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« Why You Think Today's Music Sucks...It Comes Down to Neurochemistry | Main | Approximately Ten Questions With Timm Kummer From Kummer Vintage Instruments »
Oct 06 2014

Approximately Ten Questions With Audio Engineer Ed Spear

There's lots of hand-wringing about the reported demise of the recording industry lately. Of course, the reported demise of the recording industry has repercussions for every music lover. I'm a music lover, but not an audio snob, so depending on my mood, a super-pristine recording of the Berliner Philharmoniker on Deutsche Grammophon is just as valid and emotionally interesting as Essential Tremors by J. Roddy Walston and the Business .

Sure music recorded in somebody's mom's basement with a computer and a fire-wire can be compelling, but like a fast-food burger (the poorly recorded culinary counterpoint to music recorded in your mom's basement), a steady diet will do horrible things to you. On the occasion they don't make you ill they are quite momentarily satisfying, but eat enough and you begin to lose your interest in eating. That's what recording engineers and audio professionals do for regular folks like you and me – they keep us interested in the auditory staples of life.

With that in mind, I had a brief discussion with Ed Spear, an up and coming engineer out of Nashville who works with Sputnik Sound , arguably one of the most interesting and cutting edge studios in the business today.

JS: How did you end up in Nashville?

Ed Spear: I had the opportunity to experience recording studios from an early age. Growing up in Northern England, my local council funded a lot of art and music projects which held classes and workshops with local producers. The thought of actually working in such an exciting environment led me to eventually attend college with a focus in production. In my final year, the doom and gloom of finding a job was on my horizon and I had become friends with one professor, Paul Bailey, one of Abbey Road's engineers. No one would turn up for his seminars and I started booking out studios at college every day and using his time almost like a master class to help me to understand how to get my horrendous recordings to sound palatable. He suggested I [take an internship] at a commercial facility and sent me to Sphere in London. I had the opportunity to annoy the staff with my uneducated and elementary questions.

I was well aware that my college days were only the beginning of my education as I stared in awe of the Neve 88R in the A room hoping that one day I would understand how to command it. One afternoon I was introduced to legendary engineer Chris Kimsey and had the opportunity to shadow him. I had no idea music could sound so great, and I pressed him for career advice. He immediately told me 'the best engineers are in Nashville' and he called who was working at Blackbird Studios at the time. I booked my plane ticket and contacted as many studios as I could to get tours and just meet people. When I arrived in Nashville, Niko had gone out of town and forwarded me to Vance Powell . We met and really hit it off; we hung out and he invited me to a Raconteurs show happening at Third Man Records . Honestly I was terrified.

Vance told me to get my visas straight and to start in January. This was in April of 2010 and I immediately started working two jobs to save for my new opportunity. By January 2011 I had saved enough, had graduated college, and had my visa set up. After two weeks of being at Sputnik, Vance and Mitch Dane sponsored me to stay and work in the U.S and I've been fortunate to be here ever since.

JS: What’s the vibe like in Nashville right now for an engineer?

For me it's great. I've been here for nearly four years and the variety of acts here makes for a fantastic creative environment. I think it's considerably more diverse here than it may seem from an outside perspective. Obviously Music Row still has a big hold on the mass consumed exports of country and other pop genres but honestly I've worked pretty much every day since I've been here and have only skimmed the outside of that world a few times.

I think Nashville is a great place to learn for a young professional. I've been so lucky to be around some of the best producers and engineers in the world. There are so many incredible talents living and working together that the bar of excellence is very high. It's daunting and inspiring all at the same time. People here are seemingly always willing to share their tricks and secrets; like I said before it's amazing for someone like myself who has really been able to have a front row seat to so many great and seasoned professionals.

I think that the lack of a physical product in most consumed music has really made the act of listening to music more of a passive experience. I grew up in the 90s when CDs and MTV were my only means of consumption. You really had to engage with the act of listening to music. I think that resurgence of vinyl is partly because some people prefer to consume less passively.

JS: Acts are having a hard time getting vinyl pressed because of the current demand. Is the vinyl resurgence here to stay or is just the fad of the moment?

ES: I think that the lack of a physical product in most consumed music has really made the act of listening to music more of a passive experience. I grew up in the 90s when CDs and MTV were my only means of consumption. You really had to engage with the act of listening to music. I think that resurgence of vinyl is partly because some people prefer to consume less passively.

Last year I had the  wonderful opportunity to hang out with Andrew Scheps . We sat and talked after he had given his lecture on audio quality and he and I listened to Strawberry Fields twice, one as an mp3 and the second time as a high-res file. I had never done the comparison before. My mind was opened to how much more engaged I was with the high res version. Ideally the vinyl would be of a far higher sonic quality than the digital (unless the vinyl is just cut from the CD master) and I would hope that people who seek vinyl also feel the depth and quality that people like myself work so hard to achieve. I hope that either digital formats increase in quality or that people continue to buy vinyl, it makes me feel less devastated when I've just finished a mix that not everyone will just listen to [it on] the mp3. I think vinyl is definitely cool right now, but I hope there will always be audiophiles out there that seek the highest quality experience when listening to music.

JS: From an engineering point-of-view, would you rather your work be heard on vinyl or digital?

ES: It might sound disingenuous but honestly I would just be glad that people enjoyed the music I had been involved in. I think a great song will always resonate with people, on the other hand I also think a great recording enhances the character of a performance that goes beyond just the pure composition. If the market can provide the demand, we will see hi-res digital music being consumed more frequently. Another important note on this particular question is that the majority of music that has been made over the last twenty years has been recorded to a digital format, this means the vinyl itself is often cut from a digital transfer, unless the record was completely tracked on tape, which is rare. I don't really mind the format but I really am not a big mp3 advocate, I think it's exhausting [to listen to].

JS: What are some challenges working on a direct to 2-Track, or direct-to-vinyl project as opposed to working with multiple tracks?

ES: There is no post-production involved, except mastering. What is happening in the control room is the record. I believe that live-to-mono or two-track records are the most pure capture of a performance, other than being there. The live-to-acetate records that Vance Powell, George Ingram, Josh Smith, Mindy Watts and myself record over at Third Man Records are probably the most technically challenging sessions that I get to work on. The technical considerations for everyone involved are vast, if anything goes wrong, the recording is ruined. Recently we recorded the 'world's fastest record ', which I was the assistant for. When you think that the record was physically released on vinyl that day, you can imagine the kind of technical preparation and team work the session required. I was once again terrified at Third Man Records, but of course Vance absolutely knocked it out of the park as always!

This particular type of recording is also one of direct fidelity, there is no medium for which the performance is stored, other than a tape safety (that to date I believe has never been needed). That means a layer of capture that most recordings use is bypassed – you might say that this is the most high fidelity capture possible apart from actually being there.

JS: Do you see artists getting back to a point where the actual sound of what they are recording is important, or does that vary by artist?

ES: I think sonic identity is crucial if you want to have autonomy as a recording artist, it helps you to stand out from the barrage of new music that consumers are faced with. I imagine there are more records being made in Nashville this week than were made in one year in the 60's (this week alone I have played a part in the making of six records). I don't know exact figures, but it's so much easier for people to record today than it was then. I also find too many young bands will reference other artists rather than be bold and try something signature or 'wrong.'

I have this crazy notion that we're in the wild west right now and you can make a crazy and interesting recording that might just stick out in the crowd. I see that most bands are more worried about getting a sync license rather than showing their grandkids their record in 50 years time. Be bold!

I have this crazy notion that we're in the wild west right now and you can make a crazy and interesting recording that might just stick out in the crowd. I see that most bands are more worried about getting a sync license rather than showing their grandkids their record in 50 years time. Be bold!

JS: What do you listen for when you’re listening for fun, or is listening for fun even possible when you’re an engineer?

ES: I love listening to music. I try and listen to interesting records, anything that I wouldn't do always excites me. My friend Dave Cobb uses a great term: 'audio archeology.' When he's searching for tones from a particular recording he will look at every detail, photos, contacting the engineer etc. He makes unbelievable records. I love trying to figure out a sound that I connect with and am excited by. Often it's something that's super over the top or blown up because a player is kicking the shit out their instrument and the engineer wasn't ready for it. I feel like every Otis Redding performance is enhanced by distortion when he pushes to the heights of his dynamic range. I don't think there are many interesting records being made at the moment. People are just too safe, we have this infinity of technologies at our disposal, I wish more people pushed the envelope, a creative recording can definitely give a record an identity.

JS: In terms of genre, what do you see on the horizon that we should be looking out for?

ES: The 90's!!!! Every A&R person I've come into contact with in the last six months seems to be jumping all over that band wagon. I see a lot of drum sounds returning (which I think is fantastic). Electronic music is obviously doing fantastically, but I'm not really so involved with the modern genres and know very little about it, although it is very fun to mix!

JS: What are your Top 3 favorite albums from an engineering point-of-view?

ES: Not in order: Beck – Sea Change, Blunderbuss – Jack White, Revolver – The Beatles. This was the hardest question!

JS: Where do you see the recording industry in the next five or ten years?

ES: I think people will continue to expect great music for less or for free. I'm fortunate enough to not have worked in the 'glory days,' where engineers were paid six figure sums of money just to mix a record. I hate the pressures of money, it isn't fun for me. Maybe the Internet will be regulated by government bodies or some legislation will be passed where music can't be streamed for free and people will be forced to buy music again, but I think now that the flood gates are open, they aren't going to close. I would love it if the public had the option to consume something of higher quality than mp3, but at least people are still consuming music. I hope the industry stays the same in many respects, I'm sure it has the potential to get a lot worse, but we should be grateful that we don't have to work in accounting!

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