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Q&A with Carlos Lellis – Programme Director at Abbey Road Institute

Carlos Lellis worked closely with engineers at Abbey Road Studios to design our curriculum. He is extremely dedicated to our students’ success and has a wealth of widsom to share. Is it any wonder he gets mentioned so often by our profiled alumni? Carlos loves talking about music, recording equipment, and food (in that order). So we tackle all that and a bit more, including why he wishes he had been able to study what we teach…

What’s your “desert island” piece of equipment?
Only one?

You’re allowed several as long as they don’t perform the same function.
Interesting. I would pick a U47 for my microphone. The Empirical Labs EL8 Distressor because you can get it to sound like different compressors. Or I could go for an Urei 1176…but you can do more with the Distressor. My preamp would be a Neve 1073. It really depends on the day and how I feel when I wake up.

What console?
Probably a Neve 88. Like the ones in Abbey Road  Studio One and Studio Two. It’s nice.

Why did you create the curriculum we have? I’m told this is your dream curriculum, is that true?
Yes, it’s true. This is what I wanted to have studied. To me the idea of a good school is one that people are talking about what they’ve done so much, that they don’t teach from a book. They just have to remember what they did the night before and they have to talk about it. Even if it’s a technical topic, if you’ve done it enough it’s like talking about food: You don’t have to have gone to cooking school to be able to talk about food. If you know your technical stuff, it’s effortless. I like to believe that what we do here is effortless. That’s why we have the good teachers that we have.

And they can all record well…
You can teach somebody how to record well, that’s not terribly difficult. But a lot of times, that’s not what musicians are looking for. Some of our teaching is about the pursuit of something that isn’t “well” done. A lot of the time, we are spending our energy trying to make something that sounds really well-recorded into something that has character; that’s imperfect. We teach how to make something imperfect, but interesting.

Would you still use your ‘desert island’ gear for that?
An artist doesn’t want to sound like their “arch enemy”. They’ll have a band they really don’t want to sound like. Generally it’s a clean, very well recorded, but lifeless sound. So maybe your job as an engineer is to use the best gear in the world in the most horrible way possible. Overdrive the preamp, bring the gain down on the second stage so you have distortion. Then the band will love it. But if you gave them the clean version of their music, they will hate it. They’ll use terms like “digital” or “lacking warmth”. That’s another good question; what is warmth? Everyone has a definition.

It’s the tone, isn’t it?
Well, possibly to you. What I’m saying is that it’s a very subjective thing, and yet we use it a lot. It’s almost as if people associate something that’s really well recorded with tasteless. The imperfections are the things that add spice. Teaching how to record with character is more complicated than teaching how to record well.

Can you even teach that?
Oh yes, that’s what we do. Part of recreating a track has to do with that. Some tracks that we recreate clearly have lots of imperfections that we have to introduce on purpose. We recently did one where we had to totally distort the vocals. A purist would say it wasn’t recorded well, but if you take the distortion out of the vocals it sounds lifeless. Before, I was only able to teach people how to record well. And now, I think I’m able to do more than that.

You learn a lot from recreating a track, but how do you develop your own style?
That’s the beautiful part: every time you record someone, you are recreating a track. The track isn’t recorded yet, but in your head you’re recreating the track that is about to be recorded. That’s the crazy part. When you’re recording an artist you should be asking yourself: What is the best version of what they are doing? You’re pre-creating a recreation (laughs). Something like that. That’s the whole point of why I tell students to have a sound in their heads, and find it. As opposed to blindly stumbling until you hit something. That’s the ultimate objective of all the exercises that we do; to have a sound in your head that is from a record you would buy

We’re you taught how to record with character?
No!

How did you gain that knowledge?
By recording wrong (laughs). Recording very cleanly and having the band tell me that they weren’t happy. I’ve recorded a rock band with the aesthetic of someone coming from a classical project. I wanted to make everything super clean and then the band heard it and told me it sounded “digital”. Then you have to wrap your head around what it is they mean. Digital equipment doesn’t add anything, so technically you’re recording what they’re giving you. What they expect is for you to do something with what they’re giving you. Think about it: When you listen to the sound of recorded drums, that’s not really the sound of real drums. In a studio, there is so much magic that happens between the live room and the control room.

Ready to take part in the magic behind a mixing desk? Check out our Advanced Diploma in Music Production and Sound Engineering instead? Or, simply contact us for more information.