A Chat With Producer/Musician/Studio Owner Mike Stevens

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Several years ago, while in search of a new drummer, I was given Mike Stevens’ name by both a band mate and a producer. It took some time to reach him because he was busy playing so many other sessions and gigs. After playing one show together I understood why: he’s both a rock solid and versatile drummer and easy to work with. I’ve since worked with Mike on a number of recordings and he’s since opened his own recording studio, Lost Monkey, in Hayward, CA. In between his sessions, he answered some questions about his approach to recording.
Q: What makes a great recording session? What ingredients have gone into your favorite and/or more successful sessions?

MS: What I’ve noticed is that it’s all about the performer getting out of their own way. It seems like I’m always hearing from people [how] they love so much about their iPhone rehearsal recordings, and when they step into the studio to record things more cleanly, they don’t like it.

 

I know it’s not because the equipment in the studio makes them sound worse. What I’ve learned from my own experience and from working with other artists is that there’s this mental switch that happens when you step into the studio. There’s a lot riding on it. We put expectations on our performance and the outcome… often times an artist is thinking about trying to recreate that magical rehearsal session. To me, that breaks the performance because that’s the opposite of the mindset you were in when that magical rehearsal happened. You were just there… doing your thing… no expectations… no pressure. I honestly believe that when you can step into the studio with that attitude, you are closer to where you need to be to get that magical take. When you can’t, you just push yourself farther from it.


Q: How important is gear? Do you have any preference or thoughts on vintage vs. modern gear? As you set up Lost Monkey, what were must-haves and why?
MS: Gear is important to the point that you need something to record with and on to. Aside from that, there have been many great recordings made with gear that most audiophiles and engineers would laugh at. It kind of goes back to the performance attitude I mentioned before. That is far more important to me than gear. [It’s] important to remember that most music listeners aren’t musicians or even hard-core audiophiles.

 

They want an emotional connection to a song … and they often can’t even say specifically why they do or don’t like a particular track. I believe the delivery and songwriting is what pulls them in … not the tones. After all that, different gear just gives you different colors to paint the music … and those colors range from vintage to modern to lo-fi to pristine. For example, with all the nice mics I have to put on drums, sometimes I reach for the old rotary phone handset I have wired up as a microphone. It sounds like total lo-fi shit when you listen to it alone, but when you blend that with the other drum tracks it can give the drums the right amount of edge they need for a particular song. I really like having variety. I often pick up things as I come across them.

 

My main must have for Lost Monkey was as many input tracks as possible so I could record bands live… to get that nice, tight energy. I’m running 16 simultaneous inputs using a Digi002 with an ADAT expansion. I have an 8-channel Tascam board that I use for preamps going to the ADAT and a few nice tube preamps I can use as well. I like the set up. It does well… would it be different if I had an unlimited budget? Absolutely. I’d probably have a 24 track tape machine and a vintage analogue console and preamps coming out my ears, because I personally like the colors that kind of gear brings… but I’d also keep my current stuff on hand. I like options.

Q: What producers and/or studio owners have particularly inspired you?
MS: I’ve been on a lot of sessions… on both sides of the mixing console. Through that I’ve seen it go down so many ways. I’ve found that there’s something to take away from every experience, whether it’s a new way to do something or a how not to do something.

 
Honestly, every single producer, engineer, studio and artist has taught me something. I observe and absorb a lot. I try to take everything in and incorporate it into what I’m doing. I find most of my inspiration [from] producers and studios that lean a little more towards that old school approach to recording. You know, getting a track down before you beat it to death and strip any and everything human out of if. I like it when a producer let’s the recording breathe instead of beating it into submission. A song is a living thing after all, and always serves you best when you let it be what it’s trying to be.

Q: Other than artists you’re recording and/or playing with, what/whose music are you listening too? Could you name three of your favorite albums of the past decade and why?
MS: I listen to everything… almost. And I listen to different things in different ways. I like that 10 people hearing the same song can hear 10 completely different things. Sometimes I listen to albums for the production. Sometimes I’m studying the drummer and sometimes I actually just like the song.

 

I really like Wilco’s production style and the chances they take in that respect. Glenn Kotche is an incredibly creative and tasteful drummer. Their latest album “The Whole Love” is great and I enjoyed listening to it from all those different angles. Also, I’ve been checking out Adele recently. She’s obviously an amazing singer and I find some of her less standard arrangements really refreshing. Again, I pull inspiration from all sorts of places. I can learn a lot from a song I don’t even really like.

Deborah Crooks
Deborah Crooks (www.DeborahCrooks.com) is a writer, performing songwriter and recording artist based in San Francisco whose lyric driven and soul-wise music has drawn comparison to Lucinda Williams, Chrissie Hynde and Natalie Merchant.

Singing about faith, love and loss, her lyrics are honed by a lifetime of writing and world travel while her music draws on folk, rock, Americana and the blues. She released her first EP "5 Acres" in 2003 produced by Roberta Donnay, which caught the attention of Rocker Girl Magazine, selecting it for the RockerGirl Discoveries Cd. In 2007, she teamed up with local producer Ben Bernstein to complete "Turn It All Red" Ep, followed by 2008's "Adding Water to the Ashes" CD, and a second full-length CD "2010. She's currently working on a third CD to be released in 2013.

Deborah's many performance credits include an appearance at the 2006 Millennium Music Conference, the RockerGirl Magazine Music Convention, IndieGrrl, at several of the Annual Invasion of the GoGirls at SXSW in Austin, TX, the Harmony Festival and 2009's California Music Fest, MacWorld 2010, Far West Fest and many other venues and events. She toured the Northwest as part "Indie Abundance Music, Money & Mindfulness" (2009) with two other Bay Area artists, and followed up with "The Great Idea Tour of the Southwest in March 2010 with Jean Mazzei.
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