Queens, NY, native Greg Calbi has stood atop the musical food chain since the mid-1970s when he burst onto the scene mastering monumental albums like John Lennon's Walls and Bridges and Bruce Springsteen's Born to Run. Nearly 40 years later Calbi, (along with his fabled company, Sterling Sound), still has his pick of the recorded litter. Recent projects include Bon Iver, Fleet Foxes, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon and countless others. Following a recent session with Calbi to master my new album, I sat down with him to talk about his storied sonic legacy.
For a guy who's associated with some of the most renowned albums in history, rumor has it you never planned on a career in the music business.
I had gotten a Master's Degree in Communications from UMass in 1972. I came back to New York hoping to be a documentary filmmaker, either at one of the networks, public television or radio — anywhere I could continue on the communications path. One night at a party, I met a guy who worked at Record Plant Studios. I was a huge music fan at that point — I played guitar and had been in a couple of bands I was totally intrigued. He told me that occasionally they needed people to help with remote recording. So I said, "Listen, if you ever have any work, I'd be interested." At the time I was selling shoes in Flushing, Queens. About a month later, the guy called me and asked if I knew how to drive a truck. I had done a lot of construction work in college so I knew how to do it. He told me he needed someone to drive a truck down to Duke University to record Yes on the Close to the Edge tour. That's how I got into this business.
Did you do anything on that gig besides drive the truck?
I carried wires up to the stage and back, and broke stuff down — putting mics and other things back into their cases. Basically grunt work.
What happened when the gig was over?
One of the engineers on the truck said, "Hey, you should come around the studio sometime. They need guys to help out." I said, "Hey, I'll do anything. I love music." I didn't expect it to turn into anything; I was just thrilled to be involved in music and recording. Things grew out from there. I got a job in the studio as a general assistant. We had a lot of jingle dates [music for advertising], so I had to put the microphones out for the engineers. I learned about mic placement from setting up sessions for the engineers to tweak. The people working there at the time were a huge amount of fun.
Who was working at the Record Plant with you back then?
When I started it was Jack Douglas, Jay Messina, Shelly Yakus as well as Jimmy Iovine, Thom Panunzio, David Thoener, Dennis Ferrante, and Rod O'Brien, who were all assistants. It was a fantastic group of guys. Some of them were more receptive than others to teaching me, so I had to basically pretend I knew how to do things in the studio. I remember one time I was alone with Todd Rundgren on a session and he asked me to patch in a Teletronix [LA-2A], or some other piece of gear. I said, "I don't really know how to work the patchbay." He just stared at me, like he couldn't believe what I was saying. I truly knew nothing. But little by little, I would come in on the weekends and learn from the other assistants.
How did you get into mastering?
My late friend Tom Rabstenek had taken over the cutting room at the Record Plant after only about a year of experience. George Marino, who's been with me here for 35 years, left the cutting room to go to Sterling Sound. Tom was left with a stack of cutting notes for some phenomenal albums, like Stevie Wonder's Innervisions and the Allman Brothers — he had to cut lacquers on from George's notes. Tom couldn't do all the mechanical changes by himself because everything was done by hand back then; from changing EQ, to moving the fader and running the lathe. Tom was going crazy by himself, so I would go up and help him.
Did you have any idea how to cut lacquer at that point?
He showed me. He would say, "For this EQ, you turn this to +2, then after the song is over you put it back to zero." So I would do that. Then he would say, "Move the fader here, and run the machine here," etc. So the two of us were doing all these mechanical changes cutting lacquers. I learned how to work the cutting lathe from him. I knew so little when I started; I was actually afraid to turn the monitor pot up while I was working, because I didn't know if it was in the signal path or not! That means you know nothing. I learned by watching and talking. There were no books to read, or schools to go to back then. You learned on the job.
What kind of gear did you use to master records back then?
There was a Neve standup console with four Neve equalizers, a Roger Mayer EQ, some kind of peak limiter and a Scully 2-track quarter-inch tape machine. You basically had to work the lathe, and you learned by the mistakes you made. I would look into the microscope and see the overcuts I made; slowly I learned how to get it right. Something happens when you are constantly looking at VU meters. It adds to your understanding of dynamics.
What other albums and artists were you working with at that time?
All kinds of projects. I worked on Haitian albums and salsa records for the Fania label. Plus, all of the mixers in the studio would come upstairs to the mastering room with whatever projects they were working on. I developed my approach to connect with the creatives behind an album to give them what they wanted. People would ask me, "Is the bass too loud?" Or, "Do you think the vocal's loud enough?" I would listen, and my first response would be, "You're asking me? I've only been doing this for three months!" But then I realized that the same guy downstairs in the studio, who was so confident in front of his client, was actually terribly insecure. It cemented in me the idea that these decisions were very difficult. What's "right" and what's "wrong" when you're mastering records is incredibly fluid. There was a certain humility people could have with me that they couldn't have with their clients. This was before automation, where every "re do" had to basically be done from scratch. It was a very different process of actually committing to something, before computers allowed the ability to not commit to anything.
How has the mastering process changed with the advent of computers and infinite, instant recall?
There's a very deep difference in the creative approach between then and now. For example, I read that when William Faulkner wrote his books, he sat at a typewriter and just wrote. Everything was configured in his head before he started typing. That's very similar to the mindset of being in a studio and knowing everything has to be correct from the start. There was an intense degree of discipline required to pull it off back then, from the recording to the mastering, vocal and background levels and relationships to one another, to guitars and solo levels and so forth. We had to do things in mastering back then with EQ to fix mix problems. Someone would shout, "Oh my God, the guitar solo's too low. What are we gonna do?" So we'd put some midrange in the guitar solo. We'd make a list of all these different cues and, while the tape was running, you had to boost 2 dB at 1400 Hz at approximately 10:12. So you can imagine if a record was coming out on a major label, you might have to do six or eight passes to make six or eight lacquers to send to the plant. You had to make your notes extremely clear and focused — listening to the album note by note, intro to verse to chorus, from top to bottom. You really had to follow the music. You had to know how to work the cutting lathe, which I did. Remember, this was before cassettes — if you wanted to take a reference home, you had to cut acetate. I remember John Lennon was working on the song "#9 Dream" from Walls and Bridges, and I probably cut between 10 and 20 mixes of it.
What do you remember most about the work you did with Lennon?
John was everywhere at the Record Plant. He had a rehearsal space right next to the cutting room that we would play ping-pong in when he wasn't using it. He was virtually on staff there. It was his playground at that point. John did most of his listening and tweaking in the mix room, but because of the huge budgets he had he would do an endless amount of remixes. The song he did with Harry Nilsson, "Many Rivers to Cross" from the album Pussy Cats, had 10 or 15 different mixes. He didn't sit down and tweak around with you the way some people do. He just wasn't into it on that level.
But you interacted with him?
Oh yeah. I remember one time arguing with him because the vocal level was really low. Here I was, a 24-year- old kid — he's one of the Beatles and I'm telling him, "The vocals are too low." I remember I actually said to him, "You're one of the greatest singers in the history of rock and roll and you don't mix your vocals loud?" He said, "I hate my voice." One time I was working on a jazz album that had no reel to it, only tape on a hub. The tape was wound so loosely that when I picked it up, the whole thing fell apart. There was literally a pile of tape all over the place. So I put it in a box and, when I had time, I would wind it by hand back onto a reel. There was no rush because it was a catalogue record, but I wanted to fix it before I put it away. One day John came in and saw the pile of tape in the box and said, "What's that?" So I told him the story and he said, "Is there any way we can make it look like that's my master?" I told him that I could cut the end of one of the songs onto his tape, put his tape onto the machine and attach it so it would look like it flew off the machine. He said, "That's it. Call [Record Plant owner and chief engineer] Roy Cicala up!" So John gets on the phone with Roy, screaming, saying, "This fucking kid just ruined my tape!" Roy came in, pale as a ghost. I had never seen him like that — he had no blood in his face. He walked over to the machine and said, "I can fix it. I can fix it. Don't worry!" He was befuddled. Then John started cracking up and I started snickering. It took Roy about 10 seconds to realize we had punked him. He said to me, "I'm gonna get you." But he never managed to get me back. That's what it was like in those days at the Record Plant.
Not long into your tenure at the Record Plant, you basically became one of the "go to" guys in the mastering world. To what do you attribute your rapid ascent?
I was lucky that I had a certain amount of credibility with some of those great engineers at the time. Some mastering guys are very authoritarian and some are interactive. I'm much more interactive, and it was the right way to be at the time. Plus, I had the luck to master a platinum album after less than a year there with [Eric Carmen's debut album] Eric Carmen. I got the gig because Jimmy Ienner, who produced the album, liked working with me and he used me for mastering. When 1975 hit, I worked on Bruce Springsteen's Born to Run and David Bowie's Young Americans, which was an incredibly difficult mastering job.
The snare was recorded and mixed really loud and wouldn't cut correctly. It made the cutting needle skip and move into over-cut. It was so loud that they actually had to bring in an outboard limiter, which was the first time we had done that, to stick in the chain to grab the snare peaks. Today they could just go back into the computer and lower the snare, or put a plug-in limiter on it, and BOOM, it's done.
What memories do you have of mastering Born to Run?
The only thing I remember about mastering it was putting some midrange in because I thought the vocals were a little muddy. It was a brilliant album, but in terms of the mastering it was a very thick sound. In those days, having a Scully tape machine and a Neumann lathe was the way we cut albums. I think the album reflected very closely what the mixes sounded like.
Who were some of your mastering contemporaries when you first started mastering?
Bob Ludwig started mastering four or five years before me in New York City and was the number one guy when I was coming up. I remember one of the first big gigs I got was a project for a guy named Tony King and the first thing he said to me was, "The only reason I'm here is because I couldn't get in with Bob!" Bob is still a tremendous force and a great promoter of the value of mastering. Also, George Marino was doing some amazing sounding things on a bunch of Stevie Wonder albums. He was an incredibly gracious and humble teacher for my pal Tom Rabstenek. I loved talking to him up in the cutting room when I was just a lowly studio assistant. There was also a guy named Dominick Romeo who did a lot of the Stones stuff. He was one of the earliest guys who became a personality, even in the mono days. People went to him because of the sound he could get. He cut 45s really hot.
The level wars were inescapable back then, too!
With vinyl it was a big deal. A lot of it had to do with the dominance of radio at that point and how many radio stations at that time didn't have the kind of multiband compression we have now. It really made a difference if you had a hot signal. Also, a lot of people listened to jukeboxes in diners back then. If you put your coins in and heard a low-level single, it didn't pop out.
Did your mastering process change when you left the Record Plant to go to Sterling Sound in 1976? Was there more gear at your disposal there?
Sterling was never a place that had a tremendous amount of outboard equipment. It was a place dedicated to having things aligned perfectly. The lathes themselves were tweaked so accurately that things just sounded clearer and better. It just had a better fidelity. Everything still had to be done in real time. It wasn't until the dawn of the CD era that things changed and options opened up. I get asked about this often when the subject of using stems comes up. My philosophy is this — you paid somebody to record your album, and you paid somebody to mix your album. Now, do you also want to pay somebody to change it again? Or do you just want somebody to preserve and enhance what's already there? It goes to the very question of what the role of a mastering engineer is. Today, it turns out, you have to wear every hat. It really is a different job now. It's more creative than years ago, but I still carry with me the respect for the people that created the product that comes into the room; because if it at least got to this point, there must be something about it that's appealing to somebody.
You resist the temptation to immediately start changing things.
Sometimes the best thing you can do is nothing. I also have a feeling that in the old days, before automation, computerized mixing and plug-ins, that records somehow were more unique sounding from each other. Elton John's Madman Across the Water sounded different than anything else at the time, as did Elvis Costello's Imperial Bedroom. There's a similarity between records today that I think has a lot to do with the fact that everybody is using the same set of tools in Pro Tools. It doesn't mean there's a lack of creativity, it's just that there's a similar sonic patina.
What albums or artists have you worked on lately that have struck you as original?
We work on so many different kinds of projects at Sterling — from major label A&R'd acts, to people like The Antlers or Bon Iver who just have a vision and do their thing. They go online, get fans and do shows without any A&R or anybody else to answer to. Also Fleet Foxes and MGMT are two other bands that also come to mind.
How much of the mastering work that you do these days is client attended?
Not as much as I'd like. I prefer to have the producer and engineer in the room with me for the session. Probably 60% of our work is now done unattended.
Does that complicate the process for you?
The best advice I can give people who want input into their mastering but can't attend the session is to try to be as honest as you can. Don't give too much information — a one-page email is fine. Tell the engineer what the expectation is for the level. Do you like CDs super hot, a little hot, or it doesn't matter? Don't be ashamed to say what you like. Also, be as honest as you can about whether or not you think the mixes need work. Pick up the phone if you have to. If you feel like a song has too much bass, or another mix problem, but you're uncomfortable telling the producer or mixer, tell the mastering engineer in confidence that you're concerned about some things. Don't create uncertainty about the mastering process because it can spread like a virus.
Tell me three or four pieces of gear that you're using these days that you couldn't live without?
In terms of getting the level where we want it for CD, the Pendulum Audio PL-2 [analog peak limiter] is essential. It's a limiter on the output of the console and it corrects for engineering mistakes by taking out erroneous, peaky things. It allows me to make mixes sound like they already do, except louder. Another essential piece is my Focusrite Blue EQ [equalizer], which I use on basically everything. It's very clear and open, and I'm crazy about it. Also in my Chris Muth-designed mastering console I constantly use the sum and difference amplifier. It enables me to EQ the midrange and the stereo side a little bit differently. My ZSYS Hot Box is my other main "go to" piece of gear. Glenn Zelniker of Z- Systems designed it [with plans] to eventually release a software version, but he later abandoned the project. He had a couple of boxes that he had used as prototypes left. Michael Brauer and I use it to get our CD levels. For me, it's all about trying to create a signal path where you have to equalize as little as possible. That's my basic approach.
How did your new website albumcredits.com come about?
About three years ago, my studio partner Murat Aktar and I realized that song downloading was really taking off. People were buying songs and albums, but because they didn't have the physical versions, they weren't seeing the proper credits for them.
Oftentimes, when they do get the information, it's incorrect.
That's what we found as well. The most thorough database available online for album credits is Allmusic.com, and they do a great job. In fact, we license their catalog at a considerable expense every month to work in conjunction with ours. What we've done with albumcredits.com that's unavailable anywhere else is for $100 a year, you can reorganize and correct your credits on the Allmusic database. It helps ensure you get the credit you deserve for the work you've done.
New York City-based singer, songwriter, pianist and writer Jon Regen is currently on tour supporting his new album Revolution, featuring Andy Summers of The Police and Benmont Tench from Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers. Find out more at jonregen.com.