Get ready for some ranting this time. OK: US-based MIX magazine is the biggest studio-biz magazine in the world.... at least, it's the slickest and has the most ads. I have been getting it for years, and there's something I gotta get off my chest. Every month there's a general-news section called "COAST TO COAST: SESSIONS AND STUDIO NEWS." It is broken down geographically into sections of the United States: first New York, L.A., and Nashville (the big 3), and then Northeast, Southeast, North Central, Southwest and Northwest. What has never ceased to amaze me is that the "Northwest" section always consists mainly of news from San Francisco (!), occasionally Sacramento or San Rafael, but almost never anything from Seattle (or Portland!) Can you believe this: to the music biz, LA is so much the center of the entire known universe that when they think of the "Northwest", they think of San Francisco! (Readers: looked at a map lately?) And apparently, month after month, there seems to be nothing taking place in Seattle! Hello, anybody awake down there? We're not just twiddling our thumbs up here...
Here's another reason why the music biz is idiotic. Here's a quote from a recent MIX article about the state of LA studios, from a gentleman who runs a "Studio Referral Service" there. "People aren't paying what they were back in the premium days, $2800 or $3500 a day, but there are a fair amount of projects out there paying $2000 to $2500 a day. I still get small labels asking for silly things, like $500 a day to make a record"... Well, exCUSE ME. It's not this fellow's fault, he's just reporting what's there, but spending that kind of money to record MUSIC - especially ROCK records - is idiotic. All you need to make a great rock record is a decent 24-track machine, a nice room (not fucking Carnegie Hall), a few good mics (and you don't need $5000 dollar mics, it's all HYPE!!!!!!!!!!!!!) and mic preamps (same comment) and a reasonably good monitoring room with, heck, a pair of NS-10s and a few compressors and gates. Ninety percent of rock records do not require automated mixing, another thing which jacks up the recording costs. It's rock, it's not microsurgery or splitting atomic nuclei.
There are many, many, many ultra-expensive rock records out there that, sonically, are no better than the cheap ones, and are sometimes a lot worse. This is more than just a case of the emperor's new clothes; I don't think I can put this strongly enough. [2013 NOTE: BUT I'LL TRY: IT'S A RACKET.] I bought into the hype at the start of my career, when I started getting shots at bigger-budget gigs. I enjoyed working in big "mothership" type studios, and didn't think about all the artist's money draining away... the labels expected the record to be made in such studios, and budgeted accordingly. It's just "the way it's done," and I sort of accepted it. Then I would come back to Seattle, where studios are cheaper, and my records would be just as good. (Or bad, as you prefer.) Eventually, you could say, the scales fell from my eyes. Some of the best-sounding records I have ever made were in relatively low-tech, low-budget situations: I still made sure that I had exactly the mics and speakers and outboard equipment I needed, and the band would make sure they wrote the material before showing up, and I'd change the goddamn reels myself rather than paying for some know-nothing assistant. I have a little rack of compressors and gates I carry with me, and my spectrum analyzer to tell me when the speakers and room are lying to me, and a few favorite mics. Usually I even check the calibration of all the tape machines myself. But, my point? I have worked in 9 countries (the US makes ten) and have been confronted with everything from basement ADAT studios, to quarter-inch 8-tracks, to ancient 70's-era dinosaur-equipment Trident-and-MCI studios, to state-of-the-art Studer/SSL/Neve mothership studios. The correlation between the studio rate and the quality of the end-product has not been very strong. Let me be clear: I don't like to work in dingy basements; I like big rooms and decent equipment as much as the next guy. But I can't see paying a premium for equipment that belongs in a museum, OR for the goddamn bridge of the starship Enterprise. Modern gear, even some consumer gear, is cheaper and quieter, and much of it is damn good. Audio technology has progressed just a wee bit in the past twenty years (duh!); to pretend otherwise is just horseshit. Mackie is kicking ass with their ultra-cheap mixing boards for a reason: they sound good, sweetheart.
A mistake I've seen many indy labels make is that as soon as they get some money, they send their bands to the most expensive studio they can afford, so as to try to compete with "major label productions". A couple things usually happen: 1) The record sells the same amount of copies it would have otherwise, still being in the "indy" distribution chain; 2) The record actually sounds no better (or is worse) than the band's previous records (Rehab Doll or Ultramega, anyone?), because a higher studio rate means the band can afford less studio TIME; 3) The band never recoups the studio expense, so they make no royalty money, and then complain that the label is not paying them, and then perhaps 4) the label goes broke. But people never learn.
[2013 note: The years have crystallized this viewpoint of mine into two axioms: 1) The most important piece of equipment in the studio is the operator, and 2) It's rock, not rocket science. Corollary: I am after MAGIC, not PROCESS. My producer friend Scott Colburn has his own version: "It's not the wand, it's the magician!"]
OK, so I guess I'm a bit cranky today. Did you know that the Smashing Pumpkins used 69 reels of 2-inch analog tape (and, of course, took several months) to make their current record? Hey, they did this because they CAN. (Source: Audio Media, Apr 98.)
Street date for the new Mudhoney record: Sept 22. Produced by Jim Dickinson, mixed by David Bianco. I have really high hopes for this one. Mudhoney finally got some music-biz-hot-shot-good-old-boys to record 'em, but INTERESTING ones, not flavor-of-the-month types. I just got (from Bob Whittaker - thanx, Bob!) a copy of the last Clawhammer record, also produced by Jim Dickenson, and I like it very much, and it sounds pretty cool. Expect this record to be Mudhoney's most "hi-fi" sounding record, production-wise, but with good songs; I've heard most of 'em at live shows the past year, so I know the potential. This record might take everyone by surprise... Of course, it could also vanish without a trace; after all, this is the music business we're talking about. I can't imagine a "hit single", for instance, although I thought they should have made a single out of "Crankcase Blues" from the last one. But no one ever listens to me...
I have a promo of the new Mark Lanegan record "Scraps at Midnight" here, so fear not, it actually exists and you should be able to buy it soon. Also from the hot rumor-mill: Supersuckers have signed with Interscope, Nashville Pussy with Geffen.
Here's an interesting news flash. Long-time Minneapolis indy label Twin/Tone, by the end of 1998, is going to focus exclusively on selling their music by online "CD-quality" download, for $1.50 per song or $10 for full albums. Liquid Audio may be involved. (Since I have yet to hear of a truly lossless digital audio compression scheme, I question the use of the term "CD-quality.") The label's back catalog (including Replacements, Soul Asylum, Babes in Toyland, etc.) will still be available on disc, but new releases will only be available as downloadable audio files. Since consumer CD recorders are finally hitting the market, it will be interesting to see if this business model can succeed. (Website: http://www.twintone.com) (Source: Replication News, 7/98.)
Audio DVD and 5.1 channel surround sound are coming whether you like it or not, but in the July/Aug issue of Audio Media, studio designer Philip Newell throws some cold water on the growing surround-sound hype. He points out that there are a number of major problems in designing control rooms for mixing in surround, the biggest being that the percieved low end in the room is very dependent on the room size and configuration and reflectivity. This goes double for designing home LISTENING rooms. Having several speakers distributed around the periphery of a room, all pointing inward toward the listener - and toward each other - will cause a dramatic additive "reinforcing" of the some of the low frequencies. The strength of this effect (and exactly which frequencies) will vary wildly depending on how big the listener's room is, how reflective the walls are, etc. This effect exists with the present stereo standard but will be much more noticeable with 5.1 mixes, to the point where the producer/mixer really won't have a whole lot of control over how the music will ultimately sound on the listener's home system: the low end components of the mix may sound wildly different from one listening situation to the next. A standard bass EQ knob (like on present stereos) might not be sufficient to deal with this; you'd need a parametric (selectable frequency) bass EQ on your surround-sound stereo so you could notch or boost exactly the right bass frequencies to compensate for your listening space. I can see a way around this: the extra "subwoofer" channel (the ".1" in 5.1) could have it's crossover point moved upward to, say, 200 or 300 hertz, and after balancing the volumes of the other five speakers (left, center, right, left-rear and right-rear) the listener could then simply adjust the volume of the subwoofer channel until it sounds, er, "right". The point would be that all the low frequencies would then be coming from one single speaker, avoiding the surround-reinforcing effect. But conversely, all the other speakers would have to be without low frequencies for this to really work. I don't know, the whole subject is so new we're all still just kind of scratching our heads.
Sennheiser has announced a new kind of microphone: the "optical microphone". The actual vibrating diaphragm used is not an electrical component, but is extremely low-mass and reflective. A light beam coming from an optical fiber is reflected off of this diaphragm, and the reflected light (modulated by the vibrations of the diaphragm) is picked up by another optical fiber and "piped' to a photo-diode. Sennheiser says that units can be made less than 3 mm (!) in diameter with very good frequency response. How's this for a new can of worms! This reminds me of an eavesdropping thing I heard of, whereby spies bounce a laser beam off of a window, and by analyzing the reflected beam, they can recreate the sound waves hitting the window from inside the room, thereby evesdropping from a distance.
This also reminds me of a great might-have-been from the twilight days of the vinyl record. Some time in the early 80's I read about a company that had developed a prototype of a turntable that played vinyl records without actual physical contact with the disc, by bouncing tiny laser beams off of each side of the groove. In theory this meant perfect reproduction and zero record wear. I don't recall if they ever actually went into production with this thing but I recall that it was expected to be a very, very expensive piece of hi-fi gear. Never heard about it again, so they probably went belly-up: it was too late in the game for a completely new phonograph technology; CDs were already well out of the starting gate. Too bad, because the rich record collectors would have snapped it up. (I've wondered about this ever since. Anyone else remember anything about it?)
Enough for now.
Rock Macht Frei...