Jam Phelps, a recording and mixing engineer, is the owner of Denk Studios (North Carolina), a self-proclaimed safe space for all musicians regardless of gender, race, sexual orientation, or gender identity.
“I have made it my goal to serve my community by creating a welcoming environment for everyone who walks through my door. You will receive a quality product and a guaranteed great experience. I have pricing that supports most budgets and will work hard to make sure you are in love with your songs.”
Do you remember the first band you listened to that made you want to buy their music?
The first CD I ever bought was Fiona Apple’s Tidal. I just remember hearing sleep to dream and I was blown away. I needed to be able to listen to that song on repeat. My sister and I split our allowance to purchase that album. The presence and emotion of her vocals and that heavy deep bass drum just had my teen heart all riled up!
When did you first think about audio as a career?
I always wanted a career in music. The older I got I realized my rock star dreams were probably not going to happen. I no longer had dreams of riding around the country in a van with my sweaty band mate dudes. I was living in Seattle and having a hard time finding folks to play music with. I know that sounds crazy because of the massive music scene there, but everyone already had their bands together. I decided I was going to figure out how to make music on my own. I bought a cheap mixer, a keyboard and a mic, Loaded up audacity and I was on my way to being hooked on audio. My dad was an audio engineer and trained my ears my whole life. Once I got to North Carolina I finally had enough space to record. I started recording my friends on a proper DAW for free. I then learned MIDI and mixing, created a portfolio, and got my first paid client. Since then I have upgraded my gear, my space and went full time!
You also started a Facebook group specifically for mix critiques, Mixing it Up. What do you think critique adds to a mix?
It is important to have a second set of ears on your mix. Sometimes to listen to something so many times that you can’t hear what is going on. It is also a great way to learn. If I get stuck or if something isn’t sounding right it is great to have peers to offer advice. I also noticed that most audio groups for women do not allow you to share your music in any way because of “self-promotion” so I wanted a space where we could share music to get feedback or to show something we are proud of and teach others how we achieved that mix. We also have fast mix Friday where I create stems for everyone to practice with and show to the group.
How has the pandemic affected this last year of work?
The pandemic was what pushed me to open full time. I was laid off from my job in October 2020. I just decided to open full time and not look for another day job. It has also allowed me to meet so many folks from around the country and the world. I have done mixes for folks from all over the States and Canada. I have also made a lot of audio friends who I wouldn’t have met if we were not all stuck doing remote work and classes.
You used recycled materials in the building of your studio. How was that planning process? How long did that take? Did you plan each step, or did you approach things as they came?
This system of building is a long process that you can’t really plan for. I would just hit up craigslist, scrap exchange (best store in Durham!), habitat restore and friends who were throwing things away and see what they had. I would gather what I could and go from there. My vocal booth was planned out because it is a structure and was built with safety in mind. It took me about 6 months for enough materials for the initial build and I am still making additions if I get a good find.
What does the word “Denk” mean?
Denk is German for “Think” It is my wife’s mother’s family name. Without them, I would not have this space so I dedicated the studio to the Denks!
Let’s talk Reaper. How did you choose this DAW and why?
Like most Reaper users I could go on and on about Reaper all day, we are fanatics haha.
I use it because it is a powerhouse of a DAW for $60 bucks. It does everything Logic and Pro Tools do at a fraction of the price. It is very easy to learn and is completely customizable. My favorite thing about it is a track. No need to set up a MIDI track or a bus specifically.
When you’re mixing, what kinds of files are easiest to work with: guitar tracks by DI, or with distortion already in the track? What cannot be fixed in post?
I can work with any track as long as it was recorded properly. The only thing that cannot be fixed is clipping. I often work with musicians that are really new to recording. I have found many tips and tricks to getting tracks to sound better, but if you have blown out the audio by not properly setting your gain that is unfixable.
How do you find a balance between work life and home life, especially in this time of the pandemic when work can be accessed 24/7?
I have set work hours. I do not respond to clients outside of those hours and I set boundaries with my clients ahead of their project with my hours listed. I sometimes make an exception if I have a fast deadline or I’m working with a close friend and the texts are more social than business. My time with my family is really important to me and I have to rest my ears or I am no good to anyone.
What is your favorite aspect of mixing?
I love how creative you can get with it. You can really make a song come to life and make small additions in the mixing faze that give the song your unique touch. I also love playing with sound to see what I can make it do. I love when you tweak one thing or add a plug in and say to yourself “wow that sounds dope!”
Owning your own studio, do you have any recording techniques you’ve developed for your own space?
We made our own vocal booth exactly how I wanted it, I also have the drums in one section of the room because I moved them five times and that is the best recording spot. I have my desk in the part of the room where my monitors sound best. I like to record acoustic guitar in the dead center of the room also.
When thinking about plug-ins, which five would you say you couldn’t do without when mixing? Why?
A good EQ, Multiband compressor, Renaissance AXX, reverb and a doubler
You and your wife own the studio together and just incorporated it as an LLC! Congratulations! How has it been to be your own boss and run your own business? What are the challenges?
Thank you! I love it! I wear what I want, don’t have to cover my tattoos, and get to make my own schedule. The challenges are just making sure you have enough clients to make enough money each month. Every month has gotten better and better but not having that guaranteed paycheck is a little scary at times. I am lucky to have a very supportive family.
You mention being a safe space for womxn and non-binary folx as well as people of color and those in the LGBTQ community. How has your own experience in audio affected this decision?
As a queer woman, I have had many negative experiences in this male-dominated industry. I have also been confided in many times about how others were mistreated. I have also been told about age discrimination in music and audio. I have clients who are amazing older ladies that have been laughed out of traditional studios. It is important to me that everyone feels safe and supported in my space. I want you to not only love your songs but love the experience you had making them. If you are comfortable and supported, you will have a better performance.
What would you say your ideal is for Denk Studios in the future, when we can all be together again?
I would love to have more folks record in the space. Right now, I do a lot of remote mixing and I miss having people here. My studio is in a garage so I would love to have Denk Day where I open the big garage door and have my artists play and have a big cookout party!
Mostly, I just want to keep serving my clients and continue to grow, so I can do this for a living forever.
You recently said your wife is a help to you when producing; though she’s not an engineer, she can be a help by lending a listening ear to your projects. How has Denk Studios affected her own interest in audio?
She calls it “watching how the sausage is made” she has also learned a lot about audio in the past year. She likes to come into the studio and listen to the songs I am working on and help me with production decisions. It is helpful getting a second pair of ears on the songs. She also loves music. We will sit on the porch and listen to and analyze songs for hours. We talk about why a song is good and what makes us like it.
If you could talk to yourself from ten years ago, what one piece of advice would you tell yourself?
I would say to just keep going. All of my life choices led me to this moment.
What are you looking forward to in 2021?
Just seeing where my business is going to go and all of the new songs I will get to work on and all the new people I will get to meet. I am hopeful for this year.
I can’t forget to ask about drums since you’re a drummer! How have the drums impacted your life?
I started at age 10 – 27 years ago! My favorite style is prog/experimental. It has impacted my life in such a great way. It gives me joy and it even gave me my name [Jam]! It has allowed me to be a better producer because I have been the backbeat of so much music. I’m also the studio drummer for Denk Studios and have played on and/or written drums for many of my clients.
Follow Denk Studios:
Facebook @denkstudios @mixingitup