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A Knack for the Knobs: Mojo Factors According to Some of San Diego’s Foremost Sound Professionals

Jeff Berkley. Photograph by Tim Flack


Paul Abbott


Sven-Erik Seaholm. Photograph by Rick Greaves


John Edwards


Chuck Schiele

Sound. Paint.

Same stuff with the exception that each are perceived by a different physical means.

Eyes. ears.

What they have in common are line, shape, form color, rhythm, and perspective among other elements. The only other difference would be that a painting does not involve organized time as an essential element whereas music depends on it, meaning that in order to perceive music one has to be willing to visit with the song for a duration of time in order to witness the result. Granted, the more you look at a painting the more you are likely to get out of it, but it is not required in order to see the whole thing in a moment.

In the equation of sound production, therefore, the guy at the mixing board is much akin to that of a painter. So is the artist out front at the microphone. But, so is the guy in the back at the knobs. And just like a painter, or like the artist at the mic, there are infinite possibilities based on the science of the craft, where all rules become eventually challenged, broken, disregarded, or even “moot.” And this is where a science becomes “art.”

All our artistic or musical and even scientific heroes understand this. And this is where knack and mojo begin. This is where style begins.

Behind every successful (electricity supported) performance there is an engineer and/or producer in the back just like that Wizard behind the curtain. Some are hailed, some are unsung… all of them bring the artist and their music to you like a pilot delivers passengers to a new destination. In this article we’re going to discuss the topic of sound with a few of the fellas in San Diego who have earned reputations for having a particular knack… a gift…. for handling sound in their own special way.

In this discussion we’re including Jonny Edwards, who specializes in “live” sound production. I can attest from having performed a number of times on his mix that it is always a delight…. I’ve never had to ask for anything. If anything, he can kinda see you coming, seems to know what you’re going to do, and is the one who has a few smart questions for you. He’s just “ready.” And his mix is already “there.”

Sven-Erik Seaholm has been producing records for 25-ish years based on his strong and dedicated passion for what this is. He’s made a lot of records. Having worked with him, too, I admire his intensity and also his knack for locating the special place in an artist’s sound. Likewise, Jeff Berkley, with whom I’ve also worked, shares an intensity for locating an artist’s “thang” but in a different way, of course. He’s also made a lot of records. Jeff’s productions are noted for their sonic “smoothness.”

Paul Abbott is the guy you are least likely to see in a production. He’s the mastering guru at ZenMastering.com. He is also the guy who has to field the question: “What exactly IS mastering?” the most. I should know. I’ve worked with him regularly for a number of years now, based on his sense of responsibility for the music, his ability to keep the whole thing “about” the music – and the fact that his facility is only about the mastering process and, therefore, dedicates himself only to the crucial step in the process. In fact, he’s so good at it he writes articles on the subject routinely for top trade magazines such as EQ, Mix, and others. As an essential part of the recording process, Paul has facilitated a lot of productions by taking “final mix” to “radio-ready” status for artists all over the country – and even out of the country.

Then there’s me. Aside from writing and performing songs (and writing articles)… I got the bug to make records, too, in 2005, largely due to working with the gentlemen mentioned above and realizing I have a similar love for distilling ideas, techniques, personalities, fun, and music in general into a specific special sonic result. Being the newest kid on the block, it makes sense for me to act as the mediator in our discussion.

I threw 10 questions at my friendly peers.

  1. 1. What’s your line of work? How long ya been doin’ it?

Jonny: I’m a live audio engineer. I’ve been doing it for 12 years.

Sven: I am an independent record producer. I’ve been doing it for about 26 years.

Paul: I’m a mastering engineer. That’s all I do, and I set up shop in 2000…so that’s 11 years I’ve been at it. It came on the heels of a previous 10 years as a “professional” musician who spent a lot of time making recordings.

Jeff: Musician. I’ve been a working musician for 25 years and I’ve made my living at it for 19 years by learning to do as many aspects of the job as possible. I do all of that with amazing understanding from my daughter, Dakota Crow, and spot-on pro help from Lizzie Wann.

  1. 2. Explain your approach regarding what you do.

Jeff: In regards to producing and recording, which has become a huge part of my artistic life, I’ve been lucky that folks trust me with their music and that’s really what drives my approach. Most folks come to me wanting the colors I create to infuse their own music. I try and uncover or spotlight the artist’s “thing” in a way that captures the essence of who they are and what their music does to and for listeners. I want to crawl into their souls and find out where they’re headed and help them produce that vision by achieving the best songs and performances they’re capable of whether they knew they could do it or not.

Sven: I am out to help the artist make the very best music they can. I want them to feel proud of their recordings and proud of themselves. Part of my goal is to make them sound like they are giving their best performance ever. The other is to ensure that I am bringing everything great about this artist to the forefront, while minimizing their weaknesses. I do this in a very collaborative and positive environment.

Paul: I’m a specialist. Mastering is all I do. I realized back when I started ZenMastering that all the people in the music biz who were top-notch pros specialized in what they did. The mix engineers only mix, the mastering engineers only master, etc. It occurred to me that if I really wanted to be effective and succeed, that was the way to do it. Otherwise, you’ll never really dig down deep enough in any one field to offer world-class results and, in my opinion, that’s why amateur recordings sound different than professional ones: specialists vs. generalists.

Jonny: I look at each show differently: who’s playing, what’s the venue, who’s the client. This determines load in sound level, the equipment to bring in, etc. You need to do your homework. I find it makes the gig smoother to make these considerations.

  1. 3. What do you feel makes you unique to your craft? Discuss your “knack” and/or “mojo factor”?

Jonny: Staying calm and level-headed,… don’t be an ass..We are paid to provide a professional service and to be professional. A lot of engineers give us a bad rap.

Paul: Well, tying into the question above, I don’t try to overreach. I know what mastering can – and can’t – do, and I try to work effectively within those parameters. I think that’s my knack: understanding the parameters of the gig in a way only a specialist can. What makes me unique [the mojo factor] is unquantifiable. But for the sake of this article, I have a selection of hand-picked gear that probably only a few dozen people in the world can match or surpass – from the playback system [speakers, amps, cables, converters] to the processing [great analog gear by top manufacturers]. Speaking of mojo, the compressor I use is custom built and I think it’s one of only two in existence.

Jeff: I’m just me. I use my own particular strengths to do what I do. I feel like I’ve become pretty good at guiding players and singers to extraordinary performances by just helping them get to that place inside where the performance is flowing out with power and magic. I’ve learned that if I just listen and understand my artists, follow my guides, and stay open minded to everything, things go well and I earn the trust of my artists right away. That’s what everyone in this article is after. Trust. Sometimes we ask artists to do things that seem ridiculous to them. If they trust you, those things can be magic!

Sven: I have a deep love of songs and songwriting. People tell me I can get inside a song very quickly, like I’ve known it as long as they have and share that same intimacy with it. At the same time, I don’t share any long-standing emotional attachments to their song, so I’m able to make difficult decisions more easily. Being an artist as well helps me with the empathy that is so crucial to good communicating in the studio. Add to that my command of the technical side of things and I guess I just make it easy for the artist to relax into their creative self.

  1. 4. Please share a method or two on how you approach the folks you work with and the situations you encounter.

Sven: I listen. I let the artist run for a while through all their ideas and inspirations. After a time, something will cause me to react. I may make a suggestion or point out an alternate choice. You don’t grab for the salt and pepper without tasting the food first, right? I tell clients at the outset, “You may not hear a lot from me at first, but I will steadily begin to chime in more, as I fall in love with all your ideas and rise to defend them.”

Jeff: Well, the first thing is I like to spend time prior to recording to just hang and play the tunes. I actually record those rehearsals and use them to help with arrangements. Mostly it’s to try and get to know the tunes as well as the artists themselves. Those rehearsals are where we work out arrangements, editing of the tunes, rhythm section parts, tones and production ideas. These will all be fleshed out in tracking but by the time we’re rolling for tracks, everyone knows what they’re doing. Any arguments are long over and worked out and things go very positively on tracking days.

Paul: Mastering is the last step before people listen to music, so I get people who are at the end of a very long process…from writing to arranging then recording and mixing. In most cases, they’ve lost their objectivity somewhere along the line. I know I would have. So, I offer an objective ear and perspective, and in general just try to give them honest feedback, constructive criticism, and support so they can know that what they’ve done will sound as good as it can when it leaves my studio.

  1. 5. You all love what you do, and it shows in your work. What do you love about what you do?

Sven: I love being involved in the creative process of making recordings come to life. When you listen to something and it changes how you feel, that sticks with you. And I really enjoy knowing I was part of that.

Jeff: Everything from the interaction with other artists to the gear itself. I love great songs and musicians who can play tastefully with grace and power and I love the process of bringing them all together to create a living, breathing thing with a life of its own.

Sven: I love that we are all conspirators of beauty. That no matter how much the world throws at us or withholds from us, we are undauntedly and continually bringing grace and love into the world.

Chuck: I feel very much the same as you guys. As an artist my whole life I view songs and artwork as my children or yours. When in the studio with any particular artist, I become Uncle Chuck to those songs. MY approach is to raise those kids right and help them be what they want to be.

  1. 6. What is the first problem you expect to encounter when engaging in a professional situation? And how are you prepared for this expectation?

Jeff: From my perspective it’s the learning curve. My first puzzle is getting to know each artist or artists personally and artistically. So, I go to shows, attend their parties, hold rehearsals, and just spend some time with them. I try to first build trust and get everyone on board before the train leaves the station.

Chuck: I encourage any artist to come in prepared. I also urge that the most important factor regarding the success of their music result is in what they do as opposed to what I can edit or fix.

Sven: Mostly, it’s just in making sure that whatever people may need is close at hand: Water and good coffee; headphones set at good levels. Anything that will help artists to breathe, in the artistic sense.

Paul: I think it’s all about qualifying my clientele and managing expectations. So, I try not to get involved in projects I feel I’m not right for. That said, I’ve also learned over the years that anything can go wrong at any step of the process…technically or personally. So I do my best to run due diligence on a daily basis to make sure all details are attended to. In the end, though, I think if you’re fair and honest with people, it will go a long way in smoothing out any glitches that may occur. I received an e-mail from a client recently that I think exemplifies this: “Above any kind of fancy equipment or big name credits, what I look for in the music business and in life is people who are kind hearted, patient, and committed to bringing out the best in themselves and others. As far as I can tell, you are all of those things, and I really appreciate your collaboration.”

  1. 7. What advice do you share with those who could become your future client?

Jeff: Write or choose the best songs you can. Songs that allow you to do your thing. Learn to perform those songs with power and magic. Remember when you first wrote or learned the song, you couldn’t stop playing it. It gave you a warm feeling inside to just sit in your room late at night and sing that song! That’s where you should be when we record it.

Paul: My advice is for people to learn the time-honored tradition of making a recording. In the computer era of home recording, many people are skipping or consolidating steps because they’ve heard a piece of software will let them do it. A computer is just a storage medium that uses random access storage instead of linear and allows you to manipulate data creatively and rapidly. Otherwise, you still need to know how to make a recording that sounds good. And the best way to do that is to pay attention to how people before you did it.

Sven: Be prepared. Finish the songs. Play them for people. Be clear on why you want to make a recording. Make the time for it and stick to it.

Chuck: Play from love. Go to the place inside you that inspired the creation of the tune and live it again. Get the music “under your hands,” and eliminate excuses through preparedness while remaining open-minded.

  1. 8. Most notable or satisfying situation that involved your “knack” or “mojo.”

Sven: I suppose any time someone comes up to you and says how much they love a record you’ve worked on, that’s certainly satisfying. It’s a solid compliment too, because you know how hard you worked on it and someone actually noticed! Awards are notable, but customer satisfaction is king.

Paul: I just like having the freedom to try some different things that will bring a recording in to focus. So, whatever that is — from simple to complex — I’m satisfied when it happens. I guess it’s sort of like a chess game: conceptualizing the correct move and “hearing” what needs to be done is really the fun, satisfying part of it for me. The “mojo” is for other people to perceive.

Chuck: Knowing it’s emblematic of the artist’s heart. Hearing it kick ass when it comes back from manufacturing. Hearing it on the radio. But the returning smiling client tells me we respected the art more than anything.

Jeff: It’s whenever a “risky” or “strange” idea works. Also, that moment when the record plays back and the artist gets a bit of a tear. That’s groovy as hell!

  1. 9. Define your ideal situation for exploiting your talent to its fullest. (see question 7).

Sven: As a sonic chef, I am only as good as my raw materials. The somewhat negative saying is “garbage in, garbage, out,” but when you’re working with a truly great artist or musician, everything elevates. Everyone ups their game. So, obviously, the ideal situation is to be ensconced in the musical kitchen surrounded by the finest ingredients.

Paul: ZenMastering.

Jonny: Having a show go off with out a hitch…

Jeff: Well, it’s when everyone involved is on board with the vision, open to everything and working as a team. Then everyone is free to share their own talents and character.

Chuck: Common vision (sound ethic) applied to different ideas applied to sticking up for the “song.

  1. 10. Please explain, address, and/or offer any other insight that explains your “thang.”

Paul: Mastering can be a mystery because, in a sense, it’s a reactive process. I can’t tell you what it is I will do from project to project because what I do is based on what people did before me in the recording process. How they placed a mix or turned a knob changes how things sound and, therefore, my decision making. Sometimes I’m using a hammer and chisel, and sometimes I’m using a dentist’s drill. But the key is for me to listen and decide what really needs to be done. That’s where the objectivity and experience come in.

Jeff: I love powerful, character-driven performances of world-class songs performed with warm, tasteful, and unique sounding players and instruments, mic’d with microphones with their own personality all recorded, mixed, and mastered through great analog gear! Is that too much to ask?

Sven: My name is printed on the back of the CD. I want to make sure it’s good enough for that. The artist’s name goes on the front. It HAS to be good enough for them.

Chuck Schiele is an award-winning music professional for 25 years as a songwriter, performer, record producer, events producer, music writer, and San Diego Music fan.

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