Recording and mixing much of the Talking Heads catalog would be one achievement, but then throw in tracking some of the earliest hip-hop at Sugar Hill Records, mixing Robert Palmer’s “Addicted to Love,” and re-mixing songs for Bob Marley’s Legend album, and you have a pretty interesting career in audio. Eric and I recently spoke via Zoom, after a record he’d helped track, Ebunctions’ This Just In, had been released.

Feature Photo: Eric at EastWest Studio 1

How did your career begin?

I started out as a musician. I’d be begging and pleading to get studio time. “Yeah, I’ll come in at two o’clock in the morning.” That’s not the case anymore. People have a studio in their house. They don’t know how to use it, but they have it. [laughter]

How did you end up working at Sugar Hill, and who were your recording mentors?

My mentor was a magazine: Modern Recording. I read that like mad. I was doing a bunch of demos on a 4-track. I had fooled around on multitrack, but I didn’t have any mentors. I knew a guy who was working at a record company in New Jersey, called All Platinum Records. He hated engineering and wanted to be a folk singer. I said, “When you quit, would you call me up and tell me?” I was living on 81st and First Avenue in Manhattan. I got a call from him. “I just quit.” I called them up and I talked to Joe Robinson. I said, “I understand you need an engineer.” He goes, “Yeah, could you work tonight?” I took a bus to the subway and a bus across the George Washington Bridge; it took me an hour and a half to go 12 miles. I got there, I got the job, and I started working there. Sylvia Robinson and Joe Robinson owned the place. Sylvia had been in Mickey & Sylvia, with the song “Love is Strange.” Soon after I arrived, they changed the name, All Platinum Records, to Sugar Hill Records, which is a neighborhood in Harlem. When I first got there, there was a guy doing some recording and playing back on the console. On every channel, the bass was turned full blast. He had it at 100 Hz and they were all wide-open. They certainly needed an engineer to work there that time. They were happy to have me in there doing anything I wanted to do in the studio. They gave me the keys, and I would go in there and experiment. There was an engineer there, Steve Jerome, and his claim to fame was “Walk Away Renée”.

Oh, The Left Banke!

Yeah. He recorded there. They had a Quad Eight board, the same kind they had in Motown, an 8-track Scully, and they had the other room at the top of the hill, in Englewood. When I first got there, they had just had [the Sugarhill Gang’s] “Rapper’s Delight” and they made all this money, so they built a new room. I was there with them when they hired [audio consultant Hamilton] “Ham” Brosius and Eastlake Audio while they were building a room. I learned so much about the booth. It was amazing, wiring up everything. They built a room with an MCI 600 with parametric EQ, an MCI 24-track, MCI 2-tracks, and an old EMT plate. It was pretty great.

Did you end up working on some early hip-hop there?

I recorded the first record scratching on [Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five’s “The Adventures of] Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel.” I learned about beauty from the Crash Crew. We cut a song for them, with horns and the whole full production. They came into the studio, and they said, “Shut that off.” I said, “Really? Okay.” Then they said, “And shut that off.” They’re muting all these tracks, and it comes down to be this simple thing that was just earthy. I was like, “Wow!” The fact that they shut off a bunch of overdubs really opened my eyes to being able to mute tracks. A couple years later, we recorded a song with Grandmaster Flash, and Dizzy Gillespie came in and played a trumpet solo. Remember Dizzy Gillespie’s trumpet goes like this. It did that turn up?

Yeah, it points up.

That way he could be looking at sheet music and play to the audience. But when he was doing the solo, he was holding the trumpet; it’s pointing way up, and he’s moving. I had to put two U87s up there, so he played between them. At the end, to me it didn’t work in the song, so I muted him.

Oof.

That was what they liked at the record company. After I had got away from Sugar Hill, and mixed Bob Marley’s Legend, I was in the Bahamas and met Robert Palmer. We were talking about working together, and I said, “Just remember this. I’ve muted bigger names than you!” We had a good laugh about that. He was great.

As you know, the less elements in a mix the better everything sounds.

Right. The more important each element is. When I was working at Sugar Hill Records, they owned the Chess [Records] catalog. They didn’t own the music; they owned the actual physical tapes. I put together, with Marshall Chess, a whole bunch of albums of Chuck Berry, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, and all these artists. Going through them, they would run the mono machine and they would keep doing takes and takes and takes. When they came to one where they said, “Okay, that’s the final,” they would leader that on and leave it on the reel. Make a copy of that, and then that’s what they sent off to be mastered. We were listening to first generation [tapes]. It was pretty great.

Going back to the original with tape is always so much better.

As a matter of fact, they stored some of those on rubber reels, and the rubber wore narrow on one side. I had to cut those off and hand wind them onto another reel. I can tell you, 1500 feet is a lot of feet! But, going through it all, it was really great to hear. When I was doing that, I heard when they got their first compressor. They put it on the bass.

That’s smart.

Yeah, it was. They wanted to keep that more in the mix. When I got to mastering it, I went to Sterling [Sound] and I said, “It would be great if I could split it into frequencies, put a compressor on each one of those frequencies, and then recombine it.” They built something for me at Sterling, and it worked great. When the guitar solo came in and overtook everything, we didn’t lose all the cymbals and the bottom end. We have all those tools like that now.

People jump into the plug-ins, like multi-band compression, way before they even understand how to set a single-band compressor!

Right, exactly. They come with a lot of presets, hopefully.

It’s easy to destroy the sound if you’re not careful.

That’s right. And if you don’t know how to use compressors, you can’t take advantage of what they give you. As opposed to just compressing, they give you more than that. You can make more energy out of parts, and more attack.

Yeah. How much to let through before you clamp it down?

Exactly. How fast the release is, if you can stand hearing it compressing?

When you started out, a studio’s console was an important factor.

Sugar Hill had one studio with an MCI 500 [mixer] and one with a 600 with parametric EQ. It was fine. Matter of fact, in the Bahamas [Compass Point Studios] they had one room with the SSL and one room with the MCI 500. I worked with Eurythmics on the MCI 500. A lot of the heavy metal bands would come there – Judas Priest, Iron Maiden – and they’d record in the MCI room.

Those consoles had a thickness to the sound. I don’t know how to explain it.

That’s right. Think about all that music from Saturday Night Fever. The Bee Gees was all MCI.

Oh, like from Criteria Studios in Miami [Florida]?

Yep. It sounded great. Then Studer came out with that A827 tape deck, with the peak and the VU meters. That was the last machine I had gotten into.

Right. I worked on those a few times. It sounded so clean.

Just before all this digital they came out with Dolby SR [noise reduction], which sounded great. I found that when I mixed with an SR [encoder], I had to bring the two channels of SR [decoding] to the mastering room, because each one of those SRs was different than the previous one. I never took a multitrack between rooms, but I would take the 2-track to the mastering room, and I learned that I had to bring the encoders.

I’ve heard you were pretty adamant about attending mastering sessions, to see the process through.

Right. Well, I first started that in England. I’d be working in England, go to the mastering room, and the first thing the mastering engineer would do is put this button in that makes all the bottom collapse into the middle.

Right, mono it.

There’s no bottom on the outside channels! That’s supposed to be used if there’s a problem. If there isn’t a problem, you don’t have to do that to my record. I would make them back off a little bit. These days, I’ll say, “Look, I’m not into the volume war. I don’t want my mixes to look like two pieces of masking tape.” There are no dynamics. No nothing.

Brick-walled.

A brick wall, exactly. Doing vinyl, we’d limit how long we would make it on each side so that we could get some [volume] level. Then we would do all kinds of little moves in order to get it as loud as we could. Massaging it in order to get it to not fry the esses. I started doing half-speed mastering. We would figure it all out and then divide everything in half. For the cutting lathe, they made me one of those buckets we would put in for each speed that we were doing. They made me a 16 and two thirds [bucket] so that I could do 33 and a third at half speed. It was amazing. We got it down so much that the plating place, the place where they would make the stampers, started complaining that it took too long because the grooves were too deep. They wanted to get paid more for the amount of chrome they were using on the stampers. But the records were really loud!

How did you end up working with Talking Heads?

When I went to the Bahamas and met Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth [drums and bass of Talking Heads], they had the Tom-Tom Club. They were familiar with my work. They had just finished Stop Making Sense, and nobody liked the mixes for the record. They said, “Would you like to try to mix it?” I went and got the gig, which was wonderful. The first song I heard from them was “Once in a Lifetime.” I said to Chris, “This is a rap band. It’s right up my alley.” There was a thing David [Byrne, Tape Op #79] would do on that song. His voice would disappear. I was trying to figure it out, and eventually, when I saw the movie, [I realized] he was doing this [slaps hand to forehead] with his head!

Oh, yeah! Did you have to do automation rides to keep vocals in place?

Yeah, exactly. Especially with all that bopping his head out of the way. That was the first song. I hadn’t seen the film until long after I’d done the record.

It’s so much easier today to have a video running while mixing a live concert recording.

I couldn’t see anything!

That must have been all analog?

It was 24-track analog, yeah.

It feels like back then you were wrangling technology just to get the job done.

We were wrangling with gear. We’d be swearing at the freaking SMPTE [tape sync timecode]. I recorded [Talking Heads’] True Stories at Sigma [Sound, New York]. Then, David was going to Texas to shoot the film. He was in the film. I made a submixed second tape [to be synched up later]. I used 8 tracks, with the drums mixed, and SMPTE printed on track 24. I send it to Texas. It comes back from Texas, and we go into a place in Toluca Lake [California]. It used to be Leon Russell’s place [Paradise Studios], but they didn’t have a SMPTE reader. I put it up, and I see there’s something at -20 dB on track 24. I did all these overdubs on the tape. We go over to Village Recorder, and it won’t lock up. Finally, I listen to track 24, and someone had erased the SMPTE and put 60 Hz down. They had 15 other tracks they could have put it on, but they erased my SMPTE! Oh, shit! So, I recorded SMPTE across from the master, up to where the song started, so that I could line it up right when the song started. Then I put on another track and started recording SMPTE, regenerating it from the master. I would line it up, be recording that, and right when it got to the end of the SMPTE, I’d flip it into external and listen to the bass drums. I phased them all the way through the song. As long as they were always phasing, then I was okay. Every fucking song. What kind of people were these? They’ve never heard of SMPTE?

You and Jerry Harrison [See Jerry’s interview this issue.] have had a long career working together since Stop Making Sense.

Yeah, right.

What’s the secret of dividing the workflow and trusting each other?

We hit it off after I met him with Talking Heads. Chris and Tina got me involved, and then I met Jerry. Jerry is really into the technology, too. When we were dealing with all that SMPTE mess, Jerry would get right in there with me. They would say, “It’s the Jerry and ET show.” I talk to him three or four times a week. He’s a fun guy, really smart, and great to deal with. We work together well.

The Talking Heads records you worked on were produced by the band, with you engineering.

Right.

Was it ever contentious or difficult? I know the band had eras where it was fraught between them and David.

Right. I would always stay with the music and not get involved with any of it. They would take their issues to the lounge while I was working, and I never got involved in that. That’s always been my style. I’m all about the music. Whatever else is going on, that’s about those guys. That’s the only way to deal with it.

Were they good at making consensus decisions in the studio?

Oh, yeah, really good at that. Before I worked with Talking Heads, I was never happy with the sounds they were getting on their records, so I didn’t give them much of a chance. After I did Stop Making Sense, I heard the quality of the lyrics. David Byrne, even though he doesn’t seem to have a singer’s voice, he never would sing a note out of tune. He’s one of the best rhythm guitar players I’ve ever worked with. When I got into Pro Tools and was doing the surround mixes, he was right on the beat. It was amazing. With Chris Frantz I would turn up the bass drum; he’d be playing quarter notes, and it would still swing without the rest of the drums. It was like, “How does the guy do that?” When we were doing Little Creatures, I said, “How about doing a drum fill here?” Chris said, “Ah, no. The drum fill’s already been played.” Does that mean there are no more drum fills, ever?

That’s severe economy.

Right, exactly. His timing was so great. Tina was the same way. She could lock right in there like a machine. Amazing.

I love her bass playing. It’s also got a swing to it.

Yeah, amazing. And she would always want to play her Hofner. No!

You want something deeper? More low end?

Also, something that we could actually tune! I don’t know how Paul McCartney did it. I never used the bass amplifier; I never heard one that I liked. The bass amp would remove some of the frequencies, whereas the DI had full bandwidth. I would DI Tina, so she could sit right in the control room and play with everybody else in the studio.

It’s a great feeling to hear the bottom end and play bass in the control room.

Yeah, that’s the way to go, as opposed to hearing yourself in the headphones and trying to find a balance.

You later mixed all the Talking Heads albums in surround.

I’ve been getting into Dolby Atmos; it’s pretty crazy. Now they’re doing it with headphones, and Apple’s gotten into it. But I did every one of the Talking Heads albums in 5.1 [surround sound]. It was wonderful to do it. One side [of the release] was the original album, and the other side was 5.1. So, it was CD/DVD. What did Jerry say to me? There was some band, and we were talking about mixing them in 5.1. Everybody in the band said, “That’s great! We can each get our own speaker.”

Maybe that’s one way to go, to have a democracy.

Yeah, right! Everybody gets a speaker. When I was mixing Talking Heads in surround, some of the tapes didn’t have track sheets. I don’t know what they did. They lost them? On one track there’d be a background vocal, then it would be a tambourine on the second chorus, and then there would be a guitar solo in the end on the same track. I’d have to listen to the whole damn thing to hear what was there.

I do a lot of archive work, and when I’m able to put it into digital off tape, then at least...

...you can see what’s there.

I can probably even see the “bump” where they punched in. I’ll see where the parts are, and then I can split them onto separate tracks.

I remember I’d patch one track across the three faders and then would do the automated mutes so they could each have their own EQ and effects.

You’ve mixed some iconic works. Your mixes in the eighties were really hyping up the drums.

Yeah. I always say that drummers love me, except if they can’t play. I always say that any bad records I ever made are the drummer’s fault. That’s the whole root of it. There are two rules to me: It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing, and everything changes when there’s money.

You mixed Robert Palmer’s “Addicted to Love.” The drums sound wild on that. Jason Corsaro tracked that, right?

He recorded it, yep.

How did you get roped into mixing that record?

They had done some mixes of the songs, and then Chris Blackwell [Island Records] came to me and asked if I would be interested in mixing it. Chris didn’t think Robert’s vocal was as good as it could be, so we re-recorded the lead vocal. Like I explained it to Robert, “This is like a cartoon mix.” In other words, when I went and did it again, I threw out everything about reality. Because a drum can’t sound like that in a room! I harmonized the room sound down a bit and ran that with the room sound. That song was [originally] a duet with Chaka Khan. I said, “Robert, as soon as you open your mouth, it sounds like you’re this big [makes tiny hand gesture].” I said, “She’s outta here.” I muted her, and he went in and sang that B-section.

She’s a strong singer.

She’s just a monster! As good as Robert was, you don’t want to have someone come in like that to reckon with.

Is there an alternate mix of that out there?

No. I have the rough mix, but it’s not out there. After “Addicted to Love,” people would come to me and say that they wanted me to make that drum sound. But I already did that. Why would I want to do that again?

This interview came about because of the Ebunctions guys and their This Just In album.

Eric Thorngren and Steve Ferrone
Eric Thorngren and Steve Ferrone

I got involved in that right at the beginning, when I recorded Steve Ferrone on drums. I thought you’d be interested in how we did it remotely. I work with Steve Ferrone a lot. I set up a thing with Steve Ferrone so I can control his studio using AnyDesk [remote computer control], and then I can listen to his tracking, and he can listen to me talk. We have talkback set up using AudioMovers. I bought footswitches so that when my foot’s on it, the talkback mic’s on. When I take my foot off, the mic is off. To be able to do this with the pandemic has been so great. Unfortunately, when I do it this way, Steve is my assistant. He’s perfectly happy with that.

Are you controlling preamp levels remotely?

No. When we started, I went over and set up all the mics, set the preamps, and then, if something was running a little hot or a little low, I’d send Steve over to it. He’s learned a lot about preamps and where they’re located. He’s learned so much about recording! It’s pretty crazy, but it’s worked well. With Steve, we’re on Zoom. He has two cameras in his room, and then I’ll have this one here so we can talk, and I can see what he’s doing. I’ll make him show me the microphones in case somebody walked by and moved that high tom or the ride cymbal. We did a session where Steve was in Burbank, I was here in Long Beach, the artist was in London, and the producer was in Rome, Italy. It was all four of us on the screen. It was fantastic.

Did bandleaders Jeff Babko and Woody Mankowski send you Ebunctions demos to track to?

What I had was a Rhodes [electric piano] and a bass drum. I figured out the tempo that way, and then Steve played drums and the bass player played bass.

Ethan Farmer, right?

Yeah, he was at Steve’s too. That’s the only way. Somebody couldn’t be here and play with somebody over at Steve’s.

Right, because of the internet latency.

These guys keep saying, “Why can’t we make anything in time?” I explained, “Listen, if you were standing across the street and I was playing guitar on the sidewalk on this side, we would be out of time with each other.”

Yeah. The latency of travelling through air.

Exactly. The distance between us. I’ve always went with 1 foot per millisecond. It’s actually 1.1 feet. But 1 foot is good enough when I’m thinking about distances. That’s the speed of sound.

Even in a large studio, if you’re playing bass to a drummer across the room...

...you’ve got to be wearing headphones.

I put on [Talking Heads’] Little Creatures yesterday and right out the gate the kick drum is dry, focused, and right in your face. The snare’s got some ambience spreading out on the sides.

A little bit, yep.

How did you pull off these mixes?

When I was doing that, I was not enamored with the bus compressor on the SSL [console]. I didn’t feel that I had it down well enough. I mixed all that without [mix bus] compression. It kept it clear and potent.

Yeah, the transients.

Exactly. I’ve found that sometimes digital expands the transients. It will overshoot it. I never noticed the tape compression until I was doing a drum machine that was locked to the tape. We wanted to change the bridge part, so we had to play it from the beginning. We were playing along, then I punched into the bridge and all of a sudden it came way up. Then I punched out and it went back down. All that compression helps in an analog world. In the digital world, I would notice little overthrows.

In the past, were you trying to find outboard gear to have different mic pres besides the console’s?

I had the philosophy that some people maintain the planes and other people fly them. I’d always look for the room where I could find the gear I was looking for. I would always want to have eight Neve channels. I never was enamored with the SSL mic pres, no matter what they said. They never knocked me out. I’d be going for the Neves. When I was recording, I would get a Neve or an MCI room. If I was in an SSL room, I would want a bunch of mic pres. Some APIs. I would never do a whole API desk for everything. They had their own character, and it didn’t work when they were all together. It was great adding APIs to other gear. I always thought they sounded a little lumpy when they all added up. It was their power, too.

Understanding a new piece of gear takes time. Eventually we have a feeling about it, as an engineer. “I was never quite happy with that on this source, but on this other source it’s great.”

That is what I love about this job. I always said that if I was a civil engineer, and I built a bridge that worked, I could build that bridge all over the place. But as a recording engineer, if I build a mix that works, I can’t move it to the next song. They’re all different. It’s such an artistic thing. It used to be good that people would come up being assistants and would learn from others. That doesn’t happen much anymore.

Do you have a personal mixing room now?

Yeah, right here. I’m sitting in it. I was worried about having a mix room here, with the sense that if I’m trying to relax, the room is going, “Hey, you can come here and mix this song. Hey, come here!” But I’ve gotten away from that a bit, except when I’m in the middle of a project.

When there are deadlines?

Then it’s on my mind all the time. “I could get that bass drum to fit better!”

Eric at Capitol Studios
Eric at Capitol Studios

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

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