“A little more to the right,” he tells a studio tech adjusting a microphone in front of Weinman’s guitar amp. Evetts’ eyes search the sky as the tone from the mic gradually changes. He frowns slightly. “Can you go back a little in the other direction now?”
The tech obliges as Weinmanbest known as lead guitarist of the band Dillinger Escape Plan—continues to chunk away in drop D tuning. Evetts makes an okay sign when he hears a tone he likes for recording: crisp attack and big body.
Evetts and Weinman have done this dance plenty of times before on records they’ve made together, but this isn’t a standard studio session. The two of them are in the middle of a two-day workshop on guitar recording techniques for CreativeLive, a Seattle-based company that specializes in online teaching in creative fields. Although Evetts and Weinman have only a handful of people in the studio with them, their online classroom contains thousands more.
Evetts asks for a new mic setup, and during the down time, Tony Gavilanez, one of the workshop’s two telegenic hosts, relays a chatroom question about stereo-micing from someone watching online in Australia.
Evetts discusses a few situations in which he might use a stereo mic setup, and by the time he’s done, the tech has arranged two new mics in front of Weinman’s amp. Evetts pulls up a slide showing a diagram of the new setup while cameras get a close-up of the mics. Evetts continues with his prepared lesson plan without missing a beat.
In what seems like less than a decade, the concept of ‘online learning’ has gone from a somewhat laughable way to earn college credit, to a legitimate way of educating oneself in the digital age. YouTube tutorials and chat forums have gained significant ground on the role of static textbooks and exclusive institutes of higher learning as sources of ‘how-to’ information. CreativeLive joins a field that includes respected names like Lynda.com, SAEonline, macProVideo, edX, and Coursera.
CreativeLive Music & Audio channel producer Finn McKenty thinks online learning has grown more from increasing demand for new knowledge than anything else. “People want to learn this stuff and there’s nowhere else to learn it. The technology is just the solution.”
The New School
Seattle photographer Chase Jarvis and business partner Craig Swanson founded CreativeLive in 2010. In the years prior, Jarvis and Swanson produced online photography tutorials out of Jarvis’ personal studio, using nothing more than a stationary webcam.
“They didn’t know if they could move stuff around in the background or if that would make the stream stutter because of the compression,” says Finn McKenty.
Despite their rudimentary nature, Jarvis’ web tutorials grew in popularity, sowing the seeds for CreativeLive.
Today, the company has studios in Seattle and San Francisco, $25 million in venture capital funding, and an ever-growing catalog of online workshops in subjects including “Photo & Video”, “Art & Design”, “Craft & Maker”, “Money & Life”, and “Music & Audio”. McKenty–a friend of Jarvis since 2001–began producing the Music & Audio channel in 2013.
“They brought me on not knowing exactly what my job would be yet—I was just cleaning up random projects and stuff like that. Craig [Swanson] mentioned something about how we should think about doing some music production stuff, and I said, ‘I can help you out with that’. One thing led to another and we had our first class in September of last year with Steve Rennie [manager of the band Incubus] on networking.”
McKenty envisions the Music & Audio channel as a resource for solving musical mysteries. He knows there are thousands of aspiring musicians and producers out there listening to their favorite records, asking ‘How did they get that sound?’ When McKenty first took the job, he was one of them.
“With [producer] Andrew Wade, I got an album he did by this band called These Hearts, and it just sounded perfect to me for that style. The guitar tone on it was just unbelievable—and I’m not that easily impressed. I didn’t know Andrew before that. I just emailed him from the contact form on his website and said, ‘This record sounds perfect. I want you to come here and do a class about guitars.’ So that’s how that one worked.”
Among its offerings, CreativeLive features two workshops from Wade, as well as ‘The Working Musician’s Playbook’ with Bandhappy.com founder Matt Halpern, the guitar-tracking workshop with Steve Evetts and Ben Weinman, and ‘Advanced Bass Production’ with Andrew Glover, which McKenty likens to a “YouTube tutorial on steroids”.
“The problem with music production education is that very few people who know how to do it are taking the time to teach how to do it,” McKenty says.
“I’m not putting down recording schools or YouTube tutorials or anything—those things are great and I’ve learned a ton from them—but it’s not really how things are done in a real studio. Most of the time, the way we make a record is ‘I want it to sound like that’.
“If you want to know how they got the guitar sound on a Converge record, there’s no real resource out there where you can go find it out. You can guess at it. You can ask someone. You can say ‘Oh I bet it’s this,’ or ‘I heard him say that’. Well, I just brought Kurt Ballou [of Converge] on to tell you how they did it.”
Live From Seattle and San Francisco
After recruiting the talent, McKenty sometimes has to teach his teacher: They work together to form a theme for the workshop and to block out how the instructor will approach it in a way that is personal, relatable, coherent, and that translates over the internet.
“I locked myself in a room with Andrew Wade for four days to create his course. I can’t just say ‘show up on July 10th’.”
All CreativeLive workshops are free to watch live as they are happening, and when they are made available later as part of the channel’s general programming, they can be downloaded or streamed instantly for a fee. McKenty points out that, given enough time, it’s theoretically possible to watch every single CreativeLive offering for free—a boon for curious young musicians.
“I’m fortunate enough to have friends who work in studios and I can say to them, ‘I can’t get this to sound right. What do I do?’ and they say ‘Do this, this, this.’ And it’s like: Awesome. Finally. I’ve been beating my head against a wall for a week trying to figure this out. And I want kids at home to have that same kind of feeling, like ‘Thank god, finally someone is teaching me how to do this thing!’”
Currently, CreativeLive’s Music & Audio offerings skew heavily towards metal audiences. McKenty calls this the ‘low-hanging fruit’, thanks to his relationships within a tight-knit metal community. He also says it’s just the tip of the iceberg. McKenty is planning deep dives into EDM and hip-hop production for upcoming workshops. (One workshop on Native Instruments’ “Maschine” with JK Swopes was just broadcast live on June 2nd and 3rd).
“It’s very important to me that whatever we do, when we take that first big step, that it’s the right thing,” McKenty says.
“You know how it is in music: If the first thing you put out there is corny and dumb and people can tell it’s not authentic, then you’re through. [If we do that] then we’re no different than any other schmuck who can claim to teach you how to make music…
“It’s got to be the best people teaching the right stuff in the way that’s going to resonate with the people at home sitting in their bedroom. Like the kid at home going, ‘Oh that’s sick. That’s exactly what I needed to know.’ That’s what I always wanted growing up.”
Samples from CreativeLive’s Music & Audio channel:
Rob Harari is facing a very different kind of student body.
Standing in front of the newly minted music studio at the Stevens Institute of Technology – College of Arts and Letters (CAL) in Hoboken, Harari – the Technical Director of the CAL Music & Technology Program and an Associate Professor there – has an unusually diversified group of pupils to instruct. And these undergrads mark a distinct changing of the guard in audio.
“These freshmen were the first generation born with an iPod in their crib,” Harari says. “For the educators, there’s an intuitiveness to the technology that we haven’t seen before. That means there’s a lot of people who know how things work in the box, but can’t necessarily translate it in the analog domain – the ‘real’ world.
“That’s why it’s so important to make them think. Because if you can’t make the jump, you’ll only go as far as the box lets you.”
An Academic Backdrop
For Harari, the opportunity to guide his charges out of that trap came with the green light to build a new 3,400 sq. ft. music studio within Stevens’ CAL complex.
Part of a 55-acre campus that overlooks the Hudson River with expansive views of Manhattan, the CAL Music Studio was designed specifically with Stevens’ remarkably diversified approach firmly in mind. Founded in 1870, the higher-learning institution today consists of three schools and one college: the Wesley J. Howe School of Technology Management (STM), the Charles V. Schaefer Jr. School of Engineering and Sciences (SES), the School of Systems and Enterprises (SSE) and CAL.
Whether at the undergraduate, graduate or PhD level, the watchwords at Stevens are “multidisciplinary” and “interdisciplinary”. As a result, the Stevens student is immersed in an academic world of which audio is only one part – courses dealing with electricity and magnetism, circuits and systems, thermodynamics, modern physics, technogenesis, and more form their daily core.
“This facility is meant to support the production classes in the music and technology program, as well as provide a research facility for students who want to explore things like soundwave propogation and transducer technology,” Harari says. “So, for example, if there are students in SES who are making an iPhone app with an application for the music industry, they can work the bugs out here.”
Lesson Plan: Audio Quality & Signal Flow
Harari, who had been served as an adjunct professor at Stevens for several years before taking on the full time Technical Director role in 2008, began the buildout of the CAL Music Studio in earnest this January, after Stevens approved the plan to transform a former computer lab into an advanced audio instruction facility.
An expansive, sun-filled space with plenty of windows, the studio has room for up to 24 students. At the front, an SSL Matrix console is at the heart of the activity, complemented by a Yamaha 96v console in a separate learning station to the right. Both boards are linked to Mac towers running Pro Tools HD. On the left, a large live room complete with piano, drums, amps, and space for myriad instruments is separated from the classroom/control space by floor-to-ceiling glass walls, accessible by a sliding door.
Working closely with Shane Koss of Alto Music NYC, and after reaching consensus with the entire Music & Technology faculty, Harari procured a select equipment list that supported his exacting curriculum while staying on budget.
A customized Argosy stand holds the new SSL Matrix, along with outboard such as an Empirical Labs Distressor, Chameleon Labs 7802 Stereo Opto Compressor, Focusrite Isa828 8-channel mic pre, and MOTU Midi Express XT USB MIDI interface. A Universal Audio UAD2 Quad card is also part of the package. Meanwhile, monitoring comes via Dynaudio BM15A speakers and a Genelec 8020 5.1 surround system, delivering signal garnered from mics by Neumann, Sennheiser, Beyerdynamic, Shure, and AKG.
While a commercial studio’s hardware/software list will reflect the needs and aesthetic sensibilities of the owner and their expected client base, the equipment manifest of an educational studio necessarily has a different spin.
In Stevens’ case, it springs directly from Harari’s audio education approach, developed from his many years of live audio engineering and mixing records for Gregory Hines, Spyro Gyra, Dion Parsons, Savion Glover for Spike Lee and Barbra Streisand, Boys Night Out, Jazzheads Records, David Broza and Swingadelic.
“One school of thought is that if the technology you invest in for a facility has the functions that you need to teach, then you’ve covered your responsibility,” says Harari. “What’s missing in that statement is the quality of sound. The quality of sound is what I have to teach, because if a student doesn’t understand that from the start, they’ll never be able to go out and achieve it later on in a professional recording studio, post production, or broadcast situation.
“We have great plugins,” Harari continues, “but I teach theory about dynamic response and compression, for example, so when they’re listening for the difference between a tube compressor and a plugin, they know what’s going on. If they don’t have the understanding of the analog domain, they won’t conceptually understand what the algorithm is doing.”
The clear articulation of signal flow is Harari’s other top mission, a priority that’s once again illustrated in the gear choices.
“If students just learn how it works in the software, then show up at a live sound gig and have to troubleshoot, they may find themselves in a tough situation,” Alto’s Shane Koss points out. “People who are building a home studio may not necessarily invest in the Matrix or the Focusrite mic pres. But if you have to demonstrate everything that you can’t see going inside of Pro Tools, then the Matrix is great because you have so many routing options. That’s a good thing to understand.”
Linked In Learning
Although the CAL Music Studio can accommodate up to 24 people in its seating section, Harari is careful to cap classes at 16 students. Meanwhile, Koss designed and installed a networking system for the facility to ensure that everyone involved is getting maximum learning time.
Large flat-screen monitors displaying the open Pro Tools session are mounted high overhead both the SSL and Yamaha consoles, as well as in the live room. “The two main computer stations are connected via control and audio, so we have feeds going back forth through the space,” explains Harari. “For example, when we’re doing ADR work, both the students and the artists can see what’s going on in the Pro Tools session. That’s a big deal in the recording studio – no one likes being the artist behind the glass, seeing people having a conversation and not knowing what they’re saying.”
As befits Stevens’ multi-disciplinary makeup, Harari is looking forward to the CAL Music Studio hooking on to the school’s network as soon as possible. “We’d like to plug into Stevens’ fiber optic network, so we can start recording performances from our live theater, for example, as well as supporting media production across the campus,” he says. “More importantly, we’re getting to the point where our music technology program becomes a true research facility. There’s a sound synthesis research center here at Stevens – clearly, we’ll be able to do some big team projects when we’re all connected.”
Looking around, the convergence of audio education with other academic programs is on the rise. The recent $70 million gift that Dr. Dre and Interscope chairman Jimmy Iovine made to the University of Southern California confirms that, with their mandate of creating a cross-disciplinary academy where music production, entrepreneurship and computer science combine.
The USC developments should hatch some welcome advancements of their own. Meanwhile, Stevens’ lower-profile program is already blinding ‘em with science.
“Right now, approximately 15% of our music technology majors are earning double degrees, in programs like computer science, civil engineering, and physics,” says Harari. “Last year, one student’s project was to make a laser pickup for the guitar. Think about that: You can translate that output into any signal – binary code, MIDI – and it’s hugely accurate. That’s from a student that’s 19 years old.
“Another thing that just happened here is the Alternative Controller Ensemble (A.C.E). One of our students built a laser theremin, that he then wrote code for that would translate to MIDI. Another student has created a different type of control surface that he wants to patent and hopes to market. Part of my mission – and my fortune — is to work with smart people who want to figure out the relationship between music and research.”
At the heart of the new Stevens facility is a mindset that doesn’t just enable students to be proficient in using the analog and digital tools of today’s recording, post, and broadcast facilities. They’re also invited to invent the next generation of audio solutions.
“We want our students to be able to explore different ways to do things than the way people are doing them now,” Rob Harari observes. “My goal is for our students to innovate new products, come up with a way to do things better, create plugins no one else has thought of, or make a brain-controlled interface. It’s not the same output – that’s for sure.”
– David Weiss
Back when I entered the audio program at SUNY Purchase around the turn of the millennium, a bachelor’s degree in “Studio Production” still seemed like something of a novel concept. Since then, enrollments for both 4-year and short-term programs in this once-niche market appear to have exploded nationwide.
Occasionally, engineers will gripe about the numbers of graduates some of these schools pump out. Those criticisms aren’t completely unwarranted, as it often seems there are far more fresh grads than there are paying jobs. I’ve even heard dismayed accounts from instructors at some of the less reputable private schools, who say they’ve been pressured into giving failing students passing grades in order to collect tuition dollars.
But even if all of that is true, there’s a flip side to this story: Despite a rapidly-shrinking paid market for recorded music, the number of audio engineers working in the field grew by more than 50% between 1999 and 2012, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Although that growth has since slowed (it’s been a brisk 25% if you look at just the past 5 years, and that growth is expected to freeze in place near 1% going forward) it’s clear that this increase in admissions didn’t come out of thin air. Even in the face of well-publicized stories about big rooms shutting down, there are in fact more studios in the world than ever before, and much more audio as well.
Still, as the audio boom of the past decade begins to taper off and expectations continue to rise, getting the best education possible could prove key for students keen on entering the field, and for working professionals looking to keep their edge. In light of this, we’ve decided to take a look at a few boutique workshops and audio schools that may help students of sound separate themselves from the rest of the pack.
The Blackbird Academy
“There are two ways to teach students,” says Mark Rubel of the new Blackbird Academy in Nashville Tennessee. “There’s the assembly line method, and then there’s the boutique hand-wired, hand-crafted method. We’re doing the latter. I like to think we’re hand-wiring the next generation of engineers.”
Rubel is probably best known as the longtime owner of Pogo Studio, which he personally ran in Champaign Illinois for 33 years. Since 1985, he has also continuously taught the techniques of recording, both at his own facility (in conjunction with Parkland Community College) and at nearby schools including Eastern Illinois University, where he was the director of audio programs.
Now Rubel has left his studio in good hands and moved to Nashville to make teaching a full-time pursuit. He’s landed at Blackbird, one of the most uncompromising studios in a city that’s filled with them.
Its 9 production rooms have been graced by everyone from Jack White to Taylor Swift; Beck to Bruce Springsteen; Ke$ha to Neil Young. They have 27 vintage U47s, and consoles by Neve, API, SSL and Avid.
Their new program will be an intensive one: 6 months, 5 days a week. 50% of the students’ time will be spent in a classroom setting with Rubel leading the instruction, and 50% will be devoted to hands-on in-the-studio workshops under the guidance of Mix Magazine‘s technical editor, Kevin Becka.
Guest instructors like Joe Chiccarelli [U2, White Stripes, Elton John, Frank Zappa], Vance Powell [White Stripes, Willie Nelson, Kings of Leon] and Niko Bolas [Neil Young, Warren Zevon, My Morning Jacket] are slated to teach masterclasses as well.
In addition to the staff and the gear, Rubel believes that size and selectivity will help set Blackbird apart:
“Some of the big schools have to accept everyone, whether or not they have an aptitude, or even the interest. They just take people who can pay. It’s by design that our program is small. We’re going to be turning people down.
“Unlike some of the schools, which are actively talking students into going, we’re only taking those people who can’t be talked out of it!” he says with a laugh. “We want the ones who, like ourselves, are driven to do it.
“I mean, if a person can do something else for a job, then there are certainly much easier ways to make a living. We’re looking for people who are hard-working, driven, curious. And that’s how our school is going to be successful: The people who we graduate. They will be our best advertising.”
To that effect, enrollment at Blackbird will be fairly limited. During each 6-month semester, there will be a cap of 60 students, split into groups of 30 per class during the lecture portion, and 5 to a class for the hands-on studio work.
120 students per year may be large compared to a state school, where admissions are even more tightly controlled. (SUNY Fredonia limits its famed bachelor’s program in recording to 10-15 new students per year, while SUNY Purchase accepted just 5 applicants into the studio production program during the semester I was admitted.) But compared to some of the larger audio-diploma mills, it’s an intimate little group for sure.
Blackbird is launching with an intensive summer session for high school students in July. Its first 6-month studio engineering program will begin this Fall, and by Winter 2014, the school will add a 6-month live sound program.
The cost of a semester is comparable to what you might expect at an elite private university, and the education is meant to be on par with that.
“We’re imparting a deep understanding of the fundamentals of acoustics and signal flow,” says Rubel. “Both the technology and the techniques.”
“But too often people stop there: They think recording is just about the technology. Too many graduates are prepared to deal with the technology but not the interpersonal aspects of a session. So we also prepare them for how to behave, how to act, how to express themselves without scuttling a session. To understand the larger context of creativity in a collaborative environment.
“And then there are the critical listening skills. It’s typical to think that a profession is all about ‘doing’: Twiddling knobs, setting up microphones. But all that ‘doing’ stems from hearing. You have to be attuned – To hear the differences between things, to understand what the possibilities are.”
Perhaps what’s most important to Rubel are the people involved. “I think the greatest asset will be their fellow students and the instructors. Just to be in an environment of unalloyed excellence, to be around people who are the best in the world at what they do. You can learn so much that way.”
Mix With The Masters
Rubel isn’t the only one who advocates working with people who are among the best in the world at what they do.
In 2010, Victor Lévy-Lasne and Maxime Le Guil, the co-founders of Mix With The Masters, began inviting some of the most renowned engineers on the planet to teach master classes at their 19th century mansion-studio in the Saint-Rémy provence of southern France. They have since hosted 25 of these week-long seminars.
The instructors have included some of the biggest names in music production: Michael Brauer, Eddie Kramer, Joe Chiccarelli, Tony Maserati, Chris Lord-Alge, Andy Wallace, Al Schmitt, Jimmy Douglass, Tchad Blake, Peter Katis, Jack Joseph Puig.
As opulent as all this sounds, it’s been kept surprisingly affordable so far. Lévy-Lasne says that tuition is under $5,000 USD per person, yet includes accommodation and catering for the entire week – Pretty much everything but the plane fare.
The goal of the program is to bring back the mentorship and the direct transfer of knowledge from one engineer to another that has been steadily eroding as the big-studio system becomes a less dominant force in music.
“What the participants like about MWTM is that we are recreating a community of professionals who can support each other,” says Lévy-Lasne. “We’re living in an era in which big studios have closed and knowledge is mostly shared online, sometimes without control or the possibility of rating the quality of the information. However, a physical interaction – being able to speak face to face and standing in a room watching the best engineers at work – is an amazing opportunity that cannot be replaced by articles, forums, tutorials and videos.”
The weeklong course is broken into 8 hour days, where the guest mixer discusses production techniques, his philosophical approach, and even get hands-on, recording and mixing a live band on the studio’s Neve 88 R.
The courses are designed with working professional in mind, and it’s been particularly popular with engineers in their thirties. It attracts others as well, including younger students and older musicians from all around the world. Visitors have come from 40 countries to date.
“The fact that this studio is far from where people would expect this kind of event to happen is really important for us,” says Lévy-Lasne “Confining it to an unfamiliar environment allows the attendees and guest speaker to totally disconnect for an entire week and really have an introspective experience.”
It’s hard not to like the idea of getting away for a week to a well-equipped studio in a private villa in the French countryside. But for Lévy-Lasne the selling point remains the teacher, whichever one you choose:
“It is the personality of every mixer, the energy, the attitude and the emotion that he brings to the music that makes the most difference. And that’s exactly what they transmit in our courses.”
Larry Crane’s Weekend Workshops at Jackpot! Recording
Some of us may know Larry best as the founder and editor of Tape Op Magazine, but he’s also a first-rate engineer in his own right. Over the years, he’s worked with artists like Elliott Smith, Jolie Holland, Sleater-Kinney, The Decemberists and Death Cab for Cutie.
In Crane’s recurring workshops (which are just a few hundred bucks per person for two 8-hour days) the focus is not on his work, but yours.
It’s a fairly unique method, in which Crane encourages his students to bring two of their own productions — both the completed mixes and the multitrack masters. Then, Crane and the class dig in, working to help you improve both your sound and your approach.
In addition to these hands-on mix rescues, Crane discusses and demonstrates mic techniques, signal flow, gain staging and critical listening. The program is designed for beginners, home recordists, and those who have a feel for the process but are looking to improve their results and hone their craft.
Master Classes at Echo Mountain Studios
Echo Mountain in Asheville, North Carolina (profiled recently in SonicScoop) has just started a workshop of their own. After the success of their trial run in February, Julian Dreyer and his studiomates already have another course planned for the fall.
The approach at their weekend workshop is a little different than Crane’s: Instead of putting the spotlight on mixing and evaluating each student’s pre-recorded material, they spend a bulk of the two-day course working through the finer points of mic technique with a roomful of real live musicians.
The course is broken up into two distinctly different session dates: One that focuses on tracking electric rock bands, and another other that zooms in on acoustic instruments commonly found on country and bluegrass recordings.
Once the recording section is complete, the class begins the mixing phase, seamlessly integrating outboard hardware with modern software systems. One day, they’ll be working on a vintage Neve, the next, on an API.
So far, the program has attracted a youngish crowd, ranging mostly from their late teens through their late twenties. They’re generally students who are supplementing their education in sound, or just beginning it, albeit in style.
In the world of audio, a degree or a certification does not equal a job. In our field, producers and engineers tend to make their own work more often than not, and none of the educators on this shortlist would try and tell you otherwise.
But that doesn’t mean there’s no value in a good audio education. Learning is not merely about a piece of paper or a qualification. Instead, it’s the things you can learn – the fundamentals, the taste, the tricks, the business savvy, the attitude; And it’s the people you’ll meet – mentors, advocates, collaborators, friends – that make an education worthwhile.
Hopefully yours will last until you reach the end of your reel, many, many years from now.
Justin Colletti is a Brooklyn-based audio engineer, college professor, and journalist. He records and mixes all over NYC, masters at JLM, teaches at CUNY, is a regular contributor to SonicScoop, and edits the music blog Trust Me, I’m A Scientist.
TRIBECA/CHINATOWN, MANHATTAN: Rich Lamb is a studio nomad. He’s an NYC audio hired gun who works in studios and recording situations that span the region – turns out, Lamb has a lot of favorite local places to work, and he’s going to share them with us right here.
Based in TriBeCa/Chinatown, Lamb (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a professional audio engineer – period. His freelance recording and mixing practice can take him clear across NY state or to the next door down, and the flexibility has paid off: Today Lamb’s discography includes The Brecker Brothers, They Might Be Giants, John Cale, Antony and the Johnsons, The Asylum Street Spankers, Debbie Deane, Ian Hunter, Willie Nile, Cherish the Ladies, and Joan Osborne. Allmusic.com has more.
Lamb was 18, living at home on Long Island and driving to college one day, when he saw a life-changing sign for an audio school. “Eventually I dropped out of college and pursued a 30-week program with complete dedication,” he recalls. “After some time out of college, which included interning at a local studio in a basement with quite a bit of impressive gear — Ampex 2, API board, etc… I got a degree at Berklee College of Music, taking their Music Production and Engineering major.”
Shiny new diploma in hand, Lamb started by assisting at Skyline Studios, followed by the Power Station [now Avatar] before forging out on his own. He scored his first semi-steady gig doing house audio for Blue Man Group, and “My career has been a combination of studio, live, and corporate audio ever since.”
When we met at the Massey Plugins mixer at Lakeside Lounge, I enjoyed hearing your philosophy on how you work as an engineer. What do you find so fulfilling about a freelance career where you’re on call to go anyplace and record or mix?
Not that it was intentional, but I guess the most stimulating thing about freelancing in audio is that there’s rarely a dull moment if you’re always in different rooms. You have to remember different layouts, different patch bays, what mics are available, what drawbacks and strengths there are to each room, and how to adjust your ears to different monitoring situations — from control rooms to large venues, different PAs, indoor or outdoor. Either way, you have to mix differently when you have an outdoor gig and you’re used to the studio, and vice versa.
For example, you begin to understand EQ as something to enhance or sculpt — like in the studio — versus it being used more for damage control or feedback attenuation, when working live. Same with compression. Being able to juggle different types of gigs really enhances your troubleshooting reflexes too, though someone who works just one room could argue that he’s fast because his knows his room cold.
But my approach to my career is about doing whatever it takes to advance myself through great projects that I get to record and mix. Ideally each great album gets me recommended to someone new, or hired back. If it pays the bills and I enjoy it, I’m not too worried about whether it’s going to “go anywhere.” I don’t work on spec. Even if it’s a close friend, which can be a blast, I have to charge something fair, otherwise I’ll put off working on their stuff.
When it comes to projects that are dear to me, including projects where I have a say on where we track or what musicians we should use, even if I’m not technically producing, my first choice is to do a large chunk of work in any of the studios where I work at the most. If they can’t afford the expensive one, we go to a more affordable place, work within our limitations, forego the real piano and the awesome acoustics, and get the job done well either way. I’m drawn to producers and studios that generally make music I’m into. How else can you improve at your craft than get to practice on the styles you like? The more work feels like play the more aligned you are with your purpose, and you’ll probably live a longer and healthier life.
By the way, in fairness to top-dollar studios and musicians, they aren’t always more expensive in the end. Professionals get the job done faster AND the results are better, saving you time in editing or even recutting tracks later, and you’re happier with your tracks.
Why did you like the idea of telling us about all the different places you work in, in and around NYC?
Because this information should be shared. I want to know more NYC rooms, while alerting my peers to the places I work at. Everyone wins when more artists and producers are hip to several studios, and comfortable at all these places.
Therefore, in no particular order, here we go. In fact I’m starting with the one I hardly work at nowadays:
Water Music Recorders, 931 Madison St., Hoboken NJ 07030, 201-420-7848
This is probably where I did my first freelance sessions. Owner Rob Grenoble, a gregarious storyteller with a HUGE knowledge of the biz, respected me just because I was a Skyline alumnus.
Huge live room with concrete floors, for more of a sustained reverb, particularly nice for horns or strings, plus a big Neve/Studer control room, where the Augspurgers sound like the NS10s, only bigger, making for a smooth transition. The North Room is interesting in that it’s affordable though a little funky, yet you get a lot of the same acoustics.
Working at Water Music, I feel like I’m closer to Woodstock for some reason. Maybe because it’s a residential studio! I’d love to be someone like John Agnello and just put in long days with the band and then crash in the duplex, having no commute the next day. Tons of indie rock albums are done at Water Music, they have a very impressive client list. And I’m impressed with any studio that lasts in this day and age. Go there if you want a great near-NYC rock studio with residency.
Mark Dann Recording, 59 Franklin St., NYC 10013 212-941-7771
Mark Dann is an accomplished musician, especially on bass, and he has had a facility in a TriBeCa loft for 20 years. I started bringing work there in 1994. He is the man to go to if you have any technical questions, especially regarding Apple or Pro Tools, and if you have drum tracks that need replacing or vocals that need to be tuned.
His way of working is extremely organized, he’s a great editor, and he mixes and masters with a keen ear and perpetual student’s inquisitiveness. His enthusiasm for the craft of recording and technology is such that he’d rather talk about plug-ins than anything! But lots of us get that way!
In Woodstock he runs an identical PT system — allowing projects to work between the two rooms – in a nice tracking space with a piano and B-3. Where a lot of studios always fall by the wayside, here and in the Woodstock area, Mark has hung in there and even thrived. Hiring Mark to do your album is quite a bang for the buck. More people should know about both of his rooms. His Mac is decked out with every plug-in you could ever want. There are also some nice preamps and a great DDA console. Check out his site, too.
Before I continue I want to mention two other colleagues I’ve worked with or for: A.T. Michael MacDonald and Tom Durack, both fellow alumni from Skyline. Michael MacDonald has done a lot of stunning jazz albums — Fred Hersch, McCoy Tyner, Roy Haynes – and is a superb mastering engineer, running his own studio in DUMBO, called AlgoRhythms which has a fantastic combination of analog and digital gear, plus Dunlavy monitors. I like bringing my work to a place where I can hear much more detail than I can at home — that’s the whole point! Michael has taught me so much about mastering — I used to work for him — and audio in general…he’s my mentor more than anyone else. The ultimate piano recording for my money would be Michael engineering at Ambient Recording in Stamford, CT.
Tom Durack has been an inspiration ever since I met him at Skyline, which he had ‘graduated’ from, to working there as Nile Rodgers’ engineer. Sitting in on the razor blade editing of the single release of “Love Shack” was a trip. I have always been struck by Tom’s abilities to track and mix albums that sound as good as you could imagine. He’s been great to run mixes by, plus he is now a co-worker of mine at Trinity, and one of my closest friends. He too has impeccably mastered a few of the albums I’ve mixed.
Next up, Trinity Church Wall Street/St. Paul’s Chapel, Broadway at Wall Street, NYC
An old friend who was working at Trinity recommended me for this gig, which has gone from doing house sound for services and concerts, to now streaming for the church’s large Web audience, plus field audio, Pro Tools editing, outdoor concerts and live conferences that transmit to sister Episcopal churches around the world. It’s the gig that keeps giving, and it’s quite educational.
And Trinity Church is never going to go away. How many studios stick around for over 200 years? The church itself provides the constant challenge of knowing how to function while basically working inside an echo chamber.
Systems Two Recording Studios, 117 Ditmas Ave., Brooklyn NY 10018, 718-851-1010
Of all the places where I have put in a lot of hours as a freelancer (post-Skyline and Power Station), Systems Two is easily the most glamorous, and the place I’ve gotten the most work from since 2002. Over 30 years in business, making thousands of clients happy, mostly in jazz, it’s basically a mom-and-pop business with none of the huge overhead of payroll that weighed down the Manhattan places I remember.
Between the two of them, husband and wife owners Joseph and Nancy Marciano wear the various hats of chief engineer, assistant, manager, bookkeeper, and general maintenance! The other main engineer is Michael Marciano, brother of Joseph. There’s an assistant engineer who now engineers a lot, and myself, I’m brought in around twice a week for much of the rest, lots of evenings and weekends. I’ve had this gig for nine years, it’s my one long commute, but that’s what books and iPods are for.
Their famous Steinway is from Carnegie Hall, their C3 and drum kit are also legendary, one of their ribbon mics is John Coltrane’s, etc. Nice big room with a short reverb which works for just about everything. Their main bread and butter comes from being a top-notch, word-of-mouth jazz studio, even though they sometimes do everything else, including orchestral, choral, metal, etc. Their discography is staggering. They have two Pro Tools rooms and one mastering room.
Way out there, but only yards from the F train. I love these people and I love this place — I open up a mic and it always sounds good. When I come in it always looks like I’m doing the first session of the day, even if a big band just finished up an hour ago. Work there is effortless: no wrestling with acoustics, monitoring, or a finicky patch bay. It’s my first choice for any client that can afford to work there.
Next week, come back for Part II of Rich Lamb — Nomad Engineer: Going to the Fab Faux, Maxing Cable Access, and Hitting the Poconos. Write Rich at email@example.com to join his Song of the Week email list!!!