A Mix Master and his Mac, Part Two

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Brooke C. Wheeler

To read the first part of Brooke's interview with Eli Janney, please click here. The second half is below:

We have another Mac-mixed sound byte from Eli Janney for you, this time from his own band Girls Against Boys. Just click the

button below to listen to this Macworld exclusive.

Brooke: So, Eli, when did you start making music with computers?

Eli: By 1989 we were using sequencers–a Roland MC 500 with a floppy drive. And when I started working in Baltimore, they had SoundTools 1 from DigiDesign. And everyone was amazed, it was this incredible breakthrough that you could do this on a computer, you know, for the price. It was $2-3K, but the only other alternative was Fairlight, which was like $50K. I think SoundTools only did four tracks maximum, maybe it was even only two tracks. But it was a breakthrough. So I got a lot of experience using that.

B: This was the first part of your digital kit?

E: Well, I didn't own it–I couldn't possibly afford it–but the studio in Baltimore had one. People would come in specifically to use that, because you could also edit–that was about the same time digital tape and the digital format started being used, but before DAT machines. So you'd record on to a 3/4" tape, a VHS tape, with a special controller and there's was no way to edit it. So people would have two machines and they'd have to do this insert / linear editing, like old video editing, very clunky.

"SoundTools was a big breakthrough in non-destructive editing. People would come in and edit stuff all the time on that. It was pretty cool," he continued. "I had learned how to do tons of tape editing with razor blades, so it was very simple. But we ended up doing a lot of big projects all on analog tape machines, big 24-track, or two 24-tracks, and I would finish it and mix it down to half-inch analog tape."

It wasn't until 1992 that Eli bought a SoundTools 2-track version, but he couldn't afford a hard disk. So he did very short things.

"I didn't have enough money to do a whole album's worth of editing, and I quickly realized there wasn't much for me to do with it–so I sold it. I could just afford the card and the software for an old Mac IIci I was running it on–I couldn't afford the rest of it," he laughed.

When Sound Manager started to improve, they could run their DigiDesign session software and Protools would run on Sound Manager with no card. That sort of changed everything for Eli and his friends, because they all had Macs that they did all kinds of stuff on. Sequencing was easy to do, because it didn't take much disk space.

"It was all about tweaking your MIDI interface, your settings and stuff. So once you got it set it would work really well. But since I was coming from a tape background, I never really got into sequencing because it was a lot of setting up keyboards to work right and I sort of never got into that–I have a business partner in DC who's the more sequencing guy.

"But when we started using session software–which was the first thing we could afford, sort of their cheaper ProTools–that really changed things a lot. It was at that point that hard disks were getting cheaper and cheaper, and processors were getting faster and faster and Protools and Session were just getting cheaper, and it all just sort of came together. We could do whole projects on it at our house–that was really exciting."

They were running it all on the Mac IIci, and then they got a Quadra 700–a big moment, as it was a very impressive machine at the time.

"Basically we just kept on upgrading: 'oh we need a bigger hard drive, we need more RAM.' And when we finally got PowerPCs and the real Power Tools software, we started being able to do commercial work. We became pretty fearless about taking any project on."

By this time Eli had moved up to New York to focus on Girls Against Boys, so he started to spend a lot of time traveling back and forth between his band and his friends in DC who had the computers and software. He was also occasionally DJing at clubs in both New York and D.C.

Eli and his D.C. friends were mostly working on their own music, and maybe editing some things here and there. They didn't really have a professional setup yet, so Eli had to use a professional studio if somebody had a really big commercial project they wanted him to do.

"I guess it wasn't until the 7500 came out–do you remember what year that was?–that's the one we got, that's what made it real. The 7500, I remember I said, 'this has everything that we want.' That was the year we started taking on a lot of commercial work. And we were doing all that at our house–it was really cool. Because, you know, studios in New York are incredibly expensive–especially if they have digital editing equipment.

"So once we had all that, it was really easy to work. We had ProTools with the AudioMedia card, and we could digitally transfer from a DAT machine and edit and work on stuff."

Eli kept producing and engineering, recording other bands' albums, and doing remixes and his own music or small projects, blending punk, go-go, trip-hop, techno, funk, and disco sounds. Meanwhile, of course, GVSB is still going on during this whole time.

"So now that I have the PowerBook G3 I can do this stuff on the road when GVSB is touring or whatever," Eli says. "That's the totally crazy part. I can work almost anywhere."

Geek Talk

B: Whatcha got on that thing anyway?

E: I've got ReBirth, which I LOVE. ReBirth is amazing–especially with my mobile setup - because first of all, to find those old vintage machines is nearly impossible. The only thing about it is you can't use it within ProTools, so I make sequences, mix them down as an AIFF file, which is unfortunately is the only file format they use, and then print them onto the hard drive as a digital audio file that I can import into ProTools. So you can actually make a sequence then sort of internally record it to the hard drive. I did that for the Duran Duran remix that we did.

B: Which song of theirs did you remix?

E: We remixed "Electric Barbarella" from their last album. They sent us the tapes, so we had to go into a studio because they sent us tapes instead of files, so we made our files from the original tapes. It was really fun because we could go through and mess with all the tracks.

B: Did you listen to Duran Duran in the '80s? Simon LeBon was my first epiphany of teen lust. But I don't know how big they were among guys.

E: Yeah, you know the thing was it wasn't "cool" to like them in high school, especially because I was so punk rock. But Duran Duran are such an icon that I couldn't resist doing the remix.

B: You know Nick Rhodes uses a PowerBook onstage. This guy named Mark Tinley does most of Duran Duran's sampling and programming (see "The New Architecture of Sound" and sets up Nick's PowerBook so he can play it onstage.

E: No kidding! That's interesting.

B: So are you the main mixer or does Steve do an equal amount?

E: Well, it depends on the project really. Morcheeba I did by myself, Duran Duran we did together–it was very 50/50 because often I'm not in town. He's also got a graphic design business. He does a lot of album covers, and he's very successful at that–he did the new Bad Religion album, he did the art direction on our Freak*on*ica album cover.

B: Wow, you've both got a lot going on.

E: I tell you, you gotta in this day and age. You've got to have stuff to fall back on. And you've got to pay for your own health insurance. But anyway. So now I have some questions for you...

B: Uh oh.

E: ... about storage. This is the thing that we started running into. Once you start doing serious digital track editing, you run into all these problems where your hard drives aren't fast enough and your SCSI cables, bus speed...

B: What have you got now?

E: Right now we primarily have the 7500, which internally is SCSI 2. We have two hard drives, one with programs and one just for data. That works really well, that's pretty reliable.

B: You might check out some external Ultra SCSI 2...

E: Actually, we got a 9GB external with a card...

B: That's funny, I did this 3-page lab feature on 9GB external Ultra SCSI...

E: Yeah! I think we bought the one you recommended, actually. Though we usually buy off of DigiDesign's list of approved and recommended stuff.

B: Blah blah blah IDE

E: It does some things better and some things worse, so we haven't decided. You know it's interesting, we were looking into buying a G3 but they replaced the internal SCSI with IDE, which is not good for us. You're not supposed to run [ProTools] on IDE because it's not fast enough. And also the RAM slots, you know there's a lot less RAM slots, so for us, the exact things that we need were just taken out. So we decided not to buy it, to just get a processor upgrade and wait.

The other problem we're running into is the slots. We were thinking of buying the full-on super expensive ProTools, but that's at least two cards, if not three. You really should have three. So you can't have your external Ultra hard drive, you can't get a video card, that's the other thing we wanted to get is a second monitor, because there's so much stuff on the screen. You need to spread it out.

B: What other stuff are you using?

E: We've got the Waves native PowerPack plug-ins–that's like the Swiss army knife of plug-ins, it's so perfect; it has compressor, EQ, reverb, gating, it has all the basic things. It's not special effects thing, it's just your basic studio tools. It's really indispensable, that I can't recommend enough. And we bought DFX plug-ins from DigiDesign, which is more special effects plug-ins, delay and flanging and stuff like that.

We also use Studio Vision and Studio Vision Pro for sequencing. But we've had this problem where some start as sequencer songs where we use Studio Vision, and some songs start as all digital audio, so we use ProTools. And it's very difficult to integrate the two without a second machine, which would be ridiculous. So we got a copy of Cubase VST, which puts those two things together.

Cubase has been very popular, everyone I talk to now is like, yeah that's what I'm using now all the time. So the plan right now is we're going to do a whole project on it and see if it really works. It could be interesting.

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