Chris Hughes is an Engineer Who Knows the Difference Between Correct and True
Chris Hughes (left) and Spooky Folk's Kaleo Kaualoku during the recording process
Jess Elysse Holder
Every community has its movers and shakers. Some are more outwardly apparent and get the social accolades, while some go unmarked by much of the community that they impact. Musician, college professor, sound engineer, poet and Denton resident Chris Hughes is of the latter category -- motivated by making good music. "The reason I got into audio engineering was to learn how to make the records I heard in my head."
He is a busybody who, between instructing local workshops on home recording, teaching English at Tarrant County College and putting together a compilation of local music called No Metro, is scurrying to complete tracking for Denton quintet Spooky Folk before lead singer Kaleo Kaualoku moves to Denver at May's end.
Although the Spooky Folk album is at the forefront of Hughes' agenda, he is currently wrapping up an EP with Denton math-pop band Bashe, and in the last year he has made records with Young and Brave, Bird Meets Winter and others. As if that weren't enough, he is also finagling time to finish up an album for his own band, The Calmative, that should be released this summer.
In order to give a little perspective, let's back up to about a decade ago when Hughes was working in recording studios and running live sound for The Galaxy Club and others in Deep Ellum. He had enrolled in the audio engineering program at Dallas Sound Lab a couple of years before that, and was feeling his way around a life that wasn't inspiring him.
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"It didn't work out. Deep Ellum was falling apart, and I wasn't getting to record the kinds of bands I wanted," Hughes says.
Soon after, he got his hands on some modest recording gear, moved to Austin and started making lo-fi records for himself and his friends.
"I had been taught a bunch of rules before -- the traditional studio model. Stuff like: 'Aim for clarity, don't distort your signal, don't compress or EQ to tape, don't overcompress,' etc. I found that the more I broke those rules, the closer I got to the sounds I wanted. That was a big lesson learned."
Hughes was also pursuing an English degree at the time, and not long after, moved to New York City and got his MFA in creative writing at The New School. He lived in Brooklyn and worked on a novel that "hopefully nobody will ever read," he says.
"I put off recording for a while to focus on that, but eventually I was pulled back in."
When he returned to the DFW area in 2009, Hughes made a point to get some nicer recording equipment and begin taking this more seriously, he said. He now lives in Denton and when he isn't teaching English, he records music via his production company, Miscellaneous Sound, and teaches recording workshops out of Bonduris Music, an instructional facility just north of the square in Denton. The home recording workshop is a four week course, held on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 7:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. They are currently enrolling for June. Class sizes range anywhere from two to 10 students. If there's a demand for it, morning or afternoon workshops may become available. Hughes is also working on creating workshops for mixing and production, as well.
"I'd been burned too many times in studios by engineers who were maybe technically savvy, but who didn't share my musical preferences. So, I teach this course with the intention of empowering other musicians. But it's beneficial to anyone interested in learning about recording."
Jess Elysse Holder
Hughes says his aim is to explain the basics, and then follow that up with practical application. For example, the class might have a discussion on the sonic characteristics of microphones for the first half of class, followed by a studio section. They will also learn about signal flow, acoustics, preamplification, dynamics, equalization among other things.
"For a long time I recorded wherever I could, usually in apartments or rehearsal spaces. It was not ideal. Then, last summer, I got involved with Bonduris Music. Thad Bonduris has been teaching guitar in Denton for many years, and we'd met through mutual friends. Now I work and teach out of a small building that is connected to their main facility." They did some remodeling and soundproofing and built a control room, but it's still a work in progress, Hughes says. There are two options for booking studio time at Miscellaneous Sound: The first is by-the-hour or day; the second option is per project. He offers this to bands who commit to making an album or EP. Typically, he does a consultation to discuss album length, production size, and other things, and based on that information, puts together a generous package at a fair price, he says.
Denton folk-pop quintet Spooky Folk are currently on the tail end of recording a follow-up to their self-titled debut with Hughes at Miscellaneous Sound, a project that started last November.
"We were taking our time at first, partly to let the new songs settle in, and partly because everyone has such busy schedules. Now that it's taking shape, we have a better idea of what we're dealing with, and it's moving more quickly."
The group is about three quarters of the way through. Hughes says this new stuff is really different from Spooky Folk's last album.
"They've evolved into a loud rock and roll band, and that's what it sounds like. There is a '90s feel to it. Reminds me of Pavement or early Weezer. It's summery, full of catchy melodies. It's also noisy and experimental. Should be out in late summer, early fall, I'm guessing."
A track from Spooky Folk's new album, "Kicking and Screaming" will go on Hughes' current project, No Metro, a compilation of songs from local bands that he records.
"The idea [for No Metro] came about because I'm a big Brian Eno fan, and I always liked the story behind No New York, a compilation he produced in the late '70s. Apparently he was checking out a local music festival and noticed a handful of bands that shared a similar aesthetic, what we now call No Wave. He was impressed and felt it should be documented in the studio, so he brought in the bands and recorded them. Since I've been back, I've had that same feeling about what's happening here."
Hughes started No Metro as a way to document DFW's music scene. The way it works is, he asks a band to contribute a song that isn't yet released or recorded. They come into the studio for a day, then, after mixing and mastering, it's released digitally on Bandcamp. Initially, he wanted to release a new track every month, but Hughes says he has gotten so busy that that's become impossible. It's looking like every two months is more realistic, although there is no rigid schedule, he says.
"The point is to maintain an archive of local music for those who are interested. I intend to keep it going for as long as I can. There isn't any specific criteria for what goes on the compilation. However, I do take a curatorial approach, and I often seek out specific songs from bands."
"I convinced Bashe to contribute their excellent tune, 'Seapunk,' which we just released. The next release will be from Shiny Around the Edges. There is also something in the works from Strange Towers and Pageantry. I imagine each volume will be around ten songs. I hope to release a physical copy at some point, but that hasn't been figured out yet."
After all of the projects and recording Hughes is involved with, there leaves little time for his own music-making and recording. Since 2011 Hughes has played guitar and sang for his one-man project, and played solo shows under the moniker The Calmative. He recently fleshed it out into a full band, however, and their first show is May 17 at Rubber Gloves Rehearsal Studios.
"I got my first guitar when I was thirteen and joined a band pretty much immediately. We weren't too good. We'd play some crappy bar on a Monday night and our parents would have to get us in, since we were all underage. It was a lot of fun. I've kept at it over the years."
Oh, how far he has come.
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