Interview with BRYAN CARLSTROM, engineer and producer for Alice in Chains, Billy Idol, The Offspring - Jul 11, 2002
“It’s about creating a great song whose performance stirs emotions, a song that will take people for an emotional ride”
Bryan Carlstrom is a Los Angeles-based engineer and producer with credits from Alice in Chains, Billy Idol, The Offspring, Rob Zombie, Social Distortion, Poe, and Stabbing Westward, to mention but a few.
How did you become an engineer/producer?
I studied music at the University of South Dakota, and also played in several bands around that time. After graduating, I decided to move to Los Angeles to get a job in the music industry. Not long after I moved, I enrolled at the Los Angeles Recording Workshop, an engineering school. The idea hit me when I saw an ad for the school in Mix Magazine. While attending the school I got a job as an assistant engineer at Track Record Studios and worked there for 4 years when producer Dave Jerden (Jane’s Addiction, Rolling Stones) approached me with an offer to engineer the records he was producing. I had actually always wanted to work with him and there was my chance. I moved into that position and ended up working on a total of 40 records with him.
What projects in particular have been important to your career?
The Alice in Chains album, “Dirt”, was probably one of the more important records in my career, although many of the records I’ve done have been important to me. The biggest-selling record I've worked on was probably “Americana” by The Offspring, which has sold over 10 million copies worldwide. I have also produced several White Zombie tracks. Then there are people who have really helped sharpen my skills. I worked with producer Keith Forsey for a year on a Billy Idol record. I learned a great deal about songwriting and arranging from him. I also picked up an amazing amount of production skill working with Dave Jerden for ten years.
What styles of music do you engineer and produce?
I really like working with crossover material, where rock 'n' roll has been mixed with elements from other styles of music.
What are your main activities now?
Lately, I’ve been spending a good portion of my time developing new artists. I develop them to a point where I can present them to a record label, get a record deal and go on to produce the record.
Do you accept unsolicited material?
Yes, I do, and I try to listen to everything, because I never know where I'm going to find that gold nugget.
Do you think contacting producers and sending them demos is a good way for unsigned artists and songwriters to get their careers off the ground?
Definitely. I personally like to get on board as soon as possible so that I can produce the tracks as they are being written. The creative chemistry involved in this process can make some amazing things happen in the studio.
What are you currently working on?
I'm currently working with Christopher Hall, the singer from Stabbing Westward. I'm producing his latest project and helping him with the songwriting. His music has elements of The Beatles, Radiohead and Led Zeppelin, with a lot of interesting sounds going on.
I'm also in the process of developing a new artist by the name of Dixon James. The development is for Andy Karp at Lava/Atlantic Records.
What do you look for in a new artist?
Good songs, good lyrics, a great singer, and something interesting and unique about the music that conveys strong emotion to the listener. Jane's Addiction, Radiohead, and Massive Attack are examples of things I really like.
What does developing an artist mean to you?
Taking an artist from wherever they're at and bringing them to the point where they're ready to make a record. Since I have my own studio and great gear, the development material just turns into the record. We develop it to a certain point, get a record deal, and then just continue until the record's completion with the additional funding from the record company.
If a record label finances the development, what does the deal generally include?
They fund the development in return for first chance at signing the artist. Once they receive the material they usually have a thirty-day window to sign or pass on the artist, after which the artist can shop the demo to other labels.
How much money do they invest?
$2000 to $4000 a track, depending on the artist’s material and standing with the label.
What time frame are we talking about?
It depends who I'm working with. If it's a band situation, it's going to go really fast, because a lot of the songs are usually written and parts are often already figured out. With a solo artist you don’t necessarily have that and I may have to finish parts and hire musicians.
For a band, I can usually develop three songs, which includes; completing the writing, pre-production, recording and mixing within 1-2 weeks for a record quality production. If we are working with a solo artist, and actually have to write the material, then three songs could take a little longer.
Is the money recoupable?
Usually it's so little money that it's not too big an issue, and it's always negotiable.
Do you also help the artist find people to work with, like managers etc?
Definitely. The genre of artist will shape my opinion as to who I'll advise them to work with. If they don't have a manager or any contacts at labels, I'll decide which labels are the best to play it for, as well as suggest managers. I’ll also recommend musicians for the project, if they’re needed.
How do you find new talent?
A production/development partner of mine, Warren Huart, is a chief engineer and producer at Swing House Studios in Hollywood, California, and since that studio has a lot of rehearsal space, he sees a lot of new talent coming through. We keep our eyes open and pick up on things that are really hot, but still under the radar of most labels. I also receive demos through my manager and the Internet, so I do a lot of listening. It’s like prospecting for gold.
Do you think unsigned artists are knowledgeable about the music industry, or is it something they need to learn more about in order to stand a better chance?
Overall, I would say most unsigned artists have a poor knowledge of the industry. It's a very competitive industry and there's a lot to learn. I was pretty ignorant when I first started making records. Back then, I didn't have a clue about what happened once the masters left the studio! HitQuarters can be really helpful to artists in this respect. It contains a lot of useful information about the inner workings of the music industry. It's a great resource for artists who want to learn about what really goes on.
What advice would you give an aspiring singer who does not know any musicians, songwriters, or producers on how to get their music career started?
It depends on where they're located. There are lots more avenues available in a place like Los Angeles than in a town in South Dakota. If you're a singer/songwriter, and don't know anybody, you really need to make some contacts even if you're away from one of the big music cities. Try to find good musicians and songwriters, start writing and performing. Buy some affordable recording gear and start recording your music and ideas. Listen to your favourite songs and artists to figure out how the material is put together and incorporate what you learn into your own material.
If you are fortunate enough to live somewhere like Los Angeles or New York, there are plenty of musicians and writers to hook up with and venues to play in, not to mention support services. When you get to the point where you've recorded some songs, try to get your material to professionals in the industry, managers, producers and labels, and get some feedback. Make critical assessments of your material based on the feedback you receive. Getting things into perspective is important.
What do you think about engineers' and the producers' current situation within the music business?
You really have to be the one to go out and make things happen. Find talent, develop it and make it into something that is hip and artistically innovative, but commercially viable at the same time. If you have the tools and know what you’re doing, it’s an exciting time to be in this industry.
What could be better?
Engineers of a certain calibre should get some kind of royalty from the records they record. I’m talking about really skilled engineers who bring an amazing repertoire of ideas to a project. These people really are a necessary part of the creative process. They are creators and artists in their own right. No great record is so without a talented engineer behind it!
As a producer, what makes you take on a production?
I've got to believe in the artist and in the material. This happens when I hear something that has a strong emotional effect on me and causes me to experience feelings, whether good or bad. After all, music is a "feeling" art and that is what makes people buy records. So if the music can inspire emotion and the artist or band can present themselves with an image and sound that is right for their time, I consider it a winner and well worth my time.
Does the strength of the team around the artist have anything to do with your decision?
It could. I've worked on both sides, with artists who had A&R people and managers, and with artists who had absolutely no support from anybody at all. But if the artist has this support, it helps me believe that the project has the necessary components for success and that will definitely affect my decision as to whether to work with an artist or not.
How much money can an engineer make?
That is quite an open-ended question, because it depends on the level of experience, tools (i.e. recording gear brought to the table) and the project itself. The standard for a great engineer with a lot of his/her own equipment can be between $500 and $1000 per day. It depends on the level of the project.
What knowledge became obvious to you once you had become a professional that you hadn't considered before?
It's an interesting question, because when you first get into the recording end of the business, you're so involved in learning the technical aspects of making a record that it’s easy to lose site of what's really important. It's not just about having great equipment. People buy records based on emotion, and when I use my technical expertise in the making of music, I can't lose sight of the fact that it's a "feeling" art and that my goal is to make people feel a certain way. To put it simply, it’s about creating a great song whose performance stirs emotions and whose sound is innovative, a song that will take people for an emotional ride, a bit like a theme park ride.
How much of a difference does expensive equipment really make as far as the sound?
It can make a huge difference in the right hands. I'm an equipment junkie, and I just love how it makes musical instruments sound! You can run something through one piece of gear and it might sound horrible, and then run it through another piece of gear and it just comes to life, so real and perfect that you can just reach out and touch the sound. I do however use pieces of equipment that may have cost very little, but I use them to get a particular sound for a part. I generally use a lot of vintage gear.
What has been the greatest moment of your music career so far?
My greatest moments have been my first engineering credit, my first songwriting credit, my first production credit, my first platinum record as an engineer and my first platinum record as a producer.
What do you see yourself doing in 5-10 years?
I see myself having a large facility with multiple production rooms, developing artists and having a team of people that I work with. I would like to develop as many artists as possible and get them record deals, or even start my own record label or work in conjunction with a label.
In what direction do you think you'll move stylistically?
To the edge of where rock 'n' roll is evolving, moved by artistic concerns and not just taking care of the commercial side. I do want the projects I’m working on to be commercially successful, but, at the same time, my goal is to approach them from an artistic standpoint. I don't want to make music just to make money - I want to make music that people will go back and listen to ten years later.
If you could dramatically change any aspect of the music industry, what would you do?
I would like to see an applicable copyright protection system for the digital medium, so artists would get the royalties that are due them, just like any commercial business that produces a product for sale in our society. I would also like to see the extra space on DVDs used for high-resolution mixes (96k/24bit), so that the public can hear something closer to what we hear in the studio.
For more information on Bryan Carlstrom go to www.BryanCarlstrom.com
Bryan is represented by Gary Gunton Management – Studio City, California
Interviewed by Jean-Francois Méan