As engineers, we are constantly tasked with making quick, important decisions in the early stages of tracking that heavily influence the final outcome.
There are many factors that are out of our control and we must work within constraints. We often cannot control the room, the players and to some extent, the instruments themselves.
Understanding our limitations (and inherent strengths) is key towards bringing recordings to the next level. Often the first avenue where we can exercise ultimate control is at the microphone.
Expensive mics are never mandatory. Many amazing records – more than you may realize – have been made with less-than-legendary microphones. The key is in choosing the right mic for the job and using it to the best of its abilities.
What You Are NOT Listening To
Frequency response is the most often discussed facet of a microphone, but will actually play less into our decision-making process than you may think. Far more important for my money is polar pattern and placement; both of which go hand in hand.
Microphones exhibit what we refer to as directionality. That is, where the microphone is most sensitive and accurate in its reproduction of sound vs. the point of maximum attenuation.
Read that last part again. It’s important to understand that a mic’s point of maximum rejection is AT LEAST as important as it’s on-axis response.
To put it bluntly, there a million ways to point a mic at a snare drum that can make the snare sound great; very few that will minimize spill from the hi-hats.
Spill can come from any direction and be caused by early reflections in the room or other point sources/instruments. It’s an idea that I come across time and time again in the search for balance, but it remains true: We do not exist in a vacuum and every choice you make will affect your overall recording.
Listening in isolation will only give you part of the story, so be sure to avoid aiming for “Solo Glory”. The goal here is to find the balance point where the blend of our desired sound melds nicely with spill. Try to aim for control rather than elimination. Ambience is not evil, but it can definitely turn around and bite you!
Off-Axis is Not the Enemy
All directional microphones pick up sound most effectively at what we refer to as 0 degrees, or on-axis. This is where the mic will exhibit the most accurate pickup, especially in regards to the treble range.
High frequencies have very little power, and are very directional in nature. In other words, they give our ears many subtle cues about distance and intimacy.
Many engineers reach for an equalizer if the sound isn’t up to par. However, equalizers are like band-aids: I will absolutely use one if I needed, but it’s much better to just avoid that need in the first place! Rotating a mic off-axis will roll off the high frequencies first. It’s like having an EQ built right in to your mic!
The default setting is to just point a mic directly at a source and be done. And often this works great, but with a little planning and thought, we can add layers and depth to our recordings. For example, when a singer wants to record background vocals or double themselves, I will often move them off-axis. This allows the lead to shine and most importantly, sounds good right out of the gate.
That Feeling of Closeness.
If you want your mix to really grab people’s attention, there can’t be fighting within the song itself. Not every instrument can be important all the time.
Great sounds are all about perspective and reference. If you want something in this song to be right up front, there needs to be a reference point of something else being far away. In other words, if everything is important, nothing is.
As we move a source closer to a mic, it will sound as though it is closer and more upfront. Use this to your advantage. Conversely, I often record rhythm and backing tracks from further away, so they don’t compete with leads. Additionally, polar patterns affect this well with cardioid appearing closer than bi-directional or omni.
A Million Ways to Try
Using just the above info, a great recording can be made under less than ideal circumstances. That’s useful since most of us don’t get to operate at world-class studios all day (YET!).
Get in there, listen, move that mic around and most importantly…have fun!
Rich Crescenti is a freelance engineer, producer, teacher, and drummer who works out of several studios in NYC, helping bands make unique recordings. Rich also hits things with sticks for the Brooklyn-based rock band Bugs in the Dark.
Don’t talk to Silas Hite about a trademark sound – he’s got several of them.
Once you get inside of the studio of this prolific LA-based composer, however, it’s easy to see how he manages these alter egos. Armed with an open mind, Hite has accrued a colorful collection of instruments and recording gear, all of which gets tapped on a regular basis to make music that ranges from mutated mosaics to raw rock and hip hop.
Word about his diverse, Emmy-nominated capabilities are getting around. His commercial scores are plentiful (Apple, DirecTV, Dodge, Kraft, Sony), have captured a Cannes Gold Lion Award, a Grand Effie Award and Adweek’s Spot of the Year. Meanwhile, video games (Skate 3, The Simpsons, Sims 2), Hollywood films (Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, Circle of 8) and indie flicks (The Record Breaker, The Invention of Dr. Nakamats) are all on le menu as well.
On the artsy side, his latest collaboration is with director Jonn Herschend, Discussion Question, which can be experienced live and in person May 14-25 at NYC’s Whitney Museum of American Art.
Hite’s starting point didn’t hurt, cutting his teeth at the trend-setting music studio Mutato Muzika, which was founded by Mark Mothersbaugh (the famed Devo dude doubles as Hite’s uncle). Combine those eccentric influences with a lifelong study of music, plus a parallel career as a visual artist, and it’s no wonder Silas’ studio is spilling over with candy for the eyes and ears.
But as versatile as Hite is, some of his toys and tools have to rise to the top. What are his current go-to choices in the studio? Read on to see what he’s using, how and why – you’re sure to get some ideas of your own.
THE SH TOP TEN
1. Earthworks Mics
I started my musical life studying drumset with a great jazz drummer named Mel Zelnick at age 11. In college, I studied drum set and percussion at The U of A in Tucson, AZ.
Suffice to say, I know what good drums and good drummers sound like. I am a fan of very natural-sounding drum recordings. If you have a good room, a well-tuned kit and a good player, you can put almost any mic in front of it! But when I have that much quality in the room, I want to capture it clearly.
So my go-to drum mics are Earthworks. I purchased them as a kit. There is a kick drum mic (SR-25) with a detachable pad, and a matched pair of TC-25s for overheads. I augment that with standard close mics, but the majority of my drum sounds are courtesy of the Earthworks.
I put the overheads about ten feet in the air about 15 feet apart and sit behind the kit to visually make adjustments. I like them basically pointing at the drummers chest. The kick mic basically points at a 45 degree angle, 3-4 inches away from the outer kick head. These mics are so good, I feel like you could point all three at the moon and it would still sound great.
You can hear them clearly at work on this recording I made with my old friend Jeff Freidl (A Perfect Circle, Puscifer, Filter, CSS, Devo) behind the kit. Talk about a great pairing of talent and gear. You can feel the wind coming off the kick drum!
2. Pelonis 4288 Active Monitors
They are a bi-amped system powered externally by four 100-watt amplifiers with 96K DSP housed in a single rackmount unit.
Jason Tarulli, a friend of mine who also happens to be a studio engineer and a live sound engineer
(The Black Keys, Cage The Elephant) suggested these boutique monitors to me. He has a pair in his control room at Studio Time Recording in Akron, Ohio. He dropped by my place one day and we went to Vintage King here in LA to compare them to other options. I thought the Pelonis’ sounded amazing and bought a pair.
I use them on everything I mix. Albums, film/tv/commercial/game scores, everything. They have great bass response, they don’t seem to “hype” any frequencies, and they sound “even” at high or low volume. I switch between the Pelonis, my Dynaudio BM6A’s and a pair of AKG K240 studio headphones when I’m mixing.
You can hear my mixes on this soundtrack I did for Stories from the Evacuation, a film with director Jonn Herschend and The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
3. Neumann U 47
A vintage classic microphone used by everyone from Dylan, Sinatra, Bono to Beck. etc… This is the real deal. Original serial number 299. I purchased it through a dealer on eBay and it had just been reconditioned by the fantastic techs at BLUE mics. Supposedly it belonged to Moby before me.
I fell in love with the U 47 sound when I was working at my uncle Mark Mothersbaugh’s studio. Mark had purchased a large cross-section of vintage mics from Daniel Lanois’ personal collection. I made sure to try them all out one by one, and my favorite was the U 47.
I use this mic on almost everything I record. It’s great for percussion, acoustic guitars, upright bass, strings and of course vocals. I get a lot of repeat business from singers who have never heard themselves through one before! It just has a beautiful, natural, and complimentary sound. You do have to be confident about what you put in front of it however, because it catches everything!
I believe in a very simple, yet high quality recording chain. I run the Neumann into a Neve 1073 DPA mic pre, into my Apogee Ensemble and then into Logic. Sometimes I will chain in my ADL 1000 tube compressor, depending on the singer.
You can hear the U 47 on this track from my solo album, The Great Giddyup, under the name The Satin Cowboy & The Seven Deadly Sins. I used it for my vocals and the background vocals. Fun fact about this track, one of the guitars I played on this track belonged to Gram Parsons and one of the backup singers is my pal Sam Nelson, Ricky Nelson’s son.
This is one of the latest plugins I’ve downloaded from iZotope. It’s inexpensive and a lot of fun. Very modern sounding and excellent for dubstep, hip-hop, pop, and EDM (see the SonicScoop review of BreakTweaker here).
I’ve been writing a lot of tracks for television in those genres lately and BreakTweaker works perfectly. I keep up with modern sounds and tools as much as possible and when I happened to watch a video of it online. I was intrigued by the sounds and the unique interface.
The way you can stretch and manipulate the audio is very intuitive and the sequencer makes a lot of sense. I find myself going back to it more and more to build drum tracks. It’s easy to get sucked in and create sounds that are too weird for TV, so I have to try not to go down the rabbit hole once I get into it. Spastic, convulsing, robot music is fun to make but usually doesn’t work well under dialogue!
Recently I used BreakTweaker for the 2014 Whitney Biennial in a collaboration with director Jonn Herschend. You can see and hear our collaboration, Discussion Questions, May 14-25 at the Whitney Museum of American Art in NYC in their theater.
5. Kore Player
This is another good plugin for hip-hop, EDM or pop drum sounds and patterns. I came across it when I purchased Komplete from Native Instruments, but unfortunately I believe it’s been discontinued.
I like that you can add more soundpacks and easily tweak the sounds. I return to it time and time again because it’s a straightforward and easy to use plugin.
I used Kore 2 to create some hip-hop tracks for Davy Franco and LA Clipper DeAndre Jordan in this comedy short for funnyordie.com, directed by Brian McGinn.
6. Pump Organ
This is a Cornish pump organ from the 1880′s. No electricity is used in this instrument. Instead, you have to keep pumping with your feet to make the sound. Hence the name.
I bought this for $100 on Craigslist, quite randomly. I went to pick it up from the seller and found myself in an empty house (except for the organ) the night before the keys had to be turned over for to the new owners of the house. I asked the man selling the organ the story behind the organ, and he told me the house used to belong to his relative, a man with autism, whose sole fixation was organs. He told me that in addition to the pump organ, there had also been a Hammond B-3 with Leslie speakers, and a cathedral pipe organ that had somehow been assembled and then reassembled inside the small one-story home.
You can change the tone by using the stops and control the volume by pumping your feat faster or slower. The instrument itself creaks and groans quite a bit and the pumping sound is very audible. But that is precisely the charm.
I love this instrument because there are a lot of sounds waiting to be released, but you really have to put your own physical energy into it to bring it to life. I typically use the pump organ for a pad-like effect, but you can hear it most clearly creaking and groaning in this film cue.
7. Petosa Accordion
I was drawn to the accordion because I had a conversation with a musical partner about trying to make an album of “sexy” music. We asked ourselves what styles of music we considered sexy. Tango music was at the top of the list. So naturally I started taking accordion lessons.
My accordion is a very nice model I bought from my teacher Dave Caballero who runs an accordion shop in Atwater Village, CA. I took lessons from him for a few years and I must say, the accordion is the most difficult instrument I have ever studied! Besides playing a melody with your right hand, you are changing chords and playing rhythm using 120 different tiny buttons – that you can’t see – with your left hand at the same time.
You also have to squeeze and pull this heavy beast to keep sound coming out. There are also buttons in three different spots to change the tone of the keyboard and also of the bass/chord buttons, independent from each other. It is really an amazing invention and the musical possibilities are endless.
I come back to the accordion again and again because of its beautiful tone and versatility. You can create haunting, beautiful, even sexy music with an instrument that is often relegated to the realm of Polka in the minds of most people.
8. 1960′s Slingerland Drum Kit
One day on my lunch break from Mutato Muzika, the music house I used to work for, I wandered into a Sam Ash. I saw a used 1960′s Slingerland kit set-up and was drawn to it. I sat down and from the first pump of that kick pedal I was in love. It was one of the best kick sounds I had ever heard. It was only $300 bucks too, which I felt was a steal.
I’ve used this kit on many recordings. It is great for pop, jazz, country, and many other styles except for perhaps heavy rock. Some kits sound better when you hit them really hard. This is not one of those kits. It is meant to be played, not beaten. I’ve got an 80′s Pearl Export kit that takes the beatings when I need to deliver them!
I paired the kit with vintage Zildjian cymbals and hi-hats for a cover of the Tom Waits song, “Bad As Me” performed by my wife and I as our band, Hellbeast of The Night. We are both singing and she is on bass. I am playing the other instruments except for the horns, which were covered by friends and recorded at Studio Time Recording in Akron.
9. Percussion Collection
I collect percussion instruments from all over the world. I have a huge collection and whenever I travel I am always on the lookout for more unique additions. I search thrift stores, flea markets, bazaars and pawn shops. Art museum gift shops tend to be a good source.
I’ve got a wide selection of seed pod shakers, guiros, hand drums, rachets, finger cymbals, woodblocks, cowbells, shakers, bamboo sticks, tambourines, etc… I even have a selection of triangles I made myself by pulling rebar (used for construction) out of the mud, grinding and cutting it and bending it into a triangle shape. They sound great because they have ridges and you can play them like a triangle and a guiro at the same time.
I studied percussion in college and it has become a cornerstone for a lot of my scores. Back then my backup plan (if you can call it that) if I didn’t succeed as a composer was to audition for Stomp (a touring percussion ensemble). I’ve got particular fondness for Afro-Cuban and Brazilian rhythms. Percussion is a big part of my musical foundation and something I go back to time and time again. Sometimes the score will be nothing but percussion.
Here’s an example of an all-percussion (and slide whistle) piece of score. This was the end credits for The Record Breaker, a great film with a wildly energetic and wacky main character. I felt the music should reflect his personality.
10. My whistle
I received this instrument as a hereditary gift from my grandfather, Russell G. Hite.
My genes have been particularly kind to me in terms of musical gifts, but this particular talent has found its way into many, many recordings. It is a dexterous gift with a wild vibrato. I can add in a hum at the same time for a nice effect as well.
A whistle can be a tough thing to record well though and I have recorded others and myself doing it many times. The wrong mic can make a whistler sound thin. Improper mic position can lead to too much wind sound. The wrong headphones can give the whistler a headache, as the piercing tone can quickly fatigue your ears after a few takes. Then getting it to sit in the mix is another challenge!
I record a whistle by turning sideways in front of the mic. There is less wind and more tone in the recording that way. I find that my U-47 delivers a very pleasing whistle recording. As far as mixing a whistle, I find that some reverb and a short delay help quite a bit. Then I bring the fader all the way down and slowly bring it up. It is such a piercing and narrow frequency range, it really has no problem cutting right through a mix, even at low volume.
You can hear my whistle in this Martini & Rossi commercial that aired in Europe, starring George Clooney and directed by Robert Rodriguez. I also scored the spot and played the other instruments.
And five more from Silas Hite’s collection to contemplate:
We’ve said it before, we’ll say it again: New Jersey is the cradle of audio engineering.
Formerly known as Menlo Park, the New Jersey township of Edison, NJ changed its name in 1954 to honor the inventor Thomas A. Edison, who set up his groundbreaking research laboratory there in 1876. By the time of his passing 55 years later, Edison had earned a record 1,093 patents for creations including the phonograph, a stock ticker, the motion-picture camera, the incandescent lightbulb, a mechanical vote counter, the alkaline storage battery including one for an electric car, and the first commercial electric light.
Edison had maximum personal fondness for his phonograph. He was pleasantly surprised in 1877 when his very first attempt at the tin foil phono worked, a moment that led to him eventually founding one of the earliest record labels ever, with the National Phonograph Company. On Edison cylinders and discs, NPC released selections in instrumental, vocal, spoken word, spoken comedy, foreign language and ethnic, religious, opera and concert recordings.
This is where recorded music, as we now know it, comes from.
Acutely tuned to this is Stephen DeAcutis, Founder of the Edison, NJ-based recording facility Sound Spa Productions. A mixing, tracking, and production studio in operation since 1990, it counts John Mayer, Corey Glover (Living Color), Joe Lynn Turner, and even the late great Laura Brannigan as its clients.
No doubt, the Neve 5088 32 channel frame console with Martin Sound Flying Faders 2 is a draw, as are MCI and Studer tape machines, and expressive analog outboard including a Shadow Hills Mastering Compressor, Cranesong Ibis EQ, and Audio Technologies Tube Link tube compressor. Two live rooms, one sufficiently sizable for cutting drums, add appeal.
But another draw is DeAcutis, whose passion for his craft is tangible at first contact. He’s a true pro who’s proud of his room, but you can tell he’d prefer that his studio do the talking.
Facility Name: Sound Spa Productions
Location: Edison NJ — Home of The invention of recorded sound
Neighborhood Advantages: Close to malls trains and starbux/Dunkin D’s and lots of wilderness
Date of Birth: 1990
Facility Focus: Mixing, Production, Tracking
Mission Statement: To capture as honest a representation of the artists vision whether it be from a performance or mixing standpoint.
Clients/Credits: John Mayer, Corey Glover(Living Color) Laura Brannigan, Mike Ciro (Alejandro Sanz},Bobby Bandiero(Bonlovi), Joe Lynn Turner, Demi Lavato, Gad Elbaz, Glen Burtnik, Bebe Buell, Nir Z (drummer for Chris Cornell)
Key Personnel: Stephen DeAcutis — Founder; Nejat Bakin, Lenny Grasso, Steve Sadler — techs
System Highlights: Neve 5088 32 Channel frame (11 stereo) 58 channels at mixdown, and 41 of Martin Sound Flying Faders 2.
MCI 16-24 2” tape and Studer A-80 half-inch mixdown machines
36 channels I/O of Apogee/Crane Song AD-DA
Nuendo and Pro Tools
I describe the Neve as very deep and wide sonically, with a large-format console feel — very solid. It has a real high resolution feel, combined with the weight and size you need for the aggressive stuff.
It will sonically optimize any style at the highest level. You can really feel the iron that is incorporated in the design of this console.
I can accurately achieve a final mix that needs very little, if any, 2-mix processing — which is the purist way to optimize the quality of the 5088.
I recently installed the board, so the few clients that have had the pleasure of taking mixes home have been really pleased. Comments like “amazing” and “didn’t think your mixes could get any better” have been spoken.
And an extensive outboard/hardware collection (to much to list) making Sound Spa a very powerful mixing and tracking room.
I have so many wonderful boxes that it is very hard to single out any one of them, as I love them all for different reasons. Not to mention the guys making these boxes all deserve to get the props for the blood, sweat, and tears that goes into these things. All these guys are having to follow some pretty hard acts and industry standard pieces, and are doing a great job to say the least.
The Shadow Hills Mastering Compresser is a great piece for the 2 buss, as it adds width/size and a sonic character that takes an already balanced and musical mix, and adds a wonderful polish that can be a subtle boost in presence or a very noticeable VCA-style smack without losing your overall frequency intensions.
The Crane Song Ibis is a very powerful program EQ that I use daily on the 2-buss. I like it for adding urgency and presence, and a little goes a long way. Very quiet unit as well. I do not like to add noise to the program. If a processor is going to introduce any noise at all, I’d just as soon bypass it.
I have a unit called the Audio Technologies “Tube Link” which is one of the most quiet and transparent tube comps you will ever hear.
I went to AES a few years back looking for a new compressor (when I was obsessed with compression). I brought a rough mix of a rock joint I did with Corey Glover, and I stumbled upon the AL.so Dynax2. I ran the mix through this box and the urgency and aggression it added got my attention fast. Its living on the drum buss at the moment, but that could change any day.
Sony C-800 and Neuman U-47 among 2 of the many mic choices
Distinguishing Characteristics: My ability to navigate Sound Spa to accomplish every task in the process of making a great recording from the ground up to the finished master.
The live room is 10′ by 20′ with an adjacent room that is about 12’ by 20’, that I use primarily for the room mics when cutting drums.
I can track 4 and 5 piece bands comfortably and the intimacy of the room can actually be of an advantage in terms of the musicians feeling like they are in a rehearsal environment.
The room has a nice contained and open sound and when combined with the room mics, usually large diaphgragm condensers in the adjacent room, the end result is very pleasing. It’s not that far removed from the size and depth of a larger space, and when putting a couple EL-8′s on the room mics in Nuclear mode I can get airplane hangar bombastics quickly and realistically.
Also the aux outs on the Neve are gorgeous sounding and transformer-balanced, which when combined with the Crown amps make the headphone mixes a joy to listen to and track with. That is exciting.
The building is on fire, you only have time to grab ONE thing to save, what is it?
Larry my cat and my 1980 BC Rich Bich.
Rave Reviews: The sound. That clients feel very relaxed and are able to create without any pressure.
Most Memorable Session Ever: Tracking Core Glover on a song I wrote for my mom.
Session You’d Like to Forget: The session I had to cancel on 9/11/2001.
Dream Session: To record a song/album with the Beatles, tracked and mixed.
– Stephen DeAcutis, Founder, Sound Spa
CLINTON HILL, BROOKLYN: If there’s one thing New York City needs more of, it’s gardens.
Just the word itself has a therapeutic effect, invoking a harmonious convergence of beauty and order. So it’s no wonder that stepping into the Clinton Hill studio that calls itself The Garden evokes a similar feeling.
A place where new sounds and creative relationships are actively nurtured, The Garden is more than just a facility – this is a collective that aspires to combine artists and music possibilities in an inspiring way. Founded by the highly experienced drummer/engineer/studio designer Drew Vogelman, its arrival represents an exciting new audio option for composers, mixers and producers in search of a different Brooklyn vibe.
Vogelman’s colorful career in the entertainment industry has included everything from drumming for comedian/intellectual-turned-Senator Al Franken and Matthew Sweet to designing audio & VFX post facilities such as JWTwo for J.Walter Thompson and K5 Productions for BBDO. He took a decade-plus break from studio proprietorship after owning Dessau Studios, a well-equipped audio outpost in the Financial District. But after he and his family occupied a Brooklyn brownstone, the opportunity to build out the 1,400 sq. ft. space, including the namesake outdoor garden, was too tantalizing to ignore.
The result is The Garden, where an SSL AWS 900 SE+ console and an extremely expansive selection of analog outboard meld seamlessly with digital tools and humans – the more of the latter, the better. “People are stimulated by other people,” Vogelman says. “When you get into a room with other people and you start bouncing ideas off of each other, or just intuitively/ instinctively reacting, that’s when the most interesting stuff happens.
“As people get to know this space, they always react positively to it,” he continues. “It’s really comfortable, really private, and there’s good equipment. I hope that, as people get to know that this is here, they’ll feel comfortable and know that the idea is one of collaboration – social and creative.”
True to form, word is starting to get around, and the group around the garden is growing larger. The varied clientele includes Producer/Engineers Ben Kane (D’Angelo), Tony Fennell (Ultravox, Edwin Starr), and Russell Elevado (Jay-Z, The Roots, Alicia Keys); and artists including jazz/hip hop drummer Chris Daddy Dave, Chicago neo-soul artist Wendell Ray, R&B singer/songwriter Emily King, Dutch R&B artist Alain Clark, and even sound artists Kristen Oppenheim (check out her piece in the current New Museum show “Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star”) and Bruce Pearson.
Deep Design and Inventory
Situated on one of those pastoral Brooklyn blocks, The Garden is on the bleeding edge between Clinton Hill and the Brooklyn Navy Yards, a stone’s throw from Pratt Institute. While engineers and producers definitely have personal spots nearby, Vogelman’s facility occupies a zone not yet saturated with commercial studios. With the artistic beehive nearby, The Garden’s location is a double bonus.
Upon arrival, those visiting The Garden instantly enter a calming but creative headspace. Pass by the small-but-mighty drum room on the left, and you’ll find yourself in The Garden’s extremely well-equipped control/mix room.
Designed with the help of Vogelman’s friend, the legendary Al Fierstein, the spacious suite is appointed with maple parquet floors below and a birch ceiling above. A marble and walnut fireplace adds to the ambience, as does the exposed brick rear wall, and the vintage armoire which holds The Garden’s sharp mic collection.
While engineers, producers and artists may feel the vibe, what they’ll see – and then hear – is the gear. Acquired over the course of his multiple decades in audio, Vogelman currently sports seven full racks of mic pres, dynamics, EQs, effects and converters ranging from classic to cutting-edge. Far too numerous to list, highlights include rack units and 500 modules from Neve, API, Shep, EMI, GML, Langevin, Theremonic Culture, Langevin, Helios, and Burl.
Across the room, the lucky Gardener tending to all this bounty pilots the aforementioned SSL AWS900E + v4 with AFADA automation. Pro Tools 10, Logic, & Ableton are on hand, and there’s plenty more in the box, with soft synths such as NI Komplete 7, Arturia Omnisphere and Trillian, and plugins including Sound Toys, the Waves Platinum bundle, Massey, Sonnox, Melodyne, Kontact 4/5. An unusually deep sound sample library is also available, collected over the years while working with producers like Fred Mahr, Mike Thorne, Alan Friedman, Dave Sardy and others – including the Mellotron from Sear Sound, various grand pianos, even drums thru the PA at CBGBs.
All the better to listen to via a selection of monitors that includes Barefoot Sound MM35’s, Genelec 1030A’s, Yamaha NS10M’s powered by B&K 442 200w per side twin mono-block with Dynaudio M9 sub woofer, and Avantone mix cubes. Lust for tape? Studer A80 MKII, Studer A810, Studer A807, and Revox PR99HS machines are all available.
Should inspiration be sought, the instrument list will get you started. Drew’s three personal Gretsch drum kits, including one from 1959, and 12 snares are there, as are guitars and basses from Martin Acoustics, Fender, Stratocaster, Telecaster, a Gibson Les Paul Gold Top and Les Paul custom, plus Fender Twin, Blues Jr, Bassman, Marshall amps, GK amps, and a Leslie cabinet.
Vintage keys include Arp Solina Strings, Wurlitzer, and Clavinet Duo, along with more synthetic goodies such as the Korg M-1, Korg MS2000, Korg Triton, Korg Wavestation, Yamaha Piano, Sherman Filterbank 2, Dave Smith Mopho & Tetra, and the Analogue Solutions’ Station X & Y.
Cultivating a Hybrid Approach
If you don’t know whether to start with The Garden’s plethora of real-world instruments and analog gear, or go for the comprehensive collection of soft synths and plugins first, don’t worry.
“It’s not about analog versus digital, it’s about analog with digital,” Vogelman says of his studio. “I think the two of them combined are more powerful than either of them apart. The SSL AWS 900 is the perfect template: They took the sound of an SSL analog console, and then put the power of digital into it. I see the studio as the same idea.
“What you can do with sound in a computer is phenomenal,” he adds. “Some music records beautifully strictly to digital, and how you can manipulate it is just amazing. Being a drummer, I think there’s nothing like playing real drums with good mics, good pres, and capturing to a DAW – I don’t miss the hiss, that’s for sure. But what’s the most fun for me is looking at how you take all that digital capability, integrate it with the old analog, and make it so they work seamlessly.”
While artists and audio pros of all stripes can find a use for The Garden, Vogelman sees composers and mixers especially benefitting from what the studio has to offer. “Most bands won’t have a budget to record and they end up recording some in a studio and a lot on their own,” he says.
“Bringing those tracks to a place like this to mix can have a huge impact on the finished record; you can really bring those tracks to life.”
As for composers, “From a compositional standpoint, it’s like a playground between the effects and the synthesizers,” he states. “We have a lot of modules that everyone loves to play with, whether it’s the Rodec Sherman Restyler, or the Korg M-1, and all the pedals that we have. You can play with sound in a way that’s fantastic.”
Mixers working in stereo or 5.1 Surround will definitely appreciate the acoustics a la Fierstein, which created a space that is flat across the frequency spectrum. From there, Vogelman’s insistence on a seamless workflow between his analog and digital gear lets a mixer take their session any place that they can imagine.
“You have a lot of mix options with your DAW session, regardless of how many tracks,” he explains. “What I find myself doing a lot now when mixing is looking at everything in stereo pairs. For example, you can take your drums as a whole stereo group or even stereo groups within the drums, group the guitars, the piano and keys, basically grouping all of the tracks in the DAW session- and bring it out onto the SSL- and then run them through our various hardware compressors, EQs, and tubes. As you’re doing this, you start removing the plug-ins and using the hardware across the groups and the whole song starts to come alive more dynamically. Some plugs stay, like de-essers and delays- or if a really particular sound was achieved- but the hardware compressors & EQs breathe air and dynamic excitement into the tracks.
“It becomes really interesting because you’re actually working in this way where you’re balancing things compositionally as you mix. And then you have the ability to automate both in the DAW and analog on the console- but both happen right in front of you on the AWS faders at the flick of a button, which is fantastic. It turns into a performance, which is really great. A lot of times I find myself standing up – bouncing or dancing – at the console.
“Not to repeat myself, but it’s all about, ‘How do you take the digital and analog side, and make it limitless in how you can find the sound that you’re trying to achieve?’ Maybe it’s overdriving the heck out of some preamp to get distortion, or slamming it to one of the tape machines. I feel like the equipment, the technology, and even the space all speak to you in a way that says, ‘What do you want to do? How are you going to make this special? Anybody can make a record – but how are we going to make a GREAT record!’”
[Be sure to check out the Wendell Ray track "Penny for Your Thoughts" directly following the article to hear a mix executed at The Garden, along with in-depth commentary from Drew Vogelman.]
Drew Do Drums
For a relatively small studio, The Garden has a sizable specialty in its ability to record drums extremely well. Vogelman’s decades of experience as a drummer and studio designer especially come into play in the compact but comfortable drum room, which yields surprisingly spacious and full-frequency results on playback.
“Drums are really dynamic,” states Vogelman. “How do you capture the sound of the drums in a way that conveys the energy of the instrument? So I chose to build it strictly out of wood first off, and then I crafted the walls to a density that would absorb some of the impact of the lower midrange.
“What I wanted to do was basically take a small room, and turn it into a high-energy sound-box, almost like the way the body of a guitar amplifies or resonates the sound,” he adds. “I spent many hours playing around with different microphone setups, diffusion and absorption. There’s a lot of tube and ribbon microphones here and I tend to track everything through transformers. Otherwise it feels a little too edgy and bright.”
Sewing Sonic Seeds
Drew Vogelman can geek out on equipment all day with the best of them – a mindset he consciously avoids getting locked into when it comes to The Garden. Instead, he wants to make it crystal clear that if what you just read appeals to you on any level, then getting in touch and paying a visit is strongly encouraged. It’s not all about selling studio time, either – it’s about growing something new from NYC’s fertile soil, tilling it together.
“The studio is not about gear,” he stresses of his blooming collective. “The studio is about putting creative tools in the hands of creative people. I really hope that when people call here, they realize that we’re here to help. If you need time & creative tools, if you’re looking for a place where you can make something interesting & original; or you want to try and push the boundaries of what you’re doing — then you should reach out.
“I’ve made a lot of records from both sides of the glass; most I’ve never listened to again. I don’t just want an artist to make a record- everyone can make a record these days. I want them to make a compelling record that you want to listen to over and over; I want them to make the next great record. That’s what this place is here for.”
- David Weiss
Sound Cloud track: ‘Penny For Your Thoughts’
Track by: Chicago neo-soul artist Wendell Ray; produced by Tony Fennell; Mixed at The Garden by Drew Vogelman.
Drew Vogelman explains the mix techniques: “We just finished mixing this on Tuesday and it’s a great example of what The Garden is ideal for. They tracked the band live to Pro Tools last month at a private studio in Chicago with Tony producing. When he showed up at The Garden, he had this killer old-school urban soul track. We focused on keeping the band sounding authentic but also creating a modern edge to it.
“I wanted Wendell’s voice to be forward but smooth so after trying different compressors, we settled on a vintage blue stripe 1176 into an LA3A with a Pultec. The old blue stripes have a grittiness that when solo’d sounds biting, but in the track lifts the voice in a natural sounding way. Then I did the same thing I spoke of, running a lot of stereo groups out through the SSL and into the analog compressors and EQs we have, peeling back the plugs as we went. The track really came alive and opened up dynamically- then we added the modern digital touches like the Virus and stabs that only digital brings- and overdubbed the harp solo in two takes with Wendell. The 2-mix went thru the Fairchild with a touch of GML EQ – and the producer ended up liking the sound of tape – in this case, the Studer A807 at 30ips.
“Most mixers would agree that by the time you’re usually finished mixing a song, you almost never want to hear it again – but this track just keeps on giving between the subtleties of the playing & the overall sound of the mix.”
The Garden is on SonicSearch.
Special thanks to Eyal Marcovici for helping to make this article possible!
Instant classics are hard to come by. That’s what explains all the excitement around David Bowie’s new album, The Next Day.
When was the last time in music history that a record has earned so much global adulation – before it’s even been released? But the record is a thrilling listen for rock listeners the world over, because one of the craft’s most experienced practitioners has pioneered even further.
A big part of Bowie’s accomplishment was enabled by his devoted band and production/engineering team, all of whom sacredly respected a vow of secrecy about the album’s creation. Amazingly, word never leaked about its recording – a process that unfolded over two years, with three different in-studio bands.
SoHo’s Magic Shop was the proud audio HQ for The Next Day, an artful and driving record that provides the unique feeling that David Bowie alone can deliver. As Bowie’s first studio record since 2003’s Reality – and the 30th of his career – this album was going to have to be special.
No surprise then, that Magic Shop was host not just to Bowie and his world-class bands of musicians, but to the famed Tony Visconti, who’s been the producer on many of Bowie’s landmark works. The pair’s collaboration starts with 1969’s Space Oddity, and goes on to include The Man Who Sold the World (1970), David Live (1974), Diamond Dogs (1974), Young Americans (1975), Low (1977), Heroes (1977), Lodger (1979), Scary Monsters (1980), Heathen (2002), and Reality (2003), among them.
But of course, David Bowie’s right-hand man needs a right-hand man himself, and that distinction goes to the NYC-based engineer Mario J. McNulty. In addition to engineering for Visconti for the past 11 years, McNulty has built up a GRAMMY-winning career nailing down sounds for artists including Prince, Laurie Anderson, Angelique Kidjo, Lou Reed, Nine Inch Nails, Imelda May, Manic Street Preachers, Kashmir, Anti-Flag, Alejandro Escovedo, and Lucy Woodward.
McNulty earned the extreme privilege of being onsite for the recording of The Next Day at the Magic Shop. But more than just bearing witness, McNulty – along with Magic Shop engineer Brian Thorn and project manager Kabir Hermon — was a critical vessel for Bowie and Visconti’s audio vision, swiftly putting their plans into action so the masters could make music.
“It’s been a dream come true to work with David in my career,” says McNulty. “He’s my biggest influence, so being in the studio with him and Tony is fantastic every time. David is so charismatic, and also so extremely smart, that working with him is always a fulfilling situation for me.
“There’s something exciting about David’s songwriting,” McNulty continues, “whether he’s playing riffs on a keyboard or a guitar, that’s unmistakably the sound of David. It’s a little abstract, but you know it when you hear it. Every day was fantastic, and it just doesn’t get better than that, working in a studio with an artist like him. That’s what we all want to do when we’re making records, is work with somebody of that caliber.
“When you’re working with a producer like Tony Visconti who’s obviously a veteran, an icon like David, and his band is a supergroup of some of the best players in the world, your job is not to just get the right sounds to tape, but make it seamless and easy. People have to come into the studio and not worry – instead get to their station, put the headphones on, and just create in a very comfortable fashion. You also have to know how to get sounds extremely fast. That’s probably the most important part of all in making a record like this.”
Between the ultra-secret nature of the Next Day sessions, and the fact that Tony Visconti generally prefers to keep his hard-earned engineering techniques to himself, the inside audio story of David Bowie’s latest album would seem pretty hard to come by. Fortunately, McNulty was willing to provide an engineer’s perspective on how the unmistakable sounds of Bowie’s latest/greatest came together.
Read on for our Q&A with McNulty, and discover some invaluable in-studio information that you’ll only find on SonicScoop:
How would you describe David and Tony’s working relationship – what makes them a high-functioning artist/producer team, in your opinion?
David and Tony have been working together for so long and know each other so well, that the work in the studio is very natural, never forced or tense. Tony is used to what David will expect in most situations, so I think that saves an immense amount of time.
Is there a way to characterize the sound that Tony Visconti wants to achieve when he’s recording David Bowie?
That’s a hard question to answer. Usually there’s a process in which I am recording in the way Tony is happy with and gives him enough options to work with, but also not going crazy so he doesn’t have to make too many decisions when it’s time to mix.
David and Tony both want the recording to sound like a record on playback, so dynamics go to tape all the time. There are times when a special sound is called for — if so then we will talk about it and change what might be my usual approach. Mostly though, it’s about not missing anything and getting all the performances to tape.
How would you describe the working relationship you have with Tony — how do you approach getting him the sounds that he wants in the studio?
I’ll always have a conversation with Tony about the sound of the record before we start, sometimes weeks or months before. Sometimes the artist or band might call for a traditional sound, but of course there are other times when a very specific technique is needed. I’ll have game plan in advance every time.
Be prepared! Next, tell us about the Magic Shop live room – what made this a good setting acoustically to capture Bowie and his bands?
The Magic Shop live room is what I would consider a medium-sized recording room. The room is treated so the reflections aren’t too crazy, plus the tall ceilings help. There were never any strange frequency pockets in the room that I had to worry about.
For many of the songs there were five people performing live in the room at once, that also changes the sound of the room a bit. I used Magic Shop’s two isolation cabinets for guitar amps and the bass cabinet, but even with those cabinets you have to deal with the small amount of bleed.
Because of this bleed and the fact that the performances were captured live, this might be a nightmare for many bands… but this band was incredible. When a group plays together that well you can record this way.
David finished lyrics after the basic tracking was done so there were no issues with keeping the scratch vocal. There were lots of overdubs of course, but all the live takes were kept and that’s what’s on the record.
You mentioned to me that David Bowie had a “recording station” – what was it equipped with, and how was it ergonomically laid out to allow him maximum creativity?
David’s station was laid out around the Baldwin piano. I made sure there was plenty of room for him to move about and also take notes if he needed to.
In addition David had his Trinity keyboard workstation, and acoustic 6-string and 12-string, a tambourine, and a digital mixer which he had some recordings on for reference. I had an SM7 for his live vocal takes going through the Neve, and hitting an LA-2A very softly.
The band was tracked through the fabulous Neve at Magic Shop, using EQ on each channel and additional compression for some microphones…A little compression for kicks, snares, bass guitar, and electric guitar.
There were three distinct groups in the studio with David Bowie, at different times. Band One was (guitars) Gerry Leonard and David Torn, (bass) Gail Ann Dorsey, (drums) Zack Alford; Band Two was (guitar) Gerry Leonard, (bass) Tony Levin, (drums) Zach Alford; Band Three was (guitar) Earl Slick, (bass) Tony Visconti, (drums) Sterling Campbell. Was there a difference in the overall recording approach to each of these different bands?
There was actually an effort to make a similar-sounding recording for each band, and that was one of Tony’s requests. I would have our assistant Brian Thorn recall everything for every song, and Brian did so in great detail. I could always reference an EQ setting from a previous month, for example.
Can you go into detail on some of the guitar recording signal paths/techniques?
The guitar setups were different for each player.
Gerry Leonard had two cabinet dual mono setup with his vast array of pedals. Gerry normally had a rhythm guitar to one cab, and FX to the other. I used an SM57 for the main cab and a Royer 122 on the FX cab, and using the Neve as front-end with each source discreetly hitting an LA-3A, which is my all time favorite electric guitar compressor.
Gerry also had this amazing white Synthi Hi Fli [synth/multi FX processor] which sounded insane in the best way.
For David Torn, his setup is quite complex, but all of his sounds end up going to three outputs/cabs. It’s an L-C-R rig: Dry guitar in the center, and ambience going to the left and right cabs. I had a SM57 for the center and AKG 414s for the left and right, with the Neve as the front end again with no compression to tape for Torn.
Slick’s setup was the rock and roll setup, it was a real no-brainer. Slick has this awesome-sounding Orange 2×12 with an AD30 head. It’s no nonsense: Slick plugs in, and it sounds HUGE. I used two mics both going to the Neve — an SM57 on one speaker, and a M160 ribbon on the other off-axis.
Tell us about recording the bass.
The bass rigs for Gail Ann Dorsey, Tony Levin, and Tony Visconti I kept the same, except for the gain stages. A great-sounding Music Valve tube DI, and an Ampeg B15 which sounded fantastic. I used a Neumann U67 for the cab, and both went to UREI 1176 compressors.
Now let’s give the drummer some…
Again with the drums, I tried to take a similar approach for both Sterling Campbell and Zach Alford.
All microphones going through the Neve, with a three-mic setup for kick drum which is pretty normal for me… D112, U47 — a couple feet back with a pop screen, and an NS-10 sub kick. I would normally use a FET47 for the kick, but used this U47 in this instance.
Three mics for the snare: SM57 top and bottom, plus an additional AKG 451, padded, on the top. The top two had some Distressors and dbx compression going on. For some songs Tony wanted to hear an old 441 on the snare, and that was what I used for some of the tracks Sterling played on.
Toms had both top and bottom mics as well, with Sennheiser 421′s on top for the classic rock sound, and my own Sennheiser e904 on the bottom. AKG 451′s again for rides and Hi Hats. KM84s for Zach’s overheads, and 414s for Sterling’s overheads. Room mics were 414′s hitting a Chandler EMI TG1 Limiter. I also used just s very slight amount of Neve 33609 compression on the overheads.
The drums themselves were an assortment… Zach playing mostly birch Yamaha drums and Sterling playing mostly maple GMS drums. We would swap out kick drums and snares for each song, so there was a variety to choose from there. Same situation with the cymbals, lots of choices from dark to bright, but only Zildjian cymbals were used. I also brought my own cymbals — I have a huge collection — and some snares to throw into the mix in case we needed any options for a particular song.
So backing off from the tech talk, what was a “Holy Sh*t!” point in the studio that you remember as an epic engineering moment?
I do remember a great moment — there are many with David — but there was one part he played on the bridge in, I believe, “Love Is Lost” that made me shiver.
The chord progression came out of nowhere when David put it down on the Trinity, it was pure magic. It wasn’t so much an engineering moment, but a musical one. I did say ‘Holy sh*t’ to myself!
Anything else you can tell us about this latest Bowie + Visconti experience?
I can only add that this record is one for the history books, I can’t ever see an artist like David with his status pulling off a secret album like this again. It’s an amazing record, and I am so lucky and honored have been involved.
– David Weiss