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  Even More Q&A!

Q) What are the advantages of recording sequenced MIDI tracks to a multitrack hard disk or tape instead of straight to digital? -DeAndre'

I've done a ton of MIDI tracks, both on to tape and virtual (live to 2 track).

The advantages to recording to multitrack are:

1. The sound. You just can't beat analog tape. It adds a smoothness and fatness that is amazing.

How does it do that? Back in the ol' days all the tape manufacturers tried to eliminate a "flaw" of analog recording: putting in a square wave test signal (very abrupt and raspy sounding) produced a rounded-out result. The square corners of your test tone had a bump-like rounded curve in playback that actually softened the attack of anything harsh sounding. But today, we love that smooth tone! We're happy they never got the square wave response any better than it was!

So, if you recorded a snare drum with a nasty attack, it actually sounded smoother and more pleasant on playback - thanks to that "bad" square wave analog response! Note: some people attribute the "fat" tone of analog just to the low frequency "bump" (boost) that occurs at playback. In reality, the low-end bump is fat, but the added "flaw" of poor square wave response really puts the icing on the cake.

Also, if you have limited pieces of outboard processing gear for the mixdown, you can fully utilize them to record the midi tracks onto tape - which means they're available for use at mix time. So much progress has been achieved with plugins, but for my money, the real thing - real analog sound - is still the best.

2. Tracks on tape frees up those synths to be used for additional sounds (virtual) later. Your bass synth might have some other cool sound that wouldn't be available if not for tape. You may change your mind about the original sound you recorded to tape, but that smooth, fat analog tone will be hard to beat compared to the ones coming out of a synth (or a computer).

3. Analog tape "compression" - which is really a characteristic of tape where it won't take any more level once the signal gets too hot. In other words you can put more signal in, but the tape won't give you back the same amount. There's signal there for sure, but it "saturates" and gets "warmer" due to the "teeter-totter" effect - less high frequency output appears to give favor (apparent volume) to the lower frequencies. Tone down (saturate) the highs and everything else that is below still comes through. Plus with that rounded-out "bad" square wave characteristic of tape, you could actually distort the signal to a certain point and it wouldn't sound as bad since its... rounded/smoothed out. 

The flavor of tape compression is just less output response when more level attempts to get onto the tape.  It's a limitation that sounds good! Digital, on the other hand, doesn't sound all that good when it's clipped. That's when the natural shape of the sound is getting clipped/squared off, and it just gets more harsh. If you like harsh, then you're fine. There's no rules. But top of the line recordings keep a smoother sound ... a more analog sound... but staying away from those pesky red "lights."

4. There's no undo button on analog tape - only that friendly red "do it again if you didn't like it" button. The red light is either on or it's off. It offers the "challenge" of a real performance committment, to the extent that what you record to tape eventually ends up in the mixdown (and wasn't muted). Granted, if you are using programmed synths, then your programming software or sequencer has lots of undo features. But if you're flying old-school and just crankin' a real performance onto that tape, well, you're going to get what you give. Sometimes artists over-do the "compile" thing - recording 85 vocal tracks and then letting the engineer pick and choose the best takes.... like a jigsaw puzzle.  Yikes!  Just get into it and perform it like you're making musical history! Press the red button like there's no going back.

The advantages to not going to multitrack are:

1. No tape hiss or track-to-track crosstalk that's inherent with analog heads. If you recorded a staccato, crispy synth part on one track and a fat bass synth on the next track over, the bass (in many cases) could be heard on the playback of the crispy track. Not the entire bass sound, but a muddy, waffley tone as if you were hearing the bass in another room behind a closed door.  That muddy sound bleeding over could either add to the fatness of the real bass track (assuming you didn't eq out the bleeding-over bass frequencies) -- or it would wash out the precision of the bass notes and smear the bottom. Staying in the digital world means no crosstalk, unless you go through a console where there's grounding issues, console crosstalk, or physical wires crossing over each other and signal leaks from one wire to the next.

2. Saves analog tracks for more vocals, drums (remember that smooth sound on the attacks) or live instruments (nice for horns, percussion, edgy guitars, etc.).

3. Saves having to buy that extra 24 track machine that needs more air conditioning in the room. Saves you time since you don't have to learn how to align that 24 track machine (although you can learn how here and get even more detailed here). Saves having to buy the tape (both recording and alignmet tapes). Saves time since you don't need to become best buddies with a really old guy who knows how to fix analog machines. Saves buying or finding out of date parts. There will come a day when those blessed parts just can't be found.  For now, there's stuff out there.. and the good news is that analog machines and consoles, to a degree, can be a bargain.. since few people are buying them the way they were in their hayday.

4. Eq'ing live tracks at the time of the mixdown becomes more specific and tailored to the needs of the mix - plus you're going through less electronics which can mean a cleaner, more immediate sound right to the mix. Also your reverbs are first generation going right to your mixdown. Analog tape doesn't do that much for reverb. The "bad" square wave response really doesn't care or show up when there's nothing square as an aspect of the signal... such as is the case with reverb.  Not much square there.

Since there are advantages to both methods, you can just pick which works best for the sound, the instrumentation, or the production gear available.

I have been avoiding the hard disk recording plunge. My straight to 2-track mixes sounded fine to me. A recording engineer friend of mine thinks my mixes will benefit from the additional gain and signal processing of multitrack recording.

"Gain" as in benefit? The editing possibilities on a hard disc system are endless.... so are the hours you can spend learning it all... Knowing hard disc recording techniques means you're a part of the future, but have a comfortable chair.... you'll also be a part of crashes, clocking, bit rates, digital media, file housekeeping... a mouse will live in your hand... Remember to balance your computer genius skills with your baseline musical talent.

If you haven't been crying for "pluggin-type" effects, I'd really weigh what you'll get for the money - real analog processors can be affordable too, and when used with your real-time synths, they can be FAT. Pluggins recalculate the digital signal and generally sound thinner when put neck-and-neck with real tubes and transistors.

Q) I found the info on your site to be both depressing and inspiring - depressing because I can't afford the ultra-expensive gear it apparently takes to really make a top notch, commercial quality CD; inspiring because I can use a lot of what you say to get the most out of what I'm fortunate enough to have, and be happy with that. -Scott

I found that in retrospect, the times when I had "less" were times when I was forced to be more resourceful, and that gave me an advantage via a deeper level of learning. Without my old Teac 3340 4-track, I wouldn't have done as well on my Otari 8-track. The 8-track experience gave me a better foundation for my 16 thru 48 track days. My only regret was that I didn't let go of needing "more" sooner.

I would love to see how some of my mixes would sound when professionally mastered, but I'd also hate to spend a lot of money when the source material I'm sending in is not up to the quality level of the 2" analog tape used for major projects.

Many projects that sell records and profit are not analog. Don't worry about the format - the song, the singer, the performances, the star quality is all more important to the consumer.

Created 12/11/01 • Modified 11/3/09
Should we not use any compression during the mix session?
Digital Audio Workstation Tips
Must we analyze digital sound under the microscope when a 13-year old won't know the difference anyway?

Q) What is the primary role of a mastering engineer? -Ed

To use recording-engineering and subjective listening techniques to make all final enhancements to music prior to manufacturing.

2.) What tasks does the mastering engineer attend to?

Listening to the client's music, processing it as deemed necessary, making a reference master that the client can evaluate, completing any final steps, making coffee or tea, seeing that everybody has a good time...

3.) What is the affect of finely mastered music on the overall sound?

Anywhere from no change at all to dramatic night-and-day differences! The goal is to achieve a smooth, clear, full, punchy, robust and appropriate level-adjusted cd that sounds excellent on any system.

4.) Why are mastering engineers important?

The final objective "ears" bring a new level of sonic quality to the music. Plus many mastering engineers are older, more experienced, more knowledgeable professionals. The additional perspective rounds out the production and brings it to a new level in some cases.

5.) Is there a strong market for highly trained mastering engineers?


6.) How much (in your opinion) does the average mastering engineer make?

There is no average.

7.) What are some of the downfalls related to the mastering engineer occupation?

Stress to ears if overbooked.

8.) Where do most mastering engineers work?

In mastering studios.

9.) Is the average mastering studio expensive? How much would it cost to create one?

Again, there is no average. Mastering can be done on a $1,500 computer, although not with the greatest results in my opinion. Million dollar studios are available, so imagine everything in between. Keep in mind that a top studio will have two of everything, so in case one piece of gear needs repair, another is ready to pop into place. So if you were to spend $75,000 for the gear, you'd actually need $150,000 to be on line at all times.

10.) What is the affect of computer technology on traditional mastering?

It gives us the ability to do special effects, tempo changes, noise removal, and powerful editing above and beyond the traditional methods. However when analog gear isn't present, for the majority of the tone and dynamics shaping, computer "mastering" program can restrict the sound if not used carefully.

11.) What kind of educational background is required for a mastering engineer?

Depends on how good of a mastering engineer you're talking about. Most great engineers have over 25 years of experience, which of course is the best teacher. What helps is a musical education, electronics theory and repair, live sound experience, computer (PC and Mac) and some acoustics theory. However, young upstarting engineers must use a low price, word of mouth, and lots of advertising to reach clients regardless of their education.

Q) I'm doing a survey - I am a pathetic college student; please pity me and read this -Blake

Do you have a degree in your field?

Not a traditional one, I have a couple certificates for educational study programs I've attended, but the Ph.D. is yet to arrive.

Has having or not having a degree affected your self-perceived success?

Self-percieved would be different than the perception of other. I would say it would have been beneficial to me to have a business degree, but the lack of a recording arts degree has not been an issue. Besides, self-percieved success is most accurate when it isn't influenced from things "outside of ourselves" like degrees. Inner success comes from a knowing of who we are, regardless of any outside circumstances - and usually the more successful we feel on the inside, the more success we create on the outside.

What intangibles do you boast as an engineer?

I'm over-sexed?

What skills outside of technology should any aspiring engineer boast?

Honesty, integrity, willingness to ensure the client's satisfaction, a willingness to always grow one's relationship skills (business and personal), a sense of humor, a willingness to let go of the need to be right, a passion for quality, a commitment to release victim-mentality and assumptive thinking, and a philosophy of always trying to exceed the expectations of co-workers and customers at every encounter.

Q) I'm 18, and I'm a singer/performer. I've been doin' biz since I was 6. And I have lots of songs. I know that I've got a place here in the Biz, cuz God gave me talents to reach to ppl. Plz do help me out in the this biz... All I need is exposure..... That's all.
Plz do reply to my email. ps: pls reply... thanks alot... - Chester

Actually, it takes more than exposure. For starters, if you're going to reach a professional management team, entertainment lawyer or promotional agent who will be absolutely ecstatic about promoting and representing your music, performance skills, commitment to excellence, writing abilities, etc., you may want to consider using a spell checker for your emails. Communicating in a professional and businesslike manner is much more attractive than "street" abbreviations.

Be the best of the best in EVERY moment. Knowing less, expressing less, demonstrating less isn't what being the best is about. If you want to fly with the eagles, be one. Raise your own levels of excellence. Check my links page for an abundance of resources.

Q) I have a project studio in my basement but there is a lack of bottom end at the listening point. Should I use trapping? - Mark

While every room is totally different from every other room, this is a common complaint. Usually it's because the console is too close to the speakers or there isn't enough bottom from the speakers themselves.

First walk around the room and listen to where the low end naturally sounds good, and put the console there. I know, they just don't demo home studios that way, and the "where to put the customer" logistics may take some work... With your console about 5 to 10 feet away from the speakers, put on your favorite commercial cds (some good examples are on my commercial cd page) and listen to see if you are hearing distinct differences in bottom from cd to cd. Cds sound different, and you should be able to hear those differences.

Next, take some cardboard boxes filled with books, or "quick tubes" from Home Depot, or odd and ends... and use them as portable trapping if there are tubby or boomy sounding areas in your room. Move these portable traps around to where the room sounds tightened up as a guideline for where to install permanent traps - the ceiling corners are good locations to trap without taking up space. Too much carpet or absorptive stuff on the walls can make a room too dead, so watch that too!

What's the coolest thing you've ever heard being said by Quincy Jones?

"We never really ever finish our projects. We simply abandon them."

JV's message to musicians: Make a positive difference with your music.