Sunday, March 29, 2009

FFW09: Hearing it like it isn’t

In FFW08 I proceeded to tell the entire Australian music industry that its recording and mixing work was below international standards. Hours of exasperating conversations ensued, from which emerged a clearer picture of the problem. It was extremely disheartening to learn that a local record company would spend many times more money getting the same record mixed and/or mastered in the US than they would spend here in Australia. The reasons behind that were equally disheartening; in fact, I chose not to print them at the time (as seen below) because they would do nothing but induce a feeling of futility and helplessness among local engineers. Considering the ill-feeling and potential damage I had caused with FFW08, I chose instead to portray myself as well-meaning but mislead. By publically falling on my own sword I put an end to the matter from my point of view, thereby conveniently short-circuiting the need for me to do any further investigation into it. In other words, putting a lid on it. I did, however, invite others to write in with their own experiences, in the hope that one of the engineers I had spoken to would be willing to ‘out’ the problem in their own words, but no-one took me up on the offer. I guess they felt like I did; damage control!

But that was a decade ago when I still had faith in the concept of a local music recording ‘industry’: one in which deep-pocketed record companies were committed to developing local artists to record and release their music. These days, that aspect of the local music recording industry has proven to care more about its deep pockets than anything else, and I personally care less for it than I care for a pocketful of cockroaches and mosquitoes. So, I’m going to put those reasons at the end of this Famous First Word. Enjoy, or whatever…

Hearing It Like It Isn’t
The late, great press critic A.J. Liebling once said: “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one”. There can be no doubt that having the freedom to publish whatever you want is one of the greatest things about owning a magazine, but as with all forms of freedom, it comes with an implied responsibility…

In my last column, ‘Hearing It Like It Is’ [AudioTechnology, Volume 2, Issue 2], I described my disappointment with the sound of Australian recordings that had been mixed and/or mastered locally in comparison to those that were sent overseas. I then went on to explain why I believed our major artists and record companies were sending their work overseas. I did some market statistics, spoke to a couple of A&R people, and even got some ‘insider’ sales figures from a local record company. Essentially, my conclusion was that our local mixing and mastering talent wasn’t capable of delivering an international sound.

Before going any further, I would like to offer my sincere apologies to all those people who felt attacked or betrayed by that column – it was not my intention to do any harm to the industry. I took a ‘hard line’ to shake things up a bit, and hopefully encourage some discussion and raise the standard. Judging by the feedback I’ve received, I have achieved those objectives. But my fundamental argument was misinformed and therefore flawed, and may have done more harm than good.

‘Hearing It Like It Is’ was a follow up to a column published two issues earlier, titled ‘Relativity & The Whispering Chinese Engineer Of The Year’ [AudioTechnology, Volume 1, Issue 6]. Both columns were referring to a specific set of recordings: the ARIA nominations for Engineer Of The Year and Producer Of The Year. No matter how cynical you are about such awards, you cannot ignore the impact they have. Whoever wins such an award can expect an improved income for the following 12 months (if they play their cards right), and may use it as a springboard to a higher profile career. They will contribute significantly to shaping the Australian sound, and their work will be held as a local reference by many of our aspiring young engineers. For those reasons alone, I took these awards very seriously. Hence the disappointment in what I heard – was that the best we could do?

The feedback flooded in from the day the magazine hit the streets. The first wave was very positive, mostly congratulating me for bringing this topic into the open. But the second wave knocked me reeling. These were industry professionals: recording engineers, mixing engineers, mastering engineers, producers, and studio owners. They felt angry and betrayed, but to their credit, argued their points rationally and objectively. As many pointed out, my conclusion was sending a very negative message to our local record companies and artists: “don’t get your mixing and mastering done in Australia!” That was not my intention at all (quite the opposite, in fact), and it didn’t take long to see the error of my ways.

The flaw in my conclusion was the assumption that Australian artists and record companies were going overseas because our local engineers could not deliver an internationally competitive sound. After discussing this situation with numerous local engineers, I can only say that it was not a valid assumption – which makes the rest of my conclusion bogus.

I heard many tales of woe from Australian engineers explaining how they were given ridiculously small budgets to mix albums, only to find the record companies and artists weren’t happy with the finished results. As Daniel Denholm points out, “You can’t clip the wings and then expect it to fly…” [see ‘Your Word’, this issue]. As a result, the work was sent overseas to be remixed, and the record companies spent at least twice the budget they had allocated for local engineers. Of course they got better results!

So why are our local record companies and artists willing to spend more on overseas mixing and mastering? Everyone has their own explanations – some plausible, some not. Whatever the reasons may be, there is one thing I am now certain of: if our record companies and artists spent the same amounts of money on local jobs as they did on international jobs, we’d be producing recordings that would be equal to those done overseas, perhaps even better. We have the technology, we have the motivation, and we have the skills. But most importantly, we have something unique to smaller markets – resourcefulness and the willingness to make the most of a less-than-ideal situation. It’s an Australian trait, and we’re famous around the world for it.

Which leads me to another flaw in my previous conclusion: I had applied a broad generalisation to the issue, when in reality these things should be discussed on a case-by-case basis. I’d like to follow this up by talking with the appropriate decision-makers for each of the Australian recordings I was referring to in my previous column. But I doubt I’d get meaningful answers… After all, the two A&R people I spoke to as part of my research both gave me the same answer: “It sounds better, it sells better”. What I didn’t know then was that they were using an unfair reference: you can’t compare two different sets of mixes (local and overseas) when the overseas mixes have such larger budgets! And I thought these A&R people knew what they were doing…

There are more shortcomings of 'Hearing It Like It Is' worth explaining, but I'm out of space. I'd like to thank all those who contacted me to discuss this issue, and especially those who found the time to write in. I published my conclusion with the freedom of the person who owns the press, and now I feel obliged to turn that freedom over to the industry. If you have something constructive to say about Australian work going overseas, send it in and we'll publish it. But please, keep it short, concise and to the point. In closing, I'd like to draw your attention to this issue's Your Word, where we have published some readers' comments on this topic, and to Last Word, where Rick O'Neil gives me quite a beating. (Next issue, I'm going to talk about equipment…)

Okay, enough of the self-flagellation bullshit. I've always felt bad about not telling what I believed to be the truth behind that situation; this retrospective blog provides the opportunity to right that wrong.

In the numerous conversations that took place with local engineers and producers after the publication of FFW08, the following scenario came up again and again. A local engineer was given a budget of, say, $5000, to mix an album for a local artist. With SSL mixing rooms charging around $1000/day in those days, this allowed five days to mix 10 or more songs. In other words, mixing at least two songs per day. The mixes were rushed, of course. Not surprisingly, the local record company didn’t like the sound (what I rightfully described as a ‘demo on steroids’ in FFW08) and would decide to send it to the US to be mixed ‘professionally’. Miraculously, the US mixing engineer was given enough budget to mix one song per day; allowing for exchange rates at the time, that’s about three times as much as the local engineer was given. As each of the local engineers said to me, “If they gave me that much money and time in the first place I could’ve given them a world-class mix”. And I’ve no doubt of that…

So why don’t the local record companies spend the big money here in the first place? It’s not about our engineers and it’s not about our studios. It’s about networking and sales.

As I pointed out in FFW08, the record buying public in the US is (or was at the time) about 15 times larger than the Australian record buying public. There’s lots of money to be made for an Australian artist who lands a song on the US charts, certainly enough to cover the recording costs and even put some worthwhile money into the artist’s pocket (which is more than can usually be said for landing a song on the charts in Australia, by the way). But there’s little chance of US chart success if the recording is mixed and mastered here in Australia.

Consider the following hypotheticals…

Situation A: The A&R manager of the local branch of a major record label sends the finished and mastered mixes of his latest pet project to his US counterpart and says, “Hey, check this out, these guys are pretty good, kind of like Guns’N’Roses but with an Aussie accent”. The US A&R person takes a listen, thinks, “Yeah, okay. Apart from the Aussie accent, it sounds like everything else out there. Boring.” He drops it into the marketing machine without a second thought, leaving it to fend for itself.

Situation B: The A&R manager of the local branch of a major record label telephones his US counterpart and says, “Hey, I’ve got these artists coming over to do some mixing and mastering in LA. Please pick them up from the airport, show them around town and, you know, just generally take care of them.” A few cocaine lines later and the US guy has developed a relationship with the band; now they become one of
his pet projects. When the album is finished, he’s personally taking it to the marketing department saying, “Hey, check out these guys I’ve been working with. They’re like Guns’N’Rose with an Aussie accent. Look good, too. Awesome!”

You don’t have to be a genius to realise which of those situations is going to fly…

So when a local record company sends something to the US for mixing and/or mastering, they’re willing to take a bigger financial risk because the US networking gives it a greater chance of making a decent financial return. No wonder all of our more successful artists eventually go to the US to do their entire albums. The networking is as complete as possible and so, therefore, are the chances of success.

As I said at the start of this post, it's disheartening stuff, instilling a sense of futility and helplessness into the hearts of those hoping to make it big in Australia.

There’s only one conclusion to make from all of this. If you aspire to have a satisfying career as a ‘big fish’ sound engineer working in a music industry where there’s enough money to do things properly, get out of Australia as soon as possible. You’re wasting your time splashing around in this rapidly evaporating little pond.

Then again, have you heard the slickly perfected in-one-ear-and-out-the-other dross from the US lately? If you want a satisfying life, consider opening a café instead; the hours are better and people will always appreciate, and pay through the nose for, a good cup of coffee.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Not a First Word, but highly recommended...

Anyone aspiring to work in the music 'industry' is encouraged to read the following pieces. Written by different industry insiders at different times over the past two decades, they collectively trace the decline of the industry itself due to corporate greed... of course.

This piece, by engineer/producer Steve Albini (Nirvana et al), is from the early '90s and documents the beginning of the problems:
The Problem With Music

This piece, written in 2000, is by Courtney Love, front-person for the band Hole and wife of Kurt Cobain:
Courtney Love Does The Math

This piece, written by musician/activist John Mellencamp and published on the 22nd of March this year, continues the analysis of the decline:
The State of the Music Business

Read those pieces and then reflect on this wonderful quote from the late, great, gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson:

"The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench; a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There’s also a negative side."

[Thanks to Kim Cascone for links...]

Saturday, March 21, 2009

FFW08: Hearing it like it is

Hard love… It’s rarely given without controversy, or taken without offense. How do you tell an entire industry that it’s below par? After spending the best part of a week listening to dozens of locally-produced CDs while voting for Engineer Of The Year (13th ARIA awards), I was left with one sadly obvious conclusion: the work of Australian engineers and producers was not up to an international standard. So I wrote about it with the hope of opening dialogue and perhaps even motivating local engineers to push a bit harder. But it didn’t go over too well, as will be seen later… Here's First Word #08, from sometime in late 1999.

Hearing it like it is
A couple of issues ago I discussed my approach to voting for Engineer Of The Year for the 13th Annual ARIA Awards. Now that the awards are over and we’ve enjoyed our moment of self-congratulation, I’d like to air some related dirty laundry. Some of you won’t like what I’m about to say, and some will disagree strongly. I couldn’t care less. This is my magazine, and I’m going to say it like I hear it.

As you’d expect, a major part of my voting process involved carefully listening to each nominated recording – a daunting task, considering there were 42 CDs submitted. While listening to each recording, I’d occasionally hear something that sounded truly world class and worthy of an award. Excitedly, I’d scan through the CD’s documentation to find out where it was mixed and mastered. To my disappointment, the vast majority of the recordings I considered world class were in fact mixed and/or mastered by US engineers in major US facilities. (The few exceptions were mixed by local engineers with considerable overseas experience, or ‘immigrant’ engineers who honed their skills overseas before taking up residence in Australia. Most were mastered at Studios 301.) Because the US engineers were not eligible for our awards, the local engineers who tracked the recordings received the nominations by default! Make of that what you will. It’s the numbers that bother me…

I was unable to find mixing and/or mastering details for seven of the 42 submitted recordings. Of the remaining 35 recordings, eight were mixed by overseas engineers in overseas studios, and 10 were mastered overseas. Assuming the seven recordings I couldn’t find details for were mixed and mastered locally (a best case scenario), we can safely say that 20% of all nominations were mixed and mastered overseas. That’s one in every five, but it gets worse. That same 20% of recordings included many of our bigger budget mainstream artists for that year, and therefore represented significantly more than 20% of the total recording budget for Australian artists over that time period. Interestingly, they were also the artists who enjoyed the most local chart success during that time period (e.g. Human Nature, Bachelor Girl, Taxiride, etc.)

Think about it. Our record companies are sending our big budget artists overseas for mixing and mastering, while many of our smaller budget artists are opting to mix locally but master overseas. Why?

Some dismiss it as ego-driven ‘wank factor’, but that’s a serious case of denial. Record companies aren’t stupid – if they weren’t seeing any financial benefit from sending work overseas, they wouldn’t be doing it. The reality is that albums mixed and/or mastered in the USA consistently sound better and sell better than those done locally.

Others argue it’s for the overseas technology, but if that were true we’d be sending our local engineers overseas to do the work – the same engineers who track the recordings and are intimately familiar with the artists’ intentions. Besides, we’ve got similar facilities with the same ‘brand name’ equipment here in Australia. Not as many as you’ll find in the USA, and few as glamorous, but certainly enough to service our meagre handful of big budget artists.

If it’s not for the wank factor or the technology, could it be for the people overseas? You bet. Witness the speed at which our local record companies and artists form a queue at the studio door whenever an overseas engineer or producer drops in for a working holiday!

Has our local industry lost faith in itself? The answer is obvious. As far as our record companies and artists are concerned, Australian engineers are not up to the international standard. Unfortunately, I think they’re right. Anyone who critically listened through all 42 nominated CDs, as I did, will agree that there’s a definite Australian sound. But it’s not a good sound and it’s not a sound to be proud of, either. It’s cheap, dry and two-dimensional, and rarely possesses the polish, sparkle and depth required to make it world class. Most locally mixed and mastered recordings sound like demos on steroids, cheap imitations of the real thing. Why? I’d like to think it all comes down to markets and budgets…

Let’s look at some statistics. Australia has a population of 17.8 million people, mostly concentrated around the edges of a country encompassing an area of 7.7 million square kilometres. In contrast, the USA (where the bulk of our overseas mixing and mastering was done) has a population of 273 million people distributed throughout an area of 9.2 million square kilometres. In other words, the US market is potentially 15 times bigger than the Australian market, yet their country is only 1.2 times larger. Assuming an Australian artist produced an internationally competitive recording, they could expect to sell 15 times more CDs in the USA than they’d sell in Australia, for about the same pro rata distribution costs!

Is the entire US market too mind-boggling? Let’s scale it down. The state of New York has a population of 18.2 million people distributed throughout an area of 122,309 square kilometres. That’s a population equivalent to all of Australia, but concentrated into an area that is 63 times smaller! The infrastructure to reach all those people is much simpler. How many newspapers and magazines do you need to advertise in? How many radio stations and music video shows do you need to get onto? How many record stores do you need to distribute to, and over what distances? It is cheaper and easier to reach the same number of people in the USA than it is in Australia.

No wonder we’re always trying to crack the US market! It is the single largest English speaking market in the world. But the secret is to produce something that holds its own among the dozens of international recordings presented daily to the program directors at the radio stations and music video channels across the USA. If the program directors don’t like the sound of it, it’s not going to get played and you’re not going to reach that huge market. Simple. (The same rationale applies locally, too. Many Australian mixed and mastered recordings stand out like sore thumbs when heard on local radio or video shows. Licensing requirements mean that broadcasters must present a certain percentage of Australian content, otherwise much of it would never be heard at all!)

Which leads us to budgets. With the potential for 15 times more sales, recording budgets in the US are understandably higher than they are in Australia. And this, I believe, is the core of the problem. Australian engineers don’t get the necessary studio time to refine their skills and work towards achieving that truly international sound. Australian record companies and artists want their recordings to sound international, so they do whatever’s necessary to add a dash of that truly international flavour – to make them stand out from the rash of locally produced ‘demos on steroids’, and to improve their chances of cracking that huge US market. And that means getting all, or part of it, done in the US. Historically, many of our most successful bands end up making their entire albums overseas, particularly in the USA. As the budget gets lower, the options are to mix and master in the USA, or just to master in the USA. Obviously, our record companies and artists can afford to pay for this type of work, so what can we do to keep that money in our own pockets?

We must learn how to create that international sound, and we should start by studying the people who are taking our work. Read their magazine interviews. Visit their websites. Listen carefully to what they produce. Analyse what they’re doing and why they’re doing it. We must learn to think like they think, because that’s where the difference lies.

It’s time to break free of the “near enough is good enough” and “she’ll be right” restraints that have obviously become so prevalent in our studios - particularly among our younger generation of engineers. We have to swallow our pride, take a detached and critical listen to what we’re doing, and ask ourselves, “does this sound truly international?” Hear it like it is. Because, at this point in time, we’re obviously not cutting it.

The number of emails crowding my In Box left me in no doubt that issue #08 had hit the streets. Most applauded me for bringing the topic into the open. Then the phone calls started - and didn't stop! Angry industry pros were ringing the magazine's office and being deflected to my mobile phone. Most began with a barrage of insults and threats, during which I applied a valuable philosophy I'd learned from Philip Spencer: "it takes two to argue". After letting each person vent their spleen, constructive conversation followed. In most cases the caller reluctantly agreed with my statement that Australian recordings were not up to an international standard, but disagreed with my assumptions and conclusions. From those discussions I wrote the follow-up piece 'Hearing it like it isn't', published in issue #09. Stay tuned...

Friday, March 13, 2009

FFW07: Lessons in coupling & isolation

Setting up studio monitors is never as simple as it sounds; not if you want to get the best performance from them. After finding the right positions within the room, you've got to make sure they're properly mounted and isolated. This First Word, written sometime in 1999, discusses simple things you can do to improve the sound of your monitors by paying attention to mounting, coupling and isolation.

Lessons in coupling and isolation
“Yikes, those Questeds are making my ATCs sound bad!” I cried. Brad was somewhere behind the console, fossicking for test CDs in a dirty blue milk crate. “Ha!” he laughed, “I dare you to print that!” “No, no,” I explained, “my ATCs don’t sound right when those Questeds are sitting next to them... the low mids have gone all lumpy!”

Brad and I had just unpacked the Quested VS2108s and, noting their size, decided to sit them flush beside my ATCs for a quick and easy A/B comparison. But at 34cm wide, the Questeds’ imposing baffles were playing havoc with the dispersion of the considerably slimmer ATCs, coupling the lower frequencies and making them sound dull and ordinary.

Interesting? Not really. It’s simple physics, and it’s something that PA operators deal with whenever they stack multiple boxes side by side. But it’s been about 15 years since I stacked a PA system, and acoustic coupling was the last thing on my mind as we lined up the Questeds beside the ATCs.

Switching between the ATCs and Questeds showed that neither pair were sounding worthy of their respective price tags. Taking the Questeds off the bench returned the familiar ATC sound. Likewise, removing the ATCs and listening to the Questeds in isolation revealed a much higher level of sound quality, certainly more in line with their reputation.

Lesson #1: Never compare monitors in any kind of side-by-side situation. It may seem like a good way to make a direct A/B comparison, but all you’ll actually be testing is how badly each monitor affects the other one. Retailers, take note…

Later that week, during an AudioTechnology ‘Spontaneous Human Consumption’ event at Brad’s place, Michael Stavrou spent a critical moment listening to the Questeds, rubbed his chin for another critical moment, then said, “You got any marbles?” “Dunno,” said Brad, “take a look around.” “How about washers?” Stav asked. “Ditto…”

You can dig up all kinds of interesting stuff while fossicking around Brad’s place but his marbles and washers were too well hidden, so Stav returned with half a dozen beers. He carefully removed the top from each bottle, and placed three tops under each Quested in a triangular shape (one under each front corner, one half way across the back). The performance increase was obvious to all, and became a hot topic for the next half hour or so. Just long enough for the beers to go flat…

Lesson #2: Lifting a monitor’s bottom off the surface it rests on minimises physical contact, thereby reducing the amount of sound energy being drained out of the monitor and into the surface. This ‘draining’ of energy out of the monitor causes a decrease in performance, but it gets worse: if the surface is not sufficiently well-damped, it will re-radiate that energy back into the room, causing an even further decrease in performance.

Brad’s monitor bench is about six feet long, reasonably rigid, and supported at each end. But the Questeds have a large and squarish footprint that provides a good contact area with the bench, and they generate a lot of low frequency energy for their size. Combine these factors with their 22kg weight per box, and you’ve got a powerful source of low frequency energy with a large footprint and considerable mass pressing down onto the bench, allowing an even better draining of energy.

Interestingly, my ATCs are designed with three feet fitted in place for this very reason – and never suffered this problem when mounted on Brad’s monitor bench. But why three feet? Why not four or more?

Lesson #3: Proper monitor performance requires stability. Powerful small monitors, such as the ATCs and Questeds, really need to be held stable. If the box wobbles or rocks in any way, it causes loss of output, blurring of the stereo image and smearing of high frequency detail. JBL’s Doug Button discussed this concept, which he calls ‘inertial grounding’, in my review of JBL’s LSR32s [Vol. 1, Iss. 4.]

So why three feet? Three points defines a single plane, and therefore offers maximum stability - that’s why microphone stands, camera tripods and my favourite ‘non-rocking’ café tables are all designed to stand on three feet. (Of course, ‘tripod’ literally translates to ‘three feet’. Duh!). Increasing the number of feet beyond three increases the possibility of instability and wobbling - not a good thing for microphones, cameras, steaming hot cappuccinos or studio monitors.

While Stav’s beer bottle tops demonstrated the benefits of isolation, they were only a temporary solution. Brad has since replaced them with height-adjustable brass cones designed specifically for decoupling speakers, which are available from your local hi-fi shop. Due to the squarish footprint and weight distribution of the Questeds, he’s using four cones - one under each corner. Being height adjustable, he’s able to fine-tune them for maximum stability. His Questeds are now sounding better than ever.

So if your monitors are sitting flush on their bottoms, get some cones under them ASAP! You won’t regret it. But make sure you put the cones the right way around – which is upside down. Their large flat end connects with the bottom of your monitor, while their small pointy end connects with the surface your monitor sits on. When done correctly, your monitors will look like they’re standing on tip toes. (In fact, the first commercially available cones were called ‘Tip Toes’.)

So how do the cones work? Physically, their pointed ends provide a solid connection between the monitor and the bench, which keeps the monitor from wobbling. But their small contact area with the bench creates a very high acoustic impedance, the sort of thing that sound energy prefers not to travel through. With the weight of the monitors pressing down on them, the cones are able to firmly anchor the monitors to the bench while simultaneously providing acoustic isolation. Amazing, huh?

I first met Brad Watts during the days of AudioTechnology's miserable predecessor, Sound Australasia. I was looking for a Mac-savvy guy to write a regular Macintosh audio column, and Brad came highly recommended from the people at AudioMedia magazine. We made an appointment to meet in my office at Pacific Publications. While waiting for this 'Brad Watts' to arrive, a feral-looking bicycle courier walks through the Pacific Publications cubicle farm, dreadlocks flowing and talking into the air with some kind of assertive certainty, just like a crazy guy. He stops at the door of my office. "Simmo? I'm Brad Watts, hang on a minute mate". He then proceeds to pace in and out of my office door while finishing the phone call taking place on his hands-free kit; obviously helping someone get their Mac working again. It was the first time I'd seen someone using a hands-free kit in such a brazen and open manner. It was also the first time I ever saw Brad Watts.

Two years later Philip Spencer and I saunter out of an important meeting that secured the future of our yet-to-be-published magazine. It’s a beautiful Sydney day and we’re feeling as good as the weather, so we stop at Mo’s, the outdoor café belonging to the Museum of Sydney, for a celebratory drink. The attentive waitress is buzzing around wiping tables and keeping us well stocked with refreshments.
“By the way, my name’s Jackie. What are you guys celebrating?”
“We’ve just launched our new magazine, called AudioTechnology. It’s about sound recording equipment.”
“Really? My boyfriend writes about that kind of stuff. Maybe he could write for you…”
“What’s his name?”
is his name! Brad Watts, actually.”
“He’s in our first issue…”

Fast forward a few more years and I find myself sharing a warehouse conversion at the top of Hibernian House, Surry Hills, with newly-weds Brad and Jackie Watts. Crazy and intense days, in retrospect, littered with marine aquariums, astroturf, huge televisions and way too many fried chicken wings from the Thai takeaway down stairs. But we had a lot of fun. We both had our own studio rooms; Brad with the Quested VS2108s mentioned above (which he promptly bought after the review) and me with my ATCs. Between us, there was probably not a single piece of audio gear on the planet that we could not review the heck out of.

Mac Notes column has been a regular fixture in AudioTechnology since the first issue, along with his prolific product reviews. He's probably the smartest Mac audio guy on the planet. A year or two ago he became a full-time employee of AudioTechnology, a position he well deserved. To be honest, I don't know where the magazine would be without him...

Sunday, March 8, 2009

FFW06: Relativity & the whispering Chinese engineer of the year

In mid 1999 I was invited to be a judge for the categories of Engineer of the Year and Producer of the Year for the ARIA Awards (Australian Recording Industry Association). These are very important awards within the small Australian music industry, so I took this invitation seriously. The winners can look forward to regular work for the coming 12 months or so if they play their cards right.

Chinese Whispers is a game where a message is passed from one person to another by word of mouth; typically by whispering so that no-one else can hear it. After passing through five or more people, the message delivered at the end is quite different to that at the beginning.

Relativity & the whispering Chinese engineer of the year
Wednesday, 8th June, 1999. 10:30AM. The following telephone conversation takes place:

Philip: “Hi Greg. There’s a letter here for you from ARIA.”
Greg: “What’s it say?”

Philip: “Um, something about voting and Engineer and Producer Of The Year. You’ve been selected…”

Greg: “Oh, cool! ARIA’s Engineer and Producer of the Year awards, huh? I accept!”

Philip: “Okay, gotta go, got some clients here at the office, we’re designing ads for them.”

Greg: “Thanks mate, see you later…”

I was taking a break from giving a lecture at Sydney’s JMC Academy, and some of the students in the room must have overheard my side of the conversation. Likewise, the clients back in the office must have overheard Philip’s side of the conversation. Well, word spreads quickly in a small industry, and this was no exception. Like a game of Chinese Whispers, the message got more and more distorted until I started getting congratulated for winning all kinds of things.

Let me put an end to this rumour right now. I was not nominated for Engineer Of The Year, I was not nominated for Producer Of The Year, and I was not nominated for anything else – much to my regret! The letter was, in fact, an invitation to vote for the categories of Producer Of The Year and Engineer Of The Year for the 13th Annual ARIA Music Awards. I was flattered.

Here’s how the voting system works. ARIA send out forms with all the preliminary nominations listed on them (approximately 30 entries for each category). Each preliminary nomination includes the name of the engineer or producer and the recordings to judge them by. It’s a preferential voting system in which you list your top three candidates – in order of preference – on the supplied voting form and send it off to an independent auditing firm who tally up the scores. Immaculate procedure!

I don’t know how or why ARIA chose me to be part of their ‘Specialist Voting Panel’. Perhaps because I’m always preaching sound quality in the pages of AudioTechnology, perhaps in recognition of the support we gave them during their fight against the Parallel Imports bill, or perhaps because someone else dobbed me in. Either way, I considered it an honour. But with that honour came a certain responsibility, and the more I thought about it, the heavier that responsibility became. How do you determine who should be awarded Engineer or Producer Of The Year? What criteria do you use? It’s not as simple as it seems.

Consider the category of Engineer Of The Year. Scanning the list of preliminary nominations revealed a decent cross-section of recordings to judge by, from big budget mainstream artists to low budget ‘indie’ artists. And therein lay my first problem. A big budget recording, by its very nature, is likely to have a better overall sound quality than a low budget recording. Bigger budgets mean more time and better equipment at your disposal – both important contributors to creating a good sound. So, a low budget recording that sounds ‘just okay’ may actually represent better engineering skill than a big budget recording that sounds ‘brilliant’. It’s all relative.

Big budget recording artists usually have better quality instruments and a lot more studio experience under their belts - more factors that make it easier to get a good sound. Conversely, lower budget recording artists generally have less studio experience, cheaper musical instruments, and greater time constraints. All these things conspire against getting a good sound, and make the engineer’s job that much harder. Getting a commercially acceptable sound under these circumstances requires an enormous amount of engineering skill. Once again, it’s all relative. (And we haven’t even touched on the benefits of big budget mastering…)

Then I thought about what goes on during a session. Without being there, how can you really tell who was a good engineer and who wasn’t? Engineering involves much more than just getting a great sound. It’s also about handling the numerous stresses of a session, internalising your own frustrations while outwardly projecting a positive vibe, and continually applying the right psychology – all with the aim of extracting the best performance from the artist. Without a good performance, a great sound is meaningless.

There’s also the style of music to consider, and its context. Some styles lend themselves far more readily to good sound than others. For example, a female vocalist crooning love songs is likely to sound better than a thrash guitar band screaming angst! Yet, each one has to be considered in the context of the market it is aimed at, and how well the recording meets that market’s expectations.

Each nominated engineer’s level of involvement also had to be taken into account. While some engineers tracked, mixed and produced the complete recording, others were only credited for tracking (the mixing was invariably credited to an international engineer or producer). How do you judge an engineer who was not credited for mixing, or whose only engineering credits are shared with a handful of US-based engineers?

Finally, I thought long and hard about what it meant to be voted Engineer Of The Year. In a small market like Australia it probably means you’ve got a guaranteed income for the next 12 months. And if you’re smart you’ll choose your clients wisely, aiming to firmly establish your reputation as a ‘hit maker’ (or whatever you want to be) so the work doesn’t suddenly dry up when the next Engineer Of The Year is announced.

Considering all these points, I felt very uncomfortable with the idea of judging Engineer Of The Year purely on the basis of recorded sound quality. So, for each preliminary nomination, I also considered: 1) the facilities used for recording, mixing and mastering; 2) the engineer’s studio experience and history; 3) the artist’s studio experience and history; 4) the engineer’s level of involvement; and 5) how well the recording met the market’s expectations. I applied a similar thought process when voting for Producer Of The Year.

After many hours researching and listening to the nominated recordings, and considering all the other factors listed herein, I think I made the right decisions. I don’t know who the other members of the Specialist Voting Panel are or what methods they used to choose their preferences, but I’ll be thrilled if I’ve managed to pick a winner or two. Either way, I’m convinced I took the best and fairest approach I possibly could.

What would you do?

In the following years I became increasingly disillusioned with the voting process for these awards, as later First Words will show...

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Rupert Neve interview

This Rupert Neve interview was published throughout 1998 in the first three issues of AudioTechnology, and not long after in AudioMedia US and AudioMedia UK. If I had a dollar for every time that someone has asked me for a copy of it since then, I'd probably have about $50. That's not a lot of money, but it's a lot of emails with attachments! So I have posted all three parts of the interview on line. See the 'Downloads' section...

The following was written for issue 50; the guys were planning a retrospective celebration of the first 50 issues and asked me to write something historical from the founding editor's point of view.

An infinitely recurring echo from a warm and distant past…
“How about an interview with Rupert Neve?” It was late ’97, and the enthusiastic voice on the end of the phone was Frank Hinton of ATT Audio Controls. Frank was the Australian representative for Amek, the highly regarded British console manufacturer. We were discussing a review of Amek’s PurePath products for the premiere issue of AudioTechnology, and Frank thought it would be a good idea to include an interview with PurePath’s designer, Mr Rupert Neve.

It seems crazy now, but I was lukewarm to the idea. I was carrying in my head the entire editorial vision for this new magazine, AudioTechnology, and had already mapped out the content of the first issue – right down to the words on each page. Accompanying the PurePath review with an interview, no matter how small, meant more space would be required, and that was likely to send a ripple of layout changes through the following pages of the magazine. That’s a nightmare that only publishers and magazine editors will readily appreciate…

Furthermore (and I feel terrible for admitting this), I didn’t think the name ‘Rupert Neve’ was particularly newsworthy at the time. It didn’t stack up against the exciting things I had planned for the first issue, such as our scoop in-depth preview of Paris (RIP), the eagerly-anticipated digital audio workstation from Ensoniq (RIP), and the accompanying interview with its designer, Stephen St Croix (RIP). This was hot ‘front cover’ news, whereas the name ‘Rupert Neve’ was perennial… an infinitely recurring echo from a warm and distant past.

Nonetheless, what old school audio guy in his right mind would turn down a chance to talk with Rupert Neve? I resolved to somehow lever a half-page or thereabouts into the review, so while Frank arranged a date and time, I studied the PurePath promotional literature and jotted down half a dozen questions.

When the time arrived, I attached the business end of my telephone pick-up to the handset, plugged it into my Sony WM-D6C ProWalkman cassette recorder, and dialled the number. Somewhere in Wimberley, Texas, an English gentleman was waiting patiently by the phone. “Hello? Can I speak to Rupert Neve please?” The voice on the other end sounded like an older, wiser and far more secure Hugh Grant, and was immediately at-ease and welcoming. “This is Rupert...”

After exchanging formalities, we got down to business… and my brief little six-question 20-minute interview went on for two fascinating hours, covering every imaginable aspect of audio equipment history, design and application. Rupert was happy to talk for as long as I was happy to listen, and I didn’t give a hoot about the international phone call charge because his words were priceless. In fact, the conversation never reached a logical conclusion; I decided to wind it up when it occurred to me that, being a true English gentleman, Rupert was unlikely to tell me to get off his phone and leave him alone.

I did not sleep that night. I sat up for hours, playing the interview over and over again, transcribing it into Microsoft Word and excitedly pacing back and forth across my small home office. On tape were some of the most interesting and reassuring insights into professional audio I’d ever heard. I knew I had to include a full-length interview with Rupert Neve in our first issue. So much for my precious editorial ‘vision’!

The transcribed text contained over 12,000 words, but we could only fit 3000 words into a feature interview. It was all equally good and important information, and I found it difficult to delete anything. So I sent copies to 10 of the smartest audio guys I knew, along with a cover note saying, “Please highlight the most important parts and return ASAP”. The response was unanimous: “It’s all important!” So I decided to publish the interview as a series through the first three issues of AudioTechnology.

Our first issue was a resounding success with all levels of the audio industry in Australia, and the Rupert Neve interview was a major contributor to that success – especially with the cynical and hardened professional engineers who were expecting yet another ill-informed, over-hyped and advertiser-driven piece of garbage aimed squarely at the project studio market. Rupert Neve was also happy; the prestigious AudioMedia magazine bought the interview from us and published it over multiple issues of their US and UK editions, re-kindling world-wide interest in Rupert’s uncompromising philosophies and audio designs.

Rupert began writing a regular column for AudioTechnology (which I predictably labelled Rupert’s Word) providing in-depth discussions of noise and distortion and the tonality of audio equipment, supported by graphs, tables of measurements, and anecdotes from his own considerable experience. It further established AudioTechnology’s professional credibility. But despite the intrinsic value of this information, Rupert refused to accept any payment. (Rupert’s Word was short-lived because he got too busy to keep doing it – a problem I am sure he was glad to have!)

With each new issue of AudioTechnology I am reminded of Rupert Neve and his selfless contribution to our early success. We’ve only done 50 issues so far, but I hope that the name ‘AudioTechnology’ will eventually become as perennial as ‘Rupert Neve’ – an infinitely recurring echo from a warm and distant past.