Mindfulness Is All, But It Isn’t Enough

Studio engineering is about mindfulness, pure and simple. All you have to do is keep an eagle eye on the levels, the limiting, the transport, the sends and returns, the headphone mix, the monitors, the producer, and the artists. If you are being seconded, the second or assistant engineer may be a seasoned studio veteran or an apprentice, and if it’s the latter then you have to keep an eye on them too. At the same time, if the producer is inexperienced, they are probably sitting next to you, fingers nervously twitching, because they can see that there’s nothing to engineering besides knob-twiddling and they think they can do that perfectly well. It doesn’t occur to them to ask themselves how a pianist might feel if the producer barged into the studio, shoved the pianist aside, and began to play the piano part for them. So part of your job is to smoothly and gracefully head off those impulses so that they continue to keep their hands off your instrument. Sometimes the artists themselves sit next to you, and that creates conflicts: part of the engineer’s obligation is to respect the artist’s wishes, and when the artist wishes to put their hands all over the board you have an obligation to let them and correct the damage later.

Sometimes, however, in the interests of doing your job properly you can be devious. Jimi Hendrix liked to get the sound he wanted by turning up the gain on various instrument tracks. This would have been perfectly fine, but he couldn’t tell the difference between the monitor controls and the recording controls, and thereby hangs a tale.

Let me pause here to explain a psychological phenomenon. An important part of recording is simply making sure you have enough signal and not too much. You do this by setting the gain — the amount of signal going to the recorder — at a level which the equipment is designed to accept. Normally this is indicated by some sort of meter. If you set it too low, the normal background noise that your equipment produces will be noticeable; if you set it too high, it will exceed the recorder’s ability to accept it and it will become distorted. So in setting up a recording you adjust all the instrument levels to be as loud as reasonable, which is pretty much equally loud across all tracks. But when you hear a group of instruments playing on a recording, the levels of the individual instruments aren’t equal at all. Some stand out, others are background, and the balance between them is important for the listener’s enjoyment. The vocal, for instance, may be in front of the accompaniment; there may be violins floating in the background, a guitar a bit more prominent.

To make this work, in practice you have a completely separate set of controls for what you hear in the control room, so that you can create that balance, simulate what the final mix may sound like without disturbing the levels going to the recorder. You can, and in fact you should, meddle around with the monitor mix. You may need, say, to hear whether the rhythm guitar is playing precisely on the beat, in which case you push the rhythm guitar level way, way up, above the other instruments — not on the recorder, on the monitor.

Inexperienced folks invariably do this by making the rhythm guitar louder, but after a while they want to hear things in balance again, so they make the other instruments loud enough to match, and lo and behold, everything is back the way it was…except all the controls are now closer to maximum than they were before. This will continue until all the knobs are at ten (or eleven, if you’re Spinal Tap), there’s no more up to push things to, and the client looks at you in bewildered frustration and says “Fix it.” Whereupon you pull them all down and reset the mix, and then the whole thing happens again. And again.

One of the first things you learn as an engineer is to resist the impulse to turn something up and instead turn everything else down. Do this judiciously, and the knobs stay somewhere around the center of their travel (which is called Design Center), which is where they belong. And yet, after you’ve watched a few clients, you realize that the temptation to turn things up rather than down is damn near irresistible. It’s built into the human psyche somehow. We want more. Of everything.

Unfortunately it’s not your job to educate the client on what they should do when it conflicts with what they naturally want to do. So you get creative. Mindfulness, in fact, is not enough. First and foremost you are a prestidigitator. You succeed through misdirection.

In Jimi’s case, Gary Kellgren caused a special control box, covered with knobs identical to the ones on the board, to be created especially for him, so that he could adjust the mix to the sound he liked. A fat cable emerged from the box and disappeared into the console. The box did nothing. The knobs weren’t even wired up inside. But it made Jimi happy. He would tweak and poke and somehow, through the miracle of suggestion, he got what he wanted. Meanwhile Gary no longer had to tear his hair out because Jimi had hopelessly screwed up his record levels.

When I took over, it was patent that unless you maintained an iron resolve Jimi would be all over the board whenever he felt like it. But I was overcome with shame at having to put one over on the artist, so I sat Jimi down and made a solemn pact with him. I built a fence down the middle of the console — a literal physical barrier, made of marker tape and popsicle sticks. On my side I had the record controls for the night’s instruments. I patched everything else — all the monitor controls, the effects, toys, everything — to the other side. If Jimi’s body language so much as suggested he was about to reach over the barrier and touch my controls, I slapped him. But we were using a Datamix One console with about twenty-four faders plus submixes and masters, which meant that during the overdub phase I had three or four faders and Jimi had around thirty. It was enough. He gazed out over his expanse of controls and was happy; and furthermore, they did stuff. When he turned knobs, shit happened. Occasionally earsplitting shit happened, because Jimi was nearly deaf from standing in front of his two ten-foot Marshall stacks being massaged by 120dB of top-quality blast. At those times I grabbed my handy earplugs and jammed them in, trusting to one of his entourage to plead with him to embrace reason.

Regardless of these mild contretemps, Jimi could hear when he needed to hear, and his musical judgment was impeccable. I’ll tell you more about that later.

(To be continued…)
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All contents copyright 2015 by Sandy Stone. FWIW, Y’all.

Progress report, and a few brief anecdotes

Y’all know I’m building a studio, right? (The image above is not the studio I’m building.) Well, this here’s an update. Almost all of the equipment is here and roughed into place. As the main audio chain pieces arrived, I lashed them together to make sure they worked, and they all did, which is all I wanted to know, so I turned them off again. Some of the toys (outboard gear in the analog realm) are placeholders, cheap versions of what I’ll add later, but they all work; I used Behringer equalizers and limiters until I decide on what will take their place. If it matters, I don’t know what my final choice for equalizers will be. It won’t be Pultec. I love Pultec but they’re useless in a production environment unless you’re using them for putting a finish polish on stuff during the mastering pass. I actually had two Pultecs in the chain in the mastering studio, but they’re much too gentle for studio use now in the face of jazzy stuff like digital parametric EQ.

For the limiters I’ll scrounge a couple of UREI 1176s, and thereby hangs a tale. After I left the industry, when I was fairly well along into transition but not at all sure what the future held in store, I went with Christy one evening to a John Stewart concert. (I loved John Stewart’s stuff, so sue me. “Now I have not been known/ as the saint of San Joaquin/ and I’d just as soon right now/ pull on over to the side of the road/ and show you what I mean”… Ooh, baby.) I was out of the recording biz, but missing it powerfully, and I decided to bite a personal bullet, approach him after the show, and ask if I could record his next album.

When the show ended, John hung around in the front house chatting and signing autographs. I waited until everyone else had said whatever they had to say and then introduced myself and made my pitch. John cocked his head and looked at me — and he sees not a hot-shit recording engineer radiating blue sparks but a thirty-something trans in a homegrown jeans skirt — and, gravely and quietly, he says “What’s the most common studio limiter?”

Everybody in the entire goddam sidereal universe knows the most common studio limiter is the UREI 1176. Chicago drug dealers know it. Australian aborigines know it. Tuvan throat singers know it. New Orleans street hustlers know it. And I know it. But when John Stewart asked and I opened my mouth to answer, without warning THE SHADOW fell on my mind — the phenomenon William Goldman wrote about in “Lord Of The Flies” — that weird, inexplicable moment when, for no apparent reason, and inevitably at the furthest extent of need, one’s brain goes blank and dark — and you stand there, living your worst nightmare, in front of the class with your pants around your knees and not knowing the answer to the mostest importantest question there is. “Oeheim, waz wirret dier?” I’m standing there with my mouth open, and nothing comes out.

John gives me about fifteen interminable seconds while my entire life passes before my eyes, and then, very softly and kindly, he says, “It’s a UREI 1176.”

All I can do is blush right down to the roots of my hair, mumble something vaguely apologetic, shuffle my feet…and walk away.

And that’s all I have to say about that.

Right now I have two completely different pairs of nearfield speakers, but eventually I intend to build enclosures for the four Altec 604Es and deploy them high up. I so miss the sound of Heider D. I so miss it. 604Es are what engineers sometimes call honky, i.e., they are peaky around 6-8KHz, depending on how your crossover works. This disappears if they are well damped, i.e., if the amplifier seems to present a very low resistance to the voice coil. (I said “seems” for a reason. I’ll come back to this phenomenon later.) We drove the Heider monitors with 80 watt McIntosh tube amplifiers, which provided good damping at a reasonable power level, but when they started to push, not only did they lose control of damping but their distortion rose precipitously. Tube amps produce even harmonic distortion, which, for psychoacoustic reasons, the human ear likes (aural exciters are all about this phenomenon); so with the Heider setup we were benefiting from the double whammy of peaky speakers and even harmonic distortion, which, taken together, sounded incredibly good. Yes, that’s right: the secret of Heider’s sound was that on some level it was lousy.

My most memorable experience of this was when I sat in on Steve Barncard’s Rowan Brothers sessions. (I may have been seconding Steve or just hanging out.) He was recording everything at 30ips, which burns a hell of a lot of tape, but Clive Davis was picking up the bill, so no one was particularly worried. (The Rowans slated “Take five for Clive” on one tune.) The combination of the natural jangle of strummed acoustic guitars, the extra depth and transparency of 30ips tape, the peakiness of the 604Es, and the even harmonic distortion of the tube amps was nothing short of staggering. On top of that, on the days when we were awash in interesting substances, with all the psychoacoustic magic flying around, during playback one could experience the sensation of having left one’s body and ascended to some hitherto unprecedented level of ecstasy. (Come to think of it, I had to have been observing, because no engineer would partake while at the board, and Steve never did. [I make special exception, of course, for the Dead, for whom the concept of altered consciousness meant something far beyond our poor power to imagine.] Steve Barncard was one of the most amazing engineers I had the pleasure of knowing, and, among other things, his diet was strictly organic and natural. More about Steve in a bit.)

Anyway. 604Es. Right.

The console accepts 24 inputs, but I expect to only need 16 for the foreseeable future. Actually I can get along with 8, because top quality preamps come in groups of 8. I have the Presonus Joey Lopez kindly sold me standing in for a bank of super-low-noise analog preamps which is on the way. Needing only 8: Once upon a time I was doing a project with David Crosby and Graham Nash during which a famous manufacturer of analog multitrack recorders asked me if we’d be willing to field test one of their spanking new 24 track machines. Those were quite rare at that time, and I jumped at the chance.

The next day the new machine arrived by truck outside our Hollywood studio, and everyone went outside to watch me wheel it in. As I bumped it over the threshold I ran into Bones Howe, who was working an Earth, Wind and Fire project in one of the other rooms. Bones, who had a nice wry sense of humor, asked me what was up, and I told him I was trying out a 24 track box. He looked down at the machine, gave me a perfectly guileless look and said “Whatever are you going to do with the other sixteen?”

Blada blada blada in the early analog days when giants walked the earth and so forth we did a lot of bouncedowns and combines to keep the total number of tracks down to eight, which, after all, was all we had. Bones was absolutely brilliant at this. Before that, it had been four. All of the Motown hits that sound so great are four track mixes. Don’t tell me you need thirty-six tracks for your great project. I laugh in your pumpkin spice latte, monkey-boy.

I’ll have more to say about bouncing, and also about that new gee-whiz multitrack machine, because it turned out to be a session destroyer in disguise. But that’s enough for now.

(To be continued…)

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