Tuesday, 22 September 2015

We Love It Loud! Yes, .... but .....

I'm no 'Mixing Guru' or any sort of professional engineer. All I know is what I have learnt by doing things myself ... and trust me, there was a LOT of crap in there!! Haha !
But it's what I LOVE doing. I had the honour and pleasure doing a lot of 'production' for tunes for my 'music buddies' living literally all over the world. I love to help out with questions .... and if I don't know anything myself (which is a lot too) ... I go out and GET the answers. There's SO many great books and blogs around, with highly technical explanations. I can't give those. I can only put things in my very own 'layman's terms'..... which may or may not always be 100% correct, but 'in general' ... you'll get the idea. So don't be TOO critical :-)

Which brings me to the whole reason for this article. Very often I get the questions..
  • "Why is my mix distorting?" 
  • "How loud should I record?" 
  • "The drums are in the red, but my Mastering channel doesn't clip. That's OK then, ain't it?"
  • "I know my little 16bit wav is very soft, but you can just 'Normalize' it, can't you?"
  • "My channels are all under 0dB, but my Master is clipping. What do I do?"
So, what 'level' IS a good level on a track when mixing?

Back in the old, analog days, an instrument or singer's mic was routed THROUGH an analog desk, and recorded on a tape machine. The desk itself didn't 'record' anything. It was primarily there to route and adjust individual mics and sum the whole bunch onto a mono or stereo signal.. that when onto tape.
The recording in those days was never done too softly, as analog channels often had a ground noise which you didn't want to hear. And pushing it up 'into the red' wasn't always bad. In fact, often that's where it had the best sound. Harmonic overtones etc. So in a way, you often worked around the 'red' (0dBVU) and you never ran into problems.
Now, if you work like that in a digital environment (0dBFS), you quickly run into problems. Why is that?

The thing is that in the beginning of digital DAWs, they actually made a 'mistake' (or let's say, they COULD have made it a little easier on us) labelling those digital meters!! Where 0dBVU was 'reference point' on an analog desk, 0dBFS is the 'point of doom' on a digital system. 

Thanks to most DAWs working internally with 32bit or 64bit floating point calculations these days, seeing a channel in the 'red' doesn't really mean it's nessiccarily 'clipping' anymore. The calculations can often handle that. This, however, does NOT apply to the mastering channel!!! If THAT is in the red, you have a problem. 
So, in order to make things easier in mixing by having a better overview ..... try to stay away from that 'red' zone on a channel in the first place.

If you have your DAW set on 24bit (or more if you really, really think you need it)  .... you have a headroom (dynamic space the audio can work within) of a huge 144dB .... which is WAY more dynamic range than any of us would ever need (or most systems can handle).

So we need to look at our digital metering a little different when recording and/or mixing on your digital systems :

  • Your new "Yellow Zone " : between -18dB and -15dB 
  • Your new "Red Zone" : between -8dB and -5dB 
If you see your -18dB as your "0dB" ... then you have a typical 'analog' view on things.

Use a simple Gain plug-in (most simple EQ plug ins have an input gain too) and set it so that you have around -12dB headroom .... and set the fader at unity (=0dB)

We could go on and talk about what goes onto the mix bus etc, but just try following this first stage for now. You'll find that you'll have way less distortion on your channels, the faders being 'at 0' ... makes further working much easier, the sum on the mastering channel (keep that at 0 as well) won't be clipping either. If you need volume at this point, rather turn up your audio interface volume button.

A good basis to start working from ;-)

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

A Method for Achieving a Wine Bottle Guitar Slide

A Method for Achieving a Wine Bottle Guitar Slide

Shawn Hudgell

The purpose of this article is to provide individuals interested in crafting their own wine bottle guitar slide with clues that can assist them attaining that goal. If you aren’t satisfied with commercial slides, and you always wished you knew how to make a wine bottle slide, this article is for you. But, let me say that this method isn’t safe, and it is fraught with hazards. Also, this isn’t religion. This is not the way, but a way. There are lots of other ways to produce this result. This is just the way I discovered.

Let me start by saying that none of this is exactly scholarly research. Most of my greatest guitar heroes are slide players. I totally dig Charlie Patton, Elmore James, Son House, Skip James, Mississippi Fred McDowell, and Robert Johnson. They are my biggest influences. My favorite contemporary slide player is without question Kelly Joe Phelps. You can also sometimes hear Duane Allman or Muddy Waters coming from my room.

I have tried to understand slide guitar for years. I am a rotten guitarist, but my ears sure do envy that sound. I am not joking when I say I have bought at least 10 different slides trying to find that sound. However, about three years ago I heard an old interview recording of Fred McDowell recalling an incident in which he lost his slide and had to construct another while on tour in Europe. I wondered, “Why in the hell didn’t he just buy one?” I thought then that there must be a reason. His exact quote was,  “I knows hows to make’em! Dey won cut yo finger na nuthin.” His interviewer replied, “Sounds sweet.”

OK, so you must be wondering what I’ve learned since then. First to do this you have to decide a few things. The first thing is, are you a metal slide player, or a glass player. For me the answer hands down was glass. Then you need to decide what finger you are wearing your slide on. Now I am a fairly big guy, and for that reason my pinky was the best answer. However you should know that many artists wore them on different fingers. I chose my pinky simply because of the size issue, my research showed me that Fred McDowell for example can be found wearing his on his ring finger and pinky, Son House…pinky, Bonnie Raitt wears hers on her middle finger. As near as I can tell the bigger the finger is the more control you have, the smaller the finger is the more fretting you can do with the other fingers after the sliding action.

The next decision is what I consider the most critical and another good reason for making your own slide. You have to know your length. When you buy slides they all come in that one size fits all, but the truth is I’m sure my pinky is probably a little different from yours. The length issue is important because of two reasons, control, and playing style. As far as playing style is concerned I could kind of group it into music you mostly slide on six strings with, and music you mostly slide on one or two strings with. Fred McDowell’s slide barely extended to his second knuckle. Son House went all the way to the end. Will Ray had his “stealth” slide that was little more than a ring. For me it was a full length slide, but about 3 millimeters shorter than the standard store bought length. Why? Just being able to “hang on” to the end of the slide with my pinky presented a far greater measure of control.

Now the last design consideration is will the slide be flared or straight. If you look at wine bottles you’ll see plenty of both. I like flared, but I also have two or three in straight lengths as well. Here the best thing I can say is that I wear mine “upside down” or with the bottle opening going on my pinky first. As for me this is the best option because it sort of corresponds to the curvature (radius) of the fret board. It is just as possible that a straight one might be better if I had a different guitar.

The You Tube videos showed me a lot of things. Some guys were essentially breaking a bottle and smoothing off the sharp edges on a concrete sidewalk. My father gave me my first myth in this whole bottle breaking saga. He, “knew for a fact,” that a scored (one cut with a glass cutter) that had a string soaked in kerosene (for a cooler slower burn) would result in a hot “fault” that when immersed in cold water would allow the bottle to break in a controlled fashion along the line of the fault or score. What resulted was a jagged uneven break. I tried this method five times. What was worse was the glass had “crazed” cracks that ran throughout the end of the attempted slide. Worse the glass took on a smoky carbonized color. It was a disaster. I tried five times. I even used different diameters of string and alcohol as a fuel. I achieved the same failure each time. However, there are lots of video that demonstrate this technique that have a pretty close to acceptable result. I’m not saying this can’t be done, there are many methods, but I couldn’t reproduce the results.

The next you tube video that did offer me some good information was a German guy (I think) who employed a hammer and a long screwdriver to make two cuts. It was this video that made me realize I had to make two cuts, because the lip of the bottle was essentially wasted space that hampered what little control I had. You can buy wine bottle slides but they always have that end on them. Some guitarists want to show that wine bottle lip off, but not me. However, for me, there just wasn't enough safety equipment on Earth to attempt this method.

So this finally gets us to what I am doing and what has worked for me many times. On my way home from work one day I noticed some tradesmen laying ceramic tile. They were laying these huge tiles the size of a pizza box. Now one guy was using a traditional cutter and breaking the tiles on an acute edge with his hands. He was pretty macho! But his buddies were making really complex angled cuts with a cutoff saw. So I figured that an abrasive slowly applied could be controlled. I was right.

So here is the method I use. I bought a tungsten carbide hacksaw blade. It works flawlessly. However, it is not as easy as just mounting it in your hacksaw frame, and mitering your cuts. Your control goes out the window. So here is what I do…

First I pick my bottle and find about two hours that I can work undisturbed. Making these things makes a sinister sound and it attracts people with all kinds of questions. You might imagine me explaining playing a guitar with a wine bottle. Anyway, when picking a bottle always use a cork top wine bottle. I have found two with a sort of off center hole, that results in the sides being a little thick and a little thin on two areas of the slide. This is to say the least desirable. Stay away from screw top bottles. Beer and whiskey bottles didn’t work for me either.

So then get out your tungsten carbide blade. Wrap one side for hand comfort if you wish. Buy a small bottle of bottled water in a plastic bottle. Drink the water; you don’t want to waste it, because the bottle is what you need. Fill it up with tap water, and make a pinhole (I use the awl on my Swiss army knife) in the cap. drop in a few drops of dish soap. You will also need a roll of electricians black tape and three nylon wire “stay tyes” or “zip ties.” You will need a round “chain saw” file.

Use safety equipment. Protect your eyes, skin, and lungs. If you use a water bottle most of the particulate risk is negated. The real safety issue comes in touching your face or using the bathroom before washing your hands carefully. Eating is the same. Don’t do this near your dogs. The effluvium looks like milk.

OK, so the first cut you will make is the cut where the lip is, thankfully the lip is one source of the guide to miter your cut. Use the nylon wire tie to guide the other side. Now I know what you are thinking, if you have one solid side why worry about the other? Surely my hand is steady enough to make the cut. It is heartbreaking thought when the saw blade goes skating across your slide scratching it all to hell.

Even though you are going to wear a dust mask, you must use the water at all times. If you do not, the cut glass particles are active and fly everywhere. Also, the more particulate matter literally floats in the air for you to breathe. So wetting it traps the material in a fluid state not allowing it to do nefarious deeds to your health. Adding a few drops of dish soap also acts as a lubricant.

So make the first cut by slowly scratching until you get a cut the width of the saw blade, about one-two millimeters deep. Wet the bottle and the blade liberally. The zip tie will serve as an excellent guide until you get to its protruding lock. Then you simply spin the tie a bit allowing clearance for the remainder of the cut. Then stop. Remove the zip tie and take out your round file. This is important. It took me five bottles to figure this one out. As you draw your blade to and fro, the carbide blade catches the edge of the already cut lip on the outstroke, and “flakes” large, thin, sharp chunks out of your slide. We combat this by beveling the cut edge with a round file, slowly and often. After you have a good bevel dry the thing off and wrap the slide with black tape up to the edge of the beveled cut. Try as you may you could still flake the slide a bit. As it is thin and sharp, and in your hand, you are cut before you are aware. The electrician’s tape catches these flakes. Also if your blade goes skating across the slide the tape will prevent the nasty scratches.

After the bevel is made with the file, it is quite simple to continue cutting with your blade. Remember to wash the bottle often. You will know when the slurry starts to become “thicker.” You will cut for an extended period of time. You may become bored and disenfranchised with the whole process. You may think the cut is so deep it has to break straight now. Three of my bottles would argue that point. It breaks unevenly on the inside of the bottle. It also flakes on the inside. Take your sweet time.

Now when you near the end of cutting the whole end off the sound “thins” somewhat sounding a little more tinny. You will soon emerge through the glass wall on the inside. As you can imagine the whole thing is paper thin now, so a good hearty cut destroys the whole thing. So when you hear this sound go slow. Make tiny slow cuts until you emerge. When you first break through to the other side a small ovoid hole appears. Stop.  Find another location and do the same. The reason why is, the first emerging holes are small. The larger the hole becomes the more “grabby” it becomes. So if you make a cut it holds on and you cut the whole end of in one stroke chipping ad flaking the inside. Your goal should be to make as many of these ovoid holes as possible while keeping the end attached. Finally it will be time to make the last cuts.

The last cuts are not difficult. You simply go to the areas that still connect the bottle. Cutting through them is easy because they are now impossibly thin and are near to the same size as the corresponding hole. Just go slow until it falls off. At that time take your round file and smooth the inside. These edges are crazy sharp. So do both your slide, and the waste product, because I promise you someone is curious about what you are doing and will sift through the recycling bin to discover your secrets. Just file the circumference and it won’t be a worry.

OK. So hopefully you have an idea of the length of your slide. For me it was the length of my pinky from the web of my finger to just a millimeter or two shy of the entire length of the finger. This gives me just a bit of fortuitous hangout control. Too short and you slip off the large “E” string. Too large and you clunk around when you play. So when you know you just mark the length and make your second cut in the same fashion. There are two exceptions though. The first is if you are cutting a flanged bottle. It is very hard to make the zip tie stable on that acute angle. Here just over wrap with electrician’s tape until you have a hard edge and it does the same thing. It just takes more time.

The other exception is the surface below where you are working. If you are working above a hard surface such as concrete, the effects of gravity on your new slide when you make that last cut are very disappointing.  Work on grass or a rubber matt of some fashion.

To finish the slide simply sand with varying grades of wet dry sand paper with water until it is smooth. Be careful not to sand the inside because that makes for a bad visual effect as well.

So in closing, if you are impatient, or are prone to cut corners do not attempt this project. The glass is crazy sharp, and will cut you. The particulate glass is dangerous both dry and wet. Use safety equipment. Wearing gloves is advisable until you get the feel of the wet glass. Eye protection here is obvious. However if you are patient you can measure your desired finger, and cut yourself a custom slide to best any commercial product bought off of the shelf.

Monday, 7 September 2015

Archiving your DAW sessions (media)

It's Dave Grohl's fault! Again! ;-)  I was watching an episode of 'Sonic Highways' the other day, and loved the way he and a producer went through reels of tapes of old recordings. You also see it in the Beatles Anthology, where George Martin sits and goes through old reels of magnetic tape with Paul, Ringo and George. Combine this with the question ....

"How and where should I actually save my old projects?"

I'm not talking 'system backup' ... or even your daily 'data backup'. I'm talking about being able to to to a shelve, and pull out a session from 5 years ago. As to what format, which tracks etc .... that is an entirely different topic of its own, which I may go into later. Let's just concentrate on the 'where' for now.

As of 2015, we are lucky in the sense that we have many options. And it doesn't have to cost much either. The main problem is though "Will this technology where I'm saving my sessions to, still be accessible in 10-15 years?" We all know how quickly technology changes, and most of the people reading this can still remember floppy disks, 'stiffys', SCSI drives, Mini-Disc, ZIP Drives, cassettes, 8-Tracks, all different sizes of vinyl records .... running at 78, 45, 33 speeds, magnetic tape reels, videos tapes. Video2000, Betamax, VHS, .... CD-R's ?  Which of these are still relevant today? Right! Vinyl isn't going under without a fight ..... but seriously?

A valid question may be "Why do you want to keep all that old crap anyway?" The chances are good you'll never access them again, but what if you do? Do you REALLY want to throw it all away just yet? Probably not. So, let's see what we have as of 2015. This is from the standpoint of a private, hobby musician with maybe a small home studio. Big businesses and professional recording studios have way more cash to look for a solution, but let's keep it ..... on 'our' level ;-)

Internal Hard Disc Drive
That's right. Many of us probably have more than one physical (don't be fooled by partitions!) hard drives in our systems. We could just save our projects to nice little folders there, can#t we? Fast, easy, always accessible. Always? Ehhh .... no. The MAJOR problem and utter fact is that hard drives WILL die! Yeap, maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow ..... but probably exactly one day after you've forgotten about it! And it's a royal PAIN if you're not 'prepared'. So, no .... no long term solution.

External 3,5" Hard Drive (USB)
One of those fancy cases, connecting a hard drive to the PC via USB. Needs power. Well, it's the same thing in blue really. OK, so you may not have it running ALL the time and you're thinking it'll last longer then, right? Wrong! The crazy thing is, if a Hard Drive is NOT running for a long time, the insides get all sticky and dried out. Chances are that such a drive will even die on you before his 'internal' cousin. No good either

Solid State Drives (SSD) [SATA]
Now we're talking! No moving parts, quiet, fast due to it's cable connection. Still in their early stages and the capacity isn't too much. These drives are pricey if you consider buck/gb. And they are mainly 'internal'. So you're not gonna open your PC all the time and swap between 3-4 of these really.
Good for working PC drives ... and maybe even backups!!, but archiving our DAW sessions for later access? Meh ....

Magnetic Tape (DAT, AIT, DLT)
Wait! Didn't we say 2015? Oh, Magnetic tape is still around. Forget the little DAT tapes, there are some really modern, fancy and high capacity tape solutions out there. AIT, DLT ... look it up! The problem? Cost! And anyone's guess if you're going to hook up these things to your PC in 10 years time. So .... nope!

CD-R, DVD, Blu-ray
Maybe the standard CD-R with the normal 700mb capacity isn't doable anymore, but backing up sessions on a DVD-R is what I personally did for years now. You get a 500 spindle for next to no cost. The quality certainly improved from way back in the mid 90s ...... so the chances that you'll be able to read them in 10 years is pretty good, I think. The MAIN concern out there is that we may not HAVE the standard CD/DVD drive in our PC's anymore in 10 years, but I don't really see that to be such a short term problem. Besides, my idea is to get a external CD/DVD/Blu-ray drive that hooks up via USB. This should be usable for quite a while still.
The reason I still like this option is because you can even stack all those DVD's on top of each other in that spindle holder again if you're not too rough. They don't scratch THAT easily, and what space do you need to store THAT? You could of course, also use these zipper cases which holds a could of disks.
A DVD lets you store 4,5GB worth of data. That should be enough for a few tracks. Even if you need 3-4 disks to cover a whole EP or Album project ...... cheap!
Blu-ray's are even cooler! up to 25GB (or 50gb with you get the double layer ones). Blanks cost a bit more, but still cheapo. I don't know how long they are gonna last as a 'avalable media' .... but if you have a USB drive ... access is no problem. So ... DVD or Blu Ray ..... possible!

2,5" External USB Drive
These little wonders are a real blessing. Small, cheap, lots of space, easily connected via USB and quite durable. If you choose the ones with a simple mini-USB connector, you don't even need a cable for each. I already have 4-5 of these flat, little space wonders laying next to each other. With USB3 the transfer is a breeze too, but even USB2 .... no real issue.
The cost is going down as well, so you could very easily get 3-4 smaller ones. After all, we don't need 1-2TB every time.
My initial idea/wish was to have a 'changable media' on a shelve per Project ..... but maybe I should ask myself if that is really sensible. After all ..... didn't we complain about just that the other day? No more dust collectors than absolutely necessary!!
So is it a contender? Definitely.

Cloud (Drive, OneDrive, DropBox, ...)
For the sake of covering all popular 'space' options these days, we have to consider storing data in a cloud. No matter if it's Google's Drive, Microsoft's OneDrive (formerly SkyDrive), DropBox or any other commercial variation thereof.
The times are coming where access and speed to a cloud is the same as to some local drive. And you'll have the tools on your system that automatically sync any data you need.
I'm really in two minds about cloud storage. Sure it's 'easy' and comfortable. And I guess most of these place have huge Data Centres with high-end, in-time backups. I make extensive use of DropBox for our band, exchanging audio files, tracks and even whole sessions. Do I store personal stuff on a cloud? No. Are there any guarantees that your whole cloud-archive might not just be hacked tomorrow? No. You make up your own minds, but for me personally ..... I will use cloud storage for temporary, unimportant, non-personal exchange. It's great for that. For a 10-year archive solution? Hmmmm..... maybe not

Conclusion ....
Well, thats quite a few options we have. As I have mentioned, businesses and pro studios may spend more money on high-end gear. They also work on a 3-2-1 storage principle. 2 copies, 2 different technologies, 1 copy off-site. But for us 'mere mortals' .... that might be overkill. Which leads us to the REAL answer to our question. The word is REDUNDANCY !!!

Instead of debating whether we should save our session on DVD OR a little external drive, it should be 'AND'. It seems the best solution here is to either use a "DVD/Blu-ray and 2,5" USB drive" combination, or just using "TWO separate 2,5" USB drives" solution.

Lastly, one needs to add that next to 'redundancy' ..... there also is 'migration' to think of. So, as SOON as you see that one of your options isn't accessible any more, get a new one QUICK, and migrate your stuff on there. Any media can die on you tomorrow, but the chance of two separate ones dying on you on the same day is fairly small :-)

There you go. I'm still not sure if I'm going to get myself a 'Multi-Drive' or just go and get another 2,5" drive ...... but at least I have SOME idea where to keep my stuff for the next few years :-)


Sunday, 6 September 2015

Projects, projects, projects!

hey y'all!

If you think the purpose of this account is to let you know what I'm up to....well, that is partially true, but it will also work as something of a reminder to me as to exactly what I have to get on with!  We released a new King & Queen of Sorry single last month. It was due to be an EP, but we wanted to get something out for the Eric Martin gig, and there was still much to do, so it will be going out as a couple of singles.  The feedback was good, and I'm pleased with it. I'm hoping to get the second single in the bag shortly.

As most of you know, a lot of the projects I'm involved with happen with contributors all around the world. Chatting with Paul a few months back we were lamenting our inability to just rock up to an open mic night and do some songs as a band: in K&QOS neither our singer or pianist is local. As such, we've been looking around for a local chanteuse to help us out. We've been chatting to a couple of ladies, one who seems more interested in the pop tunes, and one more interested in rock. As such we can filter stuff two ways, which works out fine. The rock lady isn't too well at the moment, so we will look at that maybe more to the end of the year. I have written some pop stuff for the other lady, (kind of K& QOS on steroids!??!) who is coming over to do some singing this week. Hopefully we will gel well together. It will be nice to play more regularly live.

Have some irons in the fire for Black Snake Halo and DeadBeat Boulevard, and a covers project that will hopefully see the light of day soon. Oh and Larry & Lori (The Smiths, but without any flora and fauna sticking out of their back pockets) have a few tracks I've penned to complete too.

So in other words...busy!

Will blog soon about some new gear which I've bought this year .

May all your G strings be super slinky


Coming up ....

Archiving our DAW sessions.
I'm going to look at the best way to archive a DAW project. I'm not talking imaging your system or your daily backup, but rather ..... "How and where should I archive a done recording/mixing/mastering project so I can access the tracks easily in a few years"

This could even be a 2-part thing. Part 1 "Where to archive your sessions" and Part 2 "In what format to archive your session"