If you were on a desert island and could take just 5 pieces of gear, what would they be?
Hammock, shovel, flint, axe, and a bucket.
What was your career path? How long have you been doing this?
I've been at this well over 20 years. I went to college to study music and sound recording. I interned and assisted at a few studios in NYC and went through the apprenticeship process. I got to work with some of the biggest names in the business on both sides of the control room window. I got to see all sorts of different ways everybody worked. My approach comes from absorbing all of those techniques and applying them and seeing what works in a given situation.
As I was making my jump from assisting to engineering, the music business had a pretty serious crash. MP3's were killing profits, budgets were getting slashed, record labels were closing. I found the niche where I could still make a living doing audio engineering was whenever there were video cameras involved. I had a solid background in recording and mixing live music and developed a good relationship with the folks at America Online and their fledgling AOL Music department. We did tons of videotaped in-studio performances which were recorded and mixed all in a single day. It was an amazing time for me; here I was recording popular artists in studios all around NYC. Instead of spending 6 weeks on a project, I got more like 8 hours. I had to work quickly and keep artists, management, and the film crew all happy. Often my work was being compared to the record that the artists were promoting, and usually these performances wound up as part of the artists' press kits and subsequent releases as B sides and bonus material.
At the same time as this was going on, I was working audio at a major television network where I worked my way up the seniority ladder there, eventually becoming the broadcast music mixer for a national talk show. The broadcast thing is similar to the AOL experience, except instead of remixing after the fact, the trick is to record soundcheck and tweak that a bunch in the time before our hit time on air, so it's in essence like making the band rehearse the song over and over until I've got the sounds dialed in and all the moves memorized, then when we hit air, there's one chance to make all those moves I practiced from soundcheck... assuming that the band plays the song the same way as they did a few hours ago. Which they never do. So it's all about being prepared but also staying flexible and paying attention and listening and reacting as quickly as possible.
All the while I've also kept a separate mix room to work on album projects on the side which might not be as "profitable" as the broadcast work, but I find it fulfilling to work at my own pace and really refine a project until I'm happy with the results. It brings balance to my life and career where the rest of the projects are under the tightest of schedules.
Tell us about a project you worked on you are especially proud of and why. What was your role?
I am friends with a band called Kowloon Walled City out of San Francisco. I mastered their first full length album, and Scott, the band leader and I go way back. Occasionally they will make records on a side project called Snailface. When they write music for their primary band they agonize over constructing every riff and focus on making sure that every note is as intended and sounds as original as possible. Snailface is almost completely off the cuff jams written in the studio that shamelessly borrows musical styles like Zeppelin, King Crimson, Sabbath, and Pink Floyd. They put together these masterpiece concept albums that sound reminiscent of classic records that we grew up listening to, but with really humorous lyrics. When they passed the tracks to me to mix and I would put myself into the mindset of "okay, say you're in the studio with Black Sabbath. What gear do you have at your disposal? Can you make this sound as good as Paranoid?" I was mixing in the box, but limited myself to period correct plugin versions of what was available in 1972 (for Snailface II) or 1985 (for Snailface IV). It was a hoot and also a challenge to make the songs sound classic without sounding like a parody record. Everyone should go to Bandcamp.com and download all of the Snailface records. They're free!
What's the biggest misconception about what you do?
That I can do more later in the process to fix things that didn't go so great earlier in the process. I'd say that's the biggest thing.
I get a lot of self-produced, self-engineered projects to mix and/or master.
Artists often cut corners to save money and figure that if they hire a pro like me at the end of the process, I can fix all the previous shortcomings.
When I master, I can shine up a mix, but if you had hired me to do the mix in the first place, then you'd have a better final result than the best mastering job I can put on a semipro mix.. If you had hired me to track the basics, then my mixes would automatically sound better faster because I would have better sounding sources to combine at mix time. If you had me around when you were writing the songs, I could have helped you organize your ideas to make a stronger song to start with. So call me when you're thinking about writing a song!
What's your 'promise' to your clients?
I will try my hardest to make them happy with my work. Some folks get by on fast turnover, or a "good is good enough" approach. I always push for that last 10% of improvement that comes from the 90% effort. If I am not convinced I tried my best on a project, I don't feel like I've done my job properly.
What do you like most about your job?
I love the adrenaline surge that comes from reaching milestones in the process. Those "Achievement Unlocked" moments. When I'm getting the faders roughed in and that moment happens when the blend just comes together. When a client hears the mix the way I've been hearing it in my head for the first time. That moment when I get the email that says, "we love the mix" but before I scroll down to "here's a list of tweaks we want done"...
What questions do customers most commonly ask you? What's your answer?
What kind of mic/plugin do I need for my setup?
My answer depends on the skill of the person on the other end. A big condenser microphone isn't going to be a great vocal microphone in an untreated apartment bedroom. Knowing when and how to adjust your mic placement on your source is 100x more valuable than having a dozen great mics on a poorly mic'ed source, or a well mic'd source that sucks. I swear by recommending a Beta 57 in most situations. You can't go wrong with that mic! Not nearly as wrong as you can go with some cheap condensers. When folks ask me what plugins they should get, I usually answer, "use the ones that came with your DAW and see where you're coming up short." Getting to know your tools is a lot of work and it may seem that buying some shiny mic or interface, or downloading the newest betterizer plugin will help but you will actually get the best results from really knowing the tools you have.
What questions do you ask prospective clients?
Usually it's things like, what are your expectations? What do you plan on doing with this music? Are you planning on recouping the costs to make this record or is it a loss leader to get gigs and attention? Bands don't always have a clear goal in mind and tend to jump into recording before they are ready both creatively and financially. Maybe instead of recording your first 10 songs you wrote together, you record 5 now and press an EP and do another in 6 months when you've gelled as a band and maybe refined your sound.
Since the costs of making a recording have dropped in the past 10+ years, bands don't save up and plan for their recordings like they used to. I'm always out to try and help a band save money on recording, and I can help them budget in ways they hadn't considered.
Then we can talk about spending time and money in ways that will accomodate their goals.
What advice do you have for a customer looking to hire a provider like you?
If it's possible to be as clear with your vision of how you want things to sound and explain what you're looking for, it helps a lot.
Internet collaboration doesn't work the same way as working together in the same room. Creative decisions that take moments in person can take hours or days via email messages. In a situation such as this, it's more akin to placing a dinner order. Expect a certain scope of results, but allow for different interpretations of similar ideas. We all know what a cheeseburger deluxe should be like, and we all know how a steak dinner should show up at your table. It's important to be clear in what you're ordering.
How would you describe your style?
I like to bring clarity to a mix. I like things to sparkle, but I don't like to polish things so much that it sounds homogenized. A lot of modern music has such gridded/tuned/buffed performances that the humanity is lost.
I try to be more subtle with my editing. I want things to sound like they were played by humans, talented humans.
I don't really want to do that zingy autotune effect on voices that all of pop radio seems to be infected with.
Which artist would you like to work with and why?
There's a saying, "You should never meet your heroes".
I have plenty of heroes. I want to help make new ones.
Can you share one music production tip?
Stop obsessing over what recording gear you need to buy next. 90% of the problems I find I have to fix occur on the other side of the microphone. Learn to play your axe like a master. Great tone comes from within. You'd be surprised at how many musicians sound great not because of the gear, but because they are *great* musicians who would sound good on any instrument. Tune between every take. Change your strings regularly. Put new heads on your drums when they get worn. When you hit a note, make it count. Play and sing like you mean it. Recognize the difference between capturing something with character and something that needs redoing. Record everything when you have the inspiration, but don't be afraid to pitch ideas that don't work out.
I guess that's more than one tip.
What type of music do you usually work on?
It's a wide range. In my studio I tend to get a lot of rock music, stuff that was played by humans as opposed to say something created with grids and machines and soft-synths. As a freelancer, I do more than just mix and master out of my studio. When I do broadcast mixing, it can range from rock, pop, jazz and hip-hop, to broadway performances. I also record classical and jazz recitals for a prestigious music college. So, I adapt to all of those situations and try to bring fresh ideas to every project.
What's your strongest skill?
I take criticism pretty well. I didn't say I like criticism, but I have worked with plenty of folks who get defensive if not downright ornery when confronted with anything besides praise. To me, the recording process is about finding things to improve. How many great works were perfect on their first try? We edit things, we change things, and we improve on things. Sometimes we go too far and we have to go back a step or two. Sometimes we try an idea and it doesn't work. I used to bristle and get defensive, and I think every artist or craftsman starts out that way. We identify with our work. I've come to realize that folks aren't criticizing *me*, they're criticizing what I did. No reason to take offense. And generally when folks offer critiques, it's usually relatively minor changes. In all the time I've been working, I had one guy who was genuinely unhappy and I refunded his check. That's a pretty good track record.
What do you bring to a song?
20+ years of experience, and a desire to make a song the best it can be.
What's your typical work process?
I do a whole lot of listening. I spend a lot of my time comparing my adjustments (especially in mastering) to see if the changes bring an improvement to the song or not. I'll listen to something I've been working on for hours and compare it to where I started and if it's not moving me, I'll tear it all down and start over.
I like to start from the ground up with every song and try to see what serves the song, as opposed to pulling up presets and templates and automatically applying a sonic imprint that says, "Mixed/Mastered by Greg Thompson"
When I work on material that I wasn't around for the tracking, I pay special attention to the lyrics and all the little parts, and really try get into the mindset of the song and go for what I think the band is hearing inside their heads. Sometimes a band will bog a song down in infinite track counts and alternate mic choices and I spend a lot of time sorting through the tracks, picking the ones that serve the song the best and figuring out how to best represent the arrangement.
Tell us about your studio setup.
It's based around a Protools HD setup with a ton of DSP. It's surrounded by a well treated control room, a detailed monitoring setup, and a control surface that allows me to mix with my ears and not with my eyes. It's a no-excuses rig. I have all the tools at my disposal to make whatever I want happen.
Describe the most common type of work you do for your clients.
Primarily, I do mixing and mastering. A whole lot of DIY projects come my way where it was tracked or mixed at home or in a project studio and then passed off to me to add the finishing touches.