The Black Kettle session yesterday with Don Was was pretty sweet. The session was for the song “Waltz” from 2pm to 6pm in Studio A in the Berklee MP&E department. We did about five takes from approximately 3:30 to 5pm. Fred Sladkey engineered and several of Mark Wessel’s engineering classes were observing.
After the engineer and assistants set things up, Don spoke a bit, commenting on the importance of being empathetic to the artists, as both a producer and an engineer. I’m used to student producers-engineers paying lip service to my comfort as an artist during sessions, but Don really came through on this. To begin with, I made a comment that I would prefer to use an amp as opposed to going DI, and Don pounced on this kind of offhand statement, and we got set up with an amp. After a few minutes of adjustments, the assistants set it up, and the bass sounded a lot better to me, and I felt more comfortable playing out of the amp.
After a couple more takes, and listening back to the takes, Don recommended that we split all of the channels on the Aviom headsets for the musicians. Before, the mix in our headphones was divided into vocals, band, and talk-back. After Don made this suggestion, each of us could control our own individual volume, and we weren’t lumped into just one big “band” sound. This undoubtedly enabled our performance.
Often, during sessions, the people I’m playing with and I start at a high level of performance and then begin faltering with each take due to fatigue or problems in our mixes that are never addressed. By being proactive and responsive to the musicians’ ideas, concerns, complaints, Don made sure that adjustments were made. It was the rare session at the Berklee studios that didn’t sound mechanical and crappy. A lot of that can be credited to Fred’s engineering job and getting good sounds.
Despite the pressure of performing and recording in front of a world-renown super-producer, we all felt at ease due to Don’s warm personality and total empathy towards us. It was pretty cool. Simply put, I thought he was really nice– a genuine-seeming guy, and can totally understand why people like Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones enjoy working with him.