Studio engineers play an important role in helping artists reach their musical goals. After all, no-one wants to mix a botched recording. That’s where the likes of Blake Harden come in, an engineer with experience across a wide spectrum of urban music, from Usher, Tech N9ne and Yelawolf to Bangladesh and JUSTICE League. We recently had a chat about his start in the business, and how he was able to make the climb to his current position of both high-profile gigs and indie work.
Hi Blake. Thanks for being willing to talk to me about your work. Can I start by asking about your background and how your early years in the industry looked like?
As far back as I can remember, I’ve loved music. My high school friends and I were all in punk rock bands, and were regulars at all of the local shows and underground venues. I later became a House DJ for seven years, throwing parties and playing dance clubs, which fit me better than my bachelor’s degree in advertising at Northwest Missouri State University.
In 2003, I was living in Kansas City, and really wanted to get out of the Mid-west to expand my horizons. A close friend of mine told me about Full Sail and the idea of audio engineering, so I took the plunge. Whilst there, I decided that recording and mixing music was what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I befriended some people from Atlanta , and ended up moving there a few days after graduation, and put my DJing on hold so I could focus on becoming an audio engineer. That was in 2005.
Through my network of friends, I was lucky enough to meet up with a producer/composer named Justin Ellington. He basically took me under his wing, and together, out of a studio called 800 East in Atlanta, we recorded amazing musicians. Justin composed for plays and film, as well as produced hip hop, r&b, jazz, funk, afro-beat, and anything else he could get his hands on. Through him, I linked up with producer Bangladesh and began interning at his studio as well. It was through working with them that I began learning the ropes of the industry, and building a presence in Atlanta.
After coming to realization that I needed to make money, I got a job at Guitar Center. This also helped me meet more people and expand my network. I’d work at GC during the day, and then be at Bangladesh’s or Justin’s studio until 3am everyday. One day at Guitar Center, I was introduced to some guys in an electronic band called Elemental Harmonics. I ended up becoming their live sound engineer and went on tour with them three or four times, playing mostly small-medium sized venues across the country; that’s is essentially how I learned live sound. They used a combination of live instruments, drums, bass, guitar, keys, and percussion, as well as hardware synthesizers and soft synths from Reason, Ableton, and Native Instruments. This made it a very complicated first experience for me as a live engineer, especially because they’d change synth patches after every song. Sometimes the band would even have to scale back a bit because the venue wouldn’t have enough inputs for all the equipment. When I got done touring with them, I started working at a club in Atlanta, called Smith’s Olde Bar. It has one of the best sound systems for a venue of its size in Atlanta. Also, the engineers, primarily two guys named Dylan and Jason, took their job seriously and were very skilled. Learning from them, I was able to fine-tune my live sound skills even more. But through all those experiences, I discovered that live sound wasn’t something that I wanted to do as a full-time gig. That’s when, through the recommendation of several friends, I got an internship at Tree Sound Studios.
I worked at Tree Sound for approximately four and a half years, moving through the ranks to become a Lead Engineer. I got a lot of experience during that time, since the studio was equipped to accommodate recording and mixing for any genre of music. We worked on everything from funk and jazz, to bluegrass and Latin music, not to mention a plethora of rock, pop, hip-hop, and r&b. Some of the biggest records in the world were done there, and many local legends and Grammy-winners came to record there. It was through working with those players, combined with the talented senior engineers that I interned under, that I was able to learn what a truly “good” sound really was, and how it was attained. These are skills that helped me a lot when I was working with younger or less experienced players. Let’s take drums for instance: an inexperienced drummer might think that good drum tuning meanings cranking the drum’s lugs as tight as they can go and shoving a pillow in the kick drum. But that only makes the drum sound dead or hollow. As the engineer, if I rush to set up the mics before listening to how the kit sounds in the room, I might drive myself crazy wondering whether the drummer is hitting the drums wrong, or if my mic placement and EQ settings are wrong, when in truth it’s neither. The problem is with the tuning of the drum kit itself.
It was through doing sessions with people like Little John Roberts, Yonrico Scott, Chris Dave, JFly, Sonny Emory and other great drummers, combined with learning from excellent engineers like Dan Hannon, Sam Thomas, John Holmes, Wyatt Oates, Zach Odom, and Kenneth Mount, that I was able to learn to hear and reproduce the true sound of a drum kit. Now, when a less experienced drummer comes to the studio, I can usually hear right away if something is wrong, and help them with that before recording, to ensure the best possible sound for their record. The same thing goes for bass/guitar intonations, and amp settings. You learn about all that stuff from working with the great players, and learning from great engineers.
Cool stuff. Seeing as you’ve worked both in the freelance and studio environment, can you give me some insight into the advantages and disadvantages of both, and which you prefer?
At this point in my career, I prefer working as a freelance engineer because I have the option to work at any studio with any client. That isn’t always possible when you’re employed directly by a studio. But the down-side of freelancing is that when you finish a project, you have to wait for the phone to ring for the next gig. The benefit of working for a big studio is that you often get called to do a wide array of big gigs, and you have access to lots of great resources, which you don’t always have as a freelancer.
When my wife and I moved to California, a little over a year ago, I had very few avenues, so I had to work on my own projects, keep a positive outlook, and network as much as possible until things picked up; and they did. Since the beginning of the year, things have become pretty steady. Still, I can’t take all of the credit for that. Monica Tannian at Milk Money Consulting, and her team, has done more than I could ever ask for, giving great advice, opening networking doors, and facilitating important logistics of my freelance work, including getting me connected to the wonderful people at Windmark Recording in Santa Monica, CA, where I have been doing quite a lot of amazing work this year.
You’ve amassed quite a lot of credits as a tracking engineer and assistant engineer. Can you tell me a bit about those positions on a project?
The most important thing I learned was that in order to be the best engineer, you first have to learn how to be the best assistant. The main thing a good assistant does is pay close attention to what’s going on during tracking. If you’re lucky enough to be in the room, you have to keep pace with the engineer. Sometimes you even have to act as a middle-man between the engineer and the artist/entourage, as well as a problem-solver of sorts, so the engineer can focus on his work without being distracted by multiple people in the room. So, if someone says “I wish we had a fan in here“, you need to go grab one without being asked. The engineer shouldn’t have to worry about going to find water for the artist’s manager, or replacing a light bulb.
My Grammy certificate for working on Usher’s “Raymond Vs Raymond“, came from being an assistant to my vocal recording mentor, Ian Cross. It was one of hardest, yet in so many ways, the most rewarding gig I’ve ever done. I had to be there in the morning before the producers showed up to produce and write songs, and I’d do tracking with them. Then Ian would show up around 5pm. He would work on edits and mixes until the artist showed up, and then they’d continue working until 5am or later. During that whole time my job was non-stop. Besides patching, setting up gear, and maintaining recalls, there was a wide array of “vibe maintenance” that had to be done. I had to be figuring out when the best time was to go get tea for the artist, so that it was cool enough for him to drink when he asked for it, maintaining the random requests of everyone in the room, and being sure that everyone’s food orders were correct. Who’s going to trust you to recall a console mix when you can’t even get a food order right?
I get what you mean. And touching on big-name clients like Usher, how do you find working with such people compares to sessions with smaller names or no-name artists that are just starting off?
Many of the bigger artists are every efficient in their time management; they tend to come in, do their work, and then leave. They have so many other obligations to tend to, including guest appearances, philanthropy, and not to mention their personal lives. Tech N9ne and Usher are some of the hardest-working people I’ve ever met. They know what success is, what it takes to get there, and realize the work that it takes to maintain it.
Moving down the ladder, you might work with an artist who hasn’t blown up yet, but is in the process. Sometimes the expectation of success, ego, and an inflated entourage masks the fact that they actually need to be productive in their studio sessions. Their time management gets a bit out of whack, and there are too many distractions around, so their productivity tends to suffer. I think of it as a phase that’ll pass once they get too busy too be able to waste time.
Then you get to the indie artists who pay for everything themselves and write all of their music. Many of them don’t have the budget to pay their engineer full rates, so they have to choose those their projects wisely. But some of them just want to hang out in the studio because they see their idols doing it, and want to be “cool” on social media, which in turn wastes the engineer’s time, as well as their own. But others are very serious and know every part of the song before they come into the studio. As an engineer, you don’t even have time to go to the bathroom when you’re working with them because everything goes so fast. They are the ones that usually end up successful.
I’ve heard that your favorite piece of recording gear is an amp. What’s been the most creative way that you’ve used an amp in your work?
Live vocal tracking. I was tracking a full band, cutting everything live to tape, and I had an Orange Rockerverb combo amp that I put in a isolation booth. I routed the singer’s dry vocal from his SM7 to the amp, which was mic’d up with an SM57. It produced a great distorted vocal sound. Once, I used a Goodsell amp, which are my favorite amps on the market, to re-amp a weak-sounding synth electric guitar; it brought a whole new life to the song. I also used the Goodsell on a Farfisa transistor organ. The player tweaked the organ whilst I tweaked the amp until the combination made an incredible mashup of twisting metal transistor sounds. That was one of my favorites.
Since we’re on the topic of recording gear let me ask about some of your favorites of the following:
Compressor For Bass:
EQ for Piano:
Pultec EQP1a (hardware) or just old fashioned mic placement.
Reverb for Drums:
Rverb or Lexicons (2 or 3 plates maybe). Also if I’m recording, I’ll capture the sound of the room with near and far-room mics.
I use the Steven Slate VCC a lot, sometimes a hardware SSL Compressor. If it’s not getting mastered, I might smash it with three L2s, using different releases, not attenuating more than two or three dB each, and have some EQs in between.
Rounding off, can I ask what you’re working on currently?
I’m finishing my wife’s album, Panayota’s “Glow”, which is an adult contemporary album with lots of live instrumentation, as well as working with an artist named Sean Waterman, who’s a songwriter. His album mixes a lot of acoustic and electronic elements. I produced, recorded, and am mixing both of those. I’m also working steadily with Alabama hip hop artist, Jackie Chain, and most recently, some great new stuff by Kesington Kross, from Los Angeles. As far as the year goes, it’s been a blessing. I’ve worked on records with Puff Daddy, Future and LeToya Lovett, Jason Derulo, and YG, as well as with songwriters/producers for Rihanna, Mary J. Blige, and DJ Mustard, just to name a few. Things really blew up since January, so I’m focused on continuing the momentum, and am grateful to be working with such great people in a career that I love.