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.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Home Recording Tip 20: Always record and comp the vocal without monitoring thru Autotune

Autotune is one of those assumed evils of modern recording. And while I hope that you have the pleasure as I have, working with artists who can make an A+ vocal performance without “sending it to the cleaners” most often some vocal tuning will need to be done. And frankly I have no problem with that. After all, is it any more honest to sing a line over and over until it’s finally right as opposed to a brilliantly sung first take which needs just a bit of help in a spot? Ok...that’s my argument on tuning. You can of course disagree...but you better have a good vocal to back it up..

But if you use it, you of course don’t want it in while recording. And you really shouldn’t have it in during the comp process. You really need to hear the vocal naturally so you’re hearing the best lines as they are. You may want to check a great line with the tuner in to see how it changes the pitch in order to help you make a decision, but in general, you’ll make better choices by leaving it off.