I have been having way too much fun with the Mac. My interaction with Windows had always been so pedestrian that I did not expect to enjoy using a computer. After all, it is just a tool and, in a studio setting, a stable and reliable computing platform is essential.
After three weeks of heavy lifting I have had nothing but flawless performance from the G5.
I had to backfill some applications on the Mac for casual CD dubs and editing two track audio files. I used Sony’s Sound Forge and CD Architect on the Windows platform. Now I use Bias Peak and Roxio’s Toast with Jam.
I am quite impressed with Jam’s ease of use. Drag audio files in. Burn CD. What a novel concept.
On to another item of interest. Microsoft has entered the online digital music business partly in response to the success of Apple’s iTunes store. Apple currently holds about 70% market share in the market. Today, about 2% of all purchased music comes through the Internet channel. Some analysts believe that the market may expand to about 12% over the next few years.
Even the major PC manufacturers have entered the fray. HP offers an iPod licensed from Apple. Perhaps Microsoft will need to introduce their own portable digital player… after all an X Box needs a Y box.
Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you just cannot win? I found myself in that position this past week.
I had one project that, for a number of reasons, suffered a series of delays. The project started tracking roughly two years ago and derailed about 9 months back. I received an email a few weeks back from the producer who, understandably, wanted to get the project completed and requested that the final work be finished by end of August.
End of August? Wow. Where would I find the time?
I gave up my vacation time. I logged over 70 hours on the project during my vacation and then used another 60 hours over the following two weeks to help the project meet this deadline.
I had to delay another project that had also expected to complete by end of August. The month of September will prove to be just as busy and then I start tracking on a new project mid-October.
Where I was not able to win was in preparing the mixes for mastering. I had released candidate mixes for the producer to review. There were change requests from the first set of candidates and I incorporated those changes and shipped a new set of release candidates last Monday. To meet the end of August deadline I had to dedicate Friday evening and Saturday to prep the mixes for mastering.
Session work on Saturday generally starts at 7am for me. I had received some very positive feedback from the artist on the last set of mixes however I had not heard anything back from the producer. On Friday evening I began the labour intensive work that is known as final mix.
To prepare mixes for mastering there are a number of necessary and mundane tasks: flattening all tracks in the various Pro Tools sessions, updating all documentation to reflect the current view of the mix, preparing file structures for backups. I did all of this work Friday evening so that I could focus Saturday on any mix changes.
Only Saturday morning there was no communication from the producer. And, at 6am on a Saturday, I did not think that it was prudent to call and confirm. I was in a time crunch and I thought sure the producer would have alerted me if further changes were required.
So I spent the next 5 hours preparing the mixes for mastering. The longest part of the job is cutting the finals on to CD at 1x. I use 1x burn rates to ensure minimum errors and I cut 2 copies. 1 copy is the primary and 1 copy is the backup. To get there, I needed to cut 24-bit 48KHz versions of each mix. So… all told, just to make copies of the final mixes can take about 6 hours without making a single revision to the original mix.
I came up for lunch at 11:30am and decided to check my email. At about 10:40am the producer had sent me an email outlining a number of changes across almost every song in the project.
And so I had to throw out all of the work that I had done. I spent another 14 hours making the requested changes and cutting new versions. I should have slept in that Saturday morning. More sleep, less stress 😉
I often get asked questions about what it takes to produce a high quality recording. I also see many young musicians that go out and spend a couple of thousand dollars going to a recording studio to cut their killer CD only to find that the production is very poor and the overall quality does not stand up to that of professional releases.
The problem invariably is a lack of awareness on what it takes to produce great sounding records. First and foremost a great record is built on great songs usually accompanied by great talent. World-class recording technology can only serve to enhance the presentation. Too often, people go in and spend money on recording their music without a producer, without any kind of game plan and then they expect that a miracle will happen simply by virtue of being in a studio environment.
The run rate in Nashville these days is somewhere between $15,000 – 50,000 per song to produce major label quality recordings. I have seen independents try and make something happen for somewhere between $2,500 – 5,000 per song. So it is not unusual for records to cost anywhere between $50,000 to $500,000 to produce. And then there are the other costs associated with distribution of the product.
If you want to record your music for personal reasons, use a PC. It’s fun to do and the sound quality is okay. If you want to get into the business of selling your music the competition is pretty fierce and the production standards pretty high.
As part of the upgrade to the Mac G5 I received a Pro Tools High Definition package of plugins as well as a set of demo plugins. Plugins are software audio processors with specialized functions used in digital audio workstations for recording and mixing activities. Plugins on the Pro Tools TDM platform are usually copy protected through an iLok key. The iLok key stores information on whether the plugin is licensed or a time-limited copy.
One of the demo plugins included in the HD pack was the Digidesign Reverb One. I tried the plugin and I found that it had some very nice qualities. Somewhat expensive though. In Canada, the price including taxes is a little over $1,500.
Surprise, surprise. You can buy new and used TDM plugins on eBay!
I placed a bid for a Reverb One license and I won the bid. For a third the price.
The seller transferred the license from his iLok account to mine. I did not have to do anything other than download the license to my account. And, without any delay, the reverb was up and online.
This was my first eBay purchase. The next time I need some plugins for my Pro Tools environment, I will check eBay first.
I have been in some very heavy mixing activities over the past several weeks. I came across a course outline from Roger Nichols. He is probably best known as one of the audio engineers that works closely with Steely Dan. Roger’s course outline highlights questions that people have when it comes to mixing. I chuckled when I went through the list of questions. However, I must admit, that I often find myself chasing phantoms when I mix. What if I cut this track by .5dB? What can I do to save this terrible sounding guitar? How could I have tracked this instrument so poorly?
For those of you not close to the recording process you may find the list of questions interesting. At least you will know what many audio engineers worry about when they mix.
Mixing: The Tips and Tricks That Make It Easy
- How do I start my mix? Which instruments do I start working on first? I end up going around in circles, chasing my tail, if I had a tail!
- How do I get the ultimate drum sound on my record? Can I make a poor recording of drums sound good in the mix? Can I make good sounding drums sound bad in the mix?
- Should I always record the bass with a direct box, or should I mic the amp? How come I can never get the bass to sound the way I want in the mix?
- Should I spread the piano hard left and right? Does it help if I use 4 or 5 mics on the piano? The studio said the piano was tuned a couple of weeks ago, it that good enough?
- Does it help if I double-track all of the guitars? How about 12 tracks of guitars?
- I record lots of percussion on my records, but I can never hear what I want in the mix. How do I keep the percussion from getting burried in the track?
- How do I get a clear vocal sound and still keep it above the track? When I limit the whole track to make it louder the vocal gets burried.
- I am stumped when it comes to panning. I usually just spread out all of the stereo tracks and put the solos in the center. Is this the right way to do it?
- I keep doubling and trippling the background vocals, but I just can’t get that big vocal feel I like.
- I have added horns and strings to my kick-butt love ballad, but I just can’t get that Lionel Richie killer mix that I was reaching for.
- I record the tracks myself and then the producer sends the session out to someone else to overdub drums, or guitars, or horns. How do I know if I can get everything put back into my Pro Tools session properly?
- Should I use compressors on the stereo bus to make my mix louder? Do I need to make my mixes so loud?
- Are multi-band compressors any better than regular compressors?
- How come I have to use so many external reverb units and reverb plug-ins, and the reverb still doesn’t sound right?
- How do you make sure that the vocal parts that I fly around to other sections of the song line up correctly?
- Is it ok to use AutoTune on the entire vocal track? How should I go about tuning tracks that need it without things getting out of hand?
- What is the best microphone to use on lead vocal?
- I was told to record everything as loud as I could without going over, now during the mix I have to pull the fader way down to get the right level. The problem is that small moves make too big of a change in level and I can’t get the balance right. Was I wrong to record so hot?
- What is the difference in mix-buss resolution? Does it make any difference?
- What are the real differences between 16 bit, 24bit, and 32bit floating point? How about the differences between 48kHz, 96kHz, 192kHz, DSD, DVD-A, and PDQ-Bach? What should I mix to? Should I bounce-to-disk, mix to DAT tape, Masterlink, or analog tape?
- If I send my mix to a mastering facility, what format should I send to them? If I want my mix loud should I make it loud, or should I let the mastering house do it? How is he going to know how much louder I want my mix if I don’t do it before I send it?
- After my record is a hit should I buy a Ferrari or Lamborghini? Is the flat-12 better than the V-12 engine?
- I heard the Pro Tools HD with version 6.1 software is certified for “known ice”. Is that true? Where do they hide the de-ice boots?
I was able to resume mixing activities on Monday after getting through the somewhat painless migration from a Microsoft Pro Tools environment to a Mac-based Pro Tools environment.
The G5 is an impressive workstation. All around performance is significantly superior to the AMD-based workstation and I have to admit that I quite enjoy the user experience on the Mac.
The only minor hiccup in the whole process was confirming the plugin licenses that I have would transfer over to the G5 without incident. Audio plugins are specialized processors that manipulate sound. They can serve as a substitute for certain classes of audio equipment that you buy and mount on equipment racks. Given that the market for this class of software is somewhat small most of the manufacturers adopt pretty aggressive copy protection measures.
In this case I wanted to move a set of Waves plugins from my old workstation to the G5.
The most common dongle right now is the iLok key. It is a USB device that contains the license status for any software products that you are authorized to use by a particular set of manufacturers. The key is portable in that you can take your authorizations with you.
You need to make sure that the target environment matches to the specific attributes of the software that you are licensed to use.
It took two days with Waves tech support to finally conclude that my license can move to the G5. I just have to run the G5 with two iLok keys. With the Apple HD platform I received a package of new plugs authorized on a new iLok key. Most manufacturers allow you to transfer your license between keys using the services at iLok.
Waves does not allow this.
As it turns out all I had to do was install the Mac version of the Waves plugins and then insert both my old key, which had the original license, and my new key, which contains the licenses for a different set of plugs.
So now I have all my plugs working. My G5 has two ugly aqua green keys. One front and one back. Fortunately the G5 is in a machine room where the keys cannot be seen.
I took the studio down yesterday to transfer all the active Pro Tools sessions over to the new G5. I maintain a backup system where active files are streamed to an external firewire hard drive. I always have two instances of active projects: one on the local dedicated audio disk and the other on an external firewire drive. I also encourage clients to get either a USB or Firewire drive to archive the project as well.
First step was to do a complete archive of the Audio disk to the Firewire drive. There were about 95 Gigabytes of data. The AMD-based computer took about two hours and change to transfer the data. I then removed the Firewire cable from the old PC and plugged it into the G5. I then initiated a transfer of all the files to the audio disk on the G5.
The G5 has two internal SATA 160GB hard drives. One is a system drive and the other is dedicated to Pro Tools. Although it took over two hours to transfer the data from the old PC to the Firewire drive, it only took 36 minutes to transfer the same volume of data to the G5.
So then the testing began. I had the G5 in the control room and I have to admit that this is a very quiet machine. I had to special purpose the old PC with components to bring the noise level down. I measured the G5 at 34dBA at one metre. I worked the machine hard for the next 6 hours and there was no perceptible change in noise level.
I tested about 12 sessions through the system to ensure that I was achieving good performance, that all plugins were working and that the overall system was stable. First test results were excellent. So much so that I will hold my next session using the G5 as the production machine.
Some of my projects were taxing the old PC to its limits. The same projects are barely denting the new Pro Tools rig. This will really help me out on some of my mixing activities over the next few weeks.
So far, a refreshingly pleasant transition.
Hooray! The Apple dual processor G5 computer finally came in today. I plugged it into my studio. Et voila. Everything worked.
Pro Tools HD interface: worked
Pro Tools TDM/RTAS plugins: worked
Control 24: worked
Pro Tools software: worked
This is the first time in my life that I have plugged a computer into a complex environment with complex software where everything just worked.
I will take most of the day tomorrow to convert work over to the Apple-based Pro Tools environment. I will run the studio production environment in parallel until I am confident that I can switch over to the Mac. Looks like it won’t take much time.