Thursday, June 05, 2014
RE/P Files: An Interview With Noted Engineer/Producer Val Garay
From the archives of the late, great Recording Engineer/Producer (RE/P) magazine, enjoy this in-depth discussion with engineer/ producer Val Garay, conducted by Robert Carr. This article dates back to the October 1983 issue.
As a natural extension to his career as a musician during the early Sixties, Val Garay’s love for music lead him to pursue the art and science of audio engineering. Starting in 1969, he apprenticed at the Sound Factory, Hollywood, under rock-recording legend Dave Hassinger (Rolling Stones, Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Seals and Crofts).
After turning independent, Garay formed an alliance with another ex-musician, Britisher Peter Asher. The association produced monster hits for Asher’s clients Linda Ronstadt (Heart Like a Wheel, Prisoner in Disguise, Hasten Down the Wind, Simple Dreams, Living in the USA, Mad Love) and James Taylor (J.T., Flag, Dad Loves His Work).
Garay eventually became dissatisfied at the Sound Factory, and the inconsistencies attendant with moving from one studio to another, at which point he decided the best course of action was to open his own facility, Record One, located in Sherman Oaks, just north of Los Angeles, and which now serves as his recording home.
The following interview took place among the dozens of Gold and Platinum albums lining the walls in Garay’s private office. After a few words on his recent accomplishments as producer/engineer with Kim Carnes (Mistaken Identity; 1981 “Record of the Year” Grammy Winner for “Bette Davis Eyes”), Randy Meisner (One More Song), Joan Armatrading (The Key), and the Motels (All Four One), a band that Garay also manages, the conversation turned to the opportunities and advantages to an engineer/producer owning one’s own personal-use studio.
Robert Carr: It must be particularly convenient to have your own studio, which enables you to take the time to perfect each project you work on?
Val Garay: It is and it isn’t. Sometimes it’s a pain in the ass, because you have to deal with the business end of owning a studio, which I’m not terribly fond of. I don’t like to sit there with calculators and figure out the plus and minus side of the operation. I like to make records, which is a lot more creative, and pretty soon I’ll start making a film. [A feature film based in part on Motels’ lead singer Martha Davis’ life currently is in its development stages.]
Owning your own facility is kind of a necessary evil in the sense that if you subject yourself to a commercially rented studio, you subject yourself to someone else’s tastes—not only in terms of equipment and design, but also maintenance and other things. I was fortunate to spend the first eight or nine years of my engineering career in one recording studio [Record Factory in Hollywood] and the rest of the time here [Record One]. I wasn’t subjected to going from one studio to another. It’s too unsettling for me.
RC: Is stability of that nature necessary for you to make a good product?
VG: I think you perform better when you have familiar surroundings and equipment that you’re used to working with. If you were a “body-and-fender” man, to put it on a mundane level, and you were wondering around the streets doing your work every day using tools in different areas, I’m sure you wouldn’t be as proficient as if you had your own body shop. It’s basically the same thing here.
The only problem is that this is a two-million-dollar operation, so it requires a lot of attention. And I’m not the only one who uses this studio. We rent the studio to a lot of clients, and I’m constantly having to book around other people. In all fairness, if I decided to work tomorrow, I couldn’t bump Toto out of the studio. I’m basically a customer here, too; that can be frustrating at times.
RC: Couldn’t you divest yourself of the day-to-day running of the studio, and put someone else in charge?
VG: No, I can’t. It’s the same way that I make records. I have to concern myself with every fragment, or something starts to dissipate or disintegrate. If you’re not in contact with what’s going on, you can’t catch it before it gets too bad.
RC: I assume that kind of philosophy is what motivated you to become involved with both engineering and producing the projects you take on?
VG: I’ve been working this way for 15 years. I just wasn’t successful as [only] a producer. But it’s very difficult to try and hire somebody to engineer records when, in my mind, and I don’t mean this egotistically, I’m one of the best engineers I know. How could I hire somebody else? All the really good up and coming engineers that I know are people I taught. And you know that you teach them everything they know, not everything you know.
Greg Ladanyi won a Grammy last year for the Toto IV record, and I taught him. I was just reading an article in Re/p on Gabe Veltri [April 1983 issue Ed.]. When I got perturbed at the Sound Factory at one time in my career and went over to Richard’s [Perry] studio for about a year and worked, Gabe was my go-fer. Now I see him in his sweater and tinted glasses behind the console.
It would be very difficult for me to hire someone as my engineer, unless I worked with someone in my peer group. I could work with [Bill] Schnee, because we came out of the same school in the same time frame. But when you have somebody else to deal with, you have another personality, another X-Factor in the formula. That tends to dilute the process sometimes. Whereas right now, I don’t have a whole lot of conversation with my engineer about how I want to do something, because he knows how I want to do it, since he is me.
RC: A lot of producers don’t like to handle both functions for the same project, because they feel they’ll be missing some production aspect while they’re working with the equipment, or vice versa.
VG: It can be hard. But here’s how I do it, which is actually pretty easy, because I’ve figured out a method that works. I spend an immense amount of time rehearsing, which is why I built a rehearsal studio in here [Record One]. That’s when I sort out the musical part of the record-making process—the instrumentation; the arrangements; the basic architecture of the song [see accompanying sidebar].
The ratio of rehearsal-to-recording time is about two-to-one. If we spent eight months making a record, two-thirds of that was rehearsing, and the other third recording. We figure everything out in absolute detail and make cassettes at each juncture as we go along. I could play you cassettes of the Motels’ album [All Four One] that shows one song passing through four stages of arrangement.
Sometimes we’ll get into the studio, cut the tracks, not get it, come back to rehearsal, and work on the arrangement even more. By the time we get to the studio, I’m thoroughly familiar with the song. There are so few changes made while we’re recording that I can become an engineer and get a sound that I like.
Once I’ve accomplished that, there’s really nothing more to laying it down than cutting a vocal, and I can do that without even thinking about it; my hands respond unconsciously to how my ear wants to hear the vocal track. I don’t even look at VU meters anymore. I’m totally conscious of the music when it’s going down, and I can tell a great take from a bad one instantly.
I also make notes. I keep a loose-leaf notebook for every group I work with. Here’s the Motels’; this book represents the last album we did. [Holds up a black binder and opens to a page about halfway into the book.] If you look at “Only the Lonely,” for example: this is the lyric sheet [flips page]; I have the date on the top of each sheet. These are the fixes we did on the vocal; the numbers of the takes with little one- and two-word descriptions after each one.
As the track is going down I make notes: “CT” equals complete take; “FS” equals false start, etc. [Sample comments: “bad sax”; “good take”; “the run-through was good in spots”; “still some mistakes”; “end is not tight”; “magnificent from solo on”; “the last hit was perfect.”] Here is my star system, actually stolen from Peter Asher: two or more stars means that the take was really good.
I keep pretty accurate notes of everything that I’ve done on every record. Sometimes the notes get more excessive or less depending on how hard it is to cut.
Here’s Kim’s album, Mistaken Identity. [Garay pulls out another binder from the pile, and opens to a page.] “Bette Davis Eyes”—that was the first complete take. Then in the back is usually the songs that didn’t make it. “The Lover” didn’t make it, obviously. Neither did “New Orleans Ladies,” “Here Comes the Bad One,” “Good Friend,” “Games,” “If You Don’t Want My Love”; these are songs that never made it as we were working on the album.
RC: Did you spend time pre-producing all these songs that didn’t make it?
VG: We rehearsed them. The ratio I’ve found in the past is usually three or four to one, meaning 30 to 40 songs to get 10 finished ones. For every three or four songs, you’ll get one that not only suits the artist, but is also strong enough to use on the album.
RC: Do you keep those rejected songs for use in the future?
VG: It’s a nice idea, but unfortunately it never works. If they are not good enough for this album, usually they won’t be strong enough for anyone.
RC: You’re really playing the numbers. You start with a lot of songs, and slowly weed them out until the good ones turn up?
VG: Not necessarily. When I started the new Motels’ album in January 1983, we had three songs. Three became one; one became none. Then we started over again. We have all 10 songs now [July 1983].
RC: If you do spend six to eight months or a year on an album, is it cost-effective to do everything yourself, assuming that your time is worth quite a bit of money?
VG: Hiring someone else to do those things would not change the time frame at all. We’d have to rehearse just as long, and it wouldn’t change the engineering. I originally did all the pre-production out of fear of not being prepared in the studio, and not being able to make things sound good. But, in reality, that kind of time is required to do a good job, regardless of whether you’re engineering or not. One sort of facilitates the other anyway.
I make most of my records live with very few overdubs. I think that records are better that way, especially if you’re working with great singers, which I have had the great fortune to do.
Yet certain singers thrive on the overdubbing process. I’ve never seen a great singer, who overdubs his vocal, sing a part from top to bottom, and use 98 percent of it. The minute they get into the overdub design of doing vocals, they’ll do eight takes and comp (compile or combine) eight to one track, and then do eight more and comp them. Basically what they do is use their ear as a singer to pick what they sing best, and sort of assemble the finished vocal track mechanically. In the end, it usually sounds like they sang it from top to bottom.
Don Henley does that very well—although I don’t know why he does it, because he’s a great singer. In fact, all the Eagles did it that way for years. Jackson Browne does it the same way. They go as far as comping syllables. “Well, the t-h-e of that word is a little flat.” So they’ll switch at that point to another vocal track that has that syllable a little more in tune. The layman can’t really hear all these comps. I did that with Randy Meisner’s album; there were a million switches in that.
With the Eagles, (Meisner) was used to singing in only one register, which was really high. But for a solo record, where you’re the lead singer, you have to cover all the areas. His lower ranges were a little more tentative, and he would sing out of tune more often. In order to get it in tune, we had to do the vocal tracks that way.
But when you have a singer like Martha (Davis, of the Motels), Kim Carnes, Linda Ronstadt, or James Taylor, those people are great singers. They have great intonation. The best vocal performances I ever recorded with Linda were the live ones with a few fixes—you fix one word here, and one word there. “Blue Bayou” was live; “Ooh, Baby Baby” was live. In fact, that whole record was. Also, “Bette Davis Eyes” by Kim was totally live.
RC: I remember reading a couple of reviews about Linda Ronstadt’s album to the effect that, because the recording sounded so perfect, the critics thought it had been “produced to death.” How do you react to such comments.?
VG: The pre-production was really good. The interesting thing is that Linda never learned the songs until she got in the studio. She would sort of sluff her way through the rehearsals. The band would learn the songs, but she wouldn’t even know the lyrics most of the time—she’d be reading from a sheet! But she’s such a great singer that she can evoke emotions that sound like she’s torn. She’d usually learn the lyrics in a couple of run-downs in the studio.
Martha (Davis) is a great singer. When you have someone that sings as well as she does, and a band that’s got the tune down—and they’re interacting in a live-performance situation, even on a record—it’s much more real and emotional, and more moving, when it’s all going down at once, and one person is playing off the other. If you have a strong drummer that doesn’t move if the singer rushes or drags, then the track stays steady; the singer is singing and the band is following the singer, instead of a singer following a music track that’s [already] laid. It’s a whole different method. That’s why Elvis Presley records made in the Fifties still hold up; they were done Iive.
RC: You work with these artists for such a long time during pre-production and recording. It must be inevitable that you develop a close friendship with them after a while. In a way, doesn’t it become harder to be critical of their work?
VG: It becomes easier, the more familiar you get with them, because the barriers and defenses go down. It’s easier for me to be frank with Martha three years later, than it was the first month, because: A, I was afraid of hurting her feelings; and, B, afraid of what she was going to think of me. Is she going to think I’m a tyrant?
No, the more familiar you become, the more open the lines of communication. You’re more comfortable with the person, and there is less and less need for dialog. She knows what I want from her as a performer; I know, hopefully, what she wants, and we get to the point a lot quicker.
RC: I would also think that it provides you with an insight into knowing when to kick them forward, and when to dangle the carrot in front to get them going.
VG: Absolutely. I’ve known her so long that I know when to say it’s over; go home. Sometimes it’s five o’clock at night; sometimes it’s three o’clock in the morning. I know when the productivity level has peaked. That’s when I go, “Good night. See you tomorrow.”
RC: I noticed that you tend to rely on the same session players for most of your dates. Does that stem from the same sort of philosophy . . . that you know them so well there’s an extra efficiency?
VG: Sort of, but I think it has to do with more than that—a love affair with a great player. I’m sure that just as directors fall in love with actors and actresses, producers fall in love with musicians. I don’t mean in a sexual connotation, but on an emotional level. When I first heard Russ Kunkel play drums, I was in awe.
And he was a young man just starting out. But he had that thing that when you hear a great drummer, whether it’s in the early raw form, or the finished polished form, you just know when you hear it. At least I do. So I worked with basically the same 10 musicians for 10 years.
When it came time for me to make a break with [producer] Peter[Asher], and start producing on my own, I knew it was imperative that I build my own little group of musicians, as opposed to using his. His were used to his method of operation. Although I learned a lot from the man, I wasn’t going to do it the same way. That’s when I started looking for the guys I wanted to use.
It’s hard, too, because when you’ve dealt with the Waddy Wachtels, and the Leland Sklars and Russ Kunkels of rock and roll, you’ve set a standard that is pretty hard to duplicate. But I did, although I still go back and use Waddy from time to time.
RC: What do you look for when selecting musicians for a session?
VG: I guess my own taste in musicianship. I know very few musicians who are feverish readers—playing noted parts that are written out. They can read their way through a rough chart, because most of the stuff we write out is just chord charts to give the people a guide to follow. I look basically for the feel they have for playing.
RC: Many producers and engineers prefer not to work with the same people most of the time, because they feel that they reach a certain point in their careers where it’s difficult to remain creative.
VG: That happened with the old group of musicians I worked with when I was with Peter Asher all those years. But [deciding] when it happens is not that clear cut. It’s not that suddenly they don’t become creative anymore, because their wonderful talent doesn’t go away.
It’s just that you fall into a rut. It’s like Steve Garvey playing for the [LA] Dodgers all those years, and last year he wasn’t playing that well. Then he goes to San Diego, and he’s killing them.
The same thing happens with musicians—familiarity breeds contempt. The temptation is to start getting lackadaisical. I know I can get a good drum sound on Russ Kunkel without turning up the speakers. I could leave them shut off, EQ them, balance them on VU meters, and know it would sound great, because I’ve worked with him that long. When you get to that point, you lose the fear.
When I make records, I operate under a fear premise that this project won’t sound good enough, won’t feel good enough, won’t something good enough. It’s fear. If I sit there and kick back, knowing I can get a great sound on these guys, because they’re all going to play great, I’ve lost that hungry, street-level edge that got me here. That’s what becomes difficult in terms of creativity.
Here’s the difference; you’ve got the Phoenix Sun Devils and the New York Yankees. I’m sure there are days when the New York Yankees do not feel like playing baseball, but they do, because they’re professionals. The same thing holds true in this business. When you’re a professional, and you’re good, you’re respected, and you’ve reached a certain level of proficiency, you then have to figure out how to motivate yourself day after day. I have trouble with it.
I’ve been sitting in a control room for 15 years looking at a pair of speakers. It’s hard for me sometimes to go in there when I would rather be out in the sun sailing to Catalina, or playing gold at Riviera. I have other interests. But I have to get that fear of, “Is this going to be a hit record?” Well, it’s not going to be a hit record if I don’t work on it. And it’s not going to be a hit record if I don’t put into it what I put into the last one.
You have to motivate yourself. That’s how I do it—with fear. There’s that guy right behind me; he’s right on my heels. Until I decide to move into another area, I have to keep motivated. I have to keep up with the technology; keep my ears and eyes open all the time.
RC: Other than the fear, are there other little games that you play to persuade yourself to look at the project a little bit differently, and to uncover new avenues?
VG: Yes. There’s pressure…
RC: Under pressure, wouldn’t you fall back on the proven techniques and tricks you know work to get the job done?
VG: No. Well, there is a certain formula that is ingrained in all of that—what I call the basic foundation—that I live with. I never get rid of that. When my foundation was assembled in terms of making records, it was concrete—it was solid. I know what works. I also know the key to any record is a song. So if l do my homework in the song department, I can produce it in terms of the “production.”
Maybe not as well as the last record; I can sluff off in terms of the arrangement. But if it’s “Every Breath You Take,” I don’t care if you cut it on a cassette machine in a phone booth in Tahiti; it’s a hit. So most of the work I do is basically in the song line-up.
For the rest of the job, I’m fortunate. I learned from a great teacher how to make records; I know how to make them sound great. I can do R&B; I can do rock and roll; I can do country music ... pop music. I’ve done all of them successftdly. I’ve had a well-rounded career doing acts like that, so it’s just a matter of finding things that I’m comfortable with.
RC: Up until now, we’ve been discussing primarily rock projects. Do you feel you’ve become something of a rock specialist?
VG: I think that was done out of self-defense. By the time I was done with eight or nine years of Linda and James, I was stamped as the engineer for country-pop—the “California, surfboards, and tuna-fish” engineer. Oddly enough, my roots were always in rock and roll long before I ever did anything with Linda and James. So, out of self defense, I went after projects with more of a raw, rock and-roll edge to them, to prove to people that I could do that type of music. That’s sort of where I’ve been for a while.
RC: Do you really feel that you’ve gotten stuck there?
VG: No. Not at all. I like it. I like to take acts that are slightly off-center - not mainstream pop acts, but slightly off-center, rock-and-roll acts—and make them mass-appealable. All the acts I’ve worked with since I started as a producer had not turned the corner and become big, successful recording acts before I worked with them. They were all a little bit off in terms of their style, or their singing, or their sound, or whatever. I figured out a way to make them acceptable to the masses.
Kim Carnes had made six albums before I started working with her. She had gone from the beautiful, southern California singer/songwriter, to the woman with the raspy “Rod Stewart” voice doing a song called “Bette Davis Eyes,” which is about as off the wall as anything you can ever write.
Martha [Davis] had made two albums before I worked with her—neither were successful. Everybody knew she had the potential. She was sort of the “Los Angeles, New-Wave hope.” People had assigned her the slot of heir apparent to the throne of the female, LA, rock and roll star. It hadn’t happened. Again, I think I helped figure out a way to make it work.
RC: Of all the albums I listened to, Kim Carnes’ Mistaken Identity sounded the most commercial. It had a Top-40 sound to the album, whereas the others—the Motels, Joan Armatrading, and Randy Meisner—didn’t.
VG: Joan’s record is pretty avant garde. I only did two tracks on that [album], and those two were probably the most commercial. The Motels’ album sounds really commercial to me, and considering how well it did sales-wise ... “Only the Lonely” is, to me, the classic cheek-to-cheek tune. I don’t really know what you mean. “Mission of Mercy” was a great AOR rock tune.
RC: I can describe it more in terms of colors. Mistaken Identity had a very light color to it, in the sense that you might hear it on a middle-of-the-road station. The other material comprised darker shades of colors.
VG: Right. Martha is a very dark writer. Kim has a lighter side to her that is really pleasing. To me, her real strength as a singer lies in the fact that she has this wonderful sensitivity. A song like “Mistaken Identity,” or “Bette Davis Eyes,” is amazingly captivating, because she can evoke both of those emotions out of you. Whereas, you listen to a song like “Break the Rules Tonight,” which is her screaming her ass off, and the guitars going “gggrrrk, ggrrk, ggrrk,” that’s good, but it’s not as believable to me as the other side of her.
RC: So part of your job is to establish a direction and identity for the artist, and have them remain credible within that identity?
VG: Absolutely. The toughest part of the job is to have them not lose credibility in their minds and, at the same time, be accessible to the masses. You don’t want them to feel like you are selling them out. You have to show them you’re on their side and, at the same time, strike a happy medium between the absolute avant garde side and the mainstream, pop medium, which sometimes tends to be a little bland.
Critics talk about an artist selling out when they rthe artists] get successful. The reason that all the avant garde, hard-core people think you are selling out, is because you appeal to the masses.
RC: You’re no longer something that they discovered?
VG: Right. I watched Hoyt Axton completely berate and belittle Linda for selling out when she made “Heart Like a Wheel,” because he was this hard-core country singer. She worked her ass off thinking that she was making a sound, artistic endeavor. Because it sold 2 1/2 million records does not mean she sold out. But, to him it did, because she was no longer his discovery.
RC: Is there a process that you go through to define an artist’s personality, or is that a difficult concept to put into words?
VG: It’s not that nebulous; it’s pretty real. The quickest and most efficient way of doing it is through songs. If the artist is a writer, they write great songs, and not as great songs. But they are not always the best judge of which ones are the great ones! My job is to find the great ones.
It’s a funny kind of “push-and-pull” process where I’ll listen to five tunes and say, “This is a good song; these four aren’t.” They’ll go, “Well, I really love this one, too.” And I tell them it’s not really that good, but we’ll work on it. Then we work on it, and it’s still not good, and I say, “Forget it. Let’s off it.” And they come back with, “No I really love it. We have to keep working on it!”
So we keep working on it. Sometimes you keep going over and over and over and finally you have to say, “Forget it! It stinks! Next tune!” Or you may get it. Suddenly it all comes together. We had a tune like that on this album with Martha. We started cutting in February and finally got it in . . . [flips through notebook of Motels’ sessions].
That’s a good note, huh? [Garay points to a qualitative note about a take on one of the pages.]
RC: Horrible! [Laughter] Do you show the artists this book as you go along?
VG: It sits in the control room next to me. They always come in and look to see what I said. That’s the first thing they do to find out if they got a take or not. [Continues to flip through pages.] Here you go. We started it 4/14/83. This is the first time we cut the song, so we know they’ve been rehearsing it for a week or two weeks in front of this. And we cut it on the 15th [flips through pages]. That version sat around for a while, and then we realized that it wasn’t right.
Then, the 24th of May: a new version. That didn’t fly. We changed the arrangement and we cut it again on 6/6/83. Then 617/83; that’s when we got it. The eighth take. Figure that’s almost two months on that one song to get a recorded version we liked.
RC: Did the song change that much during those eight weeks?
VG: Drastically. Four completely different versions. I still have them on cassettes.
RC: Would you say that a lot of artists really don’t know who they are? Or don’t have a really clear picture of themselves?
RC: So the whole idea during production is to cut through the illusion of who the artist thinks they are, and find the real self?
VG: I don’t tell them anything. I just help them find what they feel comfortable with, and what I think is an acceptable mode to the general masses, as opposed to a select few. The Motels were successful previously on an underground basis, because they made albums that were an avant garde kind of collector’s item. That’s about all they were. They had some great songs on there, but they just didn’t come out.
RC: There’s only a finite number of things you can do with a song…
VG: ... it’s endless. To give you an example: you have 10 songs on an album. When you go to sequence that album, what are the multiple number of ways that you can arrange those songs? Millions; about 3,856,000 and change. Yet if you gave me 10 songs and asked me to sequence them, after I became familiar enough with them I would say that every time I would get that sequence into four or five logical combinations.
RC: The songs tell you where they want to go?
VG: Kind of, but you also have an endless supply of options. And you never get to a point where you have exact figures. The technology changes so fast; the styles of music change so fast. Basically we’re looking at the parameters of tone and time. Time based on ... this year it’s more of a mechanical sound with mechanical drummers; synthesizers synchronized to the mechanical drummers with sequencers. Five years ago it was something else.
And song form has changed, too. It’s no longer verse-chorus-verse-chorus. That’s changed drastically, based on the boredom of familiarity. I can see Martha’s writing style change from the way John Phillips would write a song for the Mamas and Papas, which is classic Gershwin or Hammerstein kind of verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-etc.
RC: What about putting the arrangement together? Let’s say on a chorus, where the harmony comes in for the first line, solo voice for the second line, harmony again on the third line…
VG: Well, that’s pretty much not going to change a lot, because that’s basic song architecture. You want the beginning to be intriguing, and draw you in, but you want it to get bigger as it goes down the road.
Now there are a lot of “no music solos,” which five years ago you didn’t hear. I think I produced the first big hit with the first no·music solo in “Bette Davis Eyes.” That had no noted music in the solo; it was just a riff rolling over and over. That’s happening a lot. The Police record [“Every Breath You Take”] has almost no solo in it. A couple of tunes on Martha’s new album have no solos.
RC: Obviously there’s a constant striving to throw at least one new thing in every song?
VG: I think that happens by itself. Every time I’ve ever said, “Okay, this time we’re going to come up with the great new sound,” it turns out to be junk. The Synare [drum machine] that I used on “Bette Davis Eyes” and everybody copies now, is a good example. It was a complete accident on my part.; these are songs that never made it as we were working on the album.
Nobody went, “Let’s come up with this great sound that everybody will copy.”
[Drummer] Craig Krampf went out and bought one of these little things that you hit and it goes [Garay does a Synare impression with his mouth]. He’s sitting there trying to put it in every song we rehearsed for two weeks. Finally I told him, “Will you throw that thing away?
It sounds like a garbage can lid.” Then we started working on “Bette Davis Eyes,” and he played it in that. I went, “Wait a minute! That works!” You’ve got to be ready to try things.
I worked on the Summer Breeze album with Seals and Crofts and [engineer] David [Hassinger] at the Sound Factory. About eight months later they did a live show where the actual live take of “Summer Breeze” wasn’t that good. Louis Shelton said, “Why don’t we cut to the down beat ofthe studio 24-track, and to the last beat of the live tape? That way we’ll be using the original 24-track for the song.” I said, “No way. It’ll never work in a million years. Forget it. You can’t do that.” “Try it,” he said. “No!” “Try it!” “Okay!” Cut. Perfect. Worked great.
Never say never—you have to try everything. I can say no after I’ve tried it. But all the time I’m in the studio I’ll say, “Why don’t you try this thing?” and I’ll get resistance. Working with an artist is the hardest thing to do. It’s like raising children. I don’t have any, but I’ve been around enough of them in my lifetime to know that when you’re a parent, the hardest thing to do is not to impart your values and your personal judgment on the child, who is very impressionable and wants to learn.
You want them to be themselves a little bit. You don’t want to keep saying, “No. You can’t put your pants on that way. No, don’t sit that way on the couch.” Pretty soon, they become a puppet to you, and your feelings and values. But when you let them be themselves, they are amazingly honest. That’s because they aren’t inhibited; they have their own method of thinking and operating.
It’s the same thing with an artist. They are lovable little children in a lot of ways—that’s what makes them so vulnerable. So the hardest thing is to try and help them out of the womb, but not smother them. You’ve got to let them grow on their own, and it’s hard; it’s painful a lot of times. I put a lot of work into an artist and a project and a career and, as they grow and become less and less dependent on me, it hurts. I’ve nurtured them, held their hand, put the band-aids on their knees ... all the things you go through as a parent.
When they become independent, it becomes difficult. But at the same time, there is the satisfaction of being the proud parent standing there at graduation when they’re accepting their cum laude award. It’s mixed emotion.
RC: If one of your artists came to you, expressing the wish to work with another producer, how would you react?
VG: Actually, that sort of happened with Kim. I made a really good record with her that sold [in] unbelieveable amounts, and she decided after we made the second record—which didn’t sell in unbelievable amounts—that she would rather work with someone else. I have absolutely no animosity whatsoever.
RC: We talked about Kim Carnes’ sensitivity before. She seems to have a delicate voice, because of the raspiness. Is that difficult to mike, and get it to cut through the track?
VG: No. If an artist’s voice doesn’t cut through the track, it’s the arrangement that’s crowded. That’s usually the case.
RC: Is there a procedure you go through for selecting a mike for a particular vocalist?
VG: No. I’ve used pretty much the same mike for the last 15 years: a Neumann U-67 tube.
RC: Does the U-67 have a special sound for you?
VG: Not really; they’re just a great microphone for singers, and I’ve gotten really good vocal sounds on all the vocalists I’ve ever worked with. You can get things that will sound different—have more edge to it or harshness, or whatever—but you won’t get anything that sounds better. In some cases I might want something that sounds different than that, and then I’ve used other microphones. But for the most part, I stick with the Neumann.
RC: So you’re going for the accurate representation of the source?
VG: Usually. I use hardly any EQ at all on the vocalist. I must be getting pretty close to the way they sound, because they’ve never complained that it didn’t sound like them when they heard the record!
RC: Which brings up an interesting point about Joan Armatrading. Her voice has a cutting edge to it. Is that the quality of her voice, or was the mike chosen to enhance that edge?
VG: I only did two songs. I used a U-67 for those two tracks. There was no attempt to tone down her voice, or make it more cutting. [Steve Lillywhite produced the remaining nine songs on The Key.]
RC: Why did you re-cut those two tracks?
VG: I didn’t re-cut them; they didn’t exist before I did them. It was like her sixth or seventh album, and A&M felt there wasn’t a single on it for the United States. They approached me and asked if I would be interested in cutting a couple of tracks with her for the purpose of making a more commercial release for America. I had enough time to do just a couple of tracks, so I said, “Sure.” She’s really a fabulously good artist.
RC: Did you pick those two songs, or were they already worked out?
VG: She played me three or four tunes, and we picked those two [“What Do Boys Dream,” and “(I Love It When You) Call Me Names”]. We worked on the arrangements a lot. She wasn’t used to that. The person she worked with before, Steve Lillywhite, was terribly
uninvolved in the musical aspect of her record. He didn’t discuss arrangement changes, key changes, or bar changes. I was a musician long before anything else, so I have to be involved in that.
I have opinions and feelings; you don’t have to use them, or listen to them. But to not allow me to say them is sort of cheating oneself, because I have good ideas. Obviously, that’s been proven. Peter [Asher] listened to my ideas for enough years, so I figure if he’s as smart as he is, somebody else should listen, too!
RC: Speaking of Peter Asher, he brought you Linda’s last album to mix, didn’t he?
VG: No. Not actually, I was contracted to do that album based on the kind of deals we made in years previous. I started recording that album about two years ago. We cut five or six tunes. Then I got in the middle of another album - I can’t remember who it was at the time—and Linda got into the Broadway play [Pirates of Penzance], then into the movie. Before we knew it, a year had gone by.
At that point, I was unavailable, and they needed to finish the album. So we all talked about it when they got back to LA. They came up with the idea of doing it with [engineer] George [Massenburg], who is a very close friend of mine, and a marvelous engineer.
RC: So you were familiar with the album when the time came for you to mix it?
VG: No. They spent another seven or eight months recording more material and, out of the five or six tracks that I recorded, I think they kept three. When it came time to mix the record, George, having worked with Earth, Wind and Fire for all those years, had his style of mixing with those people, and Peter and Linda had gotten very used to my style of mixing.
They started mixing with George, and weren’t happy with the results—I believe based mainly on the fact that Peter liked my style of mixing. Not because I’m a better mixer, because I think George is every bit as good as I am as a mixer. They then approached me on the basis of: “We’re old friends; would you do us a favor?” I was right in the middle of another project. “Just give us five days of your time, and try to mix some of this album for us.” So I said, “Sure.”
I mixed about five or six tracks, and they played them for George so he could get his bearings, because I mixed some of the things that he’d recorded. Now, when you’re a good engineer, you hear things—balance, levels, EQ, etc.—a certain way. And when somebody else changes that, it’s instantly apparent what they’ve changed.
So, when I mixed a couple of his tunes he became aware of what Peter and Linda were looking for, and remixed again the tracks that I had mixed. The tracks were even more to their [Peter and Linda’s] liking. George ended up mixing better than half the album, and I did the rest.
RC: Can you define what was different about your two mixing styles?
VG: Of his initial mixes that I heard, I used more vocal and drums than [George] did. The rest of it is all subtleties. But when you get somebody as good as George is, the subtleties are equally good either way. Do you like Chocolate or Vanilla ice cream? They’re both ice cream; it’s that sort of thing.
RC: Just one final fact that I was curious about. Capitol chose the Motels’ last album, All Four One, as the first cassette tape to release using its XDR system, which is supposed to improve the quality of pre-recorded cassettes. What do you think of the system?
VG: I think cassettes are virtually headed for the land of doom, and I’m glad. I think the next realistic avenue is the Compact Disc.
RC: But you can’t record on CD.
VG: That’s what is realistic about it. Piracy is the only problem we have, and it drives me crazy. I understand on one level, and I don’t on another. My 14- and 15-year-old nephews—my sister has eight children—were over at my house one day, and we’re talking about music.
They asked me if I like so and so, and I go, “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” And Kenny, the next to the oldest says, “Well, I always go over to my friend’s house and tape the albums.” And I said, “Don’t you know that’s piracy. You’re stealing from me, your Uncle, who you love dearly.”
Copy a tape, go to prison!
And they go, “Yeah, but the quality of the cassettes in the stores is terrible.” And they’re right. The cassettes are horrible. Because they are high-speed duplicated, the reproduction is [lousy)—the top·end disappears; the transparency disappears. But the tape duplicators have no choice; that’s the only way they can make them. If they made one-to-one copies at normal speed, they’d be there forever, and have to charge $20 to $40 a cassette. It’s unfortunate, but it’s true.
And we [the people who derive their living from records] are losing billions of dollars a year to illegal taping. The Compact Disc will eliminate that. The reproduction is phenomenal. It’s small, easy to use; you can drive over the disk with your car; punch a hole in it up to
1 mm and it still plays fine, because it’s a laser disk. It’s almost completely idiot proof.
Albums will eventually become Compact Discs, because the vinyl disk, as we know it, is an antiquated piece of junk. They were designed to operate at 78 RPM. You have to deal with warped records, groove noise, dust, needles. The Compact Disc is the answer. Good-bye to piracy! It will take years, but that’s where it will be.
Editor’s Note: This is a series of articles from Recording Engineer/Producer (RE/P) magazine, which began publishing in 1970 under the direction of Publisher/Editor Martin Gallay. After a great run, RE/P ceased publishing in the early 1990s, yet its content is still much revered in the professional audio community. RE/P also published the first issues of Live Sound International magazine as a quarterly supplement, beginning in the late 1980s, and LSI has grown to a monthly publication that continues to thrive to this day.
Take the PSW Photo Gallery Tour of audio equipment ads appearing in RE/P magazine, circa 1970.
Our sincere thanks to Mark Gander of JBL Professional for his considerable support on this archive project.
The Transition From Pre-Production To Studio Sessions
“Pre-production starts with the set-up.” Garay considers. “I let the band choose whatever makes them comfortable Their rehearsal arrangement doesn’t necessarily have to duplicate their normal stage or recording studio locations. As a rule of thumb, the drummer usually sets up in the center of the room, because everybody is listening to him. Then the bass player puts his amp near the drummer, so they can play easy, together. From there it’s pretty much up to the band members. A semi-circle seems to work, but the rehearsal room is small, so we could put anybody anywhere.
“As (ar as levels go, the band pretty much figures that out (or themselves too, because there’s an instant relationship among the members of a professional band. To hear each other in the room, there has to be a balance. If the guitar player is six times too loud, then all you hear is guitar and the other players tell him to turn down. But once you get the balance, you can stick one mike in there, open it up, and you’re ready to make a work tape.
“I like to make recordings of each arrangement as we go along. I use just one little cassette machine, with one little microphone. I could play you work cassettes of almost every song on every record I’ve made so far. You’d be amazed at how much you can hear on those tapes. It’s very close to the actual recordmg in the studio.
“The cassette tells you whether an arrangement works or not, because you can listen to it over and over. It tells you whether parts, rhythms, and everything else are the way they should be. The great test is how the song wears, and for that you have to keep listening to it over and over. The old adage is: ‘If it has legs, It will walk.’ What they mean by that is if everything about the song is comfortable, It will keep going If not, it starts to grate. And it’s either the arrangement or the song that grates on you. Once that happens, you have queries. And once you have queries, you start delving back into the song to find out why. I say that either the arrangement goes away immediately, or the song goes away in a period of time.
“When we go into the studio, I like to cut live—everything at once. I mike everything close for isolation, and also put very loud instruments, like distortion guitar parts, in separate rooms. (Record One features three acoustically treated recording areas—a main
studio, and two smaller adjacent rooms—as well as the control booth, and various live rooms throughout the complex that are pressed into service when needed.] To make the separate tracks blend back together, I run feeds to two PA speakers in the rehearsal studio, I have two Neumann U·67s that I can move anywhere in the room, or right next to the cabinets, for any desired effect. I just open the microphones up, and add them to the original sound at the board.
“I don’t really use a lot of effects other than the natural room ambiance, when I want to change something. I like to get nice, big, warm, fat, punchy sounds. If you want an effect, you can warp anything with outboard gear, but you can’t make anything sound big, fat, warm and punchy if it doesn’t start that way,
“I guess you could say I’m a purist, but don’t confuse that with traditionalism; a traditionalist I’m not. If there’s a sound out there in the studio, that’s the sound I want to get on tape. I would prefer to play with the guitar player’s amp and get the sound al his station, rather than attempt to manufacture what’s needed in the control room. All I try to do is capture what he’s got. In essence, the secret is that the studio and all the equipment must remain transparent to the overall process of recording.
“When we go into the studio, I like to cut live—everything at once. I mike everything close for isolation, and also put very loud instruments, like distortion guitar parts, in separate rooms. (Record One features three acoustically treated recording areas—a main studio, and two smaller adjacent rooms—as well as the control booth, and various live rooms throughout the complex that are pressed into service when needed.) To make the separate tracks blend back together, I run feeds to two PA speakers in the rehearsal studio, I have two Neumann U-67s that I can move anywhere in the room, or right next to the cabinets, for any desired effect. I just open the microphones up, and add them to the original sound at the board.
Tuesday, June 03, 2014
Cool Pony Media In Dallas Steps Up To THE BOX From API
Team now uses THE BOX console on a daily basis for writing, tracking, creating stems, and mixing
Located outside Dallas, Cool Pony Media is a record label and artist development company that works with various music genres, as well as score-to-picture work. Brothers and co-founders, Mark and Mike Stitts, recently did an upgrade in part of their studio with help from API, and as a result, the team now uses THE BOX console on a daily basis for writing, tracking, creating stems, and mixing.
“We’re amazed,” says Mark Stitts. “We have quite a bit of other API outboard gear, EQs, compressors, channel strips, and summing. THE BOX integrates seamlessly. I often wonder—mustn’t there be elves inside creating some kind of magic here?”
The duo was looking to upgrade their composing room when they first heard about the new small-format console from API. “It was really a no-brainer. The sound and flexibility of a full-fledged API console, with that footprint? We must be dreaming, right? BOOM! This thing is a complete home run!”
The brothers have been creating and recording professionally since the 1980s, and say that not much has changed other than the technology. Their careers have included production work for labels, children’s albums, independent artists, and beyond. The experience they’ve had so far with THE BOX stacks up well with their previous experience with the brand. “We’ve always been API fans. The sound is just so fantastic and unique. I remember the first time we ran audio through anything API. It was so dramatic. The punch, depth, clarity, presence – it was almost like removing wool blankets from in front of the speakers. THE BOX is more of the same.”
Cool Pony purchased the gear earlier this year, and appreciated the support they received during commissioning. “The packaging was impeccable, and the support is off the chain. These guys really are the Apple of the recording console industry. We couldn’t recommend API or THE BOX more highly.”
Friday, May 30, 2014
Chandler Limited Debuts TG2-500 Preamp For 500 Series Racks
Delivers the classic sound of the EMI TG12428 preamp used in EMI/Abbey Road recording and mastering consoles
Chandler Limited has released the new TG2-500 preamp for 500 series racks, building upon the company’s TG2 preamp/DI to deliver the classic sound of the EMI TG12428 preamp used in EMI/Abbey Road recording and mastering consoles in the late 60s and early 70s.
Using the identical TG2 circuit, transistors, and transformers, the new TG2-500 delivers 10 – 60 dB of gain and uses a coarse gain control and a fine gain control as found on EMI consoles. The unit provides 300 and 1200 Ohm input impedance as on the TG2.
The TG2-500 delivers frequency response identical to the TG2. Additionally, it has the same high frequency bump and mid forward tone of the TG2, along with the warmth inducing distortion which contributes to its sound. The result is a creamy, smooth tone with an open, clear top end.
Chandler Limited owner and chief product designer Wade Goeke states, “The TG2-500 is a product that customers have urged us to develop for several years. In the past, I always commented that I had not yet found the right way to engineer this unit in the 500 series form factor.
“I’m now pleased to report that, after working on this project for quite some time and attempting a number of different methods in the process, I’ve made everything work to my satisfaction. I’m glad I was patient because I genuinely believe our users will be pleasantly surprised and very pleased with the results.”
Mirek Stiles, head of audio products at Abbey Road Studios, adds, “Over the years Abbey Road Studios has hugely enjoyed working with Chandler Limited. Wade’s hardware designs, based on the classic TG technology, are a great way of ensuring this part of the Abbey Road legacy lives on.
“We are delighted that the TG2 pre amp has now been redesigned to work in the popular 500 series format, enabling a new generation of recording engineers to fall in love with the unique TG sound.”
Posted by Keith Clark on 05/30 at 12:15 PM
Tuesday, May 27, 2014
XILS-lab Breathes Life Into Prototyped EMS VCS4 Analog Matrix Modular Synthesizer
Music software company XILS-lab is proud to announce availability of XILS 4.
Music software company XILS-lab is proud to announce availability of XILS 4 — an authentic software emulation of the legendary VCS4, a ‘dual VCS3’ analogue matrix modular synthesizer prototyped by EMS back in 1969, but never commercially released.
EMS (Electronic Music Studios), a British company founded by the pioneering Peter Zinovieff, made musical history in 1969 with its introduction of the VCS3, the first portable synthesizer commercially available anywhere in the world.
Its innovative modular matrix-based patch-board dispensed with the telephone exchange-like cabling of other (much larger) modular systems in favor of making connections with (removable) colored pins, so it could be comfortably housed in a small wooden (solid afrormosia) cabinet.
The history of the EMS VCS3 is well documented with XILS-lab later playing its part in resurrecting its still-sought-after sound with its cost-conscious and award-winning XILS 3 software emulation for Mac (OS X 10.4 and above) and PC (Windows 7, Vista, and XP) proving popular with both first-time buyers and also seasoned synth explorers including Richard Devine, Tim Blake (Hawkwind), and even Peter Zinovieff.
The 1969-vintage VCS4 was EMS designer David Cockerell’s so-called ‘Live Performance Module’, comprising two VCS3s side by side, together with a five-octave keyboard, a mixer, and a signal-processing unit, all housed in a single wooden cabinet. Only one prototype was ever produced.
By being based on two intricate and interacting VCS3 (‘Synthi’) cores — XILS-lab’s XILS 4 favourably emulates EMS’ VCS4. Indeed, those two cores can be set to work side by side or operate in serial (with one feeding the other).
Each and every module on one side can be used to modulate or feed anything on the other side with stunning sound possibilities plus weird and wonderful effects readily available in abundance as a direct result.
That said, XILS 4 shows its true 21st Century colors by also allowing amount settings to be individually applied to each patch ‘pin’. Providing patch-board power par excellence to an already special soft synth shows that there is clearly so much more to XILS 4 than solely emulating vintage hardware — rare as the vintage hardware in question clearly is.
Little wonder, then, that XILS 4 is billed by its creator as being the ultimate analog matrix modular synthesizer.
XILS-lab has sought to take things several steps further still by coupling those cores with the SEQUENCER 256 module, inspired by EMS’ trailblazing Synthi Sequencer 256 namesake.
Needless to say, this three-layer sequencer with analog-to-digital and digital-to-analog converters to enable digital processing of control voltages to drive multiple analogue synthesizers or multiple parameters with storage of up to 256 ‘events’ was well ahead of its time when released in 1971.
Here in the virtual world, XILS-lab has well and truly transported it to the present day with three independent layers, slew rates, and recording modes, together with added abilities like sequencer layers acting as modulation sources in a dedicated SEQ MATRIX — matchless, even by today’s most sophisticated DAW standards!
The addition of a second ‘pin matrix’, two additional envelopes, an LFO, comprehensive SAMPLE AND HOLD module, and VOLTAGE PROCESSOR, plus several new input modules — including GATE, ENVELOPE FOLLOWER, and PITCH TRACKER — means that there are hundreds of additional connections available to the discerning synthesist set on exploring XILS 4 to the full.
The fact that there are over 1,140 possible connections per patch makes for a literal lifetime of programming possibilities that will surely far outlast the host computer concerned, though those in need of a helping hand have easy access to almost 700 professionally-programmed presets from world-renowned sound designers, including the complete XILS 3 factory library and over 350 presets specifically designed for XILS 4.
A selection of tutorial-style patches are also available to help users seeking to take their first tentative steps towards scaling the heady heights of this mountainous modular monster of a soft synth.
Simply put, with a whole host of modules and associated far-reaching functionality — for starters, 12 aliasing-free oscillators, grouped in six pairs with wave-shaping and hard sync — yesteryear’s impossibilities have become today’s possibilities with XILS 4… a great step forward for modular synthesis software.
XILS 4 is available to purchase as an eLicenser or iLok copy-protected virtual instrument and effects plug-in for an introductory discounted price of €149.00 EUR (rising to €179.00 EUR on June 17, 2014) from the XILS-lab web store. Note that this time-limited offer also includes the XILISTICS sound bank with 160-plus presets worth €25.00 EUR, plus a free USB-eLicenser copy-protection dongle.
XILS 3 owners can upgrade to XILS 4 for an introductory price of €29.00 EUR (rising to €49.00 EUR on June 17, 2014).
XILS 4 can be directly downloaded as a 32- and 64-bit-compatible virtual instrument and effects plug-in for Mac (AAX, AU, RTAS, VST) and Windows (AAX, RTAS, VST) from here: http://www.xils-lab.com/pages/XILS4_Download.html
Check out several informative XILS 4 tutorial videos at http://www.xils-lab.com/pages/XILS4_Videos.html.
Posted by Julie Clark on 05/27 at 01:07 PM
Audient’s New Distributor Helps Boost Brand In BeNeLux
British manufacturer, Audient appoints M Works as Benelux distributor for Audient.
British manufacturer, Audient appoints M Works as Benelux distributor for Audient.
With immediate effect, dealers in the Benelux territory can get the full range of Audient products from M Works, from the flagship ASP8024 right through to the latest additions to the range: USB interface - iD22 and 8-channel mic pre and ADC - ASP880.
Sales Manager Okke van Dijk is very pleased at the agreement. “Audient is a great brand with passion for designing excellent sounding products. With their expertise and deep understanding of demands in the pro audio market, the people at Audient know how to create the right quality and product mix,” he says.
“High quality comes as standard,” confirms Luke Baldry, Sales and Marketing Director at Audient, highlighting the fact that “…all products feature the renowned console mic pres designed by the company’s co-founder David Dearden.” He adds, “I’m delighted that we have Okke and the M Works team on board to ensure Audient quality reaches this important market.”
Celebrating its 10 year anniversary this year, M Works is one of the leading independent distribution companies in the Benelux, making it easier than ever for engineers, producers and musicians to get hold of Audient products, focus on the music and enhance their creativity. “We at M Works are very excited to welcome Audient to our portfolio, as it is complementary to our current line-up of products and we are looking forward to a long-term business adventure with Audient,” comments van Dijk.
Friday, May 23, 2014
Clear Path: Keyboards In The Electronic Realm
Electronic keyboards, the start of it all. Right from the beginning of modern concert sound, DI boxes have played an essential role in getting the sound from the stage to the PA system.
Probably the most iconic “direct” instrument of all was the Fender Rhodes. Harold Rhodes started developing the idea as far back as the 1950s, but it was in 1970 that the Rhodes Stage piano took the concert stage bringing the first “portable” keyboard to market.
The original Rhodes piano tone was created by a piano-like hammer striking a “tine” that would vibrate up and down in front of a magnet to create the tone—very much the same way an electric guitar string vibrates atop a magnetic pickup. One would adjust the tone by changing the “tine-to-magnet” relationship.
And like an electric guitar, the output from the suitcase was not amplified (or buffered) in any way. So the output from the piano was generally sent to a guitar amp where it was mic’d.
Some years later, the first active DI boxes came round. They didn’t load the Rhodes pickups, which made it practical to send the “direct” sound to the PA system and monitors.
But something happened. That something was Keith Emerson and Rick Wakeman, and the Moog synthesizer, which found its way out of the electronic music department to the stage. These guys no longer had one or two keyboards—they had racks of them!
An early Fender Rhodes, the one that started it all.
The Arp 2600 and String Ensemble, Oberheim, Korg, the venerable Sequential Circuits Prophet 5 - it was an analog explosion. Everyone had a Rhodes (or Wurlitzer) and a bunch of synths.
Fast forward to 1981, and Yamaha introduced the DX7, which would go on to become one of the most successful keyboards ever. It brought along something totally new: frequency modulated digital technology. Now you could get a bell-like Rhodes sound without the weight.
The world then changed again with the E-MU and the Akai S900 digital sampler. All of a sudden, we had complete orchestration, real sounding piano samples, and digitally sampled drum tracks were everywhere. There was no going back.
Today, pretty much all keyboards and drum machines are digital, and can basically be thought of as keyboard controlled CD players. And like a CD player, the output from a digital synthesizer is relatively powerful when compared to an electric guitar or an old Rhodes piano.
Because they’re so “loud,” they needed headroom to operate, meaning that the old active DI box that may have been a boon to the low-output Rhodes piano can no longer keep up.
The headroom is limited by the internal battery or limited by the low current afforded by phantom power. To make matters worse, unlike a CD that is processed and compressed before it is mass produced, digital samplers are raw. They can generate huge transients that will overload most active DI boxes, and end up distorting horribly.
The problem is further exacerbated with digital pianos. These full-range devices are not only very dynamic, they have a frequency range that starts way down low and goes up forever.
To handle modern keyboards, there are two choices:
1) Send the keyboards into a mixing console where the internal rail voltage is sufficiently ample that it is able to handle the range.
2) Send the signal to a passive direct box where the headroom is not limited by the current afforded to them. Passive DI boxes are different- they use transformers.
Phantom Of The Power
Replace the diesel engine inside a dump truck with a 4-cylinder car engine and fill the truck with gravel. What will happen? Nothing. The engine will be unable to handle the load.
The same applies to phantom power. Folks tend to “believe” that if it’s active, it must be good. But the truth is, phantom power was never designed to power direct boxes.
As noted here, phantom was invented by Mr. Neumann as a means to charge the capsules on his microphones. He needed a lot of voltage (48 volts) and very little current (5 milliamps).
A quality preamp requires +/- 16 volts (32-volt swing) and about 50 milliamps of current. With 1/10th the current, it’s like trying to run a dump truck with a motorcycle engine.
Passive direct boxes are not power limited. They’re old-fashioned devices that basically combine a couple rolls of wire (coils) with a chunk of metal (the core).
A DI has the task of converting a high-impedance signal to a low-impedance balanced signal where it can be managed by the mic splitter and mixing console’s preamp.
With keyboards, current enters the transformer where the conversion occurs. But instead of overloading. like an active circuit, transformers distort gradually. More precisely, they don’t so much distort as saturate.
We often say that transformers sound “vintage” or have a limiting quality about them. This is because good quality transformers generate warm sounding even order harmonics, or what is commonly known as a warm Bessel Curve.
Thus the reason highly dynamic buffered signals like digital keyboards sound great when they are used with a passive direct box.
Mono, stereo or multichannel - which DI is best? It depends upon your point of view.
If audience members are sitting right in front of the left PA loudspeaker, they will be unable to hear what is coming out of the right PA loudspeaker. Will they benefit from stereo? Probably not.
Stereo may sound great in the practice room or be invigorating on stage, but in most live venues, it is rarely enjoyed by all. The advantage that a stereo DI brings is capturing the stereo sample without having to reprogram the synth.
And if you do decide to have a stereo rig on stage, a stereo DI allows the house engineer to mix both channels and pan them stereo (if beneficial).
A stereo DI is often used at the output of a keyboard mixer. Here’s why: on a stage, all of the microphones go to a mic splitter before the signal is sent to the house mix position. Mic splitters are designed to handle mic levels, typically around -50 dB. A keyboard produces a -10 dB signal while a mixer can produce +4 dB or more.
A look at one reason why a passive DI can be a better choice for electronic keyboards. Courtesy of Radial Engineering.
This excessive level will cause the mic splitter to overload. The pad on a direct box lowers the output so that it matches that of a microphone and protects the mic splitter from being overloaded by the mixer. Multichannel direct boxes bring forth the added advantage of independent control over each instrument.
Here’s the deal: when you mix the sound so that it is comfortable on stage, it may in fact not be ideal for front of house. In other words, you may find that you need extra jam to hear your piano on stage, and have the string synth pushed back in the mix.
But in the arena, the piano-to-string volume ratio may not sit well with the rest of the band. What happens? The keyboard mix gets pushed back.
When you have the luxury of sending independent keyboard signals to front of house, the mix engineer is allowed to orchestrate. With more control, the engineer can decide how much piano fits and if the strings are too loud, can simply back them off.
Who would have ever thought that a DI would have so many twists and turns, especially after being around for 40 years!
Peter Janis is president of Radial Engineering. In 1982, he was hired by CBS Fender as new product director for what would eventually become Fender Canada, and spent time at the ARP factory in Massachusetts learning to program the advanced Chroma polyphonic synthesizers. He met Harold Rhodes and spent several years servicing Rhodes pianos before they were eventually discontinued, and during that time, also added the Akai product range to the Fender sales portfolio and developed many of the Akai’s early samples.
Tuesday, May 20, 2014
Multi-Plantinum Rock Group Live Chooses SSL Duality
Think Loud studios installs SSL Duality analog console.
Founding members of the multi-platinum band LIVE recently established Think Loud Studios in their hometown of York, Pa.
When it came time to install a console in the world-class facility’s expansive Studio A, they opted for a 48-channel Solid State Logic Duality analog console/controller.
The extensive experience that the group and their engineers have with classic SSL analog consoles led them directly to Duality.
Known for classic albums including Throwing Copper, Secret Samadhi and The Distance to Here, the members of LIVE have returned to the community in which they grew up and launched the studio.
In addition to the band’s own projects, Think Loud Studios serves the artists on its record label, Think Loud Entertainment, and friends of the group, including the band Everclear.
The vaulted ceilings and abundant natural light of the 53,000-square-foot building’s fourth floor made it a natural setting for Think Loud, which was designed by Horacio Malvicino, says bassist Patrick Dahlheimer.
“This is inspirational,” he remembers thinking. “This is going to be the studio that we always wanted to build and is driven to be songwriter and musician friendly.”
“Part of the LIVE ‘signature sound’ is the sound of SSL,” says guitarist Chad Taylor, noting that Tom Lord-Alge, who has mixed the majority of the band’s recordings, works exclusively on an SSL 4000 G Series console. After Taylor and Lord-Alge spent a day evaluating Duality, the decision was easy.
“There’s a convenience factor and a history of the SSL that exists through Duality. In the studio, I’m predominantly focused on the performance of the musicians and the arrangement of the song, and less on the technical aspect of the engineering.
“I found that those worlds got married very conveniently through the Duality.”
“My immediate reaction was that there’s a dimension and a spatial factor to the Duality,” Dahlheimer adds of SSL’s SuperAnalogue sound. “Perceptively, it was really very clear.
“There’s definitely a punch and a clarity, especially to the drum tracks. One of the other qualities is the bus compressor. Once you are in it, there’s cohesiveness to the songs that jumps out.”
Duality’s unparalleled sonic characteristics, analogue/DAW hybrid approach and historic lineage made it the only choice for Think Loud Studios, say its principals.
“It has a front-end signature, in particular with the mic pres and the EQs, that really plays into that soundscape,” says Dahlheimer. “That definitely helps our creative process.”
The console’s hybrid approach, combining a traditional analogue path and processing with DAW control in a single hardware surface, allows the creative process to flourish as it did in the pre-DAW era, Taylor says.
“One thing we took into consideration was that we still like to work in analogue,” he adds “With the convenient flexibility of Duality, we are able to switch very fast back-and-forth between our analogue and the digital workstations.
“Working with Duality pulls my brain from looking at music on a computer screen to actually interfacing with the console, like we did 20 years ago. The concentration is on ‘listening’ again, and not ‘seeing’ the music so much. That’s an important characteristic to the creative flow.”
The choice of Duality has paid immediate dividends as LIVE went to work recording its forthcoming album.
“We had a bunch of tracks in a rehearsal state that had been recorded through various preamps,” Dahlheimer says. “We got a very polished sound through the Duality very fast. I was thrilled with that. Duality helps outboard equipment shine, but we found ourselves using a lot of the onboard preamps in tracking.
“In fact, we recently re-recorded existing drum tracks to take advantage of Duality’s sonic signature. There was definitely clarity, presence and dimension to the new tracks.”
Taylor also recalls having previously owned an SSL G+ console.
“The format and feel of the Duality remind me of the G,” he says. “While it simultaneously moves into a new-world environment of, essentially, Pro Tools control and interface, but one that still has the markings of a traditional analog console. I’m glad we stayed in the SSL family.”
Solid State Logic
Posted by Julie Clark on 05/20 at 02:12 PM
Friday, May 16, 2014
Focusrite Announces Saffire PRO 26 FireWire/Thunderbolt Compatible Audio Interface (Includes Video)
Record at 24-bit/96kHz with four Focusrite preamps, 18 in/8 out, using FireWire or Thunderbolt
Focusrite announces Saffire PRO 26, the latest addition to the Saffire PRO range of FireWire/Thunderbolt compatible audio interfaces for expanding recording and live system capabilities, housed in a portable, desktop-sized chassis.
Saffire PRO 26 provides an extensive selection of professional analog and digital I/O options —a total of 18 inputs and eight outputs includes four preamps, two instrument inputs, two headphone outputs, six line outputs, and ADAT and S/PDIF connectivity.
Saffire PRO 26 connects to a Thunderbolt port via a FireWire to Thunderbolt adaptor (not included) or directly to a FireWire 800 port with the cable provided. Its dual-protocol compatibility (Firewire and Thunderbolt) means it will work seamlessly for years to come with the next generation of computers.
The four Focusrite preamps provide a great deal of recording flexibility while also ensuring low noise and distortion with plenty of headroom to capture the full dynamic range of even a loud drum kit or guitar amp. Precision 24-bit/96-kHz digital conversion and JetPLL jitter-elimination technology maintain pristine audio quality in both analog and digital domains.
Saffire Mix Control, a control software application that runs on the host computer is particularly useful for live situations. The low-latency 26 x 8 DSP mixer/router provides flexible output routing and monitoring for custom monitor mixes as well as intuitive one-click presets to help in setting up sessions as quickly as possible, whether tracking, mixing or monitoring.
Although Thunderbolt provides some advantages, it’s only available on the very latest computers. An audio interface fitted with FireWire can be used on both older computers and Thunderbolt-equipped computers via an inexpensive adaptor.
ADAT optical input allows extensive input expansion of up to eight additional preamps or line inputs. Pair Saffire PRO 26 with Focusrite’s OctoPre MkII eight-channel preamp and instantly transform it into a 12 preamp unit.
Included is a free DAW in the form of Ableton Live Lite, Focusrite’s professional Midnight and Scarlett plug-in suites, Novation BassStation virtual synthesizer and 1 GB of Loopmasters sample content.
Monday, April 28, 2014
Czech Violinist, Composer and Singer Chooses Audient
A compact analog mixing console was what Czech violinist, composer and singer Karel Holas was after for his Prague studio -- which he accomplished with the purchase of an Audient ASP4816.
A compact analog mixing console was what Czech violinist, composer and singer Karel Holas was after for his Prague studio.
“From the wide variety of quality studio consoles available, I found only one complying with all my requests and wishes: Audient ASP4816,” he explains, having done his research.
“Excellent microphone preamps, great and very easy routing options, precise EQ sections together with optimal ergonomics for studio usage,” he says, outlining some of the features on his wish list.
Holas opened his studio earlier this year, and describes his impression when the Audient desk first arrived.
“I must say I was really amazed when the console was plugged in. The sound quality and the whole potential of the console was confirmation that I had made the right choice with the ASP4816.”
A popular choice for small music production studios looking for all the features of a large console in a compact, ergonomic format, at an affordable price, the ASP4816 is an analogue desk with fully-featured inline architecture. This particular desk was supplied and delivered by Czech Audient distributor, MusicData.
Currently a member of Cechomor, a Czech traditional music band playing songs in rock arrangements, Holas has collaborated with many international artists such as Suzanne Vega, Tony Levin, Celtic harp musician and singer Alan Stivell and many others.
Posted by Julie Clark on 04/28 at 12:37 PM
Friday, April 25, 2014
Multiple Consoles For Live? Top Engineers Weigh In
The where, when, why and how, with problems and solutions differing.
A few years ago, my company developed a prototype of a console switcher that would enable an engineer to quickly switch to a backup should the main desk go down, or quickly switch between multiple consoles at events such as festivals.
But when we showed it to various engineers, the response was all over the place. Some thought it was a great idea, others felt that with modern processors, the need was no longer there, and some suggested fixes such as increasing the size to accommodate larger systems.
We decided to table the idea, but I thought it would be interesting to reach out to some of the same engineers to get their take on using multiple consoles and the concerns they encounter.
And just as above, the problems and solutions differ. The cast includes James Warren (Radiohead), Sean Quakenbush (Robert Randolph), Dave Natale (Rolling Stones), Brad Madix (Rush) and David Morgan (James Taylor).
The most common situation where multiple consoles are used together, of course, is connecting a support band to the main system. Other uses include festivals where multiple bands share the same PA, corporate shows, TV shows, and performances where large orchestras increase the channel count.
According to Natale: “When subbing one mixer into the other, the main console will usually act as the master. We also see many situations where a matrix switcher is used to feed the PA.”
Subbing consoles together is done using the sub-group inputs, channel strips, or sometimes even using the mic inputs. Madix: “If bringing one mixer sub or mains out into sub ins, there’s usually not any problem. If bringing into line-ins, there might be issues with matching gains as line ins tend to have less adjustment range level-wise.
“Coming into mic inputs can present challenges from impedance matching to level mismatches where mic preamps might not have the range to handle the levels, even with pads inserted. It’s something to steer away from, for sure, but sometimes the only option.”
Quankenbush: “We sometimes encounter noise from different power systems such as generators and there are often gain issues between some analog consoles and the digital boards. For instance, one console’s 0 dB may not be the same on another desk. I’ve found that some digital consoles do not ‘play well together’ due to gain stage issues where one may be so hot that it overloads the other.”
Natale: “Hum, buzz and level discrepancies can pose problems. I usually have transformers in hand to solve noise problems.”
There are other ways to switch and combine consoles such as using a matrix switcher or an audio processor. And with today’s digital desks, even more options come into play.
Warren: “When combining consoles, since most bands are now using digital desks, we usually connect the sub support console into ours via an AES connection. We give a festival either analog or AES from our system processor. In both cases, we will often be giving a separate sub feed.”
Quankenbush: “Most festivals have switching systems for the left, right and sub fills, but you do still see some festivals where they want you to drive in to the main console with stereo. The big problem is you will load in early, EQ and sound check for your band with their EQ bypassed or flat.
“Eight hours later, the house system engineer or other mixers will have hacked the EQ to all hell and all of the sudden your show sounds way different than your sound check earlier in the day. My preference is to bypass all of that by connecting directly to the audio processor and then save my own page.”
As noted earlier, noise problems do arise, and the most common problem solver is inserting an isolation transformer into the signal path.
A transformer is a magnetic bridge that converts the audio signal into a magnetic field at the primary winding, employs a core made from laminated nickel, steel or a combination as a conduit for the magnetic field and then this excites a secondary winding which in turn generates current.
The beauty of a transformer is that the input and output are completely separate. This stops tray DC current from traveling between the input and output which helps eliminate the hum and buzz caused by so-called ground loops.
Morgan: “For years, Yamaha and Midas consoles did not like to be combined. One often needed to lift the AC ground on one of the desks and rely on audio ground only.
“As long as the consoles share the same AC and audio ground, transformer isolation is not usually necessary. If I’m unsure of the system AC ground, or if there is too much going on electronically at FOH, I do prefer inserting transformers.”
Madix: “I’ve had to use transformers occasionally when feeding to lawn delays and the system for the hearing impaired. For this, we use a box with two transformers, plus ground lifts.”
Both Warren and Natale note that they always carry transformers in their kits. Quakenbush adds: “Back in the day, I was the lawn guy for a large amphitheatre and always had pockets full of isolation transformers. I still have tons of in-line transformers in my workbox. They don’t come out a much as they use to, but I still use them for delay towers or sometimes when I sub another desk into mine.”
One of the most common concerns that folks have with digital technology is the stability of the console’s internal computer. Thus, adding a second console would seem to be a natural solution.
Interestingly enough, this no longer seems to be as prevalent as it once was. I was recently at a Bob Dylan concert and front of house engineer Jim Homan was working with a new digital console that was having some software conflicts. I asked him if he had a backup, and he said that he didn’t, but if he had to, he could quickly patch in the support band’s mixer and be up and running fairly quickly.
Warren echoes this approach: “In a touring situation, I would refuse to use a console that I felt needed a permanent instant backup option. On Radiohead at the moment, I have the opening act’s console loaded with my show and plug-ins in case of catastrophe, but it’s not online or standing by during the show.”
Morgan: “We carry a backup computer for the console, but I haven’t needed it in over six years.” Madix replied with the same sentiment. However, Natale had a different take: “I generally go analog for just that reason. I’m not prone to nearly as much instance of console failure as my much more daring counterparts that use digital consoles. When I do TV, I have to use a digital console and the only fail-safe (ha, ha) device is a UPS on the console.”
All of this to say…there are many ways to connect consoles together or to share the PA system. Most engineers carry line level isolation boxes in case noise is encountered, and today’s digital desks seem to be less problematic than they were just a few years ago.
Peter Janis is president of Radial Engineering, and has worked in professional audio for more than 30 years.
Wednesday, April 23, 2014
SoundTools Debuts New CAT Snake At Coachella
Units create a cost-effective 4-channel analog snake that can alternatively carry up to four AES/EBU digital feeds utilizing common Cat-5 cable.
SoundTools debuted its latest product, the new CAT Snake, in prototype form at the recent 2014 Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in Indio, CA.
CAT Snake units create a quick and cost-effective 4-channel analog snake that can alternatively carry up to four AES/EBU digital feeds utilizing common Cat-5 cable.
“The CAT Snake is a wonderful solution for the analog lines we run to delay clusters at Coachella,” says Dave Rat, president of Rat Sound Systems, the primary audio vendor for the event. “We literally entrench thousands of feet of analog and digital audio cable that invariably gets destroyed during load out. By switching to the CAT Snake for analog backup lines, we can just leave the shielded Cat-5 in the ground and the cost per foot is so affordable, it’s easy to replace.”
The application of the CAT Snake at Coachella showcased it’s functionality for live sound as well as its potential use in recording, commercial, and home projects.
“It’s simplicity at its best,” says Bryant Poole, lead engineer on the project. “You can run four lines of audio down a simple shielded Cat-5, Cat-5e, or Cat-6 cable. It’s a passive unit that provides the added versatility of having an EtherCon input or feed through connection on either side.”
Rat Sound Systems
Monday, April 21, 2014
Subjective Versus Objective: If It Sounds Good, Is It?
Does science (objective) or art (subjective) play the more important role?
As with the ever-ongoing debates about “tubes versus transistors,” “analog versus digital” and “Mac versus PC,” there’s not likely to be agreement any time soon about “objective versus subjective” when it comes to sound quality.
Extremists in the “Objectivist” camp argue that, “if it can’t be measured, it doesn’t exist” while on the other hand, the “Subjectivist” side firmly backs the idea that “human beings can hear things that can’t be measured.”
How often has it been suggested, “use your ears as the final determinant” in making a decision about sound? At the same time, most would agree that a fundamental understanding of audio systems, including the basics of how each component works, how to set gain structure, and so on, logically can lead to “better” sound quality.
Does science (objective) or art (subjective) play the more important role?
ABX Or Death
Since its development as a scientific testing method, ABX has gained ground as a clear way to determine the threshold of perceptibility in a group of test subjects.
The basics of ABX: two different sources are compared - source “A” and source “B” - and the subject must make the decision as to whether choice “X” represents either A or B. If the subject can reliably (i.e. in a statistically significant manner) identify the sources, then it is concluded that there is a perceptible difference between the sources. Otherwise, the differences are deemed insignificant.
There are some good things to be learned with ABX, and it’s proven to confound many the “golden ears” in tests involving things like 44.1 kHz versus 96 kHz sampling rates, 16-bit versus 24-bit quantization, and others. And it turns out that it’s not common for subjects to be able to reliably identify these sources.
However, I contend that there’s a vast difference between a short-term test like ABX and a longer-term experience with a product, system and the subject itself. Humans have demonstrated a truly amazing ability to learn just about anything.
Take a person who’s never spoken anything but the English language, and stick him/her in Japan for a couple of years. This person will most likely learn to speak Japanese, engaging a new part of the brain.
Or take a person who’s only tasted wine costing less than $10 a bottle. A few months after being introduced to $150 bottles of wine (let alone $3,500 bottles!) and learning about the different varietals, harvest timing, and other specifics, he/she will balk at the cheap stuff.
Even more importantly, this fledgling student of wine will have picked up the ability to discern much finer differences between all types of wines.
In both cases, what changed these people? Exposure, mostly. We all have what some call “paradigms,” meaning that we each filter outside stimuli through our own various levels of experiences and beliefs.
Fixed Level Of Bandwidth
I call these changes through exposure successive thresholds of awareness, and contend that part of this is that human perception is scalable in terms of resolution. With computers and test equipment, there is a fixed level of bandwidth and resolution available.
Not so with people - the longer someone spends being exposed to an experience, the more resolution that person is able to impart to that experience. An analogy closer to home for us audio geeks: the person that has only used a cheap dynamic microphone for years will likely find that even the lowest-grade condenser mic sounds amazing. He will hear tons more resolution, less distortion, and better transient response.
This same person will also wonder how a Neumann mic costs much more, and whether or not it would be possible to sound that much better. And in fact, upon hearing the Neumann in comparison to the cheap condenser, he will conclude that indeed, there is not really that much difference between the two.
Now take that same person five years later, after he’s made several records and used a plethora of top mics of various makes. Now he should clearly be able to identify the differences between the cheap imitation and the real thing, having reached a much higher threshold of awareness between the different mics.
Only One Problem
A few years ago, I read an interesting article about how Dunkin’ Donuts intended to update its marketing plan to target Starbucks customers, based on a very simple idea: offer the same quality of coffee, but more quickly and at a lower price. There was only one problem. These weren’t the reasons that Starbucks customers were buying coffee from Starbucks. They didn’t want it cheaper or more quickly.
What they did want was the Starbucks experience—the club chairs, the subdued lighting, the fancy woodwork, the ridiculously overpriced accessory products, and whatever else they’re seeking. For this, they’re willing to wait (part of the experience) and pay more (another part of the experience).
Although it could be argued that they would appreciate the coffee being less expensive, it’s been proven over and over that there is usually a “right price” associated with a brand experience, and if the price is either too high or too low, the brand will lose credibility.
So what does all of this mean in terms of audio and the Subjectivists versus Objectivists? For one thing, different people perceive things differently, period. What’s important to some is not important to others, and visa versa.
For some, a slightly lower noise floor in a mic is not worth either the extra cost or the resulting lack of perceived resolution, while for others, it might be just the ticket for their application. Thus there can be no consensus on whether or not a lower noise floor is always “better.”
One thing I firmly believe is that both approaches are important for the improvement of audio (or anything else that is part of someone’s experience).
The Accidental Designer
Sure, there are stories where accidental discoveries made improvements in design. For instance, the story of the German broadcast engineer in the late 1930s that inadvertently left a high-frequency oscillator “on” while recording an orchestra.
The result? For the first time, there was playback fidelity beyond 10 kHz. This accidental discovery lead to the implementation of an AC bias for analog tape recorders, and it also pushed the envelope of what was possible with this type of system.
However, despite the muddled beginnings of AC bias, a scientific approach was required to produce repeatable, reliable and predictable results. The required circuitry had to be thoroughly understood by analog design engineers, and the right frequency and right amplitude had to be identified.
Then the right combination of these factors for each different tape formulation had to be developed in order to realize the full potential of the bias signal. It took until the 1950s before this was well understood, resulting in improvement of both subjective and objective experiences for the listeners of tape recordings.
One real problem with measuring various changes in audio quality and attempting to both attribute them to specific causes and simultaneously predict how they will be perceived is that – in the first place - we often don’t know exactly what to measure. Of course, we know the basics such as amplitude response versus frequency, phase response, distortion in its various forms and the like.
But it’s exceedingly difficult to get detailed measurements with real source material in place of standard testing signals. (Meyer) SIM and (Rational Acoustics) Smaart are measurement tools in this direction, and they’ve greatly benefited sound reinforcement.
At the same time, there is no solid standard for transient response measurements and the resulting perceived effects. Several manufacturers claim that by extending frequency response of a system well past the “audible” limit (say, to 50 kHz) and maintaining phase accuracy through that range, that transient response and distortion will be improved in the audible band.
But even so, is this necessarily the way to predict that the system will sound good? Perhaps it could be argued that all other things being equal between two systems, the one with the lower distortion will “sound better.”
But then again, an interesting experiment done long ago by Bell Labs resulted in the conclusion that for a limited-bandwidth system, the one with more distortion was perceived as sounding “better.”
Perhaps this is one way to explain why low-power, all-tube, all-Class-A amplifiers are often perceived to sound more “musical” than huge, solid-state, “mega-kilowatt,” machined-aluminum monsters that are competing for the same piles of money.
Or maybe it’s other, psychological factors, such as the idea that tube amplifiers replaced the hearth in the home as a centerpiece around which to congregate…
Or perhaps it’s a result of something that is more easily quantified.
Class-A amplifiers distort differently from other designs. Not only this, but by running “wide open” in some cases, there’s more power available for short-term small-scale dynamic changes such as transient information.
It can be easily shown that although two systems may have the same signal-to-noise ratio and the same distortion figures on an analyzer, they sound radically different. The spectra of the noise, and the character of the distortion, play huge roles in perceived sound quality.
So again, the challenging question about quantifying performance in audio systems is what to measure in the first place, and how to measure it.
The bottom line is that both camps have something very important to offer. Without a scientific approach, we’d be stabbing in the dark trying to find solutions to problems about which we know very little.
But without a reliance on the subjective experience, even our most clever inventions would perhaps never reach the level of “art.” What good can come of setting fire to a silk-screened portrait of Andy Warhol in the middle of the woods if there’s no one present to snicker?
Designers and sound system users make decisions every day based on whatever they have at their disposal, including theory, available equipment, testing and measurement, intuition, and finally, critical listening. If there is not a balance among these resources, the results are likely to be unbalanced.
How would you like some power amps with “DC to light” response but producing crappy sound? Care for some loudspeakers that sound amazing but look like a “Dogs Playing Poker” on black velvet? How about mics that can pick up a gnat burping but make a Stradivarius sound like a banjo bowed with rosined fishing line?
Let’s leave it to the great Duke Ellington: “If it sounds good, it is good.”
Karl Winkler is director of business development for Lectrosonics and has worked in professional audio for more than 20 years.
Thursday, April 10, 2014
Virginia Arts Recording Installs API 1608 Analog Console
Recently replaced large-format digital console with a 16-channel 1608 analog console with P-Mix fader automation.
As part of a complete architectural and electronic renovation, Virginia Arts Recording recently replaced its large-format digital console with a 16-channel API 1608 analog console with P-Mix fader automation.
The north-central Virginia-based studio has been serving local musicians, labels, and radio stations for over 30 years. The current owners, Chris Doermann and Sean Dart, are embracing that history and the industry’s pivot to analog with the new API console and a 24-track, 2-inch tape machine.
Virginia Arts Recording also retains all the professional digital platforms with top-end converters to allow projects to effectively hybridize between the two technologies. The facility resides in a historic house in southeast Charlottesville, just miles from the University of Virginia campus. A little over a year ago, the coupling that merged the city water supply and the house’s water heater on the second floor failed just as everyone was closing up shop for a holiday weekend.
“When we returned, the control room, and much of the equipment was totally wrecked,” recalls Dart. “The digital console was one of the casualties, but we decided to make the most of it. We wanted to put the studio on solid footing for the next twenty-five years.”
Analog consoles, tape machines, ADATs, and a steady progression of DAWs all had a place in Virginia Arts Recording’s history. Doermann and Dart decided to build a hybrid analog/digital studio with a workflow that made negotiating the two technologies transparent.
“We definitely wanted an analog console, and we pride ourselves on capturing big drum sounds,” says Dart. “That’s API’s signature talent, so naturally we chose the 1608.”
Doermann and Dart took an API factory tour as a part of their research. “Interacting with API is a different experience,” notes Dart. “Mark Seman of API invited us to the factory, and we packed a few mixes that we know well. API let us see everything, and gave us a few hours behind the 1608.
“It sounded amazing, and the feel of real faders has been a welcome relief from menus and double clicks. I just get in there with my hands, and thank API for giving us the recording feel we were missing.”
Posted by Julie Clark on 04/10 at 02:18 PM
Audient ASP4816 Console No Compromise For Hawaii Studio
The first ever Audient ASP4816 in the South Pacific has been installed at The Analogue Café in Hawaii.
The ever Audient ASP4816 in the South Pacific has been installed at The Analogue Café, a self-professed “old fashioned recording studio.”
Studio owner Eric Malamud was keen to ensure that The Analogue Café lives up to its name, and his research into analog gear led him straight to Audient. Discovering that console designer David Dearden is Audient’s co-founder piqued his interest. “I already own a vintage Midas XL200, so I’m a Dearden fan by default,” says Malamud.
General manager and in-house technician Robert Unger is happy that Malamud didn’t compromise on the desk, and lists a few of the many benefits it offers the studio. “The routing flexibility is excellent, especially the buss assignments to subgroups and outputs,” he notes. “The integrated internal power supply is silent and energy efficient, and the console has the best fold-back and monitoring system integration ever.”
The in-line console packs the key features of a larger console into a compact, ergonomic form, also including the same pre-amps found in Audient’s Dearden-designed flagship console, the ASP8024.
“The Audient pre-amps are time tested, and very clean,” confirms Unger. “In the old days EQ was for surgery, we never use EQ when tracking,” he continues. “When we do need it the result is excellent – especially the filters.”
Malamud adds, “The studio maintains the feel of a 1950s—1970s analog studio using 48 tracks of iZ RADAR and classic outboard,” adds Malamud. “As the studio motto goes, No computers are harmed in the making of our records.”
Posted by Julie Clark on 04/10 at 01:30 PM
Monday, April 07, 2014
Ahead Of The Game: Console Strategies For Festivals
The goal is to be as prepared as possible. Spring is nigh...
Mixing at festivals – good times! Or is it?
Anyone who has worked as either a guest mixer or system tech in a festival environment probably has stories about the inherent ups and downs and, certainly, the hyper pace and stress that are part of the gig. And we’ve all heard a few horror stories of artists hitting the stage patched incorrectly or without a sound check.
But there’s also the unique thrill of mixing in a hyped environment with tens of thousands of fans on hand, and sometimes in really cool outdoor settings. The goal of the mix engineer is to be as prepared as possible, particularly when it comes to working with the console. Spring is nigh…
Preferences & Strategies
It’s been common for years to see multiple consoles “leap-frogged” between acts, allowing one or more offline consoles to be dialed in while another is live. They may be switched over by the system engineer or sub-mixed to a master console, and in the latter case, gain structure or ground loop hum/noise issues can pop up between consoles. Carrying in-line pads and audio isolation transformers is always a good idea.
Digital consoles have obviously changed the workflow at festivals by allowing preset show files to be prepped and uploaded, which helps in terms of establishing baselines and promoting efficiency. Premium analog boards may still be carried by certain headliner acts, but they’re usually not shared.
Whatever the console(s) in use, advancing the date is still the most important step in a successful gig. Even the best system techs can’t prepare properly if they don’t have enough information in advance. Further, even when this info is available and shared ahead of time, it’s still wise to arrive at the gig with a copy of the stage plot, patch list, input list, and whatever else is important to the production.
Having mixed at plenty of festivals and other multi-act events, I’ve developed a number of personal preferences and strategies. And I’ve observed that the balance of science versus art that we know as “live mixing” tends to weigh heavily toward the science side when the “run-and-gun” mode common to festivals kicks in. After all, things just have just work, first.
A Yamaha CL5 provided by Gand Concert Sound to serve as the house console at the annual Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago.
But as veteran freelance mix engineer Chris McMillan (John Mark McMillan/Promenade Media) told me, “Mixing is much better when the art takes priority over the science, and that means ergonomics can determine how nuanced your mix becomes. I like channels grouped the way I’m used to so that I see what I need and never know anything else exists.”
This is where festivals are so different than tours. Touring engineers get very used to their daily setup being consistent, and can take advantage of that repeatability to achieve highly detailed mixes. System techs that aren’t mixers should try to keep in mind that mix engineers aren’t always crazy or unrealistic when they want their console laid out a certain way.
It’s about familiarity. It really does matter if the lead vocal gets patched to the rack tom channel. Things like this can be dealt with in a pinch, and maybe quickly, but they can impact the end result by either causing a failure or a compromised (weaker) mix.
In talking with Chris and a couple of other festival mixing veterans, and thinking about my own experiences, certain themes are clear. Mix engineers desire a “perfect” console setup and the ultimate processing tweaks to satisfy their mix plans. But when working festivals, they do realize that it’s a daunting task to support many acts a day as opposed to one artist on multiple tour dates. As a result, they just hope for a reasonably well-tuned PA, a thoughtful system approach, solid gain structure, and an intelligent output bus layout.
Input patching is critical – particularly at festivals. What’s the best way to handle it? If the sound company has the qualified hands and there is enough change-over time, it’s great when stage inputs can be updated for each artist on the bill.
Whether the consoles are digital or analog, this extra effort goes a long way in helping keep things familiar for visiting engineers.
And if troubleshooting becomes necessary, engineer(s) are likely to have the stage patches for their artists memorized and know things like “hats are on line 5” and the like. All of this said, it’s simply not all that realistic in most festival situations…
Festival stages are typically patched in a logical order with plenty of lines, and the patches don’t change between acts. If one drummer needs 10 lines and another needs only six, then the latter has four open lines during his set – the overall count remains the same.
“Soft patching” on digital consoles allows laying out input and output channels in any order without making physical patch changes. This is extremely powerful. No longer does snake line 1 have to appear on input channel 1. Each engineer’s preferred console layout can be implemented without impacting the physical patches. But this requires sharing console show files in advance (pun definitely intended) or doing it on site while another act is playing.
It’s common to use matrixes to drive PA outputs such as main left and right, down fills, front fills, delay zones, subwoofers, etc. Many engineers simply distribute their stereo mix across these various zones (either L/R or L/R+sub), while some actually mix to each zone, which requires building specific mixes into each matrix. The exact PA zones and distribution varies per event, per stage, and not all companies do it the same.
But whatever the configuration, it’s imperative that the console’s output patches match the PA. With digital consoles this means soft patching the output patches, and for this reason, system techs need to be careful when loading each act’s show file, as output patching errors or surprises can create a perfect storm and wreck a system real quick.
A Soundcraft Vi6 as the front of house console provided by Premier Production & Sound Services for the main stage at Louisiana State University’s Groovin’ on the Grounds multi-act concert in Baton Rouge.
A couple of times I’ve worked as a guest mix engineer at a festival and then stayed on as a pre-booked system tech. While this isn’t my forte or preference, I found it very interesting to work from the other (host) side of things. Many visiting engineers arrive with an expectation of certain doom, and it was fun to “make their day” with exceptional support and PA organization.
In one case, the long-time mix engineer for a well-known classic rock band clearly wasn’t happy about the digital console at FOH. He just wanted to “get by and get out of there.” I knew this desk inside and out and did everything possible to make it painless for him. He sought to keep it simple, with input faders and EQs accessible, in order, but with no other processing – not even DCA groups.
Further, he actually broke out his console tape and Sharpie and proceeded to label the input channels analog style, in spite of the nice programmable LCD labels! When I pointed out that the tape was only applicable on “Bank A” and would be inaccurate as soon as he banked the faders, he simply replied, “I don’t bank.” The band fit on the 24 input faders without any banking (layering), and by the end of the first song, it sounded absolutely amazing. Simple setup, talented musicians, and great ears.
In considering this topic, I did some Q&A with long-time mix engineers Daniel Ellis (David Crowder Band, Jesus Culture) and the aforementioned Chris McMillan.
Here’s what they had to say.
What do you appreciate most from the host system tech in terms of console prep and work flow?
Chris McMillan: I love it when signal flow and busing are simple. That’s really the most important thing. I want to know I’m just responsible for a stereo mix and maybe a send for subs, and everything else is going to be fine. If that’s right, and there’s a solid talkback situation, then we’re golden. It’s also much appreciated when the system tech has thought through the input list and our specific goals and considered what that means in terms of the system configuration. There’s nothing as useless as taking the time to advance a show only to have nothing prepared and no feedback.
Daniel Ellis: I want to see a production console for videos, emcees, and things that I do not need/want in my show file. This also means that I can load and prep my show file in between acts without waiting for the perfect 30-second gap where nothing is happening on stage.
What’s your take on “festival patch”?
CM: In an ideal world, I stay away from festival patch, although this is pretty much only accomplished with a show file. I like channels grouped the way I’m used to so that I see what I need and never know anything else exists. You know, the typical spoiled brat method of engineering.
DE: As a headliner I want my show to be patched per my input list. The only problem with this is that many festival patch guys for some reason can’t get it right the first time so half of the sound check ends up being “fixing the patch.” At least this is how it works at Christian festivals. Sometimes it seems like a random guy has been hired off the street to patch when in essence, patching is one of the most important jobs.
A DiGiCo SD5 that’s one of numerous SD models supplied by Clearwing Productions for the annual Summerfest in Milwaukee.
Do you carry a show file if it’s a compatible digital console or do you send it in advance? Or neither?
CM: I carry a show file if it seems like it will make a difference. Sometimes the process of conforming a show file or the time it takes to be convinced it’s correct isn’t worth the effort, because patching and busing can become compromised. Anyway, the acts I work with aren’t doing anything so weird that a default festival scene can’t work as a great starting point.
DE: I always try to know ahead of time what console I’ll be using and have a show file ready. Even if it’s a blank show file built on my laptop, I find that it helps because at least I know where all of my inputs are. If you try to run a 48-input show from a festival console file, you spend the entire time switching between banks trying to remember where everything is. It helps me tremendously to have the same workflow every time even if I’m starting with flat EQ and no processing on anything.
Do you find that “artist EQ” or “output bus processing” is usually enough to get your sound or do you often wish (ask?) for access to the PA processing?
CM: Limited bus-style processing is usually acceptable, if not from a creative standpoint, then from the understanding that everyone else is working off of that same tuning.
DE: Lately I often find myself at an Avid desk at festivals, so I just slap a Waves Q10 (10-band paragraphic EQ plug-in) across the stereo bus. Luckily I haven’t had to do much to the systems themselves. Just two or three small cuts on the Q10 in problem areas and I’m usually happy. If it’s a console that doesn’t work with Waves, I simply use the parametric on the master out.
What makes for a good system tech?
CM: I don’t hesitate to communicate with the system tech about expectations and any changes I feel the PA needs. Most good techs can balance the reality of the promoter and their employer’s expressed interests and still meet your creative and technical needs. A good tech wants a good sounding show in reality and not just on paper.
DE: Good attitude and good ears! And please don’t set up a measurement mic in one spot and put in 15 EQ adjustments.