Dot branches out

Dot writes: consider this tweet:

Wrench tweet

Thanks to my evening class, I now know what this question means. Sort of. I am so proud of myself.*

I’m doing a ten-week adult education course on recording, mixing and producing music. The class consists of ten blokes and me. Several of the blokes are elderly ex-showband musicians, which is a little intimidating; a couple are computer types; some more are amateurs of various standards; and then there’s an awkward chap who jiggles his leg all the time and seems rather shy. He’s probably the youngest person there but has one of those unfortunate bald spots like a tonsure that’s slipped backwards. The teacher is a sound engineer and composer called JJ Vernon, and he has a website that contains an online version of the course (it’s not exactly what we are doing but very handy for revision or catching up).

I saw the class advertised in a leaflet we got through the door and thought it sounded like fun. The rationale is that I love to listen intelligently and I will have a much better idea of what is going on in the records I buy thanks to this. Indeed, I’ve revisited some of Nick Zammuto’s blog posts and already they are becoming more comprehensible. The secret reason is that I want to sing into a microphone and pretend to be a pop star. Well, maybe not a pop star, because I have utterly the wrong sort of voice, but I could try to imitate Jacqui McShee from Pentangle. Actually I think my turn at the mic is likely to be with recorders, because JJ seems to like the idea of using me and my recorders to demonstrate overdubbing.

So far we have talked about the mechanisms of the ear, the properties of sound, how to plug everything in (this is complicated and to be honest I don’t think I got it), what mixing desks do, several incidental topics along the way (my goodness you need a lot of microphones to record a drum kit), and how to start recording into ProTools. This week some of the guys brought in instruments and we did some recording; JJ handled all the mics, but I was one of the people who had a turn at setting up a recording session, adjusting the gain,** and starting and stopping recording. I have a very strong sense of venturing into Boy Territory, certainly into techie stuff I have never been confident about or even really dared to try. Generally speaking I flinch from leads and plugs and hardware. But now I find myself wondering if I can afford to buy a basic interface and a microphone or two. It’s a silly idea, because I’m never going to be a musician, but the fact is I am enjoying this class a lot. And, well, there are eleven of us, and half the meetings – two hours each Tuesday evening – are already gone, and that doesn’t leave very much time for any individual member of the group to play with the gear…

*What I think it means [N.B. I’ve edited this, because I changed my mind after I first wrote the post]: in ProTools you have a virtual mixing desk, in which each channel of audio has its own fader to adjust the volume of that channel (which would carry the input from one microphone, or one device such as a drum machine). You can then route all of the channels to a master fader, which will allow you to adjust the volume of all of them at once. You can also put in inserts, for example to add reverb or delay or to send the sound out to a monitor so the musicians can hear themselves. Normally these are post-fader i.e. the reverb or delay is added or the sound goes out to the monitor after the volume has been adjusted. But David Wrench wants an insert that will operate on all the channels that go to that master fader, but without being affected when he brings the master fader up or down. I think.

[Further note, a week later: following another class, I now realise I was confounding inserts and auxiliary sends. An insert is more likely to be something like a control for EQ. You can add reverb as an insert, but it’s better to send the sound out to a separate unit – a virtual version of an effects unit – which would modify it and then send it back. I think a monitor would be an auxiliary send too, but I’m not sure.]

** Gain: the signal strength coming in varies quite a lot. Before you record, you need to start by twiddling a knob to make sure it’s in a range the mixing desk can happily handle.

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