Friday, July 22, 2016

Climbing the audio ladder

This time around I’d like to talk to you about climbing the ladder in the audio world. When I got out of recording school, I moved to Memphis, TN to work at a studio there and get some experience in a major market. Now, Memphis is mostly known as a blues town and that really wants my thing, so I came back home to KY after a few months and got a job at LIRCo. After being here a few years, I decided to enter the major market again and made the move to L.A. The only problem was that local experience doesn’t really count for much when you are going to the bigs. It’s pretty much just something else to put on your audio resume.


If you are going to pursue this as a career (and not start your own local studio), you need to understand one thing. In the world of major league pro studios, everyone starts out at the bottom as a runner. A runner is just that - you run and get things. Food, packages, clean the kitchen, answer the phones - whatever is needed. Sometimes you are the studio taxi. Whatever the band/business needs done outside of the recording rooms, you are the one doing it. On the plus side, you get to just hang out with the bands in a more more relaxed capacity. When they are in the room tracking, it can be a very stressful environment, but when they are eating dinner, they are much more relaxed and easy going.

I was a runner years ago at a studio where the band RATT was recording, and a few days a week when things were slow, I just hung out and shot pool with their guitarist, Warren DeMartini. At the time I was a guitarist (I use the term loosely), and to be around a player of his calibre and just talk to him like a regular guy was amazing. Being in the studio, they drop their guard and the whole “rockstar” trip and you get to see them as real people.

Just working in a major studio can be awesome. Imagine watching the Beach Boys practice singing harmonies only a few feet from you, watching John Sykes from Whitesnake/Blue Murder lay down guitar tracks, or hanging out on the couch with some of the guys from Guns N Roses just watching TV. Well I don’t have to, because for a while, that was my life. And eventually, I moved my way up the ladder and became an assistant engineer on some sessions.


This whole business on the major level revolves around “who you know”. You could be the best engineer in town, and if you have no reputation, no one cares. You basically ride the coattails of others as you rise in the ranks. When you are a runner, one of your main goals is to make friends with the assistant engineers. If you make their studio lives easier, they remember that. Most major studios don’t like it when the rooms aren’t being used and will sometimes allow the assistants to bring in local bands for a discount to get more experience in the engineer “seat”. They will in turn, bring you in to be the assistant (at least you hope so!) on these sessions. Being an assistant engineer requires lots of long hours in the studio. Sometimes you’ll sleep on the couch between sessions because it’s just easier than driving all the way home and back again. It can be grueling at times, but when you are doing a job you love, it never really seems that bad, at least to me!

When an assistant moves on (more on that later), everyone moves up one in the ranks. So now YOU are one of the assistants. Now your job is to place microphones in basically the right spot, keep logs of everything, and run the recorder. The engineer will come in and make the final mic placements. If you keep the sessions running smoothly, people will notice. When the band is talking about food, you slip off to the side and call the runner in to take orders. If the artist and producer are talking about trying a different mic setup, you go ahead and get the mic on the stand before they even ask you to do it. Basically, you are trying to stay one step ahead of everyone and keep the session running smoothly so the artist, engineer and producer can do their jobs better. Your ultimate goal is to be so good, that the producer wants to bring future sessions to your studio and use YOU as the assistant engineer.

If you work hard enough and get noticed by the right people (coattails!), you may be asked to become part of a team outside the studio. Many times, an engineer will be asked to produce a band because they like how he worked on some other band’s project. So now he is becoming a producer and needs an engineer that he can count on. That engineer is YOU! So you will travel with him to different studios (sometimes around the world!) tracking bands until you have such a reputation in the business, that you start getting offers from OTHER producers and then you will become a truly freelance audio engineer. One of the top assistants at the L.A. studio I worked at left just as I was coming back to KY and became the go-to engineer for most of the early 2000’s rock and metal acts, so it can happen! It just takes lots of long hours and perseverance to get to that level. After I came back to KY, I was able to come back to LIRCo and moved up to the position of Head Engineer that I have had for a while now. Even though I had a lot of fun in those early days, I love where I am and I’m glad I came back to KY where I can help others starting their journey.

So if you are down for that kind of life, The Lexington School for Recording Arts can give you a great education to put you on your way. Just give us a call at 859-335-8440 (if you're local) or TOLL FREE at 877-335-8440 to set up a tour or get some info sent to you. See ya next time!!!

Steve Nall
Head Engineer, LIRS

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Vocal Compression

Over all the years and mixes that I’ve done here at Long Island Studios and The Lexington School for Recording Arts, I have found that vocal compression is one of the hardest parts of your mix. It seems that many times it’s a chore to get vocal to sit on top of the mix all the time without getting covered up by the instruments. Today I'm going to tell you the way I like to set up vocal compression, as well as a few other ways that you may want to try.

Normally in rock music, you want the vocal to stay on top and out in front at all times, but a vocalist is a very dynamic part of your mix. So how do you do this?  The answer is compression. I like to use either the Waves Renaissance compressor or the CLA 1176 simulation, but any decent compressor can get you the results that you need.

I set my compressor up so that when the vocalist gets loud they are getting around 10 to 15 dB gain reduction. I know that this may seem like a lot to some of you, but it will guarantee that the vocal is even as it can possibly be. Now, the attack and release of the compressor play a big role in getting this done correctly. I generally set my attack times to 1 or 2 ms. On the 1176 compressor, the attack times run from "1" to "7" with "1" being the slowest. With some research, I found out that the "1" setting is around 1 ms, so that works out well doesn't?  On the Renaissance compressor, as well as other compressors, you generally have a sliding scale to tell you how many milliseconds your attack time is so that could be an easier path for you to go.

When it comes to release times, that part of compression is constantly changing from song to song.  The two main options are to either have the release time set very quickly and be releasing for every single word, or holding for a longer period of time (say 600 ms or so) to capture the entire line of vocal before releasing in time to catch the next line. The problem sometimes with fast release times is that if it is too fast, then you can get some audible distortions on the track. The problem with longer release times is that you may get some kind of a "pumping" effect because the compressor is slowly releasing as the line gets quieter. What I like to do, is have a fairly fast release time, usually in the 150 to 300 ms range. On the CLA 1176, the release time is also a range of "1" to "7", just like the attack time. The "1" is 1 second and the "7" is 50 ms, so I tend to have mine set to around the "5" area.  Then I just set the threshold to allow me around 10 dB of reduction, and use the output to gain to get the vocal back up to the volume that I need. Most of the time, this will get my vocal on top and "in your face" how I want it to be, so that every word is heard correctly and nothing is covered by the band.

For a more dynamic vocal, the same settings can be used, but just set the threshold so that instead of getting 10 dB of reduction on the loud parts, you're only getting around 3 to 6 dB of reduction. Then,set your output volume so that the loud parts are as loud as you want them to be, and the quieter parts will remain how they were recorded - without added compression.

Another way of getting somewhat "in your face" style compression (without the possible audibility of squashing the track), is to set up multiple compressors that are only compressing a few db each. Many times, this way of compressing a track allows you to compress in order to just control the peaks and then if anything breaks through, the second compressor will clamp down and keep everything even.  

Well, that's it for now. Don't forget that you are welcome to stop by and tour our facilities anytime. Just give us a call at 859-335-8440 (if you're local) or TOLL FREE at 877-335-8440 to set it up, so we can give you the ultimate LIRCo experience. See ya next time!!!

Steve Nall
Head Engineer, LIRS

Thursday, March 24, 2016

4 Steps To Setting Input Gain

Here at LSRA and LIRS, I teach several classes, including Studio Recording. An important part of learning how to track a band is the proper way of getting your input levels. I try to make things easy for the students to remember, so I have broken it down into four steps: GAIN, RE-GAIN, FADERS, and FADERS. Following these four easy steps will ensure that you always get a good level going to your recorder (thereby lowering your noise floor, i.e. the amount of natural room noise in relation to your recording source) and that the mix engineer has a good starting point every time. In this example, the drummer is used, but the steps are the same no matter what instrument you are recording.

1. GAIN – The first thing you must do is set the initial gain for the track. This is done using the standard “soundcheck” system where the engineer instructs the drummer to hit each drum and cymbal individually. The engineer then adjusts the input gain knob (also known as the pre-amp) for the microphone that is placed on the drum he told the drummer to hit. The goal is to get the gain set as loud as it can go before overloading. The gain knob is turned up until an overload is reached and then backed down slowly until the hardest hit will not make the pre-amp overload. This is then repeated for every drum and cymbal on the kit that is individually miked.

2. Re-GAIN – After the initial gain stage is set, the engineer should ask the drummer to play the full kit for a few minutes to gauge what kind of hitter the drummer is and whether or not some microphones need repositioning. At the same time, the engineer needs to see if any gain knobs set during the first stage are overloading. Most drummers hit slightly harder when actually playing, so some gain changes being made here is natural. Just watch the overload lights on each channel and adjust the gains needing reduction.

3. FADERS - After all the gains that need readjusting are corrected, allow the drummer to keep playing for a minute or two; not only make sure your new gain settings are correct, but to get your levels in Pro Tools, or whatever recorder you may be using, correct as well. By this time you should already have your tracks routed to your recorder and the tracks should be armed for recording. When you plug a microphone in a mixer to use its pre-amp, you have to go through that channels’ fader section to get to the recorder. If the fader is turned down, you will get a lower signal to your recorder, or no signal at all. If the fader is too high, you may overload your track to the recorder, even though the pre- amp gain you set previously isn’t distorting. Therefore, the fader of the microphone input track has some control over the volume of the track going to be recorded. It is recommended that you start all the input faders at 0 db. This allows some headroom, and if a volume reduction is needed, there is a good amount to be had. If the level of each track you have armed on the recorder is not at least half-way to the top of it’s meters, go back to your board input track and increase the corresponding fader level to +5 db. This small boost will usually do the trick. Going all the way to +10 is not recommended because of the fact that a mix always needs some headroom and at +10 there’s no where to go.

4. FADERS – This is the last step in setting the gain pre amp and getting ready to record. By now, the input gains should be set as loud as possible before overloading and the recorders’ input levels should be jumping at least halfway up it’s meters. Now the engineers’ attention should turn to the board faders used for control room listening. Once these are set satisfactorily, stop the drummer from playing and ask if any volume adjustments are needed in the headphone mix. Make the necessary adjustments and you’re done!

Well, that's it for now. Don't forget that you are welcome to stop by and tour our facilities anytime. Just give us a call at 859-335-8440 (if you're local) or TOLL FREE at 877-335-8440 to set it up, so we can give you the ultimate LIRCo experience. See ya next time!!!

Steve Nall
Head Engineer, LIRS

Friday, January 8, 2016

Drum Miking - Part 2

Hi everybody and welcome back to part 2 of my drum miking series. Last time we discussed miking kick and snare drums so this week I want to delve more into miking rack toms and floor toms.

When you're miking toms, there's a couple of different things that you need to take into account. Do you want to mike just the top, or do you want to mike top and bottom? Do you want to use a dynamic mic or maybe a condenser? What kind of heads should you use? All of these are very good questions, and hopefully I will provide you the answers that you need.

Normally, I just mike at the top of head of the rack tom. I find that miking the bottom head of the tom, while providing some additional resonance, really doesn't do very much for the overall sound of my drum kit, and is a waste of a track to be honest. So let's stick with the top head. As far as what type of drumhead you should use, it really depends on if you're in the studio or if you're doing live work. In my experience, I have always found in the studio, that batter heads tend to give me the best results, while when I am doing a live sound gig, I find the clear heads are the best. Also, it's a good idea if your drummer knows how to tune his drums! I use a tool called Drum Dial. It is a tempanic pressure tuner that works off of the tension of the head, not the sound, to achieve the correct tone of the drum. And lastly, you need to decide if you want to use dynamic microphones or condenser microphones to record your toms. I would say that the studio standard is the dynamic microphone known as the Sennheiser 421. It's a very good mic I'll admit, and I use it sometimes to make musicians feel at home in the studio since it's something that they are probably used to seeing in other studios. Personally, the microphone I like to use for rack toms is the Audio Technica 4050. It is a large diaphragm condenser that just seems to have more attack and brightness then the 421 while still having about the same amount of body as the 421. I like to have a little more natural stick attack coming through the microphone than the 421 offers me most of the time.

So let's talk distance. If you using a dynamic microphone such as the 421 a Shure 57 or an Audix D2, then you want to be approximately 1 to 2 inches off of the drumhead. For me, with my "finger measuring system" that we talked about in my previous blog, it would be about a knuckle up off of the head. When you use a condenser microphone, such as the 4050, the AKG 414, or even the Neumann U87, you want to be approximately 3 to 6 inches off of the drumhead. In my finger measurement, that would end up being a whole index finger to about half of your hand. Remember, the further away your microphone is from your drum, the more bleed you will get from the surrounding the pieces of the drum kit, so it is very important to find that optimum distance that provide you with enough body and attack, but still gives you the necessary isolation from the rest of the drum kit so that your compression (and possibly gating) will work correctly and not against you. You can also mike both of your up rack toms with one microphone if you need to. I have done this on several occasions when I did not have enough inputs on my console to allow me to record both toms separately. What I did in the situation is, I used a large diaphragm condenser (which happened to be the 4050), and I put it about 6 to 8 inches up directly between both toms, facing straight down. Then in the mixing stage, I added a new audio track to my session and separated the second tom hits from the track and moved them to their own track.

For miking floor toms, my go to microphone is the Shure PG 52. I find this microphone (which is actually a lower level mic made primarily for kick drum miking) gives the floor tom a nice round "boom" while still maintaining some of the attack that is needed. I mic it up generally being about 2 to 3 inches up off the drumhead and 2 to 3 inches into the drum itself (over the ring).  I'm not pointing at the middle of the drum like you would a snare mic, but pointing more towards the outside edge about 3 inches into the drumhead.

So that's it. Not nothing too difficult, just your basic mic set up. I do EQ the tracks coming into my system and as well as a EQing them after recording. I find that this gives me the best possible sound I can get going down to my recorder and gives me a good base to start the mix with.

Well, that's it for now. Don't forget that you are welcome to stop by and tour our facilities anytime. Just give us a call at 859-335-8440 (if you're local) or TOLL FREE at 877-335-8440 to set it up, so we can give you the ultimate LIRCo and Lexington School for Recording Arts experience. See ya next time!!!

Steve Nall

Head Engineer, LIRS