Mixing compressors and equalizers

I’m very much attracted by complex suites of mastering tools like iZotope Ozone or FabFilter. I don’t like the default settings of Ozone 9, but that’s expected, and can be easily dealt with by using the plethora of fine-tuning controls it offers.

In the end, after having finally found a way to deal with it, I find that Ozone’s processors are very transparent and very effective. They sound good, if not overused, and can be on a par of some of the best stand-alone effects.

Still, I’ve my favorite dynamic processors and equalizers. Among my favorites are Softube’s modeled Manley Variable Mu Limiter/Compressor and Massive Passive EQ. I often set them in chain, with some subtle parallel compression adding a bit of tube saturation, and a light middle/side widening and smooth crafting of frequencies.

Then come Ozone, with more surgical refinements: that precise lowering os resonance around 500 and 3500 Hz to avoid nasality; some dynamic equalizing to prevent boomy basses of annoying frequencies; some spectral shaping to remove sibilants and smoothing the highs; a bit of low end focus; and finally a hint of transparent maximizing, to balance everything and make it compliant with consumer speakers.

So, I first craft my sound, and then do all the final retouching to make it stay strong.

Making a list of things to do right on your desktop

Do you end up with a lot of windows or panels open in your computer’s desktop? You are a working freelance, and have a lot of concurrent tasks going on? I know your story!

You are probably dealing with a Getting Things Done (GTD) workflow, and also keep one or more windows of your planner open, just to deal with the fact you have too many windows open. Your computer is protesting, with higher processor and memory consumption.

So, do your organization work right were your work is done – your computer’s desktop. Open a folder on top of one of your categories (Company Texts, Music Composition, Drawings and so on), and name it something like “Thing to do in music”. If you want it on top of the list, add a zero or underscore at the beginning of its name.

Add shortcuts/aliases from the open folders. Close the folders. Open just one of them when you are going to work on it. Close it when done. Leave only the list of aliases always open. Work on your GTD list, one task at a time.

Dealing with Logic’s Beat Mapping

Do I really have to do it? You know – load an audio file in Logic, enable Beat Mapping, then drag a Measure/Beat ruler position to the corresponding peak in the audio waveform. If you are working on very simple materials, maybe the automatic detection can work nearly alone. If you are working on real music, it doesn’t work.

After many long tedious sessions of Ctrl-Shift-dragging and hoping the beat to sticks to the desired position, and usually ending up with a bumpy Tempo track, I’ve decided a better solution had to be found. My preferred workaround is to beat the Tempo in a new MIDI track. Then, I’ll ask Logic to get the beat mapping from that one. If things are a bit out, I can simply nudge the MIDI event, proportionally respace them with the Time Handles, or even add or delete events if a beat should be added or removed.

This works a lot better for me. At least, it is a tempo I beat myself on real music, and not an informed hint from a machine.

Should I add a vintage analog mixer to my digital setup?

I have my old Allen & Heath GS3 mixing board sitting next to me, unused, there just as a talisman for the studio. When new it was a mid-range mixer, priced about like a lightly-used second-hand city car, dedicated to the then growing multitrack project studio.

The mixer could be stay connected both to sources (synthesizers, voice microphones, drum mics – you name them) and, at the same time, to the multitrack tape recorder. This one was typically eight tracks, the exact number of the busses in the mixer. But the count could go even higher, in particular with the then growing market of multitrack digital recorders (of which the Alesis ADAT was probably the most famous).

Pressing a switch would have reversed the audio signal path. So, there was a first phase in which you recorded audio sources, making a pre-mix that would have ended into a number or tracks lower than the available inputs; and a second phase, where you reversed the inputs, and could use the same internal equalizers and the connected dynamic processors and modulating effects to process the recorded tracks. These could then be mixed down to a stereo master, to its dedicated set of jacks.

Despite not being a high-end mixer, it had interesting audio qualities, with a fat sound and very musical (even if very limited) equalization filters. While not imparting that open sound typical of much more expensive mixers, its sound possessed in any case a three dimensional quality, sort of a liquid quality making the sound sources seem to be floating in space. Exhibiting a strong low-end, it was very much loved by indie rock and electronic dance producers.

Its construction is all TL072P and NE5532 opamps, good middle-range chips widely used in quality audio circuits. At the time, integrated circuits were considered of a lower quality, compared to the discrete circuits of the previous high-end consoles. Also, the lack of transformers on the inputs made this class of audio devices considered to sound flatter. As a concession to high-quality design, this mixer has discrete channel cards with a clean layout, made less expensive by attaching them to a single front plate instead of separate channel strips. It’s all metal frame, made to destroy things during transportation.

The heart of the beast

I’m wondering if using it as a summing board would make sense. Just eight channels from the audio interface, down to the stereo bus. Unity volume or the like. Digital technology has made great advancements in these years, but there is still something missing, that glossy patina that analog gears imparted to the sound. Often darker, less detailed, but with that hint of tasty saturation and real-life volume that seems to have gone lost with most digital gears.

Should I take the snakes out of the locker, and give a new life to this old chap?

Mixing VSL classic libraries with the new Synchron ones

When composing or making a prototype of existing compositions, I’m using a mix of everything. The core of my soundscape is made of VSL instruments. Of the many variants of their libraries, I usually rely on the old VI series – but in some cases I prefer to go Synchronized, because it makes sense. For example, if using Dimension Strings mostly as a compact ensemble instead of separate players, SYzd is much easier to deal with. They are more compact, and accessing the individual players is more immediate from the Synchron Player’s mixer page. With Special Keyboards and Plucked Instruments I like the better labelling of the SYzd versions.

When needing Dimension Strings in more complex setups, with highly variable setups of individual players, I prefer the old VI version, because I don't have to deactivate all the added impulses and effects before using them. There shouldn't be any difference in the available articulations. The same with Dimension Brass, that I only have in the VI version. The recently added Synchron Stage presets for the MIR room simulator makes very easy integrating VI instruments with any other Syzd or Synchron library.

At the moment, VI collections are easier for me, because I've create all the presets by following the same schema. So, I have a unique map for everything. If I want to layer strings from different libraries, the same map will drive them all from a single MIDI channel. Layering is more a matter of expanding an instrument with other perspectives on the same instrument.

Several of the VSL instruments are still only available as VI collections, so there is no choice. Woodwinds, for example, or the more exoteric brass, are not available as SYzd or Synchron instruments. And many of the most advanced articulations, like the ones in the Vienna Horn or the Appassionata Strings, are only in the VI collections.

I'm still not fully in love with the Synchron world, but I've been forced by the BBO series into it. I wouldn't probably have got Synchron Strings Pro (SSP) without needing a matching strings library for their Big Bang Orchestra (BBO). It's a fantastic library, but I still feel it is not the best choice for what I do mostly (that is classical music). Yet, I know that we are in a courtship affair, in particular when thinking to move to a larger simulated space, more in line with what film orchestras have accustomed us to love.

BBO contains some incredible instruments. And Synchron FX Strings 1 is probably one of the most precious tools I have in my arsenal. I'm therefore switching my VI collections to the *Synchron Stage Wide* room in MIR, so that I can match them to the new collections. They all integrate really well, like good sisters. And the Synchron Stage A hall can be really impressive, even if not the sound I would have chosen before some others if following my istinct.

So, I'm now living in a hybrid setup, with a core made of VI, extensions from the Synchron/BBO series, and some Synchronized instruments. All blended (very well) inside MIR PRO.