Mix Buss Compression Made Easy!

[Author: Scott Wiggins *]  

How many of you are completely terrified of doing anything to the mix buss, aka “stereo buss” “2 buss”?

It is real easy to mess up an entire mix with too much processing, in particular, mix buss compression.

Over the years of searching the internet creeping on my favorite mixers (Jaquire King, Dave Pensado, Chris Lord Alge, and many more) mix buss compression settings I’ve found that a little goes a long way.

Mix Buss Compression

Mix Buss Compression Glue

Have you ever heard the term “glue” in a conversation of recording and mixing?

No, I’m not talking about the kind you used to put on your hands in elementary so you could peel it off when it dried.

Am I the only one who did that?

I’m talking about the way compression can make tracks seem like they fit together a little better.

When set up correctly it makes the whole song feel like it’s glued together in the subtle ways which gives it a nice musical polished cohesive sound.

The goal with mix buss compression would be to just tame any transients that may spike up in volume just a little too much, and then bring the overall volume up of the rest of the tracks juuuuuust a bit.

We’re just trying to add a little more energy and fullness to the mix.

mix buss compression

Mix Buss Compression Settings

The Attack:

The attack setting you use for mix buss compression is important just like using a compressor on any other track.

With a faster attack the compressor will clamp down sooner on the transients that tend to be a little louder than the rest of the audio coming through.

A slower attack will wait milliseconds before it clamps down on the audio and starts compressing.

I tend to use a faster attack, BUT I’m not crushing those transients with a ton of compression, so I still keep the dynamics in my mix.

If I found I was killing the transients too much and there was no excitement in my mix, I would probably make it a slower attack setting.

Release:

I tend to use a medium to fast release setting.

I’ve heard a lot of famous mixers say they set the release with the tempo of the song.

So they would watch the gain reduction needle and have it release on beat with the song.

I try my best to use this method.

Ratio:

I use a really small ratio of around 1.5 to 1.

This means that once my audio passes the threshold I’ve set that there is very little compression happening to that audio.

It’s just a little bit. I’m not trying to squash the life out of it.

You can experiment with a little bit higher of a ratio, but know that the lower the ratio the less compression (more dynamics), and the higher the ratio the more compression (less dynamics).

Threshold:

I dial the threshold to where I’m only getting about 1 to 3 dbs of gain reduction on the peaks of the audio.

I tend to keep it on the lower side of 1 to 2 dbs of gain reduction.

You just want to kiss the needle. You don’t want to have to much mix bus compression happening.

Remember, we are going for a subtle “glue” like affect.

Make up Gain:

Just like on any other compressor, I turn the make up gain to math the amount of gain reduction happening.

Be careful here. Don’t turn it up to loud and fool yourself that you like the result just because it’s louder.

Do your best to math the input volume with the output volume of the compressor.

We tend to think louder is better when it’s not really better, it’s just louder.

I’ve shot a video tutorial below to show all of this in action on a mix i’ve started. Check it out!

Conclusion

Mix buss compression is a great way to add a little bit of excitement and glue to your mix.

Some people like to slap it on the master buss AFTER they have mixed it (Ryan West who’s credits are Jay-Z, Eminem, Kid Cudi, Maroon 5, T.I, Rihanna and Kanye West)

And some engineers like to slap a little bit of compression on in the beginning and mix through it.

I don’t think there is a right or wrong way when it comes to when to put it on.

The key is to be subtle and don’t kill a good mix with too much mix buss compression.

Use your ears like always. They are your biggest weapons.

Good luck and happy mixing!

If you want to learn the 1st step to a successful mix even before you think about adding mix buss compression, check this post out about “The Static Mix”.

[Editors Note: This is blog was written by Scott Wiggins and it originally appeared on his site, The Recording Solution, which is dedicated to helping producers, engineers and artists make better music from their home studios.]

Make Your Guitars LOUD!!!

[Editors NoteThis article was written by Chris Gilroy, producer and house engineer at Brooklyn-based Douglass Recording. Chris earned his degree in Sound Recording Technology from UMass Lowell.  Chris has worked with a diverse range of artists including Ron Carter, Mike Stern, The Harlem Gospel Choir, Christian McBride, to name a few.]

 

I love guitars. Something about them excites all my nerve endings. From softly picked acoustics to a mountain of amps at full blast. These nuanced instruments can be tricky to record. Luckily for you, I’m setting up for a session right now where we will be tracking distorted guitars for the next 3 days. Let’s talk a bit about getting some of the best results you can while recording and the things I will be doing for this session.

Before you even get into the studio to shred, find a few different examples of recordings where you, the artist, producer, or whoever is in charge of the project, are inspired by for this session. Guy Picciotto of Fugazi has a very different tone then Matt Pike of Sleep/High on Fire. Talk to your engineer about how these different sounds speak to you and how they were achieved. What amps, guitars, pedals, etc etc were used for tracking.

If you are engineering, you need to learn the different sounds between guitars. Why grab a Fender Stratocaster over a Telecaster? What’s the draw of a hollow body guitar? Each instrument sounds very different. Then there are amps! A Fender Deluxe sounds AMAZING when cranked, but very different from a Marshall JCM50. It is a never ending task for us to learn these differences. I’m not a guitarist (my mind was simpler and could only handle smashing two pieces of wood against a drum) so every session I work on I make sure we try a few amps and guitars. Mostly so we can make sure that we have a sound we are happy with in the room, but partially so I can listen to different combinations of instruments and amps, learning it and internalizing it.

Luckily I am fortunate enough to work in a place that has a bunch of great sounding amps. When you turn the gain till the pre amp starts to clip, we reach a magical land. Which is emulated through so many pedals. To get geeky for a second, a lot of distortion pedals are trying to recreate the sound of tube amps distorting. Housed in much smaller and cheaper enclosures they are create to throw a few flavors in your bag for a gig.

But these boxes use transistors and diodes to compress and clip your sound, which will flatten your dynamics and take a ton of life out of your guitar. Live they totally rule, but if you are in the studio and have a Marshall Bluesbreaker, you probably also don’t need that OCD pedal on. Turn up the amp, and rock out.  

A hard balancing act while tracking distorted guitars is not OVER distorting. When we play live we have the benefit of watching the player’s hands on the instrument. We don’t get that same luxury through a recording. Our guitar sound must be clear enough to make out all the notes and harmonies played. For listening example, blink-182’s Enema of the State is laden with giant and punchy sounding guitars that we hear everything Tom DeLonge is playing. Back a few albums to Cheshire Cat, it is much more difficult to hear exactly what he is playing. His sound is muddied and a bit too crunchy to full hear everything. When we are tracking back down the amount of distortion a little less then when we play live. The clarity will come through but we still have the amp growl.

Kurt Ballou of Converge is a master at getting an insanely aggressive sound while still maintaining note clarity. Don’t get me wrong I LOVE horribly recorded black metal records. But after a short period of time my ears get fatigued because the guitars basically almost white noise (which then I wonder why I didn’t put on a Merzbow record).

When I double guitars I first make sure I know why we are doubling. Recently I finished mixing the new Nihiloceros EP. I wash’t involved in tracking, so during mixing I heard sections that I wanted a slight energy boost like after a bridge into the final chorus of a song. To solve this we tracked a meatier guitar sound to blend in slightly behind the rest of the guitar assault. Mixed in you can’t quite tell that there is another guitar, it just feels like the part swells a little more.

For another record, a new band from Philadelphia called Puriden, we wanted to have a massive wall of hard panned guitars. They had recorded an SG through a Vox AC30 as the main guitar. Since the guitarist has that rig as his tone, we didn’t want to lose the Vox sound so we doubled using the same amp and a Telecaster. This gave us enough sonic difference to know that we had two guitars, but have no phasing issues between the two.

Steve Albini spoke about this very eloquently in Mix with the Masters. In short, if you have a different initial sound source with a different timbre you decrease the chances of having phase issues. Even if it is a different amp, mic, etc, the initial harmonic character is the same. For the most clarity and less phase related issues down the line change your instrument. If you have the ability then change your whole rig but at the very least try a different guitar.

Micing amps is a whole other beast. This section alone can be a whole book so I will only briefly gloss over some ideas here. Or buy me a beer at a show and we can chat all night.

The placement of an amp in the room affects your sound dramatically. Having an open back amp against a wall will increase the amount of low frequencies in your sound. Having a small amp on the floor will increase first order reflections. Is the room large and live (reverberant) or tight and dry? Often the room sound will slip into your mics and affect your recordings. Speaking of mics, each type of mic responds differently and adds or subtracts to our sound.

The SM57, love it or hate it, will always be around and serve it’s duties wonderfully. Learn it and how to use it. Ribbon mics, like the Royer R-121, will add extra lower mids to your sound and often tame harshness. Condenser mics also sound incredible on amps. I love the sound of a Schoeps M22 (tube small diaphragm) on amps like a Fender Deluxe. Or a Soyuz 017 slays on guitar amps, as do so many other large diaphragm options.

Be mindful that each mic has a limit of how loud it can handle. If you have a Marshall Plexi at full blast some mics won’t be happy and give you thinner or distorted tones. You could also damage the microphone, like the sensitive ribbon mics, rendering them into very expensive door stops.

Placement of the microphone on the cabinet has a big change of sound. The more on the center of speaker cone you get, the brighter a sound you capture. As you move off axis, the sound gets a little darker, or warmer. How far or close your mic is will also change the timbre and room tone. Among other reasons, if you place a cardiod mic too close you will get a bass bump known as proximity effect. Listen to talk radio to hear this overused. Justin Colletti, of Sonicscoop, has this wonderful video exploring the different sounds we get with just this principle alone.

Originally I was hoping to get into mixing guitars, but that must wait till next time. The last point I want to drive home is that this is a skill set that we can always improve on. We are constantly learning. Go to conferences (AES), workshops, talks. Read magazines (Tape Op!) and watch videos. Talk to peers at all levels. Whenever possible I try assist other engineers. It lets me see how other people do things and handle situations. The amount I have learned from that or the conversations after the session about techniques and decisions used in the session has been monumental.

Studio Spotlight: The Record Co. Focuses on Access Over Profit in Boston

Boston, Massachusetts is home to over 250,000 college students. With institutions like Harvard, M.I.T., Berklee College of Music, Emerson, Boston College and a slew of others, it’s a given that you’d see plenty of artists and bands finding their legs in a major U.S. city – whether they’re undergrads meeting at a local party or show, or a grad student furthering their music career by way of education. Growing up in the area, I recall being obsessed with bands in the ‘local scene’ – catching the T to see bands play in places from Elks Lodges to 18+ venues that I had to ‘borrow’ an ID to get into. But even then I noticed a turnover, as bands would migrate to other parts like New York and L.A., or venues with all-ages access would close unexpectedly.

While this isn’t uncommon, there’s still a lot to love about Boston’s music scene, but it can be a difficult place to live and survive as a musician or engineer. And what about the potential fans who don’t know what’s in their backyard?

Enter The Record Co. – a Boston-based non-profit facility that provides access to an affordable space to record quality projects and opportunities to freelance engineers and producers. The result is a much-praised collaborative atmosphere that is helping to change the landscape of Boston’s independent music scene. Not to mention, The Record Co. does a wonderful job of showing off all Boston has to offer with their Boston Sessions collaborative mixtape series, with Vol. 2 coming out soon!

In this month’s Studio Spotlight, I spoke to Jesse Vengrove, Program Director (and engineer/musician) at The Record Co. to discuss how the non-profit’s approach to offering this kind of access and how it’s been paying off:

First and foremost, what inspired you to start The Record Co. and do so as a non-profit?

Go up to any studio owner and ask them the following two questions and you’ll probably get similar responses:

1) “Are you making a large profit?” – “No”

2) “Why are you doing this then?” – “I love the work and I think it’s important/has cultural and/or artistic value.”

And there you have the most informal definition of a non-profit organization.

The Record Co. was founded in 2009 and, after a failed startup (first location flooded), we moved to our current facility in 2010.  The non-profit angle came out of a realization that that no one really needs to own a studio, people just need access to one.

We wanted to create a space that was accessible to everyone, regardless of socioeconomic status, race, gender, and we wanted to create a space that was a part of the community and give back to the city.  We charge our clients to use the facility like any other studio but the rates are subsidized by foundations/grants and individual donors who believe it’s important to cultivate a vibrant and creative scene in Boston.

We’ve found a way to allow artists to come in and use the facility at a price point that works for small/non-existent budgets while relying on other sources of funding to keep daily operations running. In 2017 we’re on track to host 1,100 sessions between the two rooms, so needless to say there’s a demand that we’re filling (while still seeing new studios pop up and legacy studios stay in business).

Give our readers a little bit of a breakdown of the facility overall. What sets your studios apart from others in the area?

We currently have about 5,000 sq/ft split up over 2 floors which gives us a fair amount of space. We have two studios, Studio A and Studio B (yeah, super creative!).  Studio A is 2,500 sq/ft and includes a full kitchen and a lounge (with an ever-growing homage to the amazing art collection at Goodwill). We wanted it to feel like you’re walking into your friend’s living room, warm and homey.  We kept a lot of the windows up there so there’s a lot of natural light, which really makes the room comfortable.  There are two iso booths in there and a large live room.  You can get giant drum sounds up there (and we once squeezed a 45-person orchestra in there) or you can control/segment the room with gobos.  It’s a large space but we did our best to keep sightlines open so no one feels disconnected.

Studio B is our smaller vocal/overdub room.  This room is a little more chic than Studio A; no windows to the outside, color-changing LED lights, leather couch.  It’s a small but spacious enough so it doesn’t ever feel crowded, and everyone always loves the homemade absorption panels covering the wall.  Studio B definitely has a more traditional feel to it compared to A but it’s by no means sterile; it’s still a comfortable room to work in.  There’s a lounge outside the studio so there’s lots of space to spread out.  Studio B has it’s own private bathroom which sounds most excellent for re-amping.

Obviously you provide a space for the many artists of Boston to record, but tell us a little more about how your setup has benefited freelance engineers over your seven-year history.

TRC is a 100% freelance studio, which means that we don’t have any staff engineers.  We think it’s really important for artists to work with technical professionals that they get along with (both personally and musically) and so we enforce that every client brings in their own engineer.  At this point we have 1,100 gigs for freelancers every year happening in our facility, and we’ve priced our studios in a way that leaves room for engineers to charge a reasonable rate for their services.

When clients need referrals we refer to our staff, who are all great engineers as well (but they still negotiate their own rates and get paid directly by the client as a freelancer).  We also see a lot of engineers coming in from other studios around town (Q Division, Mad Oak, Zippah, Futura…) which we love.

Has the way you operate fostered its own community within the greater music scene? Do you feel you’re providing a space for collaboration and networking?

We see thousands of musicians/artists/engineers through our doors every year so I’m happy to say that it feels like we have a large community surrounding the work that that we do.  We really value the face-to-face interaction that takes place in recording studio and are happy to see so many people coming out of their basements or bedrooms and collaborating.  The best music doesn’t get made in a vacuum, it usually takes a team.

How do you feel that The Record Co. has contributed to the ever-changing landscape of the arts in Boston?

We’ve contributed in two ways: through direct support to artists/musicians and through an effort to raise general awareness about the great music that is being made in our city.  There is an obvious need for the programming we do as there are thousands of people that have taken advantage of our studios.  We have had bands and engineers tell us that we are the reason they stayed in Boston instead of moving to NYC or LA which is extremely meaningful to us and shows that there is a need for the work that we are doing.

We have also made an effort to engage music fans in Boston and let them know that you don’t need to look to NYC/LA or Pitchfork/Rolling Stone to find good new music, there’s actually tons of being made all around you.  Raising the reputation and awareness of what’s happening here in Boston is a long process but it only serves to make the city feel more like home for all of the musicians/artists that struggle to live and work here in Boston.

For a city home to a quarter of a million college students and a mayoral administration hoping to retain this population after graduation, what else does Boston need to be a happier home to working musicians and engineers?

That’s a tough one and is something we talk about regularly.  All-ages music venues, more (well maintained) rehearsal spaces, better public transportation, affordable housing inside city-limits…. None of these things are easy problems to solve but all would go a long way towards making the city a more hospitable place for artist and engineers.

Speaking of those college students, how does the Recor Co. interact with student artists and engineers-in-training from local colleges and universities? 

We wanted to price our studio rates in such a way that artists could afford to rent an appropriate amount of time to actually accomplish what they set out to.  These days the only way for artists to develop themselves is to act as their own A&R and just keep recording and tweaking until they finally land on something good.

Because we also cater to a lot of engineers who are just getting their start or haven’t worked in a studio outside of a college setting we host orientations every other week which consists of a conversation about expectations and best practices while working in a professional setting, how to avoid pit-falls that have the potential to kill the vibe for the players, and then a full technical walkthrough of the facility.  We always have staff around to assist with any technical questions/issues and we do have a great crew of part-time assistants that are able to help out as well.

After six years in business you dropped Boston Sessions, Volume 1 – which resulted in a very cool development in the Rock Band video game franchise! – what led you to releasing this? What was the reaction from artists and labels involved?

We really wanted to tackle both raising the reputation of what’s happening in our music scene and also provide an economic opportunity for the artists involved.  ‘Vol.1 – Beast’ featured 13 brand new tracks by 13 Boston-based artists.  In total we paid 63 artists/engineers/producers to make the record, which we’re really proud of.

Artist and sponsors alike both loved the project.  It was unique as it was all brand new material (not pre-recorded content) and really provided a cool cross-section of the diverse scene in Boston.  We were really happy to work with Harmonix to get the album featured in Rock Band, which is by far one of the craziest things to come from the project.  We also just finished up a large donated outdoor ad campaign around the city and on the trains called “Boston Music Is” which features pictures of artists from the comp.  It’s great to see the city showing some love for the artists that make it a cool place to be.

The album is available for streaming on Bandcamp and Spotify and vinyl is in our web store.

What can we expect on the upcoming volume of Boston Sessions? Beyond promoting the Record Co. and the artists featured, what hopes do you have for the release?

Vol. 2 is going to be an awesome collection of new music from some great artists around the city.  We really hope this go around that we not only turn heads in Boston but in other cities as well.  Ultimately we want Boston to be seen as a music destination and the Boston Sessions program is just one step along that path to get there.

 

Master Your Tracks Instantly With Promaster by Aftermaster

If you’ve been using TuneCore or reading our blog for the past few years, you know that we’ve tried to highlight the benefits of well-mastered releases. Mastering is an art that can vastly improve the sound of your recorded music – and it once took knowing an audio engineer who specializes in this process to make it a possibility. It could also be more costly for those releasing on an indie budget.

In an effort to solve this, a little while back TuneCore began offering Aftermaster in our suite of Artist Services – a brilliant program that connects independent artists in need of mastering with GRAMMY Award winning engineers at a reasonable cost. Artists without the local resources or connections to high quality mastering options could now use Aftermaster to easily coordinate this studio magic-making in advance of their release.

Now, we’re psyched to announce a new and even more cost-friendly solution for instant mastering: Promaster by Aftermaster. TuneCore has expanded its partnership with Aftermaster in order to offer our artists the finest instant mastering tool on the market right now to polish their recently recorded tracks.

Promaster by Aftermaster is unlike any other instant mastering product in that it was wholly developed by artists, producers and audio engineers to streamline the mastering and storage process without compromising quality or creative intent. It uses cutting edge audio processing systems developed internally to instantly master audio to the highest standards.

Since we’re in the business of hooking artists up, Promaster by Aftermaster is ready to offer special rates exclusively for TuneCore Artists. For $9.95 per single and $24.95 per album, TuneCore Artists can also enjoy the following features:

  • Receive four versions of each track: ‘Powerful’, ‘Radio Ready’,’Bass Enhanced’ and ‘Vocal Enhanced
  • Free preview of your masters before you purchase
  • Master an entire album at once, ensuring consistency
  • Monthly and annual subscriptions available

Whether you just wrapped up in the studio, recorded a new single in your bedroom, or feel like revisiting some never-released tracks – polish ‘em up fast at a price that doesn’t break the bank.

Learn more about TuneCore’s partnership with Promaster by Aftermaster here, or if you’re ready to start instantly mastering your tracks, get after it!

From the Stage to the Studio: How To Adapt Vocals For Recording

[Editors Note: This blog was written by Sabrina Bucknole. Sabrina has been singing in musical theater for over eight years, and wrote this as a deep dive into how live and theatrical singers can adapt their vocals for the studio and offers five practical tips for singers recording in the studio.]

 

Singers who have a lot of experience performing live can often find difficulty in bringing the same level of performance to the studio. Whether this is because of the space itself, the lack of an audience, the different approaches to singing techniques, or the range of equipment found in the studio, singers must learn to adapt their vocals for the studio if they want to create the “right” sound.

Introducing the Stage to the Studio

There are many elements about the studio that cannot be re-created on stage, but with technology advancing, this gap is closing, especially where vocals are concerned. For instance, loop pedals are becoming increasingly popular in live performances among the likes of famous artists including Ed Sheeran, Radiohead, and Imogen Heap. Loop pedals are used to create layers of sound and add texture to the performance, allowing a solo artist to become anything from a three-person band to an entire choir.

Vocals are recorded similarly to how they are recorded in a studio except they are recorded in the moment during live performance. It could be said that recording vocals in a studio is more intimate and requires more focus due to the enhanced sensitivity of the mics used in these spaces.

Both dynamic and condenser mics usually come with a specially designed acoustic foam windshield which absorbs the soundwaves coming from the voice. Duncan Geddes, MD of Technical Foam Services emphasises the importance of choosing the correct type of foam for the microphone windshield when recording in the studio. He explains that “having the right microphone windshield is essential to ensure an effective barrier against specific background noise while still allowing acoustic transparency. The critical aspect is the consistent pore size and density of the foam, to ensure complete sound transparency”.

To avoid picking up any unwanted sounds including plosives (“b” and “p” sounds created by a short blast of air from the mouth), acoustic windshields can be very effective. These air blasts strike the diaphragm of the mic and create a thump-like sound known as “popping”.

From Broadway to Booth: Vocal Differences

Singing in a recording studio can be daunting, especially for those who are used to singing live in a theatre. This could be because every tiny imperfection of the voice is picked up in the studio, including things that go unnoticed when performing live. Faced with these imperfections, some singers try to smooth out every little bump or crack in the voice in the pursuit of “perfection”.

Others embrace the “flaws” of the voice to create a sound unique to them. For instance, the well-known artist Sia embraces the natural cracks of her voice. This is apparent in most of her songs, especially in the song “Alive” on her 2016 album, This Is Acting. At 4 minutes 10 seconds you can hear her slide up to a higher note. To some, this might sound a little strained, but to others and Sia, this may simply be a natural and welcome part of her sound and performance.

Volume control can also be something to think about when entering the studio from the stage. Theatrical singers are taught to project their voices even in soft, quiet parts so they can still be heard. It could be argued that belting high and powerful notes becomes almost second nature to them, which is why they may find themselves having to reign it in slightly when adapting their voice for the studio.

For instance, according to multiplatinum songwriter and producer Xandy Barry, vocalists need to tone down their performance when recording in a studio. He reveals, “In certain quiet passages [singers] may need to bring it down, because in the studio a whisper can be clearly heard.”

It could also be argued that when performing live, the stage is a space where a certain type of energy is released, something that cannot be re-created in the studio. Playing to a crowd may bring something out of an artist. Some performers feel they can express themselves more on stage compared to in the studio. A live performance is ultimately, a performance after all.

This does not mean that the studio is restricting; instead it could be argued that other techniques are evoked when recording in this space. For instance, some singers display more finesse and subtlety in their work, something that cannot always be re-created on stage.

Five practical tips for singers recording in the studio:

1. Warm up

Studio time can be expensive which is why it’s best to warm up before entering the studio. As well as being prepared vocally, make sure you’re prepared with how you’re going to approach the piece. Some recommend knowing precisely how you’re going to sing every section, but this can come across as being over-rehearsed and may not sound natural. To avoid this, approach the piece differently each time and try experimenting with different sounds, textures, and volumes.

2. Record, record, record

Try and capture everything you can. If you vocalise something you like the sound of, but no one hit “record”, it can be frustrating for you as the singer, trying to re-create that same sound.

3. Keep cool and have fun

If you feel like you’re getting frustrated because a take isn’t going well or you’re not hitting the right notes, or you’re sounding rather flat, take a break. Take some time to clear your head and start afresh, so the next time you hit record, you’ll almost certainly get the results you were after!

4. Be emotional

Conjuring up emotions in the studio can be harder to do than on stage. This can be due to the lack of atmosphere, people, and the confined space. To avoid lyrics coming across bland or meaningless, try to focus on the lyrics themselves and decode them.

To stir the emotions you’re looking for, personalise the material by asking yourself “What is the meaning behind these words?”, “How are these lyrics making me feel?”, and “How can I relate these lyrics to my own life or the life of someone I care about?”. Like an actor and their script, discovering and analysing the intention of the words can have a great effect on the performance.

5. Manage the microphone

Singers with experience behind a mic know how to handle one. Skilled singers know where and how to move their head to create different volumes and sounds. For instance, by moving closer to the mic as they get softer, and further as they get louder they can manipulate the volume of their vocals, reducing the amount of compression required in editing later.

Singing into a mic when recording can be different from singing into a mic on stage. The positioning, mounting, angle of the mic, and distance from the singer, can all effect the captured vocal sound. Live singers usually hold the mic close to their mouth especially for softer parts, but in a studio, the mic is usually more sensitive to sound. This is why it’s best to keep more distance between yourself and the mic, especially for louder sections.

14 of the Most Commonly Confused Terms in Music and Audio

[Editors Note: This article was written by Brad Allen Williams and it originally appeared on the Flypaper Blog. Brad is a NYC-based guitarist, writer/composer, producer, and mixer.]

Once upon a time, remixing a song meant actually redoing the mix. Many vintage consoles (some Neve 80-series, for example) have a button labeled “remix” that changes a few functions on the desk to optimize it for mixing rather than recording.

But sometime in the late 20th century, the word “remix” began to take on a new meaning: creating a new arrangement of an existing song using parts of the original recording. Into the 21st century, it’s evolved again and is now sometimes used as a synonym for “cover.” The latter two definitions remain in common use, while the first has largely disappeared.

Language is constantly evolving, and musical terms are obviously no exception. In fact, in music, language seems to evolve particularly fast, most likely owing to lots of interdisciplinary collaboration and the rapid growth of DIY.

Ambiguous or unorthodox use of language has the potential to seriously impede communication between collaborators. In order to avoid an unclear situation, let’s break down standard usage of some of the most commonly conflated, misused, or misunderstood music-related terms.

GAIN / DISTORTION

Gain, as it’s used in music electronics, is defined by Merriam-Webster as, “An increase in amount, magnitude, or degree — a gain in efficiency,” or, “The increase (of voltage or signal intensity) caused by an amplifier; especially: the ratio of output over input.”

To put it in less formal terms, gain is just an increase in strength. If an amplifier makes a signal stronger, then it causes that signal to gain intensity. Gain is usually expressed as a ratio. If an amplifier makes a signal 10 times as loud, then that amplifier has a “gain of 10.”

On the other hand, harmonic distortion is that crunchy or fuzzy sound that occurs when an amplifier clips (as a result of its inability to handle the amount of signal thrown at it).

In the 1970s, some guitar amp manufacturers began employing extra gain stages in their designs to generate harmonic distortion on purpose. In other words, they’d amplify the signal, then amplify it again, and that second gain stage — having been given more than it could handle — would distort. These became known as “high-gain amplifiers.” Because of this, many guitarists just assumed that gain was synonymous with distortion. This was cemented when later amps like the Marshall JCM900 had knobs labeled “gain” that, by design, increased the amount of harmonic distortion when turned up!

Outside the realm of electric guitar, though, gain is still most typically used in a conventional way. When a recording engineer talks about “structuring gain,” for example, he or she is usually specifically trying to avoid harmonic distortion. It’s easy to see how this might cause confusion!

TONALITY / TONE

Not to pick on guitarists, but this is another one that trips us up. Tone has many music-related definitions, but the one of interest at the moment is (again, per Merriam-Webster), “Vocal or musical sound of a specific quality…musical sound with respect to timbre and manner of expression.”

On the other hand, the dictionary definition of tonality is:

1. Tonal quality.

2a. Key.

2b. The organization of all the tones and harmonies of a piece of music in relation to a tonic.

It’s important to note that “tonal quality” here refers to “the quality of being tonal,” or the quality of being in a particular key (in other words, not atonal). This is a different matter from “tone quality,” which is commonly understood to mean “timbre.” Most musicians with formal training understand tonality either as a synonym for key or as the quality of being in a key.

If you’re trying to sound fancy, it can be tempting to reach for words with more syllables, but using tonality as a synonym for timbre can be confusing. Imagine you’re recording two piano pieces — one utilizing 20th-century serial composition techniques and the other utilizing functional harmony. If you express concerns about the piano’s “tonality” while recording the second piece, the composer would probably think you were criticizing his or her work!

OVERDUB / PUNCH-IN

Most musicians in the modern era understand the difference between these two concepts, but they still occasionally confuse folks relatively new to the process of recording.

Overdubbing is adding an additional layer to an existing recording.

“Punching in” is replacing a portion of an already-recorded track with a new performance.

To do a “punch-in” (in order to fix a mistake, for example), the performer plays along with the old performance until, at the appropriate moment, the recordist presses record, thus recording over the mistake. The recordist can then “punch out” to preserve the remainder of the original performance once the correction is made.

GLISSANDO / PORTAMENTO

A portamento is a continuous, steady glide between two pitches without stopping at any point along the way.

A glissando is a glide between two pitches that stair-steps at each intermediate note along the way. A glissando amounts, in essence, to a really fast chromatic scale.

To play a glissando on guitar, you’d simply pluck a string and slide one finger up the fretboard. The frets would make distinct intermediate pitches, creating the stair-stepped effect. If you wished to play a portamento on guitar, you could either bend the string or slip a metal or glass slide over one of the fingers of your fretting hand.

VIBRATO / TREMOLO

While often used interchangeably in modern practice, vibrato and tremolo are actually distinct kinds of wiggle. In most cases, tremolo is amplitude modulation (varying the loudness of the signal), whereas vibrato is frequency modulation (varying the pitch of the signal).

But over the past few hundred years, tremolo has commonly referred to many different performative actions. On string instruments, tremolo is used to refer to the rapid repetition of a single note, and in percussion, tremolo is often used to describe a roll. Singers use it for even crazier things, like a pulsing of the diaphragm while singing¹.

Leo Fender must’ve had his terms confused — he labeled the vibrato bridges on his guitars “synchronized tremolo,” and the tremolo circuits on his amps “vibrato.” Confusion has reigned ever since.

ANALOG / DIGITAL

Analog and digital are perhaps the most confused pair of words in the 21st-century musical lexicon. I once had a somewhat older musician tell me that my 1960s-era fuzz pedal and tape echo made my guitar sound “too digital” for his music. Likewise, countless younger musicians claim to prefer the “analog sound” of the original AKAI MPC (an early digital sampler) and the Yamaha DX-7 (an early digital FM synthesizer). But “analog” and “digital” are not simply stand-ins for “vintage” and “modern,” nor for “hardware” and “software.” They’re entirely different mechanisms for storing and generating sounds. Let’s learn a little more!

Merriam-Webster’s most relevant definition of analog is, “Of, relating to, or being a mechanism in which data is represented by continuously variable physical quantities.”

Also relevant is its first definition of analogue: “Something that is analogous or similar to something else.”

Now, how does this relate to music technology? It all goes back to humans’ longstanding search for a way to capture and store sound. Sound, on a basic scientific level, is nothing more than compression and rarefaction (decompression) of air that our ears can sense. Since air pressure fluctuations can’t really be stored, recording sound proved elusive for a long time.

20th-century scientists and engineers, however, brilliantly figured out that recording sound might be possible if they could accurately transfer that sound into something that could be preserved. They needed something storable that would represent the sound; an analogue to stand in for the sound that would allow it to be captured and kept.

First, they used mechanically generated squiggles on a wax cylinder as the analogue. Eventually, they figured out that they could use alternating-current electricity (which oscillates between positive and negative voltage), as an analogue of sound waves (which oscillate between positive and negative air pressure). From there, it was a relatively short leap to figuring out that they could, through electromagnetism, store that information as positively and negatively charged magnetic domains, which exist on magnetic tape.

This is analog recording!

Since electric voltage is continuously variable, any process — including synthesis — that represents air pressure fluctuations exclusively using alternating current electricity is analog, per Merriam-Webster’s first definition above.

Digital, on the other hand, is defined as, “Of, relating to, or using calculation by numerical methods or by discrete units,” and, “Of, relating to, or being data in the form of especially binary digits, digital images, a digital readout; especially : Of, relating to, or employing digital communications signals, a digital broadcast.”

That’s a little arcane, so let’s put it this way: Rather than relying directly on continuous analog voltages, a digital recorder or synthesizer computes numerical values that represent analog voltages at various slices of time, called samples. These will then be “decoded” into a smooth analog signal later in order to be accurately transferred back into actual air pressure variations at the speaker. If that’s a blur, don’t worry — you only need to understand that this is a fundamentally different process of storing or generating sound.

Absent a real acquaintance with the technology of an individual piece of equipment or process, it’s probably safer to avoid leaping to conclusions about whether it’s analog or digital. For example, there are reel-to-reel magnetic tape machines (like the Sony PCM 3348 DASH) that don’t record analog voltage-based signal at all, but rather use the tape to store digital information (as simple ones and zeroes).

Since you can’t judge whether a piece of gear is analog or digital with your eyes, it’s probably best to only use these terms when you need to refer to the specific technologies as outlined above. In other words, next time you’re recording in a studio with a cool-looking piece of old gear, it’s probably safer to use #vintage instead of#analog to caption your in-studio Instagram photo!

PHASE / POLARITY

Phase is defined by Merriam-Webster as… (deep breath):

“The point or stage in a period of uniform circular motion, harmonic motion, or the periodic changes of any magnitude varying according to a simple harmonic law to which the rotation, oscillation, or variation has advanced from its standard position or assumed instant of starting.”

That’s a mouthful! This is a concept that’s easier understood with an example, so let’s imagine that you have a swinging pendulum:

If you were to freeze that pendulum at two different times, the dot at the end would be in two different locations. The pendulum’s swing occurs over time, so the location of the pendulum depends on when you stop it. We’d refer to the phase of the pendulum in order to describe this phenomenon and where the pendulum is in its cycle relative to time. And since it’s always moving in a continuous, smooth arc, there are an infinite number of possibilities!

Phase becomes potentially relevant for anything that’s oscillating or undulating — like the pendulum above or a sound wave.

Polarity, on the other hand, is defined as, “The particular state, either positive or negative, with reference to the two poles or electrification.”

To put it in very simple terms, you’re dealing with polarity any time you install a battery. The battery has a positive terminal and a negative one. You have to make sure it’s installed the right way. While phase is infinitely variable, polarity has only two choices — it’s one or the other.

In our brief explanation of analog audio above, we mentioned that positive and negative swings of voltage are used to represent positive and negative changes in air pressure. If we switch polarity of a signal, we swap all the positive voltages for negative ones, and vice-versa. +1v becomes -1v, +0.5v becomes -0.5v, etc. This is usually accomplished with a button marked with the Greek letter theta or “Ø.”

Interestingly, if you have one signal alone, it’s usually the case that our ear can’t really tell the difference between positive or negative polarity. It’s when you combine two or more similar signals (like two microphones on one drum for instance) that a polarity flip of one or the other can have a dramatic influence on the sound.

Confusingly, this influence is a result of phase differences between the two sources, and switching polarity can often improve (or worsen!) the sound of two combined sources which are slightly out of phase. For this reason, the polarity switch is often called a “phase switch,” and depressing it is often colloquially referred to as “flipping phase.”

In the graphic below, you’ll see a brief, zoomed-in snapshot of two waveforms. A single bass performance was simultaneously recorded into both a direct box (blue) and through a mic on its amplifier (green).

In the first graphic, you can notice that the two are slightly out of phase. The blue direct-in wave swings negative ever so slightly before the green mic–on–amp one does. This is because the amp’s sound had to travel through the air briefly before being picked up by the microphone. Since sound in air travels much more slowly than electricity does, this creates a slight time delay or phase discrepancy.

In the second example below, I’ve flipped the polarity of the amp track. You can see that the time delay still exists, but now the amp track’s wave is inverted or “upside down.” As the DI track swings negative, the amp track swings positive.

In this case, the switch made the combined sound noticeably thinner, so I quickly flipped it back. Occasionally though, flipping polarity improves the combined sound of two sources which are slightly out of phase.

In practice, most recordists will understand what you mean if you say “flip the phase,” but should there happen to be a physicist in the room, you might get a raised eyebrow! Generally, though, this is a classic example of how unorthodox usage sometimes becomes accepted over time.

Which raises the point: any of the musical and audio terms above may eventually, like “remix” before them, evolve to incorporate new shades of meaning (or even have some earlier “correct” definitions fall into disuse). In the meantime, though, the more precise your grasp on the language of music, the less likely you are to misunderstand or be misunderstood.


¹ In performance, for both singers and many instrumentalists, pure tremolo is almost impossible to achieve without taking on some characteristics of vibrato — that is to say that a passage is played or sung with only variations of either pitch or volume.