The James Willetts Experience
"It's the man, not the machine."
- Charles Haynes
There are two things people say when they see a great haircut on someone. It's either, "Where do you get your hair cut?" or "Who cuts your hair?"
In the same fashion, anyone looking to record or mix their album, or tackle some sound post-production work on their film, will ask similar questions, whether they ask google, read some liner notes, or check with their colleagues. For people who are looking for the person, an expert that can find the best room and provide the best level of service, no matter where it is or what kind of project, that's where I come in.
This article is meant to educate anyone shopping around for an expert, not just a room, on what to expect throughout their journey with yours truly on your team.
Rule #1.) Growth.
Bands, actors, film-makers, or anyone else with a creative child or brain child that they are nurturing to maturity to release out into the world are usually focusing on one big project at a time, and they see that project through over what may seem like a long period of time. That makes your project unique & special, so your experience during production should be equally unique & special. Likewise, art, at its best, changes people, hopefully for the better. The process or producing the art should be equally inspiring, expansive, and enriching, as well. If you think I'm not learning something new from working with you, you're kidding yourself. Every person and every project is unique & special, and I'd like to see to it that you get that same experience from me during your sessions, whether it's learning a new recording technique or workflow that works for you, learning more about what to do next or in-between projects, connecting you to other ideas & experts for the next stage of your creative child, exposing you to new sounds you'd never before thought possible, or simply pushing your performance level in the studio (and everywhere) to new heights. In every session & with each passing project, I think it's important for the client to experience a new stage of growth & progress.
Rule #2.) Preparation.
Many recordists & mixers start the clock when you walk in the door, regardless of the state of the room. My attention to detail often makes me a slave to my own perfectionism, as I tailor each session to have a setup as special and unique as the project & performers themselves, but I don't think that's an excuse to bill for it. You can always expect from me a process of calling ahead and getting a feel for what the day is going to look like before you walk in, making sure that things are ship-shape and ready to "rock" before the clock actually starts. Sure, things change, and a skilled engineer is just as equipped with an artist's-level of improvisational skill as he or she should be with hardware & software. Nevertheless, I find that making that phone call to ensure that you know that you are being thought of and prepared for goes a long way in making you feel at your peak level of comfort & efficiency before you even step in the room, much less in front of the mic.
Rule #3.) Organization.
I cut my teeth working full-time for seven solid years in arguably the largest and most professional recording facility in Northern California: Fantasy Studios. At the time it was a four-room, major label facility with the best mic & outboard gear collection in the Bay Area, a full-time maintenance staff, three staff engineers, a twelve-pit Foley stage, and an equally creative & diligent management team making everything run smoothly from project source all the way to project destination. All of us grew up during a period of recording history where there were no mistakes on our end. When digital audio workstations took over to become the norm, there was no dress rehearsal for archiving and file management, in the same way that there was no dress rehearsal for setup, gear & software maintenance. We taught each other and supported each other to make it work, teaming up for the best interest of the client and the artist.
It is with this attitude & appreciation for teamwork that I moved to Boston in 2008, eager to provide this "west-coast" level of service and craftsmanship to an area hungry for recognition for the level of creativity, artistic integrity and camaraderie of which Bostonians are so proud. I found that there is no shortage of world-class audio equipment and acoustical spaces there, so my best role would be to reach out to those more virtuous artists (as well as those more discriminating artists simply visiting our noble town), guiding them into the best facility for their needs & budget, and matching these great rooms with my typical, first-rate service.
In Boston I also dove into the world of radio, specifically, The World: a nationally-distributed, world news co-production of the BBC, PRI, and the award-winning WGBH Educational Foundation. Working at WGBH allowed me to return once again to the large team atmosphere that I came up in, learning from some of the best technicians in the industry while sharing with my music, film, and freelance background. Working for the BBC, PRI, WGBH, and now as a broadcast/recording technician for NPR in Washington, has kept me up to date with all of the latest project management tools in the art of recording and mixing.
Keeping all of the projects, files, setup & recall information, communications, and client lists for any major facility or any reputable freelancing operation requires an expert level of organization, which is my specialty. My years of experience working for similar experts before me, as well as recovering less-than-ideal organizational situations for some projects have taught me that preparation and organization go hand-in-hand, and there can be no mistakes there, either.
Rule #4.) Take it!
At this point it may sound like I'm fixated on preparation and organization, which I am, but that's because I know when the red light goes on, it's time to let go of all of that and live in the moment. This is where all of my philosophical reading & study, as well as my experience as a performer comes in to guide us all in achieving "The Space". The goal is to be as prepared as possible for when your sound comes out of your body into the equipment, but that's also when our training and experience has to take over to capture our best performance. Make no mistake: Your engineer is performing, too. Who do you like on the sound stage with you? Someone rehearsed and prepared, treating your project like the unique and special creature that you know it is, or someone who thinks they've seen it all before and will just move on to the next thing once you're gone?
When I'm not working, I am working on working. Every moment with another person is an opportunity to improve my (dare I say, "already exceptional"?) communication & empathy skills, and every moment with a piece of equipment is a chance to get to know that equipment or instrument's capabilities, sounds, and, yes, personality.
Rule #5.) Follow Through.
This is an important topic, as it is more than just preparation in reverse. In running, it's running "through" the finish line; you don't stop at the ribbon. In drumming, you play "through" the drum (or strum through the strings of a guitar), in order to push your fullest tone through the finish line.
Also, one of my most important roles for you is as a sort of time traveller, where I keep things in perspective, whenever over-thinking about the final product gives way to technical minutia, and vice versa. I can guarantee that when you find yourself obsessing over perfecting a tiny line in the performance, & it is affecting the overall magic of your creation, I will gently pull your point of view to see the grand scope; however, if you're the type to focus primarily on release dates and promotion while the studio clock is running, I won't forget that we're in the room that day to capture the moment, so you can leave the minutia to me. In the words of Tina Turner, "We're not leaving until it's awesome."
Likewise, my work is not done when you leave. There are some engineers who will bundle up your hard drive and send you on your way, wishing you well and to, "Have a nice life!" The limitations of my field restrict my ability to really push your project (I can't tour your record for you, but my experience playing in several touring outfits across nine countries can definitely give you some input!), so it is in my best interest to really arm you with what's next once you leave the studio for the day. Have you thought of sync licenses? Touring? Mastering? Management? I can put you in touch with everyone I know, as well as tell you everything I've learned, with which you can do whatever you'd like. It's not just your blood, sweat & tears on this project. I've been right there with you up until now.
And that means I'll be celebrating just as much when your vision is realized.
So, in closing, may I once again emphasize that when you're booking studio time, you aren't simply booking time to get to the finish line of your project. It's a journey.
Thanks for reading! Good luck, & I hope to see you again soon!
"My role is to facilitate the artist's vision."
- Tony Brown