Audeze speaks with audio engineer and producer Andy Shoemaker

Andy Shoemaker is a Grammy-nominated audio engineer and producer based in Chicago. With nearly fifteen years behind the boards at the esteemed Rax Trax Recording, Andy has mixed and mastered for an impressive array of local and national artists spanning an even more impressive range of styles, such as Jonathan McReynolds, Vic Mensa, and Fatai. His appreciation for subtlety and ability to capture the human element gives his productions an aliveness without sacrificing their sonic integrity.  

 Andy Shoemaker working in studio with Audeze LCD-X headphones

"I've found myself looking to the LCD-Xs to give me an additional perspective on the low end levels, harmonic balance, and detailed adjustments in a mix." - Andy Shoemaker
Here's our chat with Andy:
How would you define your main role on most of the projects you work on these days?

That is a bit of a hard one to define.  My main areas of work are with recording, mixing, and mastering, but on any given project I may be handling one, two, or three of those roles.  For some projects I'll handle all the audio from start to finish, others I'm getting things started or coming in to wrap them up.  As the nature of music production becomes an increasingly hybrid process there are also plenty of times where I'm working alongside a producer to handle portions of a production and then it gets passed back and forth between us for a while.

How did you get started in music? What kind of music did you listen to while growing up and how has that progressed?

I got my start in recording back in high school by experimenting with some cheap software on a laptop and an old mic that was meant for dictation into a little cassette recorder.  I found that I enjoyed the process and after I had some formal training I realized that I had kinda stumbled into some proper techniques through trial and error.  For about as long as I can remember I've been drawn to the emotional content of a song and the way a song can express or influence the way a listener feels.  At different points in my life that led me to seek out different things.  I never really know how to describe my current musical taste in terms of genre, but I'm drawn to songs with lyrical honesty and those that have production styles that are well matched to the song in that they actually enhance the feel of a song.  

Can you name any factors that influenced the course of your musical life? Heroes, role models, moments, interactions, etc?

I remember hanging out with some college friends while they worked on writing a song and feeling like I had such an interesting look into the process of creating music.  I wanted to be part of that process...  Over time I got to see more and more of that in school and then while assisting other engineers that were further along into their career.  I'd watch how they were able to become part of the process by helping to connect the songwriting to the way the sounds themselves were getting captured.  Learning from situations like that pushed me to step further into the production process to work alongside an artist to help draw out the best emotion, and energy from a song.

Can you briefly describe a moment of frustration from your past work, and what you may have done to overcome the obstacles? Would you approach it differently now?

I think that something that is always frustrating is working through a mix that has tones that aren't working for the song... I see this most often with kick and snare tones.  Quite a few years ago an engineer from LA that had done some big records came through the studio...  I sat in the back for a bit listening to the playback and I was really impressed with the snare tone.  I felt like I could just sit there for a very long time listening to the recorded sound of that kit.  When an opportune moment came I asked him about the tone and what he was doing to make it sound so good.  He took a look at the gear in the rack to check settings and he said, "nothing really, just really good tuning."  That response has always stuck with me.  I had hoped to find some signal chain that I hadn't tried yet, but what I got was a better lesson.  That has led me to work harder at the tracking phase to make sure all the tones are right because it makes the mixing much easier later on.  

Is there any gear you find yourself turning to most when working on a project? What are some of your favorite tools/instruments recently?

Gear choice depends on what phase of a project I'm working on and where I'm recording.  I tend to use a fair amount of analog processing on the front end and have a really great mic collection at my disposal.  During tracking I try to put a lot of that gear to use.  While I'm mixing I may be taking a number of different approaches.  I typically work with either a primarily digital or a hybrid digital and analog workflow.  Based on that, the things I most heavily have focused on in the last few years is the monitor choice and listening environment.  There is a lot of room to explore options of placement, treatment, studio layout etc, to find small gains that optimize the mixing space.  If I don't feel like I can trust what I'm hearing then any other gear choices don't really even matter.  Moving to ATCs really improved the listening environments in all the rooms that I work out of.  

Do you have any words of wisdom for people who might aspire toward a similar path for their own careers?

Always remember that this is a service industry.  As an engineer your role is to serve the artist and to serve the song.  There are a whole lot of ways that you can do that, but be sure that the production or the mix or whatever doesn't become about you and your ego.

How long have you been working with headphones, and how do you typically use them in your workflow?

I've been working with headphones for nearly 20 years.  Initially they were just for listening to albums that had a lot going on and benefited from listening on headphones, but that quickly changed to primarily for audio work when I was a student.  The main way that I tend to use headphones is as an alternative perspective on a mix and to highlight small details and flaws that might slip through otherwise.  Noises, pops, bad edits, and the nasty sounds that can come between words in a vocal track all stand out so much more in a good pair of headphones.  There is also something about the way a mix is presented when it is physically close to your ears.  That perspective can highlight some smaller adjustments near the final mix or mastering stage and I find that to be very valuable.

How have your Audeze headphones affected your work?

I've found myself looking to the LCD-Xs to give me an additional perspective on the low end levels, harmonic balance, and detailed adjustments in a mix.  I hate to use the word "immersive" these days as that meaning is shifting, but using the LCD-Xs does give you the feeling of being a bit further into the music than other headphones I've used.  I think that is because the frequency response feels very natural to me and the LCD-Xs aren't fatiguing to my ears.  The mid range is very revealing and is really useful for highlighting when a mix is or isn't working within that range.  Elements that are forced together will stand out in these headphones and ask to be fixed while a natural blend sounds so smooth that you want to keep listening.  I also love the level of detail presented by these headphones.  They serve as one final reference to catch pops and clicks or annoying mouth noises that might slip through otherwise.