Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Chasing The Sounds Of Memphis Soul

A few weeks ago, somebody called the studio to book time because they wanted to do a "sound-alike" recording. For those of you who don't know, a "sound-alike" is basically a copycat recording - usually of a well-known classic, or popular current song. They are often used in ads on television and radio, because paying a licensing fee is more affordable than the performance royalties associated with the original artist's recording. This particular sound-alike was for a young student engineer that was assigned the project as a learning experience. I get these calls from students every once in a while, and for some reason I am a complete sucker for these projects…I can never say "no". I enjoy them so much. It's almost like a sport to me. Further ensuring that I couldn't turn this down he tells me that the song he needs to copy is "Love And Happiness" by Al Green. So I will get to chase an iconic sound of Memphis soul…breeding ground of Otis Redding, Booker T, and more…I can't wait. We enlist the talents of Jim Haggerty (bass) and Andy Plaisted (drums)…these guys are true ringers…especially in this style…loaded with groove and "feel". As you can imagine, the player has ALOT to do with getting THAT sound, and I knew that these guys could deliver bass and drums. I began to do some research online, looking at pictures of Hi Studios and reading interviews with the musicians that played on those recordings, making notes of instruments & microphones used, and how they were placed etc. Armed with bits and pieces of information there were still so many variables…and making this sound-alike was going to be much like an old school locksmith copying a key by freehand.

RCA 77DX On Snare
This is where I'm gonna get technical… (Mom, you can stop reading now). Knowing that they probably used late 60's Rogers drums, I knew that I had a couple of close contenders - a set of 60s Ludwigs and a set of similar era Slingerlands. I had the snare drum on the original recording narrowed down between two specific models (documented online) and I luckily happened to own both; a Ludwig Acrolyte and a Ludwig Supraphonic 5 1/2 chrome drum. I selected the chrome snare, tuned it down pretty low (matched the pitch with the original track) and taped a wallet to the edge (see pic)…this was a widely known technique (by mostly drummers) for getting the STAX and "Hi" sound that I needed to match. Similarly, I tuned the kick drum to match what I was hearing on the track - it's a good thing that I spent a few years in my late teens working in that drum shop (another story). For those of you
who haven't been to my studio, we have a performance room that is quite "live" and reflective (especially for its size). We also have a small dead (non-ambient) sounding room that we typically use to keep the sound from loud guitar amps from leaking into what's being tracked in the "live" room. Because we wanted to match the close (dead) sound on the recording, we decided to put the drums in the small room. So with all of these things working for us, I needed to choose the right recording chain and I put an RCA 77 on the snare (placed similarly to pictures that I saw of Howard Grimes in those old sessions. I decided to run the mic directly into an Altec 436c mic pre/compressor (see pic) and then into a Urei 545T equalizer and then on to the Studer A80 tape machine. On the kick drum, I chose an EV RE-20 Dynamic mic...this one was run to a Chandler/EMI TG Channel MKll, mic pre/eq. This is a newer piece of gear than one might think to use on this, but for me it made sense because of the vintage transformer sound that it has coupled with the musical eq that I was planning

 on using to help me achieve just the right amount of low-end shelving and "pop" from the kick drum. Also, I knew that this particular unit has a nice controllable distortion when pushed just right. The third and last mic was something that I decided to add to help me simulate the lower headroom of recording tape formulas in the old days…a dash of pepper if you like…a 60s Electrovice RE10 into a Neotek mic pre (pinned) and patched to a vintage Gates STA-Level limiter. I used a fair amount of eq (mostly shelving out low end), and hit the tape a little lower in level to add to the degradation-factor. Check out the recording snippet at the very bottom of this post (Soundcloud), that toggles between the original recording and the soloed bass & drums that we recorded (one of our background vocals makes an appearance too). The bass was a 1967 Fender Jazz Bass strung with flatwound strings…we used both pickups and rolled the tone back 80-90%. We took a direct signal (D.I.), and patched that into a Flickinger 736 Mic Pre followed by vintage Collins 26U-1 limiter…easy…especially with Mr. Haggerty at the wheel. I plan to do a follow-up to this entry with details on the guitar, Hammond Organ, Horns and of course the vocal recording…stay tuned.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Making Vinyl Records (That Don't Sound Like $h*t) In The 21st Century

When I decided to start a record label last year (records.zippah.com), I was excited by the resurgence in popularity of LP Records. I am of an age that I can remember making major decisions in life (like moving to a new apartment) based on if I wanted to go through the hell of moving my record collection. I still appreciate putting on a record and taking in the big and tactile artwork and liner notes and I'm glad that a younger generation (of mostly hipsters) is realizing what a great experience the LP record can provide. That being said…I'd estimate that more than 50% of the records that I have bought in the past few years sound like complete crap when compared to their digital counterpart. This isn't a case of one medium sounding better than another (there are plenty of other blogs that will be debating this till the end of time), but rather; a testament to the fact that making vinyl that sounds great in the 21st century is tricky. I am learning this first hand, as our record label is on it's third round of test pressings with the latest record from the band  The Field Effect. It should have been released at the same time as the CD and digital album were, but we just couldn't get past the dip in sonic quality when comparing it - not only to the digital files, but also to records that came out 20 years ago! So where is the breakdown? Why is it harder to produce vinyl records that sound good now than it was 20 years ago? I have a few observations to consider. First of all most of the records being made these days are being made from digital recordings as opposed to analog tape. This presents a handful of issues including a frequency range that is much wider (especially in the low-end) as well as a more "jagged" (non technical term) treble range. Analog tape has a very smooth quality in the treble range and a well-manicured slope in the bass region. In addition to this, music is being mastered much louder these days. The cutting head on the lathes that are used to cut the lacquer masters simply can't handle the level or brightness of most mastered digital recordings. Another realization is that years ago there where many skilled lacquer cutters…this has almost become a lost art. The engineers that specialized in this were cutting lacquers all day long, day in and day out. Once vinyl LPs went the way of the dinosaurs, these guys moved on to other - more lucrative jobs and many simply retired. With the vinyl resurgence, it seems that less experienced but enthusiastic younger engineers are learning the craft…the best that they can, as fast as they can. But all of the enthusiasm in the world doesn't match the experience that those old school cutters had…not yet anyway.
    I remember when we recorded and mixed exclusively to tape here at Zippah. We would send off the stereo masters, and a couple of weeks later the test pressing would show up. We would give it a critical listen. Now at that time we were primarily listening for skips, and making sure that the transitions between songs were quiet…stuff like that. Nowadays we are listening for "acceptable amounts of distortion" on the center channel (where the lead vocal is!), and weighing out the cost of remastering and/or recutting verses accepting the current cut. It has been a challenge just to get to this point in the process, and we're learning more everyday. I am happy to say that the last (third) cut of The Field Effect's record seems to be the charm…and hopefully fans will appreciate the sound quality even though they have no idea how difficult this was to achieve. When it comes to art, nobody really cares how much you suffer…the final result is all that matters…right?

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

You Can't Afford A Producer?

Brian Charles in Zippah Studios Control Room
In this age of DIY budgets, it often turns out that bands are quick to decide that they can save money by opting to not use a producer. This probably stems from the basic fact that many people don't know what a producer actually does. A producer? Isn't he the guy who sits in the back of the control room and barks commands like "print it", and "rolling"? Or maybe he's the guy who's made it his mission to make you sound like him…brand you with his sonic imprint…whether you like it - or not. Well these are actual stereotypes that I have heard artists mention when talking about their awful experiences (horror stories) related to working with a producer. I believe these stereotypes stem from reality in some capacity, because of the many inexperienced people who dared to call themselves a "producer". Making decisions based on their ego, or adopting an aggressive attitude to prevent his motives from being challenged. Honestly, these are the things that recording horror stories are made from and you should know, that an experienced producer not only knows how to avoid these horror stories, but also knows how to help you realize your vision. An experienced producer will pay for himself in many ways…finding ways to keep you within your budget without compromising the quality of the recording as well as maintaining efficiency in the studio are just a couple of ways. A good producer knows how to get everybody working together…sharing momentum. Spending time in the rehearsal space with a producer (pre-production) making crucial decisions "off the clock" before setting foot in the studio can be the difference between staying within budget and going way over it. A good producer strives to keep harmony amongst band members by being the person that all ideas can be communicated to, and in-turn presented with objectivity to the others. If you think that you're this person in your band, I'd be willing to bet that not everyone in your band agrees with this (just a hunch). A good producer also strives to get the very best performances out of an artist, and should be armed with techniques to make this happen. Keeping players rotating during the "overdub process" so that the singer isn't stuck with three days of singing to do at the end of the recording schedule is second nature to a seasoned producer. Your recording should be about the music…this sounds simple, but a good producer knows how to keep the technical part of recording in the background so that you, the artist can concentrate on the music. I'd be willing to bet that your favorite records in the world…the ones that inspired you the most were probably made with a producer. I think that great musical performances are inspired… and capturing and nurturing these performances is best achieved by the deliberate actions of an experienced producer.