THE MUSICIAN AS ENGINEERWHERE THE LEFT BRAIN AND THE RIGHT BRAIN MEET Big shifts in the way music is recorded over the past several years have forced major changes upon studios. 10/01/2001 8:00 AM Eastern
Big shifts in the way music is recorded over the past several years have forced major changes upon studios. These shifts have also spawned a new breed of musician. Pressed by declining demand for live players and the proliferation of affordable technology, many artists have added engineering chops of one kind or another to their skill sets. Mix assembled a panel of performers who also track, mix, edit and create sounds for the industry, and asked them to discuss the package of services they offer their clients.
Sax player Andy Snitzer has been on tour with Paul Simon for the past several years. Snitzer has an impressive resume that also includes road work with the Rolling Stones and numerous New York sessions.
Larry Fast is best known for the series of nine electronic music albums he's recorded under the project name Synergy, and for his work in the studio and onstage with Peter Gabriel. He is currently completing projects for Disney and XM Satellite Radio, and has been touring and recording with the Tony Levin Band.
David Torn (aka “Splattercell”) is a composer, guitarist, loopist and texturalist. He is also a member of Human and bills himself as a “freak, geek and sonic saboteur.” His studio, Cell Labs, is located in upstate New York.
Connecticut resident Jim Chapdelaine is a guitarist and member of the band Feather Merchants. He owns a Pro Tools-based studio, where he records and mixes projects for outside artists when he's not composing and recording jingles and underscores for local and national clients.
A first-class keyboardist, George Whitty is also an accomplished composer and arranger with excellent mixing chops. He produced Michael Brecker's last CD and is all over smooth jazz artist Dave Mann's successful new release, Touch. He recently left his Manhattan apartment and emigrated to Rockland County, N.Y.
Larry, I know that you've been interested in technology for a long time, so perhaps you can answer this question first: When did you guys first begin to engineer sessions?
Larry Fast: Informally, I'd have to say as far back as my junior high school rock band. I was a hi-fi/recording hobbyist with my own quarter-inch, half-track, mono machine from about 1962 on. I started learning mic technique and audio balancing pretty early. There were transitional semi-pro projects in the early 1970s. My first real credited project for engineering was my first solo album, which was released in 1975.
David Torn: I began engineering, under pressure, in 1994, when I first built Cell Labs, my little home studio — on my own recording project, though. I'm not really an engineer. I've worked with some great engineers — Mike Farrow, Tom Mark, Jan Erik Kongshau, Roger Moutenot, Husky Hoskolds, Walter Quintus, Bruce Calder, Danny Kopelson — so I know the difference. I built the studio around Logic Audio, which was the first affordably available software I knew about that allowed for the manipulation of audio.
George Whitty: For real, about 12 years ago, on a Tascam 808. [It was] part of my intense curiosity about finding a way to actualize any sound I could conceive, on a recording budget I could afford. I like to experiment, and a certain amount of everything I do is still sort of monkey-with-a-typewriter-and-unlimited-amount-of-time-eventually-types-The-Bible. Buying the gear and learning to engineer was really about availing myself of an unlimited amount of time.
Jim Chapdelaine: I started fooling around with a TEAC 3340 in the mid-'70s. In 1984, I partnered up in an early 16-track project studio, where I learned lots of interesting mistakes as well as happy accidents. I officially got tired of being on the road in 1990 and started to build my own private studio, where I continue to do all kinds of work today.
Andy Snitzer: When I had to do it for my own records. I really don't think of the editing work I do in Pro Tools as engineering; I think of it as music editing, performance massaging, which I do strictly by my musician's ear. [Snitzer's editing clients include Bon Jovi]. When I have to record players for my records, worry about the signal path, levels, EQ, etc., then I'm engineering. I feel pretty good about most aspects of it, save EQ. Having seen real engineers use EQ, I know I'll never really hear it like they do.
Did any of you ever apprentice at an outside facility?
Torn: Absolutely not; I'm merely a musician and composer with a large micro-processed geek factor.
Whitty: Never did, but I got to work with a lot of killer engineers as a producer and player, watched carefully and was a constant pest with questions.
Snitzer: Nope, just slogged away at home. Naturally, I had a head start from being around the studio environment for many years as a session player, and having very good engineers as friends.
Fast: I didn't formally apprentice, but I was around a lot of sessions absorbing what I could and sometimes helping out when I could contribute. Since I worked at home and at House of Music studios on my solo albums in the '70s and '80s, I was exposed to the “right” way to do things in the studio, which refined my own techniques. Later, I was involved with high-profile projects with Peter Gabriel, Jim Steinman and many others, which brought me to a number of the best world-class studios, where I picked up even more from some of the best producers and engineers.
In what ways does engineering spring naturally from your playing and writing, and to what degree is it an entirely separate discipline?
Whitty: I think they're both components of a larger picture. I'm always trying to get an end performance that really plays the listener the right way, and providing the right immersion in a great mix is an entire third dimension of the picture.
Chapdelaine: The similarities are many. In both, you need to learn “the rules” or the craft, and in both, the most satisfying moments come when you can forget about the rules and the craft and create something. Both require you not only to focus on what you are doing but to hear the whole picture. The differences for me are that I never get tired of playing or writing music, but there are times when the engineering side can get a little tedious. Fortunately, or not, for me, I love playing with toys, so engineering is more often fun than not.
Snitzer: I really relate to compression, both on individual instruments and on the mix bus, as a tool for affecting the way a track grooves. That's been a natural thing that has developed well. Mix levels, panning, effect depth, etc. also come very naturally from being the composer and programmer. The EQ, as I mentioned, the sculpting of each sound, is not so easy for me.
Fast: In my area of electronic music, going back to the Moog days, the two are completely intertwined. I feel very little separation between the two. The same attention to audio detail that goes into crafting a particular patch is used to craft those patches into the sonic tapestry of a complete piece.
Torn: In that my guitar playing and writing have been deeply married to the technologies of live looping and post-processing for most of my life, well…recording/engineering is an extremely natural extension of that very process, at least insofar as I might treat my DAW as a compositional tool. However, learning to choose and place microphones seems like a lifetime affair to me; I prefer to use “real” engineers for that, when time and circumstance allow.
How has being a musician affected your mixing?
Chapdelaine: I always approach a mix as a listening musician first and a technician second. I think that the musician side will always ask, “Does it feel good or right?” while the engineering side might ask, “Does it sound good or right?” The musician side wins most arguments, except when it comes to compression. The musician side tends to overcompress, so watch out.
Snitzer: My musicianship is my mixing, meaning that I can only approach a mix from the point of view that I understand the various parts and sounds in the production and how they're meant to co-exist. Sometimes I think this causes me to be overly subtle about things, but it's hard not to just go with your sense of what's musical.
Fast: I'm looking for the musical interplay of the score to fit together in the way that I've been conceptualizing as the piece was being composed. In a way, my mixes only fit together in one correct way for the arrangement. If it won't fit together properly, then something's not yet right with the music itself. With complex MIDI arrangements, I now find myself refining level, placement and ambient environment details that used to be done in the mix during the arrangement stage instead.
Torn: After producing my last four CDs — two as David Torn, two as Splattercell — I think that I've finally admitted that I have difficulty in mixing my own stuff! Some of my mixes are fine, though a bit more musical and idiosyncratic than most “commercial” mixes. Remixing is a mostly musicianly process. I could not do remixing if I didn't compose.
Whitty: I think all really good engineers are excellent conductors and arrangers by nature, and being a musician definitely developed that side of my thing. I'd say that mixing has definitely done more for my playing than vice versa. It's helped me develop a better sense for what's really needed.
Do you enjoy engineering as much as making music?
Snitzer: I love mixing, I love working compression on the mix bus, I love editing performances in Pro Tools toward taking the groove of the thing to another level. The tracking process, the actual recording process, I could easily leave to someone else.
Fast: I'm an audio gadget and software gadget guy, so I like that techie aspect, but as I mentioned, the engineering is such an integral part of the music creation for me that it's very tough to separate them.
Torn: Actually, there are times I hate engineering, especially when: A) I'm forced to engineer something for another artist or friend, and B) I'm in the throws of a creative “blast” of my own that requires full performance-oriented concentration. At other times — specifically, when the engineering is woven together with the sonics of the creative process, whether for myself or another artist — I do love it.
Whitty: That's a hard one, because they both satisfy in totally different ways; I think I need to do both to be happy.
Chapdelaine: Not to dodge the question, but hopefully, when I'm engineering I am in some way or form making music. If I have spare time, I'll always pick up my Rick Turner Baritone 12-string before I fool around in Pro Tools. I love the learning aspect of engineering. With technology, these are actually exciting times to engineer. Now if somebody can settle on a standard format, platform and sampling rate, things will really get fun!
What advice would you give the aspiring musician with regard to the value of learning about the recording process?
Fast: Unless a young musician intends to focus only on live classical performance, I think that at least a basic understanding of the recording process and its pitfalls is essential. Most music today is disseminated through the recorded medium. Not understanding how that works would be a huge handicap.
Torn: There's nothing but value in learning the process, whether from doing, reading or querying the pros, but it's critical for musicians to note that engineering serves the creative urges. We're all subservient to music, and sometimes it's good to break some rules, for the right sound and atmosphere.
Whitty: Unless you're Mozart and born with a gift for the big picture, there's nothing else even close to recording to develop every facet of your musicianship. Even if you never engineer a lick, the musicians I see working the most are the ones who really understand the recording process, who can use the tools there to make some kind of magic happen, rather than the ones with the great lick on a C-sharp 7 flat 9 flat 13 chord — although I have one of those, too!
Chapdelaine: I'm a schooled musician and a self-taught engineer. There are technical aspects of engineering that I wish I had become aware of earlier, instead of stumbling upon them or reading about them later on. Find a mentor or do an internship. As a musician, I wasn't as aware of the kick drum or the EQ on the horns. Now, I listen for those things and they make me a better player.
Snitzer: With every passing day, the industry requires every one of us to be more vertically integrated. If you own Dig Audio gear, or MIDI gear, you will not escape the technical demands of those systems. The better you are at that side, the more freely you can get at your music — writing it, demonstrating it, preserving it. The most important thing is to find a method that works for you, and to get to it.
Gary Eskow is a Mix contributing editor.