Flying Blind: The Unusual Story of Shadow Sound Studio

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There’s not so much about the city of Macon that suggests a superhero resides there. Until you look at the map.

Bullseye in the center, there Macon is: the Heart of Georgia. Maybe living here is how an audio engineer named Joey Stuckey achieved such perfect balance — or maybe it comes from somewhere even deeper.

You’d have to dig deep to do what Stuckey does, which is operate a busy commercial recording studio despite being totally blind. With no visual input, Stuckey successfully steers Shadow Sound Studio’s tracking and mixing operations, servicing a steady stream of clients from rock to hip hop to gospel.

Stuckey’s ability to accomplish that stems from that aforementioned balance: It’s an inner peace and nonstop energy, powered by a love for sound that’s superhuman, if not downright superheroic. “I spend about 12 hours a day at the studio, and what do I do when I get home? I listen to music,” says Stuckey. “I’m obsessed with music, and I think in a healthy way. I tell my students, ‘If you don’t hurt when you’re not doing music, then this isn’t for you. Every day making music is a triumph.’”

For Stuckey, who also lost his sense of smell along with functioning thyroid and adrenal glands due to a nonmalignant brain tumor at age 18 months, life has always been about facing challenges head on. “My philosophy is that however I can grow from a situation, I’m interested,” he says. “I do a lot of inspirational speaking, talking to people about what living a successful life means, and how I’ve done that as a brain tumor survivor and a blind person.

“Once you’ve defined what success is for you, it’s very easily within reach. If you want airplanes and limousines, be honest about that. For me, success is sharing my story through music, reminding people of an idea or connecting them to some source of inspiration. If I can do that, and put food on the table, I’ll be successful.”

Joey Stuckey is the founder of Shadow Sound Studio.

Not Your Typical Workflow

In a field where careers and reputations are built on the capabilities of one’s ears, audio professionals also depend heavily on their eyes to do their jobs. Just try miking a drum set, adjusting compressor settings — or how about running a Pro Tools session — with your eyelids slammed shut, and you’ll be reminded of the major role optics play in audio production.

“There are things that are annoying about being blind in the audio industry, especially with the design of computer technology,” Stuckey concedes. “But with analog equipment, the knob on the left side of the unit does the same thing every time. I think the fact that I’m drawn to analog happens to be very fortunate, because over the years I’ve realized that analog gear gives the artist and me the character that we’re looking for.

“I don’t believe in sticking music in a box and saying, ‘If you don’t sound like ‘X’, you can’t be a pop artist,’” continues Stuckey, who himself is a classically trained guitarist with six studio albums under his belt. “We’ve already got a Kelly Clarkson — we don’t need another one. I don’t think everyone can fill stadiums, but everyone can have a valid career that inspires people. I want to get the artist to sound as much like themselves as possible.”

Stuckey can work with MAGIX Samplitude via a convergence of screen readers, custom scripts and macros.

Although analog plays heavily into the sonics at Shadow Sound, Stuckey does use a DAW. Currently, he employs MAGIX Samplitude, although the hunt for a fully accessible up-to-date DAW is an ongoing struggle. “I had been using Cakewalk SONAR,” he says, “but now I’ve moved over to Samplitude, since the last accessible version of SONAR was 8.5, and that’s getting clunky. I’m using the MAGIX DAW because they do seem to have an interest in making their software accessible. At the end of the day, I take what I’m given and use it to the best of my ability.”

Blind audio professionals like Stuckey depend on adaptive, also known as assistive, technology that bridges the gap between them and visually-based tools like computers and personal devices. Assistive technology includes programs that run on off-the-shelf computers and can speak the text on a screen.

“You’ve got the DAW, the OS, and filtering it in between is the screen reader,” explains Stuckey. “The one that I think works the best is JAWS, which stands for Job Access With Speech. Out of the box, however, JAWS will not work with any DAW, so we have to build some scripts that will allow JAWS to work with what’s on the screen.”

Assisted by the scripts, Stuckey is able to execute some moves that are typically graphic in nature, such as drawing volume automation onto a waveform. Furthermore, programming macro controllers allows him to assign keyboard codes so that pressing F7, for example, launches the drum group. In addition, a control surface allows him to draw curves with physical motorized faders, and then automate them.

While the combination of screen reader, scripts and macros has made the DAW world workable for Stuckey, it’s not always ideal. “We have to constantly adjust and compensate, and some things I just don’t have access to,” he notes. “That’s understandable. There are some things that I have to grab sighted people in order to do it well. Like if you want AutoTune in order to sound good, that takes more skill.”

On the keyboard controller side, Stuckey is optimistic about innovations like Native Instruments’ KOMPLETE KONTROL S-Series keyboards. “I’ve got the 88-key version,” says Stuckey. “It activates the Microsoft Screen Reader and gives me control over all the Native Instruments plugins. As I touch the knob, it tells me what the control is and I can adjust things like EQ and reverb that I couldn’t previously.”

Maneuvering with Microphones

In the control room, Stuckey is working with more than just Samplitude and some scripts. Recording takes place through a 48-channel Soundtracs Jade console, supplemented by outboard gear that includes API, Neve, SSL, Retro Instruments Sta-Level, Focusrite, Vintech, Eventide, Lexicon and Chameleon Labs. After the mix, Stuckey’s go-to mastering engineer is Doug Diamond of Diamondisc Audio in Nashville.

It’s in the live room, however, where things get truly adventurous. Stuckey is fearless when it comes to miking up everything from drumsets to bass cabinets — he just needs one assist from his clients. “I have a spiel I go over when people come into the studio,” he says. “I tell them, ‘Don’t leave things in the middle of the floor, or I’ll fall and bust my butt. Always put your cases up against the wall!’”

From there, Stuckey has a standardized system to set up microphones for a full band. The sweet spot for guitar amps is at a pretty consistent place in his live room, and bass is often run direct. Things do get slightly personal for vocals, however. “I like the bottom of my capsule to be at the bottom lip, and the top of the diaphragm to be at the bridge of the nose – I feel like the mask of the face is where you get the most tone,” he says. “I’ll tell the vocalist, ‘This is where I want it, so I have to feel your face and shoulders to see how tall you are’ — I do that as non-intrusively as possible.”

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