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Tech Talk: Production Hacks

Making sure you have top gear and proper gain staging along the signal chain goes a long way to assure you have great sounding tracks. But what about those things beyond signal flow that mess with the per­ceived pocket, session speed and quality of your production? This is where some smart techniques, or hacks, both inside and out of the DAW, go a long way to bring up the quality of the studio experience.

For example, I recently had to align some acoustic guitar “slaps” to a side stick because they were not in time with each other. The drummer was solid, which helped, but whenever the guitar player lightly slapped the instrument between chords, the guitar was noticeably out of time with the drummer. I could use the grid, but even the best band floats a bit, and this works even if I didn’t cut to a click.

First, turn on Pro Tools’ Tab to Transient feature and in the Edit window move the track you wish to align just below the source track so you can easily compare the transients. Play the song until you hear an errant hit, then drop the cursor before the transient you wish to align to and hit Tab to move the cursor tight to the hit. Then, use the letter “B” (for Blade) to split the clip at that point—this is your target.

Next, isolate the errant transient by tabbing to that transient, and while holding Shift, click later in time leaving a small chunk of time before the next entrance. This lets you move the track back and forth in time without covering up the next event. Then comes the magic: Select your target clip and while holding the Control key, click on the transient you wish to move with the grabber tool (hand). Bam! The front of the errant transient will align itself with the target transient. After a listen, you may have to do some crossfading for cleanup, and you can also repair the target’s Blade cut by selecting over the cut and pushing Command + H to heal the separation. Lather and repeat for other hits and all your tracks will start moving into the pocket.

I love to record a parallel, analog drum “crush” track along with the take as a band plays live in studio. It acts to bring the kit into focus, making it more powerful in the song. My new favorite pair of compressors to use are the R124s I reviewed in Mix last month, but you can use any stereo compressor you’d like. The problem is that while the track is being recorded, the drums (converted once) are being heard with the crush (converted twice). But here’s a simple technique to hear it live, correctly in phase both when recording and afterward, even when the session is opened another day on an­other system.

It all starts with the parallel signal flow. Send your large console faders, the ones going to your stereo bus, to a pair of multitrack buses panned identically to your mix. I like to send kicks, snares and toms to my crush only because cymbals can get out of control when compressed using this method. Patch the parallel stereo buses to the inputs of a stereo compressor, then mult of the outputs of the compressor back to the console for monitoring live. Another leg of compressor’s output mult should go back to the DAW for recording but be sure to mute the outputs on these tracks. This allows you to hear the parallel crush perfectly time-aligned because what you’re hearing is pre-conversion.

The hack is to build the converter latency into the session’s nudge grid so you can knock back the crush once it’s recorded. I always do this after each pass by selecting the stereo crush clips and hitting the minus key on the numeric keypad, which snaps it back into phase. What’s the amount? It varies by converter, but for Avid HD I/O converters the system latency values in samples are: 44.1 and 48k = 78 samples; 88.2 and 96k = 42 samples; 176.4 and 192k = 39 samples. You can also use the crush trick in your DAW when mixing and use Delay Compensation to correct for plug-in latency, but there’s nothing like the live version!

On a fast-paced tracking session, it can be daunting when quickly jumping to a new song. This is where Apple’s Stationery Pad feature comes in handy (sorry PC users!). Originally it was intended for text documents that you wish to alter into different saved versions, but it works for a Pro Tools session, as well.

Start by creating a working template for your session with track names, in/outs, click track, nudge grid values mentioned above, and everything else you need for the session. Once you’re sure everything is working, close the session, select the session file in the Finder (.ptx) and hit Command + I to open the Get Info window. Click the Stationery Pad box, close Get Info, then drag the session file just above the trash can on the dock. Click once (important not to click twice) on this alias to create the session for the first song. You will be prompted to Edit Stationery or open a New Session—choose the latter. Name it and park it into your band folder. For each new song, repeat the process nam­ing appropriately; the process is fast and brings up a fresh session in a folder named for each song every time you use it.

Using clever techniques like these and many more brings up the level of your session both in sound and professionalism. I’m sure you know more, so let’s communicate. Ping me on Facebook and let’s open a dialog about your personal session workflows.