People who are serious about music are hunters by vocation. They stalk and follow melodic origins, map the genealogies of genre, and document where music has come from and where it might be going. Non-professionals document with emotional memory, like the time you listened to Appetite for Destruction all summer, or that sexy boys 2 men album your teenage self made out to. Recording engineers, however, make a business of cataloging sounds to help represent the scope and quality of a band. It’s a process that not only takes a certain amount of technology, but also a stiff order of personality. At Vancouver’s Hive Studios, a diverse mix of personalities roam the halls of the Burnaby concrete bungalow, just next door to an infinitely busy Costco and a well frequented burrito restaurant. After a 20 minute skytrain ride from downtown to SFU production way, the Hive is downhill walk into a land of industrial warehouses and railway tracks, an innocuous enough setting for a place that deals with so much exceptional talent. Boasting a roster of acclaimed recorded acts and musicians like Black Mountain, Bison B.C., Ladyhawk, Tranzmitors, White Lung, Vedda Hille, Nick Kirgovich, and the Cave Singers, the Hive Studio’s deals with some of the best in pacific northwest independent music, and has maintain a non-threatening face to meet up and coming bands’ dreams and expectations.
“Ten years ago if you were playing in a punk band and you could hear the instruments on your album, you’d be pretty impressed,” states Jesse Gander, co-owner, producer and engineer of the Hive over a morning cup of coffee. 10am is early for this and other recording engineers, whose hours tend to spread over one or two week blocks of recording. Gander and co-owner, founder, producer and engineer Colin Stewart split the weeks at the studio, where days easily span from 11 am to 11 pm.
“It means I don’t have a lot of outside interests, and sometimes my friends can feel a little bit ignored,” Stewart apologetically laughs as he details how an engineer’s days are spent. From the initial meeting with bands, going over expectations, ideas, timeframes and potential problems, the process of recording a record is a long process of creative bursts and systematic elimination, starting for Gander with a sweet sounding drum kit. “Unless the drummer has a particular way they prefer it, drum tuning is something I’m pretty into. The fidelity of a record comes from the drum sound. The kick occupies much of the lowest sounds of a record, and the cymbals occupy the highest, so getting those ends of the audio spectrum well represented makes a good record, to my ears at least.”
After the drums are tuned, the keyboard, bass, guitar and pedal amps are mic’d, and the engineers and musicians listen to the sounds in the control room. It’s a process of translation and luck for musicians, having to communicate to engineers to what tones they want and what feel they’re looking for. Ipods are brought out, and references to obscure and popular guitar tone are made until everyone is happy. Initial set up can take as much as an entire day before bands are ready to record, and even after that point, things are still up to change and shift over the course of the next week or so.
“Hive is a large studio, and part of the point in coming to the Hive is to record live off the floor. Because we have an isolation booth and multiple headphone mixes, having people playing together, even when they’re playing to a click track, makes a better record; it gives it a vibe. If we can get the bed tracks finished sooner, it opens up more time and money to work on the more creative aspects of a record.”
Increasingly with digital technology, bands anticipate more bang and creativity for their buck when going into the studio. “Back in the day, analogue tape was so expensive, as were studio costs, making it harder for just any band to record an album. These days, achieving any sense of clarity is pretty expected because of computers, and are expected to offer something special rather than something that’s adequate.” That something special changes depending on the engineer you hire. Getting creative in the studio can mean putting mic’s and amplifiers in outside empty garbage bins, location recordings in empty warehouses, and throwing everything into the kitchen sink. “On the last Ladyhawk record,” recalls Stewart, “we put a microphone into a plastic Ziploc bag, dropped it in a sink full of water, and sortof swished it around in a swirling motion, recording the sound while also tracking a guitar solo. I mean, it sounded like shit, but it’s just that kind of creative experimentation which sometimes leads to new, cool sounds.”
Gander, who has played and performed music for decades, takes a coach heavy approach to getting people’s creativity flowing. “I have techniques that I think can help people to sing better. It starts with getting people to warm up, showing people how to sing scales, even with the really heavy stuff like metal and grindcore. With the approach to singing, singers often think you have to sing harder or more powerfully when you’re in the studio, different from live or in practice. But really, straining or stretching your vocal chords can make you sounds smaller, while singing from your chest makes you sing bigger. For first timers in the studio I take a different approach.”
It’s the variety of approaches, and the welcoming, non-threatening atmosphere at the Hive, that keeps clients old and new coming back. “A lot of young people fail at being engineers because they’re interested in being rock stars,” suggests Stewart, “and they forget who’s the boss. This is a service industry, but rather than make burgers, I make records. With a band that first comes in, I’ll just be as relaxed as I possibly can. If they get tense, I just tell them it’s cool and completely normal. I’m incredibly sensitive to people’s emotions, and generally I get a sense if someone is unhappy before they express it. It’s one of the things I do best. You don’t want to torture musicians, they’re just so insecure… they’re as insecure as I am.”
Insecure or not, the diversity has contributed to the success of the sound and business elements of the studio. Engineers like Stu McKillop, whose highlights include hardcore acts like Textbook Tragedy and LA Massacre, and Mike Gittens, who recently recorded locals Collapsing Opposites and Adelaide, have brought their own presence and clientele to the Hive. Through internships, budding engineers like Gittens have the opportunity to work at the studio day and night to gain a few pointers. Aside from a few menial tasks, which inevitably include tidying up after bands, interns get to rig mics, record sounds, cut tracks, and get a hands on chance to record great sounding records. “Since we operate as a collective,” states the Hive Website, “the ideal intern would be self-motivated and genuinely interested in The Hive in the long-term. We want to work with people who can go on to fill the ranks, rather than take the garbage out. We want people who will bring creative ideas and energy, rather than coffee.”
After all the creativity gone into recording a band, taking days or weeks, the engineers mix the collection of sounds taken. It’s a finicky and concentrated process, which can take days. All that time in the studio listening to a bands sound can accustom an engineer to the potential flaws of an album, making mixing a process best done in the morning, with fresh ears. “I don’t listen to any music until I start mixing,” divulges Gander. “Then once I start, I’ll listen to tons of different records to make points of reference. You have software in your brain, which makes you accustomed to different anomalies of sound. It’s the same reason why you don’t find your refrigerator loud when it’s in your house, or you don’t listen to background noise. It’s the same for recording. You tend to tune out sounds that you become accustomed to, which may in fact be intensely bright or intensely dark for the world outside your studio. So one of the big tricks in mixing is cross referencing so I can re-set my own mind.”
After the songs are mixed, the mastering is either done at the Hive, or sent off to a mastering specific studio. After this point, the creative input of the engineer is largely over, and it’s up to the bands to do what they want to with the music. Because the hive is booked 24/7 day and night, there isn’t a lot of time outside of payable hours to reflect with the engineer on how things are going. In one or two weeks, the album is born into the world, while bands go back to their dayjobs, and the engineers move on to work with other bands.
Today, the success of a band isn’t so much determined by it’s compositional structure, as it is determined by how it defines it’s sound. It’s the first 15 seconds of listening that make or break bands, and in those first tentative moments, you’re not listening to the song structure or composition; it’s the warmth, timbre, and tone that draw in the listener. These are the aesthetic decisions that go into an album, and they are diverse as the people who record them. And while the Hive’s aesthetic leanings are diverse, it is the warmth and timbre of the personalities who work there which have maintained it’s solid reputation and professional success in the local, independent music scene. And in a time when expectations are higher than ever for recording bands, that’s no small feat.