Live On The Deck-091113-44

So you want to record something and you’ve asked the engineer you’re thinking of using for the job if you can “come into the studio and listen to some stuff he’s recorded before.”? 

 This has happened to me maybe three or four times over a pretty long history as an engineer and it happened again this week.  I could have just burned them a CD but they thought that sitting at my mixing console, listening to my speakers was a better way to go.

 To some it may sound quite reasonable to request the engineer to “audition” for the artist but I kind of want to turn that on its head as a concept.  (bear with me)

 My comeback to the question when I encounter it from a customer, after many years of thinking about it, should be the following (it hasn’t been previously but it just might from now on):

 Sure.  I can load something up for you to listen to but I don’t really understand what you think you’ll achieve from it.

 We’ve been in business for more than 15 years.  We know how to record something.  If we didn’t, we wouldn’t have been around this long with as long a list of customers as we’ve had.  (which can be referenced on our website.).

If you have the money, we can always record you to the best of our abilities with good gear and a smile on our faces.

 Quality recordings.

 We have repeat customers.  That speaks for itself.

 Let’s put false modesty aside…We are actually very good at what we do.  Ask anyone who has recorded with us.

 Sure, interview me to see if you think we are “a good fit for you” as far as a working relationship goes, but sit in my recording studio to listen to stuff I’ve done before??  I guess…sure… you can do that…but….  What do you think you’ll get out of doing so?  And how much of my time (and the studio’s time) am I supposed to donate to you free of charge for this purpose?  One song?  Two songs? Three, five, twelve?

Sorry if that sounds abrupt or rude or arrogant (or whatever else you might consider may be a flaw in my personality… let’s not get started on that.  I’ve got plenty!) but I just feel that I’m a little too old for that sort of crap.  I have enough engineering mileage under my belt to not have to do that for anybody.  (Maybe if Sting or Paul McCartney called…)

I guess they’re looking for what kind of “flair” I might have.  They are trying to see whether I can “move them” emotionally.  They might also be trying to see whether the vibe in my control room suits them.  I’ve always wondered about that.  It’s “my” control room.  My office.  It’s not really that important that they are comfortable in there to be honest.  Absolutely they should be comfortable in the room they record in but my office should be fairly irrelevant.  It working for me is far more important. And it does.  I have built it to do just that.

As for recordings I’ve done before and them listening to them in my office, well…

The truth is, I’ve thrown away many more customers’ CD’s and song files over the years we’ve been doing this than I’ve ever kept.  I’ve never felt the need to keep a running file of achievements of the studio.  There’s just been way too many of them.  They take up space on hard drives or physically on disks that we never refer to again and… hey… half of it I would never want to listen to because… well… why would I?  I listened to it plenty during the process for starters.  After the job is done, unless I truly loved it, it probably wasn’t going to be put into my “music collection”.  It’d be far too much like work to make it part of my “recreational listening library”.  What’s worse is that those recordings might not live up to my expectations for how good they could have been.  Plenty of them suffered from things that were beyond my control that led them to be less than masterpieces in my eyes.  Either customers got a little “too involved” in the mix (often my own fault for letting them I suppose but you can’t always fight with a customer over their art) and kind of ruined it from my perspective or the band wasn’t prepared enough or good enough or rehearsed enough to play the songs OR the songs weren’t inspiring OR  their instruments were cheap/badly cared for/out of tune/played wrong/etc OR they wouldn’t have the budget to do something to the extent it really needed to be done to be perfect.  They simply had to rush through the experience by the seats of their pants and we would be left thinking that the finished product wasn’t quite as ‘finished’ as it perhaps needed to be but the band just couldn’t afford to go the distance.  Meanwhile our name has been plastered on it and it is expected that it will become part of our “show reel” for customers who want to audition us.  (We’ve had one particular recording that was of a band that came in for a total of one hour to record a song and it got used in a surf movie as the soundtrack.  We told them not to do that.  We told them that they needed to spend more time and energy on it before it was ready to be released but that was the budget and time they had so that’s how it went down.   I guess that could be testament to the level of quality you can get out of us but… in reality… you might not always be that lucky.)  Not that we didn’t do our absolute utmost to give the customer the best final product that his/her money could buy in the most professional manner we could but….

 High quality work takes time (as well as a thousand other things).  It’s why big artists spend big dollars and long hours on their recordings.

 Playing you songs from “that pile” is often pointless and sometimes even a little embarrassing.

 Besides, they aren’t recordings of your band, they aren’t recordings from your individual session with all the same instruments you’ll be playing or settings on anything.

Your personality is completely different.  Who knows what will come out of YOUR session?  In all the years I’ve been doing this, I can tell you that no two sessions have ever been even remotely similar.  People are different, groups of people are different, they have different ways they get to their “happy music space” and perform.  They have different expectations of themselves and their environment/the people who are working with them. Different levels of nervousness/excitement.  Different amounts of experience.

 As the engineer you are interacting with new social groups that have often been established a long time.  Absolutely that will be at least a longer time than this tight knit group has known you and yet you’re drawn into their personal space and you have to interact with it at a pretty intimate level. An Artistic and Creative level.

 The engineer becomes an additional member of the band for a period.  Often expected to almost read people’s minds about their needs and desires and make an artistic contribution to their material that would be in-keeping with their vision of their music.  We have to be part artist, part musician, part technician, part genius and part psychologist to get the job done and we have to juggle all of that whilst trying to keep to a time limit that the customer imposes.

 Yes, we guide the artists in particular ways to get the things we know we need to pull a recording together but the music, the vibe and the mix of people will dictate the direction of the session, its length and its overall finished “quality”.  Our job is to capture it as best we can within the budget.  Bigger budget, more time to “get it right”, usually better end product.  (not always the absolute rule but it’s wiser to plan for it to be that way than not and come up short of what you want from it.  And no, I can’t tell you exactly what that’s going to be in dollar amounts before we start.  The end price can and will be as varied as the music itself.  Sorry if that scares you.  I’d love to be able to make package deals that you could pick out from a menu but in reality, it just doesn’t work that way.)

 Also, we are dealing with “original music” so the approach to the recording of it needs to be equally “original” to go along with it.  Otherwise there’s little point and you’ll just sound “like everybody else.”  If you want that approach and I can’t talk you out of it…???  Well, maybe you should be looking for another engineer. I don’t do “one size fits all” recording.  I won’t.

 If you do listen to stuff we’ve recorded before you will notice that no two jobs sound alike.  We pride ourselves on that.

 Playing you tracks I’ve recorded with someone else’s original music will give you a feel of where my imagination has been at in the moments I made those recordings but it will only give you an inkling of what your music might sound like after we’ve recorded it.  That will be as individual as you are.

 Only you can know whether you are blown away by that or not when you listen to it back and therefore whether “the job was done right” in your opinion.  As the engineer I can only take part of the credit (or the blame) for that.

 And, for my money, I’d bet that you won’t be all that blown away in the very long term.

 Your fans will, but you won’t.

 Your fans will attune themselves to those recordings regardless of “how they sound”.  Listen to some of your favourite songs.  Recording quality will vary on them enormously but it won’t change your opinion of whether you love or hate the music contained within it.  I find that iPods are a great example of this.  When I play an iPod filled with songs I love set to shuffle in my car, I’m constantly turning things up and down.  Mixes and tonalities are all over the place between eras, styles of music and artists.  However, you “know the songs” and therefore “you know the recordings”.  If you listened to Billy Holiday for example, you’d think that the recording quality on some of those old tracks is pretty woeful.  You’d be right.  But the “scratchy old record sound” makes up part of the tone that you know and if it were suddenly able to be magically re-recorded with today’s technology it would be completely different and may not evoke the same emotional response when you hear it as a “fan” as those recordings that you have come to love.  The “sound” has become part of the music.  It will do that with every recording.  Period!

 Why won’t you like it?

 Well, as an artist you are ever evolving (or at least you should be).  You will move on to do better performances of the songs than you did.  Perhaps even better songs.  You might listen back to it after having a very long break and say “that was pretty cool” but after that initial buzz of it turning you on just after it’s been freshly mixed and you’ve played it over a few hundred times in the first week on every different set of speakers you can hear it on wears away, you’ll start to find flaws in it somewhere because you will now know the song far more intimately than ever before.  (This is why professional artists do demos of their songs, fiddle around with pre-production ideas and then go into the studio again to re-record their final tracks.  Often after meeting with producers and re-formatting, etc.)  You will, hopefully, find ways on which you can improve it.  If you don’t, you’re stagnating and that’s not a good thing when you are a musician.  It is a lifelong journey where you are the eternal student.  Just as we are the eternal students of sound engineering.  We didn’t start out being sound engineers.  We started being musicians.  Sound engineering has just been part of that learning curve in the quest to better understand and make MUSIC.  It is a branch of being a musician, not the trunk.  Another instrument, if you will.

 And, as a studio, we’ve immersed ourselves in the learning curve of working with other musicians.  Some brilliant, some… let’s say… “new to the experience”.  A big part of the reason for that has been to broaden our own experience with making music and involving others in that creative process in a collaborative way.  We will be on that learning curve for the rest of our lives too.  Just like any instrumentalist, there’s a big difference between the ones who have been playing for a few months and the ones who have been playing for twenty plus years.

 I made a New Year’s resolution this year.  (actually I made a lot of them. but that’s another story.)

 This year I decided that I would not audition for bands/artists as an engineer.

 Bands (or artists) need to audition for me.

 I want to be able to say “no” to recordings I don’t have my heart in rather than feeling obliged to say “yes” to everything that comes along.  I want to only take on maybe four to six “big” projects a year.  Fully immerse myself in those projects and not let them out of my hands until I decide that they are done properly.  Major works from artists that inspire me.  Things that make me feel like I’m contributing something into the music world.  It can be one song, an EP or an album.  That doesn’t bother me but it needs to “make me want it.”

 So before you call and ask me to audition for your recording project, ask yourself “are you that?”

 So now to the ad…

 **Sound Engineers with full multi track studio seek like-minded musicians/bands that are simply “that fucking good” that we’ll be blown away and want to sink our teeth into their recordings.  Must have killer song/s, a reasonable budget for the project, good gear, own transport and not be “time wasters”.  For auditions, call Nikk or Paul at Continuumusic. 9905 0010**

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