Desk Job: Christopher Holmes

The difference between a producer and an engineer, as Christopher Holmes explains, is the former creates the blueprint for a musical vision and the latter executes it. As a man who proudly wears both hats, Holmes’ unique ear for music is directly responsible for some of the most celebrated rock albums of the last decade.

 

Christopher Holmes never made it to his college graduation ceremony. A graduate of Full Sail University’s class of 2000, Holmes decided on the final day of classes that going cross-country to follow job leads ranked higher than wearing a gown and hearing his name called.

“I had an itch that I needed to go. I can’t really explain why, but I needed to go right then,” he explains. “It was a gut kind of thing.”

Trusting that gut turned out to be the right decision. Holmes pulled into Los Angeles armed with a handful of contacts and two job interviews, one of which blossomed into a full-time position at Cello Studios in less than 48 hours. “It was really fortunate timing,” he added. “If I had waited, that position would have been gone.”

Since then, Holmes has focused on his freelance work, which includes producing and mixing albums for Red Hot Chili Peppers, Audioslave, Weezer, and Metallica. His most recent work appears on the new Blink 182 EP, Dogs Eating Dogs, and marks the third time Holmes has collaborated with the pop-punk veterans. And while raw talent and having a knack for molding the sound artists want to convey into songs fans want to hear certainly contributes, Holmes credits his incessant work ethic as the biggest key to his success.

“Just knowing that you are working harder than the other guy trying to get the job that you want,” he said. “That drive and motivation puts you in a great position to makes things happen.”

Get In Media: You landed a job at a prestigious studio less than two days after you spontaneously arrived in Los Angeles. Can you walk us through how that happened?

Christopher Holmes: I got to L.A. and I had an apartment lined up. I threw all my boxes of stuff in there and, literally that same day, I called the studios while I was driving and set up interviews for the day I arrived. I met with one place; they were really cool, but it was left open-ended.

I went to Cello Studios and my interview was to coincide with a person leaving to go out of state. Part of my interview was the going-away party for this person. It was a luck and timing thing that validated my decision to leave early. If I had waited, I would have missed the opportunity. I had my interview, was part of the going-away party for the person whose position I was taking, and started the next day. I was in L.A. for 48 hours and had a job at an amazing studio. It was really fortunate timing.

If I had waited, that position would have been gone. I don’t know if I was hired because I was a warm body to fill the position, but the interview went well and they were installing an SSLJ9000 mixing console in one of the rooms and that was a console I had worked on a bunch at school. So I was sharp on knowing the console straight out of graduation so I could work my way around it. That was an extra plus for me, knowing all about it. That definitely helped.

GIM: How does the job of a music producer and a music engineer differ?

CH: A lot of the time, the two jobs blur together. Essentially, a music producer is going to work with the band regarding the tempo of a song or a specific key for a song. They will also work with the lyrical content if there’s stuff they feel could be improved upon. To put it simply, the producer is the hidden member of any band; they are the sounding board for bands to help guide them around the minefield that is making a record.

“It’s easy to get lost in the fact that I’m recording this really great band or hanging out with this guy on MTV. But as a professional, you have to look past that and really dig in deeper than even the band does. “

The producer and engineer work together in the sense of the producer has an idea of what he wants the record to sound like and it is up to the engineer to make that sound happen based on their skills and traits. They might use a different microphone preamplifier to create a more aggressive guitar sound. They might also use a different compression or different microphones. If a band member says, “I want to sound more blue,” the engineer has to know how to achieve that desired sound.

With a lot of the things I am working on now, the engineer and producer role really blur together. If you work with a band long enough as their engineer, they start asking you more production-type questions, so it becomes another hat you have to wear.

GIM: Your job seems to require you to have a special ear for not only hearing good music, but also being able to mentally compartmentalize how music needs to sound. What aspects of your past have helped you carve the ear that you need on a daily basis?

CH: The thing I try to achieve on all records is recognizing the different spaces that sections of songs require. For instance, on the new Blink 182 EP, they were constantly talking about how they wanted the verses to have a certain vibe and that really changes things, causing the chorus to blow out into a different space. These days, people keep wanting to add on space. I like to try to navigate through the space I have and use it to its fullest degree. That’s something I have always loved about recording; not necessarily piling on all these parts but finding out where the parts aren’t. That’s the aspect I’ve always liked and what I always try to get into the ear of people I work with. Embrace the space!

When I start working with a band, I go back and listen to their past recordings to see what they’ve liked and what they haven’t liked, obviously attempting to incorporate aspects of the former. You really want to try to honor their past recordings and intertwine it with what you’re trying to achieve on their newest recording. To use the Blink 182 example again, I know from working with them in the past that there is a certain kind of treatment that they’ve enjoyed using on previous records. I wanted to bring that treatment from their old records to this newest record. It’s really just a nerdy musical engineer nod to their past, but I think it’s something longtime fans will really enjoy. I always try to honor previous recordings in some way, no matter how small.

GIM: Speaking of the Blink 182 EP, can you go into detail on what you contributed to that project and how it speaks for your job as a whole?

CH: I served as the engineer and co-producer of the record and also mixed one of the songs. And on a record like this, the “wearing multiple hats” aspect really comes into play. As a producer, you want to make sure you meet your mastering date and make sure that everybody is doing exactly what they’re supposed to. As an engineer, you want to be making the album sound not only how the band wants it to sound, but how you want it to sound. At the same time, you’re also dealing with BPM’s [beats per minute] and key signatures, etc. At the end of the day, you really take on a lot when you assume a role like that.

GIM: You are involved in an industry that is constantly evolving at a rapid pace. What are some of the bigger aspects of your job that have changed in the last few years?

CH: When I started, I worked in a brand new studio in L.A. as a runner and they were using tape machines with gigantic two-inch tapes. Any kind of digital editing was part of the process, but it was not the entire process. Basically, you would record on the tape and then dump your tapes into Pro Tools, fix up the parts you wanted, and dump the finished project back onto a tape as the end result. In addition, when I first came along, a lot of people were editing straight from the tape. You were doing this old-school editing job on a two-inch tape. That art is the whale-fisherman of the music business. It’s a lost art, in other words.

Nowadays, you can manipulate so much with digital technology—you are so worried about how symmetrical an audio clip looks and not really listening to the actual sound. Whereas newer technology gives you this static recording, the old-school method gave you this push and pull from listening to a track on the tape. You could do things such as magnify into the half of a millisecond to see if one little hit was too close or too far.

GIM: On the surface, your job seems to have it all; you listen to great music all day and work with the biggest artists in the world. What are some aspects of your job that aren’t as glamorous as they may appear?

CH: When a major project that I’ve worked on gets released, I go through every millisecond of that album. I’ve heard every kick drum, every snare drum, and every edit on that project has a crossfade. To be honest, I’ve listened to and analyzed every aspect of my projects more than any other person in the world.

There is also a file management aspect to being a sound engineer that becomes extremely tedious. An artist might say, “I did this one thing twenty five takes ago that I really liked and haven’t been able to do it since. Can you find it?” And you need to be able to find that either on the spot, or pretty close to it. There’s a level of management to the chaos of recording that is not glamorous at all. It really requires note taking and being very much on point.

It’s easy to get lost in the fact that I’m recording this really great band or hanging out with this guy on MTV. But as a professional, you have to look past that and really dig in deeper than even the band does. That digging has become part of my job description. It’s a great job and it’s the most fun I’ve ever had, but there are some aspects of it that are just a grind.

 

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