Until the “authenticity” plug-in hits the market, we will have to settle for the real thing. Steve Addabbo’s career spans close to six decades and as many genres; from a gigging musician playing covers in a garage band (when that was still a new thing) and learning to record on little 3.25-inch reels, to studying electrical engineering in college, as well as maintaining two of the most revered studios in the land. He fought through the format wars, the volume wars, and even had one of his tracks used as the acid test to create the algorithm of the MP3. He has been a star-maker by discovering, producing, and co-managing some of the biggest acts in the music industry. He also owns and maintains a long-running studio in one of the toughest markets in the world. He has restored and remixed some of the most iconic recordings ever made, including mixing (and winning a Grammy for) Bob Dylan’s The Bootleg Series Vol. 12: The Cutting Edge 1965–1966, while simultaneously creating new work. He keeps all this knowledge and history tucked away in a demeanor that still echoes the same eager, garage band musician that he was all those years ago; always looking for that great performance and that perfect sound. The fact that he would choose to make his own first solo album [Out of Nothing, 2016] six decades into the game is a testament to his ongoing love of music and the process of making it. When A&R director/writer Mitchell Cohen came to me with the idea for my own new album, Sorrows & Promises, a tribute to the songs of Greenwich Village in the 1960s, I knew the man to produce it before Cohen could even finish his pitch. Steve and I talked in the control room of his super-comfortable studio, Shelter Island Sound, in the Flatiron district of Manhattan, where we have been involved with many different projects together.
When did you start becoming a working musician?
I started learning the guitar in seventh or eighth grade. By ninth grade I was taking lessons. I took to it pretty quickly. Then it was the natural progression of my first high school band, playing in someone’s living room. One day someone’s dad came in and said, “There’s someone having a party. They want a band.” I don’t even remember what we played, but I’m sure it was all covers at the time. There were a bunch of bands playing together, all very competitive. That’s when it started for me, pretty much high school and all the way up. We won a couple Battle of the Bands later on. Russell Javors, who went on to be Billy Joel’s rhythm guitar player for many, many years, was also part of that same clique.
How did you get into recording?
I remember when I was about ten years old one of my uncles got me a present; it was Christmas. It was a little battery-powered tape recorder with three and a half inch [cassette] reels. It had some kind of little microphone attached to it. Mono. I wore that thing out. I was doing my own “DJ” show. I was imitating The Good Guys from WMCA. I’d run down my own Top10. I actually wrote my first song on that; it was a song imitating the Beach Boys, about a car, or an engine, or something. My dad brought some dictaphone machines from his office. He actually cut little records; very floppy and green, maybe four-inch. Machines they used for dictation. It sounded terrible, but it was like, “Wow, look at this!” It was basically useless, but it was still fun. Then, my senior year, I got my first little 2-track, 1/4-inch Ampex machine. I did my research. It had a sound on sound knob.
With sound on sound, what were your capabilities?
I’d record my acoustic guitar, and then I could take the acoustic guitar, and with this knob, I could now record on the other track while I played along.
And you could hear properly?
Yeah, I could hear the first track. Then I started ping-ponging. It was just a quarter-track machine; two tracks in one direction, and two tracks in the other. I’d just keep going until the tape hiss got unbearable.
Did you start learning how to bounce tracks?
Yes. Then I realized that if I did the drums first, I was going to bury them. I thought, “What can I do?” That’s how we did it then. I started recording my high school band. I remember we did a version of The Beatles’ “Revolution” that probably still exists somewhere. It’s like, “Okay, first track is bass, drums, and everything. Then we have guitar overdubs.” Then we sang. That Ampex 750 was a workhorse. I wore those heads out, no doubt. I brought it to college, and it was the ‘60s. We were doing a lot of psychedelic music. I discovered that if I turned the sound on sound up really far then it started to get a little bit of a delay effect, and it started feeding back to get some wild sonics. I think there was another setting where you could create an echo, as opposed to just the sound on sound. It was a pretty freaking good little machine. That’s how it all started. Sound on sound. That one little knob made all the difference.
Did you record your band?
Yeah. We recorded my high school band. There was also a very early studio experience on Long Island, when we were still a high school band. I remember a couple of the dads drove us to this place in Rockville Center. It wasn’t much of a studio, now that I remember. The guy had like a 2-track machine, 7 1/2” reels over in the corner, and he had some mics in this room with some rugs on the walls. I don’t even remember what we played, or where that tape is or anything. That was really the first experience of going to a place to record.
What did you do after high school?
In college I began doing the songwriters and the coffee house thing. My next-door neighbor, Ron Fierstein, turned out to be a music freak too, and we started a folk duo. He was into Cat Stevens. I was into James Taylor. I could play pretty well. He was more the singer, as well as doing the chords. He wrote a lot of songs. I started writing some more. We never really co-wrote anything. It was just his songs, or my songs. We started doing some shows at Stony Brook University, where I went to school. Then we founded a band called Arbuckle. Somehow we got a record deal my senior year of college, on Musicor Records.
Oh, I didn’t know that.
That’s how it all started. One of the members of our band was working at Billboard. There were these guys who were looking for a young band to produce. It turns out it was Victor Millrose and Alan Bernstein, the songwriters of “This Girl is a Woman Now.”
Oh, wow. The hit for Gary Puckett & The Union Gap?
Yeah. They were successful and decided they were going to be producers. They liked us and signed us to a deal. Part of the deal was we got to record an album. We immediately signed away our publishing – we had no idea. I don’t even think our parents looked at the freaking contracts. But they brought us into Media Sound.
That was a great studio.
So here I was, in 1972, driving in from Stony Brook and doing evening sessions at Media Sound on 57th Street. At that point, already, it was a 16-track machine. I don’t think it was 24.
An old church space, right?
The church space was upstairs. That was Studio A. Studio B, where we were, was the downstairs studio. Lower ceilings, but still a really nice space down there. The engineer was a young guy named Michael DeLugg, who went on to do the live mix for David Letterman for years. He was just graduating from assistant to engineer. He was really nice and good. I remember I was trying to do a solo really fast. I played it once, and the producer said, “Oh, that’s incredible!” I said, “No, it’s terrible. It’s all messy.” Michael said, “Let him do it a couple of times!” He came to my rescue, and I got the take I wanted.
Was it several sessions there?
It was weeks. We did a full ten or twelve songs. We did basic tracks, then we did vocals, harmonies, and overdubs. I guess I was there for the mix too. I’m sure it was a couple of weeks of going there. It made an impression. That was really my first major studio. The album came out, and we got a chance to open for Bruce Springsteen in Philadelphia when he drew 300 people. Then I went on to drive a taxicab, and Bruce was on the cover of Time magazine the next year. I was slugging it out in the city, playing in a lot of country bars. Then college was over, and the draft was over, thank god. I went on the road for a while with an offshoot of Arbuckle; the drummer, the bass player, and I formed a country trio. We played in the city; we’d also go on the road and play Top-40 and country. In 1973 I had moved out to New Jersey, and I got my first 4-track; the Dokorder. You couldn’t really punch-in on the thing; I was kind of frustrated. It seemed like a good deal. The TEAC decks were a little more expensive. Eventually I sold that Dokorder and got a TEAC 3340.
What was the first artist who you recorded? That’s a big step for somebody.
That is. We were doing well as musicians on the road, playing five or six nights a week and making good money for about four or five years. The Top-40 thing was getting a little tired for me around 1975. We hooked up with a show band, which was actually an oldies band called The Happenings, who had big hits in the ‘60s, including “See You in September” and “I’ve Got Rhythm.” We toured the East Coast, but it was lounges and polyester suits. It was embarrassing. The music was good, and Bob Miranda’s a great singer. He’s still doing it. We had to sing our asses off. It was a great thing, but once again, after about a year and a half of that I was like, “I can’t keep doing this.” There’s no doubt my chops and my singing were getting better. We had the opportunity to go with them into the studio a few times, because they were still trying to have another hit. We did a couple out at House of Music in West Orange, [NJ].
That was a great place.
No longer there. The basement of a house. The ceilings were pretty low! It was the first time I saw an MCI console. With The Happenings we also did one session at The Hit Factory with Hank Medress and Dave Appell, producer of The Tokens. There were some great studio players I got to watch. We just sang on it; we didn’t play. That was the first time I saw a studio musician work. The guitar player’s name was Jeff Mironov. He was great on slide and everything. He was very impressive. At that point, I was tearing my hair out because I didn’t want to go back on the road or play bars anymore. The next day, I was sitting at my apartment on 12th Street thinking, “How am I going to get out of this?” I called up the engineer and said, “Hey, how do I get a job there?” He said, “You’ve gotta know something.” I said, “I have an electrical engineering degree, and I’m a musician.” I got interviewed by Eddie Germano. They were looking for some help in the maintenance department. He saw that I had an engineering degree, and that was it. “You’re hired. Show up here at 8 o’clock Monday morning and we’ll teach you how to do it.”
That was the first Hit Factory?
That’s the one on 48th Street. That was the Mecca for a while. They had the second floor, fifth floor, and sixth floor going. The sixth floor is now Sear Sound [Tape Op #41]. That place has been a studio since the ‘70s. What an education that was!
How long were you there for?
I was at the Hit Factory only for about a year and a half, actually. Germano had a reputation of burning through people, and he was kind of relentless. He was quite the studio owner. I went in there knowing how to put a tape machine into record, but not really knowing how to align one. I also did not really know what the intricacies of a studio were, including the wiring, running microphone cables, and echo chambers. Within about three months, I just inhaled it all. I went in the first week or two, and they had this stack of McIntosh amplifiers in the corner. They said, “They don’t work.” One by one, I started to get them going in my spare time. Germano looked at me like, “Who is this guy?” I’d always be down there figuring out better ways to do the cue system, or walking into the middle of the session when things were going up in smoke and getting things going [smoothly]. I really gained the trust of all the engineers rapidly. I became Chief of Maintenance in six months. At that point they were going to Studer 24-tracks. We got the first MCI inline console there, a 500-series. I knew things had shifted when I was teaching these engineers who had been working there forever how to maneuver an MCI console. It was a very different design in those days; an inline console, as opposed to what we called the recording section and jukebox. There were two separate sections on most consoles. The inline console was a very modern; new designs by Harrison and MCI. They came out with them and engineers were a little befuddled at first, because they didn’t understand it.
But you had engineering training.
I wasn’t so tied to the old way of doing it. [It was wonderful] watching all those great engineers work, and getting sounds. We did some incredible records there. We had Tom Scott, Robert Fripp, Hall & Oates, Rick Derringer, Tim Curry, and the list goes on. We had three studios going around the clock. There was a 24-hour maintenance department, so there was always somebody on call. I spent many 16-hour shifts there. I’d go in at six o’clock for the night shift and come out at ten in the morning. We were building a new console; an API modular console, with API components. I was working with the API engineers to put the thing together properly. They could see that I understood what they were talking about, so it was really fortuitous for Hit Factory and myself. We built a freaking console from scratch! Frank Comentale was with me, and he designed a lot of the beautiful metalwork and woodwork. Together we wired the thing and figured the whole signal path out with the help of the API engineers. I even designed a little circuit board because I knew how to do that. It was a pretty sleek console. We got into it deep. I can still fix electronics down to the component level.
I’ve seen you do it!
You’ve seen me do it in the middle of sessions. That was all a very fertile training ground for me, in terms of learning the architecture and the mysteries of what’s underneath the floor of the console, down to where every wire goes. If I had to hire a maintenance guy every time something went down, we wouldn’t be here now. It is just impossible to do it financially in this climate now. I don’t want my musicians or the people I’m working with, my artists, to experience technology. I want them to experience music in their head and the Zen of their performance, the space they’re in, and not to disturb that.
How did you get into the studio as a recording engineer?
In my days at Hit Factory there would be a times when the studio was empty. They let me in. I had the keys to the place; I brought my friends in and started playing. I think one of the earliest demos I did was for my friend Jon Gordon. He’s one of my tenants now. I was starting to step out and do sessions at other little studios. The first time I met Shawn Colvin I think was at one of those sessions. I was confident enough to go out and start to engineer a little bit. Not producing, but just engineering and running a session, because I’d had enough experience at Hit Factory to watch how it was done. I was never really an official assistant engineer; I was always the maintenance guy. I heard Sterling Sound was looking for a maintenance guy. Lee Hulko, who was the owner, had done all the maintenance himself. He was a great disc cutter. So he hired me. That was like going from a battle zone to a calm oasis. Sterling Sound’s hours were from ten to six. “That’s when we work.” Great sound, great equipment, and whatever you need. They were going to build some mix rooms, which is why I went there, but that actually never happened. I was at Sterling Sound for about five years. I worked with all the great mastering guys. When I got there, it was George Marino, Greg Calbi [Tape Op #86], José Rodriguez, Jack Skinner, and Ted Jensen. I remember the one or two Saturdays George Marino ever worked, because he never worked on Saturdays, Greg Ladanyi came in with the Toto [Toto IV] master. He’d come from California to master with George. I said, “I’ll cover that with you.” We put on the 1/2-inch tape, and “Rosanna” came blasting out of the speakers. It was like, “What the hell is that? What a freaking mix!” Then “Africa.” It’s like, “How the hell do you do that?” That was it. When they decided not to build the mix studio, I was kind of at a loss. As much as I liked the science of mastering and the mystery, it wasn’t “making” the music. A little studio across town had opened up, called Celestial Sound.
I happened to do some of the first Bongos recordings at Celestial Sound.
Celestial had just opened in ‘79. This might have been ‘80 or ‘81. I was jonesing for a place to record. They didn’t have any maintenance people. I said, “I’ve got a good job at Sterling. I don’t need to get paid. I’ll trade you maintenance time for studio time. I’ll keep the place going, whatever you need, but when it’s empty can I use it?” It was a win-win for us. Michael Jay had helped design the studio. Celeste and Tony Pinelli were the owners, a couple. It was on the fourth floor above the Green Garden Deli on the corner of 2nd Avenue and 48th Street. Up three flights of stairs. That studio was there from ‘79 to ‘88. It started off a little slow, but then it picked up steam. A lot of R&B people worked there. We had Kashif, Melba Moore, and Evelyn “Champagne” King. At Celestial I finally had a studio I could go in and use. I was starting to do demos with bands and friends. I was doing anything I could, and also engineering there sometimes when they needed help on a record. Then, around 1983, Celestial got very busy. We were locking up two 24-track machines and it didn’t always work. I think around ‘83 they went to a Studer A-80, which was the crown jewel of the Studer legacy. You didn’t have to worry about it much. It had its own issues, but once we got that it was a lot easier to run those things. The ‘80s were an absolutely crazy time for music. Disco and synthesizers were starting. Twelve truckloads of synthesizers would arrive at the door. We’d be wiring up MIDI forever, getting all the buzzes and hums out, and then they’d be looking for sounds forever. We were going to 48-track and spending three days on drum sounds. God bless the record companies with the budgets in those days. We all took a lot of pride in the records that came through our place. We had a big hit at Celestial with Get Loose, the Evelyn “Champagne” King record. That’s when I got my first gold record. I didn’t engineer a lot on that, but I engineered some.
When did you really shift into engineering a session?
It was pretty much at Celestial more than anywhere, where I was starting to work on the R&B sessions, doing The Manhattans’ records. It’s where I met Joe McEwen from Columbia Records, doing vocals with those guys, which was incredible. I was working on R&B records I wasn’t producing, but I was in the engineering seat. Then, on my own time, when I had my time to myself in the studio, I’d be working with my own bands, doing a song or two. My old buddy, Ron Fierstein, went off to law school. He was fairly successful. We ran into each other in Chinatown in 1983, and he said, “Let’s go have lunch.” We sat down and he said, “I hate being a lawyer. I want to get back into music.” I was at the point where I had a couple of things I’d done that sounded pretty good to me. I’d brought The Happenings in to do a couple of tracks. I was starting to take the role of the producer, and was doing some arranging. I started to learn how to arrange a band for the studio, which is not the same as arranging for live [performances]. It’s totally different. Having those skills, starting to be able to use them, as well as having Celestial at my fingertips and bringing in bands; it was starting to gel. Ron said, “You do the music, I’ll do the business, we’ll form a company and try to find an artist. You’ve got access to a studio.” We asked around, and a month or two later one of Ron’s friends said, “You should go check out this girl [Suzanne Vega].” We went down to [Gerde’s] Folk City. I think she was actually playing electric guitar. She had a bass player with her, Billy Merchant. This skinny girl comes out, with her dimples and black tuxedo jacket, and starts singing “Tom’s Diner.” I was like, “That’s pretty bold to come out and sing a cappella.” She did it, and it was good. She was interesting. She had a nice voice. Ron and I went up to her and said, “Hi, we’re a production company.” She looked at us like, “Who the hell are you guys? What have you done?” I said, “No strings attached. I have access to a really nice studio. If you want to come up and play, let’s just see what happens.” So she said, “What do I have to lose?” I still have the original tape, live to 2-track Studer. She really liked it. I have a pretty good bedside manner in the studio, so I made her comfortable. She sat down and played basically eight or nine of the songs that became the first record. I think it was the first time she’d ever heard herself really well, mic’d up, with big speakers playing back. She did songs like “Undertow,” “Cracking,” “Small Blue Thing,” “Freeze Tag,” “The Queen and the Soldier,” “Some Journey,” and basically all the songs that made it to the first record. I sat there listening and was like, “This is really good.” Her guitar style was very unusual. She wasn’t playing standard D chords. She did little clusters with a vertical picking style. We became friends, and I started playing live with her. I started adding other acoustic guitars and electric guitar. I also added the 12-string part on “The Queen and the Soldier.” I demoed that originally on my 4-track; I had her come to my living room on 12th Street. She sang her basic track and went home. I put on the 12-string part; I had my [Prophet] Pro One [synth] at that point, and I put on a low bass synth. We were doing a lot of live gigs together. We added Jon Gordon on guitar, so Jon and I would switch off between keyboard, synth, and guitar. It started to get a buzz in the Village. At Celestial we brought in extra musicians and were trying to actually make a record, as opposed to a folk-y demo with some overdubs. Ron’s job was to shop them around. He had a few contacts. We really wanted to go on A&M Records, because Cat Stevens was one of their artists.
They were considered very artist-friendly, and owned by an artist.
Very artist-friendly. Yeah, of course; Herb Alpert. But we got turned down everywhere. Just like, “No.” Girl with a guitar, in the ‘80s? Forget it. We kept playing and we were packing places. Nancy Jeffries eventually came down and saw it.
She’d recently gone to A&M Records from RCA.
She wanted to sign somebody. It was just one of those nights when it all worked. With Suzanne’s crystal-clear voice and her really spiky, articulate guitar playing, and then some electric guitar and synthesizer. On “Neighborhood Girls” we dared to have a drum machine in a folk club. This was groundbreaking, I guess, but people were loving it because we never got in the way of her. We’d gotten A&M to give us a $2,500 demo budget. At that point, no one knew who I was as a producer, engineer, or anything. They weren’t going to give me a $150,000 budget to do it. Nancy Jeffries introduced us to Lenny Kaye, and then Lenny and I co-produced the demo for A&M.
Lenny was, and still is, the guitar player for the Patti Smith Group.
It made sense to Nancy, Patti Smith being a very lyrical, word-based artist. She knew Lenny, although he didn’t have very many production credits either, at that point, he had good credibility. Super-sweet guy. He really facilitated me working on that record. He understood people; he saw how Suzanne and I worked together, that she trusted me, and that we kind of spoke the same language. He never interfered. He added when he could, supported us, made suggestions, and was right in there with us. He did plenty. He brought some of his musicians in. But A&M first turned us down. The guy on the West Coast wrote us one of those famous rejection letters about how this will never happen, she has no sense of melody, and blah blah blah. We kept at it. We did a show at Folk City and the Times film critic, Stephen Holden, was in the audience. The next day there was an article in the New York Times called “Heir to the Joni Mitchell Throne.”
Game-changer! The phone rings, and it’s Ron. He said, “David Geffen just tracked me down. He wants us in his office tomorrow.” Here we were. A&M wanted Suzanne, and Geffen wanted Suzanne, so we had a bidding war on our first act!
And two great labels.
Two great labels. We were a little bit skeptical of Geffen. Ron and I went to lunch with Michael Leon, who was the head of the office, and Nancy’s boss. We said, “Listen, we want to sign with A&M. Just sweeten the pot a little bit. You don’t have to equal it, but sweeten the pot.” They did it, and we signed with A&M. I remember the conversation at A&M with Nancy. It was like, “You guys will probably sell 30,000 records on the first record, and that’s okay. We’re going to build this career.” In America alone, we wound up selling 90,000 on the first record and hundreds of thousands overseas in Europe, Holland, and England. I think “Marlene…” peaked at Number 21 or something on the British charts. Then, when we finally signed a deal, I gave my notice to Sterling and said, “I’m going out there and trying to do this.” We had a production deal. It was an emotional time, and a freaking scary time, because I really had no other source of income. It wasn’t like I was making a fortune at Sterling, but it was a steady job. But I had to try it. I was 34 or 35 at the time, with no kids or anything.
It must have been scary to leave a studio where you’re working.
Leaving a steady job with benefits, and all that. But it was time. I can’t say I wasn’t scared. I was just so happy to be able to have that chance, and for Suzanne to have faith in me. She liked what I added to her music. I didn’t step on it; I enhanced it. We worked well together in the studio. I pushed her; it wasn’t like I’d let her go out and do whatever she wanted. There was one scene in the first album. It was the first time I’d actually seen Lenny get frustrated with her vocals, and Lenny’s the most chill person ever. Suzanne was of the school of, “I sang it three times. That’s enough. It’s good.” I said, “No, it’s not.” She stormed out of the studio and went downstairs. She was going to go home, but she left her shoes in the studio. When she came up, I said, “Listen, Suzanne, let’s just try the vocals one more time, but this time just put your guitar on.” We had done the basic tracking, and then we’d done the overdubs, and now she was just singing her vocals. I thought, “Maybe if she’s holding the guitar, there will be something about it.” She put on the guitar and sang it. It was like, “Holy shit, that’s the vocal!” The fact of the body posture, and just holding the guitar. Maybe she was used to that position, singing live. Something about being in the studio with your hands on the headphones; you have no place to put your hands, you’re tense, and you’re pissed at your producer because he’s making you sing it four times. Standing in a room by yourself singing into a microphone is a lonely task.
Yeah. You’re really vulnerable.
It’s the most vulnerable part of the record. To this day, it’s the sessions that I feel most comfortable doing, because I think there’s a way in which I can get people to relax. I can get them to forget about whatever things are going on in their head and really work on a performance. I think working on a vocal performance these days is really becoming a lost art. People think they can do ten tracks, comp it later, and then they’ll have a good vocal. That’s the furthest from my experience. You can have ten tracks that are wrong. It’s just not produced and not finessed to the point where you’re making sure every word counts. There’s diction. There’s clarity. There’s a storyline. There’s an emotional thread to it. There’s an arc of dynamics, and it all makes for an interesting listen. It’s easily swallowed up in our technology today of multitracks, editing, and everything else that can make it “perfect” but meaningless. I think it’s a real danger. I’m not saying digital or analog... I love it all. I’m not saying I don’t comp vocals, but I’m comping from performances. I’m not comping from people just singing it over and over again.
How did your work with Suzanne go after the first album?
We got to do the second record, and of course there’s a long story between record one and record two. The A&R department at A&M decided they were going to look for another producer. All of a sudden, I felt invisible. It was a very scary time between record number one and record number two. It was not a slam dunk that I was going to be allowed to produce the second record, which of course to me was totally frightening. Suzanne was also very supportive of me; I think she still trusted me. I was really her musical liaison to the rest of it. There were so many lunches I had with so many different producers who were either going to co-produce it, or maybe do the whole thing without me.
You had to meet with them?
Yeah. “Here, meet the guy who’s going to replace you.” I was also part of the management team. Even Lenny wasn’t really signed on to do the second record. I guess they wanted the big payoff. They had a good first record, and then it was, “Okay, can you really produce a hit? Who can do this for us?” We had agreed to try co-producing with someone, and set up pre-production in Cape Cod where Suzanne had a house and I had rented another one. The guy backed out at the last minute.
Was that a well-known person?
Yeah. It’ll go unnamed here. There I am, in Cape Cod by myself, with the band. I think Ron and I said, “Can we just get Lenny back up here, and get on with this? Didn’t we do well enough on the first record?” We came from nothing to over 800,000 records sold worldwide. Lenny came back. We had actually started recording the second record before this. We went into the studio and Suzanne said, “Have a good time guys. I don’t have any songs!” She had “Luka,” “Gypsy,” which didn’t make it onto the first record, and “Tom’s Diner.” “Luka” had just been written at the tail end of the first record, but we weren’t going to put it on that record. We actually did early versions of those three songs, and then we decided that she should have a self-contained band instead of bringing studio people in. We regrouped up in Cape Cod. We brought Marc Shulman [guitar] in, and Mike Visceglia [bass] was already on board. Stephen Ferrera was playing drums, and Anton Sanko was the keyboard player. So we had the Suzanne Vega Band now that was really self-contained. That’s what we did. We went on to record in New York. We went up to Bearsville Studios. We took the whole band with us, hired a cook, and had a nice budget. We rehearsed for about ten days in the barn, and then we moved to the big studio for another ten or twelve days to cut all our basics.
Did she continue to write songs in the meantime?
Well, that was part of that Cape Cod woodshedding. She was going up to her room in the mornings there, writing, and coming down with a little snippet. The band might expand on it, or help write a couple of the tunes – they got some writing credits. We were just trying to get her going again. At the time, our inspiration was listening to the Peter Gabriel So record, which was out right before that. So that music was in our heads while we were doing it. She eventually came up with most of Solitude Standing. I brought the tapes back and we did a lot of work at RPM Studios on 12th Street. That’s where I discovered the Sanken CU-41, which I used for her on “Luka,” as well as other vocals. The owner of the studio, Bob Mason, had a great mic collection. I tried it on her, and it was like the edge of her voice just appeared. I still have one here. We finished most of the recording there, although we had planned to go back up and mix at Bearsville. At that point, I was slated to mix it. Our West Coast A&R person was David Anderle. He said, “Why don’t you guys come out here and mix with Shelly Yakus [Tape Op #31]?” I said, “Shelly Yakus? The guy who did [Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers’] Damn the Torpedoes and Dire Straits?” In a way, it was a huge relief to me. I was not a control freak, believe me. Bearsville was kind of pissed that we pulled out. It was a whole big deal. I remember traveling out there with four reels of 2-inch tape. Ten songs. I remember Marc DeSisto was our assistant. Marc is still out in L.A., a great engineer. I walked in and said, “Here’s the album.” He said, “Where’s the rest of it?” I said, “That’s it. Four reels.”
That’s really small.
Well, you can get 15 minutes at 30 ips. We didn’t waste tape. That was like going to school again, watching Shelly mix. We had a big SSL E-Series console at the time. They must have had 10 or 15 Pultec EQs. “This one?” “No, let’s try this one.” Every Pultec has its own little character. The Fairchild compressor on her vocal? Fantastic. We just had this wall of outboard behind us.
What was that studio?
It was Studio B, at A&M. Getting to work with someone like Shelly Yakus was just incredible for me. It was an experience like I’d never had, getting to work with a mixer like that.
During this time, you really were just locked into one artist.
That was it. 24/7, Suzanne Vega. Me and Ron. He was managing. We were even tour managing.
Is that the one I was on?
You were on the “Luka” tour. That was later. It was just amazing to watch, from the early days of Folk City and the Speakeasy to Royal Albert Hall, all within less than three years. It was quite the whirlwind. It was a lot of work, but we always let Suzanne do her thing. To this day, she’s very grateful.
She’s a great artist, and continues to be.
Look at her. She’s still doing it. We had a talented artist, and we supported her properly.
Suzanne had a very successful hit single from that second album.
“Luka” was huge, worldwide. I think [it sold] close to three million records, worldwide. She still has a much better career in Europe than here. That record was huge over there, and she still goes back to Europe every summer. Those fans are very, very loyal. We had this big success with “Luka,” but Celestial Sound was starting to struggle in the late ‘80s.
I wonder why.
SSL. We had an MCI board with steam-powered automation, as I call it, and the two-track bouncing. All the R&B people went to SSL. Celestial didn’t have one and fell on hard times. They weren’t getting booked much anymore. The studio was getting a little run down. I was out on the road and wasn’t really maintaining the studio anymore. We’d just got this big royalty check from A&M. They were selling Celestial. I walked in there and asked what those guys were looking for. It was a very reasonable number for what was there. At that point, we were working with Eric Andersen. I had done an album for Eric at Skyline Studios.
Was that Ghosts upon the Road?
Yes. We’d started it. I had done the basic tracking at Skyline Studios. I had these tracks, and I was getting ready to mix it. Going into a studio those days to mix, it was probably $15,000 or $20,000 by the time you’d booked it for a week or two. We spent a day on a mix, in those days, easily. It was the ‘80s. All of a sudden, I just woke up one morning and thought, “Why am I not buying this studio?” I talked to Ron. I said, “We’re going to spend $20,000 mixing Eric’s record. Basically I’m getting their studio for a multiple of that, but not tremendously many multiples.” He said, “Yeah, let’s do it!” So I bought Celestial Sound, lock, stock, and barrel. The speakers, the console, the panels, the dimmers, and even the little telephone table. Everything around us now. We were craning out the MCI console and the EMT 140 plate onto Second Avenue. We brought it out to my house on Shelter Island that I’d just bought. I’d been living in a 600 square foot apartment my whole life. Being able to buy a house was like a dream come true. It had a big basement, and a big garage. I was like, “I don’t know where we’ll set the studio up, but let’s set it up in my basement now and worry about that later.” I’d never had quite that large of an anxiety attack ever the day we loaded the gear and were bringing it out to my house. I was a nervous wreck.
Was it because of the expense?
I think it was just the foreboding of what was coming in the next 30 years. Here it is. I’m still sitting in it.
So Shelter Island Studios was at first in the basement of the house.
At Shelter Island; hence the name. When I bought the console, the automation was completely non-functional. I spent many lonely nights in the fall of ‘88 under the hood of the MCI, trying to get it working. I remember being kind of lonely out there. It was fall, and it was dark early. It’s me, and this equipment. Now what do I do? It was really a very emotional, scary time. Maybe it was the fact that I was really going to do this for a living. You have the quest: Get an artist, get a record deal. Then you actually get a hit record, and it’s like, “Be careful what you wish for,” because now you have to sustain it! I think that was what was terrifying for me. It’s one thing to get there, but now that I was actually there with the rest of my life ahead of me, it’s like, “Can I do that again? That was a lot of work!” It requires a lot of energy. Luckily the basement in that house has relatively high ceilings. The garage adjoins it, so I had the plate, the Hammond organ, and everything out in the garage with my guitar amps. It was tight, but it all fit, and it didn’t sound too bad down there.
Did you invest in a lot of microphones?
I was very lucky with the mic collection that I bought from Celestial. It was fantastic. I had a primo [Neumann] U47, a primo [Neumann] U67, an [AKG] C24, and a [Neumann] KM56 – that’s my tube arsenal. A couple of [Neumann U]87s, three old great [AKG] 414EBs. I had a really pretty good mic arsenal starting out.
What was your next project?
I had hired Shawn Colvin to sing background on “Luka.” I had that idea for that background part on the record. She went on tour with us too, and handed me a demo tape. I realized at the end of the summer that I hadn’t taken it out of my car – I’d been listening to it. I said, “Ron, listen to this. It’s really good. Let’s do the same thing!” We signed her up. She had just seen the glory of the top-notch tour of Europe with Suzanne, so she was down for it. Her demos were fantastic. I’d not known John Leventhal yet, at that point. I’d maybe seen him play, but I didn’t realize they were a songwriting team. The demos were beautifully done. That connection with Joe McEwen that I made at Celestial Sound, recording The Manhattans; he was A&R at Columbia. I was there trying to get Eric Andersen back on Columbia, because he had no label at that point for Ghosts upon the Road. They weren’t that receptive to having Eric again; they were looking for [someone] new. He said, “What else you got?” I said, “I’ve got this other girl, Shawn Colvin.” I had her cassette in my pocket. We flew down to see her at The Birchmere [in Alexandria, Virginia]. She was great live; always has been. He just went, “Let’s do it!” I co-produced the first record with John Leventhal, Steady On. We started it in the basement in Shelter Island.
Do you like the idea of co-producing?
It’s an interesting question. I don’t love it, to tell you the truth. It was more successful with Lenny than with John, because, in a way, John and Shawn didn’t need me, almost. They had such a strong musical bond. It was a little harder for me. I had things that I thought I wanted to do on that record that they weren’t into. I had to step back at a certain point and tell myself that they really had it covered. Leave it alone.
But you were keeping an eye on the production too.
In a way. Certainly I recorded a lot of it, and was helping John produce his guitar parts. We’d find sounds. As it went on, it became obvious that they really had something going on. “You guys finish it,” you know? I didn’t want to get in the way. That was a funny year; Suzanne had done her third record, Days of Open Hand. Because I’d done two already, she wanted to try it with her keyboard player/boyfriend, Anton Sanko as co-producer. Steady On, and Suzanne’s third record were nominated for Best Folk Album of the Year. That was an awkward night. “Who are we sitting with?” Steady On won that year. But here I was with this pile of equipment on Shelter Island. We put it together and did Steady On there. Then we moved over to New York, because it was tough to bring people out. I did a few other records in that basement, including a couple of the early David Massengill records. He’s a wonderful singer-songwriter. One thing I found out about having a home studio is that you think you work a lot when you don’t, but there’s no escaping it when it’s in your house. You work 14 hour days until you collapse and go upstairs, have breakfast the next morning, and then come back down. It was almost too much. I didn’t want to have a studio in my house. At the time, our management office was expanding. We had Suzanne, Shawn Colvin, Eric Andersen, and David Massengill. We were running out of space in our little office. We decided to rent a loft space down on 21st Street. We built a studio in the back, and had the offices up front. We did a real build-out with floated floors, knocked down walls, put in air conditioning and electrical, and spent way too much money. We had a kind of Apple Records thing, with offices in the front, studio in the back. We were there for 15 years in that space.
You recorded some early Jeff Buckley sessions there.
Columbia had just signed him to a deal in 1993. Steve Berkowitz, who had been the product manager for Shawn Colvin at Sony, knew of my studio and knew of me. They said, “Who’s the guy who records acoustic shit? It must be Steve.” They’d just signed him and they didn’t know what he did. They knew he could perform live, and had seen him perform, but in terms of a recording artist, what songs did he have? What covers did he do? It was a three-day exploratory session where we just pretty much let him play. I recorded direct to DAT. No multitracking, no production. I think he played my Guild Acoustic F-50, and he brought in his borrowed [Fender] Telecaster. He had a Harmonium, and we had the Wurlitzer piano set up. He would wander from one to the other, and for three days he just played. The first day he would try to do the songs right, and do two or three takes. As time went on, he kind of blew through songs. That tape sat on the shelf until last year. They compiled some of it and released You and I in 2016. It was six months before he started his Grace album. It’s a magical session when you see someone like that walk in with such a range of talent and voices. I remember sitting there thinking, “How do you make a record with this guy?” He could whisper and he could shriek like Led Zeppelin, he could almost sing opera, and he could sing French Edith Piaf songs; just all over the place. But he was such a sweet soul in a way, and just kind of trying to take it all in and figure out what he was going to do. A lot of times I can’t remember sessions I did last week, but that one I remember from 23 years ago. I think they had plans for a bigger, more expansive rock sound, which is what they went for with Andy Wallace [Tape Op #25] and the Grace record.
What eventually happened with the 21st Street location?
Ron decided to retire from the music business around 2003 or 2004. He had huge success with his brother, [actor] Harvey Fierstein. The music business was turning, and he wasn’t really having fun anymore. He didn’t really want to go further with the lease on 21st Street. Since Ron and I had bought the studio together, I had to buy him out of the studio – the equipment at least. I was faced with one of these major crossroads again. I had this big floor with a big overhead. No more management company. We had an independent record company for a while there; Plump Records. We were trying to put out records, which didn’t work out well. I had the space, and the studio in the back, but I had no one in front. Enter Bob Power [Tape Op #60], who I’d met along the way. He was looking for a production room. He came in and rented Ron’s old office, so at least I had my first tenant; someone to help me with the rent here and keep it going for a while. Ultimately there was a big residential condo craze on 21st Street and they told us all, “We’re not renewing leases. You guys have got to get out; we’re going to make this high-end condos.” I’d built that place from scratch. That was another scary period. Looking around, we found a couple of spaces. Then this one came up on 27th Street. This had been a film post house called C5. They had a number of places around, and they were closing this one down. The air conditioning was in. The electrical was in. The landlord gave me a good deal, because they didn’t want to demo it. I had to rebuild this control room a bit, because this was a much smaller room. We had to float the floors. The room that is my live room now was their screening room. It was much larger than the one I had on 21st Street. This floor was a real gift, in a way. It was affordable, and I had other rooms to rent out, so I could really make it work, in terms of the finances of keeping the studio going.
It’s a big complex!
Yeah. Now I have five sub-tenants, as well as myself. It’s still not so easy to pay the bills every month, but we’ve managed to be here now for close to 17 years.
What are your thoughts about the shift to digital recording?
I was terrified when I had to put in a Pro Tools system here. I didn’t know the software yet. It was yet another learning curve – it took a while. I had a very uncomfortable month or so. It was inevitable that I had to have a Pro Tools system, because all of a sudden we were renting a system for a session for some guy. Every time I had to bring in a system and hook it up, it was a pain in the neck. So we got our first Pro Tools rig. I had to learn how to use this thing, because this was my place.
What about when people started using digital recorders?
That was before. I didn’t have as much hands-on with a Sony 48-track or 24-track digital machine, because the studios I was working at didn’t have those. We went through a period of 24-track, and then we locked up for 48-tracks. Then the [Alesis] ADATs came along, and the [Tascam] DA-88s, so we were able to sync those up with our 24-tracks to get an extra 8 or 16 tracks with the ADATs. That was kind of the hybrid period, when digital and analog were residing side by side.
So that predated the common use of Pro Tools?
Yeah. ADATs and DA-88s were the bridge. As early as Suzanne’s second record, which was 1987, “Tom’s Diner” – the a capella version – I recorded it on a Sony PCM-F1 digital. That recording got used to tweak the MP3 algorithm with Dr. [Karlheinz] Brandenburg. He had heard the a cappella version, and he said, “If I can get my algorithm to reproduce the subtleties in this vocal, then I think I’ll have a pretty good algorithm.” He said he listened to it about 5,000 times. I don’t know that he actually knew he was listening to a digital recording. Even though we mixed it analog, to a Studer at A&M Studios, the original recording was a Sony F1 that had 16-bit, 44.1 kHz recording. Maybe 48. I don’t remember. I didn’t want any tape hiss on it.
Was that on the reels?
No, not reels. It was the black box. They had the Nakamichi version that connected to a Sony Betamax [video recorder].
I do remember seeing those.
Right. The Sony Betamax was my master. It had been mixed analog, but the source was a Sony F1. I always found that to be a bit ironic. In those days, I wasn’t a huge fan of using Dolby [noise reduction] because of the expense, and you had to make sure that the Dolbys were aligned. I always recorded pretty much without noise reduction, at 30 ips, but I had to hit my tape consistently pretty hard. Especially with an artist like Suzanne, with quiet parts. I really had to have my record level on a knob. You can’t be clicking, or setting it and forgetting it. I was very conscious of riding my levels to be my own noise reduction. So when it came to “Tom’s Diner,” which was a cappella, it was like, “I don’t want to record this on a multitrack. It’s one track. What do I need 24 tracks going for?” So I brought in the F1. It worked out great. I’m not an analog freak. I was there. I had my fun with it. It’s a wonderful sound, but the convenience, repeatability, and consistency of the digital world... I like it. I love [Antares] Auto-Tune. If you use it judiciously, it’s a fine tool. We use our tools. You’ve just got to learn to use them properly. Analog’s not better than digital, and digital’s not better than analog. There are different pros and cons, and they all work together beautifully.
I wanted to ask a little bit about the process of when you do restoration remixing.
Like everything else, you’re presented with a problem and you try to solve it without ruining anything more. I did a huge Ravi Shankar archive project with old tapes from the ‘60s. Just being around tape for all those years, I got to know how to handle it. I got to know which tapes need to be baked because the adhesive has gotten gooey; it resets when you heat it up. That part is just knowledge, doing it a few times, seeing if it works, and then having confidence. They play back, and they play back incredibly. Those [Ampex] 456 tapes from the ‘80s are very gooey. I enjoy seeing a tape restored, copying it, and then hearing it in its original glory. Just marveling at how good it sounds, and being amazed at what we went through to make music. The art of being a recording engineer back then was so important. Knowing your craft, knowing your studio, knowing your signal path, knowing when to punch, and knowing what verse you were in. Learning that way, I’ll never regret going through that. It’s so ingrained in how I work today.
When you do restoration, you can tell what went into that.
Yeah, you can tell. That’s what’s amazing about some of those old tapes. When I worked on The Cutting Edge [The Bootleg Series Vol. 12: The Cutting Edge 1965–1966] project for Bob Dylan, mixing 450 Bob Dylan takes and outtakes from 1965 to ‘66, it was such a learning experience about how crude things were back in those days. I’d have four tracks: maybe drums and organ on one, and Bob, his guitar, and his harmonica on one track. It might have Mike Bloomfield on another track, as well as piano and maybe bass on that third track. I’d put it together, and think it’d be easy to mix, but it’s not. I’d want a little more organ, but it’s on the same track as the drums. I learned a very new respect for my Pultec equalizers. I understand why they’re now called program equalizers, because they really can alter the program on tape. You can bring out elements, and it’s just so musical. It does it properly. I didn’t really do it in a digital world. I just did it with my Pultecs.
To wrap up that whole idea of going into the past, and thinking about these reissues, do you ever record anything now that you feel will be something people will think of as historic in the future?
I don’t know if my mind goes there. I’d like to think it’ll be meaningful and last, and I hope that I’m doing projects that have a timeless quality, as well as something that isn’t going to be pigeonholed into a certain time. I don’t know if I consciously can affect what I do by thinking that. I think there are always moments that transcend others when someone is out there, where it’s having an artist like Bobby McFerrin in the studio. He is the definition of the harmonic series. He walks in, and music happens. You can’t describe it, other than that. I think that part of it, when someone walks in with such a musicality that it’s undeniable, and you can’t imagine this person doing anything else than what he or she does, and then being able to facilitate and record that, it’s a very rewarding feeling to work on music like that, and be trusted to be in that room with these people. Whether something becomes historic? Man, I don’t know. When I was working with Buckley, did I think that it was going to be a historical recording? No. I absolutely didn’t. When I was recording “Luka,” did I know it was going to be a hit record? No. I knew she had a shot at having a pop record and getting on the radio, but I had no idea it would be a worldwide smash, and certainly not “Tom’s Diner”.
When we try to make records, we want them to be thought about as for
Having done my own record now for the first time [Out of Nothing, 2015], I think, “Well, okay. I’ve worked on everyone else’s records now. Step up to the plate, and see what you can do.” Getting a nice response back from it, it’s like, “Wow, I’m actually viable here.” I think having an artistic temperament, and always wanting to do something better on what’s next, that thing to me is still the greatest challenge. We make music to reach people, to be emotionally attached, and to have an emotional reaction. That’s one of the things that still keeps me going, and keeps me excited about what I do. You can get a reaction out of people, and touch people.