(All photos by Nic Rue)
Alright, the word ‘terror’ might be somewhere in between a mild and a total exaggeration, but erm well, ‘moderate anxiety’ doesn’t seem to quite cut it as a headline in these ‘what happened next just broke my heart’ days.
I am not exactly what you would describe as an expert recording engineer. In fact, apart from the fact that I have actually recorded and mixed several things which have been released on a real record label (admittedly, just this one, but hey-ho), I am not really a recording engineer at all. When you’re recording bands who barely have more than a few demos that doesn’t seem to matter as much. That’s not meant to sound disrespectful, but they don’t know what they’re doing, I don’t know what I’m doing, and we all accept this and try and make music as good as we can as best we can. A fair deal.
Of course, in the last few years as I’ve become more experienced and more confident I’ve recorded some rather more established bands, and in almost every case mixed those recordings as well, which is a different kettle of fish altogether. You are expected to be a professional, at least to an extent. Initially it was just Toad Sessions, but recently it’s been for record releases with relatively well-established musicians that I know and admire. David Thomas Broughton was probably the first real example of that, on the third Split 12″. Jonnie Common and Sparrow & the Workshop were there or thereabouts too, albeit mitigated by the fact that we were already friends, which makes everything less scary.
Even more recently – i.e. last week – I invited the Willard Grant Conspiracy into our warehouse in Leith to record for our fifth Split 12″ (the fourth isn’t out yet, I know, but it is recorded and mixed so keep an eye out). Nothing is absolutely cast in stone just yet, but it looks like they will be joined on the record by Micah P. Hinson, the Kitchen Cynics and Tissø Lake, which is fantastic. Kitchen Cynics and Tissø Lake might be slightly more recent discoveries, but I’ve loved both Micah and the Willard Grant Conspiracy’s music for years, and I suppose that could be a terrifying thing for someone as inexperienced and inexpert as I am when it comes to audio engineering.
Fortunately, though, for some reason that sort of thing doesn’t really worry me. I don’t get flustered by meeting people whose stuff I really admire, which is something I am pretty grateful for, particularly given the industry I work in. There is definitely a worry about the basic mismatch in expertise with the Willard Grant Conspiracy particularly given that David, who played viola on these songs, actually recorded and mixed their (brilliant) last album himself, but well, why worry about that. It’ll be a learning experience, and they are really nice guys and I am pretty certain that they’ll be happy to extend me the patience to arrive at decent mixes in my own time.
In fact, sometimes it’s actually easier to mix for people who seriously know what they are doing. I remember doing Jonnie Common’s stuff for the last Split 12″ and thinking what a fastidious little fucker he is with his own recordings, and how painstakingly well-crafted his music is, and it made me very nervous. And in fact he did come back with all sorts of mixing notes. The difference, of course, was that precisely because he does know exactly what he’s doing, those notes were clear, precise, and once I had gone through them all they gave him exactly the mixes he wanted. So a lot of notes, fair enough, but only one iteration on the mixes was needed, which was brilliant.
So no, what gives me the anxiety is not actually any of this kind of stuff. I am relaxed about this sort of thing and the Willard Grant Conspiracy are decent guys, so no real stress there.
The worry is actually much more practical than that: it sounds so very good already, I get the feeling that 95% of the things I ‘might’ do whilst mixing it can only make it worse instead of better. The setup was Robert on vocals and acoustic guitar, with Jonah and Dave on cello and viola respectively. They play with a lot of empty space, and music that sparse gives me the jitters because it just feels more sensitive than a three piece rock band.
When all that’s happening in a song is a deep, sonorous bow of the cello then that sound has to be absolutely right or it will be really painfully obvious. And when the sound of everything is all basically spot on already it takes a very subtle and discreet touch to really make it ‘sing’ (sorry), and the risk of clumsily announcing your own amateurishness, particularly by overdoing it, is rather nerve-wracking.
When I first started to mix stuff I remember talking to my little brother about it, who is a professional sound engineer, albeit in a rather different field. I said that I had no idea what I was doing and would have no idea if I had done it right, and his response was pretty awesome. Basically he said that I listened to loads of music and therefore if I liked the results and thought they sounded good then they were right, end of conversation. You love this stuff, and if it sounds right to you, then that’s as right as it has to sound.
Obviously I go back and forth with the bands on any mixes I do, and will accept any and all feedback, but that bit of encouragement still sticks with me. Don’t worry, it’s music. If it sounds about right then by definition it is right.
So as long as I remember not to try and do too much and to let the actual playing and the sound of the room speak for themselves, I am hoping should be more or less okay. But it’s still really intimidating sitting there with these gorgeous, minimalist recordings, worried that every last tiny little thing you do to them will stand out like a sore thumb.
But, as I told myself when I started to learn to drive, there are plenty of way dumber people out there than me who can do this stuff, so fuck it, if they can do it so can I!