This month, Session Notes goes upmarket, giving readers a chance to get their mitts on a professional multitrack session from the world's most famous studio.
Tom Misner will be known to many Sound On Sound readers as the entrepreneur who built up the SAE Institute into a successful global business. What's less well known, however, is that prior to moving into education, Tom was a highly experienced recording engineer in his own right. Having sold his stake in SAE for a fabulous amount of money, Misner has recently been enjoying a return to the studio. This time around, however, he is not only overseeing the engineering but playing guitar, producing and co-writing with his protege Lyndsey Ollard, a singer he discovered when she was working as a receptionist in SAE's Sydney HQ.
Following an extensive songwriting and demo-making period (see box), Tom and Lyndsey wanted to record the album with real musicians, rather than relying on programming. "I notice that my kids, who are 18 and 13, will listen to the Doors, early Rolling Stones, they'll listen to the Beatles, they'll listen to old recordings. I said to my daughter 'Why are you listening to that stuff? That's my music. Get onto your music!' What they said is 'It's real.' There's a place for hip-hop and rap and whatever, but in pop, people are appreciating the original or organic sound. The punter can feel something that's actually played, they feel the energy so to speak.
"What I'm after is a groove. Because there's two things I can't do, and that's create a groove from having no groove, and get a performance from the singer. I can alter pitch, I can slide her vocals forward and backwards, I can tune it perfectly — that's what I do a lot anyway — but I can't get a performance where she makes the song her own.”
The recording of Lyndsey's album was an altogether grander affair than most of the sessions we cover in this column. Tom and his hand-picked team of session musicians routined the songs at his country house in Hampshire, where it seems the major obstacle was difficulty persuading UK authorities to grant him a permit to land his helicopter. With the songs and arrangements fully worked out, operations then shifted to perhaps the most famous recording space in the world. "I'm after the classical band sound rather than over-produced,” explains Tom. "And for that, I need Abbey Road.”
As is often the case in this day and age, Tom and his colleagues planned to use the majority of their six days at Abbey Road tracking, so that they could take full advantage of Studio Two's unique acoustic and the studio's unique collection of world-class vintage microphones and outboard. The Pro Tools sessions could then be mixed at Tom's own studio without time pressure.
The basic modus operandi was to lay down the core of each track live on the studio floor, before additional parts were overdubbed and comped. A major part of Tom's vision for the album was not only to capture performances live, but to try to do so mainly using ambient mics, with close microphones only serving to 'fill in' the sound later. "I'm recording it in a fashion which used to be the Phil Spector sound, in a way. So you imagine the mix ahead of time. I know that in my mix the drums and the bass guitar will be in the middle. I want one guitar to be a little bit louder on the left, the other guitar to be on the right, and the voice, obviously, up front. So what we're doing is putting a Mid/Sides and an A/B mic up front, and then close-miking everything else. So what I do is I use those microphones for the majority of my sound, but I support those with close microphones. I'm hoping to get enough out of the sound of the studio, without it being too distant-sounding.”
In order to realise Tom's vision, he and engineer Paul Pilseneks employed one of the many features of Abbey Road Studio Two that's not available in the home-studio and location environments usually featured in Session Notes: the ability to manipulate the acoustics of the live area using moveable gobos and enormous fold-out screens. The idea was to create a single basic arrangement ofinstruments and microphones that would prove versatile enough to yield a wide range of possible ensemble sounds at mixdown.
In the centre of the room, interlocking gobos were used to build a soundproof cabin as a space where Lyndsey could record high-quality live vocal takes whilst maintaining close eye contact with all of the musicians. Like each of the musicians, she was able to adjust her own cue mix using a small personal monitor mixer. (Later, some of the vocals were overdubbed in Tom's studio using the same Neumann U67 microphone, with Neve preamps, to maintain continuity of sound.)
Mick Skelton's Ludwig drum kit, meanwhile, was set up at the back of Studio Two's live area, facing towards the famous upstairs control room, with a row of tall gobos behind it. In front of the drums, the folding screens on the side walls were positioned so as to make large triangular shapes extending in total about two-thirds of the way across the room. The same drum kit was used throughout, with a couple of different snare drums being swapped in, but in each case Mick tuned his drums to fit the key of the song.
Placing the guitar amps in the screened-off triangular areas prevented them from spilling onto the drums, and, perhaps more importantly, allowed Tom to keep a variety of options open concerning the ambient miking of the band. From the point of view of mics positioned within the screened-off area — Coles 4038 ribbon mics used as overheads, and an AKG C24 stereo valve room micpositioned in front of the kit — the screens formed a relatively controlled acoustic environment. However, three further pairs of mics — two more 4038s, Neumann U67 valve capacitor mics and B&K 4006 omnis — were positioned at various distances further away from the musicians, capturing different balances between the direct sound of the kit and the amps, and the thunderous reverberation created in the full Studio Two live area. This meant that, at mixdown, Tom would be able to vary the overall sound anywhere from tight and punchy to epic, without necessarily relying on artificial reverb. Tom said: "It's amazing how this room sounds. I felt guilty not having to EQ or change the sound in any way up in the control room, and we had a melodic, rich drum sound.”
The close-miking was fairly conventional, with AKG C414s on toms, Shure SM7 and SM57 on snare top and bottom respectively, a Beyer M88 inside the bass drum and Neumann U47 FET outside, plus Neumann KM84s spot-miking the hi-hat and ride cymbals. In many cases, however, Misner and Pilseniks chose to compress and/or EQ to tape, taking advantage of the wealth of high-quality analogue gear available at Abbey Road. The inside kick mic, for instance, arrived in Pro Tools via a Neve 1081 channel strip, Pultec EQP1A and Fairchild 660, while the AKG C24 ambient mic enjoyed the attentions of a pair of the legendary EMI-modified Altec RS124 valve compressors. The same held for many of the other sources on the session: Murray Burns' Fender Precision bass, for example, was not amped but DI'd, using a split signal path where one half went through a Fairchild 660 and the other a Urei 1176LN. Both Tom Misner's and Basel Hallak's guitar amps were dual-miked with Neumann U67s and Shure dynamics — an SM7 and SM57 respectively — and, again, tracked through hardware compressors.
The level of isolation achieved in the construction of Lyndsey's vocal room meant that conventional studio mics could be used even on the guide vocals, and that it wasn't necessary for her to sing right into the mic. Two vocal mics were recorded simultaneously,usually a Neumann U67 and Shure SM7 with the wind shield removed. These were placed together behind a pop filter and routed through Neve 1081 preamps, API 550B equalisers and, respectively, a Teletronix LA2A or Urei 1176LN compressor.
Abbey Road's unrivalled gear collection doesn't only extend to mics and outboard, of course. Studio Two is also home to a couple of famous pianos and a very nice Hammond C3 organ with matching Leslie speaker. Murray Burns applied himself to the latter at the overdub stage, miked with a U47 FET on the bass rotor and a pair of KM84s on the treble horn. Other overdubs included, of course, keeper vocals, and a number of acoustic guitar parts, usually miked using a single U67 in the conventional neck/body position.
After six days of tracking in Studio Two, Lyndsey Ollard's debut album was ready for mixing. Tom Misner took this upon himself, completing the job at his own home studio — but with the release date slated for April 2014, there's still timefor a talented SOS reader to earn him or herself a place on the tracklisting...
SOS readers wanting to hone their mixing skills frequently ask where they can download multitrack session files. The Internet makes it easy enough to get hold of multitracks from amateur and semi-pro productions, but it's still rare to find unmixed audio from sessions tracked in top-flight studios. To that end, Tom Misner has kindly made available the full multitrack audio and Pro Tools Session file for the song 'Catching Up'. What's more, says Tom: "If we choose your mix, and you do it better than me, I'll put you on the album!” Download the multitrack here.
To put your mix up for consideration for Lyndsey Ollard's album, make it available for download and email email@example.com, indicating where we can find it!
The polished performances and arrangements you can hear on the Pro Tools session accompanying this article didn't come about spontaneously in the studio. Instead, as you'd expect of any professional production, they're the result of a drawn-out process of songwriting, demo-making and pre-production.
"As a songwriter, I have lots of melodies and chord progressions and feels, and what Lyndsey has is lots of words,” explains Tom Misner. "So we've written a whole bunch of songs together. Normally I send her a demo track with a melody line played on something, and then she adjusts her words to my melodies, rather than me looking at the lyrics and trying to write a song based on the story. Rarely do I write a whole song — and that's her strength. She's got a very low voice for a girl: everything's in C or B flat, rather than the typical pop voice which is more in A and D and so on.
"We probably started with 20-plus songs, and we got 17 to the stage of pre-production. Some songs didn't suit her voice, or whatever. Then when we started the pre-production, some of the songs didn't suit the band, or didn't gel. So we ended up with 14 songs, and still, after Abbey Road we'll be losing two or three songs. If I end up with 11 songs I'm quite happy.”
The pre-production process brought together Misner and Ollard with the rest of the band: drummer Mick Skelton, guitarist Basel Hallak and bassist Murray Burns, all familiar collaborators from other projects. They spent the two weeks prior to the Abbey Road sessions knocking the songs into shape.
"The pre-recording stage is critical, but when we're coming into the studio, we'll still change things,” explains Tom. "You'll suddenly find that a song needs to be faster or slower.
"To me, the most important thing is for the musicians and the singer to be in the right mental state. You get a lot of experienced musicians who are just over it, and you can feel there is no hunger there. They're doing the part, everything's right — but nothing's really right about it. So it's a very careful balance of getting a band together that's hungry still, that has something to prove.”
That doesn't mean recruiting inexperienced talent. "I like working with seasoned musicians. That way I don't have to re-record everything and re-beat everything and re-check everything, and nobody has a sacred part: 'I'm in the band and that's my bass part and that bass riff has to stay.'
"The act is really Lyndsey. It's a solo act. Most musicians will try to make the song more complicated. And my job as producer is to represent Joe Bloggs in the street. Having a nice drum fill or bass riff or amazing counterpoint, that's nice to impress other musicians — but musicians traditionally don't buy many records.”
The full track listing for the basic instrumental tracks laid down at Abbey Road Studio Two was as follows. All sources were routed through the Neve 1081 remote preamps for the Neve 88RS desk in the studio, sometimes also with channel EQ applied; the only exception was the B&K pair, which used the Neve 'Montserrat' preamps.
Source Mic EQ/Dynamics
1. Kick in Beyer M88 Pultec EQP1A & Fairchild 660
2. Kick out Neumann U47 FET EMI TG EQ & Urei 1176LN
3. Snare top Shure SM7 Pultec EQP1A & Urei 1176LN
4. Snare bottom Shure SM57 -
5. Hi-hat Neumann KM84 EMI TG Filter Module
6. Ride cymbal Neumann KM84 EMI TG Filter Module
7. Floor tom AKG C414 EMI TG Limiter
8. Rack tom AKG C414 EMI TG Limiter
9/10. Overheads Coles 4038 SSL Stereo Compressor
11/12. Room mics AKG C24 EMI/Altec RS124
13/14. Ambient mics B&K 4006i -
15/16. Ambient mics Neumann U67 Chiswick Reach valve compressor
17. Bass DI Fairchild 660
18. Bass DI Urei 1176LN
19. Basel guitar Neumann U67 API 550B EQ & Urei 1176LN
20. Basel guitar Shure SM57 API 550B EQ & Empirical Labs Distressor
21. Tom guitar Neumann U67 API 550B EQ & Urei 1176LN
22. Tom guitar Shure SM7 API 550B EQ & Manley Vari-Mu
23. Lyndsey vocal Neumann U67 API 550B EQ & Teletronix LA2A
24. Lyndsey vocal Shure SM7 API 550B EQ & Urei 1176LN
25/26. Ambient mics Coles 4038 Neve 33609