When the Problem is Staring You in the Face

I had an interesting experience over the last couple of weeks, with a mixing problem that should have have been obvious and easy to fix, but because I was too focused on details, I missed the bigger picture and let the problem persist for way longer than it should have.

I’m still in the finishing off stage of a track which has ended up becoming the most drawn out and time consuming piece I’ve worked on so far. I just looked back to previous posts and realised I said I was on the ‘home straight’ with it more than 2 months ago.

Part of the reason this track took longer than others was that it was the first where I’d used an acoustic instrument for one of the main themes… an acoustic piano riff (from NI’s ‘New York Grand’). As with acoustic percussion samples I’ve discussed in a previous post, any recorded acoustic instrument is inherently going to have a much greater dynamic range than synthetic sound. And to fit this into the generally very narrow dynamic of club music, considerable but careful application of compression is required.

The piano riff I came up with, I thought, had a nice dynamic… getting thicker in texture and a bit louder/stronger towards the end of the riff… I felt this gave it a bit greater feeling of tension. Although a fair amount of compression would be required to make the riff fit well in the mix, I was keen to try and preserve as much of that dynamic as possible. Hence when mixing I was too focused on trying to preserve dynamic of the riff that I’d liked in the soloed part. This unfortunately led me to being too cautious in applying compression, and ended up pushing the piano part way too high in the mix (in order to get it to stand out properly). Added to this was the mistake of not following my own advice and regularly checking back against reference tracks, so when I finally did do a side-by-side comparison with my usual reference material I’d created a kind of ‘inverted smile’ in terms of frequency spread… with piano and mid-range way too dominant, and not nearly enough bassline nor cymbals.

Once I figured out my mistake, it was pretty easily corrected with a simple application of Waves’ Renaissance Axx compressor (after having spent at least a week going in the wrong direction)… sure I had to sacrifice some of the nice dynamic I had originally wanted to highlight, but looking back, I think that original desire was misguided. The track I’m writing is in a minimal-techno style… where narrow dynamic and very loud overall track levels are commonplace… the expectation to keep a main acoustic instrument part fairly dynamic, and achieve a competitive level in the overall track was a bit unrealistic.

So 3 important lessons I learned for going forward…

  1. Audition parts in the context of a mix. Things that sound good on a soloed part may no longer sound so good, or even be completely lost in the context of a whole mix. I was too swayed by trying to work towards a soloed piano sound which I thought sounded good… it would have been better to have always auditioned it in the context of the mix right from the start.
  2. Be realistic about how much dynamic range you can achieve in styles which are innately highly compressed.
  3. Listen to and compare to your reference tracks regularly!
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Getting Comfortable With Your Environment 2

I’ve learnt a lot about the importance of subtle physical comforts in a space

I arrived back in Tokyo last week, and had my first day back into writing today, after about a two-week break over the new year.  As I wrote about over the last few posts, for whatever I reason, I wasn’t 100% settled working in Sydney this time, and although I came up with a couple of good ideas, I didn’t progress through with them as far as I would have liked.  It’s a bit strange, because it was the second period I had working in Sydney in 2016, and the first one was actually quite fruitful and productive.

However, getting back home and working in the place I’ve become accustomed to over the last year, it became more clear why I wasn’t so productive in Sydney this time… it broke down to 2 basic things… sound and comfort…

Sound, because I realised that I’ve really grown to know and trust the sound from my monitors and studio room in Tokyo.  After a year of working on here every day, I just know how the sound will translate to the final mix, and after having mixed a number of tracks that I’ve been happy with, it just boils down to confidence, and the resulting speed with which you can make tonal changes and mix decisions.  I just didn’t have the same confidence in Sydney… I knew there were a lot of parts that I couldn’t judge properly, and either kept changing them back and forth, or knew that I would have to fix them when I got home… and this led to everything taking longer, and a reduction in the ability to commit to a part and then move onto the next stage.  The room sound was probably a big contributor this too…  I blogged before about the uneven bass response in Sydney, and aswell I noticed on returning, as soon as I first walked into my apartment, just how much lower the ambient noise is here… likely it’s a lot to do with the construction (i.e. my apartment here is solid concrete on the walls, floor and roof, as compared to drywall and wooden floors in Sydney).  OK, admittedly domestic construction materials are not the most interesting thing in the world to blog about, but are important from a producer’s perspective, as it makes a huge difference to the room acoustics, and hence how well you can hear what you’re working on.

In retrospect, the other big factor in my lack of progress was comfort.  Sitting at my usual desk and comparing, I realised that in Sydney…

  • Screens were too far away and too high… felt like they were ‘looking down on me’ as I tried to work
  • Not enough leg room under the desk
  • The chair wasn’t as comfortable

…granted these are small (somewhat ‘precious’) things in isolation, but together they made a big difference to the level of comfort, and hence I think my propensity to be creative.  It was just nice today to slip back into familiar and comfortable surrounds, and in the couple of hours I worked today, I did as much as I would have in a whole day last month.

It’s fairly obvious that a good monitoring environment is crucial to your ability to mix and produce well (as I’ve now re-proven to myself), but moreso I’ve learnt a lot about the importance of subtle physical comforts in a space, and how it can really help or hinder your creativity.

Buying Monitor Speakers

Earlier in the year I went thorough the process of evaluating, and then buying new monitor speakers.  It was an interesting experience, and I learnt a lot about the differences between various monitors, and choosing monitors based on specific needs.  Hopefully this will be useful for anyone in the same situation.

In retrospect, the thing that surprises me is that I didn’t look at buying better monitors earlier during the period I’ve been writing music full time.  Initially I was using a pair of M-Audio AV40 speakers… I bought these many years ago when I first moved to Tokyo as a kind of stop-gap so I could listen to music with decent quality, and still have something acceptable for monitoring on the rare occasions I had a chance to produce something.  For some reason I went through 4 months of full-time writing and producing without consciously realising that my monitoring solution could have been a lot better.  It’s not that the AV40s were bad, but with only a 4″ speaker, they just weren’t capable of producing the low octaves of human hearing (and feeling) that are so crucial in club music.  I first realized this when I went to Sydney for 4 weeks and worked there with my original studio equipment, including my first proper monitors, a pair of M-Audio BX8s.  These speakers are capable of much lower frequency extension than the AV40s, and I was shocked to hear a lot of low frequency content (of mostly bass line synth and bass drum) which previous I simply hadn’t known was there.  Ofcourse I was happy I’d discovered this, it was also a curse, as I then had to do lengthy remixes of 3 tracks to correct all the low end.

On returning to Tokyo it was clear that I had to find a better monitoring solution… something that could fill the following criteria…

  1. Good, smooth overall frequency balance
  2. Decent low frequency response (so I could actually hear what was going on down there)
  3. Not too big (so they didn’t overwhelm my modest apartment)
  4. Price had to be reasonable (as now a fulltime musician, I’m hardly flush with cash!)

I created a CD with some reference tracks, sine wave sweep tones, and clips of the tracks I’d had to remix in Sydney, and auditioned a bunch of monitors at local music stores.  The monitors that best fitted all the above criteria were…

… although I listened to monitors from many companies (including KRK, Tannoy, JBL, RCF, other Yamahas)… however, none of the above 3 met all the criteria.  The good and bad points of each were as follows…

  • Adam – Definitely had the most balanced response across the frequency range, but unfortunately couldn’t reproduce the really low bass in the test tracks.
  • Mackie – Sound was fairly balanced, and bass extension was better than the Adams, but at the same time it didn’t go quite as far down as I would have liked,  and the sweep tones showed some uneven peaks in the low bass range.
  • Yamaha – Bass extension was the best of the three by a clear margin… you were able to start ‘feeling’ the bass aswell as hearing it (to be expected as they had a much larger LF speaker than the other two).  But physical size was an issue,  and they seemed unnaturally strong around 3-5Khz… i.e. instruments like hi-hats sounded 2-3dB louder than on the other speakers.

Basically there was no clear winner between the three, and although I was leaning towards the Yamahas for the better bass response, I was a bit worried about the overly strong treble, and also whether I could fit them on my studio desk.  But the most interesting thing about the whole exercise was the fundamental differences in tone between the three… the Adams sounded the most flat, but they all had clear and characteristic differences in response at various parts of the frequency range… so much so that I’m sure I would have had no problem identifying each one in a blind test.  This was the first time I’d auditioned a number of different monitors side-by-side, and I guess I was surprised by the degree of differences between variations on a product that is fundamentally supposed to provide a flat and un-coloured representation of sound.  The takeaway from that is… at least in this price segment (~$500), any monitor you buy is going to impart some character on the sound, which you will have to learn, and to some degree compensate for when mixing.  Also I think you need to need to select monitors based on your specific requirements… for example if I was working mainly with less bass-heavy music styles, the flat response and clarity of the Adam F5s would have been a clear winner.

In the end, I didn’t go with any of the three stated options.  I found a pair of M-Audio M3-6 speakers at one of the big electronics chains in Tokyo.  If I understood correctly, they were being discontinued in Japan, and hence were selling for about half the RRP.  The store was not the best environment to audition them, but they certainly ticked the box on the ‘low frequency response’ criteria (although like the Yamahas, lost marks on size).  At the end of the day, given…

  1. There was no clear winner within the three I’d already tested.
  2. It seemed I would have to ‘learn’ any monitor within the price range to some degree.
  3. They were from the same manufacturer as the BX8s, which I’d worked with happily for many years in Sydney previously (in retrospect it was potentially a bit risky assuming I’d get consistency between a manufacturer’s products 15+ years apart).
  4. They were good value

… they seemed like a good choice on balance, so that was what I went with.  They’re not perfect… self noise is quite noticeable (also mentioned in several online reviews), and they seem slightly muted in the high end (which I have to accommodate and compensate for when mixing)… but generally I’m fairly happy.

As an interesting follow up, buying the new monitors, gave me a chance to compare my old AV40s side-by-side with something else for the first time.  I noticed from this, that they are really strong in the 2-4Khz region… makes me wonder if it would have resulted in dull-sounding mixes if I’d continued with only them (they are still useful though as a second/sanity check for final mixes… provided you mentally compensate for the bright response).