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Old 12-09-2008, 06:22 PM   #57
Human being with feelings
Join Date: Aug 2006
Posts: 2,012

Okay, I apologize again for all the stuff on organization, but if I didn't get the boring bits out of the way first, then I'd never get to them once we start talking about sound. So now that we have space to work and to focus and think about the sound, and a setup that allows us to hear a good, accurate representation of what's going on with the sound, let's start to talk about sound.

There is a lot to say, and a lot to think about, and there's a big two-steps-forward-one-step-back element to all this, because everything affects everything. Principles of mixing apply to tracking, and principles of tracking apply to mastering, and principles of mastering apply to getting good sounds in the room to begin with, and principles of sound in the room apply to everything. So no matter where we start, there's a lot that comes before it, and a lot that comes after it.

That said, the most basic and critical element is critical listening and judgment. And one of the hardest notions for beginners to disabuse themselves of the value of recording "recipes" or presets. So that's the first thing I'm going to spend time on. And without a clear place to begin, I'm just going to start with my favorite instrument: electric bass.

Let's say, to keep things simple, that we're recording a DI bass track (i.e. a bass just plugged right into the soundcard or preamp, no mic). And let's say that the bass player is playing a bass with a maple neck and jazz-type pickups. And let's say she's using a pick, and that she does a pretty good job of controlling dynamics. Got all that? good.

So we fire up the recording rig and she starts playing. From here on, because this is a DI track, it doesn't actually matter whether we're talking about stuff we do during mixing or tracking, because we're going to pretend that none of this affects her headphone mix or how she plays (which is a whole nother can of worms). We have also, by virtue of recording DI, eliminated anything relating to mics and rooms and phase and any of that. There are also no chords to deal with, and presumably no intonation or tuning problems. We are also pretending that we have perfectly neutral "gain staging" and that it therefore doesn't matter whether we make these changes before or after tracking. Please note that these are actually HUGE assumptions that we will see later are NOT "safe bets" at all (even with sampled bass), but we have to start somewhere.

So she's kicking out her funky bassline and everything is groovy and we start to listen carefully, not just to the groove, but to the forensics of the sound. We're going to pretend for the sake of sanity that the player and the instrument are both good and there are no serious problems of fret buzz or strings clacking or serious flaws in the tone, and that the player is hitting about the right balance of warmth, string, and growl for the material (I just glossed over about a year of prep time on that one, but all in good time).

So we've got the sound under a microscope, soloed, and here are the little sonic microbes crawling around, the molecular structure of her bass sound:

-We have the initial, mostly atonal attack of the plucked string, which could sound like a lot of things, but since we stipulated a jazz-type bass with a maple neck and a pick, it's probably going to sound a little clicky, with a slight "rasp" or chunk, and have a little subsonic bump, like un petit kick drum. If we're really industrious, maybe we want to sweep an EQ around, and see if we can identify some particular frequencies where these things happen. Not making any changes, just "parking" eq nodes at the spots where these aspects of the sound seem to be exaggerated. Like maybe the click is up around 6~8k, maybe the raspy chunk hits a broad range somewhere around 700~1500Hz, maybe the subsonic thump seems most pronounced when we bump the eq at 40Hz. Maybe it's completely different. Truthfully, how she holds the pick and how close to the bridge she picks and what kind of pick she's using and a hundred other things will change all this. But that's okay, for now we're just listening, taking mental notes.

- Immediately following the attack, we have the steady-state "note." On a good maple-neck jazz bass, this is likely to to be a fairly deep and transparent sound, with a smidgen of low-end growl, a little "scooped" in the lower mids, and some good upper-midrange clarity, with a little bit of stringiness that we can use to add some bite and punch, or that we could downplay to mellow out the sound and push it back into the mix a little. Again, if we want to, we can sweep the parametric eq around and see where these elements are most pronounced. Not changing anything yet, just listening and thinking.

- Next we have the decay, where the sound starts to taper off. The best studio bass players are masters of this oft-overlooked corner of the musical world. A bass line played with every note ringing out until the next note gives a vastly different vibe and feel to the whole mix than a bassline where each note has a definite end point. Neither is necessarily better or worse, but how long the bass notes hold and how they taper off has a big effect on the way the drums and the beat breathes and pulses, and and it can "lock in" the whole band to make it sound like a unit, or it can create separation and clarity. This is not necessarily your call to make as the engineer, but being aware of how it affects the mix will help you to make better decisions. It might not hurt to give a careful listen to how the bass decays. Does the "growl" hold on longer than the note? Do the notes end with a little finger squeak or death rattle? Is the "note" the last part to die? These "last gasp" elements are all going to amplified if we end up compressing the signal, as the louder parts get pushed down and the quieter parts get pumped up ("IF we end up compressing ELECTRIC BASS?"-- that's a good one).

-Last but DEFINITELY not least is the "silence" between notes. This is the point at which the discernible sound of the bass falls below the noise floor. Because we are recording direct, we can pretend that there are no resonances to worry about, and we can stipulate that this should be dead silent. No hiss, no hum, no rumble, no radio signal, just pure audio black space. If it's not, we're going to have some serious problems. But that's a topic for another day.

More in a minute.

Last edited by yep; 12-09-2008 at 06:27 PM.
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