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

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- Are you a home studio owner or professional audio engineer who is struggling to find clients?

- Do you want to build relationships and find more artists to work with?

- Are you struggling what to say or write to bands to make them come back to you?

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!

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

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- Are you a home studio owner or professional audio engineer who is struggling to find clients?

- Are you wondering where to start and have no clients?

- Are you struggling what to say or write to bands to make them come back to you?

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!

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

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

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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- Are you a home studio owner or professional audio engineer who is struggling to find clients?

- Are you wondering where to start and have no clients?

- Are you struggling what to say or write to bands to make them come back to you?

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 you got to work for Synclavier as their repair tech and You ended up in some pretty big sessions as well as going on tour. For example, with 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, 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 on 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 Recording 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 and I must have handed out over a 100 resumes. 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 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, placements, which preamps to use and where to put them all so you can get to the vocals really easily.

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 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 everything under control. 

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 said you got such great recorded material that you don’t need to go out of the box. 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 was 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 all the gear, 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 going. It’s a nightmare. I would much rather have a “bad” recording but exciting 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, 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 a very muddy recording and create space and make them sound bigger, however, if you have a very boring, clean recording of something, that to me is much more difficult.

For example, 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. 

Also, 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. I could never get in touch with them although I tried a couple of times but it didn’t work out since 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 songs 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 got to work on with Rick 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 and I came in as the tech/audio janitor to fix it.

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 another one. Rick asked me to set up for that recording so I ended up recording Tom, Chad Smith and Serj Tankian. 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. 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, 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 - how you do handle the quiet times where not much work is coming in? 

It’s terrifying.

It’s not just your career, I also 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 and it could be as simple as scheduling. You might 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 start looking 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. 

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

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.

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. 

Sputnik Sound

Sputnik Sound

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!

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.

The Recording Revolution

The Recording Revolution

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: 

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!