As an audio engineer, the start of a recording/production project is usually one of the best parts of the project; the teamwork is all there, everyone involved is optimistic, and the overall focus of the big picture is challenging, invigorating, and most of all fun.
However, when it comes to the end of the project, it usually is one of the most taxing and least gratifying parts of the project. This is intensified by shifting focus to each individual involved in the project; all the endless detail and waffling of editing; the infinite possibilities of mix tweaks allowed by our computer systems; etc.
Strangely enough, that pivotal moment in the project where things change between collective ideology and individual artistic vision is usually during the time of rough mixing.
THE LOVE AND NEED OF ROUGH MIXES
In an ideal audio engineers world, daily rough mixes would be an essential step in moving a project forward. However, this isn’t always the case due to things like session time constraints, client financial issues, release dates, etc. Therefore, the limited number of rough mixes made during the project become even more important to the overall scope of the project. Each rough mix must represent a significant advancement in the overall vision of the project; inspire future creativity within the project; and help determine how much more time is needed before final mixing begins. Here are a few guidelines to think of when you are at the rough mix stage in your project.
The first rough mix of a project is sometimes referred to as the ‘raw mix’ or ‘organic rough.’ This is because it allows a unique opportunity to hear what the recorded tracks really sound like together with natural dynamics and unused space. When it comes time to begin the first rough mixes, keep in mind these mixes should be nothing but a representation of the initial recorded performance. This means that the first rough mix should only focus on the balance of all the recorded tracks together with very few edits, EQ, and processing. No overdubs either. The rough mix is actually raw and unproduced, but if recorded properly, still hi-fi. Allowing the imagination to open up, the rough mix helps the engineer, producer, and especially the artist contemplate what to do next in the song and how to fill any open space.
As the process of overdubbing begins, the next batch of rough mixes will understandably increase in complexity. It is this second round of rough mixes where you can and really should try things out. Take some f’n chances. You never know when you might discover something new and useful that will help take what you are working on to the next level. Experiment with different outboard combinations, try a new plug-in, create an over the top effect or two. And the good thing is, if it doesn’t work out, you can just get rid of it. Knowledge is power!
After all the experimental foray’s have been successfully/unsuccessfully attempted, it is time to do some rough mixes that one could say are dressed up rehearsals of what the final mix will become. Using the collective knowledge from all the experimentation as well as the overdubs and initial recording, I’d fashion together my most glorified mix of the project all while attempting to locate and resolve any problems from poor recording to bad performances, bad editing, etc. These mixes are then aided by having the artist or band go and listen to them on their own preferred sound system in hopes of providing meaningful feedback.
One thing to keep in mind, the rough mix process doesn’t always work out so well for every client. It’s always best when making that first rough mix to verify if the artist or band would like to hear it raw and organic or if they prefer it polished up a bit. Some current musicians and artists wouldn’t even think of listening to their part or song without at least some kind of tuning, quantizing, Eq-ing, or manipulation. They would likely find the organic rough mix to be faulty to a point of questioning the engineer’s proficiency and qualifications. They would never question their own. If some of your recording methods rely on drum replacement, comping and editing, virtual amplification then you might have to do a fair amount of work before presenting the first rough mix to your client.
In the second stage of rough mixing, where it’s good to experiment and create options, the liabilities can sometimes be quite overwhelming. Remember, even though experimenting and over effecting is fun for us because we’re engineers, to an artist who fears hokey exuberance and manipulation of their sound, it can be an all out declaration of war. Once again, it is always good to check with the artist or band member before experimenting or radically changing their sound, especially a vocalist. For some vocalist’s, having their voice washed in effects can really chap their ass, driving them to question your judgement, which in turn prevents you from making simple recording suggestions like ‘you should double this or stack that.’
By the time the third stage rough mixes are complete, they better be almost as good as what one would hear on the radio. Having a near perfect rough is just the beginning, it is now also all about ‘temp mastering’ (EQ, compression, expansion, limiting) on rough mixes so artists don’t throw a fit over low levels in comparison to final mastered albums.
So what exactly is the flip side to all of this? If the rough mixes are too good, they might get prematurely distributed. This is either because of an anxious artist posting their rough mixes on the web, unintended airplay or unintended leaks via insider moles. If people think a rough mix sounds finished, then it might get overexposed and diminish any chances of success the final mix could have.
As important and fun as rough mixing can be, the modern audio engineer should always make sure his or her approach and overall intentions are acceptable to everyone involved in the project. A rough mix is sometimes going to create disharmony and strong opinions amongst everyone involved in the project, but that dialogue and concession is exactly what is required to bring about the best in our art. As time passes and you begin to build a stronger reputation as an audio engineer through success, people will begin to hold more merit to your opinions and experimentation, which at the end of the day means your job as an engineer is just going to keep getting better, and better, and better, and better………
Today I am going to address a very common topic I get here at Studio 11 almost on a daily basis. Is it worth it or not to go to an audio school to become a recording and mixing engineer. With so many young people discovering the passion for music engineering and production, the natural course of action for them is to want to work on music full time, as a job.
Just like many professions, it is believed that a degree is needed not only for the knowledge and experience, but for the resume as well. The idea of going to school to learn how to use mixing consoles, outboard gear, and microphones are very alluring. So if you have played around with these questions on your future profession, let me give you a few quick thoughts on the subject.
You Don’t Need A Degree For Sound Engineering
I will go ahead and just get straight to the point. You really don’t need a degree from a university or trade school to earn a living recording, mixing, or producing music. As a matter of fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if most of the top audio engineers out there did not go to school for engineering. Some might not have gone at all or, like myself, dropped out when they realized a degree wasn’t needed to obtain a good job as an engineer.
Audio engineering and production is an artform, not just a field of study. The most common and effective form of training for a young aspiring engineer is an internship where he or she works with a master audio engineer or producer in a professional studio environment. As an intern, your job is to watch and learn the master engineer’s every trick and move so you can eventually assist his sessions properly. This is how its always been done. What really matters most in the audio engineering business is experience and connections. Let me say that again, experience and connections.
Pretty much you can go to any studio around the world today, obtain an unpaid internship, and begin the long and hard process of becoming an engineer. Yes it is true you’ll probably run a lot of errands and sweep a lot of floors, but the compromise is that you might be able to assist the engineer in a session, do some editing for him, cable patching, microphone setup, so on and so forth. It’s how most of us began our careers as audio engineers. I just like many others before me didn’t need any kind of degree to begin the process.
After reading this blog, if you think I am against school, you should know I went to college for a year and a half to learn audio engineering. It was a five-year program, so with the little bit I did learn in that short time, it was definitely an invaluable experience. The beginning of the program focused more so on the physics of acoustics, music theory, and conceptual understanding. I will say, I probably wouldn’t have been taught these things in my internship, so I am glad I got a chance to learn the stuff in school. So, if you have the money to get accepted into an audio program at a major university or trade school, you should go!
On the other side of the fence though, if don’t have the money, its hard to justify the possibility of going into large debt for a degree in audio engineering. The messed up thing that no one tells you, even with that fancy degree, you still have to pay your ‘dues’ and get an internship at a studio somewhere. That internship is the same kind of internship you could have gotten even if you didn’t go to school. Chances are you’ll probably be the smartest and most experienced intern at the studio though, which means you might get more opportunities to sit in and assist on sessions.
Now whether or not you go to school, you don’t necessarily have to work your way up through the ranks to become an engineer. You can open up your own studio any time, all you need is a good source of capital to purchase some gear. So, after my internship had ended, I decided to open up my own little space out of my apartment in Chicago. It was small, the neighbors yelled at me everyday because of the noise, but I recorded, edited, and mixed many songs and albums for many bands and artists of all types. I learned a great deal, met lots of great people, and most importantly, made money.
So you see, there isn’t really much stopping you from starting a career as a recording or mix engineer. The biggest hurdle is building a client base. A good way to go about this is to do some free work to build up client portfolio, put it up on a website and promote your services. Then little by little, start charging for your work.
So at the end of it all, education really is a great thing. I am so thankful for all that I learned from my professors during my time at school. But looking back on it all, it was something that I didn’t need to do to get where I am at today. I learned 99% of everything I know about audio engineering by watching other engineers and producers work, and also through experience. So I guess what I am saying, is if I could do it, then you could do it. All that it takes is a lot of patience and a lot of passion. Pretty simple things compared to becoming a doctor or a lawyer.
Distortion, clicks, and pops can destroy an otherwise good recording session, and these problems 99% of the time are manufactured by something simple and easily avoidable. So here are a few quick things to check if you ever run into these situations.
Update Firmware, Software, and Drivers
The first thing that you must do is make sure your system has been completely updated. Lets say you just updated your OS to OSX Yosemite and you installed the drivers from the disc that came with your audio interface. You should always go to the website of the software you are installing and check for the most current software and drivers. With quick things move in the computer world, it is not always possible to possess the latest driver on the installation disc that comes with your software, even if you just purchased it.
It is also wise to make sure any audio applications, software synths, and plugins you own are up to date as well. Always go check the manufacturer’s website and update according to what they say in their instructions.
The next to check after you have updated your software would be your buffer settings. One of the simplest fixes for these types of problems can be changing your buffer settings. Understanding why you might possibly need to change the buffer setting can be a bit more difficult to understand and will be discussed separately.
For the simplest answer: If you are getting distortion, pops or clicks in your recording raise the buffer setting in your audio application. In Logic, click on Preferences > Audio. On the Core Audio tab you will see “I/O Buffer Size.” Regardless of what the buffer size is set to, move it to the next highest number. For example, if your buffer size is currently set to 32, change it to 64. If it is set to 64, then move it up to 128, etc. In GarageBand, it is a bit easier: Click on GarageBand & Preferences. Click on the Audio/Midi icon and you will see the following screen:
Change to “Maximum number of simultaneous tracks/Large buffer size.”
Pretty much every other audio application will have very similar settings. If you are not sure where to these settings then contact the software manufacturer or look it up on Google or YouTube. If switching the buffer doesn’t fix the problem, the next step is taking a look at other USB or FireWire devices you may have plugged into your setup.
Other USB or Firewire Devices
Quite often other FireWire or USB devices connected to your computer can cause problems if your audio interface is FireWire or USB. Conflicts with other audio interfaces, cameras, etc can usually cause the biggest problems, but external hard drives can also cause problems as well.
If you are having problems with distortion, pops, and clicks and you have other devices connected to your computer, try the following:
1. Turn off your computer and unplug all USB and FireWire devices except for your main audio interface.
2. After you turn your computer back on, play something from iTunes and make sure the audio you are hearing sounds clear.
3. If you have an external USB or FireWire device, connect it to your computer and try running your session again.
4. If you are still having problems it might be time to bite the bullet and reach out to the manufacturer’s tech support.
It is best to keep all other devices disconnected from the computer while working on audio. The new Mac’s on the market are amazing and extremely powerful. If your desire is to record professional quality audio then you might not be able to connect every USB and FireWire device that you own because there is a limit to what you can do with your computer and DAW. If that is not your desire, connect all your devices back up and just keep doing what you are doing.
If you are wondering what you have to do to break into the music industry as an audio engineer in Chicago, have no fear. Recording in Chicago is no different than pretty much anywhere else on the planet, except for language. Here is a comprehensive list of skills that you can aim to develop to position yourself as a top engineer in the future. Notice that four of these skills are what can be defined as “base skills,” meaning they are imperative for any job in the music industry or elsewhere. The other set of skills are known as “job specific skills” and relate categorically to your work in the studio.
1. Ability to read, write, and follow directions. So why is it so critical to follow instructions in a recording studio? For starters, you could fuck up the gear in the studio. You are also working with client’s master recordings that are the result of perhaps thousands of hours in time and financial investment. In Chicago, some of those clients might not be to happy if their masters get messed up, so it could potentially mean your life. More over, following instructions also means that you are reliable and dependable, which in turn brings confidence to the head engineer or manager that you can be developed and mentored to integrate and properly accomplish client requests. Following directions is crucial to discovering how to work successfully in any recording or production studio, let alone life.
2. Communication. There have been many times when I was engineering a session when the artist or producer turned to me and said, “It just doesn’t sound right. I’m not sure really what it is about it, but it is not grabbing me.” We often spend long hours trying to figure out how to understand our clients. In a way, one could say we are quasi-pyschologists. The ability to communicate clearly is crucial in order to be as productive as possible in the studio. Many delays and fuck ups in the studio are a result of a lack or breakdown in communication. Knowing when to and not to speak out comes over time through patience and practice, and understanding.
3. Ability to stay cool and calm. Musicians can get pretty emotional in the studio. In essence, they are dumping their emotional well being into their performance for all to hear. So they get very emotional. A good engineer must know how to stay calm and reserved when a musician voices their frustrations. I have seen many sessions where fights break out in the control room between band members or band members and management. These people have actually swung at each other, which generally is not helpful to the whole creative process. Remember, your job is to keep the project on track at all times, so it is important for you to always remain calm and relaxed, especially in Chicago. May the force be with you.
4. Basic computer knowledge. So, how much do you really need to know about computers to become a good recording engineer? Well, many ambitious producers and sound engineers have a good deal of experience and knowledge operating sound recording and editing software on a computer. It’s certainly a bonus. The more you know about computers, the more valuable your service will be in the studio. It is important to master the basics, such as word processing and data entry, as well as understanding spreadsheet functions so you can use the computer to do simple math. It is important to be comfortable with these basic three applications as well as the computers recording and production software. A basic computer course at your local community college can teach you these fundamentals. It’s also important to know both the Macintosh and PC platforms. Macintosh more so for composing, recording, and mixing. PC’s for business management and data entry. Initally, all the best computer editing software for sound and music was found on a Mac, but over the last couple years, the PC has been making strides in the audio department. Many programs that were once exclusive to Mac are now available on PC as well.
5. Critical auditory skills. If you haven’t heard or experienced sound in an acoustic setting, you might not know what you are listening for which can bring you problems as an engineer. You’ve got to use your ears and really listen to the sound or music. As an engineer, it is important to get out there in the real world and experience every type of music that there is in a concert setting, from country to jazz, rock to big band, and opera to blues, etc. Remember, musical recordings are really just sonic paintings. In order to be a competent recording engineer, you have to come to really understand what instruments sound like naturally, by themselves or together in ensembles. Look at your time spent developing these skills just as you would if you were doing homework. Go out as much as possible because it is important to hear it all. You never know when that time is going to come when a client steps into the studio with a certain kind of instrument, sound or musical skill that you might not be familiar with. This unfamiliarity can lead to poor engineering decisions’ which in turn lead to poor or undesirable recordings. That is why it is important to know how each instrument sounds naturally.
6. Audio aptitude. It is important to develop a comprehensive knowledge of audio, such as level, signal flow, phase, frequency spectrum, microphone selection/placement, and acoustics. Whether you went to a reputable audio school or learned on your own, it is important learn and understand the basic concepts of how to make a recording, do overdubs, correctly edit, manage a mix-down properly, and master. Even the knowing the process of duplication and distribution to stores and online retail outlets sure doesn’t hurt either.
7. Studio Chi. The overall tone or vibe that an engineer brings into a session with a client is vitally important to the overall energy and creative workflow in the studio. Some of the best engineers out there are the ones who create a climate that is conducive to positive and creative workflow. The equipment doesn’t really mean much if the vibe of the session is no good. Even with a half million dollar recording console, is it really doing any good if a client walks in and doesn’t feel right. When artists are babied or pampered in the studio, they tend to lose their inhibitions, open up, and perform much better overall. A good engineer will be able to help generate that vibe in the studio in order to capture and bring it out in the song.
Now you know the basic skill set needed to a good career in field of audio engineering. The first six you can learn in school, whereas, the seventh takes time and experience. It’s important, not only as an aspiring engineer/producer but also as a musician, to sit in sessions and watch how other engineers do their thing. Internships at major recording facilities are a great opportunity to see how things really work in a professional studio. After awhile, you will find that every session and client is different as well as what is specifically needed to create the right mood and vibe for each session. At the end of the day, you’ll probably find yourself playing psychologist as much as you are being an engineer, producer, songwriter, mentor, friend, fan. The list can go on and on.
You have come up with a great new song. Overcome with a great sense of pride and achievement, it is now time to ponder what to do next. After shoddily recording a few demos on your laptop, you decide that it is time to provide your music with the love it deserves – the professional treatment of a commercial recording studio.
Once you’ve slimmed down your list of local studios, you decide to choose a Chicago recording studio that is warm, economical and operated by people that go out of there way to making your project the most important. On the day of the session, your nerves start to unsettle as you make your way to the place that will help you immortalize your song. Upon arriving, the chill vibes and pleasant nature of the staff and engineer have a calm and reassuring effect.
A half an hour later, everyone is in position. The meters bounce and glow. In just a few minutes, the nervousness that you entered the studio with has now turned to jubilation as you realize that the sound that you are hearing is coming from you. It is your sound. And, paired with the proper recording environment, gear, and engineers, what started as a simple idea is now becoming a really good song.
Now that the recording of the music and lyrics has been completed, the engineer of the session tells you that they will need some time to mix your song so that it has that “radio” shine and is ready for distribution through Itunes and other internet stores. You listen to the sound that is coming out of the speakers in the control room. Faders are raised and lowered, knobs are tweaked, the audio engineer massages the computer keys and bends the software to his will. In a little less than two hours he plays the result for you of both his and your efforts. As a smile leaps from your face, there is only one word that comes to mind – “WOW!”. Going to Studio 11 to record your new song was the best decision you could have made.