Seva Ball on Hiring Externs & his Journey into Audio Engineering
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Recording Connection mentor Seva Louis Ball (Knoxville, TN) has merged his love for technology and invention every day of a career spanning more than three decades. Seva has recorded, mixed, and mastered with artists across the musical spectrum from Dolly Parton to Metallica, David Bowie to Corrosion of Conformity. He’s also been entrusted with manning the transfer of analog to digital records for the Grammy™ funded archives of David Lewiston, now housed at the Library of Congress, as well as the father of the synthesizer, Bob Moog’s personal analog tapes, housed at Cornell University.
As chief engineer for Sequoyah Studios, Seva produces, records, mixes, and masters audio for media and music of all genres, including forensic audio. Other experience includes his prior work with Waves Audio (which won a Technical Grammy in 2011) since the popular plugins’ inception back in 1992.
We recently connected with Seva Ball to learn more about his journey into audio and to find out what he looks for in the students he trains, and especially, the ones he decides to hire.
What led you into audio in the first place?
“I was always fascinated with the stuff… Both of my parents taught in college for 37 years, they were music teachers, but dad was in charge of the music department. He had a very nice Ampex tape recorder. By the time I was 10, he had showed me how to use it so that I could help record recitals that were given by the music students.
By the time I was 12 or so, I remember I took his tape recorder apart and then put it back together and then took it apart again. He came home in the middle of that, and he said, very calm[ly], ‘I hope you know how to put that together.’ And I said, ‘Well, I’ve already done it.’ He said, ‘I’ll leave you alone.’…
And of course I was learning how to play piano, so music was part of what I was doing. And the music department had, of course, a music library with lots of records and maybe 20 places with turntables and headphones. You could sit down and listen to music for your music assignment.
I had a library card for the music library and the main library. So I was very much into everything, and I started listening to records and I discovered electronic music. A lot of young people think that means electronica or EDM. And at that time, it was more like the abstract electronic music. It was academic, it was coming out of Columbia University and Princeton and Paris and London, and it was seen as a very, very new form of expression, just like abstract art was after World War II. There was just an explosion of abstract art and an explosion of very new, difficult, dissonant music, including electronic music that was recordings of samples on tapes, spliced and reversed and mixed and slowed down and so forth. And I just thought that was the neatest possible thing. So I’m sure I was one terrible kid. I’m quite sure.
So I started making my own electronic music when I was 12 with tape recorders, and I built a Theremin and I built filters and my own patch bay.”
You’ve also taught audio in the college setting.
“Yes, I was teaching audio engineering for 17 years. I did 10 years at a four year college, the University of Tennessee and seven at a community college, and they overlapped for a while. So, on the calendar it was about 13, but it was actually 17 years’ worth of parking tickets.”
Do you believe one-on-one mentoring is better than learning in a classroom environment?
“Oh, by far. By far. It’s absolutely the best. It’s the best teaching experience I’ve ever had. It gives me the chance to individualize and to accommodate each person’s learning style and to accommodate their interest, and also I can push each of them out of their comfort zone in a different way.
What I couldn’t do in the classroom was accommodate each person. Now I can. So each one of them I teach in a different way because they all have different learning styles. And yeah, Gabby’s working for me in the studio, and we have a record label, and she’s also dealing with all of the rights management licensing, and distribution and all of the craziness and everything.”
What skills and qualities do you want to see in the students you choose to bring on as externs?
“I definitely want to see computer literacy. I want them to be comfortable with a computer. If they say, “I don’t do Windows or I don’t do Mac,” then they’ve got to change that attitude, because the difference between Windows and Mac and Ubuntu is just like rental cars…You’ve got to be ready to learn, you have to be ready to continue to learn. That’s the kind of people that we need in the business, the ones that are really hungry and not afraid of learning on a continuing basis. That’s where the Audio Engineering Society comes in, too, because they have student chapters and anybody that has an AES chapter nearby that they can join, they should do so because then you get to hang out with the old guys and the old girls, too. Because one thing I encourage is women in this business. There’s not very many, and I am so happy that Gabby is there and that she beat the pants off these other guys. And she has gained a lot of confidence because she saw that she could really do it. That’s fantastic.”
You recently hired two of your former Recording Connection students, Gabby Kilgore and Ryan Moore. Could you tell us more about that?
“Gabby, she’s my first assistant engineer and I also hired Ryan…He’s a very good musician and has an interest in old tape machines. And I told him, ‘If you want to learn about this, you guys, I’ll show you.’…And Gabby has the best ears of anybody that’s come in, and Ryan has the most interest in understanding all of the technology of anybody.
And the other students are very strong. Don’t get me wrong. The thing about, I think the thing about Recording Connection is that the students that come to that point have made a big decision. Their parents or whoever have said, ‘Okay, this is worth the money. We’re going to do this.’ So they’re not just people that are trying something out at a community college. They have a very strong idea about what they want to do. And I think it’s very important for the mentors to understand that each of them are going to do it a different way.”
What’s your advice for longevity in the music industry?
“I think you’ve got to be hungry and you need to push yourself out of the comfort zone to find…Because that’s where the great moments happen…People will ask you to do stuff that you don’t have any idea how to do. But if you are good at researching stuff, then you can figure it out. I’m always amazed every day how I use the very same tools in completely different ways. It’s crazy. It’s hard to imagine. I tell people now it’s like having like snap on tools, the stuff that mechanics use. It’s like having an entire truck full of snap on tools parked in your front yard, but you only need three tools to fix it. So don’t get 50.”
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