Silas Brown on Classical Techniques, Video Game Sound, Audio Education & the Future of Virtual Reality

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Silas Brown at work.

Silas Brown grew up in “the middle of nowhere,” as he likes to put it.

His parents were artists and the family scraped by with little to no money. Thankfully, you don’t need to be wealthy to fall in love with music. First finding solace in his piano lessons, he quickly became captivated by synthesizers.

“Instead of pictures of sports stars or half naked people on my wall, I actually had my entire bedroom wallpapered with pictures of synthesizers,” Brown told me over the phone from his mixing and mastering studio in Westchester County, NY.

“That’s painful to admit but it’s unfortunately true—I can still picture a lot of them. And so I became kind of obsessive about that technology.”

Now an accomplished engineer and educator, Brown no longer needs to be embarrassed about his childhood bedroom. His companies, Legacy Sound and Legacy Mastering, have been going strong for over 20 years. A few GRAMMY Awards don’t hurt, for one. However, he’s quick to admit that nothing tangible can beat a fantastic performance:

“I’m addicted to those incredible moments when the musical performance just gels in a way with some great composition. You start to hear something you’ve never heard before or you’re riding a wave of this emotive connection that the performer is making and you just get goosebumps galore.”

Over the past two decades, Silas has worked with an incredible array of artists, ensembles, and orchestras in studios and on stages all over. Some of his credits include the Chicago, Albany and London Symphony Orchestras, John Zorn, Anne Akiko Meyers, Renée Fleming,  Imani Winds, Paquito D’Rivera and Jonathan Biss, just to to name a few.

Below, we talk about Silas’ work with wind ensembles, creative aspects of mastering, recording scores for games like Battlefield and Assassin’s Creed, the future of VR, his masterclasses at Purchase College, and more.

I’m curious about the challenges of recording, mixing, and mastering a wind ensemble. I come from the world of rock and pop, and although I actually used to play flute, I never recorded myself playing. What are the challenges that might be different with wind instruments as opposed to other instruments?

Yeah, that’s a great question. The classical arena has its own aesthetic range that you really have to be very invested in to understand.

Every player of every instrument usually has a way they want their instrument represented in a recording and obviously they want it to sound like themselves, but you have to sort of dig deeper, usually through experience of not doing a good job on some recordings and figuring out why.

Even from wind instrument to wind instrument—you said you’re a flute player so I’m sure you’re aware of this—there are frequency ranges that can make you sound like you have better embouchure or worse embouchure.

Certain microphones sound that way and so it’s not just a timbre-balance thing, it’s affecting the representation of the player’s technique among their colleagues, which is pretty vital when they’re making a recording.

But it’s different—it’s different for flute, it’s different for clarinet, it’s different for oboe, or English horn—and then, of course, what ensemble they’re in.

The basic approach is a lot like other classical recording where there’s an expectation that the musicians are really making the sound and the balance on the stage that they pretty much want.

So the funny part about our role is we have to capture it the way it is happening on the stage—but in reality there’s the other side of the coin which is we also have to allow for us to adjust the balance after the fact.

Silas Brown’s view from behind the glass, recording at Air Studios in London.

You earned a “Best Engineered” GRAMMY nomination this year for the album Shadow of Sirius by Jerry Junkin and the University of Texas Wind Ensemble. How did you approach recording that one?

[On that] recording, all the pieces were…written for surround sound. They were written for not just immersion, like a very traditional surround sound where there would be reverb in the back channels, but there were musicians spread throughout the space.

[In composer Steve Bryant’s piece] there was a point where there was basically dueling ensembles between the stage and between balconies and musicians sprinkled throughout the hall, trading phrases

David Frost produced it and I was the engineer along with Charlie Post who is now the engineer for the Chicago Symphony.

We ended up having an array of five microphones that pretty closely represent the 5.1 speaker setup and then there was other spot mics carefully sprinkled in the percussion and spot mics on flutes and instruments that might not always be able to compete with some of the brass elements as a just-in-case.

We ended up having an array of five microphones that pretty closely represent the 5.1 speaker setup and then there were lots of other spot mics carefully sprinkled in the percussion and spot mics on flutes and instruments that might not always be able to compete with some of the brass elements. There was also another main pair and spots on the groups in the audience.

If there was one phrase where we needed to help out something in the texture, we’d be able to, but essentially we had to make it sound right in the five main mics in the main array—all DPA omni mics.

Basically, we start our soundcheck by listening to the five mains, and we can’t really go forward unless those five mains basically sound like a record. They’re not room mics; they’re the mains. They should be 80% of the mix and then a sprinkling of spot mics to taste, but that should just be salt and pepper.

The producer David Frost deserves lots of credit here.  He has incredible ears and is always methodical about getting it to sound as good as it possibly can in the main mics.

Let’s talk about creative aspects of mastering. Some people don’t view mastering as being very creative sometimes. Are there any kinds of creative things you think or find yourself bringing to mastering?

Silas Brown at Legacy Mastering.

Yeah, that’s a really tricky balance, because I think you have to somehow have your mind and your body in two places at the same time.

Mastering requires, truthfully, an obsessive level of detail-oriented care.

As a mastering engineer, I feel like your absolute first primary responsibility is cutting a clean master. That’s what it’s always been in history. You’re kind of then responsible for all the thousands of copies, whether they’re digital or physical, that are made and so you have to be a bit obsessive about that. So there are lots of different little technical aspects and kind of like chain of evidence things that you have to worry about in the way you make things.

At the same time, there’s all the visceral [aspects]—like listening with your gut, waiting for your goosebumps, [noticing] what makes you more engaged emotionally in the recording. I actually really enjoy that balance. It’s hard and it’s frustrating sometimes, but making sure you’re being obsessive about every little detail and sometimes just kind of turning the knobs until your goosebumps stand up, and making sure those two [goals] don’t ever push each other out of the realm of your awareness.

If you fuss too much—well, you have to fuss a tremendous amount about details—but you can’t stop listening to [yourself say] “Oh man, that makes me want to sink my teeth more into the recording” or “my goosebumps are standing up more when it goes that way.”

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