Chris Wiseman studied Audio Engineering and Sound Production at JMC, and wanted to share his story about the industry during and after his studies.
"About 18 months ago, while about halfway through my audio engineering course at JMC in Melbourne, I decided to put some of my new skills and knowledge into practice, outside the classroom and inside the industry. Not instead of studying, but while I was studying. Many of my fellow students were keen to finish the course first fearing that they didn’t have all the information, or techniques to apply in the real world and that one stuff up would be the end of their career before it even began. I was the opposite, I felt I had enough to start working and from there I could use external sessions to help my study, and learn ‘on the job’ as well. The studio and the study would complement each other. I was also a master of stuff-ups by this point and wasn’t afraid of one or two more along the way.
I was already going out three or four nights a week to local pubs and bars to catch bands. Rock, punk, soul, electronica - you name it. The style wasn’t important as much as the talent was. I figured I’d find a band I liked, and bring them into a studio on nothing but chutzpah. I knew a young jazz pianist was gigging one night and caught his show. Just a three-piece - piano, bass and drums. We had a few chats over the next week or so about working together on an EP, where I would engineer and produce him as a solo artist on a grand piano. Pretty simple stuff.
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Around the same time, as I was now being recognised out and about as somebody keen to work, I had been given the number of a three-piece rock band, “Sienna Wild”, who had already made an album by themselves the previous year; recorded in a professional studio, mixed by a professional engineer, with a good cover printed locally by a great business. They had paid for everything themselves and were now out on the hustle playing rock gigs and promoting their music. I'd met up with them for a beer and a chat a few weeks back and was keen to talk more about what they wanted in life and music, and if there was anything I could do to help. It was a long-term thing, and they weren’t ready to record anything, but I thought they rocked and we got along well. Their songwriting was ace and boy could they play.
But the Jazz guy was BRILLIANT! He was personable and talented and HE WORE TIES. So confident was I in his ability, I paid for the session myself as an advance. Not a foolish decision at all; just a rare thing in today's industry based on my best judgement of several factors. It wasn’t a lot of money - maybe $800? But then it was both an investment in my own skills and a chance to work in a top-notch facility for a full day. It wasn’t about the money, it was about the chance to do something cool.
He cancelled less than 24 hours before the session was due to start due to illness. Now, I had this full-day session booked in for Sunday, and it was now Saturday night and I had nothing.
There was no way I was backing out on the session. For starters, I’d have blown my deposit, but it was the huge letdown I couldn’t face. What was I going to do on Sunday now? The Xbox just didn’t have the same appeal. I needed a replacement and fast. I made a flurry of calls to mates’ bands, other students who could play, solo artists. Everyone was ‘busy’ or it was too late notice. Seriously?
By 9 pm I gave the Sienna Wild rock band singer a buzz and said basically "Mate, do you and the boys want to spend a day in the studio with me just having some fun and laying down some stuff? No pressure, no stress, no cost - just a chance to get into a great room and see what happens." I explained that I'd already paid for everything and that it was really just a chance to hang out and do some recording without the need to actually come up with some results at the end of the session. I'd already lost my original plan for the jazz guy, so just having anybody in the studio would be a win at this stage.
Of course, we'd aim to do the best we could to get something that might be used in the future, but I felt that any studio time is a good time for everybody. It can help an artist feel more comfortable in later sessions and it can help the engineers practice or develop new recording techniques without having to go with 'old faithful' for the sake of time/money. Furthermore, the producer can really relax and work to drawing the best out of the band and the crew while still focussing on the tiny things that often get left behind as the need to move onto the next item overruns the need to go back and fix something from an hour ago. This all leads to better vibes, better productivity and ultimately better music.
Within a few minutes, the singer called me back and said the boys were in. "10 am sharp(ish)" I said. I *suspect* the drummer slept in his car that night. The band arrived on time (generally an excellent sign), with all the gear and we set up. My assistant for the session (a mate from uni) was expecting a single piano player, so when three strapping rock gods appeared with Les Paul, Leo Fender and Gibson SG, his eyes lit up with both surprise and excitement. "Change of plan, my good man", I said. "We're doing some rock and roll".
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Over the next ten hours or so, we laid down drums, guitars, bass scratch vocals, some overdubs of guitar solos, more vocals, did some re-amping of the bass and more guitar lines. It was fast, brutal and very very productive. We just did the one song, but what made it so much fun, was that it was a good fun song and the boys knew their parts well. They were also very amenable to my suggestions - a slightly less intense drum fill here, a bigger guitar sound there. Maybe we move some words around, maybe we double a chorus? How about a new introduction from that idea you were playing with during lunch? It had been a while since I've worked with a bunch of musicians so talented to not only be able to accept suggestions to their own music but to be able to PLAY those suggestions first or the second time.
Now, these guys aren't rock stars or session players. They are civil engineers and school teachers. This is not their day job. BUT dedication to their craft is important. Focus is important. Excellence is important. Results are important. They lifted me to a higher level as much as I lifted them. Regardless of whether we left with anything useable, it would be a very rewarding day nevertheless. "Money well spent", I thought.
During the recording sessions, I told the boys that I would be their first and last line of defence. First, if it's not good enough, then I'll be the first person to say so. I will keep you honest with yourself. When you listen back in a year or in ten years, I want you to be proud that it's done, not relieved that it's over. "One more take, two more fills, three more hours. I want the BEST take out of you, not the LATEST."
And the last line of defence, in that when you feel you're not performing well these last few sessions, or the self-confidence drops, or you don't know if you're making any progress, I'm the one standing behind you with no ego, no motive, no face-on-the-cover of the album. "The hell with what others may say - that was an excellent job. That is your finest work today, and even if you don't feel like it right now, I'm here to tell you YES!". It's part trust, part faith - and it goes both ways.
By about 8 pm, we had about enough material that the studio owner/head engineer and all-round top bloke Phil Threlfall could put together a desk mix (that's "out-of-the-box" for those of you playing at home) from the session. Phil's latest work is the PEZ album (feat. Paul Dempsey and Paul Kelly), and the Bliss n Eso album that arrived in late April 2017. We all left very satisfied, very tired and very keen to see what else we could achieve together - we made a plan to do a few more sessions; possibly with more than 12 hours’ notice.
Well, here I am 18 months later, graduated from JMC, and the Sienna Wild boys and I have since recorded about five or six more tracks, with good writing, rehearsal, pre-production, and gig-testing all part of the story. We revisited some material from that first session (not everything can be done in a day!!). We recorded a few more tracks at Sing Sing South with house engineer Prasheen Naran and used the mercurial Andy Shanahan to get some amazing guitar sounds, vocals overdubs. He also nailed the mixes. We sent the whole thing off to Joe Carra at Crystal Mastering.
It all stemmed from the first cancellation, and three lads who ditched their Sunday plans (footy, hangovers, girlfriends) to come to have some fun with me in a studio on a lazy Sunday.
If I’d have waited till I’d graduated to start recording and producing, these boys would have already found somebody else to work with. If I’d cancelled the booking in the studio instead of making one more phone call I probably wouldn’t have done this EP. I’m not sure where my next project will come from, or who it will be with, but there’s every chance that it will stem from something along this journey reaching somebody I don’t know yet."