Posts Tagged ‘Distortion’

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Loudness Wars: Dynamic Range Strikes Back with Campaign, Plug-in

March 24, 2009

Are you sick of the death of dynamic range? Are you mad as hell at squashed audio that means to be “loud” and only wind up with the actual sounds smooshed out? Alternatively, are you guilty of some detail-squishing dynamic abuse yourself?

A campaign is on to get the dynamic war out of comment threads and forums and onto the streets. Taking a positive tack, the Pleasurize Music Foundation isn’t simply attacking overcompression and dynamic distortion: they’re suggesting an alternative path, in which restored dynamic ranges bring back joy to your life. There are opportunities to sign up as listeners, labels, producers, mixing and mastering engineers, even the consumer electronics and music tech industries.

There’s also a free (Windows-only) plug-in for checking the dynamic range of your mix. There are plenty of other tools that do the same thing, but the idea is nice.


Now, the idea of crushed dynamic range is nothing new. But via comments, mastering engineer Tobias Anderson points out that it’s not always the mastering that’s to blame — some people are actually distorting at the digital conversion stage. (That’s, incidentally, not the fault of digital recording, either – to screw that up, you have to be really careless, which evidently people are.)

Tobias’ comments below. Now, obviously, this is an issue that can generate some controversy. But start talking about simply preserving dynamic range? I think just about everyone can get behind that. The idea of “quality” can often be loaded, but talking about dynamics as pleasure is as universal as hearing.

As a mastering engineer, it has become increasingly disconcerting to both work on and listen back to much of todays’ music. Distorted, compressed & messy sounding to say the least! However, 2 points I must make:

Firstly, compression and brick-wall limiting are NOT the only factors involved in making a record loud and / or distorted. The clipping of the ME’s ADC (analogue-to-digital-converter) is the most aggressive form of distortion you will hear on todays’ loud records. Digital limiters are generally (hopefully) not cranked too much (between 1-3db), but rather the load should be spread across more than 1 unit, making the effect less obvious than if the same amount of gain reduction had been employed with a single unit. The signal is then fed back to the ADC, and ‘clipped’ to achieve the final loudness increase. The maximum peak level of digital audio is 0dbfs, however when clipped, the incoming audio exceeds this value (up to 6db, maybe more in ridiculous cases!) and the loudest peaks of the music are literally shaved, or ’squared’ off. With the upper end ADC’s, this process can be fairly transparent, if used ’sensibly’ (if that is possible..) however when abused, it sounds truly awful as you all can hear. One example (many are available) that springs to mind is the Foo Fighters’ Nothing Left To Lose album. Every time the snare is hit, the digital distortion is unbearable, the high frequencies sound grainy and harsh ect ect. However, audibly, the effect of clipping differs greatly from the effect of brick wall limiting, which can, as previously mentioned, and subjectively speaking, benefit or compliment a particular style or genre of music. Dance, hip-hop & drum n bass coming to mind especially. This processing DOES impart a certain sense of power to the sound which is very different than simply using compression alone on the mix buss or on the individual elements in the mix.

Secondly, music is never ‘cut’ or HPF’d (high-pass filtered) at 80hz. 40-45hz maybe, a gradual roll-off from 80hz-20-30hz probable, but there is still a lot of important musical information below 80hz that is needed in modern music, even if it can’t be reproduced by poor consumer listening equipment. The 60hz(ish) peak in a hip-hop kick for example, would sound completely wrong and hollow if the fundamental frequency lived in the 100hz range for example. I can’t think of a commercially released modern record that has been released with very little or no musical information below 80hz, not impossible, but certainly not the norm by any stretch. Lastly, having a ‘pre -mastering’ chain is really not a good idea, and will probably do more harm than good in most situations, unless: the listening environment is very good and the engineer is very skilled. Using a particular compressor for a desired character on the mix buss prior to mastering, is a very valid ‘mix’ technique, but again the engineer must be very competent for this to be worthwhile.

I hope this has shed some additional light on the loudness war for you all.

If you would like to express your dislike for the practice, in hope of eventually stopping it, please visit and register for free at

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GarageBand ’09: An in Depth Look

February 13, 2009

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Make and learn music with the latest GarageBand

Unless you have an active interest in producing podcasts or creating a musical score, it’s likely you’ve opened GarageBand once and then never bothered with it again. Of all the programs that make up the iLife suite, none is more overlooked than this application. And, given its original focus, that’s not too surprising. Making music requires a skill not common in the general population of computer users.

Lessons are well presented and move quickly toward learning songs; multiple views in lessons; guitar amps and stomp boxes are intuitively presented and sound good; Magic GarageBand supports recording; interface reorganization makes it easier to locate features.

No MIDI control of stomp boxes; can’t have more than one GarageBand project open at a time; no improvement in notation printing from last version.

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And so, with each version, Apple tries to explore a different angle, hoping to bring in a new audience for GarageBand. Two versions ago, with GarageBand 3 (), it was podcasting. In GarageBand ’08 (), Apple introduced Magic GarageBand, a feature that allows you to jam along with a canned band. With GarageBand ’09, the new lure is guitar and piano lessons—nine basic lessons for budding musicians as well as a handful of optional artist lessons for learning specific songs by such well-known musicians as Norah Jones, John Fogerty, and Sting.

Veteran GarageBand users who’ve already mastered their axes aren’t left out of the mix. Guitar players now have the opportunity to play through five newly modeled amplifiers and a host of stomp box audio effects. Players who were frustrated by Magic GarageBand’s inability to record what they noodled will be pleased to learn that recording is now part of the magic. And, regardless of who opens the application, users will discover a redesigned interface that makes existing features easier to find.
Lessons learned

The marquee feature of GarageBand ’09 is Learn to Play, the application’s basic and artist piano and guitar video lessons. GarageBand ’09 includes the first basic guitar and piano lessons. You can obtain eight additional free lessons for each instrument by choosing the Lesson Store entry in the New Project window, selecting the Basic Lessons tab, and then clicking the Download button next to the lessons you want to download from the Internet. Artist lessons are obtained similarly, but cost $5 each. Unfortunately, these lessons work only on Intel Macs with a dual-core processor, though the rest of GarageBand ’09 works with PowerPC-based Macs.

Each basic guitar and piano lesson is taught by “Tim,” an approachable instructor who begins with the physical layout of each instrument and, in later lessons, walks through the basics of playing the instruments. For the piano lessons this includes left and right hand notes and fingering, sharps and flats, rhythm, major and minor chords, and scales. The guitar lessons include basic major and minor chords, major and minor barre chords, strumming, single note melodies, and power chords.

Nearly every lesson ends with a song that you’re welcome to play along with. Each lesson also includes a Play section that allows you to play along with the teacher (and record what you play). The lessons are nicely produced, well paced, and presented in a way that you can easily zero in on exactly what you’d like to see. You can, for example, use the Mac’s number keys to switch views. In the piano lessons, nearly every view includes Tim at the top of the window and a keyboard at the bottom. But you can switch views to see the treble clef, bass clef, grand staff (both clefs), or chords in between Tim and the keyboard. In the guitar lessons, there’s Tim above and a fretboard below with switchable views that include guitar chord boxes, chords, tablature, and notation. Lefties can also change the orientation of the fretboard at the bottom of the screen.
You can view the instructor, instrument, and music in a variety of ways.

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When Tim plays, you can see what he’s playing reflected on the piano keyboard or fretboard at the bottom of the screen—when he places his third finger on E above middle C, for example, a blue 3 appears on the keyboard’s E key. It works similarly on the fretboard—when he fingers a chord, those frets associated with the chord gain a blue dot and the strummed strings vibrate.

When you plug a MIDI keyboard into your Mac, it becomes available to GarageBand, allowing you to play a piano sound within the lessons. If you’re using a guitar, you tell GarageBand whether you have an electric guitar plugged into an audio interface attached to your Mac or you’re using an acoustic guitar and a microphone. GarageBand will record it accordingly. You can switch on a metronome as well as slow down the speed of the music so it’s easier to play in time (when you adjust the tempo, Tim’s voice is muted). You can also change the sound mix, adjusting the teacher’s voice, teacher’s instrument, the band (and each instrument within the band), and the volume of your instrument. You can also loop sections of lessons so you can repeatedly practice them.

The Artist lessons are just as beautiful to look at and offer the same kind of interactivity. The teaching ability of the artists varies—some are more thorough instructors than others. Norah Jones, for example, speaks as if she’s had formal musical training and explains the way she voices her chords by describing their position (root, first, or second position). One Republic’s Ryan Tedder doesn’t offer this level of detail but rather shows you how he plays a particular chord. Sting assumes you know how to make more complex chords on the guitar and so simply tells you the chord names and shows you how to finger them. Not surprisingly, none of the artists completely agree on technique so you may see them do something—finger a chord, for example—that contradicts something Tim has taught you.

Some of the artist lessons are offered in both Simple and Advanced versions, allowing both beginning and experienced musicians to get some enjoyment from them. And each artist lesson includes a video of the artist speaking about the song or another subject close to their heart. (Norah Jones doesn’t touch on her song at all, for example, but rather discusses the advantage of hauling a relatively portable Wurlitzer electric piano to a gig versus the back-breaking Fender Rhodes.)
Getting you started

GarageBand’s approach to teaching piano and guitar is an intriguing one—providing enough information to have you playing a song as quickly as possible. It’s a great approach for giving nascent players the kind of success they need to keep at it, but there are compromises as well. Some subjects aren’t covered very deeply and, of course, there’s no one standing over you to check on what you’re doing. But depth isn’t what Learn to Play is about. Rather, it’s a starting point for learning to learn how to play.

Fortunately, you have other choices as GarageBand ’09 isn’t the only instructional game in town. You can get more in-depth computer-based lessons from iPlayMusic, iPerform3D, and eMedia Music. And iVideosongs offers some beautifully filmed artist lessons. (I discuss some of these and other instructional methods in Learn to Play an Instrument.) Of course, there’s still no substitute for a real teacher who can give you customized assignments based on your ability.
Rock on

In previous versions of GarageBand, you could play real instruments through the program’s amplifier simulations (or apply those simulations after the fact) as well as apply effects to that instrument. But many people missed these features as they weren’t easy to find. GarageBand ’09 includes interface changes that make many features more obvious (as I discuss later), and none more so than the guitar amps and effects. Not only did GarageBand’s designers bring these guitar features to the fore, but they completely rebuilt the amps and effects from the ground up.

These features are found in the new Electric Guitar tracks. These tracks are real instrument tracks that place one of five amp models (modeled after Marshall, Mesa Boogie, Vox, and Fender Combo and Tweed amps) front and center. You can easily change amps as well as adjust the settings of each amp—the amps carry knobs for adjusting Gain, Bass, Mids, Treble, Presence, Master, Output, Reverb, Tremolo Rate, and Tremolo Depth. (Those who find adjusting virtual knobs clumsy with a mouse will be happy to learn that you can click on a knob and then twist it by moving a mouse’s scroll wheel up or down.) You can also edit the amp’s master echo and reverb settings. The work that went into these amp models is apparent—they sound very much like the real deal, complete with noise when you’ve cranked them up.

The new Electric Guitar tracks support modeled amps and stomp box effects.

Electric Guitar tracks use stomp box effects—effects modeled after the small effect boxes that routinely litter the floor around electric guitar players. Stomp boxes include Phaser, Overdrive, Distortion, Fuzz, Chorus, Flanger, Vibrato, Filter, Delay, and Sustain. You can have as many as five stomp boxes at a time and changing the position of where the stomp boxes appear in the interface changes the sound coming from the track (so the boxes work in serial order). Each stomp box includes an On/Off switch as well as knobs for adjusting the parameters of the effect. The stomp boxes also sound very much like the real deal.

You’re welcome to create your own arrangement of amps and stomp boxes, but before you do you might care to try one of the 37 included presets. If you want to sound like The Edge from the early ’90s, for example, choose Dublin Delay. Dick Dale wannabes can dial in Surf, which features the Combo amp with a fair bit of amp reverb and tremolo and a Sustain stomp box.

Before you toss your outboard gear in favor of GarageBand’s amps and stomp boxes, note this crucial omission—like much of the rest of GarageBand, amps and stomp boxes can’t be controlled via MIDI, and that’s a shame. Guitar players like to kick in effects as they play and the only way to do that in GarageBand ’09 is to take your hand off the guitar and click a stomp box’s virtual buttons. You can control parameters for stomp box effects after the fact using GarageBand’s automation controls, but it’s not the same thing. Electric Guitar tracks demand some way to stomp a real switch while you’re playing and a MIDI controller is the means. It’s time, Apple.
Additional enhancements

Magic GarageBand has seen some needed improvements. While the band is still limited to the same nine songs as before, you can now record what you play and export that recording as a multitrack project in the usual GarageBand interface. You also have the ability to shuffle the backing instruments by clicking anywhere other than on an instrument. This makes for some unexpected (and sometimes welcome) combinations. You can also now mix the levels of each instrument as well as quickly mute or solo each one with the click of a button. And you can choose any software instrument sound you like as your instrument when playing through a MIDI keyboard. You’re no longer limited to a handful of instruments as you were in GarageBand ’08.


Magic GarageBand now lets you record your part and mix the band.

Finally, Apple has rejiggered the look of GarageBand in helpful ways. It now bears the same gray tone as Aperture () and Logic (). The New Project window contains a broader variety of projects including Piano, Electric Guitar, Voice, Loops, Keyboard Collection, Acoustic Instrument, Songwriting, Podcast, and Movie, making it easier to start with a template configured for the kind of project you want to create. For example, choose Podcast and the resulting GarageBand window is populated with Podcast, Male Voice, Female Voice, and Jingles tracks. (Regrettably, you still can’t have more than one GarageBand project open at a time.)

When you add a new track, you see a redesigned window that lets you easily choose a Software Instrument, Real Instrument, or Electric Guitar track. Loops are now found on the side of the main window rather than below. Effects are no longer hidden at the bottom of the Info pane but rather available from an obvious Edit tab in the Info pane. And text is larger throughout the interface. Taken together, it’s easier on the eyes as well as easier to find the functions you’re after. Veteran GarageBand user though I may be, with the new interface I was able to find features I’d forgotten existed.
Macworld’s buying advice

As a musician and podcaster, GarageBand remains one of my favorite iLife ’09 applications—I’m able to pull compelling results from the program without a lot of work or worry. Nothing about the latest version changes that. What GarageBand ’09 brings to the table is the possibility that more people—specifically those looking to get some use from a guitar or keyboard crammed in a closet or electric guitar players seeking a more authentic sound—will stick around for a second look.

[Senior editor Christopher Breen at Macworld]