"A digital audio workstation, like a guitar or piano, is a musical instrument," says Tal Herzberg, a Grammy-winning engineer, producer, programmer, and mixer who was one of the first to embrace computers for music. "Most musicians I know today use digital production tools in their creative processes. The ability to hear ideas played back practically in real time is addictive."
Tal Herzberg at the SSL G in Interscope Records Studios in Santa Monica, California.
Herzberg, whose work with A-list artists like the Black Eyed Peas, Vanessa Carlton, Counting Crows, and the Goo Goo Dolls has earned him six Grammy nominations, calls himself "a first-generation nonlinear engineer," and rightfully so. He was one of a handful of early adopters when digital audio workstations (DAWs) emerged 12 years ago. Back then, when DAWs were cursed by frequent system crashes and lost vocal takes, Herzberg spent more time paging through owner's manuals than setting up microphones. Those hands-on lessons have paid off big time.
In 2001 his digital recording and mixing work propelled Christina Aguilera, Pink, Mya, Lil' Kim, and Missy Elliott to the Grammy podium for their "Lady Marmalade" remake (from Moulin Rouge). In 2002, Herzberg's touch helped Vanessa Carlton's "A Thousand Miles" win Record of the Year. His great DAW mixes on the Black Eyed Peas' genre-blending Elephunk were nominated for the Holy Grail category of Best Engineered Non-Classical Album in 2003, losing only to engineer Nigel Godhead's work on Radiohead's Hail to the Thief. Elephunk is up again for the 2004 Record of the Year, Best Rap Song, and Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group awards, and yet another Tal-aided project—Queen Latifah's Dana Owens Album—has been nominated for Best Jazz Vocal Album. (Hear excerpts from these tracks.)
Do all these very creative and celebrated album projects find you, or is it the other way around?
I think it's a mutual process. Every professional experience I've ever been through taught me a new lesson, be it technical or human in nature, and each showed me various elements in different lights. Successful acts are very careful when they assemble creative and technical production teams, so I assume that the bag full of experiences I carry helps them make a positive decision about me.
Herzberg, who grew up in Israel, had played bass on more than 60 records by the time he was 22.
How important have digital audio workstations and plug-in software tools become to the act of songwriting?
The Black Eyed Peas are a great example of full digital integration in the creative writing and production process. As with many other hip-hop artists, most of their songs begin with a rhythm loop or a sample from an old record. Will-I-Am, the group's leader and main creative force, knows Digidesign's Pro Tools inside out. He typically programs the beats or samples in Pro Tools and then tracks [records] all his parts and the other band members' parts. There are hundreds of production decisions he makes about cuts, mutes, special effects, timing, and looping before handing a session off to the band's producers, engineers, and mixers.
Has the speed and facility of computer desktop recording made your job as an engineer more creative or more deadline-intensive?
Probably both. It's more creative because the possibilities are endless and are now embedded into a single toolbox. But sometimes we have to remind ourselves that any search for those possibilities has to come to an end in order to impose a sensation of arrival and closure on one's self and the song. Deadlines usually kick in when projects are tied to release dates and whether the project is to become a single, an album, a video game, a movie, or a TV show. You've just got to deal with it as those deadlines arise.
How does digital audio sound to you compared with analog recordings?
That's a rather loaded question you're asking me—in fact, it's borderline religious! Modern AD/DA [analog-to-digital and digital-to-analog] converters sound very pristine and clean and can tolerate very high instrument and vocal recording levels. For me, the advantages of the nonlinear work environment are far more important than the subjective and arguable advantages the sound of analog tape offers. In other words, as much as I'd love the romance of riding a horse to the studio every day, I still prefer driving a car.
What is your current computer and Pro Tools setup in the studio?
I'm on a dual 2GHz Apple G5 with two gigabytes of RAM and a Cinema display, and I use Pro Tools|HD version 6.7 software with three of Digidesign's 192 I/O [input/output] interfaces and their SYNC I/O master clock interface.
For programming, editing, and creating sounds, I use a variety of plug-ins and software instruments from Waves, Eventide, McDSP, and Spectrasonics. And for monitoring it all, I trust my SSL [Solid State Logic] AWS900 mixing console, DAW controller, and KRK E8T speakers.
A well-rounded producer, Herzberg studied composition at the Dick Grove School of Music.
What advice would you give to others who are balancing multiple roles—on both sides of the computer—as engineer, producer, musician, mixer, and editor?
If you're truly a musician, you will make computers make music for you. If you're not, that shouldn't stop you from programming beats and using MIDI and other production methods to create music. Recording and mixing, though, are acquired skills that can only be learned hands-on. Get the gear, start experimenting, and in a few years you'll be able to produce good results.
As for editing, that's the tricky part. You can do a lot of good slicing and dicing of recorded tracks into something new, but you can also do a lot of damage if you go too far with your edits.
Is it a question of creativity versus technology at that point?
It's mostly about developing taste and being able to solve problems upon arrival. Modern-day desktop recording brings all these elements together, allowing most up-and-coming producers out there to function in all the above-mentioned fields. So to answer your question, I don't have a dull moment in my workday.
Tell me about the educational "DAW World" columns you wrote for EQ magazine. What did you like best about that experience?
I had a great deal of fun doing it. I approached their editors about writing it because I felt a need to share my knowledge and experience with readers as a means of intellectual outlet and community giveback. I feel extremely lucky to have hopped on the DAW train at the beginning of its journey and, in doing so, I have managed to learn from making every conceivable screw-up in the book. That was way before most engineers and musicians even knew what a DAW was, so there was nobody around to ask questions when I was stuck on something. I had no master's shoulder to look over. Using digital audio and music production tools back then was truly the Wild West.
"Digital storage media, and mainly hard disks, are not fail-safe," Herzberg warns. "I can't count all the hysterical calls I've received from people who have lost days, weeks, and even months of creative work due to all sorts of system crashes.
"Considering the time, money, and creative investments each engineer, producer, remixer, and musician entrusts to hard disks, it's a wonder we carry on when those magic moments in the studio are irretrievably lost. It's simply never going to sound the same as the first time. The stars are aligned differently, and the drummer will likely get stuck in traffic and so his feel and timing are going to be completely different. Beyond the performances one never can never truly recreate, there are rebooking costs with the same studios, engineers, players, and vocalists to consider. Even if a data-recovery company can indeed salvage the lost data, the lost time ultimately equates to lost profits.
"Don't get caught with your pants down! Always keep at least one ongoing backup copy of your work drive(s), preferably two. I always keep a cloned disk and a cloned data tape (such as Sony's AIT) running at all times. That practice has saved me from countless sticky situations over the course of my career."
Recording engineers have always been divided into two conceptual camps: "flat" and "processed" sound. Regardless of which group an engineer or musician favors, it's best to know how each works and why.
"A 'flat' engineer chooses to use a minimal recording chain," explains Herzberg. "Just a microphone or instrument and a quality preamp wired directly to a recorder. They then insert compression and EQ into the recorder's monitoring path and thus avoid committing to the final sound and colors of the recordings. That leaves the 'painting' job to the folks on the final mixing stage. On the other hand, the 'processed' engineers choose to condition signals with compression, EQ, and effects before those signals reach the recorder and thus commit to somewhat final recording colors."
Herzberg suggests the latter approach if an experienced engineer—unafraid of making sonic commitments—is in the room. But if there's an ounce of doubt about the level of commitment involved, he advises proceeding with caution with those precious vocal takes, guitar lines, and "beautiful accidents" in the studio.
"You can combine analog preamps with software effects and dynamics plug-ins to create hybrid recording chains that sound great yet can later be partially modified," he says. "Start by finding the right recording levels using the preamps' gain stage [signal level] controls and then insert the desired signal processing plug-ins on the monitor paths of the recorder's returns." (That lets you hear and react to the effects without recording them.) "Also beware of any monitoring latency issues [that is, delays in the playback signal] with your DAW system. If you're recording with a fast computer and a dedicated DSP platform, such as Pro Tools TDM or Pro Tools|HD, you'll rarely, if ever, have to cope with that problem."
Tal Herzberg with Beth Hart; while playing bass in her band, he also honed his computer skills as one of the first product specialists for Waves.
"My Kind of Christmas"
|Christina Aguilera, Pink, Mya, Lil' Kim, Missy
2002 Grammy Award
"Big Yellow Taxi"
A Thousand Miles
2003 Grammy nomination
2003 Mix TEC nomination
|Goo Goo Dolls
"Ego, Opinion, Art & Commerce"
|Black Eyed Peas
2004 Grammy nomination
2004 Mix TEC nomination
|Justin Timberlake with Black Eyed Peas
"Where Is the Love"
2004 Grammy nomination
2004 Mix TEC nomination
Screamin' for My Supper
|Black Eyed Peas
"Let's Get It Started"
2005 Grammy nomination
"Long Time Coming"
Dana Owens Album
2005 Grammy nomination
"Fear of Flying" "Mood Ring"
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