHAIN with stock plugins!

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