Mix With The Masters is a series of week-long training seminars for audio engineers. For each seminar, a small number of attendees get to spend a week in a residential studio in the south of France learning from one of the world’s top engineers. Earlier this year, when a seminar with Steve Albini was announced, I decided to apply. I filled out the application form, agonised a bit over what examples of my work I would submit, hit the send button and crossed my fingers. Two weeks later, I got confirmation back that I had been accepted. It was a surreal moment. I was simultaneously delighted and terrified…what if I turned out to be out of my depth? Kate reminded me that the work I’d submitted had got me in, so I shouldn’t worry. I settled into a kind of nervous excitement and started figuring out travel plans for getting to Studios La Fabrique.
When the day came and I arrived at La Fabrique with the other 11 attendees, it’s safe to say we were all blown away by the place. It’s not just a remarkable studio facility, but it’s also impossible not be be inspired by the picturesque 19th century Provencal farmhouse setting. You leave the outside world behind and just get wrapped up in the atmosphere of the place.
Once we’d all settled in and had a bit of lunch, we hit the studio, met Steve and got going. Over the week, we learned about his philosophy and perspective, recording to tape, tape machine setup and maintenance, tape editing, mic placement techniques, mixing techniques, acoustics, studio building, session management, even drum tuning. All the information Steve presented was done in clear, science-based explanations that communicated the how’s and why’s of what he does. I was really struck by the level of detail he went in to, and the depth of context he gave. It illustrated the staggering level of thought he has put into what he does. For me, the effect of not just being shown a technique to use in a particular scenario, but being given the underlying knowledge for why that technique works resulted in my general engineering knowledge going through the roof. I’ve never taken so many notes in my life…we worked from 10am until midnight and beyond every day. I honestly believe that if I went to college for a year, I wouldn’t have learned as much as I did in the course of the seven days.
Getting to the point in the week where we would each show our work and get feedback from Steve and the rest of the group was both massively helpful and hugely intimidating for everyone. My fears about being out of my depth were apparently shared by everyone else, but listening to everyone's work, those fears were totally unfounded…the range of talent and great engineering work on show amongst the group was incredible. Steve’s ability to listen to a track once and have an almost photographic picture of the structures, melodies, engineering techniques and sounds which he could then discuss in detail was mind-blowingly impressive. I’ve never seen anything like it, and his assessments were really insightful, in-depth and communicated in a way that put you at ease. It was an absolute masterclass in constructive criticism. I came away from the discussion of my own work with a huge confidence boost, having been told by one of the best in the world that I’m going about things the right way and capturing great sounds, but also a new perspective on how to take that strong base to the next level. (Over the next while, I’ll write up some shorter posts on specific things I learned and extracts from my notes.)
One of the biggest perspective shifts I took away from Steve’s approach was his take on being an engineer vs. a producer. He considers himself an engineer, not a producer, and is aiming to capture the sound of the band as he hears it in the room, without him giving any input or opinion beyond the recording technicalities. The record is the band's legacy and he doesn’t want his musical taste or aesthetic to influence that. It’s something that I’ve heard him talk about before, and understood the purity of that intention, but observing his workflow and seeing how it achieved a natural representation of the band playing really brought the concept home to me on a practical level. You can hear Steve talk about this in the latest WTF podcast with Marc Maron here: http://www.wtfpod.com/podcast/episodes/episode_650_-_steve_albini
It’s hard to fully encapsulate and explain how affecting an experience it is to learn in an environment where you’re surrounded by brilliant people who are on the same page as you, under the mentorship of someone who is so totally on top of their game. Applying for Mix With The Masters has turned out to be one of the best decisions I’ve ever made, and I’d definitely love to go back.