Decatur sound engineer Jeremy Stephens may have learned the recording trade working under legendary Southern rock producer Johnny Sandlin, but Sandlin said Stephens got a chance to return the favor.
Sandlin, who produced and mixed albums for The Allman Brothers, Wet Willie, Elvin Bishop and many others in the 1970s, recalled his shock when the old method of recording on tape was supplanted by computers in the 1990s and 2000s.
"I was in the dark," Sandlin said. "I came up doing nothing but tape. When things went to digital, people didn't use tape in anything for a while...."
"It turned everything inside out. It scared me for a while, because I had been doing the other for 25 or 30 years. New things can be frightening or exciting, and it was both. Fortunately, Jeremy was there to help me out."
Stephens, 39, owns Clearwave Recording Studio on Westmead Street Southwest and still works as an engineer for Sandlin, who runs a private studio, Duck Tape Music, in Decatur.
"He's an excellent engineer, really a top-tier engineer," Sandlin said.
Stephens got into the business as it was on the verge of change and helped Sandlin make the digital switch.
"When I started in the early '90s, it was very rare to see a computer in the studio. Now a computer can do everything," Stephens said, though he takes a less drastic view of the conversion than his mentor.
"What's really changed is the way that music is sold and what's done with it," Stephens said, referring to Internet sales of recordings through iTunes and Amazon. "I've finished an album completely, and a week later I was able to buy it on my phone. That's really the biggest change."
Stephens, who opened his studio 10 years ago, said despite today's technology, which makes it possible to record each individual track at a separate time, the old method of recording a band playing together live still produces the best results.
"The type of music I like is bands playing live, and I try to capture that," Stephens said. "There's a musical element that you get when everyone's playing live that you don't get when everybody's playing one part at a time. ... The musicians have more fun, and they kind of compete with each other. That's a good thing to me. It comes across in the music — a little more dangerous sounding."
Some music, such as heavier-sounding modern rock, lends itself to recording each track individually, though.
"That's a modern way of doing it, and you get a more modern, mechanical sound," he said.
Stephens said he sometimes makes totally analog recordings but more often uses a mixture of digital and analog technology to get some of the unique sound of tape without the cost and tedious editing process of recording completely analog.
"For me, it really depends on the type of music and how good the band is. Analog's great when you have stellar musicians and the performance is really good. Digital's great for editing," he said.
Sandlin echoed those sentiments.
"Tape just has a sound that you can't get anywhere else," he said. "As far as mixing, working with computers is so much easier than working with tape. Editing is a breeze."
Stephens said he keeps his computers up-to-date and the studio outfitted with top-notch electronics, but the technology isn't hard to keep up with.
"I don't think it's all that technical a job," he said.
The basics of the trade he learned from Sandlin remain useful. Though Stephens took a few studio recording classes at the University of North Alabama for his entertainment management degree, he noticed some of his fellow interns at the Masterfonics studio in Nashville were overburdened with detailed technical knowledge about popular equipment of the day.
"I don't think that's all that important," he said. "It's how to make a guitar sound like a guitar. That's still valid — not knowing how to run an SSL (Solid State Logic) console."
The hard part of running a studio, he said, is finding bands ready to take the step of recording.
He's recorded some acts that are now well-known, including Athens band Alabama Shakes, recently featured on "Saturday Night Live" and nominated for three Grammys, and Shoals-area guitarist Jason Isbell, formerly of the Drive-By Truckers and now leader of Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit.
"Some of the first demos that (the Shakes) did, they did over here," Stephens said.
Alabama Shakes, like most of the bands Stephens works with, were unsigned at the time. Also, most of the acts he records play rock, often with a Southern twist. Stephens said he likes "anything that's soulful."
He's often blown away by the talent of relatively-unknown musicians who step into his studio, he said.
"I've felt that way about a lot of bands. I felt the girl (Brittany Howard) with the Shakes was that way. It was encouraging to see what happened with them. They're better than most bands, but they're not unusual," he said, adding that north Alabama is a rich area musically.
Other recent projects included a Microwave Dave record and a posthumous album by Ben Trussell, a Huntsville singer and songwriter who died suddenly in 2010 at age 25.
"Ben came in and he was getting ready for an album," Stephens said. "He did all these demos and it was just him playing acoustic and he gave this incredible performance."
His father, Rick Trussell, pulled together a group of Ben Trussell's friends to play along with the demos and complete the album.
"It's a tribute to him, and his music deserves to be heard," Stephens said.
Seth Burkett can be reached at 256-340-2446 or email@example.com.
For more information, visit www.clearwavestudios.com.
Step 1: Tracking sessions with full band
Tracks can be recorded individually, but Jeremy Stephens at Clearwave Recording Studio said he prefers to record the full band playing simultaneously like they would in a live performance.
Because drums are so loud, the drummer is isolated in a sound-proof booth, while other musicians play together in a larger room. The sound from each instrument, or microphone set up to record the instruments, is captured on its own “track.”
“Hopefully we’ll get a good feeling song take in the first 3 or so takes,” Stephens said. “Once that is achieved, you can do any fixes on the individual tracks.”
Step 2: Vocal recording
The singer is recorded in an isolated booth.
“I try to capture a good vocal performance early in the recording process,” Stephens said. “A good, emotional vocal performance is the most important part of a recording.”
Step 3: Recording additional tracks
Any extra guitars, vocals or additional instrumentation such as piano are recorded.
Step 4: Mixing
This is the process of adjusting volume and dynamics, adding effects, and putting tracks together so they sound right.
“It takes about a day for label-quality mixing on a song,” Stephens said.
Step 5: Mastering
The process of equalizing, compressing, noise reduction and other tasks performed to prepare the song for replication.
Stephens said he typically sends albums off to a mastering studio in Nashville. The process can differ for recordings issued on vinyl or high-definition audio files for release on the Internet.
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