In 2008 Alex and his partner Amy set up Factory St Studios, a music hub in Bradford, England, with a spacious recording studio sporting a large format Calrec desk, tape machines, a selection of quality outboard as well as digital capability with Pro-tools and Cubase.
Over the years Alex has worked with many musicians of note including, Steve Cropper, Otis Grand, Kim Wilson, Ultrasound, Corrine Bailey Rae, The Somatics, The New Mastersounds, White Light Parade, The Whisky Priests, Geek, The Paul Middleton Band, The Heavens, Jasmine Kennedy and many more.
We left last time with the band set up and their headphone mixes up, now what am I going to listen to?
Well I could mute the desk and put the radio on, occasionally giving the band a thumbs up, but that probably wouldn’t get me the best result.
Lets look at the chain from the mic to the ears;
PFL, AFL and Solo
The first thing to consider is to listen to the preamp and make sure it’s not clipping; there are a few different methods in how types of audio desks approach this. On the Calrec there are AFL (After Fader Listen) buttons which, when depressed, override the control room mix and allow you to listen to the signal as it comes out the fader of that channel (pressing more than one sums them together so you could for example listen to the kick and the bass”soloed” to check for masking). The clever bit on this desk is if you pull the fader down towards you a switch is activated at the end of travel and that gives you PFL (Pre Fader Listen) allowing you to listen to the signal before the fader.
The groups also have this function so the desk can be listened to at all the stages of the signal path.
On some desks it might be called Solo and there may also be separate buttons for AFL and PFL.
What I listen for mostly, when isolating signals, is clipping; checking that things haven’t moved or stopped working, and when applying processing like compression and eq, to get a clear idea of the effect that it’s having before making adjustments in context.
I find it’s good practice to switch off soloed tracks as soon as you have finished with them, even with a flashing red light on my desk it’s easy to be caught out by one and have the “why can’t I hear anything?” moment, which is always good fun with the band standing behind you waiting for a playback of that great take they just did.
Where to send it
So when each individual channel is checked and sending the right level out, I will then chose where to send it to record. Often I’ll take the output of the channel straight to the track on the tape or an input on the converters or I’ll group it with other mics to create a sub-mix and record that, for example a couple of mics on a guitar amp or drums. This really depends on how many tracks I have available to record to and how certain I am that the sound I am grouping is the final sound I want to work with when mixing. It can be good to make confident decisions while tracking to speed up the mixing process. How many times have the drums sounded great on the monitor mix only to come to them in mixing and struggle with the balance?
The Monitor Mix
Having decided what tracks I’m sending where to record, I need a way of listening with the balance I want at any given moment. This poses a challenge because I want to avoid changing the level to tape and ideally monitor what’s coming back off the recording medium so I can check that there is not a problem with that, i.e. clipping converters or driving the tape too hard/not hard enough.
A modification I have made to my desk is a set of switches that route the tape sends/returns to a set of channels on the desk enabling me to set up a mix on channels 21-36 without patching anything in, so I’m then able to compare what I am sending to tape and what is coming back at the flick of a switch.
I’ll send this mix to my groups and then the master fader giving me a full compliment of eq, inserts, panning etc. on the monitor mix. This means I can start working on the final mix while I’m tracking without disturbing my multi-track sends, with the advantage that when the musicians come back into the control room to listen to a take, I can present them with a more polished playback. I have on occasion, when the band is tracking live, recorded a “live” mix alongside the multi-tracks which the band like and use as their release, saving them coming back to mix at a later date. This of course depends on accurate monitoring….
If we think about monitoring, what do we need it to tell us?
We can’t possibly listen to our mixes on every set of speakers in every listening environment in the world so we have to find a way to balance our music evenly and accurately.
The main things we are hoping for in our monitoring environment are;
We need to hear all the nuances in our recordings so we can catch any sounds we don’t want to be in the finished article but may show up on other detailed listening systems. Now I don’t believe in making recordings too “perfect”, for example if we take out the breathing of a singer between the lines it can sound very unnatural, in fact the breaths between lines can really add to the piece, “Play Dead” by Bjork being a good example of this. But we do need to hear it, to make a decision about keeping it in there.
In the live room there is potentially a lot of noise. If I want to be able to make clear decisions about what is actually being recorded, I need to be isolated from that and hear only what the control room monitors are telling me, so soundproofing is important.
My live room is only connected to the rest of the building with rubber and is “floating”. This prevents sound waves from being transferred through to the control room and influencing the engineering decisions, if I can hear the bass through the walls then I will turn the bass down in the monitors to compensate, and if I’m turning the bass down in the monitors then it is being turned down in the mix.
If my listening environment is not “flat” I will be likely to over compensate for any weak or strong frequencies, so in a room where there is a boost at 120hz then there will be a tendency to cut the eq there in your mix, then when you mix is played in another place your bass might be too quiet.
The two main contributing factors here are;
There are many choices in different types of monitor. As long as you can hear what is going on in detail and you know them well, you can mix on them.
Many people like specifically designed studio monitors, some use hifi speakers. A popular speaker for many years has been Yamaha NS10s. They have a prominent midrange and sound quite harsh, the theory being if you can make a mix sound good on them it will sound good on anything. I don’t subscribe to that. I want to enjoy listening to the music I mix. My favourite monitors are B&W Matrix 805 as I find they have plenty of fine detail, are fairly even and my mixes translate well from them.
The room you listen in can also have a dramatic effect on your mixes. It doesn’t matter how expensive your monitors are, if you can’t hear them at their best.
The subject of room treatment is worthy of several books in itself, but a few basic thoughts are;
Try and find symmetry in the room so you can have an accurate stereo image.
Tackle first reflections first. If you are sitting in your listening position get someone to hold a mirror against the wall and find the points where you can see your speaker, these are the “first reflection” points and likely candidates for treatment.
Corners can cause bass build up and trapping is often a good idea there.
It’s quite a simple matter to run some tests on your listening environment, even just playing tones and listening for any frequencies that particularly stand out can give you a starting point for further investigation.
The aim for me, when it comes to listening, is to always know that what I’m hearing is influenced only by my decisions and not subject to anything I’m unaware of. There are so many parts of the signal chain, it’s important to be able to isolate, identify and solve any problems that may crop up quickly and efficiently.
It’s worth remembering our minds can play tricks and the more familiar with our listening environment we are, the less likely we are to fool ourselves into thinking something sounds good when it doesn’t.