Steven Alvarado came to New York from Santa Monica, CA, via Nashville, having worked at Star Song/EMI and DreamWorks Records SKG. Thanks to his long experience as studio manager at famed top high end NYC Dubway Studios, he is the perfect candidate to share with us his opinions about how to plan a recording.
What advice would you give to a band that is entering the recording studio for the first time?
“Well- I would say have a plan. Map out what you want to accomplish each day so that you have a realistic idea of how much time you will need to complete your project. It’s best to be as prepared as possible. Time fly’s in the studio and it doesn’t take long for you to eat up your entire budget. I would also say that you should be smart. If you can be flexible and work odd hours, most studios (even ours) have discounted rates for working in off times like in the middle of the night.”
Many young artists tend to ignore any production or technical advice to pursue their own vision. Confidence of youth… but – in your experience – how often does that pay off?
“You could probably make your own shirts, but they probably won’t look very good, or fit too well. If you are working in a pro studio it’s likely that you will be surrounded by people who are very good at what they do, you should take advantage of that.”
It seems today that – with the advent of the lo-fi scene – many bands think that any crappy recording (and performance) can become a hit and that sound engineers are not necessary. What’s your opinion about that?
“Many people hear these recordings that are really stripped-down and raw sounding and are astounded by them including me, but don’t kid yourself. Those albums are recorded on some pretty amazing equipment and with microphones that cost five thousand dollars. There’s a lot of work involved to get that kind of pure sound. But it goes beyond the equipment. A great engineer can make a below average artist sound great, which is really kind of a drag if you think about it. But a really great artist is probably going to sound pretty good even in a home recording situation. The technology has gotten really good. The problem is, you will never be as good as a pro engineer. They know how to record things in ways you don’t. I’m a singer/songwriter myself and have done many projects. I’ve gone the DIY way in the past like everyone else and it’s never as good as the studio. I guess I feel that if you are really good, then you should treat your art like it’s worth a damn and do it right. If you aren’t willing to spend money on your own music, then probably no one else will be either. Including music fans.”
And what about producers, what can they add to the equation?
“Producers are sometimes completely necessary, and sometimes completely superfluous. It really depends on the artist. Some people need lots of direction and others have a very clear picture of what they want and how to get it. I have a handful of producers whose work I absolutely love, yet I have always produced my own albums. I couldn’t imagine working with a producer on my own album. I fall into the category of knowing what I want and how to get it.”
Is expensive gear really necessary to record great music?
“Expensive no, sophisticated yes. The problem is, sophisticated gear usually cost a lot of money. And even then, unless you have an experienced engineer, the equipment is only going to take you so far.”
How do you see the contradiction of using expensive gear in the studio to make great sounding records that end up being listened via mp3, i.e. a very average sounding compressed audio format?
“Well-that’s not the same thing. A great recording sounds pretty good on anything. But crap will always sound like crap. I like mp3’s. I imported my entire music collection into my iBook & iPod a while back and I love it. And this is coming from a guy who has access to super high quality equipment.”
What are your feelings about Mp3s in general?
“I like them. They have gotten better with mp4 etc. Anything you buy from iTunes is pretty high quality. The technology is only going to get better. I love to buy music online, it’s easy and it’s immediate. It doesn’t have the physical limitations of a record store where they can only carry a certain number of CD titles. There is only so much rack space and only so many customers that live within a reasonable distance from that store to sell CD’s to. The internet doesn’t have those limitations. Every album recorded past, present and future will be available to anyone anywhere who wants to buy it. This means all the small obscure and unknown albums indies or majors, will make more money than the few hits. It’s shear numbers. There are more misses than hits and the dollar value of the misses is greater than the dollar value of hits simply because there are more of them. This isn’t futuristic thinking, this is today, right now. iTunes, Amazon and Netflix have built their entire business on this idea. Even though the misses only sell/rent one or two copies, the number of the misses is endless and they can carry every single title because they don’t need to build physical retail outlets. This all started with the internet and selling things online, but when mp3’s came along they gave it a jolt. So like I said, I like them and they will only get better. The record companies are already gearing up for this new way of releasing and buying music. CD’s will be gone in five years.”
What’s the band/artist that changed your life?
“God, there have been several. I love Gillian Welch, Patty Griffin and Sam Phillips. Sam’s my favorite-I worship the ground she walks on, seriously. Back in the day, I was a huge U2 fan from the beginning. They were really it for me back then. These days it’s anything stripped down and honest with a good voice.”