In this interview, Aaron talks about his early struggles regarding networking. Being focused on one goal. How we as engineers should talk to drummers and how we can make our programmed drums sound more human. The importance of conveying emotion in your playing and why he would prefer to teach me drums on a yacht.
In this interview, Herb talks about how he met Dave and how Dave’s accident got them started on Pensado’s Place, using technology to network, handling the pressure and the economic shift that happened to the music business, how to use social media, dealing with the quiet time, the future of Pensado’s Place and much more!
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.
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.
This interview takes a slightly different route than others featured here and will be focused on the technical side of making plugins. You will learn how plugins are made, what's an impulse response, dynamic convolution, Acustica Audio vs Slate and so much more. It's really interesting and I hope you can learn as much as I did from this.
Sylvia Massy is well known in the music industry, not only for her incredible work or the artists that she has worked with. For example, Tool, Johnny Cash, System Of A Down and many more. Her unique approach to recording and getting artists to perform at their best has also put her on the map.
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". How far you can push them. She also speaks about the 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.
You moved to Los Angeles to try and break into the music industry, but it wasn’t as easy as you thought. 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. Their drummer 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. There 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. I had a hangover and I was going to call in sick and cancel my session. In that moment I decided that if I was really serious and wanting to make a career out of this I had to make some hard decisions and actually “grow up”. I stopped partying, stopped drinking and stopped doing drugs and smoking 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 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. They become 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. This 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. 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 gave me the opportunity to work with new bands. 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.
How did working with Rick Rubin influence your methods and decision making 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. He will listen to the songs and chooses the material, very carefully, that will 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. 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, 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. 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. Then he will leave. It’s amazing!
I have also worked with Rick, where he has been there every single day and every minute. This 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. For example, 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. When they were not in the studio I 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. 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.
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?
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 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. 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 Tool – Undertow, there’s a track in the end called Disgustipated. 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 and cooling towers. 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. I'm also 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. 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. It was the most broken sounding piece of equipment but it was fantastic. 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. However, 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. 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. I had to 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 were ready to jump in and record. The drummer was doing great, but 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.
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. You can tell if it’s not their own words. However, if it’s a song they wrote, they are singing and telling the story 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. Both 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. 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. This way 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. The sound in their headphones will also 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. They get 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 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.
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.
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.
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?
Jon Moon is known for having worked with artists such as Amy Winehouse, Roger Waters, Cat Stevens and many more and has been certified three platinum albums. He currently works in Sensible Music, North London where he produces and engineers for artists all around the world.
However, Jon's dreams as a child were quite different. At age 5, Jon was dreaming of becoming an actor and started attending drama schools which he found some success at, although much to his parents dismay because working in the entertainment industry was not a 'proper job' in those days.
Being fascinated by technology, Jon took his parent’s gramophone apart trying to find out how it all worked, “I was fascinated by the needle on the record, that was magic. I just had to understand it”. Eventually putting his mind on tape recorders.
As a child, Jon was also really inspired by his mother, who was a school music teacher and member of the highly regarded Bach Choir.
Jon: “She could break a glass with her voice. I remember one night, my mom returning home after a late night session all very "hush-hush". Turned out they had recorded some tracks with The Rolling Stones for the album "Let It Bleed". There she is reminding me “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”.
As a pubescent teenager, Jon suddenly began to feel embarrassed being on stage and started gravitating towards music, "I was knocked out by the music scene at the time. It was a real revolution and an inspiring time".
When Jon was 17 his father sadly passed away, making him throw himself into music and really learn how to play the guitar and other instruments. Also, the technology at the time was moving really fast and he had a 4-track cassette machine where he would make his own mixtapes, songs and demos.
Jon eventually got signed to a production company called Monroe, who put him in a studio to record a few demos. He got the studio for the night but when he arrived there was no engineer. Jon remembers looking around at what gear they had, “Early things like emu sampling keyboards and an analogue desk. I already had the feeling of being able to "talk" to the machines and had an understanding of what I wanted to do”. Although those particular songs never saw the light of the day it was the beginning of the learning curve for his music production skills.
How did you respond to those early challenges? With your father passing away and not knowing what was going to happen?
Everything that happened to me as a young boy prepared me psychologically to be calm when the situation isn’t. I’m not saying I didn’t panic or fuck up but if you can visualise beforehand what should, or what could happen, then it prepares you. Mentally preparing oneself and being able to visualise what you are going to do, whether that’s a studio session or a live gig has been important to me. That’s been a coping mechanism and a good vehicle to success in sessions and in multiple scenarios. Its been a handrail to get through things.
Obviously, there have also been occasions where it can go horribly wrong and you have to learn to swim and think on your feet because there is no other choice. What are you going to do? You are either going to die or live. I know it’s not life and death we are talking about here, it’s music, but it can feel like that.
It’s all very easy for someone who’s had the blessing of circumstance and by that, I don’t mean I was born with a silver spoon or that had the money, or someone managing me because I didn't, it was just me. I did it for myself and sometimes with a little help from my friends. You make your own luck.
I consider myself very blessed in my career, but it has not come without hard work, commitment perseverance and vision.
What does hard work mean to you? (Discussing long, 20-hour, days)
Of course, that’s hard work for anyone. Which I don’t mind if I’m doing something productive, I can keep going, for as long as I’m enjoying it. It's rewarding. But that doesn’t stop it from being hard work. We have worked together where there have been situations where we've need to comp all this in one hour, that’s hard work. There are elements to everything you do, where you don’t have time to enjoy it because you have tight deadlines to meet.
Also, the stress that comes with this type of work, where you don’t know where the next meal is coming from, even if you have had a great month, what about next week, what about next year. Those kinda of insecurities that come with the entertainment business in general, is hard work.
The studio life and the entertainment business is, in general, more mentally challenging than physical, do you have any techniques you use to cope with that?
Meditation. And that’s not to say that I “ohm” every day, or even every week or even every year. But on a pretty regular basis, I’m doing that subconsciously.
Which kind of meditation?
Astral Projection, which was the first time I realised the power of meditation. But I don’t consciously try to do that so much, it’s a more subconscious practice and discipline That also brings me back to being able to visualise what you are going to do, which is part of my meditation technique. Also, the music itself, or the project itself becomes a meditation practice. It’s a balance, without the stress, you wouldn’t be able to balance it with the calmness perhaps.
If you lost focus or felt overwhelmed on a mix or in a session, what have you felt helped to regain focus in those situations?
You train yourself to be focused. If I’m in a situation where I can’t hear or feel it, and it’s not just working, I take a step back to get perspective and try again.
If you for some reason you can’t get it to work it’s better to stop and come back the next day. Sometimes that’s much better than delivering something that doesn’t work. However, when you are against deadlines, you can’t do it tomorrow, they need it now. But the more you do it, performing on demand, you will find your ways of dealing with that.
You have been making records for many years now. Do you have any specific techniques on how to create certain moods for bands and artist so they can perform at their best?
Yes, but it’s not always necessarily the same. However, you can use certain parameters that work, like being prepared or ready for anything. If you have a week of recording a band, where you could apply the same method to bring order to the overall sound. As in, we are going to record you like this, I need you to play it like this. Obviously, not everybody responds the same way and it’s not going to work for everybody. It depends on the atmosphere and the mood. I think you find your own personal way of exercising a method. There are also certain technical methods that I tend to adopt that to help performers feel free
Any of those you like to share?
I think it’s important to allow for the freedom of creation and not lock things down too quickly while giving them a canvas on which to perform onto. The frame being the studio, and the colour being the sound.
Know what you are aiming for before going into the studio. It’s important to get respect from the people you are working with and in turn, they will feel relaxed, uninhibited and hopefully inspired.
One of my best sessions was assisting you a few years ago and I remember the vibe was awesome with a lot of creativity going around. How do you manage to get a session into that vibe and getting the musicians to relax with you?
It’s a combination of what we have been talking about. You need a really good idea of who the artist and musicians are that you are working with. It works both ways in so many ways. I guess It’s experience, being able to read people. They have to trust you to see the right vision. You gain trust by communicating with people. I treat the studio like my instrument so I want to play that in harmony with the people there to record.
The Amy Winehouse record Back To Black, that you worked on, became huge. How was the experience working with her and the whole team behind that record?
When I first met Amy, I only had a vague idea of who she was, Frank had just been released and she was sent to us by her manager.
That summer she had been writing with Mark Ronson in New York and we were running through the songs in studio 4. I was in there checking on a few microphone positions and I had put in a couple of nice microphones for her, such as a 47 MOSFET and a couple of Neumans but she turned and glared at me as if to say "who are you then" and said, "No no no, I don’t want anything posh, just give me a 58, that’s all I want”.
Record companies would use us here in North London partly because it was more convenient than losing their artist to a residential studio for weeks, but probably also because of the stuff we had done for people like Roger Waters, Cat Stevens, Ms Dynamite and others.
We would send stuff back and forth to the label so they could monitor the material as it was going down and realise its completion.
With Amy, we had the most amazing band with Dale Davis on bass, Nathan Alan on drums and Sam Best on keys and of course her incredible background singers. It was all quite new and she was really on form. Those recordings are really superb.
Working with her defined me. And hopefully, in that process, I helped define her too.
Looking back on your career are there any, or several moments, that you thought: “This is heaven, can’t believe I’m working with this artist/project.”?
Ha! Well, I'm certainly blessed to work at something I truly enjoy. There have been moments, not, “I can’t believe” moments, but I remember when the N-Dubz came out and I was simultaneously making records that were in the top 20 all year round that it was all happening at the same time and I said to everybody “I can see the light source of life, I can feel it shining through this building right here right now, I can feel it on us."
So, yes there have been moments where I thought this is pretty cool but they are shortly followed by the complete opposite. I think in life, whenever I feel happy or excited I better not because something horrible might happen to balance it. And invariably it does.
Looking at the other side of the coin, has there been any moments when you have thought that you can’t do this anymore?
Never, though there have been extreme highs and extreme lows. I think you deal with it by not letting it be on top of either direction. Instead, harness the energy and use the power of emotion to tick the balance the other way, whichever way that is. I think it’s great to feel great and feel on top of things, but sometimes when that feeling is extreme it can be quite scary because invariably it swings the other way.
What has been your best purchase for the studio for £200 or less?
I once produced a track and I wanted some really scratchy percussion, a real creepy sound, so I said let’s go up to Hampstead Heath, we’ll grab some food on the way and see if we can find something.
Don’t know why I thought about the Heath, it was autumn and I found some branches to beat on a wooden board, but while I was looking, I found this, what looked like a small China cymbal, rusted car part under the earth and I brought it back. It was brilliant and I’ve used on several things since then.
Let me know what you think in the comments below and who you would like to see get interviewed next!
Dan Cox is the co-owner and engineer of Urchin Studios in East London where he has made a name for himself working with artists such as Lianne La Havas, Florence and The Machine, Thurston Moore as well as winning the MPG Breakthrough Engineer Award 2014.
Dan started the studio in 2007 with his friend Matt Ingram who is a touring drummer and music producer who has played with artists such as Michael Kiwanuka and Paloma Faith.
They met when Dan and his friend Toby L were looking for a drummer for their band. Matt, back then, was hired to play the drums for Gordon Raphael, the producer of The Strokes - Is This It but he also started jamming with Dan and Toby.
Dan had moved to London halfway through studying audio engineering at SAE Institute and Matt knew he was studying so they said to each other:
“Should we try to produce some records?”, “Yes, sure...”, “How do we do that...?”, “I’m not entirely sure...”.
They knew they had the skills but they were struggling to connect the dots of approaching bands, finding a studio and figuring out how it works. They tried it a few times but with no luck.
Having completed the course at SAE, Dan got an internship at a recording studio, where the two of them finally got some bands in that they could produce themselves. But this wouldn't last long because they got a call from Gordon Raphael, Matt’s boss, he told them that he had moved to Berlin.
Gordon had this studio which they would occasionally rehearse at and Matt had a set of keys.
“I think every band in London had a set of keys to this place”, Dan recalled.
Gordon asked them if they would be interested in looking after the studio for him.
“Matt and I discussed this and we thought, well..., it’s a cool offer but we already have access to a studio, but if we actually took ownership of this place and made it into something that was ours, rather than operating something that was someone else's, maybe we could do it!”.
They weren’t sure if Gordon would accept their offer but thankfully he did so Dan and Matt took over the lease, rented some of his equipment and in the Spring of 2007 started Urchin Studios.
Their dream could finally start.
Were there any fear or doubts to go for it and if so, what made you take the leap to go for it?
We had plenty of fear and plenty of doubts. We also had well-meaning friends who with the best intentions sat down with us and went: “I don’t think it’s a very good idea”, and “I think you should really think twice about this. Many studios across London are closing down and it doesn’t look like a wise thing to do”.
These were also music business people, so it was people who knew what they were talking about.
But with so many things in life, you just have to go, right, well I’m a bit scared, I have some doubts. Obviously, the big thing I was scared about was, what if I can’t do this, what if I can’t I make this work. Which I think is the same for everyone starting a business or starting some sort of endeavour. Particularly when you have to put money into it.
Especially when opening a studio, you have to put down quite a bit of money. Some of which you have saved or maybe you need to take a bank loan. So you take on these risks.
But the reason you do these things if because you just feel like you should, and you want to and you are willing to take that risk to make something that you believe will be successful or at least if not successful, interesting!
I still think about this today, given the choice between doing this with all of the pro’s and cons vs having a normal job, I would still choose this every time.
In the beginning, how did you gain more clients, did you have any certain techniques or was it going to pubs talking to musicians saying “I have a studio, come and record.”?
As a starting point, we made a simple website. But we weren’t quite sure what to do with it. We went to shows, talked to people, trying to spread the word.
The most important factor in the early days was the fact that Matt was a drummer, and he was playing with different bands, playing with some decent people, going on tours. So he was meeting many musicians, and through doing that he was able to promote the studio.
This is still to this day an important part of how we gain new clients.
We also did a few free sessions so we could get a few projects under our belt. So when we asked people to record at our studio we could show them what we had done.
And to our amazement, after about 6 months of getting started, we had our very first client find us through the internet!
Do you think it’s important for a person wanting to open a studio today to have a website or is it more important to go out to shows and meet people?
I think word of mouth is always the most important way. Whether you do that from going to shows, meeting musicians or if you play in a band. I think it’s quite advantageous if you play in a band. You are then naturally meeting bands and artists at gigs.
A website is important to showcase what you do and it’s the easiest way, even if you just meet someone at a show and give them a card with your website address. Maybe they don’t have time for a proper conversation, but then they can go and check your website. Maybe you have worked with someone they know.
Another important factor is making sure clients are happy during the sessions, so when they leave they leave feeling really good about their experience. They then go off and give you a great review of their experience to their friends.
It takes time to build the reputation. I still feel we are growing it nearly 11 years later.
You say you focus on making sure the artist should leave happy. Do you have any specific things you do that you aim for? Do you have some tricks you use?
Every session is different. My philosophy is that the artist is always at the centre of the process.
To explain further, the technical process, which is necessary to make a record shouldn’t be an impediment to the creativity or shouldn’t disadvantage the creative process. For me, that has always meant working quite quickly so you can keep the momentum. Of course, you have to stop at certain times, maybe something is broken or you need to change the setup, but it has always been important to me to keep that momentum going even if you have to slow down for a minute.
Also, to keep calm if you hit a problem and you have to stop recording. Because if you keep calm then the artists don’t panic. Be reassuring and offer them a cup of tea, and while the kettle is boiling you have some time to think about the problem. This still allows you to keep the creative flow going.
Our studio is also built to keep the technical side of things tucked away, having nice rugs, mellow lighting and big windows. It’s all designed to make the technical environment not seem like a technical environment so it feels relaxed, like a home. And that just makes everything easier.
You stressed the importance of being able to keep the stress away from the artist so they can focus on making their music. Do you have any specific techniques or tricks you use to stay calm and make the artist feel comfortable?
Always offer them a cup of tea! It’s a way of saying “Welcome”. Like inviting people to your home. It should feel like that when coming to my studio. Treating it like people are coming to your house, ask them how they are, how their journey was.
And if it hasn't been talked about before the session, explore what direction we are going to take. Which can take many different forms.
For example, if it’s a string quartet with a composer I have worked with we just jump straight into setting up because that type of session is typically 3 hours and the musicians are in a particular 3-hour-musician-union mode. So that’s about efficiency. Making sure when everyone walks in the door they have a mic, chair and a music stand ready waiting for them.
If I was just engineering a band, where is the drummer? Where will they park their cars? What sound are we going for? Do they have a particular sound in mind? Work out the creative direction they want to take and again, make them feel like they are home while you take care of the technical things.
I don’t like musicians having to sit around waiting because that’s a distraction from what they are supposed to be doing. If you do need some extra time setting up, just let them know that we are getting there and we will be ready for them very soon.
You have a “Live Takes” approach to making records, could you explain that approach in more detail and what you feel you are gaining by doing so?
The core of the “Live Take” approach is to capture a performance. For example, if you have a 5 piece band, make them play the song together. Or if you have a singer-songwriter have them sing and play the guitar at the same time.
The reason that process is advantageous is that you are attempting to create something that is more engaging. It’s a much more natural process. When you go to a show and watch a singer-songwriter with a guitar, they play the guitar and sing. That’s engaging because that’s the performance. If you went to see a singer-songwriter and they started by playing the click track, then recorded the acoustic guitar and finally sung the vocal on top of that recording, that would be nonsense.
However, that is the modern way of making records, layering piece by piece. It works tremendously well and I do it quite frequently too, but it’s a different thing when you record the performance and particularly when you get the vocalist in there with the band as well.
Usually, the last thing in modern recording to go on the track is the vocals, but when you do that you have already spent so much time making sure the different instrumental elements conform to each other. So, when you record the vocals on top, the vocal to an extent has to conform to that instrumentation, when, in fact, the core of a song is the vocal performance.
When you record a live performance with a singer in there, suddenly you don’t have this prefabricated structure of a song with a vocal that’s stuck on top. Instead, the whole band gets more keyed into that vocal performance. It’s fascinating when you do it.
You rarely need a click track, sometimes you do, but some vocalists get thrown off by a click track. There's more freedom and more versatility by taking that approach to recording but you do need good musicians and a good singer. Also, the artist needs to embrace that process, if not, it usually doesn’t work out. It’s not for everyone and not for every style of music. But it’s fantastic when it works.
If you notice that the song doesn’t really work in a live take performance, what’s the best way of telling the band to try something else?
Not making a big deal out of it. You might be absolutely convinced that the “Live Take” approach is the best way but for some reason, it’s not working. If it’s a band, it might be a particular musician, maybe it’s not working for them so you have to try extracting them from the setup without causing any offence. Say, for example, that the guitarist is not comfortable and you can hear it in the take that they are not glueing into the performance. They might be in a bad mood, tired or hungover or it could be something on my end, that the headphone mix isn’t working.
Another example, let’s say the guitarist has been playing a certain guitar for 10 years but just because we are recording he is going to borrow his friend's really expensive guitar. You can tell that he might not be comfortable playing that guitar but rather than calling it out directly ask him “Tell me about this guitar. Where’s your guitar, maybe you want to try this take on your own guitar because that’s the one you play a lot”. They might go “Oh yea, but this one sounds better” but you gently stress “Try the one you normally play and see how that goes”. You sort of engineer the situation a little bit.
It’s like a magic trick, you try to conceal this and that and distract this way and you create this illusion so you keep the vibe in the room and people are still excited.
In your 12 years of record making, what have you found to be the best way to inspire a singer or a band to get that magic take?
It doesn't have to be about me knowing the song. I can still produce a vocal recording of a song that I haven’t heard before the session. It comes back to the relationship between the artist and producer/engineer. If you are working on a track with an artist and you have done maybe 4 albums with them before. That relationship might inform you how to work with them.
Do you have a favourite failure, as in a failure that set you up for later success?
This isn't one that specifically sets you up for later success, but one time way back in our first year of running the studio we were recording an album with an artist and had a fantastic first day with them. The next day when we came back the entire first day's recording had just disappeared without a trace from our computer. We never quite figured out what happened and it was day 2 of recording so we just had to start again. Fortunately the artist was ok with it, even saw the funny side after a while and of course, we made up the time but the important lesson here is to always make sure you have a backup!
How did you tell the artist? Were you scared?
You just have to own up to something like that. Mistakes do happen. Hopefully, whatever it is it’s not too big of a deal. Sometimes, mistakes can be a good thing, for example, when you mean to copy and paste a particular instrument to a different section of a song and you accidentally bring the bass track too and you end might end up with something amazing.
Work/life balance is a topic that has been coming up more and more lately. Why do you think our industry has been prone to rewarding, or looking up to people who work 24/7? Is that the only way to success?
I’m not someone who believes in 14 hour days or even longer. I’ve always felt that 9-10 hour days are the most efficient and sustainable because you can do that for many days on end. That allows you, and the people you are working with, enough time to wake up at a sensible time, have some breakfast, come in to do your work and go home around 8-9pm and still have a normal dinner, do whatever you need to do and get some sleep.
I always aim to not completely destroy everyone’s routines, neither the artists nor mine. I don’t think it’s good for anyone to work 14 hours, day in and day out. People start to severely miss out on sleep and you can get quite stressed out by the end of the day. You might end up busting out the beers, which is fine, but you really quickly get into this messy process and you end up losing your most important thing, your perspective. When you lose perspective that exponentially multiplies all those factors because it the starts taking hours to do something that should take 30 min because you don’t know where you are.
I personally don’t admire people who work silly hours, but what is really important is working hard and being committed to what you are doing, because you have to be committed in this line of work.
Also, the industry rewards results rather than actually working-hours and the thing we look up to is the end result. And the end result no way reflects how many hours you spent working on it. It does, however, represent to a greater or lesser extent, how committed and how hard you worked on a project.
What does hard work mean to you?
Being focused. It doesn’t necessarily mean working more hours. Being focused is being aware of what kind of work that needs to be done to achieve a really great finished product. That can take many forms, maybe the artist is really stressed all the time, so building in breaks in the session so they can calm down.
The bits where you stop working are as important as the bits when you do work. To get perspective on what you are working on.
If you are mixing, the time you spent on it doesn’t equal to how good it is. That’s an important lesson that we all learn. I don’t spend as much time as I used to on mixes because I have learnt how to build in my breaks.
If you lost focus or felt overwhelmed on a mix or in a session, what have you felt helped to regain focus and getting control in those situations?
Perspective. Taking breaks. If a break isn’t working and you are not getting anywhere you might want to take a different angle on something. Changing the key or tempo. If you are mixing a track and it doesn’t sound right, listen to the rough mix or bypass all your plugins. It’s good to do something radical. That can reveal something you might have missed. It could also be that you are listening too loud.
Some things are beyond your control. If you are making an album, it might be that for whatever reason, that a track does not want to realise itself, or the song isn’t good enough or maybe it’s the kind of song that shouldn’t be recorded in a studio. Then do something different. Maybe the band or artist can only play it as it should be on a stage. A good example of that is Radiohead’s song “My Iron Lung”, the choruses of that song are from a live show and the verses are recorded in the studio. If that’s the way you get the best results then that’s the way you get the best results.
Be open-minded. Allow accidents to happen. Maybe as a producer, you have been buried in the project too long, you have lost perspective and you think “I’m the producer, my ideas are the best”. Perhaps the drummer who has been reading a book in the corner the whole day has a great idea saying, “might be a stupid idea, but I’m just hearing this idea of a piano”. If as a producer you are so caught up in the project that you lost your open-mindedness, you might not realise that’s a great idea.
As a producer your job is also, not only to be right but to be wrong. To be determined enough to see an idea through only to go “right, my idea was not very good”. You've got to be humble enough to go “that’s not good, let’s try something else, your idea was much better”.
Looking back on your career are there any, or several moments, that you thought: “This is heaven, can’t believe I’m working with this artist/project”.
There has been quite a few of those. But the obvious answer is that when I was getting into music as a teenage guitarist in my bedroom I would spend hours trying to figure out what guitar sounds I like on record. It was bands like Nirvana, The Mars Volta and Sonic Youth, whose album “Sonic Nurse” I most enjoyed. It has loud noise sections and the most beautiful, clean guitar sections and it’s quite hypnotic.
Being an angsty teenager that was an album that was perfect to put my headphones on and shut out the world. So when I got to work with Thurston Moore from Sonic Youth that really was utterly amazing. The first session I did with him he came into the studio to play the guitar on a record that I was engineering for a producer and I said to him as I often do, “would you prefer to play in the live room or in the control room?”. He chose to play in the control room so I ended up sitting right next to him. He hadn't heard the song before so he began improvising in this way which for me completely embodied what playing the guitar was when I first got excited about guitar music. That was a very magical moment.
What has been your best purchase for £200 or less for the studio?
I’m going to pick a guitar pedal. It’s a classic but an unusual variant, it’s the Stereo Echo/Chorus Memory Man. When I found it on eBay it was on auction with less than an hour to go so it was definitely an impulse purchase. Those are the most exciting things to me when you just go, “I think we should get this. I’m not sure why I just have a feeling it’s gonna be cool”.
I have another pedal here from an eBay purchase that I still don’t quite know what it does. It’s a boutique guitar pedal from MASF and it has controls that say, “Taste”, “Touch”, “Smell”, “Hearing” and “Sight” on it. When I see people on YouTube using it, it sounds cool and crazy but when I do I can’t make it sound right.
Let me know your opinion about gaining clients, dealing with uncertainties and making artists perform to their best in the comments below!
Graham Cochrane 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 struggling to make ends meet. He didn't give up and kept pushing content out every week and eventually he picked up momentum and it hasn't stopped since.
In this interview, Graham tells 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.
The Recording Revolution is one of the most popular audio blogs today, but take us back to the beginning. You said you were living off food stamps at one point, but what kept you going with The Recording Revolution and were there any times you thought about giving up? Were there any specific techniques/routines you used to keep going?
I thought about giving up weekly! In the first year and a half, I wasn’t making much (if any) money from the site but I was pumping out 3 pieces of new content every week. I had to treat content creation like my job. I would go in Monday through Thursday (I’ve always taken Fridays off) 9-5 and create new videos and articles, answer emails, and interact with followers on social media. It seemed like pushing a boulder uphill (a lot of work without much result) but eventually that boulder got over the top of the hill and has been rolling down since.
Where did you promote your blog initially? Was it mainly through posting videos on YouTube and hoping people would see it, or did you have a specific plan you stuck to?
I would write articles on my blog (so Google would pick them up) and post videos on YouTube - every week, without fail. Then I would share the posts on Facebook and Twitter. Eventually, a few pieces of content got picked up and shared by lots of people. At one point I did an article defending Behringer and their products (since people like to hate on them) and Behringer saw my tweets, re-tweeted (which got me a lot of followers) and reached out to me asking if I would do an 8 part guest post series on their site. That was super helpful in gaining a new audience!
It seems like many people believe success should happen immediately, and perhaps give up too soon and don’t see projects through. What would your advice be to people who are in that situation where it’s going really slow and it doesn’t seem to matter how hard they are working?
You’re right - good things usually take time. And most people quit too early in the process. I would say you have to be committed for the long term. That might mean having a day job while you start something new - so there’s less pressure. You also have to look for other signs that what you’re doing is truly valuable. For me, I didn’t have any income in the early days but there was a loyal fanbase growing and I could tell I was on to something.
The phrase “being the hardest worker in the room will lead to success” is a quote that keeps circulating on social media. What are your thoughts on this and do you agree?
I would tweak it slightly. Anyone can work hard - but are you doing what’s strategic? That’s the bigger question. Hard work does pay off, but only if that work is the right kind of work. So I would say “Dedicated, strategic work that adds immense value to people - will lead to success”
Work/life balance is a topic that has been coming up more and more lately. Why do you think our industry has been prone to rewarding, or looking up to people who work 24/7?
Our culture simply elevates work above family and above life in general. It’s the American way. We build. We explore. We pioneer. We innovate. It’s a sickness really. And when you’re caught up in it, it becomes hard to break the cycle because you see everyone else #hustling and you don’t want to be left behind. But that’s all a lie. Hustling isn’t a recipe for success - it’s a recipe for burnout. Smart, strategic, work is what’s most important. And then being able to sustain that for years.
How do you structure your day to be as productive as you can be? Do you have any techniques/tricks you use to keep away from distractions such as social media, news and email?
I batch my days and tasks. For example, Mondays are Recording Revolution content days. That’s all I do. No calls, no meetings, no mixing for clients, etc. Also - I never start my day with email. That’s like waking up and asking a hundred people what THEY want you to do today instead of doing what you need to do first. Rather I get the most important thing done before lunch. I end my day with email - only checking it once a day right before I “clock out”. I also stay off my phone all day (till after work) - it’s nothing but a distraction machine.
Email list vs Social Media - what would you say is the best argument on why email is the best platform to use to grow your business/brand? Secondly, how can artists or bands use this approach to grow their fan base?
Email List by a LONG shot. For two simple reasons:
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!
Recently, I got to interview the fantastic engineer Cameron Craig who has worked with artists such as Adele, Amy Winehouse, UNKLE and many more.
Cameron came to the UK in the 90's and worked his way up through the ladder, eventually winning two Grammy Awards.
I've been lucky enough to work for him during a session at State of the Ark Studios in Richmond a few years ago which was a great experience.
The interview got published at SonicScoop.com and you can read it here: https://sonicscoop.com/2018/02/07/cameron-craig-aussie-engineering-uk-adele-amy-winehouse-suzanne-vega-unkle/
Hope you will enjoy it as much as I did!
In today's interview, we have the very talented, producer, engineer and multi-instrumentalist, Gareth Johnson. Gareth has his own studio at the famous Metropolis complex in London where he runs his music production company, Stand Alone Productions (http://www.standaloneproductions.co.uk).
Gareth has made music for BBC, Sony Entertainment, Audio Network, Sony PlayStation, Toyota, BMG, Def Jam and worked with artists such as The Who, Them Crooked Vultures and Noel Gallagher to name a few.
So, without further ado, here is Gareth.
1. How did you find your way into making library music?
After playing in bands through my teens with a group of mates, I landed a record deal and began recording EPs with producers. It was whilst spending more time in recording studios watching them work that I developed the bug for music production. This led to me developing my skills to a point where I was able to start exploring lots of different areas across the musical spectrum. I always found writing music really easy, so as my production chops improved I was able to realize my musical ideas without relying on booking time in studios and having other people engineer my stuff. I soon realized that I didnʼt want to be solely focused on playing in a band format and saw a future in developing my writing and producing. A few years down the line I was lucky enough to begin releasing my solo work alongside my work in the band. My work was getting noticed and eventually, a friend put me in touch with the founder of a music library who was interested in hearing some of my work. Iʼll admit at the time I didnʼt really understand how the business worked as I had been working in commercial music up to that point. As soon as I grasped the business model and realized the exciting opportunities available for my musical output, I jumped in with both feet.
2. What made you start your own music production company, Stand Alone Productions, in 2000?
Iʼd began working with a range brands, artists, record labels, publishers and library companies in a range of different areas and felt that sometimes the perception of a company providing music, rather than an individual was helpful. Sometimes it helped me take on bigger jobs from bigger clients, without them feeling like I was a small outfit. Often Iʼve found that corporate clients and brands, in particular, feel more confident to put their trust in another company rather than an individual. In an ideal world it should all come down to the music being good enough, but sometimes people need a little help to understand that. Also, having a company allowed me to work in lots of different fields without being pigeonholed into one particular type of work. Iʼve done library music, movie trailers, mixed 5.1 concerts for huge bands, released records under artist names and provided games soundtracks. Sometimes the company name helps with being versatile.
3. What would you identify to be the three most important things to focus on to start your own music production company and make a living doing music today?
Donʼt stop learning: Keep your production chops up. Learn new techniques. Work in areas that will challenge you. Youʼll take valuable lessons away from each project you work on. Theyʼll all work together to feed into your other work.
Be Organised: Keep your backups and drives safe. Iʼve often had to go back to a track I worked on years back to grab some stems or do a remix for someone who loves one of my tracks, but needs a bespoke edit for a campaign or movie. Sometimes a great opportunity could be lost just down to a missing multitrack. This also applies to timekeeping, keeping your contracts safe, invoicing people on time, replying to emails and just keeping your studio in some sort of order. Trying to find a working patch lead or effects pedal for a specific sound when youʼre in the middle of a creative burst can be a total vibe killer.
Work Hard and Be Nice to people:
People like to work with people they like. Be nice. Collaborations can be great and fruitful for all involved. However, bad attitudes, flakiness, rudeness can ruin a vibe and mean that people donʼt offer you opportunities. If you are lucky enough to have some successes along the way, share the knowledge and also give others help and encouragement. Theyʼll remembers it and reciprocates somewhere along the way. Iʼve been lucky enough to have been offered some great chances and opportunities over the years and have worked hard to deliver the goods.
4. Do you approach making music for films such as Elle the same as for video games?
I honestly just make music I love personally and hope that others connect with it too. The approach is just to write something you enjoy listening to. I usually write having no idea where the music is going to be used. Often, the sync a track gets has more to do with itʼs emotional impact than anything else it seems. If itʼs a fast energetic piece with lots of impact, it may be sports or action. More introspective pieces may find their way into movies etc.
This is not the only approach, but it is mine. Some people work very well with detailed briefs etc. Iʼm just not that kind of writer personally. Iʼm much more of an instinct-driven writer. Iʼll go into the studio with no ideas of expectation and see what comes out on the day.
5. Do you have a routine or any technique you follow to maintain your creativity to keep writing music?
Try not to get caught up in the production side of things too early in the creative process. It will kill your creativity if you get bogged down in the sound of a kick drum for 2 hours at the beginning of a session. I am a firm believer in getting ideas down quickly, even if you make mistakes when recording as this is the best way to capitalize on capturing the moment of inspiration. Often your first ideas will be the best. Once the initial idea is down, I can then get into arranging things and tweaking parts etc. The production and mixing elements come last. Try to separate your brain and your sessions into those parts. Get down a raw killer Idea, then refine it and polish it.
6. What advice would you give your 20-year-old-self today, having gone through setting up your own company and writing all that music?
There is no shortcut. It will be hard work, you will have to motivate yourself to continue. You will be broke for longer than you hope. You will want to give up. You will doubt yourself and revere your awesomeness on a daily basis. It will take a while to break through to get an opportunity to show the world what you are capable of. You will recognize the opportunity when it comes and you must be ready rise to the challenge. Youʼll think that it is beyond your capabilities and will probably want to turn it down. Donʼt. Say Yes. You can do it. It will be worth the wait. Youʼll be on cloud nine for a short amount of time. Then youʼll realize that you need to do it all over again. It gets less scary over time. Keep writing. Keep improving. Donʼt spend all your time locked away in the studio. Some of your best ideas inspiring moments will come from just living life in everyday situations. Go!
7. Instrumental music or vocal music? What do you focus on?
Both. Good Music is all that matters.
8. How important is it to be able to write in many different genres or is it better to be an “expert” in one?
Iʼm no expert in any area, but Iʼm always learning. Know where your strengths lie and put those front and centre in your work. However, try to improve on your weaker areas and also try new things. Iʼm a guitar player first and foremost, but Iʼve learned bass, drums, keys, programming, strings and a touch of brass. And percussion! Tambourine and shakers are so important! I have grade 1 in piano but Iʼve written and recorded with full orchestras. Theory is great for some people, but Iʼm self-taught and I write by ear. It doesnʼt matter what your level of expertise is if the idea is good and the will is there to make it happen. I believe in musical osmosis, so ideas from all areas feed into my work.
9. What tip would you give someone who wants to land a deal with a publisher?
Send them no more than 4 tracks, which showcase the absolute best of what you do. Write what you know, write what you love. People will connect with it. Also, check out the kinds of stuff they are already publishing. If you feel what you have is better than what theyʼre currently representing then get stuck in. If not then find somewhere else that you feel you can stand out. There are lots of places your music will find a home.
What Would You Like To Know More About Making Library Music? Let Me Know In The Comments!