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Many producers and engineers feel that the recording studio is a musical instrument unto itself, but few take that ideal as far as Scott Humphrey. From his cutting-edge production work with rockers like Mötley Crüe, Rob Zombie and Andrew W.K. to his innovative mixes for electronic artists like BT and The Crystal Method, Humphrey helped establish new standards for the way records are made and how they sound in the new millennium.
Humphrey's latest project, The Public Record (thepublicrecord.com), is an interactive recording community that allows musicians, producers, engineers and remixers from all over the world to collaborate with major recording artists and contribute to their recording projects. Recent Public Record projects have included the opportunity to contribute tracks to the entire new Methods of Mayhem album, build a song from the ground up with progressive house DJ Deadmau5, and collaborate with Shooter Jennings' hard rock band Hierophant on the track "Don't Feed the Animals."
"I was trying to find an angle to do something different," says Humphrey. "Tommy Lee wanted me to produce the new Methods of Mayhem record, but I didn't really want to do it. I was busy doing other things, and I couldn't get excited about making a record. He was really persistent, so I agreed to do it as long as I was able to do whatever I wanted. I came up with the initial concept of giving everyone who wanted to be involved with the recording process a chance to participate. We built the website, and the first 10 submissions we got were really good."
Humphrey immediately envisioned possibilities for his concept that reached well beyond the Methods of Mayhem album and could work for any recording artist as well as musicians who aspired to play with them. "I have a couple of guitar player friends that play in pretty big bands," Scott explains. "They immediately dismissed the idea. It became apparent later on that they might have been a little intimidated by the fact that some guy in the middle of nowhere might be able to play as good, if not better, than them."
Part of the reason why Humphrey knew that his concept would work was the fact that today's recording technology has evened the playing field between professional facilities and home studios. "The initial unknown factor was ‘Can somebody make something sound good in their home studio?'" he says. "The answer was yes. People can make tracks that sound amazing these days. If you have one good mic preamp, the appropriate mic, and a good basic setup for recording one or two channels, you pretty much have the same thing a professional studio has, just divided by 50, maybe. All you need is one really good signal chain to put everything through.
"I think you can achieve a lot of the same results in a home studio as you can in a commercial studio," he continues. "It depends on the instrument. It's always a challenge to record drums in a home studio, but it can be a challenge in a big studio, too. It's not always about the microphones or mic preamps you have. Usually it's more about how the drums themselves sound and how they are tuned. Sometimes it's just a matter of what sounds right. You can have the best drum kit in the world and it might not record well, whereas a drum kit that sounds just okay when played in the room may record really well. It's the strangest thing."
While it may also seem unusual for an established producer to give unknowns a chance, it's not much different from how Humphrey got his start in the recording industry. During the early Eighties he first got his foot in the door at Toronto recording studios doing sampling and synth programming.
"I owned a PPG Waveterm," he says. "It was a good tool to have for studio work because everybody wanted sampling. I got hired to do session work because I had a sampler. It didn't matter whether my keyboard playing was good or not. That was my shoo-in. I worked at Phase One in Toronto, which had the only SSL console in Canada. A lot of artists from the US came through there, and they all wanted to check out my sampler, which was not very common during that time."
Producers and engineers soon discovered that Scott also had a talent for synchronizing various sequencers to tape: "Everything had a different clock resolution back then. You had MIDI sequencers and non-MIDI sequencers. The Linn Drum had 48 ppq (pulses per quarter note); Roland had 24 ppq; and my PPG had 64 ppq. I knew how to subdivide all these different clocks to sync them together and also how to sync them to SMPTE on tape. Just by having access to that technology and knowing how to use it I was able to find steady work."
Eventually Scott found himself working alongside producers like Bob Rock (Metallica, The Cult), who showed him many tricks of the trade. "I worked with Bob for years," says Scott. "I was always asking him questions. Sometimes you pick up tricks even though you don't realize you're learning at the time. When your guitar tracks don't sound as good as when you worked with a certain engineer, it motivates you to learn why his guitar tracks sound so good. Bob used to say that if you work really hard and put time into something to make it good, it will get noticed. It's important not to rush and to really take the time to make something as good as you can."
Scott was one of the first recording engineers to embrace the capabilities of Pro Tools, and he used an early version of the software to edit drums, guitars and vocals on Metallica's Black Album in 1991. Since then he's provided Digidesign with valuable feedback based on his extensive hands-on experience with Pro Tools, and many of his ideas have been implemented in the software.
"In the early Nineties I said that tape machines were history," he recalls. "That didn't happen right away, though, because there were so many problems with storage and getting enough tracks. I went the opposite way for a while, and when everyone was using Pro Tools I still was recording to my 16-track Ampex machine. Then one day my engineer had all these plug-ins set up and I couldn't tell the difference between tape and digital, so I permanently retired the Ampex."
Although Scott had a professional studio built in his home called the Chop Shop that he worked out of for 15 years, he recently sold the house. Lately he has been working at Tommy Lee's studio, The Atrium, which is similar to the Chop Shop and was built and set up by Scott's engineer, Chris Baseford. The console is an SSL 4056 G+, which is linked to a 64-in/72-out Pro Tools HD5 system. Mic preamps include four Universal Audio 2-610s (used primarily for drums), Neve 1073s and 1081s (favored for recording guitars), two Manley Vox Boxes, and a variety of Vintech products (x73, x81 and 473).
"I wouldn't want to record without a Neve 1073 or 1081," says Scott. "They just do something on guitars that I don't get out of anything else. I have some old Ampex tube mic preamps that were modded that I use to distort everything. It sounds a lot like the distortion on the electric version of the Beatles' ‘Revolution.' I probably use that more than I should. I love Pultec EQ, too. I think that the Bomb Factory Pultec plug-in bundle sounds great. I have a ton of plug-ins, and I rarely use the same ones on different projects. It's always changing."
Some of Scott's favorite recording techniques have very little to do with technology and everything to do with experimentation. He's recorded vocal parts by routing them through headphones and distance miking the headphone speakers, and he's loaded BBs into a snare drum to make it rattle excessively. "Sometimes I'll tape the bottom of a snare drum to a bass drum," he says. "I like doing really crazy things just to see what happens. Sometimes you might not end up with what you were going for, but it still sounds cool."
One approach that he often takes is re-recording the drums as the track is nearing completion: "A lot of times the overall feel of a song isn't quite right when it's almost done. When that's the case it's good to go back and recut the drums when the other parts are all together. I learned that trick from Tommy Lee. He'll often go back and re-do his drums after a track is almost done because he finds all these other areas where a fill or accent becomes obvious after the song has changed."
As someone who has worked his way through all of the various roles of the recording studio from musician and programmer to engineer to mixer and producer, Scott feels that it's important to know how everything in the studio works. "That gives you a big advantage and helps you get what you want," he says. "A little bit of knowledge about everything is good, and becoming an expert at everything is even better. A lot of knowledge got handed down to me when I was working in traditional studios. Some of that knowledge is out there on the Internet, but it's better if you can work alongside someone who knows more than you do and ask them questions. It takes years to figure our all the nuances of recording, and that only comes from hands-on experience.
"You've got to be hungry to learn," he continues. "If you're willing to work really hard and find some people who can pass on some knowledge to you, you're more likely to be successful. There's no magic course you can take in school that will teach you that. There's no book you can read. It's really a combination of all of that: reading, studying, experimenting and learning from experts."
With The Public Record, Scott is providing an avenue for musicians, engineers and producers to do that. Many participants have received valuable feedback that has helped them improve their skills or confirmed that they have what it takes. While it may be more difficult than ever to get an apprenticeship at a commercial studio, The Public Record is like a recording studio with its doors wide open to the entire world.
"I'm always looking for really strange, interesting things that can make a production sound good," he says. "The Public Record gives the musician in India who plays sitar or the guy in Greece who plays bouzouki the opportunity to get their part on a record. It gives engineers a chance to prove to the world that they may be awesome remixers. If you're talented you're going to get discovered. If you're not, you're going to be motivated to improve."