Establishing himself as one of Nashville's top engineers and producers, Gary has worked with Nickel Creek, Alison Krauss, Sarah Jarosz, Harry Connick Jr., John Prine, and even Dolly Parton. He is also VP of A&R at Sugar Hill/Rounder Music Records. I visited Gary at his private studio and home that previously belonged to Alison Krauss. In fact, Gary even helped design the studio for her.
What year was this studio built?
In 1998. We were ahead of the curve, in terms of home studios in Nashville. Back then we thought it would be used mostly for vocals; but with budgets where they are today, this is a full-on tracking facility now. [laughs]
How did you enter the engineering world?
My uncle is an artist by the name of Michael Johnson, who had a couple of hits in the '70s and '80s. As a kid, he was a big deal to me. He is a great musician and singer, who started out as a traditional coffee shop folkie, moved on to major label deals, had pop hits and all the trappings that go with success in that world in the '70s. As a young teen, it was magical and I wanted in. There were lots of great bands and records in the 70's that I was listening to; but none hit me as hard as Pink Floyd, specifically The Wall. I knew enough at that point to realize that what they were pulling off on that record was truly amazing. This would be a special record, even with today's digital workstations. I don't know how many times I've listened to it...
Where did you grow up?
In Colorado, outside of Boulder. I went to Colorado University for their recording program; but it was pretty basic and not fully developed. After a few years of doing that, I knew that I was going to learn much quicker in the real world, because it just wasn't run the way that programs are now.
In what way?
Well, even for us to round up a band to record would take an insane amount of effort. It's not like the music schools today where there are bands roaming the halls, dying to go record for free. They'd have a pair of mics, and then one would get stolen. There was limited studio time — all of the obstacles like that. However, it was a good, well-rounded education, in terms of electronics and production. Actually, the electronic music program was pretty cool. When I realized the program at CU wasn't quite there yet, I landed a year-long internship at the Eastman School of Music [Rochester, NY], where I had previously done a six-week summer recording institute program. To be thrown into that environment, with world-class classical and jazz musicians, was really inspiring. I had an amazing year recording jazz ensembles, tuba quintets, operas, symphony orchestras, and everything in between. Not at all musically where I thought I would end up, but it was stereo mic'ing to the hilt. Every variation of stereo mic'ing you can imagine, because all of the halls were mic'd different. I learned a lot about the honest tone of the instrument in the room, as well as what that sounds like.
It teaches you to really listen when you're putting up a pair of mics.
Yeah. Some of the recordings had close mic'ing as well, so you learned how to blend things in. A lot of that translated into the more acoustic/roots oriented music I do now, such as trying to honor true dynamics while maintaining an individual's tone. With everything I've done in Nashville, it's always been about making it have impact, while trying to retain some dynamics. I've also had the luxury of working on music that isn't chasing mainstream radio, so I haven't had to fight that battle too often. Obviously I've done mainstream records where we're definitely shooting for radio, but by and large I've been fortunate that I haven't had to play the loudness game.
You aren't pigeonholed per se, but you definitely have a field you work in of acoustic-based Americana music. How'd your career end up towards that path?
I was assisting at a Nashville studio called Nightingale, working for an engineer by the name of Joe Bogan who made a lot of good records in L.A. with George Benson and Seals & Crofts. He was a great guy to learn from. As an assistant, I got to work on everything that was coming through the place, from Randy Travis to B.B. King. All over the map. In...