6 posts categorized "Cus"

February 19, 2013

Use Compression as a Friend, Not a Foe

Understanding How to Effectively Use Compression

By CUS and AMIR SAID (SA'ID)

Mixing hip hop/rap music offers its own set of challenges. From rupturing kick drums to rumbling bass lines, hip hop/rap music doesn't always fit neatly into traditional approaches to mixing. Sure, the same sonic tools/effects are in play when mixing hip hop/rap music, just like any other music form. But how these sonic tools are applied and used in hip hop/rap music (or any other music form) can mean the difference between something sounding pleasing to the ear or something outright crummy. And there is no other effect that can make or break this difference than compression.

In hip hop/rap music, where the dynamic range is often a blend of sampled sounds, compression is the most commonly misused sonic tool. So to truly understand how and when to use compression more effectively—that is, not abuse and misuse it—, it is important to first get a working knowledge of what compression actually is and does. Fundamentally, compression is about controlling the dynamic range of an individual track or song in a way that keeps everything contained in the same zone, so to speak. Indeed, a good way to look at compression is to view it as a process of effective containment. What compression does, in a basic control approach, is it pretty much takes any sound and contains it from spilling out of a desired range of sound and color. In this way, compression keeps the most common hip hop/rap music production sounds—high velocity kicks, snares, bass lines, samples—from varying too wide in range; it makes everything stick together like glue.

Further, one of the most basic ideas of compression is to boost up the quieter dynamics in a mix and to simultaneously “squash” (reduce/neutralize) the peaks. The aim of this is to be able to turn up the overall track volume, getting the much sought after bang and punch. For instance, effective compression can increase the presence of a thin bass line, making it sound fat and warm. But the misuse of compression can make that very same bass line sound distorted and out of place—unstuck.

Having understood what compression is it’s good to break down how it works. A typical compressor (hardware or software) has basic parameters through which compression is applied to a sound (signal); they are: Threshold, Input, Ratio, Attack, Release, Input, and Output. Threshold sets the level at which a compressor goes into action; it’s the point at which the compressor starts to work. Think of it as a virtual line of decibels (dB), that once crossed, the compressor goes to work. Likewise, whenever a signal falls below the set threshold, compression stops. Because threshold works in tandem with a compressor's input level, which controls the strength of a signal coming into the compressor, the stronger the signal, the sooner the threshold level is reached.

Ratio represents the level (amount) of compression that will be applied to any signal that exceeds the threshold setting. Any sound signal coming in above the set threshold will be affected in accordance to the ratio setting.

Attack, measured in milliseconds (ms), represents the time that it takes before the compression actually happens, once a sound signal reaches the threshold. The shorter the time, or rather the faster the attack, the quicker and/or more harsh the compression. A quick attack is useful in neutralizing kick peaks, which in turn allows the overall level to be raised. Generally speaking, you want compression to happen as soon as possible. But remember, there are no hard rules on this; the sound and vibe of a track that you’re going for will dictate how you adjust compression settings.

Release, measured in ms, determines how long it takes for a compressor to let go of a signal, once it has dropped below the set threshold. With a longer release time, the compression holds on longer to the signal that it’s applied to. A long release time is especially useful for adding sustain and extended nuance to a signal. A too fast release setting can result in “pumping” (where the compression can be heard). Here, it’s also worth noting that’s it’s a good idea to always have the compressor’s meter set to “GR” (Gain Reduction). This way you’re seeing exactly how much the sound being compressed is cutting back. It is also a good view of how fast/slow the compressor is attacking and/or releasing.

Output represents the overall output level of an applied effect.

Through the brief breakdown of the basic parameters of a typical compressor, it’s easy to see the upside of compression. But there can also be a downside to compression. One common mistake is having the threshold a little bit too harsh and pushing towards the negatives too much, resulting in a sound that is smothered or struggling to get light. Perhaps the best way to tell if something has been compressed too much is by checking the velocity of the sound. That is, if the sound is coming off dull or it’s noticeably losing significant volume, then it has been compressed too much. Though volume does increase some during compression, it should not be the source for controlling volume.

Bottom line:

Because of the unique sonic nature of hip hop/rap music, there are really no magic compression settings for any one sound or group of sounds. Moreover, compression can be used in different ways; you’re only limited by your imagination. Therefore, like many processes of beatmaking and recording/mixing, experimentation and trial and error is a must. In order to find compression settings that work well with your taste and style of production/mixing, you have to try compressing different sounds with different settings, being mindful to avoid those things that flatten and dull your overall sound. And with a good grasp of what compression is and how it works, you’re well on your way to finding your own unique default settings. In the end, that's really the best way to make compression your friend and not your foe.

Some useful compression guidelines:

Begin with short attack and release times, then adjust as needed.

Begin with a 4:1 ratio, then adjust as needed.

Because bass, especially in hip hop/rap music begs to be consistent, think heavier compression on bass sounds.

Compression isn’t just a tool for controlling sound; it can be used to add color as well.

As with any sonic tool, use compression in the ways that help you get that sound and feel that you want.

Avoid using compression simply as a tool to make sounds louder.

*Feel free to leave comments and add your own compression guidelines.

---
The BeatTips Manual by Sa'id.
"The most trusted name in beatmaking and hip hop/rap music education."

November 22, 2011

Are You Using Compression as a Friend or a Foe?

Understanding How to Effectively Use Compression

By CUS and AMIR SAID (SA'ID)

Mixing hip hop/rap music offers its own set of challenges. From rupturing kick drums to rumbling bass lines, hip hop/rap music doesn't always fit neatly into traditional approaches to mixing. Sure, the same sonic tools/effects are in play when mixing hip hop/rap music, just like any other music form. But how these sonic tools are applied and used in hip hop/rap music (or any other music form) can mean the difference between something sounding pleasing to the ear or something outright crummy. And there is no other effect that can make or break this difference than compression.

In hip hop/rap music, where the dynamic range is often a blend of sampled sounds, compression is the most commonly misused sonic tool. So to truly understand how and when to use compression more effectively—that is, not abuse and misuse it—, it is important to first get a working knowledge of what compression actually is and does. Fundamentally, compression is about controlling the dynamic range of an individual track or song in a way that keeps everything contained in the same zone, so to speak. Indeed, a good way to look at compression is to view it as a process of effective containment. What compression does, in a basic control approach, is it pretty much takes any sound and contains it from spilling out of a desired range of sound and color. In this way, compression keeps the most common hip hop/rap music production sounds—high velocity kicks, snares, bass lines, samples—from varying too wide in range; it makes everything stick together like glue.

Further, one of the most basic ideas of compression is to boost up the quieter dynamics in a mix and to simultaneously “squash” (reduce/neutralize) the peaks. The aim of this is to be able to turn up the overall track volume, getting the much sought after bang and punch. For instance, effective compression can increase the presence of a thin bass line, making it sound fat and warm. But the misuse of compression can make that very same bass line sound distorted and out of place—unstuck.

Having understood what compression is it’s good to break down how it works. A typical compressor (hardware or software) has basic parameters through which compression is applied to a sound (signal); they are: Threshold, Input, Ratio, Attack, Release, Input, and Output. Threshold sets the level at which a compressor goes into action; it’s the point at which the compressor starts to work. Think of it as a virtual line of decibels (dB), that once crossed, the compressor goes to work. Likewise, whenever a signal falls below the set threshold, compression stops. Because threshold works in tandem with a compressor's input level, which controls the strength of a signal coming into the compressor, the stronger the signal, the sooner the threshold level is reached.

Ratio represents the level (amount) of compression that will be applied to any signal that exceeds the threshold setting. Any sound signal coming in above the set threshold will be affected in accordance to the ratio setting.

Attack, measured in milliseconds (ms), represents the time that it takes before the compression actually happens, once a sound signal reaches the threshold. The shorter the time, or rather the faster the attack, the quicker and/or more harsh the compression. A quick attack is useful in neutralizing kick peaks, which in turn allows the overall level to be raised. Generally speaking, you want compression to happen as soon as possible. But remember, there are no hard rules on this; the sound and vibe of a track that you’re going for will dictate how you adjust compression settings.

Release, measured in ms, determines how long it takes for a compressor to let go of a signal, once it has dropped below the set threshold. With a longer release time, the compression holds on longer to the signal that it’s applied to. A long release time is especially useful for adding sustain and extended nuance to a signal. A too fast release setting can result in “pumping” (where the compression can be heard). Here, it’s also worth noting that’s it’s a good idea to always have the compressor’s meter set to “GR” (Gain Reduction). This way you’re seeing exactly how much the sound being compressed is cutting back. It is also a good view of how fast/slow the compressor is attacking and/or releasing.

Output represents the overall output level of an applied effect.

Through the brief breakdown of the basic parameters of a typical compressor, it’s easy to see the upside of compression. But there can also be a downside to compression. One common mistake is having the threshold a little bit too harsh and pushing towards the negatives too much, resulting in a sound that is smothered or struggling to get light. Perhaps the best way to tell if something has been compressed too much is by checking the velocity of the sound. That is, if the sound is coming off dull or it’s noticeably losing significant volume, then it has been compressed too much. Though volume does increase some during compression, it should not be the source for controlling volume.

Bottom line:

Because of the unique sonic nature of hip hop/rap music, there are really no magic compression settings for any one sound or group of sounds. Moreover, compression can be used in different ways; you’re only limited by your imagination. Therefore, like many processes of beatmaking and recording/mixing, experimentation and trial and error is a must. In order to find compression settings that work well with your taste and style of production/mixing, you have to try compressing different sounds with different settings, being mindful to avoid those things that flatten and dull your overall sound. And with a good grasp of what compression is and how it works, you’re well on your way to finding your own unique default settings. In the end, that's really the best way to make compression your friend and not your foe.

Some useful compression guidelines:

Begin with short attack and release times, then adjust as needed.

Begin with a 4:1 ratio, then adjust as needed.

Because bass, especially in hip hop/rap music begs to be consistent, think heavier compression on bass sounds.

Compression isn’t just a tool for controlling sound; it can be used to add color as well.

As with any sonic tool, use compression in the ways that help you get that sound and feel that you want.

Avoid using compression simply as a tool to make sounds louder.

*Feel free to leave comments and add your own compression guidelines.

March 02, 2011

Mixing Hip Hop/Rap Music, Part 1

The Fundamentals Of Equalization And Other Key Mix Components

By CUS

Mixing is one key element to any form of music that can actually make the song sound different than how it was initially intended when it was produced. This is why the individual who "mixed" songs received so much acclaim. When mixing hip hop/rap music, as opposed to other popular forms of music, there are a number of different approaches that take precedence, and there are also some elements that remain a constant. In this article, I want to discuss several factors that are fundamental to achieving a good mix, especiallyy in hip hop/rap music.

The Importance of Equalization

Equalization transforms the signal of a sound and/or instrument to grow into something else. Some EQ's can included one to seven different bands that may be modified. The bands indicate the frequencies that are available to tweak. The basics are highs (hi), mids and lows. This pretty much covers the main frequencies of 100 Hz, 1 khz and 10 khz. The range is greater though, as one can tweak as low as 40 to 50 hertz, up to the 10 kilo hertz area.

Filters

These bands sometimes feed several frequencies. It may be the hi to hi-mid, then low-mid to lows. There may also be a straight mid eq in between the hi and low mids. Then there can be a hi pass and lo pass filter. These filters allows one to diminish any of these particular frequencies that happen to be on the same channel as these sounds. The lo pass filter may reduce or attenuate signals that are higher and only allow the lower frequencies to pass. The hi pass filter does the opposite. It allows higher frequency signals to pass and attenuates lower frequencies.

The purpose of these filters is to do away with excess noise. Not in the sense of a gate, but with frequencies. Filters are good to use with vocals. A female vocalist, who more than likely has a higher frequency voice, does not need lower frequencies on her track. So the hi pass filter may be engaged to make sure that NO lower frequencies will pass through. This may be due to any bleeding from other tracks or other signals in the room during the recording. This will hold true with a bass line where the lo pass filter can be engaged where the higher frequencies can be diminished or taken out of the equation altogether.

Gain

The gain of an EQ is the volume of these highs, mids and lows. It may be added or taken away. Adding of the gain is another way of nudging the volume of the signal up a little bit. So if the gain is added on all of the frequencies on a signal, the volume will gradually become louder. This is why I recommend that the input of a plug-in should be turned down by let's say 2 decibels, before one starts to equalize. Having the input lower allows more headroom as the signal becomes greater through the EQ'ing. (One does not want the signal to "slam" the red on the input of the plug-in. This may either distort the sound or make it unmanageable during further tweaking.)

Frequency

The frequency knob (if it's available) is next for the EQ, which sets the focus of where the gain is being added or subtracted. The frequency alters the sound greatly when shuffled with turning left and right. It allows one to see the range of the signal, from bright or dull. This points to where on the map the signal resides. The hi eq is set between 5 khz up to the 15 khz area. The mid eq lingers in the area of maybe 700 to 800 hz up to around 3 khz. The low eq varies from maybe 50 hz up to about 200 hz. The points in between are where the low- and hi-mids come into play. So the individual frequency knobs play within these areas, depending upon which gain was either added or subtracted (brought down). One can hear the bending of these frequencies if they jiggled the knob real fast back and forth. This will give an idea of how the frequencies vary, as one tweaks to their taste.

Bandwidth

The bandwidth of an equalizer is the same as the "Q". Bandwidth is essentially the difference between the frequencies. This refers to the amount of hertz that is changed during the span of a sound. The "Q" can either "round" a sound out or "thin it" out more. It shapes the sound depending on the amount of gain for the particular frequency; whether it is the highs, mids or lows. Upon pulling back the "Q," one may hear the signal widening a little bit. The more the "Q" knob is raised, the sharper the hit is as the signal punches a bit more, thus making it a smaller bandwidth.

---
The BeatTips Manual by Sa'id.
"The most trusted source for information on beatmaking and hip hop/rap music education."

February 10, 2011

Use Plug-Ins? Don't Slam the Signal

How to Avoid Distortion and Other Leveling Problems When Using EQ Plug-Ins

By CUS

Ask any mix engineer about the sort of recording issues they typically have to troubleshoot, and more often than not you'll hear a story about distortion and the like.
I can't tell you how many songs that I've mixed where I had to put a limiter on certain sounds to try to kill the signal—stop it from slamming—and break down or weed out distortion from the recording. But in today's DIY (Do It Yourself) recording environment, I should expect on one hand; but then again on the other hand, this must often can be avoided by how you use your plug-ins.

For the most part, when we use plug-ins, we're mostly "boosting" (bringing up, enhancing the elements of a recording), especially an EQ plug-in. And at times, many people actually "slam" the signal that goes into the plug-in. (Vocals are quite delicate, so this goes double for that.) So here's my recommendation for how to avoid slamming the signal that goes into an EQ plug-in.

When you put an EQ plug-in across a channel, turn the input of the plug-in down by maybe 2 db's and you should be fine. I usually use the Focusrite EQ 6 band, and as soon as it's engaged, I immediately turn the input down. You can see how hard the signal hits, so you may need more than 2db's. If you needs to boost more, the outputs can be turned up also (if the plug-in has outputs). Having the inputs lower and the outputs boosted is not a problem. As long as the signal doesn't overload the plug-in, you should be fine.

January 28, 2011

Jewel Droppin': Mixing with Cus

For Mix Engineers, Hip Hop/Rap Presents a Set of Challenges

As Told to AMIR SAID (SA'ID)

BeatTips: What’s the biggest challenge when it comes to mixing hip hop/rap music?
Cus: [Laughs] The biggest challenge to me, and it’s not really a big challenge for me anymore, but it’s one of the things that I would tell people is that Hip Hop is really drum driven, so understand: once you turn up one thing, you gotta turn up other stuff. So once you try to make the drums as big as you can, you gotta make everything else bigger, especially the bass line. So the whole thing is to try to give it as much maximum power as you can, without over killing it.

BeatTips: What sets mixing hip hop/rap apart from other genres of music? Is it more challenging mixing a typical rock song or a typical Hip Hop-Rap song?
Cus: I do both, so I don’t have a problem with any of them. But an engineer more so used to mixing Hip Hop would have a problem mixing rock. You have to understand that the bass lines in Rock music are not really over everything, they’re just an undertone just to keep along with the drums. Whereas a bass line in hip hop a lot of times is the actual melody, (in a sense), ‘cuz it may not be that much instrumentation. Plus, the bass line is supposed to drive everything. So the bass line is supposed to be on top, where as opposed to Rock music the bass line is supposed to be just a simple undertone to carry the drums, where the guitars are on top!

BeatTips: How did you become a mix engineer?
Cus: I went to Queensborough Community College for Audio Engineering. I started in ’91. In ’93 I started interning at the infamous Powerplay Studios in Long Island City. I graduated [from college] in ’94… Powerplay was a studio that used to house such clients as Diggin’ In The Crates, EPMD, Boogie Down Productions… everybody came through Powerplay. One of the first mixes that I assisted was the “It Ain’t Hard to Tell” Remix with Nas, produced by Large Professor. Interning was interesting, ‘cuz I was able to get into the rooms more. And as I was assisting, I started to get small gigs engineering… After I really started engineering, this was like the tail end of ’95, the beginning of ’96, I started to do some assisting at Unique [Unique Recording Studios-NYC], so I was back and forth engineering at Powerplay and assisting at Unique… Then in ’97 I was full fledge mixing at Unique!

BeatTips: What was the thing that took you to that next level, from assistant to full time engineer?
Cus: I don’t really remember what session it was but… people just like throw you in the fire. Other established engineers would be like, I don’t feel like coming in, all they’re doing is vocals. Yo, you go ahead and do it. (So that’s how I caught a lot of gigs, in the beginning).

BeatTips: What areas should you be concerned with, when mixing Hip Hop-Rap music?
Cus: DRUMS! After you get your drums right, everything else falls into place. Once you get your drums right… I’ve been in situations where I’ve mixed songs and something was wrong with the drums and it made the whole mix go haywire. And as soon as I got the drums perfect, to my liking, I didn’t even have to do anything to the other stuff. If you get your drums in place, then every thing else follows suit.

---
The BeatTips Manual by Sa'id.
"The most trusted source for information on beatmaking and hip hop/rap music education."

January 26, 2011

Troubleshooting the Vocal Chain Of Command

Finding and Rooting Out Distortion on Vocals

By CUS and AMIR SAID (SA'ID)

When it comes to recording and mixing vocals, there's one question that often comes up: 'What do you do when a vocal starts to peak and distortion is on the horizon?' In many cases, all one needs to do is turn down the level of the mic (mic signal) to tape. But this isn't always the actual cause of the distortion. In fact, the "fix" (solution) can depend on any number of circumstances. However, finding out the root of vocal distortion usually comes down to some problem in the signal chain of the microphone.

When you get to the mix stage and a vocal is distorted, troubleshooting the distortion requires that you trace the points of the mic's signal chain to the tape source (these days, usually a software recording program like Pro Tools, Logic, etc.). Typically, the points of a mic signal chain break down like this: (1) mic patched into an external pre-amp; (2) pre-amp patched to compressor; (3) compressor patched into the tape source. (In some cases, a mic is patched into a mixing console, then an external pre-amp.) If there is distortion at the tape source, it doesn't mean that was the starting point for the distortion. Signal overload is usually the culprit in these instances, because a record level may be fine and can still be distorted. Therefore, you must troubleshoot backwards through the mic's signal chain to find the cause of the distortion.

Start off by examining the first "patch-point" of the mic, prior to the tape source; this may be either your mixing console or your pre-amp. If you're using a mixing console, you're monitoring the channel that the mic is patched into; so make sure that the signal is not peaking at the meters. If not, then you know that you can pull the fader down some in order to feed less signal to the tape source. However, if at this point, the distortion is undefined, you have to continue "reviewing" the patch-points of the mic's signal chain.

Adjustments of distortion are usually made at the compressor. Typically, it's a case of the vocal not being compressed enough, which means the threshold on the compressor would need to be pulled back some. If the compression setting seems to be fine, yet still overloaded, you have to examine the next patch-point that supercedes in the vocal chain, which is the mic pre amplifier.

Some pre amps may have a meter alerting you of how much signal is coming into it by a vocalist. This becomes another easy step of turning the input knob down. Even if a compressor is set properly, this input knob of the mic pre may slam the compressor too hard. After you're satisfied with the input signal to your pre amp, well then, your next move is onto the mic itself.

In some cases, vocal distortion is caused by the microphone itself getting "slammed" too hard by the signal of the rapper (vocalist). To fix distortion in this case, you usually have a couple of options. One option is adjusting the mic's reduction setting (some microphones have a reduction setting of up to -20 decibels). Another option addresses the rapper (vocalist)!

In many cases, especially hip hop/rap, the rapper (vocalist) may very well be too powerful for the microphone being used. Some rappers have voices that are very bass driven, which some mics cannot accommodate properly. Still, there are other rappers who have voices that may be too high pitched, especially when they're screaming. These extreme frequencies can bring forth distortion no matter what settings are at one's fingertips. If these vocals continue to jab at microphones that can not handle them, the mic will inevitably "die" (be seriously damaged). Thus, if and when you do find that the rapper (vocalist) is the cause of the distortion, the solution will most likely be a different microphone.

Bottom line: When it comes to finding and rooting out distortion on vocals, all avenues of the mic signal chain must be examined.

---
The BeatTips Manual by Sa'id.
"The most trusted source for information on beatmaking and hip hop/rap music education."

Dedicated to exploring the art of beatmaking in all of its glory.

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