“There’s no such thing as ‘too detailed'” – an Interview with CreativeLive’s Finn McKenty

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but at Gear Gods we tend to be fans of what the folks at CreativeLive are doing. It’s not too often you get the opportunity to sit down for two full days of lessons from recording legends like Kurt Ballou or Steve Evetts, for example. Have you had the chance to learn songcraft straight from the mouth of Eyal Levi? In person? Not likely. But a free online clinic (okay, fine, if you want to watch it again after the live broadcast it’ll run you a few bones) is the next best thing. God, I must have watched the full Kurt one twice already.

Finn McKenty is a name you may be aware of if you’ve watched a few of these, but maybe not. Maybe you only know him as the guy behind the laptop asking the occasional question to the presenter. But if a class was relevant to your interests as a rock or metal musician then it was put together by Finn. As the man in charge of CreativeLive’s music and audio channel, it’s his job to put together clinics that get you stoked, including by far the greatest one in the company’s history (in my completely unbiased opinion).

So after a fruitful relationship of a year or so it seemed like a good time to get Finn on the phone and learn what goes into putting these clinics together. His answers say a lot about us as a community.

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Finn with Kurt Ballou at NAMM

Gear Gods: What are the logistics of a live broadcast that makes preparing for it different as compared to how you’d prep for a prerecorded show?

Finn McKenty: Well, you’ve been part of one so you’ve had a firsthand look at it. As far as the technical side of things, I don’t really know a lot about that because we’re lucky enough to have a crew of audio and broadcast techs that take care of that. If there are any technical issues I just point and sit back. I’m spoiled and they take care of it. You’ve seen our studio. We’ve invested millions of dollars into building that thing. We’ve got two master control booths, each with, I think, 5 or 6 HD cameras and 24 channels of audio running into a TriCaster. So I don’t know exactly what the logistics are, but I know there’s a lot of stuff.

Do you know how your audio is being captured? Is it linked with the video capture or does it get routed separately? Do you use any special hardware for that?

You know, I really don’t. I know that we have a guy, now, who does sweetening for every audio class. So the version that you get in the catalog has actually been cleaned up from the live one. And by that I don’t mean that we edit it or anything. There’s no funny business going on. But you’ve got to ride the faders [when you’re broadcasting] live, and sometimes the last word of someone’s sentence will get cut off because they pressed play in Pro Tools. So we’ll go through and basically just automate the whole thing like you would a mix, which is a ton of work for something that long. But it really does make a difference because we’ve got an unusual thing where there’s talking and music going at the same time. Obviously they can compete with each other.

Or people talking on, on the couch, when it’s not their turn?

Yeah exactly. So he goes through and cleans up all that.

Has there ever been a class that you were considering trying to do and you just thought, “you know what? I just don’t know how we’re going to make this work, or do it justice, as a live clinic”?

Yeah. There’s a few things that.. don’t necessarily have to be, but to be done right [they] need to be done at an actual recording studio. And we do have the capability of doing that, but I haven’t pulled the trigger on that yet just because it’s really expensive and there’s a lot of moving parts there. For example, we just recently broadcast the first four hours of a class (Photographing America’s National Parks with Ian Shive) from Mount Rainier which is, I don’t know, a 10,000 foot tall mountain that’s an hour and a half from here. So if we can broadcast from Mount Rainier we can broadcast from inside a recording studio. But the tricky thing with a recording studio is oftentimes the control rooms aren’t very big.

So that’s really the only thing that I haven’t done yet. I know we can do that. I just haven’t actually done it yet. But one of these days when we get somebody big, like a Dave Pensado or Chris Lord-Alge or someone like that, they’re not going to want to do it from our studio. They’re going to want to be in their studio or, at the very least, in Seattle or San Francisco. So I think that’s probably when we’ll go that route.

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Toontrack’s Rikk Currence on songwriting with EZ Drummer 2

Does it seem like there are certain styles of music, I mean obviously you’re not going to do pop country or whatever…

I wish we would, because I actually like that stuff a lot.

[Laughs] But does it seem like digital music gets more of a focus, because of home producers on computers vs. analog for more DIY kinds of stuff?

Yeah, I think that’s a great way of putting it. Digital styles of music really are the best fit for us. The way that I describe our audience is “bedroom producers.” That’s our intended audience. I hope that the content is relevant for either beginners or more advanced people. But really people like me, or probably you, or a lot people that read your site, are probably the target audience: people that know a little bit about what they’re doing but are working in a home studio. I mean, mine is literally just like the corner of my living room. Other people have something more elaborate. But the two big constituencies with that kind of stuff are, basically, progressive metal (or various flavors of that, whether you’re talking about metalcore, deathcore, pop punk, whatever- like heavy music) and then dance music, electronic music. Those are pretty much the two big constituencies there in terms of music that people make at home, and as production-intensive.

There’s a lot of people that make folk, or indie rock, or singer-songwriter stuff at home; but that’s not very production-intensive. You know, with one omni mic you could make an Elliot Smith record, no problem. It’s really about the song and the performance. There’s not a lot of post-production that needs to go on. It doesn’t have to sound as pristine in terms of production. There’s less moving parts. I think that’s the reason why it’s less of a fit for us. I’d love to that stuff one of these days if it makes sense. I don’t program stuff because it’s necessarily my favorite type of music or anything like that. It’s just, you go to Barnes and Noble and look at the music magazines and probably 70 or 80% of them are electronic music or metal. And I think it’s a) what you said about the digital home studio component of it, and I think it’s also that those are the ones where there’s a real, global community. Without sounding like a hippie, there really is a legitimate, global, real-life and internet community around both of those kinds of music.

Yeah, I think there’s something that goes hand-in-hand about writing about music on your laptop and then just being on your internet browsing forums about production.

Yeah, exactly. And people like Misha (Mansoor, Periphery), you know, he’s a forum kid, you know what I mean? Now he’s in one of the most influential bands in metal, but he’s a forum kid. And people really connect and identify with that. “Man, Misha did it. He put in all that hard work and if Misha did it then maybe I can do it too.” Because 5 to 7 years ago he was just another shmuck posting on, I don’t know, sevenstring.org or whatever.

I also just think those are styles of music that have developed their sound based on what sounded good in a bedroom setup; in the same way that back in the ‘50s you couldn’t play too fast because the recording gear and environments wouldn’t pick it up as well. There’s a lot of that “because it sounds good with this amp modeling setup I’m going to gravitate towards what it renders better.”

Totally, and that’s what I was talking about with the Toontrack guys. It’s really interesting how it’s come full circle. The drum sounds that people want to get in the studio now are very influenced by Drumkit from Hell. In the same way that kids want to sing with Auto-Tune now, they want drums that sound like very processed, either virtual drums or highly-edited sample-reinforced [ones]. Like the djent bands use those super-tight noise gates and stuff because they want it to sound like, in my opinion, over-edited guitars.

I’m also noticing, because of the prevalence of drum programming software, [it’s] even influencing the style of how drummers play; like people not playing ghost notes on the snare drum because people don’t bother to program those when they’re doing the drum machine tracks.

Yeah, well my sample pack didn’t come with ghost notes so I can’t do them. [laughs]

So getting off of that rant, I noticed that you tend to work with some producers repeatedly, especially if they’re great presenters. Has someone pitched you an idea that you thought, “I don’t know… that seems like it won’t be popular, or it might be tough to present.” And then it turns out to be a really successful class?

Yeah, definitely. The one that particularly comes to mind is Eyal [Levi]’s metal songwriting class. We had done a bunch of stuff about mixing and engineering and I felt like I wanted to do something with songwriting. And for those of you who don’t know, Eyal went to Berklee. He’s been writing music since he was, literally, a child. His dad is a pretty famous symphony conductor. He became an engineer and mixer by accident. That’s not really what he does—he’s a songwriter, and he’s fucking amazing at it. So I was like, “let’s do this; let’s do something about songwriting.” And he said like “I don’t know. I don’t think it’s going to sell. I don’t think anyone wants advice about songwriting. Blah blah blah.” And I was like “maybe you’re right,” but we wound up trying it anyway and it ended up doing really well. And I was happy to see that because metal, being an often over-produced genre these days, it seems like songwriting is the one thing that nobody ever wants to talk about. I was happy to see that that’s at least not always true. It sold really well. We had Ryan Clark from Demon Hunter, and he talked about how he does things. We had Todd from Nails in, and John from Monuments. And we compared and contrasted their three styles. I thought it was awesome. I learned more about music theory and songwriting from putting that class together than I have in the last 20 years combined.

Any other classes that you personally leaned a lot from?

I mean honestly I’ve learned a lot from all of them. The thing is, for example, Andrew Wade’s guitar class—I don’t think anyone on the internet, or maybe in the world, I don’t think anyone has collected all that information about modern heavy guitars all in one place: everything from strings to pics to hand placement to intonation to, you know, re-amping and editing and blah blah. Just literally everything, the stuff that took me like three years of cobbling together YouTube and forum posts and stuff to learn on my own. We’re kind of starting from scratch on all of these topics because there’s no template for it. How do you teach someone how to produce modern death metal drums? I don’t know. Nobody’s ever taught that before, so we’ve got to figure it out from scratch. So I don’t know if I can point to any one particular one and say “wow, that’s the one that taught me so much.” I think it’s just a combination of everything.

I don’t want to compare myself to something this important but it’s like when bands started doing DIY tours. It’s like, “shit, how do you do this? I don’t know. Let’s just do it.” And you figure it out along the way. I certainly learned, in aggregate some of the things that work and don’t work. The one big takeaway that I’ve learned is that the more hyper-specific and deep you can get, the better. People’s appetite for detail, and I’m sure you know this because this is your bread and butter with your site, it’s endless. There’s no such thing as “too detailed.” Especially when it comes to metal.

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Kris Crummett on tracking and mixing with outboard gear

Obviously, it’s the internet, there’s all kinds of tutorials for whatever. But you go on YouTube and you look up tutorials for recording or whatever and it’s all general theory. And what separates these people that you get who are actually pros isn’t general theory. It’s very specific stuff.

Exactly. The thing with YouTube is that it’s great for bite-sized stuff. Like if I want to know how to use the “attack” setting on some compressor I’m going to look it up on YouTube and they’ll tell me “here’s what the ‘attack’ and ‘release’ settings do.” And in 5 minutes I’ll know it. But it’s the bigger-picture stuff like “how do you make bass sound good,” or these common problems that everyone has like “how do I make it so I can hear the details of the cymbals without them being too loud?” With that stuff there’s so many different things that go into that, and there’s very little comprehensive, holistic information like that on YouTube, in my opinion. If it’s out there you’ve got to dig through a lot of crap to find it.

I noticed that when I was watching the Kurt [Ballou] video. It was two days, two long day, and yet I realized that I could have watched two days specifically just on drums, or two days just on [getting guitar] tones.

Oh yeah. You think about how long it takes to learn, and not that I know it, I don’t, but how long did it take for Kurt to learn how to get the drum tones that he does? Like 20 years or something like that. So you’re not going to be able to condense 20 years of knowledge into a 4 hour segment.

So have you found that the most advanced-level stuff is what people are the most interested in?

…yeah, I think so.

Or do people want it specific but not necessarily advanced, if that makes any sense? Because I think that makes a difference.

Yeah I think you nailed it. What people want is something very specific, but also useful to them. Because giving them a technique that only works with a $100,000 mixing desk and a U87 and a full set of Waves plug-ins is not very useful. So what I think they want is very hyper-specific stuff using tools that are actually attainable to them. I like to use people to, when possible, use stock plug-ins and stuff. And most of them are excited about that because they’ll be like, “good. This will sound fine with stock plug-ins. Maybe it would sound a little better with Waves plug-ins but as, I think, most experienced people know, the two most important pieces of gear that you have are your ears and your brain. I wish gear made me sound better but it usually doesn’t, or it only makes a small difference.

So that’s our approach to it. Gear porn is cool and all but at the end of the day, when it comes to learning, it’s much better to show people how to do it with something that’s actually attainable by mere mortals. Or else we’re just jacking off over a bunch of stuff that most of us will never [own]. I mean, I don’t own most of that stuff.

So wrapping up, what do you have coming up that you’re most excited about right now?

Well I’ve got Kevin Lyman who’s the founder of Warped Tour and Rockstar Mayhem Fest doing a class, which is going to be pretty cool. I would say he’s probably the biggest name that we’ve had on, to date. He’s just universally respected.

What topic is that on, booking?

Pretty much about careers in music. If you’re an artist and you want to get on a festival like Warped Tour he’s going to cover that. If you want to be on the business side of things, whether you’re a manager or an agent, he’s going to teach you how to do that. Obviously the guy’s pretty much seen it all when it comes to independent music. It’s kind of a comprehensive thing.

The one that [Gear Gods] readers would be excited about would be… well, I haven’t announced this yet, so it’ll be your exclusive scoop.

Well, by the time I get this transcribed I bet you’ll have announced it. [laughs]

Well, actually we have two in December that your readers would be excited about. The first is that we’re going to have an advanced Axe-FX class. The beginning one sold really well and everyone loved it so we’re going to have Cooper Carter, who is one of their artists that does a lot of their demos and stuff. He’s going to teach it. It looks like Matt [Picone] from [Axe-FX manufacturer] Fractal Audio is also going to be there. I don’t know if you know him but he’s one of the main tech guys there. We’re working on getting some artists who are all on the list of the usual suspects who you might guess would be part of a class like this. Then, later in the month, we’ll have Tommy Rogers from Between the Buried and Me, with his producer and engineer Jamie King, to talk about his solo album as well as how they did some of the BtBaM stuff as well. They’re literally just going to dissect how they made the solo album, like “here’s how we did it.” And they’re even going to record guitar, drums, bass, and vocals live in the studio too, so you can see exactly how they do it. They’ve been working together since the beginning of BtBaM, and I think even before that because Jamie used to do some of the front-of-house sound for some of the clubs in North Carolina. So they’ve been working together for 15 years or something like that. They’ve got that same sort of dynamic as Ben Weinman and Steve Evetts, or Kurt [Ballou] and Nails—that sort of left and right hand dynamic. They’ve got that process down to a science.

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Chris Alfano has written about music and toured in bands since print magazines and mp3.com were popular. Once in high-school he hacked a friend's QBasic stick figure fighting game to add a chiptune metal soundtrack. Random attractive people still give him high-fives about that.