Please tell us about yourself
Pianists make music with keyboards. Engineers use mixing consoles. Thanks to IC’s sound recording technology program, Shalini Gandhi ’11 can do both.
Jarosz’s record “Undercurrent” — which was engineered by Shalini Gandhi and Gary Paczosa with mastering engineer Paul Blakemore — is nominated for Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical at Sunday’s Grammys.
Though Gandhi thought Jarosz would be nominated for her work (the singer-songwriter is up for Best Folk Album and Best American Roots Performance), “I did not think that we’d get an engineering nomination. It’s pretty much the holy grail,” she said, sitting at the audio console in Paczosa’s Nashville studio.
Reaching the apex of her male-dominated industry is an impressive feat, especially for someone who was unaware of the world of audio engineering until a little more than a decade ago.
“All the other engineers I know, they knew (they wanted to be engineers) from the moment they were born. I just didn’t know it existed,” said Gandhi, who was born in Singapore and grew up in Perth, on Australia’s west coast. “I have an Asian family and it was very much, ‘You be a doctor or lawyer’…We’re a musical family, but it’s a hobby.”
Gandhi was prepared to go into the sciences until she learned that there was a technical side to music. “As soon as I found that out it was like, ‘I can take my hobby and my scientific background and put that together.’ “
How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career?
“I was a pre-med student in Australia when I decided sound recording was something I really wanted to do and America would be the best place to learn it,” Shalini said. “So I took two years off, worked and saved, and made my way to Ithaca.”
Fortunately, Shalini was already an accomplished pianist, because at IC (Ithaca College), studying audio engineering requires majoring in performance.
“After doing all the things performance majors do, I had to find free time to get into the studio. As it turned out, I was quite happy recording until four in the morning because recording was my passion.
How was the experience at IC?
The console Shalini spent four years training on—while being paid as an Ithaca College recording services engineer—was the same she uses now, working for WireWorld Studio in Nashville. Plus, the people who taught her, like her current colleagues, were seasoned professionals, among them Alex Perialas, a Grammy-nominated audio engineer and producer with 131 albums to his credit.
“In addition to teaching us the technology,” Shalini says, “Alex gave us insights into the business end of the industry.”
Perialas, whose recording credits include Brian Wilson and Johnny Dowd, helped secure Shalini a curriculum-required internship, at a studio in Nashville, and introduced her to a former colleague, who offered her a job the summer before her senior year.
“This industry isn’t one where you just wave your degree and expect people to hire you,” Shalini says. “Alex’s connections got my foot in the door, and from there, I showed people that IC taught me how things work, not just how to make things work.”
Knowing how to perform didn’t hurt either.
“As a student, I complained about spending so much time sight singing and playing the piano, but my boss is an engineer through and through, and he’s found me useful because I can talk knowledgeably to musicians. Fortunately IC faculty pushed me and expected a lot out of me.”
Tell us about your career path
A few years later, after obtaining a degree in Performance and Sound Recording Technology from Ithaca College — she was the first woman in the program, but not, she notes, the last — Gandhi made her way to Music City, where she’s lived for the last five years. Now 28, her credits include albums by Alison Krauss and Parker Millsap, in addition to two of Jarosz’s records. She also mixed country star Kelsea Ballerini’s chart-topping single “Peter Pan.”
In addition to her work with Paczosa, Gandhi works on other projects in a Berry Hill studio she shares with Marshall Altman. “I tend to mix pop, because there are not as many pop mixers in town as there are country mixers,” she explains. “That’s the music I love to listen to: pop and indie. But I love to track Americana with Gary. It’s wonderful getting to do all of it. I feel pretty lucky.”
Gandhi has been thriving in what is largely a male-dominated field. According to Women’s Audio Mission, an organization that teaches audio engineering to young women and girls from under-served communities, “less than 5% of the people creating the sounds, music and media in the daily soundtrack of our lives are women.”
She’s experienced discrimination along the way, she said: “The first question (I get) is always, ‘Hi, honey. Are you Gary’s personal assistant?’”
But, Gandhi says, for every negative experience she’s had in the industry, she’s had 10 positive ones. “If they’re going to hold me to a higher standard because I’m young and a female, that’s fine with me,” she said. “Hold me to a higher standard. I’ll meet you there.”
Her nomination for “Undercurrent” is her first Grammy nomination; other records in the Best Engineered Album category include David Bowie’s “Blackstar” and Prince’s “Hit N Run Phase Two.”
“We’re not winning,” Gandhi laughs, “but it really is just an honor to be nominated.”
Regardless of whether or not she takes home a trophy, she’s determined to enjoy the night: “I don’t want it to be my only time at the Grammys, but I’m going to go there like it is.”
What is sound mixing and recording?
“We’re sort of in charge of the technical aspects of recording,” says Shalini Gandhi. “The artist will come in and the producer might explain to us what kind of sound he or she is going for, and we are in charge of making that happen. We handle…microphone choice, placement, acoustics, all the way through the knobs and buttons…Whatever your medium is for recording the sound, the tracking engineer is the person in charge of that.”
The mixing engineer takes over from there. “The creative decisions that are made — reverb and delay and synths—that’s the mixing engineer. You’ll go back and forth with the artist and producer. They’ll say, ‘Make the drums sound like the Black Keys. Make the guitar sound like Led Zeppelin.’”
Pointing to the computer monitor, where several different vocal and instrumental tracks are represented by different colors, Gandhi explains that the mixing engineer’s job is to create a painting out of those colors. “When you’re choosing an engineer, in addition to their technical abilities, you’re also picking them for their creative choices and their ear.”
Often, engineers will do double duty, Gandhi says: “It’s all very interchangeable, because these days there often isn’t a budget for a producer, a tracking engineer, a mixing engineer and all of that.”