Saturday, 23 January 2010

Left Of Centre

...and in favour of Scottish independence, as it happens, but that's quite enough about my personal political persuasions. Instead let's have a wee look at the question of where exactly should you place instruments in a stereo mix...? (Non-musicians may be feeling their eyes glaze over at this point - but hang on in there, because it might almost be interesting. Give it a couple of paragraphs, anyway, before you decide to go and watch yet more videos of people falling off all manner of bizarre things in simply hilarious ways on YouTube...)

'Panning' has become something of a minor obsession of mine, recently - it all started with the last track I recorded, "magnetic north", featuring 3 separate bass parts (1 electric upright, 2 fretless bass guitars - shaken, not stirred). No matter how many subtle (and not-so-subtle) eq adjustments I applied, the E.U.B. wasn't coming through clearly. Then an article on stereo placement I'd read years before stumbled helpfully back into my brain. It suggested drawing a stage layout diagram, showing where each player should stand/sit/mooch around looking bored during other people's solos, exactly as you wanted to hear them in the mix.

This really helped - my original plan was to have the E.U.B. in the middle, with a fretless bass off to each side. Picturing that nightmarish trio on stage, though, it made much more sense to have the E.U.B. on one side, with the main fretless part (basic melody and chordal bits) taking the centre. The version of me that was just doing little filling-in, fancy-dan stuff could stand well off to the left-hand side, and just be grateful he was on stage at all.

Now I don't claim there's anything particularly clever or unique about all that, but after a few conversations on the topic with Mr. Martin Lennon (who's currently recording an album of his fine songs, and gets mentioned on this blog far too regularly), I started paying a lot more attention to the panning on albums I personally know and would bite yer fingers off if you tried to steal from me, to see if any of them had unusual set-ups that might prove educational...

There can be, in these days of widely-available stereo enhancers, auto-spatial-expanders, and multi-dimensional-sonic-whiffle-diffusionators, quite a temptation to stretch everything as massively wide as possible - after all, you've paid good money for that 40gigabyte piano sample, and you want your listeners to hear every bloody note as if it were a foot (30cm) wide. Or by judicious mic placements, you've created a multi-channel vastness-of-a-drumkit that encompasses so much of the stereo spectrum the drummer would require a taxi to get from one end of a tom roll to the other. And I'm sure that in its place, that's lovely, fantastic, and entirely appropriate.

But not so helpful when you're trying to maintain some kind of clarity for the listener - if all your instruments are competing for the same space, then inevitably, some of them are going to lose. And start complaining about their level in the mix, and demanding you turn the sax player down instead, because their part's not so important to the vibe, and anyway, they were out of tune for half of it - yeah, shut up, you know you were...yeah? is that right? aye, yer maw an a'! Stick yer reed up yer...! Etc,etc.

So, anyhoo, after sliding through plenty of examples of HUGE production (massive flying keyboards on all sides, ranks of backing vocals attacking from wide left and right simultaneously, how many sodding guitar parts did you need...?) from the last few decades, I finally listened to one of my favourite albums for the first time through headphones...and was very surprised.

(Quick "by the way" - I'm not an enormously-walleted 'audiophile', so don't possess an acoustically-perfect 'listening room', equipped with multiple speaker arrays and gleaming, platinum-knobbed hi-fi gear. There's a 10+ year old technics cd player & cambridge amp in the sitting room which enable music to come out, and that's fine, ta. That's my excuse for not noticing certain things's not a good excuse, but still...)

On the 1967 Cream [who invented "heavy rock", not the Kinks] classic, "Disraeli Gears", Ginger Baker's drums are almost entirely on the right (unless my headphone wires are somehow connected back-to-front). Jack Bruce is playing bass & singing in the middle (the vocals move slightly when he and Clapton are both singing), and Clapton's main guitar (mostly rhythm) is away to the left. And that's how they sit for the whole album. Which makes a lot of sense, given the complexity of Baker's drumming (the intensity of "We're Going Wrong", for instance) and what folk were listening to the album on at the time. It does, though, seem quite odd - he certainly sat in the middle of the trio when they played live, which is where most of us would expect the kit to be. Just not on that record - and it works (I reckon). If anyone wants rather more detail than they might have expected about the recording of Disraeli Gears, there's an excellent article (with photos) here.

There are, of course, plenty of examples of classic albums where there is "a place for everything, and everything in its place" - the late, great John Martyn's "Solid Air" offers wonderful clarity, even when he's "echoplex-ing" away at full blast. Placing the electric piano wide left, and keeping it in quite a narrow space over there, certainly helps. And in terms of keeping keyboards under control, even when Joe Zawinul, on Weather Report's "Heavy Weather", is using several different sounds simultaneously, each one seems carefully positioned in such a way that it doesn't overlap too much with anything else. Mind you, I'm guessing that Wayne Shorter wasn't taking any chances in his "Assistant Producer" role, and panned his saxophone far right to ensure it stayed well clear of the marauding synths.

And, well, that's about it, really. No great revelations, merely a humble suggestion that just because you can spread every instrument all over the stereo mix, it doesn't mean you should. And why not try sticking the drums off to one side for a change? You never know, you might like it...

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

If I Had A Million Dollars

Merry 2010. Hope you all had a great start to the new year, and that everything you could possibly desire for the next twelve months is going to turn out just peachy. Of course, statistically, that's incredibly unlikely, but hey, misplaced optimism, it's a positive lifestyle choice for the 21st century. And when the inevitable depression sets in after you realise that your life is, in fact, rapidly crumbling around you, there are the always widely-available alcohol, narcotics or spank-that-overdraft comfort-spending as alternative options to help get you through the most desperate times. Like I said, "Happy New Year".

Anyway, when I bang on about musical equipment here it's usually the value-for-money slice of the market I'm looking at - good quality bargains on a budget. But for once, my folk-blues-acoustic-songwritery chum Mr. Martin Lennon suggested I pick a "money-no-object", fantasy bass rig.

Which has proved surprisingly tricky to decide on.

Back in the mists of time, (some point in my mid-20's, when I was progging away with Citizen Cain), I'd likely have plumped for some mega-stack of ridiculous size & power. A mighty 1000 watts (or thereabouts) of thundering low-end disturbance, probably with at least two of the massive custom cabinets Trace Elliot built for Tony Levin (20"+ speakers, I seem to recall?). But I was young and foolish then.

Now I'm almost 41 (dammit), and still equally foolish...but a little more aware of my limitations and frailties (mental and physical). Plus I don't own a car (I don't drive at all), and haven't done any proper weight training in about 4 years.

Also, I'm not very likely to be indulging in any arena tours...ever, so that sort of set-up would be utterly pointless. To be a little controversial, I'd suggest a great many bass players have amplification that is far more powerful, space-consuming, and injuriously heavy than they really need. I know, there are plenty of drummers out there who seem to be acting-out their repressed rage on their kits, but still...

Recently I've been aiming for a set-up that's completely modular, adaptable for a variety of gigging circumstances, but predicated on two notions -

1) A large PA offers the best set of bass speakers this side of a hefty physiotherapy/osteopathy bill; and

2) You shouldn't own any piece of performance gear that's too heavy to lift (from the floor) above your head, comfortably - unless you happen to own some roadies as well. Thus, if you're a huge, strongman-type, an 8x10" cabinet is fine. Otherwise, we mere average-size folk should try to take as little as possible that'll do the job.

(a handy, simplified, visual guide follows for any guitarists who think that a full Marshall stack is appropriate for pub gigs, and that they somehow deserve assistance with carrying the bloody thing)

In truth, the Ashdown amplifier I'm modelling in the left-hand picture only weighs 27kg - a relatively easy overhead lift - but I still wouldn't enjoy having to heft it up a few flights of stairs (e.g. Teviot Row - remember those stairs, Martin?), especially if I had both basses and a rucksack full of 'gig essentials' slung over my shoulders at the same time. My Tech 21 VT-Bass pre-amp pedal in t'other photo, however, is lighter than a very small kitten, and makes much better noises than the long as there's something to plug it into.

Which is where my indecision starts. All I'd need, strictly, would be a decent wee power amp and a speaker...but really I'm after rackmount-gear performance, only without having to lug around the inevitable big injection-moulded rack-carry-case (this also rules-out Tech 21's rather cool SansAmp RBI, unfortunately). The amp has to be as fully-functional as possible, yet small enough to fit tidily in a rucksack, and the speaker light enough to be one-hand-portable over fairly long distances.

A little research proves that, as in the rest of life, if the budget is big enough, you'll always have a choice. There's quite a wide range of lightweight-yet-powerful amp heads available - Markbass, Eden, Gallien-Krueger, Aguilar, even the wee Ampeg Micro-VR I wrote about a while ago (and I'm sure there's many more besides). No idea which to choose - all/any of them could do a very good job, especially with the VT-Bass in front of them to provide sonic variety. Or for upright players, how about a Phil Jones 'Briefcase' combo? So many great options - again, assuming you've got the cash.

And when it comes to speaker cabinets, they're getting lighter all the time - I haven't tested them, so can't vouch for their quality, but if the Barefaced compact's spec sheet is moderately accurate, it should be a cracker. Definitely seems slimline & portable...until I found the Schroeder website. Their "Mini 12+" full-range cab looks impressive - but if even that's too large - how about a "Mini 10+"...? 300w RMS, 45hz bottom end, and less than 8kg! Alas, I don't live anywhere near a retailer that stocks such wonders to see how their claims stand up, but since I'm picking 'fantasy' gear, and could send them back if they were rubbish...

ummm...I don't about...the Tech 21 VT-Bass pedal, into a Markbass Little Mark III, going through a Schroeder 'Mini 12+ light' (< 9kg). Not outrageous (whole lot could be had for £1200-ish), and eminently practical - total weight of 12kg. So, if any of my friends happen to win the lottery, I've a birthday coming up, and now you know just what to buy me - that'd be really nice of you, ta.

Back to some sort of reality with a dull, painful thud next time. Promise.