In the course of mixing and mastering my latest creation, a cover of The Flamin' Groovies' "Shake Some Action," I realized anew that the Zoom R24's mastering presets are woeful, and only deep editing will salvage them. (See February's post for a full critique.)
As I noted back in February, mastering a song is kind of like icing a cake. To further the analogy, you want to apply the right icing—e.g., chocolate icing on a chocolate cake, not strawberry-peach-mint—in the right amount, and whatever you do should enhance the cake's inherent good qualities, not fundamentally alter them. The R24's presets, without exception, fail on all three counts.
Of the unit's 20 presets, 18 are so abysmal as to be useless even as starting points for editing. Two are marginal. Continuing with the cake metaphor, the built-in presets give you way too much strawberry-peach-mint icing on what was supposed to be a chocolate cake and they'll change your cake into cornbread. You're left with a monstrosity that sounds nothing like your original mix.
I've tried editing the marginal presets (14 Clarify and 20 Maximizr, for the record). Unfortunately, I'm groping in the dark. The parameters are named such that it's impossible to set EQ and compression the way you would in a DAW. I can adjust things like "Mix High," "Sense Mid," "Xover Lo" and so on, but don't know what exactly it is I'm cutting or boosting. I have only my ears as a guide. Anyway, I've toned down Maximizr so it's not quite so crazy with the level boost and squashing, but still haven't achieved the desired result, which is a subtle enhancement of my mix.
Initial experiments with Clarify have been more promising. In its original form, Clarify sucks up your bass and low mids and adds a harsh, brittle high end, almost like a transistor radio. In other words—icky kiwi-fruit icing, too much of it, and it changes your chocolate cake into shepherd's pie. I've dialled down a few settings and subtly boosted others, and after A/B'ing my untreated mix with the modified preset, I think I'm close to what I've been after all along: a subtle enhancement. In other words, a dash of high-quality chocolate icing on a chocolate cake, bringing out le gâteau's chocolatey goodness.
If you own a Zoom R24 and want to try this out yourself, here's precisely what I did. My changed values are in bold, in brackets; if a value isn't listed, I left it as is.
Mastering Preset 14 Clarify - Vern's Modification
Xover Lo: 200 Hz (125 Hz)
Sense Mid: 5 (8)
Sense Low: 4 (9)
Mix Low: -2 (1)
Normalizer: 2 (4)
Bass: -1 (1)
Middle: 0 (1)
Treble: 0 (1)
Type: None (Dimension)
Rise1: Off (6)
Rise2: Off (6)
Patch Lvl: 25 (20)
ZNR: 10 (Off)
This edit was then saved as a new preset: 22 V Clear. Further tweaking might be necessary, but now I've got a mastering preset that broadly does what it's supposed to—add a level boost, a little brightness and some subtle compression to my mix. And my chocolate cake is still a chocolate cake!
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This August marked the 50th anniversary of the iconic Woodstock Festival, and though the proposed commemorative concert failed to materialize, Rhino Records put out a nearly complete chronicle of the original this summer.
And I, noted Woodstock obsessive, couldn't afford it. And only 1,969 were made. And it sold out within weeks. And they're not making more. Ever. As stagehand Muskrat intoned on the original triple album, "Hmm. Bummer, bummer!" Want to weep along with me? Here's a glowing review of that 38-CD set.
But! The good Lord intervened just in time. First, I discovered a geeky forum replete with fellow obsessives: some who'd bought the box, others who wished they had. And a few days before the anniversary, some kind soul posted this magic sentence: "Full Woodstock recording to air on WXPN at exact time of original festival."
Like many FM stations, WXPN streams live, 24/7—one of the advantages of living in 2019, not 1969. The advance notice gave me a few days to figure out how to connect my Zoom H1, laptop and speakers. I also did a test to make sure my Zoom would record without shutting off for eight hours, because some sets would be broadcast while I was asleep. I was in it to win it. And on Thursday, August 15, 2019 at 5:07 p.m. EDT, 50 years to the second, my three and a half days of recording began with Richie Havens' opener, "From the Prison."
Variously dubbed "Woodstock as It Happened: 50 Years On" and "XPNstock," the extravaganza preempted much of WXPN's regular programming; they broadcast 37 of the 38 discs. (Disc 38 contains no music, consisting of stage announcements and other ephemera that the producers couldn't place in chronological sequence.) And thanks to WXPN, Rhino Records and whoever else conspired to create this wondrous occurrence, I captured it all. Yes, it's a compressed radio stream, not quite the pristine audio found on the CDs, but for zero dollars, I'll take it. Happily.
Little did I know that my raw recordings would be but the start of my odyssey. At a bare minimum I had to clean up the start and end of each set, having hit "record" early and "stop" late to ensure I got everything. I also brightened the sound a touch with some judicious EQ while rolling off some murk on the bottom end. The stream went down only once, during Arlo Guthrie's "Wheel of Fortune" on Day 1. Thankfully, I was able to patch that song in from my copy of the 40th anniversary box set. There were also numerous instances of stream stutter to fix. No audio was missing, but occasional gaps of silence, lasting anywhere from a tenth of a second to three seconds, needed repair. I stitched these gaps together in Audacity, which took a lot of patience and diligent listening.
Being a good citizen—and wanting to maintain their licence—WXPN silenced any profanity found within the 37 discs. To create an accurate facsimile of the box set, I had to find ways of patching in the dirty words whenever possible. In two instances, this meant finding missing songs: both Country Joe McDonald (solo) and Country Joe & the Fish did the infamous "Fish Cheer," and neither was broadcast on WXPN. (For the uninitiated, the word they spell isn't "fish" but another four-letter word beginning with F.) In addition, I wanted to excise the many station IDs and promos from my recordings, some of which obliterated the first or final few notes of a song. Deleting the IDs/promos was easy, but again, I had to patch in the missing material from other sources. Finally, perhaps because it's such a ramshackle performance, WXPN didn't broadcast Tim Hardin's 16-minute "Snow White Lady." I patched that in from YouTube.
You'll recall that off the top, I said "nearly complete." So, what's missing from the 38-CD box and, by extension, XPNstock? Three and a half songs. Half of Sha Na Na's "Little Darlin'" and all of "Teenager in Love" were not recorded in 1969. Yep, after almost four sleepless days, Eddie Kramer and his onsite team finally screwed up and let the tape run out, and if there's any Woodstock act for which that's forgivable, Sha Na Na gets my vote.
The other two missing songs are from Jimi Hendrix's set. Sung by rhythm guitarist Larry Lee, the Hendrix estate refuses to sanction their release "for aesthetic reasons." Now, I'm not one to lead you into the dark underworld of unauthorized recordings, but if you google "larry lee gypsy woman soundcloud," you might stumble on the rarest Woodstock recording of all. And were you to figure out a way to record that audio, you too would be in possession of a song absent from the 38-CD box. (I'm still hunting for "Mastermind," the other Larry Lee song.)
Words cannot express how grateful I am to WXPN for taking three and a half days out of their regular schedule to give us the gift of XPNstock. Kudos are also, of course, due the box set's producers/engineers Andy Zax, Brian Kehew, Dave Schultz for their yeoman's restoration of the entire festival. The deep dives these boys took knew no bounds: for instance, they sifted through photographic evidence to ensure that their instrument placement in the stereo field was accurate. Much of the music performed at Woodstock was magnificent, and thanks to Messrs. Zax, Kehew and Schultz, it has never sounded better.
In interviews, Andy Zax revealed that some audio material was salvaged by technical marvels that have only recently come into existence. Ever heard of de-mixing? How about polyphonic tuning? Me neither, but the former was used to create a stereo mix of Ravi Shankar's performance from a gritty mono soundboard reel. The latter helped Zax and crew take Blood, Sweat & Tears' horns, which were out of tune in different directions, and "nudge the tonality of the horns to get them back into a sound range that the human ear would prefer to hear." In both cases, the results are miraculous. Or as Zax said, "To me, this is like magic science fiction stuff. It's like the Great Gazoo descended down, waved a magic wand, and suddenly here's this remarkable thing!"
Oh, and while he was at it, the Great Gazoo, or God if you prefer, gave us XPNstock, enabling me to construct a poor man's version of Woodstock – Back to the Garden: The Definitive 50th Anniversary Archive. I still wish I'd splurged for the box. But with copies now going for close to $3,500 US, that ship has sailed and in the end, I think I've ended up with something more worthwhile—tasty, cleaned-up recordings that I had a hand in creating. I like to think of my painstaking audio editing as a microcosm of the producers' stellar work.
Now that my work is done, I can sit back and enjoy Woodstock as a listening experience. I know I've babbled on a bit and not discussed the music much. Suffice it to say that the vast majority of these artists were at or near their peak in 1969, and most of this music is great. Some is truly staggering. I point to one stretch from late Saturday night into Sunday afternoon that's jaw-dropping when heard in sequence. Creedence Clearwater Revival, Janis Joplin, Sly & the Family Stone, The Who, Jefferson Airplane and Joe Cocker not only wowed those lucky attendees in 1969, but gave us some of the most iconic moments in rock history. I heartily recommend you seek out their full sets; all but The Who have been officially released (beyond the now-unavailable 38-CD set).
I'll admit it: I'm an audio guy. Not a huge fan of watching videos or making them. But for a working musician in the digital age, having some sort of presence on YouTube is essential. And at last, I've found a relatively painless way to make videos that look decent—and more importantly to me, sound great—on a shoestring.
As it says on the Hamburger Helper package, you will need/il vous faudra:
- Webcam that's better than the one that comes with your laptop
- Microphone, same; ideally one that records in stereo
- Reading lamp
- Basic video editing program (I use Windows Movie Maker)
- Basic audio editing program (I use Audacity)
- CD player separate from your laptop
- As plain and uncluttered a background as you can manage
- Plenty of patience
I found this article quite helpful in terms of basic tips and cheap workarounds. I'd recently bought a Zoom H1, which solved the mic issue, and following the article's advice purchased a Logitech C270 webcam for $30. Now, the Zoom will work as a USB mic attached to your computer, and its quality was markedly superior to the webcam's built-in mic. But I wanted the best audio possible for my videos, and this entailed recording high-quality audio separately and overlaying it later. Without going into arduous detail, here's an overview of the process:
- Record your audio, upload it to your laptop and burn it onto a CD (I used the Zoom H1 for one song and previously created studio recordings for the others). Tip: add a good, long count-in (at least four bars) before your song starts. This gives you enough time to press "record" on your webcam and "play" on the CD player, get yourself situated and come in when the music starts.
- Turn on your reading lamp and position it behind and a little to the side of your webcam.
- Point the lamp toward where you'll be positioned in the video. Check for odd-looking shadows and readjust accordingly.
- Position your webcam such that both you and your instrument are visible and as close as possible to the centre of the shot. If you're like me and not visually inclined, this may take some time.
- Double-check that your background is neutral and uncluttered. If possible, move extraneous junk out of the way before shooting.
- With the CD playing (on a separate player; your laptop will be otherwise occupied) record your video, remembering to disable your laptop's built-in mic and/or the webcam's built-in mic. Your webcam software will likely give you "do you really want to do that" warnings; ignore or override them. Yes, you really want to do that.
- Import your video into Movie Maker. Import your prerecorded audio using the "add music" function.
- Trim the video start and end so what you're left with is just your performance, give or take a second or two on either end.
- Sync the music to the video. This is easier said than done. For some reason—your mileage may vary—I find that when I import my audio and video into Movie Maker and line them up, the sync drifts. This is where Audacity comes in (see next bullet point).
- Audacity's "change tempo" effect will alter the speed of your audio but not its pitch. After much experimentation, I've found that changing the song's tempo +0.2% ensures good sync with no drift.
- Once the audio and video are in sync, use some of Movie Maker's built-in features to create a more polished, professional look. I chose to add a title card and credits with basic transitions to and from.
- In Movie Maker, you have to save your video twice: once as a video and once as a Movie Maker project (in case you want to do further editing, and trust me, you will). So: Save Movie, Save Project. If you'll be posting to YouTube, click "YouTube" under "recommended settings."
Lip-syncing tip: for me it's easier to actually sing and play instead of pretending to sing and play, but either approach will work because no audio is being recorded. Choose what suits you best. And what does all this end up looking and sounding like? Well, in my instance, you can enjoy the results on my YouTube channel.
I hope this helps you shoot your own videos should you feel the inclination, and as always, comments are welcome.