Interview with Steve Marcantonio

Throughout the tracking process do you follow a detailed approach? Are there things which must be captured during tracked which can not be fixed afterwards?

Steve Marcantonio: Depending on the input from artists, producers or record labels, there could be five musicians present, up to nine or ten. For example, there could be bass, drums, electric guitar, acoustic guitar, a keyboard player, a steel player, a fiddle player, and a singer. There could also be two keyboard players or two electric guitar players.

My approach begins with making sure everything is set up perfectly, long before anyone else comes in. My assistant engineer does that for me but I still show up about 1 hour before the musicians arrive. I believe that everything should be set up perfectly within the room before beginning tracking, and that it should look neat. You want the studio to look neat because you never know when a photographer is going to show up, and you never know when the artist is going be filming the session. Other than that, if someone is sitting in a room all day recording, I think that it’s better for their psyche to be in a room that is well-planned out and neat. That’s how I begin my tracking process. When tracking, there are some things that I do each time. For example, I tend to mic the drums and use compression on things in a way that is sort of the same, but I also mix it up all of the time. I don’t like to do everything exactly the same every time. Depending on the project that I’m doing and depending on the producer that I’m working with, my approach will change. In a typical situation for me I’ll talk to the producer ahead of time, and in some cases listen to the music ahead of time, and they will book engineers and musicians based on the sound they want. My sound leans more towards the aggressive, less contemporary country sound. I like to rock-out the drums a little bit more, for example. I’m a little more bombastic in my style rather than trying to print things overly perfect and clean.

Given that your style is a little bit more rock’n’roll and bombastic than other engineers, could you explain how you achieve this sound?

SM: I like to use room mics, depending on the room we are using. I don’t go too crazy with tons of room mics, but I like to use room mics with compression on them. It makes the overall sound of the track a little bit more aggressive than it may have been played originally. For toms, I keep the mics a bit further back to bring out some ambience. I like to hear some room noise on the kit, where others tend to mic the kit so directly that when they bring up the overhead mics all you can hear is cymbals. To me, that’s a total vibe-buster. When you bring up the overhead mics on my drums, you will almost hear the whole kit. The overall effect is a bit more loose-sounding than other engineers.

Apart from drums, I may compress acoustic guitars more than other engineers. In Nashville, some people like to put two mics on the acoustic and pan them left and right to make a pseudo-stereo sound. I’m not really into that because the acoustic guitar is a mono instrument, so I just pan it a little to the left or right. While we are tracking, I monitor with a stereo bus compressor so that by the time we are done tweaking sounds and ready to begin the first song, the resulting sound through the monitors sounds really close to a record. The producer, musicians, and artists are all more excited this way. When you have 5-10 musicians on a record project, they want to hear themselves. That’s quite a cast to try and please in a short period of time, so I try to make things sound as close to a record as possible.

Would you describe the task of a mix engineer as more rooted in art or science?

SM: There are mix engineers both in Canada and the US who don’t track at all because they bring in so much work. Mixing, quite honestly, is where the money still is. There are a few well known mixers around who do have their job down to a science. Some mix engineers have a template that they use for all of the songs they mix. When you walk into their studio you’ll see racks of gear where, for example, they will use a specific compressor that they always run vocals into. This compressor will be set up in a specific way and used on every mix. Working this way only takes a few hours because they have everything set up and ready to go. Other mixers like to feel out every song individually and take their time. They might spend a whole day mixing rather than a few hours. That’s how I like to work. I like to take my time in order to realize that, for example, a certain compressor doesn’t sound right for the song I’m working on. Or maybe the vocalist just doesn’t sound good with a specific compressor. Those are the two ways of going about mixing. It’s also important to understand that every engineer is not a mixer. Every mixer was an engineer at some point, but every engineer is not a mixer. Some engineers just don’t have what it takes to be a great mixer. In my opinion – and I say this only because of my passion for music – mixing needs to come from the soul. If you don’t have what it takes in your soul to mix something, then it doesn’t matter how good you are at engineering.

Do you take the mastering process into account during tracking or mixing stages?

SM: The only time I tend to think about mastering during the mixing process is when I say, “Gee, this is going to sound great when its mastered!” (laughs). With current technology, and the way things are mixed sometimes mastering isn’t something that is required. These days people can achieve so much within the mixing process that it’s no longer essential to master a record. Mastering means taking one song, or an album, and sending it to a mastering engineer who will listen to your mix with fresh ears and make changes. For example, if the bass sounds muddy, he may flesh out the top-end more or add compression to clear up a mix. The mastering engineer will also add level to the mix so that when the CD is made it sounds as loud as it can be. Pro Tools now has plug-ins which simulate this. Some engineers use, and in my opinion overuse, these plug-ins. You should allow a mastering engineer to even out your levels when it comes to a professional record.

Nowadays, when people put a CD on in their car they want to hear it loud. We’ve been going through the “loudness wars” for years now. Everyone wants their album to be as loud as, or louder than, other records. The problem is that when the final master is too loud it takes away the dynamics of the recording. With the way things are mastered now, the low-points are now loud and the recording doesn’t breathe. When I am mixing, I do consider the mastering process. I will, for example, make sure there is enough bass for when the mix is sent to the mastering engineer. When I’m tracking, I don’t think about mastering at all. On projects that I am doing which are in the box, these clients sometimes can’t afford a mastering engineer. In that case I’ll do some sort of pseudo-mastering using plugins. The clients want the master to sound loud and bright. Plug-ins have come a very long way. When I’m working on a project with more of a budget I can master from my office rather than a control room with outboard gear.

Could you explain your approach in using plug-ins versus outboard gear?

SM: There are a lot of plug-ins I really love. McDSP and Soundtoys are my two favourite manufacturers for go-to plug-ins for devices such as delays, and things like that. Universal Audio plug-ins are incredible. The EMT 250, which is a reverb plug-in, sounds great. The original outboard version was nicknamed the “Darth Vader.” It was a red device that sat about 3 feet tall, and cost $18,000. Now for less than $1,000 I can buy a bunch of plug-ins and maybe use 10 of them in a session. UA plug-ins are fantastic: Neve, SSL, spring reverb, real reverb, etc. They make a lot of plug-ins which simulate outboard gear very closely. The difference though is that if you were sending audio through a real Pultec EQ it would colour the signal via a tube. Even without making any equalization changes, the tube will colour the audio. Some engineers really want that colouration. If you’re mixing on a console, for example, the console is changing the sound of the audio being sent through it. Maybe the console isn’t tweaked properly as far as the trims go, and maybe one EQ sounds different than the other. It’s really a crapshoot as far as what sounds you’ll get on any console anywhere.

And a Neve will sound different than an SSL, of course.

SM: Exactly. A producer might decide they want a Neve sound over an SSL on a record. You can’t really produce that sort of sound. There are people nowadays, however, that might like a particular sound and do not want to change it. For example, you might track an acoustic guitar and only want to EQ it rather than colour it via analog equipment. You might just want a little extra 10Khz. There are purists out there now who believe a plug-in is the right way to go because you’re not colouring the sound. Similarly, there is a plug-in for the Fairchild compressor. I’ve seen Fairchilds sell for $30,000. When you use the plug-in version it doesn’t sound exactly like the actual Fairchild unit because it doesn’t run through tubes, but it’s also non-destructive to the original signal. Once again though, if you have 10 Fairchild’s sitting in a room, they will all sound different.

Do you prefer plug-ins over outboard gear? Or perhaps outboard gear over plug-ins?

SM: It depends on the project and budget. Some mixes are done in the box simply because there is very little money to spend to get songs mixed. There are also writers and artists who may not have a company behind them and have to pay with their own money. I started mixing in the box about 5 years ago just so that I would prepare myself for these situations. Ideally, I would mix on a console. There is a sound that I get from an analog desk that can not be reproduced by a computer.

Where do you see the future of recording?

SM: I’ve dealt with the youth in our business in many ways. I’m down the block from Belmont University where I have done panels in the past, I was involved with Leadership Music here in Nashville, and I’ve done panels for Berklee College of Music in the past as well. I like to paint the future bright to all young people. Long gone are the days of big commercial facilities, where young men and women would work in a studio and then become world class engineers after 4 or 5 years. Now there are fewer jobs and fewer avenues for these individuals to receive proper training.

The training element is disappearing, but the opportunities are amazing right now due to technology. A man or woman can go to Berklee for 4 years to be trained as an engineer to learn how to track instruments, they’ve dabbled in mixing, and they’ve learned how to work on a console and Pro Tools. For about $10,000-20,000 they can build a great recording studio in their bedroom and begin cutting records. It’s possible to record a friend’s band, have a hit, be successful, and then be on you’re way. Stranger things have happened. That could never happen in my day. I began in 1978 and had to go through a longer process. There are so many ways to release music, and the internet demonstrates to us that there is a lot of material which needs to be recorded. So I think that the future of the engineer and producer is still bright.