Notable Productions is one of the East Coast's finest recording studios and is also the creative play space of music producer and composer Dan Cantor. It is housed in an impressively equipped neve-based studio in the Greater Boston area. We are in our 24th year of working with clients who range from internationally known artists to Fortune 500 companies. Our collection of instruments and gear ranges from the ultra-modern to the exquisitely vintage. Notable is a studio with the expertise, equipment, and professionalism of any big city studio, but with all the comfort of our relaxed, familial space. Our staff is obsessed with good songs and good sounds. Our space is creative and playful. Our goal of giving clients a unique experience and world-class production explains why they keep coming back and in many cases, become good friends.
Everyone who has worked with us would agree that Notable’s greatest asset is composer and producer Dan Cantor. In addition to producing and recording hundreds of records and soundtracks, he is sought out as an audio expert and is experienced in a vast range of musical genres. His background includes touring with rock bands, teaching at world class colleges, producing and recording hundreds of albums, and writing music for films and multimedia projects around the world.
At Notable, no job is too big or too small. From multinational corporations to starting high school bands, we give our clients Notable’s guarantee of vision, professionalism, fun, and, most importantly, an excellent end product. Contact us to take the tour of our studio and meet our team. We look forward to working with you to transform your sound project from ordinary to extraordinary!
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Daniel C. Cantor is an Assistant Professor at Berklee College of Music
Audio Engineer Society AES
Article written by Notable on Midi Timing and the Russian Dragon
It's About Time.
We've all heard it said that being in the right place at the right time can make or break a career in music. Nowhere is this more important than in your musical performances. The difference between a great player and a good one can often be reduced to timing. Timing is what gives music that special funky flow that people want to groove to. The error might be as small as a few milliseconds, but those milliseconds determine whether people want to dance or even listen to your music. When music is rhythmically right, it just feels good.
It's always been difficult to judge where your rhythms are placed relative to a mechanical click. Or at least for most of us.... Stories of Donald Fagen's ears perceiving millisecond differences and voicing his disillusionment with MIDI gear are well documented and are what legends are made of. Most producers and engineers I know would love a tool that would show players where they fall relative to the click.MIDI's Murky Pathways
The desire for accuracy and the ability to measure it are also crucial in MIDI production. In a studio, there are countless causes of timing delays and errors that affect the music in small and large ways. We are falsely led to believe that when we play something and record it, we will hear that performance played back without rhythmic alteration. Admittedly, MIDI gear is a major perpetrator of these delays.
At the smallest level, MIDI itself can only communicate about one Note On per millisecond. See box: "How Simultaneous Can Two MIDI Notes Be?" A good sequencer can read the differences in your performance as closely as one millisecond per note (see Figure 1).
For example, if your tempo is 120 bpm, and your sequencer has a resolution of 480 ticks per beat, you have a real time resolution of 960 ticks per second:120/beats per minute =
120 bpm/60 seconds =
2 beats per second
(beats per second) x (ticks per beat) =
ticks per second
2 beats per second x 480 ticks per beat =
960 ticks per second =
approximately 1000th of a second Practically speaking, however, a serial cable is incapable of sending two notes at the exact same time: one note must follow the other by at least one millisecond. (On a Macintosh, serial cables are the modem and printer cables.) More often than not, you are sending multiple events in the hope that they will play simultaneously, but they don't. Plus, events scheduled for simultaneous playing will appear one tick apart, in random order. One way to solve the random-order problem is actually to spread simultaneous events by one tick in your sequencer.
So far, we know that the accuracy is hampered by the speed of the serial communication and the quantity of notes simultaneously played. This problem is compounded by other MIDI data communicated at the same time, further slowing this process and making playback even less consistent. Many of you have seen your computer slow down when burdened with many complicated activities. This same problem plagues some sequencers' metronomes when reproducing a complicated MIDI performance. This can be true for both computer sequencers and drum machines.
The problems don't stop with sequencers, however. Once our MIDI data has left the serial cables, they arrive at a MIDI interface. These interfaces can create more delays as they translate information from serial to MIDI.
Finally, the data arrives at the MIDI modules. Guess what? More delays! Not only do different modules differ in the speed at which they produce audio from your MIDI data, sounds within a module vary in the time it takes them to be produced.What's a Few Milliseconds Between Brothers?
So what do we do about these millisecond differences? And how can we possibly guarantee that two MIDI notes will occur at the exact same time? Here's the product pitch: a tool that sent me scurrying to find all the faults with my own production studio.
Jeanius, a company in San Antonio, has provided the recording world with a tool to simplify the judgment and analysis of all these time errors. It is called the Russian Dragon (RD-R and RD-T), named for its ability to accurately perceive if your audio is "rushin'" ahead or "draggin'" behind a reference source you supply. The idea for the unit came from Audio Engineer/Designer Marius Perron and his drumming brother, who had always wished they had a mechanism to judge how closely he was playing to the sequenced tracks. Marius made the prototype to remove both guesswork from the sessions and tension from not knowing who was right. The unit gave honest feedback to the drummer, the engineer, and the producer. Description: The Anatomy of the Russian Dragon
The Russian Dragon is available in a small rack-mount version (the RD-R) and a less expensive tabletop version (RD-T). I opted for the rack-mount model.
The RD-R is an uncomplicated single-space rack-mount unit with 1/4-inch inputs on the back and the front. The top input (channel 1) is used for the reference and the bottom input (channel 2) is used for the other audio event you will judge to be dragging (slow), rushing (fast), or dead on (what Jeanius calls "snake eyes") relative to the reference. The unit features an input level control and four LEDs for visual confirmation of audio and amplitude adjustment. A large row of 25 colored LEDs indicates the timing differences from a tenth of a millisecond to 99 milliseconds. The LEDs are adjustable in 1-9 millisecond increments as set by a selector knob marked "ms per LED." A trigger LED indicates the presence and duration of the two signals. The duration is adjustable by a "Mask Control." By increasing the length of the Mask Control, you can eliminate accidental re-triggering of the timing LEDs. This allows the unit to ignore delay characteristics or extraneous sounds that would make analysis difficult.
A polarity check button for each input ensures that the shape of the transient wave forms start with positive (above the zero crossing point) sections. Polarity is checked for two reasons. First, the sensor that reads the beginning of the audio event is triggered when the signal goes above the zero threshold. So, a signal with a rarefaction at its entrance would not trigger until later in the wave form, when it moved above the zero crossing. Second, two out-of-phase drums, with similar transients, combined and aligned by this unit would produce a cancellation or thinning phase effect, which is probably contrary to the Mother-of-God drum sound you were looking for when you aligned six snare samples (see Figure 2).
The unit is rounded out by a wall wart power cord on the rear, a power switch on the front, and an extra pair of inputs for the convenience of having them on the front as well as the back.
Figure 2: Picture of two out-of-phase waves
Testing: Let's See Who's Been Naughty or Nice
The minute I took the RD-R out of its box, I wanted to test the delays present in my studio system. It's as if your ears have been bionically upgraded to distinguish millisecond differences.
Not all of the equipment in my eight-track MIDI studio is spanking new. But since good used gear is widely available, the Russian Dragon is especially valuable because it can measure the accuracy of used as well as new equipment. There is little documentation of MIDI delays in my older pieces (some of which create classic sounds which I still consider vital). Adaptable and precise, the Russian Dragon measures reaction times, consistency, and sync ability in software and hardware sequencers, metronomes, sync boxes, digital delays, and MIDI modules.
By testing the three delay units in my studio I could establish if they were consistent enough to aid me in performing other tests. I hooked up a click directly out the back of my Macintosh speaker output (using Performer software), through a Yamaha SPX90, into reference channel 1 in the RD-R. The click track also went to a Lexicon PCM70, then on to reference channel 2 in the RD-R. After setting the single-delay programs in both units to the same amount of time, the Russian Dragon showed the delayed clicks to be arriving together -- at "snake eyes," meaning that the units were accurate to a tenth of a millisecond. This consistency was wonderful to confirm, although "snake eyes" actually occurred when the units were set at slightly differing delay settings. Thus, while the units retain the delay settings they claim to have (to a tenth of a millisecond), that delay setting is not necessarily what is displayed in the LCD. I also tested a Yamaha SPX90 against these units, with similar results. These results are displayed in Figures 3 and 4.
Next I was curious about the accuracy of the LED indicators on the front of the RD-R itself. By setting different delay times, I could check the unit's sensitivity to gradual increases in timing delays. For instance, at the 1 millisecond setting, if the light lit up one unit to the left of the "snake eyes" setting, this meant that the two inputs were approximately 1 millisecond apart. At the 2 millisecond setting, the same light meant that the distance was approximately 2 milliseconds, and so forth (see Figure 5).
The most sensitive setting portrayed millisecond differences easily and a tenth of a millisecond accuracy only when the events were simultaneous (at "snake eyes"). The nine settings were measured with each of the three delays as well. The inconsistencies were more revealing of the discrepencies in the digital readout of the digital delay units. The resulting numbers found in the various settings might look like the settings are far from the times they claim to measure. In fact, they are halfway between the amount they are supposed to indicate. For instance, the first LED lights up when the SPX90 is set at 7.5 milliseconds and the "ms per LED" knob is set at 5 milliseconds because the delay is halfway between 5 and 10 milliseconds (see Figures 6, 7, and 8). Figure 6
- - - LEDs Lit - - - snake KNOB
11 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 eyes SETTING
10.9 9.9 9.0 8.0 7.1 6.1 5.2 4.2 3.2 2.1 1.3 - - - (1)
2.9 - - - (2)
4.4 - - - (3)
6.0 - - - (4)
7.5 - - - (5)
8.6 - - - (6)
10.4 - - - (7)
12.0 - - - (8)
13.6 - - - (9)Figure 7
Yamaha SPX90 II
- - - LEDs Lit - - - snake KNOB
11 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 eyes SETTING
10.3 9.3 8.4 7.4 6.5 5.5 4.6 3.6 2.6 1.7 .7 - - - (1)
2.3 - - - (2)
3.8 - - - (3)
5.4 - - - (4)
6.9 - - - (5)
8.2 - - - (6)
9.8 - - - (7)
11.4 - - - (8)
13.0 - - - (9)Figure 8
Lexicon PCM 70
- - - LEDs Lit - - - snake KNOB
11 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 eyes SETTING
10.4 9.68 8.82 7.61 6.84 5.77 4.80 3.64 2.87 1.81 .83 - - - (1)
2.40 - - - (2)
3.91 - - - (3)
5.45 - - - (4)
7.22 - - - (5)
8.41 - - - (6)
10.1 - - - (7)
11.5 - - - (8)
13.3 - - - (9)What's the MIDI Module Delay Time?
I wanted to know how long it takes for audio to come out of my MIDI modules when they were programmed to play fully quantized quarter notes in sync with the Macintosh click (see Figure 9). You'll see that the delays range from 1 to 5 milliseconds. Keep in mind these are ideal circumstances-- the units are only playing monophonic quarter notes and nothing further is being asked of the sequencer or the MIDI unit. Hardly a realistic challenge, but still there are measurable differences. The differences themselves are inconsistent. I've indicated where it varied from note to note by as much as 2 milliseconds. Again, these may seem like small amounts of time. But when added together, they are perceivable and they change randomly.
Device vs. Device Mode Output Drag (ms)
Mac spkr Akai S1000 sample mode mix out 4-5
Mac spkr Akai S1000 program mode mix out 5-6
Mac spkr Akai S900 sample mode mix out 3
Mac spkr Akai S900 program mode mix out 2-3
Mac spkr Yamaha RX-5 pattern mode mono out 5
Mac spkr Yamaha RX-5 pattern mode rim out 4-5
Mac spkr Roland TR808 NA main out 2
Mac spkr Roland TR808 NA rim out 1-2
Mac spkr Emu SP-12 Turbo sequence mode mix out 2-4
Mac spkr Emu SP-12 Turbo sequence mode rim out 3-4
Hardware- and software-based sequencers were the next subject for analysis. All I really tested was the consistency of the metronomic pulse put out by these units. Given more time I'd test start inconsistencies and sync influences. Once again, I used a digital delay as a constant unit of time. I delayed one quarter note to be in sync with the next (see Figure 10). Include if we get AES permission:I have also included findings from Marius Perron's AES presentation.Figure 10
Sequencer Delay Resolution: complicated
at 160 bpm Setting Resolution drumpart with eight parts
Mac Performer* 375.5 ms 1 ms 2 ms
(Mac spkr click)
Emu SP12 Turbo 376.1 ms 0.1 ms 2 ms
Roland TR808 NA 0.1 ms 0.1 ms but slower tempo
Yamaha RX5 367.7 ms 0.1 ms 3 ms variation
Boss Dr. Beat DB-66 376.1 ms 0.1 ms NA
*Mark of the Unicorn, Version 4.2; Macintosh SE/30 system 7.1Include if we get AES permission:
Marius Perron's Findings, Presented at the 91st AES Convention.
Wittner Taktell piccolo metronome 4
Korg M-1, qurater note sidestick 3
Boss Dr. Rhythm DR550 drum machine 4
Akai MPC-60 sequencer (metronome out) 1
Akai MPC-60 sequencer, quarter note pattern
(individual out) 5
Boss DB music conductor no errors
Macintosh 2CX with Vision 1.2u2 (spkr out) 2
Korg DTM12 digital tuner/metronome no errors
Garfield Electronis Dr. Click no errors
Alesis HR16B drum machine 0.6
UREI model 964 digital metronome no errors
Emu III sequencer (metronome out) 3
Roland TR909 drum machine 5
Alesis MMT-8 sequencer,
MIDI'd to drum machine 2
Roland SBX-80 (metronome out) 1
These units also exhibited inconsistencies in their start-up time.We found that the tempo that each called 160 bpm varied -- as well as the consistency between quarter notes. As a drummer, I've always wondered why some metronomes seemed easier to follow than others. I often attributed it to how I felt on a given day or the sound of these units. With the Russian Dragon, I learned that metronomes can be as moody as I am. To this end, I tested a more complicated sequence as well as just a quarter note pulse.
The findings are validating for the drummer in me . . . but upsetting for the producer in me. There was an 8.4 millisecond difference between the RX5's 160 bpm and the SP12's 160 bpm. The quarter note test showed fairly stable tenth of a millisecond resolutions among the SP12, TR808, and RX5 sequencers. The surprises were the David and Goliath performances of the Macintosh SE/30 with Performer 4.2 and the Boss Dr. Beat metronome. The Macintosh was inconsistent 1 millisecond, and the Dr. Beat held "snake eyes" at better than tenth of a millisecond stability for minutes on end. The Mac and all of the drum machines suffered when many drum parts were added to the playback.
The TR808, an analog drum machine, could not be measured for tempo accuracy because it has no digital readout. Strangely, it was not less consistent when parts were added. But its tempo did slow down. Its determination to be consistent might be attributable to the 16-note resolution capacity of its sequencer.Conclusion: Everything is Not on the One
The Russian Dragon helped illuminate many timing idiosyncracies. Like a tuner or oscilloscope, the Russian Dragon is a crucial tool for measuring timing in the studio. There are many ways to use the RD-R that I haven't had time to try yet. Some of the possibilities include finding offsets for slightly out-of-sync tapes and/or sequences, fixing the delay times between distant speakers, and providing feedback for drummers playing prerecorded and sequenced parts. I'm looking forward to testing these options.
One interesting solution to the MIDI serial problem is actually to split your simultaneous events by 1 tick to solve random-order problems. In general, I'm a little less comfortable with the resolution of MIDI devices than I was before. I hope the system protocol will be improved. That's a lot to ask for an industry that is slow to change designs involving cooperative schemes. So companies must agree and share information to make this happen. If we take, for example, the battle between Opcode's OMS and Motu's Free MIDI, we may wait a long time. Company cooperation got us into MIDI. Let's hope the same spirit carries us to a new, more musical resolution. And let's hope our timing improves.Thanks
Notable Productions' timing is kept by Daniel C. Cantor and Mark Weltner, whose mission is to seek out new timing errors and remove them. We'd like to thank Marius Perron at Jeanius for creating the Russian Dragon and providing us with the unit and information. [Include if we get AES permission:Thanks to AES for letting us reprint Marius's findings.] Thanks also to fellow time delay sleuth Robert Poor at Opcode R&D Systems for his box of info and his enthusiasm. Finally Notable owes Kathy Wolff a heap of thanks for her split-second editing.
How Simultaneous Can Two MIDI Notes Be?
Time Is Nature's Way of Keeping Everything from Happening At OnceMIDI data sent on a MIDI cable are transmitted as serial data. A sequence of ones and zeros tells your drum machine to "play the sidestick on channel 3 mezzo forte." It takes a bit of time to transmit those ones and zeros. More important, all the information for one note must be transmitted before the next note can begin.
What is the delay between two "simultaneous" MIDI notes on a single cable? For those who just want the facts, the answer is 960 microseconds for ordinary Note On events or 640 microseconds for Running Status Note On events.
How do we get these numbers? Get out your calculator and follow along. The first thing to know is that MIDI data are transmitted at 31250 bits per second, also called 31.25 KiloBaud. (This peculiar number happens to be 1/16th of 1,000,000 cycles per second. Many early computers had built-in crystal oscillators running at this frequency; this was an easy frequency to derive.)
Each byte of MIDI date requires 10 bits of serial data. The byte is transmitted with one start bit, eight bits of real data, and one stop bit. The start and stop bits are needed to tell the receiving circuitry "here comes some data," and "that was the end of the data." At a rate of 31,250 bits per second, we can send 3,125 (31,250/10) of these "MIDI bytes" per second.
To send one Note On message requires three MIDI bytes. The first byte says that this is a Note On event and specifies which channel (1-16). The second byte says which key number is to be played. The third byte specifies the velocity. We can send 1042 (3,125/3) such Note On messages per second.
But we promised to tell you the duration of each Note On message, not the number of messages per second. This is easy: 1/1042 messages per second = .00096 seconds per message. In technospeak, this is .96 milliseconds, or 960 microseconds per Note On message.
MIDI does offer a slight speed improvement through Running Status messages. After sending a normal three-byte Note On message, a sequencer can send additional key number/velocity messages, omitting the first byte of an ordinary Note On message. For a string of notes that all occur on the same channel, this reduces the number of MIDI bytes per Note On message from three to two. We can send 1563 (3,125/2) Running Status Note On messages per second, which corresponds to .00064 (1/1563) seconds, .64 milliseconds, or 640 microseconds per message.
The bottom line is that for MIDI data running on a single MIDI cable imposes an absolute "speed limit" of about 1000 Note On messages per second, or 1500 Note On messages when Running Status is in effect. This number gets worse with other MIDI data, such as aftertouch and controller information. Your actual mileage may vary.
- Robert Poor
Director of Research and Development
Opcode Systems, Inc.
By Daniel C. Cantor and Mark Weltner
Article written by Notable on the Virtual Guitar project
By Daniel C. Cantor and Mark Weltner
The Virtual Guitar is a new interactive CD-ROM game that is an air-guitarist's dream-come-true. The game begins with your descent from the heavens, listening to Lloyd, an old guitar master and your guide, as he waxes poetic, reminiscing: "That's the way it went down, man. I was trying to get that sound -- the sound that would take my guitar to another place. But something went wrong -- very wrong. The surge I created that night blew out every fuse in West Feedback and zapped me up here into the Stratosphere. But hey -- at first I dug it: no sleazy club owners. But you know, I never knew how much I'd miss it... My town, man, my town. No better place for a guitarist to cut his teeth. If you haven't got your sound together, there's no mercy. But if you wail -- you can really rise above."
[Color slide: Downtown, West Feedback]
After making the trip from the stratosphere, through the clouds, above the West Feedback city skyline, you land in your bedroom. A CD player appears on the screen and you choose Whipping Post from the song list. Picking up your Virtual Guitar, you get ready to play. Although the Virtual Guitar looks and feels like a real electric guitar, it doesnt have any frets, and the strings do not extend down the neck for that matter. There's no need to memorize any notes or chords; you simply focus on which strings to pluck or strum, and when. The challenge is to strum the strings with the right rhythm and beat, or to match the lead, and carry the melody.
[Color slide: The Virtual Guitar]
What we just described comes from the first PC-based CD-ROM title based on virtual music technology developed by Ahead, Inc. of Bedford, MA. Notable Productions (Mark Weltner and Daniel C. Cantor) of Watertown, MA, was hired as by Ahead as musical producer and consultant for the Virtual Guitar project. This project tested our abilities in numerous ways -- in production, composition, performance, musicology, technical ability and stamina. One of our first responsibilities included assisting Ahead in selecting appropriate songs and artists. These include songs originally recorded by Aerosmith, Gin Blossoms, Motley Cre, Soul Asylum and BioHazard to name a few.
Next, we began arranging shortened versions of the songs. The reasoning behind this was due inpart to the limited memory of a CD-ROM. Much of the available memory was to be dedicated to animation and Music TV-style digitized video, which characterize the interactive scenes of each game. This often meant turning 4 to 10 minute tunes into 2 minute 15 second tunes without damaging their integrity -- that is, each song still had to sound like a whole song and contain the crucial guitar hook. For example we shortened the Allman Brothers classic Whipping Post from 22:40 to less than 3 minutes!
PICKING THE PLAYERS AND LAYING DOWN THE TRACKS
Next we chose the players for the project and the recording studio in which we would lay down the tracks. Most of the basic tracks were recorded at Tom Waltz's Waltz Audio Production, a 24 track studio in Boston, with a guitar/bass/drum trio (and occasional keyboard). Our biggest concern in choosing the musicians was their familiarity with a wide variety of styles, not only in their playing, but in their sound. This was important given that we had to cover groups such as Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Cult, Steppenwolf, Pantera and Cracker. Drums, male vocals and some guitar work could be covered by Notable.
In order to capture the proper feel of each song, Dan (on drums) listened to the original songs while laying the basics. In this way he could remain true to the spirit of the Songs. Using Yamaha drums, Zildlian cymbals and an arsenal of various snare drums. Recording the drums in a large room aided Dan in getting sounds that were appropriate for each tune.
Our mainstays for guitar and bass were, respectively, Adam Steinberg and Baron Browne, both of whom were outstanding. Adam has gigged and written songs with The Walkers, Patty Griffin, Laurie Sargent, Nicky Holland among others. He proved useful for deciphering even the most remote guitar parts in a song. His equipment included Fender Twin Reverb and Marshall amplifiers; a DigiTech RP1 pre-amp; Ibanez tube screamer and other effects boxes. Guitars he used included a '67 Telecaster, a '62 reissue Stratocaster, a Gibson Spirit, and a Ibanez Saber.
Bassist Baron Browne has toured and gigged with Jean Luc Ponty, Billy Cobham, and Gary Burton, among others, and has a reputation for being in-the-pocket. We did not need a great deal of variety from him as far as his sound was concerned, and he mainly stayed in the control room, going direct from his 5-string Fender jazz bass running through a Neve 1073 pre-amp and EQ and a UREI 1176 limiter to tape. Other musicians involved in the basic tracks were bassists Lenny Bradford and Matt Gruenberg, guitarists Kevin Barry, Cyril Lance and Stephen Mayone; drummer Jason Fox; and keyboardists Sam Bozeman, Dave Limina and Matt Jenson, all of whom proved versatile and professional.
Our choice for the female vocalist was Sally Sweitzer, who has the voice of a true rocker. As the repertoire of songs for the project became more and more diverse, we wondered if she could fit the bill, but she came through with flying colors. Mark, on male vocals, made his debut in the heavy metal genre with this project, and managed to scream through Pantera, Biohazard, Motley Cre, The Cult and Lynyrd Skynyrd.
MIXING IT UP
The mixing was done at Sound Techniques in Boston, MA. We chose freelance engineer and Berklee Associate Professor, Carl Beatty after listening to some of his work and getting recommendations from some mutual friends. Carl has recorded Keith Richards, Tom Jones, George Benson, Frank Zappa, B-52's -- enough said. Armed with an occasional decaf and ably assisted by Sound Techniques' own David Kirkpatrick, Carl was up for long hours of work. Carl proved to be extremely technically proficient, and patient when our mix criterion changed or was obscure. His sense of humor and session stories kept spirits up when we were bogged down by the unexpected. At one point during a mix the power went out for the entire neighborhood, including Fenway Park, leaving us in the dark for ten minutes and not knowing if we'd lost our automation passes. During the crisis Carl explained that in his mixing classes he intentionally turns off the power to get the students to know how all the machines behave in all conditions. He said "You never know what the client may do, so you might as well the have the security of knowing your machines." True to his professionalism, and thanks to a well timed "Save command" we lost almost none of our work.
[Color photo of mix team]
Daniel C. Cantor, Mark Weltner of Notable Productions, Carl Beatty, freelance engineer, and Dave Kirkpatrick of Sound Techniques, pictured in front of Sound Techniques' SSL 4000G mixing console.
What Carl Beatty brings to a mix session:
A pair of B&W DM100 Speakers
Two Neve 2254 E compressors
One MXR Phaser/ Flanger
What Notable Brings to Session:
Two Neve 1073 EQ/Pre-amp
One Drawmer 1960 Compressor/Pre-amps
One Troisi Digital Companion (16-bit A-to-D converter) thanks to Coleman Rogers
One Neumann U87 altered by Claus Heyne
We used an SSL 4000G mixing console, a fully automated board which makes recalling mixes a breeze; each fader and knob position is faithfully memorized, and all mix moves are stored and adjustable. Extensive automation was particularly useful in this project when we needed to adapt the songs to the needs of the game.
There were several unusual techniques used while mixing. Occasionally, we found that we needed to enhance the bass drum by adding a sampled drum. Using a 16-bit S900 with a trigger unit in tandem with the Russian Dragon (see MIDI issue Jan/Feb '94 for a review of the Russian Dragon), we were able to accurately double the existing bass drum with a sample.
If we played the original kick drum from the playback head to trigger the sampled bass drum, the sample would arrive late, due to MIDI delays and trigger unit's response time.
One of the advantages of analog tape decks is that the tape passes over the record head prior to the play head. This enables you to anticipate the playback of music off the playback head by an amount determined by the tape speed and distance between the heads.
Early (original kick drum) Late
Kick drum from
into trigger unit/sampler
If we played the original kick drum from the record head to trigger the sampled bass drum (while all other tracks were coming off the playback head), the sample would arrive too soon. This is because the time it takes for the tape to move from the record head to the playback head is longer than the MIDI delays and trigger unit/sampler slowness.
Early (original kick drum) Late
Kick drum from
Record head, into
By using a digital delay after the kick coming off of the record head and before the trigger unit/sampler, we could adjust the arrival time of the triggered sample, making it coincide exactly with the rest of the music on the playback head.
Early (original kick drum) Late
Kick drum from
Record head, through delay,
into trigger unit/sampler
We used a Russian Dragon to accurately measure the amount of time that the record head anticipated the playback head on the Sony APR 24-track tape deck. We then used it to measure the delay created by going through a delay (currently set at zero) and a trigger unit/sampler and back to the board. The difference of these two measurements gave us the delay setting needed to have the drum and sampled drum sound simultaneously.
Our original demo version mixes had very little real guitar in the mix to leave a hole for the Virtual Guitar to fill. Reactions to these low-tech versions led us to realize that our client wanted the songs to sound as good as the originals, but at the same time different. One obvious clue separating our versions from the originals was the use of vocalists that were unlike the originals but convincing in their own way. Many of the male vocals were sung by a female vocalist on our versions. This also afforded the video band some sexual diversity.
As a music producer, Notable is accustomed to making sonic decisions based on supporting the song, lyric, mood or sound characteristic we are trying to achieve. For the Virtual Guitar project our mix criteria was most unusual. The first criterion was that the mixes had to preserve the identity of the original song. Since the song list includes hits from three decades, it required us to be well versed in the mix aesthetics characteristic of each period. The convenience of having the original version on the 24-track in sync with our tracks facilitated switching back and forth between the versions while staying exactly where we were in the song.
The second mix criterion was more ambiguous and actually changed over the course of the project. The balance between the instrument volumes was partially determined by which virtual guitar part would be played over the top of each mix. In fact, each song would have a number of possible guitar parts played over it. These included most guitar parts found in the original, plus additional parts composed by Mark, Dan and Adam. To make things more complicated, Ahead wanted the mixes to sound full and impressive; the mixes could not sound like a music-minus-one rendition with the assumption that the virtual guitar parts would fill in the missing parts.
The actual sonic characteristics of the Virtual Guitar were in development and not available for us to use during the mix process. Imagine mixing a vocal album without knowing what your lead vocalist sounds like. The attempt to put in real guitars to "ghost" and fill out the mixes while leaving enough room for the Virtual Guitars was unlike any type of mixing we've done. To be safe, we laid as many as ten variations for each mix in order to avoid the possibility of having to remix all 21 songs. This technique saved us a number of remixes and enabled us to stay much closer to deadlines.
To achieve a variety of guitar and drum sounds we often ran the guitar tracks back though amps in the studio and re-mic'd them. Jim Keltner's snare sound on This Is Cracker Soul was particularly open and loose sounding. We created a different sound by using a Radio King 5" x 14" snare during the tracking session, but it wasn't doing the trick. We ended up running the drum track out into the studio's JBL speaker pointing upward. A loosely tuned 7" x 14" wooden Montieri Snare was placed on top of the cone. We then re-mic'd the drum at a small distance, giving us the right mixture of room and drum to achieve a dark, loose quality we had been missing. All of the mixes were double-checked through a two-track Studer A810 mono speaker and recorded into the digital ins of two DAT recorders through a Troisi Digital Companion. The analog to digital converters in this unit are far superior sounding to the front end of most DAT recorders.
Our unedited mixes were then approved and we took them to be mastered at Jonathan Wyner's M-Works in Cambridge, MA. Jonathan, besides being adept with Sonic Solutions, has a great listening environment and an even better set of ears. It's not uncommon for him to discern a number of subtleties of the recording techniques used to make the recording you bring to him. Even more useful is his ability to detect problems and have corrective measures in hand quickly and easily. The music mixes and our cues were loaded into Sonics Solutions via Summit or Aphex, Compression and/or Summit, or Triosi EQ. The endings and beginnings were trimmed and cleaned. All the volume levels were normalized and made comparable. Drum clicks at the count off that were noisy or inconsistent were replaced with cleaner clicks.
Mixes were then sent to Palomar Pictures in Los Angeles for transferring to video and to Rob Cairns at Big Fish Audio for data translation from 16-bit 44.1k DAT to 8-bit 22k files. Rob has prepared or recorded audio for video games and CD-ROMs, including the Prosonus library. His responsibilities in this project included the translation and assemblage of all audio portions of the game. These included Notable's mixes, loops and guitar riffs, Rob's own sound design, opening score for Lloyd's descent from the heavens and a variety of other cues. Dialogue recorded at Media Recorders in Hollywood was also added at this time.
USING THE ROLAND MIDI GUITAR
Once the mixing was finished, it was time to input the MIDI guitar data, ultimately to be played by the Virtual Guitar. The inner workings of the Virtual Guitar are still proprietary at this point but we can say that we created four guitar parts per song. Virtual Musicians (game players) will have the option of mastering these four levels of difficulty, beginning with basic rhythm guitar, advanced rhythm guitar, lead guitar and stunt guitar, which requires extreme musical precision.
In addition, at each stage of their ascent to stardom, players face a series of on-the-spot challenges, such as matching riffs with rivals, sitting in on an after-hours blues session and making rough decisions as unexpected choices are thrown their way.
We used the Roland GR-1/GK-2, which is a combination guitar "pickup" and sound module (guitar not included) to write the guitar parts. The GK-2 MIDI pickup was mounted onto a Stratocaster copy, and we had the action adjusted to optimize its performance. (The GR-1 is one of a number of Roland guitar synthesizer modules that enable the Roland GK-2 pickup to translate its data to MIDI.) By using a MIDI guitar controller, the chord voicings would be correct and the guitar parts could be played on their native instrument, thus reducing translations of techniques to a very different type of controller (e.g., keyboard). Although the Roland GR-1/GK-2 has a reputation for being one of the best and most popular MIDI guitar controllers on the market today, it still had its limitations, as will be described.
We started by syncing the songs to our Macintosh SE/30. This involved recording our audio performances of each song in stereo to a multitrack tape recorder, then striping another track with SMPTE. We then sync'd the songs to Mark of the Unicorn's Performer 4.2 using this SMPTE track via an Opcode Studio 5. As files were created for the songs, a "click track" was created for each. The opening 8 clicks at the top of each song before the music started was triggered into Performer via a trigger to MIDI converter. We then shifted the notes earlier to account for MIDI delays as well the sluggishness of the trigger unit. The click tracks during the songs were subsequently recorded manually (playing along to the song using a DrumKat), and unfortunately did not give us quantization capabilities. At one point we tried creating a "tempo map," in hopes that it would enable us to use quantization, but due to a serial port-dependent bug in this version of Performer, this was not possible. (Note-Mark of the Unicorn has since supplied us with a way around it.)
We used the click tracks to help us when there was a difficult guitar passage to lay down. By slowing down the tempo on the Performer MIDI file and playing along with the click, we could enter information that would have been impossible to track on the Roland GK-2 MIDI guitar at a faster tempo. (By "tracking" we mean the MIDI guitar pickup's ability to identify the notes being played and correctly convert them into MIDI data to be stored on the computer file created for that song.) Of course, we were no longer playing along with the music at this point, since the songs recorded on the tape deck could not be slowed down* to sync with the computer file's new tempo, so our guitarist had to know the tune thoroughly when we used this approach. (* This is true of extreme tempo variations- smaller variations are often still trackable by SMPTE to MIDI converters if you slow down or speed up your deck just slightly.)
We were disappointed with Roland's GK-2 MIDI pickup. It tracked sluggishly and its output was inconsistent. Strumming, a common guitar technique, is a very complex task for the Roland MIDI guitar -- there is a great deal of information to be interpreted and communicated. We experienced large and varied delays in the tracking of the instrument when playing rhythm. In playing lead guitar, we often encountered jagged pitchbend information when playing a note with vibrato, which created more of a trill than a vibrato. Some notes or pitchbend information simply did not make it from the guitar into the computer, regardless of how the guitar was played.
The biggest aid to the tracking delays was to have a competent guitarist who could adapt his technique to the MIDI guitar -- no easy feat. Even after Adam , our guitarist, had reached a plateau on the learning curve for the Roland GK-2, we spent many weeks painstaking playing and replaying songs to simply compensate for poor tracking. Furthermore, new playing techniques were constantly explored for different material, and there was no consistent method. Occasionally a passage would call for finger picking the strings lightly; on other occasions, they needed to be hit hard with a pick.
One method used to correct delays was to edit shift the position of the notes in the Performer so that they occurred in the proper place. One might ask why we couldn't simply shift all information backwards by a given amount in relation to the music. However, after trying this, it soon became apparent that the delays were inconsistent, and events had to be treated individually.
Tracking problems of the MIDI guitar were also string-related, the 6th and 5th strings (the low pitches) being the worst culprits. When one of these strings was struck repeatedly the problems increased exponentially. A perfect example is the opening riff of Whipping Post, a fast repeated pattern that is played primarily on the 6th string, and on the 5th as well. Adjusting the sensitivities of these strings on the GK-1 did not help. We overcame the problem by playing the riff an octave up on the 3rd and 4th strings, then transposing it and moving it over to the 5th and 6th strings. Songs that had guitar parts featuring de-tunings (a common sound and technique for these styles of rock) had to be played higher up and transposed as well.
Another problem was the spontaneous generation of notes from a sustained chord. These generally occurred as harmonics of the chord being held. We would suddenly hear a note jump up by an octave or two -- taking it off of the fretboard! In this case, we would either re-record that chord, or edit out the extra note and extend the duration of the note that had been cut off to match the other note durations of the chord. We also found the mysterious appearance of note-on information followed immediately by a large pitchbend. The note-on would be a wrong note, and the pitchbend would compensate, bringing it instantly to the correct note. As you can imagine, trying to edit individual notes that appeared in this way was frustrating and time consuming.
We also encountered large numbers of redundant note-on information with tiny durations. For example, a note of 15 ticks duration might be immediately followed by the same note with the correct duration. Sometimes these were barely audible, other times they severely clouded the performance.
The unifying factor and ugly truth in all of these problems is that all of them occurred when the Roland MIDI guitar was being played "correctly." This is not taking into account the usual extraneous note-on information resulting from strings being struck inadvertently from string stretches, extra pick hits, etc. -- events that we take for granted in an analog guitar performance, but that needed to be deleted in this unique situation.
Fortunately, Virtual Guitarists don't face the trials we faced with the Roland MIDI guitar. Still, it has its challenges -- meet "Chops" Felton.
CHOPS FELTON: HE'S GOING TO CHALLENGE YOU.
One of the characters who populate the fictitious town of West Feedback is ace guitarist "Chops" Felton, who challenges you to a guitar duel. He throws his best licks at you, your goal is to match him note for note in order to move to the next level -- in front of a unusually perceptive audience.
For this part of the game we hired ace guitarist John Mason to come in and play a variety of rock guitar styles paying homage to Clapton, Vaughn, Hendrix, Page, Beck and Van Halen, to name a few. John (as Chops) heard a one measure click and then played a two-measure lick. Following Chop's lick the click appears again, signaling the players chance to imitate Chops. For John's part of the recording we used a Marshall Jubilee half-stack, Chandler tube driver and Johns trusty 1972 gold-top Gibson Les Paul.
PUT THAT GUITAR DOWN AND COME DOWN HERE FOR SUPPER!
When it arrives this fall, the Virtual Guitar will have challenged its creators as well as those who dare to play the game. We have only begun to describe the plot twists that unfold within this game. The characters and script exude humor and a rockin' intensity that you're not going to forget. If you practice you might just have "what it takes" to reach the top: jamming with a great band in front of a pumping audience. With Lloyd at your side and your ax strapped across your chest you can slip into the world of rock'n'roll.
Dan and Mark would like to thank Michael Goldfinger and Aimee Good for editing work. Notable Productions is a music composition and production company located Watertown, MA, and has recently scored the theme music for a movie on fatherhood for Vice President Al Gore. Notable has not informed his wife, Tipper, of our rock'n'roll tendencies.