John Morand

If the mark of a great recording studio is the versatility and breadth of its clientele, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better candidate than Richmond, Virginia’s Sound of Music. John Morand, the studio’s co-owner, producer, engineer, and a recording artist, has, over the past three decades, presided over sessions for artists as disparate as Hanson, Gwar, Joan Osborne, Lamb of God, Sparklehorse, and Clutch. John’s sanguine disposition and spacy good humor somewhat belies the studio veteran’s expertise with every facet of the recording studio, including video recording and editing. His enthusiasm in the studio is infectious: He remains the only engineer I’ve ever worked with who I’ve spotted, on multiple occasions, dancing with abandon around the control room as the band is recording. I spoke with John amidst scaffolding and piles of lumber, as he prepared for his studio’s ninth – and, he insists, final – relocation.

What got you interested in recording?

My dad worked for a big advertising agency in Chicago. He worked on campaigns like the Jolly Green Giant, the [Sugar Smacks] Dig’em frog, and the Pillsbury Doughboy. When I graduated from high school, I went to work for him at his audio-visual production company/ad agency, where they were making industrial corporate videos. This was before video was such a thing, so they used to use slides and even film. I did the sound parts of that, putting in the narration, editing the music, mixing it together, and balancing it. We had a very small recording studio in the basement of the office for recording voiceovers. I did my very first records there.

What setup did you have?

Originally, it was just a 4-track reel-to-reel and a Quad Eight mixing board, but then we moved to another building, built a bigger studio, and got an Otari 8-track. That’s when I recorded the first Honor Role albums, as well as some of the avant-garde bands from Richmond. I would work all day on commercials, and at night bands would come and we’d record music. Then my dad’s company merged with a bigger company and they wanted to move the whole studio to New Jersey. I had to decide, “Do I want to keep doing this, or do I want to make records?” Since I didn’t go to college, I was thrust into the world of adults, working with people in their 40s and 50s in advertising. I was living in that world, but I also missed a lot; I wasn’t playing in a band, I didn’t have a girlfriend, I wasn’t hanging out in the park with college kids skateboarding. So, when my dad sold the business, I started doing live sound here in Richmond, and working in other people’s studios for bands like Red Hot Chili Peppers, Meat Puppets, and The Pixies.

You never had any formal training? It was all hands-on?

Well, I trained at a local studio here called Alpha Audio, and it was the only 24-track studio between [Washington] D.C. and Atlanta, [Georgia]. It opened in 1972, and it was designed by Joe Tarsia [Tape Op #68] from Sigma Sound [Studios] in Philadelphia. They taught recording classes there, so I was lucky enough to learn hands-on in a real recording studio, with a Studer 24-track. That was my model for what a studio should be; that place was legendary. I learned so much from being there.

How did you hook up with [Sound of Music co-founder] David Lowery?

David’s band, Camper Van Beethoven, had broken up on tour in Europe, so he and Johnny [Hickman, guitar] moved to Richmond. Cracker didn’t have their record deal yet, but David still had the key man clause with Virgin [Records], so he moved here and started writing songs. Virgin signed Cracker, and they went to California and made the record [Cracker]. When Cracker was on tour in Europe, David met this band from Germany called F.S.K. who asked David to produce their record. When they were ready to come to the States to do the album [Son of Kraut], David was in a grocery store in Richmond; the store was selling these cassettes at the counter, including one by this band I had recorded called Plate. David bought the cassette, listened, and thought it sounded good. So, he called me up. F.S.K. then came to Richmond to do a 15-day session, which was the longest I’d ever spent on a record by that point.

You were more accustomed to knocking sessions out in a day or two?

Yeah, I was used to that because no one had any money to record. F.S.K. were so cool. They were from Germany, were super intellectual, and they played this weird, avant-garde country music. [Singer/songwriter] Michael Hurley came in and played on a song, because we were huge fans of his and he lived in Richmond at the time. When F.S.K. came back to do a second record [The Sound of Music], we rented a studio, then started renting it month by month, and that eventually became Sound of Music. The second Cracker record [Kerosene Hat] came out, and the song “Low” became a huge hit single. Then we were like, “Okay, we’re going to need to do more records for Cracker.” They lent me my part of the money to become a partner to buy that studio. We also recorded Gutterball (with Steve Wynn), Edwin McCain, and bands from Charlottesville, North Carolina, Chicago, and all over.

Were you still recording local bands at this point?

Yeah, Richmond bands: Ladyfinger, Strike Anywhere, and Damn Near Red.

All 16-track?

It was originally a 16-track, 2-inch Studer A80, and the console was an MCI 428 – serial number 3! – which came from Wally Heider Studios in San Francisco. That board was used by people like War and the Grateful Dead. We mixed to a Studer 1/4-inch, 2-track, and then we bought ADATs, because ADATs were the new technology that everybody thought was going to be the thing. Actually, my only platinum record so far was recorded on ADAT.

Let me guess: Hanson?

Hanson.

How did that come about?

Well, our attorney, Craig Harmon, who was part of the Dave Matthews Band management team, saw Hanson sing the national anthem a cappella at an afternoon industry picnic at SXSW. They were already famous in Tulsa, [Oklahoma,] where they are from. Girls would scream when they would play at the mall, and people were starting to look at them. So, they came to Richmond; we took some tracks that they had started in Tulsa and finished that record, which was supposed to be their debut record. I remember we couldn’t get the drum stool low enough for Zac [Hanson] to reach the pedal with his foot! He was ten years old at the time. As soon as we finished it, Mercury signed Hanson. They then took all the songs that we did and re-recorded them with The Dust Brothers for a gazillion dollars, which is the album that became Middle of Nowhere. The Hanson record we made cost $2000.

But those sessions you recorded were released soon after, right?

Yeah, they released our version of the record, which was called 3 Car Garage. It included “MMMBop,” with our breakdowns and parts that were all used in their final version. When they released 3 Car Garage, that record went platinum in two weeks. People were buying anything with their name on it.

And you upgraded the studio gear around this time, right?

Dennis Herring [Tape Op #48] was producing the third Cracker record [The Golden Age]. They’d recorded the basic tracks in Nashville, but we were going to do all the overdubs on that in Richmond. Because the tape was 24-track, we had to buy a 24-track. So, we bought an Otari MTR-90, some Neve gear, and a 1957 [Neumann] U 47. That mic was $8,000 at the time. Ours supposedly came from an East German opera company.

What size room were you working in?

The first Brook Road studio, circa 1994, was a pretty small space, but there was an apartment above where bands would sleep. There were not that many studios. If you lived in Nowheresville, you’d have to go to a city with a recording studio to make a record. The way people made records back then was so different, because you would go make a record for two weeks straight.

Was this the Sparklehorse [Tape Op #12] era?

Yeah, Sparklehorse’s Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot was the very first album technically done at Sound of Music. We had opened as Sound of Music on January 1st, 1994, and we started on that record that day. Mark [Linkous] didn’t have a record deal yet, but he had a publishing deal, and it had all been coming together. We worked on that album for eight months, off and on, before he got signed to Capitol [Records], and then we finished that album. There were a lot of producers and engineers that worked there at the time, and that had a big impact on the growth of the studio. Then, in 1996, David found a building that would become the main Sound of Music for most of the time we were there; almost 15 years.

Was that Sound of Music #2?

That would have been technically two-and-a-half, I guess.

You’ve moved the studio nine times. That’s insane.

Yeah, something like that. During that period, we also took over another studio nearby. So, we had a Sound of Music Annex that had a Tascam 16-track, 1-inch tape recorder, and that’s where a lot of the early records for the Jagjaguwar label were made. We did cool records for Dexter [Romweber] from Flat Duo Jets there. Around 2000 we got the Otari RADAR system, which was for people that had been used to making records analog but now wanted to make their records digitally. There was no computer, it was just a big box that looked like a tape recorder.

What appealed to you about the RADAR?

It sounded so good, and we had to use the mixing board. That’s the main difference when you go from tape to computer. It was still very hands-on. In the old days, with tape, we had to bring all the faders down when we changed songs. In a way it was awesome, because every time we started over again it was a new song. Digital is always where it’s left last, for better or worse; it’s always the same as we heard it the last time.

So, the RADAR gave you the all-hands-on-deck approach.

Yeah! In the old days, mixing was about figuring everything out later. Now, with Pro Tools, we’re almost always editing and mixing as we go. But the thing about recording that a lot of people don’t understand is that if you’re doing an overdub, the mix that that person is listening to is crucial. If they’re playing bass, they need that kick drum loud. If you’re working on the mix all the time, and it’s automated, you have to turn all the automation off when doing overdubs. You have to make sure that what you’re playing for the musician is what they need to hear. If it’s the vocalist, they need to hear plenty of the instruments to hear pitch. Back when we had to make everyone’s headphones mix all the time, we were super aware of that.

Otherwise they’re overdubbing to what is basically a rough mix, and they’re playing along with all the tambourines and background vocals.

Yeah. A cool thing about tape was that if you were using the board, say track 16 had a flute on it for one song. You’d try to keep things organized, but you couldn’t always record the same things on the same tracks. When you’d switch to the next song, and it’s the bass on track 16, well, maybe you had reverb on the flute. So, then you turn the bass up and it has this weird reverb on it, and you think, “Whoa, I’d never have thought to put reverb on the bass, but that sounds awesome!” Those mistakes don’t happen as much now.

You’ve got to love the happy accidents! How long did you use RADAR?

We used it for almost ten years, and it kept us from having to have to get Pro Tools, because we eventually got automation for the console. We had this Mackie automation system on the RADAR, and it allowed us to automate volumes. We left the faders on the actual board in the middle, and we had this little tiny mixing board that was really just a controller. Having that kept us from having to use Pro Tools.

Why the resistance to Pro Tools?

Because it didn’t sound as good, and we couldn’t do the things that we needed to be able to do, like input monitor switching and zero latency recording. We grew up understanding the simple act of punching in somebody’s vocal, where they would have to hear some of the tape to know where they are. But, before we’d record them, we needed to put it on input so they could hear their voice, so they could tell if they were in tune or not. Correctly punching in is a basic engineering thing that 80% of the people who use Pro Tools don’t even know how to do. And they didn’t even have an input button on Pro Tools for the longest time. It took a while before Pro Tools was “pro” tools!

Tell me about the studio fire.

In 2007, the building next to Sound of Music – owned by this slumlord that owned 150 condemned properties in Richmond – burned to the ground. By the time the fire department got there, a transformer had exploded and the trees were on fire. It was crazy. We had to move out for nine months. Luckily there was a two-foot wall between the buildings, and that saved the studio. But they had to come into our building to fight the fire, which meant they had to cut a hole in the roof, and for three hours hoses were pouring this insane amount of water inside.

Were you able to salvage much?

All we had time to grab before we had to get out was the U 47, the RADAR hard drives, and the office computer. That’s it. The firefighters covered the consoles and the piano up with tarps, and it wasn’t until the next day that they let us back in. I remember going in with a flashlight, into the room where we kept our tape library, and watching a red [Fender] Precision bass float by me like a shark.

John Morand

You kept recording, somehow, and around this time also opened the studio in Europe.

That was Sounds Like Music, which was originally in Amsterdam, [Holland]. It allowed us to work with a lot of cool artists, including Gitbox, Sukilove, Mint, and Neeka – Belgium’s Joni Mitchell – who also came to Richmond to record with us. We eventually moved the Amsterdam studio to Belgium, and then to Nijmegen in Holland, on the Dutch/German border. Then we bought our first building in Richmond in 2015, and that was a big move. It was a 12,000 square foot space, and that was a further step into having more and more live events, as well as more video productions.

That seems to have been an important component of Sound of Music, for at least as long as I’ve known about it.

As the needs of musicians change, a studio often becomes about more than just making records for people; it’s making videos, hosting open mic nights, CD release shows, and whatever it is that people need to do. Everyone with a computer has a recording studio, but not everybody can have 50 people over at their house.

Your background in video production made this transition a little easier, I assume.

Since I had grown up around production work with my dad, video was always something that I enjoyed doing. YouTube came out around the same time as DSLR [cameras], [Macromedia] Final Cut [video editing software], and all that technology came together. Video is a big part of what we do now, and I enjoy it because many of the tools are similar. Cameras are like microphones.

You’ve hosted a lot of house engineers at Sound of Music, and some pretty big names, too.

Yeah, a lot of people who came to work here we learned a lot from. People like Steve Fisk [Tape Op #3], Jim Rondinelli, Brian Paulson [#78], as well as John Siket, Don Smith, Dennis Herring, and John Alegia. Joe Boyd [#60] and [engineer] John Wood came to Sound of Music too, which was a huge thing for us.

There are really no album credits anymore. It’s got to bother you, this complete erasure of the people who work behind the scenes.

The lack of credits is alarming, especially for musicians. It’s no longer that they hear something on a record and think, “I want to get that person.” It’s not that it’s hard to find credits now, but the era of staring at an album cover and thinking, “Oh, it was recorded at United Western Studios, I wonder what that’s like,” is over. A release used to be a release: It had a catalog number, a release date, and an All Music Guide entry. I think I’ve got 250 credits on AllMusic.com, and, at some point, it feels like people seemed to have stopped entering the information.

Because there’s so much more education available now, younger clients come in to the studio with a vast knowledge of the entire process. Is it easier or more difficult now, as a veteran engineer and producer, that artists know exactly what they want, and even, in some cases, how to achieve it?

A little bit of both. Unfortunately, so much of the focus on being an audio engineer now is learning the software, which has so little to do with actually being an audio engineer. Pro Tools is just the hammer you need to build the song. If you know how to run Pro Tools, that’s like getting in the car and knowing where to put the key. It’s scary that people start right out with that. Whereas, in the old days, you’d start out as a second engineer.

The second engineer being a non-creative, but nonetheless crucial element.

I had access to 4-tracks and 8-tracks when I was kid, so, in a way, I started making records early. I was almost a producer before I was an engineer. I knew what I wanted it to sound like, but I didn’t know all the rules of acoustics or electronics. I just started doing it. By the time Sound of Music opened I’d probably done, from start to finish, 20 or 30 records. Richard Hasal moved to Richmond from California to work on Cracker’s third album. He had never done a record from start to finish, but he had second engineered on records by Mötley Crüe and Kiss, in amazing studios with amazing producers. He knew how to set up cables so you didn’t trip over them. He knew how to plug the tuner into the headphone jack so you didn’t have to run your guitar through the tuner. He knew, as a second engineer, how to do all these things I call “session procedures,” which are key to being a good engineer. The way the lighting is set up, the idea that, when they’re doing guitar overdub, we also need a mic that we can talk into. I did not know anything about that, even though I had been making all these records. I learned so much from him.

Do you think these sorts of procedures are getting lost in the age of digital home recording?

I’m not opposed to home recording, in any way. It’s been great, in a lot of ways, for people, and I use it all the time. As budgets have shrunk and people have a million ideas… sometimes the drummer’s got some crazy idea that we can’t do during the session. I’ll say, “Here’s a stereo mix. Go home and record 15 cowbells, and we’ll see if it sounds good.” That is great, and I work on a lot of projects that are started at home, finished at home, or somewhere in between. The democratization of the equipment is a really good thing. I’m not against that. I don’t think home recording has affected our studio as much as MP3s have, and the fact that music now has zero value. There are always going to be some people who need to come to a recording studio. Some music needs it more than others. A reggae band, for instance, is not ideal to record in your house, right?

Or a psychedelic jam band.

Exactly. Where you want to record a bunch of people at the same time, or you want to work on tape, or you want everyone to have decent headphones. Those are the things that cost money that people don’t even think about. So, you have Pro Tools. But can everyone have their own headphone mix? Do you have good power? Do you have all the little things that make a difference? People will always want to come to the studio if they can. Nowadays, records are largely self-financed, which is not necessarily a bad thing, either. There were plenty of great bands that never got record deals. But, as we move forward, the intellectual property has to get figured out.

You mentioned bands that used to spend a week or two making a record. With younger artists, do you find you’re doing a lot more comping and pitch correcting?

Well, everything we grew up on is comped. Led Zeppelin is comped. It’s not like that hasn’t been going on forever. It’s not like we weren’t fixing pitch before there was [Antares] Auto-Tune. The difference was that we worked really hard to get it as good as we could first. Also, people generally played the music together as a group more before they got to the studio. Musicians are much lazier now. They are more likely to say, “Let’s just copy and paste that.”

Do you think the technology available has made musicians less reliant on musical proficiency to get their ideas across?

I wouldn’t say that people’s skills are less proficient; I would say that the quality of the musician has maybe gotten even higher. There was definitely that post-Nirvana time when it wasn’t cool to be good, like Jack White telling Meg, “Don’t practice. I don’t want you to get better.” That’ll always be part of music, and for some of my biggest heroes, like Daniel Johnston, it wasn’t about musicianship. The people that I love are full of flaws. [Pink Floyd’s] “Another Brick in the Wall [(Part Two)]” was on the radio in the car the other day, and I noticed that when the guitar solo starts and the tambourine comes in, it’s pretty out of time for the first four measures. It really takes them a while to get it together.

As a kid, you don’t hear those little mistakes, and they don’t affect how you feel about the song.

That Pink Floyd thing was so eye-opening to me, because now, they would have fixed that immediately. But it didn’t stop the song from becoming one of the biggest songs in the universe. And I love that tambourine; it’s part of what makes that section special. I constantly have to battle against people who are worried about pitch and time. That is very important for some people, but you can push it too far. But it’s allowed certain people to make hits and become famous. I have a 14-year old daughter, and it’s amazing how much TikTok has taken over the music business. With every song on the radio right now, she’ll tell me, “Oh, that blew up on TikTok a few weeks ago.” TikTok now is A&R. Now almost anybody can make a song. That’s why I love Lawrence Welk.

Wait, what? Lawrence Welk? You lost me, John.

The Lawrence Welk Show, when you had to be talented to be on television. Now you just have to be famous. The people on The Lawrence Welk Show fucking kicked ass! There’d be a guy playing a xylophone solo while he’s tap dancing. Those people were so good at what they did. In the old days, when we were comping vocals, we’d record three takes and comp those together; then we’d do three more takes, and if we beat the comp, we’d fly some of those in. Then we might do two or three more takes! We might spend three days on a lead vocal. Sometimes we would spend a day on a kick drum. Now, that kind of money doesn’t exist, with records being largely self-financed. And, in a certain way, thinking about the tediousness of this, eventually it’s like, “Whatever, it’s a bass drum. Do we really have to spend a whole day working on it?”

I don’t know. That obsessive studio minutiae can be really fun.

Right, and there are certain kinds of music that can’t exist without some kind of editing. Heavy metal is completely based on editing; there is not one single sound that is natural about it.

Well, those bands have to replicate that live, though.

Nah, they [often] use triggers live, too.

I’m getting disillusioned, John.

It’s so about itself. It’s heavy metal because it sounds like heavy metal. But that doesn’t matter, because those are the tools they use, that’s how they create, and that’s what’s important to them. So, on those records, if we don’t want to fix everything, they say, “When are we going to do the editing?” I’ll tell them it sounds good, and they’ll say, “But aren’t you going to line everything up and grid everything out?” All that has its place, and there are some engineers that are so good at that editing. I would say more drummers are aware of being able to play to a click track now than they used to be, and I would say the general state of people’s equipment is better. Bands used to show up with all of the guitars out of tune. I remember when we were doing the Holy Rollers record, we took 15 guitars to Guitar Center to have them intonated, because they were having a special: $25 for strings and a set-up. That’s why Sound of Music started acquiring all this gear that we have.

Yeah, you have a ton of gear.

When F.S.K. wanted to tour the States, they obviously didn’t want to travel with their equipment, so they sent us $500 to buy them equipment. Back then, there was this Trading Post magazine. There’d be a guitar amp for $150; we’d go over there and it’d be an Ampeg Reverberocket! We found an Ampeg Portaflex [bass amp]. At the end of the tour, the band wasn’t taking it back to Germany, so we kept it. We’ve had people donate equipment over the years, and we’ve also had endorsements.

It’s a luxury for a band to have such a variety of old and new equipment at hand.

I would say that the average age of a piece of equipment we have here is 15 to 20 years old, because it lasts. We just replaced our Furman headphone system with a new Behringer system; and of course it doesn’t sound as good, but it’s much easier to use. We had the Furman headphone system for 15 years. It cost $3,500 at the time, which was a lot of money, but we used it every day. People haven’t made a lot that’s been much better than the Neumanns and the Coles and the Neves, or our AKG spring reverb. But there’s a whole lot more audio equipment available now than there used to be. If you look at when Sound of Music started, there were five or six people that made microphones, and now there’s a whole industry of people making them. If something sounds good, it doesn’t matter how much it cost to buy it. The final product is what counts.

Is there a go-to mic that you rely on?

Everyone starting out reads that a large diaphragm condenser mic is what they need to use. I might use one of those on cymbals or a piano, but it’s not my go-to mic for hardly any instrument. If you go to Guitar Center, buy a $300 condenser mic, and think you’ve got the mic you can use for everything, you don’t, unfortunately. People are always asking me what mic they should buy, and I always say a [Shure] SM57 and a [Shure] SM58. And maybe a [Shure] SM7, as well as a good ribbon mic. Some of what I’ve used has changed over the years, but some of it hasn’t. We just got a new Malcolm Toft console, because, luckily, the movers damaged our Midas in the move.

Luckily?

Yeah.

Because it forced you to upgrade?

Yeah. The power supply got messed up. Midas was the worst company for customer service, though they used to be the best. That’s another thing that’s changed in the recording industry: It used to be that if a tape machine broke, I’d call Otari in Nashville, and the guy who answered the phone knew what was wrong with it because he’d fixed it a million times. Now I can’t call anybody!

A 12,000 square foot studio sounds pretty ideal. But you’re moving again!

Our new home is in the industrial district. We’re starting from scratch, and hopefully this will be our last home. The previous space was 12,000 square feet, but we were only using 2,000 of it. When we first moved there, there were four breweries, and now there are eleven. Traditionally, studios are not in cool neighborhoods. We make it cool, and then we leave. [laughs] We have to stay ahead of it. There wasn’t a lot of direct crossover with the neighborhood, anyway. Sometimes a client would go across the street to have a beer, and that’s great. But it’s not like when they’re recording they have a whole lot of time to experience where they are.

Given the choice, I always prefer an isolated situation, away from distractions. Inhabit the record, not the location.

Yeah, the whole “destination studio” thing is this: When are you really going to use the hot tub and get the chef to give you a massage if you’re actually making a record? However, I do remember one time we were freezing our asses off in Belgium recording. It was so cold, and it was when the Greek economic crisis was happening. Then we got an email that we could rent Yanni’s studio for €400 a day. There was a yacht, and a 22-room mansion, every mic ever invented, and a 70-input SSL. We were freezing, looking at this email, and going, “Oh, my god. Let’s drive to Greece!” [laughs]

Tape Op is a bi-monthly magazine devoted to the art of record making.

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