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.
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The Hole Truth

I recall the conversation as if it were yesterday: “You really need to produce this band. They’re going to be HUGE!”

Bruce Pavitt, one of the two principals at SubPop Records, was calling me from Seattle, long-distance, back in the day when long-distance was enough of a big deal that folks jockeyed for position to be the recipient, not the originator, of the phone call. Long distance was expensive enough that I have a hazy recollection of budgeting $400/month for my phone bill–and a very clear recollection of asking record company execs to call me back if I was working outside California, so that they would pick up the tab after the conversation went beyond a few minutes.

“Michael, I love the work you did with L7–you really captured their soul and energy. Plus, you’ve proven that you can work well with girl groups.  You’ll be a perfect fit for these gals.  They’re heavy and arty. They call themselves Whole,” said Bruce.

“Right on, Bruce,” I responded. “Thanks for thinking of me. I’m curious, though… How did you know that I’m a vegan, granola-munching, Birkenstock-wearing, yoga-practicing hippy at heart?” Man, did I totally misread the pitch! I thought Bruce was pitching me on an equality-of-the-sexes, self-realized New Age Metal group that perhaps sharpened their used razor blades under glass pyramids in the energy vortex of Sedona.

“Uh… I didn’t know that about you, MJ,” said Bruce. “Let’s start over. There’s nothing holistic about this band. It’s a grungy girl band, without a “W” in their name. It’s just Hole. It’s a girl band. Hole… Figure it out, buddy. Got it now?”

We made a deal. I was excited to begin working with the gals, and finally the first tracking date arrived. I had no idea that my world was about to change.

To fully understand this story, one must be aware of the context. In November 1990, we were still feeling the effects of the ’80s, which included big hair, Lycra Spandex pants, shoulder pads and knit leg warmers inappropriately sported outside the dance studio. In the recording studio, bigger was better: multi-tracked instrument overdubs, long vocal echoes, and perhaps most conspicuously, massive drum sounds with electronic Simmons drums to beef up the tom-toms, and “gated” reverb made famous on the Phil Collins hit “In The Air Tonight.

A typical way to record a commercial rock band would begin by striping a 2″ reel of magnetic analog tape with SMPTE (pronounced “simptee”) time code. SMPTE enabled us to synchronize multiple tape decks and computer based sequencers. (Anybody remember swapping a small stack of floppy disks to load Opcode Vision or MOTU Performer in a $4000 Macintosh SE with 1 MB RAM? That’s not a typo–one megabyte was state of the art!) The sequencer contained “sequences” of MIDI information, which was used in order to print to tape a click track (metronome pulse) and multiple keyboard tracks and drum samples that were performed and edited during preproduction. It was actually pretty cool to connect your Mac to a tall rack of synthesizer, sampler and drum machine modules, and listen to a dozen or more premixed and pre-panned stereo parts being triggered live to two tracks of a 24 track tape recorder! This was a huge time saver: we could do in five minutes what used to take days.

The good news is that we could then blow the entire savings on recording one musician at a time, in isolation, without the other band members. (Yes, you do detect more than a hint of sarcasm.) The pinnacle of this practice was to record one drum at a time. No, not one drummer–one drum! It should be easy to find video of Mick Fleetwood in the studio, recording a kick drum to the click track, before moving on to the other elements of the drum set, one piece at a time. I guess the thought was that isolation would allow us to surgically deploy the gated reverb effect to specific elements like kick, snare and toms, while avoiding the cymbals. Or perhaps it was to get the best possible performance of each part and subpart of the record. Or to sound like a precise machine, devoid of human imperfections…and feel. The (real, not sarcastic) good news was that we had a new benchmark for sonic clarity; the bad news was that we had no idea if our record would feel good until we heard all the overdubs together, which might require several days per song.

The previous old-school way to record a band was to have the musicians perform live together in the same room, or at least in isolation booths with line of sight to one another. Even if we might want to add copious overdubs later, we knew immediately if the we had a record that felt good. If the basic tracks–the foundation–got everybody excited, we could proceed to the next task.  If not, we would simply record additional takes until we got one that we liked, or a few partials that we could edit together into a righteous composite take.

Enter Hole. Four musicians, three of them women. I introduced myself and asked them about their music so that I could determine where to set them up in the studio. Radio Tokyo Studio was a small cottage in Venice Beach, California, converted to a carpet cave den of musical discovery. Due to SubPop’s limited budget, I already knew that I had to capture the band as “live” as possible, without resorting to tedious overdubs, so inspiration was the name of the game. And I knew that we needed to get the band into the inspiration zone quickly.

Hole’s excellent guitarist, Eric Erlandson, had a couple surprises for me. First, he was a guy. Not that it mattered, but Bruce Pavitt repeatedly referred to the group as a girl band. Second, and more important, was the fact that he was a sonic sculptor with a vision. He showed me his rat’s nest of stompbox pedal FX at his feet, precariously DIY connected, without regard for impedance or noise issues. My first thought was, “Uh oh,” and the second was, “We better tidy up the mess of cables before somebody trips on them and sues the studio.”

Eric then asked one of the most pivotal, game-changer questions I’ve ever heard: “Should I use my cheap FX, or shall I unplug them and use your expensive, hi-fi, rack-mounted studio effects?”

I asked, “Do you like your tone? Is there a reason you want to change your sound?” As enlightened as my reply seems, it was in large part the result of a pragmatic consideration. Eric had a dozen pedals connected in series. Delays, reverb, fuzz, distortion, overdrive, chorus, flanger, tremolo, etc. Frankly, I wouldn’t know where to start, and I could imagine us slipping down the rabbit hole in pursuit of an artistic (as opposed to traditional) effects-laden guitar tone. We simply didn’t have the budget to risk going there.

Fortunately, Eric said, “I love my tone!”

MJ: “Okay, let’s hear it.”

EE: (Plays some riffs that are nearly indecipherable through the wall of art-noise.) “What do you think?”

MJ: “I think that your tone is unique, and I’m not convinced that I could beat it with the expensive studio stuff. Let’s start with your pedals. When I hear your sound in the context of the band, I’ll tell you if I have any suggestions for improvement. Cool?”

EE: “Wow, that’s awesome! You’re the first person who has ever allowed me to record with my sound. Thank you!”

Although I didn’t understand Eric’s textural sound in a vacuum, I must say that in context it truly enhanced the emotional impact of the songs. It beautifully complemented Courtney Love’s urgent rhythmic drive. My world changed in an instant. No longer would I complicate the process simply because it was expected. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. I would henceforth take the path of least resistance and be open to serendipity.

So… What about Courtney? Is she talented, or did all the good stuff come from Kurt Cobain or Billy Corgan? I’ve been asked those questions for years.

I still remember the day I met Ms. Love. She had a sense of style, perhaps one that could be called Thrift Store Chic. Green crushed velvet sundress over a white T-shirt, paired with white bobby socks and black Doc Martin oxford shoes, not the logger’s boots, nor the flannel shirt, that would soon become de regeur for Seattle’s music scene.

While we were setting up the band’s equipment, Courtney’s conversation was mostly quiet and understated, and had little to do with music. She talked about how she was being portrayed on Page 3 of the British tabloids, thanks to her celebrity status gained from her acting role in the film Sid and Nancy. And then I heard her sing.  Holy cow!

SubPop didn’t mail me any demo tapes before the recording sessions, so I had no idea what to expect, other than the band was a gritty Hole, not a New Age, bliss-ninny, colon-cleansed Whole. I knew that this band was important to Mr. Pavitt, so I signed up for the job. Anyway, I pressed Record, and the band fell into a trancelike atmospheric mood piece with quiet vocals. The sonic texture was so hypnotic that I became totally relaxed, at one with my studio chair behind the console. I wondered if this was similar to the experience of ingesting magic mushrooms or other hallucinogens. I became the chair–with a human head. Whoa… what a trip!

And then the SCREEEEAAAAMMMM happened, completely without warning! I swear to you that I nearly launched like a rocket from my chair-body-thing. Felt like I was lucky to have not cracked open my skull on the carpeted ceiling. Almost had a heart attack.  I heard myself say, “This is truly epic!” And it was. Courtney’s intense delivery made me actually feel something from the band’s music. (I find it interesting that, 25 years later, Adele’s “Hello” is the current poster child for vocal performances with conviction. Super Producer Michael Beinhorn, who produced Hole’s successful Celebrity Skin and is a beacon of truth about the current state of the record business, might have some intriguing then vs. now thoughts. Check out his excellent blog, How To Save Popular Music.)

Courtney definitely had talent. As I wrote earlier, her rhythm guitar playing drove the band. Not fancy, but visceral. Her vocal performance got my body moving, quite literally. She and Eric were writing about rape, incest, child molestation and women taking the blame despite being the victims. I knew she was going to be a rockstar the moment we met. Frankly, she already was a rockstar, only the world didn’t yet know it.

As a postscript, I’ll mention the sad news that sometimes there is a hefty price tag attached to talent. Artists often see our world from a different perspective than the mainstream populace. According to the media, Courtney had her demons, which she attempted to vanquish with chemical assistance. I cannot personally confirm this because she wasn’t high during the “Dicknail” and “Burnblack” recording sessions, but I can say that her one of her husbands, who was a VP of A&R at Geffen Records, personally told me that there was a five year period of the ’90s that had become “a blank” for Courtney, completely erased from her memory. The guy was still happily married to her at the time, so he wasn’t bashing his wife. We shared a rare moment of silence (well, rare in the context of an A&R meeting) contemplating how sad it was for someone so young to flush such a big percentage of life experience down the chute. Fame ain’t easy.

MJ Puerto Rico guitar 1986
The ’80s were good to me. Arecibo, Puerto Rico, 1986.

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.

 

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!

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.
 

Life Lessons: New Perspectives 

 

Robben Ford’s excellent Concord debut, Blue Moon

 

My previous blog post was initially going to be about a life lesson that I learned when I first worked with Robben Ford. Instead I took a tangent and wrote about the serendipitous chain of events that led to meeting him. Cool story, but I never got around to the life lesson. Without further ado, here’s the intended story.

On second thought, let’s roll with a little bit more ado to set up the story.

Around Y2K, or the Millennium that was going to crash the world’s financial institutions, I had a room at Goodnight LA, formerly Keith Olsen’s studio featured in Dave Grohl’s Sound City documentary film. By then, both facilities were well beyond their heyday, but there was still vibrant music being recorded in the compound.

I chose the word “compound” because the two buildings shared a parking lot and were situated such that they reminded me of a fortress. The compound was an outpost of vital rock music in a sunbleached industrial area known for a scuttled brewery garden and a Ford dealership large enough to justify having its own cafeteria.

Sheltered from the outside world, but cloistered in “studio dusk”, I had a daily ritual of taking a “daylight break” in the late afternoon. I’d occasionally run into producer Ross Robinson, who was recording Slipknot’s Iowa.  We’d shoot the shit for a while before returning to our respective sessions.  One day Ross looked dazed, so I asked if he was doing well. He said, “I don’t know…today I threw a potted plant at my band.” When I asked why, he said it was the only way he could get the guys to play with feeling.

I’ve deployed some unusual techniques to inspire a sublime performance, but I have yet to hurl flora, fauna or insults at a drummer. I did, however, allow a singer (Dusty from Siezure Salad, who introduced me to L7) to duct tape headphones to his noggin. I could have talked some sense into him, but he was so far off his game that a major “pattern interruption” was indicated. The guy transformed from the “I’m flailing” dude to the “Look at me and my long hair and my duct tape!”, life of the party, superhero. His band and I cheered him on, with complete disregard for the fact that Dusty would eventually have to remove the industrial strength sticky stuff FROM HIS HAIR! He became a cartoon character and proceeded to sing his ass off.

Five epic songs later he pulled a bunch of hair out of his scalp, and he may have also lost an eyebrow if I recall correctly.

Although I personally wouldn’t respond well to flying plants or adhesive headphones, I do appreciate the fact that a change of perspective can be a powerful tool. We all tend to engage autopilot mode when we remain in comfortable familiar environments too long. A new stimulus at the right time can be a catalyst for growth.

My comfort zone was for a short period Goodnight LA. Ironically, I couldn’t stand the way the control room sounded. The mixing console was an extremely rare Trident Di-An, a digitally controlled analog mixing desk. Because it had very few control knobs to diffuse the early reflections off its large surface, it contributed to sonic havoc. It worked for Keith Olsen, but not for me.

Rather than being a martyr, I decided to change my environment to gain some fresh perspective and, hopefully, inspiration. I liked the sound of the live room, so I moved all of my producer racks from the control room to the live room. (In case you don’t know, a producer rack is typically a portable road case containing specialized pro audio recording equipment that supplements a studio’s in-house gear.) I added a groovy writing desk, a bank of faders, a comfy sofa and some speakers on stands, and all of a sudden had a terrific control room! I recall thinking how funny it was to set up guitar amps, drum kits and expensive German tube microphones in the relatively cramped space in front of the Trident desk, while I enjoyed an expansive posh environment designed exactly for the opposite of what I was doing.

An example of producer racks to the right of the console

I quickly adjusted to my new surroundings, and began thriving. My ears were good and my confidence was high. I was the king of my castle.

One day Robben Ford came by to listen to the first mix I ever did for him. Little did I know that four sentences, with a total of seventeen words, would become game changers for me.

I greet Robben in the reception area and walk him past the control room, into the studio’s live room. He wasn’t expecting that, but he embraced the unorthodox setup. Upon seeing six 20-space racks filled with coveted and storied boutique analog outboard gear, Robben turns to me with a smile, and says sentence number one: “Nice axe!”

Axe is a common euphemism among musicians for instrument. My immediate reaction was to think, “Wait…what? My guitars and amps are on the other side of the room.” Fortunately that thought remained holstered, courtesy of my inside voice, and the only word that made it past my lips was, “Thanks.”

I quickly understood that Robben’s perception of me was as a mix engineer, not as a guitarist. He didn’t need a guitarist — he is, after all, Robben Ford, one of the most revered guitarists of all time. But he did need a mixer, so that’s who I was in his mind.

Lesson #1: no matter who we believe we are, we are to others the person they perceive us to be.

Like it or not, that’s just the way it is, so be aware of it and make it work for you.

After geeking out on gear, we listened to my mix of an early version of Riley B King, a song that later surfaced as a duet with Keb Mo. I love that song. It was a tribute and love letter to BB King. There were many layers upon layers of guitars and keyboards. Somehow I managed to fit everything into the mix. I knew that I knocked it out of the park.

I’m standing behind Robben as he listens, and I see him sway in time with the music. The mix is moving him, quite literally. This is a very good sign! He turns around with a big Cheshire cat smile, and asks, “May I hear it again? Can we turn it up?” Of course we can!

We listen to the playback at a nice loud volume, and Robben is clearly into the mix. He’s rocking, nodding his head, turning around and flashing a grin of pleasure every few moments. I’m very excited about this, especially given that he is one of my favorite recording artists of all time. I feel great about making him feel great!

The song ends and he turns around, with his huge charismatic and warm smile, and says, “Wow, it’s so clear. I can hear everything.”

My brain momentarily paused there, basking in the afterglow of hitting a walk off home run. And then…I realized he was still talking. The full statement was. “Wow, it’s so clear. I can hear everything. I don’t know what to listen to.”

Uh oh. Brain.Must.Process. What just happened?!

Fortunately, as a pro I’ve learned that you can’t please everyone, all the time. Rather than panic, I simply and matter-of-factly asked if he could tell me a little bit more about his thoughts so that I could decode them and give him a mix that he would love. He said, “I forgot I played all those parts, so my ears are attracted to them instead of the important stars of the show: my singing and my guitar soloing.”

I responded, “Let’s start by simply making those two elements a little bit louder, and take a listen.” I turned them both up just one decibel, and Robben enthusiastically approved the mix. His words: “There it is! We’re good to go. Thank you.”

Lesson #2: no matter what we know to be true, our definition of true is not always the same as someone else’s.

In this case, I had previously thought that the definition of a good mix was one in which you could hear everything clearly. The instant that I heard Robben say that he didn’t know what to listen to, was the moment of a major paradigm shift. My approach to mixing immediately shifted from technical aesthetic considerations (“it’s punchy and I can hear everything!) to visceral emotional resonance (“This song makes me feel something!”)

The rules of the game had officially changed, and the goalpost had been irreversibly moved. Never again would I mix to impress my engineer friends; I would only mix to make my artists feel whatever they wanted their listeners to feel. That was the catalyst that made my career as a mix engineer take off.

So there you have it. Seventeen little words changed the way that I approached my interactions with other people. See things from their perspective, not just mine. One can learn a lot by crawling into someone else’s head.

As a related parting thought, I’ll share some of the best advice that my attorney gave me before entering an important meeting with a major label president: “There’s a reason that God gave you two ears, but only one mouth.” Think about it…a lot!

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.)