Thursday, March 11, 2010

THX Strikes Again

If you've read my blog for a while you know that I think that the THX process is sort of like unions - they were drastically needed at one time but they now have outlived their usefulness. Such as it is with THX. In fact, you might want to read The Magic and Myth of THX for a full explanation and deeper rant.

A brief overview - in the days prior to THX, movie theaters had sound systems of varying quality. A film that sounded great in one theater would sound dreadful in another (actually, none ever sounded great except at a film studio), and there was no standard as to how they should sound. Tomlinson Holman, who was George Lucas' chief scientist during the first Star Wars movies (and a mentor of mine), created a standard called THX (Tom Holman eXperiment) that would hold movie theaters to a minimum playback quality that was much higher than we were used to at the time.

All well and good, but after a great number of theaters bought into the standard, the market was saturated, yet Lucas had this profitable THX division that was about to become unprofitable unless they could come up with another income stream. So they got the idea of designing a THX standard for home playback systems, gaining their income from installers and manufacturers that felt the need to have their products "certified" for use in the home.

That always felt pretty bogus to me as a THX cert never really bought a home theater owner much more than a one up on his neighbor and a higher bill for the install. I guess they were running out of audio gear to certify, because late last year THX began to certify plasma and LED HD televisions (I'm getting to this a bit late), which kind of leaves me incredulous. What the heck is a company based on audio standards doing certifying televisions? Does it mean that a certified TV is better than a non-certified one, or just that one manufacturer happened to pay for it while the other didn't? Does that mean if you put a non-certified TV in your home theater system that you can't get it certified?

I'm still amazed that manufacturers are duped into this. Thankfully, it doesn't seem to make much of a dent on the consumer. Maybe this is one of those rare times when the customer really knows best.

I don't want to take anything away from THX's theater certification, because it's raised playback quality to the level it needed to be, but guys, let's lay off the consumer. This is an extra charge that no one except your accountants need.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

10 Reasons Why Home Recording Studios Suck

I happened to come across this post recently and found it pretty interesting. It's so easy and inexpensive to buy some really powerful recording gear these days that almost every musician has a home studio, but all of them will tell you that recording is not as easy as it seems.

This article from AudioGeekzine nicely points out what eventually becomes the "hardship" of owning your own studio.
Don’t get the wrong idea from this article, I’m not hating on home studios, I have a home studio, I host The Home Recording Show. I’m not complaining, just pointing out some of the negative sides of the average home studio. An average home studio being a room in a house or apartment that was not specifically built to be a recording studio. Purpose built home studios are the exception, they have some of the qualities of professional studios, but some of the downsides still apply.
1) Less than ideal acoustically. More often than not the home studio is a spare bedroom or in the corner of the basement. Most home studios have little invested to improve the sound in the room.
2) Noise issues. Professional studios are constructed with extreme acoustic isolation in mind. They keep sound from escaping and outside sounds interfering, allowing them to operate at any time of day. In the home studio you have to deal with your neighbor mowing his lawn, children running around and other noises. Additionally you can’t work at a normal volume too early or too late in the day without neighbors or your family complaining.
3) Never ending money pit. You may think you have everything you need but it won’t be long until you succumb to G.A.S.
4) Low perceptions of quality. If you’re trying to use your home studio to make an income, there is a limitation on the kind of work you’ll get. A major label is not going to send a band to your bedroom to make a record. There is still plenty of jobs you can do at a quality level but you’re at a disadvantage from the start.
5) Pro studio owners HATE you because you take business away and put out an inferior product. Whether that is true or not can cause some heated debate.
6) A major distraction. You just wanted to make a quick recording of a song idea. You spend the next two hours doing software updates, scrolling through synth patches to find the perfect one and oops you’ve forgotten that great idea for a song.
7) It changes your role from musician to engineer. Instead of spending your time improving your playing and songwriting abilities you must spend your time learning recording techniques, troubleshooting,
8) Equipment that doesn’t match in quality or is low quality overall. Cheap mics into a cheap mixer into a built-in soundcard using cheap cables. If you want a professional sound there is a minimum level of equipment that must be invested.
9) Less respect for your time. I’m finding I sit around waiting for late clients much more in my home studio than as a staff engineer at a studio. Another side of this, a band spends two years recording their album in their home studio but could have gotten the same or better results in two week at a professional studio. Time has value.
10) It never ends. Without strict self imposed time limits you will never finish the album. A fear of commitment and the ability to tweak absolutely anything makes things take so much longer than necessary.
    So there’s 10 negative sides to this Home Studio thing we’ve gotten ourselves into. Obviously these don’t apply to everyone, and some points are very general.
    Without my home studio, this website and half my income wouldn’t be here. On the other hand I’d probably have a lot less grey hair on my head and a lot more money in the bank.
    I’m well aware of the limitations of my studio (the room specifically) and what it is perfectly capable of accomplishing, however this doesn’t satisfy me.
    Home studios aren't going away any time soon, but neither are professional recording studios. In the meantime, let's hope we can keep the techniques of the pros alive so that the next generation of pro can easily make the leap from the home to the commercial environs.

    Tuesday, March 9, 2010

    6 Questions For Studio Bassist Paul Ill

    Today is the first installment of a new weekly feature called "6 Questions."  We'll ask 6 Questions of someone in the music industry and get some insight to various sides of the business.

    The first one is with studio bassist extraordinaire Paul Ill. Paul has a list of record and touring credits and mile long, including Tina Turner, Alicia Keys, Christina Aguilera, Pink, Courtney Love, James Blunt, Daniel Powter and many more.

    1) What was your big break?
    My "big break" was being born into a very supportive family with an extremely musically talented older sister. That prepared me to meet drummer/songwriter Brain MacLeod. He introduced me to Linda Perry, to whom I owe most of my success.

    2) What makes you unique?
    Honestly, I'm not that special. But what I bring to the table is this: I really am genuinely enthusiastic about creating music and I really love playing bass. I do my best to play bass in the spirit of Jerry Jemmott with Atlantic, Duck Dunn with Stax, James Jamerson with Motown, David Hood with the Fame "Swamp Rats", John Paul Jones with Led Zeppelin, Doug Wimbush with Tackhead and the Sugarhill Gang, and Sir Paul McCartney with The Beatles. I grew up on Army basses playing in Soul and Psychedelic Hard Rock bands and I have been playing music virtually non-stop since I was 12. I am also a songwriter, composer and producer, and thanks to my supportive family, I have a Bachelor of Music Composition degree from Berklee College of Music. I do my best to combine all these musical and life experiences, and remain willing to access these experiences on behalf of whoever I am working with in the moment.

    3) Who was your biggest influence?
    My sister Paula.

    4) What's the best thing about your job?
    It's fun, it makes people feel good and it makes the world a better place.

    5) When and where were you the happiest?
    Right here, right now.

    6) What's the best piece of advice you ever received?
    Trust God, clean house, help others.

    Monday, March 8, 2010

    The "Thriller" Console For Sale

    Here's an interesting advert for the console that Michael Jackson's "Thriller" album was made on. It's a Harrison 4032 and the asking price is $200,000!

    Now in its day, Harrison made a pretty good console, but even brand new it was less than half the asking price, and given the huge drop in value in recording consoles these days, this price seems almost laughable. The console has only 32 channels (you'd expect a lot more for 200k), but it's being sold more as a museum piece rather a piece of audio gear, as far as I can tell.

    That's probably a good thing since there's virtually no information about the current condition of the console. Does it even pass audio? Is it automated? Does the automation work? Do all the modules work? How is the console terminated? Is the power supply OK? None of those questions are even broached in any one of three websites.

    It's true that Bruce Swedien, the engineer for all of Michael's biggest hits, loves this console and even bought one like it for his personal studio, but he may be the only one. In it's day, a Harrison wasn't the most sought after console and it never had any vintage value even when console prices were sky high, that's why the price is so astounding.

    Will it draw customers to a studio that features the desk? Probably some, but it's doubtful that it'll draw 200k worth. And if an artist thinks that this console will make them sound like Michael then they'll be sadly mistaken. It's never been about the gear. It's always about the ears!

    Check out an article on the sale, the website for the console, and the ebay site, but unless you have more money than you know what to do with, keep it in your pocket on this one.

    Sunday, March 7, 2010

    Getting The Best Out Of Musicians In The Studio

    I'm just finishing up proofing a new book called "The Music Producer's Handbook" and I thought now might be a good time for an excerpt. Here's a section called Getting The Most Out Of Musicians that's a few simple observations that have served me well over the years. There are also a couple of other excerpts on my website.


    Even if a musician is completely comfortable about his environment and headphones, there are things you can do to help him take his performance to another level. Unless  you’re a studio pro, most musicians can be very self-conscious about what they’re playing, especially after hearing a playback that uncovers some flaws they were unaware of until that moment. It’s important that their confidence doesn’t flag and it’s directly up to you to keep that from happening. Here are a few tricks that will help.
    Stay positive. Regardless of how badly things might be going, how off-key someone is singing, or how out-of-the-pocket someone is playing, never be negative in your body language or your comments. Remarks like, “You suck,” or “That really sounds bad,” don’t ever help the situation and can even completely undermine a performance. If something isn’t going as well as you think it should, give the player a reasonable chance, sit him down for a listen in the control room, then firmly but respectfully describe why the part isn’t working.
    Explain what’s wrong. Players hate it when they’re just told to, “Do it again,” without any explanation as to why you think what they just played wasn’t good enough. If the take wasn’t a keeper for any reason, explain what was wrong in a kind and gentle way. Statements like "I think you have a better one in you," or “I’ve heard you play it with more excitement before,” might work if you can’t put your finger on the problem, but players appreciate it if you can be specific so they can concentrate on that part the next time they play it through. “You’re falling behind the beat every time we come out of the chorus,” is an example of a specific statement. If the player continues to get it wrong, make sure you play the part for him so he can hear it clearly and understand what you’re going for.
    Keep the studio talkback mic on. Communication is one of the most important, yet sometimes overlooked parts of a successful session. Players hate it when they’re speaking to you from the studio and either you’re not aware that they’re trying to get your attention, or you simply can’t hear them. Make sure that the engineer puts up a dedicated talkback mic in the studio and that it’s turned on immediately after every take. It’s important that you don’t miss a single word.
    Keep the control room talkback mic on. Players also hate when there’s long periods of silence from the control room after a take. They might see a conversation going on, but if they can’t hear it, many players get insecure and feel isolated. You may be having a conversation about what kind of take-out food to order, but as far as the player can tell, you’re talking about how bad his performance was and how you’d like to replace him. Get rid of the insecurity by latching the control room talkback so he can hear you all the time between takes. Once again, communication is the key to a successful session.
    If a player asks to play it again, let him. You may think that the player just nailed the ultimate take, but if he feels he can play it better, he usually can. Players inherently know when they’ve messed something up, were late on a chord, mis-fingered or ghosted a note, or slowed down during a roll. Maybe you didn’t hear it, but the player knew it. Let him go again. This is a lot easer decision to make nowadays than it was back in the analog tape days, thanks to digital recording. Back then, you might only have space on tape for a single take and you might loose a take that was great if the next take didn’t work. That kind of pressure on the producer has now been lifted, thanks to your favorite DAW.

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