Tone Talk With Sarah Shafey

Photo credit Paul Steward
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I started as a classically trained piano player, which is still my primary instrument. At a young age, I would try to learn other songs by ear, which eventually turned into me writing my own music. 

I am also an IT nerd, so in my youth, my introduction into producing was using a mini tape recorder. I would go into my dad’s office and take his mini recorder that he used for work. I would record myself singing and playing piano over top of his very important work and listen back a million times, lol.

I kept going and just played and played. Then I picked up the guitar and started collecting gadgets, other instruments, hardware, software — all of the fun things. I also loitered a lot around the first music studio in Toronto that I recorded at. I just hung around like the person on the couch that doesn’t go away. I watched the guys engineer, mix, and record, and I learned a ton. 

My musical influences really do range across the board from rock, metal, electronic, pop, hip hop, jazz, country, classical, and more. All good music and good production inspire me.

On my fourth album, Blackbox Universe, it’s all about the theatrics. A cosmic play on life that is just big, bold, heavy production, including influences of electronic, pop, and rock. 

I want people to put their headphones on loud volume and disappear into the story and atmosphere that I aim to create. Take a pause from life and sit back and enjoy.

What is your definition of tone, and how has it changed over the years?

I immediately liked this question. Tone is hard to define. When I listen to music, I really listen to it. I hear every sound, every pan, every distortion, every pedal, every beat — you name it. I study songs like a mad scientist in my mind. Each instrument has its own tone, like a living thing. I love how some have a bassy edge, some have a mid-range edge, some have a high edge, and a lot of variants in between. I have always just fiddled around and not spent too much time worrying about what it’s “supposed to sound like.” I just play around for what feels right. I guess that is tone. 

Which guitars, amps, and pedals are you currently using and why?

When I play guitar, it’s generally as part of the production of a song. I love my guitars, they are so soothing to look at. I have the following:

  • Fender CD-60 Dreadnought Acoustic
  • Epiphone Hummingbird Pro Acoustic
  • Yamaha CG-100A classical acoustic
  • Fender Telecaster Electric
  • Epiphone Gibson Electric
  • Peavey Milestone Bass 

As a producer, I am a plug-in lover. I use those for amps and pedals and find they are pretty awesome nowadays. I don’t really believe in the analog vs. digital debate. You can make cool sounds out of anything. 

What about strings?

I am a big fan of Ernie Ball strings. They just have a specific sound to them that I like. My favorite ones are the Super Slinky.

Are there certain recording techniques you prefer in the studio?

I really do just muck about. I like playing around with using both a mic’d up amp and also plug into DI, so I can layer fun pedal/amp plug-ins on top to make the sound bigger.

How do you keep your sound consistent onstage?

I typically go hands-free on stage when I sing because I like the freedom of holding a microphone and being free to let my gangly arms flail about. I will play an acoustic guitar once in a while for a few songs while the other guitarist(s) play electric. I generally like the sound of my guitars as they are on their own without too much effect added.

What does your practice consist of?

I have two approaches. The first approach is will make a song that is produced using beats, loops, and other sounds. Then I will layer ethereal guitar soundscapes or chug along on top to beef up the tunes. The second approach is I will just pick up the guitar and play a simple thing as a demo, then pass it over to my guitar player pal to recreate into something that is magic.

Deep breaths and meditation are also a part of my practice.

Favorite guitar riff or lick that inspired you to play guitar?

I am still getting better at guitar and have a very long way to go. I want to answer with what is actually my favorite guitar solo, Zakk Wylde’s bridge in Ozzy Osbourne’s song “No More Tears,” because it’s epic. But the truthful answer is it was a little part in a Ben Harper song called “Faded” that just caught my attention and inspired me to try to learn it at the time. Very random.

What is your advice for young women who hope to work in the music industry?

Ha, don’t let anyone get you down. You are your own best advocate. Try to find camaraderie in other women musicians and artists. Learn about the business side of music so that you can be the best voice for yourself. Don’t buy into the nonsense and don’t take life too seriously while still taking it seriously at the same time. Find that balance, and you will be golden.

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