It’s never enough power

A couple of years ago I was shopping for a new audio interface for my studio and I wanted to get a pro sound. The big things are the mic pre-amps as well as the converters from analog to digital and back. I was looking at the Apogee units because they sound great.

And then Danny suggested the Universal Audio Apollo. The folks at UA have been building pro audio gear for a long time and they care deeply about quality. So the Apollo’s are well-built and sound terrific. They also have on-board processors that run plugins. So you can get an Apollo with four cores.

The UA plugins typically model older, expensive gear. Like I can get an emulation of a Fairchild compressor that weighs a ton and has a bunch of tubes that I’d never be able to afford or maintain in real life. And they sound amazing. And they take the load off of my poor Mac computer.

I’ve been taking Danny’s mixing and mastering course for the past few months and he teaches a style of using the UA stuff to color sounds. I can fatten things up, add warmth, and define my vibe with the UA plugins, which make my tracks sound way less digital / computer-y.

Then I do my clean, surgical edits using the new state-of-the-art plugins that run on the computer. Like the FabFilter stuff. So I mix and match. Old and new. Back and forth.

I shape my sounds and I take a huge load off of my computer, allowing it to focus on just part of the job.

And it turns out that four cores aren’t enough for the way I use the UA stuff. I just added an eight core Satellite. Now I’m running four cores of computer CPU plus twelve cores of Universal Audio DSP, so 16 cores total.

It’s almost enough. Almost.

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Oh, man, I heard “Boys of Summer” on the radio yesterday. One of my all-time faves. I was listening to “Style” by Taylor Swift and I think they were listening to “Boys of Summer” when they wrote it. Listen to the beginning of “Style” and tell me you don’t hear it.

Old drums

Last year I was accused of making a song with drums that sounded “too old.”

This is tricky stuff for me. I know that the answer is to reference the tracks I’m working on vs. current songs on the radio. The idea is to load up a song, zero in on just the snare hit for example, and play that against my own snare. And adjust my snare until it’s in the right ballpark.

Then repeat that process with the kick, the hats, etc.

This is kind of where the Supatheef name comes from. Plus I’ll also “borrow” arrangements and chord progressions from other songs.

It gets trickier with the synths because I don’t actually want my lead to sound exactly like someone else’s. Fortunately there’s no chance of that at the moment because I’m not good enough yet to completely replicate someone else’s sound (which is why I’m starting my synth programming lessons soon).

Saturation (judicious use of distortion) is also a big part of this game, and Danny points out that the pros are doing a ton of it.

I was reading somewhere that a lot of what makes things sound old or new is the combination of sounds. Most sounds have been used before, but there are new trends in how to mix and match them popping up all the time.

But sometimes I hear things in my head and I just go for it. And then I get accused of having “old drums.” I wish producing were easier, that it required less work. But then everyone would be doing it well lol.

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I’m bummed I missed Jamie Jones at WMC. I definitely want to catch his live set sometime.

Let’s talk about space

And by space I mean white space.

I’ve been mixing a band for my friend John. He did the recording in his studio, so there are a bunch of drum tracks, electric bass recorded direct (DI), guitar layers played through amps, and some vocal layers.

Mixing live drums is definitely a learning experience. Most of what I’ve done so far has been sampled drums played through sequencers (drum machines), with the ambience created through artificial reverb.

Live drums are messier. John gave me a stereo overhead pair, a mono room track, a mono close-mic kick track, and a mono close-mic snare track. This was actually a great first setup for me: a bunch of stuff to work with but not so complicated that it blew my mind. It’s certainly possible to record a bunch more drum tracks.

Things that make live drums interesting to work with are natural reverb and bleed. The sound of the room gets recorded along with the drums, so you don’t need to add as much (or sometimes any) artificial reverb. And the other drums bleed into the close-mics, so the kick track will also have the snare and hats. Which means it’s time to bust out the gate to focus on the kick.

But I actually want to talk about space.

This song is hard rock, and each of the players has chosen to be playing lots of fast stuff all the time. There’s no space. Which makes it a challenge to mix.

The band provided a Jack White track called “Lazaretto” as a reference. First of all, Jack White rocks hard. Plus his recordings sound amazing: you can hear the detail in each instrument. He’s just crazy good at making his music sound great.

He also leaves a lot of space. So it’s easier to mix. Each instrument has room to stretch its wings without competing with everything else.

My cousin Joe points out that ZZ Top does a great job of this. There are three of them playing, they rock hard, and they leave space for each other to be heard. I tend to discredit ZZ Top because they were on MTV when I was a kid, but it turns out they’re actually a terrific band. Who knew?