Five Tips for Emerging Sound Engineers from Engineer/Producer Drew Bang
UK Engineer and Producer Drew Bang (U2, Royal Blood, Slaves) offers audio professionals tips and advice that he wishes someone had given him when he started out in the business.
1. Never Work for Free
I know this seems obvious, but it’s something that everyone experiences at least once in their career. There is a huge difference between not being paid and agreeing to work for free. Let me explain.
In a competitive industry like the music business, you might feel inclined to resort to desperate measures. Someone at some point tries to convince you that you should be grateful for whatever “exposure” they are offering. And while you can’t survive on exposure or throw it on the fire to keep warm, there’s the promise that it will lead to something good later on. A larger fan base. Better gigs. More money. Nonsense!
Your time, talent and effort have worth, but as soon as you decide to work for free, it can be hard to find your way back to a place of mutual respect. Devaluing your skill set, your brand or your product sets a precedent of naiveté and lowers the bar for the rest of the industry.
Your time is a precious commodity and so is your creativity. Make sure you get more than exposure in return. If you can’t come to a financial agreement with your client, ask for production points, studio time in lieu or something interesting for your mic locker. What you do has value. It’s up to you to protect it.
2. Find Your Own Sound
The well-trodden path to success is traversed by those who follow in the footsteps of others. The ones that stand out from the crowd, however, are those who take a left when everyone else is going right.
If you’re lucky enough to garner the attention of a studio on your way up, remember that there’s always going to be someone one step ahead of you. Maybe that person has earned the respect of peers and is well known in the industry. You might strike up a relationship and learn the ropes under their wing. This is great if you want to take on the mantle from that person, but you’re mistaken if you think it’s the only way to make a name for yourself.
Think on. There are more opportunities than ever before for independent sound techs to make their own mark these days. Everyone has a platform and a social media portal to share and showcase their projects. You don’t have to sit around and wait for the confirmation that you’ve met someone else’s standards. Set your own benchmarks. Just do it!
If you want to make a record and create a sound that no one’s ever heard before, traditional techniques might not apply anyway. Why be constrained by them? Try recording a whole band with just one mic! What about building an a cappella from "found sounds" and wild recordings? Write each part of your song in a unique time signature or use only the FX returns for each source you track. But whatever you do, take my advice and never ever include a cheesy "try too hard" key change!
3. A is for Ambience
I’m inclined to reveal this as my secret weapon, mainly because, well, it is my secret weapon. I’m not talking about reverbs and delays. I’m talking about space; the beautiful natural surroundings like your garden shed, a derelict building or the trunk of your mum’s car.
There’s no such thing as bad ambience. Early reflections get a bad rap; anything that gives you a small or “boxy” sound is generally thought of as undesirable. That’s just convention kicking in and folks being scared of what might happen if they mix up their spaces within the same song. I’m here to let you know that only good things can happen; good, weird things that sound super exciting and totally unexpected.
If there’s one piece of advice I can offer to those of you recording with microphones, it’s to always take the room! If you’ve got a spare mic lying around (it doesn’t matter what kind it is), use it to record the ambient sound wherever the direct source is. Don’t think about orthodoxy or whether or not you need it. You might find out later that your rogue trash mic is exactly what you’re looking for in a middle 8 break.
I’ve recorded some beautiful rooms in amazing studios, I’ve even recreated the drum sound from “When the Levee Breaks” with U2’s drummer Larry Mullen Jr. My favorite all time ambience has got to be "bass room"; that’s right … reverb on bass! You can mic up the live room for a weighty electric, stick a mic up in the control room and get the sound of the bass player’s sweet slap technique. The applications are endlessly creative, and they all sound amazing!
4. Say YES!
Don’t ponder it, mull it over, or tally the pros and cons. Just say "yes". What’s the worst that can happen?
The best thing you can do for your career is to take every opportunity that comes your way. The hardest part is knowing where to find them, but really, they’re everywhere. All experiences lead to new ones, some more favorable than others. You’ll look back later and realize that the groundwork you’re laying now was well worth it in the long run.
Try not to focus on quick fixes, instant gratitude or the lure of untold riches. We aren’t that great at appreciating what we have until it’s gone anyway. Keep in mind Point #1 (Never Work for Free) on this list and make the most of every situation. You might endure a test of your resolve but you will gain some valuable experience. Maybe you can help a colleague out, barter services, or fetch tea for a month. You’ll make priceless contacts that lead to more work.
You may have some initial misgivings, but if you project positivity into everything you do, you’ll be thought of the same way. Just think of it as sowing the seeds for a beautiful garden. Right now, it’s nothing but hard work and dirt but it won’t stay that way for long.
5. Enjoy Yourself
Most people don’t work in music for the money, the security or the retirement fund, and we certainly don’t do it for the fame. Music is an extension of who we are. What better way to remain young at heart and earn a living doing what you love?
It’s easy to lose perspective. This may not be the career your parents had planned for you, but remember this: music is a business. Before you know it, you’ll be wrapped up in the trappings of traditional day jobs - schedules, routines and legal mumbo jumbo. That’s the boring part.
So many peers that I’ve met along the way have forged long and successful careers. They work constantly, but forever bemoan the changing landscape of the job. They gripe about this or that, refuse to record in studios and sit at home mixing from 9-5. These are the same people who used to love tracking bands, staying up all night and tirelessly tweaking that snare, absolutely consumed by the love of music.
I want to wake up and look forward to work. No, wait - I want to be kept up at night like it’s Christmas Eve. So excited for the morning that I can’t close my eyes, constantly thinking about what’s already been recorded or what will be tomorrow. If you’re finding negatives in the job, do something else - for instance, if you’re stuck recording when you’d rather play out, then start a band.
There are so many ways to bring joy back into your work life, but it’s all about tapping into what you love. Take a step back once in a while, center yourself or meditate (if you’re into that). Above all, reconnect with what makes you happy.
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