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RSR054- Josh Harris – Defining His Sound as a Remixer & Studio One Expert

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RSR007 - David Glenn - The Mix Academy

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RSR054- Josh Harris - Defining His Sound as a Remixer & Studio One Expert

My guest today is Josh Harris, a producer, composer, engineer, remixer and music industry educator. He is a classically trained pianist and composer who likes to fuse different musical genres into his writing and remixing. 

Josh can easily migrate from the studio to the stage and has toured with Grammy award winning artist, Seal, as his musical director and keyboardist. His credits include top name artists like Seal, Madonna, The Killers and James Murphy (of LCD Soundsystem). While some of his his corporate clients include composing and mixing for NBC, ABC, MTV, VH1 and the USA Network.

With over two hundred major-label remix credits, Josh has received nominations by the International Dance Music Association (IDMA) for best remixer. And his music has been used in several TV shows, such as MTV's Damage Control, Room Raiders, and America's Next Top Model.

Josh is also a founding member of the Brooklyn-based, band and production team, Lindbergh Palace. And he currently resides in his hometown of St. louis, where he is the founder of STL Hit Squad, a collective of local artists, engineers and songwriters.

Outside of the studio he is a gifted educator serving as adjunct faculty at Ex’treme Institute by Nelly, teaching entertainment and media business. And he has multiple courses on mixing and remixing on as well as working closely with Presonus. In fact it was here in Nashville at summer NAMM in 2015 that I first met Josh demonstrating to a room of producers just how awesome Presonus Studio One is!

"A lot of my success as a remixer has been born out of the fact that I am a trained musician and I know how to sit down and reharmonize and pull the original chord changes"

Josh Harris

Josh's First Dabblings in Midi

It’s wild man, I tell some of the kids I teach how hard it was, how much we toiled over putting together music back then. You had a sequencer, 16 midi channels, and maybe one sound module while you were trying to lay parts down, you had 4 tracks, and you were trying to bounce. The early days of midi I thought were really exciting because you could have one keyboard controlling sounds from these rack mount pieces and it made live playing completely different than having to bring out a synth for every keyboard part. You could split your master controller into zones and one octave could handle one module so you were able to streamline the process as a keyboard player. Back then midi really had a place on stage as well as in the studio, it was a force in both areas. Now with the current DAWs, I don’t want to say midi doesn’t exist because DAWs do handle midi information, but everything's internal. Everything in the early days of midi was external with a controller and a module and another module and a board.

Similarities Working in Midi Then vs. Now

You could look at patch organization and the patch library work that you had to do back then as sort of the 1980s version of how we organize our sample libraries now. You notice with the benchmark releases of Studio One and Logic and maybe some other DAWs, there’s always an update to the browser. There always seems to be an update for searching, now we have tags and different descriptive words we can use to find the five kick drums that have a sub frequency in them out of our thousand kick drums where patch and sound organization have always been there, this is sort of the modern day version of it and it’s audio as opposed to midi.

“It’s very different to stay creative when you’re scrolling through 75 synth pad sounds”- Josh Harris

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What’s the First Step you do when
you get a New Synth?

The way I organize my time in the studio, I actually set aside afternoons sometimes purely for sound organization or sample auditioning. Let’s say I have all these libraries that I recently added and need to go through, I think there are different states of mind in the studio. It’s very different to stay creative when you’re scrolling through 75 synth pad sounds so I dedicate time throughout a couple of afternoons each month to go through sounds. Really when you think about it, making music doesn’t necessarily take a long time, but choosing the sounds and creating the sound palette can be the thing that takes the longest. So if I got a synth, I would spend part of a Saturday if not the whole Saturday scrolling through sounds and writing down patch numbers that I liked until I had them committed to memory. I would use those as a starting point. The sooner you learn your sounds and the sooner you have a handle on your sound library, the easier it is to just make music.

“The sooner you learn your sounds and the sooner you have a handle on your sound library, the easier it is to just make music” 

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How Do you Capture Your Musical Ideas?

To be honest I think I hear some of my best ideas in the car. Like a lot of people now, I sing a lot of things into the phone. In the old days I would leave myself a message on my answering machine and maybe sing a bassline. But it can be that basic where I might hear 3 or 4 notes or a hook or a chorus in my head, and I’m pretty much a pop songwriter at heart so almost everything I write melodically has that pop commercial sound. So I’ll leave myself a memo on my phone and I’ll come back to it the next day or a few days later. The way I work now, because I’ve been a one man army for so long, is I actually do my best to build the track, mix the track and sort of fuse the composing, sequencing, arranging, and production all at one time. I really like this process to be the fusion of what I’m hearing in my head comes out in the studio and I’m mixing as I go, then I’m hearing melodies on top of the track I just built, and then lyrics start to come in from that point. It becomes this very channeled process.

Remixing The Killers

I had the chance to do a remix for The Killers “Somebody Told Me”. There had been rock remixes done before and most of the remixes I had done prior to this remix were complete reproductions where I would just take the vocals and that would be the only thing from the originals that I would use. I would gut the whole things and do a ground up new track. But when I got the chance to work on this, having been in bands and being a huge rock fan, I knew better than to try to reinvent the wheel. So what I did was I used the guitar stems, bass stems, obviously the vocals, and keys, then did new drums and did a club arrangement with vocal tricks and stutters and I kept it really, really simple so that the integrity of the original was still very much alive and present in the remix and the band loved it! When that remix was done, it got a lot of attention. That one remix in 2004 caused my phone to ring for awhile. 

                                Josh Harris - Somebody Told Me Club Remix

Are There General Guidelines to Remixing?

I’ve lived in the mainstream dance world, but because I’m a song guy and a songwriter most of the remixes I do where I have access to the full vocals, I will keep the original song form, but I usually take out the bridge. I’ve done so many remixes of pop songs where the bridge sometimes just doesn’t make sense in a club arrangement or if there are key changes I would maybe not do that. But generally speaking I will keep verse 1, chorus 1, verse 2, chorus 2, and then maybe change it up from there. The other thing I like to do is I’m a big believer in instrumental hooks. Going all the way back to Motown records and you think of the guitar lick for My Girl and how that’s such a signature part of the song, I think like that where I’ll put an instrumental hook (typically something new) after the chorus and that will be a signature part of the remix.
Some guys to check out in this style: David Guetta, Swedish House Mafia, Axwell, Avicii. The electronic music coming out the the Scandinavian area is really cool. There’s also a production outfit out of England called the Young Punx, there’s a guy named Phonat his stuff from 2009 is really cool, and I’ve also been a long time Daft Punk fan

“Let’s be honest, the pop music industry is all about numbers and sales and money” - Josh Harris

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Reasons to Record Vocals and Bass in Studio One

I like the track layers. Layers is the ability to basically save your takes, think of it like a playlist in Pro Tools. What’s cool about the way Layers works is you can see all of the takes you have recorded and then highlight the sections of the takes that you like and they get promoted to a composite track so you can really quickly comp a track. Melodyne Essential comes with the Studio One Professional version. Melodyne Essential is the baby version that doesn’t have all the bells and whistles, that being said Melodyne is integrated so all you have to do is highlight an event (audio regions) click command + M (on a mac) and Melodyne will automatically pop open, read the file, and the blobs are there.

“Don’t be seduced by the latest OS update” - Josh Harris

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Jam Session 

Q- What was holding you back at the start?
A -Mixing hands down. I got through that barrier very slowly and painfully. When you start out in recording you know that something doesn’t sound right but you can’t quite put your finger on what it is and want your stuff to sound done like the stuff you listen to and I was so out of my depths in the early days of just putting songs together. I’ve never used a compressor, I didn’t know how to place a lead vocal, just dialing in the sonics of everything freaked me out.

Q- What was some of the best advice you got early on?
A - As producers and engineers, we are in a service business, unless you’re doing your own artist album, and your clients are going to have opinions and you may not always agree with them. One thing I had to learn the hard way when I started doing work for major labels was that it didn’t really matter what I thought past a certain point, it was going matter what the artist or client manager thought. It’s difficult sometimes to remove our own emotions from the work we do because we’re passionate about that work and we want to make things excellent, but then there comes a point where you have to realize this is a track I’m doing for an artist that’s signed to a label and this has their name on it and I have to concede on some things.

“I think signature hooks really helps as a producer, helps to define your sound” - Josh Harris

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Q - Q- Share with us a recording tip, hack, or secret sauce.
 I think it’s important to mix at a moderate level. I see young and even some experienced engineers crushing their ears working at really high decibel levels. I believe if you hang out in that 60db, mid volume, where it’s loud enough and you turn it up occasionally to check to make sure nothing is ripping your head off. Mixing is such an important part of what we do. You have to keep in mind the clients and the artists and whoever is listening to the music we do, they’re really only commenting on how things sound, the sonics. With that being said it’s important to save your ears. When you’re working long hours in the studio, don’t keep your volume knob on 11, turn it down a little bit!!

Q - Do you find that you trust the vocal level nuances more when you’re mixing quiet or more when you’re mixing loud?
 I have found that if I mix too low then I’m off with the vocal level. I’m probably mixing with the music the loudest when I’m automating vocals so that I’m not lulled into a false sense of placement. So that’s where I dive in and spend most of my time is automating, I admit that medium to pretty loud level and then I go really loud to make sure nothing rips my head off and then I’ll turn it down low and see how it feels. But yeah I have to get it up around 70-80db at least for vocals to know that I’m dialed in right.

“Nobody wants to hear something that sounds like a demo anymore” - Josh Harris

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Q -Share a favorite hardware tool for the studio
 I love my UAD apollo. I love the fact that I can track with plugins, it’s really changed the way I work. I actually sold some outboard gear once I bought it. Again with workflow I’m able to have some amazing vocal sessions and track my synths through the apollo. I just love the whole UAD platform. For the podcast I’m using the Beta58 through the 610B through an 1176, they are the plugin versions.

Q -Share a favorite software tool for the studio
 I love the UAD precision series. I’ve got almost all of them now and I use them for mastering and have them on my master fader. I don’t know what they were modeled after, but they just sound good. I’m in that mindset that unless I’m doing something deliberate, I don’t want to hear if a plugin is working. If you can make something in the digital world almost fool people to think it was mixed to tape, then you’re on point. I will throw in an Isotope plugin it’s their new vocal plugin, vocoder talk box, that’s a cool one. I like to throw vocoders up underneath the vocals for pop mixes as treatments and coatings to just give that sheen.

“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with grabbing a pre-recorded loop and floating that in on top of your own stuff” - Josh Harris

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Q -Share with us a tip for the business side of the recording studio

A - I’ve taken a look at some of my best years in the business and when I’ve had what I would call “down years,” I have to say that I got away from face to face. I think that while it could be argued that some of the conventions, whether it be NAMM or other conventions that go on throughout the year, are expensive and everyone goes, I think that the music industry was built on face to face relationships and studio work is really at it’s best when it’s face to face, so I’m going back to face to face. I’ve scheduled a lot of meetings here in STL, I’ll go out of my way to go out and get lunch or a drink with people and I’ll invest the time and money into traveling and doing the face to face, even coming down to Nashville.

Q - If you had to start over what gear would you need? How would you find people to record? And how would you make ends meet while you got started?

A- For many years I’ve been a believer in laptop recording. I would get a top of the line laptop, it’s worth investing in a laptop you know you’re going to get 3-5 years out of, jump on board with a DAW that you feel works with the way your brain works, get a decent set of monitors, treat your room well so that you can do some basic mixing, get an audio interface maybe like a UAD apollo duo (the little desktop), and then invest into one $400-$500 microphone so that you can do vocals or voice over work because once you can record the voice in your own room, whether it’s yours or you bring in a singer, then you’re able to start to work with other people.

“I think that the music industry was built on face to face relationships” - Josh Harris

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Q- If you could go back and give yourself advice for when you were starting out, what’s the single most important thing you would tell yourself about becoming a rockstar of the recording studio?

A -  I think patience. I was very impatient in my 20s when I lived in Nashville and it worked against me in a lot of ways. Patience with my own skill set development, and patience with how a career unfolds, the natural trajectory of a career. If I could have that conversation I would just say, “Relax man, it’s going to be fine.”


Big Thanks to Tyler Cuidon & Merissa Marx for this week's episode!!

RSR045 – Roger Alan Nichols – Recording Vocals With Steven Tyler

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RSR007 - David Glenn - The Mix Academy

If you dig the show I would be honored if you would subscribe, and leave a rating, & review in iTunes.

RSR045 – Roger Alan Nichols - Recording Vocals With Steven Tyler

My guest today is Roger Alan Nichols, a producer, recording engineer, rock musician, and songwriter from Nashville TN.

He is owner of Bell Tone Recording in Berry Hill where he produces great sounding rock. In fact when I recorded my record Skadoosh which includes the track "American Winter" on the Mix Master Bundle I turned to Roger for guitar tones, borrowing the Bogner, and Bassman guitar amp heads for my sound.

Roger started out in Nashville with his band Dreaming In English as an artist and later moved to production and engineering after Pro Tools made it possible for him to create professional home studio. He has since moved to this beautiful commercial location at BelTone Recording and records with many country and rock artists.

Some of the Rockstars that Roger has written for, performed with, produced, or recorded are Paramore, Mix Master Mandy, Seal, Ryan Humbert, Robben Ford, The Mean Tambourines, The Campaign 1984, Tyler Bryant, and Steven Tyler

There's no competition for this place [Nashville], LA would like to think that they could compete, but there’s no way. I mean the musicianship in town, the ability to write, the emphasis on recording and the recording arts, the facilities that we have here, the cost of living, it just seems like in Nashville people get to work, roll their sleeves up and do it.”

Roger Alan Nichols
Why Nashville? 

Touring Professionally Early

I toured with this company out of Florida that produced bands that toured high schools. You know as a young songwriter this is probably the best thing that ever happened to me. We did three to five shows a day for ten and a half months straight and it was doing assembly shows in high schools. And one of the things that we had to do is we had to learn a song or two a week off the top 40. Depending on the area that we were in whether or not it was Louisiana, Detroit, or Alaska, wherever we were, we would have to do what was hot in that area. So as a young songwriter we were always learning how to play these songs that were hits.

There were really two things that happened on the road in those early years for me that really helped me understand a lot about songwriting and putting songs together. First being that we had to constantly learn hit songs. You start to identify things in songs as to why it is a hit. Then the second thing that happened in 1981 I had my parents cosign a loan for me for $1,300 and I got a Fostex 4 Track. It was gigantic! I would spend my free time writing songs and I would use the 4 tracks to kind of work on arrangements and guitar parts. As I started to learn how parts worked together and how tones can work together, it was a very interested period and I look back at it. Parts of that time felt like a waste, but some of the stuff that I learned as far as playing the songs and learning the songs and having the discipline to work on a 4 track every night, I learned a hell of a lot.

Musicians Relationship with Technology

With technology providing opportunities for people to record and to write and to create art, the thing that is always in the back of my head is just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. That I think is one of the biggest obstacles right now with music. The fact that technology has allowed us to create really great sounding stuff with no filter. Now from an artist's standpoint, I love that, that’s the way it should be. The way the business is now the gatekeepers are gone and everyone applaudes that. But the bad news is is the gatekeepers are gone. So there’s a lot of stuff out there that’s really mediocre. A lot of stuff that is put out that should be developed better.

“Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should” -Roger Alan Nichols @BTrecording

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The way records are made now is we send files around. I’ll get a track and record a guitar part and I’ll send it off to someone else and then they’ll add something and whenever they start to mix it, whoever mixes it you end up carving the hell out of it EQ wise to make it work in the context of the mix. The way records used to be made is the band would set up in a room, decisions were made about placement of amps and mics and so forth. Then the snapshot was taken. If you solo’d the guitar or something, it might sound really shitty by itself, but in context it would sound amazing. So it was about the complete photograph as opposed to the individual in the photograph

Being A Producer 

As a producer one of the easiest failures to make is to not listen to the artist. I think that is a common mistake especially if you have artistic visions or perspectives. It’s easy to go "Well really what you need is this." I have learned the hard way that is not a good thing to do. You want to be good at what you do, and you want to be able to contribute to the vision, and a lot of times you just stay out of the way and help facilitate the vision. It’s not about contributing to the vision from an artistic voice, but it's creating an environment for the artist to find out what their voice is.

“As a producer one of the easiest failures to make is to not listen to the artist” - Roger Alan Nichols @BTrecording

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Cutting Vocals With Steven Tyler

Steven Tyler is just this spinning top of energy. He’s everything that you would imagine him to be. But here’s the thing that's really amazing, is to first of all be in your room and hear his vocals coming out through your speakers, and to look through the glass to see him standing behind your U47. You go, “Woah that’s Steven Tyler!” it’s pretty remarkable.

The other thing that struck me is how hard he worked. Like he would say "Hold on a second!" and you could hear him practicing the first line into the song and he would be changing his vowel sounds and practicing a couple different approaches, and he’d pick a direction and say, “Alright, let’s go for it.” But he worked really hard and that was impressive to see.

For a guy at his age, really he doesn’t have to do anything, he could just sing Dream On the rest of his life and make more money than most of us could ever dream of seeing, but he works really hard. The second thing that really blew my mind is the first day he was here, his assistant was going, “Hey Steven we gotta go, come on we’re going to be late!” and Steven grabbed that guitar right there and said, “Check this out!” And he starts playing all these new songs he’s writing.

To see this guy so excited about creating music at 60+ years old, a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member, to see him so excited about making music still was inspiring. He knows exactly what’s going on, he knows exactly how to do it, and he made everyone feel incredibly comfortable and it was really one of the funnest couple of days ever. I was blown away at how amazing it was! 

Secret For Great Vocal Sounds

Secret I got from background singer Perry Coleman. You don’t dare give this guy any instruction because he knows what to do. He’s sung with so many number ones. There’s two things that he does that are really stunning. His phrasing is immaculate. I mean he’ll listen to the lead part and he will match the phrasing to a tee. And then when he sings he does this thing where he self-compresses.

The way he sings a phrase he’ll roll the s’s off, he does all this kind of stuff. If you solo his vocal part it might sound funny, but put it with the lead and it’s brilliant. I’ve never had to tune one vocal that he has sung here. Ever. If he’s singing to a lead vocal part, I’ll tune the lead vocal first so he’s singing to a tuned vocal so I never have to touch him. The really interesting thing that he does is if there’s a lot of S’s or P’s, he’ll sing through his fingers. What that does is it splits the wind and reduces the impact of the diaphragm of the mic and it also reduces the energy that the mic is receiving. It’s brilliant.

Secrets For Great Guitar Sounds

There’s a couple things you can do. Obviously you have to have well intonated instruments. I think that's the most important thing. You don’t necessarily have to have heavy gauge strings, but I’ve found that heavier gauged strings allow you to dig in a little more and keep the intonation in line. It also pulls heavier tones out, sounds like they have more weight to them. All my guitars are at least 11’s.

Again it goes back to your ability to pull the tone out of the instrument with your hands. It’s how to attack the string and how you hold the pick, and how you pull the tone out of the instrument. The biggest misstep with a lot of guitar players is they use too much saturation and they feel like that’s going to give them a bigger, nastier sound. Depending on the part in the song it might work, but if you’re planning on stacking guitar parts, you can bigger sound if you air on the more cleaner sound and stack those parts.

“If you play more instruments it allows you to communicate ideas a little clearer” - Roger Alan Nichols @BTrecording

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Mixing Tricks For Acoustic Guitars

I always parallel compress my acoustic instruments. I blend it in where the compressed signal sits right in the center and the uncompressed signal moves to the peaks and the valleys. You get the articulation and dynamic sensibility of the acoustic instrument. For acoustic instruments there’s a chain I always use and it always sounds amazing. I use a Neumann Gefell 5802 which is a small diaphragm tube microphone, and I use a Telefunken V72 and I use a little bit of the LA2A just to kiss it a little bit. If I’m cutting the acoustic guitar part I use a really light pick and play lightly, what happens is the guitar sounds huge.

Mixing Tricks for Heavy Guitars

I use a lot of filtering, so if we’ve got an intro, verse, chorus, I’ll automate a filter to come in during the verse so that the filter reduces the size of the guitar in the verse then when it hits the chorus the filter kicks off and the guitar sounds huge. I want to make sure that the grind and attitude of the instrument doesn’t change. I love really heavy guitars. I love cutting them so that the downbeat and the step-off notes are tight.

"It all starts with the drummers right foot” - Roger Alan Nichols @BTrecording

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Jam Session 

Q - What was holding you back at the start?
A - How things were done. When I was learning how to play, I’d put the needle on the record, listen, play, needle on the record, listen, play, etc. There was no YouTube demonstration of how to play the chord voicing or how to connect these devices with this. You had to find the local hot shot at the music store and ask him how it’s done or sit and observe. There’s something to be said about being able to hear a song and go, “I know what those voicings are, I know what those chord changes are,” because your ear is developed to that point.

Q- What was some of the best advice you got early on?

A- This is what Richard Dodd shared with me a couple of weeks ago, he’s brilliant. "Do you know how you can increase the processing speed of your computer? Learn to type better" 🙂 …. I think the best advice is to shut up and listen and observe.

“Show up prepared” - Roger Alan Nichols @BTrecording

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Q- Share with us a recording tip, hack, or secret sauce.
A -  Right now it’s all about volume and that’s not everyone’s cup of tea. I like to think instead of dynamic range, I like to think of scene changes. I think that's important because the verse has a whole different scene than the chorus. Again the phrase I always use is "the trajectory of the song."

Q - Share a favorite hardware tool for the studio
 I used to take a polaroid camera and I would take snapshots of everything: mic placements, EQ settings, etc. Then I would have a notebook and give it to the drummer to sketch out his kit and mark the size of his drums and what heads he was using and where mics were placed and keep track of lyrics. It was basically a journal of the record. For me, that was a way of keeping track of the process.

“When mixing a track it’s really easy to think about stuff you don’t need to think about” - Roger Alan Nichols @BTrecording

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Q - Share a favorite software tool for the studio

A -If I had to use one it would probably be the SSL E-channel (the waves plugin). The EQ is great, the compressor is great, it has a gate if you need it, phase switch, it has a slider on it if you need to trim something.

Q -Share with us a tip for the business side of the recording studio

A -I think the most important thing to remember is that if you’re working on a track or writing a song or working with a band and it’s not going well, it’s not the end of the world. If you’re frustrated in the studio one day, don’t listen to music, go home and relax, have a glass of wine and watch a movie or something, and hit it again the next day. The most important thing about having output is you have to have input. If you don’t have input then you aren’t going to have any output. If you’re gonna write a song you have to be able to experience some things in life to write about. Sometimes you have to be reminded it’s okay to have a certain thought about something. If you’re working with someone and they say, “Oh, I don’t really like that,” it can shut down the whole train of thought. That can be a real detriment sometimes. That doesn’t mean the idea sucks, it just means maybe we need to rethink this.

“The most important thing about having output is you have to have input” - Roger Alan Nichols @BTrecording

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Q - What is the single most important thing a listener can do to become a rockstar of the recording studio?

A - To realize that you probably don’t know how a lot of it’s done. It’s really easy to be in a conversation with people and feel like you have to validate what you’re doing with false sense of knowledge. It’s okay to not know how to do something. It’s okay to ask questions. It’s okay to be curious about stuff. We’re in a business where we’re always trying to qualify something subjective, that’s a horrible thing to try to do.

Twitter - @BTrecording
Music -
Bell Tone Recording

Big Thanks to Alex Skelton & Merissa Marx for this week's episode!!