A Producer's Guide
The Paul Wiffen production guide
A producer works with people and with sound. Here are some of his most vital tools and techniques.
There is much talk these days of the huge expense of hi-tech productions which go to make the hits we see in the charts. The average musician is given the impression (particularly when he reads record companies' publicity about how much was spent to record such and such an album) that good production is a matter of large expenditure first and foremost.
However, one of the primary results of the current leaps and bounds being made in technology is that hi-tech effects are available for lower and lower prices. Someone producing their own demos on 4-track cassette machines can now find many of the items previously reserved for wealthy studios are nowadays well within his price range, and that clever use of such items can give him those 'expensive' sounds without making an enemy out of his bank manager.
Take drum sounds for example. In this area more than any other modern production methods have meant that a record produced recently is vastly different from one made five years ago, but the digital drum machine has now come down in price to the level where every musician can afford access to really good drum sounds. The TR707 drum machine sells for around £500, yet is comparable in sound quality with units which cost 2, 4 or 6 times the price when they were released 1, 2 or 3 years ago. You can now even sample and trigger for under £200 courtesy of the BOSS DSD-2.
'But', I hear you cry, 'it's not the actual machine itself which matters, it's all the effects they put it through afterwards. You need compressors, limiters, noise gates, digital delays and those all cost money.' This is of course true, but no where near as much as in previous years. Take the Boss RCL-10, one of the extremely budget priced items in the Micro Rack Series. For £130 you get compressing, limiting, expanding and a noise gate (in most studios the total for such effects — all in separate boxes of course — would be well into the thousands). What's more, the convenience of all such items in one box saves the need for continual patching and repatching, which is best kept to a minimum in a home recording set-up. So how would you begin to use such a unit to achieve these sounds which leap from the 45s you hear on the radio? Well to start with, the use of a noise gate will tighten up the sound of the flabbiest snare or tom tom. If set up correctly, it will deal with all sorts of problems of ringing or rather damp and unexciting attack to the sound. If your snare seems to lack punch, try setting the noise gate threshold to just below the peak of the sound so that it cuts off the slower attack of the drum and replaces it with the sudden abrupt opening of the gate. You will find the punch this gives the snare makes a marked improvement of the sound of the whole piece.
If there is a lot of space in the track, then you can leave the decay on the snare fairly long, but if you find things sound cluttered around the snare beats, try closing down the decay so that the sound becomes a sharp burst which disappears as quickly as you hear it. This will cut through whatever else is going on with a good deal of extra precision.
Reverb has always been popular as an effect on drums as it gives a very precise feel of space to a track, but one of the more recent variations on this is gated reverb or delay effects on their own, but without cluttering up a track and obliterating everything else that is going on. To achieve this you need to set up your reverb effect first. A good quality DDL can now be acquired for less than £200 in the shape of the boss RDD-10 and this will enable many reverb effects to be created. Try setting the feedback level slightly higher than you would normally be able to use it in a track and then put the mix out of the delay through the noise gate. You will find this gives you a monstrous sound, but not one which seems out of control!
If you feel really adventurous try bringing in the compression as well. Such settings can breathe new life into the most tired sounding drum or old analogue drum machine. In the last case they also have the virtue of disguising the source of the original sound.
But compression and gating is not just good for drum sounds. Guitars too can benefit from the use of them. With a straight guitar sound (i.e. one which has not been put through some form of distortion effect — which in itself is an over the top form of compression), a compressor will give much stronger presence and deal with any fluctuations in level (caused by uneven playing or other factors). The end result will sound stronger and more confident. Any solo instrument can be similarly improved, although you should not overdo it as you will lose the dynamic feel and expression in performance; the vocals too can be made more even in feel of course. In rhythmic parts this solidity and lack of variation may be just what you are trying to achieve and so heavy compression may be just the job for rhythm guitars and other components of the rhythmic base of your music.
In a good production, every sound has its own space in the track, in terms of sound quality, harmonic content and spacial effect. A good graphic equaliser may help you sort out any clashes on the first two accounts. For example, if you have a muddy sounding guitar, it may not only become inaudible behind the bass, but actually detract from the tone and punch of the bass as well. A 10-band graphic like the Boss RGE-10 will allow much greater control of the spectral output of sounds than the treble, middle and bass controls provided on most small mixers. Try to envisage each sound as 'needing room to breathe' in a track, and you will find it much easier to achieve a satisfactory mix. Don't let the synth line dominate the same frequencies that the vocals are in, and keep the bass drum and bass guitar separate from each other.
To make a particular sound stand out, there are many possible techniques. Using a DDL you can get ADT (automatic double tracking), a very worthwhile effect on a home recorder where tracks are at a premium, chorusing, which fattens up thin sounds and slap-back echo which puts the sound in a different sonic environment. When you have exhausted these possibilities you might want to experiment with the more radical effects you get from a purpose-built flanger or phaser.
Many of the expensive studio signal processors are highly priced because they allow effects to be created in stereo, and as a rule such flexibility has not been possible at the bottom end of the market. But all the effects in the Boss Micro Rack Series feature an innovation which gets round this problem. Stereo Link Jacks and Modulation Busses are provided so that any unit can be linked to another like itself to allow synchronous effects to be achieved through two independent channels, thereby producing a stereo image. Stereo effects constitute yet another way of ensuring each individual sound has its place in the overall sound. Two sounds which would otherwise clash can be placed in the stereo spectrum so that they do not conflict. And of course a mono special effect on a stereo instrument wouldn't sound its best (Roland synthesizer owners, please note when using in-built stereo Chorus!).
Clearly, then, the polish which studio effects can give to a production is not the exclusive preserve of the rich and famous. By careful and thorough use of units like the Boss Micro Rack Series it is possible to recreate effects inexpensively, and without the compromise to sound quality which would have been inevitable a few years ago.
Roland Newslink - Autumn 85
Feature by Paul Wiffen
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