Steve Levine has come a long way from tape op at CBS Studios in London to interviewing some of the most revered producers in the business on BBC Radio's The Record Producers.
An up-and-coming engineer turned producer in the late 70's, Steve knew his way around the studio so well that he quickly became the go-to guy for dialing in those often hard-to-describe studio sounds. Even now, when an artist needs a specific synth sound, reverb, or distortion, Steve has their back—he'll dial in that dream sound no matter what, even if it means throwing the sonic rulebook out the window. Knowing that most artists just want to plug in and play, Steve opts to get the great take and worry about the noise factor later. "The performance is always the most important thing," he says. Good thing iZotope RX 2 has found its way into his heart.
The Noise Nuisance
"On The Record Producers I always ask a producer what their career defining slip-ups are," Levine says. "They're all very interesting and we all made them." No stranger to noise, Steve's first big mistake as an engineer came during a high profile violin overdub session for Itzhak Perlman. "In those days, eight-track required Dolby to keep the noise down on the tape, but this system had off-tape monitoring, which meant you had to switch the Dolbys in and out-- and I forgot to switch them back after lunch," he explains. Resulting in two different final takes, one with Dolby noise removal and one without, stitching the final product together became a delicate and time-consuming EQ job to remove the hiss. "So noise has been a nuisance for my whole life," he says.
"Everyone remembers analog recording through rose-tinted glasses because yes, an analog machine, with a new batch of tape, perfectly clean head, lined up perfectly by a professional engineer, on a head that's not worn out, will give you exceptionally good results. What happened in reality is that people would take their reel of tape, go from studio to studio without any tones, the heads were all over the place and actually what they got was a substandard thing." As one of the very first engineers to transition to digital recording, Steve has witnessed just about every noisy studio mishap imaginable. From tape hiss to finicky synthesizers and noisy guitar pedals, the analog realm presented challenges not necessarily eradicated by the move to digital recording. "Tape noise isn't just the hiss, it can be frustrating added noise. Even though everyone now says that it's great to record to tape, what they like about it really is the tape compression and saturation, and those things that go with it without the buildup of noise." Despite the eventual acceptance of the digital domain, many artists even today still opt for analog sounds including synthesizers, both analog and digital, drum machines, and pedals—each of which comes with its own noise profile.
RX Deep Dive
To delve further into Steve's adventures in audio rescue, let's take a closer look at some audio examples from all branches of his career starting first with Natalie McCool's debut album and looking later at some interview examples from The Record Producers.
Natalie McCool Excerpts from "Thin Air"
Recording on a laptop is something every musician has done in a pinch, but what happens when that recording has the feeling you want, but with the dreaded laptop "sound"? On Natalie McCool's latest record, Steve was faced with this very decision. "We all want to make the best record we can sonically, but very often things conspire against you. In Natalie's case, she did something straight into her laptop that had a particular vibe that that just sounded good against her master vocal." Knowing he could make it work with a little RX elbow grease, the take remains in the final album version of the song "Thin Air."
Rescue the take:
- Step 1: Denoise - Learn the noise profile by selecting a section of just noise
- Step 2: Head into the advanced view of the Denoiser (available in both RX 2 and RX 2 Advanced) and adjust the broadband and tonal noise independently of one another. Reduce the broadband noise to a point where the hiss does not interfere with the vocal and reduce the tonal noise even further to help eliminate the high frequency tones that cause irritation.
For guitar players, tone is everything. This means dealing with noisy pedals, amps, and pickups that are prone to buzz, hum, and hiss. "Guitar tone is a black art. Getting it just right is tough, particularly if they're using a boutique pedal, where there's no recall or using really high gain, where you tend to get a lot of hum. So sometimes it's just better to keep what you have and fit it in." Let's take a look at a slide guitar example with some digital clipping and single coil pickup buzz.
Rescue the take:
- Step 1: Declip - Select only the left channel where the clipping occurs, reduce the threshold to just below the point of 'clipping,' or where the waveform has been truncated, or cut off. Adjust the makeup gain down to account for the new peaks Declip will redraw.
- Step 2: Select both channels. Use “Learn” to a sample the background noise. Then, adjust the noise reduction amount up or down to taste.
- BONUS TIP for higher noise reduction without artifacts: Use the envelope in the "Advanced" view of the Denoise module to back off the processing in particular areas of the frequency spectrum where the guitar is more present.
With a little RXing, the final mix got the polish it needed for the final release.
For more on Natalie McCool, visit: www.nataliemccool.co.uk
RADIO READY Excerpts from The Record Producers
After braving years of studio noise, Steve now finds himself interviewing other producers for his critically acclaimed radio show. Capturing pristine dialogue from greats like George Martin, Gamble and Huff, and Todd Rundgren proves time and time again to be a challenge, even with the best equipment. "Although I bring my Korg recorder and Audio-Technica mics, I'm normally in environments that are not professional just because it's better for capturing the interview...so very often I'm dealing with issues outside my control," he explains. "Radio interviews are often quite heavily edited between conversations. Someone will start the conversation, go off on a tangent, and then come back again a few minutes later. When you use a one bit of the interview and then a bit from three minutes later, or fifteen minutes later when the ambience has changed, cutting between the takes makes the listening experience very unpleasant. Even somebody untrained can hear that change when the noise floors are really different."
So what kinds of sounds has Steve had the pleasure of removing with RX? How about seagulls, car horns, cell phone interference, air conditioners, and even cutlery! "I did an interview with Ron and Russell Mael of Sparks, that was particularly difficult. The hotel promised us a quiet room but around 11:30 am, they started getting ready for the lunch service and were putting all the cutlery out, which is a particularly annoying sound."
Let's take a look at a few audio examples from Steve's trials and tribulations in interview audio.
An Interview with David Marks (The Beach Boys):
Rescue the take:
- Step 1: Use the "Brush Tool" to highlight any plosive.
- Step 2: Use the 'Attenuate' function to balance the level of the plosive appropriately. Attenuate looks at the surrounding audio and makes an intelligent gain adjustment, blending your selection with what's around it. Different directional modes (Horizontal, Vertical, 2D) help direct this algorithm where to look in the surrounding audio.
- BONUS TIP: In severe cases, the 'Gain' module can also be useful.
- Step 3: Repeat Steps 1 and 2 as needed for each plosive.
- Step 4: Denoise - Learn the noise profile by selecting any isolated sections of noise, then adjust level of noise reduction to preference.
Sir George Martin (The Beatles):
In this example, Steve uses Spectral Repair to lessen the distraction of a scooter that has driven by in the middle of George's sentence.
Rescue the take:
- Step 1: Spectral Repair: Use the "Brush Tool" and/or "Marquee tool" to highlight the frequency events that make up the sound of a distracting audio event in between the dialogue.
- Step 2: Then, use Spectral Repair's ‘Attenuate' feature in 2D or Vertical mode to adjust the strength as needed. This will help blend the standout frequencies more naturally into the background so they are less intrusive.
- Step 3: Denoise - Use moderately to take down the overall level of the background noise.