Taking Notes From The Guys

The most insightful and unscripted/unedited thoughts and actions of seven masters of music recording during a two-day, four-session clinic.
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On March 20 and 21, the METAlliance Academy — conceived and created by legendary engineers Chuck Ainlay, Ed Cherney, Frank Filipetti, George Massenburg, Phil Ramone, Elliot Scheiner, and Al Schmitt — conducted its inaugural event at the historic studios in Los Angeles' Capitol Records tower. Dubbed "In Session with the Guys," the interactive, participatory event featured the METAlliance founders in live recording and mixing sessions over an entire weekend.

Alex Oana (seated) with (l-r): George Massenburg, Frank Filipetti, Elliot Scheiner, Phil Ramone, Al Schmitt, Ed Cherney, and Chuck Ainlay. Photo by David Goggin Via pages from my notebook, I want to attempt to share with PAR readers the rare opportunity I was given: to absorb the most insightful and unscripted/unedited thoughts and actions of seven masters of music recording during a two-day, four-session clinic. In part two of this coverage — for PAR's upcoming June 2010 Studio Sense column — I will personally reflect on the METAlliance Academy experience.

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Opening Thoughts

Event introduction by Jim Pace, the managing director of METAlliance: "If people know the difference between a box of wine and a bottle of wine ... If people will pay $3.75 for a cup of coffee ... maybe they'll pay for [highquality] music."

Ed Cherney: "You know what the trouble is with recording engineers? Everybody else."

Ed Cherney and Chuck Ainlay in Capitol Studio B: Tracking a Three-Piece Rock Band

Cherney: "It's the nut behind the wheel, not the gear."

Ainlay: "I think it was just as hard when I was starting out to get a gig. The difference now is there are more guys who all want the same gig."

Cherney: "First responsibility as a recording engineer: YOU DON'T MISS A NOTE."

Ainlay: "Vocal is God in Nashville. We try to keep ambience from getting in the way; we isolate the musicians more, record 7 or 8 musicians at a time, go for keeper solos, and even get lead vocals ... I prefer to make a headphone mix for all musicians so all hear the same thing and all are on same page."

Cherney: "In the studio, neatness counts."

Ainlay: "Even with 24-bits and 96k, it's crazy that people are still printing with overs. It's probably distorting the mic pre and maybe the tape returns on the console."

Cherney: "The lower I print, the more dynamic it is — rounder and fuller. When you print too hot, it's hard and dark at the same time." The session's SSL Mix Bus Compressor (for monitoring): 10ms attack, 4:1 ratio, fastest release.

Ainlay: "Ed calls Nashville mixes rectangular."

Cherney: [On Nashville mixes] "Everything fits neatly in the box vs. 'hairy with warts' rock 'n' roll mixing."

"Get the vibe right. [Be] a good host; invite people into your home."[On where to put the outside kick mic] "You can feel with your hand where the fundamental is. You can feel where the wave breaks." [referring to the rush of air that comes out of the kick's resonant head hole.]

Ainlay: [On drum miking] "Use bottom mic on toms to get more oomph ... Too far away creates a sound that can create timing problems in the track. For the main room mics, find where the snare sounds great."

Ainlay drum EQ: Snare top (Neve 8068): 10 kHz shelf boost, 5 kHz peak boost, 100 Hz peak boost; Snare bottom, no EQ; Kick (Neve 1081 outboard); cut between 200-400 Hz, boost at 4.8k.); Tom: 4.8 kHz, 10 kHz boost.

Ainlay: [On using phase popper tester] "Can't imagine starting a session without it."

[In response to my comment that I often work with drummers who don't know how to tune their drums.] "Try to work with what the musician has [sound-wise] before you ask them to make any changes. Try not to make any enemy at this point in the session."

Cherney: "Keith Richards once pulled a knife on me because he thought I hadn't recorded something he played, but I had. It was when I first started working with [the Rolling Stones]; he just wanted to let me know I should keep an eye on him. Let that be a lesson to you — you should never miss anything."

Al Schmitt and Phil Ramone in Capitol Studio A: Tracking a Six-Piece Jazz/R&B Band with Vocalist

Schmitt: "I can't tell you how many times the first take was THE ONE. Hundreds of times. ["Al sounds like Joe Pesci."—Alex]

Ramone: "You go to the bathroom, and you miss it."

Schmitt: "Computers know when you're getting pissy at them. We do not scream at the computers."

[Coincidentally, minutes later, Pro Tools freezes and must be re-launched. Schmitt says to the musicians]: "Hold on guys; we have a problem with the click" as opposed to 'the computer crashed,' so they won't worry about their takes getting lost.

Ramone: "You have to be aware how your life can change if you make yourself useful to someone. I'll do anything for most people."

"Do you think the kids care [about sound quality]? You gotta show 'em what sounds good. They only know something is different or better if you give it to them. You have to teach people what 'cool' is."

"I think you have to be extremely fussy about how the vocal is done. It is why they buy the record."

George Massenburg and Frank Filipetti in a Capitol Studio Lounge (Improvised Control Room): Working in Non-Traditional Studio Environments and Mixing/Recording ITB (In The Box)

Massenburg: "If you pay attention, and if you're listening, it's fine." —

Filipetti: "Analog is a technology that has evolved and [has been] perfected over 90+ years."

Massenburg: "In a very inexpensive space, you're going to be able to do much of what you can do in the big studios in Capitol."

"Still, we face these limitations: 1, at the user end, the D/A conversion; 2, the pipe — higher bandwidth is needed; and 3, the content ... [For those who can provide high-resolution, high-quality content,] "there will be an opportunity for you coming."

George Massenburg's MP3 Test:

He played us an out-of-phase MP3 against its hi-res version. The artifacts are stunning. Try this at home! "A whole generation of practitioners thinks this [the sound of the mp3 artifacts] is OK," offers Massenburg.

Filipetti: [On the subject of mp3] "It's like paint by numbers: get a big green swab instead of the components that make up the color green. Don't fool yourself that you're going to get close to the emotional experience listening to the real thing.

"For the same reason high-res home theater is taking off, we think there's hope for high-res recording."

Massenburg: [On the question, 'What are the most important things for fixed budget production?']: "1, a DAW — any brand is capable of good sound; 2, that you know your speakers and how they translate ... within a couple of hours, you can convert a normal home room into a good working room, but having a great speaker does not translate to a great sound if your room is bad; and 3, get a good AD/DA converter. It's not digital that's harsh; it's the converters.

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Filipetti: "Focus on the vocal. That's where the song lives or dies." [Frank holds up unlit cigar all the time, just like in his ads, Alex suddenly observes.]

Massenburg/Filipetti Session Key Components:

Subgroup Compression: UAD-1 Fairchild 670 Compressor, Massey L2007 Mastering Limiter; Reverbs: Lexicon Chamber (with 217ms predelay), Lexicon Hall (322ms pre-delay), UAD-1 EMT 140 Classic Plate Reverberator; Kick: WAVES Eddie Kramer Collection Kick plug-in; Bass: WAVES LoAir

Filipetti: "I use control surfaces for mixing. I don't like looking at something when I mix, I like listening."

Massenburg: "You can tell an inexperienced guy when you walk in and hear him laboring over sounds in isolation. I don't do a lot of soloing because it doesn't matter what it sounds like out of context. Start with vocal, then add the elements."

"I like 'all live' ... I want everyone in one room responding to one another."

"Blu-ray is already obsolete. A general file format, like MPEG-4, is adaptable to the picture. The future of distribution is download on fiber."

"The paradigm is independent production. People are more interested in telling their story rather than hiring me to tell it for them."

"Everywhere but the U.S., you get paid for performance. Eventually performance will be traced and paid for. [Meanwhile] the way is doing everything live: interaction, collaboration, interplay."

"No more of this everything to a grid. It kills individuality."

"I love being challenged, being out of my comfort zone."

"I don't go into the studio to just make a record. I go in to the studio to do research on a piece of gear. I need that kind of stimulation on multiple levels."

Elliot Scheiner in Capitol Studio C: Mixing On a Large-Format Analog Console

Scheiner: "You could see after 9/11 everything was changed. Nobody was buying music. Nobody was selling music."

"I don't listen to a rough mix or what the band was hearing. I try to make it as fresh as I can from my perspective."

"The most important part of what I do is drums. Steely or Eagles, drums were always important to them. If the drums are broken, the record is broken. When I start a mix, it's drums."

"Active monitors sound way too good, and they don't make you work hard enough ... [Yamaha] NS-10s are the flattest thing around." "Drums always have too much 300 Hz."

"I don't really like reverb. I feel the music should stand on its own."

Scheiner Session Key Components:

Reverbs: Lexicon 480L, Buckram, 46ms pre-delay; Lexicon 480, Small Church 100ms pre-delay. "I use one or two chambers because I feel everyone should be coming from the same place."

Compression: Neve 33609 on the stereo bus. "The Neve is not about compressing a bunch of stuff. It's about being there as the mix progresses. I mix one way; it's the only way I know. I've been doing it for 25 years."

Scheiner: "When inline EQs came, people got lazy."

"I seldom boost [EQ] on cymbals. I cut."

In Closing

Jim Pace: "For what has been bestowed upon you, it's now up to you to be evangelists for the 'META Mission.'"

Contact: METAlliance | metalliance.com

Alex Oana has been a recording engineer for 20 years.alexoana.com