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Masters From Their Day: Back to Basics Productions

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At the 2010 AES convention I had the opportunity to talk to Elias Gwinn, a mixing engineer and producer behind Masters from their Day, a video series that tries to capture the studio magic that was so inherent in the early days of record production. Their aim is to capture everything in one session, in and out and get it sounding as good as possible with the minimum amount of time. This makes them look at the recording process a little differently, with a big emphasis but on pre-production and clear ideas, instead of the usual overdubbing and produce-as-you-go production that is so popular today.

After seeing Annie and the Beekeeper's In The Water I was immediately intrigued and wanted to know more. Elias was kind enough to give me an interview about how he approaches his projects and the idea behind Masters From Their Day.

What is the most difficult to accomplish when you already give yourself such a limited timeframe to capture a performance such as this?

The most difficult thing to accomplish is to trust your own talent and intuition and that of the others around you. People with vision and high-expectations tend to become perfectionists at the worst times. The time to be a perfectionist is not when you’re performing, but instead when you’re preparing and learning. When you’re performing, you must trust that your instincts will rise to the occasion via preparation and inherent talent. No matter if you are performing as the producer, engineer, or drummer, you must avoid over-analyzing the decisions that you and your collaborators need to make to complete the project.

When recording the track for the video featuring ‘The Library Is On Fire’, I ceded all decisions regarding which guitars and amps we’d use to Perry Margouleff, the recording engineer on that session (not that it was a huge leap of faith; the guy has recorded The Rolling Stones and Aerosmith, among others). But as the producer, it is hard to give up any control, but you simply must if you want a good working team. Ironically, the band had no problem giving up control of those decisions! They were sooo easy to work with.

You look like you've got some pretty nice equipment to work with, what is your most favorite piece of gear you regularly turn to when recording?

This question is always tricky for me, as I don’t rely on gear to make great art as much as I rely on great artists to make great art. So, my answer to that is, and always will be, my collaborators. I know that isn’t the type of answer you were looking for from this question, but I’ve thought about this a lot. I would rather record with a great band and production crew in a basement with some toy microphones and a cassette deck rather than at Abbey Road Studios with a lame band and an ego-tripped crew. With that said, I’ll try to answer your question more appropriately. I’ll even go beyond declaring my Benchmark MPA1 mic-preamps as my favorite, since it may be seen as a biased answer. I really like the Tube-Tech SMC2B stereo multi-band compressor. I used it on the drum buss for the Rubblebucketsong, and that’s why that kit sounds so fat and solid. I really hit it hard!!

Would you recommend people to try to get a full performance instead of doing overdubs, getting back to the basics more with real musicianship?

It depends on the band and the song…really. I don’t think overdubbing shows a lack of real musicianship. Remember, the deity of pop-rock, The Beatles, did a ton of overdubbing. Moreover, a lot of Miles Davis’ and Herbie Hancock’s early electric jazz included splices and overdubs.

With that said, I would repeat my earlier suggestion that bands, producers, etc don’t focus on perfectionism. It’s too easy to make things ‘perfect’ with the tools that are available today. With the sheer quantity of music that is being produced and released these days, I feel that it is an asset to have some natural ‘character’ pervading your music. It makes you more identifiable, unique, special.

A great example of this is “I Put A Spell On You” by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. The story goes that the song was meant to be a blues ballad similar to the popular style of the day. However, after recording a number of versions in this style, they took a break and, uh, got ‘loose’ and recorded a crazy version just for fun. The crazy version ended up being the record that has made Jay Hawkins into the legend, ‘Screamin Jay Hawkins.’ He even says that he only got the prefix ‘Screamin’ after this recording even though he had been recording for years.

How did you get that full and spacious vocal sound on “In the Water?

There are a number of factors that combined to achieve that sound. The delivery of the vocals was the biggest factor. The next biggest factor was the signal chain: a Microtech Gefell UM92.1 microphone, into a Benchmark MPA1 pre-amplifier, into a Benchmark ADC1 USB a/d-converter. Another huge factor was the lack of compression and eq. The final factor was a plate reverb and a long delay.

How important is the pre-production process when you are trying to finish everything in one performance?

VERY important! Essential!! For example, before we recorded the Rubblebucket track, “Came Out Of A Lady”, we had several phone and email discussions about how the record should sound. We hadn’t even met in person yet. So when it came time to record that band, a 10-piece band, in just six hours, we were able to pull it off because everyone knew what they were supposed to do. It all just fell into place. If we would have made those decisions on the spot, who knows where it would have went.

If someone with a home recording studio wanted to do their own live performance recording, what would be your advice to them?

If you don’t have the space or quantity of microphones, get a portable rig and record your concerts. Usually you can take a direct line from the front-of-house board and run them into a multi-track recorder or computer interface. Plus, you’ll be at your best when there are faces staring at you. You can record several shows and choose the best performances.

The other option is to do plenty of pre-production, practices, and performances so that you could record all your songs in a few hours at a ‘real studio’. Most cities have a space where you could record your whole band simultaneously for $400 per day. They might not be the most sophisticated studios, as far as acoustics, equipment, and personnel…but if you can’t do it at home, $400 is a good alternative. But remember, your band must be VERY well prepared to record all your songs in one day. Then you can bring the tracks to your ‘home studio’, overdub the hand-claps, and then mix it all down!

Anything you'd like to add?

As you can probably tell, I put a lot of value on the people I’m working with. With that said, I’d like to mention two people who don’t get enough credit for these recordings because their faces aren’t in the videos. These people are Gavin Lurssen and John Siau.

Gavin Lurssen is a three-time Grammy-winning mastering engineer. Gavin has been a mentor-of-sorts to me, and has been very supportive of the MastersFromTheirDay.com project from day-one. His ears, gear, and wisdom are a big reason these tracks sound as good as they do.

John Siau is also largely responsible for the sound of the tracks. John is a brilliant man. He is the engineer who designs all of Benchmark’s fantastic recording gear, and we use Benchmark mic-preamps (MPA1 and PRE420) and converters (ADC1 and DAC1) exclusively on every track in these sessions. Benchmark is a small company in Syracuse, NY, that makes some of the best equipment money can buy. Their gear is meticulously well-designed and always sounds incredible on every instrument with any microphone.

For more of the video series, as well as a chance to download any of these tracks in high resolution visit the website Mastersfromtheirday.com.

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