Last year I wrote a blog entry about using Magic AB to reference mixes or masters against commercial recordings. You can see the original post in the side pane but having reviewed it, I realised I had left out one vital piece of info; making sure the reference material was appropriately level matched for accurate comparison.
Magic AB seems to have become the standard for referencing, which makes a lot of sense given its ease of use, as well as the ability to load multiple tracks independently of the session and save presets etc. It makes referencing fun (an achievement in and of itself) but unfortunately, the RMS and peak metering on Magic AB can leave you in the dark when trying to frequency match commercial music against our own.
If you are a member of the production advice forums, you will have heard Mastering engineer Ian Shepherd talk about how crucial it is to have level matched reference material, and how even half a dB difference in volume can affect your judgement when trying to match frequencies.
Over the years his videos have helped me enormously and you can check out his production advice site here.
LUFS (loudness units relative to full scale) is the measurement system used to gauge the overall, or integrated, loudness of audio. It takes an average reading over time and provides an integrated, short term and momentary level reading, something that can’t be deciphered manually using traditional peak or RMS meters, which Magic AB has.
This means that level matching in the plugin can only be rough, and not as accurate as if you used an LUFS meter to level match reference tracks to a set target loudness, before importing them into the plugin for AB’ing.
So, here is a short video showing how I level match my reference material. I master to a target level of -16 LU, but you can set it however you like. The most important thing is that the integrated loudness levels are matched to your material when referencing.
I use the LUFS plugin from Klangfreund, which has great metering and auto level adjustment (as well as an extremely handy grouping feature), all for $49 (there is also a $24 version with a few less features). I use this particular meter because the auto adjust speeds up my workflow, but a meter alone is good enough and something like Toneboosters EBU Loudness meter is a pretty affordable option. As long as it works according to the specifications laid out in ITU-R BS. 1770 it’s fine.
I use auto adjust, but you can do it manually by taking a reading (using the offline render like in the video) and adjusting according to your target.
Usually when you invite a friend for dinner, and they ask if they can bring something, you might get a bottle of wine. Probably the last thing you expect to receive is a Tascam Portastudio 488Mk2, which did happen last week thanks to the kindness of one Mr Simon Horn (BIMM Berlin, KMR Audio).
I have been after one of these for a while and admit to being ‘sniped’ more than a few times when trying to bid on one on eBay. I eventually admitted defeat and got a Zoom R24 (as an easy mobile recording solution), an intend to grab a 500 series lunchbox and the DIY recording Distortastudio colour module, a design based on the channel of a late 80′s TASCAM 464 (You can read the whole story on their site), in the next few months.
As fate would have it, I managed to get the real thing - even if only for a short period of time – and thought I would go nuts while I had the chance, putting my findings on this ‘ere blog. I may even do a full recording and mixdown on it.
The Tascam Portastudio 488 Mk2 came out in 1995 and cost £1299! Which seems like a surprising amount, until I got to spend some time with it and realised that this is a well made, great sounding piece of kit with pretty impressive features. It is solidly built (although a little too heavy to make it a practical mobile recording solution) and the trims and channel strip EQ sound great.
The 488 is capable of recording 4 channels simultaneously, with mic inputs on channels 1-4 and insert points on 1 and 2, for an effect or compressor. Each channel has a low and high (100hz and 10khz) shelving filter and a sweepable mid band EQ (250hz to 5K) that sounds smooth and warm to my ears.
There isn’t a per channel phantom power switch (it’s either on or not) which could be tricky if you wanted to combine condenser mics with non-active ribbon mics, and although the monitoring and output section is good, there is no direct tape out.
According to the manual, the 488 runs tape at 3-3/4 IPS (2x faster than normal cassette players and recorders) and its eight track functionality allows recording on one side only. That means that you only get a quarter of the cassette running time, so you might be lucky to get four takes of a song on a typical SA90 (22.5 mins of recording time if you were wondering).
Also, its tape speed makes it useless for mastering purposes so is designed to be used with mastering machine such as the TASCAM 122, and it even has designated outputs for this. Looking around on eBay you can get a broken 122 Mk3 for about £100 and a working one between £300 – £800. Pretty pricey.
With that said I have no intention of getting into the cassette mastering racket, even though there has been a resurgence of late, and I thought I would mainly use it as a lofi effect to drive the pre amps hard on drum or synth tracks and run few mixes through it.
Cassette was the first format I loved. I bought all my first albums on cassette in the early 90′s and even though the sound wasn’t pristine, it had character. Best of all, the more you played it the more the sound deteriorated, and somehow this made it even more appealing.
For that reason I wanted to hear what a full track would sound like through the 488 and had just finished off a mix of the track ‘Chosen’ by Jeris Cole from The Mix Academy.
I decided to do three; one is a straight bounce from Reaper, the second summed through channel 1 and 2 on the Portastudio using Reainsert (with the trim/drive set to about 30%) and at the same time recorded to tape (a TDK SA60 Type 2 with Dolby NR on) then brought back into Reaper.
The track was hitting the tape at pretty moderate level of between 0 and +3dB VU and each of the three tracks were level matched afterwards with Perception. Here are the results…
..pretty interesting, with the version summed through the channels being my favourite of the three. I think this could change if I had decided to leave Dolby NR off and there was a little more audible hiss. The tape version loses some low and high end clarity, adding some mid range distortion and low-mid boominess, which is exactly what I was hoping for.
The loss, and compensatory distortion, in the high and low end make perfect sense given the overall frequency response of 40Hz to 14Khz when recording to tape; however, its worth noting that each channel responds between 20hz to 22Khz individually, so the version summed through the channels has the sonic characteristic imparted by the 488 without any (or much – It is old after all!) of the signal loss of the tape version .
I occasionally use distortion on my drum buss when mixing, or as a parallel effect, so I was pretty excited to run some drums through the preamps. I decided against running to tape in this example to avoid unwanted timing artefacts of the wow and flutter, as well as speed fluctuations of the (now 21 year old) capstan motor. Instead I did three variations of the same drum recording; first the original digital recording, the second summed through channel 1 and 2 of the 488 with the trim at 50%, and the last one summed at 100% (smashed to death). Each version was then level matched in Reaper using Perception at an integrated loudness of -16LUFS, the default setting for Perception).
…and the results are very pleasing indeed. Lovely crunchy analogue distortion which will undoubtedly appear somewhere on one of my next mixes.
Last but not least, I decided to sample the little mono synth I have on my desk and make it into an EXS instrument. I recorded 4 octaves of the synth onto tape with Dolby NR, and the trim at about 20%, and recorded it back into Reaper, chopped and edited the samples and imported them into Logic.
The point of this was to have a variation of the synth at hand that I use very often (to beef up bass lines mainly), should it be required quickly. It does add an extra layer of grit to the already pretty dirty sound. I also tweaked some of the settings in the EXS24 to fatten up the low end.
Here is a short video of the synth. Listen in HD on good headphones or decent monitors and if you want to download the EXS instrument to try it for yourself, go here.
*this riff is from the Mogwai track ‘remurdered’. I didn’t write it, I just punched it in. I wish I had though, but instead, Mogwai did. If you don’t know the band, or the song, you should.
As promised I went a bit crazy here but hopefully you get a good idea of what the 488 is capable of. I still haven’t gotten around to using for its actual purpose as a multi-track recorder but hopefully I will get the opportunity soon. I doubt any clients will be welcome to my suggestion that their next song should be tracked this way, but you never know. If anyone is up for experimenting, please get in touch.
Given how long I have been after one of these, it seems a slightly extravagant piece of gear for the sole purpose of an analogue distortion effect. This makes me feel like the Distortastudio module from DIY recording would be the best way to go. I just wish they had modelled the EQ too.
Thanks for reading,
*Thanks to David Glenn Kulp and Jeris Cole for allowing me to use the track ‘Chosen’ for this blog entry.
If you have transitioned from Logic to Reaper on a Mac then it is possible that you, like me, miss some of the EXS instruments that were previously available.
For that reason I thought I would put together a very short video showing how to use the AUi Sampler in Reaper. This allows you to open EXS files from your Logic sampler instruments directory on Mac HD. For people who use it regularly, you can store the samples anywhere on your computer as long as the EXS files themselves reside in the correct directory which is MAC HD>Library>Application support>Logic>Sampler Instruments.
You do get a lot less features than with the EXS24 (and good luck finding a user guide for it – let me know if you do) but it’s great to have even a tiny part of its functionality available.
Also, not a user guide per se, but there is some extra info on the dev page here regarding compatibility.
It states that all Logic Pro 9 factory instruments are supported, as well as, a large number of the factory Logic Pro X EXS24 files, however some complex instruments may not work. Also compatible are any EXS24 instrument created in Logic Pro 9, or Logic Pro X.
Over a year ago I posted a free EXS Instrument of an accordion I made with a friend, so here it is again. If memory serves me correctly we used a modded Apex 205 Ribbon Mic and the ISA One to capture it.
As I have mentioned a few times before, of the many books that have been invaluable to me over the years ‘Mixing with your mind’ by Michael Stavrou has to be at the top of the pile.
He has a very creative approach to sound engineering and worked at AIR studios in London for over 10 years.
For this video I dusted off my copy for a quick reference but have been using this step-by-step method for compression since I discovered it. In the book he describes this as a way to get that ‘expensive sound’ you hear on so many commercial recordings and promises that this will help you compress individual instruments (or an entire mix) quickly and decisively.
He likens the technique to cracking a safe, with the order being extremely important so to fully hear the effect of each parameter when tweaking. Also, it is designed in such a way that you adjust each parameter and move on without the subsequent adjustment affecting your previous move. So, a faster workflow with less back and forward.
In the video demo I use the Slate FG Red because I like the sound of it on drums, but it is the technique that is important, so you can use any plugin or hardware compressor you prefer.
Ever since I stumbled across the concept I have become obsessed with putting together a reference ‘CD’ for checking mixes. I have to admit that I spent the first couple of years mixing without them and suffered many torturous days wondering why I couldn’t get my mixes to sound like the records I was listening to at the time.
Fast forward many years and as a freelance producer/mixer I mostly work from home for mixing and mastering, although I do occasionally work in other spaces. In those cases I take my reference ‘CD’ with me (inverted commas because my CD is actually a rugged drive) as well as some of my own work to play there. This helps me to get an immediate feel for the room and ultimately speeds up my workflow.
Good monitoring is very important but it is impossible to entirely eliminate unwanted frequencies and bass build up from a space that also serves as a practical living space (not to mention extraneous noise) and there will always be some compromise. Reference tracks can go along way to help you in this area and allow you to judge the space and set up your desk and monitors optimally.
It’s expensive, but if you can find (or even get a copy from the library) of the book ‘Mixing with your mind’ then this offers more conceptual approaches to getting the best out of your room and monitoring - all you need is an assistant! (If you read it you’ll understand the reference).
I always talk about the Mike Senior book as a great resource for home mixing and he has a lot to say about the importance of reference CD’s in all small mixing environments. He even goes to the extent of creating small 30 second blasts of sections of songs with a specific sound or part that he can access quickly.
No matter what mixing level you are at it is important to note; referencing is used by everyone, it should be something you devote time to doing every day (whether this is compiling tracks or just actively listening) and if you are still in doubt of it’s importance, remember that most, if not all, of the professional tracks you listen to were made using reference material.
The best part is that you don’t have to start at square one. Active listening may be a new approach but thanks to passive listening (something we do a lot more frequently) your subconscious has already done most of the heavy lifting. Unfortunately, the moment you realise you are passively listening then you aren’t passively listening anymore, but as a long-term music lover you have the benefit of years of practice.
One could argue that all songs make good reference tracks but it is important to make a clear distinction between which tracks you have chosen for which purpose. It may seem obvious, but if you want to check your bass guitar compression against a song, pick one that has a strong reputation for a good bass sound, rather than something you just like. Even if you only produce your own music it is good to have a diverse range of tracks on your reference CD. I’m going to stick my neck out here and say this should include Gangnam Style (although I draw the line at Robin Thicke for moral reasons).
Typically reverbs and delays can be hard to judge (how many times have you set up your reverb or effects bus, mixed a track then listened in your car and/or on headphones and thought the reverb was too loud?) Its much easier (and speeds up your workflow) to pick a song that you know has the same type of reverb you are after and reference against it.
Also, when referencing walk around your room, you’ll soon discover where the bass builds up or perhaps the main elements of the track lose focus. Sitting in the ‘sweet spot’ makes sense when mixing but the moment the track is in the real world no one will listen to it this way, so it is worth trying listening in as many ‘places’ as possible.
I work with a music critique service and a question I get asked a lot is how to make better, and faster, judgements when mixing or writing. More often than not the answer lies in using appropriate reference material. However, in order for reference material to be incorporated into your work flow you need to be able to access it quickly.
Also, Meterplugs have Perception which can be set up in a similar way, but takes a little more fiddling about.
A few things to remember; Use high quality (cd resolution or above) material for referencing, and if you get the opportunity to work in or visit other studios don’t forget to take some of your own current mixes to play as well as your reference material. It’ll be an eye opener :).
Lastly, don’t chicken out of referencing your mixes against professional ones for fear of disappointment. Being objective about your own work is hard, so although referencing can be a little soul-crushing initially once you get over that hurdle you’ll learn to become more objective and create professional sounding mixes you can be proud of.
Please email or comment.
P.S The Mike Senior book I mention is called ‘Mixing Secrets for the Small Studio”.