You may recall that in March of this year I posted a blog on 15 year old Avery Thompson. Avery’s the son of Josh Thompson, a guitar virtuoso, accomplished song writer, and music producer whose colleagues include George Benson, Joe, and Alicia Keyes.
The Thompson family was sitting pretty until a bomb exploded beneath them in early 2012, when Avery was diagnosed with t-cell leukemia. Hoping for the best, Avery’s folks took him for treatment at Manhattan’s Sloan Kettering Cancer Center-and prayed a lot.
Good news! Avery’s affliction is in remission. Currently being home schooled while the family and doctors monitor the returning strength of his immune system, Avery has had to put his passion for basketball on hold, but he’s been mining his musical talents, and the first recording that shows the depth of his talent, “Balla Can’t Ball,” is available on iTunes and Spotify.
This is a very strong record. Written by Josh Thompson, David Pic Conley, and Avery Thompson, it features an impressive set of vocal tracks by Avery. Josh performed all of the instrumental parts and handled production chores out of Tallest Tree Studios, his home recording environment.
Check this kid out when you have a few minutes.
They’re different of course; Pink exudes confidence, a power that, frankly, was once considered the exclusive province of males. Janis was a fragile flower waiting to wilt. But does a kinship of some kind connect these two artists across the generational divide?
Listen to “Try,” Pink’s new single. It’s good, right? And so strong! Now dial up “Piece Of My Heart.”
“Each time I tell myself I think I’ve had enough, ah but I’m gonna show you baby that a woman can be tough.”
How, by letting this bastard mistreat you endlessly and somehow being able to endure the abuse?
It’s hard to believe that Alecia Beth Moore, aka Pink, has already sold 70 million singles, a figure that places her “way up yonder, baby” as James Brown would say, in the pop pantheon. And she’s done it by putting the world on notice that she’s no fool (“Stupid Girls”), has a social conscience (“Dear Mr. President”), and is a lady willing to put her sexuality on the line-and go toe to toe with anyone who might have a problem with it (“Slut Like You”). Of course there’s also the classic “Get The Party Started.”
Talent is singular, and there’s no reason to doubt that Pink would have accomplished big things in whatever circumstance she was dropped into. Let’s also give a shout out to Janis Joplin, an outsider at a time when not being a cheerleader, or an A student, or a classically pretty girl meant you had nowhere to go. If you were unable to tuck away the pain, or mascara on a cheery face to gain the acceptance of the popular crowd, well, who were you, anyway?
Put your hands together for a young woman who bared her frailties when “girls” weren’t encouraged to do so. Janis might have been lost, but the courage she showed, the willingness to put her anguish on display-even if she had to choke a bottle of bourbon and stuff a handful of amphetamines down her throat to make it through the night-paved the way for Pink.
A view of Steve Roach behind his live-performance setup.
For over three decades and with nearly 100 releases to his name, composer Steve Roach
has been an influential voice in the world of ambient electronic music. Whether you listen to his solo projects or his numerous collaborations (with Dirk Serries/Vidna Obmana
, Erik Wollo
, and Brian Parnham
, among others), it’s easy to recognize Roach’s signature sound—slow moving textures breathing deeply behind sensuously evolving grooves.
His Arizona-based Timeroom studio was designed to provide the type of environment needed for creating music with long form development. It’s a place where complex and evolving synth patches have the opportunity to gestate over days or weeks.
As an artist/producer, Steve Roach is disciplined and uncompromising in his approach to sound quality and his craft and he eschews flavor-of-the-month gadgetry. Rather, he has spent the last 30 years developing virtuosic control over his instruments, exploring and exploiting their idiosyncrasies to create a sound world that is uniquely his own.
It’s been a few years since I last spoke with Roach about his work, and I was curious to hear if his methods had changed as the industry transitions from physical releases to downloads, and from hardware to virtual instruments.
Do you mix and master your own projects? How do you keep a perspective on something you’ve been working on for a long time?
Since all my music is centered on tone and hand-shaping the pieces into form, the analog console remains the center piece of my creative process—the easel through which all my hardware synths, drum machines, modular analog and rack processors live. Mixing is part of the performance that occurs as I am carving on a piece. This can be an overdub process or a live performance direct to 2-track.
By the time the mastering stage is reached, the piece will be very close to what you would a call final mix. At this point the mastering begins with the sequence of “mixed” pieces, EQ, levels and crossfades, maybe final brush strokes with some extra tracks are applied.
The perspective at mastering is keeping the big picture of where the project has evolved to in the forefront. Also, the freedom of working in my home studio at this stage supports experimenting with different mastered versions of the project.
With the current direction that music distribution is going, has it changed how you mix and master your work?
This has no impact or influence for me. I always keep striving for the best sounding, emotional, expansive space to bask in. The creation of the work—creating the sounds and living with it all in the studio—is where it begins and ends for me.
Do you share the project with friends, label, or musical associates for feedback before making final decisions?
In all my solo work the path to the final master is shaped by trusting my own instincts: I don’t look for outside opinions. I do listen to the music in progress in many different settings, especially on my frequent long drives across the deserts between Arizona and California. In collaborations the exchange is constant.
What’s the most important part of your signal chain?
A great sounding analog board with lots of sends and input channels—40 plus—and equally, a selection of historic hardware processing—Eventide H3000, H4000, and Eclipse, and various older Lexicon reverbs. I still use a Lexicon 200, PCM 70, PCM 80 and PCM 91. Also hands-on, real-time loopers with dedicated sends for on-the-fly loop creation. It’s all centered on the sound and feel I need to be immersed in.
Are you working with hardware and software synths?
All hardware, all the time. While I have worked with soft synths over the years, no matter what, I just keep finding myself back on the boards carving with the hardware, time after time. At this point, it’s only hardware.
I love sitting at a dedicated instrument, say the Oberheim Matrix 12, and just focusing on sound exploration for hours. Out of this process, the music I create naturally evolves from the inside out with composition–improvisation and constant sound shaping all ebbing and flowing. In this mode, I will have no other instruments fired up, no computer screen on and calling out, just this one instrument and some nicely hand crafted hardware reverb (of course). After all the years of working with analog knobs, and the velvet touch and response of analog sliders, I just know this is where I want to live.
The main-room board is a 40-channel Soundcraft GB4. While this is a basic live board, it fits my way of working in real-time very well. It has a great sound and EQ with eight sends. Since the ‘80s, I have centered the studio around Soundcraft boards with just a short diversion for a few years. I started with the 200B, then the Delta 8, then a series-6000, and now the GB series.
The synths in my collection go back to the days when I knew the guys at Oberheim in Santa Monica. The essentials are two Oberheim Xpanders and a Matrix 12; Waldorf Q and Blofeld; E-mu E-Synth, E4X, and Emax II; a Nord Lead 2 (the original); Korg Wavstation, Z1, and various Electribes; and Roland JD-800 and JX3P.
In a smaller room—the analog cave—I have a Soundcraft Ghost and ProAc Studio 100 monitors that are dedicated to the analog modular obsession—a single Doepfer Monster Case, which equals four A-100 G6 racks, filled with Deopfer and other Eurorack modules. In this room I will typically build an ongoing patch that develops for months: I keep evolving the patch and recording it at various stages of its life span.
I also have several Doepfer MAQ16/3 MIDI analog sequencers in the different rooms and live set up. This is another essential hardware tool I have worked with for years. For me, the years of creating with the Oberheims and the hardware gear is where my focus and passion live.
Steve Roach's Eurorack modular system.
That’s my column theme for November. My editor, Tom Kenny, suggested I read the classic 1974 book about ‘Motorcycle Maintenance’ by Robert Pirsig. It is, of course, not exclusively about keeping your bike running so much as it is about the philosophy of the ‘je ne sai quoi,’ the elusive quality of ‘quality.’
I’m only 120 pages into the e-book version and there are so many parallels to our industry that it’s worth reading if only to remind us cave dwellers to zoom up, out and away from the extreme scrutiny we place on, uh, EVERYTHING!
Our industry is such a mix of Art and Science that there will always be avenues to explore, new things to learn and new techniques to try. Ours is undeniably an environment where Steam Punk lives! We embrace and interface vintage vacuum tube and analog tape technology with digital interfaces and computer-based workstations. We have Zen Masters who can speak several geek languages.
For such a niche industry, there are so many sub-niches…
As a technically inclined person, I have learned how to think geek but speak in emotional terms that non-geeks can understand. There are plenty of people in our industry who are artists first and technicians last, but the reverse is equally true. We have famous engineers like George Massenburg who design gear that is an extension of the way they work – George’s recordings and mixes are uniquely his.
And then there are those classic engineers like Bones Howe, who we pester for technical details but who claim the secret to their success like this. “I was never an engineer’s engineer. I was always happier on the other side of the glass, out in the room with the musicians. I think that a great deal of my success was due to the fact that I knew what it was like to sit out there.” Howe took pains to ensure musicians were comfortable, and he sat them close together, using the directional characteristics of microphones and room acoustics to enhance the sound, rather than recording them separately and mixing it all together at the end. As someone very astutely said, ‘If you record one track at a time, then it’s a ham sandwich and a cheese sandwich, not a ham and cheese sandwich.’
Our ‘tools’ come in so many forms, from microphones and monitors to plug-ins and hardware signal processors as well as the more conventional tools used to build, repair and adjust the gear we use. No matter what got you into this business, it’s a good bet that you’ll eventually get to use a screw driver, a wire stripper or a soldering iron. If you’re just getting started, my column has tool links and suggestions as well.
oh and uh, Don’t Forget to Vote!
Unit Audio UNIT Passive Summing Mixer
by Brandon Hickey
Unit Audio makes a small array of hand-build utility products for recording and mixing. Their primary product line offers passive analog summing mixers for DAW-based workflows. The benefits of analog summing is that combining electrical signals through an analog mixing buss sounds different from summing inside of a computer. Though DAW-based mixing offers the advantages of easy recall and automation as well as plugins which are more cost friendly than outboard hardware, there are also distinct advantages to analog mixing. Consoles usually offer greater headroom than DAW mixers, and in many cases color the sound with a unique flavor.
Unlike summing systems like the Dangerous Music 2-Bus which offers a fully active circuit path, the UNIT falls in line with devices like the ROLL Folcrom which features no active circuitry. Passive mixers combine signals by using a network of resistors to sum them together. The resulting output is very low in level, so a microphone preamplifier is necessary to restore it to line level before hitting the mix-down deck. One supposed benefit of this type of strategy is that the mic preamp adds coloration to the signal. Naturally this is a point of debate. For example, how many engineers plug a mic into a mic pre, then to a re-amp, then a DI, then to another mic pre to add flavor to the signal? Once a signal hits line level, why not keep it there, right? That is how I felt too, before I tried the UNIT. After using it, I haven’t necessarily been born again, but I will say that the results were not quite what I had expected.
The UNIT is 16 x 2 having two DB-25 connectors, each accepting eight balanced signals, and outputting to a pair of balanced Neutrik TRS connectors. UNIT Audio also produces an 8 x 2 mixer with all TRS connections, and may have XLR output connectors upon request. Several of the models have a pair of switches that can break a stereo pair of input into two mono sources, so that kick and vocal, for example, can be inputted individually without having to waste a stereo pair with dual mono signals.
The Sum Of All “Hears”
The primary material for this listening test was a jazz trio which had been tracked to tape, and transferred to Pro Tools. I mixed in the box using only plugin-based effects, then produced stems of drums, kick, snare, bass, sax, and a few effects stems. I then combined those stems together using the Pro Tools mixer, the software mixer in Harrison’s Mixbus DAW, the UNIT, and two analog consoles (SSL 4000E and an API Legacy Plus), with faders set at 0 dB VU.
It is important to note, at this point that the sound of the Xicon resistors and Neutrik connectors will play a role in the sound, but maybe not as significant as the roles played by the DA converters outputting the DAW signals to the box, the sound of the mic preamp gaining the signal back up, nor the AD converters feeding the mixdown deck. In fact, even the cabling at either end will color the sound, and perhaps even more so than the resistor network. All that said, subjectively grading the sound of the UNIT itself is nearly impossible. Despite that, my goal was to color the mix minimally and merely take advantage of the added clarity, enhanced stereo image, and tighter bottom end that the UNIT promised. I used Monster snakes at the front end, Canare Star-Quad cable with Neutrik connectors on the back end, and fed the clean, quiet, Sound Devices USBPre2 for mic pre and A to D conversion. For the sake of convenience and consistency I used the D to A converters of a Digidesign 96 I/O.
Referencing all mixes through a number of monitors and headphones revealed subtle differences. Color and frequency response changes were minor, but there were also a few big things that really stood out. The most profound factor was the way the mix sounded when things got really fast and busy. For example, there were moments in the tune when the sax started playing higher notes at a point in the groove where the bass was making fast transitions and a drum fill took place. With all of that happening at the same time, the Pro Tools mix quickly turned muddy. Harrison’s Mixbus stayed clearer through these dense sections than Pro Tools, but still had a tendency to lose definition when compared to any of the analog mixes. The SSL sounded more like the Harrison software mixer though subtly clearer on quick fills. Both the API and the UNIT shared a similar character with each of them producing a sound which was like a pleasant, natural, harmonic distortion which accented the attack of each drum hit, propelling it through the mix. At the same time, this sound was persistent throughout the mix, creating an unnatural high-frequency boost.
On one hand, I would say that having heard the comparison, the way complex signals combined through the UNIT was preferable to Pro Tools. The API shined, adding all kinds of warmth and flavor through the midrange and low frequency range. That said, the sound of either of these solutions is far from transparent, and you would have to be careful to choose the right pair of mic pre’s to compliment each mix. Even then, you’ll never get a colorless sound, and may find yourself EQ’ing around the mic pre. Also worth noting was the change in stereo image across these different mixes. Relative to the Pro Tools sum, Mixbus and API both widened the mix a bit, with the SSL mix being the widest of all. The UNIT mix sounded close to Pro Tools, but if anything, it seemed like the midrange was a bit narrower.
When it comes down to it, summing outside of the box is undeniably popular, and engineers are looking for that sound. Some passive summers, like the Shadow Hills Equinox include the makeup gain pre-amplifier which drives up the cost significantly. Meanwhile, the UNIT is about a third of the price of the ROLL Folcrom, and does the same thing, minus some unnecessary routing switches. While this product is not going to be as clean as an active summing amp, it does provide an interesting sound, which, for many musical applications may be just the kind of thing you are looking for. Certainly it is a different character than a mathematic mixer, and if your mixes are stuck in a rut, this might be just the thing to help you think outside of the box.
COMPANY: UNIT Audio
PRICE: $149 – $399 plus shipping
In a blog posted several months ago I asked why console manufacturers haven’t integrated third party plug-ins into their design structures. Steve Oppenheimer, a long time industry veteran and current Public Relations Manager for PreSonus Audio Electronics sent me an e mail that led to a conversation on the subject.
Steve O: “The most obvious reason that digital mixers don’t have an architecture for hosting third-party plug-ins is that there is no standard OS for digital mixers, and a variety of CPU chips may be employed. With DAWs, you can count on AMD or Intel chips and Windows or Mac OS X. To support digital mixers, a plug-in company would have to write its software to each digital mixer’s CPU chip and custom OS, and that’s not likely to be financially worthwhile.
“A digital mixer that ran plug-ins directly would probably be a far more complicated beast to operate. That’s exactly the opposite of what most engineers want, especially for live desks, where you need to make your moves quickly and don’t want to get lost in menus and layers.”
GE: “Do you think that stability would be affected if third party software was introduced into a console?”
Steve O: “The mixer would almost certainly be less stable. In the studio, that would be a drag but probably no worse than a DAW wigging out. However, in a live environment, where many digital mixers find a significant user base, instability could bring down your entire show with disastrous results. It’s one thing when a DAW crashes; it’s quite another thing when the FOH mixer crashes. Fortunately, a better solution is likely to reach the market in the next few years.”
GE: “I’m sensing the rapid approach of a sales pitch.”
Steve O: “At PreSonus, we spend a lot of time thinking about these issues. If the digital mixer is also a multi-channel interface with low enough latency that you can run a DAW with standard plug-ins, in real time, on a connected PC or Mac, then you can accomplish the same thing, and more elegantly at that because you would have all of the advantages of the DAW without creating special versions of the plug-ins. The mixer would not have to become more complex to operate because the plugs would run on the computer DAW.
“For example, the PreSonus StudioLive series has low enough latency that you can run a computer-based DAW with plug-ins, in real time, for use in live shows. Engineers use it this way often. It works because in a live setting, a few extra milliseconds of delay are usually not noticeable. But the latency is not low enough for use with real-time plug-ins in the studio, where you will notice those extra milliseconds.
“However, advances such as Thunderbolt should help immensely because audio can move through that immense pipe much faster than it can through FireWire 800 or USB 3. We’re not there yet but I think interface manufacturers will lower latency sufficiently to run real-time, computer-based plug-ins in tandem with digital mixer/interfaces in the relatively near future.
GE: “In your opinion, therefore, would it be a mistake for console manufacturers to spend time and money attempting to integrate third party plug-ins into their boards?”
Steve O: “Yes, the solution you suggest would be prohibitively expense and is likely to be obsolete before it reached the market.
Andy Williams shuffled off the mortal coil yesterday at the age of 84. To many he was a dusty specimen, a relic from an ancient era. Others, of an earlier generation themselves perhaps, saw Williams as a second tier crooner, a pale imitation of the true luminaries- Frank, Nat, Tony- who laid the smack down and defined the times in which they lived.
But this native of tiny Wall Lake, Iowa was his own man, and the imprint he made on the entertainment industry was singular. The handsome possessor of a winning, ever at the ready smile, Andy Williams is best known for performances that expose the poignant side of the human experience; “Moon River” and the theme to “Days of Wine and Roses” come to mind (both from the pen of Hank Mancini) but others, including Johnny Mandel’s “Emily” (lyrics by the great Johnny Mercer) tickled the same spot.
Things could have gone differently. Williams only reached the top of the Billboard charts once: the utterly lame Elvis impression he committed to wax on a tune called “Butterfly,” somehow captured the public’s heart in 1957. From then on Andy Williams steered away from copping other singers and developed his own style, which he took for a long ride. There was a string of popular 45′s, including “Can’t Get Used To Losing You,” a #2 hit in 1962, and the many television variety programs and multiple Grammy Award shows he hosted throughout the 1970’s. At least 18 of his albums went Gold.
Sure, Andy Williams copped out late in life and opened the Moon River Theater in Branson, Missouri, but what the hell-he’d already had a great career.
Take it easy, Andy.
In late 1962 “Our Day Will Come,” a song written by Bob Hilliard and Mort Garson was released on Kapp Records. Its authors preferred an established lounge singer but agreed to let the unknown Ruby & The Romantics, a group based out of Akron, Ohio, take a shot on the condition that if the track failed to gain traction Kapp would recut it with the great… Jack Jones! The original version of “Our Day Will Come” reached #1 on Billboard Hot 100 chart in March 1963 and never made its way into Jack’s throat.
Bob Hilliard enjoyed success writing lyrics with a number of prominent pop composers, including Burt Bacharach and Jule Styne. His body of work includes “In The Wee Small Hours of the Morning,” immortalized by Frank Sinatra on his classic album of the same name, and “Any Day Now,” a song recorded by several artists. The most popular version of this Burt Bacharach melody was released by Ronnie Milsop, the country singer, in 1982.
Composer Mort Garson received early training at Juilliard. After serving in the Army in World War Two Garson quickly established himself as a go to composer, arranger, pianist and conductor for a bevy of mainstream singers, including Doris Day and Mel Tormé.
The early 60’s were a transition period in the history of popular music. The eruption that would come when The Beatles emerged from The Cavern Club was around the corner, but even before their appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964 writers and arrangers had looked to build on the formula that Elvis and others used so effectively. George Gershwin may have been the first American composer of popular music to imbed rhythms from outside the European culture into his work, but the trend had escalated by the late 1950’s and early 60’s. The forceful grooves of Rhythm and Blues- still known to many as “race music”- were placed on a symmetrical grid and served up to middle America by Elvis, Buddy Holly, Rick Nelson and a host of other entertainers.
This same formula would be used to great effect in the 60’s, when the many and varied clave rhythms found in Afro-Cuban music began showing up in simplified form on pop recordings, including “Our Day Will Come.” The spare and effective arrangement also features vibraphone, an acoustic guitar, and the Romantics themselves (George Lee and Ed Roberts, tenors, Ronald Mosley, baritone, Leroy Fann, bass) who gird Ruby Nash’s lead alto but wisely avoid climbing into its range.
But, ah that Hammond part! Has the sound of any instrument ever more effectively outlined and embellished a recording than the swirling cascade created by Roy Glover? Perhaps Donald Fagen was thinking of it when he laid down his own magnificent organ performance on “Walk Between The Raindrops,” the track that concludes “The Nightfly,” a masterpiece that in 1982 was Fagen’s fond look back at an earlier, simple time.
Over the years a number of artists have covered “Our Day Will Come,” including Amy Winehouse, who recorded it shorty before her death.
When mixing certain kinds of percussion, kick drum or low tom, you can use this old trick to add some extra bottom end. I’m triggering my BOOM channel from dedicated LFE channels but you can do this from any audio source, mono, stereo or whatever.
1. For each channel you wish to add BOOM, make a mono aux channel, mute it and instantiate a signal generator on the first insert, and a gate on the second insert (I use a Waves C1 gate)
2. Set the Hz value of the generator to 40Hz (you can fine tune this later)
3. Set the gate open value to about -20 (see pic of Waves C1 gate below for reference)
4. On the audio track you’re triggering the BOOM from, create an aux send to any bus, raise the send fader to unity gain and make it pre-fader. This way, later on when you change your mix, the BOOM channel will still trigger consistently.
5. Set the key input of the gate on the BOOM channel to the same bus sent from the trigger channel
Now you’re ready to go! Play your audio track and fine tune the gate open value until the BOOM is happening just on the accents. If the gate causes clicking you can play with the attack and release to make it more musical.
I’m triggering from an LFE track which is all low end, but you can make any channel work by duplicating it, sending the trigger from the duplicate, and putting an extreme Low Pass filter on the track. This way you’re only getting the bottom end going out of the trigger channel. Ping me on Facebook and let me know if it’s working for you. Overusing this trick can muddy the bottom end of your mix but if you pick your tracks carefully, it can be a great way to bring out the bottom octave of a mix.
I am cramming to get my Education-related column done in time for the October issue.
Teaching has been a remarkably rewarding experience, certainly it has given back more than I would ever have expected. After eight years, I’ve got a few scars but have mostly succeeded – not only in my mission to share what I know, but surprisingly, I have gained a deeper understanding of the science behind the art.
As professionals, we take for granted the skills we have learned over the years. From start of project to completion, we may not all take the same path or have the same technical skills, but the end result creates a sonic diversity that keeps things interesting.
That said, how to break years worth of information into digestible nuggets is no small task. After much planning followed by the classroom experience, it is then time to lick one’s wounds before going back to the drawing board, a rewrite and then into the Colosseum all over again!!!
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