Sunday, June 03, 2001

Strung Out and Shell Shocked from a Sonic High

Young people often think of a music producer as the person that gets ‘The Sound’. That may be true on an album, but in commercial music production, that responsibility is sometimes split with a creative director, and always shared with one’s clients. 

In addition to studio technical know-how and presumed musicality, a commercial music producer must also acquire a portfolio of skills. Among them: client relationship management, project management, sales, account management and business development, budget planning, operations, talent recruitment and development, personnel management and contractual negotiation. 

A lot of compartmentalization goes on. You need to represent the client to the creative staff; and represent the creative staff to the client. Ideally, composers feel fulfilled upon final delivery, and clients learn to trust you with anything –from their budget to their lunch. Not to mention presenting yourself as supremely capable of rolling back the reverb saturation on any given mix to precisely the level which will drive thirteen year olds into drug stores to buy pimple medicine, –in mono, stereo and multichannel surround. 

The first thing you learn is there is an art to everything, including management, which can be a severely underrated skill by creative people, and therefore also undeveloped or even completely absent in creative enterprises. I was determined to get as good at it as I was inventing sounds. 

It was always a juggling act: Art versus commerce. In my first two years at Elias, I spent much of my actual time paying dues by reviewing bids and contracts. Only after a long day, would I then need to give my nights over to working in the studio as recording assistant. And then, it was in the wee hours, after that, that I worked on my own to study of signal path and mic placement, and where I developed my own perspective on processing, and often while Jonathan Elias worked across the hall with perhaps a Hollywood celebrity.

If the studios were so busy that I could not get into a room after hours –as they often were– then I’d simply sit in the Machine Room/Dub Room (‘Room’ however, is a generous word for walk-in closet) and pour over manuals, where I’d read everything I could about the company’s three consoles -2 Ameks and an SSL; or I’d learn how to create patches for the various synthesizers and effects processors we had on the racks. 

For years I easily spent 80 hours a week at Elias honing and applying my craft, but that was not unusual for the driven musical talents that worked there at the time. Everybody else at the company also seemed to share my intensity. And together, we made for a high-strung, highly competitive crew that was also given to great laughter and comradeship when we found ourselves comping twenty-three tracks of vocals in the middle of the night. 

When I finally left Elias in August of 1996, -exhausted- it took me three months to recover from years of sleep deprivation. I awoke from a shell shocked stupor towards the end of October, harboring the distinct impression that this is what a junkie’s withdrawal from amphetamines must feel like. Only instead of speed, I had been tripping along on brands and beats all those years.

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