• ‘Beyond the Wall of Sound’ – Look inside the studio

    Exactly a year ago I finished the article ‘Beyond the Wall of Sound’. I explained how Phil Spector created a recording technique that made use of harmony and music technology in a way to mask definition in the whole. By doing so, it became difficult to distinguish instruments from one another as they form a certain density. I tried to reconstruct this technique, and researched whether it is still possible to recreate Spector’s wall of sound with the technology of today. One of Spector’s number one technical adjustments to the wall of sound was the use of the Gold Star Studios, based in Los Angeles. Not only because the studio was terribly small for  the amount of musicians that played in it (19x24x13 ft.), but mainly because the studio had an unique echo chamber.
    Last week Ernesto from Spain send me a message. He had some questions regarding the thesis ‘Beyond the Wall of Sound’. I collected all the material again (including a short video that was shot during the recording day). He allowed me to post some of the questions to share the information about Phil Spector’s recording technique to those that take special interest in the subject.

    To gather such a big group seems to be a hard task, I suppose you did not choose “Be my Baby” because adding a string section apart from the twenty musicians would have been impossible, right? 

    ‘Haha, that is right. I only had a small allowance from the research commission for the studio rental. Because of that I wasn’t able to pay the musicians. I had to share my enthusiasm for them to join the project. A lot of them knew the sound of Spector and were curious what would happen. But to find twenty musicians wasn’t easy and even on the day itself I was able to find the last horn-player. To add another ten musicians to play strings, wouldn’t have been impossible. It would have been more cozy in the studio (just like the Gold Star Sessions) and it would have increased the density of the sound. I would have loved to have them, but there was simply no time and no budget for that. Even if I would have been able to have string players on the session, I might have chosen for ‘You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’’ from the Righteous Brothers instead of ‘Be my Baby’. I think the Wall of Sound is heard best on that particular record.’

    What kind of compressors, limiters and EQ did you used? 

    ‘I’m into the Fab-filter plugins at the moment, including the Pro-C2, Pro-Q2 and the Pro-MB. They work intuitive, and sound great. I still use a lot of native logic plugins. The AUgraphicEQ is really nice to use sometimes, because frequencies can easily be adjusted. Same for the native compressors and limiter. I used a mix of those plugins for ‘Walking in the Rain’ .’

    I noticed in the video it is just one musician playing tambourine/bell and the other percussion but the sound on the recording is unbelievable. It sounds like a lot of people playing percussion. Is it maybe the reverb that is responsible?

    ‘Because of its high frequency, the bells are always dominant in the Spector records. If you listen to some of the tracks separately, you always hear the high bells bleeding trough. That means that the bells are reaching all the microphones at a different time (because of all the distances to every microphone). Maybe this effect might trick you in hearing more percussion players then there actually are. I believe during the sessions back in the 60’s, Spector never miked the bells. Even though we were aware of that, we did mic the percussion. The percussion player (Selle) was standing in the middle of the room. He had the bell stick and a woodblock. On the final recording, I stood next to him playing another pair of sleigh bells. In front of us was a DPA 4006a omni microphone, which recorded the bells, but also had the rest of the musicians bleeding through. The reason to place this microphone in front of us, even though research learned that it was not the case back in the 60’s, is to have some certainty in the mix. If the bells needed to be louder, I was able to control them. In the end, it appeared that this was the case. The bells needed a boost on the percussion channel. The reason for this is that the room in which we recorded, was way bigger then the Gold Star Studios.’

    I am using Altiverb for simulating an echo chamber. The plugin includes the sampling of Western (now called Cello) Studios rooms and echo chambers, like the ones used for ‘Pet Sounds’ [1966] and many more recordings. I send every instrument to a channel where I have loaded a delay so the signals come into the “echo chamber” delayed. Then I set it to 115ms because (I did some maths considering distances and speeds) it is a time similar to what the Ampex tape machines delayed the signals before they came into the real chambers. Also an equalizer cutting lows and highs (600Hz and 10kHz respectively) and, finally, the Altiverb Western echo chamber. Every instruments arrives to this “echo” channel and so I have the different dry channels and just one “echo” wet channel which I mix with the rest of dry ones. The results doing it this way are good but your sound is bigger and closer to original Spector recordings so you are doing it in a very very good way. I would like to ask you about your reverb process. Is it a plugin?

    ‘I like your idea of simulating the delay of the signal. It makes sense to do that. The Gold Star Studio was known for its reverb chamber, and I also heard that Altiverb’s Cello Studios came close the the reverb of the Gold Star. One of my research advisors came with the idea to record a convolution reverb. So before recording ‘Walking in the Rain’ I had the idea to use (or even record) the convolution reverb of The Gold Star Studio, but learned later on that  the studios burned down in the eighties. So for the final mix I also used Altiverb, and although I was aware of the Cello Studios, I used the (Zappa) Echo Chamber Bright 1&2 because for these recordings it sounded better. I made eight different aux-channels and send the instrument groups to every aux channel. These aux-channels had an Echo Chamber, and additionally, a compressor or EQ, depending how I wanted the instrument group to sound. In the end I used a master-chain with a 9k Hz boost(!), multiprocessor and brick wall limiter. I think this made it sound really nice in the end. There was only little known how Spector did the final mix. I’ve listened a thousand times to ‘Walking in the Rain’ and just tried to come as close as possible by ear.’

    Another reverb question: Do you have just one echo channel that receives all the channels or does every channel has its own reverb channel? Listening to your tracks makes me think about every channel is maybe a mix of dry and wet. I think in the 60’s they just used one (or two) echo chambers or plates so its output was a glued mix of all instruments. I can not imagine how they would have done several reverbs, but on the other side it is true that your recordings sound very very very much close to the original recordings.

    ‘Instead of placing the drummer (Jordy) around some foam panels, he was placed in the drum booth, because otherwise his sound would dominate the session. We kept his doors open to make his sound bleed through all other microphones though. With all the microphone bleeding, a big part of the actual mixing is done by moving instruments. I mean, if the drummer is in the middle, all other microphones would pick up his sound, which makes it impossible to lower his sound in the mix. What you are hearing is the high percussion bleeding through his microphone. The reason why the other instruments are not audible is because the engineer placed and gained the microphones in a way that the rest of the band is only slightly audible. He was aware how the bleeding was used, but did increase it to a minimum.Back in the 60’s the wet sound of the echo chamber was mixed with the dry signal. To imitate this technique, I send every channel 50% to the aux-channels. That is the half dry/half wet sound you hear. How the wet sound was mixed with the original back then, I am not sure. It makes sense that they linked every track separately to the echo chambers, and overdubbed the original track, but now with a reverb. If you know the answer to that, I would love to hear it.’

    How do you send 50% of the signal? And you send the wet signal back to the same original channel after that?

    ‘In lots of DAW you can find the ‘send’ function directly in the channel. In logic pro X, the green slider shows how much of the original channel (from -6dB to 6dB) you want to send to the aux channel, so it is not necessarily 50%. The original sound of the channel is still send to the ‘stereo out’ as is shown under in the picture. The ‘wet signal’ is also send to the ‘stereo out’ and not back to the original channel. In this way you blend an effect placed in an aux channel with the original signal.

    I abandoned VSTis for almost eight years and now I am back on it and I have discovered how this world have changed, the legatos and other techniques are very well made now. Well, I can imagine you are used to the real orchestra so maybe this kind of tools are not very interesting for you.

    It’s amazing how fast it is changing. Sample libraries get more realistic every day and the possibilities are endless. To increase the realism, they even got stage positioner plugins, so you can build your own orchestra and place them in a virtual space. One of the biggest limitations of the virtual instruments is the absence of the microphone bleeding. Whenever we play strings and brass from two different libraries, the signal of both instrument group don’t leak through each others microphones. Bleeding was of course one of Spector’s number one of technical additions to the wall of sound so to use VST in a wall of sound recording doesn’t seem right.


  • Interview with Robin Hunt

    I first heard about Robin Hunt when he appeared in a making-of video of ‘Hylas’, performed by Thomas Azier. In this video, synthesisers were re-amped in huge factory halls. This way of recording, resulted in a natural reverb throughout the recorded tracks. The process inspired me, and I wanted to ask him a few questions about it ever since. What struck me was the way he used the music production as a tool for the composition. I’ve included the video at the bottom of the article, and highly recommend checking it out!

    Robin welcomes me in his studio, located in the eastern part of Berlin. It’s a unique place that used to be a factory. After a few coffees, he shows me around in the building. In the common room there is a timeline – with pictures drawn on the wall. It shows a timescale from 2010 until now, the period that, together with approximately twenty other people, Robin renovated the factory into a creative workspace. There are many trails left of abandoned engines and generators, many of them still working; trails of what the place used to be. I notice a lot of work was done to make the place what it is today.

    On the way to his studio, we pass along a sewing atelier and a printing workspace. These rooms used to be empty, and Robin used the acoustic of the space to record some of his sounds. One of the industrial elevators is still in use. The sound of the mechanism, emergences deep from within the building. It is the exact sound that is heard the first twenty seconds of Thomas Azier’s ‘Shadows of the Sun’, which was also recorded in this place. His studio is a small tight-sounding room on the first floor. What started with a few questions about his workaround, turned into an amazingly inspiring afternoon. Until mid- afternoon we talked about sounds, song writing, mixing, synths, production and a lot more.

    From Berlin to Paris
    After studying ‘Academie voor Popcultuur’ in Leeuwarden – The Netherlands, Robin moved to Berlin. The decision was huge, but in Leeuwarden nothing really happened for him; the music he made at that time was too extreme. He used to visit Berlin regularly, and bit by bit he discovered the exciting vibe of the city. After nine months he made the decision to move there permanently.

    ‘And at that moment everything happened instantly. I started to make different things, met different people… Thomas already lived here a few years, and he asked me to make a kick for ‘Shadows of the Sun’. That was quite hard to make with a TR-909. The bass tone is always a G#, but the bass needed to be Bb and F. It’s not going to work to pitch the bass because you will lose a lot of overtones, besides you’ll miss the punch. So what I did; I recorded the 909, cut the punch off the tail and only pitched the tail. The new tail I routed to the same effect chain as the punch had.’

    After that recording, Thomas and Robin started working together more. When
    Hylas 002 was made, they got a lot of reactions and started to work on the full album in 2011. But before he was able to work on it, he had to build his studio first. In this period, he had to work ten hours a day for six days a week to finish it. All the sound reflections had to be tight. Every space has its resonation frequency. Some frequencies might resonate longer, and that’s not what you want to. The most important reason for him to get this right was mainly for the mixing process. Because the mixing room needs to sound as neutral as possible. ‘If you want to mix properly, these things need to be done.’ It was through the label of Thomas that he applied as engineer and technician in the Paris based Ferber studio: a studio with lots of history.

    ‘It was a new huge step for me to go to Paris. New city, new culture, different vibe. For me it feels more intense than when I left for Berlin … The level gets higher every time, and that is where I want to be. I had the chance to grow in Berlin. It is always on your best or nothing. You don’t go for okay, you go for the best, that is an ambition essential for success. But these choices also keep you alert. When you are in a safe environment you don’t have to do things and you don’t grow. I want to do things that excite me, but that’s a choice you have to make on your own.’

    Then, Robin opened a few of the music projects he was working on. First we checked out an amazing remix with a solid pulse. The percussive synths sounded crystal clear and the song had a nice build-up. Some of the plugins he uses feature plugins from UVI, Chromaphone and Komplete. He explains that he likes to work with UVI because, even though it is sample based, its sound editing is still very flexible. I ask Robin if all the instruments in the remix were made by plugins, as a well known struggle for all composers and producers is the demo phase. Sometimes whenever you’re in the process of a song, the demo groove sounds so great already. Lots of producers want to record it with real microphones or synths, because ‘it is better’. Whenever the demo is finished and they start to record some of the instruments ‘for real’, they notice that the whole groove is not there anymore.

    ‘I will never get the groove as good as this anymore. And if I wanted it, I should have done it immediately in the process. You should make an agreement with yourself: record it immediately, or mute the tracks and really go for it later on. You shouldn’t continue and think ‘I’ll do it later’. Do it straight away! That’s the hard thing. When I was making this remix, I knew from the start that I would be using plugins. Where would I get such a great Kit in an Abbey Road room?

    Recording with real microphones will give you another vibe, but it’s not necessarily the good one. For a long time I thought; I have a nice TR-808. So I should replace the digital drum sample with the ‘real’ thing. It is possible but it doesn’t get better necessarily. Sometimes a digital sample fits perfectly, in that case I don’t need to use the TR-808. If it feels right, it is right because only you know it. If you can’t live with it you should record it with real microphones. The important thing is: ‘what is better?’ Sound should be functional first. Nobody will care about the quality if it isn’t functional. Form follows function.’

    Traveling with a studio
    Another reason for Robin to use more plugins, is because he’s on the road many times. For more than a year now, he travels frequently between his studio in Berlin and the Ferber studio in Paris. He explains that many hours of work are done travelling or in his bedroom, using nothing more than his laptop and earphones. He explains that most of the sounds that are made ‘in-the-box’ can sound terrific. Whenever sounds need to be adjusted, he can change it any time, right away.

    ‘Whenever I need to change something, it is still possible. But this is different for every project … in my workflow now it’s not working when I have a synthesiser in Berlin.’

    On the other side, working with real hardware like synthesisers and amplifiers, can give you inspiration.

    ‘The fact that you’re working with amplifiers; you walk towards it, turn it on, place a microphone in front of it… You really put an effort in making the sound. You are physically putting energy in the process instead of clicking around. And this gives a totally different emotional vibe to the process. It is not necessary, but it gives a different meaning to the sound, because you know where it comes from. The Jupiter 8 sounds the same as the plugin. Nobody hears the difference. But you work differently on a real synth. Turning around knobs… it’s a different interface.’

    In his studio there is still plenty of hardware, though. Some of the classic synths are placed above each other in a rack: Roland JX3P, Akai AX73, Virus TI and in close range the legendary TR-808 and TR-909. Even some nice effect processors are put on top of each other including the Sherman Filterbank and a Dynacord tape delay. Even though he sold the Korg EX-800, and the Yamaha TX7 recently, he will not get rid of the TR’s and the effect processors, because that is ‘the real shit’. But why are those TR’s so legendary?

    ‘Because it sounds extremely well, and it is intuitive. You can play with it, and every clap sounds a bit different, what makes it alive. This can almost not be done digitally. It has a certain groove. The feel will change completely whenever I turn this knob only the slightest bit.’


    The echo chamber
    In the end, Robin opened another music project where he is working on; a new song of Stefany June. He showed me around in the Live project, and had some amazing music production tricks. The lead sound that was dominating the bridge part of the song sounded like a fat synth, but it had the vibe of an acoustic string instrument. After a strip-down of all the effects, it appeared to be only his voice, humming a melody he made up! The simple humming was combined by a trombone that played the same line accompanied by a compressor, tuner and octaver. Even though the production is still work in progress, the basic beat had such a groove! Because the core of the song is the most important part, he explains.

    ‘The first question you ask yourself is: what is the core of the track? The drums were really important. They gave me a basic track, and I had to make lots of those sounds over again. When I finished the drums, I was able to continue with the chorus and strings. I’m not a decent guitar player, but I felt something else was needed in the chorus. So I cut out the notes, automated it and brought everything to the same level. Same with the claps; I recorded it four times, and panned it left and right. Some of them are reversed, a bit sloppy and with spring reverb. By recording it yourself, it gives the song a live vibe!’

    The live vibe is also heard in the smaller percussion, hi-hats and cymbals. Lots of them are virtual instruments (Komplete) played on the keyboard and by purpose not quantised. The shaker is one of the instruments that was recorded live. The afternoon ended with an example of the use of the ‘reverb chamber’. The concrete industrial halls of the factory are very long. Every sound that echoes through, has an unique long decay. Lots of synths heard on ‘Hylas’ came through an amplifier to be recorded at the other side of the room by a microphone. This technique adds a bit of dirtiness to the synthesiser. Additional, instead of using plugins as reverb, the concrete halls of the factory add their own reverb to the sound, in a similar way Phil Spector did with his echo chamber back in the early 60’s. Robin showed how he made one of the kicks of the Stefany June record by hitting the floor with his shoe. The sound had a nice low dry impact. But whenever he opened the door, and hit the floor again, an amazing reverb echoed through the halls of the factory. A reverb that will give another emotional vibe to the sound than going through different pre-sets…