Riding level

February 16, 2022
 by Paul McGowan

In the latest edition of Copper Magazine, Grammy-winning recording engineers, Immersive Audio’s Jim Anderson and Ulrike Schwarz offer a fascinating insight into the art of making natural sounding recordings.

Ulrike suggests that when we watch a live performance we’re visually attracted to a solo performer and our auditory attention naturally shifts to more closely focus on the lead performer.

When we listen to the same performance on our stereo system, we no longer have that ability to focus our attention on the lead soloist.

This then becomes the job of the mix engineer: highlight through the use of increased level on the solo instrument (even if only subtly) so that we might better focus our attention.

What great insight into the recording arts.

Jim goes on to suggest that he prefers riding the fader as opposed to adding a compressor.

I couldn’t agree more.

“Riding the fader” is simply hand adjusting the volume level of a particular track. Say, for example, the lead singer.

“..you really have to ride the fader, stay with them, and keep the voice really above [the rest of the mix] and all that kind of thing. It’s a very natural thing [for a singer] to let the voice trail off at the end of a phrase. But in a recording, you really have to counteract that; you have to kind of flatten it out. Now, you could do it with a compressor, people do it all the time – or with limiters. [Compressors and limiters are used to “even out” a signal’s dynamic range – JS.] But we would much rather have it be a more natural occurrence, rather than “kind of” fix it technically.”

We certainly are aligned in thinking. Compressors and automated level adjusters are the norm for engineers but in my opinion, they are overused and the “easy way out”.

With Octave Record’s new Pyramix system using the phase perfect Zephiir conversion process, we’re able to take full advantage of the control surface automation capabilities (a control surface is just a big fancy remote control where no signal passes through it) to ride the faders ever so slightly.

It gives me great hope for the future of acquiring wonderful new recordings when true gems like Anderson and Schwartz are at the helm.

Click here to read the article written by John Seetoo.

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30 comments on “Riding level”

  1. As you know, I’m not big on the recording side of recorded music.
    My knowledge lies at the other end…home-audio; setting up & listening to find the best synergy possible for what the customer is willing to spend.
    Some listeners do not embrace the illusion of pinpoint imaging & some do.
    At the minimum is what Paul describes at the start of his post; members of the audience visually focusing on the solo performer will almost always automatically be auditorily drawn to the lead performer because of the big visual cue.
    However, when listening to the same performance at home on your rig, you want the recording, in partnership with your home-audio rig, to pinpoint exactly where that lead performer is again, but this time you don’t have the visual cue to help you place said soloist.
    (When I attend such a live performance I will usually spend a good part of it with my eyes closed so that there are no visual cues to distract me & then from time to time I’ll ‘see’ if I can place things in my mind’s eye; in other words get a sense of the soundstage)
    If you can get that pinpoint imaging & soundstaging at home without the visual cue of the live performance then you know that the studio has, at least, got that part of the mix right.
    Clarity & realism within the recording is a different aspect of the recording that I’m not going to get into here.

  2. Back in the day, I was part of a small volunteer ‘tech team’ for handling the audio at our church, essentially front of house work. Each Sunday one person on a rotating basis would set up the mics and/or direct boxes for whichever group would play for the 3 Sunday morning services, work the mixing board, and afterwards put away the mics, stands and roll up the cables. There were three permanent overhead mics hung above the choir. The mixing board was a Mackey 24-4-1 that fed two lines of ceiling mounted speakers in mono. There was a digital delay between the two lines of speakers; do not touch the digital delay lest thou incur the wrath of the tech team leader who set it up in the first place. No simple task, that. There was also a lighting control board and a VHS camcorder, but that was not my job. In a pinch, if that person was ill, we could turn the lights up or down, but there would be no video recording that day. I only ran the camcorder once.

    Anyway, the initial balance of input levels was set up during rehersal on Saturday afternoon, then any small discrepancies could be finessed during the services. The pulpit and lectern mics would be muted when not used, ditto for musicians mics when they were not performing. If there was a solo you would gently ride the appropriate fader a bit. The only limiter/compressor was on a side bus to a cassette deck for making the the service available later for copying and distribution to a few home bound members of the congregation.

  3. I think good recording, mixing, mastering engineers compensate for a lot (much more than such level changes), that’s missing from the visual impression of the live event.

    At the end it mostly means, the pure audible experience of the sound quality of a recording is better or say more fascinating than the pure audible experience of the live event (large scale classical music in great halls excluded).

    As by the example above with the singer at normal level, I guess if we’d hear a plain recording of a live event at home without the additional artificial recording, mixing, mastering gimmicks, it probably would sound quite unimpressive.

    1. It is common practice among professional musicians and singers that they always adopt their instruments and lice’s to the existing room acoustics of the concert hall/opera house. Grand piano players even tune their instruments for better matching the room acoustics. Thus even if it would be possible to exclusively capture the direct sound of the instrument via a single mic, who knows which room (diffuse) sound was heard by the piano player when tuning his piano before the premiere? And how to add this room sound? And how to adapt the recorded direct sound to the specific diffuse sound/room acoustics of the listening room? No wonder most recording and mastering engineers never try to follow a high fidelity goal but simply try to get the best sound mixed from the multiple recording channels. The best sound I the mixing studio via the mixing chain of course! 🙁

  4. I to have no experience with studio or live event recording and mixing. I wonder who is in charge? If it is a studio recording I hope it is the musician that is in charge, but I know that sometimes it is the producer who is in charge and sometimes it can even be the label that is in charge. I accept that a studio recording is a “manufactured” recording. Tracks are recorded and then over dubbed and mixed.

    I understand that in recording a live performance there may have to be some human interaction with the recording devices during the performance to insure that the dynamics of the performance do go beyond what the recording format will accept without distortion, but in my uneducated opinion that should be the extent of recording manipulation. When I read in an earlier post that recording engineers think they should “enhance” the performance I asked myself “Who’s in charge?” Who decides what manipulations should be done? The musicians, the person(s) who does the actual recording, the producer, the venue manager, or who ever owns the recording? Who’s in charge? Who decides what I will hear?

      1. You know what could be fun and eye opening, is to take a recording in the various states of mastering and charge some nominal amount for them to be downloaded only. Call it the build release. If it was accompanied by an attached PDF with specific changes noted then we all (at least those interested) could hear the changes for a better understanding of the process.
        Of course it might open a whole can of worms in the discussions that follow….. 😀

        Don’t make it a routine but do it maybe once a year or two.

      2. When we were recording vocals to analog tape in the 1960s and ’70s, we HAD to ride gain “off the floor.” My experience has been that it can’t be done nearly as well after the fact. There is no substitute for looking the singer in the eye and breathing along with them to feel where they are going as you ride a fader or knob. Unfortunately, modern automated consoles have too much latency in the faders to do this.

  5. This is often done in period instrument recordings, especially when the performance is lead from harpsichord or pianoforte that are barely audible 10 or more rows back.

    Plenty of composers direct musicians to stand up during key moments of performance, even come on stage doing operas. The visual cannot be underestimated. Without the visual a lot of music does not work.

    Last night we went to another “ROH Insights”. These are all on YouTube. They are rehearsal/masterclasses done before productions start, usually with principal dancers, singers, directors and choreographers. They provide a lot of back-story and performance insights. They are fascinating and well worth watching.

    Last night was Swan Lake, hosted by Zenaida Yanowsky, who we’ve seen dance Odette/Odile many times and was one of the leading dancers of her generation. She is now a coach. She uses the word “magic” in a very different way to how Paul uses it. A lot of magic is illusion, sleight of hand, where the magician’s skill is to draw your attention to what they want you to see, not what you might otherwise have seen. Often it is the smallest gesture or, with music, sound. All recorded audio is an illusion and, however hard the mixing/mastering engineers try, sometimes these illusions are impossible to capture. That’s the fundamental problem and limitation of recorded sound, as I see it.

    Here’s the magic explanation:
    https://youtu.be/heqmzdNmQpw?t=1450

    1. That’s amazing! It reminds me of watching my daughter attend a rehearsal led by the director of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Within five minutes all I could think about was what an incredible recording director/producer this man would make. A great producer doesn’t need to know anything about technology or even about music. It’s all about human communication.

      I was lucky to spend my first years working with great producers. The lesson was that there is no way somebody could do both jobs competently at once. It’s all about inspiring great performances while not screwing up the technical stuff.

  6. Great info Paul. I do know from live mixing that for vocals in particular it helps get a good balance during a song if the performer uses the microphone properly with respect to distance from microphone and correct vocal dynamics. The engineer must be aware of that aspect too. I certainly admit I never had access to today’s sophisticated digitals tools in my work during the 80’s.

  7. Paul’s hypothesis is that riding level is required because of the absence of visual cues. It’s a bit of stereo blasphemy to suggest that the answer to the sound adjustment is to provide the visual cues as in a music video. In a live performance, we set our own riding levels by visually focusing on a particular section/soloist of the orchestra (sans the infamous mixing board…). Maybe the recording engineer can provide audio manipulations to substitute for the visual cues. We go to live performances because we require the visual cues to make the music work best. You hear the guitarist better if you see her play.

  8. Closing your eyes is a really good way to “see the music”.
    As mentioned, a good lead or front man is part entertainer.
    Even recital pianist has a show to put on.
    The church I attend has a large choir.
    It embarrasses my wife that I take my glasses off and close my eyes when the choir performs… Mozart, Bach, Handel… She thinks people think I’m sleeping thru it – LoL

      1. FR, he was replacing a useless indicator with another slightly more useful one and making the point that”audiophiles” care more about meters than music.

        1. jk,
          Thanks for that clarification.
          It helps me to more understand why I consider myself
          an ‘audio-enthusiast’ rather than an audiophile 😉

          When I was in my teen’s & very early twenties I thought that the VU meters on the Marantz & Sansui amps were cool, but by the time I was 22yo & had my first Luxman pre/power combo I quickly came to realise what a load of mental masturbation power meters really are.

          Tape decks; Yes, but everything else; WTF?

  9. This topic really gets my arse out! In ORCHESTRAL RECORDINGS (especially LIVE), it is bad enough to have microphones all over hell and creation, creating a STUDIO out of a beautiful concert hall acoustic. The pop music ‘fix it in the mix’ I find offensive when applied to symphonic recordings.

    What increases my disappointment is ANY engineer that will ‘ride gain’ or highlight a solo instrument within the orchestra. I’m not sorry, that is so artificial and UN-natural!

    I have mentioned before, that comments were left on a Reference Recording’s video production on their very own website about violin sections being raised and lowered creating a distraction while listening.

    The natural dynamics of the orchestral piece as it is composed has dynamic markings in the score so that solo instruments will be heard! If you were in that concert hall, THAT is what you should hear. Would one get out of their seat and run up to the stage edge to hear a little more cello in a certain measure written in the piece?

    I was SHOCKED when I saw ‘Prof’ Keith Johnson riding gain DURING an orchestral recording session. Not sorry to say, I lost a good deal of respect for the label after seeing that stuff going on. I don’t believe Telarc used these practices, I would be shocked if they had.

          1. “In A world full of people there’s only some who want to fly, isn’t that crazy?!”

            Thanks FR, some great comments on that one! Guess it got many people through some hard times. Good driving tune, ahead of it’s time indeed. Seal is all grown up now (O:

    1. gws,
      I totally agree with you on the skepticism of ride gaining. Isn’t that what the musicians/conductor are supposed to do? Sit in on a rehearsal and see how much time is sometimes spent on volume levels and mixes between the instruments. Watch the conductor encourage/discourage volume in the performance. Perhaps we should leave all of this to the digital sound processor because the musicians couldn’t get it done. Really?

      1. Thank you Casey! I say, yes to studio recorded pop/jazz/blues and what have you, iso-booth to the max when needed, and sweeten with engineers’ ‘toys’ to taste.

        HOWEVER, when it is LIVE jazz with acoustic instruments or a performance of orchestral music of any kind where these instruments need to ‘breath’ and mix naturally within the acoustic, make it true stereo. Two microphones in an ORTF or single point stereo mic config and capture the moment.

        Don’t add a damn thing, it doesn’t need to be ‘sensationalized’ which is the big problem. Everything has to be made to sound bigger then it really is and that is what wrecks it for me.

        I had to chuckle today, I was listening to the latest Octave compilation SACD samples today. That Magee String Quartet recording, wonderfully played but MAN, is that an ‘in your face’ sound or what?, and that reverb?

        Most recording companies just don’t get it, every space has to be turned into a dog gone studio with ‘ears’ all over the place including IN PIANOS ! (another pet peeve) Nice, you get to hear all the hammer felt buzz up against the strings, the pedal action thumping away………..drives me crazy! Ok, I’ll need a little calming again lol. (O:

        1. Yes, gws, thank you back. Let’s love music recorded in all sorts of ways. But as you say, if it’s acoustic instruments and it’s marketed as LIVE, then we have a different standard. They say, “as if the musicians are in your room.” No. It’s “as if we are in the concert hall with the musicians.” Audiophiles talk about straight wire with gain (Hegemon). LIVE has the same expectation!

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