Saturday, November 27, 2021

How guitar amp, stompbox and cabinet simulators affect the harmonics of a tone


Hello everyone and welcome to this week's article!

Today's topic has been suggested me by my friend Carlo from Ignite Amps, and it involves using a spectrum analysis tool to see the changes that occur in our tone with the various types of plugin that can be used in our guitar chain.

The first picture, the one on top, is a sine wave generated from Presonus Studio One, the most neutral sound I could come up with, and in this second image we can see what happens if we pass it through an overdrive (the Ignite Tyrant Screamer, the settings of all the plugins are at noon): you can see the solid state style distortion produced, which creates harmonics in a regular, repetitive way.

In this third picture we see our sine wave passing through a tube power amp simulator (the Ignite TPA-1), notice that the harmonic increase is not as dramatic as per the overdrive, but this addition makes the tone warmer and fuller thanks to the tube emulation.

In the fourth picture, the one below, you can see what happens if we pass our sine wave through a preamp, the Ignite NRR-1; here we can see a more noticeable change, especially in the high end.

In this fourth picture you can see the result of summing up the overdrive, the preamp and the power amp: the harmonics add up, and if you look closely for example you can see graphically the overdrive ones and the preamp ones.

Finally one of the most important steps, which once again changes dramatically the tone: the cabinet simulator (in this case Lancaster Audio Pulse, using its stock IR):  the change is significant, because the IR applies its own EQ curve, in this case lowering the high end and gives the tone its final touch in order to sound realistic.

Obviously I have used a sine wave because it's easier to show graphically, if you will repeat this experiment using your guitar tone it will look different, but I have made this article to focus on two things: the importance of a power amp, compared to when someone puts a virtual preamp directly into a cabinet simulator, and to show how drastic are the changes performed by the cabinet simulator.

I hope this helps!

Saturday, September 19, 2020

Review: DiMarzio Blaze neck 7

Hello everyone and welcome to this week's article!
Today we're reviewing the neck version of the original 7 strings pickup: the DiMarzio Blaze!
The first mass produced 7 strings guitar was the Ibanez Universe 7, a revolutionary guitar designed by the guitar hero Steve Vai, which adapted to the electric guitar version the extended range possibilities offered from a low B string, already experimented in some avant garde classical guitar.

The first pickup that came with the Universe 7 was the Blaze 7, in bridge and neck position: the bridge version was rumored to be a modified version of the Steve Special, while the neck one is a medium output pickup which sounds like an overwould PAF, with a particular eq.

The eq curve is scooped compared to a PAF pickup, because the neck position of a 7 strings guitar can sound extremely muddy, so the designers removed some mid range leaving a strong low end and a cutting high end for clarity, this makes the pickup a very balanced choice for the neck position, and it's still today loved by Steve Vai, Herman Li of Dragonforce, James McIlroy from Cradle of Filth and it has been used for decades also by Korn.

The pickup has a distinctive tone which is very suited for metal solos, because it cuts through the mix very well and doesn't have that excessive high end typical of solos done with a bridge pickup, and the fact that still today it is considered a well established standard is a proof of its quality.

I suggest everyone to try it, also because compared to other brand pickups the price is not bad, you will not be disappointed.

Thumbs up!  

Specs taken from the website:

- Recommended For: All positions

- Quick Connect: No

- Wiring: 4 Conductor

- Magnet: Ceramic

- Resistance: 15.8 Kohm

- Year of Introduction: 1990

- Output: 280

Saturday, September 12, 2020

Ep, Demo, Single, Lp, Full Lenght, Mixtape, Split, live album, box sets, what are they?

Hello and welcome to this week's article!

Today we are going to see a small glossary with the definitions of words that often are used in the music environment but that not always are so easy to explain: here's your cheatsheet.

Demo: a self produced record to be used for promotional purposes, which can have any number of tracks, but on average it features 2 to 4 songs. 

Single: a recording of 1 to 3 tracks, with a runtime of less than 10 minutes which contains the main song and one or more B sides. It was very popular in the past, as it was used for radio airplay purposes. Today the concept of single is more tied to the release of a video in the streaming platforms.

EP: it means "extended play", and it usually features 4 to 6 tracks, with a runtime of less than 30 minutes.

LP/Full Lenght Album: "long play" is referred usually to vinyl records, "full lenght" is for the other supports, and it features any number of tracks, with a runtime longer than 30 minutes (but there can be also exceptions, for example Slayer's Reign in Blood is an LP that lasts 28 minutes).

Split: it could be, according to the duration, either an EP or a Full Lenght, but it consists into two or more bands putting their songs together in the same record in order to split the production and distribution expenses and to promote themselves to each other's audience. If there is a different artist for each song, that it's a Compilation.

Mixtape: a serie of recordings (it doesn't matter the number of tracks) usually released for free for promotional purposes, which does not necessarily contain only original material but also covers, remixes, B-sides and so on (for some reason mixtapes are used mainly in rap and hip-hop though).

Live album: the recording of a live performance, usually of songs previously released in studio version.

Greatest Hits/Box sets: collections of previously released songs, usually united with some rare or unreleased bonus material, such as medleys, a cappella versions, alternate lyric versions, live, covers, acoustic version, remixes and so on.

I hope this was helpful!

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Saturday, September 5, 2020

Review: Zoom MRT-3 Rhythmtrak

Hello and welcome to this week's article!

Today we're going to review another legacy product, which came out the same time as the Zoom MRS-4 (in 2003 click here to read the review): The Zoom MRT-3 Rhythmtrak.

This is a very portable MIDI drum sampler which can be powered either by batteries or by DC plug, and it offers 7 pressure-sensitive pads, 199 sounds and 396 patterns divided in many genres, from jazz to reggae, from hip hop to heavy metal.

Today all these drum modules/samplers are more or less computer based, meaning that they somehow offer a way to plug them to the pc to use also the computer samples, and they are used more as an interface to play in real time, since it is basically an instrument, but back then, when still not every studio had a PC, these sequencers were very popular because, as the name says, they would let you create loops with the integrated sounds (either by writing them or by playing them real time) and put them in sequence in order to create the song you needed, then they were synced via MIDI to the tempo of the song by connecting them to the audio workstation (or to a digital master clock, which was an external rack unit that would set the tempo for all the other devices connected).

Once all the sounds are chosen (either pre-made kits or custom ones, to which also the velocity can be adjusted), all the loops are selected and put in sequence, not only this device lets us play the song, but it let us also improvise in real time by playing with the pads during the playback, and our performance can be either recorded or not. 

What to say about this device? I have never seen so much functions packed in such a small device, and back then it was quite a breakthrough (plus the samples were decent sounding and fit for every genre), but today it's quite useless due to the lack of connections with a pc (except the MIDI one), and because with DAWs these tools are used only to play with the samples in real time, all the other functions have become rather obsolete and clunky.

I wouldn't suggest to buy it today unless you're vintage lovers, but nevertheless thumbs up for the technological content back then, it was quite impressive.

Specs taken from the manual:

● 199 16 bit-48khz drum and percussion sounds, 396 preset patterns contain a wide variety of preprogrammed rhythms. 99 additional patterns can be programmed and stored by the user.

● Create a backing sequence (song) with up to 99 patterns. As many as 99 such songs can be stored for immediate use at any time.

● Internally lit pads let you follow the rhythm pattern visually during song playback or when using a pattern. 

● Choose up to 14 sounds from the built-in drum and percussion sources, and then adjust level, tuning, and panning individually to create your very own drum kit. 

● Optional foot switch FS01 allows pattern start/stop control or tempo switching. You can also operate an assigned sound such as bass drum or open/closed hihat.

MIDI IN connector allows use with an external MIDI sequencer or other device. The Multitrak Recording Studio ZOOM MRS-4 is an ideal match, letting you synchronize the audio tracks from the recorder with the rhythm track from the MRT-3. Playing the sounds of the MRT-3 with an external MIDI component is also possible.

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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