Music – the DNA connection

ATS Favela Pic HeroI believe that music is the direct link to our DNA

No matter if balinese music captures our hearts, a classical concert moves us to the core or a Brazilian samba percussion group makes us cry, we are hearing Mother Earth directly calling our souls:

“Remember, you ARE THIS!”

The first time I went to Rio de Janeiro, not being able to speak even a word of Portuguese (not even Obrigado = Thank You) I set foot on the Avenida Vieira Souto, which runs along Ipanema Beach and right outside my little hotel in Arpoador.

Without intention, I ended up standing right next to a little peaceful demonstration of a group of teachers who were protesting their inadequate pay.
They carried their message by the means of a group of 12 musicians who began to play the initial call for a Batucada, (which is part of the traditional Samba rhythms) and launched into the astonishing power of this earthshaking rhythm.

I was glad that I had my sunglasses on as tears started streaming down my face and I began to sob.

CBC Parade 2015I had no clue why that was happening, yet there I was, in the middle of a Bateria group, at Ipanema Beach and the deeply African rhythm swept me away and carried me along for several hundred yards, although I could have easily stayed inside of it forever.

My soul had come home and my tears confirmed this.

The chants over the rhythm spoke of these people’s plight and taught me a completely different way of speaking to people about issues that move us – and to do it with music !

Let me assure you that no recording medium known to us today will be able to capture the visceral power and warm intensity of this music.

“Remember, you ARE THIS”

Today I urge you, when this cry comes, follow it with all your heart.

I am blessed to now being able to perform my take on Brazil’’s immense cultural gift with my band, HeartBeat Brazil.
It took me 57 years to really be ready to let go of almost everything else (Except being a busy music producer) and give space to this longing and the profound love for what reached my ears, body and soul that afternoon, on my first day in Ipanema

Here is my humble contribution which ends with a energetic Batucada, taking the rhythm and the song to it’s next destination!

A Sense Of Space

String Session VignSML W arning; this is “techy” – but a gradually unfolding realization that has lead me to be able to create more “alive” and “breathing” sounding mixes.

When listening to vintage recordings of Jazz or Latin artists, I always noticed that there was a depth of placement which made it perfectly clear to my mind where the instruments “lived”.

I particularly loved the sound where the whole drum kit could be heard – versus the sound of having the drums individually miked. Think Beatles vs. the 80’s.

I have always favored the sound of, e.g., a bongo when it sounded like the player was standing in front of the back wall rather than right at the microphone – the sound was bigger, fatter, more tribal and impactful to my ears.

When hearing a live show, the best sound experiences I ever had was hearing a good amount of direct sound from the stage, mixed with the sound of the speakers

When I spoke to one of my admired colleagues, Grammy winning engineer Moogie Canazio, how he preferred to record a tamborim ( the Brazilian instrument ) – he explained to me that he sometimes placed the microphone between 4 and 8 feet away from the instrument to get the desired result.

Think about it: at this distance, the direct transient (the part of the sound that would reach the microphone when recorded in an anechoic environment) is almost reduced to zero – the room makes the entire sound and reflections reach the microphone almost as early as the direct sound.

“The magic happens within the first 3-5 milliseconds after the transient”
Stephan Oberhoff

The longer I am privileged to engineer high quality music in the United States, Germany and Brazil – the more I like to develop a sense of spatial depth in all of my mixes.

It used to be that the only way to create space is to record instruments in those settings with distant and also close up microphone placements.

The other option was (and still is) to re-amplify the instruments by playing them back through the speakers and placing microphones further away from the speakers to capture a real room reflection and add that back into the sound mix.

It is imperative to understand that such early reflections and room “feedback” start immediately after the sound event has taken place. You have no time for latency!

Sometimes there is zero direct sound reaching the microphone at all – the room “speaks”- if you’ll accept that expression.
We have to consider this when using technology as we nowadays have available in software room emulations such as the legendary ALTIVERB.

Such plug-ins frequently get diminished in their usefulness by the “bottle neck” called latency.

A simple mathematical example; if it takes your digital workstation between 10 and 20 ms to get the signal to the plug-in, processed and then returned to the main audio output, such “room emulators” have a very hard time of creating a realistic and cohesive result.

The “magic zone” between the transient and the first few milliseconds after the transient stays blank. 

Does “blank” sound natural to your ears?

It is almost as if we used a standard reverb unit and gave it a pre-delay of 10 ms or more.

For long reverbs that is just fine and even desirable – for room emulation plug-ins such latency (or pre-delay) is absolutely undesirable and renders them nearly useless for our purpose.

We need an enormously high degree of realism in order to create three-dimensional sonic spaces, which require very short, warm dense (and fast)  room reflections.

I have found a way to bypass the problem of latency in my recent project mixes and have gotten extraordinary positive feedback from my favorite mastering engineer of all times, Bernie Grundman.

Bernie stated in one of our last sessions:  “You know, it’s a nice thing when you not only hear a great left / right balance – but there’s also something going on BEHIND this mix!”

Oftentimes we as producers created multiple layers of instruments because we feel that the space isn’t sufficiently filled with instrumentation. It is very surprising what happens when we give each instrument it’s natural sounding room ambience!

In this day and age where so many productions are recorded “in layers” there is no natural communication of the instruments with one another.

Iso booths and direct miking also separate the instruments from each other.

The studio ambience of each instrument’s room, if even recorded, does not always work right for each mix situation.
I have taken to using convolution reverbs and other techniques in order to create a controlled Room experience.
This process is quite fast and I have a plethora of room reflections to choose from.

One of the workarounds I have come up with is the following:

 

Say you have a stereo piano track and it lacks the sense of “air” around it.

Rather than using an aux send to your favorite room plug-in (which would cause latency), just copy the track and process that track (wet signal only) with said plug in and your room sound of choice –  directly “on the file”.

In ProTools that’s done in the Audio Suite and it renders the file with zero latency – which is the real deal!

You can verify this by rendering the file with the Altiverb in Bypass mode – the timing of the 2 files will be identical.

Whichever way you try this, make sure you don’t let latency creating a gap between the transient and the room reflections.
Lower the copied track to zero output and slowly bring it up in level until you get a sense of space.


Once again, whatever digital workstation you are working in, make sure that there is no gap between the transient and the arrival of the first reflection created by your room simulation plug-in!

I can  almost guarantee that you will want at least a 7-band EQ on your freshly created Room Track (as I’m now calling it) in order to prevent it from coloring the sound in a negative way.

Logically, you must use the fastest EQ plug in for obvious reasons.

You will also want to experiment with the pan setting as to where this newly created reflection track should appear.

The direct track and the reflection track will from this point on “live as one” as both are the emulation of a distant and spatial recording and will have to be mixed grouped together.
You will also notice that reverbs behave very differently if you send only the reflection track to the reverb system rather than the direct track’s sound! It could also be a mix of both signals that could be sent to the main reverb.

The last project I worked on with this technique was the rather lightly orchestrated “The Music Never Ends” by Susan Watson which I co-produced with my longtime partner Michele Brourman.

Feel free to send me your mix and I’ll add my magic sauce to your project.

Contact me at: admin@stephanoberhoff.com

To wrap things up, here’s an empowering quote by Bernie from my 2016 sessions with him:


“I have recently mastered a few albums that Stephan Oberhoff mixed and I can honestly say that, for the most part, I am at a loss to find anything to do to improve his recordings. Outside of an occasional adjustment for consistency, he is spot on, and that’s impressive. Only a small number of mixers have reached this level of expertise. He certainly is one of the best.” –Bernie Grundman

Find The Absolute Rhythm

IMG_8425aI recently visited a spiritual seminar and sat deeply immersed in the speech, when I was jolted by the following words by the guest speaker:

“FIND THE ABSOLUTE RHYTHM – AND FOLLOW IT WITH ABSOLUTE TRUST”

As the words sank in, they struck me in the chest – and began to make my heart beat faster.

Because of what happened to me over the last 10 years, I hear it like this today:

“Shed all the excess weight that inhibits your wings from unfolding — and set a brave foot forward in your most beloved endeavor”

When I came to the U.S. in 1991 I wanted nothing more than to emulate the big american sound of pop, jazz, R&B and Soul. Take 6, Earth Wind & Fire, Stevie Wonder – these were a few of my many gods and I followed them diligently.

I was deeply invested in building music tracks that were supposed to sound as good as David Foster’s productions – or making string arrangement that rivaled Jeremy Lubbock’s phenomenal work.

It took the implosion of the music industry to convince me that it was time to stop imitating others

There is nothing wrong with learning the tools of the trade. I am a big proponent of learning from the Masters and adapt / adopt some of the tools they use.

The trick is to realize that if I stay in that modus permanently, I lose the rhythm of my heart.

There is nothing wrong with doing a job to pay the bills.
Does it mean I have to sacrifice what might be potentially my strongest asset?  Jettison my own art?

This challenge provided me with the right mindset and background for my Brazilian endeavor named HeartBeat Brazil and my brand-new release “Applauding The Sunset”.

Had God not led me to this juncture, I would have likely never encountered a friend who is equally free–spirited and open to musical inspiration without commercial convention as my creative brother Jason Gould.

We are about to conclude a major music project called “Dangerous Man”,  which was created under the loving tutelage of the great Quincy Jones, who is co-producing and supporting this project.

Some of you know that I worked in a music store in germany in 1980 which I did it gratefully — and I got quite good at retail – but there were angels who kept telling me to press on and find the origin of the sound and rhythm that really moved me.

Q_JAY_STEF_WEBSITE2Had anyone told me back then that one day I would sit in a studio with “Q” and have Vinnie Colaiuta, Gregg Phillinganes, Paul Jackson Jr., Paulinho Da Costa and so many other royalties of music pass through and deliver their brilliant gift – I would have declared them insane.

I can’t stress this enough:  When you love something more than the power of fear would have you pull back, you will most likely get really good at it and get some deserved recognition. Just don’t let the fears throttle the love factor down too much! Remember, this whole journey is about finding and realizing who we really are.

“What lies before us and what lies behind us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us

Ralph Waldo Emerson

(The complete sentence that gave birth to this statement was: “As I watched the seagulls, I thought: That’s the road to take; find the absolute rhythm and follow it with absolute trust.”
Nikos Kazantzakis, from “Zorba the Greek”)

Stephan Oberhoff

The Bata Drum

Bata Drum

image courtesy of Latin Percussion

 “Hey Stephan, I forgot to mention one thing; if you’re not overwhelmed after four hours – we’re not doing our job!”

These were the words of Richard Rice, co- founder of one of the world’s most powerful music immersion retreats  called California Brazil Camp.

Boy, was he right 😉

After the first day and a half in this musical frenzy, I completely ran out of gas in the early afternoon.

At camp they have these neat little gazebos outside where a friendly staffer serves a strong hand-poured cappuccino for just two bucks.
I downed one of them – no effect.
I tried a second one and felt myself getting even more tired!

In my  entire life I have never needed 3 shots before, so I thought I’d take a little nap on one of the couches in the hangout area.

Then my good friend, my stage and writing partner Robert Kyle, discovered me hanging in the ropes – and smiled and said: “Hey Stephano- you look kinda tired!” –  well, what could I say?

Robert told me that there was a 20 piece Bata Drum Ensemble playing at the Ampitheatre (pic below) and that there were a few spots open to participate. Well, no matter how tired I was, I could not miss this opportunity!

image courtesy of cazadero.org

image courtesy of cazadero.org

 
So I shlepped myself over to the amphitheater, saw an open chair and the double-headed conga drum called a Bata drum lying on the floor.

As I strapped the drum to my knees, the instructor (Mark Lamson) came over and helped me find the rhythm by playing it for me on my drum.
I was amazed by the groove and the power of the sound all around me and wondered if I could possibly play the rhythms that were thundering across the stage.
It sure was difficult at first, but I found and eventually locked with the rhythm around me.

Slowly, I could feel my soul breathing and merging with everyone on stage.
The wonderful weather.
The 2000 year old redwood trees surrounding us.
The fresh air of Northern California.

All of a sudden I heard Mark call out;  “that’s it guys – come back tomorrow and we’ll continue!”  To my complete surprise I had played this rhythm for close to 50 minutes without noticing how time passed.

I had played this rhythm for almost 50 minutes without noticing how much time had passed

As I laid the bata drum back on the floor of the amphitheater stage, I felt a sensation that I’ve never felt before;

Some kind of energy slipped into my my feet, quickly rose up through my body, all the way through my chest, through my head – wooshhh – and in seconds, I was completely restored to full awakeness!!!

I described that sensation to my friends at camp who confirmed to me that the African Bata rhythms are indeed Life Affirming Rhythms.

I never knew that music could have this much restorative power –  but I knew one thing for sure; whatever music performance I will do from now on, I will do my best to make this energy available for those who come and listen.

Here’s a little excerpt of what’s coming to a stage near you:

Stephan Oberhoff

Forty Days and Forty Nights

Look up Karl Preston photography

Look up Karl Preston photography

A bout music, healing and spirituality

A biblical story that has always deeply fascinated me is Jesus’ retreat from everyone — fasting forty days and forty nights.

During these days, he was subjected to extreme temptation — ultimately triumphing over it.

The Soul Searching that he must have gone through during these difficult days is deeply intriguing to me.  It explains why many spiritual practices around the world require us to make an abrupt change of our daily living habits.

A purification — a total break in the routine.

As artists, we often forget that music is so much more powerful than we think it is.

We know now that we hold in our hands a gift that has the potential to underscore life, and to help heal and transcend even the most profound hardships. Here is one way to use it…

Instead of staying with one continuous idea in a linear pop music, why not change the direction of the song and help it undergo a complete metamorphosis?

We can alter the ‘metabolism’ of the song and its effect on the listener dramatically.

That’s why “bridges” are so wonderful.  Once ubiquitous in popular music and practically a “lost art” in today’s mainstream music, they let the story expand into a larger dimension.

Often, something magical happens.

Here’s an example of a bridge section — that is a whole story unto itself:

Gordon Lightfoot’s “Canadian Railroad Trilogy”

 

When I hear this song, I am suddenly lifted up into this amazing adventure ride – and then I miraculously and safely land back in the original melody.

When the main theme re-starts, it’s just magic!  I just love how the main theme of the song brings me “home” after the great bridge/ middle section.

The Bridge is the Adventure in the song.

If we can build something into a song that results in a deepened feeling once we return to the theme, (coming home from the adventure), we have accomplished something magical.

What about those great “set-up verses,” such as the one in “I Got A Crush On You” or “Someone To Watch Over Me?”

I vividly remember that wonderful feeling when the main song started after the setup verse.  It happens to me every time.  Never goes away.

Here are two instrumental examples where I have allowed that “adventure” to unfold.

Come along for the ride!

O Pantanal                              Amistad

             

 

Safe Passage

Stephan1 B oy, this is a message from an emotional place I did not see coming – a most precious response by someone in another country , from a very different culture, somebody I did not know – until now.

I had no expectation that sharing music I wrote when I was in the middle of processing my father’s passing at just 70 years young, would allow someone else safe passage to their own emotions about their fathers!

I am so very deeply moved and thankful to those who allowed the music into their hearts –  and shared their very own, unique experiences!

From my brazilian FaceBook friend M.V:

“My father died way too early at age 39 and left my mother with six young children.  I experienced much heartache after his death and, I in my innocence, blamed him for leaving.  I couldn’t understand that he was not at fault and I chose not to talk about it anymore.  Because of this, I carried hurt for a long time.

But now, today, I closed my eyes while listening, and with listening came the wistful memory of him, and I cried.”

Here is the song I shared: (and please see more stories below the video!)

 

From my good friend J.D:
“I listened as I worked on some text for a photo book we’re going to give my Mom soon. The book will have pictures in it of a trip she and I took in 2014 to New York to see the houses where she grew up, started a family, etc. At her age (83 then), every stop had a poignancy and joyful weight about it, and that joy and weight are even more present now as I write this text because of changes life has brought us since. All of this is only to say that writing while I listened made me realize these emotions are really conversations that we had during that trip and that I’m having still—with her, with my childhood, and with what may await my Mom in the next few years; and these feelings are certainly conversations I’m still having with my own father who left us six years ago this month. Your music, Stephan, carried all of this perfectly. It helped me flow more easily among these thoughts, and I wanted it never to stop.”

From my friend M.N:
“Stephan Oberhoff, your message and music is beautiful and deep. Both surely bringing comfort and license to many people. It is in the ‘silence’ we find ‘license’ to be. Inherent in these are the same letters, the same energy that highlights our oneness with those who seemingly have passed, but are as near as our breath, and surely, always hear us. Namaste.”

. . . .

Because of my friend’s sincere outpouring of emotion above, you inspired me to add yet one more song of the same record which was also dedicated to my dad.

More stories below the video – thank you for the blessed sharing of your story!!

 

From my friend N.D:
“Beautiful piece, very heartfelt. We are the mirror of our parents,and our souls will always connect through our thoughts and the memories make our conversation to the other side!”

From my friend E.G:
“Simply beautiful! The way the piano and guitar compliment each other is truly lovely. I closed my eyes and thought of my father. Thank you for sharing.”

To me there is no gift greater than this – to find that along the way of pursuing our own emotional expression we have touched other kindred souls – and now these souls are speaking back in their own language.

A language of the heart indeed. We are blessed!

Stephan Oberhoff

Being in Sync with Bernie Grundman

I just returned from a surprising and awesome morning when mastering my new CD “Applauding The Sunset” at BERNIE GRUNDMAN MASTERING.

My engineer was the man himself, Bernie Grundman, a living legend of high fidelity audio experience-making.

A few notes that made the session so unusual was that Bernie, whose job it is to make sure that every product will sound the best possible in any environment, asked me what speakers I was using in my own studio to monitor the sound.

I answered that I only use my new Dynaudio BM 15’s, which prompted him saying :

“Whatever you do – I agree
Bernie Grundman

For me that was an enormous compliment because I had decided to do the mixing myself on this project – and hearing that the sonic outcome impressed even Bernie was a very nice confirmation and a wonderful payoff to all the intense learning I experienced by watching my favorite engineers, Joe Vannelli, Ed Cherney and Tommy Vicari work on projects I had brought in over the last decade or so.

(This includes records by Brenda Russell, Melissa Manchester, Jason Gould and many many others)

Here’s Bernie sharing a few lessons in audiophile magic (pic below):

 

BGM_02SMLvign

 

When we launched into the session and he first heard the album he remarked: ” You know, I don’t always get music in here that sounds this good – this would be a great album for the audiophile market!”

This is an exceptional sounding album!
Bernie Grundman about “Applauding The Sunset”

The chart below demonstrates something very important: Note that Bernie did not feel the need to change much of the original sound (EQ) I had chosen for the project – it went onto the Master pretty much unchanged, except that Bernie added his level magic in making it consistent, strong and delicate at the same time and most importantly: musical!

The center note says: FLAT – meaning no additional EQ-ing necessary by the only guy in the business I would trust my Labor of Love with.

 

ATS_BGM_CorrectionsSML
Something else happened in that session: Bernie commented positively on the spatial depth of the mix – he said “you not only have a very wide image from left to right but you also have things playing on the back side of the stage”

In order for me to explain why I was so happy to hear that I must rewind in time until mid-1993

I received quite a different statement I received when I mastered my first project for christian artist Jeanne Cotter.It was a record that contained a lot of sampled instruments. My mastering engineer, a very knowledgeable gent named Chris Bellman (still working at BGM since the eighties!) told me that the mix sounded good but “two-dimensional”

At first I was a little dumbfounded but later on I stumbled across the reason for the lack of dimension – and why Chris’ remark was so helpful:

Say you have a mix at hand in which a lot of instruments are mic-ed close-up (like many sampled instruments are)

Think about how far the microphone was from any given instrument when they sampled it (so you can play them from your keyboard)!
Most of the instruments were recorded close-up, meaning the microphone was between 1/2 and 3 feet away from the instrument.

If you now spread a lot of instruments (recorded close-up) around the mix from left to right, you will not be able to ever reach the sound of a realistic sound stage! It will appear like a flat “wall of sound” without any depth.

Any instrument standing to the far left or right should not be as defined and bright as the ones close to you – its not natural for the ear/brain to listen like that.

The first chair violin player will be always brighter and more defined as the second chair and even more so compared to the third chair.

What about a choir? The first row of singers are standing closest to you thus they will have more presence and definition.
(When you simulate a choir sound stage in the studio, record doubles standing further and further away from the mic, even if you think the sound is getting too muffled!)

The same applies to, say a nice big Samba Band (Bateria)
There will be low drums that just produce a fundamental rumble –  others will be clearly defined as you can hear the batter hit the skin crisp and clear with lots of high end transients!  Why? Because some of the drums are facing you directly, others aren’t.

With today’s Convolution reverbs (Altiverb, etc) you can take a track and process a room “onto it”.

My suggestion: if you have a percussion track and want to push it back, don’t just use reverb to do that.
Most reverbs have a monaural input and will draw your instrument’s sound stage effect to the center.

Here’s how I do it – give this a try:

Make a duplicate of the track you want to treat this way, and process the doubled one with Altiverb (or whatever high quality Convolution Reverb you have).  When you do that, don’t allow any direct sound in such a processed track.

Bring the processed track down to zero and play your mix.
Now slowly raise the “convolution” track up.

See at which point you get the feeling that the room is beginning to “speak” – you may have to lower the original track in order to hear a dramatic effect.

If you add a room “slap back” from, say, an imaginary back wall, pan it so it comes from the part of the stage where the instrument which you are trying to place on the sound stage, lives.

If there is a bongo on the far left back of the stage, I want to hear little or no processed signal come back from the right side.

Whatever means you use, try to create space in your track. My efforts have obviously paid off, hence Bernie’s comment – which  made me very happy, believe me. Especially when someone with super-critical ears like BG makes that statement, I feel encouraged to improve even more.

Only the very best engineers I know are capable of creating not only a balanced mix, but also a believable room around the instruments
Bernie Grundman

Listen to the track he made that statement about, it contains a huge amount of percussion instruments to emulate brazilian rhythm called the MARACATU which is often played by up to 100 musicians.

These instruments were played exclusively by me and placed around the sound stage some recorded slightly distant, but mostly I used convolution techniques to “push them back”


Here’s 3 happy guys after a particularly inspiring Mastering Session at Grundman on Dec 22nd, 2015 – from L to R;
my musical brother Patrick Putman, yours truly and the one and only Bernie Grundman!

BGM_07SML

Stay tuned for this record – it may be possible that I will consider releasing it on Vinyl as well – checking my bank accounts now 😉
Btw: The studio where these results were achieved and all the music recorded and “wrestled to the ground” is available. Use contact page for inquiries!

STEPHAN OBERHOFF