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.

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.

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!

And suddenly, it’s summer.

Once again I haven’t done a great job at keeping this blog updated. My apologies. There’s been a lot going on. Since the last update, Summer has arrived. It was kicked off by Beltane On The Beach, where a bunch of Maine Pagans celebrate the unofficial arrival of summer. In my own neck of the woods there is much more green; the trees have finally sprung their leaves and temperatures are higher. Wonderful. A lot of people around me are complaining about their allergies from the pollen in the air; I have to say I don’t miss my allergies at all. I struggled with them for more than 40 years. I credit my cleaner diet and my regimen of medicinal mushrooms for the fact that they don’t bother me anymore.

Audiogeekery

Morgan has a new video up, from our recording session recently at Halo Studios. This time we set up a camera, and took a video of it. I love how talented she is, that pretty much all of her music thus far has been live in one take with no overdubs. Anyway, enjoy Thigh-High Apprehension:

Also, I have been crazy busy mixing some really cool stuff that I can’t really talk specifically about yet. More on that front as it develops.

Writing, Politics, & Paganism

I’ve been writing a lot lately, taking it much more seriously for the past half-year or so.

My next piece over at Gods & Radicals was Debt, Stories, & The Violence Of Silence:

Most of us, of course, don’t really have enough money, at least not to live the way we wish to live. Most of us will use our limited “survival tickets” to buy food and shelter, meeting our most basic needs for survival, while in the meantime the spectre of unpaid debt keeps growing in the back of our minds, gnawing at us, creating fear that eventually men with guns will come and take away our limited survival tickets and our home. This fear keeps us willing to engage the capitalist system, so that we can struggle for more survival tickets, showing how powerful this story of debt is in our culture.

Incidentally, the writing in general over at Gods & Radicals has been outstanding. I’m really happy and blessed to be a part of it, and the amazing writing going on over there is definitely keeping me on my toes and inspiring me to keep working at being a better writer. In particular, pieces from Sean Donahue on Capitalism, Neurotypicality, and the War on Consciousness, as well as Rhyd Wildermuth on The Roots of Our Resistance, among many other pieces, have been just outstanding.

I also had a piece over at A Sense Of Place called On Place, Pagan Values, and Politicizing Paganism where I talk about Pagan values and the sorcery of capitalism:

Capitalism’s ability to concretize abstractions in our minds is pure sorcery at the highest levels, such that billions of people behave as if these purely abstract and arbitrary rules of capitalist engagement are quite real and concrete, beyond question at the most fundamental level. They take the place of the gods and spirits, turning our experience of the world upside-down, seeing every aspect of the ecosystem in terms of its own rules rather than in terms of the actual physical things in the world and the labor of its people.

I also talk about whether or not Paganism can be politicized:

any Pagan with a Sense Of Place, encountering the land beneath their feet, will undoubtedly be able to discern how their Paganism is politicized, and has been for the better part of 500 years. I am lucky, I live in the Maine woods where I can walk right outside my door and be surrounded by nature without leaving “my” 2 acres of forest. These woods where I live have a spirit to them, a kind of consciousness, and my own spirit is bettered when I deepen my relationship with these woods. This is my Paganism. But I am also acutely aware that no tree on “my” property is more than a century old — pretty much the entire state of Maine has been clearcut several times in the past 300 years. When I speak to the trees of capitalism they get quiet, and their sadness is discernible to me. This, too, is my Paganism.

I feel like writing is still a struggle for me (another factor behind the radio silence on this channel). I committed myself to being more disciplined about writing starting last December, and I do feel like I’m making some progress. But it still seems like I struggle, almost agonize, over every word. I’m still waiting for the day when I can just tune in, turn on, and just have awesome writing come out on its own. Perhaps it’s a pipe dream, but when I read the amazing work of Rhyd Wildermuth, Sean Donahue, Alley Valkyrie, and others, who manage to produce writing that hits hard on the mind level as well as the heart and spirit levels, I see just how far I have to go.

Meadmaking

My meadmaking has slowed down the past year or two. This is for a variety of reasons (storage space for mead bottles, the high cost of honey, creative energy going to different places). But as I mentioned above, the spruce tips are poking their neon green nutritional goodness out, and soon it will be time to make another batch of Chaga Spruce Mead, one of the favorites that I do. Also, soon I will bottle last year’s Harvest Berry Meads. And soon I’ll be able to taste my very first bochet that I did a few months ago, can’t wait for that one.

Ever Onward

I have been quite busy lately, all with good projects. But it can be a bit overwhelming sometimes, to the point where I’m feeling like I might benefit from reprioritizing a bit. It’s difficult, because I love everything in my life at the moment. But there are only so many hours in the day.

Máni Traditional Mead, and a Wooden Overcoat

“The Wolves Pursuing Sol and Mani” by John Charles Dollman (1909). Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

“The Wolves Pursuing Sol and Mani” by John Charles Dollman (1909). Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

After making the bochet last night, I had some leftover ingredients so I made up a batch of traditional mead. In honor of the full moon today, I named this one after Máni, the Norse God of the Moon. Details over at BardicBrews.net.

In addition, my lovely and talented daughter, Morgan Lindenschmidt, released a new song recently, called Wooden Overcoat. We recorded this at home in the living room, and like all her recordings thus far it was done in one take. Details on this are over at CraftedRecordings.com, and check out the song:

On Audiogeekery

I happily embrace the germ audiogeek as a big descriptor of my life. I thought it would therefore be prudent to explain what I mean by it.

First, I align myself with the geek tradition of reclaiming the word geek. No longer, for me, does it signify a nerdy person in school with thick glasses, pocket protectors, and aberrant social skills. In the ascent of information technology from the 70s through the present, technologists have embraced the term “geek” to signify an expert enthusiast, who gets things done.

In this vein, the term audiogeek is applicable to my life. I have been fascinated by audio since I was a child. I remember hanging a microphone, hooked up to my portable cassette recorder, over my Fisher-Price record player to make mix tapes, complete with imitation radio announcer voices. The process of acquiring blank cassettes was enormously exciting for me…. what would I fill them with?

I became interested in recording music as well, learning that tape changes the sound, and the harder you hit the tape (ie, the louder the signal going to the tapeheads), the more it distorts. When you find the sweet spot, it distorts in a dynamic, pleasing way that can add a vibe or a tone to the music it is capturing. This sort of thing is what most people miss when they lament the decline of analog recording technology, such as the resurgence of vinyl and tube amplifiers in both the pro recording world and the audiophile world.

I understand this nostalgia, but personally I’ll take a modern digital setup over an old analog setup any day. The maintenance is better (except once every few years when you have to build a new computer and install all the software, configuring everything to work properly). I don’t have to align or clean tape heads regularly. Perhaps more importantly, with digital I get back exactly what I put into it. I use plugins to replace the missing distortion where applicable, and it sound sounds good to my ear.

And while digital recording opens up a myriad of production possibilities (drums to the grid, Autotune, etc), I remain Old School in the sense that nothing beats skilled musicians grooving together in a room. I love capturing these moments and adding some spit & polish with microphone choices, placements, and room acoustics.

For the past decade I have also begun to help people with room acoustics, designing their spaces to make music in. I do this every day with RealTraps.

As an audiogeek, my job is to help improve people’s experience with music, whether I am recording their music or helping them create musical space for recording or listening.

Audiogeek maintenance

I did some audiogeek maintenance last night. On a recent recording session I noticed some pops and clicks in the resultant recording, a problem I had encountered previously but thought I had fixed. Needless to say I wasn’t happy about it.

I looked and discovered that my main interface had a new driver available, so I installed that. Then I recorded silence for 4-5 minutes, carefully watching the waveforms there, and found nothing amiss. Hopefully this fixed the problem.

I like this interface a lot. It sounds good, clear, and has 8 decent/clean mic pres in them I use as a backup. I can also connect my main mic preamps to it via ADAT lightpipe. If this new driver doesn’t work then I have a few more ideas for tracking down the problem (having to do with syncing the 2 digital units together), but I am optimistic about the new drivers because it was a commonly-reported problem, and many people have gotten great results with the new driver.

Overall I’m feeling good. I’ve made some really nice recordings with it recently, and if this pop/click problem gets resolved I’ll again have very high confidence in this setup. Any upgrade to this setup will give negligible improvements in sound quality, and will cost an order of magnitude higher.