Which was the first digitally recorded CD
Neil Dorfsman on productions and technology
Neil Dorfsman has worked with Dire Straits, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney and Sting. He has been a “digital pioneer” since the mid-1980s: With the Dire Straits album Brothers In Arms he produced one of the first digitally recorded albums, a short time later Stings Nothing Like The Sun. Dorfsman tells of the "upheavals", of difficult decisions to replace musicians ... and the balance between sound search and artist support
During the sessions for the Dire Straits album Brothers In Arms, the drummer was replaced by a studio musician, and the bass player also had to give up his instrument for individual songs. What happened? And how do you teach a band member to decide that he or she will be replaced at short notice? Not a pleasant job - Dorfsman gives an insight into his work as a producer and sound engineer. He started out in the Electric Lady studio in New York in the 1970s and later worked in the Power Station studio. As an engineer, the early switch to digital technology shaped him - a look at the starting position.
You are one of the »digital pioneers« for recordings with rock bands. The idea came up in 1982 during your first Dire Straits album, Love Over Gold. There should have been a situation in which you and co-producer and front man Mark Knopfler decided to record digitally in the future ...
I remember recording a grand piano for the song Private Investigations and spending a lot of time looking for the right sound: We had three Steinway grand pianos brought to the Power-Station Studio. We didn't want a perfect sound, but a big, classic piano sound, which should also have more bite in the midrange and attack. I'll never forget that: after a few days of experimentation, Mark and I looked at each other and knew we'd found something special. We recorded it and asked Alan Clark, the pianist, to come into the control room to hear the playback.
When I played it, Mark looked at me with derailed features, as if to ask, "What happened?" I rewound and played it again, and each time the sound became a little darker, with less "airiness." That was clearly noticeable. We called the technicians to make sure that the measurement and pressure of the tape machine were correct. It was one of the ISO-Loop 3M M79 machines with high tape pressure. Maybe that was part of the problem that the pressure affected the proportion of height. In any case, it really bothered Mark that with every playback our hard-earned sound literally disappeared. I think that was when he made up his mind to record the next album [Brothers In Arms] completely digitally.
Keyword analog work: The album Love Over Gold begins with the almost 15-minute Telegraph Road, with various sections and countless guitar and synthesizer tracks. That would have been a challenge - before the times of software sequencers?
Telegraph Road was a monster, so to speak - many takes were cut together. We recorded a lot of overdubs and synced two M79 machines. I mean, remember that we used the Q-Lock system back then, the best at the time. Nevertheless, it took between four and six seconds after the tape started to synchronize. With punch-ins, I always had to calculate in advance - that was pretty exhausting for the musicians and me in the long run. In the end, we simply mixed a stereo mix onto a second multitrack tape in order to record further overdubs. It took several weeks.
On the last song, It Never Rains, a flanger effect appears on the sum towards the end. Did you achieve that with manual tape flanging of the tape machines?
We carried out the tape flanging, so to speak, »old school« - the only time that I have done that: The stereo mix is distributed over two quarter-inch Studer tape machines that were switched to »Record / Repro«. One of the two machines is continuously changed in speed with the Vari-Speed controller until you get the right sweet spot of intensive comb filter effects. An agony, as the machines react a little slowly to my vari-speed controller. Getting the result right is almost a matter of luck. If it worked, you try to "ride the flanger wave" as a real-time performance. If it didn't work, I stop the multi-track machine, rewind a good bit and start over with the section. The result was recorded on a half-inch Studer A80 master machine.
Then I spent a lot of time cutting the different runs together into a consistent whole, where transitions are no longer noticeable. I'm still not convinced that we could achieve the classic "Itchy-koo Park" sound [Small Faces] that we had in mind. In my opinion, the small vertical MXR rack-mount flanger effects are the closest thing to true tape flanging. They sound fantastic and have become the secret weapon in the Power Station.
The next album, Brothers In Arms, was one of the first digitally recorded albums in 1985, and two years later you worked on Stings Nothing Like The Sun, also digitally. At that time, CDs were given names, such as "DDD" for an album that was supposedly fully digitally produced. This implies that no more change took place. The two records were made on large analog consoles and were later mixed on because digital consoles were not yet available?
Yes, they were recorded on digital tape machines, but thankfully recorded and mixed on an analog desk. I think that was one of the reasons people loved the sound of Brothers In Arms. I don't even want to imagine what it would have sounded like with a digital board! We were working at AIR Studios on Montserrat and the album was recorded on their incredible Neve 8078 console, which immediately made everything sound great. In my opinion the best desk ever.
When I recorded Sting's record in the same studio, the desk was replaced! To my dismay, there was now an SSL with a few Focusrite channels. It still sounded good, but it was a completely different sound. There are now also good digital consoles, but if I can work on an analog Neve desk, then there’s nothing better for me!
You once said that a lot of the sound of the AIR Montserrat studio was due to the Neve desk - the recording room itself was fine, but nothing special ...
The recording room was small and didn't really have a sound of its own. When we recorded the Sting record, we had to build little isolation booths for the musicians in the room because we wanted to record live. That was quite a challenge because there wasn't a lot of space. The best thing about Montserrat was the 8078 console - and the island vibe!
How did you get the "big" drum sound in the small room at Englishman In New York, during the break towards the end, which almost sounds like an industrial part? Was that recorded elsewhere?
This is actually a sample! (laughs) I'm sorry! We took it over from Stings Synclavier. Sting does extremely good demos and they are hard to beat. If we tried something and it couldn't get to the demo, then we just used the sound from the demo.
When switching to digital tape machines, did you actually add an EQ treble boost to the signals, just like you used to with an analog tape machine?
Yes always. I was trained in the Electric Lady and the Power Station Studio. There I was taught pre-EQing - raising the highs before the signal is recorded. It only became clear to me later that this was done in order not to increase the treble and thus also the tape noise with analog tape after the recording. I was taught to set the desired sound directly and to use the "production tool". I always try to record a band as close as possible to the final sound that I envision. I use a lot of EQ and compression when recording.
What kind of EQ did you use when recording an album like Brothers In Arms?
My favorite frequencies on the Neve console were 10 kHz, which was very broad, it raised the upper midrange and highs when recording. Then 80, 100 or 120 Hz for the low parts and a bit of the upper mids around 4, 5 or 6 kHz. The desk sounded very "kind" and good-natured, like the tone controls on a hi-fi system. You didn't really hear the increase in frequencies, just bigger, fuller sound.
Do you think that was one of the reasons for the clarity of the digital recordings on display - the increase in the treble?
To be honest, I don't know. When people ask me about equipment, I always say: It's not the gear, it's how you hear. The equipment is important, of course, but it's actually about how your own brain processes the audio signal and what it wants to hear. For example, I don't like 300 Hz. That seems to me to be a frequency that I generally try to turn down - except when I want to create something special, muddy.
It's because of how my brain processes sound. So part of the sound has to do with the desk, the other part with where you want to go. Many would probably add less treble than I do, but I also increase the bass, practically bending the sound, "hiding" the midrange and emphasizing the extremes of the spectrum. If in the end I want to hear a little less clearly for artistic reasons, I can always "destroy" it a little later.
About ten years later, Mark Knopfler and Chuck Ainlay have been using analog tape machines again since the album Golden Heart [see S&R 11/2016]. You never went back yourself?
No, for two reasons: First, because of the budget - tapes are expensive and most bands don't have the money for it - not even if you reuse the same reel for each song and transfer the recordings straight into Pro Tools. The other reason: It might sound strange, but I don't like the way tape changes the sound. I never liked the fact that after the recording the result sounded “semi-randomly” different from what I had sent into the machine. Whether it was a little boost in the bass range or the slight compression of the transients - I always felt that I had actually worked very hard on a certain sound, and some of it fell by the wayside when it was recorded. I kept catching myself thinking about how to "revive" the lost aspects afterwards.
To be honest, I don't miss tape. I know a lot of great engineers who use tape and get great sounds from it - they love the tonal change that band brings in. I feel different. I also don't want to have to worry about the calibration or that tapes can sound different in other studios, on other machines. I can still remember sessions from the 1980s where a master take sounded completely different the next day. That drove me crazy!
Many sound engineers and producers appreciate tape saturation because it makes the sound appear "bigger". Have you never missed the positive elements on a digital level?
I started parallel compression early, in the late 80's or early 90's. For example, I like to process a stereo sum on the drums in parallel with an analog compressor, such as a Smart or SSL, and mix that with the unprocessed signal. For my taste, this gives me the uniformity and saturation I need. I process almost all signals with parallel compression, if the size of the console allows it: distorted guitars, acoustic guitars, vocals, keyboards and even drums. That also helps me not to miss the saturation of a Neve desk so much.
I find the many equal details of a digital recording uncomfortable for longer listening to drums, for example, a tape recording, on the other hand, seems less spectacular at first, but also more full and over an entire album as "easier" to listen ...
This is very interesting. I think Sting actually felt the same way when we recorded Nothing Like The Sun. He didn't like the digital sound at all. He said he could hear too much information.
Did he find it distracting?
Yes. I remember that Sting - unlike Mark Knopfler - didn't get used to the digital sound at all. When we recorded Nothing Like The Sun, he said he could hear too much information. He said, “I don't want to hear so much detail. That doesn't have any relevance. ”After that he still recorded digitally, but at first it was an uncomfortable process for him.
When I recorded Brothers In Arms, I didn't adjust my recording techniques at all. People ask me if I moved the microphones further away from the sources or changed the type and intensity of my equalizer and compression settings. I never really thought about that - it was just an alternative recording medium to me, and I never thought about it until people started complaining about the sound of digital technology. It seemed to me that if it sounds good before recording, it would be an exact reproduction of it on digital tape.
As for your producer at Brothers In Arms, I remember a story about the song Walk Of Life. You were against the song being put on the record and got overruled by the band ...
(laughs) Man, this has happened to me so often! A song that I think shouldn't even be on the record ends up being a hit single! I've been wrong so many times. But yeah, it's actually strange - the more something sounds like "pop" to me, the less I believe in it. (laughs) The "Brothers In Arms" album seemed to me to be going in a more "artistic" direction, with more depth, and I thought Walk Of Life would be more of a B-side in the concept.
Their manager Ed Bicknell is said to have stopped by while mixing and was impressed ...
That's probably true. I'm sure he recognized the radio potential and that's it! That's pretty much the same thing with the Sting album Nothing Like The Sun happened, a song called We'll be together. I didn't really want it on the record. I talked to Sting about it a bit, but then management came to the session and heard the song. They said: »This is the first single!« (Laughs) I didn't say anything, but it felt painful!
Apart from the "Walk Of Life" single selection: Brothers In Arms was also difficult to interpersonal: As a producer, you were dissatisfied with drummer Terry Williams' play from the start. In the end, only the intro to Money For Nothing remained of his recordings ...
I love Terry and I think he's a great drummer. But I wasn't involved in the preproduction, I only came across Montserrat at the beginning of the recording. I noticed that the music Mark wanted to make was more varied and a little more "orchestral". Like I said, Terry is fantastic, but the music Mark had in mind wasn't exactly his forte. I didn't want to make it seem like I didn't like Terry, but it seemed to me the tracking wasn't going as well as it should, we weren't really making any headway. It sounded like Terry was thinking while playing - I was sure he wasn't comfortable with the style.
After a few weeks I approached Mark about it, saying we should maybe think of another plan. At that point he didn't want to change anything, only after a break over Christmas - when everyone came back, he decided to try an alternative. We let the session drummer Omar Hakim fly in, and in two or three days he would have re-recorded the tracks, using already finished songs.
It was a very difficult decision at the time, but it was a good one. I think the record would have sounded less of a piece if we hadn't changed the rhythmic foundation. I was relieved - and sad at the same time, because I had a lot of respect for Terry.
This is probably one of the most uncomfortable decisions as a producer. How did you communicate that so that the mood didn't sink into the basement for the rest of the time?
In that way, I was lucky because management told him so. Had it not been Marks but my decision, the situation would have been very different. But Mark decided it was necessary. It was anything but pleasant! Terry flew straight back to England. You are literally on an island with the boys! And that's not a reality show. You are a team. So when someone is thrown off the island, it is painful for everyone.
I realized that this is part of producing. Sometimes you have to be the bad guy, as uncomfortable as that is. And unfortunately I was the enemy more than once! (laughs) Like I said, it used to seem like part of the job was being the boss. But there are different ways of doing this without looking like an idiot. It took me a while to find out. Such situations are never comfortable or easy. At the same time, this can be crucial because the record lasts forever.
Bassist John Illsley also didn't play on all of the songs, like One World and the fretless part of Why Worry, which were later recorded in New York, right?
On One World - a disco-like number with slap parts - he didn't play, but Neil Jason. That was weird because there were two reasons for it: First, it wasn't really his style. Mark told me it was my job to teach him that. (laughs) In a strange twist of fate, John broke his wrist while jogging in Central Park, and I was kind of "let off the hook" so to speak: Now there was a reason we needed another bassist without hurting John's feelings. As for Why Worry, I honestly don't remember. That could have been Tony Levin, who also came over for an overdub.
Now that you're telling the story, it sounds like Mark Knopfler made it easy for himself by letting the management and you get the message across ...
Nobody likes confrontation, right? I suspect he was thinking, "Hey, you're the co-producer, you know what, you're doing this!" It's part of the job, in the end, to take the pressure off the artist, in every possible way. And it's never fun. I've done it with other bands too, and they hate you afterwards. But you have to go through that, especially when you hear something in your head that makes the record a lot better. Almost every time I had to replace someone, it made the album a lot better, but I also know: "OK, now they hate me ..."
On the other hand, I brought in a drummer for a band, and to this day I regret that I fired their drummer. Even if it wasn't the best in the world, it probably would have gone better with their record. Even if the studio drummer was more professional and made my job easier, he really wasn't the right one for the job. So it's an ambivalent story: you really have to know what you're doing and you have to be right. If you're wrong, they'll kick your butt. In that case, I didn't notice it during the recording, but then it suddenly became clear to me.
How do you go about the search for the ideal sound, especially when you notice that the artist has no patience for it? What is the compromise between sound and performance for you?
With the album Love Over Gold I made the mistake of searching too long for the perfect sound. Ultimately, during the process, I realized that this was a taboo. Since then I've tried to record as quickly as possible: get a really good sound quickly and never keep the artist waiting. It's incredibly important. We spent a good half a day working on the guitar sound for the "Love Over Gold" album and couldn't find what I heard in my head. Mark didn't mind. He thought it was good because he was the type who wanted to go deeper, but in the end it takes away the ease from the session.
Fortunately, I had learned to work quickly in the Power Station studio: At first I recorded radio spots and records with five or six songs a day. It never took me more than an hour and a half to sound the drum. It helps when you've learned to work quickly. And even if something isn't as perfect as you'd like it to be: don't keep the artist waiting. Sting is very impatient for that, he doesn't like spending time looking for sound - that's no problem. You just have to be able to work at the artist's pace - even if you hear something that you have to correct later. This allows you to focus on the "real" part, namely working on Parts and Performances.
You once said that production starts with preproduction, which is most underestimated ...
Absolutely. When I work with bands I always wanted to do at least two weeks of preproduction and then, if possible, send them on stage to play a few gigs! It seems to me that when you play in front of people, you immediately know what works and what doesn't. I've never been able to do that because the schedules are usually very tight, but that was always a dream of mine: work on all the songs, the band "pre-produce" and then let the material play live.
Pre-production is incredibly important for a "real" band. You can really go in depth, work on the songs and see the key elements of the band where their strengths lie. That takes some of the pressure off when you're in the studio and recording later. If your band consists of a laptop and a keyboard, of course, that's something completely different.
Some of the albums in which Neil Dorfsman was involved are now classics in rock / pop history
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