Having started working in small local studios from the age of 16, being the next Michael Brauer or CLA (Chris Lord-Alge) was always my dream.
Touring was something I was never interested in – having 20 minutes to scrape a mix out of substandard speakers in a terrible room, with whatever crappy broken mics and control gear that the venue had scraped together 20 years ago was never an attractive prospect. After sessions in the studio I was often asked to go out and mix the band live, which I politely declined until the studio side of things started to slow up a little.
The rise of the bedroom producer, and the subsequent fall in expectations as upcoming bands valued saving money over quality of product, plus the novelty of being able to make your own records resulted in a lack of demand for professional recording studios. Thankfully nowadays this is starting to turn around and even after the sad loss of some of the big iconic studios, the remaining ones are still going strong, and as a result of the past dip in studio requirements, things like used large-format consoles – usually way out of mid-sized studios' budgets – are becoming more affordable and some really interesting studios are starting to pop up.
Whilst out on the road I have spent the last year planning and building a recording studio
(www.facebook.com/thevegasrooms), not so much as a business, but a way for me to fall back in love with mixing and relearn techniques. You often hear that “studio guys can't mix live” and vice versa, but personally I think this is a myth, and that both skills perfectly compliment each other. Whilst on tour I’ve just about kept up with my studio work, as ever-hungry social media demands keep me in work mixing live records and B-sides. I always find going back into the studio with a multitrack of your touring band to be a really interesting activity, as you hear your artist in a totally different way and you get to reassess what you do in a live context, but in a much more controlled environment.
In a live setting learning your artist inside out is imperative; in a festival situation you have to be able to walk up to a console and know your EQs, compression settings and FX. I always try to build my showfiles, or prep my desk so come line check I just need to dial in gains and thresholds. This highlights the main difference between live and studio for me.
Live is working out the quickest, most direct, and easiest way to make your band sound great. This means building a mic package, line system, maybe FOH FX rack around that particular way of working and then repeat for six weeks, or two months, or however long the tour is. Consistency is the key word. Everybody on your crew from FOH, systems tech, to backline tech are there to consistently reproduce the 'product' night after night.
When we step into the recording studio all this changes, and it becomes about experimentation, taking our time trying many different snare drums, guitar amps, mics, pre amps; time is not the issue anymore, the main aim is for audio quality to the highest degree. Mic choice and placement becomes about sound and capturing the exact energy, rather than stage noise rejection, handling noise or durability. We add the luxury of hearing the room and being able to distance mic sources, hearing things in a whole new way. Instead of working constantly with one or a small group of artists, in the studio we encounter all kinds of different bands, which in turn makes us try different things, and rethink what we do.
Having spent the last five years almost constantly on the road, and having developed my live skills to a point where with all my artists I can create a mix I'm happy with in the right amount of time, making sure that when my artist walks out onto a festival stage, the mix is there from the off, and I spend the shortest amount of time fine tuning it, freeing me up to actually 'mix' the show, rather then hacking and fighting to pull it all together, only to get to a point where I'm finally happy as the band announces their last song. I thought after these five years that it was the right time to return to the studio and spend time revisiting and rethinking.
Due to the time constraints that live engineering puts on us, you develop your way of thinking and get set in a workflow that gives you 'your sound'. While this is the aim and is ultimately what gets us the work, I feel that I got stuck in mine and wanted to put myself back in an environment where time is no longer an issue and I can experiment again. I wanted to look at things and see if I'm missing something, and look at fine tuning my approach, or maybe even adopt a complete new way of doing things.
I'm all too aware of the downsides of dialling in a mix from sight rather then sound, and that by doing certain things we could actually be causing issues for ourselves, and that certain frequency you normally take out could actually on this system be what you need to fill a certain gap, or that the compression you normally use on your bass guitar could actually be detracting from the power in your mix in this particular room etc. I think that spending time really going back and studying our science from the source really helps us, and enables us to better make these educated guesses in live situations when time is of the essence.
I mean really go back to basics and think from the ground up! Big things for me were really simple, like spending a proper amount of time listening to how mic placement on guitar cabs yields different results depending on different tones. Another was finding the right compression settings that best compliments and works musically with the signal, as well as just making it sit in the right place in the mix, using compression in a musical sense as well as a utility sense. Both of these things are practices that we learnt at the very start of our engineering career, but things that I feel get pushed aside in the field sometimes. Another big thing was having time to find the right processing chain and FX tailored exactly to your particular vocalist, something you cant ever do in a noisy soundcheck; plus most frontmen don't appreciate being asked to talk down a mic for 20 minutes.
I installed an IDR16 mix rack in my studio with an M-Dante card, so I can track all my bands live via post preamp direct outs through the M-Dante card. This enables me to go back in my studio, stream the audio back into the IDR rack through the Dante card, and have an unlimited virtual soundcheck. Since having the luxury to do this I have noticed everything in my live mixes feels that much more controlled, and there is a depth and detail in clarity that wasn't there before. In tailoring my mix to the exact artist rather then to the equipment I'm using, things definitely reach a new level. With most live consoles now supporting various plug-ins, and digital technology opening up such a wide range of processing options, there is such a huge scope to create real signature sounds, but in a world where budgets are becoming less and less, and pre production rehearsals are becoming fewer, having time to audition these in depth and making sure you are using the correct processing is becoming few and far between.
At the moment I'm on a US tour with Fozzy, doing a variety of radio festivals, Buckcherry supports, and headline shows. I'm currently somewhere in the state of Ohio hiding on the tour bus as tornado warning sirens sound, with my little GLD-80 console in front of me on the table in the lounge, piping last night's show back into the console so I can edit my snapshots, which include different FX patches, varying snare drum sounds, and dynamic EQ settings to best suit Chris’ vocal to the individual song. It really is amazing that technology allows us to do this; dragging an XL4 in the lounge of the tour bus, you might risk pissing a few people off.
In closing, I guess my point is that as the technology and processes involved in live and studio mixing become ever closer, by embracing the two skill sets we can use them to improve and enhance what we do, whichever side of the fence we are on. I'm sure many of you have been reading this thinking that listening to mic placement etc. is such an obvious thing, but then ask yourself, when was the last time you challenged yourself, and maybe changed things up? Make an effort to get to know all the sources coming off the stage and make sure you know all the details, especially the ones that you may miss in the live setting.
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