Saturday, 24 November 2018

How I record and why I embraced auto-level (in certain circumstances)

I have dabbled in audio recording for many years with varying degrees of success.  While I once thought that only the direct feed from a guitar plugged in would get a good quality sound I am now convinced that microphones are best.

I have been using a Zoom H1 for a number of years, it is a stereo condenser mic that records to a micro SD card, at the low price end of the stereo condenser mic range. Perhaps one day I will venture out into the more expensive land of mics, but for now, I get more than I can deal with already at this level.

Over the years I've messed around with various filters, apparently everyone loves a bit of reverb. No, I don't. A mic has already captured whatever reverb the room you recorded in offered. I won't muddy up the sound by adding more artificial reverb or any other delay style effects. (Singers - don't hide under layers of delay effects.)

But I am a sucker for getting the graphic EQ "right". Where "right" means what my ear hears, through my fancy closed monitor headphones. Almost without fail I will boost the bottom end frequencies slightly, decrease the mid slightly, and boost the top end. I have many presets I have created but each recording I will listen with the EQ being applied realtime, drive up a frequency range to max to see what it sounds like, drive it down to min to see what it sounds like without it, and then pick an appropriate increase/decrease or leave it as it is.

A pretty common mild EQ I would apply looks like this:



The mid range I have removed here is what I'd call the "AM radio" sound, whereas the low and high ranges give more of the "FM radio" sound.  You can overdo it, and many times I have, so I have to remember to calm down and not "over produce" the audio.

Levels are important, particularly at recording. You don't want to overdrive and clip, but you don't want to be so low that you aren't using up all the dynamic range you have. I've read many times about aiming for a peak recording level of -12db, but you know, I reckon go a bit higher. If the crescendos have a tiny bit of clipping I think that is okay, almost "nice". It's not "pure", but it kinda accentuates the power of the top end of the volume dynamic range. Even when I apply my EQ filters I don't stress too much if it maxes out with a tiny bit of clipping.

That's because you want the end result to fill out the dynamic range of the signal, ie, be as loud as you can get. "Stuff sounds better when it is louder". If someone jumps on to your youtube video and has to turn it up, then you didn't get you final amplitudes right.

But I stop short of compression. Sure, with compression you can max out the levels in frequencies without clipping, create this powerful "wall of sound", but you are heading into over produced land again, like adding reverb and other delay effects. That original signal - the pure sound of an instrument - you want to stay true to that. Get the original sound right to start with, don't dabble too much from there. I'm sure this can be said to distorted electric guitar, I don't do much with them anymore.

And here's where I was when I was inspired to ramble on about this. Your time range dynamics, that is, over the course of a song where it goes soft, then goes loud, that's important. If when you are preparing to record setting up your mic, play as loud as what you intend on playing during the recording and set the level so that is close to the boundary of clipping, lock in that setting, perfect.

But what if you can't do that? Or, things change during the recording session and you can't change the level setting?

I have had this problem several times while recording my kids orchestra and band performances. I will set a level, record, and then later find it was way too low, or way too high, and that ruins the whole recording.

The Zoom H1 has an auto level feature. Where it will ramp up the level if the signal is low, or bring it back if the signal is high. I once believed that this was awful, complete heresy, worse than compression. I don't think that now, because, after ruining a few recordings getting the levels wrong I reluctantly turned it on for the last performance.

The problem being that I leave the mics on stage, and the little kids perform, the big kids perform, guest performers, then everyone combined - no chance of setting a fixed permanent level, even if I could access the mics in between performances.

You know what? The auto level was not as awful as I was expecting. I had two mics set up for either side of the orchestra, a H1 and a H1n and both did a similar admirable job. Sure there was the expected occasional "inrush", where the mic had scaled itself up trying to hear something as the performers were waiting to start, and the first note smashed the level, the mic went "WHOA!" and scaled right back, and it is very apparent in the wavefile.  You know what? Perform an amplitude fade for those few events and you will barely notice.



Looking at this sample stereo wavefile the first song is louder than the second, so it's not like the mic is constantly hunting to have every moment at a pre-designated amplitude. If I was to guess, and I'm allowed to because I write control algorithms for a living, I would say the Zoom will work in a range where it won't change the level until an extreme high event comes along where it very quickly scales down, and it's only if it's not hearing a minimum signal will it scale it up. So most of the time it is doing nothing, just leaving the level setting alone.

Which is exactly what you want in the situation I just described!  Yes; you will get a few glitches but fix/hide them in post production. That is nothing compared to ruining a recording by fixing a level that is not appropriate.

Mind, changed. Key learing: do fix the audio level if you know what to expect; if the unexpected is expected and you can't change the level as it happens, then turn on auto level and deal with the very few issues you will get in post.

Sunday, 4 November 2018

Zoom H1 versus H1n

Recording sound quality is upmost important for music. I used to consider the plugged in sound feed, direct from a pickup, the highest quality sound you could get from a guitar. But many years ago I bought a Zoom H1 stereo condenser microphone/recorder, and it blew my mind. The sound is *so* much better! It makes sense, you are capturing all the other subtle nuances that a pickup misses. I had already gone to dual pickups in the guitar, one that captures the soundboard as well under the saddle, which is great, but a quality microphone; that is hearing like your ears do; so much better!

The Zoom H1 has done me well for a long time, and I have an application coming up where I want to use two microphones, to capture an orchestra sound from both sides of the stage. I was going to buy another Zoom H1 but I noticed the new Zoom H1n is available, the upgraded version.

I has a lot more "stuff" like dubbing and playback at different speeds and other things I don't need, about the only feature I thought might be useful for my purpose was the limiter. However, it's only $20 more than the old model, and perhaps the microphones themselves are improved or something, so I bought one.

As a test I put them both in front of me playing guitar, one to the left, one to the right, and recorded both in the same mode being 48kHz 24bit WAV.

I attempted to match the levels at recording time but I didn't get it very close so I adjusted amplitudes in post, I also applied the same graphic EQ to both. I always apply some EQ to drop down the mids and boost the lows and highs a bit. Makes the sound more punchy and less AM radio. Or maybe that is just my tinnitus speaking. I do all this listening through Sennheiser HD280 Pro monitor headphones with a quite flat frequency response, so it should be pretty accurate.

What did I find, what was the difference?

The visual look of the WAV files showed some differences, like the H1n was maybe slightly more sensitive? But listening, no, they sound the same, other than a difference due to the location of the mics; you can tell they weren't in the same place.

...which was part of the reason I didn't have them next to each other - even though they are stereo microphones, if I combine the two files how would that sound? The answer - clearly better than either one! I went with 50% left on the H1n and 50% right on the H1 (100% either side seems excessive). I wasn't sure what putting stereo on an already stereo signal would be like, but I can tell you, I will be doing that from now on. A little bit more work, but it adds another layer of depth to the sound.  Here, check it out:

Zoom H1 demo:

Zoom H1n demo:

Mixed demo:

For interest, that was a sound grab from an arrangement that popped into my head last week, Bob Dylan "It's All Over Now Baby Blue", although I gone with more of the Graham Bonnet 1977 more rock less folk as that's the version I remember, more my era. I will probably talk about that more another time.

Enjoy!
JAW

Thursday, 25 October 2018

What's happening October 2018

What's happening in no particular order:

  • I've been continuing to play as a duet with an amazing violinist, who continues to amaze me. We both have kids in a private orchestra, we both pick up our kids, when we realised we could play as a duet we headed into a vacant music room 45 minutes before end of orchestra practise. He has a strong love for latin jazz, ragtime, blues, oldies - and he is far more organised than me so he brings books and I try to keep up with suitable fingerpicking chord progressions. He's a properly trained musician so it's been really great to duet with him.

    I feel I let the side down but he's happy just to be playing. It's the same story - he was heavily into playing in orchestras/ensembles but then with life and kids it falls by the wayside. Eventually as that chapter of life gets easier (in some ways, not others!) you get back into it. I never let it go, hung onto playing guitar at least a few hours a week, through all chapters...but I get it that people will let it go. So long as you go back I reckon!

    I will record one of our jams sometime and post it here for interest sake.

  • I continue to teach two girls guitar, we had a long break with holidays but we are back into it. I'm not super organised about it, but at the low low price of free, I don't think I need to be :-) We are still progressing through the classic Aaron Shearer red book which I still think is a fantastic start for fingerpicking, but these days I jump around teaching some chords and some other songs, particularly if they are working on something in school. One has advanced further than the other, which makes lessons more challenging, I'm not exactly sure how to deal with that. It's hard enough to find duets as it is, let alone with two suitable parts! Sometimes the more advanced girl is there by herself, I have attempted to show her my more "freestyle" approach to fingerstyle which she seems to both like the sound of and have a natural talent for, which I was really pleased to see. I hope to progress that more

  • I played at one of my mate Shaun's open mics. I have recently been adding to my Dark Side of the Moon some of the spoken parts, "I've been mad for years, absolutely years..." "And I am not frightened of dying, anytime will do I don't mind..." and the like. It is challenging to speak while playing reasonably complex fingerstyle, but more daunting is speaking it into a microphone. But I decided I had to do it, so I did. Face fears and all that. My play through of the album was not amazing by my own standard, and I think the spoken words didn't make sense to the audience. I will re-record it and put in the spoken parts for youtube, another chapter in the project, but not sure I will do it again at a gig.

    I also knew it would be a mistake playing the album as one pass - we were in the beer garden, the guitar was initially cold, and after around 5 minutes in it would be warmed up and would go out of tune. And because it is a noisy environment when I switched to drop D halfway through I wasn't really sure I was properly in tune, so I was stressing the whole time about not being in tune.  Lesson - always start with a few short songs so I can retune in between as the guitar comes up to temperature, and it will also relax me for playing such a challenging and lengthy piece.  After Dark Side, I played two rockin' numbers and I was happy enough with the play through on both.

    I hung around to watch another fingersyle player and chatted to him afterwards, he thought my Dark Side arrangement was amazing; I thought his ability to sing while playing fingerstyle was amazing. He threw in a complicated solo fingerstyle rendition of Billie Jean which he executed well; you can tell the guitarists who have seen some solo fingerstyle, loved it, and determinedly learnt one. That was the start of my solo fingerstyle. I think I had to determinedly learn the first 10 arrangements from tab, then arrange 20 of my own, and then keep doing that for another 10 years before it started to become natural. But I could see based on his solo fingerstyle piece why the first fingerpicked songs with singing he made look effortless. If you bite off a huge piece and persist for hundreds of hours the rest of your guitar playing is brought up as well. I reckon I could fingerpick any pattern you like in chords all day; and it's because the attention I paid to solo fingerstyle that makes that happen.

    It's a good scene though, the open mic scene. Everyone is supportive of each other and there is some great talent. I wrestle with the concept however, where is the line between someone who is going to make a career out of music, and some who is a really talented hobbyist? There are some guys and gals who clearly do it as a hobby, but some who would be looking to take it further. Is the open mic scene a pathway to a career or a place where 9-to-5'ers can enjoy their hobby? Who knows, but it's a good scene :-)

Thursday, 9 August 2018

Orchestra fill in...well kinda

All my kids are in bands/ensembles/orchestras. It's great, I never got that when I was a young aspiring musician. Playing in groups teaches you good skills. My youngest daughter's string orchestra, in which she plays cello, recently invited parents to join in, whatever instrument you have. Why not eh?

A few of us turned up, a clarinet player, some violinists and me on guitar. I pulled up a chair next to my daughter, but cello is bass clef and I can't read bass clef fluently. I moved back a little, and hit violas, they have that other clef. I can't read that one at all. Pulling back further, violin 3. Treble clef. All good, I stand a chance of reading that.

The music was new to the orchestra, first time seeing for everyone, they are all primary school kids and novices, but it wasn't "simple". Check key signature, there's an F# and a C#, okay, I'm pretty sure that means it's in some key, I will remember to play those notes sharp. A bunch of quarter notes, interspersed with eighth notes, oh, it's 3/4 time; it's a waltz.  Yeah, I got this.

Off goes the conductor, yep, I'm good. 4 bars later whoa, the conductor has slowed down...no wait, I'm speeding up!  Oh, oops, that was three eighth notes and then an eighth rest then a quarter note.  Uh oh, where am I? Looking for a hook back in...looking...looking...

Ha ha. I got a bit better on the second and third play through, and then better still in the next song, but wow! These kids are doing better than me! I thanked the conductor afterwards for the opportunity to join in, and for reminding me my ability to sight read is poor, and my tempo is even worse.

Bottom line is when you are largely self taught, and have only ever played solo, jumping into a band or ensemble or orchestra does not come natural. I said to one of the mums afterwards "If I grabbed a heap of pieces and sight read them playing to a metronome for a while I would get much better at this...but what would I do that for?" :-)

I do however encourage you to play in a group, and learn to read music as part of your musical adventure, especially if you are not getting tuition. I do feel like I missed out not playing in groups.

Not to be perturbed, I sat down later that night, turned on the mic and played Dark Side of the Moon through. I do this at least once a week, I really want to keep it at a good level and develop it further. I stuffed up and restarted twice during Great Gig in the Sky, which I edited out of the audio, but the rest is all warts and all like you were sitting with me. I record stuff occasionally to listen back to see how I sound, helps me to know what expressions and dynamics to concentrate on. I should be able to _play_ it to start with, the icing on the cake is putting the emotion into it.

So here it is, not because I recorded something beautiful that I want you to hear, but because I had already put it on the web so I could listen to it at work, and adding a link to a blog is pretty straight forward.

Enjoy!
JAW

FotM 8 Aug 2018:

Sunday, 24 June 2018

June 2018 was video recording month

I got a bit excited in June and re-recorded a few songs for my main youtube channel. Over the years I have recorded videos using different cameras, audio capture techniques, framing...my ideas of what people want to see changes, but I've always wanted the highest quality video and audio. Since I'm cheap/tight I've never really spent the big bucks required for high quality, but the tech has been in place for quite some time to enable good quality. For several years I have collected what I needed...and kept working on my videography.

For some time I thought that people wanted to see the whole of the subject framed, "who is this person I'm listening too?" But since I don't get many views on youtube anymore, and most people who look now are guitarists, they are more interested in seeing what my fingers are doing.  So I now mostly frame closeups. My personal favourite closeup is looking down the neck from the headstock, "guitar cam" style. I have two mirrorless DSLRs, when you frame a closeup you introduce a depth of field, so you can tradeoff focus primarily at the left hand or right hand. Depth of field makes the video "look fancy" but really, people want to see clearly what is going on. To do that, you need to adjust the f-stop, but then you are letting less light in, so the ISO will go up and makes the picture noisier. I deal with this by introducing a lot of light, and forcing the focus mostly near my left hand but a bit further out so the right hand isn't a blur.

Since I have two of these cameras, I have the option for a second vantage point. Right hand looking up at left hand isn't a good angle, so I opt for a tightish front on, framed at the extents of my left and right hands.

Really, the difficulty in getting an asthetically pleasing video increases as the quality of the equipment you are using increases!

Audio I started using a stereo condenser microphone years ago and haven't looked back.  I'm using the budget end "Zoom Handy H1", I'm sure the higher end ones do a better job, but the H1 is really quite good.

But just as important, if you want to chop between camera angles you need a bit of software that keeps it easy. For years I used Virtualdub, one video feed, all one take no cuts, and resynchronised the audio feed from the microphone, with the EQ tweaked a bit.  Now I use PowerDirector (I have tried several video editing programs over the years, this one suits my style the best, it's not exactly what I want, but it's closer than the others). I can synchronise the two video feeds and the audio feed quite easily, and chop between the cameras for effect. It's still much easier if I play through a song in one take, but if I get halfway through and muff it, then play out the end, ie, do the song in two parts, it's not too hard to work that.  More than two parts, nup, too hard, easier to replay the song and get it right :-)

Anyway, 5 videos released this month which would be a record, 2 never seen before though. And here's what my setup positioning looks like - it's hard to have bright lights angled so that I don't have killer reflections on the guitar from both cameras!