LEARNING TO SPEAK “ENGINEER”

By • August 1, 2011

At first, it was relatively simple. I studied composition, harmony, and counterpoint, wrote songs and instrumental pieces, and copied, or had copied, the parts and handed them to players. I learned the lingo, I could speak “composer.” I knew what an appoggiatura was, what spiccato, was, etc.

Then I moved to Los Angeles and set my sights on writing music for film started studying orchestration with the late great Albert Harris and found that I had another language to learn. I had to know what SMPTE was, sync tones, hit points and how to plot a variable click with a calculator or the Knudsen Click Track Book.

Then I bought an Atari computer with Notator as a sequencer (and later Logic Pro on the Mac) and I had to learn to speak the language of MIDI. I now knew what quantizing was, MIDI clock, MIDI sync, ppq, etc.

While there was frustration I had to work through because I am not brilliant, all these languages I learned without being intimidated or overwhelmed: until it came time to learn to speak “engineer.”

I would say to my engineer, and in those days I ALWAYS had one, “That sounds great! What did you do to it?”

He would reply something like, “Well, Jay, I simply rolled off about -5 dB at around 80k and..”

I would say, “Stop, you are making my head hurt! I do not know what that means, I do not want to know what that means.”

The combination of decreasing budgets and learning to teach Logic Pro changed that finally. While I certainly do not consider myself a great engineer, I can do a decent mix and I understand a lot more, because I was forced to work through my intimidation to learn the language of engineers.

Over the years I have taught Logic classes I have had some pretty great musicians, composers, and songwriters come through them and to my surprise I found that I was not alone in feeling the intimidation that from not understanding the basic language of engineering. However, 70% of it is a matter of simply not understanding the terminology.

So here are some terms that every composer working in a DAW needs to know in simple, workable, layman definitions. This is not a definitive treatise, just a good beginning point.

DAW is Digital Audio Workstation. It usually consists of: a computer; an audio interface with inputs and outputs and A/D/A converters; a software program capable of recording, editing, and mixing both audio and MIDI; a MIDI keyboard, a mouse and/ or other input device. Frequently nowadays some people refer to their software program as their DAW, but that is not really correct.

Panning is simply where a sound sits in the leftfield. A pan control allows you to place the sound to the left or the right without the sound totally disappearing from the other side. It is different from the balance control on your home stereo. A balance control raises or lowers the volume of each channel you hear but the mix of left and right in each speaker is actually unchanged all you are hearing is the knob position.

When engineers speak of EQ-ing, they are simply talking about attenuating (reducing) some frequencies and boosting others with an Equalizer. Frequencies are either measured in herz (Hz) which is one cycle of a wave or kilohertz (k or Kz) which is 1000 cycles. So, 2k=2000 Hz. Lows are usually below -120 Hz while frequencies above 3 or 4 Hz are considered high frequencies. A high pass filter (HPF) lets the higher frequencies “pass through” while attenuating lower ones. A low pass filter (LPF) does the opposite. A Graphic EQ is pretty simple. It has a number of regularly spaced, fixed frequency filters, usually between 10-30, each with their own gain (volume) fader. A Parametric EQ has a greater range of control of frequency ranges, which allow you to easily see the range and to “sweep” and hear how it changes the sound.

dB is short for decibels, which is simply how loud the sound is and dBfs is “full scale” which is a measurement of amplitude (volume) in digital systems. Peak is the top volume level and RMS is an average of the levels.

I covered compression in my last column. All I will say here is that compression limits the dynamics by compressing the dynamic range rather than just drawing a maximum line as a Limiter does by saying “thou shall not go further.” Compression makes the sound more in your face.

Parallel compression (or New York compression) is using a non-compressed or lightly compressed signal and mixing it in with a more heavily compressed signal, generally to a bus (or buss.). A bus is a sub-routing destination that you can send a number of sounds to be pre-mixed and controlled as a whole before being sent to the final mix source. It is also a place to insert effects like reverbs, to be shared by a number of sounds. In some applications, like Logic Pro, busses are frequently sent to and form from auxes (or auxiliaries.)

Modulators are things like choruses, phasers, flangers, and rotor cabinets. They widen the sound so that it sounds more spread out. They tend to push a sound more back in the mix.

A Sidechain is using a second audio stream to determine the amount off effect applied to a first audio stream. Some plug-ins, notably compressors, have this capability.

A/D and D/A converters: Your microphone is an analog device. It goes through a pre-amp to amplify its signal but then something has to convert it to digital so your DAW understands it. That is A/D. You mix out of your DAW to speakers or headphones that are analog. So you have to convert the digital information in your DAW to analog. That is D/A.

Gain Structure is how you set the levels throughout your recording chain, i.e a mic> mic-pre> perhaps a compressor/limiter> A/D converter of an audio interface, to achieve a clean and non-distorted signal. Turn up the level of a not so hotsy totsy mic-pre and you may hear a lot of noise that you do not want, so balancing the amount coming in throughout all these is critical and takes time to learn to do well. All the components need to work together to deliver a string, clean signal; to the A/D converter and through the software to the D/A converter as well.

Headroom is the maximum signal level that can be achieved without distortion. There are two types of DAWs that deal with headroom somewhat differently called fixed point and floating point. Fixed point means the headroom is “fixed” and that your channel strip cannot go into the red without producing distortion. ProTools is a fixed point DAW. Floating point means that the channel strips “float’ to adjust their headroom to the incoming signal, so that going into the red does not automatically produce distortion (except for the stereo output, which still will produce distortion if going into the red.) Logic Pro, Digital Performer, and Cubase are all floating point. Both approaches have their pros and cons.

Clipping is when you send out more signal than the destination can handle creating distortion. In digital, technically clipping is defined as 2 or more full digital words in a row. In the analog world of a guitar amp, this can be aesthetically pleasing. In the digital world, it is just noise and not pleasant, although in some genres clipping the D/A converters has become fashionable.

Some other terms engineers like to throw around:

“2 buss” = a stereo output where everything is sent to that is to be included in a bounce.

“Slap some talent on it.” = Add some reverb or delay to make it sound better. It does not (necessarily) mean the engineer thinks that the performer or composer lacks talent 🙂

“Garbage in-garbage out” = a bad performance or poorly recorded performance results in a bad finished piece of music. Even in this era of Autotune and time stretching, most good engineers still believe this, and thank G-d they do.

“If it sounds good, it IS good,” – While engineers, like composers, have guiding principles that they rely on, ultimately they trust their ears and do not worry about whether another engineer would do it the same way if they like the resulting sound.

So there it is, an introduction into the world of “engineer speak.” Composers working to create music with computers benefit greatly from a basic understanding of this, whether they are working with an engineer or doing their own engineering.

Don’t be afraid!

Comments

By David Allen on August 2nd, 2011 at 2:33 am

Very useful read, thanks. I’m currently in the struggling-to-understand-all-the-technical-speak stage at the moment!

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