By Jeff Wolfe
Daniel C. Smith didn’t really know what he was doing when he started recording music on his cassette tape player when he was a youth.
But now, over 25 years later, there are plenty of people in the music business who believe Smith knows exactly what he is doing when it comes to making good music. Smith, of Clarksboro, has developed a reputation for being a top music producer, which means musical artists come from around the world to record in his studio.
“My goal is to make the artist as comfortable as possible in the studio,” Smith said. “If someone is working with me, I usually already know them or they are interested in me because of something I have worked on. When producing a record I usually want to hear the songs first in the most basic way possible like with piano and vocal or guitar and vocal only.
“Then as we track the basics, things are built up in layers, like building a house. In every one of those layers, there are many variables and options that one can take and I like to stay out of the way of that for a long as possible to see what the artists instincts are in those moments. If I just absolutely have to speak up and ask a question or make a comment, then I will. It’s not my show, I have my own music for that.”
Among the artists that Smith has produced regularly is Sufjan Stevens, who has had several songs appear in advertisements and films. Smith also is the leader of his own band, the Danielsons and also has his own record label, Soundsfamilyre Records, which has 11 artists on it now, including Stevens. That may seem like a lot of musical hats for one person to wear, but Smith started laying that foundation years ago.
“I started to learn how to record on a Tascam cassette 4-track in the late 80’s, early 90’s,” Smith said. “My friend Jason Faunce and I had a band and we wanted to record all kinds of songs that we had been working on. Cassettes were cheap and we spent many, many hours trying out things and experimenting with sounds. I think we had one or two microphones. Eventually I made the first Danielson album “A Prayer For Every Hour” on a 4-track and managed to get it released on a label.
“After that I was able to start recording in bigger professional 24-track analog studios with producers that I admired very much. At the same time I continued to build my own basement studio with an 8-track quarter inch machine and record my own music as well as friends who were interested.”
Smith became interested in music at a young age because of his father, Lenny Smith, who had set up a recording studio in his basement, where he wrote and recorded religious songs. Lenny Smith says his son may be more famous outside of Clarksboro then in his hometown.
“When you live in a town like this, you don’t go around and tell people what is going on,” Lenny Smith said. “He’s just living here. The people outside of this area know about him more than the people who live here.”
That’s partly because Daniel Smith doesn’t make a big deal about his producing skills. Not even to people in the music business. It’s one of those things that has just kind of grown on its own.
“Well I don’t advertise, so it’s all word of mouth and I’d like it to stay that way if I can afford to,” Daniel Smith said. “It goes back to keeping things as relationship based as possible and that really works for me. I don’t have to love every song I record, but I do have to feel some sincere connection to the music or the artist to honestly stand by the work I am doing. I spend much of my year working on other people’s projects and also fit my own songs in as much as possible.”
The fact that Daniel Smith runs such high end production studio is certainly helpful financially. The general rate to rent time in a music studio is between $50 and $75 per hour. So, some musicians come in on limited budgets and are ready to record pretty quickly. But others aren’t quite sure what they want to do with the basic forms of their songs.
“Some artists come in having plenty of studio experience and knowing just what they want, and some have the songs and are not sure how to make them into interesting recordings,” Daniel Smith said. “In both cases, there is always the possibility for changing parts of songs, moving things around, adding instruments as well as cutting parts that had already been written and recorded.”
And with the advent of digital recording, the process of getting a song to where it’s ready to put on an album is not a simple matter of just having a band show up and have its songs recorded and then be done. Songs are often recorded in tracks, with the vocals, guitars, drums and other instruments often recorded separately. It’s part of Smith’s job to mix those tracks into one melody and that’s where the digital factor has been a big help.
“The reason I like digital is not because it sounds better, but because it makes editing and recalling mixes easier for me and that saves time for the artist,” Smith said. “Because of the over saturation of the music industry (and many other factors as well), recording budgets are very low these days and I need to help get the most I can out of the studio time we have. I do like the sound of drums and guitars hitting the tape and prefer to do that as the first step of making a recording when possible.”
Daniel Smith is quick to point out though, that a producer can’t ruin a good song and also can’t make a bad song sound good.
“As a music fan I think ‘bad’ production is a shame but it won’t ruin a great song,” Smith said. “In the end a great song is going to make its way through. Great production on a bad song is still a bad song.”
But Smith also understands that he is the one hired by the artists and if there is some disagreement about how a song should sound, the artist is going to win.
“I am always telling the artist that they are the boss and what I have to offer is an outside perspective,” Smith said. “I almost always have opinions about things and will share them if they’re interested, but they can take what they want. My ultimate goal is for them to achieve their vision for the project.”
Lenny Smith says the recording process can be pretty intense for the producer. So, one, there is no longer such a thing as all-night recording sessions for Daniel, and two, once the recording process is finished, Daniel needs two weeks off from recording sessions.
“The longest he will work in one day is 10 hours,” Lenny Smith said. “He will work with a band for two weeks in the studio, then he has to give his ears a rest. You just can’t do it any longer than that. You need your ears to be healthy. It’s such an intensive job, you can’t do it day in and day out. You need that time to recover.”
But recovery doesn’t necessarily mean Daniel Smith isn’t working. He could be working on songs for a new Danielsons album, or could be mixing songs for another artist. Daniel Smith’s latest project is a collaboration with a Jad Fair on an album called Solid Gold Heart. That was released on June 24.
And while recording and releasing music is all good, Lenny Smith’s job is to help artists to become known as he is a music publisher. Lenny Smith’s job is to take songs and get them played in TV shows, movies or advertisements, which can result in a large payday, often in the several thousands of dollars, for artist and for Lenny Smith. The Danielsons recently had a song featured in a Target ad for Cadbury candies just before Easter that appeared on all of the major networks in the U.S.
“It was a big splash for us,” Lenny Smith said of the advertisement. “All I do is try to get songs from 25 artists I represent to get in TV shows, movies and ads. It’s getting better and better and basically I have to give God the credit.”
Daniel Smith just recently completed a short European tour which featured stops in Norway, France, Denmark and England. The original Danielsons feature Lenny Smith’s five children, but it’s rare that they go on the road together now. However, they do plan to continue to record studio albums.
“They all have their own lives now,” Lenny Smith said. “They are still in the band and will record the next Danielson album, but it when it comes to touring it’s more of a challenge.”