Mike Avenaim: Much more than a drummer
Mike Avenaim is a far cry from the guy just holding down a beat at the back of the band. From a classical percussive training to playing label gigs and TV shows around Australia, Avenaim radiates both a deep appreciation of music and remarkable technical skill. He has made a respected name for himself in L.A. as a talented instrumentalist who can turn his hands to anything, from drumming and composing, to now mixing and producing in his own state-of-the-art recording studio. A self-professed gear geek, he’s always loved the technical side of recording, and talks to us now about the huge difference Sound Radix has made to his work.
Did you always set your sights on becoming a top session drummer?
Yeah, I think that I always wanted to do this. My Dad is pretty musical, and so is my Mum. My uncle was a musician too, and I guess just kind of watching him do it made me feel it was something I’d want to do as well. I was probably always banging pots and pans as a young child, then seriously started playing instruments by the time I was about eight. I started off doing classical training - piano and marimbas and xylophones and classical percussion and all that - and that morphed into drums as a teenager when I wanted to be in a rock band. Right through elementary school I did school bands and state bands and had a band with my friend. By the time I was 16, I was heavily into jazz and had a jazz trio that played around Sydney all the time; that was a big focus for me. I was adamant at that time that I wanted to be a jazz musician; I was totally into that idea that I would play be-bop forever and that would be amazing! And then I got this opportunity literally the week I was finishing high school; somebody contacted me and said they were in a band and were going to L.A. to record at Paramount, and asked did I want to go? So, I went to the audition for this band and they were like “cool, we’re going to L.A. in two weeks, do you want to come?” And I was like “err…yeah!” So I guess that was the beginning of my pop-rock commercial music career. Though obviously it wasn’t an immediate leap to the top. I was in L.A. for a few months, recorded a record and met a bunch of people, then went back to Australia and spent the next four years in Australia doing all the main label gigs, TV performances with different artists and sessions there, before I moved to L.A. permanently when I was 22.
Was that the Porcelain period?
Yeah pretty much; I came back from LA and pursued my own band for a bit but you know how these things work, people don’t get along and things fall apart. During that period I had been playing gigs for a different artist; Mike Taylor who runs Universal Music in Australia was at one gig, and I just happened to be talking to him at the bar. He had this band from L.A. that were coming over to do some stuff and were looking for a drummer. I met the guitar player and he said “come down and have a jam” - I was unaware that they were having auditions, in my mind they were just calling me down to play - so I went down and played with them and really the next day I was thrown into that. That’s where Porcelain started, and I did that until I moved to L.A.
The old stereotype is that a band is made up of three musicians and a drummer… but that’s not fair to you; you’re very technical musically talented. Do you think the modern drummer has had to get more technically accomplished in order to survive?
I think it’s funny, that stereotype. I doesn’t apply to me, and I feel like most drummers I know, it really doesn’t apply to them. Maybe it used to apply in terms of there being a guy just smashing on drums, who didn’t know anything about the music. But maybe because of that stereotype, people have spent more time on it. Growing up in the musical background I did I was always told it was very important that I understand why I was playing what I was playing. And I try to teach people that - my students or anybody who asks me - I focus on not simply playing drums because I’m playing drums; you still need to be playing music. The music is more important than what I am physically doing on the drums. I didn’t have that many jobs when I was growing up because I was so focused on what was the appropriate thing to play for whatever situation I was in. So all the technical side of it came later for me. It’s so important to understand or play other instruments because it makes your approach to the drums different, as opposed to just playing a beat because that’s what you should play.
And what do you think has made you as technical as you are musical?
I’ve always been really into the engineering side of recording music. I’m a huge geek with gear, I love all that stuff, I love consoles. Every time I was in a studio I was really intrigued by what was happening on the other side of the glass to where I was playing. There was a brief period in time where I was considering being an engineer because I was so into it. That didn’t really happen, but every record I made or every session I was in I paid a lot of attention to the engineer and the producer and asked a ton of questions, and that morphed into the idea that one day I was going to have my own studio. Obviously it takes a long time because there’s a lot of gear and just learning the right way to go; so the actual development of my studio in terms of gear didn’t really happen until maybe like four years ago, when I first started putting pieces together. It really is a long process to be able to do it right, especially with drums as you have so many microphones and phasing issues and learning not how to not overdo the sounds and get just the right amount of compression and EQ. There are exceptions: I just cut a session last week for an artist in Australia and he really wanted me to go nuts with the sounds and the gear, which is always a fun experience because you get to push everything way more than you should, and they’re happy with me committing to the sound. I had distorted room mics – JHS just released these new colour box preamps where you can really, really mess up the sound. The producer, who I work with frequently, said “with this particular project you can do what you want, go ham on everything!” So that’s fun. But it did take a long time. I have a friend in Nashville - Bobby Holland - he’s a great engineer, producer, musician; and he helped me a ton. When I first started I would record a bunch of things and send them to him, and he would tell me what I was doing wrong and what sounded bad. You definitely need a good source of people above you to tell you when it’s not right. There are a ton of books and there is the technical way of doing everything but I think the practical application is significantly better for learning. Reading a book doesn’t actually show you what it’s like when you’re doing it.
So it’s taken a long time to get that technical skill where your intuition for what you play on the drums is just as good for where you put the microphone.
Let’s talk more about the software you use when you’re mixing. How did you first hear about Sound Radix?
Originally the application was my first introduction to the company. When Pro Tools switched to their new system and everything was 64-bit, I had older plug-ins and wasn’t able to get them across. I was frantically searching for some way to get them across and I tried a couple of things, but 32 Lives definitely works the smoothest and best. It felt to me like it didn’t have any issues, no convoluted things that stay on your screen and you have to move them out of the way to pull up another plug-in. It just works in the background which was what I wanted. After that, Greg Wurth - a friend of mine - had been talking about this company and what it does, and that there were so many specific drum applications that they make. Obviously for me with so many microphones and different sources of audio in my studio, sometimes you end up with issues of phase. And the way I have my studio set up I have my monitoring system in front of my kit, so when I’m recording I can listen to playback, on and off with a monitoring control. So sometimes in that space something I think sounds in phase actually isn’t when I get it back to the mixing room. So having and those other applications became a really good source for me to (a) visually see what was going on, and (b) really hook everything up exactly how it needs to be so when you’re in the mix you’re getting the exact amount of punch from what you just recorded.
How did you live without it before?!
It’s very interesting, at first I was like “how do I even do this!?” I was following the instructions on the website, their suggested tools and so on. You just get so used to the sound you record all the time, that once I put it on I was like “Woah!” It gives you such a different thing to what you think you recorded. All of a sudden, you’ve got this massive low end in your kick drum - I guess the way it’s supposed to happen without having to go physically through and delay things or try and pull the alignment. I also found that things that were in phase sounded even better when I put it on, even though they were already in phase. It just has this ability to put everything with such accuracy that it gives you a totally different vibe. So Auto-Align became a really useful tool, especially because I do licensing compositions and things: I do all the instrumentation then I go record drums, and I don’t spend so much time on that when I’m working on those compositions because there’s such a short deadline, but I always want the live drum element. So I might run in to the studio and change a bunch of drums really quickly and put the mics up and record and then get back and find I had mis-aligned – I use three kick drum mics so one of them might have been mis-aligned or not in line with the overheads properly. So just being able to pull that in really quickly and get it all happening, and all of a sudden it’s like “yeah that’s what I wanted it to be like!”
Have you limited Auto-Align to drums, or have you experimented with other instruments?
I’ve tried it on a bunch of things, like percussion stuff and trying to move bass to align with kick drums to see what that does. And it definitely gives you something you didn’t think that you recorded. It’s laying out what it would have been like had you perfectly aligned everything; so I think it’s a good tool to find out whether you wanted it to be like that or whether you didn’t. Really up until that application it was quite hard to perfectly align things, especially if you’re just dragging it around, or guessing how much of a delay time you need to add or subtract, just to get it to be right there. Whereas the app is doing it for you; and it’s fast. You can listen whether you want it or whether you don’t want it so quickly.
Do you think you would work without it now?
The only times I don’t use it now is when I want something to sound weird! If I want it to be a situation where I don’t necessarily want that much low end from things or don’t even want it to be aligned, because sometimes I do weird stuff where it just sounds cool with it not making sense, and sounding more like an effect rather than a really punchy kick. But it is a hard thing to do, once you know what Auto-Align can do, to not use it. You pull in a session and start mixing things then in the back of your mind you’re thinking “I wonder what it would sound like if I run this through Auto-Align quickly?’ You get stuck on that, like “would it sound better if I do that now?” It’s also really quick, so it’s not one of those things you think “ah I’m not going to do that now because it’ll take 35 minutes out of my session” You can essentially align everything within ten minutes, once you get a good hang of the application and what works for your system and set-up, what microphones need to be aligned with what. So yeah…I could do it without it, but it’s a situation now where I’m always thinking what it would be like if I used it. I was just talking to Greg about this the other day; I did some drums for him so he could record certain plug-in demos, and I was doing this weird thing for him where I had a kick drum with a bunch of mics in there and then another resonator kick drum in front of that with mics in front of that! It sounds so cool. So I just wanted to send him something kinda weird so he didn’t have the same stuff he always uses. And he said “everything sounds really good, but there was just a couple little phase things because you have so many kick drum mics, but I ran it through Auto-Align and everything’s fine!”
You talk a lot about using Auto-Align on your own gear; do you ever use it on other peoples’ sessions you get sent, to see what it does?
Yeah, it’s a good test, especially if you don’t know how the recording was done. Anything labelled ‘overhead room mics’ is such a subjective term. You can write ‘room mics’ and what they really meant is they were in a 15 x 10 room with a mic one foot from the kit in front, but because it’s not directly on the kit they write ‘room mic’. You just can’t tell, if they have a PZM in the room, stuff like that. People don’t spend a lot of time on it usually when they’re mic-ing their stuff, they just throw stuff around the room and then go. It definitely becomes a good tool to actually find out where things are. It’s weird sometimes; you think ambient sounds so great in the room when you get the mics, and then you whack that on and align it with your overheads and all of a sudden the room sounds five times bigger than what it just sounded like. It’s amazing how much of an importance it is for that type of recording, using a lot of ambient mic-ing. Which I love. You can always do the closed mic-ing thing which is easy in terms of phase, but once you start adding six microphones in the room you’ve really got to capture the right combination of things to make the room sound as big as it should. Auto-Align is a very fast way to get everything the way supposed to be. It’s useful for everyone to whack onto things, especially if you’re doing a lot of mixing, or if you’re not very familiar with the mixing of multiple drum mics. If it’s not something you usually do, this is a great tool to really make sure you get the best sound out of all of the mics that somebody sends you.
So it’s a useful tool for those who are early to recording?
Yeah, I think it’s a good way to learn quickly what happens if you don’t have something in phase. I definitely remember when I was first recording, in the first variation of my studio I had maybe six to eight channels; and I would record everything then zoom in all the way as far as it would go in Pro Tools so I could look whether the kick drum lined up with the snare drum, then I would take a picture of it and send it to a producer I knew, and say “am I doing it right? Is it supposed to sound like this??”
When you have no idea what you’re doing it’s very difficult to even hear the difference initially; you can put something in and think “yeah, it sounds good to me”, then you give it to someone else and they say “everything’s out of phase”. And in your mind you’re like “why!?” Everything looks like it’s in phase but it’s not. I think from a learning perspective this is a great tool to really see that if something isn’t in phase how much of a difference it makes to your audio, and how significantly easier it is to mix once it is in phase.
Finally, what bit of advice would you offer to a young 16-year-old Mike, as to what has got you this far?
I think the most important thing, especially in the industry now, is really nothing to do with music, more with tenacity. Stay focused on what you’re trying to get done. I always hate the motivational “stay true to what you believe!” stuff, but I really feel like that’s a big reason as to how I’ve had any kind of success: I’ve always stuck to what I’m trying to get done and kept shooting for that particular thing. There’s a lot of times in the industry that’s it’s de-motivating and sometimes it feels that it’s not really working, but it’s so important that if it’s what you want to do, you keep pushing at it. That’s probably what I would tell myself: if you feel like it’s not happening, don’t stop doing it, just keep pushing it ‘cos it will flip back around.