Highly-acclaimed Sound Engineer and lecturer at the Academy of Sound Engineering Peter Pearlson has 8 South African Music Awards under his belt. Rolling Stone met up the man behind the recording desk to find out what makes a good sound engineer, the most fun he ever had on a project, the misconceptions of the craft and his opinion on award ceremonies.
I would assume that when working on a project that the first rule of sound engineering would be "to get it right at the source". Would this be the correct assumption, and if not, what's your first rule and philosophy?
I am a firm believer in getting it right at the source. Mic choice, position and the response of the instrument in the acoustic space are all important. The artist also has to feel relaxed and comfortable in the environment. I have had artists who go into a professional studio for the first time and feel intimidated. With the available technology it is far easier to track a record anywhere, within reason. I find myself leaning more towards a vibey environment β somewhere that I can get the best performance from the artist β rather than a possibly sterile but technically superior space.
When and why did you decide to teach sound engineering?
I received a few requests to do some guest lectures and really enjoyed it. Tim Kraft (Managing Director of The Academy of Sound Engineering) and I go back around 25 years. When he approached me at the end of 2009, the industry was rather quiet and I had some spare time and I thought, "Why not?" I am not precious about my knowledge β I find that the more I can share and teach, the more I learn, and it is very refreshing to be plugged directly into the youth.
What's the biggest misconception about sound engineering?
People tend to think that Sound Engineering is a rather glamorous profession and that it pays well. [Laughs] It isn't and it doesn't! It takes an incredible amount of hard work to make a good record. The hours are very long. Weekends and public holidays become irrelevant. You need to be part technician, part musician, part psychologist and wholly deranged to embark on this career. There are areas in Sound Engineering where it can be a 9 to 5 job β it has never been that way for me. I tend to live and breathe the projects, keeping my wife awake with incessant foot-tapping (some people call it restless leg syndrome but what it really is, is trying to find a space in the middle of the song for the elusive 7/8 bar) and waking at 05:00 in the morning with the same melody roaming around my head as when I went to sleep.
What are your views on vocal auto-tuning, drum-triggering and guitar-amp simulation programmes?
The current crop of D.A.Ws (Digital Audio Workstations) are incredibly powerful. When I first started using ProTools, I found it difficult to finish anything β I keep going back to tweak... some more. It's very easy to process the life out of a piece of music. Auto-tune, drum-replacement software and audio quantising make it possible to perfect any performance and it generally sucks all of the life and humanity out of it. I tend to work on timing and tuning during the recording. I might tune the odd word afterwards but perfection isn't always right. I do a fair amount of mixing these days and drum replacement can be handy if the drum kit was recorded really badly. I will use it to build a completely new kit, but it must work in the context of the music. Guitar-amp simulation can work in some cases β I use it mainly for clean sounds, but if you want a guitar to sound really big in the mix, an amp is still the way to go. There is no substitute for moving air.
In all your years working in recording studios, besides the obvious progress in technology, what's the difference between your craft of 20 years ago and today?
When I first started working in studios almost 30 years ago, things were very different. There were no home studios and freelance engineering was only just starting. If you needed a voice-over you had to book a professional studio to do it. MIDI was a very new thing as were sequencers and drum machines. We all tried to make our live drums sound like samples β nowadays we try to make the samples sound live. Because we were tracking to tape, we were limited to 23 tracks (track 24 carried time code). For the bigger sessions, a lot of things had to be pre-mixed. I remember adding an orchestra to a rock song and pre-mixed the whole thing down to 4-tracksβ not much margin for error. Dropping in is also a lost art. In the days of tape, if you fluffed the drop-in you lost the audio β now you can just "undo" or pop in a cross-fade. There were also full-time employment opportunities that you don't really have today. All the major studios employed a full complement of engineering staff, from junior to senior, and we had the chance to assist experienced engineers and pick up a few tricks along the way. The whole culture of tea-boy to tape-op and tape-op to engineer has been lost. It was a wonderful training ground.
What's the most bizarre project you've ever worked on?
There have been many bizarre moments in studio β if I don't have at least one per project I am disappointed. We were asked to record one of the Rustler's Valley Festivals, but as usual, budget was a major issue. We built a studio in a truck that was latched to the stage, hay on the floor and disposable cardboard dustbins around the walls made up the high-tech acoustic treatment in an attempt to contain the ridiculous amount of resonance. There was no money for multi-tracking so I mixed everything straight to 2-track. Also, no comms, so my assistant (Chris "Vleis"/"Visagie"/"Boy"/"MF2" Vermaak) stood on the stage and yelled to me at the top of his voice: "Trombone on 9, keys on 12" and so on, so I knew what was coming up where. There was little sleep and much laughter.
What's the most fun you've ever had on a project?
I have been fortunate enough to have worked with some of the biggest names in South African music, and a few fairly well-known internationals as well: Hugh Masekela, Springbok Nude Girls, Wonderboom, Abdullah Ibrahim, U2, Lee Ritenour, Jethro Tull, Paul Hanmer, Brian Eno, Jim Neversink, to name a few. It has been a wonderful journey and I have had loads of fun. Although we work very hard, fun in the studio is a prerequisite, otherwise what's the point!? There was one session that I remember being rather special though. I was producing an album for the band The Electric Petals (my first SAMA award). We needed to do some backing vocals and the drummer (Danny de Wet) was also the co-owner of Wings Beat Bar, the most happening live music venue in Jo'burg at the time. He made some calls and we ended up with virtually all the major Jo'burg bands at the time rocking up to sing: No Friends of Harry, Sugardrive, Amersham, Blue Chameleon, Sarsippians, Instant Karma, to name but a few. Many cases of beer and a wonderful afternoon. Immediately afterwards, Vusi Mahlasela arrived to do a spine-tingling guest vocal on another track on the album. It was quite a day.
What piece of gear is your most prized possession?
I have a pair of custom-built NEVE 1073 pre-amps which are a constant source of joy. Full of character and a wonderful warmth β most things go through them. I also wouldn't be able to function without my Genelec 1031 monitors β old habits die hard.
What does your 8 South African Music Awards really mean to you? And how do you feel about the judging process when it comes to award ceremonies?
The main thing all those SAMA awards did for me was to make everyone think that I was too expensive to book! We get so little recognition for what we do that the awards were wonderful to receive β just to make people see what an important role we play in the process. I do think the judging process is rather flawed. CD sales should have nothing to do with the artistic or technical excellence of a project, although this doesn't seem to be the case. In the technical categories, some of the judges don't seem to understand the difference between recording and production. Personal taste should also play no part in the judging process β again, this doesn't seem to be the case. There are also far too many categories. I think the whole system needs an overhaul if it is going to be taken seriously.
Stand a chance to win a 12 week part time course in Fundamental Audio Technology worth R13 500.00 at ASE in Johannesburg. All you have to do is nominate the 5 songs that you think represent the best mixes in pop/rock music, write a short paragraph with each song you nominate explaining why you think it's one of the best. Send your 5 song nominations to firstname.lastname@example.org Competition ends 15th November 2012. The course will start at the end of February 2013, exact dates are yet to be confirmed. Click here for Terms & Conditions.
12 Week Part Time course in Fundamental Audio Technology
This is a 12 week part-time course that runs in the evenings, 4 nights a week from 6pm - 9pm/10pm.
The course covers these various topics:
sound energy β microphones β speakers β units of measure β the decibel β mixers β amplifiers / processors β headroom β equalization β effects β Basic System Design
Practical Sound Engineering:
basic studio setup β connecting audio equipment β operating audio equipment β mixing β fault finding
Pro Tools 101:
Getting to know Pro Tools - getting inside Pro Tools β creating your first session - making your first recording β importing media - making your first MIDI recording β selecting and navigating - basic editing techniques β introduction to mixing - finishing your work
Music Business Masterclass (MBM):
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