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Todd Robbins is the owner of The Workshop Studio in Franklin, TN, and offers services producing, recording, and mixing. Todd sat down with us to discuss many aspects of his work that have made him successful over more than 20 years of experience.
You can often find Todd over at the 3dAudio Inc forum giving his thoughts on anything from mic choices, DAW configurations, tracking techniques, and/or his latest experience with one of the great large format consoles he may encounter during his travels. Engineers like Mr. Robbins, while not having the wide name recognition of some famous industry persons, are truly in the trenches serving musical artists at a consistently high level. So we thought his perspectives would be of value.
ProRec: First let me say it’s a pleasure to have an engineer of your skill level and talent available to us. Thank you very much for taking the time to do this interview. So let’s get right into it.
Many engineering enthusiasts often wonder how some professionals like yourself got started in this business. Could you tell us about the path that led you to where you are today? When did you know you wanted to be a professional audio engineer?
Todd Robbins: I was in 5th grade when my parents bought me Kiss 'Destroyer' – hah!. I think that started it all. I knew then that I wanted to somehow be involved in making music. I played trombone in band during school and learned music and theory there, and started building up my gear at home with drum kits, guitars, synths, and a Tascam 4 track casstte recorder/mixer while I played in garage bands and started recording them too.
I went to college in Texas and studied journalism, but started coming out to Nashville during my summers off to intern at a few different studios. As soon as they handed me my diploma, I hit the road for Nashville and landed a job at Warner Bros. working in their in house studio as an assistant there. I also assisted several other engineers in town on tracking and mixing dates, got involved doing jingles, and eventually fell into freelance work engineering projects from start to finish.
I met a guy named Mark Heimermann very early on, and we ended up working together for 10 or 12 years, almost non-stop, doing records with artists like DC Talk, Jaci Velasquez, and Michael W. Smith. We did a lot of gold and platinum projects together and had a great run.
Then one day this guy showed me how Napster worked on a computer and I thought, "Wow, free music? This isn't going to be good." The music business changed quite rapidly after that day, and I could see where the DAW was coming into play and how record budgets were going to drop because of these many new factors in play, so I bought a ProTools rig, got my own studio space, and figured out a way to work within the confines of indie budgets and independent artists alongside label budgets that were rapidly shrinking.
I set out over the last 6 or 7 years working in my own studio producing, recording, and mixing a wide variety of projects for some really great folks.
I came up through the ranks in a very traditional manner for that particular time period, and one that would be hard to replicate today because the business has changed so much since then.
PR: If you had to pick only one, what would be the single most important skill for a young engineer looking to find him or herself in a position of having a sustainable career as an audio engineer?
TR: Assuming you know your stuff as an engineer, it would be adaptability. You have to be able to adapt to many different recording situations, styles of music, personalities of your clients and studio personalities, different business environments, etc.
PR: Do you consider yourself more of a freelance engineer, traveling on demand with a mobile rig, or working in other studios with their gear, or are you currently more home-based with the majority of your work happening in your own studio?
TR: All of the work I do is 100% freelance in that I have no one over my head dictating anything concerning my business. I do like to hole up in my studio and work there, but I also like to get out and record in some other environments other than my own studio from time to time as well. I do a fair amount of traveling to other states to meet up with clients who will have me out to do a project, and I also get out to other studios in Nashville and surrounding area to do some work there as well.
That being said, almost all of my mix work is done in my own studio, and I am there a majority of the time for recording as well.
PR: Are there any engineers you really admire or who you’d like to work with again or for the first time?
TR: I would love to get in a studio with Daniel Lanois. I think Tchad Blake always brings a great aesthetic to his recordings and mixes, and I have always been a Bob Clearmountain fan, his stuff always sounds great.
PR: How do you feel about the current state of the art of recording with so many tools being available to so many people at such a low cost? Do you think this is a good or bad thing for the general development of young engineers?
TR: I think it is great thing for sure. I think, for some reason, a lot of the old-school guys feel like they have the keys to some kind of secret recording closet that only they should be allowed to open. However, when you get creative tools into the hands of creative people, great things can happen. Look at folks like Danger Mouse, Damien Rice, Sufjan Stevens, or Imogene Heap just to name a few.
Those are folks who spent relatively little money on a toolbox, they took it home and locked themselves into a room and they learned to use these tools in really unique ways, and then they emerged from their rooms with something amazing and totally inspiring.
They are not all engineers in the traditional sense of the term, but I think that definition is going to change in the future due to the fact that the tools are available to so many people. These days, everyone is an engineer. I mean, if you point a mic at something and record it into something, that makes you an engineer, right?
PR: Very true. You are engineering those signals for better or worse.
If you could pick one recording you’ve done in your life that you’re either most proud of or that was just so much fun it will always be your favorite, what would it be?
TR: That's tough. I've been asked that before and don't really know the answer. I guess my twenty-plus years are kind of a blur.
I'm proud of the records I've made with an artist named Sara Groves – she is special. I am also proud of all the work I have done with Mark Heimermann. We have partnered on more projects than I can count, and we always come up with something that stands strong.
PR: I recall reading an article in Mix magazine where you worked with Ralston Bowles on the “Little Miracles” album. ( mixonline.com/recording/tracking/nashville_skyline_april_2010/ )
Can you tell us about that project and that experience?
TR: Yeah, my good friend Phil Madeira knew Ralston from way back. He had learned that Ralston had been diagnosed with cancer and wanted to help him put together a cd. Their original plan was to hire a drummer, my friend Brian Owings, to come in for a few days and lay down some basic tracks with Phil and Ralston playing guitars, and then Phil would do all of the overdubs himself. He is an amazing multi-instrumentalist.
Well, when Brian was finished with his drum tracks, Ralston wrote him a check and Brian wouldn't take it – said he wanted to help Ralston out as he faced down his cancer. That lead to Phil telling that story to a few folks and the next thing that happens was some musicians from all over Nashville, and other parts of the country, were volunteering to play on Ralston's cd.
I heard about this from Phil and immediately hopped on board to do the mixing. It's a project with some great songs and some great players like Phil Keaggy, Kenny Greenburg, Al Perkins, Micky Dolenz, Gordon Kennedy, and many others. Richard Dodd mastered the cd.
PR: That sounds like a great experience. When you travel for freelance jobs are there certain pieces of gear you always take with you? A microphone that you love, a compressor that you can’t live without, some of your favorite plugs?
TR: When recording, I will always take my pair of Coles 4038's. I love the vibe of those mics I take my pair of Sanken CU-41's as well. They are just really open and honest mics that have a great tone. I can cover a lot of ground with those 2 sets of mics and then use all of the standard mic locker mics as well.
I prefer to monitor with an Alan Smart on the stereo buss at all times, so if there is not one available, I will take that as well, and then maybe my Neve 1073's if we need a great front end.
PR: Who were some of your personal favorite clients that you‘ve worked with over the years and why?
Lately I've been working a lot with a producer named Nate Sabin up in Minneapolis/St. Paul who does great work. Also, a producer and artist named Brandon Bee up in Seatte who is really creative, and Phil Madeira here in Nashville who always knows where to find a great vibe.
PR: One thing that’s been a recurring discussion in Internet forums is the relative importance of great analog outboard gear, or as some might say, it’s inevitable obsolescence beyond microphone pre-amps. How important is other great analog outboard, EQ’s, Comps, Effects, in your opinion, or do you feel that plug-ins can take the place of those devices in post in most cases?
TR: I feel like you can get eq from a plug in, but you can't get color, air, or depth like you can from a great analog eq. You can get compression from a plug in, but you can't get grit, snap, or saturation like you can from a great analog compressor. A lot of plug ins all sound the same to me too, so the palette is very limited.
PR: I think we’d probably agree that one thing which separates a really good tracking environment from a smaller typical project studio with limited or substandard space is a space for recording drums. A great drum sound is often an elusive target for many of our readers. Can you tell us a little about your recording space and walk us through a typical setup for recording drums in your room with your gear?
TR: Well, my drum room is medium-sized and not hugely ambient, but it works well with the kit and has a nice tone which is very important. It is rectangular shape with a ceiling that slopes at an odd angle to the floor, and the walls are not exactly parallel, but close. I also have large gobos that are reflective on one side and dead on the other, so I can dial the sound in with those as well. I also have large heavy "theater" curtains I can pull in if I really want to be dead.
I don't know that I have a "typical" drum set up per se, but for an example, my last session had my Coles on the overheads in what I call a "Ringo" setup where they are on a stereo bar on one stand that comes over the drummers head to where the mics are lined up kind of over the kick drum pedal. These go into my Calrec pres and a DBX162. Then I had an EV868 that I love on the kick and and SM57 on the snare that both go into my Neves as a pre and some eq, but I don't compress those when I record. If I need to mic the toms, I use 57's on them as well into my Calrec rack with some compression and eq as well.
Then I set up my Sankens in an ORTF configuration and put them in front of the kit, about even with the top of kick and about 3 or 4 feet off the kick. These hit the Calrec rack as well and also a pair of Distressor for a heavy dose of limiting to bring in the sound of the room in aggressive fashion. I also had an old ham radio mic in there in the middle of the kit and that was getting smashed by a Distressor to added some grit and grunge to the sound.
That's all one way to go about it, but sometime my setup is radically different, with say a mono overhead or maybe my Sankens as an overhead pair for a more hi-fi sound, or something like that. It just depends on the song and what we have envisioned for it, and what role the drums will play.
PR: Do you typically use very heavy or parallel compression on drum tracks and is that processing generally done on the way in during tracking, in the box in post, or both? Tell me what’s on your typical drum bus.
TR: I don't do much parallel compression. I know that is all the rage right now in all the magazines and web forums, but I don't use it that often. When recording drums, I usually have a few mics that are strategically placed and doing some pretty radical sounds with eq and compression that I like to blend in with the kit, so I guess I do it on the way in.
In mixing, I usually strap my Neve 1073's across my drum buss and then an old DBX 162. I don't hit the compression hard at all, it's just tapping the needle at a 1.5:1 or a 2:1 ratio, but it adds a really nice snap the kit when you find its sweet spot. It likes to see a lot of level, so I push the level into it really hard and then turn the threshold up high so it is barely ticking the compressor circuit.
PR: We’ve chatted a lot over at 3db (Lynn Fuston’s audio forum) and I gather that a good deal of your work is with rockers or genres leaning toward those kinds of arrangements with lots of guitars and real drums as opposed to sample libraries being used prominently in some other genres.
How do you approach getting that really big stacked guitar sound that’s prevalent on some rock recordings?
TR: That sound starts with the amps, the mics, the pres, and the recording process. There is nothing worse than a project that goes for that sound and misses it due to bad sounds or bad recording, because it is so hard to make it happen in the mix without good source tracks. In recording, we work really hard with amp tones, guitars, and pedals to get the layers we need. I also employ a lot of different mics and a lot of different pres to get the colors we need. It's important to get a lot of separation between the parts tone-wise. It is not something you want to attempt with one guitar, one amp, one mic, and one pre. It won't happen that way.
In mixing, compression plays a big role, but it doesn't require a lot of compression, just strategic compression . I also like to check my mix in mono on a single speaker to make sure the guitars that are panned out wide will stand strong in mono. That is a good sign that you have a good strong left/right energy going without any phase issues.
Mastering is crucial too. Some mastering guys are really good at keeping that huge left/right stacked thing going strong and even enhancing it in a good way, while others are really good and making it go away and sound more mono. I tend to frequent the former and shun the latter…
PR: What kind of track counts are you looking at generally speaking for songs on what you might consider a large rock mix?
TR: Usually, the fewer tracks, the bigger it sounds, as long as everything is well thought out and well recorded. That's where great production technique and experience seems to really come into play. Unfortunately there are still a lot of guys who think for some reason 100+ tracks will automatically give them a better chance to turn them into a gargantuan sounding mix, when realistically they would be better off 50 tracks that are more thought out, or even 25 if they would take a second look at their thought process and refine their technique.
I would say on most mixes I do for other folks, they send me an average of somewhere between 48 to 64 tracks. On projects I am recording or producing, I would consider 32 tracks to be a lot. I commit to a lot of sounds as they go down.
PR: Do you have a standard process for mixing or do you generally play it by ear?
I do have to stick to a somewhat standardized setup on the hardware side of things because I do so much mixing for folks out of town who email me and ask me to do tweaks to their mixes here and there. I need to be able to quickly recall mixes and not spend half my day re-configuring different mix setups. I sum through a Folcrom summing box, and then hit a variety of different pres on the back end, depending on the sound I am going for, and then hit my Alan Smart for some stereo buss compression. Other than that, I have my outboard gear setup where I can easily patch it in if it is needed, so I just start listening to the song and find out what it needs. I do not import the same template as a starting point for every mix or anything like that.
PR: Most engineers I’ve talked to are nearly unanimous in their opinion that mixing tracks they’ve actually recorded is usually much easier. While some of that may be related to sonic issues that have to be dealt with, sub-standard tracking from someone recording at home and those kinds of things, some of it seems to rest on very poor housekeeping.
What might you suggest to our readers as relates to housekeeping if they were sending you their songs to mix?
TR: Well labeled tracks are a good start. Then just send me the stuff I need. I don't need your scratch vocal and the 300 passes of guitar solos that lead to the final take. Clean it up and just send the necessities. It's also nice to know the sample rate, the tempo, mix notes, and things like that outside of the session file or the audio files, maybe as a an email or a .pdf or something. That way I know what I am loading in.
The other thing that always gets cumbersome is getting 3 or 4 tracks that comprise one mono guitar sound. Some guys will mic up a cabinet with 3 or 4 mics on the cabinet and then send me all of those to blend together on my end. Multiply that out across a half dozen or so guitar parts and that is a lot of tracks to deal with.
Surely somewhere along the way you have hit on a blend that is working… I like to commit to sounds like that as they go down.
Sure, mic it up with as many mics as you like, but record it down to a single track and commit to your sound. Obviously room mics will need to be kept separate though. And if you attempt that multiple mic method, read up about the phase and comb filtering issues that will come along with it…
PR: Great advice. Thanks. What the longest amount of time you’ve ever spent mixing a single song, your personal record marathon mixdown?
TR: Five days on one song. This was pre automation days on a mix that had an insane amount of tracks in a studio with a very small console. We had 2 or 3 sidecar consoles running alongside a 40 input main console, and mountains upon mountains of outboard gear. It was all about getting through the intro, then getting through the first verse, then getting through the first chorus, and on and on and on for hours and hours and hours.
Then we had to take all of those pieces off of the 1/2" analog and edit them into a complete song. Insane… We had 4 guys manning all the faders, spent the first day getting sounds, and the the other 4 days running the song section by section.
PR: Do you also perform mastering services or do you prefer to hand off projects to mastering engineers?
TR: I do not do any mastering. That to me is a different set of tools and a different skill set. I always send the mix off to a dedicated mastering engineer.
PR: Assuming you’re talking directly to an auditorium full of young digital audio workstation owners, all of whom are looking for a career as an audio engineer, what would you tell them?
TR: Well, I've got a lot of funny stories that I have experienced over the years that I could tell them. That would be far more entertaining than me trying to hand out advice, cuz I don't have clue on how I would begin my career were I to start from square one all over again in today's climate versus what it was twenty years ago.
In a way, the music business today is kind of like the Wild West where you can make your own rules up as you go along, so be prepared to work hard and find a set of rules you can invent that will get you where you want to go…
TR: Sounds like very good advice… thank you very much Mr. Robbins.