Flying Without A Net

June 25, 2015

It’s interesting…I’ve been doing an experiment. So far, in the three months since I reimaged my system back to Windows 7, I’ve not installed an antivirus application. "WHOAH! That’s CRAZYPANTS!" you say. Here’s the thing…I’ve been able to run my system at full-bore speeds. I’ve got MANY layers of JavaScript blockers going on my browser of choice (Chrome, in this case). I’ve modded my hosts file to have over 39K entries of blocked malicious sites and I add to it just about every day. I run a malware scanner ever so often, usually once a week with nary a nasty other than a couple of tracking cookies.

Honestly, I find antivirus software to be bigger hassles than the majority of viruses (other than the REALLY nasty ones that require scorched earth methods). Symantec/Norton and McAffee are, themselves, viruses – one of the banes of my work laptop experiences is the Symantec Endpoint ridiculousness that is installed.  Whomever configured it was the devil, as it will, randomly, throughout the day decide it needs to scan, no matter what I’m in the middle of doing, and will – sometimes, if it’s bored – run the scan a couple of minutes down to 30 seconds apart.  This wouldn’t be so bad if it didn’t give itself full priority, shoved what you were working on to the background and do it’s thing.  While this may not be Symantec’s fault, they get the blame for writing this bloated warthog of an application that chews up 500+MB of RAM on a system only graced with 4GB.  Avira blew their chance with me when they started being SEVERELY obnoxious with the popups pushing you to purchase a paid copy of the software and all hope for them was lost when I decided to uninstall it and instead of running the uninstaller, it downloaded and launched the updated version of the software.  Talk about virulent behavior.  Honestly, the best I’ve used is Avast, but even it taxes my system at random times enough to be severely annoying at best and  production killing at worst – and this is on a 3.9GHz hexcore with 20GB RAM, so if it grinds THAT to a halt, there’s something fundamentally wrong.

So, Mr. Flying Without a Net, why do you feel safe without any antivirus software on the most susceptible OS known to man? Honestly, I’ve changed my computing behavior. I rarely download anything from the net anymore that isn’t a purchase from a reputable vendor. I visit "normal" sites — the exception being a TV viewing site that necessitated the modded hosts file to begin with (if you’ve not encountered 23 popups within a 10 seconds span, you haven’t lived) — and I never do anything unexpected… So far, I’ve managed to stay clean. Now, I consider myself lucky in this regard and know that if something goes *bing,* it will go *bing* in a big way. That said, walking the straight and narrow has done wonders. Additionally, the use of firewalls – multiple layers has made life easier.

I will recommend a modded hosts file, in general, though, simply because it has sped things up immensely to have all the ad-pushing sites stopped dead so it actually loads CONTENT on a website rather than a ton of ads.  I’ve found ad-heavy sites will load orders of magnitude faster. 

So you know – for hosts file replacement goodness, go here:
http://winhelp2002.mvps.org/hosts.htm

Do I think I’m 100% safe?  Not a chance.  This is Windows.  Do I think that behavior modification has made a world of difference?  You betcha. Would I recommend this to others?  I guess it depends on the person.  If you can’t live without certain high risk behavior that tends to result in viruses being strewn throughout your system, then I wouldn’t choose this route.  Again, it also comes from experience and knowing how to avoid certain fast-tracks to infection.  We’ll see how long this age of antivirus-free tranquility lasts…

I can not be the only person on the planet who has ever wanted to take a Jackson StealthEX or any other Jackson dinky or otherwise with the HB-SC-SC one volume, one tone, 5-way switch configuration and basically swap out the factory pickups with actives and replace the box switch.  I can’t be the only one.  If I repeat it enough, I may believe it.

Now, for the purposes of this article, the 5-way switch was quite generic and the pickups were Seymour Duncan Blackouts (AHB-1, AS-1b, AS-1n).  So, to review and convey the simplicity of what I wanted to do

  • Factory humbucker -> AHB-1
  • Factory mid -> AS-1b (tapped/split)
  • Factory neck -> AS-1n
  • Factory 5-way box switch -> new 5-way box switch
  • 250K Volume pot -> 25K volume pot
  • 250K Tone pot -> 25K tone pot
  • factory mono “lipstick” jack -> stereo “lipstick” jack
  • Fix any other internal weirdness encountered.

Simple, right?  Well, don’t you believe it.  Let me rephrase…don’t be fooled into thinking that this fairly thorough swapout will have *specific,* *applicable* help files on the internet to help you.  I spent close to a week pouring over stewmac and guitarelectronics and seymourduncan not to mention more obscure sites, in an effort to gain as much info going in as I could so that this would be a nice surgical strike…or as close to a surgical strike as replacing all the electronics in a guitar can be.  No dice, really.  I ended up with just about every wiring diagram available on Seymour Duncan’s site printed off as well as 4 others from different sites.  They all had one thing in common – they were all applicable to a point.  Not any one diagram covered every part of what I needed and my electronics theory is so rusty (this is the stuff I used to do in high school – over 20 years ago) that cobbling together the wiring diagrams into a happy, all-inclusive and functional wiring diagram that I could use for quick reference was not really in the cards.  Since, as we all know, using four+ schematics is about the opposite of “quick reference.”

With that in mind, I am, now, setting out to right this wrong and get a working wiring diagram out there for everyone, like me, who is/was looking for this information and could not find it for the life of them.  Here it is.  Eventually.  It would really help if I could remember exactly what I did.

An additional kibitz, on my part, was I got to a point where I got the theory quite well enough, but just needed to know what wire got soldered where, something not entirely obvious from some of these diagrams.  So, my plan with this is to draw up schematics for those who would like them and a wiring diagram for those who prefer that route.

Additionally, here’s what I did, once all the other parts were out:

After all the pickups are in their nice little homes on the front of the guitar and the wires are routed through and ready to be connected to things to make them sing, we say a small prayer, sacrifice a small goat, and set about some wiring.

Isolate all the white wires from the pickups.  These are hot, happy, and what you’re going to connect to the switch.  Go in reverse order from what your brain would say to do logically:  looking down on the switch connections on the back, numbering down the left side, 1 through four.  So, to reverse your brain’s desire, connect the neck pickup to connection 1, the mid to 2, the humbucker to 3.

Now, you’re left with one more on the left side.  Ignore it.

We’ll get to the right side in a bit.  For now, let’s just worry about getting the hot wires to their respective connections.  In looking at where the white wires originate, you’ll notice you’ve got about ¼” to work with as it splits from the main black wire as a white-bare wire pair.  Since the bare wires all go to ground, it’s impractical to run them right in to the switch, so, for what it’s worth, I added an additional short length of wire to each hot, enough to reach the switch from the volume potentiometer, basically, since that’s where the common grounds congregate.

Once the hots are soldered to the switch, it’s time to make sure the battery connections are all square.  You only need one (buying 3 active pickups, you now have three), and will take all of the red wires, one for each pickup, and solder them to the red battery wire.

To complete the circuit, the black wire from the battery connector should be soldered to the common ground of the output jack.

Now we have all of those bare wires to deal with from the pickups.  Ok, three, but still…  What I did was to do basically the red-wire trick and solder them all to a single wire and then solder that single wire to the top of the volume potentiometer (pot).  It may not be the best solution, but is a lot cleaner looking.

Now, so long as you’re soldering things on the volume pot, solder the third connector, the one on the right looking at it from the top, to the top of its pot.  A fairly painless way to do this, if you don’t want to bend the connector back to the metal of the pot, is to run a *very* short wire – like ½” – connecting the connector to the top of the pot.

Again, so long as we’re soldering grounds to the volume pot, run a short length of wire between the top of the volume to the tone pot.

The tone version of the connector soldered to the top should come with the AHB-1s in the form of a 25K pot that already has a 0.47pf capacitor soldered from the right connector to the top of the pot.  If this is not the case, then, you know what to do – solder a capacitor (at this is based on preference and desired outcome, more on this later) from the right connector to the ground spot on the top of the pot.  For your everyday tone, the 0.47pf capacitor will do just fine, but I’ve heard other companies talking about better results using a .10pf.

Finally, we’re to the right side of the switch and ready to tie everything together.  First, solder a ground line between the jack ground and the #2 position (counting from the bottom) on the switch.  Now, run a wire between the center connector on the tone potentiometer to the leftmost connector on the volume potentiometer.  Now, connect the leftmost connector to the #1 (bottom) position on the right side of the switch.

Once that’s finished, solder a wire between the center connector on the volume pot to the hot output of the output jack.

That’s it.  Now, if you’ve done it like me, you’ve got a bit of a bird’s nest going on in there.  I feel your pain.  Also, if you’re like me, and are migrating from passive to active pickups, you’re presented with a whole new problem: where are you going to stick the battery?  Well, if you are like me, then you will just wedge it in between the switch and the inner wall beside the jack.  It’s not pretty.  So, further, if you’re like me, you decided to purchase a battery box from a local electronics store, got some velcro, and attached it to the outside of the guitar on the back, close to the heel.

[Disclaimer of doom] I wrote this from memory looking at a schematic I drew…from memory…  What this means to you is that it could be completely wrong.  I don’t want you to hose up your guitar based solely on my info.  If there’s anyone out there who can either confirm or debunk any part of this, please do.  I’ll be placing the schematic and wiring diagram up, soon, maybe — I’m not sure where I put my drawings, since we moved — so those can be used as reference.

Losing My America

May 15, 2015

So, there’s this meme.  I had a very visceral reaction to it – it’s the one with the drill Sargent from “Full Metal Jacket” telling us in no uncertain terms that we’re losing our “beloved America” to “goat humpers.”  Honestly, that’s just offensive.  Because of our country’s history of racism and propensity to name-call, I know who and what this is talking about.

Honestly, I find that I’m losing MY America to intolerance and hate. #ScarSpangledBanner #TrueAmericanHate (BTW, the most recent Testament/Exodus tour was freaking amazing…just saying) It’s not some Muslim insurrection I fear because of the Muslims I know, most of them have better values and place more value on life and peace than their Christian counterparts in my life. If it’s about “growing a pair and acting like Americans,” it’s time to establish what that means and I, for one, don’t recall this country being founded on the “values” of hate, bigotry and ignorance. Isolationism and freedom, yes. Being an asshole, no. Well, maybe…there’s plenty of historical precedent, I suppose…

For me, it’s not anyone from any other country, race, religion or so-called-creed that’s undermining and destroying the fabric of our country, it’s those that perpetuate that to be American, you need to be an asshole who instead of taking time to understand the cultural differences, choose instead to call names. My America is being destroyed by my government’s insistence on sending my friends and family overseas to kill a fabricated and media-amplified enemy when the real problem is who holds the petroleum resources and something that could, really, be negotiated without threat of violence.  We’re just not wired that way, apparently, because it’s the more difficult way to do something. It’s harder to accept someone for their differences than to dismiss them as different and “other.” I’ve said it for years — we need to stop listening to so-called “war experts” and invest serious time and energy recruiting “peace experts.” I, for one, don’t want this world blown all to hell for my kids because people have forgotten how or think they’re too good to use their words…

It says, “Wake up and smell the bacon.”  I do like waking up to the smell of bacon, although with my thyroid medicine I can’t eat it until a bit of time AFTER my coffee. This is medicine prescribed through American health care, taken with Swedish coffee, in front of my American built (except for the Singaporean semiconductors, Taiwanese case, Thai hard drives…), sitting on top of a Japanese stereo receiver (studio setup…long story…). There’s a point to this — everything is from everywhere. We, as a planet, are together on our ride in this compressed and screwed up span of time, and we can choose to live our lives finding reasons to hate and kill each other, or we can choose to find our commonalities and work towards making this world a better place…and there are VERY few exceptions where discriminating against or killing someone makes a positive difference.

It’s not the Muslim you need to worry about, it’s the Extremist — and that goes to ANY religion or belief. You also have to see through the media representations and perpetuated stereotypes. You have to care enough to take the time to learn why a certain people or person does something in order to understand that it’s probably not a threat to the threads of your reality and, more likely than not, is just as odd to you as whatever you’re doing is to them…

So, to wrap this up in a tidy bow, if you feel being an asshole is the most important American value, then you are the problem, not the person who is trying to make a better life for his or her family by coming to what used to be called “the land of opportunity,” but, now, seems more to be “the land of intolerant bigotry.”  Makes you proud to be an American, doesn’t it?

A Time and Place

One of the more significant lessons I learned was about…well, honestly, patience. The situation was clear, however, I just didn’t anticipate the disruption. The album had some tracks that were monsters, literally and figuratively, and when editing them on my original desktop setup, I ran into major problems with the CPU seizing and, sometimes, simply rebooting the entire system. It had enough and, honestly, so had I. Additionally, there was just not enough RAM overhead to handle some of what I needed to do, as well. Applying a filter would involve significant drive-grinding time as the virtual RAM disk swapped data back and forth for what seemed to be eternity. For reference, my desktop, at the time, was a 2.6GHz Duo-core with 12GB RAM. The problem? It was a Dell, so I couldn’t just swap things out – I had to make sure they would play well with all the proprietary nonsense Dell saddles you with so that your next upgrade will have to be through them, or be done, yourself…

Now, this isn’t to cast aspersions on Dell products, it is, however, pointing out that there are some proprietary things about Dell systems that will make upgrading a …maddening… experience. First and foremost, the chassis connection headers are not going to match up to any motherboard you purchase and hope to put into your Dell case. Why would you want to replace your motherboard? Well, because you are limited to the type and power of the CPU you get, should you wish to replace it. In my case, I would only been able to upgrade processors to a quad-core and only up to 3GHz. Considering the deal I found for the Hex-Core 3.9GHz processor, I knew I was going to have to upgrade my motherboard, as well.

So, it came to be that I had the motherboard and the CPU, but I quickly discovered that there was no way I was going to be able to use it without a new chassis, since the panel headers were never going to line up and there were a couple of important ones – power on and reset. For reference, I didn’t realize that systems wouldn’t even boot without the reset being attached, at the least at the motherboard header level. The one that worked?  After a couple of attempts, I settled on probably the cheapest chassis out there that’s sold by reputable dealers.  The edges of the metal inside the case aren’t ground or beveled so are, in some cases, lethal…  However, the power supply location allowed the connections to still reach the motherboard, something the more expensive models missed being able to do by scant centimeters, but very real distances that couldn’t be overcome by wishy thinking.

The problem was that this process took a solid week and a couple days to get a system back up and running and able to do anything moderately useful.  The REAL problem?  This was smack in the middle of mixing Brendan’s album.

My justification was simply that I had run into a problem where there were three to four songs that I wasn’t able to listen to, in real time, when I was mixing, because the horsepower needed was more than the system currently had.  Here’s the thing – there are two approaches to take here and I obviously took one, which is to up the horsepower of the machine so it can handle all the plugins across the multitude of tracks in the mix.  The other approach, which I would recommend, is to simplify.  If you’re using that many plugins on that many tracks, it’s probably time to change your approach – but I was so new to this world that I didn’t know how to execute that fairly simple process.

For reference, something as simple as setting up a couple of FX busses and sending your tracks to the single FX source will go a long way towards reducing CPU overhead and also make it easier to keep a uniform FX application across all tracks on that particular FX bus.

So, really, the moral to this story is that if you have a song or four that have 15 to 20 tracks, each with effects, and when you hit the space bar to listen and it starts stuttering all over the place because your CPU is seizing and begging for mercy, the FIRST thing to do is look into simplifying the overall makeup of the song either through the use of FX busses or just reconsidering all of the effects, period.  If you’re still running into problems, it’s tempting to upgrade your hardware. Fair enough. My advice?  Don’t do it in the middle of a time-sensitive project.  Really.  It was bone stupid on my part and something I won’t be doing again, trust me.

So you know, though, current incarnations of the songs have 40+ tracks, limited effects bussing and relatively no CPU taxing.  It also helps that system is now a bit more juggernaut-esque, boasting a 3.9GHz six core processor with 20GB RAM. So, maybe the bigger lesson, for me, was how to craft a better mix without being reliant on CPU-heavy effects.  Yes, they sound better.

So, an article surfaced on the net speaking of a man who says that while he was working as a mixing engineer on Metallica’s “…And Justice For All” album, conscious decisions were made regarding tone by Lars Ulrich.  If you wish to read it, it lives in a lot of places, but the version I read was from here ( http://www.blabbermouth.net/news/lars-ulrich-is-to-blame-for-lack-of-bass-on-metallicas-and-justice-for-all-album-mixing-engineer/ ).

There have been conspiracy theories, there have been musings, there have been rants, but one thing remains a constant – “…And Justice For All” is a solid, seminal album that shaped a generation of musicians and helped start the meteoric rise that Metallica enjoyed and, for the most part, has continued to enjoy.

Here’s the thing – I, for a long time, considered “AJFA” to be darned near close to perfect.  I noticed the drums sounded paper thin and there was no audible bass, but those were things that once I got a stereo and external EQ, was easy to take care of and I didn’t think twice about it.  Having started that road down mixing and production, however, I’ve discovered that one of the goals of a producer should be to deliver an album that doesn’t need external equalization, but will hit the listener with full-range, full-bodied music with a flat EQ.  “…Justice” just doesn’t do that, unfortunately.

The thing that I find most interesting, over the years, is how many of Metallica’s “bad” decisions come back to Lars.  I’m not sure it’s a 100% fair criticism, but I will say that his choice of drum tone on “Justice” and then “St. Anger” should be clear enough evidence to keep him away from the EQ knobs even regarding his own tone. His personality must be extremely overpowering to be able to push around producers to a point of having “this tone stinks” be countered, successfully, with “I like it, so it stays.”

So, there’s your dilemma.  You’re a mixing engineer, or producer, being paid a zillion dollars  by Metallica, and you have a mix that you think sounds GOOD.  Lars, the most vocal and, arguably, the most influential in this portion of the recording process listens to it and promptly says, “no.  I don’t like it.  Go with the other one.”  The other one is the one you listened to earlier and thought was god-awful.  So, what do you do?  It would be different if you thought any discussion would end with something other than, “I’m @#$%@#$ Lars Ulrich in @#$%^&@ Metallica.”  It’s kind of hard to argue with that, really, except that I would have to take the stand I take in programming, which is “do you want it, or do you want it right?” which, of course, refers to unrealistic deadlines imposed in the software industry.  In this case, my argument would have to be “do you want it how you want it or do you want it to sound good?”

I don’t really have an answer for this because, honestly, it *does* come down to the band signing off on an album sounding the way they want it, even if the producer disagrees with the production.  I went round and round with my wife on this very topic a couple of times because I would vent in frustration about not wanting to do something specific to the album I was producing, usually involving volume, and would just get back, “it’s what the artist wants and it’s the artist’s album.”  I agree with this…to a point.

It’s kind of like the adage, “the customer is always right.”  For the record, the customer is rarely purely “right,” but more than anything needs the feeling of validation that comes with being listened to.  The same is going on, here, when an artist seems to be making requests that would be counter to what the producer thinks would sound good on the album.  I’m just not sure how I would approach the situation with Lars, you know?  I’d love to have the opportunity to work with Metallica, and help shape that seemingly elusive next album, but wonder about how it would be to work with such strong personalities on their artistic baby.  I say that because “…And Justice For All,” “St. Anger,” and “Death Magnetic” all have choices that were made on them that I find truly baffling.

On “…AJFA,” the obvious questions revolve around the drum kit that when the album was released friends and I joked, “oh, he found his ‘Muppet kit!’” as well as the burying of the bass in the mix.  I have messed with the “stems” from Guitar Hero for some of the “…AJFA” songs and I can tell you without a doubt that giving the drums some dimension and bringing the bass up to audible levels makes the songs not only completely different from the album versions, but also come alive in a way that I think has been missing for close to 30 years.

With “St. Anger,” there is a certain amount of “where to begin,” especially when it comes to the overall “production” of the album.  I know they were going for raw, but even “raw” garage bands have a better sound that this album.  I also have an “A Clockwork Orange”-themed fantasy regarding Lars’ drum tone and just imagine him being stuck in a room with his snare on infinite repeat for hours on end.

Finally, “Death Magnetic” has problems from the ground up, as a lot of the “unmastered” stems that have circulated over years, thanks to Guitar Hero, still have audible clipping.  This is a problem.  There’s nothing you can do with it, ultimately, if the recording process gives you inferior audio to work with and if you’re mixing pre-crackly, pre-clipping guitars and drums, all the gentle mixing and avoiding being a participant in the “loudness war” will matter very little – you’re still going to have a crispy, clipping album that will displease the listener, much like Metallica has seen with “DM.”

You know what I think would be fun, though?  I think it would be awesome to have Metallica have a contest.  You know the kind of contest Metallica is known for – BIG, BOLD and OVER THE TOP.  What kind of contest, you ask?  Simple: Remix and Remaster their albums. This could be a free-for-all OR controlled chaos.  Honestly, in order to protect the music, since we know that Lars and the boys – rightly so – are big on this, have a buy-in.  For example, $10 gets you an albums worth of honest-to-goodness raw stems for the album…none of this Guitar Hero nonsense, no I mean straight from the Zazula archive, in the case of “Kill ‘em All” or Rasmussen’s for “Ride,” “Master,” or “AJFA.”  I’m not sure you really need “NMB” (James’ pet name for “The Black Album” was “None More Black,” and I always have found it more poetic…) or the “Loads,” as, despite what your feelings are about the actual music on the albums, they sound GOOD. That would then leave “St. Anger” and “Death Magnetic.”  Maybe have a sliding scale from $10 up to $50 to get a chance to reshape the albums that have shaped us.  At any rate, with a buy-in like that, it would cut down on rogue distribution, a bit, since there would be a list of who had what album, and so on.  Also, it would give added incentive to produce an awesome album because you would want the prize – your name as producer on a Metallica album, a chance, perhaps, to meet the boys, be flown out to wherever, have a release party and whatever else Metallica would feel like making it worthwhile for you to pay for stems and them to have to listen to thousands of versions of their songs.

Now, this is all just in fun to think about, but I think it would be an awesome opportunity.  Of course, my preference would be to actually get to work with Lars, James, Kirk and Robert, producing their next album, but I see that as being as likely as Jimi Hendrix playing live at my next birthday party…

So, in summary, there’s that line between giving the band what they want and giving them what they need and I’ve found that, in my experience, the big bands win.  I’m not sure it should be this way, but when you’re faced with, “I’m Lars, I like it, so it stays,” sometimes that’s how it has to be and when asked about it, later, you say, “Lars liked it, so it stayed.”  That said, I’d still love a crack at the next Metallica album…

One thing that happens with every album, ever, in the history of record production, is that it will leave the artists’ control completely and go to the hands of the Mastering Engineer.  This is the step that puts the polish, the pizzazz, the extra touches on the songs to make them come together as an album.  It’s also, of late, where a completely listenable album gets killed.  This was the lesson I learned from Metallica’s “Death Magnetic” album.

Dear Metallica:  Do NOT allow this to happen, again.  Please. Please. PLEASE.

For reference, as I sat listening to “Pack Your Bags,” the aforementioned monster with the wall of sound and face-melting music, I was reminded of the difference between the released version of “Death Magnetic” and what later became known as the “Guitar Hero Mixes.”  If you’re not familiar with the tale that wasn’t right, to borrow from Helloween, the following transpired:

  • Metallica recorded “Death Magnetic.”
  • Guitar Hero Metallica needed the mixes – so the unmastered versions were sent.
  • ”Death Magnetic” was sent to mastering.
  • Metallica went on tour.
  • ”Death Magnetic” was released…overloud, and completely lacking dynamics.
  • Metallica was unhappy, and rightfully so.

What’s missing on the allmusic credits is anyone actually directly called a “Mastering Engineer.”  I wonder if that was on purpose.  The upshot is that a very solid, listenable album went to the mastering engineer and left an overdriven, crispy, clipping, mushy mess.  What do I mean?  Well, take a look at the waveforms for “All Nightmare Long.”

AllNightmareLong_comparison

The top waveform is from the album version.  The bottom waveform is from the mixes sent for inclusion in Guitar Hero:Metallica.  It doesn’t take a genius to see that the top waveform is barely a waveform at all, with no room for dynamics and with boatloads of clipping – which you can actually hear in the song as clicking and crackling.  The biggest thing I noticed listening to the quieter, more sedate version of the song was that the intro vocals to each verse are run through a neat filter like James was singing through a fan.  This effect is completely lost in the album version, which is too bad, because it was a neat effect.

Dear Metallica: Do NOT allow this to happen again.  Please.  Please. PLEASE.

This was the lesson that I brought with me into approaching what is already a mine-field in the self- or tiny-budget-production arena, and that’s mastering your own mixes.  It’s generally seen as a “no no” and something that, under normal circumstances, I would try to avoid.  However, with no budget, it’s kind of hard to justify $50-$500 per song for mastering.  To me, what “Death Magnetic” told me, in no uncertain terms, was that – no matter what – don’t just slide the volume faders all the way up.  It also kept me mindful of the waveform, that precious waveform.  What it didn’t really prepare me for is how hard it is to maintain that waveform, and keep those dynamics alive, when the feedback from the artist seems to revolve around, almost to the exclusion of anything else, “just a touch louder.”  It’s hard, and it’s a delicate balance.  I know I’m not the only producer to encounter an artist who wants the album to be loud and in your face.  I think the biggest difference is that most producers have more experience with not only handling these requests with a polite, “no,” or, more importantly, how to actually give the bumps in volume without the rest of the mix suffering.  That was the biggest challenge for me.

I think the worst part, for me, is that while working on this project, I was learning constantly.  Now, that, in and of itself, isn’t the bad part.  The bad part comes when you’ve sent all the masters off to the artist and they’ve been submitted for duplication and then you find that better way, that cleaner mix, that perfect sound.  Below is an example of that.  The song is “Tiocfaidh Ár Lá (Our Day Will Come)” and the top waveform is the album version while the bottom waveform is the “Perfexion Mix” that I’ve put together since.

Tiocfaidh_comparison

While it’s still nothing compared to the brutality that occurred with “Death Magnetic” and “All Nightmare Long,” it’s still a drastic difference.  While the bottom version of the song is obviously going to be quieter, meaning you’ll have to turn the volume up a bit if you want it to be the same volume, it’s also got much better definition, clarity and overall production quality and, for my money, sounds almost 100% better.  That said, this particular mix came two weeks too late and will, most likely, be relegated to a “remixed, remastered” version of the album to be released in the future.

So, this open letter I spoke of – here goes:

Dear Metallica,

Your music is enjoyed and treasured by millions. I have been a fan since “Ride the Lightning” back in 1985 – 30 of my 41 years.  I have been your strongest supported and, indeed, your harshest critic.  It’s probably a little strange, but, after all these years, you’re kind of like family and so, you take the good and you take the bad, but the love is still there.  I don’t know if you noticed that this past album, “Death Magnetic,” the criticism was not “wow…this is NOT metal, OR Metallica,” but instead, “wow – there’s so much of this album I’m NOT hearing because of the production and the decision to mash the living crap out of the mixes to win the ‘loudness war.’”

There are so many dynamics-related things on “Death Magnetic” that a lot of people missed because they didn’t seek out a little-known, but well worth the investigation, group of files called the MIII mixes.  These mixes were the pre-master mixes that all had everything – clarity, dynamics, tone and, yes, power.  Sure, you had to turn it up a little more in the car, but you could also hear the bass line in “End of the Line,” the guitar movement during the chorus of “Broken, Beat and Scarred,” and, as mentioned above, the filtered vocals in “All Nightmare Long.”  While I’m not expert or a producer on the level of Rick Rubin – heck, I’m not comfortable being in the same sentence with Mr. Rubin! – I am someone who’s got enough mixing and producing experience under my belt to know one thing – to hell with the loudness war.  It is, indeed, a war no one wins and when it comes at the expense of the band – you know, you guys…the ones who pour your heart, soul and money into producing the music you love – and, ultimately, the fans who are paying to hear the music you’ve produced, it’s definitely a war not worth fighting.

So, with that, please take that into consideration when you enter and, eventually, leave the studio.  For the love of all that is good in this world, make sure your waveforms are clean, gentle and beautiful – full of dynamics and perhaps, more importantly, clarity.  Please make sure that my ears will hear every note, every high hat, every heavy, palm-muted down-stroke, every harmony.  Please take every step possible to make sure that the producer doesn’t allow the mastering engineer to take your hard work and turn it into an overloud, unlistenable jumble of crap, but instead a polished, pristine album worthy of the name “Metallica.”

Sincerely,

Phil

Now, I’ll preface this with saying, these aren’t tutorials.  There might be some nuggets of "how-to"-ness in there, but these are softer, more philosophical pieces that take you into the challenges I faced and how we got from "sure, I can help!" to "that’s it!  It’s perfect as we’re going to get it!  Let’s do this!"  For the record, we’re not there, yet.  Are we ever there, yet?

So…there’s this song.  It’s got a good hook and a good guitar line.  The vocals are good on the scratch track.  All in all, it sounds like a good track, probably on the back end of the album to help balance it out and make for a solid album start to finish.  Then something happened.  We brought in this fella John who was to play “fiddle.”  Well, John so happens to be brilliant and talented through and through and within one practice take with this song, we were all looking at each other like…”wow!”

At that point, the rest of the track needed to be laid down and with each piece, the monster grew.  Soon, there were re-recorded vocals, guitars, bass, bagpipes, bodhrun, djimbe, drums, and violins.  Some didn’t make the final cut.  Some takes got spliced and reworked enough to make a couple of solid tracks with the best all in one place.  If you were to place all the tracks into the mix and just let ‘em go, it would make you twitch – there’s THAT much going on in this song.

As happens, there were, in total, 48 mixdowns of this song to get it “right,” and, I think I mentioned, I’m not sure we are 100% there, but, we’re really close and part of it came from understanding that compression does when met with four main sources of volume in a track, even when there are 16 total tracks (excluding fx tracks).  We ran into a problem with the monster, once everything was fixed, tonally through EQs and light compression, some reverb here and there, and so on.  What’s the problem, you ask?  The monster gets hungry and has to eat things.

OK, so the metaphor may be getting stretched a little, but here’s the bottom line – when one thing gets loud, something else gets soft, and finding the balance is the true monster.  I tried so many methods to get the vocals to sit nicely while still allowing you to hear each part clearly.  It was almost comical, though, as I’d have what I thought was a good balance, and then after mixdown, the vocals would either be lost or so up front to a point where everything else sounded lost in the background…   So many iterations!  I finally discovered the culprit – the compressor in the Master track.

Full disclosure – I use the Slate Digital FG-X Mastering plugin and I really like it.   That said, it does what compressors/limiters do – when one thing gets louder than the threshold, it makes it quieter and when one frequency range is dominating the mix, bad things happen, overall.  What I found was, each individual track sounded absolutely fine when solo’d.  When I had vocals and “instruments,” it was fine.  The culprit?  The drums.  The train driving to oblivion was, in fact, obliterating the mix.  When I added the drums back in, the overall sound dropped ~3dB and, specifically, the vocals sank closer to 4dB. 

So, how does one tame a monster like this?  I basically figured out that I had to do what I tried a while ago – mix down the instrumentation and vocals separately and bring them together for a mixdown and then send that mixdown to the mastering round.  It wasn’t the most elegant solution, but it was the only solution I found – remember I’m a bit of a rookie with this! – that allowed the full dynamics of the instrumentation (all of it!) and vocals to coexist.  The end result?  An Irish Rebel Rock song that feels a lot like the Motörhead “Orgasmatron” cover train looks.

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