I ride the 6 train sometimes, and it’s loud. The New York subway experience is degrading and filthy at worst, just plain noisy and jarring at best. Part of the NYC gig.
I also attend a neighborhood gym, and often could do without the ever-present bass thump and moronic lyric of most house dance music. Let’s consider the overly inquisitive child on the flight from JFK to LAX. Remember Bill Cosby’s “Jeffrey”? Google it, it’s on YouTube. Hilarious stuff. Or the screaming infant in seat 31C.
Car horns, fire trucks at 2am. New York is not a gentle and quiet place. Part of why we love it? Love it, hate it, love it, hate it, love it, hate it. Evelyn Mulwray to the white courtesy phone, please.
“Forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown.”
Be Quiet, I Can’t Hear You
The world intrudes on my focus and internal space far too often (“…dude, chill.”). I don’t think I have A.D.D. — HEY, LOOK! But I do miss the quiet at times. Not even quiet per se. I lose that focus, that “peace”. The world seems so full of external noise. Visually, I can deal, but I am a musician and an engineer: sound helps define my life. I can’t turn sound off, can’t ignore it. I hear rhythm in all things, harmony everywhere. But at some point, some times, I need to control it, at least try to attenuate/filter/regain my focus.
I remember sitting on a train with my wife, on the way to an airport at the close of our vacation. At Kandersteg station (we were in Switzerland), a significant herd of school kids joined us, hormones a-pumping. An uncontrollable group-howl of excitement. The look on Donna’s face was one of realization. Realization that our peaceful vacation was rushing toward a frenzied close. How this hurt me!
I reached into my briefcase and withdrew my trusty MP3 device and two pair of in ear monitors (IEM)’s with a splitter. We chose Brahms. We smiled. Blood pressures fell, smiles appearing. Into our own private world, our retreat, peace.
So I have IEM’s. Lots of IEM’s. IEM’s that fit well and…don’t fit so well. IEM’s that sound hyped and sound flat, loud and not loud, cheap and expensive. And this works! I can filter out the noise when I want to, when I need to. Nothing like riding the #4 express to Union Square and listening to Tom Waits. Surreal. Perfect. Tolerable.
The sanctuary of it. The sheer delight in not being forced to aurally participate in what is going on around you. Think of the peace, the seclusion, the focus, the efficiency.
You get it, right?
Let’s move on…
Armed (Eared) and Dangerous
I got that call again back in the Fall, that call to go to Brazil. I love that call. “Come on down, George, we need you to engineer a couple of sessions, and while you’re here you can teach our staff a bit, play some gigs, eat churrasco, drink cachaça and unwind, breathe in Brazil.” I love that call. It’s kinda quiet tonight. (hint, hint…)
I think the only bummer about the trip is the sound in their control room. The live room is a WSDG jewel, it’s gorgeous, huge. They now have the right mics as well, the console from my old studio, a bunch of great outboard, and a kind-hearted cook (‘Neide’) that makes a “corn cake” to MURDER for, and the churrasco nearby at Jardineira is about the best on the planet. Beats Fogo de Chao hands down.
But the sound of control room A for mixing, and the monitors…not so great. I track in A and then move the entire session, vibe, bevvies and body count to their B room to mix, hoping that what I tracked translates well. What a pain, and no, I am certainly not shipping my Proacs down there! For some reason I don’t fully grok, they don’t want to fix the room, or buy new monitors! Been to Brazil for work? Then you know…
So I bring my “SWEG’s”. Every time. They save the session for me. Every time. My “Secret Weapon Ear Goggles”. (music: accent here)
The Big Confession
Ok, ok…I blab, I meander. Let’s get to the point.
Look, I mix in headphones, ok? (enter: cries of derision from the chorus…)
Ok, ok…not all the time, but often, effectively and with a smile.
Ohh, here it comes! I anticipate sharp intakes of breath, chiding comments about lack of room interaction, the nature of stereophony, proximity of sound to (in) the head, poor frequency response, crosstalk, fatigue and discomfort, exaggerated panorama. Cries of “INFIDEL!” (“…dude, chill.”).
Yes, it’s true. I’ve reached the point where I feel that my headphone mixes are 100% valid and of high quality. Yes, I do take the cans off and check the mix on monitors periodically, as often as I would switch between different sets of monitors. Normal.
Fact is, there are many things one can learn from mixing in cans, things one can focus on microscopically, other benefits. Let’s talk about that.
Room interaction, stereophony. Not getting into the nitty on this stuff, ok? I am going to assume that you are already aware of (or can research) the physics of sound to the point where you understand the effects of a room and monitor placement on your work, how sound reaches your ears, etc… You should have a great and accurate room. Agreed? Good. We should spend a lot of time and money on acoustic design.
Acousticians — I know a few and they all deserve white lab coats. These guys and gals are Shamans…Shamen? Shawomen? They’re scary gurus. We all benefit from their knowledge and ability. But what if the room you are in was not designed by one of said gurus? What if the sound of the room basically…stinks? (oh no, surely not YOUR room, of course!)
How about the gear in the room? What if the studio monitors you have to use for your job are made by…oops! Almost got me! Let’s just say they are — less than adequate? Or maybe you’re just not used to them yet? What are you going to do? What are you going to do NOW, immediately?
Hey, what if you’re working in a home studio and you have the dreaded NEIGHBORS??
Ok, go on, lug your Genelecs around with you when you travel for work. Better yet, lug your Gene’s AND your Hothouse monitors with the matching Hothouse amp and Kimber cables…some do in fact. I don’t often have that luxury all the time.
Me? I “lug around” my extremely high end “SWEG’s” and their equally dangerous and sneaky “Cansamp” (someone please coin that). They travel in a small Pelican case. What exactly do I use? Tell ya later…
In yo’ FACE!
Over the years, I have enjoyed studying the work of many engineers (still do), getting inside their sound and trying to learn from their approach. I hope never to stop learning. We all have our mentors or those from whom we have shamelessly stolen tricks or techniques. Elliot, Al, Bob, James, Bruce. I could list 50 more.
I’ve found that by donning a great pair of ‘phones, I can really “see” what these greats are doing. I can hear mic placement, the room, the “digi” effects added, the subtleties of the mix, and the “whys and hows” of their magic. In headphones I can hear that with a closeness and precision that beats monitors. To get right up on the mic? To hear the “issues”? I go to the ‘phones.