As this year's music issue theme is "the keys to success," the City Paper compiled "sound advice" (ha!) from some of the busiest and most dedicated audio engineers and producers in town. We got strong advice from longtime locals and up-and-coming acts aiming for high-budget studio quality from a low-dough budget.
In recent years, we've heard great-sounding, high-quality recordings by local bands from such local facilities as Charleston Recording Studio, Fusion 5, Full Code Recordings, Studio Blacktree, Ocean Industries, ARP Studio, and Mantis Records, among other smaller operations. Some of the most exciting and vibrant new local releases were recorded at studios that recently established themselves, such as Awendaw Green Studio, Charleston Sound, and The Lion's Den (now named Hello Telescope).
For local bands hoping to track and mix quickly, conducting a smooth, concise, successful recording session and mix-down can almost be an impossible dream. By its nature, the act of recording music is subjective with many variables involved. With several musicians and engineers involved, the challenge of documenting a song with a style and quality that truly captures and exemplifies the personality and soul of the artist can be daunting.
With the clock ticking and the temperaments wobbling, these studio gigs can be more than stressful for newcomers. Even the most experienced studio-savvy musicians can easily freak out or get flustered during sessions. It's tricky stuff ... tricky enough to inspire a few interviews with some of the local scene's top knob-twiddlers. These guys are in-the-know about such things as ProTools, analog-to-digital transfers, phase, kick mics, punch-ins, click tracks, clever comps, and final mixes.
The Drummer Factor: It's Vital
Local musician Josh Kaler (of Slow Runner), first started recording bands in a facility he called The Lions Den a little over a year ago, but he's used the space for his own recording projects the last four years. All of the Slow Runner sessions were conducted there. Other recent sessions of note include Opposite of a Train, The Green and Bold, Lindsay Holler's Western Polaroids, and, most recently, Bill Carson. Kaler and Jay Clifford (formerly of Jump, Little Children) have been working on studio renovations in recent months. They've renamed it Hello Telescope.
"Honestly, so far I've been fortunate enough to work with people that totally have their shit together," says Kaler. "I'm not kidding. Charleston is a force."
On the recording session essentials any young band must learn, Kaler says attention to detail is a must. "Realize that the microphone picks up everything," he emphasizes. "I'm always impressed when someone comes in and plays an acoustic guitar and intentionally tries to omit the fret noise that happens. Tune your drums, too — it makes a huge difference. I also like it when a drummer is aware of the cymbal-to-drum ratio. Oftentimes, they will come in destroying the cymbals, but they won't be putting the same amount of power into the actual drums. I arrived at this philosophy from recording myself for so long.
In the tracking and mixing phases, fine-tuning the levels and quality of the drum sounds takes up the majority of his time.
"But I love getting those sounds," Kaler says. "Now, that's not to say that the answer is a drum machine. I'm just saying it's by far the most time-consuming and most rewarding."
Proper preparation across the board is something Studio Blacktree owner/engineer Scott Sain values. Known best as the guitarist and manager of award-winning local cover band Plane Jane, Sain opened his recording facility on Johns Island in 2007 for soloists, singer/songwriters, pre-production, and full band projects. So far this year, Sain has engineered sessions with The Bushels, Super Deluxe, Sara Smile, The Melody Makers, David Dunning, Coastline Band, The Mason-Dixon Band, and others.
"Know thine music," says Sain. "Be well-rehearsed prior to getting to the session. Have a roadmap of what you are going to do. Have a drummer that can play solid and proficiently. Solid tempos are key. And have beginnings and endings for every song."
Truly Knowing One's Music Helps
Another common (and potentially comical) misstep for amateur bands heading into the studio for the first time comes with general cluelessness. According to longtime Charleston songwriter and studio engineer Jay Miley, of Charleston Recording Studio, some band members aren't even on the same page when they set up in the recording room.
"Some don't have a clear direction or know how they want each song to sound — or even knowing what songs they're doing," he says. "So many times, I've seen the band come in and argue over song selection or try a new song the drummer hasn't even heard."
Miley recently ran the mixing board during sessions with Carroll Brown, David Owens, and Fat Alice. Upcoming studio gigs include local songwriters David Bethany and Mike Thompson.
Miley has a strong reputation for efficiency. "I hate to take breaks," he says. "I find the perfect time to stop will always present itself. Don't schedule breaks."
He stresses the importance of a clean drum sound and a well-prepared rhythm section with its gear in top form. "Fix it before you come into the studio," he suggests. "Get new strings and new heads, and make sure your amps are running clean — no rattles or crackles."
Instrumental and Vocal Technique
Nat Mundy has been tracking bands professionally for seven years. His most recent work includes sessions with Slanguage, Firework Show, and Holy Ghost Tent Revival.
From his experiences over the last year at Awendaw Green's in-house studio, one of the most common mistakes bands make when they book studio time and rush in to lay down tracks is in rushing too hard.
"You don't want to rush the studio; you will be able to hear it in the mix," says Mundy. "A lot of bands book way too little time and try to get way too many songs — and they don't account for mixing. They must understand that mixing takes at least as much time as it does to record everything piece by piece. That really only leaves time for basic editing, comping, processing, and mixing."
Mundy says that a band with a low studio budget can best prepare for a quick session with very focused, isolated rehearsals where they can analyze their technique and song arrangements.
"Most bands only play or rehearse live as a band," he says. "Some never take time to sit down and play their parts solo to really analyze their timing, technique, and structure. You can get away with a lot, live in front of a drunk audience, but in the studio, everything can and will be heard — especially with multi-tracking. Knowing your music front to back and having the ability to play all parts perfectly and totally independently from the band is the best thing you can do before coming into a studio. It won't hurt live either.
"Tune your vocals, too," he adds. "Singing a capella with a reference note in the beginning is the most honest way to critique your vocals. Practice scales and sing into guitar tuners. Learning vocal technique is just as difficult as learning guitar or piano. It is the musician's responsibility to learn this on their own."
Boot Camp for Youngsters
Located on James Island, the sizeable Ocean Industries facility has stayed busy tracking local and national bands since opening three years ago. Veteran Charleston rock musicians Eric Bass (a professional bassist and guitarist, currently with rock band Shinedown), Jeff Leonard (formerly of Fusion 5), and Eric Rickert (a longtime go-to rock drummer) have engineered numerous demo and full-album sessions from a combination of ProTools-based and analog options. The studio recently completed major sessions with such local rock acts as Number One Contender, Radio Town, Souls Harbor, Gaslight Street, and Shinedown.
"Sometimes, we'll do a 'punk rock special,' where I'll just have a band come in before we record the main session, and track everything live, all at once," says Rickert. "Then I'll take the time to learn the songs myself. It gives them something to listen to, so when they come back in, they have more ideas and I have more ideas. Not everybody has a four-track [recorder] or the skills to use it."
As a drummer himself, Rickert absolutely agrees with his fellow engineers that the percussion tracks are the key foundation for just about any studio session. He says, "The fact is that you're only as good as your drummer. Everything else — I can fix easily.
"With the young bands, I sometimes call what I do 'rock 'n' roll boot camp,'" he says. "I try to encourage them to let their engineers have an opinion and take it seriously. If an engineer thinks a track sucks, or a take sounds bad, it probably does! They're not just being dicks. They know what they're talking about. Honestly, I think 90 percent of the bands who come in for their first real time in the studio, I feel that they're better bands when they leave."
The instrumental balance, sonic separation, final volume levels, and echo/reverb factor ... they all come together under the guidance and care of these studio pros — all of whom tie into the unique dynamic of the local music scene.