Saturday, July 30, 2016

Mixing with channel strips, console simulators and other analog simulations

Hello and welcome to this week's article!
Today we will talk about mixing using virtual channel strips, and it is an addition to our virtual channel strips article, with links to download many virtual Vsts to try (CLICK HERE TO READ IT).

This time I would like to go more in depth in the matter: why does anybody need in the digital age to limit himself by using channel strips, that limit our flexibility, our total control over a tone?
Why should we restrict ourselves in a more limited environment, forcing ourselves to recreate the technical limits of the hardware consoles of the past?

The answer is not silly, and it has one psychological and one practical side.

The practical side is the fact that analog consoles have certain properties given from the materials and the construction, which have given to the sound of the albums we loved of the past decades a very unique and euphonic coloring.
The combination of very sligh compression, saturation and harmonic enhancement given by those that once were even considered limits of the hardware, today are pushing us in using at least some console simulator on our busses (for example a kick buss, or a bass track, click here for an in depth article) or a tape saturation plugin (click here for an in depth article) to obtain a limiting in the amount of low end in a very musical way.
Through these classic hardwares, or their virtual simulators, the low end will sound more compact, in focus and smooth.

The only problem is that this nice effect is based on the quality of the hardware or the simulator; it's obvious that if we pass our mix through a mixer that was crappy even when it was purchased 30 years ago our mix won't benefit at all, same is if we use crappy plugins: the sad truth is that the quality is paid, and only the best ones, the most expensive ones such as the Slate or the Waves ones, or others, can really deliver a good result (although I think that Sonimus Satson is an excellent bang for the buck).

Under the psychologic point of view instead, deciding to use channel strips instead of the classic array of plugins we fill every track's slot with, brings us to an interesting challenge that eventually will turn into a growing experience that we will be able to use also in the future mixes: it teaches us to think strategically, especially if we try to mix it like on a small desk, for example 16 or 24 single channels, and some buss, like one for vocals, one for drum skins, one for cymbals, one for guitars, and do the most of the work mainly on the busses. this will force us to find a homogeneous coloring of each group, and eventually it will help us in improving the separation between sections too: the whole drumset will have a coherent sound, all the vocals will have a coherent sound, and it will be easier to separate each section one from the other.

If we do our group tracks properly, after the editing phase, we will have to add really few plugins in the single tracks, mainly for filtering or for doing some dynamic correction, and then we can do most of the work directly in the few groups we have created, which was the normality when using mixing desks from the 60s to the 90s, and I guarantee that this experience will change your workflow and approach when mixing your future projects: you will learn that you can achieve the same result as loading for example a processor in every track, by grouping them and using less processor instances as possible, or loading one or two delays into an fx track and sending them to the tracks or groups instead of loading an instance of the delay in every track, overloading the cpu.

I guarantee the result will be better and more natural, and the workflow will be much less stressful.

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Saturday, July 23, 2016

Keyboard Shortcuts (for Presonus Studio One, but also for other Daws)

Hello and welcome to this week's article!
Today we're going to talk about keyboard shortcuts, which means assigning a function of the Daw to a key or combination of keys of our keyboard.
Obviously every Daw has a (at least slighly) different serie of key commands: some Daw that are particularly greedy have them mapped in a totally different ways than the others (cough cough... Cakewalk...) in order to make sure that once you got used to theirs, you won't switch comfortably to another Daw, while other producers tend to use a more "standard" approach, to make sure that even if you come from another Daw, you will feel more or less at home.

Presonus Studio one is particularly good in this, since it lets you choose between several keyboard mapping schemes (like the one of Cubase, Pro Tools, Logic...), so that you will be able to use the shortcuts you're used to from your previous Daw, and obviously it lets you customize everything with ease if you want to create a custom mapping that suits your needs.

Here you can find a map of the Studio One standard keyboard Shortcuts; we know that is impossible to memorize all of them, and only by using them with time we will get acquainted, neveretheless we have chosen the 10 most important keyboard shortcuts to know (in our humble opinion) to really improve the speed of our workflow:

1 - Select arrow tool

F3 - Show Console

Alt+X - Cut

Ctrl+Z - Undo

Num pad * - Record

Spacebar - Play/stop

Q - Quantize

O - Preroll

R - arm track

G - consolidate parts

There are also layouts like the one in the image, that can be printed or purchased on sticker paper, ready to be attached to your keyboard to help you finding the right key for the right function.

I hope this was helpful!

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Saturday, July 16, 2016

Review: Behringer Ultragain Mic200

Hello and welcome to this week's article!
Today we are going to talk about a tool that is considered the cheap "swiss knife" of Di/Preamps: the Behringer Ultragain Mic 200.

Every musician knows Behringer: a big german producer that has as a target the cheapest layer of the market, and that creates products, often clones of famous hardware from more expensive brands, affordable for those who are first approaching the world of music or music production and need some dirt cheap tool, such as mixers, stompboxes and so on.

It has happened, especially in the past, that Behringer has put in the market products with such a poor construction that it made them almost unusable, or prone to break after a really short time, but in recent times it appears like the company is working in the direction of improving its product quality, especially creating a guitar amp sub-brand called Bugera, which produces affordable clones of famous amplifiers, and that represents a big step forward from the extremely poor quality of the previous Behringer branded guitar amps.

Asking to professional audio engineers on whether or not to use Behringer products on your record would often result in a negative answer, yet many thinks that this brand has actually some (very few) product that can be used also in a professional environment, and I am talking specifically about the Ultragain serie, both rack or this small desktop version.

The Ultragain Mic is a small Di/preamplifier with 2 inputs and 2 outputs, one Xrl and one line, and it is appearently a clone of the Art Tube Mp, a beloved, multi purpose Di and Preamp.
The unit features a 12ax7 preamp tube, an input (from -28 to +60db) and output control, the phantom power control obviously, a -20db pad, a low cut filter, a phase switch and a preamplifier that features a serie of presets usable for vocals, guitar and so on.

I have approached this unit with not much expectations, considering the price, and yet I am still using it after many years with satisfaction: it has never let me down, doing its job diligently and without excessive background noise, which was my main concern due to the cheap materials.
I am using it usually as a Di/signal splitter: I go from my guitar to this unit, and from there one cable goes to the amp, which is microphoned, while another goes straight into the audio interface, so that for each guitar track I record, I will have one or more microphoned tracks and one clean line track.
It is always a good thing to record also a clean track, because sometimes during the mixing phase we might find out that the microphoned tracks have some issue and cannot be used, so we have to use the line track to reamp it with a real amplifier or with a guitar amp simulator.

In conclusion I find this unit useful, it is reliable (although I wouldn't use it on tour) and it sounds good, plus for the price, it is a real bang for the buck.
Final verdict: recommended!

- Ultra-flexible Preamp Modeling allows you to optimize your recordings
- Choose between 16 preamp voicings designed for electric and acoustic guitars, keyboards, bass guitars, drums, vocals and more
- Hand-selected 12AX7 vacuum tube with UTC technology for exceptional warmth and lowest noise
- Ensures outstanding signal transparency when used as a high-end DI-box
- Sophisticated output limiter prevents the output signal from being distorted
- Dedicated low cut filter eliminates unwanted noise, e.g. floor rumble
- +48 V phantom power, Phase Reverse switch and 20 dB Pad for utmost flexibility
- Highly accurate 8-segment LED level meter
- Balanced inputs and outputs on ¼" TRS and gold-plated XLR connectors

Saturday, July 9, 2016

How to use Folder Tracks (practical uses)

Hello and welcome to this week's article!
Today we're going to talk about a way to organize our project (so we are in the Project Preparation phase, the one between the recording phase and the mixing one), grouping two or more tracks in one same folder (e.g. Toms) so that we can reach more easily the track we need instead of having to scroll down the tracklist all the time; this is really the best way to tidy up our session.

In large projects (especially those with big orchestral Midi parts), we can find ourselves with literally hundreds of tracks (I have personally worked on a project with more than 100 AUDIO tracks), so a good organization of the workstation is essential.
All the most advanced Daws have some way to visually group tracks in smaller folders that when needed can be collapsed, and each producer calls them in a different way (for example in Logic they are called Track Stacks), but today we are going to focus on the Presonus Studio One interface, because the Track Folder tool offers the same function of the others, plus some unique feature.

The first thing to do is to choose the tracks that we want to pack in the same folder (holding Shift), and then right click on the wave symbol of the first selected track and choose from the menu PACK FOLDER.
This way the Daw will create a folder track that we can name as we want (e.g. "Vocals", containing all the vocal tracks); note that this folder is NOT a group track, so if we click on the folder icon on this track it will show us all the included tracks and they can be processed individually, although we can mute or solo the folder track and it will apply on all included tracks.

An interesting feature that is more rare to find in other Daws is the fact that you can click on the folder track and select (where initially there is written "None") "Add Bus Channel", and it will create a Bus Track in our Console.
Doing so, we will also be able to control the bus volume directly from the folder track.

One last feature, which is exclusive of Studio One, is the Group function. In the folder track there is also an icon with 3 human figures:

Let's say we have in our folder several audio tracks with the recording of an acoustic drumset that we need to edit: by clicking that button we have all the tracks inside the folder grouped together and we can edit all of them at the same time, then clicking on it again they will be ungrouped so that we'll be able to edit individually each single track.
This function can speed up our workflow immensely, when editing.

I hope this was helpful!

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Sunday, July 3, 2016

Should I put a limiter on each single track when I mix?

Hello and welcome to this week's article!
The topic of today is tricky, since everyone has a different opinion about it, and it is linked to our general Limiter article.

As we know a Limiter is a compressor with a ratio that can go from 20:1 to infinite, and its main purpose is to set a threshold above which no sound peak can pass (unlike what happens with a compressor, that lets part of the sound to pass, but attenuated in volume).

The initial purpose of a limiter was to be set as a last plugin of the master chain, in post fader position, during the Mastering Phase, to prevent any part of the final track to exceed a certain ceiling and distorting, but more and more mix engineers are lately starting to set a limiter in the end of each track (after having already compressed it), to reduce the headroom to the minimum and keep the mix even more stable.

The downside is that, unless you are limiting your tracks so little that is almost useless, the result can fatigue the overall mix and sometimes even be counter productive, giving you a lifleless, dynamic less sound.

So, what are the upsides, and why does many mix engineers (especially the hard rock/heavy metal ones) use this method routinely?
Because in some genres in which dynamics are not considered as important as letting each track to be heard at the same level at all times, a limiter can help us in keeping our sound as stable as possible (for example in an acoustic double kick drum track), to the point that sometimes mix engineers prefers to limit a highly dynamic track to cut the transients, and then recreate the transient with a transient shaper, just to be sure that all the peaks will be even.

Some mix engineer instead puts a limiter on each track just to shave very few decibels and add the particular coloring of that limiter to the sound, if the processor is good.

Another popular use of limiter is in the bass track, to squash it and make it more prominent, so in this case the limiter becomes a tone shaping tool, but in general some mix engineer likes the idea of stopping any clipping on dynamic tracks and keeping everything below 0db, which leads to a cleaner mix (if not overused) and prevents any odd transient to go over the threshold (as sometimes happens with bass tracks played with fingers).

My opinion is that is very easy to over limit a mix, so it should be used only on problematic tracks, such as the already mentioned bass played with fingers, acoustic guitar tracks with slap, acoustic cymbals etc, and this can be a way to avoid buss limiting, that can lead to an odd "pump" effect on the whole mix, in presence of extreme peaks of a single track.

If possible I'd use only compressors, even at higher ratios or stacking 2 compressors one after the other with lower settings to make the sound result less squashed, but in case we want a limiter also for tone shaping/coloring purposes, I'd suggest to use a Peak Limiter.

Let us know what you think!

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