Monday, October 31, 2011

Review of the AVENSON STO-2 Omni Microphones

WOW. So I just picked up these weird little Avenson Audio STO-2 microphones. Originally heard about them from a forum friend mentioning them used on Overheads with great success. This is the type of "friend" that would usually use 414s, Coles ribbons, or 251s on overheads, so I was like, "uhhh...why are you using this $550 pair of mics when you could be using a $20,000 pair?" I was a little skeptical at first, especially considering their aforementioned price - $550US for a pair. However, I kept hearing about it and did some more research and finally picked up a pair.

They come in this beautiful cedar case and are built well. They're weird little mics, reminiscent of Earthworks, Naiant, and other mics of that sort. They are omni capsules and they're very tiny capsules at that. At first thought you might think "man I bet the low end on those sucks" as the diaphragm is so small it's like, how could it possibly get all that good low end goodness?

What I found was quite shocking. These little mics are actually very neutral sounding, in fact, almost a little bit dark! Such a surprising outcome considering the bright nature of most modern microphones. I first tried it on stereo acoustic guitar. Did a simple setup, 3:1 style spaced mic'ing running through some Vintech pres with no EQ. The results were impressive. Very smooth top end, NOT HYPED at all, not brittle or tinny. I played three different levels of guitar - quiet, average, and heavy strum. In the mix, I probably would have added some top end to the quieter strummed parts, maybe even the normal playing, but the heavy strum was great! Nice and smooth transients.

I flipped the mics over and tried them as drum overheads, again a simple spaced pair. WOW did these pick up the toms great. I was really expecting this to be the mic's weak spot - saying to myself "alright, it can do an acoustic guitar mic'ed up close, but can it deal with toms and kick drum low end without making it boomy and muffled?"

Well, it did. It sounded great, again very natural and smooth. Again, a little on the dark side, which depending on the type of song it could very well fit just fine. However, I decided to add a bit of EQ to the mics to observe how they took processing - i.e., you start boosting and all of a sudden you realize how terrible the high end on the mics really is. Yet once more I was pleasantly surprised. These mics EQ like ribbons sometimes do - very easy to boost and cut here and there without exposing weirdness in the tonality of the mic. I was able to easily bring out the crack of the snare and the zing of the cymbals, and it still sounded great afterward, go figure.

My favorite part about these mics is how they respond to the transients - both acoustic guitar and drums have some serious sharp transients at some times. These mics performed famously, softening them up, making them nice and natural, if not a little bit tamed. I found it to basically outpreform most all of my "go to" microphones on heavy strummed acoustic guitar, and my collection for this source includes 414s, Neumann KM184s, AKG 451s, some expensive tube mics, and some ribbons. It was smoother, more neutral sounding, and just easier to keep in control. Side note: This mic I found to be most opposite of the AKG 451, which is a very hyped, bright and clear sounding microphone. GREAT for Martins and darker guitars, quieter guitar parts, and quiet drummers. Almost no self noise. This mic, however, its warmer, smoother top, not hyped, and a little noisy -- which leads me to my next point...

Everyone on the net gripes and worries about ONE feature of this mic - its self noise. Technically speaking, the mic has a very high self noise. However, when I tested the mic on acoustic guitar and drums, the only time I even NOTICED the noise was in the "quietly played" acoustic guitar, and even then it's pretty minimal compared to the sound. It's noticeable, especially on long held out chords, super quiet finger-picking patterns, etc., but anything strummed normally, or even remotely quiet, it will mostly be irrelevant. And I can tell you, if this acoustic guitar was going in a mix of vocals and other instruments, you better throw out your worries - you aren't going to notice the noise one bit. If you were planning on making an arrangement with finger picked acoustic guitar and vocal only, the hiss on these mics may bother you too much.

One thing that is interesting is that many of the popular plugins today (Waves API, V Series, CLA series, SSL series, etc) all have self noise by design. You can flip off the "analog" switch and remove this noise, but still the theory serves that noise is not the end of the world. Tape had hiss, and much of it than these Avensons.

All in all, SO impressed with these little mics. If you've never experienced the difference that a decent pair of SDC mics can do, you may try these, especially if you record a lot of acoustic instruments (acoustic guitar, drumkit, strings, pianos, etc).

Monday, October 24, 2011

5 Quick Tips for Better Vocal Recordings and Vocal Performances

1. WRITE GOOD VOCAL PARTS - This one seems obvious, but so many people come to the studio the day of vocal recording and don't really know what it is they want to sing. They have ideas, rough melodies, but no real structure or pattern. One of the worst things a vocalist can do is be all over the place in a song, so much so that nobody (including the singer!) can remember what was sung. The vocal is very important, especially in pop, country, and rock music. If it's difficult to sing, that's fine. If it's difficult for your fans to hum, you're probably trying to hard.

2. PRACTICE - Before coming to record, make sure you have practiced your [well written] parts many times. One thing that really helps is to actually gig with the songs before you record them. If you haven't gigged with the song yet, you may not really know what it's like to perform it all the way though when the pressure is on. This is what you will have to do in the studio essentially, so if you come without having that experience, it may feel awkward and you may tense up.

3. MAINTAIN YOUR VOICE - This is mainly about taking care of your physical voice! People that are often sick should be extremely careful to come into the studio NOT SICK! Changes in vocal timbre due to illness are very obvious. Get plenty of rest before you come into the studio, and don't warm up too long. Usually 15-30 minutes is a perfect warm up time for most singers. If you come into the studio and your throat feels like it's coated, you can try drinking some water, and if that doesn't work, try a shot of Crown whiskey. Trust me, this isn't so you can get plastered and magically nail the take; whiskey has such a high alcohol content that it can really clear out your throat and nasal passages, making it much easier to sing. I've had some singers sound terrible and then drink a shot or sometimes just a half shot of Whiskey and their voices are cleared out and their throat feels more open.

4. AVOID "BAD FOODS" - Singing on a full stomach is hard, especially on stage. It's best to eat light before gigging or recording, and avoid all dairy products if possible. Some of the best things to eat on days where you sing include apples, meats of all kinds, fish, bread, veggies, and lots of water. Avoid citrus fruits and bananas, as well as sugary foods. Stay light on the beer as it will make you bloat and feel uncomfortable, and probably sing worse in the end.

5. RELAX AND ENJOY YOURSELF - If you're not enjoying yourself, it will probably translate and be very obvious to the crowd. If you don't like the song, figure out what you need to change so you can love it, or just ditch the song altogether. Being tense and nervous before a gig or before recording can kill the mood. The best takes and performances happen when singers release all their energy and really sell the message of the song. Emotion is priority #1!

A few videos of amazing singers to inspire you:

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

29 And Hearing for the First Time!

Moral: Don't take your hearing for granted!

Tuesday, October 11, 2011


So, I picked up these compressors recently. I had been really hesitant to actually get them as I usually don't buy into hype from people and internet, all of these know-it-alls saying "oh it is the best" or "it doesn't sound like the original at all." The point is, I was looking for good compressor plugins. If they happened to sound like the real thing, great. If not, then whatever. Are they usable to me? Do they move me? Do they help me mix? Do they make my job easier?

In a word, yes.

The truth put simply is that they are great plugins that are low latency, low CPU, sound amazing, cover so much ground, and they're simple. Sounds great, right? Well that's the point! You don't want to get too lost in turning knobs forever to get a sound. You want standard controls. Attack. Release. Ratio. Sometimes even simpler---the LA2 and LA3 have input and output with fixed attack/release/ratio just like the originals. They are versatile plugins and I find them to be quite enjoyable to mix with. I am always looking for solutions that make mixes more exciting and enticing. One of the least enjoyable parts of mixing ITB is staring a screen for 12 hours and tweaking with numbers and "knobs." Aside from looking great, these plugins work simply and effectively.

I've had the pleasure of working with real Urei 1176s and LA3s. Never an LA2 oddly enough, and never a blue stripe 1176. Regardless, my main goal as I said was to get plugins that I liked that worked for me. These plugins are very usable, very user friendly, and to my ear, sound very close to the hardware, the LA3 especially. They all sound really great. For me, I use them on the following:

1176 Black - Drums of ALL kinds, acoustic and elec Guitars, Bass, Piano, sometimes vocals
1176 Blue - Any time I want the Sources in the BLACK 1176 category to sound a bit warmer.
LA2 - Vox, Clean Guitars, Leads, Synths, Strings, sometimes Kick Drum
LA3 - Acoustic guitars (definitely), elec Guitars, some Vocals, some Basses, Toms

Notice anything? They can be used on almost the entire mix. These plugins cover a LOT of territory and can help you get your mix going quickly. They work great, they sound great, and in the long run, are DIRT CHEAP! $400 for these? You've got to be joking. A local studio where I work sometimes has an original LA3 that would go for $2000 on Ebay, and we have considered selling it because the plugin sounds just as good.  Really.

I'm a picky guy, and I'm not endorsed by Waves to say any of this. I don't care "how close" it sounds to the original, and I don't care "how close" it compare to the UAD version or the blah blah blah version. The point is, they work for me in all the ways I want them to, and that's awesome! You should really invest in them if you want some improvement in your mixes. Kudos Waves.

Monday, October 10, 2011

5 Quick Tips for Better Guitar Tone

Here are my five quick tips for better guitar tone, no matter WHAT genre!

1. Maintain Your Instrument and Rig

Keep your guitar set up well, new strings, well intonated, tuned, cleaned, wired correctly, and working efficiently. It's SO worth the extra $50 to get it set up at your local guitar store every month (or LEARN how to do it yourself!) Change your strings often and keep your neck clean. Have nice cables, clean connections, and a well maintained amp. Keep your pickups at the right height (which is usually really darn close to the strings, but not necessarily as close as possible). Locking tuners and GraphTech nuts help you stay in tune. Think about it! So many variables...

2. Play at the right Height

I don't care how cool you look for playing low, the truth is, the higher you hold your guitar, the easier it is to play. Find a good height that works for you. Things to watch out for - pick strumming differences when playing lead and playing rhythm, wrist positioning, and relaxed shoulder/hand. How does this get you better tone? It helps you strike the strings at the right angle and helps you press with your fretting hand with the right tension and strength. This allows you to relax more when you play, and thus, enjoy yourself. Relaxed players = happy players. Happy players = better players.

3. Use a pick that works for you

Don't just find a pick and settle with it! Use a pick that works for you and your genre. Some prefer lighter picks (not my cup of tea) others prefer heavy picks. I think in my experience, rock players play best with .70 - 1.0, Metal and or lead players best with 1.0-3.0, and acoustic players anywhere from .50 to 2.0 depending on heavy you strum! A general rule - heavy strum/lighter pick, lighter strum/heavy pick. Using the right pick can drastically change the way your tone is produced, definitely on electric and especially on acoustic guitar.

My favorite picks are custom made picks from Red Bear Trading Co. They are expensive but last for months and months without dulling, and they sound better than any picks I've ever used.

4. Practice, and Practice with a Metronome

You can't get better if you don't practice. So do! Practice and practice with a good metronome. If you can't play with a met you will have a hard time getting good, a hard time getting studio work, and a hard time getting in a good band. You need to know how. The more you practice and play with a met, the better your ear's natural metronome will be and you will naturally play in time better.

5. Get a Tube Amp

Not much to say about this one. Get a tube amp. I've got 10 of them and they will forever sound better than solid state amps. Your favorite guitarists DO use tube amps -- look it up. Page, Hendrix, Mayer, Clapton, Vai, Petrucci, Paisley, Knopfler........

If you don't have a tube amp, get one. It will change your world, really. If you do have a tube amp, keep it maintained and make sure you get a good one. Some of my favorites include Hiwatt, Bad Cat, Dr. Z, Top Hat, Splawn, Divided by Thirteen, and of course good old vintage Fenders.

-Kendal Osborne
Recording Lounge Podcast
The Closet Studios