Shelly Yakus is one of the true legends of the engineering trade, and his storied career demonstrates the value of an early start. You might even say he was born to record. His father and uncle were co-owners of Ace Recording in Boston, and young Shelly was a studio "rugrat" as far back as he can remember. As a young man, dazzled by the excitement of the New York studio scene in 1967, Yakus applied for a job as an assistant at Phil Ramone's fabled A&R Recording. After cutting his teeth on sessions by The Band (Music from Big Pink) and Van Morrison (Moondance), Yakus moved on to another staff position at The Record Plant. There he recorded and/or mixed records for everybody from John Lennon (Walls and Bridges) to Patti Smith ("Because the Night"), Blue Oyster Cult (Agents of Fortune), Alice Cooper (School's Out), and the Raspberries ("Go All the Way"), among many others. While still holding his staff job at Record Plant, he started freelancing with producer Jimmy Iovine, and one of their first efforts was Tom Petty's breakthrough album, Damn the Torpedoes.
After that, as a freelancer and later as chief engineer at A&M, Yakus logged credits on hits by Don Henley, U2, Lone Justice, and Bob Seger. This interview took place in August at Yakus' new recording home, Tongue and Groove Studios in downtown Philadelphia. Owned by vintage instrument and gear collector Michael Block and his partner Dave Johnson, Tongue and Groove is a place with the 1950's analog gear intertwines with the 21st century digital reality.
The State of Music Today
I was on a committee to pick the nominees for the best engineered record for the Grammy awards, and we had over 170 CDs to listen to, and out of them I only found five that really sounded different. But that didn't happen back then. I have to be careful about talking about, "Back in the day," because people say, "Well, that's old." Well, just because it's old doesn't mean it's wrong, and just because it was the original way or recording doesn't mean it doesn't have value today. You could hear the 160 that were done with Pro Tools — or overdone, with Pro Tools. Now, we have Pro Tools here, and an old API board, and we find that if we mix within Pro Tools and also split it out onto the API in a conventional way, and also sometimes recording on 2" and copying that into Pro Tools, it can work well. In fact, I'm in love with Pro Tools, and I thought I'd never say those words. But it's the combination of this thick analog sound going into Pro Tools that makes a very modern sounding record. But we're careful not to overuse it, to go too far. Still, I've also learned how to record female vocals into Pro Tools without going to tape first, even without outside converters. It doesn't sound pinched, it sounds full. So we're very careful with certain things about Pro Tools. But any of this digital stuff can sound pretty bad if you don't get the level structure right, if you don't get what's going into it right.
Learning to Listen
Everyone hears, but not everyone listens. One day I'm doing some tape copies for a client of my dad's, some 7-1/2" copies that are going to a radio station. They wanted fifty of them. I bring out the fifty, and my dad spot checked them. He had this little Wollensak machine, and I was sitting there — this was when I was about sixteen — and he takes tapes out to spot check them, plays a few, then on one he says, "Did you hear that?" I said, "No". He rewinds it, plays it again. Still didn't hear it. This went on for about ten minutes, but then finally he points his finger when it happens. Still didn't hear it. All of a sudden I hear this dropout, very subtle and minute, but it was there. It didn't go away, but just for a moment it dropped in volume. At that moment, it all changed for me. After that, I listened to everything. In that ten minutes, I went from a person who couldn't hear a dropout to one who did. It was the foundation of everything to come. Before that, I was hearing but I was not listening.
Don't Look, Listen
When I used to run a studio, I'd have the techs say to me, "You can't do that." And I said throw your books out and use your ears. Eventually they'd come around. They'd find out that if I don't look at what you're doing, and I don't look at the meters, but just listen to the speakers — hey, it sounds pretty good.
Perfect is Boring
Sometimes that's the whole trick, is hearing the difference between pretty good and great. Between lousy and good is easy, anybody can do that. But good and great can be a fine line, and it can be hard to distinguish if you're new at this. That's essentially what we're talking about here, the difference between good and great. And people say to me, "I want it perfect." But to me perfect is boring. We can try to make it great, but perfect is boring.
I always approach in the same way. Once I developed a sound that started to work for me, I found that when I started to freelance I could still use it in a room I had never worked in before. And that would get me a lot closer to the desired result in the fastest time. Because you're in a new room, with a new band and a producer you've never...