Sean Slade Lecture

Producer Sean Slade gave a lecture to the student chapter of the Audio Engineering Society at Emerson college.

The lecture started with Mr. Slade asking how many people in the audience listen to MP3's, how many listen to CD's, and how many listen to vinyl records.  Apparently, to his surprise more people (a good majority) raised their hands to indicate they listen to CD's (compared to MP3's or vinyl).  His observation  was that vinyl records sound better (or at least that's what people who prefer vinyl records think - Mr. Slade included).

He also noted that in the days prior to digital music and downloading - you had often had no choice but to by the music you loved.   When he was growing up - It was a big  deal when you went to the record store to plunk down your ~$5.00 for a big vinyl LP.  You felt like you were making an investment.  Or, you (should) value music you pay for (perhaps music we get free is not valued as much).

Mr. Slade then delved into some autobiographical information about how he got turned onto music as a kid,  followed by how he progressed to making his way into the music business.  He was also careful to delineate at what point on his timeline he believed he became a professional.  (The point being that he definitely did not start out in the business working at what he would define - in retrospect - a professional level of work).  His parents played Broadway musical records in the house; he was fascinated with albums as an object of art.  To him, album artwork often contained mysterious and cool images; listening to the music and being able to hold and examine the (large) album (format) was an absorbing and stimulating experiencce.

Mr. Slade studied piano, but eventually got into guitar.  By his own admission, he absolutely tortured his dorm and/or roommates at college with loud (and not very good) guitar playing.  Going to  college in the New York area, in the heyday of clubs like CBGB's, Mr. Slade saw acts at this watershed venue at the start of their careers;  The Runaways, The Talking Heads, etc.   This was a formative experience.

He commented that you might be surprised at how bad musically some acts were at their start, e.g., playing obviously wrong chords (or not knowing how to play much at all).  But rock in those days (the punk movement which would evolve into grundge and alternative) - was more about attitude, making noise, and freedom of expression - even if it was musically "incorrect".  These and other musical experiences, caused him to move to Boston in the 1970's, where he formed/joined a band (? name ?).   The band was relatively successful; Boston was one of the few places where stations played tapes from local bands. WERS and WBCN were two stations known for this at the time.

Playing in a band(s) eventually became a grind, and he really enjoyed mixing the band in their basement rehersal space; "we were always making tapes".  He moved on to doing more mixing work, eventually starting Fort Apache Studios.  

While Fort Apache did not start out having even acoustically correct rooms - the selling point was that musicians liked working with him and his colleagues because they were also musicians.  People liked the vibe and atmosphere they created at Fort Apache.  (This was apparently still analog tape/mutitrack based production).

His advice here  might be paraphrased as "start out simple", e.g., you can make a great recording with a single excellent mic and a decent (e.g., 19" rack mount) channel strip that has a good mic preamp (apart from any other effects).

Another observation was that in the days of analog multitrack - 4 or 8 track - you were forced to make more mixing decisions up front, e.g., what would go on what track, when to bounce etc.   

In contrast, with todays digital tools the ability to distribute (or stretch) takes over a huge/large number of tracks  is not necessarily better.   He suggested that trying to cram too many separate tracks into a stereo mix can (ironically) create a smaller sound.  Similarly, it's better to use as few plugins as possible (in order to achieve a more organic sound).  Or, just because you have (umpteen) plugins does not mean you have to use them.  There's not necessarily even good reason to use a plugin on every track, e.g., try to make a good recording instead so you don't need to use plugins.

Today when Mr. Slate surfs the internet listening to music by bands on MySpace for example, he is truck by how much they "all sound the same" from the context of a producer.  That is, he detects a conspicous lack of different or individual signatures in the final mix/production.  This may be because everyone is essentially using the same (digital) technology (e.g., ProTools).   Mr. Slate noted this seemed to be the case once "ProTools took over the world" - sometime in the late 1990's.

This ultimately prompted a comment from the audience that maybe the sameness of sound from "mixing in the box" is because the final mix is not processed thru anything analog (or there is a trend now to try and sum at least stems in the analog domain to achieve a less digital sound).  And also the A/D and D/A parts of the signal chain are not especially good (aka, they are all cheap) in the prosumer and project studio worlds.

Another observation from the audience is that the DAW manufacturers are now trying to build in analog distortion characteristics into DAW's, e.g., the Harrison Mix Buss DAW.  (You still need to have high quality A/D and D/A to make effective use of this).

One way Mr. Slade gets the "analog" sound is to track directly to (24 track) analog tape, and then transfer that into ProTools for subsequent editing.

Mr. Slade is well known for producing RadioHead, and he noted that he does not think the first album is so great (though it does contain the song Creep).  Apparently the label did not foresee that  "Creep" would be a hit even though Mr. Slade and other recording staff thought it was great (and better then the 2 songs they initially signed up to produce).  The idea of "knowing when to break the rules" - and in what context it's OK to do so - was something of a recurring theme in Mr. Slade's talk.  It was clear that he did learn the rules throughout his career, but was astute enough to "think outside the box" and break with tradition when it suited the musical purpose at hand.  But you have to learn at least some of the rules first in order to break them.

Mr. Slade also described this in more general terms as "you never know what's going to happen".  While the producer does have an often unglamorous role, has to finish by a deadline, and often may have limited resources - a good producer should still be flexible enough to shirk convention so that when something spontaneous happens, he/she can go with the flow, capture it, but still get the job done.  A frequent example was fighting to let something "imperfect" make it on the record - be it a horrendous chord, or an imperfect vocal, e.g., a take with a voice cracking.  The message here was that genuine/raw emotional impact can be more important then musical correctness.  One experience that fit into this advice was his story about the one song he recorded (and played) with Lou reed.

Lou Reed built a huge array of guitar effects/pedals that looked like the bridge of the Starship Enterprise.  One day while recording Lou switched his signal path via a pedal to something that must have increased the volume level by a factor of 10.  Smoke started coming out of the tweeters (they were melting).  He had blown out custom built monitors that had been especially made for him (costing several thousands of dollars).  He was happy nonetheless that Mr. Slade got it on tape, and you can hear where it happened on the final recording.

Other words of wisdom and advice (paraphrased):

Thought is the enemy of rock.  Do something even if it is wrong; hopefully it will lead to something (better) or right.  Always try to be doing something (even if it wrong); never underestimate the power of action.

Being a producer is like being a shrink;  The studio can be a high pressure place (when you are paying by the hour).  It's easier to make it work if you can make it seem like fun (for everyone).

I never got fired from a session working as a producer, and I never quit a session.  You need to think of producing as a job (and get it done).  It's not supposed to be an ego trip. 

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