Michael Stavrou clearly knows how to get great sounds on record. Even if he hadn't engineered for big names such as Elton John, Paul McCartney, and Cat Stevens, Sir George Martin's glowing foreword to Mixing With Your Mind would leave me in little doubt as to his credentials. In his book, Stavrou collects together a generous fund of engineering tips, tackling not just mixdown, but the recording process as well.
However, Stavrou breaks from the norm, by deliberately steering a course away from scientific or technical discussions, taking a relentlessly left-field approach to the subject in search of practical solutions to practical problems. Thus the chapter on compression doesn't tell you about the mechanics of a compressor, but instead discusses what order to address the compressor controls for the best sound. And if you think you can guess what order he suggests, guess again!
A good third of the book deals with recording — effectively fixing things before the mix — and hinges on Stavrou's very unusual and subjective approach to mic selection and placement. The value of this section of the book is difficult to assess, as Stavrou relies on a variety of extremely subjective terms in his discussions, and these could easily be misinterpreted by readers. Given that Stavrou avoids technical explanations, I think it is a shame that no audio examples were provided here to exemplify the differences between 'hard' and 'soft' sounds, for instance, as this distinction is at the heart of his strategy for choosing mics. However, despite the inherent difficulties involved in actually describing Stavrou's approach in a written form, these chapters do make genuinely exciting reading, and should certainly inspire any recordist to re-assess their mic technique.
Unsurprisingly, when it comes to mixing, a lot of emphasis is placed on the less tangible elements of the process, and this is the book's greatest strength in my opinion. For a start, Stavrou structures his mixing sessions to separate left-brain and right-brain tasks, thus avoiding interruptions to the creative flow. He then goes on to suggest a variety of ways to get your subconscious mind working for you, and also reveals some unusual tactics for keeping your objectivity while making critical mix balancing decisions.
Some may find the book's structure and presentation a little haphazard, and a number of the justifications Stavrou offers for his techniques might raise an eyebrow, but the sheer quantity of inspirational practical guidance — much of it unavailable elsewhere to my knowledge — more than makes up for this. I would heartily recommend this book to any SOS reader, and it has already earned a permanent place on my studio shelf alongside such well-thumbed tomes as Bob Katz's Mastering Audio and Howard Massey's Behind The Glass.
Debates over the sonic qualities of different studio setups can go on endlessly, and sorting fact from fiction can be difficult. However, this new CD aims to make this easier by providing audio comparisons of different studio equipment.
The CD kicks off with a comparison between a Mackie eight-buss analogue mixer and the original Yamaha 02R digital mixer, using various sections and components of country-rock and R&B tracks. Each comparison involves up to about a dozen audio excerpts, with 'A' and 'B' sources switched at random.
After the mixers, a variety of digital and analogue recorders are compared, both multitrack and stereo, before attention turns to processors. Preamp tests cover solid-state, valve, and transformer-coupled designs, and there is also an illustration of the sounds of optical and solid-state compression.
Track 10 lines up a 'stock 16-bit Apple computer' audio output against a 16-bit digital multitracker, and this is followed by some illustrations of the effects of different word-length reduction strategies. Next up are some examples of the sounds of different vocal microphones: a Neumann U87, a Shure SM58, an AKG C414, and a Shure SM57 — the latter with fixed EQ (+5dB at 119Hz and -4dB at 4kHz). These tracks are followed by an acoustics section, which compares various treated and untreated rooms, indoor and outdoor recordings, drum tracks with and without room mics, and room mics versus Lexicon PCM70 and Waves Truverb digital reverbs.
The later parts of the disc concentrate more on instruments: a Fender amp sits beside a Marshall, a Roland JC120, and modelled processing care of the Line 6 Pod; a 1708 Antonio Stradivari violin struts its stuff next to a 'standard' violin; and a Drum Workshop kit battles it out against a Pearl Export set.
Track 27 compares two complete recordings: one made in a home basement studio with a Mackie eight-buss desk and ADAT recorders, the other in a commercial studio using a Trident Series 80 desk and an analogue two-inch 24-track recorder. There are also examples of unmastered and mastered tracks, using both software and hardware mastering processing. The disc wraps up by illustrating the sonic differences between playback formats (CD, vinyl, and MP3 at 128kbps), and by showing the effects of different cable types and signal paths on audio quality.
Although I found the lack of technical detail in the booklet frustrating, this is a very educational and thought-provoking disc. I imagine that it will dispel many common myths, because the sonic differences (or lack of them!) are certainly clearly audible. While The A/B CD doesn't match the exhaustive rigour of the range of 3D Audio titles I reviewed back in SOS September 2003, it serves its purpose very well, and I'd recommend it for anyone wishing to develop their listening skills.