Keith Gary Productions

Professional world-class audio production.

Keith Gary has been working professionally in the music industry for fifteen years as a producer, engineer, & mixer.  He has an organic and unique approach to producing music.  Expert engineering and mixing, as well as overall musical guidance, based on a wealth of experience in all genres of music, from classical to metal.  Creativity, artistry, spontaneity, and collaboration are the keys to his methods.

Get out of the way.

Really at a crossroads right now.  So much change.  Planning to pick up and move to a new city.  No idea where I am going to live or what potential income streams will start to flow.  No idea what my daily professional or social life will look like.  No idea what it will feel like to be away from my sister and her precious family.  No idea how my dog will handle the move, or if I will even be able to take her.  No idea if I am keeping my furniture and renting a U-Haul or just selling it all and starting fresh.  I don’t even have a solid move-in date.

The trick is to not be scared of, but excited by the unknown.  I know this because music told me so.

It has been a long, hard road climbing this mountain, and I feel like I’m just beginning to grasp the essence of my approach.  There are higher mountains I have yet to climb.  Miles Davis said, “Man, sometimes it takes youa long time to sound like yourself.” 

In the beginning it was all music.  Delving into the masters.  Hours of practice and playing.  Then came writing, where I was able to close my eyes and rely on my chops while chasing the muse in dreamland.  And songs would exist when I landed.  Then came the accidental stumbling into recording and production.  I always had a producer’s mind, but learning to engineer and mix were necessary skills I had to develop in order to grow into that role.  Years of experience and hearing songs being put together by experts…learning what worked and what didn’t, and then WHY.  Eventually, all of these skills grew into one another, and my current approach to music production is the result.

I’ve learned to remove myself as much as possible from the process.

My job is to listen to the song and give it what it asks for.  That can mean hiring the right musicians, engineering with intent, mixing, but mostly it means putting the right people in the right roles and setting the tone of the session.  When I prepare correctly, I can just stand back and watch it happen.  It is not work.  The energy swirls around in the air, everyone in the room melds together, and more often than not…my arms get bumpy and the hairs start to stand at attention.  I feel as if my fingerprints are all over everything, but no one knew I was there.  We just get twice as much work done in half the time and everyone is happy.

I tend to have a tumultuous relationship with life and music.  Way way ups and way way downs.  I feel that most of my mistakes are born from the emotional extremes and the social media posts that follow.  I either get too excited and make a mistake, or I get too depressed and make a mistake.  People read this stuff...I have seen tangible results from these mistakes that remain costly lessons.  And undoubtedly there are more to come.

On the airplane a couple weeks ago I had a thought, and it felt important at the time…and still does.

What if I can produce my life the way I produce a session?

Put the right people in the right places, do my homework, set the right vibe, and step back to watch the magic unfold.  There, but not there.

I have to construct a discipline for myself to clarify what exactly this means…but I’m interested in finding the answer.

Thanks for listening, everybody.  Slowly learning…never stops.

KG

R E J E C T I O N

Artists face more rejection than most people.  I think I can state that as a fact.  The average person has how many job interviews in their life time?  10?  4?  Less?  Artists are constantly going to bat.  Constantly having to prove and reprove their value to existing and potential clients.  Constantly sinking hours of concentrated effort into projects that go nowhere.  Constantly networking and seeking substantive meetings just to hear another “NO.”

I can tell you…it’s grueling.  And it can be very defeating.

I’m still slowly putting everything together, but it seems important to me at this point in my life and career to suggest that accepting the probability of hearing “NO” robs it of its power.  I’m learning not to care if anyone cares about what I’m doing.

My work being heard used to be very important me.  Sharing final mixes of projects I had slaved over (for months, sometimes years even) with the people closest to me had a strange power over me.  I wanted them to hear it, and I wanted them to like it.  And it never ever went that way.  The feeling of resonance and connectivity was never conjured.  The feeling of validation and self-worth I was expecting never came.  I could feel them feeling my energy as they listened, and it was consistently a very uncomfortable and inorganic experience.  

This was painful for a while.  I felt like I would spend every ounce of creative energy I had writing a novel, and then no one, not even my closest friends and family, wanted to read it.

Then I stopped asking.  I realized that forcing people to absorb a piece of art usually taints their ability to receive it purely.  I was cheating the artwork of its potential just by the manner in which I was presenting it.  It really is all about the joy the making the damn thing.  My income producing art form, which is audio production, is by nature somewhat hidden. 

I’m not writing the music or the words.  Those who understand know the production roles and the value of each, and I’m not discrediting any angle of that, but I am willfully letting go of the need to be praised.  Because it serves no purpose other than stroking the ego.  The goal is to get lost in the music and use your creativity, connectedness, and experience do it justice.  To help the art make as powerful a statement as possible.  The more I can remove myself from the equation, the better the results.  And the better the results, the farther the art can travel on its own merit (and as a positive side effect, the phone usually starts to ring).

And with hard work, long hours, and a tempered and teachable ego, I am starting to do my job and then let the music do the talking.

When I’m setting up for a recording session at the studio, I choose certain microphones and their pickup patterns with rejection in mind.  I am consciously using and manipulating rejection to my advantage in order to avoid capturing unwanted noise.  I think I’m starting to understand that being rejected is just way for the universe to tell you that you’re making too much noise.  

I’ll shut up now.

Genie In a Bottle

October 10, 2015

I was flying from Los Angeles to Austin. It had been a great and strange week. Moments of enlightened, unbridled joy and moments of despair and quiet contemplation. All very necessary, and I appreciated the juxtaposition.

I noticed her when we boarded. We smiled at each other, and I said hello. She was very fidgety. Constantly moving. Frequently looking out the window, even though we were just sitting there on the tarmac. She said to me, “I guess at SOME point we will actually get going.” She said it with a pleasant demeanor, and I replied, “Oh, you know, it always take a little while before we start moving.” I also was friendly, but thought to myself, “She doesn’t seem like an experienced flyer. I hope she doesn’t have to get up and go to the bathroom five times during the flight.”

In the air, I wrangled out my bag from under the seat in front of me and pulled out the flimsy purple spiral notebook that has unfortunately been cast as my journal…something I’m trying to make a daily habit, journaling. I was in my own world thinking about my own unfulfilled desires and starting to feel sorry for myself, so I dug out the pen. Writing about it felt good, though I had to take a break for ten minutes due to heavy turbulence. When I finished the entry a bit later, I did feel better. Just writing out my negative thoughts exorcised them to some degree. I started to remember the path of purpose I’ve been creating for myself, and why I am certain I must keep moving forward, no matter how hard it feels to want to keep going. I started to remember the enlightened state I was in during the recent good moments hiking and swimming on the coast, and I tried to keep myself in that mental space. I looked down at my open journal. The last two sentences read, “I feel like I’m still not getting it…there’s still this big blockage. What am I missing??”

I looked around me, and saw the frail old woman sitting next to me.

“Are you visiting Austin or do you live in Los Angeles?”

“Oh, I live in Texas.”

“What were you doing in L.A.?”

“I was actually visiting my son up in Seattle.”

“Was it a good visit?”

“Yes, it was. He brought me out there to meet my grandchildren.”

“That’s awesome! How old are they?”

“Five and six, I think.”

“It must have been wonderful to meet them. Was it easy to be comfortable with them?”

“The girl was hesitant at first. But i just went right up to her and said, ‘I look kind of scary, don’t I?’ She looked at me and said, ‘Uh-huh.’ Then everything was okay.”

We both laughed at that.

“May I ask why you are just meeting your grandchildren now?”

“When you have this kind of cancer, your life starts to change.”

“I see. How long had it been since you had last seen your son?”

“Oh, I don’t know…eight years? We didn’t get along very well. I never really fit well with my family. I’ve always been kind of a loner.”

“Well, I think it’s great that you made the trip. Was it time well spent for you?”

“Oh, yes, definitely. Spending time with the children was wonderful. And seeing my son was wonderful, too. We spent a lot of time at the ocean. I love the ocean and the woods and nature. The children were really special. I hope one day they see a picture of me and think, 'Oh yeah, I remember her!’”

I was tearing up at this point.

“I’m sure they will. May I ask what kind of cancer you have?”

“I have melanoma. And then they looked at my liver.”

“What is the prognosis.”

“It’s nothing good.”

A moment of silence.

“Do you have any other children or is it just your son?”

“I have a daughter that I gave up when I was 17.”

“Wow…have you been able to see her since?”

“I met her for the first time in July. She lives in Oklahoma and came down with her family to Austin for the fourth.”

“What was it like talking to her?”

“Like talking to myself 30 years ago! She’s just like me. My friend Connie, my partner in crime, talked to her on the phone and said it was just like talking to a young me. Connie came to visit me for ten days from Alaska last month.”

“How was it seeing her? Was it as if no time had passed?”

“That’s it. It was just like that. You don’t get many friendships like those.”

“That’s wonderful. I’m glad Connie came to visit you.”

“I figure I’m old enough. I’m 72! I used to be so timid. I’m not timid anymore.”

“Are you scared? Where do you think we go when we leave this planet?”

“Wherever we want to, I hope! I’m not scared now. I did this to myself. I didn’t take care of myself. I was a rotten child, and I apologized for that. I may change my mind here pretty soon…I know it’s going to hit me like a bowling ball.”

“How long do you have?”

“They said 3 to 6 months about 3 months ago. Not long.”

“Can I ask you what happiness means to you?”

“Smiling at other people. I was a cashier. People love it when you smile at them. Just helping people. It doesn’t have to be anything big. It can be just a smile. That’s what makes me happy.”

“You are making me happy right now.”

“Oh, good!” She laughs, and coughs, and reaches down to her bag for her breathing supplies.

“Who is picking you up at the airport?”

“My husband.”

“How long have you been married?”

“Thirty years. But we don’t live together anymore. I don’t want him to live with me.”

“Why not?”

“He broke a promise to me. I don’t need much…I’m not a woman of many means, but I take promises very seriously.”

“As you should! May I ask what was the promise?”

“He promised to take me to see Pavarotti sing, and he never did it!  Are you married?"

"No.  I'm gay.  Though I guess I can get married now if I want to."

"Yes, I guess you can!  My first husband was gay.  My son's father."

"That must have been tough."

"It is what it is.  I loved him."

"You know what, I bet he loved you back."

She shrugged.  "Maybe.  Do you have a special someone?"

"No.  I never have."

"I don't know what to tell you about that."

“Do you like music?”

“I love Black Sabbath and Pink Floyd, and I went to an Alice Cooper concert once. Did you know Pink Floyd put out a new record? And once when I was a teenager, I was experimenting with some speed and listened to Beethoven’s Fifth. It was incredible!”

“Do you still like your husband? I’m being presumptuous, but it doesn’t sound like you’re in love anymore.”

“No. But we talk every day and he comes to see me.”

“Do you like him?”

“I used to. Now I mainly just need him.”

“Do you have anyone that comes to visit you?”

“No. My family never thought I was worth the effort. I can understand it now and it’s all fine. I’m signed up with hospice, and I don’t want to be resuscitated, so they should be able to take care of my body and everything else. I’m just ready to get back to my home and my bed and rest until it happens.”

“Would it be okay if I came to visit you?”

“Well! I don’t see why not. You’re not going to hurt me are you?!”

“Of course not!” We laughed. “But I would be happy to come and visit you if that’s something you’d like.”

“Yes, I think I would.”

“As a 72 year old loner talking to a young 35 year old loner…what advice do you have for me?”

“Learn to really like yourself."

She gave me her phone number. She lives in Pflugerville. Her name is Genie Barnett. And I have a date.

What am I missing? Not a Goddamn thing.

Humility and Music Production

Brethren of music, I have something I would like to offer up for discussion.

Humility is a difficult topic to write about, but here goes.  I feel the need to bring awareness to the fact that ego and insecurity are two of the biggest problems I’ve encountered in the professional music business.  Why?

I have seen many different examples of this.  I’ve seen assistant engineers shame the non-paid interns for their innocent ignorance, I’ve seen producers and mixers in an all out pissing contest, I’ve seen engineers belittle and condescend to musicians with little studio experience.  Why?

I know of where I speak, because I made every mistake in the book: I have intentionally focused attention away from the music to what I was doing as an engineer (“Hey, what do you guys think about this delay I put on the guitar?  Pretty cool, huh??”), talked about my own music during recording sessions (“Well, when I record my OWN stuff, I like to do it this way for these reasons, blah blah blah), PLAYED my own music for clients and colleagues on a recording session (a SIN!), inflated my own ego by shaming my assistants into believing that MY way was ALWAYS the best way, and anyone that says otherwise is a moron.  Why?

The recording studio is itself, as Brian Eno said, a musical instrument.  The rooms, the gear, the sound waves still reverberating off the walls from all the previous music made in that particular space.  There is something sacred about it, because it is the temple in which we tap into the power of music, and bring it from the spiritual world into the physical world.  What we call a “miracle" is the manifestation of something in the 1% physical world from that 99% spiritual world.  That’s what music is…a miracle.  

A successful recording or mixing session, in my opinion, should be grounded in this thought.  Recording studios are not the place for ego, needless competition, negative energy, and humiliation, but rather joy, surprise, exhilaration, collaboration, experimentation, enthusiasm, and wonder.  It’s play time.  So…why is ego such a big issue in the recording world?

I think it’s because we as engineers feel the need to be recognized and validated as artists.  We ARE artists, but not everyone knows that.  The impact an engineer (tracking OR mixing) on the music can be profound, but it can easily go unnoticed, especially if we are doing our job well.  We tend to only get noticed when things go wrong or don’t sound right.  We get to watch all of the musicians do their thing, receive accolades for their tone and performance, all while silently contributing our own vital artistry to the music.  This can be hard for the ego, and therefore we ourselves try to step into the spotlight…even if just for a moment.  This is a dangerous game.

I also think this negative ego-driven energy stems from insecurity.  I’m learning now that as hard as I have worked at mastering my craft, I still know nothing.  I’ve put in my ten thousand hours, and I can talk a lot about technique and craft with authority, but there are an infinite number of creative avenues to make something beautiful, and every single person has a unique approach which always finds its way into the sound.  Keith Richards playing guitar sounds like Keith Richards playing the piano sounds like Keith Richards playing the bass.  Anything he touches will sound like him, because the music is always blowing in through the same window.  Engineers and producers can have the same effect…just because they have their hands on the music, it will sound a certain way.  It is a humbling and awesome experience, and the result is a miracle.  Sounds pulled out of the ether, run through the souls of those daring enough to chase it, converted into electrons traveling down a wire, and captured for us to experience over and over again.  It inspires people.  It brings people together.  It firmly cements memories and experiences in our minds.  It touches our most inner places.  It’s magic.

So, for me, the goal is to remain humble, open, and rooted in the spirit of collaborative camaraderie when I’m in the studio (and also when I’m not).

What do you all think?

The Production Team: De-mystified

I've had a fun time asking non-music people some questions.  "What do you think a record producer is?"  "What do they DO?"  "What is a sound engineer's job?"  "You talk about the magic being in the mastering...what is mastering, anyway?"

Wow...the answers.

Here's how I see it.  Let's go back forty years to break down all the roles of music production, because they all kind of blend together these days.

I can record a song on my phone today and share it with the world on YouTube in five minutes.

Not so long ago, in order to play into a recording device and listen back to that performance on loud speakers, you had to hire a recording studio, a producer, and an engineer.  The recording studio would provide a team of technicians, a chief and assistant engineer, hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of recording consoles and tape machines and instruments and outboard gear and, of course, great sounding rooms isolated from the noise of the outside world.  The artist and producer would have come together in some way and decided to collaborate on a project...either a label put them together, they connected at a party, the artist cold called to producer, you get the idea.    Now let's break down each position on the production team.

The Tech.  The studio tech fixes what's broken.  He's salary, has a crew of apprentices, and can fix any microphone, console channel, tape machine, etc...  All of the assistant engineers are diligent about noting problems that they encounter, and make sure the tech is aware of what needs fixing.  A great tech staff keeps everything reliable and sounding great...you can have the utmost of confidence in your gear.

The Producer.  This person is ultimately responsible for the outcome of the record.  They are the director of the film.  If it sucks, it is (usually) their fault.  This job varies the most...sometimes you have to be very hands on, and sometimes you just have to stay the fuck out of the way.  They CAN work with the artist in pre-production...tweak lyrics, song form, and chord progressions when necessary.  They get all the songs ready to be recorded.  They CAN hire the band of musicians they want to play.   They CAN write out rhythm charts for all the players.  They put the team together...the better they are at this, the less they have to do and say during the sessions.  They book the studio, coordinate schedules, make sure everyone is paid.  They spend hours listening and thinking about what approach will best serve the song, throughout every stage of the entire process.  They either execute the artist's vision, or provide a vision if needed.  They set the vibe of the recording session and keep it fun and productive.  They know enough about the technical side of recording to communicate the sound they want to the engineer, and they also know at least enough about music to read the charts and communicate with all the session players.  They steer the ship with no one seeing their hands on the wheel.  THEY GET THE BEST PERFORMANCES POSSIBLE FROM ALL OF THEIR MUSICIANS.  They are half psychologist on the recording sessions.  They approve the final mixes.  They choose and approve the mastering engineer.  They deliver the final product to the artist.

It's a really big job that comes with a lot of responsibility, and part of it is figuring out what role you need to play, because each project is unique and requires a tailored approach.  And if you miss the mark, you've wasted tens of thousands of someone else's dollars.  Producers often have a "sound" that develops over time.  This is a very elusive, creative and ever-evolving craft.

The Tracking Engineer.  This person's job is mainly to put the right microphones in the right spot to get the producer and artist's desired sound.  It can get complicated with large live recording setups...involving make shift recording booths made out of blankets to stringing up tents in the room...how much bleed is acceptable?  Recording, listening, tweaking placement, etc...whatever it takes.  You have to accommodate the producer's desired approach with your skill.  Aesthetically, the tracking engineer is crucial to shaping the initial tone and sound of what he receives from the properly placed microphones by choosing the microphone preamplifier (tube or solid state?  transformered or transformerless?  they all sound different.), and making the decision of whether or not to apply EQ and dynamic management (compression).  This is a very creative art form of its own and one never stops learning.  The engineer is also responsible for track management, cue mixes (musician's headphones), operating the console, tape machine operation (protools these days), AND GETTING GREAT SOUNDS.  The song should sound pretty much be able to stand up on its own two feet right off the tape machine (or computer) with the faders at unity.  This makes the next step (mixing) much easier.  Old recordings are recorded like this...new ones not so much.  The team of house engineers at a studio have an internship and assistant program, which trains young apprentices to be the next generation of engineers.

The Mixing Engineer.  A talented engineer (often a veteran tracking engineer) that is an expert at balancing, tone shaping, dynamic management, ambience and effects, creative soundcraft.  The mixer takes all of the ingredients in front of him, and turns in his best version of the dish.  Over time, the mixer develops a style, and just like the producer and tracking engineer never stops growing and learning.

The Mastering Engineer.  Mastering seems to have the most hype around it.  So many people I talk to think the magic is in the mastering, when I think the mixer has way more impact on the song.  The truth is you can lose the baby at any step of the process.  Mastering is the final stage of tweaking.  The mastering engineer inherits the final approved mixes, makes sure they gel as a family with any last chance EQ or dynamic management, decides the timing and spacing between songs, and decides the final level of the mastered album.  They can add the encoded information that tracks how many plays a song gets on the radio and displays the text information on car stereos, etc.   Mastering is famous for starting "the loudness war."  Also an art form of its own and can have a powerful artistic impact on the music.

Some people just engineer.  Some people just mix.  Some people produce and engineer.  Some people produce, engineer, mix, and master their projects.  (I love mixing tracks that I didn't record.  Makes mixing a totally different thing.  I love taking projects from inception to completion.  I love engineering for other great producers.  Keeps the job(s) ever interesting.)

That's my view on the classic model.

These daze with EDM, DAW, and sample libraries all the roles are jumbled together...and the music sucks, too.

 

My thoughts on the Digital vs. Analog debate

I would like to venture a theory about the analog versus digital recording debate that continues to swirl around our avid (no pun intended) audio community like a piece of garbage that never seems to be picked up.

Here are the arguments I repeatedly here:

“It just sounds warmer.”

“It sounds smoother.”

“It sounds so big and fat."

Bullshit.  I’ve heard shitty records on analog tape, and I’ve heard great records recorded digitally.  And vice versa, of course.  How many people are listening through proper monitors?  That’s the first step in making of judgment on sound quality.  (Good headphones don’t count.)  Then you have to do a really proper A/B of a sync’d switch between an analog and digitally converted source.  I don’t think many people have done that...and I think many would be surprised at the extremely subtle differences in sound.

I love working on tape.  Not for sonic reasons.  I love working on tape because it changes the process.  You have to make critical decisions quickly and with intent.  You have a limited number of tracks which must be used wisely.  Is that really your best performance?  Because once it’s erased, it’s gone.  None of this, "let's just record 8 takes and comp it together tomorrow morning after my joint and coffee."  The musicians automatically perform better, because it has a deeper sense of permanence as they play.  It adds a certain amount of productive pressure to both the band and the engineer, which yields faster and better results.  Everyone is more alert.  The tape machine is whirring in reversed high pitched rhythmic melodies as you rewind to record another pass. . . It’s romantic.  I think listeners respond the same way to putting vinyl on the turntable.

Tape sounds great.  It’s true.  A well maintained and properly calibrated tape machine sounds clear, and big, and warm, and beautiful.  I can mostly hear it when the channel input gets aggressive and the compression thing starts to happen…that’s a tape sound.  Other than that, I have a hard time differentiating between tape and digital, once I mix everything through my arsenal of plugins.  I’m sure there are people out there that can tell you what formula of tape was used, on what machine, calibrated to what specifications…but I’m not one of them.  I've A/B'd digitally summed stereo mixes versus an SSL analog summing buss, and there most certainly IS a difference there.

I long for the project, budget, and team of musicians that allow me to record a fully analog record, never being converted to digital.  Then I might truly know what I’m talking about.

The advantages of digital are clear, although obviously abused.  I like what Dave Grohl said in Sound City: “[it should be used] as a tool, not a crutch.”  Autotuning a pair of tits to sell merchandise is disgraceful.

And so I believe when people are romanticizing their love of “analog,” what they really mean is the old recordings they love have a lasting sense of realness and relevance.  I propose it is a reaction to the performance and musicianship from the individuals that have dedicated thousands of hours to their craft; a technician, engineer, and mixer who had great skill and artistic knowledge in how to make recorded music come alive on the speakers.  And artists that come from who knows where.

I know good music is still being made out there…but I also know that the revenue streams for recorded music are all but extinct.  I hope somehow we can figure out how to restore music’s cultural and artistic role in humanity.

I’m re-evaluating my relationship with music right now, and part of my therapy is to write these things down.  What do you think??