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More on the Craft of Engineering

Mike Clink on Surround Sound

“Surround sound is the ultimate experience. Instead of just listening to the music, you’re consumed by the environment. When people hear it, they appreciate it. It entices them to go out and buy music. Due to the wiring involved, it’s difficult for most people to have a 5.1 system in their home. But at CES this year, it was apparent that a lot of manufacturers are making a play into the wireless arena. And the more sophisticated the wireless units get, the more systems you’ll find in homes-and dorm rooms. The disconnect from the solid landline is what we’re looking for: from the phone to the speaker that you set up in your home without worrying about wires.”

Steve Albini on the Music Business, Novice Engineers and Other Random Thoughts

“In spite of his iconoclastic reputation, Albini takes a non-judgmental position on in the larger picture of the music business. “My hands are full,” he says. “I don’t have time to sweat things that don’t affect me, like ‘What does the radio sound like?’ And I really don’t care if kids listen to MP3s. We got our staff iPods for Christmas bonuses!

“We have people on staff who come out of recording schools; one of the things they like about working here is that they get to make records in a manner they were told records weren’t made anymore. Coming to work in an all analog studio after you’ve been told for a couple of years that such things don’t exist anymore is a little bit enlightening. If nothing else, it gives them the idea that the people that are teaching these programs don’t have quite the grasp on the state of affairs that they think they do.

“People who end up here are more tuned into the recording scene than your average, non-engineer music business aspirant. They read the backs of records, they hear word of mouth and they tell other people about our studio. Good or bad, what they hear about our studios causes people to prick up their ears.

“Obviously, you have to have your skills together so that you don’t make mistakes with the sound. But all the other stuff is just how you handle the circumstances you’re dealt. As far as the way the sound of records has progressed, the clientele we get here is, generally speaking, live bands who are comfortable with their natural sound. Recording a band like that hasn’t changed in 50 years; you just set them up. Making a record is not this rarefied auditory experience. Most of the time you’re just trying to solve the problem of the moment: ‘I can’t hear the bass drum in the headphones, this light is shining in my eyes.’ Most of the time you’re crawling around on your hands and knees and moving things from one place to another.”


Gear: How Do You Choose, What Do You Need?

The amount of new recording products constantly coming to market is unprecedented. You can’t buy it all; you don’t even want to buy it all. But maybe there’s something that would make your work easier, make your sounds better, or make you have more fun. How do you find it?

“I only buy stuff that I can use,” Albini asserts, “and there isn’t a whole lot of current production stuff that I can use. I hear about gear from other engineers, or, because I freelance at other studios, I may stumble across something there that I’d like to have. To be honest, the majority of the products developed now are things that apartment rockers can sort of bolt on to their computers to try to approximate a high quality studio signal path. I already own every mic preamp, compressor and equalizer I might need; reinventing the wheel for basic front-end hardware has no attraction for me. Anything that does its job exceptionally well will get my attention, but for the nuts and bolts stuff I’m covered.”

“I talk to people I really respect, so it’s word of mouth,” says Clink. “I’m not someone who goes out and buys the first new piece of gear that comes out. I’m not interested in beta testing, or buying pieces of gear that will be obsolete in two years. I’d rather have people do that for me! If I have three or four people say something is a great piece of gear, I’ll look at it seriously. I’m really only interested in gear that I believe will stand the test of time.”

Engineer Bill Schnee

“Something I’ve learned over the years,” observes Bill Schnee, “is that in pro audio, newer is definitely not always better. And for me, simpler is always better. If you’re trying to get the most natural sound, you’ll always get that with the least amount of electronics. Not only do active components make a difference, but capacitors and switch contacts affect the sound greatly as well. What happened with major consoles is that they started offering more and more features that you might use five to 10 per cent of the time but required electronics that you have to go through 100 per cent of the time. Constructing my console, I avoided that; in fact, there are more electronics in a single SSL module than there are in my entire console!”