Paul Smith cut his teeth mixing front-of-the-house sound for the holy trinity of Philly clubs: The Theater of the Living Arts, The Trocadero (RIP), and the Electric Factory. He has fiddled the faders for everyone from Guided by Voices, The White Stripes, Fantômas, Stiff Little Fingers, and The Misfits (featuring Sir Marky Ramone on drums), to Gillian Welch, Levon Helm, Teddy Pendergrass, and Run-D.M.C.
At Sigma Sound, he was assistant engineer on the Root’s albums Illadelph Halflife and Do You Want More?!!!??!, along with the Gatemouth Brown album Long Way Home featuring some British guitar player named Eric Clapton. After finally getting in the captain’s seat, Paul produced, recorded, and mixed Marah’s Let’s Cut the Crap, and Kids in Philly, and tracked basics on Steve Earle’s Transcendental Blues at Frank’s Auto. In 2003, he co-founded South Philly’s 1935 Studios with Peter Rydberg
Did you get to interact with Eric Clapton during his Sigma session? Or was it all business, a quick in-and-out?
The Eric Clapton session was one afternoon. Being in the same room with him was a very surreal experience. I grew up listening to his recordings. The guitar case his tech brought in was stenciled ‘Cream’ and contained the red Gibson 335 that you see in those pictures. His amp was whisper-quiet when idling. Though it was only a few hours, it happened and is a highlight for me.
You recorded both Marah albums on just seven tracks, but they sound like they were recorded at a fancy spot like Sound City. Do you think you could have done a better job in a high-end studio or did the limited gear keep you hungry and force you to focus?
Thank you for the compliment. I think that the limitations definitely helped make me stronger. I did not have much at my disposal to work with. And I had to keep thinking several steps ahead all the time. It was really good for me. Recording in the conditions we had, while not ideal- a second-floor storage room above an auto body shop- enabled us to spend time on stuff that wouldn’t have been possible at a pro studio where time is money.
Good mics and gear only expose what stuff sounds like- a true “it is what it is” situation. It doesn’t necessarily make musicians sound better.
The acoustic guitars on the track “Fever” sound amazing. Do you remember what treatment was used on them?
Flattery will get you everywhere! I don’t remember the exact channel path, but I had a Rode NT-2, a couple Audio-Technica 4051’s. No Neumanns or AKGs, etc. Plus, a 2 channel DBX 760 mic pre, cheap compressors, and an Alesis Quadraverb.
So, a combination of those elements helped get the sound to tape. We had a Tascam 38 8-track recorder and track 5 wouldn’t switch to the sync head, so that became our tape echo. The Let’s Cut the Crap album was mixed through the tape return section of an eight channel Soundcraft 200B to a Sony DAT machine. The rest of the mixer didn’t work.
I know a lot of bands need an extra van, just for their egos. Who was the nicest group you have worked live sound for?
As crazy as it may seem- pun intended- Insane Clown Posse were really nice people to work with: self-contained, knew what they were doing, and were easy to get along with.
While there are plenty of jerks out there and plenty of good reasons for someone showing up with a “mad-on”, especially on tour just grinding it out, the nicest people are the ones who have been around for a while, are self-assured, like what they do, and know where they are in the big picture.
The most difficult people are usually the new ones who may have just had a little success and now expect the red carpet to be rolled out any place they step. Those types and the other folks on the backside of their time in the biz can be a handful, especially when sales are low.
Recording-wise it’s similar. Those who are prepared and know what they want to accomplish are easiest to work with.
Steve Earle’s Transcendental Blues title track has the drums hard panned in the left speaker, like a lot of early 60’s stereo recordings. What inspired that retro move?
Steve Earle was going through a Beatles Revolver-era production love affair at the time.
What is the fastest way to get on a live engineer’s shit list?
When a musician think’s that the sound person is on site to sabotage their sound on purpose.
‘Does it sound good out there?’ is a question only asked by amateurs. The way a band sounds is a multi-faceted result. It is never down to one person turning knobs. If musicians aren’t in tune, can’t play as an ensemble while listening to each other, don’t have a sense of dynamics, or can’t balance themselves before sound reinforcement equipment is put in front of their gear, then placing a mic in front of an amp, drum, or mouth won’t improve anything. All that stuff has to be worked out before they enter a club or studio. All part of payin’ your dues.
Why do you think Dave Lombardo (Slayer/Fantômas/Misfits) tried to take you on the road with him, before the budget for a touring engineer went away?
Dave Lombardo liked the fact that I didn’t use any processing other than some EQ while I was running monitors for him at the Fantômas performance at the TLA.
The trickiest instrument to track besides the human voice is the drums. Do you have any pro tips? Do you close-mic the drums, or give them space like Led Zeppelin engineer Glyn Johns did?
I try for a less is more concept when micing a drum kit. Too many mics can cause phase issues. I like to get a good close sound on a kit first then add some mics for ambience. If there is a solid close sound and a good ambient sound going to the recorder when it comes time to mix, then you have a variety of sounds at your disposal to add color, and you have the ability to change depth. I never like using the same sound throughout a long project like an album, because it gets dull for me.
That said, a good close dry drum sound will go further than a roomy-er thing. As I have stated earlier, the instrument, it’s tuning, the way it’s played, and what is being played is of greater importance than the number of mics on a kit. I’ve used only a single mic at times, like with the Steve Earle sessions, and got something really nice.
Simpler parts that support the song and aren’t cluttered w/cymbals and elaborate tom fills usually sound best. There are a few things that I like to try to include before tracking begins:
1.) placing cotton balls inside a tom to reduce unwanted sustained ringing
2.) wiring a speaker to act as a mic to enhance the low-end of a kick drum
3.) placing a center cut-out snare head on the snare drum’s regular head, to reduce ring and to drop pitch is also a good thing to try.
How do you keep a good vibe going in the studio? Do you think every engineer plays amateur therapist, or do you just mind your knobs and let them duke it out?
It requires intuition to know when to push and pull and maintain a good vibe in the studio. One thing that determines a healthy mindset is keeping an achievable goal in mind. When time is money and people are trying to record twenty songs in ten hours with a full band, etc., good times just ain’t gonna happen.
Playing small-ball instead of reeling in the big fish usually yields a good vibe. Walking away from a session with one, two, or even three great basic tracks in a single eight to ten-hour session is plenty to be happy and proud of. Walking away from a long day of trying to accomplish too much will sour attitudes quickly. Make an EP instead of an LP and put your best songs on it. You can always record them later if and when you get a big budget, and really turn it out.
What skills from live sound did you bring to the recording studio?
I found it to be a great learning experience to get involved in live sound especially the hot seat- monitors. You will learn so much. For example, how to hear frequencies, how to use an equalizer effectively, what instruments sound like in a room, face-to-face interactions with musicians, all this you can apply to the recording situation.
I can’t say that the other way around is true. I haven’t applied recording techniques to live sound reinforcement.
What high end microphones have tickled your ear drums?
The AKG C12 is fantastic. The only mic that I’ve ever used that made the speakers seem to go away when listening back in the control room to what was captured, as if the source was right in front of you.
Living or dead, who would make up your fantasy rhythm section in the Paul Smith Family All Starr Band?
I haven’t given much thought to the ideal section of players. To my way of thinking, what makes a music ensemble successful is the sum being greater than the parts. Your best musicians don’t always make the best music. Sometimes the people with the most chops are playing parts designed to highlight their technical skill, and not serving the music in any meaningful way.
With today’s technology, is recording to analog tape just fickle, fairy dust?
Analog tape machines are unfortunately near impossible to maintain anymore. Parts are scarce as are the qualified people to work on any given machine. Those classic machines are now money pits. That stuff is old by now. There aren’t any aftermarket companies that I know of making machine tooled replacement parts for Studer’s, Ampex’s, etc.
Look at the analog stuff being sold on the internet at popular gear sites. Any analog-tape related stuff I’ve seen for sale doesn’t look that enticing.
I would recommend everyone get used to digital recording mediums. They sound good. R&D in digital audio has come a long way since its inception.
Should every serious player know how to set up their own guitar? Or leave the intonation adjustment to the luthiers? Where is a good place to learn?
I believe it is good to learn about your instrument and how to make it sound best. There is a great video on YouTube featuring Joe Walsh explaining guitar neck intonation and what the neck should look like.
If you understand what you are reading in the manual and know how to use the basic tools required to adjust action and intonation, then you can make your instrument better just by maintaining those things.
If you are careful, you won’t break anything. Every time a person changes strings the intonation should be checked and see if it requires adjustment.
That mechanical stuff is important in getting any instrument ‘to sing’ whether it’s strings, reeds, drums, or brass.
I learned about these things from good friends of mine who were generous to share their experiences and information. Never assume that you know all the answers all the time. And don’t keep what you have learned to yourself. Share it. Helping others that seek advice goes a long way and can lead to work down the road.
I used to have an ‘I’ll do it myself’ attitude when I first started out but learned that it’s best to constantly be asking questions and learning, not spending time re-inventing the wheel.