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How to calibrate your studio monitors

Recording studio control room

Disclosure: Audio Hertz is supported by its audience. When you purchase through links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission.


Monitoring is arguably the most important part of mixing. Without being able to hear the music properly, you won’t be able to mix it. Your monitors, room treatment, and your positioning are all critical factors in ensuring you’re able to deliver mixes that translate to different speakers.

Calibrating your monitors helps your ears to become accustomed to a standard level of volume, which enables you to listen to sound in your environment more accurately. It’s also another great way to preserve your hearing.

Since you’re listening to everything at the same SPL, your brain can judge the levels more accurately. You’ll become much faster at deciding when something isn’t leveled correctly, which in turn will make your mixing decisions not only more accurate but also much easier.

Calibrating your monitors is the process of understanding and setting the level coming out of your DAW relative to the SPL that’s leaving the speaker. This lets you know that when your mixer is set to unity or your output level is at a marked spot (more on this later) that you’re able to hear the volume level your speakers are calibrated to.

You also have to make sure that both speakers are accurately reproducing the same level of audio. No two pieces of electronics are the same so just setting the two volume controls to the same level isn’t enough to ensure consistency between both speakers.

In order to calibrate, we’ll need to use pink noise. Pink noise is a tone that consists of every frequency band at exactly the same level. This makes it the ideal tool for many types of acoustic measurements, including speaker and room calibration.

To calibrate your speakers,

  1. Turn the independent level controls on the back of each of your studio monitors all the way down.
  2. Set your interface output to unity if there is one. If it doesn’t have a unity level, then you can choose where you’d like your output knob to be when you reach the desired level you’re calibrating to. Mark the spot on the output knob with a white china marker or a piece of console tape.
  3. You’ll need to set up a track in your DAW with a tone generator to output pink noise. Most DAWs have a tone generator built in. Set the level to -18dbfs (you can use -20dbfs if you want more headroom). If you did step 1 correctly, then you shouldn’t hear anything yet. (We are calibrating to -18dbfs because it is considered to be the equivalent of 0 dB VU, which is the sweet spot for analog gear)
  4. Now you’ll need an SPL meter. If you don’t have one, I recommend buying one, but you can also download an SPL meter app on your phone. You’ll need to make sure the SPL meter has a C-weighted scale. Unlike the A-weighted scale, the C-weighted scale does not cut off the lower and higher frequencies that the average person cannot hear, which makes it more suited for calibration purposes.
  5. Point the SPL meter at the sweet spot in the center of the speakers where you would typically have your head. Make sure the meter is at about the same level as your ears.
  6. Pan the pink noise all the way to the right so it’s only coming out of the right speaker. Start turning up the volume knob on the back of the right speaker until the SPL meter reads 78-85 dB SPL, depending on what you decide to calibrate your speakers at. I’ll be calibrating my speakers at 80 dB. If you’re sitting closer to your speakers, you can calibrate them lower. Renowned mastering engineer Bob Katz likes to monitor at 79 dB.
  7. Now pan the pink noise to the left and repeat step 6 with the left speaker.

You’ll now know where to keep your monitor’s output level to ensure you listen at the desired level!


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The most embarrassing audio mistake I’ve ever made

Broken SSL compressor VU meter

We’ve all had embarrassing moments in the studio. From an intern to lead engineers, everyone royally messes up sessions in significant ways, from recording over that perfect take to dropping a microphone worth more than a car. There are so many different ways to make mistakes while recording that I’m surprised I don’t mess up more often.

We’ve all had embarrassing moments in the studio. From an intern to lead engineers, everyone royally messes up sessions in significant ways, from recording over that perfect take to dropping a microphone worth more than a car. There are so many different ways to make mistakes while recording that I’m surprised I don’t mess up more often.

I’ve had my fair share of accidents, way more than I’d like to admit, but for the sake of the enjoyment of others, I will.

Although a studio environment does not have to be stressful, it can be, and a lot of times, it is. If there is a big session or high profile client, there’s a lot of pressure on the engineer to make sure the session not only flows well but is executed perfectly, both artistically and technically.

There used to be a time when the engineer didn’t have to worry about running the tape machine or setting up the microphones. This freedom allowed the engineer to focus on the more essential things like the sound. Well, not anymore. Today, engineers do everything, from managing the studio to cleaning the bathrooms. We do it all. I enjoy this aspect of it, I like doing a lot and not having to rely on others to move microphones around, but it also leaves more room for error.

I hate messing up. Like really hate it. I still cringe while thinking about some of the things I’ve done over the years. Hell, thinking about hugging the wrong dad when I was three still sends shivers down my 30 year old spine. I’m not sure if anything is worse than when I was about a year into my internship and was asked to run a session of my own.

We have a very informal internship policy at Sabella Studios; we welcome anyone that wants to learn and is willing to lend a helping hand and rarely turn people away unless they are a distraction. It was my third year of college, and I had been hanging around the studio and helping for some time. I had been asked to be the lead engineer on smaller sessions such as short piano/vocal sessions or rap/hip hop vocal sessions. These were sessions that were more straightforward and hard to mess up. Or it should have been…

At this point in my career, I’d probably only run a session on my own a few times before, but I was asked to record a rapper who just needed to book 2 hours. Simple enough, I thought. I got everything ready, set up the microphone, set up headphones, created a new Pro Tools session, set the preamp, checked to make sure I was getting signal, and patched in a compressor and an EQ. I was all set for when the client arrived, and when he did, we greeted each other and had him settle in the live room. I had him begin running through a warm up take so he could practice and so I could get sounds.

The problem was everything sounded way too echoey, but I didn’t have any reverb turned on yet. Maybe I had something patched in I wasn’t supposed to, or maybe the compressor was crushing it or not set correctly, or maybe there was a bad cable. After frantically searching for the source of the problem for the next three and a half minutes while the artist ran through the song, I still couldn’t figure it out. After finishing that pass, my client motioned to me that he was ready, and I gave him the okay to give it another run through, which would give me another three and a half minutes to try and figure out what the hell the problem was.

The artist was now about to finish his second pass, and I still couldn’t figure out why it sounded like the microphone was 50 feet away from his mouth when I could see he was singing not even 6 inches from the capsule.

Just as the client finished and said: “That take was perfect!” I realized what I had done wrong when I noticed the microphone’s Neumann logo plate was on the side facing the control room. I had the microphone facing the wrong way.

I learned a few valuable lessons that day. The first was that on large diaphragm condenser microphones, companies would usually put their logo on the front pointed on axis. If you don’t see the logo, it’s probably pointed the wrong way. The second thing I learned was to be humble. If you had told me 5 minutes before I had done it that I should make sure the microphone was pointed in the correct direction, I would have said. You’re crazy. I knew everything already! Well, that day, I got fed a big ol’ slice of humble pie.

Even while I run sessions and consider myself experienced, problems happen all the time. The difference is I don’t panic and have become very good at troubleshooting an issue as it arises. Troubleshooting is a part of working in audio, and if you want to do this, you should get used to it. I always try to think about problems and how to fix them analytically. I’m much better now, but back then, if one thing went wrong, I would be sent into a downward spiral of anxiety and fear, and it was tough to regain my composure.

What mistakes have you made? What did you learn from them? Comment on FacebookInstagram or send us an email using our contact page.


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8 things you can do to help preserve your hearing

Ear with protection from loud noises

Disclosure: Audio Hertz is supported by its audience. When you purchase through links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission.


Be aware of noise levels in your environment

Loud noises are everywhere. The construction site across the street, the local bar on a Friday night… I’ve even been to painfully loud restaurants. I’m probably stating the obvious for most readers, but for those that don’t have ear protection or carry protection with them, I highly recommend it. There are many occasions where I’ve been saved by having a pair of earplugs with me. Your ears are an essential tool; without your ears, you wouldn’t be able to hear all those sweet plugins you bought on Cyber Monday.

Use an SPL meter

It’s helpful to frequently check your mixing levels, so you’re aware of how loudly you’re monitoring. It’s easy to lose track of how loudly you’re mixing after seven hours in. It’s happened to me where I’ve been 8 hours into a mix and then realized I’ve been monitoring at 100 dB for the last hour. It sounds stupid, but it happens.

I like to leave an SPL near my mixing station. If that’s not possible, I’ll check the app I have on my phone, although I’m not sure how accurate they are. Fletcher Munson says 80db is the ideal monitoring level, but I say, screw you, Fletcher Munson. I like to monitor at all levels; it’s good to be aware of what level you’re monitoring at and how long you’re doing it. Healthy levels of noise for shorter periods are not harmful to you; it’s the long extended period of time at higher levels that will do damage. I like to monitor loudly at certain times, but most of the time, I try to spend time at lower volumes on smaller speakers such as NS10s or my newly purchased iLoud Micro Monitors.

Take breaks during long sessions to give your ears a rest

Pretty self explanatory and not very revolutionary, but it’s still something people forget to do. Take breaks; it’s always a good idea. Sitting down for 3 hours without stopping is not only bad for your ears, but you’ll also start to lose perspective on everything. I would recommend trying to take a five minute break every hour or so; go outside, go for a drive, or do something else. You won’t only get a mental break, but your ears will also benefit. It gives your ears time to recalibrate. Another cool trick is to flip the left side with the right side, so your channels come out of the opposite sides. Since the stereo field switched, your brain will recalibrate itself and give it a new perspective, and you’ll hear things that you didn’t before.

Use proper protection

Get a good pair of earplugs. Heros and other cheap alternatives are great for what they use them for: cheap disposable protection for when you’re sleeping or getting an MRI. They work great for that sort of thing; they don’t work great when trying to hear anything after putting them in. If you’re planning on being an audio engineer or a musician, invest in a solid pair of earplugs. I use Earasers which are only $40, and I highly recommend them, but $400-500 is a small price to pay to avoid future hearing problems.

Don’t overuse protection

That’s right… you can be too cautious. Greg Scott mentions his experience on the UBK Happy Funtime Hour podcast in episode 101. Scott found himself wearing his earplugs too often, which brought on a problem called hyperacusis. Since he would wear earplugs all the time, the brain starts to turn up the volume. The issue is when you take earplugs out, normal level sounds are now painfully loud.

Know the signs of hearing loss, be vigilant, and see an ENT

No matter what age you are, you always need to be vigilant about your ears. Pay attention to your volume levels; are you listening at louder volumes than usual? When people talk to you, are their voices getting increasingly difficult to hear? For a full list of things to consider when wondering if you are suffering from hearing loss, you can check out this article on HearingLoss.org.

Regardless of if you’re experiencing issues, if you’re a musician, audio engineer, or producer, then you should be getting your hearing checked, some say as much as yearly but at least once every two to three years.

Be aware of the side effects of  your medications

Certain medications can negatively affect your hearing, and some even have tinnitus listed as a common side effect. Make sure if you’re being prescribed medication to tell your doctor that you’re a musician or engineer and your ear health is a high priority. You’ll need to weigh the benefits and negatives with your doctor, but always make sure they are aware of your situation so they can take the appropriate measures to ensure your ears stay healthy. To ordinary people, a little tinnitus or a small loss of hearing isn’t a big deal when it comes to fixing other aspects of your health, but to a musician, our ears are everything.

Manage stress and anxiety

I’ll start by saying if you struggle with stress and anxiety and haven’t looked into ways of helping yourself, then you should do that first and foremost.

Stress and anxiety can affect all different parts of your body, and this includes your hearing and ears. It can not only cause hearing issues but exacerbate ones you already have. According to Calm Clinic, issues related to anxiety that affect your hearing include:

  • Trouble focusing on sounds
     Anxiety and stress can be painful; it can be sudden and intense; it’s hard to concentrate on anything in these moments, and that holds with sound. You can’t mix a record when your brain is somewhere else and constantly being distracted. Mixing, recording, and writing music requires both your body and mind to be present.
  • Unusual sounds and auditory hallucinations
    People who suffer from anxiety disorders may start noticing sounds and noises that others don’t, such as creeks, bumps, buzzes, ticks, etc. They can also hear sounds and noises that most people don’t. Many also experience hearing clicks, pops, or noises that aren’t there. There’s no real explanation for the connection other than your brain is probably just processing information poorly.
  • Tinnitus
    Tinnitus is a chronic ringing of the ears. Anxiety can increase the loudness of the ringing and your perception of it. Many audio engineers and musicians will end up suffering from different levels of tinnitus eventually in their life. Anxiety will only make it worse.

As a musician, audio engineers, or producers, our ears are paramount in being able to create our art effectively. Unfortunately, using our ears can lead to damage and affect our ability to create. Luckily, with small changes and taking a bit more precaution, we can prevent most of the avoidable damage that comes with the trade.


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Does zipping audio files affect the sound quality?

Home studio desk with Pro Tools

Disclosure: Audio Hertz is supported by its audience. When you purchase through links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission.


I’ve been recording and producing music for almost 15 years now. I’ve sent clients files in every form possible: USB drives, hard drives, WeTransfer, Dropbox, Google Drive, Hightail, You Send It…if it’s free, and you can use it to send a file, then I probably have. A lot of these services automatically zip audio files when sending a folder. I’ve honestly never thought about how zipping audio files affected the sound quality until recently when I was working with another engineer who claimed to hear a difference.

I was a bit taken aback because I never thought about how zipping would affect the sound quality. I’ve always done it, I’ve always seen people do it, and I’ve never heard a difference. I want to think in the last 15 years I’ve been trying to do this recording thing that, I would have heard the difference.

There’s an easy way to find out if there is truly a difference after zipping, a null test. A null test is a process of bringing two files into your DAW, leaving them set at the same volume and settings, and inverting the polarity on one of them. If they are exactly the same, then you won’t hear anything, and the audio will completely cancel out, which tells us there’s absolutely no difference between the two files. If you do hear anything, even the smallest amount of noise, after inverting the phase on one of the files, then there is a difference, and the files have been affected.

Null testing two of the same files, one zipped and one not zipped, is easy. Take an audio file that’s not zipped, duplicate it, zip the copied file, bring both files into your DAW on separate tracks, flip the polarity on one… Nothing. Zip. Zilch. Nada.

Scientific proof that zipping audio files does not affect the sound quality in any way at all. Some people even suggest it’s safer to send files zipped than unzipped because when it’s zipped, it’s harder for the file to get corrupted in the process.

Any time you’re compressing the data of a file, whether you are using different formats or compressing using a format like Zip, there are lossy and lossless forms of compression.

Lossless compression allows you to recreate the file exactly as it was originally saved. It finds redundancies and patterns in the file to break the file into smaller parts so it can be put back together at a later time.

Lossy compression is different. This type removes “unnecessary” bits of information to make the file smaller. This is how an mp3 file is compressed into a smaller file and why it also negatively affects the sound quality.


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Why anyone that says the recording industry is dead is wrong

Recording Business

The industry is dead! You can’t make any money! Stop now! Don’t even try it! You’re crazy! Get out of music! Sell your interface! Go get a “real” job! Yeah yeah, we’ve all heard this, and maybe you’ve even said some version of this at some point in your life. It’s always the same thing for everything, the past was better, the old way is the right way, and these stupid kids are ruining everything.

I used to complain about younger inexperienced engineers who had home studios and were charging $20 an hour. I thought these types of engineers and studios were taking away from real engineers and that no one can live off of $20 an hour.  I thought they were destroying the entire industry. But I was wrong. These engineers are there because the technology allows for it, and there’s a demand.

Sure, you’ll never get the same quality as recording in a professional studio with a Neve console and a collection of Neumann microphones, but that’s not what everyone wants. The lower priced studios allow the younger, less experienced, and less wealthy artists the ability to record. Just about anyone can record and release music at a price, they can afford.

Yeah, sure, the industry isn’t what it used to be. It’s not the same as when Elvis walked into Sun Studio and played for Sam Phillips, who gave him a record deal, or when Fleetwood Mac spent a million dollars to record Tusk in 1979. The radio used to be the primary way of finding new music, and it basically doesn’t matter anymore. Spotify playlists and Pandora are the new ways listeners are finding their music.

So you’re probably thinking, ‘but if it’s not exactly like it was in the past, then everything else is terrible, and the industry is dead, and you’re better off just burning all of your recording equipment along with your recording aspirations and dreams.’ Well, that’s where our opinions would differ.

It seems that everyone wants to believe that the past was better. This town isn’t the same anymore, this bar used to be the best, but they changed the formula of Coke, and now it tastes like crap, yadda yadda yadda. The truth is the past was different. Some things are better now, and some things are worse. You can’t say the industry is dead when there are areas of it that are still thriving. Live music is still as popular as ever. Artists, engineers, and producers are learning that to survive, they must extend themselves to other outlets in the industry to supplement their income. Album and streaming sales are menial, but that doesn’t mean there’s no money anywhere in the industry.

Alto Music Brooklyn held a seminar with John Storyk, a famous acoustician and designer of Electric Ladyland studios. In his presentation, he discussed the state of the industry and how it’s commonly misconstrued that his business must be hurting. He explained that he is busier than ever. With all the new personal and home recording studios, there are still plenty of potential clients looking for well built recording rooms. There aren’t enormous multi-room facilities anymore, but there are even more working professionals that want their own space.

So if the industry isn’t dead, then what the fuck is happening?

It changed. Things change.

I want to think I’d be a recording engineer even without digital audio and cheap equipment, but I can’t say for sure that’d be true. Recording my band when I was in high school is what got me started. Without that four track Tascam recorder and being able to experiment on my own for little to no cost, I might not have decided to try and go deeper and make a career out of it. It would be a bit hypocritical if I would complain about new technology and the state of the industry when it’s the reason I started in the first place.

Anyone from the old generation and even younger kids may complain that the state of the industry isn’t what it used to be. The truth is, things change whether you like it or not, and crying over it doesn’t help.

Artists have the lowest cost of entry than ever before. You can record an album and put it out to the world using any of the hundreds of streaming services for nothing. Less than 20 years ago, releasing music would be almost impossible for most of the artists you find on YouTube or Soundcloud today.

If I had to trade off the millions of album sales of the past with the ability to make an album in my bedroom and release it to the world, then I think that’s a decent trade. Change isn’t always good in every aspect, but it’s inevitable, and you shouldn’t resist it, or else you’ll just be left behind.


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The story of Dr. Bini and the Binson Echorec

The story of Dr. Bini and the Binson Echorec

Disclosure: Audio Hertz is supported by its audience. When you purchase through links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission.


BinsonEchorec

The Binson Echorec is one of those magical, mystical, undeniably beautiful sounding devices. It’s the kind of gear that makes you appreciate its existence– that some genius was able to design something so incredibly inspiring. It almost hurts me to write this now, knowing that I don’t have one of my own. It’s the holy grail of all guitar and delay effects units, and it’s not just hype. Praised for years by guitarists all over the world and made famous by legends like David Gilmore and Jimmy Page, the Echorec was the brainchild of Dr. Bonfiglio Bini.  Dr. Bini was an Italian engineer and the founder of the Binson HiFi Company. For Dr. Bini, quality was of utmost importance. Every single component, for every single unit, was made in house. When asked if it would be cheaper to use a third party for cases,  Dr. Bini replied, “sure, it would have been cheaper, but then it would not be Binson stuff anymore.”

The Effectrode pedal company has more in-depth articles about the Echorec, but I’ve decided to summarize some of the information I’ve found there and other sources to help tell the story of a truly marvelous piece of gear.

Dr. Bini began manufacturing radios in 1940 from his first factory in Milan, Italy. He later moved on to television sets before making guitar amplifiers, which led to his major seller: The Binson 3°. Over the years, Binson made many different items, from mixers to reverbs, to microphones and PA speakers. They even made an organ called the Binsonett (although it’s hard to find much information on them besides a few pictures). Most of these products are difficult to find today, especially if you live in the United States. Without a doubt, they are most famous for their Echorec delay units. During a time when studio effects were limited to tape delays, plate, and room reverb, Echorecs used a new technology developed by the founder, Dr. Bini, and the principal engineer, Mr. Scarano Gaetano. The two undertook a massive research effort to find a better medium for storing delay signals than magnetic tape. The result was the Echorec delay unit and their memory disc technology.

Echorec utilized memory disc technology, which used a drum recorder instead of a tape loop; this allowed for a better overall frequency response and did not leave the negative artifacts of tape, such as wow and flutter. The drum was meticulously wound with a steel wire and then milled flat. A motor drove the drum, and the heads were placed in different spaces around it. Dr. Bini spent a lot of time figuring out the best position for each head. Each was chosen so that the delay times were extremely musical.

The unique memory disc technology was the main contributing factor to the lush delays these units were capable of. Still, you can also attribute some of that to the preamp and internal electronics. These units were so well-made that just running it through the preamp without the delay engaged would enhance the tone of the guitar.

Echorecs were extremely expensive, some costing as much as a Fender Strat and more than an AC30. Think about that… You could either buy a new Fender Stratocaster or a Baby Binson, that’s how expensive these units were.

Check out this great video of the guys from That Pedal Show demoing a real Echorec vs. a few different modern clones,

Although Dr. Bini stopped production in 1986, he still stuck around the factory and, in his free time would give tours. I can only assume this was truly a labor of love for the man, offering tours, even after retirement, shows that he genuinely enjoyed his work, his factory, and his legacy. His reputation confirms that. He would even sell off the leftover stock of the Echorecs– amplifiers and mixers that remained.

David Gilmour
David Gilmour

David Gilmour is the most famous user of the Echorec, and it was arguably the thing that defined his sound the most. Syd Barrett, the original singer of Pink Floyd, was the first to use an Echorec. The story (as told by Gilmourish.com) goes, Syd went to watch an experimental electronic band named AMM and saw them using one. Enamored by the syncopated delay patterns and almost mystical warm sound, he began to use one himself. When Gilmour joined the band, he took Syd’s set up and expanded on the use of the device. The most famous song you can hear utilizing the Echorec is Pink Floyd’s “Time.” Gilmour toured with multiple Echorecs for years, but they were delicate and not the most practical for the rough life on the road. Each unit requires frequent maintenance, and many included a unique holder right on the case for lubricant.

So I’m sure you might be wondering… how do I get an Echorec? How expensive are they now? Are they still difficult to maintain? Are there any modern pedals that can emulate an Echorec?

Well, yes, Echorecs are still expensive and even more difficult to maintain due to the ever-dwindling supply of parts and the expertise needed to repair them.

Value for Echorecs has a wide range and there were many different models for which the price varied drastically. The Echorec 2° is the most popular model and yields the highest demand and cost, which usually averages around $3,000.

Echorecs are definitely for the most dedicated collector who will stop at nothing to achieve the ultimate guitar tone and doesn’t mind spending time and money along the way. Frankly, I can’t blame them as that’s a pursuit that I’m sure most of us can agree is worthwhile.

If you don’t have $3000 to spend, you’re in luck. Auditory has a plugin version that sounds really good. It only cost $£49 and is worth every penny.


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Why trying to be perfect is detrimental to your growth as an audio engineer

Large diaphragm condenser microphone

Recording and mixing are two forms of artistic expression. Like drawing or painting, there’s a lot more to being proficient than just having natural talent. Innate talent will only get you so far, while hard work and practice will get you further. A combination of both is when true genius happens. But there’s a reason there are so few geniuses. It’s rare that someone possesses both the talent and dedication to become great at something. The vast majority of us have mediocre talent and an average work ethic. For a lot of people that are naturally talented at something, they will try something out and discover they’re good at it, but their lack of work ethic stifles their progression into the next level of proficiency. Their natural talent made it easy to get started, but when they reach the top of their talent limits and don’t keep up with the practice, their progress diminishes.

I’m speaking from experience: my perfectionism and desire to be great is what ended up holding me back. I’ve touched on this in “Things I wish I learned sooner about audio engineering,” but there was a big part of me that was subconsciously steering away from making music for fear of being bad or creating something that I would not be proud of. I’m very opinionated and have strong feelings towards everything from fine art, music, and food to even things I don’t care about, like interior design or architecture… you name it, I have an opinion about it.

Now, this harsh opinionated mindset works well when trying to figure out which EQ or compressor I want to use for certain specific scenarios, but it holds me back when I’m judging my work. It turns out I even have a strong opinion about myself! In the back of my head, I always feel that everything I do can be better. None of my work is ever finished.

Da Vinci said, “Art is never finished, only abandoned.”

If you’re one of these people that has trouble finishing a project, a song, a mix, or an arrangement, well, welcome to the club. This is a common occurrence with artists of all types, and it’s so common that Leonardo Da Vinci spoke about it over 500 years ago.

Leonardo da Vinci
Leonardo da Vinci

A consummate professional knows when to abandon his work. He knows when to move on and when not to let his emotions get to him when he has a project that has a deadline and needs to go out. You have to get the work done and move on. It’s the only way to get better. I had to learn that I’m not going to magically turn each one of my productions into an amazing song every time. I’m certainly not going to make that happen by slicing the drums up a million times and spending hours tuning the vocals. That kind of stuff doesn’t matter when it comes to the bigger picture. You learn from each mix and every tracking session, but no single thing is going to make or break a mix or production. There’s not a single technique that’s going to take your skills to the next level. Everything is made up of small wins; small things eventually accumulate and add up to something much bigger.

I also used to wait for inspiration to motivate me to start working. I would wait for my brain to magically tell me to go make music. I don’t think anyone is constantly inspired. Inspiration comes and goes. Spurts of inspiration happen, but it’s rare. I need to push myself to start working. A real professional is someone that’s going to hone their abilities whether they feel inspired or not. You can’t wait for the perfect moment or the perfect setup, or the perfect piece of gear to start working on a mix or project. You just have to show up. Showing up and starting is half the battle. Making art feels daunting, whether it be an album or a painting, conceptually, it feels impossible.

Many times artists and creators are surprised at how their work ends up the way it does. It’s almost like we serendipitously end up with the finished product, but we aren’t sure how we got there. It makes us feel like phony because we don’t know how we did it. Then there’s always this underlying fear that we won’t be able to get to that same place again. It’s hard not to feel like that one great recording, mix, or song we made was just a stroke of good luck and we wouldn’t be able to do it again. Since we don’t know exactly what we did, we certainly don’t know how to replicate it. So we go into the next project with our fingers crossed, hoping that we can recreate that same magic again, sometimes we do, and other times we don’t.

Perfectionism will affect every aspect of your creative process, but it will affect you most when it comes time to stamp something finished. Trying to create something that’s “perfect”  won’t let you declare any project completed because there’s always something you can do to make it better

So what should you do?

Work on projects and finish them. The goal shouldn’t be to make a perfect product; the goal should be to finish it. Whether it’s good or bad doesn’t matter. There are always going to be people that have unfavorable opinions and negative attitudes, try not to listen to them. Work within a time frame and stick to it. It’s better to work on 50 good projects in a year than one perfect project. The only way to get better at recording and audio engineering is by doing more of it.


Related articles:
How to survive as a working audio engineer
[Even more] Things I wish I learned sooner about audio engineering
EMT 250 and the birth of digital audio
The “your mixes sound bad in the car” phenomenon

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How to survive as a working audio engineer

How to survive as a working audio engineer

Disclosure: Audio Hertz is supported by its audience. When you purchase through links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission.


Dan Dugan with Auto Mixers in 1980

It’s almost impossible to find steady work at the start of your career. Most audio engineers are grinders, we start small– going from one gig to the next (more significant) gig until we eventually have enough work to support ourselves solely on audio and music. The truth is that it takes a long time to get there, and there’s always the risk that it may never happen.

Long gone are full time studio jobs with benefits at a major studio. You’re not going to fall into a major recording session with a major artist. Geoff Emerick’s story of starting work at Abbey Road at 15 and by 19 was recording the biggest band in the world’s no longer a reality. (I highly recommend reading his autobiography Here, There and Everywhere: My Life Recording the Music of the Beatles)

Here are a few pieces of advice that may help you get by as a working audio professional

Get a flexible second job

This one might annoy some readers because it’s obvious and usually the last thing most people want to do. I’m sorry, but it’s true. There’s no shame in getting a second job that’s flexible while you try and make music a full time thing. I discuss in great detail in my post, “Is your career where you thought it would be? Neither is mine.” my initial struggle with taking a day job. Making enough money to live comfortably is hard, and you don’t need to make it harder on yourself by stroking your ego. If you find a job that allows you to do what you love while also paying your bills, you’ll be able to live comfortably and also pursue your passion without burning out and living on peanut butter and jelly. I would love to put 100% of my time into music, but I’m not sure if that would even be the best move for me. I think if I had no other job or responsibility other than being successful in music, I’d have a hard time motivating myself. Since I have other responsibilities and other sources of income, time for me is so valuable that I have a hard time wasting any of it. Coffee shop baristas, uber drivers, servers, and bartenders are all jobs with flexible hours that you can get just about anywhere in the world.

Give music, instrument, or production lessons

One of the more difficult solutions but given some time and effort, has the possibility of being very lucrative. Giving lessons in anything is a business in itself, and you’ll need to find clients for lessons just as you need to find clients to record and produce. Finding people is a lot harder than making a website and saying you’re a teacher. Like with recording, word of mouth is always the best way to find students. Do you have any friends or family that are looking to learn guitar? Offer lessons at a discounted rate to start. Put up advertisements and flyers, and post them on social media. Getting started by giving lessons is difficult and a long process that takes commitment and persistence, but if you’re able to stick it out, you are on your way to a steady stream of income that many find to be rewarding and still allows you to stay within music.

Write, talk or make videos about audio

If you had told me even a year ago that I would have an audio blog, I would have told you that you’re crazy. Writing essays and research papers for fun? Get out of here. Well, since posting “Things I wish I learned sooner about audio engineering” to Reddit and receiving a great response, I’ve found immense joy and fulfillment in learning and writing about the many different facets of audio. I only write about what interests me and things I think would be helpful to other engineers. This gives me the opportunity to learn more about things that I like which helps not only me but also other people.

It also turns out I am pretty decent at writing, and other people (surprisingly) enjoy reading what I have to say. Now I’m not making any money on this website now, but there’s always a possibility of that happening in the future. This is the life of a musician, spreading yourself out, throwing a lot of darts at the wall, and hoping one sticks. That’s what this whole list is about. These are just a few darts, but the more you throw, the greater chance you have at hitting the bullseye.

Develop a product or start a business in the industry that’s separate from recording

You’re probably thinking, duh! Start a business, why didn’t I think of that’ Before you attack me for stating the obvious hear me out. A lot of the other ideas I’ve stated in this article involve starting a business in one form or another. Giving lessons is a business, starting a website is a business, and making videos and starting a YouTube channel could be a business. You don’t have to be the next Elon Musk or the audio equivalent, Steven Slate. Think of other ways to make an income that may not be right in front of you. I’m constantly trying to think of new ideas, video series,  applications, software, etc. Most of them are terrible, but I think the more you brainstorm these types of ideas the more opportunities you give yourself to have a good one and see it through to completion. Everyone has ideas, but it’s the execution that everyone falls short of. I’ll go back to this website, most blogs don’t last more than three months, but If I make realistic goals for myself and keep showing up and writing articles, there’s a possibility it may turn into something much bigger.


Related articles:
Things I wish I learned sooner about audio engineering
[Even more] Things I wish I learned sooner about audio engineering
EMT 250 and the birth of digital audio
The “your mixes sound bad in the car” phenomenon

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Should you go to audio engineering school?

Audio Engineering School
Audio Engineer Students

So you like making music…maybe you make EDM in your bedroom, or you’re in a band, or you want to be the next big rapper. Whatever it is, you might be considering going to music or audio engineering school or trying to make music into a career. If this is you, perfect, you’re in the right place. I only wish someone had written this article before I went to school. I’m not saying my decision would have been different, it may have, but it definitely would have been more informed than it was. The only thing I’ll stress throughout this entire article is to make sure you make an informed decision, there’s no right or wrong there’s only the best way for you.

So, is going to school worth it, or should you skip it? I can’t answer this question for you, but I can give you a realistic view of both paths and maybe help decide which one will be better for you.

I will start by saying that you can be successful whether you go to school or not. I’ve seen top engineers that have never read a book or had any formal training, and I’ve seen very knowledgeable and technical engineers work their way up from student to respected engineer and even to the studio owner. There’s no clear path to success in this field. It’s a rocky, bumpy road that, the majority of the time, will lead to nowhere. That’s the hard truth. The majority of the people that set out to be audio engineers will never become audio engineers. If it were easy, everyone would do it.

I think the first thing you need to ask yourself is, what are you trying to get out of school? You can’t decide if school is right for you until you figure out what are you expecting to get out of it. Unrealistic expectations are the reason that audio engineering schools can leave a lot of students with a sour taste in their mouths. Not because of what the school offers but because their expectations were unrealistic. If your expectations are to go to audio school, intern at a studio, and receive an offer for a full time job, you should just forget about recording music professionally. This sentiment resonates with me because I was a naive 18 year old with big dreams. I didn’t exactly think I’d immediately go from student to professional engineer, but I also didn’t know that the chances of that happening were astronomical when they probably were. I thought there would be more opportunity to gain full time employment than there was. Granted, I went to school during the worst time to get into audio engineering. It’s hard not to put blame anywhere else but on myself because of my unrealistic expectations. If only I had done my research and gone to school with more reasonable expectations, I might have not only enjoyed my time there more but would’ve gotten more out of it.

If you think going to school is going to bring you closer to employment, then you’re sadly mistaken. In the music industry, it’s rare anyone gets a job because of their degree. Experience and reputation trumps all. Sure, a degree might look nice on a resume, but it’s not going to be the reason you get a job or make more money. So then, what is audio school good for?

Obviously staged stock photo of an audio school.

Going to audio school puts you in an environment with other audio engineers, producers, and musicians and a type of atmosphere you won’t experience anywhere else. Attending school puts you in a position to make friends with people who are also trying to do what you want to do, and this can turn into something bigger. This is something that nothing else can replace and, without a doubt, the most significant negative of skipping school. I’ve mentioned networking as things they don’t teach you in audio school, but it’s really because networking skills are difficult, if not impossible, to teach in a traditional sense. You can work on your social skills, but some of us are innately better than others. Teachers can tell you to network, and that networking is important but establishing relationships with people and making friends is different. If you’re well liked you’re just more likely to be successful, people want to help you if they like you. I think my words were misconstrued last time in thinking that I’m saying you should use people. You shouldn’t. I’m saying make friends and work with your peers–  you never know what these relationships develop into. Like it or not, careers are made on who you know, and there is no better environment to meet people than in school.

With that said, I think the majority of my real knowledge was gained outside of the classroom. Nothing can replace experience and learn from real masters of the craft who already have their 10,000 hours. Schools are big and only have so many studios for you to use. We were only offered so many practical hours, and even if we did have assigned studio time for a project, it’s hard to progress when you’re working with a group of your peers and not with someone more experienced.

There used to be a system in place in the industry where young engineers had to work their way up, working under better engineers until they were ready. With the death of the major studios came the death of a true assisting and working your way up the ladder, learning little by little under masters of the craft. You can only learn so much from a book or a video. The classroom isn’t the place to learn how to become a great recording engineer. You can learn technical information in a classroom, but practicality comes from actually working, recording, making albums, doing voice overs, foley work, whatever is your cup of tea.

Many audio and art schools are for profit and have significant marketing campaigns. My issue isn’t with the school’s teaching audio but with the targeted advertising. It seems a bit predatory to target young, mostly naive, creatives trying to make what they love their livelihood. The advertisements are on popular radio stations or in magazines where they show pictures of students in big studios with expensive microphones. Sure they look cool, but is it meant to make me believe that it’s a good investment and a good education? A part of me feels that schools should be morally and ethically responsible for making sure that there are enough jobs for the students they are sending out into the field.

Now I’m sure a lot of you are saying, well, how is that possible? Is it a dying industry? When I say dying industry, I mean the structure there are no longer cushy gigs with full time benefits at a studio recording music. There are jobs. It’s just not going to be as stable and easy as landing a single job. You’ll have to find work in multiple different places, doing various different things. The only way an audio engineer, musician, or any creative can survive is by doing many different things. You have to spread yourself out in as many ways as possible. Teach lessons, work corporate gigs, weddings, broadcast, start a business, write for a website, etc. there are a lot of different ways to make money from audio.

So…

Should you go to an audio engineering school?

I still can’t answer that for you. The good news is if you made it this far, I think you’ll have a much better perspective on what to expect and, in return, be able to make a better decision. I will end by saying that whether going to school is the right decision for you, I don’t believe it’s ever a sound investment. In this field, a degree does not make you more money as it does in other industries where you could justify the cost of tuition.

If you’re interested in reading more about my personal views on being an audio engineer, check out the first part of my Confessions of an Audio Engineer series, “Is your career where you thought it would be? Neither is mine.


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[Even more] Things I wish I learned sooner about audio engineering
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What are the different types of compressors?

Racks of audio gear

Disclosure: Audio Hertz is supported by its audience. When you purchase through links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission.


FET, Opto, VCA, Vari-MU…..you’ve probably heard these names to describe types of compressors, you sort of know which type is right for what, but what do they really mean? Each name represents a different type of circuit design that the compressor uses to react to the signal you put through it.

Before I list each type and what they do, know that compressors all serve the same function. You can use them as a leveling device or just for tone or saturation. However, if you choose to use a compressor, know that each style is like a different flavor. It takes time and ear training and a lot of A/B comparisons to distinguish between each.

Here are the 6 most common types of compressors used in music production

Universal Audio 1176 -- Different types of compressors

FET

Field-effect Transistors, or FETs,  use an electric field to control the gain of the unit. The most popular example is the iconic 1176. FET style compression has a super-fast attack and release capabilities, which really allows you to shape the transients. This makes them a favorite on drums for many engineers.

The drawback to their fast speed is there isn’t much range. A fellow engineer once described the release settings to me as being either “fast or faster.” The fastest release setting on an 1176 is 50ms, and its slowest release is 1100ms. The fastest attack time is a blazing fast 20 microseconds, and the slowest is a not-as-blazing-but-still-pretty-damn-fast 800 microseconds. Regardless of the lack of flexibility, it still sounds great on just about anything you put through it. Guitar, bass, vocals, drums, and keys have all found their way through an 1176 with great results.

The 1176 is synonymous with FET compression, but some lesser-known FET compressors include the Daking FET III, Chandler Little Devil, and the popular 1176 Clone by Warm Audio, which I’ve heard great things about.

Universal Audio LA-2A

Opto

These compressors use a photocell as a detector and a light bulb or LED to determine the gain reduction. The light will glow depending on the strength of the signal passing through it and reduce the gain accordingly. These compressors are much less sensitive to transients and peaks due to the lag experienced by the photocell. Contrary to what it might seem because of how fast the speed of light is, opto compressors are considered to be slow and smooth.

Most opto compressors don’t have total control over the attack and release settings, like the LA-2A, which is arguably the most well known and highly regarded compressor of all time. The attack time is frequency dependent which is very likely the main reason these units have such character.

Popular optical compressors include the Universal Audio LA-2A and 3A, Avalon AD2044, and Warm Audio WA-2A.

SSL Bus Compressor

VCA

If you could choose one compressor to use for the rest of your life, your best bet would be a VCA style compressor. They are known for their fully controllable circuits allowing you to really fine-tune each setting. VCA compressors are valuable in every aspect of production, whether it be tracking, mixing, or mastering. They can be entirely transparent while still adding the glue a mix or drum bus needs. Drums sound great through these compressors because they are very good at transparently taming sharp peaks.

VCA stands for voltage controlled amplifier, but one VCA doesn’t necessarily sound like the next. Since parts can be sourced a lot more cheaply than the other compressors on this list, most low quality/prosumer units use a VCA circuit.

Legendary VCA mix bus compressors include the iconic SSL G Series and the Empirical Labs Distressor.

Fairchild Model 670 Vari Mu Compressor

Variable-Mu

In a Variable “Vari”-Mu design, the gain is controlled by a vacuum tube. The first types of compressors were Vari-Mu and were designed for use in broadcast. The need came from trying to level out inconsistent speech on the radio. Usually, going from a whisper to yelling would require an engineer to ride the fader live, and human reflexes are only so fast. It wasn’t until later that the studio adopted the use of compressors.

The unique quality of Vari-Mu compressors is the ratio of the gain reduction is increased as you hit the unit harder; this is musically pleasing when you lay into it more aggressively. Vintage Variable-MU compressors are also great for saturation, as the tubes and large iron transformers all have unique qualities. Popular vintage Vari-Mu compressors include RCA BA-6A, Altec 436, and UA-175. The most popular modern Vari-Mu is the Manley of the same name, which is used very prominently in mastering studios across the world.

Neve 2254

Diode Bridge

Diode bridges have been used in radio for automatic level control for a long time. Diode bridge audio compressors offer fully configurable parameters. Some compressors designed in the ’60s used this basic design, but you don’t see many used in modern compressors. Units that aren’t designed well can be noisy due to the diodes’ low signal level.

Diode bridge circuits allow for the compression curves and the attack and release to be designed independently of the compression element. These compressors are tonally distinctive because of the diode’s harmonic distortion. These designs are flexible and can add a pleasant, colorful character.

Famous examples include the Neve 2264, Neve 33609, and newer examples include the Rupert Neve Shelford Channel Strip compressor.

Fun fact: The 33609 we have at Sabella Studios was incredibly taken from HBO studios when they decided to throw them all out and go digital.

Great River PWM 501 Compressor
Great River PWM 501 is one of the few modern units that use a PWM design.

PWM, or Pulse Width Modulation

I admittedly didn’t even know what a PWM compressor was before writing this article. Gregory Scott, a compression guru from Kush Audio, recommended I add a section on Pulse Width Modulator circuits. After a bit of research, I found out why I had never heard of a PWM or used one… because not that many exist. According to Scott, “there are only a few because you truly have to be a rocket scientist to design one, aka Dave Hill or whatever geek at Pye did theirs.”

A Google search turned up an essay written by Dave Hill of Crane Song. In the essay, Dave explains that all compressor circuits have good and bad characteristics. He goes on to say, “in designing a compressor with as few artifacts as possible, the gain control choices are limited. PWM has been used in vintage compressors and also modern devices. If one takes that idea and uses the latest technology, it is possible to build a compressor with very little negative sonic artifacts.”

VCAs let a percentage of energy through depending on the control voltage. The problem is that when the control voltage changes, you start to hear bad sounding artifacts. If there were a switch to control the energy on the output, you’d be able to give a more accurate average control voltage, which would lead to a more sonically pleasing unit. The PWM circuit turns the control voltage into a high-speed variable-width switch that controls the energy that is outputted.

Bonus:

What is the difference between hard and soft knee compression?

Soft knee compression gradually attenuates the signal after it has passed the threshold, while hard knee compression attenuates the signal immediately after it has crossed the threshold. Soft Knee compression is thought to be more musical because it’s not as abrupt and abrasive; hence the name soft.


Related articles:
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The “your mixes sound bad in the car” phenomenon
[Even more] Things I wish I learned sooner about audio engineering
Things I wish I learned sooner about audio engineering