Preserving the Art of Audio Engineering

May 1, 2005 12:00 PM, By Maureen Droney

TECHNOLOGY WORKING FOR ALL

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Those who embark on a career in the craft of engineering tend to be passionate individuals. They generally devote themselves to long years of learning, 12-plus-hour workdays and significant outlays of cash for work-related equipment — often without job security, benefits or a 401k — all in the pursuit of great sound. They also tend to be an opinionated bunch; get any two engineers in a room and you'll quickly be inundated with differing views on what constitutes great sound. Is it polished, shiny and bright? Fat and warm? Gritty and powerful? Is it an accurate representation of the material being recorded or an enhanced version? Does the engineer put his or her personal stamp on the sound or not? Great sound can't really be defined, but engineers know it when they hear it. And, whether it suits their particular taste or not, most of them appreciate all the variations of great sound.

Audio engineering can be lucrative, but it's more vocation than job, and only the supremely talented — and lucky — get rich. Most of the others just aspire to make a decent living doing work they love. In our rapidly changing times, the question these unique individuals face is whether the craft of engineering will endure or become a lost art. Here, several of our most respected engineers discuss how their work is evolving and how they uphold their standards in our brave new sonic world.

WHO ARE YOU MIXING FOR?
Any engineer wants to get the best possible sound for any given project. That often means eking out every conceivable bit of fidelity during the recording process, from well-maintained microphones and hi-fi cabling to high-res digital formats and properly biased analog tape machines. But once the mix leaves the engineer's hands, its sonic fate is not guaranteed; the distribution path of music is no longer narrowly prescribed. Ultimately, do you want sounds that will reproduce well on MP3 files, computer speakers and compressed car radios? Or do you aim as high as possible, with an ear to high-quality home systems and a surround mix? Or should you, perhaps, compromise on something in between?

“To be honest, I don't give a shit what happens in the outside world,” says the notoriously blunt analogphile Steve Albini, speaking by telephone from Electrical Audio, his two-studio, 11,000-square-foot Chicago complex. “I'm only concerned with what happens inside the studio and the problems that I'm solving there at any given moment. Other than properly made vinyl records — which are as rare as hen's teeth — there isn't a delivery format that can give 100 percent of what's on the master tape. So it's pointless for me to concern myself with what happens to something after it leaves my hands. All I'm concerned about is how to keep from dropping the ball at my end and to satisfy the people I'm working for at the moment. If I allow what's going on in the larger distribution world to enter into my thinking while I'm in the studio, I'd probably make worse decisions. I'd be taking into consideration a lot of crap that I can't control. Since I can't control it, it doesn't really matter.”

Producer/engineer Mike Clink: “A true producer takes the band to the next level.”

“You can't worry about the end result,” agrees producer/engineer Mike Clink, who rose to fame as producer of the bulk of Guns 'N Roses' hits, and who now owns a one-room Pro Tools facility where he works with both established and developing artists. “It's the same with anything you create. You have to make the best product possible. What consumers do with it is their choice. I don't have the attitude of, ‘They're only going to listen to it through ear buds so I don't need to bother doing certain things.’ I know that a lot of the time that's how they're going to listen. But I still always want to make the records I work on as good as they can be.”

“The truth these days is, if I'm mixing a contemporary pop or R&B project, I'm often thinking about what the record company wants to hear,” adds Bill Schnee, a Grammy-winning engineer who, besides staying busy as a mixer, owns a custom-built audiophile studio in Los Angeles that's much in demand by other engineers. “The main thing you want to do is serve the song, which hopefully serves the artist. Certainly, I also try to please myself, but I'd be lying if I didn't admit that I use a lot more compression in recent years than I did before, and not necessarily always because I want to. We have this horrific problem now where everyone wants their music to be incredibly loud. We have a medium — the CD — with unbelievable dynamic range, and we only use the top three to five percent of it. But the fact is, if you're shuffling a six-CD changer and someone's record comes on quiet, it's considered inferior. That's too bad because if you don't have soft, you don't really know what's loud. It's like putting salt on everything you eat so you don't know what's salty. It diminishes your range of experience.”

THE DWINDLING BUDGET
The mix is not just being squashed by the sonic demands of mass-market pop music; complicating matters are dwindling production budgets. Tightening the belt is not limited to the music industry: Working harder than you used to for less money than you used to get is pretty much the norm in the U.S. right now. So is having to work faster than you'd like to and cutting corners where you'd rather not. How has that changed the record-making process?

“If I have the budget, I will still always take the band to a commercial studio to cut the drums and to mix,” comments Clink. “It's actually not new for me to use inexpensive rooms for overdubbing; I always did that. Once you've cut the tracks, it never made sense to spend $1,000 a day at a studio where you're only using one or two microphones and a couple of faders for vocals and guitar overdubs.”

Electrical Audio's studios — where Albini and other engineers are perpetually busy with a stream of (mostly) live rock projects — are stuffed with classic analog gear and a stockpile of analog tape. From Albini's perspective, recording budgets haven't actually changed all that much. “I generally work on records for bands that are either paying their own way or are recording for small entrepreneurial indie labels,” he says. “Most of the time, the people in the band, or in the control room, have actually had to put their rent money aside to make the record. I have a lot of respect for that, so I'm obliged to be circumspect about spending their money. I work with budgets where a cheap record is $2,000, an expensive one is $5,000 and a few times a year a band has $10,000. The bulk of the records I do are made in a week or less.”

Smaller budgets often mean a smaller team and more multitasking. Back in the days of The Beatles, there were producers and there were engineers, with distinctly different sets of duties. As time went on, the jobs blended. Sometimes, those with lots of stamina did both. At least, however, there was generally a second engineer/tape op to carry some of the burden. (Not to mention a runner to get food, a receptionist to answer the phone…) Nowadays, it's not uncommon for one person to do three jobs: producer, engineer and Pro Tools operator.

“It starts when someone walks into the chain store and buys a Pro Tools rig,” comments Clink. “They buy it, take it home and by default they're the engineer, producer and Pro Tools operator. I think that's becoming the norm. The thing is, there are a lot more competent computer operators than there are true engineers and producers. A true producer takes the band to the next level. He or she can deliver an idea that a band has in their heads and make them better than they would be on their own. A producer gives a band insight into things they wouldn't normally think about. They're also the funnel for ideas, taking the pressure off individual bandmembers. They organize, run the show and make sure something gets done every day.

“So the producer role is still a necessary one and lots of producers have become, by necessity, Pro Tools proficient,” he continues. “It's the pure engineer who's the dying component of the equation due, of course, in large part to budgetary constraints. For a while, there were engineers getting paid a lot of money to push a fader up and down all day and you had to pay a Pro Tools operator, as well. That's all gone. An engineer has to be either a producer or an operator. They're not going to get paid $500 just to get a guitar tone, then sit there for the rest of the day.”

Albini avoids the multitasking issue by concentrating solely on engineering. “I let the band be the producers,” he states. “I don't feel obligated to reinvent the record underway. The band makes all the artistic decisions; I basically just execute them on a technical level. It's not really that strenuous: Working with a band that has their ideas and knows what they want, I'm just making it happen. The days are long, but I'm not carrying sacks of dirt! I'm listening to instructions and running up and down the stairs a few times an hour.”

WHERE ARE THE ROLE MODELS?
The downsizing of major facilities and growth of producer-owned private studios has splintered the recording community at large, leading to the loss of interaction with mentors and experienced pros. How do engineers perfect their craft in a vacuum?

“One of the things we're slowly losing,” muses Clink, “is the ability to learn from the past and from people who've actually done the work. Coming up as an engineer, I had the opportunity — and pleasure — of working with so many great engineers, producers and artists at Record Plant. I was exposed to all those ideas and techniques, and they helped form my style of production. Today, a guy goes to Guitar Center, buys a Pro Tools rig, sets it up in his room and gets his buddies over to record. The experience of learning from other people isn't there.”

Message boards, online tutorials, even recording schools all provide education. What's the difference? “Watching a How to Do It video is not the same as actually being in the room with a working professional,” Clink emphasizes, “where you can ask a specific question about how to resolve a problem or just watch what they do and figure out why on your own. It's not that you can't learn by doing and making your own mistakes. It's just that there's a wealth of information and knowledge that's not getting passed down. As people spend less time in the big studios, and as there are less of them, the people who are coming up are not able to benefit from those experiences.

“I also notice that it's gotten harder and harder to find really good personnel to staff a studio,” he continues. “Very often, I've found myself working with an assistant who had the ‘I'm really a producer’ vibe, to the point where they had their own [Pro Tools] rig in the control room and they'd be working on their own projects with headphones on, saying, ‘If you need something, just grab my attention!’ That's a lot different than working with someone who is there to learn, observe and complement the studio by being a part of the session.”

Bill Schnee: “The tool isn’t the problem or the enemy; it’s how it’s used.”

Schnee adds that with today's accessible recording technology, engineers can confuse having the tools with talent. “Back in the '90s,” says Schnee, “when all the musicians ran out and bought ADATS, they would say, ‘It's great — I have a professional recorder in my house for about $3,000.’ My thought was, ‘Yes, for $3,000 you get eight channels of “professional” audio capture. In fact, it will capture exactly what caliber of engineer you are!’

“That problem has continued and actually gotten worse,” Schnee continues. “There's no doubt that Pro Tools is a complete professional recording studio in a box and pretty darn good-sounding. But, sadly, we have the same mentality that was going on when those ADATs came out almost 20 years ago. People have professional recording studios without the professional recording engineer. That's a sad state of affairs. The science of audio engineering may not be as necessary anymore; computers make it simple enough that most people can figure out what to do. It's the art of recording that's likely to be lost.”

BUILDING AND DEFENDING YOUR OWN ENVIRONMENT
Albini's Electrical Audio is a public studio, yet it is, in some ways, its own world, created for classic recording — complete with that analog tape stockpile. “Anybody who runs a business has to be responsible enough to make sure the business won't go under for trivial reasons,” Albini points out. “One trivial reason would be if I'd tried to save money by not properly outfitting the studio or skimping on staff, or any of the thousand ways I could cheap out. If I had, we'd lose our clientele because we couldn't do our job properly. For example, we're one of the largest users of 2-inch in the country. We started stockpiling tape a long while before Quantegy closed. The reason being, when you've only got one supplier for a product you use every day, if something happens, you won't be able to make records. I feel like it's my obligation to make sure that doesn't happen.”

“My studio is a custom one-off race car kind of place,” Schnee admits. “Although, from a user systems standpoint, you don't realize it. Even though we built the console with tube mic preamps, tube line amps and all-discrete solid-state electronics, it has worked flawlessly for almost 25 years! I'll go to my death fighting for that kind of quality and saying what I believe about it.

“When mixing to 16-bit DAT came in, I couldn't understand how certain engineers were quoted as saying it was as good as analog ½-inch,” he adds. “But now I think lack of resolution in how they were listening had a lot to do with forming their opinions. If you put seven layers of tissue paper over your speakers, you're not going to hear the clarity in the highs. If you're going through tons of electronics, you may not hear the difference in quality. Today, at 24/96 with really good converters, we have a very big improvement. But it took 20 years to get here. Meanwhile, back then, the early digital proponents were calling those of us who liked analog crazy.”

THE LARGER LISTENING EXPERIENCE
From cathedrals and concert halls to tuned reference rooms, throughout the ages, people have created acoustic environments that enhanced the experience of listening to music, live and recorded; hence, the craft of the audio engineer. It's ironic, then, in the age of cutting-edge audio technology, music seems to be becoming more of a “background” experience as quality takes a backseat to convenience.

“We live in a portable society,” Clink points out. “Kids are listening to their iPods while walking to class and playing MP3s in their cars. It's not so much that the consumer doesn't care about sound quality, it's just a matter of convenience.”

Ay, there's the rub. “How do you get people off earbuds and MP3s?” muses Schnee. “We have the ability to deliver a much better-sounding piece of plastic than a Redbook CD and we can even deliver multichannel sound with it. Unfortunately, there are three different incompatible systems that all do a similar job! HDTV is arriving. With the onslaught of $200 to $300 surround systems, multichannel is in the grasp of everyone. They have amplifiers and speakers — all they need is a player. But now we're going to tell them, ‘Well, the product comes out in three different formats.’ Even with players that will play all three, what a nightmare for the poor consumer.”

CAPTURE VS. CONSTRUCTION
“In the past, if I had a musician who wasn't able to perform,” recalls Clink, “I'd make them aware that there was something that could be better from their performance. I'd give them an opportunity to practice and hone in on it. But, if after several attempts we couldn't make it work, I'd have to replace them with someone better.

“Now the way we work, you can save the integrity of the band, but you're creating a performance,” Clink continues. “Sometimes that's not as good as having a great performance that you just have to ‘breathe’ on to improve. I often see people willing to give up easily: They'll play a couple of notes and say, ‘Put it in the computer and fix it.’ Generally, I'll refuse. I tell them to take it home and practice. They're the musician. It's what they do and what they're getting paid for. They have to at least try!

“We are starting to lose some musicianship. Those people who really strive to be better — who, even when they're great still practice every day — are becoming rare. The work ethic has changed because people know that they have a crutch. They don't go in with the fear that maybe they'll be replaced.”

“It is a construction process now,” admits Schnee, “but that started with multitrack. The tool isn't the problem or the enemy; it's how it's used. You can give somebody six tracks for a solo and that can be a very freeing, experimental thing for them. You can do the same thing, and somebody else will take the tracks and punch them up until they're perfect — in their eyes, at least.

“The changes that we're going through are profound in terms of quality. In the old days (before me!) when recordings were done completely live, everybody had to be at the top of their game: the musicians, engineer, producer and studio. Frank Sinatra went out there with the orchestra, counted the song off and they made a take. When he came into the control room to listen, that was the record and it had better sound like music! Think about what that meant for the skill and creativity of everybody involved. We've definitely lost something.”

PERSONAL BEST AT EVERY LEVEL
Ultimately, production professionals will strive for excellence within whatever limitations are dictated by the prevailing consumer format. As for the acceptance of those formats, Schnee says, “When the plusses outweigh the minuses, a product wins — whether the quality is actually higher or not. That happened with the CD. A well-mastered, really good pressing of a vinyl LP played on a great turntable with a good cartridge into a good system against a 16-bit/44.1 CD is going to win in terms of sound. But that's about the only plus. The CD had so many plusses: no noise, no intergroove distortion, the ability to play it in the car and it was close to indestructible, just to name a few. So while the actual sound wasn't as good, it won and we were into the digital age.

“The same thing happened when professional recording started going digital with 16-bit,” he continues. “We who felt it didn't sound good enough had to go through a lot of frustration with those who thought because it was new and digital, it was better. Then, when Pro Tools came out, it still wasn't as good as analog, but its flexibility as a production tool was through the roof. Even I couldn't begin to argue with what you could do creatively with a tool like that. Fortunately, Pro Tools — with higher sampling and bit rates, and better converters — now has much better quality sound.

“There are so many problems today: the fact that labels' financial troubles take money away from new talent development; home recording, which, in many people's minds, diminishes the value of the engineer; and the lack of cohesive new formats, which could get people excited about the enhanced listening experiences that are possible. So it's difficult — but it's absolutely vital — to stay optimistic about what we do individually and about music itself. People will always love music and live performance. For me, the quest is, what can we do on every level to continue to make it better?”


Maureen Droney is Mix's L.A. editor.

Click here for interview excerpts and feature outtakes.






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