Fix It In The Mic - The AEA Webzine

AEA's Fix it in the Mic video series is aimed at sharing the microphone secrets and tricks of industry professionals in a time when mentoring and real knowledge is hard to come by. Whether it's a hidden gem from the history of ribbon mics or the latest chart-topping record, the series offers application specific insight into the depths of ribbon mic technology and how the masters use it. AEA's mission is to help engineers get the sound they envision right from the start instead of "fixing it in the mix"- a craft and art that often gets lost in the midst of the hype about the latest new toy. Thus, the name Fix It In The Mic was born.

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Pasadena, CA.  Gustavo Borner has been engineering and producing for over 20 years since attending Berklee College of Music in Boston, MA, where the native Argentine graduated with a double major in Music Production and Engineering and Film Scoring, with piano as his principal instrument. Gustavo`s past music projects range from Placido Domingo, Phil Collins, Leah Michele, and *NSync, movies such as “Watchmen” and “Miami Vice”, and video games like “Army of Two: The 40th Day”. He has done voice over work for video games including King Kong and various Disney projects. Since 1990 Gustavo has been working on surround projects for film features and 5.1 for DVD and broadcast out of his own studio complex Igloo Music. Gustavo has been nominated for over 25 Grammy Awards, and has won two Grammys and nine Latin Grammys.

Click here to download the interview as a PDF document.

Most recently Gustavo has been responsible for several MTV Unplugged productions that have consistently won Latin Grammy Awards in the last few years. In 2011, he produced, tracked, and mixed the MTV Unplugged: Los Tigres Del Norte And Friends. For the project that featured several latin pop music guests alongside the Mexican Norteno group, Gustavo chose to use a wide range of AEA ribbon microphones including the KU4 microphone on lead vocals. The Los Tigres album won a Grammy for “Best Regional Mexican” and a Latin Grammy in the “Best Norteno” category. It has sold more than 600,000 copies to date. In 2012, Gustavo tracked and mixed an MTV Unplugged with the Colombian superstar Juanes recorded at the Frank Gehry designed New World Symphony in Miami, for which he again turned to AEA ribbon mics on brass and drums. The Juanes project, released on May 26th, has already been heralded as “One of The Best Latin Music Albums Of The Year” and was the best selling iTunes album in Mexico, Colombia, Argentina, Venezuela, Peru, Chile, Ecuador, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, and the U.S. Latin Market as of May 31st.

AEA’s product engineer Julian David had the chance to talk to Gustavo about his recent projects and his experience with AEA ribbon microphones at Igloo Music in Burbank, CA.

Gustavo, how did you get involved in the MTV Unplugged with Juanes?

Well, I worked on the last five Latin MTV Unplugged productions and we received Latin or American Grammys on each one. The first one I did was the Argentine singer Diego Torres in 2005. I got called on that one because I’m friends with Diego and through my connections to Sony Music and from there on I did all the following ones for them. In 2007, we did the Ricky Martin Unplugged followed by Julieta Venegas, which we got a Grammy for. In 2011 we did Los Tigres Del Norte and also an MTV Unplugged with the Mexican alternative rock band Zoe. We got a Grammy for both those Unpluggeds as well. For the Juanes’ one they called Juan Luis Guerra to produce. It came natural to me to engineer since I had done so many of the MTV Unplugged projects already. MTV liked the way they came out in the past, so they keep calling.

What happened next?

Usually we do a lot of pre-production not only to hear the songs, but also to hear the sounds and how they work together, so that you don’t end up with something that just doesn’t sound right. You have to work the sound of the instruments into the arrangement. Sometimes you change a regular 6-string guitar to a 12-string or say for Juanes you bring in a ukulele or some other string instruments. Or you make decisions between a piano, a Rhodes, a B3 (which is still considered “unplugged”), whatever fits the sound best.

So you did pre-production and then you met up for rehearsals in Miami, right?

Right, so we go into a studio two to three weeks before the Unplugged show with everybody: Juanes and the band, the production team and later on the guest artists. We set them up exactly the way everything is going to be for the show. We have the exact dimensions of the stage and the locations of everybody, and we have the front-of-house and monitor guys there running the in-ear systems. The FOH guy can get his sound so that once we get to the venue – even though things always change – at least you already know the show and have your scenes programmed. We run it in sequence so many times that you know exactly what’s going to happen. The assistants and techs know when to come in for changes and all that. The reason for all this is that we try to keep the flow of the show very clean, so that even though it is a taping, we keep the energy up and the audience has a blast. They know they are being recorded and they get really excited about that.

What are particular challenges of an Unplugged Video production like the Juanes MTV Unpluggd compared to a studio recording session?

Well, the studio is such a controlled environment. However, even when I do big orchestras the leakage can be an issue. We did the sessions for ABC’s “Revenge” Series at Fox Studios with a big orchestra. I put two Coles 4038 ribbons as a stereo room up and we had a couple of RCA 44s for trombone and trumpets. So when you do the live orchestra with 105 people in a room like at Sony or Fox, the leakage has to be considered. It’s the same thing when you are doing live productions, especially something like the Juanes production with people sitting right on the stage. So right next to the brass with the AEA R84 microphones, we had people sitting right on stage. When they clap or scream it gets in all those mics, but I like that. I think it’s great because you can hear the audience reactions even when the audience mics are down during a song. As long as you work with the leakage, it’s just part of the whole picture. It gives the project a unique sound. The Juanes production was done at the New World Symphony Hall in Miami, which is a very live room. So anything you do in there reflects and it is supposed to do that. When we started listening with Juanes he heard a lot of the hall in the vocal mic and all the other open mics. So in the beginning when we were listening to the first two or three songs, he kept asking me to bring the reverb down. “Are you adding reverb? Can we make it drier?”, but I was like “No, this is zero added reverb, this is the hall, it is what we’ve got!”. But it makes sense: You see the place, it looks big, you see a bunch of people in there, and it just can’t sound dry. So I think it fits really well. You need to hear the room and the ambience. So on this I told Juanes to listen to the whole thing and then we’d figure it out. But by the end he absolutely loved it. He was like “Oh, it sounds like I’m there, you can feel the space of the room!”. So to me the leakage is not a problem, it’s the sound of the project. You might as well embrace it. Now Juanes listens to it on headphones all day and he loves it.

Is there something particular about using ribbon mics and the bidirectional pattern that makes your life a little bit easier in those live recording situations?

Theoretically you will be picking up stuff from both sides with the figure-of-8 and the live guys are skeptical about that. But I’ve never found that to be a problem. You are so loud on the other side anyway that it doesn’t matter so much. And again, even if you pick up something on the other side, I think it helps giving you part of the “soup” that creates the unique sound. You use whatever bleed you have as part of your audience sound. Those mics, you just have to keep them up in the mix, because they are such a sound. I will have like 10 or 12 audience mics all over the place in there and I bring them up in the surrounds to make everything sound fuller. However, you often times can’t mute the close-up mics, because the sound character changes too much.  

When it comes to AEA microphones, you used the R84 and A840 on brass?

Yes, we used the A840 on saxophone and then three R84s on trumpet 1 & 2 and on trombone. For the drum overheads we used the R88 mk2 stereo microphone, which was great because it was so nice and clean for the setup on just one stand from behind. Usually you have two mic stands coming in from the side and they are very visible, but the R88 looks very clean, because you can come in from the back and you just have this black zeppelin over the drums. So that was really cool. And everybody loved the sound! The drummer, Waldo Madera, was raving about it when we were listing back in the control room. You definitely get a different sound with the R88 compared to a condenser. People use all these adjectives for sound and I don’t know what you want to call it: It just sounds good. It is rounder or smoother. For me, especially in this particular setting, it could start to get harsh by the time the PA kicks in and all the processing has been applied, but with these it never gets harsh and stays nice and smooth. I like to compress the overheads and basically you have 50% of the drum sound coming from those mics.

The A840 microphone on stage with saxophonist Ed Calle for the Juanes Unplugged (Picture credit: Craig Ambrosio).

Have you always used ribbons on brass or was there a turning point in your career?

Yeah, I think I just saw someone do it on an orchestral session and have been using them since. You try different things, but you always come back to ribbons. Even on pop projects where you have a little horn section or even a big band. It works great with ribbons. It just gets you that certain quality or “character”. I guess that is something you just get used to. The flugelhorn solo on the Juanes Unplugged sounds great and it’s basically just flat. Maybe a little compression, but it’s just so good. You can bring up the fader and there is nothing that might annoy you. It’s just nice, round, and warm.

What do you like about AEA mics in general?

Yeah, this is so hard to say, you know. A lot of people have an easy way to describe such things and whenever you read a report or review they use all these words. But I find it hard to describe. Sometimes the vintage mics have a certain character to them and to me it’s more about that character than anything else. It comes down to whether it pleases you or not. I guess you can look at technical specs and see exactly why they have a certain sound, but I bet you can put up two mics with the exact same technical specs and they still sound different anyway. So, especially on brass I’ve been using ribbons all the time - whether they are old RCAs or new AEAs. There is something special about the ribbons that you can push them a little harder because they never get aggressive. I think that’s the quality that I like about the ribbons most. It’s such a nice, round, smooth sound. Even on vocals: If you had to add whatever on the high end to make them pop through in a mix, there is something about the character that ribbons give vocals that just makes them sit better in the mix. We did a shoot-out for a recent vocal session with a Neumann U47, a Neumann M149, which the singer used to love, and my vintage RCA KU3A. I added a touch of EQ when we did the blind comparison and he thought that the KU3A was his M149.  It was so much better than the rest. For his voice, for that song, it was just perfect. Those KU3As just sound really good. And you put them in the mix and they have so much character. At one point, when you are using high-end gear, everything can sound nice and clean. A Grace preamp sounds beautiful and pristine or a GML EQ, but then sometimes you just need an API, which is almost the complete opposite, because it has so much color and character to it. It’s just a different tool. It’s the same thing with microphones. You have to find the one that you like for a specific application.

For Los Tigres you used the KU4 Unidirectional ribbon microphone on lead vocals. I can imagine that some people would probably be worried to do that because ribbon mics are often perceived to be less rugged and not so well suited for live sound. So how was that for you?

(Laughs) Los Tigres Del Norte is a Mexican Norteno band and they have a specific sound and a certain way of doing things. When we started working with them, I told them that this was going to be more like a pop approach. I started to think about what elements could get us to a different sound for them. Obviously the orchestration and the arrangement were a big part of that. We added the brass, a string quartet, and percussion that augmented them. But I was also looking for a special character on their voices. Again, what you put in front of a singer, gets them in a different attitude space. So I told them that I wanted to try these old-school ribbon mics going and I showed them pictures of Bing Crosby or Elvis using RCA microphones. I also showed the pictures to MTV and suggested them as a classy element for the show – kind of like a vintage throwback. Not just for the sound, but also for the look. It made sense for me, but the camera guys hated it in the beginning, because they are so big. But we worked together and they were able to adjust their angles to get different shots, and it gave Los Tigres a sonic character that is really important. Whatever leakage we got was just part of the whole thing. We did it at the Hollywood Palladium, which is also another legendary room. At the end of the day you make it work if you like the sound you are getting. The KU4 was able to smooth out a lot of things and you just bring the fader up and it feels right. The band was completely amazed and just so happy. Even in their in-ear monitors they could hear all the details. And it had this industrial and vintage look to it. The picture people embraced it and it gave the whole thing a unique look. So I think it worked well and we got the Grammys to show for.

Speaking of the KU4 on lead vocals, can you tell us a little bit about the record you did with Argentinian superstar Leon Gieco in 2011?

I talked to Leon Gieco the other day and from all the records we’ve done, he likes this one best. And we have done like four or five records together! We used the KU4 for his lead vocals and we had a pair of A440s at EastWest Studio 1 (the old United/Western studio), where we tracked the band. We had Jim Keltner on drums, Jimmy Johnson on bass, Dean Parks and Mark Goldenberg on guitars. That’s like a dream team for a band. You hit record and you know that the take is going to be great. The main sound of the drums on that record is those AEA A440s in the big room. We had a couple of Neumann U87s on toms, but the main sound is those A440s going through Fairchild 660s to an Ampex ATR124 tape machine, which is one of the best sounding machines. We did like two or three takes to 24-track , no Pro Tools playlists, everybody was playing live. Leon was singing live too, later we punched a couple of his parts. Obviously you can’t edit and move anything around on tape unless you want to edit the multitrack tape, and that gets everybody in a different state of mind. Musicians are artists, so if they have the right instrument in front of them, and the right microphone, and they are going through the right gear, they get pumped. So you are taking care of your end, so they are going to do the same. It gets them hyped a little bit. There’s nothing wrong with hyping someone. That’s what we do every day. The drums just sound amazing on that record. I had those A440s cranked and compressed and was hitting tape hard. Jim really made the sound of the record. So we recorded to tape and Pro Tools at the same time and then transferred the tape to Pro Tools later on so that we could finish the overdubs. But it was funny to compare the waveforms from one or the other. Everything that goes through tape just gets the limiting from the machine and the tape, which is really cool, but it’s a particular sound. For that record it just worked.

Now that most people are recording digitally, do you find that ribbon mics have become even more useful?

Definitely! I was very lucky to start with analog recording to tape and using the studios twenty years ago. It was expensive to have a studio, because you had to buy all this gear like good consoles with good preamps, a Studer or Ampex tape machine and you were dumping to ½” tape. So we got used to that sound. Going to digital you definitely have to work harder to get the same “warmth” (whatever that means). The nonlinearities of the tape are, I think, what we got used to. With digital recording it’s as if somebody cleaned the window and everything is right in front of you. All the attack, the transients, and all that. I think in order to get the most out of digital technology, you definitely need to pay more attention to having different “character” mics and preamps. You just have to get it right before going to tape – or disk rather. If your recording chain is good, it works great. I love being able to capture exactly what I’m hearing and that it doesn’t change from there on. When we went to tape, you had to start adding high-end by the time you got to mix, because it was gone. Especially if you changed machines and had different heads. It sounded great, but it was a real pain, too. Now you have options for days and the digital recording, especially at 96 kHz, is close to a perfect picture of what you’ve got. You’re not going to add that much character once you’re inside the box. So using the right mics and adding the character before you hit Pro Tools is definitely important, because it makes everything so much easier later on. Then you don’t have to do that much processing in the box or go back out through outboard.

So was the Juanes Unplugged project recorded at 96 kHz?

Yes, it was recorded at 96 kHz, but then we had to go down to 48 kHz for the video post production. However, you can now even send 96 kHz files to Mastering for iTunes. But I mastered the CD and the DVD and for the DVD we had to go down to 48 kHz / 24 Bit. At least it is still 24 Bit.

When you are mixing, is there something you notice that is different about the tracks recorded with ribbon mics compared to other microphones?

Well, it is their character. Especially on vocals it can sometimes be easier to place them in the mix, because they have a different response. There is something about pushing and compressing them. You might need to add some high end, because they tend to be a little darker. I’ve been using the RPQ preamp with the high-frequency boost for that, which works great. The RPQ is perfect for that. But especially on vocals you tend to use less EQ on the rest of the frequencies apart from the top end. You add a bit of compression and it just sits there nicely. Again, it is very hard to generalize. You have to consider the singer, the song, and what kind of sound you are going for, but there’s something about how the ribbons respond that sometimes makes it easier for me to get them placed in the mix. On brass especially, even flat without EQ, on orchestral recordings. You can just bring them up and they have that classy sound. In general, putting the right microphone on any instrument, you are starting off so much easier. And if you have the different mics to go to, then you can just pick and choose.

What are you working on right now?

Right now we are working on a couple of new songs for an artist with Victor Indrizzo on drums here at Igloo Music, which is where I used an AEA R44CX as a mono room through a Universal Audio LA-610, which sounded great. The LA-610 has input and output controls, so you can really crank it on your way in.

Gustavo, thank you so much for the interview!

Click here to download the interview as a PDF document.

Igloo Music:
Gustavo Borner on IMDb:

Wes Dooley
AEA/Audio Engineering Associates

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