Pro Techniques 9.1.2002

 

Pro Techniques from Buddy Miller

By Randy Alberts

 

After a long Summer NAMM day, a music journalist made it to a steamy hot Nashville club just in time to claim a saved front-center seat as the performers took the stage. Emmylou Harris strummed a huge Gibson dreadnought that filled the room, Buddy and Julie Miller joined in at the second verse, and they all sang like angels.

  

"I love all music," says Buddy Miller, "I just tend to lean toward what I do most naturally."

The quote applies to everything the talented and respected Miller does, be it producing a new artist, writing a new song, playing "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" songs on the road with Emmylou Harris, or running a late-night Pro Tools edit session in his 1902-built home. Equal parts guitarist, songwriter, singer, producer, and husband to fellow Nashville nova Julie Miller, the personable Miller has a life path that has led him to become one of Nashville's artistic elite in just five years.

Starting out a bluegrass upright bass player in the late '60s, he switched to guitar and formed a band that at one time included singer/songwriter Shawn Colvin. Eventually making it to Tennessee and working with Victoria Williams, Jim Lauderdale, and many others, Miller then did the same for himself with 1995's Your Love and Other Lies and solo and duo efforts with wife Julie. Buddy was voted best guitarist by the Nashville Music Awards in 1999, and last year's Buddy & Julie Miller — recorded and mixed entirely within Pro Tools — received a Grammy nomination, as well.

"I think the digital changes in Nashville are interesting," says Miller, a Digidesign user since 1.0 and an early TDM beta tester. "There's now a Pro Tools engineer right behind the producer and engineer. Ocean Way is like that here, and the last time I walked into Sound Emporium I saw a Pro Tools|HD system and all the tape machines were turned off. I do miss the smell of hot tape rolling through my old Studer, but my HD allows me to do so much more."

And do so much more he has indeed. Miller produced his wife's beautiful Broken Things CD, did the same for Emmylou Harris' "Spyboy" and Jimmie Dale Gilmore's "One Endless Night," and uses Pro Tools every day to master various Nashville-mixed CDs and sketch out Miller tearjerkers such as "Does My Ring Burn Your Finger?," "In Memory of My Heart," and "Looking For a Heartache Like You." The rare combination of his hard country roots, folk music soul, and producer/engineer talents in the studio makes Buddy everyone's #1 bud in small-town Nashville. Having a new Pro Tools|HD 3 system with three 192 I/Os, one SYNC I/O and "a bunch of plug-ins" probably doesn't hurt, either.

DigiZine spoke with Miller about his home studio, writing for the Dixie Chicks, Lee Ann Womack, Brooks & Dunn, and Hank Williams III, and how he uses his Pro Tools system. Here's what we learned.

 

Pro Technique 1 —
Making Emmylou even warmer with a virtual Studer

"The toughest thing about mixing digital audio for me is that everything has so much perfect separation," says Miller. "Sometimes things don't sound quite as meshed together in digital as they do on tape. Analog Channel [plug-in from McDSP] seems to smooth tracks together like analog tape and puts a certain kind of compression on it that no other plug-in does. There are two elements in it: AC-1 does the analog console channel emulations, and AC-2 is for emulating various analog tape machines with different tape profiles built in. I once had a Studer A-880 and now I come across this preset in AC-2 called 'Swiss,' Studer being in Switzerland! It has settings for the tape speeds from 7.5 to 30 ips [inches per second] and Vintage or Modern models. I've found that these two plug-ins just sort of mush things together a little bit better for me."

Miller first ran the acoustic guitars in the beautifully sparse song "Forever Has Come to an End," from Buddy & Julie Miller through the "Class A Rev 2" preset in AC-1, then ran those and the song's lush, layered harmony vocals into AC-2's "Japanese T" setting. The latter emulates classic TEAC and TASCAM tape machines from the '60s and '70s and the resulting change in how the low-end bump affects the way a good mix sounds.

"I had the drive up to 1.4 on the AC-1, the compression backed off to 4.5, and the release set a bit longer than the default at 280," Miller continues. "The song is just close-miked guitars, bass, and vocals, which typically exposes any recording system, but it sounds great with Pro Tools|HD. I ran the vocals through AC-2 and modified the 'Japanese T' preset by changing the rolloff to 45, the bump to 55, the bias to 5.7, and the release at 150. I also had it set for 30 ips, and there's a Vintage or Modern setting: For this song I set that to Vintage. Also, IEC 1 or IEC 2, whatever that means [laughs], I switched that to IEC 1. I used these settings on the individual channels and I also used them on the overall mix for that song."

 

Pro Technique 2 —
QuicKeys the Pro Tools way

Many Mac and PC users use the QuicKeys helper from CE Software to condense various commands and keyboard shortcuts down to a single keystroke. For speeding up a day's worth of Pro Tools sessions, Miller suggests the following simple, yet very effective, QuicKey setup tips.

"I don't use the End and Home keys on my keyboard, for instance, so I assign those keys to toggle between Auto Input Monitor and Input Only Monitor modes in Pro Tools," says Miller. "When I'm recording singers, quite often they don't want to hear what they've already recorded. They want to sing along with the track and get the feel, and even if they're only punching in one word they want to be in the song and not hear themselves. For that they must be in Input mode to record but when it comes time to playback you don't want it in so you have to switch back and forth quite a lot during a vocal session. Those two keys on my keyboard are in just the right spot for me to do that."

Miller further explains that QuicKeys can replace even complex mouse, click and keyboard moves with single keystrokes, such as muting and unmuting tracks while recording multiple vocal takes. First, he says to open QuicKeys and go to "Create shortcut" in the menu to create a shortcut in real time. Then click on the various mute buttons in Pro Tools and press any keyboard key or combination of keystrokes to create the shortcut. QuicKeys allows users to name any simple or complex set of moves and assign a combination of keys to that shortcut. Miller's own QWERTY keyboard employs the Home key to put Pro Tools into Auto Input Monitor mode and the End key immediately below it to toggle the Input Only Monitor, allowing him to easily and quickly switch back and forth instantly between the two recording/playback modes.

"I learned this from a friend of mine named Greg Droman," reveals Miller. "He's an engineer and one of the great Pro Tools guys in town. I also like to combine the command and the 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 keys to mute and unmute the tracks. QuicKeys brings up a window that shows you exactly where you are on the screen, and in your program you click for a particular move and then it asks you 'In which window?' That can be any window, or you can name the window, or it will find it by the position of the cursor. So you're pretty flexible with where and how you click. Then you just assign that click or clicks to a key combination. In my case it's Option/1-5, which is perfect for me when I'm working with a singer who wants to do a vocal comp. This way I can mute and arm the tracks so we can really fly through stuff."

For Miller and anyone who gets to create, record, and produce music with him at his home, it's all about feeling comfortable, natural, and cozy with a cutting-edge Nashville studio right down the hall.

"QuicKeys saves me so much time and it just looks better when there are other folks and singers in here," Buddy concludes. "Instead of fishing around with the mouse it's all about making performers as comfortable as they can be and to feel confident in me and in what's going on. I even can record a take without them knowing it up front — that's created more final vocal takes than I can say! A lot of engineers don't do that because they're still concerned about getting a better, cleaner punch, and so they'll keep Pro Tools in Auto Input Mode. That lets singers hear what they've already recorded until you punch them in, but it's not best for all singers. I always work in Quick Punch mode, but with Pro Tools you don't really need to worry about making a bad punch."