Category Archives: Gear

Andy Wallace, mix engineer

I’ve mentioned before here that Nirvana were the band that inspired me to start playing guitar and making music. Without hearing them when I did, I’ve no idea where I might have channelled my energies. As it was, I did put them into music, and having never been one to do things by half measures, I became a Nirvana obsessive. One of the marks of the young obsessive then (and it may still be, for all I know) was to profess a love for In Utero over Nevermind. The reasons for this are fairly simple: Nevermind was a huge hit record, and therefore middlebrow, and Cobain himself had said derogatory things about it in public (how it was closer to Motley Crue than punk rock, etc.), as had Steve Albini (who recorded In Utero).

The man responsible for the final sound of Nevermind was Andy Wallace. Not coincidentally, Wallace is one of the most in-demand, highly remunerated mix engineers of the last 25 years or so. The records he worked on defined the sound of rock music (certainly at a major label level) from the very start of the 1990s for about ten years, when gradually the Lord-Alge brothers’ (Chris and Tom; they work singly, not as a team) sound took over until it was everywhere, on vocal records from pop to country and gospel, to major-label rock. By the time of American Idiot, it was all over: what the Lord-Alge brothers did was now standard methodology.

For the tech-minded and interested in home recording, I’ve been doing some podcasts of late on the subject of recording drums in the home studio. The CLA/TLA approach to compression is discussed briefly in the podcast on snare drum recording. They use a combination of heavy/fast compression and sample triggering to create a very controlled, compressed snare drum sound, which I surmise from interviews with them they think of as aggressive-sounding. To me, it’s the opposite. By reducing the transient/attack element of the snare drum stroke so heavily, they’re reducing the excitement of the music. The benefit to them is that there’s more room for everything else, and it’s easier to turn in a very controlled, loud mix with all the critical instruments presented with persistent audibility.

As I became alive to this stuff, and realised why I disliked the sound of modern records so strongly, two paradoxical things happened. Firstly, I began to properly understand the nature of Steve Albini’s complaints about Andy Wallace’s mixes (most people who talk smack about Wallace would be unable to identify compressor or limiter if it were placed on a table in front of them, let alone actually work the thing). Secondly, I began to respect the hell out of Andy Wallace’s work, which to my ears gracefully walked a fine line between the controlled and focused sound that labels tend to look for, but still retained an awful lot of the sense memory I have of what it sounds – and, crucially, feels – like to sit a couple of feet away from a snare drum and cymbals while giving them what for.

This is really hard to do.

It’s why Wallace’s work sounds like his work. Sure, there’s been an evolution over 25 years or so, but there are certain things he still does that are Wallacian hallmarks: he still uses the acoustic drums to trigger samples of ambience, he still rides the room mics up (and the overheads too) for a bigger, roomier sound in the choruses (both of which are done in the context of mixes that are still on the dry side) and he still leads the listener by the nose to whatever it is they should be listening to, while never making it apparent to them that that’s what’s going on. And sure, if you’re Steve Albini and it’s your drum recording he’s using to trigger samples and your stereo field that he’s narrowing (as he did on Helmet’s Albini-recorded In the Meantime) that might be annoying and seem disrespectful, but Wallace (or any mixer) has to serve three masters: the record company paying the tab up front, the band who created the music and the listener who’ll ultimately be enjoying it. It’s a difficult place to be and hard to keep all three parties happy all the time, but Wallace has managed it more often than not for a very long time now.

Unfortunately times change and even Wallace’s work misses the mark sometimes now. The Joy Formidable’s 2011 release Wolf’s Law, for example, is one of the most horrendously squashed and flat-sounding records I’ve ever heard, and it’s hard to know whom to hold responsible: the band, listed as the producer; Wallace, who mixed it; or Bob Ludwig, who mastered it. Both Ludwig and Wallace have done stellar work over the years, so maybe they were painted into a corner by their tracking engineers. Who can say? But I can say this: if you listen to a Wallace mix from the 1990s, whether it’s Nevermind, Rage Against the Machine, Grace or The Globe Sessions, you’ll hear a guy giving a repeated masterclass. It’s interesting, too, if you can stand it, to listen to his work on heavier records in the early 2000s (Linkin Park, Limp Bizkit, Sevendust, Slipknot, System of a Down, Disturbed, etc.); you’ll hear that it’s definitely the start of a different era, but a lot of the old Wallace techniques are still audible, and whatever the artistic merit of those groups, Wallace’s mixes were still efficient and ruthlessly focused.

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Podcast #2 – How to record a bass drum

Hi there. Another podcast for you. This one’s focuses on the bass drum: approaches to take to miking it up, and a discussion of compression, EQ and editing. I hope it’s of use to some of you!

I’ll be doing a regular post over the weekend. I’ve already got a song in mind – it’s one of my favourite-ever records so it may be quite gushy. Just to warn you in advance.

As before, if all you’re seeing is a grey Soundcloud box, refresh your browser till you can see it properly!

Podcast #1 – Introduction to recording drums at home

Hi there. So as promised, I’m going to try uploading some podcasts and see if anyone bites. I’m thinking that I’ll start by having a couple of different series: one focused on some of the technical aspects of recording music, and one where I discuss music with various bloggers, writers and musicians. Don’t worry though: I’ll still be doing written posts too. Although in the first week or so while I get off and running, perhaps not quite as many as usual.

Here’s the first of the technical ones. It’s the first in a series about recording drums, aimed at the independent/unsigned musician on a budget. Hope it’s of interest to some of you! As ever, soundcloud embeds in wordpress somewhat erratically, but if you can’t see the podcast link below and you’re getting a grey soundcloud box, refresh your browser and it should appear. It is downloadable (as a mono MP3, about 16MB in size).

Enjoy!

On into the Night – Ross Palmer

Hi everyone.

I’ve uploaded another new song to Bandcamp and Soundcloud. It’s a song I wrote recently in a dream. Really.  I had this really lucid dream where I, along with my girlfriend Mel and a few of the musicians I play with regularly, were working on this song I’d written. When I woke I could remember the chords and the lyrics to the first verse, so I wrote the song off those. I’m not sure the first verse lyrics make much literal sense, but they came about serendipitously, so it seemed only fair to work with what I’d been given.

The recording isn’t quite the one-man effort my songs usually are. This one features a very talented double bassist named Colin Somervell. The rest of it is me in the usual fashion.

It’s probably destined to be on an EP in the nearish future. In the meantime, you can download an advance mix from Bandcamp (pay what you like) or stream it on Soundcloud.

https://rosspalmer.bandcamp.com/album/on-into-the-night

The aesthetic of classical music recording & mixing

This week I’ve been thinking about the different places of pop and classical musicians within their respective record-making processes.

Dr Amy Blier-Carruthers’ 2013 paper about orchestral players’ dissatisfaction with the studio experience, “The Performer’s Place in the Process and Product of Recording”, details the tensions classical musicians feel about recording:

[There are] many examples of early recorded performers approaching the recording horn with trepidation and anxiety. But what is striking is that even after over a century of commercial classical recordings, many of the same issues are still in evidence today – distrust of the technology, dislike of the process, doubts about whether you like what is captured, disillusionment with the editing process, the thought of your performance going somewhere where you are no longer in control of it, the thought of a disembodied performance existing at all. […] Basically, even the biggest and best orchestras are in a way victims of the status quo: they are not getting the time and money and support necessary to give them the opportunity to get something that they are really happy with down on record.

For a musician like me, working in the field of popular music (and more specifically, rock, folk, pop and country), these issues are of very little concern. In an earlier post, I talked about the portrait-painting-vs-photography analogy to demonstrate a couple of prevalent record-making philosophies within pop music. To restate this as briefly as possible, most producers and engineers who work with popular-music artists are comfortable with the idea that, like portrait painters, their job is to construct a representation of reality in which aiming for exact adherence to the measurable world is only one possible approach; that is to say, a painting may capture the emotional truth of its subject without being anything close to a photo-realist depiction (as in, say, the works of Lucian Freud).

Or to put it another way, “To me, the evolution of the recording studio has made possible the record as a piece of self-contained art. A good record is a piece of art in itself, not just a document of some other ‘more valid’ art form” (Jack Endino, recording engineer famous for his work with Nirvana, Mudhoney and Soundgarden).

Think about this for a second. When you record a relatively small sound source such as a drum kit in a modern studio, most likely you’ll use multiple microphones (say, 8 or more) hung both close and at a distance, and an arsenal of sound-processing tools. As a result, the scope you have for presenting that sound source in different ways is immense. You can use mainly the close mics and present a tight, dry version of the performance. You can lean on the ambient ones and blow up the sound. Or you can blend the mics together to present something that cannot be experienced live: a drum performance with all the attack and nuances that the player hears from their stool that also has all the size and bloom that you would hear if you were standing 10 feet away. This isn’t achievable in real life unless you’ve found a way to exist in two positions at the same time (in which case, you’d better give Stephen Hawking a call). And you can also hear the drums in massively exaggerated stereo, with preposterous amounts of wave shaping from compressors and equalisers. In effect, you hear the drum kit turned into a cartoon of itself. Yet this is the aesthetic we’ve grown used to over the last hundred years of recording, and so it doesn’t sound weird to us. And when we see a band play in a pub and hear what a drum kit really sounds like, that doesn’t sound weird either. In this sense, if in no other, popular music exists in a state of grace. It is not hung up on notions of fidelity to the original sound or performance and it intuitively understands that the record and the live performance are separate and not interdependent

Blier-Carruthers argues that classical music has never really come round to this way of thinking. When recording, she says, performers “carry the live aesthetic with them into the recording session”. The majority of listeners share this aesthetic with the players, expecting recordings to present the music as they would experience it at a live performance, but to be without blemish, which a live performance by any group of musicians playing challenging music for 60 minutes or more never will be.

But there are several things to unpack here. Irrespective of the fact that the overwhelming majority of the audience would not hear a mistake (unless it was a soloist dramatically blowing a note, say) during a live performance, performers are aware when they’ve made one, and it’s only natural that this would be unpleasant for them to hear over and again while listening to a recording. Blier-Carruthers quotes some students as believing that the insistence on perfection in recording is hurting not only the recorded product, which tends to become sterile, but also the musicians’ ability to perform effectively in the concert hall, as they become concerned more with minimising errors than with playing expressively.

However, Blier-Carruthers seems to me to assume that classical listeners and players are an entirely separate breed to their pop music counterparts, which I don’t think is really true. There is a huge overlap. I’ve played folk and rock and country with numerous musicians whose training and background is concert hall and conservatory rather than pub and rehearsal room like my own, and the ability of most of them to move seamlessly between the two worlds is a defining quality of what makes these people great musicians. Not only are these players catholic in their tastes and repertoire, they’re technologically literate, too. They understand software editing of takes, and they know what is achievable using the modern tools of audio recording. They know that the recording is not a simple presentation of a one-off musical event; that it hasn’t been for a long time; that a producer employing an edit is not a condemnation of a player’s musical proficiency; and that the fact of your having been edited during recording is in no way a judgement on your ability to go out and play in an orchestra in front of an audience, doing so both expressively and technically correctly.

Indeed, it is often forgotten that throughout the history of recorded music, huge technical and theoretical strides in the recording of music have been achieved in the service of classical, rather than pop or rock, music. One thinks of the conductor Leopold Stokowski’s experiments in the early era of electrical recording with engineers from Bell Labs, searching for ever-greater volume and impact in recorded music; of Jack Somer’s work producing stereoised versions of mono recordings of Mussorgski and Dvorak for RCA in the early 1960s; of Thomas Stockham’s Soundstream recorder (the first digital recording system) being employed by Telarc’s Jack Renner for recordings of Holst and Tchaikovsky; and even of the oft-repeated (but still unverified) story about the CD being created to hold 74 minutes of music so that it could accommodate Beethoven’s Ninth.

In the early 1960s, the pianist Glenn Gould argued controversially for the need for classical music to develop an aesthetic of recording separate to that of the live performance:

The generation currently being subjected to the humiliation of public school solfège will be the last to attain their majority persuaded that the concert is the axis upon which the world of music revolves.

It is not.

In “The Prospects of Recording”, he details how he achieved this in his own recorded work, giving an example of edits made when recording the Fugue in A minor from Volume I of Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier*. It’s easy to fool yourself that you can hear the tape splice at bar 14, but given shift in the mood of the music – which was why Gould chose that moment to make his edit – the release of the pedals and the move up the keyboard of the right hand, I think the temptation to interpret that briefest of silences as an audible edit point would be a mistake; rests of that nature occur in music on all instruments with extreme frequency. As an engineer, I know all too well the experience of listening to a soloed vocal track, hearing a shift of timbre and assuming an edit between two takes occurred, only to look in the media pool in Cubase and find no such edit occurred and that that change of timbre was part of a live performance.

Gould, then, was extremely prescient:

When the performer makes use of this post-performance editorial decision, his role is no longer compartmentalized. In a quest for perfection, he sets aside the hazards and compromises of his trade. As an interpreter, as a go-between serving both audience and composer, the performer has always been, after all, someone with a specialist’s knowledge about the realization or actualization of notated sound symbols. It is, then, perfectly consistent with such experience that he should assume something of an editorial role.

He constructs an analogy to the work of Van Meegeren, who in the 1930s began producing Vermeer-like works that had an uncanny stylistic resemblance to the paintings of the master, which he then sold as Vermeer originals to German private collectors during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. Later charged with collaborating and selling national treasures for profit, he revealed they were not the work of Vermeer but his own work, but was nonetheless imprisoned.

Gould claims Van Meegeren as a personal hero, and argues he was treated unjustly – “The determination of the value of a work of art according to the information available about it is a most delinquent form of aesthetic appraisal. Indeed, it strives to avoid appraisal on any ground other than that which has been prepared by previous appraisals” – and goes on to conclude that:

As the performer’s once sacrosanct privileges are merged with the responsibilities of the tape editor and the composer, the Van Meegeren syndrome can no longer be cited as an indictment but becomes rather an entirely appropriate description of the aesthetic condition in our time. The role of the forger, of the unknown maker of unauthenticated goods, is emblematic of electronic culture. And when the forger is done honor for his craft and no longer reviled for his acquisitiveness, the arts will have become a truly integral part of our civilization.

This was extraordinary stuff for a classical musician to be writing in 1966, and Blier-Carruthers’ work interviewing young players tends to suggest that the world has not yet come around to Gould’s way of thinking. Young musicians are still being taught that the recording of a work shall be a representation of a concert performance of that work, and while all sorts of tricks are employed to produce the blemish-free representation supposedly required by producers; Blier-Carruthers does report producer Stephen Johns’s contention that he routinely gets asked by musicians to perform edits he deems unnecessary, as the musicians can’t live with releasing anything that could be judged not “perfect”.

As the world of classical music hasn’t yet established its own recording aesthetic separate to that of the concert hall, its critics, its listeners and many of its players remain babes in the woods where modern production techniques are concerned. A Joyce Hatto scandal could not happen in any field of popular music (and maybe not even in jazz). Pop music fans and critics do not as a rule care about such notions as the integrity of an individual musician’s performance, and even if they did, would not have bought William Barrington-Coupe’s cover story about splicing in tiny fragments of other recordings into otherwise genuine Hatto performances recorded in a shed in the bottom of their garden simply to cover mistakes and extraneous noises – how could a recording made in that environment sound anything like one made in a much larger acoustic space on an entirely different instrument with much more (and much better) technology employed in production? The willingness of some critics to entertain this possibility even for a second suggests a merely rudimentary understanding of what is possible today, even in the world of digital post-production, and a disconnect between the levels of recording literacy, so to speak, possessed by the older generation of fans and critics and the younger generation of fans and players.

I raise all this not to criticise the classical music industry and the way its musicians and critics are trained. Yet as I read back this week through Greg Milner’s magisterial Perfecting Sound Forever about the accomplishments of Stokowski, Thomas Stockham and Jack Renner, it’s striking that the most recent of these advances was still the better part of 40 years ago. It’s fascinating that an academic such as Dr Blier-Carutthers still needs to argue for “musicians and producers to work out new ways of conceptualizing, capturing and disseminating recorded music”, and even more so to wonder what might be accomplished if a record label decided that to try a method of recording and mixing that didn’t aim to replicate the real-world concert-hall listening experience. Are opportunities being missed, leaving today’s musicians caught unsatisfactorily between two worlds?

concert hall

*The next time you’re listening to a recording of a recording of a piano-led piece, listen hard to the stereo image of the piano. While anyone who isn’t sitting inside a Steinway grand facing the pianist will hear the piano as essentially a mono sound source within a stereo environment (the room – at least, as long as the listener can hear in both ears), it is, like the drum kit I discussed earlier, routinely recorded and presented in perceptible stereo. This is an example of a way in which classical music has taken a small step away from a prevailing naturalist aesthetic, but to nothing like the extent of rock and pop music, which, as noted above, often treats acoustic instruments in a wildly exaggerated and cartoonish fashion.

Tune-o-matic bridges on Gibsons & Epiphones

So here’s something I’ve been thinking about this evening. Beware – guitar geekery is to follow.

A couple of months back, after spending a while wondering whether it might be nice to have a hollow-body electric guitar in my armoury, motive met with opportunity. I was informed that I’d been entitled to a bunch of annual leave I didn’t know about, and that the company was willing to give me a lump-sum equivalent to the number of days off I hadn’t taken in 2013. So a week or so after that, I took myself of to Macari’s on Charing Cross Road one lunchtime, played a natural-finish Epiphone Casino they had hanging up on the wall and decided on the spot to buy it. It sounded great and was really comfortable to play and I could hear in my head how it would blend with my other electric guitar, a Fender Stratocaster (yeah, whatever – you may not think they’re cool, but I do. Mine’s finished in a dark blue stain, the grain of the wood clearly visible. It looks bitchin’).

I got the Casino home, played it a lot, recorded some parts with it and was generally really happy. It felt like great value at £449. However, I soon started to notice a rattling coming from the tune-o-matic bridge, particularly noticeable on the D and G strings. It took a while to pin down the culprit, but I eventually realised that it was a thin retaining wire at the front of the bridge that sits over the threads of the saddle screws (for those of you unfamiliar with Casinos and similar hollow-bodies with tailpieces rather than stopbars, the bridge is properly fitted with these adjustment screws at the front to prevent the strings from snagging on them behind the bridge due to the back angle created as the string passes into the tailpiece). This is a fundamental design flaw in that style of bridge. It wasn’t the end of the world but it was annoying enough that I took it back to Macari’s and asked whether they had any suggestions for a fix.

They directed me to Andy Gibson, a repairer based in the basement of their other shop on Denmark Street. He suggested that as any attempted fix would be a bodge, the best thing to do would be to upgrade to a Schaller or a Gotoh unit, which I was happy with — I figured £30 or £40 for a better bridge that didn’t buzz or rattle was a reasonable expenditure when it would also likely give me more sustain, cause fewer string breakages and have more widely adjustable saddles for finer tweaks to the intonation. In the event, while waiting for the one he ordered to come in, Andy found a TonePros unit in his workshop that he reckoned would fit, so as of this evening I have a brand-new AVR tune-o-matic on my Casino, the buzz is gone, the bridge is locked to the posts (a nice little feature, that) and if anything the guitar sounds better than before.

I’m a happy little chappie.

But here’s the thing. Both Andy and the guys from Macari’s mentioned that fitting one of these bridges (Schaller, TonePros and Gotohs) is a popular mod that a lot of guitarists make, not only to Epiphones but to Gibsons as well. Now, that’s staggering to me. Epiphones are made to a tight price point so spending a little more after the fact to improve certain parts of the hardware is a good investment, no question. Having said that, I think a lot of guitarists would be happy if they put the prices up a little on their more expensive models and included better hardware on them as standard – after all, they’re buying thousands of bridges at bulk trade discounts, so the extra cost to them of using a better bridge (or tuners, or whatever) would actually be very minimal.

This is not some sort of cheap slam on Far Eastern manufacturing, by the way. A lot of lazy, ill-informed, unconsidered and frankly pretty racist nonsense is spouted on that subject. Epiphone guitars are made to specifications laid down by the people at Epiphone headquarters (in Nashville, Tennessee, since you ask) and any deficiencies in manufacturing are all directly attributable to the company’s US management, who are responsible for overseeing the process (however closely they choose) and awarding the contracts. And anyone who thinks Western production is automatically superior needs to read up about Detroit or British Leyland in the 1970s.

But while we’re on the subject of Western manufacturing, here’s another thing. Andy showed me the bridge off a newish Gibson Les Paul Custom he happened to have in his workshop right now. It appeared very similar to the one off my Epiphone, with noticeably less mass than the TonePros unit now on my guitar. It felt flimsy and surprisingly cheap. Andy had attempted to refile the grooves in the saddle once before but the owner was still breaking strings every gig he played and just wanted rid of it. The going rate in the UK for a new, US-made, LP Custom like this is £2999, by the way. Three. Grand.

If the use of such substandard hardware is standard practice for Gibson now, that’s really poor. If it’s a one-off rogue bit of ‘recycling’ by one enterprising member of staff, it’s hardly reassuring, as it doesn’t say much for their QC process. What the hell, Gibson? Show your customers a bit of respect.

The joy of a new guitar; or, I love my Epiphone Casino

I’ve mentioned before that I love recording electric guitar, building up layers of stuff, blending complementary tones. A big part of what makes it so satisfying when you’re happy with your work is how complex a process it is.

Recording one electric guitar rig means assembling a complicated system. When you plug an guitar into a pedal or two and into an amplifier, then place a microphone in front of the rig and connect that up to a pre-amplifier and thence to some sort of recording device (analogue or digital), you’ll be working with preamp and master gain controls on the pedals and the front face of the amp, the tone controls on the amp, equalisers on the mic pre, trims, faders, pads — the variables are endless (and remember, gain is frequency-dependent, not merely amplitudinal). To get one good sound, with one guitar and one amp, is a substantial job of work. To get two or three… that’s a big endeavour.

And more and more, musicians will likely be trying to figure all of this stuff out for themselves. Demo studios exist in fewer and fewer numbers, and if you can’t find anyone local to you whom you trust to record you well, you may be better served by trying to record yourself. That’s why I started; the engineer my band had worked with for a couple of years went into post-production, and no one else in the area was as good as him.

Right now, I’m a pig in shit with this stuff. I recently bought a new guitar, an Epiphone Casino, as a present to myself after I completed the first year in my new job (I still call it my ‘new job’ despite have started nearly 13 months ago). That means I’m working out how it works with the two amps I have with me in my flat in London (a Vox AC15 and a big-ass Peavey half stack, a 120-watt single-channel all-valve behemoth, which I had intended to sell but find it difficult to part with), how it sits in a mix alongside my Strat, what it sounds like with pedals… This all takes time, and it’ll be some months before I’m really on top of it, but it’s a load of fun. So many new possibilities open up to you with a new instrument, and this is one I feel immediately at home with. I’d played Epiphone semis before (mainly Sheratons, possibly a Dot too), but fell quite hard for this Casino when I tried it in Macari’s. The decision to buy it was more or less instant. It has a more open, resonant acoustic-type tone played clean than I had been expecting (probably because it’s all hollow, while Sheratons have a solid centre block), but the thing can also kick like a mule; at higher gain structures, it gets into SG-like territory if you dial in the preamp right, and that’s a tone I can do business with.

Of course, like any guitar geek I’ve been on the net looking into who else has played Casinos. The Beatles — that is, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and most famously John Lennon – are the most obvious, but the list is long and distinguished, with a few favourite players and singer-songwriters among them. Which is nice; it’s cool having your gear choices validated and seeing what company you’re in. I’m looking forward to the day when the tone is so ingrained in me that I can identify a Casino in a dense mix merely from the sound (I’m a pretty reliable Strat spotter). Right now, though, I’m still exploring all the possibilities that this guitar offers, and it’s really inspiring.

Casino small

The Casino, in my flat