Tips by RC mentor Frenchie Smith on Working with Artists, Saving Time, and Being a Billboard
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As a Grammy-nominated engineer and producer Frenchie Smith (Scorpion Child, The Dandy Warhols, Slayer, Meat Puppets, Paceshifters, Toadies) knows his way around a recording studio. As a longtime Recording Connection mentor at The Bubble Recording studio in Austin, Texas, Frenchie also knows what it takes to get apprentices ready to build the mindset and skills it takes to brave it in today’s audio world.
When asked what the most important aspect of working with an artist in the studio is Frenchie says, “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 taking the time to discuss what the roles are before going into the session helps. So if the band says, ‘We love our live repertoire right now, all we want to do is record it note for note,’ then they’re revealing that they don’t want any musical feedback; they just want someone to engineer and document their ideas to date. [In that case] 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.”
Frenchie has garnered loads of praise due to his ability to manage a recording studio like a construction site. He thinks of himself as a foreman in many ways. He’s there to wrangle things, give directions, make it so that everyone knows exactly what they’re doing and exactly what direction they’re headed in.
When it comes to managing the technical and artistic sides of recording bands, Frenchie calls himself a foreman of sorts “the guy with the yellowest hat on site.” Being able to multitask and knowing what to communicate, when to communicate it, and how, is a skillset it pays to master. To illustrate, Frenchie recounts something that happened just weeks ago at The Bubble:
“[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, but for 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.’”
Frenchie is committed to giving his apprentices a wholistic understanding of recording, audio engineering and developing the soft skills it takes to remain viable in today’s music industry. Building connections and creating opportunities for oneself are hot topics for the mentor. This means having the right look, right demeanor, and making things happen by working with what you got. Frenchie says:
“Wherever you are, you are a billboard, how you visually look, how you talk to people, the way you carry yourself is your business card…We have to visualize that our demeanor is our business card. Websites fall a little flat when we can’t attract opportunity in real time… 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.
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. And 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 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 powering opportunity.”