The perils of modern music making, part 2: Blinded by the light

backlit circular VU meter
Don't stare at the pretty lights!

Music is a sonic medium. As obvious as this is it can be easy to forget when faced with the rich visual environment of modern music creation software. This is, mostly, a good thing but as a card-carrying grumbler I feel compelled to spin a cautionary tale of this land of milk and honey. Don’t let your eyes rule your ears.

Visual feedback is great. It has saved my fat fundament on many occasions knowing that the vocal track is coloured blue and the guitar green and being able to see where the bridge starts from looking at the waveform when I’ve been too lazy to set a marker. The problem comes when you stop listening because you are drunk on visual feedback.

Back in the mythical olden days, when music grew on trees and fell into your lap if you had a nap in the park, this was an issue too. We had VU meters or PPMs in broadcast oriented studios. Even just a twitching needle could be more hypnotic than Dr Mesmer’s glass harmonica. I confess I have spent many hours looking at twitching needles, flashing LEDs and even rotating tape spools when I should have been listening more carefully.

Too much eye-candy

Nowadays there is much more to look at. The very features that aid inputting audio merrily scroll by on playback, virtual faders dance up and down, SMPTE counters tick by and software metering has brought class-A visual distraction to the desktop as well as the dubbing theatre. How can you not stare?

On playback there are two big problems with this. First, it’s just distracting and if you’re feeling a bit tired or a bit bored with the tenth time through the bass and drums checking for timing issues (can those guys actually count?) your mind can wander. Mine does anyway. Secondly, the visual feedback can influence what you think you heard or might hear. If the meter says it’s fine, it must be fine… Right?

The trick is mono-tasking. If you’re listening to the playback then just listen to the playback. Try to use your ears only. If you hear a problem, some clipping or a drop-out, go back and use the meter to check it. You can always bang in a marker to flag up the spot. All those wonderfully beguiling visual tools will be waiting for you whenever you need them.

Those tools can mislead your ears too. Flying faders are big offenders here. If you’re watching the desk, or virtual desk, dance along with the track seeing a fader dip really low can kid your ears that channel is to quiet. It must be too quiet, it’s so low. The big point here is it doesn’t matter what anything looks like it only matters how it sounds. Continue reading The perils of modern music making, part 2: Blinded by the light

The perils of modern music making, part 1: Too much too young

mic stand and cross of tape on the floor
X marks the spot on the floor of Sun Studios

I’m aware that I’m going to come across as a curmudgeonly old fool, but to paraphrase Bill Hicks, I am so that’s how it comes out. By way of an apology, modern music making technology is wonderful, brings significant benefits to musicians and is helping to make the world of music as healthy as it has been for many a decade.

There are however some pitfalls.

The first is a question of sequencing. Not in the sense of programming synth parts but the order in which tools become available to musicians in the course of their career. Just about every computer-based music making software package comes with a bewildering array of potential from plug-in effects and processors to the ability to create virtual mixing desks of bewildering complexity.

This potential certainly creates value for money. Logic Studio is selling today for £408 and would allow me to create a virtual studio that would cost me hundreds of thousands of pounds to recreate using real gear. I’m going to sidestep the question of how accurate an analogue this studio would be to the real world version for now, but it would be close enough that the gap in price is staggering.

This is good and is part of the reason that there is an explosion of independently produced music available to listen to and a large supply of musicians cutting their teeth by themselves. The good is not the whole story though there is a problem with this sudden acquisition of potential. Continue reading The perils of modern music making, part 1: Too much too young

Mid/Side stereo, a great tool for home recording

Mid/Side stereo schematicRecording at home (yours or someone else’s) as opposed to a commercial studio has many advantages, cost, comfort and available time amongst them, but disadvantages too in terms of recording environment. One of the main disadvantages can be that the rooms performances are captured in are designed for living in rather than recording. This can cause some interesting issues when trying to record a stereo room sound with phase issues. Mid/side (M&S) recording can be a great way to deal with these issues.

M&S has several advantages,

  • Bulletproof mono compatibility
  • Equal focus on the center and sides
  • Control over the width of the sound during post-production
  • No need for expensive omni pairs

These advantages are very useful in a home recording environment. In an asymmetrical room complex phase relationships can develop, often frequency dependent ones. With M&S you have great mono compatibility with your middle channel. Mic placement still matters but there is always a fallback to pure mono. This can be a take-saver in a room that may sound great but is hard to record in with other stereo techniques like spaced omnis or XY stereo. The mono fallback allows you to make your mic placement decisions based on what sounds best rather than what minimises phase problems. Continue reading Mid/Side stereo, a great tool for home recording