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Using Live to 2-Track

L22TinStudioBMalcolm Addey came in to record Nanette Natal on February 11, 2011. He used live to 2-track to analog 1/4″ tape to record her and her band in Studio B. Malcolm and Nanette were kind enough to allow us to share how their session was recorded.

The instrumentation was electric upright bass (sometimes known as a pogo stick), drums (drummer also played bongos and bell tree), electric doubling acoustic guitar, and Nanette who also played acoustic guitar and sang vocals. The session layout in Studio B is shown here.

I asked Malcolm a few questions about the live to 2-track recording method.

1. What is a live to 2-track session (definition)?

The actual real time mix of the live performance is stored onto the 2-track medium of choice with no possibility of further post session remixing. Although the mix is final, however, corrections are possible by editing. Live to 2-track stereo (except for mono) was the only recording method available before the advent of multiple track recording using 3 or more tracks. The introduction of which increased recording budgets enormously because of tape cost, extensive use of studio time and the ability for performers to overdub and remix ad infinitum.

2. What preparation / setup do you like to use for this type of session?

The acoustic isolation on instruments or vocalists essential on a multi track session is obviously not such a consideration as on a live 2-track date. Therefore I am able to place the musicians much closer to each other. Sometimes this obviates the necessity of using headphones – a situation I always prefer as musicians play much more naturally when they can hear themselves acoustically in the same room. All situations are different, of course, and my decisions would be based upon, among other things, the type of music involved, the studio space and the comfort of the musicians themselves.

3. When is live to 2-track a good option?

There is something exciting and immediate about this form of recording not enjoyed in multiple track techniques which rather tend to produce a “we can overdub that” or “we can fix it in the mix” mentality. But, of course, this is the only option when the multiple track technology is an integral part of the creative process as in pop and rock. Essential ingredients to success are an engineer who has much experience in this form of recording and a producer with a full understanding of both the limitations and advantages of direct to stereo.

4. What are some (notable) examples of a live to 2-track session (that you worked on)?

A difficult question. I would estimate that about a third to half of my working life’s output of more than 50 years was recorded in this format. I do not subscribe to the view that a given recording’s association with super star names is any measurement of that recording’s note. Too subjective and for others to judge.

5. Do you have a favorite live to 2-track session story you would like to share?

Not specifically but the most common is the reaction when a performer who asks to “punch in” something is told it is not possible!

6. Was there something special or different about the way you engineered the Nanette Natal session in Studio B?

MalcolmAndNateNanette likes the warmth and natural dynamics of the sound I produce for her. Contributing to that, I’m sure, is my choice and placement of microphones and avoidance of EQ. As mentioned above the musicians are placed as comfortably close to each other as possible with minimal use of screens. Nanette herself stands freely among them and not in a booth. Avatar’s Studio B is the perfect room for her and if one listens carefully, the sound of the room can clearly be heard. In no small measure is this due to the lack of need for acoustical isolation.

One final point. Direct to 2-track stereo recording is not to be confused with stereo recording with only two microphones. That is an entirely different subject!

Why Preparing for Mixing is like Preparing to do Taxes

ManyTracksBy equating the process of preparing your tracks for mixing to the annual ritual of preparing for tax returns, artists out there may be offended. How can you confuse a step in the artistic process of audio production to something as mundane as accounting (now I’ve offended the accountants)? Aside from the fact that accountants can be creative (now I really have insulted them), the reality is that both processes require the owner of the information to be organized.

If you have someone doing the taxes for you, you would not hand your accountant a shopping bag full of receipts, would you? I suppose you could, but someone has to go through the receipts and categorize them by the type of expenses. That will naturally drive up the cost of filing the tax return because of the labor involved to sort through the receipts, even if a junior accountant does the work. If you happen to do your own taxes, you would be the one having to spend the time doing this task.

It is no different when it comes to handing over all your recorded tracks to a mixer. In a world where there are hardly any limitations on the number of tracks you could have, without some discipline or systematic way of organizing your tracks, you could easily end up with a whole bunch of tracks in no particular order or grouping, not to mention with any sort of half-intelligible descriptions. The mixer being handed a “shopping bag full” of tracks, would have to go through and figure out which tracks are what and how they fit in timing-wise and in what context of the song. In many cases, that takes hours, sometimes days if the track count is high and depending on how unorganized the entire package is.

If you are an artist that just spent a whole lot of energy dreaming up and playing the notes and took the trouble recording them all, why not go the extra step to arrange what you have so that it is closer to how you envisioned the music, even if you are handing it over to a mixer. After all, it is your creation and you should take ownership of it. Each component of your creation should be treated with at least some measure of care. By doing so, your mixer will reward you by being able to fully concentrate on the business of mixing, the reason your hired him or her in the first place.

ColorChannelsHere are some simple guidelines on organizing your tracks:

1. Make sure you label each track. Use descriptive wording. Don’t use trk1, trk2 or audio1, audio2, …etc. (Don’t laugh, it happens more often than you think).

2. If you are using Pro Tools, use the comment field to mention any additional details about the track.

3. Group by instrumentation, e.g. drums, guitars, vocals. Color-code them to make it visually easier to tell them apart.

Lessons from Old School Mixing

TapeSpinningRecently, we participated in an experiment with engineer, Roy Hendrickson, who wanted to deliberately mix a song he is producing, the “old-fashioned way” – on an analog console using two Studer A800 24-track tape machines with the Pro Tools rig turned off. Roy wanted to see how the mix would come out given the limitations of a non-DAW mix situation, the way he used to work prior to the year 2000.

The first order of business was to take 103-tracks of music from the DAW and whittle them down to 46-tracks. This meant coming up with a mixing strategy and making many decisions on what to combine at what levels and committing to those choices. This sub-mixing process is crucial step number one.

The multi-track was then transferred to 46 tracks on two synchronized 2-inch tape recorders. This is crucial step number two. As an illustration of how analog tape changes the general sound, Roy took an output of the DAW, recorded it on a 2-inch tape machine, and set it up so that he can A-B the playback of the tape with the direct output of DAW. Running it through tape seem to “widen” the sound with fuller lows and highs.

Two Studer A800 machines were set up to be controlled by an SSL-4000G+ console. Each track was mapped to the console and labeled. At this point, the DAW was “turned off” and Roy started mixing working solely on the console.

What struck me while watching Roy work was how much “better” one listened and how much more he was able to concentrate on the creative or artistic aspects of mixing. Let me explain. Without having to stare at the screen and having to concentrate on visual information, he was focusing his full attention on hearing. I’m sure I can find evidence from studies that visual stimulation will take up a disproportionate amount of processing power of the brain and thus taking a lot away from the other senses including auditory. The physical act of mixing was like a dance using whole body movements covering the span of the console. The tactile nature of making fine adjustments seemed to invite experimentation, which in turn generated more ideas. This was crucial step number three.

The pauses that occurred between tape rewind and playback actually seemed to enhance the experience by allowing the mixer time to contemplate a move or review the last one, and to provide a brief break between listening. The tweaks became more deliberate and one concentrated more on listening to the changes. Of course, this is only an impression and cannot be scientifically proven, but the pacing seemed more natural and in rhythm with the flow.

Needless to say, the final mix sounded great. Whether the same result could have been obtained while working in the box is debatable. However, the time spent in consolidating the tracks and working strictly on the console, definitely shortened overall mix time for the track. I will leave the details of technical and workflow findings to Roy, who will write up his own observations and publish them on his Web site.

Three Budgets

3ChoicesWe constantly have discussions internally on how artists budget for sessions and trying to see from the clients’ perspective the difficulties they face. In one of these conversations, Roy Hendrickson told us about how he advises his clients to make up three different budgets – low, medium and high and write down the pros and cons of each option. This seemed like a very sensible suggestion. Roy is particularly sensitive to these types of decisions because he has to mix what has been recorded, often after poor choices have been exercised. If one thinks through all the choices and implications of choosing one over the other with both eyes open, at least there won’t be too big a surprise, i.e. budget overruns.

Because of financial limitations, there are tradeoffs and it is important to understand what the consequences are. Assuming that you had plenty of rehearsals and the songs are fully fleshed out, the first big branch in the decision tree is how large the room should be and how many booths you need. The key decision is isolation. Do you want to play together or will you record one instrument at a time? If the former, can you get enough isolation between each member? If you can’t get enough, it will be very difficult to “fix” things later. If you use a one-instrument-at-a-time “overdub strategy”, you will obviously be spending more time recording. Time, in this case, adds up to more money even though you’ve opted for a lower room rate.

Can your band members play well enough? Do you plan to do a lot of “fixing” later? Will you be using session players? Will they be “first call” musicians or someone further down the list?

If you are playing together, does the studio have enough (of the right) microphones, mic stands, outboard gear…etc., all the items you need? Even if there is enough gear, do they work?

Add up all the time in the studio. How do the figures compare? We haven’t even begun to discuss the sound of the room.

Now, let’s look at post-tracking activities. Was the singing / playing in tune and in time? Does each track sound good and clean? You will begin to see the effects of the tradeoff you made in the room sound and quality of recording at this point. Will the tracks require a lot of “fixing”? Who will do it? Unfortunately, much of the “fix” time is hidden in the mixing process, especially if the mixer wants the end result to sound halfway decent and is not willing to deliver a sub par mix. Many artists do not realize how quickly the mix can happen if you have well recorded tracks.

Now add up all the time. I hope you are not under a deadline.

When money is tight, usually time and someone else’s effort substitutes for actual out of pocket expenses. Maybe the end result is good enough for your fans as a MP3 download.

At the end of the day, it is all about efficiency in the studio and the ease in which mixing is done. There are hidden costs, whether it is quality or the amount of time spent. A chart comparing dollars, time, effort with pros and cons is a very useful tool to plan out your sessions and be aware up front of what the tradeoffs are.

Secrets of Avatar

StudioADomeWhat makes Studio A sound good?

The AES Conference held in New York in 2007 coincided with the 30th anniversary of our studio (Power Station + Avatar). To commemorate the occasion, there was a Grammy Recording Soundtable with the founders and staff from The Power Station as panelists.

During the panel discussion, Tony Bongiovi, the designer of the studio, explained how Studio A was conceptualized and designed. During the ’70s, most studio live rooms were designed to be dead mainly because of the need to do multitrack recording. In these rooms, musicians had a hard time hearing themselves or each other when they performed. Tony’s design goal was to create a reverb time based room for multitrack recording. If you look at Studio A’s live room, the dome shaped surfaces are curved in to create a space where reflective distances are no greater than 30 msec from the sound source. The space was designed specifically for musicians to hear each other play and not have them play hard, all for the sake of capturing a better performance. That is why the room is great for horns and strings and the players like it.

To preserve the need for isolation, booths were added to the side, which was being done at Motown Studios in Detroit at the time.

The great drum sound that the room became known for was an accidental by-product of the design. The drums were originally meant to be placed and recorded in the rear “rhythm room” isolation booth. One day, as an experiment, the drums were brought out into the main room (“string room”) and that is when the massive room sound was discovered.

As for the control room, the common control room design at the time was to build a concrete bunker with lots of bass traps, which effectively made the space smaller. The Power Station control rooms used a diaphragmatic absorption technique where the rooms adjoining the control room, e.g. lounges, machine shop in the rear, were used as bass traps. Instead of being sound barriers, the sound passed through some of the walls by design. Yet the control room still maintained a 35dB separation from the live room.

All control rooms – A, B, C and G – share the same design philosophy and dimensions. The idea was to be able to hear the tracks the same way from room to room.

Want to get the “Motown Sound”? Do it with Avatar’s Chamber #2.

In the ’60s, everyone was fascinated by the “Motown Sound” including Tony Bongiovi. In fact, it was what got him interested in audio engineering. He wanted to unravel the mystery of that distinct sound. He knew part of it was the live echo chamber they used, which had an extremely short decay time. He suspected that it was “designed wrong” or they made a mistake when it was built. To prove his theory, he built a 4-channel mixer in the garage and tried to replicate the sound by adding the echo to an already existing Motown record modifying the signal going into the garage. When Tony discovered that one of the bathrooms in the basement of the then Power Station had a short decay time, he took what he learned from experimenting in his garage and was able to recreate the Motown live chamber sound pretty closely. The bathroom is still an active live chamber today and is used a lot by clients who know about it. If you want the “Motown Sound”, just ask for Chamber #2.

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