“We feel proud to put our name on it”: Discussing the evolution of Humans Win! Studio, their annual demo contest, and modern music production.

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By Kelsey Simpkins

Photos from Humans Win! Facebook and Website.

They say the best things come in small packages. Who “they” are, I’m not exactly sure. But what I do know is that Humans Win! Studio in Minneapolis packs a punch in the world of professional recording and producing for its limited square footage.

Located on an unassuming corner in NE, it’d be easy to miss, apart from the heavy pink door and intriguing logo on the side of a once residential building. On a brisk day this fall, manager and producer Taylor Lewin happily welcomed me in for a visit.

It’s a beautiful space, to be sure. Warm wood floors and worldly décor add a welcoming, personal touch to small rooms packed with musical equipment. Making the most of the space, drums are done downstairs, along with an isolated voice room, which is not for those with a fear of small spaces. And as the whole studio is windowless, you can lose track of hours at a time, focusing in on whatever project is at hand.

Lewin and I joined Lance Conrad, owner and head producer, and Peter John, a friend and musical collaborator of Conrad’s, in the control room to discuss the upcoming annual Humans Win! demo contest, and much more. Like the main bridge of a futuristic spaceship, a massive series of controls, screens, and knobs command a heavy presence in the room – yet the warm tones and ample seating insist that the room is for humans, and not machines. Knick knacks and posters of projects fill the room where audio equipment does not; no space is wasted. Although it may not be yours, the studio is designed to feel like home every time you step inside.

Since 2008, Humans Win! Studio has been hard at work recording, mixing, mastering, and producing work by artists from around the Twin Cities to an international scale. It’s just Conard and Lewin, a team of two who, together or apart, can accomplish almost any project put before them. If they decide to get onboard, that is. Making many wise choices over the years, they’ve worked with artists such as Aby Wolf, Caroline Smith, Chris Koza, Haley Bonar, Heiruspecs, Solid Gold, Step Rockets, and Van Stee, to Dosh, DeVotchka, Modest Mouse, Sean Carey, and Unknown Mortal Orchestra.

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“The only reason I’ve been coming here is because I like what they’re doing,” John half jokes. “They’re some of the only people in town doing creative music production, and there’s a big difference between… twiddling knobs behind a fader desk… just pushing buttons and sliders, but not actually making music. But, now with the developments in software, it can expand your palette of sounds to such a degree, but most people who were trained in the old school way of recording really were just controlling the desks. It’s a completely different process when you talk about production today compared with production twenty years ago.”

This difference between simply recording something and the artistry of production is what sets Humans Win apart.

“I was first really involved with the indie scene, and I was working live sound… doing indie rock records, and folk records, and jazz, all the stuff that was happening in bars, in venues,” Conrad explains, “and then indie rock died, or became this new thing… They’re [bands] not operating with this added stress and pressure to make a really commercially appealing record, they’re allowing themselves to be more creative and create something that’s more unique to them as individuals. And so it might not do as well in the marketplace, and they don’t. But that’s why it sounds indie, because it’s original creativity.

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We’ve caught on to that wave, and we’re riding that wave of like, okay, we’re producers, setting ourselves apart from recording studios. We lose projects every once and a while to recording studios cause they’re not ready for production.”

Although their work, goals, and experience are not to be taken lightly, Conrad and Lewin don’t take themselves too seriously. The name of their studio itself is an obvious testament.

“It actually came from an art series that my friend Alex Molitor started.” Conrad muses, “How do you come up with a name that conveys everything that you are in like two words? That you have a sense of humor, that you have confidence, but also that you’re a recording studio.”

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For its lack of pertinence to music, however, Humans Win has become a largely recognizable name in music recording and production both locally and nationwide. Another familiar part of their legacy is their annual demo contest, won last year by John Chuck and the Class. It’s back this year, with a few amendments.

The 2016 Humans Win! Demo Contest opens on January 1, 2016 and submission runs until Valentine’s Day. One winner will be chosen from the Band/Artist category to receive $1,000 worth of time towards an original album, and one winner will be chosen from the Singer/Covers category to receive $1,000 of studio time or one song produced for them. In addition, Joseph McMahon will be offering his services for a separate prize, as director/editor of a music video. McMahon has done work for Step Rockets, Squares (one of City Pages’ Top 10 of 2014), and is wrapping up a new video for Beasthead, who won the contest prize last year, as well as a new Bora York video. Submissions are not restricted to those by Minnesotan musicians, but prizes are not transferrable, and contest winners must redeem their time at Humans Win! Studio in Minneapolis.

Prior to this demo contest, Humans Win was involved in a variety of community professional workshops for almost two years.

“We wanted to be involved with the community, build that community,” Conrad explains. “And also from a business standpoint, we wanted it to seem like we’re actually involved. Genuinely we really did, and we still do. But we’re busy enough now, we don’t need to, we can’t volunteer our time anymore… We opened the doors to musicians and producers and engineers to come… learn about something for a day… It’s great to be able to bring people in, gives you a reason to make a connection, to pick their brain… We learned a lot from it, met a lot of people.

We felt like the demo contest was another way of saying, ‘Look! We’re going to give free time to someone just because they’re talented!’ …But it was always a way for us to find talent. So this year [we thought] let’s just focus on finding talent… and trim it down.”

In case you’re interested in submitting a demo this time around, they offered a little inside information about what makes a good entry.

“Somebody who’s done the time and research into, ‘people are gonna like this,’” Lewin offers. “And there’s still that ethereal, ‘oh yeah, it’s a good song.’”

Conrad is a bit blunter: “Taste. Good taste.”

They’ll admit on press materials that, “Each band/act must be in a position to make a new record.” So while anyone can enter, they’re looking less for musicians at the 101 level, and more for artists who could place into a higher course. Yet considering the number of high-caliber musicians just in Minneapolis, that barely narrows things down.

Say though, that you want to skip the contest all-together, and just get to work. What’s their typical process for vetting a band, and getting started? Like all modern humans, Conrad admits, “It depends on our schedule.”

“When we’re really busy, which we are now, we can be selective. And that’s always the goal, to be very selective. Very rarely nowadays are we working with groups that just wanna come in and play things the way they come up with it, because often times we can help them make it better. And if they’re not willing to enter into collaborative process like that, we just say, it’d be a great fit at… a different studio. They’ll hit record and make you sound great. Here we’re very production-focused, so we want to be a part of the creative process and help create a more interesting recording. Cause often times bands come in, they forget the studio’s an instrument. And so we’re like, you forgot to write the studio into the process here.”

“The Beatles spending hours and hours in the studio, it wasn’t that they just hit record and they were great… they took the time to be creative in the studio and take advantage of the people they were working with,” Lewin adds. “And we like to try to do that.”

“Also that helps us filter out bands, we look for people who are on that same page,” Conrad continues. “Those are the people we want to work with.”

Whether or not a band has a lot of live experience, recordings still hold a central place in making a name for oneself. Having an EP or LP to market and sell places a band into a listener’s long-term vernacular way more than owning a t-shirt or being on a mailing list. But where does that process of achieving a great studio recording begin?

Lewin points out that, “We at least get iPhone demos out of people. If you’ve been playing a lot, at least show it to us. Now my habit is… before we get a date on the calendar, send me some demos of what you have.”

“…We’re a lot pickier about what we put our names on,” Conrad explains. “If people don’t already have a pre-existing recording of some type, we’re a little wary to get involved, because we know they’re probably gonna be a lot more work, to get to a place where we feel proud to put our name on it. Warehouse Eyes is a good example, they came to us with an existing EP. Then we sat down and talked about the EP, what they liked about it, what they didn’t like about it, and so we had more of a concrete place to step off from.”

Offering an alternate perspective, John elaborates, “I’m from a different world… I’m not part of the studio or anything. But there’s music that’s meant to be performed and experienced as a performance, and then there’s music, [where] the final product is the recording. And that’s something as a musician, most musicians don’t get that. You’re used to playing live with the band, playing at a show, and if the drummer does a crazy solo – that’s awesome, but you wouldn’t want to listen to that in the car, you know? It’s a different thing, especially these guys know how to make music pop through speakers… and make it its own art form, which is the recording, not just ‘here’s the live show, and here’s the transmittal of it.’”

Indeed, there’s music that is much more stage friendly, meant to be experienced live, and then there’s music that you really need those high quality headphones for, to truly get that ideal experience out of it. Those two have kind of merged today; you have to be more of a geek, beyond that initial side of it, to really understand that. There’s so much music on the radio now that is more meant to be performed live, and makes for a crappy listening experience in the car. Maybe that’s why a lot of people have gotten sick of what’s on the radio.

When you go to a lot of shows, that requires a litmus test of sorts. Is this worth my money, worth my time? Is this even the kind of thing I want to go see live? Sometimes there’s just no question, I don’t care how much it costs; I must go to that show. Other times, the CD is better than listening to the music live. That’s when you know it’s a well done studio production: when the recording is so good, you’re like, “no, I’ll pass,” on a live performance.

Reaching that level of production and talent in music, however, doesn’t come easy.

“When you go into music, it’s a very steep up and down journey. And even recently, doing awesome stuff – but is this viable long term? Do I want to keep making records when I’m 45? I don’t know. But I really like doing it now. But also want to be a responsible adult,” Lewin laughs.

“I think we’ve conscientiously made a decision not to work for, work on commercial music as much, not work for corporations. We’ve held steadfast, and it’s worked.” Conrad admits, “The studio’s never really been in jeopardy. A lot of people kind of look up to us for that.”

What kind of life will that create for them as time goes on, is the question. That’s the eternal question of anyone who’s doing what they truly love, especially if it’s a creative endeavor.

Yet the way you spend your time nowadays is maybe more important than what it’s getting you financially. You have to be able to pay your bills and all that. But the younger generation, like always, questions the norm. Would you rather spend 40 hours a week doing something you absolutely hate, and have two days a week when you can do stuff you like, or would you rather invest all your time in something better?

Conrad puts it plainly: “Doing what you love comes with a price tag.”

“That’s a concept that a lot of people still don’t understand,” Lewin notes. “Nowadays, making it in the music industry should be more categorized as people making a living. There are a lot of very successful YouTube artists, and people just making money in very creative ways that are making more than a lot of touring musicians. That’s great, they wake up, they go to their house studio, they go to a different room in their house, press record, make something, put a video up, and they have a job that pays more than a lot of jobs.”

“All before they’ve taken a shower and eaten breakfast,” Conrad points out.

Lewin shoots back: “Usually it’s better if they haven’t taken a shower or eaten breakfast!”

In the situation of internet fame, like people with YouTube channels, there’s nothing in-between them and their mass audience. It’s all right there. So the moment they get that attention, it’s all set up for them. Whereas in the industry of going out and playing shows, touring, making music, trying to sell it, there’s so many middle steps to reach that mass audience and keep its attention.

“It’s created this other problem, where there’s this massive noise.” John gets a little cynical, noting, “If you’re really good at something… you’re competing with a bunch of s***. It’s like trying to pull sounds out of static.”

With this vast static, I worry about the type of consumer it creates. Say the internet didn’t exist, what would we all be doing with our time? Yet it also allows for greater opportunity in a way that was never possible before.

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Is it better not to move to a big city now, because of the internet? In Minneapolis, there’s such a supportive community, there are so many venues you can play on a regular basis, and you can collaborate with a ton of people. These days you can start in a smaller area, and build your name up in a way that it does more for you than moving to New York or Los Angeles.

“Minneapolis is great, because you can have a good life, enjoy your time, and still have some fun. Cost of living is relatively cheap. And that time value thing, which weighs into the whole music thing. Now we’re trying to figure out how to spend our time wisely, on stuff that we really like and really enhances our life and time and career,” Lewin argues. “[But] I had to talk to a high school class, they’re all music production people. And I was like, ‘Well, music is really great IF you want to work 80 hours a week for 20 grand a year.’ Cause it feels like that. And nobody talks about that.”

 One of the biggest time sucks in the creation and production of music – and a very popular genre today – is electronic music. It’s a favorite for all in the room, and some have current projects in it. John and Conrad came to collaborate over their shared interest in making electronic music, although their work doesn’t have a name yet. John, who grew up in the tradition of classical piano, has work under the moniker SPEARFISHER. And Conrad is making fantastic tunes under the name PrismBreaker, which recently had a residency at the Red Stag Supperclub in November.

There are several exciting related projects taking place in the studio right now as well, such as Hi-Fi Cali (a project of Chris Bartels’) and notably, one with Dan Richards from One Direction, songwriting and making pop/dance music. For many bands, electronic elements are a fun addition, or more part of the production process. These hybrid bands in the end, however, are based in real instruments. True electronic music takes a different form.

“Electronic music is very involved. It requires many hours. If you’re gonna make it, you better have your name on it,” Conrad advises. “As time goes on, we’re shifting to spend more and more time in the electronic world. It’s something that I’ve always loved to do, something that I’ve always done.”

Finding funding is difficult though, “to make up for the extra amount of time that is necessary.”

John explains, “Electronic music is almost a misnomer. We were spending the morning crunching leaves… rattling my zipper in a weird way. It’s using every sound you’ve ever heard, and recording it, to make a song – rather than a drum kit and a bass guitar.”

Despite the extra time required to make it, or finding places to perform it, Conrad sees the potential of electronic music as something more. “The only way to see a revolution is to be part of it,” he declares.

Looking ahead, Humans Win! Studio has a strong foundation to build and push the boundaries of what recording and producing music can mean for the industry, and do for the hungry audience who listen to it. Actively seeking talent, and developing the abilities of those who they work with, Humans Win has been, and continues to maintain an integral role in cultivating the Twin Cities music scene. Conrad and Lewin help musicians aspire to and achieve their goals, while maintaining ambitions of their own.

“We have our own personal goals, aside from what you’d see on the landing page of the website,” Conrad explains. “I always talk about how I want to develop more of a production company. So at some point, it’s not just a studio, but Humans Win as its own entity… People can expect different things, whether music for a film, or music for a project, or commercial music, whatever it is.”

“I’m really curious what’s gonna be the new record label,” Lewin ponders. “Right now we’re producers, we can make our own music for stuff. And then we can also make other people’s music. And it’s almost like that middle man that the record label was to fund that, can almost be overcome with time now… I want to figure out what’s next. There’s gotta be another way to help people making a living doing music. That’s always my goal.”

Keep an eye out for full updated details on the Humans Win! Studio 2016 Demo Contest: www.humanswin.com

inquiries can be sent to humanswin@gmail.com

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