Many thanks to our friends over at Bikes & Friends for meat and drink, and their continued support, allowing our interviews to take place in a relaxed and familiar environment!
DIY music production is behind the majority of new music that’s released here in Shanghai, and these skills are essential for the up-and-coming artists of today. That being the case, we gathered members from four prominent Shanghai Bands, (JC Heinbockel of Moon Tyrant, Ryan Baird of Song Dynasty, Dennis Nichols of Rainbow Danger Club, and G of X is Y, who are largely responsible for the recording and mixing of their bands' albums, to talk with them about what it takes to learn the ropes and how to go about it.
Here is our continuation part I and part II.
S247: The DIY scene is possible in the digital age because every Joe has access now to the software and whatnot to make that happen as far as the production goes, you can do it on your laptop. Is there still quite a divide then, though, when it comes to recording equipment, with a studio? Do they have the capital required to do things that you guys couldn't, as DIY producers?
Nichols: Maybe they can do it more efficiently.
RB: It depends on where you are, too. I have yet to go to a studio in Shanghai that's really impressed me with the gear they have. It's not that different, they maybe have a couple more pieces that I might want. A lot of the studios in the West though, it's a definite truth, they've got everything you need there and you've got to basically rent your time there.
G.: Professional studios, they have better rooms, better mics, better pre-amps, those things. But it depends on what you want to do. Some people just don't want that kind of sound.
JC: For us, drums are the biggest limitation. You need so much equipment to really get the drums, so we always do that at an actual studio. In that case, if you were back in the States, they would have a bigger selection of microphones so you could swap out and use a slightly different mic for the kick drum. Here you go in and they have one drum and one mic for the kick drum and you're stuck with it. It becomes more an issue of placement to get the right sound. And it's hard to get your own equipment, too, because everything is pretty much important.
S247: Is that particular to Shanghai, then, your access to equipment? Is it harder to get a hold of stuff here?
Nichols: I think these limitations are why we are where we are. That's the way of things, I guess.
RB: For me, long term, I want to produce other people's stuff, too. I've just started collecting. I've turned one of my rooms in my apartment into a mixing space, covered the walls with foam so I at least have that to start with and hopefully just keep adding things to my arsenal.
S247: For someone who wanted to start collecting equipment themselves does the equipment in question depend on what you want to do or is there a universal set of things you should get when you're starting out? Say, 'Get this mic and this pre-amp' etc.
G.: It depends on what you want to do. If you want to sound super polished then you're going to use a certain mic or pre-amp and if you want to sound acoustic you can use different equipment.
Nichols: You need one good condenser microphone, and if you're using a computer you need a good interface and a good pre-amp. Pre-amps can make or break. It makes the post-production so much easier if you have a good pre-amp. I did a lot of our stuff without pre-amps. Our EP was basically no pre-amps, and it was produced on Adobe Audition, and it makes a huge difference. I did so much post-production and cueing and all this compression… it was a mess. As we continued, after the EP, we started pre-amping everything and using Ableton and it just sounds a lot better and it was a lot easier to produce. So, pre-amps and condenser mics.
RB: And interface you said, too. That's what's converting the analog sound into digital, and if it's converted poorly then it's just diminishing the signal right away so you can't really do much with that.
S247: What do you guys use for interfaces?
RB: I use Apogee.
Nichols: I use the M-Audio Inbox. Some of our stuff that was recorded live was actually recorded through this maybe 10-year-old eight track DAW, and that has some pre-amps and stuff built right into it. It goes right to digital, a lot of the bass tracks were there. It looks like a mixer board. Back in the day, when I was 12 or 13 and was just getting into music, I wanted one so bad.
S247: What about software then? I heard Ableton?
Baird: I use Logic.
JC: Me too.
G.: Pro Tools.
S247: Okay, and these are all names I've heard a lot on the internet. Have you guys tried each program and chosen what you use for a reason or did you just sort of happen on yours by chance?
JC: I chose Logic just because I like the way it felt. The first album we did was recorded on Cubase and I remember playing around with it a little bit while Joe would be setting up microphones. Gaensler was using Ableton to mix our record, so I kind of got familiar with that and I've used it to do some bad hip hop production with my room mates... I just didn't really feel that comfortable with it. Logic has a really nice clean interface and there's a lot of great stuff that you can get for it in terms of extensions and whatnot.
RB: I use Logic and Ableton together now, I've wired them to go back and forth to sort of utilise the best of each. When it comes to post-production I just feel like Logic is cleaner and easier to move around than Ableton. But I ultimately want Pro Tools because I've compared and the end results just for some reason seem to have more depth to it in my opinion.
Nichols: I've heard that Logic is better for sound quality. When I started I just took what was pirated, and that was Adobe Audition. If you've ever used Cool Edit Pro it's just, Adobe bought it and turned it into Audition. I mean it's actually not a bad little thing, I can do a lot of stuff. I basically only use the presets and all that. It got me started. I just chose Ableton because Gaensler was using it and he was teaching me some stuff so I just bought Ableton and worked it out. I like it because I'm also into electronic stuff and there are so many possibilities with Ableton.
G.: I tried Cubase, Logic, Ableton, I thought Pro Tools was very stable, it always works. It does what it needs to do. Logic is too complex, I'm not sure how to control everything.
S247: It was either Pro Tools or Logic that I often heard compared to Garageband...
S247: Would you say it's a good idea then to learn the ropes on something free like Garageband that's like what you want to use then step it up later?
RB: That's actually probably fundamentally why I picked Logic, because you can open up all your files from Garage Band in Logic and take it further.
JC: I still use GarageBand a lot just to record demos at home. It's got a lot of the same tools Logic has but it's nerfed, you can't really hurt yourself.
Nichols: You can use a very simple program just to learn if, if you've never done it. I still do a lot of my initial recordings on Audacity, I'm not even kidding! You can create samples with Audacity, it just doesn't make sense to open up an entire project just for that sort of thing.
S247: You guys talked a little bit about microphone placement and picking your space, especially for live sound. If I were going to start a project today I would just plop a mic down in the middle, play, and hope for the best. If you just wanted a sound as true to live performance as possible, are there universals for microphone placement or what space you're going to play in that people should know or at least start from?
G.: For the drums, most of the time you'll have close mics to the snare and everything, plus room mics and overhead mics, but the placement changes from one setting to another.
RB: The universal is your ear. If you're trying to record, say you're singing a song on guitar and you've got one mic. You put it in the room and play it and listen to it. From there you're gonna just try as many things as you need until you get what sounds best to you.
Nichols: Sometimes you can create a pretty good sound even with a crappy mic through EQ and realistic reverb and stuff like that, but nothing really beats getting a really good initial sound. I would say there is no universal method. Different microphone, different space, different amp, different person's vocals, all of these things are variables, there are so many different combinations. That's all about experimentation.
JC: You look on the web, there are guys who put out these mathematical formulas for this stuff, but it's really just about listening.
S247: Okay, so listening is important. If I were going to start producing today, having listened to you guys so far, I'd listen back to what I recorded... over my crap little laptop speakers. Do you need a decent sound system to really be able to appreciate the sound at a deep enough level?
Nichols: You need monitors. I did all of my monitoring with headphones, good headphones, $100 headphones, and then took it to different places. I took it here, I played it through an iPod, I sent a .wav file to Adam Gainsler and he played it in his monitors and gave me feedback. I don't have monitors in my apartment, so I have to do this kind of stuff.
JC: It's another thing about the listening, every set of speakers is different. If you can really pay attention to your own speakers when you listen to music, you'll get familiar with what sort of audio response they have. From there it's just about comparing what you want your record to sound like with that standard.
G.: You can record sound well from little speakers, but you have to do everything in that direction. Maybe some people want dynamics and more space and less compression, that's going to sound shitty on tiny little speakers and pretty good on nicer ones.
RB: The sound to the room where you listen is huge, that's one thing I've spent about two months working on myself. I took the room I had and trying to cancel out all of the nulls and peaks. Depending on where you are in a room certain frequencies will be duplicated in a certain spot or completely taken away because it cancels out, just based on depending on where you are and the materials and size of the room. You might hear it in your room and it sounds great but then you listen somewhere else and all of a sudden maybe the bass sounds terrible. I attacked that recently and it's great because the mixes that I'm making now, when we play them on different stereos, that margin of errors just keeps shrinking.
JC: Do you use bass traps and stuff? Where do you get all that stuff?
RB: There's a great vendor (here), I made a list of what I wanted and she's got all the materials and put together a package for me and it's incredibly inexpensive.
Nichols: You can find a lot of stuff on Taobao, and if you're looking for more hands-on stuff just go to Jingling Road.
[Go to Da Shijie station, Metro Line]
RB: Blue Hand.
JC: They've got two stores on that street, don't they? One of them's a guitar store and the other one's got a lot of audio and keyboard stuff.
Baird: That typifies Shanghai. I went back to the States this last summer and went to Guitar Center and was just blown away. There were like forty different hardware compressors you could buy and stuff. Blue Hand is kind of the best thing I've seen in Shanghai, and I went in one day and literally bought all of the pre-amps they had... and I only bought two... and one of them was terrible.
S247: Are there any physical considerations that we haven't brought up when you're recording or listening back to mixes? You've talked about bass traps, I don't even know what those are, and you’ve talked about putting foam up on your walls…
Nichols: I don't have any of that stuff. I have my headphones and I send my stuff out to other people to listen and give me feedback. Whatever you mix, make it as good as possible but it still needs to be mastered. Mastering's a huge part of it, and that's what I'm still not good at, that's why I still employ Adam Gaensler to do all that stuff.
S247: What's the difference between mixing and mastering?
G.: For mixing you put everything together. You may need to lower the guitar, get rid of some frequencies from the bass to make room for something else, etc. You can work with reverb or effects or whatever. When you get something that you're happy with then the mixing is over. The issue is that if you compare this result to a commercial CD, it won't sound as loud. The mastering is using limiters and compressors to make it sound louder, maybe some more EQ work or whatnot. It's the difference between the demo we do at home and the professional sounding CD.
Nichols: Sometimes it's just polishing a turd. You take your mix, which is as good as it can possibly be, then instead of dealing with individual tracks it just takes that stereo track and cleans it, gives it a nice polish. It sounds weird to say but it makes it sound better than it is.
JC: You're taking a recording and turning it into a record.
RB: You increase its translation to other stereos and take out any possible things that would make it stand out. They say in a good mix you never hear the mix, you just hear the song. If there's anything that's taking away from the song then you want to fix that. That's the mastering stage.
S247: So you guys mostly go to Gaensler for that?
Nichols: Yeah, him or Acid Pony Club.
Nichols: It's also good just to have another set of ears. You hear it so much...
G.: It's good to have other people giving you feedback.
S247: Is that a difficult leap from producing, or if you've already learned mixing do you already have the skills you need to master things?
G.: If you can teach yourself how to mix you can teach yourself how to master.
RB: The higher level mastering is often a lot about the gear and the room. I'm from Portland, Maine and one of the most famous mastering engineers has a studio there. Everybody takes their records there because of the way that he's set it up where there is absolutely no reflection of sound, so what you hear from the speakers is pristine. That's the highest echelon of mastering, that level of detailed analysis. I think a lot of the mastering that goes on in DIY shows that you can do a lot with a little as well. It all depends on the production level. It's sort of like framing a piece of art, you could say, you've got the painting but now you're picking the frame and its placement and all the little details of the completed piece.
S247: So you guys said you can listen to examples of good production and, having studied it, come up with at least an educated guess as to how to go about pursuing that sound. If you heard a record that was done poorly, would you be able to pick out what was flubbed or omitted entirely?
Nichols: Sometimes bad is bad and sometimes it's a choice, so I don't want to step on that. If you hear a cough in the background, maybe they want to keep it.
JC: For me, there were two records released in the last two months of last year, recorded by the same person. When you hear the first record you kind of think it might be an aesthetic choice that they're going for because I've seen them live and I know what they sound like, but then when you listen to the second one and it was done by the same guy it sounds like the same, sloppy production, like whoever was recording wasn't paying attention to input levels when he was recording and there's unnecessary distortion in weird places. It's so easy to fix that sort of thing and just record it again... People have different tastes, I guess.
RB: It's an art.
G.: It's like judging some writing or some such thing.
S247: I remember speaking to Gaensler a while ago about this. He said that if a band wanted a gritty, live, underground kind of sound, and they didn't want that handled in the mastering they handled it in the mixing process, they recorded everything all at the same time, not individually. If you want to get the gritty, live, underground sort of feeling do you think that's a good direction to go or can you just replicate that? Can you record everything individually and then in the mastering process give it any sound you want?
RB: You really can't give it any sound you want, it's subject to the mix.
JC: The new remaster of [Nirvana's] 'Nevermind' is a good example of what mastering can do. The original Nevermind, Kurt Cobain hated it, he thought it was a really commercial master. They adjusted the sound so that the drums were massive, the new one is supposed to be more his original vision and it's a really different sound. If you're going to do it, you should try to do it in the recording, good input equals good output, but there is a lot of stuff you can change in later stages.
Nichols: Yeah, but ‘crap in crap out’ is true. You can do the best you can with post-production but ‘crap in crap out’.
RB: It's always subject to the original recording. It made me think of a realisation that I had originally, about music being air. How the sound waves move, how you capture something in a recording, it's all about how much air is going into it. That's why a pre-amp makes such a difference, it takes that air and makes it so much more powerful and so much more ‘polishable’. Otherwise, it might be that you don't get enough breathe into the microphone and you can only stretch it so far [in post production]. So all those decisions come from that original recording and can put limitations on the end product.
Nichols: Sometimes, too, those limitations can lead to really cool things. There were a couple piano numbers on our album that were not really well recorded, but they were spontaneous and I didn't want to throw that away. I just put a high-pass filter on the piano to clean it up and it knocked out all the lows but it had this really pleasant feel and I thought, 'I'm going to use that on the ones that are actually recorded well, too, because I like it and it brings some cohesion to the whole thing.' So that's a good example, I think, of why DIY is cool. These limitations can lead, sometimes, to cool artistic choices.
S247: Is there anything you guys can think of that I should have asked about and didn't?
JC: You said the whole point of this interview was to help people interested in learning DIY production know how to go about it. I think before you do anything like investing in equipment you should just learn to listen first. Listen to songs that you like and try to figure out what about that song you like. Why do you like a certain sound or a certain balance of instruments more than something else? That understanding will really shape your own vision and go a long way towards making your production the way you want it to be.
G.: For people who want to start, I would just say get a computer, buy an external audio interface with a tiny pre-amp, buy an SM57 and just go for it.
Nichols: Your first recordings are going to suck, and that's the way it should be.
RB: The first three months you play guitar it hurts - it's the same with production!