I have over 10 years of experience as an audio engineer. These days I work primarily as a mixing and mastering engineer and have built Neon Audio for these taks. But whatever the job, my goal is always the same: to maximize the emotional impact of the music.
I was once required to write a professional biography for a grant application. I hate to see anything go to waste, soI've copied it below should anyone care to read me writing about myself…
One of my earliest memories is romping around my parents’ house at the age of five to the beat of The Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction.” Although I couldn't articulate it at the time, I was drawn to the raw feeling of angst so perfectly conveyed in that song. While five-year-olds are probably not capable of experiencing angst, I could still recognize the power of the emotions communicated. At that young age, I even experienced frisson, or “aesthetic chills,” a physically pleasurable sensation that can be brought on by various beautiful stimuli, but is most often experienced from emotionally moving music. Frisson is something that still guides my musical taste to this day. When I experience it in a piece of recorded music, it’s a clear sign that a genuine emotion has been successfully captured and delivered to my ear.
Frisson is responsible for my lifelong love of listening to music, and it also explains my drive to play music: I wanted to learn how to communicate emotion like I heard in my favorite songs. In the 3rd grade, I signed up for the school band, selecting the alto saxophone as my instrument. As soon as I could play a few notes, I was writing simple songs and loved how the saxophone could mimic the emotive qualities of the human voice. Around the age of eleven, I started messing around on my mother's old acoustic guitar, and for my 12th birthday I asked for an electric guitar and began teaching myself how to play. Like the saxophone, electric guitar can have a voice-like quality when melodic lines are played, though I was also drawn to the rich complexities of a ringing chord. I was not conscious of it at the time, but I was developing an appreciation for timbre and what makes the sound of different instruments unique.
I was drawn to drums in high school and bought a set, again learning on my own. Admittedly, my study of music performance in my youth was a bit aimless. I was no prodigy, and jumping among instruments meant I was not developing expertise in any one. My love for listening to music was a passive activity, and active music creation was more an unfocused pastime than a serious artistic endeavor. This would change while I was pursuing my bachelor’s degree at George Washington University. I was majoring in history and archaeology, but with the encouragement of a friend and fellow music lover, I began practicing guitar more seriously. I took electives in drum performance and music theory. The latter proved a boon, as I learned enough theory to teach myself piano and develop a foundation in musical vocabulary that would allow me to write and collaborate with others.
After graduating from college in 2005, I strongly felt the pull to create and express, and music was my most well-honed artistic medium. I resolved to focus seriously on it by forming a band to write and play rock music. The full details of this chapter in my life would make this essay longer than it already is, but suffice to say this endeavor led to years of thinking deeply about music creation: writing, singing, and trying to transform emotion into song. I can’t say I was always successful in transforming emotion into song, but, unbeknownst to me, I was developing other valuable skills. One longtime bandmate was an avid home recording engineer with a collection of basic equipment, and we worked for countless hours recording, producing, and mixing our own music. I came to realize that with recorded music, the instrument and performer were not the only influencers of timbre. Small adjustments to the placement of a microphone could greatly affect the sound. The room had its own character to impart. And there was a myriad of equipment and tricks to manipulate sound either during recording or afterward in the mixing stage. Suddenly a whole palette of sonic colors was known to me, tools beyond musical instruments to use for musical expression. Often my bandmate and I would break into fits of laughter, tears coming to our eyes, at the pure thrill of conjuring up some crazy sound.
Moving ahead to 2011, with some unexpected twists of fate, I found myself with a wife and child and plans to relocate to Durham, NC. My band was already dissolving for various reasons, I had to leave my day job at a high school because of the move, and a young child in my life meant limited free time outside of work to practice or record. I realized that if I wanted to continue to pursue music, it would need to be my job or I simply wouldn't have the time or energy for it. At this point I knew a few people working as audio engineers and this seemed like a natural progression for me. Although I lacked formal training, the nature of the job was such that practical experience counted as much or more than a formal degree. What mattered most was earning the trust of clients and delivering results for them. For me, that meant being the intermediary between my client’s songwriting and a finished piece of recorded music: the job was to capture and relay emotion in the form of sound.
At this point I had only worked in home or project studios, never in a full-scale facility. To plug that gap in my experience, I took an internship at SoundPure Studios after arriving in Durham. I was exposed to a world-class room, with acoustics suitable for jazz and classical music, as well as an array of expensive microphones and recording equipment. I learned some new techniques and recorded in new genres. The exposure to better equipment helped to firm my understanding of the tools of the trade. But the most valuable thing I took away was confirmation that many of the methods and skills I picked up in project studios were the same being used in professional studios.
The professional studio environment also reconfirmed that the long and late hours of recording didn’t lend itself to family life, so I decided to focus on mixing and mastering, the stages of music production that follow once recording is finished. Focusing in these areas also meant I could work with musicians around the world, since they could send me their recorded music digitally. I met local clients at venues around town, and occasionally worked in recording studios with them when needed, but I also explored ways to connect with clients online. Our networked world and the modern practices of digital recording have allowed me to work with clients all over the globe, as far flung as Mexico, Russia, and the Maldives.
Through my time as a professional, the most important thing I've learned is to utilize my technical skills without getting distracted by them. I prioritize the song and its emotional message as the primary focus for any part of the production process. In this way, I never lose sight of the creative aspect of my job, and I’m grateful to have finally found the way that I can best express myself through music. Sometimes, when I’ve been toiling over minute details of a mix (how loud to make the background vocals or whether the bass guitar has enough bass), I’ll remind myself to sit back and take in the big picture of the song. When I feel the chills of frisson, I know I’m doing something right. Maybe someone else will be similarly stirred when the song is delivered to her ear. Or maybe it will make some five-year-old dance around his parents’ house, a conduit for the emotion of the song.