Sunday, April 19, 2009

FFW12: Encouragement & Recognition

I’ve already explained the importance of the ARIA awards in previous Famous First Words (see FFW06 and FFW08); whoever wins one of those can look forward to at least a year’s worth of regular engineering and/or production work, perhaps longer if they play their cards right. It’s a pity that something so important is handled so badly from behind the scenes…

Encouragement & Recognition
Over the past year I’ve done a lot of direct-to-stereo recordings of orchestras and other acoustic acts in concert halls, churches and pubs. One of the great difficulties with this type of recording is monitoring. Because I’m often located in the same space as the performers it’s not possible to use studio monitors, so I’ve had to resort to headphones. Classical recording engineers have been doing this for years, but for a multitrack studio guy like myself the thought of doing a direct-to-stereo recording using headphones for monitoring is unnerving – unless you’ve got the right ones. So, after much research and listening, I settled on a pair of Sennheiser HD600s. They’re exceptionally transparent, with very low distortion, effortless dynamics, superb midrange detail, and a response that’s smooth as a baby’s bum from 16Hz all the way up to 30kHz. Even your dog will like ‘em! If you want better cans than these you’d have to buy electrostatics, but they’re way out of my budget. Even the $800+ asking price for the HD600s is pretty steep, but they’re worth every cent.

And so it was that one night in early November I found myself in a small pub near Central, where an acoustic ensemble was playing backing tracks for a collection of aspiring vocalists. The evening was an opportunity for these vocalists to polish their performance skills in front of a small and sympathetic audience – mostly consisting of other aspiring vocalists waiting their turn!

Some friends of mine, Brendan Frost and Glenn Santry, were using my rig to record this particular night’s performance, and I dropped in to see how it was going. “Take a listen”, said Glenn, handing me the HD600s while diplomatically donning my older cans. As we sat there listening and discussing the merits of the vocalist currently on stage, I had a flashback to my childhood TV days: images of a judging panel wearing headphones while a performer on stage was strutting her stuff.

Okay, hands up if you remember New Faces, the long running TV talent quest hosted by Bert Newton? If not, I’m sure you can guess the format: aspiring entertainers perform in front of a studio audience and a panel of judges, hoping to launch a career in show business. (You can put your hands down now.) Unlike talent quests sponsored by fizzy drink companies, tacky ISPs, and other youth market vultures who know nothing about exposing genuine new talent, New Faces was the real deal. The judges were qualified industry professionals who offered plenty of constructive criticism, and Bert Newton was, as always, the consummate television host.

After the winners were announced and awards given out, Bert would present a special award to the performer he thought deserved the most encouragement – regardless of whether they won the show or not. He called it ‘The Bert Newton Encouragement Award’, and it became my favourite part of New Faces. As a particularly flat note brought me back to the reality of the small pub near Central, I began wondering which vocalist would have received Bert’s award if he’d been there on the night.

Speaking of talent quests and awards, did anyone notice something strange at the last ARIAs? It happened very quickly, and if you were watching the show on TV and blinked, you would’ve missed it altogether. The category for Engineer Of The Year had five winners. That’s right; five. Not three, not four, but five! F.I.V.E. Cinque, cinco, fünf? Nyet! How can this be? I can tell you that the systems for nominating and voting this year were changed. I’m sure the changes were intended to be an improvement, but I certainly hope ARIA refine it next year so we don’t get another five winners. In a market as small as ours, it is hard enough for one Engineer Of The Year to find work, let alone five!

Congratulations to all the winners nonetheless, and I’m pleased to see some of my own nominations included among them. But my first choice did not even rate a mention. Before I tell you who it was, let me explain my judging process…

In Volume One, Issue Six of AudioTechnology [see FFW06], I outlined the comprehensive and time-consuming process I used to vote for last year’s ARIAs. Then, in Volume Two, Issue Two, I described my disappointment with the amount of Australian mixing and mastering work going overseas – and copped quite a whipping for it! [see FFW08 and FFW09] This year, I simply didn’t have the time to listen to each and every CD that was nominated, so I had to apply a culling process.

Firstly, I scanned the credits of every CD looking for overseas involvement. If it was tracked, mixed or mastered by overseas engineers, I’d yell “OUT!” and gleefully spin the unheard disc into the reject box. It was gone, done, finito! Secondly, I tested each disc for translation. A well-engineered recording should sound ‘right’ through any playback system. So, I auditioned each disc through my ATCs, my NS10s, and my Sennheiser HD600s. Many discs, particularly those aimed at the pop market, kicked arse on the NS10s but were reduced to muddy crap when heard under the scrutiny of the ATCs or the HD600s. My reject box filled rapidly! I was eventually left with a dozen discs, to which I applied the same rigorous procedure I used for judging last year’s ARIAs.

I am not a fan of Dave Graney, and I’ve never met Adam Rhodes, but I must say that the album ‘Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye’ by The Dave Graney Show, engineered and mixed by Adam Rhodes, is a classy and competent piece of sound engineering. It sounds good on the ATCs, the NS10s, and the HD600s. It has a sense of depth and dimension, and it’s not vainly trying to produce a million dollar sound on a $100 budget. Congratulations to all involved. And as for Adam, he wins the inaugural ‘Greg Simmons Encouragement Award’ - a pair of Sennheiser HD600s courtesy of Syntec International. It’s not an ARIA, but, with five Engineers Of The Year running around out there, the HD600s will probably be a lot more practical! And please, keep up the good work, Adam.

Upon joining the judging panel for the ARIA awards, I asked for all of the CDs for which engineers and producers had been nominated. My contact at ARIA was perplexed by this request. Dumbfounded, I patiently explained that I couldn’t possibly judge the quality of engineering and production work without listening to the recordings themselves. This was a perfectly reasonable argument, of course, and a box of 40 or so CDs landed on my doorstep shortly afterwards. Likewise one year later. But on the third year they objected, saying I was the only one of a dozen or so judges who asked for the CDs. I don’t know how the other judges made their decisions, but it sure as hell wasn’t from listening to the recordings – unless they happened to be extremely keen fans of Australian-produced music in all shapes and forms, and already owned every CD on the list. Considering the scope of music covered by the nominations (everything from hard rock to soft baroque), I found that highly unlikely. Other factors were obviously at play in the judges’ minds; perhaps basing their decisions on chart figures, sales success, or even less relevant and/or less honest means. Whatever the case, I rapidly began to lose interest in the whole thing. And when five engineers won the same award simultaneously, I knew the system was screwed. Hence, the encouragement award mentioned above; it was my diplomatic way of sidestepping the whole mess. These days I couldn’t give a diplomat’s arse about the ‘industry’ per se, so I’m writing it as I remember it.

As for the HD600s, I thought they were the most incredible dynamic headphones on the market – as did every other keen listener of quality audio! With a pair of HD600s in my possession, I figured I had the headphone problem solved forever. Although I felt their stereo imaging was below par, no one else seemed to mention it so I figured it must’ve been my ears. Considering how well they did everything else, I was prepared to cut them some slack. Besides, my good friend Glenn Santry* (mentioned at the start of this First Word) had a pair of AKG K501s that imaged very well, thanks to an interesting driver orientation that placed the drivers forward of the ears and angled towards them, rather than sitting flush beside each ear. They didn’t share the clarity and resolution of the HD600s, but were good performers nonetheless. In those days Glenn and I made a lot of recordings together, and switching between my HD600s and his K501s was standard procedure; using each pairs’ individual strengths while avoiding their individual weaknesses. A bit like switching between main monitors and NS10s when mixing…

Some time later Sennheiser released the superior HD650 headphones. Apart from being more revealing than the HD600s, they imaged particularly well thanks to a new driver orientation that was remarkably similar to the K501’s. They were on my shopping list for years, right up until January 2008 when I reluctantly auditioned a pair of similarly priced Audio-Technica AD1000s at the insistence of one of my students. At first listen, the AD1000s sounded bland and uninteresting; but after an hour or so I began to appreciate them.

The AD1000s outperform the HD650s in every way that matters; in fact, after wearing them for a while, switching back to the HD650s feels as if the sound is being forced into your ears through funnels. Most of the HD600 and HD650 users I know who have the opportunity to do a side-by-side comparison with the AD1000s have a similar reaction. The AD1000s are now my quality reference headphones. In fact, all of my headphones are now Audio-Technicas, but more about that some other time...

[*Glenn Santry’s wife Mel recently gave birth to a baby boy named Noah. He’s a happy little guy with fair hair and big blue lady-killer eyes, but it’s going to be chaos around their house when it comes time to buy him a pet. He’ll want two of everything.]

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