Hello. I’m Xeno. As a musician I’ve played for large audiences and I have won some awards for songwriting. My quest is not to “make it big,” but to create music that, to me, stands the test of time and stands up to my favorite songs, the ones I consider the best ever written. I’d love it if someone 1,000 years from now was still enjoying what I’m doing today in some way.
Here are notes from my quest.
A Great Song
To answer what makes a great song, I started with a list of my favorites:
- Yesterday (Beatles)
- Bridge over Troubled Water (Simon and Garfunkle)
- Bohemian Rhapsody (Queen)
- Imagine (John Lennon)
- A Day in the Life (Beatles)
- Turn to Stone (ELO)
- Help! (Beatles)
- Scarborough Fair (Simon and Garfunkle)
- Girl from Ipanema (Jobim/de Moraes/Gimbel)
- Wichita Lineman (Glen Campell)
- Ring of Fire (Johnny Cash)
- Spanish Fly (Van Halen)
- Wild World (Cat Stevens)
- Message In A Bottle (the Police)
- Everything I Own (Bread)
- King of the Road (Roger Miller)
- I’m Yours (Jason Mraz)
- Stray Cat Strut (Stray Cats)
- Space Oddity (David Bowie)
- Rocket Man (Elton John)
- YYZ (Rush)
- Welcome Back Kotter (John Sebastien)
- The Streetbeater (Quincy Jones)
- Born to be Wild (Steppenwolf)
- Super Bon Bon (Soul Coughing)
- Summertime (George Gershwin)
- The Boxer (Simon and Garfunkle)
- Nowhere Man (Beatles)
- Father and Son (Cat Stevens)
- Sweet Emotion (Aerosmith)
- Lying Eyes (the Eagles)
- Georgia (Ray Charles)
- I Will Survive (Gloria Gaynor)
- What a Wonderful World (Thiele/Weiss/Armstrong)
- Norwegian Wood (Beatles)
- Cotton Fields (Huddie Ledbetter/CCR version)
- Willie and the Poor Boys (CCR)
- Blackbird (Beatles)
- Into the Dark (Deathcab for Cutie)
- Dear God (XTC)
- Sad Lisa (Cat Stevens)
- Don’t Know Why (Norah Jones)
- Mrs. Robinson (Simon and Garfunkle)
- The Christmas Song/Chestnuts Roasting (Nat King Cole)
- The Inspector Theme (Henry Mancini)
- Linus and Lucy (Vince Guaraldi)
- Birdland (Zawinul, Manhattan Transfer)
- The Loneliest of Creatures (Klaatu)
- Wayward Son (Kansas)
- Dust in the Wind (Kansas)
- More than a Feeling (Boston)
What do my favorite songs/recordings have in common? Are there elements common to all of these which are not present in other songs by these bands?
Elements for a song success
- The composition holds my interest from start to finish
- Great performance, subtle awesomeness draws me in
- Good and interesting harmony
- Instrument tone quality is excellent
- Song paints an emotional picture or tells a story that is one you want to revisit
- Lack of distractions like stray noises or volume problems
Considerations for recording
- Room Treatment: Ability of the recording room to capture true sound
- Microphones: Do you need an expensive mic? Probably, yes, but the vocals for Thriller were recorded with a cheap SM7 microphone (but an expensive preamp).
- Preamp: Boost the signal above the noise. I upgraded from just the Babyface chip-based preamps to a rack mount Neve 1073 DPA.
- Analog to Digital Converters: my Babyface interface has great A-D converters, according to many different sources
- DAW (Recording software): Cubase, Protools, Live
- EQ: Not needed on vocals with the right mic and room treatment!
- Monitor Speakers/Headphones: Yamaha HS80M, (KRK Rokit 5’s we’re limiting me.) Have several different speakers: High Quality Studio, Low Quality Mono, Good Home Stereo, boom box, iPhone headphones, Car stereo.
- Mastering: The main point of mastering is to get several songs that will be grouped on an album sounding similar and to make your songs sound right on a wide variety of speakers. This is a subtle art and not one you should do yourself.
Some of my favorite songs are definitely on the list because of the arrangement. The Streetbeater and the Inspector Theme are good examples. I can say of all my favorite songs that the tempo and instrumentation fit the theme/mood perfectly.
Skill, interpretation, energy, feeling/expression, accuracy and tone all come together in this aspect. Van Halen was my first rock concert and I’ve had dreams where Eddie Van Halen is teaching me things on the guitar. Would a poor recording of his “Spanish Fly” instrumental still be on my list? Probably.
You can’t really make excellent music on broken or low quality instruments. With guitars I’ve spent a lot of time searching. I’m still not completely satisfied but I do love my trusty acoustic 12-string Takamine guitar as well as my Baby Taylor. I’m still looking for the right 6-string acoustic. I currently fake my electric guitars using digital amplifier effects on the acoustic Baby Taylor. I also use sampled MIDI instruments. Instrument VST plug-ins are fun and many are free. I’ve paid for Superior Drummer and the FabFour instrument collection.
This is where the real magic happens. Cracking this is what got me up to the next level. It took years, but once I understood how sound bounces and how frequencies attenuate, it was a lightbulb moment. Our brains, amazingly, ignore much of what we actually hear. They focus on the signal, such as the singer’s voice, which might only be 5% of the total volume of what reaches the ear.
You can’t record anything good in a bad room, even with great equipment. A good room is quiet with no external noise, but it is not totally dead.
If you clap where you will be singing and playing the sound that hits the microphone should be mostly dead with no echo. Also, sweep your voice from low to high and listen for vibrations back from the room. There is a free program called Room EQ Wizard shows what treatment is needed. Auralex acoustic foam is what most people use, but it sounded terrible to me. Get some gobos instead. I also used curtains. The reverb/echo you hear on clapping results from the sound waves bouncing back and forth between flat surfaces. Anything you have two flat hard surfaces facing each other, you will need to treat one of the surfaces. This also goes for floor and ceiling. I discovered I need a rug in one place as well as mounting some foam and hanging floor to ceiling curtain in a corner of the room where I have my microphones.
Now that I know what to listen for, I’m surprised I didn’t give this step higher priority a lot sooner. I had a constant subtle “plate” type reverb in everything I recorded live that was due to my room. I tried singing in a closet and it sounded like a closet. I don’t like the boxy sound you get from those plastic backed foam coated microphone shields. The kind with a metal back with holes in it sounds better (and is more expensive) than the one with a plastic back.
The magic moment was realizing how to dissipate the broad spectrum of sound wave energy without making it bounce back.
Know How Hearing Works
When testing different equipment, you must do blind tests. This is because due to the way the brain works, even if you try, you won’t be able to avoid self deception.
I have Neumann U87 (several thousand $) and Sure SM7B ($350) a very warm mic which was used to record Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” album.
I was still having problems with sibilance. The “S” sounds you sing can create sibilant noise bursts usually focused somewhere in a region from 4-10kHz. These are visible as you look at your recorded audio waveforms. Sibilance problems, for me, came from a combination of an untreated room, bad mic placement, wrong settings and cheap compressor and other audio plug ins. Start at the source. Treat your space and adjust your microphone. Don’t use the de-esser or compressor plug-ins that come with Cubase. Blockfish is one of the best free compressor plug ins, but a good hardware compressor sounds better, cleaner.
With a singer trained to “work a mic” properly for dynamics, with the right mic and pre-amp, proper mic placement and a good headphone mix for the singer, I can finally get away with recording with zero compression. This sometimes requires extra takes, but it removes all of the sibilance and boxy cheap sound.
Could it be that I need better preamps than the ones in my RME Babyface USB 2.0 High Speed Audio Interface? The point of a preamp is to raise the signal above the noise so the signal is clean. I’m getting noise because the computer still has a CPU fan and that is getting picked up.
RME says, “Both digitally controlled preamps provide individually switchable 48V phantom power. A gain of up to 60 dB, adjustable in steps of 3 dB over a range of 51 dB, exceptional EIN performance even at low amplification settings, and extremely low THD+N values let these preamps surpass those of other devices that cost several times the price of the Babyface. … THD+N DA: <;; -100 dB (<;; 0.001%)”. THD+N is Total Harmonic Distortion + Noise and EIN stands for Effective or Equivalent Input Noise (audio). This is the amount of noise added to the input signal. RME doesn’t give a number, which is suspicious. “Exceptional” is not a measurement.
I’ve found a few things you should know if you have one. 1) Update the firmware. 2) Learn how the TotalMix software works. I spent a lot of time confused about how the routing and levels work until I found this: RME TotalMix Tutorial 1. Note: AS = ADAT over SPDIF, AN = Analog, PH = Phones. 3) There is an undocumented high-pass filter so if you want a flat curve, set EQ to boost 1.5 dB at 20 Hz with Q of 0.7. You’ll also want to know that “links” is “Left” in German. That really confused me. Links to what? And “recht” is “Right”.
After talking to an RME engineer I now believe that chip-based preamps like the ones in the Babyface are very clean, but can’t compete with solid state preamps. Sometimes you don’t want clean transparent preamps. I want a rich sound with nice harmonics, a little something special added, as well as beautiful clear compression that does not sound compressed. See my list of gear from famous studios below. By turning the input gain to zero on the Babyface, you can input the signal from a very nice preamp into the XLR inputs, or find a pre-amp with Analog to Digital conversion and use the Babyface’s optical input. Since the A/D converters in the Babyface are top of the line, I went the first route and purchased a Neve 1073 DPA Dual Mic Preamp. Two channels of Neve.
Analog to Digital Converter
To get the analog sound into your recording software, you need a converter. Currently, I’m using a Babyface which is both preamp and A/D converter. The sample rates available in kHz are 32, 44. 1, 48, 64, 88.2, 96, 128, 176.4 and 196. Higher sample rates mean more digital slices of each analog audio sample (a microphone input) and larger file sizes, but one study of 60 people, some of them audio pros, showed that there was no discernible difference between 44.1kHz audio from higher sample rates. For a sound recorded at 44.1 kHz there are 44,100 samples (snapshots) per second of that sound. I’ve been using 96kHz because I heard that this allows less degradation of signal if you apply a lot of effects. I have not A/B tested this assertion, however, and I was told by a studio that recorded a Platinum album for a band that had the number 1 alternative hit in the USA that they use 44.1 kHz. Am I just wasting disk space?
DAW (Digital Audio Workstation)
I’ve used Cubase, Studio One, ProTools and Ableton Live. There are many others and the important thing is that you know how to use yours to record, edit parts, handle MIDI (if you do that), adjust bad pitches in audio, create tracks, add effects and EQ, and export your work to finished products.
Equalization is critical to mixing. It is the process of adjusting (if needed) the frequencies (highs, mids and lows) of the various parts of your recording so they sound pleasing together. My recommendation is to get a nice pro mix that you like and lay it down as one of your tracks in a recording you are working on. As you are learning what range of frequencies each instrument in a mix might use, try to match your instruments to those in your favorite mix and you’ll learn a few things by comparing to your initial choices. For example, in one session I followed the example of my mix reference (Jason Mraz, Geek in the Pink – reached #32 on US Billboard Adult Pop Songs – Kevin Kadish was nominated for Best Engineered Album at the 48th Grammy Awards in 2005 for his work on the Mraz album “Mr. A-Z”) and decided to: reduce all but certain high frequencies in my shaker egg, brighten up and widen my snare, take the highs out of the bass, lower the kick drum volume, get rid of the room sound on the kick so it is flat (no reverb), etc.
Any compression, reverb, chorus, phasing, flanging, echos, panning, etc. you use should enhance, not detract from the song.
For a few years I had only some KRK Rokit5 monitors. I’d read about how great they were, but I never did a “shoot-out” with them against any other monitor speakers. Just before Christmas 2012, I finally did that and realized how much sound I was missing. My local Guitar Center beats Internet prices and I got a good holiday deal on a pair of Yamaha HS80M’s which were the best sounding after comparing a bunch of different studio monitor speakers they had set up. I’ve read that you should have a minimum of 6 different speakers for quality mixing. I’m currently using Yamaha HS80M’s, KRK Rokit 5s, my Prius JBL stereo, Sony MDR-V6 and MDR-7506 headphones, and my iPhone earbuds. I plan to set up some super cheap computer speakers as well.
Some final effects are sometimes added during mastering. I’m creating high quality MP3s for listening on my iPhone, but I have not yet compared the quality of the best MP3s to WAV files that are used for CDs. In my recording engineering classes (2013), I’ve learned that a multiband compressor can make a big difference for a final mix to give punchy lows, clear mids and highs. I paid a Grammy Award winning professional engineer to mix one of my song and then copied multiband EQ settings he used and tweaked them a bit to suit my tastes.
The point of mastering is to make all of the songs in a collection sound cohesive and to make your songs work on a wide variety of speakers. This is a job best done by professionals, unless you want to get a huge number of different speaker set ups and perfect the art yourself.
World Class Studio Gear
There are a million different opinions on what gear to use and while many are adamant, not all are well informed. My path to choosing “World Class” gear for my home studio is to just look at what famous people’s recording studios are using. Selections from their outboard gear listed as of 12.14.2013.
Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios: http://realworldstudios.com Preamp/Eq Modules Neve 1073, Neve 33122, Neve 33115 Compressor/Limiter Neve 33314A, Avalon AD2044, Anthony De Maria Labs Stereo Tube C/L 1500, Cranesong STC-8, DBX 160X, Empirical Labs EL8 Distressor, TubeTech CL1A, Urei LA4, Urei 1176 De-Esser DBX 902 Gate Drawmer DS201 Dual Gate EQ GML, Klein & Hummel UE400, Pultec EQP-1A, Klark Teknik DN360 Digital Reverb AMS RMX-16, AMS S-DMX Keyboard Pad Sounds Eventide – H3000SE Ultra Harmoniser
Abby Road Studio 1: http://www.abbeyroad.com/Studio/5/Studio-One Preamp/Eq Modules AMS Neve Montserrat, AMS Neve 1081, Avalon M2, Avalon M5, Avalon VT 737sp, Award Session Master, Chandler Germanium, dBX 760x, Focusrite ISA 215 Dual
Mono, Focusrite Platinum Voice Master mic preamp/EQ/dyn, GML 8300 mic pre, Revolution mic pre, Ridge Farm pre, Summit Audio Dual Tube pre TPA200A
Compressor/Limiter Allison Research Gain Brain Model 700, 2 *ALTEC RS124, Anthony Demaria Labs Mono Comp/Lim 1000, BBE Sonic Maximizer 822’s, Chiswick Reach valve, dBX 160, dBX 160A, Drawmer M500 dynamics processor, Drawmer Vacuum Tube 1960, EMI TG 12413 stereo limiters, EMI/Chandler TG1, Empirical Labs Distressor EL8’s, Fairchild 660 limiters, Neve 33609/J stereo, SSL stereo, Summit Dual compressor/limiter DCL 200, Teletronix LA-2A, TL Audio Dual Valve, TubeTech CL 1B, Stereo Valve LCA 2B, Urei 1176LN, 1178 & LA4 De-Esser BSS DPR 402 compressor/limiter/deesser, dBX 902 Gate Behringer SNR 2000, Allison Research Kepex Model 500m, Drawmer DS201 dual EQ API 4 channel EQ with 550b modules, EMI TG 12412, EMI RS56 Universal Tone Control (Curve Bender), Klark Technik DN27 Graphic, Mutronics Mutator, Neve 33115, Pultec EQP 1A, TC Electronic 1128 28 band graphic, TL Audio EQ 2 parametric & N1, Urei 545 Digital Reverb AKG TDU 7000 Delay, AKG TDU 8000 Delay, Alesis MIDIVerb II, AMS 15-80 Digital Delays, AMS DM2.20 Phase/Vibrato Generator, Audio & Design Panscan, EMT 140 Stereo Plates, EMT 445 Delay, Quantec QRS/L Reverb, TC Electronic 2290 Digital Delays, Marshall ‘Time Modulator’ Model 5002 Keyboard Pad Sounds dBX 120 A & dBX 120 XP Sub harmonic Synthesizers, Yamaha SPX 1000, Yamaha SPX 90 II Spreaders EMI TG 12416
This page will be updated from time to time. Feel free to leave questions and recommendations, especially if you work at a world class studio.