Saturday, December 3, 2011

Recording Tip 32: Keep an eye on playback levels. Listening at varying volumes.

We all know listening too loud for too long rarely results in a great mix. It’s tempting to do, and even veteran mixers get tripped up with this at times. Loud playback levels have a sense of authority so there’s a natural tendency to listen loud when uncertain about a mix, especially if clients are in the room. The problem is it’s rarely helpful when mixing.   

After my own battles with this I finally developed a system which helps me from listening too loud and gives consistent results. The way I did this is to find a consistent position on my volume knob and mix to where it should be 85dB when at that spot.

The concept of listening with a specific volume pot setting is something I learned from the legendary mastering engineer, Doug Sax. I was in a mastering session with Doug when he told me he does almost all of his work with his volume pot at a specific place. He knows his set up well enough that once he’s got proper eq, level and compression, and the volume pot is at a certain position, the resulting sound will be a certain dBSPL. If it felt too loud or too soft, he would make adjustments to what he was doing to achieve the level he wanted rather than changing the volume. Of course Doug’s role and mine are different. But the end game of getting consistent results apply to both of us so I took this concept to mixing and have found this to be very helpful. It’s not a complex idea, but really makes a lot of sense.

At this point you should be saying, “There’s no 85dB spot on a volume knob.” And right you are. So how do you know at what dBSPL level you’re listening? You can find an old classic Radio Shack dB meter but I have found the apps for my iPhone to be very accurate. Of course you don’t have to use a dB meter at all. A lot of mixers don’t. The goal isn’t a dB number, but finding a consistent monitoring level. Once I got my setup figured out, I rarely turn the dB meter on. Like Doug, when the volume pot is at it’s place, I know how loud the mix should feel.

So how did I find this spot on the volume knob? I called up several mixes I had done in the past which I liked, and played them back. With the dB meter on, I turned up the volume pot until I found a spot where I got a 85 dBSPL playback level. I then took a pencil and marked that spot. I now had a place I set the volume pot for the majority of my time mixing.

My Method

I begin mixing on my main monitors at decent volume...about 90dB. At that volume I’ll get basic levels and pans and begin to apply eq and compression. Once I’m going, I’ll listen a bit louder, up to 100 dB or more to feel the presence and power of the mix. I’ll then go back and forth in level for a while and when things are feeling pretty good I’ll back the level down to 85 dB and listen a bit more. Once I feel pretty good with what I have, I’ll switch my smaller monitors.

My mains are the old Mastering Lab Tannoy 10” Golds, run by a Yamaha P2200 amp with the Mastering Lab modification and a Bag End subwoofer. I also have a secondary main system, The Rock by Unity Audio. These are a great bang for the buck. They’re powered monitors and I highly recommend them. I also have a third set, the TOA M120, but instead of having them next to the mains, I have them off to the side of the room like a separate stereo system.  

They ended up over there not by design, but by necessity. When I bought them I was in my old studio and there simply wasn’t enough room to place them in front of me. So in desperation I got a small wooden shelf and put them on top of my power amps which were off to the side of my room. My intention was just to stick them somewhere and deal with the problem later. Surprisingly, I immediately loved it….another of those happy accidents. By having them off to the side, outside of the normal listening field, they are similar to how most consumer stereo systems are setup. After all, people rarely sit right between the speakers when listening to music, so it makes sense to listen that way when mixing.

So back to now I’ve already gotten through the basics of the mix and it’s time to do nitty gritty of the balancing work. I go back to the Tannoys and set the volume knob at the pencil mark and by watching my master level, adjusting my compression on the master buss, I work the mix to hit 85 dB. By doing this I found that not only were my mixes better, but volumes from song to song were more consistent.

So now my mix is at the right level, both in the master bus and at or near 85 dB on my main monitors. At this point it’s time for automating the mix. Once I get a pass I like I’ll switch to one of the alternate monitors and work from there without changing the volume knob. The reason I don’t change the volume knob is because I’ve set the amp for those monitors to match the volume of the mains so it feels consistent. This is important for you to do as well. If you have multiple monitor speakers, adjust the amps so there’s no big change in volume when switching from one set to another. Most often by making a pass on each my monitors the mix will be very close. Now while I try to keep the volume knob at the preferred setting, of course I’ll turn up or down at times. But I’ll always come back to that spot for most of the work.

One thing that is critical to know concerning volume is that there is there is a difference between true level and apparent level. A mix that is very aggressive with heavy compression and severe eq will sound louder even with the volume knob at the same place. Music with real dynamics, such as jazz or classical music may have peaks at or near 0 dB, but will not feel as loud as metal, rock or pop records. As a mixer, you should be aware of this and let the music dictate what you should do.

Now when it comes to listening in your studio, one of the most important thing one needs is a clean path to the monitors.

One thing I highly recommend is the Dangerous Monitor STThis little box has made a HUGE improvement in my studio. When I got it, it was like I got new speakers, a new amp, and a tuned room! It may be the best $1800 I’ve even spent for my studio. It’s not cheap, but it has helped my mixes in ways I never imagined. I realize it may be more expensive than some can afford, but it’s been very worth every penny for me. Whether you get it or not, be sure to clean up that path as much as possible. Remove extra connections, extra cables, etc. Monster Cables may sound better than the cables you have. But whether you buy them or not, again...remove anything unnecessary so there is only one good cable in the path.

So to restate the lesson for today; listening at loud volumes is good to get the mix in place. But spend most your time tweaking at moderate volumes, and do it until your mixes begin to be consistent. Like anything in music, there are no rules. Experiment and find what gives you great results. Once you find that volume, be sure to stick to it.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Recording Tip 31: Alcohol of almost any kind will mess up your hearing, especially on the top end.

Two-Step Jack
This tweet has generated a lot of reaction and questions. Some of the comments were quite funny, and some more serious, asking if I meant permanent hearing damage. While of course heavy, long term abuse of alcohol can result in a number of negative outcomes, all I really meant was that whenever I’ve had a drink I notice my hearing suffers.

Beer probably has the least and liquor more so. When I have something to drink the top end of my hearing goes away to some degree, and what remains sounds odd. Of course that makes things like mixing a bad idea when one imbibes. Critical listening is pretty difficult when that’s going on, so when mixing I refrain from even wine, much less anything else.

When it comes to editing, tuning, etc where sonics aren’t a factor, alcohol may play a role in good judgement. You may approve things but when listening the next day wonder, “What the heck was I thinking??” It could be that you approved something awful....or perhaps you were loose enough to have an inspired idea! More times than not though, it won’t be the latter.

I’m not advocating drinking while working, but if you do be aware and know your tolerance. When in doubt, don’t! Especially if you need to drive home.

I’ll finish with a funny story I was told happened here in Nashville a number of years ago. There was a country singer attempting to track a song with a full band in one of the big studios. They’d been working all day and well into the evening on a little country waltz. Naturally in the good ol’ boy way, drinks were flowing freely and they were hard at it. Despite all the hours of trying, the song just didn’t have the right feel. Finally around 4am they had a track they were happy with so they all staggered home to get some rest before returning to record the remaining songs they didn’t get to that night.

Of course it wasn’t till mid-afternoon when they dragged themselves back to the studio to hear what they’d done. They began listening but after a minute the producer stopped the playback with a funny look on his face. “Play back the demo.” The assistant played back the demo and the producer yelled, “STOP!!! What that #$^%#!!! He just then realized why they’d had such a hard time with the song. The demo was a waltz, but their 4am track was a two step! Sometime during the night the entire band dropped a beat to the bar and totally changed the song....and one one noticed!  

I guess Jack Daniels wasn’t a fan of the waltz!

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Recording Tip 30: I once heard an over eq-ed snare drum described as a stick hitting an equalizer.

As far as I know, this phrase was first coined years ago when I was assisting my mentor, Bill Schnee in the course of struggling with a snare, so over-eq-ed there was hardly any quality of the instrument remaining. He worked with it a while, then uttered that great phrase in disgust. (Bill now has adapted that phrase to over-compressed snares. “This sounds like a stick hitting a compressor.”

There can be many reasons why a snare doesn't sound good. But you're having real problems getting the drum to sound good, severe eq is probably the last thing you should use. Better to change mic, move it, or change the drum itself. Do understand the challenge you’re facing is not only dealing with your skills, but with the drummer and their ability to make a good sound. I was told this was true early on in my career. That the biggest part of the sound is due to the player. But I never realized how true it was until I was recording a session where a drummer was swapped mid-session.

I was recording a commercial session for a theme park and knew we’d have two drummers for the date, as the first would have to leave early. I’d recorded the first drummer many times before and had never really happy with the results. But I was a young engineer as these were commercial sessions and I never had the time I would have on a record date, I concluded the lesser results were mostly due to the lack of time. We had decent, but not great drum sounds. When the new drummer arrived I asked him to play a bit to simply check his levels. When he played the entire drum kit lit up and sounded IMMEDIATELY better! I was stunned. It was so much better the producer jumped up off the back couch and asked, “What did you do to the drums?” “Nothing!” I said. “Just hire HIM next time!”

All this to say when you’re dealing with difficult drum sounds you have not only your abilities, but the studio, the gear, and also the drummer to deal with. And while you probably can’t change drummers, you must understand their role and when needed, take steps to help them make better sounds.

One huge misconception for drummers who are new to the studio is that they think they need to hit their drums hard to sound good. It's especially common for drummers who’ve played live most of their career. The fact is often the opposite. The harder the drums are hit in a studio, the more choked they sound. Medium hard hits often do all that’s needed. So if you’re having trouble with drum sounds, go out and listen to the drummer in the studio and find out if they’re hitting really hard. If they are, remind them they don’t need to do that as you have all these mics right near the drums. It's like a close up in film.

This can be very hard for some drummers to do, but it may be what’s needed. You'll need to listen and see how they react to your comment. If they can't do it without losing feel, then you'll need to tell them to go back and hit harder, and find some way to make it work. Feel and performance trumps sound.

But as the engineer, it's your job to take charge You must thread the needle to help your players give not only good musical performances, but good sonic results.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Recording Tip 29. If the bass guitar and kick drum won't sound like one unit, try flipping bass guitar phase

One of the most important components of a great mix is getting the bass drum and the bass guitar to connect as a unit. Sometimes it’s easy; other times it can be a struggle. Most of the time it’s about the sounds, but the playing skills of the drummer and bass player also play a large role. You need to understand how much of each are a factor in this.

We’ve discussed the issue of phase with drums and how that works in getting good sounds. When you have more than one mic on any instrument it’s important to make sure they add together. And what I mean in this post is that when the bass drum and the bass play at the same time they should sound like a single instrument. You don’t hear two things, you hear one.

But no matter how great the engineer is, if the drummer and bass player don’t groove well, there will be problems making that happen. It’s then time to break out Beat Detective or whatever you prefer to get them to where they’re locked and you’ll then at least have a chance of the mix sounding good.

But assuming they do play well together there are a few things you can do to help make them sound like one unit. Of course EQ is a major one. I wish I could tell you the secret frequencies to add or subtract to make that happen. And while there are general guidelines, like pulling out 300-400Hz on a bass drum, that only works if the original sound had too much of it. So be cautious of generic frequency suggestions. They are based on assumptions which may not be the case in your mix.

Of course to start with you need to have the drums phase coherent. Remember is Recording Tip 23. “When using multiple mics, always check phase.”

By following those guidelines when recording you should have your drums in good shape and have phase problems resolved within the drum kit. And when mixing tracks you didn’t record you need to do similar checks with the drums recorded to make sure each track adds properly.

Ideally, when the drums are all in phase, a hit on the snare or kick (providing the system is set up properly) will cause the speaker to move toward the listener. Personally I don’t worry too much about that. While one can test it, all that really matters is that the drums are phase coherent within themselves. Once that’s done and you’re working with the bass, you may feel the bass guitar is moving opposite in phase polarity to the bass drum. (i.e. the speaker moves away from the listener when played) If I’m not not having success in getting the bass drum and bass to sound as one, I’ll try flipping the phase (polarity) button on the bass. If you have an amp and direct signal, of course you need to first make sure they are in agreement. This is something you must always do whenever you have both an amp and a direct signal. Listen to both signals, and flip the phase of one of them. I normally suspect the amp is more likely to be wrong and flip that first, but be sure to check one of them. It will be pretty easy to hear if they are adding or cancelling.

Once you have the bass phase resolved and you want to check it’s phase against the bass drum, you will need to flip both signals to see if that helps make the instruments sound as one. Don’t flip the phase of the bass drum, as you should have already checked that and gotten it right.

I will admit more often than not I’ve not needed to flip the phase of the bass. But on occasion it has done the trick. Hopefully the first order of business is there, the players are locked up and grooving. And if that’s so and you can’t get those elements to connect, give the old bass phase flip a try.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Recordingtip 28 Be cautious using brickwall limiters like the L2. If your mixes resemble a brickwall, back it off

The advent of digital recording brought in a whole new playground of toys with which to play for mixers. And in my view with all the myriad of processors now at our disposal, nothing has really changed the sonic landscape as much as the so-called “Brickwall” limiter. I remember the first time I loaded a modern, mastered CD into Protools. It was a project I’d mixed in an analog console and mastered by Bob Ludwig. The move to “in-the-box mixing had yet to really happen, though most of us were recording in a digital DAW of one kind or another, most mixing was still analog. So I loaded it in. And there it was...the waveforms cut like a finely cut hedgerow garden in England. ALL the transients lopped off and looked like nothing I’d ever seen before.

Of course Ludwig is one of the most respected mastering engineers in the business and it sounded great. But I was amazed at what I saw and wondered if such an approach made sense on all types of music.

It’s been a good many years since that day. And since then mixing in the box isn’t that uncommon at all. In fact, almost every mixer uses some form of it and with that comes the opportunity to put an L2 or any other limiter which can smash ever single transient to smithereens. The trick is knowing how much to apply.

I’m fortunate that most every mix I make is mastered by a really great mastering engineer. So all I really need to worry about is making a great mix and letting the mastering engineer do their magic. The caveat of this is most labels judge mixes before mastering. So there’s the temptation to put a hard limiter on the mix so it gives some semblance of what it will be when mastered in order to please the label gang.

This is especially a problem when an album is mixed by several different mixers, such as the last album I did. One would think that professionals at the label would understand that mastering will even out the levels of the different mixes and apply their processing to them. Unfortunately that’s often not the case. And if you give your mix some dynamic range and the other guy smashes his to death, it’s often that mix, sounding louder and more aggressive, may make your mixes seem not as good. You’d especially think that professional folks at major labels know and understand all this, but it’s rare when they do.

This reality puts many engineers in a bit of a quandary. Do we do what we think is right, and know the mix will sound good once it’s mastered and hope the folks at the label realize this? Or do we make a “label” mix, squashing it a bit for a sense of what it will be like when mastered, and turn into mastering the version we want? I can see that as a good option, provided that mastering makes it better. But what if your version of what mastering will be isn’t that good? After all, a good mastering engineer will probably do a much better version of that than you ever will. You could in the end not helping your cause.

One of my mentors, Jack Joseph Puig commented in a recent Waves webinar that he prefers to get his mixes as close to a mastered version as possible. So he’ll go ahead and hit the limiter as hard as he feels right for the final result. But let’s face it...very few of us are JJP. Jack is a very serious student of many things, including how his mixes end up when mastered by Bob Ludwig and the like. So I give Jack full reign with such things. But my suggestion to all those learning the ropes is to remember that JJP has many years of work and is much better able to know how much is right, and how much isn’t right. Remember, compression is the most permanent thing you can do. It’s better to leave some room for your mastering engineer.

So while I why understand why mixers want to compress their mixes hard, more often than not I hear mastering engineers complain that they have nothing to work with when they get mixes squashed to death. I heard a reaction to one such mix from one of the guys at Sterling as, “All I can do is turn it down!” That’s not the response of a guy needing to validate his reason for being there. This is a guy who’d be happy to have a great mix show up and he do nothing but a straight transfer. His is the voice of frustration of the loudness wars and that he can’t make an album feel and flow the way he hears it in his head were he given a bit of room to do something with it.

Now while I almost always use an L2 or some sort of limiter as a final stage on the stereo buss, it's purpose is to capture those peaks that a normal compressor misses. I’ll rarely have it do much more than a few dB of limiting. I have it there to catch an irregular drum hit or something like that. I'm not saying you should never use one. Just be careful in how it’s used.

One other thing. Before I begin a mix I ask who will be mastering so I have some idea of what will happen once I turn my mixes in. Knowing their particular mastering style helps me know what I need to do. And more often than not, I’ll send a mix to the mastering house for some helpful comments about my mix. If I can, I’ll even go down there and hear my mixes before I’m done. This is a great thing to do and virtually ever mastering engineer I’ve worked with not only allows this, but encourages it. Just give them a call, tell them who you are and that they are mastering something you're mixing, and would they mind if you dropped by at a time convenient for them to hear it. Sometimes the mastering house may not be in the city you live in. In that case, ask if I can upload a mix to them and then have a phone conversation about it. That works too. You’ll be surprised at the things you learn by doing this, and your project will be better for it.

That being said, I realize that many of you won’t have the opportunity to have your mixes mastered by the likes of Bob Ludwig, Andrew Mendelson or Doug Sax. If that’s the case what is the best thing to do?

The best approach is still to not overdo limiting when mixing. This is even more important if you don’t have a A level mastering engineer. At least the top level guys can probably handle over-compressed and limited mixes better than the others. One of the great secrets of a great mastering engineer is knowing what NOT to do. A lesser experienced mastering engineer may feel it's their calling in life to limit the hell out of every mix, thinking that is good.

Which brings me to my final point. As much as possible, attend your mastering sessions. You will learn a lot. Back in the old days of Abbey Road, young engineers began in the mastering room so they could learn what things were like when mastering good and bad mixes. I've learned as much at mastering about my mixes as I have anywhere else. And you just might save your mix from sonic annihilation!

While I understand the desire to have a really great sounding and loud CD, if you whack it too hard it'll probably sound not nearly as good as you’d hoped.

And remember, any fool can hit the limiter hard. But only then great ones know when to stop. You’ll have one more stage at mastering. Give some room to do the crush then.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Recordingtips 27: Don’t record in stereo unless your source is truly stereo

Of all the tweets I’ve posted I get the most questions on this one. People ask, “What do you mean by truly stereo?” I think the question comes from a lack of understanding of what stereo is. So what is stereo?

It’s a pretty straightforward question with a simple answer.
But let’s look at a few aspects of the subject before I answer that question.

First of all, why stereo? As you probably know, the earliest recordings were made in mono. It wasn’t by choice. It was all technology was capable of at the time. Mono wax cylinders gave way to mono wire recorders, and then mono magnetic tape.

Speaking of wire records, the great Al Schmidt told me once that wire recorders were the machines he began his career with. (Wire recorders worked basically like a magnetic tape machine. A supply and take-up spool passed a thin flexible wire across a record and playback head.) Humorously enough, with those machines you’d sequence the songs in order for the album by literally tying the ends of the wires of two songs together in a little knot!)

One thing I must say, it's remarkable to consider that a man who began his career in the 50's with wire recorders is still widely considered one of the top engineers in the world today. Al's recording and mixing of Diana Krall's "Quiet Nights" is one of the best sounding records you will ever hear. And the mastering engineer, Doug Sax, told me that it was a flat transfer. No eq. No compression. A rather astounding feat.

Once magnetic tape arrived, the technology of recording in stereo was developed. By then the vinyl LP had come on the scene, but it was also a mono device. However, forward looking folks began to develop stereo recording techniques (particularly in classical music) and recording in stereo, knowing that at some point stereo LPs would take over. Interestingly, those techniques are still the standard for today. No one has really discovered anything better. The Blumlein technique is a prime example as well as the M-S (Mid-Side) technique.

Pop music was something altogether different. Most of the early stereo mixes for pop music weren’t really stereo in a true sense like the classical recordings. (Two or three mics capturing a single source, creating a stereo field) Most were really a kind of discrete mono. Some mixes would have a bass and guitar coming from one speaker, drums and piano or whatever from the other, and a vocal in the middle…sometimes.

It can be easily argued that the real ground-breakers in the creation of stereo pop music were the Beatles and the Beach Boys. Of course others were doing it as well, but these guys were the leaders. Some of the early Beatles albums were released with these “discrete mono” mixes, but that was never the intention of the group, thus the remixing of those albums in mono by Geoff Emerick and George Martin a few years ago. Back in those days AM radio was king, and mono mixes were where the most attention was given during mixdown. It’s interesting to think of this. While the classical world was recording away in stereo, AM radio kept pop music continuing to bow to the mono god.

Okay…there’s the history lesson for today. Now about this thing stereo….

Stereo is really the most natural format to listen to music for the obvious reason that we hear in stereo. Stereo fits the natural sensibilities of our species. Our two ears localize sound sources from the environment we’re in. When we hear a sound on our left side, the left ear hears it ever so slightly first, and with a bit more clarity. The right side hears it as well, but a bit later in time and with less high frequency information and with more reflections. Our brain is amazingly capable of interpreting these time delays and frequency differences and give us the ability to very accurately determine where a sound source is. With one ear it’s much more difficult to do that. Similarly, in an anechoic chamber you’d not be able to easily localize a sound source, as there are no reflections giving you those spatial clues.

So, to the original question…What is stereo? The answer is essentially this. Mono is the exact same thing in both speakers. Stereo is anything else.

Some stereo recordings, such as an acoustic guitar can sound very stereo or somewhat mono depending on how it was mic’d. When it’s not very wide I call that “The big mono.” That means that while it was recorded with two mics or a stereo mic panned left and right, the image appears almost purely up the middle between the speakers. Maybe not totally dead center as recorded with a single mono mic, but not a wide stereo image. Now on a singer/songwriter album where very few other instruments are playing, such as a James Taylor album, that can sound fantastic. The guitar is a bit wide and the singer sits inside the stereo field. Such an approach is good and gives space for the vocal to be reside.

However there are times when I’ll be mixing a song with tons of instruments and a guitar was recorded in that “big mono.” While it may have sounded good on the tracking date, at this point in time that spacious stereo field is lost. With all that other instrumentation taking up space, the stereo guitar gets lost in the arrangement.

Other times I’ll get a so-called stereo synth patch…but it’s really mono but recorded on two tracks. I get it. As an engineer you’re taking the two outputs of the source and the programmer of the sound just didn’t make a wide stereo image. It’s close to mono, or in some cases, pure mono. In these circumstances, like the stereo guitar mentioned above, I’ll delete one side and pan it wherever it makes sense. I don’t need both tracks, and don’t need it eating up DSP or faders.

So at least for me, if the sound isn’t really stereo..i.e. I can’t really hear a decently wide image in the stereo field that makes sense for the mix, I’ll not record in stereo. There’s simply no point. And similarly, if I’m recording a very densely produced track, I’ll be very careful about recording in stereo, even if it’s a nice and wide sound. You need to use your ears and hear if it’s useful to record that way. And you don’t need to leave every decision to the mixer. Get some guts and make a choice. Nine times out of ten you’ll make the right one.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Recording Tip 26: If you keep getting your mixes wrong, it's probably your room

There’s probably nothing more important in the mixer’s arsenal than having an accurate room. But before you go spend a thousand dollars to have some guy come out and tell you how screwed up your room is, know this; plenty of flawed mix rooms have had fantastic sounding mixes made in them. And...there are lots of rooms which measure as “flat” which sound awful. "Flat" does not equal "good!"

That being said you really need to get your room reasonably close to flat as you can. The biggest problem you are likely to experience is bumps or dips in the lower frequencies. This usually happens from 500 Hz down. You may have a either a bump or a dip, or even God forbid, both!

If your room has large bumps or dips in it you'll never really know what you're doing. And even if you're aware of these problems, you'll never be confident in what you're doing and be inconsistent with your mixes. This can really be a huge issue of the bump or dip is in the key of the song! For example if you're in the key of "C"and your room has a dip at 132 Hz (that's the frequency of a low "C") every time the bass player plays the root, it will sound like they played softer! Not good!

One thing you can do to help find out of you have bumps or dips a home-brewed frequency test. Pull up the oscillator plugin on your DAW and sweep your room. (No, I’m not saying to start cleaning...though your room probably needs it!) What I mean by that is to slowly move (sweep) the oscillator frequency from the lowest frequency up to the highest. Listen carefully listen and see if you find certain frequencies which are suddenly louder or softer than the rest. Listen at the mixing position and then have some one sweep while you move around the room. If you find you have certain frequencies getting louder or softer then you have a problem. Some kind of room treatment is needed.

Specific explanations is beyond the scope of this blog, but the article from the Universal Audio site which I tweeted on Tuesday is an excellent help for this. There’s also an article in Sound on Sound which is great.

There are plenty of other resources by manufacturers on the web such as the Auralex site. One product I will say I’ve heard amazing results with are Tubetraps. They can’t solve every solution. But I have heard them work wonders more than once not only in a control room, but also in a roomy studio.

Now it's one thing to have a so-called "flat" frequency response's another thing to have a room which sounds good. I like a room that’s not too dead or too live. I don’t like feeling I’m mixing in a box of cotton nor in a room with lots of reflections. If I had to error, I’d error on the deader side of things, but again, not too much.

Just remember the best pieces of equipment are your own ears. Start by spending a lot of time listening carefully to good mixes of albums you know well. Move your speakers around, try pointing the room a different direction. Bring a couch in...or take it out, rug, no get the idea. Listen for a smooth transparent bottom end and good clarity in the mids and highs. And make sure you’re listening to a known quantity of a great sounding album that’s musically along the lines of what you do. Diana Krall’s last album is one of the best sounding albums you’ll ever hear. (Mixed by Al Schmidt and at mastering had NOTHING done to it. No level adjustments, eq, compression..NOTHING) However, if you’re mixing rock bands or rap that shouldn’t be your reference. By the way, if you want to get the Diana Krall album, buy the CD. It's well worth the sonic difference!

Ok...let’s say you’ve done all the work and feel good about your room. Now what do you do?
Run these reference albums while you mix and switch between that and what you're doing. Do your best to make your mix sonically like your reference. Of course those mixes will probably sound better than yours. But at least get the relative sonic balance, from highs to lows, similar to your reference. Then take it out to your other listening, a friend’s studio, wherever and begin to learn your room. Now of course even in a great room you are the biggest variable. Depending on your work on a particular song you may be happy or not. But begin that process.

Of course you may choose to hire in an expert to analyze your room and treat it. If you are in a city with a good music community and reliable people who do such things, it could be a good use of money, but I’ve yet to do that. I’ve done my own work and have good results. There is a company in town which recently called me for a second time trying to get my business. They’re very expensive and their rooms sound fantastic. However for some reason whenever I’ve worked in them I’ve never been happy with the bottom end. I can’t explain that...but it is what it is. So again, even a “flat” and well treated room doesn’t always work for me.

Bottom line..again...use your ears! And before you shell out your cash on experts or gear, listen to great mixes and try doing your own work. The solution you need may cost you nothing.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Vocal Recording 102 Technical Matters

Vocals are some of the hardest things to record well. They are often the most dynamic and can have all sorts of variables from sibilance problems to p-pops and all things in between. And it’s a rare singer who sings with the same tone and consistent volume from the first pass to the last. More often than not they’ll move on the mic, get louder (as they gain confidence) and each pass can be different than the one before. So it’s up to you to hear and anticipate what’s happening on the next take. the technical aspects. Step one is to recordingtip #7 Find the right microphone. Every singer is different and choosing the right mic depends on their voice as well as the style of music. Put up a few mics and see what sounds right for what you’re doing. What is needed for a rock vocal is usually different than what you’d pick for a pop, jazz or R&B vocal. For some rock vocals you might even choose something like an SM57. For a jazz or pop vocal a high end tube mic may be better. You’ll need to listen and decide.

Next, recordingtip #10 Always use a good pop filter. You can make one or use one like the Stedman pop filter. You want to find one which does the job of preventing consonants like “p” and “b” from creating a low frequency pop sound on the mic. Now I will say that there are times a slight pop can sound exciting and add drama to the performance. But in general, they’re not a good thing.

One other trick I forgot to mention that I use when recording a singer who pops the mic even with a pop filter in place is to tape a pencil on the mic. Tape it to the mic where the body of the pencil is in front of the capsule of the mic. The idea of this is that the wind created from the singer’s mouth will hit the pencil and be diverted a bit so it doesn’t hit the capsule straight-on. This can also be used with no pop filter but only in the right circumstances. The singer has to be very good about not creating the ‘plosives for that to work. Frankly, I’ve never had such a singer. I’ve always used a pop filter.

One last comment about pop filters. They will color the sound if they are very dense. Some nylon pop filters have a double layer. Such filters will take off some of the high frequency detail, so I use a single layer. The Stedman is good in that it’s effective and transparent. But at times you may have to resort to the double layered nylon types.

By the way, if I’m mixing have a recorded vocal which has ‘plosives issues I’ll often highlight the offending spot, go into Audiosuite and select a high-pass filter. I’ll find the frequency where the problem is solved and write the filtered audio over the problem area. Make sure you cover more than the problem, then edit back and crossfade so it sounds natural.

One the most important aspect of recording vocals which can be overlooked is a good headphone mix for the singer. I cannot overstate this enough. It’s often that the engineer is so busy they don’t take proper care with this. But the fact is it’s almost impossible for a singer to make a great performance when they have a bad headphone mix.. You must remember that singing with headphones is a very unnatural experience. For most of their life singers have heard themselves with their own ears, giving them feedback as to what they’re doing. When they put headphones on it’s a very unnatural experience. So take time, listen to their mix and make it as good as you can. And also be sure they have some good sounding headphones. A good mix in bad phones still sounds bad. The ones I have and have good success with is the Sennheiser HD280 Pro. They sound great and are not expensive. I also use them to check my mixes.

One of the comments made on this subject was in regard to headphone bleed. I do prefer singers to have headphones which are closed so the headphone bleed is at a minimum. Some singers do prefer to have one ear off. That’s fine. Just make sure they don’t pull it out and point to the mic. Ask them to leave it resting against their head so you don’t get the bleed into the mic.

Another essential piece of equipment I use for vocals is the SE Reflexion Filter. One of the challenges in home recording is that often the space in which one records isn’t acoustically treated properly. But I like it even in well treated rooms. It’s just one of the best investments you’ll even make in a home recording environment. It knocks down room reflections so you get only the singer’s voice, and not unwanted ambient reflections from your recording space. And of course it’s not just for vocals. Recording most any acoustic instrument will sound better with one of these in place. I’ve seen cheaper versions in the stores, but if at all possible go with this one.

Lastly, you must pay attention to the singer’s dynamics. Often the beginning of the song can have the singer singing very softly in the verse, and then loudly in the chorus. As I said before, singers will often get louder as they become more confident as they work through the song. So pay attention and listen. Anticipate those moments and back down the preamp when you hear them getting stronger. Now that can be tricky. If you wait too long then it can be hard to make the lines match and the singer may sing differently as you’ve lowered their volume in their phones. So...when you lover the mic pre, turn up their volume in their phones before they notice.

Vocals are clearly most important as it carries the message of the song. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again. A song with a good, well recorded vocal can usually be mixed to sound decent...even if the tracks are poorly recorded. But even the most killer sounding tracks won’t sound great with a poorly recorded and sung vocal.

And if nothing else...remember recordingtip #58 and 59. ALWAYS be in record and ALWAYS keep the first pass. Even if everyone tells you to dump it. Tell them you did, but keep it anyway. If they want it later, you’ll be a hero.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Six Thoughts for Beginning Engineers

1. Try to narrow as much as possible what your goals are. As it's said, "If you have no target, you're certain to hit it."
2. I can't state enough that the future of recording will be mostly dominated by musician/writer engineers. Those who make a living solely by engineering will be rare. Already I compete with musicians who own home studios...some good studios, and some are decent engineers. You have to realize that the future of this biz is going to be run by multitaskers.
3. A good school is usually a good idea. A good school with links to the pro world is a good call, but NOT essential
4. If you can get into a studio as an assistant/runner that's the very best thing you can do. From there you learn, but more importantly, you make connections.
5. Practice, practice, practice! Learn from anywhere you can, whomever you you can and have a pleasing personality! (There's a blog I wrote on this called "Attitude." Read it and take it to heart)
6. Luck will have a huge factor in this. But as the great golfer Gary Player said, "The more I practice, the luckier I get."

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Vocal Recording 101: Psychology

Ok...This will be an amalgamation of a number of posts and tweets regarding vocal recording. It’s an important subject as most of the music we make will have a lead vocal. So if we’re going to make compelling music, we need to know how to work with singers and help them give a great performance.

The first thing to remember is what said in Recording Tip #56. When producing vocals always remember singers are not players. They are a different breed by nature
Argue this with me if you want or say why it shouldn’t be that way. But I’ve had decades of experience recording singers and the fact is very few approach their craft the way a player does. It’s not a right or wrong thing. It’s no different than the generalization of facts that men and woman are different. There are exceptions with all things and of course there is with this. But the point I’m driving at is that if you’re a player producing a singer, you need to think about how you speak with them when recording.

For example, tell a player, “You’re a bit flat there” and it’s no big deal. They’ll get their tuner out and be done. But the same words to a singers can sometimes be devastating. Even though singing out of tune is really a technical matter, when some singers are told there’s a pitch problem all they hear is, “I think you suck.” And when that happens the mind games set in. And that can make it tough to get a great take that day, or sometimes for many days. If they’re singing out of tune of course you must deal with it. So how do you know what to say?

When you’re beginning to work with a singer you need to develop trust. They may be one who can easily get into the nitty-gritty of punching lines or words after you make a comment, or they may not. You don’t know till you’re down the path a bit. So go easy at first and see how they respond to your comments. One good thing to do is to make two positive comments before you say a negative one. Find two specific words of phrases that are the best in the take, tell them you liked it and why. If there was a bad line or word say, “Hey there was only one spot that wasn’t as great as the rest of the verse” or something like that. The LISTEN and WATCH CAREFULLY to their reaction. You’ll learn quickly how they respond to your suggestions, and which of your suggestions get the best results.

Sometime you may come across a singers carrying a lot of negative baggage from their last project. That can be tough. Maybe their last producer was verbally cruel, mocking or even abusive. It could be they were in a band of buffoons who bullied their singers. These kinds of things happen. You don’t need to be paranoid, but as you begin your relationship with an artist ask them about past producers and such..what was good, what wasn’t. And pay close attention to what they say, verbally or well as what they don’t say.

Confidence is everything in a great vocal. And to get one, you as a producer need to have great communication skills and know speak to those you’re producing. Any amount of correction or guidance needs to be spoken in a way where they don’t feel they’re failing. Speak their language and create an environment where they can feel feel safe and encouraged with each take. They need to feel free to attempt things and if it’s not great, it’s no big deal.

Last thing to remember is Recording tip #57 and 58. ALWAYS be in record and ALWAYS keep the first pass! There is often magic there. But even if it really sucks, keep it anyway and tell them, “Hey...that had a great vibe. I know you’re still searching. But I liked the emotion of it.”

Musical performances are hugely psychological. If you singer feels safe, confident that you love what they do (never work with an artist you don’t love) and that you’re there for them and you’ll get a great delivery. Make sure they know why you show up. You’re there to help them find a performance that is stellar.

So at least for me, these are some keys to psychological connections in producing a vocal. In the next post I’ll discuss some technical things, but if you’ve not set a good vibe for your artist the technical parts won’t mean much. Better a great emotional vocal with technical problems than a pristine recorded vocal with no emotion.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Recording Tip 25: Don’t try to make the loudest mix. Let mastering raise the levels

This is always a battle when I’m mixing a few songs in an album instead of the entire thing. It’s especially true if I know there’s another mixer who always slams the compressor hard and makes very loud mixes. When mixes are being compared before mastering levels them out, there’s the fear my mixes will sound wimpy by comparison. Of course the style of the album comes into play here. If mixing a rock or dance album which typically has little dynamics you probably will want to make your mixes fit well in that format. One thing I always do before I begin is to find out who will be mastering the album. If I know the mastering engineer and have worked with them in the past, it makes my life easier as I know how my mixes translate to what he’ll do.

But you have to mix in the way that's best for your skills. It's easy to make a loud mix. Anybody can crank a limiter and squash the life out of a mix. But what we need to to is make a great mix, loud or not. One of the most fundamental jobs of a mastering engineer is to make the levels between the songs consistent. Let them handle that.

Which brings me to another often as you can, attend the mastering sessions, even if you’re only mixing a single song. Find out when it’s likely they’ll get to your mix and show up then. I can’t tell you how much I’ve learned about mixing, and the process of what’s done to my work by attending mastering sessions. It’s the only time your work is really judged and you have a chance to talk to the engineer and get feedback. Ask them hard questions. Be ready to hear bad news on occasion and take it to heart. Those are the moments you can really learn and improve. Some engineers may give you a nice word right off the bat, but don’t let it sit there. Let them know you really want to hear their comments so you can improve your skills.

Recording Tip 24: Many of the greatest mix engineers always recommend adjusting EQ without soloing. Any idea why?

This is one of those rather obvious questions, but is one that bears remembering even by yours truly. The clear fact is that any eq adjustment must only be based on how it relates to the big picture of the mix. It’s tempting to solo whenever you get deep into working on a particular sound, and there’s nothing really wrong with that when you need to get after a particular bit of a track. However I recommend to do it only when you can’t quite hear what it is that’s going on. Sometimes there’s a particular resonance that’s bugging you and if you can’t hear it, then sure...go ahead and solo it.

Here's a great tip in such cases; Select a narrow Q and turn up the gain and sweep the frequencies to find the resonance that’s not working. Once you find it, then duck at that frequency, experimenting with the Q to see how wide it needs to be. That’s useful especially for snare drums which have a tone which isn’t helpful. Sometimes a note in the drum is great, but sometimes it can be in the wrong key for the song, so then you really need to duck it.

So try to resist the urge to solo right off the bat. Work at it for a while while in the track, then solo if you must. Just make sure you don’t get in the bad habit of soloing every track when you need to eq.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Recording Tip 23: When using multiple mics, always check phase

This is a basic skill of engineering which I was taught early on. But in today’s world where many people begin recording at home, while it’s likely that some of you have heard of it, you may have no idea why you do it, or even what it means.

The reason for it is rather simple, but may sound complex. When you think of it, it makes total sense. Every sound has a positive pressure wave created. The drum, guitar, voice, whatever, makes a sound and the air molecules move from that sound source out into space. When a single microphone is struck by those moving air molecules, it’s converted to an electrical signal which goes to the mic preamp and into whatever interface you use for recording. Assuming all of your wiring is correct, it will then go thru that chain and come out your speakers with a positive push from your speakers. (The speaker moves toward you) So with one mic, all is well, generally speaking. (I’ll address this more in Recording tip #28 for when that might not be the case)

So again, assuming all is well with one mic, you’re fine. But if you use more than one mic you need to check for phase consistency. Why is that? The most obvious example for this is when you record drums. Here you typically have overhead mics, and mics on the toms, snare, high hat, and kick drum. When the drummer strikes the snare or toms, the pressure wave moves from the drum into the air, captured by the close mic as well as the overhead mics. Now hopefully all of the mics, the mic cables and preamps are all wired alike. Most times that will be the case. However, even if it is the case it’s possible to have the distant mics in such a position where they’re not capturing the pressure wave in the same cycle as the close mics. If that’s the case, when they are added together in the mix, you’ll find that certain frequencies will be cancelled to some degree. And if your cables or the mics themselves are wired wrong, this cancellation will happen as well.

The technical reason is this. Remember the sine wave graph from your math classes? From it’s beginning the waveform moves up into a positive form, then down to the negative part of the waveform and then back up. In a perfect scenario the sound pressure waves created when the drummer hits the snare or tom will be in alignment in both mics. But it’s possible that with the placement of the mics relative to one another, that might not happen. With one mic the waveform begins moving up to a positive form, and the other catches the waveform moving down. When that happens part of the frequencies will cancel when combined.

That’s why you need to check phase. So let me walk you thru my method for checking phase when recording drums.

Everyone begins drum sounds differently. George Massenburg begins with the overheads and I do as well. I’ll ask the drummer play a basic groove; kick, snare, high hat. I’ll listen to the overheads and make sure they’re in phase. Now with experience you can tell if the overheads alone are in phase. But if you’re not sure, try flipping the phase of the overheads. When they are in phase you should get a solid center position of the snare drum between the speakers. ( Huge assumption here....I assume your speakers are in phase with each need to have that right, but I’ll not get into that here.) Anyway, when I hear the overheads are good, I’ll mute them, and then go to the kick drum. Once I have a basic eq, I’ll then turn on the snare mic and listen with the overheads. But before I eq the snare I flip the phase button back and forth. When I hear a deeper sound of the snare that’s correct phase relationship. The same is true of the tom mics. I’ll have the drummer hit each drum and check phase before I begin to eq. To begin to eq before you check phase could make you backtrack because the change of phase will have a huge impact on how they sound, especially on the bottom end. That’s because the frequencies which are most affected by phase are the lower frequencies. Those frequencies will cancel more readily than others. What about checking phase with the kick drum mic? I will do that. But more times than not they don’t have those problems. However, if things aren’t sounding right, I’ll check that as well. As for the high hat, due to the high frequencies of the high hat, it’s in my experience never an issue. (Ok...yeah...never say never...but you get my drift)

Here’s a good tip in checking phase. When checking phase a good thing to do is to put the signals to mono. It can be easier, especially if you have tom mics panned hard left and right, to hear phase issues when in mono. Also, play with the balance between the snare, tom or whatever. If the close mic is too loud, you’ll not hear the potential phase issues.

By the way, an interesting thing to do after the drum have been recorded is to zoom in to sample level and compare waveforms of the close mics verses the overheads. You’ll clearly see that the waveform of the close mics are ahead in time as compared to the overhead mics. Some folks will move the overheads files so they’re in the same time as the close mics. I don’t advocate that. To me, that delay is a part of what creates the sound of a drum kit. We never could it in the analog days and arguably the best sounding records came from that era. So I don’t go down that rabbit hole. The same is true of some guys who do orchestra recordings. Some move the ambient mics in time to the close mics. I get that...but to me, that’s part of what makes things sound good. And as far as I’m aware, none of the best engineers in the business do that. And neither do I.

Now getting back to pop music...this phase issue is also true of recording guitars with multiple mics and especially a bass guitar when using a direct signal and an amp. The direct signal will get there first...pure physics. Most of the time you’ll not need to flip the phase of either. But you do check that. Sometimes it’s a clear 180 degree phase problem. Other times, it needs something in between. No matter which phase you pick, you hear some cancellation. If so, go move the mic on the amp. You need to find a place where the signals add in a positive way.

But if you get a mix where things don’t work with either in or out of phase, there are some solutions available. Littlelabs has a a plugin which is as far as I know, is only offered by Universal Audio. That plugin can move between the typical 180 degree phase shift. That can be a good solution if you have it. But if you don’t you can move the waveform of the mic. That’s the only situation where I will move a waveform and that’s to correct an error in the recording.

I hope this answers a bit of the mystery of phase issues. At times it can be a big deal. So be sure you check it out.

Recording Tip 22: In prepping the mix, don’t edit the tom-tom tracks. If the mixer wants that done, they can do it

This may be another tip to which some disagree. But in my own experience I’d rather have the tom tracks left alone. If the mixer wants that to be done, they can do it It doesn’t take that much time, and they can edit it the way they want. Personally I've had to re-edit more times than not! I know of many mixers who want that ringing and bleed to be there. Jack Joseph Puig, for one stated he’d rather have them un-edited tom tracks as he prefers the sound of the whole kit. So I recommend to give it to the engineer as is and they’ll make that choice.

Hopefully the drums were well recorded and there’s no need for this. But if you have a track which has real problems and you feel it's needed, make a playlist of them raw, and then carefully edit the tom tracks as an alternate. But for sure don’t edit and then consolidate the tracks so there’s no way to get it back. Only the mixer will know once they begins the mix if that raw track is what’s needed for the mix.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Perception is Reality?

Perception is reality?
It’s a well-worn phrase, but not always true, especially in music. And in making pop music, it’s especially a question when it comes to mixing. Just ask yourself, how many albums have you heard which sound really dreadful? You scratch your head and wonder how was it possible those mixes got approved.
I remember when I was a young assistant engineer at Bill Schnee Studios and discussing a particularly bad sounding album with the tech. “How could they make such awful sounding mixes?” I asked. He told me that as bizarre is it may be, for some reason everybody there thought they were great. They no doubt played back their mixes in their cars, and home and signed off on it. Somehow they were convinced it was good...but it wasn’t.
I’ve thought about this a lot. I don't want to be fooled into a bad one does. And there are some albums I’ve mixed that I'll play for no one, so by no means am I claiming I’ve never been in this situation. But how do you keep that from happening?
In thinking about this I recalled a funny situation on a session back when I was an assistant. The producer was very successful; his engineer was an up-and-coming engineer/mixer, whom today is one of the top mixers in the world. Both of these men have done work all of you have heard countless times on the radio. The names are redacted to protect the guilty!
It was a tracking session and we were on a break. The producer, who’d done a good bit of mixing, told a story of a recent mix he'd done. He'd put some EQ on one of the tracks.,,,or so he thought. He tweaked away and after a few minutes was satisfied with the results. He told us he looked down at the EQ...and you guessed it! It wasn’t even engaged! All that time he’d been doing nothing. We had a good laugh, the engineer knowingly, but admitting nothing.
Well about that time the band had come back in and began playing. The producer asked the engineer to put some EQ the bass guitar to get a bit more definition in it. So the engineer went right at it, fiddling the knobs for ten or fifteen seconds. Listening, working away. I looked down to see what he was doing and sure enough! In fact the EQ on the console WASN’T ENGAGED! The same story the producer had told not five minutes before! The engineer continued on...I thinking at any minute he’ll realize what was happening...or wasn’t happening. I tried in vain to cover for him and discreetly get his attention to the “In” button on the EQ. Confused at my vague head jerks and subtle finger pointing he yelled, ‘WHAT?? WHAT??” So I finally pointed to the “In” button. The producer of course saw all this and burst out laughing! The engineer turned beet red, and with a large dramatic hand gesture inserted the EQ, and finished the job.
Of course this is something that’s happened to anyone who’s done a good bit of work. More than we’d care to admit. Clearly it’s possible we can “hear” changes when we’re in fact, doing nothing.
But let’s take that phenomenon one step further.
If our brains can fool us into thinking we’re doing something when nothing is happening, then it can also fool us when something IS happening. This is why sometimes after a break we come back to the mix and think, “Geez! That snare still sucks! I worked on it for thirty minutes and thought it was good. What the heck?”
This time we’ve worked away and actually made changes. But we heard what we wanted to hear, not what was actually happening. Our perception was NOT reality!
So how can we keep this from happening? These are a few of things that I do. Stop every hour or so for a short break. Critical listening can be tough work, and allowing your brain to rest it is a good thing to do. Set a timer if you are OCD and get too carried away. It’s also good to make an early CD ref and listen in your car or wherever without waiting till the traditional time when you think the mix is almost done. It’s also good to keep a reference CD or iTunes playlist running and refer to it from time to time. It can keep you on track and you may even get a good idea from the albums you’re listening to. It’s helpful if it’s musically similar to what you’re doing, but even if not, just a change is good.
I think great mixers have at least two great qualities that factor into this conversation. They have great mixing skills and they have the ability to hear what they're doing when they're doing it. Most of us know a good mix when we hear it. So it comes down to our abilities to mix and keeping a good perspective on what we’re doing. Never believe your own hype (if you have it) It’s easy to think of your work like some parents view their children. They all think their babies are the cutest and smartest ever.
But this isn’t a child. It’s quite possibly your living.

Saturday, May 14, 2011


That’s one of those word which, depending on the context can mean several things.

“He’s got an attitude!” Not good.

“She plays with attitude!” Good.

The word has positive and negative interpretations. But what I want to discuss is the negative one.

Let’s cut to the chase. The fact is this. Once one has sufficient skills, what’s most likely to get you to be called for a gig is the demeanor you bring to a gig, a session, whatever. Yeah sure, talent is in short supply. But what’s in even shorter supply is someone with great talent and a positive vibe. If you can be that person, your chances of getting work go up a 1000%.

I’ve been blessed to work with some of the greatest musicians and producers on the planet. And let me tell you, most all of them have a great personality and vibe. They not only play great, the are a blast to be around and inspire everyone around them. Human behavior is something to pay attention to. So when working with people, notice these things. And while musical skills and a personal skills are two different things, I’ve found that almost without exception the greatest musicians I know have both.

While personality alone a great career cannot make, the world is full of those who have such negative vibes you’d not want to spend any more time with them than you have to. What is also certain is that it’s hard enough to make a living in this business. And if you are perceived as a PITA (pain in the ass) your chances of being a part of a project will drop considerably.

In my last post “There Are No Small Gigs” I mentioned an experience I had and learned first-hand about this. I gained tens of thousands of dollars of work from a client who wanted nothing to do with a certain engineer, who was more experienced, better than I at that time, due only to his attitude. He was a PITA, and that cost him.

I’ll admit that I’ve learned this the hard way. I can have an intense vibe which can be seen as negative, even when what’s in my heart isn’t that at all. Once I was working with a good friend who commented that I had a “mad face.” I wasn’t mad or even bothered, but my face showed a negative vibe. We laughed about it, but the lesson rang home. I needed to be careful of my facial expressions and try to let that never happened again. Had I been working with someone I didn’t know, they’d have come to the conclusion that I had a bad attitude and it could have cost me a gig.

I know I’ve not been fully successful at all times. But I am at least aware of it. My facial expressions are not always in harmony with my inner self. So I must be sure to try to remember that lesson and keep a good vibe, starting with of all things, my facial expression.

Always remember when you show up it’s imperative to have a good attitude, your game-face on...happy to be there. You may have had a bad morning, or feel you’re not paid enough, or any number of other negative emotions which can follow you to the gig. But no one cares about that. They want you to toss that aside and bring with you a creative spirit, and show you’re happy to be there.

And always, always remember that the producer and artist have their own issues and problems, most of which you’ll never be aware. You’re there to serve them, not your own musical aspirations. Get the ego out of the way, accept criticism with eagerness to learn something new, and be grateful that someone thought enough of your skills that they’d pay you money to do something you love. Work hard at your musical skills, expect more from yourself than anyone ever will, have a great spirit about you and will have a good chance of a long, sucessful career.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

There Are No Small Gigs

If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that there’s no such thing as small gig. Every job you ever take has its repercussions, positive or negative. Rarely are they neutral. And the fact is, in my experience I’ve found that the gigs which may seem less significant, often are much more significant than I’d ever imagined.

A perfect example of this is what happened soon after I’d moved from LA to Nashville. Of course I was trying to establish myself and get work. Things were going ok, but I needed a decent bump in my work. One spring day I was at home and the phone rang. One the line was an old buddy, Bob Parr from LA. He’d moved here a few years before. We were friends but had never worked together. After a minute of catching up he said he needed some simple engineering work and wondered if I’d mind coming down for a few hours. Frankly, I wasn’t that excited about it. It was a nice day, and I had ideas of grilling and a nice cabernet to wind up the evening. But I thought I might as well even if it was for not that much money and no offerings of anything beyond that. So I came down and we recorded Bob playing bass for a few hours. I thought that would be it. Just fill-in work for someone else.

Well the one afternoon of work turned into two months. I was busy with my old LA buddy almost every day.

When that project finally finished I found myself working as Bob’s main guy and filling in for other sessions that came to his studio. Fast forward another few weeks. Bob called and says he’s doing a quick sound-alike for a client. He needed to make an instrumental version of the Beatles’ song “Revolution” and asked if I could I come in right away. Once again I had soft plans for the evening, but now I’m beginning to learn. Always take the gig!

So I grabbed my Neve 1073s, thinking the distortion those puppies could make would be perfect for what was needed. When I arrive another old friend, Chris Rodriguez was there to play guitar. It wasn’t rocket science. I’d read how Geoff Emerick made that sound. We just plugged in direct and I turned the mic preamp ALL the way up....and there was that great sound! A few hours later I mixed it and we were done.

Two days later Chris calls and tells me he’s about to make an album of his own and asked me to take on the project. Clearly I’d made an impression on him with those guitar tones. Of course I wanted to do that. Chris is a great talent and it would be great fun and a great project. Well little did I know that the co-producer on the album would be a fellow who was an A&R guy for one of the major labels in town. Through that I became HIS main guy and worked on every project he did for the next three years. After that he left the label and moved to California to pursue other things. But the fallout of this was that I became well established in Nashville. And all because I decided to forgo an evening cookout!

I’ve worked with many major artists See my linkedin page As well as a #1 Billboard hit record. But as great as those gigs were, none of them have generated even a smidgen of the work that came from that little bass overdub for Bob.

A footnote on this story is two-fold. One, always take the gig! And always, ALWAYS show up with your game-face on, a great attitude and no matter if it’s a first time artist who knows nothing, or a well established legend you always wanted to work with, give it your all. No half measures. And always work with one mentality...that it’s the best job you can possibly do. It may turn out to be something great, or not. But plant the seeds of good work and people will notice.

The flip-side of this is true as well. When I was in LA I began to get calls to do some sessions from someone I knew a bit, but not very well. The gigs were orchestra dates and I knew the engineer who was normally called for these sessions. This engineer is one of the very best in LA for such a call and a mentor to me. Frankly I was wondering why I they called me. Well I found out why. The reason was this fellow, despite his immense skills, had serious problems with his people skills. His attitude was so poor that the composer told the contractor he never wanted to see him again. So from that, there was a lot of work with them for the remaining time I was in LA.

The subject of people skills is worthy of another blog which I’ll do soon. But suffice to say what I said in the beginning. Ever session you take will have its repercussions, positive or negative. So my advice is what I’ve stated. There are no small gigs. You never know what small session could end up allowing you to meet someone, or do something that changes your professional life. And never work in half measures. Take the gig and give it all you got. Such efforts are how careers are made.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Home Recording Tip 21: When recording drums, always listen to the snare soloed to make sure there’s not too much high hat bleed

This comment is obvious for anyone who’s had to mix a snare with tons of high hat bleeding into it. A loud high hat can really ruin a great drum sound. It can get not only in the snare mic, but the toms as well. And the bleed can make all of your eq difficult. When you add top end to the toms, and especially snare, the high hat comes up in level. And it’s not a good sound. It’s an over eq-ed sound which never really works.

So how do you keep that from happening? Well as I said, solo the snare while you’re recording. If things are good, great. But what if they’re not?

A lot depends upon the drummer and their background. If they’ve played mostly live gigs, then playing it too loudly can be a result of feeling they need to hit hard as they can’t hear themselves. However, even some studio players will lay hard on the hat. The first thing is to have a conversation with them one-on-one. Don’t do it over the talkback as it can put them on the spot and make them feel they’re being criticized. Take an appropriate moment, turn off the mics and tell them that they have a role like you. They are really a mixer of sorts. They have control of the volume of each drum. For it to sound great, they need to be aware of the relative balances of their kit. They are the mixer of their instrument! This concept was told to me by the late, legendary LA drummer Carlos Vega. If they are to do their part, they need to be aware that the first balances first come from their hands. How hard they hit is paramount to a great sound. They need to create a balance of the drum kit. Let them know in a postive way that they sound great, but that you’re getting more high hat in the mix than is necessary.

So what do you do after that conversation and there’s not change? My old boss Bill Schnee wisely said, then turn up the high hat in their phones until their ears bleed! Okay...that’s an overstatement, but the basics are true. Turn up the hat in their phones so they hear and feel the high hat volume to the point where they will naturally not hit it so hard. Hopefully that will do the trick.

I’ve heard of people putting an acoustic baffle between the high hat and the snare, but I’ve never resorted to that. It’s hard to find something that would work, and frankly, I’m not sure how well it would work, but that is an option. Better that the drummer lays off the high hat on their own.

All that to say, when recording be aware of this. It will make for a better mix.

Cymbals, Overhead mics and Electric Guitars

A friend of mine and I were discussing recording the other day. He’s a great engineer and the conversation eventually moved on to the subject of drum overhead mics and cymbals. He and I were both rather big believers that the cymbals and drum overhead mic choices make a huge difference not just on the sound of the drums themselves, but on the sound of the entire record.

Over the years I’ve come to believe this so much that even if the album is piano based I’ll put my C12s on the drum overheads and find a good second choice for the piano. The reason is if the drums sound nice, clear and open, then the piano will sounds better. When I mentioned this my buddy made the comment, “Good cymbal choices are the key to great guitar tones.”

What he means of course includes the choice of great overhead drum mics, but also goes to the cymbals themselves. I’m fortunate to have worked with the finest drummers from LA to London and to a person they’d pretty much all say that if their drum kits were stolen, they’d be upset, but if their cymbals were stolen, they’d cry! It’s just much harder to find great cymbals and all good drummers cymbal collection is a product of years of searching. Bad ones can be too bright, some dark, some brassy...some just don’t sound beautiful, but nasty. But when you find good ones, everything in the kit sounds better. My friend has worked with a lot of bands over the years. Even though he’s not a drummer, he has a collection of cymbals because the drummers who showed up had bad sounding cymbals. And if those are recorded at mix time we mixers find ourselves trying to right the wrongs of of them and how they relate to the track. The frequency range of a cymbal, while mostly high frequencies, also falls into the ranges of vocals, snare, and especially electric guitars. Get the cymbals sounding good, and you’d be amazed how much better everything in the mix will sound, especially electric guitars.

Some may ask, “How can I know what the best sounding cymbal is?” It takes lots of time to find out. Drummers I know who have endorsements with cymbal makers will sometimes spend most of a day at the factory hitting different cymbals and hopefully walk away with a few they love. Like any other musical instrument, you just have to go and spend the time listening. Take it back to the studio, record and listen back. Trial and error is the only way until you get enough experience to know what works and what doesn’t.

While I’m on this, drummers I want to mention this to you. Do whatever you wish live, but in the studio you really need to get some distance between the toms and the cymbals. I’ve had some drummer come in where the cymbals literally covered half the tom and were only a few inches off the heads when struck. That just doesn’t work for recording. You need to have at least a 12” and preferably 24” gap between the top of the tom and the cymbal. That’s not just so we can get mics in place, (which does matter) but when they are too low the cymbals bleed into the everything....toms, snare, high hat...even the bass drum. And this bleed gets grabbed when we eq the snare and toms, compounding the bad cymbal sound previously discussed. Raise ‘em up...things will sound better.