It’s easy to find Cameron “Cam” Smith. He’s nearly always in a studio, behind a stage, or on it. Drummer-producer-mixer-Moog and vibes player, Smith is constantly experimenting with sounds. By day, he’s an engineer at The Embassy and Artisound Productions; by night, he runs sound at several venues around town and performs with Shakespeare & the Blues, the band he co-created with Bryan Webre. I was lucky enough to get sneak peaks of an EP they released a few days after our interview, entitled THIS IS A TEST.
You were recommended to me by a musician who inspired this column, Aaron Boudreaux (a.k.a. MoPodna). Besides both being badass engineers and drummers, how do you know each other?
I went to ULL [The University of Louisiana at Lafayette] with Aaron. He’s one of the most talented people I know and one of the most funny. We met playing percussion together. I was in Theory and Comp, then Jazz Studies. Then, three semesters before I graduated, they created an engineering program, which I got to catch the very beginning of. I was actually in a duo with another drummer in Lafayette at the time, Zach Rhea—he introduced me to Moogs. He was really into analogue synths. There’s something about making the sounds yourself [that] I just love.
How does the balance work when there’s multiple drummers in the band?
I’m a drummer but I also do other things and I’m really cool with not playing drums if we have something else to present. I used to play vibes, so I can cheat on keys. I have a cheap little Jenco vibraphone set that I still use. It takes a lot of editing to make it sound decent [on recordings] but I still might plug it into something I’m doing.
Being a drummer and an engineer seems to make sense, that pairing of skills.
I hear that a lot, actually, where people aren’t surprised that I’m a drummer as well as an engineer. I think it’s because of the attention to detail. It gets looked over but drummers have a lot to pay attention to when it comes to their sound. From cymbals to tuning, one drum can sound like 50 different drums, depending on the tuning or the sticks. There’s so many little things you need to create the sound, and I think that mindset lends itself to engineering.
It feels like engineering is also a lot of science.
It’s a lot of science. It’s weird how it’s a left brain and right brain activity. It’s not that creative though; It’s a very learned skillset. I still need to learn Ableton. People might hate me for this but I love Studio One [by PreSonus]. I actually don’t care for Pro Tools at all. I can use Pro Tools but I find it to be uninviting for a creative mindset. It’s kind of clinical. Studio One has all the things I need at my fingertips. It has a lot of pretty big drop-down menus though, so it can be overwhelming if you’re just getting into it. But once you know where to find things and what to look for, it has the best workflow.
Pre-pandemic you were less in the studio and more on live sound?
I got my start as an engineer at a theater in Lafayette called AcA, Acadiana Center for the Arts. It’s cool. It’s a nonprofit. I got really used to doing sound there. [More recently], I was running sound at Maple Leaf Bar. I got really good there ‘cause it’s such a weird room. I worked at Blue Nile and Zony Mash. I’ve actually done quite a few shows there—they have their outdoor space, which is fun ‘cause you can be loud. I tour with the Lost Bayou Ramblers when they need me, I’m doing sound for [Meters guitarist and solo artist] Leo Nocentelli soon. Sometimes I still say “yes” to stuff, just to keep the chops up.
Does doing sound in very different spaces require very different tactics?
From the jump, it’s always the same: I’m getting the levels I want, I’m getting the sounds I want. The biggest thing is setting up gain staging. If I’ve had the time to do that right, and I’m satisfied with it, the rest is just kinda turning it up and gauging what the space can handle.
How did your band Shakespeare & the Blues come together?
It started out at Banks Street Bar. Bryan [Webre] and I had these beats. I played drums, he played bass and guitar, and we’d just see what we’d come up with. There were no songs. It was an hour-and-a-half of made-up shit but people liked it. We would get some money, even in little old Banks Street. We’d get a crowd. We’re still going strong, just released a new EP [on March 15th] and premiered it at “The Shape of Jazz to Come” at Three Keys at the Ace Hotel. It’s a 20-minute song we chopped into tracks, so it’s separate but it’s really all one thing. It’s called, THIS IS A TEST. [Shakespeare & the Blues] is the one musical thing I’m holding onto, besides my own beat tapes—I’ve become such an engineer.
So the band grew out of a jam session?
It was an intentional jam. We knew it wouldn’t be boring because of the instrumentation. We had these toys: the Moog [Moogerfooger MF-108M Cluster Flux], the [Roland] SP-404[SX], there were samples on it, there were drums, it also has really amazing effects, and this Critter & Guitari pocket piano. It’s one of my favorite things in the world. It’s got different sounds, a little tremolo, it’s got all the video game sounds, a pitch controller, arpeggiator, and the fact that it has a speaker on it is pretty cool. You’ll probably hear it on most of my music ‘cause it’s so fun to play. It’s very dirty sounding too, which I like. I bought it used—You can tell it used to be on someone’s pedal board. I love the layered arpeggiator. It’s like Candyland. The amount of different sounds you can get on this little box is insane. I like things that sound cool no matter what you press. I’ve been wanting to get another device from them because they have this whole ecosystem where you can plug the devices into each other.
This pedal is from digdugDIY. It’s a [re]verb and a condenser. You can make ridiculously huge verbs because you can compress it and then just draw it out. It’s called a Whale or something. I would never record with it ‘cause it’s not worth all the dirt; but live, it can be really cool. You can get huge, messy washes from it. Then there’s this simple loop pedal that was the key to Shakespeare & The Blues. The [DigiTech] JamMan Solo was also essential and something I had to practice, taking my foot off the hi-hat and putting it on the pedal. It’s such a different feel, a lot of resistance, and you can’t just tap it, you have to dig in, which throws you off your balance when you’re playing a beat.
Which was your first toy?
The Roland MV[-8800 Production Studio]. I convinced my father to get it for me as part of a school project. Kanye West and Timbaland used to create tracks on it. It can do so much, there’s so much going on. It was appealing to me to have a physical thing with so many parts. Even when it comes to live sound, I would much rather have a soundboard. There’s something satisfying about putting your hands on a thing.
THIS IS A TEST by Shakespeare & the Blues is now streaming on all platforms. For more info check out shakespeareandtheblues.bandcamp.com.
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Photos by Sabrina Stone