The most important question is, 'What the hell are we gonna eat for lunch?'" This is how photographer Brian Silak and I were greeted by a portly and extremely jovial Jim Czak, co-owner and chief mixer, a true chef of sound, at Nola Recording Studio. Located on West 57th Street in Manhattan on the same block as Carnegie Hall, Nola has been host to a veritable who's who of jazz musicians and big bands. In its present location since the 1940s, the 17th floor penthouse studio of the former Steinway Building has been frequented by rehearsing and recording legends such as Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Ahmad Jamal, Dave Brubeck, Barbra Streisand, Peggy Lee, Ella Fitzgerald, Lena Horne, Elvis Costello, and pretty much anyone else who ever lived — or so it would seem. While being force-fed the largest pastrami sandwich I have ever encountered, I was treated to a four-hour stroll down memory lane, Jim Czak-style.
What is good sound?
Good is in the eye of the beholder, as they say — or in the ear of the beholder. Generally speaking, with a music background — being exposed to musicians and understanding arrangers — and working with great people over the years, you come to realize what "good" is. Or what the starting point is, anyway. That's where the art comes in, not the science. You can't read a book and say, "This is the starting point." When it comes to aligning a machine and the technical stuff, I leave that to the professionals. I'm a musician. I want to be a musician.
How do you feel your musicianship approach to engineering is different from a technical approach?
I'm not really an engineer like Wally Sear and other guys. I consider myself an audio mixer. Engineering is a science. You really have to know something. And a mixer is sort of like a cook — you can learn all the ingredients, but putting it together is an art. It's more art than science. I can't see how you could do this job without being somewhat inclined to music, so that you can relate to what the musician or singer wants to accomplish.
Tell me about Nola.
I got here in '76. Originally, Nola's was a rehearsal studio over Lindy's Restaurant on Broadway. All the big bands would rehearse upstairs there — all the name acts that were going to be at the Roxy, the Paramount and the Palace. I guess the lease ran out. I'm not sure — this had to be the early 1940s. They started to come up here to the Steinway Building. Vincent Nola was the man. He took the third floor, which was small rooms for piano and voice, and Steinway Hall. There was a recital center for Steinway on the third floor. It sat about 200 people. And then he took this floor up here and the guys would come and rehearse. Vincent Nola, the old man, had a son, Tommy. Tommy Nola had a radio board and he would record the rehearsals. So that's how Nola Recording Studio got started.
Over the years, you've done sessions with some pretty incredible people. Liza Minnelli, Blossom Dearie... Who are some others? Dave Brubeck-didherecordhere?
Yeah — something for Jamey Aebersold.
You mean one of those play-along tapes?
Something like that. Elvin Jones recorded here. I also had the great fortune of working with a lot of female singers. Gloria Lynne. I just did an album with Ernestine Anderson. Then of course, I did two albums with Lena Horne, and we became great friends. I do a lot of jazz.
Describe some of the more memorable sessions that you've worked on here.
I really liked working with John Pizzarelli when he was BMG. We did a great Beatles album. Don Sebeski did the arrangements. Lena's albums, Blossom's albums. I did a nice album with Dianne Carroll. It's hard to say. I used to do a lot of Latin albums. I love Latin albums. I did a couple of Polish albums that were great. Really swingin'. It's the music! James Galway was wonderful. I just did something with Sebeski and Hubert Laws — "Ave Maria" — playing flute with strings, string quartet. Sesame Street. Been doing that for 18 years. Great stuff! Worked with Joe Raposo — great songwriter. "Used To Be A Ballpark There" and "Nowhere" and "It's Not Easy Being Green." I worked with a lot of great guys. Benny Golson was up here once and he said [pointing], "Dizzy Gillespie played trumpet right there!" You know, this was the rehearsal room for all the jazz guys. Jamal at the Penthouse, Ahmad Jamal playing piano.
That album was recorded here? That's amazing! Are there any albums that you've done here that you are particularly proud of, fidelity-wise or recording-wise?
The ones that I really like are the ones that were done live. Without overdubs. I like my big band work. I like Sebeski's albums. Moving Lines and the Duke Ellington album that he won a Grammy for. Pizzarelli, that Beatles album or Our Love is Here to Stay. It's the big band work that I really like.
You started out as a musician. What made you get into engineering?
I worked for Leslie Gore. I wound up being her pianist and later on conductor — way over my head! Great experience! Went to California, did the Shindig show. Did a whole bunch of clubs. Quincy Jones wrote the charts for her. Don Costa did some charts. Marvin Hamlisch wrote one. There was money behind her and she was a great singer — more of a jazz singer, really. Her influences were Chris Connor and Anita O'Day. She was a rock ' n' roll singer with a cry in her voice and she was fun to work with — a great boss. I was paid more than I should have been! So I went to do the Shindig show, and that was really the first recording studio I was in. When Leslie went back to school, I was out of a job. I said to myself, I gotta get into the studios! I wanted to start being a studio player. Another friend of mine, Rod McBrien was an engineer — he was working for Roulette and Sounds on Broadway. I went to see him and he said, "The only place I know that might be hiring is Bell Sound on 54th Street." He introduced me to the manager there, Dave Teig, and they put me on the list to be an assistant, to be affectionately what they called a "button pusher". You do everything but push buttons. You make coffee, you clean the bathrooms, stuff like that. At that time, there was no automatic start on the tape deck. You had to physically hit the record button and the play button. I started working at Bell. I couldn't touch anything for six months. My first record date that I did on my own, where I actually set it up, ran the clock and did the take sheet, was Len Barry's "1-2-3", in whatever year that was . And it was just a great place to work! There were great engineers there. Eddie Smith was my mentor. There was Phil Macy, who had been an alto player in the Glenn Miller Band. He did the Isley Brothers. He was a wonderful engineer — these guys were all musicians. Eddie Smith was an arranger, a piano player who had studied Schillinger [a theoretical system for music composition, very popular among jazz artists]. I attached myself at the hip to Eddie. I wanted to be his assistant. I would change shifts to work with him. We did strings and horns. It was just great! He would bring out the sheet music and put it over the console — the production chart — and never look at the meters, do everything by ear. And we ran a 4- track tape as a safety. This had to be '65 or '66. The mono, the actual live mix, was the master. He would go right to mono. The 4-track tape was there. When I got there, it was 3-track and then they added the fourth track, so we put the rhythm section on one and the strings and horns on three and the singer in the middle, and put the background group or whatever on the fourth track — but the actual record was the mono off the date. They'd take the mono down to the cutting room, cut the record, and that's what went onto the radio.
You did "Walk On By" and "...San Jose."
We did all the Bacharach things: "Walk On By" and "...San Jose," at Bell Sound. Somebody else takes credit for the album although they only did a cabasa overdub. I was the assistant on "...San Jose." Dionne Warwick, Burt Bacharach, a lot of stuff. Sammy Davis and Ferrante and Teicher. We did "Hang On Sloopy", The McCoys. We did Bob Crewe, a lot of stuff with the Four Seasons. Mitch Ryder and Detroit Wheels. I did a lot of hand clapping and stamping my feet on a lot of records! "Devil With the Blue Dress On". I'm a whistler on somebody's album — singing background, playing tambourine on somebody else's album.
I want to talk about the importance of getting a sound.
Earphones are the most important thing. To the guys wearing earphones, that's what they hear. What they hear is the way they play. You know you're working with professionals when you hear them say, "I don't hear enough of the drums. I don't hear enough of the bass." You know you're working with amateurs when they say, "I don't hear enough of myself." I basically control the way they play by controlling what they can hear. If they're playing loud, I turn them up in the headphones and they play softer. If they're playing soft, I lower them in the headphones and they play louder. I control the level. That's how you get the sweet sound. People don't come here for the sweet sound, anyway. They come here for the pastrami sandwiches, and they come here because I try to make people feel comfortable, which is more important, I think, than anything recording-wise.
With your sense of humor and the vibe here, people probably get in and out of Nola's more efficiently than they would at some other studios. I imagine you must also get better performances because the musicians feel comfortable.
I'm working with a singer now. I don't want to mention names. We're doing an album. The girl is a wonderful singer, but she doesn't do it as a living — it's a vanity project. She's in the session and makes a mistake. They're talking — "It should be a B flat, it should be an F, the phrasing here, do this, do that." Her husband is the producer, telling her these things — and she's standing here with all this instruction going on. There's a pause and I go, "Sing the fucking song!" Now in that moment of "Sing the fucking song," it broke down all that anxiety. "Oh my God, I don't know what to do. This guy says make sure it's a B flat." All of that disappears. I say, "Stop. Don't listen to these assholes. They're telling you everything right, but you can't remember all that. I can't remember all that. If somebody is yelling at you, 'Relax!' — you know. Just sing the fucking song. So she goes in. She sings it great. Okay. Let's go — next song. That's what I do. It's easy in here [control room]. Out there [in the studio], when you're playing or you're singing, what you're saying is, "This is the best that I can do." You're not under the gun like that in any other job. You're in there singing, you're in there playing — THAT'S THE BEST YOU CAN DO AT THAT TIME. If you're not relaxed, if you're tense, you're not going to do anything good. It has to be loose and you have to be having fun. We are not curing cancer here. We're just making a stupid record. Or doing a stupid commercial, but if you're not having fun...
Let's talk about mic placement.
You learn that from musicians. There was a famous New York studio musician, Phil Bodner. I was recording him and he was playing oboe. We were doing a commercial. I shut his mic off and went out to him. I said, "Phil, how do you mic this thing?" He said, "Put the mic here, Jim," and I said, "Okay." And then he said, "Hey Jim, I'm doing this a long time and no one ever asked me where to put the mic." I said, "Maybe they knew what to do." He said, "No, they didn't." I said, "Thanks for the help." He put it up where his fingers were, off to the right — not in front of the bell. He put it off to the side, maybe a foot and a half. Well, the sound doesn't come from the bell. It comes from the whole instrument. So I did what he said and then went back into the control room and did the recording. He came in for a playback — the client and the advertising agency people were there also. The room went very silent, and he said, "Jim, that's the best oboe sound I've ever gotten." The point is, I asked him what the hell to do and he told me. I listened to him — and he came in and told me that it was the best sound he had ever gotten. He made me look great in front of other people — because I didn't know how the hell to do this. So I asked him. To me, I don't look at it like "this is my sound".
You have a very strong relationship with your assistant, Bill Moss. I've watched the two of you in action. You literally complete each other's thoughts — musically, in conversation, everything. Could you speak for a moment about the importance of the assistant in today's studio world?
The assistant, affectionately known as the "button pusher." My relationship with Bill is what my relationship was with Eddie Smith. I learned so much from Eddie that he would begin to rely on me. When we were doing Costa dates, I would sit down at the board. When you have a really good assistant, it's more than an assistant at that point. It's a second set of ears — it's an engineer. Now Bill Moss will make notes when he hears something that I don't hear. He'll say, "We've gotta check this part out." It's another guy to back you up. If you're in combat, you want somebody else in the foxhole with you that really knows what the hell they're doing. And all the time Bill has worked with me so closely, he knows how I work, but he's also developed his own style. My job is to record the music, but more importantly to make the client or the artist feel comfortable while getting the recording down. Bill's job is to make sure that everything else goes right. He's telling me when the trumpets are going to go to cup mutes, so bring them up louder. He's watching the date. He's listening to the date. In effect, he's doing the date. I'm there, sitting — maybe I'm watching what the client is doing, maybe I'm watching what the singer is doing. It's two sets of eyes, two sets of ears. He's very important.
There's a huge difference, obviously, between overdub recording and live session recording. It's fair to say that all or almost all of what you do in this room is live jazz sessions. Due to budgetary and time constraints, most project studios — and most rock, hip- hop, etc., in general — is all done in overdub. Can you talk a bit about the difference between the live studio session and the overdub studio session?
Well, the concept of the live recording is the live recording. In the old days, the mono off the date was the master. You didn't make a mistake. The caliber of musician at that time in the '50s and '60s, coming off the big bands, didn't make mistakes — because if you made a mistake, everybody had to do it again. Gil Evans once told me — his son Noel worked here for seven years — the best players in town were the guys that had started bands. Benny Goodman, Claude Thornhill — Because these were the best players, they got the other best players to work with them. And the same thing applied to the studios — the best musicians in the studios, the guys that did the record dates, were the guys who were the best musicians — because you couldn't make a mistake. When you do a live recording, the pressure's on. You have to really get it. So you set the studio up. You have everybody play a little bit. You get a sound. That's where the training comes in. Knowing what a bass should sound like — knowing what a bass sounds like in proportion to the drums, to the piano, to the trumpet. That's the instant mix. That's what I'm getting paid for.
Where does that knowledge come from?
It comes from listening to a lot of music, listening to things you like, determining why that certain sound come out the way it did. Why did that bass not sound boomy? Then you place mics and you fool around. How do you know how to balance? From all of the years and all of the dues you've paid up to that point. The engineering should not interfere with the music. The mixing should not interfere with the music. Now what sounds "good?" What's too much bass, too much treble? What's not enough? That's the art. That's what you go for.
And it changes with each piece of music.
When I was an assistant at Bell Sound doing The Lovin' Spoonful with Harry Yarmark — "Summer in the City" and "Do You Believe in Magic" and all of those songs — we would spend an hour getting a snare drum sound. It would kill me. I would die. Die! Because it was like, who cares? The jackhammer in "Summer in the City" — they played with it for about half an hour! VFOing the machine to change the pitch of the jackhammer! I couldn't take it anymore, so I walked over and I said, "Here!" It was in the key of E or whatever it was at that time. The overdub session can be productive, or it can just waste a lot of time.
Sometimes capturing it live in the moment...
Well, you get a better performance. With the overdub session, you can get it absolutely perfect, but you lose something. Like anything else, when you do it over and over, you may get the spontaneity of one performance, but generally speaking, it's diminishing returns. And it's perfect — and nothing in life is perfect.
We were speaking a bit about the rhythm section before, being placed together on one side of the room. There is obviously separation between the drum booth and the piano, but there is still sound bouncing around the room.
Sure. And you'll hear the drums. Not so much in the piano, but you'll hear it live, because the way I set it up is not totally isolated. It's a blend — but it cuts down on a lot of the leakage.
Some of your sound IS leakage — the "live" sound.
Oh, absolutely. That's where the room comes into play. There used to be a lot of live rooms. Live rooms are great — the musicians like to play in them because everybody hears themselves, but generally there are a lot of problems with recording, because you open up the trumpet mic or the saxophone mic and you hear drums or other things — which is why I have carpeting on the floor. I'm probably the only studio in town that has carpeting. The floor was originally all wood — but if I had a totally wooden floor, it would sound like an echo chamber. It's great. I can overdub if I'm doing a big band and the trumpets make a mistake. I've done bands where they're set up in a traditional pattern with trumpets in the back, then trombones and saxes. The problem with the trumpets being in the back and playing out is that you get the trumpets in the trombone mics and the trumpets in the sax mics. If you're going to do it that way, then you would have the trumpets in the front, then the bones, then the saxes. But that's totally opposite of the way guys play in real bands, so that would be disconcerting.
So you lay it out in a semicircle.
Yeah. That goes back — the first picture I saw of that was Gil Evans with Miles Davis at Columbia. A big semicircle, so everybody could see everybody. We would do that at Bell, in all live recordings. We would do trumpets and strings at the same time like that. It's the mono off the date, so you're working with the leakage. What Eddie Smith would do was to actually mix live — so if the trumpets were playing, you had the trumpets up. If the strings were playing, you'd sort of bring down the trumpets, just to take the ambient noise out of the room. That's what a mixer does.
And that's subtle, because if you do it too suddenly, it will be very obvious.
And that's what I do when I record. During a live mix, I'll get to a point where I'll drop things in and out. Very little, but so that when I go to do the final mix, there's not a lot of work.
Want to talk about equipment a little bit? I notice that you record to three DA-88s.
I use the DA-88s as a back up against the Radar.
So you're using the Radar, a hard-disc recorder?
It's a hard disc recorder — a great sounding system! The DA-88s are a backup, as I'm doing a big band recording, in case that thing crashes.
What do you think of your system? I haven't really seen a Radar II at any other studio. I have heard the playbacks of what you've done, though, and it's incredible!
This guy in England wanted to record an actress named Jane Horrocks who was in a movie, Little Voice, with Michael Caine. She mimics doing Shirley Bassey and Marilyn Monroe and all. We got a big band together, he came in and said they use Radar in England. I said okay. I rented a Radar thing. I thought he knew what it was. I said to him, "How to you set this thing up?" He said, "I don't know. Don't you guys use this?" He was the arranger. So we read the manual overnight and we recorded the next day. We had to make a punch-in with the trumpets. I turned to Bill Moss and said, "Can we do this?" He said, "I didn't read that part." I said, "All right. I'll go out and adjust the mics and BS with the trumpet players." I says, "Read the paragraph." I made believe I was adjusting the mics. I said, "Give me a couple of seconds, guys." I went back into the control room and asked Bill, "Can we do this?" He says, "Yeah. Hit the button now." I said, "All right." I hit the button — we recorded the trumpets. Next! But it sounded so good — the playbacks. There was no transient noise. Usually on digital tape and with very fancy consoles, it sounds pinched to me. I use ribbon mics — the RCA 44s. On trumpets I use 44s. On analog, it always sounds great. But with digital, I got very nervous — especially recording to a hard drive. But the trumpets weren't pinched! They sounded great! So what did I do? I called up my mentor. I said, "Eddie, what are you doing tomorrow?" He said, "Nothing." I said, "Come here. I want you to hear this." He sat out in the room. They ran the track out for the second day. Started the session. He came in and sat behind me on the playback. He whispered in my ear after the playback that the only difference he heard between the live performance in the room and the playback over the speakers was the monitor echo that I was adding. He confirmed what I thought, so we went out and bought two units. One for B and one for this room. I don't know, but I get the feeling that we were the first ones in New York to have a Radar system.
Tell me a little bit about your board.
Well, there was no money to buy a board, but we bought a new MCI 16. And then a couple of years later, we needed 24 tracks, so we had to buy a 24-track board. I was looking around for a used board. A friend of mine, Bob Lifton, owned Regent Sound. His MCI board was brand new and every six months he cleaned it. I bought it. I love the sound of it.
Yeah — about '82, '83. And my maintenance man is the guy who worked for MCI who actually built this board.
You can't get any better than that!
And then five years ago, I found a studio going out of business in Long Island with the same board, which I bought — and we use it for parts. It's stored in a garage. I keep the MCI because I've done work on the old Neves and, to me, this is a warmer-sounding board. It's not automated and it just feels good. When a module goes bad, we take one out and stick another one in. I like the sound of it. It reminds me of the '60s when I was an assistant and they used to build boards. The combination of the warm-sounding board and the hard drive — I've got the best of both worlds.
And as far as outboard gear goes?
We've got the Pultecs and the LA-2A. I don't know — I'm not a big outboard guy. If we need something, I rent it. We have the Yamaha for effects.
Yeah. Nakamichi cassette and Tascam DAT. I got them from Atlantic. My maintenance man used to do the maintenance at Atlantic and they were selling a couple of things at a good price and he told me to pick them up. It's all about buying cheap.
You've still got your 2-inch 24-track MCI deck.
Do you still use that?
Very rarely, but it's not a recording studio without it. Now it's holding all of my stuff. Here's a story: Bob Fine is a great gentleman, owned Fine Recording. He was across the street, where the Director's Building is now. He came up, looked around and said, "You have a very fine recording studio here." And I said, "Thank you, but how would you know that? You didn't hear anything." He says, "All your lights on your 24-track machine work and your ashtrays are clean." I never forgot that.
Let's talk about mics.
Got the ribbons, got the [RCA] 44. [Neumann U] 87s, [RCA] 77. There's a guy in Vineland, New Jersey — his name is Clarence. He worked for RCA and they let him go. They didn't need him anymore. They let go of the studios, Webster Hall. They fired him and he opened up his own business. I think I was the first guy to call him. I had all of these mics left over from Nola's when I bought the place. They were here, but they were in terrible condition and I wanted them all to be fixed. Here's a U 47. I don't use this all the time. It's too good of a microphone. The tubes for this are like $400. I only use it if the singer rates. If I've got a great singer, I'll put a U 47 on them. So anyway, Clarence fixed my mics. He's still in business. Everybody in the world wants him to fix their mics. But when I call him up, he says, "Okay, Jim" — and everybody waits. And I get my mics fixed.
As far as monitoring goes, you have your near fields and the mid or "far" fields.
The UREIs? I never listen to them. I listen to the small speakers — that's how people are going to listen. NS- 10s. With the covers on. Everybody takes the covers off to get more top end. I leave the covers on because that's the way the speakers were designed — and if I need more top end I'll add it with EQ. They're great. There were studios around town that had JBL speakers that sounded great. They hyped the bass. They hyped the top end. But when you got the cassette home, it didn't sound as good as it did in the studio.
Because it was unrealistic.
When you got the tape home, it wasn't really on the tape. What I learned is that if it sounds good over crappy speakers, it's going to sound great over great speakers. So this is a work in progress. Like why you use Auratones. If it sounds good over NS-10s or Auratones — I get my bass perspective on a record by listening to the Auratones. And if I can't hear any bass, I know I'm bass shy and I just turn it up a little bit. You get different perspectives at different levels.
What do you use your Auratones for, as opposed to your NS-10s?
After I set up my mix and I like the way it sounds on the NS-10s, I go down to the Auratones and I listen real quiet, to see if I like what it sounds like on the Auratones. If it sounds good on the Auratones, I leave it alone. I listen low on the NS-10s and then I'll listen high on the Auratones. It's the Fletcher-Munsen curve, so I sort of take an average. How are people are going to listen to things? That is the question. How loud do people listen to records?
It's usually one of two things — it's either really soft, because it's in the background, or it's really loud because they're cranking it in their car.
Yeah. Most jazz people are not going to listen that loud. When I was doing rock 'n'roll and when I was doing The King Biscuit Flower Hour, the snare drum came up and the voice was buried, and a lot of bass, a lot of screaming guitars and stuff. But when you're making a nice record, you want it to sound nice. Like Sinatra. You want to hear everything, but you want to make sure that nothing is sticking out. Thus the art.
What are the most important changes that you have seen in the industry since you started recording, and where do you foresee the industry heading?
What I do and what Wally Sear does, and a few other guys — well, I can't say it's a dying art, because Diana Krall comes in and makes a great-sounding record. Elvis Costello does good work. Music is funny. It goes through cycles. It goes through disco. It goes through funk. It goes through Joni Mitchell. It's what the kids want, and who's buying the records. How has it changed? The technology has obviously gotten more selective. Because of Pro Tools and state of the art recording, you can take things apart and fabricate and create. You don't have to have a great amount of talent to record anymore. The talent comes in the mix. Somebody makes this and it sounds terrible. Somebody makes something else and it sounds great, but the terrible thing sells. They're the winner. You can't knock success! You don't have to get it on the first shot — there are a lot more chances now to accomplish the goal, and as long as you have time, you can play with it and get anything you want — which gives way to the fact that you don't have to be a professional. You can be an amateur and make great-sounding records. Are they as good as the old vinyl? No, but that's not the benchmark anymore. The benchmark is how much you sell. So are we talking about business or are we talking about art? Recording has changed so much and yet it stays the same. A trumpet still sounds like a trumpet, if you're doing that kind of music. If you're doing pop, or you're doing techno, then it doesn't really matter. But if you're recording a big band, a big band is still the same big band that it was in the '40s. The trumpets, bones — you still gotta capture what they sound like. So as much as things change, they remain the same.
What about home studios?
That got started because guys had a lot of time, they could get relatively inexpensive equipment, and it was good enough for doing commercials and some records. It makes a good enough record, but it's not what we do here. I'll disagree with Wally Sear when he says that it's "bad" recording. "Bad?" "Good?" I don't know. No — it's good for what it is meant to be. Are you going to compare it to a Ruby Braff session or a Costa date? No. You're not going to do that. But compared to something else that is done at home — or in an overdub session — it's fine.
But not a live session, unless you have a beautiful room in your house. Van Gelder, for example, in his house — in both houses — made great records. That's technically "home recording".
That's home recording, but the major difference is the players. It's always the players.
So if Miles Davis were still alive and he came to my apartment and I recorded him on my computer...
He would sound great.
It only matters what it sounds like in the end. It doesn't matter how you get that sound.
It's not how you start — it's how you finish.