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Tips and Tricks

Vocal Recording – A Basic Guide

Posted by Giacomo on February 10, 2012
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The voice as an instrument is one of the most challenging to record satisfactorily due to the large dynamic range and the number of variables that affect the sound before it reaches the microphone. There are a number of things that the recording engineer can do to ensure that the voice is recorded a manner which produces a good raw sound which can be manipulated, if necessary, at mixdown.

 

The Room

The first factor, and often the most overlooked, is the acoustics of a room. Sound will reflect off walls, floors and ceilings in a room, and therefore some of these reflections will reach the mic at some point, albeit momentarily later than the original sound. This will have a massive influence on the recorded sound. A small /boxy room will often produce a boxy sounding vocal and this is common on many home recordings. Some smaller rooms with many hard surfaces will also produce ‘flutter echo’s’. This hard ‘metallic’ sound is very unpleasant and can ruin a vocal take. Many places in your home are likely to have a flutter echo, most commonly stair wells and box rooms. An easy way to identify this is to click your fingers or clap your hands and listen out for a ‘metallic’ ringing after the initial impulse.

As most home studio vocals will be recorded using a mic with a cardoid polar pattern, there are a few things that can be done to improve the sound of the room. As cardoid mics reject sound from the rear of the mic, the front side of the mic is where the mic will pick up the most unwanted room reflections. Bearing this in mind, it makes sense to ensure that the wall behind the vocalist is treated in some way to absorb as many reflections as possible. Acoustic tiles are widely available although somewhat expensive and also require permanent or semi-permanent installation – not ideal if you live in rented accommodation or record in your living room! The most inexpensive way to achieve a somewhat similar goal is to hang a duvet/blanket/sleeping bag etc behind the vocalist. Obviously you want as much coverage as possible on the surface behind the vocalist, and also above head height is important. In a worst case scenario you could place your vocalist in front of your curtains (they should be drawn as glass is, obviously, highly reflective).

The positioning of the vocalist/mic in the room is also important. As you want to cut out reflections into the mic, the vocalist should be placed away from any walls/surfaces. However you also want to ensure that the vocalist/mic is not dead centre in the room as this is where standing waves will be most prominent. An ideal position would be a few feet away from the centre of the room. The best way to determine the optimal mic position is by making some test recordings with the mic/vocalist in different positions in the room. Listening back to the recordings should help you identify the ‘sweet spot’ in your room.

It goes without saying that you want to record vocals in a room that is relatively quiet – sensitive microphones will certainly pick up the fans in your computer, the rumbling of traffic outside and a radio being played loudly elsewhere in the building.

The Microphone

The majority of professional vocal recordings are made with capacitor/condenser microphones rather than their dynamic counterparts. Capacitor mics offer many tonal advantages over dynamic microphones and are particularly suited to recording vocals due to their improved high frequency response. There are occasions when a dynamic mic may be more suitable – if a band are after a recording that reflects their live performances it is not unknown for the vocal to be recorded with a dynamic microphone such as the Shure SM58.

In practice a capacitor mic will usually be preferable for the majority of vocal recordings. The nearest thing to an industry standard in the professional market is the Neumann U87 although this is out of reach for the majority of amateur engineers. The last few years however has seen a flood of Chinese-made capacitor microphones into the market, many available at under £/$100. There are also other established American, Australian and European brands who now offer mics as low as £/$150.

CardioidAs mentioned earlier, it is usually preferable to pick a microphone with a cardioid polar pattern as this rejects sound from the rear of the mic therefore eliminating most of the unwanted sounds reflecting from the rear wall. If you are working in an acoustically ideal environment then it is possible that you may want use a microphone that shows off the acoustics of your room a bit more – omni-directional microphones are typically used for this purpose.

Cardioid mics do exhibit some unique behavior, and the most well known is the ‘Proximity Effect’. When using a cardioid microphone at close range, less than 3 or 4 inches for instance, the low frequencies will be exaggerated and this is what is known as the proximity effect. This can be used to your advantage if recording a vocalist with a ‘thin’ sounding voice – moving the vocalist closer to the mic will increase the low frequency content of the signal. This effect can also be used when recording spoken word for voice overs etc. Usually a distance of between 6 and 10 inches will produce optimal results without coloration from the proximity effect.

Other Considerations

The use of a shockmount is a good idea to prevent mechanical vibrations reaching the microphone – most of these come from low frequencies being transmitted through the mic stand and into the microphone. Generic shockmounts are available now which should fit most mics and are much more affordable than many manufacturers proprietary designs.

A pop-shield is another worthwhile purchase if you intend to record a lot of vocals. A pop shield prevents ‘plosives’ (such as P and B sounds) which manifest with a low frequency burst of energy. A pop shield is best positioned at least 1 inch from mic. The positioning of the shield can also prevent the vocalist getting too near to the mic and triggering the proximity effect. Budget pop shields can be had for as little as £/$10, although if you can’t stretch to this then there is always the coat-hanger and pair of tights method which is as popular as ever in home studios.

When setting the gain on your mixer, try to ensure that the average level of the vocal is around the 0dB mark – this should leave enough headroom for louder passages without distorting.

If you are recording onto a digital medium it is imperative that you leave enough headroom to allow for louder bursts. Unlike analogue, digital is unforgiving to clipping and a take can be rendered unusable by digital distortion. Recording at 24-bit is preferable for dynamic sources such as the human voice as you can afford to leave more headroom due to the increased dynamic range. A small amount of compression before your recorder (commonly from a channel strip or hardware compressor) can help prevent the signal from overloading your recorder but it must be carefully applied as any changes made to the sound during the recording process can not be undone at a later time. For more information on the Recording Chain click here.

Finally, the vocalist must be happy with their headphone mix. A little reverb in the headphones can aid tuning, and creating the right mix between vocal and backing track can help coax the required performance out of the vocalist. Too little of the vocalist in the headphones might cause the singer to push too hard and this can cause problems with timbre and sometimes pitching. Too much of the vocalist in the headphones may cause the singer to perform too timidly and not achieve the desired results.

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Choosing Headphones

Posted by Giacomo on February 10, 2012
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A pair of headphones are useful in many circumstances for a sound engineer, whether in the studio or on location. Headphones are available with many different specifications and to the novice it may seem difficult to make the right choice. This AudioCourses article will outline the basic specifications of headphones available today.

 

Before we go any further it must be noted that we will be talking about circumaural headphones with dynamic drivers/transducers. Circumaural headphones enclose the ear and are the choice in studios all over the world. Alternative forms such as In-Ear and Supra-Aural, are generally not suitable for serious audio work although they are fine connected to an iPod or Walkman for casual listening.

It should also be said that mixing on headphones is undesirable, and headphones should only be used as a reference rather than a replacement for studio monitors.

Closed vs Open

The choice between closed and open is probably the most important decision. Both have their pros and cons so the decision should focus on the environment in which they will be used.

Closed back headphones, such as the Beyer DT 100 excel at both preventing spill from the headphones into the microphone when recording, and also preventing outside noise from reaching the wearer. This means they are the logical choice for musicians when tracking as the lack of spill ensures a cleaner signal and also makes feedback less likely to occur when nearer the microphone. In a live sound environment closed headphones are invaluable. As very little sound is let in from the outside world it allows the engineer to listen to a different source than the FOH mix – for instance the engineer can solo channels and try to identify any rogue signals. For location recording, DJs and broadcast usage, closed headphones are preferable due to the aforementioned reasons.

This type of headphone will often appear to give a good representation of low frequencies but this is tempered by the coloration to the sound that placing a diaphragm in a closed environment incurs. The fit of the headphone onto the ear is also important as to fully benefit from the advantages of closed back headphones a good seal must be made between the cushioned earpiece and the ear. If this seal is not satisfactory acoustical isolation in both directions is lost.

Open back headphones, such as the Beyer DT 990 Pro, do not offer the same level of isolation as their closed back counterparts. Open headphones usually look similar to closed back headphones but with a ‘grille’ on the rear of the enclosure (as can be seen in the picture of the DT 990 Pro). The presence of a grille allows freer movement of sound both in and out of the earpiece. This makes open designs unsuitable in recording situations as spill into the microphone will be excessive and the likelihood of feedback (‘howlaround’) is increased. These characteristics also make open designs unsuitable for most broadcast and location recording.

The area in which the open design excels however is the sound quality. Although the low end may not appear as well defined as closed designs, the reproduction of other frequencies is likely to be more accurate as there is less coloration from the design of the earpiece. These characteristics make open back headphones suitable for critical listening in quiet environments, such as the control room. As mentioned earlier, mixing should not be attempted with headphones, but for analytical listening headphones are very useful during mixdown for finding rogue noise or checking reverb tails.

Frequency Response

This figure details the range of frequencies that the headphones can reproduce. The average humans hearing range is 20Hz-20,000Hz. You will often see headphones will frequency responses that stretch beyond either of these limits. What is critical in interpreting these figures is variation in level over the frequency response. If the headphones can produce 10Hz-40,000kHz but dip or peak in level by 10dB above 10,000Hz then they are not particularly suitable. For serious audio work peaks and troughs should be less that 3dB – this is often represented by a figure such as +/-3dB or ±3dB at the end of the frequency response i.e. 10Hz-30,000Hz +/-1dB.

Impedance

The Impedance of headphones is measured in ohms (Ω ) and is, crudely speaking, how hard the amplifier must drive the headphones. Most dedicated headphone amplifiers such as the Samson S-amp will be capable of driving most headphones satisfactorily. If you are connecting headphones to equipment such as a mixing console or DJ mixer then you should read the technical specifications to ensure you buy headphones with the correct impedance. Some headphone manufacturers offer a number of different impedances for a given model. The DT 100 mentioned earlier is an example of this.

Other Considerations

There are some other criteria not relating to sound quality that should also be considered when purchasing headphones.

Many high end microphones offer a modular design which ensures that repairs are cheap and parts are plentiful. Non modular headphone designs are often difficult or financially unviable to repair.

The comfort of the headphones is also important and if possible you should try as many designs as you can to find the best balance of sound quality and comfort.

Most headphones terminate into a stereo 1/4″ jack (sometimes with a minijack underneath a 1/4″ adaptor), but some manufacturers produce models with an XLR connector. It is wise to determine which kind of connections are present in your studio and make your choice based on that. Most studio equipment and headphone amplifiers accept 1/4″ jacks, but when using stage boxes there are often XLR’s provided for returns.

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Bringing MIDI Drums to Life

Posted by Giacomo on February 10, 2012
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When used in conventional guitar based songs, MIDI drums can sometimes sound robotic or lifeless. In this short Audiocourses tutorial we’ll examine a few ways to breathe some life into your MIDI drum parts.

 

For this tutorial we are going to be using Cubase SX as our sequencer (although similar results can be obtained from most of the mainstream sequencers) and triggering drum samples from a software sampler such as Battery, Halion etc If you don’t have a software sampler then you can find many free options on the KVR Website.

Please note that you will find it hard to recreate a natural drum sound if you are using inappropriate drum samples (i.e. Roland 909). For the best results you need one shot samples of real drums. There are sites online that offer free or cheap drum samples, and also many music technology magazines give samples away on cover-mounted DVD’s etc.

The Basic Drum PatternLet’s start with a very straight beat programmed directly into Cubase’s drum editor with all note velocities left unchanged (i.e. 100) You can see this in the screenshot on the left.
I’m going to go for a British indie sound a la Snow Patrols ‘Chocolate’ and The Stone Roses ‘I am the Resurrection’
Example 1

As you can hear there is a definite robotic feel to the drums and they don’t sound particularly lifelike at all. Most obvious is the uniform velocity of all the drums – a real drummer never hits the drums with such uniform velocity so lets try to make some changes in the velocity to give more of a real feel.

As you can see from the screenshot to the right, I’ve made variations in all of the velocities to try to get a bit more realism into the sound
Example 2 Velocity Edited Hats

That sounds a lot better than the original take, but for my ears it is still too robotic due to the overly-perfect timing – if we were to loop that bar over and over again it would sound more obvious that it was programmed.

A drummer, being human and therefore imperfect(!), will always have slight changes in his/her playing in terms of timing so we need to replicate that. We could go through the entire song and move the positions of every single drum hit by a small amount but that would be very time consuming and could also make it sound overly sloppy. What we need to do is have a random element to the positioning that has upper and lower boundaries to prevent the timing becoming ‘bad’ rather than ‘human’.

Luckily for us Cubase allows this to be done with the minimum of fuss! Select our MIDI drum track and choose Track Parameters from the Inspector. You should see a couple of drop down boxes underneath the heading Random and these allow us to choose parameters to have a randomized feel. In this instance we want to choose position from the first drop down box and then determine the range that our random positioning can work within. When working with Position we use a unit called ‘Ticks’ which are very small units indeed – by default there are 120 ticks to a 1/16th note although this can be changed in the Cubase settings. For this style of drum pattern I’d imagine that a range of about 6-10 ticks should give us a human feel. Bear in mind that a drummer can be slightly early or late with timing so to give a range of 10 we should set the min limit at -5 and the max limit at 5 giving us a range of 10 with 0 (i.e.our original positioning) in the middle of our range. For other styles of music where the drummer may ‘push’ the beat you could set the limits with a lower min value and a higher max value.

Whilst we’re adding some random values, we could also add some ‘randomness’ to our velocity to further increase how human the drums sound – choose Adding Random Elements To Our Velocity and Positionsvelocity from the drop down menu and then choose the min and max values – in this instance i chose a min of -4 and a max of 4.
We should now hear a subtle improvement in our drum loop:
Example 3
Listen for how the hats and the snare, which fall on the same divisions, are now not quite as tight as they were but are still ‘in time’.

At this point we could move on to the sound of the drums. Although they do not sound bad, they are slightly ‘weak’ sounding and could do with a bit more body and punch.

What I decided to do with this example was place a distortion plug-in as an insert on the drum output and then place a compressor in the next insert slot. You can then use a combination of the gain and output levels in the distortion plug-in to drive the compressor. As I don’t want a complete Garage band style drum sound I have gone easy on the distortion – I have used the bundled Quadrafuzz for this as you can tweak each frequency band before distortion.

After being distorted the signal is fed into a compressor with an attack of around 15ms and a release of about 130ms – i tweaked the ratio and threshold until I got a sound I liked – this sound ended up being the result of 10dB(!!!!) of compression on peaks but this really emphasized the ring of the snare and gave that very fat and warm indie sound I was trying to achieve but with some pumping. This may be too extreme for some tastes so as always use your own ears;
Example 4

Finally I wanted to bring a bit of coherence to the kit so I set up a plate style reverb with about 1s decay, no pre-delay and with the low end rolled off in the EQ section of the return channel to prevent the kick drum ‘muddying’ the reverb return. I sent some of the kit via an FX send, again using my ears rather than looking at how much i was sending on the meter. As you can hear the reverb helps to bring the kit together into a defined ‘space’:
Example 5

Hearing our final drum sound in context with some typically ‘indie’ instrumentation should reveal how successful our attempts have been;
In Context

Hopefully this has demonstrated some of the ways you can add realism to your MIDI drum parts – each project requires a different approach so the settings used here should only be considered a guide – as always your ears are the greatest judge!

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Send Any Audio To The iPhone And iPod Touch

Posted by Giacomo on February 10, 2012
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This content is brought to you by Audiocourses dot com

Boston, MA – Today, Rogue Amoeba is very pleased to announce the immediate availability of a brand-new application for the iPhone and iPod Touch: Airfoil Speakers Touch. Used in conjunction with Rogue Amoeba’s wildly popular Airfoil, Airfoil Speakers Touch turns any iPhone or iPod into a wireless speaker for your Mac or Windows machine.

Airfoil Speakers Touch joins Airfoil in helping users create and extend seamless wireless home audio systems. Working with Airfoil, synchronized audio can be sent to AirPort Express units, Apple TVs, Macs, PCs, Linux boxes, and now iPhones and iPods Touch. Once installed and launched, Airfoil Speakers Touch shows up right in Airfoil for Mac or Airfoil for Windows as an available output. With just a few clicks, audio from applications like iTunes, RealPlayer, Spotify and more, as well as web-based audio like Pandora and Last.fm, can be sent right to the iPhone or iPod Touch. Any audio from a Mac or PC can be sent wirelessly, all around the house or office.

Plug in headphones to your iPhone or iPod Touch and untether your audio from the computer. Or dock the iPhone/iPod Touch in a speaker system, and Airfoil Speakers Touch eliminates the need for purchasing a more expensive wireless audio system. With Airfoil and Airfoil Speakers Touch, users can have their audio, everywhere.

Key Features of Airfoil Speakers Touch
* Send any audio from your Mac or Windows PC to your iPhone or iPod Touch via Wifi!
*Top quality: Receive high-quality lossless stereo audio from your Mac or Windows machine.
* In Sync: Want to send audio to more then one device? Airfoil will keep it all synchronized!

Rogue Amoeba Background

Rogue Amoeba Software, LLC is a privately held software company, based in the USA with offices around the globe. Since 2002, we’ve been making tools for Mac OS X to assist users with all their audio needs. In that time we’ve delighted thousands of users and received some of the highest honors in the industry. Our product line includes our wildly popular Audio Hijack Pro and Radioshift audio recording tools, our streamlined audio editor Fission and our AirPort Express extender Airfoil.

For more information on Rogue Amoeba Software, please visit rogue amoeba

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Martin Atkins DIY: How To Promote Your Music

Posted by Giacomo on May 12, 2008
Tips and Tricks / 1 Comment

Martin Atkins teams up with Presonus and bubbles enthusiastically about the benefits of being in the “now”. The main point he puts over here is that promotion is now all about you YOU, taking responsibility yourself, not entering into a blame culture and being highly self-directed to achieve your ambitions, could be a very useful stance, what do you think?

watch?v=XbvK52d70VU&feature=player_embedded

 

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