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Monday, February 20, 2012

Why vinyl really can get closer to the original studio sound than digital

In theory, digital audio is more accurate than vinyl records. But in many cases you will hear the artist's and producer's intentions much more accurately on vinyl than you will on CD or download.

By David Mellor

Firstly I must say that digital audio is capable of much more accurate results than vinyl, and I believe that anyone who thinks otherwise is deluding himself or herself.

I know from my own experience of having my recordings pressed onto both vinyl and CD that CD gets much closer to the sound I heard in the studio. Indeed, in the days of 16-bit recording, CD was the sound I heard in the studio, as the bits were identical.

And today, a 24-bit mix made in the studio can be released as a direct bit-for-bit copy in the form of a download. In comparison, vinyl has many degradations that alter the audio quality significantly. You may like the sound of vinyl, but no way is it more accurate.

But read on for some surprising information to the contrary...

Sonata HiFi

I was lucky enough to be invited only yesterday to a presentation of high-end hi-fi equipment by Sonata HiFi.

Listening to vinyl replay systems (including turntable, arm and cartridge) costing from $1500 to $5000, I was absolutely amazed at the quality of the sound. (Sonata will sell you a turntable for anything up to $40,000 if you're really serious.)

The sound was really, really pleasant with none of the deficiencies of vinyl that were pretty much universal in the pre-CD era.

Also there at the presentation was Diverse Vinyl, selling brand new (i.e. not vintage or classic) records for prices that hovered around the $50 mark.

At these kinds of prices, why would anyone buy vinyl replay equipment and vinyl records, unless they thought they could get a listening experience that is better than digital?

Why vinyl can be more accurate

It's all very well in theory to say that digital is more accurate than vinyl, but what about in practice?

One way to test this would be to compare the CD and vinyl version of the same album and see Linkwhich is better.

There is certain album that I really love musically, but I hate the sound of. It is over-mastered. Indeed it is vastly over-mastered and is as harsh on the ear as sulphuric acid ear drops. But that is on CD. The vinyl version of exactly the same album sounds wonderful. So wonderful in fact that I have copied onto a CD and I play that whenever I want to listen to it.

The reason that the CD and vinyl versions sound so different is in the mastering. Clearly the CD mastering engineer has brought out his atomic weapons so as to battle effectively in the loudness war. The audio is massively clipped and the distortion intense.

But the vinyl mastering engineer couldn't do that. There is only so much that vinyl will take before the end-product is literally unplayable. So although there is clearly something of a mastered sound, it isn't anywhere near as severe as in the CD version.

So my point here is that a recording released on CD can be mastered to the point of unpleasantness and beyond. Vinyl simply won't take such excesses, so the vinyl mastering will stay much closer to the original mix.

What the producer heard

Taking all of the above into account, the way in which vinyl can be more accurate than digital is in presenting a version of the sound that is closer to what the artist and producer heard in the studio.

Going back fifteen, twenty years or more, it was normal for the producer of a recording to either make the mix himself, or supervise the mix. When the mix was finished and approved, that was the mix.

But now, it is normal for the mix to be done by a specialist mix engineer. Even so, the producer's intentions will be taken into account, and the mix will be pretty much what the artist and producer would ideally like to hear.

But then comes mastering...

Since, these days, everyone's record has to sound louder than everyone else's, mixes are mastered using the most aggressive techniques available. And since you can put anything on a CD, or encode it in a digital file, there are no restrictions on what can be done.

So the mastered version of a recording released on CD and download can be very significantly different to what the artist and producer would have preferred.

But since vinyl won't accept such harshly mastered audio, any loudness-enhancing processes have to be used very much more gently, so the end result is much closer to the original sound heard in the studio.

In conclusion...

Many people prefer vinyl to CD and download, for a variety of reasons. But the most important reason of all is that on many records, you can get closer to the sound that the artist and producer heard in the studio.

Yes, in this respect, vinyl is more accurate than digital.

Sonata HiFi

Publication date: Monday February 20, 2012
Author: David Mellor

Friday, February 17, 2012

Schubert: Rosamunde / Abbado · Berliner Philharmoniker

Free to Create Music with Finale Notepad

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The ultimate portable vocal booth?

In the quest for ever-drier vocals, how can you achieve the ultimate dead zone in your studio?

By David Mellor

It is often better to record vocals very dry, without any ambience or reverb. This is because you can process the recording in any way you want later. You can add reverb, but you can't take it away.

But achieving a dry vocal sound isn't always easy. If your recording room has hard surfaces, whether flat or irregular, then you will have ambience (the word 'ambience' is generally used to mean the reverberation of a small room). This might sound nice on instruments. It might even sound nice on vocals if you get the mic placement exactly right. But being able to achieve a very dry recording should be part of any recordist's technique.

So you could add acoustic treatment to the room. Acoustic treatment in general (which is not the same as sound insulation) comprises both absorption and diffusion. But here we just want absorption. Without going into the lengthy details here, with sufficient budget and materials you could make any room dry as a dead dingo's armpit.

But what if you don't have the budget? Or you don't want to make the whole room dry? Then you might consider a vocal booth. You can buy a vocal booth, but once again we're talking money. You could build one. Bear in mind that the acoustics of very small spaces are difficult. You could build a small booth, put a lot of absorption in, and find that it ends up sounding 'boxy'.

So in the face of these difficulties, a new class of product has emerged - the portable vocal booth. Typified by this example from sE Electronics, the main aim is to prevent excess vocal sound energy flying straight past the microphone and energizing the room. The device will also reduce reflections that would otherwise strike the back and sides of the mic.

This is a noble aim, although one would have to consider whether any of the similar devices on the market might reflect some sound directly back into the mic. Clearly this would be undesirable.

But one thing seems puzzling. Why are portable vocal booths so small? Well they are not exactly Linksmall but they could be a lot bigger. Like a Dyson Sphere versus Ringworld. It's weight that is the problem. It's one matter to sell a product that will sit on a mic stand, quite another if it requires a scaffold to hold it in place.

But these products conventionally treat the vocalist and microphone as an entire system. What about just considering the microphone? What if you could reduce the aperture through which sound energy can access the microphone, so that the microphone is screened from the room in all other directions?

Sounds crazy? Well fortunately there are people in the world crazy enough, or inventive enough, to try it out. Here for instance is the Harlan Hogan Porta-Booth (shown in the photo above). And here is how you can make a similar gadget for yourself...

It's an 'over to you moment'. If you use a booth like this, or build one yourself, send us some 'before and after' audio. A lot of people out there are interested.

P.S. What about adding a hood to go over the performer's head like an old style photographer? Just kidding. Or maybe they already have (at 1:50)...

Publication date: Tuesday February 08, 2011
Author: David Mellor

Monday, February 6, 2012

How can an expander help in live sound?

A RecordProducer.com reader is having live sound problems and wonders if an expander might help.

By David Mellor

The question sent in to us is simple - "How does the expander helps my live sound recording?" Once again we bear in mind that not all readers have English as their first language, but the meaning is clear.

First of all, an expander will not help at all in live sound recording. It might when you are mixing a live sound recording, but the original recording should get as close to the original signals from the mics and DI's as possible.

But what about actual live sound, in front of an audience?

Well we can simplify this a little and consider the noise gate, which is closely related to the expander and is used widely in live sound.

Basically the noise gate cuts the level when the signal drops below a certain threshold. It will be set by the operator so that when an instrument is playing, the gate on that channel will be open. When the instrument is not playing, the gate will be closed.

In recording, the gate is often set so that it is either fully open or fully closed. In live sound it is safer to set it so that, when closed, it reduces the level of the signal but doesn't cut it completely. A 10 dB reduction is well worth having and means that a mic is never dead completely.

It is worth noting that noise gates are used individually on channels, not on the whole mix. If you want to gate ten channels, then you need ten channel's worth of gates (i.e. five 2-channel units).

The benefit of gating in this way is that all of the spill from the other instruments that gets into, say, the saxophonist's mic, is lowered in level when the sax is not playing. Spread over the entire band, or as many mics as you have gates for, the result is a much cleaner sound.

The benefit of an expander rather than a gate is that the expander offers a smoother transition into level reduction but, as you would expect, it costs more in the form of a hardware unit. It would be better to have enough gates than not enough expanders.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Classic Triton Update Downloads

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Extreme Auto-Tune effects made easier

Extreme Auto-Tune effects are everywhere in pop music. But how difficult does it have to be to get the right sound?

By David Mellor

Whatever you think about the use of extreme Auto-Tune effects, the public seems to like it. And the public has money. Please the public and they will give you their money. That's a good thing.

So once in a while it wouldn't hurt to listen to the most popular music in the world, which is, as you might expect, to be found conveniently listed in the Billboard Hot 100 and the Official UK Singles Top 100, and in similar charts in your own locality of course.

So if you would like to give your own track an extreme Auto-Tune twist, first fire up your Auto-Tune plug-in. No, don't say you never use it. Everyone in the industry uses Auto-Tune for vocal pitch correction. It's our shameful secret that we would prefer the public didn't know about. But the public isn't reading this. Well, I don't think they are...

Achieving the extreme Auto-Tune effect is easy. Just set the Retune Speed to zero. You can play with the other settings for fine tuning, but Retune Speed is the key player here.

Achieving the extreme Auto-Tune effect is one thing. Getting it to work well in a musical fashion is totally another. Extreme Auto-Tune is extremely hit and miss. Most of the time it will produce garbled nonsense. But as the evidence of the pop charts shows us, it is capable of creating sounds that the public will pay for.

One thing is for sure. Unless you are Owl City then you will want to keep extreme Auto-Tune effects for very occasional highlights. Too much Auto-Tune really can be too much.

So you could think really hard about where Auto-Tune will work best in your track, then try it out and find that it produces the previously-mentioned garbled mess at those points.

Or you could do it the easy way...

Simply print a copy of the whole vocal with extreme Auto-Tune applied, then listen to it and see where it works well. Then edit those sections into the un-Auto-Tuned track.

Hopefully you will have a finished vocal with extreme Auto-Tune applied with taste and precision.

And if there is a particular place where you really must have an extreme Auto-Tune effect, but it doesn't seem to be working for you, you can go into Auto-Tune's graphic editor.

Unfortunately the easy part of applying extreme Auto-Tune effects is now over. In fact, you could say that it's a whole new world of T-Pain ;-)

Publication date: Tuesday January 31, 2012
Author: David Mellor