No Reverb Please (eating your own dog food)

The year was 2013, and I was working on one of Sam Smith’s songs, ‘Stay with Me’ off their first album. At the time, I was the sound engineer in a small London studio called The Grind. The studio was located in the heart of Shoreditch (aka hipster town), just above a cool coffee shop.

It was 10:00 am and Sam walked in with a bottle of warm champagne. They wanted to celebrate the success of their first hit single that was topping the charts at the time. After respectfully declining an invite to drink warm champagne (sorry mate, bubbles make me handsy…), I began to set up the room for recording vocals and overdubs. Fun fact, in this track you hear a full orchestra singing backup vocals, but actually, it was Sam overdubbing a bunch, in all kinds of ranges. If you don’t know their music, GO CHECK IT OUT!

Cut to a few hours later, and Sam asked me to lower the reverb in their cans (this means hearing less of the echo effect in their headphones). I kept lowering and lowering the effect to the point that it was barely there.. Now, you might ask yourself, so what?! And to that I’d say you’d be hard to find any singer, let alone one at the level of Sam Smith, that does not blast reverb in their headphones while recording vocals. There are many reasons why, but the most obvious one is that it simply makes things better.

Six months later, I was at a vocal recording session for DJ Tiesto (yes. I am name-dropping) and the songwriter/singer was struggling with the vocals. It might have been the jetlag and it might have been the fact that it was 8:00 am on a Tuesday in rainy London. Nonetheless, the session was paused for a few days. This meant I got to work on my own music with a few mates from my university days. And now I am in the booth laying down a few guide tracks, vocals. I hate recording my own vocals, almost as much as hearing them played back. And so it goes… “less please…. less reverb please… less… more… more… less”…. Then I hear on the mic, “mate, it’s all the way off”.

At that point and time in my career, I recorded many vocals for various bands and singers. Indoors, outdoors, in barns, churches, studios, and cars. However, it had been a few good years since I had recorded my own vocals. The experience of being in the booth, on display, hearing myself with and without reverb, made me appreciate the vulnerability of the situation and gave me a much better view of the process. We call this “eating your own dog food”. Or walking the walk. The experience of eating your own dog food is and should be common practice across any industry and profession. Doctors need to be patients, lawyers need to be defendants, airline pilots need to fly coach, and design team leads need to design backend internal tools, present their work in grooming sessions and realize they forgot elementary things in front of a full development team and a product manager.

To give you some more context, in my current team I have two vacant positions, so these days I am more hands-on than I have been over the last year. So, there I was, walking through some designs and feeling confident. And then the questions started to come in. “What about this…? What happens when there is no logo here….? What does it look like when there is no data…? That table spacing looks super off”…. Yup, right, let me get back to you, ahh yes forgot about that…

Other than that being a super humbling experience, it led me to remember what I had forgotten from my time in the studio and what I tell new joiners when becoming a core member of my team. Be the most professional in the room. I don’t ask any of my designers to be the most artistic or analytically minded, but I do ask them to be the most professional in any room. Come to meetings early (on time is late) and come prepared to take notes and answer questions. Know what your action items are after the meeting/what you want to get out of it and understand the scope as well as the gaps. While I’ve been preaching this for years, it’s important to go through this process and keep these points in mind and in practice. As well as know what you are asking the team to do.

As for coming better prepared for grooming meetings to show off designs, my team is currently working on our own process so stay tuned.

Until then, eat your own dog food and no reverb please.



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