Interview with Producer/Engineer McKay Garner
McKay Garner is a San Francisco-based musician, producer and engineer who’s engineered and/or produced such musical luminaries as The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Styles of Beyond, Mike Shinoda of Linkin Park, and countless others. Some of his work also regularly appears in film and TV soundtracks such as America’s Next Top Model, Burn Notice, Stylista, Grey’s Anatomy, and Transformers. His website is www.mckaygarner.com.
He’s recently formed BARMMAP—the Bay Area Recording, Mixing, Mastering and Production group—to bring artists, home recording enthusiasts and working audio professionals together to share their excitement, knowledge and ideas about recording, mixing, mastering and producing music and/or audio.
McKay was gracious enough to spend his valuable time describing his work, approach and imparting some audio wisdom for AudioUndone readers. Read on and learn from a master. And if you’re in the San Francisco Bay Area, please join us at our next BARMMAP meeting.
1. Describe a bit about your background. What led to you becoming a producer and engineer?
I came up playing drums, then other instruments, and later attended the University of North Carolina School of the Arts for music. I played and toured in numerous bands and eventually started producing demos for other artists on cassette multi-track. That turned into reel-to-reel and then digital recording. I learned a lot about music and engineering from many talented folks along the way and studied every book and magazine I could find. This knowledge, coupled with everyday trial and error, opened up a much wider palette of creative and technical options for me. As my chops got better, I opened my own studio in L.A., got involved in more developed projects, and eventually got called to work with many major label artists such as The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Michael Buble, Styles of Beyond, Mike Shinoda, Flogging Molly and many others—as well as some KILLER unsigned ones.
2. What studios have you worked in and which ones do you work in now?
I’ve worked in several studios in L.A., but my favorite was always the one I knew best: my second studio in L.A., Bounce Inventive Audio. I often had hard drives dropped off from several other studios in L.A. such as The Village, The Pass, and others. I moved to San Francisco almost two years ago now, and I have a few favorite studios here depending on the budget of the project. I like Studio Trilogy, Broken Radio, and The Playground to name a few. Since I’ve been doing a LOT of mixing these days, I often work in my personal mix room at my home. However, for tracking, I use the spot with the best-sounding room for the budget.
3. Do you prefer one kind of studio over another? If so, why?
Here’s a typical engineer answer: it depends. Good-sounding rooms are really important to me. As an engineer, if I don’t have to guess at what I’m hearing, I’m much more comfortable. As a producer, the vibe created for the artist is key. I don’t want to let technical things get in the way of their creative flow. If it feels good in the studio, or the right kind of uncomfortable (grin), I know we can capture something really compelling.
4. What kind of music do you specialize in and why?
The truth is that many folks get slotted into a certain category of work because they happened to work with a known artist in one genre that was popular. I have recorded, performed, or produced so many styles over the years… I’ve played in orchestras, played in or produced nasty funk bands, metal bands, on jazz records, folk music, with laptop artists doing IDM… Heck, you name it. At my studio in L.A., I recorded just about everything you can imagine. I worked with artists as a musician, engineer, or producer on things from Chicano/Latin music (Quetzal), classical (percussion for Yo Yo Ma), rock (Valencia and more), Indie (foreign Born), Electronic (the matic, Choncey Langford), hip hop (Styles of Beyond, J Dilla), Americana/Pop (Sara Melson) and a lot more. Something new came in every week or month, which was great. I recently mixed an artist that had heard I did a lot of radio rock or hip-hop records and wondered if I understood acoustic/electric folk mixes. I understand the concern, but this happens a lot when you get a certain rep. Luckily, he gave it a shot, said he loved my first mix and wants to hire me for more.
5. What do you see as your primary role as a producer?
Above all else, it’s getting a compelling performance from an artist and the musicians on the record. Along with that comes trying to find out what an artist really wants to say using the sounds chosen on the record, the way an arrangement is crafted, the styles included, and the way the mix is realized (…if I have a say in that, which I usually do). You have to know when to speak up or shut up, take a walk, come back another day and try again, or figure out when a part is really done. It’s a real dance between fear, conviction, and the inspiration of calm or “explosions at will.”
6. How hands-on are you with the gear, or do you typically work with an engineer?
I engineer the bulk of my work, but I’ve worked on many projects where there are SEVERAL engineers in the process, including a tracking engineer, editing engineer, vocal tuner, drum hacker, producer, mixer, etc. These days, budgets can be tighter, so artists are lucky to afford to mix and master elsewhere. Sometimes it really is worth the investment, though. I’ve seen many opportunities for artists get lost because a mix of a song was just too rough.
7. What is BARMMAP? How and why was it created?
When I moved to San Francisco, I wanted to create a local community for engineers, producers and artists to learn more about the process and share their experiences. I created BARMMAP in 2009. BARMMAP (two M’s) stands for Bay Area Mixing Mastering And Recording. Mike Wells of Mike Wells Mastering had created something good for the community as well called Audio Outreach in Oakland. We later met and he suggested we merge Audio Outreach into one big BARMMAP community.
8. What’s BARMMAP’s mission and where do you see it going?
As the audio industry evolves and changes, we’re seeing more things being partially or fully recorded by the artist. Or, engineers and producers have to handle more of the load themselves on projects and may not interact with other engineers/studios as much. As a result, the chance to work together to make the best audio a reality can become more distant. The more knowledge that the more experienced folks share—and the more we hear ideas from aspiring talent—the more everyone benefits. As a result, recordings coming to pros to mix or master will be of higher quality, allowing us to create potentially better mixes or masters. Artists will also be able to create better recordings, mixes, or masters. They’ll also know more about when to budget for and hire a pro and what that can do for their recordings. Engineers, artists, and producers can get together to learn new things and personally meet the people that they would feel comfortable working with on their project. It’s a win-win for the whole music community. We’ve created our own site now at www.barmmap.com, and we have many new events planned.
9. What advice would you give to aspiring producers?
One thing is the same advice I’d give to experienced producers: Don’t have your head in the sand. There’s more than one way to do most things. Be a sponge. Stay open to new ideas and keep them in your back pocket. They may not be useful today but they might be tomorrow. That never ends. Avoid negativity at all costs if you can, because it’s a real inspiration-killer. Inspire people first and foremost to be their best. Learn as much as you can about arranging in different styles, how and why different sounds, rhythms, melodies, and chords work in different settings. Why do certain keys or key changes feel the way they do? Why does a certain vocalist make you feel the way they do? Why do different acoustic environments give you a different feeling when listening? Finding the answers to these questions can greatly expand your abilities as a producer.
10. Is it possible to make a decent living as a producer?
They say you can make a million dollars as a producer… if you start with two million dollars. But seriously… There are people doing it very well. You just need to decide what your focus is—whether it’s producing your own records, music for libraries/TV/commercials, working with unsigned artists, or being a producer for hire. Create a solid rep and people WILL keep hiring you.
San Franciso-based indie musician/producer Richard Turgeon is the author of Indie Rock 101: Running, Recording and Promoting Your Band, published by Focal Press. You can keep up with his latest projects at his website and blog at www.indierock101.com.