DIY Recording: Q and A

For more than 20 years now, colleagues & clients from all sides of the industry have been asking my advice with anything from recording, producing and mastering an entire project, to improving the sound of one aspect of their production, or simply being a second set of ears. I thought it might be worth sharing a recent chat in the form of a Q and A session:

Q Could you give me your opinion about RME or Apogee converters if you have had any experience with them and also your opinion about recording at higher sample rates?

GH I’ve heard them both in other studios, but there are so many variables as you know, that it’s hard to tell exactly how many individual elements combine to make the sound good. In terms of sample rates, if it’s REALLY exposed like solo sax or something, it might be worth taking the trouble to capture every nuance, but for every day general stuff  44100/24 bit is sufficient. If you’re doing very simple electronic production like dance music or pop and use ‘bit crusher‘ a lot, then anything more than 44100/16 bit would be a completely wasted exercise! Of course, if you’re going for HD mastering, you’ll need to use higher sample rates from the start of the project

Q I wanted to record sax at 192 and also piano to get the real fat. If it all gets mixed down to 44.1 is there any point of recording at these higher sample rates anyway though ?

GH Generally I would say no, but if I care more than usual about the quality of a recording, I will record at higher rates.

Q Do you use in-the-box plugins such as Waves or do you prefer outboard gear? Is the plugins thing like emulating an SSL 4000 desks analogue character just commercial hype, or are they getting closer to narrowing the disparity between ITB and outboard in your opinion?

GH I think it’s VERY close now, but personally I use a hybrid. I use in-the-box plugins all the way until the stereo bus, then feed out into my SSL mix compressor. I can hear way more clarity, definition, stereo width and even some tonal differences. Then I patch the SSL back into the DAW to print.

For ‘analogue character’ there are definitely some very good ITB plugins on the market. Personal favourites include the UAD Studer & Ampex plugins, the Waves NLS channel/bus and also the REDD emulations and the Soundtoys Decapitator.

Q Tony Maserati was on Dave Pensado‘s channel and said someone made him up a gold wired mike cable ..said the difference especially on the top end was like night and day. Says it radically transforms the sound. One of my colleagues is also obsessed with the power supply aspects.

GH Yeah I love those guys. My go to mastering guy is Andy Jackson – he’s into expensive cabling and also swears by it. He uses quite a bit of Tim de Paravacini’s EAR gear too. I’d lay odds that he uses mains filters in his mastering suite, but if not, he DEFINITELY uses them at Dave Gilmour’s studio, which is where he works. I agree with a lot of these guys when they say, it’s not any ONE step that we take that greatly improves our sound, it’s a series of very small incremental steps culminating in a vastly improved end point. The same as mixing or mastering I guess! 😉


Bigger, Deeper, Wider – The Secret Of Mixing ‘In The Box’

VU MeterThis is an extremely short version of a MASSIVE thread on one of my favourite sites, Gearslutz. The original post is by Skip Burrows and soon evolves into an in depth discussion with Paul Frindle – ex SSL designer & general digital audio boffin. Since reading this thread and putting its various ideas into practice, the sound of my mixes has noticeably improved, so I thought it might be worth sharing with anyone who’s also looking to improve their sound. Of course, if you’re looking for the best results, then you’ll need to hire ME! 🙂

If you’ve been recording as long as I have (nope, you’ll have to guess!), you’ll have learned that the best way of recording onto tape with the best signal to noise ratio was by recording as hot as possible (as close to 0VU as possible). Even the early days of digital recording in 16 bit favoured this methodology, as the argument was that the hotter you recorded, the more of the original quality of the signal would be preserved in the conversion.

Nowadays, that’s all changed with 24 bit recording at 96 and 192khz with the increased dynamic range, plus DAWs are not calibrated the same way as most mixing desks. Long and short, recording at much lower levels is more ideal in the current scheme of things and is one step of many that will add clarity and definition to your mixes. On top of this, the 3rd party plug-ins we all love to use don’t operate at their best with a hot signal, most manufacturers assume that the track won’t be slamming the VUs as it passes through, so making sure that your signal goes in clean will get the best sound out of the plug-in.

One way that engineers are working this with hot audio tracks sent to them for mixing is to insert a trim plug-in first in the chain with a dB cut. There are divided opinions on how much gain to trim, but the thread mentions anywhere from -8 to -20dB. Quite a difference huh! Well, as with everything, I just used my ears and worked out over time what works best for me and eventually opted for anything from -8 to -12dB cuts, which often get made on the input stage of the UAD plug-ins. You’ll make up some gain anyway as tracks are processed and more plug-ins are added, but bottom line, careful gain-staging from start to finish is going to make an enormous difference to the overall sound and will make your mixes less squashed and narrow sounding.

“But what if I WANT it to sound distorted?” I hear someone ask. Good question. Distortion was originally obtained in the analog world by pushing 0dB, however, digital distortion over 0db is really nasty & crunchy – not a pleasant sound at all, what’s more it can adversely affect the CD pressing or even glitch on air, so is to be avoided at all costs**. The pleasing ‘analog’ distortion we’ve all come to know and love is more accurately referred to as ‘harmonic distortion’, being that it IS the adding of harmonic frequencies to the original signal. This is the domain of a whole new generation of harmonic distortion and saturation plug-ins, such as the Soundtoys Decapitator, iZotope Trash, UAD Studer a800, Waves NLS etc. This, then is how to add acceptable distortion (however nasty and trashy you want it) in the context of a carefully gain-staged mix.

Lastly, I tend to create groups, in the same way I used to on my mixing desk, so a drum bus, vocals, guitars, keys and maybe bass separately, depending on the style, complexity of my sound set etc. Having stereo subsections of my instruments gives me more flexibility on the final stage and let’s me pull things down a little if they get too hot. Alternatively if everything needs pushing a little to get the mix pumping, it’s still a much easier way to do it than going through hundreds of tracks adjusting them.

If you’ve enjoyed this article or found it helpful, please click on the Facebook links and like our page. Feel free to leave a comment if you have something to add or ask, it’s always great to hear from people with fresh ideas.

Don’t forget to check out the original post if you’re hungry for more technical info.

Thanks for reading!

** Any mastering engineer worth her salt will tell you there’s a further consideration when converting to mp3, as anything mastered too close to 0VU can take it over the top during the conversion process. This is why most mastering houses will set the output of their brick wall limiters anything from -0.1 to -0.3dB.

Mort Shuman – The Songwriter’s Songwriter

Mort_Shuman-69133-E800Mort Shuman was one of those larger-than-life characters that could light up a room as soon as he walked into it. Plagued by poor health during his last few years, he was taken from us way too soon! Mort’s pet name for me was ‘Groton’ and we worked closely together during the preparation of his last album A Distant Drum.

For those unfamiliar with him, Mort was one of the music industry’s legends – he and Doc Pomus wrote 25 songs for Elvis (Viva Las Vegas, Mess Of Blues, Teddy Bear etc) and many other absolute classics, including ‘Sweets For My Sweet’, ‘Teenager In Love’ and ‘Save The Last Dance For Me’. The latter I remember him elaborating in quite some depth about how it all came together – what trends everybody was reaching for at the time musically (the Bossa, which is referred to in the triangle part) and particularly what his process was in the writing of the lyrics.

Mort came from a tradition of writers who were trying for clever subtlety in their writing, rather than how graphically they could describe shagging people in dingy underground bars, so it was with a justified sense of pride that Mort talked about the lines he wrote and his thought processes behind them. I remember him doing this with another song, The World Is Waiting For Love, that we worked on together in London. We mocked up a demo one day & the next morning he arrived in fine spirits, having walked on a sunny day to Harley Street (our studio) through Hyde Park. He talked in depth about the lyrical & melodic changes he had made & his reasons for them, which was a great insight into the master’s work.

Mort’s spirit was like a child when he talked about his craft. You could see that he was totally in love with his job and he had been lucky enough to benefit enormously from it, owning beautiful homes in London, Paris and New York (although it wouldn’t surprise me to find out there were more) . His enthusiasm was infectious and created a great atmosphere for the work in hand. He could be also a very generous man, buying a young studio engineer like myself lunch or dinner when working late.

Perhaps Mort’s most famous legacy is for translating the works of Jacques Brel, for which he was awarded the Légion d’Honneur. At the time of the award he was the only non-Frenchman to have received it. From this point on he became a superstar in France and lived there for a good part of his life, releasing quite a few albums, as well as marrying and raising a family.

Thanks for all the valuable stuff you passed down Mort, we’ll never forget you!

Trashmonk – Mona Lisa Overdrive

This is an album that from a short distance I watched evolve over a period of two or three years, picking up many valuable ideas along the way and even inheriting the Akai recorder it was started on.

Originally named ‘Downloaded’ (more from the perspective of the song ‘Brownstone Symphony’ than any prediction of developing technology at the time), I remember my good friend producer Simon Tyrell meticulously crafting Mona Lisa Overdrive with Nick – recorded just up the road from my studio, this album was waaaaaaay ahead of its time in terms of its philosophy and the way it was recorded. Bands like Frou Frou (producer Guy Sigsworth) and William Orbit quickly picked up the baton and sold the industry on the new filtered/distorted/generally f***ed up sound that marked our final escape from the predominantly clinical and sonically average sound of the 80s & 90s.

Mostly featuring Nick himself on voice and instruments, he used a small handful of musically and philosophically aligned people to supplement the overall sound and set of performances – Jon Carin (who, incidentally, clinched the decision to buy my first Kurzweil) and Ben Goldsmith on violin, (I can only remember these two – the album will have full credits, though sadly there’s no Wikipedia entry for it). According to Simon, the recording chain included an EQ and compressor from Tim Paravacini’s EAR (Esoteric Audio Research) company and there was never a Sansamp or Sherman Filter Bank very far away. Great use was made of unusual and boutique gear, including a fine collection of guitars and other stringed instruments, along with an electronic keyboard tuned to an arabic tuning, bought from a bazar somewhere along Nick’s travels.

Creation’s Alan McGee quickly jumped on the album & threw himself headlong into its development, block booking Dave Gilmour’s Astoria, where it was knocked into shape and George Schilling did a magnificent job of the final mixes. just after it was delivered, Creation went bust! I’m not entirely sure the two facts are disconnected LOL!

anyway, enough waffling, here’s one of my favourite tracks….


Trashmonk – Polygamy