HD works on the Magma

OK, so I knew this was true. But there is plenty of confusion about whether Pro Tools HD PCI cards are PCI or PCI-X. They have the PCI-X form factor and the recent PE6R4-I chassis is a PCI-X chassis.

So I took my chassis and Macbook Pro into work and loaded it with an HD2 configuration. The cards hang over the end of the PCI connector on the chassis' motherboard. But that's OK.

Since this is my eventual plan (when I can afford to buy PCI cards and at least one audio interface second-hand), I'm happy to report that it works! The weird thing is the disappearance of menu bar items on the right side—on my Macbook, that's the Time Machine, Bluetooth, Volume, Battery, and Date/Time icons. The Spotlight icon does not disappear.

But HD is still functional. And the menu bar thing is a known issue.

Another Recordinghack

Recording hacks is giving away another microphone. This time it's the Milab DC-96C.

I've never used this mic, but I do have a couple of the little pencil condensers that came out of Australia's Parliament House. The later are tailored for speech, but they sound pretty good all round. The DC-96 would be lovely, I'm sure.

No more PCI?

A little while ago I picked up a Magma 4-slot expansion chassis. It came with a PCI host adaptor and worked straight away with my old G5. As it can hold up to 4 hard drives, I recently bought a couple of SATA drives to put in it.

I also recently snagged a 2.93 GHz Macbook Pro with an ExpressCard slot. So after some technical enquiries and a tip from a guy at Magma that the various host adaptors were about to jump in price by $100, I bought an ExpressCard host adaptor. It works really well.

The long-term plan is to buy some second-hand Pro Tools HD cards and have a very powerful mobile system. For now, I can't afford that, so what to do...

Great, I thought. I'll put a RAID controller card in the expansion chassis and I have a mobile hard drive. Except that such cards are not supported under OSX 10.6 (Snow Leopard). I need that OS to run the copy of Pro Tools 9 I just bought. It seems that since one cannot buy a Mac with PCI slots an more, there's no need to make any PCI products work with anything past Leopard, the last OS that runs on machines which have PCI slots. Thanks to Magma, we can have PCI slots working with the newer machines and OS, but beyond Pro Tools one struggles to find any cards that will work.

I have seen a few PCI to PCIe adaptor cards which act as a bridge between newer style PCIe cards and PCI slots. Whether they would work or not, who knows?

Does anyone know? It would be nice to keep those drives in the chassis and use it for something until I can get Pro Tools HD.

Audio niceness

I tend not to write about my workplace. I don't think I have, in any of my posts, explicitly named it. One has to be careful with expressing opinions which may not be consistent with the corporate vision. So I won't name it here either. But if you know of a TAFE that is having a Music Festival this week, that's my employer.

We've got several very nice rigs for audio.

In the venue, there's a Soundcraft MH2 at FOH (sadly, not ours). There was a hired Midas Verona at monitors but the cue system died so it was replaced with an Avid SC48 digital.

In the multitrack recording room, we have a Pro Tools HD system being fed by various mic pres and compressors: Focusrite, JBL/Urei, Calrec, Auditronics and Midas mic pres, and two dbx 160As, four channels of dbx 162s (the new purple ones) and a 2-channel Smart C2. Monitoring is through NS10s or PMC DB1S.

In the live mix room, we have a Mackie Onyx 2480 (very serviceable and pretty quiet), a rack of Presonus comps and a couple of cheap TC effects units, with monitoring through Adam A5s. That mix is being sent to a TV recording unit with a backup on a Sound Devices 722 hard disk recorder.

We had a great night tonight with a big band concert. We tried an experiment with AKG C414s as brass "overheads", but that just didn't work so we reverted to AKG C451s and a Rode NT5 on saxes, Shure SM57s on trombones and trumpets (unfortunately we have no RE20s or Sennheiser 441s), and a Sennheiser 421 as a solo mic.

It sounded great on the multitrack, and the students on the live mix did a very creditable job.

Compression is glue

My students are afraid of using compression as a recording tool. They’ll use every plug-in under the sun when mixing—and get good results too—but they won’t touch the real thing.

I put this down to one of two things:

  1. Extreme caution: if we mess up while recording, it will be harder to fix; or
  2. We’ll fix it in the mix.

The first is certainly true. But aren’t you using your ears and listening to how it sounds while you are recording?

The second might be true, but only if the performance is not messed up, the mic is reasonable and positioned properly, and the rest of the signal chain is OK too. (And you don’t need a Wagner U47 and a Forsell mic pre!)

Compression is like glue. It sticks sound to the listeners’ ears, whether the sound is a kick drum anchoring the beat or an intimate vocal. In modern—and not so modern—pop music, you’ve got to use it. It’s part of the sound.

The history of recording is the history of compression. In the early days, we fought against the limitations of the medium. Too low a recording level and the signal would be swimming in a sea of noise made worse by our having to turn it up to hear it. Too high a recording level and distortion would result. Sometimes that distortion might add a nice edge but if the signal got too loud it’d turn nasty.

Or, if the recording was transferred to a new medium, compression was required to fit it to a new set of limitations. Vinyl is the perfect example: if the signal is too big, the groove swings to wide and the needle skates across the disc.

In the old days, we had a duty not to scratch our customers’ records.

Even radio needed compression, to smooth voices and raise the sound above the interference so easily coming between the transmitter and the receiver. (Have you listened to AM radio lately? It still sounds crap.)

For this reason, some of the best compressors are old broadcast units… Pye, AWA, Federal, Gates and that really rare stuff built for the U.S. military. That’s right… while the troops were marching their radios were pushing sound into the ears of the cowed civilians.

It wasn’t too long before engineers realised compression could be used as an effect on individual sounds, especially as rock became more common. The drums had to punch through, the bass chug along and the guitars blast. And while all that was going, the vocals had to be squeezed into the small space left at the top of the mix.

Our ears don’t respond to peaks, but averages. They’re like VU meters. So a lot of the time you want to set your compression to leave the peaks alone (a longer attack time preserves the brightness of that transient too) and squash the body of the sound. Boost that and it’ll stick to the ear, just the way you want it to. When you come to mix, everything will sit in a tighter dynamic and you won’t have to work so hard to make that kick drum slam and those vocals heard.

(OK, so there’s a little more to it than that, but you get the general idea.)

Some compressors aren’t hard to use at all. Want a kick sound? If the drum is not too badly tuned, dial in 3-4 dB of gain reduction on a dbx 160 and feel it! Tickle the vocals with an 1176.

It’s possible to take it too far of course, especially in mastering. As long as we have FM sound, we’ll have broadcast limiters that will destroy your sound if it threatens to overmodulate the carrier. And even with digital, how’s your mix going to play with other material when the dialog normalisation level for TV is -20 dBfs or lower?

Incidentally, the use of such limiters in the broadcast signal chain and the very nature of our hearing (averages, not peaks) render this report from A Current Affair completely bogus.

So the moral of the story is: don’t be afraid of compression. Make it your friend.

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