Q: Tell me about your job.
A: I have a recording studio in a small Indiana town. As a musician and songwriter, I was tired of spending money for studio time, so I opened my own studio. When I started out I thought, like every 20 year old, that everything I wrote and sang was brilliant and being able to record myself seemed like a great idea.
I still work on my own stuff, but I also get to work with a huge variety of musicians and music.
Q: Do you get to see bands argue?
A: If they’re fighting, they’re usually doing it in their van in the driveway. Studio time is run by the hour so they don’t want to waste time once they’re in here.
Q: Have you ever had a “wow” moment where someone came in and just sounded amazing?
A: Yeah! I’ve been blessed to work with lots of talented people. There will be a vocal take or a guitar solo and it’s way better than having the album because that person is right there in the room singing or playing just for a handful of us. And you know people are gonna hear it later on and it’ll blow their minds.
I’ve been there when the magic happens and, of course, I’ve been there when it doesn’t.
Q: Tell me about the times that aren’t as great.
A: For me, there are two categories of terrible experiences.
One is the clueless person who has no business making music but wants to anyway. No one has ever told them that they don’t have what it takes and most of the time they’ve never listened all that critically to their own performances. It’s like a certain karaoke character who is belting it out at the bar after so many drinks and their friends are telling them they’re great. They come into the studio and it’s just slow and agonizing. They’ll say, “What did you think?” and I’ll say, “Well, what did YOU think?”
The second is when it’s just not the kind of music I’m into personally. I had this one group that was doing, I’d say, a not-so-loving tribute to Poison. For retro-‘80s hair metal I guess it was OK, but it’s just not my thing. And after weeks of screeching vocals and guitars, it really wasn’t.
Q: Do you ever get nervous when working with someone famous?
A: I did at first. I had to tell myself, “They’ll respect me more if they’re comfortable.” I can’t be shy about saying, “Let’s try that again,” or speaking up when I think I have a good idea.
It’s all about figuring out how to coax the best performance from an artist. I’m usually pretty laid back and encouraging, but I did have one woman—a well-known Caribbean artist—sit me down and tell me, “You’re being too nice. You need to be tougher to get a better performance out of me.” So I toughened up.
Q: I know nothing about what you do, other than what I’ve seen in movies. How does all of it work? Do you record everyone at the same time?
A: Usually the main vocal is the last thing we record. The drummer, bass, and rhythm guitar usually get recorded at the same time. While they’re playing, sometimes the lead singer will do a “scratch vocal” so the other band members can get a gauge for how it will sound. Then we overdub solos, harmonies, extra percussion parts, and other “ear candy” parts.
Q: How did you build up your business?
A: I put up flyers in Indianapolis and advertised on local music websites and indie newspapers. Oddly enough, I’m a pasty white farm town boy and when I started, I attracted a lot of hip-hop clients. I’d get rappers who’d roll up in their Escalades with clouds of weed smoke coming out and bass rattling the windows. In the studio, they’d click their 9 millimeters into the mic for effect. They were really sweet human beings in person but they would rap about blowing people away.
Q: What’s it like being in a small town?
A: It’s very quiet and safe. A lot of studios—even really famous ones—are in dodgy areas because you can get a lot of space for little money. Lots of people around here don’t even lock their doors at night.
Of course, the downside is that it’s sometimes hard for people to justify the drive and, frankly, if you’re a young band looking for an exciting environment, this probably isn’t the place for you. Our clients tend to be looking for a place where they can get away from the hustle, not be smack dab in the middle of it.
Q: Do you ever deal with overbearing parents who want to record their little superstars?
A: Oh yeah. One time I had a student come in to do a piece for school. The parent had trouble with the tone and was really riding the kid. We did take after take. I’m used to lots of takes but we did a LOT. We got to the point where it was starting to sound really good, and the parent had fallen asleep on the couch in the control room.
Q: Have you ever told someone NOT to pursue a music career?
A: Only one time, and only because I had a friend in the band. We spent about a day and a half trying to get a single good take from the band’s singer. We really struggled and then finally got an OK take. The guitarist was someone I knew and I called him later and told him, “I just don’t see this project going anywhere.” He took it well—I think he and the rest of the band knew too.
Q: Do the bands you work with ever have groupies?
A: These days the bands I work with tend to have children more than groupies.
If you’ve ever seen groupies they’re not really what they’re cracked up to be.
Q: I’ve seen Almost Famous and This is Spinal Tap.
A: You just named two of my favorite movies.
Q: Can you make a living doing what you do?
A: This is my three-quarter-time job. It’s hard to make a living, so you do the jobs you have to. When I started I thought, “I’m going to make rock and roll records!” But I’ve done music for cartoons, voiceovers for corporate presentations…
I have to be adaptable and flexible. For example, today I was preparing sound for a lesbian couple’s commitment ceremony, then I have a client who is a real comic book and superhero collector and I’m transferring some radio stuff from the ‘40s from analog to digital for him… Then I took a break to work on my own record with my guitarist.
Q: So it sounds like there’s a great variety in what you do.
A: Every day is a surprise.