Archive for August, 2012

Words of Wisdom from Dave Hampton

What do Prince, Lady Gaga, Herbie Hancock, Justin Timberlake, and Babyface have in common (besides Grammy awards, of course)? Each of them has leaned on the expertise of tech-guru Dave Hampton. Known for the broad range of skills he brings to the table, Hampton has helped these and numerous other high-profile clients with services ranging from engineering and production to studio design and live-rig support (including real-time 5.1 surround-sound engineering for Herbie Hancock’s Future2Future tour).

Hampton honed his production chops in the ‘80s LA music scene, while spending his formative electrical engineering years at Oberheim Electronics. Eventually, his breadth of knowledge about audio helped him become an in-demand studio designer, whose work spans large-scale facilities (Babyface, Marcus Miller, and Creflo Dollar Ministries) to highly personalized recording spaces (Herbie Hancock, Rafael Saadiq, Maxwell, Marcus Miller, and Organized Noyze). Hampton was even tapped to complete the restoration of Prince’s Paisley Park Studios in Minneapolis. In addition, he has served as Technical Director at both Paisley Park and Hancock Music in Los Angeles.

Hampton is equally adept at designing touring rigs, including systems for Whitney Houston, Chicago, and Maxwell. His client list also includes Eddie Murphy, Teddy Riley, RZA, Bill Withers, Sinbad and M.I.A. He regularly does lectures and workshops on production and recording, and his book The Business of Audio Engineering (Hal Leonard) has become a standard text for programs throughout the world.

And if that wasn’t enough, Hampton has launched Reftone, a line of small monitors that are “designed to promote basic near-field monitoring principles,” he told me in a recent interview. “The goal is that the user, at any level of audio experience, can hear full-range signals clearly at low volume for placement and accuracy.“

Dave Hampton recently took time out of his busy schedule to speak with me on the phone.

What do you tell aspiring engineers about studio etiquette, when it comes time for them to deal with clients?
First, it’s a service-oriented business.

Second, it’s never about you.

Third, meet people with equal energy. Don’t be too up; don’t be too laid back and comfortable.

Also, dress for the occasion. If you’re working as an assistant, dress as an assistant. Don’t go dressed as the aspiring rock-and-roll star. We don’t need anything else. You just need you to play the role, and by playing the role it’ll put you in the right environment. And if you’re focused on being service oriented, you will focus only on the immediate needs of those people in the room. As soon as they know that they are the focus of your attention, they will respect you for being professional and then you will start to see other things happen, where they’ll start to talk to you on breaks, and so on.

When you get that first thank you from people who don’t normally give thank you’s, it’s a pretty powerful thing.

How should they conduct themselves?
Try to say as little as possible. It’s not about being passive. You have to be observant. Be smart enough to recognize how creative people get to their creativity.

And you’ve got to write things down. The biggest sign of respect that you can give is to go into a meeting with a pad and a pencil because if you’re willing to write it down, it means you’re focusing on what’s being said and you’re paying attention. So there’s a lot of those things we do overtly and covertly as signs of acknowledgement that we’re paying attention—that we are invested in the situation. And I think that’s the best thing for young, upcoming folks who realize that opportunity can look like anything today.

I’ve seen really good people have some tremendous opportunities; I’ve seen some really talented people miss opportunities because at some point in time they weren’t focused on remembering that it’s a service-oriented business—especially if you’re trying to be a recording engineer. If you’re trying to be a producer and you’re learning recording engineering, then it’s a time to be humble, because the lessons are going to come at you. And they’re just for you.

This is true in every aspect of the business, isn’t it?
It’s not just music, these days. It’s now expanded to transmedia, which is actually stronger than music. We are in the age where music is a component of content. Today you need to deal with creatives of every type. So you’ve got to have a game for all of those. As production professionals, we have to expand our conversation to deal with how content is developed today.

When you don’t know the answer to something in these situations, how do you deal with that?

For example, if somebody at the level of Herbie Hancock asks you to do something, you say that you don’t know! I have a very funny story about a lesson I learned from Herbie. When I first came to work with him, Mix magazine had done an article on a studio I had done, I think for Babyface. Herbie had read it, so he hired me to come in and do some changes to the studio, and I came and made the changes. Over the course of doing that, he found out that I had a history of working for Oberheim and that I knew about working with analog synthesizers. So, consequently, it led to the next 12 years of my life handling all the technical responsibilities for Herbie Hancock.

So at some point we were doing the electric band and preparing to go out on the road. And as we’re going into rehearsal, I said “Okay Herbie, I’ve got it worked out.” We were working with new software and a bunch of other stuff and I told him “Here’s the plan. We’ll work on this, and if this gives us any problems, we’re going to go over here, and this unit is already running. And we’re going to work on this one, and we’ll just switch over.”

And he looked at me and said “Dave, let’s just plan on it working. Never mind a back-up plan.” [laughs.] “Plan on the main thing working.”

He knew I was very strategic that way. I always wanted a back-up solution in place because he liked to perform on a wire; he liked to try something new when it was, like, prototype phase and could possibly start smoking as you played it. And I didn’t really like that because as a technical person you want to see machines work smoothly.

So I learned a valuable lesson. From that day forward, I never, ever did the back-up-plan thing again. I put all my energy and all my focus into making it work, into the intention. And he was trying to speak to intent—that’s what he was trying to tell me with his comment: Why don’t you intend on things working. Don’t intend on things breaking. If it breaks, we’ll deal with that as it comes. Don’t work with the intention of an accident.

That’s an interesting concept.
It was very profound for me because as a technical person, I felt proud that I had a back-up plan. But after I thought about [Hancock’s comments], I said “Wow, I’ve wasted a lot of time over the years with this back-up-plan scenario. [laughs.] So it was a real good moment for me., I learned a lot.

Intention—you’ve got to put your all into it and intend on things working exactly how you wanted.

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Craig Sharmat

Staking a claim in one quadrant would be enough for most musicians, but Craig Sharmat has managed to achieve success both as an artist and as a composer of commercial production music. A gifted guitarist, Sharmat’s latest single, “A Day In Paris,” is currently nestled in the Top Ten of Billboard’s contemporary jazz chart. His work in a variety of styles (head on up to scoredog.tv and have a listen) is featured on “The Real Housewives of New Jersey,” “America’s Most Wanted,” and many other television shows, and the tracks he contributes to music libraries can be heard throughout the world. Sharmat is also one of a handful of composers who helped take orchestral emulations to a high plane. We spoke earlier this week.

Gary Eskow: Given the width of the styles you write in, do you ever feel like bursting at the seams?

Craig Sharmat: Actually, I often find it a relief. If I’ve been writing jazz all week I often can’t wait to get back into writing for some of my crime shows or what ever else might be requested.

Growing up, who were your major influences? I hear echoes of Jon McLaughlin.

CS: I love McLaughlin but never felt I had the facility to play like he does, so I went after players who seemed more accessible. I don’t believe there’s a “best” of anything; motivation comes from many great players. I found those who fit where I thought I could go-George Benson, Larry Carlton, Robben Ford and Pat Metheny, to name a few.

GE: Is there a common thread to the music you write? If so, how would you describe your musical personality?

CS: There may be a common thread, but if it’s there it’s based on the habit of what I hear; it’s not like I’m trying to achieve that goal. In fact, it’s almost the opposite; if I said something before I try to not to say it again.

GE: Do you continue to study? If so, what music are you studying at this time?

CS: I always try to improve. I listen to many scores, other composers, and study scores where available. I also teach Spud Murphy’s EIS method which keeps me constantly thinking about theory and possibilities I may have left dormant.

GE: Any new toys in your studio in the last several years? What software do you rely on? Please give a brief description of your project studio.

CS: I recently bought a harp guitar which is way cool and the new Fractal Axe-fx guitar processor (I had the last version too). I’m running Logic as I have for many years now. I have four computers-a 12 core Mac Pro is my main machine. I have two pc’s, which I turn on when I need extra sounds and don’t want to push the Mac too hard. I also have a Mac Book Pro; I use it when I hit the road and want to take a setup with me.

GE: Do you often work in other studios?

CS: Not often. I do work at Ocean Way in Nashville when recording real orchestra for Warner Chapel. Most musicians I know have their own studios, so if I need a player I usually just send files and we converse from there.

GE: Do you have a “stable” of musicians and singers you work with?

CS: I do, though not many singers as my work does not call for that very often.

GE: How would you describe the current state of the music industry, both on the record side and with respect to commercial music production?

CS: I work in my own bubble so I can only speak of the areas I’m involved in. Other jazz artists tell me that their living has taken a serious hit in recent yers. That may be, at least in part, because many radio stations have pulled away from the smooth and traditional jazz formats. I hear complaints on the music production side also, but I have many friends who are doing well. I personally have no complaints. It seems that there are more jobs available than ever before, but fewer high end ones. Cable TV has cut into the bigger TV budgets simply because people don’t watch the prime networks as much as they used to. Cable has created a huge industry for other music. If you ask me my opinion-and it seems you have!-more people are able to make a living, which to me is better than having just a few who receive more.

GE: Have you checked out services like Topspin and Nimbit? Do you plan on selling your material directly, or do you have a label?

CS: I am signed to a small independent label, Innervision Records.

GE: Tell us a bit about “A Day In Paris.” When did you write it? Where did you record it? Who are the players?

CS: I had been producing “Gypsy Jazz” tracks for a library, and for myself, for years. One day I thought, “Why not record a hybrid smooth jazz track for commercial release?” I had not heard a track which really captured the gypsy jazz thing and incorporated an R-B feel. I wrote the song early in 2012 and hired Rayford Griffin to play drums, Benedikt Brydern (currently touring with Yanni) on violin and Peter White, the smooth jazz guitarist icon to play accordion. He did a great job.

As of today, “A Day In Paris” has landed in the top 10 of Billboard’s contemporary jazz chart. I might as well promote my upcoming album “Bleu Horizons,” which the single “A Day in Paris” will be on. I’m hoping to release this album later this year, but it may be delayed because of the holidays to early 2013.

GE: Anything else we should know about Craig Sharmat?!

CS: That’s more than I usually say so I guess not! I’m glad I chose music as my profession. If one is dedicated you can make a career in the business, and I can’t imagine a better way to make a living.

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Being Green: Recycling Audio Gear

What to do with an aging, digitally-controlled analog console?

That was the question posed to the recording department at the Minneapolis Media Institute (MMI), former home of FLYTE TYME studios, where Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis made their home for nearly 20 years. The console in question – a Harrison Series-10 – had not aged well. We all know what time does to electronics, especially in a facility that was on 24/7. In addition, an interim studio owner let the humidification system go dry, resulting in the perfect environment for static electricity over several dry Minnesota winters. No amount of Static Guard could tame the beast and by the time MMI took over, the damage had been done. Countless static charged fingers gradually weakened the sensitive CMOS electronics inside until the console was a shadow of its former self.

Earlier this year, I stepped in to removed power from the I/O modules and master section so that only the mic preamps were functional. Channel-to-channel preamp consistency improved after a capacitor upgrade. While not know for a classic vintage tone, these preamps are neutral, clean, quiet and plentiful – 40 channels in all! Come September, the console will be replaced with a control surface and the preamps racked into groups of eight channels and rack mounted.

DIY CARD CAGE

A quick web search for ‘card cages’ yielded a company called UNITRACK. I purchased one of their Versacage models to protytpe the project and in about six hours had the unit assembled with modules. While there are still some tweaks to be made, but at least I know the mechanical side of the project is covered so we can order 4 more cages.

Harrison Aux modules doing their mechanical duty for the prototype.

The Harrison preamp module height, including top and bottom rails, is 3.5 inches – exactly 3 rack units (3U)! The mother board height, however, is not the same. When mounted to the rails the height is 4.5-inches – more than 3U but less than 4U. We’ll probably use the extra front panel space for labeling.

Once in the warehouse, the console will be disassembled. I am hoping to make use of the Light Meters and the Faders. Hopefully there are users who have need for the modules.

I got the idea from using a similar product years ago for custom patch bays with multi-pin connectors. It would be fairly easy to build a card cage for 500 series modules, for example, using the Versacage or similar Unitrack product.

Middle Atlantic Products also makes customizable rack hardware that is especially useful for mounting connectors, adding ventilation screens and fans.

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A First Look At Nimbit

Not saying I’m hip, but of course I’ve been following the new pathways to fame and fortune that have opened up since the decline of the old model; bands can’t expect a label to fork over 40k, so they have to track on the cheap and immediately move into self-promotional mode. It’s just that I didn’t think I’d be traveling down this road myself.

For the last several years I’ve recorded a couple of projects (on average) per year, which I’d float up to my web designer’s FTP site, along with copy. He’d embed this material into my site. Unfortunately, great guy though he is, Paul’s gotten behind on things, and that got me looking around for alternatives.

A couple of weeks ago I received a press release from Steve Oppenheimer… come on, you remember Steve O, right? Steve’s now working for PreSonus, and the release he sent indicated that PreSonus acquired Nimbit for an undisclosed sum in July of this year. The idea is simple: give Studio One users the ability to take a project directly from DAW to download using the promotional tools that are part of the Nimbit package. I thought I’d take this concept out for a test drive, and for the last 24 hours I’ve been trying to get myself up to speed.

For starters, let’s acknowledge that Nimbit is not alone in this area of the industry. CD Baby has been around for some time, and Topspin started out as a distribution platform for major labels and has a client list that includes some pretty impressive names, to name a pair. My limited experience does not allow me to evaluate Nimbit against any other product. That having been said, I’m jazzed by what Nimbit has to offer, though the high marks aren’t without a caveat or two.

Nimbit comes in two flavors: free and unfree. The latter gives you some extra options, but most users will start out taking something for nothing and slide over to the paid account as their user base (and income) grows. Getting started is easy. You upload a picture of yourself, or your band, write a descriptive paragraph, and begin to add tracks and albums. Boom, you’re in business!

Note that you are required to upload wav files-mp3’s are not accepted. Why? It appears that there was some internal debate over this issue. At the end of the day the position that some artists only have mp3’s, which therefore require two additional conversions (mp3 to wav back to mp3 by the folks at Nimbit) was deemed weaker than the alternate line of reasoning: Nimbit wants to insure a high level of quality on the mp3’s posted on their site, and therefore needs to take care of all the encoding themselves. You may grumble if you don’t have wav files of all your material, or if you own the Sonnox Fraunhofer ProCodec, which lets you tailor the reduced file format to suit the specific track you’re working with, but if you want to work with Nimbit you’ll have to play by their rules. Parenthetically, Nimbit says that they’re acquiring wav files with the future in mind: one day they hope to offer downloads of a higher quality that will command greater fees for their users.

A second area of concern for me (which, I’m told, is being addressed at the present time through the development of a series of tutorial videos) is the relative paucity of information explaining how Nimbit can best be integrated into Facebook and other social media platforms. Sites like this one should, ultimately, liberate artists from the need to pay web designers and wonk heads to build platforms; they should come in packages so easy to assemble that “a 10 year old can be up and running in no time!” I expect that Nimbit will soon have a series of online tutorials that will walk the user through these processes.

I haven’t gotten deeply into the customization aspect yet, but I did note that it’s not easy to format copy in any of the entry fields; I’d like to be able to personalize this area. Carl Jacobson, the extremely knowledgable Nimbit exec who answered a number of questions for me, pointed out that those who understand html encoding can in fact add underlining, italics, and other text formatting to the copy. I do get the impression that Nimbit is in a fluid developmental stage, looking to improve the product, so if you’re a user, don’t hesitate to give them feed back… I did!

These concerns aside, the artist page that Nimbit offers is beautiful and highly professional in appearance. You can charge whatever you want for your work- or give it away- and Nimbit makes it easy to track your sales and monitor your growing fan base. The company makes money in several ways; Nimbit takes 15% of the cash you take in from sales, they offer the paid version of their service, and they also have a retail business that includes CD creation.

Would love to hear from any of you who are using Nimbit or another product of this kind.

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Marvin Hamlisch

Marvin Hamlisch and Mick Jagger were contemporaries, though it’s hard to believe anyone has ever mentioned them in the same breath. A supreme example of the artist who reaches Olympian heights by pressing writing and performance skills into a unique mold, Jagger’s larger than life image contrasts directly with the effect that the mild mannered Hamlisch, who was 68 at the time of his death, inspired. How will the world judge his musical legacy?

A bespectacled youth, Hamlisch was a gifted young pianist who first attended the youth division of Juilliard at the age of seven. While practicing the masters he was also dialing in pop radio stations. By the age of 21 Hamlisch had already written a song, “Sunshine, Lollipops and Rainbows,” (lyrics by Howard Liebling) that the out of tune young crooner Lesley Gore turned into a hit, thanks in large part to the production values imparted by Quincey Jones. Several years later Hamlisch scored his first film, “The Swimmer.” For the rest of his life Hamlisch’s career was a mixture of film and Broadway work, with dollops of performing and conducting dates thrown in for good measure.

Raised in an era of rebellion and rejection, Marvin Hamlisch developed a style based on older models; Harry Warren, the first composer to move fluidly between Broadway and film, comes to mind. His film scores lack a distinctive voice, but this work, which reveals jazz, pop, and classical influences, is inventive and technically sound. The songs that emerged from some of these films- “Nobody Does It Better,” (lyrics by Carole Bayer Sager), “Through The Eyes Of Love” (lyrics by Melissa Manchester)- are among Hamlisch’s stand out compositions, and they reveal (particularly “Nobody Does It Better”) an individual way of incorporating blues phrasing into pop melodies. The most famous song to have emerged from a film he scored is, arguably, “The Way We Were,” (lyrics by Alan and Marilyn Bergman). Straightforward and poignant, this melody, beautiful, confident and secure, became a huge hit when Barbara Streisand, the star of the movie, released it in 1973.

In all likelihood, the music he wrote for the long running Broadway hit, “A Chorus Line,” will probably resonant most powerfully when future generations remember Marvin Hamlisch. The show ran for over 6,000 performances (a record until “Cats” came along), and had a number of catchy tunes, including “One,” the song that jumped out of “A Chorus Line” and into the imagination of the wider public.

If you’re looking to tip your hat and send Marvin Hamlisch off in a way that he’d appreciate, make yourself a drink, sit in a comfortable chair, and listen to “The Informant,” the piano solo from the film of the same name, which was released in 2009. Jaunty, breezy, well constructed, this solo places a fine coda to the career of Marvin Hamlisch, a gifted composer whose music brought joy to millions.

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Vocal Smoothing: Part 2

In part 1 of my vocal smoothing feature, I outlined the initial steps you can take to make a lead vocal track sound smooth, understandable and natural. Once I apply the plugins and get my hardware sounding great, I move on to automation to put the finishing touches on the track. I’m using Pro Tools but the techniques here can be used in any DAW.

For starters, I’ll write an automation pass with the vocal track’s fader at a fixed level that works as a starting point. Do this by opening the Automation Window (Command + 4 on the numeric keypad), Select VOL under Write Enable and WRITE ON STOP with the arrow pointing in both directions. Set the vocal track’s automation selector to WRITE then use the space bar to start and immediately stop the playhead. You’ve just written the volume of that fader at that level for the entire song. With this done, if you make automation moves in TOUCH, the fader will always pop back to this level when you let go – very handy.

Once I flatline the fader, I’ll manually write in dips and tucks on problem areas in the track’s Volume View. For example, I’ll listen to the track and find any problem areas (remaining sibilance, plosives) and dip those at least -3dB (sometimes more) with V cut in the Volume line. Do this with the grabber tool (Command + 4). Hover over the Volume line with the Grabber and click to create break points. I’ll break the line bit before and a bit after the area, then put another break dead center between them and drag it down paying attention to the -dB amount as I go. Depending on how much you have zoomed in on the track, you’ll get a hang of the overall size of the dip after you do a few and listen back. I’ll use this technique throughout the entire vocal writing in dips wherever sibilance, unpleasant volume shifts, or large breaths need to be reduced. This can take a while but it’s worth it.

For me, this manual approach is preferred to addressing the dips with a controller because of the delay caused by the plugins. Plugin latency is handled automatically by Delay Compensation so it’s correct to your ear, but if you make fader moves in real time, they’ll be late. For this reason I stick to manual writing with the mouse for the first pass and keep the fader moves for more global trimming.

Once all my cuts are in, I’ll make a VCA Master fader to do my final moves. You could make moves on the vocal track itself in Touch/Trim, but I’d rather leave my dips untouched for fine tuning and have the more global fader moves on another track.

To get the VCA to control the vocal fader, you’ll have to group it. Select the Vocal track, push Command + G, then name the group anything you’d like. Then go to the VCA Master fader and select that group. Now the VCA master is controlling your vocal fader and you can write automation. Write the VCA flat at unity gain (0) for the entire song as above, then put the VCA Master in TOUCH and start making your moves. Here’s where you have to be aware of the delay caused by the plugins. I’ll listen to the track and find spots that need smoothing, then I’ll make the move early to compensate. It will take a few passes to get this right but once you have a feel for it, you’ll be making moves with minimal re-dos. Once you go through the entire song, you should really start hearing the vocal sit down in the mix, sounding very smooth and natural with each word being heard. Happy Smoothing and ping me on Facebook with your own mixing tips.

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A Question For The Engineers

I’ve often wondered why the encroachment DAWs have made into territory formerly occupied by digital consoles hasn’t been met with a forceful response by console manufacturers. Not saying that it makes sense for a board to include MIDI code, but why hasn’t the old recording model- a console with multiple patch points that accept hardware signal processors- been replaced with an on board protocol similar to Audio Units or ASIO, that would let boards host plug-ins within their architecture?

Of course, I’m no expert in these matters, but it seems like the Waves SoundGrid Impact Server comes the closest to realizing this concept in live applications. I’d be quite interested to hear from engineers on this one… if you use a digital console in your studio or on the road, would it be a benefit to be able to load plug-ins from different software companies directly into your board?

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