The Lowdown

new to the blog? read the introduction to get a quick overview of what this blog is all about. then surf around and read whatever is of interest.


The Loudness Wars Over?

Metalica started it and maybe they will be the thing to cease it. Compressing the hell out of a program in the mastering stage has been going on for so long -- see Coldplay's latest album! -- that it's become a cliche. But no one stopped trying. And yet you constantly read about engineers talk about putting more dynamics into released music. Well, i think the pendulum is about to swing back. And it's a good thing.

First Times

my Studio and Recording I lab last night read "free lab" in the syllabus. not knowing what that meant -- i'm just getting reacquainted with the whole college concept again: studying, reading, 3 hour lectures, bratty little adolescents -- i showed up and no one from my lab was there except the lab tech. and he was helping this gal from another lab track some stuff. so i walked into the recording studio and sat at the piano and started tinkering. i took a beginning piano class this term and it's my first real exposure to it. but a few of the songs from the workbook came to me so i was playing around.

Johnny told me to put the headphones on; i did. through the headphones Johnny said he'd be playing a song and i should add the piano parts to it. what the hell? i asked him what key it was in and he said, "i guess you'll figure it out." he didn't realize that i was new to piano. anyway, he the track is sort of jazzy funk and i went through my reportoire and found that this little blues riff i had learned fit pretty good. i went with it.

we were doing about a minute long song since it was just for learning experience. they asked me to do two more passes, one just "tinkling on the high keys" and another just throwing in some ambient chords. i did my best. then i went into the control room as they added reverb and eq and other enhancements to the tracks and did a quick and dirty mix down. all the while saying i had done great. it felt awesome.

when they were done and the student had left, Johnny asked if i wanted to run the board while he played and i jumped at the opportunity. we tracked two drum passes with different rhythms on the snare as i pecked and hunted for the right knobs to record, then send his current takes along with previous takes to his headphones. then we added a bassline with him playing the hi-hat with his foot -- i was laughing at that. it was a quick and dirty job, but fortunately the hi-hat sounded decent bleeding into the bass track and a little eq and compression popped the whole thing. we mixed those 3 tracks down to a stereo pair on tape. then i recorded three different piano parts. we added some delay and got the levels right then mixed down the three tracks to a streo pair to another 2 tracks on the MTR. finally we bounced it all to CD through a little bit more compression/limiter for a quick and dirty studio session recording.

that was my first taste at engineering a tracking session and then mixing it down, albeit perfection was not the goal. very excited about this class now.

Photos from Production Class

i was finally able to track down a classmate from the Mississippi Studios Production class who had taken many photos during class. he passed a few representative shots along.

Photos from class

Tell Us A Little About How You Got Here

i'm now taking a second term of music classes at the community college. and i realize that this is real. this is me yearning to learn about this monster that has consumed me forever and my mind is trying to find ways of putting it into words and action.

i'm taking a credit course this term. and the class is way more "real." i.e. mid-terms, syllabus, finals, labs, etc.. as i was sitting in first class i thought, "should i be here? this is like going back to school!" and it is. and it's great.

they always start the first class with going around the room and asking, "tell us why you're here." and i said, "well, i played drums and dj'd for years and now i want to get on the other side of it." something like that.

and i'm sitting here reading the assigned chapters from Modern Recordingn Techniques, and suddenly i started thinking about how i really got here. and in my mind it went something like this:

it started with punk rock. in my teens i went to all these shows, dragged along by my childhood friend chris, and i was awestruck by the power of a live show. but i didn't really analyze it any more than that at the time.

then, i got into the grateful dead. i listened to these bootlegs and was amazed at the power, variation, and affirming quality of the live show. then i attended some shows and would always leave in awe again. of the sound, the experience, the transendence.

then i got into hip hop. still a teenager. and this time around the music hit a similar impulse in me to move and dance and get caught up in it. to feel it. i started going to see scratch dj's and competitions and beat-boxers and started to really appreciate the art and talent behind it. i was getting older, had more language for it, was closer to it.

then i started DJ'ing. and the performance was there. moving the crowd. i started to get an ear for what made people respond, from the content to the sound system.

and i put that together and dreamt about going on the road and doing sound for a band that moved the crowd, to get caught up in all that. that's when i bought the "sound bible." Yamaha's Sound Reinforcement Handbook. i tried to read that thing. it was like trying to read the dictionary...with math!

i ketp Dj'ing, kept collecting, listening to music, while it all swirled around my head subconsciously.

as i kept DJ'ing i yearned to become a musician. there are turntablists. but i didn't practice. so i never felt like a musician so much. i was a "selector." and that's all and good. no doubt! it still stokes me heavily.

my boy Mark was a drummer and somehow or other he ended up giving me a set of drums and then i found a band. and we learned 2 songs and played a warehouse party. and it all just kept building on itself to stoke the fire. i started going to more live shows finally. seeking out the bands that moved me. many memorable shows: shortcut and z-trip! bracket! countless good stuff at Great American Music Hall.

then our company put together a band for the christmas party and i DJ'd with the band. we played the fucking Fillmore SF! then we got invited to play the Great American! performing! and while i was performing i was enamored of the sound guys. geeking out on the technical shit. sound reinforcement. that's probably when i bought the sound bible.

then i moved to portland, was in a band with friends for a couple of insanely fun years doing the most outlandish shows, albeit on an unknown scale. and i was still fascinated by the recording/sound reinforcement aspect of that. that's also when i learned that making music meant dealing with personalities. oy.

and then the dystonia. no more drumming. still DJ'ing, but i was more interested in the creation of music (which DJ'ing most definitely is, but i wanted to make the music the DJ's were spinning!).

so i bought some computer gear to make music at the home studio. i bought and read tons of books, dabbled in many of the DAWs for my mac. but i needed guidance. and the yearning for knowledge. so i looked up some classes and that's how i fell into the Mississippi Studios class. and that made the spark really burn!

so here i am, trying to learn, from every damn angle. and it makes the head spin. so much to learn. so much joy in it. but it hasn't all gelled yet. so i pursue. and smile.

but that would be too long to go into in that brief synopsis the class is looking for and i thought i'd try to puke it out here from my head.

maybe it makes some sense?


For our final production & recording class we met over at Mississippi Studios for some more in depth discussion on the differences between engineering and production.

The producer wears many hats and comes in many varieties. T-Bone Burnett was mentioned as having a very extreme style one way, versus someone, say Steve Albini. a producer is definitely trying to get the best performance from the musicians, whereas the engineer is just doing the technical stuff to get the music down. but a producer should ask questions well before ever hiring an engineer. what's the purpose of the album? should they even be doing it at this phase, etc.. after asking a lot of meta questions, he becomes a project manager, a psychologist, an HR person, etc...

after the discussion we drove over to Nick Moon's studio to do mastering on Jonathon's piece. Mastering is taking the stereo mixed songs for an album and preparing them for manufacture (or online distro). Will "normalize" the volume across an album and do last adjustments to get best sound. And possibly prepare a redbook CD that will be used to make a master.

Nick has a really nice place out in troutdale. the studio is small and intimate but is great-sounding and he has incredible gear. a few of the things that i learned here:

A/B'ing: comparing track A with B. this can be comparing current song with a favorite CD that has the sound you are going for, or is comparing before and after of current song. "A/B'ing" gets thrown out there a lot. Also found out the sidechaining has a few meanings and in that environment you could sidechain an EQ in front of a compressor so that you only compress certain frequencies.

Also, ISRC codes are used when creating audio files for download online so that the publishing companies can track them.

well, that's about it. a lot was learned. i think next i'm going to take a dedicated recording class if the professor will let me in. if not, i hope to take a music theory on keyboard class.

Production Class

The Production and Recording class I took through PCC ended last week. I'm really glad to have a weeknight open up but I'll miss that class. That was exactly what i needed to get some excitement and motivation put back into me with the music thing. Jim and Graham and Jonathon and all the people who let us into their studios and taught us interesting stuff -- they were all great.

i wish i would have written more during the class while it was fresh in my head, but i'll jot down here the things that i remember and stick out.

For class 5 we went out to Crossroads to have Darren there mix down Jonathon's song. They've got an 80 channel SSL board there, fully analog steelo. Rumor has it Dr. Dre used to use those knobs! That class really drove home the concept that i learned while reading my Logic book. The way to make room in a mix for an instrument, there are 4 ways: stereo location, frequency separation, space and volume. Darren did a good job of EQ'ing out the different tracks to "excite" the music but to also have it cut through and not be muddy (masking). He also had this great trick where he put a speaker into little room, mic'd it, and would create analog, real-time reverb by sending a track to that room and picking up the reverb on another track. good stuff. also, beside his great big monitors (which i can't recall offhand) he had a pair of the industry standard Yamaha NS10's. seems every studio has a pair of these: "if you can make it sound good on those, it'll sound good anywhere."

Another handy tip was to monitor it mono to make sure it sounds good that way. This will show possible phase problems, etc..

Next time i'll write about our last class which was a visit out to a mastering place in troutdale. We got deeper into the producer vs. engineer question also.