Countdown to AES with Chris Shaw

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SonicScoop is proud to host a pair of live talks as part of AES’ Platinum Panels series. The first of these interactive discussions is “Creative Engineering: The Studio As an Instrument”, a panel that brings together four of the busiest and most innovative engineers in the business to talk about the creative applications of recording technology.

We put our heads together to come up with a dream-team of recordists and mixers with unique backgrounds and a knack for crafting compelling new sounds. Luckily, they all said yes. Panelists include Dave Fridmann (The Flaming Lips, MGMT); Peter Katis (The National, Interpol); and Damian Taylor (Bjork, The Prodigy)

Chris Shaw

Rounding out this panel is Chris Shaw, a man who’s recorded some of the most iconic artists from the golden ages of both Hip Hop and Alternative Rock.

Originally a guitar player, Shaw got his start in audio as a teenager, dismantling and looping tape cassettes in homage to the “Frippertronics” style popularized by both Robert Fripp and Brian Eno. He soon enrolled at NYU, and continued learning the trade as an intern and assistant.

Shaw first made his way to the engineer’s chair with hip-hop legends A Tribe Called Quest and Public Enemy. He quickly began to diversify, picking up Alternative Rock clients including Ric Ocasek. Bad Brains, Weezer, Soul Asylum, Meat Puppets and Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, before scoring engineering and mixing slots on two critically-acclaimed albums with Bob Dylan.

While some of our panelists are known for their unorthodox approach and extreme sonic manipulations, Shaw keeps our panel grounded in reality with his penchant for working quickly to capture performers at their best.

Although he learned his craft in NYC’s flagship multi-room studios, Shaw has begun to favor mixing in his new home-based studio. We caught up with him to find out what’s on his mind in advance of the conference.

You’ve recently made a big switch by taking your mix work home with you. How’s that transition been?

It was mostly an economic decision, but it turns out I really enjoy it. The only thing I don’t like about it is that I’m usually mixing at home alone. I miss the environment of being in a multi-room studio – running into people, hanging out with musicians – the social aspect of it. I miss the interaction with people and the business, but that’s about all.

I still do all my tracking at outside studios. Wind-up Records has a great studio of their own, and I do a lot of work for them. Also I like Headgear, and Stratosphere too – I’m good friends with all of those guys [at Stratosphere]. It’s a really great room.

Has working this way sped up or slowed down the process?

I like a lot of things about mixing at home. But it actually does go a little more slowly.

When I’d mix an album at Electric Lady, I’d have an assistant with me who would be helping me out – prepping the next song to mix, checking out the edits, organizing the tracks, maybe doing a little vocal tuning or setting up drum triggers if it needed it. So by the time I’m ready to get started on the next song, it’s all ready to go – I can just hit play and mix.

When I mix at home, it’s actually twice as many man-hours. If I mix a song in 8 hours, there’s actually maybe 16 man-hours that go into it, because I no longer have someone else doing the grunt work for me.

In the past, when it came to printing stems, instrumentals, TV tracks, vocal-up, vocal-down versions, I could hand that off to an assistant, go home, catch an extra couple hours of sleep and come back fresh. Now, I’m doing all that myself, so what we might have been able to do in 12 hours with two guys working in parallel, now takes 24 linear hours instead.

And of course you have to work to separate your work day from your living day. But in general, no one complains about it. Most of the time a label doesn’t care about a few extra days. They’re much more interested in the budget.

As we’re gearing up for a panel on working creatively in the studio, what thoughts are on your mind?

Shaw engineered Bob Dylan's Grammy winning "Modern Times."

Well, sometimes I think we put way too much emphasis on the technology part. A great record always begins with a great song and a great artist.

I do some guest lectures at SAE and a couple other recording schools. I’ll bring in a session and invariably someone will ask me how I get great drum sounds as if there’s some keystrokes or a special microphone that’s going to do that. I always have to tell them that a great sound begins primarily with a great drummer. After that, you’ve gotta put the drummer behind a good, well-tuned kit. You get that kit into a great room, you put some nice mics on it, run it through a nice console. After all that, the last part of the chain is me.

The truth is, recording great drummers is one of the easiest things on the planet. And I’ve been lucky to work with some really great guys. I always say, I’d rather work with the world’s greatest drummer in the world’s worst room than the worst drummer in the word’s greatest room. One’s a nightmare and the other’s a dream.

So what do you see the engineer’s role?

I think people are putting too much emphasis on using technology to fix things. Sure, it’s part of our jobs to cover up mistakes and make things sound as good as they can, but it’s starting to become more of the norm for me to be fixing things rather than to be recording great performers and trying to enhance them.

I’ll gladly polish turds because I get paid to do it, but to be honest, it’s kind of exhausting. On the other hand, I jump to work with great musicians. If it comes down to having to choose between two projects, it’s almost always better to go for the one where you’ll be working with better musicians, regardless of how much money is on the table.

Nowadays, you’re doing a lot of mixing without the big analog consoles you grew up on. You also made some news for engineering with Bob Dylan on his first Pro Tools album. How do you feel about the impact of digital recording, and the lowered cost of technology across the board?

On that side of technology, I think things are great! If anything, there’s a resurgence in good microphones and good preamps.

I also like the fact that music is portable. You can record anywhere if you have the budget to bring in some halfway decent mics and pres. I did the latest Nada Surf record that way. We tracked the basics at Headgear, but we recorded the rest of the album at the bass player’s loft. Our string arrangements were done by FTP with a great arranger in Germany. It’s wonderful that you can collaborate that way. 10 years ago all this would be virtually unheard of.

I think technology has leveled the playing field. But it’s also opened up the floodgates to all sorts of mediocre performances and mediocre engineering. I never like to say anything bad about other engineers, but there’s some really mediocre ones out there, more now than in the past. But, hey, I’m sure people say the same thing about me! (Laughs)

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