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Difficult Conversations In The Studio

In a ideal world, every session would run like clockwork, and every artist who comes into your studio will become a lifelong friend. Unfortunately, real life sometimes gets in the way.

Sound On Sound's Editor in Chief Sam Inglis explains how to handle those awkward studio moments with tact and diplomacy, and emerge with your dignity intact!

Hello, I’m Sam Inglis, I’m the Editor in Chief of Sound On Sound magazine, and you’re watching my guide to difficult conversations in the studio. How to have them, when to have them, when not to have them — and how to come out the other side without looking like a complete prat.

• the conversation about money

It’s always hard to be the person who starts the conversation about money. But it is really important to start it and to start it as early as possible. That’s partly because it’s nice to be able to feed the kids, but it’s also about respect.

There’s a critical moment in these conversations where the client says ‘How much is it going to cost?’ You know the number that you should be saying, but it suddenly sounds like a silly amount of money. Surely no-one is going to pay that much to hire you and your studio?

This is the point where you really need to hold your nerve, and not just because you need to eat. Because the more the client is paying for your services, they more they will value your services, and the more they will respect you. Of all the sessions I’ve done, the ones that have gone wrong have always been the ones I’ve done as a favour for someone who’s not paying full whack. If they’re getting you and your studio for cheap, they will start to treat you as something cheap.

And the same goes in reverse, too. You might justify giving them a low price by saying ‘Oh, this is a great band, and the songs are amazing.’ But when you’ve spent six hours trying to overdub an acoustic guitar you’re not going to be thinking that any more. If you’re not being paid properly for your work, you’ll stop putting 100 percent into that work, and you’ll start making mistakes. And in the end the risk is that the low valuation you put on your services to start with turns out to be right.

• admitting that you made a mistake

I don’t think I’ve ever done a session where there wasn’t at least one ‘Oh shit’ moment. And that’s not surprising. You’re doing something difficult, you’re doing it against the clock and no two sessions are ever exactly the same. The question is, what do you say to the client when you realise you’ve screwed up?

Two things to bear in mind here. One is that it’s important to be open and honest. But the other is that if you undermine the client’s faith in your competence, you’ll never get it back. So think carefully about whether you actually need to have this conversation. The things that keep engineers awake at night often aren’t even noticeable to the artist. And if it’s a small thing or it’s something you can easily fix while everyone else is on lunch break, it’s better not to say anything at all. That’s not a question of honesty, it’s a question what people need to know. As an engineer you are constantly solving little problems in the background. If that includes a few problems that you caused in the first place, so be it.

On the other hand, if you have made a proper balls-up of something, then people do need to know, ‘cause they’re going to spot it themselves before too long anyway. And then the question is not when do you have that conversation but how. So ‘fess up, but bear in mind that what really matters is not whose fault it is, it’s what you’re going to do about it. Don’t just offer them an apology. Offer them a solution. Say, ‘Yes, you’re right, there is a bit of a buzz on that track, isn’t there! We can do it again if you like, or I can try using noise reduction.’

• they want to do the engineering for you

“You know, when I recorded at Abbey Road back in 426 BC, they used just a little bit of pitch shifted flanger on my voice. I really liked that effect, can we do that on this project too? Ah that’s cool, now if you could just bring the bass up about a dB and a half, and maybe split off the high frequencies and put those through an old Boss chorus pedal? And then I read about this cool thing they did with the drums on Led Zeppelin 4…”

Artists who fancy themselves as engineers can be a nightmare. They get really excited when they hear reverb and want you to add far too much of it, or they hate the sound of their own voice and want it mixed stupidly low, or they keep asking you to turn the bass up because the stereo in their car has the speakers wired out of phase and they can’t hear it.

I think the way to deal with this really involves a combination of pushback and compromise. For instance, instead of saying ‘No, don’t be silly, that’s far too much reverb,’ you could say ‘Well, OK, but be aware that we’re listening in an acoustically treated control room which is quite dead. I think that when you hear that back at home it’s going to be a bit over the top.’ But also, you can treat it as an artistic challenge to find a reverb that actually works well at that level.

• how do you feel about pitch correction?

It’s one of those really annoying laws of recording that the singers who need pitch correction most are the ones who have the strongest philosophical objections to pitch correction. And the drummers who can’t play in time are the ones who think Beat Detective is a tool of the Devil. So this can be a really sensitive topic.

I think two things are key here. One is that musicians often have really fragile confidence to start with, and it’s vital to avoid doing or saying anything that undermines that confidence. The other is that all of these tools are only a part of an overall production. So, for instance, you could start out by saying ‘How do you want your vocals to sound on this track?’ and get them to give you some references. And if all their references are Neil Young records you should probably put away the Auto-Tune, but if they give you lots of glossy modern pop productions, you have licence to go ahead, because you can always say ‘Those references you gave me, that’s how they got that sound.’

• when things break

What should you say when a piece of kit goes down mid-session? Well, it depends on the kit, and the client, and on whose fault it is. Worst case scenario: the client has chosen your studio for the sole reason that you have a big-ticket item like a U47 or a Hammond B3, they turn up, and it’s not working. In that case, frankly, it’s down to you to make amends and you need to get straight on the phone to a hire company or rearrange the session.

But a lot of the time the client doesn’t particularly care what’s being used as long as it sounds good. Once again the most important thing is not to undermine their confidence in your and your studio. So probably don’t say “Oh shit, sorry, the Neve has just exploded.” If you’re setting up a demanding session leave a little bit of slack in the system so that you have a spare channel or two available, and you won’t have to spend an hour repatching if something does go wrong.

And what happens if the client actually breaks your equipment? Again, it depends. If they’ve done something really stupid like playing catch with your vintage microphones, you’ll have to tell them to expect the bill. But if it’s just an accident, like a drummer catching a mic with his stick, then you probably have to suck it up and treat it as normal wear and tear. Either way, though, it’s important to have that conversation straight away so that it’s not hanging over the rest of the session like a black cloud.

• they want their friend to mix it

There’s nothing more depressing than sweating for days to get the best possible results in a tracking session, and then being asked to hand over the files so that the bass player’s cousin can butcher them in his bedroom. But he’s got all the Waves plug-ins! Yeah… no shit.

I think the issue here is timing. If you’re not having that conversation til the end of the production process, then it’s too late. It shouldn’t ever come as a surprise that the artist wants someone else to mix it. Cos if nothing else that might be a decision that makes quite a lot of extra prep work for you.

If they’re determined to do it, and you don’t think it’s a good idea, then really you have two choices. One is to try to undercut the person they’ve chosen, which isn’t going to go well if it’s the bass player’s cousin in his bedroom. The other is to try to show them what they’re missing. Maybe stay on for a few hours at the end of the day so that you can give them a ‘rough mix’ of one track. But whatever you do, don’t be a dick about it. Don’t give them stems with all your effects baked in. Don’t give them the files as a single poly-Wav that can only be opened from the Linux command line prompt. Don’t get all protective about your secret plug-in settings. Cos if they wanted confirmation that you’re not professional enough to mix their record, that’s exactly what you’ve just given them.

• the conversation about credits

When a project does go wrong, for whatever reason, there’s a temptation to go ‘I don’t care what you do with these recordings, just don’t put my name on them’. Personally I think that’s a bit precious. Ultimately, if your name goes out on something that was badly mastered by the bass player’s cousin that’s not the end of the world.

• the one where you have to tell the video editor you can’t think of a good ending

So that’s my guide to negotiating difficult conversations in the studio. And if you want something pleasant to talk about instead, the new issue of Sound On Sound magazine is out now. It’s on sale in print, app and in PDF format and you can read it for free at Thanks for watching!