Studio Talk: Dialing In Our Sound

When it came to recording the latest 510JAZZ album January 16, we incorporated many new musicians that played instruments which I have never recorded before. Not only was this diversity of instruments refreshing and key to forming our new album’s sound, it also required a new recording skillset to ensure optimal sound.

Depending on what song we’d be recording for a given session, as the engineer, I would do my best to prepare a couple of weeks beforehand. This usually involved researching best-practices for recording a certain instrument, what types of microphones would work best on that particular instrument, and rooms that would offer the best acoustic characteristics. 

For January 16, I decided to purchase a stereo pair of Cascade Fathead II ribbon microphones. Prior to this purchase, I only owned condenser and dynamic style microphones. Going into recording the album, I knew that at some point that we’d be recording an electric guitar.  Two microphones strategically placed on a guitar amp can achieve great results, especially with a ribbon microphone. That’s exactly what I did.  I learned about microphone placement techniques from watching audio guru Bobby Owsinski’s Audio Recording Techniques video series on The end result was that I was able to get a great electric guitar tone from combining a Shure SM57 and the Cascade Fathead II. Our songs Stormy Weather and The Long Way Home are examples of songs found on January 16 that include electric guitar.


SM57 & Fathead II combination for guitar (ft. Tony Song on guitar)

On four of our other songs: You’re Everything to Me, The Moon and You, San Juan Island Sunset, and Serendipity, my father John Vargas wanted to include a string quartet.  I knew once we set the date for the string quartet’s recording session, I needed prepare by gathering as much information as possible. I turned to YouTube to try to soak up information that would lead me in the right direction.  I stumbled across this Audio Technica video that was very useful. Bobby Owsinski’s Audio Recording Techniques was also extremely helpful as it contained a segment on recording strings.

Since I am a Music Technology student at Foothill College, I was able get advice from my instructor Eric Kuehnl regarding this matter. He gave me great advice on placement, how the microphones should be positioned above the musicians, and he suggested recording the string quartet in a room with a higher ceiling.  Eric also recommended having room microphones set in an X-Y configuration to capture additional content. Professor Kuehnl’s expertise and advice really paid off, as we captured a great sound.

Recording the string quartet (ft. L-R: Matthew Szemela, Mads Tolling, Emily Onderdonk and Lewis Patzner)

The main takeaways from this blog post is that great information regarding music recording can be easily accessed online.  This information is geared to help anyone to prepare for an upcoming recording session. You’ll get out of your recording session  exactly what you put into it – when you take the time to research. So please, if you care for your sound, do your due diligence.

Until next time, happy recording!

Listen to January 16 now,  available for purchase on iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, & Spotify.

God Bless

David “D-Varg” Vargas
Audio Engineer for 510JAZZ

Studio Talk: Use Reference Songs When Mixing

Mixing is my guilty pleasure

I have been blessed with the ability to mix my own music.  I have been mixing  for the past 8 years now in Pro Tools.  Mixing, to put it simply, is the balancing of instruments and vocals in a song.

Pro Tools Edit & Mix Windows

Applications like compression, equalization, automation, panning, reverb, referencing and delay are almost always used in mixing as well.  We won’t discuss most of these techniques in this blogpost.  Our focus will be on referencing.

First, let me provide you with some background information to help set the stage.

Pro Tools is my go-to DAW

Pro Tools is a digital audio workstation (DAW) software application that is used to record, mix, and master audio content.  It’s widely recognized as the “industry standard” or “flagship” DAW for recording and mixing music.  Pro Tools can be found in most home and major recording studios.

Pro Tools Ultimate 2018
Pro Tools Ultimate 2018

I have to thank recording and mixing legend Dave Pensado and his manager Herb Trawick for giving me my license of Pro Tools at NAMM 2014.  This was such a huge blessing to me because it really elevated my mixing skills.  I attended a live taping of Dave and Herb’s Youtube show Pensado’s Place at the Avid Booth.  I shared a story with them during the Q&A session, and as a thank you gift for sharing, they gave me a perpetual license to Pro Tools.

I recorded and mixed 510JAZZ’s January 16 and Bossa510 albums using ProTools, and I found that it made things so easy for me!  Mixing does take time and is a skill that can be finessed with time.  Just like anything else, what you put into it – is what you get out of it.  I spent countless hours working on the recording and mixing of our 510JAZZ songs.

Reference, Reference, Reference!

One mixing strategy that I used, that is standard practice for mix engineers, is to use a professional reference song to check your mix against.  As a mix engineer it’s easy to question aspects of your own mix.  You might ask yourself questions like “Is the kick drum too loud?” or “Is my lead vocal to soft in the mix?”.  To remedy this a mix engineer will compare his mix to a commercially recorded song that sounds similar, that has been mixed by a professional: the “reference song”.   This technique allows the mix engineer to conduct an “A-B test” of their song to check if the vocal is too soft compared to the reference song.

Using reference songs greatly increased the overall quality of my mixes.  I’m lucky enough to have access to a huge collection of CDs at my local public library.  I would check out commercial Latin Jazz CDs, R&B CDs, Contemporary/Smooth Jazz CDs and even some Hip-Hop CDs to find songs that had a similar vibe to our own original songs.  It was pretty fun to jot down commercial songs that could be used for referencing.  For each song that I mixed on our January 16 album, I found a commercial reference song.

Magic AB 2 the rescue!

I purchased a “plugin” to make referencing easy in Pro Tools. A “plugin” is third party software that can be launched and used in Pro Tools or most other DAW’s. The plugin that I bought is named Magic AB 2 from the company Sample Magic.

Magic AB 2 from Sample Magic
Magic AB 2 from Sample Magic

The Magic AB 2 plugin allows you to load up to nine reference songs to compare your mix against.  This plugin should be assigned to the last insert found on the Master Fader in Pro Tools (see figure below).

The two main parameters you’ll see in this plugin are “A” & “B”.  When “A” is selected you will hear your mix playing in Pro Tools.  When “B” is selected you will hear the reference song playing.  Pretty simple to use huh?  This makes checking your mix verses a commercial mix insanely easy.  I’d recommend this plugin to any mixer.

Mixing our title track “January 16”

“January 16” is a special song to me.  It’s dedicated to my grandmother Jesusa.  We called her Grandma Susie for short.  She loved her family so much.  The Spirit really moved me to compose and produce a tribute song for her.  As we finished the recording of “January 16”, I knew the mix had to be just right.  I needed to spend some quality time carefully mixing the song, and to do that I needed a great reference song that I could compare our song against.

When it came to mixing our song “January 16”, the reference song that I chose was “Just Friends” from the artist Musiq.  I felt that “Just Friends” had a similar soulful groove to our song “January 16”.  It  contained similar instrumentation and vocal structure.  I was also very familiar with the song, as growing up it was one of my favorites.

I loaded up “Just Friends” in the Magic AB 2 plugin and was able to tell when referencing that my mix needed more low end, specifically kick drum and bass guitar.  Adjusting the low end really helped the mix of “January 16”. I was also able to compare the vocal level of “January 16” vs. “Just Friends” — this was a huge benefit!

Using Magic AB 2
Using Magic AB 2


If you are getting ready to mix your next song and were not thinking of using a reference song, I hope this blog post changes your mind. It’s the best way to make your mixes sound better.

Don’t feel like you have to purchase Magic AB 2.  You can still conduct A-B reference comparisons without this plugin.

Have a blessed week everyone.

Have you had a chance to listen to “January 16” by 510JAZZ?  You can do so now by clicking here.