Sunday, 10 May 2009


This has been a time of taking stock, and there is a pervasive feeling of taking a step back and getting ready to straighten stuff around and accomplish things.  Even on a grey, rainy day like today.  There've been a lot of chilly, grey, drippy days lately, and a lot of sickly people wandering around.  I have one of those colds in which my body sort of kinda has a cold, but is pretty much handling it, so I don't notice much except when it occasionally sneaks up and causes a sniffle for a moment and then is beaten back for a few hours.  

I'm still learning about mixing, including re-learning stuff for Pro-Tools that I knew how to do (or achieve in other ways) with Sony Vegas, which program I used before Pro-Tools for both audio and video editing.  Today's achievement was figuring how to make a reverb bus in Pro-Tools, so I could send my bass guitar and drums (and my virtual piano plug-in, which has its own built in reverb) to the final mix without slapping the same reverb on them as on everything else.  

Recording has this odd element to it that I can explain for laymen pretty easily: if you walk into a big concert hall and a band is playing, it is all boomy and muddy and loud, and you don't mind because you're caught up in the spirit of it, and its all coming out of some P.A. speakers at one end, and absolutely filling the acoustically-designed room up with sound reflecting and re-reflecting off every flat, hard surface in the place.  That's a live experience.  The instruments are for that, the speakers are for that, and room is for that.  Record this as is, and you get the huge muddy, boomy sound of what's coming out of the speakers mixed together with all the sound reflections off the walls.  You can't adjust the individual instruments or anything, because you've recorded the sound of a room which is full of all that noise.  If you record "straight out of the mixer board" so there is almost no room sound at all, and you're getting stuff right out of the microphones without it even hitting a speaker, it sounds oddly flat and unnatural.  Sounds like that need a large room to fill or they don't sound right at all.  The sound directly from a microphone in front of a person's lips, with no reverb, and not played through speakers into a large room, but straight into some headphones is unpleasantly like sticking your ear to their lips to have them sing, and then being able to electronically make their voice quieter, but still uncomfortably close to your ear.  The complete lack of room sound (reflections of sound off the walls) tells your brain you are trapped in a tiny room with someone singing quietly in your ear.

Then make a recording of the same song, by the same artists.  Each part is recorded, usually by putting a microphone right up to the person's mouth, or the kick drum, or whatever, in exactly the same way it would be live, but to a separate track for each one.  If you play them into the headphones now (as in our example earlier with the person singing in your ear), there is an odd, unnatural sound because these are loud things like drums and electric guitars and people singing loudly, yet there is absolutely no echo, no reverberation, essentially the sound isn't reflecting back at you from the walls of a venue appropriate to it.  For an instrument to sound powerful and clear, you want the reflected sounds of it filling a comfortably large room.   If, for example, the sound you are recording is Metallica and a 100 piece orchestra, and you're playing the sounds of Metallica and the orchestra in your bathroom, the actual sound reflecting off the bathroom walls sounds stupid, as sticking Metallica in your bathroom isn't even possible.

Recording with fake reverbs and echoes allow you to simulate exactly what kind of room you are pretending this performance occurred in.  The longer the delay between the original sound and a reflection of it coming back to your ears off the walls, the farther away your brain thinks those walls must be, and the larger the room therefore is.  Outside concerts with no walls, and little or no slapback echo from nearby buildings or geography sound kind of "flat," because to us, the sound of an orchestral concert takes place in a room which sounds a very specific way (not like a bathroom or garage, for example), just as a loud rock song takes place in a room which sounds a certain way (not a bathroom, maybe a garage).

Once you get this kind of control, there are cheats.  You can achieve greater clarity by digitally minimizing the frequency (portion of the sound) made by each instrument which makes your song sound "muddy" and boomy, and with that blurry mud removed, you can then hear more of the stuff.  Just turning up muddy sounds more and more simply adds more mud, and less and less clarity.  

So reverb is a thing which adds warmth and atmosphere to a recording by defining things like what size of room and what kind of surfaces are in it.  Low, thudding sounds like kick drums, bass guitars and so on tend to add boomy mud to the sound if you use as much reverb on them as would sound ideal for, say, a flute.  So, you cheat.  You make a special routing (or bus) for all the stuff that sounds great with more reverb (voices, flutes, violins and so on) so they can get all the reverb you want, and you rout the growly, thuddy stuff directly to the final mix without all of that reverb (using very little, or maybe none, though a little sounds more natural).

I figured out how to do this today after watching even more Ronald D. Moore podcast commentary on the Battlestar Galactica DVDs I got a good deal on used a few weeks ago.  I've watched enough of the episodes to drive one mental, and had a Monster energy drink which just gave me a chronic case of the jitters without actually enticing me to venture out into the cold, dripping greyity.  The result was increased clarity in the song I tried it out on, and a feeling of satisfaction.

I also did typical editing tricks like: -doubling the MIDI data I recorded out of the music teacher's electric piano so I not only told Pro-Tools to apply that data to a piano, but also told it to apply the second copy of the performance to a Deep Purple style rock organ sound.   -turning up the dynamic range setting on the virtual piano so the difference between loud and quiet notes is exaggerated, ending up with it sounding like he played far more flamboyantly than he actually did (I'm turning this Broadway stuff into rock and roll for this CD) -quietly hiding tracks of vocalists' weaker takes in with their strongest performances (turned up) to make them thicker and stronger sounding. -editing the MIDI data for the piano and sliding bits of recorded bass guitar and drums around to make sure they all hit an important stop in unison. -copying and pasting drum parts into parts of songs where there weren't any, and I thought there should be -faking digital delay by doubling a lead guitar track, then panning it way to one side, turning it down a bit and sliding it slightly behind time. -deleting words that were sung out of rhythm or pitch and then subbing in the same word from a different performance in its place -deleting distractingly loud intakes of breath in songs where they sounded out of place.

Apart from music, I also picked up a 1 Tb (that's one terabyte, or a thousand gigabytes) external hard drive so that all of my massive amounts of data, stuck on four different hard drives in two different computers can be consolidated and made extremely compact and portable.  As messy as my apartment is, I find it soothing to get all my data organized so I can find all of it.  I am a packrat in both the real and digital worlds.  The fact that the Internet and pawn shops allow me to get digital versions (i.e. DVDs and data files) of pretty much anything I ever liked or found interesting when I was a kid is a constant delight to me.  Organizing all of it makes me happy in way I can only describe as deeply nerdy.  When it comes to media, I can be counted upon to bring in weird and fun stuff to my classes with regularity.

My brother-in-law and I took my Mom, sister and niece out for supper the day before Mother's Day.  My niece (5 years old) coloured the kid's menu far more neatly than I could hope to do, with perfectly parallel and equally dark crayon strokes in appropriate colours, never straying one hair over a line.  I had Guinness and Emu Stroganoff because it was on the menu.  It was grey and drippy, but my niece wanted to see the bridge over the swollen creek that runs through Stewart Park (in Perth Ontario, where we were) so I took her over to it though the grass was turning into a morass.

I really want to see the new Star Trek (I haven't liked much of anything they've done since the early 90s), but I think I'll wait until next weekend.  J wants to see Wolverine, so I'll probably see that with him.  I haven't been seeing many movies lately, and really find that only TV shows with long, sprawling, complicated plot lines keep my interest.  Movies are too flashy, too simple and too soon over for me lately.