Ricky Sweum: String Theory

Cicily Janus By

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AAJ: How did you break into it?

RS: Over the last few years I'd been following Origin Records because I had some close friends who had their own records through Origin. I thought maybe, if they were doing it, that I could do it as well.

A good friend of mine, I went to high school with, Toby Koenigsburg, who is now a professor at the University of Oregon, went through this stage a little earlier than I did. That feeling of having to prove yourself and your world not just to yourself or your friends, but to prove to everyone that you're serious about your music. It's just one of those rights of passage when you're taking yourself to that next level. You can't just prove it to yourself, you have to do it for the world.

(l:r): Jason Crowe, Henrique de Almeida, Rickey Sweum

One of the ways I'm doing this is by having something commercially released on a label. That was one of his goals through his tenure track and he did it and had great success. I knew from his experience and the experience of some of my other friends that this label was what I wanted. Plus I had never really had this many personal connections that were tied to a label. It also happens to be that Origin also puts out really great material. It's been twelve years since I first heard about Origin records and they're finally getting the recognition they deserve.

When the mixing and the mastering of the album was completed I felt like it was a really great product that was worthy of being listened to by the smaller independent labels. Then I made a list of all the labels that might be interested in me. Origin was always at the top of my list. I'm just thankful that they were the ones who showed the most interest.

AAJ: You said you hired a Grammy Award-winning engineer to do the mastering and mixing of the album. What did you learn by going through the post-production process with someone of that caliber?

RS: It's such a different world. A lot of what's habitual for me as a musician is that I'm focused on the sound, rhythm and the melody. I worry about the interaction with the other guys and the rises and falls in the context of the music. But when it's all finished the mixing and the mastering is a whole different way of listening to music. My ears just don't usually live there. For me, the whole process was a great experience to live in for a while. I learned how to listen to how things actually sound. I didn't have to worry about rhythm and the things I would normally listen to and for and I could free myself from having to hear the music in ways I typically hear it. Instead I'm listening for subtle colors and brightness and darkness and the relationships between balance levels. Bob Dawson, who did the mix is a master. I felt amazingly confident in turning the project over to him with a list of different things I wanted to have fixed. Not only did he take care of the list he took care of his own list.

AAJ: How much of a hand would you say the average musician has in the post-recording process?

RS: It depends. You can be involved as much as you want. I wanted to produce as much of it as I could but my training doesn't lie in that area. It truly was a learning process throughout. It's just not where I normally live. But these guys make the big bucks for a reason. I once heard it described to me that you have to find an engineer that has golden ears. They live in that place all the time.

I tried at first, thinking that I would have a much more hands-on approach to mixing, having some guys from the Air Force band do some initial mixes. But our experience levels were as such that we would get to the point where we thought, okay this sounds better but not perfect and none of us had a clue as to what to do. That's when I knew it would be worth going to those golden ears.

With David though, I thought I would be able to just drop it off and let him do the work like I did with Bob. But he wanted me to be there. He wanted to know what I wanted to get out of it and what I was hearing. He wanted me to bring in reference CDs that I've listened to. I've listened to some of them hundreds of times and I realized that I had taken for granted the things I heard that really made them different from each other.

For example, I love ECM records but when I started to really listen, I thought everything sounded like it was in a concert hall and there was lots of reverb. So I had to rethink what I would want for my project. Then I listened to a Chris Potter recording and it had no reverb at all. It sounded very crisp, like it was done in a small room. So it seemed that this CD was going to sound like it was either in a small club setting or a large concert hall. It was all very subtle yet significant.

I was almost done with the whole process when I played him one more. It was one of Michael Brecker's CDs. There was something about the sound of Brecker and where it sounded coming in from the mix. He listened to it and then cocked his head and said "I'm glad you played that for me. It puts the tenor in a different space." That's the word he used! It was like the tenor sound was like a bubble over someone's head, roundish...and after I heard him say it was in a different space, talking about that CD, the sound was then more like a little laser beam in a smaller area, instead of here and there. I learned that this part of the process was about putting the sound in a different space and a whole different concept. It was an amazing experience to work with someone who devotes their lives to hearing music in different spaces.


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