FLM110 Topic 11 – Spectacle

As film and technology advance, so do the techniques and ability to fully immerse our audiences in our narratives and storytelling. Unfortunately, so erodes the need for the craft of storytelling. While great storytelling and narrative still exists – spectacle can provide a crutch for films where narrative falls short. It’s important to make it clear that this hasn’t ruined the art of storytelling – at least in my opinion it just makes the great stories really stand out.

3D animation, audio, green screens and editing are advancing in leaps and bounds and further draw audiences in and make it more difficult to break the third wall. In our viewing of Birth of a Nation in class, we discussed how the fact that a story can be told with the technology in 1915, it really provides no excuse for filmmakers in 2017. On the contrary, Michael Bay is a director known for spectacle, and on a more recent note, a film such as Baby Driver feature little to no character development and narrative, but provide exciting and explosive spectacle and retain audience engagement in that way. Spectacle can also refer to advertising campaigns that immerse the audience more completely, such as The Dark Knight’s immersive advertising campaign featuring clues and scavenger hunts or (in the music industry) Bjork’s Biophilia mobile app that more completely immerses the audience in her music.

As an audio engineer working with filmmakers, it would be a great asset to begin using technologies such as 3D and immersive sound to further immerse audiences and re-enforce the third wall between filmmakers, actors, story and audience. Foley panned beyond hard left and right can immerse audiences more completely, with the ability to provide sound in front of, beside and behind (and everywhere in-between) the listener.

Film and audience

Audience is a really interesting on for me, as an audio student and engineer, as I watch film similarly to how film students may listen to music. There’s an appreciation but it’s also difficult to understand entirely what is happening. When I listen to music – I hear the reverbs and instruments and rooms and automation mixing tricks. I’m completely immersed, as I am when I watch films, but in a different way. It’s because of this that I prefer to watch films in a typical cinema setting rather than an exhibition space.

I like to be immersed in whatever I’m doing, and I think exhibition spaces can take away from this. At least in my experience, films played in art galleries as part of exhibitions can be very compelling and engaging, but the environment lends itself to chatter, socialising and noise. This isn’t something I generally associate with being immersed in a piece of work – musical or otherwise. This can of course depend on the the type of film being shown – a romantic comedy would never work in an exhibition space because it contains (usually) linear narrative, and characters that develop. Something more avant garde or structural might be better intended to watched quickly, socialised in front of in a more exhibition type setting.

It’s important to thin about these different types of film and setting in relation to the time and place they’re consumed. In more typical narrative films, I engage with the emotions of the characters and find myself relating to them in one way or another. Similarly, more artistic/exhibiton style films often force the audience to create their own meaning, and I find myself relating to them in a more personal way – usually based around whatever I’m dealing with at the time. Both of these can make me feel happy, or sad, and that’s art is about – feeling something.

HERTZ BLOG – Drums / Days 1-3

DAY ONE

My first day at Hertz (after thirty hours in transit, a night in a 3 x 5 metre hotel room, and a 4am wake-up by another Hertz attendee with the wrong room key) started with a free breakfast at Hotelu Podlasie (that I definitely abused), before a lift from Wojtek at 9am. Another member of the masterclass expressed his concern that he’d miss the last day of the course, and that he hoped we wouldn’t cover too much mastering on the last day. Wojtek laughed and explained that mastering wasn’t a huge job anyway; icing on the cake/the cherry on top. When we arrived at Hertz, my first impression of the studio was surprise at the size of the building after having seen* photos. The studio is set-up in a house with the entry hall as a dedicated lobby and two rooms as control room and live room. The live room in particular was about 4 x 8 meters, but in hindsight this makes sense for the tightness of the drum tones they record. The control room is closer to 4 x 4 meters, and both rooms are really well acoustically treated, as Wojtek and Slawek explained throughout the day. The live room has a dedicated sweet spot for drums, as well as cylindrical diffusers framing the room (above head height) that are made of thin  plywood that resonates/can be mic’d up to emphasise the tone of the diffusers. The ceiling is covered in angled clouds at different heights that break up acoustic energy, and the ‘sweet spot’ is the highest point, specifically designed to break up cymbal wash. As right-handed drummers are more common, the hi-hat side of the room has more diffusion, while the ride-side has has less to capture more ride and tom reflections. While discussing the room, Wojtek discussed his attitude to recording and mic placement and recording in general in the mantra: “Why not?”. He explained he’ll often try weird mic placement that doesn’t always work, but loves to experiment e.g. with mics in the lobby, on the floor, inside acoustic guitars or pianos in the drum room, facing walls, facing windows etc. – why not?

*analyse

ˈan(ə)lʌɪz/

verb

past tense: analysed; past participle: analysed

1.
examine (something) methodically and in detail, typically in order to explain and interpret it.”we need to analyse our results more clearly”

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Wojtek’s mantra was reinforced at lunch when he explained that he believed education in audio is important – either at Hertz or university etc. He believes this because in his eyes, you can’t break rules unless you’ve learned them first. Slawek mimicked this in starting the day by saying “One rule: no rules.” The first half of the day was spent talking ‘shop’ with the Wieslawski brothers and introducing ourselves. Wojtek and Slawek discussed having worked their way up, sometimes having had to take steps backward to step forward. They stressed the importance of keeping bands and artists happy, and “If you  take job (sic), do it the best.” He explained that no job should be prioritised over others, big or small, because our work is our business card – especially with the internet. We talked a lot about serving the project, and about samples; a necessary evil in modern recording, as well as understanding a band’s vision and ensuring a band feels comfortable and happy while recording with you – from encouraging great performances to understanding the monitoring in your room to ensure the couches that the band spends their days on aren’t in the middle of room nodes or a build up of any frequency. It’s good and well to have a ‘sweet spot’, but an engineer + five band members can’t all sit there – a fact that seems obvious in hindsight.

Following lunch – we spent the after tuning and preparing drums for recording using a cloth, window cleaner, wax and a hairdryer…

DAY TWO

Day two at Hertz started re-checking the drums we’d tuned on the first day – followed by being introduced to Dariusz “Daray” Brzozowski, currently of Dimmu Borgir. Daray sat us down and we chatted about what he wants ad expects from audio engineers who record him, or mix him live – which further drove home Slawek and Wojtek’s point about serving the project and artist to get the best possible results. Daray goes as far as to tune his toms in nice sounding intervals, that he stressed weren’t perfectly musical, but so that they rung out in a pleasant way. He discussed how the toms and cymbals will ‘sing’ when tuned well, and even when neither of these pieces of drum are hit, the entire kit will resonate musically when everything is tuned and ready to record. Wojtek was quick to discuss that when you achieve this, bleed between mics, as well as room sounds can really be used yo your advantage. Daray talked about his personal preference to use two seperate kick drums, and stated that he liked the resonance, but admitted that for fast stuff, single kicks with double pedals are more articulate as each hit chokes the ‘note’ from the last. He discussed his own drums, and his experience with different types of hardware, referring specifically to die cast rims and as opposed to rims made of one piece of metal, as the latter are more forgiving for rim shots as opposed to snare hits in the centre of the skin. We talked about some gating tricks that live engineers had used during his time in Vader, where he’d play softly enough during fast double kick passage that the acoustic kick mic would remain closed, but open during slower, stompy, or ‘polka’ beats (a beat my circle of friends has always referred to as ‘hardcore’ beats, but Daray, Slawek and Wojtek (and now me) all referred to as ‘polka’ beats).

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After discussing more technical details of drums, tunings and polka, Daray explained how important it to to understand your drummer as a sound engineer. It’s important to push the best performance out of the artists, but to be able to read and understand their limits. He explained that he loves to leave the studio satisfied, and only does so when he’s been pushed, worked hard and really given some good performances. He re-enforced how unpleasant it is to be left in the cold as a recording artist when you’re tracking, sitting in the live room with no contact from the control room, as well as literally being left cold after having warmed up and your engineer takes a long time to pull tones, check signal and be ready to record. At no point during the ay did Daray answer the question “You ready?” with anything except “Always.”

We broke for lunch, and the whole group piled into Daray’s van, except for Wojtek and I. On the drive to the restaurant, Wojtek and I spoke about his search for a new console for the studio, but his reluctance at the initial expense aswell as ongoing to keep a great sounding console sound great. We agreed that the better the console, the better the chance is that you’ll be able rent the studio out to others engineers, which is additional income, and as a studio in a changing industry, it’s important to have income from a few different streams.

After lunch, Daray began to play and we made some minor adjustments to tuning and signal, before collecting samples of the session and his playing. Slawek gave me a eureka moment when he explained that he always likes to take samples and fix hits of the right  and left hands to keep any sampling or layers sounding real and untriggered, as well as making sure the fix hits are as hard as the drummer actually plays. Even someone of Daray’s experience slammed the snare like a hammer when we asked to take some samples, despite not hitting that hard at any point during the recording.

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DAY THREE

At 9AM on the third day, we met Wojtek outside our hotel and on our way to Hertz, asked if we were tired yet. All of us admitting we were. He explained, laughing, that he wasn’t used to talking so much, so he was tired too. We arrived, greeted Slawek and the other guys and chatted for a little while in the control room about running and owning a studio – mostly elaborating on what Wojtek and I had discussed the day before. We talked about investing in equipment, and Slawek explained that as far as he was concerned, investing in vintage mics was as good or better than investing your money in the bank – a belief that I’m happy to believe and take part in. Wojtek continued in saying that “…we agreed we won’t buy anything new this year.”, and the room erupted in laughter. The brothers gave us an example of a plumber in Poland, who spends 2,000€ on his tools and works for ten years – no problem. In a studio, you spend 200,000€ on an SSL that’s 30-40 years old, build a room for it’s power supplies, power the console 24 hours a day and clean it every day while keeping an eye on any pots, buttons, lights and ins/outs that need work, while also having the entire console re-capped intermittently. He continued about buying old consoles and the risk in having to spend to have them re-capped straight away, or eventually regardless, and with a smile, he drew a finger across his throat.

After getting the morning started, we moved onto editing the drums we’d recorded the day before. I’ve had a lot of practice editing drums at Goatsound, and have a pretty concrete ProTools workflow, but it was great to see how Wojtek and Slawek work. Outside of their DAW, Steinberg’s Nuendo, we discussed how important it is to know how to edit each drummer, as well as how to edit and sample to achieve the sounds that the band and drummer are looking for. It’s important to understand how to explain to drummer what will give the best result. Drummers generally like manual editing, and as do I. In my experience, the best results come from at least a little manual editing before any kind of quantising or automatic editing, beat detective etc. On top of this, some manual editing can work for songs with different timing measures, but auto editing if the song stays static.

Wojtek made a point to make sure the drummer doesn’t see your edits; either by making sure consolidation the edits or by hiding them. Further to us, as engineers, using a drummer’s soundcheck to identify their shortfalls, weaknesses and potential problems in the mix, we can use now use this knowledge to edit and use different parts of the kit to  anchor problem areas, e.g. leaving snare hits alone for a drummer with strong hands but sloppy feet or vice versa. Slawek, a drummer, gave us a crash course in editing blast beats, showing us different double kick beats and cited one as favoured by Poland’s Behemoth, and another that appeared in the USA’s Nails most recent album a lot. He described straighter blasts, laughing that “Russians love this one.”, and how when a blast needs to be tight but still groove, it’s important to prioritise the snare of kick as leader.

Once our edits were done and the tracks were in time, we moved onto phase correlation which was a really interesting subject for me. As someone becoming more experienced with live recording, the distance between microphones is often what creates space in a mix. Generally, Hertz will check the phase correlation between at least the spot mics, and ensure the transients are all hitting at the same time. When making these movements, it’s important to decide what the centre of your image is (in our case the snare), so you can align the rest of the tracks to this. We took two different approaches, first by manually moving the tracks to be in phase, which I could hear a noticeable difference, and second using Sound Radix’s Auto-Align plugin. Because of the calculations & signals captured by the plugin, the difference wasn’t so noticeable at first. We re-checked Auto-Align and got a better result, but no better than manual moving the transients. Besides mixing, which is the final part of the course, we’d finished drums and would move onto guitars with Decapitated’s Vogg on day four.

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THE RECORDING ROCK/METAL MUSIC AND PRODUCTION MASTERCLASS WORKSHOP

I fly out from Melbourne International Airport today, headed for Warsaw, Poland before a train to Białystok to spend two weeks with Wojtek & Slawek Wieslawski at Hertz Studio, whose production and engineering credits list some of the biggest names in the history of heavy metal, citing work with Behemoth, Vader, Decapitated and Hate. I’ll be working with Dariusz ‘Daray’ Brzozowski (Vader, Dimmu Borgir) for drums and Wacław ‘Vogg’ Kiełtyka (Decapitated, Vader, Lux Occulta) for guitars, before moving onto vocals and finally mastering in their dedicated mastering suite.

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I feel like I’m confident enough in my engineering to be follow their workflow, and can pick and choose techniques and tricks to bring into my own workflow rather than taking their work as gospel (regardless of how big a fanboy of Hertz Studio I am). I’m not sure what to expect from Hertz, whether they will be full of tips, tricks and advice or if they’ll have a more conventional workflow and their sound is dictated by their rooms and mics etc. Hertz’s drums have a definitive sound, that to me sound like a lot of parallel compression, and the studio boast racks of outboard gear and an Amek console, but I’m not sure what how they pull the fierce, driving tones that they do. I’m excited to see how some of the most intense performances in metal are recorded, mixed and presented so articulately, usually with a very organic sound; how much of this is Hertz and how much is the artist?

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http://hertzrecording.com/en/the-recording-rockmetal-music-and-production-masterclass-workshop-3-11-july-2017/

I’ll keep this blog up to date as we move through each stage of the course – along with photos of the rooms, gear and how we set up our recordings.

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.

FLM110 Topic 11 – Spectacle.

As film and technology advance, so do the techniques and ability to fully immerse our audiences in our narratives and storytelling. Unfortunately, so erodes the need for the craft of storytelling. While great storytelling and narrative still exists – spectacle can provide a crutch for films where narrative falls short. It’s important to make it clear that this hasn’t ruined the art of storytelling – at least in my opinion it just makes the great stories really stand out.

3D animation, audio, green screens and editing are advancing in leaps and bounds and further draw audiences in and make it more difficult to break the third wall. In our viewing of Birth of a Nation in class, we discussed how the fact that a story can be told with the technology in 1915, it really provides no excuse for filmmakers in 2017. On the contrary, Michael Bay is a director known for spectacle, and on a more recent note, a film such as Baby Driver feature little to no character development and narrative, but provide exciting and explosive spectacle and retain audience engagement in that way. Spectacle can also refer to advertising campaigns that immerse the audience more completely, such as The Dark Knight’s immersive advertising campaign featuring clues and scavenger hunts or (in the music industry) Bjork’s Biophilia mobile app that more completely immerses the audience in her music.

As an audio engineer working with filmmakers, it would be a great asset to begin using technologies such as 3D and immersive sound to further immerse audiences and re-enforce the third wall between filmmakers, actors, story and audience. Foley panned beyond hard left and right can immerse audiences more completely, with the ability to provide sound in front of, beside and behind (and everywhere in-between) the listener.

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?