Read Time 18 Minutes
A graduate of the Berklee College Of Music MP&E (Music Production and Engineering) program, Will paid his dues at places like Nashville’s Ocean Way, Right Track Recording (now MSR) in New York and one particularly fascinating stint digitally archiving Ray Charles’ music in Ray Charles’ studio.
The knee jerk reaction to hearing about a job like that is thinking that you have to be pretty lucky to get paid to listen to and transfer Ray Charles music all day. But it was Will’s talent, work ethic and professionalism that got him where he is today – producing, engineering and running Studio P, an independent studio with studio co-owner Rafael Serrano.
In addition to being incredibly gifted, Will is also one of the straightest talking people I know. This made him the perfect person to talk about the ins and outs of studios, things to think about in home recording and managing a transition into recording your music in a professional studio. With that in mind here is part 1 of
10 questions with Will Kennedy
1. Can you talk about Studio P and the projects you’re currently involved in?
The two most well-known projects at Studio P recently have been the new Weird Al Yankovic album (Alpocalypse), and the new OAR record (King). I also produced, engineered, and mixed the latest self-titled Black Kettle EP, and have been working on a lot of lesser-known independent stuff.
With Studio P, Rafael and I chose our equipment and our location very carefully to make sure we have plenty of firepower to deliver on big projects but also keep our overhead low. This way, when someone comes in with a lower budget project we don’t necessarily have to say no.
2. Years ago, I read an interview with a guitarist who mentioned how having violin as a first instrument completely formed his guitar playing. Since it can take a long time to even get a useable sound out of a violin, the sound of the notes is a focal point right away and that awareness of tone was instilled in his guitar playing. When you were at Berklee your principal instrument was trombone. I know you slapped a pickup on it and started playing it in bands, but do you think that initial experience affected you as an engineer?
I don’t know if it directly affected how I approach engineering or production. I think it’s more of a tangential connection in coming to the understanding that manipulating the sound of something was cool to me. I liked the possibilities of making this unexpected sound come from something everyone knew.
Essentially, I was trying to make trombone and the pickup sound like a guitar but I only realized that after I’d gone through the whole process. I’d grown up listening to, and eventually playing, jazz. As I hit my teens I got more into rock and started falling in love with guitar tones, though I had no idea that was happening at the time. I just knew certain records affected me while others didn’t and I couldn’t quite put my finger on why.
Building the pickup for the trombone definitely helped me realize how I could manipulate sound, and that kind of manipulation was really interesting to me. There were two teachers at Berklee (Tom Plsek and Hal Crook) using lavalier mics and effects with trombones but they were doing something completely different than me. There was no history of rock electric trombone players and with no sonic framework the process for getting the sounds I wanted was nothing but trial and error. I knew guitar players had amplifiers and pedals but I had no understanding of how they worked together to create tones. Not knowing what amp to use or what order to put my pedals in, I started off with what I knew: a bell microphone on the trombone. Then I bought an Alesis Midiverb, a keyboard amp and some distortion pedals and spent a lot of time fooling around trying to get cool sounds out of that. I listened to guitar tones I really liked, tried to figure out how they’d done those things and how that related to my trombone.
I quickly found that I’d get horrible feedback through the bell mic when using distortion. Out of necessity, I eventually built a trombone pickup by mounting a lavalier microphone in the end of a practice mute. That didn’t solve the problem entirely, so I tried stuffing the “pickup mute” with fiberglass insulation to deaden it further. It sounded better but didn’t kill the feedback. After asking around, I realized the problem was that the small wavelength of the high frequencies in the distorted tone allowed them to sneak into the mute through tiny vent holes in the side. I re-directed them by mounting randomly curved tubes to the vent holes on the inside of the mute. In other words, I got a little nuts with it. (laughs).
At some point I realized that I should just take the time I was spending making my horn sound like a guitar and learn to play the guitar instead. Coming to that realization took a while. A lot of people wondered why I’d want to ditch the “cool” thing I was doing, but it wasn’t about trying to be cool or drawing attention to myself. I was about looking for a sound and ultimately I realized guitar was the sound I was chasing.
3. Before there were formal education programs in MP&E (Music Production and Engineering), the traditional route to being an engineer was more of an apprenticeship. Since you’ve had traditional training with 24 track analog gear in an academic environment and then augmented that training by working your way though the traditional apprentice cycle, how have those experiences developed your skills and/or perspective?
Well I guess the first step is to talk about how this process used to work, and how it works now. Before there were any schools for recording, you’d have to go out and knock on the door of every recording studio you could find. With any luck, you’d get hired as a “general assistant”, a “runner,” or a “tea boy.” It had different names in different cities, but was all the same job: a step and fetch it. You fetched cables, made coffee, picked up everyone’s dinner, answered phones, etc. for the entire studio. In addition to the menial labor provided the studio management also used this time to find out if you had the stones to hang.
They wanted to see how you handled being there for 14, 16, 24 or maybe even 48 hours in a row and if you could carry yourself well enough to be trusted with clients who were possibly famous and paying a tremendous amount of money to be in the studio. You also used this time to read manuals, help set up and break down recording setups and learned as much as you could about the technical aspects of the studio. In short, you prepared yourself as much as possible for your shot at getting “into the room.”
You might have done the runner thing for a couple of years tops – depending on your skills and the studio’s needs. If you survived/stuck it out, at some point you’d become an assistant engineer. This was still essentially a step and fetch it job, but now you were in the control room and (with some luck) working around the giants of the business. This was stage two of your education and you were now expected to know how everything worked. So if the engineer said, “I want to patch piece of gear x into channel y” you were on it. You’d trouble-shoot equipment problems, help familiarize clients with the studios and serve as the liaison between the clients and the studio management. You’d also be soaking up as much as you could about the recording process. For example, learning how and why certain people did things certain ways and building your own skills in general. You would often be at this stage for years.
If you were good enough, people hopefully started recognizing your efforts and talent and you might start getting further opportunities. For example, if an engineer didn’t show for a session you were assisting on and the client couldn’t cancel the session would have to happen. If you were trusted by the clients and studio management, you’d get bumped up into the engineer’s chair. If it went well, one session would lead to another and you’d start making your bones as an engineer. WAY back in the day, the career goal would probably to become a staff engineer at a studio but since that gig disappeared about 30 years ago, you’d most likely work towards becoming a freelance engineer with the next steps moving towards becoming a producer or a mix engineer.
As someone on the other side of the glass, you’re looking for either the production or the mix engineer credit because those have become the glamour spots. With respect to the engineering that’s not how it used to be. Originally a recording engineer would follow a project through from beginning to end and was expected to do it all. It was really in the 80’s that you started seeing some cases of specialized mixing engineers who very rarely tracked. I may be wrong about this, but in my mind the first guy who really was branded as just a “mix engineer” was Bob Clearmountain (who’s absolutely amazing). But tracking engineers were/are the unsung heroes of many recordings. They’re the ones who capture the performances and sounds in the first place.
For me, the formal education route wasn’t that different from the traditional way. It was necessary in my case because I didn’t immediately know that recording was what I wanted to do. Berklee not only introduced me to recording, but it also gave me a great education in, and respect for, the craft. I developed a real love for it. Even so, when I got out of school (which is 12 years ago now) I still had to start as a runner. My hope was that my education would give me a leg up while I was trying to get my foot in the door. But once I was in, I was fighting it out with everybody else.
Around that time some substantial changes occurred and that created a new paradigm:
- Recording technology became much cheaper.
- Records sold fewer and fewer copies.
- Recording budgets got much smaller.
- The old way of making records (camp out at a big expensive studio for however long it took to finish a record) declined. With it, many big studios closed up shop.
- This meant the number of jobs available shrunk dramatically as well, but the number of schools teaching recording continued to grow.
- Some graduates from these programs started stepping out into the world thinking, “Well, I just graduated from a program but can’t get a job at a big studio. I have enough equipment to do this, so I might as well go out on my own.” And they’d hang out their “producer/mixer/engineer” shingle and open their doors for business.
From a grammatical standpoint, if they possess enough skill to get signal to their recording medium they have every right to call themselves an engineer. If they know enough to bounce something down to two tracks (or six for surround sound) then I guess they can call themselves a mixer. If someone believes they know how to arrange a song then they could call themselves a producer. But owning the tools doesn’t make you a craftsman.
If someone’s gone to a good recording school, what they really have when they get out is a very basic knowledge of how things work and what their place in the food chain is. What they don’t typically have are the ears. Some of the most valuable moments in my education came from sitting in rooms with some of my heroes and listening to what they were doing. I watched every setting they used on every piece of gear, every mic placement and every instrument they chose. I’d copy them exactly and STILL not have it sound the same. The real skill is being able to hear a sound in your head and manipulating the tools at your disposal to get the recording to match. The trick is that it’s a constantly moving target. Even from day to day with exactly the same setup and the same players adjustments have to be made. That’s the skill clients paying for and it takes a long time to develop.
I’ve had people balk at my fee for working on a project. They’ll ask me why they should pay me (though this applies to any experienced producer or engineer) when they have Pro Tools or Logic on their laptop. The answer is experience. I’ve spent the last 15-20 years of my life developing both the ears and the musical sensibility to be able to produce and mix a record in a way that someone with a handful of plug-ins and a year of experience can’t. It’s that simple.
4. Let’s say that there’s a band that’s been playing out a bit. Perhaps they’ve been recording tracks on their laptop and now are thinking about recording and mixing their tracks professionally. What should they be thinking about in terms of a studio?
The first thing to do is to pick your team. That’s far more important than the studio. It comes back to the adage of, “It’s not the arrow, it’s the archer.” A good starting point is answering the question, “Do I want/need a producer?”
A friend of mine had an artist come to him and say, “I’m going to make a record. I think I might need a producer, but I don’t know what a producer does.” My friend explained that a producer can help with songwriting, arrangements, project budgeting, choosing a studio, booking studio time and booking musicians. Depending on their skill set, they might also engineer and/or mix your project. They’re basically the conduit between the artist and the recording process. They give the artist a valuable “outside ear” for their music and can help tailor your recordings for your specific needs (i.e. placements, publishing, indie labels, major labels, direct release, etc.).
At which point the artist said, “I’m happy with my music, and I can do most of the other stuff myself. It sounds like I don’t need a producer.”
My friend replied, “Well I own a hammer; and I know what a house looks like; but I’m pretty sure if I’m going to build one I’ll hire a carpenter, a plumber, and an electrician. If you have to ask me what a producer does, you need a producer.”
Having a savvy studio person there with you means having someone on your side to make calls that you may not even be aware NEED to be made. There’s value in having someone with perspective say, “You know what? I know it’s not perfect, but man that felt good – keep it.” or, “Let’s work at Studio X, because the assistant at Studio Y is new, and doesn’t know the room well enough yet.” When you get dialed in to the minutia of the recording process by serving as your own engineer and/or producer, you’re doing yourself a disservice as an artist (kind of like the adage that the lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client). I’ve seen it quickly lead people “down the rabbit hole.” There’s a huge temptation to fix everything, because these days everything can be fixed. And the fallacy behind that is that the achievement of technical perfection will somehow yield Led Zeppelin IV. But that’s not why Zeppelin IV is a great record. It’s because of the humanity. The little mistakes we no longer hear as mistakes. Someone decided that some things sounded cool, while others needed to be fixed. Making those “big picture” calls while you’re trying to perform is EXTRAORDINARILY difficult.
So I highly recommend hiring a good producer with the caveat that as an artist, you may need to define “good” for yourself. Do some due diligence before you hit the studio. Check out their credit list. Listen to their work. Talk to their former clients. Sit down with them directly and see if you get a good vibe from them. Don’t worry about what kind of gear they own or if they have a kick-ass studio. That comes later.
The next part of the team will be your engineer. If you’ve hired a producer, it’s possible that person may engineer your project as well. If they don’t, they’ll often have an engineer they feel comfortable working with. In that case, go with their guy/girl because the line of communication between a producer and an engineer is very important. If they have an established good relationship, it will only help your project. If you’re self-producing, the same ideas that went into choosing a producer will apply for choosing an engineer though you may want to focus more on the technical aspects than the musical.
Now that you’ve got your team, you’re ready to pick a studio. In making that decision, you should lean on your team as much as possible. There are a lot of reasons for choosing different studios. Budget is first and foremost these days so that may drive your decision entirely. Another factor to consider is that certain studios, just like certain guitars and amps, are going to have a specific sound. Your producer or engineer may have their own studio as well. You also may decide to use a couple of different studios (one for tracking, one for overdubs) depending on what’s appropriate for the music and budget.
If you’re going to try to do it all yourself, you need to be well informed before booking a studio. All studios are not good for all things. If you just need to cut guitars, you might be able to go into a very small studio with one mic, mic pre, and perhaps a compressor and EQ. As a guitarist, chances are you’ve used that stuff recording at home. But if you need to track drums, that’s a whole other kettle of fish. You may find a studio with a small live space and just enough equipment to get the job done, but if you’re looking for a big, fat rock sound, you’re going to need a bigger room for the drums to excite. You’re also going to need to know how to place the mics to take advantage of the room sound and how to EQ and compress the sound to get those microphones to work well together. You’ll be dealing with exponentially more recording equipment and exponentially more decisions. There’s a lot to know. Beefing up sounds from a small studio to sound bigger is certainly an option, but it takes a lot of skill. I’ve had to do it on a number of occasions and it never sounds quite right to me. Unless you’re a skilled engineer, you’re going to be a little out of your depth either way.
That brings us to the mix and the mixing engineer. Your producer or engineer may be filling this role for you, but if that’s not the case you’ll need to lean on your team. If you’ve done the whole thing yourself up to this point, you’ll have to go back to doing your due diligence to find the right person. I want to touch on something specifically in regards to choosing a mixer. There seems to be a real feeling these days that the way to find a mix engineer is to label them based upon their credits. “Alternative guy, indie girl, jazz dude, etc.” You might find a mixer who works in a very narrow style that’s close to what you’re after. They may be very good at it, but it could be they limit their work to that style because they don’t have the skill and experience to work OUTSIDE of it. In that case, if you need them to think a little “outside of their box” for your project, you could be stuck.
Good mixers have the ability to adapt and they’ll be able to make changes throughout the process to suit your wants and needs. While they’re often typecast, they can do more than one thing. Someone who mixed a hard rock project might be able to mix an indie rock or a jazz recording just as capably. Once again we’re back to doing due diligence. If you’ve got a good vibe with a certain mixer, then go with them even if they don’t have the best-matched credit list for your genre.
5. I think sometimes bands see ridiculously low day rates for “studios” and then are shocked by how far over budget their final recordings end up being. Do you have any tips for budgeting a recording/cd release/digital release?
At the beginning of your project take out a piece of paper and write the words, “Fast”, “good,” and, “cheap” on it. Then pick two and cross out the third because you can never have all three. That said, you should still plan on your recording costing more than you think and getting what you pay for. Experience has shown me that artists generally don’t have a good handle on what a decent recording costs. Here’s the gist of a conversation I have all the time:
Me: “What’s your budget?”
Artist: “How much will it cost?”
Me: “I’m going to guarantee that I’m going to give you a number, and you’re going to say it’s too much. So why don’t you just tell me what you can pay and I’ll tell you if I can make it work?”
Artist: “Could you just give me an idea of what you normally charge?”
Me: “Okay. My normal fee is X dollars per song.”
Now, if they can pay my full rate, I’m in. That’s my job, they’re my client, and I’m fully committed to their project. That’s why it’s my full rate.
The more common reaction at that point is stunned silence. But remember, if you want to work with good people, they’re going to cost good money.
That’s where it gets tricky. If someone CAN’T afford my full rate, then it’s a negotiation and I have to set conditions based on the answers to questions like:
- How much CAN they pay?
- How into the project am I? (This could mean asking how into the music, the people involved, the commercial potential or all of the above am I.)
- How long do I think it’s going to take?
- How much work am I going to have to do?
- How busy am I with other projects?
It becomes a series of sliding scales based on all of those factors. But regardless, I am going to ask for more “back end” money if a client is paying less up front. Those possibilities include a bigger-than-usual percentage of sales, synch income, publishing, or songwriting (if it’s applicable). The less I make up front, the bigger those percentages get on the back end. Which seems to be a fair trade for most people since without the recording, they wouldn’t be have a chance to make that money in the first place.
So don’t be afraid to throw a budget number out there. You can only pay what you have, but you’ll need to be realistic in your expectations. If somebody says they can produce, mix, and engineer your song in their studio for $200 (which is very cheap), don’t be surprised if you’re not thrilled with the results.
If you’re trying to put a recording budget together before you make that first phone call, there are a couple of options. You can do it in an itemized way where you pay for everything individually. “A la carte” if you will. This could work to your advantage if you only need a short amount of their time. For example you can pay an engineer on a per day basis (or per hour if it’s a short session). The same goes for studios. Regardless of the situation, producers and mixers will generally work on a per-song basis that includes back end percentages.
The more common approach for bigger projects is what’s called an “all-in budget”. In this case an artist or label has a set budget number which will cover all of the recording costs: studios, producer’s fee, engineer’s fee, mixing, musicians, gear rental, etc. This may not include mastering, and never includes duplication, artwork, etc. If the recording costs run over, the overage generally comes out of the producer’s end since the producer is responsible for bringing the project in on-budget.
To give an idea, a comfortable indie budget for a 10-song record these days would be in the $15,000 to $20,000 range – depending on any number of factors. Do we have to pay musicians? What kind of studios do we need, and for how long? Will there be travel costs for the artists? You get the gist. Some records cost less, some cost more.
I’ve had bands come to me and say, “I have not-a-lot of dollars. I want to make a record.” I’ll tell them that while it’s possible to make a record for not-a-lot of dollars, chances are the record won’t sound very good, and chances are even greater that I won’t be the one doing it. However, that’s enough money to do – say – three songs really well. So the choice is theirs….make a bad-sounding full-length or a really good sounding EP?
Now if you’re a really kick ass band that can play really well, with your tones dialed in and I think we can do stuff live off the floor (meaning minimal – or no – overdubs); by cutting 4-5 songs a day we MIGHT be able to get a whole record done for mid four-figures. If I can make a record in a week for 5,000 bucks, then I’m making a decent wage, even if I am working crazy hours. We can afford to go into a big studio, everyone can play at the same time, we can get the vibe we’re going for, and everybody’s happy. But you’ve got to be really honest with yourself before you get to the studio and trust your producers and engineers when they hear you play. If you ignore their advice and have to bail on this approach part-way through, the amount of time your project will take is going to rise very quickly. If it’s an all-in budget, there’s going to be a limit to the length of your recording team’s commitment. I very rarely go out to see a band and think, “We can cut a great record that will meet everyone’s expectations in a week.” In the past 6 years, I believe the number is one.
Part Two of this interview is here.