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RSR048 – Neal Cappellino – Recording Vocals With Alison Krauss

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RSR007 - David Glenn - The Mix Academy

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RSR048 - Neal Cappellino - Recording Vocals with Alison Krauss

My guest today is Neal Cappellino, a multiple Grammy® awarded Producer and Engineer who has called Nashville his home for more than 20 years. In 1992, he built and operated a commercial recording studio for several years and now maintains a private facility, The Doghouse, which is home base for his work.

Neal is a member of NARAS, AES, and Leadership Music 2016, and he also sits on the board for the Melodic Caring Project, a non-profit company that streams live music events to hospitalized children around the world.

With a performance background in keyboards and a B.S. in Electrical Engineering, Neal has built his career on empathy for both sides of the glass, helping guide platinum artists as well as emerging independent talent.

His extensive credits include Alison Krauss & Union Station, Vince Gill, Joan Osborne, Avicii, The Gabe Dixon Band, Dolly Parton and Brad Paisley.

I love going back and listening to things I did years ago and hearing how unselfconscious the recordings were when we were on tape. I really didn’t know anything and we were just capturing. I think those are just as validating success stories as the stuff you get awards for. All my work with Alison Krauss has been remarkably rewarding and that's on a daily basis because as demanding as it is, I learn so much from the creatives that I work with. I love learning about the technical and I’m always trying to be better, but there’s something about just learning about how creative people function and how they listen, what matters to them. I just like the musical moments where it just kind of lifts off and that happens with people on instruments not on an editing session. I just did a great record with Jeff White. It’s a bluegrass record and we did it in Vince Gill’s home studio. The level of musicianship was through the roof!! Those are the times I feel like it’s a success. The other part of it is just having a balanced life because this is not the only thing in the world that’s happening. You have to take care of yourself and your people. If I can provide and be healthy and present for all the other aspects of life then it's working.

Neal Cappellino
What is Success??

What are some typical challenges people face when trying to start a commercial recording studio?

First and foremost today is contracting a market place. I think you’re looking at a landscape that has gone through a thorough disruption via technology and the democratization of what we do. So I would have to say the challenge is coming up with a viable business plan in this marketplace now. I feel like I'm here by waging the war of attrition and I think that there’s a definite solid middle class of people that are professionals in this industry that are disappearing, be they people or studios. So I would say to anyone who wants to put a commercial recording studio together, run the numbers. I think the creativity is important and the music is wonderful but the recording studio business is a tough road right now and I think it will be for some time.

What can happen in home studios now that couldn’t happen before?

Everything really. Tracking is a little bit harder. You know the pendulum swings and then it comes back into the middle ground again and not too long ago the pendulum swung way to the side of home studio and home everything. People came back towards the middle when they realized that maybe things weren’t sounding quite as good as they wanted to. But by and large, myself included, people have rooms in their homes where you can do some of the heavy lifting of mixing for instance, overdubs, certainly things like vocals, guitars, and editing. Editing was that extra step that was invented with home studios and the advent of digital. The absence of that clock on the wall ticking away the hourly charges at a commercial studio is liberating. So pretty much everything, it just depends on your particular space.

“It’s all about meeting people and pollinating” - Neal Cappellino

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Working with Alison Krauss

I have to give props to Mike Shipley who’s no longer with us. Mike was the primary recordist on that and mixed Paper Airplane which we won awards for. I spent almost two years on that record and that was predominantly Alison and I in the studio doing instruments and vocals. I’ve worked with Alison in some capacity since maybe 2002. We were pretty much camped out. We started at Blackbird and then moved over here to The Doghouse. If you want to geek out on tech stuff, her signal path at that point was a Sony C800G microphone and I was going through a Neve preamp into a TubeTech CL1B. That changed on the background vocals depending and who and what song it was. On guitars I used nickel diaphragm KM54s or KM56s (small diaphragm tube mics) and just recently started using sE Electronics RN17s which are transformed, small diaphragm condensers that work great on string instruments. On dobro Neumann M49 (large diaphragm tube) sometimes a Schoeps. The sound hole on a dobro projects a lot of the low end and then the resonator you get a lot of midrange tone. You put one mic on the lower side of the resonator pointing at the resonator getting a lot of the honk. The other one you put over the sound hole just above some distance away and that like an acoustic guitar you get the low end.

What are your favorite ways to time align the pickup of the acoustic instruments to the mics?

I have a lot of UA plugins and they have the IBP, I’ll use that. Sometimes I’ll just shift the track on the ProTools edit window and see where it clicks into a more solid image. Of course I say don’t do it, but I look at it and pick a transient to see how far I am off. I can get it in the ballpark visually, but ultimately you just have to listen to it. It’ll change according to the frequency you're listening to as well, so if there’s a little bit of smear (I hear it in the top end where it’s not focused) a lot of times you can compensate for that with EQ. But it’s kind of the integrity of the imaging which the the articulation and if those are smeared that makes us do other things like add top end EQ which might not be the solution. Maybe it’s just pulling one mic down or adjusting the levels to find basis of tone and more solid articulation.

Melodic Caring Project

Levi Ware is an artist from Seattle. He was a client, now a friend. He was kind of finding his way in music and one day happened to be asked to perform for a young girl who was in the hospital with cancer and he did so via skype session on his laptop. I think it affected him profoundly. He realized this is what music is for me and my life and him and his wife formed the company and asked if I would be an advisor for them. It’s been a slow, tough go for them. Nonprofits have a hard time raising money and getting awareness, but they are doing great work. The format for them is tying into touring artists live venus. Like they take a mix off the board, they have a really well done 3 camera produced shoot, the artists agree to address the children that are joining the live feed. They also coincidentally call their kids Rockstars because they are real Rockstars of the show. They dedicate a portion of their show to the kids and even go as far as taking the cameras backstage. It goes so far, not only from the healing element of music, but the idea that this is something that they get to look forward to. Really emotional stories from both the children and their parents about what these concerts do for them..give them hope and strength and more determination to get through their chemotherapy or surgeries or what have you. So it's just one of the ways to give back. I applaud Levi and Stephanie for what they do. It’s not easy but it’s really gratifying.

“Failure is the best learning mechanism we have” - Neal Cappellino

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Jam Session 

Q- What was holding you back at the start?
A -Probably having a mentor, I think I skipped that step. I think a lot of my learning came from learning my own lessons by making my own mistakes versus the traditional path in this town which is to work at a studio as an assistant or an intern and I did none of that. I just came to town and started building a studio. I probably would have learned a lot quicker if I would have had a mentor or somebody to learn from. I did eventually learn from folks, but it was a little bit later on.

Q- What are some common things people often start out needing help with?
A -  I think people need help with being patient. Everybody wants the silver bullet and it just doesn’t work that way. I can tell you what I do, but you’re going to have to do in a dozen other ways to to find out what works. Spend the time doing your own thing and learn. Don’t be afraid to incorporate other people’s tips and tricks, but ultimately it has to be your own distillation process.

Q- What was some of the best advice you got early on?
A -  I wanted to learn from Richard Dodd and I asked him if I could work on some sessions with him and he said, “You can learn from me, but I can’t teach you.” I took that to mean he’s not going to stop his workflow to show me anything and it was up to me to know how to learn in that situation.

“It’s hard to put a clock on creativity” - Neal Cappellino

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Q- Share with us a recording tip, hack, or secret sauce.
A - Everybody loves compression, it can do so much. I find when I get tracks that have been over compressed it’s largely due to a low end frequency that triggers compression to happen before it would really be necessary. So one of that hacks that we were sharing up at gearfest last week was inserting high pass filters before you compress. One of the things I do to clear up a mix is get rid of all the unwanted low end stuff. High pass filters are your best friend

Q - Before you listen, what are some numbers you would throw as suggested starting points for a low cut filter for some different instruments?
 On a male vocal I might start at 50 or 60 at a pretty steep slope high pass filter and see how it affects the tone. Electric guitars and bass there’s a point at which the bass tapers off and the guitars pick up in that low mid frequency so you just have to play with that. On acoustic guitars there’s a lot of woof that comes out at 200 and that might be more of a notch than it is a high pass filter but sometimes depending on what you want to do with acoustic guitars I’d run that high pass up past 120 maybe up to 200 if you want more articulation on string and pick. Same thing with snare, you want to filter out a little bit of the kick drum so that it’s not triggering the snare compression, set your high pass somewhere around 80.

“The first thing I do is just pull up the faders and listen” - Neal Cappellino

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Q - Share a favorite hardware tool for the studio
 I’ll make a shameless plug about these reflection filters I’ve been using. A reflection filter is this kind of U-shaped baffle that has a sound absorption material on the inside and you place it around a microphone and it doesn two things it helps you isolate the microphone from bleed and or to tune the space that you’re in. So if you’re in a really reflective room and you don’t want that much reflection getting into the microphone, the reflection filter can knock down those reflections and help you control the acoustic space a little bit. A lot of times I’ll use a piece of foam that I stick on a snare mic to block some of the high hat from bleeding in.

Q -Share a favorite software tool for the studio
 I love having the ability to bring up a big template of reverb and delay effects. One of the things I’ve been using a lot is Thermionic Culture Vulture plugin to give tracks grit. Vocals, B3, guitars if they’re too tame and you don’t want to really re-amp it, that’s a cool tool. I do a lot of circular sends to delays and reverbs and sending vocals to a delay then sending that delay pre-fader to a reverb kind of cross-pollinating the effects. That’s always fun to me creating different dimensions with delays and reverb.

“A lot of times our ear interprets low frequency as distance” - Neal Cappellino

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Q -Share with us a tip for the business side of the recording studio

A - Quickin is helpful. Keep track of your expenses just so you know real world what it costs. There’s nothing more helpful than looking at the numbers and knowing where your money is going. You can get a really good picture of what you’re doing by looking at what you’ve paid and what you’ve been paid, and then what that sorts out to at the end of the year, or quarter, or month or whatever. I would pay somebody to help you do your taxes at least a couple of times so you can see how to navigate that. It’s hard to be self-employed you have to pay self-employment taxes. I would do it above the board, you don’t want to get caught owing back taxes. You just want to sleep at night knowing you’re not going to be vulnerable somewhere down the line for something like that. And then if admin rights. If you’re a creator and have authorship or if you’re doing production and there are royalties involved, the admin stuff is really cumbersome but it’s worth getting your hands around whether it’s copywriting songs or registering with soundexchange or a PRO. Do that stuff because when the time comes, hopefully you’ve receive revenue from it. It also helps you in your dealings with clients. Not many people know if you’re registering stuff with soundexchange musicians actually share a portion of the digital royalties from soundexchange if you register it right.

Q -If you had to start over what gear would you need? How would you find people to record? And how would you make ends meet while you got started?

A - I would probably outfit myself with limited resources with some sort of portable multi-channel recording situation that I could move around with. Whether that’s going to other people’s spaces or maybe going to live venues seeing shows. If I was younger and putting more energy into going out a lot that’s probably what I would do. There’s been great success stories of people attaching themselves to artists for the love of the music that they make and ended up working on projects together and that end up being the launching pad. So I’d probably put money into a laptop based multi-channel recording setup, and interface, some affordable pres. Antelope Audio makes a 32 channel pre which is pretty nice. So that you could go to a club or someone's home studio. Find the things that are ubiquitous and versatile. One of the most versatile mics is the 57, the 421, the RE20, the Audio Technica 4033. Those sort of purchases will go a long way towards accommodating many different scenarios. As far as making ends meet, multitask. You’re going to be a position of supporting this career endeavor at first, so it’ll take a lot more than it will give back. I would support that hopefully in a parallel field, maybe you’re in video production or working at a club.

“Give it heart” - Neal Cappellino

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Q - What is the single most important thing a listener can do to become a rockstar of the recording studio?

A - I think it’s be the right person. Hang in there and like I said there’s a lot of people that can do what I do and do it better, but there’s only one person that can be myself. A lot of what you bring to a situation is who you are: personality, chemistry, your heart, your work ethic, your intention. All that stuff factors in. It’s the intangibles that add to the picture at the end of the day.


Big Thanks to Merissa Marx for this week's episode!!