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.

Politics & Paganism: Facing Our History

godsandradicalsMy first article for Gods & Radicals went live today. It’s called Pagans are a Conquered People, and it is an analysis of how I see pagan values and identities in the context of the modern world:

I am convinced that our history reveals a very strong characterization of our tribe & our subcultural identity in the 21st Century. We Pagans are a conquered people, and we have largely become so within the past 500 years.

The Pagan ways-of-being were much more intuitive and apparent to people living 500 years ago, before the Scientific Revolution, the birth of Capitalism, and the beginnings of European Colonialism. Modernity itself rose from the ashes of the Pagan ethos as it was systematically and globally incinerated from popular consciousness on thousands of pyres and stakes of the victims of the witch hunts.

Indeed, even today the smell of smoke from The Burning Times lingers. This period in history remains the paradox of our age.

In other words, I see paganism and modern politics as being irrevocably intertwined, as things stand in the world today. For me this is no more than historical fact, and my article explains where I am coming from in this area.

Here’s the thing. For me, paganism is more an ethos — a way of being — than anything else, including theology, metaphysics, dogma, religion, or ritual. Other pagans are fiercely protective of their conceptions of paganism, particularly in the polytheist community, where I saw two articles published today questioning whether politics should be part of religion in general, or polytheism in particular. One of these articles found it “repugnant” to “politicize polytheism.”

But paganism is not polytheism. I am not a polytheist and would not presume to say what should or should not be a part of polytheism. But when we conceive of paganism, which for me is a broader term that includes polytheist pagans, atheist pagans, and all pagans in between, as an ethos, there is room at the table for all of us. Whether your pagan ethos centers around devotional relationship with the gods, or getting lost in the forest bonding with your ecosystem, urban activist work with the homeless, permaculture design, quiet solitary ritual…. it doesn’t matter. There is room for all of us.

Because for all pagans, unity and solidarity is important. Respecting and mutually supporting one another is the only way forward. It need not be either/or.

My Pagans are a Conquered People article has been live for less than a day, and already I have had several comments from friends about it being “depressing” or “pessimistic.” I agree, on the surface, the history of paganism over the past 500 years is distressing. But it is our history, and we cannot pretend it isn’t. I appreciate positive thinking, but I also know that ignoring the unpleasant facticities of our history will do far more harm than good. The sooner we accept what has happened to us, the sooner we can unify, decolonize ourselves, and create a better world.

On Snakes, Truth-Speakers, & St. Patrick

St. Patrick driving the snakes from Ireland. Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-2.5; Released under the GNU Free Documentation License. Photo editing by the author.

St. Patrick driving the snakes from Ireland. Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-2.5; Released under the GNU Free Documentation License. Photo editing by the author.

My latest article for A Sense Of Place on Patheos Pagan is up. Like my previous article on A Pagan Short History Of Valentine’s Day, it is a short analysis of a popular holiday in our culture.

I find it interesting that these two posts have been by far the most popular of my writings at Patheos thus far. For me, the Elemental Ethos series I have been doing (Earth, Air, and Water thus far) have far more meaning to me, in that they are a reflection of how I try to live, and contain useful, real world applications of what I perceive to be a useful pagan ethos. Yet these haven’t been nearly as popular as my admittedly snarky deconstructions of the two popular holidays. Ah well. I have said all along that I will write what I feel for Patheos, without regard to aiming for a particular hit count or targeting my posts to a particular audience or reaction. It’s just interesting to observe.

Some have commented that the notion of St. Patrick as The Great Oppressor Of Ireland Who Converted The Pagans/Druids With The Sword is historically inaccurate, and they are concerned that this myth just won’t seem to die. I agree completely, and I don’t want people to think this is my claim in this post. On the contrary, the meme is what it is, and it is not particularly accurate. I wanted to deconstruct the meme on its own merits, without regard to whether or not it is historically accurate. It self-deconstructs, in other words. My post just helped it along a bit; hopefully in due time it won’t have the widespread acceptance that it has today.

Elemental Ethos: Water, and caramelized honey

Collecting the best water on the planet, as a gift of the ecosystem. Despite the 3′ of snow on the ground, the water flows freely and is accessible. Photo by Morgan Lindenschmidt.

Collecting the best water on the planet, as a gift of the ecosystem. Despite the 3′ of snow on the ground, the water flows freely and is accessible. Photo by Morgan Lindenschmidt.

My latest post, Elemental Ethos: Water, at A Sense Of Place over on Patheos Pagan is live. It’s no secret that water is probably my favorite element in terms of the practices I employ around them. Going to the spring is one of my favorite activities, it is probably the closest thing I have to going to church, or on a short pilgrimage to holy ground.

There is lots of other exciting news a-brewing in my reality, but for now I will keep this under my vest. Yeah, I know, I’m a tease.

OK, one hint for one item: my meadmaking practice has slowed down a fair amount in the past year, year-and-a-half. But tonight I’m going to make my first bochet, which is mead made after cooking the honey to caramelize it, which darkens it and brings out the rich caramel flavors.

Carmelizing Honey for a batch of Bochet Mead. Details at BardicBrews.net.

Carmelizing Honey for a batch of Bochet Mead. Details at BardicBrews.net.

Turns out this batch was a bit of an ordeal, in the sense that it is very labor intensive. Also, it turns out that boiling honey splashing up onto the skin and sticking is painful. A gift for a gift. Details on Luna Bochet at BardicBrews.net.

Elemental Ethos: Air

SnowAbsorptionMy next article is up at A Sense Of Place on Patheos. This one contains musings on Air: a bit each on the Sound of snow, Language as both sound in a space and text on a page, Breath, and The Commons, while recommending breathing lots of good air, filling a room with sound you love, and learning to maintain a blade.

I’m  enjoying writing this series. Fire and Water are left, and these might be my favorites, though I love all the elements.

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.

Elemental Ethos: Earth

I posted my next article on A Sense of Place, continuing a series on the ethos of living with the elements. For this one I focused on Earth. Give it a read if you wish.

One of my aims is to elaborate on own sense of what it means to be spiritual. For me, spirituality is grounded in experience, in the natural world and the ecosystem I am in.

I was reading Derrick Jensen’s Endgame, and early on he is talking about his grounding of an entire philosophical and ethical system based on water, on air. The elements. This triggered my brain, and kicked my philosophical instincts into overdrive, realizing that it was in harmony with these articles I am writing.

More soon….

Elements of Nature

snowandiceI posted a new piece, The Elements Of Nature, over at the A Sense of Place blog on Patheos. This is my second piece for it, the first one having been By Way Of Introduction. I expect to be writing something every couple of weeks.

Writing about paganism is a tough one for me. I have identified with the term paganism for a long time now, but as time goes on I am less and less comfortable with it. I think one of my motivations for doing the column is so I can better articulate my own conception of what paganism means.