Audio engineering

I’ve had an interest in recorded sound for as long as I can remember and since 1999 have been professionally involved in a wide range of projects, producing, recording and/or mixing everything from large orchestral sessions to intimate studio work.

Keep scrolling to learn more about what the average recording project of mine entails. If you such a project in mind and think I could help, don’t dilly-dally; get in touch and let's work something out!

Recording: sometimes all you need is a nice pair...

Many of my favourite recordings were realised with just a single stereo pair of microphones. If one has an acoustic appropriate to the music being performed, this low-key setup is almost always all that is required. (And even in multi-mic recordings it is the humble main pair which tends account for 90% of the mix.)

Recording session with Jamie Akers, guitar, in the sublime acoustic of The Menuhin Hall, Surrey.

While such an approach is not always possible—or even desirable—given the right set of circumstances, the results can be astonishing. Have a listen to the playlist below. Everything you hear there I recorded direct to 2-track recorder with only a single stereo pair. When the minimal approach works, it really works.

psappha-mackey-microconiv.mp3amanda-thesoundsofrain.mp3philharmonia-scotland.mp3konrad-4040test.mp3owduo-rikyu.mp3albaquartet.mp3euan-loch-lomond.mp3suppertime.mp3feargmira-the-lif.mp3

In essence, there's little more to it than finding just the right spot to place the performer(s) and then just the right spot to place the mics. You know you've found it when suddenly everything converges: the tone of the instrument/ensemble is right, the stereo image is strong, and the balance of direct-to-reverberant sound is conducive to the repertoire. Sounds easy, but it's rarely a task without a certain degree of challenge.

Once the mics are set up, the session proper can begin. The format varies from situation to situation, performer to performer, but I generally favour a hands-off approach with all focus on cultivating a relaxed atmosphere and capturing a captivating performance. I try to keep takes long and not to get bogged down in too much patching, saving that for only the most difficult spots. I find that if a session gets too patchy, the music almost always suffers.

Of particular interest to the classical bods among you: I'm a fluent sight-reader and very comfortable working with scores during a session.

Live recording

I should mention here that I also record live music. In fact, the string quartet recording and Sarabande above are both live concert performances. I tend to bring the same approach to live recording sessions as I do to regular recording sessions; except that I may need to be sympathetic to audience sight-lines, and—of course—make sure I am running a redundant backup should any piece of equipment go haywire!

For your enjoyment, here's another live recording I am particularly proud of, again recorded with a single stereo pair of mics...

frevo-qtet-histoire-bordel.mp3

Editing

Occasionally during the recording session, but most often after, at least some form of editing takes place. At the end of a successful recording session one generally finds oneself with several takes: some will be full passes of each item in the chosen repertoire; some smaller sections; and some (occasionally quite a lot more than 'some') patches of the more tricky areas in the music. Even dealing with live recording one may find oneself with extra takes from the soundcheck or companion recording sessions. Whatever the scenario, in a nutshell, the role of editing is to go through each take, find the best bits, cut them out and assemble them all into one awesome sounding super-take!

I have vast experience in editing all sorts of material, be it music requiring several edits per bar, or that requiring little more than a simple fade-in/fade-out. I've chopped, spliced and diced the veritable gamut, from full scale orchestral works to solo harpsichord; studio jazz to chamber ensembles; drum samples to voice-overs and audio books; contemporary classical to alternative folk music.

I'm proud to endorse Sequoia 13 and am well versed in the software's highly specialised four-point editing capabilities, especially useful for complex classical projects. I have a transparent and detailed monitoring setup (ATC active monitors / Sennheiser HD800 cans) and always strive for totally inaudible edit points. I can also turn to iZotope's RX 2 Advanced Audio Editor to eliminate those pesky chair squeaks, lip-smacks, page-turns, creaky joints, and much more besides.

The Sequoia 13 crossfade editor: it almost makes editing fun. Almost.

There is one rather abstract procedure which forms part of the editing process: maintaining room tone or "presence". Unless you are recording a live session, very often the stretches of "silence" in the music must be artificially created during the editing phase. It's such a wierd little thing to have to do, but totally necessary. For those interrested in this curious little procedure, I wrote more about it on the blog.

More often than not, the material I edit also happens to be music that I had a hand in recording. However, I am adept at editing other people's recordings, either working self-intuitively from a pool of provided takes, or from edit lists and/or annotated scores. A valuable skill for any classical editing is a good inner ear for relative pitch. That in combination with with fluent sight-reading means I am able to compare the recorded sound to the written notes. Very handy.

Mixing

After editing comes mixing. For most projects I work on, mixing is minimal to non-existent, but it is still a vital part of the process, however subtle the application.

Mixing isn't just about riding console faders. It can include dynamics processing (compression, limiting), panning, equalisation, filtering and reverb; basically, anything that affects the original signal. There's a lot of opportunity at this stage to mess things up, so I like to get friendly with the bypass button, comparing the before and after each step of the way.

I do all my mixing in Sequoia, complemented with a selection of high quality plug-ins. In certain circles there's a stigma attached to working fully "in the box", and I am admittedly as dough-eyed as the next mix engineer when it comes to fancy outboard equipment. But while I've spend a small fortune on my DAW, associated software and digital plug-ins, it doesn't come close the extraordinary amounts of money I would have to spend to achieve in hardware the level of quality and flexibility I can get with software (not forgetting digital conversion there and back). So for now it's unapologetically all in-the-box and I find that suits my workflow quite well.

Here's an example of a couple of contrasting multi-track studio sessions I mixed (and engineered or co-engineered).

konrad-dziadzio.mp3samantha-grannyshouse.mp3

For the mix work I tend to do, it's mostly about maintaining transparency, carving out space for each instrument and voice through subtractive EQ-ing and judicial use of digital reverb. These days I'm favouring DMG Equality for EQ sculpting, and for reverb it's either Magix VariVerb II or the mighty Aether from 2CAudio.

When I use compression, it doesn't tend to be for controlling peaks, but to add flavour and glue the music. It's remarkable what a touch of compression can do to add warmth, fill-up and smooth-out certain material. This, I believe, is what most people associate with tape ‘warmth‘—much like in film photography, peak compression is there by default in analogue recording, but lacking by design in digital (well, it's there but as an ear-offending hard limit). So I like to bear that in mind. I also find the gluey properties of compression can be particularly helpful in studio multi-track sessions, but it's always a fine balance between making things sit and losing the dynamic vitality. In terms of plug-ins, these days I find myself falling most often on either DMG's Compassion, Magix's highly underrated AM-munition, or my old favourite, PSP's MasterComp.

I'm a sucker for dynamic music and where possible try to avoid loudness for loudness' sake. But should the average level need bumping up, I don't tend to use automated compression for controlling peaks, preferring (given the time) to adjust them manually at the object level. Occasionally Sequoia's sMax11 will do the same job almost as transparently and ten times quicker.

One vital addendum here: unless it is a very specific, esoteric effect, I try to resist all temptation to insert any processing on the final 2-buss; that is a task best left to mastering.

Mixdown

The penultimate stage in the recording process is the mixdown. Assuming everything is set up well in your DAW (and you trust it is summing tracks in a transparent manner), preparing a stereo mixdown for mastering is relatively straight forward: don't sample rate convert, don't reduce the bit depth, don't dither. Simple.

Mastering

Mastering is a very involved, oft-neglected and widely misunderstood process. Let's get one thing out of the way: mastering isn't about fixing mix problems; mixing is about fixing mix problems! What it does entail, however, can be roughly divided into three stages:

  1. This first stage is a largely technical exercise that involves listening to the mixdowns for previously unnoticed distractions—digital glitches, room creaks, etc.—and removing them in the most transparent way possible. (If I did the mix, a day or so break between that phase and this process will help the ears refocus.) More restoration-centric jobs may include advanced noise reduction; for those tasks I've had great success with iZotope's RX 2 Advanced Audio Editor.
  2. This stage is where the art comes in. Through selective use of dynamic processing, level adjustments, EQ/filtering, and reverb, it's a final, post-mix chance to enhance the sound of the recording. In the case of an album of material, consideration must also be given to creating a sense of cohesion and flow from track to track. It is often a subtractive process, with broad subtle brush-strokes, but surgical alterations may be required to address problem areas.
  3. Like the first stage, this is also largely technical. It involves preparation of the final deliverable(s) and making sure whatever format that happens to take (CD, DDP, mp3, etc.) it is standards compliant. That could mean anything from ensuring ISRC codes are present and correct, a CD-DA is Red Book, mp3s are correctly tagged, etc. It also involves making sure that the file or medium is error free (or in the case of optical media, low in errors and free of critical errors) and ensuring that we haven't introduced any unexpected digital artefacts.

(In preparing the deliverable, it may be necessary to adjust the sample rate and/or bit depth. There is an element of ear involved in choosing an appropriate sample rate conversion method and dither profile, but it's becoming less critically demanding as most professional software these days is capable of doing at least an acceptable, if not exceptional, job on that front.)

While I am confident enough in my equipment and skills to take care of stages one and three, the middle stage I prefer to leave to someone else; particularly if I have worked on the rest of the project myself. However, take heed that anyone can call themselves a mastering engineer; few are truly worthy of the title. They must have truly exceptional monitoring in ideal conditions, the absolute top end of equipment, and bring an abundance of experience and knowledge to proceedings. I'll always recommend Bob Katz.

Using a third-party for that middle stage of mastering is, in many ways, a safety net. When you work on a project from start to finish, over-exposure can leave you deaf to certain areas; certain problems may have developed in such minute increments that you didn't notice them. These issues can be immediately apparent to a fresh pair of ears. Furthermore, decisions made through the recording process will have been based on personal monitoring situations, some better than others. I have a very good monitoring situation, but it's by no means perfect. A mastering engineer's environment is neutral and, above all, designed from the ground up for mastering; for listening in a most scrutinising manner.

That's a wrap

And that's basically it. I can take care of artwork too.

 
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