There Is Plenty Of Room At The Top: Transcending The Rat Race With Ronan Chris Murphy

Hunter S. Thompson purportedly stated, “The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There’s also a negative side.”

One aspect of the negative side is the constant struggle for position and power. As we were coming up in the biz, many of us believed that we could not take a breather because, if we were to even briefly take a foot off the gas pedal, someone else would slither into the gap, possibly taking our place. Fourteen to sixteen hour work days were common. At times it felt like we were all throwing elbows to cram our way into an overpacked bus on a perilous mountain road to success.

As the years passed and my discography blossomed, I no longer felt the stifling pressure of being packed in a tin of sardines.  The air became more clear as I climbed the hill, and I could finally see clear skies and vast horizons. There was room to spread my wings, and my veteran colleagues were actually friendly and supportive, in stark contrast to the treacherous thugs, thieves and liars crammed at the base of the climb.

During the 1990s and early 2000s there seemed to be plenty of work for accomplished record producers and engineers in Los Angeles. Records and demos were being recorded at commercial facilities, tape was being manufactured, pro audio rentals were booming, money was flowing, and an entire industry was thriving. Even if you spent three days a week on the phone or in meetings to hustle two days of paid work in the studio, you could live fairly well.

By 2008 the money belts had severely tightened, thanks to both internal and external factors. Music fans felt like they were getting shafted by major labels who released 12 song albums that contained one or two singles padded with ten tracks of filler. Relative to alternative choices of how to spend $16.98, an LP CD no longer seemed like such a good value. Piracy also contributed to the demise of the record business, as did the collapse of Wall Street, which incidentally cost me one of my indie labels, Fresh Baked Music LLC.

Freelance producers and engineers, along with recording studio managers, took extreme measures to get jobs in the pipeline. Fees took a nosedive as supply abruptly ballooned inversely to the declining demand for services. Fewer major label albums were being made, and recording funds shrunk. I clearly recall Interscope A&R man Tony Ferguson and I chatting over lunch about how new rock bands might get an $80,000 recording fund instead of the formerly  commonplace $250,000…or sometimes $400,000 if the deal was competitive (i.e. a bidding war). Even superstar artists who might be worthy of a $1,000,000 recording fund were feeling the pinch by getting $250,000.

Needless to say, the neo pros at the bottom of the totem pole were getting squeezed out of the game. Meanwhile, the veterans were scrambling to reduce their cost of doing business and to get as many gigs as possible, including those that would have previously been too small to consider. Some guys went as far as saying just about anything (i.e. lying) to get a gig, unscrupulously damaging the careers of others along the way. Even though it is wrong, it is no surprise that desperate people become ruthless and conniving if that is what it takes to put food on the table. Therefore, it was quite refreshing whenever I saw potential rivals band together to create a rising tide that would cause all boats to float higher.

My friend Ronan Chris Murphy personifies this enlightened attitude of working with each other instead of against one another. Although his discography boasts such luminaries as King Crimson, Tony Levin and Ulver, Ronan has always remained indie friendly with respect to accessibility and flexible pricing. He shares his knowledge generously via his Recording Boot Camp workshops. He also created one of the first audio blogs and he enthusiastically hosts occasional recording expos that bring together top producers and engineers with aspiring pros looking to acquire knowledge and expand their networks.

Ronan and I organically evolved into fans and champions of each other. We have shared techniques and advice, we have recommended each other for jobs, and we modestly promote each other s special events on social media. While you, the reader, may perceive us as rivals, we think of each other as support. We are not worried about losing clients to one another. We have our own unique sense of aesthetics, so it is unlikely that an artist would pit one of us against the other.  Instead of competing against each other, we focus on the positive, specifically rising the tide so that we rise with it. After all, there is plenty of room at the top

As a special treat, I was able to interview Ronan for this blog post. Enjoy the read! And if your star is rising in the record biz, remember to make friends instead of enemies, and to build bridges instead of walls.

MJ: Tell me about your enlightened way of thinking. Why are you so generous with, and supportive of, colleagues like me, who might appear to be rivals to an outsider?

RCM: Ha! I am not sure I get to call myself enlightened, despite the Buddha belly, but I have been around long enough to know that being a good member of a community is better than trying to go it alone.  I think you and I virtually met years ago on the Gearslutz forum and we sort of bonded because we both had a really similar disposition of trying to share knowledge in a way that cut through the BS and approached advice from a practical real world perspective. Once we got to know each other in the real world we found that we had common approaches to music and work ethics and mostly that we could trust the ethics and the quality of each others work. As pros, we would love to do every project, but some of them might not be right for me that might be right for you, or one of us is too busy at a certain point. We are able refer gigs to each other and we even have clients that hire both of us at different times.

I guess the take away from all of this for people starting out is that you want to be competitive with other producers and engineers, but you also want to be supportive and not adversarial.  My biggest gig this year was a referral from some one that I am technically a direct competitor with. He was offered the gig, but had some important family commitments at the time, so he recommended me because he knew I could do good work and that I would treat the client well. Right now I am working in Iceland and had to turn down a gig, but referred it to another engineer. It was actually some work that did not really have the budget for some one at our level, so I passed it to a younger engineer whose work I really trust.

You and I both do a lot of educational outreach, and there is nothing but good that comes from people learning from both of us. It is funny, you have been doing these cool events with our friend Rob Chiarelli (Will Smith, Christina Aguilera, P!nk). Rob and I both lecture every year at something called the Taxi Road Rally. He and I seem to have polar opinions on a few concepts and people will come up to me confused that I said something enthusiastically and Rob said the opposite enthusiastically, and they expect that to be some kind of drama. I always just tell them that that Rob is a bad ass mixer!! Go back to your studio and try both our ideas and see which one gets you the sounds you want or fits into your workflow better.

MJ: That is truly great advice. Rob and I did another event just last night with Jared Stansill at Pro Audio LA, and were laughing out loud because we answered a series of questions from opposite workflow perspectives! We were concerned that we would totally confuse the audience, who fortunately shared our amusement. The crowd was mostly pros, so they understood that there are many roads that lead to the same destination. You, Rob and I share the philosophy that education must train students to think analytically so that they are better equipped to make confident artistic decisions. Apropos of that…

Your powerful Recording Boot Camp workshops (even the ones in the beautiful rustic Italian villa!) are much more affordable than folks generally assume, probably due to the perception created by another well known mixing retreat that happens at a beautiful estate in France. Your Boot Camps provide a lot of value and they are empowering for anybody who wants to record themselves or others in the comfort of their own space, without the pressure of a ticking clock at an expensive commercial studio. Please briefly tell my readers why they might consider attending and where to find out more than this space allows.

RCM: Thanks. Yeah, I started one of the fist one week recording programs, and I have always tried to keep the rates really affordable. The truth is that my company can make fair money while keeping the prices down and I want to keep the classes small enough that students can get personalized attention. Most boot camps have a maximum of 4-6 students and we are cheaper than many options that allow 15-25 students into a class. I do not see any reason to make it harder or a lesser experience for the students if I am already making decent money.

But all that aside, the course I developed is all about mastering fundamentals at a deep level and the classic techniques that the great producers and engineers have been using for decades. We spend an entire day on compression because it is such a massively important creative tool that can do so much more than most people think.  Some less experienced people do not realize that if you master a pretty small set of core concepts, you can move between jazz, pop, metal, country, etc with ease. It is all the same concepts applied differently. When I started the program back in 2003 I thought most of the students would be home recordists, but it is far more than that. I get a cool mix of hobbyists and pros and even some producers with major label credits.

People that want to learn more can check out http://www.recordingbootcamp.com/ and contact me through that site.

MJ: Do you have any words of wisdom for aspiring recordists trying to catch a break, or for veterans who want to remain relevant in a constantly changing industry?

RCM: I think the biggest piece of advice I could give would be the same for both of those. In the end, this is a people business, and that is the case now more than ever. Especially these days when every other house has a studio in it, people no longer find a “studio” to book. People search out a guy or gal that they trust to do a good job taking care of their music. So, as much as we all love getting a new pre-amp or software updates, those are not the things that really get us clients…although they help us do better work once we have the clients. Having a connection with people is what gets clients. Get tapped into your local live music scene, or local houses of worship, or online communities. Anything you can do to get people to know and to trust you. Even though I do not get out to live shows as much as I would like these days, I have always been really active via online forums, Recording Boot Camp, Ronan’s Recording Show, Facebook, and by going to conferences and other events whenever I can. In an industry that is in decline my business is still fairly solid. I have friends that have bigger credits that I have, and in truth are probably more talented than I am, whose careers have completely died. I feel it is because they did not actively work to stay involved in the communities where jobs come from these days.

MJ: Thanks for taking part in this blog post, Ronan!

RCM: My pleasure. It is always a blast to do anything with you!

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Pedal Boards and Rack Systems: Pinging the Pros, ft. Bob Bradshaw 

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The Edge with Bob Bradshaw and some tools of the trade.
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Example of a Bradshaw pedalboard in ATA flight case.
Buzz PJ
Session guitarist Bradshaw rack systems, 1981 vs 2013.

Nearly every electric guitarist has a love affair with effects pedals.  Why? Because we’re always in search of more mojo, color and texture for our tone. Plus, as we imagine new sonic horizons with possibilities of soaring majestic delays or greasy fuzzed out dirt, it’s super fun to research the plethora of stomp box effects available today.  The thrill of the hunt and the quest for sonic inspiration are powerfully seductive forces to us.

Roll-your-own pedal boards have been a staple of garage bands and local heroes for decades.  After deciding which combination of effects will enhance or define your sound, your inner “tech” will be determined to wire everything together, plug in, and conquer the Colosseum. Unfortunately, typical DIY pedalboards are plagued by hum, hiss, noise and tone-suck.  Each pedal may sound splendid on its own, but multiple pedals don’t always play nicely together.

Fortunately, the merciful Almighty Lord bestowed upon us Robert “Bob” Bradshaw to save the day.  Bob, founder of Custom Audio Electronics (CAE), is famous for designing and building custom refrigerator-size, remote switching systems and compact pedalboards for touring and recording artists including U2’s The Edge, Police’s Andy Summers, Toto’s Steve Lukather and L.A. session cat Michael Landau.

Bob and I were introduced by mutual friend Gil Griffith, who at the time was VP of Marketing for Eventide. Gil, a talented musician in his own right, had the brilliant idea of getting Steve Vai to create 48 new, unique presets for the H3000 Harmonizer, which catapulted the product straight to the top of every pro guitarist’s wish list. Even more impressive than its meteoric rise to coveted status was the fact that the Harmonizer sold amazingly well, despite its $3000 price tag 25 years ago. Anyway, Gil asked me to demonstrate the H3000 at the 1993 NAMM Show, and he firmly nudged me to connect with Bob to get “Rackzilla” professionally wired by CAE.

Rackzilla, my 16-space “refrigerator” rack, consisted of instrument level amps and pedals, as well as line level “studio” effects that technically do not belong in the same system.  To further complicate matters, some pedals needed to be mounted on the large pedalboard at my toes while others were able to reside on a tray inside the rack behind me. Some effects, like overdrive, were inserted between the guitar and the amp, while other FX, like delays and reverb, entered the signal path at the amp’s Effects Loop, which is located in between the guitar amplifier’s preamp and power section. Plus, there were long cable runs that were ready to dull my tone or to tune in to any one of SoCal’s local Mariachi radio stations. There was plenty of potential for a train wreck.

For the curious folks among us, among Rackzilla’s noteworthy pieces were a Mesa Triaxis MIDI controlled preamp, Mesa Strategy Stereo 2:90 power amp, CAE RS-10 foot controller, two CAE 4×4 audio loop switchers, CAE Black Cat Vibe, CAE Super Tremolo, Eventide Orville Harmonizer, Lexicon PCM80, assorted boutique stompbox pedal effects, wah, volume and expression pedals.

A second compact “fly date” pedalboard-only alternative to Rackzilla was designed to interface with a small combo amp (Matchless DC30 or Mesa Mark 1 Reissue). It contained only what I considered to be essential at the time. Its signal flow in 1996 was Thru > Mesa V-Twin > Black Cat CAE Freddy Fuzz > Demeter Tremulator > Black Cat Vibe > CAE-modifed Vox Wah > Volume pedal > Delay True Bypass Loop (Boss DD-5) > to the Amp. Everything was powered by custom CAE 9V and 12V power supplies, with some strategically isolated taps to keep the tremolo and the digital delay quiet. The only changes I made to the board over the past 20 years are minor: V-Twin is now a Fulltone Full-Drive 2, the Boss digital delay is now an analog Maxon AD-80, there’s now a Sonic Research ST-300 Turbo Tuner, and I’ve added a Dunlop CAE MC-401 Boost/Line-Driver to serve as a bypassable buffer. When the effects are bypassed, the guitar tone through the pedalboard virtually identical to the sound of plugging directly into the front of the amplifier.

Depending on your perspective, my pedalboard is either simple or complex. I can assure you that my pre-CAE attempts to wire it were disastrous. The effects boxes looked pretty, but they were noisy when placed in close proximity on the board. Rather than wasting my life force on scaling a steep learning curve, I hired Bob to get it right for me so that I could get back to the business of making music instead of determining which offenders required isolated power taps or a change of scarce real estate. I didn’t mind paying his fee–you can always get more money, but you can never get back your time.

The pro tip here is to build a functional team of talented specialists. This practice allows you to focus on your strengths. Other specialists will fill in the gaps in your skill set, aptitude or temperament. Super producer Quincy Jones is a prime example of someone who utilizes the skills of all-star writers, engineers, musicians, arrangers, et al., to ensure that his joints are the best they can possibly be. If you’re not convinced, listen again to Michael Jackson’s Thriller or Off The Wall. Then read the list of credits. It’s akin to the Hall Of Fame. The workload is handled by a team, yet Quincy’s credit is undiluted. Next to Michael, Q is the star.

Applying this principle to a pedalboard, it makes sense to hire a specialist like CAE/Bob right away, before wasting your time, money and psychic energy. Cry over the money once instead of spending it twice! If you choose to take the DIY route, you may get lucky, but think about this: you should be playing your instrument and writing hit songs, not toiling with physics considerations like line vs instrument level, routing of audio vs power lines, sequence of pedals, buffer vs true bypass, switching logic, FX loops, power isolation, finicky germanium transistors, and much more. Wear leather pants, not a lab coat!

Long story short, Bob and his crew designed noise-free plug-and-play systems for me that were bombproof and idiot-proof. Both Rackzilla and my compact pedalboard traveled internationally without incident. A forklift punched a hole through Rackzilla before pushing it off the edge of an elevated loading dock, but the system functioned perfectly.

If I were to elaborate on why I continue to rely on Bob’s services and products in only two words, those words would be: confidence inspiring.

Bob was kind enough to answer a few questions. Good info for any guitarist who uses effects in the signal path…

MJ: What are your thoughts about the shift from rack systems to traditional pedalboards? Is there still a compelling reason to consider a rack system?

BB: Basically, we are at the mercy of the manufacturers that provide us with the tools we use to make music. When I started out around 1980, there were really only pedals to work with. I started implementing “rack mount” gear into guitar rigs because I was working with studio players here in Los Angeles who saw engineers using rack mounted outboard gear on the recordings they were working on, and wanted the same sounds in their rigs for themselves. I had to learn how to deal with level and impedances in order to get pedals and studio gear to play nice with each other. Manufacturers saw this trend, and started producing “rack mounted” gear specifically for guitar players and the “rack mount” boom was born.

Of course now, it’s back to pedals.You can’t really find decent rack mounted single purpose effects for guitar players being manufactured anymore. That stuff is all on the used market. What happened was, the manufacturers started squeezing too many effects into one chassis and quality went way down, and soon “rack” stuff got a bad rap. It is the same with everything: too much of a good thing, so the trend started tilting back to pedals. Also there is a size/weight difference here, as players started scaling back the size of their rigs. If you travel with your gear, you know what I mean. With rack mounted stuff, you are dealing with a standard size based on increments of 1.75” x 19” (no matter what is in the chassis) vs. a pedal chassis which could be any size. Then there is instant gratification and we all want that! It is much more fun to grab a knob and turn it, than it is to scroll through menus, etc. And a pedal for the most part represents a much smaller investment too. You can buy a pedal for $200 or so, where a rack mounted piece may cost you $800 or more.

Today there are many pedals that rival their “rack mounted” counterparts in terms of sound quality and flexibility. But don’t get me wrong: there are a lot of bad pedals out there now as well. To me, there is no difference in building a rack vs a pedalboard. The signal still has to get from point A to point B relatively unmolested (unless you want to screw it up!). Signal doesn’t care if it goes through a rack or a pedalboard.

MJ: Who needs a loop switcher (programmable or not) on a pedalboard, and who can get by with an inline true-bypass rig? 

BB: Anybody that cares about the quality of their un-affected sound. I maintain that a well designed loop system stands a better chance of retaining your original guitar signal than daisy chaining your pedals together.Even if all your pedals have “true bypass”. This is because a loop system bypasses not only your pedals,but the cables connecting them too!  And proper buffering at select points in the signal chain is important too, loop system or not. If you just have a few pedals, you can probably get away without a loop system, as they do add to the size/weight of your board.

But generally speaking in any case, buffers somewhere in the signal path are essential.

MJ: Are you concerned about digital clock noise in a primarily analog signal path?

BB: That has never been a big concern for me. I am more concerned with 60hz. hum!

MJ: Anything newsworthy you’d like to share?

BB: Trends come and go. While I may be best known for large elaborate systems (many of which are “rack mounted”) I have also pioneered smaller programmable pedal based systems that are easily as powerful as any rack . And they come in a wide variety of sizes and are not as expensive as you might think. The latest is called the RST-LS which contains 10 mono bypass loops, 4x switchable outputs and 2x Control Functions. It contains mono and stereo audio inserts for patching in devices that don’t require bypass loops, and is a full function midi controller. I also have coming in the fall an expression control pedal which automates your existing expression pedal with separate rate and depth controls and tap tempo. It is called AutoSweep.

Contact Bob Bradshaw:

bob@customaudioelectronics.com

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/CustomAudioElectronics

Instagram: #customaudioelectronics

Twitter: @THEcustomaudio

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Bradshaw designed pedalboard switching system.

An Interesting Interview From 2015

Ebhardt and MJ Glyph NAMM 2016
Rebecca Ebhardt and Michael James at NAMM Show 2016

Rebecca Ebhardt interviewed me for Glyph last year. Rather than focus on technology, she chose to get into philosophy, motivation and pragmatism. I am pasting the piece below because it contains solid info for anybody coming up in the music business, as well as for veterans who want to remain relevant.

Plus, if you know me personally, you may learn something new about me.  Enjoy the read!

Interview With The Talented Michael James On Producing, Finding Success, And The Roads That He Took To Get Where He Is Today



 By Rebecca Ebhardt

How Did You Start Producing And What Gave You The Motivation To Continue?

Short answer is “I was in the right place at the right time.”

The story behind the answer is more complex.  I was an emancipated minor at age 14 and mostly homeless for about six years. I saw my way out of that kind of life by endeavoring to be an athlete or scholar. I was hell-bent on earning a scholarship and I got a full ride to UCLA. I loved writing songs at the time. I was writing a lot of poetry and thought it would be cool to turn my poems into songs. I picked up guitar and began learning jazz. Two years later, at age 19, I landed my first record deal, the result of a $15 demo tape. I had some hits on college radio, which as that time was a big deal–it was vibrant and meaningful, and contributed to the success of some great bands like REM and U2. One day my manager showed me one particular chart that listed four of my songs in the top 10.  That was pretty cool, even though I had no clue how to leverage the buzz into greater success. I thought I was going to be a famous rock star. But, by age 25 I was washed up, and then at 26 I accidentally produced a hit record for NY rockers Too Much Joy.  It began as in indie release before it was picked up by Irving Azoff’s major label Warner-funded venture, Giant Records.  Giant had me add a couple more songs, made a video featuring LL Cool J, and I was off to the races!

My motivation to continue through all the ups and downs is simply that I love making records with creative geniuses who view our world from a different perspective that we mere mortals do.  If this wasn’t my job, it would be my hobby.  It’s an exciting way to spend the precious hours of my life.

The record business is portrayed in the media as glamorous, but it can be brutal and merciless. Even if you were born with prodigious talent, you need to devote countless hours to developing your God-given talent.  And I’m no exception, even after 34 years.  Although I was in the right place at the right time–more accurately, in the right place enough times–whenever I have a day I’m not booked, I still go to work and I woodshed new techniques. I keep a list of mix-related problems that I’ve encountered, and I work through them to add to my bag of tricks.

In the early 2000’s, when Pro Tools became ubiquitous, I embraced the new digital technology, and developed the skills to be equally competent in both the analog and digital domains. Early 2002 I made the jump to full time mix specialist. Now I typically mix a song a day, 250-ish days per year.  I love the work and the lifestyle.  As long as there are innovative artists and technologies in the pipeline, I’ll continue to be motivated.

 

Did You Have Any Doubts That You Would Be Successful?

No.  I didn’t have a safety net, so I couldn’t afford to fail.  At UCLA, I was initially a pre med major and realized I was very unfulfilled by traveling such a rigid predetermined path. When I realized I was a creative improvisor, I walked away for a bit and focused solely on music. It pretty much fell in my lap (though I had to work hard), but I did return to UCLA and switched to Third World Development Studies. I was thinking the whole time “why am I doing this? I am not going to work for Peace Corps, World Bank or IMF.” I realized I loved music and it’s a God-given gift–not everyone has this opportunity, so I figured I’d see where it goes. My only other distraction at the time was racing bicycles–I raced at the world championships once, but racing was my avocation, not my bread and butter gig. It was a fun to contrast to the crazy record business.

 

How Did You Build Contacts And/Or Clients?

By age 25, I realized my artist career ran it course, but by 26, I was a producer with a hit.  In the interim, I decided to become a session guitarist and keyboard & drum programmer. I was pretty good, but there was a snag: I didn’t have a car so I was relying on other people to give me rides to get to the studio. One of my buddies was billing $350 a day as an engineer, and splitting it with a recording studio 50/50. I thought, “Hey man, I want that, I can really get ahead making $1k a week”.  At that time I was still attending UCLA by day, so I would go to the recording studio after midnight with my night-owl friends. They would play their instruments and get free recording time while I learned how to use all of the recording equipment.  I was eventually ready to work prime time sessions.

Bands who recorded at our studio, Radio Tokyo, got great results at affordable prices. We didn’t care about how much we earned; we just wanted to get in the game and prove that we could play ball as well as the big leaguers. I was basically the guy who was working inexpensively for $35/hr. for these bands who didn’t have a pot to piss in. These were bands like Jane’s Addiction, Jawbreaker, The Bangles, et al. Consistent results and a fun, exciting working environment ensured the development of solid relationships. Eventually I just got a great reputation where word of mouth took over and I was booked 8 months in advance. It was never about money. If I make people feel good about their art, they’ll come back again and again, plus they’ll refer their friends. I’ve been working with some artists since 1984. That said, I’m always out there meeting new people and exploring new challenges. You must regularly reinvent yourself and refresh your skill set because when you fail to evolve, you go the way of the dinosaur.

 

What Are Some Of The Biggest Mental Tools You Can Obtain To Be Successful In This Field?

First: Let it go if someone doesn’t like you.  Always treat people with respect and do your work with integrity and a high standard of excellence.  Do that, and you’ll sleep well at night with the knowledge that, if there’s a problem, it’s not due to anything you did.  Avoid dwelling on the haters; instead focus on the folks who appreciate and love you.

Second: Let it go if someone doesn’t like one of your epically awesome ideas.   Just say, “Alright, no problem,” and mentally file the idea for future usage. You’ll have a new tool in your bag of tricks. No good idea is ever wasted. One day there will be a perfect opportunity to use it.

Third: Remember that it’s not your record, it’s the artist’s music.  My goal is not to impress my engineer friends, but rather to impress the artists.  They need to know that I’m helping support their vision, not mine.  Nowadays I don’t have to think creating a testosterone driven “Kick Drum of Doom & Remorse” sound as much as I think about serving the artist. Treat their craft with respect and make the listener focus on the song and the emotion of the song, not the kick drum that will blow your colleagues’ minds.

Fourth: KEEP IT FUN! If you aren’t having fun, you won’t inspire artists to continue working with you.  You’ll live a healthier life, and you will attract others with your positive energy.

 

If You Can Come Up With The One Habit That Could Possibly Ruin Or Stall A Person’s Career, What Would That Downfall Be?

Two things: Bullshit and disrespect.  Always be truthful, humble, attentive and courteous.  It’s a privilege to work with an artistic genius, so be present and don’t take any opportunity for granted.

 

Maintaining A Successful Career Takes A Lot Of Work And Commitment. How Much Time Do You Dedicate To Your Work?

My life and my work are commingled. I absolutely LOVE what I do, so my work is integral to the person I am at the core. It doesn’t define me, but it permeates everything to some degree. I work 250-ish days a year, and shoot for 8 hour days.  Even if a mix takes only half that time, there’s plenty of ancillary work to be done, from taking meetings and generating sales to woodshedding new techniques.  Same net hours as a full-time job, but more flexibility…  When I leave the studio, however, my brain shifts out of work mode and into “balanced life” mode.

 

Is There An Artist You Want To Work With That You Have Not Yet Had The Chance To?

Where do I begin? (Laughs out loud.) My favorite artists with whom I haven’t worked: Neil Finn from Crowded House, the guys from Steely Dan, Jonatha Brooke. There is another artist who I hope reads this; Butterfly Boucher – she did a cover of Bowie’s “Changes” for the Shrek soundtrack. I met her in person and I remixed a couple singles for her when she was an Interscope artist. She’s a consummate musician and arranger with prodigious talent and a unique point of view. She really gets it.

 

What Is Your Favorite Equipment To Work With, And What Makes It Reliable And Easy?

Favorite brands that give me a competitive advantage when I’m mixing:

Manley Labs, Dangerous Music, Chandler Limited, Tonelux, Avalon and Empirical Labs make the indispensable analog stuff for me. Focal Professional makes my studio monitors.  Tom Anderson builds my guitars; Mesa/Boogie builds most of my amps (I’m using six of them in the studio today!), but I also play a rare George Alessandro High-End English amp and I’m really into Joe Morgan’s custom shop stuff.  On the digital side, Pro Tools HDX, SoundToys and UAD plugins, and Eventide Harmonizers are essential to me. Those things are consistently reliable, plus I have developed relationships with the people involved, who encourage feedback to constantly improve their products. Some of those people, like Bob Muller at Dangerous, EveAnna at Manley, and Paul Wolff (ex-Tonelux and API) solve problems long before I become aware of them. I’ve been known to pick up the phone and ask those guys if they have a solution to a problem, and they’ve already built it into a piece of gear that’s been living in my studio for several years.

I’ve used several brands of hard drives, but my go–to for the past 14 years have been Glyph. I must have had two dozen 10,000 rpm Cheetahs that I would hot-swap as needed. They were so bomb proof that I didn’t retire them until 2-3 years ago. I was supplementing with GT series, because I could run less expensive 7200 rpm drives and get virtually the same performance as the Cheetahs.  I have dozens of GTs in the studio.

My current preference is the new Glyph Studio series. I love using the Studio Mini and the Studio RAID. I have three 1TB Minis because they spin at 7200 rpm and they are buss powered via USB. They’re robust and convenient in the field with a laptop; they’re conducive to pre-mixing tracks on a plane.  I’m actually working off of them instead of merely transferring and archiving.  In my control room, I have three Studio RAIDs.  They inspire confidence because I know my solid backup plan is immediately more robust and the drives handle whatever I throw at them. I don’t need multiple work drives anymore with my Pro Tools sessions; I stripe RAID 1 on the 4TB and 8TB devices. The data are simultaneously written to two different hard drives. If one fails, I can send it to Glyph for hassle-free recovery and repair or replacement. At the end of the day I back up to 3 different places. If it’s something I care about, it has to be in 3 different places.

It gives me peace of mind to work with Glyph. I expect all hard disk drives to fail eventually, but there’s no need to worry or stress about it. I use and rely on Glyph so that I can proactively evolve rather than passively sitting around like a dinosaur waiting for the meteor to hit.

P1050803
MJ with studio boss, Rosie.

Recording Studio Tip: Discovering Your Unique Guitar Tone with Chandler Limited Pedals

Sometimes the best way to be heard is to whisper instead of scream. Similarly, many of the most compelling recorded guitar tones in history are all about subtlety instead of bombast.

Over the years I’ve learned that lowering the gain of guitar amps in the recording studio (relative to the extreme high gain settings preferred by live shredders) will make heavy tones more articulate, and therefore more expressive. Diming the gain provides sustain, but destroys dynamics.

The trick to unlocking your unique tone is to find the amp’s sweet spot that allows you to clean up your tone when lowering the guitar’s volume knob and/or playing with a soft touch, and, with the same amp settings, enabling the amp to growl, sing and bark as you turn up or play harder. When that happens, listeners will be able to identify you by your unique dynamic touch, stylistic nuances and technique, regardless of your choice of amplifier or guitar. Chances are good that you will immediately sound like a more expressive player if you’re typically a high gain junkie.

Today’s tone tip is about how I use Chandler Limited’s two hand-wired boutique guitar pedals, the Little Devil Colored Boost and the Germainium Drive, to enhance my tone. Both are capable of screaming, but I prefer to use them more subtly. Because I already have, in my opinion, great tone that balances the fine line of crystalline chime vs ballsy growl, I don’t want to radically alter my tone. Sometimes I want just a little bit more of what I already have. A little bit more sustain, girth, drive… with a small bit of coloration to make the sound bloom with more character when I step on the pedal.

Although the Chandler pedals are designed to respond differently to each player, guitar and amp combination, I seem to always end up in the vicinity of my personal default settings, regardless of my amp and guitar choices. If you already love the sound of your rig, try my settings and let me know what you think.

From left to right, here they are.

Germanium Drive:

Highs – very bright

Germ Drive – 4.5

Feedback – 4

Boost Range – full

You’ll notice that my settings of Highs vs Boost Range meet in the middle ground, complementing each other to provide a nicely balanced tone.

Little Devil Colored Boost:

Boost Range – mids

Color Boost – 4

Feedback & Bias – 6 (or 5 for more bite)

Highs – very bright

As a subtle alternative, I sometimes switch the Boost Range to full and lower the Color Boost to 2.

I find that these settings tend to work on both my clean and crunch tones. Although similar in aesthetics, the Germanium Drive configured in this manner is a bit more dynamic and clear, while the Little Devil sounds relatively thicker and more macho. If the former is the equivalent of adding a tasteful rhinoplasty to your tone, the latter would be like adding a butt lift to it. Pardon the metaphor—it gets the point across.

I do in fact use other pedals with more extreme settings to create contrast in my palette of tones. Needless to say, you can, too – you don’t need to throw away all your other beloved pedals in pursuit of an idealistic, boutique, hi-fi tone. That said, it really is worth the effort to go down this road and find a pedal that allows you to retain your unique sound, while tastefully enhancing it. You can be even more of what you already are!

If I find some extra time this week, I may bang out a quick home-brewed video to let you hear what I’m describing. If so, I’ll update this post.

Mix Tip: Lead Vocal Compression/Limiting  

 

Happy singers = happy mix engineers!
 
Do you ever wish you could make a lead vocal sound “urgent” and heavily compressed in the mix, without all the nasty pumping artifacts? We’ve all hyper-spanked a vocal to create a glorious larger-than-life character because it sounds uber cool to do so, only to find that the sparkle disappears and the breaths become almost louder than the words. 

Despair not, for I have a technique for you to try!

Instead of driving a single compressor/limiter into super heavy gain reduction, try using two separate compressors in series. Keep the gain reduction small, and the ratios low. 

A classic sound is Teletronix LA-2 or Urei LA-3A into a Urei 1176. Opto into FET. I guess the theory is that the opto compressor smoothes the dynamics and shapes the tone, then the FET further limits the dynamic range and adds groovy harmonic distortion. 

Generally (but not always) I prefer going the opposite direction. I use the 1176LN to precondition the signal before it gets to the the opto. This is a cool sound. Preconditioning the signal ensures that rogue peaks do not cause the opto to go so deeply into GR (gain reduction) that the recovery (release) becomes too slow for the rhythmic cadence of the melody. We don’t want the recovery so slow that it steps on the beginning of the next vocal phrase. 

By putting the fast FET limiter first, and setting it to get in and out quickly, we can keep the opto in its sweet spot. If you’re not sure where to begin with your 1176LN settings, start here: input 10 o’clock; output 2 o’clock; attack 10 o’clock; release 2 o’clock; ratio 4:1. These input and output settings, of course, are based on the assumption that the source signal was recorded at a proper level for a “+4” analog world, where pro audio equipment is designed to work in its sweet spot. 

If your taste is anything like mine, you will quickly find that the 10 o’clock attack setting is too fast and the 2 o’clock release is too slow for modern rock and pop vocals. More often than not, I crank the attack all the way counterclockwise (the slowest setting)  to allow sparkly transients to pass through, and I slam the release fully clockwise (fastest) before carefully twisting the knob back the other way to make it incrementally slower until the pumping disappears. 

Faster release times make the signal seem to be louder, more urgent, and more aggressive, but not as smooth and polished. Experiment with this by closing your eyes and listening to what happens as you turn the release knob. Superfast release times will sound almost brittle if they are too fast.  It’s an artistic choice, not a matter of right or wrong.

Circling back to the input and output settings, in this series configuration I like the sound of the 1176 when the VU meter is bouncing around from zero dB to minus 3-4 dB GR. The occasional -7 on a rogue peak might sound OK, but you better use your ears to confirm this. Adjust the input knob to get in this zone. Then set the output control so that the output meter reads approximately zero dB. You will definitely hear a strong “1176 character” if you set it up this way. It may be too much for your taste, or not enough, depending on what sonic texture you’re going for.

The next item in the signal path, the LA-3A opto compressor, is easier to set up.  With only two knobs, you’d think that everybody would get it right, but this is not always the case. As stated earlier, you have to be careful about driving it too far into gain reduction because the recovery becomes slower—too slow for this series application if the VU meter shows more than one and a half dB of GR. 

On a tangential note, an LA-3A can sound mind-blowingly cool if you slam it with 10 to 20 dB of GR! Of course you will need to crank up the output to make up for lost volume. You’ve heard this sound on hundreds of beloved classic records. It sounds like the guitars on Bryan Adams’ song “Cuts Like a Knife” may have been recorded or mixed with this technique. I may be totally wrong about this being the case, but at least the example gives you an idea of how an LA-3A  can sound larger than life when pushed. 

That, however, is not the way that we are using it in this particular application, in series with an 1176 on a lead vocal. By keeping the LA-3A’s gain reduction at about 1 to 2 dB, we ensure a more organic—yet highly energetic—vocal tone that is the undisputed ruler of the mix. The vocal will still have the illusion of being dynamic, and it won’t require much EQ to make up for the darkness that compression can add.

After experimenting with this technique and tweaking it to your taste, try a variation of it: route LA-3A in parallel instead of series. You can get away with more than twice the amount of gain reduction because you will be blending it to taste (on a separate fader) with the 1176 sound. That means that you can create an aggressive and urgent sound with the 1176, and supplement it with the added sustain and warmth of the LA-3A. Because it’s not in series, you don’t need to worry about it swallowing transients or recovering too slowly.  Just blend it in until you dig the sound, and you’re good to go! 

Another variation on this multi compressor theme is to put an opto compressor first, then an 1176 in series and a second opto in parallel. I’ve had a lot of success with this technique when feeding a Manley ELOP into an 1176 to get a compelling punchy sound, and then blending in a “pushed” LA-3A in parallel to harmonically fatten up the tone. 

Try these techniques and become inspired to create some new ones of your own. Make sure that you experiment with different routings and settings. Remember that my suggested starting settings are just that: suggested, not required. They will be dependent on the program that you intend to process and the mood you want to create, so adjust accordingly and appropriately.

If I were to add just one philosophical thought about compression and limiting in general, it would be that my personal taste is to see the gain reduction meters always “dancing” near zero on the VU meter rather than constantly being driven into deep compression. If you haven’t already done so, experiment with this concept and let me know what you think. 

Whatever you do, in life or in the studio, make sure that you follow your own muse, not somebody else’s. 

These cookie fortunes seem to be strangely related to vocal compression aesthetics.
 

Misc. Stuff: Event with Rob Chiarelli; Gear “Option Anxiety”; KIVA Music. 



Event details 

Mingle and Learn

Rob and I will be the featured guests of Marek Stycos at tomorrow night’s GC Pro and Audio Alchemist event. We will be available to answer questions about how we do things in the studio, or we might simply hang out over a bowl of Thai curry and get to know some new friends.

I enjoy doing these types of events because they give me an opportunity to mingle with old friends, meet new ones and share classic recording techniques and philosophies with the next generation of audio recordists. Plus, in this case, it’s going to be a blast because Rob and Marek are at the top of their game. They are masters of what they do, and they’re both good friends of mine.

Giving Back

Rob and I have been making a concerted effort to “give back” by doing events, workshops and master classes. Although there is an inherent educational component to what we do, we try to keep things light and fluid, with plenty of room for improvisation and interactive audience participation. I’ve been told by several sources that the attendees and the sponsors both value this because they leave the event feeling like, “If Rob and Michael can do this, so can we!” I guess that modest success in the record business looks glamorous and unobtainable to the new guys & gals. Apparently we put a face and a tangible handshake to that success, therefore making it real and within reach.

Recording Gear

Something I’ve noticed is the fact that the up-and-coming generation of record producers generally have very little gear—and they can’t even imagine that they will ever have the resources to acquire a collection. They don’t believe that they will ever make enough money from music to actually own some cool pieces of equipment. Their recording studios are sometimes simply a laptop and a microphone. But that doesn’t stop them from making some great records. 

By contrast, those of us who were lucky enough to have a career in the business when the money was flowing have accumulated enough tools to deal with any potential situation. Some of us are prolific; others are lazy. There’s also a third subset that gets bogged down in what I call “option anxiety”: those cats have so many choices that they spend too much time futzing with technology when they could just be making music. They become slaves to the tools, which should in fact exist to serve the music. My philosophy is that one would be better off learning every little operational and aesthetic nuance about just a few key pieces of gear, than to only scratch the surface of a vast collection. It’s likely that I will be reminding some folks of that fact at tomorrow’s event.

Rising Stars

Over the past couple of years, I have observed one of my favorite record producers, Stefano Vieni, along with his brilliant engineer Alex Ponce (aka El Guapo!), develop a nice collection of recording equipment. In their mid 20s, these two talented young men have made around 150 records during that time, some of which have become hits on the Latin charts. They are very smart about their purchases, and they learn how to get the most mileage from each item. Technology never gets in the way of what they do – it only enhances it.

Alex has earned my respect not only for his engineering and mixing skills, but also for the fact that he is humble enough to ask for mentoring whenever he needs it. He’s gotten so good, so quickly! Some young cats are credit hogs and don’t reach out for help because they want to be the rockstar. As a consequence, they learn lessons more slowly than the humble guys who ask for help. That’s not Alex. He’ll make an international call in the middle of the night if he thinks it will help to make a better record. 

Alex and Stefano are responsible for the recent #1 and Gold records I’ve mixed.  Kalimba, Mario Guerrero, new artist Anna Sophia, et al. Great stuff! I’m super excited for them and all the success they are having. Even though they have gotten good enough that they no longer need my services, they continue to work with me. They understand the long-term value of nurturing good relationships. For that, I am grateful. Keep your eyes and ears open for their new venture, KIVA Music.



Multi-Buss Mixing Philosophy 

The question, “What’s on your mix buss?” has been all the rage for several years now. Mix engineers have been pre-mastering their work for a long time, to ensure that the mastering engineer has a clear artistic vision before manipulating the audio.

Digital audio sound quality and mixing “inside the box” (summing in the digital domain) may have caused the latest renewed interest in mix buss processors. Digital sound has often been characterized as harsh and clinical. Character pieces like a vacuum tube compressors and limiters can do a great job of warming up the sound, making it more euphonic. Insert a Manley Labs Variable Mu stereo compressor across the mix buss, and a good mix magically transforms into a juicy record.

That said, stereo mix buss processing has inherent limitations. As an example, let’s pretend that you have set the compressor’s attack and release parameters to make the song have an exciting pumping effect, in time with the music. Think EDM (electronic dance music) as an obvious point of reference. Everything sounds good… until the producer asks you to beef up the low and and add more brightness to the overall mix. All of a sudden your once warm lead vocal starts to sizzle, and the entire mix starts gasping for air every time the kick drum happens. When you are that deeply into a dense mix, adding one more straw can break the camel’s back.

The solution to this problem is actually quite simple. Instead of processing one stereo mix buss, break the mix down into several submixes consisting of components that symbiotically work together. In the video link above, I discuss the workflow of breaking the mix into three stereo buses instead of one. Buss A is for all the vocals. Buss B contains the bass and drums. Buss C includes all the harmonic instruments that are typically panned out to the sides, leaving the center of the soundstage open for maximum vocal, bass, kick and snare punch and clarity.

Each of those three busses is independently processed. They can benefit from using different attack and release settings and thresholds, as well as different EQ curves. 

Perhaps the simplest example of how to deploy this technique would be a scenario in which you want the bass & drums to have an obvious rhythmic “pump” without having the compression affecting the vocals. Further, imagine you want to brighten all the harmonic instruments a lot, without adding sibilance to the vocals. No problem with submix processing!

(Video courtesy of Dangerous Music, Inc.)