In the modern world of immersive audio capabilities, knowing how to automate mix parameters is essential.
Let me focus on the paradigm shift in the mixing world—immersive audio. It’s been coming quietly for a long time, and I believe it might just survive the bleached-bone-littered landscape of previous multi-channel mixing technology incarnations that were left for dead and never destined for success, like Quad and 5.1 surround sound.
Unless it’s a live recording and you’re being true to the original audience experience, I’ve never really been that enthralled with the “static mixing” mindset—where once the instruments are placed in the stereo field, they never move—as has been the case on the vast majority of records over the last several decades. Especially when one considers immersive audio and the vast amount of possibilities to place and move musical elements of a song in space over time, listening to static mixes seems, well … boring. Granted, my attention span is shorter than a ferret’s on espresso, but c’mon folks, we’re 20-plus years into the new millennium. Onward!
The Good News
With the ever-evolving immersive audio environment and renderers, and breakthroughs in HRTF (head-related transfer function) technology, now more than ever we are able to experience decoded, folded-down 7.1.4 spatial audio mixes in a binaural audio format through a regular pair of headphones (or earbuds). Finally, we’re making progress.
With this in mind, your automation skills need to be on point in order to take full advantage of these new possibilities. This time, I’d like to highlight core types of automation for you to start employing (regardless of your DAW) to add some new dimension within your mixes. Tighten up your belts, the dojo is now open.
All Hands on Deck
I suppose you could say automation has been around and available to mixing engineers since the first time multiple pairs of hands were on a console and engineers were choreographing fader rides as the mix printed. One of my favorite, extreme examples of this is the classic, smash hit “I’m Not in Love” by 10cc, released in 1975. Remember all those gorgeous pads? Those chords were created by having the group sing “ah” multiple times, which created a 48-voice “choir” for each one of the 12 notes of the chromatic scale. With the tape machine looping the 12 tracks of “ah”s, the band rode the console’s volume faders for each track to create the appropriate chord progressions.
By the end of the decade, Brad Plunkett and Dave Harrison’s Flying Faders came online and allowed installed motorized faders to be automated by a dedicated computer. We still use this technology on our Neve 8078 console here at Blackbird Studios.
By the early ’90s, DAWs offered comprehensive automation capabilities within the program itself that spanned from volume and panning to console settings, MIDI data, and now, plugin settings for spatial audio parameters.
Latch or Touch
Let’s start with top-level volume automation choices. These are perhaps the most important to your overall mix, and there are various ways of writing volume automation. DAWs can vary in number of options, but most feature the five following choices: off, write, read, touch, and latch. The first three are very intuitive—don’t play back the automation, write it, or play it back. But what is the difference between “touch” and “latch?” It’s important to know, especially since this can be applied to every kind of automation parameter, such as advanced things like effect sends, MIDI data, and plugin controls that allow every parameter to be automated. I use “touch” for highly nuanced fader rides and “latch” for more general maneuvers.
“Now more than ever, we are able to experience decoded, folded down 7.1.4 spatial audio mixes in a binaural audio format through a regular pair of headphones.”
After your initial “write” pass, “touch” automation plays back any previously written automation and only writes over it when you touch or move the fader, and upon release. It then immediately goes back to reading the previous automation.
In contrast, “latch” reads and writes automation similarly, but once a fader is released, it overwrites any previous automation and stays (or “latches”) at the point where the fader was released. This can be useful if you need to have certain sections higher or lower in volume, or are using effects sends. But remember, as soon as you let go of the fader, it’s going to keep overwriting all previous automation!
Universal Audio’s LUNA DAW adds another level of fine control by adding the “trim” option, which allows you to reduce or increase the overall level of an automation pass while still preserving the underlying automation. This is helpful when you need to do stem bounces, vocal up/vocal down mixes, etc.Now you know the main differences of writing automation and can let your imagination go wild by experimenting with automating every possible parameter available in your DAW—from MIDI to soft synths to all your plugins. Until next time, namaste.
The background of Elk Guitars is as intriguing as its oddball models, which are now rarities on the vintage market.
Okay, so what if I told you that the intersection of a love for country music, a hunter’s magazine, and a dentist led to the start of one of the legendary Japanese guitar lines of the 1960s and ’70s? Well, read on good people, and let me spin the yarn of Elk Guitars!
“He liked the simple name and realized that the word ‘elk,’ written in English or Japanese, is only three characters. And so, the ‘Elk’ brand was born.”
Started in 1963 by Yukiho Yamada, the company was originally called Miyuki Industries and focused on the production of electric guitar amps. Yamada was a fine guitar player and was fiddling around with amp designs for his own onstage use. The company gained a solid reputation by making 35- and 45-watt amps using the “Echo” brand name. Then, around July 1965, they started making electric guitars, which coincided with the electric guitar boom and the Beatles creating musical shockwaves around the world.
Yamada had a passion for Western-style music, and had an older brother who would play records for him like “Oh My Darling, Clementine” and the theme from Stagecoach. He also grew up during American occupation and was influenced by music played on the Far East Network radio station, or FEN. His taste for country music matched his love for the outdoors and the idea of hunting, and, while perusing a foreign hunting magazine, he came across a photo of an elk. He liked the simple name and realized that the word “elk,” written in English or Japanese, is only three characters. And so, the “Elk” brand was born.
Yamada was adamant from the start that his guitars be of professional quality, and he researched everything from tonewoods to pickup designs to truss rods. Before he started electric guitar production in earnest, Yamada bought a Fender Jaguar, which was a very expensive purchase in Japan at that time. His aforementioned older brother happened to be a dentist, and, using X-rays, he helped study the truss rod and other components of the Jaguar without having to destroy it (as was done to a few Mosrite guitars at that time).
Armed with this knowledge, Yamada began producing some fine guitars. Rather than mass-producing, he kept production low to maintain quality. One of the first solidbody electrics was the Elk Country, which arrived sometime in 1966. In our photo, we can see a few of the hallmarks of Elk guitars. The shrimp-tail headstock and the Elk vibrato are common on many of the models. The vibrato was an in-house design that was made at the amplifier factory. These units work so well, and pair up nicely with the adjustable bridge and tuners.
Now, check out the Jaguar-ish pickups, which are relatively good copies of actual Jaguar pickups. Yamada’s uncle, who was working at an electronics factory in Haneda, took apart the original Jaguar pickup and discovered the use of alnico, which is what gives Elk guitars a great sound that’s full, percussive, and clear. The Country guitar was one of the weirder offerings from the catalog, and didn’t have a very long production run. But you can still see the Jaguar influences in the electronics array that had a volume and tone knob, and two mini switches for the pickup selection. The body has a slightly offset design combined with some exaggerated contours, and this guitar just speaks to my love of the oddballs.
Elk guitars were only really sold and marketed in Japan, so finding a good example is difficult. Adding to the rarity is that almost every one of the Elk or Miyuki logos have simply disintegrated over time, leaving only an oval-shaped bare spot on the headstock. The first Elk guitar I ever came across was a very fine straight-up Jaguar copy, which suffered from the missing logo. It took me a few years to figure out the origin of that guitar, and I suspect some of these Elks puzzled others as well.
Elk electric guitar production continued on through the 1970s, featuring mostly copies of Fender, Mosrite, Gibson, and Gretsch designs. The company was endlessly experimenting with ways to improve the product. There are so many funny stories that have been shared with me, mostly by the excellent author Hiroyuki Noguchi. He interviewed some of the original engineers of the day, and they told him about how they used maple slats from old bowling lanes to experiment with laminate, and how they studied public bathhouse soap dishes to learn about celluloid and pickguards! But perhaps the funniest story is how Yamada came upon the “Elk” name. How’s that for a convoluted tale?
When it comes to electric guitar materials, choose the wood that looks good.
Nothing raises the hackles of electric-guitar players like the subject of tonewoods. Maybe that’s why I like to talk about the subject. Unlike many, I enjoy being proven wrong, and believe me when I tell you that, despite my decades of experience, it happens on a regular basis. And despite what may appear to be factual science, there’s also something that can change one’s opinion on matters that don’t get discussed: The practical application of the matter at hand.
Of course, we can all agree on the importance of wood selection in the construction of acoustic instruments. Presumably, this is because there are no pickups involved. The difference between a Sitka spruce- and cedar-topped acoustic should be obvious to most ears. After all, there’s no electronic conversion happening there, it’s just the pure interaction of the wood and strings. On the other hand, when it comes to electric guitars, we’ve all witnessed the transformation that a great set of pickups can lend to a solidbody guitar. This allows us to focus on the nature of electric guitar tone, and where it actually comes from.
There have been endless discussions about how a particular pickup brand’s product has rescued someone’s lackluster guitar, turning it into their No. 1. The opposite is true as well. Either way, anecdotal evidence would suggest that tone comes from pickups. Tests have been devised to eliminate the wood of the electric guitar to prove that pickups alone are responsible for the frequency signature of steel strings. The test rig in question is the Dan Armstrong Lucite guitar. Unfortunately, the only pickups found in these guitars are—you guessed it—Dan Armstrong pickups. But I digress.
What I’m really driving at here is that I’ve come to the conclusion that tonewoods don’t matter. Not that they don’t change the sound of your guitar, but that they simply don’t matter, and that’s okay with me. There are so many elements to guitar tone (with no consensus on what is good, bad, better, or best) that wood simply doesn’t factor into it anymore.
“Tests have been devised to eliminate the wood of the electric guitar to prove that pickups alone are responsible for the frequency signature of steel strings.”
The fact is, many guitar makers assume that you are going to switch out the pickups regardless of what handwringing they do to select what goes into your guitar. This frees up builders to choose the least expensive path or lean heavily on name recognition when stocking their inventory. Or they can offer a smorgasbord of choices to their clients, allowing buyers to feel confident in their purchase. I chuckle at the hours of testing I’ve done to determine which recipe works with this or that model guitar, only to have the customer swap out the pickups anyway. This is, as a good friend of mine puts it, the buyer “putting their own stink on it.”
So, I think that we should look at wood selection for an electric guitar exactly like we would when purchasing (or commissioning) fine furniture. A dining room table works just fine regardless of what beautiful wood you select. It’s going to be the meals and the company of friends that you enjoy—the wood just enhances the mood. A handmade recliner will be just as comfy made from bubinga as it would be if fashioned from curly cherry. And so on. It’s the artistic expression of the builder and an aesthetic choice for the owner. It’s the exact same thing with a guitar.
So, it doesn’t matter if I tell you that a lightweight, chambered white limba guitar will have more air, or that a genuine mahogany will sound fatter. You are going to choose with the greatest, most important sensibility you have—your eyes. Then, after the honeymoon period is over, you can start swapping out pickups and finetuning the tone capacitors and bridge alloys.
You’d think that this might bother or disappoint builders, but I suggest that more of them just get over it and give the customer what they want, regardless of the why. In the end, this benefits everyone. Builders are relieved of the need to ear-test a zillion permutations of Strat, Jazzmaster, P-90, or PAF-style pickups and can focus on delivering a beautiful, well-crafted instrument that looks and plays great. So, there is my new take on the tonewoods and pickup debate. I was wrong, and still am. But at least I understand the new normal. And for those who still think wood makes tone, I’ll be here for you.