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Author Topic: Smoothing out a singer/songwriter performance  (Read 3145 times)

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Offline tapeworm48

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Smoothing out a singer/songwriter performance
« on: December 02, 2023, 10:46:30 AM »

I recorded damien rice last night from a great spot. His performance ranges from off-mic whispering all the way to distorted guitar w/ screaming. The levels peaked at around 0 during the distorted portion. Now, how do i "smooth out" this recording to make it listenable without having to regularly adjust the volume.

Any suggestions welcome. I am using Audacity for editing.

Thanks.

(Decibel profile attached)
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Offline nulldogmas

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Re: Smoothing out a singer/songwriter performance
« Reply #1 on: December 02, 2023, 02:43:21 PM »
Sounds like an outstanding candidate for parallel compression: Make a super-compressed copy of the recording, then mix that in Audacity with the original uncompressed copy to taste.

Offline tapeworm48

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Re: Smoothing out a singer/songwriter performance
« Reply #2 on: December 02, 2023, 02:59:41 PM »
thanks for the reply. do you mean copy the compressed version on top of the original version? i just did a 10:1 compression without changing the other settings, but may want to play around with it. other than this, i wouldn't plan on any EQ.
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Offline nulldogmas

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Re: Smoothing out a singer/songwriter performance
« Reply #3 on: December 02, 2023, 04:35:35 PM »
thanks for the reply. do you mean copy the compressed version on top of the original version? i just did a 10:1 compression without changing the other settings, but may want to play around with it. other than this, i wouldn't plan on any EQ.

I mean import the compressed and raw versions into Audacity as two separate stereo tracks, then adjust the Audacity gain sliders to change the relative mix. Somewhere in there will be a sweet spot that enloudens the quiet bits sufficiently yet doesn't sound like a loudness-wars victim.

Offline Gutbucket

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Re: Smoothing out a singer/songwriter performance
« Reply #4 on: December 04, 2023, 11:20:10 AM »
Responding here to a PM request from the OP-

How to best approach it will depend on the material as well as your target listening situation, personal preferences, and how much effort you want to put into it.

The overarching thing is keeping the reduction in dynamic range unnoticeable to listeners.. unless they were to compare it to the original full range version.  When a relatively large reduction of range is required, it helps to combine a few different strategies, which in combination achieves the desired reduction transparently, even though any one approach on its own would be too much and become audibly obvious if called upon to make the full reduction all by itself.  Layering 2, 3 or more different dynamic range reduction strategies allows each one of them to be sufficiently conservative that none of them stick out as obvious, yet collectively achieves the dynamic range reduction you want. You can use this multi-stage dynamics strategy for any live recording, but it may not be necessary and requires additional work. 

Start by reducing errant peaks that are significantly higher than everything else.  You can identify those visually.  Look for those that really stick out.  If just a few you can manually redraw them. Or set a limiter that isn't working all the time but is just catching the few excessive peaks.  It should have a high threshold, very fast attack (look ahead) and relatively fast release.  Its only job is to tame the highest peaks.  This step is technically reducing the overall dynamic range, but not really in a perceptual way.  Its more of a housekeeping thing that makes the following steps more productive.

Maybe make some manual volume envelope type adjustments.  Stuff like manually bringing up the level of quieter sections, bringing down the level of the audience reaction if its louder than the performance, bringing down the excessively loud parts. I moved this here because it is more straight-forward to do by drawing volume changes on the computer screen than is the appropriate setting of compressor settings. Draw in fast or slow fade ups/downs at the start and end of broad plateau sections to make the changes inaudible.  This technique is most akin to automating the manual volume knob adjustments you would otherwise make while listening.

Maybe apply parallel compression to bring otherwise barely audible low level details up.  This is like automatically turning up just the quieter sounds more than the loud sounds.  Its one of the more powerful ways of reducing dynamic range transparently because it very effectively reduces range without squashing the energetic parts.  Check out the thread here at TS on parallel compression for how to apply it.  Essentially you squash a copy of the recording pretty strongly with compression using a low threshold, and mix that in with the non-compressed copy. The non-compressed copy retains its dynamic energy whenever it gets loud.  Bring up the level of the compressed copy until the low level parts are heard clearly, but not so much that the noise floor or audience chatter is increased too much.  It can help to EQ the squashed copy with a loudness-like curve that complements quieter listening levels. If the recording is in need of noise reduction, this will be more difficult as it will make the noise or any noise-reduction efforts more audible, but can also make appropriate noise-reduction efforts especially worthwhile.

Maybe apply standard top down compression.  This in my experience is harder to get sounding really transparent.  It's like automatically turning down the volume when things get loud.  It is tricky because it is reducing level in a more easily perceptual way when things get energetic, then increasing level again as soon as that energy dissipates somewhat.  This is harder to do without killing the performance energy and/or hearing the compression actively working.

Maybe apply a mastering type limiter.  That essentially brings the entire energy level up a touch more and smooths everything out, and is the last thing done in combination with normalizing / setting the final peak output level.  Plugin versions of these limiters have gotten a lot more transparent and easier to use over the years.  If not, adjust final output level manually so that the highest peaks are just a bit under 0dBfs.


Generally, this multi-pronged approaching works well because it achieves the needed dynamic range reduction via a few different ways: Over very short, medium and long timescales, and by doing so manually in addition to automatically.  Whatever techniques you end up using, listen closely at each step and don't apply so much of any one that it ever becomes obvious.  One of the more difficult but most productive things is the listening art of learning how to take yourself out of control-adjustment-mindset mode (knowing specifically what you are listening to, for, and adjusting) and switching over to a sort of third-party perceptual listening mode where you are attempting to not be specifically aware of what you were just doing, but rather are hearing it as someone else would. That's one of the more difficult things to do honestly without self-deception, but really benefits all post-recording mixdown decisions.
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Offline goodcooker

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Re: Smoothing out a singer/songwriter performance
« Reply #5 on: December 05, 2023, 02:42:13 PM »

One way to accomplish what you are looking for that is very simple (especially if, as you stated, the peaks are already distorted)  is to use a limiter to reduce the peaks by 6db, process that file in place (render as a new file however that works in your editor) then add 6 db of gain. Boom done.

This will "shave off the top" of the dynamic range and allow you to bring the quiet parts up in level while reducing the loudest parts by the same amount.

I use Waves L3 Ultramaximizer to do this as it's very transparent when "chopping off the peaks" but any mastering style limiter will do the trick.

If it was me I'd further compress the resulting file using the SSL channel strip but I don't know what kind of plugins you have available.
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Offline nulldogmas

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Re: Smoothing out a singer/songwriter performance
« Reply #6 on: December 05, 2023, 04:19:40 PM »

One way to accomplish what you are looking for that is very simple (especially if, as you stated, the peaks are already distorted)  is to use a limiter to reduce the peaks by 6db, process that file in place (render as a new file however that works in your editor) then add 6 db of gain. Boom done.

This will "shave off the top" of the dynamic range and allow you to bring the quiet parts up in level while reducing the loudest parts by the same amount.

A limiter (or dynamic compressor applied only to the loudest bits) will eliminate stray peaks, but it won't do anything to make off-mic whispering audible relative to loud music. That's where parallel compression comes in — you really want to compress the hell out of the entire file, then mix it in with the raw version until you have the best of both worlds.

Offline Gutbucket

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Re: Smoothing out a singer/songwriter performance
« Reply #7 on: December 05, 2023, 05:29:50 PM »
Right.  Its all about how much reduction is needed, how good you want to make it, and how much effort you want to put into it.

The first logical step is controlling the peaks, manually or with a limiter. The method Goodcooker suggests is one way of doing that, although the specific suggestion of reducing peaks by 6dB will not always be applicable to every recording.  That followed by normalizing (the adding back of whatever is needed to get the peaks back up to near but not over 0dbfs as a last step) may be sufficient for most audience recordings, particularly of PA amplified stuff recorded from further back.  If that's all you want to do, have at it and be done with it. 

^ But that on its own is not going to change the loudness relationship between the quiet parts and the loud parts at all.  What it will do is make everything louder by an equal amount.  While listening to a recording like this one that has a very wide dynamic range, you'll still be reaching for the volume knob.

You may not ever need to do, or choose to do all the stuff I listed above, but I wanted to outline a more complete and balanced process to provide an overview of what can be done when needed for recordings you really care about and are willing to put more effort into.  The parallel compression thing is especially interesting because it does more than just reduce the dynamic range between the loud and quiet parts like manual adjustments of the volume knob would do, in that it also brings out delicious subtle details, textures and qualities that would otherwise go unnoticed (along with others that are unwanted - use your ear and best judgement).  That's a particularly useful technique for recordings such as this one with singer songwriter off mic whispering, especially combined with some volume enveloping to control the applause where needed.

You've got the knowledge to choose your own path forward, do with it what you will and make great recordings.
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Offline goodcooker

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Re: Smoothing out a singer/songwriter performance
« Reply #8 on: December 05, 2023, 05:51:48 PM »

Which is why I suggested compression after limiting. I even suggested a specific plugin.

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Offline goodcooker

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Re: Smoothing out a singer/songwriter performance
« Reply #9 on: December 05, 2023, 11:41:11 PM »

Both of you guys are correct that the limiting technique I proposed does not change the dynamics. I didn't claim that it would. I've used that technique on several recordings with good results to accomplish much of what the OP was asking for. Not sure why both you guys jumped at the chance to point out that it was not going to do what I never claimed it was going to do.

It's pretty clear that I suggested compression after and even recommended a specific plugin that I use for it.

To the OP. Good luck on salvaging your recording! The technique that nulldogmas described would be the easiest way (if ease is what you are after) to manipulate the dynamics on recording like you describe.

 
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Offline aaronji

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Re: Smoothing out a singer/songwriter performance
« Reply #10 on: December 06, 2023, 08:57:28 AM »
My two cents. Personally, I try to preserve the dynamic range of the performance as much as possible. It is part of the art and skill of the music and musicians. Sometimes, when the range is really broad, a recording might not be great for listening in louder situations (in my case, on the train), but so be it. Very occasionally, I will compress things, but I'd rather not.

Offline Gutbucket

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Re: Smoothing out a singer/songwriter performance
« Reply #11 on: December 06, 2023, 09:17:00 AM »
Its a subjective choice and that's an entirely valid position to hold.  I feel suitability depends on the intended audience (listening situation), the material and the preferences of whoever is making the recording.  I know tapers who make several finished versions of their recordings, doing things like leaving the 24bit version with full dynamics and reducing dynamics in the 16bit and lossy compressed versions to best accommodate different listening scenarios. 

Goodcooker- This thread is intended to help the OP and and any others reading with suggestions and clarifications, not about you and the chip on your shoulder. As always, on topic contributions of all members are welcome, and open to comment and discussion.
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Offline tapeworm48

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Re: Smoothing out a singer/songwriter performance
« Reply #12 on: December 06, 2023, 12:10:47 PM »
all of this information was super helpful, so thank you all. i did try the parallel compression method, and i think it worked well. i'd like the off mic tracks to be a little louder, but didn't want to amplify the audience in between songs further. i went with 8:1. i also did some hard limiting on the original just to reduce some of the peaks, which helped.

thanks again!
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Offline Gutbucket

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Re: Smoothing out a singer/songwriter performance
« Reply #13 on: December 06, 2023, 05:34:31 PM »
Good to hear and glad you got results you are happy with.  Deferring toward could do more, rather than maybe doing too much is wise.  There are usually a number of different overlapping changes in loudness dynamic going on across different time scales and different loudness scales, and the different approaches to dynamic range manipulation fit some of those better than others.

The loudness difference between the songs and audience reaction between songs is one I often find difficult to deal with to my satisfaction in a sufficiently transparent way using automated compression techniques, even more so in stealth and head height audience recordings with excited audience members in close proximity to the microphones. This is more in the realm of "program leveling" than compression - think radio broadcast where increasingly advanced techniques have been developed over the decades to automatically maintain a more even loudness level from song to song and between songs and other program material regardless of the content. Drawing manual volume envelope automation points in the DAW is the most effective way I've found in dealing with that whenever its a problem I feel needs correcting and I'm willing do do it. It means setting volume envelope points that reduce the level of audience reaction by effecting a carefully placed quick level change just as the applause starts, then and back up again as it ends, with careful attention paid to placement and slope of the change.  Its not reacting to level changes directly, but instead directly effecting them wherever you want.  I might also use that to raise the baseline level of the quieter songs a bit.  The volume envelope line usually remains constant for the entire length of the applause or song, so although this is more work to do, there generally aren't that many change points over the course of a concert. And because you are manually setting each, you know exactly how non-apparent each one hopefully sounds.  Its a nice finishing touch for the shows you really care about and complements parallel compression which can just do its thing over top of it.
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Re: Smoothing out a singer/songwriter performance
« Reply #14 on: December 07, 2023, 06:14:53 AM »
Well, there's always this:

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