Analog Dialog: Tony Mills-From Analog To Digital

One of the great things about working in the music industry is encountering so many creative passionate people doing so many different kinds of music and so many different techniques. One's passion and opinions can sometimes stir controversy. This month's interview is with a very intelligent and talented composer and studio owner, but please remember that these are the opinions of an individual and not necessarily Universal Audio.

Composer, Engineer, and Studio Owner Tony Mills (seated) with UA President Matt Ward
Tony Mills graduated from UC Berkeley with a Masters Degree in architecture. "I graduated in the middle of a recession and couldn't get work and ended up playing in a band."

"Music was my second passion. I ended playing in a band for money after college and thought I would wait out the recession and then go back to architecture. But then, here I was playing music for three hours a night, making more money than I would as an architect. After a couple of years, I wondered where it was all going so I decided to get more involved in the music production side of things, writing, producing and recording." Mills started buying gear and quickly went from 4 to 8 to 16 to 24 tracks. "My studio was originally in my home, where I actually built out a room, and then 10 years ago I moved it to a really big place in Emeryville, California (between Oakland and Berkeley)." But with the current status of the music industry, Mills is now thinking of moving his studio back into his home.

Mills started off in the standard record-to-tape world, but adopted digital technology quickly. "My interface into the digital world was mostly through sequencing. At the time I became a studio owner, eighty percent of music made in the San Francisco Bay Area was Hip Hop and Funk. You either got on that bus or you died, so I embraced it. Also MIDI was necessary for me as a composer. Even though I was originally a guitar player, I had tons of synths. I learned to play keyboards to get access to the power of MIDI and sequencers and it wasn't a huge quantum leap to go from MIDI sequencers to non-linear audio when Digital Performer and all these things started coming out. I owned a system called Spectral, which was out tooling Pro Tools for a fraction of the cost. It was a great product and when they died I wasn't sure where I was going to go. I looked at SAW which I loved but I ended joining forces with a couple of guys who had full blown Pro Tools systems so I ended up going that direction."

"Mills actually finds himself using the 1176 plug-in more than the hardware piece."

"I hated Pro Tools. I hated Digidesign because they made upgrades so expensive. There were a lot of disgruntled customers. I owned one of the first 4-8 track Digi systems, which was a dog with fleas! It's been a dog with fleas for my dough--until the Pro Tools HD system came out. HD is a really brilliant product. It has a great sound, and a very nice expanded mix buss and stuff."

"I was really excited when I first heard the Universal Audio plug-ins. They are my favorite sounding plugs. I have the full TDM suite but I really want the entire family of plug ins on my TDM system. The Dreamverb is the best virtual reverb out there. The Cambridge is brilliant and so is the virtual 1176."

Mills actually finds himself using the 1176 plug-in more than the hardware piece. "I can walk away from the project and come back and boot it up and it's exactly the way I left it. I think it sounds as good or better. All the hardware pieces need to be carefully maintained. Tube gear needs to be checked every 2 weeks, but the plug-in retains a precise sound."

Mills does believe that mixing in Pro Tools can sound as good as or better than analog; you just have to know what you are doing. "You have to work with what you have. All the old gestures are gone. Analog consoles have a certain sound and plug-ins have a certain sound. The old gestures that you would do in analog aren't the same gestures you would do in Digital. You have to learn what the new tools do, just like when we were drafting in architecture with a pencil you have learn a different process when you go to drafting on a computer."

"The record-to-tape issue is one that kills me. This analog-only thing with kids is like fashion - they're not using their ears. It's all attitude. 24 bit, even at 48 k, digital technology with the new conversion technology sounds ten times better than a $100,000 dollar digital tape machine did 20 years ago!"

Mills has also been a long time user of Universal Audio hardware. "I have the 2-610 tube mic pre, the 2108 solid state mic pre. I have vintage 1176s. I used to have a six bay rack of outboard gear that is gone, as I have gradually adopted plug-ins. When I finally abandoned tape, I kept a couple 1176s and a dbx and a couple of EQ's, but that's it."

Mills creative sensibilities are still alive when he's engineering. "I'm one of those guys who tries not to go to old habits. I try to listen and experiment. I find I like the solid state 2108 mic pre better than the tube based 2-610 because it has an attitude. But I fiddle with the settings every time. I wish I could be more specific. It's like describing wine. I think it's because the 2108 has a lot of the same components of the 1176 and the 1176 has an attitude and trademark sound."

Tony Mills' Studio A at Spark Productions
"I am actually of one of the few guys that processes my inputs on Pro Tools. I actually process stuff before recording. The things that people don't remember about tape is that you move it back and forth over the tape heads (2 to 3 thousand times on a major album) and the surface of the tape deteriorates. We used to crank the high end so that after two months of back and forth and back and forth there would be something left to bring back at the end. Digital changed all that but the old school engineers still crank the top end. They don't even think about it and that's probably why people say that digital sounds harsh."

"For me, the beauty of this business is that I've been exposed to so much phenomenal music that most people will never hear--staggering players that will never be famous. Next week, I have a classical Chinese sextet. They are some of the greatest players in the world and very few people will ever get to hear them or this album, but when you are sitting there in the studio... it's incredible! The beauty of my career is that I've experienced music that most people will never have the joy of hearing."

Learn more about Tony Mills and his studio Spark Productions.

- Marsha Vdovin

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