With over 2 decades of experience in professional recording, Sie Medway-Smith has been able to thrive in the music industry as a freelance producer and mixer that has worked with everyone from legends like Massive Attack, Bjork and Depeche Mode to current up-and-comers like TALA. The fact that he now uses Ableton for all of his music work was simply another reason for me to chase him down. Thanks to some help from my friends at Ableton, we were able to meet up in his city of Brighton to talk.
I've heard that you started out in the audio industry as a tape-op, which is a position that almost doesn't exist anymore. What was the most valuable thing you learned from that?
To be able to just be still, observe and not have to ask stuff. As a tape-op, you're not even allowed to ask stuff. I was told on my first day, "Just hang back here, don't have an opinion, and wait to be asked things". That was new for me, as I'm a curious person who likes to ask when he wants to know something. So I learnt how to be able to observe.
I see. And how were you able to transition from that into actually engineering?
I showed enthusiasm. Someone at the studio said "There's a session tomorrow. Can you do it ?", and I said "Yes!". It didn't matter how tired I was, I wanted to be that guy, and the studio personnel knew it. I'd also started making my own music. When the studio wasn't booked, I would go in and learn the equipment and patch-bay, and when the clients would go home, and I'd stay in the studio all night, and catch the morning bus home. So the studio gave me opportunities upon realizing that I wanted to live this life. I started by doing voice-over work, which taught me to pick a good mic and use a little compression. That would transition to other things, and I'd say "yes" to the things I could do, and "no" to what I felt I couldn't.
What kind of things did you say "no" to?
The things that were beyond me. If someone said "Do you reckon you could mic up this orchestra?", and I said "yes", even though I couldn't, that wouldn't have been cool.
Where there any times during your time as a tape-op where you messed up at anything?
There was a huge one once, haha. I was working with a band, and they were really going for it, working all night. It was the third day, and no-one had gotten much sleep. We were using hardware samplers at that time, and my job was to assist the engineer/producer. I didn't know the ropes at the time, but one of the engineer's jobs was to say to me "Hey Sie, can you back up the sampler? ". But he never said that to me. So 3 days into the project, he finally says "Can you back up the sampler? ". And I said "yeah sure". I brought over a machine to plug in, and I tripped over the four-way monitors and unplugged everything, erasing all the material on the samplers. Everyone was devastated. but the engineer had to blame himself for not asking me to do it days earlier. It was big fail for me, but a genuine mistake.
You eventually ended up working at Mute Records with some pretty well-known names. How did that happen?
Prior to that, I had worked as a chief engineer at Milo Studios, in East London, which is now called Miloco Studios. During that time, I thought, "I'm either going to work here for the rest of my life, as their engineer, or I'm going to freelance and do what I really want to do, which is to work with loads of different people". I chose to freelance. Some would have called it a suicide mission, and to be sure, I had a really quiet first 6 months, and was like "Oh my god, what have I done?". I had gone from working everyday at Milo to no work at all. But eventually word of mouth got around. Tim Simmonon heard from a friend of mine that he should work with me and get me to mix a track of his. So he booked a studio at Mute Records, which they had on the top floor of their building, and I mixed the record. Afterwards, Daniel Miller, who owns Mute, asked me to come back and work with the label. So that's how it began. Within a few months, I was one of their go-tos, though I was still a freelancer.
Mute has quite the legendary artist roster, of which Depeche Mode is a part. When was the last time you worked with them?
The last record we made was "Sounds Of The Universe" in 2009. But 3 years after that, I did a record with Martin Gore and Vince Clarke, who was in the band 25 years ago. They hadn't worked together for almost 30 years, and Daniel Miller from Mute said "You guys need to make a record together. You like the same music and have the best selection of analog gear, so why not?". So I became the man in the middle, which was a great job. Who doesn't want to get that phone call like that ? "Do you want to make a record with 2 amazing guys, with the best audio gear in California?" Uh, yeah. They each have some of the biggest analog keyboard collections in the world. So I co-produced their album, and it was probably the best record I've made, though one that most people might not know about. Their duo is called VCMG, and the album is called "Ssss".
I see. Tell me about your work Massive Attack, another legend. I'm a huge fan!
They did the soundtrack for a film, and I mixed it. They also did a single with Damon Albarn, called "Saturday Comes Slow", and we did an alternative version of that for the film. I'm a massive fan of them as well, and I even have the limited edition version of their first album, "Blue Lines", which came out when I was in school. There's an interesting story connected to that. On the day of the Gulf War, when the USA went into Bahgdad, the report on the news was "Today there's been a massive attack in Bahgdad!". So Massive Attack's record label, Virgin, said "Oh no, we can't release this under an artist called Massive Attack!" So they pulled the record, and re-labeled it "Massive". I have that edition. All the singles after that were called "Massive", until the war calmed down, after which it went back to "Massive Attack", and then I bought the album again, haha.
You've also worked with Rudimental, right?
Yes. I worked on their live shows. I've got a reputation for being a musical director for electronic-based music that incorporates a lot of live instruments like guitars, brass or strings. People come to me because I know those things. As opposed to my tape-op days, I can mic an orchestra now, haha. But I can also programme an 808 in the studio. Taking electronic music to the stage is quite a challenge, and I was called to do that for Rudimental for their first ever show at Isle of Wight Festival in 2012. They're a great bunch of guys. On the back of that, I did a similar job for Hot Natured, and I'm currently working with a new artist called TALA as her musical director.
Given that your early work stemmed from the analog domain of the 90s, how have you been able to accommodate and adapt to the digital revolution?
Because I'm not scared of being adaptable. It's really simple for me. The guys who didn't want to move over from analog to digital are long gone. But to be fair, digital is only a viable option as of recently. It's been coming since 1992, and only now does it really work. People used to say "HD Rigs going to sound as good as tape". That may not be entirely true, but they both sound just as good for different reasons, and they also work together now. In 1998, you could have a great HD rig, but you'd need a £5000 computer. I can run HD on my laptop now.
What are your thoughts on mixing records that were recorded to tape, as opposed to in-the-box recordings? Is there a fundamental difference?
Well, we have a problem today, which is that people think "loud" means "good", which it isn't. Tape is very quiet in comparison to working in the box. If you mix something in the box, we can smash it as much as we want, but if we record it to an 8-track tape machine, it would be quiet. But that doesn't make it inferior. There's so much stuff available that it's important to know what to use for what job. I'm fortunate to have come from an analog background and still be around to see the difference, and I think we're in an exciting place right now in music.
How did you move over to Ableton Live?
Ableton from its early days was very brilliant for manipulating audio, through its warping and editing features, but it didn't have everything I needed. I still had to use Pro Tools to get the right sound, as Live's audio engine wasn't good enough. But it got better, and when Live 8 came along, I found it to be usable, and I started using Pro Tools less and less. Then Live 9 came around, and it was game changer. My girlfriend said, "You need to contact the company and tell them what you think". So I sent them an email, and two days later we met up in Brighton, and talked about how we could improve the software. Since then, we've been working together on improving things like Live's mix capabilities.
I don't use Pro Tools anymore. I write, mix, record, program and DJ in Ableton, because it's really up to the job, and I don't think there's anything available that sounds as good as it. Pro Tools sounds brilliant and always has, but Ableton Live sounds better. I just mixed a record for a band in Belgium, all in Ableton, and they're the best mixes I've ever done. The Glue Compressor and EQ Eight are genius plugins. I did a mastering class last week at a studio in a London called SSR, and I used only EQ Eight and Glue, and people were like "What the hell?". No iZotope Ozone or Waves plugins. If you know how to use it, everything is in Live. The limit is you.
What is the single handiest thing about Ableton Live for you?
Session View. Being able to make things in that view and then flip to Arrangement View is great.
What do you wish that it had?
It has everything I need. Glue and EQ Eight are my favorites!
Cool man. Well, wrapping up, can I ask what you're currently working on?
Mute Records is bringing me on to another project. I can't reveal the artist, which you can guess who it is. There's also another artist at Mute called Arka, who I'm working with. There's a band in Brussels called VaVox, and we've just finished their album, and I'm going to be working with them on bringing the music to their live show. I'm also working with a guy called Francesco Tristano, who is a quite the Ableton head and concert pianist.