We spoke with Jack Shirley about how he’d correct common misunderstandings in the recording process, the value of working on-the-fly, the sole unpleasant experience he ever had in his studio and why it’s more important to make his clients happy than himself.
I choose analog over digital when I can, but that’s just because of me being neurotic. I know it’s 5% better in the sound quality, so I’m like, “That’s the one.”
Before we get into your overall approach to the studio, I’m interested as to which common misunderstandings or clichés about the recording process you hear. My least favorites are thinking that analog is necessarily “warm,” or that the kick drum is “huge.”
There’s one that sticks out pretty hard, and it’s the word “compression.” It’s almost always guaranteed that if that word comes out of somebody’s mouth, they don’t know what they’re talking about. If it’s somebody who’s studio-savvy, it’s something else, but yeah, it’s a word that gets thrown around like crazy. I think people mistake digital file compression for audio compression. Or people are like, “Well, it sounds okay right now, but once it’s compressed, it will be better.” It happens all the time, but it’s one of the recurring buzzwords that makes my ears prick up when I hear it, because I’m always curious to hear what’s coming up down the line.
Well, what would you say to correct someone who doesn’t quite understand what compression is?
It takes a while to wrap your brain around what the process of compression even is, for the most part. I would say something to the degree of, “What we’re hearing is already being compressed.” Or I’ll try to do a little bit of differentiation: “I think what you’re talking about is file compression, like MP3s or WAV files.” They could mean so many different things when they’re using that terminology, so I’d just try to talk to them a little bit more and figure out what they’re even talking about. It seems to be some sort of catch-all, which is odd, because it’s a pretty specific thing.
From there, I want to pick your brain about the eternal “analog vs. digital” question. When people are like, “I want that warm tape sound,” I would think they don’t know what they’re talking about, but I wouldn’t really know a precise way to correct them. So, with your experience, where do you stand with that?
It’s a misconception that someone would say “Oh, we’re going to do analog. It’s going to be night-and-day different.”
Or it’s going to sound like a perfect Bob Dylan record from the ’60s or something.
For me, the analog vs. digital thing is subtle differences. It’s more than just the sound of things — it’s the workflow and the interaction with the equipment and things like that, which I think adds to the end result. I almost always record to tape, because I do think there are benefits there. But if I had to record to a computer, would the record turn out any different? Absolutely not. Another thing is that when people hear analog, they think only of tape. Analog is hardware, you know? It’s tubes, transformers, transistors and all that stuff. In almost every instance, I choose analog over digital when I can, but that’s just because of me being neurotic. I know it’s 5% better in the sound quality, so I’m like, “That’s the one.”
You’re right, though. It’s another thing that gets thrown around quite a bit.
There’s a weird tendency of thinking that you have to be doing something. You have to be heavy-handed in order to make your mark.
I’m fascinated as to how sound is impossible without air. Do you have a decent knowledge of physics, and do you approach your work with that knowledge, or is knowing the really, really deep stuff not really a factor in your daily workflow?
I don’t have wide knowledge of physics, but you have to at least be acquainted with physics to at least get some things right. Phase is a really big issue with everything recording-wise as soon as you get more than one microphone in the room. That’s the positive and negative waveforms as the sound passes through the air. The most commonly used technique is when you’re putting two overhead mics on a drum set. Generally speaking, you want to measure those two overheads to be the exact same distance from the snare drum.
In a bad scenario, the positive and negative waveforms are traveling toward the microphone, and if the left overhead is getting the positive slope of the waveform while the right overhead gets the same distance, you’ll know that waveform will hit both microphones in the same way. But that principle applies to tons of things related to recording music. Something as simple as if someone wants to play through two guitar amps at once — those guitar amps have a phase relationship where if the speaker’s on one amp, or moving outwards where the other moves inwards, they’ll start cancelling each other out. And here’s where it gets extra-complicated: it’s not just two different signals, they can be in-between also. It can be where they’re kinda cancelling, which is called cone filtering, and there’s tons of fun ways to get that stuff to line up and be phase-coherent.
So, yeah, you do have to have some kind of understanding of that. The last time I took any proper course in physics was probably in high school, which was 20 years ago, so it’s mostly either from real-world experience or specific recording literature, where these things are gone over.
The first recording engineer we ever spoke with for North of the Internet — actually, the first person we spoke with at all — was Steve Albini. He told a really interesting story from his youth where he was tinkering with electrical equipment as a kid and inadvertently discovered how to make tape echo. Did you do any tinkering or experimentation as a kid with radios, microphones or anything else? Did it spur you on to do what you do today?
I don’t know if I have any experiences as a child, but very, very early on when I was playing in bands, we would need a demo or something like that. But nobody knew how to record or had any equipment! This was probably ’95 or ’96, and the solution was that we had a PA head with a mixer, a home stereo and some strung-together microphones. What we ended up doing turns out to be a real big-boy technique, but it was the only solution with what we had. We recorded a demo live to two-track, which, if you do that in a professional setting, you’ve got bragging rights for days. If you can record your whole record, including the mix, all in one pass, I mean.
But when you really don’t know what you’re doing, the mix has to happen before you record. So we set up all these microphones, strung two different PA heads together and that all went into the auxiliary input on a home stereo and we just recorded it to a cassette. It took maybe 10 tries, but instead of having a four-track, it was, “Let’s see what we can do with the stuff that’s already in the room.” It was fun, you know. We got a demo. It was very exciting. It’s instant gratification to just press play on what you recorded and it’s finished, because there’s literally nothing else you can do.
I’ve had some bands tell me that they want to do that sometime. Instead of using an old Peavey PA system into a cassette recorder, we’ll go through the console into the two-track tape machine, the whole bit. It’s exciting but nervewracking. So, I didn’t tinker with electronics as a child — and I still don’t really spend my time doing that stuff beyond recording, but when it gets to the guts of things, I’m not as well-versed as I probably should be.
There’s a weird tendency of thinking that you have to be doing something. You have to be heavy-handed in order to make your mark.
Can you describe a single principle or goal that you tend to apply to anyone you’re recording, whether it’s a solo guitarist or a loud band? What do you feel you understand better than other producers as to the science of recording and what’s necessary to create a great sound?
I wouldn’t say I know anything better than anyone else, per se. I think one thing I do that some people don’t is maybe having the inkling to not do as much. For example, I get things to mix pretty regularly that I didn’t record, and sometimes when I get those files, it comes with kind of a disclaimer of, “Hey, I think this turned out really, really bad. I think we’re going to throw this recording away. Can you see what you can do with it?” And before we get started on a budget or whatever, I’ll be like, “Give me 15 minutes with it, just send me the multitrack and I’ll see what’s there.”
And this happened recently with a record — I listened to the rough mix, and I was like, “Wow, this sounds fucking terrible.” But then when I put the tracks up, it sounded great! Literally in two minutes of pushing the faders to even hear what was there, it already sounded great. I listened to the rough again, and I had no idea how whoever it was got from point A to point B. Maybe there’s a weird tendency that you have to be doing something. You have to be heavy-handed in order to make your mark. There’s a thought process where if I hear something that sounds good to me, there’s no reason to push it past that point unless someone tells me to.
When I work with anybody, the main goal is “Make that person happy. Make them feel like what they’re hearing is the thing that’s in their head.” Sometimes it’s a really painstaking process and it’s not fun, but in the end, if you can get to what the person wants, then everybody wins. Some of that might be me interjecting “Hey, I know you’re saying you want this thing, but in my experience, what that’s going to mean down the line is this.” You have to throw out a little bit of cautionary stuff. I think the difference between myself between other producers, engineers, whatever, is that there’s some weird “reputation on the line” kind of vibe.
What if the band wanted you to do some ridiculous shit you don’t agree with? I’d be like, “Yeah, fine.” If you want this to sound like it was recorded at the worst recording studio ever, I’d be like, “Cool, let’s see how to do that!” I don’t care. I’ve done enough records where people know what to expect out of the studio. It’s not about me. That’s the reason I started doing this in the first place, to get people out of that bubble of being really hung-up on their own name or fingerprint on the end result.
I’m very fortunate that I get to work with people that oftentimes I’m already friends with. And I respect them as musicians, so it’s mostly a really positive experience.
I like what you said about somebody saying they want something but actually not wanting that. One example I’ve heard is about bands who want to be really loud and powerful, so they think they have to turn everything up. When in actuality, sometimes if you want something really loud at the end, you’ve got to turn it way down!
Right, and that goes for so many different areas of making records. There’s been times when it’s made the most sense to put the band in the same room at the same time, no headphones, loud as a show, playing it the way they play, because introducing outside elements like headphones, separating the amps or making them turn down, all of a sudden, their tones are messed up or they can’t get feedback. They’re not close enough to their drummer to get the right interaction, or whatever. There are all kinds of adjustments that need to be made based on the people you’re working for.
Okay, back to the negative stuff. Can you describe the most unpleasant moment you’ve ever had in a studio?
There’s only been one time in 14 years that I’ve told someone they can’t come back to my recording studio, and it was a one-of-a-kind experience for sure. It was a guy who’d hired a bunch of studio musicians and come in with a crazy amount of music to record, and it was a really, really ambitious few days of recording. All the players were super good and everyone was well-rehearsed, and they were all live in the same room including vocals, which is a whole other can of worms.
But the person who was in charge was pretty off the rails. The full spectrum of emotion was wrung through in that few days, where he’s either running around yelling at everybody, banging shit around or crying or being silent or whatever. Everyone else in the room was looking at each other like, “What’s going on?” But the dude got really aggressive. It got to a point where I’m like, “Hey man, if you need to yell, you can go outside.” I also live at my recording studio, and there’s a pretty significant overlap of the studio and living space where if you walk out of the studio, the lounge is, like, my kitchen. At one point I had to grab the dude and be like, “You’re freaking my girlfriend out. It’s time for you to reel it in.”
That was a crazy time. Otherwise, for the most part, it’s really chill all the time. Those kinds of instances, that’s happened one time. For the most part, everyone’s got their shit together. I’m seen as the good guy, because I’m trying to make everyone in the room comfortable. There have been times where I said something to people that made them go record somewhere else. But I’m very fortunate that I get to work with people that, oftentimes, I’m already friends with. I respect them as musicians and I really like their music, so it’s mostly a really positive experience.
Finally, can you describe what you’re currently working on at Atomic Garden in as much detail as you can divulge? Is anything about your approach to this project unique or dissimilar in contrast with your past work?
I’ve been doing a lot of miscellaneous catching up on peoples’ mixes and stuff, but tomorrow, I’m mixing a record with this band called Sun Valley Gun Club, one of my favorites. They’re an indie rock band from Sacramento. The process that’s different with this one as opposed to many others is that we’re mixing it all analog, meaning it was eventually put into ProTools, but we’re mixing it like it was never put into the computer. We’re using my console, an outboard, and using manual mixing, meaning there’s no automation involved. It all has to be done in real time as it’s mixed down by a human being on the faders. There could be as many as three of us on the console at once, making moves and plotting out different things. I might be over at the space echo turning it on for one part, or manipulating some effects.
I’ve done it this way many times, but this is the first time a band has allotted us enough time to think about what we’re doing. We’re taking three days to mix the record. The whole band is here. We’re all making decisions. It’s a beautiful, beautiful thing. I’m going to start selling this to other bands. It’s very hands-on and they understand so much more of what’s going on in their mix instead of just not being there. It colors the experience in a really positive way for everyone involved. I’m trying to do much more of that.
Curated by: Morgan Enos
Conducted by: Phone
Published: January 26, 2018
Total questions: 10
Word count: 2559
Reading time: Nine minutes
analog, approach, automation, Bob Dylan, buzzword, cancelling, comfort, compression, cone filtering, console, demo, digital, element, engineering, experimentation, feedback, interaction, Jack Shirley, manipulation, microphone, MP3, neurosis, organic, overhead mic, PA, phase, physics, production, recording, snare drum, space echo, stereo, Steve Albini, Sun Valley Gun Club, transit, two-track, vibration, WAV, waveform
About the curator
Morgan Enos is a songwriter and journalist originally from California. His curatorial work for North of the Internet aims to strike a deeper place in his conversation subjects — the dreamy subtext to the linear everyday. Morgan also frequently writes power pop records as Other Houses about joy, outer space, frustration, chess and spiritual light. He resides in New York, where he continues to creatively fire on all cylinders.
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