Knowledge Bank

news category created 5 March 2011 written by Mick Glossop

Peter Cobbin, Abbey Road engineer – a masterclass

 

With a love of detail and passion for experimenting, Peter Cobbin is a world renowned recording engineer known for his work on an array of impressive projects ranging from The Beatles’ Anthology to The King’s Speech and Harry Potter film series. Here the Abbey Road veteran imparts his 11-point plan for recording success

While recent weeks have seen The King’s Speech enjoy a wealth of BAFTA and Oscar acclaim, Tom Hooper’s film about King George VI overcoming a stutter has also been the target of criticism over its debatable historical accuracy.

But with an attention to detail and love of breaking down barriers with both state-of-the-art technology and vintage equipment, Peter Cobbin added a remarkable historical element to the recording and mixing of Alexandre Desplat’s score for the film.

As Abbey Road’s senior engineer for the past 16 years Cobbin has worked on numerous projects, taking in everything from mixing The Beatles Anthology series to producing scores and soundtracks to The Lord of The Rings and Harry Potter movies.

By Cobbin’s standards, Desplat’s score for The King’s Speech was a small project, but nonetheless he could not resist seeking out, repairing and using the very microphones that were manufactured by EMI for the Royal Family, including George VI himself.

Some 12 years ago Cobbin discovered the microphones in a dusty corner of EMI’s Heathrow archive. “It was a bit of a process getting them out and over to Abbey Road,” he admits. “Initially I just thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great, even if the microphones are just eye candy, to have them in the studio to inspire the director when he comes in.’ But I went one step further and our marvellous mic technician here got three working.

“Tom [Hooper] couldn’t believe what he was hearing, they were in some way connecting the old world of the 1930s; we were blending in the old mics, and the sound is woven into the score.”

Over the years Cobbin has worked with some of the world’s most successful bands, producers and composers while embracing new technology alongside old. His work has seen him pioneer 5.1 surround sound recording and mixing techniques on projects ranging from U2’s Live from Slane Castle and Lennon: Legend while also taking the time to handle the design and implementation of Abbey Road’s successful audio plug-in reproductions, including the vintage TG12413 limiter, the RS127 EQ box and the RS124 valve compressor.

Cobbin grew up in a musical family in Australia and he still remembers the day when, aged only six, he saw a studio technician on TV and immediately realised he wanted to be involved in recording music.

By the age of 15 he was using his home as a makeshift recording studio.

“I had my school friends collect egg cartons so I could make a four-track recording in my bedroom – these were my first clients and my parent’s house was my first studio. The experiences helped me understand the basic principles of recording music. If I wanted ambience we went into the kitchen, the lounge for piano and the bathroom for vocals,” smiles Cobbin.

Currently working on the score for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, Cobbin has come a long way since those early days and while continuing to balance his love of both classical and contemporary music his passion for detail and experimenting clearly remains undiminished.

“It’s important to push the boundaries and push the comfort zone. There is a danger that in doing the job and performing the task you can stop smelling the roses of opportunity, but by looking over the edge you might find something that will contribute something new and vital to a project,” says Cobbin.

With decades of recording experience taking on clients from Donavan to Duffy, Danny Elfman to David Gray, Cobbin is perfectly placed to conduct the latest in our series of music industry masterclasses. Naturally Cobbin could not resist taking the traditional 10-point format, pushing the boundaries a little, and turning it up to 11.

1 LISTEN TO MUSIC AND MAKE GOOD COFFEE

Lots of people ask me how they can get into the business. I always tell them they have got to listen to music – you simply can not do what I do if you don’t have an understanding or have a relationship with music. A successful recording engineer must be immersed in music.

A good engineer is innately musical. If you write music, continue to write; if you enjoy gigs, keep going to them. One of the things that easily drops off when you start doing music professionally is listening to music because it becomes a day job.

A love of music may have been a catalyst for wanting this job, but to develop an ongoing interest in many genres – and how they sound – is invaluable. Know what good rock sounds like and know what good chamber music is. Find whatever it is that rocks you boat and enjoy listening to it.

2 CREATE REFERENCES

Just as young artists will go to galleries, buy prints and build up a sense of what works with them and what doesn’t, a budding recording engineer must build a sonic imprint of what sounds good. At a young age I saved up to buy a good pair of speakers, which I became familiar with.

Listening to different recordings on the same speakers helped me understand the possibilities that could be found in shaping music. These became a reference and when I started working in studios I would take these to see how they sounded compared to other speakers. Terminology like muddy, bass-heavy, open, wide, bright, muffled, punchy and soggy start to mean something. Developing an appreciation of why the music you listen to sounds like it does.

3 GET YOUR FOOT IN THE STUDIO DOOR

Jobs as a recording engineer don’t drop out of the tree. Despite the many courses available for young people to study music and technology, only a handful of these will offer work placements or internships. You have to be persuasive, persistent, determined and keen. You have to communicate to someone your interest in wanting to work in a studio. I wrote to almost every recording studio in Australia – most didn’t reply but a year later these studios, Rhino (INXS) and 301 (EMI), offered me interviews. Don’t be backward – people will let you know if you are pissing them off.

4 COMMUNICATE WELL

Half the job is about having a love of music and trying to improve your own musicality and the other half is about communicating.

Don’t hide behind the gear – it is there to facilitate your job, not to be the sole focus of it. It is paramount from day one, even as a young assistant, that you are engaging in what is happening in the control room and visually relating to what is going on around you because sometimes we are communicating via body language and it’s vital that you are tuned in to the vibe of the situation.

When I have visitors in Studio One or Three at Abbey Road the large desk dominates the room and it looks like it is the focus of what I do. But it is really just a tool – what I am really doing is communicating to the other side of the glass to let people know what is going on. It is important to be able to eloquently communicate and encourage people to get a better performance.

Sometimes it doesn’t matter how seasoned or experienced the musician is; they can be vulnerable in a recording environment and it is your job to communicate how things are going and how you can go about achieving the best result. What we do may be technical but it isn’t rocket science, so don’t let the technology be a hindrance to good clear communication.

5 BE A SPONGE – GET TO KNOW YOUR TOOLS

You can only learn so much from books and you can only have so much instruction from courses – you need hands-on experience to progress. It’s impossible to drive a car from just reading the handbook.

Becoming conversant with whatever equipment you use means that you can concentrate more on listening. Spend time when you are not under pressure to explore equipment so that it becomes familiar when you need to use it. I worked in a studio where I could see many styles of production and approach – I watched many engineers use the same limiter, all with different results. Absorb as much as you can. Over time you will find what works for you. Don’t be afraid to adapt and develop your own methods.

Making a recording is building on a foundation of blocks that will enable you to build up the type of work. There is no way that I could produce some of the large-scale film scores that I do without all the understanding and years of experience I have of putting together the many involved components that go into being able to do that. There isn’t a tutorial on how to produce a film score in surround sound and a soundtrack in stereo at the same time – that has come from building on my experiences and not being afraid to ask for appraisal.

6 BE AWARE OF THE PERSONALITIES INVOLVED

Recording shouldn’t be seen as a standard operation. You might use the same mics or the same desk and the same software, but you will need to respond differently to a situation depending on the performance and the performer.

A band has not only a collective vibe but is made of individual personalities. An orchestra is a powerful cohesive ensemble but the string section of 60 players has a different personality to a brass section of 10. When I was mixing a concert for U2, the band turned up to listen and thought the mixes were great, other than Bono wanted more vocal, Adam wanted the bass driven riffs left as is, Larry could have used more drums and the Edge was happy to accommodate all of this with a bit more guitar!

7 FIND THE TIME TO PUSH AND EXPERIEMENT

Under pressure is not the most convenient time to experiment, so set aside time to do so. If you think a mix sounds good, try pushing it over until the red is too red or the yellow too bright; find the boundaries of what you consider acceptable then go some more.

Our industry has always benefited from pioneers who wanted to see what’s beyond the edge. I have had the great privilege of listening to almost all The Beatles’ multi-track master tapes. You can hear the ways in which these keen young guys were pushing the boundaries.

Discovering what happens if you put a dynamic microphone right up next to the strings of a violin, then doing that with a quartet, and so coming up with the string sound on Eleanor Rigby which had never been heard before – they were not being content for one thing to sound the same and that meant pushing the comfort zone of the system even down to the hours they worked. In turn this inspired our technicians at Abbey Road to build boxes of equipment that previously didn’t exist.

8 LESS IS MORE

Compelling music can be sparse. The sound of a bare, bone-dry vocal can feel like a singer is in your head where the nuances of breathing and lips moving can evoke intimacy. The sound of an instrument trailing in the decays of warm reflected surfaces of a hall can evoke space and distance. It seems easier to add than to subtract. Taking away or reducing elements can create space for another to shine. Having more of something is often best achieved by making less of other components at the same time; understanding the interplay of the music’s functions, rhythm, melody and harmony and becoming skilled at the interplay of sound and frequency. The need to make a vocal poke out more can be achieved by reducing lower frequencies.

9 SEE THE BIG PICTURE BUT ENJOY THE DETAIL

Like any artist, it is easy to get bogged down in detail. Personally I love it. I love using delays when I record and mix – it is possible to create an impression, an illusion, by building a depth of field and spatial width. I also love 6.8khz – one of the finest frequencies invented.

But immersing oneself in detail must be kept in the frame of the big picture.

Obsessing over minor details needs to be seen and understood in context. A film mix of cinematic underscore should have a different priority to the opening titles with little or no sound design. When I was remixing some of John Lennon’s songs I had Yoko Ono’s blessing to obsess in the detail of his vocal. She believes the lyrics, the message, are the paramount element of the song. John as an artist was surprisingly shy about his own voice and would often cloud it with effects, so there were times when it was appropriate within the context of the mix to spend time working on small details.

10 THERE’S MORE TO LIFE THAN BRICK WALLS

As you mature in the job, it is important to keep listening. Making time for young people’s ideas and opinions to be heard is a really good and healthy thing. I don’t want to sound like an old fart, but I’m sceptical when I hear the phrase, ‘It’s not like the good old days.’ But I will say this; it is possible as an engineer to contribute to a legacy that can enrich people’s lives, and that’s without overstating it – music has that ability to move people and if it is executed well it can enrich people’s lives.

At a young age we all learn how to turn the music up. Today’s engineers have a responsibility to make the technical standards of the music we create long lasting. We run the risk of squashing the life and dynamic out of the very recording we try to capture by worrying how loud it is, and that is short-sighted. Allow someone else to turn it up to 11 on playback rather than make our masters obscenely loud.

11TEAM UP

It is impossible to learn the skills and craft and engage as a professional recording engineer without collaborating.

A good engineer will want to work as part of a larger team. Large-scale recordings cannot happen without collaboration and at Abbey Road I have the best team of young engineers, assistants and runners anywhere. While I will receive credit for work that I produce, it is not possible to do it in isolation and without the skills and expertise they contribute.

 

(original story: by Christopher Barrett in Music Week, March 5, 2010)

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