Mastering the Hustle: Recording

Mastering the Hustle
Martin Douglas
All Photos by Brady Harvey

KEXP, Upstream Music Fest + Summit, MoPOP, and The Recording Academy have partnered together to present Mastering the Hustle: a panel discussion with six annual events, tackling a different topic to help emerging artists make better decisions earlier in their careers. Throughout the series, we’ll be discussing everything from how to get airplay, legal and licensing, healthcare for artists, and promoting your brand.


Recording is not the daunting process it once was for musicians; it is actually more accessible than ever. But for every aspiring hip-hop star futzing around with Ableton or band tracking a Garageband recording on their MacBook Pro, there are still musicians who want their records to sound rich and full. How do you do that? How do you find a studio, or producer, or engineer that best suits your needs? How do you approach that relationship once you find one to work with? Why do you need mixing and mastering?

In the eleventh installment of Mastering the Hustle, moderator Alexandra Niedzialkowski of the band Cumulus speaks with four experienced producers and engineers and has an essential discussion about all things related to working in studios with producers and engineers. Kessiah Gordon, one-half of Crater, producer, engineer; Erik Blood, musician (best known for his work with Shabazz Palaces and Knife Knights), producer and engineer; Rachel Field, co-owner of Resonant Mastering, and Mell Dettmer, owner of Studio Soli gathered to discuss important matters related to the studio.

Lilian Blair, Audio Committee Chair at Vera Project, begins her keynote speech by stressing the importance of understanding what exactly is being recorded when we record music. Sound is essentially a type of energy; its vibrations travel everywhere on Earth.

“It starts in a moment of calm and equilibrium and” -- she snaps her fingers -- “concussive waves shoot in a sphere out of my fingers at a foot a millisecond -- molecules of air collide against each other collide against each other thousands and thousands of times a second -- as the wave flies out into the room, colliding with the walls and the ceiling and bouncing off of all of your until the energy diminishes at the air returns to a state of calm and silence.”

She adds, “Sound is vibrational energy, but our experience of it is inseparable from our experience of time, whether cycles per second or minutes in a song.”

Blair snaps her fingers again, a little softer, noting how the timbre is different and affects anyone who hears it a little differently from the first. She compares it to a song being performed thousands and thousands of times, but the energy and emotion are different every time, “making it as unique as it is fleeting.” She offers a brief overview of the molecular process of recording, noting how this specific process preserves that fleeting feeling of sound and performance.

She speaks about the communal foundations of music, noting the expressive nature of humans. Before 1887, when Thomas Edison was noted for discovering a way to capture sound, music was passed down by ear, by generational teaching, and later by sheet music.

Blair plays an excerpt from Leif Inge’s “9 Beet Stretch,” described as a recording of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, stretched over a duration of 24 hours. When expanded to this scale, Blair explains, the notes become an ambient landscape of nearly agonizing textures. She illustrates the point that this elongation of the piece changes the theme of the music of the original symphony, offering new context and meaning to it.

“I feel it’s important as producers and music-makers to keep in mind the effect that change has on the human brain. The mind craves excitement and it craves change. A laid-back verse that transitions into an upbeat chorus or an introspective bridge that gives us just enough time apart from a chorus to feel the impact when it returns, again and again and maybe a third time with a key change, and we as producers can choose, ‘Do we want this sound to add something new every eight bars or every four, or do we simply want to get good tones and allow the writing and the performance to do all the work to keep you listening?’”

Niedzialkowski opens the panel, fresh off the recording of Cumulus’ sophomore album at Ballard’s famed Hall of Justice, by bringing up a point Dettmer mentioned in the panel introductions; the reason Dettmer developed an interest in recording was from playing in bands and recording songs on her four-track (cost at the time of purchase: $1500) and then going into the studio and being told her methods didn’t translate well to studio recording. Niedzialkowski asks the panelists about the rules of recording they do and don’t follow and their personal approaches to their own styles.

Blood says, “It was very helpful to learn the ‘correct’ way to do things. Learning basics and fundamentals is very important, just so you know how not to break things. But then, it’s fun to break things, because breaking shit sounds really good sometimes.” He mentions without basic fundamental knowledge, it can be difficult to even begin recording. Though now, with viable and extremely user-friendly recording software, the process is a little easier.

Field notes the technical issues of recording that are essential to be aware of, otherwise, it limits the quality of the recording. Gordon articulates the necessity of critical listening and possessing the vocabulary to problem-solve. When you know what you don’t want in a mix, it’s easier to stop those issues from cropping up. She cites YouTube and Reddit as useful tools but cautions everyone to compare what is being taught via these platforms, just to be fully aware of the correct approach.

Niedzialkowski asks how the panelists feel the difference between the artist and the engineer, and how does a person work through these differences. She mentions hearing almost a dozen phrases in the studio that she wouldn’t have been able to define at the time. Dettmer mentions, “Signal flow is one you should know. Look it up.”

Gordon explains there is a beginning and end to every process, so when experiencing a problem with recording, it’s best to scour the path of signal flow. Trace the lines, trace every line, until you find the source of the particular problem you’re having. Dettmer instructs a similar approach and notes to watch or adjust the levels and the input. “If you turn it up really hot, it distorts. You get clipping, you get that ugly digital distortion that everybody hates. The first thing is, try not to clip it. Even if the level is lower than you want, it’s better than peaking out and making that nasty distortion.”

Gordon adds that when setting a gain structure, there is a visual guide. Anywhere in the yellow is a good place, “also if it sounds good.” This level will usually be changed depending on the dynamics of the instrument or the singer.

Niedzialkowski mentions the intimidation factor in working with professionals inside the space of a studio. What if you know what you like but don’t necessarily have the technical vocabulary to communicate what sounds good? She asks, how do you bridge the gap?

Field notes the helpfulness of the artist communicating the sound they’d like to achieve in their own words, rather than engaging in technical speak. It can get really confusing if the artist doesn’t necessarily have the language, often leading to an unintended result. She says it’s also the engineer’s responsibility to translate the artist’s vision into the right sound.

Blood adds, “I feel like when you’re working with an engineer or producer, you’re forming a relationship. You’re going out on several dates. And you find out how you speak to each other. It’s human interaction, so you just have to make sure you’re on a good date.”

Gordon expounds on this point by observing the different love languages humans possess. She says a person can’t walk into a date assuming their date is going to know everything they want or makes them feel good. “Don’t make assumptions about people. You don’t know their history. You don’t know their context. [...] Build a language with them; don’t fight them for not knowing yours.”

Niedzialkowski asks the panel if they do research on an artist’s references prior to working with them and should the artist be doing the same. Blood acknowledges the idea that if an artist is coming to him specifically, they know his work. The pre-production period is the process where these metaphorical dates are had; time is spent talking about music. He sends artists a lot of YouTube song links; songs he’s enjoying and songs the artist might enjoy or find a musical kinship with.

Dettmer denotes an affinity for telling stories as a way of building and bonding with an artist. It’s a good way of bringing levity to the process. She mentions a lot of her work comes from word-of-mouth, which is a good reference to have. She mentions having experience in many different styles and recording disparate types of music.

Gordon’s process as someone who feels they’re still acquiring experience is recording with an artist on spec; one song, free of charge. It is her method of pitching her services, a resource she would have liked when she first started recording her own music.

Niedzialkowski brings up questions to be defined by the panelists: What is a producer? What is an engineer? What are their roles? Dettmer says, “That one is a very slippery slope.” A round of laughter ensues.

She mentions every producer being slightly different, or rather, the spectrum of differences between producers. “Some producers, all they do is write songs. They’re all about developing songs; they know chord structure, they’re good at helping you with your lyrics. Creating the arrangement of a song. Knowing what the album should sound like. But they’re not necessarily engineers. They don’t know how to get a really good drum tone. They know what it should sound like, but they’re not going to be putting the microphones in front of everything and tweaking the knobs to make it sound good.”

Dettmer continues, “In Seattle, there are a lot of [people who are] great producers and great engineers. People who can help you with your songs, with arrangements, with the tempo of your song, the chord changes, overdubs, harmony, on [those aspects] of songwriting. They [can also] help you get really great sound and develop your own style and what you want to sound like.” She says every recording is unique and individual to the artist and stresses the importance of an artist finding their own voice. A producer’s duty is to capture the vibe and irreplaceable feeling of making the hairs stand up on the backs of the listener’s necks, wanting to play a song again and again.

Says Field: “I think the line gets blurry. A simpler way to look at it from the surface is that a producer can be so many things, but if they’re impacting the result of the art, and they’re making decision and driving the direction of the production, then they can take some sort of production credit.” The engineer’s job is to make the song sound like the producer is directing it to sound.

Gordon notices these days, studios are “a lot less ubiquitous than they used to be.” Producers should at least be able to do basic recording practices like tracking vocals.

Niedzialkowski addresses the fact that, maybe for budgetary reasons, a fledgling artist can’t afford both a designated producer and a designated engineer, and asks the panel at what stage they think an artist is ready for a producer. Gordon notes for certain artists, management might make that suggestion, or perhaps a budget from a label is established for studio time. Her personal experience has led to both studio time and home recording. “I don’t think there’s a wrong way, I don’t think there’s a right way. I think it’s just based on your circumstances.” She advocates home recording as a solid way to become prepared for the studio.

Blood instructs to young artists that the producer should always have their artistic voice as the main production focus. “A good producer will project, elevate, and present your voice to the world as you want it to be heard.” Sometimes, it is only a matter of engineering. Sometimes, it’s a matter of arrangement or song structure. “Trust your voice as an artist and work with people who trust you.” Sometimes, home recording can be the finished product. The process is very beneficial to finding one’s voice. The magic of discovery is very apparent and audible in recording a guitar part or a vocal track for the first time. Harness that.

Niedzialkowski addresses the practice of creating safe spaces in the studio for an artist, as recording a project can sometimes be an emotionally combustible or draining experience for a variety of reasons. Blood notes the importance of being emotionally present for who are essentially your partners in this journey. Awareness of the emotional tenor of the studio is imperative because breakdowns can and do happen.

Dettmer adds knowing the artist’s boundaries, as people can respond to certain reactions differently. She compares the emotional process to taking care of a plant; you have to take care of them so they can grow. Field mentions the process as a “respect-based rapport,” which is paramount to any interpersonal relationship. Says Gordon, “Some people have a difficult time articulating what their needs are. And that might come from their [personal] history.”

Niedzialkowski observes the notion of the verbally abusive rock producer. “It doesn’t inspire a lot of artistic creativity,’ says Field.

Niedzialkowski asks the panel to define mixing and mastering and why they are important. Field simplifies the process from tracking (the actual recording), to a mix (which brings the separate tracks together “into one stereo field,” Blood points out later), to mastering (when the stereo mixes are crafted into a record, adjusting all the fine points of the mix). Blood states his love for mixing, “that’s when the songs become songs.” Gordon compares the process to quiltmaking; the mastering process is the threading. She notes the objective is to maintain the artistic intent of the mix and allow it to have solid dynamics.

Says Blood, “Mastering is a massively important step in making a record, single, EP, etc. It’s the final check-and-balance for the mixes; it’s the way to give your music the greatest chance of being enjoyed by the listener.

Key Takeaways:

  • Home recording is not necessarily the antithesis to studio recording; in fact, it's a good way for an artist to have a defined idea of what they want to sound like.
  • Mixing and mastering are essential to making an artist's recording sound complete.
  • Working with a producer is not too different from being in a relationship. It's always best to find one whose personality can work with the artists in a meaningful, cohesive, and complimentary way.
  • Engineers are the architects of sound from a technical level; some producers are also exceptional engineers, and others are better at helping shape songs.


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