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Taking a Hard Look at Your Self-Production

Wayne Connolly, the producer, self-produces his own band, Knievel. He shares six tips on how to keep your baby on track, and save it from ending up in a flaming wreck.

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17 September 2013

These days Wayne Connolly operates out of a little slice of studio at Alberts in Sydney. Originally designed and built for radio comedian Doug Mulray, the mix room is sizeable, but pretty dead… perfect for when Connolly wants to pull that big radio sound. It might not be perfect, but between the main studio downstairs, and his custom Neve console stacked with vintage 1073 modules upstairs, he manages to get by. 

Connolly has been stationed at Alberts since 2007. It’s an arrangement that works well for him. While remaining mostly independent of the company when producing highly-rated albums for Underground Lovers, Josh Pyke, The Fauves, You Am I, The Vines, Custard, Youth Group, Dallas Crane, and too many other great artists to name. His own band, Knievel, has signed publishing, and their most recent record, a straight-up Go-Betweens-influenced rock record titled Emerald City, over to Alberts.

Knievel is Connolly (vocals/guitar), Tracy Ellis (bass/vocals), Nick Kennedy (drums) and Tim Kevin (guitar). It’s been a while in-between drinks for the band, partly because they all have day jobs, and also, when you embark on rebuilding a vintage Neve console and commit to settling into a new studio like Connolly did, things can easily go on the backburner. “It’s what’s happens to so many people,” said Connolly. “It can just take years.” Here’s how he kept the faith while self-producing Emerald City.

SELF-PRODUCTION 101: THE SONG THAT NEVER ENDS

The problem with self-producing your project is knowing when to stop. Whether it’s handing someone the metaphorical big red stop button, or setting a self-destruct timer on your computer, you’ve got to find a way of saying, ‘enough’s enough’, or you’ll never release your baby into the wild. The best inspiration is setting a release date.

Wayne Connolly: “It’s that often repeated quote that ‘art’s never finished, it’s just abandoned’. We fit into that theory! Stopping was just basically that point when we had to put it out. Fortunately I mastered the record myself as well, so I did 20 or so revisions. Whereas if you take a record to someone else, you do one revision and it’s done. When you do it yourself you can always tweak it and listen to it on a different stereo and hear something different that might be wrong.

“The first master I did would be something that most people would think is fine. I couldn’t say really specific things that I revised, but mostly related to brightness of cymbals and the way it can bury vocals. The process is not so easily delineated when you do it yourself. You go back and forth within one long, streamlined process for recording, mixing and mastering.”

SELF-PRODUCTION 102: HOW TO GET PERSPECTIVE

Recording an album can take you on a long journey, especially a self-produced opus you’re slotting in between other people’s mixes, a day job, family commitments, etc. So being able to keep a fresh sense of perspective is a big key.

Wayne Connolly: “It’s obviously a lot more difficult to write your own music and record it. You don’t have a lot of objectivity. You get really close to things and you can’t really judge them clearly. When you’re recording someone else, part of your job is having that objectivity to help them achieve what they’re hearing and try and guide them when they’re going down cul-de-sacs.

“But in another sense everything I do is collaborative as can be. When you record a band you’re trying to collaborate with them to make a great record. So usually it’s four or five members plus you, and you’re all trying to push forward. It’s a bit the same for Knievel. Everyone’s got ideas on things, we’re all collaborating and trying to keep moving forward. It would be so much harder if it were just me trying to do it — I would never finish anything.

Always reference music you like, because you can really get lost in the jungle — a sonic soup. If you listen to a track by someone you like it’s easy to get some perspective.

“I also tried to leave it how we tracked it. I’ve recently looked back at my mix, and there’s not a single plug-in on any of the drums — no EQs, no compressors at all. In a sense that was part of my decision to make it easier. I knew if I started EQ’ing everything like I normally would it would drive me mad, so I started to keep it as raw as possible. Not that it sounds all that raw, but that was certainly our approach.

“Keeping in mind we are big fans of The Go-Betweens, the way they did records was relatively simple. Not trying to do anything too elaborate, or have too much artifice makes it a bit more timeless for us. Although we’re certainly drawn to the swathes of reverb that has been in fashion for some time now.”

CHASING THE TAME TAIL

Of course, Connolly’s bread and butter is producing other bands. Which unlike self-producing, requires a wholesale dumping of the ego.

WC: “You’ve really got to leave your ego aside, which is the hard bit because you get what you perceive to be a really great guitar sound and invariably the response is, ‘It sounds great but we don’t want it to sound great, it sounds too good or polished, or too real.’ More and more, I’m finding you’ve got to be ready for that. You have to be ready to make a guitar sound or a drum sound as unusual as possible, and not take it personally when someone says they don’t like what you’ve done. Because tastes are widening so drastically these days. Everyone’s following the Tame Impala tail a little bit, because that was such a brilliantly executed record and unusual, so it’s influenced a lot of bands and their approach.”

SELF-PRODUCTION 103: SETTLE ON A PRODUCTION PROCESS

Knievel’s records are a snapshot of how, deep down, Connolly likes to record music the most. But it doesn’t necessarily mean it works for all, or any of the other bands he produces. The trick; find the process that works best for your project.

Wayne Connolly: “There’s almost no point me giving our record to anyone else to do. I can’t even bear to watch them move an EQ, because I know exactly what I have in mind. I had an American friend come and help out with some mixing. He did some really interesting work, which was all very different from what I do — super narrow on the EQs, he’d have four or five boosts and four or five cuts with Q’s of six.

“It was very interesting to see him work. It wasn’t what I was particularly going for, but it also brought the mix forward and made the final result sound better. I kept elements of it where I thought it worked really well. But it’s agonising to see someone else work on it. You’d love there to be some other way. You’d love to be able to sit back, but your vision is so attached to the music. Which in one respect, makes you right.

“We basically did all of the main guitars, drums and half the bass live, and some of the lead guitars. It depended on who could make it on the day. If our lead guitarist could make it we recorded it live, but if he had to work we didn’t. We prefer to work that way, it’s so much quicker. A song called They Listen Out is all recorded live. We did four takes, listened to it and it was done. Then I spent two years trying to fix lyrics!

“We did zero pre-production. I’d come in about three or four hours before the band, and make sure I had four or five ideas laid out ready for them to listen to. We’d really try to stop at three or four run-throughs to keep the freshness. I want to capture the first excitement of rehearsing an idea, that first spark, when you’re all playing together and you go, ‘Wow, that’s something we can keep.’

It’s exactly how I like to do it — my default setting. And that really doesn’t work for most bands.

“You’ve got to really stretch yourself and try new things on every single project you’re doing. I’m working on Hungry Kids of Hungary at the moment, and there’s a great emphasis on obliterating all the drums and making everything sound fairly distorted and smashed. That’s a whole different learning curve in itself. It’s really interesting. It’s a challenge for a lot of engineers because people bring in a record that’s got some really distressed drum sounds and go, ‘Okay can you recreate that?’ And there’s probably a million ways to do it, but finding that exact sound is usually very tricky.”

SELF-PRODUCTION 104: KNOW THY SPACE

Knowing the sound of your space is crucial if you’re going to self-produce. For Connolly — who has to not only record the band, but lead it through its paces — knowing the room at Alberts like the back of his hand is one of his biggest advantages.

Wayne Connolly:One of the benefits of having worked at Alberts is that we’ve got a pretty good routine for setting up and getting good drum sounds fast.Also, when you record the whole band live, you tend to focus less on the drum sounds and try and get the whole ensemble to sound good. We didn’t over-think the drum sounds because we knew it would sound decent.

“I’ve got quite a few Neve 1073s, which really help. They seem to be at the core of it — you can’t really go wrong if you’re using those. On a kick, as long as the room sounds good, an AKG D112 through a Neve always sounds good no matter what you’re doing. I always use Neumann U67s for overheads. It’s a nice, full, true sound. And I usually have them pretty high in the mix. Then I also have about five room mics, pointed at the drums to keep the guitars out of them as much as possible.

“I normally have the guitars in the same room and isolate them a bit with a couple of screens around the amp. It’s surprising because it will still sound quite loud in the room, but with the directionality of mics, it doesn’t come through all that loud into the drum kit. If you get the balance right, it adds a nice ambience to the drums from the guitar mic, and vice versa. It’s all a matter of balancing. If it’s really blasting, then it’s hard to use too much of the room mic. Having said that we’re not going for the big compressed room drum sound.

“For the room mics I usually use one close mic, which would be a ribbon, and a stereo pair of whatever I have lying around, which tends to be Neumann TLMs. It’s always really nice to have a mic lying on the floor. And then I have one omni mic, which might be a Neumann U87 or U47 either in the room next door or wherever I want it for a particular style.

“I tend to use nearly all of them to almost an equal degree. I spend a lot of time getting the phase right. That’s really where the art, or the challenge is. The more room mics you’ve got, the more they start to sound a bit grey because of the phase relationships. They can either sound thin, or once you’ve got them all sounding fatter because they’re in phase, the top end can start to sound a bit grey and smeary. So it’s a matter of making sure it’s in phase from the top to bottom end.

“For guitars and vocals I tend to keep it as tried and true as possible so I don’t have to muck around. I love the AKG C12Bs on guitars, I’ve got a really nice Grundig ribbon that I like, and I often use just an AKG C414. Then there’s Neumann KM84s, and I like EV RE20’ and a few others as well, depending on the amp and the sound I’m going for.”

STICK TO TAPE?

Caught up in an internal dialogue over digital vs analogue? Lusting after a bit of analogue warmth? Connolly doesn’t see it that way, for him, tape is primarily a great levelling device.

WC: “I just didn’t find tape necessary on our project because our drummer has got a lovely, extremely even style with his dynamics. If it’s an extremely dynamic and percussive drummer then I’ll bounce stuff out of ProTools, onto tape, and bring it back into ProTools again. I find that works great, and you don’t get a lot of loss at a decent sample rate.

“I do miss it a bit. Tape has a great way of evening things out. And it’s basically quicker. It will almost de-ess a vocal, it will make a vocal sit smoother in the mix, it will take the clang out of guitar and make it sit in the mix. It just makes everything quicker. It probably explains why I spent so long mixing and mastering Emerald City, because it wasn’t on tape! You’re really trying to finesse all these little things that jump out. You never have to do that with tape. Just put the faders up, add a bit of compression and it’s done in three hours.

“I don’t ever go to it as any kind of tonal control, unless you want things smashed… but then you might just use a dictaphone if you want something smashed. It’s great when you put digital files onto tape and bring them back into your DAW, you can see exactly what’s happening and the amazing power of tape — how it can make the waveforms less than half the size, but they’ll sound louder. The RMS value of the audio is a lot louder.

“Mixing it through my Neve also helps a lot. It has a passive mix bus with big transformers at the end of it, so I blast it pretty hard to saturate the transformers, and sort of replicate what tape can do. You can only do it so much on a console, or you tend to run into distortion, on a Neve it works great.”

SELF-PRODUCTION 105: TRY SOMETHING NEW

With any production, if you stick rigorously to how you’ve always done it, your project runs the risk of winding up flavourless. Or worse, you won’t learn anything new. Always try something different, though be warned, it might not always work out as good as you thought it might.

Wayne Connolly: “For vocals I actually went the opposite to tried and true. I normally always use a fantastic sounding Neumann U67, which according to Günter Wagner is way out of spec. This example has got far too much bottom end for a U67 and just as much top end, so it’s got this loudness curve on it and it sounds absolutely fantastic on anything, but particularly vocals. I nearly always use it on vocal, but for our record I just didn’t want that sound.

I used a box of very old dynamics that Alberts has. They all date from the ‘70s and most of them are unmarked. I don’t really know what they are, Italian dynamics and all kinds of things that look like they were stolen from Countdown. I tended just to use those and I kind of regretted it in the end. I mixed and mastered it and kept thinking it sounds a bit lifeless. But it’s because I was writing and recording at the same time, and it’s easy to have a dynamic mic in front of the speakers. But almost the whole record is done with a dynamic mic in front of the speakers.

“I wouldn’t let anyone else do that! Ultimately it would have been better if I had done it with the Neumann, because it gives you more room to move — you can always lo-fi things later. My favourite device for that is the AWA Big One. It’s a fantastic smashing compressor for getting that ripping, torn drum sound. On vocals I’ll try a whole variety of things, the Decapitator, probably try the old Line6 Echo Farm or Echo Boy, set to zero milliseconds on one of the grungier settings.”

SELF-PRODUCTION 106: OPEN EARS & MIND

Often, engineers or producers will comment on how they’ve picked up a technique or way of working while assisting another producer or engineer. Sometimes you can be inspired by another musician. For others, Wayne included, you may have had to develop your techniques from scratch. You can graft inspiring techniques into your arsenal from anywhere, so long as you trial and test it to see how it works for you.

Wayne Connolly: “There are all different ways to approach a project. I get a lot of chances to look at how people have approached things. But I spent a lot of time on my own techniques as well. I never really assisted anyone, I just worked it out myself because I played in bands and I knew what records I liked the sound of, so I just worked out how to get the sounds. It took a long time in the pre-internet days — a lot of trial and error.

“I’ve changed almost completely from the approaches I had in the early days, which was no bottom snare mic, the front head off the kick drum and the shotgun mic over the snare. All those things people did in the early ’90s. I’d say I’ve gone completely the opposite way to that. It’s been a combination of things I’ve read, snippets of conversation over the years, or trial and error. I haven’t really learned much from working with other producers, because I haven’t actually done it that much.”

Taking a Hard Look at Your Self-Production

Connolly has managed to assemble a custom Neve 8026 console as the centrepiece of his new mix room at Alberts. One very similar to the Neve console that resided in Studio 1 at Alberts when the company was at the Kings Street location. In a twist of fate, near the end of his three-year sourcing journey to find all the parts and modules, he came upon the original Alberts console master section. While most of it had been parted out or junked, it was the final piece of the puzzle, and a nice bit of history returning to Alberts.

Wayne Connolly: “It’s a pretty long story. It was three years of rebuilding it from a piece of aluminium. It was half a frame when I bought it, so I basically gutted it of every single wire and connector, found another half, joined the two halves together and started rewiring the whole frame with the help of a friend and Colin Abrahams.

“Colin advised me and helped me custom design it so it’s just a simple, relay-switch sort of console that doesn’t have the elaborate matrix on the end of it that most Neves of that era had. Ordinarily they would have all the passive routing networks, while this one basically goes straight from the mix bus output to the actual output.

“I spent years buying parts from all around the world. It was really difficult because they’re a pretty unusual console. At one point I was despairing that I hadn’t quite found all the main centre section of the console, the output routing and the passive mixer and the reverb return. And I found the guy who had bought the old Alberts console from the auction in 1984 when they closed the King Street studio and he had taken the console frame to the tip some time in the ‘90s and he’d sold all the 1084s out of it. But he’d kept most other things, so I was able to buy all the routing modules, the centre section and passive mixer section. 

“It was the final piece of the jigsaw after three years of searching. It was amazing to find them all in one swoop.”

IT’S ALL A BIT FUZZY

Colin Abrahams: “In the photo you can see the Neve in 1981-1982 when they were doing a bit of work on Alberts Studio 1 Control Room. It shows the 24 input channels, eight groups, the 16-channel monitoring section and the built-in patchbay. In the fader area in front of the monitoring section is an extra set of eight monitor inputs built by Bruce Brown to accommodate the later 24-track machine. The monitoring section is passive so the additional section just consisted of switches and pots. A good thing, since it regularly had drinks poured down it!

The eight groups were normalled to multitrack inputs 1-8, 9-16 and 17-24.  For example, Group 1 went to Tracks 1, 9 and 17. The 24 meters on the left would read either tape input or tape return. In tape input mode, the meters looked at the machine side of the patchbay. For example, if you patched a channel’s direct output to a multitrack input, the meter would read the direct output.

In the panel to the right of the main meters is a very important tool, the built-in console speaker!  This could be used for talkback from a listen mic in the studio and also to monitor the mix in mono.  It sounded really bad and was used to check how a mix would sound on AM radio and also for final balancing.

A single ‘auxiliary’ meter could be switched to read Reverb Sends 1-4, Cue Sends 1-4, or an external patchable input. The four small meters monitored the Reverb Returns.

Behind the patch cords is the EMT remote control for adjusting the reverb time of the EMT 140 plate.

Above the group section were various plug-in effects devices, including a HPF/LPF (featured heavily in Flash & The Pan albums) and two plug-in compressor/limiters. These were in demand and were often borrowed by the other studios. Alberts also had another set of four in a portable rack.

The patch row above the desk was a set of tie lines to the other studios, enabling a second 24-track to be locked up and the sharing of outboard gear between the studios.

There was no stereo mix bus on this desk. When you went to mix down, you had to manually switch the input selector on every single input module to ‘line’, assign every channel to Groups 1 and 2, and use this for the mix. As there were only 24 input channels and four mono returns, the monitor mix was used for additional reverb returns. You still had the remaining groups to use as subgroups, so the overall setup was surprisingly versatile. But it was a pain in the proverbial to change between record mode and mix mode!”

WHEN A NEVE ISN’T GOOD ENOUGH

Colin Abrahams, now of Studio Connections, was one of the technicians at Alberts back when it was at Kings Street, hired just as Alberts was making the switch from the Neve board to a more up-to-date MCI console. In fact, his first job was to get the MCI online over the weekend, just in time for the first session on Monday morning. For Connolly’s Neve though, the timeframe was a little longer.

Colin Abrahams: “The brief was to keep the desk as original as possible. Only in respect to the monitoring did we go our own way in terms of the design. Things have changed so much with the way people work now, you just don’t need that anymore. You’re sending stuff off computers. But the way it worked, in terms of the summing buses is how it was originally. You had to do calculations according to the number of modules that were in the desk to get the gain right, because it’s a passive summing bus, as opposed to the active summing buses that modern consoles have. We even used the original control room monitor pots, which weren’t pots at all but giant switches with resistor banks wired to them so they were very accurate.”

In his time as a technician, Abrahams has seen a lot of audio gear come and go, and sees the irony in the way gear-purchasing goes in circles in the hunt for perfect sound.

“It’s gone full circle. The old MCI consoles only had four or six sends on them. And of course during the ’80s, when they were gating every instrument and putting separate reverbs on just about every channel, consoles like the Ameks had 16 sends or something on them.

“So a lot of the older desks got put aside. But ironically, in recent times with computer-based workflows, some of those old, simple desks are actually more useful now than they ever have been, either for tracking or to mix through without too much garbage in between to muck up the sound.

“Around the end of the ’70s, everything was still being developed and people were very aware that they could hear sonic issues with some of those big, old desks — when newer ones came out you could hear the difference sonically. Then when the MCI JH-24 tape machine came out, in actual figures it was as far as I know as good as it ever got with tape technology. Obviously Dolby A, was the technology of the time, before Dolby SR came out. And it pretty much got to the point that it was so good that even in 1980, you had a few people saying, ‘I like the old machines. They sound warmer.’

“The irony was that back then, as that analogue gear was starting to approach digital quality, we had the same arguments that we do now
about digital.

“It gets a bit tricky talking about vintage gear because a lot of it is seriously not good in terms of specifications. With some of the old compressors, if there is something special about them that sounds good on sources like drums, it’s not so much the actual technology in terms of how good the distortion is, it’s just how the thing works with sound.

“I’ve certainly seen modern compressors that on paper might be just fine but they sound like shit. And a lot of it’s in the parameters. With the old Urei 1176, it’s not a particularly fantastic compressor, but even when you push all the buttons in at once it’s virtually impossible not to get a good sound of it. Whereas some of the modern ones have such extremely short attacks and decays that if you didn’t know what you were doing, you really could make it sound terrible.

“I used to get complaints about the BSS compressor. When I went to look at them there’d be nothing wrong with them, the problem was with how they were set. There are special things like the old LA-type opto compressors — they have a distinct behaviour in the way their release works that makes people rave about them.

“I guess all I’m saying is old stuff isn’t inherently good or bad. I mean, when you actually measure some of the distortion figures that come out of some of those old pieces of gear, they’re really not that good. But then maybe it doesn’t matter. Distortion sometimes warms things up. Take an old Pultec EQ, they’re absolutely shocking in terms of modern context — they’re a dirty EQ. But I was trying to mix this horribly dull DI’d electric guitar, and the usual way was to reach for the EQ on the desk and try and get some kind of sound out of it. But no matter what I did, all I’d get if I turned anything up was hiss. So I tried dialling in the same frequencies on an old Pultec and got this incredible sound out of it. It made the sound.

“And when those things were being made, it was all being done for the first time and people were just striving to make them as good as they possibly could. Money wasn’t even an object to them. That’s certainly not the case now.”

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