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Music Production

Rocking the Studio with Kevin Shirley

MALIBU, CA—For the past 37 years, Kevin “Caveman” Shirley has worked with some of the biggest artists on the planet, including Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith, Joe Bonamassa, Iron Maiden, Metallica and numerous others.

MALIBU, CA—For the past 37 years, Kevin “Caveman” Shirley has worked with some of the biggest artists on the planet, including Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith, Joe Bonamassa, Iron Maiden, Metallica and numerous others. Over that same period, he has also seen the role of interning and assisting fade away, so this year, he launched a workshop series, Mix with Caveman, to enable a new generation of mixers and producers to benefit from his experience.

“I’m not a teacher, but I’m blown away by how effective the program is,” says Shirley during a June workshop at his private mix room, The Cave, in Malibu, CA. He previously held two workshops at The Cave Australia, an almost identically-equipped studio overlooking the beach in Sydney. He just has enough time in his busy schedule to slot in another of the week-long sessions in Malibu and two more in Sydney before the end of this year.

“You don’t get a lot of opportunities anymore to work as an assistant or alongside somebody at this level. To be able to do that for a week is invaluable,” says Will Beale, who owns 1410 Media, a recording studio and marketing company, and Awake Records in Connecticut. Beale has followed Shirley since hearing his work on Rush’s Counterparts, he says.

“You have affirmations about some of the approaches that you take,” he says of the workshop. And some takeaways, he adds: “I’ll maybe be more analytical about how I start a mix, and start from a different place than I have in the past.”

Over the course of the week, Shirley demonstrates his approach to mixes of various songs by his clients, in 5.1 as well as stereo. Participants are encouraged to do their own mixes and have permission from the likes of Bonamassa to post the results to social media. Shirley also allows time for attendees to mix their own projects. Both studios house 48-channel SSL Duality consoles and a variety of new and vintage outboard gear.

Watching Shirley mix has reportedly been a highlight of all the sessions. “As much as I feel like I’m taking away from their time, I think they really enjoy watching the workflow,” says Shirley. “I would have killed for an opportunity like this if I’d had it.”

The Cave Australia, the newer of the two studios, features Focusrite RedNet converters, but at the Malibu location, opened in 2008, Shirley is rather more old school. “I’ve been through all sorts of converters: Apogee Symphony, Rosetta, Prism Sound Dream. But I went back to this yesterday,” he says, pointing to the Apogee AD-500 below his Pro Tools display. “I did the Silverchair album with it in ‘94; that’s how long I’ve had it. I still think this sounds better—and it’s 16-bit!”

All four participants at June’s Malibu workshop own or work in a professional recording studio. Mateus Borges, nicknamed Lucky (“It was given to me by Chris Lord Alge,” he says), is a record producer and owner of audioFARM Recording Studio in Porto Alegre, Brazil. “Kevin has been one of my main inspirations forever,” says Borges. “He has an amazing consistency and all of his stuff sounds very organic, very natural. I wanted to see how he does that. It’s been amazing, because it has been completely different from what I thought he did.”

Borges adds, “You can see what he wants from the sound. Being able to see what he expects from all the tracks that he’s working with, that was the clarifying thing.”

“I have a small studio, Estúdio Boca de Sons, in a small city,” says record producer and musician Alison Knak, who flew in from Santa Cruz do Sol, Brazil, near Porto Alegre. “I’m learning a lot, watching Kevin, his approach and how he works,” he says.

“Being here was really magical, because I was able to see the Caveman work,” says Conrad Ruther, from São Paulo, Brazil. Ruther holds down several jobs, as a product specialist for SSL, a studio wiring specialist and working at Audio Arena, an SSL-equipped recording facility located within the Estádio do Mo-rumbi soccer stadium in São Paulo.

“He has a way different approach,” says Ruther. “I thought it was complex, but he works in a simple way. It’s great to learn not to complicate things.”

The traditional path to engineering and mixing disappeared as many professional studios closed and home-recording facilities proliferated, says Shirley. As a result, interns and assistants almost became extinct. “They would learn interactions between musicians, engineers and producers and related parts of the business, then graduate to being an engineer,” he says. “That’s largely gone.”

The idea behind Mix with Caveman was to offer an alternative path. “People who have never been in the studio and want to get into it can come and get a crash course,” he says.

“Some of them come in with quite a lot of skill; they know all sorts of tricks that I don’t know.” But as the recent Malibu group soon discovered, less is definitely more when Shirley is mixing. “So they leave here saying they’re not going to do that anymore!” he laughs.

Kevin Shirley