Stories from a Pro: Frank Filipetti

As a veteran of high-end digital recording and mixing, Frank Filipetti has worked with everyone from James Taylor to KISS to Andrea Bocelli, and he’s won multiple GRAMMY awards doing it.

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Frank's also a convert to RX and loves to use Ozone as a pre-mastering tool. Just don’t ask him what he thinks about dropping a needle on a record...

 

As a veteran of high-end digital recording and mixing, Frank Filipetti has worked with everyone from James Taylor to KISS to Andrea Bocelli, and he's won multiple GRAMMY awards doing it. He's also a recent convert to RX Advanced and loves to use Ozone as a pre-mastering tool. Just don't ask him what he thinks about dropping a needle on a record...

Back in the early '80s, when digital recorders started hitting the market, Frank Filipetti was the new chief engineer at Right Track Recording Studios in Manhattan. He'd just landed his first big project recording the music for a film musical that was supervised by Peter Asher, the legendary producer behind hit albums by James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt. It was the start of a lucrative creative partnership; the following year, Asher hired Filipetti to work on Taylor's next album, and by late 1988, they were gearing up to work together again on the 10,000 Maniacs album Blind Man's Zoo.

Asher was a fan of the emerging digital medium, but when he told Filipetti that he wanted to record the band on a Mitsubishi X-850, the young engineer balked. "I just wasn't nuts about it," he recalls. "It was cumbersome and the sound didn't knock me out. Digital wasn't perfect then. There was this thing that happened when your tracks got converted, and I didn't like waiting until mastering to try to fix all that stuff."

It took a few more years for the technology to catch up to what Filipetti was looking for, but when it did, he jumped in with both feet. One day in 1994, during a break at Abbey Road Studios, he went upstairs to try out their new Neve Capricorn digital console, and he was hooked. Up to this point, he'd been recording digitally but went into an SSL console to mix; full automation wasn't an option. As a former singer-songwriter (he was signed to three different labels in the '70s), Filipetti sees mixing as a performance, where instinct plays an important role. Eventually, digital technology allowed him to follow his gut, and he never looked back.

"With the Capricorn, I could do that rough mix, and the next time I pulled the session up, it was there," he explains. "One of the things that always bugged us in the analog world was how great the rough mixes were, and then having to try to recreate them later. It's exactly like trying to recreate a performance if you're a vocalist. You do this great take off the cuff, and then you start trying to remember what you did. That's why the demo always had this feel. With a rough mix, you're moving by instinct and impulse. There's no thought involved. Thinking is really the bane of music—that's why you get in so much trouble with a DAW, because you have a lot of time to think."

 

"With a rough mix, you're moving by instinct and impulse. There's no thought involved. Thinking is really the bane of music..."

Now with dozens of projects under his belt—including GRAMMY awards for the Broadway cast albums of Elton John and Tim Rice's Aida, Stephen Schwartz's Wicked, Monty Python's Spamalotand Trey Parker and Matt Stone's The Book of Mormon—Filipetti has become one of the leading proponents in the music industry for recording, mixing and producing entirely in the digital realm. In fact, he's so firm in his commitment to the medium and its qualitative superiority to analog recording that he's not averse to tearing down a few sacred cows when he gets the chance. During a producer's panel at the 2011 AES Conference in New York, he scoffed at the recent upward trend in vinyl sales, describing the act of listening to a record as akin to "a rock going through a piece of plastic, shearing off shit every time with more rumble and noise than God ever expected."

Filipetti's larger-than-life personality comes through in how hard he works, and how exacting his specifications were in designing his own state-of-the-art home studio. Fully outfitted for digital recording and surround mixing, with an entire wall packed with vintage and exotic outboard gear, The Living Room takes up a separate wing of his house in West Nyack, New York, about 20 miles from New York City. Filipetti still books occasional sessions at the old Right Track space (now MSR Studios), and jets to wherever a new recording will take him, but for the last few years, this has been his main base of operations.

The room itself was built in 1870, with a wood beam cathedral ceiling and 12-inch-thick stone walls, so the sound is literally as solid as a rock. He mixed The Book of Mormon here, which he describes as "an insane pleasure. We ended up recording the music in one day at MSR, and then the singers were overdubbed to that. Even still, on the entire chorus, we had everybody individually miked, which normally I would never do, but we had to because of the intricacy of the parts. It was a difficult mix and very time-consuming, but it came out great."

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For all his credits as an engineer and producer, it sometimes gets lost in the shuffle that Filipetti is also a pioneer in 5.1 surround mixing. In 1997, he worked with Phil Ramone on jazz composer Dave Grusin's version of West Side Story, which was one of the first commercially available 5.1 releases. As always, Filipetti was game for the challenge—an outlook that served him well for the live recording of Andrea Bocelli's Concerto: One Night in Central Park. It turned out to be one rainy and windy night in September 2011, and quite likely the most daunting mix Filipetti has ever faced.

"I'd recorded Pavarotti and Friends a few times in Modena [Italy] with Phil Ramone," he says, "but this was the largest orchestra with an opera singer and choir that I'd ever done. Not only that, but it was a classical orchestra that's used to working with singers, and playing at ridiculously low levels. There were moments on stage when the level of the orchestra was well below the level of the noise. We had 160 microphones out there, and we needed that many because I had to get as close to these guys as I could. I mean, it was Central Park in the rain. Not only do you have the environmental issues, but you're surrounded by streets and traffic and everything—planes flying overhead—you know, come on!"

In listening to the playback, Filipetti tried to maximize the overhead mics in the mix. While he could hear a lush and vibrant orchestral sound, it was obscured beneath a veil of noise that simply overwhelmed the music. After several other engineers tried various sound restoration tools to no avail, Filipetti decided to give RX Advanced a trial run.

"I did a demo of it, and I loved it," he says. "The best thing was the ability to draw a noise curve. It was maximizing the amount of noise I could get rid of, while at the same time minimizing the damage that I was doing to the music. And I was impressed. Not only was I impressed, but everybody who's heard the concert—and these are classical people, so if anybody's gonna hear artifacts, it'll be them—to this day, they have nothing but good things to say about that recording." Needless to say, he now owns RX.

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Filipetti's enthusiasm also extends to Ozone Advanced; he takes the unorthodox approach of using the mastering suite to print a second "pre-master" mix. "I print two sets of mixes simultaneously," he explains. "My main mix goes in untouched to a final mix bus, which then gets printed. Then I send that same mix to a second mix bus, which has Ozone on it. Then I can go to the mastering engineer and say, ‘Do your magic.' I've had projects mastered by both Ted Jensen and Bob Ludwig, and they've used either one, depending on the song. They might like the Ozone version, or they might prefer to start from scratch. But they almost always want the Ozone version."

"Suddenly now, people like the crew over at iZotope, they're taking advantage of the technology in a way that no one ever thought possible."

As staunchly committed as he is to digital recording, Filipetti is of two minds when it comes to using plug-ins. He gravitates toward the software that, from his perspective, was designed to do something completely new and different. "A lot of companies seem to be focused on emulating old gear," he observes, "but then you have these really brilliant people who are thinking ahead. They're really thinking about what's happening in the future. There's an EQ now that travels with the pitch, and there are things that automatically time-align—stuff you could never do in the analog world. Suddenly now, people like the crew over at iZotope, they're taking advantage of the technology in a way that no one ever thought possible."

One thing that links musicians and technicians is their tendency to get excited about new possibilities. Filipetti can count himself among the small group of engineers and producers who have tasted the life of a working musician, and maybe have a deeper understanding of how creativity plays a part in everything you do in the studio—especially when you're crunching numbers, tweaking knobs or pushing faders. In the end, it helps to be a diehard music fan, plain and simple.

"Where I've been so fortunate is in getting to see the creative process really close up," he says. "There are certain things that you get an opportunity to hear for the first time, or that you get to work on before anyone else gets to hear it. Going up to Martha's Vineyard with James Taylor, and sitting in a little cottage that we rented to record his band for two weeks, just to see if anything was there, and coming out with Hourglass—those kinds of things have been a blessing to me. So I would have to say that it's been quite a ride so far."

—Bill Murphy is a freelance writer based in New York City, and has contributed to Time Out New York, Guitar World, Bass Player, The Wire, Remix and Electronic Musician. From 1996 to 2003, he ran producer Bill Laswell's Axiom label, distributed through Island Def Jam and Chris Blackwell's Palm Pictures.

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