Fixing phase problems in a mix

Please note: If you are experienced in mixing this article will probably state the obvious. This blog is mostly intended as a “note to self” and everybody else that cares to take interest.

Recently one of my music friends Hanny told me that she had performed at a gig with her new band HannaH (check it out) that was broadcast live on local radio. Of course, she had asked for a recording that could be used for promotional purposes. There seemed to be no problems with the actual broadcast, but the recording behaved very strangely. When listening on a phone, the guitar disappeared. When you listened with headphones, your head would explode. The whole mix seemed strangely unbalanced. Phase problems… But we got out of it with a result that was even better than the original!

How did we get here?

These kind of phase problems probably have a very simple reason. In a stereo mix, somehow two wires in one channel were wired the wrong way. One bad cable can do the trick. What happens if some or left or right channel wires are wired the wrong way? The signals cancel each other out. Simple math shows it:

But the top signal seems ok, right? Well its drawn maybe a little incorrectly. The top signal actually has a little more richness of the waveforms to it and a little of cancellation. When used right, you will have a Phaser effect. Something you can find in any DAW and set of guitar effects as an effect that also wobbles the phase to add a little excitement and widening to a otherwise boring signal. Overdo it, or mistreat a stereo signal and you get cancellations and left and right stretched to far. It can result in headaches while listening.

How to get out of here?

So you now you have a mix with phase problems and its not your mix, just a stereo sound file. Aside from plugins with the purpose of fixing phase problems, is there a way to get out with just the tools you have? Fortunately for me there is. Ableton has a utility effect section that centers around treating left, right and mono signals from a track. I am quite sure that your DAW has similar built in effects.

The trick here was to duplicate the signal and create one track with the phase difference signal and one track where left and right were mixed into a mono signal.


Now one track only featured the guitar. Proof that there was a phase problem with just the guitar in the stereo mix. The other track featured everything except the guitar. When mixing both in mono suddenly I as able to remix the recording! Do you want more or less guitar in this song? No problem? All problems solved for HannaH. Good enough in mono, because the audio was for promotional purposes. Once again like in a Dutch football proverb: Every downside has its upside. Happy mixing!

Working together on songs over the Internet

Regularly i try to work together on songs or remixes with other musicians. Sometimes far away and sometimes close, but without actually sitting together at the mixing desk. For me the common way for this collaboration is the use of stems.

Stems are the raw sound files of a song, track by track. Or submix by submix. Usually, with as little as effect processing as possible. Or with full effect processing if needed for specific tracks. It is also common to give the return channels as separate tracks, so the other side can mix back some effects if needed.

Stems You've Got Me
Stems You’ve Got Me

These stems can be send to a fellow musicians over the Internet. On the other side you colleague then creates a new empty project and copies all the sound files in separate tracks on his or her side. This should allow your partner in music to replay the entire track from any DAW without any need for the original components that were needed to create it. He or she then can remix the song to your liking and replace tracks with your own arranged versions of that track. Voil√°, a new mix or arrangement of the same song.

Did you realize that these stems are also an excellent backup for your projects? If your PC suddenly dies, you might find that you are not able to recreate the same setup with the same plugins. Or if you get an update from hell that breaks your song setup, you’ll still have the stems to recreate the mix.

If needed you music pal cal return the stems of his or her remix of the song and you can in turn start remixing and rearranging that!

Tips:

Do not forget to also tell the other side the original recording tempo. This will help make a smooth start building a new project with the audio files.

It can help to aptly name all the sound files, otherwise the other side will waste a lot of time finding out what all tracks contain. Like “Vocals Chorus Backing” and “Base drum”.

Sharing the stems can be difficult because of the sheer size of all raw audio files. Do not fret: Dropbox or Wetransfer can do the job.

Simple home recording vocals

I have been in and out of the biggest and very small studio’s, but by no means my home setup can match any of the studio’s i have had the honor to work in. Its a PC, headsets, monitors, an audio interface and a microphone essentially. Yes, there also other gear, but i could work without it. Specifically for working with vocals, there is not much more that you would need.

Hardware and software

I have invested in a better microphone. A nice condensor with tube preamp from sE. The audio interface is one of the Focusrite Scarlett models. The headsets are from Sony and Sennheiser, not too expensive. Bought for acceptable audio quality and wearing comfort. The monitor speakers are a pair of very basic Behringer types. You can’t mix on headphones alone. The PC is a bit on the weak side, but 64 bits and 16GB of memory with SSD. The whole setup as i have it should set you back around 1500 euro’s.

Then there’s software. I use Ableton and that is on its own enough to turn this hardware into a studio. I have invested in plugins for all kinds of purposes, but again they are not needed. Another 100 euro’s and you are in the music business.

Setup

Then there is no separate recording room or mixing room, when i record vocals it is all in the same small room in the attic. Call it a mess, stuffed with musical instruments and a PC. To compensate for the noise that the PC will make and the poor room acoustics I put the microphone inside a nice sE recording filter and behind a plop filter. The setup looks like this.

Heddy recording
Heddy recording

The actual noise from the PC is getting through, but is low enough to be taken out by a basic gate. When recording i make sure that the levels reach halfway from 0db in Ableton, which would be around -18 db. This leaves enough headroom and allows the noise floor to be gated out in my case.

Recording

As you can see, the trick to not using a separate recording room is the use of a headset. For the first recording sessions i was very nervous, so i put a lot of effort in setting up a separate routing in Ableton to allow for a real headset mix. With  Cue Out to another output. In practice now i just throw the Master Out into two headsets. One for me and one for the performer. Of course the monitor speakers are switched off while recording.

Personally i work with a complete arrangement, before adding vocals. This means in Ableton i will be recording in the Arrangement view. Recording in the Session view is maybe more your thing. It depends on your workflow. Just one thing, whatever way you work, make sure you know your DAW. There is nothing more frustrating then wasting the time of your singer with finding stuff out and messing up. Recording should be swift and when you have “flow” it should not be interrupted needlessly.

This also applies to the hardware of course. Messing with cables and mixer routing is a waste of everybody’s time. Know your software. Know your hardware. Need another take? Bang, start recording. Is the recording okay, but could maybe done better? Save this track. Record another. Compare. Play back. Which is better? Go back to the first recording? Okay no problem. One line went great, the next not so great? Keep the first line and only record the next line. Punch in, punch out recording. Practice this before inviting your guest performer. It makes the difference.

Tricks

Try to listen carefully while recording. Strange plops or noises? Are the words right? Did you get all parts recorded? As a rule, don’t immediately start mixing during or straight after recording. Rest your ears and have a listen again, the next day. Then start mixing or discover that you need another recording session. It happens.

And okay i admit, i also cheat a little, specifically with my own vocals. I use Melodyne from Celemony (autotune) and Nectar from Izotope (vocal processing). Two tools to get great sound with small means. It also allows for doubling voices for multiple layers of vocals and it saves a lot of studio time. Please make sure your performer agrees on you cheating.

Starting the making music blog

Why start a blog about making music when there are so many blogs? When there is youtube where you can learn anything about everything in 10 minutes? This blog is more a reminder to myself. Making music is about inventing something new for every song.

Of course i hope that you can also find something here that inspires you, or helps you when you get stuck. This blog is about working in a small home studio and performing on stage. Also probably some words about publishing your music and having fun or frustrations doing so. Enjoy!