Preparing a Reaper project for mastering

As part of the latest Six String Bliss album project we have the luxury of having home recording maestro, Jan Buchholz, undertake the mastering process. This means that, despite many people submitting songs, all radically different and using different DAWs, the end result will have an element of consistency.

Jan stated his simple basic requirements: Stereo WAV file, 24 bit, 44.1kHz, with no heavy limiting/compression on the whole track. The last aspect of this is most important. Jan needs an amount of headroom to work with and if you’ve compressed the buggery out of your track he has nowhere else to go. To make the rest of the tracks consistent then he’d have to compress the bejaysus out of everything else and nobody wants that.

To prepare my track for Jan I went through every track and made sure nothing was going beyond 0dB. If I had been smart I would have done this before I started mixing and during the mixing process.

On every track I add the plugin called “JS: schwa/audio_statistics” at the end of the plugin list. Initially this is of no use because all the values are empty but, once you’ve allowed the project to play all the way through the values are populated. The key information we’re looking for is the “Peak dB”. Keep that under 0dB for every track and they’re all good to go. Note that every time you press “play” it resets the values and starts again.

audio_statistics

Finally I add the same plugin to the master track, run it through again and adjust the level so that the peak dB is somewhere between -6dB and -2dB. It goes without saying that this is without any other mastering type plugins on the master track. If you have the luxury of a mastering engineer then leave them to do their job. Your job is to focus on making sure each individual track sounds good and fits with everything else (volume, EQ and placement in the stereo space).

I’m looking forward to hearing how the final track sounds once Jan has sprinkled his magic fairy dust on it. When the album has been released I will post before and after examples of my track.

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Experimenting with mic position to record an acoustic guitar

For a while I’ve meaning to experiment with using different microphone positions to record an acoustic guitar. After some discussion about this over at the Six String Bliss forum I decided to pull my finger out and do it. So without further ado, here it is;

The guitar was a Takamine EG560C (with some very old strings on) recorded using a Red5 Audio RV6 condenser microphone set at the same height as the centre of the guitar, into a Behringer Eurorack MX602a mixer, then into an Edirol UA-20 USB soundcard and into Reaper on Windows 7 (32-bit).

There were no effects, reverb or compression added. The only editing I did was to cut out some of the silences between parts and each individual section was normalised to just below 0db to make sure the volume was consistent between each sample. I rendered it to a variable bit rate MP3 (quality 80%, equivalent of 224kpbs).

And what of the results? Well here are the details about each position;

Number Position Distance from guitar
1 Level with the endpin 10-12″
2 Directly in front of soundhole 10-12″
3 Directly in front of soundhole 5-7″
4 Level with 12th fret 10-12″
5 Level with 12th fret 5-7″
6 Level with the nut 5-7″
7 Behind the headstock 5-7″

With the exception of position 1, I can imagine finding a use for each of these different sounds. In a sparse mix, where I need the guitar to fill things out, the warmth of placing the mic right in front of the soundhole will really help. If it has to fit in a busy mix then I’ll be moving it more between the nut and 12th fret for the more “stringy” sound without the booming low-mids and mids. Sound-wise I’m fairly ambivalent about the distance between mic and guitar, although when it was close up (positions 3 and 5) I had to be very careful not to hit it with my strumming hand so I’d probably err towards keeping it around 10-12″ away.

And let’s not forget – what we’re experimenting with here is the raw sound. The addition of some careful/tasteful EQ, compression, chorus and reverb will make the world of difference, but you need to have a good solid foundation to build on so I’d definitely recommend you undertake a similar experiment with your own gear.

Note: I didn’t try an option of placing the mic further away, because the room in which I recorded has a particularly harsh sound. If you’ve got a good sounding room though, this should be an option you try too.

Using Reaper and free VST plugins to simulate a 12 string guitar

On the Six String Bliss forum I’ve got involved in a collaborative recording project where we’re going to document a lot of the background discussions and processes that go on, both so that we can find out more about how each other works and to pull together a “how to” guide (no doubt with elements of “how not to” as well).

The song chosen is Pink Floyd’s “Hey You” from The Wall. As we’ve been sharing out the various tasks and jobs somebody mentioned that they didn’t have a 12 string guitar. Now I have a Line 6 Variax, as does one of the other contributors and the Variax does a half decent job of simulating a 12 string. If you listen to it in isolation is is far from perfect but, especially when put into a mix, it is definitely usable. It set me thinking about whether you could mimic the sound of a 12 string in post-production, using Reaper and some of the free VST plugins that I have installed.

Before we dig into the steps I followed to do this, lets just take a minute to look at the way a 12 string is tuned. The E, A, D and G all have a second string that is tuned one octave higher. The B and E have an identical string tuned in unison.

So my first step was to record a single track of plain 6 string guitar. For this I used the neck pickup on my Hohner G2T, plugged into a Line 6 Pod XT Live (because it happened to be handy). I called this track “Raw Guitar”.

I then set up a second empty track which I called “Octave Up”.

On the “Raw Guitar” track I clicked on the “io” button, and added a new send, to route this signal to the “Octave Up” track.

On the “Octave Up” track I added one of Reaper’s bundled VST plugins called “ReaPitch”. I set this to shift the pitch up my one octave. I set the level of the “Octave up” track to be about -12db, just so it subtly underpins the raw guitar.

At this point it is starting to sound like a 12 string but, with this pitch shift, particularly in the higher registers, there is a harsh an unpleasant squeakiness that has been introduced. This is both a basic flaw in the way pitch-shifting works but also because we’re affecting the B and E strings. Whilst we can’t totally get rid of this, we can tame it to a certain extent, by EQing the signal before it goes into the pitch-shifter. For this I used the bundled ReaEQ plugin.

This is a four band EQ but in this case I’m only interested in having a simple low-pass filter so I disabled 2 thru 4. For #1 I set the type to “low pass” and then experimented with the cut off point. To my ears it sounded best at 2.2k, but this is something you could experiment with.

To give a final gloss I added a touch of chorus to the master track. I used the chorus from the excellent free Kjaerhus Classic collection. I selected the “Clean Guitar Chorus” preset, but wound the dry/wet mix back so it is a bit more subtle.

And here’s a soundclip of the results, stepping through the various stages; first raw, then with pitch-shifter, then with the EQ and finally with the chorus.

Much like the Variax it is far from perfect but, if used with care and subtlety, an interesting technique to have in the toolbox.

Image Source: Picture of 12 string guitar taken by Kirsty Darbyshire (flickr).

Reaper as a video editor

I found out this morning that with a couple of extra free DLLs installed, that Reaper can be used as a video editor too.

None of my cameras are able to accept an external audio source, so previously anything I’ve recorded has been done with the crappy in-built mic. To get round this I went looking for how I could sync up something I had recorded in Reaper, with the video that my camera had taken at the same time and I stumbled on this post.

This lead me to Cockos’ Reaper wiki, which has the very simple instructions. Effectively you download the relevant DLL’s from http://aegiscorp.free.fr/ffmpeg/ or http://ffmpeg.arrozcru.org/builds/. Unzip the four DLLs into “C:Program Files/REAPER”. Restart Reaper and then you can insert a video file – just as you would insert an audio or midi file. It can also render the combined audio/video to an avi file.

So here’s the basic process;

  • Start Reaper,
  • Insert a new track and arm it for recording,
  • Start recording on Reaper,
  • Start the camera recording,
  • Make a sharp noise that has an accompanying visual element, something like a hand clap worked fine for me – it is the low cost version of the film world’s clapper board,
  • Do your stuff,
  • Stop recording on the camera and in Reaper,
  • Transfer video file from camera to PC,
  • Insert a new track in Reaper (ctrl-T), and import the video onto it (Ins),
  • Toggle off snapping (Options->Enable Snapping),
  • Grab the audio or video track and drag it left/right to align the hand-clap,
  • Trim as necessary,
  • File->Render and choose AVI as output file type.

One thing to bear in mind, that had me stumped for a few minutes… I wanted to replace the audio track of the video recording and so used the mute button. This also “mutes” the video and so leaves you with a black screen. If you turn down the audio using the fader then the video remains.

And here is my first output using this technique.

Special thanks to the Six String Bliss forum‘s very own Shawn Hudgell, our South Korean correspondant, who taught me how to make bottleneck slides.

The Line 6 Variax Dilemma

I’ve had a Line 6 Variax 500 for a couple of years now. Of late it had been relegated into a dusty corner of the music room, losing its place to my own built guitars, my amazing custom Benford, and my 78 Telecaster. I had resolved to list it on eBay so dusted it down, put a fresh set of strings on, and took a couple of pictures for the eBay listing. Unfortunately I made the mistake of playing it for 5 minutes.

I had forgotten what a great piece of kit this is. When it comes to recording flexibility there is nothing to beat it. I’m not playing live much these days but it makes a perfect second guitar. As a backup, it can do it all. As a supplement to a main instrument, it can fill in all of those odd slots, for the strange requests of which the British public is so fond.

Ho hum. It is going back on the rack and will be hanging around a wee bit longer.

Here’s a quick recording of some of my favourite acoustic models from the Variax. It starts out with the three 6 string acoustics (Gibson J200, Martin D-28 and Martin O-18), the two 12 string acoustics (Guild F212 and Martin 12 D-28), a resonator (1928 National Tricone) and a banjo (Gibson Mastertone).

It was recorded in Reaper, using the Line 6 PodXT Live with just a touch of reverb.

Using MIDI files as an aide to learn a guitar part

Over the past week or so I’ve been trying to learn to play Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five”.

I trawled my usual tab and sheet music sources and didn’t find anything very usable and thought I was stumped. In passing I found an uncredited MIDI file and downloaded it on the off chance it might be useful. It feels like I hit paydirt.

First I loaded the MIDI file into TuxGuitar and was able to produce tab for the piece. I had already confirmed by listening to the MIDI file that it was accurate enough for my needs. The tab that TuxGuitar turns out does need further work. For example it places the melody line down at the bottom of the neck on the higher strings, I prefer to play this melody higher on the neck on lower strings, but crucially, it gives me the right notes and I can sort the rest out myself.

I then loaded the midi file into Reaper and was able to replace the usual ropey MIDI sounds with something a bit more to my taste. Here’s the end result.

And of course, whilst it is playing in Reaper I can speed it up or slow it down, transpose, selectively mute instruments. It is the perfect backing track for my practice sessions.

If you’re interested, the drums are done using EZ Drummer. The flute/melody is Redtron’s excellent free VSTi Mellotron emulator. Bass, piano and organ are using Camel Audio’s free Alchemy VSTi.

Using Reaper to split a stereo track into two mono tracks

I can’t imagine that this will be a lot of use to many people but when I needed to do split a stereo track into two mono tracks I couldn’t find any help. After a fair bit of experimentation I finally figured out how to do it and thought it would be worthwhile documenting the method I used.

The background was that I had a recorded Skype telephone call which I needed to edit down. The call recording software I use allows you to pan each side of the call on the recorded mp3. I wanted to be able to work on each end of the call independently, mainly to set the levels, so that they were about the same.

First step is to add a new track and import the mp3 file onto that track.

I then duplicate that track, so that I have two versions of the same thing (right click on the track and choose “Duplicate”). I name the tracks “Original Call” and “Duplicate”

Next I set up two new empty tracks called “Left” and “Right”.

Now comes the interesting bit. We’re going to use Reaper’s excellent patching and routing capabilities. I’m going to route the left side of “Original Call” to the track called “Left”, and the right side of “Duplicate” to the track called “Right”.

On the “Original Call” track, click the small “io” button just above the pan slider. Set up a new send, routing the signal to the track called “Left”. We only want the left channel so, from the drop down boxes, select Audio 1 => 1.

We do the same with the “Duplicate” track, sending it to the track called “Right” and selecting Audio 2 => 2.

Now select the tracks called “Left” and “Right” (click “Left” and then shift-click “Right”), then right click and choose “render to mono stem”. This creates your two separate mono tracks, called “Left – stem” and “Right – stem”.

If you wish you can delete “Original Call”, “Duplicate”, “Left” and “Right”, but I prefer just to mute them (as in the screenshot above), just in case I need to go back and redo any step.