One of a series of posts about working at CBC Radio back in the day.
(Here’s some more).
I’ll start from the beginning.
The band Travis showed up just before two. We had finished the live broadcast for the day and I was eating my lunch in the studio. We were just going to record the interview and song live to tape to be broadcast the following day. A whole bunch of them came in, I had no idea who was in the band and who wasn’t. I shook a few hands, then allowed them to settle into the booth while I gobbled down the rest of my microwave dinner. Then I went in to help them set up.
They had wanted a couple of vocal microphones and two direct boxes to plug an acoustic guitar and a bass guitar into. (Direct boxes allow you to plug an instrument directly into a console so you don’t have to mike it). I had those all set up and ready to go. Although the entire band had showed up, only two of them were actually going to sing and play, lead singer Fran Healey and bass guitar player Dougie Payne. Fran asked me if I could mike his acoustic guitar instead of using a direct box. I said sure, that I preferred using a microphone, and had just used the direct box because the bands technical specifications had asked for direct boxes. He called out to somebody to change the tech specs.
“I’ll put an SM57 on it,” I said.
He said, “How ‘bout that AKG 414 you’ve got hanging over the piano?” I said sure and set it up.
In the control room I waited for Fran to finish tuning, then attempted to set levels as they rehearsed a song. Too many people were yapping in the control room and I couldn’t hear a damned thing. I told them all politely but firmly to pipe down. Fran was complaining about something. I turned all the mikes off so I could go into the booth and speak to them privately.
“I couldn’t hear anything, I had to tell everyone out there to shut the hell up,” I told them.
They laughed and said good on ya.
Fran told me he wanted a bit of reverb on himself and a lot on Dougie. Dougie was supposed to sound kind of ghostly. No problem, I told them, but I was thinking: damn it, all I have is a Rev 5, a reverb unit that dates back to the eighties. I can’t stand the sound of the thing and have been complaining about it since day one, but it would have to do.
There was something wrong with the sound of Fran’s guitar… it was distorting. I checked all my levels and the trim and couldn’t see why it was distorting. In fact I’ve never had a guitar distort that I can recall. I decided to swap out the 414 microphone on the theory that maybe it was overloading. This happens sometimes on condenser microphones if they’re getting too much acoustic information, they just can’t handle it. It’s called capsule distortion. At least that’s what I call it. But for a guitar to cause capsule distortion is kind of nutty; it usually happens when vocalists (or actors) are really belting it out.
I usually mike guitars for the show with an SM57 and I’ve had good luck with them. We had Brad Deneen on just the other day and somebody wrote in to compliment me on the sound of his guitar, so I thought I would try it. But when I went into the booth to swap out the microphones, unbeknownst to me somebody followed me in. This fellow spotted a Neuman U-87 and suggested that I try it. Fran introduced him as “our producer.”
Now, the fact that he was a producer didn’t impress me much. Most producers I know, while being perfectly acceptable human beings, don’t know much technically. In fact they often have half-baked technical notions. I told this fellow that I didn’t want try the U-87 (even though it is an awesome microphone) because, like the AKG 414, it was a condenser microphone.
“What’s wrong with that?” he asked.
“We might be getting capsule distortion,” I told him, confident that he wouldn’t know what the hell I was talking about.
“On a guitar?” he said.
This had two immediate consequences. First, I realized that this guy might actually know what he was talking about. Second, I instantly felt like an idiot, because the truth is it was highly unlikely that we were getting capsule distortion from a guitar.
“Okay, I’ll try it,” I told him.
He said, “I don’t mean to get in the way.”
I said, “Not a problem, tell me anything you want. I don’t mind, really.” I still had no idea who he was.
“There you go, butting in, making everyone tense,” Fran said.
“No really, I don’t mind, it’s not a problem,” I said. Which is the truth. I don’t get my back up at all when people pipe in. It makes them feel a part of the process and I could potentially learn something. I don’t have much ego invested in engineering. When it comes to recording music I’m just a meatball engineer. I told the guy as much and invited him to stand behind the console and help me with the mix.
We tried the song again with the U-87. Fran’s guitar was still distorted, damn it. There were other issues as well; my helpful new friend had me tweak all the levels, and he thought Fran’s lead vocal was peaking out of the mix too much. He wanted more compression on it. This was a problem. I didn’t have separate compression on the various vocals. I am aware that ideally you have access to separate compression on everything but I don’t have that many compressors. It’s a radio studio, not a recording studio, and because we usually have to do things fast I try to keep it simple.
So there wasn’t much I could do about Fran’s lead vocal except try to keep the guitar and bass up. Except the guitar was still distorted. I was starting to feel under the gun. We needed to start the interview. My new friend suggested there was a problem with the strip on the console. I agreed and plugged the guitar into a different strip. It corrected the distortion but I was still wasn’t happy with the sound of the U-87 on the guitar. But we were running late and I had to let it go.
I was starting to regret allowing my new friend to help. Although I am no crackerjack music engineer, when I do a mix on the fly I pretty much have to trust my instincts. He was taking the mix in a different direction than I would have and it wasn’t sitting properly. I have no doubt that if he were sitting at the board he could have made it work. But he wasn’t sitting at the board, I was. I had to forego what I would have done and second guess him. Second guessing rarely makes anything better. Plus I was embarrassed about the distorted guitar and the lack of compression, and a tad tense.
In his defense, he had apologized for interfering and I had invited him repeatedly to help. And in his mind I was probably butchering his baby.
Finally we decided the sound we had would have to do and began the interview. Fran and Dougie would play the song at the end of the interview. Halfway through the interview, Jian (our host) asked Fran and Dougie why their superstar producer was tagging along. Only then did I realize that this producer fellow helping me might be someone special in the world of rock music.
They played the song and I wasn’t really happy with the sound. It wasn’t awful but it wasn’t great. I was too embarrassed to even look at the producer. He made a couple of suggestions about levels and I tried to follow them.
“I’m sorry it probably wasn’t as good as you would have liked,” I told him afterward.
He clapped me on the shoulder and shook my hand, and I thought, well at least he’s a decent guy.
Fran and Dougie were decent too… they thanked me sincerely and shook my hand on the way out. I listened to the mix afterward with another engineer and we decided that it wasn’t quite as bad as I’d feared. My Q mates seemed to think it was okay.
Shortly afterward I was standing overlooking the CBC atrium when a friend looked out and said, “Geez, is that Nigel Godrich over there?”
I told him I’d just worked with him and asked him just who the heck this Nigel Godrich fellow was, anyway. And he proceeded to tell me.
And I’m awfully glad I didn’t know ‘til then.