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Audio Toyes #17 - An Interview with Terry Sawchuk

Brian Toye
April 18, 2011



I Thought I would post an interview this week. I got Terry on the phone to ask him a few questions. I hope it will be informative for all the young home recording enthusiast out there.


Quick Bio on Terry:


Terry Sawchuk is Chief Engineer at Silverbirch Studios (680 Queens Quay West, suite 600, Toronto, Ontario www.silverbirchprod.com). He has engineered projects for artists such as Alanis Morissette, Matt Dusk and Our Lady Peace. His co-engineer at Silverbirch, Alfio Annibalini, also boasts an impressive resume including Ryan Malcolm and The Tea Party.


Brian Toye – What led you to choose a career as an audio engineer?


Terry Sawchuck – I actually hadn’t intended on becoming an engineer. I am a songwriter...and when I was 18 I knew I wanted to produce. I only went to school to learn how to work in a studio environment. I went to Trebas and dropped out first term. A few other students with one teacher from Trebas left as well and we all started the Harris Institute and I completed my formal education there. I interned at Arnyard Studios for 2 years after that. I consider my two years there as education as well. I did live sound at weddings to pay the bills. After two years the engineer at Arnyard left and the owner told me I had the gig. That was 1990. In 1991 I engineered Our Lady Peace's first Major Record Label album. That album sold over 2 million copies! In 1994 I co-wrote with Alanis Morissette for her Jagged Little Pill album which was a huge success (over 5 million copies sold!). I would consider all of this time “education”. I think I was still on the learning curve for about 5 years after Harris. Now, after 2 more decades in the industry I feel the learning curve has leveled off and I'm now just executing the knowledge I have gained through all of the experiences I have had.


Brian – What are your day to day responsibilities as an engineer?


Terry – those have changed a lot with the technological changes over the past decade. When I started it was all analog. Now I work on Pro Tools HD systems. I spend most of my work day mixing in Pro Tools for both indie and major label projects. I've become more of a mixing engineer now. Lots of clients bring in projects already tracked. This leaves me to mix and master. Sometimes they master at other studios so I find myself Mixing most of the time.


Brian – Who or what is your biggest competition?


Terry – That ties into the last question and explains why my daily responsibility is mainly mixing. The birth of the economical home recording studio has got to be any professional studios best competition. No one needs to spend money tracking in a studio anymore. They can do it with their laptop and m box. The other big competition is the music industry itself. The major labels run the industry. They have been ignorant to good business practices due to their massive revenues. Now that those revenues are drastically lower they don’t know what to do. They haven’t managed the industry properly and the industry is hurting because of it. They aren’t signing as many artists now which results in less work flowing my way. The labels have controlled the industry and made the rules for too long and have made too many mistakes. So my biggest competitions would have to be technology and major labels.


Brian – What is your ultimate career goal if you have not already achieved it?


Terry – I have always wanted to produce. My ultimate career goal would be to start and run my own record label. I would develop artists, write and co-write, engineer and produce, mix and master. I've been playing the engineering game for 20 years now. I feel confident in the process of album production from start to finish. I no longer need a big team around me. I'm ready to produce and create. This is what I have worked towards and it is now within my reach. I knew it when I was 18 years old. It takes a long time to get there, especially when working in Canada. I know you are on the same path and have finally built your home production room and record label, you've been in the game 15 years so you know what I'm talking about.


Brian – I sure do, you have to love it and keep your eye on the prize. The prize of spending your days working with the musicians you choose to work with and making the music you choose to make without record label suits telling you what to do and how to do it. Building something from the ground up and bringing talented musicians and songwriters to the world stage, that’s what it is for me.


Terry – You had your 15 minutes of fame with FYI, do you not want to be a rock star rather than a producer?


Brian - Hey, I'm asking the questions here, lol, and it was more like 5 minutes but thank you, lol, of course performing live is amazing and I look back over those years fondly. I still play often, however, I would rather work on the production side of the glass rather than the musician side. I want to take all I've learned and instill it into other young bands/musicians.


Terry – Well those bands will be lucky to have you on their team.


Brian – Thanks Terry. On projects you have produced or co-produced have you ever received grants from such organizations as FACTOR (www.factor.ca) to help fund projects? If so what was it you applied for?


Terry – No not as producer, but good question because I am looking into funding now as I'm getting more into production. I was paid indirectly with FACTOR money as an engineer on a number of projects but have yet to apply for it myself. I hope that FACTOR survives, and I think it will, as the government may be pulling funding next year. If we make enough noise about it the funding should still be there. I actually went to school with the guy heading FACTOR at Trebas. He came with us to Harris.


Brian – As a songwriter I assume you have dealt with organizations such as SOCAN (www.socan.ca) and ASCAP. Is there anything you wished you had known about these organizations that you perhaps weren't aware of earlier in your career?


Terry – Wow great question, YES. There is something wacky about the way they (SOCAN) does things. They will only collect spin information for about 2 weeks out of the year. If your song has been spun a thousand times the week before they survey... you wont see a penny for those spins. Your lucky if you see 10% of the royalties you are entitled to. They have a bad system in place but that’s how they do it and I don’t think I can change it. Another issue lies with the radio program directors who don’t even report their play lists to SOCAN. So right there you are losing out as well. The Our Lady Peace “Superman’s Dead” single was spun 300 – 400 times a week for a few months when it was first released. Do you know how much the first quarter check from SOCAN was? And keep in mind its anywhere from $4-$10 a spin depending on the station. The check was for $100!! Laughed. On the other had, a song played less than that one paid ten times that in the long run because it was spun while SOCAN was surveying. Its a wacky system, but there isn’t much you or I can do about it.


Brian – What are the different sources of income available to producers/engineers in the record album business?


Terry – Well I get an engineers salary and benefits from Silverbirch. Sometimes as a mixing engineer I get points on an album along with the mixing fee. As a producer you usually average 4-5 points on an album. Keep in mind your getting points based on what the artists is making, not the label. So if the artists signs a crappy deal you get 4-5 points from a crappy deal. If they are smart and get a good deal then your points could add up nicely. You still don't see a penny until the band has fully recouped. The Our Lady Peace album sold 2 million copies and still didn't recoup. So the producer made no money from his points on that album. The third source of income is publishing and performance rights. But as we already discussed, that (SOCAN), is very iffy. There are always money issues in the music industry. You'll either have nothing in the bank and barely scrape by or you'll have too much and you will have trouble managing your money. Its odd but true.


Brian - What advice would you give an aspiring producer/engineer or artist thinking about entering the music industry?


Terry – You need to write down all your immediate goals on a daily/weekly basis. Write down your intermediate goals every 6 months. Write down your long term goals. Get them down on paper and really focus on those things and not on life's distractions. I've also found that a lot of people who are interested in being producers end up realizing that they really only want it as a hobby. They wait for things to happen and get upset when it never comes. Nothing will come to you if you wait around for it, well, failure might. You have to go out and get it, make it happen. Like you have done and are doing Brian. The first years are tough. What you need to focus on is paying your bills with a day job. A job that allows you to pay your bills with time to spare to hone your recording/production skills. Work with a home studio and intern at a local studio you feel has potential. Keep in mind not every studio is willing to teach you just because you show up. Get out there and meet people...artists, producers, engineers, signed bands, unsigned bands.


Brian – Very true. You have to be multi-versed. Creative, an excellent communicator, patient and have an ear for whats going to work. Eat and Sleep music. After a few months of this lifestyle you will quickly discover if this is the road for you. Most people who try end up quitting their day job...so obviously they don't LOVE music enough to put up with cranky bosses and unglamorous tasks for two or three years. You have to keep at it, keep the foot on the gas. Get through all those tough days. I have had hundreds if not thousands of them. Eventually you will be able to leave your job as you start to earn enough through music projects to pay your bills. This will most likely take 5 years so expect it going in. You will also encounter people who are difficult to work with. Lots of negative attitudes and artists with big egos. Record labels can be a pain in the ass as well. You will learn a lot more than just how to track and mix. You will learn advanced people skills out of necessity. You'll learn business and law and how to believe in yourself. You have to have thick skin. You have to be honest and communicate well. That is the path that will eventually lead you to success.


Terry – You know it.


Brian – Cheers and thanks for the interview, lots of good info from a fellow insider :)