Every Minute Counts 

If today were to be my last, it would have been a good one.

For some people, happiness is a tiny dot in a perfect storm. For me, it’s a choice that I make every day, both at work and in my personal life. I love my job, but I also love my life outside the studio.

Because I want to cram a universe worth of experiences into a finite number of years, I’ve devised a number of timesavers that make me highly efficient and productive in the recording studio. Some are elaborate and expensive, costing tens of thousands of dollars, while others are as simple as $49 utility apps and home brewed mix templates that don’t cost a dime.

Before I share some of these efficiency tips with you, let’s talk about why this concept is so important to me. We could discuss last week’s terrorist attacks in Paris, but instead let’s keep it local because it is easier to relate to something that could happen to you, me or our loved ones.

Mark Scott is a USA National Champion bicycle racer who is the icon of health and fitness. He has taken such good care of his body that I could imagine cold and flu bugs being too scared to make his acquaintance. He is the opposite of feeble: he is Thor, and his bicycle is his hammer.

Apparently cancer did not get the memo. It arrived uninvited, like so many other surprises in our lives. Mark is now fighting for his life, trying to beat leukemia. He has a positive attitude, but he desperately needs a compatible bone marrow donor. I sincerely hope that he recovers and lives a long happy life, but the reality is that any day could be his last.

If I were Mark, I would not want to waste a single minute. Things like being stuck in traffic, waiting for a slowly loading Internet page, or fixing auto correct typos on an iPhone would drive me crazy. Even being blessed with exceptionally good health, I’m well aware that I am nearly three quarters of the way through my four score. That’s why being efficient in the studio, especially with respect to technical, noncreative tasks, it is so important to me. I want to experience as much self-realized “outside” life as possible. Every minute truly does count.

Creating custom recording and mixing templates for yourself is a great way to speed up your workflow and get better results. In the digital domain, you can save templates inside the DAW. They should contain your routing, effects, preferences, etc. In the analog domain, you can configure your patchbay to always accommodate the lead vocal on a particular console channel, the bass DI and amp on another two faders, the drums on a particular set, and so on. Ideally you would have your favorite compressors and EQs ready to go on the appropriate channels. Templates can save you literally hours of work every day. Plus they help you to get into a creative headspace more quickly.

Utility apps can also be a huge timesavers. One of my favorites is StereoMonoizer by Soundizers. It quickly and effortlessly deals with one of my pet peeves: analyzing stereo audio files to determine if they are in fact mono. Think about it… Sometimes clients will send me 120 audio tracks, all apparently stereo as a result of the export process. It can take hours to meticulously listen to every one in order to determine that 90% of the files are really mono. StereoMonoizer does this for me, and makes the conversion to mono where appropriate, in a matter of minutes. The $49 price tag bought me not just a cool tool, but also more free time to do other things I love with people I love. Hats off to Blake Eiseman for giving me a better quality of life!

Taken to the extreme, it’s easy to spend $30,000 in one lump sum to save a few hours a day, every day. That’s what I did after I discovered that I had more fun while working twice as fast, mixing in the analog domain. That hefty chunk of change bought me 64 channels of analog to digital and digital to analog converters, as well as analog summing mixers to euphoniously add up all the musical elements. It also bought me more time to spend hiking and cycling with my wife. I cannot overstate the fact that it is so easy to live an unbalanced life when you work in the record business. At my level, $30K was a small price to pay for facilitating balance in a fast paced, high pressure, high performance lifestyle.

Circling back to Thor, I mean Mark Scott, I can’t help but think about the power of purpose. Just as we audio professionals devoted countless hours to developing our craft, Mark powered his way across hundreds of thousands of miles to develop his. Create a good game plan, execute it, and reap the rewards. Excellence takes time, which is perhaps the scarcest commodity we possess. It is far too valuable to be wasted.

As an upbeat tangentially related thought, I’ll tell you a little bit about one of the guys in the photo below. Mark is obviously the cyclist winning the race, but the guy to the right of the photo is his teammate David Worthington, who also is a member of the rock band Dos Gatos. David is remarkable on many levels (poet, musician, geologist), but the attribute that I most admire is the fact that he is a fiercely loyal and devoted friend. Because of the inherent power connected to his sense of purpose, he was able to rally the entire Southern California cycling community to help Mark raise much needed medical funds. He’s been a spiritual teammate throughout the cancer battle, and he’s focusing on a positive instead of negative outcome.

David is the opposite of a fair weather friend: he’s a committed team player. If I should ever have the misfortune of being thrown in jail, Dave would be on the short list of folks I would call to bail me out— even though I rarely visit with him. I say this because of my experience mixing the Dos Gatos album with Dave. I noticed that he always made sure that everyone involved was comfortable and truly appreciated. That “empowerment” quality is extremely valuable to anyone who wants to succeed in the record biz. A rising tide makes all boats float higher.

Talk about dedication and commitment, Dave and his writing partner Eric Depperschmidt stuck together against all odds for 15 years to realize their dream of making an artistically pure album without any commercial considerations. They made the album they wished they could have bought from some other artist many years ago, but nobody ever made it—so they wrote and recorded it themselves. Now they can listen to it whenever they want. It’s not easily categorized Pop, but it’s really cool, especially for those who enjoy discovering new, under the radar, independent music. I’m especially fond of a song titled “Lupe.” Anyway, despite the long strange trip, Dave and Eric ticked another box on the Bucket List, and not a moment too soon. After all, every precious minute counts.

 

Champion racer Mark Scott (center) flanked by faithful lieutenant David Worthington (right) and Eric Depperschmidt of Dos Gatos.

 

StereoMonoizer, by Soundizers, is a huge time saver.

 

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Fly Your Freak Flag! (Thoughts on Nirvana, Adele, Innovation and Emulation)

Rosie goofing off, having a blast!

Sometimes you just have to let go of whatever “the grownup you” thinks you should do, and instead do what “the happy you” wants to do.  Kids, just like Rosie The Studio Cat, are full of awe and wonder; adults, including most recording artists and technicians, are shackled by heavy responsibilities and the need to fit in. 

Uniqueness is much more interesting than conformity. When we march (or dance) to the beat of our own drummer, we show the world our true selves, unique individuals who are probably a lot like the children we once were. Those kids knew how to have fun. 

When we have fun—even if we’re digging ditches—we attract other likeminded people. If we show the world who we are, we’re likely to attract others who have the same taste we do. Some folks will love us, and others won’t. Focus on those who already do. 
This is especially true in the record business and the arts in general. Innovators, not emulators, are the ones with longevity. Remember Nirvana? Of course you do. But what about Candlebox? 

Nirvana didn’t predict the next trend and tailor their sound to it—they were a unique badass band with great songs and a fresh sound that would inspire the birth of Modern Rock. A great artist doesn’t follow the trends, it sets them. Kurt Cobain spoke for a generation of folks who were going through the same shit as he was. He connected with his fans, the folks who loved him. Damn those who didn’t. Life is too short. 

Believe it or not, Nirvana was not universally adored at the time. Seattle’s scene was hot, with Soundgarden and SubPop, but Grunge music was for bands who weren’t real musicians. (Not my opinion, but the prevailing one in the early ’90s.) Nonetheless, Cobain’s songs were indeed radio friendly unit shifters, so countless emulators emerged. 

Beyond the obligatory flannel shirts, the signature formula included massive dynamic shifts. Quiet verses exploded into bombastic fuzzed out choruses. In contrast to the harmonic devices and voice leading of great songwriters of the time, like Neil Finn of Crowded House, the emulator bands often created tension and release without any change to the chord progression such as going to the relative minor or major chord. They simply stepped on the Big Muff fuzz pedal as the drummer bashed quarter notes on the crash cymbals. Perhaps primitive, but it worked. Especially for Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins, who had similar sounds, but were very different bands. (Check out the Pumpkins’ chord progression of “1979”—it uses harmonic resolution to create the sense of release into the chorus.)

Formulaic trend following, however, is not the path to a long career. Go ahead and pay tribute to your influences, but distill their essences through your own filter, and incorporate them into your art in unique novel ways. Dozens of major label bands in Nirvana’s wake learned this lesson the hard way. Trust me: I was head of A&R at Warner/Discovery, and I passed on literally hundreds of competent bands because they all sounded the same! They were good, but Nirvana was better. And Nirvana came first. 

Anything unique was a breath of fresh air, so that’s what stood out from the blur. When I say unique, I don’t imply batshit craziness that doesn’t fit into a pre-existing genre. I’m talking about something that’s 90% familiar and 10% unique or fresh. Adele’s new single, “Hello”, is a current example of this 90/10 concept. To folks my age, the sound is nothing new, but the conviction with which Adele sings is brilliant, and it makes the song believable. It feels honest, not formulaic, so it will be a big hit. It stands out from the blur and it resonates with listeners, so they will actually pay real money for it. 

As a parting thought, you don’t have to try to make friends if you just be yourself. Those who are meant to love you will organically find you. You can’t please all the people all the time, so be an innovator, not an emulator. Live your own life and make your own art, not someone else’s. You’re welcome. 

Rosie completely relaxed, with her goofball human guardian and his freakishly sexy giraffe print yoga pants.

Peak Limiting, Loudness Wars and Remote Mixing

Using the fine adjustment tool to crush the mix.

You probably heard of loudness wars by now. Back in the ’90s, somebody thought it would be a good idea to make a mastered mix as loud as possible so that it would sound explosive on the radio. The irony is that, on radio, quieter classic records from the 70s often sound bigger than today’s aggressively limited joints.

Wait a minute—that makes no sense! But it’s true. If during your next radio listen you happen to hear a finger-picked James Taylor tune like “Mexico” bookended by virtually any two heavy modern rock songs, you’ll be amazed at how rich, punchy and detailed it sounds relative to the others. Same thing goes for Joe Walsh’s “Life’s Been Good” or later Led Zeppelin records. If you really want to be blown away, hope that you get to hear Bob Clearmountain’s mixes of “Weather With You” or “It’s Only Natural” from the 1991 Crowded House album, Woodface, or his Beatle-esque tour de force, “Sowing The Seeds Of Love” by Tears for Fears. Those FM radio staples virtually jumped right out of the speakers when they were freshly minted, and they still shine today.

So, why would a quieter record sound better than a loud one, on the radio? Answer: dynamic range.

Radio compressors and limiters are designed to be a one size fits all answer to the problem of over modulation, or “overs” that you’ve seen when digital peak meters go into the red, indicating clipping. If you were a radio station, you would not want overs because they would cause the FCC to fine you. If you were a record company or a vinyl pressing plant, you would not want them because they might literally cause the needle to jump right out of the groove, especially on a bass-heavy song!

Anyway, radio compressors and limiters sound more musical when they can react to a decent amount of dynamic range, of which modern rock records tend to have very little. Super loud, overly crushed records drive the compressor into gain reduction, where it frequently remains until the quiet breakdown or the end of the song. One of the symptoms this is a strident, distorted sound that fatigues the listener.

Okay, but what does this have to do with remote mixing?

The exact same mix, played twice with a 1 dB (or less) volume difference, will always cause the listener to believe that the louder one is better. What this implies is that my colleagues and I need to make our final mixes at least as loud as the reference mixes we receive from the artist. If we don’t do this, we lose. Nobody wants to pay thousands of dollars for a professional mix that does not sound as “good” as the band’s rough mix.

Of course, the pro mix will always sound better if the listening environment is accurate and the two mixes are level matched. These factors are easily controlled when the artist attends the mix session. Plus we discuss artistic goals, decisions are made together, and the process is transparent. The artist becomes an invested partner in the mix. When we compare the rough or reference mix to the new one, we are always doing so with matched volume levels. It’s super easy to demonstrate the difference in audible distortion, so the artist buys into the idea of clarity and punchiness instead of sheer loudness.

When mixing remotely, however, it’s difficult to guide the artist towards an optimal listening environment. The first thing the artist tends to do is to load the new mix into the original Pro Tools session to toggle an A/B comparison of the new versus the old. This can lead to two potentially huge problems. First, artists and bands typically do not know how to tastefully peak limit a mix, so, on a quest for maximum loudness, they squash the life out of their rough mixes to the point that static instrument levels begin to change over the course of the song, depending on how much gain reduction is being applied. If I don’t want to lose the battle of first impressions, I must compete with this loudness. Second, the artist may in fact be listening to my mix through their overcooked compression and limiting chain because they may forget to deactivate it from the mix buss.

Fortunately, experienced artists and repeat customers have already been down this road, so they tend to leave the peak limiter off their rough mixes. They trust me, because we’ve been successful together in the past, or they want to attain the sound of my records that they already know and love. New artists, however, are looking for any excuse to go the DIY, do it yourself, route. They do not want to spend money on crafting their records because they do not believe that they will ever make any money from sales of those records. They expect to hear maximum loudness on the first listen so they can compete on loudness instead of artistry. For those guys, I add a peak limiter to the first MP3 that I email them. I make the file the same loudness as their rough mix to dazzle them and earn their trust, then I ask them if I can take it off and do my thing. After I assure them that the final master will be at least as loud as the reference MP3, they’re cool with turning up the volume knob to listen loud.

It’s funny to me that as a guy with audiophile tastes, I sometimes prefer the energy and sound of limited masters to the (relatively) pristine clarity of the mixes. In order to tell with certainty, however, the two audio files must be level matched. Creative use of peak limiting can add a sonic crunch to rock songs that creates a sense of urgency. Limiting is almost required if you want to ensure that your record will be audible over the engine and road noise on your car’s stereo system. The unmastered mix will sound terrific in a neutral acoustic space, but mastering will ensure transportable translatability and competitive loudness. Peak limiting is a necessary evil that isn’t necessarily evil if done with prudence and good taste.

With that said, I wish all my artists and clients could be present for their mix sessions so that they could hear the dynamic beauty of their song in its pristine unlimited glory at least once. The experience might give them the confidence and courage to avoid getting sucked into the loudness wars. It’s ironic that they go to such great lengths to ensure that every detail is audible in the mix, but then they allow and encourage everything to be steamrolled during the mastering process— especially ironic considering that a reasonably dynamic mix will sound bigger on the radio than a squashed one!

Kathleen Wirt (right) and I are happy because Marek Stycos fed us Thai food after evangelizing about audio quality. Kathleen and her crew at 4th Street Recording in Santa Monica do things right. Great vibe there!