A control room chat mediated by Chuck Schiele.
Introduction by Paul Abbott
If you know anything about the indie music scene (in any town), you’ve realized that just about every musician these days has some sort of home recording setup. It could be as simple as a smart phone with some apps or as elaborate as a full-blown ProTools rig. Most of them, however, fall somewhere in between: a good computer, a USB interface, and a few mics.
Regardless of the available technology, what’s become clear is that in the 21st century every musician has the capability to create his or her own demos — if not a finished album — for CD or Internet-based release. The truth is that brick-and-mortar recording studios have dwindled to places where drums are recorded (to take advantage of the good acoustics of a large room), vocals are cut with boutique microphones, or people are taught the craft of audio engineering.
What’s happened through the home studio revolution, though, is that while access to audio recording tools has increased, aggregate recording quality has actually gone downhill from the old school studio days. That’s because while all this equipment is readily available at an affordable price, it doesn’t come with the skill required to effectively use it. That part still takes years of learning and practice. It takes expertise and a decent amount of objectivity.
Kyle Thompson and Paul Abbott witnessed this dichotomy in countless projects they lended their respective talents to. Kyle, a freelance recording and mix engineer, got his initial audio training 15 years ago in Los Angeles and has logged time in most of San Diego’s well-known studios. Paul is a mastering engineer who operates San Diego’s longest-running dedicated mastering facility, ZenMastering. After years of working on projects together, in late 2009 they decided to start Iconic Audio as a collaboration aimed at helping home and project studio owners make their recordings sound professional.
Realizing the technological genie to be out of the bottle — and there was no point in opening another studio — they decided to offer their expertise “remotely” to the countless musicians who have some manner of home studio but aren’t able to get world-class results.
“It seemed dead simple to us,” Abbott said. “People aren’t going to go to traditional recording studios unless they need a large room or have a large budget. At the same time they need to make their home and project studio recordings compete with professional-quality releases. And that’s where we come in.”
“Having a home or project studio is an amazing resource,” Thompson adds. “You can spend as much time as you need nailing the creativity: collect your thoughts, experiment, and capture it all. But once that’s done, to really make an album or recording compete on a professional level, you need specialists in the mixing and mastering department to take your songs to a professional level, sonically.”
“This is how all professional albums, through history, have been made,” Abbott emphasizes. “The computer is just a storage and editing device… not unlike a tape machine. It just offers greater flexibility and capability because it’s nonlinear. But having a computer doesn’t change or solve the issue of knowing what you’re doing. It still takes know-how to make a good sounding album. And in many ways it’s easier for the well-meaning neophyte to get into hot water with endless bundled plugins and low-quality playback systems. That’s where we come in.”
1. Chuck: Quick background check, guys — explain your relevant music history.
Paul: I’ve been a musician since I was eight: composed music, studied composition in school, played in bands, and recorded everywhere from very basic home setups to the world’s best studios. That sort of experience is priceless in my understanding of what a musician goes through and is trying to accomplish. Regarding mastering, I’ve been doing it for around 12 years. I’ve mastered over 550 projects and written articles in just about every pro audio publication.
Kyle: I grew up playing in rock bands in San Diego. My dad has been a home recording enthusiast for years and around 1995 he introduced me to home recording. I recorded my bands and friends asked me to record their bands when they heard my recordings. It spiraled out of control from there and here I am!
2. Chuck: This is an interesting niche you’ve cornered. Pioneering. Please explain.
Paul: It seems obvious to me that the home/project studio is the way forward. But the majority of people who have one don’t have much experience in proper music production… or they’re learning as they go. But they do have immense musical talent and their recordings deserve to sound professional. Wouldn’t it be great if a musician could capture their creativity and then pass it off to a team of specialists to make it sound professional? Enter Iconic Audio.
Kyle: The home recording revolution has been an incredible boon to bands. Say what you want about Mackie mixers and Chinese mics, the cost of basically transparent sounding gear is a tiny fraction of what it was. Bands can afford enough gear to do a fantastic job of capturing their performances on their own time, in the comfort of their homes for less than the cost of a weekend in a good studio. What they can’t buy, however, is the skill that goes into balancing the often highly conflicting elements in a recording. That’s something that one must learn over time through a combination of study and trial and error.
Lucky for them, the confluence of cheap, good recording gear and high speed internet has decentralized the recording process. You can record yourself at home and then send the files to a mix engineer or mastering engineer anywhere in the world. You’re not stuck with the five studios in your area; you can pick the price and style of work that best fits your needs. It’s been really rewarding to work with such talented people from all around the world that we may not have met otherwise.
3. Chuck: What does Paul bring to the equation? What does Kyle bring to the equation?
Paul: Kyle is a nuts-and-bolts audio pro. He knows how to set up mics to get the best sound, wire signal flow properly, do location recording, and understands what musicians are after in their mixes. He’s very hands-on with clients and has a “get it done” attitude.
I’m more of an introvert and “details-and-checklist” guy. I’m very into the specialist mentality.
Kyle works with bands to get a general feel and direction for the project. If the band wants to, he can consult with them before or during the tracking process to make sure their practices are in line with their goals. When tracking is completed, Kyle and the band will get a general direction for the mix (modern, vintage, psychedelic, clean, etc) and shape all the songs into a cohesive album from there. Kyle mixes, the band sends notes, revisions are made, and then when all is agreed on, they get sent to mastering.
4. Chuck: What are the pet peeves of your own general listening experiences when listening to recorded works?
Paul: My main pet peeve is that sound quality has not evolved in the way it should have given the technology we have, because a lot of the technology is being misused. If you look at the movie industry as a comparison, the sound quality in movies (and home theaters) is infinitely better than it was 30 years ago. By contrast, the quality of recorded popular music sounds worse than it did 30 years ago.
Kyle: 1) Lack of dynamic range; 2) Buried vocals; 3) Lack of dynamic range.
5. Chuck: What turns you on enough to call a recording a “Great Recording!”?
Paul: In my opinion, the Holy Grail of recordings is the confluence of great songs that are solidly performed and have been recorded well. When you can get all three of those things, you’ve got a great recording.
Kyle: There is no technique that makes a great recording. Distortion would ruin a subtle jazz combo but can really propel a garage rock band. A great recording is one that conveys the emotional impact of the song and at the same time doesn’t get in the way of the song.
6. Chuck: What do you have to say on the technological advances that brought the lower fidelity of MP3 to the general listening scope consciousness?
Paul: Compression codes are a bad thing. This refers to my answer for the pet peeves question. Given the bandwidth that exists today (i.e., broadband in everyone’s home and hard drives that most people never fill), there’s no reason to listen to mp3 or other compressed formats. Again, think about how good DVDs and Blu-Ray video look and sound. Why isn’t the standard for consumer audio that high?
Kyle: The mp3 is too easy to malign. No, it doesn’t sound that great most of the time, but what it’s done for the democratization of music is impossible to overstate. The massive file compression and subsequent loss of fidelity was due to slow internet speeds, not to people’s lack of interest in fidelity. People want better sounding files and I’m confident we’ll have lossless files in the online stores very soon.
7. Chuck: Perfectly recorded album: name the record that first comes to mind. Why and what about it?
Paul: In popular music I probably couldn’t name anything, but I would say that, in general, Norah Jones’ stuff is very well recorded and produced. It’s clean, but has character and it retains enough dynamics to be true to the music.
7. Chuck: Advice from a mixing expert’s perspective? How best to pass the “musical baton” to you?
Paul: I’ll let Kyle answer that one.
Kyle: Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon for it’s depth of field and near perfect frequency arrangement — not an instrument stepping on another’s sonic space. It’s cliche, but I can’t just put a different album to be different. It’s really that good.
Record with no eq or compression. Record at the highest resolution and bit depth you have available. Tune your instrument and change your strings/heads. Actually, I wrote an article on easy ways to improve your tracking. http://www.iconicaudio.net/
9. Chuck: Why would someone want to hand their tracks off to a stranger?
Kyle: While it might seem odd to give your pride and joy, the album you’ve been slaving over for a year and a half, to a total stranger, it’s actually the best thing you could possibly do for yourself. Having a professional work on your project is important, but having an impartial listener is essential. It’s bad enough being the songwriter and mixing yourself (buried vocal syndrome anybody?) but there’s almost no way to work on something for an extended period of time and keep perspective. If you’ve been listening to your mixes for months and are changing things at random just to see what it does, you know what I mean. Every home recordist has been there. Hand your project off to an impartial pro and have it finished with clarity in a few weeks instead of staying mired in muddy low end and mushy drums for months.
Chuck Schiele is an award-winning musician, singer-songwriter, producer, events promoter, activist, music writer/reviewer, and genuine fan of the San Diego music scene.