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Hello Operator, Goodbye Operator

– Sean Smith from S12 Productions (YSJ BAMP 2015)

Throughout our three years at York St John we had lots of different experiences with artists, bands and other recording/production work we could get our hands on. We said yes to everything, paid, unpaid: we didn’t care. Looking back there are a few jobs that I wished we had said no to but I suppose there is always something to be learned whether the project goes well or not so well.

One of the projects we are certainly glad we did say yes to was when we had the opportunity of recording the debut single for up and coming North Yorkshire band Hello Operator. It was the start of third year, the workload was yet to kick in and the bunker was barely in use. Luckily for us, a lot of the third years at that time were doing bedroom projects, so we pretty much lived in the bunker throughout our final year.

To get the most out of your time on the YSJ BA Music Production course we suggest like us you say yes to most opportunities, don’t be picky. Every project has some experience to be gained, get things wrong at Uni where you have people around to help and guide you. This is the best way to prepare yourself for when eventually you have a decent band in the studio on a Sunday morning and something goes wrong.

Hello Operator were our decent band, great riffs and great lyrics. Their music is very good but they had been, like most bands, recording it at home without a clue. How we got the opportunity is irrelevant to this article but basically I had made a great connection (who shall remain nameless, for the purpose of this article, we’ll call him Jay) through networking events. Jay called me a week later with job opportunity for us.

So as you probably have guessed the job opportunity in question was to record Hello Operator’s new single. They had a small catalogue that they had recorded in a bedroom and stuck up on Youtube and iTunes etc. Immediately from the first listen, I was unsure if they were going to be any good in the studio. The music was good but the drums were way out of time. I posed this to Jay who explained that they had recorded the drums after everything else… He urged me to take the job and played me some of their live stuff to convince me of their playing quality. The problems were obviously in the bands recordings and we were the solution.

So it’s Saturday, the first day of recording. After an hour waiting for the drummer and a heated phone call from the lead guitarist it turned out the drummer forgot all about the recordings and was still in another country. We insisted that we didn’t record anything properly until the whole band was there. We had limited time and thought it best to get a great, raw, live style recording with them, they could bounce off each other’s energy and, from the live vids Jay had shown me, that was something we wanted to capture.

A wasted day? Well we recorded guide guitar and vocal tracks in preparation for the drum recording the next day. We had planned to have them all play live, capturing the drums and bass first, then over dub all the guitars and vocals. This was the best use of time we had due the the drummer’s diary keeping skills.

The band were very laid back but when we finally got them all together on the Sunday morning, boy could they play! They smashed the first track in three takes and we spent the rest of that day recording the different guitar parts. It was the sort of session every producer dreams of. We had done all the patching a routing the Friday night so the only prep we had to do Sunday morning was sort out their headphone mixes. We threw up the faders and it sounded great!

The project was great for many reasons. We could actually pay attention to the finer details of the mix rather than faffing with vocal tuning and flex time. We had a band that wrote great music and could play it as well. We got it to a point where we thought the mix was perfect then we took it to peer review… We got some great feedback but also some comments that pushed us to get it to an even higher standard. Don’t be disheartened by constructive criticism, everyone is just trying to help you get to that release standard that you want to be.

One of the best pieces of advice we were given at the time was to be careful we weren’t just mixing for the sake of it. What was it that we were adding? Was it something that could have been improved another way or was it the best it was going to be? The worst critic is yourself so have someone else listen to it for you. By our fourth mix we were convinced that we needed to make the guitars thicker and tried using a range of different compressors, EQs, reverbs, you name it, we tried it. Then one of our peers suggested ‘Why try fake more guitars, just record some more…” and that exactly what we did. This isn’t always an option and things can get tricky if you are being paid etc. Hopefully by that time you have a good enough relationship with your client and can negotiate.

By our sixth mix we were struggling to ‘finish’ it. I say finish but really meant struggling to let it go… We finally realised that we were making it worse and tried listening back to earlier mixes. Eventually we decided to release mix No. 3!

Once released Jericho Keys played it in BBC York Introducing and then it featured on Radio 1 with Hew Stevens. Very soon after the band got lots of interest from London and Jericho had us and the band on his show on Radio York.

Since then the band got themselves a management company and have recently signed a publishing deal with Sony/ATV. Who knows what next! But where does that leave us, S12 Productions? Well unfortunately the management company they signed with are quite aggressive and cut all ties with us. We had no formal contact with the band. They re-recorded one of their early catalogue songs with a new producer and are set to release it with Sony in the next coming months. We don’t blame the band: they have done what any band would have done.

We accept that maybe we should have charged more for the recordings and or tried managing them ourselves but we were inexperienced and had no money to invest in them. We can however advertise the fact that we were the band’s next step up on the music industry ladder and we like to think that without us, they would not be where they are today. Of course at first we were bitter about it but our understanding of the industry has changed and are now in contact with the band as friends.

So from this project there were many things we learned –

  1. The importance of networking
  2. The value of preproduction and planning
  3. Using your studio time wisely
  4. Get your music listened to by others, the worst critic is yourself
  5. Take feedback on the chin and show you can progress rather than be stubborn
  6. Don’t be afraid to re-record things after the session – if you’re honest with the artist or band they will understand (most of the time).
  7. Simple mixing techniques are sometimes the best
  8. Get it right from the recording stage
  9. Be wary of the continuous mix effect
  10. You have to let things go sometimes, just get prepared for when the same problem arises in the future

You can check out the single they recorded with us exclusively on our website –