This fall, the Audio Engineering Society (AES) held its annual convention online because of COVID-19 restrictions. Ordinarily hosted at the gargantuan Javits Center in New York, this had the unforeseen benefit of actually making AES Fall 2020 easier to attend than in past years. This was primarily the result of not having to pick which concurrent live events to attend and which ones to miss, thanks to on-demand options. I felt AES Fall 2020’s premier event was unquestionably the video series “7 Audio Wonders of the World,” which offered virtual tours of iconic and historically crucial recording studios. My previous articles covered the first three: Skywalker Sound in Lucas Valley, CA; Galaxy Studios in Belgium; and The Village in West Los Angeles. But AES Fall 2020 was so large in scope, I will turn to other topics in this installment and review the remaining four studios in a separate article series.
In the meantime, other highlights of AES Fall 2020 included some fascinating symposiums on the challenges faced by professional producers and engineers who have created the records we’ve grown to love over the years; an inside look on the making of Jackson Browne’s Haitian collaboration: Let the Rhythm Lead: Haiti Song Summit Vol. 1; and an exploration into the latest reissues of classic synthesizers from the second half of the 20th Century from Moog, Roland and Korg. Also, some new avenues and encoding platforms for immersive audio remix capability, using Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” as a familiar example.
The Producers: From Melodies to Masters
Peter Doell of AES hosted a discussion with noted producers Jack Douglas (John Lennon, Aerosmith), Shelly Yakus (Tom Petty, Eurythmics, Alice Cooper), C.J. Vanston (Ringo Starr, Spinal Tap), and Eric Boulanger (Green Day, One Republic) on the challenges of producing records and working with artists in the current climate. Wonderful stories and insights about the making of some iconic recordings were retold with a mix of humor and awe. Some excerpts included the following:
Legendary producer Jack Douglas (John Lennon, Alice Cooper, Cheap Trick, Aerosmith and others) recalled how he got his start at Manhattan’s Record Plant East as a janitor and client. By day, he was an arranger for the ABC Afterschool Special TV show, and by night, he was an engineering apprentice whose job included janitorial duties.
He explained the process of producing John Lennon’s Double Fantasy, starting with a bunch of song snippets on a stack of cassettes, consisting solely of Lennon’s voice and an acoustic guitar or piano. Lennon was pessimistic about the songs’ potential and hired Douglas to choose the songs and assemble the band for the album. Douglas charted (arranged) the songs he selected and then hired the A-list band, which included bassist Tony Levin, guitarists Hugh McCracken and Earl Slick and drummer Jim Keltner, to rehearse at SIR Studios while keeping the identity of the artist a secret. The rehearsals were recorded and Lennon would listen to the playbacks and comment on any changes he wanted or areas that he wanted Douglas to pursue further. The band realized who the artist was when Douglas told them to report for final rehearsals at The Dakota on Central Park West. Douglas noted that Lennon kept a cassette recorder atop a Fender Rhodes electric piano at the doorway to his apartment and wrote the music for “(Just Like) Starting Over” during a rehearsal break.
Douglas told the story about how the music for Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way” created a lyric writing block for Steven Tyler that almost caused the song to be discarded. On a break, the band dejectedly went to Times Square to watch Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein. Marty Feldman’s Igor character uttered the phrase, “Walk this way…” and a pioneering rock song (later to become a rap/rock smash in collaboration with Run-DMC) was written later that evening.
In addition, panelist Shelly Yakus (Tom Petty, Ramones, U2, Lou Reed and many others) discussed his new online audio engineering and production mentoring and coaching platform. Eric Boulanger spoke of his recent projects with Diana Krall, Harry Connick, Jr. and Mandy Moore. Film composer C.J. Vanston talked about his work on Harry Shearer’s The Many Moods of Donald Trump, a spoof album featuring a 35-piece big band including the Snarky Puppy horns, with all the music recorded from remote locations.
The four producers shared and agreed on many other aspects of their craft. They stressed the importance of trying any idea that the artist conceives of, even when the producer doesn’t think it will work. It’s important for the artist not to feel adversarial in the creative process, which then can eliminate some self-doubt an artist may carry about a particular element in a song. Yakus suggested recording both a producer’s and an artist’s version of a song so that comparisons can be made more objectively later on. Vanston advised a “seven minute rule,” his opinion that any idea’s value can be assessed by most people within an average of seven minutes. Of course, indecision can also be arduous. They noted that Bob Seger often cut his instrumental tracks in three different musical keys before deciding on which key to use for his vocals.
Regarding technology: Having the ability to save infinite takes and make infinite sonic corrections is a wonderful tool, but all four producers agreed that it was important not to lose the feel and spirit of the performance, which contains the minute human variations, intangibles and even mistakes that allow a song to connect with listeners. On the other hand, Vanston noted that even using analog tape, Miles Davis “comped” his solos (assembled them from different takes). Douglas explained that the average listener doesn’t care about the process, they only care if the song speaks to them.
Platinum Producers Panel
Guitar Player magazine Editor-in-Chief Michael Molenda moderated a panel that included Julian Raymond (Fleetwood Mac, Cheap Trick), Fab Dupont (Shakira, Jennifer Lopez), and Ebonie Smith (The Roots, Sturgill Simpson) to give perspective on today’s record label demands, artist sensibilities, and the challenges for producers caught between the two.
On the topic of identifying a great song, the panel concurred that uniqueness was a key consideration. Artists often feel pressured to do their next project in the current trendy style. However, it is those artists with the courage to buck those trends that become breakout sensations, such as Billie Eilish, and they become successful because of their uniqueness, which is a quality that cannot be engineered.
They viewed the producer’s job as bringing something to the table that will add to that uniqueness factor. Raymond’s work with Jennifer Nettles of Sugarland and Cheap Trick, both of whom have a formula that has garnered huge fan bases, is predicated on bringing in a fresh twist to the music within the confines of those formulas.
The panelists talked about the art of diplomacy between the producer and the artist. Smith stressed that a final version of a song has to ultimately satisfy the artist to the point where they will be able to conjure the magic when they perform that song on stage, possibly for the rest of their careers. Thus, keeping all of the mix versions of a song for recall was essential.
Dupont pointed out that beat makers, who are essentially composers, like to refer to themselves as producers, hence creating confusion as to what the industry definition of a producer really is, which is to extract the essence of a song and put it into a format that will simultaneously satisfy an artist’s aesthetics and a record label’s commercial needs for radio, streaming and unit sales.
Dupont also cited how producers often do double time as therapists, since artists who emote in public through their work are inherently fragile psychically. Developing trust with a stubborn artist like David Crosby was essential in getting him to change microphones or to try using a horn section. He also pointed out that sometimes, the potential for getting a better-sounding record by replacing a band member has to be sacrificed for the sake of band morale, and the producer has to create a sonic workaround to compensate for the weaker but well-liked musician.
All three panelists marveled at the quality of today’s production tools and that badass music can now be made with a 10-year-old laptop and a $25 microphone – something unthinkable a decade ago.
“Superstition” and Immersive Audio
Brian Gibbs of AES presented an A/B comparison of a 360 Binaural Dolby Atmos vs. stereo mix of Stevie Wonder’s hit “Superstition.” Even on headphones, the depth effect from the immersive mix when compared to the original stereo recording was startling. He also explained the pros and cons of the different platforms that are currently available for producing immersive audio. These included: FB Spatial Audio, Hear 360, Pro Tools Ultimate, Dear VR, Dolby Production Suite, Logic, Nuendo, and Reaper 64-bit. Playback platforms currently supporting 360 Spatial Audio include YouTube, Facebook, Within, Oculus Rift, Samsung Gear VR, Amazon Music HD, Tidal, Deezer, and Nugs.net.
Technical Issues in Reissuing Classic Synthesizers
Dave Mash of Bar of 2 Productions interviewed engineers and product design specialists from Korg, Moog and Roland on the technical challenges posed in the reissue of classic ARP, Korg, Moog and Roland synthesizers. The sounds from these instruments have contributed to the bulk of popular music from the 1970s to the present.
Korg’s reissues include the ARP 2600, most famously showcased on Who’s Next, and Korg favorites like the MS-20, Mono/Poly and M1, used by Phil Collins, Deadmaus, Madonna and other artists.
Moog’s reissues feature a recreation of Keith Emerson’s groundbreaking modular Moog setup as well as the MiniMoog and Polymoog, the choices of artists such as Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Pink Floyd, Dr. Dre, and Bernie Worrell.
Roland’s reissue of their Jupiter and Juno synthesizers and the D-50 recreate the sounds of Duran Duran, Depeche Mode, Michael Jackson, Alicia Keys and many others.
One of the main problems faced by all three companies was the scarcity of vintage electronic components, many of which are no longer manufactured or have since been replaced by more efficient but different-sounding versions. Even if schematics of the original synthesizers are available, changes to accommodate contemporary demands, such as MIDI functionality and digital control of oscillators for pitch stability – features that did not exist when the synths were originally marketed – had created some interesting manufacturing choices.
Korg has opted for faithful-sounding versions of their ARP and Korg reissues with the addition of modern USB and MIDI interfaces, using original parts when possible and reverse-engineering circuitry and other components for those not currently available. Moog has gone completely retro and is recreating exact copies of their original analog units, down to their inherent flaws. Roland has gone the opposite way, using its Zencore technology to digitally model its originals, thus allowing the reissues to not only reproduce the sounds of yesteryear, but to also offer new sounds.
Let the Rhythm Lead
Taking a page from Paul Simon’s landmark Graceland album, Jackson Browne has collaborated with a mix of World Beat and US artists like Paul Beaubrun, Habib Koite, Paul Rodriguez, Jenny Lewis and others to make an album to benefit Artists For Peace and Justice, a non-profit group that has built a school for audio/video production in Haiti. Recording in the school, they incorporated many aspects of local culture rhythms, melodies, and performance into the record, Let the Rhythm Lead: Haiti Song Summit Vol. 1, which was released earlier this year.
The project included donations of equipment from Browne to the school, and this equipment was used on the recording. The experience allowed for the Haitian students to learn analog signal chains and sophisticated mic techniques. Browne, Lewis, Beaubrun and multi-instrumentalist Jonathan Wilson also discussed the genesis of several of the songs from the record with Grammy Museum host and moderator Scott Goldman.
Platinum Engineers Panel
How fitting that the Audio Engineering Society should feature a panel of some of the industry’s finest engineers to discuss their craft and art! Moderated by Grammy Award-winner veteran Jimmy Douglass (Timbaland, Foreigner, Justin Timberlake), the panel included the legendary Tony Visconti (David Bowie, T. Rex, Paul McCartney) (featured in Copper #96 and #97), Russell Elevado (D’Angelo, Mark Ronson, Jay-Z), Joe Zook (U2, Pink, One Republic) , and Marcella Araica (Usher, Missy Elliot, Madonna).
All of the panelists shared how they got their professional starts and how the industry has changed over the years, both in practice and in technology. Here’s an outline of some of these changes:
- The evolution of Digital Audio Workstation (DAW)-based recording, and how the shift from analog tape to DAW has changed, from requiring two separate engineers for each to now making both skill sets essential for work in modern studios. Visconti and Douglass recalled when now-defunct tape-to-computer sync devices like the Psion were crucial during the infancy days of Pro Tools, now the industry-standard DAW.
- How plug-ins (software emulations of hardware processors) have drastically improved in some ways and why outboard gear is still superior in other instances.
- The trend towards using samples and effects sounds, and how they have reduced actual playing of instruments in contemporary recordings.
- The return of mixing dynamics after years of the loudness wars’ hyper compression.
- The trend towards artists reducing their involvement in the mixing process over the past 10 years and focusing more on social media, videos, and live performances.
- The trend towards artists’ reliance on Auto-Tune and in flying disparate elements into a demo to make a record, as opposed to being “start to finish” artists who can do actual, complete vocal and instrumental performances.
- How the rising demand for expeditious recall of alternate mixes and stems (stereo recordings made from mixes of multiple tracks) has forced an increase in “mixing in the box” vs. using mixing desks.
- Why monitoring on something as tiny as iPhone and laptop speakers (in addition to using traditional large studio speakers) is crucial for creating modern mixes, as a good deal of listening is done on such devices.
- Adapting mixes for different digital conversion systems in streaming platforms, such as Spotify or Amazon HD, as each have different digital to analog algorithms, which can affect sound quality.
- The lack of production and especially engineering credits on streaming platforms, unlike with CDs or vinyl LPs.
- How streaming platform playlists have ostensibly killed the album.
- The trend towards less instrument density, more sonic space and more bottom end in mixes.
- How a significant portion of “modern mixing” has actually become the process of fixing distortion and off-axis sounds, due to inexperience in setting aspects like the recording’s resolution (96 kHz, 44.1 kHz or MP3), poor mic technique, and other amateur mistakes from artists attempting to self-engineer in their bedrooms.
Always fascinating, educational and entertaining, AES Fall 2020 was an unequivocal success and tangible evidence of how engineering innovation continues to resolve the most daunting obstacles.