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Michael James Greene
Michael Greene’s pedigree comes from his extensive experience engineering and mixing a wide variety of audio deliverables for commercial broadcast and distribution: IMAX feature films, video games, network tv and album work is just the tip of the iceberg. I hope this conversation with Michael will shed some light on some tricks of the trade and hard-won lessons learned. I’ve been very fortunate in having Michael engineer on Q Up Arts sampling projects where he brought a wealth of knowledge and added big value to the recordings.
Douglas Morton / Producer / Q Up Arts
September 6, 2020
DM: How did you get started in audio?
MJG: Growing up in my household, there was always a lot of gear lying around which I thought were Christmas tree ornaments. Later, I realized I could record stuff with them…
OK, but seriously. I grew up in a family that was involved in broadcasting and television.
My brother had a bootleg radio station in our basement along with a recording studio. This was the mid 70’s but he picked up a bunch of gear from the TV stations that sounded incredible. He had an old Langevin console, a couple of Pultec eq’s. A bunch of mics and decent stands. It was much better than your run of the mill home studio of the time. I have 4 siblings and they were all listening to different styles of music. Rock, pop, bluegrass, etc. My parents were depression era age, so they were both into Classical, Jazz, Big band and Swing. It was a very eclectic sampling of music. My dad also had his own television and Hi-Fi repair business at this time and whenever someone would bring in a record player, tape deck or TV to be repaired and abandon them, or not want to pay for the repair we would end up getting them. I had my own tape recorders and portable turntables starting at about the age of three. I was always messing around with something.
I tried playing piano, guitar and drums but was a horrible musician. I was more interested in the technical side of things. In junior high, my brother gave me an old Langevin console and things really took off. I was recording any friend I could find. I started sneaking into the Electronic Music Composition lab at the University Of Utah at night to record people even though I was still a sophomore in high school. I had a friend who would take the class through the continuing education program over and over each semester just so he could use their modular synths. I’d go along so I could record and mix anyone who wanted help. When I was a senior in high school, I started working for a local TV station and quickly found my way into the audio department. They had just acquired an MCI console from a local studio that went out of business along with a bunch of UREI compressors. Nobody had bothered to hook anything up except for a few mic lines and a stereo output. I had a lot of downtime so I would go to the engineering shop and steal some wire and connectors and be soldering things in between the times I was actually needed. Kind of pissed off the chief engineer of the station but he was a former audio guy, so he just let it be.
After a year, my brother Kipp, who was a broadcast engineer and also designed his own gear, told me about a recording studio in town that was looking for interns. I jumped at it. They had a little recording class once a week and then assigned intern hours to help around the studio. I went in on a Tuesday and there were about 20 people all hoping to learn and get hired. The next week there were 8, the next week there were 3 of us. One guy decided he was going to go to Full Sail and that left 2 of us and we ended up being in the right place at the right time. I got hired as an assistant in about a month. Once I had the keys to the place, I was there every hour I could be. At that time, I was working at the TV Station, going to college, and working part time in the mornings at the recording studio. When I wasn’t doing all THAT, I was bringing in friends and bands to work on my skills as an engineer. Basically 7 days a week, 18-20 hours a day for a few years. Eventually college went on the back burner, and I got hired full time at the studio, so I left the TV station. That was in 1988 and 32 years later I am still sitting in a rectangular padded room with dim lights.
DM: Educational background?
MJG: 2 years of college, and a lot of hours in the trenches learning from my mistakes.
The studio I worked for was owned by a production company that did a lot of major network music. My first two years there was a crash course in recording and production. Sink or swim. I moved to Los Angeles in 1990 and that was my masters/doctorate in recording, production and the music business. 7 days a week, and the short days were 12-hour days. Many sleepless nights. I was loving every minute of it.
DM: Studio or live?
MJG: Studio. I have done a bunch of live work and I don’t enjoy it as much as the studio. There are so many guys that I know that can run circles around me in the live arena. Go with what you know and what you're good at.
DM: Pro Tips?
MJG: I have spent my entire career, for the most part, working with incredible musicians. They make me look good. The better the musician the less work you are going to have to do. Be a good hang.
Have fun but work hard. The studio can either be a magical place or the worst place on the planet. Most of the time that is dictated by your attitude and how you react to situations.
Be prepared. ALWAYS. Plan ahead and try and think ten steps ahead of what everyone involved is doing.
Keep things simple. Use the simplest approach possible to record something. We all read articles about how so and so did this with 30 microphones on the snare drum or electric guitar. Whatever. Choose the simplest approach and don’t leave your sonic footprint all over the project. You will do that enough just by being involved, but don’t go out of your way to stomp on everything. Go for a sound but always ask yourself “Am I making this better or making it worse?”
Commit to a sound. Back in the days of tape we had to commit. If I used two microphones on a guitar I had to commit to a sound and bus them down to one track. That means I had to use my ears and have the guts and confidence to commit to something. I can’t tell you the number of times I have recorded a 50-65-piece orchestra and had 4 tracks or less left on the tape. We used to take every mic on an orchestral date and bus it down to one track, balance the group and record the first pass. Then we would double that onto another mono track the same way. Pan them left and right and boom you had a “stereo” orchestra. You had better have your balances right in the beginning because you won’t be able to change it later. Now in Pro-Tools I get 4 stacks of guitar tracks with 2 or 3 mics on an amp and whomever recorded it won’t commit. Now it's my problem. The real problem is they have probably been listening to a sound or balance between those mics and I have to figure out what is going to work or what they have been used to hearing. Just go for a sound and commit. It will all be ok. Actually, it will probably be better. We are in a creative profession. Create, don’t procrastinate. I love having all the tracks we have now. On a number of the film scores I mix, we are in the 400-700 track range. It's a lot to handle but it's that way for a reason. Don’t complicate it more because you don’t have or can't commit to a sound in your head.
DM: Microphones: choice & placement?
MJG: As I mentioned before. Why use two mics if one will do. Mic choices and placement is everything. The sound starts with the player. Then the instrument. Then I cast the microphone based on what I think the instrument will respond best to. Then I find the placement on the instrument that will hopefully make that sound shine to its fullest. Microphones are the window into the player and instrument. Now that I have said that I also believe that for the most part, if you are faced with a moment of inspiration either by yourself or with another musician then you should grab whatever is sitting closest and place it on that performer and record it as fast as you can. Don’t get precious about what you use. What matters is the musician and the emotion they are trying to put forth. If you have that then you can throw almost anything on it, and it will sound fine. Sure, my Neumanns and Telefunkens might sound better but that doesn’t mean anything if the artist loses their creative spark while they are waiting for you to muck around with setting something up.
I have recorded entire drum kits with nothing but a handful of Shure SM-57’s on everything with what I would call the worst mic pre’s on the planet and it sounded incredible. That's because the player was amazing and made the drum kit sound monstrous. I have recorded a $30,000 DW drum kit with a horrible drummer, I couldn't get a decent sound to save my life. I then, without changing anything, had a great drummer sit down behind that same kit and play and it sounded mind blowing. So, to sum up my long-winded answer: Musician first, Mic placement second, Microphone third, other recording gear last.
DM: What’s Your Approach to Mixing?
MJG: Mixing is so important. It is an interpretation of the composition. Ansel Adams talked about the negative being the score and the final print being the performance. Mixing is the same way. You can have all of these elements, sometimes many hundreds of tracks, and there are a million decisions to be made and thousands of different directions you can go with those tracks. It all comes down to a person’s taste, ideas, and approach. Hopefully when I do a mix it's in line with what the composer or producer has been hearing in their head. That being said it all comes down to arrangement and composition first, then the performance and players, then the instruments or gear, then the engineer who recorded it. If the arrangement and composition is fantastic then my job is easy. Everything tends to lay in place with some balance, effects and treatments.
Again, great compositions make me look good. Bad arrangements make my life very difficult. I had the opportunity to mix a ton of recordings in the early 2000’s from Prague. The engineer was an older gentleman who had been recording in the same room for over 40 years. Every day it was his job before the fall of communism to record music for the state propaganda machine. Big live orchestras day in and day out. I would receive these files and start to mix them. They were always so well recorded that after a few minutes I had to start asking myself what I had left to do. Everything just sat perfectly. Add a little reverb and call it a day. It was a wonderful experience and an education on how good engineering can get. Recording and mixing is an art form in itself.
In today's world things become more difficult. I hesitate to say everything, but a large portion of any project gets put together one track at a time. Many times, in rooms that are inaccurate with equipment and monitors that aren’t properly tuned. Decisions are left for someone or some time down the road and they aren’t thinking about how each part fits with the other parts, (again, this is where arrangement is so important). So I get a zillion tracks and many times they require excessive eq or compression to make it all fit together. Lots of nipping and tucking along with production and arrangement decisions. The people recording the tracks don’t really have the education or experience to understand that every part or track is important and that they interact or react with each other. I used to get annoyed by it but now it just seems to be part of the job. I pride myself on being a mixer that can fit the proverbial kitchen sink in the mix and thankfully had a few clients who composed that way back in the beginning, so I became fairly adept at making things fit. What people need to remember is: more parts is not better. Less is more. If you aren’t getting the impact or punch you need, look at what you have going on and see if you can get rid of stuff. If instruments aren’t cutting through, then see what is masking it.
You can only cram so many full range sounds down the same garden hose. Once you fill up that hose you have to start tweaking EQ. I call it slotting frequencies. My process is something like this: what is this instrument doing and is it a feature or a texture? What are the important frequencies or elements that make up this sound and how do they fit against the other instruments. Is this instrument being masked by another instrument? Is the arrangement such that there are different instrument ranges across the spectrum? If not, then I start doing surgery. EQ, compression, and most importantly the mute button when possible.
I’ve worked with a number of composers who don’t write for the entire range of frequency or scale. They write entire compositions in the same one or two octaves. Big thick, hundreds of track compositions all in the same range. It's a nightmare. Everything sounds like it's crammed down a tiny little pipe. Every time you turn something up it makes something else go away because of the frequency masking. Those days are miserable. Thankfully, they are not an everyday occurrence.
DM: Where do you see AR/VR audio going?
MJG: It's a bit like the wild west right now. It's really exciting. I am interested in watching where they go with Dolby Atmos on headphones for VR. The implications for video games is going to be mind blowing. I am hopeful I will have more opportunities soon to play with it. I’ve done a little dabbling but just enough to be dangerous, but super excited about it.
DM: Resources you think may be helpful?
MJG: Find a mentor. Find someone who has been working in the industry and bug the hell out of them. There is no substitute for real world experience with highly experienced people. Obviously, there are a billion YouTube videos, forums, or webpages you can look at and honestly there is more misinformation than accurate information. If you don’t have access to someone then look into Mix With The Masters, and Puremix. Pay the money and sign up. There is no substitute for in person learning but those two sites give you a “fly on the wall” experience in not only mixing but most importantly how to record and why those industry heavyweights do it the way they do. So many people are working in a vacuum now. Working alone in their bedrooms or living rooms. The amount of time you spend on trial and error versus learning from someone firsthand is probably 1000:1 Don’t work in a vacuum.
I’ve been doing this quite a while now and I still get as excited when they release a new video as I did the first day I set foot in a studio. I am constantly learning and trying to remain viable. There is a saying I love and try to live by: if I go to work and don’t feel like I learned something new that day then either I didn’t try very hard or I am in the wrong room. If you aren’t learning, then you aren’t paying attention. I learn something new every single day! The second saying that I live by is: if you are the smartest person in the room then you are in the wrong room. As I have mentioned above, surround yourself with great people and learn from them. They will make you shine.
Also go to AES.org and sign up. They have so much information and resources going back a hundred years. Some of it is pretty deep stuff but that's the point. Read a paper on something and get confused. Read it again in a month, then another month while trying to figure out what they are discussing. At some point the light will probably go on and it will all be clear.
DM: Michael, thanks much for taking the time to share your wealth of experience.