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Compression 101

Compression in my honest opinion is one of the more difficult features in mixing to completely understand and master.  But when it is mastered, it can be a secret weapon to achieving that professional recording studio sound.  Too many people now a days on forums and YouTube comments are asking “what are the settings that I must use on my compressor to make my voice sound good?”  So many things are wrong with that question. Lets Start off with the preparation.

First of all, be sure that before you even think about mixing anything or throwing any plugin on any audio track, make sure that the track is the best sounding take that you can possibly have.  Here are a few tips to assure that you have a track ready for a mix:

  1. The wave form is even.  Be sure that there are no major spikes or cut outs in the wave form and check to see if the dB level is even, and there is no clipping AT ALL.
  2. Was the vocalist/amp/guitar too close or too far from the mic? Proximity effect plays a big role here.  This is when a mic is placed too close to the sound source, resulting in overwhelming bass frequencies that you do not want unless that is the sound you are looking for.  On the other hand, being too far from the mic can give you a distant sound in the recording, which can be useful when creating space in the mix.  But if you are recording an IN YOUR FACE rap vocal then you want to be closer to the microphone.  Just be aware of the almighty proximity effect.
  3. Clean up the audio.  Once you have a nice looking, and nice sounding audio track, go in there and clean up and trim any quiet parts.  Nobody wants to hear a background cough, or your nasty mouth noises in the mic during the epic guitar solo or instrument break.

If you do not have a track that is 90% done without the mix, the go back and repeat steps one to three.  Experiment with different mic techniques, angles and distances.  You’ll get it!

Okay now that you have a nice sounding track ready for mixing, it is time to actually mix it! Finally! The time we have all been waiting for!  Just one more thing. ALWAYS remember the golden rule of mixing:

**THERE IS NO “GIVEN” VALUE THAT ANY MIXING SETTING CAN HAVE.  IT DEPENDS ON THE TRACK, SINCE NO TWO AUDIO TRACKS ARE THE SAME.  USE YOUR EAR, AND LISTEN TO WHAT THE TRACK NEEDS**

I can not stress that enough.  Listen to what the track needs and you will receive a better result than any settings your find on any forum.  For beginners, start off with a preset, and tweak it until it sounds perfect. EXPERIMENT EXPERIMENT and EXPERIMENT some more!

So what is compression anyway? Think of it like this:

You and your family are moving down south and you have a big rental truck.  You have to put all of your stuff in to that rental truck.  You can fill that baby all the way up, shoving things into the little crevices until there is no longer enough room for anything else.  But once that truck starts moving, all over your stuff is going to get scratched up, broken and ruined.  Think of your audio track (make sure it is clean and well recorded! You don’t put garbage in a moving truck? Do you?) as the things you are loading into the truck, and the truck as the compressor.  If you overdue the compressor (put too much into the truck), then you will crunch and ruin your audio (the things you are moving).  So this is key.  Unless you are going for a squashed, over compressed sound, do not over due the compressor.  Now time to go more in depth:

A compressor’s role is to reduce the dynamic (volume) range of the audio file or instrument onto which one is inserted, effectively lessening the volume gap between a part’s quietest and loudest moments. It’s easiest to think about this when a compressor is applied to a long, dynamic part such as a lead vocal, though of course an individual drum sound has a dynamic range too—these start with a loud initial hit and fade to silence, so drums have a wide dynamic range, it’s just that this range plays out over a short period of time.  Generally there are 5 basic parameters on every compressor:

Threshold

Sets the decibel (dB) threshold to the level at which the compressor begins to work. If you set it to 10 dB for instance, any signal coming in above that will be have its ass shaped by the compressor according to the parameters below.

Ratio

This sets the amount of compression, in dB, applied to a signal once it violates your pre-set threshold.  A ratio of 4:1 will output 1 dB for every 4 dB of input signal that exceeds your targeted threshold

Attack

The time, measured in milliseconds (ms), it takes for the compressor to reach its maximum level on the sound.  A fast attack can be useful for damping percussive peaks so the overall track level can be increased. Can also add punch to a track.

Release

Controls how long (ms) it takes to release a signal from the compressor once it dips below your specified threshold.

Output

Sets the overall output level of the effect (dB). This can be useful to whack up the output level again after its been reduced from applying compression to a signal – this is otherwise commonly known as make-up gain.

There is a basic outline for these settings that will help you begin to experiment with them.

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So now it is important to experiment with all of these.  Remember, nobody can become a professional mixer or engineer in one night by using presets or settings from a forum.  It all depends on what sound you want to achieve and what your track is calling for.  My next article will go more in depth on creating space in a mix so your instruments do not sound cluttered.  Be sure yo read my article on Understanding EQ and I will see you soon! Keep making music!

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New Drum Kit

So I don’t know about you guys, but I am sick of downloading a crap load of drum kits and having only about 10 or 15 nice sounding snares out of the GIANT AMAZING SNARE KIT that has 500+ samples.  SO, I think what I am going to do over the next few days is compile all of MY drum sounds.  My go to snares, kicks, hats, ect. and release them to you guys for free as a nice little Christmas Present.  I can assure you that the kit will have a huge selection for multiple genres such as hip-hop, pop, dubstep and even some glitchy samples.  I’ll throw in a bunch of loops as well that I have made myself.  Also, I will be making some tutorial videos soon on mixing techniques, recording, beat making and whatever else comes across my mind.  If anyone has any ideas for my first tutorial, just leave it in the comments!  Alright well happy holidays everyone! Stay tuned for the new kit!

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Truly Understanding EQ

I assume that we all know that the range of what most humans can hear runs from 20 hz to 20khz, so from 20 to 20,000 frequencies per second is all the human ear can deal with.

Those lower frequencies around 20 to hmmm about 100 maybe 200 are felt, just as much as they are heard. Ever wonder why that is so? Why does your shirt and chest rattle in the night club when the bass and kick are pounding away? Those low frequecies are full of energy, and that energy can actually attempt to move what it is trying to go through.

Sound is energy, plain and simple, just like a vehicle driving down the road at 60 mph, put an object in front of it, and both sound and the vehicle are going to attempt to plow through it. The lighter the vehicle and the higher the frequency, the less energy either have when impacting the wall, therefore the less ability they will have to move what they are hitting. Some are so lightweight they just bounce right back the other direction until they hit something the in the other direction.

So, this means the low frequencies are full of energy and the higher ones are just a bunch of lightwieghts bouncing all over the place. Now take this one step further. 

Let’s say you made a track with a thunderous bass, man it just vibrates the crap out of your shirt and is cool as hell, but then you have the amp from hell to drive that track. Next thing you do is burn the CD and run out to your car, but it sounds like crap. My god how can this be? You just created the next million seller and your car stereo is ruining it.

Well in your studio at 100 watts there is plenty of energy for all of your little freq buddies to play and be happy, but pop it into the car stereo with maybe 20 watts and there just isnt enough juice to go around. Somebody is not going to be heard. So the big energy robbing heavy hitters get their way and the little bounce off the wall wimps get left in the dust. It is only going to sound like one big bass/mudd line.

Ok so now we know that the lower freq’s need to be restrained just a little, so we put some roll off below 50. (Side note, personal choice on where to roll it off) Now that lets the weaklings play along side the heavy hitters down at the bottom, but wait, it still sounds like mud. Damn it, what is going wrong here.

Now we have to think about other things and this is where it can get even more complicated. Let’s say for arguments sake that you have 10 instruments playing in your track. Every instrument is going to have, what I like to think of as, its dominant frequecncy range. And some of this I am going “off the cuff” because I can never remember the ranges of all of these instruments, so I always go back and check my notes.

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Bass and kick are going to be in that low high energy group from 20 to about 200, but then they are going to have harmonics that reach out beyond that, maybe even up into the 4000 freqs or more.

Keyboards are going to be in that 400 up to 3000 with harmonics beyond that.

Snares ride in the 400-1000 depending on tuning with harmonics

Vocals same thing and on and on.

Now you can see that things start to build up in the middle, somewhere between 400 to 8000 and all the stuff beyond are generally the harmonics all of these intruments produce.

It is in that 400 to 8000 range that you have to carve out little nitches for all of those instruments that sit there. If they all try to occupy the same place at the same time, then someone is going to lose and it all sounds like a muddy mess. 

If you didn’t capture the perfect sound that sits just right, EQ becomes your trusty fix. This is your swiss knife to carve up that precious little space of frequency spectrum and hand it out to each instrument. With EQ you are giving each instrument, the boundaries where it is allowed to play and be heard. No more, no less.

So exlcuding the kick and bass which you held back at below 50 hz you have, not including the snare, toms and cymbals, about 5 instruments that you really need to deal with. Those 5 have to be carved up into frequency nitches to allow them to be heard.

This doesnt mean that you take instrument 1 and roll it off at 300 and 600 and instrument 2 at 600 and 1000 etc. If you did that it would sound like a bad AM radio. It means you use cuts and boosts to give each one its prominent space. What one gets the other doesn’t and vice versa and in the end you have 10 instruments all happily being heard.

I hope others jump in and offer some opinions. And I hope the newcomers understand that using EQ is not something you use, “just because”, but a tool to carve out niches for all of your instruments to sit inside the limited frequency spectrum of 20 hz to 20 khz. Of course panning, volume and reverb can even play into this, but for now we are only thinking about frequencies.

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Where Did It All Go?

It is not uncommon to state that the rap music industry has changed from the time it first sprung up in the late 70’s to present time.  Everything from illegal music downloads, to the type of popular music, but the more concerning factor for music lovers is the lack of passion that has been seen in the current hip-hop industry.  Many people say that hip-hop is dead and that rap artists are lazy when it comes to their music, since much of their lyrics are “meaningless.”  In actuality the actual music industry seems to have taken the front stage, pushing the actual artists, and their ideas behind them.  Hip-hop itself, did not change, but rather the industry that hip-hop is a part of did.

In the article “The Ever Changing Rap Music Business,” Wendy Day, the founder of the not-for-profit Rap Coalition and an author of multiple books regarding the music industry, says that the music industry has changed.  Day says that rappers are no longer using rap and hip-hop as an art, but rather as a business for themselves.  Since artists are no longer using it as an art, they are focusing on what is needed to make a hit song, getting on the radio and selling as many copies of their songs as possible.  Wendy stated that now an artist’s “measurement of success [is] whether an artist could sell platinum [records] as opposed to lyrical skill.”  Rap and hip-hop is no longer as meaningful as it has been in its earlier years, and artists are purely doing it for the money; not pleasure or enjoyment.  Wendy Day witnessed in the 90’s this shift in the music.  It is not that every song is complete garbage and is meaningless, but the music went from being lyrically motivated, to being motivated by sales.  Artists have a new vision in their sights and seem to be only working for the money.  To put it simply, there is a lack of passion in hip-hop compared to its earlier years due to the fact that artists are rapping solely for money these days.  What Wendy Day hopes is that hip-hop will reverse its mentality on more modern day music.

In my honest opinion, I do not think hip-hop has changed, but rather the music industry that it is a part of.  It is almost as if the industry has become more of the artist, than the artist itself due to the strictness of the contracts that the artists are locked into.  The music industry and record labels the artists are a part of steal the artists’ individuality along with their own sense of creativity towards their own music.  If anything, the music industry is changing hip-hop, not the artists like Wendy Day stated.

The effects on hip-hop artists from the music industry are incredibly drastic.  The music industry can completely remove and extinguish an artist’s individuality and his or her motivation to rap.  The music industry has tunnel vision towards the dollar signs and will do whatever it takes in order to gain as much profit as thy can.  It has even been more drastic in the past decade due to the illegal downloads on the internet.  In order to fix this problem the music industry bases its sales on radio time and touring.  Wendy Day stated “almost all well-known artists try to make music that is marketable, fits a radio format, and will sell to the masses thereby bringing revenue and income to the artist.”  In other words, she is saying that the artist just makes songs that are suitable for the radio.  In actuality it is the industry and the label that force these decisions on the artists.  In order to receive the largest income, they must create a radio hit song which will stay on the radio for the longest amount of time.  This eliminates the artist’s choice to make their own songs about what they want.  The industry sets their ideas on growing trends in popular culture.  This is why when you turn on the radio, every song is about the same thing.  It is about the artist boasting about their own personal success, and bragging about how many chains they have and all the cars they drive.  In the article “Rakim: We Need a Few More Kanyes,” David Samuels, a reporter for the Atlantic Magazine, talks about how “Jay-Z, a man who makes $80 million dollars off of his huge talent, raps about his private jet.”  It is the industry who is making this decision, not the artist.  Many people who are or were hip-hop fans are saying that hip-hop is dead but it is the music industry is dead.  If the music industry was out of the picture and artists were on their own, individual music labels, they would be rapping about what they want to rap about which would bring much more passion to music and change hip-hop from a business to an art once again.

Aside from the industry extinguishing the artists’ individuality, they are also ridding them of their creativity.  Over the years, the teams created to make a song have increased drastically in numbers.  Now-a-days there are numerous songwriters that work on an individual song.  Many artists are given what is called “ghost writers.”  A ghost writer is a songwriter who exclusively writes for an artist along with other song writers in an attempt to make a radio hit.  These ghost writing teams are provided by the record labels and music industry, once again in order to get closer to the money and platinum records.  Back in the day, artists such as Common, Nas, Tupac, NWA and Biggie Smalls were individual songwriters who wrote their own lyrics.  It is noticeable how these artists have much more passion than today’s artists such has Tyga, Soulja Boy and Lil’ Wayne.  Another thing that I have noticed is that today all of the good rappers and hip-hop artists who are exceptionally good and lyrically talented such as J Cole and Kendrick Lamar are signed to individual labels.  This can suggest that they are not being held back as they would be if they were signed to major record label that provides them with song writers and basically just uses the artist for the quality in their voice.  A drastic example to this would be John Lennon’s song, “Imagine.”  That song, which is an all time hit, was written by John Lennon. Period. Nobody else, just him.  Today, there are sometimes up to a twelve person team writing one song which, lyrically, is no where as strong as songs written in the past such as John Lennon’s “Imagine.”  This is simply due to the lack of passion embedded within the lyrics.

Lastly, the music industry became full of greed over the past couple of decades.  Everybody thinks that the rappers are in it for the money when it is actually the industry that is in it for as much money they can get their hands on.  Wendy Day mentioned that “access replaced aptitude. It went from being fun to being the cut throat, over crowded, greed driven business that it is today.”  In other words, the industry replaced many of the talented and respected workers that were around in the past, to smaller time workers who were being paid a fraction of the price of the more experienced people.  Also with the coming up and popularity of the internet, it was much easier for record labels to find newer artists just from them uploading their music online.  The companies then began ridding of their A&R’s and scouts that went to shows to find new artists to add to the label.  This began getting even more drastic in more recent years when more and more home studios began appearing.  New and upcoming rappers no longer needed a record label to represent them because of the fact they had their own personal home studio in their bedroom.  I personally have a recording studio in my basement and I produce beats, which then are combined with local artists rapping over them.  So I make songs without ever leaving my house.  You were not able to do this back in the earlier years when hip-hop first rose up.  Another thing that made these companies more greedy was the fact that in order to get signed, most record companies were asking for a cutback, or a percentage of the rappers income.  This probably also contributed to the dissatisfaction of newer hip-hop songs that people are hearing on the radio due to the fact that the artist were unhappy with the pay cut, therefore showing less enthusiasm on certain songs.

So to put it all together, hip-hop is not what it once was.  It is not the artists’ fault, but it is the music industries fault for being taken over by greed and no longer having a passion for the music.  It is not that the music industry is completely fallen apart; don’t get me wrong, there are hundreds of incredibly well acclaimed business men, producers and engineers which I personally have an incredible amount of respect for.  Im arguing the fact that the music industry should not have the ability to take away an individuals creative license when it comes to making their own songs.  After all it is their song; not the industry’s song.  There are a countless amount of people who still love hip-hop, but are ashamed of what it has become.  They only listen to the older songs, because they believe its hard to even call today’s hip-hop an art.  This is because it is no longer an art, but a business where the guys in suits are calling the shots to make music that will make money.  That is where the lack of passion exists.  The artists are forced to create songs they may not want to make since their individuality along with their creativity has been taken from them.  It is not the artist’s fault for the direction hip-hop has altered, but it is the music industry who should take the blame.  One day I just hope that hip-hop will one day restore its original purpose as an art, and not a money maker.