Quick-and-Dirty-DAW-Tricksby Craig Jackman

Pop filter: How often do you get voice talent in the studio and they give you the perfect read except for that one blatant explosive consonant? If you zoom in and look really closely at the waveform you’ll see that it looks like the wave has been modulated by a single low frequency wave. How I think about it is the air moved by the plosive, bottoms out the diaphragm in the mic and it rebounds back. You can salvage the take easily just by using a little selective EQ. You can use a parametric EQ if you want, but I made mine on a 20-band graphic EQ plug-in. I set it up with 31Hz, 44Hz, and 62Hz dropped 18dB, 88Hz dropped 10.4dB, and 125Hz dropped 2.4dB. On your waveform, highlight just that single low frequency wave area and cut it down with the EQ filter. If you don’t eliminate it enough, run it through a second time, if you don’t like it, undo it! It also works pretty well on table thumps too.

“Alternative” Filter: Everybody’s heard the famous Keith Eubanks filter effect. Everybody has tried it at one time or another. Here’s my take on it. Using an FFT filter, I cut off everything below 415Hz. Everything from 415Hz to 3460Hz is at 100%, bypassing the filter. There is a linear cut from the 100% at 3460Hz to 0% at 24kHz. That gets the tone right. Then, over each section that is filtered, I add a single wave of phasing centered on 1760Hz with a Q of 3 and a depth of 7. A touch of 1200ms reverb mixed 6% wet, 11% early reflection and 83% dry, compress at 3:1 over a -15db threshold, and I’m done. The key to this tone is the phasing. Nobody exactly hears it, but it makes the tone move around over the section, making it breathe and live more than just the filter effect alone. It’s the cliché radio sound of the ‘80s and ‘90s to be sure, but used judiciously in the right spot, it’s still effective in adding emphasis or drawing the listener’s attention.

While I’m on this subject of effects, if you use plug-ins or built in effects, make sure that you save any changes you make to them as presets. That way, if you have to go back and recut the spot, you have the exact sounds you used the first time. Also, once you come up with something you really like, it’s only a mouse click away.

Multi-band limiting: If you like to run your entire mix though a compressor or plug-in to really make it “jump,” try something different next time. Use a multi-band limiter. After all, if it’s good enough for your engineer to have one in your air-chain, why not use one in the production studio? Most of the ones I’ve used are 3-band – lo/mid/hi. You can set the crossover point between bands, and of course, there are the usual threshold, attack, and release controls you would expect. The results I usually go for are more compression and limiting in the mids, less in the hi or lo area. This means rock solid levels, and a piece that really screams out of the speakers. If you use DX, try the new Dave Brown demo package at www.db-audioware.com, or Steinberg has a multi-band limiter in their Mastering Tools Package at www.steinberg.net.

Time Compression: One of the things I looked forward to most when I got my DAW was the chance to finally use time compression. “The read is too long!? I’ll make it fit!” Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work that way. All the time compression algorithms I’ve used add scads of annoying artifacts. To eliminate those, I’ll do a couple of things before reaching for the time compressor. First, go in and take out all the breaths between words. In a waveform, they look like little footballs. As a voice track, it’ll sound weird, but in a production, it’ll be fine. If I’m still long, I’ll use an effect in Cool Edit Pro called “Delete Silence,” which will analyze the wave and cut away any part of it below a set threshold (in my case -38db). That usually brings me to a point where if I do have to use time compression, it’s usually only to make up 3 or 4%, which keeps the artifacts to a minimum. Of course, you can always re-record the voice track, but if it’s crunch time or your talent isn’t available, you gotta do what you gotta do to make it work.

Keyboard Macros: I use Cool Edit Pro, and one of the things that make my life easier with it is to assign most of my regularly used functions to a shortcut on the keyboard. My keyboard sits on top of the console, in an area that doesn’t require much access to the knobs underneath (EQ and AUX sends? I’ll use the built in effects, thanks). By assigning stuff like “Dynamics” to D, “Amplify Section” to A, or “Normalize” to N, I save myself from mousing and clicking everything all day. The only caveat I would suggest is that you have a list available if anyone else is sharing your studio and DAW. Just because it makes sense to me that “Undo” is macro’d to Z, doesn’t mean that it will make sense to anyone else.

The Internet: If you are using a PC hosted DAW, and you’re not on the ‘net, then you have to be, and with the fastest connection speed you can get. You need web access for e-mail and mp3 file transfers. You need web access to search for those pop culture drops rather than wear out your VCR at home. But you also need web access for product updates and demos. Whatever software and soundcard set-up you use, there are always updates or new drivers being released that the manufacturer doesn’t necessarily tell you about. There are demo versions of all kinds of different audio editors and effects that are worth spending time checking out. If you look hard enough, you can find really good freeware or low cost shareware that you can pick up.

Take the time to regularly check www.audioforums.com. They have bulletin boards specializing in every imaginable DAW, stand-alones included. There are also areas for plug-ins, studio gear, production techniques, and a radio producers’ section. It’s very handy for picking up tips about whatever DAW you use.

While you are on the ‘net, set up an account at www.freedrive.com, or www.filesanywhere.com, or something similar. These are sites that let you store material on the ‘net, usually about 50Mb worth. They’re very handy if you don’t have access to an ftp site for swapping large files from work to home, or trading files across the country as opposed to tying up someone’s e-mail with huge attachments.

The Antares Mic Modeler: So the GM won’t spring for that Neumann condenser or Coles ribbon mic, and insists that the Shure SM-57 mic that he borrows on the weekend to stick in front of his guitar amp at “the club” sounds great for production use. No problemo! Check out www.antarestech.com and grab the Mic Modeler demo. This plug-in is limited to a 10-day trial, but it comes in DX, VST, or TDM, so you should have no problem finding a version that will work on your system. There is a huge list of microphones that have been “modeled” (their response characteristics have been analyzed and converted to code). So, you record through your SM-57 and run the file through the Mic Modeler and choose what you want it to sound like. Always wanted to use a Neumann U-47 tube mic? How about at Bruel & Kjaer BK-4007? Does the drive jock sound better on a scientifically flat Earthworks, or an AKG 414? The choice is yours, and the results are amazing. It even gets as detailed at proximity distance, low cut and pad switches. Plus there is an emulation of a tube preamp to play with! The best part is that the Antares Mic Modeler costs way, WAY less than that new Neumann. I am constantly amazed at what software and a decent computer can do these days. This is also one of the things I’ve found cruising the ‘net.

A wheel mouse: This is unbelievably useful. Get a mouse that has a wheel on it. On the ‘net, it’s used for scrolling through pages. On my set up, I use it to zoom in and zoom out on waveforms when editing, or scrolling through tracks when looking at a multi-track project. It’s a great time, grief, and wrist saver that isn’t going to cost much.

If you use your mouse to mix your virtual mixer, adjust your mouse settings to the slowest mouse speed. Most people have their rodents set so that very little physical movement results in a large movement of the pointer on screen. If you have it on the slowest setting, it will give you more resolution and a smoother mix.

If your plug-ins require you to “twist” a virtual knob, the farther away you move the pointer from the knob before twisting will give you finer resolution as well.

Partitioning: Partition your hard drive into sections. It’s easier on the drive physically, and easier “mentally” on your processor working with reasonably sized File Allocation Tables. This is particularly true if you have one of the newer 30 Gb to 60 Gb hard drives. I have all my programs on my “C” drive (about 1.6 Gb), and then 3 data drives (“D” and “E” are 3 Gb each, while “F” is 1.8). This way, I can keep all my work separate with retail commercials on D, promos and long-form programming on E, and image production on F. One added benefit is that when I’m off on vacation, someone looking for a particular piece has an idea where to start the search. Note that this is something that you will want help with. The first time I tried it, I managed to screw up my computer so badly that my only recourse was to delete and reformat the hard drive and start again. You do have access to all the original copies of the software you’re using don’t you?

System maintenance: Everybody knows you’re supposed to do this, but not everybody does, or they rely on an already overloaded engineer to take care of it. Take time once a week to make sure that your work is backed up. It doesn’t matter if you back up to DAT, CD-R, ADAT, Exabyte, Zip, Jaz, or something else. It does matter that you have a copy of it off your hard drive. You never know when you are going to come in to find a hard drive failure, like another station in town did recently. The drives failed in both production studios in the same morning, meaning they were down all day, producing what they could live to air. System maintenance does not end at backing up; it also includes defragmenting the drive on a regular basis. We are dealing with 10 MB of data per stereo minute that you record (at 44.1kHz/16-bit). Add to that editing and effects, and you have a whack of data that you are using at any one time, saving and deleting. Eventually, you have under-used sections of your hard drive, and data scattered willy-nilly throughout. Set up sometime just before you leave once a week. Start defragging the drive and let it work away all night. When you get in the next morning, the drive is fresh and ready to go. While you’re in that section of the computer, take a second to run Disk Cleanup to get rid of old temporary files that are just taking up space. You should also restart your system everyday (if you don’t shut it down at night), to refresh the memory and make sure that all system resources are free.