GEORGE MASSENBURG: The Equalizer

Interview | Music Production

Published in SOS March 1997
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People + Opinion : Artists / Engineers / Producers / Programmers

Internationally renowned as a producer, recording engineer, and designer of audio equipment, George Massenburg is nonetheless still in love with the art of music production. DAVE LOCKWOOD met up with him in Los Angeles.

 

In a stellar career spanning more than 30 years, George Massenburg has been responsible for engineering some of the most acclaimed recordings of the modern era, pausing along the way to invent that mainstay of the modern recording process, the parametric equalizer. He is, of course, also associated with a number of other products -- in particular, the high-performance mic amps and mixing automation system now marketed by GML, the company he founded in 1982.

Born in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1947, and raised there and in Macon, Georgia, Massenburg acquired an early interest in music, electronics and sound recording -- aged just 15, he was already working part-time both in the recording studio and in an electronics laboratory. After working at ITI in Huntsville, Maryland, he presented his seminal AES paper on the Parametric Equalizer; later he became chief engineer of Europa Sonar Studios in Paris. He was subsequently to design and manage several recording studios -- the studios at ITI, and later the Complex in Los Angeles -- as well as contributing acoustic and architectural designs to many others, such as George Lucas' Skywalker Ranch and the Site in Marin County. He is now Adjunct Professor of Recording Arts and Sciences at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, and lectures at UCLA and USC in Los Angeles.

Today, Massenburg continues to refine many of his original ideas: parametric equalisation, mixing automation systems, and more recently introduced devices -- such as the GML Dynamic Gain Controller -- which have been in development, on and off, for 20 years. As well as these products, the company currently manufacturers the GML High Resolution Topology line-level mixing console, and the reference-standard GML 8200 Parametric Equalizer. GML Inc also act as consultants and independent designers for several major audio electronics manufacturers.

STARTING OUT

How did you first get involved in sound recording, and what kind of gear was available to you then?

"I played trombone from about age eight, and then later on in my high-school marching band; even later I played bass in a bluegrass group and also an R&B band. I started out in recording by hanging around this very small studio in Baltimore, Maryland called Recordings Incorporated, whose studio business was mainly radio and television commercials, but also some bands. Eventually I worked there. We had 2-track Ampex 300s and 351s, Ampex MX35s and custom-built mixers, an EMT140 plate and a few great microphones. There was a demand for 4-track recording, but to do that we had to build the machine ourselves, which I did. Also, I was obliged to build a console. Now, this is not because I was good at building consoles or anything else, but because it was the only way that I would be doing any 4-track recording.

"I started making money doing this around 1964 and the next year went to Johns Hopkins University as an Electrical Engineering major. I was a terrible student, and I left school in 1967, greatly disappointed, but by that time had the basic idea for the Parametric Equalizer. It used a variation of a gyrator that I was told would be impossible to realise, although I was already using one to do the low-frequency shelf in the first equalizer. By 1968, when I was 21 years old, I had designed the basic Parametric Equalizer and built a small console that included the first parametric equalisation.

 

"I would advise young engineers that the first thing that you have to forget about in making serious records is the sales."

 

"My first big company, ITI, was manufacturing the first commercial Parametric Equalizer by 1971; but we also had recording and photographic studios, printing and record-pressing facilities -- I learned how to do just about everything except metal processing. The studios are no longer around, but the ITI Parametric Equalizer survives even today. It wasn't necessarily difficult to design, but it was very difficult to sell. At the first AES show everyone (with the notable exception of Gerhard Lehner, then of Barclay Records) asked me, 'Where are the steps?' It took a long time to explain, and most of the work was spent demonstrating how the Parametric Equalizer was an improvement to control sounds, such as snare drums and, especially, acoustic guitars. And still today a lot of engineers do not know how to best use a parametric equalizer. To use it properly takes more time and careful listening. This is true of most devices I design and, as a result, record companies don't like me very much."

INSIDE STORY

What do you listen for in a recording -- what's important to you?

"What's important for me is the inner story in the music; this is hard to verbalise, but I think it's something that the ear knows. What I love about music is transparency and the ability to hear the musician. This in itself has little to do with making hit records. I would advise young engineers that the first thing you have to forget about in making serious records is the sales. My vocation is making artful records and hoping that they'll sell, while some producers strive to sell records and hope that people will think that they're art.

"One could demonstrate that the most important parts of music never change. My favourite comparison is between an old King Curtis [American R&B pioneer] record with Chuck Rainey on bass. It's an old instrumental, 'Soulin'', one that inspired me greatly. Listen to it alongside a recent Alanis Morissette track, with Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers on bass. You can't help but hear that the musical values are basically the same as 30 years ago. The Alanis Morissette track has sold more than 18 million copies, so it's a very successful record, but to me, this is not as good a recording as the King Curtis record done 30 years ago. Modern recording means processing, and in the Alanis Morissette record there are some very 'special' methods -- to my ears it sounds like the lead vocal was processed in part through a guitar amplifier! Guitar amplifier and a microphone -- 18 million records! So who knows?

"Last year, Peter Asher and I made a record for an Australian artist which was subsequently redone by a prominent remix engineer. Record companies have for some time now, in their insecurity and confusion, remixed a project before release, but in this case it was the artist who was insecure. This always hurts me as an engineer -- on one hand I hope that the remix will be better, and that it will bring out the best in our work. But it has never turned out like that.

"The remix that comes to mind starts from scratch, eliminates the fine-level tuning, and heavily compresses and then equalizes each and every track. Snare drum, compressor, equalizer; overhead, compressor, equalizer, all the way down the console, which was a modest SSL. Once it's mixed, the SSL buss limiter is utilised. The snare drum and the lead vocal are prominent in the remix, but to my ears there is no depth, no detail and no dynamics in the vocal. I guess as choices go it's like any other, and it is one that any engineer might be asked to make. But I loathe the motivation behind the process and, often, the result."

Using a lot of compression might be a valid way to help the track sound better on small systems, though, mightn't it?

"Only in the sense that in utilising a lot of levelling, a mixer has to listen and think about balancing elements far less. Large or small systems, it's not the issue -- the issue is balance. And balance is not static. Anyway, the small speaker mono listening model, a great issue from the '60s through the '80s, is a bit less of a consideration today. Now we still mix for a majority of our listeners -- I mean, most of the time we really want to reach folks, don't we? -- and many of the systems that they're using, including television, are improving slowly -- the hired-gun remix may sound incrementally better on television. Well, forgetting what makes one mix 'better' than the another, 'louder' is always attractive to the guys with money on the line. Going back to my remix example, I'd have to admit that I did learn from what happened; however, I quickly learned how to improve upon it.

"Many years ago I made a record, Warm Your Heart, for Aaron Neville. In many ways I am happier with this record than any other I have done in the past 20 years -- this is my favourite sound in the world. It was crafted by brilliant musicians: Russ Kunkel, Carlos Vega, Bob Glaub, Brian Stoltz, Ry Cooder on guitar, Don Grolnick on piano -- not to mention the sheer brilliance of Aaron himself. It has detail and depth, dynamics and character, but the record company were worried that it wouldn't sell. I imagine that they would have liked to remix the entire album. They did, in fact, force a remix on one single and it was a huge hit. To this day I feel it was a terrible job -- dumb, arbitrary parts added with lots of mistakes. But it bought into that stupid New York dance scene, and, of course, they played the heck out of it: maybe for political reasons, I don't know. Unfortunately, it made us -- Aaron, Linda, and I -- a lot of money, something with which I shouldn't argue, I suppose."

COMPANY POLICY

How do you deal with the situation if you know the record company wants it to sound different to the way you are hearing it before you've even mixed it?

"Well, first I work for the artist, not the record company. As such, I am not always popular with record companies. But because one has to keep one's mind open, I have a huge bag of tricks -- sounds for instruments, for tracks and mixes. And I think I've learned both how and when to bring them out. Were an artist to ask me to chase down a sound in their head, I believe I should have ideas ready to play to them. Unfortunately, many requests from A&R departments have nothing in the world to do with music. My advice, when an idiot asks you to do something that really is not in your heart or skill, is to bow gracefully out.

"Not that I always get mixes right, either. If I were to remix [the Aaron Neville record], I probably would use less long reverb -- that's one big difference with modern records. I'd take dry drums and keep them tighter. And, instead of reverb, I might use a 'cool' and subtle loop on the snare or percussion. The point is that I could make myself very happy with that mix, too. If I get the feel right I can go almost anywhere with it.

"If I choose a stereo buss compressor I would use a GML EQ and Dynamics Controller, then maybe a [TC Electronic] M5000 in 3-band. The capability of this setup ranges from 'clean and transparent' to what you might call 'that really shitty sound', the latter being what record company A&R people are accustomed to hearing."

So you feel there is never just one 'best' mix for a track?

"Sure, for me there is one mix that I like. But I could mix that particular track in four different styles: the original record; a pure hip-hop where I replace the drums with a drum loop; another style where I use the original drums with the hip-hop loop added and maybe a different bass; or a straight-up rock and roll approach centred around the amped guitars. And I feel confident with all four of these styles of mixing. But, hopefully, there would be one that the artist would like the best, although record companies are often predisposed these days to releasing more than one mix."

LOOKING FOR BLISS

Do you think that the widespread use of the typical Mackie/ADAT artist's studio has significantly changed the way that records sound today?

"Absolutely, no doubt about it. But let's call it the 'project studio'. It has brought power and facility to an ever-expanding group of people, many of whom are new to the endeavour. On the other hand, I very seldom hear evidence that the craft of songwriting itself has been enhanced, although getting a demo to sound more 'finished' is certainly easier and much less expensive now."

How do you feel about artists trying to play the producer's role themselves?

"Speaking as a producer, I think that the artist needs a producer, at least as a foil: someone to temper the artist's indulgences. With few exceptions, artists are better off when they can 'follow their bliss', and allow an enlightened producer to aid them."

 

"Were an artist to ask me to chase down a sound in their head, I believe I should have ideas ready to play to them."

 

Is there a list of 'must have' items that you always want to have available to you when you are engineering?

"I guess so. I'd hesitate to list brands -- I wouldn't want others to buy specific gear expecting a particular result. To a serious session I'll always bring: a lot of microphones (some custom), special mic wire for the vocal mics, direct boxes, good headphones, two kinds of good mic preamps, equalizers, dynamics units, converters, processors and reverbs, a DAW [Digital Audio Workstation], two kinds of monitors, my laptop, and my dog, Robbie. Sometimes I bring my son, Sam."

Do you think that digital equipment will ever be capable of truly replicating the subtle 'desirable imperfections' of many of the analogue old favourites?

"The picture that I have in my head is of a relationship between increasing resolution and sampling rate and reducing jitter on one axis, and reducing digitally-generated artifacts on the other, that's asymptotic. No, we can't expect to arrive at what we had with analogue chains, but we can get damn close."

ABOUT FACE

When I first started engineering records I knew I could go into almost any studio and be comfortable working the desk and multitrack, whatever it was. The situation facing the young engineer these days seems rather different, with the plethora of different interfaces and protocols. Is there a case for greater harmonisation of workstation/editor interfaces?

"I think you're asking two different questions. The first question, I think, is how complex an interface should be; the second is how 'standard'.

"As regards complexity, the short answer is Einstein's: 'Everything should be as simple as possible, but no simpler'. I can't tell you how many times a debutante engineer has complained about the complexity of my automation interface; at the same time, sophisticated users are asking for more capability.

"Regarding standardisation, most of our equipment is rather new and hasn't had time to evolve, and different equipment designers see a given task slightly differently, and hence create different interfaces. But different interfaces and feature sets will undoubtedly merge in time. Let me use a musical instrument analogy. The piano, by now, has been around for a comparatively long time, during which its 'feature set' changed until we got what we have today. But today, what is and isn't a piano -- let's ignore sampled pianos for the moment -- is very clear in our minds, and you can sit at two different instruments and perceive few, albeit subtle and artistically important, differences.

"The answer is to give the technology time to evolve, and for designers to be sensitive to the needs of the end user."

Wouldn't we all benefit also from an interchange format standard for mix automation data?

"You bet we would. It's definitely on the cards for the future. Exchanging allows a mixer's recorded gestures to be retained across a project, as it moves from studio to studio. The concept ultimately confirms the artistry inherent in a mixer's work.

"Can you imagine if computers had evolved antagonistically? Microsoft continually building in schemes such that their files couldn't be transferred to IBM mainframes? Or Macintoshes? Or to the Internet? Not to say that Microsoft have made it any easier, mind you.

"Crafting and implementing an automation file exchange format across our industry is a example of the classic 'zero-sum' game. If all manufacturers do it, then it works out okay. If one console or automation manufacturer doesn't subscribe to it, then he 'wins' in the sense that a studio owner with that system keeps his clients locked in. There are ways around that, but it's far easier if everyone agrees to share data, as is done in virtually every other discipline involving this type of data."

HERTZ DESIRE

Most people in pro audio now seem to agree that the 16-bit/44.1kHz standard was aimed way too low for original recording and mastering -- but what should we be aiming at? Will we be saying in 10 years' time that even 24-bit/96kHz wasn't good enough?

"In this business, you must realise that 10 years is a long time and we may be in for some technological leaps. I don't want to be cast as a recording prophet but, with the introduction of the DVD [Digital Video/Versatile Disk] in mind, my feeling is that 96kHz/24-bit, 'losslessly'-coded 5:1 channels are a good next stage. But we must keep in mind very real questions regarding what is audible and what is an extravagant, perhaps wasteful use of bandwidth. It's important that format agreements be reached, but somewhat flexible standards for the medium would do much to facilitate both creativity and archiving. I'd like to imagine a flexible format set, with room for the producer who might want two hours of sound in five channels for one project and stereo with extraordinary 200kHz for another. We have to work from a starting point and then expand the format as existing technology matures, costs come down, and wondrous technology becomes available in the future. For us, it's rosy if the format is kept flexible, and by that I mean that we as producers retain the ability to use the medium in different ways."

 

"My vocation is making artful records and hoping that they'll sell, while some producers strive to sell records and hope that people will think that they're art."

 

Do consumers really want greater dynamic range? In most domestic replay situations they're unable to use the dynamic range they've already got without either annoying their neighbours or losing the quiet bits in the ambient noise level...

"In my experience, what consumers 'want' is unclear. Hollywood is full of ex-geniuses who once seemed to know what consumers 'wanted'. I sure don't see anyone returning a new release and saying, 'You know, the dynamic range on this is difficult to control, either I can't hear it or it seems to annoy my neighbours'. Seriously, very few consumers deconstruct what we do -- it's the producer who makes the call. I've been most successful when I work hard to make records that have rather modest goals, and that sounds really good to me in a number of studied ways. Consumers? Paraphrasing someone, if you give them quality, they will come."

Do you get involved with the mastering of your recordings?

"Oh yes, I am very much concerned with the mastering, and the processing at the plants as well -- to make as certain as I can that a single-speed transfer is made, for instance.

"I work for producers and artists and the most important thing is to make the producer and artist happy. I am not generally concerned with the record company, and this gets me in a lot of trouble, because the modern record company wants to control the music, so they will often try to re-master and remix. Once again, when a record company does this for the wrong (which is to say, non-musical) reasons, it pushes me to the edge. For instance, if they give a remix to a certain popular mix engineer for political ends, I'm nearly homicidal. And my experience has been that if the record company gives my master tape to certain mastering engineers, sometimes it sounds as if they have processed it by looking at the meters. My mastering engineer of choice is Doug Sax, who I have known for 25 years. We have dinner every Thursday night. Sometimes we disagree, and sometimes he is paid a lot of money to recommend making no changes to what I bring in -- he pays for dinner then. But, over the long term, I have been most proud of the records that he mastered."

"I really begin to hear my own records after five or 10 years have passed. I did a record for Earth Wind & Fire, 22 years ago, and I heard it used for a new Microsoft television commercial. Sounded great; it sounded like a new record, they've never done anything even remotely like it since. After all those years I had forgotten about how badly the so-called producer of the record treated me at the time. Temporarily."

HEARING PROBLEMS

Are you content to live with 'imperfections' in a take provided the performance is there?

"I guess so -- what the hell is an imperfection, anyway? It is very difficult to say what is perfect in recording. We're looking for something that 'touches' someone's spirit, aren't we? That's not a very objective goal. Now, I've learned to overlook mic pops, even like them, even though most would call them 'imperfections'; also I like those little sounds from a person's mouth, the ticks and smacks. If I distract the vocalist when I stop the tape because of a pop, that could ruin that performance. I'm not likely to take that chance. The most important element for me is the performance, all of it. Going even farther: a pop in a vocal is a feature. It says to me that the vocalist is singing very close to my ear. She is so close that I can feel the warmth of her breath. To a record company, it is a problem. To me it is very sexy."

This is such a subjective area -- we don't all hear these things in the same way.

"Almost everybody has a lot of trouble being accurate (or honest) about what they hear, and it is important to find somebody who can really tell you what they feel, from their heart -- forgetting about what's hip to say. It has taken a lifetime for me to learn how to talk about what I hear. Also, another person will hear the same material from a different perspective, and from a different experience than yours. I think of the perception of sound as one perceives light on a given subject. You might imagine finding instrument sounds as looking at different ways to illuminate a subject. On a guitar, one may be asked to 'put mid-range on it so I can hear it better'. Often, that's not so musical. I might selectively take some mid-range artifact out of it -- I would listen for something that was distracting. I would probably do the opposite of someone who wants to hear more guitar by boosting the mid-range, but it would make a better mix to my ears.

"You just have to listen very, very hard. Sometimes I have no idea what I am going to do, but then I find it. I always have an idea. I always have a lot of ideas, so if a producer doesn't like one idea, well, I have 10 more. I get my ideas from life. Some years ago, Allen Sides, myself and our friends went on a river trip down the Grand Canyon. Four days with no electricity and no music, no television and no telephones. We talked about music while we bounced down the Colorado river, listening to the sound of the canyons and the caves. We talked for days about Phil Ramone's old Verve recordings! The other people on this trip thought we were crazy, because we kept clapping our hands and listening to the returns -- beautiful, long, rich, diffuse reverbs. After the trip, I came back, and for the longest time, I used 7-second reverberation on everything.

"I would suggest that the best work you do is for little or no money. It simplifies the dynamic between you and the artist, producer, label; you might have a chance of concentrating on what you are hearing. Earlier, I mentioned walking out of the session if somebody asks you to do something that doesn't make any sense; this is much easier if you're not counting on the session to pay for the rent and the kids' food. And if you're working for free to start with, that issue is already addressed. I guess you could say that the most important thing for me has become the pursuit of integrity. To make music with honesty and passion."

 

GONGS AND GLORY

George Massenburg's recent engineering credits include an album for Journey, and he has produced records for James Taylor, Randy Newman, Lyle Lovett, Aaron Neville, Michael Ruff and Linda Ronstadt. He has been nominated many times for the non-classical engineering Grammy and for Record Of The Year in several years, and he won the Grammy for Best Engineered Non-Classical Record in 1990 for Linda Ronstadt's Cry Like A Rainstorm, Howl Like the Wind; The Trio won the Academy of Country Music Record Of The Year for 1988. In 1989 Mix magazine gave him both Producer and Engineer Of The Year Awards for Little Feat, and he picked up the Engineer Of The Year Award in 1991 (for Linda Ronstadt) and 1992 (for Lyle Lovett).

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