Grammy nominee Bill Smith has been in the production and engineering trade for a staggering 32 years. His career took root in New York City when he was singled out by an engineering instructor at The Center for the Media Arts and invited along to Todd Rundgren’s Secret Sound Studios. There he landed an assistant gig. A number of similar jobs soon followed. But Smith soon became aware of a growing need to stretch himself and also to record in bigger rooms. Accordingly, he moved to Los Angeles in 1989 where he engineered at Cherokee and then Capitol Studios. In addition to film and TV audio work, he has variously produced and engineered for artists including Natalie Cole, Barbra Streisand and Ray Charles. He’s also labored alongside legendary engineer and producer Al Schmitt.
Every successful audio professional has his or her own approach to drawing the best from an artist. Smith finds that putting each at ease is crucial. “You have to provide [the artist] with a feeling of comfort, support and security so that they know you’re there to help them in any way you can,” he asserts. “Music is a very emotional thing. It’s difficult for some people to bare their heart, soul and feelings. The more you can provide them with that comfort zone and the more they can trust you, the more they will give you back in terms of performance.”
Smith has worked on music for various TV shows and films such as Forrest Gump, Aliens and Selena. What does he see as the primary differences between engineering for music of that ilk versus music for a record? Surprisingly, they’re relatively small. “Records may take a little longer because of their nature and there will generally be a bit more experimentation in the studio because of that,” he explains. “Film and TV dates are more regimented because you’re working on pre-defined written music which needs to be recorded a bit faster and [there’s also] the overall expense involved. In the end, your goal is the same, however: to record the music with the highest amount of care and quality possible.”
All engineers face challenges. Smith finds that his biggest is keeping an upbeat outlook in difficult situations. “Always focus on being positive and grateful even when you’re having a tough day, be it for whatever reason—technical problems, family, whatever life things that we all go through,” he observes. “You don’t let it get to you, you keep smiling, be happy you’re alive doing what you love and working with great people.”
When you work adjacent to a producer and engineer of Al Schmitt’s stature, a thing or three is bound to rub off. Smith recalls a few key lessons he’s learned from the audio veteran. “Stay out of the way as much as you can,” he says. “You’re there to provide a service to your client and to make sure they leave happy. It’s not about your own sense of personal satisfaction, although it’s nice if you can get that, it isn’t the reason you’re there each day. Al’s a strong proponent of being grateful. Supporting your client is everything in this business.”
Smith recent and upcoming projects include mix work with Canadian artist Mark Baker and jazz guitarist Larry Koonse. He’ll also teach an engineering seminar soon at American River College 10 miles outside of Sacramento.
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