Recording

The Sound of the Sound

TALKING TECHNOLOGY WITH RICHARD DODD 5/01/2008 8:00 AM Eastern

I first met Richard Dodd in August of 1999 in Kooster McAllister's Record Plant Remote truck. That night, he was recording Tom Petty playing the Target Center here in Minneapolis. The show had already begun when I walked in with a friend. We simply enjoyed what could have been a studio recording — that classic Petty sound all the way. When I commented, “Nice-sounding desk,” Dodd turned around, surprised to hear an American call this custom-made API console a “desk.” He revealed that he was using a whopping two highpass filters, plus a few compressor/limiters — including his fave 1176 — on Petty's lead vocal.

During his career, Dodd has engineered and/or produced projects for a wide range of artists, including the Little River Band, George Harrison, Joan Baez, Roger Daltry, Del Shannon, Roy Orbison, Joe Cocker, Ringo Starr, Boz Scaggs, Sheryl Crow, Green Day, Keith Urban, Johnny Cash, ELO, the Traveling Wilburys, Red Hot Chili Peppers, John Mellencamp, the Dixie Chicks — the list goes on and on. All that — and Carl Douglas' 1974 hit, “Kung Fu Fighting” — makes for quite a varied discography. He's also an in-demand mastering engineer.

Richard Dodd at the API 48-channel Legacy Plus in Blackbird Studio B

To keep himself busy between studio projects, Dodd has developed “The Motone.” Slated for commercial release this summer, this analog processor is designed to “reintroduce the ‘tone’ or ‘sonic soul’ to what could be called well-intentioned but wrong recording techniques.”

Since our first meeting, Dodd and I have exchanged a few e-mails, the most recent of which was coincidentally timed with this month's focus on Nashville — the place this transplanted British engineer calls home.

On the Petty live recordings, you had essentially no EQ. Is that typical for you when tracking?
Yes, very, especially when recording “people in places.” The musicians, instrument, tempo, arrangement, environment, microphone choice, placement (of player and mic), mic preamp, headphone mix and attitudes all play a more significant part than any other “gear” factor.

When you work in the digital domain, are you bouncing stuff to/from the analog world, as in capturing your outboard “to tape” after the fact?
I have Motone, which helps me a great deal as far as the “je ne sais quois” factor. My oldest friend and brilliant — well, quite good — engineer, Peter Coleman, typically works at a studio two doors away from me (Treasure Isle). He uses a RADAR 24-track digital recorder and an analog console with moving-fader automation. During the mix, Peter will selectively bounce back to a Sony/MCI 24-track. His mixes are easy to master and always sound great. I do it much less frequently, and I use my ½-inch ATR 102 more often than my Studer A800 Mk1 24-track. Although they both sound great, the 102 offers a slightly better signal-to-noise ratio and that sometimes becomes the deciding factor.

You're doing all sort of projects — recording, mixing and mastering — that come in on many formats, analog and digital.
Work arrives on everything, ranging from my favorite digital format — FireWire hard drive — to DVD, my least favorite. Digital masters arrive on iPods, thumb drives, CD-Rs, DigiDelivery and other Internet storage/transfer sites. The one that amazed me the most was a cell phone! Most analog tape masters coming my way are half-inch 30 ips, followed by half-inch 15 ips, quarter-inch and 1-inch. I'd say that 95 percent of masters arrive in a digital format, and 10 percent of those go through tape during mastering.

What are your issues with DVD?
On a Mac OS X platform, I encounter failures mostly from DVD+R discs. I'm searching for a compatible reader that can cure DVD-R problems. I have not yet been able to find a reader that's compatible with all of the sources I get. The combinations of OS platform, media, burner, reader and user create the problems that I encounter. I strongly advise all to use a backup media other than DVD. Anyone with kids can see how delicate that media is in the real world.

When you work with analog, what tape are you using? Do you have a favorite tape, speed, tape/machine combo, EQ? Bias tricks?
In mastering, I have a good supply of older Agfa, BASF/Emtec brand to fill my needs for a few years. When I work elsewhere, I ask what “older tape” is available from the studio's stock. If I'm forced to use the “newer” production runs of tape, I will opt for ATR; the other stuff is totally unprofessional rubbish. As for alignment, the usual tricks apply. Nothing new here, just a slight high-end lift on record.

An exception? When I use an old tube tape machine (Studer C37), I create my own curve. As this particular machine was only available at a maximum speed of 15 ips — 18 ips if you don't change the AC frequency — I opt for the CCIR curve and modify that a little further. I can run good tape — Agfa or BASF/Maxima 900 — to their maximum potential that way, that being a 2dB drop in HF EQ on playback and a 3dB or 4dB rise on record. It's not flat, but sounds fantastic in some cases. For everyday use, I have a wonderful ATR 102 with quarter- and half-inch head stacks, the half-inch being assembled by JRF and has extended playback response, while the quarter-inch stack is stock.

What monitors do you use? How many different monitors?
In my studio, I use Martin Logans as my main set, with ProAcs as a ref. I'm also getting used to Sennheiser 650 headphones for an extra ref as so much music is now listened to on headphones. When I travel, I take or use the ProAcs. I'm also happy to use the original Yamaha NS-10s. ATC is making some very good self-powered, near-field monitors now; they're a bit pricey, but, short of talent, monitoring and environment are the most important parts of any setup. If you can't hear it, you can't judge it.

I read in an older Mix interview (July 2003) that you like to mix without automation. Is that still the case? If so, I would assume you do a lot of editing or have a lot of hands.
That article was mainly referring to my methods up to the mid-'90s. That said, although I always use automation, now it is usually the last part of my mix. Simply put, I rehearse my mix manually and use the automation-write mode to record my manual mix. At my stage of the game, I then use the update or trim functions to replace the razor blade — get the bits I missed. Not to sound glib, but unless I — or a very short list of others — have recorded it, automation is a must.

Today, way too many projects arrive not ready for mixing, the main culprit being too many tracks containing “decisions and options” that no one seems able to make. Even when asked to send “only what you want on the record, please,” the project turns up with a comments list that reads like a fast-food menu, complete with an A&R request to “supersize it.” It's pretty pathetic to find that at all levels of the established and new labels, no one can find a volume control. Send it to them louder and they like it more, and it won't change because of this rant either.

What's the attraction of Nashville for you?
Nashville's main attraction to me is that it's not New York or L.A. Coming from a long career in London and extended periods in major cities around the world, a place as intimate as Nashville made perfect sense when I moved here in 1991.

As far as industry people go, the denizens of the Nashville area are the same blend of wonderful and dubious as found in any music-centered metropolis, with perhaps a greater bias toward the wonderful. My friends here are fantastic, talented and priceless.

Nashville enjoys the existence of Blackbird Studio (see “On the Cover,” page 38), a complex of seven [at the time of writing] unique rooms offering a choice that includes API Legacy Pluses, Neve 8078, SSL 9k and very expensive Digidesign ICON mice. Recording environments range from classic '80s (A1 and B rooms), traditional live room and conventional (A2 and D) settings, to the lush and outrageous Studio C designed by the equally 'rageous George Massenburg.

The mic locker at Blackbird has 1,000 cool and working examples from every age and an outboard list greater than any studio I have ever worked in — and it's all 50 yards from my own studio. Combine this with fabulous musicians and engineers, along with many other great places to work, and Nashville is as close to recording nirvana as it gets for me.

What mic techniques would you like to share?
Use as few [mics] as possible, placed as far away as practical. Tape a condenser and a dynamic mic together for snare — a Neumann KM 84 (or 85) with a Shure SM57. This offers the choice of either or both, using one stand and less hassle for the drummer.

What are some of your favorite pieces of gear?
The SPL Transient Designer; UREI 1176 (rev A through D); Shure SM57; Neumann “KM” everything — especially the KM56 — and “U” everything — almost; [Neve] 2254, 33114; the RØDE Classic tube and many other mics. NTI EQ3d, GML — everything, although I wish I knew how to operate the compressor/limiter; I still have to twiddle till I get it right. API pre, Legacy Plus, 550As and 560s; Telefunken V76 preamps; Great River preamps; Neve 10 Series (66 to 81) modules. AKG BX20E; Cooper Time Cube; Studer C37, A800 Mk 1 to 3; Ampex ATR 102 — almost all pro tape machines. Three-head cassette decks, Aphex 11, Chandler EMI compressor and the LA-2A.

Your list includes the Blue Stripe, non-LN Version 1176?
Yes, rev A through D (in correct condition) are all great. To my understanding, LN refers to a mod created from rev B that lowered the apparent self-noise level, thus creating the “black-face” rev C.

What are some of your inspirations?
“Music is the space between the notes.” — Claude Debussy.

“After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.” — Aldous Huxley from “Music at Night,” 1931.

“Richard, it's the sound of the sound.” — Del Newman, 1972.

It took me a few good years to work out what [Del] meant. The sum of the parts and the silence?

I have always hated bad singers, those with a poor sense of pitch and time being the most awful. Our youngest daughter, Danielle, is 15. Dani — who was born with Down's syndrome — loves to sing along with her music. No pitch, no time, wrong words and sometimes very loud. It's the most beautiful sound I have ever heard.


Visit Eddie Ciletti at www.tangible-technology.com.

Richard Dodd's 10 Recording Tips

THERE ARE NO RULES AS LONG AS NO HARM CAN COME TO MAN OR GEAR

  1. Do no harm, step back and make sure that you're not getting “in the way” of a good sound.
  2. Change, don't “tweak.” No one hears tweaks.
  3. If someone asks for the vocal up 0.2 dB, laugh as if it's the funniest joke you've ever heard, burst out laughing later and quote the joke. Repeat as needed.
  4. Don't use brick wall limiting on your mix for any reason other than because you like it. Good mastering engineers can make it louder/better than you can, but they can't remove an inappropriate decision.
  5. If in doubt, don't.
  6. If it's “right,” do it.
  7. Be ready. The “wrong” gear choice that's ready beats waiting past the “best available performance window.”
  8. Share your knowledge.
  9. Keep something secret.
  10. Stop when you aren't having fun anymore.