Tuesday, August 30, 2011

When Do You know Your A Good Engineer?

    So I was reading a thread on gearslutz.com one evening on break and low and behold this question came to mind. I started pondering when was my great moment I realized I was finally (sound the horns) a good, competent engineer (recording, mixing and mastering)? To be honest I really don't know the exact moment but I do know there were more then one. How so you ask? Mainly because as I grasped the many concepts that make a good engineer good and applied them correctly my engineering achievement score rose higher (all my xbox people understand me lol).

    When I first started I didn't know anything really relevant until I started reading threads and absorbing knowledge at the rate the sun could rise and fall (literally). I asked every engineer I knew everything in the beginning about everything (but that really didn't work). It wasn't until recent years (the last 3) that my mixes really started to shine the way I wanted them to. Why you may ask (I'm getting there)?. Mainly because in those years worth of time I started using the techniques I was watching, reading and learning about and stopped trying to add my own twist on things (until I felt I had a firm gasp anyway).

    I once again (and am forever like most ME's) became a student of the game (mixing game) and applied my knowledge every chance I got. Recording and understanding the difference between Dbs and Dbfs on my Pro Tools setup (record low like -18 dbfs and compensate volume by turning the headphones or monitors up, not the preamp volume!). Mixing and learning about the importance of gain staging throughout the whole recording and mixing process (keeping that -18 dbfs and building around it). Setting my mix buss compression to work for the way I mix while hearing the effects it has on my mix (getting to -2 db while I mix is better then setting the threshold to that before I start mixing). Scrapping my Aux effects I had and starting from scratch with tried and true methods and then adding my own to create a proper effects arsenal (harmonizer with the center plugin by waves center channel all the way down).

    These were (and still are) techniques I study and listen out for as I listen, record, mix and master music everyday. I realized that I started hearing the difference between console saturation and tape saturation (Neve consoles and reel to reel lol). I tried new techniques and added them thus making my mixing more proficient and robust with every mix I did (URS and AC 2). My mix buss jumped with life even though its got about 5 plugins on it (but you could never hear and tell there were). I was achieving the deep bass I always felt was out of reach for me while maintaining my mixes integrity and clarity giving me an edge overall in sound sculpting as well as production.

So when did I realize I was becoming a good engineer?

1. When people told me I was one of the best (ego boost)
2. When I listened to mixes in the car and they sounded "good" to "me".
3. When after learning and applying something new it worked for my mixes benefit!
4. When I started reading gearslutz.com threads and was able to chime in with my own 2 cents and everyone was agreeing (always a good feeling)
5. When other engineers started asking me about my techniques (ego boost x2)
6. The techniques I learned and applied could be heard without question along with every element I was bringing out in a mix.
7. I knew how to use the tools at my disposal.

    That's when I knew I was good. the difference between a rookie ME (mixing engineer) and an experienced ME is in the sessions they are delivered. A bad session can go to both and the rookie will try but ultimately fail in making the mix what it could be (even given the circumstances). The experienced engineer will listen and grab the right tools to fix the problem session and then go to work making the session its best (especially given the circumstances).

    Here's a little book which I always reference back to at least twice a year. Simply filled with invaluable lessons and tried and true techniques that will last you a life time. It really is priceless

Monday, August 15, 2011

Music: The Dream Vs. Reality

Fame and fortune. The saying goes hand and hand. Some want the fame, there names in lights and all the adoration that comes with it. Others want the fortune, money to do whatever, whenever however they want. And a select few want both, not for greed, but for the sheer opportunity and ability to say they did it, and did it the best.

So let's talk about something that every musician whose ever decided to do this thing we call music professionally has gone through. The question of the dream versus the reality of life and the music business. The dream. That with enough skill, talent and determination you will eventually be rewarded. What that reward is in our business is usually a pretty big gain both financially and physically. Usually along the lines of a house, car, money, jewels, women, status, clout, free everything (almost) and being known everywhere you go.

Most people who listen to these talented individuals would believe that they are right and that these people should be signed right away. If this were the 50's-90's they would be right and all the talented people would have record deals so we could all enjoy the fruits of their labor. The reality. Its hard getting a record label to invest there time, energy and marketing department on a new artist. Especially on someone who hasn't proven themselves through any of the now prevalent avenues. This includes billboard, itunes sales, cd sales, song plays, fan base and a slew of radio plays that the average independent artist can't get without paying for it (one way or another).

This is the reality of the average musician/artist/label owner/engineer/a&r. There are plenty of people who are talented and deserve all the fame and fortune that comes with being in the spotlight. Unfortunately the spotlight isn't big enough for us all and thus the competition for it has begun and only major record labels win, why? Well its really simple, because major record labels no longer help develop talented individuals into mega stars that we want to spend money on. They take the best of the ok and run with them, add on the Internet and everyone thinks they're a star fish in a pool of mediocrity.

I know I sound like a party pooper but these are the facts of our musical life (those with talent anyway). For everyone that thinks success happened over night for all the successful people in our industry are blatantly ignoring the years prior to that success. The nights on the road, the long studio sessions, the process of having a style in the first place and the wondering if people will accept you as an artist. These are all pre-stardom things that the public (and other musicians) sometime forget about,to sum it all up, hard work. This is the step the public a.k.a. dreamers don't see or want to be part of, just the end result.

While the dreamers were sleeping the workers were burning cd's for the public to buy (or give away depending on the workers work). While the dreamers were online writing raps that may make it into songs of there own (one day) the workers were writing the whole song and putting it out for all to listen, critique and download. While the dreamer dreams about the stage in Madison Square Garden the worker is outside Madison Square Garden selling those cd's hoping to have enough on hand to flip it for more merchandise, studio time, equipment, and whatever else that nights money can help with to solidify there careers future.

I want people to look at this article as not killing the dream but taking a realistic approach to achieving it. When was the last time you started and kept up a website dedicated to you and your fan base? When was the last time you took a singing lesson to make yourself an asset as a singer to anyone besides yourself (like to a writer or producer)? When was the last time you even practiced what you will be performing when you get on a stage? What makes you better than the next musician/a&r/label owner/engineer if your just dreaming your real time away? Dream when you sleep and do for your career today what will help you tomorrow.

Here's a read for you

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Vocals, The Great Mystery

    Vocal processing is like martial arts training. Some people are naturally gifted and pick up the techniques passed down from generations before quick and easily. And then there are the rest of us...

    I didn't always know what I was doing with my vocals when I first started and as I adapt to an ever changing music industry to a degree I still don't (sigh) but... I remember how I spent hours and hours getting as close as possible to what I heard on Cd's and on the radio (learning that both mediums are completely separate and radio processes the song further!) and settling for good enough. Well let's fast forward to 2011, I know what my tools are and what they do and possess the knowledge to know when and where to use them. Its a great feeling to say the least and I want to share that feeling with you (or at least the knowledge part).

So let's get started! 

    Vocals are a musical anomaly in my opinion in the fact that they cover such a wide frequency spectrum that the task of processing a single vocalist let alone a group is daunting to say the least. When you wrap you head around the sheer processing it'll take for each vocal individually let alone each track you start feeling a little bit like "where do i start". Well here's how I do my vocals in general, I get the sound "I am looking for" when I am recording. That is half the battle, that's it right there I kid you not.

    I will prove my point. Have you ever listened to a rough mix or a just finished recording of your favorite artist and said "man! That's not finished?! What's left?!" That's where we want to be, as close to the actual finished product as possible. You take a great sounding recording, a great mixing engineer (like myself lol), a great mastering engineer and you have a great sounding song sonically and emotionally. When I was learning how to mix my records I was just trying to make them sound good so I could even sit in the same chat room with professional engineers. Now I share tips and tricks with the best of them (not the greats yet but I'm getting there).

    So without further a due I give you a little processing list to get you in the ball game of great sounding vocals. Here's a tip, moderation in the processing makes vocals shine if they're recorded right.

Lead Vocal
  • Trim Plugin - Like most recordings the vocals may have been recorded pretty loud. The trim plugin will bring down the level of the track to a usable -12db. This is the beginning stages of our gain staging which will be used throughout our processing ensuring us control and consistency on our vocal. Make sure the loudest part of the vocal is the part topping out at -12db.

  • EQ - This is where we dig in, literally. Its a bad frequency fire sale, all bad frequencies must go! First we roll off all unneeded low end from the vocal (use a high pass filter). Now we find all the bad frequencies. How you ask? Boost like an addict needing a fix! Then sweep through the frequencies listening for the bad areas and make small dips. Make sure your loudest part of your vocal sits at -12db so use that output knob (gain staging)

  • EQ 2 - Again?! Well this eq is for boosting those pleasant frequencies you heard on your fire sale (lol). Remember to put your output to -12db

  • De-esser - My favorite little plugin. Now any good de-esser will let you hear what you are de-essing and since there really isn't a frequency that is 100% known to have "all" the esses in a given track your going to have to frequency sweep. If done right you shouldn't have to touch the output stage as you are taking away a single frequency. Tip - use as many de-essers as it takes to get the sound your after.

  • Compressor - Now this is where technique comes into play. As a beginner engineer your using compression to help control your signal but as you get older you'll notice compression being used to help shape the sound as a dynamic form of eq. Use this step according to your skill level. Keep your output at -12db

  • Saturation plugin - Now this isn't a hard rule or fact but because I work all ITB (in the box i.e. strictly in my DAW) I do notice that music sounds a little thin from time to time so I use a saturation (tube saturation) plugin to help me get a little of the body I lost while processing my tracks. This helps in the over all roundness I'm going for with my tracks. Now this is 100% source dependent meaning you may not have to do this if your source material (the vocal) was recorded a certain way. Some people use this at the beginning of there chain (sometimes I do) but I noticed for me anyway that when I do that my eq decisions sometimes work against it. This way gives me a more controlled saturation since my levels are already working in my favor due to (that's right!) gain staging.

  • Limiter - I've been using this trick a lot more lately and it really gets me in the ball park plus let's me make adjustments without a lot of messy output changes to my signal. I take the L1 Ultra Maximizer (you can use any limiter plugin) and set both my threshold and my output to (you guessed it) -12db. From there I walk the threshold down until the signal (without a lot of gain reduction) is as punchy and close to -12 db as I can get it. the goal isn't gain reduction but overall loudness maximization.
Now these are just a few techniques I am currently using. You are more than welcome to use what I have shown you here as a guide, reference or even your way of processing your own mixes. So what are you waiting for, give it a try and leave a comment to let me know what are some things you do for vocal processing

Here are the plugins I used in this article

Trim - Pro Tools trim plugin (standard like most gain plugins that come with any DAW)

EQ - Waves API Collection Native Bundle - API 560 (this little graphic eq (yea I said "graphic eq") is so musical sounding in its cuts that it has become my go to eq for just that) 

EQ 2 - Waves API Collection Native Bundle - API 550 A/B (depending on what you need for boosting)

De-esser - Waves Renaissance Maxx Native Bundle - Waves R De-esser (for a real problem ess. I also love the standard waves de-esser)

Compressor - Waves CLA Classic Compressors Native Bundle - One of my all time favorite bundles from waves. I use the black and blue sided CLA-76 (modeled after the classic 1176 compressor)

Saturation Plugin - SPL Twin Tube Tape Saturation and Harmonics - Another favorite plugin of mine that not only gives you tube saturation for fullness but has a knob for harmonics which helps further separate your track (lead vocal in this case) from a busy mix.

Limiter - Waves L1 Ultramaximizer - This will bring up that track to its fullest potential in reaching our output goal of -12db for loudness and that extra umph . The goal here is transparent loudness gain and barely noticeable if any gain reduction.

Well I hope that helped some of you and also gave you a little insight into my process over all when it comes to vocals. Click the links to get more info on the plugins themselves and leave a comment down below for further discussion.

Keep mixing ya'll

Monday, August 8, 2011

Ahhh, EQ We Meet Again

This is for all my young engineers please listen closely.

Use the high pass and low filters!!!!

I run into this problem all the time when I get home recorded mixes. Look guys I know what that mic looks like and I know some of them have roll offs on them, use them. All that low end rumble you pick up when you record is unnecessary for your recordings and definitely increasing your noise floor. Now alot of you are saying well isn't that your job to clean all that up and my answer is both yes and no. A great recording yields a great mix which yields a great master period.

This also goes for the new mixing engineers. High pass filter and low pass filters are your friends and should be used to get your material sounding its best brightest. This also will help you put all your music in there sonic spaces to be heard individually in the mix. Remember, your building a house made of sound and every thing has to be right or it will fall apart when someone comes to look at it. All DAW's come with pretty good standard EQ's that can get all your EQ needs done so the thought that you can't make a great sounding record using the stock EQ's of any DAW is preposterous.

So this week I want all of you rookie engineers to help your clients get there projects closer to that great sound you want out of a great mix. Aim for what you want to hear your song mix to sound like while mixing engineers you should be mixing like you want your master to sound like. I guarantee you will see amazing results in very little to no time at all.

Sunday, August 7, 2011


My name is William "Soul B." Bowser and I am a mixing engineer as well as owner and operator of "Ill Soul Productions and Studio's".

I created this blog for one purpose only (with the hope it will develop into more lol) and that is for posting up mixes and the projects I am currently working on. I will also be accepting projects through this page as well so my clients (previous and future) have a guaranteed way to contact me for work on there current projects. I will also be posting tips and pics on the people places and things I go through on a weekly basis so I hope that will be as fun of an experience to watch as it is for me to do.

My studio (home studio) is located in St. Mary's County Maryland and is a full service recording, mixing and mastering studio. Though small in size for a more personal approach it is big on sound and that is what matters to everyone. The studio is all in the box (ITB) with a few select pieces of outboard gear that I use to taste mainly on vocal recording and production. I have been engineering for close to a decade (that made me sound real old lol) and still learn new things from others around me. Engineering to be one of the greatest to ever sit behind a console is a life long learning process and can be some of the most fun anyone in our business has ever had.

Here are a few of the sites I run as well since I also run a production company and have artist signed to it

Websites of My Work

I hope this journey like others in life helps and guides some of you to a better understanding, enjoyment and purposeful musical experience.