Reading through audio forums and magazines, it’s easy to become convinced that the next upgrade is the one that will really make a difference, taking your tracks from mundane to impressive.
Some upgrades of course, are bound to be more significant than others. This week we asked a handful of busy engineers for some of their most essential “big wins” in recent years: Those simple changes that brought significant results.
Sometimes, big results come from big investments. For instance, Vaughan Merrick, an engineer and mixer who’s worked with Amy Winehouse, Mark Ronson, Ghostface Killah, and The Chemical Brothers, cites his recent upgrade to a Pro Tools HDX2 system as one of his most important and satisfying new acquisitions.
Merrick is a vocal proponent of high sample rates and 32-bit floating systems, and he’s also the kind of guy who considers expensive mic-pres, compressors and microphones to be an “invariably excellent investment.” Still, even he’s quick to admit that “choices in the high-end market are often more about aesthetic choices than quality.”
In addition to sexy and significant investments in new systems and boutique audio gear – which are often among the first things we think of when we hear the word “upgrade” – I also wanted to suss out those simple and essential changes that always seem to have a positive impact on every other link in the chain, and pay dividends for years to come.
#1: A Room That Works
When we asked a handful of our favorite engineers about their recent big wins, it wasn’t gear, but environment that was probably the most common theme.
“My biggest wins recently are the facilities I’ve been working in,” says freelance engineer Ted Young, whose discography includes work with Andrew W.K., Secret Machines, The Hold Steady, and Sonic Youth. “Namely Room 17 studios in Bushwick (my new favorite drum room) and Fluxivity in Williamsburg (the best mixing room in the New York area).”
From an empirical perspective, it’s easy to see how the rooms we record in have the potential to be among our weakest links or our greatest assets. Common issues like low frequency resonances and flutter echoes effect not just the sounds we capture, but the very choices we make.
“Your monitoring environment should be as scrutinized as your personal engineering technique,” says Andrew Maury, a young engineer whose list of clients already includes the likes of Ra Ra Riot, Tegan and Sara, Death Cab for Cutie, RAC and The Static Jacks.
There are many ways to treat a room, from DIY diffusors and broadband absorbers to completed room kits and architectural redesigns. Maury’s own favorite solution has been a mobile one: His ASC Attack Wall.
“Its a set of cylindrical tube traps mounted vertically on adjustable poles/stands which you arrange to form a U-shaped wall as a mix environment,” he says. “You set up your monitors inline with the perimeter of the wall, essentially creating a virtual ‘room in a room.’ Transient detail is impeccable, low end both extends and tightens, imaging is panoramic, and the sweet spot seems to double in size. Not to mention, you can use them in tracking to create micro acoustic environments. It is a very pricey endeavor because ideally, you want to have 16-20 of them. But it’s easily the best money I’ve ever spent.”
As crucial as room tuning is, environment isn’t just about getting the sound right. Eli Crews (tUnE-yArDs, ?uestlove, Sean Lennon, Deerhoof), is a recent transplant to Brooklyn from Oakland, CA. He says that “This year, the biggest upgrade I made for myself was creating a room that only I work in, and nobody else touches.”
“Coming out of a ten-year run at shared studio space, a place that is purely my own has become immediately essential for me. It being in my apartment means that I can wander in any time of day or night and listen to a mix, tweak a few things, go for a bike ride, come back and tweak some more, go get a bagel, come back, take a nap, listen, and so on. Easy recall is an essential part of the equation as well…For the remote mixing I’m mostly occupied with these days, this all has proven more valuable to me than a perfectly-treated control room or expensive monitors.”
For Kyle “Slick” Johnson (Fischerspooner, The Hives, Modest Mouse) moving out of New York City and into a new space that made more sense for his lifestyle has easily been one of the biggest wins in recent memory.
“I moved to New York City in 2001 and immediately fell in love with it,” he says. “I spent the first several years trying to get my feet wet in the audio world doing live sound, sales and assisting at a small studio in Greenwich Village. The record industry was already in full nose dive mode while the NYC real estate market was flourishing. Over the years my client base and my skills in audio grew, but that really didn’t seem to matter very much to my life outside of audio. I was always broke and my prospects of ever owning a studio that was more than just a closet in some less than ideal neighborhood seemed like a pipe dream.”
“So with the encouragement of my (now) wife, we decided to move out of New York to Philadelphia. Oh man, that was the smartest thing I’ve ever done for my career. I now have an apartment, a private studio (three rooms!), a car, a savings account and a daughter, all of which I’m finally able to afford after scraping the bottom of my checking account for 8 years in New York.”
“I live in a nice neighborhood, my studio is in an “up and coming” neighborhood but the cost of both of those places is likely about 1/4 of what it would be paying for the same places in NYC. Plus, nearly 50% of my clients still make the trip from New York to Philly to work with me. It’s only a 2 hour drive and because I have a lower overhead here in Philly I can keep my rates affordable for most bands and I don’t have to take records purely because they have budgets. I get to work on music that I really like.”
#2: Microphones, Speakers and Instruments
It’s easy and fun for us engineers to geek out about our favorite magic boxes. But the electronic devices that make for the most obvious differences in the studio are usually those with moving parts. Transducers – those physical elements in microphones and speakers that change sound into electricity and vice versa – are still some of the hardest things for manufacturers to do well.
Adam Lasus (Helium, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, Dawn Landes, Matt Keating), the bicoastal owner of Fireproof Recording and Room 17 says that if he was just getting started today, “the first thing I would invest in to really get better sounds and sonic depth is a good microphone. MJE/Oktavamod and ADK both have mic’s starting around $300 that really shine and sound as good as mics that are much more expensive.”
Eli Janney of Girls Against Boys and SonicScoop‘s InputOutput Podcast seems to agree: “Investing in a great vocal mic was a purchase I never regretted (Every project has vocals, right?). I actually have two: a Soundelux U99B, which is dark but amazing on the right vocal [and] a CharterOak S538B, a more modern sound but not over crispy, never fails to deliver during vocal tracking.”
Eli Crews mentions that “there are a handful of pieces of gear that immediately starting making an imprint on the sound of my recordings — I believe for the better — the day I acquired them: Chandler Limited TG-1, original rackmount Sansamp, Eventide H3000, Lynx Auroras, UAD-2 plug-ins, RETRO Powerstrip, Coles 4038, Neumann M49, Royer SF-12, SoundToys software, etc.” But that’s not what he thinks of most.
“A few years ago I decided I mainly wanted to spend money on instruments, and have amassed a ’60s Ludwig drum set, an Estey folding pump organ from the 1920s, a Doepfer modular synth, a beat-down, barely working Optigan, and various old Moogs, ARPs, Rolands and Casios. Having these instruments available to bands significantly changed the sounds I was recording, and in the long run have had much more of an influence over ‘my sound’ than which mic or preamp I use.”
Another common answer revolved around studio monitors. Your speakers are your only meaningful link to the sounds you’re recording. As with microphones and instruments, there is tremendous variability among speakers. Although there are more good affordable models than ever before, this definitely remains a “get what you pay for” category, and an upgrade here is almost always money well spent.
#3 New Skills and Special Tools
Right alongside the environment and mission-critical gear like mics, speakers and instruments, are our own skills as listeners and manipulators of sound.
One of the most lasting parts of my own audio training was taking the time to learn to differentiate between frequency ranges, compressor settings, delay times, reverb types, audio codecs, mic placements, pitches, harmonies, and to continuously push the limits of my own hearing.
I’ve found that the best way to work these critical listening muscles is not just with studio work, but through deliberate practice and blind listening drills. I’d consider time spent on these exercises among the biggest wins of my entire career, second only to time spent listening to music and working with bands. A good critical listening program, whether it’s one you buy or one you design yourself, can be a lifelong “big win.”
Although you could spend a lifetime honing these fundamentals, there are always new application-specific skills to be learned as well, and they can open up tremendous new possibilities. For Geoff Sanoff, a producer/engineer and co-host of the InputOutput Podcast, sitting down to really master tuning programs was one of those game-changers. He recommends “learning how to use tuning plug-ins so you can’t tell you’re using a tuning plug-in.”
“It takes more time, but the result is simultaneously more natural and yet not gratingly out-of-tune. It also can save your ass when re-tracking isn’t an option. I’ve fixed guitars and pianos with Melodyne that would have been unusable, and I’ve used it to subtly correct singers whose vibe is not supposed to be perfect.”
Another purchase he’s never regretted is similarly specialized. Geoff gushes like Billy Mays when he offers that “iZotope RX2 is the best value function-wise for all manner of sonic restoration needs. Gets rid of guitar buzz, hum and unwanted pops as well as any other program under $5,000!” These are the kinds of tools that allow you to do jobs that might otherwise be impossible.
For Andrew Maury, figuring out digital gain-staging and saturation were huge skill adds that still pay off every day:
“Use simple gain plugins like crazy if you mix ITB. Everywhere. Let them do all the dirty work for your balancing and gain structure feeding plugins. Its an equivalent practice to how analog console mixers use the line trim knob at the top of the channel and they’re dirt cheap in CPU resources! 90% of your mix balance can come from well-placed, static gain adjustments in plugin chains. The result is that your output faders in the DAW become simple tweak handles, not heavy lifters.”
“As an engineer and mixer, also start thinking about “packing” your transients. There’s only so much room in the medium, and achieving “size” is no easy task. Especially in the context of rock music, you simply must introduce distortions and saturations to start shaving transients, which will buy you headroom to fit the whole thing up into the ceiling.”
“You don’t necessarily have to compromise the integrity of the audible signal to put a serious dent in a track’s technical dynamic range…Tasteful distortion can make something “louder” and meter lower. There are so many great analog modeling plugins (Slate VCC, UAD Studer, SoundToys, etc) that are out now which have blown open the door to make this process more and more believable ITB.”
Odds and Ends
Huge wins are just waiting to happen on the ergonomic end of the studio as well. Geoff Sanoff’s list includes “a patch bay for allowing me to incorporate analog gear and route things quickly and efficiently. Saving time means more brain power spent on music.” Other common answers include multi-channel headphone systems like those by Aviom and Hear, and the addition of a console or faderpack to an otherwise DAW-based studio.
There are some topics that engineers will quibble about until the early hours of the morning: analog summing, super-high sample rates, the relative importance of contemporary preamps and converters, this VCA compressor versus that one.
For every engineer on one side of these debates, there seems to be another crowing the opposite story. Some of these questions can potentially be settled with science, and some may forever live solely within the realm of preference and opinion.
Wherever they stand on those issues, it seems that almost every engineer can at least agree that the few indisputable essentials include rooms, mics, speakers, instruments and skills. Throw in a killer song, a good performance, and you have all the materials needed to make a great sounding recording.
When you focus first on upgrades in these few broad categories, you are deep in the realm of the big wins. And once you have these areas well-covered, you can go anywhere from there.
Agree? Disagree? Share some of your biggest wins in the comments section below, and tell us all about those essential upgrades you’d never second-guess.
Justin Colletti is a Brooklyn-based audio engineer, college professor, and journalist. He records and mixes all over NYC, masters at JLM, teaches at CUNY, is a regular contributor to SonicScoop, and edits the music blog Trust Me, I’m A Scientist.
DUMBO, BROOKLYN: I met microphone designer Dimitri Wolfwood and his [Ronin Applied Sciences] business partner Fenton Joseph at the Tape Op party during AES New York last fall. Joel Hamilton had arrived with them and introduced us, and Dimitri immediately took me into his world of ultimate microphone design. Before I knew it, I was swept up in his excitement about capsules and transformers, the virtues of film caps, and the sin of electrolytics.
In his introduction, Joel spoke with excitement about these guys having a new approach to tube microphone design, that – to his ears – had achieved a level of complexity and balance he’d only known from the Neumann classics.
I talked microphones with Dimitri for a while that night, and we kept in touch. After a couple more conversations, I asked him if I could demo his first microphone, the Pegasus. He and Fenton arrived at the studio just as I was setting up for a session, helped set up the mic, and then set me loose.
A Few Words For The Uninitiated…
Large diaphragm condenser (LDC) microphones, especially those powered and amplified by a tube, tend to be more subjective sound transducers. Much more than most small diaphragm mics, a tube LDC traditionally exhibits a strong personality, for which you pay to some degree in “accuracy.” However, when that personality is paired up with the right source, the recording takes on a hyper-reality that can be gripping and emotional.
Traditionally, the small diaphragm condenser, and the tradition of FET-based electronics, has been a quest for different types of accuracy. The tube LDC is the one that’s always strived for character and attitude. In so doing, they wind up being useful for a different type of application.
As an extreme example, measurement microphones have a flat EQ response from a couple Hertz to 20 kHz and beyond – but the results are often “unmusical”. A tube LDC, on the other hand, usually makes no pretense towards flat response, but rather boasts an ability to give a living, interactive response to the source, not unlike a guitar amp gives the guitar and guitarist. Accuracy really has little to do with it: the question is whether its distinct personality relates well to the instrument, like when two people meet each other.
Another side-note about tubes: Tubes have a reputation for being the choice when you want “warmth” or “good distortion.” This is a poor generalization, and one that doesn’t help us understand the Pegasus. While some tube circuits can sound very good when operating in their non-linear (distorted) regions, there are as many exceptions as there are examples. First, tube distortion is not always pleasant or warm, let alone the right choice for the application. Additionally, some tube circuits sound unusably terrible when they distort, sometimes even being a frigid opposite of what is commonly mis-described as “tube warmth.”
Second, some tube equipment, including the Pegasus, can be stunningly linear, and require as much effort to be pushed into the non-linear region as any solid-state circuit. So the choice of tubes over transistors is only in part about distortion: from the point of view of the microphone designer, it’s more about choosing a particular tradition of priorities in signal amplification.
Where the Rubber Meets the Road
I tested the microphone at Vinegar Hill Sound, where I engineer and produce records along with studio owner and engineer Justin King. Our live room is about 400 square feet with 18-foot ceilings. Two walls are exposed, rough brick walls; one is drywall, and one is cloth-covered broad-band absorption. We have worked to achieve good spectral and temporal balance within the room’s natural medium-length reverb, and it is a pronounced feature of the room.
We work in Pro Tools HD 9 and use a Toft 32-channel ATB board for monitoring and mixing, but we track through outboard pre’s – API, Neve, Manley, Telefunken, Chandler – through outboard processing, and then feed directly into Lynx Aurora converters.
The Ronin Pegasus Test Sessions
To evaluate, I tested the Pegasus on various sources: voice, drum kit, kick drum, cello, trumpet, melodica, harmonica, piano, and pump organ (I will not discuss all of these). The microphones I compared it to were two tube LDC’s: the Telefunken Elektroakustik ELA-M 251E reissue and the Telefunken R-F-T AK-47; as well as mics of differing architectures: a Coles 4038 ribbon, a Telefunken ELA-M 260 SDC (reissue), a Neumann KM184 SDC, and a Shure SM7 dynamic.
The first source I tried was voice. I tracked vocals for Diamond Doves singer-band-members Nick Kinsey, Wyndham Boylan-Garnett, and Brigham Brough. Each of the three trade off singing lead vocal for each song, so we had to do the “usual suspects” mic shoot-out for each of their three different voices. This was a stark demonstration of the characteristics of each microphone. We tried the Pegasus, the Telefunken ELA-M 251E, the Telefunken R-F-T AK47, and the Shure SM7 (a dynamic mic).
What the Pegasus brought to each voice was musicality and balance: a robust low-end with formidable, but not overwhelming proximity effect; substantial body and detail in the lower-mids; a clarity and depth to the upper-mids, and an extended but well-tempered high-end that faithfully celebrated the higher-order harmonics.
The Telefunken 251E was by far the most similar example, but it had its own character that felt like a different take on the same subject; a more exaggerated proximity effect which made it a little more unruly (and more hyper-realistic), a similar depth to the lower mids, an upper-mid focus that was about half-an-octave higher than the Pegasus, and a sparkly high-end that nevertheless remained on a tighter leash than with the Pegasus. Transients were also a little more “gooey” than the Pegasus.
Neither of these two mics ever sounded like they got pushed into that resonating acoustic-distortion that lesser mics revert to under pressure. They remained open and tolerant of high sound pressure levels as well as ultra-resonant sources.
The Telefunken AK47, on the other hand, was much easier to push into its own resonance. It is a generally brighter mic with less depth and subtlety than the Pegasus, or the 251 for that matter. It has a bit of high-mid hype that can get edgy, which can be useful for pulling out nice natural distortions in vocals. As it happened, that was just what the doctor ordered for Nick’s voice, which has a gritty texture in that territory that distorted nicely with the AK47′s own grit – the two jousted together for a well-formed acoustic-electric distortion that became very flattering. But on Brigham’s Barry White-type baritone, it peeled the highs away into their own separate texture, where they laid distracting and out-of-balance. Likewise, Wyndham’s Brian Wilson-esque falsetto and soaring highs were dragged from sparkly to screechy through the AK47.
This edgy high-end raspiness also seemed to mask low-level information, especially in that range. So instead of casting a three-dimensional image with foreground, midfield and background, as the Pegasus and the 251 did, it depicted a much flatter image with less subtlety.
The SM7 suffered from some of the same problems; but what it lacked in complexity and easily-conjured resonance, it made up for with its characteristic impact and strength. It is a different type of mic that does a different type of thing; but it does it very well. The SM7 gives the transients a rougher handling that nevertheless glues the sound together in a lovely way – an inexact explosive intensity that replaces clarity and depth as the feature presentation. It can get a tiny bit boxy when people start to howl. But I have always found that what the SM7 lacks in precision sonics, it nevertheless imparts by offering the ear a robust landscape to re-imagine those lost details.
The Pegasus sounded universally beautiful on all three singers. It captured the three voices’ low-end weight, mid-range details and high-end harmonics with authority; In spite of that, it was not always the best fit among the group. I chose the Pegasus for Wyndham’s higher voice, but the AK47 and SM7 were much more flattering to Nick’s alto, and the ELA-M 251E had just the right mid-high-end sheen to balance Brigham’s “Papa Bear” baritone.
Pegasus on Strings
The second source I tried the Pegasus on was cello. The night consisted of string section overdubs for singer/songwriter Erin McKeown. I have had success before miking cello with a vintage U47, which brings out the creamy mid-range lushness of the wood, and the depth and size of the instrument; other times, I have used an Electro-Voice RE20 to great effect, getting a tight low-end impact without the bloated, proximity-effect lows becoming overwhelming. But, here, the Pegasus was stunning in the extension and detail of the instrument’s high-end information, couched in a rich, comfortable, and understated low-end.
I have never heard the detail in the rosin and strings emerge with such elegance and complexity, and somehow, those airy, effortless highs were well-merged with the lows and lower-mids to form a very unified sound. The Coles 4038, in comparison, was slow to respond to the harmonics, and only seemed to bring out the velvety lows and mids without addressing the highs. I even tried a high-end shelf boost to bring them out, but the sound never had the wide-spectrum of the Pegasus. They appeared, but seemed to be an after-thought. However, on the violin and viola the 4038′s sounded absolutely regal (unfortunately, there was no time to try the Pegasus on them).
When it came to recording drums for the Diamond Doves, I set up the Pegasus and the ELA-M 251E to be coincident for an old-fashioned shoot-out. I flipped them into omni, and placed them to be mono kit mics. This was another very interesting experiment that demonstrated the capabilities of both mics to take in a lot of information.
The Pegasus had a tighter low-end response, while the 251 has a more sizeable bottom. The Pegasus gave a good deal of focus on the lower and “mid”-mids, from about 500 Hz right on up to a little over 3k, whereas this region was more taught and scooped with the 251. The Pegasus then backed off from there to 8kHz, leaving the cymbals smoother, and rendering the transient mid-highs more realistically. Then the Pegasus had an extended crispness to the high end, up beyond the frequencies this engineer can still hear. The 251 had a gentle rolloff to the high-highs, maintaining a focus on the lows and the mid-highs from 4-8k.
Finally, the transient response between the two was noticeably different – the Pegasus had substantially more stick and batter-attack than the 251, leaving me with a little more of the drummer in the picture. The 251 seemed to get the explosion of the skin without as much information on the thing used to set it off.
With singer/songwriter Keith Polasko, I turned the Pegasus to another usual LDC task: the Kick-Out microphone. I set it about three feet in front of the kick drum inside a makeshift tunnel of insulation panels and blankets. Again, I was struck by the complexity: I could hear the detailed skin of the batter head and the body of the resonating shell as a unified panorama, with neither element competing with the other. Various bands of information lay side-by-side in perfect harmony. I needed no EQ and mixed to taste with a Beta 91 as Kick-In.
On Overdubs (Horns, Melodica, Etc.)
I conducted my fourth round of experimentation during overdubs for Chris Harford‘s upcoming record, Lay the Passage. Ween bass-player Dave Dreiwitz came in to play trumpet, harmonica and melodica over a couple different tracks. The two serious contenders were the Pegasus and the Coles 4038.
With trumpet, the Pegasus’ focus was on the delicacy of the airflow, the higher-order harmonics emanating from the bell, and the resonance of the brass. It was a bright and airy sound that stood in stark relief against the dark and creamy Coles, which focused more on the girth of the low-mids and fundamentals of the brass. For this particular song, the upper-range space the Pegasus highlighted was already firmly owned by banjo and percussive close-miked acoustic guitar, so I chose the mic that held the harmonics in tight rein – the rich Coles 4038 ribbon. But I can imagine that for the right type of music, perhaps up-tempo Latin Jazz or Ska, the Pegasus would deliver the brightness and aggression of trumpets without getting harsh and spitty like many LDC’s.
Harmonica was too honky for the Pegasus to do much with – it was the one instrument where I simply did not like the Pegasus’ response.
The biggest surprise for me was using the Pegasus with Dave playing a cheap melodica – an instrument that seems to have very little complexity to its sound. But through the Pegasus, it became a far richer instrument than it sounded in the room, which was a real brain-teaser for me. Somehow we were getting more information out of the system than we were putting in, which violates many of the principles I take for granted. It became a very artful pad with several different and distinct layers of material in the sound, each with their own winding movement, twisting and turning – out of a $25 plastic children’s toy! It was exciting to see the mic at its finest.
Complexity of Character
Without going into too much detail that can be found elsewhere, I learned from talking with Dimitri that the levels of complexity and low-level sensitivity of this mic are due to an extraordinary and completely rethought approach to making ultra-simple and uncontaminated circuits that are only possible using custom and cost-no-object parts. A Stephen Paul one-micron diaphragm, expensive toroidal transformers, a never-before-used inductor-loaded circuit and a never-before-used tube, film and polypro caps that cost up to $50 a-piece: These are the elements that go into a mic that can capture multiple zones in its dynamic range with equal musicality.
The results shine in a mic that captures complexity of character, while maintaining a balance that makes it a beautiful choice for a wide range of applications. The strength and complexity of the sound make it a unique, 21st-century addition to any great mic closet.
One thing: At $4,200, this is not a microphone for project studios. The Pegasus is only a reasonable investment for full-time engineers and producers who already have a sizeable mic closet with all the usual suspects. An engineer who is still building his mic locker would be far better off acquiring an assortment of the standard, amazing mics that cost less than $1,000.
As the saying goes, the difference between a $200 mic and a $60 mic is much bigger than that of a $200 mic and a $1,000 mic – and some cheap mics are absolutely legendary (see the SM57). But if you have all those, and you’re still looking for something different to fill out your palette, then this just may be an alternative to adding a vintage U47 or C12.
Affordability is a variable like any other, but Dimitri’s creation calls for all top-of-the-line components paired with utmost concern for elegance and functionality of design. He set out to put together his best ideas about every element of the microphone system, and use only high-quality parts to achieve an “ultimate, non-upgradeable,” and completely original microphone. The Pegasus design philosophy falls into the category of never compromising functionality for cost, and never designing by concession to either tradition or to saving a dime.
That is not for everyone, and doesn’t have to be. But for those who are lucky enough to be able to afford this mic, I’m telling you, you will know where that money went.
The Pegasus is manufactured by Ronin Applied Sciences on Long Island. Visit www.roninappliedsciences.com for more information.
Reed Black is an engineer, producer, musician, and songwriter based in Brooklyn. Prior to focusing on studio work, Black recorded and toured the world as keyboardist for Saves The Day and played/recorded/engineered with his subsequent eponymous band of the same members. He joined Vinegar Hill Sound as house engineer in July of 2011, where he has had the pleasure of recording for artists such as Vampire Weekend, Chris Harford, Erin McKeown, and Jeannine Hebb, among many others. Get in touch via www.reedblack.com.
CHINATOWN, MANHATTAN/FORT GREENE, BROOKLYN: What headspace are you in? For a music producer/engineer/mixer like Allen Farmelo, getting your talents to that sought-after place is all about finding yourself.
In the process of doing that, of course, people will find you — that explains why one of Farmelo’s fans is an artful outfit like Cinematic Orchestra, the engrossing British jazz/electronic/soul influenced outfit led by Jason Swincoe. The ever-evolving group recently called on Farmelo to engineer their upcoming release for Ninja Tune, a project that he executed in the semi-exclusive confines of Chinatown’s intriguing Mavericks Studio.
Whether working at Mavericks or mixing/mastering at his rapidly evolving Fort Greene facility, The Farm, Farmelo’s primary angle – a sound he gravitates to that he calls “Post-Pink Floyd” – and artist-centric philosophy shows how an NYC audio pro gets on the map. As his list of credits grows (The Loom, Second Dan, Cucu Diamantes, Jonah Smith, Ian Gillan, The Cabriolets, Jesus H. Christ), so does his insight on what makes today’s music, and the business of it, tick.
You’ve been working a lot with Cinematic Orchestra the last few weeks. How would you describe that workflow?
I wouldn’t say it’s improvisational, but I would say it’s a very grand project that operates on a lot of different levels and that there’s a lot of exploration happening. Jason’s done a lot of writing beforehand, and he brings in musicians to flesh out the ideas. The writing is extremely intentional, and harmonically/melodically very plotted out. He knows the goal of those songs.
He’s an amazing producer because he manages to get people to do stuff that works for the song, without telling them what to do. Is he micromanaging? No. But is he getting the micro-details he wants out of people? Yes. So I’m watching him closely and learning from him.
Cinematic’s not like the Beatles where you have the same four members, and without one of them you’re done. Jason’s brought in people he feels will contribute to that particular song in the way he thinks it will happen best. Different singers for different songs, that kind of thing. So far it’s a bit of a different-sounding record than the previous one, and I think the lineup will reflect those changes.
So what’s it like coming into the project as an engineer? Do they let you do your thing, or is it a collaborative process?
Jason knows what he wants to hear, he is extremely good at communicating it, and he lets me achieve that. He can sometimes get right down to the gear. They were working at Livingston Studios in London, using those Coles 4038s as the overheads. He described that setup, and I did that here to get the specific sound that worked well when he tracked in England.
So sometimes he’s very specific, other times he’ll describe a vibe or metaphor to get what he’s looking for, and then the way I achieve that is up to me. Mixing the Grey Reverend record that Jason produced was a lot like that, where both Grey and Jason would articulate well what they wanted from the record. Then I sent them home, said, “Let me do this,” and then let them come back.
My first stab was good on about 70% of the material — and then fell on its face on the other! We talked about that, and they were very good at articulating what they wanted changed. So we freed up some things in the mix, found the center of the record, and let those things happen. As the record went on, I was able to take more ownership of the aesthetic. So the collaboration is very easy and open.
So is it easier to go into this project now that you’re in the same headspace? Are there traditional references to other records he’s listening to as far as the approach, or is it like you’re already aware of what he likes based on the past experience?
Jason has written amazing, amazing music that is dictating everything about what follows. The songwriting is so strong and beautiful that everybody else is just there to serve that song – including Jason. I don’t feel any references to anything outside of those songs happening at all. Instead we’re coming from the center of those songs. And when you hear them, they all have their own character, life, logic, feel, tonality and beauty that’s obvious from the get-go, even when they’re just played on acoustic guitar. You say, “That’s freakin’ beautiful. Let’s make it more beautiful.”
How do you go about taking the song further at that point?
So everything from changing a mic to subdividing a beat to figuring out how to lay a crash down is there to serve that inner logic. Jason makes sure we’re there to serve that inner logic and the inner beauty of the song, and he communicates it very easily. You have the songwriter, the vision, and the songs are giving you tons of information from that.
You don’t have to do that much to know how to get the studio to sing properly for the song, and that’s where I feel I’m trusted to make some good choices along the way. It can be something as simple as, “Wow, slow tempo – let’s raise the overheads and let the drums sing a little more,” or for more complex patterns I might think, “Let’s get things a little tighter.”
For me, setting the tone on the guitar amp is instinctively informed by the guitar pattern. Since we feel very much in tune with the music, we all kind of trust each other aesthetically and say, “OK, let’s make this happen.” There’s not a lot of discussion about this stuff. It’s kind of obvious when things are working or not, everyone’s got great ears.
The thing that’s refreshing about working with these guys is that there’s no ego to get in the way of this discussion, so it’s an aesthetic conversation at all times – a really clean and artistic conversation.
That sounds like a rewarding way to be recording. Why is this studio a fit for this band and record?
Well, Maverick’s fits any project really well, as long as you don’t need to record forty musicians here. I had thirteen here once – that worked surprisingly well. That was a big, amazing, raucous New Orleansy anti-war album. So Maverick’s can kind of do that. We did the strings for Grey Reverend’s upcoming album here – we had a quartet in the main space. I did the whole Loom record, Teeth, which was a six-piece band all playing in the room together. A lot of people come to just do drums. It’s a very versatile space, and as long as your mics are in phase, you’ll sound good. There’s really no crappy-sounding place in here. For the Cinematic record, there’s just something wonderful happening between the songs and the room sound. They match beautifully.
It feels that way. What do you think about the “open concept” (studio in the round) format here?
I’ve been on two Tape Op Conference panels with other people talking about open concept studios, so I’ve thought a lot about it. And of course the most famous reference is Lanois. The number one benefit of it is being able to speak face-to-face with the people you’re working with and not through a talkback system. The alienation of a talkback system is apparent as soon as it’s taken away. It’s so nice to pull off the headphones and talk to the person you’re speaking to.
The drawback is there’s no room for bullshit. Everyone has to be reverent to the music happening. You can’t rattle your keys, text your boyfriend, read Vogue – a lot of what normally happens in the control room can’t happen here. So if you’re not into being reverent, you have to go into the back room where there are no speakers. You’re either in or out.
I didn’t realize I was paying so much attention to what was coming out of the speakers – instead of to the musicians – until I started working in an open studio. It’s a positive for me, but not for everyone – my friend Joel Hamilton jokingly calls us a bunch of hippies that like to sit in the same room together, and he’s kind of got a point as it can be pretty touchy-feely. But the other most obvious benefit is the amount of space I have. We have one of the biggest control rooms in NYC, because we have all this space, and when we’re tracking we can subdivide it any way we want.
If we’d had a separate control room, we’d be like a lot of little studios, but instead we’re like a good midsize studio here. For a facility our size, we have a really big control room and a really big live room. They just happen to be the same space – it’s an incredible way to take advantage of small spaces.
That makes sense. What guides the gear choices here?
First and foremost, we have pairs of everything in the studio: Coles 4038’s, Royer 121’s, RCA BK 5As, Beyer M 160’s, Shure SM7’s, Elux 251s, 87s, 84s, 441s…a pair of everything. The point being that we are really ready to put up a pair of anything on any source, so we are really versatile when recording drums. We can get any flavor stereo overhead and room sound we want.
We used to have a mishmash of preamps, and then came to realize really quickly that we love API, and miss the glue/consistency of having the same preamps working off of a console. So we have 16 of the API 512s. We do have other pres – the Chandler, a pair of original 1073 Neves racked up by Brent Averil…but we have far fewer flavors then we used to, and we love it. We’re thrilled to have the same preamp on everything, because when you bring up the faders it all sits together tonally. We went through the “We could have a little of everything phase” and grew out of it.
We have a lot of really interesting compressors, and a lot of really standard standbys. We have two Purple MC77s, two 1176s, and a pair of DBX 160’s that used to belong to Johnny Cash! We have a pair of Distressors. Where we deviate is the API 2500 – I mix through that 2500 almost exclusively. I have one in my studio in Brooklyn, The Farm, and I have one here that’s always strapped onto my two buss. It reminds me not to over compress and to cascade from the individual channel compressors into that bus compressor. I work with it on all the time, so I know where I’m going to land compression-wise when it comes time to mix.
And there are other non-standard compressors here. We just got the Airfield Audio Liminator Two, which is a beautiful piece of kit, and this Gyrotek Varimu Tube Compressor is stunning – handmade in Denmark. So we have a lot of neat flavors on the compression side, and again, everything is stereo. We have two of everything, so you can run any pair of mics through any pair of pres/compressors.
Do you also mix here, or at The Farm?
I used to mix here, and then I had to mix back at my place because of a scheduling thing – this was like in 2006. So I recorded a record for Rachel Z., which featured Tony Levin, and other great musicians, and due to scheduling and some technical issues I ended up with mixes done on the console here at Mavericks, some summed in Pro Tools here, and some mixed in my room in Brooklyn. When we got to mastering, there were definitely differences – and the analog summed mixes were way better – but my mixes done at home were sounding really good. They were right up there. It was weird: I went to the news stand across the street from my Brooklyn apartment and saw that Rachel’s record was charting in Billboard, then I looked up at my window where my mix room is and said, “Wow, a new era.” So I did what everyone else did: I put together a mix room.
And now my studio, The Farm in Fort Greene, is a serious mixing situation. I have a lot of outboard gear, the Crane Song HEDD which I’m using to print my mixes off a Studer A-80 1/2” machine; a fully acoustically treated room. It’s pretty ideal and I’m doing pretty much all of my mixing there. That allows me to work within the budgets that are coming my way, allowing me to offer better deals to my clients and make a living at it.
That said, mixing here at Mavericks is a wonderful experience. We’ve got the Studer two-track, the center section of the Neotek, which is modified by Purple Audio, sounds wonderful. That console is like the mid-size luxury touring sedan with a badass racing engine in it.
We hear you’re putting together an interesting new console for The Farm. What was the concept, and how is it coming together?
The concept is to have an API Legacy console built from their amazing 7600 channel strips, which each have a 550A EQ, 225L compressor and 212L preamp along with four busses, four aux sends and infinite routing possibilities.
I realized after working on the big Vision console up at NYU’s Clive Davis school and then, days after, tracking at Mavericks with all API 512 preamps that API was a sound I could very happily commit to. But I couldn’t afford, nor did I really need, nor did I want to maintain, a full-on Legacy or Vision console.
The API 7600’s all connect to the 7800 Master Module to form a true, discrete Legacy console with as many channels you want or can afford. So I bought a pair of 7600s to try on a mix session and within about three minutes I knew I’d found my channels, and when I summed through the 7800 Master Module, I knew I’d found my console. Problem was I had to get it built.
Francois Chambard of UM Project in Greenpoint came on board, and our goal was to defy the look and feel of traditional consoles – which to my eye look like either Cold War-era military equipment, a dentist’s office, or some leather bound thing you’d expect Ron Burgundy to tell you he mixed his jazz flute on. I’m a really visual guy, and none of those inspire me, nor did I really want to spend the rest of my career behind one.
Instead we found a great blend between Francois’s sense of modern design and my own fascination with the landscape, architecture and design of Iceland. It’s going to look really different, yet it has the ergonomics of my favorite consoles all bundled together with space for over twenty-four channels, eventually. I couldn’t be happier, and Francois is a bad-ass designer. There’ll be racks and diffusors to match, I’m sure.
Sounds amaaaazing. Switching gears, let’s talk about the NYC recording scene. How would you describe what’s happening here?
There is an incredible energy around making records in NYC right now. Specifically in Brooklyn, there’s an incredibly good, positive foundation of recording happening.
Five years ago we were in distress a little bit, we were watching the big studios close. Now Avatar is still there, Sear Sound is still there – Walter RIP – they’re booked solid. Magic Shop is still there. These amazing rooms that really held close to their missions are still operating and they’re there for us to go in and use as needed. The new era is here, and we’re all relaxing into it.
The market crash happened in 2008, which was a grim year for everyone, but we got used to it. Now it’s a community of people making records. I see NYC as a place that adapted swiftly to a new model, and everyone’s got a room with an increasing amount of gear in it. Between the bigger studio and your own space, records are being made wonderfully that way. There are fewer places to get an orchestra recorded, but a hell of a lot of places for an acoustic guitar overdub!
The big loss is community. That’s not an original thought, but I do miss the community of being with a lot of people doing what you do. Writing for Tape Op helps, being on Facebook helps – when you have status updates, you feel like you’re in a conversation. I find I have to make an effort to find people who do what I do. It’s an effort, but it’s worth it.
So there’s a lot of obstacles to overcome, but musically I think NYC is bringing together the sophistication of indie, jazz and “new” classical music with the street levelness of the rock scene – now it’s almost the norm to have a string quartet on your record. I like seeing those worlds coming together. Maybe because no one can make a living at it anymore, we’ll all play on each other’s records! That cross-pollination is really exciting: Grizzly Bear and Arcade Fire used a lot of NYC string players on their last records, and you can feel a new kind of sound emerging nationally that has a particular stamp on it that, to my ears, says “Brooklyn.”
You’re from Buffalo originally, right? How did you work your way up as an engineer in the NYC studio scene?
I’m very much a self-taught guy. I had a bit of experience working at Trackmasters in Buffalo, now called Inner Machine and owned by the Goo Goo Dolls. It’s an amazing room, designed by John Storyk, and the Goo Goo Dolls are currently packing it with amazing gear. That studio is absolutely iconic in Buffalo’s music scene, and my first time in there I was playing keyboards in my highschool jazz band. We were badass that year, and then all the great players went off to college. It’s funny, I heard that recording recently and thought, “whoh, that’s amazing.”
Anyways, that first experience in a real studio had me hooked, and I soon after got a four-track and had at it. But where I really learned was in the DIY hardcore scene of the late ‘80’s. I did a record at Trackmasters in 1989 with my band RedDog7, then helped some friends make records there. I was kind of producing, but I had no idea that’s what I was doing. We made some seriously good sounding records, actually, and I was obsessed with getting good sounds – I knew guitars, amps, drums, cymbals, strings and even obsessed over sticks and picks. My head was way up in it from an early age, and I was thinking from the player to the instrument to the mic, which I now know is the right way to think.
Then we had a band house for a while, and and then this whole basement situation with the Mackie board and DAT machines. We made deals and acquired gear, recording, doing live sound and playing gigs, and then running this little DIY studio. That’s where I really cut my teeth as a recording guy, struggling to get a decent sound outside of Trackmasters. Over time in Buffalo I had the chance to become a bigger fish in a small pond, which is a nurturing environment, but that pond got too small. It was time to move on, so I came to NYC.
What’s your take on producing? You seem to have a studied approach to that role.
My philosophy of producing is that I try not to carry around any pre-ordained philosophy, but instead to generate a philosophy for the project in collaboration with the artist. I call that “guiding principles” – a very intentional guiding philosophy I try to lock in on and externalize for the project, in case we get lost.
For example, I’m doing a children’s record with the Brooklyn-based artist Shelley Kay, and we have two guiding principles. One is, “Not Romper Room”, and the other is “Playful Minimalism.” Not-Romper-Room is easy – that means that whenever we’re getting into the mamby-pamby kindergarten shit, hit the red STOP button. And “Playful Minimalism” means that when we’re confronted with a decision we ask: Is it playful? It is minimalist? Those two words show us the choice to make. Between two drum patterns for example, if one is more minimalist, that’s typically the one to go with, and the result comes back closer to our original artistic intentions to keep the production clean.
Another artist that I’m working with, the guiding principle is “Sincere Otherworldliness.” I’m putting him through the paces as a songwriter. He’s been struggling to get his sincerity out, and the otherworldliness is an outwardly-stated goal of his to create a sonic world that’s very different from reality, another world one can enter into. To bring those two together is difficult – if you’re too sincere, you can’t get it spacey and amazing, but if you’re too otherworldly, you can miss being right there with the listener, making it sincere. These principles are meant to be challenging.
In production it’s very hard to stop saying, “I like that, I don’t like that.” If that’s going on in the conversation, you’ll never get to the heart of the matter. If you get past “I like that, I don’t like that” and closer to stating what you want to achieve, something like a guiding principle starts to open up, and you have much more productive conversations about what’s happening.
In my work, that’s the best thing I can give to their project: an open, comfortable dialogue about things, but with structure instead of just being completely wide open. One of the functions of the producer is to help the artist specify what they’re doing, and not be all over the place. Not everyone is making their fifth record and bringing all that experience to the table. A lot of people are making their first or second, and I have to be intentional about my role, because if I don’t we get sloppy.
How did you get to be like that as a producer? It sounds like you’ve evolved in that role, just as an artist does with their music.
It’s not a new idea to find artistic growth as a producer, I don’t think. I have to attribute my own growth partly to Bob Power, one of my mentors. He always says it’s about getting to a place where you’re letting the music make decisions, and I know exactly what he means. That idea inspired me to ask, “Well, how do you get to that place?” Like most great ideas, it’s not complex, but it can be a real bugger to achieve. There are so many things that can get in the way, like ego, fear, imagined or real audiences, commercial pressure, well disguised self-sabotage tendencies – basically anything external to the actual crafts of writing, performing and recording music. For me, to get to that place where the music is speaking clearly requires a pretty intentional approach to how I talk about the work being done, and that’s where the guiding principles idea kind of came from.
More and more of us producers are doing the A&R job of developing artists and their material. If we don’t have record labels, who will do all the development work? It turns out to be the record producer in a lot of cases. It’s a big part of the job. So if I can obsess about a compressor as an engineer, I hope I can also obsess about the dialogue that’s going to shape decisions about the album as a producer. That’s been a big area of growth for me, to enter into dialogue about the work with more and more clarity. It’s really fucking hard work, but when it pays off it’s amazing. I even read books about collaborating, about creativity – whatever I can get my hands on that I think might help. Right now it’s where I’m focusing my professional growth.
That sounds like amazing guidance to be able to provide throughout the process…
Yes, although I should also state that all of that development of the guiding principles, and doing the artist and material development, happens long before we hit record. It’s like pre-pre-production. It goes on long before I’m getting things ready for the actual recording date. It’s more of trying to figure out what the vision of the artist is, and helping them shape it. I’ll say it again, it’s not easy. It’s not the easy path of just saying “I like this, I don’t like that.”
The other thing is the kind of music I’m working on can call for this kind of approach. I’ve more recently committed as a mixer/engineer/producer to this specific vibe within modern rock music that I call post-Pink Floyd. Don’t take that term too literally, but one day someone asked that inevitable question “what kind of music do you work on” and I just said it – “post-Pink Floyd.” What I meant by it is this thread of really innovative, beautiful, spacious, compassionate music.
Pink Floyd had incredible empathy, beautiful spaces, beautiful sounds, and brought in influences of jazz and classical without doing them overly in the music. The ideas they brought in were so involved in empathy – it wasn’t, “Let’s go shake our butts and hump each other and party all night long.” Instead, they were dealing more directly with the human condition, and I just wind up working with a lot of artists who seem to have somewhat similar goals lyrically and thematically. So it’s not really about Pink Floyd in particular, but if I had to point to a moment in rock history where this compassionate, open, spacious music began, I’d say “Dark Side of the Moon.”
Cinematic Orchestra exemplifies it. Radiohead and Sigur Ros exemplify it. Elbow’s got it. Peter Gabriel’s work with Lanois has it. In fact, Lanois seems to get it out of people in general – he got it out of Dylan, perhaps for the first time. I work with a lot of artist who seem to want to work towards the aesthetic that are embodied by those examples, even if those records aren’t particular influences. Cinematic Orchestra is an honor to work with, because I feel that they’re harmonically, musically, thematically within that realm. I think they’re masters of space and compassion, and I think the record they’re making is going to blow people away. But that post-Pink Floyd thing comes in a lot of flavors. In American bands I’d include The National, Grizzly Bear, Fleet Foxes, Wilco does it do a degree, and especially Band of Horses. The Loom, whose record I produced, fits under that umbrella for me, even thought they sound nothing like these other bands, really. Again, it’s not really a particular sound, but a set of harmonic and thematic threads that run through the music.
It’s a hard and awful thing to have to put into the limitations of language something you feel and know so intuitively, but I guess that’s the exact challenge I’m putting on the artists I work with when trying to get positive dialogue happening about projects. In a way, post-Pink Floyd is my own kind of guiding priciple as I try to intentionally steer my career in a specific direction. I should probably work harder on clarifying that!
That sounds like an expansive genre to hang your hat on – what else is on the Post-Pink Floyd horizon for you?
I’m currently producing two records that are definitely going to carry some of that vibe. One is with Austin Donohue, who is writing some amazingly beautiful stuff, really finding his themes. He’s the Sincere Otherworldliness guy. The other is with Diana Hickman, who I think is writing some of the most innovative material I’ve heard in a while – like Joni Mitchell and Bjork go SCUBA diving together and surface with a record. Both of them are working their asses off, doing a ton of development work with me. Those will get done this winter.
I’ve also become inspired by Iceland as a place for music and making records. It’s a very sparsely populated, lovely place that just doesn’t go to war or pollute very much, and their landscape and relative remoteness lends itself to music that is really quite unique. When people settled Iceland, they didn’t colonize anybody, and it just doesn’t have this scarred past which so many other places rife with conflict have. It’s quieter. You can feel that lack of conflict and that quiet, and a sense of expansiveness in much of the music there, even when it’s erupting like a volcano.
At least that’s what my tired NYC ears hear. I just went back there in October to the Airwaves Music Festival in Reykjavik and saw amazing bands every night. I’m talking to one in particular about working together, and I really hope it starts to happen for me over there. I’m very interested in putting my foot on that other piece of land.
– Interview by Janice Brown and David Weiss
OSSINING, NY: It was a beautiful day for a drive up to Bi-Coastal Music in Ossining to check out the new Audio-Technica (AT) AT4080 and AT4081 ribbon mics. We wanted to do a ribbon mic shoot-out and Bi-Coastal had a very nice array of ribbon mics for us to compare.
Both Tarik Solangi of Prime Time Sound (Mt. Vernon, NY) and musician/producer Ray DeTone were looking to add a ribbon mic to their locker, so they came by for a listen. Frank Portalatin and Doug Brown were there from Audio-Technica.
Audio-Technica has taken out 19 patents on this new ribbon technology. These mics are phantom powered, bi-directional and can withstand up to 150spl. When you look inside, the ribbon element is in a very sturdy housing and AT says you can store the mics horizontally (something that would ruin other ribbon elements). The outer housing of the 4080 is comparable in size to any medium size condenser mic while the 4081 is in a pencil style housing, excellent for tight miking applications.
Truth, be told I had already had a private screening at Quad NYC with Frank Portalatin and J-Styles of Blackstreet. (Frank wears a lot of hats: producer, writer, guitarist, etc.) I used the AT4080 on Styles’ vocal with an Avalon 737 channel strip. The sound was very surprising; it was clear and yet extremely present without having to use much compression at all. It did need a little nudge at 10K as the mic drops off around 8K.
I used the 4081 on Frank’s guitar in the control room. The first thing I noticed was that the 4081 is very sensitive and being figure-eight in its pattern, picked up a good deal of the room. As he was facing a small alcove, away from the control room speakers there was a good deal of low-end build up. I had him face back towards the speakers to avoid the low frequency build up in that alcove of the room.
The 4081 sounded brighter than the 4080 because it doesn’t roll off until about 10K. It lacks the low bump and has a flatter response than the 4080 too. If I wanted a leaner, more modern sound on the source I would tend to choose this mic. If I wanted to warm something up and perhaps soften its brightness, then I would use the 4080.
At Bi-Coastal Music, we set up a Fender Deluxe with the two AT mics as well as a beyerdynamic M160, beyerdynamic M260, a Royer R-121, and a Coles 4038. Frank riffed on a Fender Stratocaster. The mics all went to Millennia mic pres.
The 4080 sounded fuller but less bright than the beyer M 160. It was closer to the 260 but showed more presence and felt more “up front.” The 121 was a little flatter in the lows around 200 than the 4080 with a similar top end.
The 4038 sounded somewhat more organic but less modern than the 4080. Though if you wanted a vintage sound, then the 4038 was your mic.
Again the 4081 had a flatter response in the lows and sounded a little smoother up to 10K. Very similar, I felt, to the 260.
Listen to the results:
beyer M 160:
beyer M 260:
With these new Audio-Technica ribbon mics, I would certainly use them to close mic amps or horns (if I wanted closed miked horns) and even try them on drums. Perhaps out in front of the kick even, where I usually would use a condenser.
At the end of the day, these mics stood solidly against the mics we compared them to and everyone felt they would make a fine addition to anyone’s mic locker. They are available through Dale Pro Audio.
I would like to thank Jason at Quad NYC and Hal at Bi-Coastal for their gracious hospitality. — Rick Slater
Rick Slater is a NYC-based producer/engineer who’s recorded and/or mixed with Chuck D, Robben Ford and James Chance, and worked in NYC studios such as Mediasound, Quad and Sony. Check him out at www.slatermix.com.