RECORDING, PRODUCTION, and distribution aren’t getting any less complex, and that won’t reverse direction any time soon. To keep up with the dizzying pace of change, you’ll need education—and you can get a lot of it by spending some time on the web, and sitting down in a comfy chair curled up with your laptop and a few good books. (You’re already reading Electronic Musician—good start.)
We spent hours surfing the Internet, looking through book catalogs, seeking opinions, and using blackmail to persuade publishers to give us advance copies of books to help keep this roundup current—and you’re holding the results of that research in your hands. The web resources are free, and for everything else, we tried to find the most cost-effective options for real-world electronic musicians.
Ready to ratchet your knowledge level up a few notches? Keep reading.
The web is a fountain of information—and misinformation. Fortunately, lots of manufacturers offer useful advice online; while they are understandably slanted toward their products, that doesn’t diminish the usefulness of these resources. Following are some of our favorites.
Royer Labs: Using Ribbon Mics
Ribbon mics are hot, but they require somewhat specialized techniques compared to conventional mics. While Royer concentrates on their ribbon mics, the recording tips (broken down into sections for particular instruments) apply to ribbon mics in general. As a bonus, don’t miss super-engineer Bruce Swedien’s three short talks on music and mics.
Another section, “Inside the Mix” (under the “CDs and Downloads” tab) presents both finished tracks and the Royer-recorded tracks in isolation, often accompanied by mic-placement photos. The audio examples are available as MP3s, but take the time to download the AIFF versions.
Auralex: Acoustics 101 and Auralex University
Auralex will be happy to educate you about the physics, materials, treatments, and techniques of acoustics—all in a practical, friendly style. The Acoustics 101 booklet covers the fundamentals, but after that, click on Auralex University to hear audio examples that demonstrate what treatment can do, along with information on room sizes and other aspects of these examples.
An Interactive Kit Calculator lets you you enter room dimensions and desired style, and Auralex generates a list of suggested treatments to get the desired results. You can even take this one step further and get a free, personalized room analysis.
RealTraps: Acoustic Info
Completing our one-two punch on acoustics education, RealTraps offers information and tools—you can even download a free test-tone CD to test the low end of rooms, where most problems occur. You’ll also find a virtual acoustics library, as well as videos covering topics like placing speakers in a room, setting up a reflection-free zone, acoustics basics, etc.
RealTraps also offers a test file to help locate the best position to place bass traps, a calculator program (sorry, Windows-only) that displays axial modes for rectangular rooms, and a frequency/ distance calculator (again, for Windows) that calculates quarter-wavelength frequencies.
Audio-Technica: Using Wireless Systems
Going wireless? You’ll find everything from quick tips (avoiding interference, maximizing range, using multiple wireless systems, avoiding feedback, and the like), to wireless basics, to advanced topics.
Audio-Technica: A Brief Guide to Microphones
This online booklet covers all the basics: microphone types, pickup patterns, and characteristics; dealing with common problems; and accessories. This is a great little reference for getting up to speed on mics.
Shure: How-To Guides
Shure makes a lot of products, so there are a lot of how-to guides—how a phono cartridge works, mic techniques for drums, live sound reinforcement for acoustic instruments, minimizing feedback, EQ for live sound, and more—a lot more, so fortunately you can filter articles by areas of interest.
Beatportal: Guide to Synthesis
Keyboard contributor Francis Preve, along with Terry Church, has contributed a series of articles explaining how synthesizers work, and how to program them. While these articles are several years old, the fundamentals haven’t really changed—and this series is a quick way to educate yourself about synthesis.
Motifator: Support for the Motif Community
Granted, this is more of a Yamaha general support portal than a solely educational resource. But it also features articles that aren’t limited to Yamaha synths—search on “Multi-Band Compressor” and you’ll see what I mean. Furthermore, search results are segregated into support articles and forum entries, which is handy if you want forum “sidebars” on the various topics.
FilmSound.org: Post Audio FAQs
This is a crash course on the terms and techniques involved in audio postproduction. If you’re just getting involved in video, read this and you’ll at least know enough to understand the process and language.
Propellerheads: Record U
While Propellerheads offers a lot of product-specific tutorials, the Record U section takes a more general tack with useful knowledge for anyone using DAWs and sequencers. You’ll find material on ways to record guitar and vocals, apply reverb, EQ basics and applications, and more—as of this writing, 11 articles in all. Besides, where else are you going to find out why you need a flashlight to record a guitar amp?
While you’re in Record U, if you do use Propellerheads’ software, click on the Tutorials tab to find a wealth of information on specific programs.
No~Shock~Zone.org: Musician Safety
Mike Sokol, chief instructor of the HOW-TO Sound Workshops, explains how electrical problems develop and how to avoid them; in a second article, he explains how to use meters to test outlets and electrical connections. This is a work-in-progress with more installments promised, but the existing material is well-worth reading to help make your stage a “no-shock zone.”
by Steve Turnidge
Hal Leonard Books
What it is This practical, results-oriented book is intended to take people who know about music and audio but not mastering to a level where they can try mastering, and with practice, hopefully get good results.
The content The chapters cover basic mastering and digital audio concepts, the listening environment, how to mix with mastering in mind (thank you!), the mastering process itself, the mastering effects chain, sequencing tracks, typical mastering applications (i.e., the types of projects that benefit from mastering), and mastering as a business. The book closes out with chapters on audio and electrical fundamentals; a companion DVD-ROM includes premastered and mastered versions of files, so you can compare the differences, and have practice material.
The book is “Waves-centric”—for example, there’s nothing about Ozone or Har-Bal (popular, cross-platform mastering tools), nor programs like Magix Samplitude or PreSonus Studio One Professional, which incorporate basic mastering functionality. However, the concepts are general enough that you can translate them to similar plug-ins.
The things that make this book stand out from most “how-to” books are the liberal amount of useful philosophizing and incidental tips that relate to the gestalt of projects in general, and mastering in specific. Author Turnidge’s experience shows; he includes plenty of examples of the horror stories, anomalies, and weirdnesses (of course, with solutions) that come across a mastering engineer’s desk. He also concentrates on client relationships and business issues by laying out a sort of “best practices” for you to follow if you plan to pursue mastering not just as a way to make your tracks better, but as a business.
What’s missing The section on assembling songs into an album experience is skimpy. Granted, these days, singles reign, but I often assist artists with song sequencing by analyzing the key, mood, tempo, lyrics, etc. Turnidge basically limits this focus to implementing what the artist wants. However, sequencing itself is an art, and one I’ve rarely seen discussed.
The target audience This book is not for beginners, or those who think a book can show them a few tricks and voilà—they’re mastering engineers. But if you’re serious about applying time, dedication, and effort into the craft of mastering, I highly recommend this book because it will also help you become successful in other elements of your life that are only tangentially related to mastering. Think of it more as Zen and the Art of Mastering, and you’ll be closer to the scope of this unique book: a rare combination of practicality you can take to the bank, and philosophy that broadens your way of looking at the topic.
The Producer’s Manual
by Paul White
What it is Intended for home recordists coming to grips with learning to create good recordings, the book starts with context: a brief history of recording, classic gear, and the elements that make up a typical studio (with an emphasis on microphones and acoustics).
The remaining three-quarters is divided into Recording and Mixing sections. Recording covers vocals, electric guitar and bass, acoustic instruments, drums, and bands. Mixing handles processing, production techniques, mixing workflow, arranging, mixing, and mastering.
The content The book has a modern “vibe”—techniques like pitch correction, generating artificial harmonies, frequency-dependent ducking, salvage operations, drum replacement, and the like are given equal weight as explaining where to stick a mic (and which kind to use) when miking a cab. This vibe extends to the graphics, which owes more to Wired than textbooks.
Paul White makes no apologies for explaining how to exploit the fixes that digital recording allows. Frankly, it’s great that he’s realistic enough to say, “here’s how to fix something that didn’t quite work,” instead of, “you should have recorded it properly in the first place.” While he’s careful to caution people about avoiding overkill, the material is relatively free of value judgements: White provides the hammer, but it’s up to you to decide whether you want to build a house, bludgeon someone, or just stare at it until you actually need to use it.
The introduction states you can read the book from front to back or dip into specific sections as desired, but I think calling this a “manual” is on-target—do your recording with the book sitting next to you, and when you need specific advice, find the section that applies. The index and glossary deserve props, as they greatly simplify finding what you want.
What’s missing This book focuses almost exclusively on digital audio recording; you won’t find anything significant on recording synthesizers, MIDI editing, synth tweaks, and the like; it doesn’t offer much material about control surfaces (even how to use your keyboard’s faders as one), other than being presented in the context of being a very useful addition if your budget allows. Given the book’s scope, this approach makes sense for maintaining a reasonable page count/price.
The target audience This book is for those who have graduated from an all-in-one studio like a Zoom/Boss/Korg unit to computer-based recording; The Producer’s Manual will get them up to speed on associated production techniques faster than anything else I’ve seen. Yet even those who’ve logged hours in the studio will almost certainly benefit from many of the tips presented here, particularly as they’re presented in a clear, friendly, and practical manner.
by Mitch Gallagher
What it is No, you haven’t opened up Guitar Player magazine . . . but if you want to educate yourself about the components of guitar tone in the studio or onstage, this book is an exceptional resource: It covers all the elements that contribute to gear tone, as well as profiles of 15 iconic guitar players, and analyzes how they got their tone. So the next time someone says, “I’m kind of looking for a David Gilmour sound,” just turn to Chapter 22.
The content The first part of the book covers guitar types and construction, and the tonal influence of wood types, hardware (e.g., bridges and tuners), pickups, guitar electronics, amps, tubes, speakers, cabinets, effects, modeling, and even picks and strings. This is presented with almost obsessive detail, but is informed by someone who knows his science and can explain why and how these elements influence the sound. Part of the fun is that the content includes historical details and stories behind particular pieces of gear—tidbits like, what the deal is with PAF pickups, and how Mesa Boogie was started because of a practical joke. This kind of “extracurricular” material balances the book’s more scholarly aspects.
The section closes with analyses and descriptions of iconic guitars, amps, and effects, and in the process explains their history and the factors that contributed to their signature tone. Then the section on guitar players kicks in, with “tone profiles” of Jeff Beck, Larry Carlton, the Edge, Robben Ford, David Gilmour, Warren Haynes, Jimi Hendrix, Allan Holdsworth, Eric Johnson, Brian May, Jimmy Page, Brad Paisley, Eddie Van Halen, and Stevie Ray Vaughn. The profiles are mostly about gear; these are not interviews, although a few people who’ve worked with these players offer their insights.
What’s missing Graphics—there are virtually no pictures. Granted, artwork takes up space and this book already weighs in at 362 pages, but if a reader doesn’t know what, for example, particular amps and effects look like, he or she won’t find out here. Also, this should really be called the Electric Guitar Tone book, as there’s nothing about acoustic guitars—however, there’s a lot of information about amps and effects.
The target audience This book is for passionate gear geeks who want to know every detail of every aspect of the factors that make up guitar tone and are as fanatical in their quest for knowledge as the author was in tracking down that knowledge. While beginners might find the detail overwhelming, I learned a ton of things. Dense, deep, often fascinating, and always authoritative, this title is not a quick read—but it’s a comprehensive collection of knowledge on everything (and I do mean everything!) related to electric guitar tone.
The Audio Expert
by Ethan Winer
What it is Lots of books tell you “how,” and that’s fine. But Ethan Winer goes further to get into why. It’s one thing to say, for example, that a compressor adds artifacts like pumping; it’s another to tell you why pumping occurs, how to minimize it, how to use it creatively if you don’t want to minimize it, and the trade-offs that occur with either option.
For example, he explains how to craft level changes using automation, rather than just reaching for dynamics processors, and how to reduce the gain of a mix’s peaks to allow bringing up overall levels without resorting to maximization— both techniques that I find highly useful.
Winer is fond of busting audio myths, and the book does not disappoint here. The Audio Expert approaches expertise not as something to lord over others, but as a tool to make better recordings, because you have a solid grounding in the principles of audio and audio-related gear.
The content The scope is ambitious, starting with a section called “Audio Defined”—audio basics, fidelity, hearing and perception (a topic not covered sufficiently in many other books), connections, impedance, and the like. The next section—the book’s largest—covers audio recording, processing, mixing, tape, digital recording, miking, digital audio basics, just about every signal processor available, and synthesizers. You could remove this section, call it How to Use Digital Audio Workstation Software, and have a stand-alone book.
Additional sections cover transducers, room acoustics (including treatment and monitoring), video production, electronics and computers, and musical instruments. Say what? Yes, musical instruments—but from an acoustics standpoint— how they generate sound, temperament, the harmonic series, and more.
What’s missing There’s not a lot of Mac in here; the software examples are Windows-based, primarily using Sonar and Sound Forge. However, these apps are good representatives of their respective genres (DAW and sound editor). You’ll find pretty much anything else that seems to be missing in a dedicated website with extra chapters, audio/video examples, and more. The only real missing element is a stuffy, condescending attitude—but I don’t think anyone will mind that.
The target audience This book is for intermediate-to-advanced recording/audio enthusiasts, and while written from a musician’s viewpoint, it also exhibits a “tinkerer mentality” that likes to take things apart, find out how they work, put them back together, and then tell you about all three stages. Some may quibble with some of Winer’s opinions, but they’re opinions—and they add a welcome dimension to the book that goes beyond mere recitals of facts.
The book’s overall tone is saturated with the enthusiasm of someone who clearly loves the subject matter, and loves disseminating it to others. No matter how much you know about recording and audio, you’re sure to find some material here that will add to your expertise.
The Secrets of House Music Production
by Mark Adamo
What it is This is the “one of these things is not like the other” book in this roundup. It’s graphically beautiful, almost like an art book, but it also has a magazine vibe, as it includes how-to techniques, opinions, interviews, and “walkthrough” sections (very much like Electronic Musician’s “Power App” features). And to top things off, it comes with a 600+ megabyte sound library CD of house samples and loops drawn from Sample Magic’s repertoire. (For what it’s worth, I’m quite a fan of their sample libraries.) The publisher refers to the book as a “reference manual,” and in many ways, that description fits.
The content Dance music walks a tightrope: The music has to be familiar, yet different; keep a hypnotic groove, but not become boring; and provide tension and release that works when tracks are played alone or in a set. The book takes a similar tack, as it covers each element of house in its own chapter—drums (including drum programming), bass, vocals, synths, track structures, effects, mixing, and mastering. Within those chapters, you’ll find a description of the “rules,” then info on how to break them. For example, the book recommends the venerable 909 kick as the “industry standard” point of departure, but then describes layering kicks in Native Instruments’ Battery, and explains how to create your own kick in Ultrabeat.
You’ll find recommendations not to squash the living daylights out of everything when mastering, and learn why locking everything to the grid isn’t always a good idea. Overall, the content provides a solid foundation on house music, but encourages taking it further by offering tips that fall under the “why be normal?” category.
One of the coolest aspects of the “structure” section is pictures of arrangement screens, with numbered callouts that indicate which parts are being brought into the arrangement, when, and why. It’s a brilliant way to get the point across.
What’s missing This isn’t about dance music, but house. If you want to strike off in, say, a trance direction, you’re better off with something like Sound.org’s The Trance Experience. Tutorials are limited to Live, Cubase, Logic, and Reason, but realistically, that’s not much of a limitation, as those are the most popular options for creating house music.
The target audience People who are getting into computer-based recording because they want to create house music tracks, DJs who yearn to go from playback to recording their own tracks, and musicians who want to branch out into a new genre. This book has the aesthetic of the dance scene, and yes, it’s aimed at a limited audience—but it delivers what that audience needs.
Music 3.0: A Survival Guide for Making Music in the Internet Age, 2nd Edition
by Bobby Owsinski
What it is Bobby Owsinski surfs the wave of seemingly non-stop change sweeping over the music industry, from the rise and fall of labels, to radio (or the lack thereof ), to building a fan base in the Internet age. It’s telling that this extensively revised edition is based on a first edition released way, way back in . . . 2009.
The content The book’s first three chapters cover the way things were, why they changed, and where we stand today. Then just when you’re about ready to contemplate changing careers, chapter four tells the stories of artists who got it right—like Radiohead and Trent Reznor. From there, Owsinski moves rapidly to practical advice on how to work within the world of “Music 3.0”—maximizing networks, finding nonobvious ways to derive income, building a fan base, managing social media like Facebook and Twitter (did you know there’s a best time of the day to tweet?), using email lists, and the like. You’ll know some of this material, but you probably won’t know most of it, like how to set up an easier way to deal with transactions at the merch table than traditional credit cards. Owsinksi also includes useful interviews with industry movers and shakers.
The book reads almost like a newspaper, with collections of tips based loosely around particular topics. Some of these tips are general, while others are specific and detailed. Some fall under the category of “Why didn’t I think of that?” while others analyze various strategies, and draw salient conclusions (like the benefits of “tiered” sales) that might never occur to you without reading this book.
What’s missing If you need a linear narrative, look elsewhere; reading Music 3.0 is more like parallel processing, as you bounce like a pinball amongst all the factors involved in today’s music business. But, that’s also its value: You’ll have a solid, broad overview of the multiplicity of elements that go into planning a career in today’s world.
The target audience This book is not Ten EZ Tips on How to be an Overnight Sensation in the Music Biz. Owsinski makes no apologies that you’ll need talent, luck, a keen business sense, a bunch of supporters, and a serious level of motivation. Music 3.0’s contribution to your career is defining just how hard you’re going to have to work, and explaining which options will maximize the results of that work.
If you’re serious about getting your music out into the world, this book is a no-nonsense, concise companion (it’s required reading in a number of MBA programs) that eschews fantasy in favor of analysis—and guides you with an accurate assessment of what’s really going on in the music industry.
Recording and mixing instructional videos
Secrets of the Pros
starting at $4.95
I hadn’t planned to review videos, because so many are geared to specific products or topics rather than being general. However, Secrets of the Pros (best known for their Pro Tools tutorials) produces a wide range of videos, from beginner-oriented (as in not knowing which part of the mic to sing into) all the way up to expert.
I received several links to sample the company’s wares. SOTP foregoes scripted and heavily produced videos, which is part of the reason why the prices are so reasonable. Instead, they take a conversational approach that doesn’t present information quite as compactly; however it is non-intimidating, and in some ways easier to absorb, as the pace is more leisurely.
We don’t have the space to provide details on everything SOTP do, but they offer several free videos on their YouTube channel (youtube.com/user/secretpros), which give an idea of the videos’ gestalt. You don’t have to commit to buying an entire DVD; you can purchase a download of an individual chapter, and if you like it, buy more . . . or just download the sections that interest you.
My favorite was the Pro Recording and Mixing series. For example, the “Drum Recording—Advanced” tutorial ($4.95, shown in the screen shot) includes about 30 minutes of tutorials on drum miking—the narrators basically empty out a mic locker, set the mics up around Dennis Chambers’ drums, and compare and contrast them. The tutorial includes audio files and a Pro Tools session so you can audition the drum sounds yourself, then compare what you hear to what you see, in terms of mic placement. SOTP offer eight of these tutorials so far (including acoustic guitar, electric guitar, vocals, advanced compression techniques, etc.); they’re $4.95 each (seriously) but the set of eight is $29.95, which is a screaming deal.
SOTP’s videos are definitely targeted, so make sure you check out the freebies and previews to find the ones that might be a good fit for you. Overall, though, there’s a wide range of videos, many with serious value.