Fabrice Gabriel - Being Creative Is Being Organised

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How To Find Work And Become A Freelance Sound Engineer

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- Get Your Foot In The Door
- How To Find Artists To Work For
- How To Price Yourself

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Fabrice Gabriel is well known and respected in the audio/music industry for the plugins that he designs with Slate Digital, which he co-founded and is the CTO off, as well as his own company, Eiosis, that he founded in 2012.

Fabrice and Steven Slate made a name for themselves when they introduced the FG-X to the market back in 2010 and with their highly regarded tape machine, VTM, and their many other high-quality, and affordable, plugins since.

In this interview, Fabrice talks about the painful experience with their first release, the FG-X, the unusual things he discovered about tape machines when working on the Virtual Tape Machine, Slate vs Acustica Audio, how being creative is to be organised and so much more.

Please, enjoy!

 Many of the various plugins Fabrice has worked on with Slate Digital.

Many of the various plugins Fabrice has worked on with Slate Digital.

Could you tell us why you went to AES back in the day and how you met Steven Slate there?

I went to AES with my company, Eiosis, to show my product and to meet new people. Steven came up to talk to me because he knew my plugins and he was struggling to find someone who could work for him. We shared some ideas between us and decided to start working together.

The first product you made together was the mastering plugin, the FG-X, how was the experience of developing that first plugin and what role did you specifically play back then?

The experience was painful and difficult because this was in the early days and I was designing all the algorithms myself, now I can’t because we have too many products. Also, right after the release, we had to go back to modify it.

How was the first initial reception when it came out?

It was really good but it was also quite controversial because we tried to bring an easy process to a market that didn’t necessarily wanted it, so, we got a lot of criticism because of that. Then there was also some issues at the beginning because it was a very innovative plugin and there were some situations we didn’t anticipate.

We took some heat and some people were a little pissed that we released that plugin. Even some mastering engineers didn’t want to use it because they thought it made it a bit too easy.

We didn’t know that at the time, but when a plugin has a lot of success, there will be a lot of people criticising it and that’s what we learned happens after a successful release.

 The FG-X

The FG-X

Both you and Steven have a drive for perfection and to only release something when you are 100% happy with it. Could you tell us your process and how you achieve this “perfection”?

Nowadays there’s a need to have a process because there are more people involved and I never thought about our process until recently when I had to analyse it because I had to teach it.

The process is dependent on what you do but if you want to make the best products, for example, hardware emulation plugins, you have to keep asking yourself, “Does this sound the same” all the time. The more you listen the more your ear gets refined so you can hear more, subtle, things. And if you have the ability to focus that will come pretty quickly.

Also, you can’t be lazy and assume that people will not use a plugin in a certain way, or that it’s good enough, people will find out. Our main job is actually to figure out and sell products that can save people time because they will not have to figure out how to use some things that we spend a tremendous amount of time figuring out for them.

When you worked on the Virtual Tape Machine, you said that you had to understand what the magic was with tape machines, did you ever find out, scientifically, what it was?

Of course, it’s only math so there is no magic, however, the tape machine does some stuff you would not expect it to do and if I didn’t look precisely at what it does and how it does it, I would never have the idea of doing that kind of process to audio. That’s the magic, it’s many instances of unusual audio processing. Very strange and unexpected. So, when you know what it does you don’t want to process your audio with that, but it was very interesting to study it because now I understand why it sounds good.

Any specifics you could tell us of what that weird stuff was?

There’s a kind of saturation that is produced by the combination of the tape, the bias and the way the signal is reading of the tape and the recording head. Everything is participating to that sound. The saturation is very strange, for example, the high frequencies start to saturate at very specific moments in very specific conditions with very specific frequency conditions. There’s a lot of phase and phase issues too and these things would not be interpreted as very positive in any situation.

For example, you wouldn’t take the phase and rotates it very violently and very strangely and expect that to sound good.

But this is the sound of a tape machine and I think people back in the day tried to reduce these effects as much as possible and I think the difference between tape machines that sounded good versus machines that didn’t, was in their separate ways of handling those inherent issues and make them sound musical.

The interesting paradox here is that, back in the day, the engineers tried to reduce those issues but we are trying to repeat them.

 The Virtual Tape Machine, or VTM

The Virtual Tape Machine, or VTM

Why do you think your emulations stand out from many other manufacturers out there?

I think we stand out because we spend enough time on it and we try to go all the way, but, of course, there are very good manufactures and plugin developers out there. Also, back in the early 2010 people didn’t care too much about accurate replicas of analogue equipment so I think we set a trend by reproducing it more precisely than before.

For example, with the tape machine, the difference was to make sure that everything was properly done, for example, we didn’t ask ourselves the question, “Is this something we want to see in an emulation?” instead, we asked ourselves, “Is this feature present in the original hardware nor not?”. This was the only thing we cared about.

The same approach went into making the VCC where I wanted to make sure that I couldn’t tell the difference, both scientifically and sonically, so I pushed the envelope and made sure that all the tiny details of what I saw were faithfully reproduced.

If you compare that to other products that came out then, for example, emulations of analogue EQ’s, they were usually just approximate curves but there’s so much more to an analogue EQ’s sound than the curve. However, at that time, other developers didn’t care about the frequency response nor the harmonic or dynamic aspects of the circuits, but it was fine for everyone because they still had their analogue equipment.

 Fabrice and Chris Lord-Alge

Fabrice and Chris Lord-Alge

There’s a YouTube video where Slate Digital’s algorithmic approach is compared to Acustica’s Volterra Kernel technology, what is your thought about these two technologies, do you prefer one over the other?

It’s just different, the Volterra approach is limited in a way and our approach is limited in another way. The limitation of Volterra is that the resolution is limited, for example, it can only emulate a certain number of harmonics and that’s it.

They did a great job in developing their technology but they can only go as far as their model can go, which sometimes can be efficient but sometimes not. What’s great about their method is that they can be very quick with measuring and reproducing anything. However, the level of detail is difficult to know because the relative detail depends on what the hardware does.

On our side we take a different approach, we make everything by hand, we compare every extreme case and have a much more details approach, therefore, it’s a much longer, more difficult and a much more expensive process. We also make sure every single plugin sounds the same as the hardware and that the waveforms will be the same, which is not the case with the Volterra Kernel. For example, you can analyse the same waveform and in most cases, it should look the same but in extreme cases when there’s heavy saturation or clipping, it might not look the same. But again, they don’t spend that much time analysing those things so they can also release plugins much quicker.

Check the mentioned video below.

Is the discussion of digital versus analogue still relevant?

It’s been 10 years since we started this discussion and I hope that by 2020 it will be over.

Having said that, the difference that I try to make comes from the fact that if we promise an analogue emulation, it will be an analogue emulation. This was not the case a few years ago, for example, back in 2005 when I was analysing some plugins and compared it to the analogue hardware, I went, “What the fuck, this is not an emulation

Also, I was always struggling with EQ’ing vocals in-the-box, but once I tried a piece of analogue hardware, it just worked. This also made me realise that, back then, the plugin manufactures were lying to us and really didn’t respect us. If they would have told us that this was a close replica of the hardware, it would have been fine.

I think it’s the marketing team that wants to say, “This is the exact same thing, we spent five years of research and development, etc.” which is obviously a lie. I don’t like lying to anyone and specifically not to customers because if people are giving you money for a replica, let’s do a replication, let’s do the job.

My motivation was always to be faithful and to deliver something you promised rather than to satisfy people.

 Steven Slate and Fabrice Gabriel

Steven Slate and Fabrice Gabriel

What does the relationship between art and science mean to you?

If you are only a technician you cannot thrive, you have to be imaginative and creative to find solutions - that’s the artist in you. The relationship between artistry and to be a good technician/engineer is very important and needs to happen even more because we do tools for artists.

For instance, there are some companies where everything is dived, for example, the algorithms, the controls and the GUI all get developed separately. What we try to do is to integrate those processes across the team because it’s very important that everyone is included in the artistic process.

That’s why I’m trying to teach our team to participate in all the processes and to understand the needs of our clients, and be able to listen to the algorithms. I’m also trying to make sure that ideas flow within the team rather than just being a transactional thing. This, I believe, will make better products.

Also, what I learned is that if you compartmentalise too much then the products become tasteless, therefore, the relationship between the user interface, the algorithms, the look and feel, the graphics, the way that you move a button, are very important. I’ve been pushing the quality of the graphics a lot and I think I have made several graphic designer cry because of this. Everyone has to understand the job of the other for them to be able to create something better, technical speaking and artistically speaking.

Once again, when I tried some other plugins back in the day, they would tell me that it sounds great, but they seem to spend two days on the graphics. I was opposed by that so I always wanted to reflect the work we have been doing on the algorithms for months on the graphical user interface.

 Fabrice on plugin development

Fabrice on plugin development

Could you expand on what sort of things you are teaching them when it comes to creativity?

A few years ago some people in the company, who are gone now, believed that creativity was magic and that you are either creative or not, which to some extent is true. However, I tried to remove that aspect of creativity and magic and that there are, in fact, some processes that lead to creativity. Some people are more or less sensitive to those processes but you can teach them and that's what I’m trying to do.

So, being creative is being organised, perseverant and having a set of methods to think about when you start to work on a project. Sometimes you start working on a project and think you will add this or that because some people have asked for them, however, you always have to go back to some core questions, and that’s the core of creativity, such as “why do you do this or that, who are you developing this project for

It’s the basic idea for all artist, like a singer who sings without intention or with the wrong intention, it will not work. Same with products, you have to define the intention and the why. Once this is defined everything becomes easier and you can start to develop a creative process on top of that. I believe that most people are creative but most of the time they need to be structured, which might sound counter-intuitive, but creativity is better when there are more constraints, for example, if you tell a producer or musician to do whatever they want, usually it will be a big pile of garbage, instead, if you give the producer some constraints such as, "I want a song with this tempo, this length, this sound and this style” the producers will now have to express his or her creativity in another, more restricted way.

That’s when people become really creative, rather than allowing them to do whatever they want. In order to be creative people needs structure and the intention behind it.

Share your thoughts in comments below, do you think Slate is better than Acustica? Is creativity born out of being organised? Let me know!

Herb Trawick - The Birth of Pensado's Place, Money, Social Media and More

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How To Get Work And Become a Freelance Sound Engineer

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- Get Your Foot In The Door
- How To Find Artists To Work With
- How To Price Yourself

And Much More

Herb Trawick is the co-host of one of the biggest audio shows on the internet, Pensado’s Place, which he started with his friend, and legendary mixer, Dave Pensado. Herb has also enjoyed a lot of success on his own through his management firm with R&B singer Brian McKnight. He also signed Robin Thicke to Interscope and got Tyrese Gibson signed to RCA.

In this interview, Herb talks about how he met Dave and how Dave’s accident got them started on Pensado’s Place, using technology to network, handling the pressure and the economic shift that happened to the music business, how to use social media, dealing with the quiet time, the future of Pensado’s Place and much more!

I hope you enjoy this and that you can take away some tips that you can apply to your own career as well.

Enjoy!

 Dave and Herb in Nashville

Dave and Herb in Nashville

Could you tell us how you got started in the music industry, what were some of your early struggles and what did you learn from your experience?

After I graduated from college in Kentucky I came out to Los Angeles where I worked for an all-news radio station which also had a music station on the top floor. I was fascinated and intrigued by the process. Later on, I got a part-time job at RCA Records which translated into a job at a black record company called SOLAR Records. At SOLAR Records I worked for a very entrepreneurial guy who really did things outside the box, for example, we had a movie division and making distribution deals with MCA (now Universal), Capitol, Elektra and we even got a small skyscraper built for us as our main office, which was unheard of at the time, even today. I was very persistent, tactical and tried to learn who the players were and be knowledgeable about the business, which I did that by going to a lot of seminars and meeting a lot of people to build my network

We also had to find producing talent and we had some producers who would become household names such as LA and Babyface, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. It was a hub for innovation and for thinking outside the box where you tried to utilise music to go different places. It was a great training ground.

You mentioned networking, how important is that nowadays, since we have the internet where you can reach clients without a middleman, such as a manager or a label?

Today, networking has become automated and technology has made everybody network, but they don’t network in the same way. For example, if you and I got in touch through social media, it’s not the same as you and I sitting down, getting to know each other, being able to customise a project, get your philosophy, etc. It’s not that you can’t do it online but most people have shorter and briefer interactions there.

I think a lot more people are connected online but they are not necessarily communicating. At the end of the day, particularly with the arts, you have to find some way to communicate and connect at the same time. Connecting can get a lot done but it can also shortchange some of the processes that might give you some insight as a producer, artist or business owner that you need to have to make the best kind of decisions.

Let’s say you live in a remote town where no one is around, would it still be good networking to connect online and, for example, set up a Skype meeting?

Yes, because you can’t ignore utilising your tools. Not everybody lives in Los Angeles, New York, Nashville or London but they don’t all necessarily have to either. So, utilise your tools but try to find a way to connect beyond that because not only is it good for your business, it’s good for you as a human being to keep those skills developed.

Entrepreneurship, which you got taught at an early stage in your career, how important is it for an artist, producer or engineer to start studying this? Is it more relevant today than it was in the past?

I think it is. When you are in the music business, which is a very entrepreneurial business anyway, you almost can’t help it, whether you have, or don’t have, a knack for it.

However, there are very successful people in the arts who are not entrepreneurial and there are people who are, so it’s not a prerequisite but you have to understand that if you are making your own music and putting it out yourself, or if you are trying to find a manager, or if you are being hired as an engineer based on your credits, you are an entrepreneur. You are in it whether you want to be or not. It’s not for everybody but it’s a particular entrepreneurial driven business so you should be aware of it and cognisant that it comes with some responsibility.

 Young Guru, Mixed by Ali and Herb

Young Guru, Mixed by Ali and Herb

Of course, your show with Dave Pensado on YouTube is legendary but how did you guys actually meet and why did you start working together?

Dave had just arrived in Los Angeles and we accidentally met in a recording studio. We both took a chance in each other and he became one of my early clients and I managed him for the first 5-6 years. After we went our separate ways we always stayed in touch and Dave, of course, went on to continually be successful. Then after 2011 things started up between us again and Pensado's Place was born after a medical incident Dave had.

What happened to Dave?

Dave had had a very small but powerful, almost stroke-like brain incident. Me and Dave were supposed to meet at my house but he didn’t show up and I didn’t know where he was. It turned out he was in the hospital and it took me a while to track him down. It was a pretty serious event, but luckily he had a pretty miraculously recovery, almost perfect, with some limitations on his left side where feeling didn’t come back. But he is a lucky guy.

How did that lead you to start Pensado's Place?

It started with me and Dave sitting around brainstorming about what he was going to do after the accident, he probably had to move away from being in a big commercial studio to a home studio while recovering. I told him he had such a high profile and respect among his peers that maybe he should think about doing something online.

However, I wasn’t very active online and it wasn’t about a show initially, but one thing led to another and we ended up at a small digital network who were mainly doing podcasts to meet a friend of ours. By then I had started to formulate a loose idea about a show and I asked a couple of guys about my idea and they thought it was great. The next day they emailed me and said they wanted to pursue it and do a show of it.

I told Dave this was his chance and that I would help him develop it, however, he was cranky and not very good at it. It’s not what he does, he is a mixing engineer, so I told him that he needed a co-host. At first, I was looking to find him another co-host but the pilot came up so fast that I had to do it with him, much to Dave’s relief, because I had been the only one rehearsing with him. After we shot the pilot the network said that I had to continue to do it with Dave as a co-host because our chemistry worked and that’s how we got started.

 The Pensado Papers by Dave and Herb

The Pensado Papers by Dave and Herb

How did you come up with the name Pensado’s Place?

A lot of the popular segments on the show, including the name, were born during those practise sessions. For example, it’s called Pensado’s Place because we were rehearsing it in Dave’s kitchen, Into The Lair came about because when Dave created his home studio he had a weird knack of almost mixing in the dark, with all these cool lights on. It looked like a Virgin Airline aeroplane and I told him,

Dave, it’s dark as hell in here, it’s like a cave… like a lair”

You touched on taking on too much work and feeling overwhelmed, how do you get yourself out of a situation like that, do you start to priories differently or do you start delegating more work to others?

I do it by prioritising differently, delegating work to others or by saying no to things. Sometimes, you just have to get away from it and having a place to go, for example, the gym, spending time with your family, watching tv or go to the cinema is really important. You have to know your limitations and be able to stop, it’s critical.

I’ve seen the consequences of not doing that and it can be dramatic for people, both physically and mentally and it affects not only your work but also your family and other relationships. It’s not a joke so it’s good to get into good habits early.

You have been in this business way longer than I have, but I have seen this a lot, especially in the studio world, where there are so much fear and people are overworked.

You are 100% correct and that can be pretty scary. The stress manifests itself in you physically and it’s not good to live under the pressure of this business constantly without having breaks.

What would you advice be to people who are under a lot of pressure?

You have to, both emotionally and intellectually, maintain a balance which can be very hard when bills are pressing or problems are brewing, however, relationships are very important, such as family or significant others, but it often gets overlooked.

Also, whether you are male or female, trying to be macho about it, where you think you can just power through and “man up” is not always the best idea either.

 Herb with Randy Jackson

Herb with Randy Jackson


How can you learn when to say No, because there’s always that next project or the next cool opportunity coming in?

It’s hard to say no when you need the bread and it’s hard to say no if it’s a super cool project, so people accept the work. This is where the entrepreneurial quality comes up, because the entrepreneur will always be looking for the next thing and it can be all-consuming but not necessarily in a good way all the time.

Let’s talk about pricing - I’d love to hear your thoughts about charging what you are worth or how to start charging more

Pricing has a lot to do with where you are, what your skill set is and what your track record is. There's no structured pricing anymore, which is largely due to the technology boom. Nowadays, people can get online and contact you to do a mix but only have a $200 dollar budget, also, you never know how big of a budget someone has because all you can do is post your rate online and hope that people hire you.

Also, since the definition of a hit song has changed the pricing has changed, so it’s a little bit of a wild wild west where you have to feel your way through a negotiation and try to determine what makes sense and what people will pay you. It’s not as specific anymore as back in the day, where there was a certain fee range if you worked for a major label or not, or if you had a hit or not. It’s also much less clear for a lot of very big mixers and producers today, their economics has changed too, so it has affected everyone.

How do you guys deal with this change in the business, was it hard in the beginning?

It’s hard for everybody and there’s a ton of our guests on the show that have experienced their economics shift underneath them and who are finding their way through it. However, it’s another thing if you are hot as hell, for example, Greg Wells who did The Greatest Showman soundtrack. People like him are in a totally different place than a guy who had a hit 6 years ago but is struggling to find something because they are not on the same radar anymore.

Many people in this industry experience quiet times where not much work is coming in, is this something you have experienced and how do you deal with those situations?

It drives you crazy because you don’t know if your career is over. Just like back in the day when actors would say they didn’t know where their next job would be coming from, no matter how successful they were, it’s the same for us and that’s what makes it so pressure-filled.

Also, let’s say you are hot as hell and your phone is ringing off the hook, you don’t how long that’s gonna last, so you’re constantly pushing yourself to try to keep it going. And the toughest part is when that goes away, which you see in folks when you get older. Guys that were on top of their game and now nobody will take his or her call. That side of the show business is brutal and not everybody gets through that.

I advise people that sometimes your career is better where you are right now, you don’t necessarily have to move to Los Angeles, New York, Nashville or London, you can build a career where you are right now. For example, and this was a suggestion that I gave at Blackbird Academy to a student from Iowa, I said,

Follow your dreams, but remember that every two years politicians come to your state around the clock and they have campaign funds that they have to spend by law. They do a lot of media such as commercials, music, TV and if you could be the person that all the campaigns had to come to get a signature mix, or do a voice over, or come to your studio on the spot, you might be able to build a ten-time bigger business that will be consistent year, after year. Much more than if you come to Los Angeles and you don’t get a chance to mix any of the big artists

 “ Dave, it’s dark as hell in here, it’s like a cave… like a lair ”

Dave, it’s dark as hell in here, it’s like a cave… like a lair

Let’s talk about social media, I see many artists, producers and engineers who use it to only promote themselves and their latest tracks, rather than engaging people in a conversation and starting a discussion about various topics. What are your thoughts about this?

Social media is critical to us at Pensado’s Place and we have people that do it for us. However, the problem with social media is that you can run out of ideas of what to post, that's why you see a lot of people posts about themselves because they don’t have anything else to talk about or don’t have the creativity to do it.

It’s much more important to be engaging and at Pensado’s Place that’s Dave and me because there is a chemistry and a goofiness between us. We called it “edutainment” where we can educate and entertain at the same time, which seem to resonate with people. Now, for social media, the downside for that is that for some people that’s interesting and for others, it isn’t. This is why I tend to focus on engagement much more than subscribers and reach because I think that’s an arms race that no one can win, because how do you get to the end of the internet?

Furthermore, once you have built a base on social media it’s important to nurture it. Just like dating social media is a relationship, and you have to keep up, but I don't think it’s impossible to imagine that you can run out of gas.

Could you tell us what does the future of Pensado’s Place looks like? Any particular plans?

We have a number of opportunities and challenges in front of us. Where we are now it’s more about institutional partnerships, for instance, the NAAM convention we do every year, also, certain institutional partnerships for sponsorships that are bigger and deeper.

For the show I want to have different segments, for example, having different correspondents from different parts of the world who could submit 2-3 minutes of audio stories of what's going on in their countries. Also, to continue to push the audio guest envelope, for example, having people from audio in sports, medicine and forensics. Also, we are having someone from YouTube and spatial audio to talk about what goes on in their spaces. We are hoping that will continue making the audio journey interesting.

We might not do the award show this year because we have some different people talking to us about that, however, I like to include a partner for the award show because it has become something that, for the creative community, took on much more importance quicker than I thought. But it’s super expensive and very hard to do, and it’s one of those things you have to say no to because it puts me in the hospital every year.

Sean "Sully" Sullivan - What It Takes To Become A World-Class Engineer

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Sean “Sully” Sullivan has worked in live sound from the early age of 15 when he started out mixing for his brothers band and for other local bands. Now, he has worked with artists such Beck, Justin Timberlake, Rihanna and most recently Shania Twain and Red Hot Chili Peppers

In this interview Sean talks about his early start in the industry, how he prepares for world tours and the difference between working with Red Hot Chili Peppers and Shania Twain, how much he relies on technologies such as SMAART vs using his ears, how aspiring live engineers can make a career and eventually doing world tours and so much more.

Enjoy!

 Mixing FOH for Red Hot Chili Peppers, 2017.

Mixing FOH for Red Hot Chili Peppers, 2017.

Who inspired you to become a live sound engineer and did you have a mentor when you started out?

I have an older brother that played drums in local bands and my father listened to all the 70’s rock 'n' roll bands. As kids we were around music all the time and band-practice was always at our house. I was around 13 years old and wanted to hang out at band practice so my brother made me his drum tech. I also set up the PA at band practice and making sure the speakers were plugged in as well as trying to figure out what the phantom power switch did. It was more of a necessity rather than a desire to do it. It was a, “Hey, you’re here hanging out, so you figure it out” type of situation. 

Also being around guitar players that could play but didn’t know how to make their gear sound good made me gravitate towards that and I would be the one who turned the knobs until everybody shook their head in acceptance. One thing led to another and I decided I was the sound guy for bands that didn’t do anything but practice. They weren’t famous, they were just sitting in the basement sucking at it and me being a young sound guy I hung out and sucked at it as well. However, it gave me the desire to get better and I realized sound was just as important as playing an instrument. I pursued it from every angle and when I was 16 I got a job installing car stereos at a local shop. A world-class car-audio competitor owned and ran this shop so he became my mentor and was the first one who taught me how to listen and manipulate sound. 

Do you remember the first live show you did and how old you were?

I was 15 years old; the gig was at the Akron Agora. Jeff Hair, who owns Aggressive Sound, installed and operated all the PAs at many of the clubs in our region. When I showed up with my brother’s band to one of these clubs, Jeff could tell I didn’t know what I was doing but he was cool and helped me along the way. He showed me what the gain-knob was and what the hi-pass filter did. I knew how to listen and I could claim to be the sound guy, however, to actually stand behind the console was a whole other level. I’d show up all big and bad, “I’m the boss and I’m these guys sound engineer,” but knew very little about mixing. Lucky for me, Jeff and the guys that worked for him were cool and didn’t treat me any less because of it. They let me figure it out and when they saw me failing miserably they would help instead of shoving me out of the way. To have those guys supporting me was very crucial as a 15-year-old. 

 Mixing Monitors for Boyz II Men, 1995.

Mixing Monitors for Boyz II Men, 1995.

Did you ever pursue studying audio?

I enrolled in an engineering class that was run at a local studio. They offered beginner/intermediate & advanced classes and I signed up for the beginner class. However, I knew everything that was being taught. Within the first hour the engineer teaching us got a phone call, he looked at me and said, “Teach the other kids what were talking about.” By the end of the first day he says, “You should probably move up to the intermediate class, skip this beginner class.” The next day I showed up for the intermediate class, again, I knew everything he spoke about so he suggested that I should go right to the advanced class, that’s when I started to learn things I didn’t know.

After that course, and being only 15 years old, what did you do to find more work?

I stayed working for my brother's band, which played 1-2 shows per month. I also searched the classifieds of a local Cleveland newspaper called Scene Magazine, which had information about what was going on in town entertainment wise. In the back of the magazine there were ads for bands looking for musicians, etc., and this is where I saw an ad looking for a “Truck driver/Sound engineer.” At first, I didn’t want to call because I wasn’t a truck driver, but my brother convinced me. I rang the number and it happened to be this oldies band called Class '57 that played 1950/60’s doo-wop all over Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan. They were a pretty big and authentic oldies band that would play 4-5 gigs per week during the summer and 3 times a week during the winter season. 

The guy who answered my call was the current sound/lighting engineer/backline guy/truck driver and he says, “We have a gig tonight, can you make it?” Myself and two other guys showed up. After the show, he asked the 3 of us, “Okay, we have a show tomorrow, which of you three can come? Because tomorrow I’m the bass player and I need one of you guys doing the sound.” The two other guys couldn’t make it because one had a gig with his band and the other had to take his girl out to dinner, I said, “I can make it,” and I got the job. The next night he was the bass player and I started doing the sound/monitors/lights/backline/truck driver for $100 a night. 

That was a huge learning process for me because they had a lot of elements I never dealt with, for example, horns, keyboards and everybody sang. I was put right in the fire, mixing, doing lights, backline and monitors for the rest of my high school years as well as working in the car stereo store. I was rolling in cash and was almost making as much as my dad as a lieutenant of the fire department.

 Class 57, 1991.

Class 57, 1991.

What does it take to prepare for a world tour? Can you take us through your process?

When it comes to the technical aspect of touring it depends on the artist/situation, for example, when I got the call to work with Red Hot Chili Peppers, it was last minute and they were 11 months into a 22 month tour, there was no spending time in rehearsal working on my mix. To pull it off, they sent me 4 recent show-recordings which I worked on in my studio for a month straight, 12 hours a day, trying to get my act together. We all know and love the Red Hot Chili Peppers for how massive-sounding of a band they are and the last thing I want to do is not have it be exactly that — massive. Plus I was taking over from their longtime FOH engineer Dave Rat who had been with them since 1991, so, I wanted to go out there and make sure there was no question they picked the right guy. My first show in Detroit I had a 10-minute sound check with only the band, not Anthony, then the house lights when off. This was in front of 14.000 people which was intense to say the least. However, this is what I do for a living so in my head I say, “another gig, you got this” 

With Shania Twain, whom I’m currently touring with, I worked with the production manager and Musical Director on the input list to discuss how they will be doing things. There’s about a month of prep-work at home, sitting with my laptop working on the input list and checking with the MD if we have everyone/everything accounted for, of course, there are changes when you get to the first day of rehearsal but we were close.

The main difference with these two situations is that with Red Hot Chili Peppers I’m working from live recordings and with Shania Twain, I’m working from the start of rehearsals. However, I actually prefer to do it the way I did it with Red Hot Chili Peppers because you are working with relative musicianship, showmanship, input levels and everything is based on that the house lights are out and there’s a crowd in the room. Some musicians will claim that they are playing the same no matter what, but I’m here to tell you that when the house lights go out and the crowd starts screaming, it changes everything. Working on those recordings as opposed to a band in rehearsal is different, even day-to-day sound checks on tour are different because the band or artists sound different when the house lights are out. 

The personal aspect of it is kind of second nature to me now since I’ve been doing it so long and I fly my wife out if I can or if I have a couple of days off I fly home. We do our best to keep our relationship a happy and a healthy one. 

 Mixing FOH for Justin Timberlake, 2003.

Mixing FOH for Justin Timberlake, 2003.

How much do you rely on your ear vs technology such as SMAART to fix issues in a venue, for example, feedback?

During the show I rely on my ears only, SMAART needs accurate data to work properly, the minute you turn on multiple sources of speakers, the data is corrupt due to the path length differences between different clusters of PA. However, when you are tuning the PA and you are only measuring one main cluster, you can get fairly accurate data, or at least know what’s accurate with the coherence trace, the minute you turn on another source that’s not equidistant the data is corrupt and unusable. Therefore, I use only SMAART during the gig for SPL metering. 

I think that’s why a lot of shows sound bad, I’ve met a ton of system engineers that are very visual-oriented and stare at analysis tools such as SMAART, going, “Oh, 200 Hz is going through the roof, so let me cut it out” Meanwhile, 200 Hz might look like it’s going through the roof because of a reflection of something near the mic, or because the path length is different from left and right speakers. There are so many things that can cause the data to be irrelevant that it makes no sense to trust it. It’s a very tough discipline to ignore SMAART, Don’t get me wrong, I love SMAART, but during showtime, with every speaker on, it’s irrelevant, however, with a single source and good coherence SMAART can be your best friend, but nothing beats your ears

How do you deal with feedback, is that a problem nowadays?

To avoid feedback we aim the PA very accurately and pick microphones that work in these hostile environments that are live concerts. People pick studio condenser microphones because they sound amazing, but the minute you use them in these hostile-sounding environment with the speakers in the same room, those microphones can be your worst enemy. 

I also get involved with how the system is deployed every day, from the time the rigging points are chalked on the floor until the stuff is put back on the truck. To truly excel at live sound, you have to be well versed in all audio aspects of the show, or you are never going to be as good as you can be. If the artist manager asks me why the show sounded bad in the 300 level of the arena, I can’t point at the system engineer and blame him. That wouldn’t be an acceptable excuse. The only thing I want the manager to say to me is, “Great job Sully!” The way to guarantee that’s the comment you consistently get is to be involved in all of it and have the knowledge it takes to get positive results.

 Mixing FOH for Beck, 2009.

Mixing FOH for Beck, 2009.

People who wish to become like you, doing world tours, what’s the best way of getting there?

The easiest path is working for PA companies. It’s hard to get into this business without going through a vendor. Start at the bottom doing whatever they need done. Show the desire to be better than everyone else that works there, learn every piece of gear they have without anyone having to ask you, stay late and do whatever it takes to get your act together. Go beg the local clubs/churches to let you mix on the weekends if you have free time, don’t worry about the money side of it, that will come. If you’re a monitor tech or a system engineer, whenever someone needs an engineer be the first to put your hand up. If you’re the first one asking how much it pays, you’ll be the last one to get picked. Opening acts barely have any money so do it for free and kick ass, they will remember you. Do that enough and your phone will start ringing for paid work.

There are rare instances where a FOH engineer is friends with a band, the band makes it big and you get to ride that wave. Be aware, if you can’t keep up, you’ll soon find out your friendship means nothing. 

There are also universities such as Full Sail and only because they have a placement program a lot of students get jobs at vendors that way. I personally don’t like the Full Sail path because it’s a massive expense for kids just to get into the bottom of a company. Instead, if you just have the drive, and are smart enough to learn, you can bug a vendor and eventually get a job and work your way up. Which is what I did. 

It’s weird nowadays, because of the Internet and the expectations of instant gratification. There are a lot of people who imagine they can dive right in and be exactly where they want to without doing any hard work. It pretty much never works like that. All the biggest guys in this business all struggled through the toughest of times working the crappiest gigs with the longest hours to get where they got. It’s not an easy path and don’t expect it to be. 

You mentioned that you would come in and do a better job than the main acts FOH engineer, in what way would you say you did a better job, was it purely mixing better or what was it?

I used to be a system engineer for big time FOH engineers and I mixed all the opening acts which had less time to soundcheck, less rehearsal time, no fancy equipment and used microphones that just happened to be what was left in the sound companies workbox. However, I made it sound better than the headliners did. I was an experienced FOH engineer just doing system-engineering gigs to get my name out there. If you excel at the gig, regardless if you have all the equipment and time you want, managers will notice you. Since touring is about making money, when you get someone who’s young and hungry making the show sound great, with whatever gear that was available, they will remember you.

Be the guy that makes it sound kick-ass with whatever is available, it doesn’t matter if it’s your favourite console, or PA, make it great and someone will notice. 

 Mixing FOH for Red Hot Chili Peppers, Lollapalooza Brazil, 2018.

Mixing FOH for Red Hot Chili Peppers, Lollapalooza Brazil, 2018.

You spend a lot of time learning an artist sound from the record, to the point where even if there’s just one word delayed in a song you make sure that’s also there for the live show. Where does this dedication come from or who inspired you to be so detailed?

The fans inspire me; they know the music better than anyone. Especially with a lot of the music I mix. For example, an artist like Rihanna and the number of streams she has, guess who knows her music best, the fans. I don’t come into the first rehearsal with an ego thinking I got this because I’m good at my job, I’m coming in thinking I’m going to crush this because I’ve been listening to their music since the first discussion about being hired. I make myself a fan and when the music is embedded in your brain, it makes it easier to mix it

Also getting my next job inspires me, for example, when someone asks Shania or her manager if they know a good FOH engineer, I want my name to be the first name out of his or her mouth. That comes from proving you are the best choice by letting them hear what you’re capable of. The only way you can guarantee that is to study, put in the time and effort.

Let me know what you think about the interview in the comments below. Are there anything you will implement in your own career? Let me know!

Tom Lord-Alge - It's Not The Gear It's Your Ear

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How To Find Work And Become A Freelance Sound Engineer

Learn How To:
- Get Your Foot In The Door
- Find Opportunities And Work
- Be More Productive

And Much More

Tom Lord-Alge is a two time Grammy-Award winning engineer and has mixed records for bands such as U2, The Rolling Stones, Oasis and many others. Tom is currently working out of his studio, Spank Studios, in Miami where he has been for the last 20 years. 

In this interview, Tom speaks about how he started out at the age of 16, getting thrown in the deep-end by his brother Chris Lord-Alge, which decision in his career he like to change, when a mix is finished, how you should deliver a session and so much more.

Enjoy!

 Tom’s studio - Spank Studios

Tom’s studio - Spank Studios

You started out working on live shows doing light and sound when you were only 16, how did you manage to get a gig at that young age?

It starts with having a phoney ID. 

Joking aside, I was raised and had been around musicians my entire life and the cats who offered me the gig were friends of my older brothers. When they offered the gig to me I approached my mother because she had to sign me out of school, which she was fine with.

…as long as you are working I don’t have a problem with that” she said

Also, I’m the youngest of six kids so she had already dealt with my other siblings who wanted to leave school to pursue a career in music, however, since my mom was a jazz musician she was very happy that her three youngest kids were pursuing a career in music.

You mentioned your mother, how did she influence you in terms of your life in music?

Her name is Vivian Lord and she is a jazz singer, pianist as well as a jazz educator. I have very fond memories as a child being in bed hearing mom performing or rehearsing with her jazz trio. When they took breaks my mom would go to the kitchen and make everybody something to eat, of course, the musicians would be in the basement with myself and my brothers and they would be smoking weed, “Here, have hit of off this” they would sometimes say to us. I was immersed in the whole culture and lifestyle in a relatively early age so it always seemed normal to me and that’s all I knew.

One of the first sessions you did, having been thrown in the deep-end by your brother, was with James Brown - Living In America, how did you handle the pressure? 

You just deal with it and I think having been around musicians and artists my entire life before I ever walked into the studio, certainly didn’t hurt. However, then James Brown and the producer Dan Hartman walks in, but once you get past that initial shock of who the person is you realize what you are there to do. 

How I got thrown in the deep-end during that session was that my brother, Chris, got out of his chair and left the room, just to see what I would do, so, I sat down in the chair and took over the session. Later in life, Chris said, “I had to see what you were made of so I walked out of the room because I needed to make sure you were on top of what was going on. I needed you to be aware of the situation and if you could handle it”

I guess I did OK. 

 From Top left, Unknown, Keith LeBlanc, Arthur Baker, Little Steven Van Zandt, CLA, TLA (Unique Recording circa 1985)

From Top left, Unknown, Keith LeBlanc, Arthur Baker, Little Steven Van Zandt, CLA, TLA (Unique Recording circa 1985)

You have also spoken highly about Bob Clearmountain, in which ways did he influence you as a mix engineer?

Bob’s influence on me was his use of EQ and what the vibe of a mix should sound like. Also, Chris and I would listen to his mixes and admire, for example, his compression and once we got better at replicating Bob’s mixing style we took the bits that we enjoyed and made them our own. 

Bob is a very, very consistent mixer, his mixes always sounded unbelievably good and that was something that I strove for and was inspired by. It didn’t matter the song, it sounded like he treated every song as if it was the song that made his career. To this day I still have a great relationship with Bob and have a ton of admiration for him because he really forged and invented the mixing engineer philosophy.

Bob’s treatment of drums were also really great, for example, Start Me Up by The Rolling Stones and all the Bryan Adam stuff that came out in that era. He did great rock records in the 80’s when there wasn’t really any rock records being made, obviously very different sounding then the rock records being made today, but when you listen to them they don’t have a time stamp, like other records in the 80’s. Records like Let’s Dance by David Bowie which Nile Rodgers produced is another freaking spectacular example of Bob and then you go to the whole other side such as Chic - Le Chic, holy shit, what the hell is this, again, mixed by Bob. The list just goes on and on and on.

Do you have a specific routine you do before going into a mixing session to be able to bring your A-Game?

Coffee! I have had a very specific coffee cup for 25-30 years. It has kept my coffee warm for years. That’s the start of my day, then I sit in front of the console, open the session I will work on, give a listen to the rough mix whilst setting up. At this point, I’m also mapping out the song, such as the different parts, where the strong suits are and how I want them to sound.

I go through a whole plethora of emotions while mixing, from elation to disappointment, from exuberance to share terror, from making decisions to being indecisive. Although, at the end of the day that’s part of the process and through the years I have learned not to second guess myself and instead go with my gut. I can’t give my client his mix until he gets My mix and I have to get My mix out of my system first, but generally speaking I always go with my initial impression.

How do you know when a mix is finished?

It’s being finished the whole time I’m working on it but once I’m putting the last parts in there’s always a handful of things I like to do on my console. For example, drum moves, which are easier on the console because I’m using outboard gear or console compression as oppose to doing it in Pro Tools. However, in Pro Tools it’s sometimes easier to do guitar or keyboard rides. Once the last parts are in it’s two or three passes of automation and that’s usually done on my small iLoud speakers by IK Multimedia. I use them because they are really nice and similar to what I feel the majority of people are listening through. 

How is it having your brother also be a really successful mixing engineer?

It’s fucking awesome, my brothers, Chris, Jeff [Lord-Alge] and I are inseparable. Jeff runs a backline company and he helped me build my studio, Spank Studio, here at Miami Beach. When Chris and I get together we really don’t talk too much about work but when we are out doing the trade shows together it’s all about work, but it’s awesome. 

Chris and I have always said one thing, it doesn’t matter which Lord-Alge mix it is, as long as it’s one of us. 

 TLA & David Byrne of The Talking Heads (Unique Recording 1984)

TLA & David Byrne of The Talking Heads (Unique Recording 1984)

Is there anything specific you learned from Chris that is a vital part of your workflow?

Everything. Chris had been bugging me for years while I was mixing live shows, saying I would really excel in the studio and that I should come to check it out and finally I took him up on it. I already had the knowledge of balancing and audio but Chris taught me how it is being the keeper of the vibe and what it’s like to manage a session.

We also used to screw around in the studio, for example, when we were both mixing at Unique Recording Studios, maybe he would be in the B room and I was in the A room or vice versa, and at the end of the day we would say, “come and listen to this snare drum”, that was our thing back in the day, “OK, who can get the snare drum the loudest?”. 

Also, if it wasn’t for Chris I don’t know where my career would be because he was the one who did all the dirty work, he cleaned the toilets and worked his way up the ranks. I didn’t have to do that. I walked into the studio and was hired as an engineer immediately based on Chris’s recommendation. I’m forever grateful for that and I’m very pleased and happy that I didn’t let him down

You have had a long career in the music industry, so, if you could change one decision you’ve made, what would that be?

I probably wouldn’t have asked Pink Floyd why they wanted me to mix their record. I’d like to have that one back. I had lunch with David Gilmour and Bob Ezrin and I asked them, “Why do you want me to mix the record?”, I think I had one too many Sake’s but I was very flattered but I didn’t think I was worthy and obviously, I wasn’t because I didn’t mix it.

I use this expression, “I know where the bodies are buried” because when you open a session you hear what the band is doing and the genie is out of the bottle. This was my thought process when I had lunch with David Gilmore. There’s a part of me that knows if I had mixed it, it could have ruined the experience of me enjoying it because I would have known where the bodies were buried. 

It changes your perception of the artist when you find that stuff out, for example, with Peter Gabriel, who is one of the most influential artists to me and my brothers. When I got to work with him the genie was let out of the bottle and now I know where the bodies are buried.

 TLA, Peter Gabriel & CLA

TLA, Peter Gabriel & CLA

Many people are struggling with perfectionism, therefore endlessly tweaking their knobs, or not finishing their projects, is this something you have experienced and how did you deal with it?

You got to know when good is good enough. You can tweak the knobs until the cows come home but it’s not going to get any better. Try to be the keeper of the song and keep the presence and the vibe of the song alive. Mixing is compromising, there are certain things I don’t compromise on but there’s only so much I can do with a recording. When you get a bad recording you do the best you can, although, if you polish it up too much it shows all the warts, so my job is to keep the vibe and the intent of the song intact without over-polish it or making it too perfect, which I do have a tendency to do sometimes.

I heard you speak a lot about the next generation of engineers and producers. What would be your number 1 advice to us in terms of getting and maintaining a career in the music industry?

First and foremost, when you are working on your session in your DAW, if in the back of your mind you feel that your idol is going to open it up, that will change the way you work. In my case when I was a recording engineer, I was taught to keep things clean and well notated. Think about if Bob Clearmountain was going to mix this, what would he say when he heard these tracks, so my recommendation to new engineers and producers is that in your workflow, even though nobody will ever open up your session you never know, so make your session tidy, spend time notating things, it’s very important. I get session all the time that are written in hieroglyphics so I can't figure out what half the things are sometimes. 

Also, don’t get hung up on gear. Learn your rig. Pull all your plugins out and just have 2 or 3 of the main things, as in, 2 EQ’s, 2 compressors, 2 reverbs, delays and a couple of speciality plugins and master those. Choose the once that are your workhorses that do the most for you and from there you just keep adding the colours.

Remember, It’s not the gear it’s your ear. Trust your ears, monitors and the decisions making process because that’s the whole things about mixing, trusting the decisions you make and be able to live with them.

Also, when I get sessions and I look at their master fader and I see 5, 6 or even 7 plugins on it I know this engineer is a hack and that he has no idea of what he is doing. You shouldn’t need to have that on your master fader. I can do it with one plugin on my master fader, for example, a compressor just to pull everything together.

What has been your hardest decision you had to make in your career?

Right now, is what to do with the studio in my house. I never had a studio in my house up until 3 years ago, but I love it. However, the problem now is that I don’t have a life. Throughout my whole career I never had a studio in my own house so I was able to separate work from my personal life but with the studio in my house, if I’m not working I’m still here making it better, doing maintenance because I like to keep my equipment at peak operational level. 

I’m going to sell my house because I have been in Miami Beach for 24 years and I have done what I need to do here so I’m looking forward going into the next chapter and I’m leaning towards not having a studio in my house. 

Are you moving back to LA?

I haven’t decided yet but I’m leaning towards New York City. I’m from that area and I miss it. There are some opportunities for me to park my gear so it’s something to consider. I’ll miss Miami Beach, but I had a great run here. 

Now, let me know what you think in the comments below and get the discussion going!

Dan Graham - How To Make A Living Doing Library Music

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How To Find Work And Become A Freelance Sound Engineer

Learn How To:
- Get Your Foot In The Door
- Find Opportunities And Work
- Success And Failure

And Much More

Dan Graham is the founder and owner of Gothic Storm, a label specialised in library music, or as stated on their website: “Epic Emotional Music”. Some of their recent placements includes: Deadpool 2, AntMan and The Wasp, Aquaman, Dunkirk, The Black Panther and the list of blockbusters goes on.

In this interview, Dan talks us through some great tips on how you can pitch to publishers, increase your musical output, things to look out for, various deals you may encounter, books that helped him and so many more useful tips that you can use.

Enjoy!

 Gothic Storm’s Website

Gothic Storm’s Website

It took you a few years before you manage to make a living from library music, how were some of those early years and what made you keep going?

In my 20’s I was in a band, we had a record deal and we did well for a few years, however, we got dropped by the label and I got unemployed. When I was in my early 30’s I had reached a point when I had no money, was living in a terrible apartment, however, I had a degree and thought about giving up music completely to get a proper job. I was interested in artificial intelligence and I applied to do a PhD, I got accepted but I still wasn’t sure If I was ready to let go of my dream of making music for a living. In my head I was thinking, “Would I rather buy a Sound on Sound magazine and read about the latest gear or would I rather get a journal and read about AI?

My conclusion was, of course, that I’m more interested in music and that’s what I want to do.

So, I made a search on Google, “How do you make money out of music?” and I remember seeing different options, such as game-, tv- and advertising-music and I thought library music seemed like something I should try. I gave myself two months to try this idea out and in that time I sent out demos to as many people I could find through websites. I probably sent over 2000 emails spread over those 2 months, trying to get anybody interested. About 3 different people came back to me and one was a really good company called Boosey & Hawkes Recorded Music Library, now called Cavendish Music. They were looking for a piano album and could also give me a decent advance, which could get me off unemployment for a month. I saw this as a sign that people are interested and if I only try hard enough anything is possible.

In the first 2-3 years, I was mainly working for the advances, even though the official line is that nobody gives out advances, I found that if I was honest about my situation and they liked my music, they would usually agree to give me an advance.

It took a few years before I started seeing royalties coming in, but over the years it built and built until after about 5 years it got to a significant amount. That’s when I started to think about starting my own company. 

 Dan’s band, Ooberman.

Dan’s band, Ooberman.

What were some of your early experience when starting out writing music for publishers, was it confusing understanding what they were asking for?

There are different types of publishers and different kinds of people working for publishers, and to me, the best type of person was someone who was encouraging, likes what you do, they don’t mind if it comes back a bit different to what they were expecting, as long as the quality was good.

I had some really bad experiences with people that just gave me confusing instruction that I couldn’t really understand, they used strange terms, such as, “Can you write this more pulsing?” I couldn’t figure out if they wanted the music to undulate or gated sounds.

I had even worse experiences working with TV directors because they don’t have any musical knowledge, for example, at one point a director was asking if I could make the music sound more floating. I had no idea what they meant. 

What were some of the early pitfalls you experienced and what would your advise be to people so they can avoid them?

One of my early pitfalls was working too much for just one company. They really liked what I did and did everything they could to keep me writing for just them, without giving me an exclusivity contract, instead, they just agreed to my crazy demands of advances and allowed me to pursue crazy ideas. However, because I had grown dependant on them, when the person who was my main contact at the company got promoted another person stepped in who wasn’t nearly as supportive and encouraging. He started questioning what I was doing and started rejecting ideas for new albums. However, he also got promoted but then new person who stepped in was even worse and gave me instructions I couldn’t figure out. At the same time, the company started saying that they didn’t want me to work only for them because they didn’t want composers who were too dependant on them. But since I had only been working for them for the last two years and they had met all my requirements I suddenly got pulled out from underneath and had to start looking for other companies.

For someone starting out and are looking for their first publisher, what do you recommend them doing to accomplish that first step? For example, should they have one great album or is a few great songs enough?

It depends on the publisher and different publishers have different attitudes. What suits me since we have different labels for various kinds of music, is that it can be quite useful if someone sends a link to a playlist, on for example Soundcloud, that got various kinds of music in it. Then I can place those songs on the different labels we have. It also let me hear what style the writer is good at. However, I know some publishers who don’t like that because they want to be able to pigeonhole a writer as being a specialist in one area.

The album trick that I mentioned in Sound on Sound is the idea that you send a publisher/label about 12 tracks that are free and ready to be licensed. They should sound finished, have a good title and be something that will fit on the label you are pitching to. This makes it easy for the publisher/label to listen to and decide if they need an album like that. It also creates less work for them because they don’t have to put out a brief for their current writers asking for an album like that. Also, as mentioned before, if the album is quite specific it makes it easier for them to figure out if they can pigeonhole it.

When you do send that first album does it have to be mixed and mastered too?

It needs to sound like a finished album, however, it’s all up to the publisher. Some might ask for the multi-tracks so they can mix it themselves or just unmastered mixes so they can master it. However, for that first pitch and when you want to play it for someone it needs to sound finished and that does mean mastered, but mastered well and not too distorted. 

For new writers looking for a publisher/label what are some of the things they should be on the lookout for before committing to a specific label?

Do research on them, for example, are they a big company, do they have high-quality music with a nice presentation on the website, what’s their recent placements, are the constantly getting used on big things? If the website looks a bit out of date and the artwork looks a bit cheap then maybe they don’t have a good reputation.

 Dan’s first library album, “Solo Piano”

Dan’s first library album, “Solo Piano”

When publishers ask for in perpetuity deals (when they have the copyright of your music until 75 years after your death) is that something people should be worried about or is that normal?

It depends on the type of company. In America it’s not common not to have in perpetuity deals, instead, you have some reversion clause in the contract, especially the royalty-free library and if it’s a non-exclusive deal, then you can take it back any time you want.

My company and all our agents that we work with around the world, use in perpetuity deals, which is more common in the higher-end of the library music market. One reason for this is that the music is often distributed to people on hard drives and if it’s not it will most certainly go on a hard drive at some point. Also, within a big company, they will have a big music server that has all their music catalogues in it. This music will either be pre-cleared so they know they can use it or they will know how much a certain company charges for a song. 

Therefore, if a composer had the right to take their music back after a certain time, you would have to go to all of your agents around the world and they would have to go to every company around the world and start telling them to delete your music from their hard drives. It’s not impossible but it would be really complicated. 

So, by having in perpetuity deals means they don’t have the uncertainty of their library music being unavailable to them. Another reason is that they will keep earning money from your music for a long, long time.

You recommended in your Sound on Sound article that the aim should be one track per week, i.e., 52 tracks a year. How does your setup/routine look that enables you to reach that goal?

One important technique I used was that for every musical idea I had I would do a rough piano sketch, I would leave Cubase running, with no click or quantisation enabled, and give myself 20 minutes to record rough sketches for each idea. In one hour I would have outlined three different ideas and if all were good, great, but if one idea was a lot better than the others I would focus on that idea. The reason is that working on the one idea that excites you will enable you to make it better and be able to finish it, so it’s a great time saver. If you would just stick with your first idea, which might not have been your best, you are wasting time, instead, if you quickly lay out three or more ideas and pick the best one to focus on, it will save you a lot of time.

When the best idea is finished, I have the whole song outlined on piano, heavily quantised and if something is too difficult to play I draw it in. The piano outline would capture the emotion, the tempo, the dynamics and the chord progression of the whole song, rather than just a few bars. Working and perfecting only a few bars is one of the worst things you can do because things end up not fitting together. For example, you might have 4 bars sounding great but it doesn’t link to the next bit. Therefore, having a great outline of the whole track acts like a skeleton that you build everything else on. This will speed up the process too.

I also have a Word document where I write down the different sections of the songs and what should happen at each point of the track. For example, I want an Obo solo here, tremolo strings there, this is where the drums come in, etc. By writing it down it becomes a to-do-list and it’s very quick to follow your own list of things to do rather than just getting stuck wondering what should come next, or what will or won’t work.

I would also have an instrument list in order of importance, so, my Word document have two sections, one for what instrument to use and the other one stating which instrument is doing what at what point. I would first imagine it in my head while listening to the piano guide and give myself 30 minutes to lay out each of the different instruments, not perfectly, but as a guide.

After you listen back and you can hear all the different things that are wrong, you go back to each section and write down on another list of what needs changing. Spend another hour fixing it and on each cycle, it will become more and more finished.

Using this method made me speed up my writing from spending a month per track to a week per track.

Does that also include having it mixed and mastered?

For me, I would always be mixing as I went along and for those companies that want me to do the final mix, it’s a case of making final tweaks. I don’t do mastering myself so that wouldn’t be factored into this. 

 Dan’s studio

Dan’s studio

I saw you mentioned the book Think And Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill and how that had a positive impact on your career and business, how important has books in the self-improvement/business area been to you and your career?

It had a big influence on me because it was at a point where I found it hard to get more work as a writer for other companies. However, at the same time, my own company started making a profit and I’ve had these business books on my iPad for years, but never looked at. Think and Grow Rich sounded like a 1950s stupid thing and I didn’t think I could be bothered, however, I had a read and I found it extremely inspiring. It was written in 1938 so some of the ideas are a bit dated, for example, it’s suggesting getting into radio because it’s booming. But if you ignore some of those dated elements it’s full of really good advice. 

The book also talks about how to build a team and how no one has ever been successful alone. Instead, reach out and find other people who are experts in an area you are not and share the profits. For me, that was a big revelation because I had always done everything myself. 

Many people who set out to, for example, make a living doing library music, making 52 tracks per year, etc., don’t do it consistently (year after year) as yourself and many other successful people have done, therefore not reaching their goals. Is being consistent something you worked on?

Yes, you have to be consistent. Not only will it make you earn more money since the more music you consistently do the more royalties will come in, and for a longer period of time. Also, the more music you make the more people you are reaching out to and the bigger your network grows. You get to collaborate with more people and you will learn a lot more by staying consistent. 

Have you had any moments where you thought, "Damn, can't believe I’m doing this, I reached my goal"?

I never had a moment where I thought I reached success and that ’s because I'm always thinking about what’s happening in the future. So, something can go really well but it’s more of a relief because there’s still another 1000 problems I need to care for. I have appreciated certain moments, for example, when I had a meeting at Walt Disney Studios and as I walked through the big doors into the studio I saw these big statues of the seven dwarfs and Walt Disney. That was a really nice moment.

Looking at the other side of the coin, have you had any experiences where you wondered, "How can I get out of this mess"?

Honestly, It’s not an exaggeration to say that I'm in a permanent state of having a mess to get out of. I'm expanding things really quickly, with new labels and new albums and that’s very expensive, tens of thousands of pounds is going out every month. I need to be able to cover all those costs, including salaries, fees, etc. There's always a sense of what could happen in three months or if we have a few bad months, could we cover our costs? I feel like I'm only ever a month away from disaster. 

Also, there are always things going wrong, for example, wrong names being put on projects and I got a legal letter from a composer from a few years ago saying that I hadn’t successfully promoted his material. He only had a tiny amount of tracks and earned a bit of money, but I still got a legal letter stating that I hadn't fulfilled my part of the contract by exploiting his music. I had to send a full list of all the websites where his music was available, saying sometimes people don't use it and, unfortunately, his music didn’t succeed. Sometimes people accuse us of copyright infringement, artwork infringement, there’s always something stupid coming in.

Thank you Dan for taking your time to answering all these questions.

Now, let me know what you think in the comments below, are there anything you will apply to your own career or anything you would do differently?

Ethan Winer - Busting Audio Myths And Why Dave Pensado Was Tricked

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How To Find Work And Become A Freelance Sound Engineer

Learn How To:
- Get Your Foot In The Door
- Find Opportunities And Work
- Success And Failure

And Much More

Ethan Winer is well known in the audio industry with his many articles for major sound magazines as well as with his book The Audio Expert (Check it Here). Ethan has also been active at AES with, for example, his popular Audio Myths presentation (Check it Here)

In this interview, we discussed some common topics and misconceptions that are commonly seen around audio forums on the internet, such as what sample rate is better, how much can cables affect the sound, converters, why Dave Pensado was tricked, the need for iso pads for your speakers as so much more. 

Enjoy!

 Ethan's first console build back in 1972. Photo by Kevin Byron

Ethan's first console build back in 1972. Photo by Kevin Byron

High Definition Audio, is 96 kHz better than 48 kHz?

No, I think this is one of the biggest scam perpetuating on everybody in audio, not just people making music but also people who listen to music and buys it.

When this is tested properly nobody can tell the difference between 44.1 kHz and higher. People think they can hear the difference because they do an informal test where they play a recording at 96 kHz and then play a different recording from, for example, a CD. One recording sounds better than the other so they say it must be the 96 kHz one but of course, it has nothing to do with that. To test it properly, you have to compare the exact same thing, i.e., can’t sing or play a guitar into a microphone at one sample rate and do the same thing at a different sample rate, it has to be the same exact performance. Also, the volume has to be matched very precisely, within 0.1 dB or 0.25 dB or less, and you will have to listen blindly. Furthermore, to rule out chance you have to do the test at least 10 times which is the standard for statistics.

Is that a specific measure you use in statistics?

Yes, you have to get it right 10 times and hear the difference in sound 10 times, blindly, where someone else changes the sound for you. However, people don’t do that, they play it ones and think that’s fine. I blame the professional magazines and web bloggers because people are either lying to the benefits or their advertisers or they are themselves clueless.

Is there any point where, for example, 96 kHz is better?

In plugins, because some plugins can process audio better at a higher sample rate. For examples, plugins that remove clicks and pops, if those can sense higher frequencies they can better tell if it’s a click rather than something that’s a part of the music. However, plugins that need that and benefits from this, they upsample internally and then downsample back again. It’s done automatically so there’s no reason to record it at that sample rate. 

Power and microphone cables, how much can they actually affect the sound?

They can if they are broken or badly soldered, for example, a microphone wire that has a bad solder connection can add distortion or it can drop out. Also, not that all wires are good enough, for example, speaker and power wires have to be heavy enough but whatever came with your power amplifier will be adequate. Also, a very long signal wire, depending on the driving equipment at the output device, it may not be happy driving 50 feet of wire but any 6 feet wire will be fine unless it’s defected. 

Furthermore, I bought a cheap microphone cable and opened it up and it was soldered very well, the wire was high quality and the connections on both ends were exactly as good as you want it. You don’t need to get anything expensive, just get something decent.

I’m also working on designing an audio device that will compare microphone cables and proof beyond doubt that a $3 dollar cable is as good as a $2000 cable. It’s coming out soon.

Is there any reason for people to spend several grand to upgrade their power cables?

Never power cables, audio doesn't even go through that. That’s the worst scam when it comes to cables.

There’s also a really big misconception that you need to keep your power cables as far away from your microphone cables as possible (to avoid noise, hum, etc.) so, I tested this. In this test, I used a power cable powering a 600 W halogen bulb, so there was a lot of current going through, and I wrapped it around a microphone cable and coiled them in a loop, like a transformer, to make the coupling as tight as possible. So, they weren’t just near each other they were actually wrapped around each other. For the microphone, I used an Audio Technica condenser microphone with the maximum gain on the pre-amp, then I turned the light switch on and off, not a click nor hum or anything. That was not a Star Quad microphone cable that was just normal $20 microphone cable. 

I saw Dave Pensado raving about how he updated all his power cables in his studio and people who are a fan of him or anyone else, are gonna think you need it too.

I feel bad for people who follow Dave Pensado and believe this nonsense because it really is nonsense. It’s a shame with people that have that much influence are bamboozled by themselves. He was tricked but I’m sure he believed it and that he didn’t took a $1000 under the table to say that. I know some of these people, for example, one of my customers who is a famous mastering engineer believes all this stuff and believes every wire and device has a sound and thinks that Monster cables are not overpriced because it not expensive enough. He is really good and his ears are really good but he doesn’t understand the limits of his own hearing.

(Check out the episode below on Power Cables with Dave Pensado)

Room treatments, what’s the best way to get the best bass response and what do people usually get wrong about this?

The main thing is that people don’t think they need bass traps or other acoustic treatments. When you are mixing or making music you need to hear the music accurately. If you look at a typical room response it will have around 4-5 peaks and nulls all below 500 Hz. It will be +10 dB here and -20 dB there, only 10 Hz apart. It’s a rollercoaster response, and this will make you do bad EQ decisions. For example, if the bass player plays an A note at 110 Hz and you have a big null there you will boost it with your EQ, but when you play it in your car or in another room that doesn’t have that problem it will be really bass-heavy and too much build-up at that frequency. 

Furthermore, I see people putting treatment in all the wrong places, I see this at least as much in high-fi rooms as home recording studios. If you look at ads, for example, from Auralex, there’s always a whole lot of foam behind the speakers but that’s the last place where you need treatment, your speakers face the other way. Having said that, bass frequencies come out of your speakers omnidirectional, so really thick bass traps or absorptions on the wall behind the speakers is not wrong, but putting 1-2 inch of foam is. The wall behind you is much more important because that's where the sound will reflect from the speakers and back at you. That’s the reflection you want to stop. 

I also see people not putting enough treatment in because they don’t want a dead room. But you do, because a small room sounds terrible and the ambience you get from a small room is not pleasant. What you want is a neutral room that doesn’t have any strong reflections, echoes or extended reverbs at certain frequencies.

 Ethan's home studio.

Ethan's home studio.

Converters, how much of a difference is there in terms of quality and how much money do you need to spend to get a good one?

When buying converters, the most important thing is the features and price. At this point, there are only a couple of companies that make the integrated circuits that actually do the conversion and they are all really good. If you get, for example, a Focusrite soundcard, the pre-amps and the converters are very, very clean, the spec is all very good. If you do a proper test, as explained above, you will find that you can’t tell the difference between a $100 and $3000 converter/sound card. 

Furthermore, some people say you can’t hear the difference until you stack up a bunch of tracks, so, again, I did an experiment where we recorded 5 different tracks of percussion, 2 acoustic guitars, a cello and a vocal. We recorded it to Pro Tools through a high-end Lavry converter and also to my software in Windows using a 10-year-old M-Audio Delta 66 soundcard. I also copied that through a $25 Soundblaster and we put together 3 mixes which I put on my website which you can listen to and try to identify which mix is through what converter. 

Check it out the experiment and do the test here: http://ethanwiner.com/converters.html

The average result is that nobody can tell which mix has gone through a high-end converter or not. 

 The making of Ethan's converter test.

The making of Ethan's converter test.

Analogue summing, can this create width and depth to a mix?

There’s nothing that summing can do to effect width and depth, those are a function of timing differences, reverb, echo or EQ differences between the Left and Right channels. A summing box will not do that. It might be adding a little distortion, but a clean summing box will do nothing and have no effect. That’s the placebo effect, because when somebody spends $3000 on one of these things that got tubes and they have to wait 6 weeks for Vintage King to get it for them, of course, they are gonna think it sounds better. They are not going to admit even to themselves that they threw away all that money.

On a console you can have phase differences between channels at certain frequencies, is that why people can experience added width and depth by going through a console?

Depends on what frequency the phase shift occurs. Phase shift by itself, on a mono source, is not audible. However, if you have stereo material or a mono source going out through left and right speakers and there is a differential phase shift on left and right, yes, that will affect the width. However, in audio equipment, the phase shift is down to 10 - 20 Hz or 10 kHz and above, at the extremes, because of the capacitors used in the circuitry. In order to get these effects like the stereo synthesisers, you can EQ the sides differently or change the phase at midrange frequencies, between 300 Hz - 5 kHz, because that’s the range we are most sensitive too and where most musical content is. 

Iso pads/pucks, are they necessary for your speakers?

Nobody measured this stuff. They put their speakers on these platforms and it raises them up 3 inches, and yes that changes the response you hear but it’s not because of the isolation pad, it’s because the tweeters are now closer to your ear level. The companies that sell these things measures the amount of isolation, for example, they will have a speaker on the table with a vibration sensor on it and they will measure with and without the pad. However, they don’t actually show how this changes the audio, they never do that, which is all that matters. 

Why do you think the placebo effect is so common with using certain audio gear?

The way we hear is not very reliable and some days you will hear a song and it will sound great, but 10 min later, or the next day, it will change and not sound good anymore. Of course, you can hear the difference between a cassette and a good clean digital recording, on a vinyl you can hear the clicks and the pops, but the subtle differences are very hard to hear. People will change their capacitors on their mixing consoles and they will say, “Oh man, I can hear that cymbal ping more clear now.” Probably not, you just never noticed it before. It’s the unreliability of our hearing and our hearing perception, it’s not a great sense. 

What is the most common piece of useless gear you see people spending their hard earned money on?

Probably speaker isolation or replacement power cords. Also, one of the biggest mistakes I see is through my company, RealTraps, where usually someone will call and they have a lot of great and expensive equipment with a nice room, but it really needs treatment. However, they never have the budget to treat it because they spent it all on gear. It’s not because I’m in the business but the room matters more than anything, more than the converters or preamps you use. 

What do you think about the various audio myths, have you ever fallen for one of them? Let me know in the comments below!

An In-Depth Conversation About Plugins With Nikolay Georgiev from Acustica Audio

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How To Find Work And Become A Freelance Sound Engineer

Learn How To:
- Get Your Foot In The Door
- Find Opportunities And Work
- Success And Failure

And Much More

Nikolay Georgiev is a freelance sound engineer and producer based in London and is also representing Acustica Audio in the UK for which he has worked on a lot of plugins, such as Navy, Lime, EQ A in Pink and also their newly released Cream plugin. He is also heavily involved with the UK section of the AES (Audio Engineering Society) and from 2011 until February 2017 Nikolay was also a member of the British Executive Committee which he consequently Chaired in 2015. 

Nikolay also develops his own on 3rd party plugins for Acustica Audio and is currently sampling the most interesting spaces and outboard gear he can find. 

This interview takes a slightly different route than others featured here and will be focused on the technical side of making plugins. You will learn how plugins are made, what's an impulse response, dynamic convolution, Acustica Audio vs Slate and so much more. It's really interesting and I hope you can learn as much as I did from this. 

Enjoy!

Nik Cave.jpg

In broad terms, how do you sample a room/space or a piece of outboard gear, as in, how does it get from test tones to the end-user being able to put their music in the plugin?

You will first need to excite the system in a specific way and capture its behaviour. The software we have allows you to sample the character of almost any audio system, as long as you can record some specific test tones through it and there is no pitch-shift present. We can sample circuit distortions, EQs, reverbs, compressors, flangers, panners, tremolos and others, even software. If you are after the frequency and phase responses, and any resonances created by the system, you can simply use an impulse to do it. You record the impulse through the system and on the output you get the result, which is called an impulse response (IR). This new tone contains the information on how the system has affected the original pure impulse. Then all you need to do is to convolve your music with the captured impulse response. This is the basis of how classic convolution works (e.g., your common convolution reverb). This approach can deliver very good results for linear systems that exhibit no harmonic distortion, and if you are happy to ignore any changes resulting with different gain staging. You can use this method to sample an EQ curve, the phase/frequency response of a circuit or a reverb. If what you want to sample is software you can simply bounce your test tones through it.  

If you are sampling a real space, you go out of your converter to a loudspeaker, which transduces the electric energy to mechanical energy and the mechanical energy to acoustic energy. With the help of a microphone you go back to electrical energy, and last, the converter saves the signal to numbers. Because you work within an acoustic medium you can actually avoid the use of a loudspeaker giving you a greater choice of test tones (such as balloon bursts or a start pistol, which approximate what a pure impulse is). But depending on what you are sampling, the test tones vary. For example, for compressors, the test tones can be of numerous different types and the procedure can be quite complex. However, the most common test tone used for many devices are sine sweeps, which is a pure sine wave that rises up in frequency, starting from, say, 1 Hz and up to 20-30 kHz or more. Ultimately, this sweep will be transformed into an impulse response. When you run the sweep through a system it changes and will give you information about the frequency response and phase deviations and any resonance effects added by the system. On top of this, if there are any harmonics generated, those will create individual sweeps that lay separately on top of the original fundamental frequency sweep. For example, for 1 kHz you will see harmonics at 2 kHz, 3 kHz, 4 kHz etc., and each will be part of a separate sweep. Through a process called deconvolution, you turn these sweeps into individual impulse responses and apply their properties to an input signal. In our case, we use the Volterra series nonlinear convolution which allows us to model the harmonics dynamically, so, you need lots of impulses sampled at various gain levels. 

 Sine sweep spectrogram of a valve circuit: from left to right is time in seconds and top to bottom is the frequency spectrum in Hz/kHz. Where you see brighter colours you have more energy, darker means less. You can clearly see the original sweep on the bottom and the harmonics generated in top, with plenty of these generated in the low frequency range.

Sine sweep spectrogram of a valve circuit: from left to right is time in seconds and top to bottom is the frequency spectrum in Hz/kHz. Where you see brighter colours you have more energy, darker means less. You can clearly see the original sweep on the bottom and the harmonics generated in top, with plenty of these generated in the low frequency range.

 Spectrum analysis at 1 kHz of the same sweep as shown above.

Spectrum analysis at 1 kHz of the same sweep as shown above.

What is an impulse? 

If you think about the digital domain you have a bunch of samples at minus infinity (pure silence), followed by a single sample at 0dBFS, then the next sample will be again at minus infinity. That’s a pure impulse, as in, nothing, a burst of energy, then nothing again. If you measure a pure impulse you will see that you have a full frequency response up to Nyquist, perfect phase at every single frequency and that there will be no ringing or echo before or after that impulse. And all frequencies will be at equal level.

 A pure impulse – you can think of it as a perfect transient. In this case the frequency bandwidth will be limited by the sample rate of the digital system (44kHz, 96kHz, etc.)

A pure impulse – you can think of it as a perfect transient. In this case the frequency bandwidth will be limited by the sample rate of the digital system (44kHz, 96kHz, etc.)

 From the spectrogram of the impulse it is clearly visible that it has equal energy through the entire audio range.

From the spectrogram of the impulse it is clearly visible that it has equal energy through the entire audio range.

In case you are not interested in the harmonic distortion of a system, and having separate IR for the harmonics, you can actually use an IR to sample an EQ, a circuit or a room. However, the problem is that you can’t get an impulse to be at high enough amplitude due to clipping and therefore the signal to noise ratio often will be poor. For this reason, you don’t usually use impulses to sample a space or an EQ, but instead, you go for a long sweep and from that you derive the impulse of the system. But it all depends – for rooms you need a really high SPL so that you can go well above the noise around you, for example, instead of using a speaker you can use a start pistol. You could also burst a balloon or a condom. The idea is to excite the space with something really short, flat in frequency and with a really high SPL. For spaces it should ideally also radiate the produced sound wave equally in all directions – that is, it should be an omnidirectional source. Each method has some advantages and disadvantages, for example, balloons are not ideal as they work because of rapture and have resonances, but are safe to use in public spaces.

That’s why, especially with electrical systems, using sine-sweeps is more beneficial because it allows you to go slowly through the entire spectrum and through the process of de-convolution you can create an impulse response with the added benefit of a lower noise floor.

Furthermore, by using sine-sweeps it will give you the frequency and phase response of a device and also any added echo or resonance, not just from rooms but also from devices, such as EQ’s, valve circuits and transformers. Single impulse responses work well for reverbs but for devices where you want the harmonic distortion you want to use sine sweeps.

 Spectrogram of an IR of an audio transformer. It can clearly be seen that there is an echo added by the resonances on the transformer. In this case it is about 200ms long.

Spectrogram of an IR of an audio transformer. It can clearly be seen that there is an echo added by the resonances on the transformer. In this case it is about 200ms long.

What makes a good plugin from a bad plugin? 

The way Acustica does it is through the method of Volterra series nonlinear convolution and no one else does it this way. Some model mathematically the behaviour of capacitors, inductors, transformers, transistors, etc. Then they build a system where these components interact with each other in a similar way in which they would interact within a real circuit. This method is much less CPU demanding and to my knowledge, is therefore preferred by companies. However, your code needs to be very optimised to do what Acustica is doing. It’s not an easy thing. Also, similar systems existed in the past, such as Sintefex™ and Focusrite’s Liquid Channel™. These were based on dynamic convolution™, which works in a similar way to what Acustica does, but it's actually different and sounds different. 

To explain dynamic convolution™, lets first look at normal static convolution - think Logic’s Space Designer, which is built using this method. It processes each incoming sample of your music with an impulse response but it’s static, that is, it doesn’t matter what the input level of your music is, it will always use the exact same impulse response. So, if the sample is at -10 dBFS and the next one is at 0 dBFS, it would be a 10 dB difference in input level and output level, but the impulse response that it used to process these two samples will be identical. 

Dynamic convolution™, on the other hand, will, consider the input level, and use a different impulse response for different input levels of the processed signal. Also, the level and character of the harmonics will vary depending on the input level, in the same way as on the device I’m sampling right now. You can see that depending on the input level the bass frequency response change. When you run it hot (not clipping) the bass frequencies get squashed, flattened out, but when you run it at lower input levels you get a bump in the lower frequencies. If you want to replicate this and you are replicating 10 harmonics, you need to have a system that considers that at this specific input level, -10 dBFS, the plug-in should use this exact set of 10 impulse responses. Next sample, at for example 0 dBFS, there’s another set of impulse responses that you will need to use. 

However, the problem here is that if your music changes rapidly in level and if you do the convolution sample by sample, the transition between these sets of impulse responses can create another kind of distortion which is something that you don’t want because it can deteriorate the sound. What we do is that instead of switching instantaneously between the different samples and sets of impulse responses, we work in blocks. For example, 30 samples will be processed through a set of impulse responses and the next 30 samples will be processed through another set of impulse responses. Between these two blocks, there is a way to interpolate or make a smooth transition.

Slate put out this video comparing Acustica Audio’s Volterra Kernel technology to their algorithmic approach, trying to prove that both are equally good and equally capable as modelling methods. What are your thoughts on this? 

First of all, the two methods sound different and each one has its advantages and disadvantages. Our method is heavier on the CPU but I think it’s more accurate and sounds better. There’s another thing I’d like to mention - you are not going to hear me say that any plugin represents 100% the sound of the hardware it is modelled after. OK, convolution, in theory, should be able to reproduce perfectly a linear system, but most devices are nonlinear. So, the sound of a plug-in is always slightly different from the original system sampled, therefore any plugin is different from the hardware. We try to stay open about this and admit it rather than telling people they got a perfect replica of the hardware. I think plugins are getting closer and closer to the hardware but I still think the hardware has a little bit of an edge when it comes to sound quality. Again, there’s advantaged and disadvantages, such as workflow and other things, but if were are talking purely sound, unless you are doing classical music, specific types of jazz or mastering where you may want the cleanest possible sound, analogue gear still sounds better to me. 

Is the discussion of analogue vs digital still relevant?

Yes, it is. In terms of sound I think it’s getting less and less relevant but sometimes analogue is still better. For example, Acustica released a DW Fern EQ VT5 replica, and the plugin sounds absolutely amazing but then you try the hardware and it’s just a tiny, tiny bit better.

Another thing that separates hardware from plugins is something I discovered when working on the Acustica Cream plugin, where I sampled 24 channels of a vintage British console. I found that some of the channels will have an almost identical frequency response and harmonic distortion levels but their phase will be different at certain frequencies. Well, for one, this will make each channel sound different and these differences may be obvious to a trained ear. Some might wonder if this is bad, but let’s say you have a kick drum on channel 1 and a bass guitar on channel 2, does it matter that there is a phase difference? The channels will be coloured in a slightly different way but your signals are not correlated, as they are of two different sources. However, when you have a stereo source there’s a very big difference because all of a sudden you have correlated material. Your left and right channel share a lot of the same information, so when you have a difference in phase between the two channels all of sudden you de-correlate further the left and the right channels. The results of that, and you can hear it, is that if you have a mono bass panned right in the centre that bass is no longer a dot in the middle, it expands a little bit to the sides of the stereo spectrum and it sounds a little bit “stereo”. And if you have a stereo source, such as overheads, all of sudden they are starting to sound a bit wider, people might say, “You know what, I ran my music through this analogue thing and now it sounds bigger” and I think this is one of the reasons for it. 

So, when we are modelling our plugins we extract this from the hardware and we deliver the same phase response. As stated above, this has a big impact on the sound quality and I think that’s why our technology has a slight edge to others.

You sampled almost the entire Acustica Audio library, such as Navy, Lime, EQ A in Pink and Cream, could you elaborate a bit more what your worked entailed?

There’s a lot of testing, let’s say you want to sample a channel strip from a console and let’s say that you are only interested in a stereo version, that is, sampling two channels. The first thing that you want to do is to run test tones, short test tones and measure all the channels to see which ones have too much distortion and noise. Then find the ones that are in good shape. After that, you want to run music through them and listen to every single channel that is in good shape, and you have to make a decision on which ones you want to sample. Maybe you are going to use the compressor from one, the circuit distortion emulation from another, the high-shelf EQ from a third and the low-shelf from the fourth channel. You need to do a lot of listening, so it’s not just measurements. 

The gain staging is also very important. If you want to sample a console, you have lots of gain stages. You have your line level input gain, then maybe a makeup gain on the compressor, the fader and mix-bus fader. Also, if you are using the groups you have the group trim or gain. If you are sampling the entire path you have to make a decision of where you want to bring the level up and trim it down so it doesn’t clip the converter. Is it going to be at the channel fader or mix out? You have to do a lot of listening and it comes down to an aesthetic decision.

 State of the Ark Studios in Richmond

State of the Ark Studios in Richmond

Why are compressors much more difficult to sample?

There are more things to sample and more things that can go wrong. Some are not so difficult but some are very program dependent, as in their attack and release may vary depending on how set it up, so just because you set the Attack time at 30ms doesn’t mean it will be 30ms. I have seen behaviours of compressors that have just shocked me. For example, you set it on a 3-second release, which is a very long release, but depending on the circumstances you can get up to 30 seconds of release, which you think must be a joke. But I’ve seen it and measured it. What you need to do is to build a dynamic map of all kinds of levels and settings, as well as how the attack and realise curves behave and how they change.

You said when working with low-end in reverbs, “It is one thing to use an HPF, and a very different matter to reduce the length of the lows, by manipulating the Impulse response”. What’s the benefit of this approach?

If you have seen a spectrogram of a handclap, impulse response or a snare hit recorded in an acoustically live space you will know that almost every room naturally resonates longer in the low frequencies and shorter in the high frequencies. You may have an RT60 in the high frequency, for examples, at 5 kHz of 0.2 seconds, but at 50 hertz you may have an RT60 of 2 seconds. Sometimes it’s worse than that, for example, I just recorded some music in a lovely wooden space where the RT60 at 1 kHz was roughly 1 second, which is pretty good and allows for great flexibility. But at a 100 Hz, it was something like 5 seconds. That can be a problem because as soon as you record drums there, or as we did, a cajon, you get a lovely closed mic sound but when we recorded the room sound (by having speakers playing back the close recording and making the room) the low-frequency reverberation just completely flooded the mix and blurred the definition of the recording. 

But, if you want to have a bit of the low-end reverberation because it gives nice body to the instrument, how can you solve this? If you high-pass it, you lose the low-end but if you don’t high-pass you still have this blur in the low-end, so you have to compromise. What I do when I work with real spaces is that I will split my reverb (room mics) to two tracks by using a crossover - one for the highs and one for the lows. Then I would put an expander on the low-frequency channel to duck the tail of the low frequencies. Doing it this way allows me to have a fader to control how loud the low-end of the reverb is in the mix. When I do the impulse responses I can achieve the same thing so you don’t have to do it in your mix. Again, I use a crossover to split the low, and the mid and high frequencies of the impulse response, and that allows me to fade out the low-end. The sound does change a bit because you go through a crossover but the low frequencies are shorter and in this way you can get away with adding a lot more reverb to you source without cluttering your mix.

Will this be a part of the new set of your plugins you are working on?

Yes, this is one of the features, which I envisioned for the plugin I want to create. I have sampled a lot of spaces already but to do it the way I want to do it takes a lot of work and time. However, I am getting there and there will be something really nice out soon. Best follow me on Twitter (Click Here) or check regularly my website (Click Here).


More info and other cool stuff at Nikolay's personal websitehttp://georgievsound.com/
And don't forget to follow him on Twitter: https://twitter.com/nik_georgiev/

Let me know what you think, do you prefer Acustica over Slate? Do you use both? Will you start using Acustica after reading this? Get the discussion going in the comments below!

 

Rick Beato - The Beginning, Benefits of Good Pitch and The Future of Music

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How To Find Work And Become A Freelance Sound Engineer

Learn How To:
- Get Your Foot In The Door
- Find Opportunities And Work
Success and Failure

And Much More

Rick Beato has taken YouTube by storm, especially in the music production community, since he started his YouTube channel a few years ago. He has some really popular segments, such as What Makes This Song Great and various production techniques of famous music producers. 

Rick also has a background in teaching, which he makes good use of in his advanced music theory videos, and being a music producer. Rick co-wrote the hit song Carolina by Parmalee which sold 1 million copies when it came out in 2013. 

In this interview, Rick talks about how he started out, how having a good ear for pitch can improve your engineer skills, the difference between hearing frequencies compared to intervals, the future of music and so much more in this wide-ranging interview. 

Enjoy!

 A different look from what most of us has seen on YouTube

A different look from what most of us has seen on YouTube

You started out as a musician, studying jazz and classical music. How did you become a producer and an engineer with your own studio?  

A friend of mine had asked me to work on the melodies on a couple of songs and at the same time, he was making a record with his band in his basements so I went over and helped him out. They asked if I wanted to produce the rest of the record and I said, “Yea, I guess, but I don’t know anything about production”. I had done a lot of recording in the past but I didn’t have any technical knowledge of recording so I had to learn that all on my own afterwards. I taught myself how to engineer and mix and after 10 years, with some successful records, I bought my house and put my studio in it.

When was this?

I started making records in 2005 and because of Pro Tools and the Digidesign Digi 001 interface, which was the first system people started using at home to make records, I bought the house and all the gear and started doing it myself. Also, the record business really took a dive at the beginning of the 2000’s, financially, so I knew that there was not going to be the same budgets any more.

What did you do up to that point? Was it solely as a musician and a teacher?

I was teaching up till 1992 and from 1992 till 2000 I was playing in bands. I played in a band called Billionaire and we were signed to London-Sire Records which eventually got bought by Universal Records

 Billionaire

Billionaire

You spoke about why you should never give up on your goals and how that related to your goal of studying jazz guitar at college. Why didn’t you give up? Were there any specific techniques you used to stay determined and focused to reach your goal? 

I don’t like to fail at anything and this has kept me going at times when it was really difficult. I’m a really determined person and when it comes to learning things and what my goals are I work as hard as I can to make them happen. I never had to be motivated to do things, I have always been self-motivated. 

So, your way of reaching your goals was purely working hard? 

One of my friends calls it brute force and that I do everything by brute force. I never take the easy way to do things, whether it’s me not using the shortcuts in Pro Tools or Final Cut Pro, I get the stuff done by share will.

Your video with your son and his incredible perfect pitch went viral a while back. What are some of the best techniques for training your ear to obtain a really good musical ear? Can this skill improve your engineering skills as well?

There are three kinds of “an ear” that you can have, perfect pitch, relative pitch and then there are people who are just tone deaf. Most people don’t fall into the tone-deaf category and most people can learn relative pitch if they practise. Only babies can learn and retain perfect pitch, not adults. However, there might be some adults who discover they have perfect pitch when they are adults but they would have always had it since they were babies. If the pitch is really important to a language, such as tonal languages, you have a 30% incidence of perfect pitch. 

When it comes to pitch and engineering, like myself, I don’t have perfect pitch but I have a really good pitch memory and relative pitch so I use music theory and engineering together. For example, if I hear a woofyness on the note E which is at 82 Hz or at 41 Hz I know where to EQ exactly, sometimes I will even EQ and octave above or below. Furthermore, I find that there’s a lot of masking that’s going on if you don’t record parts properly, for example, you can have some strange anomalies in the snare drum that will be out of tune with the track so you need to know where to EQ them out.

So, having a good ear for pitch is really important for engineering and can be utilised to a great degree.

Rick.jpeg

There’s a big difference trying to learn to hear different intervals compared to learning different frequencies being boosted. Do you know why that is? 

Because there are multiple steps involved in the process. The concept of intervals has a certain complexity to it and you have to know music theory to understand intervals. It’s also easier knowing that your snare needs 7 kHz to hear the snare wires or 1.2 kHz to hear the crack. It takes much more time to learn to improve hearing intervals and learning relative pitch. 

Also, the concept of intervals is a bit esoteric because it involves particular names and the same note can be named in multiple ways which to the ear sound the same, such as diminished fifth and augmented fourth, or augmented 2nd and a minor 3rd, they all sound the same but are named differently.

Recently there has been some talks on your YouTube channel about the current state of pop music, how it’s written and that much of the music sound the same, do you have any tips for people who’d like to break out of this and create their own sound?

I recently did a video called Chord Substitution For Pop Songs and one of the reasons I did that was for this exact reason. It’s to show people what some of the other possibilities are instead of sticking to Major or Minor chords. In this video, I show some other types of chords you can use and substitute to, such as a Minor 11 chord or a Major 7 11# chord. I also give examples of songs that actually use these kinds of chords, for example, the Minor 11 chord and the song Clarity by Zedd, it starts on a Bb Minor 11 chord, not a Bb Minor chord and this is one of the reasons why the melody sits so well. It uses hipper chords than you would usually use. 

Do you have any other tips or new ideas for people who like to make a living doing music?

For people to make a living in music there are many different ways, some of which never occurred to me, such as YouTube or being a music producer. I was a jazz teacher when I was in my 20’s and I never listened to Rock or Pop music back then. If you would have told me when I was 25 that I would be a music producer I would have said, “What, I don’t even know how to plug in a microphone”. The further I got into my career as a producer I found that the more different hats you can wear the better, for example, if you are a producer you need to be able to engineer and mix. You need to be able to play every instrument, program synths and be able to be the whole band if you need to. You also need to know how to use social media.

Looking at the current state of music, do you think it’s going to change or are we going to keep getting more of the same?

There are all these micro-genres that people get into and music just get’s chopped up into so many sub-genres now. It used to be a million sub-genres of metal but now there’s also many sub-genres of EDM, Rap and Hip-hop

It’s also difficult for movements to happen when you have this stratification of music and it’s difficult to get any movement behind a group of artist that are similar in any way, like how it was in the past, such as 80’s was the Hair-Metal era, 90’s was the Grunge era then in the early 2000’s it was the Nu-Metal era. 

Also, if you check the charts on Spotify almost everything is Hip-hop or Pop, there’s almost no Rock music and I see it staying like that. 

 Rick's Studio

Rick's Studio

What has been your hardest decision as a producer?

Probably quitting. Leaving production and focusing on my YouTube channel was difficult because I have been a producer longer than I have done anything else and even though my channel involves talking about production I don’t have artists in here every day like I used to. I worked for years doing 6 days a week and having artists in for months at a time making records. 

As a producer, the hardest thing was choosing the right projects. Sometimes you would get an artists to work with and there’s nothing special but you find these small things that are amazing about them which has the potential of becoming something. That’s what you need to be able to find and see in the talent.

What are you looking for in an artist and how can you see that an artist has a certain potential? 

I personally look for people who have originally sounding voices because anything else can be changed, such as lyrics or melodies but you can’t change a persons voice. Those are what I gravitate towards, people who are great singers. Doesn’t matter if it’s Pop, Rock or Country, all the successful projects I have done have had phenomenal singers. 

Do you have a favourite failure in the studio, as in failure that set you up for later success?

I did a record a few years ago with an unsigned artist named Owen Beverly, a 19-year-old singer-songwriter. He ended up not getting a record deal but we made an incredible EP which I ended up getting a lot of other projects from. It was a failure because he couldn’t get a record deal because he couldn’t pull off the song live but the record did incredibly well and got me a lot of work. 

There are a lot of records I worked on that failed commercially but were very successful in getting people to work with me because they liked the sound of them. 

How did you deal with that setback with for example Owen? Have you had that situation happen to you any other times?

Yes, many times. I have a lot of bands getting a record deal that I have worked with. Probably around 25 bands/artists that I have discovered and developed that eventually got signed to major record label. However, very few of them got successful and many times it was because the artist couldn’t find the right manager and didn’t make the right decisions. Some of the best projects I have worked on got signed but then failed and that’s tough to see and very disheartening. 

Looking at the other side of the coin, do you have any moments where thought that everything was great?

Probably the biggest one was working with Parmalee. I wrote a song with them called Carolina in 2007 which didn’t sound like any other of their other songs because they were a metal band, but 6 years later the emailed me out of the blue saying, “Hey, do you remember that song we wrote together called Carolina?”, and I thought, “No”. They said they had just got signed and that it will be their next single. They cut it as a country song, which it always had been, it went number 1 and sold a million copies. 

parmalee-carolina.png

Could you tell that it would be as big as it got during the session? 

No, it’s total luck. There are so many people involved in this decision-making process to get a hit song. There’s not one person with a vision anymore like there used to be. In the old days, you could have a talented A&R guy that might have a lot of say, such as Gary Gersh that was at Geffen Records who in the early 90’s signed bands such as Nirvana and Counting Crows. You also had Micheal Goldstone that signed Pearl Jam and Rage Against The Machines. Those people would have a knack for finding things and if you got signed by them you had a good shot at getting your record released.

Do these people still exist, the ones who go out to scout bands?

Not really. Nowadays, people find things online that have got a reaction, something that might have a few million views on YouTube and things that do well on social media. Those are the things that tend to get signed nowadays. 

For a beginner looking to learn more about music theory, could you recommend any books or videos that are easy to understand?

I have my own book called The Beato Book that I sell which starts out with the basic of music theory, such as intervals, how to build chords, scales and how to improvise. 

Let me know in the comments what you think of this interview and share some of your own thoughts on the future of the music industry!

Michael Brauer - Developing New Ideas And Getting Out Of Your Comfort Zone

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How To Find Work And Become A Freelance Sound Engineer

Learn How To:
- Get Your Foot In The Door
- Find Opportunities and Work
- Success and Failure

And much more

Having worked in the music industry since the 70’s, Michael Brauer has done records with legends such as Luther Vandross, Aretha Franklin, John Mayer, Coldplay, Rolling Stones and the list of huge artists goes on. 

Besides the artists he has worked with, his unique style of mixing, especially how he uses compression has made him one of the top mixers in the industry. In this interview, Michael opens up about how he first got started, how he expresses himself through his mixing, favourite failures, going out of your comfort level to keep developing new ideas and stay fresh, what he learned from working under Clearmountain and so much more. 

Michael shares some really great knowledge that you can definitely apply to your own work and career so I hope you enjoy it.

 Photo by: Sonya Jasinsk

Photo by: Sonya Jasinsk

You started out in the shipping department and eventually became staff engineer at Media Sound Studio in New York. Could you tell us some of your experience from starting out to eventually becoming an engineer? What were some of your biggest struggles and how did you overcome them? 

Our job was to stock the studios every morning, deliver tapes and packages to clients, either at the labels or at home. We also helped to set up and break down sessions. I became head of shipping in a few months and when the shift ended I would offer to assist any of the engineers. I was 25 when I got hired so I was actually older than some of the engineers. It didn’t bother me though since I was there to learn from the best and I was happy to be there. The hours were really long and it was a while before I felt that there was a light by the end of the tunnel. However, considering how it’s now to get ahead, I moved up the ranks very fast and became a staff engineer in two years. 

The main struggles I had was to understand what Dolby did and hearing the differences between compressors or even hearing compression in general. 

You said: “The tools and toys are simply an extension of the thought process. It's really about being creative and visualizing how the song should sound and feel.” What led you to that approach and how can you as an engineer develop that creative/visualization skill? 

That came from me being a musician. It wasn’t the drums that made me good, it was how I played them. Watching and listening to the producers inspired me to be more sensitive to the song being recorded. I imagined I was singing the song and delivering the message. Therefore, it came naturally to me that the more emotion and heart I put into the recording and mixing, the clearer the artist’s vision became. I was very physical when I was mixing, I moved the faders a lot to create more dynamics and crescendos. Luther’s first album “Never Too Much” is the template for how I would approach mixing right up to the present. 

How important is it to get out of your comfort level to further develop your skill as an engineer? What is your favourite way of stepping out of your own comfort level? 

As an engineer, it’s crucial that you evolve at the same rate as music. A fresh new idea today, that is appropriate for the record you are making, has a shelf life. It may be groundbreaking and completely cutting edge, however, when the record comes out and if it becomes popular everyone will copy it, therefore, it stops being fresh. If you base your career on that, the day will come when you use it on an artist and they are not going to like it because it’s been done, it’s old. 

It’s tempting to sit on your laurels but then you are no longer cutting edge because music has evolved and you haven’t. So the way I approached it is simple; take a few months to think about an idea you want to start using, spend 6 months developing it on whatever songs that are appropriate for the idea. Then search for the artist that the idea will sound great on and will bring the uniqueness out off. Work it until you feel you’ve completely nailed the idea and it’s sounding great at home and on the radio. Enjoy the success of it for another 6-8 months, then slowly stop making it your go-to idea because you are now being comfortable with it and that is the beginning of laziness. The idea is no longer fresh so it’s time to get out of the comfort zone and start on something else. 

I look forward being out of the comfort zone because the alternative is being considered old in regard to sound and thought. Since I always want to have young, exciting, music coming my way I need to have fresh ideas and sounds to contribute to the mix. How can I do this if my sound is 20 years old? I must evolve as a mixer at the same pace that new artists are evolving and that requires knowing the newest technology, plugins and keeping my sound fresh and modern. 

Michael Brauer -Gwen Guthrie session2 @compass point 12:82.jpg

What are the main things you teach your assistants when you teach them critical listening and how to base their mixing decisions on what they want to hear rather than just following your “presets”? 

First thing I do is tell them not to overthink what they are doing. Don’t think, just do. React to the moment. Second, I teach them to avoid focusing on the wrong element in the song. Third I teach them to mix with their heart, not their head. 

Many people in this industry seem to experience moments where work doesn’t come in, sometimes over a few months or even years, have you experienced this and if so, how do you deal with it? 

Yes, we all at some point during our career experience slow periods. It can be from a few days to a few months. If it’s a year or more it becomes a whole other problem. They way I deal with a few days or a couple weeks is to take care of things in my personal life that needs my attention as well as enjoying my time off. I’ve had a couple of summers where it got super slow but I do my best to keep upbeat and positive. It’s not easy but I get through it. It’s a good time to work on new ideas or take on spec projects. The worst thing you can do is sit around and do nothing. That just gets your mind in a bad place. 

Assuming you have a good manager, they will let you know what’s going on so speak with them about projects you want them to go after. Or, maybe it’s time to reconsider looking for a new management if you feel there’s a pattern with them being lazy or not going after the records you want to do. Most important, though, is not to blame everyone around you. Take responsibility for everything. Who hired the manager? You did. Who didn’t keep on top of keeping your sound fresh? You did. Who isn’t out there networking? You aren’t. Now, when it gets into 4 months and upwards to a year, you’ve got yourself a serious problem. Aside from the financial stress, labels and producers are not thinking of you for their records. You need to figure out why. A year is very serious because labels, artists, et cetera want to see what you’ve done recently and a year is a long time because music and sound have changed, and frankly, if they don’t see a current discography they may not have the confidence that you are going to do a good job. I’ve seen great managers turn careers around for a new client that hasn’t worked in a long time. Doing it by yourself will be extremely difficult to pull off, but it means reconsidering the team you have around you. Do it sooner than later. 

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What were some of the most impactful lessons you learned from working for people such as Clearmountain, Delugg and Bongiovi? 

All three were completely different in their approach to engineering and temperament. It was such a great experience to watch them achieve the same endpoint from different perspectives. Tony Bongiovi was just a badass engineer who came from Motown and his sounds were so funky. His personality was unique, he didn’t take shit from anyone and always had complete control of the session. As an assistant you had to be out of the way and alert at all times. He might very well say, "I gotta catch a bus in 20 minutes, take over the session Brauer." He always spoke his mind with the artist. If the song sucked, he told them. He wasn’t condescending but he did make sure the artist was going in the right direction and he was pretty blunt about it. It worked for him because that was his personality and he seemed to always be right. Bob Clearmountain was always chilled and he would come up with sounds and ideas that were simply mind-blowing but also very intimidating to me because of how great he was. I often wondered that, if I’d be even half as good as him I’d still be very successful. 

Michael Delugg was my mentor and best friend as was Harvey Goldberg. Michael was high pressure, you had to be on your toes with him. He moved really fast and was a brilliant engineer who was a master of compression. He taught me about compression and is a major influence on me taking compression to the next level. He was also a master with keeping the clients happy and running the show smoothly, even when there were 10 people in the control room all raving lunatics. We would do big advertisement dates with 40 musicians in the studio and the guys producing were usually intense, nervous and hyped up on something but Michael would keep calm and keep them happy. It was incredible to watch him in action. He was a true master on interpersonal communication. 

You have worked in the industry since the 70’s, are there any moments that stand out to you that was really special? 

There are many moments but to name a few: 

Meeting and working with Luther Vandross certainly stands out. He taught me how to feel R&B. My approach to recording his records kept his music very fresh and modern sounding. He showed me how to put emotion into everything I recorded and mixed. 

 Luther Vandross and Michael Brauer

Luther Vandross and Michael Brauer

When I did my first big recording session which was for a commercial with 40 musicians in a room, all playing at once. It was epic in that I was completely over my head and it needed to be recorded and mixed in 6 hours. I pulled it off without anyone noticing how nervous I was and not trying to distort anything, except the bass, but nobody noticed. I knew that if I survived that day everything else moving forward would be easy as pie.  

I saw you mentioned that your fear of failure is a motivation to you, but how has that fear impact your life/work and how did you overcome it? 

I’ve never overcome it. It’s what keeps me going and doing the best job possible. It comes in different degrees. I think it’s lessened by the amount of confidence I have in myself but when there isn’t some fear sitting there in the background, there’s a possibility of complacency that might set in. And that can lead to nothing but failure in my mind. 

Do you have a favourite failure, as in a failure that set you up for later success? 

My complete lack of understanding and hearing compression…if you can believe it! I mixed a song that was so compressed in my early year as an engineer that it didn’t matter how loud you brought up or down the monitors, it still sounded like the same volume. It scared the hell out of me so I didn’t touch a compressor for months after that. However, with time my ears began to tune into the difference in sound and feel between compressors and what compression actually did. Instead of making an instrument sound small, I learned how to make an instrument sound big with the right compressor. 

What has been your best purchase for $200 or less that has most improved your work in the studio? 

Plugins like iZotope RX or some of the sibilance plugins from Waves or FabFilter.

Sylvia Massy - Getting The Best Out Of Artist & Hardest Decision As A Producer

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How To Get Work And Become A Freelance Sound Engineer

Learn How To:
- Get Your Foot In The Door
- How To Find Opportunities and Work
- Success and Failure

And much more

Sylvia Massy is well known in the industry, not only for her incredible work or the artists that she has worked with, such as Tool, Johnny Cash, System Of A Down and many more, but also her unique approach to recording and getting artists to perform at their best. 

In this interview, Sylvia opens up about her struggles to break into the industry, working with Rick Rubin and his approach to producing, her own unique way of producing artists and how to get them to "get out of their head" as well as how far you can push them. She also speaks about her hardest decision she had to make as a producer and so much more.

I hope you will enjoy this interview and let me know what your thought are in the comments below.

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You moved to Los Angeles to try and further your career but it wasn’t as easy as you thought to break into the music industry. What made you keep going and not giving up when it seemed impossible to reach your goal? 

Los Angeles is a place where dreams are made, so, me and all the various people I met were all on a quest to make a living doing what we love. We were all taking menial jobs to be able to pay rent but at the same time trying to make as many connections in the industry as we could. I had a job at Tower Records in Sunset Boulevard and there I made the most important connections in my career. In this little retail shop, I met some people who were in a band called Green Yellow whose drummer also had another band called Tool who we would go watch performing in the clubs. Soon I found myself in the studio with Tool and that’s how I cracked into the industry. 

Also, there was a pivotal moment when I finally got a job at a studio called Larrabee Sound in LA, which was the studio where I worked with Aerosmith, Prince, Rick Rubin and as an assistant for many big mixers. However, I almost lost that opportunity because the night before I had stayed up partying so I had a hangover and I was going to call in sick and cancel my session. Although, I made the decision at that moment that if I was really serious about this, and wanting to make a career out of this I had to make some hard decisions and actually “grow up” so I stopped partying, stopped drinking and stopped doing drugs as well as stopped smoking pot and cigarettes. I went through a big withdrawal but got through it and I have been sober ever since. I think that that was probably the most important decision of my career. 

How long were you at Tower Records?

I moved to Los Angeles and hit every recording studio, I had plenty of experience and a good résumé but no one wanted to hire me. So, my first job in Los Angeles was to paint Christmas windows but eventually got that job at Tower Record. It lasted about a year but it was such an important thing to have a job and be able to meet as many people as possible. I think when you first move to a new town like LA, New York or London you have to give it some time before you actually get an opportunity. It doesn’t happen right away, you have to be patient and slowly make these connections with people. You have to tough it out for 2 years before people start looking at you to trust with their projects. 

I see a lot of students that get a diploma and start knocking on doors to get a job and they are frustrated when they don’t get a job after 6 months of graduation. They may move to LA but here it’s difficult to keep your head above water when you can’t get a good job right away. You have to be prepared to tread water for a while, have roommates, share a flat, have a couple of jobs. But keep your nose into the recording scene, see bands play, make connections with people.

Before moving to Los Angeles you got to co-produce The Sea Hags with Kirk Hammett, which did well and earned them a major label deal. Unfortunately, you didn’t get to work on their major label debut, how did you handle that setback, especially being in the early stages of your career?

My first studio job was in San Francisco, which was a bit by accident because I was more involved in radio production but I knew how to use the equipment. I got a starting position in a music studio and would record my band in the middle the night and these recordings came out really good so people would ask me to do their records too. It wasn’t that I was trying to produce or anything, I just knew how to use the equipment and wanting to record my own music. As soon as I started working for other people that opened up these opportunities to work with new bands and at the time there was a great punk scene so I got to work with upcoming bands like Adolescents, Skid Roper, Tuxedomoon, Christian Death, MDC (Millions of Dead Children). Then there was this band called Exodus which I did some demos with, who Kirk Hammett was associated with. Then I got chosen to co-produce The Sea Hags record with Kirk by the studio owner. However, because we didn’t get hired to do the major label album with them, that’s when I realised I had to move to LA to further my career.

 Sylvia, Kirk and The Sea Hags

Sylvia, Kirk and The Sea Hags

How did working with Rick Rubin influence your methods and decision makings in the studio?

There are three types of producers, the engineer type, the musician type and lastly, the fan type, which Rick Rubin is. He is not a technician, nor musician, he is a fan and that makes him a completely unique producer because he listens to the songs and chooses the material, very carefully, to be recorded. He also puts himself in the position as the end-listener. Rick will also start with having the artist write 100 songs or more and then he will pick the best 20 and out of those 20 he will record 15, which will give you a darn good record. 

You can like him to a chef, for example, he makes the recipe and chooses the different ingredients to be used, meaning, he chooses the engineer, the studio, the drummer, and the songs. He lets the musicians and the engineer work together and then he checks on them periodically, so he is not there every single day directing the session, he comes in every now and then to make decisions about the direction of the project. He is not micromanaging at all and because of that musicians love him because they get to take the range in some way. Also, he has the ability to come in and listen to a song and make one statement that will hit the hammer on the head and then he will leave. It’s amazing! 

I have also worked with Rick, where he has been there every single day and every minute which was with Johnny Cash with Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers as his band. Rick was, I believe, in awe of Johnny and those two guys just loved each other so Rick wanted to be there as much as he could. However, on other projects, like with System of a Down, it wasn’t necessary for Rick to be there every minute. The record was going to be great because the band was so great. But, going back to my previous statement, he puts the ingredients together, lets the cooks take care of it and then he will go back to check on them. 

You said that you found out early on that the talent really needs a producer, maybe they don’t think they do, but they do. In that case, how do you convince them what you bring to the table is beneficial for them?

That’s all in the psychology of producing a record. If it’s an artist that’s used to produce themselves, I might step back a little and let them drive the truck in the direction they want creatively. Also, in this case, I will act more as an engineer and only make technical decision such as trying to record instruments in different ways or trying another vocal microphone, etc. 

The thing about productions is that I can’t be precious about my own personal ideas, even though I might be really passionate about it. I can make suggestions and let them decide if they want to pursue it or not. For instance, I worked on a Sublime record and I really thought that some backing vocals would be a good idea on a particular song, so when they were not in the studio I thought of some backing vocal parts and recorded some as a suggestion, however, the reaction I got from them after having played it to them that was pretty dark, there was a dead silence in the room. Some of my ideas are embraced and some might drop like a lead balloon, so I can’t be precious about them nor can’t get hurt about it but I will always do my best to help to make a production better. 

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You have utilised some tricks that are definitely not in the books or what they teach you in school, such as making Maynard from Tool run a few laps around the block, having Serj from System of a Down hanging upside down. Where do these ideas come from and how do you persuade the artist that it could be a good idea to try them before they know you that well?

I think that a lot of musicians think really hard about what they are doing, they are self-conscious, unsure, so I do these crazy things I do to get them out of their own head. For instance, if the singer is not getting a good performance I will shake him up a little bit, like have him running around the block or hanging upside down. Although, the performance hanging upside down wasn’t that good the performance after that, when we had all laughed it off, was great. Same with running around the block, Maynard was pissed off, but because of that, he wasn’t thinking of how his throat wasn’t going to work, he was thinking of how angry he was. He screamed and it was blood-curdling, it was real. Also, throwing a guitar of a cliff or whatever fun things that we can think of can also used as a reward, as in, if we can finish all the basic tracks and don’t get bogged down with minutiae we can have fun and do these crazy things, but before that you have to get your parts done. It works as a great reward for getting through the huge amount of work that needs to get done to make a great record. 

Sometimes, the recording you get when you do these unusual fun stuff is really good and special. It’s always a challenge to make a sound that is new that someone hasn’t done before, so whenever we can create new sounds in the studio I think it’s important to try. 

What inspired that sort of thinking? Did that come from a different experience in life or was it something you learned from someone? 

I have a lot of ideas all the time. I collect ideas on paper and sometimes it’s appropriate to bring one of those ideas to a project. For example, on ToolUndertow, there’s a track in the end called Disgustipated, which was recording I did any experimental recording on. I had a small budget and we had some time to spend in the studio, I bought a couple of upright pianos and miked them up, then had the band destroy them with sledgehammers, it was fantastic!

So, if you start there, how do you beat that? 

It's been a constant challenge to see if we can go for something better and bigger. 

I’m also exploring different places to record in, especially with the ease of laptops and great interfaces nowadays. I have experimented with recording in Cathedrals, salt mines, nuclear power plants, cooling towers which is very exciting these days. Also, this summer I’m going to record in Switzerland in a hut on the top of Mont Fort with a band called Punk’d Guns, as well as going to London to do a recording in a tube station with a band called God Damn.  

I also heard that Al Schmitt did something similar, where he went to Taj Mahal to record? 

There’s a fantastic story about that where Al was recording a fantastic flute player called Paul Horn (check here on Apple or Spotify). They got the permission to record at Taj Mahal but they had to wait until the middle of the night to start recording. This was because they had to wait until all of the tourists had stopped coming, and the second reason was that there were so many birds that lived in the rafters that they had to wait until all that noise had calmed down. They manage to record in the middle of the night and they were able to do some fantastic recording in there. However, they did have some issues with the sound of birds dropping falling to the ground, so they had to try record in the silence between the dropping. 

What has been your favourite failure in the studio which lead to something unexpected that you are still using today?

I have a piece of equipment that I found in a garage of an old radio tech, it’s this old crusty compressor called 121 Western Electric. I bought it and set it up in the studio to recorded drums with, and it was the most broken sounding piece of equipment but it was fantastic so I decided to never fix it because I don’t want to jeopardise that sound. I nicknamed it The Army Man. I wanted to use it as a serious compressor but realised it was much better as an effect and I still use it to this day. 

What has been your hardest decision to make as a producer? 

It was this very sad experience where I had to fire a drummer because of a record label. I wouldn’t have fired him myself because I thought that he was a good drummer but the label was more interested in having a famous session drummer play on the record. They wanted Josh Freeze, who is a great drummer, to play on the record. However, it was totally unnecessary, and what it did was that it kind of broke up the band because they had been playing together since they were kids. And now they were doing their major label debut album and the drummer gets sidelined so he has to sit and watch another drummer play his drum parts. That was really sad. I had to do it because it was my job to bring the message to the band and tell them that he had to sit this one out and that Josh was going to play instead of him. It was a terrible decision by the label. 

How did you keep the session going after that? 

It was very hard. Because the drums are at the beginning of the session, and we had done all the pre-production and we were ready to jump in and record. The drummer was doing great, although I expected that I would have to do some drum editing but I would have to do that on anyone. After that, the rest of the session was tainted by the sadness of having let him go. 

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You are able to see the talent in an artist and extract the best out of them. Do you have a go-to technique or philosophy when it comes to bringing the best out of an artist? 

I think artists have the ability inside them to communicate the message in the music. Especially with singers, I want them to really tell me the story because you can tell if someone is just reciting lyrics from a page and you can tell if it’s not their own words. However, if it’s a song they wrote and they are singing it and telling the story it makes such a huge difference in the performance. Therefore, I feel that it’s important, as much as I can, to get them feeling comfortable enough to talk to me and tell me that story musically and lyrically. 

I also think that the musicians need the freedom to make mistakes. I want them to feel comfortable making mistakes and not be perfect because those mistakes become the most important part of the final recording. I encourage them to feel comfortable enough to do their thing. Let’s say I want to get a particular performance, for example, if the music is angry and dark, I don’t want to have a studio that’s comfortable with candles lit, I want to have it way too bright, maybe ice cold, maybe I want the singer to strip down to his underwear so he is so incredibly uncomfortable that he is going to shriek at that microphone. Then again, if it’s a very personal and intimate performance, I will put curtains all the way around the artist, make it very warm and dark and make sure nobody is in the room except me and the artist. Even make it so they can’t see me. I want them to get right up on that mic and I’ll crank up the compression so that their voice is so loud in their headphones that they can only just whisper and I can really get that performance from them. 

Also, not waiting until mixing to get a certain effect is important too. For example, let’s say you record an artist with a good/ high-quality microphone, but you want them to have a character, like a vintage microphone from the 1920’s, you will get a much better performance if they are singing into an old retro lo-fi, carbon or crystal mic. For two reason, they are looking at it, they are touching it and it will remind them of this feeling and the sound in their headphones will be more reminiscent of this old style. 

I think it’s much better to use equipment so they can hear what they are doing as it’s happening instead of manipulating it afterwards. 

How do you know how far you can push someone to get the best out of them?

There’s a point where you have diminishing returns on your investments and that’s when you back off. Especially with vocals, when you are really working a singer and you are doing 3-4 songs a day, which is a lot of work for a singer unless they are touring a lot. Their voice might not hold up to that. You just have to recognise there will be a point when you have to let them rest and let them do something else because you will just hurt them. Even with drummers, guitar- and keyboard players, if you are working really hard on a part and they are not getting it, just take a break and move on. That’s when I often times send someone to take a walk or even call the rest of the day. You have to make those decisions in order to save everyone. Usually, if you do call the session and take the day off because people don’t get their part, people get really upset about that, angry at themselves and start worrying about the budget. It’s a very hard to thing to do, but as a producer, it’s really, really important to be firm and call it. It will most likely be a better day tomorrow. 

Thank you, Sylvia, for providing such great insight into your work and amazing value we can all apply to our careers. 

Let me know what you think in the comments!

Fab Dupont - How To Develop Your Vision And The Psychology Behind Making Records

Fab Dupont is a Grammy Award-winning producer and he has worked with artists such as David Crosby, Mark Ronson, Snarky Puppy and many more. Many of you might know Fab through his incredible site PureMix.net where he, and many of their incredible mentors, teaches recording, mixing, mastering (and even cooking!). 

In this interview, Fab talks about how he started out, early struggles with moving to New York, why gear doesn't matter and how to develop your "vision" which is vital when making records. Fab also opened up about why his rise in the music industry was a bit slower and how he deals with the "quiet times" and much much more. 

I really think you can apply some stuff that Fab talks about in this interview, such as the psychology of making a record and the role of the producer, the importance of great monitoring and referencing systems, spending time developing your craft and much more great stuff. 

Enjoy!

 Fab in his New York Studio studio called Flux

Fab in his New York Studio studio called Flux

When you started out you were writing your own music and sending it to labels, but they preferred your productions rather than the music, so they hired you to make other artists on their label sound like your records. How did you make those early records, since you didn’t study engineer right? How did you know your way around a studio back then? Was it mainly, as you’ve said, through reading manuals?

Before I studied songwriting I was already making records. I had a band and we used secondhand gear to make demos and there’s always one dude in the band who is willing to read the manual, which was me. Besides, the technical part has always come pretty natural to me. When we had made our recordings we used to compare them to the records we liked but we couldn’t make it sound the same, however, I kept trying until I could. 

Also, I started a jazz label when I was 16. I rented a mobile studio and I used to produce records for my piano teacher. Back then I didn’t know how to use a compressor so I didn’t use it and those records still sound good, probably because of that reason. I recorded everything to two-track and I pushed the faders until I was happy with how it sounded. I used minimum processing because I didn’t know what processing was, but I did know what a record should sound like. 

Is it true that the record you made with your piano teacher, Emmanuel Bex, is still selling? 

Yes, it’s called Emmanuel Bex - Enfance. I reconnected with him a couple of years ago and he told me it’s still selling. He has done about 30 records since then. He is amazing and it was a fun record to make. 

How old were you when you made that record?

I was 17 years old.

You moved to New York from Boston and started to network with artists/engineers and mixing records for free et cetera. How was that initial period of your career before it took off? What did you struggle with the most and how did you overcome it?

I got really lucky because when I moved to New York I moved into this very building, where I met people who were total badasses. It was early 2000 and New York was really active. Gordon Raphael who did The Strokes – Is This It (Listen here on Spotify), was in our building and after him, it was The Rapture followed by Mark Ronson. However, at the time, there was a lot of talent but not a lot of work so you had to be the best of the best to get by. I was lucky to do good enough work to get hired again. Initially, I did a lot of songs for free or for $100, but after a while, I learned that I had to raise my rates otherwise I wouldn’t be taken seriously. For example, if you compare a $500 to a $100 mix, even though it’s the same mix, the $500 mix will always sound better to everyone.

Also, the challenge, in the beginning, was to build my network because I didn’t do drugs, didn’t smoke, don’t do small talk really well and I don’t really do the hang. So, when all the guys were going to the park or clubs to get high and waiting for something to happen I just stayed downstairs in the dungeon making records. The effect of this was that my rise was a bit slower because I didn’t meet as many people as I should have. That was challenge nr. 1, to learn that it doesn’t matter how good you are unless you have the network. The second thing was that gear is irrelevant. What actually matters is your monitoring and referencing system. At the time I didn’t know that because I was working in a vacuum and I lost a couple of important gigs because my room was not good enough.

However, all that changed when Focal came into the picture. Once I got my first SM8’s everything changed because all of a sudden I got a completely different perspective on how things sounded and that’s when I started to beat people. They made me realise that I had a certain tone, which at the time was just one tone, which was fine, but through this more ruthless and accurate listening system, I learned that I had to be able to do various things.

If I had gotten the awareness three years before I would have grown much quicker because some of the people who went through our community are now doing extremely well, for example, Mark Ronson. However, I did a lot of stuff for Mark but he didn’t take me with him because on a couple of mixes I got beaten by Tom Elmhirst and by Russell Elevado. He would do work with all of us, and he loved what I did but their stuff had better bottom-end because my referencing was not up to par. I just wanted to make the fattest, most badass record ever. I didn’t understand the channel, it has to have a purpose, it’s going to be compared with those tracks, it has to sound that way. The more seasoned guys at the time, like Tom, Russell or Brauer, who had been doing that for 10-15 years longer than I knew that. 

What was the first thing you changed when you did find out that it was the low-end that was the problem? 

On the next pop record I got to work on, I started referencing other peoples work, which I had never done before. Although, I always knew what I wanted to hear and I still do. I would listen to something and right away I knew what it should sound like, but now I understand better, I know where you come from, what you listen to and what your references are. 

For example, Mark brought me a track made by the band Air but I didn’t ask him what the purpose behind it was or who the main artist was, was it Mark or was it Air? It’s not about being a chameleon but it’s about knowing what moves the artist you are working for. I just mixed it the way I wanted and Mark loved it but I got beaten by another guy who understood who he was working for, which I didn’t because, again, I just wanted to make the fattest and most badass record but that wasn’t what they were looking for. 

Do you now do more homework about the artist you are working for? 

Mixing records is a service industry, it’s like being a hairdresser. You got to give the client the haircut they want but it has to be better than they imagined, it has to be badass. You can’t give them a haircut that you want. However, within the realm of what they see themselves as there is a wide range of things you can do to express yourself and to help them grow. So I’m not going to crush the David Crosby record I’m currently working on and put loads of compression on it, it’s not what David is looking for. However, I’m doing things that make him go, “Are you sure?” to which I say, “Yes, I’m sure”, and he ends up loving it so you got to hit the sweet spot. 

Everyone gets better at this over time, but to be able to play in that realm you have to have a minimum level of understanding and perspective which is what I gained in the mid-2000’s. Also, there’s a team aspect of making a record and I now have a better understanding of the emotions involved in making records. There are some things that are clear and obvious to me but complicated and mysterious to other people. It’s teamwork.

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Did you have to have an extra job on the side whilst building your career to be able to pay rent and living costs?

I always had many interests. For example, before I moved to New York I would write music and edit videos for multimedia companies. I was also interested in how people communicate with each other, for example, in marketing and advertising. I always found that fascinating, especially since I moved to the States. 

This gave me a certain set of awareness and skills which led me to write a marketing copy for Media 100 or Avid at the time as well as Adobe for the big trade show NAB. I would also write the music for these presentations. However, part of the reason to move to New York was to move it up a level so all I’ve done here has been music, either mixing, producing records or making music for commercials, infomercials and corporate stuff.

You said you weren’t that interested in being out networking with people, but what approach did you find worked best when you were building relationships with people in the industry?

The only way I knew how to, which was to be a pit bull in the quality of work I did. For example, I remember my friend who I was doing a mix for, he called me and it was Thanksgiving, he wasn’t sure about the bass drum, the kazoo or whatever it was in the track. I said whatever, doesn’t matter that it’s Thanksgiving, come down tomorrow and we will fix it. I didn’t care about the pay, and I still don’t care about the pay, the product just has to be as good as it possibly can be. That's how I built my network because I don’t let go until its perfect. What also helped me is that I‘m able to work in various styles of music, so if someone comes to me and wants a hip-hop vibe in a pop track I can do that. I don’t only focus on one style, like hip-hop, which some guys specialise in and do super well, but they couldn’t do the Crosby record. Then there is also a dude who can do the acoustic stuff really well but couldn’t do a hip-hop record. Therefore, me being able to work in many different styles of music grew my network. 

My network was also built on word of mouth, where people were saying, “This guy will make sure your stuff sounds good, even if he has to die in the process”. 

Did you ever find it hard to let go of a project if it wasn’t perfect then? 

It’s never perfect. You never finish a record. You abandon it when it becomes truly too much. I feel that I have a good sense of when to let go. If you ask my girlfriends over the years, they would say that I don’t but if you ask the artist that I work with they would say that I have a good sense of when good is good enough. 

How important is it to have a vision when making records and how can you as a beginner develop it?

It’s everything. Compressors, EQ’s, consoles or converters don’t matter. None of that shit matters. What matters is the vision. You can have a vision with just a guitar and vocal, or it could be with 128 tracks in Pro Tools, that is, If each and every one of those 128 tracks matters and are there for a very good reason.

How do you develop vision? You study, you emulate and innovate. You got to seize the art that moves you, own it, make it a part of yourself. Know everything about it and create art that generates the same feeling based on what you have learnt from your study. That’s the copycat phase. Then you have the part which filters most people out, that is, to transcend the copycat phase. Although, you can make a career out of being a copycat, as you can see on a daily basis by listening to the radio, going to the movies or museums. 

The part that makes you exceptional and that’s the part that many don’t reach is to transcend the emulation part, that is, the innovate phase. For example, for someone who wants to make records, the first things you have to do is listen and learn as much music as possible. That’s the input (study). You have to have a huge input and that’s why I everyday sit down and listen to something new, either if it’s music that people are giving to me or if it’s something I find on YouTube or in my record collection. I do this every day, without fail. I take notes and make playlists of the stuff that I like, or that is moving, insane or badass. I’m lucky that I have put in enough hours that I’m beyond the emulation part. I’m in the process of going to a different level. 

When did you stop caring about gear, was there a specific moment or was it over time? 

It happens over time. I started to care less and less. However, if I put a vocalist in front of a microphone and I can’t get the sound I want, I care. That’s a pain in the butt. But you build solutions for that problem. For example, the vocalist wants a U47, because it’s big, it’s grey and it says Neumann on it. Sometimes they asked for the Newmann, which I love, “I want the Newmann”, to which I say, “We have that.” But it’s too bright because it’s voiced to go through a console, a tape machine and back through a console. It’s not voiced to go through an HD i/o or an Apollo. 

So, we listen to it and 99% of the time I ask if we can try another mic, so we will try an Eden or an Atlantis (both made by Lauten Audio) and after I have played them back one of them, that’s what we usually go for.

With the David Crosby record, I decided to use all ribbons except on the vocals, which are all Eden. The reason for this was that I wanted to create a contrast between the vocals and the instrument and to have the vocals float on top of the instrument by default.

It’s in these situations I care about gear, but I like a precise, fast setup and then all music. Which is what we did with Crosby and it took us 6 hours to set up then we recorded for 17 days after that.

 The team behind David Crosby's record. From left to right, Michael League, David Crosby and Fab Dupont

The team behind David Crosby's record. From left to right, Michael League, David Crosby and Fab Dupont

Do you have any specific routines you like to follow before you are about to have a recording or mixing session to be able to put in your best work?

I don’t do routine really well but I try to sleep before an important session. I show up, have coffee with the artist and make sure that the crew that’s working on the session is comfortable and that everyone is happy. I make sure that the lighting is good, that it smells nice, that the temperature is good and that there is nothing technical in the way. 

You don’t have a prepared plan beforehand, as in, which microphones or preamps you want to use?

Those things are important if you want to save time. However, let's say you are doing a drum session, in theory, every drummer is different, every drum kit is different and so is every track. The ideal way would be to listen to the drums in the context of the song, in the room, then decide which microphones you will use. In reality, that’s a 3-hour process, but that's not how life works, life works were within 30 minutes of the drummer showing up you should get sounds. They way I do it if I have an assistant, is that I will tell them what there will most likely be and to get ready for that. Since we know what works pretty well in our studio we have a base setup to start with, from there we will listen to it in the context of the track to see if it works. If it doesn’t work we will usually first change snare drum or toms, and if that doesn’t work we change microphones until it sounds well within the track. Furthermore, by using what we know works well in our studio lets us save time and keep the vibe and energy of the performers up. Also, I found bands are more receptive to changing stuff around if you can get to music quickly. 

I heard you say “The job is not to know where to put the microphone in front of the bass drum. The real job is to know what to do when the drummer just broke up with his girlfriend”, which sums up the engineering or producer role more than anything. Could you expand on this and the psychology of making a record?

The reason why people are musicians, including drummers, is because they would not be good at being, for example, lawyers. There is an emotional content to what we do and while some have proper management of their emotions, most don't. It’s difficult to manage all these emotions and there are a very few bands that make it as a band. They fight because they all have their individual emotional makeups which all tend to collide. The guys who manage to marry that tend to have a long career and do well. So, when you are in the room the last thing you want to do is to add another set of ego, another set of emotional disturbance or another set of problems. To understand the human dynamic within a band is the most important thing for producers. For example, Gordon Raphael, who I mentioned previously, wasn’t the most technical person but he was clearly good at bringing these people together (The Strokes) and extract the best out of them. He didn’t know how to replace an ADA converter nor connect one but he couldn’t care less about that stuff. His job at the time was to make sure they showed up, be happy to be there, write good lyrics, sing their best and not kill each other.

Imagine if you are tracking a band live with 4 musicians and the drummer, bass player and keyboard player are badass but the guitar player is less of a badass. And they want to do full takes. The guitar player fucks up here and there, and there’s bleed in the other microphones of that, after a few takes who is going to look at whom and who is going to make comments? What if the drummer had too many coffees and says, “Yo, Brian, get your shit together.” That’s the death of the session and a guarantee they will never do a full take. As a producer, you have to step in and find a solution for that. You can’t make the guitarist play better, he’s been trying for 10 years to play better, you are not going to change that in 10 minutes. And the drummer has been drinking that much coffee his whole life, you are now going to tell him to stop? How do you solve that problem? Well, that’s the job. How do you tell the guitarist so sit this one out and that he can overdub his parts without him losing face? And the other guys, being frat boys, making fun of him for the rest of the day. It’s tuff. You don’t learn that at Full Sail or SAE, you learn that by being in sessions. 

In this particular situation, which happened a few years ago, I hit the talkback button after a few takes and told them, “Hey guys, I hate this guitar sound, it’s awful. This is the wrong amp, but we don’t have time to look for another amp, so why don’t we just DI this guitar and I give you an amp simulator in the headphones? Then we don’t have to have this terrible guitar SOUND ruining the takes.” Everybody agreed that was a good idea and the guitar player said, “Yea, I hate this amp, I can get it with this amp”. I took the blame, gave him the amp simulator but with a sound that was way worse than the original sound. After that, we did a few takes which were dope and the next day I spent editing the guitar together and re-amp it. Problem solved. 

The “quiet times” is something everyone seems to experience in this industry from time to time. Have you experienced this and how do you deal with that situation when it arises?  

I haven’t in a while but there have been moments. Sometimes it’s circumstantial where you have something scheduled but it gets cancelled. The way I used to deal with it and I actually discussed this with Michael League (of Snarky Puppy) yesterday. Downtime in paid work Is an opportunity to better yourself, for example, if a session cancels on me I would be delighted because I can spend that time to learn new plugins, rewire my room, write a couple of songs, call my friends, do my taxes and do personal growth. Also, to be able to spend your time on personal growth you have to make sure that your monthly bill is ultra manageable. The danger is when you start to make more money and you let your expenses increase. I always had this strict minimum spending policy, I like to keep things simple, be free and be able to say no to stuff I don’t want to do. It’s been a long, long time since I had to say yes to a record I didn’t want to do. I say no if I don’t like the music. 

It’s also an opportunity to tie up loose ends and finishing stuff off, for example, mix some records that have been floating around that I haven’t been able to finish. It also gives me quality time with my Teenage Engineering OP-1. I strongly recommend that everybody puts themselves in that situation, meaning if you have to live in your mother's basement to be able to spend time for personal growth you should do that. Keep the bills so low, that you have the freedom to take time off for a few weeks to go on vacation.

When I started out, a gentleman in France, who I rented the mobile studio from, told me that if you stop learning you die, and that you can always refine your understanding of the art form. Music is so vast, complicated, intricate and it’s so intangible that there is not enough of a lifetime to even scratch the surface. If you want to be a well-rounded music producer/engineer it’s very likely you will not reach the end and if you do you have probably not dug deep enough. I crave the downtime so I can further explore this.

Thank you, Fab for taking your time and providing such valuable information to the community.

Let me know what you guys think in the comments below, are there any ideas you will take away and apply to your own work?

Andrew Scheps - Character vs Clarity, Quiet Times, Mixing On Headphones and Much More

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How To Find Work And Become A Freelance Sound Engineer

Learn How To:
- Get Your Foot In The Door
- Find Opportunities And Work
- Success And Failure

And Much More

Andrew Scheps is really well known in the industry and having worked for bands/artists such as Red Hot Chili Peppers, Metallica, Black Sabbath, Adele and many many others he is certainly among the top mixing engineers out there today. 

Andrew's work on Red Hot Chili Peppers Stadium Arcadium was one of my big inspirations to work as an audio engineer and what ultimately got me to move to London, so this was a special moment for me.

In this interview, Andrew talks about early struggles about breaking into the industry, how he prepares for sessions, working fully in the box, character vs clarity, favourite failures, mixing on headphones, dealing with the quiet times and much much more. 

In this interview you will find many things you can take away and apply to your own career, I know I will, so without further ado, here is Andrew Scheps:

 Andrew in his now old studio, Punkerpad West

Andrew in his now old studio, Punkerpad West

In your early years, when you were starting out as an audio engineer, you got to work for Synclavier as their repair tech. You ended up in some pretty big sessions as well as going on tour with e.g. Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder. Being fairly new to the industry at that point, how did you handle working for such big clients? What did you learn? 

Since the job was something I knew I could do, I knew I could handle it. It was a pretty specialised job taking care of the Synclavier's but I made sure that I knew the things I needed to know really well. However, I had no idea what it meant being on tour and dealing with a road crew, loading trucks and planes et cetera. But if I knew my part of the gig well, the rest of it would be ok. And you know, pure luck. 

 

Could you expand? 

Coming out of college I thought I was going to work in a studio but then I got the opportunity to work for New England Digital who made the Synclavier. That’s what lead to everything else. The Synclavier was such a big and expensive thing and with the Michael Jackson tour, it was a big part of the show. Now, everyone has a playback system on their iPhone, but back then we were taking a huge amount of equipment to do some playback and if it didn’t work it was a nightmare, but since I was trained by the company I couldn’t have been better prepared. 

I was really lucky that those kinds of jobs existed back then and that I was able to do them so early in my career. Because working on something more creative takes time to get good at. For example, if you get thrown in a producer’s chair right away you may or may not be ready for it, but if you get thrown in a technical job you either know the technical stuff or you don’t, and it doesn’t necessarily take years and years to get better at it. 

How were those years after having finished university and trying to break into the industry? What did you find hard then and how did you solve it?

That job at Synclavier came up when I was still in college. A friend of mine who had graduated a year or so before me was working for them and knew there was an opening and recommended me for it. 

However, in the previous two summers, I had spent my time interning at different recording studios. I spent the summer of 1986 at a studio called Planet Recording in New York and in 1987 I spent the summer at Music Annex in Menlo Park. 

To get the job at Planet I looked in the phone book and got the addresses of every single recording studio in New York City and handed out resumes. I didn’t hear anything back for weeks. It was very relentless, I must have handed out over a 100 resumes and I would call and call but nothing. Then one day, Planet Recording needed someone to answer the phones at night. I got lucky because Planet was a smaller studio with very cool projects coming in and they also had rehearsal rooms for bands to use.

How was it to work at Planet Recording? 

It was amazing, at one point the Ramones rehearsed there and there were a lot of Hip-hop sessions going on in the studio. Doug E. Fresh was doing La di da Di and The Show, which I think was the first platinum 7” single. A sort of underground hop hip thing that turned into a huge hit. When there were no calls to answer they would let me sit on sessions.

You have worked in many sessions with many of the world’s biggest musicians and artists, how do you prepare for those sessions? Do you have a specific routine you like to follow?

Preparation. You can never do enough preparation. You need to have everything in your head and written down, for example, which microphones to use, microphone placement, which preamps to use. Where are you going to put them all so you can get to the vocals really easily for example. Where to put the musicians and one of the most important things, their headphones. How are they going to hear and see each other because that is the biggest thing to get a good recording, making the band comfortable. If they can’t hear what’s going on they can’t play. Every single aspect of that has to be right. 

Show up early, be completely ready to go, so if someone walks in and sits down by the drum kit you are ready to hit record.

You can’t decide everything in advance because the session goes how the session goes, but it’s good to have planned out as much as possible beforehand so you can react to the chaos of a recording session and still be able to record, no matter what changes. For example, if they decide to record the drums in the control room, you can do that and make it work because you have control over what’s going on. 

 Andrew with a bit less beard and a smaller setup

Andrew with a bit less beard and a smaller setup

Your choice of going fully in-the-box was a big talking point within the industry, some people saying you got such great recorded material so you don’t need to go out of the box and others probably feel gear doesn’t matter you can still do great work. How do you handle that situation? Did it ever affect the amount of work you got or was it mainly a talking point within the engineering world?

It was really weird. The fact that anybody cared was amazing to me and that anybody bothered to talk about what I used to mix on was incredible.

Right when I was making the transition there were a couple of projects and they wanted me to do it on the console but I said no because that’s not how I’m mixing anymore. Those projects went away because it was more important to them what kind of equipment I used than anything else. If you are hiring me only because of the gear and you want to use a console you should rent a studio with a console and just mix it, but if you want me to mix, you should want me to do it no matter what I use. Luckily, there were only a couple of projects that happened on. 

In regards to the idea that everything I mix is so well recorded and that’s why I can mix in the box: I don’t even know what that means, it seems like such a bizarre thing to say to me. Obviously, not everything I mix is well recorded, some stuff is but some stuff isn’t. But what does that have to do with whether or not you need equipment vs plugins? That’s trying to make the argument that there is something magic about equipment that you will never have if you are not using analogue gear, and that to me is a ridiculous argument. 

Some of the best sounding records ever were made in the 1950’s and 1960’s, for example, the Rudy Van Gelder Blue Note records (check this playlist by Blue Note of some classic Rudy Van Gelder recordings). Therefore, using that same argument would imply that we shouldn’t use anything made after 1958. 

Of course, the better the recording is the easier it is to mix it, but I rephrase that, because “better” doesn’t mean better in audiophile term, it’s about the musicians that made it and how they made it sound more like the finished product. For example, it can be a very well recorded album but if it’s suppose to be a really trashy sounding punk record, better/audiophile quality isn’t really appropriate. 

Also, getting cleanly recorded drums to sound really aggressive and dirty is really difficult because you end up distorting the hell out of them and you got reverbs and extra compressors et cetera. It’s a nightmare. I would much rather have a “bad” recording but exciting drums if that’s what it's supposed to sound like. 

So, would you prefer, in a recording session, to go for character rather than “clarity” so to speak?

Yes, if you had to choose one, character. If you have the character of what’s there then you don’t have to do anything to it, just balancing and panning and you are done. Whereas if you have all this clarity but the character is completely wrong, you have to create the character which is much more difficult than creating sonics. I can take very muddy recordings and create space and make them sound bigger but if you have a very boring clean recording of something, that to me is much more difficult for two reasons; 

You have to do a lot of work to bring character to it. There is no knob for "character" so you have to find other ways to achieve that. They are plenty of knobs for EQ, so if you have to EQ something to make some space it’s an easy thing to do. Although knowing how to EQ it is the trick and it’s something you learn with experience. 

Secondly, if a song is supposed to have a certain character but none of the tracks have it then everything is built on a foundation that is wrong. All the overdubs, the vocals, everything has been done to something that isn’t what it's supposed to be. If the drums change, what’s to say that all the overdubs are going to make sense any more? You probably going get to the point where the vocals are not aggressive enough and you might have to go and record them again. 

I would rather have decisions about the final character of a sound to be part of the recording rather than the other way around.

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Do you have a favourite failure? As in a failure that set you up for later success?

It’s something that happened really early on in my career. It was the summer when I was working at The Music Annex in Menlo Park. I had gotten a chance to assist in a session, it was a really cool band and a great producer. It was my first real session as an assistant but I ended up talking too much. I had ideas about the guitar parts and I thought I was helping. The producer very nicely, during the session, managed to get me to realise that I had to shut up. During dinner later that night he explained to me about the hierarchy of a studio and just because you think that you have the best idea ever doesn’t mean it’s an idea you should talk about. I got to learn about studio etiquette and it’s something that as soon as you are told about it’s obvious. 

If you have an idea that’s great, tell the producer during the break. It’s not because you don’t have the right to have a good idea. It just makes thing confusing and messy and it’s not something that makes people perform well, which happened to the guitarist I was throwing out ideas for, it just got him confused. 

Being a total screw up in my very first assistant session, and having the producer being that cool about it really helped. From that day on I have never done that in a session since. It was a very important lesson.

Looking back on your career are there any, or several moments, that you thought: “This is heaven, can’t believe I’m working with this artist/project.”?

Tons. If you look at my discography, if I hadn’t had them there would be something horribly wrong with me. 

The obvious one is working with Red Hot Chili Peppers, I had been a fan of theirs since the very beginning. I saw them live in 1986 when they were playing in small clubs, so being able to work with them was absolutely amazing. Every single day in the studio with them is incredible. 

Then there is a band called Motorpsycho (check them on Apple Music, or Spotify), from Norway, who I have been a fan of for years. Loved them but could never get in touch with them, tried a couple of times but it didn’t work out because I didn’t know any people who knew them. However, in the last year, I got to mix two live records for them which was absolutely incredible. When I finally met them all I wanted to do was to talk about their old records and ask how they did this and that, so just being able to have a conversation with them was amazing.  

Not only artists but also being in the room with Al Schmitt when he was recording an orchestra was amazing.

Being a huge fan of Red Hot Chili Peppers myself, they are the reason I started playing bass and eventually getting into production and mixing, so it’s quite special for me to talk to you as well because as you, they were a big part of my life. 

Yes, it’s amazing. I just listened to Stadium Arcadium for the first time in a while and one of the song that I didn’t even mix, Animal Bar, just absolutely blew me away. Ryan Hewitt’s work on that is just so good and it’s such a great song. 

Also, you can get just as blown away by someone you haven’t heard of before. They don’t have to be famous but it’s amazing when you do get to work with people you admire and it turns out to be even better than you hope. This can happen in any session which is part of the magic of working with music.

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Speaking of Red Hot Chili Peppers, who Rick Rubin produced from Blood Sugar Sex Magik and onwards, how did you end up working with Rick initially? 

I had a couple of friends who were working for Rick, especially Dave Schiffman, who recorded a lot of records for Rick. He would recommend me when they needed stuff because, just like with the Synclavier, I had moved on to become a Pro Tools guy in Los Angeles. I not only knew Pro Tools but also how to transfer back and forth from analogue tape and keep things locked up. 

The first thing I worked on was Saul Williams - Amethyst Rock Star (Listen On Spotify), where they had done a lot of the record with an MPC60. They had dumped the drum programming to tape in stereo, so when they started to mix, they wanted to split up some of the drums but they couldn’t lock the MPC60 back up to get the stuff out separately, it was drifting all over the place. I came in as the tech/audio janitor to make this happen. At the same time, Rick was working on a remix album of Wu-Tang Clan songs, where System of a Down had done one and Tom Morello was going to do one. Rick asked me to set up for that recording so I ended up recording Tom, Chad Smith and Serj Tankian doing vocals. It was a crazy week of recording everything that came up and that’s what got me starting working for Rick. 

The next project that I was really involved in was the first Audioslave record (Listen here on Apple Music or Spotify). I came in while they were finishing up basic tracks to put all the takes together and get ready for overdubs. I also did a lot of vocals with Chris Cornell and bass with Tim Commerford. 

Are you still working with Rick as often as you used to? 

Not nearly as much, I did a ton with him on and off for 12 years and then it tapered off, but that’s just how it goes.

Looking at the other side of the coin, has there been any moments when you have thought that you can’t do this anymore?

There have been sessions where it has been stressful and moments in the car on the way to the studio where I have doubted if this is really what I wanted to do, but that’s more about me than anything that has to do with the session. I stress myself out, I’m not super secure about things and always feel stuff will go wrong. But that’s part of the preparation. You rehearse the session in your head, but sometimes the rehearsing in your head will also go horribly wrong and you think this or that can happen. 

I have had months-long periods with no work coming in and that’s after huge projects, for example, after the Adele record I had over three months with absolutely no work. You start thinking that maybe you are done and have to start doing something else.

However, the good thing is that I have made those periods be the start of something else. For example, the first time it happened I started working with a friend of mine who did home theatre installation and learned a ton about that, and I also decided that I wanted to teach so I taught a class at UCLA which was great because it turned out I’m pretty good at speaking and teaching. That turned into doing more workshops which eventually turned into Mix With The Masters and doing videos and stuff like that. It made me diversified which I think is really good because the music business is really horrible for money, even if you are working all the time. Being diversified is really important so you can have other things you can do. So for me, that’s what those periods gave me, a chance to try other stuff out. 

This leads me to my next question about how you do handle the quiet times because I have heard you speak about that before. 

It’s terrifying. Because it’s not just your career. For example, I had two kids in school and a mortgage to pay for. It goes beyond the possible failure as an engineer, instead, you are looking at the possibility of failure as a human. You just have to deal with it and figure out other things to do.

I saw a post from Greg Wells and he was speaking about a similar time in his life where the phone stopped ringing. It seems these things happen to almost anyone in this industry and it all depends how you deal with it. 

Yes. It could be as simple as scheduling. Where you have three records all at once and then nothing or the thing you do is a bit out of style. There could be a hot/in-style kid who does the same sort of thing you do and now he is getting all the work because he is on peoples’ minds. 

The good thing is when you realise these situations are a part of the norm and look at them as opportunities to learn something new.

Could you recommend any piece of gear/software under $200 that has improved your work as a mixing engineer?

Shure SM7, although that’s a bit more than $200. It’s an amazing microphone. The best snare microphone you will ever use and it’s also the vocal microphone for almost all of Red Hot Chili Peppers songs ever recorded as well as Thriller. 

You said you mix a lot on headphones today, how are you able to judge your decisions properly? 

You get used to it. I was travelling and somebody asked me for a mix so I tried it. It went much better than I thought and over the last 5 years, I just had many more situations where it was difficult to get to my speakers. 

I still check (unless I absolutely can’t) every single mix I do on speakers and there are certain times where I think the kick and snare work fine on headphones but when I listen back on speakers I can tell that they might be a little too mushy and that they need to punch more or something like that. But once I hear the problems on speakers, I can then easily hear it on headphones. For me, it’s things like the impact of a mix I won’t necessarily know unless I check on speakers, just because you actually don’t get the air moving on headphones. 

Headphones are also really good because you don’t have to worry about the acoustics of the room you’re in.  You are wearing the studio on your head and it always sounds exactly the same wherever you are. 

The important thing with mixing on headphones is that it translates, it doesn’t matter exactly what it sounds like in the headphones, you just have to adapt to know what to do to make it sound good no matter where you listen. 

I use the Sony 7506 (£119 on Amazon) they are cheap, so worth trying. For me, they work. I can actually feel the low end in them which is something I can’t do on other headphones.

If you mix on headphones and then go to your speakers and notice there are a lot of problems, go back to your headphones and make sure you can still hear those problems. If you can’t you should try a different pair of headphones.

This next section Andrew answered some of the fan questions that came in from the Your Audio Solutions community.

Olly Cobb: How do you approach achieving analogue saturation and colour now that you're working ITB? Do you think the digital emulations stand up to their hardware counterparts?

The short answer is yes, it’s better because you have so much control over it.

Analogue saturation is just one type of saturation and the things that mimic it, like the Waves J37 and Phoenix (by Crane Song) which are awesome. Although, I don’t think of it as being analogue saturation. 

Harmonic distortion is something that really helps shape sounds and glues things together. It used to be something you couldn’t get rid of if you were using analogue gear because it distorts unless you barely touch it. It was something we hated as engineers because we didn’t have a choice but now everyone is missing it and wants it. They are a million tools that saturate, for example, there is a saturation knob on Echo Boy so use that instead of the delay, it’s incredible. There are a million different ways to distort things and they are all really good. That’s why on the channel strip I did we put three flavours of it because there are so many ways you can achieve it and they all sound great in different situations. 

As to whether an emulation of a piece of a gear sounds exactly like the piece of gear, probably not, but it doesn’t matter. It’s the idea of it. You are not trying to mimic the piece of gear, you are trying to get the same feeling of that distortion but with much more control. 

William Bowser: What's your preferred interface, converters and clock for your in-the-box mixes?

When I’m listening through speakers, I use the Avid HD I/O and before that, I used the Avid 192 and I always used it with its internal clock. I don’t use external clocks. 

I think the internal clock is really good and I think most gear sound best on their own internal clock because it’s built to work with that clock as opposed to when you are switching it to an external clock mode. When you do that it also has a much more serious phase lock loop, to catch up to whatever clock that is going on outside. But it’s just a personal preference. 

I also do quite a lot of mixing with headphones and for that, I’m usually using a UAD Twin because I like the headphone amp and again it's running on its internal clock. The idea is, if you are mixing 100% in the box the clock, unless it’s a terrible clock, doesn’t matter except for your own monitoring. Because you are printing digitally, it’s only for the D/A while you are listening. 

Thank you, Andrew, for your time and great insights. 

Let me know in the comments below if you enjoyed this interview and if you have any more questions. Could perhaps lead to another interview with Andrew where he could answer yours. 

 

Vance Powell - Every Step Of My Career Was Because Of A Failure

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How To Find Work And Become A Freelance Sound Engineer

Learn How To:
- Get Your Foot In The Door
- Find Opportunities And Work
- Success And Failure

And Much More

Vance Powell is well known in the music and audio industry with 4 Grammy Awards and has worked with artists such as Jack White, Chris Stapleton, Seasick Steve, Buddy Guy and the list goes on. Vance Powell is based in Nashville where he works from his studio called Sputnik Sound.

 Sputnik Sound

Sputnik Sound

However, Vance's journey wasn't as straightforward as you might think, having worked in live sound for many years with a goal of someday working in a studio. In this interview, Vance opens up about how failures eventually led him to where he is now, the early years, charging what you deserve, tricks to use if artists are not able to get good takes, and much much more. 

I think you will find some really useful information here that you can apply to your own career. Let me know in the comments what you think. 

You were working a lot in live sound as well as working in many different studios but it took you a while before the momentum properly picked up for you, with e.g. Grammy for The Eleventh Hour, Blackbird Studio and working with Jack White etc. How did you handle those years and how did you stay persistent?

Since I didn’t grow up rich nor had a trust fund, and becoming homeless and starving didn’t seem like a good idea, I had to work to live and eat. I’m from a small town in Missouri and there’s not a lot of bands that had any national potential, but I was a good live sound engineer and people kept hiring me. You have to go where the money is and keep doing good work.

However, I never had a goal as in “I want to be a mixer or a producer”, but I did want to work in the studio and it just took a long time to get there. When I did go to Blackbird in 2002 I more or less had to put my engineering career aside to build the studio but after 5 years I said: “Hold it, I’ve spent 5 years building this studio and I got to get back to making records again”. I had done some records from when I started at Blackbird, for example with the Eleventh Hour (Vance’s first Grammy Award) and some other albums in between but the next thing was with Jack White in 2007, but my main focus had been building the studio for 5 years. 

Were you ever thinking of giving up?

I figure out that being a live sound engineer is something I was good at as well as giving people direction. I have that managerial, type A, personality. If I decided to get out of the music industry, the only thing I would be good at would be to manage a McDonalds. But I’m not skilled in much else. Maybe I could have fixed guitar amps or worked as a repair guy since I studied electrical engineering in school. But I just kept trying to force my way through and persisted till I reached my goal.

What was the best way for you to gain clients/build relationships at the beginning of your career and how has it changed over the years?

You do something that people hear, see or interact with and if people like it they will ask you to work with them. It’s the same way you get clients when you are making records, they like what they hear and they want to work with you.

A bunch of things have changed since I started till now. But in the beginning, the requests weren’t as frequent and when they were, there were offering less money. Nowadays, since my clientele level has gone up and I earn more money, so has my expenses. For example, we built a new studio 3,5 years ago and before that, we were renting. When I went from renting to buying my costs tripled. Me and my partner Mitch, we used to share the electrical bill and it was maybe 500-$600 a month, now mine alone is almost $800 in the summer. 

For example, a few weeks ago, in January, I was doing a session with a band called Clutch and it was 16 degrees out so all our five air conditioner was running. The costs go up. 

With success you still want to make sure that you are doing good work and that you are not doing it for the money, I have done that but I don’t want to do it again. 

What is hard for you, in the beginning, to be able to charge the money you deserved? 

You can compare it to being offered a job with a certain amount of money. You might think that’s good or you think you are worth more than that. If so, you negotiate: “That’s great but it would be nice if I made x plus this an hour”. The employer might say, “Too fucking bad, this is the offer”. Or they may go “We really want you so yes we will pay it.”

The same thing happens in this business. It’s the same deal. 

Also, in this business, there is always someone who will work cheaper than you. For example,  there is a kid somewhere with his laptop who will either produce, record and mix your record cheaper than I would ever do it. It may be better, it may not. It may be exactly what you want it to be or it won't.

The second you believe you are irreplaceable in any position you have is the moment you are in fact replaced. I had friends back when I was on the road who went to bands and said, “Look you are paying me x1000 dollars a week but I think I deserve x1000 dollar plus three”. The band responded with a no and that was because there is another guy who will work for less. So, it’s a dangerous game. 

The most important part is that people don’t work for free. Free fucks the economy. Free screws everything up. If you are working for free you work is worth nothing. They can replace you in a heartbeat with someone else. Maybe they loved it and you put 12 hours in but because they paid nothing for it, it was worth nothing to them. 

You have worked with many of the biggest artists in the world, what have you found works that get them inspired to perform if they are struggling to get a good take?

It depends if you are talking about bands getting a good performance I try to keep positive and give constructive criticisms. I don’t tell people how to play things, I want them to believe that they, i.e. the band, did all the work. That they didn’t really need me. That’s how it should be. I should just be the guide. But if it starts to go wrong, I would suggest to take a break, go get a coffee, check out the coffee place down the street, have lunch. Basically, change the scene. 

With singers, I kick everybody out so it’s only me and the singer.

My studio doesn’t have a studio glass. It’s just all walls, but I have a door which I can look through into my tracking room. This is where usually I put the vocalist so that I can see them, but just their back because I don’t care to look at them directly, I’m listening, so that’s what I’m focusing on. I constructed it so if they wanted to see me they can turn around and look or I can walk out there. Sonically, I’m trying to get it to a state where it sounds good to them, giving them a lot of control of their headphones, giving them reverb and echo-sends so they can do whatever they want to do out there. We run a few takes and if I feel that they are not getting it or it’s not as good as I think it could be, I’ll be frank and go “Hey man, I just feel that were are not quite there. How do you feel about it?". I’ll ask questions. You got to realise it’s a partnership and you are both in it together, they need me and I need them. We have to work as a team to get this to work. Be positive. 

 Grammy for Best Engineered Album for The Raconteurs - Consolers of the Lonely

Grammy for Best Engineered Album for The Raconteurs - Consolers of the Lonely

Do you have any specific routines you like to follow before you are about to have a recording session or a mixing session to be able to do put your best work in?

If I’m doing a production gig, I listen to the band and the demos I got. Then I come in and make sure that everything I’m doing is a blank state. I don’t have any preconception of what gear to use for that sound or that sound. My goal is to come in and try to listen to whats going on and make sure things work together in the right way. Sometimes it’s hard. For example, with that Clutch record, we recorded five songs before I actually thought we got the drum sound I wanted. Sometimes you just have to do that, but the good news was because I set it up that way, was that out of the 5 songs 3 of them of them were b-sides.

 

You studied electronics in high-school, how has this knowledge helped you in the studio?

This is how it helped me; I’m really good at troubleshooting issues and figuring out why something doesn’t work. Back when I was in live sound we would have very large and complicated audio system sometimes. When you were doing a tv-show or a festival you may have a 400 point all xlr patch bay for cross patching and all this stuff for multiple rigs to go here and there. You have video and audios plots, monitor splits and you have to know how to work all those things out. In the studio, we have a little tech shop and if a piece of gear is not working I’ll try to see if I can fix it. 

Could you recommend any fairly easy-to-grasp electronic concept beginners should learn so it doesn’t become overwhelming?

It does get overwhelming pretty fast, to be honest. But my grandfather who was a self-taught electronic genius, although but from a different time with tubes and stuff, gave me a set of books of basic electronics. It was about 6 books made by RCA and they were manuals for the first year of electronics for Navy signalmen in the 1950-60’s, mostly about tubes, but I learned a lot from them.

There is a great book which I tell all of our interns to get. It’s called Modern Recording Techniques by John M. Woram and it came out 1976. It’s awesome because it’s all about tape and analogue technology. It’s such a good basic book on recording at its core level, which is still the same. It’s a really great book. 

 Vance's book recommendation. You can find it on Ebay for around 30-$40.

Vance's book recommendation. You can find it on Ebay for around 30-$40.

Do you have any techniques or tricks to get your creative juices flowing if you are in a creative rut? 

Take a day off. Go do something you want to do. Creativity is directly connected with joy. So if you enjoy hiking go hiking or if you enjoy boating go boating or going to guitar stores, travelling, drinking etc. Do whatever that you enjoy. A lot of times we get caught up in deadlines and all that stuff and it tends to be the suck of joy and joy tends to go away. 

What are your thoughts about patience? 

Nobody has any. I had a mentor and he had a couple of great sayings and one of them was, “No recording should ever be an emergency”. When people call me and got to get something done, I tend to back off a bit, “Do you really wanna mix this today and put it out tomorrow?”. There is no need for that. Unless it’s done as an exercise, where the goal is to come in and record, master it in the evening and take it over to the factory to cut the vinyl. 

Jack White did that, when he did the worlds faster record, in three hours. From downbeat to delivery of the record. 

How many tracks were on that?

Two songs. They were cut live straight to the lacquer. 

How was that experience working on that? Did you do a lot of preparation?

It was fast. We rehearsed the night before, but it was very interesting.  

What excites you about making records today? 

Making records it’s like having children and putting them out into the world. It’s always exciting to see what happens. I like when I get to do a record and people come back to say how much they love the record and where the songs really mean a lot to them. That’s a feeling that you can't quantify.

I heard you encountered some rough situation while doing FOH, such as headliners messing with your sound as an opening act and leaving the talkback mic on but hiding it and therefore causing feedback. How do you keep yourself focused and calm in those moments to be able to solve it?

I don’t know if I was calm about it. The band that did it was a Christian band at a Christian festival that somehow thought it would be funny. If you tell the story here in Nashville people here knows right away who you are talking about. That tells you a lot about the people we are talking about. Other than the 4 guys in Jars of Clay and CeCe Winans, I rarely met anyone in the Christian music industry that has anything to do with the concept of Christianity. There was a lot in the contemporary Christian world that was complete bullshit.

This was a typical situation. So what did I do? I yelled, screamed and cursed till someone figured it out. I made a scene so that people would figure it out. I have done shows with them where the subwoofer just decided to stop working. They were fine but then it just stopped. They blamed it on a bad cable. But someone had kicked the cable at the back of the stage. But they do that to people all the time. 

I heard you stopped doing live sound after having done a 14-day tour with The Dead Weather in Europe. What caused you to say “No more”?

I took too long for my ears to get back to normal. It took three months. 

Do you use any kind of ear protection when you mix live?

Yes, I have them in my pocket the whole time. 

Do you have the special moulded ones and would you recommend getting a pair of those?

Absolutely. I think every recording engineer should use them. I have the 15 dB pad. If you play the drums I would recommend the 35 dB pad. But the 15 dB Pad on a live show works perfectly. 

If you don’t have any of these earplugs and you are mixing a live show, listen to a few songs without earplugs to get the mix right and then put yours in. Nothing is going to radically change really.

Do you have a Favourite failure, something that set you up for later success? 

Every single step in my career was a step made because of a failure, either mine or someone else's. Perfect example, when I lived in my hometown I worked for a super nice man as his tech. I repaired stuff for him and he had a studio which I worked in. However, he spent a fall deer hunting in the morning instead of finding work for the studio, so he got to a point where he didn’t have any work. Because of that, he had to let me go, so I got laid off. Consequently, me getting laid off and not having enough money to live on I went to find a job, which led me to move town and I ended up working for another guy. This time around, the guy I worked for turned out to be a cocaine dealer so I left.

Later on, I went to work for John and Martina McBride, pre Blackbird. However, Martina got pregnant, so I went out on the road with Jars of Clay. After her pregnancy and when she was ready to go back to tour again, Martina asked me to go join her as her monitor engineer. However, I failed and got fired. That situation put me back in Jars of Clay which led to The Eleventh Hour  (won a Grammy), which then led me to work for Blackbird which in turn led me to work for Jack White. It’s all these events which go back to my friend letting me go at Christmas because of his mistakes/failures.

I have got fired from mixing gigs because I wasn’t into the band and I was just doing it for the money. But sometimes you are totally into a band but they are not into you. 

You just have to know that failure doesn’t mean you are dead. 

Best purchase for you studio under $200 or less?

SM57.

Are there any ideas you will take away and apply to your work/career from this interview? Let met know in the comments below!

Jon Moon - From Being A Child Actor To Recording Amy Winehouse

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Jon Moon is known for having worked with artists such as Amy Winehouse, Roger Waters, Cat Stevens and many more and has been certified three platinum albums. He currently works in Sensible Music, North London where he produces and engineers for artists all around the world.

However, Jon's dreams as a child were quite different. At age 5, Jon was dreaming of becoming an actor and started attending drama schools which he found some success at, although much to his parents dismay because working in the entertainment industry was not a 'proper job' in those days.

 Moon riding his bicycle after school

Moon riding his bicycle after school

Being fascinated by technology, Jon took his parent’s gramophone apart trying to find out how it all worked, “I was fascinated by the needle on the record, that was magic. I just had to understand it”. Eventually putting his mind on tape recorders. 

As a child, Jon was also really inspired by his mother, who was a school music teacher and member of the highly regarded Bach Choir.

Jon:She could break a glass with her voice. I remember one night, my mom returning home after a late night session all very "hush-hush". Turned out they had recorded some tracks with The Rolling Stones for the album "Let It Bleed". There she is reminding me “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”.

As a pubescent teenager, Jon suddenly began to feel embarrassed being on stage and started gravitating towards music, "I was knocked out by the music scene at the time. It was a real revolution and an inspiring time".

When Jon was 17 his father sadly passed away, making him throw himself into music and really learn how to play the guitar and other instruments. Also, the technology at the time was moving really fast and he had a 4-track cassette machine where he would make his own mixtapes, songs and demos.

Jon eventually got signed to a production company called Monroe, who put him in a studio to record a few demos. He got the studio for the night but when he arrived there was no engineer. Jon remembers looking around at what gear they had, “Early things like emu sampling keyboards and an analogue desk. I already had the feeling of being able to "talk" to the machines and had an understanding of what I wanted to do”. Although those particular songs never saw the light of the day it was the beginning of the learning curve for his music production skills.

 

How did you respond to those early challenges? With your father passing away and not knowing what was going to happen?

Everything that happened to me as a young boy prepared me psychologically to be calm when the situation isn’t. I’m not saying I didn’t panic or fuck up but if you can visualise beforehand what should, or what could happen, then it prepares you. Mentally preparing oneself and being able to visualise what you are going to do, whether that’s a studio session or a live gig has been important to me. That’s been a coping mechanism and a good vehicle to success in sessions and in multiple scenarios. Its been a handrail to get through things.

 Jamming with his friends

Jamming with his friends

Obviously, there have also been occasions where it can go horribly wrong and you have to learn to swim and think on your feet because there is no other choice. What are you going to do? You are either going to die or live. I know it’s not life and death we are talking about here, it’s music, but it can feel like that.

It’s all very easy for someone who’s had the blessing of circumstance and by that, I don’t mean I was born with a silver spoon or that had the money, or someone managing me because I didn't, it was just me. I did it for myself and sometimes with a little help from my friends. You make your own luck.

I consider myself very blessed in my career, but it has not come without hard work, commitment perseverance and vision.

What does hard work mean to you? (Discussing long, 20-hour, days)

Of course, that’s hard work for anyone. Which I don’t mind if I’m doing something productive, I can keep going, for as long as I’m enjoying it. It's rewarding. But that doesn’t stop it from being hard work. We have worked together where there have been situations where we've need to comp all this in one hour, that’s hard work. There are elements to everything you do, where you don’t have time to enjoy it because you have tight deadlines to meet.

Also, the stress that comes with this type of work, where you don’t know where the next meal is coming from, even if you have had a great month, what about next week, what about next year. Those kinda of insecurities that come with the entertainment business in general, is hard work.

The studio life and the entertainment business is, in general, more mentally challenging than physical, do you have any techniques you use to cope with that?

Meditation. And that’s not to say that I “ohm” every day, or even every week or even every year. But on a pretty regular basis, I’m doing that subconsciously.

Which kind of meditation?

Astral Projection, which was the first time I realised the power of meditation. But I don’t consciously try to do that so much, it’s a more subconscious practice and discipline That also brings me back to being able to visualise what you are going to do, which is part of my meditation technique. Also, the music itself, or the project itself becomes a meditation practice. It’s a balance, without the stress, you wouldn’t be able to balance it with the calmness perhaps.

 Jon working on his Euphonix CS3000

Jon working on his Euphonix CS3000

If you lost focus or felt overwhelmed on a mix or in a session, what have you felt helped to regain focus in those situations?

You train yourself to be focused. If I’m in a situation where I can’t hear or feel it, and it’s not just working, I take a step back to get perspective and try again.

If you for some reason you can’t get it to work it’s better to stop and come back the next day. Sometimes that’s much better than delivering something that doesn’t work. However, when you are against deadlines, you can’t do it tomorrow, they need it now. But the more you do it, performing on demand, you will find your ways of dealing with that.

You have been making records for many years now. Do you have any specific techniques on how to create certain moods for bands and artist so they can perform at their best?

Yes, but it’s not always necessarily the same. However, you can use certain parameters that work, like being prepared or ready for anything. If you have a week of recording a band, where you could apply the same method to bring order to the overall sound. As in, we are going to record you like this, I need you to play it like this. Obviously, not everybody responds the same way and it’s not going to work for everybody. It depends on the atmosphere and the mood. I think you find your own personal way of exercising a method. There are also certain technical methods that I tend to adopt that to help performers feel free

Any of those you like to share?

I think it’s important to allow for the freedom of creation and not lock things down too quickly while giving them a canvas on which to perform onto. The frame being the studio, and the colour being the sound.

Know what you are aiming for before going into the studio. It’s important to get respect from the people you are working with and in turn, they will feel relaxed, uninhibited and hopefully inspired.

One of my best sessions was assisting you a few years ago and I remember the vibe was awesome with a lot of creativity going around. How do you manage to get a session into that vibe and getting the musicians to relax with you?

It’s a combination of what we have been talking about. You need a really good idea of who the artist and musicians are that you are working with. It works both ways in so many ways. I guess It’s experience, being able to read people. They have to trust you to see the right vision. You gain trust by communicating with people. I treat the studio like my instrument so I want to play that in harmony with the people there to record.

The Amy Winehouse record Back To Black, that you worked on, became huge. How was the experience working with her and the whole team behind that record?

When I first met Amy, I only had a vague idea of who she was, Frank had just been released and she was sent to us by her manager. 

That summer she had been writing with Mark Ronson in New York and we were running through the songs in studio 4. I was in there checking on a few microphone positions and I had put in a couple of nice microphones for her, such as a 47 MOSFET and a couple of Neumans but she turned and glared at me as if to say "who are you then" and said, "No no no, I don’t want anything posh, just give me a 58, that’s all I want”. 

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Record companies would use us here in North London partly because it was more convenient than losing their artist to a residential studio for weeks, but probably also because of the stuff we had done for people like Roger Waters, Cat Stevens, Ms Dynamite and others. 

We would send stuff back and forth to the label so they could monitor the material as it was going down and realise its completion. 

With Amy, we had the most amazing band with Dale Davis on bass, Nathan Alan on drums and Sam Best on keys and of course her incredible background singers. It was all quite new and she was really on form. Those recordings are really superb.

Working with her defined me. And hopefully, in that process, I helped define her too.

Looking back on your career are there any, or several moments, that you thought: “This is heaven, can’t believe I’m working with this artist/project.”?

Ha! Well, I'm certainly blessed to work at something I truly enjoy. There have been moments, not, “I can’t believe” moments, but I remember when the N-Dubz came out and I was simultaneously making records that were in the top 20 all year round that it was all happening at the same time and I said to everybody “I can see the light source of life, I can feel it shining through this building right here right now, I can feel it on us."

So, yes there have been moments where I thought this is pretty cool but they are shortly followed by the complete opposite. I think in life, whenever I feel happy or excited I better not because something horrible might happen to balance it. And invariably it does.

Looking at the other side of the coin, has there been any moments when you have thought that you can’t do this anymore?

Never, though there have been extreme highs and extreme lows. I think you deal with it by not letting it be on top of either direction. Instead, harness the energy and use the power of emotion to tick the balance the other way, whichever way that is. I think it’s great to feel great and feel on top of things, but sometimes when that feeling is extreme it can be quite scary because invariably it swings the other way.

What has been your best purchase for the studio for £200 or less?

I once produced a track and I wanted some really scratchy percussion, a real creepy sound, so I said let’s go up to  Hampstead Heath, we’ll grab some food on the way and see if we can find something.

Don’t know why I thought about the Heath, it was autumn and I found some branches to beat on a wooden board, but while I was looking, I found this, what looked like a small China cymbal, rusted car part under the earth and I brought it back. It was brilliant and I’ve used on several things since then. 

Let me know what you think in the comments below and who you would like to see get interviewed next!

Dan Cox - Gaining Clients, Fears and Making the Performance Nr.1

Dan Cox is the co-owner and engineer of Urchin Studios in East London where he has made a name for himself working with artists such as Lianne La Havas, Florence and The Machine, Thurston Moore as well as winning the MPG Breakthrough Engineer Award 2014.

 Dan at Urchin Studios

Dan at Urchin Studios

Dan started the studio in 2007 with his friend Matt Ingram who is a touring drummer and music producer who has played with artists such as Michael Kiwanuka and Paloma Faith. 

They met when Dan and his friend Toby L were looking for a drummer for their band. Matt, back then, was hired to play the drums for Gordon Raphael, the producer of The Strokes - Is This It but he also started jamming with Dan and Toby.

Dan had moved to London halfway through studying audio engineering at SAE Institute and Matt knew he was studying so they said to each other:

Should we try to produce some records?”, “Yes, sure...”, “How do we do that...?”, “I’m not entirely sure...”. 

They knew they had the skills but they were struggling to connect the dots of approaching bands, finding a studio and figuring out how it works. They tried it a few times but with no luck. 

Having completed the course at SAE, Dan got an internship at a recording studio, where the two of them finally got some bands in that they could produce themselves. But this wouldn't last long because they got a call from Gordon Raphael, Matt’s boss, he told them that he had moved to Berlin.

Gordon had this studio which they would occasionally rehearse at and Matt had a set of keys.

“I think every band in London had a set of keys to this place”, Dan recalled. 

Gordon asked them if they would be interested in looking after the studio for him. 

Matt and I discussed this and we thought, well..., it’s a cool offer but we already have access to a studio, but if we actually took ownership of this place and made it into something that was ours, rather than operating something that was someone else's, maybe we could do it!”. 

They weren’t sure if Gordon would accept their offer but thankfully he did so Dan and Matt took over the lease, rented some of his equipment and in the Spring of 2007 started Urchin Studios.

Their dream could finally start. 

Were there any fear or doubts to go for it and if so, what made you take the leap to go for it? 

We had plenty of fear and plenty of doubts. We also had well-meaning friends who with the best intentions sat down with us and went: “I don’t think it’s a very good idea”, and “I think you should really think twice about this. Many studios across London are closing down and it doesn’t look like a wise thing to do”. 

These were also music business people, so it was people who knew what they were talking about. 

But with so many things in life, you just have to go, right, well I’m a bit scared, I have some doubts. Obviously, the big thing I was scared about was, what if I can’t do this, what if I can’t I make this work. Which I think is the same for everyone starting a business or starting some sort of endeavour. Particularly when you have to put money into it. 

Especially when opening a studio, you have to put down quite a bit of money. Some of which you have saved or maybe you need to take a bank loan. So you take on these risks. 

But the reason you do these things if because you just feel like you should, and you want to and you are willing to take that risk to make something that you believe will be successful or at least if not successful, interesting!

 Part of Urchin Studios Live Room

Part of Urchin Studios Live Room

I still think about this today, given the choice between doing this with all of the pro’s and cons vs having a normal job, I would still choose this every time. 

In the beginning, how did you gain more clients, did you have any certain techniques or was it going to pubs talking to musicians saying “I have a studio, come and record.”? 

As a starting point, we made a simple website. But we weren’t quite sure what to do with it. We went to shows, talked to people, trying to spread the word. 

The most important factor in the early days was the fact that Matt was a drummer, and he was playing with different bands, playing with some decent people, going on tours. So he was meeting many musicians, and through doing that he was able to promote the studio. 

This is still to this day an important part of how we gain new clients. 

We also did a few free sessions so we could get a few projects under our belt. So when we asked people to record at our studio we could show them what we had done. 

And to our amazement, after about 6 months of getting started, we had our very first client find us through the internet!

Do you think it’s important for a person wanting to open a studio today to have a website or is it more important to go out to shows and meet people? 

I think word of mouth is always the most important way. Whether you do that from going to shows, meeting musicians or if you play in a band. I think it’s quite advantageous if you play in a band. You are then naturally meeting bands and artists at gigs. 

A website is important to showcase what you do and it’s the easiest way, even if you just meet someone at a show and give them a card with your website address. Maybe they don’t have time for a proper conversation, but then they can go and check your website. Maybe you have worked with someone they know. 

Another important factor is making sure clients are happy during the sessions, so when they leave they leave feeling really good about their experience. They then go off and give you a great review of their experience to their friends. 

It takes time to build the reputation. I still feel we are growing it nearly 11 years later. 

You say you focus on making sure the artist should leave happy. Do you have any specific things you do that you aim for? Do you have some tricks you use? 

Every session is different. My philosophy is that the artist is always at the centre of the process. 

To explain further, the technical process, which is necessary to make a record shouldn’t be an impediment to the creativity or shouldn’t disadvantage the creative process. For me, that has always meant working quite quickly so you can keep the momentum. Of course, you have to stop at certain times, maybe something is broken or you need to change the setup, but it has always been important to me to keep that momentum going even if you have to slow down for a minute. 

 Part of Urchin Studios Live Room

Part of Urchin Studios Live Room

Also, to keep calm if you hit a problem and you have to stop recording. Because if you keep calm then the artists don’t panic. Be reassuring and offer them a cup of tea, and while the kettle is boiling you have some time to think about the problem. This still allows you to keep the creative flow going. 

Our studio is also built to keep the technical side of things tucked away, having nice rugs, mellow lighting and big windows. It’s all designed to make the technical environment not seem like a technical environment so it feels relaxed, like a home. And that just makes everything easier. 

You stressed the importance of being able to keep the stress away from the artist so they can focus on making their music. Do you have any specific techniques or tricks you use to stay calm and make the artist feel comfortable? 

Always offer them a cup of tea! It’s a way of saying “Welcome”. Like inviting people to your home. It should feel like that when coming to my studio. Treating it like people are coming to your house, ask them how they are, how their journey was. 

And if it hasn't been talked about before the session, explore what direction we are going to take. Which can take many different forms. 

For example, if it’s a string quartet with a composer I have worked with we just jump straight into setting up because that type of session is typically 3 hours and the musicians are in a particular 3-hour-musician-union mode. So that’s about efficiency. Making sure when everyone walks in the door they have a mic, chair and a music stand ready waiting for them.

If I was just engineering a band, where is the drummer? Where will they park their cars? What sound are we going for? Do they have a particular sound in mind? Work out the creative direction they want to take and again, make them feel like they are home while you take care of the technical things. 

I don’t like musicians having to sit around waiting because that’s a distraction from what they are supposed to be doing. If you do need some extra time setting up, just let them know that we are getting there and we will be ready for them very soon. 

You have a “Live Takes” approach to making records, could you explain that approach in more detail and what you feel you are gaining by doing so? 

The core of the “Live Take” approach is to capture a performance. For example, if you have a 5 piece band, make them play the song together. Or if you have a singer-songwriter have them sing and play the guitar at the same time. 

The reason that process is advantageous is that you are attempting to create something that is more engaging. It’s a much more natural process. When you go to a show and watch a singer-songwriter with a guitar, they play the guitar and sing. That’s engaging because that’s the performance. If you went to see a singer-songwriter and they started by playing the click track, then recorded the acoustic guitar and finally sung the vocal on top of that recording, that would be nonsense. 

However, that is the modern way of making records, layering piece by piece. It works tremendously well and I do it quite frequently too, but it’s a different thing when you record the performance and particularly when you get the vocalist in there with the band as well. 

Usually, the last thing in modern recording to go on the track is the vocals, but when you do that you have already spent so much time making sure the different instrumental elements conform to each other. So, when you record the vocals on top, the vocal to an extent has to conform to that instrumentation, when, in fact, the core of a song is the vocal performance. 

When you record a live performance with a singer in there, suddenly you don’t have this prefabricated structure of a song with a vocal that’s stuck on top. Instead, the whole band gets more keyed into that vocal performance. It’s fascinating when you do it. 

You rarely need a click track, sometimes you do, but some vocalists get thrown off by a click track. There's more freedom and more versatility by taking that approach to recording but you do need good musicians and a good singer. Also, the artist needs to embrace that process, if not, it usually doesn’t work out. It’s not for everyone and not for every style of music. But it’s fantastic when it works. 

If you notice that the song doesn’t really work in a live take performance, what’s the best way of telling the band to try something else? 

Not making a big deal out of it. You might be absolutely convinced that the “Live Take” approach is the best way but for some reason, it’s not working. If it’s a band, it might be a particular musician, maybe it’s not working for them so you have to try extracting them from the setup without causing any offence. Say, for example, that the guitarist is not comfortable and you can hear it in the take that they are not glueing into the performance. They might be in a bad mood, tired or hungover or it could be something on my end, that the headphone mix isn’t working. 

Another example, let’s say the guitarist has been playing a certain guitar for 10 years but just because we are recording he is going to borrow his friend's really expensive guitar. You can tell that he might not be comfortable playing that guitar but rather than calling it out directly ask him “Tell me about this guitar. Where’s your guitar, maybe you want to try this take on your own guitar because that’s the one you play a lot”. They might go “Oh yea, but this one sounds better” but you gently stress “Try the one you normally play and see how that goes”. You sort of engineer the situation a little bit. 

 Part of Urchin Studios Live Room

Part of Urchin Studios Live Room

It’s like a magic trick, you try to conceal this and that and distract this way and you create this illusion so you keep the vibe in the room and people are still excited. 

In your 12 years of record making, what have you found to be the best way to inspire a singer or a band to get that magic take? 

It doesn't have to be about me knowing the song. I can still produce a vocal recording of a song that I haven’t heard before the session. It comes back to the relationship between the artist and producer/engineer. If you are working on a track with an artist and you have done maybe 4 albums with them before. That relationship might inform you how to work with them. 

Do you have a favourite failure, as in a failure that set you up for later success? 

This isn't one that specifically sets you up for later success, but one time way back in our first year of running the studio we were recording an album with an artist and had a fantastic first day with them. The next day when we came back the entire first day's recording had just disappeared without a trace from our computer. We never quite figured out what happened and it was day 2 of recording so we just had to start again. Fortunately the artist was ok with it, even saw the funny side after a while and of course, we made up the time but the important lesson here is to always make sure you have a backup!

How did you tell the artist? Were you scared? 

You just have to own up to something like that. Mistakes do happen. Hopefully, whatever it is it’s not too big of a deal. Sometimes, mistakes can be a good thing, for example, when you mean to copy and paste a particular instrument to a different section of a song and you accidentally bring the bass track too and you end might end up with something amazing.

Work/life balance is a topic that has been coming up more and more lately. Why do you think our industry has been prone to rewarding, or looking up to people who work 24/7? Is that the only way to success? 

I’m not someone who believes in 14 hour days or even longer. I’ve always felt that 9-10 hour days are the most efficient and sustainable because you can do that for many days on end. That allows you, and the people you are working with, enough time to wake up at a sensible time, have some breakfast, come in to do your work and go home around 8-9pm and still have a normal dinner, do whatever you need to do and get some sleep. 

I always aim to not completely destroy everyone’s routines, neither the artists nor mine. I don’t think it’s good for anyone to work 14 hours, day in and day out. People start to severely miss out on sleep and you can get quite stressed out by the end of the day. You might end up busting out the beers, which is fine, but you really quickly get into this messy process and you end up losing your most important thing, your perspective. When you lose perspective that exponentially multiplies all those factors because it the starts taking hours to do something that should take 30 min because you don’t know where you are.

I personally don’t admire people who work silly hours, but what is really important is working hard and being committed to what you are doing, because you have to be committed in this line of work. 

Also, the industry rewards results rather than actually working-hours and the thing we look up to is the end result. And the end result no way reflects how many hours you spent working on it. It does, however, represent to a greater or lesser extent, how committed and how hard you worked on a project. 

What does hard work mean to you? 

Being focused. It doesn’t necessarily mean working more hours. Being focused is being aware of what kind of work that needs to be done to achieve a really great finished product. That can take many forms, maybe the artist is really stressed all the time, so building in breaks in the session so they can calm down. 

The bits where you stop working are as important as the bits when you do work. To get perspective on what you are working on. 

If you are mixing, the time you spent on it doesn’t equal to how good it is. That’s an important lesson that we all learn. I don’t spend as much time as I used to on mixes because I have learnt how to build in my breaks. 

If you lost focus or felt overwhelmed on a mix or in a session, what have you felt helped to regain focus and getting control in those situations? 

Perspective. Taking breaks. If a break isn’t working and you are not getting anywhere you might want to take a different angle on something. Changing the key or tempo. If you are mixing a track and it doesn’t sound right, listen to the rough mix or bypass all your plugins. It’s good to do something radical. That can reveal something you might have missed. It could also be that you are listening too loud. 

Some things are beyond your control. If you are making an album, it might be that for whatever reason, that a track does not want to realise itself, or the song isn’t good enough or maybe it’s the kind of song that shouldn’t be recorded in a studio. Then do something different. Maybe the band or artist can only play it as it should be on a stage. A good example of that is Radiohead’s song “My Iron Lung”, the choruses of that song are from a live show and the verses are recorded in the studio. If that’s the way you get the best results then that’s the way you get the best results. 

Be open-minded. Allow accidents to happen. Maybe as a producer, you have been buried in the project too long, you have lost perspective and you think “I’m the producer, my ideas are the best”. Perhaps the drummer who has been reading a book in the corner the whole day has a great idea saying, “might be a stupid idea, but I’m just hearing this idea of a piano”. If as a producer you are so caught up in the project that you lost your open-mindedness, you might not realise that’s a great idea. 

As a producer your job is also, not only to be right but to be wrong. To be determined enough to see an idea through only to go “right, my idea was not very good”. You've got to be humble enough to go “that’s not good, let’s try something else, your idea was much better”. 

Looking back on your career are there any, or several moments, that you thought: “This is heaven, can’t believe I’m working with this artist/project”. 

There has been quite a few of those. But the obvious answer is that when I was getting into music as a teenage guitarist in my bedroom I would spend hours trying to figure out what guitar sounds I like on record. It was bands like Nirvana, The Mars Volta and Sonic Youth, whose album “Sonic Nurse” I most enjoyed. It has loud noise sections and the most beautiful, clean guitar sections and it’s quite hypnotic. 

Being an angsty teenager that was an album that was perfect to put my headphones on and shut out the world. So when I got to work with Thurston Moore from Sonic Youth that really was utterly amazing. The first session I did with him he came into the studio to play the guitar on a record that I was engineering for a producer and I said to him as I often do, “would you prefer to play in the live room or in the control room?”. He chose to play in the control room so I ended up sitting right next to him. He hadn't heard the song before so he began improvising in this way which for me completely embodied what playing the guitar was when I first got excited about guitar music. That was a very magical moment. 

What has been your best purchase for £200 or less for the studio? 

 The MASF pedal.

The MASF pedal.

I’m going to pick a guitar pedal. It’s a classic but an unusual variant, it’s the Stereo Echo/Chorus Memory Man. When I found it on eBay it was on auction with less than an hour to go so it was definitely an impulse purchase. Those are the most exciting things to me when you just go, “I think we should get this. I’m not sure why I just have a feeling it’s gonna be cool”. 

I have another pedal here from an eBay purchase that I still don’t quite know what it does. It’s a boutique guitar pedal from MASF and it has controls that say, “Taste”, “Touch”, “Smell”, “Hearing” and “Sight” on it. When I see people on YouTube using it, it sounds cool and crazy but when I do I can’t make it sound right. 

Let me know your opinion about gaining clients, dealing with uncertainties and making artists perform to their best in the comments below! 

Graham Cochrane - From Food Stamps To Success

Graham Cochrane is probably well known to most of us who are into recording and mixing. His channel The Recording Revolution has gained a large audience over the years and now has over 376,000 subscribers. Which is pretty awesome.  

Graham's journey wasn't easy though, having lived off food stamps and really struggling to make ends meet. He didn't give up and kept pushing content out every week and eventually he picked up a momentum and it hasn't stopped since.

In this interview, Graham tell's us how he got out of his struggles, his tactics and techniques to bring value to people, how he organises his days to be as productive as possible and much more.

Enjoy!

 

 Graham Cochrane

Graham Cochrane

The Recording Revolution is one of the most popular audio blogs today, but take us back to the beginning. You said you were living off food stamps at one point, but what kept you going with The Recording Revolution and were there any times you thought about giving up? Were there any specific techniques/routines you used to keep going?

I thought about giving up weekly! In the first year and a half, I wasn’t making much (if any) money from the site but I was pumping out 3 pieces of new content every week. I had to treat content creation like my job. I would go in Monday through Thursday (I’ve always taken Fridays off) 9-5 and create new videos and articles, answer emails, and interact with followers on social media. It seemed like pushing a boulder uphill (a lot of work without much result) but eventually that boulder got over the top of the hill and has been rolling down since.


Where did you promote your blog initially? Was it mainly through posting videos on YouTube and hoping people would see it, or did you have a specific plan you stuck to? 

I would write articles on my blog (so Google would pick them up) and post videos on YouTube - every week, without fail. Then I would share the posts on Facebook and Twitter. Eventually, a few pieces of content got picked up and shared by lots of people. At one point I did an article defending Behringer and their products (since people like to hate on them) and Behringer saw my tweets, re-tweeted (which got me a lot of followers) and reached out to me asking if I would do an 8 part guest post series on their site. That was super helpful in gaining a new audience!

It seems like many people believe success should happen immediately, and perhaps give up too soon and don’t see projects through. What would your advice be to people who are in that situation where it’s going really slow and it doesn’t seem to matter how hard they are working?

You’re right - good things usually take time. And most people quit too early in the process. I would say you have to be committed for the long term. That might mean having a day job while you start something new - so there’s less pressure. You also have to look for other signs that what you’re doing is truly valuable. For me, I didn’t have any income in the early days but there was a loyal fanbase growing and I could tell I was on to something.

The phrase “being the hardest worker in the room will lead to success” is a quote that keeps circulating on social media. What are your thoughts on this and do you agree?

I would tweak it slightly. Anyone can work hard - but are you doing what’s strategic? That’s the bigger question. Hard work does pay off, but only if that work is the right kind of work. So I would say “Dedicated, strategic work that adds immense value to people - will lead to success”


Work/life balance is a topic that has been coming up more and more lately. Why do you think our industry has been prone to rewarding, or looking up to people who work 24/7?

Our culture simply elevates work above family and above life in general. It’s the American way. We build. We explore. We pioneer. We innovate. It’s a sickness really. And when you’re caught up in it, it becomes hard to break the cycle because you see everyone else #hustling and you don’t want to be left behind. But that’s all a lie. Hustling isn’t a recipe for success - it’s a recipe for burnout. Smart, strategic, work is what’s most important. And then being able to sustain that for years.


How do you structure your day to be as productive as you can be? Do you have any techniques/tricks you use to keep away from distractions such as social media, news and email?

I batch my days and tasks. For example, Mondays are Recording Revolution content days. That’s all I do. No calls, no meetings, no mixing for clients, etc. Also - I never start my day with email. That’s like waking up and asking a hundred people what THEY want you to do today instead of doing what you need to do first. Rather I get the most important thing done before lunch. I end my day with email - only checking it once a day right before I “clock out”. I also stay off my phone all day (till after work) - it’s nothing but a distraction machine.


Email list vs Social Media - what would you say is the best argument on why email is the best platform to use to grow your business/brand? Secondly, how can artists or bands use this approach to grow their fan base?

Email List by a LONG shot. For two simple reasons: 

 The Recording Revolution

The Recording Revolution

1) Social Media followers are like bystanders. They’ve only committed to clicking “Like” or “Follow”. They’re interested in you, but only to watch from afar. Email subscribers are way different. They are warm leads. They’ve given you their email address. A whole different level of relationship there. 

2) And the big reason why you don’t want to build your business or career on Social Media is that you have no control. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter - they can (and have done this) all change the rules. It’s their sandbox and you’re playing in it. I have over 100,000 followers on Facebook. But when FB changed the formula 3 years ago, now only between 4-18% of my followers see anything I post. My web traffic dropped in half because of that. That’s scary. With email, you OWN THE LIST. You can reach those people no matter what platform comes and goes or how the algorithm changes.

The best thing artists can do is to have their website (and social) optimized to capture email addresses by offering something cool and free. This could be an exclusive track or EP. Or a behind the scenes video, or a live concert recording. Anything fans can’t get elsewhere.


You have been doing your blog now for many years and you have probably met the most amazing people through your journey. Are there any specific encounters that have had the most impact on you?

It was a strange and incredible feeling to be a guest on Pensado’s Place considering all of my audio heroes have sat in that chair - and Dave Pensado is one as well! And then any time I learn that a major mixer or producer watches my videos it’s humbling. A good example is Irko - he’s mixed Jay-Z, Snoop, and Pitbull to name a few and he loves my videos. We’ve hung out both here in Tampa and in LA and it always blows my mind.


If you find yourself in a creative rut, either with creating new music or videos for your YouTube channel, do you have any techniques/tricks that you use to get the creative juice flowing again?

Listen to good music. Go back to being a music lover and consumer. It puts my mind back in the right space. Also - when I travel I get a million ideas. Something about being trapped on a plane.


Which record or single did you hear last year that made you go, “Can’t wait to share this with my friends, right now”? Your reason can be because of great production work (mixing) or just a great song. 

Foo Fighters - Concrete and Gold. Just a gutsy record.


For people looking to grow their client base, what’s the most fundamental thing they need to focus on? 

Simple - serve people. Find a way to add value to as many people as possible. Give first and don’t hold back. You will be rewarded.

Thank you for reading and let me know if you have any tactics or techniques you are using that have allowed you gain more clients or get out of a creative rut, below!  

An Aussie In The UK Engineering For Adele and Amy Winehouse

Cameron_Craig.jpg

Recently, I got to interview the fantastic engineer Cameron Craig who has worked with artists such as Adele, Amy Winehouse, UNKLE and many more. 

Cameron came to the UK in the 90's and worked his way up through the ladder, eventually winning two Grammy Awards. 

I've been lucky enough to work for him during a session at State of the Ark Studios in Richmond a few years ago which was a great experience.

The interview got published at SonicScoop.com and you can read it here: https://sonicscoop.com/2018/02/07/cameron-craig-aussie-engineering-uk-adele-amy-winehouse-suzanne-vega-unkle/

Hope you will enjoy it as much as I did! 

Making Library Music With Gareth Johnson (BBC, Sony, Audio Network, BMG)

In today's interview, we have the very talented, producer, engineer and multi-instrumentalist, Gareth Johnson. Gareth has his own studio at the famous Metropolis complex in London where he runs his music production company, Stand Alone Productions (http://www.standaloneproductions.co.uk).

Gareth has made music for BBC, Sony Entertainment, Audio Network, Sony PlayStation, Toyota, BMG, Def Jam and worked with artists such as The Who, Them Crooked Vultures and Noel Gallagher to name a few. 

So, without further ado, here is Gareth. 

1. How did you find your way into making library music?

rpslondon-0175.jpeg

After playing in bands through my teens with a group of mates, I landed a record deal and began recording EPs with producers. It was whilst spending more time in recording studios watching them work that I developed the bug for music production. This led to me developing my skills to a point where I was able to start exploring lots of different areas across the musical spectrum. I always found writing music really easy, so as my production chops improved I was able to realize my musical ideas without relying on booking time in studios and having other people engineer my stuff. I soon realized that I didnʼt want to be solely focused on playing in a band format and saw a future in developing my writing and producing. A few years down the line I was lucky enough to begin releasing my solo work alongside my work in the band. My work was getting noticed and eventually, a friend put me in touch with the founder of a music library who was interested in hearing some of my work. Iʼll admit at the time I didnʼt really understand how the business worked as I had been working in commercial music up to that point. As soon as I grasped the business model and realized the exciting opportunities available for my musical output, I jumped in with both feet.

2. What made you start your own music production company, Stand Alone Productions, in 2000?

Iʼd began working with a range brands, artists, record labels, publishers and library companies in a range of different areas and felt that sometimes the perception of a company providing music, rather than an individual was helpful. Sometimes it helped me take on bigger jobs from bigger clients, without them feeling like I was a small outfit. Often Iʼve found that corporate clients and brands, in particular, feel more confident to put their trust in another company rather than an individual. In an ideal world it should all come down to the music being good enough, but sometimes people need a little help to understand that. Also, having a company allowed me to work in lots of different fields without being pigeonholed into one particular type of work. Iʼve done library music, movie trailers, mixed 5.1 concerts for huge bands, released records under artist names and provided games soundtracks. Sometimes the company name helps with being versatile.

3. What would you identify to be the three most important things to focus on to start your own music production company and make a living doing music today?

Donʼt stop learning: Keep your production chops up. Learn new techniques. Work in areas that will challenge you. Youʼll take valuable lessons away from each project you work on. Theyʼll all work together to feed into your other work.
Be Organised: Keep your backups and drives safe. Iʼve often had to go back to a track I worked on years back to grab some stems or do a remix for someone who loves one of my tracks, but needs a bespoke edit for a campaign or movie. Sometimes a great opportunity could be lost just down to a missing multitrack. This also applies to timekeeping, keeping your contracts safe, invoicing people on time, replying to emails and just keeping your studio in some sort of order. Trying to find a working patch lead or effects pedal for a specific sound when youʼre in the middle of a creative burst can be a total vibe killer.
Work Hard and Be Nice to people:
People like to work with people they like. Be nice. Collaborations can be great and fruitful for all involved. However, bad attitudes, flakiness, rudeness can ruin a vibe and mean that people donʼt offer you opportunities. If you are lucky enough to have some successes along the way, share the knowledge and also give others help and encouragement. Theyʼll remembers it and reciprocates somewhere along the way. Iʼve been lucky enough to have been offered some great chances and opportunities over the years and have worked hard to deliver the goods.

4. Do you approach making music for films such as Elle the same as for video games?

I honestly just make music I love personally and hope that others connect with it too. The approach is just to write something you enjoy listening to. I usually write having no idea where the music is going to be used. Often, the sync a track gets has more to do with itʼs emotional impact than anything else it seems. If itʼs a fast energetic piece with lots of impact, it may be sports or action. More introspective pieces may find their way into movies etc.
This is not the only approach, but it is mine. Some people work very well with detailed briefs etc. Iʼm just not that kind of writer personally. Iʼm much more of an instinct-driven writer. Iʼll go into the studio with no ideas of expectation and see what comes out on the day.

5. Do you have a routine or any technique you follow to maintain your creativity to keep writing music?

Try not to get caught up in the production side of things too early in the creative process. It will kill your creativity if you get bogged down in the sound of a kick drum for 2 hours at the beginning of a session. I am a firm believer in getting ideas down quickly, even if you make mistakes when recording as this is the best way to capitalize on capturing the moment of inspiration. Often your first ideas will be the best. Once the initial idea is down, I can then get into arranging things and tweaking parts etc. The production and mixing elements come last. Try to separate your brain and your sessions into those parts. Get down a raw killer Idea, then refine it and polish it.

6. What advice would you give your 20-year-old-self today, having gone through setting up your own company and writing all that music?

There is no shortcut. It will be hard work, you will have to motivate yourself to continue. You will be broke for longer than you hope. You will want to give up. You will doubt yourself and revere your awesomeness on a daily basis. It will take a while to break through to get an opportunity to show the world what you are capable of. You will recognize the opportunity when it comes and you must be ready rise to the challenge. Youʼll think that it is beyond your capabilities and will probably want to turn it down. Donʼt. Say Yes. You can do it. It will be worth the wait. Youʼll be on cloud nine for a short amount of time. Then youʼll realize that you need to do it all over again. It gets less scary over time. Keep writing. Keep improving. Donʼt spend all your time locked away in the studio. Some of your best ideas inspiring moments will come from just living life in everyday situations. Go!

7. Instrumental music or vocal music? What do you focus on?

Both. Good Music is all that matters.

8. How important is it to be able to write in many different genres or is it better to be an “expert” in one?

 Gareth's amazing studio, Stand Alone Production.

Gareth's amazing studio, Stand Alone Production.

Iʼm no expert in any area, but Iʼm always learning. Know where your strengths lie and put those front and centre in your work. However, try to improve on your weaker areas and also try new things. Iʼm a guitar player first and foremost, but Iʼve learned bass, drums, keys, programming, strings and a touch of brass. And percussion! Tambourine and shakers are so important! I have grade 1 in piano but Iʼve written and recorded with full orchestras. Theory is great for some people, but Iʼm self-taught and I write by ear. It doesnʼt matter what your level of expertise is if the idea is good and the will is there to make it happen. I believe in musical osmosis, so ideas from all areas feed into my work.

9. What tip would you give someone who wants to land a deal with a publisher?

Send them no more than 4 tracks, which showcase the absolute best of what you do. Write what you know, write what you love. People will connect with it. Also, check out the kinds of stuff they are already publishing. If you feel what you have is better than what theyʼre currently representing then get stuck in. If not then find somewhere else that you feel you can stand out. There are lots of places your music will find a home.

What Would You Like To Know More About Making Library Music? Let Me Know In The Comments!
 

From Canada to Church Studios - Riley MacIntyre (Glass Animals, The Horros)

If you grew up in Canada working on a fruit farm, ending up engineering for Paul Epworth at The Church Studios in London might seem like worlds apart. However, for Riley MacIntyre, this was his incredible journey. 

Fast forward to today, Riley has won the Pro Sound Award Rising Star and get's to work on all the amazing records that Paul produces at Church Studios. Riley was kind enough to take time out of his busy schedule to answer a few questions and his answers were really interesting and helpful. 

So, without futher ado, here is Riley MacIntyre:  

1. You grew up and started your music career in Canada, what made you take the decision to move over to England?

My move to London actually didn't have anything to do with music initially. I started coming out London pretty frequently to be with my girlfriend at the time, who was studying here. When I finally made the move over I had started studying philosophy and I was going to work on that here for a couple years and then go back and finish in Canada. I brought just enough gear with me to be able to make music in my bedroom or start a band. There aren't any recording studios where I'm from in Canada and I'd never really been in a real one, so in the meantime, I decided to start reaching out to see if I could get in on a work experience placement or something just to see what it was like.

Riley and the 72 Channel EMI Neve. Photo: Kalina Pulit

2. How was the beginning of moving to England and eventually ending up at Church Studios?

It was kinda stressful, to be honest. I'm definitely not a city person and I had moved over here pretty begrudgingly. Before I moved I was living in a small cabin on a fruit farm where I was working, pretty far away from anything, and nowhere near a big city. I moved out of that and into a communal house-share in Tottenham with eleven other people. It was a major shock, and everything about London absolutely terrified me.

By the time I ended up at the Church I'd been here a while. I'd joined a band and done some work experience at post-production studios, and had kind of resigned myself to the idea that music studios were pretty much impenetrable, and must be far beyond the reach of small-town Canadians. 

Eventually, though, I did end up getting a work experience placement though Miloco Studios, who sent me to the Church. They had only just got the studio up and running before having a session in for a couple of months, and it was still under construction so there was a ton of work that needed to be done. That was a lucky break for me really because I had no idea what to do in a recording studio but I knew how to lift and clean stuff and there was so much basic manual labour that needed to be done, I just got stuck in. I haven't left the Church since. 

3. Do you have any specific routines on how you like to get your sessions started so they can run as smooth as possible?

Ya for sure. Our typical workflow on the engineering side of things was mostly developed and refined by Paul's longtime engineer, Matt Wiggins. Matt taught me pretty much everything I know, and my setups for Paul are based on what I've learned from watching him.

We have a sort of go-to set up for Paul which allows for most things we think he might want to do. We always try to keep a couple of extra inputs free for on the fly stuff that I can't anticipate as well. When he's writing or the project doesn't have a defined aesthetic or genre, we'll generally just go over the top with everything. By that I mean lots of different mic options on the drums, a couple different guitar amps set up that can easily be switched between, each with a couple mics, a nice bass DI chain and two really different sounding mic options on the amp, etc. We'll also try to have some floating mics for setting things up on the fly. Usually, I'll have something crunchy, or with more character kicking around, and maybe an 87 or something more standard and with switchable polar patterns.

When I'm working with a producer or artist I'm not familiar with, obviously, I first make sure I have everything they've asked for exactly as they've asked. After that I'll try to anticipate changes or additions I think they might want to make based on my experience in that particular studio, with similar sessions, or things I've been told by others engineers about the way they work. I do a thing where I try to visualise the session and all the things that are happening or might happen, and sort of try to trace all the lines in my mind and make sure everything I can think of is accommodated for. Sometimes this works... Incidentally, I do the same thing when I'm grocery shopping for a meal, and I always forget something...

4. Do you have any techniques on how to deal with stressful sessions?

I'm a pretty anxious person by nature, so I'm probably not the best person to ask. I'd say that for me it's been less about any particular techniques, and more a matter of getting used to it. It's been a slow process of learning how to remain calm under pressure, and I still need to improve a lot. Matt always told me, and I do try to remind myself that in the end, it's always better for everyone if I stay calm and do things at a pace I'm comfortable with, rather than rushing or panicking to try to keep up or fix something, and inevitably making mistakes. I've found when producers or artists push or become aggressive, its usually because they're excited or under pressure themselves, and not because they're upset with you, so it's always better to stay calm and help them bring their idea to fruition properly. Otherwise, you might balls it up and they'll actually be angry when you have to do it again.  

5. How do you deal with the control room being situated in the live room? Does it create a lot of problems or does the ease of communication with the artist overshadow those problems?

I wouldn't say it causes any problems, but some might view it as an inherent problem. It's certainly not ideal for recording drums because you can't properly hear the mics in the cans over the sound of the drums in the room. Equally, it's a challenge for very quiet things because you have to compete with the ambient noise of people and gear in the room. It's definitely pretty scary for doing any critical recording, like strings or a choir for example because you can't really hear anything properly. 

Once you've accepted the nature of the studio though, I don't see it as being problematic, just different. I'm probably biased, and I'm also very used to it, but I love the feeling of everyone being in the same room. I definitely think the benefits outweigh the challenges, at least for Paul's workflow and the types of sessions we generally have in here. 

6. I know you have seen a lot of aspiring engineers coming through Church Studios, what is the one thing you see them missing? Not in terms of technical skills but as in “getting the job”?

I'm pretty reluctant to speculate on this, as there are so many ways people get into engineering and music production. I think so much of it is about fitting into a particular situation and a particular time, and that often comes down to personalities more than anything else. So I guess it's about always doing your best to try to read the vibe and be useful in whatever way makes sense based on what's happening at the time. This can be really difficult, but the people who do it well tend to stand out. 

7. Have your knowledge of being in bands and being a musician helped you in sessions?

Definitely. It's hard to pin down in exactly which ways, but I feel like I draw on that experience and knowledge all the time. I guess it helps to be sympathetic to the creative process and to have some experience with the dynamics of creative relationships. I think it also helps with being able to communicate and understand things more quickly, which can increase transparency in the process. 

Riley MacIntyre. Photo: Kalina Pulit

8. What would you say has been your biggest learning curve working in studios?

Working with people and learning to deal with the interpersonal aspects of working in studios will always be the biggest challenge. Before working in studios I worked with trees, so a client facing role was a big shift. Personalities and relationship dynamics are ever changing, and being aware and constantly gauging the vibe is always so important, and so difficult. Some people have a natural talent for this, but I think a lot can be learned from experience as well. 

9. Do you have any skills, technical or non-technical, you are currently working on to improve?

Right now I'm working really hard on developing my skills in electronic production and programming. I'm late to the party with this stuff, having spent so many years playing in and recording bands. I'm spending all my free time these days working in Ableton and messing around with synths. 

10. What do your responsibilities as Paul’s engineer at Church entail? Was it as you thought it was going to be?

Well, Paul initially hired me as a runner at the Church, and I never imagined I'd end up engineering sessions for him. At the time Matt was doing almost all of his sessions and Joeseph Hartwell-Jones (his assistant at the time), was filling in on anything else. I obviously wanted to be an engineer but I didn't know how it would all shake out, so I just kept going with the flow and trying to learn as much as I could. 

By the time I started engineering some sessions for Paul I had been assisting Matt long enough that I kind of knew what to expect, but that did not mean I was prepared for it. I owe a lot to Paul's patience in continuing to allow me to engineer more and more sessions for him. These days my responsibilities are mainly engineering for and assisting Paul, assisting Matt if he's engineering, and occasionally engineering or assisting outside sessions that come through the Church. 

11. How would you compare what you learned in audio school to actually work in pro studios? Was it exactly as you thought or was there a big difference?

To be honest I never really thought seriously about working in studios while I was in audio school. I basically just wanted to learn how to record music and make weird noises. I just enjoyed it. Growing up where I did, the thought honestly never really even crossed my mind. Then nearest real commercial studio I knew of was in Vancouver and I didn't want to move to a city, so I never really imagined actually approaching one. I remember thinking wanting to be an engineer was a lot like wanting to be a rockstar – it's a nice idea, but not a career you can pursue in a practical, step-by-step kind of way. So for years I just carried on playing in bands and recording in cabins, basements, high school band rooms etc. 

I really had no concept of what it was like to work in commercial studios, and it was very different than what I had imagined. I didn't know anything about the hierarchy and roles within studios, studio etiquette, how much of studio work is basically hospitality work, or the fact that I'd have to learn to live without sleep. I had no ideas about what the music industry was like except for what I'd seen in movies, and I'm still trying to figure it all out every day. 

12. You praised Matt Wiggins for his mentorship, what would you say he taught you and how important do you think it is for someone who is starting out to have a mentor?

If it weren't for Matt, I definitely wouldn't still be doing this. He's taught me nearly everything I know about engineering, working with clients, the music industry, and the role of an engineer. He and Paul also demonstrated by example exactly how hard I'd have to work if I want to be good at any of these things. My approach to engineering is basically just trying to imitate Matt in as many ways as I can, but that's no easy thing to do. Beyond all that he and his wife Sophie have simply been great friends to me, and have helped me through it all. 

I feel lucky to have had sort of a single figure who has taken so much time and actively taught me things about engineering. I think that's pretty rare in studio situations, but I mean, I think we all learn from each other all the time, and if you stay open and watch carefully the people who are doing what you want to be doing, you can pick it up. Maybe sometimes it's best to have to figure things out for yourself too.  

13. What was your biggest struggle when learning about audio engineering?

I'm not particularly technical, especially with digital stuff. I wasn't ever very interested in or good with computers, and even less so in anything with tiny screens and layered menus. I'd have done just about anything to avoid having to program something into an ASR-10 or sequence a pattern in some demonic 80's noise machine, but that's something I've really had to get over and try to embrace. 

14. You started out as many producers/engineers do these days, in your bedroom. What do you think got you from that position to be a professional working in a pro studio today?

I really don't know. For me, it was largely about making the mental shift into believing it was something that was even possible. I don't mean that in a Law of Attraction, new-agey kind of way, but in the sense that once I'd done that I could actually start actively pursuing it more practically. After that, it was just about persistence and an eventual lucky break. I think for a lot of people it's just a matter of sweating it out and staying the course. 

15. What would recommend to home studio engineers/producer that they could do to improve their work or simply get more work?

I really don't feel like I can speak to this one. I don't know enough about it. I'm sure there are lots of folks in bedrooms that can make things sound better than I can in a fancy studio. 

16. Lastly, a question from Nicholas Roberto Di Lorenzo, from the Facebook group Panorama Studio Community, where do you see yourself in 5-10 years time and how do see yourself getting there?

I have no idea! I seriously don't even know what I'm doing next week. If you'd have asked me five years ago where I'd be, there's no way in hell I'd have said in a recording studio in London, so who knows. I'd really like to find a way to move back closer to home and keep working in music, but so far I can't see how that might work. It's definitely my goal to be working as a producer by then, but I don't know if or when that might happen, or how I'll get there. I'm just riding this one out, trying to keep my head down and learn as much as I can.

Interview - Manon Grandjean (London Grammar, Stormzy)

For you who don't know who Manon Grandjean is, she is the engineer for producer Fraser T Smith (Adele, Sam Smith and many others). She also won the Breakthrough Engineer of the Year at the MPG Awards this year and she has engineered for bands such as London Grammar, Gavin James and the latest number 1 record - Gang Signs & Prayer - by Stormzy.
I'm sure there will be many more hit records coming from her in the future. 

Manon was kind enough to do this interview and I think you can find some good tips that you can apply to your own work. So, without further ado, here is Manon: 

Manon Grandjean. Photo taken by Rianna Tamara for "Normal Not Novelty" at Red Bull Studios London

1. When did you realise you wanted to become an engineer?

When I was 16-17 I realised I wanted to become a sound engineer as I loved music and was following a scientific/technical path in my studies but I just had a vague idea of what the job was. When I was studying physics at University I did an internship in a recording studio in Marseille. At the time I didn't really know much about microphones and recording techniques etc… for a couple of months I followed the owner of that studio and learned a lot, learned exactly what a recording engineer and mixer do and I knew that's what I wanted to do. I went on studying audio engineering for 3 years after that at University in Brittany.

2. Were you involved in music before becoming an engineer?

From a young age, I was really interested in music so I was trained on piano and harp for a couple of years and then I went on classical guitar for 7 years. I wasn't involved in music professionally before becoming an engineer.

3.Why did you make the move to London from France?

At the end of my audio engineering studies, I got a 2 months internship in Livingston Studios in London. So I came here thinking it was a great opportunity and a great adventure. At the end of it, they offered me some freelance work and that was the beginning of everything. I didn't have any job to go back to in France so I decided to take the plunge.

4.How did you get your foot in the industry?

It all started with the internship at Livingston, I got to learn from great engineers and also learn about studio etiquette. From the back of that, I got some freelance work at State Of The Ark Studios and then RAK Studios.

5. How were those first 3-5 years of just starting as an engineer and moving to London?

The beginning was really hard, there wasn't a lot of work and I wanted to be in studios so I had to start from the bottom, as a runner and then as an assistant. I wasn't doing any sessions as an engineer for the first few years. When you want to work in big studios you have to be patient and engineering isn't going to be your main role for a few years.

6. What was the biggest learning curve? 

I feel that the biggest learning curve for me was to try to read people, anticipate what they would want or need. Besides the technical aspect of it, this was my main job for a few years and this is something that in my opinion they don't teach you anywhere. Psychology is a big part of the job, as a runner, an assistant, and an engineer.

7. What is your mental approach when going into a session? 

I personally don't have a mental approach or routine, I just try to be as prepared as possible. That can consist of getting in touch with engineers, musicians, or producers beforehand…and preparing your Pro Tools sessions, patch list etc.

8. You studied classical guitar, has that helped you in sessions?

I was really young when I started playing the guitar so I never was in a professional environment,  but I think it helped with musicality and understanding musicians.

9. Do you still practise the guitar? 

Manon Grandjean. Photo taken by Rianna Tamara for "Normal Not Novelty" at Red Bull Studios London

I stopped playing when I started studying audio engineering, I always was very nervous playing in front of other people and I felt that engineering and the technical path suited me more.

10. Which moment did you go " wow, I didn't know that" which is now a part of your skill set? 

In my opinion, I am learning new skills every day either by watching other people work or by being in a new situation or facing a new problem that forces me to take a new approach. This is a perk of the job that every day is different.

11. What would you say is the most important thing that an engineer needs to get right in every session? 

Obviously the technical side of things is very important, but the most important thing to get right and probably the hardest one to get right is the way you interact with people in the session, musicians, producers, engineers, assistants, runners….communication and know how to read people are very much part of the job and know when to speak and when not to. You also have to keep a clear head and not panic when things are not going to plan...

12. I guess you had a few runners and assistants working for you, what makes them progress and what gets them fired? 

In my experience, assistants or runners never got fired when they made a technical mistake, but their personality and how they behave in a session is usually what determines if they are gonna get the callback.

13. Being a woman, have you ever felt that has held you back? 

I personally never experienced that, I was lucky perhaps to work with great people who didn't see my gender as an issue. And I want to show people that discrimination against women is the exception, not the rule. It is a male dominated industry but again great workshops and movements are in place now to get more women involved and make a change.

14. What would you identify the main tool that great engineer uses that separates them from the rest? 

I think dedication is definitely a factor, being flexible not set in your ways as well. I understanding your weaknesses and working on them is also key.

15. How do you balance your busy life with your private life? 

I think balancing your work and private life is always a challenge and I think you have to be prepared to make sacrifices.

16. What would you say to those who are a few years in and still trying to figure out how this business works? 

I would say keep learning, get as much experience as possible. work hard and stay humble.


Now I want to hear from you! Who would you like me to interview next? Let me know in the comments below.