Saturday, February 27, 2016

Interview: Joey Sturgis

Joey Sturgis is one of today's most recognized modern rock-metal-metalcore producers in the United States: his huge sounding drums and hyper polished productions made him earn an impressive credit both among producers an bands,  
He represents also a new generation of mix engineers (that will probably grow with the time), one that does not have the old hardware mixing board and hardware racks as reference for quality, but that prefer the flexibility of using only (or mainly) plugins AS A CHOICE, instead of an economic need.
Joey is not only a good mix engineer, he also produces a serie of plugins for mixing, speaker impulsesdrum samples, and he even has an online mixing course (along with other collaborators) called Nail the mix, on which he explains his techniques.
Here's our interview:

GuitarNerdingBlog: Hello Joey and welcome to Guitar Nerding Blog! Tell us your story: How did you become a mix engineer?

JoeySturgis: Hey guys! Thanks for having me here. I started producing, recording, and mixing out of necessity. I come from a musical family and around the age of 18, I was playing drums in a metal band. We needed a demo to post on MySpace, and so after finding out one of my friends had a cool make shift recording situation in his garage, I decided to learn how to do it on my own. He gave me a key and let me come in late at night to play around. I just started messing with stuff and experimenting. After a while, I got good enough to record my own band's demo and put it up on MySpace. We got a lot of interest from that demo, and before too long, I was recording other bands on the weekends because they were dying to work with me. That grew into a web of contacts and soon enough I was very busy. A record label owner (Craig Ericson) took interest of my abilities after I had done a few key projects that he was signing and soon after became my manager. The rest is history!

GNB: Which are your career highlights? Which are the artists that influenced you the most? Is there still some collaboration that you would like to do?

JST: I have a lot of career highlights, but I think a big moment that stands out is getting an RIAA certified gold record for the single "The Final Episode" from Stand Up and Scream with band Asking Alexandria. Unrelated to that achievement, I am mostly influenced by guys like Chris Lord Alge and Randy Staubb. I think the most interesting collaboration would be me and the band "Between The Buried And Me".

GNB: What do you think about today's music business? What are your thoughts about underground and mainstream music scene of nowadays?

JST: Today's music business is a very diverse landscape of informal and formal backgrounds ranging from experienced to "I have no clue what I'm doing". Because of this, the expectation for professionalism is a little low in the music industry in general, and I've found a lot of clients rarely understand how the business works at all. This makes it hard to navigate projects and negotiate working terms for producers. I think underground music is very interesting because I believe very firmly in a generation of creators who are growing up with YouTube in their life, and social media as a strong self-promotion platform. I think we'll see more and more DIYers in the Mainstream music scene soon.

GNB: What do you think about the digital music distribution? What about the file sharing? How do you think the music business will evolve in the future?

JST: Digital Music Distribution is an amazing concept that the music industry failed to capitalize on when it first came into play. If the Music Industry would have come up with something sorta like a cross between Spotify, YouTube Red, and Apple Music services combined, with a cap on listen count, we wouldn't be in the mess we're in now. Unfortunately, we're in an unfixable mess unless streaming services cap listen counts. Until then, no one will agree on what a listen is worth. I think the future of selling music is to just make it free and make everything else cost more, or making all music ONLY stream-able and cap the number of listens per month and then tier the pricing.

GNB: Since many readers of our blog are mainly interested in the technical side of the music world, can you tell us something about your studio equipment? Can you tell us something about the last recordings you've done?

JST: I am mostly ITB meaning "in the box". I never have been a OTB "out the box" engineer. I just capture as raw as possible into the computer and then use plugins to modify the sound. I mix as I go because I also produce 99% of the projects I work on, so I know everything that's going on from inception to final product. That means I can get away with recording things a certain way knowing how I'll mix it later. A lot of people don't have that luxury. In fact, there's been a few times in the past where I've had to send stuff off to other people and they call back scratching their heads because I can't assume they'll understand my crazy mess hah. That said, here's the gear:
RME FireFace 800 Interface
Presonus Central Station
AT4040 Microphone
CountryMan DI
Tons of plugins

Sorry it's not more glamorous, but this is all you need to make albums like I do. Oh and you'll need a local studio to go record drums in.

GNB: Tell us something about you recording studio (The Foundation Recording Studio): which Daw do you use? What are your favorite vst plugins? Do you use hardware outboards or you prefer to mix in the box?

JST: The Foundation Recording Estate has been in Michigan for a number of years now, we are exclusively Cubase 6.5. All of my engineers use this, and all of my records have been created on a version of Cubase throughout the years. My favorite plugins are actually the ones I design myself (Joey Sturgis Tones) and the Waves stuff. I don't have any outboard hardware, it's too limiting for my work flow. I prefer to be able to change stuff on the fly.

GNB: What is your opinion about the world of amp/cabinet simulators nowadays? Do you think eventually they will replace entirely the classic hardware or will there be always an "uncanny valley" between the simulation and the real thing? Does this apply to hardware processors like compressors etc?

JST: Amp and Cab simulators have come a long way, and I would know because I design my own with my company Joey Sturgis Tones. You can check out our simulator line known as Toneforge. There's no way to completely replace hardware, because in the computer, everything is either a recreation or a virtual simulation. The virtual simulation will always get better with time, but never meet up with the exact replica of the hardware. This is because simulating infinite variability in a circuit design is never going to be 100% possible. However, it might be possible to reach a point where human hearing can't distinguish the difference. It is entirely possible to recreate anything that is linear, but as you mention compressors and other non-linear processors, it will never be completely possible to replace them. However, we can get close enough now to fool almost anyone, including audiophiles.

GNB: Let's talk about guitar tone: what is your favourite way to get a good guitar tone? Do you use vst amp simulators or you still prefer to mic a cabinet? Have you got any tip to share?

JST: I typically use my own amp simulators or work on my own designs for amp simulators to get the virtual guitar tones I'm after. It takes weeks and sometimes months of tweaking to get all of the adjustments right. It's a series of saturators and filters to get the amp sound up to snuff, and then more filtering and EQing after that. I haven't really mic'd up a cab in AGES. It's probably been 8 years now. Impulses and virtual amp / cab simulators can get you really far. I have many accomplishments to show for it! The biggest tip I can give anyone is that EQ matters the most, next to a GREAT performance.

GNB: Do you have any advice for the guys that wish to open a recording studio on their own, or to become mixing or mastering engineers?

JST: You gotta be willing to sacrifice a lot to go far. The playing field is no longer level, there are people who are enrolled in services like Nail The Mix who are getting a leg up on everyone else and taking over the workload. If you want to succeed today, you gotta be enrolled in something that's actively dishing out new knowledge like that, or you're going to fall behind to all the most updated trends and techniques.

GNB: Tell us something about your JST line of plugins: how is the creation project behind them?

JST: Joey Sturgis Tones is my plugin company, we strive to create audio products that unlock the creativity and full potential of musically gifted people. Our mission is to just make it easier for people to make great music. Essentially I have around 300+ plugin ideas written down, so we just try to tackle them all, one at a time. Each plugin takes about 6 months to a year to fully realize, but we're working hard to speed up the time it takes from idea to completed product. It's hard because sometimes ideas are great, but when you get them as prototypes in your hands, you realize they could be better. And that's where the feature creep begins to happen and the longer it takes to reach a final concept.

GNB: Do you have any tip or suggestion on how to use your plugins? Or some setting you prefer?

JST: My plugins are created to be tools, so settings aren't necessary. You don't need settings for a phillips head screwdriver, right? Or a hammer. So yeah, it's just a tool that you use to get great sounds. It's meant to accelerate your ability to create great music, and designed to spark your creativity.

GNB: Thank you for the interview, tell us something about your future projects!

JST: In the future, I will be working hard to improve everyone's understanding of audio and production. There's a lot of bad information out there, so my goal is to educate everyone better on the topic of audio!

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Review: JST Finality

Hello and welcome to this week's article!
Today we're reviewing a vst from JST (Joey Sturgis Tones), a line of plugins created by the producer Joey Sturgis, one of the most known modern rock/metal producers in America.

This plugin, Finality, is a Peak Limiter (click here for an in depht article about mixing and mastering with peak limiters), which is basically a compressor modeled after the way they used to make them in the 60s and 70s: with a threshold knob to decide from where to start compressing, an output knob to even out the output with the dry track, and a VU meter to check out the amount of gain reduction going on.

Finality comes in 2 versions: Lite and Advanced.
The Lite version is a streamlined version, more similar to the hardware machines it emulates, that has basically four knobs: threshold, output, input and mix (this one lets you choose the amount of processed signal to be mixed with the dry one).

The Advanced version instead is a much more complete plugin, which takes the lite version and adds many more controls.

Let's take a look at them:
- Hard and soft mode: it changes the way transients are mantained: with soft mode they are preserved more.
- Aggro: it alters the release envelope (obviously there is a release knob too), and it's particularly useful with drums
- Colour: it's a switch that adds some saturation to the signal, to give more life to some weak recording take
- Lookahead: it helps anticipating peaks and attenuating them properly
- Autogain: a switch that sets automatically the makeup gain
- Sidechain: a switch and a knob made to handle sidechain with low end material

When testing this plugin I have been amazed by the sound quality: there are many competitors (some free and some paid) in the peak reduction realm, but this one is particularly good; I have use it on a drum overhead buss in order to tame the snare sound, give more body to the snare and raise the cymbals level, but I have also tried it on a vocals and on a bass track, and it adds a very warm and pleasant saturation.
The plugin can also be driven to pretty extreme settings without generating noise or other problems.
This plugin works very well on single tracks as well as on a mix buss, or as a broadband mastering compressor (although this last one isn't probably its originary purpose).

So far Joey Sturgis has impressed us with his array of plugins, one for each kind (so you don't lose yourself into an ocean of almost identical compressors and equalizers, unlike other producers tend to do), all very effective; a plugin that we'd suggest him to create in the future would be a nice channel strip: a nice parametric eq, gate and compressor (maybe a simple harmonic exciter knob too) all into a very simple interface and with some unique features like the ones that sometimes he adds on his plugins, specific for heavy music: it would be really interesting.

For now, thumbs up!

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Monday, February 15, 2016

Mixing and Mastering with a Peak Limiter (with Free Vst Plugins)

Hello and welcome to this week's article!
Today we are talking about a very interesting tool to compress or limit a sound (under this point of view this article goes under the main category of COMPRESSORS) slighly different from the compressors and limiters interface of today.
In the old times (we are talking of the '60s), gain reduction was not a trend as today: sounds were much less "in your face", recordings were less loud and there was a lot of headroom and dynamic range (on the other hand songs were much less powerful and many nuances were hard to hear because they were really low in volume).

In the early '60s a producer called Teletronix created one of the most famous compressors of the time, the LA-2A Leveling Amplifier, a tube-driven peak limiter which still today is used by some classic studio due to its simplicity and the very particular harmonic enhancement produced.

In 1968, then, a producer called Urei created a peak limiter that still today is considered by many studios a standard, and it is still in production: the 1176Ln Peak Limiter, one of the first compressors / peak limiters (at the time the concept of compressor and limiter was really the same) to be completely solid state, unlike the other models which all were tube-driven.

In the modern times Compressors and Limiters have taken different roads, specializing in different tasks and different phases of the music production, but the origin of both is the Peak Limiter, a tool that originally had just two knobs: Peak Reduction and Gain (or Input and Output).
Peak reduction controls the amount of compression to apply to the signal (as can be seen also from the VU meter), Gain controls the output volume. That's it.
Obviously with the following releases of the 1176, the unit started having more and more controls, to the point that today is very similar to a modern compressor: you can choose the compression ratio among four modes (or press all the buttons together to drive the ratio to the max), you can decide attack and release with two knobs and there are different ways of using the VU Meter. 


Mixing:  There are many uses of a compressor (both physical or one of the countless VST versions, such as the freeware Modern Lost Angel or Modern Seventh Sign by Antress, or the Variety of Sound Thrillseeker, or Nomad Factory Bus Driver), but today this kind of units are used mainly for Buss Compression.
A typical use of a Peak Limiter is on the Drum Overhead Buss: usually the snare is the loudest drum part picked up by the oh microphones, therefore putting a peak limiter in the OH buss lets us compress the snare sound and raise and make stable the level of the cymbals: this way the cymbals will be more audible and with less dynamic range, and at the same time the snare will pop out less but it will gain in weight and sustain.
The only thing to remember is to balance the output of the signal, because since we are adding db of gain IN, we should lower accordingly of the same amount of db the OUTPUT in order to leave the overall level of the track unaltered, just processed.
A peak limiter is also good on single tracks such as Bass or Vocals, adding weight and loudness, if we want to use compression as a tone shaping tool, since this obviously is not the most transparent way of processing our track. 
One last great way to use a peak limiter is for parallel compression: this way we can really squeeze a buss with all the drum parts, and then mix this sound back into the unprocessed sound, until we find the desired mix between the two.

Mastering: There are some mastering engineers who prefers the subtlety of a multiband compressor in the mastering buss, in order to be able to tame selectively certain frequences and to make adjustments even in the mastering phase, and some other engineers who prefer to have all the mix equilibrium perfect, and then slam the track with a broadband compressor, leveling equally all frequences (I often prefer this solution, and if there is some frequency that needs to be tamed, I prefer going back to the mixing project and solve the problem from there). With the hardware version obviously the hardware needs to be stereo, otherwise two units are needed, anyway this kind of peak limiter is very good in mastering, because often the harmonic excitement and the warmth that it adds to the song is just what it takes to bring a recording to the next level.

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Saturday, February 6, 2016

Interview: Mercuriall Audio

Mercuriall Audio is an interesting audio company from Russia, founded by the programmer Vladimir Titov and mix engineer Vjacheslav Tikhonov in 2015.
The company has started releasing some free plugin (that still today can be downloaded via their website), before making the leap into the realm of paid Vst Plugins, with their first paid creations, Amp One, a virtual amplifier for Ipad, and Tube Amp Ultra 530, a vst that simulates an Engl E530 Preamp (Click Here for our Review)
Here is our interview:

GuitarNerdingBlog: Hello and welcome to Guitar Nerding Blog! Can you give us some details on how Mercuriall audio was born?

: Hello Atoragon and everybody who reads Guitar Nerding Blog! About 5 years ago I first tried to make a convolution reverb algorithm, starting from a simple (and very slow) method. 
And for my first program - guitar cabinet emulator Cab 1.0. I was looking for a simple name little in common with the cosmic theme. But that was not a real "birth" of the projectm it was a project that I was doing as a hobby in my spare time. 
At that moment, I experimented on modeling guitar cabinets for Free amp-sims. The real birth of Mercuriall can be considered the moment in which I created the preamp-sim JCM800. It happened when I was not working, therefore I was completely focused on modeling guitar cabinets and preamps. It was a very difficult time for me as I was working on free software and did not have sources of funding within six months. Then I started working on Amp ONE for the iPad, which took me about a year. After the release of Amp ONE, it only slightly eased my financial situation. Tube Amp Ultra 530 came about a year after the release of Amp ONE. U530 became my first commercial software for desktop computers. A more logical to assume that the release of U530 and the launch of the website is the official birth of Mercuriall Audio Software. In the beginning, I did not imagine that it would have been so difficult, because since the beginning of the work on the Amp ONE and before the U530 it took about two and a half years during which I had no funding and I worked completely alone at my own risk. It was a difficult time, which I would not like to repeat. Perhaps the birth of something wonderful always happens in terrible agony. In this case, it happened to delight fans of high-quality tube amplifiers modeling.
If to be completely honest, I haven't worked on the U530 alone. I entrusted the work on the circuits of E530 and GUI for new plugin to one of the Amp ONE beta testers. He as well as I plays guitar but also understands the circuitry better than I do. I needed someone who is willing to experiment with the circuits of the analog prototype, someone who can rewire or make measurements in the right places of circuits, to find places where there is a differences between an analog device and simulation. Together we succeeded to finalize the U530. Therefore Mercuriall Audio Software - more than one person, it's a small team.

GNB: What do you think about the amplification business nowadays?

: Honestly, I cannot say something very specific about today’s amplification business, as it is hard to make comparisons with the past. I think it is a very exciting time now, as the processing capabilities of modern computers allow us to do much more than it was possible before, and it is not only because of the hardware engineers’ achievements, but also because of programmers, who have learned to use hardware at its full potential.
At the same time, many large companies who create software for guitar players had too much focus on the number of simulated amplifiers and pedals, sacrificing the quality. Now they cannot move away from this path to create new products with just a few devices, but of the highest quality of simulation. They are forced to use marketing and redesign tactics to stay in the business.
This gives room to startups who focus on the most accurate modeling of amps and pedals. At the moment, all the necessary theoretical materials are available through the internet. Learn and create!

GNB: What is the design of a Mercuriall audio plugin usually like?

M: Previous free plugins were mostly experimental. I tried different approaches to achieve specific goals.
For example, working on U530 consisted of several stages.
Since we were modeling a tube preamp, the first thing we did was to compile the scheme of the device in LTSpice IV simulator and test its operation in comparison to the actual device.
At the next stage I moved the LTSpice-model directly to the code in C ++, so that the program could perform the simulation – but not in real-time, as the simulation algorithm requires complex calculations for solving systems of nonlinear differential equations. At this point, I ran the simulation and generated a response to a given stimulus to get the teaching sample set to train the neural network, which will replace the individual algorithm for solving nonlinear differential equations and will significantly accelerate the simulation of the circuit.
In parallel, we worked on the user interface of the program in the Blender 3D.
Afterwards, everything is put together, tested, adjusted and finalized.
The longest and hardest part is working on the visual appearance of the program.

: What is your opinion about the world of amp/cabinet simulators nowadays? Do you think eventually they will replace entirely the classic hardware?

M: Entirely – they will never be replaced, of course. We can draw an analogy between real and electronic books. Traditional books are still popular despite the fact that we have an opportunity to read them electronically. I think the main point here is that it is important for people to have something that is less dependent on “time” and that can be considered as a reference that is the base for the progress. Nevertheless, most will use the amp/cab-sims because it is more convenient.

GNB: What is the philosophy behind your software: analog modeling, black box approach or else?

M: I think all amp-sim developers use the principle of the black box. If you put a device with full analogue modeling (e.g. LTSpice IV) one the left side and on the right a device based fully on the black box principle (Kemper), then the majority of those will be somewhere closer to the black box. Our approach is very close to the version with full analogue modeling (LTSpice IV), because it uses the same methods for the simulation of the analog circuit as it happens in the simulation in LTSpice. The difference is that to speed up the calculations, some of them are «simulated" by the neural network, which essentially can be considered a black box algorithm integrated into the analog circuit simulation.

GNB: What are your career highlights as a software house?

M: (This is probably a long story) I first started to get acquainted with programming in 1994, when I was a schoolboy studying in the 8th grade, and studied at the courses Programming in Microsoft FoxPro for DOS. Then I did not have a computer and it was interesting and mysterious. 
I got a PC one year later, and three months after its appearance I had a software package Symantec Zortech C ++ 3.0. At that time it was the best compiler C/C ++ for DOS / Windows 3.11, and I started to learn C/C ++. Then I was in the 9th grade of high school. 
The problem was that I was not understanding what I do, and what I wanted to get from it. 
Back in '94 on the computer courses they showed us how to work with spreadsheets. I was amazed that you can enter a mathematical expression into a table cell, and instantly receive the calculation result, without compiling any of the code. 
I became interested in it and look how that information can be programmed. As a result, I found the book describes the basic operation of BASIC interpreter in C. And I had the idea to create a shell of their language, similar to Pascal to take part in the competition program in the 11th grade. At the competition, I won a thick book Internet Explorer 3.0 and a box of floppy and mouse pad. This is how my passion for programming started. My project has not received further development, but this was the first experience of creating programs with more than two thousand lines of code. While studying at the University I got interested in the modeling of neural networks, but since in the curriculum we did not have anything connected with the study of neural networks, it was mostly searching and reading on the subject material from the Internet. 
After the graduation, I have worked as a teacher of computer science, but the lack of prospect forced me to look for something else.  
I have worked for 6 months as a programmer in the Kamchatka center of communication and monitoring: there I was programming in Perl and Delphi (Pascal). From there I went to the company that provides access to the Internet (the company - provider of the Internet) where in addition to Perl, I had to write programs in PHP, PL / SQL (Oracle). There I was again faced with a C when it was necessary to modify the source code for Sendmail and Cyrrus. So once again I began to write code in C. Next came Mercuriall Cab 1.0 for the first time I took off impulses from my own cab and tried to apply machine learning to get orthogonal series Volterra instead of the usual IRs. And when the need for a programmer disappeared and I got fired, I became more focused to lead the development. The first amp which appeared after my dismissal was JCM800 that was absolutely free. Then came JCM800 Hot (JCM800 modified scheme), Harlequin. Then came the same plug-ins but with improved performance and accuracy of the modeling. Donations received was very small, but I was able to save enough money to buy iPad Air, and start developing a program Amp ONE for the iPad. It's the main stages at the moment.

GNB: How do you think the future of digital amp simulation will be? Will it be still for years a continuous modeling of old hardware or do you think someday the concept itself of amplification will change, along with the tastes of musicians?

M: Hard to predict. I think that the success of the accurate modeling of guitar amps will first lead to users wanting to get back to the origins of the guitar sound. Perhaps there will be experiments to obtain new sounds with the desired characteristics, but models of transistors/pentodes/transformers - these will remain as close to the originals as possible. Thus, the sound search will be carried out by changing the scheme of "virtual" amplifiers, and if desired, it will be possible to re-create the same amplifier in the analog world. In principle, this is how modern amplifiers are created - starting with the device’s circuit in the emulator of electric circuitries. At the same time, trying to match the sound to the “industry standards” of Clean, Crunch and Lead.

GNB: Do you have any tip or suggestion on how to use your plugins? Or some setting you prefer?

M: At the moment, I use default controls of the Free-version of U530. The reason is that I do not deal with professional mastering and mixing, and for playing in headphones, such settings are just enough.

GNB: Thank you for the interview, you can conclude by saying to our readers anything you want!

M: I want to thank all those who believe in us. We will continue creating wonderful things for you all. We have big plans for 2016. We will continue to work on the precise modeling of amplifiers. And right now we are working on our new project - Spark!