How to create wider sounding mixes

 

Index:

  • Stereo width is an illusion that we either capture in a recording or create within a mix
  • To make wide sounding mixes, capture width when you record or create width inside your mix

What is stereo width?

Stereo width is an illusion of the left-to-right dimensions of the sound field (i.e. sound stage or panorama) in a recording, perceived by a listener.

Imagine yourself standing on a sidewalk listening to busy downtown traffic. You are hearing cars constantly rushing back and forth, left to right and right to left. This “field of sound” you are hearing is quite wide. Because we hear binaurally (another future topic), you’re hearing a three-dimensional world of sounds from left to right, front to back, and even up and down. But let’s simplify for a moment and focus on the fact that cars are coming from one direction or the other and we largely are hearing that back and forth movement across the sound field because we have two ears and we can sense where each of the sounds are coming from.

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Imagine that you capture a few minutes of what you are hearing on the sidewalk with a stereo audio recorder, go back to a quiet place to listen to what you recorded. Setting aside mic quality, technique and other factors for the moment, you will hear a rough representation of what you experienced on the sidewalk because you will have captured the scene in stereo. Your recording will reveal how the traffic moves from left to right and right to left across the sound field captured by the recorder. Show that recording to someone else, who wasn’t there when you recorded it, and they will be able to imagine to a degree what it was like standing on the sidewalk because the recording has enough information in it to recreate a panorama where they can hear the traffic moving back and forth, similar to how you experienced it.

 

Now imagine if you use a mono (i.e. monophonic or monaural) voice recorder to capture what you heard on the sidewalk, instead. You will hear a much different representation, because your recording is missing a massive amount of information. A mono voice recorder only has one microphone (i.e. one ear) so it cannot capture stereo information. Your recording will reveal a mush of engine noise, maybe the odd vehicle horn, but everything is crammed together and it sounds like varying levels of noise. Show that recording to someone else, who wasn’t there when you recorded it, and they will find it challenging to imagine being on that sidewalk. The resulting panorama from the mono recording simply does not contain enough information to do that.

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Stereo width therefore depends upon stereo information being captured and presented back to the listener. When you think about that traffic scene, what makes the scene stereo? It is all about differences between what you hear from one side of the scene to the other. Stereo width is that simple. You create stereo width by creating or enhancing the difference between the left and the right sides of the sound field that you are presenting back to your listeners.

 

One more example before we move on. Picture yourself sitting in front of a stage with two musicians standing side by side, a few feet apart. Forgetting the room acoustics and other factors for a moment, you focus on the two musicians, and from your vantage point, they are relatively close together. You therefore perceive them both coming largely from the center of the sound field. Now imagine that each musician walks to the opposite end of the stage. Now you perceive them as being distinctly separate where you hear one largely off to the left, and the other way off to the right. The musicians have just “widened the panorama” presented to you simply by separating themselves further, relative to you. Now imagine replacing yourself with a stereo array of microphones. See how microphone placement relative to the subject(s) can make a big difference in this situation? You can drastically alter what you present to a listener – which impacts their perception of width –  simply by changing the placement of the subject(s) relative to the microphones.

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This is how stereo width within a mix works. When you create a mix, you are building a sound field with layers of sound. Stereo width is an illusion of the left-to-right dimensions of the sound field. The more you can create differences between what you present on the left versus what you present on the right, the wider your mix will seem to a listener.

 

How to Create wide Stereo mixes

Bottom line:

  • You can only enhance stereo width if it exists to some degree in your mix
  • Make your mix sound wider using differences in left vs right gain, time, pitch, tone or polarity

Mono sound is single-channel sound, and stereo (stereophonic) uses two channels. If you reproduce monophonic sound over two loudspeakers, you will hear the sound coming from a narrow area between the two speakers (in the center). This is called a phantom image because it can be quite palpable to a listener. It can sound almost as real and distinct as a sound that comes from just the left or the right speaker on its own. The phantom image sounds focused (narrow) because each loudspeaker is presenting the same information, and there is nothing that our brain can use to establish a difference between sounds coming from the left versus the right loudspeaker.

Does your mix sound too narrow? Width is a key component of modern mixes because most music is mixed in stereo. Many listeners listen in stereo (e.g. with earbuds). We perceive a mix as being too “narrow” when we sense that the music is coming from the center when it seems that it should not. That is to say, a center-centric mix can be perfectly fine if it sounds natural, but you know you have a problem when you or your listeners sense that things are too narrow, where the mix sounds too confined and the panorama is not expansive or convincing enough to draw them in.

 

You can make your mixes sound wider by maximizing the difference between what you present in the left versus the right channel. The “difference” can be in time (arrangement of notes or elements, and includes phase as well), gain, pitch (arrangement of notes and/or tuning), tone, or polarity.

 

Let’s look at gain first. Panning is used to adjust the “gain difference” between left and right. Pan hard left, and you have full gain in the left, and no gain in the right. This is the easiest way to maximize left-to-right difference. Take two different sounds in your mix, pan one hard left, the other hard right, and you have maximum separation, maximum difference between left and right. The more you “pull them in” by panning closer to center, the more you reduce difference information, bringing them closer and closer to perceived center.

 

You can use timing to create left-to-right difference by delaying one channel relative to the other. You can take a mono string section track in the left channel, add a 25ms delayed version to the right channel, and with some gain adjustments you have created a very wide, very stereo sounding string track. If you experiment with this, a 15ms delay is a good starting point. As you pull it towards 0ms, you will hear the delay getting harder to discern and other things start to happen as the sounds fuse together, which can be good or bad. I recommend listening in stereo for the effect you want but then listen in mono to make sure you haven’t created a mono-compatibility issue in the process. If you hear the tone change drastically where it is clear in stereo but muffled in mono, that is an issue. Also listen to the attack portions of notes. Sharper attacks (guitars, vocals etc.) will only tolerate shorter delays because if the delay is too long you’ll get a flam effect which can be distracting to a listener. Sounds with softer or slower attacks will often work well with over 20ms of delay.

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You can create tonal differences between left and right by equalizing each channel differently. A common technique with mono piano tracks is to EQ the left to have more bass and lower mids and the right to have more upper mids and treble so that there is a sense of movement from left to right as the player moves up and down the scale.

 

You can use tuning differences between left and right to create width. This is partly how chorus effects work. Take a mono track in the left, and then add a detuned version in the right channel to create width.

 

A mix engineer uses all of these methods different ways to either create or enhance stereo width. The ideas are almost endless. You can keep it simple or get really creative depending upon the situation. For example, putting reverb on one side of the field but not the other is often used on guitar tracks. Another option is putting vibrato on one channel and not the other, or mono chorus on one channel or the other. Hammond’s popular “Leslie” effect, captured in stereo, works effectively because it uses the Doppler effect which essentially creates timing and tuning changes between what’s captured in the left and right microphone.

 

 

MAKE WIDER MIXES BY MAXIMIZING CONTRAST BETWEEN MONO AND STEREO

This is absolutely key. To perceive width, we need a reference point. Making every sound in your mix super-wide will not necessarily lead to an engaging or musical mix. Certain anchor points in a mix that are kept central, such as a lead vocal, a bass guitar, a kick drum etc. are essential to creating a wide mix because we will judge the width of the panorama relative to those central elements! Never underestimate the power that mono, central elements have in enhancing the perceived width of your mix by how they create contrast.

 

WIDENING YOUR MIX WITH SPATIAL ENHANCERS AND STEREO WIDENERS

Remember: Width must exist within your mix before you can enhance it in a meaningful way.

Please note that I consider these next tips to be shortcuts. If your goal is to truly understand stereo width to create musically wide-sounding mixes, these shortcuts will mainly help you by allowing you to easily experiment. They are a time saver that can be useful in some mix situations after you have learned the concepts above.

Stereo wideners, ambience retrieval, or other forms of spatial enhancers have become very popular. They employ different combinations of the techniques above to broaden and deepen the sound stage. They are a quick fix. I caution against using them across a whole mix because that can greatly distort the sound field you have spent so much effort to build if you are not careful. I have lumped ambience retrieval in with stereo widening but they are often different processes, so research any processor first to understand what it will do to the sound. Use these products sparingly, and consider only using them on certain elements within your mix that would benefit from widening or ambience retrieval effects.

 

“FreeHaas” and “FreeOutsider” are free plugins offered by VescoFX. They are well worth experimenting with. I recommend using them sparingly, on one or two elements in your mix at the most. FreeHaas adds a Haas Delay (see Haas effect) which you can adjust to your liking. FreeOutsider is a much more obvious beyond-the-speakers effect. You can combine them with tone and gain adjustments to maximize the difference between left and right, thereby maximizing the width of certain elements of your mix.

 

Mid/Side (a.k.a. sum and difference) processors are widely misunderstood and are often thought of for stereo widening, but I caution that merely adjusting the ratio of Mid to Side will not work that well unless the source has a lot of difference information in it already. This is why many spatial enhancers include a Mid/Side adjustment control to allow you to adjust how much of the widening effect you hear, after the spatial processor has done the initial work of creating more difference information in the first place. If your mix has a lot of difference information, but does not sound wide enough to you, Mid/Side adjustments probably cannot help. If your source is completely mono, Mid/Side will do absolutely nothing and if it is close to mono, then boosting the side doesn’t do much either. I expand upon this much further in Part 1 and Part 2 of my Mid/Side articles.

Widening your mix beyond the loudspeakers

While much of the effort in a mix is in creating a wide field within the loudspeakers, you can create the illusion of going past them as well, to further extremes. There is risk to this. If you overdo it, it will lower the quality of your mix.

 

Take any sound and add it to two channels in your workstation. Pan one channel hard left, pan the other hard right. Press play and you’ll hear the sound coming from the exact center. Flip the polarity of one of the channels and listen to how the sound changes. It will sound strange – very wide depending upon your listening environment. The reason is because yet again, you have created another difference between left and right – this time it is a difference in polarity! This is a completely unnatural sound and for most people it is fatiguing after a while. But it is also completely incompatible in mono. Collapse your mix bus to mono, and everything disappears because the left and right channels cancel each other out. While absolute polarity differences like this are unnatural, they can also be useful.  Experiment with them, particularly on occasional ambient sounds or even reverb effects, and with the other techniques that I mentioned above to help push the sounds a little further outside the speakers.

 

By combining various techniques, we can recreate more complex combinations of binaural cues that our brain uses to determine where a sound is located, allowing you to present a three-dimensional sound stage to your listeners. This is worthy of a separate article but here is a simple example. When we hear a sound coming from our left, our left ear hears it slightly louder, slightly sooner, and slightly brighter than our right ear does. Our brain uses that combination of differences in loudness, timing and tone to perceive where that sound is located within a three-dimensional sound field. Our brain analyzes that, along with the information about ambient environment (early reflections and the left-vs-right loudness, timing and tonal differences of sounds in the environment) to map out how large a space is and where the sound is located within it. The more location information we can present to our brain, the more we can create the perception of location be it within or beyond the loudspeakers.

It is not easy to recreate these types of cues over loudspeakers because of bleed (crosstalk). If you sit between any two loudspeakers, you will hear both loudspeakers with both ears to varying degrees whereas with headphones, each ear only hears one speaker. It is therefore much easier to recreate these complex cues when you are mixing for playback over headphones because you won’t have to overcome crosstalk. Creating these cues for headphones can be as easy as using a binaural microphone array to capture the source, and then working to preserve those cues throughout the production process. You can also add the cues after the fact with an HRTF (Head Related Transfer Function) processor.

When mixing for playback over loudspeakers, the only way to effectively recreate these cues is to find ways to minimize the perceived crosstalk. There are crosstalk cancellation technologies available such as QSoundAmbiophonics and BACCH that accomplish this to various degrees. I will plan expand more on this in a future article. These types of filters are well suited to situations where your listeners are sitting in a fixed position, in front of two loudspeakers which makes them well suited to gaming applications or small portable devices. BACCH might be the most promising from a pure performance perspective but unfortunately at the time of this writing it is priced outside of the range of most users and productions.

Outside of crosstalk, there are other challenges to reproducing a three-dimensional sound field over two loudspeakers. There is no way to know exactly where your listener will be placed, but we can be certain that most will not stay in the same position. We also cannot know what performance level their listening room and sound system is capable of, whether it is mono, stereo or surround. We can’t even guess at how it will be configured (EQ or tone, speaker placement etc.). Therefore, if you plan to build complex binaural cues into your mixes, carefully consider all of the possible end points (ear buds, loudspeakers, television, movie theater etc.), and how your music will be consumed (while gaming, while driving, while travelling, while housecleaning). In many cases, building these complex positional cues into your mix is only worth the effort if you can do so without reducing the sound quality for other listeners in the process. This is why checking for mono compatibility and loudspeaker vs headphone compatibility is so important.

Essential ambient production tips

Article from MusicRadar.com

Inspired by the likes of Philip Glass and Brian Eno, ambient music is as much about creating mood as it is creating melody.

Fortunately, computer users can now call upon an arsenal of ambient-friendly production tools – MusicRadar is here to explain what they are and how to use them.

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1. If all the soft sounds and smooth vibes get a little too much, try some juxtaposition. Ambient heroes The Orb are fond of this technique, and whether it’s a squealing guitar, devastating synth hit or ridiculous vocal sample, they’re not afraid to toss something a little unusual into the mix.

2. Getting off-the-wall sounds doesn’t have to involve spending hundreds on sample downloads and libraries – there are plenty of interesting sounds happening all around us all the time. If you’ve got a mic and a laptop – or any portable recorder – take a field trip and record some of nature’s bounty. Running water’s always good for a laugh, but remember: your equipment should stay dry, even if you don’t…

3. Second-hand record shops are great places to find sounds. You may even find that your local charity shop has an untapped collection of oddities just waiting to be snapped up by the enterprising samplist. From records featuring nothing but steam engine noises to children’s story albums, there’s an abundance of weirdness out there for the taking.

4. Samples are a constant source of inspiration, but it’s easy to discount one because it doesn’t fit the feel of your track when you first try it. If you’re short on fresh ideas, try running short bursts of a sample through a delay effect. Using this method, it’s possible to come up with some great abstract noises that sound nothing like the original source material.

5. If your tracks are jam-packed full of synthetic-sounding virtual instrument patches and everything’s starting to sound too ‘computery’, consider bringing in some natural sounds or using a few real instrument parts. Even if they’re from ROMplers, it should help take some of the unnatural edge off.

6. Recordings of natural sounds such as rainfall, waves, wind and fire are great for filling out a mix because they’re basically noise, and as such, they have a wide range of frequencies. They shouldn’t be too loud or they’ll overpower the mix, but use them with care and they can be extremely useful.

7. Noise is a useful synthesis tool – if your synth features a noise oscillator, you can use it with a fast-attack amplitude envelope to create your own percussion sounds. This sounds artificial, but in a lo-fi way, and works especially well when teamed with a high-quality reverb.

8. If you’re using long, sustained sounds, such as pads, your mix can lack movement if these elements are too static. By subtly altering tuning, pulse width or filter cutoff over time, you can create more organic sounds that will enhance the mix rather than make it sound lifeless.

“Recordings of natural sounds such as rainfall, waves, wind and fire are great for filling out a mix because they’re basically noise”

9. If you’ve got a sample that you want to play for longer than its duration, you have two basic options: you could timestretch it, which will most likely introduce unwanted audio artifacts, or loop it. Crossfade looping is the best way to get seamless loops, but if this isn’t possible, you can recreate the effect yourself by fading between two audio tracks in your mixer.

10. To make a pad sound particularly evocative, try modulating the filter cutoff with a shallow LFO as well as a big, sweeping envelope. This will give the sound a great deal of movement and works superbly when combined with a delay effect.

11. When working with vocals, you can have a lot of fun with pitchshifting. When pitching vocals around, it helps to use a plug-in with a formant control – this helps vocals retain their characteristics or, conversely, can be used to alter them radically. Check out Smoky Joe, a lo-fi formant processor.

12. With modern audio sequencers, it’s easier than ever to cut up vocals and other rhythmic sounds in order to fit them in with the groove of your track. When cutting sounds up in your sequencer, remember to zoom in to make sure you’re cutting the file at a point where the amplitude is zero – otherwise known as a ‘zero crossing’.

13. When deploying your newly-sliced rhythmic samples, it’s not always best to have your sequencer’s snap control active. You might find that pulling samples forwards along the track a little makes them fit in better with the rest of the groove, and having the snap control turned off also makes programming human-sounding rhythms easier.

14. Silky bass guitar tones are a common sound in ambient dub, but if you don’t have a real bass guitar to hand, you’ll have some trouble getting the same smooth sound. Bass ROMplers such as Spectrasonics Trilogy and Bornemark’s Broomstick Bass are your best bets for recreating this kind of thing.

15. Whether you’re composing in stereo or surround, it’s important to use the available panoramic space properly if you want to create a sense of size. If your track has drums, you’ll probably want to pan these around the centre, but with synths and effects you can afford to use the space more creatively, so try panning them around.

16. Most DAWs have simple pan controls that only enable you to pick one position in the stereo panorama. If you’re looking for slightly more control, a stereo imaging plug-in such as mda Image or BetaBugs Moneo can be used to control the position and filter setting of each channel or tweak them as a mid/side pair, respectively.

17. To add a natural stereo panorama to mono samples, you could do a lot worse than give Voxengo Stereo Touch a try. This effect uses a delay algorithm to create a convincing stereo effect that’s guaranteed to revitalise any dodgy old mono sounds you might have lying around.

Reverb

18. Reverb is one of the most important tools you have for creating a sense of space, so if you’re making ambient music, it pays to take the time to get it as sweet as you can. A good start is to use a high quality reverb – Ambience isn’t just free, it’s one of the best reverb plug-ins out there.

19. It can be tempting to just stick reverb on a few tracks and leave it at that, but that wouldn’t be using this powerful effect to its full potential. Using high damping values, large room sizes and long reverb times will create a big sound that, when combined with judicious EQ, can create a ‘far away’ kind of effect.

20. When using reverbs, if you want to create a softer, more ethereal effect, use less of the dry signal in the output. You can do this by turning the wet/dry ratio up, or, if you’re using a send effect, by setting it to pre-fader and turning the source channel’s main volume level down.

21. If you’d rather have a brighter, closer effect, then make the reverb’s damping less severe, reduce the room size and turn down the delay time. This works especially well in conjunction with stereo enhancer effects such as the Voxengo Stereo Touch plug-in.

22. Many interesting effects can be created by rendering out reverb and delay tails minus the original dry sound, then applying creative processing to the tail. Filters work particularly well for this kind of thing and, once processed, the new sound can be played back alongside the original version, or replace it altogether.

23. Finally, when programming synth patches, don’t discount the creative potential of your instrument’s reverb section. With a long, lush reverb, even the smallest synth squelches or blips can be turned into pleasingly tonal atmospheric effects. Of course, if your synth effects truly suck, you can always use a separate reverb or delay plug-in instead to create the same effects.

Delay

24. Delay is a pretty common effect in atmospheric music like ambient, but for ambient dub, a full-on feedback delay, such as Ohm Force’s excellent OhmBoyz effect, is just the thing.

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25. Dynamic use of feedback delay is useful for creating long, evolving rhythmic effects. By automating the feedback control on a delay plug-in, you can build to a crescendo or create weird rhythmic effects.

26. Getting that distinctive morphing dub delay effect can be done by adding either a filter or distortion component to the feedback loop – easily done in OhmBoyz, as it has both. If you’re using a delay effect in Reaktor or another modular environment, you can add these elements yourself, though it’s advisable to put a level limiter after them to ensure the feedback doesn’t get out of control.

27. Delay effects work well before a reverb, though too much of either will swamp the mix. However, it’s possible to tame these effects with automation – set the reverb’s wet level to 0%, automating it so that it comes up as the end of the delay tail is playing. This way, you’ll be able to use both the delay and the reverb, without having too much of either going on at once. As an advanced alternative, you could use sidechain compression to duck the start of the reverb (using the source signal as the key input), and setting the release time appropriately, thus achieving the same effect automatically.

Silencers by Sonologyst

Excellent review of Sonologyst’s album “Silencers. The Conspiracy Theory Dossiers”.

SONOLOGYST Silencers - Lo res album cover for web

Naples native Sonologyst (Raffaele Pezzella) has recorded for labels like PeopleSound, Eighth Tower, Petroglyph Music, Sirona Records and Sillage Intemporell – but this is his first on Cold Spring. Martin Bowes mastered Silencers: The Conspiracy Theory Dossiers which is available on limited edition CD (digipak/booklet) and in digital format via Bandcamp. Ten ambient sci-fi tracks snake and wander remotely as heard on the title track with evasive drone and pitchy contortions. Both Singularity and Monotape set the dramatic scene here, like a refined installation or film soundtrack of warped sonic waves, a geiger counter and lots of mystery. This has a similar vibe as themes experimented on the mid 90’s ambient project SETI (Savvas Ysatis and Taylor Deupree), though here it’s more documentary-type exploration and less fantastical. On Nocturnal Anomalies there’s a disturbance, an alien being of sorts, just whaling over a hybrid hiss. This is illustrated clearly…

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Mastering to Cassette Tape

An interesting article by L-Rox about mastering to cassette tape.

Beyond the Nostalgia

The anatomy of the Compact Cassette Tape

I grew up listening to vinyl and cassettes; I’m not that old, but growing up all we had was vinyl and cassettes to listen to. The first time I recorded anything, it was on cassette. I remember my dad letting me use his Hi-fi to tape some of our vinyl records and things from the radio when I was a child and when I grew up and wanted to record some music with friends, we all pitched in and bought a 4-track cassette portastudio. After bouncing tape tracks on that, and using one of the tracks to print timecode so it could trigger playback on my sampler, the mixdown went to another (stereo) cassette deck. That’s really when I became interested in getting the best sonic fidelity from cassette tape.

So why go back to using cassettes? It’s 2014 and today is the second year “Cassette Store Day” is observed around the world; why is this format all of a sudden making a (albeit small) comeback? I think people are becoming more interested in having a tangible product. Tapes are compact enough, are portable and require less maintenance than vinyl as a playback medium. Those who are getting into recording with tapes are realizing that there are many variables involved, and it’s possible to use the limitations of the format to get a unique sound.

Those new to cassettes are also finding out that it’s an inexpensive format to record with and reproduce. You can get tapes made for a lot less than Vinyl and CDs. For those who don’t currently own a cassette deck or walkman, you can find a cheap one in the used market. A good turntable in comparison, will usually set you back quite a bit more than a portable cassette player and good luck making it portable. I’ve seen some of the really cheap Sony cassette players on eBay sell for as little as $5 (although I seriously recommend those without one do a little bit of research and get something better than these low-quality players; you can score a very decent portable tape player for not much more, trust me).

The limitations of the format can give your project a “throwback” feel, and just like vinyl, you can’t replicate the sound of cassette tape effectively in the digital realm (but I wouldn’t be surprised if a plug-in developer comes up with some sort of emulation if cassettes keep getting popular). If you want your project to sound like it’s on vinyl or cassette, you have to put it on those formats; it’s similar to why some people still take pictures with film to this day. Technically, digital pictures are cleaner and sharper than film, but aesthetically, some people like the look and feel of photographic film. Like film, there are many variables that affect its quality; cassettes don’t all sound the same (different frequency response between types and the various formulas of tape that were produced and not all of them have an excessively “hissy” sound to them for example).

Mastering for Cassette (the right way)

If you’re going to create a master cassette to possibly be the source for cassette duplication, you should do it the right way. I wish I could tell you it was as easy as heading down to the nearest Goodwill, spending $30 on a used deck and recording your tape as hot as possible. You will get saturated recordings on cassette, sure, but it’s probably not going to sound great (yes, cassettes can sound good!)

My approach to mastering a cassette is to aim for a similar level of quality that was achieved in the peak days of the media. It was typical for Mastering Engineers then to audition a cassette after mastering to it, and make tonal and dynamic range adjustments as necessary to make the cassette recording sound as good as possible before it hit the bin loop duplicator for mass production.

It Tapes TAPES!

Up until the early 1990’s, cassette bin loop duplicators were analog devices and they used a cassette master tape as the source, often this source master tape was “emphasized” a bit for the format. Digital bin loop duplicators started to become popular in the early to mid 90’s and these used a digital source, usually from DAT or hard drive using first generation ADCs/DACs. In the peak days of commercial cassette production, a degree of effort went into creating the source master cassette or digital source, since it was known that high-speed cassette duplication would degrade the quality of the tape copies to a degree and with the usage of noise reduction systems like Dolby B, emphasis was made between 4k – 10k to make up for the loss of frequencies in that range when encoding the source tape with the Dolby B NR system. Since it’s hard to predict how the NR profile will affect each recording, it was typical to make adjustments after a few test recordings.

These days, cassette duplication services will accept digital files (.wav, .aiff, .mp3, etc.) They should have an engineer on hand to make sure the cassettes that are being made sound as good as possible, but chances are they’ll just transfer your files “flat” using your source files. Ideally, they should make frequency adjustments to the source as needed if the tapes that are being made don’t sound optimal. If we’re talking about the sound of throwback Hip Hop tape releases, consider that the dynamic range of those older albums was bigger than the releases of today; people weren’t smashing levels as much as we do these days, so that’s going to have an impact on the way your tape will sound.

When mastering to cassette, I use the full resolution 24 bit masters to feed the recording deck an unbalanced line out from my mastering console, and drive the input to my cassette deck to allow the cassette format’s saturation characteristics to give the material that “crunch” that you might be familiar with, especially with older cassette releases from the 90’s, for example. The saturation that’s achieved on tape will help give it a sound of cassettes from back in the day and it will sound slightly different than your digital release.

On the processing side, it’s always useful to make test recordings and see what they sound like afterwards, and tweak your processing chain to get the best sound for this format. I usually like the way recordings sound with a little bit of compression focusing on clamping down percussive peaks slightly, and the UAD Fairchild is one that I like often. The UAD Neve 33609 sounds good as well, but it also depends on the material. Brightening the mids and highs is also something I’ll do, and for that my go-to is usually the UAD Pultec Pro. This is just a starting point for me, so if this doesn’t sound right I will try different bus compressors and EQs, then make a few recordings on tape and settle on whatever sounds best.

Overloading a cassette deck’s circuitry isn’t the same with all available cassette recorders out there. Higher end Hi-Fi and professional decks equipped with Dolby HX Pro are able to record hotter levels (about 6dB) on tape without added distortion, this also means we can saturate more tastefully. I have a restored Tascam 122 mkII recorder, which was a typical workhorse mixdown deck in many Mastering studios back in the days when record labels were interested in putting out the best possible sounding cassette releases. Many of the tapes I have to this day have a Dolby HX Pro logo on them, to suggest that the cassette master was mastered on a deck equipped with it and many were also encoded with Dolby B (although as tapes age, I find they sound better with Dolby B disengaged, even though they might have been encoded with it).

Dolby HX Pro was considered to be a major update to the compact cassette format when it started to be used in the early 80’s. Playback decks don’t have to have HX Pro built in to be able to play tapes that were recorded using this technology; it’s a process that happens during recording. Essentially, cassette decks equipped with HX Pro are able to produce louder cassette recordings with less noise than those that aren’t. Some high end consumer recorders like the Nakamichi Dragon, considered by many to be the best consumer cassette recorder ever made, didn’t use HX Pro because the quality of the recording head was so good that it could achieve similar recording levels with minimal noise and distortion. However, unlike professional-grade decks like those made by Tascam, bias selection isn’t automatic on the Dragon and it must be set manually for each tape type; cassette decks that automatically adjust bias for each type of tape do so by identifying a series of indentations on each cassette tape that is loaded. Scarcity of parts for servicing and cost of repairs (if you can find someone reliable that can do so) these days also make the Dragon not ideal for professional use.

Taming the Hissing Beast

Dolby NR (Noise Reduction) is an often misunderstood subject by many new to the format. Most consumer decks and portable players come with Dolby NR B. Many high-end consumer and professional decks often came with both B and C. For the sake of simplification, B reduces hiss during recording a bit less hiss than C, which extends the noise reduction frequency down to about 100 Hz. Both were part of an encoding (recording) and decoding (playback). If you record your tapes using B, the playback deck should also be set to B (and the same goes when using C). Commercial cassette tapes used the B profile, while C was aimed towards home recording gear. Fostex used the C system in many of its multitrack cassette and reel-to-reel recorders, so it was useful to have a stereo mixdown deck that was able to encode and decode both noise reduction systems.

Dolby B was developed in the late 60’s to help minimize tape noise. Dolby C was developed in 1980, and HX Pro came soon afterwards. By then, tape formulas had advanced quite a bit. As I mentioned earlier, not all cassettes sound the same and this is because there are different types, which are made with different materials that act as a magnetic element.

Before we go on to the different types of tapes, something that should be mentioned is bias. Bias is an inaudible, high frequency signal that is applied during recording. This signal is mixed in with the audio signal that is being recorded and moves it to the linear portion of the tape, so that the audio signal is recorded faithfully. The bias signal changes amplitude depending on the type of tape being used (lower bias for Type I, higher bias for Type II and even higher for Type IV tapes). Cassette decks either set bias automatically by reading indentations of the cassette shells themselves, or they allowed users to set the bias curve themselves, on these types of decks, there are controls usually labeled “normal” (for type I) “chrome” (for type II) and “high/metal” (for type IV).

Type I: This was the first type of cassette tape that was manufactured. The magnetic element in this type of cassette is gamma ferric oxide (commonly known as “ferric tape”). These kinds of tapes are usually labeled “normal bias” and tend to be noisier (more hiss) than Type II cassettes, but a lot of cassette tape enthusiasts prefer the sound of a well-made Type I tape for recording, like the Sony EF series, because it tends to warm up low frequencies in a way that Type II tapes don’t, and are able to record at slightly higher levels without saturation. High frequencies aren’t as bright as they can be on Type II tapes, which may be a desired effect depending on the type of music being recorded. When using one of the better Type I cassettes, it might be useful to use Dolby B (or C, which may produce slightly warmer recordings, but keep in mind what I said earlier about both NR profiles and their availability on consumer decks).

Type II: Developed not too long after Type I cassettes, this formula uses chromium dioxide and is commonly referred to as “chrome” tape. Type II tape is able to reproduce brighter high frequencies with less hiss, but it also reduces the response of low frequencies slightly. When using a high quality Type II tape, you may find that you’ll end up with better recordings when you don’t encode your recordings with a Dolby NR profile, and perhaps bump up the low end and the mids a little bit on your source recordings before hitting the tape.

Type III: This formula, known as “ferro-chrome” combined both “ferric” and “chrome” formulas on the same tape in hopes to get the best of both worlds: the better bass response of Type I and the better high frequency/reduced noise of Type II. The Type III had a short life span, from about the mid 1970’s to 1980. One of the main problems with it was bias; should you set your deck to normal (Type I) or chrome (Type II) bias? Those decks which set bias automatically would default to normal, and after a couple of years of consumers testing out this type of cassette (and manufacturers of cassette decks watching closely), they discovered some flaws, like the chrome layer of the tapes coming off with heavy use. They also discovered that when it came down to sound quality, the Type III didn’t offer an obvious improvement over the Type II cassette for those users that had decks that were able to adjust bias manually; many users felt that Type II, with its higher bias setting performed better. Manufacturers were reluctant to incorporate a middle ground bias setting for Type III in their tape decks because of the flaws being reported by consumers. They might have, if consumers would have bought into this particular type of cassette, but it was never popular and it struggled making worthy sales throughout its short life.

Type IV: Towards the end of the 1970’s, a completely different formulation of tape hit the market. This one used metal particles instead of oxides and consumers immediately saw a benefit from it. Known as “metal” tape, the Type IV was able to record even louder signals with less distortion in the upper frequencies than the Type II and the low frequencies also sounded better. This increase in quality did not come without some negative effects. Head wear was increased as the metal particles are more abrasive than oxides, and it was a bit more difficult to erase previously recorded material from it. The cost of these tapes was often more than double the cost of an average Type II cassette but it was worth it for a lot of users who heard the improvement in quality over the previous types of cassettes. It wasn’t long before manufacturers started including a metal bias selection in their decks, which happens to be an even higher bias signal than that which is used for the Type II cassette. It was definitely the best of all the types when it comes down to sonic fidelity.

After reading all of this, don’t you feel like giving your DAW a nice big hug? Isn’t it nice these days to just throw a good chunk of cash into a box with excellent Analog-to-Digital converters? Writing this article took me back to a time where you had to put in a lot of time and effort into getting decent recordings on cassette tape. I also remember lots of frustrating times with the format, like tapes stretching, dropouts and tapes being chewed up in the transport. I also remember what cassettes sound like when you play them loud through a nice system; the ones that were done right sounded excellent. With that, I can say that I see why this format is becoming increasingly appealing to artists, especially those that want a lo-fi feel from their recordings and are looking for that familiar vintage sound of the format.

Sometimes limitations inspire creativity, and the compact cassette tape format definitely had a lot of them.

Pan for ultimate width

Panning is the most crucial step for getting a wide stereo image.

Panning lets you place individual instruments, or even certain frequencies of instruments, in a particular spot within your stereo image—and go as wide as you wanna.

Always make your panning decisions based on your entire mix. There’s a few different approaches to panning, but no matter how you use them, they’re key to getting a wider mix.

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Here are some quick tips and rules for getting your panning pristine and achieving width in the mix:

Low frequencies are the heart of a groove and drive your rhythm, so keep them straight down the middle.

Keep your low end in the middle

Don’t pan your lower frequencies. Low frequencies are the heart of a groove and drive your rhythm, so keep them straight down the middle.

Keep your L and R balanced

Our brains naturally want to center stereo images, so keep the L and R channels balanced to avoid confusion in the phantom center.

Always pan with your ears, not your eyes

The only thing that really matters is how it sounds. When panning, close your eyes and listen until you hear that perfect sweet spot.

Even if the volumes of your L and R channels are balanced, if one side has more sound competing for the presence zone this can cause the stereo image to sound off balance.

Keep your lead vocals in the center

Keep your lead vocals to the center as well unless you have good reason to do otherwise. You want that lead vocal front and center to really let it shine.

Reverbs for multi-dimensional sound

Reverb is a classic mixing tool for adding width, but also that third dimension to your mix: depth.

By adding depth to your stereo image, you’re also expanding the stereo image as a whole. Reverb will give you more room for every sound to breathe and settle into the mix.

There are many different ways to use reverb and add space to your mix, but any reverb technique will add some degree of depth and spaciousness to your mix. And there are many types of reverb. Each is capable of adding a distinct vibe and depth to your mix.

Choosing the perfect type of reverb to give that extra space without drastically changing your audio’s character will take some practice. But when it comes to width, Hall reverb is a good place to start.

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Don’t stop there though… all types of reverb can do wonders for adding three-dimensionality depending on your mix and production style. It can be useful to experiment with different reverbs for different tracks in the mix, or alternate dry tracks with reverb treated tracks. With small amount of effect, that can add unpredictable and variable spaciousness during the final mix.

Hot Tip: Using reverb with a short decay time will add a subtler reverb effect. It’s great for when you want to add width and depth without changing the overall character of a sound.

Some examples where reverbs are used with a creative and functional approach:

 

Microshifting to expand your space

Microshifting is a clever technique for creating juicy stereo images that allow your channels to sound larger than life and extra wide.

Here’s how it’s done:

Take one stereo track, pan it center and keep it there. Next, duplicate that track twice (so you now have three versions) and patch a pitch shifting plugin inline on both copies.

Now, use the pitch shifter to pitch one copy down a few cents (5-10 cents is common) and pitch the other copy up the same amount of cents. Next, pan one copy hard left and the other hard right. That’s microshifting.

Listen to the three tracks back in stereo and revel in your clever trick and newly widened stereo image!

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Article by J’vlyn dj.

Dark Ambient technicalities. Michael Barnett interviews Sonologyst about creating dark ambient.

 

(extracted from the Michael Barnett article: Dark Ambient 101: Understanding the Technicalities – http://www.thisisdarkness.com/2018/03/17/dark-ambient-101/ ).

  1. Analog or Digital?

The mix of both of them is ideal.

 M.B.: What do you see as the differences between analog and digital creations of dark ambient music?

S.: There’s no difference from a creative point of view. Obviously there are a lot from the technical one.

 M.B.: What are some of the key instruments/programs that you use to make analog dark ambient?

S.: Analog synthesizers, electrified string instruments, guitars,  samples, editing software and plug ins, percussions, wind instruments parts (commissioned to other musicians), tapes, pedals, dronin.

 M.B.: What are some of the key instruments/programs that you use to make digital dark ambient?

S.: Mainly plugins to work on noise parts and editing softwares.

 M.B.: Do you see one or the other as being the “better” technique for creation of dark ambient music?

S.: Everyone has to develop the better process fitting with her/him attitude.

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  1. Drones?                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        M.B.: What are some of the techniques you use to create drones?

S.: There are different ones, maybe infinite. It’s possible to make drones with stratifications of synth pads, by editing acoustic instruments like brasses, winds, string instruments and so on; playing heavily distorted bass and/or guitar; editing samples, using noise from modular synthesizers, editing field recording, recording the washing machine noise and on and on..

M.B.: Do you have a favorite program/instrument to use for creating drones?

S.: Not a specific one.

M.B.: As a beginner did you create drones the same way you do now?

S.: As a beginner I made a lot of mistakes before to find my way.

M.B.: Have you changed techniques/software/instruments for creating drones over the progress of your career?

S.: Yes I did it many times. And I continue to change to make the sound fabric different in any production I do.

M.B.: How important are drones to dark ambient music?

Probably drones are the dark ambient trade mark, as well the violin and piano are in the classical music for orchestra, or the electric guitar solos are in the rock music.

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  1. Field Recordings?

 M.B.: How important are field recordings to dark ambient music?

S.: They are another fundamental component in dark ambient music. They are the ingredient to create visual atmospheres, vivid landscapes, even stories, and forge a solid concept when the musician has something interesting to tell through the music.

 M.B.: What electronics do you use to capture field recordings?

S.: I’m not a professional of field recordings, so I use simply an IPhone when I’m around to catch everything could be interesting.

 M.B.: Do you leave the field recordings raw or do you add effects treatment to them?

S.: I usually treat field recordings with additional reverbs. But the most important thing is to find the right level for the field recording layer in the mix. Mixing is by all means a crucial part in the process.

M.B.: Do you use field recordings in the creation of drone or do you only use them as a secondary layer of sound?

S.: It’s a possible choice to use f.r. for drones, why not?

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  1. Vocals?

M.B.: Do you use human vocals in dark ambient?

S.: Yes human vocals.

 M.B.: How important are human vocals to dark ambient?

S.: It depends of the concept behind the work, but I find human vocals important in my music, especially the spoken words.

 M.B.: Do you create your own passages to recite?

S.: Just sometimes.

 M.B.: Do you use your own voice, hire a voice actor, or use samples from films/television/speeches?

S.: Yes, samples from old documentaries, movies, speeches are my favorite. But I also asked singers to send to me parts for specific uses.

 M.B.: Is it necessary to ask permission of the original copyright holder before using samples of vocals in your music?

S.: No, for they are usually very short samples or free samples.

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  1. D.A.W.

I prefer to escape all questions about DAW, computer and so on, simply because there are not peculiarities for dark ambient music. The logic of hardware and software is the same for all kind of music. Just I can add that I’m a graduated sound technician, so I learned technique of recording, mixing and mastering through regular courses. But as in all studies, the experience is the most important factor. Do it, do it and do it again. And after some years everyone will find the right set up and process. And for people like me, who don’t have big amounts of money to invest in expensive hardware and software, the experience will help to do more, using less. And this is a big advantage for creativity; when you have poor instruments and have to use your brain to find out something good. Take a few small stones, beat each other and record the sound by using some freeware delay and reverb. Probably you will be very positively surprised of the result.

  1. Samples

M.B.: Where do you go to find samples?

S.: Everywhere: everyday life, music, movies, documentaries, vinyl, VHS, NASA web site, specialized platforms for samples sharing…

M.B.: What samples would be off-limits in a legal sense?

S.: There are a lot of free samples around, or simply usable by asking the owner permission. But for more specific knowledge of the argument I suggest to read the related laws of the source origin country.

M.B.: How do you extract samples from movies, games, speechs?

S.: Through Youtube when it’s possible by a software, but for more original sources by connecting the source (turntable, VHS player, microphones,…) to the audio interface.

M.B.: How important are samples to dark ambient music?

S.: Important, but not necessary.

Unexplained Sounds cover

  1. Instruments

    M.B.: When you use instruments in your music do you play a real instrument yourself?

    S.: Yes I do it.                                                                                                                                     M.B.: If you want to have violin, for exampe, (or any other instrument) in a song, but don’t own one and can’t play one, is there another option? (some sort of program that will create violin sounds for you?)

         S.: I prefer to directly ask other musicians to realize the part, so to have a more natural and warm sound effect.

 

  1. MasteringM.B.: How important is mastering in dark ambient?

    S.: It’s fundamental. 

M.B.: Can a musician master their own album with limited training?

S.: It’s not an easy job without a little of training.

M.B.:What programs do you use to master an album?

S.: I prefer to not tell that. It risks to be a commercial advertising for software companies

M.B.:If paying another person to master an album, what credentials should they have? (ie. do they need to make dark ambient themselves to understand how to master dark ambient?)

S.: It would be better if the mastering service comes from a person with a good sensibility for that kind of music. If a musician who plays himself that music, that’s even better.

M.B.: What are the differences between mastering an album that is digital, CD, cassette or vinyl? Should each have a separate mastering?

S.: There’s a certain difference about mastering a vinyl compared with cd or cassette mastering. It’s related to the output levels that differ, in the vinyl case, depending of the track position (closer to the edge or the center). So as matter of fact, they are two completely different mastering. But for this I suggest to read this article from Sonologyst blog: https://wordpress.com/post/sonologyst.com/168

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  1. General Advice 

    M.B.: What advice would you give to a person just coming into dark ambient as a potential artist?

    S.: Just to work with passion and not to be hurry, releasing huge amount of music, just to show the audience what is going on. That is a mistake many people do, while the process to improve the own style should be something private.                                                                                                                                                                                                             M.B.: What are the best aspects of creating dark ambient?                                                                                                                                                                                                            S.: It gives to you the possibility to be in deep connection with you profound states of mind.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              M.B.: What are the worst/hardest aspects of creating dark ambient?

            S.: There aren’t worst aspect to me.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   M.B.: What are somethings an amatuer should avoid doing at all costs?

          S.: I replied to this question in the previous point.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           M.B.: How frequently should an artist aim for releasing albums (several times a                   year?, once a year?, once a month?)

           S.: Every artist has to find the own way for that. It’s impossible to give a general                       advice. In my case I found the good and natural rhythm working on one release a                   year. And I don’t exclude to increase the interval between two works. That lets me a              major deepness, awareness and consciousness of what I’m going to do. Basically I                  start a work when I have really something to communicate, and after I’m aware of                  that, I need time to explore how to communicate it.

         M.B.: Should a musician know the history of the genre before creating their own                 music?

         S.: Not necessarily, but it would be a crime to ignore all that beautiful music created in           latest decades.

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Sonologyst-Mixing&Mastering

 

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