When one thinks of the great recording engineers who have indelibly shaped the recorded history of jazz music, names like Rudy Van Gelder [Tape Op #43] or Fred Plaut might readily come to mind. But if you were to ask some of the most prominent jazz musicians of the last 25 years — artists such as John Scofield, Joshua Redman, Brad Mehldau, Dave Holland, Joe Lovano, and the late Michael Brecker — they might also mention another name: engineer/mixer James Farber. "He's, without question, one of the greatest — if not the greatest — jazz engineers of his generation," says saxophonist Redman, who came to prominence in the early ‘90s. "A master of his craft. His discography speaks for itself." "Quite simply, James is as good as it gets," says guitarist John Scofield. Farber's engineering and mixing credits include over one thousand albums — five Grammy-winners in the Best Jazz Instrumental Album and Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album categories among them — and over a dozen records each with all of the above-mentioned artists. After getting his start as an assistant at NYC's famed Power Station (now Avatar Studios) in the late ‘70s, learning from engineering greats such as Bob Clearmountain [Tape Op #84] and Tony Bongiovi, as well as working on everything from Bruce Springsteen to Haitian "compas" records, he went on to join legendary producer Nile Rodgers as an engineer for several years. "Working with Nile really taught me how to think like a producer," recalls Farber. "I carry that over to everything I've done since." In 1988 Farber was asked to engineer James Taylor's Never Die Young, and left Rodgers to embark on a freelance career. He quickly gravitated toward jazz; an early interest as both listener and player. With several standout records for saxophonist Michael Brecker, word of Farber's talents spread, and he quickly established himself as one of the preeminent recording engineers for jazz and acoustic music in New York City. He remains a consistent choice today for some of jazz's brightest talents. I caught up with James at Avatar Studios, where he'd just spent a week engineering new projects for ECM Records (including Jack Dejohnette/Ravi Coltrane/Matt Garrison Trio, Meredith Monk, and Vijay Iyer/Wadada Leo Smith Duo). I had a chance to learn more about his musical and engineering background, his working methods in the studio (including live concert recording dates at clubs such as The Village Vanguard), and his experiences working with some of the biggest names in modern jazz.
For someone who has worked on as many records as you have, I was surprised to find that there weren't any previous interviews with you.
Yeah, I've managed to stay under the radar. I don't have a website, you can't find my email online. I have no manager, and I'm not a member of organizations or social media. So I'm a little bit hard to find. People usually just get my email from someone else that's worked with me. It's all word-of-mouth.
How do you deal with the ups and downs of the freelance lifestyle?
Sometimes it's all or none. You just take it when you can get it. Sometimes it'll be two weeks in a row without a day off. Sometimes it's a month with nothing going on. But I enjoy my time off. I'm not a workaholic; I don't go insane when I'm not working. And when I have to work hard for a long stretch I can still do it. Now that I'm in my early sixties, it's not as easy as it was to do all those long days in a row as when I was 25 — but not impossible.
What got you interested in recording?
My father worked for RCA designing tubes. So we had all kinds of gear in the house, including a good stereo and an old tape recorder. I was fascinated by those. I remember my fifth birthday party, all the kids would come over and we'd record ourselves into the tape recorder. It's a toy I've played with since... forever. I always had an interest in it. I remember watching TV and there'd be a scene from a recording session. I'd think, "I want to do that." In high school I had a rock band and I was the guy with the tape recorder. The recordings always sounded pretty good. At least I had good levels and had an interest in doing it right. Then the same thing in college: I got into playing jazz piano in some groups. We gigged in bars a couple of nights a week and played what I called "dollar jazz," because that's what it cost people to hear us. We were playing a lot of blues and CTI [Creed Taylor Incorporated] tunes, some modal stuff. I wasn't really that versatile with the changes, but we played a bunch of standards too. But I always had the tape recorder and would record our gigs.
What were you using at that time?
As a kid I had a Sony tape recorder and just the two mics that came with it. And then I had a Teac Tascam 1/4-inch, 2-track and later a 4-track. We didn't have mics, so I'd borrow a couple of [Shure] SM57s from somebody. Nothing fancy. I ended up going to UW Madison to study communications. I figured at least it was something involved with media. I took radio production and electronic music composition. I was always splicing tape and using tape recorders and I got good at it. But nobody could tell me how to do this professionally. You know, "You gotta know somebody."
There wasn't as much information available back then.
No. The schools were just cropping up. When I graduated college in ‘75 I hung out in Madison for a while and worked in listener-sponsored radio. Eventually I moved back to New York and enrolled at Institute of Audio Research, which was just starting up. That's kind of how I learned a little of the technical end... at least enough to talk my way into an assistant's gig.
You ended up here [Power Station/ Avatar] assisting, right?
I had one other job before this. My teacher, Jim Jordan, at IAR worked at Big Apple Studios in SoHo. He got me hired as a part-time assistant. I was making $3 an hour, still living at my parents' place in New Jersey. I would drive into the city and between gas, tolls, and parking I definitely lost money. I have a photocopy of the first check I got for a nine-hour session for $27. It was pretty exciting. I had a great intro to the business. My first week in the studio...