MILWAUKEE — Live performances and recordings have long been an integral part of the format here at Milwaukee’s WMSE(FM). For the annual Record Store Day, the station has married this popular aspect of our offerings and identity with another of its long-standing traditions: vinyl.
On April 18, WMSE released the 7-inch single “Live From the WMSE Studios: Field Report.” The release features a unique venture and mutual celebration between Chris Porterfield of the band Field Report and WMSE; it also shines light on the work the station’s recording engineer Billy Cicerelli produces on a regular basis.
In his 16 years at the station, Cicerelli estimates he has recorded 2,000 live band performances and countless more over his 30-year career. He believes it takes a balance of technology and human touch to create a good recording.
“When the station got its first recording equipment in ’98–99, Pro Tools was state of the art. I wasn’t getting the credit for good-sounding recordings as much as Pro Tools was. We used the same system for 13 years, and later in that time period people thought I was a genius for making old equipment sound good,” he said.
“When we got the new gear in 2012, I thought, ‘Now am I back to being an idiot with good gear?’ I say, ‘It’s the ear, not the gear.’”
This adage is particularly true in mixing for radio, where the limiting and compression doesn’t allow one to hear the outcome until it’s actually broadcast. By listening to and evaluating the broadcasts over time, Cicerelli has learned to mix for radio.
Chris Porterfield and Billy Cicerelli (seated) work on a cut from the album.THE SET
It is not only the broadcasting that is a challenge to live recording, but the station location itself.
Musicians set up in the main common area of the station, the library, with two-story ceilings and walls lined with records. It also happens to be the main entrance and thoroughfare. Though this is not the controlled environment of a recording studio, Cicerelli has learned to make it work. He lets the high ceilings and sound absorption of the vinyl-lined walls do their part to finesse the acoustics. The drums are placed in a large carpeted area, the only place they fit. They are miked the same way as the rest of the band: close-miked, not overmiked, allowing the bleed through from the other microphones to augment the drum sound.
From there, he uses a basic setup that is tweaked depending on the band. The system consists of a Pro Tools HD native system with a Focusrite ISA828 eight-channel preamp, a Curtis Technologies eight-channel preamp and a Focusrite 2802 mixer/control surface. He starts with a 24-channel session template set up in Pro Tools, and uses Waves Renaissance EQs, V series EQs, Focusrite D3 compressors and Waves NLS Non-Linear Summer for plug-ins. On the master channel he uses Waves C4 multiband compressor and IK Multimedia Bus Compressor and a Waves L3 Multimaximizer multiband peak limiter. For the Field Report release, which is an acoustic solo performance by Porterfield, Cicerelli used a Shure SM58 microphone for the vocals and went direct with the acoustic guitar using a Waves PS22 Stereo Maker plug-in to give the guitar a stereo image.
The album art featuring a deer jawbone was designed by local Milwaukee artist Von Munz.HUMAN SKILLS
Beyond the sound, a good recording depends on getting a good performance out of the musicians, which again, requires good technology paired with good human skills. “A great recording of a bad performance isn’t worth anything,” Cicerelli said.
Before the performance, bands send him information about instruments, gear and members. At the performance, each musician gets Elite Core Audio PM-16 16-channel headphone mixers — which Cicerelli says are absolutely amazing — and control over his or her headphone mix. Cicerelli does his part to put the bands at ease by being prepared and at ease himself.
“If they don’t see that, they have something else to think about, and it takes away from their performance,” he said. He plays back the sound check so they can hear what they sound like, and this, he finds, ensures a level of comfort and confidence as well.
“That the band knows they are going out live adds an intangible to the performance that gives them energy to play really well. Certain bands are just live bands,” he said. “I’m of the belief bands should be better live than on a record.”
In most cases, Cicerelli needs not do much to adjust the recording when the performance is done. Bands get a copy of the performance when they walk out the door of the station, and some have released those recordings as part of larger works or as EPs. WMSE has put out 13 CD collections of in-studio performances.
WMSE plays a variety of music spanning all genres, so Cicerelli has recorded everything from garage bands to eight-foot vibes to traditional African percussion. His formal training as a keyboardist gives him an appreciation and respect for the performers he works with, from eclectic ensembles to a man and his guitar.
“I want the band to sound the way they want to sound, not how I think they should sound,” he said. “I’m just letting people sound as great as they are. Chris [Porterfield] has control of his dynamic. He has the ability to draw people in with the melody and then, as a writer, he gives something lyrically there for you once you’re drawn in.”
In the end, Cicerelli credits a symbiotic relationship between himself and the musicians who grace WMSE’s studio with performances with the quality of the recording experience. “It’s important to never think you know everything,” he said. “[With my experience] I can both teach the musicians who come in and learn from them. The majority of people either like a song or they don’t. It’s a one or a zero. They never say, ‘If they used a different mic on the snare I’d like the song more.’”
Stephanie Kilen is a staff member of WMSE in Milwaukee.
We’re looking for your radio production stories. Email ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.