by Carly Schorman
Greg Lloyd is a musician, producer, sound engineer, wrangler of creatives, and aural innovator living here in Phoenix. And, recently, he added author to his resume when he published a DIY guide for musicians on the ins-and-outs of recording. At the same time, Lloyd was working on a collaborative recording project that released a new EP. tape.in by Prism Collabs stands out as a fluid yet eclectic mix of ambient instrumentals, as innovative as the structure of the project itself, while simultaneously speaking to the many possibilities of home recording.
I jumped at the chance to ask Greg Lloyd some questions about Prism Collabs, DIY MUSIC: A Practical Field Guide, home recording, and more. He was kind enough to answer. Check out our interview below and make sure to listen to tape.in by Prism Collabs as well.
YabYum: So let’s start by talking about how this project came together. How did Prism Collabs come into being? Have you been working together for some time?
Greg Llyod: Prism Collabs is a new experiment for me, and it’s not a band of specific people so much as a framework for highlighting interesting collaborative recording projects that bring together varied talent. Sort of like a label, except without the ongoing promotion/career development/A&R stuff; we come together mostly just for specific releases on a project by project basis.
As a producer, I enjoy both producing records and managing collaborative projects that involve artists of different backgrounds working together, especially artists that might not normally work together, so this seemed like a natural way to combine those two interests.
We do collaborative recording projects and releases, and the current aim is to go for 3-6 releases a year to try and keep it sustainable for all involved. It’s all done on straight service trades currently, I provide production services in exchange for creative material, but if the momentum keeps up I’d eventually like to try to develop it into a subscription service and be able to pay artists real, sustainable rates for their writing and recording work for the service.
One of the main inspirations for the project was Brian Eno’s Music for Films series of albums, specifically Vol. III. That one in particular is a crazy album, and super eclectic. It’s everything from beautiful sampled kalimba music to weird dissonant saxophone duets, to singer songwriter stuff, to electronic dance music, all just thrown in random order on the same album. It’s the kind of thing where if you tried to write everything down and plan it that way, it would look super crazy. You wouldn’t think a track list that disjunct and schizophrenic could ever work on a real album, but it works beautifully.
Nowadays, our ubiquitous playlist algorithms tend to show you stuff that is always like the other stuff that you’ve shown interest in. If the platform gets too abstract and left field in its recommendations, that’s not in the best interests of the platform, because the platform is just another filter bubble tuned for music, and you’ll stop paying attention.
So, it’s really cool to experience the opposite of that, where you really have no idea what’s coming next when you’re listening to an album. The idea for Prism Collabs was to encourage more releases like this. I love eclectic pairings of artists that are sometimes wildly different in style. I also love what happens when you get two artists in a room that are completely different, and might not have worked together before. Interesting things always happen in these types of situations.
The collaborative nature of each Prism Collabs project varies according to what the artists involved in that project want to do. Anything goes, pretty much, from full collaborative writing and recording together, to more simple pairings of already recorded and/or unreleased works by various artists in compilation format, video collaborations, and more. On the production front, my role varies as well. I’m the primary mastering engineer, but not always, and I also get involved in other production and creative tasks or musical writing as needed. I generally am the one who does a lot of the office style coordination and planning involved on the production end. I’m certainly open to help in that area for those who are interested!
What is the songwriting process like for the band? These tracks seem more like spaced out soundscapes than structured pop singles. Do you all work together and create different sounds like a melty jam session? Or do you individually come up with parts and pull things together as a group only later?
So, I’ll answer all these questions in two ways, from the perspective of this one project, and the perspective of what I’m looking for Prism Collabs to be.
For the tape.in album, the original idea was actually to not write music together at all, just take a few tracks or unfinished ideas we each had, develop them individually, then put them together on an album in a simple compilation format. Tim Barnett wrote a beautiful poem that we used as an inspirational jumping off point called “In the Midnight Behind the Sun”, and that got passed around at some of our first meetings. Part of the beauty of this project and the basic idea behind Prism Collabs is that change is allowed and encouraged as part of the process, and that’s what happened here, to results that I think are better than they otherwise might have been.
Pretty quickly, we decided it would be cool to do some collaborative writing together as well. Exactly how that went down varies by track: for the opening track “mind.out”, for example, that was an afternoon jam where I worked with Kalebh (a co-producer along with Tim Barnett) doing some writing and recording of trumpet and various instruments, plus we jammed with a modular synth player named Jake Kile, who’s amazing. Kalebh then took our jam session material and continued to develop it into a more structured song on their own. Tim and I came back in at the end for mixing and mastering support.
The last track, “going (somewhere) tomorrow (soon)”, was different: this was mostly a Tim Barnett original demo, and he ended up working with Kalebh without me being involved as much in the writing at all. I only came in when we started mixing/mastering this track.
Each track was slightly different in this way, and having that open flexibility of approach throughout the process was really nice. I found that flexibility to be a critical part of making this project fun and open.
I should also mention that Kalebh’s musical friends and partners Johamm and Koleton Cox made significant musical contributions to the final product as featured artists. There’s also a great local visual artist named Laura Amphlett who did our cover art, and she killed it for us! Lots of fun collaborative work all around.
For Prism Collabs in general, any artists reading this should know that I’m not tied to any particular working method, as long as it’s collaborative in some way, and we get to a quality end product all are excited about. I want the projects to vary, and to be fun collaborative writing experiences for the artists as the primary concern.
I would imagine some of that song construction takes place in the recording studio? If so, how much of the process would you say happens in the studio? Please assign a percentage (I’m only joking if you think I’m joking).
This is something that varies widely by project, musician, and album, but generally, yes, the studio is involved in some way most of the time. For this project it varied by song once again: songs like “sato.ri” and “mind.out” were very constructed songs that required a lot of studio work, but my original tune [“aspect.polyrhythms”] and Tim’s [“going (somewhere) tomorrow (soon)”] were mostly written individually. My track was the only one, actually, that we didn’t do any collaborative writing on. I just wrote/recorded/mixed it and sent it to the guys, and it didn’t seem like it needed a collaborative element from a writing perspective, though I was certainly open to it.
After the writing/recording was done, the mixing process for the record was very collaborative and studio driven. I mixed my own tune on this one, but Kalebh did a lot of the heavy mix lifting for the rest, with some coaching/critique from Tim and I along the way, as well as the use of my personal studio as needed.
I also did the mastering for the album at my place, which is a bit more optimized for that purpose. For a lot of the recording and mixing we went back and forth between my studio and Kalebh’s. Between the two studios, I’d say at least 50-60% of the process took place within the walls of a studio of some kind.
Now, you’re a multi-instrumentalist, if I’m not mistaken? Can you tell me about the instrumentation on this album? How much of it is live? How much of the layering is done in after using effects/other sounds?
Yes, I am a multi-instrumentalist, but my primary instrument is trumpet. I also tend to do a lot of work with keys and synths.
For this album, it’s a mix throughout. Most of the starting material was recorded live, usually in one or two takes, but then was subject to varying amounts of production creativity depending on the track. That was one very satisfying aspect of this project: I’m always one to enjoy using the studio as a compositional tool when appropriate, and that was the case here. We used studio production techniques extensively in developing the final product, and I don’t think you would recognize the songs if you just heard the raw starting audio on its own.
Kalebh (co-producer) in particular is a very adept at working in this way, so from my perspective it was really nice to be able to sit back and trust them to do their thing. That allowed me to be able to take a more birds-eye approach to my own jobs in the production process; it was a real team effort.
“Ambient” is a term that gets tossed around a lot these days to encompass a lot of different types of music, but I would say that tape.in really holds to more of the root of the word. What does the word mean to you and do you think it’s applicable to the Prism Collabs sound?
I like that ambient music is getting a little more mainstream, and I do actually like that you’re seeing a lot of it in yoga studios and things like that! It’s nice for people to have an accessible way into the genre. I’m a bit of a purist when it comes to ambient music, so I don’t think it’s tied to a specific feeling or emotion so much as the general feeling of music that exists in a space. Chill music, or meditation music, is certainly one form of ambient music, but it’s not the full story. For me, any type of music that invokes a feeling of specific space and mood could be considered ambient music. Maybe it’s a dark place, or a spooky place, or a sunny place, the specific mood isn’t as important as is the creation of some type of sonic atmosphere.
Perhaps a singer-songwriter chooses to record an album in an old church or a weathered barn; if the recording style then strongly emphasizes the interaction of that space with the music as much as the actual songwriting, I’d consider that ambient music.
Sometimes the reflection of space isn’t an accurate reflection, but rather how you wish something was. Anyone interested in ambient music should go back to the source and check out Brian Eno’s “Music for Airports” series –this work was meant to be played in airports to encourage a certain feeling of space that didn’t exist in airports at the time. Still doesn’t, I’d say, but it’s a nice dream! And the music gets more interesting when you consider the space it was originally meant to be played in, that’s ambient music.
Okay, so to really start to get to the heart of the conversation, can you tell me what your home recording set up is like?
It’s changed throughout the years to reflect different knowledge and areas of focus. Right now, my space is primarily set up as a mastering/post-production studio, so I’ve got more invested in monitoring and super accurate acoustics then a typical recording or mixing space might. I do have some recording channels, and many instruments, mics and effects, but they are mostly tuned to the writing process for my own original music and developing/demoing that music.
If you had talked to me maybe three years ago I was a bit more interested in actually tracking bands as the engineer, but that’s shifted; I most enjoy the mastering, noise reduction/restoration, and post-production side of the engineering field and so I specialize in that area but I def still love tracking and mixing bands, I just prefer to be in a producer or a performing musician role in that context, rather than having my hands on the desk while tracking. I also like to take on full producer roles several times a year for various projects, and the limited tracking abilities of my space are still nicely suited to that purpose. It’s easy and comfortable to work on demos, writing, overdubs, and pre-production in my space. I like this current balance of different musical roles a lot, so I have a feeling my current setup is a good place for me to be for the mid to long-term.
And you recently wrote a DIY manual for musicians looking to embark on their own home recording efforts. What led you to embark on this project?
I do audio engineering professionally, as a mastering engineer, which means I come in at the end of the process, and the quality of my work is dependent on the quality of the mixes I’m given to work with.
While performing as a musician in the Phoenix scene, I’ve been struck at how strong and interesting this scene is from a creative standpoint. However, it’s apparent that basic knowledge on how to track and mix bands at high quality is at a premium, which is understandable because it’s a complex set of skills to learn. I’ve seen a lot of local musicians turn to recording trade schools for this basic information, which is a bit concerning, because in most programs the information you need to track and mix better will take place in just the first semester or two. The rest of the program is highly specialized information that applies best to those who are looking to move to LA or NYC to try and get an entry level job in a commercial recording studio. These jobs are becoming increasingly rare, and recording school is quite expensive: not the best combo for most musicians in the DIY space.
So, I thought I’d compile the basics of quality home recording in a field guide style format, so anyone can get this information for a much more reasonable cost, and learn to do this on their own first. Then, if they want to continue to learn more or go to school for recording, they will have some idea of what they’re getting into, before they throw that big tuition check down.
What do you feel are some of the advantages for musicians working outside of a traditional studio setting when recording?
Increased space and time for writing/demoing, comfort level while doing so, and greater potential control over the final product (though that aspect can be a double edged sword depending on the musician). I’d say the role of the traditional studio hasn’t changed much, but what has changed is that home recording tools that were previously only barely good enough for rough demos are now able to execute fully professional production quality at home, if you know what to do. The technology isn’t the barrier anymore, only the skill, and that’s exciting because it opens up the field in some very interesting ways.
You’ll always need professional engineers to be experts in getting the most out of the equipment, but as the artist it’s such a huge advantage to be able to get a demo that is so precise, before you consider starting a professional production process. If you know what you’re doing, the tools are all there and are affordable and accessible to a sizable majority of musicians. This makes the DIY and indie space a super exciting place to be right now because the platform is so open and the creative ability level is so high, and it’s leading to more and more open expression.
It actually makes professional production more appreciated in a team setting: Billie Eilish totally recorded her hits in a bedroom on basic gear, but her producers sizable contribution to the editing and polishing of her projects were critical too, and that’s something that is being acknowledged more. I like that the producer/editorial role has become a little more prominent in that respect.
Having such high quality tools in the hands of the creators that need them is a really amazing and powerful thing. I personally think the most exciting music making comes from a hybrid approach, where the musician takes all the time they need to get their demos and songs written and recorded by themselves, before going into a pro studio to either record new things or mix/edit/polish what’s already been recorded. Best of both worlds, and everybody wins.
What about the disadvantages?
In my experience, limitations inspire creativity, and having limitless time, limitless takes, and limitless track counts available on a computer doesn’t always inspire creativity so much as anxiety and indecision. This does depend on the musician. I’ve known a lot of musicians who prefer to demo using a simple 4 track recorder, one mic, and no computer at all, and I can very much understand why it’s easier and more fun to write that way sometimes.
I’d also caution artists to be sure to show the ability to do both interesting demo/self recorded work and professional quality work in combination. I think having a body of work that shows both sides of the coin is more compelling than just one or the other. It’s really easy to record and release music yourself now with limited equipment, so the temptation is to just put everything out there all the time on social media or whatever platform. It depends a little on your personal goals as a musician and what you want to do with music, but I’d say a balance of ensuring both consistent releases, and the professional quality of those releases, are things that go hand in hand.
As the ability to record becomes more accessible and popular, I’d like to see more of an equal emphasis put on the study of musicianship to go along with these tools. I bet we all have a friend somewhere who maybe doesn’t play an instrument or write songs, but yet feels qualified to style themselves a producer or a DJ because they have some gear. It’s important to remember that the original producers and DJs that we all know of were/are seasoned and experienced experts in their fields, and that is part of what allowed them to be effective, not just the gear they knew how to use.
You’ve worked with a lot of different bands around town. Do you feel some musical acts are better suited to a home recording setting as opposed to others?
Oh absolutely! You can’t really draw many hard and fast rules for recording/producing, because it’s all dependent on the individual dynamic of each group, and that’s as it should be. That’s one of the reasons why producers have jobs: that position is an expert on the production process, and it exists to guide artists who need it through that process in whatever way results in the best end product. Sometimes bands don’t need producers at all, or don’t need or want to write songs in a home studio setting before recording. This type of thing varies by band and by project, and which approach is most effective is contextual to the individual project at hand.
What do you feel is the most important gear to have before you begin recording at home? Like is it better to spend money on fancy mics or is it the audio program for your computer that you want to direct funds toward?
Well, you absolutely don’t need a fancy expensive mic, those types of studio mics usually don’t sound very good in a noisy home recording setting anyway, and are hard to use, contrary to marketing you might have seen. Please do not go out and buy an expensive Neumann microphone as your first purchase! Grab some cheaper mics and learn to get the most out of them first.
You do need a mic and recording interface that are of professional quality. There are plenty of pro designs that are affordable, high quality, and suitable for a home studio environment. You just have to know what to look for, which was one of the reasons I wrote the book.
Mic-wise, for the home studio, I’d buy a pro quality dynamic mic as your first mic. For podcasting and general use, one of my favorites is the Electrovoice RE20, but there are lots to choose from. Some of the recent USB mics are getting pretty good, and are very easy to use, but whether this option makes sense for you will depend on your individual needs.
The audio recording program you use is an important component, but in order to answer that question correctly you have to get a little more fundamental. Every studio is a wholly unique build with unique requirements that vary, so rather then answer with a detailed gear list, here’s some clarifying questions:
“What do you intend to use this space for, exactly?”
Podcasting? Mixing? Tracking bands? How many people at once will be recording? Are you demoing your own music, or doing professional quality productions as a final product? What style of music will be made here: rock, rap, classical, dance, all of the above?
These are only a few of the questions you should ask when starting off, and you should define the requirements of your space and what you want to do with it as precisely as you can with some additional questions, before you even think about buying gear or drawing up any plans.
If you could offer one piece of advice to new musicians looking to record, what would it be?
Do not start out by buying gear. Instead, first ask questions that will clarify your own interests and focus. Most gear manufacturers market their products assuming sales from artists who might not really know what they want to do, and are being experimental in their purchases. There’s nothing really wrong with that approach per se, but asking a few simple questions to clarify your own intentions before clicking that buy button can save you a significant amount of money and time, and lead to a more satisfying experience long term.
See above: What am I trying to achieve with my home studio, exactly? Am I trying to make professional productions here, or demo my work for formal recording elsewhere? Am I making a space for creative song development, or professional quality recording (hint: it is very difficult to do both of these things in one space without very deep pockets).
These are just a few of many kinds of questions it’s critical to ask of yourself, as you’re getting started.
Keep in mind that gear is just a tool, and it won’t make you more creative on its own, just like a new hammer won’t make you a great carpenter. Spending money on developing your musical skills through education, music lessons, internships, or asking to sit in on recording sessions is just as valuable if not more so then that new gear purchase you’re considering.
For more info on Greg Lloyd, check out his website.