"There is no failures,
there is chances to learn!"
Although professionally he is usually overshadowed by the artists who employ him, in Los Angeles, where he lives and works, he does not need to be introduced to anyone...
IRKO, Multi Platinum Award Winnig Audio Engineer, who for years has been successfully combining the digital and analogue world, drew my attention with his deep love for Hip Hop music, pristine production quality, and the unusual sound of bass and high frequencies, which are his hallmarks...
Despite his young age, the list of artists with whom he worked is long and impressive. We can find there:
Jay Z, Snoop Dogg, Pitbull, Kanye West, Jennifer Lopez, Bizzy Bone from Bone Thugs N Harmony, Jackie Jackson from the Jackson 5 and more...
Today we will talk about living behind the console. About the tasks, goals and challenges of an audio engineer. About what is important in this work. About home recording and also about some tools, microphones (miking techniques), equalizers, compressors and everything that allows him to breathe after many hours of hard working on the project...
Adrian Lucas Witaszczyk: Hi IRKO! Great to have you here! Ok, the first and probably not an easy question. What is sound, as understood by a sound engineer? How do you perceive the sound?
IRKO: Hi Adrian! It's nice to be here! Oh, that's interesting. To me, I see, I feel and I visualize sound as a solid, maybe that's strange, but, it's one of those things where, after years and years of manipulating audio, it becomes like something real, like a substance. So, sometimes I describe audio like it’s sitting this way or that way… You know what I mean? It's like a physical thing. So yes. I guess it definitely has a body to me.
And how do you see music? Is it frequencies? Feelings? Maybe images?
Yeah, all of the above. I wouldn't say images like a landscape, but it's definitely energy. It's also frequencies, but that's secondary. The solid thing, that I talked about before, something like an actual, physical thing. Also I visualize the space as a container that I need to fill up with my mix. But, yes, it's also feelings, definitely. There's a lot of communication in music and audio.
Can you still listen to music without the prism of your profession?
That's really difficult. I have to actually disconnect my audio knowledge every time. Yeah. It's always there, you known how people usually say, “once you see it, you can't unsee it”, Yup it’s like that...
An audio engineer is an essential link in a recording studio and yet relatively little is said about this job… Young people want to be either mix or mastering engineers, why?
Yeah, it's interesting. You need to have the right personality for this, because you are dealing with celebrities and the fame and everything, but you're not the famous one. And you're in control of a lot of music related things of course, the mix, the audio, but at the same time you're not an artist. So there's a little bit of a dual identity. You need to be able to want to provide the best possible audio, but at the same time you need to also be ready to be a behind the scenes kind of guy. So it's a little tricky. I don't know why a lot of people want to do that. Often times I get these questions like: “Hey, I'm a producer, but I want to be a mixing engineer.” And my answer to that is always like: “Why the hell would you want to be a mixing engineer, when you can produce your own music?” But that's just my take. It's also a cool job to have, you know, working in the music industry has always been cool.
Yeah, people often think that a producer does everything that an engineer doesn't want to do…
Sometimes you'd get in situations in which the mixing engineer is a wannabe producer and couldn't do that. And then you have the opposite too, where you have the producer that wants to be a mixing engineer but doesn't know how to do it. Music is a team sport and it's all about having everybody give their best. And usually, yes, there's got to be good communication. It's like marriage.
Why did you decide to become an audio/mixing engineer?
I often say that I feel like mixing was been created for my personality instead of the other way around. That's clearly not true, but I feel like with mixing I can bring together my nerdyness, my attention to detail and various aspects of my personality, as well as my artistic vision to it. So to me, it is the perfect match. It is just exactly what I needed, in
order to express myself artistically, but also be nerdy. And of course, work in music, which is something that I've always wanted to do.
How did you start? Your first moves and first successes in the industry?
Well, I started in Europe. I was born and raised in Italy, so that's where I made my first steps. And that was actually very advantageous for me because I got to pretty much experience the music business in a nutshell, like in a very, very small format. Small town or in a big city, it's all the same. The numbers are just bigger. Everything is amplified in a big place like LA. Learning and developing in a little town and then take it to the next step was very important... But, you asked about my first moves and first successes in the industry. Well, first moves was definitely Dj'ing and producing, creating like a little home studio in my dad's basement and things like that. Little steps that were the blue print to
get to a bigger platform called America.
And what about failures?
There is no failures. There is chances to learn!
Tasks, goals and challenges in this profession?
Well, that's really difficult to answer because in my line of work, there's a lot of things that must happen, but they are completely unrelated to one another. To give you an example, you must be very, very good with computers of course. But then you also have to be really, really good with communication, the two are unrelated. Of course you need to know
music, but then at the same time you need to be an entrepreneur and be able to sell yourself. Again, not really the same thing. There's very different, I don't want to say hats, but definitely different aspects of this profession that needs to be able to coexist to create good results. That's the goal and the challenge at the same time.
Do you work as a sound engineer only in the studio, or also on concert live tours?
I have always been very fascinated by the studio life. I don't particularly care for concerts very much. It never sounds good. I need to stand. It's not stereo, so no, I have only done studio stuff. I’m a studio rat!
How did you get to LA?
For any European, America equals New York City but that’s not really true. I never thought of LA, until a client flew me out here for a session and, to dramatize the story I can say that I never came back. It wasn't really like that, but you know, I fell in love with this city and made the move.
Some of the basic tools of your work are microphones, cables and preamps. But I want to concentrate on microphones. Do you ever use some strange, rare or unusual microphones? For example gun microphones or boundary pressure zone microphones? Tell me about the most unusual microphone that you have used on an album?
I don't really mess around during recording sessions unless the client asks about using this microphone or that microphone, then, of course I'm open to it. But for the most part, when I'm in the studio and the clock is ticking, there's a lot of money that's been spent and the artist is nervous. I'm nervous and we’re on a crunch, you know, we're talking about places that are very, very expensive. I tend to not really like get too artsy about things. Of course, over the decades, I have collected a very big toolbox of techniques and of course microphones, as well, that I can use whenever I see fit. But rare stuff, I mean, yeah, I've done some stuff like, using a PZM microphones outside or without the wall behind it, or maybe put the microphone all the way up in the corner, or I dangle them left to right while recording, you know, these things. Usually, it's fun to test out, but also I've got to keep in mind that I have my client's interest at heart, as the first place.
Recording vocals with dynamic microphones is an issue that always arouses lively discussions, how do you see it? Do you really use condenser microphones to record vocals in the studio so often? I ask about this because today everyone talks mostly about condensers, while a lot of great vocalists successfully used a dynamic microphone in the studio... Bono uses dynamics, Dave Gahan, Maynard James Keenan, Anthony Kiedis, Brian Johnson, James Hetfield...
Yeah, also Prince, absolutely. I would say, the way I like to approach vocal recording is to have one of each type of microphones. A ribbon, a condenser or tube, and a dynamic, and see whichever sounds good for the vocal. The first one, the main one vocal track will be recorded with the better sounding one, or the biggest sounding microphone. And then the
secondary vocals, so, anything that's like doubles or things like that, will be the second choice microphones. And you will be surprised. Sometimes it's a ribbon, sometimes it's a tube. There's really no way to know besides a proper test.
That’s true, and dynamic microphones usually works better with screams and growls…
Yes. And also on guitar cabinets, I pretty much stopped using anything else but the SM57 on cabinets because, I find myself only using that. So, why bother with anything else?
So, where in terms of sound is the biggest difference between condenser and dynamic microphones?
I would say the texture of it. It's hard to describe the word texture, but it's pretty much like the density of the signal that's coming on of it. There's more information usually with condenser microphones, and on dynamics there's usually less, but there's usually also less or not enough dynamics on the recordings, so, you know, it depends. I would say, test it out on whatever you are to record and see what the best fit is. You will be surprised sometimes. Just make sure that you use the same preamps and the same take, to make your decision.
On which types of vocals would you use a ribbon microphone?
If someone has a very rusty voice or maybe a thin voice, like a girl, like a young girl or a kid, something like that. But, then, some of the times it works on a boomy voices too. You know, it really depends. It's funny.
If you were to explain to my readers what, in the sense of the obtained final sound, the ribbon microphone differs from the condenser microphone?
If they have any kind of photography background, they can get the example of how it’s similar to use different lenses.
You can take the same picture, but of course with different settings you have different focus, or different colors, different warmth, different width and things like that. So that could be an explanation. Another explanation would be the difference between driving a car that's a front wheel drive or rear wheel drive or all wheel drive, same thing, right? More or less, but, the power is transmitted to different parts of the car and therefore it behaves in a different way. It’s similar to that. It's a bit difficult to explain. The best way to understand this is to sit down and do a proper microphone shootout.
The piano..... the best ways to achieve great piano sound?
I would definitely go for a stereo technique so that you can capture the width of the instrument, depending on the size of the piano, of course. If it's a large Grand Coda there's a lot of wood, that resonates, there's a lot of energy there, so it will be best to step back a little bit and to get all of that air coming out from around the piano. Of course this depends on the room that the piano is sitting in, but for the most part I would do something like that. If it's a smaller piano, then I will probably try to make sure that I can get the microphones are placed so that the image is as stereo as possible. Of course, these are all general indications. If, for whatever reason the song calls for a mono piano, well then all of this goes out the door, you know, I then would approach it differently. But, all acoustic instruments, generally benefit from capturing the air around them rather than doing a close miking technique.
Your favorite microphone stereo techniques?
It will be XY probably, or maybe like AB. It depends on the applications of course. But the XY, it's very useful because it's completely mono compatible and I like that.
Your all time favorite microphone?
It will probably be, the AK 47, I think. Because for the price, it gives you very, very thick sounding vocal. So yes, it is cheaper sounding, than say a 251 or C800, which, by the way, are also some of my favorite ones. But, for the price to performance, it's a no brainer. It's unbeatable.
A lot of great records were made far from a typical recording studio... Songs of Faith And Devotion by Depeche Mode, Joshua Tree by U2, Brave by Marillion, Division Bell by Pink Floyd... Blood Sugar Sex Magic and Stadium Arcadium by RHCP… The third Slipknot album, or, perhaps the most extreme example that comes to mind at the moment... Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska, which he recorded completely analogue on a small tape recorder in his bedroom. Now the question is, why is it worth protecting recording studios? Why should we fight for them not to be closed?
Same reason why there's restaurants. We all have kitchens at our homes, right? But every now and again there's an occasion that calls to go to a restaurant. It may be a celebration, it may be something unique, but that's what a recording studio offers. It's the ability to do stuff the proper way, where, for the most part at home, we usually can't do it. That's the
reason why we need recording studios.
And now the opposite, what do you think about home recording?
I think it's fantastic, especially for creating, demoing, writing the song. It's great. Absolutely perfect thing. You don't need to be in front of a massive SSL to come up with a chorus. In fact, most of the times, it doesn't happen that way, right? It happens, when you are living life or whatever. So, the ability of being able to put down a little audio note, or a little riff on the guitar or whatever the case may be is priceless. It's very, very important. All of my clients have home studios. All of them! So, Adrian, for me it's not like one kills the other, you know. They are compatible.
Yeah, I agree, I think these days these two worlds should work for each other. So, let’s talk about in the box domain… A chance or curse ?
Well, neither. It's the reality. It's what it is and looks like it's not gonna go anywhere. And it has been developing for years into this. So, I would say that it is the state of the art today. And just like any other tool, you need to know how to use it. Because, for example, the electricity can cook your meal, but it can also kill you. Right? So, you just need to be mindful and know how to use it. And I'm ok with the digital domain, I use plugins, definitely. I use all the plugins that I can.
Differences in thinking and perception of sound between a mix engineer and a recording engineer?
Well, I always like to say, record as if there was no mix, and mix as if there was no mastering. So, as a recording engineer you must be sure that you can take charge of everything that you possibly can at that stage that you were occupied with. So that you can perceive and solve problems that will occur later down the line. Of course, especially if the recording guy is not the mixing guy, which happens pretty often. So, in that case you need to be aware of being able to provide everything that the mix engineer may want. So it's again all about the feel of the situation, because as you know, session by session, it’s always different...
The quality of recordings starts with the acoustic adaptation of the room. How important is the wall thickness when it comes to the clarity and the quality of the recorded sound?
I can tell you this. The acoustics of the room in which everything happens, recording, mixing, mastering, whatever is absolutely important. It's the number one priority before any other speakers conversation, computer conversation and so forth. Everything that's going to happen in that room will be affected by that air and how the air behaves in that space. I can't tell you exactly about the wall thickness and things like that. I'm not an acoustician, but I can definitely tell you that the acoustics are the number one priority.
Ways to fight against the so-called standing waves syndrome?
Well, you've got to hire a good acoustician to make sure you don't have those, actually, let me rephrase that... You will have standing waves. So, it's a matter of minimizing these resonant frequencies as much as possible. And of course, that comes with slanting walls, slanting ceiling and different kinds of material that can be used for building the studio, or panels, if it's a little production room kind of thing.
Any tips on how to record great sounding vocals at home?
Make a non square vocal booth, try to switch up the ratio so that frequencies won’t be multiplied by funny proportions, what would not be good. Make sure the walls are not parallel, even by a little margin, that will help a lot. I would also say, even if you are doing a home studio, maybe try to make it so that you are not recording yourself. So, there's somebody else's monitoring. And I say that not only for the audio, which also can benefit, but mainly because if you're trying to put your heart and soul into your song, performing it, you don't want to keep an eye on all the meters over there, or the compression and things like that. Just focus on singing.
Your opinion on the Loudness War phenomenon?
The louder is always the better. There's no way around it. That's how our ears work. That being said, in the mix or mastering process, when you hit that wall where more volume means deteriorating the sound, that's no good, that’s where you stop. Make it as loud as you can till you get to the point where the audio deteriorates.
Yes, but we are losing the song dynamics this way. And it's very important…
Absolutely. It depends on the genre too, but yes.
Why do you think we are so eager to use compression today?
Same reason. Louder the better. Usually compression means that whatever signal you put through the compressor you get a loud and proud/always in your face type of sound. When compression is too much you are actually deteriorating the sound though. It's like, when you burn a meal. It's the same thing. You need to cook it, but not too much.
So, why do all those engineers forget about dynamics?
Today’s music’s dynamics is very different from what it was 20 years ago or 40 years ago, or even back further, maybe it's not that they forgot it, they just don't know about it. It's the new generation maybe?
So you're saying that most of engineers today just don't knowing about dynamics?
The young ones, I'm pretty sure, yes.
Sounds like a really bad news…You worked with many top hip hop artists, Jay Z , Snoop Dogg, and Kanye West, where did you get such a passion for hip hop music? How did it start?
When I was a teenager, I was attracted to audio, in the early/mid nineties, the music that had the biggest drums was hip hop music. There was nothing else that could compare to that in terms of the energy and that's what I fell in love with. It was just like that. I would say that audio made me fall in love with hip hop music and not the other way around, which is kind of weird, right?
What about rock music? Bon Jovi always have's these kind of a loud, big drums?
They loud and big, but they're not powerful in the low end.
I wanted to ask now about Jay Z, but I'm not sure if you had direct contact with him, because it all depends on who engaged you to work with him, but, anyway, I'll ask you this question... What kind of artist is he? Is he so-called Control freak? Is he familiar with studio equipment? Can he sit behind the console? Does he have a clear
vision of what he wants to achieve?
Most of the times when I'm hired, I'm called in to do a record by the producer, not the artist. It does happen sometimes, but for the most part it's usually the producer and that's who I'm dealing with mostly. Most of these big artists, they are not involved in the mixing session. I'm pretty sure that Jay Z doesn't even know who I am because I was only working with the producer. And that's how it happens. The artists usually does pick the producer and whatever comes with that production team comes with it. So I was just very lucky to be part of that production team and I was called in to do my thing.
And what about Kanye West? It’s the same kind of situation, the same procedure?
Yes. It's more or less the same. But, I would say, that with him, I got more directions, more instructions prior to starting the work. For example, I was told not to use any delay/reverb on the vocal. Everything else, you can do what you want. So yeah, a little more involvement in that.
Some people say, he has very changeable moods...
A lot of stories float around in the music business. And yes, I have witnessed some situations, that made me think, okay, that's where those stories come from. People are people you know?
Yeah! Ok, so, what were your tasks and what were you responsible for in Jay Z production team? Tell me more about the whole process. What did you do, who did you work with?
When I did that session I had mixed tens of records for the producer so it was very straight forward as the producer had confidence in me and I knew what his taste is so it was easy...
Most effective tracking vocal chain for fast, percussive hip hop vocals?
I would say, an API or Neve preamp into AK 47 or maybe C800, something like that, into an 1176. I like the Silverface.
No, the regular one.
And how do you set this thing? Fast attack, fast release or…
Yeah, fast everything!
Recently you also deal with mixing…
Yeah, about 10 years ago, I decided to shift my attention to mixing rather than recording. I still do some recording, but for the most part I do mixing.
So, what part of this process (I mean mixing) gives you the most pleasure? In which part of the mix you feel the strongest? Is there a group of instruments that you mix particularly well?
I love mixing. It's the last step of the production for the most part. Yeah, there's mastering, but mixing is where the last big changes are made and I love it. And, in which part I feel the strongest? Well, I would like to think, that I'm very good on every part. But, I would say that over the years you can clearly tell, by listening to my older mix, that I really started to nail down the drums. Then I started to nail down the bass. Then I started nailing down the music and then I started nailing down the voices. Not In this particular order, but, you can tell that there were waves in which I was first getting this part and then getting that part. Now I'm putting them all together as one.
Do you think that you have developed your own signature mixing style? I ask about sound?
I don't know if I do, It's hard to say. People tell me that I do. I guess one of the characteristics of my mixes is that everything is in HD, if so requested by the client. Also how I go about occupying the low end space and the super high frequencies. But that's hard to say. You know, it really is based on what the song calls for.
Tell me something about your studio.... What gear do you use? What you have in your studio?
My new studio, will have a lot of analog goodness for recording. So, a lot of stuff for tracking properly, but, after that, it's all digital. All mixing will happen in a digital world.
What do you pay attention to when choosing equipment? I mean both, the tracking and mixing equipment…
I want to make sure that the investment is going to pay off, and not necessarily in money terms, but like, okay, I'm putting this energy into this piece. Is this going to be appreciated and used by as many people as I’ll have through the door? I can buy everything, but is it really going to be conclusive to what I'm trying to do? Same thing goes with plugins and also the amount of stuff that I do, whether if it's equalizing or compressing or whatever, I always think, okay, am I doing this just cause I can? Or, am I doing it because I'm trying to achieve a result? And that's the same thing with gear selection.
Your favorite mixing desk?
Oh, I don't have one. It will be between API, SSL and Neve depending on the genre and the kind of sound that I'm going for. But I definitely have had more face time with SSL over my career.
The most valuable advice? The most valuable lesson you got in the studio?
That's a tough one. I would say… how to communicate with the client. That's the most difficult. And, to do less sometimes, but also go the extra mile some other times. It's always a ‘feel it out’ kind of situation, you know, you can't present the same program to every client.
The most magical moment you've experienced in the recording studio?
Oh Man. There's like so many, but one of them is definitely... Well, the most frequent one is when I'm finished the mix and I'm listening to it and it's like, ah, it's perfect. It's great. It's sounds amazing. The second one is anytime my mix is on the radio or walking into a store and they playing my song or like seeing the video on TV, back in the day, things like
that. Or, you know, getting the communication by the label saying that the song that I'm mixed for the artist has been streamed 5 million times. You know, that's amazing!
If you were not in LA, would your career have a chance to develop in a similar way?
Oh, that’s a very straight forward answer…
Haha! Everybody's here, there’s a lot of competition as well. So you know, it goes both ways.
Some tips about audio engineering, especially from you for my readers?
Try to visualize where you are placing things. The pan knob is actually a fader, keep that in mind. Do a lot of tests/comparisons. Make sure you listen to the mix on as many speakers, headphones, earbuds, cars as possible to get different point of perspective. Keep reading studioknowmag.com, subscribe it. Aaaaaaand subscribe to my YouTube channel! ;)
Alright, It was a pleasure to talk with you Irko! Thank you!
Welcome! Thanks for having me Adrian!
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