perjantai 9. joulukuuta 2011

Olavi Uusivirta album in the making + thoughts about freelance engineers

As some of you may have noticed, I've been keeping myself extremely busy producing and engineering Olavi Uusivirta's forthcoming fifth album.

So far (and looks like this is unlikely to change [touches wood]) it has been a thoroughly enjoyable and otherwise fantastic project. Olavi and I have worked together in the past: on Soma albums and his own first two albums where I've done a little engineering plus featuring on the debut album (recorded, mixed and co-produced by our very own Mikko Raita) with - believe or not - my thighs. I'll tell that story another time. Back to the album!

I won't go into any details on what kind of an album we're making or any of that stuff. I think writing about it during the process is a bit silly - cause we as the makers of the album really only know what kind of an album we're making after it's finished. Also, it gives people some sort of a preconception on what they will hear, but I hate to say that it's usually completely distorted and weird. Fellow artists, producers and musicians can't really get a good picture of the record if they're given only a verbal or written description and for the layperson (whatever that means) it can be seriously misleading and even harmful.

So let's say we're really excited about the album, it's going to be fantastic and we're working our skinny arses off to make it fantastic!

Well, this wouldn't be a proper teaser if I just wrote that "I have a secret, but I'm not telling you". That'd be a bit unfair. So I give you a little snippet of one of our working days. This was not recorded at Studio Kekkonen (as you can see), but at Finnvox where we were recording grand piano for a day.

The video is shot by Olavi himself and portrays the almighty Jiri-serkku (better known as Jiri Kuronen) performing a piano track, which in fact is a keeper. One can spot yours truly producing the track by waving my arms around in a very producery way (that's what is taught in audio engineering schools: hand signals), but my part of the dialogue is cut, which IMHO makes it a much better teaser!

For the recording geeks: The piano was recorded with two Neumann FET U47's near the hammers (for some attack to cut through in the final mix), two DPA 4011's outside the instrument for a more natural sound and two Beyerdynamic 160 ribbon mics - this was a mono setup for another track. Also, I had a pair of DPA 4006's as ambience mics. The ambience mics went through the SSL AWS900 preamps and the other mics went through AMS Neve 1081 pres with some EQ. I tried the UREI 1178 compressor on the close up mics, but decided to rather compress the piano in the mix as one instrument (i.e. all the mics grouped together) rather than compress a single pair of mics. So no compression was used.

This trip to Finnvox reminded me of the old days, before we had our own studio. Back then, a mere few years ago, there was a legion (OK, not that many, but a whole bunch) of freelance recording and mixing engineers who hovered from one studio to the other depending on their personal tastes and availability of the studios. Most of us had preferences over what to use, but generally we worked in a variety of "big" studios: Finnvox, Sountrack (now turned E-Studio), Petrax, Sonic Pump, Seawolf, Mango (now turned Mankku) and HIP. I may have forgotten some. Before we entered the recording industry, this was normal practise, but additionally a lot of engineers had actual permanent jobs as staff engineers in studios (very few have that nowadays). Anyway, engineers were freelancing and the big studios were happy as they had a clientele who block-booked the studios for weeks. We as the freelancers were happy, as we had no debts to pay and studio rents to pay.

All that has changed now.

In 2005 when we started building our studio, there were signs of a lot of engineers building their own studios or developing close bonds to one big studio, doing practically all their work there. At some point, in 2008 or so, I kept hearing the big studio owners saying "Business is kinda ok, but it's more and more short projects and no block bookings and by the way, why have we not seen you here for the last two years?". That kept becoming more and more common and in 2010 we and some of our closest colleagues and friends thought of all practising proffessional recording and mixing engineers we could think of (there's not THAT many and we know practically all of them) and came to the conclusion that there were only two or three real freelancers left. Everybody else had built their own little place or exclusively used one studio. The big studios were and are still used regularily for large sessions with whole bands, or just drum sessions, grand piano, string ensemble or other session requiring a large space with good monitoring options, some special instruments (such as Hammond organ or grand piano) and a large collection of mics. But usually this is for only a coulple of days, maybe a week. After that, the project is moved to a smaller place, typically the producer's or the engineer's studio. Or rehearsal room. Or home.

Obviously, there are many reasons for this development: record sales are declining, so budgets are smaller. The amount of work for any given album has stayed constant, so work has to be moved to more affordable places. This is a no-brainer. At the same time, more people have made investments to build their own studios - just like we did. And when done right it's really not cheap, I can assure you. So either the studios are insufficient in quality (which results to poor-sounding records) or the owners have to take a big risk by investing a lot of money on the building.

So to be able to make records and make a living out of it, the producer/engineer (a very common combo these days) has to jump through some hoops to make the budget work in order to pay his bills. But to maintain high quality, this means expenses.


I could go on and on with this, but I want to conclude it by saying that I love having my own studio. It's an absolutely fantastic place and it's set up exactly how I want it to be. By having built it, ran it for five years, developed it to what it's become, I've also developed myself professionally to a completely new level and will continue to do so. I wouldn't change anything about that.

At the same time, I kinda miss my freelancing days, when I didn't have to worry when to switch to a new version of ProTools or when do we have enough downtime to do costly maintenance or who's turn is it to go to the wholesaler to buy coffee and toilet paper and where are all my receipts for the accountant and how much did that cost again? Those times when I worked at Soundtrack for a week and then at HIP for two weeks. Meeting colleagues in the lounge of Finnvox.

Ahh, the good old days.

OK, OK, I'm not YET old enough to really say that and feel entirely credible.

A lot of the stuff I miss from those days has to do with the element of change - which I find can be an inspiring and powerful thing. It can also be really annoying as it brings an element of (bad) randomness along with it. I'm talking about "Hey, where's that compressor that was here last month?" or "How was the patchbay wired here again?" or "Is there too much bass in my mix, or is it this room?" not to talk about "What was the security code in this studio again?".

In the end, the fact is that those days are gone and aren't coming back and that's OK too. I'm really content with the way things are, as said before, I love our studio, it's a fantastic place and I wouldn't go back if I could. But I do wonder sometimes how the new breed of engineers are going to learn to appreciate the notion of sonic quality over budgetary constraints and the idea of limited but sufficient studio time. In my part-time stint as a teacher of microphone techniques, mixing and ProTools trickery at Metropolia University of Applied Sciences I try to pass on the general idea and I'm sure that as long as there are ambitious aspiring engineers, there will be truly ambitious work done in the narrow field of recording and mixing music.


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