Why doesn’t it sound (in here) like it sounds out there?

In the space of a little more than two years, I entered the record business as an assistant engineer, was promoted to senior (and chief) engineer, and got to experiment to my heart’s desire.  How fortunate I was, as a music and audio enthusiast in my early 20’s, to be chief engineer at a professional recording studio with access to all the gear and the musical instruments.  Every day presented new opportunities to experiment, to test ideas, to listen, to learn.

Determined to find out all I could about every aspect of record making, I spent every free moment in the studio, trying every microphone, every piece of outboard gear and continued to read everything I could get my hands on regarding the subject of audio.  The studio had contracted an independent vinyl mastering engineer to do some cutting and I spent a few weekends watching him, asking questions and learning the basic operation of the cutting lathe and getting the signal from the master tape onto a fresh lacquer disk.

The combination of the day-to-day experience in the studio and all the reading I was doing engendered a growing awareness that what I’d previously thought of as the world of audio was in fact two different worlds.  The audiophile journals I’d been reading and the best of the audiophile gear, suggested that recordings could be made and played back with the aim of recreating the sound of real musicians, playing real instruments in real spaces.  My early experiences in the control room, when I was surprised to find what we heard from the monitors was not at all like what I heard out in the room with the musicians, suggested the idea of sounding real was not a frequent consideration in the pro audio world.  This was reinforced by the other journals I read regularly – the ones oriented toward recording professionals.  The articles and reviews discussed all sorts of recording and mixing ideas but I never saw mention of the idea of emulating what occurred in the presence of the microphones.  Perhaps this was taken for granted but with the preponderance of studios I visited or read about taking a similar approach, how could anyone who walked between a studio and control room take this to be the case?

Granted, not all art is representational or literal.  In the world of recording, sometimes the goal is to create something that does not occur in reality.  Many artists seek new sounds, unlike what actually emanates from their instruments.  From their efforts, we’ve been taken to new sonic landscapes and heard sounds that we’d not have heard any other way.  Wonderful and magical as many of them are, they were made to sound like “records”.  I was also interested in records that sound like performances.  Two different approaches, each with its own rewards.

Regardless of the approach, in many ways, I came to see monitoring as the most important tool in the studio.  After all, if the engineer can’t hear what they are doing, the best they can do is attempt to blindly steer in the desired direction but the results are effectively left to happenstance.  It occurred to me that adjusting sound while referencing typical studio monitoring is like mixing paint colors while wearing sunglasses.  Over the years, a few folks have claimed to be able to hear “around” the monitors but the audible evidence always tells a different story.

It was years later when, looking back, I understood the many reasons for the discrepancies between the sound in the control room and the sound in the studio.  Starting with the monitoring, the large speakers combined a relatively slow woofer to deliver the bass, with a relatively fast tweeter to deliver the treble.  The speed characteristics alone would leave a big discontinuity where the bass and treble were crossed over.  Listening to an instrument with a range reproduced by both drivers made that instrument sound like two different instruments, both altered significantly by the coloration of the individual drivers and by the discontinuity between them.  Designed for high intelligibility at extreme volume levels, at a distance of ¼ mile (0.4 kilometers), these speakers might be tough to beat but they were less successful when sitting in the same room and trying to make decisions about the sound of a recording.

In addition, the speakers were placed above the control room window through which we saw the players in the studio.  Being near the junction of two room boundaries (front wall and ceiling) and not far from a third boundary (the corner on each side) meant the speakers were very efficiently exciting every resonance the control room had.  The room itself then became a giant speaker cabinet, with its own resonances superimposed on the sound coming directly from the speakers.  The bass pitch and timing in the room was not the same bass pitch and timing in the recording.  We heard both simultaneously.

The small speakers, used as an alternative reference, were placed atop the meter bridge of the console.  The result of such placement is a reflection from the top surface of the console, arriving at the engineer’s ears just far enough in time behind the direct sound from the speakers to create a filtering effect when the direct sound and the reflection met at the engineer’s ears.  The result is a dip in the midrange (in English, a diminution of “presence”) at the prime listening position in the control room, from which the engineer made decisions about the sound.  This will make the engineer think there is a need to increase the middle frequencies in the recording – they will boost the midrange to fill in the presence.  Since the apparent lack of midrange is an artifact of speaker placement, the engineer is responding to the monitoring and not to the recording itself, which has no midrange dip.  The recording will now have a midrange peak and will sound “bright” and perhaps harsh when heard on a more honest monitoring setup.

The large speakers, placed where they were placed and combined with their excitation of the room’s resonances, made the bass seem too slow, out of tune and out of control.  The small speakers, placed where they were placed, made the recording appear to be lacking midrange.  By using frequency equalization (EQ) to “compensate”, the engineer would be led to diminish the bass and to add midrange.  No wonder the finished records sounded thin and bright at home.  No wonder I came to see monitoring as the studio’s most important tool.

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Serendipity

The studio schedule had an important session booked and I got to work early in order to ensure everything was prepared. Weeks earlier, we’d recorded the basic tracks (or “backing track”).

Drums, bass, guitar, and electric piano were recorded first.  As previously instructed by the engineer in charge, I’d prepared for that session by setting up the microphones per his usual arrangement, selecting the individual mics from the studio mic closet and placing each, as directed. I placed one mic near the edge of the snare drum, just above the skin, perhaps an inch away.  Other mics were placed in similar proximity, just above the tom tom, one on the floor tom, one at the bass drum (or “foot”), one just above the high hat (or “sock”) and a pair of “overheads” to capture the cymbals.  He had selected dynamic, cardioids (directional) microphones for all the drums and condenser mics (also directional) for the cymbals.  Each mic, selected for its characteristic sound, was used on a particular instrument (or part of an instrument) for which the engineer felt it appropriate.

More dynamic cardioids were placed very close to the grill cloths of the bass and guitar amplifiers.  A pair of “direct boxes” took the “stereo” signal from the electric piano.  (A direct box is used to connect a high impedance, unbalanced, line level signal to a low impedance, balanced, mic level input – or, in English, used to connect a signal from an electric instrument to a sensitive input usually used for the very low level signal from a microphone.)  The day after we’d recorded the basic tracks for this project, overdubs began with the grand piano.  For that session, as instructed, I placed two cardioids condensers just above the hammers of the piano for a “stereo” pickup.

Once I had the instruments, amplifiers and microphones in position and connected the cables to the panels on the studio wall, which would then route the signals to the console in the control room, it was back to the control room to check each signal on the console and to prepare the tape machine.  First, the heads, guides and rollers were cleaned with 99% isopropyl on cotton swabs.  Then a test tape was threaded onto the machine to check head alignment (i.e., azimuth, etc.) while watching the customary Lissajou pattern on an oscilloscope, and to ensure electronic alignment of the playback and record circuits in the machine.  Finally, the first reel of blank tape, ready to capture the sounds routed to the tape recorder from the console.  With everything ready to go, all that remained was to await the arrival of the players, the producer and the engineer.

By this time, I’d been working in the studio for about a year and was familiar with the process:  Basic tracks first, then overdubs of other instruments, sometimes sections of instruments like strings or horns.  In those days, it was common to have real string sections and real horn sections.  Nowadays, improvements in synthesizers have resulted in real strings and horns being the exception rather than the norm.

It had been a few weeks since the basic tracks and preliminary overdubs had been laid down on tape.  The engineer had taken a vacation and was due back for the important overdub session today.  We were adding a large group of strings — violins, violas and cellos.  The players, as usual for the string or horn overdubs we did, were top shelf players from New York City.  (Well, perhaps with the exception of one of the cellists, the concertmaster’s wife.  When checking all the mics in preparation for recording, the engineer might use a “solo” button on the console to mute all inputs except the one being solo’d.  When this particular cellist’s mic was solo’d, we’d hear the other players at some distance but not her instrument.  A visual check through the control room glass revealed that while her bow was moving, it wasn’t in contact with the strings.  To paraphrase Mel Brooks, “It’s good to be the concertmaster’s wife!”)

I prepared the studio, ensuring instruments and amplifiers not in use for the upcoming session were all moved well out of the way.  I set up the customary rows of chairs for the string players with a mic and a music stand at each position, as the engineer had shown me.  Once the mic cables were connected, I returned to the control room and checked all the signals at the console, then cleaned and aligned the tape machine.  Next, I got the first reel of tape from the tape closet and threaded it onto the tape machine.  Using the tones we’d recorded at the front of the reel, before we laid down the basic tracks, I ensured the playback and record electronics were aligned and ready to go.

Shortly afterward, the arranger and producer arrived.  The arranger went out into the studio and began placing the day’s charts (sheet music) on each player’s stand.  Musicians started filtering into the studio and control room and the energy was already starting to build for the day’s session.  The engineer was not yet there, so after getting the players set up and comfortable, I went back to the console to get preliminary settings on the console.  The arranger was already starting to go over certain parts of the day’s music with the players.  These folks were getting union scale and there was no time to waste.

When half an hour after the appointed session time had elapsed and there was still no sign of, nor word from the engineer, the studio owner entered the control room and told me to run the session.  Instant senior engineer!  Instant very nervous engineer!  Since I’d assisted on a good number of sessions by this time, including string section overdubs, I realized I knew what to do and all that was needed was to just proceed, step by step.  Still, it is one thing to sit on the side, next to the tape machine, keeping track of takes and it is quite another to be “in the seat”, effectively driving the session.  The upshot is that the session was a success.  The arranger even commented on the “brilliance” of the string sound, something he’d not heard at our studio before – a lucky EQ choice on my part, I suppose.

It turned out, we never did hear from the engineer again – though I did run into him many years later.  (I guessed he’d found something else and just didn’t want any further contact with the folks at this particular studio.)  As a result, my title was changed.  I was the new “Chief Engineer”.  There was still so very much more to learn but now my opportunities had expanded geometrically.  I just saw it as a glorious new freedom to try out different approaches.

Adventures in Sound: Wait a Minute!

When I was in elementary school, I was thrilled to discover that the “sound with sound” feature on my brother’s tape recorder allowed me to play a musical part on one instrument, then add another part while playing another instrument.  It was many years later that I learned the technical term for what I was doing is “overdubbing”.  Around the same time, I became entranced with the idea of being able to have a tape with many musical parts, recorded at different times, sometimes in different places and combining them at will into a “mix”.  My first experience of a console, the hardware that facilitates mixing, felt like a dream.  The feel of well designed faders under one’s fingers as they are pushed and pulled to achieve the desired musical balance leaves a special tactile memory reserved for those who have had the experience.

Now I was working in a real recording studio, assisting in the recording of basic tracks, overdub sessions, mixdowns and editing sessions, and interacting with the musicians and producers and arrangers daily.  I was learning how records are made and further, I was part of the process.  My day to day work took me from the studio and control room, to the mastering room that housed the lathe used to cut the lacquer discs that were sent to the pressing plants to make the finished records.  (Once I was familiar with all the studio processes, I learned to cut lacquers for vinyl in the studio’s in-house mastering room.)  If the dancing VU meters in the control room were one form of magic, watching  a fresh groove get cut into a lacquer disc as the vacuum removes the “flash” (the cut away part of the lacquer which used to fill the space that was now the record groove) was a similar enchantment.  I was involved from placing the microphones for the original recording session and subsequent overdubs (where additional parts were added to the original recording), to the mixdowns (to create stereo mixes from the multitrack masters), to the editing sessions, to the mastering room where the final stage of production (and first stage of manufacturing) takes place.

Along the way, I was exposed to a number of publications aimed specifically at studio personnel.  Among them were dB magazine and from the UK, Studio Sound.  These added to the copies of Audio, High Fidelity, Stereo Review, Stereophile and The Absolute Sound I was digesting on a monthly basis, in addition to occasional copies of another UK journal, Hi-Fi News.

Now that the studio environment and procedures were becoming familiar and less overwhelming than they were at first, I also started to notice something.  What I heard in the control room did not sound like what I heard out in the studio with the musicians.  The large overhead speakers certainly produced a lot of volume and could reproduce dynamic “slam” such as when the drummer hit his snare drum, but even this did not sound like what I heard out in the room, in the physical presence of the drummer.  The smaller speakers that sat atop the meter bridge of the console, used as a “check” on the larger speakers, presented their own version of the story and that too, did not resemble, other than in the most superficial way, what I heard out in the studio.  Further, after we’d received the finished copies of each recording, when I got to take a record home and listen to it there, it sounded different again.  Sonic adjustments made while listening to the big speakers didn’t always work on the small speakers.  Similarly, adjustments made on the small speakers sometimes didn’t make sense when the music was subsequently played back on the larger speakers… and even less sense when I took the finished record home.  When I asked the senior engineer about the discrepancy between the sound “in here” (in the control room) and the sound “out there” (in the studio), his response, delivered somewhat abruptly, was that it was “not supposed to sound” like what I heard out in the studio.  To myself, I began to wonder exactly how it was supposed to sound.

Actually, I began to wonder about a lot of things.  For example, every mic we had in the mic closet had a very distinctive sound.  It added its own character to the sound of whatever it captured.  One of those large diaphragm condensers lent a certain crispness to the sound of a grand piano or of the drummer’s cymbals.  However, this was not the sound of the piano or the cymbals as I heard them out in the studio.  Switching to one of the dynamic microphones warmed up the sound and perhaps lost a bit of that crispness.  But this too was not the sound of the piano, cymbals or anything else as I heard them out in the studio.  With either mic choice, the large speakers in the control room provided one presentation and the smaller speakers provided a very different one (bass and dynamic capability differences between the speakers notwithstanding).  Back at home, I heard another, completely different sound.  Which of these, I wondered, if indeed any, was the truth?  It took me years to find out why but even before I knew, I suspected the answer, particularly with regard to the studio monitoring, was “none”.

The Lure of the Studio

Twenty years old and fresh out of college with a BA, I answered a want ad in the New York Times and entered the record business.  One of the courses I’d taken in school was called “Audio Production” but there really wasn’t any practical (or even theoretical) learning about producing audio.  However, we did learn the fundamentals of audio editing – not music but spoken word, recorded on analog tape, edited with a razor blade, as that was the extent of the technology of the time.  Also, the teacher, who worked part time at a real recording studio in midtown Manhattan, allowed me to visit one afternoon to see the real thing.

What is generally referred to as a studio is usually more than a single space.  While the studio proper is where the musicians actually perform for the microphones, the “control room” is where the engineer does his or her work.  Most control rooms have a large glass window, through which, the engineer and producer can have visual contact with the players out in the studio.  (There are exceptions.  Some studios don’t have windows and use video monitors for visual communication.  Some studios have additional, smaller spaces used to isolate individual players from the rest of the ensemble.  Some studios have the control room inside the studio itself.)

Probably the first thing that grabs a visitor’s eye when walking into an audio control room is the console, also known as the mixing desk or simply, “the board”.  To many folks, it can appear as complex as the cockpit of a jumbo jet or perhaps a space craft.  It is only upon closer inspection that one might notice the console is comprised of many repeating iterations of the same knobs, dials, faders and meters.  Not that it doesn’t look impressive anyway – just that a closer look reveals it is merely a grouping (often a large grouping) of individual “strips”, each providing the controls for one individual signal.  Every microphone in the studio feeds one of these strips.  Additional strips on the console might be fed from outboard gear in the control room – for special effects and other signal manipulations.  Sometimes, strips are fed by other strips, depending on what the engineer seeks to do with any given individual sound or any group of individual sounds from among those entering the console.

Studios used to bring in unpaid apprentices to learn the ropes, assist the main engineer and perform whatever other tasks needed doing.  This was the traditional means of entering the ranks of engineers: as a “gopher” (or “go fer”, because you would go for whatever was needed), sometimes called a “BP” (button pusher).  I got lucky.  I was hired with a regular salary.  (Hey, $77 a week!)

The console certainly filled me with awe but so did the rest of the environment.  The only tape machines I’d had any experience with all used 7” (~18 cm) reels and ¼” (~6 mm) wide tape.  The stereo machines in the studio used 10.5” reels (~27 cm) and the multitrack machines used either 1” (~25 mm) wide or more often, 2” (~5 cm) wide tape.  While stereo machines have two tracks (left and right), multitrack machines allow the separate microphone signals to be kept separate — 8, 16, 24 or more at a time — until they are mixed to stereo.  The control room had one stereo machine, one 8-track machine using the 1” tape and one 16-track machine using the 2” tape.  Over head, on either side of the control room window, hung huge loudspeakers, with cabinets perhaps a cubic yard in size.  Atop the equipment rack to the side of the console sat the power amplifiers, with tubes glowing orange.

That control room was the first of several in which I experienced something words struggle to illustrate:  When the musicians are all warmed up and the music is flowing, the reels of tape on the recorders are turning and the sounds being captured, the speakers singing into the control room and the lights dimmed down to spotlight the experience as a purely sonic one, watching something like several dozen to a hundred or more meters — on the tape machine(s), the outboard gear and the console — all “dancing” to the music, is a magical experience like no other.  It is as if the meters move, not merely because of the electrical voltage passing through them, but as if they are, like listeners, filled with the spirit of the music itself.  How fortunate I am to be among those who have seen this and felt this.