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Microphone Types Explained

If you’re looking to buy a mic for your vocals, the first thing you have to understand is what type of mic you’re buying and why.

Nobody abhors technical information more than me–I’m all about the music–but if you’re going to invest in a microphone, then you will save yourself all sorts of time and trouble if you learn the basics. And when I say “basics,” please understand, this information comes from real-world knowledge acquired over a 30 year career of recording everything from major label national acts to smaller regional acts at home with no budget whatsoever. Through those varied experiences, I’ve used nearly every mic you can imagine, and I’d like to break down in the simplest possible terms, the different types of mics and how they shine. This way, you’ll have a far better chance of getting the right mic for the job.

From my latest book, MIXERMAN Musician’s Survival Guide to a Killer Record

Microphones

When it comes to microphones, it’s more important to understand how and where they shine. The brand of mic is of far less consequence than the type. Therefore, you need to understand certain aspects of mic design, because they relate directly to your decision-making process.

The Capsule

Microphones have a capsule, which is simply a membrane suspended in a housing. Basically, that round thing inside the microphone grate reacts to the sound waves, which are then somehow converted into an electrical signal. Don’t ask me how. I still haven’t figured it out. But that’s what it does.

Pick-Up Patterns

Every capsule has a pick-up pattern, which describes the overall manner in which a mic collects and rejects sonic information. What the hell does that mean? Well, sometimes you want a mic to pick up lots of information around it. And sometimes you want a mic to pick up just the sonic information directly in front of it. The pick-up pattern is what determines this. On some mics the pick-up pattern is selectable. On other mics the capsules are modular and can be swapped out by the end user. Most mics have only one available pattern, which is usually all you’ll need. They call it cardioid.

Cardioid

You’ve probably heard people call their mic a cardioid mic. That’s not a brand. It’s a pick-up pattern, and it’s the most common pick-up pattern around. Cardioid really just means heart shaped.

Cardioid patterns are relatively tight in nature, which means they mostly pick up information directly in front of them. They’re also subject to something we call “proximity effect.” When you place a cardioid microphone in close proximity to a source, like a singer, you will get a boost in low-end information. You may also get some measure of distortion, but that’s not always a bad thing. In fact, you can use proximity effect to your advantage. If you want more low end out of your capture, just move the mic closer to it. If you want less, just pull the mic back. Do you see how simple recording is when you don’t clutter your brain with too much useless technical information?

For the most part, the mics that you have will employ a cardioid pick-up pattern. But there are other patterns available. There’s hyper-cardioid and super-cardioid, which are even tighter and, therefore, more directional in nature than cardioid. These aren’t as commonly used in the recording studio. The most prevalent alternative pick-up patterns would be omnidirectional and figure-8.

Omnidirectional

Basically, when a capsule is set to omnidirectional, it picks up sonic information in all directions evenly around the microphone. This is particularly useful for “gang vocals” as your crew can surround the microphone, which will then pick them up evenly around the mic.

It’s important to note, omnidirectional patterns are not subject to proximity effect, but given the 360 degree pickup pattern, you’ll collect considerably more room information than with the more directional cardioid patterns. For most recording applications, omni is not a desirable pattern. But it can be exceptionally useful when you want to surround the mic with performers, or if you seek some level of ambient information in your capture.

Figure-8

A figure-8 pattern picks up information from the front and the rear of the capsule, and rejects the side information. This can be useful for recording two performers facing each other. Keep in mind, both sides of the capsule go to just one preamp, so you need to get the blend between your performers right at the mic.

Nearly all ribbon microphones are figure-8 by design. Some condenser microphones allow you to switch between the cardioid and figure-8 patterns. Some mics even allow you to select varying degrees of those patterns.

Powered Microphones

Some microphones require a power source as part of their design. Most powered mics accept 48 volts of phantom power, which you can typically send to the mic from the preamp. This function is usually labeled on the preamp as “48V” and should include a bright red light to let you know when it’s activated. There are two very good reasons for that red light. You can fry many ribbon microphones with 48 volts of power, and a mic that requires power won’t reproduce sound without it. Really, it’s not advisable to plug any mic into 48 volts hot. It will cause your monitors to pop violently.

The inclusion of a powered transformer in a microphone has to do with design considerations, and should have no bearing on mic selection. If it needs power, send it power. If it doesn’t, don’t.

Tube Microphones

Some condenser microphones incorporate a vacuum tube for purposes of amplification and derive voltage from their own dedicated power supply. The mic won’t sound without it, nor will it operate on phantom power. In general, tubes are warmer in tone than solid state microphones, which can be beneficial on strident instruments.

Plugging a tube mic into a live power supply is a great way to give yourself a nasty shock. Do yourself a favor and make sure the power supply is off for at least 30 seconds before connecting or disconnecting your mic to it. You’ve been warned.

Microphone Types

Now that we understand the pick-up patterns, let’s talk about the types of microphones. For the purposes of this Survival Guide. there are five types of mics that you will come across: small diaphragm condensers (SDC), large diaphragm condensers (LDC), ribbons, dynamics, and speaker mics.

Condenser Microphones

Condensers have a fast transient response, full frequency range, and robust gain, all of which is just a fancy way to say they’re sensitive to sound. That means condensers don’t require an especially loud source to excite the capsule. There are two basic kinds of studio condenser mics—small diaphragm and large.

Small Diaphragm Condenser (SDC)

Small diaphragm condensers tend to have a wide cardioid pickup pattern, which means they excel at capturing off-axis information, and can offer a detailed sonic image when used in pairs for stereo miking. If you want to get a nice aggregate stereo image of a drum kit, a pair of SDCs overhead can be an excellent choice.

Large Diaphragm Condenser (LDC)

The large diaphragm condenser is probably the most widely used studio mic there is. The LDC capsule is larger than that of the small condenser, which seems to make a whole lot of sense given the definitions of large and small.

LDCs, like SDCs, are sensitive microphones, but aren’t as good at picking up off-axis information as their smaller counterparts. The size of the capsule leads many to believe that LDCs have a more extended low end, which is a myth. Generally speaking, you will get a full frequency response from any studio condenser.

LDCs are often the first choice for vocals, drum overheads, room mics, stringed instruments, etc. Seriously, these bad boys are a good choice on just about any source, so long as there’s space to fit the mic.

Dynamic Microphones

A dynamic microphone diaphragm operates similarly to the woofer in your monitors in that the diaphragm is connected to an induction coil and magnets. That’s about as technical as we need to get.

These are workhorse microphones that are less susceptible to damage from abuse and moisture, which is why they are so commonly used for live reinforcement. Make no mistake, dynamics are a staple in the studio, as well, and they can take downright oppressive sound pressure levels without ill effects.

Dynamics also exhibit excellent rejection properties, which means they don’t pick up information on the sides all that well. This can be an important consideration when choosing a mic. Like those times when you’ve got a microphone pointing at a snare drum in close proximity to a hi hat and cymbals. In most cases, you’ll want lots of snare drum and not a lot of that brass on the mic. As you can imagine, good rejection properties would be a useful feature for a mic placed in such a precarious position.

Dynamic mics don’t have the full transient response of condensers and, therefore, aren’t used for purposes of fidelity to the source. If you want to capture a tom drum tone accurately, you would be better off with a condenser placed a foot or two off the head. Unfortunately, this kind of placement would pretty much make it an overhead on a full drum kit. Even if you place condensers in close proximity to the toms, you’ll still pick up a ton of cymbal information. Dynamics in close proximity will pick up more low-end information from the tom than top-end information from the cymbals, often making them the best choice.

In general, we use the close mics on a drum kit to fill in missing information. For instance, if you place a pair of SDCs in a stereo configuration (which we’ll discuss shortly) over the drums, they will pick up a rather accurate image of the drums in that space. But because the SDCs are several feet from the toms, you won’t benefit from proximity effect. As a result, there can be a definitive lack of low end. We can fill in that low-end information by placing dynamic mics in close proximity to the toms and snare, and then blending them in with the overhead image.

Here’s the thing though. While it’s true that dynamic mics aren’t as sensitive to sound pressure levels as condensers, they are way more sensitive to placement. The dynamic mics’ general lack of sensitivity and capsule speed virtually requires proximity to the source. Therefore, the tiniest movement in any direction of a dynamic mic can, and will, result in a notable differential in tone. This is important to understand, because in certain situations, a dynamic mic can make you work harder than you should. There are many engineers who enjoy dicking around with dynamic mics in front of a guitar cabinet. Personally, I prefer the far more forgiving ribbon or condenser for that application.

Since dynamic mics lack sensitivity, they aren’t the greatest choice for miking from distance. A dynamic over the drums is going to sound quite trashy, which is great if you’re making a punk record, or if you want lo-fi drums. But in general, your dynamic mics work better close to the source.

For whatever reason, there are times that a dynamic is the optimal vocal mic. That said, they can be a major pain in the ass for this application because of their sensitivity to position and the general mobility of singers. Given this, dynamic mics are often preferable on stationary sound sources, but this is by no means any kind of rule.

Singers use dynamic mics almost exclusively for live performance, but it’s generally better if you don’t hold the mic while performing the record. Hey, if it makes for a better performance, go for it. But you very well could get a ton of noise from the handling of the mic.

Dynamics are exceptional at rejecting ambient room information, particularly when placed in close proximity to robust sound pressure levels. Lastly, dynamic mics do not generally require a power source. Nice.

Ribbons

The capsule from a ribbon mic is made from an extremely thin strip of corrugated aluminum suspended in a strong magnetic field. Ribbon mics are technically dynamics because they employ an induction coil, but we don’t ever refer to them that way because they have such unique capture properties. As such, ribbon mics get their own classification–quite simply, ribbons.

Due to a generally steep rolloff above 16 kHz, ribbons have a rather smooth top end, and can often be perceived as dark in nature. They also have a rather slow response to transients, which can have the effect of rounding off those transients. Given this, ribbon mics are used to great effect to capture drum overheads, guitars, and even vocals. And there is nothing quite like a good ribbon for capturing your more strident brass instruments.

Many ribbons can’t take an excessively loud source. An aggressively played kik drum can disintegrate a ribbon membrane in an instant, so be mindful of where you place them. That said, some of the relatively newer lines of ribbon microphones can handle just about any source at any level, including a blaring guitar amp. In other words, if you have a ribbon mic, make sure you understand its design tolerances.

As I pointed out earlier, the large preponderance of ribbon mics are bi-directional, which means they have a figure-8 pattern—the rear pattern often brighter than the front. And although a surge of 48 volts can disintegrate the ribbon membrane under the right circumstances, there are some ribbons that require phantom power.

The longer I produce, the more ribbons I employ in my recordings. Ribbons may have a steep roll-off on the top end, but that just means you can brighten the shit out of them without bringing up annoying sizzle distortion that some cheap condensers introduce. As much as I’m a proponent of distortion, top-end sizzle is particularly exhausting, and should be avoided when possible.

If you’re a musician recording at home, in all likelihood you don’t have a ribbon mic available to you. I’ve recorded all sorts of records without a single ribbon, so they are by no means a requirement. They are, however, a great addition to your arsenal over time.

Enjoy, #mixerman

P.S. There are a few more mic designs that I discuss in the book, including speaker mics, USB mics, and stereo mics, now of which I would use on a vocal beyond some extreme creative circumstance.

P.P.S. Now that you’ve read all of that, there are a ton of great mics out there, but for me, I love the entire LEWITT line. Even their lower priced large diaphragm condensers blow away far more expensive options. I really don’t know how they do it. Anyway, that’s my recommendation if you want it.

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People love this book! There are tons of five star reviews on Amazon. Larry Crane of TapeOp raved about it: “I think I’ll be buying cases of this book and handing it out as people enter my studio.” Why would a studio owner/ recording engineer (and publisher) give a book on recording to his clients? Because the more his clients understand about recording, the easier his life becomes. That’s why.

Musician’s Survival Guide to a Killer Record. Pick it up!


Microphone Types Explained
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Distortion Flavor

 

The following excerpt comes from MIXERMAN Musician’s Survival Guide to a Killer Record

Distortion Flavors

Have you ever listened to a Motown record from the sixties and heard the obvious distortion on the vocals? That distortion is from the preamp. How do I know? Because I know analog preamp distortion when I hear it. It has a particular sound.

I mean, there are a ton of different kinds of distortion. There’s breakup. There’s gain. There’s crunch, spit, buzz, sizzle. There’s low-end distortion which can be woolly in nature. There’s bit distortion, and there’s clipping. And each of these distortions is useful in its own way, and when you have control over the kinds of distortion that you introduce, you have control over your record.

The distortion properties of a vintage preamp is probably the single biggest factor in their value. If you wonder how a preamp could be worth $4000, it’s because no other preamp distorts like that one, and there are enough people who have benefited from that distortion over the years to justify the expense.

It’s not just the overt distortion that occurs from pushing the gain all the way. It’s the subtle thickening that occurs moments before breakup that is often so desirable. And while this is technically distorting the signal, it’s not necessarily heard as distortion.

As far as I’m concerned, no preamp is worth that kind of money, that is, unless money is no object. And if money were no object, I’d own all sorts of expensive things. But let’s be real here for a moment. The preamp won’t fix a shitty song. It certainly won’t fix a lackluster performance. Besides, we are finally entering an era in which digital distortion algorithms are convincing and pleasing, even when sickly aggressive in nature.

Now, there are five reasons to introduce distortion to your production: sustain, clarity, obfuscation, thickening, and agitation. First, let’s define some flavors of distortion, and explain where they shine.

Clipping

We generally seek to avoid clipping from our hardware, as it manifests itself so nastily it can reflexively cause you to duck. There are times when controlled clipping distortion might be desirable, but in general, I only use this kind of distortion if my goal is to agitate. As I pointed out earlier, it’s always best to derive your clipping from a plugin and not your converters so as to maintain control over it.

Bitcrusher

Bitcrusher distortion is also exceptionally nasty distortion, in which the audio is downsampled in order to produce a lo-fi tone. The lower the bit rate, the more obvious the artifacts of aliased high-end frequencies, which present as spitting and noise. The bitcrusher can offer a very cool effect, but it’s exhausting to the listener, and even if your goal is to agitate, you might want to demonstrate some restraint with how much bitcrushing you apply to any given production. That said, it’s a very cool effect. The more low end in your production, the more tolerable this kind of distortion will be.

Total Harmonic Distortion (THD)

This is the measurement that manufacturers tout to get you to purchase their gear, and it’s more commonly expressed as THD. It’s not a particularly meaningful number, since we often go out of our way to distort things. Anytime someone points out distortion specs, my response is always the same. Distortion, dismortion! Yeah, we want to limit distortion when it’s a problem. These days you’re more likely to introduce it than to avoid it.

Overdrive

Overdrive is probably the most useful and common distortion of them all as it’s not overtly aggressive in nature, which allows you to retain some modicum of your dynamic range within the part. In other words, you’re not obliterating the signal as you break it up. Overdrive is often used in conjunction with filters, in particular LPFs (which allow the low end to pass), in order to reduce the strident nature of the distortion. High frequency overdrive is meant to be grating. Low-mid and low-end overdrive acts as a thickening agent.

Crunch

Crunch distortion is used to describe high-gain electric guitars. Oftentimes a crunch guitar plays power chords which requires sustain. This distortion is typically derived from an amplifier or pedals–virtual or otherwise. Crunch distortion shines in the upper midrange. The rock, metal, and pop genres often call for crunch guitar.

Buzz

Buzz distortion acts like a separate layer over the source. As such, it typically only affects a somewhat narrow frequency band. Its resonance puts a definitive edge on anything that sustains, and is used to provide clarity. Buzz distortion is especially useful for clarity on low-end instruments like a clean synth bass, or even a sustaining electric bass part. The buzz brings out the upper harmonics, which helps the notes remain audible throughout the production. This is a particularly common distortion in Industrial music.

Fuzz

Fuzz distortion affects the full range of frequencies, which makes it somewhat more complex in nature. Unlike buzz, the delineation between the tone and the dirt is not so evident. Whereas buzz offers clarity, fuzz can offer either clarity or obfuscation, since it distorts the entire signal. When it comes to bass, you can add copious levels of fuzz distortion for purposes of edge and clarity. Fuzz distortion introduced in a subtle way can appear woolly in nature.

Woolly

Distortion of the low frequencies often comes off woolly. Used aggressively, it can start to sound unstable, as the low-end energy causes an especially dirty breakup. Used judiciously, woolly distortion can be relatively inaudible beyond a slight bit of breakup in the low end, which is often masked. Rock Bass guitars love woolly distortion, although they can consume your entire mix when used too overtly. Kik drums react well to woolly distortion too. While it’s true that woolly distortion can add clarity for transient instruments, it can also obfuscate instruments that sustain.

Tape Saturation

Tape saturation plugins are merely distortion plugins. The effect is supposed to emulate the sound of hitting tape too hard, but they’ve become almost cartoon-like in their modeling. The sound of uber-aggressive levels to tape was typically used as an effect, not as a matter of course. Most of us used tape for purposes of fidelity. But there were some engineers (especially in the nineties) who virtually claimed the overt sound of crushing tape on all of their records. As if that was ever a popular sound.

Tape saturation distortion supposedly models odd harmonic distortion which is, indeed, the kind of distortion you can expect from a tape machine. Basically, a saturator distorts the early odd harmonics. Don’t ask me how or why the early odd harmonics distort from tape. I couldn’t tell you nor do I care. All I know is I’ve never heard a tape saturation plugin that actually sounds like tape, likely because they’re all way too overt in how they schmear the sound.

Some people claim to put tape saturation plugins on nearly everything, and that’s a great way to turn your production into a woolly mess lacking any kind of clarity. Don’t believe for a moment that tape saturation plugins have anything to do with the sound of analog tape. They really don’t.

I adore the sound of tape given that it reproduces far more musically than the digital platform. Yet, I can’t stand the sound of most tape saturation plugins given how unmusical they are. Call me crazy, but I don’t typically go out of my way to be unmusical in my decision-making. My advice is to use tape saturation sparingly, purely as a way to add distortion.

I would be remiss were I not to mention, there are some tape machine modeling plugins that are meant to offer the sound of tape. These can offer good things, and should not be lumped in with tape saturation plugins, which are designed to mangle the tone.

Saturation

Saturation distortion is like tape saturation on steroids, which is actually far more useful as it gives you considerably more control over the tone. It allows you to absolutely drench a part in overt distortion, but it can also be used in more subtle ways. Saturation plugins can be extremely useful, and are a staple in modern pop music at the moment. Don’t let that dissuade you from using one.

Spitting

Spitting distortion can be derived from any frequency range and produces a feeling of instability as the breakup is almost random in nature. The spitting distortion can at times sound like digital pops, mixed in with some other kinds of breakup distortion.

Tube Distortion

Tubes, sometimes called valves, introduce even-order distortion, which is supposed to be less musical than odd, but I’m not even sure I know what that means anymore as I personally find tube distortion to be rather pleasing in nature. The beauty of tubes is they can absolutely sing if given enough level, making them excellent for sustain. Valve distortion is often described as “warm,” as it resonates most apparently in the lower midrange, and therefore, acts as a thickening agent. It’s particularly effective at providing sustain, without overt top-end distortion, although you can certainly get a tube to buzz if you desire.

Tube Screamer

Tube screamer distortion is an emulation of valve distortion, and is derived from a pedal. They are often used to inject more gain to an amplifier for purposes of sustain. Tube screamers tend to filter out the top and bottom end, placing them squarely in the midrange. As a result, they can make power chords sound downright small, but they can be quite useful for apparent midrange.

Breakup

Breakup is mild distortion in which there is minimal sustain and resonance. Breakup is effective on virtually any instrument, including vocals. Electric guitars that are too clean in tone can sound downright anemic, and often do well with a touch of breakup. It’s still a clean guitar, it’s just that now you’ve added a little spice to make it pop in the production. Breakup can be derived either with a guitar amp, preamp, or plugin.

Distortion Levels

Now that we’ve established the importance and diversity of distortion properties, we should probably discuss levels of distortion. How much distortion is too much distortion?

It depends on the production, of course. Some productions call for distortion on virtually everything. Others call for very little overtly audible distortion. But you always want to introduce some measure of distortion.

So, where’s the line? You can make the track pure white noise if you think it’s going to sell records. Excess distortion is a matter of taste and would fall under artistic license. Too little distortion on the other hand is a technical issue. Because you never actually want too little distortion. A record without distortion is like food without seasoning. It lacks flavor.

Throughout the history of recording you would have to go way the hell out of your way to record too cleanly. You would need preamps with exceptionally low distortion specs, which you would gain super conservatively. You had to avoid most EQs, or at least you had to avoid EQ boosts, particularly in the high-end frequencies. You had to choose compressors that had super low THD specs. Of course, none of that changed the fact that you introduced distortion when you went to tape. And then there was the consumer’s turntable stylus, which would also introduce distortion. For most of my career it was actually difficult to avoid distortion.

When it comes to distortion, the mic pres that come in interfaces generally don’t help matters. I’m not going to malign interface pres as a group as they’re not unuseful for home recording, and they’re rather prevalent to boot. You just need to understand how they distort, if at all. That said, as much as you might prefer to introduce some distortion at the mic pre, there are other stages from which to derive it.

You should choose your distortion based on your production needs. If I’m mixing a dense production, and I find it difficult to make the bass note movements audible, then I can use distortion for purposes of clarity. If my part is transient in nature, and in need of either some thickening or punch, then saturation can help with that. Gain on a guitar amp will provide distortion for purposes of sustain and edge.

All distortion can be made to agitate, which probably has more to do with the ratio of top-end information than any other factor. Pleasing distortion tends to roll off at the top end, and the distortion of the upper harmonics provides us with clarity. If copious levels of upper midrange and top end are a part of the distortion makeup, agitation will undoubtedly be the result.

Kik drums are routinely distorted in my productions, and you might not ever even notice. That’s the thing about low-end distortion. It’s not necessarily audible in context, and often acts more like a thickening agent. Sometimes I want to hear the distortion on the kik drum, but then that’s often for purposes of edge. I’m also often using distortion in conjunction with compression to assist with punch.

I suppose the big takeaway is this: If your equipment isn’t introducing enough distortion, and your production sounds anemic, lacks edge, punch, or clarity, then you can use distortion to help with any and all of those maladies.

Enjoy, #mixerman

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People love this book! There are tons of five star reviews on Amazon. Larry Crane of TapeOp raved about it: “I think I’ll be buying cases of this book and handing it out as people enter my studio.” Why would a studio owner/ recording engineer (and publisher) give a book on recording to his clients? Because the more his clients understand about recording, the easier his life becomes. That’s why.

Musician’s Survival Guide to a Killer Record. Pick it up!


Distortion Flavor
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Patterns, Patterns, and More Patterns.

 

The following excerpt comes from MIXERMAN Musician’s Survival Guide to a Killer Record

Rather than look at tools such as virtual amplifiers and reverb units, loops, and synthesizers as technical devices that you need to learn how to manipulate and program, view them as modules that you can mix and match based on what happens to work best.

Surely some of you will take umbrage at that suggestion. Break my Art down to modules?

Yes. How is that any different from music?

I can promise you, over the course of thirty years of making records, this concept will manifest itself naturally and automatically, and there’s nothing that you can do to prevent it. Nor would you want to try. Music, and the recording of it is all about patterns.

Patterns

Pardon the digression, but this is an important concept that I need to address, and this is as good a time as any.

I–V–vi–IV
I–vi–IV–V
I–V–vi–iii–IV–I–IV–V
I–V–♭VII–IV
I–IV–V–IV
I–vi–ii–V–I

Those are all common chord progressions that can be found in thousands if not hundreds of thousands of songs. They’re also patterns.

Surely, you’ve heard of court vision. An expert basketball coach who operates at a high level with decades of experience can see the entire court all at once. She can see how a play is developing, and she knows what every player is doing, and why they’re doing it, on both sides of the ball as it’s happening. Meanwhile, you or I see the girl with the ball. The ability to see everything at once? That kind of vision has everything to do with recognizing and processing patterns.

If you’ve ever gotten really good at something, like a video game or a card game or any kind of sport, then you understand patterns. Of course, if you ever took a music lesson, you’re also familiar with patterns. You started learning them on your very first lesson.

What’s the first thing you learn when you take a piano lesson? Scales. What’s the first thing you learn when you take a guitar lesson? Scales and chords. What’s the first thing you learn when you take a drum lesson? Paradiddles

Patterns. Patterns. And more patterns.

The first patterns in any new activity emerge quickly. As you progress, simple patterns combine to make larger pattern modules that help provide you with a wider view. As you continue to practice, new patterns emerge, which make even more composite patterns, which become a series of aha milestones along the way to mastering a skill.

We learn patterns through repetition. And although there are some people who seem to possess an almost unworldly natural talent that accelerates the learning curve, repetition is still a requirement. You don’t become great at anything without repetition. That includes music and recording too.

This is why I’m so insistent that you build your record from the ground up with intent, and that you stick to that discipline throughout your early records. It will force you to discover the most important patterns, that is to say, the musical patterns, because then you will think in terms of your music and not in terms of your recording.

You can become good at something rather quickly. All the other levels take time. Just when you think there are no more levels you hit a new one. Eventually, you become so good at something, that it doesn’t even look difficult anymore because it’s not. But there’s only one way to get to there. Practice.

There’s a reason why it takes 10,000 hours to become a master at something. It takes that kind of time to sufficiently familiarize yourself with the patterns. As someone with probably around 60,000 hours of recording, mixing, and producing experience, and tens of thousands of hours of writing experience, I can tell you, the discovery of patterns will never cease. But you have to be able to see those patterns, and that takes time and repetition. Lots and lots of repetition. There’s just no way around that. Because it’s not your ability to solve problems that gives you an edge as an expert. It’s your ability to quickly recognize solutions that makes you valuable. A newbie could solve any production problem that I could, given enough time. But then that just amounts to practice, and that would be the point.

Patterns allow our brain to break down a lot of information into modules. For instance: An arrangement comprises six musical functions–bass, harmony, rhythm, melody, countermelody, and response. Frequency can be thought of in four major bandwidths—low end, lower midrange, upper mid- range, and high end. Panning decisions become nearly binary—a part either goes in the center or on the sides. A four-piece horn section or a quartet of strings provides harmonic movement as a single unit. A drum kit with two kiks, two snares, five toms, a hi-hat and ten cymbals makes up one drum part, which fits perfectly into a stereo image. Layers of keyboards create a single textured part. Stacks of harmonies blend to become one chorus of singers. Five percussion instruments make up a percussion section. There are four microphone types with their own unique general characteristics—dynamic, LDC, SDC, and ribbons. Reverbs can be broken down to four types—plate, room, hall, and gated. Distortion is applied for edge, obfuscation, clarity, or sustain. Compressors shape tone, control dynamic range, and control low-end response. Contrast is effective for manipulating emotions, and forward movement. Certain chords call for certain resolutions. Song forms are basically comprised of some combination of the following sections: verse, chorus, pre-chorus, post-chorus, intro, outro, solo, and bridge. Patterns upon patterns upon patterns.

And I don’t have to sit and think for a long time to type out that list. I mean, you’ll have to take my word on this, but those patterns literally just flew out of my fingers because I have been through them so many times, and because record-making seems so simple to me now. And why not? Every production breaks down to just three critical elements:

The song, the arrangement, and the performances.

And where it comes to evaluating the overall effectiveness of those three elements, I need only answer in the affirmative to three questions.

Are the song and the production in alignment?
Does the track make me move the way that I should?
Do I find it difficult to stop singing the song?

If the answer to all three of those questions is yes, then I’ve made a Killer Record. The same goes for you. But I’d be remiss were I not to point out, those questions get awfully difficult to answer if you don’t absolutely adore the song. Read them again with that in mind.

All of this, the patterns and the pertinent questions themselves is why I urge simplicity. It’s why I suggest simplifying mic techniques and arrangement techniques down to their core. An acoustic guitar requires one mic. An electric amplifier requires one mic. A bass guitar amplifier requires one mic.

A piano requires one mic. And sure you could record everything in stereo if you like, but that will have no bearing on your success other than to retard it. Because you’re trying to do too much with what is likely your biggest weakness. And surely some of you will argue that you must address your biggest weakness, to which I would say, we already are–by simplifying things down to their core. To simplify things isn’t merely an exercise. It’s a path to success.

It’s easy to imagine that experts employ all kinds of complicated recording techniques as they get better at their job. The opposite is true. I don’t overthink anything on the recording side. In fact, I try not to think about it at all. And there’s no doubt, that I can think far less about recording things because I’m so familiar with them. But if I go out of my way to simplify a process that I’m so familiar with, then why on earth wouldn’t you?

And yes, a big session with lots of mics in a big room, that complicates matters tremendously, and it requires space and equipment and experience, which is why even I hire a studio and an engineer for those times. Not because I don’t have the skillset to record in that environment. But rather because, as the producer, if I’m allowed to focus on the performance, the arrangement, and the needs of my Artists, then everything comes out better.

I’m not one to finish a record based on the clock. If the record isn’t great, the record isn’t done. But there is a budget, both in terms of money and in time, and we can’t pretend they don’t act as limiting factors. The fact of the matter is, you can only spend so much time on a piece of Art before it’s dead. And believe me, you can kill Art with love.

When it comes to mixing, I suggest mixers mix fast–as fast as possible– because fresh decisions are good decisions, and the longer it takes to mix the track, the less fresh you are. The same can be said about producing your record and even writing your song. Surely, there are amazing records that took longer than they should have, but those would be exceptions. Certainly there are Artists who must grind out every detail in the most painful manner possible—also the exception. Most great Art comes out of us like an unexpected vomit of creativity.

Over-thinking, over-processing, over-arranging, over-producing, over-singing, over-playing—these are all maladies that weaken a production. But what happens when we exchange under for over? Under-thinking, under-processing, under-arranging, under-producing, under-singing, and under- playing? None of those even exist. I’ve never heard anyone ever utter these sorts of criticisms in regards to a musical production. The only “under” term I’ve ever heard is underdub, and that’s the process of removing superfluous information due to over-production!

There’s no doubt about it. It’s way easier to do too much than it is to do too little. Therefore, the discipline comes in keeping things simple, not the other way around. Let me say that again in another way. The discipline lies in doing less, not more.

And now back to our regularly scheduled program.

Enjoy, #mixerman

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There are currently 64 out of 64 five star reviews on Amazon. Larry Crane of TapeOp raved about it: “I think I’ll be buying cases of this book and handing it out as people enter my studio.” Why would a studio owner/ recording engineer (and publisher) give a book on recording to his clients? Because the more his clients understand about recording, the easier his life becomes. That’s why.

Pick up a few copies for the Hollidays and give them out to your musicians friends and clients. People love this book!


Patterns, Patterns, and More Patterns.
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Referencing Sound and Snowflakes

From my latest book Musician’s Survival Guide to a Killer Record, I discuss the pitfalls of referencing sound rather than music. There are currently 64 out of 64 five star reviews on Amazon. Larry Crane of TapeOp raved about it: “I think I’ll be buying cases of this book and handing it out as people enter my studio.” People love this book!

The Hollidays are coming. Pick up a few copies and give them out to your musicians friends and clients. But only if you want them to appreciate you for years to come.



Referencing

Whereas referencing music is a great way to learn about music, referencing sound is great way to confuse the living shit out of yourself. The reason? There is no consistency in sound. Were I to select 20 records from the past 50 years across the genre spectrum, their sonic makeup would be all over the map.

Technology pushes the sonic trends. In the seventies and early eighties, records were pressed to vinyl, and you couldn’t push the low end ag-gressively without the needle jumping out of the groove. In the mid-eighties CDs took over, but it wasn’t until the mid-nineties that mixers like myself started to really push the low end. The late-nineties until the mid-tens were all about loudness. And today the low-end curves are off the charts as streaming sites now reward the delivery of dynamic tracks over loud ones. A reasonable dynamic range leaves us more space for the low end.

I always find it fascinating when someone claims a record from the eighties as their best sonic reference. The EQ curves from that time were atrocious, and many of those records were remastered in the aughts to be loud. As a result, not only do they have insufficient low end, they’re often loud to boot. This reference translates how? I listen to records from my youth and wonder where’s the beef?

Consumer playback systems typically boost the low end considerably. Beats headphones push them beyond reasonable limits, and these days the boombox has been replaced by a brick that acts like a subwoof-er. Yet, despite this, young producers push the low end almost beyond reason.

Don’t get me wrong. I love it. I’m right there with anyone and everyone that wants copious amounts of low-end information in their production. Clearly, people can’t get enough of it.

I say it all the time. Low end is what separates the men from the boys in this business. To mix with a robust low end that’s in control and doesn’t completely overwhelm your production takes some practice. If you’ve mixed anything at all, then you’re probably familiar, because most of us push too much low end when we start out. Which brings up a salient and important question: how the hell do you avoid pushing too much low end, if the expectation is ostensibly a production with too much low end?

It’s all about control.

You can push the low end in your balances, so long as you contain it. Low end sings when it’s contained, and it consumes when it’s overly dynamic. So, you can push as much low end as you like, so long as you have the space for it, and so long as you keep it under control.

There’s no way around it, you just can’t compare the EQ curve of an old record to a new one. You can reference the song and the arrangement based on how the track makes you feel. But sonics? Even if you were to limit your references to just the past three years, there will be a stunning variance in tone that makes it difficult to figure out what’s acceptable. The reality is, any and all of it is acceptable.

For starters, the instrumentation and the key will both have a signifi-cant influence on the overall EQ curve of any given production. Drop-C is an outrageously dark key in which the bottom note of the guitar is C2 which sounds at 65 Hz, and the bottom note of the bass is C1 at 33 Hz. That’s really low. You just aren’t going to get a light bright record out of a drop C presentation. So, if you’re referencing tracks in Drop C against tracks in the key of A, you’re going to come away with the impression that your record is dark.
It is dark. You recorded it in drop C. That would be the reason to record in that key.

Genre will also have a great influence on the overall EQ curve of a record. An R&B track can’t rightly be compared to a rock production. The rock track is heavy in midrange and often light in the low end. Conversely, the R&B track is typically light in the midrange and heavy in the low end. As a result, the rock record will sound small in comparison.
Were you to go out of your way to find tracks that are similar in nature, the sound of them still can’t be compared. Even the feelings they evoke can’t be compared. Every record is unique in the feelings it causes, and our mood often dictates what we want to hear. If your record sounds good, it feels good, and if it feels good, it sounds good. That evaluation must be made in the isolation of the record at hand.

Rather than to concern yourself with whether your record sounds good in comparison to other records, you need only consider whether the record makes you move and sing in the appropriate and intended manner. If you can’t get yourself to react to your own record, then you have no earthly shot at getting anyone else to react to your record.

The best way that I know to momentarily shatter my own confidence in regards to how a record sounds is to start referencing how other tracks sound. And I do it. We all do it, and I’m telling you, the only good that comes from it is a day or two off. Once I put myself through that frustration, I’m clearly exhausted, and I’m ultimately forced to seek some distance.

We evaluate sound because we deal with sound. The punters don’t care about sound; they only listen to the music. You would do well to do the same, and at all times.

Referencing a record for tempo, feel, arrangement, even process decisions, can provide you with some useful information that you can mimic on your own production. To reference the sound of your production as you near the end of the process will provide you with nothing useful. How could it? Despite the similarities, the sonic makeup of any given track will be as varied and unique as the crystalline shapes of snowflakes.

My friends, comparing snowflakes is an exercise in futility.

Enjoy, #mixerman

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Referencing Sound and Snowflakes

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