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Recording in paradise: AIR Studios Montserrat

Air Studios in a dilapidated state
AIR Studios control room
(c) Shane Thoms

In the modern recording era, getting clients to travel more than an hour is a big ask, but in 1980, not so much. After a trip with his wife, George Martin decided to open up a secret studio on the rural, non-modernized, secluded island of Montserrat. Recording artists flocked to the island not only to record in one of the most sophisticated studios in the world at the time but also to enjoy the peace and tranquility the island offered. Most of us could only dream of getting the chance to take a trip to an exotic island with the sole reason of creating the best art possible. For over ten years Air Studios hosted artists such as Dire Straits, The Police, Paul McCartney, Elton John, Duran Duran, The Rolling Stones, Lou Reed, Black Sabbath, and Eric Clapton, to name a few.

AIR Studios Montserrat in its heyday

In 1989 disaster hit the island when Hurricane Hugo destroyed over 90% of the island’s buildings. This included Air Studios, it was shut down, liquidated, and boarded up. In 1995, disaster struck the island again when the Soufrière Hills volcano erupted and left only a small piece of the northern tip of the island habitable.

The remnants of Air Studios reside right on the border of the exclusion zone, an area covered in ash, mud, and overgrown trees and considered too unsafe to have open to the public. However, this hasn’t stopped numerous adventurous tourists from trespassing so they could experience a piece of what’s left of the extensive history. Over 75 albums were recorded at Air Studios in Montserrat, yet there is little information or pictures in existence. The best documentation of the studio and island is in Sting’s music video “Every Little Thing You Do Is Magic.”

Most of the information I could find about the studio on the internet is from people sneaking in while it was already in a dilapidated state. Shane is an urban exploration photographer from Australia who visited the island of Montserrat last year. He was kind enough to let me use his pictures. You can visit Shane’s website here.

(c) Shane Thoms

After the hurricane, there were discussions of turning what was left of the studio into a museum, but it never materialized. Air Studios still sits at the edge of the exclusion zone, almost symbolic of a better time for not only the island of Montserrat but the music industry. Million dollar budgets and tropical recording gateways are a thing of the past. On the bright side, you can take a laptop and an interface or midi controller on vacation and experience a similar feeling.


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How to properly check the phase when recording drums

Drums

Phase, phase, phase. Ahhh, what can I say about phase? We all love phase! Not.

In my earlier years of recording, I used to post mixes to home recording message boards with the hope of receiving positive feedback. I made these early recordings at home with a small interface I’d purchased, which came bundled with an early version of Cubase. After finally getting the hang of using a DAW and after a few unfinished demos, I eventually had a track ready to post for mix critiquing. The first reply I got back was,  “drums sound phasey.”

I knew I forgot something… except I didn’t know what the hell phase was. Did he mean the CAD drum microphone pack I got for Hanukkah didn’t yield major label results right out of the box?! I wouldn’t have put it on my holiday list if I had known that!

All kidding aside, I went to google and searched for “What is audio phase?.” After reading a few websites, I still had barely any idea of what the hell it was and certainly had no idea on how to prevent it. Sure, I understood why it happened, but how was I going to fix something that I couldn’t even hear? I thought the mix sounded pretty good, and I certainly didn’t think it sounded phasey like recorderkid442 on the home recording message board had said.

I’ll start by saying that asking for advice on a message board can be good and bad. Regardless, you must proceed with extreme caution. Posting my question did introduce the concept of phase to me, something that would have otherwise taken me longer to learn about. And that person was right. My recordings were out of phase. But you should still be careful. With every correct answer, there are so many more wrong answers.

Since starting Audio Hertz, I’ve had beautiful interactions with a lot of people, but I’ve also had some interactions with people that are not very knowledgeable and have no problem arguing their incorrect points. Now, this is okay, I understand it is just a by product of the internet and anonymity, but it can do damage to your learning process if people are giving you the wrong information.

I’ve seen terrible cases of this in real life scenarios as well. I had a friend that went to our local Guitar Center to buy a small interface. The Guitar Center employee talked him into purchasing a Presonus preamp, EQ and compressor by saying it would dramatically improve his sound. The salesman told him if he wanted to have a professional quality recording, he needed to have this unit. What the hell is a compressor going to do for my friend who, just moments before, didn’t even know what one was? Nevertheless, my friend bought it and couldn’t shut up about how it was the best thing he’s ever heard. The truth is he didn’t know what the hell he was listening for. And that, my friends, is how bad information gets spread around.

I’m going to skip any technical explanations or definitions and just give you the information that I feel you need to know. Phase cancellation happens when you combine more than one signal of the same source, such as using multiple microphones on a drum set or using two microphones on one acoustic guitar. As sound waves reach different microphones at different times, phases issues can occur, which will make certain frequencies vanish from your mix

First, we need to find out if you’re overheads are in phase with each other, then if everything else is in phase with the overheads, then if the individual elements are in phase with each other.

The easiest way to tell if something is in phase or out of phase is if when you flip the polarity, it should sound worse (when the phase relationship is worse, you’ll hear less low end and smearing of frequencies). That means that the microphones have a good phase relationship and when you flip the polarity, it puts turns that good relationship into a bad one.

I struggled with this for a long time, and I really wish someone had just written out a fast and easy method to check the phase properly. It’s obviously harder to judge what’s in phase and what’s out of phase when you don’t even know what it sounds like, so I highly recommend doing some experiments on your own. Take two mics and a speaker playing music. Start by mic’ing the speaker with both mics lined up perfectly parallel to each other so they’ll be completely in phase. Then put on headphones and begin to move the microphone further away from each other a few inches at a time. You should be able to hear the phase relationship changing for the worse. Once you know what phase cancellation sounds like, you can accurately judge what is in and out of phase. Set up your drum mics and follow these easy steps to correctly recorded drums.

Given to Greg Scott (owner of Kush Audio) by Joe Barresi. As heard on the UBK Happy Funtime Hour podcast.

  1. Put overheads up at unity gain, panned center
  2. Flip the polarity (by pressing the phase button on your mic pre or using a plugin) on one side, it should sound better when the polarity IS NOT flipped, it should retain more low end
  3. Keep everything panned center and bring up the snare, flip the polarity and make sure it sounds better when the polarity IS NOT flipped, pull the fader down to 0 after
  4. Bring up the kick drum, and flip the polarity, does it sound better? If so, then leave it flipped, if not, then flip it back, now pull the fader down to 0
  5. Bring up the toms, and flip the polarity on the toms, does it sound better? If so, then leave it flipped, if not, then flip it back, now pull the fader down to 0
  6. Mute out overheads, bring up kick and snare, and flip polarity on one, it should sound better when the polarity IS NOT flipped.
  7. Keep doing this until you find the correct configuration where everything is working together

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EMT 250 and the birth of digital audio

EMT 251 at Sabella Studios
EMT 250

My experience with the EMT 250/251

When I started my first internship at Sabella Studios, the place was littered with strange things I’d never seen before. But nothing looked as strange as this black and red box that looked more like a spaceship control panel than recording equipment. That box was our EMT 251 that had been sitting in the corner of the control room and had built up an impressive collection of dust. We’re a small studio with a lot of vintage equipment, so it’s not uncommon for a piece of gear to be temporarily out of service, but this was different. No one was sure if we’d get this thing ever to work again. We could send it out to the one specialist in California who knew how to fix it, but it would cost us $1,500 just to have it looked at. As a small studio, we pride ourselves on doing just about everything in house, including the maintenance and repairs for all of our equipment. It’s how we’ve been able to survive for so long.

Opening the front of the unit to see hundreds of ICs doesn’t make the task of repairing it seem any easier. To make things even more difficult, EMT, the manufacturer of the box, scratched off any identifying part numbers to keep the ingredients of their mystical digital reverb a secret. Help came from an unsuspecting place: an intern led us to his father, an electronic technician, who was originally from Russia and didn’t speak any English. Fast forward a week or two, and he was at the studio with his oscilloscope, trying to figure out what was wrong with our 251. He decided to take it home to look at it further, and within a week, we had it back up and running.

It’s hard to imagine that the first version of any digital technology could be the best. It’s easy to see why earlier analog gear sounds better as there were better manufacturing techniques, lower cost of goods, and easier availability of materials which contributed to better overall build quality. In today’s digital world, everything eventually has a newer, bigger (or smaller), better, and more powerful upgraded model. The first version is never the best. How is it that the sound of the first digital reverb unit can still surpass even the most complex and expensive modern units?

I didn’t know, but I needed to find out…

Digital Audio

Digital audio is something everyone uses, from the home recording hobbyist to the professional recording studio. Recording digitally is built into the standard workflow when creating every genre of music. There was a time when nothing was digital, so how did the world go from entirely analog to just about completely digital? In modern music production, you don’t need to use any analog audio processing at all if you don’t want to.

The original reason people started to explore digital audio was for one reason: time based effects. Early in the history of recorded music, there was never an easy way to make delays and reverbs, except with expensive and large tools like reverb chambers, plates, and magnetic tape machines. There was a very limited amount of flexibility when it came to time based effects, which had become paramount to every single song on the radio since 1947 when Bill Putnam decided to put a speaker and microphone in his studio’s bathroom. Nowadays, we fire up whatever plugin we want, but before digital audio, you had to run it through a piece of hardware or mic in a physical space. Now how does it go from microphones in bathrooms to recording 48 tracks simultaneously into your laptop with a different digital effect on every track?

The EMT 250 was essentially one of the first plugins. It’s like if a Waves or Slate plugin you just bought came with a computer, interface, and converters and was all built into one box with the sole purpose of running that plugin, and with a $20k price tag, it certainly wasn’t cheap.

Dr. Barry Blesser

A Conversation with Dr. Barry Blesser

I had the pleasure of speaking with Dr. Barry Blesser, who is considered one of the grandfathers of digital audio. In 1974, Dr. Blesser oversaw the creation of the algorithm, and some of the hardware, for the first ever digital reverb unit.

Dr. Blesser was kind enough to speak with me and explain the history of digital audio and his involvement. He began the interview by telling me about Manfred R. Schroeder, a German physicist who worked at Bell Labs during the 1950s. Schroeder was the very first person to attempt digital signal processing. During this time, computer technology was so slow that digital was completely impractical. Processing a 3 minute piece of audio could take 24 hours. Although Schroeder’s experiments at this time were not of any practical use and were done completely out of curiosity and proof of concept, it did show that digital audio was possible.

Dr. Blesser then spoke of a chance encounter with Francis F. Lee, who would become the founder of Lexicon. “I was working in the MIT Labs at 3 in the morning because that was when I could get access to the minicomputers, and Frances Lee walked in. He was in the computer world; he didn’t know about anything digital audio. And I was in the [analog] audio world, so we bumped into each other at 3 in the morning and started brainstorming about how to merge these two. That’s how Frances Lee got started with Lexicon.”

Vintage ad for a later model of the Delta T-101

The result of this encounter was the first ever digital signal processor, the Delta T-101, released in 1971. Lee had been working on a digital heart monitor and, from Dr. Blesser’s suggestion, experimented with running audio through it. After a lot of experimentation, the result was a 100 ms audio delay line which could be used to help overcome live sound propagation delays or used as a pre-delay for plate reverbs. You put audio in, and 100ms later, it comes out. That was it. It was revolutionary at the time, but by today’s standards seems like just a step above useless. Steve Temmer, owner of Gotham Audio, commissioned Lexicon to make 50 units that he could release under the Gotham Audio name. A second version the T-102, was eventually released under the Lexicon name with an improved signal to noise ratio.

Throughout the 1960s, Dr. Blesser worked with EMT on many of their analog audio products. “They rejected the idea of doing real digital audio until Francis Lee started Lexicon. After Lexicon was successful with the T-101 they got pissed, and they said, ‘ok, we want to be in that business.’”

Peter Bermes, an industrial designer working for EMT, recalls the initial meeting to plan and brainstorm the EMT 250 involved nine people seated at a roundtable. The meeting, which went on to be the catalyst for the first reverb, Bermes says, took only 4 hours. The meeting occurred in 1974 at the EMT plant in Kippenheim, Germany. Among the group were Erich Vogl, Karl Bäder, Barry Blesser, and Peter Bermes. Dr. Blesser, along with a team of engineers, went to work on developing an algorithm they could use for practical digital reverberation. Only having the 100 ms delay box and Manfred Schroeder’s experiments, Dr. Blesser’s team built a simulator that could be programmed to run different reverb algorithms for testing purposes. After about two years of research and development, the EMT 250 was ready, and 250 units were produced.

So that doesn’t explain why the reverb still holds up in today’s world of endless digital options and newer upgraded algorithms, and more advanced convolution technology. It comes down to the sound. It just sounds good. Forget all of the pioneering and innovation that took place to develop this device. Even if this unit was introduced tomorrow instead of in 1976, it would still hold up as being a great sounding reverb, and that’s just a testament to the designers. Most of all, they made sure it sounded good.

Luckily, you don’t have to spend $20k to get the amazing sound of a 250 anymore. Universal Audio had Dr. Blesser reverse engineer the whole algorithm so they could model it in their 250 plugin. Although Dr. Blesser said that he did not hear it for himself, he was told it was completely bit accurate.


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Is your career where you thought it would be? Neither is mine.

I turned 28 a few months ago, and if, at age 18,  you had told me my audio career would be where it is at this point in my life, I’d have been extremely disappointed. I’d imagined I’d have at least ten gold records by now, and I’d have been to the Grammy’s at least three times. Well… that didn’t happen. It’s not that I’m not happy with where I am, I just had big dreams that didn’t exactly pan out the way I had imagined. I definitely didn’t think I’d still be struggling to find a way to make a living doing what I love. The delusion was thinking that I could go to school, learn how things are done, meet a few people, intern at a studio, and BAM… my career would magically take off. I’m not saying something like this can’t happen, but it’s pretty damn rare.

So it turns out that getting into audio engineering at the time I did probably wasn’t the path of least resistance, but I didn’t care then, and I am sure many of you don’t care now. I always saw myself doing something creative and technical, whether that was web design, graphic design, video production, or programming–  something that required using both sides of my brain. Initially, I fell into video production because I took a production class at school, but found myself gravitating toward the audio side of things. I also took up a new hobby of recording my own music and the music of my friends.

At the time, my thought process was, “I like recording music,” and as far as turning that into a career, it didn’t go very far beyond that. There are some people out there that naturally have the ability to self motivate and see a clear path to their goal right from the onset. That’s not me. I think the world was just a big cloud of fog up until about a few years ago when I realized that if I wanted to do something I enjoyed that I had to put in the work which would require both strategy and effort. No more shooting from the hip. That could probably be considered my life motto up until that point: shoot from the hip and hope you get lucky.

I make sure to tell all younger engineers that if they want to make a living in this industry, they’re not going to have a regular job. They’re not going to be able to wake up, go to work at 9 and get home at five every day. They’re not going to get hired at a studio and work their way up the ladder, small promotion by small promotion. That just doesn’t happen anymore. The truth is it will be hard to do anything, but freelance and gigs and income will come in many different shapes and sizes. I used to look at someone with a day job as a failure, as someone that didn’t make it and gave up. Well, here I am, someone who my 18 year old self would consider to be a failure. What I realized is, having another job or form of income while you’re trying to do what you love doesn’t make you a failure. It makes you smart, and it makes you strategic. I just want to do what I love, and supplementing my income with other things outside of music provides me with that luxury. I hope one day I’ll be able to support myself solely on music, but that’s not my only reason for doing this. I’m not here to own some meaningless achievement of supporting myself on music. The reason I’m doing this is that I love the feeling of making something great, of pouring my heart into something, something that other people connect with. I shouldn’t let anything else get in the way of that.

I used to get very jealous of friends and people I went to school with that seemed to be doing well for themselves. I’d make excuses like, “it’s because of his dad” or, “he just got lucky.” The truth is that people do get lucky, and people do get jobs because they know someone. But those things don’t affect me, and I’m not losing that job because they got it.

I was trying to protect myself, and I was in denial. I didn’t want to have to feel like a failure because other people could get jobs, and I couldn’t. Instead of owning up to the fact that maybe they were better or putting in more effort than me I’d just go back to making excuses. I thought making excuses would be a way to keep my ego intact still and prevent me from feeling how I genuinely felt…. Like shit. I wish I had just sat in that feeling. That I could just accept that I felt like shit rather than try to make myself feel better with excuses that were never going to make me actually be better.

In today’s world, it’s hard not to look at Facebook or Instagram and see how well everyone else is doing. This highlight reel facade we call social media only further cements that idea into our heads. The truth is, most of us are struggling, and most of us aren’t exactly where we want to be.

So, here I am. 28 years old, with some experience under my belt and some tricks up my sleeve, but still not anywhere near as successful as I want, or would have hoped to be, at this point in my life. I’m slowly realizing… that’s okay.

I wish we lived in a world where I, and others like me, could be more open about our insecurities rather than see them as a sign of weakness. This is my reason for writing this, to remind other audio engineers, musicians, and songwriters (and myself) that it’s okay to accept the struggle. It’s part of the process and the journey. If it were easy, it wouldn’t feel as good when we are able to see a project through to completion.

My unreasonable expectations have only made me feel worse about myself and hindered my growth. All I can do is keep moving forward, keep doing things that will make me a better version of myself, and do things that will give me a better chance at being successful… and maybe getting lucky.


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What’s more important microphones or preamps?

What’s more important microphones or preamps?
Sennheiser MD 421
“A good preamp can make a bad mic sound good, but a bad preamp can make a good mic sound bad.”

What do you buy first, a good mic or a good preamp? If you’re a new engineer looking to start building your studio, this is a question you’ve likely struggled with. If you’re a more experienced engineer and you haven’t asked this question yourself, you’ve probably heard it asked on one of the many audio message boards, forums, or Facebook groups.

The overwhelming consensus seems to be that purchasing a good microphone is a better idea than sinking your money into a preamp. This seems to make the most logical sense, especially to an inexperienced engineer. The microphone is the one capturing the actual sound waves, and it has to be the most important! The preamp is only adding volume. How much can that really improve the sound?

Your budget is a huge factor in the answer that I would give you. Though I believe the preamp is the more important stage of the signal path, a microphone may be the better choice for someone with a smaller budget. You can improve the sound more, with a more modest investment in a microphone, than you can in a preamp.

A cheap Radio Shack mic through a cheap preamp is going to sound significantly worse than a Shure SM58 through that same cheap preamp. You only had to spend $100 to gain a significantly better sound. Now let’s go back to just having the Radio Shack mic. Say you decide to buy an 800 dollar Neve clone preamp. You spent $800, yet I’d bet that the SM58 through the cheap preamp sounds better than the Radio Shack mic does through the $800 Neve clone. It’s going to take a lot more money to make that Radio Shack mic sound good with a preamp than it would by just purchasing a new microphone. But the Radio Shack mic, through a $4,000 vintage Neve 1073, might sound pretty cool. The price tag is just a tad bit out of most of our budgets.

To put it simply,

A good preamp can make a bad mic sound good, but a bad preamp can make a good mic sound bad.

Does that mean I’d rather record with a Radio Shack mic and a 1073 over an u87 and Presonus preamp? No, not at all. But it does mean that I give higher importance and priority to the preamp than I would the microphone.

I think we all agree, like with everything in audio, different scenarios call for different answers. But generally speaking, If I could only have a really good mic or a really good preamp but not both, I’d take the preamp.


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8 things that will help your mixing that have nothing to do with mixing

Having a clean workspace

An organized space reduces stress and helps you to focus entirely on the task at hand…. making good records. Clean up your desk, throw out that old McDonald’s cup and Doritos wrapper, and pick up that gross pair of underwear. You’ll be amazed at how clearly you can think when you have a clean work area. Spending just 5 to 10 minutes prior to mixing, making sure you don’t have a messy desk and floor is a great way to get your brain ready to focus.

Organizing sessions

I’ve mentioned this in my post 5 mixing mistakes I used to make and how to avoid them, but it’s so important that I feel it’s worth stating again. Make sure you’re set up for the session before you even get started on mixing. Bring up your tracks (preferably on a day you’re not going to be mixing) and set things up as if you are your own assistant. Label and color code tracks, make sure your edits are clean with crossfades, print tracks you need to be printed, and set up your effect returns and your buses. You should have all of this done prior to getting started. This is easy when you have a mix template set up and ready to go.

Preparing beforehand

Make sure you know you won’t have to do anything during the time you set to work. I also like to set a start and stop time. This helps me keep myself disciplined as well as safety protection for overcooking a mix. I know I do my best mixes within 4-5 hours. Since I know this, I like to stop after 4 hours and take a long break so I can reevaluate the mix after with fresh ears.

Most of us mix at home in our bedrooms. Working at home is difficult because you’re at home and you’re easily accessible to all your distractions. Your roommate calls for you, your kid starts crying, and your favorite TV show comes on… things can be distracting but not if you make sure you put away all of these things beforehand. This brings us to…

Turning off distractions

Turn off your phone, or TV, lock your door, barricade yourself in– whatever you have to do to ensure that there is nothing there that can distract you. It’s a luxury to get to work in a separate studio environment. Having a separate room to work in lets your brain know that when you’re in this room, you are going to be working rather than working in a place like your bedroom where you eat, sleep, and do “other” things. Your brain likes habit, and if it’s used to working in one place, you’ll be able to focus better.

Getting plenty of sleep

It’s easy to take sleep for granted. The older I get, the harder it is for me to go without sleep. The more sleep you get, the easier it is to focus for more extended periods. You’ll also have more stamina which will allow you to work longer and, in turn, will make you more productive.

Taking breaks

Every hour or two, I like to take a 5 minute break and step outside and give my ears a break. I like to freshen up my ears by listening to new sounds and hearing something a bit different. I don’t listen to music or like to talk too much, but if it’s nice out, listening to the birds chirping or even just the cars passing by allows me to reset my ears so I can get back a fresh perspective.

Minimizing your sound intake before

Other than reference tracks, I try not to listen to music on a day I will be mixing to keep my sound intake to a minimum on mixing days. I don’t listen to the radio, and I tend to make sure I keep volumes low for everything until I’m ready to start mixing.

I will admit I like to start mixing louder than most people. I like to feel the drums and bass when establishing initial levels. Eventually, I’ll switch over to NS10s and lower the volume to a more reasonable level to fine tune and do a majority of the tweaking.

Setting the mood

It might sound a bit silly, but dimming the lights, turning on your lava lamp, or lighting a candle can do wonders for the mood and vibe of your studio or mixing space. This allows you to feel more creative. I’m not a superstitious guy, I don’t believe in ghosts or aliens, but I do believe in being able to feel and sense a vibe. Mixing is all about feeling and making sure you have a good mood set with appropriate lighting, scent, or whatever else it is that really helps you connect and feel the music. A better environment will allow you to achieve better mixes.


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The “your mixes sound bad in the car” phenomenon

The “your mixes sound bad in the car” phenomenon
The “your mixes sound bad in the car” phenomenon

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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The story of the man behind the RCA 44 and 77 ribbon microphones

Frank Sinatra and an RCA 44 Ribbon Microphone

Disclosure: Audio Hertz is supported by its audience. When you purchase through links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission.


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?Harry F. 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.

Ribbon microphones

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.

Coles 4038
Coles 4038

 

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.


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8 personality traits of a great audio engineer

8 personality traits of a great audio engineer
8 personality traits of a great audio engineer

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.

Patient

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.

Well organized

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.

Positive

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.

Humble

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.

Perceptive

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.

Diligent

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.

Reliable

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.


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5 things they don’t teach you in audio school

5 things they don’t teach you in audio school
Audio engineering students

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 toward anyone or anything that I saw as competitive. The truth is I was just insecure about my skills and talents, and 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 others, 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, and 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 ensure 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 of 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 the 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 called “Good Taste 101.” Most people have a 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 are uniquely your own.


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