There’s this moment that occasionally occurs when I’m working on a project in the studio. I like to call it “The Evil Genius Moment.” It happens when I’m sitting in a vaguely uncomfortable wheelie chair in a studio in front of the board, my elbows on the console, my head in between two speakers, eyes closed, the subwoofer pulsing at my ankles. It can happen either during a take (my favorite kind) or during a critical listening session of a mix. Something in the song causes my hair to stand on end, a shiver to vibrate through my spine, and my stomach to slide down to my knees all at once, and I just know that what I’m listening to will cause the very humanity of the listener to come into question. It’s that quality of a song that makes me think to myself, “good lord, what have I done?” but it’s in the best way possible. And just like Dr. Frankenstein, I have created something that’s alive.
Music has that “time travel” quality to it, especially recordings. When one hears a recording of a certain song, instantly they’re in the back seat of their dad’s truck on the way to school, or standing next to that one cute girl in the grocery store line, or amongst a sea of people all worshipping the same band at that life-changing concert in their youth.
It’s the ability to create these fleeting emotional carpet rides that makes me love working in the studio. The fundamental role of an artist is, after all, to access those points in humanity that make us freeze, make us feel. One of my favorite quotes regarding this comes from a book called Zen and the Art of Mixing, written by Mixerman: “It’s your ability to manipulate emotional impact as it relates to sound that will make you a great artist, producer, or mixer” (page five, in case you were wondering).
That is our role as engineers and producers, whether it’s a live performance or a studio recording: to help the artist with a message to shout it from the rooftops in the most effective and powerful way possible, to clarify their story. The right mic choice, the right guitar cab setting, the right percussion mix, the right compressor on the voice, the right reverb or distortion level… it all adds up to creating emotional impact. It’s what makes us the best kind of evil geniuses around.
Willa Snow is a freelance studio sound engineer and producer, currently based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She loves working with artists in the studio to carve out their sound and clarifying their stories.
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