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I originally called this page "Tips & Tricks", but it quickly became a soap-box for me to spew opinions from. I may move the real stuff to the audio course and keep this for just spewing...
WHAT MAKES A GOOD PRODUCER?
I have had the honor of working with some of the most respected Producers in the industry, such as Tommy LiPuma, Marcus Miller, David Kahne, Rob Fraboni, Peter Yarrow, Mick Lanaro, Larry Blackmon, Kassu Halonen, David Cole/Robert Clivilles, Yasohachi "88" Itoh and Taka Tsukuma.
I have also worked with some very bad Producers such as....(you didn't think I would actually give names, did you?)
I have noticed several different types of Producers. Here is an opinionated breakdown of the extremes that all Producers fall in between:
1-THE "NON" PRODUCER: This is a guy with total confidence in himself, his artist and the team he has put together. He has a plan, but allows the musicians room to create. If he feels they are moving into an unproductive area or that they may not understand what he wants from them, he does not try to tell them WHAT to do. Instead he explains his perspective so that the musicians understand him and then sits back. It is almost as if he turns on a colored light that allows the musicians to suddenly see things differently and be inspired. Tommy LiPuma is a genius at this. Artist and musicians would be discussing a part and Tommy would come forward and casually say one sentence. After the sentence everyone would say "Oh" and get back on the right course.
I try to emulate Tommy when I produce. If I am working on a song with a band and do not like a part, I will explain what I believe the function of the part in question is and why the particular part is not working as well as it could. The ban d then makes the changes themselves. That way I can help the arrangement without actually composing....after all, it is not my music but the Artist's.
2-THE "ME" SHOW: Lacking the self-confidence of the "Non"-Producer, this person absolutely must be the one to make every decision. I know a Producer like this who arrived late for a session and erased what was done before he arrived without even listening. Very often this guy will explain to people that he wrote the music when all he did was ask the musician to "give me what I want". Once I was mixing for someone who left a message for me to wait until he called before I started. 2 hours later he called. What were the important instructions that he wanted me to wait for? "Make it pump". Afterwards he felt that the mix was "pumping"-not because that was how all the records we did sounded, but because he told me to on that day.
3-THE "PUPPET MASTER": If you want someone to tell you exactly what to do, this is the guy for you. Sometimes he will even play for you. This is great if the person has a history of making records that you love and you are willing to allow him to make HIS record with YOUR songs and voice. Unfortunately, there are only a few great Producers like this and far too many unprofessional egotistical hacks. I have worked with both types. The great ones will give you a record that you will know the sound of before you even start. The hacks will spend the time stroking their own ego and if you are lucky you will get a record out of it. Here is a story of a guy who had the potential to be such a person:
A drummer once asked me to produce his rock band. I went to a few rehearsals and we were making good progress with our pre-production. Then he told me that his brother worked for an indie label and would be co-producing with me. Having never even met the guy I was hesitant but decided to try it. The first rehearsal that we "co-produced" was a disaster. There was a guitar part that was stepping on the lead vocal entrance. I mentioned that it would be nice if the guitar part left space for the vocal, perhaps by changing the part or waiting one beat or so. The guitar player understood and started working on another part that would have the same function but allow the vocal entrance to be stronger. At that point, the "co-producer" brother walked over to the guitar player, TOOK the guitar, and demonstrated a bending riff to play. The guitar player liked the riff, but also liked my ideas regarding space in the arrangement. The band finally decided to make a quick tape of trying both parts and judged which they would use in a different room while the "co-producer" and I waited. They came in and told me "Congratulations, we liked your idea better". I thanked them and wished them luck in the future as I put on my coat to leave. I apologized and explained that I could not work this way.
4-THE "HANDS ON" PRODUCER: Most of the good ones are like this. They are involved in all aspects of the project and are great to learn from. Which of the above-mentioned extremes they may become depends upon which is bigger...their respect or ego. When their respect is bigger, they become more like the "Non" Producer.
5-THE "UNPROFESSIONAL" PROFESSIONAL: This is someone who had a lucky hit and now thinks he has the formula for turning anything gold. Get him while he's hot and you may get lucky too. Just don't ask him any musical questions.
THE BOTTOM LINE is that there are many different styles and types of Producers. Few will be as extreme as what I described. The ones who have developed their ego more than their musical understanding will give you their product with your name on it. The good ones will help you to develop YOUR music by either telling you what to do or (even better) by teaching you why you should do it.
MIXING DIGITAL TO FEEL LIKE ANALOG
First of all, I would like to make it clear that I have only recently decided to forgive digital for how it sounds. Yes, I agree that digital is easier, more convenient, more stable of a storage medium and you can do very cool things that would be difficult or even impossible using analog. Unfortunately, I have always felt that analog technology better captured midrange nuances that are crucial to any voice or instrument’s sound. So I worked harder because the sound was worth it.
These days digital technology has improved greatly, and A/D converters are finally starting to filter out LESS of the important aspects of sound during sampling. Meanwhile, much of the analog equipment at studios is being neglected, ignored and allowed to fall into severe disrepair. I recently walked into a studio to mix an album that was recorded in ProTools. They claimed to have an analog 2 track machine in the room, but when I saw an inch of dust on the machine I could not bring myself to use it. Yes, it could have been cleaned up (if their maintenance engineer could find the time to really do it right), but it had been about a year since anyone else had used it and I did not have confidence in the machine. Guess what? I mixed straight back to ProTools.
I have always had a reputation for hating digital. I even had a client that recorded on digital 48 track and then bounced to a pair of analog tapes for me to mix, claiming to have recorded the whole project analog. I took one listen to the tracks and called him, asking why he expected me NOT to hear the sound difference.
OK, so here I am “Mr. Analog” in a world where fewer and fewer rooms have good WORKING analog machines. What to do? CHANGE. Once I accepted the fact that most of my work must be digital, I went all the way. If I have to be digital, then it can be in a computer instead of a digital tape deck and a large format digital mixing board. That means I can do professional quality work anyplace with good monitors. BUT HOW TO MAKE IT SOUND AND FEEL LIKE ANALOG?
Whenever I record digital, I make the sounds a little extra thick in the bottom and midrange to compensate for what I often lost in the A/D conversion. This is fine for tracks that I have done, but what about mixing tracks that other people have recorded? You see, since everybody CAN record their own tracks, everybody IS! That is wonderful for budgets, but that means that MOST MUSIC IS BEING RECORDED BY PEOPLE THAT DO NOT KNOW HOW TO DO ANYTHING BUT PLUG IN AND PRESS RECORD. Digital technology has led to a generation of engineers that know nothing about sounds but are great at manipulating DATA. I have met many ProTools ?engineers? that have never recorded more than a vocal track but can whip up a great musical collage.
So how do we turn unprofessionally recorded digital tracks into professionally recorded analog tracks? We can’t. But we can make them feel closer to analog. The first step is in KNOWING WHERE THE DIFFERENCES ARE and emphasizing the good stuff. You can use “tape simulators” or do it yourself using compression and EQ, but these methods will do no more than thicken your sounds.
The trick is in the dynamics. For the layperson, “dynamics” are changing elements. Some dynamics are easy to understand, such as Volume or Panning. But other dynamics are important as well, such as Rhythmic dynamics (how the timing of different parts change and interact with each other) and Tonal dynamics (how the sound of a voice or instrument changes in different ranges or when louder). Dynamics are subtle but extremely expressive. They can make the difference between a bunch of tracks playing together and a SONG THAT PEOPLE BELIEVE.
Every instrument has dynamic nuances. There are a great deal of Tonal dynamics in midrange, which digital recording has previously not captured properly. These days the expensive stuff is getting there, but most equipment still doesn’t do the job well.
RIGHT TOOL FOR THE JOB: Sounds can be edgy, bright, chunky, thick, thin, etc. If the function of the instrument is to be forceful in a certain frequency range, start by selecting a plug-in that sounds appropriate. I have heard some plug-ins with lovely top end but worthless midrange, and vice-versa. In my opinion the UAD-1 provides the warmest, smoothest and most usable digital compression and EQ available. The Pultec EQ, 1176 and LA2A plugins REALLY sound and react like the original pieces of hardware.
I know many people who love to go back and forth between digital and analog to use analog gear during digital mixes. I prefer to avoid all the A/D conversion and STAY digital. Going back and forth between digital and analog is like pouring sand from one glass to another. The glass looks full, but why do I feel sand on the floor?
MIDRANGE: Be careful of your midrange! Midrange can be easily messed up by adding or removing too much. In fact, try leaving the midrange alone and EQ above and below where you would normally go for. Some people love to make each instrument’s EQ look like a peak. I prefer to hear some of the outer frequencies pushed to make the instrument fuller instead of forcing it into a smaller space.
DYNAMICS: By making each sound bigger instead of turning it into a box for easy stacking, it will be more tricky to make all the sounds fit together. Don’t be aware of just the stereo field, but also how things are moving in and out of the spaces of the mix. Now that things are moving instead of just sitting there, the spaces will be dynamic as well, and any effects will have more dynamics, etc. Remember, any sounds generated from a sample will have different dynamics and may require extra attention.
DON’T BE LAZY: The new A/D’s are better than ever. Eventually everyone will have a system that accurately captures all the dynamic nuances, and life will be sweet. Until that time, you will have to work hard to make your system act like it already does.
Or, you could always ask me to mix for you.
WHY AT LEAST 60% OF ALL "ENGINEERS" TODAY ARE CLUELESS...AND HOW TO GET A CLUE
Once upon a time, if you wanted to become an Engineer you started at the bottom position in a studio and made coffee runs for about a year. Then you were allowed into the actual rooms to help Assistant Engineers align tape machines, setup and breakdown sessions, move microphones and make coffee runs. After several years of this you were promoted to Assistant Engineer and no longer had to go for coffee. You worked with the Engineers and GRADUALLY learned what each Engineer did and why. If you were lucky you worked with many different Engineers in various musical styles. You also worked directly with Producers and learned from them.
All of the time you spent changing microphones around REAL instruments and HEARING HOW THE SOUND CHANGED, you learned. You learned about instrumentation, arrangement, appropriate sounds for different musical styles, different Engineering techniques and different Production techniques. You learned how to make the same instrument sound appropriately different for each musical style you worked on. By the time you were allowed to actually Engineer you KNEW what you were doing. You knew how to interpret musical ideas. You knew (hopefully) how to deal with people. You certainly knew how to deal with pressure and deadlines.
Today, anyone with a cheap audio interface and software is an "Engineer". I have heard many complaints from people who paid hobbyist Engineers that worked slowly, created bad sounds and could neither understand nor deliver what was requested. Most hobbyist Engineers can only imagine sounds within their limited experience. Most hobbyist Engineers have never really recorded anything other than an overly compressed vocal.
If you had to go to a Doctor, would you choose one that went through years of training and residency experience or would you choose a person that only purchased "Instant Doctor" software? After all, as long as they are healthy they should be a health expert, right?
By the same logic, is knowing "Instant Engineer" software the main qualification you look for in an Engineer?
WAIT, IT GETS WORSE!
Now that many major commercial studios are closing and records are made out of laptops, it is harder for aspiring Engineers to learn the craft (as Engineers did "once upon a time"). There simply are not enough studios that can offer new Engineers exposure to real Engineering and Mic Technique.
So, what to do? How to learn?
Of course it is important to experiment and learn your own way of doing things so you can properly express your individuality, blah blah blah. But if you want to learn how other people do things SO YOU CAN TAKE ANYTHING USEFUL FROM THEIR TECHNIQUE OR PERSPECTIVE you need to search harder for the opportunities.
You will need to seek out studios in your areas that record live musicians and be willing to work for free. Get coffee, take out garbage, whatever. Offer to work for free providing that they let you assist sessions. Do anything you can to get "into the room". Once you are sitting in on sessions, do what they ask you, always volunteer to move microphones if needed, keep your eyes and ears open and take in EVERYTHING, even if you disagree with what is happening in the room. You can learn from any situation, even ones that crash and burn.
** I will begin to add material here to compensate for the new "lack of assisting opportunities" that exists. Opinions from one person cannot compensate for working with many diverse people, but at least it can be a start...
THE DUMBING-DOWN OF SONIC QUALITY
The short version:
The medium version:
Digital technology and Internet piracy
The long version:
The bottom line is that FREE will always win over GOOD.
Unfortunately, due to various factors (music being made only in home computers, consumers no longer paying for music, low budgets, corporate greed, etc) MANY OF THE WORLD'S GREAT COMMERCIAL RECORDING STUDIOS ARE STARTING TO CLOSE. Unfortunately, this means that the dumbing-down is going to continue.
QUALITY RECORDING ON A TIGHT BUDGET
Buy or rent a good microphone and mic-pre. Record everything (synths, samples, instruments, vocals, etc) with as little processing or effects as possible unless the effects are a specific part of the desired sound. Get good levels but avoid distortion (see below).
The biggest mistake I have seen people make on a tight budget is to record everything overly compressed or processed. If your tracks sound cheap it will be hard to make them sound "expensive". Unless an effect (even compression) is an integral part of a sound, do without it and add it in the mix when you can choose and use the right process for how the sound FITS INTO THE MIX.
While acceptable basic recording can be done by consumers and hobbyists, you need someone with real experience to create a good mix at any budget.
A friend of mine is a ProTools engineer and a drummer. The following comes from notes I have sent him:
As a recording engineer, you have to be aware of the musicians you are working with. Deal with ProTools as an impatient Musician (in a room full of other impatient Musicians) instead of as a Data-Editor. There is a big difference between the two. Keep your client informed about what you are doing, even if you are just copying files. Keep the momentum of the recording session going, even if you have to b-s a little. Think about how it must feel for a musician to be watching your back while you are shuffling data. Turn around and talk to the guy. Keep him up to date and try to keep giving him the impression that things are moving along smoothly. The computer progress bar looks the same if you are processing something or returning from a crash..
Keep the flow up, but be subtle about it. Remember you are the "cool headed pro who is helping them out". Your job is to keep the musicians comfortable and capture what they do.
Also, as a recording engineer, keep your mouth shut. If it is not your production, do not be a producer and do not make production comments until you are sure about them. I have sometimes had comments in mind when working with great producers that I was later glad I did not say.
"WHAT IS THE BEST MIC?"”
THE FOLLOWING IS AN OPINIONATED REPLY ON AN AUDIO MESSAGE BOARD:
First of all, if you want bang for your buck that can get banged up, get a Shure SM57 and a Shure SM58. Use the 58 for brighter things (like vocals) and the 57 for ballsier things. I have used 58's for studio vocals for people ranging from Al Jarreau to Punk singers with great results.
Best mic? Overall, I prefer a Neumann U67 (which gives you warmth and clarity). Tube 47's are nice too. If you cannot get one of these, FET 47's and 87's will work.
AKG 414's are a great mic as well. You can set the polar pattern to hypercardioid for very TIGHT recording. I have gotten great isolation when recording hi-hats with this mic. It is a little bright, which is nice for ac gtrs, vocals (it was the mic of choice for many), pianos, etc.
AKG 451's have a clearer top than the 414, and is prefered for ac. gtr by many. Try to find a KM56.
SCHOEPS and a pair of Focusrite mic preamps. Your piano is done. Don't even put turn on the EQs. If you want to add a pair of tube 47’s just outside of the opening that will give you a very full sound.
Ribbon mics like the RCA 77, RCA 44 and recent versions are great for horns as they give you nice spit. I have had success using them for capturing instruments with unique midrange (like the Okinawan Sanshin). COLE ribbons are awesome for rock and jazz drum overhead mics (they are very smooth).
Drums....hmm...if you doubt the drummer, throw up cheap mics and be ready to give him a bill. But if you have faith that the drummer will be nice to your mics, go for the best. Pull out the best matched pair for overheads (I prefer the Nuemann 67s or Coles). Use good mics on the toms (I prefer 87s or 414s...but sometimes use 421s or even SM57s). SM57 on the snare top. 414s on the snare bottom and hi-hat (remember hypercardiod!). Nice matched mics for the room. Maybe another pair of nice matched mics for a close room (if you have lots of open tracks, mics, pre's, room, and time). Kicks usually get an AKG D12 (or the more plastic sounding D112), FET 47 (or tube, but watch your position and angle or it will be an expensive down beat), ATM25, 421, SM57, SM7, RE20 or whatever. Many people go with a combination of mics or build elaborate tubes for the kick using extra shells. I prefer to try to place the drums where they sound good and tune the room around them, rather than the other way around.
Bass: ATM25, Tube or FET 47, RE20...
Vocal: ** WHATEVER SOUNDS THE BEST FOR THE PERSON WHO HAPPENS TO BE ON THE MIC AT THE TIME ** If you do not take the time to try each of your decent to best mics, you will not know what will work best. Do NOT NOT NOT NOT NOT assume that the most expensive mic in the house is the RIGHT mic for what you are doing. Also, while clear mics like the C12 are very nice, many singers have a midrange that changes when they sing louder or higher in pitch. That nice clear mic that is great for the soft verse may be too edgy during the loud ad-lib.
There are many nice mics I did not mention, and some new mics I have not heard...but these things have worked for me so far.
Pick a mic that best matches the sound of what you want to record. Of course placement is important…just move your head around and put the mic where it sounds good.
One last thing...always make sure the musicians can hear themselves and each other clearly. Your job as a recording engineer is to make an environment conducive to musical creativity, and then CAPTURE that creativity.
Hope all this helps.
RECORDING TIP: WHAT VOCAL MIC IS RIGHT?
Never assume that the most expensive mic in the house will be the best mic to use. I always set up many mics that I think will work as well as at least one that I expect will NOT work. I then ask the artist to read something while moving from mic to mic. If you do not give the artist something to read, they may stand there and shout, "CHECK ONE, CHECK" which has nothing to do with how they really sound. Once you have narrowed the mics down to those that sound the most like the artist's actual voice, test each one in DIFFERENT ranges and dynamics. Too often a mic that sounds great when someone is singing low in their range is terribly peaky in the upper ranges.
RECORDING TIP: DRUMS
When you are recording drums, remember that you are dealing with a large stereo instrument rather than a collection of single items. I get lots of kick bottom from the leakage on toms and overheads. Ask yourself: are my overhead mics cymbal mics or stereo kit mics? Oh, and watch the phase between mics. Flipping the phase on the bottom snare mic is a given, but don't assume that your other mics don't need to be flipped. Flip mics and listen. If the bottom gets better leave it...if not flip it back. This goes for your overheads too...not just between them but also between them and the other kit mics.
RECORDING TIP: DRUMS
NEVER, NEVER, NEVER USE GATES WHEN RECORDING DRUMS UNLESS YOU ARE GOING FOR A SPECIFIC EFFECT! You may cut off the natural decay of the drums or cymbals! I just finished mixing a great album that was very poorly recorded. The drums were tightly gated, which cut off the decay of the toms and also the cymbals. This held me back from being able to make the drums sound as full as I wanted to.
You can always gate the drums later during overdubs or while mixing.
RECORDING TIP: COMPRESSION
If you are using compression for an effect or specific sound, go for it. If you are using compression to control an instrument or vocal level, be careful. The compressor will most likely flatten the dynamics and feeling of your track. You would be better off learning the song and vocal and then riding the level to tape. When I was recording Miles Davis, I used no compression or eq, just the sound of the microphone. I had to ride the fader level up and down 20 db and even had to ride up the mic pre (which fortunately did not click to different positions but was smooth). Miles came in, listened to the track and said to me, "Nice horn sound".
RECORDING TIP: AVOIDING DISTORTION
I recently mixed an album that had distorted vocals. The band was surprised that the vocals were distorted because the "levels were not in the red". There are many places where distortion can be introduced besides overloading the tape machine (or computer) inputs. First is the microphone (some microphones have a pad which can stop mic distortion, especially on drums). Second is the mic pre, if your level is too high. Third is any outboard effects you may use. Fourth is the tape machine inputs. Fifth is the actual tape. Although analog tape compression can be a wonderful thing, be careful and LISTEN carefully to what you are doing. I have had to mix many songs that were recorded "by eye" rather than "by ear". When I record, I prefer to start with the fader to tape at a high position and the mic pre low. Be sure to listen to the loud parts of each vocal before deciding on a final mic pre level. Do not assume that a mic pre level or outboard settings will work for everything. Different singers and different vocal parts will have very different dynamics. If your fader to tape is very low in order to keep the meter "out of the red", you need to re-think your gain structure.
RECORDING TIP: PLACING MICROPHONES
People ask me how to mic things. I will eventually get to some specifics, but the most important thing is to move your head around and listen while the musician is playing. Where it sounds good to your ear will also sound good to a mic.
This seems very obvious but few people do it. Most will copy mic techniques they SAW someone do or READ in a book rather than HEARD for themselves.
WHO'S EGO IS MORE IMPORTANT?
Two points for anyone who knows the reason for the following:
I was recording vocals with a well known singer. She was not singing well, and yelled at me to change her headphone mix. I waved my hands around on the board where I knew she could not see, but did not actually TOUCH anything and asked her how it was. She told me that it was much better, and yelled at me for not giving her that headphone mix before. I told her, "I'm sorry...I'll make sure that it stays like this." We got a great vocal that day.
Now this singer was known for giving everyone around her a headache. It would have felt good to say "Aha! I did not even touch anything!", but would that have helped her to get a better vocal? Who's ego was more important? Why?
Hums and noises exist everywhere...after all, life is noisy. To MINIMIZE the hums, make sure that your instrument volumes are high (so you are sending more instrument sound and less noise). Keep your faders at zero and bring up your mic pre's instead of the other way around. Also, check if your audio lines are running next to power lines...they should meet and cross as little as possible and at right angles to each other. Finally, watch out for audio lines running near "wall warts" (little power supply boxes) as they add nasty noises. If you do hear hums and noises, try to minimize the noise rather than using gates (please see the Recording Tip on gating drums).
BEWARE OF TIPS AND TRICKS !
Sounds strange coming from a "Tips and Tricks" page, doesn't it? Never listen to anyone who says the words "magic frequency". There is no such thing. I have heard many people insist that the "magic frequency" to make basses sound good is 100hz. Yes, a bass track needs lots of bottom, but don't forget to listen to see if that frequency is needed! If you push 100hz on a bass track that already has enough of that frequency, you will not get a "magic bass sound" but rather just a bass with too much 100hz!
COMMUNICATION IS KEY
I was mixing for the Rinken Band, and Rinken asked me to fade an arpeggio in and out. When I did he said that it was not right. So I tried it again and he told me it was not what he had in mind. At that point I stopped the tape, turned to face him and asked him if he could better describe what he wanted. He told me to imagine a row of tall hedges with a boy in a yellow shirt running on the other side. You can't see through the hedges, but sometimes you see bits of his yellow shirt peeking through. I thought this was a brilliant image, and I immediately rode the arpeggio exactly like he wanted.