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Sound Advice

Listen To The Artists by Gary Stokes

October 18th, 2002

“You need to be intimately aware of what is stage sound and what is coming from the PA you’re controlling. I think all sound engineers like to have total control of the sound.

“There’s sort of a natural desire to do the best job possible but you have to be aware of what sound you’re actually controlling with the knobs under your fingers, what sound is coming off the stage, or just inherently in the venue. A good exercise is to mute the main PA and just listen to the sound of the band on the stage from the audience. It’s also very important to go and listen to the sound onstage as well. This gives you a better awareness of what you’re trying to achieve, as well as what you can and can’t achieve. Sometimes it’s good to know if you’re sitting out in the audience, if all the drums are balanced from that perspective without you turning the PA on, or if the snare drum or guitar is too loud.

“You have to have a constant awareness of these things when you’re mixing. It’s good to work with the musicians onstage, and the monitor engineer if there is one to control the stage levels, but don’t be so self-centered that you’re only doing it so you have absolute control. It’s important to help them do the control levels not only to protect their hearing onstage but to get a good mix in the house. It’s also important not to be so autocratic and announce their onstage levels that they actually try to make it sound better by turning it down so much that they can’t actually perform well.

“It’s important to not be so harsh that you actually change the stage sound to such a degree that musicians who have been playing for years, and have their act together, start playing worse. I think a lot of people go that far because they’re trying to be in control over the sound in front, and they don’t pay attention to what the musicians need onstage to play the best music possible. The key is knowing what is stage sound and what is not. It’s better to sound good at a lower volume and only have partial control and supplement the stage sound, than it is to get complete control by turning it up two or three times as loud so that you have control over everything. That’s not always a better solution. In fact often it’s worse. You can find a way by listening to the sound onstage without the PA on. You may decide that something sounds pretty good that way. Some things don’t necessarily need a lot of help from the PA. Don’t just assume that everything has to be completely under your control at all times.”

Gary Stokes is a live sound engineer from Toronto, ON who has recently done sound for Sarah McLachlan on her Lilith Fair tour.

Protect Yourself From Solder Fumes by Barry Lubotta

October 18th, 2002

Most everyone who works in the recording industry has had the occasion at one time or another to come into contact with solder being melted by a soldering iron.

Whether it was a bad cable, wiring up a patching bay, or making an equipment repair the solution required a hot iron and solder.

The downside of this invaluable studio tool is that the very process by necessity spews out poisonous chemicals such as salicylic acid and pinene. The person doing the work by definition is in close proximity to the byproducts of the soldering process. Anyone breathing in fumes containing these noxious components can experience headaches, nausea, eye diseases and worse.

There have always been solder smoke removers available for purchase. Trouble is they cost about $700 Canadian and up. My experience has been that when that type of money is lying around in a studio environment, it almost always goes for a new piece of gear rather than anything related to extending one’s life expectancy.

Recently I came across a less expensive device that claims to remove 80% of the harmful pollutants from solder. It is a new product that claims to absorb noxious lead fumes using an activated carbon filter and a high efficiency fan. I ordered this portable device and it works beautifully. While not as good as an expensive professional absorber, it is nonetheless very effective at drawing the solder smoke away from the user and absorbing most of the bad stuff into its filter. This product is available through Techni-Tool at (610) 941-2400. Extra filters can also be ordered.

Barry Lubotta is the owner of Pizzazudio in Toronto, ON

It’s All About Communication by Karen Kane

October 18th, 2002

In my opinion, one of the first necessities for being a good Producer /Engineer/Arranger is to establish good communication with the artist. You really need to understand what the artist desires musically. Only then, can you work together and create a production that’s appropriate for the music. One of the biggest challenges in recording music is to not only pick the right musicians for a particular project, but to communicate to them exactly what we want from them musically, (in terms of the arrangement of their part). Contrary to what some people think, a lot of producers today are NOT arrangers. Either they are not qualified to be arrangers or they choose other options to communicate specific musical ideas to the musicians. In today’s world of computers and keyboards, where you can create a bass/drum/keyboard part without extensive arrangement skills in a matter of minutes, the producing/arranging arena has changed drastically. This is not to say that this is bad, it’s just a different world then it used to be.

One of my own personal styles for “arranging” works in this way. After pre-production, when the song structures are finalized, I make a home recording and a bar/chord chart of each song (even a boom box will do for this). I send each musician a cassette and charts of the songs that they are playing on. They then can get familiar with the music on their own time before coming to the studio session. One tip here: make sure the cassette machine that you use records at “concert pitch”, so that the key of the songs on the tape matches the key of the chord chart. I like to send these tapes 5-6 weeks in advance of the recording sessions. If budget allows, rehearsals with the studio players are helpful but not always necessary. Usually, these kinds of musicians are so talented and experienced, that they play amazing things even seeing and hearing a song for the first time.
After working closely with the artist during pre-production, by the time the studio session comes around, we have a very good idea of what we are wanting from each musician. As each musician comes in to do his/her part, I am confident about communicating to them what it is that we are after musically. With the valuable preparation time that the musicians have done rehearsals with the studio players are helpful but not always necessary. Usually, these kinds of musicians are so talented and experienced, that they play amazing things even seeing and hearing a song for the first time.

After working closely with the artist during pre-production, by the time the studio session comes around, we have a very good idea of what we are wanting from each musician. As each musician comes in to do his/her part, I am confident about communicating to them what it is that we are after musically. With the valuable preparation time that the musicians have done on their own and the combination of artist and producer knowing what they want, the production ‘team’ can usually fine-tune a musician’s part right there on the spot. All it takes is good communication skills. On a rare occasion, if the musician can read music, a capable artist or producer will write out a specific part that they hear in their head during the session. On other occasions, I have seen fully written out charts scrapped completely for a more “improvised” feel.

Some producers who are exceptional arrangers (like David Foster), will most likely write out all the arrangements. Similarly, other producers who do not like input from musicians, and want them only to play what’s written – whether it’s what they have written or a hired arranger’s part – I’ll also use fully orchestrated parts. One nice thing about the less strict, written out method is that I can integrate a musician’s creative input to the project. In fact, it opens up the field of producing and arranging to anyone with good musical instincts and communications skills. Never again will producing or arranging be just for people who can read and write music. Since the studio musicians that I hire excel at this kind of creative format, I always get amazing results. All in all, in my opinion, it makes for a richer project.

Freelance Recording Engineer and Producer Karen Kane is a transplanted American, now based in Toronto, ON. She can be contacted via e-mail at mixmama@astral.magic.ca

Recording with “Personality” by Daniel Lanois

October 18th, 2002

“I find that the tape recorder, or the recording device, is almost the link of the chain with the least personality. It’s the link in the chain that gets talked about the most – like ‘Are we going to do it digital? Are we going to do it analog? Should we use dolby SR? Or do we go dolby A? Should we do it at 15, or should we do it at 30? Should we use an Alesis? Should we use Tascam? Should we use the radar system?’ You know, there’s 20 different really great recording devices out there, and they all sound good to me. I did some recording recently on a little 8-track digital TASCAM, and it sounds great. I record on my 24-track with dolby A, at 15 ips, and it sounds amazing.

“So that link in the chain is not nearly as important as all the other links. If you start at the front, the front would be the instrument or the voice – talking about acoustic recording — the instrument or the voice; microphones are next on the chain. If you were to put a Cole’s mic against an AKG 414, the sound difference would be astronomical. You’re going to hear like a 700 percent sound shift. Whereas if you were A-B, the difference between an 8-track digital TASCAM and a 24- rack Studer with dolby A at 15, you might hear a 2% personality shift.

“The kind of harmonica, or how you tune the drum, is real important. The kind of microphone you use and where you place it is real important. I use a Neve 1066 pre-amp. The early ’70s models are really great, with great EQs.

Daniel Lanois in an interview with Nick Krewen (Canadian Musician, July/August 1997)

Teching And Happy To Be There by Trevor C. Coppen

October 18th, 2002

Teching a PA should be treated with the same kind of care as mixing the band. ‘Do unto others as you would have them do to you’ – where have I heard that before? The PA tech can definitely make or break a show as much as the mixing engineer. Touring bands are not always fortunate enough to travel with their own production, and even if they do they rely on the audio systems tech to keep things up to snuff.

A systems technician is a question/answer man, an advisory board and handy man all rolled into one. The performer’s engineer has been hired for a reason and that should be respected. Although you may not agree with their methods, you are there to accommodate and make sure the system runs at its best, safely.

There are many things that can be done prior to the artist’s engineer arriving that will help keep the day and yourself together:

* PA and console functioning properly, free of noises such as ground buzzes
* talk back mic, CD and/or cassette for playback
* outboard gear (effects, inserts, functioning)
* inserts (if any) ready to be patched
* board taped, not necessarily labelled (engineers may word things differently than yourself)
* space and AC available if the engineer carries any of their own outboard equipment
* knowledge of the system in use, its flexibility and limits, both to be respected by yourself and the touring engineer

Keeping lines of communication open all day is very healthy. Make sure things are going well and functioning properly but stay out of the way, keeping in an eye’s distance. (It’s not a good idea to take a lunch break during the band’s sound check!)

When all is said and done, what it boils down to is showing respect for the club and/or PA company you are representing and having that reciprocated by the touring engineer.

Trevor C. Coppen, freelance sound technician based in Toronto, Ontario. Trevor has been touring recently with the Barra McNeils and is currently in the U.S. with Moxy Früvous.

Creating Timeless Recordings by Daniel Lanois

September 18th, 2002

A timeless recording feels right. And a recording that feels right is usually made up of some kind of truth – for example, a true documentation of how people were playing in the room at that time, uninterrupted by external opinion. If something has a natural feeling, then that’s also a real good ingredient for timelessness.

The irony of timelessness is that sometimes the most dated things are timeless. You listen to a P-Funk record from the early ’70s – and there’s a crass wah-wah pedal that is dated specific to the day – and everybody thinks it’s wonderful and timeless! I think it’s because there was so much commitment that went into it; it was so much the “sound of the moment” and done with such naiveté that it is timeless.

Naiveté is not something that you can be aware of when you’re trying to work, it’s something that you’re aware of maybe a year down the road; but it’s also a pretty important ingredient to recordings you want to keep listening to.

Daniel Lanois, recording artist, producer (U2, Robbie Robertson, Peter Gabriel). Originally printed in “Sound Advice”, Professional Sound, Winter 1995.)


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