Posted on 25-02-2008
Filed Under (engineering) by Jon Stinson

Amp In Car
A few of my friends have been trying this little trick for recording electric guitars: They have been putting the amps in the car. My friend Andy Hunt told me about it []. He said a friend of his had to do this out of necessity. I then told another friend about it, J.D. Tiner, who tried it out too []. This trick seems to be a really good make-shift iso booth if you have no options, but need separation. It’s quick, simple and does not cost anything (assuming you already own a car). In a time where we are seeing an increasing number of home recordings with a DIY approach, this is a trick worth putting to use.

Rigging It Up
To get started you need to park your car close to your recording space. You are going to have three relatively long cable runs-a power cable, a mic cable, and a guitar cable. You might have the luxury of an outside electrical outlet near your studio door that you can use to cut down the length of your power cable. But the mic cable is going to have to be long enough that it can reach the mic pre, and the guitar cable is going to have to be long enough to reach the amp.

If you don’t have one long mic cable, you can just connect several together to make one quickly. The guitar cable can be extended by using two guitar cables and a direct box. Take the first cable and go from the guitar to the DI. Use the “pass thru” jack on the direct box to connect the second run of cable to the amp. I recommend using a passive DI, such as the Radial JDI [].

The amp can be set up pretty much anywhere in the car. If you have an SUV, I suggest putting the amp in the back cargo area. Experiment with folding the back seats down to see how it changes the sound. If you drive a compact car or sedan, I suggest putting the amp in the back seat. You can also experiment here by putting the amp in the trunk, and then folding the back seats down. Using a smaller car is a little bit trickier because the tighter space will make it harder to find a stable place to set the amp. If you are using a tube amp in a small car, you want to make sure that you don’t lean the hot components of the amp up against a seat. This could prohibit the amp from venting heat properly, which could then damage the amp, or worse, start a fire.

While on the subject of precautions, it’s important to note weather conditions. Think twice before you attempt this trick if it is bitter cold or brutally hot outside. You are going to be putting your precious expensive equipment inside a car with no ventilation for hours. And absolutely DO NOT try this if it is raining or snowing. Taking advantage of a garage or carport can save you here. Use good judgement when setting this up. If you have any doubts, you probably just shouldn’t do it (don’t say I didn’t warn you).

The last step to setting up this recording trick is dealing with the cables. The best way to handle this is to crack a window and run the cables through. Then take some towels and seal up the gap. When micing up the amp, there are a variety of choices you can make. The most simple approach is to use the tried and true 57 close up on the speaker.

The car as an effect
Don’t be afraid to get creative. Feel free to use the car trick as a way to get a unique sound for the guitar tracks. Experiment with more than one mic if you have the resources to do so. Get crazy with the mic placement. Try different areas of the car, and different mics/polar patterns. Maybe a ribbon mic near the windshield, or an omni mic near the driver’s position. Perhaps even try recording a different instrument altogether, like bass or background vocals. The latter will be particularly tricky, because you will have to run long cables for the headphone system.

In Practice
Let me know how this turns out for you. I would love to hear examples of this trick put to use. Post comments about your experience with links to your recordings. Good luck! Hope you have fun with this one.

Photo by: J.D. Tiner. Please note: The above suggestion and link to the Radial DI box is NOT a paid ad. I simply think these are great DI boxes.

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Posted on 18-02-2008
Filed Under (engineering) by Jon Stinson

Bus Barn

Until now, I have focused all my posts on topics such as motivation, organization, inspiration, marketing, networking, etc. An important requisite to becoming a successful producer/engineer, is to have a knowledge of and become good at these less obvious business traits. But those skills don’t do much for you if they are not built on top of the more overt traits required, such as practical recording and mixing techniques. One of my goals for this blog is to provide useful tips on how to record/mix/produce music in the studio. So this week I am going to move away from talking about the business end of making music, and get into the studio.

Over the course of the week past, the topic of buss compression came up twice in conversation with a friend. In recognition of that, today I am going to illustrate this technique, using an example applied to the drums. Buss compression is a very versatile mixing tool. You can use this technique on pretty much any instrument you mix. It’s applicable to virtually any style of music, wether loud and aggressive, or natural and organic. However, you must use discretion. It’s not always the proper tool for the job.

If you are unfamiliar with exactly what buss compression is, it is a technique that refers to taking a group of instruments, which are all of the same type (i.e. a drum kit, rhythm guitars, background vocals, etc), creating a sub mix of them through an available set of busses, patching the sub mix through a stereo compressor, and blending the compressed signal back into the main mix. This can be done on either an analog mixing desk, or in a DAW. The result is a more defined sound because the audio material is essentially doubled. Since it is an exact copy (except for the compression effect), the phase coherency causes the audio to be reinforced. Buss compression is also a more flexible way to use compression, as the effected audio can be blended with more control. It is most commonly used on drums, but as mentioned before can be used on other groups of instruments.

Setting Up
Setting up buss compression is a fairly easy process. In my example I will illustrate the process first in the analog domain on a mixing desk, then in the digital domain, using Pro Tools. Both applications I will describe using a drum kit as an example.

Electrons and Neutrons
Working on an analog mixing desk is perhaps the most straightforward way to use buss compression. Start by selecting two unused busses, such as busses one and two. Assign all the channels for the drum returns to those busses, and patch the outputs of these two busses to the inputs of a stereo compressor. Some of my favorites for this application are the API 2500, Chandler TG1, Neve 33609, and the SSL G Series stereo compressor. If you don’t have one of these compressors at your disposal, any stereo compressor will do the trick. Bring the outputs of the compressor back into two open channels of the mixing desk, and pan those channels hard left and right. It’s preferable to use two channels adjacent to the drum returns, but if you don’t have any nearby use what you can. If your console allows for it, include these two channels in your automation/solo group for drums so that when you solo all the drum channels the compressor is included. That’s it concerning setup in the analog domain.

1′s and 0′s
In the digital domain, setting up for buss compression is just a little bit more complicated. My example uses Digidesign Pro Tools, but the setup should be similar in most DAW’s. The first step is to create two stereo Aux Inputs directly after all your drum tracks. These are going to serve as the returns of your unprocessed and processed drum sub mixes. You want to set up these Aux Inputs next to all the drum tracks so that you don’t have to constantly scroll (if at all) to adjust the settings. Make sure you pull both faders of the two Aux Inputs all the way down, as your DAW may set them to unity gain (0dB) by default.

After you have your two Aux Inputs set up, name them “Drums Main” and “Drums Comp” or something similar. Personally, I like to name mine “Drums Clean” and “Drums Smash.” Set the outputs of all your drum tracks to busses 1-2 (or whatever is available). Then set the inputs to both Aux Input tracks to busses 1-2. To complete the signal routing you want to set the outputs of the two stereo Aux Inputs to whatever you use as your main outputs, typically this is outputs 1-2. Lastly, you will want to Command-click (Ctrl-click in Windows) on the solo buttons for both Aux Inputs, so that when you solo individual drum tracks, you will not mute their returns (solo safe).

The first stereo Aux Input is the main buss return for the drums sub mix. Think of this fader as a semi-master fader for the drums. But do take note: it is important that you use an Aux Input for this application, and not a Master Fader, as these two types of channels process digital information differently. The second stereo Aux Input serves as the return for the compressor. This is just like patching the output of a compressor to two open channels on an analog mixing desk. On this Aux Input, you will want to instantiate a compressor plug-in as an insert. My personal favorites for this application are the Waves C1, the Chandler TG12413 Limiter, McDSP Compressor Bank, or the Bomb Factory BF76 plug-in’s. No worries if you do not have these plug-in’s available, use what you have. And that’s it for buss compression setup in the digital world.

Smash It Up
Now that we have completed the setup for buss compression in both the analog and digital domains, we will set the initial settings for the compressor, wether analog hardware or a software plug-in. Since we have not started building a drum mix, these settings will serve as a starting place, and will need to be tweaked later. You want to start with a moderate amount of compression, and adjust as appropriate for the type of music you are mixing. If you are using a hardware compressor start with the ratio somewhere in the range of 6:1, and the threshold at 0dB, or somewhere close. You will want to set the attack and release settings of the compressor in a way that accentuates the percussive quality of the drums. For now just set the attack moderately fast, and the release moderately slow. Leave the make-up gain setting at 0dB if your compressor has one. If you are going the digital route, start with a ratio setting around 6:1, threshold around -16dB, and make-up gain around 0dB. Leave the attack and release settings at their default state. When you begin to balance your drums, you will want to keep an eye on the gain reduction meter. Overall, you want this to be somewhere in the range of 6dB to 10dB of compression, depending on how aggressive of a sound you are going for. If you want to get really aggressive, then you will want to shoot for 10dB or more of compression.

The Fun Part
Now it is time to start building a drum mix. Start by pulling all the faders down for the drum tracks. Set the fader for “Drums Main” or “Drums Clean” to unity gain. The “Drums Comp” or “Drums Smash” fader you will want to start out by setting in the range of -18dB to -12dB. You don’t want the compressor return to be too loud at this point, but it is important that the level be loud enough so that you can hear the effect the compressor is having on the drum mix.

Balancing Act
Begin building your drum mix by balancing the tracks as usual. As you balance all the different elements of the drums together, the sum of all the tracks will change the way the compressor reacts with the mix. It takes a bit of time to balance all the different drum elements together along with the two stereo Aux Inputs. At this point you can begin more accurately dialing in the compressor’s settings. Begin by fine tuning the attack and release settings. Set the attack just slow enough so that the transients of the drums become emphasized. The release should be set so that the volume of the audio returns nearly to 100% by the next drum hit. All of this is going to be dependent on the tempo and style of the drum part. The idea is to set the compressor so that it will pump with the beat of the music. Watch the gain reduction meter as you balance things out so you can see how hard you are pushing the compressor. More importantly, however, use and trust your ears when making these adjustments. Continue building a mix, changing the levels of individual tracks/Aux Inputs/compression settings depending on how aggressive or natural of a drum sound you want. For loud, heavy rock music you will probably want more obvious and aggressive compression. You can obtain this by setting the ratio higher and the threshold lower, then balancing level of the return channel louder in relation to the rest of the drum tracks. If you want a more natural and organic sound, you can obtain this by setting the ratio of the compressor lower, the threshold higher, then balancing the level of the return channel quieter in relation to the rest of the drum tracks. It requires a bit of patience, practice and experimentation to get it just right.

Not Too Much Flavor
Buss compression is a mixing tool that puts a lot of options in the hands of the engineer. It’s worth the time investment to become familiar with this technique. But be forewarned, using buss compression just because you can is a mistake. It is important to always make sure you use a production technique that compliments the sonic landscape a piece of music has already created. Fight the urge to overuse a skill just because it’s the newest thing you have learned. As always, moderation is key.

In Use
Try buss compression out in your next mix. Try two different versions of a mix. First try it out on drums, and then experiment with it on another group of instruments. Let me know how it goes. I would love to hear your results, so post comments with links to your mixes. Good luck, and have fun.

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Posted on 11-02-2008
Filed Under (music business) by Jon Stinson


The music business is a people oriented business. Let me emphasize that; THE MUSIC BUSINESS IS A PEOPLE ORIENTED BUSINESS. What I’m saying is that you have to actively develop and pursue relationships with people on a daily basis to maintain your career. These connections must be made with people in all facets of the music industry all the time, no matter what YOUR job title is. No one else can do this for you. Sure, you may have a manager. You might be signed to a record deal. Maybe some of your work has gotten some high profile exposure. Despite all of this, no one can inform others about you or your band better than you yourself. And if you are not willing to do what it takes to maintain your career, no one else is going to want to work with you. Your manager, record label, etc. can only present you with opportunities, you have to follow through. Your band is a business, and you need to be taking a hands-on approach in all of the daily managerial tasks. All the successful people who you come in contact with only got where they are because they worked harder than anyone else, made many significant sacrifices and at all costs figured out how to always say, “yes.”

It does not matter what level you are at in your music career, you are always going to need the help of the other band who has been around longer than you; who has more reach/influence. They have already built the fan-base, the relationship with the venue, gotten the exposure in local media, sold merchandise, struck friendships with other bands, made connections with various music industry people, etc… get the picture? In so many words they are “better” than you. I’m not saying your music is bad, just that to the outside you are an unfamiliar face. You are a huge risk. The consumers (your potential fans) are saying, “Why should I spend my hard earned $5 on this music?” The producers are saying, “Why should I spend time on this project?” The journalists are saying, “Where is it going to get me if I do a story on this band?” The radio is saying, “By adding this band to our playlist, are we really going to be able to increase our advertising revenue?” [Yes, the radio is in the advertising business, not the music exposure business.]

How do you penetrate all these bubbles? You become best friends with the gatekeepers. I’ll repeat myself: It does not matter what level you are at in your music career, you are always going to need the help of the other band who has been around longer than you. It’s great if you are looking to the musicians who are your juniors, and trying to think of ways to help them out, but you need to focus a lot more time on making friends with the people who are your seniors so that they can bring you up. Band X is a great band. When they play at the small clubs they can pack the house. But if they want to play at the medium sized clubs they are going to need to open for Band Y. Likewise, Band Y can pack out the medium sized clubs, but if they want to play the big clubs they are going to have to call on their friends Band Z for help.

Does this seem selfish to you? First of all, quit worrying about that. This is business. Second, it’s not selfish at all, give yourself more credit. You are a valuable asset to the bigger band. In all cases begin to condition yourself to thinking in terms of win/win. Because the fact is you are going to have to convince the senior band that you are good enough to share the stage. You see, they need an opening act, but it won’t do them any good to share the stage with just anybody, they need an opener who knows how to put 100% into a performance, and plays music that fits in context with the show. The venue will not let them play without one. Just like the radio is in the advertising business, the venue is in the beer/liquor business. The only thing the venue cares about is wether or not you draw a big enough crowd, so that they can sell a lot of alcohol. You can make yourself extremely valuable to everyone by going to the “better” band and saying, “Let me do all the work. I will book you a gig if I can be the opening act.” This way, not only do you begin to build a solid relationship with the “better” band, but you also begin to develop a personal relationship with the venue. Further, your fan-base may not be as big as the “better” band’s fan-base, but you do have a valuable and loyal fan-base who spends money at musical outings, right? This helps facilitate the win/win situation because your two fan-bases will be cross pollinating each other (and buying alcohol at the venue).

You ask, “how do I even put the first foot forward in developing this relationship?” By becoming a fan of every band you would like to play with. This again emphasizes the point I made about how focusing “up” instead of “down” is not selfish. You make yourself an asset to the “better” band because you are a fan first; you are regarded as a person who wants to help them make money. The quickest way to befriending a band, and subsequently joining forces with them, is to be at every single show, buy a copy of their EP/LP (and study it), and frequent their myspace page and website so that you always know what they have going on. This way, you have done your “homework” so to speak, and have something to bring to the table when you begin to make contact.

Beyond just sharing the stage, making this connection with “better” bands has the potential to help you tremendously in other areas. When you befriend a band who has more reach than you, you gain access to their network. Additionally, if they really like you, they may use their influence to call in favors for you. Are you looking to make a recording? Well the “better” band just finished making a record with a great engineer, and can put you in contact with him/her. Are you wondering how to get your music placed on cdbaby and iTunes? The “better” band can show you the details. Would you like to have coffee with a band manager? Again, your friends in the “better” band can make that happen.

I have been making my point by focusing on the benefits of befriending another band, but this illustration should not be limited to that scenario. You can and should apply these same points to any relationship you pursue to advance your career.

To sum this section up I’ll present a bulleted list:

  • The music industry is a people oriented business; make friends with everyone wether they are a consumer (fan), producer, venue manager, journalist, etc.
  • No matter what level you are at in your music career, you always need someone “better” than you to help you
  • Don’t just put your focus on the junior bands with less exposure/resources than you, also focus on the bands who are your senior (focus “up” in addition to “down”)
  • Make yourself an asset to the people you want to work with
  • Create a win/win situation
  • You get fans by becoming a fan yourself first
  • When you become friends with a band who is your senior, you gain access to their network

This lesson does not only apply to indie musicians who are just starting out, but to indie producers and engineers who are launching their careers as well. The bulleted list above can be adapted to fit in the context of a producer or engineer’s career:

  • The music industry is a people oriented business-have I made this point yet?
  • No matter what level you are at in your music career, you always need someone “better” than you to help you.
    All those CD’s you have piled up in the corner of your room? Look at the liner notes. Find out who made those records and get to know them. This may be easier said than done if you don’t live anywhere near the major music hubs, such as New York, Nashville and Los Angeles, but the internet is a wonderful thing.
  • Balance out your focus between those who are “up” from you, and those who are “down” from you.
    Both groups of people, the ones who are your senior, and the ones who are your junior, have valuable lessons/skills to teach you, as well as assets to offer to you. For example, your juniors get you to think when they ask for your advice. You might end up learning something new, or gaining a new perspective on something when you go through this thought process. Your juniors also have valuable skills that they can offer to help you work more efficiently. Your seniors get you to think when you ask them for advice. They teach you to think differently and more complex about something than you had before. They show you tricks that never occurred to you. Your seniors also have valuable tools that they might share with you (such as gear), or people they can connect you with.
  • Make yourself an asset to the people you want to work with.
    Just like your juniors have valuable skills that can help you work more efficiently, you also have valuable skills that can serve as an asset to your seniors. Tasks like setting up microphones, filling out recall sheets, documenting sessions with photos, preparing files to be mixed and printing mixes to the two-track machine are just a few examples.
  • Create a win/win situation.
    A couple common problems with young engineers who are just starting out is that they 1) can’t get any work because they don’t have enough experience and 2) the work they do get does not pay well and is unreliable. The solution to this problem is to place value on experience rather than money. In most business, and especially in the music industry, if you put the focus on quality the money will just happen. Besides, at this stage in your career you are still learning. Don’t get me wrong you will always be learning, but when you are first starting out you are spending a lot of time on the fundamentals. You need to put your focus on building your portfolio and skill set, and focus on making money later. You can strike deals with artists like negotiating the right to use the material on your personal website or myspace page to showcase your work. Additionally, the right to use the material on a CD in order to give to a publishing company, record label executive or producer so that they might hire you for another gig. A band should not object to this, as it is exposure that could work to their advantage. The way one engineer I used to work for put it was that you need people rooting for you. In other words, position yourself such that others do well if you do well.
  • You get fans by becoming a fan yourself first.
    Let’s face it: we all do what we do in music for the satisfaction we get when others enjoy our work. Everyone likes to be complimented, so if you want people to talk about your work, then talk about their work, study their work and ask them questions about their work. Not only will you show them that you pay attention and admire them, but you will learn a few things too.

Remember, the music business is a what oriented business? PEOPLE ORIENTED BUSINESS… You only get out of your career what you put into it. When you strike that killer record deal, that is when the work starts. When you are sick and tired of being sick and tired, that is when the work first starts. Extremely hard work and patience are key. No one wants to help someone who won’t help themselves. Make sure you are always active in your own career. When you work along side those who work for you, you will find out that success happens a lot quicker and smoother. And typically it is bigger than you expected. Do yourself a favor and don’t tie your hands by tying other people’s hands. Do your share of the work. Make sacrifices. Create a win/win situation. Seek opportunity. Find a way to say, “Yes.”

(1) Comment   
Posted on 04-02-2008
Filed Under (music business commentary) by Jon Stinson

Although I thought I was back to 100% by last Thursday, turns out I’m not. I will feel well, then suddenly I won’t. I have gotten behind in work, and there is a lot to do. I’m frustrated to the point of biting nails.

Bob Lefsetz made some good points in a recent post. Particularly this quote rang out to me:

The music business will be fine. People will create music and infrastructure will exist to monetize that music. It just won’t look like the system we have now. How will it look? Ask those small, nimble companies starting out, who aren’t worried about protecting their infrastructure.

There are some additional bits of dialogue and links to other goodies worth reading. []

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