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Sound Advice

Tips from a Pro by Tom Young

November 18th, 2002

This issue, PS chatted with Tom Young, Technical Sales Engineer at Meyer Sound regarding some tips for designing sound systems and recording studios.

What are some important tips to keep in mind when designing a permanently installed sound system?

Ensure that the programming for each facility has been fully developed and is understood by all parties. A performance venue that will frequently host touring pop acts requires completely different (rider acceptable) equipment than one that hosts touring Broadway musicals, dance companies, ballet and folk or jazz artists. For how the design for both FOH and stage monitor systems is impacted is determined by the worship style and direction. Contemporary worship requires systems that are similar in function to those in concert sound, although they may be scaled down. Traditional worship and architecture typically focuses on spoken word intelligibility and minimal visual impact. One other aspect of permanent system design is the greater importance to provide acoustic consulting and/or improvements.

How do you select/test products to find the best system?

Sound system consultants and contractors must do their homework when it comes to equipment selection. All contractors should have the test equipment required to fully evaluate the design and functionality of the equipment they install. Consultants are not as likely to have test facilities, but they should still be on top of this through close relationships with manufacturers, getting out to trade shows and maintaining a close relationship with sound operators. Thanks to the Internet and sound system related listservs or newsgroups, there is another avenue for keeping up with trends and evaluations. By staying on top of this, the designer and contractor should be able to offer systems at several different levels of cost.

What are the most important things to remember when designing or building a recording studio?

That it is much more complex than simply throwing egg cartons on the wall and buying some good gear. Aside from selection of your nearfield monitors, they must be positioned to minimize reflections from the console and other boundaries. The wiring infrastructure and acoustic design of recording studios will make or break the facility over a period of time. Some equipment cannot be bought at the lowest possible cost.

How do you convert a room into a recording studio?

If forced to, one can end up with a reasonably good space that has been converted from its original intent. There are numerous incredible albums recorded throughout the past 30 years that give testimony to this. But for long-term use as a commercial recording facility there needs to be substantial and painstaking design for everything from electrical power to audio wiring to acoustics to air conditioning. The acoustics design covers noise isolation as much as it does room acoustics. Building from the ground up affords the most potential for a spectacular facility as long as one is committed to budgeting enough money for design and construction. One thing you can do from scratch that is virtually impossible when converting an existing space is floating the control room and/or studio floors.

What are the most important questions to ask a client when beginning a system design? What must you know to do your job properly?

You must ask anything and everything that impacts the facility from its opening through several years into its operation. Occasionally it is necessary to ask the client to substantially reduce their expectations or to increase their budget. Whether it’s for performance facilities or recording studios, the successful system designer must be very well trained in all of the technical aspects of audio systems design. But, he or she also must have a working familiarity with documentation and drawings, experience with participating on a design team plus a decent amount of real world operating experience. A system designer who has not mixed “under fire” and has not interacted with artists in these spaces has little chance of designing a fully functional and relevant system.

Tom Young has been involved in live sound for 29 years and has held virtually every possible position from working in the trenches to international tours to designing sound systems for major-league concert halls in North and South America and Europe. He currently is Technical Sales Engineer at Meyer Sound in Berkeley CA.

Where’s the Vibe, Man? by Karen Kane

November 18th, 2002

When does an engineer/producer feel like they’re in engineer heaven? Consider the scenario of my most recent recording project: a large, extraordinary recording room with beautiful ambience, tons of natural light shining through the skylight; eight of the most valuable vintage tube microphones on the planet by Neumann/Telefunken and AKG; dedicated, exceptional musicians willing to go the distance and a singer/songwriter with enormous talent. All the elements for a magical experience. And was it magical? You betchya! Recording projects range from being magical experiences to challenging and/or frustrating ones. So it’s especially wonderful when one is as magical as this one was — from start to finish! And does it show on the recording? You betchya again! Dreamwalker by Laura Bird — recorded, mixed and mastered in a total of nine very efficient days over a five-week period, pulled off almost completely without a hitch, is a very special album.

Recordings take on a life, a vibe of their own and without really knowing it, the listener can often feel the personal dynamics going on at the time of the recording. How it feels to be together making music really matters and shows up on tape (or whatever format you’re using these days!). We’re not just recording music and sound, we’re recording a vibe, an energy that was happening between people at the time of creating music together.

How do you know if the personal dynamics of the people you have chosen to work with is going to feel right? Short answer — you don’t! Just because you have chosen experienced, reputable people to work with does not mean you’ll get along with them. I’ve often heard horror stories of personality conflicts that really got in the way of a recording project. One time, an artist I know asked my opinion of her new album. This is an artist whose songwriting and singing I think very highly of. When I heard the album, I was surprised and disappointed because it seemed rather “flat”…no vibe, no passion. When she asked what I thought, my first comment was a question. What was going on at the time of the recording? For the next 20 minutes, I got quite an earful about the personality conflicts and outright arguments that were going on at the time of the recording. It effected the entire project, even though people apologized to one other and moved on to finish up.

In comparison, here’s an example of when greatly recorded vibes outweigh everything else. A few years ago, after a very long session of working on percussionist Ubaka Hill’s album, Dance the Spiral Dance, we were officially finished for the day. I put away the microphones except one that I couldn’t get to because so many instruments were in the way. I went to dinner and when I came back, I heard from inside the large recording room, an incredible after-hours drumming party going on with 10-12 people. I was so drawn to this intense, spontaneous energy that I couldn’t stay away. I walked into the room and felt an overwhelming desire to capture this “party jam” on tape so everyone could enjoy it later. I sneaked into the control room and not being fussy about what format I was going to record it on, (cassette, DAT) I popped the first blank tape I could find into a machine (it ended up being a DAT). I then realized there was only one microphone in the room left plugged in, and it was not in an ideal position for recording (it was pointing at the ceiling) but it didn’t matter, after all, it was “just a jam” and not for anyone else but ourselves. I didn’t want to disrupt the energy in the room by setting up more microphones or letting them see that I was about to record them. I turned on the EV RE-20 microphone that was pointing at the ceiling and recorded 11 minutes of this party jam. The recorded jam’s energy was SO intense and felt SO good that we decided to use 3:30 of this wonderful vibe on our final album, regardless of the “less than ideal” style in which it was recorded. Moral of the story — energy and vibes matter much more then technical/sonic perfection, ANY DAY!

I would like to acknowledge Escarpment Sound in Acton, Doug Walker Microphones, Pizazzudio and the Lacquer Channel for their participation in Laura Bird’s album project. Ubaka Hill’s album was recorded at Applehead Recording Studio in Woodstock, New York.

Karen Kane has been engineering and producing music since 1974. Her credits, profile, and other published articles can be seen at her Web site www.total.net/~mixmama.

A Mastering Primer by Karen Kane

November 18th, 2002

In the days of the vinyl record, the mastering facility was a different animal than it is today. Typically back then, we sent our master analog tapes to a disc cutting mastering studio and hoped for the best when we received back our “reference lacquer” or our “test pressings”. Many of the albums I worked on in the ’70s and ’80s were done in this manner, where producer and artist were not in attendance at the mastering session.

Today, it is unheard of for a producer or artist not to be at the mastering session. At all levels, we have gained the creative control we always should have had. This is due in part, to the way mastering is currently done and the number of mastering facilities that are now available.

These days, one has to be cautious not to get caught up in the illusion that someone with a computer music editing program and a CD burner is a “mastering” studio. While this type of “facility” can be useful in certain situations, this is not the place to go to for proper CD mastering.

To properly understand the differences between mastering facilities we could say that there are three categories: World Class, Professional and Non-Professional. A world class mastering facility has a well designed, large, accurate listening environment; a pair of awesome, accurate speakers; a variety of 2-track playback systems (analog ½”, analog ¼”, DAT, etc); ultra high-quality EQs and compressors; and a high quality computer editing system. (While ProTools is an extremely popular computer mastering program, a lot of world class facilities opt for Sonic Solutions or Sadie). Very often, the mastering engineers at these places are known for their “famous ears” and have many gold/platinum records on the wall from past clients. The cost of this kind of facility can be as high as $3,000/day US for the most “famous ears” and as low as $1,000/day.

While professional mastering facilities can provide excellent results, these types of rooms differ from world class rooms in that they have less awesome gear, less awesome speakers, smaller rooms and usually no “famous ears”. The cost is also more in line with what indie projects can afford ($65-75/hour).

Whether professional or world class, it all still comes down to PEOPLE. The wrong person in a world class mastering may not do any better than as the right person in a professional mastering room.

As I mentioned earlier, a non-professional mastering room is usually a home studio with someone who happens to have a few of the main ingredients to be able to “master” a project. Many times, when I have worked on a demo project, I actually do look for this kind of situation. Since the “mastering” needs of a demo are limited to putting the songs in correct order and basic volume matching, this type of situation will often suffice. However, in today’s world, there are so many musicians and budding engineers able to afford this kind of equipment, you must be careful who you are dealing with … successful results are not necessarily guaranteed.

To clarify the basic functions during a mastering session, here’s a list of mastering’s 5 main jobs:

1. To EQ and compress each existing mix. This allows you to
a) enhance an already good sounding mix and/or
b) make up for any inconsistencies possibly due to an inaccurate listening environment at the mix studio, late night mixing, etc.
2. To Edit … clean up the head and tail of each song and smooth out or create fades. Often, we’ll have more than one version of a mix and we can use bits and pieces from those different mixes. Thanks to editing programs, we can cut and paste pieces of several mixes together as easily as cutting and pasting text in a word document.
3. To put songs in correct order and decide amount of seconds in between each song.
4. To match levels song to song. Consistent matched volumes all the way through the album is important so the consumer doesn’t have to turn the volume up or down for each song.
5. To put program material into the format required by the CD manufacturer. (CDR, exabyte)

Mastering is often referred to as the “court of last appeal” or the “icing on the cake” and it is VERY TRUE. This is the last opportunity to make your project sound as good as possible. Never skip — or skimp — on this on this very important last step.

Karen Kane has been engineering and producing music since 1974. Her credits, profile, and other published articles can be seen at her Web site www.total.net/~mixmama.

Adventures in Straying from the Norm by Karen Kane

November 18th, 2002

Some of the most innovative recordings come from daring to be different from the norm. Not that the “norm” doesn’t work — doing what is typically done is safe and almost always guarantees good sound.

What is the “norm”? Almost every recording engineer I know who was trained in the late ’60s or early ’70s (like myself) learned standard basic microphone techniques. In the ’60s, what was typically done was dictated by the lack of tracks available and therefore, distant miking techniques were used. For example, Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham was recorded with three microphones. By 1971, we started using 24 tracks. So now, the distant miking techniques of the ’60s were overshadowed by the newer methods of close miking (made possible by having many more tracks). Today, there is a better balance between these two microphone techniques, with a leaning in favour of the close miking method (especially for drums).

Recently, after months of recording and using many of the typical techniques that I know and love, I decided I was tired of doing the norm. My next project was about to start and I was quite bored with the ordinary. Fortunately, Fulign, the band I was about to record bed tracks for, was totally into experimenting. (Fulign is a rock band from Erie, PA). Now that several weeks have passed since this event, I can honestly say, had I not followed my instincts to try something different, the recording of this band would not have the special sound it now has.

For Fulign’s drums, the ingredients were all there for trying something new. A large, beautiful sounding recording room, a great sounding well-cared-for drum set and an excellent player who also tunes drums very well. Matt Gurley from Fulign uses a large drum set with five toms and lots of cymbals and the thought of using microphones on everything was not only unappealing but here was a chance to be inspired by the idea of distant miking, possibly without any close mics at all. Typically, the approach would have been to use one or two mics on a kick drum, top and bottom mics on a snare drum, every tom-tom miked separately, a mic for the high-hat and a pair of overheads to capture all the cymbals. Some engineers also use a pair of room mics to capture the sound of the room that the drums are in.

I sought out a fresh approach to that old technique. I started out with four distant mics in various places but I decided after experimenting that using a close mic on the kick and on the snare was a good idea — even if I didn’t use them in the final mix. So ultimately, six mics total were used. The four main distant mics were two Microtech Gefell M300 “pencil” condensers and two Microtech Gefell 1277 condensers. One of the M300s was placed on the drummer’s left side about 3 feet from the kit facing the snare, high-hat and small toms — at a height just below the high hat. The other M300 was placed 3 feet from the kit on the other side facing all the lower toms at a similar height. The room mics were placed about 8 feet in the air and about 12 feet away from the kit. For this style of music, in this particular recording room, this method worked like a charm. The band was thrilled and I myself, was very happy with this non-conventional drum sound — much more than I could have imagined.

Karen Kane has been engineering and producing music since 1974. Her credits, profile, and other published articles can be seen at her Web site www.total.net/~mixmama.

Preparing To Tour From A Sound Engineer’s Standpoint by David Norman

November 18th, 2002

Long before the band comes in for the final tour dress rehearsals, they should have rehearsed on their own so that the time for production rehearsals can be used to get the band and crew on the same page on the look, design and flow of the show.

The production rehearsals should be used for several different things; making the final list of equipment that will be needed BEFORE the tour starts, making an equipment manifest, learning the show for sound cues, becoming familiar with the song order, working on making work tapes for all concerned for light programming and mixing purposes and there’s tons more.

Make sure to have all road cases colour-coded, stenciled, numbered and listed with Destination (Dressing Room, Stage Left, Stage Right, Production, Do Not Tip, Up/Down Arrows, etc.). The order of the truck pack can be easily identified with numbering of each case.

During these rehearsals, the sound crew should have as many cables as possible loomed together and labeled clearly. This reduces patching on a daily basis, because patching often has to done with limited lighting and space in dark corners on and under the stage. The crew should also have all consoles clearly labeled per their respective input channels and all outboard gear should also be programmed and tested for each particular song. Rehearsal time also should be used to get the crew working together as a team. The setup schedule should be discussed so that everyone knows how each day of the tour will progress. The lead in these conversations will usually be with your Production Manager and your Stage Manager. The time taken for brief meetings with all crewmembers saves arguments or discussions during setup.

During rehearsals, make sure you have huge poster boards to write the songlist down so that everyone can see it. Tape it pretty high. That way, you don’t have to have several set lists lying around that people are constantly losing. Make sure to record all of the rehearsals as well.

A final drafting of a stage plot and input list should be done during rehearsals so that you can give to your production manager and/or send to venues in advance so they’ll know what to expect with regards to your setup.

David ‘5-1’ Norman has tour managed and/or production managed and mixed such acts as; Ani DiFranco, Aaron Neville & The Neville Brothers, Roger Daltrey, The British Rock Symphony, John Tesh, They Might Be Giants, Arrested Development, Better Than Ezra, B.B. King, The Fugees, Wyclef Jean and many others. He is currently off the road and doing freelance production work for Concert/Southern Promotions as Production Manager and has worked shows with ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic, Ratdog and Megadeth. He can be reached online at david994@aol.com or you can check out his web site athttp://members.aol.com/david994/.

Finding the Perfect Studio an Interview with Bryan Adams

November 18th, 2002

Professional Sound’s sister publication Canadian Musician recently interviewed Bryan Adams on how he built his studio, the Warehouse Studio, and some of his best recording experiences:

After recording so many albums and working in some of the best recording studios in the world you must have learned a great deal about what makes a studio great. How did you incorporate this experience into the design of your facility?

Bryan Adams: My “role model” was the 1980s Power Station in NYC (before it changed). All the isolation booths, the style of desks (SSL and Neve), live chambers, informal atmosphere and a really top technical staff. But most of all … the location. I wanted my studio to be in the centre of the city where all the action is, not tucked out in the middle of nowhere. Musicians want to party and have a little bit of a life. You don’t get that with most studios because they are normally tucked away in industrial complexes or in the rural countryside! Who wants to work in place like that? Not me. I want a little interaction with the world.

When you didn’t own your own studio what considerations were taken into account when choosing a studio to work in? How did you know when a studio was right for you?

BA: That was mostly a decision Bob (Clearmountain) and I would make. We ended up recording in my house a lot before the studio was built downtown [Vancouver, BC]. We’d just rip whatever place we were at apart until we got what we wanted.

What do you think are the major pitfalls in the traditional commercial recording studio?

BA: You’ve got to have someone that really cares about studio life if you want it to work. A lot of the best studios are run by people who were either engineers or producers at one point, or they are technically minded. My studio was designed and is run like a battleship by Ron Vermuelen, who has worked with me since the mid-’80s. I’d have no studio if it wasn’t for him.

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