I had an exciting chat with my friend Paul Brewer. He was looking for an overview of the teaching of Sound Production at Degree level in Ireland. If you’re interested in music production check out his podcast. I think it’s the best Irish one out there and gives unique perspective on the field. He’s a great interviewer and he kept me on topic 😁
We explored the ins and outs of teaching sound at degree level in Ireland, for both music and film/ broadcast students.
Collaborative team projects that give students hands-on experience in various roles: we call them Integrated Projects.
The work of Jason Corey, whose research and software modules provide an excellent resource for teaching critical listening and ear training.
The differences between music and TV/ broadcast/ film production, and looked at the realities of working in both fields and the technological distinctions between them.
The importance of using the right tools for the job and the need for equipment that doesn’t get in the way.
Finally we talked a bit about referencing classic productions and also microphones.
It’s something students struggle with and I would’ve liked to say more about it. In their responses or self-evaluations students will often say “this is good pro sound” but they don’t have a concrete example or definition of what that is, and often they don’t reference other works even though they are often huge fans of film or music.
Getting them to channel that love of their favourite musician or film maker can be a very enjoyable process. Sometimes they are not even familiar with “the classics” and it’s fun seeing their reactions when they hear the good stuff.
I had a chance to liberate a Yamaha CP80 from a school in Cork who were not using it. My friends at Moloney Pianos loaned me their van, isn’t it cool?
Don’t do this…
The first stumbling block was that the flight cases were missing. The piano comes in two parts, that’s the harp on the left and the keyboard on the right. I only used one strap for the harp, so it slipped on the journey home with a very loud bang! Thankfully these pianos are incredibly well made, so there was no damage apart from a small tear in the faux leather finish (known as tolex in the US).
A dream I didn’t know I had
A long time ago I had a conversation with Jenny Lindfors about what our favourite electric piano was. She argued for the Fender Rhodes, I argued for the Wurlitzer EP200. Not only was she wrong (the Wurlitzer has the superior timbre, sorry Jenny just kidding!) but I was in a way denying myself. My ultimate favourite is the Yamaha CP80. But these are bigger, rarer and more expensive than the others. I just never dreamed I could own one.
What does it sound like?
It was the instrument favoured by Prince, Peter Gabriel, Tony Banks, Brian Ferry, U2 and Simple Minds. For the classic album So, Peter Gabriel really only had the Fairlight, the Prophet 5 and the CP 80, with occasional Yamaha CS80. If you listen closely you will hear that an awful lot of the sounds on the record are CP80 with a lot of effects, particularly things that sound like bright electric guitars, bells, Gamelan and tuned percussion; as well as regular piano. Unlike the Rhodes and Wurlitzer, the CP is a chameleon.
The CP quickly assembled in the studio
Careful, it’s heavy!
So I got it in to the studio, and with the help of a friend lifted the harp onto the keyboard. The brochure claims this is easy- it is not. The harp weighs over 60kg, and the hinges you must attach it to are very small. Don’t attempt it before both people are fully aware of how the hinges attach!
First thing was to clean off the mould and dust that had built up on the case and keys. This was easy, using Tec7 foam cleaner and elbow grease. It became apparent that someone had used some kind of solvent based leather cleaner on it in the past, this made an unpleasant smell for a while but this was thoroughly removed with the Tec7.
Repairing the Power Supply
Someone did a messy job “converting” it to 230V. Incredibly, they decided to remove the XLR power connector and twist on the bare wires from the new PSU. There was not enough space for the rest of the power harness so some wires had to be lengthened and soldered back. At least they used a good quality transformer!
Working on the pre-amplifier
It was apparent that the smoothing capacitor was underperforming, this was confirmed by removing it and testing. I replaced it immediately. I suspect that some of the capacitors in the audio path may also need replacing. The output seems to be relatively dull sounding. I plan to test this observation by bypassing the pre-amp and doing an AB test with a split signal (possible because the impedances are so high). The pre-amp is incredibly well designed, it is all discrete with transformers for the balanced outputs. There are only two ICs, these are to control the tremolo so they are not in the audio path as far as I can tell. It is very very clean sounding.
I spent a couple of days trying to tune it myself. It’s not as hard as a regular piano, and Yamaha even list the exact pitches in a table so you can do the stretch curve correctly. Even still, this is best done by an experienced piano tuner! I like to think I made his job a little easier by getting the pitch a bit closer to concert 🙂
The sustain pedal works by lifting these dampers
The dampers are those black things. When you press the sustain pedal, it lifts them off the strings so they are not damped, and will sustain. There are no dampers on the top 14 keys- this is normal for a grand piano (that’s the CP on the left). On a regular upright, there are no dampers for the top two octaves (right).
The expert arrives
Since it had not been services in at least 10 years, the action had become stiff and heavy. There are about 8 hinges on each key, and a bunch of other adjustments. It’s exactly the same mechanism as a Yamaha concert grand piano. Making this work smoothly, with musical dynamics, is known as “regulating”. I briefly considered regulating the action myself. Moloney’s had a Yamaha grand that was being regulated by Chris Moore, so I went along to see how it’s done.
Within about 30 seconds of observing Chris at work I realised this is a highly skilled job best left to an expert! It was quite a nice grand piano when it had arrived at the shop- after Chris spent the best part of a day on it, it was incredible. So I asked him to do the CP80.
A shotgun mic is designed to ignore any sound arriving at the sides. This is how it focusses totally on the sound arriving from the front. It works great…
…unless side and front sounds are the same!
Read on to find out why…
are wide-open spaces. That seems so obvious right? But bear with me. Usually there are no reflective surfaces nearby. Nothing for the sound to bounce off. The main problem for sound outdoors is the ambient noise. On the other hand, indoor spaces are enclosed. You are surrounded by reflective surfaces such as walls, floors and ceilings. For us it is cosy, warm and sheltered :). But it can be a big problem for sound.
Let’s think about sound outdoors first.
You get in close with the mic using the boom arm. Great, we have nice clear dialogue. Now we will break the sound down into its component parts. The sound arriving at the sides of the mic (ambient) is completely different to the sound arriving at the front (dialogue). Put very simply, the shotgun mic has slots along the sides to break up the sound. Sound coming right in at the front goes straight down the tube. So it ends up being louder than any sound at the sides (known as”off-axis” sound). Incidentally, the longer the tube is, the better this works!
Now let’s think about indoors.
We have reflected sound made of the dialogue bouncing off all those surfaces. But indoors the sound arriving at the front of the mic is also dialogue! So it ends up canceling with (a delayed version of) itself. This creates what is known technically as phasing. What is that? It’s that metallic, harsh, whispery, un-natural quality that makes dialogue hard to take.
is to use a cardioid (or hyper or super cardioid) indoors. It will sound much more natural and engaging for your audience compared to a shotgun mic.
With lockdown I’ve been going back through the archive of old tapes to digitise them. Both stereo and four track tapes. The topic comes up often on the Sound On Sound forum, and I am grateful to Hugh Robjohns and James Perrett there for the advice and discussion over the years. Along with my own practice, I’ve whittled the process down to 12 steps.
1. You will need a decent cassette deck
Ideally a standalone hi-fi unit with a line output. These are usually on phono connectors. You can connect this to the mic/ line input of your computer. Even better, use an audio interface so you can optimise the level.
I use a Yamaha MT4X four track. This can play regular cassettes as well as the four track ones. It’s one of the best decks Yamaha made, with a very low noise floor and a frequency response all the way up to 18kHz, out-performing the Tascam or Fostex four track machines. The only machines that are better are the fairly rare Marantz four track recorders.
I would advise against the Walkman sized USB players you can get (pictured above). These will be wobbly and noisy with even the best tapes, so you will not get the best out of the tapes you have.
2. Any audio interface will do, even the one built in to the computer
The signal to noise ratio of the average cassette is around 50dB, far worse than any modern digital device. Best case for a recording would be 85dB with noise reduction engaged on a top flight deck (or the Yamaha above) and we’re assuming the cassette will never degrade over time. To put it simply: the quality of any modern digital device will be a lot better than most cassettes. The audio interface I use is a humble Focusrite Scarlett which is around 110dB! This is a very popular model for a reason: it’s reliable, clean and neutral sounding, and best of all Focusrite have very good long term driver support.
3. Change the shell
To reduce pitch wobbles, remove the reels from the shell and put them into something really good like a Maxell XL-IIS shell. There are plugins that can remove pitch wobbles (known as wow and flutter) such as Melodyne Capstan, and the proprietary Plangent Processes. These are expensive. This way is not- just make sure your hands are clean and grease free and work on a large surface with plenty of light.
4. Clean the heads
I think we all know about this step, but here are some tips. If the tapes are old and are ferric, you’ll need to do this between each tape. Wait about one minute for it to dry, and just clean ONLY the metal parts. Don’t use alcohol on the rubber parts of the transport because it will dissolve them eventually.
5. Adjust the head azimuth
We’ll need our ears for this! Listen to the playback with L and R summed to mono. Adjust for maximum treble. If the tape is really bad, boost the treble with an eq so you can hear what little high end there is. Super-tweaky tip: if it was a mono recording, do still record L and R, and combine them to mono to get slightly less tape hiss.
6. Don’t use noise reduction
Even if Dolby was used, consider leaving it off. Why? Here’s the simple explanation. You can actually hear the difference for yourself- playback the tape and switch the NR in and out.
The technical explanation: noise reduction is a good thing. But tapes lose their magnetism over time. This will cause the Dolby playback to operate incorrectly. The circuit will think it is hearing a quiet part of the tape, and apply too much noise reduction. Professional machines let you adjust the level going in to the Dolby circuit to compensate for this.
If that’s too technical for you, just leave the NR switched off and think of it as a free high frequency booster that you can polish with eq later. Most of the time, you will need as much high end as you can get from the tape!
For regular cassettes this idea works fine, but for most four track tapes it won’t work. These more commonly used dbx noise reduction not Dolby. Again, you can hear this for yourself if you switch the dbx in and out as the tape plays. It doesn’t just change the high frequencies, it changes the dynamics as well. It literally makes the music “suck”.
7. Contradicting step 6: do use noise reduction, but not on the tape deck!
This is a tip I got from James Perrett on the Sound On Sound Forum. An even better approach, is to, again, leave the NR off, but this time apply it with a plugin. The only plugin that can emulate Dolby A, B and dbx is U-he Satin. I’ve had great results with the Dolby.
The tone of the tape will be much nicer because you can adjust the level in the plugin, instead of trying to find a professional deck to do it on. Another big plus is if you denoise (which I will explain in step 8) BEFORE the Dolby plugin, it does a much better job of removing the noise than Dolby can, plus you get more treble back off the tape, with a smoother top end than no NR at all. In my experience this is especially noticeable with cymbals, and the esses in the vocals. I haven’t tried it with dbx.
8. Record all of the tape in one go
Record all of the tapein one go including the silent bits such as the blank leader.
I mean it. Play the tape, hit reecord in the DAW, and walk away for an hour.
It’s much easier to edit afterwards than sitting there listening to which parts of the tape you want. Make sure to keep the original file un-altered as a backup. I often find I need to go back to these later. Especially if better plugins come along that can improve the sound.
9. Noise removal
This is different from Noise Reduction. NR needs to be encoded in the recording, and decoded on playback (see step 6). Noise removal uses a computer to figure out which part of the signal is noise, and which part is actual audio. I use Izotope RX. If you use Reaper you’re in luck because you have Reafir: Kenny Gioa shows you how in this video.
If you can find a section of tape with no audio, just noise, the plugin can “learn” the noise profile, and then “intelligently” remove that from the audio. I usually do a profile for each song, if there’s a run in of no audio. This way, you can deal with noise generated by the gear used to make the recording as well as the tape itself. I also add the blank leader to the profile so Izotope can remove the noise the tape deck itself adds.
10. Use whatever eq you like, and as much of it as you need
Don’t be afraid to use several instances in a row because you will need severe eq especially to restore the top end. I also like to use a multi-band compressor, but it’s up to you what is needed to restore the sound to a useable quality, or enhance, or whatever you choose.
11. Often the top end is not there so you have to fake it.
For various reasons cassettes will not of the brightness and zing that we are accustomed to since the CD came along. Some simple processing can help with this. I find that Slate Revival is great for this. It’s a free and very easy to use aural exciter. Another good free processor is Voxengo GEQ it’s a combined graphic EQ and exciter with a bit more flexibility than the Slate offering.
12. Consider digitising the tape at 44.1kHz, 16 bit
This is not really a big deal but might be a consideration if you have a lot of tapes to digitise. 16 bit will save about 30% of space compared to 24 bit. The majority of cassettes had a dynamic range of around 48dB which equates to only 8 bits. Some combinations of deck, tape and very careful recording could get you a little more but it is rare. As for the sampling rate, only the very best tape decks can go to 18kHz although there are some rare machines that can even get to 20kHz so the standard 44.1kHz is more than enough in most cases.
But it’s probably more convenient to stick with 24 bit and if you are concerned about the quality of the filter in the ADC, a higher sampling rate might be preferable. Given the very poor specs of most cassettes though, I’d suggest it’s probably not worth arguing about!
I’ve personally found that an essential post processing tool is A-1 Stereo control. It will clean up unstable stereo images caused by slight wobbling of the tape as it passes across the playback head. The “Safe Bass” feature works by filtering the bass to mono, and you can adjust the overall stereo width as well if you like.
Here, for free is a properly looped mapped and tuned selection of most of the original Fairlight CMI III factory library. It also includes a version of the IIx library with a bunch more unknown user content, imported on the series III. This apparently is what anyone with a series III would have acquired over the years. Arguably, the II is the more interesting sounding machine because it changes the sound quality a lot. The Series III was always intended to be state of the art sound quality.
It is provided in the following formats:
There are WAVs associated with each format so download one of those if you’re not using one of the supported samplers. Bear in mind though, that there are a lot of files since the CMI III supported multi-sampling.
The Kontakt version is compressed in its own folder to avoid problems with moving the directory. This is the only version I have tested properly. The other formats probably need a little tweaking so if anyone wants to improve those feel free to share the files and I will update this folder.
We created this using Redmatica Keymap after extracting the WAVs from a CMI Hard Drive using CMIOS9. I further tweaked the Kontakt version after. So in many cases the loops and the tuning will be more accurate/ smoother than the original. In some cases where the voice is made up of a selection of dissimilar samples, the mapping might be a bit funky 🙂
My hope with this is to:
1. Help people make great music.
2. Bust some of the myths about the Fairlight. Now you can form your own opinion about these classic sounds.
3. I see a number of people trying to make money out of these sounds, selling them in Kontakt format on Ebay, or to Fairlight owners at inflated prices. This is morally wrong. Plus the sounds are not looped as they would be on the Fairlight.
4. There is some cork-sniffing in the Fairlight community, generating illogical arguments about having to own a Fairlight before you are entitled to use these sounds. Furthermore there is no valid copyright claim on this library (which is why so many people sell it on Ebay). It is provided here as free to use. Luckily I am friendly with some Fairlight owners who think this is silly, and my thanks to them for helping with these sounds.
So after a few months under a Non Disclosure Agreement, I can talk about the new Arturia CZV plugin because it has been released for a few weeks now.
Arturia found me originally because of my long-running blog post all about the Casio CZ series of synthesizers which you can read here.
Just before the release, Arturia interviewed me for their Artist Page, but I cannot wait to talk to you all about this so I have published it here. I also found an old photograph of my first studio, which I talk about towards the end. So I think this could be interesting for all you music technologists out there!
Arturia: What is your favourite preset and why did you choose it?
My favourite patch in this set is called Atmosweep. It originated from a set of patches that were accidentally randomised when my CZ RAM cartridge ended up in the washing machine! Amazingly it still worked! After that I worked on the sound for a long time to get the release and atmosphere. The patches from the washing machine used the resonant waves in ways I hadn’t thought of so it was fun to explore this happy accident. With CZ-V my archive of patches since 1992 has really come back to life. Several years ago I deep-sampled 102 of my favourite CZ patches for Kontakt (you can still hear those here). Now I can finally put those away and use the sounds in a much more organic way in CZV with the Macros.
Arturia: What are the main strengths of the CZV according to you? Did some specific features or aspect positively surprised you in the instrument?
Tomás: Yes I was pleasantly surprised that the real character of the hardware is right there in CZV! And to answer your question I think there are four main strengths, in order of importance:
1. The percentage level control on each envelope really opens up the possibilities in a very big way, allowing the CZV to respond to the player in a much more organic way from modulation. It also makes it much easier to have bright or dark within the patch. Even on the CZ-1 with its limited velocity modulation, I would make several versions of a patch going from dark to bright, in order to get this same depth. It was much more laborious than it is with CZV. Now it’s so easy to tweak the patch so that it sits right in your track. I love it!
2. Of course the DCW level can now be swept in real time like an analogue filter, not just with the envelope. This gives a sound unique to the CZ. It’s quite different to sweeping the harmonics on an FM synth (or an analogue synth) and can really warp sounds in a spectacular way, while still keeping the flavor of the basic patch.
3. I love the chorus. With one voice it is very much like the hardware CZ, and with two or three voices it is lush like the Roland Juno chorus. It is pretty much the perfect chorus for a synth!
4. When I got the initial spec from you, it was the looping envelopes that most excited me. I would have killed for this feature on the hardware, back in the day. It took me a while to figure them out, but I did, with relative ease, and they are hugely useful.
Arturia: What was your approach regarding your sound design work ? Had you a specific type of sounds in mind? A specific method?
Tomás: There are two answers to this, because I have been using a CZ since 1992, starting with the CZ-5000 and ending up eventually with the CZ-1. Back then it was my only polysynth. With the sequencer it was like an affordable workstation, so I wanted it to make every sound possible. An impossible goal, but a great way to learn everything about a synth. I wanted the sounds that I heard on classic records, such as Jarre’s Rendezvous where he uses the Fairlight and the Synthex as well as the CZ-5000. I would spend a lot of time trying to get these classic sounds on the CZ, and learning what the limits and unique qualities of the synth were.
Later when I had more synths I used the CZ-1 for its strengths. To me it is a wonderful bass machine. I love pad sounds too, and the CZ does these with a unique character. You won’t get wide soft MemoryMoog pads, but you can get some very atmospheric stuff using the resonant waves with the envelopes for movement within the sound. Nothing else sounds quite like it.
I always carefully backed up my patches and kept them well organized with descriptive names, first with cassettes and later with SysEx on the Apple Mac. So I was able to load my library into CZV. It’s so cool to see the patch names you made years ago coming up in the list!
The second answer is that with CZV it is more of an adventure. This is because it is exactly the same as the old hardware and at the same time is a very up to date synth with all the features we take for granted in software today. So the method was simply to explore and have fun! Several times I started from an initial patch and just explored the new possibilities, especially with the extra Mod Envelopes, the more detailed velocity modulation and the Custom Waveform.
But more often, I was able to take an old patch and make it more like what I wanted it to be from those classic records. Unison Mode really made that happen in a big way, and again the detailed modulation and the live interaction with the Macros made the sounds much more alive than is possible on the original machine.
Now the CZ is like a MiniMoog or a Prophet 5, with the sound-morphing easily integrating with your performance in a truly organic way. Thanks so much to the Arturia team for making the dreams of 18 year old me come true!
In January/ February 2016 I beta tested a new memory card, originally intended for Roland devices but I’ve confirmed it works with the Akai MX-1000. Useful if you’re using it live as a master controller for Apple Mainstage. This 26 year old keyboard can be set up as a remote for Mainstage, and with the memory card you’ll have more than enough program changes to cater for the most demanding show.
EP 4 in the series. All of the tracks transition into each other like a DJ set. So you could have a (short) party with this! The tracks are me having fun and geeking out with music technology. Getting various ideas,then painting it all together in Pro Tools. For this EP it was all about not judging too much, letting it flow and remembering the dance music of the late eighties and early nineties with the omnipresent 909 type kick beating the pulse. I hope you enjoy them as much as I did 🙂
Sequencer Sanity: Experimenting with the step sequencer on a Casio CZ-5000 back in about 1992. Hypnotic patterns and rhythms in 4/4 time. This is the kind of thing that sometimes falls out of the pile of old ideas, and becomes fresh again with age.
Dimple: The result of experimenting with turning up the quiet bits at the end of samples in the grungy 12 bit Yamaha TX16W. This is from a sample made by Paul Wiffen. Fun with the Kaoss pads and FM synthesis. April 2016.
Snow White: Tuning experiments with the Monark MiniMoog, an un-predictable un-stable analogue beast. This is a preset, go find it and have fun with it yourself. A bit of Korg Wave sequencing and a keyboard electric guitar solo at the end, making a transition. December 2014.
Epic: Weeks spent sampling orchestral chords on a Casio SK-5 instead of study for my Leaving Cert (the State Exam) in 1990. Beats made with a Roland drum pad plus a Roland drum machine triggering a Yamaha CS-5.
Transition 4: Experiments with layering and modulation on a Casio CZ-1, with old tape machine noises. September 2008.
Here is the list of instruments and equipment I used on Transitions. Any hardware listed as software is stuff that is either sampled into or physically modelled in the computer.
Dystodrift is the lead track. It’s based on an idea that was sitting around since 1997. My old Spirit mixing desk sounded very nice when overloaded, making this very intense sound like a didgeridoo. So I put in some drums with some pitch bend. I re-discovered the track this year while remixing music by one of my old bands. Turns out there were enough melodic ideas already there to develop the intense vibe. What really lifted it was using some new old synths which are better than the old synths I had in 1997 (honestly that make sense, read it again lol). These are a MiniMoog and an ARP2600 (not real ones, computer models). So with those and some little musical tricks I’ve picked up since then, the track took shape. Then there was this really great drumming by Declan Campion, so I made some loops of that and it’s the big beat that kicks in halfway through. Thanks Dec, it was worth all the work 🙂
Transition 4 is loosely based on the choir chords from “Leeds 1990” but in a more pensive key, with a Gregorian choir I nicked from Thomas Dolby’s soundtrack for the film Gothic (great music, his first time with an orchestra, real genius). He was tongue-in-cheek-annoyed about it when I told him years ago, when I emailed him a couple of times at his Headspace company; because he said spent so much time sampling it into the Fairlight LOL. Seriously, he really doesn’t mind. It turns up on the Prefab Sprout (love them) song Micheal as well, and now I’ve used it too. It’s a nice way to come down from those dance beats.
I’ve started releasing an EP series called “Transitions” inspired by this time of year, when the birds prepare to migrate from wintery Ireland to sunnier countries. Each EP will have several short transitional pieces linking the main ones. I enjoy playing around with structure so this idea gives a nice excuse to indulge this 🙂
This track is called “Yay!” and came together very quickly. Around the time I finished it, a flock of swallows were gathering on our houses. Then the buzzards came along, for their breakfast. This was great because I’d been trying to photograph them all summer, out on the bike following them. They are quite timid and tend to fly off when you reach for the camera. So imagine my joy when I could just stand in the studio window and get great close ups! At one point she looked right at me. They also played around with each other, pouncing in mid-air. Spectacular. This video is made with my own photos.
My wife helped me with this one. The synth groove had been sitting around since 2012. The Pro Tools session fell out of the big pile of Pro Tools sessions of ideas, and she came up with a great orchestral line (violins, cellos and a touch of English horn) a piano part and the reversed bridging parts. The drums are from a Minnie Driver record. We tried to keep the mood of the synth groove while adding a cinematic build to the piece. We hope you like it 🙂
I played guitar on the other tracks, a Gibson Humming Bird. The final track “Sun Groove” came out of doing a cover version of Mike Oldfield’s version of Francisco Tárrega’s “Étude”. WIth the way Pro Tools works, I was able to keep all of the sounds of the original, and do a completely new piece of music. So this has some of the original old Fairlight percussion that Mike Oldfield used, taken directly from the original 8″ floppy disks. I also used a few Emulator II sounds in the same way. I love the atmosphere on this old sounds. The people that made them had to take great care in the recording to get them to sound so good with such limited sound quality. It’s nice to stand on the shoulders of giants!