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

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

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!

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

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

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.

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

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

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

Mix Analysis: I Don't Know - Paul McCartney

Paul McCartney recently released his 18th solo album, Egypt Station, which was produced by Greg Kurstin, who himself has had a huge amount of success over the past few years with artists such as Adele, Foo Fighters, Beck, etc.

According to Paul, the words Egypt Station felt to him like the “album” album they used to make in the past. The concept of Egypt Station is that it starts of at one station and through the various songs you end up at the end station, just like a concept album.

Egypt Station was mixed by Mark Spike Spent who has done work for Ed Sheeran, Beyonce, Muse, and many others.

Paul was definitely surrounded by top professionals to make this record.

The song I Don’t Know, which according to Paul’s website is, “a plaintive, soul-soothing ballad as only Paul can deliver.” I believe the song was one of two first singles that was released ahead of the album and it definitely caught my attention, with it’s awesome drum sound, beautiful melancholy piano part that mainly drives the song, and, of course, Paul’s distinctive vocal.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves, listen to the song below and I’ll see you afterwards.

Structure wise, it’s as follows:

  • Intro 1

  • Verse

  • Chorus 1

  • Verse 2

  • Bridge

  • Verse 3

  • Intro 2

  • Chorus 2

  • Verse4/Outro

Pretty standard, however, listening to the song there seem to be no obvious chorus because the verses sound more like a chorus with the signature line, “I got crows outside my window, dogs at my door.” and the chorus sounds more like a verse. Also, going from the bridge section to the verse doesn’t immediately sound like a chorus as we are used to. Maybe that’s why the song has this floating kind of feel.

But let’s start at the beginning:

The intro starts off with a piano, most likely played on a 1905 Steinway Vertegrand, which has been doubled on a cimbalom, with a lot of reverb on it. The piano is very dynamic and so is the reverb return, that is, it has not been very much compressed so every time Paul hits the higher notes you get an “explosion” in the reverb which gives it a very nice feel. Also, the piano has also been high-passed, helping exaggerate, together with the reverb, this distant/dreamy feel.

A cimbalom. Used to double the piano intro.

A cimbalom. Used to double the piano intro.

After the first round of piano an acoustic guitar enters, it doesn’t have the same reverb applied to it, so is not in the same dreamy space, helping us “travelling” back and get ready for a dryer/more in your face verse.

To end the dreamy part we get this piano drone taking us into the dry, main piano riff. It sounds like the trick usually done with cymbal hits where you reverse a cymbal hit and use it between section to create a clear distinction, almost like a page-turner. Although, in this case, they used a reversed piano note instead. More fitting with the spirit of the track.

The verse:

The main piano riff doesn’t have the same reverb or the amount of reverb applied to it as the intro piano, and the low-end is back. This gives us this intimate, in your face and warm piano sound. The travel from the dreamy state (intro) to being in the room with you, is now complete. The piano is also much less dynamic and doesn’t have any apparent peaks as in the intro.

Notice how the image of the piano changes from the intro. In the intro, since it has so much reverb, has lost a bit of its wideness but when we get the dry piano we get the full stereo image too.

Now we are also introduced to the drums, and they sound awesome. It has been played by a real drummer, on a real drum kit (maybe Paul played it?), however, after repeated listens it feels to me that the snare has a sample underneath, perhaps an 808 or similar. The overall tone and compression of the drums are awesome. It sounds like the colour from a Fairchild or similar style of compression.

The main groove is kick, snare and hi-hat but the dynamic on the hi-hat is very interesting and has some very cool accent, making it the star together with the snare drum. Make sure you listen for it.

The vocal also comes in at this point and is obviously very well performed… it’s Paul McCartney. The vocal itself is not drained in any FX, reverb or any autotune (again, it’s Paul McCartney) as many of today's hits are. It’s mainly driven by the tone of his voice and the fact that he is a great singer. Why mess with it? Although it doesn’t feel like he is completely dry, it feels like there are some long delays/reverb, with a low-pass filter, making his vocal having this space behind him.

The bass is also introduced here, playing mostly whole notes, with a fill every time the hit the major 7 chord. It definitely sounds like the Hofner bass Paul made famous back in the 60’s. This is most apparent when he is playing that fill I just mentioned and in the choruses.

If you can get your hands on a Hofner bass, get it. They record so well. Maybe doesn’t fit with every musical style out there but you won’t be disappointed.

That’s the verse, quite simple.

Moving onto the chorus:

As mentioned above, the chorus sounds almost like a verse with a sadder feeling.

The only instruments added in the chorus are an electric guitar with a tremolo effect on the left and what sounds like a mellotron of some sort on the right. They almost play the same part, with the mellotron laying off some of the notes the guitar is playing and is instead holding them out.

The other instruments and vocal stay in the same place and space.

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Second Verse:

In the second verse we get back the acoustic guitar we heard in the intro, it’s very subtle but it’s there to accentuate the piano riff. Also, the electric guitar comes in and plays two chords when going to the major 7 chord. This is when he sings, “…lessons to learn, what am I doin' wrong?”

After this we go into the bridge section:

Instrument wise, what get’s added here is a synth which you can hear being pretty far back in the mix, slightly to the right and a cello on the left. We also get introduced to the backing vocals for the first time. They are also panned quite narrowed, but still leaving the centre spot for the main vocal.

Back to the third Verse:

It’s very subtle, again, but for the third verse they added a percussion, just staying behind the groove of the hi-hat, and it sounds like an egg shaker. Beyond that, it’s the same instrumentation as the second verse. They don’t play the full verse here, instead, only half then they take us back to the intro again.

Intro 2:

Same piano riff as in the intro but with the full band added and some ad libs from Paul.

Chorus 2:

Same as the previous chorus but with an added acoustic guitar.

Verse 4/Outro

Coming to end of the song here, there are no big surprises which have been the theme throughout the whole song, but we do get the shaker back again just to lift it a tiny bit.

For the outro, the drums change to a tom based groove and Timpani drums come in on every downbeat. There’s also some other percussion that sounds like some sort of a vibraslap, but it only plays twice, first downbeat of the outro and the downbeat four bars later. Works very well to bring a feeling that the song is coming to an end. The backing vocals also get re-introduced, singing, “Now what's the matter with me?” three times before the song ends with piano and acoustic guitar.

Conclusion:

This is a song that’s built on a minimalistic approach, both in term of production and mixing. Everything is based on making the song speak and not having anything distract the listener. There are a lot of subtle things going on to give the song the depth it has, in terms of the space behind the instruments and vocals, and it’s fantastically done. By introducing various instruments, such as the shaker for the third and final verse gives the groove that lift it needs. Also, the song never gets boring because by introducing various instruments, rather than mixing tricks, gives it this feeling of something that is floating very nicely from section to section.

You never notice the mixing side of the song and it’s a masterclass of how to make a song speak for itself without any mixing trickery. Very, very difficult.

Now, let me know what you think. Did I miss anything super obvious? Do you want to read more of these? Let me know in the comments below and give me any song suggestions that you would have a mix analysis of!

Dan Graham - How To Make A Living Doing Library Music

Dan Graham - How To Make A Living Doing Library Music

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

How To Find Artists To Work With

Finding artists to work with can be tricky, especially at the beginning of your career. Not only is it at the start of your career but work can be very dependent on where you live in the world.

Perhaps you live in a small town with only a handful of bands and artists? Or all the bands you know are broke?

In which case, your only chance of finding people to work with is online. Of course, it's possible but a lot harder than building relationships in "real life", so to speak.

Even if you do meet a lot of musicians and you do live in a big city with a lot of music around you, it can be hard to find people to work with. This can be due to the fact that many artists use their home studio and are happy with turning out mediocre sounding music, therefore, are not very keen on spending money on you. Also, to be honest, they most likely don't have the money to pay for studio time. 

So, no matter which situation you are in, it can be difficult. 

What's the solution?

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Well, there's no one solution to the problem, however, there are a few things you can do in each of the two situations to increase your work. 

Let's start with if your only chance to find artists to work with is online.

Having your only presence online, on a website, means that you need to show people who come to your site that people love your work and how amazing you made their music sound. I see so many mixing sites online that's all about the mixing engineer and what he can do, rather than what he can do for YOU i.e., the artist. You want to avoid this as much as you can, make it all about the people you have served and ask past clients if you can get a testimonial from them. 

Now, you also need a portfolio of your previous work and this is where the problem usually lays. As I said in the beginning, maybe you live in a small town with no bands,so it's very difficult to find artists to work for, let alone build a portfolio? There's probably a thousand tips online, but one tip, which I will credit to Graham Cochrane of The Recording Revolution, is where you contact a band or artists that you have found online (through Soundcloud or Bandcamp) and approach them with an email saying, 

“Hi, my name is [insert name]”

”I love your music and I really loved your latest EP [insert EP name]. The track [Insert track name] was really great with all the [insert superlative].”

”The reason I’m writing to you is that I’m currently working on updating my portfolio and would like to offer you a free mix (recording, etc.) No charge and if you are happy it feel free to use it on your next release or as a bonus song for your fans, which is a great way of making your fans happy.” 

”Also, with your permission, I’d love to use the mix (recording, etc.) in my portfolio.”

”Let me know what you think”

This is a great way of approaching an artist or band. You are offering them great value by giving them something for free, which they can use to make their fans happy, and you can add a song to your portfolio.

Win-win situation.

Now, what do you do if you live in a big city, such as Los Angeles, London or New York and are still struggling to find bands to record?

I live in London and my experience with going out to gigs and talking to bands, although very important when I first moved here, doesn't really lead to any real business/income after I left university. Many bands who play in pubs and smaller places usually don't have the money to spend on recording their music in a studio or get it professionally mixed. Of course, I'm sure there are bands that are willing but they are few and far between. 

Broke?

Broke?

That's why I stopped doing this and instead focused on what worked and what brought me an income, for example, getting jobs at recording studios, doing live sound, play in cover bands, library/sync music, etc. This still lets me grow my clientele of artists and bands whilst working with music. 

If you want to make a living solely on recording and mixing bands, you have to be prepared to play the long game. I talk more about this in the guide, How To Find Work And Become A Freelance Engineer. It might feel lame, but it's the truth and what most of us are experiencing.  

I still go to networking events and meet artists and bands, but I know that by doing it consistently, over time, is what will eventually turn in to an income.

Now, what are your experience with finding artists and bands to work with? What have you struggled with specifically? Is there anything that is difficult at the moment? Let me know in the comments and I'll help you to the best of my ability!

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

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

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. 

Why Isn’t The Recording Industry Promoting Creativity As Tech Companies?

It's common knowledge how Google, Facebook, Apple and other tech companies treat their employees, with free food, meditation rooms, nap breaks, etc. Of course, they have to work hard and be productive to use these benefits but the workplace/employer understands that in order to get the best out of their employee they need to nurture their talent, i.e., their creativity. 

The tech industry is demanding but it also understands that in order to thrive and innovate you need to care for your employees and use their talent to achieve this. I'm sure many of them work 12-hour days, have deadlines to meet, pressure from managers, etc., (just like the music industry) but are also allowed time to pursue their own projects and be creative. Yes, these companies can spend billions and billions on research which the recording business doesn't have, however, using this mentality is how companies like these keep innovating and finding other income streams.

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So, why isn't the recording industry promoting creativity the same way these tech companies do?

Why does the recording industry work their employees 12-14 hours a day?

Is it all down to money?

If you think about it, isn't it everyone's goal to nurture talent, grow your business and innovate, even if you can't spend billions into research?

I understand that having a recording, mixing or mastering studio is tough, the money is less than it used to be and the only way to survive is to keep working (working more hours that is). However, isn't this the moment where we need to innovate the most and find new ways of making money?

This becomes less and less possible if you or your employees are working 70+ hours/week and are not allowed time to innovate and be creative. Maybe allowing you and your staff 10 hours/week that can be spent on your own projects and pursuing other income streams that can be beneficial for the studio.

Maybe even have a meditation room, and planning in time that should be spent meditating per week isn't such a bad idea for your business. It might not be a quick fix for your studio but long term I think you will see a huge difference in the quality of work.

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Having been in a fair amount of studios myself, I haven't seen much, if any, of this mentality. The common rule we work under is, "There's no money but we have to work 14-hour days".

Shouldn't we stop and ask ourselves, "Why?"

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results

Is this the trap we have fallen for in the industry? Maybe. However, there's still time to get out of this bubble and start nurturing creativity and start innovating!

Furthermore, Tony Robbins, in his book “Awaken The Giant Within”, he mentions that the most powerful way to motivate people at work, or life in general, is through personal development. By helping your employees grow and expand personally will make them want to contribute more. 

Now, that’s a win-win situation. 

Shouldn't the music business be the leading industry in how to nurture creativity? Why is the tech industry light years ahead of us? Let me know in the comments below and let's take creativity back!

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

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

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.

How To Deal With Payments And My Weirdest Experience So Far

As many of you know, being freelancers, is the pain of dealing with payments, as in negotiating your fee, deposits, sending invoices, chasing invoices, it can all be very frustrating. 

There are many times when it's all very straightforward but sometimes you get into some complications and that's what this article will focus on as well as how to avoid them in the future.

The Story

To set the scene, it was a very common situation, a client hired me for some work over a longer period of time and we had agreed on a fee but we hadn't discussed the matter of a deposit.

Deposits are something that's very common to ask for, especially if it's work that stretches over a longer period of time because it gives you, the freelancer who got hired, a sense of security. It means that even if something happens along the way, let's say the client runs out of money by the end of the project, or they didn't sell enough tickets for the show, or any other excuse they can think of, you still got paid for the work you were hired to do. It will also help you cover any expenses along the way.

Back to the conversation. We had a meeting over Skype and I brought up the matter of a deposit and requested 50% up front. This was all fine and I even got offered to get fully paid straight away. 

I'm not sure I would suggest paying everything up front (as a client) because it takes away some security from the client and they end up risking the same things we do if we don't get a deposit.

However, we agreed on that I would get fully paid just before the project started.

So, happy days....right?

The 360-degree-turnaround

A few days later when we spoke again, it was like our previous conversation had never happened.

This time around I was asked why I should get paid before the project had even started and that you usually pay someone when the work is done. 

Sure, valid points. But why wasn't this brought up during our first conversation? And if it was I could have explained why it's common to request a deposit and all that.

It was a complete 360-degree turnaround from, yes I'll pay you everything beforehand to I don't want to pay you until our work is done. 

After going back and forth and trying to remind the person of our last conversation and what we had agreed on, we agreed on the more common set-up, half before and the other half when we are done with the work. 

Great, we reached a deal that worked for both of us.

However, it actually doesn't end there. A few days later I got a message saying that I will get paid in full and that the payment should come in the next few days. 

Was this a 360-degree turnaround from the 360-degree turnaround?

Lesson Learned

So, what's the lesson to take away from this? 

Always put things in writing.

This way you can go back and "prove" what has been agreed on instead of having to rely on he said - she said mess. If you do have a meeting, either in person or over Skype, you can politely suggest that you will just put this in an email so we know what we have agreed on. 

This is something that will help you sort out any misunderstandings that can come along the way because it's all there, in clear writing. 

Now, let me know if you have any stories of weird situations with payments in the comments below. 

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

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

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

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

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

In this interview, Michael opens up about how he first got started, how he expresses himself through his mixing, favourite failures, going out of your comfort level to keep developing new ideas and stay fresh, what he learned from working under Clearmountain and so much more.

Mixing With One Set Of Plugins

Do you obsess over plugins? Do you always feel like you need new plugins to achieve the sound you have in your head? Do you spend more time trying new plugins than actually mixing music?

Like this guy's comment: "...it’s so easy to get distracted with plugins and get nothing done." 

or

"...I’ve noticed they’re many [plugins] so you end up looking and searching all the way and wasting time..."

Can you recognise that feeling?

Playing around with plugins can be fun, but don't let it be the main thing you practise, especially if you are starting out. Then you need to focus on developing your ears and mix as much music you can, regardless of which plugins you use. It's after a while when you have developed a certain palette with your current plugins that you can go ahead and develop more "flavours". 

Recently, I decided to only use one set of plugins and my reason for this was threefold: 

1: To emulate as if I was mixing on a console with an EQ and a compressor on each channel strip. I wouldn't constantly reach for a different hardware unit for each channel (even if they were available)

2: To learn one set of plugins well, getting to know their tone and developing a palette of flavours I could use for future mixes. 

My Plugin-List. Fairly small, no?

My Plugin-List. Fairly small, no?

3: Spend less time messing about with different plugins (my plugins list is actually kind of small)

How can this thinking improve your mixes? 

First of all, it will save you time which can be spent improving your mixes. 

And as stated before, this will let you develop a flavour palette which you can use in the future and you will know which plugin to use if something needs a bit more of a certain tone. This is harder to develop and memorise if you are constantly trying and buying different plugins. 

You can make faster decisions if something works or not because you don't have a 100 compressors to choose from.  

Experiment with how they are sounding if you distort them, of course, you can do this with all your plugins, but limiting the number of plugins you are using will let you absorb the sound and internalise it much more profoundly. 

Having a reason to use a plugin and not just putting it on there because you think you need to. By knowing the sound of your plugins, it will give you a better purpose to why you want to use it.

Obviously, you also save money, which you can spend on other stuff for your studio. Such as microphones, acoustic treatment and whatever else you prefer. 

You don't have to limit your plugins to only use the stock plugins, use whichever brand you like. I decided to only use the Slate Mix Rack and the other compressors available in that subscription, so it's not a ton of plugins but more than enough to learn and internalise. 

Let me know which set of plugins you will use in the comments below. 

 

Beat Procrastination And Become More Productive

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How To Find Work And Become A Freelance Sound Engineer

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

And Much More

Being a freelancer can be tough, not just because you have to rely on yourself to find work but also because no one is forcing you to work. If you also have a mindset of "I'll do it later", you might get nothing done.

In other words, you like to procrastinate. 

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By being your own boss you can decide your own hours and you don't have to go up as early or even take part of the rush hour, it's a great life. However, if you want to be able to keep living that life you also need to do great work and not waste time.

Procrastination is something we all love and hate at the same time. It's great to just relax and not do the painful task of dealing with work. However, at the same time, it's also painful not to do the tasks we actually need to do, ending up being stressed because we have piled up too much work and now it feels like we have a mountain in front of us. 

Life would have been easier if we just did it straight away, right? 

How can you beat procrastination and become more productive? 

Let's say you want to make 4 EP's this year, or you want to pitch your music to publishers, or go out and see more local bands to build your network. Or you might want to do all of these different things.

Exciting right? 

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How can you achieve all your goals and not be beaten by your own laziness? To be honest, if you want to achieve your goals you need to put in the work. Not saying you have to do 14 hour days (like many people in this business do), but you need to be organised. 

By being organised you are on a great path of beating procrastination. 

Let's say you have a goal of being more consistent with putting out more music. It can sound like a huge task, maybe even overwhelming to some. 

However, if you start with your end goal in mind and break it down into smaller parts, it might seem less overwhelming. Furthermore, take these smaller parts and write down in your calendar which days you will complete each small task. All of a sudden, your end goals starts to feel achievable and not too hard to accomplish. 

This allows you to be calm because you can see simple, small but achievable tasks rather than a huge mountain of your end goal/s. 

Exciting!! 

I do this every Sunday before the new week start. I write down what I need to do to accomplish all my work and in the end my goal/s. It's small but consistent work you need to do to accomplish your goals. 

And you know what the great thing about this is, you will have time to relax, watch Netflix or play video games (my favourite game at the moment is Metal Gear Solid 5. Which is yours?). It's a win-win situation. 

Metal Gear

Metal Gear

There's a quote from Ramit Sethi, a leading figure in finance and business, he said this in one of his emails and I think he is making a very good point about not doing anything and just procrastinating: 

Did I actually get anything meaningful done? Did I do anything I'll remember in 10 years? Will I even remember this stuff next week? I think most of us have the haunting suspicion that we're wasting a lot of time playing games that are engineered to claw our attention, only to look back and realize...we haven't actually been living life.” 

Think about that.

Below you can see an example of how a week can look in my world. This is designed so that I can be as organised as I can and progress towards my goals. What this does is that it allows me to see all the different parts I need to do, and when to do them, to accomplish my end goal/s. Which is, making 4 EP's, continue to interview great people, do live sound, find publishers et cetera.

Monday: 

  • 10 am - 6 pm: Writing session
    A session focused on writing new material. Get it down to tape (Pro Tools). No need to be critical on what's good or bad

  • 7 pm - 8 pm: Find producers/engineer/artists and their contact details to contact them about doing an interview. Send out reminder emails to previous contacts

Tuesday: 

  • 10 am - 6 pm: Writing session
    Same as previous day

  • 7 pm - 8 pm: Prepare stage plot for this summers tour

Wednesday: 

  • 10 am - 6 pm: Mixing previous recordings

  • 7 pm - 8 pm: Research interviewee, write down questions.

Thursday: 

  • 10 am - 12 am: Research publishing companies to pitch to

  • 6 pm - 11 pm: Live gig

Friday:

  • 10 am - 22 am: Live gig

Weekend: 

  • Relax (Play Metal Gear, Netflix etc)

 

Let me know in the comments if you will be implementing this or if you are using another technique that allows you to be as productive as you can.

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

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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?

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.

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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.

Sylvia, Kirk and The Sea Hags

Sylvia, Kirk and The Sea Hags

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.

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

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 ToolUndertow, 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.

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

I think artists have the ability inside them to communicate the message in the music. Especially with singers. I want them to really tell me the story because you can tell if someone is just reciting lyrics from a page. 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!