“There's music in everything all around you all day,” says Randall Frazier, the man behind the musical project Orbit Service. “You just have to listen to it. Your average day-to-day person maybe isn't really appreciating all the different things that are happening around them in the world of sound. It's invisible, and you take it for granted."
Frazier knows what he’s talking about. For the past twenty years, he's worked as a sound engineer at some of the best-sounding venues in Denver, including the Mercury Cafe, the Walnut Room, Globe Hall and, currently, Ophelia’s, where he'll host a release party on Halloween for his latest album, The Door to the Sky. With only a couple of synthesizers, a vocal processor and an iPad, Frazier crafts otherworldly soundscapes — auditory moods, really — that allow the mind to wander free while making the listener more acutely aware of what the ears perceive. It’s not easy to explain what Orbit Service is all about, he concedes.
“Describing it is sort of tough, I think,” says Frazier on the phone from Atlanta, where he has just finished the sound check for an opening slot at the Legendary Pink Dots concert. He started as the band’s publicist more than a decade ago, then moved up to running its sound on tour before graduating to holding down a slot at shows.
“I think you might call it just 'surrealist,'" he says of Orbit Service's music. "I think that's maybe the most accurate description.”
As an artist, Frazier had decided to go it alone, at least most of the time. Being alone on stage can leave an artist feeling naked, but he says it’s easier, in the long run, than the alternative.
“Over the years, I've played with various different band configurations, but it's personally never really worked out for me,” says Frazier. “My musical vision and the direction I tend to want to go, people have a hard time kind of grasping. When I play in Denver, I still have a couple of people that play with me, but on the tour, I have to do it by myself. I made this record knowing I was going to be playing it by myself, so it's kind of set up for me to play that way.”
It doesn’t hurt that Frazier’s day job is essentially a different form of the same act: sound manipulation. He’s quick to acknowledge that the two go hand in hand.
“I'm more of a sound engineer than I am a musician,” says Frazier. “I can't read music or anything like that. I'm working strictly by what I can hear. You're kind of halfway there if you're a sound engineer, because you have this innate understanding of what mixes well and what sounds right together and how to place things across the audible frequency range to make everything kind of slide together seamlessly so it feels full and rich without being overcrowded and too busy.”
Frazier has no formal training as a musician — or as a sound engineer, for that matter — so the music he creates isn’t based on music theory, just what he hears and how sounds blend.
“When I go back to the studio and I'm working on my own records, it's more about the sounds than it is the playing,” he says. “I'm not a good player. I can't rip out a Jimi Hendrix-style solo or anything like that, but I can sort of make my way through the process just using the knowledge that I have about sound.”
And while performing alone inevitably makes Frazier the focus of attention, being a sound engineer is the exact opposite. That, he says, is by design.
“I think sound engineering is kind of a dark art,” says Frazier. “It's sort of an invisible bit of magic that's happening. Nobody really notices what's happening unless it's bad. There are so many things going on. If you're doing it right, you're very busy and you're very focused.”
Good sound engineering, he says, is less about manipulation than about knowing what’s important to highlight and what to discard.
“When I'm doing my job at Ophelia's, for example, it's all about subtracting things,” says Frazier. “You're not really sculpting the sound as much as you are removing things. My job is removing the bad parts and letting the music kind of do its thing. Every environment you work in has acoustic properties that kind of make themselves known — the reflections off the walls, a cheap microphone or whatever. As a sound engineer, it's your job to get rid of those things and let the good parts shine.”
Having such an acute sense of good sound, however, can be a blessing and a curse. On the road, Frazier has to turn off the sound-engineer part of his brain and focus on making music. It’s a situation that has the potential to be disastrous but rarely is.
“Most of the [sound engineers] I encounter...are pretty professional,” says Frazier. “I'll have a short chat with them about what I'm going for at the beginning when we set up for sound check. I'll tell them what I'm looking for and what I designed this thing to be, and they seem pretty receptive. That’s not saying I haven't had bad experiences — I definitely have. It's possible to have bad experiences even in a great room with a really talented guy running your sound. It could still go wrong, but it usually doesn't.”
For the most part, he says, sound engineers tend to take their craft seriously. The vast majority are big fans of music and strive to make the bands they work for sound great.
“Long before I was a sound engineer, I spent a lot of my free time sitting in a dark room just listening to records,” says Frazier. “Not talking, not trying to party, just listening. And I think most sound engineers are that way. Sound engineers usually take great pride in their job, and it's sort of like this unspoken code. If you don't want to be a sound engineer, you just aren't, because it's not an easy job.”
Sound engineering, he says, is more an art form than a vocation. And like any other art form, it can’t really be taught.
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“You can go to school for painting, but that doesn't make you a great painter,” he says. “And you can go to school for photography and learn all about the cameras, but that doesn't make you a great photographer. You have to have this sort of built into your system. I think I was just wired this way. It's a matter of listening intently.”
It's something, he says, that’s hard to tune out. Once you become aware of how much sound and acoustics affect your experiences, it becomes impossible to ignore.
“I've made a living out of paying attention to things that maybe other people don't pay attention to,” says Frazier. “I hear it everywhere I go, in everything I do. Walking into a different space, I hear how my voice reflects off the wall when I'm talking, and things like that. It influences the direction I go with my music. If you're paying attention, there's a lot of stuff like that going on in the world around you that's just fucking awesome. It blows your mind when you really think about it.”