R.A.P. Interview: Ty Ford (1993)

R.A.P.: What is chapter three, "Getting Connected" about?
Ty: This chapter talks about getting your gear connected. There's a brief definition of impedance resistance, inductance and capacitance, and then some very simple rules on how to connect various pieces of gear -- operating levels, head room, etc.. Again, this is the simplification of stuff you normally find in an engineering book, but it's laid out in language you can understand. And I've also done some line drawings, some graphs and charts and stuff like that so people with a good sense of visualization can see what I'm talking about. I was told a long time ago that the essence of good teaching is to offer the same concept several different ways. If somebody misses the first one, and you've done it right, the odds are really good that they'll catch it one of the other two ways; and, in rare occasions, somebody may get it all three ways and have an even better understanding. Other topics in this chapter include usable dynamic range, balanced and unbalanced audio, how to balance and unbalance the circuit or, in other words, how to hook up unbalanced gear with a balanced circuit and vice versa. And the chapter talks about what that does -- what are the gains and losses you're going to run into going from a balanced to an unbalanced circuit?

R.A.P.: Chapter four?
Ty: "Understanding Signal Flow" is a chapter which deals with routing audio signals through various console and equipment configurations. The thought here is that, as you produce audio in the production studio, you need to be totally aware of where your audio is going at all times so you can take best advantage of it. If you know how many outputs you have on your console, whether they're main outputs or auxiliary sends, pre or post fader or whatever, these are sources of audio you can do something with. You can run them to an effects machine. You can run them to a headphone amp. You can run them down a phone line. The more you know about that setup, the more work you can get done and the more you can save your butt when one area of routing may not be working on that particular day. If you know ways to work around the situation because you know your equipment well, then you're going to be a step ahead. You can identify the problem, get somebody who knows how to fix it to fix it, and it won't disrupt your work.

There is also discussion of patch bays and the various kinds of patch bays -- normal, double breaking, and half breaking - and there are some diagrams that explain that. This chapter is about moving the audio. People say, "Well, I can't see audio moving." I say, "Think of it in terms of water in a pipe moving from point A to point B." It's energy in motion.

Then we get into some of the problems encountered in this routing of the audio. What happens if one of the connections is reversed, one of the pluses or minuses has been switched? Again, this goes back to the golden rule of check phase in mono before it goes out. I can remember working long hours on a job at one radio station and, as it turned out, the stereo master machine I had done the work on had been worked on by an engineer who is a wonderful guy but who has dyslexia. We found this out after a while. Periodically, he'd do work on a machine and hook one channel up out of phase. I made my master, and I sent it away. They said, "Jeez, we're having a little problem with this. Every time we go to mono, the music track cancels out!"

It gets worse when you have a collection of equipment, and there are many different cables that connect different parts of the equipment. It's also interesting to note that some boxes, effects boxes for example, may invert the phase of the signal inside between the input and the output, so that when it comes out the output, it's 180 degrees out of phase with what went in. And you don't know that unless you mono it out and listen. This chapter goes into an explanation of those possibilities and how to keep that horrible stuff from happening to you.

There's more about audio routing through switchers and distribution amps. I guess the chapter is basically a tour through the hardware that you would find in most well-equipped production studios. Of course, I know not all radio stations have well-equipped production studios. I remember when we went from a slant top RCA with rotary pots to a Ward-Beck with slide faders; a lot of the air staff at this one station went into shock and really hated it. I mean, this console had a balance control on each fader, one send on each strip, and they had very carefully positioned the EQ off to the left, the little compressor and limiter off to the right so you really didn't have to deal with them. But just the presence of a pan pot and a send and a couple of assignment busses gave this major market radio station air staff a case of the jitters. So, the reader gets a friendly approach to consoles.

R.A.P.: "Shaping Audio" is chapter five. What does this chapter offer?
Ty: This chapter came from the work I do producing music and what I learned from mixing different musical instruments together in a twenty-four or forty-eight track studio. Every element in a mix has a frequency content of some sort. If you've got a kick drum, it obviously has a lot of bass. If you've got a piccolo, it's up at the top of the range. And if you've got the human voice or a saxophone, it's in the middle. A lot of people I see and talk to who are starting to use EQ, are starting as I did. They crank it and twist it around until they get something they think sounds good. There are problems with that. The use of an equalizer will smear the sound of the signal. That's a byproduct of what it does. The idea is to use as little EQ as possible. Use good mikes and place them so you don't have to use that much EQ. Sooner or later, you're going to end up using EQ, and that's fine. As a production person, you need to know by hearing a sound what frequency it is or what range it's in. You need to know that it's probably a lot more effective to boost a little on the top and reduce a little off the bottom rather than boosting a lot on the top.

These are tips that I've learned from a lot of mixing. I'll give you an example where I started to realize what the hell was going on with equalization. We were trying to get this mix done, and every time we EQ'd, we'd listen to the entire mix and go, "No, the guitar needs to cut through more." So we'd EQ it, listening to it with all twenty-four channels up, and we'd go, "Okay, what does it sound like solo?" We'd listen to it in solo and go, "God, that doesn't sound like an acoustic guitar!" So we'd EQ it again and put the bottom back in. Then we'd take the solo button out and let the mix fly and listen to it again. This time we couldn't hear the track. So we EQ'd it again and again. We were caught in what I call the endless loop. We were diddling ourselves, and five years later I remembered us going through this circular procedure and went, "Oh yeah! Boy, we wasted a lot of time that day trying to get that guitar to sound right."

That's what this chapter is about. If you're mixing sounds together -- music tracks and voice tracks and sound effects -- you have to really be aware of their individual content. And if you go loading in a sound effect that has a lot of extraneous low frequency energy to it, and you've got a lot of low frequency energy in the music track, then you're going to have to raise the level of that sound effect a lot for it to be heard. Well, instead of letting that sound effect have a lot of low frequency, just roll some of that off. It's going to stick through much nicer. It's not going to get in the way of the music track, and it will be heard very well. The mix will be a lot cleaner. Each element in the mix should occupy a certain spectrum of the audible frequency range. And, the more elements you have in the mix, the more careful you have to be to make space for them somewhere in there. Otherwise, things are going to get muddy real quick.

Gain reduction is also covered in this chapter. Gain reduction is something else that is not easily understood by reading about it in technical manuals. I go into simple explanations of the knobs that you normally see on compressors and limiters, which are most of the gain reduction devices. What's attack time? What's threshold? What's the compression ratio? What's the release time? How does all of this work? And the truth is, part of the reason it's so difficult is that each company's design affects the audio slightly differently. I tell people they should first understand basically what the knobs do, but don't try to use them by the numbers, by what's on the dials, down to the fine point. I had a guy call me from Louisiana one day who said, "I'm using this voice processor, and I'm doing the tracks for this TV station. My tracks don't have enough punch in them, and I'm compressing and compressing and compressing." I said, "Well, what are you using?" He told me the name of the device and I said, "Yeah, I know that device. Back off and start at these settings. You're over-compressing. You're using 18dB of gain reduction. That device can never do that without making your audio sound horrible. Back it off to 6dB and listen to it. Listen to what it does, and when you hear your voice lose its edge, you know you've gone too far."

There's also a part in the chapter that deals with panning considerations and reverb and echo. I found a way to make a voice more present by using a slight amount of delay. It's often referred to as the Haas effect, for the gentleman who worked on the theory, I believe. Consider, if you will, that there's vertical gain. You turn the volume up; that's vertical gain. There is also a gain of presence if you use anywhere between 15ms and 25ms of straight delay against your voice. It reinforces itself, but the delay is so slight that your ear does not hear it as echo. So you gain presence with it that way. In most of the reverb programs I use on my voice, I have dialed in somewhere between 15ms and 25ms of delay just to fatten the sound. It spreads it out over time, thereby making it more apparent.

There are other tips like that which are part of that chapter. We also talk about vocal eliminators and how to make one yourself. We discuss some of the "psychoacoustic" processors out there and what they're really about. You see a lot of information about harmonics and fundamentals and that stuff, and that's really pretty easy if you take it simply. There's a paragraph about things like the Aphex Aural Exciter, the BBE Sonic Maximizer, the Audio Logic processors, the Bedini Audio Spacial Environment box. These are some of the boxes I have run into that, through the manipulation of phase and time, very simply make some really interesting effects.

Again, the caveat is, "check it in mono." People learned a big lesson when the Yamaha DX7 keyboard first came out -- and some of the other ones as well. They had these great sounding stereo sounds. You'd play a few notes, and they would be beautifully spread out from left to right in the stereo spectrum. You're going, "Man, that's wide! That's beautiful! I can really use that!" What the keyboards were doing was taking the one channel and deriving from that channel an out-of-phase channel and combining it to get the stereo spread which was great if you only listened in stereo. But if you ever "monoed down," it disappeared like you wouldn't believe.

R.A.P.: Chapter six is "The New Technology." What can we look for in this chapter?
Ty: This chapter is a rundown of some of the basics of digital audio. These days, digital is a hot word, and this chapter tries to simply explain some of the concepts of over-sampling and sample rates. We discuss different ways of throwing sound around satellites and up and down phone lines, quantization of digital audio, and more. Basically, it's a simple discussion of how analog audio gets into the digital domain, best ways for it to do that, and how it gets reconstructed from digital back to analog. There's a rundown of the basic digital recording formats. Of course, you can blink, and there'll be another one tomorrow. We also get into digital signal processing, different storage methods, non-destructive editing, electronic splice angles, and a discussion of how all that has changed the way we cut spots today. We talk about digital audio workstations, samplers, cart machines, digital cart machines, and more.

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