Sound and Vision. A Mac-based Digital/Analog hybrid setup allows veteran sound designer Michael Hutchinson to approach his projects “ears first.” (from 2008)
Michael Hutchinson’s words of wisdom to musicians mixing on home digital equipment is almost Yoda-like in it’s simplicity: “My biggest advice to home users,” he says, “is close your eyes when you can, and use your fingers and your ears. I know that sounds so cliché, but it is really true.”
As someone with more than 25 years experience mixing sound for artists as diverse as The Manhattan Transfer, Berlin and Joe Cocker, as well as for FOX Latin and CBS, Hutchinson has good reason for trusting techniques mastered on analog equipment. “The way I came up is you used your hearing more than you did sight, because there was no monitor to show you the waveform or how to edit it.”
By relying on a Mackie HUI (Human User Interface) surface controller to provide a traditional studio feel from his digital setup Hutchinson is able to close his eyes and mix while focusing on the sound, as opposed to relying on prescribed formulas, a trap he sees younger mixers who haven’t done much work on analog equipment falling into.
“Cumulatively, you would be mixing by numbers, and therefore having a sound that’s very sterile,” he said. “Things might be clogging up behind each other, when really you wouldn’t do that if you just closed your eyes and moved things around.” Hutchinson’s studio monitors are Tannoy NFM-8s.
Though he learned the ropes on analog equipment, Hutchinson applied his fastidious approach to mixing on computer-based pro audio soon after it hit the market. In the mid ‘80s he bought his first Apple Computer (a Mac +), and has been creating music on Macs ever since. In the late ‘80s an Apple SE30 (his second Mac) allowed him to run Sound Tools, a predecessor to the now-ubiquitous Pro Tools.
“It was only a two track software — people used it to sample. I started mixing straight into the computer,” Hutchinson said. He loved the results so much that he’s owned a string of Macs since then, culminating in his latest – a G4 boasting dual processors and 2 GB of RAM.
Hutchinson’s current setup features enough hard drive space (4 internal and 6 external drives) to hold his audio and special effects library, his assortment of applications that include Pro Tools and Ableton Live as well as files and software needed for his work as a sound designer for television and film. By relying largely on external devices like a Pro Tools TDM rig to perform most of his digital sound processing, Hutchinson avoids CPU clogging that often slows down less well endowed computer-based studios. “Even though I have a blazing fast dual processor G4,” he says, “I don’t tax it, because I prefer having it blaze while everything else is working as it should.”
Despite the preponderance of digital components in Hutchinson’s studio, some things never change: “I always have tubes at the front end,” he says. “The reason I do that is that I want some of that even-order harmonic distortion that tubes get when you overdrive them a bit.” For that he relies on a TL Audio Preamp, using an Audio Technica 4033 microphone — a piece of equipment he swears by — to record vocals.
Hutchinson has nothing but praise for the Macintosh architecture at the heart of his recording setup. “The thing about OS X is that it’s a very elegant system, it’s very deep and still maintains that Mac user-friendly thing,” he says. “It’s very easy for a Mac user, even with all of the security and precautions built into 10, due to its Unix shell; there’s still that idea that a Mac user can modify his system greatly with ease, whereas a PC user can’t really do that as easily.”
Not surprising words from someone who could accurately be called a Mac fanatic. “I still own every Mac I ever bought,” Hutchinson says. “One day I’m going to hook them all together and let them talk to each other,” he says, and I half believe him. It’s clear that he is quite satisfied with the current setup — or his “souped up Porsche” as he calls it — which allows him all the freedom and flexibility he requires.
“I have everything here that I could find at any large studio, except for one item, and that would be a large console.” But adaptability is what it’s all about, and Michael Hutchinson has done quite well customizing a recording setup that delivers digital clarity and flexibility while satisfying his need for an analog feel.