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

Mixing Console

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 to 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.

Does your favorite engineer like to use a lot of compression? Record everything in stereo? Doesn’t use any outboard gear at all?

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, or 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, and 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 to accentuate to 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, and 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, and 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 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 an 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, and 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 makeup 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, a 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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5 mixing mistakes that I used to make… and how to avoid them
Things I wish I learned sooner about audio engineering
The story of the man behind the RCA 44 and 77 ribbon microphones

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5 mixing mistakes that I used to make… and how to avoid them

5 mixing mistakes that I used to make… and how to avoid them
Huge Pro Tools Session

Not properly preparing

Having your sessions prepared for mixing will not only allow you to mix faster and more efficiently, but you’ll also free up your mind to make more important decisions. Edits should have crossfades, vocals should all be comped, backup vocals and multi mic’d instruments should be grouped or bussed appropriately, etc. Every time you make a decision while mixing, it taxes your brain, and it becomes harder to focus on the more important things. By preparing beforehand, you don’t have to worry about which vocal take you want to use but instead can just focus on the more important aspect of how that vocal is sitting in the mix.

Make a list of everything you need to have done to adequately prepare for a mixing session. Pretend you have an assistant and ask yourself what you’d ask your assistant to do before you needed to mix, then do that.

Monitoring way too loud

Get an SPL meter and start checking at what level you’re monitoring. About a year ago, I had my first real scare when it comes to my ear health. I woke up one day with an ear infection which turned into tinnitus which turned into asymmetrical hearing loss. Your ears are fragile, and you should take care of them.

My hearing issue was a blessing in disguise. I was habitually monitoring at loud volumes, I wanted to “feel” the music. It wasn’t until I was told that if I continued, I could further damage my ears that I was forced to monitor at lower volumes.

I’ve always heard people say it is better to monitor at low volumes, but every time I tried, I’d still find myself slowly raising the volume until it was back to 100db. After my hearing issue, I had no choice. I couldn’t risk further damaging my ears. It turns out everyone that said monitoring at lower volumes is better was right. Not only does it save your ears, but it is also great for leveling purposes because you can hear transients better. More importantly, the lesson I learned is to try new things that are difficult because you’ll always learn something.

Having my phone out while working

Text messages, email, Facebook, Instagram… These things only inhibit my workflow by distracting me and making my work take longer. Breaks are essential, but distractions will stop your thought process and make it difficult to keep focused on the task at hand. For example, say you’re mixing a song, and while you’re listening to the song, you say to yourself, I want to tweak the EQ on that guitar. Then you get a text message from your friend, Joe, who starts asking you how to deal with a problem he’s having with his girlfriend, Rita. When you finally get back to work, it’s likely you’ve forgotten all about how you wanted to tweak the EQ on that guitar.

Not listening to references or rough mixes

I used to purposely not listen to rough mixes or reference mixes because I didn’t want them to “distort my own original ideas, man!” Okay,  I never said that or I’d have to kick my own ass, but I did still feel like listening to another mix right before a session wasn’t a good idea. Time and time again I found my mixes coming back with revision requests. But why? They weren’t down with my creative ideas? Didn’t they realize I’m the next Chris Lord Alge?!

No– the reason is that they’ve been listening to a rough mix for eight months and I just gave them something back that sounds completely different. The human brain appreciates habit and what it’s used to. If you give a client back a mix that’s completely different from what they’ve been listening to then it’s likely they won’t like it solely because it is different than the rough mix. You shouldn’t make a mix that’s exactly like the rough, but you should use it as a reference point.

Adding a mix bus compressor last

If you want to compress the mix bus, don’t slap one on after fine tuning everything without one. That goes double for when you’re inexperienced and don’t know what you’re listening for. It takes years to really understand and hear compression and a few more years on top of that to understand mix compression.

If you’re going to be adding a mix bus compressor, do it in the very beginning. Once I have two or more elements going through my mix bus, I will insert a mix bus compressor. This allows me to mix into the compressor rather than get my levels and then completely destroy them by adding a compressor that wasn’t set properly.

Mixing into the compressor and giving the mix movement and life makes it sound more interesting. If you don’t mix it into compression, then you probably shouldn’t add it later. Leave that up to an experienced mastering engineer.


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Things I wish I learned sooner about audio engineering
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EMT 250 and the birth of digital audio
The “your mixes sound bad in the car”

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The best designed and most enjoyable effects unit ever: Eventide H3000 UltraHarmonizer

Letter Brian Eno wrote to Eventide in 1992

When one of the most influential and well regarded electronic musicians praises your effects unit as the best, it should hold some weight. Not only did Brian Eno love his Eventide H3000, but he loved it so much that he actually took the time to write to Eventide to congratulate them on designing it.

Eventide started in the basement of the Sound Exchange, a recording studio located in midtown Manhattan. Their control room wasn’t big enough to fit a tape op, so studio owner Steven Katz commissioned Richard Factor to create a device that would allow him to locate the tape to a specific time. Eventide was born.

In 1974 they developed the H910 Harmonizer, one of their most notable products, which was the first digital pitch shifting device.  From the H910, the H3000 would be born. Interestingly enough, the H910 Harmonizer was first used to speed up the dialog of older sitcoms, like I Love Lucy, without changing the pitch of the voice.

In 1986, Eventide released the H3000. But what makes it so special? Before this unit, if you wanted to speed up time, you also had to speed up the pitch. This one significant advancement inevitably leads to tools that are paramount to modern recordings, like Auto Tune, Melodyne, time stretching, etc.  I think to truly grasp the full magnitude, you have to consider the period during which it was released. Up until that time, every effect that anyone ever heard was produced through hardware. There were no plugins. The majority of the time, there was one piece of hardware that did one specific effect.

If you could design the most perfectly laid out effects unit with what seems like unlimited capabilities, the H3000 would be it. With only 7 buttons, a jog wheel, and a number pad, finding and altering your favorite presets is quick and easy for even the most novice engineer. The H3000 could not have been better received, and it wasn’t long before every studio had an H3000 in their rack. The H3000 was the first unit to offer true diatonic shifting or shifting that stays in key, but other features include*:

  • Dual Shift –  Two separate pitch shifters
  • Layered Shift – Two pitch shifts from one input
  • Stereo Shift – Mono-compatible stereo pitch shifting (maintains stereo imaging)
  • Reverse Shift – Backwards-talking pitch shift
  • Swept Combs – Six sweepable delay lines with stereo panning
  • Swept Revere – A dense reverb with smooth sweep capability
  • Reverb Factory – A full-featured reverb with EQ and flexible gating
  • Ultra-Tap – Twelve delay taps with full control over panning, level, and delay, Includes a diffuser to generate dense gated reverb effects.
  • Dual Digiplex – A stereo delay with smooth delay change
  • Long Digiplex – A 1.5 second delay with smooth delay control
  • Patch Factory  – A “modular” effects program that lets you design your own effect. “Patch” together delay lines, filters, and pitch shifting to create never-heard-before effects.
  • Stutter – Get that st..st..stutter sound – effortlessly
  • Dense Room – Our densest reverb, with unique front/back position control
  • Vocoder – This is our version of the classic vocoding effect
  • Multi-Shift – Two six-octave pitch shifters, two delays, panning, and patchable feedback paths make this program incredibly useful.
  • Band Delay  – A multi-tap delay line feeding eight resonant bandpass filters makes for some sounds like you’ve never heard.
  • String Modeller – This program lets the H3000 double as an extra voice in your MIDI rack
  • Phaser – A wonderfirlly thick, smooth, phase-shifting effect that is hard to beat

*List source: Vintage Digital

It’s over 30 years after the release, but the H3000 is still found in countless studios across the world. Through all the changes in technology, the unit and its effects not only hold up, but many would argue still surpass anything made in the modern era.

Eventide has given engineers a cheaper option– they released the H3000 plug-in for $350. I can’t vouch for how good it sounds or how it compares with the real unit, but you can download the demo here and try it for yourself.

Below are samples I’ve recorded of vocals going through our H3000:

Dry (no H3000)

Dual Shift

Stereo Shift

Flanger

Pitch Quantize

DigiPlex

Big Vocal Plate

Tight Room


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[Even more] Things I wish I learned sooner about audio engineering
EMT 250 and the birth of digital audio
The “your mixes sound bad in the car”

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Why your voice sounds different when you hear it recorded

Why your voice sounds different when you hear it recorded

Did you know that using earplugs isn’t always enough to protect your hearing? You don’t only hear sound through your auditory canal. Vibrations are also picked up by your bones and sent to your inner ear through what’s called bone conduction. Bone conducted sound is perceived to be lower and deeper in tone. When the sound through bone conduction blends with the sound you hear directly through your auditory canal, it sounds fuller and deeper. When you hear a recording of your voice, you no longer hear the deeper tone provided by bone conduction. This is the reason your voice sounds different when you hear it recorded.

This is also the reason why wearing traditional hearing protection isn’t always enough to prevent damage. This article that Officer.com wrote talks about a ten year study on police says,

…a study from the Department of Otolaryngology, National Taiwan University Hospital, Taipei, Taiwan, found that even with double ear protection, hearing loss still occurred in about 75 percent of those studied.

Bone conduction headphones convert sound waves into vibrations that the Cochlea receives. While wearing these headphones, sound waves never pass through your eardrums. The main issue with these headphones is they actually vibrate on your head, which can be unsettling. They also lack bass response and volume.

Interestingly enough, hearing sound through bone conduction was first discovered by Ludwig van Beethoven. Due to his deafness, Beethoven found a way to hear music through his jawbone by biting his piano. The patent for the first bone conduction listening device was registered in 1924 by science fiction writer and inventor Hugo Gernsback. His device used rubber plates that gripped to your teeth.


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Setting yourself apart: recording unique sounds

Recording Unique Sounds

It seems the older you are in the recording industry, the more credibility you have, and for a good reason. An engineer who has been working since the 80s has seen the transition from tape machines to Napster and the first two channel interface in just a couple of years. If someone has been working that long and been able to stay relevant, it’s a huge accomplishment in an industry that’s known to chew you up and spit out without any remorse.

As I mentioned in “[More] Things I wish I learned sooner about audio engineering,” there used to be a mentality in the audio industry that trade secrets were just that, secrets. Only the select few included in the inner circle would get to learn them. It wasn’t until the internet that people started to realize giving away these secrets was an excellent way to pad their pockets with a little extra spending money.

What I’ve learned from the older generation of engineers that I see younger engineers sometimes lack is going out of their way to be unique and original. In a world where everyone can have the same plugin, it’s a uniqueness that will set your sounds and productions apart from the rest of the engineers using the same cracked version of RCompressor as you. I’m not saying you have to be Sylvia Massey and record drums through a garden hose (you’d be cooler if you did, though). But, if you can use a weird guitar pedal as an insert or record vocals through a cassette player, then you’ll at least be able to include a sonic footprint that is uniquely your own. Not many people have that weird guitar pedal, and I doubt anyone is using the same cassette deck to saturate a vocal track.

Sylvia Massey’s special drum hose mic technique in action

The convenience of digital recording is the reason many of us are even making and recording music today. Computers have made the barrier to entry for musicians to record themselves almost nonexistent while the internet has made it easy to find information that was once only found under lock and key in the major studios of New York and LA.

But the problem with digital and the abundance of information is that it’s almost too convenient. Everyone wants to know how so and so got that sound. What guitar did they use? What microphone? Creativity thrives due to necessity, and it can’t flourish when everything is easy. You can’t be a revolutionary using a tool that everyone else uses, trying to get the same tones that everyone else has. Can you imagine what Sgt. Peppers would sound like if they had Pro Tools in 1967?

Instead of being able to go to a plugin preset, George Martin, Geoff Emerick, and the rest of the crew at Abbey Road had to make everything on their own. Effects, tape loops, and any processing were all carefully thought out and made in house, but you don’t need a crew of electrical engineers to be original. Experiment with unusual mic placements, and use real hallways and bathrooms for reverb. Think outside the box. All of these things will set your recordings apart from Johnny “Audio” down the street.


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What the f*ck is 32 bit floating?

What is 32 bit floating?

I, like, I’m assuming a portion of the people reading this have heard of 32 bit floating but are still unsure about exactly what it is. What are the advantages? What are the disadvantages? When I asked a friend of mine, who is also an experienced engineer about 32 bit floating point, he told me he didn’t know and had never used it.

After having this discussion and then immediately seeing this tweet from accomplished Brooklyn based producer Andrew Maury, I knew I had to finally figure out what the hell it was and if I should be using it.

So, what is 32 bit floating?

The Wikipedia article tells us it’s,

A computer number format that occupies 4 bytes (32 bits) in computer memory and represents a wide dynamic range of values by using a floating point. In IEEE 754-2008 the 32-bit base-2 format is officially referred to as binary32. It was called single in IEEE 754-1985. In older computers, different floating-point formats of 4 bytes were used, e.g., GW-BASIC’s single-precision data type was the 32-bit MBF floating-point format.

Alright, well, that about wraps it up… That was almost too easy. Ha. Ha.

Let’s start with the definition of bit depth because I know that one, and it’s not too difficult to understand. Bit depth is what decides the dynamic range of an audio file.

So 32 bit floating means more dynamic range, right? Not exactly.

So is 32 bit floating better? Higher bitrate means it’s better, right? Sort of.

So it turns out the reason no one knows what 32 bit floating is… is because it’s kind of pointless for most engineers even to bother worrying about it.

A video on the Reaper blog is one of the only sources I found that explained 32 bit floating in a practical way. This explanation is easy for a person that doesn’t like spending his time thinking about digital signal processing anymore than he has to.

So… 32 bit floating is a 24 bit recording with 8 extra bits for volume. Basically, if the audio is rendered within the computer, then 32 bit floating gives you more headroom. Within the computer means things like AudioSuite effects in Pro Tools and printing tracks internally. So say you decide to print a compressor, and the output level is peaking badly… If you are using 32 bit floating, you can bring the level down and restore the headroom so the file won’t be distorted. If you were recording to a tape machine, this wouldn’t be impossible. You can’t just record a bass that’s clipping and restore the headroom afterward. The benefit of 32 bit floating is when processing internally, BUT the downside is the files it creates are 50% larger than standard 24 bit audio files.

Most experienced engineers don’t need to worry about headroom as they probably already know how to make sure levels are never clipping when they aren‘t supposed to be. This article from ask.audio says 32 bit floating will also help reduce unnecessary noise introduced by AudioSuite dithering and rounding errors during signal processing in Pro Tools.

Maybe I’ll write an article in the future where I run some tests to see if there is a noticeable difference between AudioSuite effects processed with 24 bit and ones processed with 32 bit floating.

Update: Most DAWs process in 32 bit floating therefore, if you are processing any audio, it is converted to 32 bit to be processed and then converted back to 24 bit. If conditions permit, it is best to work in 32 bit floating all the way through until mastering to avoid any unnecessary conversion artifacts. Once the project is mastered, you can have the mastering engineer convert the final audio file to whatever sample and bitrate you need.


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[Even more] Things I wish I learned sooner about audio engineering
EMT 250 and the birth of digital audio
The “your mixes sound bad in the car”

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[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.”

Don’t go after a “pro” sound

Since I started recording, I can remember striving to achieve a “pro” sound. All this did was set me up for disappointment. I’m never going to be able to get my mixes to sound like Chris Lord Alge, so I need to stop trying!

Over time, I’ve learned to instead try and focus on making each mix my own rather than the punchiness of the drums or the fatness of the bass. Those fat bass sounds will come with time. In the meantime, don’t be so hard on yourself.

You don’t always get to record the Rolling Stones

When I first started engineering, I was finishing up a session and complaining about the band to a veteran producer. I was probably saying something like, “this drummer sucks.” His response was perfect: “you don’t always get to record the Rolling Stones. Make it work. That’s your job.” He was right. You don’t always get to record great bands. This job isn’t always fun. The ultimate goal is to make people sound as good as possible, stop complaining about it, and get it done.

Stop talking about gear and start recording

I know talking about gear is fun, looking for new gear is fun, and dreaming of that perfect studio is fun. I think every aspiring engineer at some point made a dream list of everything he would have if he had an unlimited amount of money. What’s not fun is trying to get that bass tone you heard on the new Shakira record and not even coming close. One of those things is going to help you grow as an engineer, and the other one isn’t… and those hips don’t lie.

If you can do it in 5 minutes, just do it

I have a rule that if it takes less than five minutes, then I have to get it done right then and there. Did you want to try a dotted eighth note delay on the vocals? You’ll do it after compressing the drums? No, you won’t. You’ll do it now.  I used to find myself with a list of things at the end of every session that, if I had just done when it was mentioned, would have saved me time and my sanity.

Reverb and delays are the easiest things to fuck up

I don’t even want to say how long it took me to finally understand time based effects and how to use them properly. This isn’t a tutorial, so I won’t go into too much technical detail right now, but I think the most significant breakthrough for me was realizing that time based effects aren’t always heard but rather felt. There are times when I like to tuck a reverb in so low that you won’t notice it’s there unless it’s taken away. This subtle use of reverb opened up doors for me when trying to create space and depth in a mix.

Give your ear time to develop

During the first few years of working with audio, there are things you just can’t hear yet. Your ear hasn’t developed, you don’t know what 350 hertz sounds like, and you can’t hear the difference between limiting and compressing or that drummer speeding up every 5 seconds. During this time, usually, all you know is that what you hear doesn’t sound good. Through trial and error, you’ll eventually find what works and what doesn’t.

I remember when I had just finished one of my first mixes, and I was excited about it. I thought it sounded great, so I showed a more experienced engineer, “Hey, look at this amazing mix I did.” After hearing it for less than 30 seconds, he said the guitars were clashing around 3-5 kHz, and it was interfering with the vocal. As soon as he told me that, I heard exactly what he was talking about, but if you asked me two hours before, I would have said the mix sounded great and the vocals were really slammin’.

Gain staging is a thing

Do you know that signal going into that plugin? Well, you need to be aware of the level going out of it and into the next plug-in. I always knew what gain staging was, but it took me a while to get into good habits of checking to make sure levels were right and to figure out what plugins or gear works best at what input level. It’s something that seems so easy, but it’s also so easy to mess up.

Make your own opinion, and don’t listen to assholes on the internet

People on the internet have no idea what the hell they are talking about (except AudioHertz). Try everything and decide for yourself, make your opinion. Listen to what people have to say but take it all with a grain of salt, what works for one person might not work for you.

Read the damn manual

Do you know that small booklet of papers that are included with every piece of gear? Well, there’s actually some good stuff in there. Most people don’t know this, but studies have shown that reading manuals makes you a better lover and a kinder, more compassionate person. No one likes reading manuals, but you can learn things you wouldn’t be able to learn any other way. If you spent money on a piece of gear, spend the time to learn how to use it properly.

Just because you know what to do, doesn’t mean you know how to do it

There are so many ways to learn new things that it’s hard to filter out the good information from the bad. There used to be a tried and true method of passing down information from engineer to engineer. You’d start as an intern at a studio, work your way up to assistant, and then hopefully to engineer and then producer.

Today most people get their information from YouTube videos or message boards. The problem is you have a lot of people who know what to use but not how to use it or what to listen for. Everyone knows it’s a good idea to use a limiter on your mix bus, but not everyone knows what you should be listening for while you do it.


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Things I wish I learned sooner about audio engineering

You really don’t need that piece of gear

When I first started engineering, I was hardly recording any music, yet spending hours a day looking through eBay and Craigslist for vintage gear I could never afford. The gear really doesn’t matter as much as your ear. The best engineers can get great sounds using very minimal gear. It’s easy to get caught up with expensive gear, and it’s normal to want nice things, but the gear doesn’t make the recording or the engineer, and it certainly doesn’t bring you clients. Spend more time learning about the gear you have and actually recording with it.

Start with the basics, don’t get caught up with advanced techniques

Parallel compression, four microphones on every drum, m/s, binaural… they’re all great. But I wish I had spent more time mastering the basics before trying out more advanced techniques. I was lucky to have access to a lot of good equipment before I probably should have. A minimalist approach when starting out is always the best. Find out how to mic the drum set with only two mics. Move them around until you get the best sound you can. By experimenting this way, you’ll not only get good at micing in less than ideal scenarios, but you’ll also better develop your ear.

Running a session is one of the most overlooked skills

So you know how to use Pro Tools and set up microphones. So do a billion other aspiring engineers. One of the most overlooked skills is the ability to run a session smoothly. Unless a producer is working the session, then it is the engineer’s job to make sure the session is running properly. Not only do you need to run the session, but you also need to make sure the client is having a good time and you’re fun to work with. Clients are paying to work with you, and if they aren’t having a good time and things aren’t flowing well, they won’t want to work with you again. Engineers rely on repeat business, and the only way gets repeat business is by having satisfied clients.

Automation can make a good mix great

Use automation. That’s it. Before going for the compressor, try automating first. Automation will give your mixes that extra bit of life and take them into a magical world filled with unicorns and rainbows.

Clients don’t just appear at your door

Clients are difficult to get, and without any notable credits, it’s unlikely someone will just call you looking for work. You need to be active in going out and actually talking to people. Go to shows, make friends, get involved in your local scene, play in bands, DJ at clubs, and put on your own shows. The more people you know, the better your chances are at finding work. People want to work with their friends, and they want to work with someone they feel is invested in their art. Be friendly, be interested, and be fun to be around and people will be more inclined to want to work with you.

Be confident in your ear, and don’t be afraid to try new things

It’s easy to get stuck in the habit of reaching for the same compressor or the same EQ. I still catch myself going to a goto piece of gear because I know it worked well in a previous scenario. I’ve heard about great engineers like Chris Lord Alge keeping their gear at a fixed setting and using it only for one specific instrument. I think this is fine if you’re Chris Lord Alge and have tried everything and truly know what sounds best. If you haven’t tried everything, this type of thinking can stunt your growth. Instead of trying new things and taking a risk, you might go for that compressor that you used on the last song that you already know how to use well. I need to continually remind myself to try new things. New mic placements, techniques, new gear, plugins, etc. A large part of what would hold me back is lacking the confidence to know when something is good. What if I try a new microphone or technique, and I think it sounds good, but the next day I realize it sounds terrible? We’ve all had times when we think something sounds good and a few days later can’t comprehend what the hell we were thinking at the time.

You need to put in your 10,000 hours

Like anything else, being a good audio engineer takes experience. Earlier on in my career, I was very concerned with getting the best sounds and having the best mixes possible. As much as I tried, that just wasn’t going to happen without having bad mixes first. At one point, every great engineer was a bad engineer. The hardest part for me was knowing I was terrible. This might not be the same for everyone. I know a lot of guys that thought they were amazing engineers right from day one, but I knew my mixing was not up to par with other professional engineers or even engineers that I would consider to be on my level. It’s easy to get discouraged and let self doubt take over. You just have to keep pushing through.

I am still learning new things every day, my success comes down to trusting my foundation and my ear and knowing that they will lead to creating something great. I’ll leave you with this quote from Ira Glass that helps put the frustrating but ultimately rewarding journey of an artist into perspective.

What nobody tells people who are beginners — and I really wish someone had told this to me . . . is that all of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, and it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not.

But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase. They quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know it’s normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story.

It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through. – Ira Glass

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


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