Free Audio Plug-ins, Dynamics, Analog vs. Digital Recordings, and More

I’m so glad the weekend is here. That means more time with the Mrs., more time with our dogs, and of course more time in the studio! It’s also the perfect time to share some more tips & tricks to get your music sounding as great as it should be.

Vocals

The right microphone is always a key factor in getting a good vocal sound. If you don’t have a lot of money to spend, just get yourself an SM58 from Shure. A lot of people like to record their vocal tracks dry, and I’m going to argue against that. By singing along to your tune with effects added to the vocals you get a better idea of just how it all sits together. A good vocalist will also use the effect (be it echo, chorus, etc.) to shape and enhance his or her performance.

You’re also going to want to do the following to your vocal track:

  1. Vocals should be tracked using a nice warm tube pre-amp (there’s more on warmth and analog gear below).
  2. Add compression before the EQ. Compression smooths out the sound, and by adding the EQ after you can bring some of the highs back into play.
  3. Any good plugin with decent presets will roll off and tame your lows, mids and highs. However, never settle with just a preset, unless it’s one you’ve created & tested yourself. Take the time to tailor the EQ to the voice and performance, and add a deeser if you need to.

Automatic Double Tracking is covered in this post.

Analog Gear

There’s a very good reason why all of the big and small name music hardware & software companies have jumped on the analog sim bandwagon. Analog (and vintage) gear can give your music a warm, and enhanced sound. My first home studio consisted of a Tascam Porta One, a few cheap mics from Radio Shack and a Roland TR-505 & Juno 106. I eventually traded or sold all my analog/tape-based gear to make room for my DAW, but I sacrificed real warmth and saturation for gains in stability, flexibility and ease of use. A lot of professionals might agree with that statement.

The technical limitations and imperfections of old school studios and gear set the standard of the quality of the recorded sounds that we expect to hear on our home-based recordings. For some (myself included) a digital recording can’t compare to one completed in an analog studio because you simply cannot naturally overdrive and saturate a digital recording. You will need plug-ins written specifically to replicate that sound in order to achieve that. My final results aren’t meant to be about cleanliness, or accuracy, but about trying to capture a quality or a vibe. Simply put: Grunge. Analog gear makes the audio sound more interesting because it distorts the audio in a pleasing way.

By the way, there are two plug-ins that can help your recordings sound better by simulating the warmth and saturation of analog tape. They’re good and they’re FREE:

  1. Ferox Tape Simulator is arguably the best sounding free tape sim out there. Lately I’ve been loving MAGNETIC.
  2. Cakewalk FX2 package includes controls for tape hiss, saturation, and tape speed. It also sounds great on drums.

Add Real Reverb

Place a speaker in a concrete, wood or tiled room of your home. Mic it up so you pick up the room sound. Send your instrument tracks to the speaker and record the results. That’s how they used to do it in the 1960’s for bands like The Beatles, Stones, Pink Floyd, etc..

EQ: Cut or Add

EQ is possibly more important than volume. If you want a louder drum kit, increase the treble, not the volume, to help it cut through the mix. More bass for your face? Cut the highs.

Compression

Used properly, compression creates headroom by balancing out the dynamic levels between loud and soft spots in your audio, making them less extreme.  Compression can make your sound and mixes more coherent and consistent sounding.

MODERN MUSIC IS COMPRESSED AND MIXED SO THAT EVERYTHING IS VERY LOUD, WHICH  IS AS ONE-DIMENSIONAL (AND ANNOYING) AS ALWAYS TYPING IN BOLD CAPS. Depending on the song and the type of music you write, include both loud and soft. You get the picture?

Mono or Stereo Mixing?

I’ve read this in almost every music forum: Mix in mono first, then switch to stereo when you’ve got something decent. Mixing in mono forces you to think about EQ over track volume, and it’s a very hard process to get right. Also, avoid those marathon mixing sessions and take breaks. Nothing helps a mix like well-rested ears.

Automation

Play those faders. As you begin mixing your music, keep moving the faders up and down slightly. You bring a little extra motion to your mix through this (subtle) manipulation of levels. Modern  software,  can automate these subtle changes for you:  Draw points on the volume or FX channel, and then raise and lower certain portions of the track to simulate the fader play.

Your Final Mix is Not a Master

Embrace the fact that only a pro mastering engineer can work magic. Read that again, please. Mastering software like Ozone is fine, but it takes years to learn how to use it properly.

Now go make some music…

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