Recording Connection mentor Frenchie Smith on working with bands, asking the right questions and the “construction site” approach

Scorpion Child and Chris “Frenchie” Smith, center.

Scorpion Child and Chris “Frenchie” Smith, center.

ON THE MINDSET OF WORKING WITH ARTISTS IN THE STUDIO:

“I think the most important thing that a recordist can do is be proactive and read the energy of the individual musicians and the collective of the band. When we’re open to their feedback, they’re open to our feedback. You know, also discussing what their role is before going into the session. So if the band says, ‘We love our live repertoire right now, all we want to do is record it note for note,’ and they reveal that they will not have any musical feedback and they just want someone to engineer and document their ideas to date, then the role has been clearly defined. So if the artist is looking for a producer—this is what happens for me—I’m encouraged to bring ideas to the table and look for opportunity to bring more cohesion to their ideas. So I think the gateway to that is to be compassionate and calm and be focused, and just play the role of someone that they trust.”

ON THE ROLE OF THE PRODUCER/ENGINEER AS A FOREMAN FOR A PROJECT, BALANCING ART AND TIME MANAGEMENT:

[The recording process] is a bit of a construction site. So, you know, the intangible artsy side of it certainly helps the creative process. Really, seeing ourselves as that foreman/forewoman of the construction site, with the loudest yellow hard hat, to some degree helps us stay somewhat grounded. And that knowing what parts of a recording that, you know, we need to address time wise, and doing that, it allows us to be a bit more artful and take some chances midway through that and the backend… It’s a company, and our ability to manage time, it helps us keep our promises with artists. And sometimes the artists live in other countries, they live in other cities. Even if it’s a bigger band or an unknown band, you know, people can be collaborating from all over the world. And all of a sudden, you have every band member in the same room, and some of them are incurring hotel fees, or plane tickets to get to where we are. Then we really want to maximize that experience of when the entire band is together.”

HIS CREATIVE APPROACH TO HELPING ROCK BANDS ACCLIMATE TO THE STUDIO:

“The sooner I get the band playing, as in day one, in the first two to three hours, my goal is to always have the band perform a rock show of their songs that they’re wanting to record…We kind of create a set list that’s also maybe a song list for us, as potential contenders, and they do one pass of the song and they go straight into the next one…As they’re doing that, I’m finalizing some of the sonics and how I want to capture the band. I’m not getting the bulk of my sounds by having a 12-hour drum sound check; I’m getting the drums sounds while the drummer is playing…That desensitizes the importance of the studio. It dilutes the nerves of a musician, because by the time they’ve spent an hour and a half doing a show session, all of them have been sweating. It’s no longer just some new building to them…it’s their building. They’ve just played a rock show. They’re the most significant thing that is happening in there. So they’re very centered on who they are…And once they’ve seriously just had to change clothes that they just sweated playing an entire show, like their socks are completely drenched, at that point, they’re in an environment they know…they know how to be there. And that’s a great place for rock music.”

ON WORKING WITH THE HUMAN ELEMENT IN THE STUDIO, NOT JUST THE TECHNICAL:

“[Daniel, one of my students] was watching the one hundred scientific engineering duties I was doing, and he was asking me about those. And he was so focused on that that he missed the finer detail which was a bit of dialogue I had with the band tracking. There was a rhythmic emphasis that some of the band were performing, and some of them, it was going over their heads. And I brought it to their attention, and they were all able to talk about it and commit to what that performance needed… In talking with Daniel, I pointed out how that one conversation saved me lots of editing time. [I told him] ‘Well, I just saved myself 300 edits by talking to these humans in a graceful manner and just alerting them…bringing it to their attention that there are some oddities going on in the performance.’”

WHAT’S HAPPENING WITH SOME OF HIS RECORDING CONNECTION STUDENTS:

“[Cousins] Elisa Robledo and Brandon Robledo are quite unique because they are—their family is putting together a recording studio that’s ultimately going to be a retreat residential facility outside of Austin in an old German town called Fredericksburg. So the chops that Elisa and Brandon are going to leave the Recording Connection program with, actually is going straight into their…recording facility. They just have such an amazing trajectory in front of them…Just having two young minds that are hopelessly nuts about audio being at the helm of a recording studio is just—that’s going to be a really great destination.

“And then Skye Stewart, I’d say she’s midway through her projects and completion. She is also a musician…We’ve customized her schedule to where she can still work a night job and come in to sessions. And she’s really a prime example of how the program really works when the student has got the ability to go make some noise in their own bedroom or living room of their house. I’ll send her files of the song that I’ve just mixed and go, ‘Okay, here’s my version of the mix. What would you do if you were able to mix this song for an entire week? What would you do with the song?’…She’s at that stage now where she’s trying to show me how it’s done and giving me a little bit of a rock challenge. So I’m excited about that.

Daniel [Sahad] is in the early stages of his participation with me, and he is really excellent…He has a very expansive musical knowledge and there’s just an incredible hustle on him. He graduated from the University of Texas in Austin, so he has a background in…He has a Bachelor’s in not only marketing but, you know, but also just whatever it takes to be into PR…He might be just like the new generation of music industry people that can play, they can write, they can perform, they can produce, they potentially could manage, they could do in-house PR for a release. His points of reference are very large. And, you know, he’s only 23…at 23 I was really trying to figure out who I was and I was a bit of a maniac. At 23, he just has such a solid confidence and presence, and those are the kinds of qualities you want to see in people when you’re trusting them with your musical dreams.”

HOW STUDENTS CAN GAIN MORE BENEFIT FROM THEIR STUDIO TRAINING BY PRACTICING AT HOME:

“As soon as they hear some kind of technique coming into fruition based in music in a production in the proper recording studio, and they go home and try something exactly like it, then they’re truly learning…I think that was the hardest thing for me early in my audio career, was if I couldn’t spend X amount of days a month in a 24-track tape machine recording environment, any momentum I had from one project that would’ve been…Maybe it would’ve been a luxury to be in there for seven days, 10 days, two weeks or a month. And if I wasn’t back in that environment again for three months or six months or a year, my naturally-occurring very organic learning was modified. So, they can act by having their own system at home, even if it’s just in their bedroom, where they can hear music and play with it. That’s the true learning experience.

ON HOW MODERN TECHNOLOGY GIVES STUDENTS MORE OPPORTUNITIES TO BUILD THEIR CAREERS:

“You know, the recording studio ultimately is in our minds. And so the technology is so vast that a little studio is anywhere that you can just plug in and get power and not have the cops called on you for making noise. If you can fill in the gaps there, then you’re making a recording… So if you love recording and you’re interested in others, then go find your tribe. And if you want to get time in a professional recording studio, then you can go do that. If you have the ability to track 8 or 16 inputs, and you can roll around with your rig, or you have a tracking room in your house, or you have a rehearsal room, that other like-minded people are helping you with the responsibility of the monthly rent… I think as a pupil, it could be quite intimidating to come out of the Recording Connection and immediately just go to a band and go, ‘I can help you make a recording and I still would like to have some hands-on experience, but were still going to need to pay $20,000 in studio time.’ That’s [now] completely optional. And being able to have the power to remove that part of the dialogue when a new recordist is talking to a band is ultimately empowering opportunity.”

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