EXPERIMENTATION & INNOVATION
Tell us how you got started.
I started engineering, working in the studio in ’86. It was all analog—completely analog. We used to edit tapes, chop them by hand, and glue them back together, and, of course, it meant that you couldn’t really edit a track within a multi-track recording. You could either edit a whole section, like take a verse out or something like that, or combine between two takes of a complete recording. There were other ways of comping vocals which were much more labor intensive.
Did you know you wanted to engineer?
I started as a musician way before I actually started working as an engineer in the studio. I already had a little home studio with a digital sequencer. It was a MIDI sequencer, and a drum machine. Much later on, I had a sample-based drum machine which was a really big thing at the time.
I was recording on a two-track tape which had sound on sound feature, so you could overdub different recordings or different takes. This degraded the sound every time, because the tape would lose a generation…but it had its sound. And there were some interesting tricks you could do by speeding up or down the tape and reversing it. I learned a lot from this process because of what I didn’t have rather than what I did have. I remember using a wah pedal to EQ a snare drum…I was trying to record my first drum kit in my parents’ house. I had 3 mics and no desk or anything like that. I had to record the drums, and the only way to give punch and midrange to the snare was to run it through a wah pedal. So it was very interesting to really explore possibilities and sounds and noises.
What motivated you to be so experimental?
The main thing that drove me to mess about with sounds and noises was the fact that I had an electric guitar and no amp and no way of connecting it to the outside world! When I was about ten or eleven, I started experimenting with old radios, old tapes, walkmans, anything I could lay my hands on, trying to create a fuzz sound through a walkman by distorting and going into the mic input and soldering bits and stuff like that, creating some explosions and getting electrified a few times! But that was part of the process and I loved it; I was thinking all the time of ways to create noises. I had a monophonic synth and I would try to find ways to play chords on it by using different tape methods.
It must have been a shock once you get to a regular studio.
It was like the perfect playground. I was 18, it was like a toy shop. Everything was there and ready to go. I didn’t have to build it, it was already there and I just had to connect it in a way that someone has already thought would make sense. I didn’t have to invent everything myself. Although, soon enough, I found ways to mess about by combining different aspects of pieces of gear that weren’t meant to be mixed together and sometimes creating some damage to the studio, but I was forgiven because I was really young and enthusiastic.
Was it a digital world yet?
I think it was the early ‘90s that the first computer-based systems started to appear. There was Digidesign of course, but there were others like Saw, Sonorus, Creamware, and other systems… way before Logic and Cubase and all those systems we know today.
When I was 17, I did audio and sound in an engineering school and afterward I started working in the studio as an assistant or a runner, but it was very soon that I got my first break, by very unique people who believed in me and saw my spark maybe and gave me a very big responsibility. It was a very important record at the time, the record was of a very famous Israeli singer in ‘86 or ’87. I think it still sounds good today, It has some very interesting sounds for the time. It was a rock album with some experimental sounds which combined some of the really early digital processors and synthesizers together with traditional rock and it was very interesting to explore that combination.
THE ARTIST’S WAY
You’ve worked with such a wide variety of people. How do you approach each creative situation?
I think there’s something unique about every artist when you start a project. Each artist is a complete universe and there’s a lot of understanding and trust that has to be accomplished before you can start creating. I find that the easiest way to bond or connect with a new artist is to try to write something together to start something together, to take some tracks and mess about with them and give them a twist. And if that works, the trust is built a lot quicker, and that makes the whole process much easier and much more pleasant. Because I think that when you’re not trying to force your opinions and methods onto someone, but rather trying to get to create a new and unique way of working with each individual artist, you have a better chance to start a good creative relationship.
When you work with a new artist it’s important to not step on their toes. For instance, I worked with Bryan Adams. He himself is a great guitarist even though he has and uses an amazing guitarist in his band and he plays bass. Luckily, when I started working with him I wasn’t aware that he played bass so well and that he had done a whole tour with just the three of them. He played bass the whole tour! I wasn’t aware of that fact which allowed me to grab the bass and play on a few tracks. Had I known that he’s a bass player, I never would have dared so that was kind of funny. He just sat there and said, “Great, yeah man,” and I learned so much from him.
You’re also a songwriter, and you share songwriting credits on a number of your own productions.
These days the boundaries between each role in the production line is very blurred. Because a lot of the time you get the sound or the concept of the production in the writing process, it’s not like you’re writing you’re grabbing a guitar and writing chords and then trying to fit the melody. It’s all kind of a mix. You get some noises or you get a beat or you get some interesting sequences, or you get some chords or even just textures and you write the song on that. It’s very different than the traditional way of writing where a guy would sit by the piano and write with a pencil and all that. You create a sound and then you write to that sound, so what you’re hearing while you’re writing tremendously affects what the song will be. And that’s very exciting, but it’s also very scary because the possibilities are open and you have to find a way to narrow the canvas. Otherwise you’ll get lost very quickly, especially with all the means and technology of today. It’s very easy to drown in all the plugins and all the virtual synths and to lose your way.
What are some common errors you see young engineers making?
From the engineering perspective, a lot of people just record too hot, the levels are just up in the sky and there’s really no reason. In a funny way, when we used to record to tape, the noise floor was much higher and the headroom was smaller but we didn’t record so hot. And these days, when the converters are so quiet when the mic amps are so quiet, and when the cable and signal path is so good and people spent so much money, there’s no reason to record so loud! What happens is people are used to digital audio and DAWs which show you peak metering, so you can just overload sonically and not electronically. And then people are surprised and disappointed— why does everything sound so squashed and so flat?
I think that once people understand how and why things work they wouldn’t necessarily have to record and mix where everything is like WAY UP HERE. There’s no reason for doing that, especially if you record everything at -6 to -10 dB peak. You would have so much more headroom, everything would behave in such a more pleasant and natural way. Even though we record to a digital system, there are analog filters before the A-to-D converter and they can get overloaded.
I recommend trying to look at the host application or program that you’re using as tape as much as possible. When I record I always “commit to tape.” In the old days, we used to record to tape and once something was recorded that was it. Try to get your mic positioned in the right way where it sounds best because there’s no way of changing that. And make sure that your signal path is clean; no buzzes or any noises that are unwanted. Even though you have the means of cleaning the sound later, it’s always better to just get it right in the first place. And then, editing fades, avoid clicks… all the those unwanted noises, even if you can’t hear them in the final mix they’re there and they’re just clouding and creating info that shouldn’t be there.
So I record, whether its guitar or vocal or double bass or drums, when I finish that specific session all the tracks are ready to print to tape even though we aren’t printing to tape! It makes life so much easier when you finish your mix and you have to send your tracks back to the record label or for someone to remix or for whatever reason everything is ready. So you don’t have to revisit stuff.
From the sonic perspective, it’s also important because everything is clean, everything is right, and you know what’s there. There’s no mystery and no surprises. It’s important to avoid using like ten plugins on a specific track, like on a guitar track, if there’s no reason. Sometimes I get sessions to mix from people who have so many EQs and gates and reverbs and compressors and there’s not always a reason for all of them. People have to commit. If you LIKE that sound then maybe it’s the right sound. The fact that you have twenty other EQs doesn’t mean that you have to use them all. Every plugin that you add to the chain degrades the sound. It might help the frequency response of the sound if you shape an EQ or a frequency curve, but running through some plugins may create quantization errors, unwanted artifacts, and noise, and they all sum up to it being more digital sounding.
WORKING WITH WAVES
You’ve had a hand, not only in revolutionizing the use of plugins, but in helping develop many. Which plugins do you turn to the most?
It’s hard to say which are my preferred plugins for different applications. The Waves plugins have such variety in colors, but the one thing they all have in common is that they all offer best quality in terms of the digital processing, the algorithms, the implementation of the programming optimization, and all the technical things. If the piano is not recorded so well or one of the mics is colored in a different way than the others, it’s really helpful to use the Waves Linear Phase EQ because it doesn’t really have a color of its own, so that when you process a sound using that specific EQ, you can really change the freq response without adding a specific color or without changing the overall color of that specific track. That is really, really good for making stuff sound as if there were recorded in a different way. It’s more advisable to get it recorded right in the first place, but sometimes you get a dull-sounding acoustic guitar and when you try to boost the top end you get a lot of phasiness; something is not really solid anymore and you lose the definition at the low frequencies. Using a linear phase EQ can really be good for stuff like that.
Are there any other plugins that are changing the way people work?
All the Waves modeling processors that came out recently, including the SSL 4000 Collection, the V-Series, The API Collection, and others, really allow us to have different colors of pieces of gear and give us the choice of using a special EQ, a special compressor, and so on, but not only because of the way they process the sound but also because of the color of the sound that runs through them. This is something we never had; the original digital processors all sounded pretty much the same. But these days you can really choose—“I want to use this EQ on this guitar not only because it does this specific midrange thing, but because just running it through the process gives it a dimension which is similar to analog.” It’s not the same as analog, but it gives you the variety of different pieces of gear.
What do you listen for?
Since I come from an engineering background, I see everything through the eyes of the engineer. The technical stuff. I’m very concerned about sound, the quality of the sound, the fullness of sound, and I think that’s how I approach my productions. As a producer you have to see the bigger picture, you have to be aware of the artistic parameters as well as the technical ones, but I think that in order not to get lost with all the different possibilities, you have to choose one path. Because you can take a song and in order to make it better you can go there and there and there, but choosing a family of sounds or instruments or concepts of sonic perspective helps me to get my head around all the different possibilities and just choose one path.
But also being an engineer, you’re exposed to so many different artistic experiments, and this experience gives you the patience to see through a creative process and to let it happen. I think that confidence comes from engineering. The fact that you master your environment, your studio environment, helps you to relax and really let artistic or creative processes happen.
THE HIT SOUND
Do you still find a place for experimentation?
Absolutely. When I first started working on Round Round by the Sugababes, what we received was kind of a demo but the record label really liked it and wanted us to make this the recording. The vocals were already recorded and it sounded kind of unfinished and what I did to this track is, I tried to create something that would sound like an old sample that would be looped throughout the track cause sometimes you get this one loop or one sample that really gives it the depth that you want. Then I started a fresh session at the same BPM and key, and I created a complete recording of 24 tracks which included drums, bass, guitars, organs, some pads, and percussion. Then, when we mixed it, it was like a four bar thing and we mixed two bars and distorted it and ran it though amps and really made it sound old and vintage, kind of as if it was taken from an old vinyl record. Then we put it in the song and I think it did the job.
The title of your new book is Hit Record. What do you think makes a hit record?
No one knows what makes a hit record. Everyone has their guesses. I try to take my best guesses every time but the one thing I try to do and inisist on doing is getting it to SOUND as good as possible. I think that you can’t really make a hit song by making a good production but you can destroy a song but not giving it its full sonic palette. So I try to bear that in mind and I keep asking myself at every stage of the production before I go to the next stage “Is this the best that this song can sound? Is it better than it sounded? Did I lose something in the process?” And when I’m sure that it is the best that it can sound for that stage, then I can move on to the next stage. So that when I finish the recordings, when I go mixing I ask myself: “Is this rough mix right? Is the 4 vocal right? The guitars? The BPM? The length? Can I lose half of the intro to make it more radio friendly?” I keep asking myself those questions and when I come to the mix, I ask myself, “Is this the best this song can sound?” And when I’m not sure, then I know there’s a problem.
When I ask myself if this vocal is distorted, then it is. Because otherwise you wouldn’t have asked yourself that question, so it’s important to listen to yourself or to raise questions to yourself, because there’s a reason why you raised specific questions and I try again to commit. I try to print one version that is the good one. In the old days we used to do one with vocals up, vocals down, vocals in between up and down, less, more, and all that. But at the end of the day, a mix either sounds good or not. It’s either right, or if it’s not right, then it’s wrong, because you can’t have something that is ninety percent. It has to be right. So I’d rather print the one version.
Again, you discover things when you work the analog way. These days, you bounce a mix and it can go offline and you don’t’ even hear the bounce. But in the old days, you had to print it to tape, so you’d listen and there was a different way of listening to the mix. It was like a live performance, because you know this is THE take, and so many times I would stop. Even though I had the mix in front of me all day, when I’d print I’d stop and say, “Yeah, but this can be better.” And sometimes I’d stop ten times trying to get the one take.
When I print the mix, the recording to the two track, whether it’s Pro Tools, tape, or whatever, it’s almost like I have a different set of ears during that process. I hear some things that didn’t bother me before but now that I’m printing, I know that THIS is the take, I hear it differently, and I say “No, I have to get this better.” And then I stop and I go again and again and again.