63 posts categorized "Recording Beats, Mixing Beats, Mastering Beats"

January 09, 2015

Capturing Analog Sound and Essence in a Digital Era

Choosing the right DAW or tracking scheme for your beats

By AMIR SAID (SA'ID)


Mackie VLZ 1604 Analog Mixer(Photo credit: Amir Said)


Recently, a BeatTips reader asked me for advice on choosing a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW). It wasn't the first time...and I'm sure it won't be the last. So during our discussion, there was one key issue that had to be reconciled. Thing is, although he did indeed initially want my help in choosing a DAW, his real concern was about tracking (recording) from his Akai MPC into his computer. Specifically, he wanted to know what sort of compact mixing console he could use in conjunction with a DAW. Since I receive this sort of question all the time, I thought it would be helpful to expand my reply here in this article.


For starters, I informed him that I use Pro Tools. Although Pro Tools is indisputably the "industry standard," it is not, by any means, the only suitable software-based digital recording solution. There are many recording artists (beatmakers included) who prefer to use other alternatives like Logic, or Ableton Live. In my experience (and the experiences of many recording artists that I know), the decision to use Pro Tools, Logic, or Ableton Live really comes down to one thing: the way in which one intends to use the DAW.


Pro Tools, made by Digidesign, is excellent for mixing and editing your beats after you've made them; but some have found Pro Tools to be less agile if you intend to actually "make" your beats using it. However, it's worth pointing out that there are some well-known beatmakers like Statik Selektah who now do make some, if not all, of their beats in Pro Tools. Logic, made by Mac maker Apple, is also ideal for mixing and editing your beats. In some circles, Logic even ranks above Pro Tools, particularly because of its perceived ease of use and flexibility. Also, Logic is "more agreeable" if you intend to do more than mix and edit finished beats, that is to say, if you want to "make" beats using it. Finally, Ableton Live, made by Ableton (Germany), like Pro Tools and Logic, can be used for mixing and editing your beats. However, because it's actually a DAW and sequencer, it's also perhaps the most agreeable and flexible when it comes to actually making beats using the application.


Here, I should note that Pro Tools' dominance in the DAW field is due as much to Digidesign's early lock on the industry as it is to its design and capability. Thus, many Pro Tools users, who are now entrenched with not just the product but the brand as well, typically find it hard to migrate to a new DAW. And, again, Pro Tools is the industry standard, there's no denying that. However, you should be aware that any commercial recording studio worth a dime can easily work from your Logic and/or Ableton Live data files.


And What About the Compact Mixing Console

There are some who prefer to track their music into a mixing console, then from there into their computer. Many beatmakers—myself included—use this approach for various reasons: amplification, custom sound stylization, management of multiple pieces of analog gear, that sort of thing. So when deciding on which compact mixing console to go with, it's important to first ask yourself whether an analog sound matters to you or not. Of course, there is considerable debate surrounding this. On one hand, there's the argument that the analog component creates no noticeable difference in sound and audio quality. Still, others like Dr. Dre, DJ Toomp, and/or DJ Premier will tell you that there is indeed a noticeable difference...a difference that they, in fact, prefer.


Thus, if you're persuaded by the argument that the analog component does make a difference, then I recommend going with a Mackie compact analog mixing console. Mackie's VLZ series mixers come in the 4-, 8-, 12-, 14-, and 16-line input variety. However, you can also go with another solution: a FireWire analog mixer that gives you the mixing, recording, and monitoring capabilities of an analog console while offering the flexibility and convenience of digital. Among the compact FireWire (digital) analog mixing consoles, the standouts are: the Mackie Onyx series (8-, 12-, and 16- line inputs), and the Yamaha n8 or n12 FireWire Digital Mixing Studio (8- and 12- line inputs).


Finally, there's one more solution that works if you can't afford a hardware interface for your DAW, but you still want to track through a compact analog mixing console. You can record your beats from your compact mixing console straight to a CD recorder—that's right, straight to CD! Listen, until I had a DAW, that's exactly what I did. Going straight to CD directly from analog mixer will help you develop a stronger feel for sound and other audio nuances. Moreover, it will also help you build mixing skills as well—mixing skills, I should add, that the average beatmaker today does not have. Having your beats on CD is no disadvantage, anyway. Once you’ve recorded your beats to CD, you can always convert them to MP3 files if you need to email or upload your music. And if it becomes necessary to track your beats into an DAW (like in the case of selling a beat), you can bring your gear to a local recording studio and re-track your beats into whatever DAW they have.


Bottom line

I understand working on a next-to-nothing (or truly nothing) budget. But when it comes to building the setup that's right for you, it should never be about trying to acquire a "quick fix." I spent years building out my setup. I know how hard it can be to want to do something musically but you can't because you lack the right gear or the funding to get it. I've felt the anxiety (and pain in the gut) from wanting to move forward, even though I didn't have the tools that I knew I needed. That's why I empathize with other beatmakers who grapple with this everyday. But what I learned (over time) is that it's always more important to invest in your future overall music goals (in this case, to develop a strong skill for and understanding of beatmaking) than it is to take quick-fix short cuts. The gear will always be available. But the time it takes to really develop your craft waits for no one. And, having squandered away your time fixated on a piece of gear rather than developing your skills, you may find that you have a dope setup, complete with all of the latest bells and whistles, but only to find that you have poor beatmaking skills.

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The BeatTips Manual by Amir Said (Sa'id).
"The most trusted name in beatmaking."

April 07, 2014

Insights into Mastering and Sound Design: An Interview with Mastering Engineer Chris Athens

One of the Most Highly Regarded Mastering Engineers Breaks Down Mastering

By AMIR SAID (SA'ID)

BeatTips: What is the fundamental concept of mastering?
Chris Athens: Mastering is the last creative step in the record making process, prior to an album being sent to a pressing plant for mass production. In general, the process of mastering usually includes the sequence of songs, the spaces between the songs, fades, any last minute editing that has to be done. Then of course, the last minute flavor, which usually has to do with EQ—compression, leveling.

BeatTips: What’s the primary difference between mastering and mixing?
Chris Athens: Mastering is an interesting stage, cuz when you’re a putting a record together, typically a mastering engineer is very objective about what you’ve done. Mix engineers tend to get involved really deeply into a record; it takes a long time. Mastering engineers usually come with a fresh perspective, and sort of a very immediate sense of how things should sound. So it’s opportunity for the record to be fine tuned, and really the best of the record to be brought to light. That’s the main function of the mastering engineer.

BeatTips: Is there a different skill set required?
Chris Athens: Yes and no. It’s hard for me to say specifically because I’ve done both. But I would say that what you’re looking for in mastering is to maximize the things that are best about the mixes. In general, I don’t know if the skill set is all that much different. Mix engineers have to have great ears, they have to be very creative. So the art of listening and evaluating tracks is really not that different from mixing and mastering. The techniques are a little different.

BeatTips: Is it generally understood that the mastering engineer should be someone separate from the mix engineer, or if a person could do both, do you recommend that they do both?
Chris Athens: The end result is all that really matters! But by and large I’d say there’s two advantages to hiring a mastering engineer that is a professional at doing that specialty: one, you get the aforementioned objectivity; the other is, from a technical standpoint, most mixed environments are compromised sonically. So when you’re mixing in a control room in a mix room, there are certain anomalies acoustically that usually happen that aren’t normally present in a well designed mastering room. And there’s a number of reasons for that. Usually it has to do with the quality of the acoustics and the focus on monitoring. Mix rooms focus on functionality, how to blend that many tracks into whatever. Mastering rooms tend to focus on the quality of playback sound. So it’s easier to evaluate something. So just as a quick for instance, a lot of mix engineers prefer to work off of small two-way systems—Yamaha NS-10s or your typical two-way monitors. My monitors are very high resolution three-ways with a really good sub system; I use Dynaudio C4s. So it can be really to difficult to be objective when you’re mastering a record on the same speakers you mixed it on.

BeatTips: What are the fundamental dynamics of mastering?
Chris Athens: You mean in terms of what we exactly do?

BeatTips: Exactly, like if you go into a mastering lab anywhere across the country, what are the main things that you’re going to get?
Chris Athens: When you go to a mastering session, the first process will be the mastering engineer will generally ask the client what it is they’re looking to accomplish. Sometimes the clients don’t have a clear idea of what it is they want to accomplish, they just want their record to sound good. But sometimes they will say something specific, say like, they might describe where they did it and how they did it and what they were hoping it would end up sounding like. Then you listen to the tracks that they actually have in your environment, and that actually begins the process of evaluating the mix. Typically, the way I work, some guys like to work a bit more linear, I like to load up the whole record, listen to it, see where the record’s at as a whole, kind of organically. Then you start to make slight adjustments, some songs may need more bottom end, some songs may need more top end.

Some songs need everything, then you work from there. Once you sort of hammered the whole record into place, so it sounds like sort of a cohesive whole, then the process of actually putting the songs in order begins… spacing them out the way you want them. Most urban records you listen to tend to be almost DJ style, people want stuff to kinda come in on the one, or on a beat that makes sense psychologically when they’re listening to it. Putting songs in order is a skill all in its own essentially. Not really putting them in order, cuz usually the clients know what they want, but actually spacing them out, fading them properly, getting them to come in so they feel right. And because it’s a beat-oriented music, and because so many producers are DJs, then tend to be really sensitive to how the record flows, timing wise.

BeatTips: A lot of people’s misconception of mastering is that it’s basically volume boosting.
Chris Athens: Well, the truth is at this point, anybody can make a record loud! It’s gotten so easy that most people actually make records too loud. And I’m talking about producers, mix engineers and the mastering engineers. I frequently get records sent to me for mastering that are already louder than I would’ve made them when I was done mastering them; and sufficiently distorted and all these other things… Listening to records to evaluate their distortion and their dynamics is really a skill. Not everybody has it. You would be amazed at people that are actually really good at producing and being an artist, but are really terrible at listening to records, in terms of what they think sounds good. Lot of times people will evaluate stuff in their car when their car system isn’t really that good; or on speakers in rooms that aren’t set up that well and they think it sounds good and it actually doesn’t.

BeatTips: So in situation where somebody brings to you a project that is mixed particularly well, what do you bring to the stage, what do you add to that?
Chris Athens: If it’s an album, what I’m bringing to the table is evaluation. I’m sort of the last double-check that everything is cool…

BeatTips: Like quality control?
Chris Athens: Almost like a quality control, exactly. And typically what I do to a record that sounds really good is similar to what I do to a record that doesn’t sound good. I just do less of it. I use my level of taste and experience to not step all over it, to let it be what it is and to find whatever weak links it may be in the record and fix them.

For more information on Chris Athens, visit chrisathensmasters.com

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

October 21, 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."

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."

January 14, 2013

Demystifying the Art of Mixing, Part 1

How to Use EQ to Get the Sonic Effects You Desire

By DAVE WALKER (IMPERIAL)

Mixing can appear to be a black art to the uninitiated. In this article I will break down how I have used EQ (Equalizer) in my remix of ‘Memory Lane’ by K.I.N.E.T.I.K. I will focus my attention to application of EQ on the main sample, drums and bass.

Before I get into the breakdown of my use of EQ in this track, I should briefly point out what EQ permits you to do and how it’s often used. EQ allows you to change the tone of an instrument. It’s used to remove unwanted frequencies and boost desired ones. In the context of a mix it allows you to carve out pockets in the frequency spectrum (20Hz-20kHz) for instruments to reside in. EQ will need to be used on the majority of your parts to help blend them all together to create a cohesive mix. When you understand EQ and how to use it effectively, you should notice immediate results in your production work.

One more point before we dive into the mixing analysis: It is always worth noting the lyrical content and ‘feel’ of the track. Establish this first, as it will affect your mixing decisions (as you’ll read later). For this track, I started with the acapella and worked backwards to create the beat. ‘Memory Lane’ is about reminiscing back to the days of childhood, when life was simple, you listened to Hip Hop, played video games and your world was turned upside down when you were told wrestling was fake. This nostalgic theme had an impact on how I used automated EQ.

Application of static EQ

Using EQ is more about reducing and removing unwanted frequencies than boosting pleasant ones. Therefore, the biggest tip I can offer when using EQ is to always have a HPF (High Pass Filter) on all tracks that have no need for low frequency content. Essentially, this is everything except the Kick drum and Bass. There is more often than not unwanted low frequency content on signals. This will build up without you realizing, and take valuable dB of your mix. You can use 100-150Hz as your starting point.

In “Memory Lane,” I applied a HPF at 165Hz to the main sample. I have done this as I have then added my own sequenced bass line underneath. This prevents both signals from fighting for the same space and creates a cleaner mix. The sequenced bass is comprised of 2 tracks playing the same riff. One played by a bass guitar software instrument and the other a sine wave. The sine wave is very low in the mix, but helps boost out the fundamental frequency of the bass line. I have a LPF (Low Pass Filter) on the bass guitar at 530Hz (see image below) removing the higher harmonics, as I wanted the bass to sound ‘round’ and ‘full’.

Listen to the audio examples below of the bass mix, with and without EQ.

Bass without EQ:

Bass with EQ:

The drums have a modest amount of EQ, just enough to bring out the sweet spots of each drum sound. Below is a list of the EQ applied to each drum and what it is achieving.

Kick: Peak boost of 8.5dB centered around 100Hz. This is the key area to be boosting if you want more ‘boom’.
Snare: HPF at 65Hz, a peak boost of 7.5dB at 200Hz (add fuller tone) and a high shelf boost of 6.5dB (for more ‘slap’ and brighter tone) beginning at 4.1kHz.
Hi Hats: HPF at 160Hz, high shelf cut of 4.5db beginning at 8.4kHz. I used this because I deemed the raw hi hats too bright for the track.
Shaker: This is used in the chorus and has a HPF at 350Hz and high shelf boost of 9dB beginning at 5.4kHz (for brighter tone)
Toms: HPF at 47Hz and wide Q peak boost centered around 200Hz (add fuller tone)
Cymbals: HPF at 200Hz and high shelf boost of 5dB beginning at 5.3kHz (for brighter tone)

Listen to the audio examples below of the drum mix with and without EQ.

Drum mix without EQ:

Drum mix with EQ:

Application of automated EQ

At the end of the chorus I have used the “Synthetic Substitution” drum break by Melvin Bliss. I included this break as it is used on many hip hop records and projects that takes the listener back into an earlier golden era of hip hop. I have added a LPF with the cutoff being automated (moved over time) from 20kHz down to 700Hz through the duration of the one bar break. This helps the transition down into the verse and also emphasizes the nostalgic lyrical content mining the depths of your memory.

In addition to this I have a LPF on the sample chop that opens and closes through automation during the verses. It generally opens at the end of every 4 bars, then is reduced again. Artistically, this adds some tonal movement to keep interest in the beat during the verses. Practically, it creates space in the frequency spectrum for the vocals so they don’t compete for the same space. The LPF opens up into the chorus giving the desired lift for the hook.

(Image below shows the automation of the LPF for both the sample and the break)


Full Beat Comparison

Listen to the audio examples below of the full beat with and without EQ. I haven’t done much more than use EQ appropriately, but the difference is obvious. There is a noticeable lack of clarity and unwanted low frequency rumble on the version without EQ. When EQ is added, the mix is clear, tight and sounds alive.

Full beat without EQ:

Full beat with EQ:

You can listen to the full track in the player below.

Dave Walker (Imperial)
imperialbeats.co.uk

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

November 19, 2012

Two Mixing Techniques to Help You with Your Overall Drum Sound

Using Side-Chain Compression and Parallel Processing to Get the Drums in Your Beats Just Right

By DAVE WALKER (IMPERIAL)

Drum production in hip hop is about more than selecting the right sounds and putting them in the right places. Having a wide range of mixing techniques at your disposal goes a long way in helping you get that overall drum sound that you’re after.

This article explores two mixing techniques that I often use along with my drum production techniques. These techniques will help give your drums clarity and punch. For example, I used these techniques on my remix of “Tower of Cards” by Mr J Medeiros, which I include below, along with accompanying audio and images to help you understand the processes involved. The images are taken from Logic Pro but the principles apply to any DAW.

Side-Chain Compression

Compression is one of the most commonly used processors, yet it is commonly misused. (You can make or break a track with compression!) Essentially, compression reduces the dynamic range of a signal, making the louder things quieter and the quieter things louder. For further reading on compression and parameters go here: http://www.beattips.com/beattips/recording-mixing-and-mastering/

A compressor begins reducing the volume of a signal when the input source goes above the threshold. The input source is typically the signal you want to compress. However, most compressors have side-chain (sometimes called ‘key’) inputs. A side-chain input allows you to use another channel to control the compressor, as opposed to the channel the compressor is inserted on. Side-chain compression is heard on the vast majority of dance records with a compressor acting on the whole mix, and being controlled by a side-chained kick drum. This ducks (reduces the volume of) the signal of the entire mix when the kick drum plays. To hear this in fully effect listen to Daft Punk’s ‘One More Time’

Low frequency muddiness is always an issue in hip hop. You want to get the most out of your kick drum and bass, without them having to compete against each other for space in the mix. Side-chain compression can be really helpful in cleaning up the low end of your mix and providing that space. A common application is to use a compressor with a side-chain input from your kick drum to duck the bass. This enables the kick to poke through the mix and not be masked by the bass.

First off, add a compressor to your bass channel and select the side-chain input from your kick channel. In Logic the side-chain input is selected in the top right corner of the compressor. To ensure the compressor reduces the signal of the bass quickly, use a fast attack (under 10ms) and set the response to peak level not RMS (average level). The release time is important in deciding how quickly you want the bass to return to its original volume after the kick drum has stopped playing. I have used a quick release time of 9.5ms. By juggling the threshold and ratio the bass signal is reduced by 5dB when the kick plays. This is a subtle amount of gain reduction, but enough to ensure the kick is not masked by the bass. Listen to the examples below to hear the drum and bass mix with and without side-chain compression. Notice how the kick pokes through the mix when side-chain compression is used.

Bass without Side-chain compression: BASS_S-C_CompressionOFF.mp3

Bass with Side-chain compression: BASS_S-C_CompressionON.mp3

Parallel processing

Parallel processing is another technique used to creatively add punch to your drums. It allows you to have a dry (unaffected) signal and a wet (affected) signal playing at the same time. In hip hop, it’s common to utilize parallel compression (also known as NY Compression) on the drum stem (sub group), or even entire mix during the mastering stage. If applied to the drum stem the result is extra power and RMS level without losing the dynamic variation and transient attack of the drum hits. Some producers will also add shelving EQ in conjunction with compression to bring out the low and high frequency content.

Parallel processing isn’t limited to compression. You can use all sorts of processors and effects creatively to blend in with your unprocessed signal. In this remix I have used parallel processing on the drum stem, to compress, distort and EQ the signal. To set this up in Logic Pro, I sent my individual drum channels to a stereo aux channel (labeled ‘Dry Drums’) to create the drum stem. Via a bus send, I have routed the drum stem to another stereo aux channel (labeled ‘Para Drums’) ready for parallel processing (see image above/below/left/right).

The compressor on the parallel processed channel is reducing the dynamic range of the drums by 15dB. This is heavy compression and is used to increase the average level of the drum track. Distortion is then added through Logic’s inbuilt guitar amp simulator ‘Amp Designer’. This is giving the drums the crunchy character needed for the track. Using EQ, I have scooped out 12dB centered around 1.5kHz as the Amp Designer is adding unwanted resonances in the mid-range. The volume fader of the parallel channel is lowered; it isn’t intended to dominate the drum mix, rather add depth, character and reinforce the unprocessed drum stem.

Listen to the examples below to hear the drum stem with and without parallel processing. Notice how the average level is louder and the distortion adds texture, depth and crunch to the drums. This is all achieved without losing the dynamic range and transient attack of the drum hits.

Unprocessed Drums: DRUMS_Parallel_ProcessingOFF.mp3

Parallel Processed Drums: DRUMS_Parallel_ProcessingON.mp3

Like many production techniques, make sure that you understand what you are doing and why you are doing it before you begin, as this will help you achieve better results.

You can listen to the full track in the player below.

Dave Walker (Imperial)
imperialbeats.co.uk

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

April 25, 2012

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.

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

January 31, 2012

When You Mix with Headphones, the Key is Translation

Why Mixing with Headphones Sounds Different, and How You Can Still Get a Good Mix Using Them

By ADOAN001, CASTRO BEATS, BRANDONF42088, and AMIR SAID (SA'ID)

Recently, a member of The BeatTips Community (TBC) posted this question:

So when i'm workin on a beat i'm wearing the beats by dre studio headphones, but when i take em off and listen to the beat once it's done it sounds completely different i just realized with this beat i just finished. what could cause that?

Below is the thread exchange, which includes replies from TBC moderators Castro Beats and BrandonF42088 and myself.

Castro Beats:
You're going to have to explain a little more. Do you mean the beat sounds different in another pair of headphones compared to the Beats by Dre headphones or you're listening to it on speakers/monitors in comparison to the Beats by Dre headphones?

And then, what sounds different about it from one to the other, bass response, treble etc

For starters most headphones don't have a flat response, and also make sure you have no odd EQ settings on whatever it is you're playing your music back with.

adoan001:
I make the beats in reason on my iMac with the dre headphones on. I did the mixing with the headphones on and it sounded how i wanted it to. But when i listen 2 it just playin off of my computer the beat sounds nothing like what i was hearing before. I can barely hear the bass, the drums sound weaker, and the whole thing sounds so thin. The problem i'm having i guess is if i'm guna b playin it for people n want em 2 hear it the same way as when i had my headphones on since the sound quality is obv alot higher then the built-in mac speakers, should i just not use the headphone when
doin it.

Castro Beats
There is a philosophy that if you can get a mix to sound good on a bad pair of speakers (NS10) then it will sound good anywhere else.

If there are moves you made in your mix inside Reason that are not translating to what your bouncing it could be because a bypass switch is on, signals have not been properly routed or really a vast amount of other issues. Also make sure that your playback device (windows media player, winamp) isn't using an EQ setting other than flat response, no reverb or other fx that might alter your newly exported mix.

If you're simply saying that the iMac PC speaker doesn't sound as good as dedicated headphones then, albeit an opinion oriented statement, yes most people would agree. To my knowledge the built-in iMac speaker doesn't have the same diameter of the Beats by Dre headphones meaning it cannot match the bass response, not to mention the proximity to your ear is a factor as well. All things being equal, the engineers at Apple design computers, not speakers. If you have actual stand alone PC speakers then that's a different issue. A mix should sound the same everywhere you take it, but I will say that trying to mix/hear bass on built-in computer, and some stand-alone computer speakers, is truly an exercise in futility. Mixing in headphones is considered an art in some circles, so no reason to not mix with them. However, the car seems to be a generally agreed on venue to get an accurate mix as well as comparison to professionally mixed material.

Scram Jones told me to play a Dre record on my speakers/setup, then play my mix/beats. Get a feel for how Dre's mix is and how yours is. When your mix starts to sound like Dre mix, your onto something.

BrandonF42088
The Beats by Dre Studio headphones IMO are high end consumer headphones not really meant for monitoring. The Beats by Dre make music sound really good because of boosted low end for bass and a boosted high end.

The difference between these headphones and say the Sony MDR-7506 for example is the fact that the Sony have a more flat frequency response meaning they are made for an accurate reproduction of the frequency spectrum. This is what you want when you are mixing so you can spot problems in your mix.

I have had this same problem when I was using consumer headphones. I would take off the headphones and listen to my beat somewhere else and it would sound nothing like it did on the headphones. For example: the bass would be lacking and my samples would be sounding very thin and other elements would be obviously too loud etc.

If you are going to be using headphones for your mixes I would recommend something with a very flat frequency response. The Sony MDR-7506 are a standard and they are only 100$ and you will notice a major difference with how your mixes start to translate.
There are plenty of other options out there as well but I would say in the 100$ price range its hard to beat the Sony's.


Here's my reply:
adoan001,

I think this is a simple translation issue. Castro gave a great response, but it might have been a bit overwhelming at first. There's a lot to unpack in it, so be sure to return to it; he drops a lot of jewels in his response....

Like Brandon, yourself, and probably countless others, I've run into this problem before. And, typically, it's simply a "translation" issue. I use a pair of Sony MDR-7506 headphones, so I can attest to their quality and response. However, that being said, even using Beats By Dre headphones, you can train your ear to account for the missing bass.

For example, I once used consumer grade stereo speakers as my monitors. They produced a LOT of low end and very bright highs. So I trained my ear to mix for what wasn't "really" there. It took a lot of A/B mixing and listening across several playback systems, but I was able to figure out how those speakers translated. So regardless of what headphones that you use, always be mindful of how they translate. Listen to a commercial CD that you know in your Beats headphone and on your computer and on any other playback system that you have access to. Take notes on how it resonates, then you'll have a better idea of what to do when mixing your music with headphones and/or monitors.

—Sa'id

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

January 16, 2012

BeatTips Readers Poll™: Which Studio Monitors or Speakers Do You Use?

For Many Beatmakers, the Monitors or Speakers that They Use Can Be a Strong Point of Debate

By AMIR SAID (SA'ID)

Over the years, I've used an assortment of monitors and speakers, each complete with its own sound character. And what I've learned is that no matter what monitors or speakers that you use, your unique environment (space/room) always plays a key role.

Every room has its own unique dynamics—shape, width, length, height of the ceiling, wall density, furniture, etc. Hence, your room (production space) has to be learned, in order for any pair of monitors or speakers to truly be beneficial to you. You have to learn how your room renders bass and treble. You have to learn where your room offers the best play back. You have to learn where your room puts out a lot of "slap-back." In short, you have to learn the unique acoustic nature of your room/production space. Once you really learn your room, in tandem with whatever monitors you're using, you'll be good to go.

For this BeatTips Readers Poll™, the aim is to see which monitors or speakers everyone prefers to use.


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

December 15, 2011

Analog Sensibilities, Digital Realities: What Can the Right Signal Flow Do for Your Sound?

The Advantages of Hybrid Tracking and Mixing

By PETE MARRIOTT, BRANDONF42088, and AMIR SAID (SA'ID)

Signal flow is an important part of beatmaking. Yet not all beatmakers invest much thought into the signal chains that they use. Below is a discussion between two BeatTips Community (TBC) members and myself about this particular analog sensibility/digital reality issue.

Pete Marriott

I'm not sure hybrid is the right term but hell I'm using it anyway to describe my practice of using analog gear like my Tascam M-2600 MKII console to track and mix my sounds to and from the computer. I know my mixing desk is not a Neve, API, Harrison, MCI or SSL but I love the sound I get from it because I know how to make it work for me.

I went back to my analog roots because I needed to return to the kind of workflow that makes sense to me. I didn't grow up behind a DAW system, it was something that I progressed to from my early days of cutting tape on a block with a razor blade to do my edits. It was hands on and much easier on my eyes because they weren't glued to a computer screen all day long. I needed to twist knobs and slide faders and push mute and solo buttons and insert patch cables again because clicking the mouse became mundane and it gave me a case of carpel tunnel.

But this not a "I hate digital" post because that is not true at all. I love the power of what I can do in a DAW. I just needed to have a strong sense of what I grew up on and the current technology so I came up with what I call the Hybrid solution to my problem. I don't know if I'm alone in taking this route but it would surely be nice to know if I'm in good company.

BrandonF42088

My signal flow for making beats:

Technics 1200--->Vestax PMC 07--->SoundCraft Folio Rac Pac mixer--->MPC 2000xl/S900/EPS-16--->SoundCraft Folio Rac Pac (post fader direct outputs)--->Digi 003R--->Pro Tools---> From here depending on the track I will bounce out a internal layback and sample rate convert.

Then open it in a new session 44.1K 24bit atempt to master the track add dither and bounce out a 44.1K 16bit PCM file.

I sometimes go out of the digi 003 into a cassette tape recorder and record to a cassette then fromt he tape recorder go back into my mixer then to a stereo track in pro tools and bounce out from there.

I eventually want to get a pro 2 or 4 track reel to reel tape machine and a pro cd burner (these are high on my music production grocery list.)


Sa'id

Pete, Brandon,

You are certainly not alone. Many beatmakers (and other music-makers) use a signal flow similar to the one you describe here. Like the both of you, I certainly appreciate the power and flexibility that a DAW offers. I use Pro Tools, and I can not stress how much it has helped to streamline my recording process, not to mention the fact that it makes it possible for me to record everything from my home studio.

Before I began using Pro Tools, I was locked into a time consuming and rather expansive studio routine. In order to get my beats/songs on to "tape" or to even secure a better quality CD mix, I would have to book studio time, then lug my gear in. In some cases, I was able to rent my setup, which at the time was an Akai MPC 60 II and an Akai S950. But more often than not, I simply brought my MPC and S950 in with me. And while bringing my gear in was one problem, having a reference mix for the engineer was yet another.

In order to get a reference mix in my home studio, I'd have to record my beats straight to CD (and before that to *cassette*). But after DAWs like Pro Tools became more accessible—and more affordable—, I cautiously invested, and soon embraced them as a viable alternative to my old "studio routine." (I suspect in this regard, I'm certainly not alone.)

Today I can't imagine trying to do what I do without Pro Tools, or a comparable DAW. If not for the sheer savings in both time and cost, I've embraced DAWs because of the level of control it grants me over my recording process. And while you might *lose* some of the sonic essence (not noticeable to the average listener) when recording into a computer as opposed to let's say analog tape, I have found—just as you have, and others like DJ Toomp—that I can maintain and simulate that sonic quality (specifically the "umph" and warmth) by tracking through my analog Mackie 32/8 mixing console.

I route all of my gear (external samplers, keyboard, DJ mixer—which absorbs my turntable, CD player, and cassette deck) into my Mackie console. From my Mackie console, I track directly into my Digidesign Digi 002 rackmount interface, which of course, then goes into my computer (Mac G5).

This hybrid approach (I too refer to it that way) allows me to combine and utilize techniques from both the analog and digital realms. In particular, this approach gives me the added advantage of being able to instantly reference the sound that initially comes through my console with the new reality of how Pro Tools "captures" it. In this way, I'm able to mix "in the box" (inside of Pro Tools), in a way that matches—as close as possible—the sonic essence that I'm able to produce through my analog console.

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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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