Of Hiss and Noise Floors: the quest for silence

If you are a home studio-ist who is anything like me, you’ll have at least some degree of ‘gear lust’, that list of must purchase items that increases faster than your bank balance and that will be last few things that will turn your sound from amateur to pro. I have lived this life for many years, in some ways I still do. I’m beginning to realize maybe it’s not the gear that’s the limiting factor in my productions, but that doesn’t mean I don’t crave a rack full of esoteric equalizers, compressors and other audio manglers, even if they never even get turned on. That stuff just looks cool man!

Anyway, what I have recently realized, and that I think has made a noticeable difference to my productions, is that everything is too quiet. Now, I should point out here that I don’t want to get into a big analogue versus digital debate, that whole thing has been done to death, but, the sad truth is, with just a laptop, a DAW and a consumer-level interface, you can make higher quality recordings than those classic albums of the sixties and seventies.

I have put together, what I consider to be, a reasonably well thought out studio. The gear is pretty good, all connections balanced and the cables neatly arranged ‘round the back so that the power cords cross the audio cables at ninety degrees. When I first went all balanced and got rid of my studio hiss, I noticed something quite striking, my mixes sounded empty and like a loosely assembled group of sounds. Nothing really gelled the way the sounds did on my favourite records.

This was particularly noticeable with the dance and electronica tracks, where everything is either produced in the box, or run from drum machines and synths into line inputs, nothing is mic’d up.

I recently made a dramatic decision, and decided to downgrade my studio. Out went some of the higher end gear (it really hurt to say goodbye to some of it, I do miss you FATSO), and in came a cheap analogue mixer, just so that I could run mixes or stems out and back, and maybe bring some noise back into the mix.

There’s something about a low level of background noise, that higher noisefloor that used to cause so many engineering issues in the days of tape, particularly when multiple bounces were required. And think about the great days of house and techno, then hip hop and trip hop; songs produced with 8 and 12-bit samplers run through cheap mixers and cheap effects, but the records sounded fantastic.

There are a couple of quick fixes that I’ve taken to using to try and make things glue together that little bit more. Less is often more here, so close your eyes and let your ears make the decisions. The first is to dedicate a track in your DAW to some white noise. In Live, I have a Simpler with a white noise sample in my template set, with a clip of crotchets and the noise set to a slow attack so it adds something rhythmically as well, a bit like the sidechained kick drum pumping sound, Bring up the fader until you can just hear it, then back it off a couple of dB. Try programming a drum loop and listening with and without the added noise. You’re really looking to find a level where it’s almost a psychoacoustic effect, but you should know it’s there.

The other trick is to reduce the bit depth of some of your tracks or groups. Some of the famous samplers that are still prized today, such as the SP1200, were 12-bit. If you use Live, you can add an instance of the Redux effect to cut the bits, but a fantastic 3rd party VST plugin is D16’s Decimort, which even has presets for hardware such as the MPC60. And don’t forget distortion. Fill out those thin-sounding synths with a bit of overdrive or tube saturation. URS Saturation plugin is something that gets used on pretty much every mix I do, but there are plenty of freeware options and native DAW plugins that will get you underway.

So, don’t fear the noise. In the early days of CDs, some producers were adding hiss back to recordings as it was such a big culture shock from people coming from vinyl, and the pristine quality of CD just didn’t sound ‘natural’. These days, if you produce in the box, even at 16 bits, your signal to noise ratio is likely to be considerably better than George Martin, Paul Rothchild and Ken Scott ever enjoyed. Rather than getting hung up on improving the sound quality of your studio, maybe you should think about going the other way. Don’t worry though gear lusters, there are still a lot of expensive pretty things you can buy to go in that direction: Culture Vulture anyone?

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