Here’s a video that I worked on for RedBull Media in 2015. It features Manon Mathews and Bree Esserig, a pair of very smart, funny young actresses. They’re already semi-famous… they were stopped for photos a number of times… but I’m sure they’ll go far.
My good friend Sandy Andrews happens to be a commercial photographer in Columbia, SC, so when I travelled there for the IPMS Nationals, I brought the Polyribbon with me and we headed over to his studio. These shots are the result. Sandy does catalog work for some very high-profile clients, so he’s got the chops (and the equipment, and the space) to shoot some really nice images. Hopefully you’ll see these in Mix Magazine someday!
While this looks like a vintage mic, everything in it is brand new. Les Watts, the designer, is a little bit neurotic when it comes to accuracy and quality… everything on this mic is executed with tolerances that are extremely close, which makes building these very time consuming and expensive. The banding around the headbasket is hand-filed brass that is then nickel-plated, the edges of the grille are all soldered. The frame that holds the magnets are assembled with dowel pins instead of screws, since screws have microscopic gaps that affect the magnetic reluctance of the frame. The wrinkle paint finish on the body is a custom formulation that Les had made just for this mic.
This mic has plain knobs because Les had trouble finding a laser engraver who could maintain the proper accuracy. Since each knob has to be handmade, a screw-up by the engraver would cost hours of work, so they have to be extremely careful. We’ve since located a supplier, so the new mics will have knobs with laser engraved and infilled legends. A simple silkscreened legend is much easier to make and looks the same at first, but these rub off after a few years. Les builds these with an expected lifespan in excess of fifty years, and all materials are selected for longevity.
These mics really need to be seen- and heard- to be appreciated. If you’re interested in acquiring one for your studio, contact me for a demonstration!
Here’s a link to a project that I worked on recently. The band is called Spinster… they’re three sisters with classical music training. One lives on the west coast, one in Chattanooga, and one in Costa Rica, so they don’t get to play very often. We recorded a series of three songs this summer, they’ll eventually be posted on YouTube
We set it up as a live multitrack recording with no overdubs, so it’s very much a live performance video. It’s also the first chance that I got to use the Polyribbon. I used it on lead vocalsfor two songs… very smooth. And just to change things up a bit, we tried it on the upright bass for one song, which gave a teriffic sound. No EQ was used on the Polyribbon signal.
Recorded on the Sound Devices 664. It was mixed using the Harrison Mixbus 32C using Universal’s EMT 140 plate reverb on the vocals. Instruments are pretty much dry. Noise reduction and mastering via Izotope RX Pro and Adobe Soundbooth.
Hopefully I can get them in the studio this summer for an album. Enjoy!
After several years of searching, I finally stumbled upon one of the first pro audio jobs I ever did. Below is an aircheck tape from WCBD, 1986. I started there around ’84, and it took awhile for me to move up to the audio chair. And after I survived the “practical joke*” by the commercial switchers, I managed to hold onto the position for several years.
*The way it worked at Channel 2 (most stations, probably) is we’d have an on-air switcher in Master Control… his job was to make sure all the commercials aired according to the schedule. A few minutes before the newscast, we would ask for “control,” where the Production Dept would get audio and video control of the signal, and the little red On Air light on the console would illuminate, and I’d punch the audio on the ADM audio console, and Tim Coghill (Director) would switch the video on a Grass Valley video switcher in the booth next door. They would take back control during the commercial breaks, then throw it to us just before we went on.
I remember having meeting with the news director where he would ask “Why is the audio bad?” I didn’t know what he was talking about. Then one night in the middle of the newscast, I happened to notice that the little red light wasn’t on. I said in the intercom, “I don’t have control… why don’t I have control?” and the little red light suddenly blinked on.
What was happening was that Chuck (Mikell) and the other switcher (Earl, I think) thought it would be funny to take audio control and screw around with the volume. I was brand new, and it was all I could do to keep up with the script, so I never thought to look at the on-air light. I think Chuck got a few days off, and the mysterious complaints from the news director stopped.
Chuck was a lot less curt towards me after that, and we became good friends after I went to a reggae show downtown one night. I think I went either by myself, or maybe with Kyle Meadows… but at any rate I was practically the only white person in the place. Chuck was there, and found it hilarious ( “Oh, SHIT… skinny white sound guy diggin’ de reggae…”) he nicknamed me “Rasta” from then on.
Sadly, Big Chuck Mikell died of a heart attack when he was only 49.
Here’s a trailer for a feature that I worked on last spring. I just filled in as a relief mixer on the second unit, but still, it’s a feature… in theaters now. It was a last-minute call… their main mixer woke up one morning with carpal tunnel so bad that he couldn’t move his arm! But after a night off, he was back to work. They called me for another scene, but I was scheduled for something else, unfortunately.
The location for the party scene- a house near Franklin TN
I first met Claire Lynch when she was the lead vocalist for the Front Porch String Band, when I recorded the band on location for an undergraduate project. This would have been around 1981. (Unfortunately, the tapes were lost long ago.) Jump ahead 35 years, Claire has her own band and has won the IBMA’s Best Female Vocalist Award… twice… so it goes without saying that she’s a pretty amazing singer and songwriter. (Don’t take my word for it… listen to one of her songs.) And she’s coming to Barking Legs in Chattanooga, 8pm this Friday night. Claire’s website is here.
Barking legs is a SUPER venue for this concert. If you’ve never been there, it’s a small performance space. The most it’ll hold is maybe 150-175 people, and the furthest seat back is 4 rows away. The only way you’ll get a better seat is to have her play at your house.
I normally try to do a location recording when she comes to town, but won’t get the chance this time… I’m in the middle of a 3-day shoot for TLC. I should be able to just make the concert, though.
She doesn’t play here very often, so if you’re into progressive bluegrass at all, don’t miss this chance to hear her play– show starts at 8pm. Tickets are $21 in advance, available on the Barking Legs website (shortcut)
As I’ve said before, Harrison’s Mixbus is my DAW of choice. Sure, I’ve used ProTools like everybody else. And it works fine, but I don’t exactly love it for a number of reasons. I discovered Mixbus at a Nashville AES event, and was an immediate fan & early adopter. It’s been through a number of versions, the most recent being Mixbus 3.4. I used it to mix a recent live music project. Here’s the workflow:
Since I don’t have a studio anymore, I rarely use Mixbus for tracking. Instead I like to use a dedicated recorder. First choice would be an Otari MX80 or MTR90 2″ 24-track, but I haven’t had access to one of those in a long time… and at about 350 pounds, it isn’t exactly practical for location work. So instead, I used my Sound Devices 664. It can record up to 12 channels, but I did this recording before I got my new CL-12 controller, so six channels is easier… six faders and six XLR inputs. As this was a three-person band, six tracks would work. Track assignments on most tracks were three vocals, bass, kick, and accordion. There were other instruments as well– most notably percussion consisting of a washboard played with toilet brushes and a tambourine that was played by Rachel’s left foot while her right foot played the kick– but these were picked up with the main vocal mic, the Watts Polyribbon , as well as the instrument mics. The other two mics were headworn earwires via a Lectrosonics wireless. Most of my instrument mics were handbuilt large-diaphragm condensers, except for the mandolin and guitar, when I brought out my Oktavia 012.
“Spinsters” location recording session in a burned-out house, summer 2016 in Chattanooga, TN
The final output will be a music video, but it was to be shot in one continuous take. So everything needed to be captured live… no overdubs or punch-ins, just individual track sweetening and mixing. We recorded in a burned-out house, which gave an interesting room sound. It was kind of reflective, but not in the usual sense. No soft surfaces anywhere, since most of them burned, but there were lots of irregular surfaces to break up standing waves. A fairly short reverb time, not a huge space, but nice high ceilings. Hard to describe, other than to say it was an interesting, nice space.
Once the capture was complete, I brought it home to mix. My preference is to do all the editing in the box, then use a multi channel interface to output the individual tracks to my rebuilt Soundcraft 800. But again the practicalities of space and weight rear their heads… the mixer is up in Nashville and all my other gear is in storage, so for simplicity’s sake I’ll mix this on my desktop. My audio computer consists of a Mac Mini with a 3TB thunderbolt external drive for the audio. I have a Universal Audio Apollo Twin interface that I use as a monitor controller and a dongle for my UA plugins (you have to have some kind of Universal Audio hardware connected in order to get the plugins to work.) UA plugins are somewhat expensive, but they work well and are far cheaper than their hardware equivalents… I like them a lot. My main reverb is the EMT140 plate, though I’ve got the Lexicon 224 plugin on my watchlist… I’m waiting for a good sale!
The mixbus screenshot for “mule.” This one was a pretty simple mix since there are only four tracks… two vocals, guitar and bass.
The reason I’m such a Mixbus fan is that it looks and feels like an analog mixer. Each input channel has a full EQ section and an onboard compressor, just as Harrison’s analog mixers had. I can import individual WAV files from the 664 and it opens up an 8 channel mix surface in Mixbus. (Update: Just this morning I purchased Harrison’s new Mixbus 32C, which is their newest version of Mixbus. It functions in a similar manner to the standard Mixbus, but features an exact emulation of the Harrison X32 console, with expanded EQ, filtering, and compression options. Watch for a review once I’ve had a chance to thouroughly test it out.)
“Mule” was a pretty simple song to mix, as there were only two vocal mics (my handbuilt LDCs), a guitar mic (Oktavia 012), and an upright bass (Watts Polyribbon), The first two tracks in the screenshot are muted– these are the field mixes from the 664, not used in the final mix. Rachel Vox is a harmony track, Amelia sings lead on this song. I added a little brightness to her vocal and guitar using Harrison’s EQ, then smoothed out the levels a bit with some compression. The only plugin I used was the EMT140 plate, which I tried not to overdo… remember, this is for video, and it might look weird to have lots of post effects in the mix. But this is a slow ballad, so I felt it needed little more ‘verb than the other songs.
Izotope RX5 Advanced screenshot. While some of these tools are available as plugins, I bought the standalone version, which has more capabilities. I’m hooked on the de-noise and de-plosive modules, which fixed problems that were unfixable in the past.
This song has some quiet passages, and noise from outside the house was more noticeable. Windows were broken in the fire, the house is on a fairly busy street, and nearby AC units all added together to give us more background noise than I’d have liked. RX5 Advanced is the answer to this problem, so I exported the mix as a FLAC and opened this in RX5.
I bought this program for noise reduction and sweetening of voice narration, but it works great in this application as well. I used the spectral de-noise module to learn a short sample of the ambient noise at the end of the track, and applied this profile to the entire song. It worked like a charm. Every time I use this program, I’m amazed at the results. It has lots of other functions and capabilities, but I left most of this alone, as I didn’t want to overprocess the song. I exported this as a WAV file.
To finalize the track, I opened it in Adobe Soundbooth CS5. Adobe abandoned this program when they went to CS6, but I’ve always found it great to use, especially for cleanup, editing, etc. I trimmed the head and the tail, added fade in and fade out, and saved as an MP3 (which Izotope can’t do). Job done… here’s the audio track:
I’ll post the video as soon as it becomes available.
Here’s a recent project that I worked on for Seftel/Smartypants Pictures. This was a one-day shoot with two crews, and included footage for two web spots. Location sound was provided by myself and Atlanta mixer Jay Ticer.
I’ve recently installed a new, very powerful noise reduction software package, RX5 Advanced. It’s a 2-track spectral repair and mastering program that has some abilities that are pretty amazing. It’s not exactly a miracle worker… it can’t take poorly-recorded audio and magically make it good. But it can improve a lot of problem files, some of them dramatically.
Since I’ve just started using it, there are a lot of features that I’ve only started to explore. But what I’ve seen so far is is really fun. The display is a spectrograph, where frequency is displayed on the Y axis (up and down), time on the X axis (left to right), and intensity as brightness… louder sounds are brighter. A standard waveform is overlaid in blue, and there’s a slide that lets you adjust the display for pure spectrogram, pure waveform, or anything in between. The end result is a lot of information about your file that you can quickly and easily understand. For example, see the horizontal bands in the lower right corner? That’s a train horn in the distance. The darker bands before and after the loudest parts of the file are where I’ve applied the denoise module… this file was recorded outdoors, and there was interstate noise in the distance that sounds a lot like white noise. The program was able to learn the background noise and reduce it significantly, while not affecting the direct voice signal much at all… extremely useful.
The program has tons of other features that I haven’t had a chance to try yet but promise to be useful. For example, there’s an ambience match that can add “room tone” to a voice track that was recorded on location. I can think of a half dozen times when the de-reverb module would have come in handy.
“Adaptive Phase Rotation” module
One of my favorite modules so far is the Adaptive Phase Rotation feature. This fixes a typically pesky problem of asymmetric waveforms, where there is more amplitude on one side of the infinity line at the center of the screen than the other. Sonically it isn’t a problem and sounds fine, but it robs you of headroom… when you normalize, one side of the waveform limits the amplitude, and your signal is overall slightly lower. (Besides, it bugs me to have a lopsided waveform. I like my waveforms neat and tidy.) With this module, one click corrects the problem without affecting the sound of your signal.
Right now I’m running it on my little 2.6gHz Mac Mini with 8gb of memory. It does OK on the internal drive, but some of the processes take a few minutes on long files (like declicking a 2-sided album). I’ve ordered a 3TB 7200rpm Thunderbolt hard drive that will be dedicated to audio only, and I’ll probably up the memory to 16gb (max for the Mac Mini) first chance I get.
There is so much more that this program can do, it would take weeks to go over it all. And I’m just getting started. But it’s a GREAT tool to have in my audio arsenal, and I’m looking forward to offering it to clients (and generating some additional revenue with it.)
I’ve just completed testing of the Polyribbon that Les sent me, and it’s ready to go. This is easily the finest sounding ribbon microphone that I’ve ever heard. The older RCA77 series suffered from a lack of high end, but this design corrects that deficiency with a response well past 18k. Low output voltage was also a problem, requiring lots of preamp gain (and increasing the preamp self-noise.) This mic comes in at a little hotter than an SM57.
The pattern selector switch is what makes this mic truly unique. This mic can be set to fig 8 like a traditional ribbon, supercardioid, or omni. In figure 8, the side rejection nulls are extremely deep… the mic only hears reflections from the room walls. Try vocals in supercardioid, the side rejection is good, though not as deep as fig 8. A small back lobe lets in some room reflections for a very natural sound. The omni setting has some high-frequency attenuation in the back side of the mic due to the shadow effect of the headbasket.
Proximity effect can be considerable with ribbon mics, and it varies with the pattern on this mic. A two position low cut inductor is provided to help with the equalization. At the max cut position (full clockwise), the filter is calibrated for a flat response at 300mm. The supercardioid setting exhibits moderate proximity effect, there’s a less aggressive filter setting for this. Omni exhibits no proximity effect.
I haven’t gotten this in front of some talent yet… I can’t wait to get to Nashville. Upright bass through this thing should be a signal to die for, as well as vocals. Sax would probably be pretty nuts as well.
The first production Watts Polyribbon in its case.
My friend Les Watts isn’t just an exemplary mic designer. Here’s a video of his latest patent award, the Hear Doggy! It’s a chew toy like most, except it has an ultrasonic squeaker inside. the dogs hear it, but we can’t. Shadow loves it!
Me with Reggie Young, one of the original Nashville Cats.
Reggie Young is a Nashville session guitar playerwho has played on a LOT of hit records. He was one of the “Memphis Boys” and is on about 120 hit records, including several by Elvis, Johnny Cash, The Highwaymen, an was even on a Beatles single. I interviewed him for the upcoming American Masters special on The Highwaymen for PBS/Jim Brown Productions.
I’ve been working with Les Watts for some years now on a new microphone design. Les calls it the Polyribbon. It’s the first multi-pattern ribbon mic built since (I believe) the old RCA 77DX ribbon mic, last built in 1967. The problem with the 77, though, is pretty dismal high frequency response, which drops of around 8k.
The Polyribbon is flat to over 16k. And the output is higher, about the same as a SM57. So far, there’s only one retail-ready version of this mic built, serial number 81501. And it just arrived at my house.
This one is still undergoing some functional tests, but I couldn’t wait to show it off, so here a re a few pictures. I’m going to rep these mics for Les, so contact me for an audition if you’re in the Atlanta-Nashville-Knoxville area. Retail price for these will be $3,895. This mic is 100% handmade in the USA and uses no Chinese motors or subassemblies. (The case for this first mic was made overseas, but we’re trying to source some nice handmade wooden boxes as well.)
The inside of this mic is complex to say the least, and is full of resonators, wave plates, labyrinths, etc. The basic design is a dual ribbon, with one having a horn-loaded back through an acoustic labyrinth chamber. (more about this later.) Les includes a cutaway illustration in the manual, and it goes without saying that you don’t want to open this thing up and poke around inside. Everything is sealed… even the shafts of the low-cut filter and pattern selector switches are sealed with O-rings.
Some sample audio files will be coming up shortly, as well as response curves, etc. It’s an incredible instrument, with a sonic character that’s Frank-Sinatra-smooth… something that you can only get with a ribbon mic. (And Les’ custom-designed, hand-wound transformer doesn’t hurt, either. Watch this space for more information!
I was lucky enough to be called on a Nashville shoot recently. All I had was an address, didn’t know who or where. It turned out that we were shooting at Cash Cabin studios… as in JOHNNY Cash… shooting IBMA and Grammy winner Shawn Camp with country music legend Loretta Lynn. We recorded not just interviews, but several duets with Loretta and Shawn, and I had the best seat in the house. At 82 years old, her voice is still as strong as ever.
Loretta Lynn with Shawn Camp
Cash Cabin studio is just rotten with country music history as well. It was originally built in the seventies as a getaway for Johnny Cash. As his health began to decline in the nineties it was converted into a studio to avoid trips into Nashville studios. There are artifacts galore all over the place… like a letter to his 10-year-old son John Carter Cash showing the chords for I Walk The Line, photos, classic amps, mics… about the only thing missing was a nice big old analog console. Like most folks, they do everything on ProTools now, as it’s still a working studio.
While it’s generally frowned upon, I couldn’t resist a few quick photos. Enjoy!
Thanks to my friends at Trew Audio, I’ve recently made some significant upgrades to the wireless department. I’ve sold my old Lectrosonics 211’s and replaced them with a new SRb dual digital receiver. This one has the optional battery back, making it possible to use this as a wireless camera hop. A single-unit hop is much preferred by camera operators over a dual unit, since there’s one less receiver to mount on the camera and one less battery to worry about.
I’ve also upgraded two of my transmitters to SMQV types, with selectable output power levels. (And since I hold an FCC operator’s license, I can legally use the 200mW power setting if necessary.) One of the neat features of these transmitters is the remote control iPhone app. I can change channels, levels, sleep and wake the transmitters by playing a tone on my iPhone rather than digging into the talent’s pockets all the time.