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Interview with Engineer Jim Pavett

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Jim Pavett is a Grammy-nominated engineer working out of his studio in Arizona. His studio, Allusion Studios, has been around for a long time and is one of the most prominent recording studios in southern Arizona. He's worked with diverse artists such as Marty Friedman of Megadeath, Alicia Keys, and Beyond Words. His method and attitude towards digital recordings is what makes his recording crystal clear and pristine. Not only stuck to the studio as he has done multiple on location recordings, the more prominent location being the Great Wall of China. I had the opportunity of interviewing him on a variety of subjects concerning audio recording, mixing and the modern state of the studio business.

Photo by Joe Ancona Productions

Tell us a little bit about how it all got started for you in the audio industry.

I was a young kid in my teens, and always had a passion for really high-end gear. So at the age of 13-14 I bought the second generation 4-track cassette deck ever made - the Tascam 244 I believe. A few months later I got an SPX-90 and that kinda kicked it all off. From there I literally started the name of Allusion Studios, which is the same name I hold today. And here I am.

How do you record in your facility?

It's multi-room with plenty of ISO booths. A little bit different than anybody else. Instead of having a huge room and using Gobos to isolate everything, I have the guitar player, bass player and drummer all in the same room, but the walls are wired to where their amplifiers are in separate rooms. So you have full isolation, but you get the full visual and feeling of the band playing all at once but getting the sound quality of overdubs.

Since the beginning, you've always been in digital. So would you classify yourself as a modern recording engineer, as opposed to somebody who's striving for that vintage sound?

Yes and no. What has allowed me to sift through all the fads and all the misinformation is my education in electrical engineering - years of doing analog and digital research through my degree. I'd read interviews in magazines, whether it's Mix or EQ or whatever. In these magazines you'd notice that someone was being endorsed by some company and they're just doing whatever the marketing ploy was to try to sell gear, and none of it was really true.

So when digital first came out, let's say the Tascam DA-88 - a 16 bit machine - sounded phenomenal. It was a great machine but people were like, "Oh well, digital sounds harsh and it's this and that."

Well....no, it's actually 99.9% exactly what you're putting into it, and if you're compensating your high-end EQ all the time, because you're used to analog not giving it to you back and you're doing the same thing by sticking a digital recorder in there, then yeah, it's going to sound harsh. You know, if you're talking 12 bit or 8 bit, yeah, that was horrible sounding. (laughs)

There was that whole analog-digital war and as far as I'm concerned I have so much low end, and digital for me has always been amazing. Back in the day everything rolled off at 40Hz so there's actually a lot more low-end management that you have to do when you're recording now.

Does digital sound different? Yes. But with a little bit of compression and if you want some saturation, great! You can create that stuff and still have an amazing sounding recording in digital.

I never thought that digital was a subpar technology. The reality of that over the years, which is why I created my educational series, is that it's not the technology that sounds worse, it's that the parts that are coming out are no longer being held within a professional environment. It's by people that don't have degrees as audio engineers or any kind of engineering background at all, they just throw up some speakers in a room and call themselves a studio.

But that's not how you make great records. It's the knowledge. So I decided to create a full educational series to kind of combat that and help educate the public on how to be better.

Tell us a little bit about this educational series.

Well, for years I've always wanted to do some kind of educational product. And it's something that I would not be able to complete on my own since I'm kind of a practical perfectionist. I don't go too crazy, but I like stuff to be done right, put my best foot forward.

But I like to teach from a different way. People might think that recording is learning a particular software program. The manual of the software program teaches you how to use that program - which doesn't teach you anything about the art and science of recording. So, with my understanding of the technology and the laws of physics, I decided to take that information and really start teaching people the physics of sound, because, it's not really about the equipment.

You could give me a (Shure SM) 57 and a cassette four-track and I'm going to do wonders with it because I not only have all the knowledge, but I have over 20+ years of experience. You could give a brand new student my half a million dollar facility here and it's going to sound like crap (laughs) because they don't know what they're doing (laughs). So it's not really about the equipment, it's about the knowledge, your expertise and what you do with it.

So the first two DVDs in the series presents the physics of sound, and it's kind of a general knowledge about everything in the studio - "What you should know." It's not too math-oriented, but we do show all the diagrams and frequency charts and such.

And as we go through this, the 3rd DVD is going to be all about acoustics. People need to understand that everything that produces sound is coupled to it's environment. Whether that's an instrument, or whether that's your speakers. I could buy a 60 thousand dollar pair of speakers, if I put them in a bathroom or gymnasium it's going to sound horrible. So people need to understand that buying these expensive speakers does not mean you will have the best mix in the world. Especially when they're mixing in a harsh environment.

So we're going to go through multiple phases of different scenarios of The Songwriter, The Low-Budget Studio and The Professional Studio, figuring out how all these different scenarios might be acoustically treated.

And then we'll have DVDs that will be, let's say, one full, maybe dual DVD on just drum miking techniques. Going through all the different scenarios and actually give you live examples of how microphones work, listening to the difference between this position, that position etc. What happens when you have three of the same exact microphones one inch away from each other, what do they sound like? What do they sound like one foot away from each other? So even in the first two DVDs, we've actually done some of that stuff already, just in the microphone techniques section. Testing and giving you sounds that you could realistically hear. And we did it here in my actual studio so we were able to control what we were doing and making sure it was the real deal.

Photo by Joe Ancona Productions

For drum miking samples using different microphones, check out Jim's microphone sample page at Pure Wave Audio.

What's your mixing system like?

The current system is a mixerless Nuendo/Wavelab system that has really high-end, discrete mic pres and Lynx converters. We're using Millenia, Neve and SPL for most of our mic pre-amps. About half are tube, half are solid-state. We also have Universal Audio, the 610 for some vintage qualities.

Compression wise we're using the Distressor and 1176, and the Neve channel-box has some compression built-in too. Inside the box we're using the Duende SSL plugins that have all the amazing EQ's and the bus compressors built into it. We also have the Quad UAD2 card in there, with almost every plugin available, and also the Waves platinum plugins.

So you're doing all of your mixing inside the box?

Yeah, you know one of the things about mixing in the box is depending on your platform. Different platforms whether it's Pro-Tools, Nuendo, perform differently. And Nuendo seems to be the most amazing platform that doesn't have any limitations. It's a full 32 bit floating point system. So you're not losing anything when you're doing calculations in the box. Other systems, I can't say that, they're fixed point systems.

And because of that, if you want the best and you're doing more than 16 tracks of audio, you really have to mix outside the box. Whether that's mixing in the box and then using an analog summing device, like an SSL or a SPL, or if you want some flavor you want to get a Neve summing box. But the SPL and SSL mixing boxes are really pristine, high-end boxes. With Nuendo and my system, I don't feel a need for that. I've actually done tests with Nuendo and pristine summing boxes. And we will just say, I am not using a summing box.

Let's talk a little bit about recording. As a drummer, do you find that you concentrate more on the foundation of the song, as a producer/engineer? Do you build it like a house?

Yeah, you know one of the things I found out through working with many songs over the years is that you have to have that solid foundation of the rhythm section. Your drums are kind of like your stereo palette that everything is then applied on top of. And if your drum sound is just not that great, and let's say you have the most amazing guitar sounds and vocal sounds, usually when a listener listens to that they'll say, "Well this is a horrible recording, something just doesn't sound right." But if you have the most amazing drum sounds and you have really crappy sounding guitars usually the perspective of the listener will be "Wow, that's a cool production idea that they did to the guitars."

(Laugh)

They don't actually think it's a bad recording, it's just a choice.

Yeah, so I did a test once, with one of my friends who had this amazing $20,000 home stereo system. And he's like, "Find the best CDs in your CD collection and I'm going to find the ten best CDs in my CD collection. Come on over and we'll do a listening test."

When I started finding these albums, they didn't have everything they were supposed to, and what was missing was the low end. And what I've noticed is that the low end is what makes the band sound either close, or far away from you and weak.

What I thought were going to be the CDs I was going to bring over to his house did not make the cut. Hearing them on my normal home stereo was like, "No, that's not it." The production is amazing, but it's not the final sound I was looking for.

So I finally grabbed ten CDs, went over to his place and started creating this scale that was like, "What row are we sitting in?" I feel like I'm in the 400th row - not good enough. Then we pop in a CD and be like, "I'm sitting in the 5th row, this is amazing." You're right there, it's in your face. And it doesn't mean it's dry, it just means that it's...

Close?

It's close, and full - and bam it's right there. And that's what I like. That's my personal preference. I can do anything for a client, but that's my personal preference. If I was going to produce something I want it to sound like the 5th row.

So we did come up with a good, ten CDs that were just amazing sounding. And they were different, some were more lower, some were a little brighter, some were a little more organic, but they all had that "right there" sound. And a lot of that had to do with the low end of the album. And that low end is very tied into what the drums sound like. That was kind of like a huge realization about 5-6 years ago that really started changing a lot of thing on how I start mixing and what was important.

Do you want to name drop any of those recordings you were talking about?

Yeah, "Cryptic Writings" by Megadeath has a really well produced sound and has an amazing bass guitar sound. Avril Lavigne's album "Let Go" I consider to be the perfect mix, mixed by Chris Lord Alge. Bonnie Raitt's "Luck of the Draw" is a good one, as well as James Taylor's "Hourglass". I use two of my own for reference as well, Amber Norgaard's "Rising" and Ozlo's self titled album "Ozlo". I keep all of them on file on my hard drive, so I can always compare if I need to.

Since drums and low end are so important, what's your take on the bass player?

Now, when I produce a band, the one thing that I tell people is that the bass player is the most important part of the band. Whoever you choose as a studio musician to come in, or if it's the band itself, that bass part is the most important. And people are like, "What are you talking about? It's the songwriter/rhythm and the vocals." Well yeah, in the final mix, it's all about the vocal and whatever the lead instrument is, coming to the audience. But that bass part makes that song.

That song can be a heavy rock song, it can be a country song and it can be a jazz song just because the bass player changes what he's playing underneath that songwriter's chord and vocal. So unless you get the bass figured out, that song could fall apart and just go in any direction it shouldn't be going. And that bass player has to be the most solid thing.

If you have an amazing player with an amazing instrument and that low end comes through, you get that close produced sound. You get the right sound for the song in note selection and it ties in with the drummer better because he's aware of what's going on rhythmically. That's what changes the productions out there.

So when recording, do you use a lot of EQ and compression when going in?

Well, over the years, depending on what equipment I have for use, things have changed. Obviously there are people out there like Al Schmitt, that don't use EQ whether they're mixing nor tracking. You know, if he's working on a big orchestra thing and the violins aren't just popping out then he changes the microphone to a different microphone that has more presence to it. I totally applaud that philosophy. You need to capture right, you need to put it in the system right. That being said, should you be scared to touch an EQ? Absolutely not. It you need to radically do something, then you need to radically do something.

Are you using any special brands of microphones or are you just using the normal standards, the 414s, the U87s...?

Over the years I started out small but slowly upgraded. I used a U87 to find my benchmarks and I found some mics that really sounded as good back when I did have a budget, and those microphones I still have today in my mic collection. But you know, for the drums I've been using a lot of Audix. They're dynamics and condensers and they're pencil condensers. D2, D4, D6, i5, I don't have any (Shure SM) 57s anymore. All my 57s are now i5s, just because it's a better microphone design. Sounds very similar, but better. SCX-25s, SCX-1s, then I have a U67 which is usually one of my main vocal mics. So I have the number 1 tube vintage mic that a lot of people use.

But some of the new manufacturers have some amazing technology, like SE-Gemini II. If I had a choice between my U67 or the SE Gemini II I'm gonna grab the Gemini. Because I don't have to EQ that one. But on the U67 I always like to just....add a hair of EQ. I also have the SE Titan, which is a Titanium diaphragm which has just a little extra brilliance to the microphone. The new Neve SE series RnR-1 ribbon mic - it's the first ribbon mic to go all the way up to 25 Khz. And it's just a work of art when you look at this thing, so I've been using that thing on everything lately.

I also have a Royer 122 that I use, AT4050s, great all around mics. I just acquired recently for the first time ever C-414 TL-2s. Haven't been using them much, but I'm getting them in there once in a while.

The microphone that I've been using a little bit, and I want to explore more is the SE4400 A microphone. It's kind of like the C-414 in the sense that it has all these different controls, all these different patterns, roll offs and pads. But the mounting system is just amazing because it's shock-mounted and you can have it within the cradle, but you can also flip it around to where the cradles is here and the microphone is out by itself. It's still shock-mounted but it's not in the way of the cradle so you can get it really close to tom drums and not have that shock-mount in the way. So that's kind of the next thing I want to dig into, and start experimenting with more condensers as drum mics.

People are always very interested in kick drum sounds, and you have a very interesting approach to miking up your kickdrum.

I have a May mic system built into my kick drum, so there's a clip inside of it. What I'm using is a (Audix) D6 and it's about ¾ back from the beater head into the drum. It's pointing a little bit towards the beater head but it's only about 2-3 inches off the actual shell itself.

And I have a XLR jack mounted to the shell of my DW drum. But what this allows me to do is actually close the front head of the drum, so I get the full resonance of the drum. Now, the D6 has a V-curve kind of EQ already. It has a lot of low end, and a lot of high end. So now when you close this drum up, here's what you get - you get more low end resonance, you get the boom of the drum coming through, and with the D6 in there it's able to get all that, so you don't need double mics.

You don't need one mic inside on the beater, you don't need one mic outside the drum which not only is going to bleed from all your cymbals. But you don't have to put any absorption to block all that. So for me, it's the ultimate system. I get everything I've ever wanted, and it's built in. All I have to do is, literally plug an XLR cable into my drum and it's done. I get the same sound at gigs too.

When mixing, what do you start doing?

I edit all the tracks, get rid of all the noise, do whatever kind of fade-ins needed, and deal with problems. After that, I start working on the drum sound.

These days, when you're working in the box, your scratch mix can be the starting point of your mix. If it's one of those things that was written in the studio, you probably have a pretty good scratch mix already going on that you wanna work off of. But I normally start from scratch and I try to get the drum mix as clean as possible. I want every nuance of every instrument to come through and also try to get rid of every nuance that I don't like; tom ringing for instance.

Once I have a really good mix on the drums, I will keep going back and tweaking things as more instruments are put into the mix. A lot of times when you're soloing things, you'll actually give it more low end and fullness than it really needs to be in the final mix. So I try to keep that in mind.

So you don't end up with a very muddy or boomy drumkit in the end if you...

If you're EQing the drumset by itself, after a while you kind of know not to go there (adding more low end) because you know what works by experience. You wait until you have more things in the mix going on.

So I usually start with the drums, and whether you're using room mics on the drumkit, or a plug-in reverb, the reverb is going to tell the story of the song. That's your ambiance that the rest of the band might be in. For me that's a big issue of where the song is going.

So along with the drums I'll also be looking at the vocals. If I personally tracked the song I already have an idea of where to go. But I usually start with the drums and start building. I spend a lot of time on the bass. For me, the low end is the most important, and the hardest. It's kind of that thing you have to wrestle with a little bit and really get dialed in correctly. Otherwise it'll be too subby or too obnoxious. You won't hear all the notes. So that's where I start, it's the whole foundation of the song.

So when you've got the drum reverb going, would you say you try to fit the rest of the instruments like they were inside that same room?

Ah, sometimes yes, sometimes no. If you're going for that sound, then yeah, that's the reverb I'll be using on the guitars and other rhythms. I'll probably be using less reverb on the guitars and more delays and interesting little nuances though. But it could be possible that there's no reverb on the rest of the instruments and there's only delays, the drums only having reverb or it's just the room mics going. Then it's all about the vocals, the vocal reverb and trail delays. It just really depends on what the song is and where it's going.

What's your take on compression? Do you slam things, or do you like to let them breathe?

When it comes to actual tracking with compression I use minimal compression to add a little extra body and keep things in check. But I don't slam stuff ever, just minimal low ratios. Bass guitar, vocals, acoustic and lead guitar. Around 2dB on 2:1 ratio for control. I'm not opposed to putting things to a higher ratio, but I usually don't. I'm looking for the nuances of the instrument and sometimes compression will rip all that out of the instrument.

A lot of people do the drum compression thing but I actually don’t. I play with it every once in a while, usually only in the mix, never on the way in. I am very well known for my drum sounds. I love them too, they're alive and real. But you have to have a good drummer that plays consistently.

The drummer that hits the kick drum really light and then on every first beat of the measure cracks the hell out of it is going to be very problematic. You get some super high end and then you get it super dull for the rest of the song. That's stuff you have to pull out a lot of tools to try to fix.

If you're going to use compression it's to tailor the sound, not to fix the sound. So I don't really do the whole stereo room mic squash. I play around with it but it's not a necessity for me.

So you're not a big fan of the New York Compression Trick?

When it's done right it's great. One of the problem I see in today's home studios is everybody thinks they have to use compression on everything. They don't even understand what compression is so they use presets that has no reference to what they're working with. And they got 24 channels of compression going on and they're wondering why their mix sounds like a wet dog. The reality is that you just destroyed all of your audio with something that you don't know how to use.

I use subtle stuff. A lot of times I really watch the detection circuit, whether I'm rolling off into the detection circuit or not. Then when it comes to mixing if there's something that needs to be taken care of, if it needs to be brighter I'll use 1176 or if needs a warmer sound I'll use a LA2A. I've been really getting into subtleties of gear. But I'm never really digging in more than 2-3dB.

So when you have your levels and pans set and got a rough mix going, what kind of effects are you using to take your mix from good to great?

My philosophy on effects is whatever you need that song to be what it is. But when it comes to production value , what I think is brilliant production is when you have tons of effects going on but to the average ear it's not noticeable. And that's brilliant.

So super short delays and subtle chorusing?

All sorts of crazy stuff. Maybe you might have a different reverb in a chorus or you have this one delay that comes in at this little section on the vocal. The subtleties that makes the listener know that the mix is breathing, but they don't know why. For some reason this mix sounds better than this other mix that just sounds static throughout.

When I have the freedom to do production and really go at it, I'll do things like that. It's never to purposefully do random stuff, only if it calls for it and adds to the song. That's the key, Does it add? Does it take you somewhere else? Because if it doesn't there's no point in having it in there, it just clutters everything up. I'll spend my time really working on subtle things.

But a lot of it is just delay, chorus, a little bit of reverb, not too much reverb. I might be using a doubler effect or something that changes stuff up. It's more about moving the effects around in real-time than having all these different parts. The same goes for arrangement, whether it's background vocals or when stuff comes into the song. It's the same thing. If it's always on at all times it's kinda boring, but if it pops in here or if that little background part is moving or panning across. Answer and call responses going all over the soundscape gives the listeners ear a treat.

Photo by Joe Ancona Productions

What's your work method when mastering?

90% of the time it's in the box. If it comes in digital format I'll leave it there. I do have some tube units to warm stuff up if I needed to, but with the amount of plugins I have, I can do most of the job in the box anyways. I try to stay away from multiple A/D D/A conversion. It's been a frustrating process over the years. We were given a format that had 80+dB of dynamic range. And today it's just a volume war where there's no dynamic range at all. People forgot they have a volume knob. That's what the power amp is for, not what the CD is for.

There's not one mastering conference you'll go to where you'll hear a mastering engineer say, "Oh that's so great. I love squashing the hell out of everyone’s music. It's so pleasing to my ear." I was at the last mastering convention at AES recently, and we had the ten top mastering engineers, Bob Ludwig, Doug Sax etc.. They start talking about this new Metallica album that is just destroyed!

Here they are thinking, well maybe this is the turning point. We're never going to see this again, we've finally gone too far! and now we can start going back in the other direction. And sure enough, Metallica says, "You know, we're going to leave it the way it is. We're going to go down in history as the loudest CD ever".

The reality is, louder is not better. If it turns on like a light switch for five minutes and then turns off, it's so ear fatiguing, it's so distorted and annoying to the human ear. Nobody wants to listen to that over and over. You have 80 dB of dynamic range, but now you have 2dB of dynamic range on this Metallica album, if even. I like the band but I'm not buying that CD, cause it's just a waste of talent far as I am concerned.

So people like Bob Katz have tried to put a standard in place. Somewhere between -12dB average RMS levels of the music, and that's not the peaks. The peaks will be hitting -0.1dB, they won't be hitting 0dB. If you want that super hot level you can put it to -9 but anything more than that you're just destroying everything. Multiple compression techniques, EQ and limiting are going help get you up there but a lot of home studios I hear what they're mastering and it's so distorted and clipped it's actually crunchy sounding. And then they put it to MP3.

Sometimes trying to find a good sounding CD is difficult these days. We are now turning that point in generations that kids are growing up today not knowing what a full fidelity CD sounds like. For two reasons, one is that they've never bought a CD, just downloaded it. And the second one is that CDs are being produced in bands homes now and not professional studios.

Since so much music is done in home studios today, do you think big recording studios are a league away from home studios or do you think people can get away with good recordings in home studio basement.

There is truth to both in what you're saying. If you're recording an orchestra, yes, it's all about the acoustics of that room. You need a huge acoustically treated room to take care of that. So yes, there's definitely need for a big huge, well equipped studio. That has to exist.

Now if you're going to do let's say, Sara Bareilles, she plays piano and she's a great vocalist, and she's doing pop music. Do you want to record the piano and drums at home? Not necessarily, you want that in a stellar recording space so you can get those room mics and this great sound. So that all makes a huge difference in the recording. A stellar, acoustically sound facility is what it's about. It's about the physics of sound. And that's what people need to learn. It's not about the recording equipment. It’s about the knowledge of the engineer.

So if you have an experienced engineer or producer, whether that's you or somebody else, there's no reason to go renting a $1500-2000 a day studio to do vocal tracks when you could have a nice isolated booth at your house with great recording equipment. If that's what you're going to be doing all the time, then hey, all the power to you. So yeah, is it a necessity for the big places? No, but there's definitely a reason you want to be there and do certain tracks. And most of it is the engineer or the acoustics of the facility. Most great engineers work in great facilities so it all goes hand in hand.

What do you think is the most important thing in the recording chain?

The thing to focus on is always the weakest link. Is there a difference between a recording interface all-in-one unit and separate discrete converters? Yeah. Is it subtle? It could be, depending on what brand it is and the quality of the jitter clock etc. Today we have some amazing sounding Firewire clocks. Back in the day things used to be more about name brands, like, "Oh I have this UA4A compressor and I have this Sony," where today I think it's more about what sounds good and what does the job for you.

There's so much stuff and so many manufacturers today...

And the technology has gotten better. We got to keep in mind that the technology does not sound worse today. It's way way better than it used to be 10-15 years ago. The difference is who's controlling it. I have Presonus gear that I use for live recordings and it's amazing sounding because of it's clock. In the studio I have Lynx, and I have SSL. That's my benchmark. Does that mean I can't record a Number One hit on gear that only cost $500? Absolutely not. I can record a hit, but part of that is who am I working with, how good is the song, what are my connections and experience as an engineer. That's the whole formula.

You mentioned you do on-site recording, what's you biggest on-site recording to date?

My biggest onsite recording was a situation where not only did I have to record it, but I had to build the system and fly it out there. I built a redundant 48 track (96 total), multitrack digital recorder system. Flew it out to China for the first international artist concert on the Great Wall. It consisted of Alicia Keys, Cyndi Lauper, Boyz II Men, Doyle Bramhall II, Nelly McKay and Silvia Tosun.

Pretty big names.

Very huge names. It was crazy because we had this 40 foot turntable as a stage. It was on some kind of mechanism where you flip a switch and within five minutes it would turn a full 180°. So they split the turntable with a little "Mini Great Wall".

Cyndi Lauper was performing while the Alicia Keys band was setting up on the stage behind. They had 48 channel snakes on either side that were both split. Those 96 split again to 192 channels coming into my room. I had to process all of those channels down to two redundant 48 track recorder system. And it's all live so once you go, there ain't no turning back. (laughs)

Pretty stressful, but probably pretty rewarding in the end.

Yeah it was really intense. You really get so pumped and psyched. Once you hear the director say "AND WE'RE ROLLING!"(laughs) it was just like you were running a marathon. Your adrenaline is going crazy. It was awesome.

So that's the other side of recording. On-site recording is different than being able to take your time in the recording studio.

It's a whole different beast and what you really have to watch out for in live recording is making sure you're never clipping. I just did another recording recently with the band Calexico, and they were filming for this special documentary DVD. They had over 44 microphones live on stage and we were recording 56 channels worth of audio. There were mariachis with trumpets and they're doing trumpet solos into the vocal mic instead of the trumpet mic. And then when they hit that high note note you suddenly watch your meters go "WEEEEEH." (laughs)

And it's just random, putting out fires every second. Just trying to make sure everything is not clipping. Sometimes the live thing is very stressful, because you're trying to do the best job you can and keep everybody in line, but 44 mics on stage for just a rock band?! They had two percussionist, the drummer, stand up and regular bass Two keyboard players, vibraphone and other random instruments. Two guitar players, slide, pedal steel. Bunch of vocal mics. You name it, it was there. It was intense.

Has your approach to engineering changed since you started 25 years ago, not only because of digital advance but your thoughts and mentality?

I'm sure my approach has changed over the years. In fact I notice that when there's something I want to achieve – let's say the ultimate drum sound – I spend years achieving it. Then finally I one day: "This is the ultimate drum sound! This is the holy grail." Then all of a sudden on the next project I go, well now what? And then I go in a whole different direction.

So there are things that change and sometimes you have a perspective on something that all of a sudden radically goes in a 180° direction. One of those things for me, happened to be ribbon mics. I never understood why anybody would want to use ribbon mics. And then one day the lightbulb went on and now it's like one of my favorite microphones. Not for every application, but for a lot of applications that were always problematic for me. Now it's like the holy grail of microphones to take care of specific situation. How did I live without it for all these years?

So over time, things have changed. There's times where I don't want to use EQ on anything. I recorded a 24 track New York Hardcore band and the only EQ I used was maybe 1dB on the snare drum and the rest was flat on the way in and flat on the way out and it's an amazing sounding album. I don't know how but it just worked. I'm proud of those accomplishments, but I don't need to do that all the time. Heading in different directions keeps me engaged.

So would you recommend recording enthusiasts constantly try to push themselves in different directions and not get stuck in a comfortable way of recording.

Yeah. And especially from a production and a engineering standpoint. Once I was talking to agents about representing me as a producer and engineer. And they gave me some samples of other people that they worked with. I popped in the CD and listened to the whole thing. That was really interesting. All the songs sounded very consistent and everything sounded good. It wasn't until the secretary came up to me and said, "No no, those were 10 different bands on that CD." And I was like "What?!?" I didn't even realize it was 10 different bands because the guy made every band sound exactly the same and that doesn't work for me. I mean, how did I not notice it wasn't the same lead vocalist? That's how exact it sounded. That's scary to me.

You don't want to pigeonhole yourself. It's ok to say that you want to do one thing and do it well, it's a great business plan. Specialize, don't be everything to everybody. But don't paint yourself into a corner. Because it's going to cause you not to have better opportunities in the future. In this aspect, knowledge of your recording medium is essential. In the end, knowledge is power, and education is the key.

For more of Jim's work you can find him at the Allusion Studios website, his portfolio page or his online audio store, Pure Wave Audio.

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