Monday, August 2, 2010

What I think Makes A Great Sounding Recording

Elton John's Tumbleweed Connection 
Pink Floyd's Dark Side Of the Moon 
Yes Fragile
Les Mcann and Eddie Harris Swiss Movement
Allman Brothers Live At The Filmore 
As a teenager listening to these albums ( In my huge groovy Sennheiser headphones ) I was transported to another place. I would close my eyes and I was no longer in my room. Musically excellent but also sonically beautiful. For me it was the sonic aspect that moved me deeply. These records inspired me to become a recording engineer.
Below are my thoughts on the elements needed to make an excellent recording.
These items are listed from most critical to least important.
This list assumes all factors are reasonable, no defective equipment, or poor microphone placement.
1) A great song or wonderful arrangement.
Wait! Wait! this is supposed to be about audio engineering! frequencies, decibels and  phase! Op-amps vs. discrete circuits, analog vs digital! For starters, recording quality isn’t all about gear.
Years ago I noticed something odd. One day I was at the beginning of a tracking session and I was struggling to get what I thought were good sounds. As the band worked on the arrangement,  boredom set in and they started to play another popular song. Suddenly all the sounds changed, everything opened up and became clearer and punchier. Each instrument had it’s own space, and I was moved by what I heard. I had changed nothing, yet the sonic picture changed completely.
When I’m mixing I usually start with the bass, drums,lead vocal and a single instrument that has the chord changes. In this simple state it is easy for a song to sound powerful, but as more tracks are added if the song is poorly arranged it can sound smaller, not larger.
When I listen to really great recordings I am often floored at how simple they can be.  A good arrangement can give the impression that a song is large and complex when in actuality it is very simple. The key is that every note and sound is so well placed they conspire to move your emotions in a certain direction. For some reason it can be hard for the brain to unglue these elements when listening to a stereo mix. At the studio when clients come in to remaster old recordings and we get to hear the original multitracks we are always floored at how simple the tracks are when the sounds can be isolated.
Often less is more.
Back In Black...I rest my case.
2) The musician.
I can’t tell you how effortless it is to get a really good sound with a talented
musician. Knowing what to play and what not to play is huge, but most greats also have a skillful touch. Often they know their sound, their setup, and have good instruments. I find the best drummers have a firm and solid strike, but rarely bash the drums as hard as they can. This allows the fullness of the drum to ring and be close in volume to the attack. This gives a clear attack with a beefy sustain.
When I first worked at  Right Track I tuned the rooms with Frank Filipetti. We would listen to his reference tracks as we adjusted the speakers. He’s a phenomenal engineer and one area that I envy him is his Tom sounds. I asked his secret. His response ........“ A great player “.
3) The instrument. 
A good instrument is not always the most expensive instrument. Acoustic guitar is a good example. I’ll take a one that has been kicked around for 10 years over almost any guitar that is brand new. The tone just seems to balance out over time. I generally think a passive bass records better than most with active electronics. I'll take a P- Bass anyday. If you find an instrument that records well hang on to it!

Ok now it’s the engineers turn.
4) The microphone.
I can usually hear right off the bat if a mic is right on a certain player. If I find myself eq-ing too much I first try to change the mic position, but usually I just go to a different mic. I drive assistants nuts swapping mics.
5) Mic placement.
Try placing your ear where you want to place the mic. Move your head around the instrument and it’s crazy how the sound changes. ( Of course you should not do this on a very loud instrument) If you are recording a player that has a lot of studio experience don’t be afraid to ask where he/she would like the mic. They’ve heard themselves recorded many times, and they may know what works and what doesn’t. I always ask horn and reed players because they usually are reading music in a tight group so they are going to blow where they are going to blow regardless of where you put the mic .

( I am going to assume that the signal chain is Mic pre, Compressor, EQ )
6) Compressor
A bad choice of compressor, or compression setting will do more to mash your sound than most EQ’s and mic-pres’. If you're going for a Bonham drum sound and your compressor is too smooth it will just sound small and will be missing the pump. Conversely, if you are going for a clear vocal sound and you compressor is too extreme it will just sound like your mic is broken. I tend to steer clear of compressors I don't like. My favorite compressor is a Neve 33609, but I also feel comfortable using a DBX 160X on just about any instrument.
7) EQ
For me there is only one real eq, the Neve 31102 as was fitted in the Neve 8068 consoles. I suffer with all the rest. Though the Massenburg is wonderful, the early Isa Focusrites, are sweet, and Pultecs can be fun. Equalizers are a very subjective topic. I’m a SSL guy, ( I don't like the Neve VR Eq ) and so is Tom Lord-Alge, Andy Wallace and Bob Clearmountain, however some of the engineers I respect the most are Neve V fans such as Elliot Scheiner  Joe Ferla, Al Schmitt and David Hewitt.
So I’ll leave you with this thought.
If you eq isn’t good use very little or none.
8) The Mic pre
Most pre’s are acceptable, Some are wonderful. The Neve 31102 is my favorite, Jensen Hardy Dual Servos are sweet and Massenburgs with B&K mics are heavenly, but a mic pre will almost never prevent a recording from being steller. David Baker’s recording of Mediski Martin and Wood’s “Shack-Man”  done on a Mackie mixer is proof.
9) The Room
Well, a great room can really help. An Awful room can really hurt. Depending on the type of music and instruments one can usually minimize the negative effects. Well for pop music at least.
10) I’m done,
I’ll leave you guys to argue the importance of converters, clocks, and cables...I’m gonna go get a beer.
A few years into my career my friend Jim Boyer asked me to help him record a concert at the Smithsonian. The remote truck was nothing special. Old and a bit beat up, it had a Quad eight console, a few generic compressors and a limited mic selection. This truck also had an interesting bit of history. Tom Dowd with owners Aron Baron, and Larry Dahlstrom used it to record The Allman Brothers" Live At The Filmore" One of the recordings that inspired me to become a recording engineer.
If the music is good and the players are talented you should be able to pull off a fine recording.  Try to turn your limitations into your unique advantages.
Have fun with it and be creative.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Teaching Audio Engineering Seminars!

I will be teaching Audio engineering and production seminars as part of the Tonica Jazz Seminars in Guadalahara Mexico August 8 thru 14. I'm really looking forward this. Right now I'm working on the course outline. Tomorrow I'll be recording a session to demonstrate some microphone techniques. Hope I get another blog entry before I leave town.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Engineering Tip- A Better Headphone Mix

Working with Phil Ramone there were a few basic rules that were never to be broken.
Rule One
Engineering should be as transparent and unobtrusive as possible to the artist recording.
Setups were to be done in advance and tested thoroughly. Your experience should allow you to record immediately on the artists arrival, even if you hadn't had a chance to do a Sound Check or get levels with the band. Having the assistant play as many instruments as possible, setting ruff eq based on mic selection, and having compressors in line with the makeup gain preset to the amount of compression desired but with the threshold set high so it can be dialed in during recording.
Playing a CD through all headphones to be sure they are stereo, in phase and not blown. These are all good starting points.
Phil was very particular about 3 things, Your hands better be on the faders riding or Mixing to tape, always work to have the best monitor mix possible, and you better have a kick ass cue mix. On his sessions the recording engineer should always have a pair of headphones around his neck, and constantly check the cue mix.
Headphones are not really up to the job of studio monitoring , the only exception might be in ear monitors that block outside sound which means they don't have to compete with ambient sound level. Regular headphones are not able to compete with the level of a drum kit or a loud guitar amp in the room without distortion. Here are two things you can do to your cue mix to make it punchier and reduce distortion.

The first is to EQ just the cue mix. The big thing here is to use a High Pass Filter. Headphones in general are not able to reproduce very low frequencies, 30,40 hz or 50hz rolloff will reduce driver excursion and distortion.  Look even if your headphones are able to reproduce 30 hz they won't be able to do it at a high SPL. You can add a little low mids (120hz or higher) if you feel a loss of fullness. Next thing we did was just a touch of compression or limiting. Again this can give a higher apparent level and a more forward sound in the cans at a lower level with less distortion.

We always set up the cue mix post monitor fader. I set all levels the equal, and set the pans to match my monitor panning. So with out even listening to the cue mix I know the musician is getting my monitor mix. Any adjustments or improvements I make to my monitor mix will be made to the headphone mix simultaneously. Then I offset that mix to the players personal taste. For example, all my aux sends are set to 1 o’clock, my pans match my monitor mix. I determine that the singer likes his or her vocal level set a 3 o’clock, the Piano at 2 o’clock for pitch reference, and the bass turned down to 12 o’clock.
All my monitor mix changes are fed to the phones post fader. I learn the desired offset for each player, and that way the headphone mix can be pretty much preset before a note is played. Every time I change to a new song for recording or overdubbing I have a better chance of catching the first performance.

Many times an artist would step into the studio to warm up, and do something spontaneous and brilliant. Phil’s head would whip around to see if I was in record, next he would ask me if everything was ok “you getting this? “ if the levels were anywhere near ok I would say yes. Eq I could deal with later. If we got through that first shot at recording with reasonable levels and sounds and without someone stopping because of headphone problems,  I would feel a sense of pride, that my preparation had paid off.
Oh by the way, with Phil there was only one answer to “ You getting this? “ and it had better be yes. He was never the type of producer that spent 12 hours on a kick sound. It was all about capturing the magic. Maybe that was the most important lesson of all.
copyright 2010 Bradshaw Leigh

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Flashback - Chelsea Sound Studios

Before working at A&R, I worked at a small downtown studio named Chelsea Sound. It was a cozy little room located on the top floor of a small building on 14th street.  I'm having a hard time finding pictures of this room, which is disappointing because it was a funky looking classic 70's tracking room. The studio live room was about 25 ft x  35ft and had a large shag carpet in the center of the floor. The vocal booth was lined Floor to ceiling with blue shag carpet and the drum booth ( which looked like a little shack ) was covered with green and orange carpet inside and out. The drum booth  " windows "  were open to the live room and didn't contain glass.

Dead rooms like this have some huge advantages. There are less reflections hitting the microphone which makes the sound more coherent, with less phase cancellation and unwanted room sound. The result can be  clear and warm. On most instruments except maybe strings this can be quite pleasing, on drums it is amazing. Imagine bringing up a tom mic and getting very little cymbal or snare leakage.

Dead rooms can also help provide a very intimate recording setup. All the players can be close together. A simple gobo can be sufficient to reduce leakage, and since the leakage is direct and coherent, it adds some air to the sound without stamping a sonic imprint of the room on your recording. The last dead room I had the pleasure to work in was the Hit Factory studio 2 before it closed.  It had 2 vintage Neve 8068 consoles strapped together to form a single 72 input desk. The control room was surrounded by 4 recording booths. The 1st room was totally dead, the second a live stone room, the third and fourth were wood rooms of different sizes. I was cutting basics on a " Five For Fighting " album. Originally I had the bass in the dead room, 3 different Pianos in the Marble room , Drums in the large wood room, and guitar in the small wood room. After cutting a couple tracks we swapped the drums and bass, putting the drums in the dead room. They were Huge, big, fat, and punchy. It reminded me how much I missed a dead recording space. A very high percentage of pre 1980 recordings were tracked in dead or very controlled studios. A few years later, almost all studios would switch to " Live Rooms ". Hard walls and floors for that ambient sound. Live rooms can be great but the charm and versatility of the acoustically dead studio has been lost.

The control room at Chelsea was next to the hall leading off the elevator. Cutting the width of the control room down to about 10 feet. The console was a MCI JH 428 fitted with 18 modules, and the tape machine was a MCI JH-24 16 track multitrack. Outboard, as you can see in this picture, was Eventide 910 Harmonizer ( used primarily for delay ), an Eventide Phaser, a pair of LA-3a's, one LA-2A, and a pair of DBX 160's. We also had a tape sonic 1/4 inch 2trk for slap delay. This machine didn't have a varispeed which is needed to adjust the slap delay time, so we would just would wrap some masking tape around the capstan to speed the machine up, if you wanted a shorter delay, just add some more masking tape!
In the photo is Engineer Bob Clifford working with Tiny Tim. ( note the deep pile carpet on the walls )

For reverb there were two choices, an AKG BX-20 spring reverb located in the office, and the EMT 140 tube plate in the basement. Having the plate in the basement caused two problems. First, the elevator motor was located down there, so every time the elevator started you heard a loud click and humming sound in the plates. Second (but more humorous) the landlord rented the basement to a Latin band to rehearse on Thursday nights. So in the middle of tracking you would hear the reverb of a Latin band in your echo returns. We eventually built a huge case to mount the plates in and moved them away from the elevator, which solved both problems.
Behind the control room was a small lounge and office. Man, did I love that place.
I was 17 and I had the keys. It was like having my own private loft with a built in recording studio.
© Bradshaw Leigh 2010

Friday, January 15, 2010


I can't begin to imagine the grief of the survivors of the earthquake in Haiti.
There are many ways to help. With internet scams and rumors it is difficult to know where to donate.
Google, UNICEF, Red Cross, and CARE are all good options.
One of our clients Wyclef Jean heads the YELE Haiti Funds.
What I like about Wyclef's option is it is so easy.
If you text YELE to 501501 you will donate $5 to the YELE fund.
It's that simple! You can verify this at his website
Donations large and small are accepted at the website as well.