Archive for August, 2012

Ok. A small post about my mixing philosophy. Pretty simple – I’m not a mastering engineer. Every time I go into my  brother’s audiophile listening room, with its $70,000 worth of speakers, preamps, amps, acoustic treatment, etc., I realize that mastering is not the first element in my game. I don’t have the rig. Its a different art entirely from mixing. That doesn’t mean that I don’t do it! I’ve got good software for it, and a fairly good ear for the job. But I’m not going to tell you that I can do what a boutique mastering house can do with several hundred thousand dollars worth of gear.

Whether I’m mixing for my own mastering, or someone else’s, here’s the plan:

1. Whether I’m mastering or sending it out, I provide a final mix that is mastering friendly. Even if the client is not going to pay for mastering, I don’t just assume that I should slap a mastering plugin onto the mix and pump it up. I’d rather that the client listen to a well mixed CD than one that is sloppily mastered, or crammed into the Procrustean bed of someone else’s mastering “preset.” That doesn’t mean I don’t use mastering plugins – but I use them to achieve mixing ends – centering bass frequencies on live mixes, multi-pressing frequencies to add more punch or presence, etc.

2. I try to listen to my final mixes on lots of equipment – car speakers, mid-field monitors, near-field monitors, 2.1 computer speakers, etc. I figure if my mix translates pretty well, then if the client doesn’t pay to have it professionally mastered, at least it will sound good in lots of contexts.

3. I try to listen to my final mixes (and masters) on at least one audiophile system – just to tweak it with all the audio information I can, and with the best soundstage possible. My brother lives in Denver – and I have been known to haul my computer and Apogee Mini-Dac into his listening room when visiting him, spending a few hours with whatever projects I have going. It helps. I have a couple of other options nearby.

Near my home, a new listening room has just been installed at The University of the South, Sewanee, TN. It’s called the Ralston Listening Library. The guy who runs it is Tam Carlson, one of my English Professors when I was a student there years ago. He’s a music lover. When I was a student in the 70’s we used to go to his home and listen to old Toscanini vinyl albums on his electrostatic speakers. Amazing! Last time I was up there, he told me he’ll log me a few hours in the room if I call ahead. He might do the same for you. Here is a picture of Tam hanging out in this amazing room.

Ralston Listening Library, Sewanee, TN

For a great article about this listening room, and more great pictures, check out Stereophile.

4. Finally, I leave as much space in the mix as I can. By this I mean that I don’t hyper-compress the audio – even if it is Heavy Metal. When I bounce the final mix, I don’t want my gain structure and compression to leave the transients looking flat as a doornail. I leave at least 3 db. of headroom overall, and work for clean gain throughout the chain, with no tracks overly compressed or pumping. I focus on building a luxurious stereo soundstage and on getting the kind of sonic palette that works best for the project. In the end, however, I want a good mastering engineer to have something he or she can work with, adding the kinds of finishing touches that only they can add. If I squash out all of the gain, or over-compress, there’s nothing a mastering engineer can do.

What I’m trying to say is this: “to thine own self be true.” I’m a recording and mixing engineer. And I mix in a way that lets the mastering engineer do his job (even if that happens to be ME).

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John Wiley Nelson (a.k.a. “The Rev”) is a retired Presbyterian (PCUSA) minister who lives in Provincetown, MA. In his retirement, he is the manager of the local public radio station, WOMR. The Rev writes mostly folk and/or Americana songs. He likes to use acoustic instruments, but with electric bass and drums – locating his sound somewhere between bluegrass and country. Although a minister, his music is not religious – though, at times, it shows the sensibilities and sensitivities of a theologian and pastor. There is a lot of fun in his music which is loaded with irony, double-entendre, and reversals of plot.

The Rev. likes quality of instrumentation. When he comes to town, he hires the best. In this case, he hired Grammy award winner Randy Kohrs on dobro and pedal steel. Kohrs was Dolly Parton’s dobro player for years, and has played on more than 500 albums, ranging from those by such legends as Hank Thompson and Jerry Reed to current chart-toppers Little Big Town, Dierks Bentley, Sara Evans and The Wreckers.  Among his accolades for such work is a 2009 Academy of Country Music Award nomination in the Top Specialty Instrumentalist category. Randy owns and operates his own recording studio called Slack Key Recording Studio. We sent him scratch tracks and he recorded his tracks in his own studio.

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On fiddle, the Rev brought in Stuart Duncan. Stuart can be seen and heard with The Nashville Bluegrass Band, where he’s been a contributing member since 1985.  The band has won two Grammies, multiple IBMA & SPBMA awards. Duncan has played with Jerry Douglas, Bela Fleck, Yo Yo Ma, Alan Jackson, Chris Thile, Edgar Meyer, and many others. He is a complete professional. Because he tracked after the dobro and mandolin were finished, he provided fills that weave all of the other tracks together in a beautiful way. He showed remarkable sensitivity also. When tracking “Ordinary Day”, a song with a verse about the death of the Rev’s son, he re-recorded his lead, working to make it match the tenor and feeling of that part of the song. I used a single MikTek C5 on his fiddle and it worked great. I let him find the sweet spot, and the tracks turned out great.

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The Rev hired Grammy award winner Adam Steffey to record mandolin tracks. Steffey has played with many of the bluegrass greats, including playing for seven years with Alison Krauss and Union Station, working regularly with the Dan Tyminski Band, and now playing with the Boxcars. Adam lives several hours away and had a friend, Ron Fonzerelli, record his tracks and send them in. Ron used API pres and a stereo pair of Neumann KM84s to record Adam. The tracks turned out really well in the mix.

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I used no eq or compression on the dobro, mando, or fiddle tracks. I used the same stereo buss for all three instruments in order to get them pretty much into the same sonic space in the mix.

Plugin Settings

That buss had a tiny bit of Softube “Focusing Eq“, (to add tape saturation – I love Softube saturation), URS API modeled eq. (a really smooth, natural sounding eq.), a very small bit of URS 70’s compression, and a tiny bit of IK Multimedia CSR Room reverb on it. That’s all.

The Rev. likes to mix genres on his CDs, and on this CD he had two great blues tunes. He flew Mark Hill in from New Jersey to track the lead  guitar parts. Mark played with Herd of Blues for years, and really has a nice feel for blues. He brought his Fender Nashville Telecaster and we recorded him through my Fender Princeton, using a single Shure SM57. He used my Nick Greer “Ghetto Stomp” to add grit to the sound. The result was great.

Mark Hill

Andy Hull produced some masterful drum and percussion tracks. Andy has drummed for Ty Herndon, Jamie O’Neal, Collin Raye, Joey and Rory, Lee Greenwood, and the Evinrudes. I tracked him in the larger room in the studio and, instead of overhead miking cymbals individually and using a room mix, I used a stereo pair of AT4041s, which are brighter than my MikTek C5s,  up and back over the kit to get the kit reflecting off the walls of the room. This would give us the option of picking up as much of the ambient wood in that room as we could as a part of the kit.

 

On the Rev’s vocals, we used the TLM 103 through my UA LA610-MKII. I used a tiny bit of limiting on the way in, but no compression. With vocal tracks I usually use a 4-buss setup. Buss 1 is for a touch of reverb, buss 2 is for a tiny bit of delay, buss 3 is for vocal thickening, and buss 4 is for widening. I find that the Logic Stereo Delay works fine for delay, timed to 1/8 notes and used very modestly. Izotope Alloy’s vocal preset for “Intimate Parallel” vocals is a nice place to start when tweaking a vocal thickening track. Logic’s analog tape compression combined with Logic’s Stereo Spreader produce a nice, adjustable spread. The IK Multimedia “Vocal Late Reverb” setting provided a good amount of reverb ambience.

Vocal Plugins

The Rev invited his daughter, Molly, to track vocals on three of the CD’s songs. She had a lovely, soft voice, and her pitch was perfect. I used the TLM 103 on her voice and a similar 4-buss palette.

The Rev asked me to record the bass tracks. I used my Fender American Deluxe P-Bass. I went direct, through the LA 610MKII. I then added the IK Multimedia Ampeg SVX plugin, splitting the sound between the DI and an emulated SVT-4 Pro. On the two blues songs, I used the back pickup (a Fender Jazz Pickup), and a bit more compression on the way in, to get a more mid-rangy “honkin blues” sound.

He also asked me to record some of the rhythm guitar tracks. Mark Hill recorded some of these also. He prefers these to be in the mix, but not prominent. I used my MikTek C5 stereo pair in a ORTF arrangement for these tracks.

He also had me record the keyboard tracks. I used Logic’s “Yamaha Studio” piano for the piano tracks, and used my Nord Electro 2 for the organ tracks.

The CD turned out great. Check it out at CD BABY.

Leslie (my daughter) is a talented young photographer, writer and vocalist.

Leslie in the Vocal Booth

She wanted her second CD, Back Home to You, to be a little different. While filled with her usual bluegrassy, folky, Spanish-laced original music, she wanted to include several covers – long time favorites by Peter Rowan (You Were There for Me), Patty Griffin (Useless Desires), Alison Krauss (It Don’t Matter Now), Julie Lee (Many Waters), and Josh Wolak (Fell Out). All of these songs are wonderful, and really fit in nicely with her own music.

The sonic palette we were after might best be described as “acoustic silk.” We wanted the musical background to be soft, transparent, understated, but musically interesting. Leslie wanted me to provide the acoustic guitar, bass, mandolin, and keyboard tracks. To save money, I would do some of the lead guitar work on my Alvarez S-Yairi dreadnaught and on a half-sized guitar called a Papoose, made by Tacoma guitars.

Nathan Dugger, a friend of Leslie’s from her days at Belmont University, who has since gone on to play with Marc Broussard and Drew Holcomb and the Neighbors, provided lead guitar work on You Were There for Me and Useless Desires. Nathan came by the house and I recorded him in stereo, using the TLM 103 about 10 inches from his bridge, and an AT4041 about 8 inches off the 16th fret. I used this same configuration to record my own guitar tracks. Nathan did a first rate job with two very difficult songs.

Nathan Dugger (in another studio)

Nathan Dugger (in another studio)

Kevin Maul provided Dobro work on the more bluegrass-oriented songs, Sarah Taylor and Fell Out. Kevin has performed with Soul/Blues icons the Holmes Brothers and has shared the stage with people like Greg Brown, Tim O’Brien, voodoo blues king John Mooney, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Vince Gill, Chet Atkins, dobro master Jerry Douglas, and the Everly Brothers. He’s been a frequent guest, along with Robin and Linda Williams, on Garrison Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion” radio program as well as Mountain Stage, E-Town and Austin City Limits.

Kevin Maul

Although I’ve recorded Kevin in the studio before, this time he mailed his tracks in from his home studio in upper state New York. He did a great job of getting the feel for the songs.

Leslie wanted acoustic double bass on the CD. I don’t play double bass, so I sampled a note from an old Bill Evans CD and spreading it across the keyboard of the EXS24 sampler in Logic. Worked pretty well.

We decided that the only “drum” on the CD would be the chop of a mandolin on several more upbeat songs. I don’t play mandolin. Again, I sampled a chop from another recording provided by mandolinist and guitarist Mark Hill and used the EXS24 to play the mando chops. The results were pretty nice – not perfect, but overall fairly effective and musical.

Recording Leslie’s voice is always difficult. She is a powerhouse, and controlling the transients that nearly leap out of the speakers is not easy. Her good friend Carson Leverett, in a course on music tech at Belmont, had built a crazy looking preamp modeled exactly after a Manley Tube Preamp. It turned out to be just the ticket. While capturing her voice beautifully, it also seemed to have a kind of natural compression built into it that kept her peaks in range of what my FMR Compressor could deal with. I didn’t use much compression – just a tiny bit of limiting, and the result was lovely.

Carson’s Hand Made Manley Tube Preamp

Given the very limited budget, and the fact that I had to cover musical instruments that were not in my repertoire, the CD turned out beautifully. Check out a cut HERE.