Archive for March, 2012

Ozone 5, Part 1

I’m a big fan of continuing education, and the commitment iZotope ( has shown to providing video tutorials on a continuing basis is impressive. The company just posted a series of new tutorials on RX2, and you’ll find links to them at the bottom of this blog.

Ozone 5, a mastering platform that holds eight separate tools, is a product that can seem daunting to the mere musician, but I’ve decided to dive in. Matt Hines, an iZotope tech guru, has graciously agreed to walk me through the process of mastering one of my own projects.

“4,3,2,1” is a four movement work for full orchestra; the conceit is that it’s a symphony written backwards. The first two movement are in the can-all realized with samples, mixed and mastered by my good friend Ed Goldfarb. Shoot me an e-mail if you’d like me to send them to you. When the work is completed I’ll post all four movements on my site.

I just finished “2.” My job as a mixer is to create rough mixes that let Ed know exactly what I’m hearing regarding balance and placement in the stereo field. I spend a great deal of time adjusting midi velocity levels to insure that individual instrument faders can be set and forgotten about to the greatest extent possible.

Ed doesn’t need me to master these rough mixes, but I thought I’d play around with Ozone 5 for the fun of it. The orchestral mastering preset did an amazing job out of the box, but I sent my stereo file (24 bit, 44.1kHz) to Matt to get his ideas. Matt sent me back a file with extensive notes on what was required and the steps he took to improve the quality. Of course, this is jumping the gun. Ed always looks at the large picture and carves out frequency ranges in individual instruments to achieve the greatest clarity and depth.

I’m going to study Matt’s notes, listen to his mastering job, and then take a stab at mastering this rough mix myself. It will be my mid-term paper! When it’s done I’ll post audio clips. Don’t feel bad if you have to fail me-someone has to sit at the bottom of the bell curve!

Check out these links when you get a chance:

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Compressor-Limiters got ya baffled?

Here I am yet again, trying to squeeze in a few moments to share what I’ve been tinkering with – on the bench and at school. I had intended to share this a month go, but life and scheduling have been a little intense lately. I hope I can make up for this lack of weekly blogging with a more extended ‘tease’ of my next MIX column.

I recently had my students check out the Chris Lord Alge Classic Compressor video – primarily because it showed what HE is listening for – one facet of Ear Training exercises that lead to the acquired skill set than eventually defines a MIX Engineer.

Dynamics Processors are squirrelly beasts- Hardware and Software. If the magic doesn’t happen right off the bat, many engineers try something else. Every signal processor has some usable magic, especially – as Chris observed – the goal was to capture his hardware ‘while it still had a vibe,’ that magical sweet spot between brand-new-perfect and ‘broken.’

It is my observation, however, that while the allure of retro graphic models is their familiar face and sound (for those who have used the hardware) they are less likely to reveal what’s going on behind the face plate. DSP designers are trying to capture analog’s sonic fingerprint and through that process they know the numbers that the dials represent. The knobs on an 1176, for example, aren’t calibrated – you have to play with the Attack and Release parameters to figure out which direction is fast and slow. Of course, you could read the manual, assuming the hardware is within spec…

I know we’re supposed to be LISTENING, but, I kinda like to know what parameters make the magic! Attack, Release and Ratio settings are very application specific.

Some dynamics processors, like the 1176, are versatile enough to do both Peak Limiting and Compression Chores while the LA-2 is not fast enough to be a Peak Limiter. The next level of processor has separate Peak and Compression Side-Chains – this part of the circuit does ‘the math’ and creates a Control Voltage (CV) to tell the ‘Gain Cell’ what to do. The most sophisticated dynamics manipulators – like the CRANE SONG STC-8 – allow interaction between compression and limiting.

On my bench most recently have been the Sontec compressor-limiter (with Crest Factor for whiter teeth) and the EMT-156 broadcast compressor-limiter-expander. These are all very sophisticated processors, the calibration of which is what allows me to explain to their prospective users how they work and how to use them.

The EMT is stereo-only, has a single meter and its classic X-Y ‘transfer function’ graph. Color-coded knobs correspond to specific ares on the graph where the controls operate.

Some no-frills software processors – like the generic plugs from PT, Adobe Audition and SoundScape (now owned by SSL) – have incorporated that static graphic as part of their dynamic display. That plus calibrated controls and more precise metering help the tenacious user zero in on the parameter-specific values that define Limiting and compression.

ROLL YOUR OWN Peak Limiter for Snare Drum

ATTACK: As fast as it will go (less than 1mSec)

RELEASE: As fast at it will go

KNEE: Hard

RATIO: As close to Infinite-to-one as possible.

THRESHOLD: Enough to achieve not more than 6dB of Limiting.

The trick is to save the preset and then AUDIO SUITE the track to prove that the processor is doing exactly what you want to do – in this case, give Snare Drum transients a military flat-top haircut.

I’ll have some before-and-after pix soon (famous last words). Meanwhile, you try it and get back to me, ok?

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A Second Look at Electri6ity

It’s rare that I point you, dear reader, back a second time to a product I’ve already posted a blog on-even rarer when I’m having problems accessing its complete feature set. Electric6ity, the outstanding electric guitar plug-in from Vir2 Instruments ( is so good, and such a pleasure to play, that it’s worth the virtual ink.

I logged quite a bit of time playing rock and blues on my trusty 1963 Gibson SG back in the day. I piped this baby (which I’ve never been able to force myself to sell) through a Fender Deluxe Reverb which I bought from my junior high school pal Jon Pousette-Dart.

Head on up to the Vir2 site and check out the videos and tutorials. This is one of those plug-ins, however, that demands that you spend some time with the manual. Key switch combinations need to be studied and memorized if you plan to maximize its potential. Broadway Big Band, another favorite, is similar in this regard.

I’m finishing up the third movement of a four movement symphonic work, all executed within the computer. The first two movements of “4,3,2,1” are mixed; when all four are in the can I’ll post on my website and refer you to them. “3” has a detailed, written out guitar solo, a perfect test for Electri6ity. After auditioning several guitar/amp combinations (using Native Instruments Guitar Rig in place of the internal amps that ship with Electri6ity but are no way comparable to the high end amp modeling software that’s currently available) I settled on the sampled Lipstick guitar. I fed this track through Guitar Rig’s “Jeff at Ronnie’s,” tweaking the overdrive, and then double tracked the part using GR’s “Carlos in Europe” preset, a beautiful emulation of the clean Fender sound I grew up with.

A note of caution: if you aren’t a guitar player, please don’t go crazy with what you believe are the coolest whammy bar-like effects and endless hammer on riffs-they’re boring. Craft good lines and Electri6ity, coupled with a primo piece of modeled amp software, will transport you to guitar god heaven!

Now for the cautionary note. As I dug back into this software I noticed that some of the key switches weren’t functioning for me. For example, pinched harmonics are a great inclusion and accessing them should be a breeze. No go. I even uninstalled the software, reinstalled it from the original disks, and went to the Vir2 website to download the latest version of the plug-in, but I haven’t solved the problem yet. I just got a new set of disks and plan on installing them soon.

Bottom line: Electri6ity is one of those plug-ins that is addictive. It’s extremely well thought out, recorded to the highest standard, and a blast to play.

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Musikmesse Brings Zynaptiq Plug-in

At Musikmesse, which closed last week Zynaptiq introduced UNVEIL, a real-time de-reverberation and signal focusing plug-in for the Mac OS X AudioUnits (AU) format, at their booth at the Frankfurt Musikmesse, Hall 5.1 Booth A91. READ MORE

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Musikmesse Day 2: Focusrite ISA Two

The ISA Two dual-mono mic pre features two independent channels of the highest quality classic Focusrite mic pres, with line in and front-panel instrument inputs – no DI box required. Based on the legendary designs found in the Focusrite Forte and Studio Consoles, ISA Two is the ideal front-end for your rack. READ MORE

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Musikmesse Day 1: Dynaudio DBM50 Monitors

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From Vinyl to Ice with sound artist Ben Gwilliam

Thanks to the work of artist Ben Gwilliam, we can now add “ice” to the list of materials used for storing and playing sound.

For his work Molto semplice e cantabile, Gwilliam created a mold from an LP of Beethoven’s Sonata No 32, which he used to make ice casts of the record that he could play from a turntable. In his blog, Manchester, UK-based critic Tony Trehy describes how Gwilliam manages the feat while maintaining the solidity of the slowly melting record by adding “fine spray as the records play, subtly lubricating the disc, the grooves refreeze the new droplets creating microscopic intervention.”

To bring the project full circle, a limited-edition vinyl 10-inch of the performance was pressed last year. To get an idea of what the results sound like, check out the review by Richard Pinnell from his blog, The Watchful Ear.

I think it’s about time I add a subcategory to the Robair Report that deals with playback formats and how they filter audio.

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James Brown

I just downloaded “The One: The Life of James Brown” (R.J. Smith) onto my Kindle, and preparing to delve into this biography has got me thinking. Our world is so different from the one that The Fabulous Flames and the young James Brown lived in. Segregation conferred a moral authority that gave men like James Brown and the incomparable Malcolm X the power to influence our culture in ways that seem to have evaporated.

Young people-white college kids at least, whose ranks I eventually joined-were amused by the theatrics of Abby Hoffman (though few actually read “Steal This Book”) and instinctively understood that the academic arguments of Tom Hayden and the rants of Paul Krassner revealed genuine fault lines in establishment thinking, but it was the anguish and rage that Malcolm, James Brown, Huey Newton, and other emergent black leaders brought that was, in many cases, the animus that caused these students to close down college campuses and change the course of a war.

What spiritual compass does the Occupy movement have? The right has brilliantly marginalized poor people. They simply do not exist in our culture. There is no rallying point, no locus of righteous anger around which to gather and sustain a counter culture movement. Sure, blacks and Latinos swell the ranks of the underclass disproportionately, but we have “Sanford and Son-” excuse me, got caught in the time machine for a moment, Tyler Perry’s “House of Payne.” How dare the left suggest that even a trace of bias exists in America today?

I’ve spent quite a bit of time working in prisons over the last several years. The course I developed uses music as a lamp that helps us mine for connections between cultures that on the surface might seem to have little in common. The recidivism rate in New Jersey is about 74%. That means that many of the guys I work with will be coming back into the system, as I jokingly tell them “to do graduate work.” Maybe-just maybe-if he buys into the idea that without Mozart’s “Don Giovani” there would be no “Scarface,” or comes to feel that Ado Annie, the second lead in “Oklahoma-” a good girl with a naughty streak-is, in a way, Rihanna’s grandma, one of them will feel comfortable seeking out broad horizons upon his release, a place where a good job can be found, perhaps. Along the way-if he comes to understand that Stravinsky and Shakur, artists from radically different times and backgrounds-were dealing with the same set of human emotions, he might change the world.

My studio is ringed with album covers from my youth. I’m looking up at a King release, “The Unbeatable James Brown and the fabulous flames.” Wow, the cover proclaims that the record is brought to us in VIVID SOUND! I can hear the opening cut, “Try Me,” in my mind. The track starts out with a splice of an MC introducing the band at a live event:

“Ladies and gentleman, without no doubt…. the-e-ese are the JBs!”

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Blade Goes Analog

We recently finished up a new release for Brian Blade and The Fellowship. It will be featuring original songs by Brian Blade and Jon Cowherd. This record was challenging and one of the most fun to make in recent memories. Mostly because I wasn’t staring at a computer screen for 15 hours a day, and the obvious was the musicianship was off the charts. The band was Brian Blade, Melvin Butler, Chris Thomas, Jon Cowherd, Marvin Sewell, and Myron Walden. Brian decided to go analog on this record and for the organic quality of the music, I couldn’t agree more. With the ever ending shrinking budgets it’s been about 7 years since I last completed a record only using tape. Lately, I’ve been utilizing our CLASP to do most tracking sessions to get some tape saturation, but this record we tracked straight to a 2″ Studer 827 and mixed to our Studer A80 1/2″. Our first challenge was to get enough tape in time for the session with my tape of choice these days being ATR. I still miss GP9 which I have now depleted my tape stock.
The second was finding a piano that recorded well. We had a smaller yamaha grand for some time, but we decided to stop playing around and dropped a Steinway D 9ft in the day before the session.
The third challenge was repairing the faulty A80 1/2″ we purchased from a broker in Nashville. I threw the alignment tape on and nothing was working. This machine needed a complete overhaul. Luckily the power of Facebook saved me. About 2 days before we started the session my old tech from a studio I worked at in the 90′s had just touched base with me on Facebook. He lived about 2 hours away so our intern drove the machine out and he went through the machine and tracked down all the bad caps, sauder joints, and switches. The joy of buying used analog gear sight unseen over the internet and trusting the broker.
The first day was setup and finding positions for everyone. We decided to go with everybody in the large tracking space with little isolation. We weren’t sure about it, but thought we would give it a try. After all, many records have been made like this with great success. Unfortunately, the piano was having some tuning issues and we weren’t able to use the piano that night so we moved onto a song with an old pump organ that Brian had shipped down. For as small as this organ was the sound was gigantic. After getting down a successful take we called it a night. My only concern was we still haven’t tried everybody playing together in the same space with the drums.
The next day we came in everybody took there positions and we started getting blends on cues. It took a total of 3 min and Brian walked in the control room and wanted to move to the booth. So we moved just about everybody to a new position other than the piano. Drums went in a booth, horns went in another booth, and piano, bass, guitar stayed in the large room, but moved for line of sight to the other players. My assistant and I had the entire band moved and ready to go in an hour and a half. This was working for the players and myself much better. Dusty at Mojave had just sent me a mic to try out on the snare which worked out very well. It’s the Mojave MA-101 FET. It could handle the SPL level of the snare when Brian’s full blast with an internal 15 dB pad or pick up his nuance when he’s playing light as a feather. Another mic I was trying out on the kit was the AEA R88, which was used for the room. Unfortunately we had a bit of a problem with one of the sides of the R88 due to a faulty connector internally in the mic. I was still able to track the other side which worked very well. AEA was very accommodating and I’m looking forward to using the R88 again soon. Originally I was thinking the R88 for overheads on the kit but we ended up going with Mojave MA-200′s. The MA-200′s really captured Brian’s intricate work on the cymbals.
A few of the songs are any where from 12 to 14 minutes in length so the first day reels were adding up quick. They would have to make some permanent decisions. We had to order tape in 2 or 3 shipments due to supply. When I noticed how fast the reels were going I had my assistant order 4 more reels for safety to be fed ex’d next day. Then Saturday rolls around and I get a call from our office manager. “Hey listen, your tape is in Michigan”….. Nice. So I quickly added up unused takes and it looked promising to get through the session, which we did. A couple of the songs we would perform an edit and the unused takes would get rolled over. It was nice to be able to commit to takes instead of having the ever ending playlist scenario to sort through after the fact. With some bands this would be a problem, but here the only problem was trying to find a problem with the takes. The band would love to come in to here the edit go by to see if they could here the splice. I forget how smooth the edits are on tape. It’s effortless. Other than having to find a grease pencil last minute at a near by Hobby Lobby the editing went very smooth. For me it was great fun and felt like we were making a real record with tape on the floor and razor blades lying around.
We’re starting to get to the end of tracking. It’s around 1 a.m. and Jon says the piano is severely out. Since we aren’t in New York or Los Angeles I’m a bit worried. I made two calls and either got a “Are you kidding me? I’m not coming up at 1 a.m. to tune” or an angry wife on the phone who immediately hung up on me. But the stars aligned and a nice gentleman said
“what’s the emergency?” I briefly explained the dilemma and he was there in an hour. After which he stayed until about 4 a.m. listening to the great track we got laid down because of his handy work.
The following day mixing begins. The Studer A80 arrives in working condition and everything is on schedule. I would mix to the A80 and a Pro-Tools session for backup at 24 bit 96 Khz. After the mix got printed to 1/2″ I would copy the mix to Brian’s DAT machine. He still thinks the DAT sounds better than a file off of Pro-Tools and after listening back I would agree. I still have a DAT machine at my house, but purely for playing back the hundreds of DATs I have masters stored on.
We ended up getting a total of 9 songs down and will be doing some more mixes in the next few weeks from some older recordings Brian did on 16-Track 2″ to add to the batch. Be on the lookout for it to be released in the next 3 months.

You can check out some session pics here:

Be on the lookout at SXSW for the Blade Studios bus in Austin from March 16-18. Come by and say “Hello”. We will be hanging out talking studio stories and possibly recording some as well on the bus. There will also be incentives for booking your session during SXSW on the bus. You can find our location on our twitter after we arrive.

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Mr. Smith Goes to San Francisco

Dave Smith of Dave Smith Instruments
Who can resist a party that involves vintage gear, a pool table, and Italian food?

Last week, Dave Smith Instruments opened the doors of its new San Francisco offices to a few dozen Bay Area friends and neighbors. The company recently relocated from Napa Valley to a trendy part of North Beach, the Italian district that is home to some of The City’s most well known eateries.

Besides putting the DSI staff near some of the best espresso in town, the company is now only a few blocks away from the shop where its instruments are assembled and tested. A roll of stickers at the party announced that DSI’s products are “Made in San Francisco.”

A workbench and a few CAD stations took up one end of the tastefully designed office. The work area was flanked by a pool table and large windows overlooking the bustling restaurant district. At the other end was a mini-museum/showroom where a Tempest, a Mopho Keyboard, and other DSI instruments were displayed among synths from Dave’s personal collection. The latter included his first Minimoog, which reportedly inspired him to get into this biz in the first place.
Dave Smith's Minimoog and Prophet 10.

Other keyboards on hand included a Sequential Circuits Prophet 10, a Prophet 5, and a Prophet T8. Many of the instruments were running through the PA and ready to play.
The Prophet 5 and T8 you wish you owned.

Among the partygoers where Don Buchla, Roger Linn, and Tom Oberheim, with whom Smith regularly meets for breakfast near UC Berkeley. Other notable attendees included Keyboard magazine editor Stephen Fortner; Mark Vail, author of Vintage Synthesizers, the classic reference for gear geeks; Michael Winger, Executive Director of the San Francisco Chapter of the Recording Academy; Peter Nyboer of Livid Instruments; and mastering engineers Michael Romanowski and Piper Payne of Michael Romanowski Mastering.

Yeah, a pool table at work. Dang.

Yes, there is a pool table in the office. Apparently the Sequential Circuits headquarters had a basketball court. Ah, the good old days…

It’s not all fun and games, though. A few shots of espresso and it’s time to design some synths!

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