Most difficult instrument to record?


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Q: Thanks for the reply Mike. I don't think I was clear in my question. Let me try this another way: I record audio in 16-bit resolution into Cubase LE (so ALL my audio files are 16-bit). I mixdown to a 16-bit wav file. The final destination will be CD (16-bit). The song will not be mastered, I will take the Cubase mixdown file (16-bit) and burn it right to CD.

In this scenario, do I need to dither in Cubase at mixdown? Some of my friends say I don't need to dither because all files are 16-bit. Others say I MUST dither because even though I specify my mixdown file to be 16-bit, Cubase mixes with 24 bit internal resolution.

A: Mark, No problem, allow me to clarify.

Short answer: You should dither. (MUST is a strong word; it's not 100% required, just a really good idea.)

Long answer: All DAWs in fact convert everything to, and work with, 24- or 32-bit internal resolution (depending on which DAW), so producing a final 16-bit file requires dither.

Why do this? Let me show you with a simple example, working with 2-bit numbers rather than 16-bit.

- Let's say we have two numbers that we want to add together: 2 + 2 = 4. Okay?
- In binary, that's 10 + 10 = 100.
- We have added two 2-bit numbers and gotten a 3-bit number.
- If we were only capable of keeping two bits, we'd throw away the least significant bit, giving us a final value of 10, or 2.
- That gives us 2 + 2 = 2. Not very accurate math, right?

The same principle holds when you're working with digital audio inside a DAW. Digital signal processing is just math being done with 16-bit binary data... math like adding numbers together (which is what you do when you mix). When you add two 16-bit numbers, you'll get a 17-bit number sometimes. And if you keep adding them together as you mix and sum your audio signals, that sum will grow...

By working with a 24-bit data path, you don't have to keep shaving off the lowest bit every time you add numbers together, a process which makes hash of your audio in very short order.

When you're all done, you have a 24-bit file that has to be turned into a 16-bit file. Even truncating the last eight bits at the end of the process will sound better than truncating anything beyond 16 bits every time you do some math (44.1 thousand of these operations per second!), but dither will sound better still, and if you can do it as your last step, you should.

Thanks for reading and sorry for the confusion.—MM

Q: Love the mag, long-time subscriber. Perhaps you can clarify something for me. I record in Cubase LE at 16 bit resolution. I apply 16 bit dither (as an insert on the master bus) during mixdown. My reasoning is that Cubase LE handles all audio at 24 bit internal resolution. So if I don't apply dither during the mixdown, Cubase will truncate the 24 bit mixdown file to a 16 bit file. Is my process correct?
Thanks—Mark A.

A: Hi Mark, I spoke to Paul Vnuk Jr., one of our Cubase gurus, and he confirms that your process is correct... But it's not your only viable option. Dither is always better than truncation, and it should be the very last thing you apply when mixing down a song for 16-bit distribution, as on a CD.

So if you're creating a CD from mixes created in Cubase, putting dither on the end of the master bus processing is the right thing to do (see Bob Emmet's article in the December 2008 issue for more on this). Alternatively, if you're going to have your recording professionally mastered, it's best to create a final mix at the higher resolution you've been working with, and present that to the mastering engineer without dither or final eq tweaks, so he has the simplest and best-quality mix to work with. Similarly, if you have a separate two-track editing/CD preparation program like WaveLab, Sound Forge, or Peak, then it's best to take your file into that program at higher resolution and do your dithering there.

Thanks for reading!—MM

Q: Hi, I wonder if you can help me. I am looking for a pair of pro-level instrument mics to handle almost EVERYTHING! Percussion (hand-held drums, tambourine, triangle, glockenspiel, clave sticks, chimes – but not side drums per se as I have a Roland TD-20 kit), acoustic (guitar, flute, violin, trumpet, etc.).

I don’t care what the cost is, as long as it is versatile mic with an extended range and pretty flat. I was interested in Earthworks QTC 50, but then I read that small diaphragms, which react very fast to transients, exaggerate the difference between the level of the initial transients and the level of the subsequent sustaining sound, making it very difficult to set gain levels.

What would you recommend?

Thanks for your help—Chris Dixon

A: Hi Chris, Well, that's a tough question. There are a lot of versatile mics out there, especially if you can afford something in the range of the QTC50. Here are some questions to ask yourself:

1. You want a pretty flat sounding mic, but what about coloration? Would you like a very neutral sounding mic, or something that might be more flattering? Earthworks are very nice microphones--not really my personal cup of tea, but many people like them as they are excellent devices. To me, they can sound almost too clinical and neutral, to the point of being cold. Again, however, many people like this.

2. Do you want a truly flat mic? Many "flat" mics are smooth through the lows and mids, yet have some high frequency boost as many sources really need some sparkle to not sound flat and lifeless. This all depends on what you're recording, the room and your tastes--but consider it. Truly flat mics sometimes lack the sonic curb appeal that you really need. The Neumann KM 184 is a very smooth microphone, yet has a fair bit of HF sparkle that makes it work really well for a lot of sources.

Here's how I break down the major players in small diaphragm mics. These are generalizations based on my personal experiences and there are many other brands. Flat + no coloration, sometimes described as "clinical" or "cold" or "like a microscope": - DPA (formerly B&K) - Earthworks Flat + no coloration, yet a little sweeter and more musical - Schoeps - Sennheiser (MKH series of mics--I'd say a little sweeter than Schoeps) Flat + no coloration but VERY musical - Specifically Sennheiser MKH 800 (expensive, unfortunately) Smooth and Musical - Neumann -AKG - Many others fall into this category, I'd say. If you can try any mics before you buy, that would be ideal. Get a pair of Neumann KM 184's as a place to start. If those are too bright/to much HF lift, then look at Sennheiser MKH series (not the MKH 40, though--it's too hard sounding for what you're doing) or Schoeps. Other mics to check out that aren't as neutral but very functional for what you're describing (without knowing your music): AKG C 414, Shure KSM 141, Neumann TLM 127 (sweet if you can afford it). Oh, and to answer your question regarding the small capsules of the Earthworks. It's true that really small diaphragms makes for really fast transient response. I've never had a problem setting levels, however. The difference is much more noticeable when going from a dynamic or ribbon to condenser. Never really a problem, though! Hope this helps! Sorry for being so long-winded, but microphones are fun and there's a lot to talk about! Let me know what you try/buy and end up liking. I'd love to hear about it! Thanks for reading...

Cheers, Justin Peacock

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