Saturday, October 24, 2015

Recording and mixing using Reference Tracks! (a guide for dummies)

Hello and welcome to this week's article!
Today we will talk about a little trick that everyone uses (also the pros) to improve our ear and to check out if our mix is going in the right direction: using a reference track while mixing.
What does it mean?
It means using a track that we "trust", like a song that we consider a perfect mixing and mastering balance, to confront in real time with our project, when mixing it, in order to make sure we nail the right balance and overall tone we are aiming to.
Note that this article is an integration and expansion of our Ear Training, Referencing and Mixing Articles! 

Everybody, when mixing a project, tend to fall in the psychological "trap" that the project sounds good, that everything is well balanced, even if it's not, because our "ear" tends to "accustom" itself to what is hearing, and after a certain amount of time we tend to not notice anymore certain problems, especially eq-wise.
What can we do? Surely one remedy is to stop for some minute every hour or so of mixing, to let our ears rest and reset the "eq-bias" they have accustomed to.
The other method is switching back and forth between our song and a reference track.

The greatest producers in the world (for example Dave Pensado), has an array of songs they trust (for example one song in which there is the best vocal processing, another one in which the drums sounds perfectly balanced and so on), and when mixing they create an empty channel, load those tracks into it, adjust the volume so that it is comparable to the volume of their project and make a/b comparisons all the time, checking out all the most important areas of their mix, to see if it's comparable to the best industry standards in term of overall sound.

The main areas to compare are:

- Balance: How loud are the vocals, or the drums, compared to the rest of the instruments? Are all the instruments sitting properly in the mix? 

- Overall bass amount (this is good for comparisons also in the Mastering Phase): is our song too bass heavy? Or not enough?

- Effects: do our vocals need some more reverb? Or, when comparing them to our reference track they are drowning on it?

We can also use reference tracks in the recording phase: since we know that the starting sound is the 60% of the final sound, we should try to nail a tone as perfect as possible before even starting to work on it in the mixing phase.
This could help us placing the microphones in a certain position while recording a guitar, or in working on the drum sound (both in finding the right tuning configuration or finding the right samples when using them, for example), and so on.
In the Mastering phase using a reference track is interesting to compare the overall loudness, the overall eq (to see if our project is too "dark" or too "bright" compared to the perfectly balanced reference track), and so on.
(just remember, though, that if we put our mastering plugins in the master buss they will affect the reference track channel too!).

As we have seen there are many, many uses and good reasons to use a reference track. It can sound like an extra waste of time, but I assure you that it will bring its results! Let me know if you have tried it, and if it helped you improving your mix!

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Saturday, October 17, 2015

Review: MXR Wylde Overdrive

Hello and welcome to this week's article! 
Today we are going to speak about one of the most iconic overdrives ever made: the MXR Wylde Overdrive!
The first version of Wylde overdrive was developed by Mxr, a legendary stompbox brand, which later was acquired by Jim Dunlop, so today the actual name of the latest version of this pedal is Jim Dunlop Berzerker Overdrive, but besides the different name the hardware part is identical.

When designing this pedal Zakk Wylde, the guitarist of a good part of the Ozzy Osbourne solo career and singer and guitarist of Black Label Society, he took as a base a Boss SD-1 (Super Overdrive) and made his own tweaks, increasing the gain and making it true bypass, while keeping the same controls: Tone, Gain and Output (which in the original Boss Sd-1 is called Level). 
The resul is an overdrive that can be used to add warmth and grit to a clean channel, like all the other overdrives, while mantaining a certain level of dynamics, but that is even more suited for its main purpose (the way it's used by Zakk Wylde): to boost the distorted channel of an amplifier to add attack and to scoop the mids, in order to obtain a very aggressive heavy metal tone, Black Label Society or Pantera style. 

How does it compare to a classic Tubescreamer, the most famous booster in the world? 
The Zw44 is brighter (like its Boss original overdrive) and more aggressive, and when pushed it can acquire a character which sounds almost like a fuzz, in terms of gain style. This gives to the guitarist a wide range of sounds to play with, even if after a few tweaks it becomes clear the true vocation of this stompbox: to be used in a hard rock-heavy metal environment, rather than in a blues/jazzy one, since it is more about giving the player a huge amount of gain rather than the subtlety and the dynamics of the smoothest overdrives on the market.

The final thought is that if you are looking for an overdrive to boost your crunch channel to play heavy metal this stompbox is almost unbeatable, also because it's true bypass, so when turned off it doesn't eat your guitar signal.
If you are looking for a very subtle overdrive that underlines the nuances of your clean playing, instead, maybe is better to look somewhere else.

SPECS Taken from the Jim Dunlop / Mxr Overdrive:

Input Impedance 1 MΩ

Output Impedance 7.5 kΩ

Nominal Input -22 dBV 

Noise Floor* -88 dBV

Bypass Hardwire

Current Draw 2.2 mA

Power Supply 9 volts DC

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Saturday, October 10, 2015

How to sound like: Jimi Hendrix (with sample and using only free Vst Plugins)

Hello and welcome to this week's article!
Today we are going to see how to obtain very easily one of the most iconic and classic guitar sounds of the history of this instrument: the classic Jimi Hendrix tone.
Let's start by saying that Jimi hendrix was really an innovator: he took effects which were new at the time, like the modulation effects, and made them famous and mainstream, to the point that many of them are still today a standard in any guitar player rig.

Another thing to say about Jimi Hendrix is that he actually had a LOT of tones; almost a different one for each song, to the point that some commercial simulator (for example the very complete Amplitube Hendrix) today recreates the tone of the various single songs.

I wanted to recreate the classic Little Wing sound, that in my opinion is the best one, using only free plugins or the ones bundled in any commercial Daw: as you can see from the picture above (which shows the full chain, to be read from left to right, from top to bottom) I have used Presonus Studio One, but the same rules can be applied to any DAW, since they all feature these processors by default.

First off I have loaded on a track the original Little Wing, to use it as a Reference Track, so I could compare in real time the results of my tweaking, until the sound was similar enough.
I have used my cheap Squier Stratocaster, using the neck pickup (although in the last part of the sample I have switched to the bridge one, which was a humbucker, in order to have a little more output), tuned it, found the right Input Level, and proceeded loading a Preamp to use with the clean channel. I have used the Ignite Amp NRR-1, with no cab emulation (when using clean guitars it's possible to act this way to obtain a more direct sound, it's no blasphemy :D), and I have added enough gain to simulate a booster in front of the amp.
From here I have proceeded to add two modulation effects typical of the Hendrix sound: a Phaser and a Chorus. both of them in a very moderate amount, just to add some depth and character to the sound.
In the end I've put a sprinke of Reverb, do give some space to the sound, that otherwise without Cab emulation would have sounded too direct.

On the bottom of the signal chain I've added a Low pass Filter to shave off some of the harsh frequences typical of the digital sound, and put a limiter on the master bus.

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Saturday, October 3, 2015

Interview: Adrienne Zolondick

Hello everyone and welcome to this week's article!
Today our good friend Tammy of Moonstruck Promotions is interviewing Adrienne Z, an american pop-rock singer and songwriter, here is the result of out chat with her!

Florida USA musician Adrienne Zolondick (Adrienne Z) was raised in Boston, Ma., in a house filled with music. Her immediate and extended family sang and even her childhood babysitters played guitar and shared songs with Adrienne and her sisters. Adrienne followed her musical heart and attended Walnut Hill School of the Performing Arts in Natick, Massachusetts. “My voice was very young and small back then and I didn't quite understand all that I learned in those four years singing classical music as well as show tunes,” says Adrienne. “I liked to sing along with record and I discovered the expert vocal training I received helped me sing what I was hearing correctly. “I didn't choose to wail and scream like Janis Joplin because I didn't like how it felt in my voice. I preferred a nuanced, emotive type vocal style. It seemed to suit my songwriting,” she says.
Compared to singers like Joni Mitchell, Ricki Lee Jones, Dido and Stevie Nicks, Adrienne's voice is pure emotion, stylistically elegant, soulful, and ethereal.Chameleons is a captivating listen. Songs run the gamut from ballads like “Blue Day”, to all out rockers like “You Push My Love Away” to sweet reflections like “When The Day is Through” complete with a heavenly violin solo.
Adrienne tours steadily in the Florida Keys and is planning a US tour in 2017.

Hi Adrienne! Welcome to Guitar Nerding Blog. We're pretty excited because you are our first female artist feature!

GuitarNerdingBlog: Can you tell us what brand of guitar you play? All guitarists have a wish list of the "perfect" guitar. Can you tell us what sort of guitars are on your wishlist?

AdrienneZ: A couple of years ago I heard about a man named Dean Nickless who lives here in the Keys, Big Pine Key to be exact. I first heard about him when I accidentally put a small whole in my 1944 Martin 000-18 when my guitar strap broke and the bottom of the guitar landed on a rock. I was devastated. Fortunately, I was at the right place at the right time to hear about Dean and his amazing ability with not only fixing guitars,but actually making them. After he fixed the whole in my old Martin, impeccably well I must say, I was thrilled at the job he did, I played one of his guitars that he made himself and learned about many other musicians in the Keys he personally made guitars for to the exact specs that they wanted. I really needed to retire my old Martin, having played it for many years in not always ideal conditions. It doesn't look nearly as bad as Willie Nelsons guitar, but as it was my road guitar for so many years, it certainly looks like it's been played a lot I can tell you that! Lol! I asked Dean if he would make me a guitar to the exact specs of my Martin 000-18 and he did just that. This is my dream guitar and number 12 in the Nickless catalog. He was so meticulous with his measurements, he measured down to the thickness of the varnish on the old girl! He used local Wild Tamarind wood for the back and sides, a Sitka Spruce Bear Claw top, stripped ebony fingerboard and bridge and Cuban Mahogany neck which he describes as, "the only true Mahogany." (He knows a lot about wood and guitars I can tell you that!) This guitar is for my solo, duo or trio shows. I also have a Line 6 variax acoustic guitar which I use when I perform with a band. It is a guitar with a computer inside with 16 different recorded guitar sounds. Everything from a sitar sound to various sized acoustic guitars have been recorded to create the sounds in the line 6. I use this to keep from having issues with feedback in band situations when many monitors are on stage.

On my wishlist? I have to say I'm pretty satisfied right now with my stay at home Martin, and my new Nickless guitar for my live shows. The bass response I am getting with it is unlike anything I have ever heard for a live guitar sound. It's truly a one of a kind and I feel blessed to have it! In fact, every time I see Dean at a show I always ask him, "I can really take this guitar with me? It's really mine?" I kid with him. And he just laughs. He is very humble and I'm happy to share his name with you all.
I am still in awe mode with my Nickless guitar and for recording purposes I like having other stringed instruments like, a ukulele. My wish list right now includes more acoustic instruments: a mandolin, a baritone guitar.

GNB: You mention being a fan of James Taylor's guitar style. Can you tell us a little about your technique (fingerpicking, strumming, do you use a pick)? and guitarists you admire? When did you first start playing guitar. Do you play other instruments?
AZ: I started playing guitar when I was 8 years old, inspired by the babysitters I had actually. :-) Four sisters came to the house to babysit us and they were just in high school. Having both sides of my family into music and a love for singing, I opted to learn guitar in grammar school when other kids were choosing wind instruments or percussion. I like to fingerpick, and strictly fingerpicked for years before getting a pick. As a matter of fact, to this day I am more comfortable with my fingers on the strings than a pick in my hand. I prefer to feel the strings. My technique developed from listening to music and trying to play exactly what I was hearing. I did this a lot with James Taylor, Dan Fogelberg, Nancy Wilson of Heart, Crosby Stills Nash & Young, I also play the piano and use it mainly as a tool to write songs and arrange tunes I'm recording in my studio. I have a bass guitar as well and love to write bass parts to my songs or a song I'm producing.

GNB: Adrienne, do you use outboard gear? Guitar effects? Pedals? Amps?

AZ: I did buy a Fishman Aura after reading about James Taylor using it for his live shows, but I wasn't happy with the sound of it with my Martin. I prefer guitars that sound as close to what you hear un-amplified as possible so as far as my acoustic guitar sound. I prefer it realistic and un-effected.

GNB: Can you tell us about your guitar set up?

AZ: Dean installs KK pickups on all his acoustic guitars, I have been really happy with the sound of my guitar with these pick ups. The volume control clings to the underside of the sound hole via a magnet. I plug straight into my PA. I just purchased a Fishman SA 220 and it's clear as day. I can tell you I was on stage performing in the round with 6 singer songwriters. for a songwriters night playing my brand new Nickless guitar and Steve Spellman, who owned The guitar Shop in Washington DC from 1968- 2011, came up to me after the show and said I had the best sounding guitar on stage. That's a huge compliment coming from a guy who would lend Crosby Stills & Nash his exquisite Martin guitars. Steve Spellman himself had to sit in for Neil Young when he missed his flight at Bill Clinton's birthday party! I just learned Steve has a house here in the Keys. Dean told me he spoke with Steve about making a 000-18 size guitar and he wondered about the bass response Steve reassured him it would be fine, and fine it certainly is.

GNB: You perform a lot in tropical climates. HOW DO YOU KEEP YOUR GUITAR in tune with obvious heat and humidity?

AZ: I have never had an issue with my Martin or my Nickless going out of tune. I keep my guitars in the ac at home with me which keeps them out of the elements most of the time. Even when I take it out to shows where I may be in the sun for an extended period of time, they require very little tuning once I tune it up at the show. I do know a guitarist that keeps 3 guitars outside in his van all the time. I believe his van isn't kept in direct sunlight. He says they're not his high end guitars but he uses them all at his shows and I perform with him and don't recall having to wait too long for him to tune though I am sure he tunes more than I do. :- The guitars are fine... me on the other hand.... I'm sweating way more than my guitar!

GNB: We understand you have a new record out! Tell us about it!

AZ: This record has many different styles and themes. From Nu folk, pop to more of a rockin sound to Americana and even Trop Rock. I was concerned about how all the various styles would pull together actually, It wasn't until I figured out the song order that it occurred to me how well they actually flow into each other from song to song, like a concept record, which I really like. Not even sure there are a whole lot of concept records being made these days.The words and music for Chameleons is an outpouring of emotional songs filled with desperation, feelings of loss and deep sadness that came about from the break up of a long term relationship I had. The great thing about the record is the sadness comes and goes from song to song and transitions to a happier place through the course of the record. Blue Day, When the Wolves Cry and For Your Soul are pure emotional tunes born out of deep sadness. There's the angry love song, "You Push My Love Away", which flows into "Back on the Road", a song that embodies the awareness of how much better it feels to move on, let go and fly. Other songs like Little Bit of You in Me and Twinkletoe Land are love songs. Bringing Some Where There is None, Chameleons and When the Day is Thru all express the desire to make a change and grow, revealing that we have the power to change our situations in the moment. "Dancing in the rain, there is sun again, rainbows in the Moonlight." Feelings of loss are evident for sure on Chameleons but the awareness of change and rebirth, getting back on track and on the right road to enjoying life is where the album takes you. I never would have imagined that all these tunes from different emotional places would work so well, not in my wildest dreams, but they do and I love this record!