Meet Claire Morison, the “midwife” of the studio musician

L.A-based recording and mixing engineer Claire Morison heard Knives Out by Radiohead as a teenager, and it changed her life forever. The self confessed indie girl from Montana explains why she risked it all to open her own studio in Hollywood.

Morison is chugging a coffee as she joins Headliner from her L.A studio, called Wild Horizon Sound. “I had a late night session last night. Artists don't typically like to start before noon. So I'm going kinda late sometimes, so yeah, I'm all about the caffeine,” she smiles brightly, somehow not looking or sounding remotely tired despite working into the early hours.

Growing up, it was her mother who encouraged her children to play an instrument each, with a young Morison choosing the violin, before eventually begging her parents for an electric guitar aged 13. Music was certainly already a passion of hers at a young age, but she distinctly recalls the moment she knew she wanted to work on the music someday:

“This is such a cheesy story,” she cringes, “but I do clearly remember discovering Radiohead at Borders bookstore in my small town when I was about 15. I heard Knives Out from their record Amnesiac and I just had this feeling like, ‘Oh man, I gotta be a part of this’. It made me feel differently in a way that I hadn't before. 

"Around then was when I realised I wanted to be involved in the production and creation of records. I've never been a performer. I've never craved playing in front of an audience. In fact, I am terrified of it,” she admits. “Being a producer or engineer seemed like the next closest thing.”

I realised I wanted to be involved in the production and creation of records.

She grew up in a small town in Montana, moving to L.A to study recording arts at Loyola Marymount University as soon as she was old enough. 12 years later, she’s still in Los Angeles.

“As soon as I turned 18, I was ready to get out of there,” she says. 

“I had always felt that way. I mean, where I'm from – Whitefish, Montana – is so beautiful,” she adds quickly. “It's basically next to a national park, but I didn't have a lot of access to music or art and culture. Also, I'm really not a cold weather person! So not only did I crave the city life, but I was ready to get out of the snow. Plus, in L.A you can really focus and hone in on music.”

Honing her skills at university, Morison took a job at the campus radio station as their live engineer where she was able to dig into the tech at the facility’s impressive recording studio.

“It was full of really amazing gear. It actually turned me into a gear snob,” she laughs, shaking her head slightly. 

“I had more independent access to the studio, so I started meeting local bands and bands that were touring, and I got to pull from that community instead of trying to find whoever on Craigslist to do a school project. I got more involved with the independent rock scene in L.A, and I had a blast. I made a couple of records before I even graduated.”

I've never craved playing in front of an audience. In fact, I am terrified of it.

During her senior year, Westlake Recording Studios (which has welcomed everyone from Rihanna to Nine Inch Nails through its legendary doors), had an opening for an intern. Morison knew the role had to be hers, and she ended up working there for around a year.

“That catapulted me to the next stage of my career,” she recalls. “I was pretty much off to the races before I even graduated. When I was working there, we had a lot of bigger pop stars coming in, and I was used to working with the underground local indie scene. 

"I was borrowing reels of tape to go and record bands at Echo Park! I've always loved all genres, and I really do listen to everything now. It's just ironic because at the time, I couldn't have cared less who was in the big studios – I just wanted to be involved in full band sessions.”

An engineer that had previously worked for Westlake ended up running a studio in Echo Park, and he was looking for an engineer. Morison was hired for the role, which took her work to the next level. “My boss hired me from his trust in the fact I was Westlake-trained. I love and appreciate the owners so much, and funnily enough, my current studio is two blocks away from Westlake. So I'm back in Hollywood, but I'm running my own independent studio now.”

Morison has worked as a freelance recording and mixing engineer for the last decade at various independent studios. In 2020, during the worldwide lockdown, she decided to take a risk and open her own studio, Wild Horizon Sound.

“Weirdly enough, I had already begun looking into renting out a room for myself and starting to branch out into my own business,” she explains. 

“Then the shutdown happened, and this studio in Hollywood became available. A friend of a friend, who I call my fairy godfather because of his endless kindnesses to me, had run the space in Hollywood for 12 years and because of the pandemic, he was getting to hang out with his wife for the first time in a long time after working every day in the studio. It's a really big commitment to work and run a studio,” she points out, “so I totally understood where he was coming from.”

“It was this crazy, serendipitous situation that happened, because everything lined up at the right time,” she continues. “It was a risk, because I was working at those other places for years. You hope that people will follow you wherever, so it’s kind of a test to see if people are going to make the drive to Hollywood.”

I couldn't have cared less who was in the big studios – I just wanted to be involved in full band sessions.

Morison knows that it’s not all about the technical skills – in order to work with different artists daily and deliver their vision, establishing a connection is a key part of that.

“It is an intense kind of communication when you are working with people's art and you’re trying to access their emotions, help them to feel comfortable and let them be vulnerable. At the same time, you’re trying to achieve the best possible sound, or maybe an interesting sound and be creative, but also deliver the best product. 

"That requires a lot of attention. I try to keep a calm and positive demeanour – the vibe is important,” she stresses. “I want people to not feel rushed. I want people to feel creative and inspired when we're working.”

Morison says she considers herself to be the “midwife” of the musician and their creative process – essentially helping deliver others’ sonic ideas. In other words, she’s a pair of safe hands.

“I really do feel strongly about that statement in the sense of how I've come to see my job,” she says. 

“But also, I never want to take too much credit; I'm interpreting and understanding ideas. Someone's coming to me with a song, and it is my job to deliver their art back to them in a more fully realised form. 

"It's definitely a process in deciding, ‘How are we going to do this? What is your vision for this? What's the end goal?’ There's a lot of factors in that process, and it’s something that requires a lot of trust, openness and communication. It's an important job for me, to help someone deliver their art.”

I want someone to work with me because I'm good at what I do, not just necessarily because I am a woman.

On being a woman in a male dominated industry, Morison says that female artists do tend to seek her out.

“I do have a lot of women who come to me,” she nods. “Not necessarily because they feel uncomfortable working with men, but they are interested in working in a creative environment with another woman. I've actually had the same thing happen with men who are interested in having that female energy in the room. Maybe it brings it back to that midwife analogy,” she considers. 

“I am very opinionated, but maybe I deliver it in a softer, gentler way. It definitely varies from person to person, because I know a lot of male engineers and producers who are really intuitive and emotionally intelligent and participate in that way. But it has been interesting to see why people are interested in working with a woman.”

“I want someone to come and work with me because I'm good at what I do, or they want to work with me,” she points out, “not just necessarily because I am a woman. I do think that it's going to change in the future – I foresee a lot more women becoming involved in the recording industry and working as producers, which is really cool. 

"But I'm alright with the guys,” she grins. “I pretty much learned everything I know from mostly male engineers or producers, and I am grateful to them for that.”

Morison specialises in full-band tracking and live instrumentation, and it goes without saying that for a self confessed “gear snob”, her studio only boasts the very best in terms of technology. On every session, Morison puts her Focusrite Clarett+ OctoPre and Red 16Line interface to work.

“Focusrite gear is so amazing – most musicians and producers will literally start with Focusrite with the Scarlett, and that gets people starting to produce or make demos. It’s a quality place to start and is accessible for pretty much all musicians starting out. I've always been a fan of that. I've used Focusrite gear in most of the studios that I've worked in.

“The Clarett+ OctoPre is nice because I've got an extra eight channels of good quality, high fidelity, clear, clean audio,” she enthuses. 

“It’s nice to have a standard that I can rely on. A lot of the time, I've got 12 mics on the drums, then maybe two on guitar, another guitar and bass amp, bass DI – I'll get a lot of tracks going. I have a lot of different gear, and I have found that the Clarett+ OctoPre is really clear. It's a good staple, for sure.”

The Clarett+ OctoPre is nice because I've got an extra eight channels of good quality, high fidelity, clear, clean audio.

The Clarett+ OctoPre mic pre is particularly good for capturing drum recordings. Morison explains how it allows her to be confident that the energy of a live session is captured correctly.

“A lot of the time when I'm recording drums, I work with the Clarett+ OctoPre. I use it to capture the foundation of sound at a high level of gain while – fidelity-wise – keeping things intact, so nothing is distorting or getting crushed. 

"It's a very clean and clear-sounding pre, and that's what I'm trying to get out of those tracks: I'm choosing the drummer, the drum, the mic and the mic placement, and I'm getting my sound through that. I am directing that through the Clarett+ OctoPre and Red 16Line interface, so I'm trying to capture the chain that I've already created at a high fidelity level.”

The Clarett+ OctoPre’s included Hitmaker Expansion bundle of recording software has become a go-to for Morison when shaping drum sounds in the studio. Her particular favourites are found within the Red 2 and 3 plugin suite, which features a pair of meticulously captured digital models of the iconic EQ and compressors which have made the Focusrite name a staple in world-class facilities across the globe, and the Brainworx bx_console Focusrite SC plugin.

“I did a quick drum mix recently and that was one of my first times using the Brainworx bx_console Focusrite SC plugin,” she shares. 

“I wanted to explore using that and keeping it in the Focusrite world. Honestly, I loved that plugin. It's great and I've been using it ever since. It comes from a very notable piece of gear – those Focusrite consoles – and the quality is great. 

'It was a fairly easy interface and that was super fun to play with. There were times that I started with a preset and then I messed around with it until I found the sound that I wanted, which is a way that I like to familiarise myself with new plugins sometimes. 

"Sometimes those presets can sound terrible, but I was pleasantly surprised! I had a really great experience using those. I also used the Red 2 EQ and Red 3 Compressor in the Red 2 and 3 plugin suite; the sound quality was great and they were easy to use, so I was totally happy with that.”

I use the Clarett+ OctoPre to capture the foundation of sound at a high level of gain while – fidelity-wise – keeping things intact.

The first EP Morison fully produced is out next year with the artist Surprise Baby, and another soon-to-be-released project is Lauren Ruth Ward's next record, which she tracked and mixed most of the songs for. 

Some days she could be working on an overdub session for five hours, the next mixing a song on her own, and the next, a full-band tracking and live instrumentation session that keeps her up until the early hours. That variety, she says, is what keeps it interesting.

“It's nice to have variety; it's just part of the life,” she nods, taking a sip of coffee. 

“There’s maybe a month or two in the summer where people are touring or they're taking a break, and it can get a little dead at the studio. Then of course we have our busy seasons and you get into the swing of it and it's go, go go! I definitely enjoy that. 

"I am in a very amazing position where I really enjoy my work, and I am always grateful for that. I do work long hours and I'm very busy, but I love what I do,” she smiles.