Brian Silak and I had the honor of visiting engineer/studio owner Denise Barbarita and her husband, drummer/music educator Rich Kulsar – both recent Grammy winners – at their Long Island City MONOLisa recording studio. We were treated to some really great hummus and an intense, lesson-filled career retrospective dotted with many dos and don’ts of both “the old way” and “the new way” of coming up in the industry.
You started your career as a singer-songwriter, and you studied guitar at Berklee College of Music. Did you also study engineering and production at Berklee?
That was my major; “Music Production & Engineering” [MP&E] and music synthesis, though I dropped the music synthesis double major in my senior year. I knew from the time I was in my early teens, somewhere in those formative years, that I wanted to be in the studio. I was a Pat Benatar fan – on the Precious Time record I could tell that the background vocals were her voice. I thought that she could sing three notes at a time, so I would practice and practice in front of the mirror with a hairbrush and try to sing all three of those notes at once! I thought I was horrible and would never amount to anything because I couldn’t sing three notes at once. I started listening to other records and realized, “Oh, they can do it too! I’m some freak who can’t do this.” Then I got a Hit Parader magazine with Pat Benatar on the cover, and they’re talking about overdubs. They were talking about the recording of the album, and how she did the background vocals. I was like, “What do you mean ‘overdubs?’ What do you mean ‘background vocals?’” For a good three or four months I was pissed; really angry. I thought, “She lied! It’s not fair!” My whole world broke down. Then I went to the library, because this was pre-internet, and I started reading about the recording studio. Then I realized that’s what I wanted to do. Even though I was a metalhead in high school, I was a closet Michael Jackson fan. I’d listen to Michael Jackson records and how he phrased; how he used his breath in the performance. I’d listen to all the background vocals and pieces of the arrangement, and I’d sit there in awe. Somebody made decisions. Berklee was my first choice for colleges. The first two semesters are general music education. You do the intro classes and then you choose a major. They only admit a certain number of people into the MP&E program. Berklee was a fun little microcosm. You leave your hometown feeling pretty good about yourself, then go to a place like Berklee, and feel like, “I suck.” But I thrive on that kind of competition. It makes me strive to do better. Boston is a college town, and MIT was right across the river. There was a “new technology” gathering every week; free and open to the public. Engineers would talk about new technologies they were working on. Hearing about the beginnings of digital audio, digital video, digital television, and laser technology – that was all discussed.
You were in an epicenter for this new technology.
I was fascinated. When they were talking about digital audio, I thought, “Yeah, that’s never going to happen.” But during my senior year at Berklee, Sound Tools [the precursor to Pro Tools] came out, which was stereo. When I graduated, 4-track Pro Tools had just hit. Then DP [Digital Performer] came out with stereo. [Opcode Systems] Vision was the other sequencing software that was popular around that time. My boyfriend (at the time) was a music synthesis major, and he said, “It’s going to surpass tape.” I was like, “Whatever.” And all these years later, here we are! It was an amazing experience to be in an environment where everybody was on the same page but had different interests. To be exposed to Brazilian and Cuban music, and to jazz – that feeling of, “I still have a lot to learn.” That’s something I never want to lose. If you don’t keep that sense of wonderment, you get stagnant. You don’t want to wind up being that person who’s five years behind the curve. When Pro Tools hit, for example, there were all sorts of A-list engineers who had to have an assistant that dealt with Pro Tools because they refused to learn the software. Are those guys still working?
Did you originally envision integrating your knowledge of engineering and production into your own music as a singer-songwriter, or were you...
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