Tim Smith – Founder of Soundscape Studio & School of Recording Arts knows what it means to be a fighter and survivor. As an abandoned infant, he grappled against the coarse and brittle environment inside of a donation box during winter surviving for days. Tim was eventually adopted into a loving home and has gone on to carve out a remarkable career in our industry.
As adults some of us are never tested, and go on without even knowing how strong we are capable of being until we are forced to bring that hidden strength forward. In our changing industry, we are constantly being challenged with new paradigms and brutal competition where many of us have had to bring that hidden strength forward in the recent decade. So it’s not without bewilderment Tim was able to fight and survive the harsh environment of the changing recording business, and do it with such determination that he is now a Full-Timer in the audio industry. We talked to Tim about his perseverance and how Little Blondie Microphones fit into his success.
(Full Timers is an interview series celebrating small-business audio engineers/producers making a career in audio production.)
Tim Smith of Soundscape Studio
1) Tell us a little bit about how you started in the audio industry.
I’ve been playing drums since I was 11 years old. My first band was managed by two guys who had quite a successful run up to that point. The first guy was David Lee Gilbert, who was the lead singer for a Detroit-based band called “The Rockets.” They released several records on various labels such as RSO & Atlantic. The other guy was Jack Burningtree, who wrote and produced some fantastic music. Both of these guys played a huge part in introducing me to the art of making records in the studio. I was about 12 at the time.
Shortly after my initial introduction, I started my own personal journey with a cassette 4-track recorder. This ultimately became an 8-track reel-to-reel. I made a ton of records with it, growing up with my other musical friends.
2) Who are some of the artists you have worked or engineered for?
I’ve always felt that in order to survive in this industry as a recording or mixing engineer, you never want to pigeon hole yourself into one genre. If you did, then you probably wouldn’t eat. So, I have always been open to working on any style of music and any type of project. Over the years I have worked with voice artists for radio and television commercials, country singers, hip hop artists, rock bands, pop and folk singers, metal and funk.
Over the years I have worked with Big Sean, Darkchild & PVRIS to name a few. However, I’ve worked on a ton of projects that have not received that level of recognition (as of yet). I’ve been fortunate to have engineered or mixed some great music by amazing artists from around the US. Some personal favorites would be Kristen Lynn, Tunde Olaniran, If
All Else Fails, Announce The Apocalypse, A.T.M.I.G, Jake Wheels, Sam Van Wagoner, Midnight Gold, etc. I could honestly go on and on.
3) How would you describe the Detroit music scene when you started out, as opposed to more recently?
Personally, I feel like the Detroit music scene is thriving more than ever right now. It’s always been a strong market, but I think it’s a great time to be involved with music in Detroit. It’s safe to say that the music scene everywhere has evolved and grown. I think this is a direct result of our current technology. It’s increasingly easier for anyone to learn cool new techniques on their instrument with the availability of sites like YouTube.
4) What inspired you to engineer audio and what engineers did you discover in the process who keep you inspired?
When I was growing up in the 90’s, playing the music scene in Detroit, I didn’t really have a lot of money. Consequently, I attempted to save money by “wearing all of the hats” when it came to the management and success of my career. I always had my own vision of how I wanted my music to sound and honestly, I always left local studios disappointed because it never sounded like I wanted. I always wanted to get “that sound.” I fell in love along the way with the creative process. The happy accidents. As far as engineers that I discovered, I could easily name a hundred. I’ve been really inspired and influenced by Sylvia Massy, Andrew Scheps, Eric Valentine, Andy Wallace, Chris Lord Alge, Butch Vig & Dave Pensado, to name just a few. Every one of these engineers has done something amazing that has influenced me on a daily basis in the studio.
5) As a drummer, do you find that you concentrate more on the foundation of the song, as a producer/engineer? Do you build it like a house?
I definitely put a lot of effort into the drums; you can’t build a house on crooked walls. For years I have been chasing a drum sound that I’m beginning to believe doesn’t really exist. There are so many factors when tracking and building a drum sound: the drummer, the instrument, the room, the performance, and perhaps the style of music and what’s “acceptable” as far as a drum sound with that genre. Notice I didn’t really mention gear. Don’t get me wrong, I love gear; I couldn’t work without it. Oddly enough though, everything else I mentioned (for me at least) comes way before the gear.
6) Tell us about some of your favorite gear you can’t live without.
I have a pair of 1176’s that I love and I use them on every tracking date. I also have a Retro Sta Level that ends up on a lot of vocals.
I’ve also got a Hughs SRS 100 and a Studio Technologies AN-2 that are both amazing wideners. I’m really digging the CAPI Pre’s. As far as mics, I have a really cool pair of handmade Russian ribbon microphones called RM-BIV which I absolutely love. My Avantone CV12 and of course my matched pair of Little Blondies. I’m not sure that I could give up my U87 either!
7) Have you kept anything the same in sound engineering since you first started?
Probably, but mostly just my attitude. I get tired of taking the same approach for anything, so for me, it’s always been about being creative and not doing the same thing twice. When I’m tracking an artist or a band I like to experiment. I like to do things that wouldn’t be seen as “textbook.” I’ve never had good luck being “better” than my competitors so I’ve always strived to be different. I’d rather give you a sound that no one else can. Or at least be the first. This approach has been with me my entire career.
8) You’re a teacher now, but you never stop learning. Who do you learn from now?
Industry peers, videos, magazine articles. I collect and read a lot of books about recording & mixing. I’ve also been lucky enough to forge a few friendships with a couple of great engineers. They are probably tired of hearing from me because I’m constantly asking them questions. I’ve come to the realization over the years that there is not just one way of doing anything. So really, I ask a lot of questions so that I can understand things more and not so much to mimic what they’re doing. If anything, I cherry pick my ideas or approaches to capturing sound and mixing audio from all of my influences. I guess you could say that I indirectly learn from everybody, including my students.
9) What are some of the courses that Soundscape School for the Recording Arts offers?
Right now we offer three State-Licensed programs, although I am in the process of developing two new classes with the intention of removing two of the existing ones. Essentially, we offer a 16-week, 160-hour program titled, “Complete Studio Engineering.” This is a very popular class. It covers recording, mixing and also an introductory to mastering. Additionally we also offer a 100-hour internship here at the studio after successful completion of the course. My plan is to launch an Advanced version of the Complete Studio
Engineering in 2019 where students can get super creative and experiment. I’m also launching a Full Mastering Program as well in 2019.
10) As an experienced professional, how do you cater your program to students who haven’t developed their ear yet? What do you tell them to listen to?
One of the unique aspects to the programs that I have developed is that they are 100% one-on-one and State Licensed (endorsed by the State of Michigan). We train approximately 12 students per year. Being that it’s one-on- one really allows for the curriculum schedule to be somewhat flexible. We deliver the same training to each student, however we have the flexibility to focus on certain areas when needed. Out of all of the students annually going through our program, I would say about 25% of them are really just getting into this field and have not truly developed an ear for this kind of work just yet. So with those students we make whatever changes in the class are needed to give them the experience.
11) Have you found any common denominators to students who excel quickly?
I generally find that if the student is genuinely passionate about learning, then they are more likely to exercise and apply the techniques outside of class. We have a pretty high success rate, so it’s difficult to say why one out of 50 students may not excel while the others do. I think it comes down to your desire to be the best and your work ethic.
12) What kind of work ethic do you need in this industry to succeed?
What I attempt to translate to my students is this: If you really want to be successful in this field, you have to allow
this to take over your life. 100% is not enough. 110% is not enough. 150% may not even be enough. You have to go to sleep at night and dream about this stuff. When you wake up you need to be thinking about it when you brush your teeth and while you eat breakfast. This takes a lot out of you, but that’s the only way you are going to get where you want to be.
13) Can engineering sound influence the direction of a song?
Absolutely, I think of engineering as the first part of mixing. I really try to drive the direction of the sound from the choice of mics, mic placement and the room I record in. Sometimes I sit down with the artist and talk about the direction of the sound weeks before we enter the studio. I’m really big into being prepared. I like to have a game plan. The last thing I want is to wrap up the recording phase and have the artist start describing a direction for the sound that’s the complete opposite of where the sound currently is.
14) You are big on creating a sound/vibe for artists. How do you approach what you’ll do based on their rough ideas?
It’s always based on their idea. At the end of the day, whatever I bring to the table should further support their vision. I want to compliment what they are doing or do whatever I can to bring it more to the surface, but I always try to do this in a unique way. I do my best to be creative with how we capture the performance. To me it’s all about the personality of what we track.
15) How did you learn about the Little Blondie Microphones?
I had a friend who ran a studio for a long time. He was telling me about this cool new mic. I was immediately blown away because he had continued to tell me that he was selling all of his high-end mics (Neumann, AKG, Sennheiser, etc) because he felt he didn’t really need them anymore after he found this mic! So really he turned me onto the mic first. Then I did some digging and uncovered a lot of great reviews from around the globe. Everybody was really putting this microphone up on a pedestal. After that I was sold, and it’s become a staple in my studio.
16) What was your first impression using the Little Blondies, and what were your students’ first impression?
I think everybody’s first impression was really based around how big of a sound we were getting from such a small microphone. It’s even more impressive when you start listing all of the applications that this mic is really well suited for. I’ve always enjoyed the transient detail from this mic, it’s got a very “in your face” kind of character to it.
17) What’s been your favorite application and source you use them on?
I use them a lot on the piano, I have a vintage, Detroit-made baby grand here in the studio. These mics sound fantastic in mono or stereo. I love the detail and I also love the nice balance of the mids and lows. They’re definitely not overbearing at all. I’ve had great results using them as room mics on the drums and also on background vocals when tracking from a distance. These mics get moved around a lot here in the studio. Guitar amps have seen them a few times as well!
18) Can you tell us about any memorable times using the Blondies?
I did this record for a girl about four or five years ago that was initial intended for a car commercial. We really wanted to create a big arena type chant in the chorus to support the lead so my approach was to go for the Mutt Lange and layer it up a lot. So we did 180 background vocal tracks to build this super huge chorus. Somebody from the studio decided to head down the street to the local pub and enlist as may voices as possible to increase the size of our chants. Long story short, I can’t even begin to tell you how many drunk random people ended up on that record. But it sounded amazing. And we tracked it all with one little mic, The Little Blondie. The song was mastered by Capital Records, still one of my favorite songs to pull out of the demo reel when sitting down with potential new clients.