Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Review: Behringer HA400 Headphone Amplifier

Hello everyone and welcome to this week's article!
Today we're going to talk about an useful tool in recording environment, the cheapest of its kind:
The Behringer HA 400 Headphone amplifier.

What is a headphone amplifier? 
Let's say that you are recording a singer and you don't have a console room separated from the recording room: you are in the same room in which the singer is performing, and you don't want the monitor sound to spill into the microphone: the only solution is to use two pair of headphones, one for the singer (or drummer, or guitar player, of any other microphoned musician) and one for the recording engineer.

This is the most classic use of this tool in a home recording environment, but the uses of this little box are various, for example even when recording a radio show or a podcast, in which there are more people talking and needing to hear the background music, commercials etc, or when recording a whole band.

This unit is basically a box that takes a headphone out from an audio interface (which usually has only one or two outs) and multiplies it in four separate stereo outs, each one with its volume knob, and it is powered by a dc adaptor that grants enough volume to make us able to hear the signal even when playing loud acoustic instruments.

Do I suggest this headphone amplifier over other, more expensive ones?
Yes, because we are not using it for the actual mixing, but only for live-tracking purposes, therefore no perfect reproduction is needed, we just need to hear the signal at a good level, therefore there is no use in investing too much money on this particular piece of gear, and maybe save some for more crucial tools like a pair of monitors.
How does it sound?
As I have said, it is not for mixing purposes: it sounds quite thin, it doesn't reproduce the full sound spectrum perfectly and probably the building quality doesn't give the impression of being particularly solid, but for static home recording purpoes does its dirty job, and as many other Behringer products it is really a good bang for the buck.

Specs taken from the website:

- Ultra-compact headphone amplifier system for studio and stage applications

- 4 independent stereo high-power amplifier sections

- Highest audio quality with virtually all types of headphones even at maximum volume

- Phones Level control per channel

- DC 12 V adapter included

- 3-Year Warranty Program

Sunday, August 21, 2016

The Focus of our Mix (a 5 points list)

Hello and welcome to this week's article!
Today we are going to talk about "the big picture", in facts often sound engineers are detail oriented nerds which focuses their attention on one detail at the time and refine it to perfection, and sometimes they can get to a point in which they lose a holistic view of the mix, for example after hours spent working on a synth sound.
The result is that when the producer hears a mix he focuses on certain things that the final listener won't even notice, and he could lose the general view of how is the song perceived.

This small list is useful to "keep the eyes on the ball", since the listener hears the complete song, not the single parts, so we will try to break down the elements that usually are more noticed in a mix, so that we will know where to put most of our efforts.
Notice that this list applies for rock, metal, punk, funk and most of pop music, but there are other genres completely different in which these rules don't apply, because they would make the song excessively rhythm based (es. jazz), so use it at your own risk.

1) Snare sound: the snare sound is the business card of the song.
It's the first thing that gets to the ear of the listener, because it is made, along with vocals, to resonate exactly in the most audible frequences for the human ear.
The snare sound alone can decide the genre of a song, imagine the typical reggae snare of the Bob Marley albums, the dry and snappy sound of the electronic dance music one, the shotgun sound of 80s rock or the acoustic vibe of '60s and '70s rock snare.
If the snare sound is botched, the WHOLE song will sound amateur, or unpleasant, even if the listener can't recognize why, so make sure to nail it.
Click here for an article about mixing drums.

2) Low end (kick and bass): this is the punch of the song, and one the core elements that makes the difference between a very amateur recording and a professional one, because to be nailed it requires expensive monitors and use of metering tools that usually amateur mix engineers doesn't consider important.
If we get right the balance both in levels and in frequences of the rhythm section, which is the whole drumset (especially the balance between snare and kick) and the bass we have done most of the mix, because the whole song will sound balanced and the listener will focus on the content, the music, which is our main objective.
Bass and kick should go as in sinergy as possible, and this assumes we have good tracks, played in time and well arranged, and the frequences should be complementary each other when mixing, so that the "house" we are building has strong foundations.

3) Vocals: Once we have a solid rhythmic section we must focus on vocals, because (unless we are mixing some swedish nineties death metal song) it will be the thing that will make the listener press play on our track.
If the vocals are bad, either because the singer is bad or because we have recorded or mixed him poorly, the song will be a failure, so we must treat it very carefully, considering that 70% of a vocal track happens during tracking; after that we can embellish it with reverb, delay, autotune, but if a vocal take sucks it cannot un-suck, so grab your best microphone, your best preamp, your best patience and record the track again if it doesn't sound perfect, because even if the song will be perfectly produced, if the vocal sucks, noone will ever want to listen to it.

4) Accompainment (guitars, piano...): now we must take care of everything is around the voice, such as guitars, or synths, or anything else, and we do it after drums and vocals, otherwise we would not be willing to sacrifice frequences or modify the perfect sound we have found to make room to drums and vocals. Keep your eyes on the ball guys!

5) Additional arrangement: This last element (such as adding small details like handclaps on snare here and there, some extra effect to underline a certain word, some lo-fi stop and go, automations etc), should be done once we have our general mix finished, and these details will be the candies we will throw to the listener to rise the attention when we are afraid he would get distracted, or to draw it towards a particular element of the song.
Use them with parsimony though, because otherwise if the song is too full of these tricks the listener will stop paying attention to them!

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Sunday, August 14, 2016

Review: Focusrite Saffire PRO 14

Hello and welcome to this week's article!
Today we are going to review an interesting audio interface, the Focusrite Saffire Pro 14.
This is a firewire interface, built in a very solid metal case and with 8 input (2 jack input with pre, 2 xlr input with pre, 2 line inputs, 1 midi in and 1 spdif in) and 6 outputs (4 line outs, 1 midi out, 1 spdif out), is one of the most common (together with its usb sister, the Scarlett serie) and used home recording audio interface in the market, due to its good quality to price ratio and rock solid reliability, both for the hardware and the drivers part.

The interface sounds well, the preamps are in line with the competitors (although I personally prefer slightly the sound of the ones in the Presonus Audiobox), the unit works at 24 bit/96 khz without problems, and the drivers are reliable (which is essential for an audio interface) and with a latency close to zero.
The unit comes with a lite version of Ableton live, and with a bundle of Focusrite Vst plugins that emulate the interface style of vintage processors, such as Equalizers and Compressors.

There are many competitors today in the market, especially in this medium price layer in which the quality is constantly rising and the prices are lowering: a firewire interface in the past was almost mandatory because Usb 1.1 interfaces were not enough reliable to manage big projects, the firewire connection was much more stable and let more data to run through without errors, but today the latest usb interfaces are as reliable as the firewire ones, without the nightmare of the hot plugging problem, which risks to destroy the pc motherboard (firewire interfaces can be plugged into the computer only with the pc turned off, otherwise it can burn the connection in the motherboard).

Is it a good idea today to buy a firewire interface

It depends on how old our pc is, if it is 5/10 years old it can often be a good idea, because firewire connection is more stable and doesn't rely on the cpu to manage the incoming and outgoing data transmission (unlike the usb connection), so it ensures a stable and soild stream of data that is essential in mixing. On the other hand, if we have a more recent pc I would suggest an usb interface, because today the pc cpu and the quality of the usb connection are good enough to mix also larger projects, and we don't have the constant risk of frying our motherboard due to accidental hot plugging.

Microphone Inputs 1-2
Frequency Response: 20Hz - 20kHz +/- 0.2 dB
Gain Range: +13dB to +60dB
Maximum Headroom +8dBu
Input Impedance: 2k Ohm

Line Inputs (Inputs 1-2)
Frequency Response: 20Hz - 20kHz +/- 0.2dB
Gain Range: -10dB to +36dB

A/D Dynamic Range > 109dB (A-weighted), all analogue inputs
D/A Dynamic Range > 106dB (A-weighted), all analogue outputs
Clock Sources: - Internal Clock - Sync to Word Clock on SPDIF Input (RCA)
Supported Sample Rates: 44.1kHz, 48kHz, 88.2kHz, 96kHz

Weight and Dimensions
1.5kg / 3.3lbs
215mm (W) x 45mm (H) x 220mm (D) (8.5 x 1.8 x 8.7 inches)
Analogue Channel Inputs (Inputs 1-2)
2 Mic XLR Combo (channels 1-2) on front panel
2 Line 1⁄4” TRS (channels 3-4) on rear panel
Output Level control (analogue) for outputs 1 and 2
Stereo Headphones Mix 1 on 1⁄4” TRS (also routed to Outputs 3 & 4) with independent volume control
Digital Channel Outputs (Outputs 5-6) 44.1 - 96kHz
Instrument input source selection LED for channels 1 and 2
Phantom Power (48V) switch and LED for inputs 1 and 2

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Saturday, August 6, 2016

MID / SIDE EQUALIZATION on MASTERING, done the right way.

Hello and welcome to this week's article!
This time we will talk about that which is probably the only reasonable way to eq during the mastering phase (click here for a dedicated article on the basic mastering chain, or HERE for another one dedicated to the MINIMAL mastering chain).

I know, I have said in the past that in theory the mix should be perfect and arrive to the mastering phase with such a perfect balance to the point that there will not be need to eq during mastering, because at that point one should correct the mix problems, rather than actually enhancing the sound.
If the balance needs to be enhanced, it's better to go back to the mixing phase and make the corrections in the single tracks.

What I meant was that an eq in the mastering buss affects the whole track, therefore we cannot for example tweak the mids out of the guitar without affecting the body of the snare or the vocals, and so on.
It is really a castle of cards.
A solution in these cases comes with the mid side equalization (click here for an in depth article, with a list of free plugins): an equalizer that lets you choose what part of the sound process, the center of the sides.
This way you can work on the bass frequences, like bass or kick drum, tweaking the bass as you normally would, and filter the bass freq out of the sides (for example from 100hz down), where guitars and drum overhead lays, and here we can also add some sparkle in the high end (obviously, since we are talking about mastering eq these correction must be subtle, not more than a couple of db): this way the bass will sound more focused in the mix, while the sides will sound more bright and open, all without touching the precious balance in the mids and upper mids of the center of the mix (vocals and snare).

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