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Ask Jonah: Avoiding Karaoke Mixes Along With CD-R Insights

Looking at the basics of mixing vocals against backing tracks, along with the story behind the "music disc versus data disc" conundrum.

Dear Jonah:

I mix a lot of community events that feature a vocalist singing along to a backing track. How can I make the mix sound less like karaoke? – Jim R., Maine

Did you know that “karaoke” is Japanese for “empty orchestra?” Anyway, the goal here is to get the vocal to sit in the track, not on top of it. Since even relatively basic rigs are likely to have EQ, compression, and reverb capabilities, let’s look at what we can do with these common tools.

We’ll start with EQ – generally, my vocals have a high-pass filter to guard against pops, and a bit of attenuation in the 500 Hz to 1 kHz region to reduce nasal “nasties,” depending on the microphone. (And the singer, of course!) If you add some gentle boosts around 100 to 200 Hz (fundamental resonance) and 2 to 6 kHz (presence, clarity) – and then add corresponding cuts to the track in the same regions, it will help the vocal bed down comfortably into the track, like my dog on the couch he’s not supposed to be on. This is an old trick called complementary EQ, and it works well.

The next thing I’d do is compress the vocal a bit more heavily than I otherwise would. By keeping the signal level more constant, it’s easier to keep it from “jumping out” of the mix. Plus it’s probably a safe bet that anyone singing to a track may not have a ton of experience with mic technique, so it helps solve two issues at once.

Finally, the reverb. Listen to the track and try to put the singer in the same acoustic environment. If it’s a big reverb-drenched ballad like the theme song from Titanic, a dry vocal will stick out like a giraffe. Hit it with a generous 1.5-second Hall reverb and then leave the room until the song is over. (Just kidding.)

If you’re outside, a dry vocal paired with a dry track is easier to swallow if you add some reverb to both. High-pass the reverb return, maybe up around 200 Hz, to get spaciousness without mud.

By the way, if you’re ever given the unfortunate responsibility of mixing someone singing along to a full recording, there’s a brute-force trick to cancel out the recorded lead vocals: sum both left and right channels to mono with one side polarity-inverted. This cancels anything common to both channels – center-panned content like lead vocals. Remove low frequencies (below 200 Hz or so) from one side, and you’ll be able to save the bass and kick drum since they are no longer common to both channels.


Dear Jonah:

My friend is convinced that the blank CDs designated as “Music CD-R” sound better than regular CD-R. Is she right? – Doug R., Georgia

I’m always a bit suspicious when someone claims that something “sounds better” but is unable to elaborate. This is a classic case of the “experimenter-expectancy effect,” which basically states that our perception is heavily influenced by what we’re expecting to occur.

A Music CD-R, properly known as CD-R-DA (R for recordable, DA for digital audio), is more expensive than a standard-issue CD-R. Despite this, the two formats are physically identical.

Here’s the story: A blank CD-R contains some information in the pre-groove area that helps the recorder do things like calibrate the laser and determine how much data the disc can hold. A Music CD-R also contains a Disk Application Code in this area that identifies it as such. Computer optical drives don’t care, but stand-alone consumer CD recorders will refuse to write to any blank disk missing the code. This can rear its head at an inopportune moment if you aren’t “in the know.”

Pre-groove data aside, the actual music data are bit-for-bit identical, so playback sounds the same from either format. Unless you scratch one of them.

So why, then, the increased cost? Well, there were concerns that CD recorders would be used to illegally duplicate copyrighted content, so the extra money is used to compensate artists represented by performing rights organizations – BMI, SESAC, and ASCAP. Guess they didn’t see the whole Napster thing coming.

Most of the above info can be found in Principles of Digital Audio by Ken C. Pohlmann along with anything else you might want to know about how CDs work.

Got a question? Jonah Altrove is happy to answer your questions, so send him them to him at [email protected].

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