Trimester 3 Post Mortem (a very death metal title). Brutal.

At the conclusion of this trimester and 2016, I’ve had a pretty big year for audio. The work that I was doing inside and outside of SAE at the end of 2015 feels like a lifetime ago and is somewhat embarrassing to show. Honestly, I feel like I’ve come a long way. I’ve had a few epiphanies, a lot of crappy mixes and happy accidents but I’m feeling really good about the place I’m at and the next 12 months and then some. I’ve learned a lot of new technical and not-so-technical skills that all contribute to a great mix. There’s definitely a long way to go, but I can confidently talk about my own pitfalls and can work towards improving them. I’ve learned a lot about my own workflow and how it affects the final product.

My biggest improvement has been in group work and learning to work with people. I’ve never been a leader but this trimester my confidence in the studios as well as in my own ability using mics, desks, arrangement and composition has made it easier to speak my mind without hesitation. My own humility and willingness to fudge things up really assisted in this field. Mistakes are great – they’re how you learn! It’s been really good for me to not only have the guts to take the lead, but to have a group of students & lecturers follow and agree with my lead. It’s really helped me stay focused on the end goal and making sure that every decision/disagreement we have as a group contributes to the project overall. This group work has also helped me work better with artists outside of SAE and I’ve found clients commenting on how great I am to work with, as well as what a comfortable and inspiring environment I create. To me, technical engineering is (almost) secondary to customer and client relations. Technical skills are important, but they should be second nature and the focus should be an inspired and happy artist.

In saying this, I’ve also really developed some of my technical engineering skills this trimester. The demo project really taught me a lot about micing and mixing drums, aswell as learning the Neve console and some of the different routing capabilities it had. I’ve also learnt to deal with clients, and automating our demo on the desk while printing it back into ProTools was a great experience. Learning the signal flow of the Neve was complicated at first, but the many options showed me all the different workflows there are, and reverse engineering these signal flows has thrown me a few revelations regarding in and outs, sends, returns, throwing effects with automation and routing and re-amping. The Neve is great to teach gain staging, which is somewhat lost in a world of digital convertors and plugins. The post-production part of the trimester using field recorders to record is something I’d never done before and would be great for getting samples to include in music. The room and location ambience was used to great effect in our Star Wars project to fill out a space, as well as recording ADR and overdubs. Overdubs make you think creatively about a sound and critical listen to a sound so you can replicate it’s frequency response and feel, e.g. a heavy block of carbonite falling onto a metal floor.

Recording room noise and ambience has helped a lot with my own mixes – it makes mixes sound more alive and gives you the option of the room noises and layers dropping away to create an extra level of space and energy in a mix. Learning and incorporating these new technical skills into my work has helped me define the ebb and flow, as well as the ‘journey’ that my mixes need to take. My mixing has really improved this trimester with the use of extra ambience and layers. This has carried over from the Sound-Alike project last trimester and my own critical listening of music and mixes that I enjoy. On top of the layering and ambience, I’ve had a drummer friend coming into SAE to jam a few evenings this tri and I’ve messed with micing his kit and experimenting with techniques and sounds. The micing techniques we learned in the demo project in the Neve have been used to great effect, and I’ve been swapping out mics to get different sounds and getting some great results. Unfortunately, the list of gear I’d like to own myself is growing and growing. Drums are a really interesting one for me, because of how much the space they’re recorded in affects the sound. On the other hand, a lot of the music I listen has triggered samples or completely sample-replaced drums. I’m pushing to get a great drum sound with minimal sample replacement, though some is inevitable. In my own practice I’d rather use layers of real drums than extra samples.

Despite all the above, there’s always room for improvement. I’d love to become even better for bands to work with and be known for not only a great sound but a great environment to work in. I’d love to get better pre-tape processing to make the mix down faster, as well as having great sounds in the control room and headphones for an artists to perform to. I think the way pre-tape processing reacts + how the artists hearing a great sounding signal really affect the way they perform. Despite the amount of new technical skills we’ve learned this trimester, I haven’t struggled to incorporate them into my workflow, however initially understanding them wasn’t always easy. A lot of the micing and mixing techniques we learned in the demo project are making their way onto recordings already and I used a lot of layering open an EP for a friend that I’ve recorded throughout this trimester.

I’ve pushed to do as much freelance work lot outside of of SAE this trimester. I’ve realised that freelance work is primarily my focus and goal, so admittedly the qualification on paper at the end of my time at SAE won’t help with that specifically (but it’s great for more formal areas of audio work). It’s important to keep building my name and skill set so that I already have a start when I graduate from SAE. This trimester I recorded a three track EP for my friend, Lee Skyrme, and engineered, produced, mixed and mastered the project which was finally pressed onto vinyl. The brief for the project was three songs and an interlude for his daughter Lola’s first birthday in October this year. The vinyl pressing was a big factor in my mix and mastering, and also influenced choosing the sounds we initially recorded. All in all this was a great experience as I had a big part in building layers of guitars and vocals, as well as some more hidden synths and ambience. I’m currently in the middle of two EPs (12 songs total) for independent solo artists, Jordan and Jacob. Pre-production is finished for both of them and I’ve tracked all acoustic guitars and started vocals for Jordan. From here we’ll build other layers around the core of the songs, we decided to record vocals early so they remain the focus and don’t get buried. He’s very keen to keep the songs’ acoustic vibe so he can perform them live with a similar sound. Jacob’s 5 songs have all pre-pro and scratch tracks done, and we start bass and electric guitars this Sunday. I’m really excited about both of these projects, and the Neve demo project has really helped with my production skills as well as my people skills and I’m encouraging some really great performances. Similar to the Neve project, we started with chords and vocals and we’re building the songs fro the ground up.

In conclusion, I feel like I’ve found my feet this trimester and I’m chipping away at this big ol’ dream of mine. There’s been too many technical skills to list, but they’re all shaping my own workflow and practices. It wasn’t an easy trimester, but the projects at SAE have coincided with some required skills in my freelance work. There’s still a lot to learn but I’m feeling good about the goals I’m working towards and the stage I’m at.

Twisting, cutting and pushing our way to a passing grade

We finished a demo project in class this week – the mixing session of our four week (24 hour) project in the Neve studio at SAE Melbourne. What really set this mixdown apart was our decision to do our automation on the desk as we printed the mix back into ProTools. We had a group of six people, twelve hands (with all fingers attached) and about twenty faders and channel strips to mess with.

 

What I really enjoyed about the mix was how we mostly used our ears to automate, rather than clicking, dragging and highlighting gain lines in ProTools. Similar to an artists’ inflection while playing, we all stood around the console and tapped our feet along to the music and punched our tracks in and out, pushed and pulled the faders and created delay and reverb throws with the returns of effects sends. This may seem like a ‘normal’ way to do a mix down but it’s not something I’ve ever really done before, nor seen the merit in doing it like this. ProTools can automate to the grid – why would I?

 

Well, now I know.

Team dynamics

A really great sound recording is more often than not, full of dynamics. The emotion, the noise floor, ‘the minor fall and the major lift’ as the late Leonard Cohen sang, all contribute to an engaging mix. You want the quiet bits quiet and the loud bits loud and as much of a difference as you can between them (or whatever sounds good).

 

However, super high highs and low lows aren’t so great when working in a team. Emotion is great in a song, but not so great in a team dynamic. I’d even liken my ideal team to a slammed signal through an Empirical Labs Distressor. There’s a little grit, lots of buttons and plenty of options that are easy to punch in and punch out and see what works best for the track. The sound coming out the end isn’t super dynamic but it’s full of excitement. It’s easy to find something that works for the mix as a whole and commit to it. I find the biggest difficulty when working in a team is commitment and communication.

 

Generally, I’m not scared of commitment when recording, I love the excitement of a great sound to Tools and committing to it. Similarly, I’m happy to commit to an arrangement or 0r sound in a group in the interest of keeping the project moving. Obviously it’s important that everyone’s voice is heard and that the group is happy with the arrangement, but it’s important to keep momentum going. Another big thing I’ve learnt about working with teams is constant communication – not just agreeing on an idea or goal before going our seperate ways to do our own bits. It’s really important to agree and continue communication until the next studio (or wherever you’re working) session. This is not to be misconstrued as micro-managing. There’s a very fine line between these two different approaches, and this line also moves a lot depending on who you’re working with. It’s really important to be able to read and understand different people’s approaches, emotions and expectations.

 

I wouldn’t change a thing after working in teams at SAE, it’s been a massive learning curve and is definitely something I’ll be doing a lot of in my future as an audio engineer.