I see a lot of Facebook posts like “What’s the best studio in town?” or “Who’s your favorite mastering engineer?”, and they kinda drive me nuts. The way award shows drive me nuts. In the mid-90s I was in high school and Rolling Stone did a best-of poll. Readers awarded the title of best male vocalist in the world to Billy Corgan. I knew objectively nothing about musicianship then, but that was still the stupidest shit I’d ever read.
We equate popularity to quality and skill and vice versa. Someone who once worked with / was in a popular band = you want them to record your record. Ok. Maybe. Maybe if their sensibilities and experience align with, challenge, and further your creative vision, great. Or if they have a particular production or engineering style you want imparted on your next album, go for it. But the popularity side of things doesn’t play into that. I worked on a single for Michael Jackson. Doesn’t mean I’m any damn good, just means I knew how to not get fired.
So here’s a list of considerations – based on experience and discussions I’ve had with musicians over the years – to contemplate when it come to picking a studio / engineer / producer, mastering engineer, and for the hell of it, bell peppers. I’ll try to keep pretentious1, old-man-yells-at-cloud rhetoric to a minimum, but no promises.
Gear = money. That’s it. If someone has a ton of awesome, rare, whatever gear, that just means they either spent a pile of money over the years and/or worked deals for permanent loans and endorsements. I love gear. A lot. And if you’re someone who draws inspiration from new and unfamiliar equipment and you’re open to different interpretations of your music, then finding a place with lots of toys might be what’s right for you. Or if you need a great piano – obviously find a studio with a great piano. But avoid gear cachet. Picking a studio just because they have a real Mellotron or Fairchild or U47 or whatever is no different than being a single-issue voter. Sure, you get to feel great and talk about that one thing, but how’s the other 98% of your record sound?
Vibe. Most of the less-than-great studio experiences I hear about happen because the relationship between the artist(s) and the recording professional wasn’t clearly defined or a good fit. You end up with some variation of “he always does these really huge drum sounds, it’s kinda his thing, so that’s all over our record, and it’s cool, but….” Regardless of who it is, hang out a bit, ask questions and make sure you won’t wind up in a situation where egos could get bruised (on either side) or where you might feel pressured to go in a direction you’re not totally digging. Which brings me to:
Discography. Use your ears and do some homework2. If someone’s work transcends good engineering or flashy production and actually makes you feel something, that’s it. Some producers and engineers have their thing that they do: maybe it’s all analog, maybe it’s lo-fi, maybe it’s one-take natural stuff. Others adapt to suit and serve the song. If you’re not specifically looking for a stylized sound or a defined sonic signature on your songs, maybe don’t pick someone who specializes in that, no matter who they are3.Which segues nicely into…
The Guy Everybody Uses. Again with the popularity thing. Some genres4 and scenes have one engineer, one producer, or one studio that does virtually all the records in that vicinity for that style of music. That’s cool. Good on those guys for doing an awesome job of carving out a niche for themselves, intentionally or not, that’s productive and more than likely based on damn good work. And maybe that place/person is just right for your project – after all they got where they are for a reason. That said, if you don’t want your record to sound like everybody else’s, maybe look outside the box a bit, ask around, see what else is out there before circling back.
Drum Sounds. Shut the hell up about drum sounds already. I guarantee you I’m way more into drum sounds than 99.9% of y’all, but vocals are the most important element in your music5. You can dispute this and make all the points about subgenres you want, but from the Ronettes to Willie to Kendrick, vocals are #1. I’d argue pay a ton of attention to what your producer / engineer is able to pull out of their singers before getting into how cool the drums sound on that one album.
The Shit You Read Online. Gearslutz opinions; Bowie’s vocals with the gated room mics; Glyn Johns’ 3-mic drum technique. All fine for discussion, and knowledge is power, and trying new things is essential, but chances are embellished stories of recording techniques (and gear) from random people on the internet who may or may not have the slightest clue are probably of little direct value to your project specifically. Any good engineer you choose will have already waded through these particular quagmires numerous times and have a better plan for your record than copy/pasting someone else’s techniques.
Mastering. Man this is can be a black hole. Again, do some listening, but more than anything please, please, please listen to your engineer. Whoever mixed your album will undoubtedly have strong opinions on who should master it, and for good reason. Also maybe find out exactly what the process of mastering is and why you have to do it. Cause hell, you’re paying for it. Might as well understand it.
Bell Peppers. If you look at the bottom of a bell pepper, you’ll notice it’s evenly divided into either 3 or 4 sections. The ones with 4 sections are called female6 and are a little sweeter and less earthy tasting but have more seeds, while the ones with 3 sections are called male and are generally less sweet with fewer seeds. So the 4-section peppers are better for eating raw, while the 3 section one are considered better for cooking.
Obviously there’s more to it, but I feel like this is a good start. You may have noticed I pretty much made the same two points over and over in different contexts: ask a lot of questions and do a lot of critical listening7. Recording is work. It’s cool. But it’s work. Whether making music is what you want to do for a living, or you’re just dropping a few thousand dollars and a couple months into it, do the research, do the homework, make better art for your effort. It’s a big investment; treat it like one and I promise you’ll be rewarded. Same goes for bell peppers.
- Says the guy who three sentences ago name-dropped MJ.↩︎
- I mean, you’re gonna be paying this person thousands of dollars…↩︎
- Except Daniel Lanois, cause that would just be fun.↩︎
- Obviously assuming you’re doing music with vocals.↩︎
- They’re not actually male or female, it’s just a binary misnomer that’s easy to remember.↩︎
- “How can you tell a good painting from a bad one? […] All you have to do my dear,” he said, “is look at a million paintings, and then you can never be mistaken.” – KV↩︎