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Jack Miller (bonus)
Arizona’s National Treasure
Known as the "Father of Audio" in Arizona, Jack Miller has had a long history in the recording world that includes hit-making, late-'50s sessions in Phoenix with Duane Eddy and Lee Hazlewood and a stint in Hollywood with RCA where he worked with artists like The Rolling Stones, Anthony Newley, Herman's Hermits and The Monkees. Jack has been busy ever since, becoming a partner in Arizona's legendary Audio Recorders in the '60s and forming Jack Miller Productions in 1978. Now in his 70s, Jack is still recording, working extensively with Canyon Records on their catalog of Native American music.
I know that you grew up in Chicago. Is it true you went around recording weddings with a mono tape deck?
When I was 16 years old I recorded weddings and funerals.
How did you step into that career?
Well, it ended up being that someone we knew had a funeral and they said, "Can you record it?" We said, "Sure." So we took our disc recorders (we didn't have tape at the time) and recorded everybody talking about the deceased. They were just thrilled. They told their florist about it. The florist then contacted us and said, "I can probably sell these things. For a cut I will give you the names and you can go ahead." We started selling weddings and funerals and bar mitzvahs - we did a lot of stuff.
Would you get acetates pressed up for people?
Yeah. We actually cut a disc, and then we took that and played it on a turntable and cut another disc. If it was a 15-minute thing, there would be probably five discs, both sides. I think we sold the discs for 10 bucks apiece.
Did you have a business partner that was doing these recordings with you?
Three of us. Dale Blackwell went on to be the guy who invented the black boxes in aircraft. Dave Johnson - his dad was the manager or CEO of WLS in Chicago - the Prairie Farmer station. We actually got a lot of our equipment from their used stuff. We rebuilt it and made stuff for ourselves.
Did you have any studio experience in Chicago?
I worked at [Bill Putnam Sr.'s] Universal Recording in Chicago just before I came out to Phoenix. They hired me to edit a program called The Man on the Street - that's all I did. One day I was getting ready to go home, and Louis Prima and Keely Smith came in and said, "We're ready to do our session here." Ruby, the owner's wife, said, "I don't have you booked. I have no engineers here." He said, "Oh, I need this. It's a demo for Capitol and I need it tonight." She said, "I've got Jack. He can turn the equipment on." So I did my very first live musical session with Louis Prima and Keely Smith. I think it was "Old Black Magic," but I can't remember for sure. When he left he said, "That was great," so I was happy.
Were you terrified?
I wasn't, because he totally made me at ease. He said, "All we want to get is the melody and the chords down on a disc." He brought the band. When I went to work at RCA I met Bill Putnam and I said, "You probably don't remember me, but I used to work for you." He says, "I don't remember you." [laughter] I never talked to him because his wife hired me, and I just did my editing over in my little corner.
How did you end up in Phoenix?
My dad and I were researching a job for him in L.A. We spent two days in L.A. and he said, "I don't like the thought of living here." It's too hectic. The people were different. We stopped in Phoenix at my aunt's house and spent the night. We went out to eat and drove around town. We liked the town. We called my mom, said, "Sell the house. We're moving to Phoenix."
When you worked in L.A. at RCA, there weren't that many engineers in the world that recorded music for a living.
We had seven engineers at RCA. I went in there as if I had been there 10 years. I was making more money than three of the guys that were already working there. That caused some animosity. The union thing - if you worked there a minute over eight hours, you got time and a half for the eight hours. If you worked a minute over 10 hours, you had double time from the beginning. No matter what your regular day was, you got double time. If you worked there around the clock, you got triple time and it would never stop triple time until you had a time off. There was also a union rule that said you could not return for 12 hours from when you left so that people had a chance to sleep. To override that the bosses would say, "There's a room here. You can sleep in it for the four hours you've got before your next session." So you'd sleep there and not leave. You were making triple time through all that time. I went home with a month's paycheck that was like a year's worth in Phoenix.
Did that help you when you moved back?
Yeah. I had a big family, and we went through money. We came back, bought a house.
How many years were you working in L.A.?
Two and half years. My daughter came home one day and said she needed more lunch money. I said, "How come you need more lunch money?" She said, "To give to the drug dealer." I said, "Are you buying drugs?" She said, "No, but that's to keep them off my back." I said, "We're going back to Phoenix." Over there you're a little fish in a huge pond and here you're the guy. It was more comfortable here. I liked working over there. I liked the pressure. I liked the pay. I got paid really good.
Was recording starting to move into more tracks as you were there?
Just as I was leaving we started tracking on The Monkees, where they would hire a theater out for months at a time and work on a song for four or five weeks. It was absolutely no fun. It got to be where you were no longer recording performances. That was the way things were going.
Why was this so protracted?
It was actually a vocal overdub. I worked from Wednesday at 3 pm until Monday morning on one of their sessions. Just one vocal for "Last Train to Clarksville." As the producers were leaving they said, "We haven't got anything. You can just dump all those tapes. I think when they really got down to doing it, it didn't take more than a take or a take and a half to finish the thing up. They had been doing their TV show - they were just totally whipped. I'm not sure that they weren't on some sort of substance either, because we had that a lot. Herman's Hermits - I worked on almost all their hits. Peter Noone overdosed in the studio and was lying on the floor unconscious and throwing up. I ran outside and they had guys from the Teamsters union sitting there - some union thing with the film company. I said, "I'm going to call an ambulance." They said, "Don't call an ambulance. We'll take care of it." They came into the control room, cleaned up the floor, cleaned up Peter, carried him out to the semi truck and took off. We had a lot of that. Waylon Jennings, my good buddy, came in to do a session, and they went out back to have a smoke break. Thirty minutes later I said, "They're supposed to be back." We went out the back door and there were cop cars all over the place. People were being written up for smoking marijuana, and they were all hauled off.
I know you worked with David Hassinger and The Rolling Stones.
I was second man when Stones came in and did "Satisfaction." That was originally recorded to be a quiet tune. They added that [riff] to make it more raunchy, because the producer [Andrew Loog Oldham] said, "You can't sell that." They just came in and recorded it. It was a three-hour session and they did (I think) three songs.
Hassinger worked on a lot of legendary sessions.
I was second engineer on a session with him and a producer and he got into a fight. I stood in front of the board so they wouldn't mess up the mix and to keep the board safe while they were slugging it out. I mean, they're hitting each other. They are not just pushing and shoving.
He seems really opinionated.
He is, but he's really a good guy. He taught me so much stuff. One day I walked into Charlie's office and Dave Hassinger had him up on the wall by his shirt collar, yelling at him. I said, "I'll come back." He put him down and he said, "No, it's okay. We were just talking." He told Charlie, "We need more security on our stuff that's around here because stuff is going to walk out. The cartage guys come in with all the drums and those things and they go out with the drums, and we never know what's going on." Charlie said, "We've never lost anything yet. Don't worry about it." So the next week we lost a harpsichord. The week after that we lost the celeste. So we had a little meeting about watching equipment and stuff like that, and David says, "When are we going to clamp down?" Charlie says, "Well, you've got a good point there." [Dave] says, "If you get something that works, I'll bring back the harpsichord and celeste." He had stolen them. He was proving a point. They walked over to the new studio when they first built it at 6363 Sunset Boulevard. He says, "This is a parquet floor." Charlie says, "Yeah, isn't it beautiful?" He says, "Yeah, but it's going to be full of cigarette burns." Hassinger took the cigarette out of his mouth and put it out on the floor, leaving a burn, and he says, "That's going to happen."
After working in L.A. and coming back to Phoenix, you went more into doing TV and radio commercials?
Yeah. That's where the money was. We were doing more commercials than any studio I know of in the whole Western hemisphere. We were doing commercials for Chicago, Minneapolis and all kinds of places. We also did film for advertising and things like that.
These are sessions with live players and everything?
Not live players as much as music and sound effects off of records, announcers on mics and that sort of thing. When I went to L.A. I relieved myself of being a partner. Audio Recorders at that point wasn't actually making any money to speak of, and they were paying back the investment of Niblack Thorne. If anything, I had a liability. To actually bow out and not have any connection with the liabilities that they were going through - they were nice about that. "If you ever want to come back, you can." When I decided to come back I called Niblack and said, "I want to come back to Phoenix." He said, "Okay, let me just make some arrangements here and you can come right on back to work." They had hired Bernie Grundman - now a mastering guy. When I came back, he was relieved, but not before we met each other and spent some time together. I taught him mastering, believe it or not.
Were you the only engineer working there at that time?
Oh no. Before I left we had Tim Ramsey (Floyd's son) and David Oxman, a great engineer that built most of the equipment. That equipment was all tube equipment built by Universal Audio, but they modified it and they bought these preamps. They made the preamp structure so that you could put in a 40 dB preamp, or pull out a dummy and put in a 20 dB preamp to make 60 dB of total preamp on that channel. The noise level of the board was 110 dB down from the full output. It was the quietest board ever made at that time. Roy DuNann - he was the other engineer I haven't mentioned yet - took Oxman's plans and tweaked each preamp so that there was no problem with square wave, no problem with frequency response. Every preamp was gone through and every section of it was cleaned up and tweaked. It was the best, most beautiful sounding board ever. Then in about '70 they bought a Spectrasonics board. The Spectrasonics board was terrible. It rang, it had whistles - way up at 20 kHz there was whistling. It was so awful that I lost interest in recording in that room. By that time Roy DuNann had gone back to A&M Records as a repair guy. We purposely stayed with an API board in Studio B. API has neat stuff. It was second only to our homemade version.
How come you were getting so much work in the Phoenix area for national advertising?
Because of the success of the studio prior to that. People knew of us. We crossed paths with people who had changed their jobs - who no longer were working in the record industry, but were working in advertising and stuff. So we had friends all over the country and we started getting their work. When I went out on my own in 1978 and opened Jack Miller Productions, I went into just commercials. I didn't do music again until the mid '80s.
You took a long break there.
Oh yeah. About the beginning of 1980 I started really longing for the good ol' days. The good ol' days never came back. The days of the musicians walking in, having this camaraderie and good friends, "Okay, let's do it," and they'd sit down and give you a perfect performance right off - those days are kind of gone.
What year did you hook up with Canyon Records in this space?
I had a studio in Channel 3, which was really nice because we got to do a lot of the Good Morning Arizona live TV shows. My lease came up in 2001 and I was 67. I was doing a session with Robert [Doyle] of Canyon Records and I said, "Robert, this is probably the last time that I'm going to be working with you, because my lease is up and I am thinking of retiring." I had already retired, but I was working full time for myself. [laughter]
This is a hard business to retire from.
It is. He called me up and he said, "I don't want you to retire. If I build you a new studio in my building, would you be interested in moving there and continuing on?" I said, "You bet. Take the whole load off my shoulders." I moved in here in 2001.
What kinds of sessions have been going on in this space now? Have you been doing a lot of work for Canyon Records?
We do all of Canyon's sessions. Not all of them are recorded here - they do a lot of field recording because the pow-wows are sometimes too much to be put in a room. They have to be done outside or in gymnasiums and places like that. In places like this it just chokes it down. We do all of the peyote music, the solo signing stuff - there's the William Eaton Ensemble - we record it all in here. That's wonderful guitar, European flute, violin and percussion. That just works so well in this room - it sounds real. We still do commercials, believe it or not, but not like we used to.
You divide things up between things for the label and outside projects?
It's mostly label stuff, because they're very energetic in doing all these podcasts, where we have interviews with all the artists.
Does the label do well? It's an interesting niche market.
I'd say they're doing as well as anybody else. I'd even say better, because they have this very small niche. They are not competing with anybody that's mega-sized. I try to keep the quality of what they put out the best it can possibly be, and I think it's recognized. People talk about "the Canyon sound," and that makes me very proud. I've been mastering their stuff since the mid-'90s. Most of what we do in here is totally acoustic, and that's where I like to be - where we record what's happening in the room.
Do you find that your hearing is still working well?
What are the work-arounds? We all face this.
Number one - admit it. When I first started in this business I went to two different ear doctors and they said I was hearing 22,000 cycles just as clear as a bell. That's because I had an injury to my right ear. I had a scar, and for some reason it made it more sensitive -I don't know why. In the past six months I've noticed that I can't discern anything above 8,000 cycles. The other day we were sitting around listening to some mixes that Alexis [Priest-Santos] was doing, and she said, "Are the locusts too loud?" I said, "What locusts?" But that's why Alexis is here. I call her in and I say, "Is this too bright?" I like to make things that sound flat and yet have a clean, forward sound. You get that by having some good, clean high end. If you don't hear it, it could be too much. We rely on meters a lot. In my mixes I still want to know what I'm getting. I don't use the digital meters - I use the old, analog meters. The analog meters still tell you things that the digital meters don't.
What do you think of digital recording?
I started with Sound Designer II - that was my first digital recording system. We bought it so we would get it on a Friday, on one of the weekends that had Monday off. We cut all the wires to the tape machines, installed the computer and the next Tuesday morning we had a full schedule. From that point we were recording digitally. About two months after that I was contacted by Digidesign, and they said, "Would you like to be a beta tester for Pro Tools?" I said, "Sure." So we got Pro Tools when it was four channels. Finally they got into what we know now as Pro Tools, with kind of the same look and operation. When you push the Apple button and the space button puts it in record - that was mine!
There are a lot of little things that I suggested that they did. I am not sure if mine was the only suggestion. We were recording digitally before anyone else in the state was. Margo Reed was one of the first album sessions we did all digital.
Did you think it wasn't a shift down for you of quality?
Oh no. The lack of tape noise, and if you work your headroom right, the spectrum of louds and softs you can run - it's wonderful. In jazz it's important stuff. If you record to tape at zero level, according to how the machine is supposed to be set up, you are already compressing about 4 or 5 dB because the tape does it. It's an amazing thing, but people don't realize that. I love digital because it's real and it's right there. You can work with it. You can make it sound analog and a lot of stuff that I do, I don't hear a difference between analog and what I mix. It's a lot in how you temper what you've got.
I know you've done some recent tape-only sessions for my friend Al Perry.
For Al Perry's session the band set up, I set up the mics and I said, "Let me hear a little bit." They played probably 20 or 30 seconds and we were ready to go. We must have recorded 20 songs in 2 hours. No futzing with, "This hi-hat needs to have this crispness," or whatever. I'm sorry, but if the band is playing for real and you want to hear it for real, just leave it to be what it is. We set up the 3-track, we fed it microphones through tube mic preamps and actually mixed it onto two tracks so that we could do stereo. The minute you say, "Okay, I'm doing a final mix as we begin," it changes how you think about what you're doing. It would be a good thing for people to try that and work with that. They may be really surprised at what they end up with, because the mix is a wonderful thing. You are recording feelings more than you are instruments - you're recording a performance. They guys know, "We ain't going back. They can't punch in our part." The whole attitude of the session changed. We really jumped back into time.
Did Al have a good time with that? I know he's into old records.
He reveled in it. We overdubbed the vocals.
So you would use the third track for the vocals?
Right. Because he was playing rhythm guitar and I wanted to be able to do whatever I wanted with the rhythm. I didn't care about leakage of the drums in the rhythm guitar mic or any of that kind of stuff, because he sat two feet in front of the drummer. Everybody just sat in a big circle around each other. It's a warmer, believable sound. It mixed itself.