The Other Side with 37' Productions Founder Sean McLaughlin
Sean McLaughlin, Boston native and founder of 37' Productions offers recording tips, stresses the importance of communication in the studio, and explains why you don't have to be a former member of Nirvana to create a great album.
Originally from Boston, Sean McLaughlin got his start in the music industry at an early age, by playing bass in local bands throughout high school and college. In 1993, McLaughlin visited the Northeast Broadcasting School (now known as The New England Institute of Art) and was, “Instantly hooked on the idea of being involved [in a field where] it was possible to work with different genres of music, while helping musicians achieve their artistic visions.” Inspired by his newfound knowledge of broadcasting and media arts, McLaughlin worked his way up the ranks of Boston’s Prophet Sound, starting as an intern and departing as a full-fledged sound engineer. In 2001, McLaughlin moved to Los Angeles, teamed up with fellow producers Jimbo Barton, Carmen Rizzo, Tim Palmer, and Scott Storch, and lent a hand in honing the sounds of Elliott Smith, Rush, Stone Sour, Seal, Dwight Yokam, and Dark New Day. By 2004, McLaughlin had grown tired of the City of Angels and decided to return to the east coast. With a mission of “Helping local artists create major label caliber recordings,” McLaughlin opened the doors of 37’ Productions in 2006. Within six months, he managed to release two albums, Static of the Gods' Cycles Follow Signs and Oddway's Away From The Everyday. Since then, McLaughlin notes that he has, “Been fortunate to work with many different artists both locally and nationally,” including TOTEM, The Brightest Lights, and Vary Lumar.
Green Light Go convinced 37’ Production’s Sean McLaughlin to step out of the studio long enough to tell us what it’s like to be on The Other Side:
Green Light Go: You’re a production engineer who has been operating 37’ Productions for nearly a decade. How has the process of production changed over the years and what has helped you to become so successful?
Sean McLaughlin: It's been pretty interesting to see how things have changed over the years, especially when looking at how the entire process has evolved. Twenty years ago, the primary role of a producer was to work with the artist to create the artistic vision of the project, similar to the role of a director on a film set. The engineer would act as the technical partner of the producer, being able to create the artistic aspects by choosing which mics or outboard gear would suit the music sonically. Lately, the entire process has become much more fluid; artists and producers tend to work in a partnership, by sharing ideas and cultivating the songs in tandem. More producers have great engineering chops now, so mix ideas are often incorporated during the start of the recording process and continue throughout the stages of production.
I think one of the main reasons artists enjoy recording at 37' Productions is because we've embraced this idea of a partnership. I have designed my studio to be an incredibly efficient, comfortable environment that is conducive to creativity. Everything involved in a recording session should be based on getting the best performances out of the musicians.
GLG: What strategies might you use to help an independent artist who is about to step into the studio for the first time?
SM: The most important thing a new artist can do to be prepared and efficient in the studio is to do a lot of pre-production work. Typically, I’ll meet a band at their rehearsal studio and help them with anything from working on arrangements, to deciding which guitar part works best, to figuring out which songs to record. The next step is to prepare every instrument that will be used during the recording process. We’ll make sure theguitars have new strings and are intonated, the drums have new heads that are tuned, and so on. Nothing slows down a session faster than having to stop and [tinker with] an instrument that won't stay in tune. Technical issues and equipment failures are time consumers and they tend to impede the creative flow.
GLG: Over the past few years, you’ve produced records for Static of the Gods, Vary Lumar TOTEM, and The Brightest Lights, among many others. What bands are currently working with now, or who would you like to work with in the future?
SM: Vary Lumar, Sarah Blacker, TOTEM, and The Brightest Lights will all be coming back in the fall to start working on new projects. Highway Ghosts are bringing in twelve songs to mix next month and I'll be mixing a few songs on Tony Savarino's new record. I recently tracked vocals for a Brooklyn singer named Tanner Walle and I’m looking forward to having him come back to track guitars. I'm lucky that the majority of my clients want to continue to work with me, because I love working with all of them! I feel as though we're all part of an ‘artist collective,’ something that is bigger than each of us individually.
As for artists I'd like to work with, how many words can I type?! I love so many genres of music and each project provides new approaches and dynamics. There are so many great musicians, bands, and writers out there. I'd love to have the opportunity to work with all of them!
GLG: As an engineer, I’m sure you come in contact with dozens of independent artists each week. What characteristics or qualities separates the artists who are “just another indie band” from those you’d love to work with?
SM: First, the song is still king. If the songs aren't there, nothing else matters. Second, I have to ask myself, ‘Does the band play well together?’ In saying that, I don't mean, ‘Are they all virtuoso players?,’ because The Clash and Nirvana weren't made up of virtuosos, they were just great bands of musicians who played well together (and wrote great songs!). Third, the people who make up the band have to be cool enough to spend twelve solid hours in a studio together without feeling compelled to strangle each other. Being able to get along and develop a relationship enhances the entire project.
GLG: As an engineer, how do you know that you are a good match for a band? What things do you have to keep in mind before agreeing to work with an artist?
SM: I'd say in general, if the things I mentioned above are all there, the artist and I will be a good match. Communication is the most important thing in the studio, so as long as the artist and I are consistently communicating, we'll be able to work well together. I always mention that the artist's name is printed in large font on the front of a record, while my name is found in small font on the back. The artist's vision is most important; my goal is to help the artist reach that vision during every stage of the recording process.
GLG: What is the best piece of advice you’d give to an independent band that is about to head into the studio to record an album?
SM: Deciding where to record or who to record with can be daunting. When meeting with different producers, listen to the ideas they have about the music and consider whether or not they are in step with your creative vision. These ideas may not perfectly fit your initial views, but they may take you in a new, possibly more appealing direction. Remember, the music is yours – the role of the producer is to bring a fresh perspective [to the table] and help to perfect the music.
GLG: What are some of the perks and challenges that you face as a producer and engineer?
SM: The biggest perk by far is being able to make a living by doing what I love most. I realize how lucky I am to have the privilege of recording so many hard working, talented musicians. As I mentioned earlier, we all feel that we're part of something bigger, and I'd like to keep that mentality alive.
The biggest challenge is the same challenge everyone in the music industry is facing: diminishing budgets. I try to keep my overhead low, so my rates will continue to be reasonable. The biggest issue is getting the artists paid well enough so that they can also make a living. Ideally, I'd like to see more artists pay for new projects with revenue from their previous projects.
The bright side is that there has never been a more exciting time to be creating new music. It’s great to see artists use all of the tools available in this new paradigm to reach a larger fan base or grow their brand in ways that didn’t even exist ten years ago.
GLG: Any last words?
SM: In the fall, the staff engineers at 37’ Productions (Brad McCarthy, Eliot Bayless, and myself) are starting a podcast to offer recording tips and updates related to the undertakings at the studio. We’ll also be releasing a series of Live in 37’ Productions performances on YouTube and iTunes, so look out for those.
This week's Other Side is brought to you by: Lauren Mercury Roberts