Check out this fun interview I did on the SECT Metal Podcast! We discuss my workflow in the studio, the music scene locally, bands I’m personally involved in, and some of my current black metal favorites! Charlie the interviewer is the singer of Holding On To Nothing, whose EP recorded at Studio Wormwood will be out this spring.
I’m frequently asked by people interested in becoming audio engineers about the viability of attending a school to study audio. Now, let me preface this by saying that there are a ton of great audio-specific schools out there as well as a lot of universities and community colleges who offer degrees in audio recording or music technology. Many of these programs even offer students a look at many different career avenues inside the world of audio – not just the single-minded recording studio route. I, myself went through the program at the Conservatory of Recording Arts and Sciences (CRAS) and learned a lot while having a very good time, so I have no personal affront against the idea of going to audio school. However, my decision to attend a school strictly for audio could have been a little better informed, and I’d like to share what I now know with prospective audio students.
- The diploma means nothing when it comes time to find a gig. A lot of young people are still indoctrinated into thinking that they need a college education to be successful. While yes, a degree from a prestigious university will only help your employment chances in certain fields, it will not be of much help to you in the audio world. The benefit of attending an audio school is the experiential nature of your education – not receiving a piece of paper at the end of your studies. Apply for an internship or an entry-level audio gig anywhere, and the person hiring will simply try to get a feel whether you can hang, be sociable, get along with everyone, and not piss anyone off. They will not be scouring your resume and schooling history, as would be done in other professions. What matters most when it comes to getting your foot in the audio door are your intangibles. Can you hang? Can you be a fly on the wall? Can you take direction? Do you typically make people feel comfortable when you’re around? Do you know what a microphone is? Do you know basic signal flow? Can you learn stuff in a reasonable amount of time? These are the things I’m going to be looking for when hiring a potential intern, runner, or even assistant engineer.
- Many audio programs are expensive and an entry-level gig will not pay back hefty loans very quickly. Say you’re dead set on becoming a studio-based recording engineer (like I was), and you want to have the opportunity to intern and eventually work for a well-known and prestigious recording studio (like I did). That gig at a famous recording studio is going to pay you peanuts compared to the many thousands of dollars you may have to shell out of pocket and in loans for your audio education. It cost me about $25,000 to attend CRAS, between tuition, living expenses, and the cross-country move from Connecticut to Arizona. Do remember that most audio internships are unpaid, and in my case, I went another four months after the end of my on-site schooling before I had parlayed my internship into a paid assistant engineer gig. Making less than $8/hour doing sporadic and unpredictable assistant work isn’t the most efficient way to pay off substantial student debt, and I absolutely lucked out by having a large portion of my education paid for up front by a very generous extended family member. The point is that for some people who have financial assistance, an audio school may make perfectly good fiscal sense – but it’s not for everyone. If you crunch the numbers and determine that attending an audio-specific school is going to leave you in many thousands of debt, I would highly recommend looking at different learning options. Obviously, you can always hold down a part time job while you attend school or while you work an internship/entry-level gig. But if your goal is to be working solely in the field that you love in the shortest amount of time possible, working another job is only going to cut into the time you can dedicate to learning your craft in the world of audio.
- Audio school is only as good an experience as you make it. It was unbelievable to me how many of my peers would decline the opportunity to stay late at the school studios, hang around other kids’ sessions, ask questions of any instructor who’d listen, and take full advantage of the facilities available to us. I figured, “we’re paying for the privilege of being around awesome audio gear and experienced instructors – might as well get every last drop out of this.” You’re not going to be simply handed the tools to survive in the audio industry. The “keys to the Lambo” aren’t doled out to anyone who can pay to get in the door to an audio education institution. Enjoying your time and making the most of your experience in an audio program is directly tied to how hard you work to better understand the craft you are learning.
- School is not the only way to learn an audio trade. While getting an audio education at an institution is a convenient way to learn the building blocks of sound in a supportive environment, it is not the only way to get a foot in the door. Many recording studios (including Studio Wormwood) offer internship opportunities to people who have a strong desire to learn about recording music from the ground up. Many studios also offer mini-courses, like a Home Recording 101, to equip young musicians, hobbyists, and people who’d like to eventually become professionals acquire a backbone of knowledge to continue making better recordings with their home rig. Club venues and freelance live sound engineers can be open to letting an ambitious young person shadow during local gigs, watching, learning, and helping the front-of-house engineer directly. Forming these relationships as someone interested in audio really comes down to networking and connecting with the audio professionals in your area. In order to get the most out direct-learning experiences like these, it’s helpful to at least have a basic understanding of DAW software and how a simple mixing board works. The point is with some leg-work, motivation, and a self-starter attitude, it’s certainly possible to drum up some prospects for hands-on experience and practical audio knowledge outside of attending an educational institution.
- Trade schools are a business, and you (the student/customer) are their product. It’s important to remember that audio trade schools need to make a profit to survive, and there isn’t much profit without having a steady flow of tuition-paying students. This fact isn’t necessarily negative or positive in nature, but I feel knowing this provides a little fuller of a picture of the kind of experience many audio-specific institutions provide. It is in an audio school’s best interest to turn out the most consistently excellent product (graduates) of any institution anywhere; that’s how good reputations are formed. In working to create a consistent and exemplary graduate output, many audio institutions have pretty strict protocols for how their grads leave school and enter the industry via internships – and understandably so. But for someone like me who always wants to learn by doing myself, I had to break a few rules in order to secure what I felt like were the best opportunities for me post-graduation. The school/student relationship shouldn’t have to sway you one way or another when deciding whether an audio education at an actual institution is best for you, but it’s just something worth keeping in the back of your mind.
Depending on your financial and life situation and your goals, attending an audio school such as CRAS can be a great way to jumpstart your career in audio, learning to utilize the building blocks of sound in practical applications. For some people like me, it was a convenient foot in the door while for some peers of mine, it may not have been the right choice. I encourage young people interested in an audio career to do a lot of asking around and information-gathering on whether committing to a structured audio education will align with their career goals and desires for the future. There is never just one answer in the music industry, and the “right” thing for you may not be abundantly clear. Hopefully this post offers a slightly different perspective on the role of an audio-specific schooling, and please contact me directly if you’d like to discuss in more detail anything I’ve written about here!
Warm recently recorded and mixed their long-awaited album “The Human Exemplar” with me here at Studio Wormwood, and this week none other than Metal Injection premiered one of the songs! Check out the song stream here: http://www.metalinjection.net/underground-pitch/underground-buzz-stream-warms-a-pale-emperor
Working with Warm in the studio was an absolute pleasure, as they conduct themselves extremely professionally and made it clear from the start that they wanted to spend the necessary time experimenting with sounds for all instruments. I LOVE having the opportunity to audition a wide variety of microphones and placement options, amplifiers, and speaker cabinets, and Warm were just as enthusiastic to find the perfect tone together. Here’s a look at how we recorded guitar and bass.
Guitar players Keenan and Mike each used blends of two different amps for their rhythm guitar sounds – one amp for the main guitar track and another for the double track. Keenan utilized an 80’s era Peavey Butcher and a Sovtek Mig 50, played through an Orange PPC412 cabinet. We mic’d his rig with a roughly 60/40 blend of a Groove Tubes Velo 8 ribbon mic and an SM57, through a pair of Warm Audio ToneBeast preamps. A Beyerdynamic M88 is also pictured in the shot below, but it didn’t end up being used. Using the Velo 8 ribbon as the base of Keenan’s guitar sound provided us with the big, ballsy backbone backbone he was looking for, with the 57 snuck up underneath providing a hint of it’s trademark sizzle and snarl.
Mike’s guitar sound was comprised of a pair of Mesa amps – a Stiletto Deuce and a Triple Rectifier, through a Mesa Oversided 4×12 cabinet. Mike knew from previous recording experiences that he liked the sound of an SM57 on his rig, so we used that as a starting point and tried out a number of additional blending options. We ended up settling on a 60/40 blend of the SM57 with a Telefunken CU-29, both also through the ToneBeast pair of preamps. Mike was going for more of a “fizzy” sound than Keenan’s earthy, “warm” tone, and the SM57 and tube condenser combination proved to get us there with little hassle.
Warm’s whole record is not only a joy to listen to, but some fantastically dynamic heavy metal. The record fully drops June 17, and you can stay up to date with the band at the following links:
There are many different capacities in which engineers can work with musicians, and my approach is always a very personal one. Working face to face with artists and performers in a recording situation is literally my favorite thing in the world, and there is nothing I’d rather be doing at any time than helping a musician or band bring their art to fruition. This is really why I don’t work in live sound at all; I would rather work with you creatively – from pre-production straight through the mix stage – than just in the capacity of making your live mix sound good. Conceptually speaking, I believe that our goal in the studio is to create the best songs possible – regardless of the barriers to performing the songs live in a concert setting exactly as they were recorded. This is all part of the idea that as your engineer, you aren’t just paying me solely to push “record”.
Unless you specify otherwise, a major part of my job is to act as a producer for you – providing creative feedback and different solutions to aspects of song craft such as arrangements, instrumentation, phrasing, general aesthetic, performance technique, and much more. If you can afford to hire a producer who’s job is manage all parts of your album production from day one, then you are a lucky minority in this day and age! But generally speaking, independent and signed artists alike have far smaller budgets to work with than even ten or fifteen years ago, which means hiring a producer in addition to paying for studio time and an engineer is often not feasible. So I try to combine these roles as best I can, providing you with the sonic excellence and knowledge you expect from an experienced engineer filtered through a producer’s lens.
A lot of bands and artists come to me asking if I have a particular “sound” that I impart on my recordings and mixes. While I think most good engineers develop a unique style of their own, I work hard to make sure mine doesn’t get in the way of your sound as the artist. I tell people that when you record here at Studio Wormwood you’re going to sound like YOU. I’m never going to take your amp away, throw your guitar through a Kemper modeling amp and say “Here’s your new tone,” and I will almost never replace your drum shells with other engineers’ samples. I typically ask my performers things like “Does this sound like you?” and “Is this the sound in your head?” as we’re dialing in sounds, because I want to make positive that your recording is a good representation of who you are as a musician. All that being said, I believe it’s my duty to make constructive suggestions and provide alternative options during the many stages of making a recording. For instance, when first getting guitar sounds I will typically ask the player to set his rig up in the amp room exactly as they normally would, and listen to that player’s style. Based on what we hear in the room, I may want to suggest we try a few different speaker cabinets, amps, and blends of gear – all with the goals in mind of deciding on a sound that suits the style of music, will mix well with our previously recorded tracks, and will suit the player’s personal taste. Whether it’s a drummer, guitarist, or other instrumentalist, I think hearing the player do their thing in the room that we’ll be recording in is crucial to making small (or large) tweaks as we go; it gives us a good starting point to work with.
The same idea applies in a mix situation. I prefer to have the band present with me during mix sessions because at every stage of my workflow, I like to check that the direction I’m going is getting us closer to the way you as the artist has always heard the music in your head. Of course I’ll have creative ideas and suggestions along the way, but my intent is always to bring your music out in the most vibrant of sonic color while maintaining the meaning and vibe that the piece was written with.
As a guitarist (and perfectionist) myself, I know firsthand how frustrating it can be to record and mix your own music. For most of the music I write myself, I end up being responsible for almost all of the arrangements, melodies and harmonies, lyrics, and have a clear vision for the final product in addition to having to record and mix the whole thing. Even though I’ve been wearing both the engineer’s and performer’s hats for years, it doesn’t get any easier to maintain clear perspectives on both sides of the glass simultaneously. One of the most fundamental jobs I have as your engineer is to separate these parts of the recording experience for you – allowing you to focus on your art, and me to deal with how best to record and mix it.
Every studio and every engineer or producer will have a slightly different allure, and different strengths on both the personal and technical levels. If you choose to make your next recording with me at Studio Wormwood, you’re choosing to make a recording based in natural sounds with an engineer committed to making the sound in your head a reality.