“Shhhh-it!”: Idolator’s Super-Secret Music Interview Series Heads Into The Studio

Oct 30th, 2008 // 11 Comments

Every week in the “Shhhh-it!” AnonIMous Super-Secret Music-Biz Interview Series (S-I!AS-SM-BIS for, uh, short) we interview a grizzled music industry veteran via the tumbling word parade of instant messaging software. We talk about the person’s job, the state of the industry, and whatever else comes to mind. This week, we spoke with Joe The Engineer, who has worked as an assistant engineer for five years at a major NYC studio. Joe’s done some rock sessions, but most of the artists he deals with are big-time pop, hip-hop, and R&B acts–artists that sell lots of records, and artists that we all know. As an engineer, he has a unique perspective on the current recording processes, whether big studios and producers are worth it, and whether pop stars are really as unimportant to the final recorded product as we think they are:

StumpyPete1975: today’s pop stars
StumpyPete1975: I think there’s the impression that they just show up for a day or two
StumpyPete1975: lay down some vocal tracks
StumpyPete1975: and then it’s autotune away
StumpyPete1975: true?
JoeTheEngineer: right
JoeTheEngineer: well, most pop artists don’t write their own stuff
JoeTheEngineer: so they come in and I play them a reference, which the writer laid down with all the vocal parts
JoeTheEngineer: then the artist goes piece by piece re-singing whats already on tape
StumpyPete1975: are you serious?
StumpyPete1975: so it’s like Pop Star Hero?
JoeTheEngineer: yeah
JoeTheEngineer: I mean depending on the artist sure
JoeTheEngineer: but this is common
JoeTheEngineer: I’ve certainly seen a few big ones that were spoon fed all the lines they sang

The whole thing after the jump!



StumpyPete1975: you’re an assistant engineer, correct?
JoeTheEngineer: right, but as a senior assistant, I end up doing quite a bit of engineering as well
StumpyPete1975: cool
StumpyPete1975: and y’all work with some big-time artists
JoeTheEngineer: yeah, I would say just about any top hip hop artist you can think of has been through here
StumpyPete1975: wow
JoeTheEngineer: as well as a slew of pop and R&B
StumpyPete1975: so not small-timers
StumpyPete1975: people we’ve all heard of
JoeTheEngineer: definitely
StumpyPete1975: what’s your book rate there?
JoeTheEngineer: most rooms are in the low $200s/hour
StumpyPete1975: wow
StumpyPete1975: and that’s just room rental, right?
JoeTheEngineer: right
StumpyPete1975: so engineers are more?
JoeTheEngineer: yeah, many bring their own engineers
JoeTheEngineer: but if they need one, the studio provides and charges extra
StumpyPete1975: wow
StumpyPete1975: how much do engineers make an hour?
JoeTheEngineer: for recording, it ranges from $30/hour to $75/hour
StumpyPete1975: wow
JoeTheEngineer: for mixing, guys get from $1000 to 3 or 4 per mix
JoeTheEngineer: 3 or 4 being the top in the business
StumpyPete1975: and then producers get their own cuts, which I know are not set in stone
JoeTheEngineer: right
JoeTheEngineer: and has greatly changed with the onset of urban music and their version of “producer”
StumpyPete1975: yeah
StumpyPete1975: what makes it different than say the rock producer?
JoeTheEngineer: well, just that most rock producers don’t get writing credits for what they work on
JoeTheEngineer: so their fee and any royalties they can get on the album is all they get
JoeTheEngineer: whereas most hip-hip/R&B producers are taking a writing credit for providing beats
StumpyPete1975: do you think they deserve it?
JoeTheEngineer: yeah sure, if they provided some composition, they should get their percentage
StumpyPete1975: now I’ve always functioned under the assumption that with modern pop and R&B and hip-hop
StumpyPete1975: not a lot of actual old-school engineering goes on
StumpyPete1975: the producer shows up with tracks and stuff
StumpyPete1975: and they just lay stuff on top of it
StumpyPete1975: that’s a simplification, of course, but how much engineering do you do?
JoeTheEngineer: well, it depends quite a bit on the type of session, which I would say is either (in urban music) tracking vocals, tracking beats, or mixing
JoeTheEngineer: mostly when people track vocals nowadays, they just record to an instrumental of a beat that someone gave to them
StumpyPete1975: really?
StumpyPete1975: and then what happens?
StumpyPete1975: how do you build a track from that?
JoeTheEngineer: well, when it comes time to mix, the mix engineer now has the headache of getting the multitrack from the producer and combining it with the vocal from the artist
JoeTheEngineer: which is 99.9999 percent of the time all done digitally now
StumpyPete1975: it’s funny how quickly things moved digital
StumpyPete1975: ten years ago analog still ruled the day!
JoeTheEngineer: true
JoeTheEngineer: and even the old timers who hated Pro Tools, have basically come around now
StumpyPete1975: yeah
StumpyPete1975: do you find that there is a lot less artistry now in the digital world?
StumpyPete1975: I think the common protools complaint is that things are fixed that should have been laid down right the first time
JoeTheEngineer: right
JoeTheEngineer: certainly it requires less performance skills
JoeTheEngineer: a session guitarist now is a lot different then a session guitarist in the 70′s
JoeTheEngineer: and the thing is, now that artists are gaining knowledge about digital recording, they know what can be done
JoeTheEngineer: so instead of trying a take again, they just ask you to edit or tune it or whatever
StumpyPete1975: “fix it in the mix” right?
JoeTheEngineer: exactly
StumpyPete1975: I just recorded an all analog record and man
StumpyPete1975: it pushed us
StumpyPete1975: my drumming is very very simple compared to what I would normally do
StumpyPete1975: its tough!
StumpyPete1975: but ultimately I like it way better
JoeTheEngineer: yeah, it forces decision making
StumpyPete1975: I was gonna ask
StumpyPete1975: have you ever had to fix a track that was just horrid?
JoeTheEngineer: sure
StumpyPete1975: what do you do in that situation?
JoeTheEngineer: I mean, with a bad performance, you are usually talking about a couple things
JoeTheEngineer: timing, pitch, or just plain not keeping up with the part
JoeTheEngineer: for timing, if you have a good ear for feel, you should be able to edit it
JoeTheEngineer: for pitch there is of course Autotune (and now Melodyne and Waves Tune) that pitch correct, not always bulletproof though
JoeTheEngineer: if they simply cannot record the part through the song, you hope to find a good snippet and loop it throughout
StumpyPete1975: wow
StumpyPete1975: I keep saying wow
JoeTheEngineer: If they can’t get through, rappers and singers often punch quite a bit
StumpyPete1975: well, that’s okay
StumpyPete1975: rock is all punching, right?
JoeTheEngineer: sometimes
StumpyPete1975: sometimes?
JoeTheEngineer: not when they are punching every word though!
StumpyPete1975: oh god
JoeTheEngineer: yeah, a few punches is always cool
StumpyPete1975: I’ve heard that modern rock is the same way these days
StumpyPete1975: autotune and crazy punching
StumpyPete1975: how about Sound Replacer?
JoeTheEngineer: Sound Replacer is a pretty hip plug in that (like everything really) can be abused
StumpyPete1975: see, in hip-hop, I think it would be totally great
StumpyPete1975: come up with new sounds
JoeTheEngineer: yeah
JoeTheEngineer: well in hip hop most drums are done as MIDI
StumpyPete1975: oh cool
JoeTheEngineer: so to change the sounds, producers can just have their MIDI data play a different drum sample
StumpyPete1975: getting back to the producer thing
StumpyPete1975: have you encountered any who were really hard to work with?
StumpyPete1975: where you just felt like they didn’t know what they were doing?
JoeTheEngineer: oh yes
JoeTheEngineer: haha
StumpyPete1975: what’s the worst experience you ever had?
JoeTheEngineer: oh jeez
JoeTheEngineer: I mean certainly having a gun waved around the room was unpleasant
JoeTheEngineer: or are we talking musically?
StumpyPete1975: um
StumpyPete1975: I meant whatever
StumpyPete1975: certainly a gun counts!
JoeTheEngineer: yeah, seen a few pistols in the studio
JoeTheEngineer: which was a first for me
StumpyPete1975: why was the gun being waved around?
JoeTheEngineer: Somewhat for fun I suppose
StumpyPete1975: haha…fun for everyone!
JoeTheEngineer: really feeling the song
StumpyPete1975: musically, what’s your worst experience with a producer or an artist?
JoeTheEngineer: musically, probably when an artist was so far stoned that they kept telling me there was something wrong with the song
JoeTheEngineer: but couldn’t say what
JoeTheEngineer: but was basically blaming me
JoeTheEngineer: very awkward and confusing
StumpyPete1975: what do you do?
StumpyPete1975: I mean, they’re paying you…
JoeTheEngineer: bear with them, try to understand
JoeTheEngineer: and smile
StumpyPete1975: today’s pop stars
StumpyPete1975: I think there’s the impression that they just show up for a day or two
StumpyPete1975: lay down some vocal tracks
StumpyPete1975: and then it’s autotune away
StumpyPete1975: true?
JoeTheEngineer: right
JoeTheEngineer: well, most pop artists don’t write their own stuff
JoeTheEngineer: so they come in and I play them a reference, which the writer laid down with all the vocal parts
JoeTheEngineer: then the artist goes piece by piece re-singing whats already on tape
StumpyPete1975: are you serious?
StumpyPete1975: so it’s like Pop Star Hero?
JoeTheEngineer: yeah
JoeTheEngineer: I mean depending on the artist sure
JoeTheEngineer: but this is common
JoeTheEngineer: I’ve certainly seen a few big ones that were spoon fed all the lines they sang
StumpyPete1975: it’s not surprising, but it is, you know?
StumpyPete1975: it’s weird to hear your fears confirmed
JoeTheEngineer: heh
JoeTheEngineer: yeah
JoeTheEngineer: I was shocked the first few times, now I’m already jaded and its only been 4 years!
JoeTheEngineer: haha
StumpyPete1975: what has changed in the last 4 years?
StumpyPete1975: obviously, with the economy being pretty crappy
JoeTheEngineer: well, a bunch of the biggest studios in the city have closed
JoeTheEngineer: I’ve heard that
JoeTheEngineer: The Hit Factory, Sony Music Studios, Battery
StumpyPete1975: oof
StumpyPete1975: why did they close?
StumpyPete1975: session prices too high?
JoeTheEngineer: well, there is the never ending quest for labels to find cheaper recording
JoeTheEngineer: there is the stupid price for real estate in midtown manhattan
JoeTheEngineer: (where all those studios were)
JoeTheEngineer: and the enormous overhead of the recording equipment
JoeTheEngineer: combined with the fact that a lot of popular music today does not necessitate a big room
StumpyPete1975: yeah
StumpyPete1975: I wonder if a lot of hip-hop could be recorded anywhere!
StumpyPete1975: home
StumpyPete1975: in a living room, etc.
StumpyPete1975: if it’s midi and sound replacer et al.
JoeTheEngineer: it can, and is
JoeTheEngineer: and that has hurt business
JoeTheEngineer: absolutely
JoeTheEngineer: you can buy a set up now that would run you 5 grand tops that you could record vocals for an entire hip hop record on
JoeTheEngineer: and when you compare that to 5 grand getting you 3 days of studio time
StumpyPete1975: yeah
StumpyPete1975: but is there a place for big studios?
StumpyPete1975: I still tend to think there is
StumpyPete1975: home recorded digital stuff can sound like just that
JoeTheEngineer: I mean, rock/jazz/country/classical and more organic pop and R&B definitely benefit from a classic, big studio
JoeTheEngineer: so there will always be places to record that stuff
JoeTheEngineer: Its just owning a big studio right now is finnancial liability
StumpyPete1975: I worry it’s a dying art
StumpyPete1975: studio stuff
StumpyPete1975: that in a world with no CD sales
StumpyPete1975: nobody will pay for big-sounding records
StumpyPete1975: and it’s still great to hear a huge-sounding record, in my book
JoeTheEngineer: that is a concern for us all the time
JoeTheEngineer: absolutely
JoeTheEngineer: I wonder how much the public knows the necessity of the studio though
JoeTheEngineer: I’m not sure if they connect what they are hearing, to the building it was made in
JoeTheEngineer: obviously you have some experience in the studio so you know
StumpyPete1975: yeah
StumpyPete1975: I’m surprised by how little everyone, from listeners to critics, knows about the studio process
StumpyPete1975: I see critics make some of the most ridiculous statements about how something is recorded
JoeTheEngineer: even worse
JoeTheEngineer: the labels are often completely clueless about the studio process
JoeTheEngineer: which is amazing, because they are the ones who pay us
StumpyPete1975: yeah
StumpyPete1975: but who ever said that labels were good businesspeople who knew anything about anything?
JoeTheEngineer: true
JoeTheEngineer: ha
StumpyPete1975: specifically related to hip-hop and pop
StumpyPete1975: what have you seen in the last 5 years
StumpyPete1975: in terms of changes to what you do?
StumpyPete1975: anything else besides money? attitude? expectations?
JoeTheEngineer: hmm
JoeTheEngineer: I think hip hop artists have warmed up greatly in the past few years to crossing over to the pop world
JoeTheEngineer: so you get some requests from rappers that you just never heard before
JoeTheEngineer: like “Throw some autotune on so it sounds like T-Pain”
StumpyPete1975: haha
JoeTheEngineer: or “Let’s go to the bridge”
StumpyPete1975: wow
JoeTheEngineer: I’m like “Bridge, this is a four bar loop!”
StumpyPete1975: but you think they see that pop success as the next step
StumpyPete1975: it’s no longer just being successful hip-hop artists?
JoeTheEngineer: when it comes down to it, a lot of artists are out of their comfort zone in the studio
JoeTheEngineer: especially now that hip hop has lost its hunger
StumpyPete1975: lost its hunger?
JoeTheEngineer: yeah, you know, doesn’t have the urgency that it once did
JoeTheEngineer: of course, thats not really in the past 5 years

Want to go on the record with us? Contact us at tipsATidolatorDOTcom.

  1. Anonymous

    When you go about killing the labels, the studios are bound to be caught in the fire.

  2. bg5000

    You could spend a whole column just talking about those last couple of lines.

  3. Lucas Jensen

    @bg5000: I know, I know. Time is limited! Maybe we can come back and address it.

  4. Dick Laurent is dead.

    Servicey.

  5. westartedthis

    i just finished that joe boyd book “white bicycles”, so i’m really into anything that talks about the difference between studios “then and now”. but my current biases aside, this is probably the best “shhhh-it!” column yet.

  6. Lucas Jensen

    @westartedthis: Thanks a bunch! We could have kept going forever, I think.

  7. Poubelle

    @Lucas Jensen: Yeah, I really enjoyed this one, too. I would totally read a JoeTheEngineer Shhhh-it! Interveiw pt. 2.

  8. Chris Molanphy

    Man, this column just keeps getting better. Awesome work, Lucas.

  9. Dick Laurent is dead.

    @Lucas Jensen: I found it genuinely interesting, informative and helpful; even more so since I’m trying to do a bit of recording with some friends at the moment.

  10. moulty

    @Poubelle: Agreed. Fascinating for people who have never set foot in a proper studio too.

Leave A Comment