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Recording engineer Todd Stotler learned by interning, practice

March 25, 2011|BY CHRIS COPLEY | chrisc@herald-mail.com
  • Recording engineer Todd Stotler sits at his 36-channel sound console at Echoes Recording Studio in Sharpsburg. White tape under his wrist shows the instrument on each track. The computer screens show a visual representation of each tracks volume and characteristics. In the corner of the room sits his two-inch, reel-to-reel analog tape recorder.
By Kevin G. Gilbert/Staff Photographer

SHARPSBURG —
When Todd Stotler was 13, he had a life-changing experience. It started with a documentary of his favorite band.

"I was greatly influenced to get into recording by The Beatles," Stotler said recently, standing in Echoes Recording Studio in Sharpsburg. "I'm watching 'The Compleat Beatles' and listening to George Martin talk about how they made their music. I'm thinking, 'That's what I want to do.' As a 13-year-old."

Now 38, Stotler has been a recording engineer since he graduated from Boonsboro High School. The thrill has not left him.

"I'm working in music. All different styles. I love crossing over the genres," he said.

Stotler never went to college. He learned the ropes by acquiring gear and practicing. He also went to California and interned at two studios.

"I started out self-taught. I recorded my band, bands of friends and friends' friends," he said. "Then I went out to L.A. and interned in studios. There was a small studio where I learned a lot. Then I went to a huge studio with an indoor swimming pool and a massage parlor. I met Eric Clapton."

When he returned home to Sharpsburg, he wanted to set up a smaller studio with a down-home, informal vibe. Echoes Recording Studio is in a farmhouse outside Sharpsburg. The decor is retro. Walls are decorated with tie-dyed banners and old concert posters. Promo photos and recently released CDs line the stairwell.

Stotler has achieved a certain level of professional respect, especially among acoustic musicians. Most of his clients come from the Mid-Atlantic region, but he's also worked on projects with national acts — Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter John Mayer, R&B singer Arturo Castro, bluegrass musicians Darren Beachley and Barry Scott of the Beachley & Scott Band and bluegrass singer Rhonda Vincent.


Challenging

To an outsider, the concept of recording music seems simple: A band or soloist goes to a sound studio, performs while the engineer records the music and then works with a producer to create the finished album.

Simple. But complicated, Stotler said. For one thing, different bands want different sounds.

"We do all kinds of music here. We do a lot of rock, we do a lot of bluegrass. We do country. You name it," he said. "I think I would go nuts only working with one style."

For another thing, different performers prefer different work schedules. Some bands reserve a solid week or two at Echoes. Other bands stretch out their recording sessions — a couple days a month for a year or two.

Scheduling musicians can be challenging. Some bands have internal issues or creative disagreements.

"Rock bands don't really stick together. They break up all the time," Stotler said. "Bluegrass bands stay together."

Stotler said he's produced more than one rock album that was not formally released. One project took three years, he said, bankrolled by a father of a band member. On the verge of releasing the ambitious album, the band broke up. That album, Stotler said, "will never see the light of day."


Keep it clean

Then there's the matter of capturing sounds. Microphones are designed for specialized purposes. Some capture voice better. Others capture amplified sounds. Still others work better for acoustic instruments. Stotler has dozens of mics to meet his clients' needs.

Normally, he said, music is recorded one instrument or voice at a time. Stotler has a lively, bright-sounding studio for recording drums, a sound-deadened studio for recording voice and a third studio that's in between the others. This approach gives the recording engineer better control over the quality of the final product.

Microphone placement is also key. Electric instruments have built-in pick-ups for amplifying or recording, Stotler said, but not acoustic instruments. Mics must be set up to capture the full sound of an instrument. One mic will suffice for most instruments, but drums require more, up to 10 or more mics for the snare, bass drum, cymbals and other elements of a standard drum kit.

And some bands prefer a "live" sound. They want to perform all at the same time. So Stotler sets up partitions and baffles — performers can play simultaneously, yet Stotler can still isolate each instrument and voice.

"You've got to get the recording right," he said. "People say ‘Fix it in the mix.' But that's a joke. You cannot do it."


Retro sound

When capturing sound, Stotler offers clients two options: All-digital; or old-fashioned, analog, magnetic tape.

"We're one of the few studios left that offers analog tape," Stotler said. "It has a retro sound. But it's expensive — $300 for one reel of tape, and that'll get you all of 15 minutes."

Echoes has a bank of analog sound processors - equalizers, compressors and preamplifiers and more - some of which Stotler built himself. His two-inch, 24-track, reel-to-reel tape recorder stands in the corner of the mixing room. The tape recorder is about the size of a washing machine.

"I've got jobs from people who see I have that reel-to-reel machine," Stotler said. "They don't use it, but they like that I have it."

About half of Echoes is digital, and the heart of the operation is a digital, fully restored, 1982 MCI 36-channel mixing console.

Stotler admitted he's a geek.

"Some people love to restore old cars," he said. "I restore old sound equipment."


Into the mix

Whether a band records using analog tape or digital technology, Stotler said he does all his mixing digitally. He approaches each band's music individually. He said he tries to avoid doing the same thing for all bands. That "templating," he said, leads to a cookie-cutter approach.

"Bluegrass is hard to record, but easy to mix. It practically mixes itself," Stotler said. "Rock is the opposite. It's easy to record but hard to mix. There's a lot of manipulation of the sound."

Acoustic band members typically don't want to change the sound of its instruments. Pop, contemporary country and modern rock instruments are heavily processed, and bands often want to add special effects — reverbs, delays, changes to the shape of the notes - to instruments and voices. All this affects the time it takes to produce a song.

"I can mix a bluegrass song in an hour and a half," Stotler said. "A rock song can take five days. It depends on the complexity."


Growing outlets

Stotler loves his work. During his busy period - roughly September through May — he works seven days a week. During afternoons, he works alone in the studio on booking clients, marketing, maintaining his equipment and tweaking his website, www.echoesrecording.com. In the evening, he works with clients, typically to midnight or 1 a.m.

In the past couple years, he's worked with a lot more local bands.

"This area wasn't known as a hotbed of activity," he said. "But Shepherdstown has exploded. Even Hagerstown is growing - lots of metal (rock) bands."

Stotler showed how he uses his console. On a piece of white tape beneath the 36 rows of controls, he labeled the instrument on each track. For a rock band, that would typically be eight to 10 tracks for the drum set, plus a bass guitar, a lead guitar, a rhythm guitar and perhaps a "scratch" vocal track to help coordinate the instruments. Later, the scratch vocal will be replaced with a final vocal track recorded after the instrument mix is completed.

Stotler uses a digital-audio workstation to mix the sounds. He cleans up each instrument track as needed, then synchronizes all the tracks. He balances the instruments' volume, manipulates the sound as needed and produces a final version. This is where Stotler calls on his sense of musical artistry.

"I do a lot of mixing on my own for bands," he said. "I have my input, then the bands come in and they have their input."

Band members review Stotler's mix and make additional changes to suit their artistic vision and style. At some point, everyone agrees the song is completed.

Then it's on to the next song.

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