Category Archives: Music Technology

Music tech and other shiny things

In Defense of Autotune (Kind of)

Autotune – the very word conjures images of young pop-stars cavorting around mid dance routine, glitz, glamour and studio magic, and is about as far removed from the ‘authentic’ singer-songwriter image as you can get (by the way, if you’re interested you can see my earlier post for more on authenticity).

But more on that later… first off let’s look at what Autotune actually is, and how it works.

Autotune is designed to correct the pitch of a singer’s voice when a performance is off-key. It does this by ‘pulling’ the recorded note to the designated pitch set by the user. This is similar to a technique used in sampling and recording, which has been around for a while and is essentially playing back the sample at a different speed to change the frequency (or pitch) of the sound. Autotune is a bit (well, a lot) more sophisticated than this, but it does still have limitations. The further you need to pull the note to get it in tune, the more you lose the natural quality of the singing voice.

Auto-tune can be used to make an out of tune performance good, but there are limits to its effectiveness if you want the vocal to sound natural – especially if the original recording is way off-key.

So, this brings me to my main point – Autotune is just another tool. Studio tools such as effects (like reverb and delay) and compression (used to increase loudness and smooth out dynamic range) have been used for years to get a particular vocal sound; yet these are not demonised in the same way that Auto-tune is.

And as with most tools, Auto-tune can be (in my opinion, is) overused. I put this down to fashion – for many years, producers of pop music have been after ‘the sound’. In the 80s, it was fashionable for vocals to be drenched in reverb, in the 90s vocals are generally further forward in the mix and given quite a lot of ‘punch’ with compression. These days, we have become used to hearing tuned vocals because they are everywhere – it is the current fashionable sound.

Autotune can also be used creatively though – for example, there have been many recent YouTube video hits of spoken interviews turned into songs using Autotune. Perhaps it’s not exactly high-brow art, but it has caused people to re-think what the technology can and can’t be used for.

Personally, I don’t use Autotune on my vocals. This is a deliberate choice, and one that I’ve made for a couple of reasons: I want people to hear the natural quality of my voice – the real me, so to speak. I can usually hear the effect of Autotune, and to me it sounds ‘too perfect’ and a little forced. And, as someone who records at home, budget is a big constraint. Why spend extra cash on something that I don’t really like or need for the sake of fashion? I wouldn’t do that with clothes, so I certainly wouldn’t do that with something as important as my music.

At the end of the day, it’s mostly about the sound that you’re going for. If you want your vocals to sound polished, perfect and up-to-date, Autotune is a tool that can help you do that. But, if you want to record vocals that sound natural and ‘real’, I’d steer away from it. The choice is up to you.

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In which Ells Discusses The Pros and Cons of Home Recording

This morning the wonderful BBC 6 Music news team were discussing the current trend for many artists to make the decision to record at home, or in self-built studios, rather than in ‘proper’ commercially run recording studios. Annoyingly, I had to leave for work before I could hear the second half of the discussion (frazzle, razzle, ggrrrs…), but even so, I thought it would be interesting to discuss the pros and cons of recording at home.

These days, home studio tech is pretty cheap (well, comparatively anyway), and most people with the will and interest in pretty shiny things* can afford to set up some basic recording kit, and even budget recording gear can give good results if it’s used effectively and is good quality.

But home recording is not all fun, fun, fun; here’s my rundown of some common pro’s and con’s.

Pros:

  • You can take your time: When you’re recording at home there’s no watching the clock, no thinking ‘I’m paying for this time’ if you run up against any issues and no worries about finishing your session on time. You can rock all night long if you’re so inclined.
  • It’s your own space: If you need to leave things set up, there’s no worries about doing so – you can come back to things later.
  • It works out cheaper in the long run (probably): It will cost you money for the initial kit (and you should buy the best you can afford), but that kit will always be there for you to use, whereas studio time is gone when it’s gone.
  • You retain creative control: Recording yourself allows you to experiment as much as you like without anyone interfering with your ideas.

Cons:

  • You can get too close to the work: Without an outside perspective, sometimes it’s difficult to know whether what you’re producing sounds good. It can become very hard to judge your own work, and you can become over-critical of your songs.
  • You don’t have the benefit of an experienced engineer/producer: Which is fine if you’re either confident that you know what you’re doing, or if you’re happy to take your time and experiment to find the best way to get the sound you want. However, a professional, experienced engineer could save you time and frustration, and an experienced producer can help you shape your sound, and could suggest improvements that you may not have come up with alone.
  • You have to impose your own deadlines: Speaking from personal experience, having kit on hand that you can use at any time is great, but you have to make sure that you actually get your head down and use it**. Booking studio time should give you structure, a deadline to work to and a (hopefully) realistic timescale to achieve your goals.  In theory; if you’re paying for time, you’re less likely to waste it!

Ok then fellow music-types, now it’s over to you. Do you record at home, or do you prefer to book into a studio? Or do you find that a combination of approaches works best for you, such as recording ideas at home, but putting final tracks down in a studio? Let me know in the comments; I’d love to hear from you.

* heh, yeah, this is just how I refer to most gadgets… especially audio gear. Essentially anything that makes your brain go ‘Oooh shiny!’…  I’m a big fan of ‘pretty shiny things’, little magpie that I am.

**Believe me, I am the queen of procrastination.

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Good grief, I just had a synth related nerd-gasm….

I have been very naughty and not updated my blog for over a week. Tut!

Unfortunately though, after several days of intensive copy-editing at work, I’m all worded out.

Lucky for me then, I came across this video on the interwebs and just had to share it with you all… So much keyboardy goodness all in one cleverly arranged package! I love it!

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Ells’s Helpful Guides to Music Things, Part 1: Microphone Technique when Singing

This is a slightly edited repeat of the post I wrote for The 4014 Project and posted the other day, and I thought it might be appropriate to add it to this, my personal blog, too. It is the start of a series of posts looking at a few basic techniques and tricks of the trade for live singers and musicians, starting this week with microphone technique.

Microphone technique  seems to be neglected by a lot of singers when they’re starting out, in fact a lot of singers seem very reluctant to embrace it at all (especially those used to singing acoustically in folk clubs etc.).

“But why should we listen to Ells?” I hear you cry… well, because I said so. And also because I’ve experienced both being on stage and at the sound desk, and I’ve also learnt a lot from fellow musicians and sound techs over the years.

The Importance of Microphone Technique:

Mic technique is certainly something I didn’t really think about until I started learning more about the technical side of music, but it can make a real difference when you’re on-stage… You will feel more confident, and come across better if you have practiced and developed you microphone technique. It’s no good singing your heart out if no-one can hear you because you’re miles from the pickup area of your microphone!

And that brings me on the first point:-

Correct Positioning:

Most microphones will pick up best from the grill to around 6 inches away from the diaphragm (the moving part that converts the sound energy into movement, which is then converted into the electrical signal). If you move further away from the mic than this, chances are that your voice will get lost, or, your friendly sound person will have to turn up the gain so much that feedback is a real possibility. I would recommend staying fairly close to the mic, around 1-3″ away.

Position the mic so that you’re singing into it… some people recommend singing over the top of, or from the side of the mic to reduce ‘pop’. (‘Pop’ is when plosive sounds such as p’s at the beginning of words, cause the mic to make a boomy popping noise as the outrush of air hits the sensitive diaphragm).

Personally, I think that if you’re the correct distance from the mic (6″ away max.) and it is at a slight angle, that should be fine. If the mic is pointing too much at your chest or chin, the general pick-up is not as good, and I always think a tiny bit of ‘pop’ is better than not being heard at all!

Microphone Technique Diagram

Also, you’d be surprised at how many people set up a mic directly in front of them… and then look at their guitar for the whole set. I have seen this many times in my role as Open Mic sound person, so I will say this: If you are playing an instrument and need to look at it, there is nothing at all wrong with positioning the mic a bit to the side so that you can sing into it AND see your guitar neck/keyboard or whatever wonderful instrument you happen to perform with. In fact, your sound person will probably thank you for it.

If there are helpful people positioning things for you, don’t be afraid to tell them what you prefer (in a nice way – sound people are sensitive beasties!). It is much better to get it right while you’re setting up – remember; they want you to sound good too.

One final note on positioning – try to put the microphone where you don’t need to lean in to it or to tilt your head up to much to get close enough to it… this will just generally make you more comfortable and allow you to stand correctly when you sing. Because good posture is important, ’nuff said!

Practice makes perfect:

I would definitely recommend practicing with a microphone if you can, so you can hear how much you’re getting back from it in different positions, and how the position of the mic affects the tone of your voice. A lot of live vocal mics have ‘presence’ if you get near to them (a frequency boost around the mid-tone of the human voice), and many singers use this to their advantage. Whether you decide to do this or not is totally personal preference, and depends on many factors, such as the mood of the song and what works best for your voice.

If you don’t have a mic you can sing with, then setting up a pretend mic when you practice can also be a help (although you might feel a bit silly!), particularly if you play an instrument, just because having something physically in front of you will make you more aware when it comes to a performance.

And finally:

I hope these tips will be of use to you. If you need any more explanation, have any questions, or even any disagreements or more tips, let me know in the comments or email hello@4014.co.uk (just make sure you mark in the subject that it’s for Ells, regarding this blog) and I will do my best to help.

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The move away from MySpace

MySpace is, or at least was, the first stop for finding music from unsigned bands – everyone, and I do mean everyone, in a band had a profile on MySpace. It was just one of those things that a musician had to have.

Nowadays however, there are questions as to whether MySpace is still an effective marketing tool for unsigned bands. Yes, you can still upload your music to a customised profile, but with changes to the user interface and more and more sites that allow you to do the same thing, is MySpace becoming less relevent?

From my point of view, I will have to say yes – there has definitely been a shift away from MySpace over the past few years. Bands are using ReverbNation, Facebook, AmazingTunes and Last FM (to name but a few) to promote their music… Most of these bands do also have a MySpace account, but it seems that they are less important these days. Having said that, I don’t think it is time to quit – a MySpace profile is still a good thing to have, but now it is part of a bigger arsenal, rather than the be all and end all.

So, what are the reasons behind this? Is it just because there are more options for bands to promote themselves online, or is there something more?

For me, there is a major issue with usability – since the re-launch of the MySpace profile (I believe it was last year, maybe 2009) I have found the site really difficult to use. And I think this is a common experience… I’ve seen lots of comments online along the lines of “this used to be good, didn’t it?”. Every time I log in to check on my profile (which I do less and less often), I get frustrated at the loading speed, at not being able to quickly and easily find what I’m looking for, and at the large amounts of spammy bulletins, friend requests and updates and at general irritations with the user interface. MySpace, as I see it, is trying to be a more customisable version of Facebook. But it’s not working – figuratively and literally!

And that’s a real problem – when people get frustrated, that’s when they start looking for tools that will fulfill the same need, but without the same niggles…

I actually think it’s a shame – I used to like using MySpace, but now it’s a struggle to get it to do anything that you want it to, I have joined the crowd in looking for alternatives (if you like, you can find my pages on Facebook and AmazingTunes). I’ll be keeping my profile live for the moment, it still has some uses and it is still assumed by other musicians and industry types that you have one, but I’m making a conscious decision to try to promote myself in other ways too.

I’d love to hear what you think – let me know in the comments!

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