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Thursday, September 10, 2009

5 Recording Innovations By The Beatles

Since it's Beatles week, here are some interesting facts about their recording methods and the innovations that they (mostly engineer Geoff Emerick) introduced that are commonplace today.
  • Multi-miking drums. Until Emerick began to experiment, the drum kit was picked up by a maximum of two mics - one on kick drum and the other as an overhead above the snare. In order to get a bigger drum sound, Emerick introduced a mic on each drum as well as one underneath the snare.
  • Close-miking instruments. Once again, in order to get a different, fuller sound, Emerick violated the EMI standards of distance miking each instrument. Surprisingly, he almost got fired for this practice except for the great power of The Beatles. Emerick close-miked all sorts of instruments to the horror of the suited EMI execs, from drums to amps to brass to strings to Indian instruments. Of course, this is a practice that we take for granted today.
  • Padding on drums. A lot of the sound of the later Beatle records came from the fact that Ringo put light "tea towels" across the drums as well as a sweater inside the kick drum at the behest of Emerick to dampen the ring. While the towels never caught on, kick drums are routinely stuffed with all sorts of soft material today, and for a time during the late 70's and 80's, a wallet taped to the snare drum (which you can consider another version of the towel) was pretty routine as well.
  • Using a speaker as a transducer. A speaker and a microphone are basically the same thing - a transducer - except that they're designed for different jobs. With Paul McCartney always asking for more bass, Emerick got the idea of using a speaker as a microphone and it worked great, as can be heard on "Paperback Writer" and "Rain". Today, an 8 inch NS-10 speaker has become pretty standard for capturing the extreme bottom of a kick drum, but it took about 40 years after Emerick's experiment to become a standard.
  • Vocal double-tracking. This is more of a George Martin trick to cover up an iffy vocal track, but the boys (especially John Lennon) loved it so much that they used it whenever they could to make the vocal sound bigger. The Beatles might not have been the first to do this, but their influence was so strong that double tracking has become a standard procedure for generations of vocalists and their producers.
As you can see, not only was The Beatles music perhaps the peak point of pop music during the last century, but they influenced everything from fashion to the sound of records for decades to come. With the release of their remastered albums, it will be a lot easier to hear and study those sounds and techniques for a long time.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Some Of The Beatles And Me - Part Two

My next brush with a Beatle came at a Ravi Shankar concert, which should give you an idea of who it is right away.

I was offered two tickets to a concert at the Pasadena Community College auditorium from Ravi's tamboura player and wanted to take my girlfriend at the time, but as things happened, we broke up the day before the concert. There I was, stuck with an extra ticket with a face value of $15, so I sold it to a kid outside the venue before I headed in. I figured I was up 15 bucks, since the ticket didn't cost me anything to begin with.

The ticket said the seat was in row "OO" and when I showed it to the usher after not having much luck finding the seat, she pointed towards the balcony and said, "You're way up there." It was a freebie ticket, so I couldn't complain too much about the location.

When I finally made it up to balcony, another usher began to take me to the back row, just about as far away from the stage as you could get. Even in such a small venue (maybe 1500 seats), you still felt isolated up there. But the usher couldn't find row OO either since the seating stopped at NN, so she called over another usher who immediately said, "I know where you're supposed to be. Follow me."  Before you know it, I was in almost the best seat in the house, in the first row, almost dead center of the stage.

Needless to say, I was a little stunned, and so was the kid who bought the ticket for 15 bucks. Boy, did he get a deal! Shortly after, the lights came down and Ravi started his first spectacular raga that lasted about 45 minutes.

I was pretty much into Ravi's masterful performance during this time, and didn't pay attention to what was around me too much, but during the 2nd raga, I began to notice the guy sitting next to me. He had longish brown hair and was dressed in a very plain green t-shirt and a red plaid shirt on top of that. Very ordinary - perhaps a bit too ordinary considering the location of the seats. It began to dawn on me - Ravi Shankar in Los Angeles, George Harrison has a house in Los Angeles, George brought Ravi to the masses. Could this be George sitting beside me? What took me so long to figure this out?

At the end of the second raga, I got my answer. As we were applauding, he turned to me and smiled that smile that you've seen a thousand times on the news, television, record albums and the movies. We smiled at each other in mutual appreciation for the greatness we were experiencing together. And still I was stunned it was him.

At the end of the concert, George leapt up and ran to the stage to meet with his mentor. I wasn't fast enough to speak with him, but I didn't know what to say anyway. What do you say? Living in Hollywood for almost 30 years, I know enough that celebrities want their space. If you don't have anything to say to them that you wouldn't say to a non-celeb, it's best kept to yourself. They are just people, but they're hassled way more than the rest of us. Why add to it?

But what was interesting was that virtually no one noticed, or cared to notice him. George Harrison, one of the world's best known and wealthiest musicians, was so comfortably dressed, so down to earth, so of-the-people, that he could've been a regular in Lazarchick's Bar in my hometown of Minersville, PA. It wasn't a put-on or a disguise so he wouldn't be noticed, it was just him. How cool is that?

Since this seems to be Beatles week, we'll continue the theme on the next couple of posts with a bit on their recording innovations and sound.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Some Of The Beatles And Me - Part One

Since the remastered Beatles catalog and the Beatles Rock Band game are being released on Tuesday, September 9th, I thought now would be a good time for some brief stories about my brush with Beatles Ringo and George. These really are ever so brief experiences with the famous ones, but for a kid who grew up in the sticks of Minersville, PA, a brush with anyone that famous was way beyond my dreams as a kid.

My first encounter with a Beatle came in the early 80's when I was mixing a project (can't even remember who) at the famed but unfortunately now closed Cherokee Studios in Hollywood. Cherokee was highly regarded for its sound and the frequent home to a variety of star artists like Rod Stewart, John Mellancamp (he was "John Couger" at the time he used the studio), Devo, Steely Dan, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Stevie Nicks, the Blues Brothers and loads more.

Cherokee was a 3 studio complex at the time, and the nice part about a facility of that size is that people get to mingle, usually in the lounge. Cherokee was a little different in that people were unafraid to frequently duck into each others rooms to have a quick listen, unless a sign on the door indicated the session was private.

So there I was mixing unremembered rock artist in Studio Two when I felt the air from the door opening behind me. I knew that someone had come in to listen, but since I was deep into my work, never turned around to see who it was. After about 5 minutes, I got up from my chair behind the console to get a drink and finally glanced at the back of the room to see who had come in. There was Ringo, giving me a big smile and a big thumbs up just as he was leaving out the studio door!

Being shy, I was afraid to take a look in on his session and hoped he'd pop back in to mine so that we could formally meet, but it never happened.

I'm happy that he seemed to approve, and even if he didn't, he made me think he did and gave me a great memory to treasure as a result. For many of my better-connected-than-I friends in Hollywood, a story like this is hardly worth mentioning. But to me, it was and still is a big deal.

Next post - Is that really George?

Monday, September 7, 2009

The Three Keys To A Great Mix

Most recording engineers spend a long time learning the fundamentals of mixing. For sure, instrument balance, frequency balance and dynamics control are important, and you've got to have those in the first place for a mix to be any good. 

But for a mix to be great, you have to go beyond that. Here are the three keys to a great mix:
  • Figure out the direction of the song. For a mix to be great, it needs the perfect direction. In other words, if the song has an arena rock feel to it, you don't want the direction of the mix (the sound) to be intimate and in your face. Likewise, if the song is soft and sensual, huge bombastic reverbs won't be the right choice either. The songwriter and the artist usually have the best idea for the correct direction, but don't be afraid to experiment either.
  • Develop the groove and build it like a house. Every song, no matter what the genre, has a groove. The groove is the pulse of the song and how the instruments breath with it. For the mix to be great, you've got to feel that pulse, therefore you have to find the instruments that supply that groove, starting with the most important (usually the bass and/or drums in most music, but not always). When you find the instruments that supply the groove, then you build your mix around them.
  • Find the most important element and emphasis it. This is usually the vocal or lead instrument but not always. Sometimes it might be an interesting rhythm part or an instrument that's playing a hook or has a hooky sound. Whatever it is, you've got to find it and emphasis it, because that's what sells the song.
For a more on the three keys to a great mix, check out the Mixing Engineer's Handbook.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Key Internet Milestones

Key milestones in the development and growth of the Internet according to the Associated Press:
  • 1969: On Sept. 2, two computers at University of California, Los Angeles, exchange meaningless data in first test of Arpanet, an experimental military network. The first connection between two sites — UCLA and the Stanford Research Institute in Menlo Park, Calif. — takes place on Oct. 29, though the network crashes after the first two letters of the word "logon." UC Santa Barbara and University of Utah later join.
  • 1970: Arpanet gets first East Coast node, at Bolt, Beranek and Newman in Cambridge, Mass.
  • 1972: Ray Tomlinson brings e-mail to the network, choosing "at" symbol as way to specify e-mail addresses belonging to other systems.
  • 1973: Arpanet gets first international nodes, in England and Norway.
  • 1974: Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn develop communications technique called TCP, allowing multiple networks to understand one another, creating a true Internet. Concept later splits into TCP/IP before formal adoption on Jan. 1, 1983.
  • 1983: Domain name system is proposed. Creation of suffixes such as ".com," ".gov" and ".edu" comes a year later.
  • 1988: One of the first Internet worms, Morris, cripples thousands of computers.
  • 1989: Quantum Computer Services, now AOL, introduces America Online service for Macintosh and Apple II computers, beginning an expansion that would connect nearly 27 million Americans online by 2002.
  • 1990: Tim Berners-Lee creates the World Wide Web while developing ways to control computers remotely at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research.
  • 1993: Marc Andreessen and colleagues at University of Illinois create Mosaic, the first Web browser to combine graphics and text on a single page, opening the Web to the world with software that is easy to use.
  • 1994: Andreessen and others on the Mosaic team form a company to develop the first commercial Web browser, Netscape, piquing the interest of Microsoft Corp. and other developers who would tap the Web's commerce potential. Two immigration lawyers introduce the world to spam, advertising their green card lottery services.
  • 1995: Amazon.com Inc. opens its virtual doors.
  • 1996: Passage of U.S. law curbing pornography online. Although key provisions are later struck down as unconstitutional, one that remains protects online services from liability for their users' conduct, allowing information — and misinformation — to thrive.
  • 1998: Google Inc. forms out of a project that began in Stanford dorm rooms. U.S. government delegates oversight of domain name policies to Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN. Justice Department and 20 states sue Microsoft, accusing the maker of the ubiquitous Windows operating system of abusing its market power to thwart competition from Netscape and others.
  • 1999: Napster popularizes music file-sharing and spawns successors that have permanently changed the recording industry. World Internet population surpasses 250 million.
  • 2000: The dot-com boom of the 1990s becomes a bust as technology companies slide. Amazon.com, eBay and other sites are crippled in one of the first widespread uses of the denial-of-service attack, which floods a site with so much bogus traffic that legitimate users cannot visit.
  • 2002: World Internet population surpasses 500 million.
  • 2004: Mark Zuckerberg starts Facebook as a sophomore at Harvard University.
  • 2005: Launch of YouTube video-sharing site.
  • 2006: World Internet population surpasses 1 billion.
  • 2007: Apple Inc. releases iPhone, introducing millions more to wireless Internet access.
  • 2008: World Internet population surpasses 1.5 billion. China's Internet population reaches 250 million, surpassing the United States as the world's largest. Netscape's developers pull the plug on the pioneer browser, though an offshoot, Firefox, remains strong. Major airlines intensify deployment of Internet service on flights.
  • 2009: The Seattle Post-Intelligencer becomes the first major daily newspaper to move entirely online. Google announces development of a free computer operating system designed for a user experience that primarily takes place on the Web.

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