Tips from Sonny Black on how to set up a professional recording studio

Sonny Black? The Brooklyn mobster brought to the attention of the general public in the famous movie Donnie Brasco? The man whose real name was Dominick Napolitano and who was framed in an FBI operation?  There may be some similarities (hence the nickname), but no worries, this is not at all an unscrupulous criminal we are dealing with in this article! On the contrary, it’s about a talented composer that we are very proud to count among our professors here at Musitechnic.. The Sonny Black we are talking about is a music producer who has collaborated with artists such as K-Maro, Corneille, Yvon Krevé, Dubmatique and many others. He is also an experienced  piano player and, surprisingly, a ballet dancer! Currently operating from two recording studios in Montreal, Sonny’s career has seen him turn these creative spaces into inspiring musical places that meet the needs of artists and create warm atmospheres. We are pleased to share with you his advice as a professional music producer.

The Producer is at the Service of the Artist

As Sonny says, what guided him from the beginning and still guides him today is understanding what artists need and how he can help them in their artistic development. For him, the field of music production is one of personality. It’s about understanding what kind of personality you’re dealing with and whether you’re suited to work with it. He admits it himself, he sometimes refuses to work with certain artists with whom he doesn’t think he can find enough affinities. It is then a question of knowing which projects to choose: ”you’re gonna be in the studio for hours and hours and hours. If it’s not fun, like it’s gonna be work, but there has to be a little fun in there somewhere. So, I start with a conversation with the artist. What did they do before, what worked, what didn’t work. Usually, they come to me because whatever they were doing before was not really working for them.’’ Sonny likes to understand what kind of music inspires the artist he collaborates with by sharing playlists. He pays attention to what artists tell him and says that even simple jokes can be important. Also, if the performer appreciates something in particular about a producer’s skills, then he suggests emphasizing that aspect: ‘’They like that stuff?  Then do that, do more of that!” To understand the artist, it is also to remember that he or she will perform his or her songs many times. It is him or her who will have to live with the production of a song throughout his or her career, while the producer usually moves on to other things: ”Think of Prince. He sang Purple Rain from 1984 to 2016. That’s a very long time to sing the same song…” 

The Importance of the Equipment

Many aspiring professionals go into music production trying to acquire equipment as quickly as possible to start producing. They think that at least they will be able to attract a few clients or even cater to  friends. But Sonny believes that such an attitude may jeopardize the quality of the production and, by the same token, affect the producer’s reputation. This follows, in a way, the theory that the producer is at the service of the artist. If the producer has low-end equipment, he cannot serve the artist properly. Sometimes it’s better to wait until you have the means to buy better quality products. Sonny advises to do some serious research before buying any piece of equipment and to ask yourself if it will last over time and if it will serve the artist. ”I’ve seen some people who tried to put a studio together very quickly and then they wonder why they don’t get any clients. Well, have you listened to what you’re doing? You know? We keep saying, like, use your ears, but in the beginning, you cannot trust your ears, your ears are not that good yet. But trust that if your clients are coming back or not, that’s a sign.’’

The Value of a Good Atmosphere in a Studio

To set up a studio that will really satisfy an artist, you have to think not only about the equipment, but also about the experience that the studio offers: ‘’Put yourself in the artist’s shoes when he walks through the door. What does he see? What does he hear? What does he feel? The whole experience, from the moment he walks through the front door of the studio, what happens? Is there a couch? How is the microphone? What are the headphones like? Is there a stand to put their texts on or some sort of holder for their phone or iPad? ” So, the details of the studio layout and atmosphere are paramount to the artist feeling comfortable while performing. You have to think about the lighting, offer drinks, suggest different microphones and headphones, etc… The producer has to go through the same process as the artist would in his own studio and ask himself if everything is comfortable. If you put a couch in a room to listen to the production, ask yourself, “Does it sound good from where the couch is placed?’’ So it’s not just a question of skills and equipment, but also a certain sensitivity to human interaction and the experience you want the artist to have. If an aspiring producer doesn’t think he or she is a socially comfortable person, these skills can certainly be learned and are important to develop.
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