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A Simple Method for Recording Drums

Recording drums is an important part of any project but the process can often seem quite daunting. Often in-studio pictures feature an abundance of microphones on and around the kit, suggesting that you might need a lot of equipment to get the job done.

However, one simple method of recording drums that is highly effective is the Glyn Johns method.

It uses only four microphones and is relatively easy to set up.

What you need

Overheads

First, begin by placing one overhead mic about a metre (3 or 4 feet) above the snare. The microphone diaphragm should be pointing down at the kit. Then take your second overhead microphone and place it to the right of the drummer (so the microphone diaphragm is facing the Hi-Hat). Then measure the distance so that it’s the exact same measurement from the first overhead mic (so about a metre). Pan the two mics in the mix and you should get a nice balanced sound.

*The image shows the distance of the microphones but not the correct diaphragm placement

Snare + Kick Drum

The snare and kick drum microphone placements can be played around with until you find a sound you like. Often with kick drum mics you can place the microphone inside the drum or have it set up on the outside.

Overall this is a great and relatively easy way to record drums.

 

The Simple Home Studio Kit

Creating and recording music can be a daunting task if you don’t have any prior knowledge of production. From aspiring music producers to seasoned musicians, the art of recording your music can become quite a difficult undertaking very quickly.

So, to combat this, I thought I would compile a range of equipment that I believe to be great for beginners and anyone wishing to record on a budget.

The Right DAW

A DAW is short for Digital Audio Workstation. To put it simply, it is the software you use to record and mix your music. There is a wide variety of different DAW’s out there, and each producer has their preference for a multitude of various reasons and depending on what they require.

My advice is to start simple. If you’re new to music production, software like Pro Tools, Logic and Ableton can seem extremely daunting.

If you’re a Mac user start with GarageBand. It’s free and is very much a simplified version of Logic. If you have a Windows computer, try Audacity. They are both mapped out in a way that it is straightforward to begin recording some tracks you can then transfer this knowledge to more complex DAW’s.

The Interface

I have used many interfaces, and the one I find recommending most to beginners is the Scarlett 2i2.

It is a USB audio interface and has everything you need to start recording: two line/mic ports, 48v phantom power (some microphones require this power to operate), can record 192kHz /24-bit sample rate.

Overall it’s the perfect compact recording device and comes in at around $160/ £100.

A Microphone

Microphones, for me, are the hardest to recommend. It depends so much on a person’s preference and what they want to record. More specifically what sound they want to achieve. But, if you need a place to start, I recommend the MXL 770.

It comes in at around $72 / £90, and I believe it to be well worth the money. It’s impressive, to say the least. It’s not perfect, but it certainly can give microphones worth triple the price a run for their money.

I hope you find this information helpful and just remember there is no perfect set up. I am always updating my kit and trying out new things. It’s what keeps you creative as a producer.

 

Excellence in Assistance

Learning how to be a great assistant is one of the best ways to put yourself on the path to mastery in commercial music production. As important as it is to know the technical and creative aspects of your craft, it’s equally important to understand how social and interpersonal dynamics function in the studio environment. Knowing how to operate equipment might get you in the room, but knowing how to deal with a multitude of needs, problems, and personalities will keep you there. No one cares whether or not you’ve got a degree in engineering if you don’t know basic, real-world studio etiquette.

Every studio and every recording session comes with its own culture. Make it a point to understand the culture of every session you’re involved. Being able to read the room is an invaluable skill. It imparts competency, attention to detail, pride in your work, and investment in your team.

Some sessions will be clear and to the point. There will likely be a professional team in place. Your job here is to help things run smoothly and make sure that everyone has what they need. In situations like this, you’ll defer directly to the lead engineer and probably won’t interact too much with the clients. This is the kind of session where you want to be “invisible”—wear basic clothing, try not to speak unless spoken to (with exception to polite greetings and the like), keep a low profile. Stay out of the way, but be hyper-present and ready to jump in when you’re needed to change out a mic or take a food order.  If you become aware of a technical issue that no one else seems to notice, find an expedient but non-disruptive way to make the issue known to your lead engineer. Be prepared to take action on a moment’s notice.

Whether you’re working in a large, commercial facility or a small project studio, hospitality should be a top priority. Keep coffee hot and fresh. Have a kettle ready to fire up when a singer needs tea. Make sure artists’ riders have been satisfied to the best of your ability. Keep beverages, pens, paper, and other basic items plentifully stocked. Personally, I try to bring extra items with me just in case. Candy, aux cables, guitar accessories, adapters, phone chargers, tampons, and other such items can be a great door opener. For example, I had the chance to get friendly with super producer Don Was during a session because I was the only one in the building who had dental floss. The better you can anticipate and facilitate the needs of others, the more of an asset you will be in any production.

Of course, there will be sessions that test the limits of your patience and professionalism. The producer may be inexperienced or unable to communicate effectively. They may get angry or throw you under the bus when they make a mistake or are not able to properly manage a session. They may have an ego issue and feel the need to assert dominance to feel like they’re in control. This may be a genuine personality trait, or it may be what they think they need to do to impress or intimidate their clients (yes, this is an actual production tactic and you’d be surprised at how often it works). They may be dealing with a difficult artist and funneling that frustration your way because they have to remain in service of their client. Perhaps the artists themselves are inexperienced, egotistical, or unprofessional, and the whole room is suffering for it. There may be substance abuse or behavior that isn’t necessarily conducive to productivity. It’s your job to be prepared to navigate these challenges with patience, composure, and effectiveness. Stay solutions-minded and try to keep your feelings and judgments in check. If things escalate to the point of being abusive or dangerous, extract yourself from the situation and speak to a supervisor.

Some sessions will be relaxed, and you’ll become friendly with the artists and/or producer. In my experience, most artists prefer the kind of environment where they feel a sense of ease and camaraderie with the crew. The level of friendliness will depend on your ability to read the room and to adjust your personal levels accordingly.

Making a record can be an intensely bonding process. If you’re being invited to be a part of the bonding, you should participate! You just might forge relationships that will last throughout—or even advance your career!  However, don’t lose sight of how important it is to stay professional while you’re on session. Studio etiquette should always be your default setting when you’re on the clock, and the artists/producers should be handled with a clear sense of priority and deference.

Additionally, understand that your friendly relationship with clients might not extend past the sessions themselves. Sometimes the spirited nature of relaxed, friendly sessions is just what the artist needs to get through their process. Don’t take it personally if a producer asks for your card but never calls, or if an artist talks about wanting to hear what you’ve worked on but doesn’t offer a clear opportunity for you to present it, or if you don’t get a follow back on Instagram, or whatever.  Keep a sense of confidence and equanimity around you and stay centered on what’s most important—providing excellent service and doing what it takes to make a production successful.

 

The Importance of Saying Yes

It is so important to stay open to new opportunities while building a career in audio. Saying yes will often lead to one of two realizations: this opportunity is right for me; I want to continue to do more of this work! Or, this is wrong for me; I now know what to avoid. Both are valuable lessons for shaping an ideal career. Working in music is a lifelong journey – undoubtedly it will be full of unexpected and unpredictable twists and turns, so finding joy in both outcomes has to become an important practice.

Landing a dream job does not happen overnight, and if it did, my guess is that it probably would not be that rewarding. One of the best pieces of advice I ever received after I graduated college was that during your early career it is often more important to learn about what you do not want to be doing rather than worrying about doing precisely what you want. As someone who recently transitioned into full-time freelance, I am always trying to strike a balance between doing what I am passionate and excited about, and doing what makes practical sense, which sometimes means taking on gigs that are less than ideal.

I have accepted a lot of gigs that have turned out to be not quite right for me. It can be an unfortunate part of the process of figuring things out but is also highly valuable. I can say with certainty that the reason I am now doing what I am doing is due to a series of saying yes to opportunities that have come my way. This has allowed me to narrow my scope and better understand the type of work I do not want to do, behaviors I will not accept, and how to be most efficient when dealing with new clients and projects.

Occasionally I will get asked to help out running FOH on a show or festival around town, and even though live sound is not a career path I want to explore, I always say yes. It would be really easy to peg myself as only a studio engineer and say no, but something positive always comes out of it. For one, I get to listen to music and likely see some friends. It is also a really easy and genuine way to meet people and talk about what I enjoy doing in the audio realm. From picking up a few gigs like this around town, I have been able to join bands and start recording projects, just because I was present and doing my job.

When I worked at Welcome to 1979 all of the opportunities that arose for me came from me being open to new challenges and saying yes to things. When I was hired as an intern, I was asked to work in the office part-time, which was not something I was interested in pursuing long-term. I was clear that I wanted to be an engineer, but I said yes because I wanted to learn something new, diversify my skill set, and become a valuable member of the team. Later on, I became an assistant, and after about a year of doing that I was asked to learn how to do vinyl mastering, and then, be the studio manager. I said yes to every opportunity because I was trusting in the process of figuring out my path. I was also trusting in the fact that my bosses probably saw something in me that I did not see in myself at the time. Through this process, I grew tremendously as an individual, gained critical technical skills, and walked away with a better understanding of what I wanted to pursue.

I would love to get to the point where I can be extremely selective about which gigs to take on and only work with my favorite artists. I hope I am on my way to that point, but I think it’s a long process of saying yes and staying open to opportunities, even ones I don’t feel ready for. My imposter syndrome can be extreme, but I have found that trusting in the timing of life helps me value myself and understand my worth. Either way, I know I will learn something in the process regardless of the outcome. The fun part is not knowing where one “yes” might lead!

 

Recording a Four Piece Band Part 1

Last month I wrote about the importance of being an artist with a knowledge of what’s going on Behind the Board. This month I am starting a three-month themed blog about the process of recording a four-piece band.

For the first blog, I will be sharing how to pick out mics for (my favorite thing to capture) drums, the second blog will be all about guitars/bass, and the third will be about getting the icing on the cake during a vocal session.

Drums. The base of every song.

The very instrument that I may go as far as to say- determines the vibe of your song. For that very reason, I recommend getting your drums feeling good first. How do you do that you say? There isn’t a “correct” way of doing anything in recording. It’s a creative endeavor. There are NO right or wrong answers. So let me be clear, I am by no means telling you HOW to mic drums. I’m just going through the steps I have taken to get good drum sounds in the past. Of course, over time you will find your own ways to get tones you like as well.

The first step is pre-production. So, let’s assume you have already heard a demo of what you’re client is recording. This way you know how to create a plan of attack for the drum sound in the song. After that, your second step is organization. I always print out a mic sheet with columns for wall inputs, mics, preamps, EQ/compression, and Pro-Tools inputs.

Organization is always crucial when recording, but I would have to say MOST important when recording drums. There are (most of the time) several mics on the kit, some of which may require phantom (48v), some may not. Either way, you don’t want to accidentally send phantom to a microphone that doesn’t need it (aka, ribbons). Now when it comes to picking out mics, you can get VERY creative, so to avoid writing a three-page blog- I’m just going to go over a pretty simple setup, basically my “go-to” for good drums tones.

 

Instrument Mic Wall Input Pre-amp Compressor Eq Pro-Tools Input
Kick In D112 1 API 1 DBX 1
Kick Out Fet47 2 API 2 2
Snare T Sm57 3 API 3 Chandler Little Devil 3
Snare B Km84 4 API 4 4
Rack Tom V421 5 Vintech 1 5
Floor Tom V421 6 Vintech 2 6
H.H SM7B 7 TubeTech 1 7
O.H Hat Coles 8 Gamma 1 (shadow hills) 8
O.H Ride Coles 9 Gamma 2 (shadow hills) 9
Room L Royer 121 10 UA 610 Distressor 10
Room R Royer 121 11 UA 610 Distressor 11

 

I’m going to go through this mic sheet, and explain why I picked what for each part of the kit:

Kick in: I almost always use a D112. It’s a dynamic microphone that (depending on where you place it) can give you a nice punchy sound on the high end for your kick drum tone

Kick out: I chose a Fet 47. I did this because I’ve found if you place it a few inches back from the kick, it will pick up an excellent fat tone of the drum that fills out the bottom end of the kick very well

Snare top: I’m using an SM57 because this microphone is good at focusing on precisely what it is directed at- the snare. I don’t want to pick up too much of the cymbals that are around this mic, so any kind of dynamic microphone is almost always a good choice. Some people use crash guards. I recommend messing around with one, so you can see the difference it makes in how your snare sounds, and the overall effect it takes on the sound of the kit. The snare top is the only piece of the kit I used an outboard EQ on. I used the Little Devil EQ because I always, ALWAYS want to have a great fundamental and crack on the snare from the very beginning of recording the drums.

Snare Bottom:  I like to keep it simple with an SM57

Toms: I am fortunate enough to work out of a studio that has a vintage 421. On this mic sheet, I chose to use the vintage 421s on the rack and the floor, because in a perfect world- that’s what I would do! I chose the Vintechs for the toms because I want them to have a nice, clean tone. I’m not looking to add any color to the toms during tracking

High-hat: I am using an SM7B with the filter off. I chose this mic because I want a nice crisp tone for the high-hat. I am running this through the TubeTech, so that crisp tone is smoothed out by the tubes in this preamp

Overheads: I chose to use Coles. I love the Coles. They have this beautiful, dark sound to them that tends to smooth everything out in the BEST way. I ran these mics through the Shadow Hills to continue getting a warm tone for the overall image of the kit

Rooms: I chose the Royer 121. These are fantastic ribbon microphones. Like the Coles, they can also be a tad dark, but as a room mic on a drum kit- it’s quite lovely.

The bullet points you just read were mostly about why I picked each mic. These next bullet points will be about placement for these mics.

Kick in: I aim the kick mic inside the sound hole (if there is one), and go about halfway inside of the drum

Kick out: I mentioned previously I like to put the kick out a couple of inches away from the kick, so I can get that nice fat kick tone I am looking for to fill the bottom end

Snare top/snare bottom: when mic-ing a snare, you have to use your ears to find the correct placement. I can’t tell you exactly what to do because it’ll always be different for that very reason. What I can say is when you find that perfect spot, make sure you have good phase between your two snare mics after you’ve finished picking their positions

Toms: basically what I said about positioning the snare mics.

High-hat: I usually position this mic a couple of inches away from the center of the bell. The middle of from where the bell starts and the edge of the cymbal is a good spot

Overheads: Overheads aren’t as tricky as they may seem! The trick with overheads is finding good phase. What I do to get good phase is first I place the mics. I place the left mic above the snare and point it down at the snare. Now with the other mic, I just aim it a little past the drummers ride cymbal and point it down. Once the mics are roughly placed, I like to grab a mic cable, place one end on the middle of the snare, stretch it to the middle of one mic and then to the other. This is to check and see if they are both equal distances from the snare drum (because, phase).

Rooms: Room mics are where you can get creative. Sometimes I do a mono room; sometimes I’ll do a stereo room. In this case, I chose to do a stereo pair for the room. I like to place my room mics relatively high and a hefty few feet back from the kit

Like I said before, all of this is just my version of the basics of mic-ing a kit. There are no right or wrong ways. You don’t always have to have good phase. You don’t always have to use a dynamic mic on the snare. If it sounds good, hey- IT SOUNDS GOOD. Always trust your ear. Follow where your creativity flows. With that being said, I hope you enjoyed this month’s blog post. I had fun writing it. Feel free to use this mic setup or something similar next time you are recording drums, and if you want to send me your results- please do.

 

 

Delia Derbyshire – In Profile

Coventry is a city in the middle of England, known for the legend of Lady Godiva, the WWII blitz, and for many years it was an industrial boomtown and subsequently a ‘concrete jungle.’  It is my hometown, a place that has given us a diverse selection of musical greats over the years spanning from Ray King, The Specials, and Hazel O’Connor to The Primitives, and The Enemy.  Coventry was also the home of electronic composer Delia Derbyshire. Although I’ve had the pleasure of meeting, interviewing and performing in front of a number of this city’s musical giants, regrettably I never had the chance to meet Delia before her untimely passing in 2001.

Delia was a musical pioneer, a unique lady with a sharp sense of humour, humility, and an unbridled passion for creating.  The story of her contribution to the world has not taken up space as prominently as it should but is still quietly there nonetheless.  I’d like to turn up the volume and tell you a little about her life and work, and why she is an iconic woman in music, who in my opinion possessed all of the ‘cool points’.

Early life

Fifty years before I would come to exist and first set foot in my childhood home, the place of Delia’s childhood home lay just five streets away.  While I’m proud of where I come from, it is not a fancy area – it is one of honest, working-class roots. It’s still the kind of place today where earning the opportunity to study at Cambridge is an esteemed accomplishment only achieved by an exceptional minority.  Delia Derbyshire was exceptional: she graduated from Cambridge University with a degree in music and mathematics at a time when it was the most prestigious location for studying mathematics, and when only 1 in 10 students were women.

Upon graduating, Delia approached Decca Records for work in 1959 only to be told they didn’t employ women in the recording studio.  Heading to the BBC shortly after that in 1960, they were firm that they did not employ composers however Delia was hired as a studio assistant.  She cheekily referred to this as ‘infiltrating the system to do music.’ Later that year, she joined the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, a role that was traditionally only short-term, the reasoning of which was rumoured to prevent the onset of madness.  The Workshop provided sound design and music for a vast amount of TV and radio and was located in the mysterious room number 13, found at the end of a long corridor in Maida Vale studios.

The Radiophonic Workshop Years

Delia remained at the Radiophonic Workshop from 1960-73 and created her most iconic pieces in that time both freelance and for the BBC, the most well-known work being Derbyshire’s original Doctor Who arrangement.  The theme was commissioned in 1963 and had an amicable story relayed in Spinal Tap-like fashion by Derbyshire’s contemporaries of the time: composer Ron Grainer had given Delia not a full musical score but a scribbled idea on a sheet of the manuscript with vague directions that she interpreted perfectly.  His stunned reaction upon hearing the finished piece was to ask “Did I write that?!” to which Delia replied, “Most of it.” The original intention had been to hire and record a French band performing the piece on glass rims, however, the BBC budget was too tight, hence Delia was brought in.

It is worth noting that this period was before the synthesiser, and it may be useful to reflect on how incomprehensible it can be in our digitized lives to understand how Delia made electronic music in the mid-1960s.   She worked heavily with a Wobbulator (portmanteau of wobble and oscillator), which was a sine-wave oscillator that could be frequency modulated and is also called a ‘sweep generator.’ Delia made the sounds she used both painstakingly and organically by inventing, manipulating and shifting samples that she often created from scratch, and this was all captured on reels of tape.  For the Doctor Who theme, Delia used three layers and three tape machines at once for the final recording. Each note in the piece had to be individually cut and placed onto the tape reel. It is no wonder that all who knew her concurred that Delia was undoubtedly a perfectionist.

Whilst the Doctor Who theme has become her most famously known work; it came with its difficulties.  The BBC had a longstanding policy of anonymity for the staff in the Radiophonic Workshop, and even when composer Ron Grainer wished to split the writing percentages and give Derbyshire credit, the corporation refused.  Other creatives Delia had composed for made similarly fruitless acknowledgment requests. Years later, the BBC subsequently changed their rules on anonymity but declined to do it retrospectively. Delia got nothing for Doctor Who. Interestingly, the source of annoyance with the theme for Derbyshire was the number of times new producers at the BBC wanted to revamp it over the years. She was very vocal about her views and disapproved of all ‘tarted up’ versions other than Peter Howell’s.

The Swinging Sixties

Aside from her BBC work, the 60s were a most fruitful time for Delia’s solo creations, and she also collaborated in several electronic band projects including ‘White Noise’ and ‘Unit Delta Plus.’  These works blurred the pre-existing lines of genre and broke many moulds in their experimental nature. Delia and her peers were highly influential and pivotal in shaping the music scene at this time: her ‘Unit Delta Plus’ bandmate Peter Zinovieff had a studio in Putney where Delia would often work which was known as EMS – Electronic Music Studios, and this was equipped with Zinovieff’s pioneering VCS3 synthesiser. Derbyshire believed in the generosity of knowledge and wanted to share her techniques and new discoveries with others. Some of the most quintessentially 1960s stories and sounds resulted from her remarkable contribution by the end of the decade.

Delia was approached by Paul McCartney who requested she arrange a backing track for “Yesterday,” and he soon came in person to listen to some of her work at EMS.  Shrouded in secrecy, Delia was then involved in the somewhat fabled electronic Beatles piece “Carnival of Light,” a legendary experimental track, which was played once and is now impossible to find.  In a rare interview, she comically recalled “I did a film soundtrack for Yoko Ono. While she slept on my floor”, and the occasion when Brian Jones visited the Radiophonic Workshop and played with hand-tuned oscillators “as though he could play it as a musical instrument!”  Delia was also responsible for bundling Pink Floyd into a taxi to EMS after the band visited her at the workshop to introduce them to Peter Zinovieff and his famous VCS3 – see “Dark Side of the Moon” for the outcome of that.

Creative process

 

Delia’s methods for composing are thought-provoking to me: she looked at music very mathematically and often assigned ideas to pitch and frequency with a meaning in mind, her starting point always being the Greek harmonic series.  Being classically trained to a professional level pianist as a young woman meant that Delia’s music theory provided a solid knowledge of the rules in order to break them, her written notes highlighting this quirky combination with the use of graphic scores and colloquial musical and technical directions.  She believed the way we perceive sound should have dominance over any theory or mathematical working. Delia herself cited childhood experiences as the earliest influences on her interest in electronic sounds, notably the ‘air raid’ and ‘all clear’ sirens she had become accustomed to hearing as a young girl during World War II that had piqued her interest in sound waves.  I find it fascinating how such a combination of experiences can be a catalyst for such innovation and creation.

After the Workshop

Delia left the BBC in 1973 and is quoted as saying, “The world went out of tune with itself,” which is quite a heavy statement.  She felt electronic music, and the common usage of synthesisers had changed music for the worse – it wasn’t organic enough as she always wanted to physically get inside equipment.  It’s hard to know if her statement was borne from a reluctance to embrace the changing times and methods of making music, or perhaps how this had affected her role at the BBC, whom she openly blasted for being “ran by accountants” and “expecting her to compromise her integrity.”

Personally, I fear there may have been a sadness in Delia at this point, as she turned her back on working in music after leaving the BBC, taking on various non-musical jobs.  She wrote lots privately, however never recorded, released or collaborated in the same way as she had in the 60s. Delia described herself as a utopian who believed freedom of creativity was more important than getting work, and I believe her. Perhaps the many years of blatant sexism, lack of credit, and working long through the night after everyone else had left were no longer sustainable if, in addition, her creative process was now being micromanaged.

Thankfully, by the mid-90s, Delia felt music was returning to it’s “pure” state and during the last years of her life Pete Kember a.k.a. Sonic Boom made contact with her by searching the Coventry phone book, eventually putting Delia in touch with the current generation of musicians she had inspired.  He even persuaded her to collaborate, and she is credited as adviser/co-producer on two EAR albums, as well as co-writer with Kember on the track ‘Synchrondipity Machine’. Delia and Kember thought very highly of one another, and shortly before her death, she said “working with people like Sonic Boom on pure electronic music has re-invigorated me.  Now without the constraints of doing ‘applied music,’ my mind can fly free and pick up where I left off.” It is bittersweet that the collaboration came so close to the time of her passing after all the silent years she’d endured.

Delia’s legacy

Her partner Clive discovered Delia’s back catalogue of tapes spanning her career after her death.  The collection had been kept in the attic, stored neatly in cereal boxes, although time had not been kind to the labels that had once documented almost 300 reels of tape. A project to restore and archive the collection was undertaken by Mark Ayres, Dr. David Butler, and Brian Hodgson, and the complete collection now resides at The John Rylands Library at The University of Manchester and can be viewed by anyone upon appointment.  The last work in the archive is a cue for an unmade film from 1980, donated by filmmaker Elizabeth Kosmian. Delia’s fascinating graphic scores and workings are also included as well as digitised sonic versions of her archived works.

Delia’s legacy lives on physically in The University of Manchester archive, and their associated organisation entitled “Delia Derbyshire Day” (DD Day) which offers events and activities promoting the art of British electronic music and history via the archive and works of Delia Derbyshire.  For an interactive and family-friendly experience, Delia has a charming permanent spot of residence at The Coventry Music Museum. Online, there is wikidelia.net, delia-derbyshire.org, deliaderbyshireday.com, and of course, the many music download and streaming platforms on which Delia is still a presence.

Delia was a complex woman, one with oodles of personality and a sense of humour that shone through in the few rare interviews she did. Her friends and colleagues unanimously described her as an incredible planner, intelligent, analytical, fiery, and an eccentric genius. An enigma.  She remembered, “Directors who came to see me work used to say ‘you must be an ardent feminist’ – I think I was a post-feminist before feminism was invented!  I did rebel. I did a lot of things I was told not to do.”

Delia Derbyshire lived a fascinating life, and I wish I could have met her, to learn and understand more about her work and her mind.  I’d be interested to uncover her thoughts on the 5% of women currently working in audio in 2019 and compare notes on the things that have changed so much, and the things that haven’t changed nearly enough. One thing’s for sure – if we ever discover the secrets to make time travel via Tardis possible, you’ll know where and when to find me.

 

Mary Shipman Howard

Mary Shipman Howard was one of the earliest known female recording engineers and one of the earliest women studio owners (in the 1940s). Mary worked with great musicians and composers of the era such as Glenn Miller, Arturo Toscanini, Charles Ives, and Samuel Barber.

From Audio Record Feb. 1948

Mary was born in 1911 in Hartford, Connecticut to an affluent family who supported the local arts. She played viola but got arthritis at an early age. In an interview with Vivian Perlis (part of the OHAM Charles Ives collection), Mary said, “Since I always loved acoustical, mechanical things – the process of translating a sound wave into an electrical impulse and back into sound – I got really into recording.” Mary was intrigued by records, and she bought a recording machine and started learning about record cutting on her own.

NBC Years

NBC Symphony Orchestra 1944

She came to New York in 1940 and applied for an engineering job at NBC. At the time, women weren’t allowed in the union, so Mary was hired as a secretary. When NBC became short on staff during World Word II, the union decided to let women engineer. Mary was the only woman at the NBC studios for around six months, but it didn’t take her long to make a name as a master recording engineer.

Her first assignment was Glenn Miller, whose music she liked even though she had a classical music background. She was assigned to recording sessions for Toscanini at RCA. There was a union deal between NBC and RCA which required an NBC studio engineer to be at RCA Victor. Mary couldn’t work, but the RCA Victor engineer couldn’t work without her there. Mary said (in her Perlis interview) she “didn’t do anything except sit with my eyes falling out of my head, and my ears dropping off.” Mary worked with Toscanini for eight years.

Mary Howard Recordings

Mary Howard Recordings record; Photo from Discogs

While Mary was at NBC (around 1945-46), she started a small studio in the same building she lived in called “Mary Howard Recordings.” It was three blocks from NBC (37 East 49th Street), and she worked at the studio part-time. She left NBC after the war (because of the long hours). But, by then, she found her studio was in high demand. She told Perlis, “I had all the best Ampex equipment, and I was the first private person ever to own a Scully lathe. Nobody else could afford it. I couldn’t afford it, either, but I got a loan from the bank. It was wonderful fun while it lasted, and the most fun were the people who suddenly, by word of mouth only, came to have me make recordings for them.” Time Magazine even did an article about Mary and her studio in 1947.

One of Mary’s clients was composer Charles Ives who asked her to do all his recordings of rehearsals and broadcasts. Ives would get letters from people asking how to interpret his music, and he would send them a recording instead of explaining it on the phone (part of Mary’s job was labeling and sometimes mailing). Mary had other clients who recorded for personal use or came to the studio for late-night listening sessions (like William Schumann and Alan Hovhaness).

In 1947, Mary started releasing her own commercial recordings under the MHR label. Artists included The Herman Chittison Trio, Ethel Waters, Lucille Turner, and Dale Belmont.

Over time, her studio grew to have multiple engineers and additional staff. Donald Plunkett, an engineer who worked at Mary’s studio, described her in an interview (with Susan Schmidt Horning):

Mary was very unique. She was a musician who understood musicians and understood a good deal about recording and how to marry the two – both the personalities of the musicians and the temperament of recording equipment.

Musicians are few and far between in our business . . . She had two portable recording lathes and a station wagon and did a lot of recording of prominent musicians.

https://www.lathetrolls.com/viewtopic.php?f=1&t=2585

Van Eps Cutting Head

Mary was featured in Audio Record Magazine in 1948. At the time, some of the studio’s recording equipment included Van Eps lathe, Allied Cutting lathe, Presto 1-D Heads, and Langevin 101-A Amplifiers (the preamps and program amps were Langevin). 

When asked what they do to ensure good recordings, Mary showed her technical expertise and a strong understanding of audio:

“We are of the opinion that a compact, consolidated recording and control room, combined adjacent to and visible to the studio is the best method of recording. With this setup a recording technician can actually ‘ride gain’ but what is more important can see what actual level is imposed on the disc. We feel that the term ‘riding gain’ is a poor description of the operation involved. The more dynamics achieved in a fidelity recording, even if the frequency response is limited, the more the sound originating in the studio will be approximated. We feel that too much emphasis can be put on the word ‘fidelity’ and that some of the pre-emphasized and over emphasized high frequencies often result in a sound unpleasing to the ear, which after all is the final judge.

Recording information about cutting characteristics, recording head designs, styli and quality of response equipment is easily obtained. These all enter into the final results. Unfortunately, the interest and ingenuity of the recordist has often been overlooked. Recording is not a dull craft at all if engaged in all its technical phases. There seems to be a prevalence in large organizations for specialization – cutting technicians, studio technicians, maintenance, etc – which often results in poor recording because of lack of interest or information in all phases of the recording operation. If interest and enthusiasm were carried all the way through the recording organization, and management, perhaps time might be found to raise the general recording standards in America. We have tried to incorporate these methods in our operation and have had success… or some such thing.”

Leaving the Business

Mary closed the studio in 1955 when she grew tired of being in the city. She tried to split time in and out of New York, but it eventually seemed silly. She wanted to spend time outdoors, garden, and “try to make weekends meet.” (Perlis interview) She married Edwin Pickhardt (date unknown) and changed her name to Mary Howard Pickhardt.

Dog Breeder

American Kennel Gazette Dec 1963; Ch. Sabbaday Echo Best of Breed

American Kennel Gazette Dec 1963; Ch. Sabbaday Echo Best of Breed

After her recording career, Mary became a breeder of pugs under the name Sabbaday Kennels (named after the street her home was on in Connecticut). Her pug, Ch. Sabbaday Echo, won best of breed in 1963. Mary was recognized by her colleagues for her commitment to the breed (including helping give the national pug exposure).

Ch. Sabbaday Echo. Photo by Evelyn M. Shafer; Courtesy of AKC Library and Archives

She was active with the Pug Dog Club of America and Mary (and her husband) were respected judges at dog shows across the US. Sylvia Sidney, a stage and screen actor who owned and showed pugs said in the New York Times, “Mary was probably the best breeder and exhibitor of pugs on the Eastern seaboard.” Sylvia mentioned one of Mary’s dogs was on the cover of the American Kennel Gazette (likely the December 1963 issue; the pug on the cover was not identified).

In a tribute by the Pug Dog Club of America after her death, it was said Mary “was a tremendous supporter of all Pug clubs, an outstanding judge of Pugs and a woman of great courage.”

Mary died in 1976 (at age 65). She had a son, Arthur Shipman Howard, and four grandchildren.

Select References

  1. Plunkett, Don Interview by Susan Schmidt Horning. 09 Feb. 1999. Lexington, KY: Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, University of Kentucky Libraries. 
  2. The War Gave Mary Howard Her Big Chance to Make Good in Recording; She Did – And How! Feb. 1948. Audio Record (by Audio Devices, Inc.)
  3. Pickhardt, Mary Shipman Interview by Vivian Perlis. (Washington, CT; Sep 24, 1969). Oral History of American Music Collections Guide: Charles Ives, Yale University Library.

Women & The Grammy For “Producer of The Year, Classical”

The Grammy for Producer of the Year, Classical (originally Classical Producer of the Year) was introduced in 1979. This particular category distinguishes itself as the first technical award where a woman was nominated on the ground floor, during the category’s inaugural year.

That woman was Joanna Nickrenz.

Not only was Nickrenz the first woman to receive a nod in Production (Classical Producer of the Year – 1979), she’s also the first woman I’ve found on record to be nominated for a Grammy in Engineering (Best Engineered Recording, Classical for Edgard Varése’s “Percussion Music” – 1974).

A classically trained pianist, Ms. Nickrenz took a strong interest in the recording process during her first studio sessions. This led to her taking an assistant position at Elite Recordings, where she worked as an editor, producer, and eventually full partner to Elite founder, recording engineer Marc Aubort. Records made under the Aubort/Nickrenz umbrella carry a legacy among audiophiles as being some of the best orchestral recordings ever produced.

Affectionately dubbed “Miss Razor Ears,” Joanna was fiercely dedicated to preserving the integrity of the score. She was known to admonish musicians if they played any part of a work incorrectly or dared to improvise. When she passed away in 2002, her urn was humorously engraved with an oft-used corrective phrase: “What’s written is also nice.”

Ms. Nickrenz received 8 Producer of the Year, Classical nominations and won the award twice. In 1983, she shared the win with Aubort. In 1996, she was the sole recipient. She was additionally nominated in 1984, 1986, and 2001, but did not win during those years.

If she is indeed the first woman to break through the Grammy glass ceiling in both production and engineering, how is it that Joanna Nickrenz doesn’t even have her own Wikipedia page? Why can’t I find a single photograph of this pioneering lady?

(SoundGirls let’s get her a Wikipedia page – Editing SoundGirls into Wikipedia)


Women account for around 14% of those nominated for Producer of the Year, Classical. A total of eight Grammys have been handed to women in the category’s 39-year history.

Five of these trophies have gone to Judith Sherman.

Nominated a whopping 12 times, Judith is a major contributor to the catalog of recorded classical music. She got her start as a broadcast engineer at WBAI-FM in New York City, working up to positions as a producer and musical director. She started her own production company, Judith Sherman Productions, in 1976. She is the second woman to be nominated for a Grammy in Engineering, receiving a Best Engineered Recording, Classical nod in 1990.

Though she’s established a long and fruitful legacy, Ms. Sherman remains a force to be reckoned with to this day. She has been nominated for Producer of the Year, Classical for the past five years in a row.


Being prolific seems almost a prerequisite when you look at the women in this category, most of whom have been nominated multiple times.

Robina G. Young has received ten nominations for Producer of the Year, Classical. Marina A. Ledin has received eight. Young and Ledin have not yet crossed the stage to collect a trophy, but they show no signs of slowing down. 2006 winner Elaine Martone has managed over 1500 projects and offers a staggering biography. Nominee Elizabeth Ostrow is still going strong on a career spanning over 40 years. Anna Barry, who has over 500 recordings in her discography, was recently tasked to be the official recordist for the Royal Wedding. The late Patti Laursen was another important trailblazer, producing the first digital recordings made by Capitol Records in 1979.


Women in production have fared much better in the Classical division than in the category’s Non-Classical equivalent, with the percentage of wins landing at about 20%. The percentage of women who’ve won Producer of the Year, Non-Classical is still zero.

Though popular music will always have better PR, some of the most crucial and groundbreaking work has been done by women operating under the Classical umbrella. Seeing that the Recording Academy is pushing #WomenInTheMix and that March is Women’s History Month, the accomplishments of these producers should be loudly celebrated.

I invite you to dive deeper into the stories of the women nominated for Producer of the Year, Classical. Personally, I’ll be ensuring that Ms. Nickrenz finally gets her Wiki page. If anyone out there can find a picture of her, I sure would be glad to finally see it.

JOANNA NICKRENZ

1979 / 1983* (winner) / 1984 / 1986 / 1988 / 1996* (winner) / 2001

JUDITH SHERMAN

1990 / 1993* (winner) / 1994 / 1997 / 2007* (winner) / 2008 / 2011* (winner) / 2014* (winner) / 2015* (winner) / 2016 / 2017 / 2018

ELAINE MARTONE

2006* (winner) / 2014

ROBINA G. YOUNG

1993 / 1998 / 1999 / 2001 / 2002 / 2003 / 2004 / 2007 / 2008 / 2016

MARINA A. LEDIN

1999 / 2003 / 2007 / 2010 / 2012 / 2013 / 2015 / 2016

ELIZABETH OSTROW

1989 / 2018

PATTI LAURSEN

1989

ANNA BARRY

1994

 

Staying Tough & Moving Sideways

If we are lucky, both our careers and ourselves will change and grow for the better. Life has a funny way of evolving and taking us on a different path than we might have ever expected. When I reflect on the dreams I had as a teenager, for example, there have been some that were smashed and excitedly crossed off the bucket list, and others that teenage me could never have foreseen from a reminiscent time of analogue study and scoring notation by pencil.

Working in most industries, but particularly music comes with its share of setbacks and rejection as par for the course, and we learn early on to be thick-skinned and roll with the punches. Some years I’ve been fulfilling my teenage and adult dreams, whilst others I’ve felt like I have been starring in a low-budget female remake of ‘Withnail & I.’ Jobs, people and projects come and go naturally, and stagnation is a dirty word. But what do we do when making a change feels like it’s out of our hands, and has been forced upon us?

 

Through a very dark, frustrating and seemingly endless limbo period of fruitless auditions and interviews following illness, injury and the subsequent closure of my business, I lacked an obvious answer to the question of what to do next. During this time, I was aware of a steady stream of media that kept bombarding me online, on TV and radio about Rick Allen, drummer of Def Leppard. Here was a man who overcame the most unthinkable adversity losing his left arm in an accident aged just 21, who personified the qualities of strength, adaptability and creativity to find a solution and continue working as a drummer in a mere matter of weeks following his hospital release, and become even more successful in the years that followed.

We can gain both perspective and a reminder that things are not as hopeless as they seem when we look at the success stories of inspirational people such as Allen and can resolve to model the qualities they possess in attitude and action.

Aristotle’s Golden Mean is a theory relating to character and discipline of the mind that highlights a need for balance in whatever we strive for. We all have needs to be met as individuals that will be relative to each of us. Aristotle proposed that equilibrium in our actions and reactions was the path to virtue and that this is found on a sliding scale between two vices, e.g., between cowardice and foolhardiness. Similarly, ‘The Middle Way’ is a Buddhist practice of ‘non-extremism that leads to liberation,’ an ideal of ‘bravely confronting life’s challenges by identifying the root causes and seeking means of resolution while summoning the transformative strength and wisdom of Buddhahood from within one’s life to create harmony.’ Put very simply; these ideals remind us of the importance of knowing when to yield and when to take action, learning to accept the things we cannot change and change the things we cannot accept.

They say that necessity is the mother of invention, and so it’s up to us to find comfort and a Plan B that feels right, and sometimes we must move sideways to move forward. In reality, then, we must embrace change in whatever form when it befalls us, and look at what existing skills we have that can be improved, honed and adapted to work for our futures.

Often a different area of expertise is not a million miles away, however much it may feel so whilst in the midst of watching a previous life crumble. The difficulty can be figuring out exactly what we do next, as we embark on the uncertain tightrope of virtuous equilibrium, shakily imitating the monks, great minds and super-humans who’ve gone before us.

Business gurus and industry experts are unanimous that research/asking for guidance is one of the most important parts of building anew. Had Rick Allen not asked for help from his friend involved with an electronics business, his bespoke adapted drum kit may never have come into being, and the story may have been a very different one. Chances are, there’s a plethora of friends, colleagues, and acquaintances from previous work that are an untapped potential of alliances sitting in your smartphone right now.  Set up that meeting to pick their brains over coffee, start shadowing and get informed – this is as useful for finding what doesn’t work as much as what does, and often chatting through ideas and experiences will be invaluable to planning your next move.

The second point of monophony from experts is that great things sometimes take time. There’s no shame in taking a break to work behind the scenes making things happen, whether that be retraining or attaining the funds and proficiency to set up a new business model. Nobody wants to launch a sub-standard product or service, so the cliché of building on a solid foundation rings true, and the world can wait until all the kinks have been ironed out, and the new venture is a strong one.

Ultimately, the only thing we can control in life our thoughts, so it is important to take inspiration and learn from those who have examined the parameters of happiness and our human potential. Unexpected changes are inevitable for us all at some point. With a hopeful mindset, a balanced attitude and the determination to work towards a clear, well-planned goal, alchemy can and does happen.