Sitting on a wheeled chair in the dimly lit campus studio, James Probel glides from the Rupert Neve 5088 mixing board to the desktop computer. He grabs the mouse and clicks play in the Logic Pro X software. The sound of bass guitar and drums played by the band Hawkins floods the control room. Probel rolls back to the board and slides two faders up their vertical strips using his index and middle fingers. The guitar volume surges and blasts through the speakers.
Growing up, Probel played guitar, piano and upright bass. He was a member of his school’s marching band, jazz band and regional and state symphonies. The more he immersed himself in music, the more he realized he wanted to pursue a career in it. But a degree in music? That’s too broad, he thought. Probel found his focus when some high school friends mentioned audio engineering — the recording, mixing and production side of music. It was the first time he had considered the process of getting music out into the world.
“It’s kind of like the people behind the scenes making the other half of the magic in collaboration with musicians,” he says.
However, their craft is rarely in the limelight.
It’s an old story by now. Musicians make albums, albums go viral, people download or buy the albums and the musicians get praised. What often goes unmentioned, though, is the patience and precision required during the album-making process. For music production students at Ohio University, backstage brilliance is where it’s at.
BEHIND THE GLASS
Students new to the School of Media Arts and Studies who are interested in audio production have two tracks to choose from: recording industry or music production. The recording industry track focuses on the business side of music. Students learn how record labels operate, including how they record music, sell it and maintain contracts. Music production, on the other hand, consists of studio work, recording and mixing with analog and digital equipment.
Probel chose the music production side because he wanted to learn more about audio engineering, a multifaceted job that requires analog and digital tech skills, troubleshooting abilities and serious time commitments. He can usually be found in the Radio-Television Building’s recording studio working on class projects.
Now, Probel presses the “talk” button in the middle of the console and points to the recording room through the glass. If there were a band in the room, Probel would be able to route a talkback system through the musicians’ headphone boxes. The signal is also routed to any vocalists who may be in the isolation rooms. Through the talkback microphone, he can suggest do-overs, ask if instruments are in tune and give other general suggestions. That way, the band can play and receive feedback simultaneously.
Probel uses a combination of equipment during the recording process. Microphone preamps convert the sound from a microphone to a level that is usable in audio software.
Equalizers take different frequencies and balance the levels out, while compressors squash the sound and lessen the range between the loudest and quietest signals. The patch bay, which is the master routing system, features a series of inputs and outputs to connect all signal flow.
“It’s a monster,” Probel says.
Probel says it has taken him a lot of time to understand how everything works. He works with different mixing boards, microphones and software to learn how to create signal flow throughout the studio. One class project consisted of recording a simple acoustic act — mixing the sounds of a guy singing and playing the guitar and bongos.
“We spent a lot of time logically thinking and practicing how signal is being routed,” he says. “Where does a signal start? Where is it going through? You know, listing out every step in the process to help people learn where this sound is going.”
During another class project, Probel worked with Hawkins and learned how to mic up a full drum set and use vocal overdubbing, a technique that lets performers listen to a pre-recorded song and play a new version simultaneously. Through the six-hour studio sessions, Probel says he and the band learned about the sound equipment, recording process and how to work together to create a cohesive song.
But there’s always something that will go wrong, he says. Half of the job is being able to troubleshoot problems — whether it’s faulty cables and microphones or clashing personalities.
Kyle Snyder, lecturer and outreach coordinator for the School of Media Arts and Studies, echoes that concern. He says the importance of audio production lies in the ability to keep a session running smoothly even when something has gone wrong.
The mixing process can take anywhere from 30 minutes to hours of work, depending on the song and the artist’s vision. For Jason Joyal, a 2016 graduate of the music production program, communication is key. If an artist doesn’t like the first mix of a song, they discuss it, and Joyal takes notes of the critique so they can form a cohesive and satisfactory end product.
THE “CREATIVE TURN”
Although the technical aspect is vital to audio engineering, Probel and Joyal both emphasize the importance of building relationships with musicians as well.
Probel’s favorite part of the job is meeting different personalities and hearing the stories of how different artists got started in music. Being able to capture those stories and translate them through sound allows inventiveness.
Marcus Meston, a senior in the music production program, compares the job to being a psychologist. He says learning to work with people with different chemistries is the key to creating the best product. The musician and producer have to be comfortable enough with each other to let anything fly and not feel stiff during a session.
“I think good experience is just collaborating with an artist and them really getting on board with your idea and it really resonating with them,” he says. “And then them taking that creative turn and formulating it into something of their own.”
Joyal says when he comes into the studio, he focuses first on how to make the artist comfortable. To get the best possible studio experience and final product,the artist can’t hold back.
Every artist has a different vision for their music and the audio side plays a big role in making that vision become an attainable product. Joyal, who is now living in Connecticut and working on an album for his band, Tales of Joy, says his job is to understand the essence of a song and to emphasize it within the sound.
During his senior year, Joyal spent the majority of his time working on Taylor Meier and Evan Westfall’s first album. The duo makes up the band CAAMP, which went from performing at Casa Nueva’s open stage events to selling out shows across the country.
On the album, the song “John Henry” has a bluesy feel, which creates the sensation of riding through an Old West desert on the back of a horse. Instead of keeping the audio clean, Joyal, Meier and Westfall decided to dirty it up and make it sound older by adding different effects to the guitars and vocals. Without those nuances, the track might fall short.
EVOLUTION OF SOUND
Audio experience has come a long way. In 1877, Thomas Edison created the phonograph using a foil-wrapped cylinder. In 1948, Columbia Records released the first microgroove long-play vinyl record. And today, music is consumed through wireless speakers, headphones and other devices using Bluetooth technology.
In the days of the Beatles, the engineers of the album Abbey Road wore lab coats because audio production was considered a science. Today, the scientific side of the job still remains. Part of Snyder’s job is being an electrician. He leads facility design and construction efforts, including the physical installation of audio facilities.
“Any given day, I’ll be wearing my tool belt and swinging my hammer,” he says. “So, I come from more of the old-school electrical engineering, thinking about audio in the way things used to be.”
Snyder began his career in audio by searching programs through the Audio Engineering Society’s website and found his place at Ball State University in 2003. He says at the time, college degrees weren’t required to get a job in the field and the software and equipment used was more analog than it is today.
But professors in the School of Media Arts and Studies still teach old-school methods using modern tools. Software programs such as Final Cut have a mixer that is analog-based. Snyder says students should be able to differentiate between the channels, inputs and outputs on those systems.
Students’ mentality toward problem solving has also changed. Although Snyder grew up with internet technology, he still wasn’t able to find all of the information he needed online. He often poured through manuals to find answers, and, if he was still unsure, he would ask a friend. Now, students can do a quick Google or Reddit search to answer their questions.
Average people have the ability to create their own albums using programs such as GarageBand, which comes as standard software on every Apple computer. But Snyder says there’s more to music production than that universal software.
“Everyone is aware there’s a technical aspect to it,” he says. “But it’s important to appreciate there’s sort of a higher level of thinking that goes on.”
Employers still seek graduates who learned the way they did, he says. They want self-starters who are willing to put in the work and find answers to their own questions.
Although an understanding of analog is important, Snyder kept up with the transition to digital. His extensive knowledge in facility design helped him in building the two newest studios for the Media Arts and Studies program. The most recent is the Audio Post Production and Critical Listening room, which is located on the fourth floor of the Schoonover Center for Communication.
The room is geared toward audio for film, and it allows students to practice dialog recording and sound effects. One room includes six folly pits, which are chunks of the ground that are taken out and filled with sand, rocks, sticks and other materials. Students can step on those surfaces or drop objects on them to create sounds for film projects.
“Whether it’s audio for video, film, iPod, iOS games, Android games, console games — think audio for [virtual reality] and [augmented reality] — we are never going to need less audio,” Snyder says. “It’s just, what is that audio for?”
Sound is everywhere. It’s incorporated in every piece of media, besides text and images. But most people go through their days without thinking about what they’re hearing. Probel says most of the time, when audio is done right, people don’t notice. But when it’s done incorrectly, everyone notices. A song with crackly audio or a film with bad sound effects? That’s just unbearable, he says.
Snyder believes it’s important for people to understand and respect each other’s careers.
“I do a lot of things, but I can’t plumb well. I can’t fix a car. I can’t lay carpet for shit. I don’t know much about psychology,” he says. “There’s a lot of people who do a lot of great things.”
But the precise work of producers and engineers is often overlooked. Probel says the average consumer isn’t worried about who’s recording a song, who’s in the studio mixing dialog and music for a film or who is setting up microphones, stands and amplifiers for a rock band. People generally have more of an interest in who they see in the spotlight.
“I feel like [producers] get more attention in the rap and hip hop scene where people are making beats, and it’s the big name rap artists and all that,” he says. “People are like, ‘Who produced this song?’ or ‘Who’s making beats with them?’”
Meston has been personally producing the indie pop band Clubhouse through Brick City Records, a capstone class he’s been a part of since August.
He’s in the studio with Max Reichert, lead singer of Clubhouse, working on an untitled track. This session, they are tweaking the chorus vocals.
Reichert is in the recording room, standing at the mic. He puts his headphones on and bobs his head back and forth in fluid motion. He sings the same two lines more than 30 times to get the ideal sound.
Meston stands at the control board, looking through the glass. He presses the talk button.
“I like the ends of notes you have at the end of phrases that swoop down,” he says. “Continue with that. It sounds great.”
Reichert repeats the process.
“I like that melody going up too,” Meston says. “Out of anything, nailing that is the thing we need to get.”
The untitled track that they’ve been working on since November is almost complete. It has taken time, precision and collaboration on both ends.
Meston says people typically listen to music to appreciate the song. Most people aren’t aware of what goes on behind the scenes, but if they want to appreciate that aspect, they can.
“It’s the artists’ work, so they absolutely deserve the credit,” Joyal says. “I think that mainly all engineers and producers aren’t in it for the credit but for the love of music and helping others achieve their musical goals.”