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Country Time! He Stopped Loving Her Today (Johnny Cash style)

“He Stopped Loving Her Today”. Free download! A cover song, performed by many country artists. Here’s my take on it, styled (more or less) like a Johnny Cash song. Cash also happened to have recorded it, but in an acoustic version. This one is with a ‘full band’.

Youtube – https://youtu.be/WEv1OQp9sXc

Also availble as a free download from Audiomack, click here.

Original version by George Jones. Words & Music by Bobby Braddock – Curly Putman. This version is based on how Johnny Cash sang it, but with more instrumentation. All instruments, recording & mixing: Rudy (Solid Rock Blues Band), 2017.

Recorded using Audacity and Ardour. Final mix: Mixcraft.

Drums – FXPansion ECO Drums
Bass – Harley Benton (Harley Benton MM 84A SB Deluxe Series)
Guitars – Gretsch g5420t Electromatic, KAY K-520
Harp (Harmonica) – Hohner
Vocal Mic – BM800

Free Mastering Software Compared AAMS versus Nammick BlackBox Mastering

I’ve been testing Mastering with Nammick’s BlackBox for a few days. BlackBox is a free (sort of) software program for automatic mastering.

I was almost ready to sit down and write a very negative review of this software program. Went to bed with thinking “It’s late, I’m frustrated and am probably missing out on something. If not, I’ll write it tomorrow..”.

When I shut down my computer, I realised what the error message I got when trying to save the files was really telling me..

I started testing BlackBox Masting when an online friend of mine send me a link to it after I reviewed AAMS and published my review a few days ago. He was pleased with it, so I gave it a try.

What is BlackBox?

Nammick BlackBox Mastering Software is an easy to use mastering program just like AAMS (see previous review). It offers some additional features AAMS doesn’t have and the programmer of it put a lot of (good) thinking in it. He’s got experience with mastering. That’s obvious. He’s also a good programmer. And, after watching his YouTube video about the program I’m positive that he indeed is also a very kind man. He must be. His business model is good also. Hand out free software and make it functional but not too functional. So in the end people who like it will use it a lot and end up buying it. Or at least tell others about this neat free program!

How does BlackBox work?

BlackBox is a very straight forward program. You “drag and drop” a (WAVE) file into the program, choose a preset, click on “process” and there you go. That’s the short version. But of course you probably will want to tweak the settings to your preference. That’s possible also. If you want to save the preferences, you’ll get a nag-screen telling you to register. It will cost you 50 pounds.

You can also select short pieces before processing the full song. I’m not writing a manual here, so I’ll keep it short. It works fine and will help you with the mastering process. Downside: do it too many times and the program will crash. It crashed a lot when I was working with it. Most of the time after 3 or 4 “previews” it started crashing. That’s not good..

Preparing your files?

From my experiences with LANDR and AAMS I knew I needed to prepare my mix for mastering. So, I had a 24 bit/48Khz file ready and started working. It sounded more-or-less okay after the ‘mastering’ process. I wanted to save the file. And that’s when I got a screen telling me I could not save it in HQ audio and it was limited to 44Khz. I could not find any setting allowing me to set it to a lower Khz. And got very frustrated!

So after I shut down my computer, I realised it had to be the 24bit original file! Exported it again from Mixcraft, set to 44Khz and it worked. Finally!

I could now proceed and recorded a new, “fresh track”. No mastering done. Only drums, bass, guitars. Ran it trough the mastering process. And again.

Frustration again!

It’s clipping! No matter what preset I used, it’s clipping. I lowered the loudness. Lowered other settings. Still, it’s clipping in some spots. Tested another track. Clipping. Distorting. Lowered the volume of the input track with -1.7dB. Imported. Clipping. The original track isn’t at all. It’s not “in the red”. It’s not too loud. Somehow, and I cannot find the reason why, this software makes the music I recorded clipping.

Even when I lowered the input track to -6dB, set the loudness to 0dB, and some other settings lower it still is clipping (listen to the little sample below).

 

And the winner is?

In my opinion BlackBox is a very cool piece of software that seems to have some glitches that need to be fixed. If the programmer get’s them fixed he’s got a winner for sure. For now? For “automatic mastering” I prefer AAMS. It doesn’t clip. It’s super simple to use. And it’s got a lot of presets (templates). With Mixcraft’s “in the DAW” mastering (or with a program like Audacity or Ardour, my main workhorse these days as far as recording is considered) you might get even far better results. Especially if you (more or less) know what you’re doing.

BlackBox does boost your track’s dynamic very nicely. But it’s simply too loud! Causing it to clip on parts where the original doesn’t and where Mixcraft or AAMS didn’t do so either. Even if I lower the loudness or other settings. It keeps clipping on specific parts. So it’s something in the software, I assume, that I can’t control.

For now, BlackBox is a no-go for me. But perhaps if one day I might learn how to get the clipping under control and I might start using it. I’m willing to spend time on it, but it’s promise to “push buttons” to master a track cannot be fulfilled. And I must say, I do not like to write this… Since I really like it’s design and how it works! It could be the next “killer app” on the market if you ask me.

You be the judge..

I did a ‘side by side’ comparison. The tracks here are the original track, AAMS mastered and Blackbox mastered. It’s available on Youtube.

AAMS doesn’t allow you to tweak the settings so I used the “alternative” preset and found it only fair to use a preset for BlackBox also (“Indie”). Finally, I did a track “mastered” in the DAW (MixCraft) using a simple limiter and some EQ. It allows me to set loudness, stereo image, eq and so on and much more but I wanted to keep it simple. So in Mixcraft I set the default Master Limiter to -2dB and set the eq to “cut low frequencies”. I also set the main bus volume to where it was still not peaking “in the red”.

Pro’s
– free “trial” allows you to export to wav
– very easy to use

Con’s
– crashes a lot when “previewing” pieces of the track;
– tracks kept clipping (distorting) all the time, no matter what I did;
– cannot work with 24bit files.

If I had to rate it, as it is now, I’d say 2 stars out of 5.

Free Mastering Tools – LANDR and AAMS compared

LANDR Mastering – Is It Any Good? Are there other free mastering options? It’s been around for some time and is extending it’s services. I put it to the test.

You’re on a budget. A tight budget perhaps or even no budget at all. You’ve got a recording you want the world to know about and you need to have it mastered (yes, you do need mastering!). And you want it done good. LANDR is here to the rescue. Aren´t they?

I’ve read many comments on Facebook and other online places stating LANDR is superb. Others think it’s the worst ever. So since they offer a free trial I decided I’d give them a try.

GET RID OF THE COMPRESSION AND LIMITER!
First of all, and that’s where most people make a big, a HUGE, mistake: you will need to have your tracks ready to be mastered before you get started. If you upload your files with tons of compression on it, Limiter on the end bus and so on, they results will be bad. Very bad! You’re at risk getting a lot of clipping, distortion. Bad sound overall. At best it’s slightly louder.

I tested and it’s clear LANDR won’t do you much good if you’re not preparing the tracks correct. So don’t go wild with the mastering tools yourself, let them do the job. Don’t “master” your track, mix it, stick by the rules (see below) and send them to LANDR after that. It’s pretty useless to ‘master’ it yourself beforehand. It’s their job to do the mastering, right? They even suggested not to use compression on the tracks in the song itself. That doesn’t make sense to me, but I’m no expert in that field of course.

BE PREPARED!
So again, be prepared. Have your tracks prepared for mastering (trough LANDR). On their blog there’s a long story about how the tracks should be formatted but here’s the short version for you.

  • the Limiter on your main bus (volume) should be OFF. Do NOT use Limiters, compressors or other stuff that alters the sound on the master bus except, perhaps, for some reverb and EQ;
  • set the volume to -6dB (or lower by ear/vision, stay in the ‘green’ zone);
  • make sure you export your files to 24bit/48Khz WAVE format (or at least 44Khz CD quality);
  • Upload in WAVE format

After you upload the files wait for the magic to happen. It might just work for you. Didn’t for me. In fact, imho they ruined my mixes. Yes, they made them LOUD. The kickdrum is especially loud and close to distorting (listen with good headphones to the track below). But they also made detail go and created a ‘boomy’ mastered file. It just didn’t sound good to my ears. Too loud and close to clipping all the time.

But oh well, it’s free right? Not so. You can only master two songs a month for free. And I really doubt if these songs are “radio ready”. Apart from that, a free master that makes your song not optimal sounding is even worse than a paid-for service that does a “decent” job. You can find them on sites like FIVERR. Click here. And the free songs (see below) are only available as MP3 files.

AUTO AUDIO MASTERING SYSTEM
So I decided to search online for other options. I’m not a starving musicians but I love free. And to be in control as much as possible.

I stumbled upon a software program called “Auto Audio Mastering System”. It’s got a few “problems” you will need to know about but it is free. Totally free, no catch. And it does seem to do a decent job. I used the same files I’ve used for LANDR to compare them side by side.

AAMS SCREENSHOTS

The Good..
It’s free. Totally free. When you master songs with it, you can select a “reference” style, it will output three versions of your song (16bit, 32bit, mp3 in 192Kbps). And it is very simple to use. Very straightforward. It also includes a document showing you what it did (results in Word-format). Interesting for those who want to know. Not for me, I’m not that technical.
The 16bit version is fine if you want to use it to create CD’s or upload to BandCamp. The MP3’s are great for ReverbNation, SoundCloud and many others.

Even if you’re not completely happy with the EQ settings you now have a set of tracks you can do some additional editing or post-production on. I like to do so using an old version of MAGIX Music Cleaning Lab (for example lowering the volume a little on all tracks). I lower the volume since I’m aware of the fact that some websites like SoundCloud will need this (-1.7dB is the preferred setting). And radio stations will add their own compression. So if your song is to ‘hot’ (too loud) it will sound pretty bad on some online services and radio stations. You don’t want that to happen!

The Bad..
The free version suggests you have a lot of options available by showing them on-screen. You don’t. It will only run one file at a time (no batch mastering available) and this is a little time-consuming. Oh, there is a manual, .. you could read that before you start using it of course (but I didn’t read it and it was straight forward).

The Ugly..
It will only run well if you run it as ‘admin’. Some consider this a security risk. I don’t, as long as you use the original program and don’t download it from another site.

I’ve tested on Windows7. I don’t know if it will work on other, newer, Windows versions. Word is, it was written in Delphi for WindowsXP. I don’t know if this is true, but as a former Delphi programmer (many lightyears ago, Borland Delphi 3.0 if I remember correct — oh, this really wants me to go back in time!) the interface does look like a Delphi program for WindowsXP a lot. That doesn’t have to be bad. But if it is build in Delphi I sure hope they will rebuild it one day soon to keep the program alive!

It sometimes crashes. If you don’t run it as administrator on Windows, it most certainly will crash (I’ve tested). Knowing this (after some trial and error and reading online) I started it as ‘admin’ user and had no issues at all using it to master 8 tracks (album).

HOW DOES AAMS SOUND?
But how does it sound? After testing a few reference settings I settled for the “alternative” reference setting for my music. Test a few settings on a few tracks to get the best results. And I must say, I found it impressive. I couldn’t have done it this way by myself in such a short time.

I noticed it cuts a lot of the low-end, boosts the mids and doesn’t do a lot with the high-end. I think the tracks are much more “radio ready” now!

For the sake of the argument I also included one file, in my run of 8 tracks I mastered, that I didn’t prepare for mastering at all. It was already ‘mastered’ in my DAW. LANDR won’t do you much good with an audio file like that. It will try to make it louder. They should have called it LOUDR instead of LANDR I’m afraid …

So how would AAMS do? It did (again) cut some low-end, didn’t make it louder (but mastering isn’t about making a track louder, that’s a common mistake I’d say!). To my surprise the volume was, in fact, cut back to the same level as the other tracks! That’s the advantage of using a reference (template) I guess. In fact all tracks were at the same levels. This is perfect for me, since I wanted a consistent album, as far as the audio is concerned! It also widens the stereo image slightly (in my case) but this also depends on the reference you use.

FINAL TESTS
So, I gave it the final test: put the MP3’s on the USB stick and listened to the results in the car while driving to work. Again, it sounded pretty nice! In my car it was very clear the low-end was cut. The car audio system isn’t top-notch (sorry, Hyundai, it isn’t) and was set to ‘flat’ on the EQ and there wasn’t much bass in the songs. So I turned up the bass a little. Most people turn up the bass a lot. Cutting back the bass does make sense. If people turn it up, use bass heavy headphones and stereo sets a loud bass would cause distortion and ‘rumble‘ . You don’t want that to happen!

After the car-check, I played it over my cheap HP laptop speakers (HP Multimedia Speakers GL313AA). These speakers aren’t very good. But professional audio mixes do sound more or less “good” on them or at least “decent”. And “Lo and Behold”! They sounded GREAT on these cheap speakers. This is the real world test you will need to do. Car Audio. Cheap speakers. Mobile phones. If it sounds good on that, you’ve got a winner (as far as mixing and mastering is concerned).

For the first time ever my tracks sounded GOOD on these speakers! I was thrilled! The tracks mastered by the LANDR service did not. They were distorting. I think it’s the low-end. Must be. The low-end on LANDR tracks is too hot.

HOW DOES IT WORK?
It’s very easy and straight forward to use. I’ve made a short video about mastering with AAMS. You can find it here.

THE VERDICT IS IN!
I’ve chosen to use AAMS. It’s much more flexible especially the paid for version offers you lot’s of options (but test first with the free version if it works on your system!). The paid for version is pretty cheap too. I think I’ll buy it in the end. The mastered files sounds just fine! LANDR’s mp3 sounds ‘boomy’ and the low-end is distorting on my cheap speakers. That’s bad! On good headphones you will here the “lacking” of low-end on the AAMS track, but again, that’s fine imho.

More important, I’ve chosen not to master myself this time for a (good) reason. If you use a software program like AAMS, or LANDR’s website, your end product, your mastering, will be (more) consistent. I think that’s the most important of all: a consistent, radio-ready, product. And on top of that, it saves you a ton of time and frustration.

YOU BE THE JUDGE
Anyway, don’t take my word for it. Listen and compare the tracks below (these tracks do not have the lowered volume I use in my final mix to make it a fair comparison). Perhaps you prefer LANDR over AAMS. Or neither of them.

  • WAVE-file that was used is according to the guidelines of LANDR.
  • MP3’s are as they were generated by LANDR and AAMS
  • the original file was encoded using LameMP3 encoder (RazorLame)
  • All mp3’s are in 192Kbps
  • They are uploaded to Google Drive to prevent encoding changes by online audio services.

You can listen to these tracks and even download them. Copy them, give them away. All tracks are, however, ©2017 by Rudy Brinkman/Barking Aunts. You cannot sell them or upload them especially not to make money out of it. And please do use the correct credits and refer people to www.barkingaunts.nl if you share the song.

  1. The original mixed down song
  2. LANDR Mastering
  3. AAMS Mastering

PRICE COMPARISON
Even though LANDR charges you nothing for two tracks (MP3 format) this is not a good deal. You can’t upload, for example, MP3 files on iTunes, CDBaby or BandCamp.

If you want more or better quality you’ll need to pay a monthly fee depending on your needs or wait for another month to get two more for free. The basic mastering will cost you $4.99/mo and you will get unlimited .MP3 flies. If you want WAVE-files additional charges apply. You can also pay per song (for example, I paid $1.99 for this one song since I ran out of the free ones).

So that’s $48/year if you sign up for the service. For MP3-files. See https://www.landr.com/en/pricing for more details. For an album in WAV-format you’ll end up paying more than AAMS will cost (when you get the full version) and even the free version allows you unlimited mastering!

Yes, you read that well. AAMS charges you nothing for unlimited mastering. If you want the version with bells and whistles that allows you batch conversion, tweaking the settings and so on you’ll have to pay a one time fee of EUR 65.–. So, want to do some free, decent, mastering? Use AAMS and after the mastering you can do some final tweaking yourself to create a nicely mastered album. You can download it from there website at http://www.curioza.com/

FINAL THOUGHTS?
If you have the money or wish to spend it let someone else do it. Hire a professional mastering service. They will get you the best results of course. For commercial releases I’d say that’s the best option.  And of course you can (and some will) disagree with my personal opinion and taste and choose LANDR. Since in the end, it’s all a matter of taste. But if you’re looking for a free mastering option that will master your tracks in such a way that it does at least sound decent, download AAMS.

Review – Acoustic Piezo Contact Microphone Pickup by Geek

I found this very neat app/website called Geek and they sell lot’s of stuff for prices you won’t believe. Much of what they offer is a real steal. But what can you expect for the prices they ask? 

I decided to give it a try and ordered some small items. Including this “Acoustic Piezo Contact Microphone Pickup for Guitar Violin Mandolin Ukulele” as it is described.

In this video you can hear how it sounds.

The microphone-pickup was placed as close to the bridge as possible. Since that’s the best spot for a piezo pickup. It hardly picks up low end though, even though I placed it there. Perhaps if I place it inside it might slightly improve but I don’t think so.

Of course, after seeing the video, it’s up to you if you want to spend one or two euro’s on it. I don’t think it’s worth it. If you want to use it for playing on stage or a studio recording, I recommend higher end pickups. Don’t buy this.

Stereo image
The Piezo Element does what it has to do and sounds as you can expect for a cheap piezo. Combined with another mic you can use it however to get a nice stereo image.

However, again, I would not recommend it for professional use, on stage or at the studio. I will probably end up taking it apart and use it for a cigar box project or use it as an additional mic for creating fuller stereo images.

Past Perfect Song (Video)

A phone call can sometimes trigger a song. Happened to me some time ago and before I knew I was writing and recording the song.

Never let the truth stand in the way of a good story” they say, so rest assured: this is not autobiographical and I don’t mean anything bad to or for the person that called me. In fact I was happy with that phone call!

About the recording
I’ve used my new studio-equipment for this and some ‘old’ vintage stuff I have.  Yesterday I’ve recorded and mixed the song and during the recording session I’ve filmed large parts of it. Resulting in this video (youtube).

The video is in black and white and in it you see me using my new Harley Benton bass guitar for the first time on a recording. I’ve used it on a few other songs also. Must say I love this bass. It’s plays extremely well and because of it’s five way selector you can create many different sounds suitable for almost any style. Real all round bass guitar!

Recording software:
– Ardour (Linux KXStudio)
– MixCraft 5.2 (final mix)

Equipment:
– McCrypt Condenser Microphone
– BM800 Condenser Microphone
– Behringer UCA222
– SoundTech ST162

Instruments:
– Washburn WD-42S
– Hondo H175
– Harley Benton MM 84A SB Deluxe
– Akai MPK-Mini

The song is also available at SoundCloud but it doesn’t sound that great over there, so if you’re looking for the best audio experience click the video above to play it from Youtube.

 

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