What’s going on these days?
I’ve just finished producing and engineering a CD for local artist Sarah Smith, formerly on “The Joys”. Sarah recently performed a sold out show at Aeolian Hall in London
Where did you record?
We recorded bed-tracks in Toronto at Phase One Studios and recorded overdubs in my living room at home.
What do you monitor on?
I have a pair of Yamaha NS-10s. I‘ve had them for about twenty years now.
You swear by them.
Yeah, I’m used to them.
Do you use anything to listen to sub?
Not really because most of the pop and rock music I do doesn’t really require a lot of feel bottom end. I like to hear the notes of a bass player rather than feel them. Most often I eliminate any audio below forty cycles.
It’s easier on the speakers.
It is and most people own bookshelf speakers. You can mix on big speakers and when it translates to small speakers you can’t hear anything that the bass player’s playing or the bass drum sounds thin. Instead of sounding like a little bottom end and a bit of an attack to define the rhythm all you hear is the attack; you don’t hear any of the bottom end. That’s because the monitoring frequency’s way too low and that just doesn’t make any musical sense to me. I don’t work on house records or disco records or dance music. Those styles are in a whole different genre that I am not familiar with..
You’d be mixing for big sound systems in clubs.
I try to work on music you’re going to want to hear. The three most important elements are harmonic, melodic and rhythmic structure. I look to the basics of a song and focus on which one of the elements is providing the foundation and working within that paradigm. I don’t introduce frequencies that you only feel or ask myself the question, “Can I feel the bottom end?” I tend to mix for a demographic that’s really interested hearing an appealing melody.
When you’re tracking a band are you EQ’ing the instruments to establish specific sounds to keep for the final mix?
Yes I am. If I know exactly what I want, I will commit.
I guess it depends on the room or the artist that you’re recording, but back when you were recording Glenn Gould obviously you had to commit to the captured sound.
You had to make decisions all the time back in those days. I still work like that on most occasions. For instance, when I’m layering the recording with overdubs, I feel it’s important for me to have an idea or a sonic picture of what it should sound like in the end. Then I will commit my ideas as I go along. If I’m solid with the artist and where we’re going with the project I then create a production framework to build on. That way you’re efficiently progressing towards the final goal. When I was working with Sarah, we agreed that the CD should sound organic and dynamic. She then went on the road for 6 weeks and let me do all the production, where I would always commit to a sound I wanted. Now these days, what happens with the digital format is a lot of young people record everything without dynamic management, equalization and effects, because you can do a lot of things in mixing without introducing a lot of noise problems that might have occurred if you had to commit to a sound and a vision from the beginning. Then you have a problem when you have little idea of what the final product should sound like and you have so many options and choices you don’t know where to start with a mix. That is a major problem with educating students in recording engineering courses these days. I would even go out on a limb and state that the schools are producing students that can record properly but can’t mix. To this day, I have only met one student out of thousands that has an idea of how to mix a song. And that student is a good mixer because he is a musician first and foremost. (M.G.)
Almost like switching pick-up configurations.
Exactly. A guitar set on the back pickup will give you a much tighter rhythmic idea. Whereas the pickup closer to the neck will give you more of a musical idea; meaning you hear more of the tonality of the notes versus the attack of the pick on the string. If I’ve decided the guitar part is a rhythmic idea like for instance pumping eighth notes, I will commit to that sound. But sometimes when young people record flat, they capture the wrong sound and then the tight rhythmic attack of each eighth note becomes overshadowed by the tonality of the musical idea. If that harmonic mess is captured then mixing becomes a process of deconstruction; meaning trying to fix that sound just makes it worse. I’ve seen guys do that. As soon as they pull up faders and as soon as they start compressing I just say, “You’re on a road to frustration, a mission that’s going downhill really fast. There’s nothing you can do about it because you’ve started on the wrong foot.”
I go in with a real idea of what instrument is going to supply what idea. Consider a guitar and piano in “Crocodile Rock,” Elton John provides the eighth note or sixteenth note rhythmic idea. His part is presenting two ideas: the rhythmic idea of the eighth notes and the harmonic idea of the chords. I’d have to ask, “Do I really need the guitar to pump out eighth notes?” No, because if they’re both playing the same eighth note idea I can’t have them at equal levels because I’ll hear the slight human discrepancy in the rhythmic ideas. That’s because we all hear time differently and it won’t work.
In that situation I’d say to the guitar player, “Maybe you should hold down some barre chords to support the harmonic structure. Then I’d enhance Elton’s piano playing to be more rhythmic by adding midrange, adding compression (slow attack time) to enhance more of the attack of the piano. So, in the end there’s no confusion for the listener. The piano has become a definite rhythmic idea by creating a little bit of a gap between the piano’s rhythmic and harmonic elements. Then, by going to the guitarist and asking him to hold the chords down – the triads – to harmonically support the piano, I’ve reinforced or enhanced the idea that Elton’s part is going to supply the rhythm for the track.
I like the way you describe the music in the context of how the instruments relate to each other in terms of the musical expression.
Well, that perspective comes from working with Doug Riley on the piano; his right hand was always around middle C with single notes in the bass, maybe octaves occassionally. We had Peter Cardinali doing the bass. Two acoustic guitarists; one playing the rhythmic idea the octave above middle C and the other playing fills around Ann Murray’s vocal. And everyone didn’t really deviate from that configuration which gave Ann a framework to work with melodically.
If Doug inserted a piano lick she could ask him if he could take it down an octave if it was interfering in her vocal range. Ann was disciplined. She knew what her audience wanted. It was never an ego thing with Ann she was very disciplined toward her demographic. One night when we were doing Country Crooners she sang a great version of “Me & Bobby McGee.” It was a real barn burner. I really liked it and said, “We gotta get this version in the can!” She said, “No, but I can do it live once in a while.” She knew it wouldn’t appeal to her demographic, and I respect that approach.
I get a real sense that you’re style of engineering often anticipates the needs of the artist.
I think if you’re musically based you always are a part of the production. I’ve always tended to work like that. I was once going to work with this band from Denmark in Germany. I heard the stuff they’d done on their own and I had to say, “You really don’t need me. You guys pretty well have a good grasp of how to relate to your demographic. I really can’t add to it. Maybe I can make it sound more sophisticated. Maybe the sonic quality could be better, but I can’t really alter the musical concept or ideas that you’ve presented.” But this was their first album and they were not that sure of themselves.
At that point would you tell them, “I’m going to give you the right sounds. You arrange and produce your music.”
I tend not to do that anymore because it’s not challenging to me. I would do that for an artist like Anne Murray because she gets players like keyboardist Doug Riley and drummer Barry Keane. If I see her line up I’ll engineer because I get paid to listen to great music.
How did you like working with her producer from Capitol; the session singer? What was his name?
Tommy West was great to work with. He produced Jim Croce. He was a musicologist who really knew the demographics. He did the Croonin’ and Country Croonin’ records with Anne. He picked the songs for Anne.
Did he pick all the tunes?
Anne picked the songs along with Tommy. She had to include his choices, but he came up with a couple of unknown jewels for her to do. He knew her audience well enough that he could say, “You know Anne I think your audience would like “Allegheny Moon,” “Hey There,” or “Old Cape Cod.” We’ll use Guido Basso on flugelhorn as a lyrical echo of the vocal melody. So he would present ideas like that to Anne.
Were you present for preproduction process?
Preproduction was in the studio with charts. We went in with the band and she decided on the tempos. She always sings along with the musicians, so nobody steps on the vocal rhythmically or melodically. She might ask to move the key up or down a semi-tone. Once she gets the right key and the right tempo, then they record the song.
What kind of communication occurred between you and Tommy West or Anne?
They really let me do my thing. I was really in charge of how it was going to sound. Tommy was not that schooled in the technology. He was really dependent on an engineer.
He focused on the music rather than the technical aspects of the sound.
He was more of an A&R guy with some good ideas. For instance, there’s not a lot to producing Jim Croce. You give him an acoustic guitar; add his voice and the way it sounds. You’re not going to deviate from that at all. And with Anne you’re not going to deviate either. And Anne has done so many records.
If someone came up with a musical idea that stepped on the vocal she would say, “Cut that idea,” but she’s also a big fan of the “call-and-response” style with the players in the band. That’s why she uses Bob Mann on electric guitar. He plays with James Taylor. When she isn’t singing they’ll fill in the spaces with a musical idea like a counterpoint to her vocal with out stepping on the part.
It’s interesting; we did that album in about three weeks. We did twenty-two songs in the beginning and got them done in four days. She came in to do her vocal and said, “I’m going to do three vocal tracks a day. I’ll be in here at 9:30am and I’m leaving at 5, or dinner and taking an hour for lunch.” She’s a pro, right? Then when I mixed it the project it only took me two hours to mix each son!
That year I was up for a Juno award for that record and another engineer was up for a Juno award for a Bryan Adams record that he did with Mutt Lange. It took him a week to mix one song. Six months on one song and I won the Juno. He said, “This just isn’t fair.” I said, “You’re right, it’s just not.”
Anne’s project sounds like it was a real joy to work on.
And I got paid! You can’t go wrong when you’ve got Barry Keane, Doug Riley, Pete Cardinali and Bob Mann. You can’t go wrong with those guys.
Barry Keane is a drummer, right? Did Gary Craig take over for him?
Gary did the Country Croonin’ record. Some of her band members did that album, but she still brought in Bob Mann, Doug Riley and Lou Pomanti.
Is Barry still playing these days?
I think he’s still playing with Gordon Lightfoot. I think he’s been working with Gordon for the last ten or fifteen years. Gordon Lightfoot is the kind of guy that just doesn’t change so he puts all his musicians on retainers, which is what Anne did until she retired two years ago. It was in her best interest because she would have to do TV specials. She likes golfing. So she’d say, “I’m going to go to Vegas and to golf and perform some shows. Everybody in the band golfs, so they always have a great time because she’s the best golfer of them all.
Did you record Anne’s albums at Sounds Interchange?
What format were you working on?
Analog; 24-track Dolby. Croonin’ was 1994 and Country Croonin’ was 2002. Then they had digital tape in there for about five years.
Do have preference for the consoles that you use? For instance, these days you’re using the Pro Control surface to mix, but in the past what did you prefer?
Probably a Neve or an SSL; one of the two. Right now I am content with just using a simple cheap digital control workstation for everything.
That’s seems to be the common choice: Neve for tracking and SSL for mixing.
That’s probably the optimum way. But, the whole idea of making records has changed dramatically because of economics. Now I can mix at my place in the box. If I mixed it at a pro-studio they’d charge me a thousand dollars a day and then I have to figure out how I’m going to get paid as well. Whereas when I mix at my place I charge a flat rate a day.
Through some research I’ve discovered that when I mix at home I can get it sounding 90% as good as I want. Versus mixing at a pro-studio where I can get it sounding 10% better, but only 10% of the demographic I’m mixing for will be able to notice the difference. So really I’m only dealing with a fundamental difference of 1% of the total market that would say, “You should have done it at a pro-studio because I can hear the difference.” Listeners aren’t really tuned into high quality audio for its sonic sense. We’re almost back into the 50s and the 60s where the song has to stand strong with a good vocal performance. If that’s not happening it doesn’t matter where you mix it. I just finished mixing Sarah Smith’s new CD and I mixed one of the ten tracks at home and I would be surprised if her fan base could tell me which song it is. You’re not going to change people’s minds or their tastes. Some of the music that’s coming out like Katy Perry and other music that’s doing well are mixed on home facilities. To a great extent we’re mixing to ear buds. The only way I would do high quality sounding records is if it’s in the genres of jazz or classical where the audience or demographic can tell the difference.
They’re sitting down in front of speakers and listening.
Yes, where the sound is the primary experience. It’s not really a tertiary experience. Even Anne Murray recordings can be received as a secondary experience because people don’t park themselves in front of the speakers to listen. They’ll be having dinner with wine. Her music is very important, but it might not be the primary focus.
A thread that I picked up on in your article “Surround Sound” is for engineers to be aware of innovative trends in the music industry.
For instance, Amazon has a great idea. If I’m working with a female contemporary folk artist and she’s put out records before, Amazon will tell me what other albums people bought that purchased her previous recordings. There are usually about three other records. So I’ll look at them and maybe download some of the songs and then I get a pretty good idea of what her demographic wants as a finished product. That’s usually attainable in my working environment. So then I have a direction of where to go. And the discipline that I recommend everyone should attain as fast as they can is: Don’t mix the record for you. Mix it for the demographic.
Do you use reference recordings as a starting point for most of your projects?
Oh yeah. I’m trying to work with the artist and keep them within the likes and the interests of their demographic, which will hopefully become bigger and expand. When I reference other records I’ll notice that they want the lead vocal quite present and distinct from the band. The band is just there as a backdrop where there are no dynamic pushes from the music. They’re dynamically controlled to present a background or harmonic backdrop to the vocal. All the dynamics are coming from the lead singer. That would give me a good idea of where to go. If the project was a jazz band with a female singer similar to Diana Krall, I’d listen to the singer and if she definitely had some dynamic push and pulls, but there left spaces in the band tracks for the musicians to shine, the dynamics would move up and down within that arrangement. That reference gives me a layout of where to go.
Consider the Rolling Stones and Keith Richards. Keith Richards has nuanced rhythmic ideas, harmonic ideas and sometimes some dynamic ideas too. Charlie Watts paints a nice simple rhythmic pattern so I’d introduce dynamic management control with compression on Charlie Watts so all I’d get is the rhythmic idea. I wouldn’t go for a dynamic idea- He doesn’t play like Jack DeJohnette.
So I would dynamically manage him – as envisioned on a stage sitting in one spot – by subgrouping the drums and putting on a limiter. Then I’d give Keith Richards the luxury of being dynamic. When I’m listening, in my mind he’s moving from the drums to the front of the stage back and forth. I’m enjoying this kind of emotional connection to his guitar playing, but that’s only going to work if I keep Charlie dynamically controlled, because if Charlie get loud it’s going to push Keith farther away. If Keith plays both melodic and harmonic ideas and I have to make his track louder because Charlie gets loud briefly, then when the drums do come back down to a simple groove the guitar will be too out in front of the drums, to the point that if I don’t have Charlie at a certain level I can’t figure out any of the rhythmic ideas that Keith is presenting because I can’t hear Charlie anymore. So the idea is that I want to hear Charlie doing straight and simple 4/4 time at an even level all the time and let Keith and Mick have all the dynamics. Like looking at a stage; give them the space to move back and forth. They can move into the band when they want and come forward to stand out from the band by placing the bass and drums in one spot.
When you describe your mixing technique the music is presented as if the performers were on a stage.
Yeah, for instance if I was mixing U2 I’d allow a certain amount of dynamic freedom for both the Edge, the guitarist and Bono, the lead singer. Then I’d control the dynamics of the bass and drums. That’s because the Edge presents rhythmic ideas, but he needs the dynamics to represent the whole rhythmic picture: he needs the delay to sound like it’s fading away sometimes or that it’s almost regenerating 100% of the time. I have to give him that luxury, because he wants us to appreciate his rhythmic ideas created with delays over time. I give him that space by not allowing the drums to infringe on his performance by crowding his rhythmic ideas.
In a mix situation, do you use standardized procedures?
If I already know what I want the mix to sound like in the end. Of course bands like The Rolling Stones and U2 have evolved over the years, but that mix relationship was intrinsic to their development and created the uniqueness of their sound from the time when they started out. I will dynamically manage a mix, but you don’t hear the effect of the compression.
So dynamic management is constructed as a transparent tool.
Yes, when I’m creating dynamic management, but then sometimes I’ll use compression to create a sound effect idea.
When you create sound effect ideas with compression do you find that your experience with Glen Gould or the other acoustic recordings like the Chieftains influences your decisions?
I try to bring that experience to enhance or remain true to what the artist is trying to portray. From my experiences I have a bag of tricks that helps me to create an effect that works best for the artist’s vision the final product and how it would be received by their demographic.
For instance, Van Morrison does a lot of vocal scatting, and so does Daryl Hall. But the difference between Daryl Hall and Van Morrison is that Daryl inserts rhythmic subtleties that are quieter that the real vocal part. Whereas Van’s scatting is just as important as the lead vocal. Look at his roots; the electric Chicago blues, or southern blues from the Mississippi Delta where the scatting represented a strong melodic idea that was just as important as the lyric. Not a call and response, but it was all a part of the lyrical idea.
They were often melodic motives for the song.
Right. So considering the influence of Van’s roots on his singing style I know that what he performs in between the lyrics is just as important because they’re substantive ideas for the expression.
Producer Dave Tyson – I worked with him for Alannah Myles and Hall and Oates – told me that a recent female singer tended to scat a lot in her recordings. But her sense of melodic improvisation and the sonic nature of her voice were not palatable when she sung in between the lyrics, either to Dave Tyson or her demographic. She was the only one that was convinced that it was really important. So the producer and the writing team decided that they had to edit the scatting because it wasn’t letting the song build. Later, when Dave was mixing the record she was in the studio all the time and he couldn’t complete the necessary editing. So he was smart to mix the record by himself. There is nothing wrong with scatting and some singers are great at it, but if you’re breaking a new artist on the strength of great songs, scatting can take away from that.
Considering the success of the recording, was she pleased with the results?
I ran into her a couple of years later, and I guess the way she thanked him was by not using him on the next record. And there is nothing wrong with that; an artist should have the right to work with a producer that they feel comfortable with.
Even though Dave Tyson’s production was successful.
It sold millions and the next record maybe sold a couple hundred thousand. You think she would’ve learned from the success that good songs are key. Actually, she was on the Junos singing a song that’s over in about three minutes. She was wailing at the end and stretched the song to over six minutes. You could see the TV people trying to get her to finish sooner, “Nobody wants to hear this and TV time is valuable” That’s a tough production situation though. I tend to shy away from musicians who think that every idea they have is a gem, when it isn’t. In her case, it would have been a good idea years down the road to do a live record?
How would you deal with a mix decision like that?
You just get rid of it. When I worked with Dave Tyson on Daryl Hall’s song, Dave said, “Get rid of half of his vocal improvising now and see how it goes.” But Daryl’s okay with that. He said, “Just pick what you want. I’m going to give you everything. I’ll guarantee you three good takes and then I’m out of here.” And he did, the first time he sang it. He’s a phenomenal singer. He said, “Move it around and do what ever the song needs, but keep it in a ‘Hall & Oates’ type of thing.” We knew what he meant. During the chorus Dave said, “It’s sounding a little sharp there.”
Did you bring in auto tuning at that point?
No. He sings sharp in a nice way. I worked with Andrea Bocelli and when he sang sharp I tried to fix it and it didn’t sound as good because it lost its edge. I knew he was someone that was well versed with vocals and tenor parts. European tenors tend to sing sharp because European orchestras tune to A442 instead of the North American A440. In Austria they tune to A444; it drives the woodwinds crazy. It really gets stratified when you open up the voices. So Bocelli would purposely sing sharp, only on the beginning of the notes, just to grab the audience’s attention; almost like a rhythmic attack. From what I hear this technique is a common habit of all tenors; European tenors especially. They do it to stick out from the orchestra because most times they’re fighting anywhere from sixty to a hundred musicians.
So with Daryl Hall it was an acceptable sound and there’s precedence but do you use Autotune in other situations?
One in a while. If I’m working with a really good singer that’s not technically proficient and the onus was on capturing the emotional performance. If they blow a note flat here and there I’ll fix the performance as long as I have the emotional idea and as long as it’s believable. I hate the effect of too much Autotune. It can sound so mechanical or robotic. Adam Levine of Maroon 5 relies heavily on auto-tune basically because he can’t sing in tune. It’s unfortunate because to me he is a terrible singer auto-tuning is good as long as you use it sparingly. It was nice to see a singer like Adele do so well this year sans Auto-tune.
I recently worked with this singer Emmy Rossum and she had the uncanny ability to double track her voice almost perfectly in tune so that the result creates a chorus effect; too close. The producer asked her, “Can you loosen up your part a little because the tuning is too close and the double tracking is not working?” For double tracking to work the parts have to be slightly out of tune with each other or it’s not going to work. The parts are so close that they start phasing on each other. Also, Anne Murray’s backup singer Debbie has that uncanny ability to sing exactly in tune. I’d ask Anne, “Can we double your part?” And she’d say, “We’ll have to get Shirley. With Debbie you won’t get the effect.” That’s Shirley Eikhard. Well I tried it with Debbie and I heard it. The double track was phasing. When I soloed each one on its own they sounded fine, but when I put them together Anne said, “I told you. That’s why I hired her.”
In the old days when they’d double track acoustic guitar – Supertramp used to do that a lot – it wouldn’t sound doubled, it just sounds like the original guitar part getting louder. In analog they’d change the speed of the tape machine. So tracking the second guitar tuned to A440 was recording at A441. And just that little tweak made the double track sound like a 12-string guitar.
While these techniques that enhance a performance are commonly accepted in popular music, recording practice for classical music is most often intent on preserving the acoustic quality of the original. Working with Glenn Gould allowed you experiment with the expression of his recordings. For instance, the recording of Siegfried Idyll and the use of additional close mic’ing to better capture the soloists’ performances.
That configuration was used in order to make sure I had all the elements to work with in the final stages. That way I could best represent the melodic, harmonic and rhythmic ideas of that piece of music. Too much distant mic’ing during some of the fast tempos would have been too harmonically messy or very muddy sounding. It’s like playing a piano at 180bpm with the sustain pedal down through a key change; a harmonic mess.
In your article “Surround Sound” you discuss how too many engineers adhere to the standard practice of elevating the importance of the pure sound of the performance within a hall.
I’ve never understood that because the optimized recording of the proverbial “best seat” which is usually the front row in the centre of the first balcony. If you look at it from a physics perspective, it is the most diffused listening point in the auditorium or hall; where reverberation is finally diffused out to the point that it doesn’t sound like early reflections; it sounds like reverb. The closer you move to the wall on either side, the more you hear the reflection off that wall and the more you alter the desirable sonic character of what you want to hear from a piece of music.
However, when you’re sitting in the first row centre balcony position, where engineers aspire to record, during an adagio section when the music slows down dead spots are created because the hall can only regenerate sound for so long. Mean while the people in the back are probably enjoying it because they’re getting the maximum effect of the reverberation and reflections, but the people sitting close to the stage are getting a very dead sound. When the music arrives at a faster tempo with a solo instrument on the stage and the soloist starts to play ensemble with eighty or more players they can’t compete on a dynamic level. Yo Yo Ma can only play a triple forte and it’ll sound good with ten string players, but when you add twenty or thirty he doesn’t have a hope of being heard. As well, if you’re sitting in that optimum position in the first row of the first balcony you’re not really hearing the intimacy and any sense of dynamic perspective is lost to the ensemble. In that case, you would like to move down to row five or six and sit right in front of the soloist to really appreciate every dynamic and melodic nuance. If you’re sitting farther back, you’re hearing the whole orchestra, but during a fast tempo the solo becomes difficult to hear a mess harmonically.
Standardized practice aspires to the idea that overall the first row centre of first balcony is the best seat in the house or the sweet spot. You always hear that phrase, “Where is the sweet spot for recording in this hall?” That sweet spot is basically for symphonic orchestral features. Once you get into the areas of concerto or solo instruments that sweet spot doesn’t work anymore.
It’s amazing that you were working alongside Glenn Gould so early in your career. Especially considering one of your first professional projects was the Canadian punk rock band The Demics. I grew up listening to the album Talk’s Cheap; it has a great feel.
Yeah, give the band the credit for that. We did all those tracks in about five hours.
Did you know the guys in the band?
I knew Keith Whittaker a bit. It was just basic one guitar, bass, drums and vocals and they kind of did it all on their own. There’s not much in there to work with; loud sustained guitar chords and a rhythmic bass with a pick. There’s nothing much I could have done all my new found knowledge to alter their performances and if I had it would have been to the detriment of their sound. The only thing I learned to do back then was when the bass player was using a pick, it was suggested to simplify the kick drum part.
That’s the problem between the bass guitarist and the kick drum with a lot of new engineers that like a lot of attack like Metallica or Nickleback; big and punchy. They both sound good on their own, but when the bass guitar is attacking the downbeats with the kick drum they don’t line up and you can hear the flam. So the bass player has to play with his fingers to round of the top of his waveform and let the kick drum have the attack.
Then the bass player physically creates the shape of the notes during the performance.
Do it where you can; where it should be done, at the source. If you can’t, you can kind of still fix it during post-production. But, then I have seen guys who have taken a guy who played with his fingers and tried to make the performance sound like it was played with a pick. It sounds good on its own, but when it’s mixed in with the other instruments they’ve turned off their whole concept of the mix because they’ve concentrated too much on making each instrument sound good on their own. As a result there’s no cohesiveness in the end result.
So where did you record Talk’s Cheap and how did that lead to future projects?
In 1979 I recorded it at a place called Southwest Sound in London, Ontario on an 8-track quarter inch machine. “New York City” was a huge hit off that album.
I remember that song was on high rotation at the radio station CFNY.
That was great because I got a job in one of the big studios in Toronto and they basically said, “It takes seven years to become an engineer here.” And I didn’t like that, so I made a deal with them. I asked, “Can I bring in bands at night time? If I get a deal I’ll bring them here.” They said, “All right.” About three months later the same guys that I did the Demics with – two guys from Ready Records that I knew from Fanshawe – said, “We have another band.” I brought them in and made a demo. The guys from Ready Records said, “We’re going to put it out,” and that group was Blue Peter. So I went back to the studio manager and said, “I have a band that is willing to pay six hundred dollars a night.” The studio manager said, “Congratulations.” The head engineer there at the time said, “Well, I’ll do it. I’m the head engineer here.” But the band said, “No, we want Kevin to do it.” So I had a bit of continuity going for myself. So that’s how I got into the pop scene. And then I ended up working on The Elder with Bob Ezrin and KISS in ’82. At the same time I was working with Glenn Gould editing The Goldberg Variations; from the sublime to the worst.
When you were editing with Glenn Gould, did you have any input?
It was an interesting process and situation. It takes a few minutes to explain. He recorded it digitally in New York. Then they made analog copies of the master and I would edit the analog tapes back here in Toronto. When he approved of the edits, Glenn would phone down and say, “This is where we need to do the edits. These ones work for sure.” But then, sometimes, Glenn would have me perform an edit on a sixteenth note that was very low level dynamically. The problem being when you’re doing analog editing you can’t hear the quiet notes. So I created a system whereby I would locate a transient on the playback head by shuffling the tape on the spot where I wanted to edit the performance. Then I would follow the score as the music passed the playback head and I would stab the tape saying, “That must be the edit point.” Eventually I’d have three little grease pencil marks close together from which I established a measurement with the closest transient. To do that I’d mark both the edit point and the closest transient and then I would take that section of tape out and establish an exact distance between the two notes. Then I would take the other piece I had to insert or change and find the same closest transient. I wouldn’t even listen to it because I knew that Glenn was pretty accurate with his tempos and based on that and the original measurement I said, “I need to cut the tape here,” and it would work all the time. I had to create these systems so I could get the editing done.
In New York they didn’t have that flexibility or creative insight. All they could do was listen to the transients or listen to another note. They would try to find that quiet note and they just couldn’t find it. I said, “You’ll never be able to hear it because it’s not the loudest thing, but he does want you to edit on that note (transient), and I did do the edit on that note and it works.” They basically called me a liar a couple of times. If Glenn hadn’t been there to talk to them the situation would have blown up. He wouldn’t give me the phone sometimes because I was going to scream at them. He’d be saying, “Relax Kevin.” I was very defensive. I was young. I said, “I did it.” And he would say, “I know Kevin.” So Glenn figured out some way to translate how I had edited the music so they could do the same in New York. They were working on a 3M and I didn’t even know what that machine looked like. Then we would get the reference CDs back and they hadn’t done the edit right. That happened three or four times. They thought that they had got the edit and I said, “That sounds shitty.” And Glenn would never swear, but he said, “Get them on the phone. Why don’t you go for a walk and I’ll talk to them.” I made a pact with Glenn that I would behave myself.
He used to say, “I know my engineer is young, but he’s very energetic, very thorough and he’s very good at what he does here. You wouldn’t believe how he does it, but I’ve had him do it in front of my own eyes, and he is good.” Their tape was running at 30ips and ours was running at 15ips so he’d ask me what for my measurement. I told him, “About three eighths of an inch. Then he’d say to them, “You know that edit you did. You need to cut the tape about six eighths to the right farther on and you’ll get it.” We would get the next reference CD and Glenn would say, “Almost there. Try one thirty-second of an inch back to the left and you’ve got it.” And that’s how the editing process went on. Unfortunately he died about a month before it came out and they didn’t give me a credit. I picked all the edit points and they just had to duplicate the work that I had done. But I was nominated for a Grammy award for it and I still have my platinum CD that CBS gave me. The CD did end up winning many Grammy Awards.
What an amazing project to work on. Did he re-record everything from the original 1955 recording?
He did it with a fundamental rhythmic theme all the way through. All the tempos are related: either half or double or dotted quarter note of the tempo. He didn’t really explain the rhythmic ideas to me. I had come to an agreement with him that I thought certain pieces were fast. My initial reaction to the aria was that it was too fast and he ended up doing it a lot slower, but for his own reasons. I concurred that the new piano, a Yamaha was sounding much more rhythmically defined in the left hand and he loved that sound. He was so razor sharp with his left hand. He loved the little Yamaha we had at Sounds Interchange and he ended up going over to Yamaha in the end because he loved that instantaneous response. It’s like hitting a modern snare drum with a taught head versus the old 70s wallet snare drum with a big scoop in the middle. You hit it with a stick and it goes four inches down; the LA sound.
During these sessions did you ever discuss his interest in the layered environmental audioscapes?
Oh, the soundscapes. I never worked with him on those. They were CBC shows so he used their sound effects libraries. He loved doing it because he loved culture and he spent hundreds of hours on the project. They paid him very little money to create them. It most likely worked out to about forty-two cents an hour. Glenn was being offered over a million dollars a recital, but he didn’t want anything to do with live performance. He wanted to make the perfect recording and have that one on one relationship between performer and the listener. He wasn’t into going back into performing and having to interpret a piece of music the way the audience thought it should be. People would give him standing ovations, even though he know he did not do his best or what he really wanted to do, and he couldn’t accept that.
As a result of his need for the perfect recording did he ever overdub parts?
My first live recording of an orchestra was Beethoven’s second piano concerto; Glenn was conducting. He flew a kid up from Julliard to play the piano part. One of Glenn’s goals was to go back and perform some concertos works where he was conducting the orchestra and he was the pianist. So he would have had to overdub the piano. So, in the first experiment we tried we flew someone in and Glenn would just replace that piano part as much as he could.
So the student’s performance is in the background of the recording?
Then Glenn would overlay his own performance as an option.
When you listen to those recordings can you hear the student’s performance?
Well, we got as far as recording the Beethoven concerto with the other piano player in Hamilton, but Glenn conducting techniques weren’t that great back then. They were more like sweeping acrobatics. See the trouble with Glenn was that he would become so enamored with the music he wouldn’t be the conductor anymore, he would be the fortunate listener. And even in his playing you can see that. He closes his eyes and he’s enjoying what he’s hearing. He has this one-on-one relationship and it’s just a weird coincidence that he happens to be the piano player.
But when Glenn was conducting he would be focused on the task for the first couple seconds, then he would lose himself, which was great. Even during Siegfried Idyll Tim Malone, the concertmaster would go into chamber mode and the players would cue off of each other and watch Glenn out of the corner of their eye. Glenn didn’t have the discipline to stay on top of the music as a conductor. He was very thorough on his explanations and interpretations of what he was trying to do. He was taking the Siegfried Idyll that was typically seventeen minutes long and stretching it to twenty-four minutes with what he had done with piano transcriptions. From my personal view point, he was creating a very baroque/romantic expression out of a late 19th century composition influenced by a quasi military march. The notes were very long and fragile sounding and that’s why I love the intimacy of the pickup that’s so exposed and so vulnerable.
However, his conducting was left-handed and after I while I couldn’t even follow him. The players for Siegfried Idyll were great, they had such reverence for him, but in Hamilton it didn’t work that way, they had a bit of a bad attitude. They weren’t respectful.
Were you using the Hamilton Symphony Orchestra?
Yes, players from that. At a point where the chart read TACET for the strings I was trying to find where noise was coming from and when I soloed their pickup I could hear them talking. They were rude.
I guess orchestras can get a little unruly at times.
Yeah, I used to point them out on sessions sometimes. Anyway, the Hamilton players didn’t respect him. Then Victor Dalbello his friend from Stratford said, “I’m going to do more research,” and then hand picked the musicians for “Siegfried Idyll.” It made an immense difference.
Were they from the Toronto Symphony Orchestra?
Many of them were, and then Glenn made a point of learning all their names beforehand. He convinced them how we were going to record the session. We recorded it in sections chronologically working from the very beginning to the last note. It took three sessions. Glenn had this impeccable and uncanny ability to approve takes on the fly – we’d do two or three takes of an insert – and he knew it would work with the previous recorded piece. He would choose his edit points. I didn’t have to sit down with him to pick edit points. We had been working together for awhile by then, so we could easily agree on edit points that would work for both of us. He would say, “This is a place where we can edit.”
He knew your gift for editing.
Not really a gift, but more like I possessed good luck. He’d seen how I’d edited some of the difficult pieces with some of my crazy techniques. I would rewind the quarter inch tape a couple of notes where there was a definite transient and he knew that would be my cue point for the edit. When the edit worked we would move on and progressively work our way en route to the end. It was genuinely interesting, at the end of the session he said, “Breath taking. This is great.” The orchestra gave Glenn a big round of applause. Then he said, “Victor will be sending cheques in the mail this week”, and they all chuckled. When he decided to go back to re-record parts of the Idyll again, it presented real challenges because I had to remember where all the mics were placed and the balances and he had to remember tempos and dynamics. We both did not make any recording notes for the original session because we both thought the original recording was a one time event and experiment. We were editing into a two-track-1/4 inch master and only had one back up, so I had one or two chances at getting the editing right.
So you were recording to two-track not multi-track. So you went in with the same rig and hoped for the best.
Yeah, we matched the meters and I had a playback system set up so I could play back the previous take that we had to redo. I sat there with a timer, measure 13.3 seconds and say, “Glenn, 13.1 to 13.5 seconds would work.” Then he would do a couple of takes and instinctively knew what would work much more than I did.
What was the rig you used to record Siegfried Idyll?
I used five U87s and a little Studer recorder. But, it was great when we were editing he said, “You know the section where I’m thanking them, they all applaud and then I tell them that the cheques are in the mail? Edit the applause out and put it after I said the cheques are in the mail.” When we went back to play the edited recording for the musicians they were all embarrassed because they thought that they had originally acted like that. So Glenn had a boisterous laugh. He said, “See what we can do with editing?” That was funny.
Before we finish this interview, I have to ask you what it was like to work with Jack Richardson?
Jack was a great guy. He was really good for the industry for a long period of time, but even his production model went out of fashion. Jack came in during the days of Alice Cooper and the Guess Who and those people didn’t have any idea how to make a recording. Jack knew a bit about recording from his time in advertising and he was a musician. There were a lot of egos back then and these bands needed total direction; they needed a dictator. He had to pick every note and every shot.
I remember working with him on Kim Mitchell. Jack hated when the drummer hit the rim and the snare drum at the same time. He just liked the snare drum sound not the rim, but Kim likes the sound of the rimshot. Jack said, “Not on my record!” That used to work, but not now. But, back in the day Jack trying to get the drummer to hit one area on the snare drum consistently was a feat. He didn’t like hearing the pitch of the snare drum note change a lot.
You know, I haven’t been putting padding or muting on drums for the last fifteen years. I’ve even done demonstrations where the transients are at least 3db different with muting on a drum. Even though you deaden the ringing of the heads slightly, the attack suffers too. Muting restricts the velocity of the head from the instant the drum is struck; you’re telling it to shut up. A lot of guys, when they hear a drum ringing they say, “Oh, we can’t have that.” I say, “Wait until you add everything else in; you’ll never hear it.” When I was working at OIART with Sarah Smith they had all these little rubber stickies on every drum. I took them all off and hid them behind the tape machine. It was great because the drummer didn’t want them on either. I used to tell the guys when they said they could hear the toms ringing “Go put your head in front of that guitar amp and tell me if you can still hear the tom ringing?” You’re never going to hear it in the final listening.
They also had pads on all the mics so nothing would ever distort because the preamps never overload, but the world’s best pads still kind of choke the transient. So I said, “Take them all off or turn the pads down.” Even if the snare drum distorts ever so slightly, it’s all noise. That’s all it is. It’s noise to begin with. A lot of guys these days say, “I love analog recording snare drums.” That’s because the analog tape gets saturated with signal quickly. If you have a snare drum with a big peak the analog tape will rounds out the top by clipping which creates harmonic distortion. The overall loudness of the drum sounds louder because you’re hearing more of the duration of the drum. The analog tape is compressing the snare, but it’s distorting it at the same time. They say, “Well, I don’t really hear it.” That’s because it’s not really a musical instrument, it’s all noise in the first place.