Meet Lecturer Pete Dowsett
Abbey Road Institute lecturer Pete Dowsett has worked at some of the most well-known studios in the UK, with major artists such as Pharrell Williams, Snoop Dogg, and the Black Eyed Peas. Recently he has served as a freelance engineer for producer Tom Nichols (Kylie Minogue, All Saints, Sugababes) on recordings with the likes of Dua Lipa, Laura Mvula and Scouting for Girls. We caught up with Pete to talk engineering, his new online course and youtube channel, and common mixing mistakes.
What do you teach at Abbey Road Institute?
I teach the audio engineering tools module. It covers the various types of processing tools available to audio engineers and how to use them. I cover equalisation, dynamics and effects as well as many of the fundamental tools we use for recording audio like microphones, consoles etc. We integrate each tool slowly, with a slant towards working chronologically. For instance, in the very first assignment in the module, you get an instrumental that you have to mix with only basic balancing and passive EQ. This replicates the types of processing that would have been done pre stereo.
What made you get into audio engineering?
As a child, I had three main interests: sports, music and computing. In my teenage years, I took up the guitar and everything changed. I studied music technology at A level but I actually started a computer science degree. My progression into music production and audio engineering accelerated dramatically because I took over the reins of producing a record for my band when the producer quit halfway through. The enjoyment of producing this record caused me to switch courses to a purely music production course. I always felt that my career in music production perfectly blends two of my three passions.
You’ve previously published a book (Audio Production Tips: Getting The Sound Right At The Source) on recording, what have you been up to recently?
I run a website called Audio Production Tips. I am not just looking to help people make better home recordings, but teach the principles that you would be expected to know as an audio engineer. The majority of the material I put out there is free, with a new blog and YouTube video weekly. For those wanting a more thorough step-by-step guide to learning subjects I have started releasing some courses too, the first is about dynamics processing, it covers all dynamics processing with a heavier slant on compression. I teach it in four weekly sections, week 1 is the fundamental terminology and parameters you are likely to find on dynamics tools. Week 2 concentrates on all the different problems dynamic tools can solve and how to use them, I do all of this with stock plug-ins. Week 3 is about the “classic compressors” and focuses on the history of compression, the well-known devices and what they are good for. Week 4 puts everything you have learned into practice and I mix two songs in entirety explaining my decisions (with the dynamics decisions in more depth). One of these tracks needs more work and the other is recorded and produced very well, so it is good to see the two extremes and how to approach differs between them.
What are some of the biggest misconceptions and mistakes when people start out mixing?
I think the biggest learning curve for a lot of students is how to best balance the technical side with the creation of art. It is very easy to get bogged down with one side or the other, some students are much more technically minded and struggle to create soundscapes which are emotive and take you on a journey. Other students are very artistic but struggle to get the tools working for them, rather than taking a trial and error based approach. The audio engineering tools module can be quite technical so it is important to blend in practical advice and speak about decision making and mindset too. My aim is that, by the end of the module, every student can see the bigger picture and understand how to use the tools to get results quickly.
In terms of specific problems I see time and time again, there are three that string to mind:
1) Overuse of EQ when other tools like panning, balance, compression and saturation may get better results. The sound of equalisation is often easier for a novice to hear, certainly compared to compression. In the lectures, I am very quick to point out how there are usually multiple ways to solve any problem.
2) Another one is just using trial and error to set a compressor. There needs to be a specific reason why you are using compression and often this goes beyond overall dynamic control and into the territory of trying to control a specific part of a sounds lifecycle. For instance, trying to get more attack out of a kick drum and how that can be achieved by setting the attack and release to suppress the sustain and then matching the make-up gain to the gain reduction.
3) Finally, the use of effects is often misjudged. In most commercial recordings there are several reverbs and delays interacting in complex ways, some of which you “feel” rather than hear. By trying to get everything from one reverb can end up with something that sounds too wet and “washes the sound out”, meaning that you can lose punch or intimacy.
What would be the most essential gear you would need to make a professional mix?
These days, plug-ins are so good that you don’t need a mixing console and outboard hardware. However, it is extremely difficult to produce a great mix if your monitoring sucks. I would advise people to invest in their interface, monitors and the acoustics of the space they are working in.
Everyone likes to be a bit of a gear snob though, so if you are asking me my desert island tools I don’t think I could live without, they would be the Brainworx SSL E channel, the UAD Pultecs, 1176 and LA2A series and the FabFilter Pro Q3.
Want to hear from another member of our expert staff? Meet Music Business lecturer Yannis Illiopolous HERE