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.