When I first step into Brad Smith‘s recording studio on the south side of Edmonton, I’m not sure what to expect. Sex, drugs and rock ‘n’roll? Hung over musicians half-heartedly strumming their guitars while their groupies text in the background?
Instead of tired cliches, I find Smith, a recording engineer and music producer, smiling warmly, and wearing jeans and a charcoal hoodie. He offers me tea before giving me a tour of the studio he moved into two-and-a-half years ago.
Smith, who grew up in Edmonton, studied at the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts – co-founded by Sir Paul McCartney – for two years before dropping out. After moving to New York, he found a job in a hip hop recording studio working with producers he admired, like Kiyamma Griffin, Easy Mo Bee and producers from Mary J. Blige’s camp.
Despite an abundance of work, Smith had trouble getting a visa to stay in the United States because of his field of work, so, after about a year, he returned to Edmonton and got married. He ran Julio’s Barrio on Whyte Avenue for several years, but always kept working on music. About five years ago, he went back to engineering and producing music full-time at Sound Extractor Studios.
A couple of years later, Smith moved into his current studio. “There’s so much opportunity and growth here in Edmonton now. Ten years ago, chances were, being able to work here full-time as an engineer or producer were slim. Now, there’s about six to 12 of us here who work full-time as engineers, studio owners, et cetera,” says Smith. “And now, artists are staying in Edmonton more than they were before. Usually, I felt like artists would achieve a certain level of success and then would have to go elsewhere to achieve more success. But I’m finding, more and more, artists are willing to stay.”
Now, he makes music with a variety of local artists, including soul singer Nuela Charles, folk artist Jay Sparrow and indie folk rockers Scenic Route to Alaska. “That’s the great thing about Edmonton; the music community is so diverse. The era of music we’re heading into is completely genre-less,” says Smith. “This year, I’ve worked on a hip hop record, a folk-pop record, a folk-punk record; I’m kind of making a rock record right now. I just finished an electro-soul record. It’s becoming harder and harder to put a label on what genre people are in.”
Smith wears two very different hats at work. As a recording engineer, he records, mixes and masters bands – the three main phases of a recording project. “There are a lot of technical aspects. But, at the same time, it’s a very artistic craft as well – your microphone choices, your pre-amp choices, all affect the overall sound and sound quality,” says Smith. “It’s a constant left-brain, right-brain job. You have to make logical, informed decisions, but, at the same time, you have to be very creatively-minded.”
When he is producing music, his focus is on ensuring he can bring something to the project and that he’s the right fit for the job. “Producing is a much more indefinable art,” says Smith. “Engineering is tactile; producing, there is psychology involved. What kind of mood is the artist in today? You’re trying to make sure that you’re eliciting an emotional response out of the performer and out of the listener. A lot of it is taste and social skills; your ability to interact with a band and realize their vision.”