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TechMuze Ep-28, How to Ask Smarter Questions

As we travel along the path to mastery in any field there are always many questions that come up. The same can be said about the study of music production.

There are however, many questions that I receive that simply cannot be answered! So, what do you do when you encounter a question with no clear answer? Well, that’s the topic of this episode!

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Get your free video training series by visiting MixLessons.com

Leave me a review in iTunes for this show and subscribe to Mix Lessons Online while you’re there!

Also, learn much much more at TechMuze.tv

Transcript »

“TechMuze Episonde 28 – How To Ask Smarter Questions”

“Welcome To TechMuze, a netcast designed to educate and inspire your musical creativity through Tech, both technology and technique. Please visit TechMuze.ca for shows and more. Follow us all over the internet at TechMuze podcast and as always enjoy the show.”

Welcome back to the “Whenever the Heck I Feel Like It Edition” of the TechMuze podcast. As you know, as I say every episode – its been a while since we’ve chit-chatted. You know…things, lots of things on the table, lots of things on the go. But here we are once again with another fresh episode of the TechMuze podcast. In todays episode as I mentioned in the intro, I’d want to talk a little about you know “Is there such things as stupid questions? You know are there better ways to ask questions? Or are there better ways to arrive at the answers to your questions when it comes to your pursuit on your educational journey, the educational path towards mastery at your music production endeavors? So, that’s what I want to get into.

Just before we get to the meat and potatoes of things I just want to give everyone a quick update as to whats been going on with the TechMuzeAcademy. TechMuzeAcademy.com by the way is where you’ll go to find all things academy related, all things techmuze related. Some of you…I know a lot of you listen to this show, via Itunes or whatever your favorite pod catcher of choice is and I greatly I appreciate that. One thing I’d love if you could do. As you know people have ask you know, “Is there a way I can support so on and so fourth. Well, there’s two ways you can support. Now, I’ll give you choices. Option A is sign the back of your pay checks over to me and just mailed them to my address. That’s option A. And option B is to go into Itunes. Log into your Itunes account leave me some feedback on the show. Leave me a star rating and a comment. Let me know and let others know what you think of the show because it really goes a long way towards discovery, the way Apple Itune’s search engine works is largely based on people’s feedbacks and reviews and opinions. So, If you like the show, you know …love it if you can log into your Itunes account and just search up techmuze and leave me a little comment, leave me a little review.  That would be fantastic! Or send me your pay checks. That would be appreciated as well.

Another thing that I wanted to mention is that this is one out of two podcast that I do and I know some of you are aware of this and others are not. But if …while you’re in Itunes do a search for MixLessons Online. MixLessons Online is a video podcast that I do that are short video quick tips you know 5-minute, 10-minute long quick tips on mixing and music production in general. That is also available as a podcast in the Itunes podcast directory as well as the Zune directory and the Black Berry podcast directory. TechMuze, this show is also available in Stitcher and Stitcher Radio if you are a Stitcher user, by all means check it out over there as well. But search for MixLessons Online and subscribe to that show as well for some sort of bite-size morsels that may help inspire you towards new things, new techniques, new things in your studio as well. And while you’re there leave me a review for that show as well. So, those are a couple of things I did want to mention at the head of the show.

The other thing I wanted to bring your attention to is if you haven’t checked it out already is that I have officially launch a while ago TechMuze.tv. And basically what that is is its like you know Youtube with all the stupid cat videos. It’s just videos focused on music production, different software applications if you ‘re an Apelton user, Logic user, Reason user, you’re going to find all kinds of great content over there. And this is not just my content. Im doing my best to curate some of the best content from the web and put it all into one easy place so that you can jump on there whenever you have a minute and whenever you have the urge to consurm some gearporn as I call it. You can just head on to TechMuze.TV and just poke around get yourself into a little video rat hole and see what you can learn when you come into the other side. So, checkout TechMuze.TV! I’ve got some other exciting things in the pipeline but I’ll save those for another show. I’ll let you know when things are ready to be unleashed upon you. But for the time being, love it if you can leave me Itunes reviews. Love it came on over and check out TechMuze.TV and I guess that’s all I need to say ahead of the show. Lets just jump right into the meat and potatoes.

So, in the meat and potatoes portion of today’s show I wanted get into a topic that’s been sort of weighing in my mind I guess you could say for the last little while. As a lot of you know, I spend a good portion of my week in the recording department at a local music retailer called Long and McQuade here in Canada. And as you can imagine I get asked  a great deal of questions. And that has sort of exponentially increased as I founded the TechMuzeAcademy and started doing the show and some of the other things I do surrounding the academy. And ofcourse now, theres a bit of an audience built up there and you know people like yourself and I’m getting a lot more questions as well which I love by the way. Keep those flowing! But there is a bit of a pet pieve I guess you could say that I have. And it’s something that I’ve kind of gone back and forth over  whether to bring up on the show or not because I don’t want to seem arrogant or anything like that. I don’t want to be construed as being sort of all-knowy or whatever. But at the same time I think its important to talk about and that is the idea as to whether or not there are such a thing as silly questions when it comes to this learning curve that we’re all on in the exploration of music production.

So, I get a lot of questions surrounding technical details and I get a lot of questions surrounding gear choice. Where to spend your money so on and so forth. These are all great things to be inquisitive about. They’re the types of things that you definitely want to seek advice and counsel on especially when it comes to spending your money. But also you know just in improving our skills and ofcourse if you can’t…if you don’t know something then how do you find out. You either google it, youtube it or you just simply ask somebody which ofcourse is what I’m here for. But at the same time there’s a lot of questions that I get that are just simply impossible to answer without any degree of accuracy you know, with any sort of sure-fire recommendation and this is where my pet pieve comes into play . And I get a lot of questions that are…let me just give you examples instead of trying to explain what I’m talking about. An example of a question that can’t be answered is, “What’s the best microphone for hip-hop vocals?” Think about that for just a moment. Or something like you know, “What compression setting do I use to make my vocals pop through the mix?” What EQ setting do I use on a female vocalist? These are questions that they’re just too broad. The answer will change in any given musical scenario. So, there’s no way for me to really answer a question like that.

Lets just pick one and I’ll sort of see if I can explain a better way to approach some of this questions. Lets go to the first one. So, what’s the best microphone for a hip-hop vocal? Okay! Well first of all, the trouble with talking about microphones is in a sort of a recommendation type of mind set is that there’s a great deal! For one, there’s a great deal of subjectivity involved. For example, the sound I might be going for might differ from the sound that you’re going for. So, right there and then any microphone that I might recommend is potentially the complete and utter wrong answer. Literally wrong answer not just you know…oh my opinion. It’s the wrong answer for you because what you wanted to know was how to get the sound you’re looking for and what I gave you is a solution that does not get you the sound that you’re looking for. Now, it’s not that my suggestion where I give you one is going to be the wrong answer for everybody. But there’s no way to know that.

The other thing is that every musical situation is different. And let me give you an examle of what I mean. Talking about microphones and vocalists. Lets say you’re a singer song writer and you come into my shop here and we sit down to do say a short EP or something, a few tunes. And maybe one tune is an acapela number or it’s just vocals. Maybe some harmonies and some lead vocals tracks, a real sort sweet little you know acapela thing. Well and then maybe the next track is a sort of strumming and singing accoustic type number. Maybe some kind of folky sounding and then perhaps the next track is a full band arrangement with electric guitars and drums and keyboards and organs so on and so forth. Well, even though you’re the singer on all of 3 those tracks, I might sellect a different microphone for your voice on each of those different tracks simply because of what’s surrounding the vocal in the mix. In that acapela scenario there’s very little surrounding the vocals. So, I may choose a microphone that gives me the most full frequency representation of your voice with all the deep lows and all the breathy highs and so on and so forth because there’s not going to be anything to get in the way of those frequencies. In that full band number I might choose a microphone that has a little bit more of a focus frequency response and again that’s a difficult thing to explain because it’s all dependent on the source that I’m trying to capture. But I might choose something a litte different in that scenario and so on and so forth. So, you kind of get the idea as to why that’s an incorrect question I supposed. If you’re looking to get a real useful answer, that’s an incorrect way of posing the question.

So, that leads to the next logical step which is, “What is a better way to ask these things? Or what is a better way to arrive at the answer that you’re looking for?” Well, when it comes to microphones ofcourse because of the subjectivity of involved as I mentioned earlier, really the best way is to simply try a bunch of different microphones and let your ear answer that question for you. And that might not be the sexiest response you know the answer that you’d be looking for because it involves some efforts and ofcourse, we like to ask questions to avoid having to run the experiments ourselves and spend our time to end up at the answer. But in a situation like this, there really isn’t any other way. If you’ve got a music retailer in your neighborhood, in your city that has a rental program that’s a perfect opportunity. You can go in when you know you’re going to be sitting down on a session over the weekend. Go in and rent 5 or 6 different microphones. You know things maybe you’ve read about, things you’ve heard good things about or what have you. And bring them all home and audition them. Then you’re going to know for yourself if this is going to give you the sound that you are looking for.

Now where this problem become even more complicated is that in the beginning stages of things you might not even know what the sound you’re looking for is. You know, you might not know what a great sounding vocal when its soloed up all by itself is. And this is where it becomes a little more difficult. And this is something that’s taking me a long time sort to wrap my head around is that when I hear a track on the radio that I really like that gives me good vibes or whatever or I think is just a beautiful mix and just produced very well. When I listen to the vocal I’m hearing it ofcourse but I’m hearing it in the context of the entire mix. If I were…to be able to solo that vocal track and hear it on its own that would give me a much better insight into what does that vocal actually sound like. What does that signal chain actually sound like all by itself and will give me a bit deeper insight into how that fits into the mix. But because you know most of the time we don’t have access to the multi-track versions of our favorite tunes we sort to have to extrapolate this data from doing some you know some copycat practice. And something that I’ve spoken about in the past and will probably speak about again because I think it’s an extremely valuable way to develop your ear and your chops as well, your ability to man-handle your gear and to make it do what you want it to do. And that is to emulate, too mimic things.

I used to spend a great deal of time when I was a teacher I taught at a private music school. Every year we would do a recital for the students so that they can come and rock out and let the parents have a look at what they’ve been learning and so forth. And we had a lot of vocal students that were ofcourse singers and not necessarily instrumentalist and so if they wanted to sing a tune then what I would end up doing is recreating the arrangement from scratch. And I volunteer to do this because I knew how valuable the practice was. So, I would take that you know Britney Spears tune whatever and go back to the lab with my software instruments and I try to recreate the arrangement, recreate the parts, throw in the guitars, throw in the keys all of that and I would try to recreate the mix as well. And this form of mimicry or yeah this copycat method is extremely, extremely powerful in its ability to help you train your ear because the human mind works best by comparison. So, when I can hear one thing and then I can hear the second thing and manipulate it to try to make it sound like the other thing that’s a whole lot easier than just trying to create a quote unquote great sound in a vacuum. That’s a very difficult thing to do unless you have experience that gives you the ability to hear the sound in your mind’s ear so to speak. And that comes from experience and that’s something that’s totally doable. A lot of great engineers do that all the time. They know the sound in their head but that only comes from the fact that they’ve spent a great deal of time studying sounds and expermenting with their own gear to see what kind of sounds they can create and over years of doing this they’ve developed have develop an ability to sort of foreshadow, you know just to see in the end of the mix. I know that this is the sound that’s going to work for the vision I have in my head. And at the beginning of the recording process, I know that these are the tools and techniques that I’m going to use to get that sound out of this particular performer or this particular source. And again, that’s great. That’s what separates the men from the boys. But that really only comes from a great deal of experience.

How do you get that experience? You get that experience by simply doing these things over and over again. How do you accelerate that experience, that acquisition of experience? Well, you accelerate it by doing things like mimicry, emulating, spending time in the lab, emulating the sounds that you love you know. If there’s a kick drum sound on a particular record that you really dig well record some drums and try to get that kick drum to sound right. You know try to experment first with the drum itself. How is it tuned? Does it have any dampening material inside a pillow, a blanket, a piece of foam or whatever and to what degree. Once you get the instruments sounding right, then what microphone is going to bring out the frequencies in the instrument that I’m looking for. And then you know you experment with a few different microphones. When you’ve chosen a microphone that’s seems pretty close then you move on to mic placement. You know, where in front of this drum, where…what piece of air contains the closest frequency response to the sound that I’m going for. And once you’ve chosen that then you move on to while…you hit record ofcourse. Or potentially you move onto a signal chain so maybe you’re going to run that mic through a compressor or an EQ with some subtle processing before it hits the disc, before it gets recorded. Maybe you will, maybe you won’t. That’s a choice you’ll have to make.

And then once it’s recorded you move on to the mix phase. How am I going treat this …this kick drum to get it to sound as close as possible to the thing…the sound that I heard on the record, that I really love. So, this is a kind of a long winded explanation or long winded approach to explain why the question what microphone is best on the kick drum. Or what is the best for hip-hop vocals is an imposible one to answer. You know,I appologize. I would love to be able to say, “Oh yeah, get this guy here. It’s 500 bucks.” Done. You’ll  have beautiful results every single time. But unfortunately it’s not the case. Okay!

Another one that I really love is you know what EQ settings should I use on such and such? Or what compression settings should I use on such and such? And again for the same reasons, or for similar reasons these are impossible questions to answer. If you consider for a second the fact that any single sound source that you’re recording is a complex arrangement of billions of waves, sound waves together that then combine create the source, the sound that you actually hear. My voice as you’re hearing me right now it’s not a sign wave. It’s not a saw tooth wave. It’s not a square wave. It’s a complex assortment of millions of different little sound waves all coming at you at the same time or similar time to create the overall tone and tamber and you know demoria cigarette smoking sound to my voice that you hear right now.  Okay!
So, a couple of things take place here. One, my voice is as I mentioned is a very complex wave. But also my voice tomorrow might be a different collection of  waves. My voice when I speak a little higher is a completely different collection of waves. Talk a little lower like this and yet again is a completely different sound source. So, for me to say, “Oh yeah, this is the EQ that you used on a snare drum.” would be completely and utterly irresponsible of me as an educator because every single snare drum as the example is…is completely different. Completely, completely, completely different. Like there’s thousand and thousands of sound waves that are coming towards the microphone that not even from drum to drum are different but from stroke to stroke on the same drum are different. Use a different drum stick got a different set of wave forms. Use a brush instead of a stick. Use a nylon tip instead of wood tip. You know all of these different things. Twists one of the tension rods a quarter turn that changes the tuning of the drum and bam we have a different sound all together.

And ofcourse, the microphone you’re going to chose or the compression setting you’re going to chose or the EQ setting you’re going to choose is going to be based on the input that you’re ear is getting or the microphone is getting for that matter based on the output that you desire. Okay! It’s about input versus output. Okay! And once you start to wrap you’re mind around this and more importantly wrap you’re ears around this concept a lot of these questions are going to answer themselves. And this is truly the state that you want to get to in your music production sort of educational journey. You want to get to the point where your ear begins to recognize what’s actually there, what actually physically exist and your mind begins to fill in the blank as to how to get that input to match the output that you’re going for. Okay!

In a future episode I want to talk a little bit about mic choice and mic placement. It’s something that I have been asked quite a bit. I know we talk about mixing on the show because that’s my area of passion and expertise. But  ofcourse if you want to mix something, you got to  have something to mix. And so there’s a whole world of production techniques involve in the tracking stays that I want to start to get into. And also, I want to encourge you let me know what questions and concerns you have because this helps me to sort of stay focus and keep my content relevant to you the listener. You know I can talk about all kinds of things all day long and I’m happy to do so. But I’ll sooner talk about the things that you’re actually interest in hearing about.

So, head on over to the TechMuzeAcademy …TechMuzeAcademy.com. You’ll find there a spot to submit a question and by all means send me what’s on your mind and we’ll get into some discussions here. So, I hope this sort of long winded rent has been somewhat beneficial to you. Again, if you remember only one thing, remember this that the answer to the question often lies in your ability to recognized the difference between the input that you’re perceiving and the output that is you’re desired result. Okay! When you can start to see the space between those two things therein lies in the answers to almost all these types of questions. If you hear an input and it sounds in such and such a way maybe it sounds a little harsh or brassy on the top end then you’re output that you desire is something a little warmer then the answer to what microphone should I use begins to materialize right before your eyes. You throw some mics up on the stand. You throw them in your mic freeze, you record a few sample pieces and you find the mic that gets the input to get closer to the output, the desired output and there you go. You’ve answered your own question. That’s very, very simple. It takes some experience to be able to answer those questions without having to run any experiment. After you’ve been working with your gear for a while and you’ve got a collection of mics that you’re intimately familiar with then you’ll hear the input. You’ll compare it to what you want to hear as an output result and you’ll just instinctively reach for the microphone that is going to get you closest to that result and as experience grows further you’re going to place that microphone in such a way that further accentuates its ability to get the input to be closer to the output. Okay! So, it’s all about input and output and what lies in the middle is the answer to most of these questions that are otherwise impossible to answer.

I hope you feel well-nourished after that food for thought and hopefully it’s relevant you know to some of the questions you’ve been asking. Hopefully this helps you to sort of find some answers you’ve been looking for. By all means do not let this litte rent stop you from asking me questions. I don’t believe there really are any stupid questions. I was sort of a little tonque and chick at the intro of the show there. By all means ask away and if you come up with a question that I feel falls into this category then I will do my best to give you some insight into how you might best answer the question for yourself because like what I said earlier as an educator it would be irresponsible of me to simply throw down an answer… you know that might be relevant to me or one of my musical situations might have absolutely nothing to do with the musical situation that you are finding yourself confronted with.

So, again like I say we’re going talk a little more about some production techniques in terms of mic choice and mic placement. Hopefully, in the next episode and before we wrap it up for today I just want to remind you jump over into Itunes. Leave me a review either for this show or for MixLesssons Online which you’ll also find available there. Come on over and hangout at TechMuze.tv and you know just like I said jump into a Youtube or a video rat hole. It’s very Youtube it’s cool although its not Youtube, a little more focused for you all. And the other thing I did want to mention is if you have not already done so head on over to MixLessons.com and grab yourself a free copy of the “Three Simple Steps to Amazing Home Recordings” video training series that I put together as a sort of introduction to the MixLessons.com course & community. So, check that out! It’s completely free. It’ll cost you nothing but a click and I’ve been getting some great feedback on it already.

In fact, just before we go I want to read you a comment that was left by a subscriber at MixLessons.com. Justin Wagner says, “Cheers Dezz! Real in-depth explanation without it sounding like a load of jumble. Can’t wait for the next one.” That was a five review. Curtis Edwards! Curtis Edward says, leaves another 5-star review,”This is great for people who really want to know and do the right thing in a short space of time. I think a lot of people are going to be happy.” And one more before we wrap it up from Rosario Bellasai, another 5-star review. He says, “Very useful and practical stuff. I’m looking forward to step 3 and learning about membership. I use a TaskAm Neo. I don’t know of any recording software must be used if for the excercises or not. This is just what the doctor ordered for me and my limited schedule. Thanks again for these videos.” So, that’s a couple of thoughts from people that have already taken the “3 Simple Steps to Amazing Home Recordings” free video training series which you can also participate in over at MixLessons.com and I’ll see you next time.

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