Monthly Archives: June 2016

June 30, 2016

When People Literally See Music

music scoreWhat would you do if all of a sudden you began to “see” notes, staffs, clefs and a musical score pop up in front of you during the course of your every day life? Believe it or not, more people than you think have these types of music-oriented hallucinations where they see music scores whiz by. It happens randomly and isn’t imagined, it just happens.

In a new study reported in Brain: A Journal of Neurology, Oliver Sachs describes these musical hallucinations, which apparently are brought on by a number of factors that have to do with decreased eyesight. Macular degeneration, Parkinson’s disease, partial blindness and even an intense fever can trigger the phenomena, but it’s totally random and isn’t necessarily tied to actually listening to music. It also just as likely to happen to people who can’t read a note as it is with musicians, and is more likely to happen with older people, although the phenomena is spread across demographic groups and ages.

What’s particularly interesting is the fact that some of the people in the study were musicians who actually tried to play the music they were seeing, yet were unable to. The notes came too fast and the score was too complex and “ornamented.” As a result, not only has that ground-breaking score not resulted, but not even a single new music composition has come of it yet.

Although the study didn’t attempt to find the place in the brain where the musical score is triggered, Sachs suspects that it’s in the back of the right hemisphere, a place that is normally responsible for recognizing faces.

One part that was interesting was the fact that some of the participants had corrective eye surgery during the course of the study. They found that their musical hallucinations receded as their eyesight improved. It’s just another interesting fact about music and the brain.

7 Traits Of A Great Assistant Engineer

Great Assistant EngineerYou may never work in a studio that has an assistant engineer, and if you own your own gear, you may never be one yourself, but it’s good to find out what an assistant in a major facility like the Record Plant, Capitol, Oceanway or Avatar really needs to know. These 7 tips are excerpted from my Recording Engineer’s Handbook, and many come from the legendary Al Schmitt (who’s won more Grammy’s than any other engineer). They will help you understand what’s expected of an assistant and how to run a professional session, regardless of the level that your on.

1. Good assistants are well-versed in Pro Tools. There are a lot of great DAWs available, but as of the writing of this book, Pro Tools was the standard in every major recording and post studio in the US. Most assistants will also be in charge of running the DAW, and they are better at it than everyone else in the session.

2. Good personal hygiene is a must. No one likes to be in a room with someone who has body oder or bad breath, and artists and producers won’t put up with it. Take a bath, put on clean clothes every day and keep the breath mints handy if you want to keep your job.

3. Good assistants are transparent. When you need them, they’re there; when they’re not needed, they’re in the background. A good assistant is always seen but not heard. He never offers an opinion even when asked. He always has a great attitude and leaves his ego at the door.

4. Good assistants admit mistakes. If you make a mistake, admit it as soon as possible. You may have to take your lumps, but we’ll fix it and move on.

5. Good assistants don’t guess. If someone asks you something that you don’t know, be honest and don’t guess. There are plenty of ways to find something out in a hurry if you don’t know right now.

6. Good assistants keep a notebook. They keep track of all the details of the session, from the setup to the players to the mics used to which songs were recorded in what order, to everything else. It’s a great learning tool, but it may also come in handy later in the project, or the next one.

7. Good assistants know how to make coffee. Coffee is still the fuel that powers a recording session. The better the coffee, the happier everyone will be.

If an assistant engineer exhibits the above traits, it’s likely that they won’t stay an assistant for long if they work hard and have the right attitude. Are there any traits that I missed?

You can read more from The Recording Engineer’s Handbook and my other books on the excerpt section of

June 28, 2016

Sound Designer Diego Stocco On My Latest Inner Circle Podcast

Diego StoccoMy guest this week on my Inner Circle Podcast is sound designer and composer Diego Stocco.

Diego’s not only worked on movies like Takers and Sherlock Holmes, television shows like The Tudors and Moonlight. and video games like Assassin’s Creed, but he’s also one of the people behind the great sounds on the Korg Z1, and Spectrasonics Atmosphere, Omnisphere and Trillian.

This is a guy who hears music in ordinary objects around us, and as a result he’s used both a tree and a burning piano in his pieces, as well as created his own instruments.

In the intro I’ll talk about the DMCA and why both label and music artists want it changed, and the fact that another iconic New York City recording studio is about to bite the dust.

You can listen to it at, or via iTunesStitcher, Mixcloud or Google Play.

You can also hear both Diego and myself on the AudioNowcast podcast, now celebrating it’s 10th year.

Another Iconic New York City Studio To Close

MSR Studio ABig studio facilities in large cities are very difficult to maintain, considering that real estate prices have skyrocketed and studio prices have plateaued in recent years. That’s why it’s no surprise that another of iconic New York City studio is about to close its doors. Manhattan Sound Recording (or MSR as it’s known) is shutting down as of later this week, but the reason for the closure isn’t what you might think.

Generally, when a large studio facility shutters it’s because the real estate has become too pricey or valuable and the amount of business or income generated from it isn’t sufficient to keep the doors open, but MSR is a completely different situation. The studio, which at one time was known as Right Track, is located directly in the heart of the city on 48th Street near Times Square, which has been a hotbed of construction for quite some time, and that’s been the problem. With the construction of a 50 story hotel next door going as late as 11PM at night, the noise became just too much to contend with. To top that off, another building is also scheduled for construction nearby that would last another 3 years.

The studio has been used by a variety of music superstars, including Beyonce, Madonna, Metallica, Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, Elton John, Phil Collins, and many more, but it’s close proximity to the Broadway theaters and it’s large tracking room made it a favorite for Broadway soundtrack albums as well. Of course, actors are only free during the day, but if you can’t record because of the noise from construction, that pretty much means you go elsewhere.

MSR might resurrect at another location, however. After the studio is decommissioned (which could take quite a bit of time), owner Dave Amlen looks to open elsewhere, although it’s possible that the studio might have a new name.

That said, with 14,000 square feet, MSR was one of the largest facilities in NYC, and it’s demise will definitely mean that there will be a limited number of studios in the city left that can handle a large Broadway-style tracking date.

New Music Gear Monday: Undertone Audio Vari-Cap Cable

UTA Vari-Cap CableI’m always surprised when I change something as simple as a cable and the sound lights up. That’s because there’s much more to cables that you’d ever think (check out my interview with Larry Smith from Wireworld Cable Technology for a great explanation between the differences in cables). The one thing that most guitar players aren’t used to though, is being able to directly change the tone of their instrument via the cable, and that’s just what the Undertone Audio Vari-Cap cable does.

The UTA Vari-Cap cable allows the guitar player to vary the amount of capacitance of the cable to produce a much wider variation in sound than you would ever expect. Basically you’re tuning the inductance of the pickups of the instrument and the capacitance of the cable to make a tuned bandpass filter, with generally surprising results. The cable has a small box at one end with a 15 position switch that adjusts the capacitance from 150 pF to 1,650 pF in 100 pF steps.

For many guitarists and engineers, it’s easier to just adjust the tone control on the instrument or amp, but the Vari-Cap does give you a different way to adjust the EQ to produce results that you won’t necessarily be able to duplicate with EQ alone. Although the changes are subtle from selection to selection, it’s pretty dramatic between position 1 and 15.

There’s not a lot of info about Vari-Cap cable itself on the UTA website. It does say that the connectors are made by Neutrik, but it doesn’t say how long the cable is (it looks like around 10 feet). That said, the price is $99.95. That seems pretty expensive for a guitar cable, but there are many high-end cables that cost twice this much and more, yet won’t give you the same amount of control.

Check out the UTA website for more information and some good explanatory videos, although the one below tells you pretty much all you need to know.

The Four Tops “Baby I Need Your Lovin'” Instrumental Track

4 Tops -baby-need-your-lovingOne of the best things about listening to an isolated or instrumental track of a hit is hearing how intricately designed the arrangement is. Such is the case with The Four Tops version of “Baby, I Need Your Lovin,'” played by the Motown studio band The Funk Brothers. There’s a lot going on within the track that you don’t hear until the lead vocal is muted, as you’ll hear below. Here’s what to listen for.

1. The dynamics of the track are outstanding. Listen to how the band backs off the intensity during the verses. Sometimes this is done by just eliminating some arrangement elements (which also happens here), but in this case you can actually feel the band holding back a little to leave room for the vocal. It’s a classic example of how it’s done.

2. Listen to how important the finger snaps are, as they act as the backbone of the song. This is actually brilliant in that they replace the snare with a softer sound that better fits the arrangement.

3. Take notice how the brass provides a quiet counterpoint to the guitar on the right side during the verse.

4. The song was cut in the early days of stereo, so the panning is interesting. The drums, bass and piano are on the left side, while the guitar, horns and strings are on the right.

5. This is one of the few Motown songs where the bass isn’t featured. In fact, it blends into the track so well that the notes are difficult to distinguish. It also sounds like an upright rather than the standard Precision bass used on most of the label’s hits.

6. The band is made up of the best jazz players in Detroit, but yet they play ver disciplined parts, which isn’t easy for fluid players with a lot of technique. Like The Wrecking Crew from LA, these guys knew how to make a track work.

It’s always a pleasure to hear an instrumental track of a big hit, and “Baby, I Need Your Lovin'” is no exception. We get an X-ray view inside a great arrangement.

My 10 Go-To Plugins

10 Go0To PluginsI often get asked what plugins I regularly use, and even though I like to think that I’m pretty open minded about it, there are some that I keep coming back to. Here are my 10 go-to plugins, with a number of honorable mentions, in no particular order (even though they’re numbered).

1. Universal Audio 1176 – In my opinion, there’s never been a more versatile compressor created, either hardware or software. I’ll use it on drums, room, keys, guitars, bass, vocals – almost anything actually.

2. Universal Audio dbx 160 – Another favorite emulation, it gets used mostly on kick and snare, where it shines for the controlled punch it provides. Be sure to use a low compression ratio of 2:1 or even less.

3. Waves Schepes 1073 – What a fantastically versatile EQ! It’s also one of the few where I even use the presets and they work well (great job, Andrew!). I especially love it on kick and snare, but it will work everywhere else as well.

4. Universal Audio Maag EQ4 – I just love the Air band, which brings out the presence of almost any mic. Stick this sucker on a vocal and you’ll make that cheapie mic sound closer to a C12 than you might have imagined.

5. Exponential Audio PhoenixVerb – I loved the sound of the old Lexicon reverbs, and the PhoenixVerb has all that and more (company owner Michael Carnes spent 25 years working for Lexicon).

6. PSP Vintage Warmer – I use this on the mix buss of every mix. It just makes everything sound better, even without using too much of it.

7. PSP 2445 Reverb – One of my new favorites, it’s kind of a one-trick-pony reverb in that there’s not a lot of different algorithms to choose from, but that one trick always sounds great. The shortest decay settings are excellent.

8. Universal Audio SSL Buss Compressor – Once again, this is one that’s on the mix buss of virtually every mix I do. I’ve tried other plugins, but always come back to the SSL.

9. Universal Audio LA3 – For some reason, this is just the ideal electric guitar compressor. It even makes highly distorted guitars sound better.

10. Pro Tools Native 7 Band EQ – I use this more than just about anything, sometimes just to finish off the sound after another EQ was already applied. The good thing is that since it’s native, you can use a ton of them without eating up much computer processing power.

Honorable Mention:

JST Finality – This is quickly finding it’s way into my top 10. Sound wonderful on kick, but I’m still finding other uses for it.

Universal Audio LA2A – I use this a lot of hat and vocal (usually in conjunction with an 1176).

PSP L’Rotary – This is the best Leslie speaker emulator ever, in my opinion. You won’t need this on every mix, but when you do, it always works.

Soundtoys Microshift – Whenever I need a Harmonizer sound, this is what I turn to. It’s one sound that just can’t gotten any other way.

I know the list leans heavily towards Universal Audio, but I’m can’t deny that I’m a big fan. The list of honorable mentions could have also gone on quite a bit longer, but then I would’ve been getting into plugs that I don’t use as regularly. Anyway, now you know what I use as go-to plugins, but keep in mind that if you check back in 6 months, the list may be completely revised.

Mixing An Orchestra With Don Hahn

Mixing An OrchestraAlthough there’s a lot of pretty good engineers around these days, not many have the ability to record a 45 to 100 piece orchestra with the ease of someone who’s done it a thousand times. Don Hahn can and that’s because he actually has done it a thousand times. With an unbelievable list of credits that range from television series (like Star Trek The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine and Voyager), to such legends as Count Basie, Barbra Streisand, Chet Atkins, Frank Sinatra, Herb Alpert, Woody Herman, Dionne Warwick and a host of others (actually 10 pages more), Don has recorded the best of the best. Starting in New York City in 1959 and eventually becoming a VP at Phil Ramone’s famed A&R Studios there, then later at Hollywood’s A&M Studios, Don has seen it all and then some. Don’s retired now but his orchestral technique is still the model to emulate, so here’s an excerpt from the latest edition of my Mixing Engineer’s Handbook that illustrates how he did it.

“How is your approach for mixing an orchestra different from when you mix something with a rhythm section?
Don Hahn: The approach is totally different because there’s no rhythm section so you shoot for a nice roomy orchestral sound and get it as big as you can get with the amount of musicians you have. You start with violins, then violas if you have them, cellos then basses. You get all that happening and then add woodwinds, French horns, trombones, trumpets and then percussion and synthesizers.

What happens when you have a rhythm section?
Then the rhythm section starts first. Any time I do a rhythm section, it’s like constructing a building. That’s your foundation. If you don’t build a foundation, the building falls down. I like to shoot for a tight rhythm section, that’s not too roomy. I think that comes from all the big bands that I did; Woody Herman, Count Basie, Thad and Mel, Maynard Ferguson.

Are you building from the drums or the bass first?
The bass is always first. Everybody relates to the bass. I can remember doing records in New York and some of the producers would put paper over the meters. I told them I don’t care, just let me get the bass and I’ll balance the whole thing and it’ll come out okay. The only time I can get screwed personally on any date with a rhythm section is if the bass player’s late. There’s nothing to relate to because everybody relates to the bass player. If he’s not there, it doesn’t work. Now orchestrally, the bass players can be late and it doesn’t matter because I’m balancing all the other strings and then adding brass and the percussion last. But on a record date with a rhythm section, it’s the bass player and the drummer that’s the foundation and the colors come from the keyboards and the guitars.

Are you worried about leakage?
No, I try to get the least amount of leakage with as much room as I can. On Streisand, we put the bass player and the drummer in one section of the room with some gobos around, she was in her own booth, three other singers were in another booth, and the whole rest of the studio was filled with great musicians.

How has recording and mixing changed over the years?
Well, just for some perspective, when I started there was no Fender bass and one track only, with no computers or click tracks. Every date used acoustic bass. There was no synthesizer. Bob Moog used to come up to the studio sometimes with his synthesizer that he was working on. It was like 15 feet wide with big old telephone patch cords and tubes and have us comment on his sounds.

I think some of the problems you have now is the younger guys don’t go into the studio and listen. You must listen to what’s going on in the studio. Don’t just go into a control room, open faders and grab EQ’s. As an engineer you’re supposed to make it sound in the control room like it sounds in the studio, only better. You must listen in the room and hear what it sounds like, especially on acoustic or orchestral dates, and not be afraid to ask composers. Your composers, and especially the musicians, are your best friends because whatever they do reflects on what you’re doing. If they’re not happy, you’re not happy. Remember, the music comes first.”

You can read more from The Mixing Engineer’s Handbook and my other books on the excerpt section of

June 21, 2016

Auratone’s Alex Jacobsen On This Week’s Inner Circle Podcast

Alex_JacobsenThe little Auratone sound cube monitors were once found in just about every studio in the world, but they just about fell off the map after the passing of company founder Jack Wilson.

Today Jack’s grandson Alex Jacobsen has relaunched Auratone, and he’s my guest on this week’s podcast. Alex has a great story about the history of Auratone, how they’ve changed over the years, and how he’s bringing the company back to prominence once again.

In the intro I’ll talk about how we’re spending less time on social media and more on messaging, and I’ll provide an overview of a couple of cool online services – Jukedeck and the Fender Mod Shop.

You can listen to it at, or via iTunesStitcher, Mixcloud or Google Play.

Creating Sound Effects Via Algorithm

Sound Effects Via AlgorithmI have great respect for sound designers in that they not only have to create effects that not only sound totally real but, in many cases, better than real. That last part is the key that will continue to keep them working despite a new algorithm from some MIT researchers that can independently add realistic sound effects to silent videos.

The researchers from MITCSAIL used artificial intelligence to enable a computer to learn the movements and surfaces occurring in a video and insert the appropriate sound effects. As you can see from the video below, the results are impressive.

The computer associates what it sees in the video with the appropriate sound from a database, then inserts it as needed. That should send a chill down a few sound designer’s spines.

In order to prove that the method was effective, the researchers did an A/B test on a on a number of test subjects. They showed one video that had the sound effects inserted using normal foley techniques and the other using the algorithm. In most cases, the test subjects failed to notice a difference between the two, and in some cases even preferred the one generated by the algorithm.

If you’re a sound designer reading this and fearing for your job, you needn’t be worried – yet. Although the algorithm shows promise, it has a long way to go. It’s only useful for very short clips as it tends to misfire on longer ones and play sounds at the wrong times, and it’s dependent on the sound library that it has available.

These problems will no doubt be worked out as development continues, but remember, only a sound designer good judgement can make something sound “better than live,” and judgement isn’t exactly the strong suit of computers, at least not today.

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