Defy Recordings: Robert Smith is the Ultimate NYC Hybrid
October 27, 2009 by David Weiss
HELL’S KITCHEN, MANHATTAN: You want state-of-the-art? Here it is: Defy Recordings. Founder Robert Smith personifies the flexible strategies and sonic acumen needed to make it as a musical-you-name-it in NYC today. Wanna get smart in a hurry? Sure you do! Read forth and conquer.
Q: What niche does Defy Recordings hold in the music business – are you a music company, producer, composer, all of the above? In what ways is your business model similar to others out there, and what differentiates you?
A: Defy Recordings is the summary of companies I’ve had in the past. As the music industry I immersed myself in changed, so have I. It’s not enough to be good at one task, flexibility is the key. Categories I’ve been in have been producer, engineer, artist, composer, musician, sound designer, sound man, manager, photographer, director, videographer, and video editor. If I was going to compare Defy to any other business model, it would be those that always keep the big picture in mind: Ideas are key and being able to make the most of them is the goal.Q: That’s a lot to keep track of! How do you see music and sound production evolving in NYC right now, and how is Defy Recordings set up to take maximum advantage of that?
A: We’re at a very interesting time in music and sound. The song will always be king, but its delivery has never been more skewed. On the one hand, we still idolize the tones and technology from 50 years ago, such as vacuum tubes and vinyl, and on the other hand we have mp3s and microphones on laptops. The beauty is no one cares, as long as the song is great. At Defy, we’ve played both sides willingly.
Q: Can you explain what you mean by that?
A: The common element is knowing when to stay out of the way and conversely knowing when to go in and give a shove. We have the usual HD system http://www.digidesign.com/, the tubes and the ribbons, as well as the Dictaphones and mics from my first stereo when I was a kid. What’s fun about this approach is it challenges people’s ideas of what’s right. It’s hard to get in a rut if you don’t know where to stand.
Some fun examples are the story Phil Ramone told in a session where he set up a pencil-type condenser mic for a vocal — the singer was expecting the usual classic U47, and was very confused what was happening. I got the same reaction from a “guitar hero” who was wondering why I was clipping a lavalier mic on to one of the speaker wires in the back of his speaker cabinet to record his solo.
Q: Wild! Shifting gears, which revenue streams do you see opening up most strongly for NYC-based artists and music professionals? How are you involving yourself with those streams?
A: That’s a great question, and one whose answer is proving elusive. As more “non-professionals” record and mix their own music, many of the usual processes are falling by the wayside. I started mastering my own projects originally out of self-preservation, because sometimes there isn’t a budget left for mastering indie albums. I was finding my mixes were getting killed by some kid dialing up a mastering preset and calling it a day. I’ve had the experience of having all the big mastering guys master records of mine over the years, so I know what the result should be and decided to do it myself. I’ve done it enough now that I have clients coming to me just for mastering, so I must be doing something right.
We get calls in a similar way for films. We call this “audio sweetening”. This is a sort of premixing that ultimately saves the client time when they’re doing the real film mix of marrying dialog, FX, and music. Everything from adding room tone, fixing noise problems, matching dialog recordings from different sources…you name it.
Q: How would you describe your studio right now? Tell us about the technical highlights, and how it was built to accommodate the way you like to work.
A: The studio is set up for exactly the way I work. Sound quality and speed are the primary concerns. It’s based around a Pro Tools HD system with a Mac G5 Pro. I spend much of my time mixing and mastering, and this system allows me to switch between projects and roles very quickly. I live on the site YouSendIt. Most days I’ll be uploading files to a client while I’m already working on something else.
I’m a big fan of the API sound — I love the sound of the API Legacy summing gear. Just running digital audio through those transformers does the trick. I also have two API Lunchboxes loaded with 512c’s, 550b’s, 560’s, and 525’s. Essentially I have a 6x8x2 API console. Mixing is a hybrid; I’ll split out tracks to the API 8200/7800. A few great boxes live on the mix insert, such as Manley Massive Passive equalizer, Avalon 747 compressor, and the Empirical Labs Fatso. My gear choices were based on what I find lacking on projects that come in. Rather than going for “pristine”, I chose gear with a little soul.
Q: Sounds like an ideal mix of digital and analog, and yet your setup is also very compact. Give us one or two great production/mixing/mastering/recording tip that you’ve learned recently.
A: This one isn’t very recent, but it still holds true and sees use every day. What people miss about tape is the distortion. Adding in a little — with Dave Derr being the master of this via Fatso and Distressor — instantly gives a sound more character. Instead of cranking all kinds of eq, I’ll add a bit of grit and I’m done. Steve Massey’s Tapehead plug-in is great for this as well.
Q: Which piece of gear or plug-in is your “secret weapon”? Give it up!
A: My secret weapon is going to be the most boring one ever: It’s the Yamaha MS101 monitor speaker. I listen to it in mono, and it’s very much like the Auratone vibe. I’m always amazed at how any problems with my mix are identified instantly, and I always get the vocal and bass levels perfect.
One common thing I find is mixes that are not the best were done using one set of speakers. It’s all about the comparison between different speakers. The goal is to have the relationships within your mix be the same on any speaker — this way you know it will translate from an SUV to a laptop.
Q: Solid advice! Love it. Tell us about a couple of different recent projects that you did that exemplify what you’re being asked to do now. What made them fun?
A: Perfect example would be the film Under The Desert Sun. This was songwriter Craig Wilson’s first film score. He has his own studio, but needed someone like myself who has experience working on films, such as Waitress and The Devil Came on Horseback to make the process as efficient as possible.
Writing a song for and music for a film are two different things, and when it’s a two hour feature, there’s a lot of ground to cover. To add to the fun, Craig had nothing written! We set up his keyboard and an acoustic and electric guitars and just went for it. As a testament to Craig’s musical mind, we did the whole score in 12 hours. Adding flavors such as Ebow, and being creative with a Voodoo Labs Tremolo and Zvex Seek-Wah pedal worked perfectly. Ambience with a Thingamagoop plugged into a Moogerfooger lowpass filter pedal completed the process.
Q: What’s rewarding, and conversely what’s challenging about being a music professional on your level today?
A: Recognition for being a professional is nice, and my experience has been a key marketing tool. I have a manager, but still have to do everything I can to always be out there. The sense of community we all had at a multi-room studio facility can’t be replicated on Facebook or Myspace. No matter what your skill level, if you’re not connecting with people, you’re not working. I hope the recording schools are teaching kids about marketing as much as they are about the latest plug-in.
Q: I don’t know if they are… How does the fact that you’re choosing to do this in NYC make your job either easier, or harder, or both?
A: Being in NYC is both: easy and hard. Lots of competition keeps you on your toes. I’ve found first hand that the old phrase, “If you can make it here you can make it anywhere” really applies. Anytime I work outside of New York, it’s quickly apparent that the standards we’re used to stay in town. But that could just be the combination of being a lifer and a New Yorker too!
Q: Please name any other recent projects you’ve been involved in that you want to make sure we know about, plus any relevant links.
A: Plenty of cool projects: Stacie Rose, Jennifer Haase, Tall Tall Trees, Asa Ransom.
I also would like to give a shout for my friend David Patterson, a great guitar player here in NYC who is part of many of my projects. He just makes artists sound better.
Q: Wow, you’ve given us a ton of great info here. Anything else?
A: Last thing…I’ve started this Recording Collective. The purpose is to trade ideas with fellow engineers and producers and come up with new solutions, being a music industry professional in New York City. As fun as those mercenary-like years were, it’s been helpful to compare notes with others who make their living making music.
One of our methods is to team up with studios that may not have the bookings they once did, and work with them in providing us with reasonable rates in exchange for a significant increase in the traffic they see at their studio. One of our partnerships is with a performing rights organization (PRO) that sees this as just the right thing to allow their artists to pursue a career and build their craft, while supporting those that know how to get the job done properly. The irony of all this is music is everywhere and needed more than ever. The trick is to position yourself so it all goes through YOU.