Here’s an interview I did with record producer Joel Wanasek of JTW Recording Studios. It’s definitely and interesting read to get another view/side of the music scene.
How long have you been producing and how’d you get started?
I’ve been doing this for a living since January 2006 years. I’m 100% self-taught, so I never went to school or had any sort of internship to learn this stuff. I’ve relied on my passion and work ethic to get me to where I am. My love for the recording studio started when I was 17. I remember walking into a studio and recording with my band. The first thing I thought was wow, this is really cool… I have got to get into this! So, I saved my money and started buying gear. I didn’t get into recording seriously until 2002, when I got my first computer audio interface that allowed me to use unlimited tracks. My band at the time was on an indie label, and the label folded 2 weeks before we were supposed to go in and record our first record. Someone had to pick up the ball so I decided to record the record. After that record, a few local bands hit me up about recording their CDs. So I started recording bands on the weekends and after working my crap office job every day. In 2006 I got laid off from my IT job and I said screw it, I’m not happy with life, make a change. So, I went pro and took my side business full time. It was really hard getting started, but after about 2 ½ years everything came together. Starting a business requires great sacrifice and focus, but the rewards are well worth the toil.
You just finished a book Guitar Virtuoso, what prompted you to write it?
I run a very large shred/metal guitar instructional site called www.insaneguitar.com. I’ve been doing it since 1999. It was something small that I started in college and it somehow blew up into this massive guitar lesson site over a few years. To date I’ve served over a million people in over 150 countries worldwide. I used to get a ton of questions from kids via email on how to do this or that on guitar. So one day it hit me, I need to write a book because there are so many things that people need to know about guitar mastery that aren’t taught anywhere else. This is the kind of stuff you learn after you spend 10 hours a day for years mastering the instrument. So, I took everything I could think of about guitar playing and put it into a book. It is available at www.guitarvirtuoso.net.
As you look back at some of the first albums you produced to some of your current albums, what are the biggest differences between them (how have you grown/learned)?
When I listen back to my old mixes, I want to both laugh and cry because of how bad they were! Mixing has a learning curve of something like 7-10 years to really get good and consistent at. In fact, I think something like every 3 to 6 months I feel as if my recording improves about 15%. There are a lot of things that separate good engineers from bad ones like learning what sort of tones are going to work downstream in a mix and what are not, how to gel a mix and make it pop, how to play with balance to maximize emotional impact of a song, mastery of compression, and etc. The same goes with producing. It took me probably 10 years of song writing before I learned how to really write music that was going to sell (labels, tv, etc). Being a good producer to me is all about knowing how to push the band to get the most out of what they bring you and to teach them how to succeed (if they are a young band). A lot of this stuff you cannot be taught. You must learn it on your own. I think this is the key point. Each recording/mixing engineer and/or producer has their own little recipe of how to make it all work.
What artists have you worked with?
I’ve worked with probably around 200 artists to date. I’m very fortunate and grateful to have worked with so many amazingly talented people thus far! Some of the more notable ones recently are: Serianna (Bullet Tooth Records), Righteous Vendetta (Red Cord Records), Mechanical Kids (Universal/Motown), Rosaline (Good Fight Records), CHALLENGER! (InVogue Records), etc…
What album stretched or challenged you the most?
That is impossible to answer because each record requires unique challenges. For example, if I’m doing a dance record I spend all day on the computer with the band being creative pushing our brains to the maximum. If I’m doing a pop record we are kicking our asses trying to write hit songs that are undeniable. If I am doing a death metal record the challenge is usually getting the guitar player who didn’t practice because he wrote all his stuff on guitar pro to sound like he can actually sort of play his instrument. Every day is a different battle! I embrace it and it drives me. It keeps my job exciting!
What kind of software do you work with?
I use Cubase by Steinberg. Software is just a tool. All DAWs pretty much do the same things these days. There isn’t any DAW program that somehow stands out as superior anymore. Dudes get in fistfights over these sorts of debates. Pick one that you like, roll with it.
What’s your favorite genre to work with?
I love producing pop music! I’m not going to lie. To me, it is the most challenging because it is the most creative for me as a producer. My pop bands are usually the most open minded and willing to push limits. A lot of metal bands have this “piss off” attitude towards producers so for guys like me, nothing really exciting goes on there other than put a bass drop on all 9,000 breakdowns. Might I add, that is the same 9,000 breakdowns that the band last week recorded! (I’m kidding!) As for mixing, I love to mix rock and metal. All my favorite mixers are rock guys.
If we look at the metal/hxc scene and everyone complaining of how stale it is, what do you think makes this scene so generic/stale (given you agree with that premise)?
All trends come and go. That is how markets work. If there is one thing that I’ve learned, it is that whatever is cool right now, will not be cool in a few years. So my though is that I really don’t care what people think is generic or etc. It isn’t for me to decide. I can only vote with the dollars in my wallet. I cannot control what music my bands want to write. I can make suggestions, it is their choice to follow them or not. I just try to make the best music with what I am given each day. I try to push my bands to be the best they can be. How it turns out in the end is for someone else to judge. We do our best at the time, make the music, and then move on. As long as the client is 110% satisfied, I am happy! Everyone has an opinion about everything these days, especially online, where you can be a badass because no one is there to punch you in the face for saying stupid things. Guys in my shoes give our all to our clients so that they are happy with the music they are making because they are the ones writing the checks. So if a band wants to be generic, I’m down. If a band wants to do the craziest most original music, I’m down.
With a lot of unsigned bands producing their own songs due to cost factors, what are the advantages that some bands may not realize or know they may gain by going to a professional producer/studio?
What makes you or I think that we can design a rocket that will go to Mars? We aren’t rocket scientists (well maybe you are, but I am not!). It takes years of full time work to make good recordings on a consistent basis. This is time bands should be spending concentrating on getting better at song writing, planning, marketing, designing a brand, imaging, TOURING, etc. Bands having this technology is great for doing demos, but literally every time I’ve seen a band go 100% DIY, it is always a disaster. Like I said early, mixing alone has a 10 year learning curve to be competitive and requires tens of thousands of dollars investment. The same is true with good recording. What makes you think that waves ssl compressor you got off bit torrent is going to come close to the real thing? It doesn’t. You think that summing on your daw can touch summing through top notch converters into a console or high end summing box? Nope. Maybe you think that the MXL mic you bought at Guitar Center will sound similar to a Manely Tube mic? Nope. Sorry. It is much better to put your money with an experienced guy, who knows his stuff, and most importantly, you love the sound of the recordings he makes! Trying to compete with the pros requires going all in. It is a lifetime commitment and tens of thousands of dollars investment. This is a waste of a bands time.
Labels/agents/managers are investors and are expecting a finished product too. “Well it sounds decent” doesn’t cut it in this market. The real question is “does your band sound like it is on the radio/etc?” You have to come across as a professional and a solid investment or no one will touch your band. Doing a half-assed demo says only one thing to a potential investor, that you are small time.
Producers have years of experience that most bands do not. For example, I played in a band for 15 years. I’ve been on tours in 10k seat arenas all the way to having played small clubs/bars for years. I’ve been signed several times, been on the radio, sold songs to TV, launched numerous bands and gotten them signed, and etc. This is experience that most bands, especially younger ones usually don’t have. Working with someone who knows exactly what is needed to get your band signed and more importantly to actually make money doing this is invaluable. A good producer is more than just the dude who helps you make better music. A good producer is a coach, a cheerleader, a motivator, a mentor, and a friend that a band can rely on and trust.
Last, and most importantly, always put your best foot forward, don’t be small time. The market will eat your band alive. There are at least 10,000 other bands trying to take your band’s spot in the market. Which do you want to be, a studio, or a band? Pick ONE and be the BEST you can be at it.
What should a band look for in a producer, and what are some thing that bands should be leery of when looking at producers/studios?
First off, listen to the guy’s work. If it sounds killer, then put them on your short list. Ask around to bands that have worked with the producer. What is the dude like? Is he the right fit for your band and your sound? Can you afford him? Find someone in your price range who you think can get the job done right. A face to face meeting or Skype conference call is always a good idea.
Be leery of quick talking, name droppers. Managers are notorious for this. The label system is a system of buddies. Everyone has a guy and they will go to great lengths to tell you how their guy is the best and trash talk everyone else in the industry. You call another manager, they do the same thing. All these people want is your money. I see a lot of bands fall prey to shady managers/studios all the time. For example, you work with a band, they get picked up. The second they sign the management contract it is, “oh… your current recording/mix/pick a reason isn’t suddenly up to par. But, if you go work with my guy over here the skies will part and money will rain form the heavens on you….” Then the band tries it, and calls you back 3 months later, after it has been a disaster and they’ve been screwed. People like this are easy to spot. They drop a lot of names, they act super big time, they are smooth talkers and shady. Stay away from people like this. Work with honest people.
What is with all the whiney auto-tuned clean vocals on metal/hxc albums? What is your philosophy on auto-tuned clean vocals?
I see a lot of shows and the majority of the time the clean vocals sound completely different and worse live than they do on the album. Have you ever told a band to drop the clean vocals or they don’t have the talent for them?
You made me laugh hard on this question! What can I say other than whoever said you can’t polish a turd obviously has never been into a recording studio. That sort of question is best left for people in the coffee shops of the world to debate. My simple answer is that I have to do what I need to do to get what I need from an artist and make a competitive product. In the real world it is my job to make the best representation of the band that I possibly can, unless the intention is to make a totally raw record. I have to compete with every other producer in the world and every other band. The band and I are putting out a product. If that product doesn’t compete with what else is on the market, no one will invest it in. So basically, if it sounds like crap, I fix it, and tell the musician how to practice so they are better next time. My job is to make good recordings and if the bands don’t want to practice and make fools of themselves….
Why would a band want to record with you versus another producer?
Why does any band work with any producer? You like the way their stuff sounds and you have a track record that says you know how to make a band improve at whatever they are trying to accomplish. I give my bands my best and try to push them to be the best they can be. I’m an honest, straightforward, blunt guy. I work my tail off and am very passionate. On top of that, if you like my sounds then let’s do it. If not, find someone else who fits your needs.
If you could produce any band’s album, who would you like to work with and why?
Katy Perry. Love her music, love her voice. Dr. Luke (her producer) is a genius! I would love to get a chance to work with someone like that.
What albums do you have in your music library that you might be ashamed of or is a “guilty pleasure”?
Britney Spears! I love her old stuff. Excellent song writing! I also like a lot of 80s/early 90s pop like Madonna, Paula Abdul, etc. Metal dudes can learn a lot about melody writing from pop. It is important to be open-minded when listening to music. Your own ignorance and a bad attitude towards other genres and styles is ones of the largest things that can hold back any musician’s success. I was too “metal” to listen to pop until I was 26 years old. I’m glad I came around, because it was then that I actually started making enough money to support the lifestyle I wanted to live while doing a job I love.
As a producer what is your opinion on whether a band really needs label support or can a DIY bands make it on their own?
It depends on how much money you have, how good are you at organizing/working hard, what sort of contacts you have, how business savvy your are, and etc. It costs big bucks to launch a band. Do you know how much 1 full page add in AP Magazine costs? Call and ask if you are in a band. You will bite your tongue. Labels have the money to finance your endeavors.
A lot of kids have no idea what goes on behind the scenes of the label curtain. I do and most people on the outside have it totally wrong. Being a successful band is all about building a brand. 99.9% of people I meet have no idea what that statement means. Labels do. Labels (well, good ones) know how to build a brand that is going to sell with a band. This is stuff that takes years to learn on your own, if you are even lucky enough to figure it out. Having a good label plus good manager plus good producer will teach your band how to build a brand that people can’t get enough of. Labels also have the experience of having many bands to learn from. A label can be a great asset to a band.
That being said, you can do it yourself. We all make our own decisions and live with the results. One side definitely does not fit all. Labels are not some evil conspiracy; they are simply a business partner and investor for the band. A lot of people forget that the labels are taking the risk. I don’t know too many kids in bands that would write a 250k check to a kid’s in another band and hope to get their money back someday if they sell.
What are your 2 cents on where the music industry is at and where it’s heading with declining albums sales and music piracy?
To be honest, who really knows what is going to happen. I won’t speculate. I just go to work every day and try to make the best records I can and stay competitive with what else is out on the market. Everyone is doom and gloom about how everything is falling apart. I’ve never been busier in my business than the last 2 years. It has been great and I’m usually booked way over capacity. I think a lot of mediocre people who got big on luck are getting weeded out and the guys who are really hard working and good are dominating. But isn’t it like that in every other business in the world? The industry is finally having a day of reckoning and only those who are the strongest will survive. So, who knows what will happen. You just work your tail off, try to adapt, and keep learning new things daily.
Finally, what makes you better/different/what have you… than your peers (Why should a band make an album with you vs. someone else)?
Like I stated earlier, listen to my work and quote me for a price. If you like the sound and price, then let’s go. At the end of the day I am an honest person. I treat my business with integrity. This is something I think is missing from a lot of other people I deal with in this business. My clients will vouch for me. I will work hard for your band and not lie to you. I also am into real recordings. I try to make my bands unique. I mic real amps (I have 21 tube amps in my backline), use all analogue gear, I record real drums, etc. I’m not into pod farm and Steven Slate drums recordings. I care about quality and originality. Analogue sounds way better than digital and I’m a huge proponent of doing it right the first time you do something.