From Your Project Studio to The Sound Machine

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Eric Schilling
Eric Schilling

Eight-time Grammy winner Eric Schilling talks about technique, craft, and saving an emotional reserve.

From Behind The Glass, Volume II: Top Record Producers Tell How They Craft the Hits © 2009 by Howard Massey. Published by Backbeat Books, an imprint of Hal Leonard Publishing. Reprinted with permission.

When you think about major hubs for music, three cities spring to mind: LA, New York, and Nashville. But the immense success of Latin artists like Gloria Estefan, Enrique Iglesias, Ricky Martin, and Mark Anthony has also put Miami distinctly on the map, and eight-time Grammy winner Eric Schilling is one of the shining stars in the South Beach scene.

Do many of your projects begin life in home studios?
Much of what I deal with now starts off in the home environment; I actually view it as one continuous process. I tell people, “I don’t care if you record at home, but learn the craft so that you have a respect for what you’re doing.” It’s not that I’m worried that you’re going to take my job – it’s just, try and do it well. The gear is important, but it’s actually the third thing down the list. Number one is that you have some skill, and number two is that you be in an environment where you can hear what you’re doing. The gear comes third.

How can a home recordist tell that a room isn’t allowing them to hear accurately?
If you do a mix and go out and play it in your car stereo and it’s wacky, it means you have a room problem. Mixing if you can’t hear is like trying to paint if you can’t see. Most people think that treating a room simply means going to a music store and buying foam. But if it’s essentially a square room, it doesn’t matter if you have some foam in the corner and a few pieces on the wall –you still won’t be able to hear bass to save your life.

I know one producer who has a studio in his house, and he built bookshelves all across the front of the room. It’s a terrific idea because they make for a natural room diffuser; it has mass, and each book has a different depth and size. The concept is brilliant in its simplicity. There are a number of techniques like that which are really simple. Bill Putnam’s original United Western room had room treatment that was all off-the-shelf materials from a lumberyard, built into modules. It’s a very basic design: pegboard over fiberglass in little boxes against the wall, a linoleum tile floor.

You’ve got to put how it works above how it looks. You need to put thought into your home recording environment, even if it’s as straight-ahead as don’t put the speakers up against the wall in the corner, where the bass is going to build up. Try and refract the room by putting in a couch, and hang a tapestry so that the walls aren’t just hard surfaces that the sound bounces off of. Use your ears! Play your favorite CDs and start tweaking while you’re listening to them.

I have a little room that a friend and I built in an office complex. We don’t rent it out; it’s just for us to go in and work out ideas. I had my friend do a computer plot to determine where the speakers should be placed. We tried it and there was something funny – the bottom just wasn’t working for us. Another friend came down, walked around the room, clapped his hands, made some noises, and said, “Why don’t you try them over here?” Night and day! He just used his ears to sort out where he heard stuff, in terms of how his voice sounded in the room wherever he stood. It was not very difficult to do.

What are the most common mistakes you hear in home recordings?
Well, the major one is not turning the air conditioning off in the house. If somebody’s recording an acoustic guitar and is close to a vent, you just get this constant low-end noise.

That’s a problem that’s probably unique to Miami.
[Laughs] That’s true. I never thought about that – you wouldn’t have that problem in a lot of places, but in Miami everybody always has air conditioning on all the time.

I guess a more universal problem is placement of microphones. It’s hard for me to say because I’m not there when they do it, but what I hear tells me that people get a microphone and just kind of point it. My hunch is that what happens is, they look in a magazine, they see a microphone, there’s somebody who’s saying it’s great, and they think, “Well, if I get this and just point it over here, it will sound fine.” If they were to spend a little time critically listening while they move it around, it would probably improve their recordings a lot.

And the whole Pro Tools thing leads to another set of problems. When I mix a file that comes in from a home studio, I often need to spend hours cleaning it up first. Because tracks may not be labeled, I can’t tell what to use. It’s like having an assistant’s chops; you just need to go through and take notes as to what’s recorded on what tracks and clean out everything that you don’t want included in the mix. Actually, this is the worst of all the problems I find with home recordings, and all my friends that mix have the same complaint. In fairness to people who record at home, they’re not the only ones that do this. I’ve gotten material from really well-known rooms with the same problem.

Again, if you’re going to do this craft, just try to do it well.

You’re probably best known for your work with Gloria Estefan. How did you hook up with her?
In 1982, I had done a project for the guy who was producing Gloria, and he remembered me and called me when it was time to do her album Eyes of Innocence. Back then, she was not very well known; she’d had a couple of songs that did well in the Latin area, but there wasn’t the kind of mainstream tie-in with Latin music that there is now. She and I got on really well; it was one of those albums where we cut all the tracks in the first week, then she did her vocals and I mixed three songs a day, finishing the whole thing in two weeks. A couple of months afterwards, the producer called and said, “We’re looking for some new guys to do our charts and arrange for us.” I brought them some tapes of this friend of mine who was one of the first guys to do drum machine programming, and they really liked them. I brought him in on the next project, and the album made a little noise – she had one hit off of it. She liked the team, so we just kind of kept on for many years.

Do you prefer working in analog or digital?
It depends on what I’m doing. For acoustic stuff, I still prefer tape. But I’ll often start a project on tape and then transfer it to Pro Tools afterwards, because people want to move things around and tune them and edit them, and you just have to deal with it. If the transfer’s done well, it’ll work out.

I use Pro Tools, but it kind of scares me a bit sometimes, especially when I have 40 people in a room, because if the drives give you any problem, or if you hit the Record button and the little hand icon comes on, then all the players are sitting there, all being paid scale, with the clock running!

Do you find that using digital workstations ever actually saves you time in a session?
No, it doesn’t save time; it just gives you more choices. I’ve never seen a piece of gear using new technology that I felt saved time. The analogy is, if you’re writing and you sit and type at a typewriter, your brain functions in a different way, because it’s such a pain in the ass to go back and change anything. I think you tend to form your thoughts in a different way than if you’re using a word processor, where you can futz with the words and you have a lot more choices. It’s no faster writing on a word processor than on a typewriter, it’s just a different process. Maybe sometimes it even takes more time because you futz with it more.

I really believe that your brain thinks in two ways. One is a mental thought process, where you think about every detail, and the other is a gut reaction process. So if you’re recording and you’ve got an effect that you think is so right that it’s part of the sound, then print it. If it’s really a part of what you think the sound should be, just do it.

But isn’t it also good advice to print a dry track at the same time, just in case you change your mind later?
Only in the case of reverb. But it really depends on whether you know what you’re doing. If you have a good ear and know how to print the effect and make it right, then, yeah, print it; if you’re unsure, then no. But if you put a flanger on the guitar and you like it and you feel it’s part of the sound, then it should be on tape.

Mixed in with the guitar or on a separate track?
Mixed in with the guitar. I want to be able to pull up one fader and hear the overall guitar sound. Same thing with strings, or horns, for that matter. I don’t have a need to place every spot mic on its own track. If you feel that the balance of the strings or horns should be a certain way, then you should go ahead and give me that balance. But if you don’t have that kind of ear, I wouldn’t encourage people to start off that way.

You need to not be afraid to make decisions… and don’t put things off. Often when you’re working on an album that’s all in Pro Tools, people will say at the end of the night, “We’ll take care of that when we come back tomorrow.” But they often don’t go back to take care of it; they get into something else and you end up with all this stuff that’s not corrected.

The producer might be there for 12 hours, but I’ll stay two hours afterwards to clean up stuff so that when he comes in the next day we can move on. You just can’t afford to put anything off. It makes for a long day, but as Gloria once said to me – one night I was really tired and I was bitching about working late – and she said, “I didn’t pick your job; you picked your job.” [laughs] That was great; she was completely right. I just went, “You know what? You’re right; I’m just being an asshole.” You look at what you choose to do, and you just accept it.

While we’re talking about home recording, there’s another topic I’d like to touch on, and that’s the lack of community. People working in home studios don’t have a chance to sit by the coffee machine and talk with other people about what they’re doing. Even a lot of players are getting into that. They’ll say, “You send me a track and I’ll do the drums, then I’ll send it on to the bass player and he’ll add the bass.” I think that affects the production quality of some of the albums that are out now; you just don’t get the emotional response the same way. Plus, with nobody to feed off, it can be hard to know when to stop. Same thing when I mix; the hardest thing is to know when I’ve done as good as I can do.

What yardstick do you use to know when to stop mixing?
It’s through experience; I just know from years of doing it. I will say that I have more fun with it now than I used to. When I started, it was much harder for me, because I was always trying to create an exactly perfect mix; I didn’t know when to stop. I began doing better work when I learned to relax and trust my instincts.

Do you prefer mixing tracks that you didn’t record, or tracks that you’ve been working on since their inception?
There’s no doubt that it’s sometimes more fun to mix stuff that I’ve never heard before, because I have no predisposed concept. Yes, it is harder for me to mix stuff that I’ve recorded from the beginning, but on the other hand I know exactly what I have on tape or on hard disk.

In the old days, I would really work to do roughs that were great; I would put a lot into them, so I would be a little bit spent when it came time to mix. Now I don’t worry about the roughs so much. I save an emotional part of myself for when it’s time to do the final mix. That’s the key: saving an emotional reaction. After all, if you’re in a band, you don’t want to blow out your whole performance at rehearsal – you save it for the show. Mixing is much the same way.

At the end of the day, just how important are engineering skills to the success of a project?
Well, when I’m asked about allocating budget, I tell people, “Spend the money on the players; don’t worry about the studio or having fancy equipment. If you spend the money on the players, everything else will pretty much take care of itself.” I can work in a cheaper room if the guys playing are great.

My philosophy has always been: it starts behind the microphone, not behind the console. So if you’re having a problem sound-wise, you’ve got to look at the source. If you record a drum and it sounds like shit, then maybe the drum itself sounds like shit! Or maybe the drummer needs to improve his playing. It’s like taking a grand piano and having five different guys play it – you’ll end up with five different sounds.

Suggested Listening:
Gloria Estefan: Into the Light, Epic, 1991; Turn the Beat Around [single], Sony, 1994
Miami Sound Machine: Primitive Love, Epic, 1985
Ricky Martin: Sound Loaded, Columbia, 2000
Julio Iglesias: Quelque Chose de France, Columbia, 2007
Jon Secada: Secada, Capitol, 1997
Dion: Inside Job, Stingray, 1980

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7 thoughts on “From Your Project Studio to The Sound Machine

  1. It’s always so wonderful to read articles like this. I have a Pro Tools based home studio like so many other people, but I’m often told that my work sounds better than most. Yes, I pay close attention to the engineering stuff (mics, mic placement, placement of the instrument within the room, etc.), but the truth is, I try to hire the best musicians available.

    I was recently asked to produce/engineer a Salsa CD that had been previously recorded at a bad home “studio”. Previously, my client had spent (to the best of my knowledge) $5,000+ on the project but the “engineer” eventually lost all of the tracks. So, when he asked if I would re-do the project, I responded by asking him if he wanted it done right or quickly (to help him save money). After he told me that he wanted to do it right, I immediately recommended that we get the best musicians he could afford. Well…of course, in order to save some cash, he wanted to try using a couple of his friends on the recording.

    I began by setting up mics/preamps and recording his friends on congas and bass. After realizing that these musicians were not going to do the project justice, I asked my client to let me bring in another conga player the next evening. Since the congas we used belonged to my client, we left them setup overnight without moving or changing them or the mic/preamps. When we started recording the new conga player the following night, my client could not believe how much better the SOUND was. I DIDN’T CHANGE ANYTHING!! Literally, the only thing that changed was the musician.

    Often, my students don’t initially comprehend the significant impact a great musician can make on the sonic quality of a recording.

    Don Rogozinski
    Course Director – Producing
    Full Sail University
    Winter Park, FL

  2. “Spend the money on the players; don’t worry about the studio or having fancy equipment. If you spend the money on the players, everything else will pretty much take care of itself.”

    That’s what I tell my friends and students! It always starts with the musicians.


  3. i record on a roland2480,and i went through alot of diffrent problems at first…like position of the mic…sounds bouncing off of walls and floors…i feel great about how far i have come sense recording with this machine,i always hear alot of people refer to protools and i here there sound and its not a big diffrence,actually i liked my sound better than theres,i mean i find digital better to me……better effects and tuning

  4. I thought the article was very informative. As a producer, arranger, artist, very valueable nuggets. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Great article. It really starts behind the mic! I remember adding a lot of FXs to the recordings of my voice years ago because I never liked the color of it. Now, I used very little reverb on most of my voice takes, since I improved my singing quality.

  6. This engineer is right on with everything he said. The one thing that got my attention was printing reverb to tape because it cant be undone.

    With keyboards sometime the time based effects are part of the timbre which makes for the sound of the say Rhodes. Other times you have to add verb which i think a little goes a long way.

    One critical thing i like doing is checking along the way in MONO. People dont seem to realize how checking the mix in MONO can iron out a lot of problems.

    They tend to forget about the elevator, the clock radio, the airplane speaker and not to forget the AM STATIONS THAT BROADCAST IN MONO.

    Thank you Mr. Engineer for your wisdom, for this art of engineering is truly an art, and it really dosent matter as much about the type of gear as opposed to knowing how to use the gear you have.

    I started with a 6 channel TAPCO MIXER and a 4 track Reel to Reel and a Shure SM57. That was in the early 80s and now that i have the digital workstations i dont know, it gives you an array of choices.

    The bottom line is this,, IF IT SOUNDS GOOD, IT IS GOOD.

    Samille Johnson
    Chief Engineer
    Victorville, California

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