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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”.

The Future of Music, Today.

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.

three_dimensional_spectrum_mixed

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!

widening

Article by J’vlyn dj.