Fixing in the mix/mixing in the fix.

Why is it such an expected practice for engineers and producers to accept, record and use tracks that haven’t been recorded well? Why do some musicians have the belief that lacklustre performances are acceptable and will contribute to a great mix? It seems obvious that if the input is bad, the output can’t be great?

 

Once audio has been captured, it’s important to remember that EQ, compression, modulation and time-based effects are effects that process the audio at their input point. This seems obvious, right? So how can an effect, or the engineer mixing a song, be expected to give the track something that isn’t there to start with? A signal with a high-pass filter will never get it’s low frequencies back. You can boost the lows but the most you’ll get is whatever frequencies fit between the crossover of your EQ and the high-pass filter. Similarly, a compressor can make a signal (or a whole mix) punchy in a lot of different ways, but you’ll never get the push and pull of a great performance. You can even automate effects in and out, but they’ll never rise and fall like a performer/s do in an inspired and rehearsed performance.

 

Rehearsing brings me to my next point: musicians should be rehearsed before they enter the studio. Another point that seems obvious when blatantly stated in a blog, but also something that falls by the wayside. In the past, I’ve suggested a band recording live because of the sounds and feel of their references. On one occasion, the band though this idea laughable because the band (more specifically the members who knew the song at all) hadn’t been able to play the song the whole way through yet. Why would a band attempt to record a song they hadn’t rehearsed? They’ll do it because they believe it’s the engineers or producers job to make them sound great, and this isn’t entirely wrong.

 

In 2017, many releases are self-produced, or the engineer will take on both roles. This may explain, but not excuse the reason so many artists and engineers accept takes that don’t have great feel, vibe and energy. It’s a lot for on person to take on, engineering and producing, but unfortunately it’s the way this job is heading. It important, however, to note that this still doesn’t excuse the expectation to capture a great take. Compare audio to photography, for example. You wouldn’t give a Photoshop engineer (is that a thing?) an average  photo and ask them make everyone in the photo look like they’re having a good time. In Photoshop you can add filters, change colours, edit borders, scrub out imperfections, emphasise/draw perfection and even include elements that weren’t in the original image. This won’t necessarily make for a great image, because just like audio, it’s a lot of the imperfections that make a great photo. Theoretically, the photo might have great line of sight, it’ll be balanced and the colours might be pleasing – but what’s that if the original image is boring?

 

These are just a few things to keep in mind the next time your band goes into the studio to record, or even before you enter the studio. You can’t get out what you don’t put in, and effects and filters or process or emphasise what is already there. A good band with a bad recording will still sound good, and likewise a crappy band with a great recording, mix and master will never sound great.

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“This sounds almost as good as the Slate plugin!”

Earlier this week, we had our first external project at Soundpark Studios in Northcote. The studio (excluding rehearsal rooms) consists of a main live room that is collaged with doors, offcuts of wood, foam padding and other oddities that contribute to a great sounding acoustic treatment. Alongside the main room are the appropriately named Wood, Mid and Dead rooms. These are great for isolating amps and singers depending on the goal of your recording. At the heart of control room at Soundpark is an MCI console, and this is flanked by racks and racks of outboard, as well as an EMT plate reverb. The studio also boasts a huge array of mics, additional baffles, snares and hardware effects units.

The focus of this week was to focus on recording to tape using the studio’s Studer A80 (mark IV from my research). As is common in 2017, we used a hybrid set-up and monitored through ProTools (taking a split from the input of the Studer) and recorded to tape and ProTools simultaneously. When we had a take that both us and the band, Tom Walker & the Sick Individuals, were happy with that, we flipped the tape heads to repro and printed the Studer’s output back into Tools. Recording to tape was also a good exercise in not only encouraging a band to get their best performance, but making sure the band is comfortable, happy and ready to play their best.

File 10-3-17, 4 30 40 pm

The routing of the patchbay and live room looms was deceivingly simple, and it reminded me how comfortable I’d become in the Audient and Neve studios at SAE. We used a mixture of MCI console pre amps and external pres such as Neve + clones and API. We didn’t compress too much to tape, and finished the day printing some stems through a Space Echo and messing with the plate reverb and Lexicon PrimeTime. The control had a lot of Universal and Urei equipment, and in hindsight I regret not trying equipment such as the LA-3As. We used an LA-2A on the bass which was amplified by a 70s Ampeg which a few of us were excited about having watched Eric Valentine’s recent Sound On Sound video about surf guitar and the Queens of the Stone Age guitar tones, where he uses a similar (if not identica) Ampeg. The bass amp was placed in the Dead room, guitar amps in the Mid room and we didn’t use the Wood room. We had planned for vocal overdubs, however captured a great take on the scratch vocal through a Shure SM7B.

Having no experience with tape, I was keen to run the Studer for the day, and having been an avid ProTools user (pardon the pun) for a few years now, switching to the Studer made a lot of sense and showed me how similarly laid out ProTools is to a tape machine. This is something that seems obvious in hindsight but wasn’t until I had the tape machine’s buttons in front of me. Some things such as making sure everything you’re recording is armed, input monitoring, pressing play and record simultaneously. Though we didn’t do any literal tape editing, the fades and cut in ProTools are also very similar (albeit unfathomably simpler and quicker). Printing good takes to ProTools is also good practice as it saves you tape in the long run. I’ve used tape saturation plugins before, which give definitive saturation, but I’m yet to find a plugin that really gives the low mid bump that real tape gives.

Patching the signal into ProTools was a really good experience. The patchbays at SAE are normalled, which is common, but a de-normalled patchbay also makes a lot of sense to me. In a de-normalled set-up, is something isn’t patched in, you’re not getting signal. This makes troubleshooting a breeze, whereas in a studio like the Audient or Neve I find myself double checking insert buttons, aux sends and insert volume when I’m not sending/receiving signal. We opted to patch from the live room/isolated rooms > pre amps > Studer > ProTools. If we wanted something else in the chain, we’d just interrupt that signal.  We didn’t use the MCI console conventionally, but instead treated it like a rack of pre amps. It was a really good experience to see a different signal flow in a professional studio, as it showed us a different way to work and think abut signal flow. Thinking about and even questioning convention is a really important thing for students, as in some ways we’re still blissfully ignorant and are having a lot of happy accidents.

In conclusion, recording to tape at Soundpark was a really good experience. I’m now confident with a tape machine, and unfortunately lusting a little for a real machine as my plugins aren’t quite cutting it anymore. Using a de-normalled patchbay was good and reminds me to stay on my toes with signal flow as I’ll likely be working in an array of studios freelancing. The live rooms at Soundpark were also great and got me thinking about isolation and choosing the right rooms for sounds. I’m already planning a few sessions at Soundpark outside of SAE. It’s really driven home how important a great take is, as bad takes can be edited and ‘fixed’, but will never have the energy/imperfections of a great live take, especially when a band is all playing in one room. As a final note, I’m still waiting for a coffee from Nick, who arrived last to the studio on the day.

Song Exploder: Erik Rutan

The AUS230 Song Exploder project has been a great exercise in group work and critical listening. Listening critically is a very important skill for an audio engineer, not necessarily to mimic great mixes, but to build skills and workarounds to use on the fly in a recording or mixing session. When working in a group, it’s important to acknowledge varying skill levels, opposing opinions and interests, as well as staying focused on the end goal. We did well to establish roles and leadership early on and happily swapped from producer to engineer to musician from week to week – all in the interest of keeping the momentum going. Because we were organised early on – we remain on target and on schedule. It was a great experience to produce and engineer, as well as work as a musician to remind me how it feels to work with an engineer and producer. Understanding/experiencing different roles will help me b the best engineer I can.

For a small group who, admittedly, arrived at the second week of classes with nothing to show, I think the three-man group I worked with over the last month has pulled together a great sounding mix and analysis of Erik Rutan’s trademark sounds in death metal. It assisted us greatly in selecting a song with a straightforward chord progression that easily translated to a harmonic minor vibe, and a lot of online content about Rutan’s recording and mixing process. Being a death metal fan, I tppk the lead on composition and on the first day of demos we arranged a the chords and demo’d the song with MIDI drums and MIDI guitars. Three three of us assigned ourselves instruments to play in the project and I proceeded to engineer in the Audient studio over the following weeks of drum and vocal recording. Assigning roles early on and playing to each other’s strengths really assisted us in remaining focused on our end goal and we achieve our final mix in a timely manner. Luckily, all three of us were open minded and eager to learn different skills and approaches to recording and mixes, and we all came away with a few new tricks up our sleeves.

Another big part of the project was our critical listening, in particular to some Cannibal Corpse albums that Erik Rutan had engineered and produced and Hate Eternal that he’d performed on and recorded. it’s importnt to note how loud the vocals are in Cannibal Corpse versus in Hate Eternal (with Rutan singing). We opted for a louder Cannibal Corpse level vocal, as we discussed maybe this was Rutan’s analysis of his own vocal being the reason for a lower vocal level in Hate Eternal. Rutan’s drum style is unique in that the kick drums are triggered and the snares quite processed, but the drum kit has an organic vibe about it that still sits well in a mix. More impressive still is how well an organic sound can hold up against the rest of market with fully triggered or entirely sample replaced drum tracks. From our research we noticed particularly high stereo overhead mics on the kit, as well as baffles behind the kit to tighten up the room sounds. High overheads filter out the lower frequency information in the overheads, keeping the bottom end of the mix tight and controlled. This technique gives a very different sound to simply high pass filtering the overheads. A great sound, punchy (and well played) drum track gave us the foundation we needed to start layering guitars – another of Rutan’s trademarks.

Throughout the week following the drums, I recorded guitar at home with a combination of a Mesa Rectifier pre-amp into a power amp and Marshall 1960A cabinet, and the Rectifier into Kazrog’s Recabinet software – again using emulations of SM57s and Royer 121s on Celestion speakers. A Mesa & Tubesreamer combo are commonly used on Rutan’s recordings. Part of Rutan’s sound is double, triple and quad tracking guitars throughout his tracks, and I use a combination to achieve the size and weight of the guitar in our tracks. The choruses are quad tracked, and in the verses two of the tracks dropped away to emphasise the size of the choruses and keep the verses spacious. In our final vocal + mixing session, we used a lot of doubling and layer one vocals coupled with distortion and compression to achieve a forward sounding, impactful vocal. We used the BAE 1073 pre amps in the Audient studio into a Distressor, something typical of Rutan’s vocal chain according to some online interviews and online studio tours (though Rutan uses Vintech 73 clones instead of BAE clones). After recording, we ran vocals, guitars and drums through a pair of Distressors in seperate stereo stems, as our analysis of some of Hate Eternal’s mixes showed heavily compressed (define; squashed to sh*t) mixes. The drums and guitar were then printed through the Fatso in stereo and we printed a mix with a combination of the wet and dry prints.

In conclusion, I think we did well to imitate Rutan’s production style but keep some of our own flavour in the song. We learned a lot through critically listening to Rutan’s recordings and our own to steer them towards something closer to what he would do. Our drums were tight but organic and our guitars had a huge, thick and impactful sound. We did really well to keep the momentum going and worked well as a group by acknowledging our own strengths n weaknesses in the interest of the final goal.

Next time I’m stuck in the studio, you might catch me asking myself: What Would Rutan Do?