I’m passionate about certain things. Here are some, in no particular order.
Ruminating on the evolution of the recording engineer over the last 40 years (I was asked to do this for the
“Platinum Engineers” panel at the 2016 AESconvention). When I started out in an analog tape based world, a studio was an expensive and exotic place, only available to those that had a recording contract (or a lot of money). If you had a recording contract, then chances are you were a good artist with good songs. At least there was a bar you had to get over (getting a record deal) to be able to get into a studio. At that time the hurdle was to get a killer “sound” for the artist (especially drums!). That’s where engineering skill was very important. Engineering was an exotic art, only learned by having the tenacity to get your foot in the door (of a limited amount of studios), learn your lessons and “pay your dues” until you were given the opportunity to sit down behind the board.
Fast forward to today. Anyone can make an album at home. Anyone can get great sounds using plug ins and samples, and engineering skills that can be learned online. If you pay attention and reference your work to what else is out there you can even make an decent sounding mix. So now being an engineer is not so important. What is important is understanding good song structure, good lyrics and production that gets the emotion of the song across to listeners- without any distractions. This is the “exotic” art is now. Some artists get this intuitively, but it’s also good to have the guidance of those that have had experience in making successful records. This is what I’m concentrating on these days. (A good example is the
newSheltersalbum that I co-produced with Tom Petty along with the two songwriters in the band, Chase Simpson and Josh Jové.) In the end, what sets apart the great artists from the not-so-great artists is the quality of the songs, and the emotion that they are able to convey through the music.
Working with bands and artists to make their music more direct, honest and powerful. I’ve learned from working with some great producers over the years to keep it simple and stay focused: Is your performance as good as your song? Is your song as good as your performance? Do we really need this part? Do we actually need something else? Is that effect helping or getting in the way? It’s always about serving the song and communicating artistic intent as clearly as possible.
Mining an artist’s vault for “buried treasure”. Buried Treasure was the name of Tom Petty’s weekly Sirius/XM radio show, and that’s exactly what we found when we auditioned over 5000 songs to chose the 62 that ended up on the Live Anthology. Developing a methodology to research, transfer, audition, mix and master this massive amount of material was a real challenge—and a lot of fun! I’m interested in more “mining” projects. I know there are many great artists with a lot of material to be discovered and released to their fans. We also just finished mixing and mastering several unreleased tracks from Tom’s 1994 “Wildflowers” album. Stay tuned for that!
Mixing live recordings. I’ve really gotten to enjoy mixing live tracks. Of course, with the projects I’ve been working on, I’m spoiled. Having said that, I’ve developed a philosophy about creating a “sense of place” for listeners –allowing them to suspend disbelief and feel like they are at the real show. There are certain techniques that make a mix of a live performance feel more “live”—and it isn’t just how loud the audience is!
For live video projects I’ll also slightly alter the mix based on what’s on screen. For example: tambourine isn’t usually very prominent in a full mix, but if it’s in a close-up, then you’ll need more to make the shot feel right. (Butnot too much! Nobody likes too much tambourine—except maybe the person who played it.)
Fighting against over-loud, peak limited music. I believe listening to music should be pleasurable, not excruciating! I want a snare drum to sound like a real drum, not a piece of paper. I want to hear a bit of air around the instruments, not a wall of mush that has no dynamics left. There is a way to make music “loud” enough to live in today’s world without taking the life out of it. You have to work a little harder, but the results are worth it.
Providing a high-resolution digital audio option. People at home should be able to hear the same quality of audio that we hear in the studio. I have advocated for providing high-resolution 24bit 48K or 96K audio with full dynamic range (no peak limiting) whenever possible. Since 2009 we’ve made hi-res audio available for all the Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers releases, either through FLAC downloads or Blu-Ray audio discs. Hearing is believing. There’s nothing better than turning high-resolution music up and feeling the love!
Promoting surround audio. As of July 2016, 41 percent of U.S. households owned a “surround sound” home theater system. Now, with Amazon’s Echo Studio speaker, there is even more opportunities for a mass audience to hear immersive audio. Tom Petty was always supportive of this by putting several of his albums out in Blu-Ray audio, with both high resolution stereo and 5.1 mixes. Now, with Dolby Atmos, Universal and Warner Music’s support we have an an opportunity for many more people to have a deeper musical experience. I hope it catches on. Hearing is believing!
Being smart about digital audio. I learned my trade on analog tape. We all were very comfortable analog and it’s “warm” sound. When digital came in, it had a way of sounding harsh and thin. Some of it was due to the early equipment, but mostly it was due to engineers that were eq’ing and mixing with the same techniques they had learned from analog. While analog softens whatever you do, digital hardens it. The lesson is to make sure you are using your ears, not falling back on old techniques. My advice is to get the sound as warm as it can be before you digitize it. Classic mics, mic preamps and little or no EQ goes a long way.
Using Pro Tools to keep performances fresh –not sanitized. Many would agree that Pro Tools has allowed people to over-edit and take the life out of music. Sadly, in some cases this is true—but like everything in life: “your actual mileage may vary”. I prefer to use Pro Tools in a way that preserves the excitement of an early take, by fixing the kind of problem that would normally make the band want to do a retake, and potentially lose energy by overplaying a song. “Keep on sailing right past that train wreck guys”, it’s easy for me to fix it with Pro Tools. “Vibe”, on the other hand, is priceless.
Preserving digital multitracks and mixes for the future. Given the lack of standards for archiving album projects these days, I’m concerned that the music industry will have thousands of albums produced since the digital era began in the ‘90‘s that will not be able to be recovered. For example, even if engineers are lucky enough to recover the digital data off an antiquated tape backup drive, they are then faced with the challenge of opening an older Pro Tools session, on a current computer, and hoping to find all the right plug ins and audio files to have it play back successfully.
And what about the master digital mixes? Not the “mastered” CD, but the mixes that were used as the “source” at the mastering session (like analog 2 tracks used to be). Is it clear where to find them and are they clearly labeled? This is usually left up to the engineer, or assistant engineer who made the album. Some have their act together and some don’t. Unless proper after-completion archiving is standardized, and accounted for in project budgets beforehand, we run the risk of not being able to access something very valuable in the future: the multitrack masters and the stereo mixes.
Working with talented, sane people. Enough said ;-)