In conclusion…

AUS230 WRAP UP

“In conclusion…”

AUS230 this trimester has been a really good experience. I’m feeling more every week like I’m standing on my own feet, and admittedly, less like the things we learn in class are gospel, but just different ways to approach the roadblocks and inevitable variables that occur with bands, producers, managers and equipment. I’m feeling more ready* for ‘real world’ work once I leave SAE in August, having begun to pick up more freelance work this trimester.

* Ready

ˈrɛdi/

adjective

  1. 1. Impatient;

We’ve focused a lot on critical listening, having completed the Song Exploder project where we studied producer and engineer Erik Rutan’s style and applied it to Tom Petty and the Heartbreaker’s ‘Refugee’. We also spent a day in Northcote’s Soundpark, working with tape for the first time at SAE, which was a really great experience, and I’m developing a relationship with Tom Walker and Sick Individuals, who we recorded on the day, which looks to be leading to more freelance work. The Studer tape machine at Soundpark was great, and showed me very quickly how tape saturation can be used in a hybrid recording set up in 2017. In addition to Song Exploder and Soundpark, we’ve spent a few weeks working on a web series with film students to brush up on our skills and experience in post production.

Listening to music critically is something I’m slowly coming to terms with this year. To be clear, it’s great to listen back to my favourite albums and understand what kind of processing has been used to achieve a sound’s tonality, vibe and context. The reason I’ve had to ‘come to terms’ with this, is because I’m struggling to enjoy music like I used to. Instead, I appreciate production and mixing. I appreciate music no less, but I can’t simply enjoy a song anymore – something I’m indifferent to. I have a different appreciation, but enjoy it nonetheless. The Song Exploder project in the first few weeks of class was a great exercise in listening critically. In addition to listening to Erik Rutan’s mixes of bands like Hate Eternal or Cannibal Corpse, we also watched studio diaries and looked at the (absolutely crushed) waveforms of Rutan’s mixes. It’s been really good to analyse some of my favourite mixes more closely, and listen to them in context with other mixes, as well as using them as mix references for my own work. In addition to improving our own critical listening, it was really god to work in a small group that worked really well together and were excited about the project – I learnt a lot from my teammates as we all had our own workflows to get the project across the line. As a group, however, we bounced and printed the mix incorrectly and had stereo guitars that collapsed to mono. A little reminder to keep an eye on everything and listen more closely during mix down.

Our tape project at Soundpark was a great exercise in keeping an eye on everything in the studio. In addition to this, it was also great to really understand how easy recording is in 2017, having come from a primarily in the box/DAW workflow. While we didn’t use the MCI console as a conventional console, we routed all of our pre (Neve, API, Universal Audio, MCI) to the Studer A-80 that lives in the control room at Soundpark. The signal was split at the tape machine and we recorded to ProTools and tape, before printing the best takes back into ProTools from the output of the tape machine. This is the hybrid part of our set-up, besides the computer. The band we had in for the day, Tom Walker & the Sick Individuals, were great players, but that didn’t stop us from understanding how important it is to have a band that can really play their instruments to save both time and tape. It was also really great comparing real tape to some of the tape and saturation plugins I’ve grown accustomed to having on mix buses and individual tracks; this is only great in the sense that I really understand how real tape (a top of the line tap machine) differs from plugins (tl;dr – I want a Studer). Mixing these tracks was also a challenge due to the tape hiss and having a band play live all at once. Admittedly, I’m much more used to isolated tracks where compressors can be slammed without introducing unpleasant spill etc. All in all – this was a really great experience and I’m feeling confident in using tape on my own.

Our final project this trimester was a short webseries with film students called ‘Fantastic Fiction’ and has been a great exercise in post production, mainly because we’re working with real clients (though other students). It’s reminded me how much I enjoy post production, maybe because the work can often be more methodical than mixing music, and solutions to problems can be more immediate and obvious. Unfortunately I missed a few classes where foley and mixing was done, but was keen to assist syncing up some of the recorded foley etc. More post production work has reminded me how important it is that sounds are used and mixed in the right context, and that the project as a whole works and remains seamless. It’s also a reminder to serve the project and not always your own creativity. It’s really easy to lose sight of this, but the work we’ve done has re-established this mindset.

In addition to SAE’s assessments, I’ve also spent a lot of time working on freelance projects outside of uni. A lot of this has been at Goatsound, having been interning with chief engineer Jason Fuller. The primary project I’ve worked on at Goatsound is a new album for metal band King Parrot. This was a great learning experience as I was working with a full-time, professional band with a deadline to adhere to and label’s expectations to meet, as well as some of the best players in Australian metal. In addition to work at Goatsound, I’ve spent a few session recording drums for Melbourne metal band A Greed Science, and am currently waiting for guitar tracks and bass tracks to mix an EP for them. My primary freelance project for AUS230 has been mixing a live set for Dave Wright and the Midnight Electric. Classmate Oli and I began mixing as soon as we had access to the tracks, and went through and mixed our main tones and sounds for all the instruments, and decided to automate a set each (there’s a live set of old songs + their new album ‘Hwy’ in full). After a quick meeting with Dave at his cafe in South Melbourne, we decided to send him a few mixes to start off to ensure we were on the right track. Because of the Easter break, we didn’t hear back from Dave until the last week of tri, but and have some great feedback to continue mixing for the band.

In conclusion, I’m feeling great about my second last trimester at SAE. I’m feeling like I can handle working my way towards freelancing full-time, and I have the skills to get there. SAE has been great for making mistakes and learning what I’ve done wrong quickly, and while this won’t stop, I feel like I can avoid major issues that may lose me clients. This confidence is slowly helping me to attract freelance work outside of SAE, as I think it’s clear that I’m becoming more sure of myself. It’s been great to critically analyse one of my favourite engineers, as well as to use a reel life (pardon the pun) tape machine. It’s really helped me to understand where recording came from, and why there’s been a massive throwback to vintage gear, including tape. Finally, post production has reminded me to keep sound in context with the project, as well as how important it is to be able to work in a group, and work for a client’s vision. I feel really ready for the final trimester of work at SAE.

Post-post production.

Post production is an avenue of audio that I often forget about, particularly regarding how much I enjoy it. In this blog, I’m going to outline a few of the reasons I shouldn’t forget about post production, and that there’s paid full time post production roles available. Contrary to the freelancing that I work towards in recorded music, there are post production roles available in dedicated post production studios, similar to days gone by where recording studios had in-house engineers (admittedly this isn’t completely extinct but it sure isn’t common anymore). On top of ‘real’ audio jobs, post production is also a reminder to keep creative with audio. When making sounds, effects/FX and foley, we’re more often than not recording sounds that differ greatly to the foley we’re trying to recreate. This is mostly because, ironically, something recorded doesn’t always sound like what it is (e.g. footsteps on gravel don’t sound like footsteps on gravel, instead you might scrunch paper or some other layered sound). I’ll start, however, with the fact that post production can teach you (a gentle reminder at least) about making audio immersive by using layers of foley on top of a sound bed and using the right reverbs or delays to really put sounds into a space.

In trimester 4 of my bachelor degree, we had Lincoln Sharpe speak to the class about his work in post production over the last twenty years, and how he’d arrived at finally having his own studio to record and mix in. One point he made has really stuck with me: when a post production engineer has done a great job, you’ll forget about them. This has been mimicked by Jason Fuller in my internship at Goatsound, who also said that when an album sounds bad, the audience blame the engineer, while if an album sounds great, the audience assume the band are great musicians. This is because when an engineer has done well, they’ve processed sound in a way that is natural and therefore immersive. There’s nothing unpleasant that jumps out to grab the audiences ear to remind them they’re listening to recorded music or watching a Hollywood blockbuster, or the AFL grand final (in Lincoln’s case), and the engineer has mixed sound in a way that’s appropriate to the time, place, feel and movement of the music or audio. One thing I’ve learned during this trimesters’ post production classes as well as classes during the last few trimesters is how much a sound bed helps to make foley, ADR and FX feel cohesive (reverb aside). In real life, there’s a sound bed of air conditioners, traffic and other noises, so it’s important to use these in sound for film, television etc. aswell. While this isn’t completely necessary to have a sound bed in recorded music, this can be a really helpful tool for making a mix sound cohesive. Sometimes a bed of white noise can fill in the gaps of a mix and make a mix sound less articulate or more intense, while on the other hand, establishing a bed of sound can be used simply to pull down the noise to emphasise the openness and space in a section of a song. It’s these kind of creative tips that have really made this trimesters work beneficial to my mixing.

Creativity is the name of the game in an industry that is suddenly overwhelmed by home studios and a new generation of engineers and musicians. To survive, dedicated engineers (like I hope to be) really need to stay on their toes and be willing to adapt to changing expectations from clients, and we can do this by getting creative with the tricks we use when recording, mixing and/or mastering. In post production, a common example of getting creative is the iconic sound if lightsabers in Star Wars. The lightsaber sound is the hum of movie projectors being interfered with by television sets and microphones. Admittedly, sci-fi forces us to be creative because the sounds need to literally be ‘otherworldly’. In film, there’s some psychological leeway in that when we hear sounds coupled with impact etc., we can quickly align the sound with the action without much thought, so we can get away with a lot without the audience hearing an out-of-context sound. For the Fan(tactic Fiction web series we worked on in AUS230, I recorded some foley and assets for the montage. I had to record pants being zipped, a spinning gun as well as the gun being caught, shoes being tied tight, a bag zipped and thrown over a shoulder and a ’thumbs up’. Admittedly, most of the sounds were what you’d expect them to be, e.g. my pants zipper, a bag being slung over my shoulder, but the guns were lighters being lit and batteries snapped into a battery charger. Finally, my girlfriend played a G major on my Lowrey Genie 88 organ for the thumbs up asset. In recorded music, this isn’t always so easy but when done right it can add interest to a mix or emphasise a groove or change in the song. One of my favourite examples of this is the end of Absinthius’s Vile Deluge, where a sample of a baseball bat hitting a metal pole is layered beneath a snare. This can be heard from 3:20 onwards. This kind of sampling really adds a layer of interest to a mix, or can give a lengthy groove or instrumental section new life.

Finally, post production can be a great avenue to explore because of the security that this kind of work can provide. Melbourne has some great production houses, such as Soundfirm, that are really operating at the highest level. The prospect of freelancing with the intention of eventually running a space of my own is a daunting one, and realistically the freelancing won’t stop even then, there’s just more opportunity to make money (with a lot of extra overheads). The prospect of a paid job in audio that can be used to supplement freelance income would really be a dream come true. As I’ve outlined above, regardless of whether post production is your ‘thing’ or not, post production can give some really great insight into keeping audio interesting, but still appropriate and in the correct context. For freelancing engineers and producers, it can be stressful organising their own finances, invoices and payments, in addition to a job that can often lead to a lot more than 40 hours a week Monday-Friday.

In conclusion, post production at SAE has provided we with some really great skills that I can use for either further post production work or to use in my engineering and mixing, or both. We can keep audio interesting with tricks and unusual sounds, and in post we can get really creative, hopefully one day iconic, and use visual cues to make these sounds fit. Ultimately, it’s important to process audio in the correct context (for film and music), so that, in a sense, we remain invisible and the band can get all the credit. Lucky we love it, right? Right??

Mastering

MASTERING

Mastering audio, personally, has been my final skill to learn at SAE. The rest of the trimester and next tri will be refining skills we’ve already learned and incorporating them into our own professional works flow. We’ve discussed in and out of the box techniques, and have been reminded that we’re always working for the product and not ourselves. We’ve discussed making tracks the best they can be, and used in the box plugins by iZotope to clean up tape hiss, vinyl crackle and excessive noise bought up by compression. It’s a common belief that the mastering process can ‘fix’ a bad mix, however mastering is as much about final EQ and compression choices, as it is adhering to international guidelines, loudness standards and ensuring a product is ready for commercial release.

With the rise of digital audio services such as Spotify, iTunes and Bandcamp, it’s important to provide a client with a product that fits the criteria that Apple and Spotify require for a digital release. This includes providing the client with mp3s for digital upload, WAV files at different sample rates for digital upload, and DDP files with song and artists’ names for CD release. It important to keep in mind the mediums people are using the listen to music, but not necessarily mix or master to cater to it (e.g. Apple headphones, phone speakers etc.) Some further research into mastering led me to the below interview with Mandy Parnell, at Black Saloon Studios, who really drives home the important of proper file management, and international standards for delivery of audio products. Mandy discusses the gear she uses to master, such as the EMI console at the heart of her workflow, the signal flow/s she uses, and how she caters to different clients and the important of a few important pieces of gear such as her Prism convertors.

A big part of the delivery of audio product are the expectations for perceived loudness and how this differs to amplitude. The last 20 years have seen the battle for loudness become a big part part of our expectations of recorded audio, and mastering engineers work to deliver loud masters that compete without compromising the integrity and clarity of a mix. The louder we expect audio, the harder it is to retain that clarity without losing dynamics, the nuances of a performance, image and space of a mix. A big turning point for me was having Jo Carra from Crystal mastering speak to the class about his experience in the audio industry. Jo began his career by printing cassette tapes and was a part of quality assurance. Jo’s attitude and approach to mastering speaks volumes about his successful career, having been one of the most successful mastering engineers for 20+ years, having worked with big name international and Australian artists alike, such as The Waifs, Bloc Party, Augie March, Courtney Barnett and Eddy Current Suppression Ring. Jo’s attitude is all about serving the song and the project, but also keeping up with current trends and industry expectations. Jo has been around for the entirety of the ‘loudness wars’ and has continued to deliver loud masters that retain clarity and feel of the original mixes. Jo discussed his approach to in the box and out of the box approaches, and this all depends on the subject material and/or the clients expectations. Jo also discussed that mastering is the last technical stage of a product, and treats his job thusly. He remains focused on quality assurance and ensuring the product is 100% the best it can be. He endeavours to avoid mastering creatively, unless the client specifically asks or he sincerely thinks it will help the end product.

As part of our mastering classes, we learned a few skills that I thought would be impossible to do to a stereo mix. Some of these tricks included turning the snare and vocals up or down in a mix despite only having access to a two track mix. A lot of these tricks use tight EQ and mid-side processing, a technique I’m been experimenting with after finding a free mid-side plugin from HOFTA. Mid-side can be great, especially for pop music where a big vocal is needed to cut through. For rock and metal mixes, however, I’ve discovered stereo/left and right processing works as to retain the width and weight of a big rock mix.  Similar to mid-side processing, we learned about stereo wideners which can be used to further emphasise the space in a stereo field (e.g. making space for focus on the centre). A wide stereo image can detract from the punch of certain signals as sounds become less focused or become thin. Further to these tips and tricks, mastering classes have also driven home how important it is to have a great mix. This may seem obvious, but many assume mastering is a saving grace. In some ways it can be, but you’ll never get a great master from an average mix, and a really great mix doesn’t need much mastering at all. These skills are great, however, despite my not being a mastering engineer, it’s still important for me to deliver ‘loud’ mixes to clients for review or that will be their first bit of feedback.

In conclusion, the mastering classes have not only shown me the tricks that mastering engineers can and do use to master a track or album, but also he expected deliverables for a band or mastering engineer alike. As an engineer focusing primarily on recording and mixing, it’s important to deliver tracks to a mastering engineer that  they can begin work on right away.

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.

“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?

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.