Archive for the ‘music’ Category

Henny Penny and the Dance Album

Friday, May 28th, 2010

What’s Henny Penny?

As many of you already know, I have been recording a new album with Penny Larson on drums and with me on bass.  We’ve decided to call ourselves Henny Penny, because it’s hilarious, it rhymes, it’s the combination of both our names, we think that the story of the sky falling is very poignant during these troubled times [smile], and because we can’t think of anything else that fits.  I have been working with Penny in the studio for a couple of years now on other projects and I have always appreciated her talent as a drummer and as an arranger and composer. We really hit it off in our recording sessions so we started a band. We started playing together in earnest in late summer of 2009 and this January tracked the drums for the dance record.  We are writing new material collaboratively and working on some of my older songs as transformed into dance numbers.

What’s the Dance Album?

When I came to Boston in 1990, I thought that I was going to be a visual artist and that I would study psychology.  I ended up playing bass in a ska band called Thumper.  We had fans that danced and the sheer joy of playing bass for dancers infected me.  That early musical experience really drove my decision to pursue music both academically and in my creative life. Unfortunately I never really had an opportunity to play bass in a dance band again, but I did lay some grooves for about 511 hip-hop instrumentals.  I have just completed my class work for a Sound Recording Technology Master’s at UML and my capstone project is this Dance Album.  I will be exploring toe-tappin’, finger snappin’, tail-feather shakin’, and rug cuttin’ from an academic as well as from a creative perspective.  I want to make people move again.  I have asked a number of friends to lend their talents to the project.

Connor Smith has been playing keyboards and contributing to sound-scapes.
Keith Cornella has been playing some Tele laying down licks and textures.
Tammi Esquivel layed down 21 tracks of vocals and wrote most of the lyrics in Patience
Dayna Brown is developing vocal parts for Just Dance, Light Drowns, Heart & Mind, and some other pieces.

There are a bunch of things that are going to be particularly cool about this record.  It will be my best work to date and tracked with great care, accuracy and attention to quality.  The record is being tracked with the intention of releasing the music in 5.1 surround sound.  This means that there with be 3 speakers in front and to slightly behind the listen, plus a sub woofer for special effects and support of bass frequencies in general.  There will be a stereo release as well, but it probably won’t be as epic or mind bending!

I will try to keep you all updated!

Recording at Indecent Music with Hendrik

Tuesday, September 15th, 2009

The following video is about my recording philosophy and the gear that I use at Indecent Music.  I record, mix, and master out of Indecent Music.  I also provide audio engineering training and private lessons so that song writers can learn to be more effective at making their own demos.

How to Become a Hip Hop Producer

Saturday, July 4th, 2009

Their is difference between someone who makes beats – meaning composing and performing (or programming) original instrumental music, someone who is really a producer, and a recording engineer that specializes in hip hop tracking and production.

The fastest way to learn to beat making is to make beats with whatever you have available. I have worked with a couple of heads who were complete geniuses with the Playstation software from MTV. Their music was simply amazing. Software that is highly under-rated is FL Studio or FruityLoops. The step sequencer is the easiest way to make music quickly. Read the manual! Watch videos online.  Start working with as many other beat makers that you can find on the net, in your home town. For me, competition made me write stuff that was much better than working by myself in a vacuum. The three big instruments to learn would be keys, drums, and bass. You did not need to work in a studio to do this kind of work. You need a computer, a decent audio interface (Not an M-Box), and a couple of nice monitors. If money is a factor, don’t get a Mac. You get a lot more computer in the PC world and there’s tons of software available.

A real producer puts the whole show together. They hire everyone, often write songs with the artists, choose the studio to work in, find live musicians to fill out the sound. Sometimes that means doing everything yourself. A lot of the time the producer FUNDS the project and gets the biggest share of the profit (if any).  A producer is a big picture person usually with an excellent understanding of the psychology of creative people, motivation, fear, competition and excellence. This is something that comes with lots of experience, a strong musical background, charisma and usually fame or money.

An engineer deals with the tiniest details of tracking and mixing. Moving a mic a half inch, rotating a mic off axis, how to attenuate the peaks of the kick to get it to sound bigger, without making it wimpy. Attack and Release time minutia for compressing drums, bass and vocals. How the sound stage can be used to the best advantage, how to either avoid masking or use it to create new timbres. You need to learn this either in a studio as an apprentice, in a good audio school that has great facilities (I teach at New England Institute of Art in Boston and at U. Mass Lowell both have great facilities) and then leverage that into getting good internships.

Sometimes there are people who really are all three. Sometimes you will find yourself in one role or the other depending on who you’re working with.

The best job to get to learn audio engineering is working for live sound companies as a grunt. You will carry the bass bins, mic stands and a 43 foot console. But you will get to watch the FOH and monitor guys throw down. Live is good because it forces you to learn to do things quickly and it puts you around dozens of musicians every weekend. Not wanting to be embarassed is a very powerful way to learn.  You are always on stage being watched from the time you load in, to the time you strike the stage.

(posted to GearSlutz 7-4-09)

How To Use a Compressor: Understanding Dynamics

Saturday, June 27th, 2009

One of the hardest audio processors to understand is the compressor.  Even after several years of using compressors many of my students and readers still have lots of questions about how to dial in the sound that they are trying to get.  Compressors are in the Dynamics Processors family which also includes limiters, expanders, gates and noise reduction.  Dynamics processors work in the Amplitude Domain.  Compressors work on the amplitude of an audio signal, which is basically the loudness of the signal.  Look at a waveform view of an audio signal:

Graph of a Sine Wave with Amplitude and Frequency

Graph of a Sine Wave with Amplitude and Frequency

The vertical axis shows Amplitude, which in analog (electrical)  audio refers to the amount of voltage in an analog signal. When the wave is above the center line, then the voltage is positive and when the wave is below the line the voltage is negative. Audio (in the electrical analog sense)  is AC or Alternating Current which means the voltage goes from positive to negative and then back again. The further away from the center line, the higher the voltage and the louder the wave will sound.

The Dynamics of music is generally thought to be the differences between the loud parts of music and the quiet parts of the music.  The dynamics of audio includes all of the differences in amplitude along the waveform.  In most pop music, for instance, the loudest parts of the music are the snare drum hits, followed by the lead vocal, then the background music. Notice in the following image the red dots above the waveform.  They are marking the locations of the snare and kick drum hits in the music.

The red dots mark the locations of the snare and kick drum hits.

The red dots mark the locations of the snare and kick drum hits.

Notice that there is audio in between the loud hits as well, but that it just has a lower amplitude. Compressors and all dynamics-based effects work on the amplitude of the audio, to adjust and change the differences in voltage.  The loudest level in digital audio is 0 dB Full Scale or (0 dB FS) which means that anything above that level will be distorted or simply just an error.  We can’t change the loudest possible level, but we can change everything that is below that level.

What a compressor does:

A compressor attenuates (decreases amplitude) audio that is above a threshold by a ratio.  The attack time is how quickly the compressor starts to attenuate the signal after the threshold is exceeded and the release time is how quickly the compressor stops attenuating the signal when the audio drops below the threshold level.

Probably the most common use of a compressor is to make an audio signal sound louder without peaking out the signal and causing clipping and distortion.  In a nutshell, the loudest parts of the audio signal (the peaks) are made a little bit quieter so that all of the signal can be boosted by the amount that the peaks were attenuated.

Preparing Beats and Instrumentals for a Vocal Session

Friday, March 13th, 2009

I work with a bunch of hip-hop artists and a few R&B singers. Most of the time they bring their own instrumentals to the studio instead of having me write music for them. I usually charge $300 or so to write and produce instrumentals for artists and there are 3 zillion kids with FL Studio using the title producer that will put something together for free.

The problem with free beats is that most of the time the quality of the audio really sucks.  Most MC’s are downloading instrumentals off of the web or the beats are coming in over email.  These are always compressed files which lack accuracy and sound quality.  OGG Vorbis files, MP3’s, WMA’s and Apple’s M4P’s or AAC’s all can sound pretty bad.  If you are starting a recording project, you want to start with the best quality audio that’s possible.  The following guidelines are intended to help people avoid releasing crappy sounding music.  Mix down your instrumentals using the following suggestions as a guide.

  1. Use full-quality uncompressed digital audio like WAV or AIFF files.  At the very least, these files should be 16 bit 44.1Khz stereo files.  I prefer to work with 24 bit files at either 44.1 Khz or 88.2 Khz.  The quality of the audio is much better and is easier to manipulate.  Using uncompressed files is the best way of ensuring that your engineer will be able to make a great mix of your songs.
  2. If you must use a compressed file-format, use FLAC (the Free Lossless Audio Codec) <http://flac.sourceforge.net/>
    FLAC is great because it is lossless, which means that even though the files are smaller than uncompressed files, they sound just as good as uncompressed files.  By using additional processor power you can make FLAC files even smaller.  In a series of tests that I did with my colleague Connor Smith, we discovered that FLAC was capable of shrinking our test file of uncompressed audio at 5.3 MB down to 1.6 MB without loosing any audio quality at all. FLAC files are sometimes small enough for people to email if they are short.
  3. Give the engineer stems. Stems are separate stereo tracks for each of the instruments in the instrumental.  For instance, you would have separate files for the drums, the bass, the rhythm instruments, the keyboards, the samples.  When you give the engineer stems they are able to mix the different instruments with the vocals.  A lot of the time the instruments block out the vocals in a mix.  If you send stems, the engineer can lower the instruments without lowered the drums and the bass. If you don’t bring stems, the engineer can’t leave the drums loud if the instruments are getting in the way of the vocals.
  4. If you have to use compressed lossy files, use the best possible quality that you can get.  OGG Vorbis, MP3, WMA, and AAC/M4P all offer the option of making higher quality files that are larger in size or smaller files that sound bad.  Here’s the audio choices going from best sounding to worst sounding:Ogg Vorbis (.ogg) is Open Source, Free and Awesome <http://www.vorbis.com/>
    Microsoft’s Windows Media Audio (.wma) <http://www.microsoft.com/windows/windowsmedia/forpros/codecs/audio.aspx>
    Apple’s Advanced Audio Codec (.aac or .m4p) <http://www.apple.com/quicktime/technologies/aac/>
    Mp3 (.mp3) MPEG layer 3 (Motion Picture Engineering Group) <http://lame.sourceforge.net/>
  5. Use the highest bit rate that you can use with all of the above audio formats.  I recommend a minimum bit rate of 256 Kbps for Ogg, WMA and AAC, but a minimum of 320 Kbps for MP3 audio.  VBR or Variable Bit Rate can be a little squirrelly, so to be safe always choose the highest quality option available.
  6. Find out if the engineer has the same software that the beat was created in.  I have FL Studio XXL so I can get FruityLoops files with the loop bundle and mix the  instrumental with the vocals directly.  It’s very likely that your engineer has software that can work with your format.
  7. If the file was ever a compressed file, you can never make the quality better.  For instance, if a beat-maker emails you a beat as an MP3 and you then convert it to a 16bit 44.1 Khz WAV file, it will never sound better than the MP3 file.  Never try to burn a CD with MP3 versions of the music.  You are just making the problem worse.

Please don’t hesitate to ask questions about file formats.  I can also help you to get great mixes either with advice or you can send me your projects to work some magic.

What books do I need for Survey of Music Technology at UML?

Friday, January 23rd, 2009

As many of you already know, I am now teaching at two colleges: University of Massachusetts Lowell and the New England Institute of Art.  At both schools I teach in the Audio Production departments, but at UML, it is called SRT or Sound Recording Technology. I can recommend both of the text books.  They have different perspectives and both are well established texts in the field.

The first book that is required reading for UML’s  class 78.305 “Survey of Music Technology” is Experiencing Music Technology by David Williams and Peter Webster.  The book is quite expensive in stores, but is a little cheaper at Amazon as usual. A new edition of the book has just become available to update the content with internet technologies, contro surfaces and other innovations from the last 10 years.

Experiencing Music Technology Book

Experiencing Music Technology

The second book is also expensive unfortunately. Audio in Mediais in its 8th edition and is one of the most updated books on the subject. This text covers everything from acoustics to post-production. It’s fantastic overview of music technology from mics and loudspeakers to control surfaces and signal processors.


Audio in Media Book

Audio in Media

CD Review: PJ Harvey’s “White Chalk”

Tuesday, October 16th, 2007

I should preface this review, by saying that I have always really liked what I have heard from Polly Jean over the years. I probably first heard her stuff in the early nineties and the thing that really attracted me to her sound was the grittiness of her vocals, which was always emphasized with overdrive or distortion. The vocal sound perfectly compliments the oft-tortured topics of the lyrics. I love “White Chalk” for completely different reasons.

This album absorbs you with a luscious analog kiss, lonely pianos, and the rattle of a tarnished zither. PJ’s voice mesmerizes like a smile on the face of a car crash victim. Harvey utilizes some odd time signatures as well waltz-y feel that somehow harks to the middle ages. The timbre of this recording is timeless- the sounds seem to come from hundreds of years ago.

Although Harvey occasionally re-explores some of her former gritty growls, she is mostly singing high in her head voice. There is one passage where she sounds like the boy soprano from the soundtrack to The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover. I have found myself listening to the album over and over again in my car. I constantly find new moments and new sounds. I dissect the production in my mind.

“White Chalk” is a wonderful, dark album.

Fix Acoustics Problems in Your Mixing Room

Thursday, May 31st, 2007

Now that you know all about what frequencies are out of wack in your studio (How to Test Your Mixing Room) you can start to worry about how to fix the problems.

You probably noticed that certain frequencies were louder than normal and some frequencies were quieter than normal. If you’re in a smallish room probably most of the frequencies below 500 Hz or so are pretty wonky. Low frequency sounds actually are made up of longer song waves and as the frequency increases you will see that wave length decrease. Think of a car with a sub-woofer pumping out side of your house. Most of the time, the low sounds are actually louder outside of the car, than inside of the car. It can take 20 feet or more for a low frequency sound to make a complete sound wave. You can figure out how long the sound wave is by taking 1130 ft/sec (The speed of sound in average humidity and temperature) and dividing it by the frequency you want to measure. Let’s take the example of 55 Hz which is a VERY low ‘A’ note commonly heard in songs with deep thumping bass.

1130 ft/sec
55 Hz

You get 20.5454… feet.

That’s how long that sound wave is. You need that much distance for the sound wave to finish one full cycle. Unless you have a stretch hummer, you’re not in the car at 20.5454 feet from the sub woofer. That’s why everyone OUTSIDE of the car gets to enjoy your sub so much!

So…What does this mean for listening in your room?

Let’s say when you were doing your frequency testing you noticed that 220 Hz was significantly louder than the other frequencies around it. You could get this kind of behavior if 220 Hz is a resonant frequency of something in the room. Or even the room itself! So let’s figure how long the wavelength is for that frequency:

1130 ft/sec
220 Hz

Or 5.1363… feet long. If your room is that wide or double (10.2727 feet wide) then your room is sympathetically resonating with the sound. The sound comes out of your speakers and then bounces around in the room. The harder and smoother the walls are, the more the sound bounces around before it runs out of energy. The frequencies that wavelengths are multiples of the dimensions of your room will get messed up in all likelihood.

So you either new to buy some bass traps or build some bass traps. So here’s the scoop in general about acoustic treatment products. The most cost effective products are usually not the ones that have the most advertising in stores or in magazines. The best article on building bass traps is written by Ethan Winer as is located at http://www.ethanwiner.com/basstrap.html.

Interestingly enough he is one of the founders of RealTraps, a company that builds bass traps based on his original designs and then improved over the years. So not only does his company make the best rated bass traps out there, he teaches you how to make your own! If you’re not already making a good living with music, then build your own traps. If you have some bread buy them. The pricing is EXTREMELY reasonable for what you’re getting!

Mid and High range frequencies are much easier to contend with. Soft materials like acoustic foam or even fire-rated blankets absorb mids and highs very well. They do deaden the sound very well, so you may find that your room doesn’t sound like a room anymore.

“Spring Awakening”

Friday, May 11th, 2007

I went to NYC to have wifey’s ‘rents meet my Mom for the first time. (It’s been over a decade that we’ve been together, so it was about time). One of the scheduled activities was going to see Spring Awakening at Eugene O’Neill Theatre, 230 West 49th St. It was supposed to be the “best thing happening in musical theater in New York right now.”

Maybe I’m spoiled by seeing some of the great rock-operas like Hair, Jesus Christ Superstar and Hedwig, but I was completely bummed out about this show. I had just left an amazing exhibition at the Neue Galerie with Van Gogh, Klimpt, Sheile and Hande, and I was totally inspired. My pump was primed for something amazing.

The show starts up with “Mama Who Bore Me.” (Mama, You Bore Me?) This song is great, Lea Michele (Wendla) totally kicks ass, and the audio production is great. She’s incredibly sexy in a baby-doll nightie and thigh-high socks. Her diction and the timbre of her voice really make this song shine. The repetition in the song makes the song very memorable, but not annoying. Unfortunately, at this point things start to hitch a ride on the poop train.

As the rest of the chorus joins in, the chaos really starts to get going. There’s a lot going on on stage and things are starting to get confused. The chaos reminded me of being a teenager of course, so it was fine. The more singers that are going at the same time, the harder it becomes to understand the words. Fortunately in this opener, we have already heard all the important lines in the beginning and the group is just reinforcing the hooks in the song.

For the rest of the show it was difficult to understand the actors. As an audio producer, I was listening for relative levels between the instruments and the voices, but I didn’t detect any real problems with mixing. The music was full and the sound engineer did a great job of eeking every last bit of dynamic range out of the system. I was impressed with the clarity of the quiet parts. I just couldn’t understand the lyrics. Maybe I could have used a copy of the libretto with a translation like you get at the Opera house.

One thing that I found really distracting was the use of hand-held mics and body mics at the same time. The sound quality with just the body mics was good. Were they using the hand held mics for effect? I couldn’t really figure out why they used them for some tunes and not for others. The hand-helds weren’t for any technical reason, I decided in the end that they were just a prop, just another theatrical device to rock it up.

Some of the real highlights of the show: John Gallagher, Jr. (Moritz) and Lauren Pritchard (Isle). Both of these singers were believable; they brought their own experiences and flavor to music. They can both stand on their own artistically.

Gallagher is the only artist who really comes across as understanding the frustration of adolescence-or even the thread of punk rock. Gallagher’s band, Old Springs Pike, is delicious harmonized roots rock, so who knows where he got it from. Maybe it was in his movements, or in the sneer, or in the disgruntled teenaged angst, but I believed him.

Lauren Pritchard also was a highlight of the show. She balances her broken character on a wire separating a stolen childhood from a harsh reality filled with violence and sexual abuse. Somehow she manages to align her singing voice with this type of pain and convey the emotion with timbre and not just her lines. I suspect there will be much much more good things to come from her in the future.

Now the stuff that sucked…

The single most collosal show-killer in the whole is the sex scene which first appears at the end of the first act and is REPEATED and the beginning of the second act. The single worst part of the worst scene is when after our hero Jonathan Groff (Melchior) has pulled his pants down and aligned himself between the thighs of a topless Lea Michele (Wendla) and then REACHES BETWEEN HIS LEGS TO HOLD HIS JOHNSON WHILE HE PENETRATES HER. This of course, happens TWICE, as I mentioned before. I found myself thinking, “Why would a director ask for something like that? Was is to be more realistic? Was it to show to that Melchior (I’m going to call him Milky from now on), had lost his innocence by reading medical books about sex? Was is to make Milky seem more to blame for deflowering Wendla?”

It really ruined what could have been something quite lovely. The other thing that was almost comical was her saying, “No, stop,” and him pushing forward until she gives in at 1st base, then second, then third, then… I wish they had had an usher make an announcement like for epileptics and strobe lights. She would in a flight attendant voice, “Now don’t try this at home kids. When girls say ‘No,’ they really mean ‘No.’ “

Everything in the show seemed obvious to me. There was the Pink Floyd number, the Green day number, the watered-down Radiohead tune- everything just seemed so intentional, or manipulative. The tune “Fuck It All,” is the feel good hit of the show, but also a disappointment. They use the work ‘fuck’ as the big shocker of the show. That word hasn’t shocked me since I was 7 years old. It did look like it was a shocker for many of the Broadway fans that were in attendance that night. Maybe Duncan Sheik actually introduced all of these people to punk rock, and they fell in love with it, just like I did in the 80’s.

I didn’t believe the ensemble. They were just too cool to be punk rock. Or maybe they were too nerdy. They just didn’t seem real. I didn’t care when Morty killed himself and I didn’t care when Wendla died at the abortionist. I didn’t share their pain. I didn’t grieve with Milky.