Album Challenge: Post 4

Lyrics did not come easy on this one. Luckily I found some of the first draft I wrote maybe a year ago. Thank you Google drive.  Good to find lines like:

“An old pool hall, a picture show
Dusty love affairs
Memories walking hand in hand
and dying off in pairs.”

I changed the title. “The Lion of the Town” seems more central and gets repeated a few times.

I started using regions in Reaper which allows you to take whole vertical sections of a song and shuffle them around. It’s a quick way to arrange. You can see what you need in terms of lyrics and how the structure flows. You know, verse, chorus, bridge. This is much faster then what I used to do. I’m a  fan of fast.  Technology should keep up with fleeting thoughts. That’s one reason I often go to the acoustic drums instead of programming them in.

If you listen you’ll hear just about everything is a loop except the vocals. The point is to put down the structure of the song for the vocals. Regions are great for that. Later we’ll see how well I fake a steel guitar.

The vocals are still pretty rough imo. There are notes I’m not sure about. Notes that aren’t quite in key. The phrasing isn’t 100%. Right now there are some rough edits between verses. Have to figure those out. I do think I figured out the tempo and key. Hope.

If you listen you can tell the vox were done in several takes. The mic placement was a bit different. They were done over about 3 days so my voice actually sounds different on some takes. When I record this again I’ll most likely do it in one day with consistent mic placement. I used to sweat this. Not much anymore. It’s still nice to start out in a consistent place imo. You can always add variety with plugins.

So that’s it for this one I think. If it gets used I’ll circle back and make it real purty. What song will be next? Hmmm.

Final thought. It’s amazing how exacting music can be. The difference between a part working and not working can come down to some nuanced stuff. Getting the timing spot on can make a big difference. I don’t mean on the grid. I mean so the feel or groove is right. This comes up a lot when I program drums. Sometimes no grid setting works and I have to just “play it in” so it feels right.

I’ve mixed a lot of troubled songs. One bit of advice: Nail the timing.

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Album Challenge: Post 3

Summery: I add the last idea to “So Far Away”. Leave it rough and move on to a country song.

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I decided to add one last idea to “So Far Away” and move on. Later I’ll circle back more practiced and polish it.

The final addition is a some piano written by my high school friend Jason Bailey. Back when the dinosaurs roamed we made some 4 track magic. Jason now runs moogov.com a cool site where you “write, submit, debate, and vote on legislation”.

I wanted to get Jason involved because unlike me he actually plays piano. I remember years ago how awkwardly I programed drums. Not being a drummer, I didn’t understand their roll in a song.

Here it is with Jason’s piano.

Next up is a country-ish song. The melody and idea came to me after watching The Last Picture Show. I figured I’d start out recording acoustic guitar and then program some hi-hats for the right rhythmic feel. But the guitar never felt right to me so after a day or two I just drew in the chordal progression and had Kontakt 4’s upright piano play it. As simple as that was it actually worked. I’m debating whether to leave the hi-hats in when I record. The pattern is 1,2,3, 1,2,3, 1,2. They are 1/8th notes but the accents don’t fall on the 1/4 note. Strangely, I can track the rhythm and sing to the song with only chord changes on the one count. Maybe this song needs some rhythmic flexibility in the vocals and the hi-hats were too much structure.

The lyrics are coming slow. I watched the film again thinking it would give me some ideas. Not really. Today I want to at least finish one verse/chorus section. The song doesn’t really have a verse or chorus… it just flows from one to the other. But I fell like I need at least one of these sections to practice the phrasing and figure out the key. I’ve tried it in several keys already. I’ll probably have to record the vox in a few different keys and see what feels best.

Acoustic guitar is always difficult imo.  I wrote a post encouraging people to try dynamic mics on acoustic guitar and vocals. I find I get better results right out the gate. Once again I proved to myself… just use the SM7. Here I’m using it on both guitar and vocals. And yes, I did try other mics.

The vox got recorded close (6″) with a pop screen and the mic very off axis (not pointing directly at my mouth). The guitar was recorded at about 3′ where I could hear the proximity effect subside. Again, way off axis like this picture.

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I always monitor the mic in headsets to figure out placement. It’s kind of a poor man’s control room. Since the idea is to isolate the mics signal from the actual signal I used isolation-ish headphones. I’m using Beyerdynamic DT 770Ms. On the plus side they are comfortable and have some isolation. On the negative side they are way too bassy.

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When the acoustic guitar combined with the hi-hat pattern it started coming together. I expected the drums to have a bit of swing to them but ended up using them straight. In the final version I may need to just record myself playing my acoustic kit to get the right feel.

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Album Challenge: Post 2

There was a time when I agonized over microphones. No longer. Not only is content king. But the differences between two mics in the same class can be amazingly small and account for < .8% of your songs goodness. No science was use to validate this statement.

I like my sm7. It tames dynamics and sibilance. Best of all after using it as hammer you can still use it as a mic.

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I did a few recording runs trying some different placements. Then I settled for about 6″ away. The diaphragm is pointing at my chin more then my mouth to minimize sibilance. That way I can use less multiband compressor later on. A pop filter is always a good idea at this close distance.

There are a million ways to set up mics. None wrong or right. I do think it’s important to take time and listen to what they sound like. Record them. None of my decisions are based on reading or rote. I do read about recording but the final proof is in listening. Does it work for your music?

Here is the next version. The tempo has increased. I worked out a rhythm on the hi-hats and kick and wrote more lyrics.

I’m using BFD 2 for the drums. When I was listening to VSTi drums a few years ago BFD 2 sounded best to me. Best in terms of realistic acoustic drums. The piano is from Kontakt 4. Those are two big resource hogs suckling at the teet of humble Reaper.

Here is something a bit further along in production. Most of the lyrics are done. The basic song structure is there. Bass is added. Turns out I like transistor style distortion so I’m using it on vocals and the bass guitar. I broke up the drums a bit with some fills and changes in patterns.

My philosophy on production is to try out lots of things. Record them. Then see if I like them a bit later. Often I’ve liked a part when I was playing it and then decided it didn’t quite work with the song a day later. So here I recorded a few bass parts, a piano riff up near C5, some expressive screams from my daughter, and a few other ideas. Many things are still rough but I’m generating ideas and polish would get in the way.

I did some math and realized if I keep working at this rate I’ll never finish before October 8th. But things are always slow at the start. Getting back in the flow of recording, writing, and producing takes time. For now, I’m not going to sweat it.

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Album Challenge: Post 1

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About 2 weeks ago I posted an album challenge. I gave myself a deadline (Oct 8, 20013) and invited anyone else who wants to come along. Finish your own album. Ask questions. Give advice. Or just follow the process.

So then…

On my first album I decided to do the strong songs first. Trouble is the beginning of the process is where you are least rehearsed for performance, recording, and production. So this time I’m starting with the unformed songs. I’ll practice on them and be honed for my favorites later. This one had no lyrics and was missing a chorus or at least another part. Songs needs parts!

Writing on paper works better for me.  Yeah, who knows. So I lugged out my over-sized notebook and started scribbling.  I like to write about twice the lyrics I’ll need and then pick out what I think works best. Sometimes I can mix and match from different groups of lyrics.

An important thing with lyrics is finding the right tempo. So I put up a metronome and started singing. I try to find a place where the phrasing sounds right. It’s kind of like a horse running through it’s gates. Sure it can trot extra slow but wouldn’t a canter be better?  I don’t ride horses. With a metronome running you can figure our which phases or words work. Some may have too many syllables. Some may not roll off the tongue. Some may have too much sibilance.

While the song is still incubating the tempo is often slower then the final version. I think this is because the song isn’t rehearsed enough. Uncertainly can slow things down. Here is the very first tempo. It’s 7 BMP slower then the latest version.

After I spent some time singing it I realized it worked better faster. Incredible discovery! Faster has more energy. I also thought the slower tempo made the phrasing lag. I was running out of breath.

Wait. Back up. The very first thing that happened was I got a melody. My first instrument was voice. Often a song will come to me as a melody and then I figure out the chordal structure. I sit down with my guitar or keyboard and just bang our the chords until I have something that works with the melody. This one is very popular one: 1, 4, 6m, 5. Is this the axis of awesome progression? Nope. But it’s pretty close.

Getting the chords together helps me solidify the melody. Often, my first melodies are more like outlines. Rehearsing with the chords and tempo helps me nail down the melody. And that’s crucial if you plan on doing some tight doubling. I do.

The chords can also suggest natural places to go for a bridge or chorus. If you know a little music theory you can easily come up with some natural chord changes and see if they work. (Theory is kind of like search and rescue. While you might get lucky searching the entire ocean it’s better to know where the ship sank.) I don’t tend to think about things in terms of verse/bridge/chorus. For me it’s more about variations and changing gears in the song. So long as things stay interesting I think you’re ok.

In the next post I’ll talk about whatever wanders into my thinky part. Could be lyrics. Could be production. And I’ll share the next 2 incarnation of this song.

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Album Challenge: Release 10/8/13

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It’s this: A challenge to myself and other readers to finish an album by 10/8/13.  That’s 255 days to write, record, and inject magic®.

On the way I’ll share everything. Philosophy, writing inspiration, recording, production, promotion, and anything else I think could be of use. Have a question? Ask. Have an idea? Share.

You see, I think I’ve lost my way.  Like many diligent and good meaning musicians I’ve fallen into an alluring pool of technology. I’ve gone past technology as a means and started perusing it as an ends.  Ten years ago I considered content supreme and engineering best left to someone in a lab coat. Coincidentally(?) that’s the last time I recorded my own material.

In a way I’ve been hiding.  I mean, if you are a technical guy to begin with, I say tech on. But I’m not. It’s just more comfortable loosing yourself in technology then sharing your work with the public.

Is that you too? Let’s see what we can do in 255 days.

 

 

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Changing Tuners on a Parker Fly Guitar

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Summery: When I bought my 2005 Parker Fly Mojo I wanted to put on heavy (.012″) strings. But there was a problem. The tuner posts weren’t long enough to accommodate larger strings. It took some sleuthing to figure out the solution. In the end I replaced the tuners.

Here is the video of me changing them out.

Warning: Putting heavier strings on your guitar will increase the tension on the neck and tremolo system. Don’t be cavalier about it. You can damage your guitar.  Make sure your guitar can accommodate the string gauge. Call the manufacturer. Check the manual. Check the user forums. I remember putting heavy strings on an acoustic and permanently resetting the neck in a bad way.

Parker necks are wood with a carbon and glass fiber exoskeleton. They are supposed to be strong.

Parker supports tremolo springs (actually on Parkers it’s a plate used in compression) for .011″ (medium) strings. I reasoned heavy strings tuned a step flat would have the same tension. Then I used an on-line string tension calculator to get an estimate.

I used this calculator. It’s nice. It sums strings for a total tension, accounts for wound strings, allows different string scales and alternate tunings. According to this calculator a set of medium strings tuned to E with a 25.5″ scale is about 126lbs of tension. A set of heavy strings tuned to D is 129lbs of tension. About the same so  should be fine.

The problem with my current tuners: The part of the tuner that goes through the headstock is called the post. It has to be at least long enough for the hole in the tuner to poke out the other end of the headstock and receive your string.  As you can see here the hole for the low E string is slightly recessed beneath the bushing and washer. You can thread a string so long as it’s not too thick.

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Tuner post too short. String hole recessed slightly below bushing

On the end of the headstock everything seemed fine. First I thought the posts were different heights. They weren’t. So I measured the headstock thickness and found a 1/32″ variance. That explained it.

I was confused about this at first. But after a bit of sleuthing I think I figured it out. I called Roger over at Sperzel (the stock tuners on my Parker are Sperzel Trim-Loks). He said pre-2000 the Parkers shipped with a shorter post height tuner. My guess is this Parker left the factory with the old hardware.

I started surfing about for replacement tuners. The only site that actually listed some useful specs on the post height was stewmac.com. They had 3 different post heights listed for some sets of Trim-Loks. I only wanted to order once so I called Roger again. He told me to order from Carvin. Carvin’s inline set was the right height for my Parker. I suspect most of what’s out there is the right size for my Parker but no one seems to list any meaningful specs.The measurement I have from the bottom of the post (where it presses against the headstock) to the bottom of the hole is about 25/32″. But good luck finding that listed anywhere.

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Correct tuner post height. String hole not recessed.

 

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A slight difference in post height. About 1/32″.

Just an FYI, the Sperzel Trim-Loks fit heavy strings fine. The largest of mine is .052″ or .05245″ as this AccuRemote micrometer shows (for $50 I like this tool). I can’t vouch for larger strings fitting the tuner holes.

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Removing/Installing: Remove your strings. Use a 11mm socket to unscrew the bushing. Be careful not the strip the bushing. There isn’t much to grab. You may need to push and wiggle the tuner out a bit.  These tuner have a pin that keeps them from rotating on the back of the headstock. Some pins have a snug fit. There is a video at the top of this post where I swap them out.

Other Important things: Changing the tuners to put heavy strings on is just the beginning. Now I have to adjust the tremolo to balance out the new string tension. On a Parker this requires getting a new spring (actually more like a compression plate). I’ll also need to check out the relief and see if I need to adjust the truss rod. Another post…

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AES Project Studio Expo Sessions: Yes and Yes

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Summery: The AES Convention is well worth checking out. Even if you don’t have a “pro” studio. Even if you aren’t super technical. Even if you don’t have 100k worth of gear lying about.

As you probably  know there are more projects studios then ever before. So I say YAY to AES (in association with SoundonSound) for embracing this new direction and putting on the Project Studio Expo Sessions.

Hard to believe it’s free.

Years ago I had very little interest in the engineering side of music. I was an artist. The engineering would be handled by some guy in a lab coat. I had a Tascam 424 in the 90s that got little use. Around 2000 I downloaded the free version of Protools. This time it was a slippery slope.

For the last few years I’ve gotten free passes to AES. It seems a lot of organizations give out “exhibits only” passes. This year I got mine through Tape Op Magazine, but I also remember SoundOnSound and Gearslutz allowing people to register. Anyway, up until this year, I managed never to make it. Now, I wish I had.

The exhibition only pass gives you access to all the exhibit booths, an overwhelming amount of gear; mics, speakers, software, vocal booths, preamps, converters, clocks. I did a slow and curious meander taking it in. Stepping inside vocal booths. Trying to get in the sweet spot of speakers. I even had my ears molded for custom earplugs. Thanks, Andrew at earinc.com.

But this year they launched the Project Studio Expo Sessions and I knew I had to go.  This stuff was tailored to me! These were hour long sessions that focused on large blocks of knowledge like mixing or tracking.

I’ve been reading, doing, and thinking about recording for a while now. I’d be lying if I said everything was new to me at the sessions. But even the refresher information was useful because it was presented in a different way. Some presentations helped me prioritize information. For example, I’ve read Mike Senior’s mixing book (It’s very good), but obviously he can’t cover it in 60 minutes. What did he do? A very prioritized version of mixing dos and don’ts. This was highly time efficient and left you focused on a few key concepts like phase and single driver monitors.

There was also a good deal of completely new information. I went to most of the sessions but not all. Here is a taste of the sessions I did attend.

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This is what it looked like. Since the sessions were in the exhibition area (noisy) we all got a set of wireless headphones. Straight ahead is the session screen. Looks small here but it was easy to read even from the back where I took this. The presenter is a bit to the left just out of frame. The sessions I attended were at “nice” capacity: Lots of interest but not too crowded. Since I’d seen this session before I sat at the back for easy duck out. I could’ve (and did) sit in the front row on other sessions.

Total Tracking had a great overview of mic types. I suppose I’ve seen the information over the years but it was never as condensed and accessible. They explained how the mechanics of a microphone effect it’s sound. For example, dynamic microphones having the most mass, tend to react slowly to transients. At the end of Sunday’s session they had a tip I’ve never seen. Rubber band a pencil on a condenser mic as a plosive filter.

Mixing Secrets with Mike Senior stressed the importance of phase when mixing. (Phase came up quite a bit across all sessions.) He’s been doing a feature for SoundOnSound magazine called “mix rescue”.  It takes one lucky readers mix and recuses it. He’s seen a lot of phase issued with home mixes. Phase: Better recognize.

Master your tracks I’m of the opinion you can’t compete with true mastering done by a skilled engineer in a great listening environment. But what if you can’t afford that? What if no one can stop you from mastering your own music! This session shows you how to use DIY mastering to make your tracks sound better. MORE IMPORTANTLY it show you how not to destroy your tracks with DIY mastering. Craig blitzed through a mastering demonstration in about 15 minutes. Widening the stereo field, adding compression, and using small EQ adjustments.

Keeping the Human Element in the Digital Age: Ever feel like the precision of technology is sucking the soul from your recording? I have. Craig starts out with an overview of how the brain works and how to get in the right frame of mind to produce creative work. He notes that today’s musicians are taking on many technical roles that used to be handled by engineers. Near the end he gets less philosophical and more practical. How do you musically apply quantization? Autotune? Dynamics with automation? Good stuff.

All of the Project Studio Expo Sessions looked worth attending. I wish I made them all. Trouble is this weekend was packed with non AES stuff too. After the prior night activities I barely made it to the 11AM session. By 2 I was famished and shot. Next year.

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Reaper vs Samplitude… Sorta

Summery: Check out the videos below. This has been one of my harder posts. Usually I tackle a smaller subject and go into lots to detail. There really is no way to be comprehensive when comparing DAWs. Hell, Reaper’s manual has 400 pages. It’s a good manual but it doesn’t cover everything.

So I started thinking about these DAWs holistically not piecemeal. What is Reaper’s personality? Can I give specific examples? How does it’s approach differ from other DAWs?

I really like Reaper. It has lots of thoughtful things that make day to day use pleasant. It has a helpful community, a good manual, and devs who seem to be responsive. At $60 it’s a great value.

Contrary to what you might read on the interwebs Reaper is a pro product (or has been since I first tried it at version 4). I use it as much as I use Samplitude now.

Where I’m coming from: If you don’t know much about an author it’s had to evaluate what they’re saying. So…

I started with Protools. I was pretty handy with it and took some certification classes. I left briefly for Sonar. Flirted with Nuendo. Then chose Samplitude for the last 5 years. Samplitude is not well known in the US. It’s a very sophisticated DAW with a huge feature set.

I use DAWs for recording, editing, mixing, and some virtual instruments. I don’t use midi heavily.

My DAW Philosophy:  Software won’t make you a better mixer. It won’t give you great ears. It won’t improve your musical taste. Most modern DAWs can accomplish the same things one way or another. So why even compare DAWs?

My philosophy on DAWs has changed over the years. I use to look for sonic quality and feature set. I didn’t give documentation, user interface, or intuitive organization much thought. If the DAW could do the job I was happy. It didn’t matter that it took 20 mouse clicks or had strange keyboard shortcuts.

But if you spend a lot of time with a DAW these little things start adding up. An extra click here, a reference to the manual there, pretty soon your workflow slows. So does your spontaneity. After a while mixing is less fun.

I appreciate the little things more and more. Here is the plugins window in Reaper. On the left you have all of Reaper’s stock categories. On the bottom left I’ve added a costume folder called “Favorites”. It’s where I put the few plugins I use 95% of the time. Big time saver. By default there is also a “Recently used” folder. You can search your plugins. See the “Filter” field in the lower left? You can re-scan you plugin paths directly from this window. You can access your plugin preferences via this window. When you close and re-open it remembers the last state. So if you had Favorites active it’s active the next time you open the window. All good.

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True you can get to your plugins with any simple window but Reaper makes this frequently used task much faster. It’s very easy to accumulate a few hundred plugins. Navigating through a windows style list of them is a needless hassle.

Comparing Reaper and Samplitude: I initially got interested in Reaper because Samplitude 11 Pro (32 bit) was having trouble with some VSTi memory hogs.  Samplitude Pro X has since been released and is 64 bit. So I can’t compare both DAWs at 64 bits. However I’ve used Samplitude long enough to know the general nature of the program. I doubt tons has changed with version X.

I’ll point out what I appreciate in one program and is lacking in the other. One man’s opinion. To each there own.  Here goes.

Documentation: You may be saying who cares. You’ll probably start caring when something isn’t intuitive and you spend 20 minutes figuring it out. A feature you can’t use isn’t a feature at all. This is especially important when your DAW is “deep” like Samplitude and Reaper.

Reaper has a well written and frequently updated manual. There is a great video tutorial series here. It’s not free but it’s definitely worth the money. I’ve actually read most of the manual and I’ve watched the full tutorial series. There are some other books here and a site devoted to Reaper video tutorials here with some free content. The Reaper forum is friendly and active. Cool.

Samplitude’s manual is lot harder to use. I suspect it’s a so-so translation of the German (Samplitude is made by German company Magix). The Forum is helpful but frequented by technical people which is good and bad. The single most helpful resource I’ve found is Kraznet’s videos. I don’t know what his motivation was for putting together all these video. He may be one of the nicest people on the planet.

I was hoping to show examples of the translation issue in Samp. I found these gems yesterday using the FFT filter.

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Move over  engrish.com.

User interface. For me Reaper is more intuitive. Things are where I expect them to be. Here is an example. Reaper has bouncing under the file menu. Samplitude puts it under tools. I consider bouncing to be a part of import/export and so expect it to be in the main file menu.

Samplitude has an irritating habit of not remembering your last preference page. For example if you were trying out several buffer settings you have to navigate to them every time you close the window. Reaper, from what I see, always remembers the last place you were in preferences, project settings,  and a few other complicated windows. No reason to switch DAWs but it’s very nice.

Both DAWs have context menus like crazy. Start right clicking and you’ll find you can open preferences, lists of processing effect, windows for other setting. This is very handy. For example the playback options in Samplitude are 3 layers deep if you go via the main menu but you can easily right click the play button on the transport to open them.

Perhaps because Samplitude is… deeper…more complex it’s UI is busy. It does have workspace settings where you can pick subsets of the full UI. But even paired down to “easy” I find Reaper a cleaner read.

Plugins: Samplitude comes with a great set of plugins.  There is an analog modeling suite. It contains my favorite compressor/tape saturation (Am-track), a sophisticated mastering compressor (Am-munition), a transient designer (Am-pulse), and an amp simulator (Am-phibia).  Outside of the suite there is one of the better guitar sims (Vandal). Since I bought my Fractal Axe-Fx I’ve pretty much abandoned using guitar software sims. But you can still do useful things with them like adding a bit of distortion to a kick drum. There is also convolution and algorithmic reverb, more compressors and dynamic processors, and a linear phase eq.

For me the bundled plugins make Samplitude a one stop shop. I don’t need to use 3rd party plugins to mix.

Reaper’s plugins. When I first started using Reaper’s plugins I admit I was disappointed. They are so stripped down. For example, the mastering compressor (JS LOSER/masterLimiter) has 7 parameters. Compare this to Samplitude’s Am-munition with 3 stages (compressor, limiter, clipper), sidechain, filters, stereo linking, MS processing, saturation/clipping setting, parallel compression ratio, etc. The extras on Am-munition aren’t useless either. I use the filters between the compressor and limiter stage all the time. I use the bypass monitor to level match and compare the signal with and without the compressor.

At first I was going to say something like, “Samplitude’s plugins kill Reaper’s”. But after spending some time with Reaper’s stock plugins I warmed. Simple parameters, stark graphic design, quick and useful. There are quite a few stock plugins between the Rea-plugins (ReaComp, ReaEQ) and the JS plugins (Jesus Sonic).

The stock Reaper plugins cover your basics mixing needs. So what do I miss?

Samplitude’s stock EQ allows you to quick save via the plugin window 3 settings for fast comparisons. These are like presets but much faster. They live and die with an EQ instance.

Like most DAWs Samplitude has EQ on the channel strips by default. You can hide or show them. After you dial them in using the plugin window you can make final adjustments via the mixer. It’s much faster then opening 15 windows. A Reaper channel strip has nothing on it by default. If you want to see EQ knobs you have to set it up and then save it as the default channel strip (track). After that every new channel strip will have EQ knobs on it. It takes a little extra time to set this up bu there is a perk. You can add knobs for ANY plugin to Reaper’s channel strips. Save them as default and when you add a new track it will open with, for example, an EQ and an LA2A compressor’s knobs.

I’d like Reaper to come with a hi-resolution spectrograph for looking at the low end and fixing resonance problems. Reaper does have a spectrograph built into it’s stock EQ allowing you to see your EQ in action. That’s nice. But it’s not as configurable as what Samp offers. You can’t set peak holds, decay times, or choose the number of frequency bands.

Reaper has a very basic algorithmic reverb. It sounds pretty good. And it has a convolution reverb minus impulses. Today I’m told there are good online sources for impulses (SoundonSound just did an article on Reaper’s convolution reverb and where to get quality impulses). Reaper also has a tuning plugin that does tuning based on midi notes. This way pitch correction software does not need to guess.

Samplitude and Reaper both come with pitch correction software. I actually prefer Reaper’s. It’s an unimpressive GUI but I find it easier to use. Even with it’s lack of parameters if gives good results and that’s all I really care about.

I think everyone should at least try a linear EQ. They definitely sound different. Samplitude includes one. Reaper does not.

Intuitive Keyboard Shortcuts: In either DAW you can customize shortcuts but I really prefer not to invent my own system. That takes time and you have to deal with all the conflicts that arise (what? I already used “m” for mixer?). I’d prefer that the stock set of shortcuts only requires a few customizations.

Maybe it’s my own persona taste. Maybe Samplitude’s shortcuts are derived from the German. I find Reaper’s shortcuts much  more intuitive. One thing I do a lot is make a range selection based on a clip of audio. Then I zoom to that range. Samplitude requires a custom keyboard shortcut to select the range from a clip. The keyboard shortcut to zoom to the range is control+alt+down. Not my first or second guess.

Speed and Efficiency: Both DAWs launch a new project fast enough. Reaper at 3.5 seconds and Samplitude at 5. No big deal. And I can’t fairly compare a 32bit program (Samp 11 Pro) to a 64bit one (Reaper 4) when dealing with hoggy VSTs like BFD2.

Removing the VSTs what do things look like? I took a look at two comparable projects. One in Samp. One in Reaper. Both were just tracks and bundled plugins. A few UAD plugs ran in both sessions but I believe the UAD card does that processing.

Ohhh, which brings me to Reaper’s performance meter. This thing really shows where your horses are going. Here you can see how much data is being read from your hard drive, your ram use, your available ram, and your CPU use. There is a list of tracks with the number of plugins on them and what CPU (as a percentage of total) they use. You can even right click on the tracks to mute, bypass, or bring up their FX dialog. Muting also stops processing on a track. Cool.

reaper_performance_meter

Here we see Reaper is at 3.01% of FX CPU use with 37 tracks and 88 plugins. Samplitude was 11% CPU with 24 tracks and 19 plugins on a comparable project. I remember the first time I pulled up an intensive mix in Reaper and was shocked to see it wasn’t above 7% CPU usage.

Samplitude has a simple resource display in the main (timeline) window. It’s shows disc usage and MDSP. I don’t know what the “M” stands for but according to the manual it is a measure of processor usage. In my experience it’s equivalent to CPU usage. This simplified display is better then nothing but it makes trouble shooting a lot harder.

If I believe these performance meters Reaper is significantly more efficient. This is consistent with my experience. Reaper has fewer resource related issues, faster response, fewer clicks and dropouts.

It’s Small – Install: When I first started using Reaper the download was around 5 megs. Wha? Today it’s still under 10 megs for the 64 bit version. It’s a fast download and install. Cooler still you can do a “portable” install to a USB stick with all your customizations and take Reaper anywhere. You can only use Reaper on one machine at a time but you can do multiple installs.

Samplitude is much bigger. I downloaded the trial for Samplitude Pro X suite. It was 340 megs. Bummer: Unlike Reaper Samp uses a USB dongle.

Insert FX: I find Reaper a lot more consistent when inserting FX. For example, in Reaper I can add 3 instances of an EQ. I can change FX order anyway I like. Samplitude is not so straight forward. In Samp you can only add 1 instance of it’s advanced dynamics or it’s linear EQ (EQ116). And once you add these the order is fixed. Advanced dynamics always comes before the linear EQ. You can work around these things if you put your mind to it. You could route the track to a buss with another instance but that’s a lot more work.

I’ve never seen a good explanation for this? Is it some legacy thing? Is it so the math works better? Does it produce better sonic quality? As Fox Mulder says, “The truth is out there.” But I haven’t found it yet.

Aux and Submix Bus Routing: Reaper has a nice approach to buses imo. There is no such thing as a buss track in Reaper. Any track can send to or receive from another. You add a track, add some fx to it like reverb, and then route to it. Routing is drag and drop. Yay! Each track has a list of every other track it send to or receives from. This is very nice. For example, you can adjust all the send levels to an aux buss in one place.

Reaper also has track folders. They are essentially buses with a few perks. You can organize them better then buses by expanding and hiding them. You can nest them. And each folder track has a visual display that is the sum of it’s audio. This works out great when you are trying to align things.

I couldn’t take a screen grab of this. Reaper stops displaying waveforms when it’s not active (when screen grab software was active). Here is a shot from my iphone. The top waveform is the folder track with summed waveforms. The bottom 2 are drum tracks in the folder.

Here are some videos I made on routing buses in Reaper.

IMG_0630[1]

Samp has a more traditional set up. Submix and Aux buses are their own class of track. You need to add each specifically. You can’t drag and drop routing. You can’t adjust all the send levels on an auxiliary bus from the bus itself. Samp has folders but I find them more difficult to implement the Reaper. On the plus side you can create aux buses fast but only in a limited context. In a new project simply dragging out the aux send level on any track will automatically create a new aux bus. Things get more complicated when you already have several aux buses set up though.

Here are some videos I did about routing in Samplitude and Reaper.

I would like side chaining to be implemented differently in Reaper. To duck the bass when the kick hits you first split the kick track. Now you have an extra stereo channel available for the kick. You insert a compressor on the bass track. Choose axillary for the detector input on the compressor. Axillary is in fact the extra stereo channel you created from the kick but there is no way to know that from inside the plugin. You’d have to open the tracks I/O window to know what triggering the compressor.

Here is the quick version of side chaining is Reaper.

Here is the longer explanation of how Reaper does side chaining:

For me Samplitude does a better job of this. Set the compressor for sidechain and then pick from a list of tracks. Now you can easily see where the input is coming from. You can also choose 2 or more sidechain signals. For example, you could duck the bass from the kick and snare track. I can imagine how to set this up in Reaper (using submix buses) but it’s a lot more work.

Here is how it works in Samplitude:

I will say Reaper’s channel splitting allows you to do some extra stuff.  For example you can put a reverb on a vocal as an insert then have a compressor on the same track duck the reverb based on the vocal level. Normally this takes two extra tracks. One aux send for the reverb. Then buss the reverb to another track where a compressor is feed a sidechain from the vocals. That’s the way I set it up in Samplitude. But reaper’s sophisticated and compact routing can be a double edged sword if you don’t know what you are doing.

Searchable: The more complex a DAW the more searchable it should be. Says me! You can spend a of time looking through preferences and a few other menus if  you don’t know exactly where you are going.

There are several large areas of Reaper that are searchable. I may be leaving a few out too!

  • Preferences: Which includes a section for editing mouse behavior (mouse modifiers) in various contexts.
  • Actions: Reaper’s library of custom and stock commands. Here you can search by keyword or keystroke shortcut.
  • The Media Explorer: Where you can search, audition, and import media into Reaper.
  • The Project Bay: This allows you to search a project for project specific media. Things that won’t show up in you OS like all the tiny clips of audio you’ve created, plugin instances, takes. You can search the open project or the library of any other project without closing the current one.
  • The FX Browser.
  • Region and Marker Manager
  • Track Manager

I find all this very useful.

Samplitude has some searching available.

  • You can search keyboard shortcut and mouse-wheel modifiers. But this is a one way search by keywords. You can’t search by the actual keyboard shortcut.
  • Under the manager you can search media files, objects (clips), tracks, markers, ranges, and takes but only in the open project. You can’t search other projects without opening them like in Reaper.

There are two kinds of media searches. An external one much like an OS would do and an internal one for assets that just occur inside a DAW like markers, takes, FX, clips. Samplitude combines these in it’s manager. Reaper keeps them separate more or less. Either works for me. But I do prefer Reaper’s Media explorer (the OS style media browser). It’s shows a waveform giving visual clues. You can start playback anywhere. And you can loop any selection. With Samp you can only start playback from the beginning of the media. This is a real pain when tracks have nothing recorded for the first 20 seconds.

Automation curves: I’ve been able to accomplish the same things in either program but I prefer the way Reaper deals with automation. Here is a video of the differences.

Here is a summery of what’s in the video.

Reaper displays automation in lanes. These are like tracks for automation. Because they can take up some serious real estate on the timeline you can easily hide them. You can also choose to display the automation on top of the audio. I prefer working with lanes. It’s cleaner and easier to edit.

Samplitude displays automation over the track (not in dedicated lanes like Reaper).

Editing automation in Reaper is convenient. Editing Automation in Samplitude is… less convenient. Sorry I’m skimping on details here. The video does a god job of showing the specifics.

Most of the time when you move audio you want the automation to move with it. Both programs do this but I experienced some bugs in Samplitude.

Tempo mapping: Many DAWs offer a way to determine BMP of simple consistent percussion. None I’ve used can map complicated drumming by a real drummer with tempo changes. Having a map of a real drummer can be very useful as a reference when editing, using timed delays, or adding midi for virtual instruments.

I consider tempo mapping fundamental. So far I haven’t found a DAW that does it well. I would like to drop bar markers as the song plays. After that you can drag the bar markers around to get more precise. This is the fastest way I’ve found to work. Get good at it and a 3 minutes song takes 3 minutes to tempo map!

In Reaper you can drop regular (not tempo) markers on the fly while listening, edit the markers, then run a script that converts the regular markers to tempo markers. Now listen with the metronome. If it’s good you’re all done. If it’s not you’ll have to delete the problem tempo markers, insert regular markers, re-run the script, and listen again. Because these markers define tempo and not the beginning of a bar you can’t drag them around without putting the metronome out of time.

Samplitude lets you drag bar markers around. That’s good because it will automatically adjust the BPM around the marker based on the bar lengths. But you can’t drop them on the fly while listening. This means you have to zoom in and add each marker. This takes a lot longer.

Neither is what I’d like but I do prefer Reaper’s method.

Customizable. So far I haven’t changed much in Reaper… a few keyboard shortcuts and a custom macro. But if I wanted I could. You can edit the main menu and toolbars, write custom macros, add plugin controls to the channel strips, change mouse behavior. There is a lot and it can really speed up your workflow. For example, the custom macro I added for tempo mapping is about 10 times faster then doing it by hand.

After you have everything customized the you can install it on a USB stick and take it all with you! (Start menu entry “Install Reaper to USB key or removable media”)

Although Samp allows some customization it’s not as flexible as Reaper.

Reaper’s Actions: Reaper has a main menu called actions. It lists all the “actions” Reaper can do: Saving a file, moving a midi note, normalizing, start recording. It’s a huge list but in typical Reaper form it’s searchable. You can search by name such as “save file” or keyboard shortcut if you’ve forgotten what Reaper calls the command. This is also where you can edit and assign keyboard shortcuts. The coolest thing imo is the way you can create custom actions (macros). You build these out of Reaper’s existing actions.

Queuing up Render Jobs: Sometimes I have lots of little things I want to render at different settings. In Reaper you can add them all to the render queue. Then walk away while it renders. Here I am rendering the same file at 4 different sample rates. It would be nice if the rendering dialog stayed open after you added your selection to the queue. Then you could quickly change settings on the same audio.

reaper render queued

There is no render queue in Samp. Wah! I’m spoiled.

Intuitive Mousing: A mouse can be many tools. Some DAWs have dedicated mouse modes. You change the mode and then then do specific tasks. Samplitude’s pitch shift/time stretch mode is like this. You change the mouse mode to pitch shift/time stretch then go about stretching audio. But it’s easy to forget you are in this mode and stretch audio when you think you are changing it’s ends. Yes the mouse cursor does change when in pitch shift/time stretch mode but I’ve still done it many times.

I prefer the mouse behave contextually or hit a modifier key. That’s how Reaper works. In Reaper you hold the alt key to temporarily go to pitch shift/time stretch mode.

Samplitude has at least 7 mouse modes.  I guess the idea is to tailor the mouse for each group of specific tasks. It sounds good, but Reaper has no mouse modes, and I don’t miss them.

Sound Quality: There was a time when the sonic quality of DAWs was talked about more. But for several years I’ve read all modern pro DAWs are indistinguishable. So do different DAWs sound different? Some use fixed numbers. Others floating point notation. The algorithms for summing and plugins can’t all  be the same. There is a lot of complicated math going on in even a simple mix. But can you hear any of it?

I have no problem with Samplitude or Reaper’s sound quality. But I’ve never constructed a way to do a useful comparison either! Perhaps a good topic for another post here. Until then I’m not going to sweat it.

Closing windows: This is another point that may sound trivial until you do it 50 times. Reaper allows you to keep many windows open and still return to the project window.

For example, in Reaper you can open preferences, change something, return to the main project window, play it, all with preferences still open. Think about how this works when you need to try out 6 different buffer settings.

In Samplitude you need to close the preferences window every time you want to return to the main project. And, as I said before, when you open preferences again (because that wasn’t the right buffer setting!) it’s lost your place. You need to navigate back to buffer settings.

Takes: Every Daw I’ve used has a system for managing takes. It comes down to how well this is implemented. Without doing another video let me say Reaper’s implementation is better.  Better for comping, better for organizing, better for auditioning. Samplitude requires you select from a pull down list of takes or open it’s take composer. The take composer is similar to Samplitude’s timeline. It’s an extra layer of clutter and confusion that isn’t needed imo. Reaper displays takes as stacked clips in the track. You can easily hide all but the active take.  You can step through them when auditioning. Just better.

Bugs and Performance: If I knew I’d be writing this up I would have kept some notes. It would have been nice to site some specifics. Even without them I have a firm opinion. After using both programs for a good long time I’ve had far less trouble with Reaper.

A long time: It’s been a long time since I started working on this post. It still holds up for my money. I will continue to use both DAWs. Perhaps Samplitude will be my mastering and CD burning software and Reaper my mixing/tracking software.

Posted in Music | 12 Comments

Auxilary and Sub-Mix Busses in Reaper

Summery: I explain the differences between auxiliary buses and sub-mix buses. When and why you would use them. Then I show how to implement them in Reaper. As an alternative to sub-mix buses I cover track folders in Reaper.

I thought the best way to convey the info was through videos. There is one on Reaper and track folders, one on Reaper and traditional sub-mix and auxiliary bus set ups, and one just on the theoretical differences between the two bus types.

Background: I was talking to a long time musician friend and he asked me what an auxiliary buss was. He wasn’t new to music, or even recording, but mixing was never his focus. Since I was already doing some video on busing in Reaper I decided to pull back and cover buses from the beginning.

Here I point out the fundamental differences between the two bus types and how they are typically used. I don’t cover how to implement them up in Reaper. That’s the next two videos.

Here I set up aux and sub-mix busses in Reaper. I use a traditional approach where a track is routed to behave like a bus.

Here I show another perhaps better way to create sub-mix busses; folder tracks.

Posted in Music | 4 Comments

Micing Acoustic Guitar

Summery: Here I take a look at the effects of choosing different mics and mic placements on an acoustic guitar. I give my two cents on what to avoid and how to get a particular sound. So you don’t have to take my word on it there are audio examples.

IMG_3934

Background: Recently I was asked to track acoustic guitar for a project. Over the years I’ve never been quite happy with my acoustic recordings. One is too boomy, one has too much ringing mid-range, another sounds tiny and thin. I think acoustic guitar is one of the harder things to record. The sound is complex; quick string attack, boomy guitar cavity, and 6 strings resonating interactively. No wonder there is no decent acoustic guitar sim or pickup system.

Imo pick strummed acoustic guitar is the hardest to get a good sound from. I’m not sure why. Perhaps because everything is sounding together. It’s a real balancing act with all those components.

I listen for things I don’t like and then minimize them. It’s a subtractive process like most eq decisions. Here are some of the things I don’t like to hear and how to minimize them.

I’ve taken my typical semi-scientific approach below. I try to keep all variables constant except the one I’m interested in. So same guitar, same pick, playing in same area of room. Just changing out mics and mic placement. No processing was applied.

Pick-click: There might be an actual name for this. There might not be. I’m talking about the high pitched metallic clicks due to pick attack. Because these are so bright and loud they tend to make the guitar sound tiny or thin. Imo they don’t add much musically. I can’t think of a time I ever wanted them in a recording. This is what I’m talking about. Here is a condenser mic about 12″ in front of the sound hole.

Picks do sound different. So at first I tried using different picks. It wasn’t much help. The click was still there in a different flavor. Now… all my picks are plastic. Perhaps there is some magic tortoise shell out there that sounds better. Sadly, plastic is all I’ve ever known.

Next I tried something I knew would work. If the mic doesn’t see the pick the click should be reduced. High frequencies have a hard time rounding corners and they are absorbed easily. So I placed the mic where the diaphragm had no line of sight to the pick. Here is another example. It’s the same condenser placed behind my left ear like this. Check out my serous mic-placement-face.

IMG_3951_TU

As you can hear the combination of my fat head and the body of the guitar acts as a baffle and greatly diminishes the “click”. The overall sound is also very different. I’d say smoother even phase-y-er.

Lets say you don’t like the new sound. You prefer something that sounds more direct and close. You could keep the old placement and swap in a less sensitive mic. Here is the same placement (12″ in front of sound hole) as the first example with an sm7.

We all know we should use a large diaphragm condenser to capture the details of an acoustic guitar. Think about un-knowing that one. I like me some durable dynamics on the a-guitar.

Ringing Mids: Like I said recording acoustic guitar is a bit of a balancing act. I tend to like the guitar to sound open and warm. Totally meaningless terms. I know. What I don’t like is ringing… um resonance in the mids. For one these can mask the vocals. And they give the acoustic an AM radio quality.

I recommend taking a mic and listening to the body of your guitar at different places. Keep the mic about 3″ away from the wood. Then record the back of the body, the top (front) of the guitar, the end of the guitar, the top between the sound hole and 12th fret. Just get a good sampling of the way the wood sounds at different positions. All the wood on the body is vibrating and it all sounds different.

Most of the volume of the guitar is coming from the sound hole but the wood on the body also contributes. So I see it as a combination of the sound hole and the nearby resonating wood. If you record the back of the body you get a lot of the wood resonating and the sound hole indirectly. If you record the sound hole at 4” you get mostly the sound hole and a bit of the top resonance. This was confirmed by all 4 mics I tried out. At 12” or less in front of the sound hole the sound was open in the mids. As I moved the mic further back they picked up more of the top resonance and the mid-range got cluttered.

Here are some examples.

12” and 24” from sound hole with Rode NT1-A

4” and 12” from sound hole with a SM7

4” and 12” from sound hole with a SM57

4” and 12” from sound hole with an RE-20

This is a theory. But even if it’s not right I think you can hear what I’m talking about. The mids, for whatever reason, are getting more resonant as I move the mic back.

I know we’ve all read not to mic the sound hole but it sounds nice to me. That brings me to my next point.

Don’t Mic the Sound Hole: It’s too boomy. This is easy to hear if you just record a bit at 4” in front of the sound hole and then move the mic over a bit and record at 4” from the top. Like this:

4” in front of sound hole RE-20

4” off the top (between sound hole and end button) with RE-20

I think this example gives some weight to my theory. The recorded sound is a combination of resonant body wood (the top primarily) and what the sound hole projects.

K. Too much bass (around 100hz) can definitely be an issue come mix time. Typical rock has a strong bass and kick down there. A lot of times the acoustic guitar is high pass filtered. It’s there but all the warmth is gone. It functions like a hi-hat or cymbal. If you don’t filter the acoustic guitar it muddies up everything and eats up head room.

So what to do? I can’t tell you that. I’ve heard boomy guitars work in sparse mixes. I’ve heard tiny jangly ones work in other songs. What I want you to hear is how to get these tones. Hopefully I’ve done that. Maybe instead of buying that $1,000 a channel preamp or that fancy new condenser mic you’ll experiment with a workhorse mic and it’s placement. Take your best guess, record, then listen in the mix. Rinse repeat until you get what you want or your hair falls out.

Noise: The trick with noise is getting an acceptable signal to noise ratio. The noise comes from your room, your mics, and your pre amps. The signal in this case is your guitar. acoustic guitar can be very quiet when played softly. This makes the signal to noise ratio a lot smaller and suddenly you start hearing your computer fan or how noisy your mic is.

Speaking of noisy, here are 2 mics I have. I held everything constant except the mic so what we’re hearing is just the difference in a mic’s self noise.

I think it’s important to take a critical listen for noise when recording. Compression will only make it worse latter. Things like eq and noise reduction plugins can be used but they process your signal too. It’s a game of “acceptable degradation”. Try and get it right upstream.

What can you do to limit noise when recording a quiet acoustic guitar?

  • Swap in a preamp or mic with less noise.
  • Some very low frequency noises (traffic rumble) can be filtered without affecting the sound of the guitar much.
  • Most microphones are directional and will have a place in their pickup pattern where they are least sensitive. This point should face the offending noise such as a computer. It’s worth listening and moving the mic to find where it rejects the best.
  • High frequencies are directional. Put a baffle in the line of sight of the mic and the offending noise.
  • You can move the mic closer to the source increasing the source volume but this will change the way the source sounds. I prefer to place the mic where the source sounds best. I’ll take good tone over some noise any day.
  • Lot of things can be turned off while recording. For example my whiny scanner and guitar processor with cooling fan.
Posted in Music | 2 Comments