Archive for December 11th, 2012

Our Studio Reflects How We Work

(This blog was originally posted February 10, 2011.)
I’m always curious to hear about a person’s studio when I meet them, and in last month’s blog, I talked a bit about the creative spaces that Alessandro Cortini and Carmen Rizzo have. Their studios are in humble settings, yet both men are doing pro-level work. After all, what it comes down to is knowing your gear to such a degree that it doesn’t matter if you’re working in a state-of-the-art studio or in the only spare room of the house.

Since participating with Cortini and Rizzo in the NAMM panel “Maximum Output from your Home Studio,” I’ve had a number of conversations with pros about the topics of personal-studio workflow and design. Common issues that come up include finding the right tool for the job, even if it means investing in a high-ticket item, and avoiding distraction. With so many inexpensive products available, it has become easy to amass a veritable warehouse of gadgetry, much of which can distract us from our work. So it’s always wonderful when I talk to artists or engineers who have refined their kit to the absolute essentials: If it doesn’t help them get the job done, they don’t keep it.

I got just such a response from Grammy winning producer/engineer Jacquire King, who uses his basement studio for mixing. We found ourselves seated next to each other at a NAMM event and spent part of the time talking about all the cool stuff we’d seen at the show. At some point I asked him about his mic collection, imagining that he’d have quite a collection of rarities by now. “I don’t have that many,” he replied. “Microphones are only useful for the first part of a project. I’d rather spend my money on something I can use for recording and mixing, such as a compressor.” Whoa. Laser focus.

For many of his projects, King brings home high-resolution digital multitrack sessions and bounces each track off of tape to give it a bit of coloration before sending it back into Pro Tools. When we spoke, he had just returned from a trip to New Zealand where he tracked Tim Finn’s new project.

With the NAMM panel discussion still fresh in my mind, I was eager to hear what studio treatments, if any, King added to his basement studio. He noted that, other than a couple of well-placed panels, there wasn’t much needed. He did mention, however, that the window behind him opens to the outside and acts as a giant bass trap. Convenient! It was, however, very important for him to find a way to isolate his work area from unwanted equipment noise, which he accomplished by placing all of the noisy bits in the storage closet next to the studio, leaving him a quiet space to work.

A week later, I had the opportunity to visit the personal studio of LA-based producer/mixer/songwriter Troy Johnson, aka RADIO, who has built a name for himself working with the likes of Will Smith, Chris Brown, the Backstreet Boys, and, most recently, Jennifer Lopez. Immersed in recording technology at an early age—his father is guitarist George Johnson of the Brothers Johnson—he honed his skills at the legendary Boom Boom Room before setting up his own workspace at home, which he not only uses for songwriting and demo recording but also for mixing (including a recent J-Lo track).

What I found fascinating is how spare Johnson’s setup is: a computer, a keyboard controller, a PreSonus FaderPort, a pair of Yamaha NS-10 monitors, and an analog summing station that includes an SSL X-Desk, an SSL X-Rack with eight EQ modules, and an SSL XLogic G Series compressor. It’s the summing gear that Johnson expertly uses to get the tough mixes he’s becoming known for. After spending a couple of years exploring all of the technological options available, he settled on this high-end solution for his personal studio because it gives him the sound he wants in a small, and surprisingly portable package.

Most importantly, Johnson’s tightly integrated studio allows him to move between songwriting, recording, and mixing quickly and efficiently. And because it’s in his home, he can work whenever inspiration strikes. Taking a cue from the NAMM panel, I decided to run a few of the same questions by him to get an insight into his workflow.

How do you keep your home and work life separate?
Keeping them separate is not too difficult: I just close the door! [Laughs] Most of the time I work late at night into the early morning because its really quiet and peaceful. I feel really good energy when I work at home during those hours, but if I’m at a real studio, I prefer to work bankers’ hours.

Do you start a new project with a session template or do you begin each new project or song from scratch?

If I’m using Logic, I start with a template of my MPC 60 swings, but that’s all. I try to keep it very simple because I believe each song has its own personality, so I try to make each one from scratch. It’s comparable to making something by hand verses making something in a factory. Each product is going to be one of a kind. I find more excitement in the moment doing things from scratch.

You don’t have much gear, but you’re getting solid sounds. Is it all about the analog processing, or are there other things you’re doing to add oomph to your tracks?
The analog processing is a big part of getting the “Big” sound, but combining it with some of the amazing plug-ins like the SPL Transient Designer, or Izotope Stutter Edit, gives me infinite possibilities.

Have you had any issues with doing mixes at home?
Yes, depending on the song. My room is not tuned. In fact it’s not a “studio” room at all. It’s more like a setup on the go. But to fix that I just use a pair of headphones that I really know or a pair of mini speakers and I usually get pretty close. But I always pay close attention to my music when I play it in different listening environments and take notes. The one advantage to working from home is that I can always change something at the last minute without a problem if I need to.

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Keep Your Date With The Muse

(This column originally appeared January 13, 2011.)

Today is the first day of the 2011 Winter NAMM show, where hundreds of my colleagues are gathering to share information about the latest products for music making. Many of us get a bit of gear lust as we walk the aisles of the Anaheim Convention Center, geeking out over the new toys and then scrambling to get the info into our newsletters, blogs, and tweets. It’s a fun show, especially when there are surprises.

At the same time, the NAMM show has this odd way of reminding me of how little time I spend with the gear I already have and, more importantly, on my own music. As a freelancer, the clock is always running as I cycle through numerous projects for waiting clients. Consequently, it’s difficult to find quality time for myself and my music. Like many of my friends in the biz, I’ve been seduced into various behind-the-scenes jobs so I could work in the music industry while continuing to do the music I love. But over the years the balance has begun to tilt to the point where work often keeps me away from my real passion for long stretches of time.

This isn’t just a problem for so-called weekend warriors. I’ve talked to numerous engineers, producers, and even recording artists who are so caught up in work that they don’t get the amount of personal creative time they need to recharge themselves.

In one of my First Take columns for EM, I approached this topic in two ways: first, from the point of view of creating a sacred space—a physical and mental zone of creativity where you can go and get started on a project immediately, avoiding the distractions of set up—and second, by making (and keeping) appointments with yourself. I’ve always loved composer Lou Harrison’s metaphor of “making a date with the muse,” and when I’ve been good about following his advice, indeed, the muse frequently showed up.

Resolution Number 9
I’m not great at keeping New Year’s resolutions, so I’ve gotten out of the habit of making them. But now that my studio is 99.9% done and I’ve finally begun moving in, I have resolved to hold firm on at least one thing this year—date night.

Parents will know what I mean: it’s the alone time that we must set aside for ourselves, away from the kids, so that we can reconnect. I realized over the holidays that, once again, I need to set aside the same kind of quality time with my creative side— away from work, family, and household obligations.

What I also learned from Harrison was the trick to keeping my dates with the muse: Schedule them. Most of us already do this with bands or other social obligations. But just like you don’t want to let your friends and family down by missing their events, you have to do the same for yourself. It could be a specific day and time of the week that you know you can set aside on a regular basis without disruption, or perhaps something that’s a bit more flexible, but that you can still rely on (such as every other Monday night).

As it turned out, the choices were made for me through the holidays. Last fall I taught two recording classes at my local city college—Monday nights and Saturday mornings/afternoons—rather than just the one I normally do. So when the semester finished, I kept those appointments and substituted my own projects for the class lectures. Voila!

So far so good.

However, the Spring semester starts shortly after NAMM, so my Saturdays will go back to school, so to speak. But I plan to swap it with Sunday nights, as well as cling to my Monday evenings in the studio: I rarely gig on those nights, so it’s very likely I can keep to my resolution.

And that’s the secret: scheduling a regular appointment that you know you can keep (at least the majority of the time). Of course, during crunch periods, the best laid plans can go out the window. But my hope is that you’ll be able to find that moment each week or so where you can allow inspiration to strike and be able to take advantage of it.

For me, crunch time is here, and I’ll spend the weekend running around the Anaheim Convention Center, catching up on all the new items I hope to get ahold of over the next few months. Stay tuned, because I already know there’s a few surprises in store for us this week!

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Non-Technical Sensitivity Issue

This blog is always about audio gear, but this one was inspired by a ‘Sensitivity Issue’ as it pertains to how we treat each other, especially on these here InterWebs. There’s no shortage of passion and excitement in this biz, but it also has a way of putting all of us – regardless of experience – in our place.

One REALLY BIG LIFE LESSON that I have learned is that many of us Audio Geeks have personality / social ‘challenges’ that are as much an asset as a liability. I include myself in this group! ‘Audio’ calls to us because there is room and a need for our obsession. That said, you must have a thick skin and be sensitive – which may seem contradictory…

There have always been pissing contests. Those who need proof of competency will judge you ‘only as good as your last project.’ We move in circles that sometimes make us the big fish in a small pond while at other times, we are one of the little fish. We must learn to negotiate that transition. There will always someone out there who is ‘better’ in some way or another, socially or technically. Learn from them!

Many of us have a need to share a recent accomplishment, a light-bulb moment. By putting yourself out there you are inviting comment. My first official EQ column in 1994 included a 2.2dB error that I got reamed for in a ‘Letter to the Editor’ by a very knowledgeable person (who eventually became a client). It was embarrassing, but it taught me a lesson: “Know the material inside and out before sharing with 30,000 people!”

I have alot of experience as both engineer and technician, much of which is more subtle than readers expect. I have had close encounters with the famous, but my accomplishments are measured by what I have learned, not the least of which is that in this one discipline alone, there is a never ending list of things to learn.

For every time that I have tried to help someone (in an e-mail, for example), there is a pretty good chance that the seeker has also asked someone else (in a public forum). Options are great for the seeker, but in a public forum there is the potential to put the mentor in the position of being the ‘mentee.’ The key to making this work is patience and sensitivity – for ALL involved parties – be prepared to not be the authority and not take it personally. And, when it’s YOUR turn to be the authority, be kind and patient. Also, when ‘seekers’ are sorting through all of the opinions, try to frame questions in a way that is not pitting one ‘genius’ against another.

Seekers should understand that ‘the simple answer’ is an easy way to accept a basic concept but should be prepared to re-examine the subject in more depth. There is often too much info to absorb all at once – patience grasshopper – OR seemingly ‘too much work’ to get the job done (a sweat-equity investment is often required). Be ready for the unexpected – an explanation that is contrary to the accepted ‘belief.’ In short, we must all be aware of our shortcomings and be eager to learn from anyone with the patience to share. Conversely, those with the wisdom should exercise a similar amount of patience.

All of us may think we are using the Occam’s Razor approach – the simplest, most effective and fastest tool for the job – but one look down the aisle of ‘available razors’ reveals that there is a blade for everyone!

As a result of Audio-Eccentric web sites, many audio obsessives are feverishly ‘tasting’ all available gear to see if one person’s passion and taste translates to their own (or aids in their sonic quest). With all the resulting ebaying, craigslisting and shipping, however, I am not sure that the ‘samples’ are given the time to be fully appreciated – OR – are representative of the supposed ‘gold standard.’

Whether new or vintage, complex gear has a learning curve and vintage gear may require maintenance. Either way, not investing the time is one reason some gear is misunderstood, (broken?) or under-appreciated. This results in gear that changes hands, without finding a permanent home until it finds a patient user.

I do not worship gear, though I confess to being curious-to-a-fault. The upside of being a technician is that I get to know what’s under the lid – how it works – so I can best exploit it. Some tools have more magic than others, true enough, but I believe the tool itself is secondary to my ability to learn and use all that tool has to offer. Some gear is hype in a sexy package.

PS: In public forums, I often write on a netbook, where the combo of small keys and screen, ‘eyesight’ and lack of patience often contribute to embarrassing typos…

PS: This article was inspired by someone I know who had been treated badly. It was tempered by my own personal experience.

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