Thinking in Time

May 1, 2004 12:00 PM, By Eddie Ciletti

Using Your Workstation As an Analyzer


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Normally, I'm down in the hardware trenches with my soldering iron, but in the spirit of this month's “The New Means of Production” theme, I thought I'd step into the virtual realm. I see workstations as versatile tools. They let us fix all of the sonic frailties that make us human, and most of the time, that's our job. For me, the ability to tweak is an addiction worse than watching television — a complete black hole. But at the fundamental tool level, I'm talking analysis here. (We can talk about getting me off the couch later.) Let's look at a few examples of ways you can use your DAW for some fancy sonic detective work, no matter which platform you work on. We'll start with the organic stuff: live drums.

I love to zoom in to see time in great detail and examine things such as how long it takes the snare sound to reach the overhead and room mics. (See Figure 1.) Zoom in a little closer and you can compare the phase of the kick and snare. This addiction to detail can mean the difference between struggling for a sound or bringing it upfront, phat and forward — and for stereo tracks, improving the focus. It could be as simple as finding an out-of-phase mic.

Here's a cool trick for taming kick drum resonance that can be applied to anything. One day, with my head in the hole area, I noticed a lot more resonance than was needed (or wanted). The ordinary solution would have been to find a way to dampen the head but there was no time. Back in the control room with Adobe Audition, EQ wasn't the fix — although it revealed the problem areas — and an expander/gate wasn't quite doing the trick, until I discovered that its parameters could be narrowed to a specific frequency range to apply selective processing via Audition's Expander. (See Fig. 2.)

To be more scientific, I popped the before and after kick samples (Figs. 3a and 3b, respectively) into Steinberg's Wavelab for a 3-D time/spectrum analysis. Many people pull out frequencies between 150 Hz and 800 Hz with EQ. By using a frequency-selective expander, this same frequency range was tamed after 250 milliseconds. This was a two-step process: first to treat the most offensive area and then tame a wider area (below 3,500 Hz). With low-frequency instruments such as a kick drum, it is important to remember that there really is plenty of low-frequency energy — the spectral analysis proves this — even if it doesn't seem obvious to the ear.


I've been studying compressor/limiters from every angle: real hardware on my test bench and in the virtual reality of an audio workstation. The most significant discovery has been the importance of focusing the processing at “the knee.” This is not as easily accomplished as it sounds, however, because the compressor's variables — threshold, attack and release — make the location of the knee a moving target.

Figure 4a shows a Soundscape Dynamics module configured as a gentle compressor, while Fig. 4b is the same module as a peak limiter. As we know, a compressor's job is to raise low-level signals (between -45 and -36 in this instance) while lowering high-level signals (-26 and above). The “three compressors,” from COMP-1 to COMP-3, are used to create the green “curves” just by increasing each successive ratio with the respective threshold control (the vertical lines). No curves — see the faint diagonal line from lower-left to upper-right — yields no processing. The blue line represents an expander ratio of 1:1.30.

The slow attack and fast release combined with the threshold settings focus the activity around the knee (the “cursor” indicates processing activity), allowing some of the dynamics to slip on through. If the signal dips below -45 dBFS, then the expander inverts the COMP-1 ratio of 1.25:1, reducing gain to minimize low-level noise. Seeing this in action is an educational experience: connecting the visuals with the sound and vice versa.

Note how different the peak limiter looks. All of the activity is focused between -9 dBFS and -3.5 dBFS. The attack is 4.1 ms, while the release is just over two seconds, helping the “cursor” stay in the knee while signal is present — all in the name of preventing peaks from slipping through to prevent digital “overs.”

These tricks can take several passes through different processors to achieve the desired goal. It is better to do a little each time than be heavy-handed. In hardware, each processor has a sweet spot and sometimes it's a very narrow window.


Yes, having so much power can be addictive, but I've found that the benefit of binge tweaking is a heightened awareness of what counts in a recording: pre-production and simplicity (as in using fewer but better-placed drum mics). Have fun!

Eddie Ciletti belongs to BTA, Binge Tweakers Anonymous. You can join at

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