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5 things they don’t teach you in audio school

5 things they don’t teach you in audio school

Networking

I hate the word “networking.” Having a lot of friends, being popular, having a good reputation, whatever you want to call it, it’s important and can make someone’s career. Going back to my previous post “[Even more] Things I wish I knew sooner about audio engineering” I used to be negative to anyone or anything that I saw as competitive. The truth is I was just insecure about my skills and talents that I felt putting other people down would make me better or at least feel better. Well, it turns out that didn’t work at all and a better approach would have been to be friendly and kind to everyone.

I went to school with a talented producer. No one I was friends with but my school was so small it was hard not to know everyone. This guy ends up getting a publishing deal, moving to LA, writing for Rihanna and then signing a record deal and bringing all his friends from college on tour with him as his band. This is only one scenario but being friends with someone was the catalyst of their career. One credit isn’t going to make you, but it can be a launching pad and set off a chain reaction. Get out there and make some friends.

Now, saying this and doing this are two different things. I’m sure a lot of you probably have heard someone say “you need to network” at least a few times. But what do they actually mean? How do I “network”? Just be friendly, approach people you wouldn’t usually approach, go out when you feel like staying in, help people out if you have access to something they don’t. Print up business cards to hand out to people you meet and ask for theirs. Follow up on social media and keep the relationship going. These small things don’t seem like a lot, but if you keep doing it eventually, they start to add up.

Internships

Be humble, don’t ask questions at the wrong times, be proactive. These are all things that will make you a good intern. It’s incredible how many bad, socially inept interns there are.

Bad intern stories? I’ve heard of everything from an intern asking to work with a client because he’s dropping a new mixtape to one trying to steal clients away from the studio. Don’t be an asshole, realize that people opening their doors to you are doing you the favor and not the other way around. Trust me when you first start interning at a studio you’re way more of a burden than an asset. They don’t need you to be there. Make yourself useful and make sure they don’t think you’re taking up more space than you’re worth.

Getting clients

Having the best gear or the best room isn’t enough, people have to want to work with you. Your work should speak for itself, but your relationships with people are what’s going to be the deciding factor on if people want to spend their money and time making art with you. This goes back to networking, the more people you know, the more chances you have at finding clients.

Interacting with clients

I can’t blame audio schools for this one as this is another life skill that’s difficult to teach. It deals with how good you are with people… Are you easy to talk to? Do you seem enthusiastic? Are you fun? These skills are beneficial in all aspects of life. Someone that’s fun to be around and people generally find nice is going to get further no matter what industry they’re in. Some people are innately good at these things, and there are others who aren’t. These things are difficult to teach, but that doesn’t mean you can’t work on them. Try to be self aware of your interactions and work on things you aren’t good at. I never liked small talk, but I realize now it’s an essential part of social interactions so I make an effort to do it even if I’d naturally prefer not to.

Good taste

What guitar should you use? Does that section in the chorus work? Is that singer out of tune? Does that drum fill sound good?

There isn’t a class “Good Taste 101.” Most people have terrible taste (these are the people you’ll be working with, by the way). You can learn some of these things with experience but for the most part your taste and what you prefer as an individual is uniquely your own.

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[Even more] Things I wish I learned sooner about audio engineering

Stop, collaborate, and listen: become friends with other audio engineers

I’m naturally very competitive, so when I used to hear about another person getting a job or going to school for audio engineering, I would be jealous and negative. I’d later realize that one person getting a job doesn’t mean they took that job away from me. I could have looked at it positively and said to myself if that person could get the job, then so can I. Since graduating from school I’ve become closer with people in the industry and these relationships have been invaluable. It’s the same in all aspects of life — hang out with people above you and absorb everything they know. If you are always the biggest fish in the pond, you’ll never be able to take in the knowledge of someone else who is better and knows more than you. Many of the jobs I’ve gotten are directly related to other engineers either recommending me or needing help with something.

Don’t repeatedly do something just because you saw someone else do it.

Your favorite engineer likes to use a lot of compression? Records everything in stereo? Doesn’t use any outboard gear?

Don’t do something just because someone you admire does it. These are good places to start and experiment, but there isn’t only one way to do things. Just because something works for one person does not mean it will work for you. Try everything, but recognize what works and what doesn’t work for you.

Things won’t just fall into place

Maybe it was because I was lazy, maybe I was just too new to understand, but for some reason, I subconsciously thought that my mixes would fall together on their own. A change of level here, a little compression there, some reverb on the vocals… WHAT?! It still doesn’t sound like a top 40 mix?!

Over time, I learned that I need to be conscious of everything that is happening in a mix. Workflow in mixing is almost as important as the techniques that you’re implementing. I like to start with the loudest part of the song and work my way down in 30 second sections. This allows me to focus on each part of the song in pieces so it’s easier to digest and there aren’t any surprises later. Try new ways and find out which works best for you.

Low pass filters

There aren’t only high pass filters! You can also roll off the high end with a low pass. Taming the high end is greatly beneficial to keeping the space in your mix as well as letting the tracks that you want accentuate shine through.

Try this: low pass every track, except for the vocals, and hear how much more it pops out of the mix. The contrast allows your vocal tracks to cut through better.

Tune those drums

I didn’t hear what well tuned drums sounded like until I was 10 years into recording. Steve Holly, who used to play with Paul McCartney’s Wings, stopped by Sabella Studios to work with a country artist whose album we had been producing. Before starting, he asked to listen to the song and what key it was.  A few listens later he wrote out complete charts and went into the live room to work on tuning the drums and choosing the appropriate snare.

I think it’s normal to assume that the drum sound comes from the microphone or mic pre, but the majority of the sound is coming from the drums and the drummer. Learning how to tune drums well can take years of experience so start practicing now or find someone who can tune them for you.

Practicing your mixing will help improve your tracking

You’ll learn what you want to hear and how to get there quicker by mixing as much as possible. The lessons you learn while mixing can be adapted to help improve your tracking. Download stems to practice with, join mix clubs and Facebook groups, mix or remix a friend’s band. All of this will help you gain experience without having to write or track new music or even leave your house.

Arrangement trumps all

A good song starts with the arrangement. In high school, I used to wonder why my songs didn’t sound radio ready… Well, the arrangements were horrible. If a song is arranged well the quality of the recording shouldn’t matter. A good song and arrangement should always work no matter how it is recorded.

Active listening and experimentation

Experiment with different types of compressors, try every delay you can get your hands on, spend a whole day just playing around with effect pedals. Take time to listen to music that you know very well on your speakers. Experimenting in your have free time allows you to implement these things more easily when you’re working with a client and time is more valuable.

Click here to read PART 2 “[More] Things I wish I learned sooner about audio engineering.”

Click here to read PART 1 “Things I wish I learned sooner about audio engineering.”

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How two guys in New Jersey created the most desirable equalizer: Pultec EQP-1A

The most desirable equalizer Pultec EQP-1A

Pultec is the holy grail when it comes to equalizers. But, the reason why Pultec is so great can seem elusive if you asked someone why their answer would be solely their opinion. You could attribute their success to the transformers, the tubes, the Q curves, or being a byproduct of the times, the place, or the people. But really, it was all those things that created the perfect storm for genius. The fact that it’s still one of, if not the most, sought after audio equalizers ever made is even further testament to that.

Pultecs will always hold a special place in my heart. If I had to list the most important things to me, it would go, my family, Pultec EQP-1A equalizers, and then my girlfriend… Okay… Maybe it’s not that extreme, but I do love the things. I started interning at Sabella Studios in Long Island, New York, in my sophomore year of college. The first time I walked in, I immediately noticed the rack of 9 foreign looking blue boxes taking up the whole wall. I’d never heard of a Pultec, I’d never even seen an equalizer that looked like that, and I certainly didn’t know what made them or the fact that there was a whole wall of them so special. The more I got to use them, the more I grew to love them and started to understand what a privilege it was just to use even one, let alone a wall of 9 of them.

If you took a trip to Teaneck, New Jersey, in 1955, you just might run into Gene Shenk and his longtime friend, Ollie Summerlin, tweaking what would become one of the first Pultec EQP-1 equalizers. Gene and Ollie… they were Pultec. The whole operation was never more than three people, and the majority of the time, they were responsible for everything, including engineering, designing, marketing, and producing each and every piece of gear by hand. These two guys in New Jersey left their mark on the recording industry forever, and not many people even know their names. You can’t go into a recording studio without seeing an original Pultec or a clone of an original or a plugin emulating one.

Ollie and Gene met studying electronics at the RCA Institute (now the Technical Career Institute College of Technology) in NYC. After school, Gene spent 14 years working for RCA while Ollie enlisted in the Navy. After WW2, Ollie ended up at Capitol Records as an engineer and sold Ampex tape machines before meeting with Shenk to form Pulse Techniques. Pulse Techniques was the formal name for the company that produced the Pultec EQP-1A.

Starting in 1953, the two man team of Ollie and Gene made every single item to order by hand. When people say, “they just don’t make them like they used to…,” they are right. They don’t make them like they used to. You couldn’t make an equalizer today with the same components as an original. Even if you did have an unlimited amount of money, some components are no longer available. Many people claim the transformers on the input and output are the reason for much of the magical powers of the unit. This point is emphasized when you just run audio through the unit in bypass. You can hear the difference even with no EQ engaged.

Listen to these samples — the first is a dry vocal track with no Pultec, the second is the same vocal track that is being run through a Pultec but with the bypass engaged.

Dry Vocal

Bypassed Pultec Vocal

The company first made variable filament supplies for tubes and stepped oscillators. In 1956, the first version of their equalizer, the EQP-1, was seen in the Pultec catalog. They were advertised to the broadcast industry, and the main unique feature and selling point was the tube make up gain which allowed it to be engaged without the signal dropping in level.

In 1961, the EQP-1 was replaced by the updated EQP-1A, which had added frequency selections. The new 1A model had added a 20 Hz boost and attenuation, 16 kHz boost, and a 5, 10, and 20 kHz attenuation. In 1981, Shenk was finally ready to retire. He tried, unsuccessfully, to sell the company and eventually ceased production and shut the doors for good.

A common myth is that the Pultec passive circuit designs were licensed from Western Electric. This is not true, the manual states, “licensed under patents of the Western Electric Company,” but that is only for the use of negative feedback and has nothing to do with any of the actual circuit designs.

After closing down in 1981, Gene Shenk received a call from NYC Power Station owner Tony Bongiovi. Bongiovi wanted to place an order so large that Gene couldn’t say no. Eventually, 24 units, mainly the smaller 2U rack version of the 1A, the EQP1A3, were produced for the last ever production run made by Gene Shenk.

Nile Rogers Pultecs
Nile Rodgers sitting in front of the racks of 24 Pultec EQP-1A3s in Power Station’s Studio C

Interestingly, the Q curves on a Pultec are so broad that adjusting 30 Hz can affect frequencies up to 1kHz. Also, the manual explicitly states, “do not attempt to boost and attenuate simultaneously on the low frequencies,” yet this is the very thing for which this EQ is famous. Boosting and cutting simultaneously may seem counterproductive, but doing so makes the curve dip before the boost starts, which results in what can only be described as magic.

In the early 2000s, electrical engineer Steve Jackson decided to try and recreate Pultec with some guidance from Gene Shenk himself. Jackson secured the rights to the name and started producing EQP-1A3 again. Many others have tried to copy, clone, and emulate the Pultec EQP-1A. Many will argue that some do it quite well. Still, to most that have had the pleasure of using the original units, there’s an undeniable magic that just can’t seem to be captured in an algorithm or with modern components and manufacturing techniques.

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Things I wish I learned sooner about audio engineering
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