Great Tone in the Box: Using Harmonics and Distortion for Analog Sound in Digital Mixes

RecordingCoverJune2016

My last article for Recording Magazine was great fun to write, since I got to write about the single biggest factor in improving my mixes over the past decade. It wasn’t until I understood how distortion & harmonics can be used in a mix, that I feel like my mixes were finally sounding the way I always had heard them in my head. Before I understood distortion in this way, I tended to overuse things like EQ and compression in an attempt to make the recordings sound richer — only once I started using distortion in this way did things finally sound “right” to me.

Recording Mag has been kind enough to provide a PDF of my article if you aren’t a subscriber. Here is an excerpt, to whet your harmonic appetite:

There is a school of thought that says in this digital age of plug-ins, a recordist is best off recording tracks as cleanly and as flat as possible, to maximize flexibility during the mix. Another school of thought says that you should craft your tones ahead of time on the way into a digital recording system, to maximize the sonic potential and save yourself time during the mix. Both approaches are used successfully every day on recordings, but there is little question that the latter approach generally requires a much higher budget for hardware: analog preamps, EQs, compressors, and other devices to achieve the desired tonality.

In a way, the gear choices that an engineer makes reflects their sonic personality. Familiarity allows the engineer to quickly get the sounds they are looking for. For busy professional engineers who need to work quickly, this approach makes perfect sense, and is at the root of the analog gear explosion of the last decade. The amount of great gear available these days, all made by passionate people, is astounding.

Ask the right question

The new generation of front-end hardware typically has more controls, often a gain and a level knob or perhaps simple EQ or input impedance controls to manipulate tone, rather than just a single gain knob on an interface preamp. Despite the additional expense of many of these units, they aren’t necessarily better—they just sound different, and in many cases the differences are quite subtle. The four main parameters of audio are frequency response, distortion, noise, and time-based effects, so whatever differences in sound exist between audio products like mic preamps can be described in terms of these parameters, and we can manipulate these parameters using plug-ins.

We can debate whether digital distortion can sound the same as analog, but I believe this is the wrong question. Rather, I prefer to ask: can we make a given recording sound better with the tools available to us? With distortion plug-ins, we can add back in much of the tone we associate with analog technology: tape, tubes, analog preamps, etc. We can then fine-tune the added distortion with additional EQ or compression.

Thanks to Mike Metlay, my editor at Recording Magazine, for providing this PDF.

AudioGeek For Hire

Today, my association with RealTraps comes to an end. I have been laid off while the company undergoes restructuring. Therefore, the future of RealTraps is no longer my story to tell. I want to thank the factory crew — Joe Jacobowitz and Sean Kollar — for being so awesome to work with over the past 9 years. And also, thanks to all of my RealTraps clients over the years: I’ve worked with thousands of you to make your worlds sound better, and it’s been a blast. I’ve learned so much from you.

As far as what the future holds for me, first on the agenda is to take some time to rest, clear my head, and strategize. I haven’t had a proper vacation in nearly a decade, since before I started with RealTraps. I know one thing: there will be more & different adventures in my reality moving forward. And I’m certain that I will be spending more time in the Crafted Recordings world. First off will be finishing the album project with the fabulous Eddy Dyer, and resuming production of my podcast. I’m so excited to bring this album out into the world; we’re about halfway through and it is sounding amazing already. Eddy has some amazing songs, with some really good musicians playing them; my task is to make sure each song sounds as good as I can make it, and midwife the project into the world. It’s looking like a late summer/early fall release, so watch this space.

In the meantime, if you are interested in my audiogeek services, let me know what you have in mind, and let’s work together!

A Parable for Earth Day

Dixie_Apr22-2016So we added a new family member today. We adopted a dog — her name is Dixie (see note below) Doxy, and we don’t want to change it because she knows it and responds to it. She is 5 years old, and for the first 4.5 years of her life she belonged to a breeder.

She’s a bit skittish, and very shy. For the most part her movements are slow and deliberate, with some exceptions: if she thinks she is in trouble, she flinches and cowers, and is very fearful.

We were told she had 2 litters, one via conventional birth and one via C-section. Part of me suspects they said this merely because any vet will know she’s done both at least once. I can’t help but wonder if she’s had more. She seems tired, and acts older than her 5 years. Edgrrr, our other dog, is more than double that age and exhibits more energy (of course we’ve had him since he was a pup so he’s much more comfortable and less traumatized).

She will have a much different life with us. It will be calmer, with far fewer other dogs to compete with, in a calm environment with lots of love and affection. I really look forward to seeing her personality unfold in the coming weeks & months.

So the parable? What happens if we view the Earth as something to love as opposed to something from which we can extract products to sell?

(UPDATE, 4/25:  we have officially changed her name to Doxy. We couldn’t stomach Dixie, and she still responds to Doxy. We also considered Pixie. She is still adapting well, settling in and getting comfortable. Her bark is adorable, but we’ve only heard it once so far.)

Acoustics Myths and Their Hidden Truths

My next article for Recording Magazine was published in the November issue. It’s called Acoustics Myths and Their Hidden Truths, and was a fun way to integrate my love of mythology with my audiogeekery:

I have a deep love and respect for mythology (Norse is my current favorite). While the myths and stories of our ancestors may not be an abundant source for scientific truth, they are packed with meaning that can inspire us and enrich our lives. This kind of meaning is what drives art in general, and without artistic meaning, what’s the point of recording music?

As a result, I’m not a big fan of “mythbusting” or “debunking”. Implied in these terms are absolutes that I rarely agree with: that the “myth” (taken as a synonym for “lie”) being “debunked” has no truth to it whatsoever, and that anyone who “believes” in it is therefore ignorant and/or stupid. On the contrary, I find that many of these “myths” have their roots in truth. More often, the problems tend to come when the truths are misinterpreted or taken to an extreme that isn’t always the most accurate way to think about the problem at hand. Like all mythologies, audio myths are an invitation to think more deeply about a given scenario.

I am happy to say that my editor provided me with a PDF copy of the article that I can distribute. If you find this stuff interesting, I urge you to subscribe to the magazine, it’s one of my favorite audiogeek magazines going.

This is by far the longest article I’ve yet done in Recording, and it was a fun one to write.

Overheard at a Park Bench in Bangor

“Hello Sir. What are you reading?”

“It’s an essay called ‘The Will To Believe,’ by William James.”

William James.

William James.

“Oh, nice, I haven’t heard of him before. what’s it about?”

“Well, basically it’s a philosophical justification of Belief, in which it can coherently exist alongside rationalism and science.”

“Oh, interesting. I’ll have to look into it. William James, you said?”

“Yes, he was an American philosopher and psychologist who wrote in the late 19th and early 20th century, around the time that psychology was becoming its own discipline, separate from philosophy. You might be more familiar with one of his most famous books, called The Varieties of Religious Experience.”

“I’ll have to look into it. So, what do you believe?”

“Well, I don’t really believe in belief.”

“What do you mean?”

“Put it this way, I’ll give you another line from one of my favorite writers: Belief is the death of intelligence.”

*blink* *blink*

“What does that mean?”

“Well, I interpret it to mean that when we fixate something into a belief system, we tend to close ourselves off from the possibility of novelty, and seeing the world in a different way than we did yesterday.”

“Ah, so you have to keep thinking and challenging yourself.”

“Sure, something like that.”

“We believe that too. I’m from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.”

“Oh, cool. I have a copy of the Book Of Mormon in my library. One of your colleagues gave it to me, probably 30 years ago now.”

“Have you read it?”

“Not all the way through, and honestly I haven’t picked it up in years. I find Mormonism to be one of the most interesting religions out there.”

“Oh, how come?”

“Mostly because its history, how it was founded, is a great story. I really like stories about Christ that are outside the norm, as portrayed in the Gospels. Also for other little things that make me go hmmm. For instance, that they call someone as young as yourself an ‘Elder,’ if I’m reading your nametag correctly. In my tribe, that term is used for people with quite a bit more life experience than is possible for one so young.”

“What religion are you?”

“Well, I don’t really believe in Organized Religion with capital letters, and for the most part I think monotheism is a blight upon humanity. But if you want to call me something, call me a pagan.”

“What do you mean, pagan?”

Pagan is Latin for Redneck.”

*blink* *blink*

“Well, that stuff you were talking about earlier, about not stopping thinking when you believe something, well we believe that too.”

“Cool.”

“So, would you mind if we stopped by sometime to talk to you?”

“Well, I don’t live here. I’m in town for a gig, I live 100 miles away.”

“Oh. Well, can I give you this card? You should look something up on the web, I bet you’d get a lot out of it.”

“Sure, if I can give you a copy of my Radical Paganism pamphlet. I bet you’d get a lot out of that, too.”

“Have a good night, Sir.”

“You too.”

Radical Paganism pamphlet

Tomorrow is Maine Pagan Unity Day in Portland. I am giving a workshop with C.S. Thompson, that I am greatly looking forward to. C.S. and I both write for Gods & Radicals. This should be a fun workshop.

Radical Paganism: Magic, Capitalism & Resistance

The processes that gave birth to the modern, industrialized world were the same processes that drove people off the land, severed their connections to ancient, magical ways of being, and forced them to subsist as worker/laborers in the capitalist system. People all over the world resisted these changes by calling on Gods, Land Wights, Spirits of Place, Faerie Queens, and other indigenous energies as allies in resistance. In this workshop, James Lindenschmidt & C.S. Thompson of GodsAndRadicals.org will look to their examples as inspiration in our own quests to resist beautifully & re-enchant the world.

There is also a handout pamphlet I made, that you can see here. It’s a 4 page pamphlet, that you can print on both sides of a letter size page, and fold in half.

Radical Paganism: Magic, Capitalism, & Resistance

So yeah. If you are anywhere near Portland tomorrow, you should come check it out. Lots of cool workshops, and I’ll also be doing sound all day.

Frenzy

It has been a busy summer thus far. In addition to my day job at RealTraps, which keeps me quite busy by helping people make their realities sound better, I have been writing quite a bit, and also doing some mixing & recording.

alley-fistMost of the writing has been over at Gods & Radicals, where I’ve written 3 articles since the last update here:

Also, I published here my first ever published article, written way back in 2000 when I was a student at USM. It’s a piece called A Barnraising In Cyberspace: Linux & The Free Software Movement, and is an analysis of my early days using Linux back in 1999, as well as some of my thoughts about the broader potentials of the Free software movement as a commons (though I didn’t really have that language of the commons back then). I think the piece holds up really well, if I do say so myself.

In addition to the writing, much of my free time has been spent working on Morgan Lindenschmidt‘s next EP, which is coming along beautifully. Not that I’m biased, but it’s great fun watching this young artist continue to grow in every possible way as an artist. I can’t wait for the world to hear this stuff.

I’ve also been trying to spend more time outside, given that it’s summer and I live in one of the most beautiful places on Earth. So, yeah. Busy time of year. Not too conducive to lots of writing online. Let the lamentations begin.

 

Mix CD#1: Jack & Betty

When I was a kid growing up in the 1970s, I had a lot of musical influences. Both of my grandmothers had a love of music that was instilled to me. We had a stereo at home and Mom & Dad had a bunch of albums, everything from jazz to 50s and 60s folk, rock, & pop. As a little kid I went through an early Elvis infatuation (circa 1977, just before and after his death), and then I discovered KISS.

One genre I didn’t hear much of at home, but did hear at my Uncle Jack & Aunt Betty’s house, was progressive rock: Yes & King Crimson stand out; Floyd and Genesis not so much. This is significant because prog rock became — and remains so to this day — my favorite genre of music (if you force me to choose one). I also heard some edgier stuff (Bob Dylan) that I hadn’t heard much at home.

So I made this mix CD, burned it, wrote up some of commentary, and sent a couple copies to Jack & Betty. Some people have expressed an interest in it, so I decided to writeup this entry sharing it with the world.

Now, of course I’m an audiogeek, so I mastered this CD, adjusting the relative levels between songs (turning the overcompressed ones down a bit, for instance), and trimming off some transitional intros & outtros, making sure the pause between each song is right. This is what I grew up doing with cassette tapes, applied to the digital realm. Modern tools & 35 years of experience doing this means I’m a lot better at it now than I was on my Fisher Price record player, old GE portable cassette recorder, and the cheap cassettes I could afford at the time. :-)

But then, were I to simply upload a FLAC or an MP3 of my mix CD, I would be violating copyright law, idiotic as this fact is. Therefore, I will include the text of what I wrote, and I will embed each song from youtube. Enjoy!

1. Time Flies
Porcupine Tree
from The Incident

I was born in ’67
The year of Sgt. Pepper
And Are You Experienced?
Into a suburb of heaven
Yeah, it should’ve been forever
It all seems to make so much sense
But after a while
You realize time flies
And the best thing that you can do
Is take whatever comes to you
‘Cause time flies

OK, so I wasn’t born in ’67, it was ’69. But the sentiment of the song stands for me. Steven Wilson (see below for more of his solo stuff) is really doing a lot of great stuff these days with music. He is the main songwriter, singer, and guitarist for Porcupine Tree, who are now in hiatus. I really like the drummer, Gavin Harrison, who is now touring with King Crimson. I love the dynamics of Wilson’s arrangements. And he doesn’t have the best voice in the world, but I love what he does with it. He gets some really lush vocal harmonies. I can hear the Yes influence for sure. He also incorporates more ambient and electronic musical forms as well.

2. Good Intentions Paving Company
Joanna Newsom
from Have One On Me

It took me a while to get Joanna Newsom. Morgan turned me on to her, she’s a big fan of hers. She’s a master harpist (people like to call her the Jimi Hendrix of harp), and she’s part of the “freak folk” scene. Her voice is definitive for sure, but this is the first song of hers that I really got. It took her a long time to grow on me but now I really love her music. This song is another masterpiece at layering vocals. I love the Appalachian roots of her sound.

3. Lost In The Woods
Afghan Whigs
from Do To The Beast

Afghan Whigs are Cincinnati boys. They hit it big with Sub Pop in the early 90s when grunge happened. Angsty, angry, emotive young men they were. They were the local heroes because they got the most attention of anyone from the Cincinnati music scene back then. They reunited last year and did this album, and it’s fantastic. I think it’s the best thing they’ve ever done. I love the influence of funk; I think back to the King records/ Cincinnati influence.

Sin is a line of a poem
Unknown with a need to know
A throne in a room with a view
But you’re lost in the woods

4. Home Invasion &
5. Regret #9
Steven Wilson
from Hand. Cannot. Erase

So Steven Wilson realized after the last Porcupine Tree album in 2009 that he liked being a solo artist better. And I admit it’s pretty cool, because he gets some amazing musicians to play with him. The lead guitarist, Guthrie Govan, is one of my favorites playing today, but these two songs are driven by the organ/keyboard player, Adam Holzman, who has played with Miles Davis and a bunch of other people. I love the organ groove throughout Home Invasion. Nick Beggs on bass/Chapman Stick is also very good. Marco Minneman is a great drummer. As Steven Wilson says at his solo live shows “I’m by far the worst musician on this stage.” I can hear the King Crimson influence on this track for sure in some of the edgier pieces, but Wilson also gets some dreamy, ambient soundscapes in it. And a stellar guitar solo from Guthrie Govan in the second half of Regret #9. I love this stuff.

6. I Feel Your Love
Laura Marling
from Short Movie

[COULDN’T FIND A VIDEO]

Laura Marling is another big inspiration for Morgan, and she turned me on to her stuff. She’s young, like 23 or 24, but has a very mature sound to me. This album is her newest one, and is self produced after working with Ethan Johns (son of Glyn Johns, nephew of Andy Johns) for a few albums. Her vocals are outstanding.

7. These Walls
Kendrick Lamar
from To Pimp A Butterfly

[COULDN’T FIND A VIDEO]

If these walls could talk
(I can feel your reign when it cries, gold lives inside of you)
If these walls could talk
(I love it when I’m in it, I love it when I’m in it)

I don’t listen to a ton of hiphop, but this album is really good. I love the acoustic instruments on it, and the sonic spaces in the arrangement. And the vocals on this are really good. Some good guitar and organ too.

8. Matamoros
Afghan Whigs
from Do To The Beast

This one just has a groove that I love. The sound is a bit overcompressed for my taste, but for a song like this they can get away with it. It just kinda slams. I like the jarring string arrangement in parts of this, and just another masterpiece of midwestern angst.

9. Deform To Form A Star
Steven Wilson
from Grace For Drowning

This is from his 2nd solo album in 2011. All his solo albums are good. He’s a busy guy, having been remixing a lot of back catalogs for people like King Crimson. He’s fond of, good at, and known for doing mixes in 5.1 surround sound. It’d be awesome to hear his stuff in 5.1 sometime, I never have….. Anyway, Tony Levin does bass on this song, and Jordan Rudess on piano is really good. Theo Travis on clarinet. The sense of space in this song is really lovely. This is one of his strongest vocal arrangements he’s ever done, in my opinion. And as always with Steven Wilson, the dynamics on this song are stellar.

10. Gurdjieff’s Daughter
Laura Marling
from Short Movie

This is the single from her newest album. It’s nice to hear her play some electric guitar. Look at the stars. Keep those eyes wide….

Who’ll weep for them? Sometimes I do.
I do sometimes
You can’t see it, it might be behind you
Keep your eyes wide
Keep your eyes on the back of your mind

11. How Much A Dollar Cost
Kendrick Lamar
from To Pimp A Butterfly

A great question. How much does a dollar cost? Backing vocals on this by James Fauntleroy are gorgeous. I love Kendrick Lamar’s flow, and the fact that his lyrics are very intelligent and paint a vivid picture. Production on this entire album is really good.

12. These Sticks
Afghan Whigs
from Do To The Beast

Greg Dulli, the singer of Afghan Whigs, is at his achy-est here. And that’s saying a lot. He’s really got a good range, he can do the quieter, haunting stuff, but then he can snarl & belt with the best of them. Incidentally, Dulli sang the parts for John Lennon in the Beatles movie Backbeat in 1994. Not bad for a Cincinnati boy….. although technically he’s a Hamilton boy.

13. Happy Returns
Steven Wilson
from Hand. Cannot. Erase.

Hey brother, I’d love to tell you
I’ve been busy
But that would be a lie
‘Cause the truth is
The years just pass like trains
I wave but they don’t slow down

This one ends with a lush arrangement and another tasty guitar solo from Guthrie Govan.

Many Happy Returns indeed!

Clearly, a foodie post is overdue.

So over the weekend I had some time to indulge in some prime foodiness, among the highest orders of such that I am capable.

Chaga Spruce Mead

I began on Friday night, when I went to the spring to gather some water. While I was there, I saw thousands of fireflies in the field across from the spring — by far the most I’d ever seen in Maine. That place always feels magical to me when I go. Some places are just like that…. Glastonbury Tor is another (I took the main photo at the top of this website when I visited there in 2005). When I returned home with with a lot of gorgeous spring water, I put on 3 gallons of chaga tea. This requires a slow simmer for about 12 hours, and produces a wonderfully rich tea that looks like coffee.

Chaga Spruce Tea

Chaga Spruce Tea

At the very end of the simmer, I put in some freshly-harvested spruce tips, let it steep for about 30 minutes, and then let it cool overnight. The next day I mixed it with honey, pitched the yeast, put it into the carboy, and now it is happily bubbling away.

I have had more people tell me that my spruce mead is the best mead they’ve ever had than any other brew I’ve done. It’s not my personal favorite, but there is no question it has a magic to it that is palpable. Perhaps it is because much of the flavor comes from my own immediate ecosystem, namely the spruce trees in my yard.

There is a full writeup over at BardicBrews.net.

Rocking the Ribs

It’s funny. I spent nearly 20 years as a vegetarian, many of those as a vegan, and some as a raw vegan. These days I’m more about eating the best quality local food I can. Since I’m cooking meat again these days, I finally got a Weber kettle charcoal grill last year and have been learning how to use it well. I finally feel like I’m starting to achieve some mastery with it.

Weber grill set up for indirect heating, with charcoal only on one side separated by bricks. Ribs on indirect, with sauce directly over the fire to simmer.

Weber grill set up for indirect heating, with charcoal only on one side separated by bricks. Ribs on indirect, with sauce directly over the fire to simmer.

I haven’t made ribs all that often, but this batch I made was really good. I’m sure I’ll make them again, regularly. I started by setting up the grill for indirect heat, basically dividing the bottom half of the grill with bricks, so that the charcoal stays on one side. This allows me to do indirect heating, treating the grill basically like an oven for cooking. For those curious about how I cooked these ribs, here’s a rundown:

  1. First, I prepped the ribs by peeling off the membrane and applying a rub. The rub I used is DIY, is a mixture of a lot of spices (salt, pepper, garlic, chili powder, a bit of cinnamon, cumin, and who knows what else, it’s different every time). I put the rub on a couple of hours before starting the fire.
  2. Then, I started the fire using 1 chimney of charcoal, with another half-chimney full of unlit charcoal already in the grill. When the chimney was lit I put it into the grill, put on the lid, and opened the airvents so the grill would heat up and stabilize. I restricted the airflow to get about a 300 degree fire to start with.
  3. Almost done....

    Almost done….

    While the charcoal was starting, I made a homemade barbecue sauce in my old cast iron skillet that belonged to my grandmother. I began by sauteeing a diced onion, then added salt, pepper, garlic, molasses, cayenne-infused honey, vinegar, a handful of raisins, and enough water to fill the pan about halfway.

  4. I then brought the rib rack and the skillet full of sauce outside. I seared the rib rack on both sides, then moved over to the indirect heat side. Then I added a chunk of dried apple wood from the tree in the yard for the flavorful smoke, put the skillet back on directly over the fire, and covered it up.
  5. Every half hour, I opened the grill to baste the ribs, and if necessary add more water to the reducing sauce, so it wouldn’t scorch and would keep cooking down. Every other time I opened the grill, I also flipped over the rib rack.
  6. Ribs ready to serve.

    Ribs ready to serve.

    I did not use foil to cover the ribs as many do. I found that by keeping the air in the grill moist from the simmering sauce, the ribs don’t dry out.

  7. About 3 hours in, the outside of the ribs was perfect, so I cut the rack in half and put both halves in the skillet with the sauce, and moved everything to the indirect side.
  8. After another 30-45 minutes, it was ready, so I cut the ribs into pieces.

All in all it was one of the best grills I’ve done yet. It came out perfectly.

In other news….

Writing has slowed down a bit, but I will publish my next article over at Gods&Radicals next week. The trend of seriously awesome writing over there has continued as of late…. check it out if you haven’t.