Saturday, August 29, 2020

A-side and B-side in albums and singles

Hello and welcome to this week's article!

Today we're going to elaborate more on our songwriting articles specifying something about the perfect composition of a tracklist (click here for the original article), as my friend Zoltan suggested.

A-sides and B-sides are a thing of the past: they come from a time in which the physical support for music came with 2 sides (vinyls and cassettes) because there wasn't enough room to store one whole album all in one side.

Why is this relevant still today? Because, historically, quoting Wikipedia: "The A-side usually featured the recording that the artist, producer, or record company intended to receive the initial promotional effort and radio airplay, to hopefully become a hit record". Basically the producers wanted the radio hosts to listen to the best songs first, and then, only if they wanted, to deepen the knowledge of the artist by flipping the side and listening to the other material.

This rule applied mostly when talking to singles: the artist would relase a single, which is a record with the main song to be promoted for radio and tv airplay, and on the flipside there would be another song or two considered by the label as "less catchy" but usually part of the same recording session.

When talking about full lenght records instead the situation is slightly different: it's true that usually the album presents its best shots in the first side, but the second side, which usually contains the same amount of songs, needs to be perceived with similar dynamics: it wouldn't have sense to put 5 fast songs in the a-side and 5 slow ballads in the b-side, the b-side needs to have some good song too, and a good mix in dynamics to keep the listener engaged until the end.

One final mention goes to the rare "double A side", a single in which both sides are considered to be the song to be promoted (for example in the case of Queen's Bycicle Race/Fat Bottomed Girls single).

Today, in an age in which the concept of "side" doesn't have meaning anymore, we say "B-side" to refer to something that the artist or the label consider secundary, and it's usually some bonus songs like live versions, alternate versions, demo versions and so on, which are used to enrich certain particular editions of a record.

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Saturday, August 22, 2020

Review: Zoom MRS-4

Hello and welcome to this week's article!

Today we're going to review another legacy product I have owned in the past, which has been a part of the early stages of my recording experience: the Zoom MRS-4.

MRS stood for Micro Recording Studio, and it was an extremely portable and lightweight recorder that hit the market in 2003, and that was storing the tracks in wave format into an sd card (unlike previous models which were recording on tape or buring the songs directly into a cd).

The premises (and promises) were as usual stellar: to be able to record your own songs directly in the rehearsal room, with 4 independent tracks at the time that could be bounced one to another (a practice that derives from the old tape recorders, in which you would merge two or more tracks into one in an irreversible manner), an array of digital effects and a metronome, all in a super small, battery powered package.

Unlike other more expensive all in one recorders of the time, this one did not come with a drum machine integrated (only a metronome), but you could connect to it another piece of hardware, a separate Zoom drum machine called MRT-3 Rhythmtrak, which would sync to the MRS-4 via MIDI.

How did it sould? Well, this has been a brief phase of my recording life (probably 6 months), and it has been replaced after not too long with a PC, because it had some serious limitation that today would be considered unconceivable, but that already back then were a red flag: the maximum recording quality was 32khz, somewhere between a tape and a cd, and there was no way to connect it to a pc (no USB etc), so the only way to export the files for further editing was via SD card.

Regarding the sheer sound quality, I must admit that it's also my fault, back then I wasn't able to nail a good gain staging, that's why probably in my tracks there was a lot of background noise, but more recently I have heard from someone who have used it with a bit more experience that the preamps and the recording quality were not that bad considered the price and the year it came out.

Together with the separate drum machine, this MRS-4 was the smallest way to record a small demotape or a rehearsal, even if the '90s style interface and the controls were all but intuitive and forced you to spend a lot of time in setting up everything, even if this unit, unlike a tape one, would allow you (with some struggle) to do also some editing to your tracks. 

All in all it has been an interesting phase in my journey in home recording, (actually I was already using a PC and a DAW since the year 2000, but I wanted to try also one of these portable hardware consoles everyone were still talking about back then, before realizing they were not only less flexible but also less intuitive and more time consuming than a DAW), but after few months I've sold it and never looked back.

Thumbs down!

Specs taken from the manual:

- Simultaneous 4-track playback/2-track recording 8 virtual takes per track add up to a total of 32 takes available for recording. 

- Flexible track parameter settings Hi/Lo EQ, effect send, and other parameters can be set individually for each track. 

- Bounce feature supports recording from 4 tracks of simultaneous playback Even when there are no empty tracks, the MRS-4 allows you to bounce existing material onto 2 tracks, while performing simultaneous playback of 4 tracks. 

- Versatile effects The MRS-4 incorporates an insert effect for processing the input signal, a send/return effect for use in a mixer loop, and a mixdown effect for use on the master bus. 

- Other sophisticated features Metronome, MIDI output, AUX input, and long-stroke faders

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Saturday, August 15, 2020

How to remove breath from a vocal track (and what is a Debreath plugin)

Hello and welcome to this week's article!
Today we are talking about a type of plugin which is very useful when mixing vocals (click here for a dedicated article), and which is closely related to a Deesser: the Debreath.

A Debreath plugin is a plugin that, as the name suggests, analyzes a vocal track, identifies the parts in which the singer is breathing in the air, isolates them and eliminates them through a compressor/gate, similarly to what a Deesser does.

This leads us to a background choice: is it really necessary to use it?
It depends on the singer or on the style. Personally, for certain heavy genres I tend not to eliminate too much the air inspiration, because it can give a sense or realism and preparation to a scream, but for less sonically busy genres this can become bothering, especially if the vocal part is the center of the mix and the breath is very loud.

For these specific cases a debreath is very useful, and the one in the pic, the Waves Debreath, is probably the best plugin for the task, since it finds and isolates the breathing parts, and lets you even hear only those parts, to tweak the treshold to perfection.

Even if this plugin is great, though, it's not the only way to eliminate breath, since you can (by putting a little more work into it) use either a gate or a multiband compressor.
The gate is good when the singer is singing quite loud, because the breathing part will be obviously much lower in volume, so by putting a gate exactly to the breathing level will eliminate only that, but if the singer is not singing loud or the breathing parts are as loud as the singing ones this solution won't cut it.

In this case, when in terms of volume the breath is at the same level of the singing, we cannot operate with a gate so we need to be more surgical.
We can move 2 ways:

- By editing the track, literally cutting away all the parts in which the singer is breathing in.

- By using a Multiband Compressor, trying to isolate as much as we can only the narrow frequency area in which the breathing happens, and by applying on it a healthy amount of gain reduction.
In this case we're not aiming to kill the frequencies but just to lower them a little bit, so they are less noticeable.

And you? Do you remove breathing from your vocal mixes?

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Saturday, August 8, 2020

Review: Seymour Duncan Distortion (with video sample)

Hello and welcome to this week's article!
Today we're going to review one of the most iconic passive humbucking pickups (click here for a dedicated article) from Seymour Duncan: the SH-6 Distortion.

The Duncan Distortion (that you can hear on a Stratocaster in the song linked above) is a High Output humbucker with a large Ceramic magnet, which grants the guitar a high gain tone but with tight and controlled low end (something harder to achieve with an Alnico one, in which the low frequencies are usually less focused with high gain).

This pickup is used/has been used by several famous guitarists, such as Max Cavalera from Sepultura and Soulfly, Wayne Static from Static X, Karl Sanders from Nile, Ola Englund, Phil X from Bon Jovi, Adam Jones from Tool, many other bands as Papa Roach, Limp Bizkit, Dokken and countless other musicians, and it's considered from many a standard for rock and metal, especially for a certain type of '90s distortion.

The pickup is used mostly in the bridge position, but someone uses it also in the neck position to give clarity to the solos, and there is also some guitar that comes straight from the factory with a dual Distortion setup.

My take on this pickup is this: the pickup sounds quite bright, it doesn't have a huge amount of low end and it's quite high-mid focused, which is good, but it's one of those types of pickups that needs to be balanced with a dark sounding guitar, like a Les Paul or some other with a thick mahogany body, because on a light guitar (such as a Stratocaster or a Randy Rhoads) the highs can become "ice picky", meaning that the attack of the distorted tone when using a palm muting sounds very prominent, like an ice-pick.
To solve this is necessary to intervene with the eq, introducing some of low pass filter or using the treble control, but in general it's a positive thing to have a fast, chugging attack, because on the pickups that doesn't have enough of it, it's impossible to introduce it later with the eq.

The conclusion is that this pickup is quite situational: if you're looking for a nice (slightly scooped) mid range, a good (but not super high) output, a raspy attack and a controlled low end to play hard rock, grunge, punk and a lot of '90s metal, this pickup is for you.
If you are instead looking for something beefier, more modern and with more body (or more output), there are also many other pickups to try, even remaining in the Seymour Duncan lineup.

Thumbs 45° up!

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Saturday, August 1, 2020

What specs to check out before buying an audio interface


Hello and welcome to this week's article!

This article is to be considered as an expansion of our article about audio interfaces (click here to check it out), and this time we're going to check out a bit more in depth the tech specs.

As per every other tech product, also audio interfaces are placed in the market in various price ranges, which can go from 60 bucks to well over one thousand (or more), and yet they all promise the same thing: to record an input signal, convert it from analog to digital and send it to your computer, usually letting you also plug an output device such as monitors or headphones.

Why the price difference then?
Because of two things: the specs and the support.
Let's start from the support: when choosing an audio interface support gets often overlooked, but it actually is even more important than the specs themselves.
You should thing about keeping the interface for several years, and if the support is not good, if there are bugs they will not get solved (and often in the first release of the drivers there is something to be fixed), or if you change your os (for example to a newer version of windows) and the support is not good, it's very likey that they will not relese the drivers for the new version, making the interface unusable (and this happens more often than you think with cheaper brands, which is infuriating).

Moving to the specs, here are some to check out when choosing an interface (obviously there are many more than these, but these are the most important ones):

Sample rate: this number tells you how often the device checks out the audio signal and records its amplitude, so it's basically the speed at which the analog sound is rendered into a digital signal.
The most common sample rates are 44.1 khz, 48 khz, 96 khz, 192 khz.
In case of 96khz for example, the interface "photographs" the incoming sound 96'000 times per second. 
These sample rates also tell us the maximum frequency the interface can record, which is the half of the sample rate number (for example in the case of 44.1 khz is 22.05 khz, which is still more than the usual human hearing, which ranges from 20 hz to 20 khz).
When recording music, it's suggestable to have an interface capable of recording at least at 48 khz.

Frequency response: this shows you the sensitivity of the device, and tells you the range on which it operates, for example 20 hz to 20 khz. This number is also modified from other factors, for example microphones, which can create a funnel effect.

Bit depth: it tells you how many bits are used for each sample recorded, and this influences the dynamic range of the interface. Having more bits means being able to record with higher dynamic ranges (therefore with a lower noise floor). 
16 bit: it's possible to achieve a dynamic range (theoretical) of 96 db
24 bit: it's possible to achieve a dynamic range (theoretical) of 144 db

Dynamic range: it's the ratio between the loudest signal that can be recorded by the interface and the noise floor, and it's measured in dbA (decibel A-weighted). 
The more dynamic range there is, the lesser the risk (when for example compressing the signal) to raise the noise floor to a point that will ruin our sound. 
In order to avoid these problems, it's suggested to use an interface with a dynamic range of 100 or more dbA.

Gain: often in the interface specs there is written something like "Gain 0-60db", which means that the gain knob can amplify the incoming audio signal up to 60db. If the preamp applies a minimum of +10db to a maximum of +60db, the Gain Range (the distance between the minimum and the maximum) is 50db.

EIN: it's the equivalent input noise, a way of stating the preamplifier noise of a recording device. When recording from a source such a microphone, the signal needs to pass through a preamp in order to raise to the desired gain level, and each preamp has a certain amount of intrinsic noise, which should be as low as possible.
Ein is measured in dbU (which are always negative numbers), and the lower the number, the lower the noise.
EIN is a good system to compare the noise level of two different interfaces, to see which one is better (for example -130 dbu is considered a very low noise preamp, while from -120 dbu up the noise starts becoming noticeable).

I hope this was helpful!