Tuesday, August 20th, 2019

Tre Sheppard : ‘backing track blues’

By Tre SheppardJuly 1, 2012


Tre Sheppard
After 12 years as the frontman of the critically acclaimed rock n roll band “onehundredhours,” Tre Sheppard now works as a producer, songwriter, and mix engineer from his private studio, zero:hour, based on the north coast of Northern Ireland.  Songs he has produced and co-written have been heard on radio stations around the world, including BBC Radio 1, NRK P3, and across America.  His projects have included Norwegian band “John Snow” whose single “Brighter Days,” co written and produced by Tre, had 40 million listens on US radio in one week.  As the Vice President, A&R and Artist Development, of Fersk Management, Tre has a proven record in identifying and developing new artists and works closely with record labels, song supervisors and agents in LA and across the globe.  He is signed to EMI/CMG publishing, was nominated for a Dove Award in 2011, and is well known in the UK and beyond for his unique blend of “faith, hope and rock n roll.”

If you read my column last month, you’ll know that I had just wrapped up and sent off my article as I headed for the airport… Well to be honest, I actually had to go quickly shower and finish packing and THEN head to the airport, but either way, it was pretty crazy.  And it hasn’t really changed much since I left as I had yet another trip to Spain and several overnighters in the UK, so I’ve been living out of my suitcase, wearing the same clothes, and using tiny toiletries for far too long!

As a producer and songwriter, the music management side of my work is usually a nice diversion from my daily studio schedule.  It’s also helpful to be right on the frontline of feedback from record labels and sync managers so I can see where I might need to raise my game or find some unique angles in production or songwriting.  And it’s always good to leave the rain in Northern Ireland for sunshine of LA, even if I spend most of my time in meetings…

So overall, it’s been a great month.  The negotiations we began in LA continue and we’ll see what develops there for the band… but you can’t really wait around in this business, so the guys are back in their rehearsal room in Norway, furiously working on ideas.  And I had been looking forward to getting off the road, out of the hotels and back in front of the console, making music.  But unfortunately, the artist I was scheduled to work with had an unexpected death in the family and we had to cancel the sessions and completely reschedule her project.

All of which left me with a sudden hole in my studio/work schedule over the last week… something that I very rarely get nowadays!  But unless you have numerous, full time, multi-talented support staff at your studio (and just to be clear, I don’t!), you’ve got to take advantage of these open slots in your calendar to make sure you’re completely on your game when the sessions restart.

My first priority was some rest.  Even though I’d planned on flying back in and starting up this new session after the weekend, I knew that I had to get some rest to recover from all of the travel, jet lag and insane hours I’d been keeping on the road.  It’s very important to schedule your sessions and projects with enough rest time to make sure you keep your edge, but it’s also vital to get some completely unstructured down time so you can continue to be something that resembles a human…

One complete day of lounging and two nights of sleep later, I was ready to tackle the next thing on my list: backing track mixes for one of our other artists.  Whenever I finish a mix, I always do the typical instrumental and TV versions of each mix, but there are times that I need to do a few more specialised versions of a mix for an artist’s live use.  Typically these are just a few pads or rhythm guitar parts that sit in with their live performance and add that extra something to take a great show to the next level.

Backing track mixes really are tedious... so you gotta break it up a little. Getting your artist to pose as a dog at the console is an ideal plan.

In this case however, the artist isn’t always able to travel with his full band and needed several different backing versions for various touring scenarios.  I have to admit, I don’t really enjoy the process of mixing parts of a song for backing tracks… it’s a necessary thing, but it’s not anywhere near the buzz of bringing a full single into focus as you mix.  So I’d sort of been putting these backing mixes off like my kids do when they have a big school project that they don’t want to do!It can be really tedious to revisit a mix that’s long been finished and is on the radio, and then try to break it down into several components that can bolster a live performance… yet it had to be done as this artist is getting ready for all his summer gigs and currently has two tracks A-playlisted on radio, so the crowds will be expecting a scorching performance.

For me, the real art to backing tracks is working to find what elements are missing from the live performance and to layer them so that they don’t become the performance.  I’m certainly a fan of bands playing live and I’m fortunate to work with artists who are extraordinary musicians, so I don’t feel a pressure to cover for them with their tracks as much as to enhance an already amazing performance.  But it’s a tricky thing… you’ve got to really balance the elements in your mix and be ruthless with your cuts.  Otherwise, you risk taking away from the live performance and at worst, pushing your artist towards karaoke!

Of course, once you’re done with the backing track mixes, the band needs to rehearse with them and see how they work… and you’ll usually have another round of tweaks in that process.  In fact, the better the band, the more you’ll end up deleting!  Sometimes, you might end up with just a shaker and synth pad when you’re finished which doesn’t really leave you with that ‘satisfied that I’ve been really creative today’ feeling when you finish…

The only problem with loads of guitars in the studio is somebody has to restring them all. And that somebody is me this week.

So with the backing tracks done, I could then dive into my next catch-up/maintenance/upkeep task: sorting through the deadly ‘drawer of death’ that every studio has somewhere.  Perhaps it’s a closet or trunk in your studio, but in mine, it’s a drawer that anything like console tape, random tools, IEC leads, midi cables, XLR tails etc etc ends up in.  My assistant hates this drawer as I have him sort it out every two months or so and for about 24 hours, it’s pristine, useful and actually quite inspiring to look at… and then we get back to work of making records and every extra piece of anything to do with a session somehow, inexplicably, finds its way into that drawer.

As you can imagine, whatever adaptor/tool/mic clip/cable you absolutely HAVE to have immediately to make the next session work is buried in there, somewhere… and the more you need it, the deeper it is in the ‘drawer of death!”

And that is why I’m currently surrounded by piles of strange cables, mic clips, mostly used gaffa tape rolls, a broken set of studio headphones I’m sure I can fix, two tambourines, a bizarre sleigh bell/woodblock thing we taped together for a sound we called ‘Bad Santa’ and at least 8 different, unlabelled power supplies that are certainly vital to some piece of gear somewhere in my studio, if only I knew which piece of gear that was!

The rock n roll business certainly isn’t glamorous all the time, eh?  I still have patchbay maintenance, rack rewiring and guitar restringing to look forward to at least.

I’m sure you can note my sarcasm… if not, let me make it clear, I’m not looking forward to ANY of that!  But you gotta do what you gotta do, eh?

All in all, it’s never the same day twice and that’s what makes our art/business so exciting some days and so dreadfully tedious on others.  I for one can’t wait to get out of this slot of catch-up/maintenance/upkeep and get back to making music… see you next time if I can find my way out of this drawer!!

Tre Sheppard
July 2012

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