Dozens of record producers, engineers and mixers have résumés that list their work with an impressive variety of the top artists in the recording industry. Producer/engineer Eric Schilling's credits are among the industry's most impressive, listing artists like David Bowie, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Gloria Estefan, Julio Iglesias, Elton John, Madonna, Frank Sinatra, Shakira, and Rod Stewart. But what makes Schilling stand apart from his peers is the fact that he regularly works with a dozen or so of the industry's biggest artists all during the same evening when he handles the music mix for the broadcast of events like the Grammys® (along with John Harris), Latin Grammys, MTV Music Awards, and Latin Billboard Music Awards.
Few engineers can handle the pressure of mixing up to 20 different performers in a short period of time, let alone performing that task live, but Schilling thrives on the challenge of working with a rock act like Arcade Fire one moment and a singer like Barbra Streisand backed by a 40-piece orchestra the next, like he did at the 2011 Grammy Awards.
"I'm responsible for how each artist sounds," says Schilling. "I need to know the songs and what each artist is going to do. Even though I usually get the material a week in advance and work on the mix during rehearsal, I often don't hear the final arrangement for the show until the artist is on stage. These broadcasts are heard by millions of people, and I have only one chance to get it right."
Schilling's talent for being able to work efficiently under pressure stretches back to the very beginning of his career in the audio industry. When he was only 15 he got a job at FM radio station KPFA in Berkeley, California. "That's where I learned how to do a news broadcast and how to cut tape," Schilling reminisces. "I attached myself to Bob Ohlsson, who had done a lot of big stuff for Motown. Every day I'd ask him things like, ‘Why did you mic this?' or ‘What does this compressor do?' We'd often go to clubs and broadcast live shows. Over a period of about two months we'd go from artists like Miles Davis to John Prine to Taj Mahal to Randy Newman."
When Schilling was 19, he left KPFA and went to work at the legendary recording studio The Plant in Sausalito. There he worked with acts like Sly Stone, Little Feat, Pablo Cruise, New Riders of the Purple Sage and Fleetwood Mac when they were recording their best-selling Rumours album. The producers that passed through the studio's doors were equally impressive, including the likes of Bill Schnee (Marvin Gaye, Steely Dan), Ron Nevison (The Who, Led Zeppelin), and Richard Dashut (Fleetwood Mac).
"These broadcasts are heard by millions of people, and I have only one chance to get it right."
Schilling literally got his foot in the door at The Plant when he was asked to fill in as a late-night substitute for a Sly Stone session when the exhausted engineer went home. However, his first month of employment there was less glamorous. "All I did my first month was clean the johns and stock the Coke machine," he recalls. "That was the owner's method of finding out who was really serious about working there. I was happy to do that work, so they began to let me work on sessions as a tape-op.
Even while working in a recording studio, Schilling learned valuable skills for working on the fly that still apply to the work he does today. "In those days you would record drums to four tracks, maybe five tracks maximum," he says. "You'd have separate tracks for the kick and snare and maybe the hi-hat, and all the toms and cymbals would go to two tracks. I would watch Bill Schnee ride the toms live to tape, and he would work the faders like a gate. If the drummer was going to play a fill he'd move the faders up, and when the fill was done he'd pull them down. He didn't have any fears about committing to something right there on the spot. That was very impressive to me."
Although the recording studio and process of making records has changed dramatically since Schilling's earliest days behind the mixing console, Schilling says it's still important for a producer or engineer to know how to make quick decisions.
"The major goal for me is to make certain that I don't slow the band down," he explains. "Don't tell the band that you have to work on a problem and they need to stop for a hour. If you do that the band will get bored and lose their vibe. The whole point is to capture the band at their best, and if you're impeding the flow of their creative process and performance you're not going to get that."
This philosophy is especially pertinent in Schilling's most recent role as the music mixer for the broadcast of Simon Cowell's post-American Idol competition, The X-Factor. His experiences working on this show are similar to what he encounters during an awards show broadcast, but it involves ten weeks of high-paced work instead of just one. Another significant difference is that his broadcast mixes are sent to an additional trailer where performances are mixed and prepared for almost instantaneous release to iTunes after the show.
"My job is to mix all the performances," says Schilling. "I work with a British production team that consists of four different sets of people who produce the tracks. We got to do a lot of rehearsal with the acts for two or three days before the broadcast so I got to hear the material a lot. I think that four or five of the contestants who didn't win will have real careers because they're very talented. I'm very impressed with the way Simon Cowell works. He has an incredible knack for recognizing talent."
Although Schilling splits his time between high-pressure broadcast gigs and studio recording projects, he says that many of the basic skills for each are the same. "You want to be comfortable with your tools," he recommends. "You don't want to go out there and start fumbling. Whenever I go to do something live and I have to work with a new piece of gear that I'm not familiar with, I will woodshed. I'll go online and download the instruction manual, and I may even go into a store that has the gear and check it out. You don't want to do a gig where you don't know what desk you're going to be working with because you'll get killed. Everybody will be yelling at you, and that's not fun."
Schilling says that the most important tool for any producer, mixer, or engineer is the monitor speakers: "You need to trust the sound that you're hearing. The best way to start is by getting a good set of monitors. Try to buy the best that you can afford—don't skimp by getting the cheapest speakers you can find. You also need to make sure that your room sounds good. If the room sounds bad, you're screwed from the word ‘go.' It's not that expensive to treat a room with bass traps, acoustical foam and diffusers.
"The next most important tool is a good preamp," he continues. "You don't have to spend $3,000 on a tube preamp. There's tons of stuff that you can buy for $300 to $500 that sounds good if you learn how to use it. It's best to start with a neutral-sounding preamp so you can record a lot of stuff with it. It doesn't need to have a tube or transformer in it to sound good. The API 512C is a nice, neutral preamp that works on a ton of stuff, and it only costs about $700. Preamps that sound too dark or too bright are more limited. Once you have a few good neutral-sounding preamps you can add on things like a Universal Audio 610 tube preamp, which is great for fat sounding horns but not so great for things like steel-string acoustic guitar."
Like any good producer or engineer, Schilling particularly values his microphones: "The most prized item in my studio is my vintage mic collection. I have a variety of Neumann tube mics—a U67, an M269, which is relatively rare, and an SM2 stereo tube mic. When you're buying a vintage tube mic you have to be really careful about where you buy it from and you need to make sure it is in good condition. You also need to consider whether you're buying the mics for yourself or for use with a bunch of different people. If you're buying for yourself, you need to go to the store and try a couple different microphones until you find one that works best with your voice. If you run a studio as a business and work with different people, you need a more neutral mic. I have a Manley tube microphone that I bought because it's kind of a broad microphone. I'd also look for a mic that doesn't distort or clip too soon, because once a mic distorts the voice you can never clean it up."
Schilling's studio is also well stocked with classic gear, including a variety of solid-state Urei LA-3A and 1176 compressors and limiters and Quad Eight preamps ("They're great for rock and roll guitars"), as well as newer items like Crane Song preamps. "When you buy old gear it's like buying an old car," he explains. "Some of this stuff can be 50 years old, so you want to make sure you buy it from a reputable place. If you don't, you could end up buying something that's going to need so much work done on it, it'll cost you a lot more than you thought it would. I will not buy a microphone used unless I've been able to evaluate it."
Beyond buying good equipment and learning how to use it, Schilling stresses that it's equally important for aspiring engineers and producers to take the necessary time to study and learn their craft. "Don't rely on people like me to fix things," he says. "Usually it's very hard for me to fix things that are not well recorded. First of all, the source itself should sound good. Spend time to find the right mic and match it with a good preamp. And don't push the preamp too hard because it will distort and make the tracks sound tiny. What really separates a good engineer from someone starting out is how good the low end sounds. Getting the low end to sound right, whether it's marrying the kick to the bass or how much low end the guitars have, is very hard to do.
"Ultimately," he concludes, "the key to finding success in this industry is finding that niche where you can do something that somebody else can't do or that isn't done as the norm. A lot of people who play in bands and sing are making records on their own these days, so I've moved towards mixing or recording large, live tracking dates that involve a lot of players and artists. I've made a lot of great records, but I think my real advantage is being able to make quick decisions and work well under the pressure of live performance."