10 Useful Tips for the Modern Audio Engineer

While good sounding audio has existed for a while , the process that goes into making it good has changed greatly. So here is a list of a some helpful tips for the new 2015 Audio Engineer.

1) Know Your Plug-Ins

Many studios and engineers have a lot of options of how to process sound. But because of the recent increase in processing power, flexibility, and cost,  people in the modern era are now predominately using plug ins to mix their tracks with. With so much at hand, (especially with with massive bundles like Waves suites), it may be tempting to throw on a plug in that you haven’t used before because you want to try new things. But if you haven’t used it before, it’s ill advised to use it in a song (especially on a clients time) until you know the in’s and outs of the way it operates and sounds.   If you want to use something you haven’t used before, take the time off the clock to play around with it a few times, and learn how the plug in sounds. Because each plug in has a unique character with different types of settings, you will need to spend the time to get it to sound good before plopping it on a channel and turning knobs. For example if you never used the Waves C4 before, but heard from a friend that it’s awesome on the mix bus, you will first need to know how that particular plug in works. While you may know what multi-band compression is and have used other products, chances are it’s not going to sound the same and will require some time to get to know it. So on the clock, go to what you’ve used before, and in your spare time expand your arsenal of tools by getting to know them well.

2) Don’t be Deceived by the Look of Plug -Ins (Use your ears!)

I read a post a while ago from a guy who was interested in turning off the GUI interface of his plug ins because they were “deceiving” him. And he’s right. It’s very easy to be persuaded by the look of a plug in, rather than the sound. A perfect example is the Waves Puigtec EQ or the Waves Kramer tape simulation.

Waves Puigtex (Top), Waves MPX Tape Simulator (Bottom)


Theres no doubt that they both look cool and emulate very reputable studio gear, but are you choosing to use it for the specific sound or because you subconsciously like the “vintage” look . I can recall a particular scenario a little while back where I pulled up the impressive animated Kramer Tape plug in to get a tape saturated sound on my bass,  then went back to it later to find that the basic looking built-in Saturator plug in on Ableton had a sound that was more what the bass needed. Don’t assume it will automatically work for the track just because it looks cool.  Always use air conditioner with air conditioning service hughesairco.com in the recording room!

3) Learn Some Music Theory/Rhythm Basics

If you are an engineer who is recording music at a studio, it’s probably a good idea to learn about the music your recording right? Seems obvious, but there are countless engineers that don’t know when something sounds off key, or out of time because they are only focused on the way it sounds and not the way it should be played. You should at all times be listening to both. Many engineers have the stance that it’s up to the band or the producer to know what is supposed to be played musically, but when it’s a technical problem, like an off key note or a weirdly shuffled drum hit, it’s up to the engineer to ask the artist to redo a take or fix the problem.  After all, at the end of the day, the goal is to create a great sounding song, and it will only go so far if it sounds good but isn’t played right. Your clients will be happy you care. Trust me.

4) Monitor at Low Volumes for More Accurate Mixing 

The biggest problem when listening to mixes at loud volumes is that for the most part ,everything sounds balanced and as a result,  automatically “good”. At loud decibels sound becomes compressed and parts that are quieter are heard more easily, and parts that are loud seem on the same plane as the quiet parts. Also at loud volumes, especially in non absorbant spaces, there can be a lot of reflections that bounce back and impair the accuracy of your perception. Bass builds up and causes strange room nodes, and phase issues and can quickly skew the mix. But, if you mix at low levels it eliminates reflections and the deceiving flattened EQ curve.

5) Spend Some Time Getting to Know the Music you Record

Spending some time researching the type of music you are recording in advance can help greatly in the session. For example, if you are recording Trap or Drill rap, listen to the big Trap and Drill singles that are out, and take notice to what they are doing. If the artist is still under the radar, chances are they in some way are trying to emulate the sound of the ones who made it big, so you should do your part from an engineering standpoint and know what sound they are going for. When dealing with Rap music for example,  things like placement of drops (cutting the beat out), pitch effects, when to use auto tune, stutter vocal effects, telephone filtering are all things that the artist will want , but don’t necessarily know how to explain (or wont be thinking of). If you beat them to the punch, or surprise them with a cool sounding effect, they will show you a lot of respect for really trying to make their song a hit song. If you do these things they will no longer view you as someone who is working for an hourly rate, but someone who is dedicated to their song.

6) Roll Off Unwanted Highs

You may know that rolling off low frequencies on most tracks that aren’t bass/kick can improve intelligibility in the mix, but what some people don’t think about, is that the same thing applies with high frequencies. Some sounds don’t need to have high end content, especially when it’s fighting with other sounds in the same frequency ranges (vocals, guitars). Putting lowpass filters on certain instruments can make room for other things to come through. In an interview with legendary engineer Chris Lord Alge, he said for a recent song he put a low pass filter on his drum buss so his vocals would come through more. Granted this is a bit out of the ordinary, the point is he’s making space in the high end, instead of just the low end.

7) Be Careful About Overcompressing

 By the time a song is done it’s going to be compressed various times. For example, the vocal may have a compressor on the individual channel, on the vocal bus, possibly a compressor on the master, then compressed and limited again during mastering. So seeing how there are a lot of stages where the dynamics are getting squashed, make sure you don’t over do any of them, because the end result will be very additive and also very obvious.

 8) Check Translation on Multiple Systems

This may be something you heard before (or something you at least should have figured out by now), but checking your mixes on different playback systems is a good way to judge how your song will translate, and if you made the right decisions. If I have the opportunity, I usually check my mixes on both my laptop and my headphones. The laptop is a good reference to check on, because that’s where a lot of your audience is going to be hearing your songs from. It’s hard to gauge sub bass on a lap top, but you should at least be able to hear the upper harmonics of the bass and kick. And if you can’t hear any bass, theres a good chance it’s sitting too low (spectrum wise) in the mix, or it’s too quiet.  For me personally, I also listen on my Sony MDR 7506 headphones because I listen to a lot of great sounding music on them, and know how they are supposed to sound. I know right away if there is too much low end on the song with my headphones, so it’s a good tool to utilize.

9) Watch Interviews to Learn from Your Peers and Elders

 It’s now 2015, and information is at the tip of your finger tips. The internet is chalk full of useful information, and should be utilized as often as possible! Watch tutorials on how to use a plug in, watch “in the studio” videos, and perhaps most importantly, watch the web series Pensado’s place on Youtube! Link> https://www.youtube.com/user/PensadosPlace .Dave Pensado, an award winning engineer,  sits down one on one with some of the greatest and most famed audio engineers of our time, and picks apart their approach and engineering process for mixing and tracking. Another reason why it’s good to watch how other people do things is because it shows you another way how to do things. You may have always been stuck on a certain way of doing something, until you see that there is another way that also works well (if not better.) This is good to know because when something goes wrong, like gear or a plug in suddenly not working, you know another way to do it.

10) Hold a High Standard for Yourself and Your Mixes

My mixing technique has definitely changed over the years and similar to yours, will continue to change.  Although I have to say,  the one thing that has changed the most about my engineering is my standard of what a “great” mix is. For example, instead of setting things and leaving them, I utilize automation much more to make every section work perfectly (instead of lazily finding a middle ground). I take the time to go through all the components of the track, and make sure they sound good alone, grouped, and as a whole in the context of the mix. So if you have a high standard for what a great mix is, and you have the technical knowledge, there’s no reason why your tracks can’t sound amazing. Unfortunately recognizing great sounding audio verses just good sounding audio is not something that comes easily, and takes a lot of patience and perseverance. Listening to well mixed song on hi fidelity recordings on vinyl or cd (verses poorly represented mp3) will give you a good example of what great recordings sound like. After all you can’t make things sound great, unless you know what “great” is.


Dan Zorn, Engineer

Studio 11 Chicago






Where is Chicago Rap at Now?

It’s no surprise that we at Studio 11 are veterans in the Chicago Hip Hop and Rap scene. Having recorded a few of the famed originators ourselves, and many of the newer upcoming rap acts, we consider ourselves lucky to witness the evolution of Chicago Hip hop and Rap music first hand. The genre has undergone so many changes in the Windy City over the years, but where it is at now?

Those who follow the lineage of the Hip Hop and Rap scene in Chicago are familiar with it’s origins. Going back to the early 90’s, it wasn’t unusual to hear an east coast jazz or soul sample, along side west coast synth lines , and fast double time rapping (Crucial Conflict, Do or Die, Twista). These tracks usually had conscious lyrics that often times talked about discrimination, struggle, and corruptions of the political and public system. Taking the sounds from the coasts, they resurfaced them into a new style and were amongst the first to be identified with a “Chicago sound”. After almost a decade , during the late 90’s a new style began to emerge as artists like Kanye West, No I.D., and Common began to have an even further effect on the Rap scene in Chicago. Artists like Kanye West, who rapped about alternative things that had nothing to do with being “hard” on the streets, was a huge hit amongst audiences that were used to hearing conscious political rap from the midwest, or gangster rap from the coasts (NWA, Snoop, Ice T).

Kanye also paved the road for other famed rappers such as Kid Kudi, Drake, and Chicago’s own Lupe Fiasco, Twista and The Cool Kids. While this style rode out for a fair portion of the 2000’s, a darker side of rap was forming amongst the youth on the south side of Chicago. Influenced by it’s southern Trap roots,  a new form of Rap emerges called “Drill music”.  Comprised of heavy 808 percussion, fast hi hats, along side grim, violent lyrics,  it’s roots can be narrowed down to one Chicago young man :Chief Keef. Artist Chief Keef is largely responsible for introducing Drill into the Chicago rap scene, and after his claim to fame paid off, other south side artists began to follow. Lil Durk, Lil Herb, King Louie, Montana of 300, Lil Reese, Lil Bibby all exploded in 2013-2014, and continue to gain fame.

So now that Chicago is most recently associated with Drill Music, lets take a further look into what exactly makes this subgenre so popular in Chicago and around the nation.  Drill, being a slang term for automatic weapons, is very much tied into gang violence on the south side of Chicago. When listening to Drill music, it starts to become apparent that it is used less for political expression (compared to it’s past conscious rap style), but more as a tool to state one’s day to day living.  Whereas some of the rap predecessors may have discussed topics of discrimination and corrupt politics using clever euphemisms and metaphors, Drillers tend to have more of a focus on direct delivery towards an opposing rival, or about their role on the streets. To quote Chief Keef “I know what I’m doing. I mastered it. And I don’t even really use metaphors or punchlines. ‘Cause I don’t have to. But I could. … I think that’s doing too much. I’d rather just say what’s going on right now. … I don’t really like metaphors or punchlines like that.” Metaphors , clever rhyming, are all irrelevant to the goal of Drill music and when you think about it, makes a great deal of sense. If the goal is to ward off your enemy, or taunt them, wouldn’t you want to make that point as clear as possible.? Any trickery, or allegory gets int the way and skews the message.

What is also interesting about the Drill scene, is the age that these artists are getting recognition. Chief Keef , age 16, Lil Durk age 19, and in an extreme case Lil Mouse (picked up by Lil wayne), was a mere 13 years old when he started. One may argue that this is a key role in the success of Drill music, as many americans idolize the teen pop star (Justin Beiber, Miley cyrus , Selena Gomez). Young age,  controversial lyrics,  hard hitting beats, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out why this formula continues to bring success.

It is also safe to say that that unlike earlier forms of rap in Chicago, where we gathered sounds from the east and west coast and applied made it our own, Drill music is the first we can uniquely call our own . A product of it’s environment, hailing from the South side, Drill music continues to dominate the rap scene locally, and worldwide.

Dan Zorn, Engineer



209 West Lake Street