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Saturday, April 26, 2014

THE MINIMAL MASTERING CHAIN (with stock plugins)




Hello and welcome to this week's article!
This article links our in-depth Mastering article, which covers pretty much everything that can be done in the mastering phase, whith our "Mixing with stock plugins" article, which shows us how to mix a song only using the basic stock plugins featured in our daw.

The idea is to try to separate what's essential when mixing and mastering from what's just "the icing on the cake", and to focus on the essential things with just the tools provided in our Daw.
The second objective is to free ourself as much as we can from the slavery of the presets: we must understand how does a tool works and how to adapt it to our song; the presets that we can find on the plugins are always a caricature, made to let us understand the direction of the processing, but they're always exaggerated.
The sooner we'll stop using presets without knowing what the hell is going on, the better our songs will sound, trust me.

Speaking of the essential mastering chain, once we have a good mix we just need to give our tracks the final boost in volume and the final touches to make them sound in line with the commercial products.

Let's start with a compressor. This is needed to reduce the dynamic range a bit, letting us push more with the limiter. We need to check out the average level of our song (for example -10db) and set the threshold of our compressor a bit higher (for example -8db), so that the compressor only lowers the big peaks. The Ratio should be somewhere between 2:1 and 8:1, we need to limit the peaks but not taking away the life from our songs so find the right compromise. The attack and release should be set to a speed that lets the compressor to kick in and go back to inactivity, we don't want to compress everything all the time (ideally, the meter should move in time with the song).

Now we need to use an Equalizer. In theory, in the mixing phase we should have already done all the equalization we need, and if there are problems it would be better to re open the mix and to fix it from there, because now we're affecting the whole mix, so we must be very careful.
A good thing to start with the mastering eq is to take away everything from 45/50hz with a high pass filter,  then we can check out the most problematic areas in the mastering phase, which are usually the lower frequences: sometimes our master needs a little boost in that area, sometimes a little cut, sometimes nothing (and we often can notice it only using a reference track), but probably the best way to eq a track during mastering is using a Mid/Side processor, in the way described HERE.

Now that we have tamed the most problematic frequences we can try to add a little sparkle to our sound, with some harmonic exciter or saturation tool. The ideal would be to have a multiband processor, since in my opinion we should excite a bit more the higher frequences and much less the lower ones (or just bypass them), otherwise the delicate equilibrium we've tried not to ruin until now will be damaged. These tools are usually needed to add some nice ringing to the snare and cymbals, and to add some bite to vocals and guitars, but if we see that we cannot obtain a sensible enhancement, we can just skip this whole step and pass to the limiters.

The limiter is the single most important part of the mastering chain, as we have already seen in many other articles of this blog. What we need to do is to see how much headroom we have and to raise the final volume of our song to a point that it is competitive with the volume of the commercial songs, but at the same time it must not sound excessively squashed and distorted. Our job here is to find the right compromise between power and clarity, without cutting too much the transients.
We should set the ceiling somewhere between -0.1db (if our final track will be played mostly from a cd) and -1.0db (if we are planning to distribute it mainly through internet streaming) and to lower our threshold until we see some gain reduction: we should let the limiter kick in only with the highest peaks, and never let it limit more than 3 or 4dbs, otherwise we will damage our song.

In order to know if the overall level of the song is in line with the industry standards and if there is enough headroom before exporting, we could use some metering tool. Those tools just tell us visually if the song volume is right, or if we could raise it or lower it, and some tool like the TT Metering tool also tell us if the song is too compressed, so that we can limit it less and make it less ear fatiguing.
Once all the meters says that the levels are right and there are no distortions, we can consider our mastering done!

So Here's our minimal Mastering Chain

COMPRESSOR -> EQUALIZER -> HARMONIC EXCITER / SATURATION TOOL -> LIMITER WITH METERING TOOLS.

Hope this was helpful! By the way, the song on the video is a song taken by Wisteria's full lenght "8-Bit Nightmare", played and mixed by me. Buy one copy to support us by clicking on the banner on the right side of this blog!

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Saturday, April 19, 2014

INTERVIEW: BILL BLUE



GuitarNerdingBlog: Introduce yourself to our readers. Tell us your story!

BillBlue: I’m a “vintage” blues player from the US and my name is Bill Blue. YES! That is my real name!
I just released a new record, Mojolation, that’s receiving worldwide airplay on blues radio shows in France, Belgium, The Netherlands, Australia, and all over the US. It’s my first new studio record in thirty years.

GNB: Tell us about your career. Which are the moments that you consider your career highlights? Is there still some collaboration that you’d like to do?

BB: During the heyday of southern rock and blues in the 70s and 80s, I was an active part of the global music scene. I toured with Arthur (Big Boy) Crudup, author of Elvis' hit "That's Alright Mama". When Crudup died in 1974, I carried on and formed The Bill Blue Band and continued recording and touring, sharing the stage with ZZ Top, The Allman Brothers, Albert King, Johnny Winter and Hank Williams Jr. I was signed to the prestigious Adelphi Record label, one of the best blues labels in the US. The label's international presence allowed my music to be heard worldwide and allowed me to tour the globe.
After 17 years on the road, a chance visit to Key West proved a catalyst for a much needed change of life. I visited Key West in 1980 and in 1982 left the continental states and chose to live in the American tropics. In essence, I kind of “disappeared” - on purpose.
I found fun and a bit of local fame, I guess you’d call it, in Key West bars and venues. Over the past thirty years, I’ve become the elder statesman of the music community. I was the first person to ever play at The Green Parrot, which is now a musical landmark.
In 2012, I met UK record producer and new Key West resident, Ian Shaw. And that meeting changed the course of my career. Ian wanted to record me and I said yes and we started working on Mojolation.
Mojolation was released October 2013 and features a lot of my friends who came together to help me make the record, including drummer Richard Crooks who has played with Bob Dylan, Paul Simon and Leonard Cohen and UK guitarist Matt Backer who has played with Steve Winwood, Joe Cocker and Emmylou Harris, and was Julian Lennon's band leader for eight years. A mighty contribution to Mojolation was the Funky in the Middle Horns from New York. Also featured on Mojolation is Nashville guitarist Michael McAdams who's played with Steve Earle and Mary Chapin Carpenter, along with many local Key West musicians.

GNB: Career highlight

BB: There have been a lot of them but being able to jam with BB King stands out as a huge highlight. I opened for him a number of times but this show was in 1976 in Winston Salem NC and I was able to sit and jam with him. He’s inspiring to just be around. I am lucky I got to be around a lot of legends. I loved playing in different countries and experiencing different cultures. I’ve been fortunate and had a great career that is still rolling along!

GNB: Which artists influenced you most

BB: Hounddog Taylor, Bukka White. Of course Author Crudup- because I go to know him well. Crudup had spent time in Parchman Prison in Mississippi. It was a notorious prison where lots of blues guys were sent. He knew all old blues guys and talked about them. Hearing those stories really influenced me in my playing.

GNB: Who would you want to collaborate with

BB: Matt Backer. Matt’s the guitarist for the band ABC. He was Julian Lennon’s bandleader for eight years. Ian Shaw, who produced my record, is Matt’s producer and Matt spends a lot of time in Key West recording with Ian. He’s an excellent guitarist. I’d love to collaborate with him.

GNB: Where did your love of guitar come from? 

BB: I was just a kid and I was just into music – even when I was a little boy. I listened to everything from Fats Domino to Doris Day. A radio station out of Charlotte NC played old R&B songs. I could only pick up that station at night from my home in Norfolk VA. I used to listen to Jimmy Reed on that station when I was just a little boy.
Whiteman Transistor Radios came out and it was a big deal to carry around a radio. I’d listen to Cousin Brucey in NY and WOWO in Indiana. I would hear these old blues songs and I was just bowled over. I knew from an early age I wanted to play music for a living.
Not far from my house was a little joint called the Tip Top and they had a juke box. The Tip Top was a country store during the day and a real juke joint at night. I’d collect bottles and turn them in for money so I could play the juke box. Three plays for a quarter! That when I first started getting interested in music intensely. Then when the Beatles came to the states that influenced me too. I mean, who didn’t want to play guitar after seeing The Beatles on Ed Sullivan in 1964? Then I heard The Rolling Stones doing Little Red Rooster by Howlin Wolf and the blues started to fall together for me.
I loved the slide and was into the old slide players. My first record was just me playing slide and singing and doing some instrumental slide songs. I saw myself as this progressive guitarist, like a Leo Kottke slide player. Williamsburg, Yorktowne and Norfolk Virginia actually had a music scene back then. Regional bands could work hard and really do something. Then when I started getting gigs with BB King, I didn't want to do it by myself so I hired a band from Richmond called The Black Hawks.



GNB: What are your favorite guitars?

BB: Telecaster- that's all I ever play. Telecaster that I have now is a 57 body with a 61 strat neck on it.
Humbucking pick ups. Paul Beard metal body is my favorite resonator.

GNB: What do you think about the music business?

BB: I think it's great. The internet has changed everything in the world. In the old days, if you wanted to get anything done, you put your record in a box with a press kit and sent it out. There was no network of distribution back them. Now, for independents, it couldn't be a better time to be playing. We’re received airplay for Mojolation all over the world. It happens with the click of a mouse. How cool is that!

GNB: Best gigs you've ever played

BB: WOW...let me think....It was at the Mosque Theatre which is the Landmark Theatre now in Richmond and we were with BB King. I was a young guy on fire and that was 1974 when a person could really make it just playing music. I played with a band for the first time live at The Mosque Theatre- huge stage and huge theatre and I was opening for BB KING!

GNB: Do you consider yourself more of a live player or a studio player?

BB: I am a LIVE GUY no question about that. When I play LIVE I try to do call and response songs. I was raised a southern Baptist and went to revivals and those old call and response songs really got people hopping. I don't shoot a lot of bull between songs. One songs goes into another. I play an hour and never say a word. But I say stuff in the songs. A lot of my songs have story lines and talking in them.

GNB: Funniest experience?

BB: I've always been averse to having my pictures on my albums. I booked a solo gig and showed up in Raleigh, NC and no one knew who I was. I was a white guy and they thought they had booked a black guy because they heard the record and I sounded like a black guy! Young hippy guy with long hair down to his waist just freaked out because I wasn’t black!
WORST EXPERIENCE: Driving up to a venue in Hickory NC and seeing the words “Tonight The Bill Blue Band” on the marquee – and behind the sign was a pile of smoldering embers. The place had burned down!

GNB: Technical stuff

BB: I use a Fender Blues Junior and a Super Reverb Fender. Hot Rod Deville- modern copy of a Supra Reverb 4 10. No pedals. No effects. Clean sound.
As far as recording guitar went for Mojolation, Ian Shaw, my producer, always had the right equipment and ideas to capture my sound. Most of Mojolation was recorded live with me guiding the band so my guitar parts were kind of all over the place. I replayed my parts in Ian's studio using a Blackstar Artisan 15 through a soundproof box with a Celestion Blue speaker inside it mic’ed with a Shure SM58. Ian's expertise as a recording engineer made all the difference in my guitar parts. He is truly a master!
The trickiest part of recording for me has always been the capture of my vocals. I really get up on the mic and while that works great live it doesn't work so great in the recording studio. At first we used a Neumann TLM 103 through a Neve board and an MXR compressor. But I still didn't feel like my vocals sounded like they did live, which was very important to me. We tried an SM58 but that still didn't quite cut it. Ian then made a great decision and brought in a Shure SM57 that sounded great. I was even able to hold the mic and cover part of the cap to make a transistor radio type effect. Ian really knows how to get the very best out of a musician and it was a pleasure to work with him.

GNB: Is there any advice you'd give to young players?

BB: Play in front of as many people as you can. Sitting around and woodshedding is great but play with other people as much as you can. Play live as much as you can. I would go from Key West to NYC to open for James Brown- just to do it. I was the brunt of many jokes on the road because I would do ridiculous things like drive 25 hours to play a 40 minute set. I was a lot younger them. Nothing like a well rehearsed band coupled with a lot of drive and ambition. And craziness!

GNB: What do your songs talk about?

BB: My songs are based on experiences. They really do tell a story. But a great song doesn't have to be complex. I play at a BBQ shack in Key West. It's sort of a sports bar with TVs and people talking over the music. But it's a place to play. People love BBQ Store because it tells a story. We wrote it on the spot while we were doing our gig. The best songs are easily written they fall together naturally. A lot of my songs are simple, musical stories.

GNB: Tell us about your latest album/tours/projects.

BB: Since its release in October 2013, Mojolation has done great. The mayor of Key West proclaimed October 11 as Bill Blue Day in Key West and I got a key to the city! Mojolation is getting worldwide airplay and tons of fantastic reviews from Djs and music writers. I've been keeping up my steady diet of weekly gigs at The Green Parrot and Smokin Tuna here in Key West. I lent a guitar hand on the new Matt Backer record Get Backer due out sometime this spring. I'm also featured in a new book by photographer Ralph De Palma called “The Soul Of Key West”. The book is an anthology of the musicians, music and venues that make up the Key West music community. It's a beautiful book and my hands and my guitar are featured on the cover. Not sure when I'll record a new record. The last one was 30 years coming, so it might be awhile! Right now I'm enjoying my life in Key West and playing guitar. What could be better?

Related sites:


http://warmfuzz.com

http://facebook.com/BillBlueMusic

https://www.facebook.com/TheSoulofKeyWest

http://reverbnation.com/BillBlue








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Saturday, April 12, 2014

Mixing with stock plugins



Hello and welcome to this week's article!
Today we're going to talk about commercial Daws (for example Cubase, Reaper, Pro Tools, Magix, Cakewalk, Studio One, Logic...) and their bundled plugins.

There are in the market a lot of third party plugins, some free and some even more expensive than the daw itself, that we can use to integrate the ones bundled in our workstation, and this is because each plugin is coded differently, and although they may have the same function (e.g. an equalizer), each processor will "colour" our signal in a different way, especially the ones created modelling a vintage hardware gear.

The topic of today is: do I really need to buy a bunch of plugins that do functions that my bundled plugins already do? Is it really necessary? 
I had the chance to give some mixing lesson to some guy, and the first thing I told them was "No, you don't really need them, unless there is a real reason. To download dozens of compressors and equalizers won't make your mix sound better, it will just make you more confused". 
The first thing a mix engineer must learn is to master the use of the simpliest tools, which all comes in bundle with any commercial daw: a single band compressor and an equalizer (which are the 2 basic tone shaping tools), and the basic effects: a reverb and a delay
We could almost say that, once we have done the recording phase and the project preparation phase properly (with a particular attention on the gain staging, track routing and panning side), the aforementioned tools may be all we need in order to make our mix really shine.

99% of the things that we may obtain with very expensive boutique plugins can be obtained with stock plugins too, and our aim should be to learn how to use properly (without using presets, possibly) the basic tools and to obtain a clean and powerful mix only with them, before looking for something else.
After we have mastered the use of the basic tools and we know exactly how every knob affects the sound, we can take a look around and see if there is on the market something that could really be useful and cannot be replaced with stock plugins (we'll discover that the essential ones are really few, for example the Fabfilter pro Q, which shows a frequency analyzer in real time pre and post eq, is something that really adds value compared to the stock daw eq).

My suggestion for a good exercise in mixing is to start recording a project only with microphones (no midi, just mono audio tracks ready to be processed), and to go through all the tutorials on this blog (about how to mix drums, guitars, bass, vocals...), using always the same basic plugins, one for each kind, bundled in our daw;
at the end of the mix we will know them much better, and will hopefully be able to obtain the best from them.



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Saturday, April 5, 2014

Electric guitar and bass potentiometers! 250k Pot vs 500k Pot. A guide for dummies.



Hello and welcome to this week's article!
Today we go further in our examination of the single components of a guitar or a bass, speaking of Potentiometers, in our usual non-technical language (I'm not a physicist nor a luthier, just a guitar lover like you).
What are they? How do they affect the sound? Which potentiometer should I choose for my guitar?

A potentiometer (or Pot) is basically a filter. It can filter out the signal incoming from the pickups to the point of cutting it off completely (the volume knob) or filter out certain frequencies, acting as an in-built low pass filter (the tone knob).
Potentiometers affect the sound even just letting it pass through them, because the signal passes through the resistences and it gets somehow modified, even if the pot is totally open.
This is important, and it's also the reason why there are different types of pot choose from: to give us another tone shaping tool to adapt our guitar to the sound we desire.

Usually people chooses between 3 types of potentiometers: 250k (kiloOhms, the unit used to measure the resistance applied to the signal), 500k, and 1mh (megaOhm).
The higher the value, the higher the resistance so 500K has more resistance than 250K.
The lower the resistance, the easier it is for treble to leak right through the pot and get lost, even if the pot is fully open. 
The higher the resistance of the volume or tone pot, the more is the treble that stays in the audio signal and makes it to your amplifier when the guitar's volume and tone pots are on "10".


250K = warmer
The usual choice for single coil pickups, since a good part of the highs gets lost, therefore there is more room for mids and lows.

500K = brighter
The usual choice for humbuckers, which are less trebly than single coil.

1Meg-ohm = brightest
The potentiometer type that lets the most high frequences to reach the amplifier.

25k = active
This is the type of potentiometer utilized with active pickups; if used with passive ones, the result will be too dark and muddy.

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