Since coming into existence 70 years ago and still going strong, the Audio Engineering Society has hosted conventions that have become must-see/hear events for anyone involved in the audio industry, especially on the production side. Without the men and women pioneering new technology and techniques to produce music, entertainment audio, and all other related forms of recorded, broadcast, or live sound, our world would be a much duller existence.
This year’s AES convention was the 145th international convention, and was held at New York City’s Jacob Javits Center. This massive show reflected the changing scope of how technology has altered much of the way recording is practiced, and how the striving for even greater audio clarity and precision, by current and tomorrow’s superstars, is being balanced with old school aesthetics of past and presently established industry titans.
The almost ubiquitous use of computers for DAW (digital audio workstations) has practically replaced the use of analog tape, but not analog equipment. Tube powered, rack mounted, processing gear from Pultec, Manley, and other manufacturers, were some of the more crowded booths in the exhibitors’ area.
Some of the latest equipment from UK’s SSL and Neve, along with Yamaha, and other companies, seemed to acknowledge that while plug-ins and digital technology have put a lot of capabilities previously only available in professional studios into the hands of many, there is still a desire to work with analog, or at least analog hybrid gear. Analog components, processing, and add-ons to digital hardware DAW platforms, were showcased alongside analog equipment designed to interface and interact with digital plug-ins. Microphone companies, such as Audio-Technica, Neumann, Avantone, Sanken, and others, all unveiled some of their latest offerings, including USB mics for podcasts and direct to computer applications.
While exciting new gear demonstrations appealed to the pros and gear geeks alike, the human perspective, and its struggle to not let emotion and art be subsumed by technology, was very much in evidence in the award ceremonies, speaking addresses, and various sponsored workshop Q&As and symposiums.
Thomas Dolby’s keynote address contained plenty of future vision, eerily echoing the prophetical aspects of his 1980’s hit song “Blinded Me With Science,” an updated version of which he also treated the crowd to at his conclusion. He brought up the topic of non-linear music and how digital technology use was just scratching the surface on all of its randomization and combination potential. He also touched upon music applications for game formats and pioneering work being done with “hearables,” which he predicts will be the next producer trend going into 2020.
A special memorial tribute was held for pioneering UK engineer Geoff Emerick, best known for his work with The Beatles, who passed away on October 3rd at age 72.
Digital software company Waves had a very large display booth, showcasing their library of plug-ins created in conjunction with some of the top engineers in the music industry. A crowd gathered, and was held in rapt attention, at a symposium led by superstar engineers Chris Lord-Alge (Carrie Underwood, Bruce Springsteen, Madonna), Jack Joseph Puig (John Mayer, U2, Green Day), and Tony Maserati (Black Eyed Peas, Beyonce, Mary J. Blige).
Of particular interest for hip hop producers, were Tony Maserati’s tips on the use of compression and subtractive EQ, particularly when using samples and drum machines, such as the Roland 808, a much beloved drum machine for its signature kick drum sound on classic rap records. Other tips on the subject, from Chris Lord-Alge and Jack Joseph Puig, extended to how to get bass and drums to sit together in a mix, and different approaches to processing.
The human dynamic came to fore with Chris Lord-Alge’s advice about the business aspects of engineering, reminding the audience that the engineer’s opinions ultimately need to accede to the wishes of the client. He emphasized that in today’s environment, everyone expects to have copies of mix files sent to them, and that it was not uncommon for everyone involved with a project, even peripherally, to give directions. Lord-Alge’s advice emphasized the practical tactics for communication and acknowledging pecking orders that are instantly recognizable in most other hierarchical business structures. Some of these strategies included:
- Find a designated point of contact, if possible.
- Make a firm policy to keep all instructions in writing, via email. Never work from a verbal instruction on the phone, without a written one from the client.
- Include a copy of the client’s instructions, along with your own notes that check off each of the client’s requests, when sending a file with the mix changes, so there can be no equivocation or “forgotten” instructions.
The consensus among all three engineers, was that the excitement dimension that a mix gave to any given piece of music, or song, came from the emotional and creative spirit; the equipment was just the tool, and any gear at hand could be made to work. They ended the discussion with a request that every engineer in the audience take their tips and come back to make records to blow all three of them away – then, they would know that they have done their jobs correctly in passing on the skills, and more importantly, the art of creating that emotion through mixing.
Sound on Sound Magazine sponsored the Studio Project Expo series. Jack Joseph Puig spoke with a combination of passion, humor, and scholarly analysis on his love of compressors (he owns 97 different hardware and software compressors). Bringing multi-track files from some of his hit songs with John Mayer, he demonstrated how compression could be used to separate vocals to stand out in a mix, as well as how it could be used to unify individually recorded tracks for a more live band type of feel. He also spoke on the use of harmonics and dynamics to achieve depth, as opposed to relying on reverbs and delays.
Later in the day, a special symposium on High Resolution Record Production was hosted by music veterans Leslie Ann Jones and Chuck Ainlay. Ainlay, renowned for his work with George Strait, Miranda Lambert, and Mark Knopfler, among others, seemed a bit in awe of Jones, the daughter of legendary bandleader Spike Jones and a Surround Sound Grammy winning independent engineer/producer (Santana, Alice in Chains, Miles Davis, Kronos Quartet), who is presently Director of Music Recording and Scoring at Skywalker Ranch.
Jones and Ainlay, both advocates of 24-bit 96 kHz, or better, High-Resolution recording, went into considerable detail on the advantages of the format. The new industry standard archival value, the superior clarity when reduced to mp3, the higher CD price, and the better streaming quality audio for HD and high res formats, were all on their checklists for why independent producers and engineers should embrace it. Jones covered the development of technology that has led to the currently negligible differences between digital converters tested at Skywalker Ranch. Ainley discussed the advantages to mixing tracks recorded at 44.6 kHz along with other tracks recorded at 96 kHz, and both Jones and Ainley dispelled some of the earlier integer problems, and misconceptions, over mathematically doubling sampling rates in the past versus the ease of the format with current DAWs and equipment.
Mix With The Masters, a program based in France, and a combined educational workshop and experimental playground for students to learn from some of the top engineers in the music industry, had a fascinating series featuring Q&A sessions with some of their members. The theme of emotional content over equipment was a common one among the speakers.
Grammy Award winner Michael Brauer (Coldplay, John Mayer, David Gray) spoke at length on the mixing engineer’s job of bringing emotional impact to the record. Even when the music was not to the engineer’s taste, it was a responsibility of the job to reach into the “bag of tricks” to come up with a solution to make the music great. Even if the lyrics and melody were sub-par, an engineer can create magic with some element in the material to catch a listener’s attention. He cited Power Station’s Tony Bongiovi as once stating, “a whole song sucked, except for the hi hat.” He wound up cranking the hi hat up in the mix and processing it to immediately capture attention. That small, but crucial, difference made up for the other shortcomings to become a successful record.
Grammy Award winner Tchad Blake (Black Keys, Peter Gabriel, Sheryl Crow, Elvis Costello) demonstrated a combination of humility and irascible wit during his Q&A session. He emphasized that in spite of digital gear’s greater precision, bands seeking to replicate a particular sound from another record would almost never achieve it without copping the attitude behind the performance. Known for recording in unusual non-studio settings, he explained how the flexibility of using DAWs on laptops opened up other opportunities for creating unique performances when cutting tracks. One example he cited was when working with Neil and Tim Finn, of Crowded House, in Auckland. Blake miked and recorded the sound of ambient noise and traffic from the windows of their house, and ran it through a noise gate into the headphone cue mix. The gate was set for intermittent threshold trigger, so the ambient noise had a rhythm of its own that subtly altered the performances with different syncopations when recording the rhythm tracks.
The legendary Al Schmitt brought multi tracks from some of his favorite recordings, and offered anecdotes on the making of each. Some of the music included: the Peter Gunn tv show theme song; “Only You Know and I Know” from Delaney & Bonnie and Friends, featuring Eric Clapton; “Breezin’” by George Benson; and Toto’s “Rosanna” and “Africa.” Schmitt amusingly recalled the making of “Africa” with Jeff Porcaro playing the drum parts perfectly, then going back and extracting a 2-bar section and making a literal tape loop of it that had to be wrapped across mic stands for the final track with other drum parts overdubbed. His parting words of wisdom, delivered in a gruff rasp, was that, “no matter what an engineer thinks, it’s the artist whose name is on the front of the record, and if they’re lucky, the engineer’s name will get listed on the back.”
All of this was just on Day One, and did not even mention a discussion with Spinal Tap bassist Derek Small (Harry Shearer) on his new solo record and how it came about. With its finger firmly on the pulse of the future of recorded music and sound, AES looks to be in excellent position to oversee its direction as technology and aesthetics continue to evolve.