Exploring Workflow: The Analog Approach With Mitch Easter
Welcome to our three-part blog series on studio workflow entitled Exploring Workflow. Follow these links for Part I with Chris Coady (TV On The Radio / Yeah Yeah Yeahs) and Part II with Mark "Exit" Goodchild (DJ Khaled / Justin Bieber). Continue below to read Part III including our conversation with Mitch Easter.
Based in Kernersville, North Carolina, Mitch Easter is a veteran engineer, producer and musician who has worked on incredible records from the likes of R.E.M., Game Theory, Ex Hex, Pylon and more. His love of the studio world and all things analog began when his own band first started cutting demo tracks in the late 1960s.
"The first 'real' studio experience I had was at Crescent City Sound Studios, in Greensboro NC, in 1969," Easter says. "To hear our singer's voice coming back with tons of plate reverb and bus compression on the mix was a heavenly experience!"
For the final part of our series, Exploring Workflow, we caught up with Mitch to talk about how his choice in analog gear plays into working at his recording studio, Fidelitorium Recordings.
What was the first console you ever worked on? What do you remember about it? What are some of the other consoles you've worked on throughout your career?
I guess the first real console I used where I was actually moving the faders was an MCI at Arthur Smith Studios, in Charlotte, NC. I think it may have been a 500 series, but I'm not sure. My memory was that I didn't know what I was doing and probably would have gotten a better sound if I did! But actually, the mix I did on it sounds OK. I had also tape op'd for a friend at Reflection Studios in Charlotte, NC, and at that time I think they had the legendary Quantum QA-3000, but I didn't really operate it beyond pressing the talkback button!
It took me a long to time to ever feel weary while sitting at a mixing desk, I was thrilled to be around the real equipment, and always amazed at the low distortion, big sound. Another early session I was on was at Trod Nossel Studios in Wallingford CT, where they had a little API desk, a bunch of Scully tape machines including the nefarious Scully 100 multitrack (which sounded good). This place had a very good engineer, Richard Robinson, and some interesting equipment, like a Pye stereo compressor. The session was produced by Alex Chilton, who gleefully piled on tons of Pye goodness on some rough mixes we made there. I still play this tape for people sometimes because it is so weird and hilarious!
What's your current set-up in the studio like?
My studio is called Fidelitorium Recordings... It is a purpose-built studio designed by Wes Lachot, in fact, it was his first from-the-ground-up studio. I started doing sessions in 1980 out of my parents' garage, and our first session in the current real studio location was in May 2000.
It's kind of a "traditional" studio in that the recording area is fairly big and it has 16' ceilings. We departed from the usual construction approaches by using RPG Diffusor Blox throughout (I think we were the first to use these in a studio) and there is very little "soft stuff" for acoustic control. Between the room shapes (the control room is an RFZ design), the Diffusor Blox, and a ceiling "cloud" in the control room and main recording area, we have a good neutral sound that is easy to work with. It is possible to achieve big, rackety "room" sounds with mic placement and compression, but the basic sound is right in between live and dead and allows for flexible approaches during the sessions.
We have the smallish (28 channels) ABE console (ABE is a German acronym for, in essence, Becker Electronic Equipment), which was made in Konstanz, Germany around 1978 and is a hybrid design with discrete circuits, obsolete ICs and transformers. It is a top-quality device with good, fairly basic ergonomics and split monitoring. This desk has exactly the right sound for what we generally do! I don't suppose it's exactly "transparent," but it's got a solid, clear sound with a lot of body and it has excellent EQ. It is capable of delivering the sound of rock especially well! Since most sessions wind up in Pro Tools, the lack of complex signal routing and automation is not a problem. We do a fair number of tape sessions, but in those
Since most sessions wind up in Pro Tools, the lack of complex signal routing and automation is not a problem. We do a fair number of tape sessions, but in those cases the bands are usually aware of older approaches and want to work that way. So this simple 1970s desk has become exactly the right thing for today's top stars, at least the ones who work here! Because I'm from the old days, I use the console mic preamps, since, you know, they are good.
Beyond that, we have a number of tape machines, mainly Studer and 3M, and a reasonable but not vast range of analog and digital outboard gear. This always changes according to what people actually use. Mainstays include the spl Transient Designer, an adr Scamp rack with various compressors, EQs, and gates, and a couple of Eventide Harmonizers, the indispensable Lexicon reverb, the essential dbx 162, the equally essential Dolby 740, a UREI 1178, the obligatory and utterly useful Distressors, a Chandler TG1, a very early Thermionic Culture Phoenix compressor, Pultec MEQ, Pultec EQP, we have an old rental-era Aphex 602, etc. There's a rack of old broadcast compressors like a Gates SA-39, Gates 28-CO, CBS Audimax RIIZ, and Limpander- we use these all the time. We've got the Ecoplate II, AKG BX-20, and a Mic Mix Master Room reverb. These reverbs are super popular these days. There's more, but yeah, I guess we use a lot of analog outboard equipment...
How did you develop your approach to creating that set-up and what made you select some of the bigger pieces of analog gear that you have?
I think the equipment here represents buying stuff since the late 70s and hanging on to the things we use the most! I've sold some nice things that I vaguely regret selling, but I find that these days I use a bit less processing gear than I used to, and I have no idea why. Maybe I finally figured out how to do this! If you have just a few really good pieces of gear, you can totally make a good record, and these days I enjoy having just the right things, as opposed to a huge quantity. Also, with the computer you don't always need multiple pieces where you would with tape machines, it's so easy to print processed tracks and use an especially tasty device on several sources that way. Of course, we also did that on tape but it's not always possible with the limited (or sensible) number of tracks you had on tape machines.
It is fun to contemplate changing all this, just to see how it feels. There are so many approaches now that work perfectly well. I have never lost the deep joy I can get from looking at, say, a 3M tape transport, so I am just going to keep using them. Same with analog consoles! There really is a feel to all this stuff and one of the small pleasures I find around the edges of making the sounds is the way the equipment responds when you use it. I still don't do fully in-the-box mixes even though I can imagine that, like anything, you just get a feel for it, and obviously the recall advantages are real. Somehow it is important to me to come into the studio, look at the console and think "Yeah!"
What are the advantages/disadvantages that you feel when it comes to using an analog console in your studio?
A certain number of our clients value the "real" gear, and some don't care at all, but I think making the record is showbiz just like the finished recording itself. People like seeing this big, serious, tactile equipment in action. They like the physical aspects of the process and a bit of mystery. And even when they are young and have no real familiarity with some of this technology, they are invariably happy with the sound of a mix played back off tape. I have no idea what they hear, or if it's even a real "thing", but I've realized that we are basically in the "happiness business" and this equipment makes people happy. I'm serious about that, and I find this more interesting to ponder all the time! I am 100% happy with the sound we get from our digital equipment and the excellent Prism Sound converters on the computer, but it is interesting how the ancient stuff holds its own and often still delivers the sonic je ne sais quoi like nothing else.
What is it about this style of working that makes it beneficial for working with your clients? What makes this style of working enjoyable for you?
I like working this way because it's fast. The controls on the console are RIGHT THERE and I can dial things in instantly. I think this is something they figured out 50+ years ago, so why mess with it? I know generally what's going to happen with this equipment, and I don't want to waste anybody's time. In fact, I always want to go pretty fast because I think the biggest hazard in the studio is mental fatigue. If the good sounds keep coming you don't get tired and you can hear better. I actually really enjoy a certain amount of computer mix-fiddling when nobody is around, but for the tracking parts I want to keep it moving. All the equipment we use is practical and we can go fast with it.
What are some common misconceptions about working with analog gear that people might get wrong?
These days I am always at pains to explain that a tape machine is not a fuzz box! It is in fact a very expensive storage device that was as good as they could make it, and the design was all about ACCURACY and not some processy nonsense like being "fat" or whatever! Harrumph! Although, obviously there are things that people did with analog tape that may have enhanced certain euphonious properties. So many people's idea of "analog" is so misguided and based on the use of something that was broken or wildly out of calibration. Sometimes they love this! But in those cases I have to tell them that if they want the exact sound they got with their broken cassette machine, they should bring that exact machine to the session because our PROPERLY FUNCTIONING gear will not make that sound!
Likewise, I hate to tell them that recording on tape will not make their band sound immediately 100% tougher or anything. Still, for the realistic types who insist on recording on multitrack tape, it is usually a good experience that often requires more engagement and focus, and therefore leads to better takes than they might get on the computer. That is the most audible effect, way beyond any sound quality differences in the equipment. But if a certain equipment approach has a beneficial effect on what you actually record, that's the gear you need!
I want them to hear and love the great analog sound, and I want them to experience the way you can use things the "wrong" (?) way to get an interesting sound. But I want them to know that most analog studio equipment is about excellence, not distortion!
Recording and mixing spaces have come so far. Where do you see the analog/hybrid/in the box movements going in the future?
There have always been lots of great records made in houses and barns, etc. but in recent years the studio environment has become optional in a slightly terrifying way! Terrifying if you are in the studio business, I mean. But we've found that nowadays people know about all this, and when they come here, they want this environment. It may have to do with the ability to focus (and be away from home), it may be the acoustics, it may be the equipment, and it may be the experience of the recording engineers. In any case, I love the hybrid world, I just hope we have a place in it! Heck if nothing else, photos from sessions in recording studios always look great.
But there's no going back to the world of recordings of consequence only being made in professional studios. We do a fair number of projects where parts are done here, parts are done in home set-ups, then the tracks may come back here for mixing. That's cool! In general, sessions with people who do a bit of recording themselves go better, since everybody understands the process. It already possible to make really hi-fi recordings on tiny digital setups, and I figure this will continue until the devices become so small people start losing them. Then we may go back to something a bit more old-fashioned, or at least bigger!
If you missed the first installments of our series, Exploring Workflow, click the following links to read Part I with Chris Coady (TV On The Radio / Yeah Yeah Yeahs) and Part II with Mark "Exit" Goodchild (DJ Khaled / Justin Bieber).