Studio Tips – Episode #1

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Music is an art-form. It builds, strengthens and enhances the human life. It is built with the purpose of delivering a message. It is therefore extremely important to ensure that (as artists, producers, and engineers) our message is delivered in the most accurate way possible. In the “Studio Tips” series I discuss methods on how to enhance the experience and delivery of “the song”. Enjoy!

Location

Ensure your environment is optimal as an uncomfortable environment will leave you with a poor performance. Surround yourself with people who love you for who you are, what you do, both as an artist and as a person. Do not be quick to “take what you get”, as you always have options. Never let anyone make you think that you don’t have options. If you are unhappy with the situation it is bound to show.

Preparation

If your intention is to record, make sure that you have adequately practiced the material before hand. Magic can and may happen in the studio but it is always best to prepare. If you are a singer ensure that you are hydrated, as failure to do so may leave you with some dry sounding vocals. If you are a guitarist ensure that your guitar is properly tuned and that you have at least 2 extra set of strings available. Other than failure to prepare it can be equally disconcerting when the performer is unable to record a take due to technical difficulties. If you are the producer/engineer set up your project with plugins that introduce the least amount of latency / CPU usage during tracking / recording.

The Message

Vocals / Lyrics are the most important part of every song (that contains vocals). They tell the story, and you want them to shine to the best of their ability. Be sure that your engineer is providing you with a space carved out just for you. Listen to the mix. If you cannot hear yourself clearly when the music is playing, you will be shouting above the mix and this is never recommended. The same goes for performing live. If you cannot hear yourself, you will not perform correctly. It is therefore extremely important to get the balance right, before you open up.

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Red 2 & 3

 

AL Red 2 & 3 In-Depth

The Red Range was established in the year of 1994 by Focusrite. Both hardware units inherit the sound and circuit design of their predecessors from the ISA range of processors.

The Red 3 is a compressor was built as an outboard successor to the ISA130 compressor module built by Rupert Neve for Sir George Martin’s console at Air Studios London. This compressor is famously known for maintaining mix intelligibility, even in the event of significant compression. Due to its simple and intentional VCA circuit design, this compressor is well suited for a variety of sound sources.

Focusrite has continued on with the philosophy of providing  microphone pre-ampfliers that are accurate with the least amount of artificial colouration possible. Where many audio companies today seem to create equipment that purposefully imposes harmonic distortion onto the signal being passed through it, this has never been the aim for the folks at Focusrite.

The Red 2 EQ and Red 3 Compressor had no measurable distortion as evidenced in their specification sheets and thus you will not find any present in their plugin counterparts. In addition to near zero distortion, these pieces of equipment also had a lot of headroom available to them thus making distortion due to overdriving them near impossible to do.

The Red 2 EQ and Compressor plugins come bundled with the purchase of any Scarlett, Claret, RedNet, or Safire audio interface and are also available for sale via the Focusrite website.
After testing these plugins, Alexander Lindo was rather impressed with them. Aside from the beautiful and realistic graphical user interface, the sound that he produced while using them was truly remarkable.

Red 2 EQ: Alexander placed the Red 2 EQ on a Kick Drum, shaved off some lows using the low pass filter, boosted some lows at around 60 Hz while taking out some of the boom using the low-mid bell filter with a medium bandwidth. The result was a more solid and punchy kick. Using this graphical representation of the hardware piece always re-enforces what great joy it is to use hardware, due to its knobs and VU meters. Alexander will always love VU meters, to the point where, if they are not present on the hardware, then he probably will not buy it. Of course there are exceptions to this rule, for example in the event of the audio interface: most use LED meters, but non-the-less VU meters are definitely preferred.

Red 3 Compressor: After achieving an adequate balance of the drum kit, Alexander placed the Red 3 Compressor on the Drum Sub-master and set the ratio at 4:1 with a fast attack and fast release. First ensuring that all levels were correct on the way in to the compressor as to prevent clipping, he then proceeded to bring down the threshold parameter. At this point you can hear the aggression kick in, as to be expected with compression, however the aggression that this compressor provided was one of the pure kind. The sound remained solid and took a bit of an effort to became grainy. After receiving a reasonable amount of compression, Alexander proceeded to adjust the mix knob to taste, in order to bring back the dynamics of the drum kit that were lost due to compression (of course instead of using the mix knob you could just raise the threshold). The result was a solid sounding drum kit.

Placing the compressor on the bass and guitar parts yielded similar results. Using the EQ, Alexander was able to bring out some mid-range on the guitar parts, further adding to their character. Placing the compressor on synth parts led to a slightly more aggressive sound and one that remained full. He was careful not to overdo it as to prevent the pumping effect from occurring. Due to the extensible attack (0.300ms to 90ms) release times (0.1second to 4 seconds), setting this compressor to taste was no problem. On the topic of pumping: Alexander says that he would have loved to see a key input option provided.

Alexander progressed towards the lead vocal for my single entitled “Hurt” of which he had originally used stock Logic EQ and Compressor. Up first was the EQ, The vocals were recorded using a condenser microphone, recorded through the preamplifier of the Scarlett audio interface. Both the microphone and the audio interface have a relatively flat frequency response and near zero THD (Total Harmonic Distortion). Using the high shelf filter at around 12 kHz (the 1073 frequency), Alexander turned the high end up only about 2 dB in order to increase presence within context of the mix. It did indeed provide a sound unique to this equalizer. A somewhat airy effect, however subdued it may be. After removing some lows, he progressed with a 1 to 2 dB boost at around 1.2 kHz in order to gain legibility in the mix.

Alexander then placed the Red 3 Compressor on the vocal with a fast attack and a fast release. With a ratio of 4:1 and an optimum level, he began to bring down the threshold just until the sound was relatively constant. This was not at all difficult to achieve as compression began will little to no artifacts. Alexander continued adjusting to taste. After  he was satisfied, he placed a second Red 3 Compressor on the vocal. This time with a medium attack and release. In this scenario, The first compressor is used to level the peaks and the second one is used to smooth them out. The results were as reasonable as one would expect. The voice remained clear, consistent and true to the source with out any sign of distortion.

For the fun of it Alexander decided to lay down an additional vocal take with both the Red 2 EQ and the Red 3 Compressor instantiated. With a buffer size of 64 samples, he enabled Low-Latency mode in preparation of the event, that these plugins created any latency. Alexander Lindo can confirm that these plugins induce no latency whatsoever. This increases their value in the recording and tracking department. CPU load was placed at a minimum as well, leading one to conclude that these are indeed well coded.

Alexander placed the EQ and Compressor on supporting vocal tracks and set them to taste in order to better evaluate the mix with their presence. After he was satisfied with the vocal mix, It was finally time to move on to the stereo master. Starting with a moderate ratio, medium attack and fast release he listened to the already well balanced mix come together in a beautiful fashion. This compressor has a way of making elements even smother than they already were. The compressor was definitely doing a great job.

Red 2 EQ and Red 3 Compressor are what Alexander would consider to be an underrated pair of plugins that deserve attention (even if you do not own a Focusrite audio interface). If not only for their vivid appearance but also for the clean, transparent and full “character” they impart on your mix. In addition, these plugins introduce no-latency and do not require a dongle to run, which is always a plus in Alexander’s book. The Red 3 Hardware Compressor has received praise from the likes of Chris Lorde-Alge who uses it on every mix.

If you are looking for the current hardware incarnation of the Red 2 EQ and Red 3 Compressor your best bet would be to check out the ISA 430 MKII Channel Strip from Focusrite. While it is not entirely similar, this remains the most current, favorable and enhanced reproduction of the original ISA 110 eq module and 130 compressor module originally designed by Rupert Neve, of which the Red 2 and 3 are based. The ISA 430 can be seen in the possession of top producers / engineers like Pharrell Williams and Damian Taylor and Adrian Bushby.

Inside the 2i2

It is that special time where we dive into the internals of arguably the world’s best selling audio interface: The Focusrite Scarlett 2i2. The company, founded in 1985 by Rupert Neve, has been well known throughout the recording industry for making high quality microphone pre-amplifires and audio interfaces.

Today we look at their most recent and most popular contender. Featuring two Focusrite mic pre-amplifires, the Scarlett 2i2 has made it into the hands of many “singer-songwriters” and audio professionals alike. The 2i2 hosts the same microphone pre-amplifiers found in Focusrite’s premium RedNet series of audio interfaces thus providing little compromise in audio fidelity. The interface is class complaint for OS X and Linux and thus can be connected and ready to go without installing any drivers. We are able to record audio at up to 24bits @ 96 kHz, providing us with great headroom and fast sampling rates. All together in a rugged brushed aluminium construction, it is no wonder it is an all time favourite.

Time for the reveal…

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Once the screws and plastic nuts were removed from the plastic back-plate it was now time to delve inside to see what makes this unit tick.

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In order to eject the circuit board from the aluminium chassis, Alexander Lindo reached for my handy flat head screw driver and gently pried the to plastic latches downward (located at the top front of the unit) and gently pushed the circuit board forward until it was completely out.

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On board we have a Cirrus Logic CS4272 codec for all audio conversion duties. The codec is actually able to run at up to 192 kHz but has been “scaled down to 96 kHz to function reliably” on the USB 2 protocol.  Above, we can see the green and red clip LEDs next to the gain knobs. In addition we also have a red LED indicator for 48V phantom power. Beside the two gain knobs we have two Neutrik combo jack connectors which are firmly screwed into the plastic face plate alleviating any stress that may have been placed on the circuit board when inserting an XLR or TRS cable. The connections are gold plated to improve conductivity.

With the 2 Focusrite microphone pre-amplifiers, solid aluminum enclosure and gold plated Neutrik combo jacks I can definitely say that the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 is a solid piece of kit.

H-Comp Review

alHCmpReviewHaving worked with various compressors throughout one’s career, one comes to learn the various characteristics of these different units. Some are known for aggression, Some are known for their lush body, and others can go from clean to aggressive in no time. This plugin aims to provide you with the “best of all worlds”.

The H-Comp aka Hybrid Compressor is not an emulation of a classic compressor but instead it takes the harmonic distortion characteristics of vintage equipment from the likes of SSL, API and Neve and merges them with the diversity of signal processing within the digital realm.

Lets get started shall we…

Analog

This knob provides us with various types of harmonic distortion emulated from their respective hardware counterparts. For a visual test, Alexander Lindo placed the Test Oscillator emitting a 1000Hz sine wave at the first insert, followed by an H-Comp, and then the Blue Cat Frequency Analyzer. This will give us a better visual representation of what is taking place. At the end of the day it is all about the sound. 

Up on first instantiation, it can be seen that the plugin induces a latency of 64 samples when used in a session running at 44.1kHz. This equates to a latency of 1.5ms. While this is perfectly usable in a live situation, you’d be advised not to stack too many of them as the latency will become audible.

Starting with the “Off” position.

H-Comp 001 Analog OffAs we can see from the screenshot above …this compressor can be relatively clean with minimal distortion added to the signal.

Analog 1

H-Comp 002 Analog 1

Here we can see a somewhat smooth distortion pattern, with slight low frequency boost. Harmonics at the 2kHz, and 3.5kHz region appear to be most prevalent in this mode. Playback through this mode was quite clean with little to no audible distortion. This led Alexander to believe that this mode is emulating the Neve.

Analog 2

H-Comp 002 Analog 2

Based on analysis above, Analog 2 appears to be quite similar to Analog 1 with the exception of some faint white noise in the upper end of the spectrum. Harmonics exist on the 2Khz and 3.5kHz frequencies with an inversion in their amplitude. In Alexander’s listening test, placing the H-Comp on entire mix while in this mode gave him a sound most reminiscent of the SSL 4000G bus compressor. The mix became a little more solid, while elements like cymbals came across with a gritty but gentle distortion.

Analog 3

H-Comp 004 Analog 3

This is the most aggressive out of the three as you can see from the image above. This one is not playing around. As you switch to this mode, you can instantly hear a change in the tonality of the sound. This mode appears to give the mix more depth. Harmonics are mainly within the high mid frequency range.

Analog 4

H-Comp 005 Analog 4

Distortion in this mode was lush sounding with a slight distortion present on the tail end of notes. You can also see a decrease in the lower mid range to lower frequencies.

It is amazing to think that in the past most manufacturers were aiming for minimal THD (total harmonic distortion) in their designs. Now in this day and age it is considered the pinnacle of  their establishments. The term “in-the-box” is often associated with terms such as “sterile” and flat sounding. Many engineers believe till this day that these consoles add the magic touch necessary to give the mix more life. This plugin claims to provide the best of all worlds and Alexander say’s that the H-Comp definitely proves to be a hybrid.

On to the other stuff…

The H-Comp introduces a latency of 64 samples (1.5ms) which makes it possible to use while tracking, just don’t go stacking them unless you’re in the mix/mastering stage.

 

Ignoring parameters commonly known to the compressor, we have a knob called “Punch” and it does exactly that. Turning the knob clock-wise causes the compressor to let more transients through, regardless of the attack time set.

We have Sync control, which allows us to adjust the release time of the compressor based on the tempo (beats per minute) of the song, Great when you’re going for accuracy. And of course you are also provided the old-school with the option to have it work in milliseconds (MS).

We have a Mix knob enabling us to parallel compress audio on the fly without having the need to create a separate aux channel strip to buss a copy of the signal to. Very handy indeed.

There is a button marked “Limiter” but in Alexander’s testing, he found that it did not affect the signal in anyway. The H-Comp’s limiter appears to be active regardless of this button’s status.

Alexander Lindo placed the H-Comp on the Drum Sub Master and hit play on the transport. It provided instant gratification before even tweaking the knobs. Adjusting it to a medium attack and a short release, Alexander was able to get a lot of punch out of the kit. While listening he watched the channel strip meter in Logic and adjusted the Output knob on the H-Comp, bypassing and un-bypassing the plugin to make sure that he was not being fooled by the perceived loudness that normally takes place in automatic make-up gain situations. He was not fooled at all, though to be expected, the plugin did boost the signal ever so slightly.

Having said that, the sound coming through the H-Comp was noticeably fuller and richer in comparison to the dry signal. Using Analog 4, Alexander was able to hear more ghost notes from the drum kit. His next move was to try it out on the bass, normally 1176 territory, then again the 1176 sounds great on just about anything (but you probably should not go about putting over your entire mix). The H-Comp shined when inserted on the bass, especially when cranking the Output knob. Of course the increased gain was compensated for by using the stock “Gain” plugin provided with Logic Pro. The H-Comp is indeed a joy to use, check it out for yourself.