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New vs Old

It’s been a while since I wrote a studio blog. I quite like writing, but it’s not important to me and I doubt whatever I say is important to anyone else either – However, my wife Katie is always doing it (whether she has an audience or not!) and thinks I should get on and do another one – so, here it is…

In photos of big, expensive studios you always see a wall of metal panels with flashing lights (ooh) behind the engineer.

JJ Puig

Jack Joseph Puig – His own 670 is in the bottom right of the picture and there’s a couple of 1073’s just behind his head, to the left.

To most people I guess, these mean nothing to them, other than perhaps being there to make things sound better – and they’d be right.

A microphone needs a pre-amp to boost the sound before it gets recorded; big studios often use their mixing console for this, but also have dedicated units that do the job as good or better. Then the signal might need taming, to reduce the loud bits and bringing up the quiet bits, so there’ll be compressors for this and gates to reduce or remove noise during silence. Once recorded, you usually have reverb on instruments and vocals and sometimes delay or other funky effects. In the ‘good’ old days, this HAD to be done on individual units, often costing several thousand pounds, but today, it can all (except the pre-amp bit) be done ‘in the box’ so to speak – dropping in a plugin to effect a track in the computer’s digital audio workstation (DAW). Of course, this has been the case for a good 15 years now. Hang on, it sounds like I’m giving you a history of the recording studio, but I’m getting to the point…

Phase One Studios in Toronto

Software engineers can make really nice effects now. Easily better than those old, external, unreliable, single channel, non-recallable, non-automatable units of yore. But strangely, in the same way as vinyl LP’s are making a comeback, audiophiles do appear to want the sound of those units printed all over the tracks of their songs. So what are those clever geeks doing about it? They’re creating plugins that emulates the sound of said kit, right down to producing mains hum!

I’ll be honest, I’m not going to be rebuying all my old LP’s any time soon, but I do like the sound of these new plug-ins. Ironically, I’ve not been lucky enough to actually twiddle the knobs of an original Fairchild 670 or Neve 1073, but the software forms are pretty bloody amazing.


A few years ago, I see1073-Comparisonmed to take ages making a vocal sit nicely in a mix – I’d get there, but it usually took several mixes to get it right. Now, I barely need to make any adjustments once I’ve inserted my favourite plugin compressor and eq (a Puigchild 670 after it’s inspiration Jack Joseph Puig and a Scheps 73 developed in association with Andrew Scheps). I have many, many other emulations that I call up for other instruments or to create different textures, but these are my ‘go to’ standards.

A Neve 1073 will set you back in the region of £2,000. A good Fairchild, if you can find one is £50,000!

And if I spun my chair around and found one in my much more modest racks of flashing lights, would I use one? Probably I guess, but only because I’d feel guilty after spending all that money not using it.

Recording with Shine On

Last week I had a good challenge.

Shine Theatre Group has a selection of children who perform with Mel Upton, and come from schools specialising in teaching kids with special needs. I, through my relationship with Shine, have known most of these kids for years and have watched them grow up from young, shy, entirely dependent gems, to adults living in almost independent accommodation by themselves or at least, with a couple of friends – it’s been wonderful to witness their development.

Due to Shine being a youth theatre group, the cut-off age is 18. How heart-wrenching it is to see the last performance of a young person with the group, but it’s also exciting to know they are heading off into the real world, no longer children blinking in the spotlights, but adults finding their footings on the social ladder.

A unique group was setup in 2008 for the special needs children who sadly were too old to be a part off the youth section. Called Shine-On, there was a ‘graduation’ where each graduate were given the chance to perform one last time, but then continued to meet once a month for various activities – drama workshops, theatre visits, dance lessons – that sort of thing. Well, this month was my pleasure to host a ‘workshop’ in the studio. The four members, now in their mid to late 20’s worked on the beautiful ballad ‘You Raise Me Up’ with Mel and came armed with percussive instruments, packed-lunches, cameras and lyric sheets.

I knew it was going to be a fun day but emotional day, when Darren’s first words to me were “I’ve been looking forward to this all week” and I got a bear hug that had me gasping for breath by Charlotte.

It was billed as a workshop, with me demonstrating how a song is recorded and trying a selection of different recording methods for the voices and instruments that they played during the instrumental section, but of course, the aim of the day was to produce a polished song. Much as I’d been looking forward to the session; spending the time with them and Mel – who is like a Goddess to so many people, but even more so to the Shine On members, I was very aware of what sort of sound I was going to manage to record. Speech is difficult for most of them and singing is harder – so there lies my problem: As a professional studio engineer it is my job to create a nice sounding record. But if I simply captured the sound they made and sent them away with that, I don’t think anyone would be satisfied.

My moral dilemma has been – to tune, or not to tune?

I make no secrets about tuning my singers – The issue is, if you spend the time you need to make the perfectly pitched vocal take, you loose character and performance qualities, which in my opinion are way more important than singing in tune. I hardly need to tune very much, but if I didn’t, what sounded fine at the time (and would be perfectly acceptable live) doesn’t sound so good 20 listens down-the-line – nay, it can almost drive you crazy when you hear a slightly flat note, as it’s there for ever! So a run through the incredibly impressive and completely transparent Melodyne, keeps the punters happy.

Now, I wouldn’t be fooling anyone, if I created pitch perfect vocal takes for the four performers I had this week. However, if the end result was completely unprocessed, it wouldn’t make for the best souvenir of the day.

So, here’s what I’ve done: As a compromise, I’ve left most of the tuning untouched, unless it was close to the right note or a dominant one in the key of the song. The occasional note would start in tune, but then slide downwards making nasty dissonances, so I’ve straightened them to sit right.

If there was one voice, that’s where I would have left it, but for the regular amounts of eq and compression.

However, 4 voices singing slightly different rhythms is also hard to listen to, so I’ve taken liberties with the timings and stretched the worst offenders into place with the rest.

We now have a record that not only sounds nice, but also represents the people who are singing on it. I had a job mixing this song – not necessarily because of the challenges stated above, but because I have a big space in my heart for these wonderful people and it was tough holding back the tears.

I hope they like it.

You Raise Me UpClick to play:

Cheap Transport

How do I record myself?

Well, as I’ve got a vocal-booth, I tend to try and use it – especially as a mic and music stand (with light) are already set up nicely. I could set up another mic, right in front of my desktop and then press record and stop when necessary – But that’s a faff!mic/stand/headphones/light

Up until recently, I used to give myself a 4 bar count-in, then rush into the booth, slam the door, fix the headphones to my head, focus my short-sighted eyes on the right point in the lyrics – and then sing.

If I was using joined-up thinking that day, I’d remember to set a loop for the section I needed to sing (which quite often, was the whole song), so that I could give it several takes, and then choose the best one for the mix afterwards. If I’d taken my vitamins that day – I’d even remember to press Record!

Actually, all that sounds like a faff too, doesn’t it?

Yes, it was. Which was why I wanted to buy one of these:
Frontier Tranzport

This little wireless gadget, can speak to your computer from up-to 10 metres away. So you can tell the sequencer to play/record/rewind/fast forward etc, all the usual controls you would expect on a transport – and, more importantly, all the controls (and more) that one would need to record ones self, from ones vocal booth, in ones studio.

Trouble is, it’s RRP is £200, and my conscience didn’t let me spend £200 on something, purely to reduce a faff.

But then, in May 2009 the Apple iPhone came charging into my life, like Santa on a skateboard – a granny on a Harley – a puppy on ice – a… uh, well, you get the point. I welcomed my new best friend by feeding it with all the food (apps) that it could stomach. Mostly novelty emptying lager glasses, zippo lighters, spirit levels and pac-man – but then, after the honeymoon period was over, I started looking for more useful purposes for it.

And I found them.

Apart from the golf GPS range-finder, sat-nav, piano tuner and voice recorder – all saving me many hundred of pounds on their hardware counterparts, I also found Snatch;

Snatch does all that the, once cute, but now rather unwieldy Frontier Trazport does, but for only £2.37:

You can design the controls you need, either simply with the stock square boxes, or artistically, as I have done:

Snatch Screen 1Snatch Screen 2Snatch Screen 3

All I need to do now, is make sure the accompanying utility is running in the background of my Mac, and set myself up in the vocal-booth, at my convenience. I can then press play, record the section I want to, listen back, create a new track, loop a short section and even undo, if it all goes Pete Tong.

Logic transportSnatch Logic Edit page

So, now I can give myself a similar experience whilst recording my own vocals, that I do with my clients. After-all, the recordings I do of myself are, for the most part, a showcase for the studio – so they’d better be good. And anything that makes the process less of a faff, has got to be a good thing.


New Toy

How can I get excited about an electrical gadget, 15 years-old? Well, since the very early days of me using other people’s studios, I’d seen DAT recorders, these slow moving tape machines, and spent a small fortune on the little tapes – not much bigger than camcorder Mini DV tapes (oh yeah, we don’t use those any more), but quite a bit smaller than cassette tapes (oh yeah, we don’t use those any more either) to record a digital mix of my songs in stereo. I then carried my little case to a mastering house and finalised the album. It was the industry standard format for any high-end studio in the 90’s. If you wanted a CD burnt or Album cut, then the duplicators mostly accepted DATs to work from.

My first CD burnt from one of these cost me £40. One CD! Before too long every home computer in the land had a CD recorder built-in. Yes, in the beginning these were flaky, and almost impossible to play in anyone’s home CD player, other than the one that had burnt the disc. But before very long, all mixes were bounced down to CD. Mastering houses and duplication companies all accepted CDR’s as standard and the poor, ever-so reliable DAT machines, were moved to the bottom of the rack, to gather dust.

When I had amassed enough equipment to call myself a studio, I never gave purchasing a DAT recorder a second thought – I didn’t need one. Who needed a DAT recorder nowadays? Well, actually, there are many, many people who have a shelf or drawer (or perhaps, more likely now, box) load of little DAT tapes. Some of which have priceless recordings on, never having been transferred to CD and unable to access their masterpieces. Well, now you can. Because I can.

I feel quite guilty really, as I’ve managed to pick up a superb quality, professional unit for £150 (ebay). Yes, that’s still more than I paid for my consumer CD player, new, but this bit of kit retailed at £1300 in 1995. The guy selling it must be gutted!

The burning question is; would I every have paid the £1300 for a new one, if it meant I could transfer all my loved-and-lost recordings to iTunes? I have to say, I doubt it. But strangely, I feel more complete as a studio now I have a DAT recorder.


Shiny New DAT Machine

We’ve Arrived

Well, hello there. Thanks for popping in

I announced to a few friends that I was putting together my website about 6 months ago! It’s such a large undertaking that I lost motivation and did nothing on it until November when I really put my head down and got on with it – and finally, it’s here – we’ve arrived.

I’ve been really busy in the studio and on stage lately. I don’t know what’s happened as it was fairly quiet for most of last year – just a comfortable trickle of work, leaving me enough time to continue on my own work – but this is good, and I’ve enjoyed working with some real talent and with quite different projects.

Anyway, I hope you have a good look around – you may find something ‘we’ do useful.

Feel free to comment…


Rob x