Tag Archives: DAW

On Recalls & Mixing in the Digital Domain

At the moment I’m working quite hard on a couple of recordings I’ve got in progress. I’m a one-man-band kind of guy, playing all the instruments, and recording and mixing the tracks myself. That necessarily leads to a certain way of working if, like me, you have a full-time day job. I fit recording and mixing work into spare hours and half-hours whenever they occur, or save up a few tasks to justify the effort of setting up a drum kit, or a guitar-and-amp rig, and placing microphones. In the past, when I was a freelancer and worked from home, I could block out chunks of time to record pretty much whenever I wanted to, and could have the recording of a song mixed within 24 hours of writing it. Nowadays it takes a few weeks usually. It’s a drawn-out, accretive process.

This way of working is dependent on the ability of DAW software to recall every aspect of the audio project for me. I load the project file in my DAW of choice (Cubase), and every channel is the way I left it: all the inserts are there with exactly the same settings I was using before, the tracks are all routed to the same busses, all my automation data is the way it was last time. What would take hours of work in the analogue realm is reduced to the 30 seconds or so my laptop and edition of Cubase require to load a complicated project.

The implications of this technology for the way music is mixed and the way it sounds when you hear it on the radio are enormous, and are probably only truly understood by recording engineers, especially those who learned their trade during the analogue era.

Almost any record you care to name from the pre-digital era (digital recording that is, not digital playback) has flaws or idiosyncrasies in it that could have been ironed out with one last recall session, but which weren’t worth the time and effort required to do the recall. If you were working on analogue tape with a console, doing a recall to make a couple of tweaks to the vocal level was an expensive luxury few could afford. To allow the tweaks to be made, the engineer or the engineer’s assistant would have to reconstruct the mix on the desk, using notes and snapshots taken during the previous session. Hardware audio processors would have to be re-inserted over the correct channels, tracks bussed appropriately, EQ settings precisely dialled in. It took time, and it wasn’t always easy to get everything exactly the same. An engineer skilled at quickly and accurately recalling a mix was worth his or her weight in gold to a producer or mixer.

Even so, a band was unlikely to get the producer to consent to a recall unless the producer felt the tweaks the band wanted were justified. A recall meant 3-4 hours’ work, and time is money in the recording studio, as it is anywhere else. Digital mixing consoles began to include some recall functions in the 1990s, which sped up the process a bit, but these desks rarely sounded as good as the real analogue deal, and they only went so far: no console can actually plug in an LA2A for you.

It was the DAW that allowed the situation we have now, where any mix can be perfectly recalled, tweaked and printed (that is, mixed down to stereo) whenever the band or producer want. As with anything else, it’s a double-edged sword. When listening to other people’s music, I may decry the primped sterility of the end result: recordings that have been airbrushed to within an inch of their lives, where every instrument and vocal performance is in fixed audibility at all times in a way that could never happen in a live performance captured to tape, and with no technical flaws or blemishes, no matter how tiny, allowed to make it through to the master. Yet I’m dependent on that same technology to make any recordings at all, and I’m as guilty as the next man of stewing over a mix for several days before going back in and systematically fixing all the things that bugged me about the last version.

So what else is new? Replace “digital mixing” with “CGI” and let a movie buff give you their cri de coeur on the superiority of in-camera practical effects work. This is simply the world we live in. When you next hear a brand-new recording straight after a classic on your iPod or on the radio, listen to the differences. Feel them. I know which I prefer to listen to, and sadly, I also know which kind of recordings I’m making.

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Doing a recall in 2016

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Fairlight CMI

By its sounds shall ye know it. By its oohs and aahs, its orchestra hits and its handclaps.

On the records of Kate Bush shall ye hear it. Peter Gabriel, Tears for Fears, Stevie Wonder, and, yes, Yes.

It is, of course, the Fairlight CMI, one of the mighty achievements of late-1970s, early-1980s synth technology, the other major triumphs being the Synclavier and the Emulator. These three machines were transformative pieces of technology, the most transformative in popular music since the invention of multitrack recording.

The Synclavier was a synthesiser, the Emulator a sampler. The Fairlight was something of both, as well as an early software sequencer, via its Page R function – the first example of a computer music GUI.

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Page R

It did all of those things at what today seems an incredibly basic level, but it helped to open up a new world for musicians, especially for musicians who didn’t come from a background in old-school analogue synths.

I’m an acoustic guitar player, and know comparatively little about synths and programming. When recording, I treat the DAW as essentially an intelligent tape machine, using very few VST instruments and getting most of my sounds in front of the microphone with analogue instruments. The world of synthesis and sampling is one where I know enough to be intrigued, and not nearly enough to claim anything like an understanding. I know just enough to be completely in awe of the people who had to do this for real, whether with a room-sized modular synth in the 1970s, or with a Fairlight or Synclavier in the brave new world of the digital 1980s.

In 2016, records made at the very start of the 1980s can sound very strange indeed: dated, yes, but tremendously exciting in the fearless way they look to the future and incorporate all kinds of new ideas – textural and rhythmic – into their basic frameworks. The most fascinating moments come when the new technology meshes seamlessly with the old.

Consider Kate Bush’s Never for Ever.

Listening to the record, you hear a mix of traditional analogue instruments and cutting-edge sampling and synthesiser technology, filtered through Bush’s one-of-a-kind melodic and lyrical sensibility.

The Fairlight had been demonstrated to her halfway through recording sessions for the album, so while she immediately grasped the machine’s potential, she initially used it to augment songs that had already written and were partially recorded – the famous breaking-glass noise in Babooshka, for example. As such, Never for Ever is a fascinating tipping-point record: you only need to listen to the first few tracks of her next album The Dreaming to hear the profound effects that composing with Page R sequencing – in effect, using the Fairlight as a compositional tool – had on her music. The traditional drum kit (and most notably its cymbals) are entirely missing, with all kinds of sampled percussion and found sounds assembled into rhythm tracks, instead.

But as innovative as The Dreaming is (or Peter Gabriel’s fourth solo record – sometimes called Security but officially titled Peter Gabriel– to take another example), there’s something about that moment where the emerging technologies were employed at the same time as the old that really speaks to me – the stuff I’m familiar with in dialogue with the stuff I don’t understand and find eerie and uncanny. It’s the tension between the two that’s so thrilling.

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Kate Bush with Fairlight, early 1980

Recording drums in the studio

I’ve talked a lot about recording drums on this blog. Here are just a few more thoughts. They’re not technical, I promise!

Yesterday, rather than spending a day at home doing freelance work and stealing an hour or so to write a blog post (which tends to be how my Thursdays out of the office go nowadays), I went to Shack Studio in East Hanningfield, Essex, to spend a day tracking drums with a very fine engineer called Grant Matthews. Grant’s recording experience goes back to the analogue era, so he is, by my reckoning, a proper engineer. He’s done all the hard stuff you have to do when working out of the box: aligned tape machines; cut takes together on tape; worked with hardware gates and compressors; done submixes to tape knowing that mix was going to have to be right, there and then, on pain of recording it all again; dropped in and punched out during vocal overdubs, risking accidentally messing up a good vocal track with a bad edit.

Guys like this think differently to those who learned in the digital era, who tend to learn, and therefore think, from the software back. Grant thinks (I would guess, from watching him work) from the microphone forward. Anyone who’s worked entirely in the DAW era (that is to say, anyone who began their working life in the late 1990s) is now at least in their mid-30s. Which is to say that in the next ten years or so, people who have Grant’s knowledge and experience are going to become harder and harder to find out in the wild. A lot of them are out of the business already, victims of the death of the demo studio.

Briefly, because this will be old news to many of you, there used to be a lot of demo studios around. Recording equipment was relatively expensive and hard to use without some measure of training, so bands tended not to record themselves, as they couldn’t come anywhere near the results a real engineer could get. This changed somewhat with the advent of the four-track Portastudio, but cassette-based multi-track recording devices are an inherently lo-fi proposition, so a studio with an 8- or 16-track reel-to-reel tape machine was still the place to go for an impressive recording. Bands would book a couple of days, the engineer would record them playing live, they’d do vocal overdubs, maybe a couple of extra instrumental parts, the engineer would mix, and give them a cassette or CD, and the band would have a demo or a single or whatever to send to local radio, sell at gigs, push to labels and promoters and managers, and so on.

When the digital audio workstation (DAW) became a viable proposition in the late 1990s (a development that had been a long time coming – computers had to reach a certain level in terms of processing power and speed before 24-track+ in-the-box recording and mixing was a genuine possibility), and when folks started cracking pro-level software (Cubase SX3 was cracked within minutes of being released), musicians realised that they could, with maybe £500, buy an interface and a few microphones and record themselves on the computer they already owned, without any need to go back to that demo studio.

This was in maybe the early to mid-2000s. At that time, I was in a band, and while I did record at home, and loved doing it, the limitations of my equipment (I had a 2-input soundcard so couldn’t record a whole band with that) and lack of engineering knowledge meant that we went to a studio to do when we wanted to make real recordings (the aforementioned Shack Studio with Grant). Even if we’d owned a lot equipment, we knew we couldn’t use it properly and would get crappy results left to our own devices.

Not every musician felt similarly, though. Within a few years, smaller studios were closing at a rate of knots. Bigger studios, too, as major-label budgets shrank (this also being the post-Napster world), and professional bands began limiting real studio work to drums and orchestral overdubs, doing vocals, guitars and programming work at home to save cash.

All of this fed into the precipitous decline of audio quality that we now live with. But that’s a nail I’ve pounded on enough times.

As I said, yesterday I went into the studio with Grant, and we recorded some drums. I began recording drums at home principally because for a few years he got out of the game, and there wasn’t anyone locally I felt could do the same job he could, so I was going to have to learn to do it myself. I’ve recorded drum tracks a lot over the last four or five years, and some of the ones from the last couple of years have even sounded pretty good. But there’s nothing like working with someone who knows more than you. It’s a joy. As a client, I came away with drum tracks that I think sound great. And, as an audio engineer who knows a bit but still learns something every time I plug in microphones, I got to watch a pro do something with ease that comes pretty hard to me. It’s something I’ll be doing again, I think.

These are just observations. I know that some folks have got very into their work as home recordists. I understand that. I have, too. It’s great. But sometimes it’s good to be reminded of what you lose when you decide to go down that DIY route: great gear, really good sounding tracking rooms and the expertise of people who’ve got tens of thousands of hours of studio time under their belts.

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This is the Shack.
Note use of both an A-B overhead pair, and an old school “Glyn Johns”-style pair

Underrated Drum Tracks I have Loved 2014, Part 8 – All the King’s Friends – Soul Asylum

Sooner or later, every rock band writes a song that one or more of its members doesn’t play well.

In jazz it’s never been a big deal. Players slip in and out of ensembles all the time. If Chick Corea was what Miles Davis felt he needed on a certain tune, Chick was in and Herbie was out. But rock bands, particularly punk rock bands, have always been about the band as an organic, hermetic unit. Everything for the band, nothing outside the band. It’s way more volatile; way more infantile if you want to be harsh.

When a band’s in the studio, the spotlight usually shines most unforgivingly on the drummer. This is because producers know one thing to be true: music is first and foremost about rhythm, and there has been little truly great music made by ensembles with a lousy drummer. The Byrds and early Oasis are the only exceptions that spring to mind (and Tony McCarroll wasn’t that bad – his oafishness suited an oafish band’s oafish material). In recent years, the DAW has made these kinds of problems rarer. You can, almost always, get a drum track up to a point where it is at least steady. You can fix problems in timing with editing and problems with dynamics with sample replacement/augmentation. In the analogue era, before digital editing, if the drummer wasn’t up to snuff, you’d have to cut the tapes up to physically edit an acceptable take together or have a different drummer play the part. Most would opt for the former, as the latter is politically very hard to handle. When Dave Grohl pulled that one on original Foo Fighters drummer William Goldsmith, recutting songs himself behind his back, Goldsmith was understandably hurt and left the band.

But Goldsmith’s wasn’t the most high-profile drummer departure in the 1990s. That would be Grant Young from Soul Asylum, whose sacking halfway through the sessions for Grave Dancers Union dogged the band ever after, severely hurting their cred. That he was fired for not being able to provide the drum track to Runaway Train – a truly ubiquitous hit single – and was replaced by Sterling Campbell (who by his own admission knew nothing about underground rock music and whose credits included Duran Duran and David Bowie, in his least vital era) only added to the problem. Soul Asylum wanted a hit so badly that they wrote an acoustic-guitar sellout ballad like Runaway Train and fired their founding drummer for not playing it right? Fuck those guys.

Ah, the thorny issues of authenticity and credibility in indie rock. I think Runaway Train’s a very good song, for what it’s worth. But it’s hard to deny the band made a bad choice in pursuit of good records. And while they did make a good record (and their good record certainly made them), the cost was probably too high to the band, who never really seemed to have much fire left in them after Young departed. Sure, they had a level of fame for a couple of years that seems incredible now when you look back on it (the band playing on the White House lawn, Dave Pirner dating Wynona Ryder), but when it came time to follow GDU up, the band had lost something vital. Perhaps handled differently, Young could have stayed on board. Perhaps with a different set of personalities involved, Young may have been coached to get the performance Pirner and producer Michael Bienhorn wanted. Because Young was a fine drummer. There’s ample evidence of that on previous Soul Asylum records, from their punkier, goofier, scrappier Twin/Tone and A&M eras.

And that, finally, is what we’re going to talk about. All the King’s Friends is the twisty, turny final track on …And the Horse they Rode in On, the band’s patchy final album for A&M and the one that immediately precedes Grave Dancers Union. It’s a complex song, with time and feel changes all over the place (so much so that it feels like an early essay in math rock), and Grant Young pretty much nailed it. And interestingly, the producer involved was, for a drummer, probably even more off-putting than the trigger-happy Bienhorn*: Steve Jordan (Patti Austen, Neil Young, Eric Clapton Keith Richards, John Mayer and many more). Jordan is an amazing drummer. Yet rather than trying to intimidate his charges into doing it right, he and Joe Blaney created an environment (on a soundstage with a mobile recording unit) where Young could do his best work, which is what producing’s all about. Probably the finest recorded moment by a drummer who’s had to spend the last 22 years being the guy who couldn’t play Runaway Train and a great performance by a guy and a band who’ve been saddled with a bad rep for a long time.

SAHRC
Soul Asylum with HRC, no big thing (Grant Young left)

*Bienhorn makes fine-sounding records (GDU, Superunknown, Celebrity Skin), but often at the expense of the bands he’s worked with. He had a big hand in firing Young and Hole’s Patty Schemel, he has talked less than flatteringly about every member of Soundgarden who isn’t Chris Cornell, and even temporarily fired Anthony Kiedis from the Red Hot Chili Peppers. The producer has a responsibility to the label to get a product into the marketplace on time and on budget and I can understand being driven crazy by an unreliable junkie, but in a personality-driven band like RHCP, if you have no frontman, you have no band. How much, then, would the CD in the racks really matter?