Recording and Mixing Mando Diao Unplugged
In 2010 Swedish rock band Mando Diao put down their electric guitars and played an exclusive show taped for MTV Unplugged in the Union Film studios of Berlin. Dirk Schulz from DS Soundworks was the FOH engineer for the unplugged sessions, recording and mixing the material that was later to become the band’s most recent long player, Above and Beyond MTV Unplugged. The album has meanwhile reached gold status and Dirk has been working on many another prestigious project. Being considered a little out of the ordinary, however, Steinberg was keen to talk to Dirk about Mando Diao’s acoustic performance and his close relationship with the band.
How long have you been doing live recordings? What do you consider to be highlights of your career so far?
My work as a studio engineer started in the beginning of the ’90s and was always connected to live recordings due to the fact that I started mixing live shows as well around that time. I did lots of live CDs and DVDs but the most complex project in recording was indeed Mando Diao’s MTV Unplugged sessions one and a half years ago, and this was indeed quite a successful highlight for everybody involved in this great project.
Have the requirements of your clients changed over the years?
Requirements are continuously growing with the increase in possibilities. The DAW-based recording has washed away many of the limitations you may encounter in the analog world. But its benefits only unfold when you know how to use it to support and accomplish a creative process. This is how I describe my way of working and this is what my clients appreciate.
How did you get the job with Mando Diao?
Besides my sound work, I toured here and there as a guitar tech for Mando Diao a couple of years ago. On tour we had several conversations about sound, mics and vintage preamps and I told Carlos, the road manager, that I was planning on quitting my guitar tech job in order to focus on doing sound again. Carlos asked if I were interested in mixing a festival show to see how things went, which I did and it turned out just fine. Since then I’ve been standing behind the faders for Mando Diao.
Did you enjoy mixing the Above and Beyond album?
Oh yes, I did so very much. But frankly, most of the time I was working on my own in the studio, but we used Skype to talk about possible changes. Most of the days I was bouncing rough mixes out of Cubase and in the end, Carlos came over to finalize the track lists for the different media like CD, DVD, vinyl etc. It was the biggest project in file and detail I ever worked on, but it was worth every minute.
What setup did you use for the MTV Unplugged gig? How did you determine the types of mics you used for the occasion?
The preparations for the recordings took about three months but I knew from the start that I was going to use Audix microphones for most of the signals. These mics are very precise when it comes to specifying a sound. You just need to know which one fits best to the desired range of frequency. I’ve experienced this using Audix many times in the studio and in other live situations. At the end we had about 128 channels including 18 ambient microphones for room and audience. The audio was put together in a broadcasting van via three MADI streams on HD in 48 kHz/24 bits.
So all track assembly, mixing and editing was performed in Cubase? And what made you choose Cubase?
I am a Cubase user since the early days. I am convinced that the Cubase audio engine sounds a bit more open than what I’ve experienced when using other DAWs. The surface allows for a fast and easy workflow; the updates are always deep. Before I began mixing the Mando Diao gig back then, I’d updated to version 5. I tried it for a couple of days before finally loading the files. Each of the 128 files was over two hours long and each had a size of 1.2 GB! At the time my system was still on 32 bits so I decided to split the whole thing into four different projects to save processing power. As soon as I had a good-sounding approximation for the first songs of the first project, I stored each channel, groups and effects and copied them into the other three projects to maintain basic settings across all four projects. The amount of automation data was immense, but I never lost control because I work with folders for each group of instruments. After editing a track I locked the channel to avoid moving a cut slice accidentally. This is very important when you have files that are not related to any project tempo.
How does mixing a live band with only acoustic instruments differ from your usual live productions?
The more acoustic the quieter the environment has to be. I mean the main goal is to avoid leakage from the loudest instrument on stage. If this is guaranteed I’m going to have less of a problem to separate each instrument. After fine-tuning, I can use the ambient mics to fuse everything together again.
Are there any specific rules you follow to effectively pull off a live recording?
Of course there are. First of all, if the band’s using amplifiers I try to put them as far from the vocal and drum mics as I possibly can. With Mando Diao we always have them off stage, not only for recording situations but also to ensure the quality of the in-ear sound. This helps the musicians to locate all sources easier, which improves the band’s performance and in return is beneficial to the entire recording. Another important aspect is positioning the right microphone at the right place in the right angle. This is the weapon to capture things clear and narrow. If I have the chance to cover up the mics with some cloth I can reduce the leakage from the surroundings to a minimum.
Plans to continue working for Mando Diao, or can you reveal anything else currently in the works?
The band leaders of Mando Diao have a side project called Caligola. It’s more electronic and has dance-oriented elements combined with mystic vibes and vintage guitars. I’m also doing the engineering for their live shows. In addition I’m currently mixing and directing a live DVD from Paddy Kelly’s recent tour recorded in December 2011.