We’ve all had this problem: we finished a mix that we spent 20 hours fine tuning & tweaking, made every .5 dB adjustment that needs to be made replaced every snare hit with seven different perfectly tuned snare samples that we got from Steven Slate, we have five parallel compressors on the mix bus that’s adding just the right amount of glue. Then, we finally bring it in our car so we can make sure it still sounds rocking and… It sounds like shit! What the hell happened?
There have been times in the past when listening to a mix in the car has brought me to tears… I’ve contemplated giving up recording music after hearing a bad mix in the car. But why? Why does this happen? Why don’t our mixes translate to car speakers?
Well, there’s no single answer to that question. Like most audio engineering questions, the correct answer is, “it depends.” However, I can give you advice that will help you get better at accurately judging how mixes will translate to different sound systems. The first issue, and it’s probably the one that affects most newer audio engineers, is the acoustic treatment of your mixing environment.
If the acoustics of the room you’re mixing in sound bad, your mixes will never translate properly. It’s like trying to measure something with a tape measure that doesn’t have any numbers. You can’t mix well if you don’t know what you’re hearing. Let’s say your mixing room has a significant frequency build up at 250 Hz. Because your room accentuates this frequency, you go to an equalizer and cut 250 Hz to compensate. Well… now, when you go into your car, there’s not going to be enough 250 Hz, and your whole track will sound thin.
The other thing that will help is listening to reference material on all of your monitoring devices. Find a few songs that you think sound good and are very familiar with, and play them in your studio, car, headphones, phone, etc. Actively listen to what each mix sounds like. Hone in on what you like and don’t like about the mix, then listen to one of your mixes. What is different between the two? Do you not have enough bass? Mid-range clashing? Are your vocals too shrill? It’s easier to tell what’s wrong with something when you have something to compare it to.
The truth is, this is not some phenomenon– your mixes are just bad, so they aren’t translating to your car stereo system. They won’t translate until you’re familiar with your room, your room is treated, and you know your monitors well. It’s insane that people purchase expensive monitors before putting up any treatment in their room. Treatment is far more important than the monitors you are mixing on. If you aren’t hearing your expensive speakers properly, there is no point in having them.
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Harry F. Olson is most likely an unfamiliar name, but I’m sure you’ve heard of one of the 100 plus inventions Olson has patented. His patents include the cardioid microphone, sound absorbers, and the first programmable music synthesizer. He was directly responsible for the RCA 44 and RCA 77 ribbon microphones. In the early twentieth century, there was a surge in innovation and technology, and Harry was at the forefront, exemplifying the ingenious spirit that embodied the people of the time. Olson spent 40 years working with RCA, where he was in charge of their acoustic research department and many of the great inventions that came out of it.
You can’t mention ribbon microphones without mentioning RCA, and you shouldn’t mention RCA without mentioning Harry Olson. Ribbon microphones were the last of the four main microphone designs invented. These microphones quickly grew in popularity and eventually into legendary status for their smooth, warm, and natural sound. RCA used their resources to provide an extensive research and development effort that was unrivaled by any other company at that time.
Who is Harry Olson?
For over 40 years, Harry Olson worked for RCA innovating and developing new products, mainly for their acoustical research department. Born in Mount Pleasant, Iowa, in 1901, Harry was technically inclined from an early age and showed a strong interest in science and technology. His parents catered to his scientific spirit and built him his own laboratory; he spent time there making things like a steam engine and wood fired boiler. After graduating at the top of his class from the University of Iowa’s College of Engineering, he received a scholarship to attend graduate school and earned his Master’s Degree in acoustics.
After graduate school, Harry moved to New Jersey and joined RCA’s Research Department, and it was there that he worked on the wide range of products for which he became most famous. During World War II, just about all American companies switched their focus to military technology, and RCA was no different. Olson led a group that worked on military projects with a strong emphasis on underwater sound and antisubmarine warfare. This work included improving sonar transducers and voice communication transducers that could be used in noisy environments.
When the war ended, Olson went back to working on his research in sound reproduction. He famously conducted an experiment that would determine the preferred bandwidth for reproduced music. Before this experiment, studies had shown that listeners preferred a high frequency cutoff of 5 kHz. Olson didn’t believe this to be true. He was sure that if the sound was free of the imperfections that were common of the time, such as added noise, hiss, and harmonic distortion, then the listeners would prefer full frequency sound reproduction.
To test his hypothesis, he set up an orchestra with the listeners positioned in a way that a physical acoustic screen with a low pass filter could be opened or closed. This experiment proved his theories to be correct– the majority of the audience vastly preferred full frequency reproduction. It was because of this experiment that high fidelity sound equipment gained increased popularity. This ultimately impacted everything from record players to amplifiers, speakers, and tape recorders.
The first commercially produced ribbon microphone (also known as a velocity microphone) was released in the early 1930s. A ribbon mic works like a dynamic mic, except instead of using a moving coil as the transducer, it uses a ribbon. The ribbon picks up sound much like the way your ears do naturally. This is because ribbons are designed similarly to the way your ears pick up sound. Most ribbon microphones are open on both sides, which naturally gives them a figure-8 polar pattern. Interestingly, this made them very popular with the film industry as they could place the camera in the null area of the microphone and minimize the amount of camera noise bleeding through.
The RCA 44 and 77
Without a doubt, the two most famous ribbon microphones are the RCA 44 and 77. Both were invented and patented by Harry Olson. The 77 microphone was the very first ribbon microphone designed and introduced by RCA. It was rumored to have been in development as early as 1929 but wasn’t officially announced until 1932. The first 77 model was the rarest of all RCA microphones and featured two ribbons and an “acoustic labyrinth,” which allowed it to be uni-directional.
The 44A was a smaller and lower priced version of the 77A. The lower price point was a significant contributing factor to this microphone’s success and popularity. This is the microphone you think of when you picture Elvis or Frank Sinatra or an old radio broadcaster. The look of the microphone might even be more legendary than the actual performance. The 44B and 44BX were both slightly larger versions of the 44A. The BX has the ribbon mounted further toward the back, giving it a smaller figure 8 pickup pattern on the rear side.
The BBC noticed the 44 being used in American broadcasting and wanted one for themselves. The only problem was it would cost them £130 ($8500 in 2017). This was way out of the BBC’s budget, so they decided to make their own ribbon microphone. F W Alexander, who worked in the BBC research department, invented the Type A, whose successor, the 4038 is still being made by Coles Electroacoustics.
Ribbon microphones today
Today, ribbon microphones vary in price. Modern technology has made it so the manufacturing cost is low enough to make entry level ribbon microphones possible. There are also companies like AEA based out of Pasadena, CA, that work tirelessly to make the most accurate reproductions of the classics. One of their newer ribbon microphone designs is the R88 which is a stereo microphone that looks like a huge RCA 77 and sounds breathtaking. You can hear it being used to mic an entire band on the YouTube channel “One Mic.”
The RCA 44 was discontinued in 1957, yet they are still seen in studios all across the world and are still going for thousands of dollars on eBay and Reverb.com. Harry Olson’s impressive legacy has left us with these indispensable tools that have dramatically and significantly impacted the history of audio.
This job can be challenging. It can make you want to curl up and cry yourself to sleep, but it can also lead to some of the most rewarding and enjoyable experiences you’ll ever have. Regardless of which one of those things you’re currently going through, having these eight personality traits will make your job easier and are traits every great engineer has.
Working with people is hard, but collaborating with someone on something creative and personal is harder. Collaboration is a balancing act; it requires a delicate dance. A ballet is happening between the artist and the engineer. When you see a producer who knows what he’s doing, it’s remarkable how well they control the session. As an engineer or producer, you’re not always going to love what the client has to say, but it’s how you react and manipulate the situation so everyone is happy and the product ends up the way you promised that makes you a great engineer.
Be on time, have everything set up, and make sure the studio is clean. All sessions should be edited, labeled, and backed up multiple times. It’s the engineer’s job to ensure the session is running smoothly, and the more organized you are, the smoother things will be. Recording multiple songs requires a lot of time management. You need to be able to make sure you have enough time to finish the project on schedule. If you are consistently not completing projects on time and clients need to pay more than what you initially quoted them, they will not be happy and will be less likely to come back for future projects.
Negativity is the single most morale draining characteristic when in the studio. There is nothing that can bring down the energy of a session more than negativity. “That sucks,” “that sounds bad,” “that’s a stupid idea”…… Leave all of these thoughts at the door. This attitude will only make a bad situation worse and a good situation bad.
Trust me you don’t know everything and probably never will. There is always room to grow and always room to learn. The best engineers are incredibly humble and always learning and looking for new ways to improve their skills– that’s how they got to be so good. There was never a point in their career where they stopped and said, okay, I’m good enough I don’t need to read or practice or experiment anymore.
Be aware of your surroundings. If a client isn’t enjoying themself or doesn’t like the sound of something, or is getting frustrated with a part, they’re not always going to tell you. Pay attention to how everyone around is acting and make sure you give them an environment that allows them to best do their work and be creative.
Eagerness to learn
In this rapidly changing industry, technology moves quickly, and if you don’t stay ahead of the curve, you’ll undoubtedly be left behind. Keep up with the news and the industry. Stay informed on what products are being released, demo them, and stay relevant.
The engineers that decided to learn Pro Tools before it was Pro Tools were the ones that had a head start and were able to land more work.
Be attentive. Be persistent. Do your job with care. If I tell an intern to patch two 1176s to channels 19-20, then I expect them to make sure that they’re patching them correctly. If you’re asked to do something, take an extra few seconds to double check your work. Making mistakes is okay and will happen, but there is no excuse for being lazy and not paying attention to detail.
Show up and finish projects on time, give accurate time frames for how long things will take, and answer emails, text messages, and phone calls in a reasonable amount of time. Being a reliable person shows that you care. It shows that you take pride in your work and are dependable, which is very important when clients trust you to see their project through and make their vision come to life.