Tag Archives: digital recording

The concert hall vs the microphone & loudspeaker

Here’s a quick aside.

Last night I went to the Barbican to a performance of Gustav Holst’s Planets by the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Ben Gernon and with between-movement remarks by Brian Cox. This was to mark the centenary of the first performance of the suite. I’d have preferred Cox to have spoken at the start and the music to have been performed without interruption, but it was still a fun evening that I enjoyed a lot.

It was also an evening where I realised how much my appreciation of certain aspects of The Planets has been coloured by the recordings through which I became familiar with the music.

Recordings of classical music function differently from pop recordings. The pop recording – since the early to mid 1960s at any rate – has not functioned as a straightforward reproduction of a musical performance. It’s an art form in itself, one not assumed to be inferior (or, it should also be said, superior) to the same song performed live in concert. Pop fans are comfortable with the idea that a song heard on the radio would sound little like the same song performed live, and that any or all elements of the vocal performance and arrangement may differ, even in terms of the basics like tempo and key.

Classical music engineers have, in contrast, striven to create as clear a reproduction of the performed music as possible, ideally putting themselves in service of the conductor’s vision of the music by recording it as neutrally as possible. (Terms such as “neutral” would be hotly debated by audiophiles and the recording engineer community, but I’m arguing in broad strokes here, so go with me on this.) The choices and preferences of the engineer and producer would scarcely come into it, and listeners at home should hear what the conductor would have wanted them to hear in the concert hall.

Neptune, the Mystic is one of my favourite pieces of music, and I’ve written at length about it here before:

This is music of unimaginable distances and patterns we’re far too puny to discern. Its most chilling moments come shortly before the female chorus enters. We hear a dark, barely discernible rumble accompanied by arpeggios on the celeste. Harpists play continuous ascending and descending glissandos before, finally, the cellos and oboes play an ascending melody that just won’t resolve; Holst repeatedly leads you up and then away from where you feel the point of resolution should be.

It came as something of a surprise to me, when hearing it performed in the concert hall last night, that my love of this music is so informed by the specific recording I know best: Charles Groves conducting the Royal Philharmonic at the acoustically wonderful Watford Town Hall in 1987, recorded by Telarc Digital.

Telarc were the first classical label aboard the digital-recording bandwagon, working with Thomas Stockham and his Soundstream recorder in the 1970s, so these guys wrote the book on digital recordings of large ensembles. Their 1987 Planets sounds excellent. But no recording can truly recreate what it sounds, and feels, like to hear music in an auditorium. Some of the otherworldly mystery I love so much in Neptune, the Mystic seems to me now to come from that recording. Its somewhat attentuated low end allows a slight dominance in the treble register – the harps, flutes and celeste – that make the music so, for want of a better word, spacey. Further away. Mysterious. Dangerous. The sense of threat carried by the low strings is felt more than heard, which makes it all the more troubling.

In the room, the same passages of music sounded muscular and earthbound, balanced more equally between high and low. Obviously this is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is a different thing, and one not wholly down to the conductor’s choices. The fact remains that music heard acoustically hits your ear differently to music mediated by recording and playback technology. What’s surprising to me is that I prefer the mediated version. It’s closer to what I want the music to deliver emotionally.



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.

Doing a recall in 2016

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.

2015-07-02 11.56.40x

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 1 – What Makes You Think You’re the One? – Fleetwood Mac

Lindsey Buckingham did not want the follow-up to Rumours to sound like Rumours. That much we can say for sure. He infuriated the band’s engineer and co-producer Ken Caillat by asking for sounds completely alien to his sensibilities (literally so: whenever Caillat dialled in a sound on a piece of equipment, Buckingham would insist the knobs be turned 180 degrees from wherever they were set before he’d start recording a take) and bemused his bandmates by playing them the Clash’s first record and trying to convince them that this is what they now needed to sound like. If his bandmates were unconvinced by Buckingham’s insistence that they change with the times, history has proved him right – their generation of artists either had to come to terms with the new music and changed fashions or wait a few years to start playing the nostalgia circuits. The majority of the band’s peers at the top of the industry accordingly updated their haircuts and wardrobes, bought synthesisers and drum machines, pushed up the sleeves of their pastel sports jackets and tried their best to make post-new wave pop hits.

For all his good intentions, though, he couldn’t really make Fleetwood Mac into the Clash. But what the band came up with in the attempt was much more interesting than if they’d have succeeded. The appeal of Tusk lies in the tension between his aims for the record and the band’s failure to quite get there, between his own nervous, fractured songs and the material given to him by Stevie Nicks and Christine McVie. Lacking the woody warmth of Rumours (partly perhaps due to being recorded on an early digital system called Soundstream, rather than to analogue tape), Tusk’s Buckingham-penned songs turn away from mainstream LA rock, only for those written by Nicks and McVie to attempt to return to it. The attempted fusion of slick, albeit heartfelt, West Coast AOR with this raw and ragged new music resulted in a record that was uncategorisable: Fleetwood Mac gone askew, covert punk rock on a superstar budget.

Buckingham had recorded demos for his own songs in his house and, enamoured with the sounds he got by recording in his bathroom, had a replica of his bathroom built in the studio. Some songs (for example, the beautiful, woozy Save Me a Place) saw him playing all the instruments himself, painstakingly Xeroxing his lo-fi demos in a hi-fi studio. What Makes You Think You’re the One?, fortunately, was one song that he let Fleetwood and John McVie play on.

Buckingham has remarked that something about hearing the goofy drum sound in his headphones, with its clangy slapback delay, turned Mick Fleetwood into an animal, and Fleetwood’s unhinged performance is hilarious, the highlight of the track. He beats his snare drum brutally, mercilessly, switching his patterns seemingly at random, sometimes playing two and four, sometimes crotchets, switching to double time for two and a half bars and then switching back unannounced – there’s a childlike glee to his performance. It’s a joy to hear such a tasteful musician play so uninhibitedly, throwing away all restraint, while Buckingham bashes out incongruously chirpy piano quavers and cackles maniacally.

Critics seemingly didn’t know quite what to make of all this, and neither did the public: Tusk sold ‘only’ four million copies in the US, less than a quarter of Rumours’ figures. Yet Tusk’s critical reputation has soared in recent years, in tandem with the band’s own – overtly West Coast-influenced artists (Midlake, Best Coast, Jonathan Wilson et al.) have resurrected the old FM sound and made them a ubiquitous reference point again, while hipster kids are content just to blast Everywhere at any opportunity. All this was hard to envisage fifteen years ago, but it’s nonetheless welcome and deserved for a group whose work was never less than sincere.


Mick Fleetwood, punk rock monster


For the curious, some of my music: