Friday, 4 September 2015

Telecommunications

For some reason every interaction I have with telecommunications companies seems to leave me feeling that they are deliberately trying to make life difficult. They always seem to want to put up barriers against easy usage, charges for changing company, charges to fix their own errors etc. I can't help but feel that if they were regulated by similar rules as the financial services industry (Post RDR) they would find life a hell of a lot more difficult. There seems to be no equivalent of 'Treating customers fairly'. Its also my opinion that they were much more straight-forward to deal with when they did one thing each. It seems that managing my phone, mobile, tv and internet services is too daunting a prospect for a single company anymore.

Just this morning, for instance, BT charged me £30 to STOP providing me broadband. I wasn't in a minimum term contract and I wasn't asking for anything special. That's what they charge every customer who moves to cable. If you stick with ADSL, even with another company, you don't have to pay them the fee. That is actually providing a disincentive against customers moving to a better, easier managed, forward thinking technology. I would understand if they were a smaller company, with no vested interest in infrastructure, but BT actually stand to benefit from people moving to the newer system, so what on earth am I being charged for? To further add insult to injury, they completely lied about ever having being told to cancel the service (a month ago) and so I have to pay them another month's internet, that i'm not using, for their mistake.

Sadly the above episode is just one example from an entire novel's worth of misery from my interactions with almost all telecoms companies. Technology has moved forward so much in the last 15 years but in some ways we've paid the price for not holding the consumer level companies to their promise to correctly manage it and not shaft the customer.

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Underdubbing

When we are mixing audio there is a temptation to always reach for EQ, Compression, or something even more fanciful. This is because we are in the mixing mindset, this is how you mix right. Its not that these tools don't have a place in the mix, they really do. Its just that sometimes we need to remember that taking things back to basics can be helpful, and so we instead reach for volume and panning controls. We try to balance what we have in front of us on the screen or coming through the console and apply the tools we are used to. The problem is that often, as with so much in audio, the cause of the issue is actually in the arrangement. There is simply too much going on. Trying to fit too many parts together at once can lead to a lack of focus and can render any attempt to massage the parts together as pointless.

Reasons

Accepting that the arrangement needs changing or altering in some way can prove one of the absolute hardest things to take on board for an artist. Their hand crafted, painstakingly sculpted work of art isn't perfect ? How dare you even suggest that ! (Cue Mozart in Amadeus proclaiming there are just the right amount of notes) Sadly it is often the case that a cluttered, unfocused arrangement can tie the hands of a mixer to a massive degree and some careful pruning would actually yield an astonishingly improved result.

So why does this occur? How does this parts explosion get started?

1.) Emotional attachment to parts

Artists are humans and as such they have emotions and feelings. Creative people are often very in touch with these emotions and use them to fuel their creative habit. The problem is that they can get very attached to parts throughout the writing process, even to the detriment of the track as a whole. They vividly remember the 6 hours of pain and misery trying to record that guitar solo, even though its going on at the same time as the lead vocal and blocking out the singer's tasteful vibrato.

2.) Lack of understanding of the function of parts

Often song-writers like the sound of a part but do not really understand the function it would play in a full arrangement. Each part should add something to the arrangement without stepping on other part's toes but also crucially adding to the full during of the arrangement. A part might fit beautifully at a certain point but could be to the detriment of the track when considered chronologically. Consider a crowded verse part when the chorus is crowded as well. The chorus will not soar, because of the verse part's fullness. It will sound weak in comparison.

3.) Good sounds in isolation

Sounds, when isolated, can often sound very good. The problem can be that they don't sound good in the context of the rest of the track. One particularly bad culprit for this is synthesiser patches. The point of many patches is not mix well but to advertise the sonic capabilities of the synth.

4.) Saturated ears

Often listening to the same parts of a song over and over, while writing, can lead to recognising the song in that form. A sort of over-saturation occurs because the brain can recall and latch onto that pattern within the song. This saturation leads to an inability to see the song as anything other than exactly what it is currently. The tendency of the songwriter is to then try to mix exactly that, and not consider other arrangement choices, which might yield better results.

Personal Reasons

I have personally come across this issue, within my own musical work, largely due to the my particular musical background. I am originally a guitar player, who picked up all the instruments I now play later. I started, fairly early on, recording on a computer and playing along with a metronome. I played in bands for a while but this became less and less a part of my musical life compared to solo work. It was only much later in my musical life that I had the confidence to start recording my own vocals.

As a guitar player my tendency is always to create music on guitar and then try to shoehorn the guitar parts into every bit of the track. Electric guitars in particular can suffer from a lack of dynamics if played from the top of the track to the bottom. They also eat up the frequency range like nobody's business. As such they are a fast track to creating mixes with no space to play with for other parts.

On top of this because I create the music, usually, before the vocals I almost always don't leave space for them in the mix. I create the track as if it was finished, including parts that are functioning as lead parts. Then when I do record them they sound thin and horrible because they are being crowded out. Everything sounds muddy and the mix never seems to sit in a way that blends.

Solution

The solution to this problem is something mixerman, in his book "Zen and the art of mixing" coined "Underdubbing". Essentially this means dropping parts when you have the full mix available to you. Its a simple process of editing yourself, judiciously. If the part doesn't add something, remove it. If the part detracts from another part, pick one or the other. Whenever I finish writing a piece of music and recording the vocals, I go back through it and remove anything that doesn't work, using the above two rules. I find that almost always the track becomes much much easier to mix and opens itself out. Reverbs have more space, delays and effects can be heard and often small details, that were being drowned out, come to the surface.

Thursday, 9 July 2015

Possibilities

After a rough few days, and a lot of hard decisions I was struck by a thought as I walked up to my friend's house last night. The world often feels like opportunity is hidden behind a wall. It often feels like it's extremely difficult to get past barriers and the things you want are kept from you. What i'm actually realising is that often the capability to achieve the things you want is within most people's reach, its about effort and desire. What I mean by this is that when you have goals, the actual path to them is often not as complicated as it first seems. What holds us back, in my opinion, is that we often crave things that we don't want enough to follow the path to get them. The path is hard, but its not impossible, and this difficulty stops us taking it. For instance many people crave money. They seek a way to have a large bank balance, because they desire the particular life it will bring them. Very often the primary driving goal behind this desire is to be able to quit their jobs and live a life of leisure. The pragmatic path to doing this usually involves many risks. It can necessitate starting a business, going into property development and, crucially, can take many years. What people normally mean is they want that end goal, the money, now. They see successful rich people and assume that it must be luck. Yes, some get lucky but what you find is that those who have gotten rich by pure luck often set out with other goals than simply to be rich. The money comes as a consequence of their other desires and the work they put in to achieve them.

So what am I saying here? That we are all lazy slackers who want the world handed to us on a plate? No not at all. I am saying that humans are largely irrational beings who tend to crave. What these cravings often do is hide the things we actually want or need behind a haze of fleeting desires and a feeling of unfulfilled yearnings. The path to the things we really want can be absolutely gruelling, but because we really want those things that is a path we will gladly walk. At this minute in time I am writing this blog from my bed, still in my pyjamas. There are people in the world currently out climbing mountains and I genuinely could not force myself to get up and do that without breakfast, a shower, coffee etc but that doesn't mean i'm lazy. It means they have a goal and a desire to climb the mountain and it gives them some meaning to their life and their day. Other times I might want to be the mountain climber and they might be blogging in their pjs.

One, particularly insidious, side effect of this craving things we don't really have the motivation to achieve is envy, the green-eyed beast from the pits of our belly. We see someone with something shiny we want, in a better situation than ourselves, living our dream. The problem is again to do with timing and perspective. We have no idea what they have sacrificed for that which we envy. We don't see the path taken, only the end result and the pot at the end of the rainbow. We are viewing the last few pages of a book, without any notion of whether the preceding chapters are something we'd even want to read. Modern consumerism encourages this viewpoint of the world with credit, high interest loans and buy-it-now-to-save deals. Money is being made on people's envy by offering them a way to bypass the path to goals. Its a cognitive trick and people don't even realise they are being taken in. The problem is that all this actually does is place people on the path, but with no reward. The path is now harder, due to the downside associated with all shortcuts, and there is no payoff. In general if you couldn't take the 'path before goal' approach to something you desire, it might be worth questioning whether you even desired it in the first place.

An example from the last week came up when our boiler broke down. We have been living in our new home since last September and since then various parts of the house have started to break and need repair and replacement. It was really starting to get on top of me and the boiler going felt like the last straw. Replacing it with a new boiler will wipe out the last of our savings and leave us once again staring at a blank ledger to begin saving for any home improvements we want to make. My first reaction was to despair. I was pissed off and really not able to handle the situation. I went out for a walk and on my walk my mind cleared a bit. I realised that I could actually cut quite a bit out of my budget each week from things like buying breakfast on the way to work and ordering take-aways etc. These were things I had largely being doing to deal with the pressure I had been feeling, I comfort eat a lot. I thought about it and what I really wanted was to fix the boiler and get the house done up as i'd like for me and my family. The idea of giving up treats from my daily schedule seemed terrible but not when I weighed up how badly I wanted to not be worrying about how we were going to fix up the house. So we sat down and looked through the budget and realised that we can have most of the things we want done in a couple of years, just by cutting back on these extra little tit-bits (starbucks coffee, I am no longer your bitch). Its not like i'm even losing the treats, i'm just bulk buying them, taking them with me and not falling prey to commuter prices for things like a morning roll. The path is difficult, but the end goal is something I truly want so I take it without issue.

Sunday, 28 June 2015

I'm Back !

Catch Up

So I haven't blogged in a long time. I used to use this blog purely for imparting audio knowledge and ideas but, like my youtube channel, I want to talk more about ideas I have in general. Some will be audio, others will be something else.

Happenings (Overall)

Since the last time I posted on this blog I have now got a Phd, a job as a software engineer, a family and a bought house. The big lesson I learned from all of the above is that you often don't know where life is headed. You can do things and try to control things but life will happen around you, probably in ways you didn't expect. I've lost count of the number of times that i've had things happen that I never expected, wanted or even thought about. What you can control is how you react to life and how you live each day, even if the bigger picture will happen with or without you.

Leaving Facebook
One of the things I did recently was to close my Facebook account. I had been aware for a while that there was something about Facebook I really disliked. It turns out there was quite a lot of things about it that I didn't like. My main issue is the lack of focus in their offering as a service. You can use it to put up music, but its not really that effective for that. You can use it to talk but larger posts are generally ignored, because the standard format is smaller posts, much like twitter (which I also don't use, and never have). What do you use it for mostly? Fucking around. Its a stream of unedited, unfinished, raw thoughts of the people in your social circle, fed right into your everyday life. To me its the internet's version of small talk. Anyone trying to have a longer conversation is discouraged, and in my opinion its not really a positive thing in society. I have kept the internet services that I feel have some focus or some definite format or idea, something that encourages content creation, but I refuse to keep anything that's organising principle or driving force is purely encouraging people to be "faux social". I have my friend's numbers and emails and I will call them when I need to chat.

Happenings (Recent)

So yesterday I went to see a friend who had been sick and we basically decided that we need to do more gaming nights. Often I go to his and we just sort of sit and chill, but we used to really enjoy actually having a focus for our time together. With this in mind we picked out Lylat Wars on the N64 and hit it solid until it was done. Pizza, soda pop and a good old school game. A good night. It struck me as we were playing that although we were both rusty as hell the game wasn't as difficult as we remembered it being. Afterwards we moved onto Prince of Persia:Sands of Time and found that to be much more challenging on the whole, to the extent that we couldn't finish it in the few hours we got through Lylat Wars. I think the lack of a save-game state could have something to do with it, because i've played long games on the N64 that challenged me, its not just the system.

Friday, 1 March 2013

Ear initialisation

One of the things you constantly read online is that as home recordists we should always use a reference track when we are mixing. I couldn't agree more but I think that a stage is often missed regarding this and that's the stage before we start making music.

So picture this, you sit down and get ready to start making music. You make some music and it sounds good to you. Then you listen to your preferred reference mixes and you sound......terrible. At this point you start mixing and try to fix the issues there. Nothing is working. What is the problem. Well I have some suggestions.

If you are anything like me you listen to the vast majority of your musical input on headphones. I have a couple of pairs of cans that see the most action, my bose in ears at work and my bose noise cancelling quiet comfort 3's out and about. The problem with this is that we get our reference of music from these. Chances are, the sound of this same music in your studio on your monitors is very different. In my case it certainly is as my headphones are nowhere near flat but my studio monitors are.

Now im not proposing that you bin either your headphones or your speakers or that you stop using either. That would be crazy. What im suggesting is that before you sit down and start recording a new track, take maybe 15 minutes to a half hour to listen some of your favourite mixes in a similar style through your studio monitors. This does two things, firstly it resets your ears from your headphones and secondly it also inspires you, listening to great mixes BEFORE you start making your mix is uplifting. Listening afterwards and feeling that your mix doesnt stack up actually has the opposite effect, you end up feeling down about your work !

Hope this top helps and stay creative,
Pipo.

Thursday, 28 February 2013

Mastering with headphones.

Probably not the world's most popular idea but recently I've been mastering with headphones. Why? Well a number of reasons.

  •  Familiarity

I listen to pretty much all my music on my headphones. That is a whole lot of mastered, finished, polished, professional music. As a result, I know my cans inside out. I know how much bass they should respond with, how much treble there should and generally I know what music should sound like through them.

  • Perfect listening environment

People tend to complain that headphones dont give an accurate responce, certain frequencies are hyped, stereo placement isn't good etc etc. But the one advantage they have for most home studio owners is that they dont suffer from reflection issues or peaks and nulls in an inconsistent way. If your room is quiet, headphones sound the same wherever you are in the room. As for the disadvantages, i've usually sorted the vast majority of those issues already by the time I come to do my mastering. Im really just making a few final eq changes at this point and doing a little bit of mastering compression and limiting.


  • The microscope effect

Because headphones typically put the sound right at your ear, you can generally hear tiny details in the music. This is generally what you are looking for when it comes to mastering, the details, the small things that polish a track. As such headphones really are perfect for this task.
   

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Making decisions

Sometimes we cripple ourselves with decisions. We um and ah about the relative merits of one thing or the other. We convince ourselves that one option or the other is the "best" and worry excessively about picking the non-optimal thing and the negative effects this will have. Often its actually the case that neither option is "better" and we actually just need to make a decision as the only bad thing to do is to do nothing at all. Making a decision allows us to forget about the other options this time and move forward with whatever we are working on.

This isn't just advice for the music world either, often in life the multitude of decisions can be crippling. Im not arguing against having options, because I think options are good and total minimalism isn't the way to go. I just think that the ability to pick and deal with options is important. It allows us to learn, grow and move forward.