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AudioTechnology THE MAGAZINE FOR SOUND ENGINEERS & RECORDING MUSICIANS

Vintage Crop SIFTING THE WHEAT FROM THE CHAFF

Cans Festival 12 headphones reviewed!

REVIEWS: ABLETON LIVE 8 AUDIO-TECHNICA AT2050 DB TECHNOLOGIES DVM WEDGE AKAI APC40 APEX DBC-8 PMC IB2S

IN THE PINK

Mixing a pop circus

DOUBLE TROUBLE

Stav’s double-tracking tips

LIVE & LET LIVE

Live 8 has met its match

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ISSUE 69 AU $6.95(inc gst) NZ $10.95 (inc gst)


AudioTechnology

ED SPACE

Editor Andy Stewart andy@audiotechnology.com.au

Elegantly Integrated.

Publisher Philip Spencer philip@alchemedia.com.au

Text: Andy Stewart

Editorial Director Christopher Holder chris@audiotechnology.com.au Deputy Editor Brad Watts brad@audiotechnology.com.au Editorial Assistant Mark Davie mark@alchemedia.com.au Design & Production Heath McCurdy heath@alchemedia.com.au Additional Design Dominic Carey dominic@alchemedia.com.au

The man never stops – he’s just go go go from morning till night. If it’s not a discussion about recording philosophy over bacon and eggs first thing in the morning, it’s the ethics of intellectual property theft over stuffed Thai chicken wings late at night. “Play me coach, I’ll sleep when I’m dead” was the response from George Massenburg when I tentatively asked him whether he minded being a panelist on yet another forum discussion at Integrate 09 last month. The man was keen as mustard to contribute in any way he could. A tireless trooper at the show – and a huge hit amongst Integrate attendees – George was up early every morning raving to me about education and miking techniques, lecturing to riveted audiences in the Headroom and AFTRS with a compelling combination of grace, humility and wisdom all day, and racing all over town in the evening with a group of fascinated locals all keen to talk the leg off a chair with him about audio. Even my mother, who joined us for dinner one evening, seemed enchanted. But if you think the guy slept after a day like that, think again! In the privacy of his hotel room late at night George was straight into confidential technical discussions with unmentionable third parties on another continent about yet another advance in audio technology. “I can’t say much,” he’d begin over hash browns and coffee in the hotel dining room the next morning, “but let me tell ya Andy…” On and on it went. The man is a machine, and a genius to boot! So many things went over my head during our five days of ranting and raving that I came out of it with a middle part in my hair. It was a privilege and an honour to have spent so much time with him. A funny thing happened on Day Three of the show. With no morning commitments requiring our attendance at the Hordern Pavilion early, George and I made the spontaneous decision to cross the Sydney Harbour Bridge and visit another legend of the audio game, Richard Lush, who was holed up in Royal North Shore Hospital. George and Richard had never met before but they both shared a close friend in common, none other than recording legend Geoff Emerick. Determined not to turn up empty handed at the hospital, George and I proceeded on a wild goose chase around the city trying to find Richard a ‘gadget’; something that would entertain him as he lay there bored witless in hospital. Unfortunately, Sydney served up a goose egg (along with torrential rain). Eventually we gave up, raced back to our respective hotel rooms to find

something amongst our personal effects that he might like – George came down with some headphones, and I grabbed a stubbie of Crown Lager from the minibar. “This should cheer him up,” I remarked, as I pulled the bottle from my coat pocket. “It’ll either cure him or kill him!” Laughing all the way to the hospital, George and I discussed the history of Geoff and Richard’s illustrious careers recording The Beatles… and whether the hospital staff might have a bottle opener. Eventually arriving by Richard’s bedside a full hour late, I had the great, albeit surreal, honour of introducing the two men. George and Richard, needless to say, got on like a house on fire. Gifts and incredible anecdotes about the recording and mixing of Sgt Pepper were exchanged and time passed like lightning. As the clock ticked past 12:40pm I thought to myself, ‘There’s still plenty of time. As long as we’re back by 2pm for George’s second masterclass…’ By about 12.45 I began squirming in my seat and eventually interrupted the two gents to mention that we’d probably need to leave no later than about 1pm if we were to get back in plenty of time for George’s 2pm start. “2pm?” George quizzed. “I’m pretty sure the masterclass starts at one, doesn’t it?” “One? Are you kidding me? Look at the time!” With 10 minutes to say our rushed goodbyes to Richard, descend seven floors to the lobby, pay for parking, race back up to the top deck of the car park, screech the tyres all the way down again (overtaking cars inside the car park), hit North Sydney traffic and cross the city… needless to say, this was going to be tight! At 12.58 we finally hit the street and by the time we gave way to a man crossing the road on crutches, we had about 90 seconds to traverse Sydney. ‘Mmm, well it would appear we’re screwed,’ I mused to myself. At 2.20pm, George jumped out of the still moving car outside Fox Studios and high-tailed it up to his masterclass. By the time I joined him 10 minutes later to make sure things were cool, there was George calmly lecturing to his attentive audience as if nothing had happened… what a trooper. Before I sign off I must also acknowledge the enormous generosity of several people whom were instrumental in providing the equipment for George Massenburg’s seminars: Donna Delaney at Control Devices, Stephen Spurrier from Studio Connections, Michael Horn at Sound Devices, Damien Young at Pony Music and Ron Gaydon at Turramurra Music. And to Chris McKeith at AFTRS, you are a legend, and yes, I found the CD…

Advertising Philip Spencer philip@alchemedia.com.au Accounts Manager Jenny Temm jen@alchemedia.com.au Circulation Manager Miriam Mulcahy mim@alchemedia.com.au Proof Reading Calum Orr Regular Contributors Martin Walker Rick O’Neil Michael Stavrou Calum Orr Paul Tingen Graeme Hague Mark O’Connor Paul McKercher Hugh Covill Adam McElnea Greg Walker William Bowden Anthony Touma Greg Simmons Rob Squire Robin Gist Michael Carpenter Mark Woods Jonathan Burnside Stephen Bruel Andrew Bencina Distribution by: Network Distribution Company. AudioTechnology magazine (ISSN 1440-2432) is published by Alchemedia Publishing Pty Ltd (ABN 34 074 431 628). Contact (Advertising) T: +61 2 9986 1188 PO BOX 6216, Frenchs Forest NSW 2086, Australia. Contact (Editorial) T: +61 3 5331 4949 PO Box 295, Ballarat VIC 3353, Australia. E: info@alchemedia.com.au W: www.audiotechnology.com.au

All material in this magazine is copyright © 2009 Alchemedia Publishing Pty Ltd. Apart from any fair dealing permitted under the Copyright Act, no part may be reproduced by any process with out written permission. The publishers believe all information supplied in this magazine to be correct at the time of publication. They are not in a position to make a guarantee to this effect and accept no liability in the event of any information proving inaccurate. After investigation and to the best of our knowledge and belief, prices, addresses and phone numbers were up to date at the time of publication. It is not possible for the publishers to ensure that advertisements appearing in this publication comply with the Trade Practices Act, 1974. The responsibility is on the person, company or advertising agency submitting or directing the advertisement for publication. The publishers cannot be held responsible for any errors or omissions, although every endeavour has been made to ensure complete accuracy. 29/07/09.


CONTENTS 69 – Full magazine out now

77 FEATURES 30 PINK’S FUNHOUSE

AT was invited along to Pink’s Funhouse when she toured Australia back in June, and it wasn’t just the PA that was f lown from the rigging. 36 THE THREE Vs OF VICTOR VAN VUGT

He’s an ex-pat Australian with a passion for production, who’s recorded some of the craziest and moodiest acts of recent decades and lived to tell the tale. Ladies and gentlemen, introducing the man whose name is unpronounceable... 44 RESOLUTE ABOUT RESOLUTION

Mike Piersante, Grammy Award-winning engineer extraordinaire, lets us in on a few of the secret techniques that have made his recordings shine.

60 REGULARS 14 YOUR WORD

Readers’ Letters 20 NEWS

News and new product information including a wrap of Integrate 09. 60 HOME GROWN

Shane O’Mara has more guitars pedals and amps than you can poke a capo at. AT organises a ram raid. 64 WHAT’S ON

Studio roundup. 72 PC & MAC AUDIO

This issue, Martin Walker questions our relentless desire to upgrade hardware and Brad Watts finally becomes a cardcarrying iPhone user. 104 D OING IT WITH YOUR EYES SHUT

Rick comes back from the Integrate Expo full of inspiration… who would have thought?

SUBSCRIBE & WIN

TUTORIALS 50 VINTAGE CROP

Chris Vallejo asks the question: What determines good vintage gear and how do you recognise it? 56 STEREO MIXING: THE ART, THE SCIENCE, THE FICTION (PART III – COMPRESSION)

This issue we explore some of the ins and outs of mixing with compressors. 66 STAV’S WORD

Looking for a professionally executed vocal double track to give your mix some silky textured finesse? Stav has the answer. 68 SOFTWARE TIPS – EVO

We’ve all used AutoTune before; AT has even done a previous tips ‘n’ tricks column on it! Here’s another perspective on the new Evo software.

A PAIR OF AUDIO-TECHNICA AT2050s!

REVIEWS 77 CAN IT!

Headphone Wrap.

88 ABLETON LIVE 8

DAW

92 AUDIO-TECHNICA AT2050

Multi-Pattern Condenser

94 AKAI APC40

Ableton Live Controller

98 PMC IB2S

Passive Midfield Monitors

100 APEX DBC-8

Outboard Compressors

102 D B TECHNOLOGIES DVX DM SERIES

Floor/FOH Monitors


d ic nee m l a c our vo k’s FOH y s e in Do n, air? P ris Madde ! e r o m er, Ch f the stuff e n i g en to 0 fee 4 s a h atts W Brad Text:

TU A E F

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RE


R

oll up, Roll up! Pink’s Funhouse tour is certainly something to behold. It’s just as much a Moulin Rouge-style spectacle as it is a conventional rock gig. The Funhouse stage is a homage to a 1930s-era amusement park, replete with slippery dips, costumes of the day, and high trapeze. You can almost smell the fairy floss and Dagwood Dogs as Pink and her dance troupe bedazzle the audience (primarily excitable tweens dressed in pink) with feats of human strength and dexterity, all while faultlessly belting out her formidable string of hits. Showing me the ropes – quite literally – was the show’s front of house engineer, Chris Madden. Chris has spent a lifetime in studios and behind the console, his family having been proprietors of a London studio that’s still running today. Chris kicked off his career working in the family studio before he’d even finished school. Following on from there he freelanced in various studios doing production work on music for film and television primarily. He then went on to work with producer Philip Tennant, who eventually moved into management. The band responsible for his career switch was none other than The Waterboys, for whom Chris wound up working for the next seven years. Brad Watts: Gosh, The Waterboys. That’s going back a while! How’d you end up in that gig? Chris Madden: Yeah, it’s been a while now. They were going on tour and needed someone to do monitors and asked if I wanted to be involved. I’d done some editing with them previously and we got along, so I jumped at the opportunity to tour with them. That was in 2000 when they reformed and I was with the band on and off until 2007. During 2004 through to 2006 I was juggling The Waterboys and The Sugarbabes, before being offered a Joe Cocker tour in 2007. So I resigned from both to concentrate on the Joe Cocker gig. Joe is managed by Roger Davis, as are Tina Turner, Cher, and of course Pink, and it was Roger who asked me to do the Pink tour. BW: So who’s responsible for spec’ing Pink’s FOH system? I notice you have a Digidesign Venue console for instance. CM: I’ve been using the Venue console since Digidesign first released it. It’s my favourite digital console; I really wouldn’t want to attempt this tour without it. BW: You’re also a ProTools person from way back then? CM: No, I confess I’m not a ProTools fan at all. I’ve used it but I’ve never really liked it in the studio. I like recording bands by capturing the moment with a bunch of great players, and I don’t think ProTools helps much with that approach. I do see it as a fantastic piece of equipment and I think it’s the best at what it does, I just don’t like how it forces you to work. With ProTools I found myself stuck in the corner of studio all the time with everybody saying: “come on let’s go”, while the ProTools operator shouting, “I’ll be there in a minute!” They’d always be fiddling around with the mouse or some computer preference. That’s not what I like about recording. But I do appreciate a good piece of equipment. ‘Pab’ Boothroyd initially introduced me to the Venue console; he was using it with Paul McCartney as a sidecar initially – not as his main console – while he ran a Midas XL4 and familiarised himself with the

Digidesign approach. BW: And you’re happy with the Venue’s sound? CM: Very much so. BW: I know it’s a case of horses for courses, but why have you gone for the Digidesign system over one of the digital alternatives? CM: I simply don’t like the sound of the Yamaha digital boards. It’s the preamps, basically. As soon as you plug it in it sounds wrong to me. It’s never been the bestsounding console to my ears. Certainly the Yamahas are perfect for monitor control though. Horst Hartmann, our monitor guy, uses the Yamaha PM1D all the time, mainly for its sheer number of inputs and outputs. It’s a beast. There are two PM1D systems running on the Pink stage, in fact, just in case one goes down. It’s way beyond the scope of anything else for foldback duties. Horst has got 40-odd mixes running up there from memory! Thankfully, all I’ve got to worry about at front of house is left and right!

IN ONE EAR…

BW: What are the musicians using for foldback on stage? CM: Sennheiser in-ears, Clair Brothers 12AM wedges, and Clair Brothers 10-degree i5 sidefills, which are the same as the FOH units – one is placed either side of stage. BW: So what ‘gaps’ do the wedges fill if everyone’s using in-ears? CM: Primarily the wedges supplement Pink’s foldback as she only uses the one in-ear. I mean, it would be almost impossible for her to hear without some kind of in-ear monitoring because she’s all over the stage and up in the air on trapezes for this show. She knows we’d rather she used two in-ears, but she’s the boss. It would be much easier if she opted for stereo in-ears, because then Horst would be able to share the exact same audio environment. As it is I worry about her hearing, because you have to drive that single in-ear 6dB higher to compensate. BW: And not a scrap of outboard anywhere I see… apart from that Mindprint EQ! CM: Sure, I like to keep everything pretty simple and have everything in the Venue system. I carry the Mindprint DTC Channel Strip as a get-out-of-jail tool and for that it’s brilliant. If I turn up to a festival and I don’t know what desk I’m likely to find there, plugging in the Mindprint gives me a killer vocal straight away. I sit it straight in front of me – it’s got a good compressor and a great mic amp, and it immediately gives me a winning vocal. I use it for a bunch of different things where necessary; it’s like a Swiss army knife. It’s on the main left and right bus at the moment, but I initially grabbed it for the violin and cello when we first introduced those instruments into Pink’s set. BW: Violin can be a nightmare at times in a live context… CM: It can be. But once I’ve got something recorded in ProTools I can play about with it on my own during the day and recreate anything I’ve done on the Mindprint with plug-ins. I try to work within the confines of the desk as much as possible, so that no matter where we go,

AT 5


as long as I’m supplied a Venue system, I can load my files and I’m off. I’ve got all my own plug-ins and just take them with me on a memory stick and an iLok so it never takes long to set up.

LIVE PLUG-INS

BW: What are your choices when it comes to plug-ins?

BW: Speaking of which, can we check out the backline?

CM: It’s mostly what comes with the Venue system itself but I’m especially fond of TL Space for convolution reverbs.

CM: For sure!

BW: And where do you get your impulses from?

This is the part of touring shows that I find particularly interesting: the instrumentation, the various miking methods, and, of course, the microphone choices. The Funhouse show needs a tightly packed stage that includes two sizeable keyboard rigs, a hefty Ampeg bass system and an extremely large drum kit – double kick drums included. All this instrumentation has to be squeezed among the various slippery dips and scaffolding used for the intense choreography of the Funhouse extravaganza. For the most part, everything is played live, although I noticed a small Macintosh system running Digital Performer and a couple of MOTU 828 MkIIs. Apparently there’s a quotient of loops and stereo instruments and stereo vocal backing tracks emanating from the eight MOTU interface outputs. Chris Madden tells me the Digital Performer system is used primarily for its ability to keep a number of song files cued and ready to play at a moment’s notice – he’s also keen to point out that there’s no primary vocals playing back from the Digital Performer system. There are actually two complete Mac Mini systems running with a custom-built switching device by Paul J. Cox Systems. Should one Mac fail, the other can be switched over in less than a second. But the number of backing tracks pales into insignificance when compared with the live channels used throughout the show – there’s quite a lot of instrumentation and mics to cater for; about 20 inputs of keyboards and 20 inputs of drums alone.

CM: I use the AMS impulses most of the time because I just love the AMS RMX16 reverb. I used to tour with two of them back in the day – but now of course I don’t need them. I’m not sure if the plug-in is identical but it sounds alright to me. The AMS is the only reverb I ever found that I could set to ‘Ambience’ and just turn it up and go: “that’s the sound”. I didn’t have to EQ it, I didn’t have to fiddle with it; I could just make it longer or shorter. It’s got a bit of pre-delay and that’s about it. I try and keep things as simple as possible. I also use the Bomb Factory Fairchild compressor an awful lot, as well as a lot of the Line 6 delay. There’s also one point in this show where Pink’s singing through an ‘Elvis’ mic – the vintage looking thing – which she wanted to sound really old and crunchy, so I’ve got a bit-reduction plug-in on it to grunge it up a little. BW: So there’s nothing special on the vocal? CM: It’s very simple. There’s a bit of EQ on the channel. I usually don’t use any EQ plug-ins apart from on the odd things like the violin where I need to supplement some frequencies quite drastically. On the vocal it’s the onboard EQ, a Fairchild compressor and the occasional reverb and delay switching in and out via auxiliaries, just as you normally would. BW: And these are introduced at specific times throughout the show I assume? CM: Yeah, I tend to have a snapshot for each song, and it recalls a whole bunch of things in the background. I actually created the snapshots for this tour way back when we started rehearsals. When I hit the recall buttons now, 97 or 98 percent of the functions are in Recall Safe mode, then I just gently bring changes in when I need them to happen – I carefully select one change at a time. I think today I added one more variation, and the file keeps growing from there.

REHEARSAL

BW: How do you go about rehearsing these shows? Do you just hire a barn or what? CM: Well, we started back in the beginning of February. I left home January 31st, and we rehearsed in Los Angeles for a week with a pretend stage – just straight on the floor with a mock-up of the set. We were there for a week with Pink, the band, and the dancers, working out the choreography and aerial rehearsals. Then we shifted to Nice in the south of France for two weeks, to a venue where we had everything happening. It was only then that it became pretty clear we were going to need a rolling stage. BW: Which sections of the stage roll specifically? CM: The whole stage actually moves! So when we finish tonight, the entire front section comes off. After it’s stripped the thrust rolls out and is moved to the back of the stadium. After that the whole stage will roll out with the set still intact, including all the backline. Once that’s out of the way the floor

AT 6

underneath is clear so the crew can drop the lights down and strip the rigging. You can actually see how it all works on YouTube if you like; someone captured us loading the stage in and out with a time-lapse clip at the Olympiahalle in Munich [www.youtube.com/watch?v=R9SArqVfatY].

PINK PORTIONS

MIC SETUPS

BW: So tell me about the drum miking regime, Chris. CM: We use Sennheiser mics almost exclusively. We have an endorsement with them but that’s superfluous really as Horst and I are both Sennheiser fans. More to the point, Horst lives about 12km from the Sennheiser factory so we can get things happening relatively easily with them. The drum kit, for instance, is miked exactly the same as if I’d written the spec myself. BW: So what’s on the kit? CM: On the kicks we have e902s, just one mic each. The first kick –the right hand drum – is 20-inch, double-headed and closed, so there’s a mic mounted inside. The main 24-inch kick is again captured using an e902, this time with the mic positioned straight in the hole. There are e904s on the toms and snare, and e914 condensers for the hi-hat, the ride cymbal (positioned underneath), and the two overheads. The clip-on e904s are particularly important thanks to the limitations of space; you simply can’t have stands hanging around on this set, they take up far too much space. I like Beyerdynamic Opus 87s as an alternative, but if you hit one, which drummers often do, they’ll typically destroy it, whereas the e904s are pretty much indestructible. We’ve had these since rehearsals and we’ve only had a couple of failures in all that time. They get a thrashing on this tour – thrown into a box every night with little regard for their safety. There are a couple of songs where there are samples used for rim shots, different kick drums and things… clearly electronic-


DIGIDESIGN VENUE SYSTEM 1 x Digidesign D-Show Venue

Horst [Pink’s foldback engineer] has got 40-odd mixes running up there, from memory! Thankfully, all I’ve got to worry about at front of house is left and right!

2 x Venue Sidecars 1 x Digidesign FOH Rack with 2 x HD cards, 1 x network card, the extra I/O card to give 96 inputs and 5 x DSP cards. 2 x Stage racks

1 x ProTools HD3 system on a Carillon PC running ProTools 8 with a Sync I/O and a Midi I/O.

Chris Madden at the helm of his favourite console – the Digidesign Venue.

In-ear foldback is the order of the day, with bespoke headsets especially for Ms Pink.

Kat-in-the-back’s guitar and keyboard rig.

More percussion than you can poke a Sennheiser at.

Musical Director, Paul Mirkovich, keeps a pretty tidy flight deck.

Two Yamaha PM-1D systems synced together for total redundancy.

AT 7


Paul Mirkovich’s keyboard rig with fully laden Receptor Muse (left), and the understage Leslie cabinet’s miking setup.

sounding. For that stuff we have the Roland TD20 module triggering the sound. Then there are the two keyboard rigs. The main one is for Paul Mirkovich, the musical director, and the second one is played by the ‘Kat-in-the-back’ as she’s known. She flips between keyboards and additional guitar duties. We run all the racks and keyboards into Radial rackmount DIs which feed FOH and a Mackie mixer for stage playback. There’s even a Leslie cabinet under the stage; a weird thing to mic up – I’ve done it all different ways but my preferred method is the one you can see over there (Chris points to the setup). [See image above].

AudioTechnology THE MAGAZINE FOR SOUND ENGINEERS & RECORDING MUSICIANS

Full magazine out now

MIC WORKOUT

BW: So you never feel the need to mix and match microphone brands to custom fit the sources a little more? CM: Not really. It’s all about consistency for me. It’s the same when I’m in the studio. When I’m recording vocals I pretty much always use a Neumann U87 or an AKG C12a. My rule in the studio is to record everything flat. Then if I need to do an overdub later I know everything will be the same. If I want to add EQ I’ll do it on the way back. But there’s different reasoning behind gear choices on the road. I need things that sound good, that I can get anywhere in the world, and aren’t going to break all the time. I need a company that’s going to support me when something breaks and Sennheiser does that. Digidesign does it too, that’s a big part of why I’m a fan of that console. If I have a problem, I can phone from anywhere and get support. Thankfully, I haven’t had anything that’s required massive hands-on support from the Digidesign guys but at least I know they’re there. With Sennheiser, for example, the designers are happy to come up with solutions for us. A good example of this collaboration is Pink’s headset mic, which is often smack bang in front of the PA. Initially all our headset mics were omni devices, so you’ve got no chance of eliminating feedback with those. I mean, headset mics always need a lot of EQ because there’s no body; the capsule is as good as any other, but being so small and without a housing, the mic becomes super sensitive. It just goes to show you how much work the mic housing actually does for you – how much phase cancellation and rejection you get from the physical material around the capsule. To address the problems, Sennheiser made us a directional unit – one that fits onto a single ear, with the capsule pointing toward Pink’s mouth (Sennheiser is currently debating whether or not to release it as a commercial product). It’s been fantastic for us, especially when you consider Pink’s swinging about 40 feet in the air in front of the PA every night. A lot of the time she’ll be spinning around and end up facing straight at the PA. That mic is hot! But it’s live – there’s no trickery. There’s one part of the show when she’s singing while flying on a trapeze. At one point everything stops and you can hear her breathing – she’s been working hard up to that moment and singing all the way through, so you can clearly hear heavy breathing at that point. But I don’t turn the mic off; I leave it completely open. When we were in Europe I heard someone behind me saying, “Oh they must have dropped that in”, as if it’s necessary to drop in a sample of heavy breathing! The thought of me fabricating that stuff is just ludicrous!


AudioTechnology THE MAGAZINE FOR SOUND ENGINEERS & RECORDING MUSICIANS

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FEATURE

THE THREE Vs OF VICTOR VAN VUGT

He’s an ex-pat Australian who’s recorded some of the craziest and moodiest acts of recent decades and lived to tell the tale. His passion for production is unwavering and his name is unpronounceable. Text: Braddon Williams AT 10


Australian born producer Victor Van Vugt has been churning out the hits since the early ’80s. Originally a Melburnian, Victor moved to London very early in his career before eventually setting up shop in New York City, where he now lives permanently. Along the way Victor has produced albums for Beth Orton, Athlete, P.J. Harvey, Dave Graney and Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, including the ARIA award winning Where The Wild Roses Grow, performed by two iconic ex-pat Melburnians, Nick Cave and Kylie Minogue. These days Victor excels as a mix engineer as well as a producer, having mixed many of his own productions, along with many others including Sarah Blasko’s recent award winning album, What The Sea Wants The Sea Will Have. Victor took time out of his busy schedule recently to share with us his modern approach to record making. Early on in the discussion he also revealed two surprising methods he originally used to gain a foothold in the local industry: happy accident and bluff. Victor Van Vugt: I started out, like so many of us do, playing in a high school band, and recording the group in my parent’s garage in the suburbs of Melbourne with a four-track studio set up. Right from the outset the process of recording songs and sounds fascinated me. Then, as luck would have it, I was in the city one night watching a group of bands play – one of which was Dave Graney’s first band, The Moodists – when somehow I got talking to Dave after the gig about the subject of mixing. The Moodists were looking for a live sound guy at the time and he asked me if I knew how to mix. I was only 16 back then, and my only ‘experience’ of mixing was with our band through a vocal PA with three microphones and nine knobs: volume, treble and bass for each mic. The Moodists were playing with a PA that didn’t seem much more complicated at the time, so I said, “Yeah sure, I know how to mix.” I gave him my (parents’) number and a few days later my mother answered the phone, and called out that there was this ‘strange man’ on the line for me. It was Dave Graney calling to say that The Moodists had a gig that Friday night, and would I be available to mix. Once again I said, “Yeah, sure”. I wagged school, hitch-hiked into town and turned up to the venue to discover two things: a very big venue and a very big mixing desk! They were supporting The Models that night from memory at the Crystal Ballroom in St Kilda. At sound check I asked the PA owner to ‘show me around the console’, trying to act cool while admitting I hadn’t used that particular brand of desk before. He clocked immediately that I didn’t know what the hell I was doing, and mercifully got me to stand back and watch him mix. He must have done an amazing job because afterwards when I rushed backstage for the free beer, everyone was saying how great the band sounded – better than they ever had before, apparently! Understandably, I got the job. A few weeks later Dave’s band was recording the single Gone Dead in a commercial South Melbourne studio and again he asked me if I’d like to come in and help out. I jumped at the chance even though my ‘recording experience’ had never extended beyond the garden shed. I wagged school yet again, turned up at the studio and this time discovered a proper 24-track facility with more knobs than I’d ever seen

in my life. From memory, I spent the whole day asking the engineer if he could ‘make it louder’. He stared at me with disgust all day, which in hindsight was probably justified, but to cut a long story short, he did a great job and the single got great reviews, particularly in England. All of a sudden all these Australian bands trying to make it overseas wanted me to produce them. So basically, I lied my way into the music industry! Braddon Williams: Cut to 2009 and you now live in New York City, what was the reason for relocating to the United States? VVV: The Moodists eventually got a deal with an English label and asked me to come with them to England and produce their debut record. I went over there thinking I’d stay for maybe a year. But as soon as I got there I started working with The Fall, The Pogues and Nick Cave and quickly realised that if I stayed I could do this for a living and never go to school again. So I stayed! But after many years in London I eventually got sick of the place, moved to New York and never looked back. This is my home now – I love everything about New York. BW: Do you have your own studio in New York or a particular place where you like to work? VVV: I work with bands from all over the world these days and it’s usually cheaper to send one person to them rather than five people to me, so I work all over the place really. I also have my own studio in New York where I do all my mixing, and whenever the opportunity arises I’ll tend to do the overdubs there as well. The studio has a live room that’s big enough to do most overdubs. I’ve always liked making records in two types of studios: a large expensive one where I record the basic tracks, then a cheaper, smaller facility for the overdubbing. That way you can spend time experimenting with the sounds and parts without having to worry too much about the ticking clock. That’s critical to good overdubbing, as is being comfortable with deleting parts where necessary without feeling obligated to them because they cost 500 bucks to record. And there’s nothing worse than having to keep a part because the band can’t afford to try something else. BW: Do you have much recording gear of your own? VVV: I only have a few microphones, preamps and compressors at my place – to keep the lid on costs – but they’re all very good. I have a ProTools HD3 system with Apogee converters and a [Rupert Neve Designs] Portico Tape Emulator that gives the recordings some analogue randomness, which makes things sound more pleasing to the ear and more musical sounding. I mix everything ‘in the box’ using ProTools, but spit things out through SPL analogue summing amps, which also give the sounds more depth, size and spread than digital summing processes. There’s no big analogue desk, just lots and lots of good plug-ins. I love the fact that I can spend an hour or two mixing a song then save it, work on another song and never loose the plot. I often mix a song in three different directions initially, take those options home, live with them for a while and figure out which direction is best. Then it’s simply a matter of opening up that particular session


Victor Van Vugt’s studio gear is lean and mean and the best of its kind: Neumann mics, ELI Distressors, ‘blackfaced’ Avalon 737s and old and new Rupert Nevedesigned gear.

In all aspects of production, I think the large strokes are the important ones.

and taking it from there. Because I mix so many records for bands that live in other countries, my approach is normally to send them a mix, get them to listen to it at home and give me their comments. Then it’s usually just a matter of tweaking the mix, sending it to them again until we finally hit on something we all like. Mixing in the box allows me to revisit a song over and over if necessary. Its great advantage over analogue mixing is that it allows me to try different editing options and be bold with my decision-making, knowing that if they aren’t right we can easily go back. I’ll certainly never go back to the days of big expensive desks where you have to mix a song in one go. After a few hours working on a song, I lose the plot. It no longer sounds like a song to me but a series of notes with different sounds. At the end of the day a great mix is about the balances and ideas – nothing else. I mixed a record years ago where half the mixes were done on an SSL desk in a ‘proper’ mixing room and the other half were created in the box in my bedroom. After the album was mastered there was no way of telling which mixes were made where, apart from the fact that the ProTools mixes were much more interesting and therefore better. I’ve never mixed in a big studio since. KEEPING THINGS TIGHT BW: Do you ever notice your approach to recording and production changing if someone else is slated to mix it?

VVV: No, not really. I still believe in making decisions as I go. If a part’s not working I delete it and do something else. I never have five versions of a guitar part to choose from for more than about an hour or so. I make all the decisions as I go so most of my session files looks pretty much like they would on 24-track tape. That way, if someone else is mixing the song there won’t be any parts turning up in the mix that shouldn’t be there. As for my general approach, I love going into the rehearsal room with the band for a few weeks and working on the arrangements there. It’s probably my favourite part of the process; there’s no stress, just creativity and fun. I try and rehearse the songs with a band until the players can go into the studio and think about nothing else apart from capturing great performances. BW: Do you still use tape when you record? VVV: Up until recently I always used tape in the process of tracking the live takes. It seemed to make the musicians play better knowing they had to play like it was the last four minutes of their lives. And I’ve got to say, I hate the attitude that some musicians bring to a recording session, where once a good performance of a chorus is nailed, they think it’s okay to use that performance in all the other choruses! A song should communicate emotion and that usually comes from a performance, not cutting and pasting. Unfortunately, studio tape machines are generally so


I set the record level at about ‘half way’. Perhaps if I’d known I was about to record small arms fire I would have turned it down a little lower!

poorly maintained these days that often it’s just not worth it. If I’m recording straight to ProTools I have to be strict with bands about ignoring the fact that they don’t have to play a great take from beginning to end. And in the absence of tape, I use the Portico Tape Emulator, which gives me some of the artefacts of a tape machine we all love. That said, if a band still insists on using tape, I’d do it without question – whatever makes them more comfortable works for me. BW: Do you have any particular pieces of equipment that you can’t do without? VVV: I always bring my Apogee converters with me because I won’t use Digidesign converters. The Apogees sound less digital and ‘cold’ to my ears. Apart from that I’ll often bring my own mics to a session if the studio doesn’t have an extensive collection. Mic choices depend on the requirements of the band, of course, but I do have my preferences for different applications. Some mics I just know are going to work on certain instruments and knowing that can speed up the process no end – and that’s always a good thing. A band should never feel like the recording process is a technical experiment, only a musical experience where the studio is as invisible as possible. Once you start spending hours getting a sound it can really suck the energy out of the player and the session. I also love Empirical Labs Distressors. If I had my way I’d have a rack of 24 of them set up in the tracking room. They’re just so versatile. Even if the studio I’m recording in already has some, I’ll always bring as many of my own to the session as I can. But you can only fit so many microphones, Apogees and Distressors into your hand luggage before they won’t let you past the X-ray machine at the airport! TRACKING TECHNIQUES BW: Can you elaborate a bit on how you like to track particular instruments, starting perhaps with drums and percussion?

VVV: Because I like the setup process to be as short as possible, I tend to use similar mics on similar instruments, and if the sound still isn’t right it’s often

my experience that the source is wrong and I need to change it. I tend to use [Shure] SM57s on the snare top and bottom. On toms I like to use good quality large diaphragm condenser mics like [Neumann] U87s. I find they pick up the brightness and nuances of toms much better than a dynamic mic. They pick up a lot more of the whole drum kit too of course, so to compensate, I generally mute these tracks wherever the toms aren’t played to eliminate the spill. I use an AKG 451 on hi-hats, a Neumann KM84 on the ride cymbal and large diaphragm valve mics on overheads. The valve mics take the peaks out of the sounds and can often act as the main part of the drum sound if they’re placed correctly. Bass drums I find a mystery. Every bass drum likes something different but recently I’ve been having a lot of luck with the Audio-Technica AE2500 – the one with a small condenser and a large dynamic all housed in the one body. Oh, and I always use a Yamaha NS10 driver as a mic on the bass drum. This adds depth and roundness to the recording that’s hard to capture any other way. Room mics will nearly always be ribbon mics, placed low, not too far away and overly compressed through Distressors. BW: What is your go-to process of capturing guitars? VVV: On electric guitars I typically use a Royer 121 or 122. I used to set up several mics of different character: a Neumann U87, U67, maybe a Shure SM57 or SM2 and a ribbon mic. But eventually I found the Royers always sounded the best so now I don’t usually bother with the others, except if we’re going for an unusual sound and then who knows what it’ll be? On acoustic guitars I tend to use two mics: something valve with a large diaphragm like a [Neumann] TLM 149 or U47 and a small condenser like a [Neumann] KM84 or KM85. I put them next to each other between the neck and the sound hole, and typically pan them left and right during mixdown. The different characteristics of the mics respond differently to the guitar and this gives the recording a nice stereo spread. If it’s an acoustic based song I’ll also put up a mic over the head of the guitarist and compress it to capture some of the ambience and wood in the sound.

BW: What about bass guitar? VVV: On bass I try and use a Neumann U47 FET on the cabinet. This classic mic is great for picking up the attack of the bass, but it also has a solid bottom end. I always record a DI but very rarely use it in the mix. It’s just one of those things that everybody does, so I do it too. BW: And what about capturing the piano? I know Nick Cave has often liked something with ‘bite’ for instance... VVV: The microphones for a piano depend on the sound of the instrument, which differs a lot from one piano to the next. Sometimes these will be largediaphragm valve mics for a warm, round sound, sometimes U87s for a sound with more attack, or sometimes ribbon mics for a mellower sound. The bright piano sound on Nick Cave’s Murder Ballads, for example, is mainly about the piano itself, which was bright to begin with – a Bossendorfer. That instrument also had an extra set of lower octave strings, so it was deep too. Tony Cohen mixed that album and it sounds like he compressed the hell out of the piano and brightened it up a lot – to great effect. It gives the piano a lot of aggression, which wouldn’t have been possible had it been a ‘nice’ sound to begin with. BW: What’s your go-to mic for recording vocals? VVV: I own a Neumann TLM 149, which is a very sensitive and yet flat microphone. It seems to cover all bases. It’s nice to be able to record every vocal of an album using the same mic, because sometimes you just can’t beat the emotion of the guide vocal, and occasionally you’ll need to replace certain lines for tuning reasons or whatever. I also absolutely love the sound of the ELAM 251 but at $18,000 I’m not sure I could justify buying one. Sometimes I can borrow one off a rich friend of mine so that’s always handy! Generally I record the vocals through two compressors. One at a high ratio, say 10:1 to tame the big peaks, and then a warm valve compressor at around 2:1 to even it all out. That combination tends to make a vocal sit nicely in a song without it sounding compressed, even though I actually


compress vocals quite heavily. In the mix I’ll typically split the vocals into several channels: one for the intro, one for the verses, one for the choruses, etc, and the amounts of compression, delay and reverb on the different parts will vary. Usually if a singer is yelling, an extra dose of reverb sounds more natural than when they’re singing quietly. BW: When it comes to capturing and processing room ambience, or for that matter generating it artificially, what tricks do you have up your sleeve? VVV: It depends on the room and the instrument being recorded. I usually use ribbon mics as ambient mics. They’re smooth sounding and often easier to manipulate without things developing a harsh edge. On drums I love using Distressors set to a 20:1 ratio. They’re fabulous at making a small room sound huge or ambient mics intense enough that they can be placed lower in the mix. On guitars I tend to have ambient mics one to two metres away, to retain some attack in the instrument and prevent it from getting too washy. At the end of the day, it all depends on the song, the studio and what sort of sound you’re after. In terms of artificial ambience, different singers usually have a preference on how ‘wet’ they want their vocals to be. Sarah Blasko, for example, felt strongly that reverb softens her vocals and makes her sound too sweet, and wanted the vocals as dry as I would allow. Some singers, conversely, want to hide behind a wash of reverb to mask what they think are their limitations. In those situations I have to fight for less reverb. I nearly always use a warm plate reverb on most things. Plates have a real sound of their own and tend to be heard even when they’re small in the mix. This helps prevent mixes becoming too soft courtesy of lots of transparent reverb. I also use tape delays in different parts of songs, more in choruses perhaps when the singer is yelling or where there’s a lot of loud music around the vocals. BW: What about mic preamps? VVV: As far as mic preamps are concerned, like everyone else, I like recording on an old Neve desk but I must say I’m a little bored of that sound at the moment. So many records are recorded on Neves – and for good reason – but I do love recording on something that’s a little different occasionally, like a Helios. There’s even a studio here in New York which has a custom made Avalon desk which just sounds amazing. The preamp collection at my place is comprised of Helios, Neve and Avalon preamps and between those options I can get a tough, warm or exciting sound as needed. I also really like the Chandler EMI mic pre’s. All these have the transformer-based sound reminiscent of a Neve, albeit a bit different. CAPTURING ‘SOUND REFLECTIONS’ BW: Are there any particular sessions that come to mind where an interesting experience, technique or random event has produced some great results?

VVV: I was once recording a German band called Einsturzende Neubauten and in the middle of a vocal take, one of the ‘percussionists’ insisted I immediately mic up the bathroom to sample an idea he had. It was at Hansa Studios in Berlin where the bathrooms were huge and made of marble. Because I was in the middle of recording vocals with a very impatient singer at the time, I hastily set up the mic

and plugged it into a sampler. When I told him I was ready to record, the loudest bang and crashing sound you’ve ever heard emanated from the bathroom. It was a genuine one-off recording – the ‘percussionist’s’ great idea had been to capture an amazing ‘snare sample’ by shooting a pistol into the door of the bathroom, thinking that the reverb of the room and the gunshot would sound amazing. Unfortunately, the reality of the situation was very different. The bullet went straight through the door, smashed a huge plate glass window on the other side, and all the shards came crashing down three floors onto a large number of expensive executives’ cars below. Needless to say, all hell broke loose! Because the ‘percussionist’ didn’t want to tell me what he was about to do at the time – for obvious reasons, as it turned out – I set the record level at about ‘half way’. Perhaps if I’d known I was about to record small arms fire I would have turned it down a little lower! It was so loud and it hit the digital sampler so hard that the recording just ended up sounding like a wet fart. The band thought it was hilarious and I think it must be up there with one of the most expensive samples of all time, once all the damage was paid for! Maybe that wasn’t an example of a good result… An unusual track I once did involved recording a band in a studio that had previously been a huge meat refrigerator, where all the walls were metal. During that session I remember I put a violin pickup on one of the walls and faced the guitar amp towards it. The sound was really harsh and resonant, but it was a great and unique sound. MIX BUS & MIXDOWN BW: Can you tell us more about your approach to the mix bus and its various outboard treatments?

VVV: Well, as I mentioned earlier, I mix through the Portico tape simulator and Apogee converters and that combo sounds good to me. The other thing about my mix bus is that I usually don’t compress it that much. I tend to compress individual tracks more and also have sends to compression chains: one for the drums, one for the guitars, one for the backing vocals, etc. Knowing about compression is the most vital part of good engineering and knowing how much and what sort of compression to use is what makes a mix sound cheap or solid. I also use a digital brick-wall limiter over the mix bus before the master compression, just to take the very fast transients out of the program. The Portico does that as well too, of course, but anything that helps makes a track sound that little bit louder is always welcome. Again, a good mix is about the balances and the ideas, especially now that everybody is listening to MP3s. I haven’t walked into anyone’s house and seen a proper hi-fi for years! But the things that people still pick up on – no matter what they’re listening through – are the emotion of the song and the performances. So from my point of view whatever setup encourages that most is the one I’ll choose. In all aspects of production, I think the large strokes are the important ones. MORE INTENSITY PLEASE BW: You’ve worked with some intense performers over the years, how do you deal with that?

VVV: Mostly, the more difficult the artist, the better

the record. Not when they’re being prats obviously, but whenever they’re really pushing themselves they tend to push everyone around them, and that usually brings results. Inevitably I see people at their worst because often they’re stressed during the recording process. You’ve got to remember that a musician’s performance can often be the culmination of two years work – it’s exposing stuff revealing yourself to the world, let alone the fact that a recording session might just make or break your career. People don’t often get a second chance these days either, so the pressure an artist feels in the studio should never be underestimated. Stress manifests itself in many ways and as long as I remember that, I can usually avoid taking it personally. Of course I’ve also worked with manipulative people who are just not nice to begin with. I try and avoid working with those people twice! On the flipside of all that, I’ve worked with artists where it’s been a laugh from beginning to end and I think some of those records have turned out brilliantly. BW: Your work with Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds in particular has obviously yielded some iconic Australian tracks, what can you tell us about those recordings? VVV: Working with the Bad Seeds always involves a fair bit of hanging around coupled with very intense and extreme periods of work. When they want to play, they want to play right then and there, without distraction. In that situation you have to be prepared for any instrument to be recorded at a moment’s notice. I had an assistant engineer walk out of a Nick Cave session once after only a few hours, commenting as he left: “You will die young if you continue to work like this!” I never saw him again. What makes recording the Bad Seeds a unique experience is that they will often rehearse a song at twice the volume they eventually record at. Usually bands will do the opposite or freeze once the record button is pushed. The Bad Seeds work on bravado. There’s a sense of arrogance and pride in their music that comes across on the recordings. They don’t get intimidated or take comments from one another very well, and this tends to have the affect of pushing them to show off and play well. With the Bad Seeds there’s never more than a couple of takes of a song and that’s it. It’s their style, it gets results and it’s a refreshing way to make a record. BW: Finally, what are your thoughts on the current state of the music industry? Are we headed for the rocks do you think, or new beginnings? VVV: I know music sales are plummeting and that’s a bad thing. But I sense a turn around from the record labels now – I think they’re finally realising there are no rules anymore and that they have to start taking risks again. If they want a culture of people buying music again, they need to make music that moves people. Even though the industry is on its knees, ironically I’ve had some of the best years of my career recently. I believe, as with everything, that you have to concentrate on your personal goals and not worry too much about the universal picture. I just make the best records I can and hopefully the next record will do better than the last one!


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TUTORIAL

STEREO MIXING: THE ART, THE SCIENCE, THE FICTION (PART III – COMPRESSION) When it comes to mixing, one of the most commonly misunderstood yet critical devices is the compressor. To some it’s a formidable and baffling tool, but once mastered, the world of mixing opens up like never before. So what makes it such a vital component of any good mix? Text: Paul McKercher

The earliest example of compression I’ve ever come across appears in the story of the world’s first professional recording engineer/producer, young Fred Gaisberg. Armed with a large hand-cranked gramophone recorder, Fred would stand behind his singers as the mighty contraption chiselled analogue waveforms into beeswax-coated discs, and with a gentle hand on the shoulder, would coax them towards the recording horn for their weaker low register, and drag them back as they hit their glass breaking high notes. In the 110 years since, most everything that was once mechanical in a recording studio, with the exception of microphones and speakers, is now electronic. But given there was no volume control back then, I’m left wondering whether Fred and his performers, upon hearing the playback might have asked: “Can’t we possibly make this louder?” Sounds familiar doesn’t it. Just as the loudness of those primitive gramophone records was governed by the mechanical limits and design of the record and replay equipment, so too, today’s recordings are constrained by having to remain at, or under digital zero. In short, there’s nothing new about the debate concerning loudness. It’s worth noting that since the introduction of digital audio to the mass market, the peak level of CDs hasn’t changed one iota. It’s the average level, or perceived level, that’s gotten louder in leaps and bounds with the passing decades. Recently, the debate has been drawn into sharp

focus again by the release of recordings that have such high average levels – 11dB above 0VU! – that any semblance of dynamic range (material exhibiting both loud and soft or softer parts) has all but vanished. And if that isn’t bad enough, cheaper domestic replay equipment such as MP3 players and entry-level CD players that were never designed to cope with such high levels, are actually distorting under the strain. Not good. Most AT readers would be familiar by now with digital limiting software and its ability to make masters really, really loud. Digital limiting, as an extreme form of compression makes all this possible, even for the home recordist. But what’s the point of making mixes so abrasively loud? Indeed, do today’s productions sound any better than they did 10 or 20 years ago? The answer is probably that if it sounds good it is good, and while softer, older recordings may well sound fantastic when listened to in isolation, unfortunately our perception can cause problems when tracks from different sources and decades are played back-to-back. It’s a trick of the ear – or perhaps the mind – that ‘louder’ often translates as ‘better’ and no artist wants their music ignored in an MP3 playlist because the tracks on either side of their masterpiece have more punch and throw. Hence the imperative to make records loud, or at least as loud as other records in the same marketplace. The problem now is that by making records competitively and increasingly louder in the race to attract the listener’s attention, we’ve hit a ceiling. Musicality and dynamic range are being sacrificed to such a degree that a lot of the current releases sound distorted and abrasive, and listening fatigue sets in faster than the time it takes to make a toasted sandwich. COMPRESSION ON TOAST What have compressors got to do with all this, you may ask? As tools that diminish dynamic range and thereby increase average level, compressors play an important part in modern mixing techniques, but let’s get this much clear: loudness is neither good nor bad per se. There is good loudness and bad loudness. The former is exciting, attention grabbing and provides suitable contrast to the softer sections of the music (if there are any). More often than not, good loudness is the result of good engineering technique and well-written arrangements. Bad loudness is unnerving, harsh and distorted, leaving your ears feeling tired and worn out. Whether caused by

overly hot and clipped signal paths in the recording chain, or soft, limp mixes being over-compressed in mastering, or even CDs mastered so loud that they distort MP3 players, its most usually poor engineering and an emphasis on loudness rather than musicality that’s to blame. Too often, diligent and skilled mastering engineers complain that they are held hostage to clients’ unrealistic demands about loudness. But the simple fact is; if you take a soft or badly balanced mix and try to master it super-loud, it will indeed sound loud but also, most likely, over-processed, tiring and awful. Now I’m all for loud masters but I don’t like to feel like I’m being bashed over the head with a mouldy pillow after the third song of an album because my ears and my interest are worn out. So when I mix a song, my hope is that the track will have ‘leap’ and ‘punch’ but also enough dynamic range to convey the intent and spirit of the music. Having it as loud as other stylistically similar recordings out there is important, but not as important as the listener having an enjoyable aural experience. Given this, having both dynamic range and loudness may appear to be incompatible but in practice it’s a matter of finding an appropriate balance between the two imperatives. ATTACK, SUSTAIN & DECAY I like to think of a good mix as a balance of instruments and frequency bands but also a series of musical entrances and exits, not unlike characters in a stage play where parts, instruments, phrases and even notes and hits have a well defined entry point (attack) and an appropriate exit (decay). Often the entrance of a part, if it can be clearly heard, is enough to grab and hold our attention even after it then makes its way back into the general balance. Compressors are powerful envelope shapers (by envelope I mean the attack, sustain and decay of a sound) and seen in this light we can use them to shape the entrance and exits of the elements in a mix.

For instance, if you were to compress a drum kit using both a fast attack and decay, the effect might be that the attack of the drums is quieter and the sustains and decays louder, giving the impression of the kit being quieter but taking up more space in the mix, the louder decays perhaps masking other elements. The cure, then, to such masking might be to slow the decay time down rather than turning the masked elements up. Similarly, if you were to apply fast attack and decay times to a vocal, the front of


the words would be quieter (but more consistent in level), the tails of the notes and breaths between words, louder. It’s effects such as this that make compression such a powerful mixing tool. When mixing I will often spend as much time finessing attack and decay settings as I would doing small, fine balancing fader rides. It’s important too, when listening to results of compression settings, to make judgements based on changes to the entire dynamic shape of the performance, from first note to last, as well as the effect on individual notes or hits. Unlike listening to EQ, which can be judged almost instantly, the effects of compression require much greater scrutiny and should be made after listening to the entire song. This is particularly true of vocals that can have vastly different envelope shapes and huge dynamic range within a single performance. It may well be that you need several compressor settings within one song and to achieve this I would either automate a plug-in or split the channel to two faders with the different settings on each. As I have stressed in previous articles, you should leave no stone unturned to have the vocal sound fantastic and be the centrepiece and focal point of a mix. NAILING AN ENVELOPE In attempting to reduce the dynamic range while retaining the envelope characteristics of any sound, a good starting point is to first think about what kind of envelope shape the signal you’re working on actually has, then have the attack and decay settings

ATTACK SUSTAIN DECAY

of your compressor reflect that shape. For example: a piano with the loudness pedal down has a fast attack and a long decay; a woodblock has both a quick attack and decay, while a bagpipe has a slow attack and an interminable decay. As a ballpark setting on any instrument, first set the attack and release controls to reflect the instrument’s envelope, then set the ratio to determine how much dynamic range reduction you want. Now set the threshold to determine how much of that dynamic range you want to compress – a low threshold if you want all its range compressed, a higher threshold if it’s only the loud bits you want to squash. This is, of course, not a rule, more a guideline. The aim is to maintain the envelope of the compressed sound while reducing its dynamic range so it sounds louder and more consistent, making it sit better in a mix. Of course, if you wanted to seriously mess with the recorded envelope, go nuts. For instance, to make a drum kit sound as though it’s being clubbed by an angry giant would require lots of analogue compression (and the accompanying distortion that comes with it) with very fast attack and release times. This seems counter-intuitive: how can making the attack quieter give the impression that the drums are being played louder? Well, it’s all in your head apparently. Recently discovered, there’s an antiloudness protein, nAChR, (I kid you not) located in the sensory hair cells of the inner ear that, when prompted by ‘too loud’ signals from the brain, ‘limits’ the ability of the hairs to respond, thus protecting

them from damage. The answer may be that this kind of compression somehow emulates this biochemical mechanism, fooling you into thinking the drums are in fact being hit really hard and loudly. Applying such heavy, lacerating compression comes with all sorts of sonic artefacts, such as cymbals with strange decay envelopes and hi-hats that sound like paper tearing, but if that suits the track and it sounds right, then it is right. SONIC CONSIDERATIONS As hinted at above, analogue compression usually comes with tonal changes and varying amounts of distortion. One well-known example of this is the Urei 1176LN, one of the greatest compressor designs ever, which to my ear, gently rolls off the super highs and subs, even when it’s not compressing, and adds a subtle but pleasing distortion. Push all four of its ratio buttons in simultaneously and the distortion really cranks up – the so-called ‘British’ mode, an indispensable tool for adding energy and ‘hype’ to a rock vocal.

Any analogue unit worth its salt has a unique sonic signature and that’s why the best mix rooms and the best mixers have rack after rack of them. Not only do they shape the dynamics, they also add subtle textures and flavours to the sound. In the world of plug-ins, such idiosyncrasies are less common since there’s no physical circuitry involved, which is not to say they aren’t as useful. The precision provided by digital compression and the ability to


COMPRESSION PITFALLS One of the worst things that can happen when learning about compression is to be misled by poorly designed interfaces. Here’s one such example. Text: Mark Bassett Recently I’ve been lecturing audio engineering at several different schools in both Sydney and Melbourne, and without doubt the process the majority of students have most trouble with is compression. In most cases, the first compressor these budding engineers will be confronted with will be one of the plug-in variety found within any number of DAW environments. I recommend students who are trying to figure out compression read the chapter titled ‘Cracking Compressors’ found in Michael Stavrou’s book, Mixing With Your Mind. Stav suggests beginning with extreme temporary settings for the compressor while focussing on one parameter at a time – starting with the attack control. Essentially the method involves setting the

attack time as fast as possible, then slowing it down while listening for how the “leading edge of the sound” is affected. As you slow the attack time, more of the transient gets through as you reshape the dynamic envelope of the sound. As mentioned, most young engineers are likely to first experiment using a plug-in compressor, not the analogue equivalent. With limited experience using compressors, they won’t have any preconceived ‘ballpark’ ideas of attack time settings (which could be seen as a good thing) and will rely on altering the settings until they start to hear the sound they want to achieve. A student recently approached me with a related problem – he just couldn’t ‘get’ compression. The student – let’s call him Ryan – explained that he had tried the above technique using the basic Digidesign’s Compressor/Limiter Dyn 3 plug-in that comes with ProTools. He began with a fast attack and then gradually started to slow it down, listening for a change in the sound, but just couldn’t hear any difference between one attack time and another. He’d wound the attack control half way around and still couldn’t hear any perceivable change in the ‘leading edge’.

Knowing that the method Stav describes works well, I opened up ’Tools and inserted the Compressor/Limiter Dyn 3 plug-in. I set the attack time of the plug-in as fast as possible and noticed the small, seemingly innocuous character ‘µ’ in the attack time display that has proven more than once to be a trap for young players. The Compressor/Limiter Dyn 3 plug-in has a minimum attack time of 10µs (10 microseconds). Generally speaking, a good minimum starting point attack time for most applications in mixing is 1ms. This is normally considered a very fast attack time and as you gradually slow this attack time down, especially when passing through the 5-25ms region (approximately), distinct changes to the leading edge of transients can be clearly heard. For the record, 10µs = 0.00001s, which is 100 times faster than 1ms which is equal to 0.001s. The screenshot (right) highlights why Ryan was having problems. The region in red indicates the range of attack times faster than 1ms. The attack control of this particular plug-in needs to be nearly half way around before it reaches the (arguably) minimum useable setting of 1ms. Ryan was starting with an attack time of 10µs and

automate parameters is unmatched in the analogue world and plug-ins such as the Waves C4 multiband compressor and De-esser have no analogue peer. My advice would be to use the tool that best suits the task.

Applying such heavy, lacerating compression comes with all sorts of sonic artefacts, such as cymbals with strange decay envelopes and hi-hats that sound like paper tearing, but if that suits the track and it sounds right, then it is right.

LOUD & BALANCED DRUMS Let’s take a few examples. Firstly, a drum part played with brushes where the backbeat is a snare rimshot and 8th notes are played by light brushstrokes – the ‘choo-choo train’ beat. Let’s say we already have a reasonably balanced mix (which should be the first order of business when mixing, rather than wasting time and achieving little by EQ’ing every part in solo). You’ve set the balance of the backbeat just about right – a little under the vocal – and its already providing momentum and energy without competing directly with the voice. Nice. Let’s say the problem is that the 8th-note brushstrokes are a bit soft and lacking in detail. Now, we could just simply compress the snare, reducing the range between the loud backbeats and soft brushstrokes but because the overheads and the room mics (which in our example are providing a large part of the snare sound) are, as yet, un-compressed, the balance between them and the snare mic would change each time the snare compressor kicked in. Perhaps a better solution would be to compress the whole drum mix by sending it to a subgroup then inserting a stereo compressor. Maybe, but that might be like using a sledgehammer to squish an ant – too blunt an instrument. A subtler and sonically less destructive method would be to use a stereo compressor in parallel. For the uninitiated, this involves using a compressor as though it were an FX return, so that you’re mixing compressed signal with un-compressed signal in the same way as you would mix wet with dry signal [See Andy Stewart’s Mixing With Parallel Compression article in Issue 44 for more on parallel compression]. This method allows you to be gentler, minimising artefacts and having greater control over how much compressed sound you want in the mix. You’ll retain the attack of the drums by virtue of having a component of uncompressed

gradually slowing it down, but unfortunately these attack times were way too fast to hear any gradual change. He started at 10us, slowed the attack down to 50us (0.05ms) – heard no change – then slowed it all the way down to 100us (0.1ms) – still no change. He got half way around the attack dial without hearing the type of change that Stav was describing. So he went back and tried again, starting at the fastest setting and gradually slowing the attack time down, but to no avail. If he had started with an attack time of 1ms the affect on the leading edge would have been far more obvious. So why make a compressor capable of such fast attack times? Well, there are scenarios when very fast attack times are called for, such as when de-essing a vocal and/or slamming drums for effect. However, one thing that’s not often mentioned is the limitations of the attack time of digital compressors, limitations that are entirely dependant on the sample rate. Let’s assume your session is at 44.1k. The time between each sample of audio, the sample period, is equal to the reciprocal of the sample rate (1/44,100), which is equal to

sound while increasing average level due to the compressed component. Some compressor designs have a mix control on the front panel that essentially does the same thing, only internally. (DAW users should be wary of latency issues when employing parallel compression techniques that may cause the compressed group to phase strangely with the uncompressed, although delay compensation should fix this if your platform has it.) Returning to the example of a drum kit that sounds as though it’s being pummelled by an angry but talented giant, parallel compression really comes into its own here since you can lower the threshold or increase the ratio (or both) to increase the amount of compression to the point where distortion and artefact are plainly evident while mixing in the un-compressed signal to temper and moderate the wildness of the now heavily squashed drums. With this done, balance the drums with the rest of the mix and finely tweak the attack to give the drums just the right amount of ‘front’ and finesse the decay knob to control how much ambience, cymbal wash and general density you want. It’s worth noting that the faster the decay time the more compressed the signal will sound since the transition from compressed to un-compressed is quicker and hence more noticeable. HIGH-FREQUENCY COMPRESSION It’s not unusual for the vocal sounds: ‘k’, ‘c’, ‘sh’, ‘f ’, ‘t’, ‘ph’ and ‘th’, to be up to 10dB louder than the vowel sounds in a vocal performance. Sometimes this is because the vocal has been poorly recorded – courtesy of an incorrect mic choice, preamp choice or too much EQ – while at other times it’s simply because the voice is very sibilant. The purpose of a de-esser, then, is to bring these sounds back into balance, which is not to say all vocals need de-essing, though in my experience most vocals do. Note though that the face, neck and chest of a singer are all part of their sound source, but sibilance comes only from the mouth since these sounds are made by the lips, teeth and tongue. My tip to avoid recording too


approximately 22.68µs for a sample rate of 44.1k. Putting aside the idea that very fast attack times under 1ms are not overly useful when you’re trying to get your head around compression, if you do choose to use the 10us attack time at a sample rate of 44.1k (and the plug-in does not up-sample), you’ll have an attack time that is faster than the sample period. Let’s talk it through sample by sample. You’ve set your compressor with a 10us attack time. A sample comes along that exceeds the threshold and your compressor kicks into action (assuming a hard knee). Keeping in mind that the next sample is 22.68µs away, the compressor will reach maximum gain reduction* before the next sample occurs. Now that’s a fast attack time! At a sample rate of 44.1k (with a plug-in that doesn’t up-sample), any attack time between the range of 0s and 22.68µs will give the same result; the compressor will reach maximum gain reduction in less than the sample period. So you could say that at 44.1k, the minimum usable attack time is 22.68µs. I explained to Ryan that although his method was spot on, his starting attack time was way too fast. In all likelihood

his ears were fine and he would be able to hear what Stav was describing if he started the process with an attack time of 1ms, not 10us. His session was at 44.1k, so not only was the 10µs – 1ms attack time range not clearly audible, in the range from 10us – 22.68µs there would have been no difference in the compressor’s output whatsoever as this attack time is less than the sample period of his session. Personally, I think mixing by numbers is not a great idea and in most cases I couldn’t care less what those numbers say as long as it sounds good. But if you’re new to the game and putting in the hours turning dials but hearing nothing, there’s a good chance it’s not your fault – not all settings in the digital wonderland are useful, or even possible at certain sample rates. *In Modern Recording Techniques (6th Ed.), Huber and Runstein define attack time as “the time it takes for the gain to decrease to a percentage (usually 63%) of its final gain value”. However in Mastering Audio: The Art and Science, Bob Katz defines attack time “as the time between the onset of a signal that is above threshold and full gain reduction.”

much sibilance is to place the capsule of the vocal mic so that it points at the chin and not the mouth. Generally in a mix, I would have the vocal as bright as, if not a little brighter than the brightest element in a mix, usually the snare drum. When EQ’ing a vocal, I listen for intelligibility and a pleasing tone, if this means the sibilant parts of the voice are now too loud, it’s time to de-ess. Having found a setting that works, I’d listen closely to every word to be sure the settings are appropriate across the entire performance. If the singer appears to now have a lisp, the de-esser is working too hard; if it seems right for all but a few words, I’d automate the threshold to change at that point. This is where plug-ins really hold their own and are so much more powerful than their analogue counterparts. In extreme cases you may even need two de-essers, one to look after the harder consonant sounds – ‘k’, ‘ch’ and ‘t’ – and a second to tame the ‘s’ sounds; the former being in the 4-5kHz range, the latter around 8-10kHz. While this seems quite convoluted, the vocal should reign supreme and be engaging and a pleasure to listen to from first word to last. COMPRESSING VOCALS Vocals need to be heard. That goes without saying, but getting a vocal to sit within the track while also being a clear focal point can take some finesse. It’s important that the listener doesn’t have to strain to understand the lyrics and that the emotional content of the performance is conveyed. Compressing the vocal can help give it the ‘density’ it needs to be clear, without the instruments under it sounding weak or karaoke-machine-like. There are a few things to watch for though. By squashing the dynamic range, the once quiet breaths will now be much louder and can make the singer sound asthmatic. There are two ways around this, the first is to duck the breaths using volume automation and the second is to delete them completely. I’d advocate a mixture of the two since a breath can convey a lot of emotion and have great percussive effect (think Michael Jackson) but if breaths add nothing to the performance, I’d bump them.

An attack time of around 1ms is the point where changes to the front end of your sound begin to take effect.

Common sample rates and their associated sample periods in microseconds.

SAMPLE RATE

SAMPLE PERIOD (µs)

44100

22.68

48000

20.83

88200

11.34

96000

10.42

176400

5.67

192000

5.21

Over-compression can also quickly suck the emotion and performance value out of a vocal. If you squeeze the dynamic range so hard that the loudly sung bits are in fact no louder than the soft bits, the impact of the loud section is lost. Generally speaking, the quieter a vocal is in a mix the more it will need to be compressed, so that it still has some impact and occupies enough space to be heard. Once I’ve got a mix just about right, I’ll tweak the attack knob to adjust how loud I want the start of words and phrases to be and then work on the decay time to shape the tails. In terms of attack, sustain and decay, if the vocal features lots of long held notes I’d tend towards slower decay times. Conversely, if it were a rap where the words are short and percussive, a faster decay time is more likely to suit. As always, let your ears be the judge. MIX BUS COMPRESSION Using a stereo compressor on the mix bus is a great way to make your mixes louder and sonically bind all the elements together. When choosing a mix bus compressor, however, an important consideration should be its sonic integrity and character. There’s no point working hard on making a mix sound good, only to have a cheap and nasty stereo compressor chew away all that hi-fi goodness.

Mix bus compression can also change the balance, so it’s a good idea to have it across the mix from the word go rather than inserting it in the final stages only to find it changes the mix and undoes a lot of fine balancing. Also, having it on throughout the mix session gives your ears a chance to get used to its effects and allows plenty of time to finesse the settings. The extra energy and density that mix bus compression seems to add, through a reduced dynamic range and the subsequent increased average level, can be very seductive. So be careful not to overdo it. Remember, it can’t be undone once the mix is printed, and besides, you can always compress a little more in mastering. Some other effects of mix bus compression are that a fast attack will make peaky, percussive elements in a

mix quieter but more consistent in their volume, and fast decay times will add ‘fake’ energy and increased density because the decays of many elements in the mix are now that much louder. As a rough guide, I would rarely compress any mix more than 4dB, with an average reduction of 1 – 2dB. A word about auto-release; this is a setting on many units whereby the decay time adjusts itself automatically depending on the decay time of the audio envelope. For instance, if the music has a lot of short, sticky beats the decay time will be fast, whereas if the music has a smoother more legato feel, the decay time will automatically be slower so as not to make the decays of the music sound unnatural. Auto release has one more trick, and that is that if the level of the audio disappears very quickly while the compressor is in gain reduction, it will ‘hold’ that level of reduction for a period of time after the audio has quickly dropped away. The benefit of this is that if there’s a short pause in the music, the re-entry will not be unduly loud as a result of the compressor opening up, releasing its gain reduction. If anyone has an audio metaphor that doesn’t involve plumbing or cooking, I’d love to hear it but in conclusion I’d say that compression is to audio what salt is to gastronomy – the right amount brings out and binds all the flavours and its presence can hardly be detected, but add too much and everything is spoilt. Compressors are probably the most powerful sound shaping tools in a studio and require a depth of understanding and a lot of practice to master but with this come mixes with more detail, more impact, greater emotional content and increased, pleasant sounding loudness. The trick, as always, is to listen deeply and keep it musical.

i

Sources: • S cientific American, April 2009: Anti Loudness Protein – Kate Wilcox • T he Incredible Music Machine – Lowe/Miller/Boar, Quartet Books.


REGULARS

HOME GROWN

It’s the factory of fuzz, the dominion of distortion and the safe haven of small amps. Shane O’Mara’s back shed is full to bursting with everything required to generate a great guitar sound. Text: Brad Watts


I’m a sucker for a great guitar sideman. When I use the term ‘sideman’ I’m not referring to the players who periodically jump into the spotlight to execute 32 bars of extreme-sport, six-string widdly-diddly calisthenics. I’m talking about those guitarists who tastefully augment a band’s sound, seamlessly moving from rhythm and backing duties to tasteful riffs and responses without the slightest conflict. Shane O’Mara is such a guitarist, having carved out an enviable career as a six-slinger for Australian notables such as Paul Kelly and Tim Rogers.

working in! So rather than readjust, I kept things pretty much the same.

Towards the rear of Shane’s suburban Melbourne home is his rather appetising recording space. From the outside it doesn’t appear to be much more than ancillary shedding, but once inside you become privy to Shane’s recording world – two large bedroom-sized rooms, one configured as a control room with an adequate rack of outboard and a ProTools HD system, the other tightly packed with valve amplifiers and guitars. It’s comfortable and inviting, and a scenario many of us are familiar with. What’s not so familiar is the plethora of guitar stomp boxes that line an entire wall of the control room, again, something I’m a complete sucker for. It’s a collection worth risking incarceration for! We’ll take a closer look at the pedal array shortly, but first let’s nose through the rest of Shane’s tool shed.

BW: Exactly, it’s not like years ago when you had to make allowances for the sound of cassette. Do you get any complaints from the neighbours?

A REAL MAN’S SHED Brad Watts: So Shane, did you build this amazing little structure from scratch to suit your recording needs, or was it already on the property?

Shane O’Mara: Well, actually, I had ‘men’ build it to be honest. It’s a rammed earth structure, which is great because it’s about a foot thick and I don’t have any issues with noise creeping out. The tradesmen made it here on-site. They bring in the earth – you can’t call it dirt or they’ll freak out – put in about eight percent concrete, put up formwork and then ram it with hand-held pneumatic rams. They build a wall a day roughly. It’s a really solid building alternative. I initially had acousticians advise me as to the best design with the space I had available, but the options were just too expensive. So I just built two rooms: one the size of one of my bedrooms and the other the size of another one of my bedrooms – basically the size of the rooms I’d already been

BW: It sounds fine in here! Very comfortable. SO’M: It’s working out well. I’m definitely going to tune it up a little more, but I find my ears tend to acclimatise to the space I’m working in. Plus, there’s always the time-honoured tradition of playing it in the car or putting it on the stereo, which I’m a big advocate for. You can burn a CD or stick it on your iPod in 30 seconds these days, so there’s no reason not to audition your work in other spaces.

SO’M: Well, I’ve actually got a multicore that I run to the house so I can record drums and stuff in there as well as in the studio. As long as I do it during business hours it’s okay – it’s not that loud. The guy next door regularly plays some pretty bad ‘hair rock’ much louder than I ever get. It’s not like I have heavy rock bands going for take after take here – the people I work with can generally play. If I need to do live projects I hire out a studio for the day and do the tracking there. THINGS IN RACKS BW: I can’t help but notice the substantial outboard collection you have here. You haven’t skimped on the pres and compressors have you! What are your favourites?

SO’M: Well, yes, you’ve got to have the right bits and pieces don’t you! The Buzz Audio stuff is fantastic. I bought those just as they came out and have never regretted it. The SOC 1.1 is an optical compressor; I use it on so many things I really couldn’t define its role. BW: What’s this LA-2A-style compressor over here? SO’M: That’s a Giles Audio compressor, made by Ross Giles. He used to build his gear in Adelaide, but these days he lives in Melbourne. That’s his take on the LA-2A and over here [Shane, points to another piece of gear nearby] that’s his valve preamp. They’re really fantastic hand-made units. I also like the Amek 9098 Pure Paths; they’re incredibly clean and work brilliantly with the Coles ribbon mics. Using those with really clean pre’s like the

It’s a comfortable life for some, with just the right outboard and a tasty selection of Gibsons. Add natural light to taste.

9098s is just gorgeous, whereas if I use the ribbons with a tube pre it’s just too muddy and dull. They’re incredible for kick and snare – anything with a fast transient – and amazing on guitar, as are the Buzzes. The Buzz MA-2.2 is beautiful for clean vocals. I’ve also got a Wagner U47 clone; that combined with the Buzz MA-2.2 is a beautiful marriage. BW: So when does the Avalon get used? SO’M: Only occasionally. It looks better than it actually is I reckon. I think everyone was seduced with those units – including me. Avalon has released them in black now too, so I’m sure they’re about to sell a bunch more. The Chandler is really useful. I’d love another one of those actually. That’s great on guitars obviously, and kick drum, and I occasionally use it on vocals. The dbx 160s are just for destroying stuff really. I’ll use the dbx on a mono drum mic, and I’ve been known to put it on acoustic guitars, if I want that really flattened sound. I treat it as an effect in many respects. BW: And do you use the ELI Distressors to ‘fill the gaps’ in your compressor collection, or do they get a solid workout on particular things? SO’M: I use them for tracking guitar and I’ll usually use one on a vocal when mixing. I use them on lots of things really, often with distortion, but I love the fact that they’re really responsive with their input and output controls. You can really get in there and drive them to suit. It’s classic old-style control, whereas a lot of newer equipment doesn’t seem to work that way. It’s like some of the new manufacturers are trying to build a hardware plugin. BW: So what other mics are you hoarding in here? SO’M: Well, the Wagner is my main vocal mic. I also have two Coles 4038 ribbons and AEA R84s. The AEAs are fantastic on guitar amps. Although they’re kind of cheapish, I swear the guitar sounds incredible through them. There are two Neumann KM184s that Ross Giles tweaked for me. He actually made them less bright – ‘warmed them up a little bit’ I guess you might say. I use them on guitars as well. Then there’s the little Octava MK-012s, which again Ross modded for me. I’ve always liked the sound of the Oktavas over the Neumanns, and Ross has made them sound even better. The TLM103 is definitely a

A smorgasboard of valve amplification – something old, and some things new.


While it’s not your typical selection of outboard, Shane’s rack is certainly an adequate selection of processing.

Neumann I like. They’re very bright I find, and not something I’d use on vocals, but they’re incredible on toms – floor tom especially. Finally, my secret weapon is this vintage, beige-coloured Sennheiser MD-421. That gets used on guitars occasionally, as well as vocals and toms, but primarily I use it as a kick drum mic. BW: Inside or outside the kick? SO’M: I love recording kick drum with a front skin but without a hole so it’s a complete skin, and just the one MD-421. No mic on the beater side, just on the outside head. I have it low on the ground, and I usually use the Glyn Johns method and use two kick drums. Do you know that trick? BW: With two kicks end on end? SO’M: No, I have another kick angled slightly away from the main kick that’s being played. The second kick drum also has two complete heads on it, and I’ll sometimes mic that as well. Then I just cover both kicks with a doona and get this thumping great bottom end. Don’t tell anyone! BW: No of course not! Any other super-secret mic placement methods you don’t want me to divulge? SO’M: Well, with ribbons mics on guitar amps I always place them back a bit from the speaker, and incline them upwards a little bit so they don’t take in any extraneous floor sounds. I don’t actually lift the amps off the ground. And a lot of it is expeditious: I just put it up, record it, and if it sounds good I’ll go with it, rather than break the flow of a performance. That’s one thing I’ve definitely learnt over the years: it’s really the performance that you’re trying to capture. You get stuck when you’re trying to get a perfect guitar sound. Often the perfect guitar sound will happen by virtue of the performance anyway. BW: Tell me how you go about miking the Leslie cabinet? SO’M: Well, that’s an essay in itself. You can use two mics up at horn level, but that can often give you some crazy phasing anomalies. The best sound I find is just a big fat mic, like the Wagner or a ribbon, placed eight or nine feet away. Forget about the stereo thing. It’s like recording stereo acoustic guitar – the more width you put in, the less real it sounds. You don’t want the guitar to be 20 foot wide, you

Innocuously situated down the back of Shane’s garden, his rammed earth back shed is where many of us would happily spend a few weeks. . . or months.

want it to be focused and in a particular position. So often the Leslie is just mono. That cabinet was fixed by Simon Tregear who’s the Leslie expert in Melbourne. The cabinet is from a domestic organ, and he’s tweaked it up especially for guitar. It’ll make you seasick when you really crank it up. And, of course, we haven’t even touched on the pedals. The mighty world of fuzz! PEDALS TO THE METAL BW: We must! It’s such an amazing collection. Some of these are here for the sake of the collection surely?

SO’M: No no, everything gets used, but I definitely have an obsession with the fuzz box over all the other pedals. I went crazy on eBay for a little while but eventally realised you have to stop somewhere. How much fuzz can one guy have? I’ll start with the piece de resistance – the rarest fuzz box ever – the Rush Pep box. It was made late ’60s by Wem. Honestly, it’s the most awesome fuzz on the planet. I emailed Wem about six years ago and the guy who designed it, who must have been 70-something, emailed me back saying he couldn’t believe I had one as they only made about 400 of them. He actually thought they sounded like rubbish, which surprised me. BW: You obviously like the sound of it though, yeah? SO’M: Oh, it’s incredible! It’s like there are two fuzzes in there. There’s the warm Big Muff kind of fuzz, but what I’m really drawn to is that disintegrating, nasty, gnarly kind of fuzz sound. That’s what the Rush Pep can do. BW: What other pedals do you rate highly? Show me the others. SO’M: All the DAM stuff from England is great. My favourite is the Dragonfly. And that’s the Mk2 up there, another holy grail of fuzz – the pedal Led Zeppelin used. It’s an exact copy of the Sola Sound Tone Bender Professional MKII that was produced between 1966 and 1968. You’d pay about £800 for an original one – if you could find one. The Fulltone stuff is great too. That particular one would sell for over a grand in America now. BW: I’ve heard of these. What year were these made? SO’M: About 10 years ago, around about the same

time the guy went out of business. The company was called Way Huge. They’re collectible boutique pedals with some crazy names: the Screaming Beaver, Swollen Pickle, Super Puss, Purple Platypus. Some of them, like the Swollen Pickle, are being remade by Jim Dunlop now. Then there are the beautiful Zvex pedals. I think my infatuation with fuzz pedals is primarily down to the fact that they allow you to get such a great sound when combined with little amps and a boost pedal… like, for instance, through this little Badcat amp over here [Shane points to the Badcat surrounded by countless other amp with names like: Golden Tone, Fender, Orange and Vox]. You simply don’t need a Marshall cranked up to 11 with a Les Paul. You can get that sound from a little amp absolutely shitting itself and some careful mic placement. BW: So do you go in for wah pedals much? SO’M: I love wah. There’s my little wah collection over there [Shane pointing to yet another substantial collection]. An original Mutron – that’s a rare beast. I have a Morley, which is good but my new one is the wah that covers all the bases – The Clyde. It’s absolutely amazing. It’s a little bit tweaky but you can get pretty much everything you need out of it. BW: Ahh. And I spy an E-bow! I’ve never really got my head around using these properly. Is that something you use much? SO’M: I don’t particularly like that traditional E-bow sound, but I have a neat trick that I use to create little string parts using a slide. There are a million ways of using these things. Just lifting the string a little bit with the slide gives you a real Theremin sound. FUZZ FOREVER Inevitably, Shane O’Mara and I spend the next couple of hours touring around the vast array of pedals he’s accumulated over the years, and to be honest, I start getting quite lost in all the options, sounds, and timbres of all the different flavours of fuzz. I don’t know how he keeps track of them all. The pedals mentioned here are but a sprinkling of what Shane has at his disposal. There are favourites, of course, that Shane has briefly touched on, but the lesson I leave with is that a tiny valve amp, a fistful of distortion and fuzz pedals, some careful mic placement, and a bit of imagination can provide you a far better guitar sound than any piece of software. Long live fuzz!


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TUTORIAL

SOFTWARE TIPS: AUTOTUNE EVO We’ve all used AutoTune at some point, but hands up who could do with a private refresher course? Text: Graeme Hague

From behind the mixing console there appears to be three kinds of vocalists: people who can sing, people who can’t, and girls attractive enough to be unreasonably given the benefit of the doubt. You might be one of those who lament the over-use of pitch correction, but down at the bottom of the studio food chain many of us are often working with clients whose ambitions, sadly, far out-strip their talents. Personally, I prefer to be gently encouraging – then take the money and run. Which means reaching for AutoTune’s Evo plug-in on a regular basis. Now I know I’m not alone in this. I also know Evo is the kind of complex plug-in that is best operated by an engineer who uses it every day. For those who use it infrequently, meanwhile, operating it properly often requires a quick refresher course. Since nothing inspires confidence less than the sight of an operator rummaging through a drawer for an instruction manual, here are some tips on using AutoTune Evo that can get you fast, accurate results like you’re an expert. WHEN AND WHERE TO USE IT Evo has two modes of operation and two ways you can use them: Automatic Mode and Graphical Mode. Both of these can be either inserted over a track to process in real time or applied as a permanent audio edit in the waveform editing program of your choice. Forget Graphical Mode for the moment. Automatic Mode is the quickest and easiest way to save your bacon. It functions just fine as a realtime plug-in insert. In fact, it works so well that you might wonder what all the fuss is about here. There are, however, some crucial settings that need attention – settings that you might have been tempted to ignore, because Evo does seem to kind of work anyway. Without them, listen closely and you will hear those lilting artefacts that let the pitch correction cat out of the bag, so to speak. BASIC SETTINGS The first setting involves choosing the Input type, ranging from ‘Soprano’ down to ‘Bass Instrument’. Obviously, you’re not going to choose Bass when your vocalist sounds like Kate Bush, but you must tweak the setting down to ‘Alto/Tenor’ or ‘Low Male’, if need be. Importantly, Antares has developed individual algorithms for each input type, not merely applied some nominal tweak to a global effect. We’re talking chalk and cheese here. So choose carefully, or at the very least, experiment. Either way, you can achieve a vastly different result from what seems like a trifling adjustment.

Similarly, the settings for Key and Scale can sound like they’re not having much of an impact at first. The reason for this is often that you’re dealing in bogstandard keys like D, G or A major, which share a lot

of common notes. Still, pinpointing the right key and scale will always help and, in some cases, it’s vital. For example, compare the C major and C minor keys. One includes the note A, while the other sports an A flat. Like MIDI quantising, Evo is endeavouring to shuffle the crap notes to the nearest correct pitch in your chosen scale, and with an incorrect key setting it can easily push a tone in the wrong direction; sometimes to a pitch that doesn’t belong in the scale at all. Don’t panic, a knowledge of musical theory isn’t a prerequisite for using Evo, but identifying the proper key is. Make sure you figure it out one way or another and select the key appropriately.

ALL TOGETHER NOW Like I said, these are basic settings that are often ignored, because they don’t seem to make much difference in generic pop music – definitely not true! Combined carefully together, the four parameters of Input, Key, Scale and Retune will do a much improved job on any fixable pitch problem, particularly the Retune Speed, which, while it doesn’t actually fix the problem, can cleverly move past it. Automatic Mode will do the rest. But if all that has failed you and things are still sounding unhappy you’ll have to try Graphical Mode. Now, unfortunately, we’re about to get serious.

By the way, in Automatic mode an option is available to Bypass or Remove notes from a scale, further confusing things for people without a music theory background, but it’s easy. Bypassing a chosen note allows it – and anything close to it – to slip through unchanged. If you have something deliberately sung or played off-pitch, it will stay that way. Removing notes prevents Evo from shifting the pitch to somewhere drastically incorrect when the original material is performed particularly badly. For instance, if a sung word should be pitched at C, but is horribly more like D and gets ‘fixed’ upwards, then removing D from the scale forces Evo to choose the next best thing – the much more tolerable C.

GRAPHICAL MODE Graphical Mode provides tools for nitty-gritty pitch correction, like cutting files into small sections for precise work or grabbing notes and forcing them to pitches that Automatic Mode wouldn’t consider in a mad fit. You might call it ‘Desperation Mode’, or coming from a completely different angle, ‘Creative Mode’, since you certainly can use it creatively. The aforementioned parameters of Input, etc don’t apply here except for Retune Speed, because the theory is that you know exactly what you want to achieve in terms of pitch. In this operational mode, you’re going to literally draw in the new tonal and pitch data yourself. Here it’s possible to isolate notes and adjust the Retune Speed for each one; an alternative means of working with files where the Humanise function simply doesn’t cut it.

RETUNE SPEED – THE INFAMOUS ‘CHER’ EFFECT Retune Speed can be the difference between naturalsounding pitch correction and something clearly processed or, in the case of Cher’s 1998 hit, Believe, the Retune Speed set a benchmark for deliberately mashing things up. Nobody sings a perfectly pitched note immediately. Vocalists slide up and down between notes until they (hopefully) reach their pitch. The danger is that Evo sees this tonal sliding as a fault that needs correcting. (That’s what Cher’s producer did by using those extreme settings – which also contributed to it being a hit, of course).

Retune Speed adjusts how quickly Evo reacts to incorrect pitch: a slow setting effectively waits for the singer to reach their projected target, while a fast value fixes short notes quickly. Another way to approach it is to set the Retune Speed to get past a flat (or sharp) note in a hurry. Where the wheels can really fall off is in the situation where a certain Retune Speed works well for quick lyrics but trashes long ones and vice versa. The Retune Speed setting really needs to be trialled by the user to find the appropriate reaction time, and the results can vary a lot. Otherwise, check out the Humanise control, which automatically applies an amount of compromise. If the song’s arrangement makes things too difficult you’re better off getting away from the Insert slots, opening Evo in an edit window and processing different sections of the file accordingly.

The most confusing aspect of Graphical Mode is the process to begin editing. The ‘Track Pitch’ button is, I think, unfortunately named. I’ll explain. First, select the audio you want to re-pitch in your host application – let’s use ProTools. It can be an entire track (region) if you like. Next you hit the Track Pitch button and play the audio with the ProTools transport. What happens here is the audio is recorded (or ‘tracked’) into Evo for you to process. The Track Pitch button is telling you to track the data in, not referring to any particular ‘track’ – get it? I know I might be banging on about this, but as someone (like many of us) for whom reading the instruction manual is considered an embarrassing last resort, this initially tricked the hell out of me. The result is a squiggly, red line that represents the pitch of the audio. It’s red and squiggly, because remember, no-one ever sings a perfect tone. How much it squiggles and where it starts and ends in relation to correct pitch is now your problem. To start work you can choose ‘Make Curve’ or ‘Make Notes’. Make Curve will generate and display a green line that represents what will happen to your audio as you perform edits. Initially, this will be exactly the same as the red line and overlayed directly on it. Why? Because so far you haven’t done anything


This is the AutoTune Evo interface in Automatic Mode with the drop-down list of available key scales showing. The standard major and minor variations are there, plus some pretty out-there ethnic scales you probably won’t need unless you’re planning on living on a Himalayan mountain.

Here is the Graphical Mode. The vocalist has done a good job of sustaining an E3 pitch at the end, but for the exercise I’ve drawn in (in blue) an edit to drag it down to a D3. Look closely and you’ll see the straight blue line with anchor points beneath the Make Curve green indicator of what the vocal will now do. The reason the green line isn’t also dead straight is that I haven’t hammered the Retune Speed down, thus allowing some natural vibrato and expression to remain.

Here I’ve simply dragged the Note Object down to a D3 pitch instead. In this simple example the end result will be pretty much the same. For more complex pitch problems you’ll get slightly different results between the Make Curve and Make Note methods. Take your pick.

Graphical Mode before the above edit, and using the Make Note function to create a clearly defined ‘Note Object’ of that sustained lyric.

to the signal. It’s only as you draw in edits using the Line or Curve tools (the latter would be better named “Freehand Tool”), represented in blue, that the green line will shift and update itself. The green line is also where you use the Scissors tools to insert break points and focus on smaller areas of the file. Being able to literally draw in corrections is pretty amazing stuff. Correcting pitch is one thing, but it’s great for straightening out a tired vibrato or lifting the end of a lyric that dropped away. Make Notes sorts everything into individual blocks for each pitch, which are much simpler for shifting up and down. The ‘Number of Note Objects’ defines a level of note resolution. For example, imagine Jimmy Barnes screaming “Baby!” over one bar of 4/4. Chances are he’s not going to stray too far from the base pitch even though he’s turning bug-eyed and spraying the punters with second-hand bourbon. A high value of Number of Note Objects will still only display one Note Object (one pitch) for Jimmy’s effort. Mariah Carey, on the other hand, will warble annoyingly through four octaves and back again.

There, Make Notes will display a cascade of Note Objects over the same bar length. You can pick and choose each one and move them accordingly. Simple, right? Not really. Graphical mode is powerful and highly featured, and the truth is if your vocal line is so tragically sung that you need to constantly zoom in and fix each note with the drawing tools or by shifting Note Objects, you’re in trouble. While Graphical Mode is brilliant for this detailed work, in normal circumstances you should only be using it to tame glaring problems before letting Automatic Mode apply a finishing gloss. My best advice is: don’t be tempted to use it during a studio session – at least not with the singer watching over your shoulder. You’ll be opening a can of worms for sure. Before you know it, you’ll be asked to redraw every nuance of that condemning red squiggle into pitch perfection. Graphical Mode is for the wee hours of the night, a large urn of coffee – and charging by the hour! I will add one golden tip, though. Graphical Mode is awesome for fixing that one bum note in an

otherwise perfect guitar solo from hell. Finally, Evo has a trick up its sleeve called Formant Control. It seems a bit odd, offering adjustable ‘throat length’ and other things reminiscent of ’80s porn films (not that I ever watched them, of course). Formant Control won’t do a hell of a lot until you’re shifting pitches a long way, in which case it will prevent your vocal performance from suffering the dreaded ‘munchkin’ effect. So the good news is, if it’s not apparently doing anything, it doesn’t have to. When in doubt, turn it on. You can’t lose. We’re normally a bit dismissive of plug-in presets and taking the easy way out, but in this case the opposite is true. With the correct parameters dialled in, AutoTune Evo’s Automatic Mode can be your real secret weapon for making tone-deaf Madges into Madonnas or Pavlov’s dog into Pavarotti. Beyond that, resorting to Graphical Mode, be aware you might be making promises you won’t be able to keep in a hurry, so don’t make them… unless she (or he, I suppose I should say) is really good looking.


REVIEW

ABLETON LIVE 8

It’s the program that just... just... just keeps getting better. Loops abound in Live 8, but there’s more to Live than just loops. Text: Anthony Touma

The Ableton engineers have done it again. Live 8 is out and about and simply put, it’s great. The new feature set isn’t too over-the-top: it’s well thought out, easy to learn and most importantly, stable. There are several new workflow improvements, a crafty take on groove quantising and some welcome additions to clip warping and management. A few new instruments and effects have been thrown in for good measure and the Operator instrument has been overhauled, making Live 8 more complete than ever. A host of new sounds have also been made available in the new Ableton Suite 8 – Ableton’s flagship version that contains a huge sound library and several virtual instruments. Let’s take a deep breath shall we, and have a look under the bonnet. INSTALL The installation process of any software is typically a user’s first point of interaction with his or her new program. Often the ease with which this is achieved can be seen as a window into the minds of the developers: on some occasions it’s a smooth and seamless process, at other times it’s illogical and frustrating. Like the program itself, the Live 8 install procedure is very straightforward. The activation process has been re-vamped somewhat in version 8, making licensing the program easier than ever. Assuming you’re online – and unlike my studio machine, my notebook always is – once the program is installed, Live 8 pings the Ableton website, requesting your serial number, whereupon the program is automatically activated. The Ableton site keeps previous licenses in your profile so there’s no need to keep serial numbers on file yourself. This is a very nice touch. I was also prompted to update to Live 8.0.3 once my install was successful – another aspect of the auto detection software that’s built into Ableton’s website, which again, is a very well thought out and efficient process.

GROOVIN’ Two things that had me pretty excited about Live 8 when I first got wind of its feature list were the new Groove Pool and quantise options. These were the first things I checked out when I loaded the new software and both these features seemed immediately very impressive. Live 8 now allows you to extract a ‘groove’ from any clip, store it in a library, and apply it to any other clip. The ‘groove’ includes not only the quantisation but also the velocity variations detected within a clip. The default library comes with a tonne of grooves ready to go as well, and lovers of classic hardware beat samplers in particular, will collectively rejoice upon discovering grooves from the famed Akai MPC and E-MU SP1200 drum machines. The really impressive part here is that you can apply grooves seamlessly between audio and MIDI clips alike.

Say, for instance, you were to take a drum clip of a shuffle beat; a right click would extract the groove from the clip and store it in the Groove Pool allowing you to apply it to virtually any other clip in the project, immediately giving these other clips the same shuffle feel. Each groove can also be tweaked accordingly with additional parameters such as timing and randomisation. Additional timing and velocity changes can also be made, with each groove pattern easily opened as a MIDI part and fine-tuned graphically. This worked really well for me when trying to get percussion and drum loops to ‘play nice’, although in some instances I found altering the groove of a sampled loop had a tendency to make things more robotic, something we’re all trying to avoid most of the time. I also found that applying groove patterns to already mastered drum loop samples caused them to sound jagged as their transients and reverb tails were truncated in parts. I should be magnanimous about this, however, as this feature is still very useful and borne out of innovative thinking and a definite step in the right direction. The Groove Pool stores groove patterns, including Base Time Signature, Quantise, Timing, Randomisation and Velocity which can be applied to any clip in the project.

Editing a groove pattern is done using MIDI, which makes things straightforward and direct.


WARPED One of the first things I noticed when I opened up Live 8 was the way clips are displayed and auditioned. There’s now a quaint little preview window under the folder list that gives you a visual representation of the clip being auditioned, allowing you to see the sample before importing it into the session window, and you can now skip to any part in the sample while auditioning it. There’s also a ‘raw’ option that allows you to playback the sample in its original time while auditioning it – very cool.

The compressor can be pushed pretty hard before pumping begins to occur and it sounds very rich, providing that really big cooked sound to anything you throw at it.

Overdrive, Vocoder, Multiband Compressor, and Limiter. A quality set of must have’s without the rack real estate.

Upon dragging my first clip into a new project, I also noticed the warp and stretch behaviour had also changed; and for me and mine, this is certainly a change for the better. In previous incarnations of the program, a clip was stretched to time by means of the adjustment of timing handles and markers over to respective transients in a clip. This worked well, of course, from a sonic perspective, but the image of the clip itself showed no visible signs of adjustment, remaining static and unchanging in its appearance. Instead, the timeline skewed accordingly over the clip’s image. This was easy enough to get used to but at times it proved confusing; especially with complex polyphonic clips and in instances where radical stretching and warping was required. With Live 8, the clip image itself now warps along fixed timing markers. This means you now get a visual representation of what the clip is up to – whether it’s been sped up or slowed down. This visual feedback makes things much cleaner and far more revealing of your process at a glance. While still on the subject of warping, a new complex ‘pro’ warping algorithm has been made available in Live 8, which provides a very slick sound that has noticeably less artefacts than the standard ‘complex’ option. The CPU consumption is a little higher using this setting: from the tests I did running 10 tracks using the ‘complex’ option across a scene and the ‘complex pro’ algorithm on another, I noticed about 15% CPU usage difference between the two, which is to be expected considering the obvious improvement in sound quality. FLOW The workflow improvements in Live 8 are subtle but significant. Firstly, it’s now possible to select multiple tracks and change common channel properties such as volume, soloing, send FX, channel select, record and panning; extremely helpful with live performances in particular. Group channels have also worked their way into the mix so now you can enjoy the routing flexibility afforded to the more established DAW software programs. MIDI tracking has also been improved with marker selections for recording segments within a MIDI part, and the arrangement window also now allowing for non-destructive cross fading between two clips on the same track – very useful. The entire GUI can also be enlarged with a new zoom parameter. This is fantastic for those of you with huge LCD monitors or smaller-sized projects. The unfortunate limitation of this, however, is that the zoom setting is buried in the preferences menu and acts globally, so it can’t be saved as part of the project layout, which would have been nice – a must for future updates in my book.

Third-party plug-in support has also been expanded with a new ‘configure’ button that allows you to open a VST instrument and select the specific parameters you’d like to tweak from the instrument. Parameters are then mapped to the Ableton plug-in window for that particular plug-in. This has vastly improved workflow, given the countless situations where only a small

handful of tweaking options are required on a given instrument or effect; very practical and a clever way to keep things clear and direct. It’d be nice if VST developers adopted a similar approach with their own instruments and effects so that unused parameters could be hidden; but I digress… There are a huge number of presets and templates included in Live 8. Templates are loaded with a simple double-click, just like a preset. Some very practical templates are on offer here and each template loads a particular number of default audio/MIDI channels and a set of preset FX for each channel, depending on your selection. For example, the ‘Analog 4’ channel template loads an instance of EQ, an Optical Compressor and Saturator across four channels, providing an excellent starting point. EFFEX ET AL There are several new effects introduced into Live 8 and all are welcome additions to the fold. When you load the program for the first time, the demo track quickly draws your attention to the granddaddy of these, the Multiband Dynamics processor. This is a very sexy three-band maximiser that offers intuitive controls, responsive and accurate displays and a cool graphical means of altering ratios. The compressor can be pushed pretty hard before pumping begins to occur and it sounds very rich, providing that really big cooked sound to anything you throw at it. This is something Live users far and wide will be rejoicing in. Not only does it essentially allow them to ‘master’ on-the-fly while they perform, it makes clipping the main output bus a thing of the past. To ice the cake further, a very nice sounding brick-wall limiter plug-in has also been thrown in for good measure, which is extremely simple to use. Running out of things to ask for in one application? Wait… there’s a lot more.

The Vocoder. Typical of Ableton, the new Vocoder is approached from a refreshing and creative angle. Here you’re presented with a harmonic spectrum window laid out in a bar graph, which can be drawn on to suit your sound sculpting needs. There are attack, release, depth, formant and wet/dry controls on board, as well as left/right routing options. The Vocoder itself sounds really cool, allowing you to get that nice metallic sound, which I found especially handy on drums and trippy loops. It wasn’t the hottest thing on the planet for some vocals, but it’s still very usable. A word of warning with the Vocoder: there’s a potential to blow your speakers when experimenting with this effect, so I’d suggest sticking the new limiter in the chain to avoid any calamitous side-effects. Frequency Shifter and Overdrive. A straightforward ring modulator and flanger has been added to Live 8 too. No surprises here in terms of the controls – they’re all fairly standard – but the same great Live 8 qualities apply to this plug-in as well. The Overdrive plug-in meanwhile is essentially a stomp box emulator, which is delightful for adding distortion and character to boring or thin sounds. It’s also very handy when combined with the new ‘Looper’ instrument… Looper. This is a very clever sampler which allows you to record, loop and overdub on-the-fly. By playing and recording a phrase into Looper, the plug-in detects its timing and as you finish your riff, the recorded part begins looping in time. Targeted toward guitar players in particular, Looper can be controlled via a MIDI footswitch with simple click-on/click-off facility to record/end and overdub. Users of Reason will be well aware that


Looper is a great little autodetect and looping sampler with unlimited layering capability. Clips can be dragged straight out of Looper and into the session window.

In previous versions of Live, time stretching a loop was done by moving handle markers over to the desired positions within the loop. The result was an uneven timeline across the top and a static image of the clip being warped.

Warping is now done by changing the image of the clip to fit the fixed timeline. This gives a visual representation of how the clip is being warped and at what point over the timeline.

a similar type of loop recording has existed in that program for some time, but the immediacy and simplicity of Live 8’s new Looper definitely stands out. The auto-tempo detection and overdubbing is too easy (and pretty damn spot on). Additionally, clips recorded in Looper can be dragged directly into the session window for further effecting and manipulation, which makes this toy very playful and immensely powerful. Collision is an interesting instrument/synth-style effect that’s designed specifically for the emulation and manipulation of mallets via physical modelling. I was a little confused by this initially, intuiting that the use of mallets wouldn’t be something I’d utilise on a regular basis, but after just a few minutes of tweaking and twiddling I soon realised where the power in Collision lies. Creating poignant transients that flow into moving pads is the name of the game here, and if you’re into crafting your own soundscapes and dreamy sequences, Collision will serve you well. Operator. This big synth has been given the Albeton once-over with a range of new features included to provide additional functionality. There are new (and much needed) filtering options for each oscillator and each oscillator can now have its harmonic attributes edited graphically in the same way as the Vocoder, making it even more elaborate as an all-in-one synth.

There’s also a huge selection of sounds, one-hit samples, loops and instruments included in Ableton Suite 8. The instrument rack has been completely re-worked with extra presets, though this shouldn’t cause any issues for Live 7 projects. The Live 8 instruments are truly inspiring, and organised in a much neater and logical fashion. Everything from orchestral sounds to the new Latin percussion soundset (which is superb) is just a single click away. The Latin percussion sounds have a really smooth tone to them and would fit perfectly into just about any electronic genre. There’s everything from marimbas to congas and all of the sounds are full-bodied and bright, with natural tails that keep things sounding realistic. USE ME After using Live 8 extensively, I can confidently attest to its stability. Running it on a Dell XPS notebook, the program runs without a hitch and never feels bloated or sluggish. The new features have been incorporated seamlessly into the program and I doff my hat to the Ableton programmers for their efforts in this regard. The new plug-ins – the Multiband Compressor and limiter, in particular – never become resource hogs yet still deliver the goods consistently over a wide variety of sonic contexts. In terms of value for money, Ableton is certainly shaping up to be quite the workhorse. It’s a serious studio application and live tool in one and it just keeps getting better.

NEED TO KNOW Price Live 8: $999; Suite 8: $1399; LE: $299. Contact Music Link (03) 9765 6530 atdept@musiclink.com.au www.musiclink.com.au Pros Excellent groove quantising/ management. Versatile sound library in Suite version. Improved warping and clip management. Solid routing and channel functionality. Cons Project layout zoom option is global only. Summary Ableton Live 8 is a fully featured studio tool for making music in a truly unique way. Its methodology is based on allowing elaborate production and live performance using nothing more than the application and a notebook.


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REVIEW

AKAI APC40

If you’re into Ableton Live and you’re looking for a controller, surely this is it. Text: Anthony Touma

There’s rarely a time I use an audio application without wishing there were a dedicated controller specifically for it. Among the gamut of controllers on the market, almost all are customisable to achieve the desired effect but seldom do I come across a piece of gear that has essentially been plucked out of my imagination… The Akai APC40 for Ableton Live is just that, a controller that’s been plucked from my (and I’d wager most other Live users’) mind. The collaborative offspring of Akai and Ableton is a USB-based controller that basically mirrors the GUI of Ableton Live. In true Akai form, the unit sports an 8 x 5 grid of backlit rubber pads for clip launching, an extra row of horizontal pads for stopping clips and a row of vertical pads for launching scenes. There are eight channel faders, one for each vertical row, as well as solo, cue, mute and record buttons. To the right of the unit, there are a total of 16 ‘endless’ encoders (‘endless’ meaning that they can rotate through 360 degrees), each of them surrounded by the now familiar circular LED indicators and all assignable across four banks. The top eight rotary faders are used to control track parameters such as pans or sends, while the bottom eight rotary faders are used to control instrument and effects parameters. There are bank select, nudge and tap tempo buttons as well as global stop, play, record buttons, a master fader level, a cross fader, the option for two assignable foot switches and a cue level knob… pretty much everything a Live user could ask for; all laid out in a well spaced manner all coming together in a nicely-sized 42cm x 36cm form factor. THE JOY OF INSTALLATION Installing the APC40 is an absolute joy. Simply plugging the unit in, loading Live 8, selecting ‘APC40’ from the MIDI/Sync menu and activating the MIDI parameters has everything working immediately. Live 8 provides a visual indication within the GUI of what the APC will trigger by loading red borders around groups of clips and scenes currently mapped to the controller. This ensures you never get lost while switching through banks, and I’d have to say this single feature got me used to working with the controller faster than any other unit I’ve ever played with.

The controller itself is bi-directional, meaning that any channel/ parameter selected within Live is relayed back to APC40 and vice-versa. If, for example, you were to start tweaking FX on the second channel’s delay in Live, the APC40’s Device Controls would then be mapped to those parameters automatically. This makes it a lot harder to touch the wrong encoder or fader, given that both the controller and application stay in sync as you move back and forth between them. Within 10 minutes of jamming with an existing project, I stopped using the mouse and keyboard almost completely. Looking at the screen kept me constantly in touch with which channels the APC was mapped to, the instrument I was currently able to tweak and which sends were adjustable at that point in time. When I needed to select a channel via the mouse and get into some deeper tuning on an instrument, the APC changed to the selected channel I was working on in Live and sat there patiently waiting for me to get back to it… extremely cool. BUILT LIKE A BANK The build quality of the APC40 is excellent. The pads and buttons are very responsive and have that classic Akai MPC feel to them. The knobs feel solid and smooth to the tweak, and the LED indicators that surround them are clear and precise. The faders have just the right amount of resistance to them and their sensitivity is spot on. The bank select and global play/stop/ record buttons, on the other hand, are of the hard plastic variety, which is a bit disappointing from my perspective. Having said that, these are identical to the buttons used on the MPC series of Akai samplers, which have certainly been put through their paces over the years without too much complaint from the user base. The power supply is external to the unit and is of the classier rectangular brick variety, not the cheap and nasty wall wart. The case is sturdy, feeling very much like a ‘pro DJ’ mixer in its construction and the side panels are made of thick rubber for a good non-slip grip when handling and seating. CONTROL The 8 x 5 grid on the APC40 has three backlit colours that indicate where and what is going on in Live. The colour orange indicates that the respective clip slot in Live is loaded with


a clip but isn’t playing. Green indicates the clip is playing, Red indicates the clip slot is armed to record and no colour indicates… yep, you guessed it, an empty slot. This colour scheme is very helpful; the colour-coded lights succinctly clarify what’s going on in your project, even in the dark. Launching scenes is also a doddle, as each row of eight clip pads is provided with a scene launch button, which will fire all loaded clips at a single press. At the base of each vertical set of pads, a ‘stop all clips pad’ is also ready to go at a single button press. Beneath these controls there are also solo buttons (which can be used across multiple channels simultaneously), an arm record button, and a route to cue for previewing clips in the cans. In use, the grid on the APC40 is truly inspirational. Almost immediately, the need to fiddle with a mouse goes straight out the window, and more importantly perhaps, using the controller makes things so much more fun and natural. Within seconds I found myself soloing and muting tracks more than I ever had before, for the simple fact that, to me, pushing buttons feels like a far more musical experience than navigating strategically with a mouse and clicking its various buttons. In many respects this initial experience of the APC40 was like using Live for the first time. I was hooked. ROTATION, ROTATION The eight encoders at the top right of the APC40 are, as mentioned earlier, endless, and for good reason. Coupled with the LED indicators that surround them, these encoders allow you to switch between banks and always remain informed of exactly what a fader’s given level is every time at a glance, rather than being locked into a previous bank’s position. Beneath these eight knobs are four buttons: Pan, and sends A, B and C. Pressing these options will assign the eight knobs respectively to each of these four modes, each knob belonging to one of the eight channels in the grid – knob one, channel one etc. The placement of these knobs is a little peculiar in some respects, and perhaps best illustrates Akai’s decision not to adopt a conventional channel strip layout. Making the unit slightly shallower and a touch longer would have allowed for send and pan controls to sit directly above the faders, which would have given the unit a more traditional (and some would argue more ergonomic) feel. Having said that, the current layout certainly

Scene launch buttons activate the horizontal row of clip slots

allowed for my tweaking hand to go to town while my left hand triggered pads and worked levels, which made the unit feel a lot more like an instrument as opposed to a controller or mixer. The space between the pads, channel faders and knobs really lets you use both hands efficiently and dynamically, which inspires a style of Live performance I’d never experienced before; making it really easy to fall in love with. The eight encoders for effects and instrument control are also of the endlessly-rotating variety. Considerable forethought went into the layout and design of these dials because almost all of Live’s instruments are also laid out in sets of eight dials. Pressing the left and right arrow buttons under the banks allows you to flick through each effect in the chain on any particular channel. This, like the Track Control section of faders, is kept in sync with the 8 x 5 grid, ensuring you’re always dealing with the same eight channels highlighted in your project. For all effects in Live 8, the first four knobs are for typical controls (such as ADSR or Wet/ Dry etc, depending on the effect) and the remaining four dials are unique to each effect. In instances where more than eight parameters are required, pressing the ‘shift’ key along with any one of the eight buttons beneath the controls will give you access to a second bank of controls (four banks in total), all of which are assignable to suit your tweaking needs. I found I didn’t need to switch to another bank for anything, and between scrolling through channels, tweaking FX and adjusting instrument parameters I was more than adequately covered by the static layout. Moreover, given the way Live is designed, the immediacy of having the most common parameters at the forefront of the GUI is something the APC design has taken advantage of and adopted very well. The fader controls in the APC40 are again, very ‘Pro DJ mixer’ in their vibe. These eight, high-quality channel faders (nine, if you include the master fader) control volume levels with a nice combination of accuracy and feel. Unity gain resides about three quarters of the way up the fader, mirroring the software mixer in Live faithfully. Automated faders would have blown this fish right out of water in my book, but I guess this extra bonus would have blown the price tag out along with it. It may also have made that APC a little less appealing to some, considering it’s a controller, not a mixer.

Within 10 minutes of jamming with an existing project, I stopped using the mouse and keyboard almost completely.

Track control encoders for pans and sends.

Clip grid with colour coded launch pads.

This row of buttons stops the current clip playing. This lot selects which channel is active.

Solo/Select, Record and cue buttons.

Channel faders.

Bank select and tempo/nudge buttons. This button stops all clips. Selects the master channel.

The device control encoders for instrument/FX parameters.

Master fader and cue level encoder. Crossfader and global play/stop/ rec buttons.


The 10th fader – the horizontal feather-light crossfader that’s positioned at the bottom right-hand side of the unit – makes flicking from channel A to channel B (which are selections made per channel in Ableton) fast and enjoyable. The DJ fader is great for performance. It provides real-time fades between elements of compositions or entire tracks, and can be flogged without fear. Akai has also wisely designed this heavily used aspect of the controller to be easily replaced. To swap the fader over with a new one, simply remove the two screws from the underside of the APC and unplug the small PCB board that mounts the fader. Done. This is exceptionally thoughtful engineering on Akai’s front. Above this crossfader are the global play/stop buttons, and although these require a confident press to register your command, they’re certainly in the hot zone if you find yourself crossfading passionately during a performance. There are also two nudge buttons and a tap tempo button located midway up the right-hand side of the controller (immediately to the right of the bank select buttons and between the two banks of knobs) putting them in easy reach during a performance. The nudge +/– controls allow for momentary tempo adjustments to the track, which can be used to give you a better sync with external sound sources such as a DJ or band, for example. The tap tempo button is also available for this purpose. The Bank Select buttons are again, typically Akai in appearance: a set of four arrows, one in each direction. A press to the right will shift all controls (grid and knobs alike) one channel to the left, turning Live Channel 2 into Channel 1 on the APC etc. Shifting up and down with this control set will also move things up and down a scene. It’s

quite easy to get used to and almost impossible to get lost with the GUI constantly highlighting and reflecting these onboard movements. Almost all the controls on the APC are, as mentioned earlier, well lit for use in darker environments, but unfortunately the associated labeling on the buttons – which are white – are hard to read in the dark; especially the shift options (labelled red). Maybe glow-in-the-dark labeling might be a consideration for the inevitable MKII version. HOPELESSLY DEVOTED Being a devout Live user, the APC is a real breath of fresh air and a bit of kit that lives up to all the hype. It truly inspired me to work in a new way from the moment I laid hands on it, and allowed me to enhance my current compositions significantly. I never felt limited using Live before, but the tight integration between Live and the APC has suddenly convinced me that there’s a brave new world of Live tunes out there just begging to be developed taking this different approach. Akai is no stranger to developing legendary gear, of course, and the APC40 is right up there with the best of them. Considering its size, it’ll easily fit in a backpack, and for what it does, I’d consider it a very light piece of gear (at less than 3kg). For new users who are curious about the Ableton Live software, the APC40 also comes with a version of Ableton Live Lite to get you going, and for anyone using Live in performance, you’d be hard pressed to find an excuse not to own one – the APC40 could easily cut your current live rig down to itself and a notebook. It has for me.

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NEED TO KNOW Price $899 Contact Electric Factory (03) 9474 1000 akaipro@elfa.com.au www.elfa.com.au Pros Excellent integration and usability with Ableton Live. Completely customisable. Good size and weight. Well priced. Cons Non-automated faders. Plastic global buttons. Text on controller hard to read in the dark. Summary The APC40 is undisputedly the best controller for Ableton Live to date and really inspires performance as a hybrid instrument/ controller. If you’re curious to know more about it and you fancy yourself as a serious Live user, do not hesitate to check this device out. I doubt you’ll regret it.


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Audio Technology - Issue 69 August 2009