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Boston Girl Guide


March 2008


Photo by Paul Mehlhaff


Danielle Egnew

"The Greatest, and Sexiest,
Female Producer Alive"

By Lori Pritchett

Behind the closed stage curtains, sexy songstress and actress Danielle Egnew is much more than her hot body and her hot voice. She knows what she’s doing, inside the studio and out, producing her own albums that built the stairway to the top. Most artists get assigned producers once they get a record deal, and that producer can make or break the artist’s sound, and that’s why Danielle Egnew has always produced her own music, from all-girl Pope Jane and beyond. She was so good at it that she went on to produce other people’s music, too, and continues to produce her own projects as an artist while signed to Maurice The Fish Records. I picked Danielle Egnew’s brain on how she makes her magnificent music magic, and how this sultry musical genius came into being who we know today -- the world’s greatest, and sexiest, female producer.

Lori Pritchett: When you were working on all your own albums, did you ever think that you would be considered one of the best music producers in the industry?

Danielle Egnew: No, no, I didn’t. I was just consumed with getting a great sound for the project, but that’s a really great side perk!

LP: What was your earliest sign that you would go into recording and producing music?

DE: Well thinking back, I was McGuyvering multi-track devices when I was thirteen. I remember being at my Auntie Joan and Uncle Vic’s house in Tucson one Christmas, and I had my Montgomery Ward boom box with me. It had a dual cassette deck, and I remember thinking that was so cool, because I could make copies of tapes. This Montgomery Ward boom box had the best sound ever, and it had stereo condenser mics built into it. Actually, it was pretty tricked out for a boom box, come to think of it. But anyway, I had it sitting up on my aunt and uncle’s spinet piano, and I was playing and singing some song I was making up, and it occurred to me that if I found another cassette recorder, I could play the already-recorded piano and vocal tape, and sing a harmony line live while recording on the other recorder, and I would have a tape of me singing two parts and playing the piano. So I asked my aunt and uncle if they had a tape recorder, and they had one of those hand-held Radio Shack deals that everybody had in the eighties, you know, the one with the silver carrying handle? I did end up recording back and forth between these two tape players, and I ended up with this really hissy tape of me with, like, four vocal parts, and by then, the original piano and vocal part was all distorted and hissed out (Laughing) but man, I thought it was the bomb, so I stuck that hissy, crappy tape in my boom box and made copies of it for everybody in the family, which gave it even more tape hiss, like the thing sounded like it had a barrel of snakes in the background. I mean, it was bad! (Laughing) My family was nice about it, though.

LP: Female music producers are tough to find, and so are female recording engineers, and you do both. Do you like one better than the other?

DE: Oh yeah, well, I prefer to Produce, I mean, who doesn’t? Because producing is more creative, and a tiny bit less hard-wired technical in many areas than engineering. I just don’t enjoy crawling on the floor with mics as much as I do working at the board, bottom line, but I do it all the time on my own stuff, so I guess I should shut up about it, huh?

LP: What was your first multi-tracking experience as an engineer?

DE: Probably the most hands-on was with a Tascam cassette four track recorder that my best friend Kristen bought for me. It was back in 1992, ‘93, somewhere in there. I did produce on my album when I was signed to Whatever Wreckards in 1991, and we recorded on these fat-sounding analog Tascam half inch cake tapes, but I didn’t engineer that album.

LP: Did you produce any commercially-sold records on that Tascam four track, or was it just for fun?

DE: No, we sold product we recorded on the Tascam. I did a bunch of stuff with that studio, we [Pope Jane] all did. That was around 1994, 1995, right in there. By then, I’d learned a lot about working around analog hiss, something that many so-called producers these days have no idea how to deal with. I did a country album with Wayne Lembcke and that material went out to Chris Ledoux, Reba McEntire, and Alan Jackson. We also recorded our first Pope Jane album using that four track, going through a sixteen track rack-mount Alesis board, EQing the heck out of it, and mixing the drums, bass, and rhythm guitar live onto two of the four tracks. Then we’d lay down vocals on the two open tracks, and add any lead guitar lines punched in on one of the two open tracks, between vocals. I mean, it was some serious tricked out engineering, and there was absolutely no room for error. It was stressful, but it forced you to be perfect on the outset, which again is something that’s lost in our digital era with unlimited punch-ins and editing abilities.

LP: You mentioned “so-called producers”. What do you mean by that?

DE: Well, this is kind of a loaded and involved question, because I don’t ever want to discourage people from doing their own stuff and recording their own projects at all. I’m not talking about hard working musicians just getting their tunes out there in their home studios, because I think that everybody should do that. It’s just that the producer title is really trendy to throw around, and people drop it thinking it means that they’re in charge, or whatever. This is probably going to be a not-so-popular comment, but I’ve found that a lot of times the term ‘producer’ is tossed around by a lot of people who really haven’t worked in a full producer’s capacity, who perhaps wouldn’t know how to produce an album if instead of tweaking pre-made loop-based software programs in the home studio, they were placed in a control room with live musicians and five engineers waiting for instructions. I mean, with the ease of digital recording, and the ease of pre-produced loops that can be dropped into recordings, people buy an ACID Loops program and consider dragging and dropping loops to be “producing”, when in fact, it’s arranging, and that’s something completely different. Those loops have already been produced by someone else, and they sound slick and perfect, and they afford the person dragging and dropping them to be creative with an arrangement, but that’s not producing. Or someone thinks that throwing a mic in front of a guitar cabinet and capturing a signal is producing, but that’s actually engineering. Producing has to do with not only deciding how to capture the original signal, but how to sculpt that signal once you get it, and how to work with the musicians and singers in the studio to get the best performance for the mic, to produce the best signal and sound for the project, then how to give the entire project a consistent sonic identity, a personality as a body of work, and finally, how to tweak the arrangements and sometimes, the songs themselves, to best suit the artist’s vision for that body of work. A lot of younger live singers are used to sucking on a Shure 58 [microphone] live, screaming into the thing, and they go into a studio and try and do the same thing with a large-diaphragm Neumann, and it distorts like crazy. Producers have to be able to coach the vocalist on how to simulate the live energy in the studio with different mic techniques, if need be. Producers need to have a working knowledge of the different types of microphones, what they do, how to use them to create different sounds, I mean, the list is huge here. I know this is going to sound hard-nosed, but someone in the producing community needs to say it, because we need to educate the kids coming up who think that downloading loops is producing on how to actually produce, if that’s what they are interested in, so they don’t go to apply in a studio with other professionals and get laughed out the door with their drag-and-drop resume. Plus, it’s trendy to call yourself a producer, but I wouldn’t be calling myself a doctor if I knew how to apply antibiotic cream. That’s an extreme analogy, but I’m finding more and more an enormous crop of musicians coming up in a pre-produced digital era that can’t tell me the difference between Hertz and Kilohertz in the frequency spectrum, that can’t sit in a control room, listen, and call out frequency changes to the engineers to separate two fender Strat tracks in the mix without using effects, that when faced with using an analog system have no idea at all how to push the decibel margin to max it’s warmth because in digital [recording] it [sound] breaks up automatically at zero, that can’t coach a vocalist properly on their technique when the vocal approach isn’t fitting the mood of the song, that can’t communicate to a bassist or a guitarist or drummer a part that might be more effective for the song if there’s something sticking in the arrangement, that can’t tell the difference by listening between a plate reverb and a dark hall reverb, who don’t know how to use a basic panning spectrum to control volume instead of riding faders – I mean, I could go on and on and on, and all I am going to do is sound like a big preachy crab, but you can see that there is more to the producing job than simply loop matching or recording your project. I think it’s terrific that people do these things, and all of those things add to producer knowledge. I think it’s very creative and productive that people are part of their own recording careers. And yes, technically, if you are creating and recording – producing a product, you can claim to have produced your product. But I really encourage people to refrain from putting on the official Producer nametag unless you can walk into another artist’s recording session and support, enhance, and sculpt their entire sound, and be able to communicate to them, their players, and to the engineers how that is going to happen without getting up out of your chair, and without using your own computer software system.

LP: Producing sounds more intense than I would have thought, but why do you think more women aren’t doing it?

DE: I think a lot of women are producing, but it’s harder for women producers to make it to the place where they would get any notoriety in the more commercial leagues. That doesn’t have to do with the ability of the women producing, it has to do with political industry garbage getting in the way. I mean, it can be done, just look at me. But truth be told, a lot of women just tend to be more invested in the writing and performance aspect of music, rather than gutting it out in the technical area. Not always, of course, and there are some amazing women engineers out there, too, but at the risk of sounding like a crying girl, producing and engineering have been such a good ol’ boy’s club that most women don’t want to put up with the junk they have to put up with just to do their job. Producers have to work with a engineers, and I have watched female producers walk into sessions and these forty and fifty-something white guy engineers who are all frustrated producers just start smirking at one another and messing with the mix, just to make the chick in the chair look stupid to the client. It’s so juvenile.

LP: Have you had experiences with this type of “good ol’ boy’s club” you’re talking about?

DE: Oh yeah.

LP: I want to hear about it.

DE: Well, first I want to say that I’m not trying to beat a dead horse here. The sexism in the industry is slowly getting better, but it still has a ways to go. That being said, I had an engineer once that was an absolute jerk. It was a smaller studio in the Northwest, and he fancied himself quite the production maestro, but I was the one brought in by the client to produce the project, so he was furious. I always try and create a fun team feeling with the engineers in my sessions, but I mean, this guy was so resentful that a woman was coming in to produce that he would deliberately do almost the opposite of what I was asking. So I waited until he got up to use the restroom and I went and sat down in his chair, and started tweaking the settings to get what I wanted. He came back from the restroom and was sort of freaked out I was in his chair and asked me what I was doing, and I calmly told him that since he didn’t know what I was talking about when I asked him to tweak this and that, I thought I would sit down and do my job, and his. I mean, I knew he knew what I wanted, he just wouldn’t do it, that was the issue. He got sort of quiet, and tried to act like he had been doing what I had asked him, and I just told him matter-of-factly that that was garbage and he knew it, and that he was wasting everyone’s time, my time, mostly the client’s time, and he was wasting the client’s money since he wasn’t working productively on the project, so I was letting him go for the day. He got really mad, and told the other guy in the studio that if he needed to leave, so did the other guy. But the other guy wasn’t having any of it. The jerky guy huffed out of there, and we whizzed through the session without his interference with me on his position on the board with the other guy, and we finished the session a day early. So not only did he miss the gig and the pay, but he missed getting listed as an engineer on the liner notes for the client’s CD. I am an extremely respectful person, but I am not going to be bullied by someone, and a lot of times a female producer gets pushed into having to bust chops to get the work done for the client, and that’s so uncomfortable, but as they say in my home town in Montana, if your bad attitude leads you with your chin, you’re going to hit the floor. At least, when you’re working on my team.

LP: How old were you when this happened?

DE: I was 27.

LP: Do you mind if I ask you how old are you now?

DE: Not at all. I’m 39.

LP: If you were faced with the same situation in a studio today, how would you handle it differently?

DE: That’s hard to say, because I am in a wonderful position now after many years of producing successful projects that I don’t get that same unnecessary snarky attitude from people in the studio, thank goodness for that. But if I did, I wouldn’t bother going through the whole sitting in the chair thing. I don’t bother with facing someone down in the studio, that’s just so eighth grade at this point, and I don’t have anything to prove by doing that. I just don’t choose to work with people like that. It’s pretty simple for me.

LP: How do you choose people to work with in the studio?

DE: Well a lot of times, I walk into a project with a set studio group, but if I’m picking a team, I don’t tolerate unprofessional people that waste other people’s time, especially if they start becoming a problem or becoming a flake or hurting others or whatever. Everybody has slip-ups and bad days sometimes in any profession, and you make accommodations for those, but some people just aren’t team players, and they push and push in a project and complain about everything, but don’t really contribute much of anything to the overall whole, and I just really have a hard time with people in a creative project who demand that they take their half out of the middle, and there is absolutely no excuse for that entitled behavior by one person that just ruins the whole experience for everyone.

LP: Have you found it’s different for women to be in charge of a studio session than it is for men?

DE: Not when you look at the end result, no, but I think women handle it differently. Women often times think they have to dive in and make everything peaceful and workable for everybody, like they’re some great peace-keeper or project mother of the Universe or something, whereas men will just fire someone who is bugging them on the spot, and replace them, and I think women, honestly, could learn a little bit from that creative detachment. Women tend to keep jerks around way too long in projects because they don’t want to be seen as mean or a bitch, or they feel like a failure because they can’t get the peace to flow on a project, and in the meantime, this jerky person is draining them dry and the overall project is being ruined because nothing is getting done. Emotions run high in creative circles, and working on a project is hard enough with everyone’s feelings involved without some Yahoo marching in with a God complex. I just won’t bother with that kind of unprofessional attitude in my projects. I’m too old for that! (Laughing)

LP: You spend a lot of time on details in the studio, so what is your take on iPods and digital formats like mp3s?

DE: Okay, let me just say that I love my iPod, but I’m a little freaked out that with these huge technological leaps in audio production, we’re flattening out all of our music tracks into 128 kbps audio samples and calling that “standard”! I mean, to give you a reference, an old record album from, say, the late seventies even has a much more densely-packed and expressive audio canvass than a 128 kbps mp3, and that’s with a needle dragging across grooves pressed in vinyl. I say this all the time, that I am shocked that in all of our technological gains in recording with the crystal clear digital systems, the most widely-used commercial format is the 128 kbps mp3. Most people don’t know this, but those mp3’s sampled at 128 kbps have less dynamics, and less frequency response in them than a 45 rpm vinyl single played with a mediocre needle. I tell people all the time to set their iPods and their Zunes or whatever to sample the CD’s into mp3’s at 320 kbps at 44.1 KHz, which is a CD Quality sample. The file size ends up being roughly about twice as large as the 128 kbps sample, and yeah, that eats up more space on your iPod, but do you really want to load in your music at about half its quality? What’s the point of that? I can’t stand the thin, compressed sound of those 128 kbps mp3’s. Apple’s MPEG4 iTunes format is a little more rich and dense than a 128 kbps mp3’s, and they do take up more memory. But most people work on the mp3 format, and if you do, you have more control over the sample rate than an MPEG4, which seems to default at an equivalent of a 256 kbps mp3. When I sell mp3’s, I make sure they are uploaded at 320 kbps, and if people want to knock them down to 128 kbps to save space on their iPod, that’s up to them. But I’m not going to take that great single and completely squash it. Most people don’t realize that an mp3 decides which frequency bandwidths to get rid of, mostly the high-highs and the low-lows, in order to make the file smaller. So you can spend a zillion hours mixing this perfectly balanced song with all this sparkle and punch and then you convert it to an mp3 at 128 kbps, and you’re flushing down the toilet most of the sonic balancing work you did on the record. Most people don’t get as nutty as I do about this, or they say they don’t notice the difference in sound, but I sure do and I just think it’s such a waste. It would be like a fantastic artist working days blending nine of his own colors to achieve the world’s most incredible sunset painting, only to digitalize the painting and having that custom color mix come out a standard crayola orange, because that’s the closet default color the computer could reference in order to save space. And then having all the prints of that painting duplicated off of the crayola orange digital master – the artist would have a heart attack! (Laughing) No, it’s true, I wish we could create a smarter file system that didn’t remove frequency bandwidth to save space! Somebody needs to come up with a more sonically-friendly file compression format than an mp3 or MPEG4. In the meantime, artists should know what they are doing to their tunes when they convert them to 128 kbps mp3s.

LP: If I were an up and coming female producer, what would be the first thing you’d tell me to do to me to get started?

DE: I would tell you to really familiarize yourself with how recording happens, because you can’t communicate it to someone else if you can’t do it yourself. Get a book on basic sound science, basic recording techniques, and read up on why certain things happen with sound. When you look at them, sound waves are really easy to get your brain around, not as hard as people think, and sound is the clay here. All recording and producing is, is the act of molding that clay without touching it. Then I’d tell you to buy a cassette multi-tracker, they’re really cheap these days, and start messing around with song demos by multi-tracking on that. I think a lot of digital recording programs can really overwhelm people at first. If you can learn to get a good, clear, and strong mix on an analog cassette four track, you can definitely deal with unlimited digital tracks, which are a lot more forgiving. Learning on analog is a lot better, because if you don’t understand the character of sound, which for all intensive purposes is an analog signal in real life, you won’t understand how to capture it well when it’s in digital. I’d also tell you to work on your songwriting, and I’d tell you that if you were shy or weren’t good at talking to a group to go join your local Toastmasters club and work on your presentation and people skills.

LP: That’s a lot to think about.

DE: It’s not too bad once you get into it. My hope is that more artists who love what they do will expand into producing. Who knows what incredible sounds they may be able to create in the future?

Danielle Egnew is a singer, songwriter, TV and Film composer, producer, actress, multi-instrumentalist, screenwriter, speaker, radio show host, activist, a two-time All Access Music Award winner, and is a member of the Recording Academy (Grammys). Her accomplishments are viewable at

www.DanielleEgnew.com

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