Notes From the Producers & Engineers Wing of the Recording AcademyEXAMINING EXCELLENCE—SOMETIMES IT'S THE LITTLE THINGS
This month, Mix subscribers vote for the 2006 recipients of the Technical Excellence & Creativity Awards — no easy task. But one great thing about the audio industry is that there's no lack of people who naturally strive for excellence. Although a few score big in the audio world, no one actually goes into this business for the money. Most have ended up here because they just can't help themselves. Think Rupert Neve, Joe Meek, Greg Mackie, Bob Clearmountain, Tom Dowd, Geoff Emerick — people who make audio gear and the people who use it are compelled to create greatness. As engineer/producer Robert Margouleff commented recently, “The desire for excellence is the overriding obsession of a music producer; if it's not, they don't belong in the business.” Margouleff, whose credits range from Devo to Stevie Wonder, is a prime example of his own maxim. It was his frustration with the sound of DVD movie releases that prompted him to start Mi Casa Multimedia, the successful company he originally founded (with Brant Biles) to remix theatrical releases to sound correct in home listening environments.
The obsession for excellence manifests itself in hundreds of ways in the daily routine of those who make great records. No matter what format their work will end up being heard in, they're always reaching for that extra ounce of quality. Sometimes, it's a battle.
“Lately, I find myself having to convince clients to spend the time to get things right,” notes engineer Ralph Sutton, who has worked with such artists as Mary J. Blige, Elton John and Stevie Wonder. “There are things that you do in your work that seem small, but ultimately add up to making a big difference, like getting rid of noise at the front and back of takes. Sometimes clients think I'm wasting time; I have to show them it's cumulative.”
To address this increasingly common lack of procedural knowledge, Sutton has started classes at his Memphis studio for up-and-comers who, thanks to the home studio revolution, rarely get the benefit of formal training at a commercial studio. Dubbed “Young Producers Boot Camp,” the series provides the basics of engineering, production and songwriting craftsmanship.
Engineer/producer Dave Schiffman (System of a Down, Anti-Flag, Stellastarr) also offers insight into the quality battle. “You notice that people who work a lot have consistent habits,” he points out. “They know how to take the extra time to make sure everything is right. Something I'm compulsive about, for example, is that when I'm tracking, I come in every morning and shake down all the mics. Gear, especially tube mics, can change from one day to the next, so I make sure everything is still working as it was the day before. Fifteen extra minutes in the morning, and you've avoided a potentially ruined take, where a mic is distorting — or dead. I'm also careful with alignment. If I'm mixing someone else's recording, I often don't know what their Pro Tools reference level is. People frequently record as loud as possible into Pro Tools, and when you bring those tracks out into the console, you destroy the gain structure. You flatten out all the headroom and lose the benefits of using the console. So I'll sit there and, using my ears and the VU meters, spend the time to get the console and the Pro Tools in harmony.”
Schiffman's words reminded me of watching Ron Nevison — famed producer of Heart, Ozzy Osbourne and The Who, among countless others — setting up for vocal sessions. “Nevo” has sold millions of records and recorded hundreds of artists, yet every morning, he arrived as early as the assistant engineer and personally checked that every detail was perfect, from turning on the mic to warming it up to reviewing the lyric sheets for spelling accuracy. Obsessive? Well, yeah, and excellent.
Maureen Droney is the executive director of The Producers & Engineers Wing of The Recording Academy. Her 20-plus years in the recording industry have led to an obsessive interest in excellent drummer jokes.