In part two of a two-part interview, Crē•8 Music Academy’s Director of Education Doug Fenske discusses gear, studios and analog versus digital.
What’s the biggest misconception about what you do?
Have you heard about the magic plug-in that creates a perfect performance, mix or master? Nope, neither have I. My job is to make the existing performance and song the best it can be, but nothing exists that will fix a recording, performance or mix that is not up to par. Knowing what is (and isn’t) possible in a recording studio is an important trait for a prospective client to possess.
What’s your typical work process?
For vocals, I like to start with the lead vocal first. It’s the most important element in any song that is meant to be successful. Assuming the vocal has been comped, I will tune the entire lead vocal using Melodyne. Upon client’s request, I will Melodyne the background vocals too, but this process is very time-consuming and usually yields a result that is “too perfect”. For that reason, most background vocals are tuned using very specific Auto-Tune settings. For songs and sessions in which the vocal is meant to artifact (the famous T-Pain sound), I suggest that the client dials in their own Auto-Tune settings and delivers the session to me in that way. Finally, the stacked background vocals are aligned to one another, creating a tight, unanimous finished product.
For mixing, either digital or analog, the approach is the same. The fundamental elements of the song, which are most important to the song’s creative intent, are mixed first. Next, the most important supporting elements are added. Finally, the small, detailed pieces of instrumentation are added on top of everything else. Most mix engineers follow a similar order of operations: apply dynamic effects, apply time-based effects, set levels, adjust effects if necessary and perform automation. From that perspective, my process is not much different. However, the main difference between a digital and analog mix is the song passing through plug-ins versus iron, wire, tubes and circuitry. The sonic difference between these two processes is palpable.
Tell us about your studio setup.
All of my work is performed at Westlake Recording Studios in Los Angeles (Rihanna, The Weeknd, Adele and many more). The studio has a rich, 45+ year legacy of producing critically and commercially successful songs. There are seven studios with consoles that include two SSL 9000 K series, two SSL 9000 J series, an SSL 4000 G and two SSL AWS 900+ desks. Westlake is loaded with outboard gear as well. Some of my favorite dynamic and time-based units are: UREI/Universal Audio Blackface 1176, Teletronix LA-IIA, Neve 33609, Emperical Labs Distressor, dbx 160 VU, GML 8200, Avalon 2055, Lexicon 480L, Eventide H3000 and the Lexicon PCM42.
If you were on a desert island and could take just 5 pieces of gear, what would they be?
Does the desert island have power? An SSL 9000 J, Blackface 1176, Teletronix LA-IIA, Lexicon 480L and an Eventide H3000. That would give me, or anyone else, everything they need to polish their tropical, desert island inspiration 🙂
Analog or digital and why?
Both. Why would someone ever reject either side? They are both tools of our trade. Some sounds and plug-ins are meant to “sound digital”, such as anything from Serum or the Waves H-Delay. These synths and plug-ins should be allowed to be what they are meant to be. Putting a wavetable synth though a vintage, analog tube compressor does not yield a desirable result. It sounds confused.
On the other side, plug-ins that are meant to emulate vintage, analog gear can be left alone as long as the actual analog gear is available. If a real 1176 is available, I would reach for that every time before I would reach for any sort of plug-in version.
Finally, I do not advise any attempt to replicate a digital plug-in with analog hardware. I mentioned the Waves H-Delay. There are settings in that plug-in that are just not replicable by my favorite analog delay unit (the Lexicon PCM 42). I would never remove H-Delay and try to replace it with the PCM 42 (and vice versa). Allow the gear to be the gear, whether it be digital or analog, and adjust your expectations accordingly.
Tell us about a project you worked on you are especially proud of and why. What was your role?
I am most known for my contribution to Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange. I am certainly proud of this work, as it yielded me a GRAMMY-nomination. The session consisted of myself, Frank and André 3000. If you would like to know the entire story, feel free to continue reading and excerpt from a feature column I wrote for Music Connection below. ••
I had personal plans for the evening on March 8th, 2012. Around 6pm I received a phone call from Steve Burdick. Steve is the owner/operator at Westlake Recording Studios and the phone call went something like this:
Me: “Hey Steve.”
Steve: “Doug, I have 3000 coming in to Studio C at 8pm and I need a veteran.”
Me: “Done. I’m on my way.”
That was all I needed to hear in order to break my plans: a session with André 3000. I got dressed, hopped in the car, grabbed a Red Bull on my way and arrived 45 minutes prior to downbeat. After entering the studio I asked the 2nd engineer, Matt Brownlee, to set up a vocal chain of a Sony C800G/Neve 1073/Summit TLA-100. I chose this chain because:
- C800 gives me a bright, detailed tone
- The 1073 provides rich, crisp harmonics and gain
- The TLA-100 has a nice, thick tube sound and really warms up the voice
Andre arrived solo and we exchanged pleasantries. He told me that the session was actually a feature for a songwriter named Frank Ocean and that Frank was to arrive soon, so Andre and I talked shop for a bit while we waited. During this time, Andre handed me a hard drive and said, “Can you open the session called Pink Matter?” I pulled up the session, imported my vocal template and we took a brief listen. When playback arrived at his verse he said, “Okay, I already cut some vocals and I want to use the same mic.” When I asked which microphone he used, he responded “an SM57.” As my mind silently spoke words that are not appropriate for this column, I verbalized “sure, no problem at all.” I instructed Matt to replace the gorgeous C800 with the 57 in the existing vocal chain.
Frank arrived solo a short time later (I have been fortunate enough to have sat in many studio power triangles over the years). Everyone assumed their position, with Frank behind the console, me behind the computer and Andre in the booth. I dialed in the vocal chain and heard a surprising result: the vocal crossed the professional threshold and didn’t sound bad! We started recording, but like any session, it was not without a speed bump or two. I’m known for being nimble behind the Pro Tools rig, but we were having some buffer and latency issues, probably due to a preference from the previous session. I was able to manage the issues and finish cutting the vocal, albeit a bit slower than normal. The session wrapped successfully, including a full preview of Channel ORANGE, and we all went on our respective ways.
With regard to the purpose of this writing, what can we take away from this story from a microphones perspective? First thing is first: purchasing an SM57 and wiring it to a $500 interface will not fetch a GRAMMY nomination. Bear in mind that this 57 was put through a fantastic mic pre and compressor, so its sonic characteristics were greatly enhanced. Having an incredible artist on the other side of the 57 certainly goes a long way as well.
What is safe to say is that while the microphone is a very important part of the input chain, the other components (pre and compressor) matter greatly. A microphone that isn’t necessarily designed for vocal recording can be enhanced enough by a high-level vocal chain to be useable on a voice.