Steve Genewick - Learning From Al Schmitt, Staying One Step Ahead, The Academy Awards & More

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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?

Steve Genewick is a 3 time Grammy nominated recording engineer and has work primarily as a staff engineer at Capitol Studios since 1994.

For the last 15 years, Steve has collaborated closely with Al Schmitt working with artists such as Quincy Jones, Paul McCartney, Neil Young and many other legendary artists.

In this interview, Steve talks about how he got started in the industry and eventually became a staff engineer at Capitol Studios.

He also talks about what he has learned from working closely with Al Schmitt for the last 15 years. For example, being prepared, studio etiquette, changing microphones rather than reaching for an EQ.

The importance of staying one step ahead of the artists when in a recording session. Working on the Academy Awards with Tommy Vicari. His favourite failure and so much more.

I think you will love this interview, so without further ado, here is Steve Genewick!

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How did you get started in the music industry?

I was a bad musician and all my friends were in bands but I was never good enough to join them. I was lazy and I didn’t want to practice my instrument but I still wanted to be involved. I also didn’t want to lug speakers around and be a roadie, however, I saw the sound guy standing over in the corner and thought, I can do that.

In the late ’80’s I enrolled in a recording school, it was a 2 years program, but halfway through my first semester, there was a guy who sat next to me who was a runner at a big recording studio. He would do the night shifts in the studio and come to class in the mornings. One day he came to class and told me that he had gotten fired, so I put my books away, walked out of class and went over to the studio and ended up getting his job.

How did you get his job, what did you tell the studio manager?

I just walked in and said, “Here’s my resume, I want a job. I know you just fired a guy, I know him and I won't do what he did” 

I got the job and was appointed to do the night runner shifts. I was cleaning bathrooms and getting food and doing whatever was needed. It was a big studio with 5 rooms called Cherokee Recording Studios. I worked there for a couple of years and made my way up to an assistant engineer. 

I left that studio, which everyone did, and instead moved onto doing live sound for a couple of years. One night I ran into a friend of mine, Bill Smith, whom I had worked together with at Cherokee Studios and he told me that he was working at Capitol Studios. He told me they needed a new guy because someone had just left and they needed someone new, quick.

At that point, I didn’t want to go back to the recording studio because I was having fun on the road. However, he convinced me that night, so I went home and updated my resume. I went in the next day and got the job.

That was almost 25 years ago.

You have a very detailed process before you go into a recording session where you check that every microphone is in the correct polarity, that all the gear works, etc. Where did this mentality/process come from?

I was taught that way from my time at Cherokee. We always wanted to be prepared. However, at Cherokee, it was a little bit more relaxed compared to Capitol. At Capitol we are doing what we call union dates. These are sessions with musicians that are members of the union. We are also doing much bigger sessions where it’s not unusual to have 30-40 musicians in the room at one time. 

At Capitol, it was much more ingrained in me to be prepared because in these sessions, if it says 10 o’clock downbeat we literally are in record at 10 o’clock in the morning. 

It’s very expensive, too, and sometimes those sessions go right up to the wire. For example, I had a session last night were the producers walked out and stopped the take. They didn’t want the session to go into overtime because it can be very expensive, especially with an orchestra. 

It doesn’t matter if it’s a big orchestra, live TV, or recording one vocal, I always like to be prepared. I don’t want to be the person responsible for stopping a session because of a technical issue. I don’t want the artist or producer to know any of the technical stuff that is going on, it should be invisible to them.

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Anything else you like to do before going into a session that’s not gear related?

Making sure Pro Tools sessions are prepped, that they open properly, that the I/O is correct, that the clocking is set properly, that all the tracks are working. If we are using it, making sure that video is working, that the headphones and communication are working, and that everybody can hear each other.  Even down to making sure that everyone has a bottle of water and sharpened pencils.

You have worked with Al Schmitt for almost 20 years, what has been some of the biggest lessons he has taught you about making records?

He’s taught me almost everything I know about making records and he has been a great mentor and friend. He taught me about being prepared, studio etiquette, being cool in the control room, not to speak when you are not supposed to, how to carry yourself in a session and how to treat people as a professional.

Did it take long for you and Al do get that telepathic relationship you have now?

It happened over time. My friend, Bill Smith, who got me the job at Capitol, was Al’s assistant at the time, so when I started at Capitol I was around those guys a lot and I immediately got along with Al, also.

Al has always welcomed people into his sessions, he tells the runners, assistants, etc., that as long as the artist is cool with it, you are welcome in the control room. I took advantage of that, and they were big sessions so it was really fun and interesting. This was when I started learning about big band and orchestral recording. 

At that time, the sessions had more moving parts, literally, because we had tape machines, and video decks, and all that, so those sessions needed more people. I would be the guy they would call in to log tapes, or to run the two-track machine. This way, Bill could focus on being Al’s assistant at the console, while I was doing all the other stuff in the room. Like a third engineer. 

I started doing that with those guys quite a bit, and when Bill decided to go independent I just slid right into his seat next to Al. Since I was on staff at Capitol, and Al did almost all of his work there, I ended up always working with him. We were working together 6 days a week.

How has Al’s approach to change the microphone or microphone position rather than grab an EQ to get the desired sound influenced your workflow. Especially since you do various kinds of music and when modern music is so heavily EQ’ed?

It has impacted my workflow positively, but I’m comfortable doing both. For example, If I’m doing a jazz or big band record I don’t use a lot of EQ, if any, I will record it in the same style as Al. If I’m doing a pop or rock project, I might EQ and compress stuff a lot more.

The craft of recording and engineering is something I think is going away. There’s so much emphasis on mixing and using plugins these days. I think a lot of that is because there’s so little emphasis on recording, recording techniques, and getting it right at the source.

If I have to EQ something, it’s usually because of a poor recording, not just tailoring a sound a little bit to fit in the mix. This is why you see a lot more processing in modern music.

It’s also down to the fact of how records are made today. It’s very rare to have everybody in one room playing together. Instead, it’s a lot of overdubbing. That’s why, during mixing, you have to create the interaction and the dynamics between the instruments. We have to create, what would be a natural reaction to musicians when playing together.

If I have to pull out all the plugins, I’ll do it, and so will Al. If he gets stuff to mix that he hasn’t recorded all bets are off, we are using all kinds of stuff.

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Are there any records that you could recommend us listening to that you worked on that doesn’t have, or barely, any EQ?

Yes, any of the Jeff Hamilton Trio records, a jazz guitar player named Graham Dechter (e.g., Takin’ It There and Right on Time) and a sax player named Adam Schroeder (e.g., A Handful of Stars and Let’s). A few albums I’ve done with David Whitman recently.

Do you tell the mastering engineer to stay away from the EQ or do you let them do what they want to do?

I let them do whatever they are going to do, I trust them, but I usually know the mastering engineer, and I like to go the mastering session whenever I can. I always listen to it when it’s done, and there have been times where I have sent the record back because whatever they did made the cymbal sound weird or there’s too much bottom end. Most of the records I mix, they don’t do a whole lot. I try to get it right in the mixing process.

You record at 192 kHz at Capitol, is there any particular reason for this?

It sounds better. You can really tell the difference, especially when you do jazz and orchestras where you have a lot of open space. It’s also about future-proofing, for example, if the record comes back around and they want to put out a high-res audio version, which happens quite a bit, we’re ready for it.

A lot of the plugins work a lot better at higher sample rates too such as Melodyne. I was amazed a couple of time of how far I could push stuff. I had a singer that sang a whole step flat. I just grabbed it, pushed it up and it worked. If that was at 44.1 kHz it wouldn’t have worked as well, if at all.

Was it always your dream to work with big bands, orchestras and jazz bands?

No, not at all, when I got into the business I figured I would be working on rock and pop records. I did do some of that and I still do, but when I got to Capitol I realized there was a whole other world with orchestral, big band and jazz recordings. Even though I wasn’t listening to it much, I discovered I liked it. It was different to what I was accustomed to. It’s also really fun when you have a lot of people out there in the live room and you get to hang out with all the musicians.

In terms of budget, do you see orchestras paying more for studio time than, for example, rock bands?

Yes, you have to spend some more money if you want to do an orchestra or a big band record, because you have to use a bigger studio and lots of players. Since Capitol is one of the few studios in LA that has the rooms, and the know-how to do these types of sessions, we see a lot of them.

The days of rock bands locking out a studio for months at a time are kind of over. Once in a while, we get one, but not too often.

Like John Mayer?

Yes, John would be one of those artist who likes to book a studio long term. John spent the better parts of two years locked out in studio B, and they would be there for 3-4 months, leave to do a tour and then come back for another few months. That’s a very rare thing these days.

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How do you try to stay one step ahead of what an artist needs in a recording session?

I’m always trying to stay one step ahead of the game, but most of it comes from experience. For example, I always print a rough mix at the end of every session because someone will ask for it. Or when you see somebody fussing with their headphones a lot, you can tell something is wrong. Or when you hear somebody in the back of the room talking about getting hungry, I’ll send a text message to the assistant letting them know food orders are about to happen.

If I have worked with an artist before, like with Diana Krall, we know what will most likely happen and try to stay on top of it. There are so many stories about it. 

What kind of stories?

With, for example, Barbara Streisand, we know that she is very particular about her headphone mix, she wants to have good sight lines to the piano player and she is going to want to take home a CD with every vocal take after the session to listen to. She also remembers everything. She might remember singing a vocal one way and loving it, so she will dig through a bunch of those CD’s to find the take she likes. I will then get a phone call saying, “I found the CD with the exact way I wanted to sing it” It’s then my job to be able to find that take and put it in the comp.

You have worked with many of the biggest artists in the world, do they work any different to newer artists?

They usually work faster because they know what they want and how to get it. You have to be ready for them because you may only have someone for a short amount of time. For example, Bono could be coming in and you only have him for 3 hours so you only have a limited time to get the job done. 

When they come in they don’t want to screw around, they want to come in, get to working and get the hell out of there. It’s not like they are rushing things but you may only have a certain amount of time with them.

It goes back to being prepared, having checked the headphones, the microphones and that the band knows the arrangement.

You work on the Academy Awards too, what’s that process like?

Yes, this year (2019) was my 20th year. It’s a huge crew and Tommy Vicari is the main music mixer on the show.

The week before The Oscars we bring the band into Capitol and all the music gets rehearsed and a run-through, and whatever has to be pre-recorded gets recorded. Even though almost all of the show is played live, there are certain circumstances where it can’t be, usually for logistical reasons. For example, you can’t get a big orchestra to play one piece of music then immediately switch to another piece of music. Or something that has to lock to a picture. It’s also an opportunity for an artist who is going to be performing on the show, to come in and hear the arrangement because it might be a 5-minute song but we have cut it down to 90 seconds or 2 minutes.

For 3-4 years we did the show live from Capitol. We have fiber lines between the studio and the Dolby Theatre down the street. This meant that the orchestra could stay at Capitol rather than being in the orchestra pit at the theater.

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How far is it between those two buildings?

Less than half a mile.

So there was no time delay?

We had it down to milliseconds, like 2-3 milliseconds. We are only going one way, so the performers hears our music on stage and then it goes out to the production truck. 

We haven’t done it live for the last few years but that’s a production decision. Sometimes they want the orchestra in the pit and sometimes they don’t. When they do, we move everything from Capitol to the Dolby Theatre half way through the week. Tommy Vicari then sits in the production truck to mix the show live.

Do you do any other broadcasting?

We do the Grammys, the Emmys and other various shows. Nowadays, most of the shows are pre-recorded, so in that case, it’s just a “normal” recording session.  We also do some live streaming and a couple video series for the label.  One is called “One Mic One Take” and another is called “Top of the Tower”. These can all be found on YouTube.

You made the decision early on that you wanted to work with the big guys in the music industry, which you eventually did. How did you put yourself in the position to get there, did you have a plan or a particular mentality?

It was more a plan of what I didn’t want to do. Almost 30 years ago, when there was no such thing as home studios, Los Angeles was full of professional recording studios. I remember this studio I visited with my friends, it was cheap, small and it smelled bad. Those places were all over Los Angeles, mainly for bands to come in and do demos. I knew I didn’t want to do that and if I was going to make this a career, I had to work in big studios. 

I didn’t want to work with big names just for the sake of it, I wanted to work for the best people out there since they are at the top of their game. It’s like if you are a baseball player, you want to play in the major leagues. You don’t aspire to play in Poughkeepsie, you aspire to play for the Yankees

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

A while ago I got recommended by another engineer to mix a song for a big film composer, a guy I knew but that I had never mixed for before. I was trying to give him what I thought he wanted and because of that, I didn’t do what I do. I didn’t follow my own instincts. When I got to the end of the day I was really bummed out at myself because it didn’t sound very good and I kind of got the feeling from him that it wasn’t what he wanted either. It ended up not being a very good day. 

I decided right there to learn from that experience and not try to do something that I don’t do and instead use my instincts and my training. If someone is hiring me to do something they are hiring me for my skills, not someone else’s.