The Art of the Fix: Studio Recording

Artists and technicians who work in sound for film, photography, filmmaking, and recording all know one thing to be true: almost nothing comes out flawless. To create that ‘perfect’ moment often requires some altering of reality – also known as post-production.

In the second blog post for our Art of the Fix series, we discuss fixes in audio recordings with Course Director Jeremy Burnum, who teaches Introduction To Mixing within the Recording Arts degree program.

Mix engineers are the wizards of the audio world, cleaning up a variety of problems within recordings that the audience will never hear. Although we like to think that our favorite artists are perfect, even talented singers and musicians make mistakes or have habits that are distracting. As a professional studio mix engineer, Recording Arts Course Director Jeremy Burnum talks about correcting problems with timing and vocals.

“Vocals are definitely the most challenging – each vocal has its own personality, its own sense of being,” says Burnum. “You treat each one differently.”

One common vocal problem has to do with excessive sibilance, or the overemphasis of the letter ‘s.’ “Some vocalists have very pronounced ‘s’s. They’re around the 5 to 8 kHz range, which is the piercing, high-frequency area,” says Burnum. “They tend to be really sharp.”

Within ProTools – Avid’s digital audio workstation software – Burnum uses a tool called Clip Gain for correcting sibilance. By separating the sibilance audio, engineers can then use Clip Gain to turn the overall level down. Burnum says the trick is to introduce cross-fades on each end of the ‘hissing’ sound.It’s very much like film editing, [where] you’re blurring the edges at the beginning and the end, so that they fade into each other naturally instead of being an abrupt volume change,” says Burnum. While there are several plug-ins designed to fix sibilance problems, Burnum says its better to make these types of changes to the WAV file in ProTools, before it is processed and compressed. “Clip Gain is a more natural approach to fixing it. Too often a de-esser type process takes clarity and definition away from the top end of a vocal," says Burnum.

Burnum uses Clip Gain to correct problems with other consonants as well:So maybe they hit the ‘t’ too hard, they hit their ‘b’s too hard, or their ‘p’s maybe were not hard enough,” says Burnum. “[Through editing], you can get the enunciation of the dialogue or the enunciation of the vocal to sound more crisp and clear.”

Distracting breathing sounds can also be a problem in vocals, says Burnum. “Sometimes you’ll get an artist who cannot get a lot of tone out of their vocals unless they have a lot of air in their lungs, but the drawback with that is that you get this huge gasp, “huhhhhhhh,’ and sometimes it just sounds really ugly,” explains Burnum. “So you’ll take a breath that sounds good somewhere else, and you’ll maybe copy it, or you might go in [with] Clip Gain and drop it down so it sounds more in place with how a natural breath would sound.”

On the flip side, says Burnum, because today’s digital tools can correct so much, mix engineers can go overboard with ‘fixing’ problems.

“A common mistake in production that I see a lot of people doing wrong is they eliminate breaths because they think it’s not necessary, but the breath can add a lot of intensity, and it can be very musical, and it adds a sense of realism," adds Burnum. "Too often people eliminate things like that in a production, and it no longer sounds like a real performance.”

While engineers sometimes have to correct drums that come in a bit too early or late, too-perfect timing can also be a problem, says Burnum. “Some music is meant to breath. You let things speed up, you let things slow down, and there’s this ebb and flow,” says Burnum. “There’s this concept of [how] things stretch and pull in many genres. That’s the rhythmical emotion, and you want that.” In the case of too-perfect timing, an engineer might go in and very slightly randomize the timing, he explains. “You’re just smoothing out the edges instead of it being sharp, and just letting it breathe, be a little bit more natural.”

How an engineer approaches production often depends on the genre of the music, says Burnum. Dance music and heavy metal are almost always more precise and sharp than jazz, folk, or country, yet that can be overdone, says Burnum. “In dance, EDM, rock, even certain pop, they’ll make the breaths very, very quiet. They eliminate them sometimes, and it’s not always a good thing. I find that usually comes from inexperience,” says Burnum.

“The idea is that you don’t want the listener to clue in that you fixed it,” adds Burnum. “It should sound very natural, as if it was part of the performance. And that’s really the art of editing. The art of fixing is being able to do it without sounding like it was done.”

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