When you ask someone in the recording business who the top engineers and producer are, you won't have to wait long before hearing the name George Massenburg.
His recording and producing credits are as impressive as anyone on the planet and they range from traditional and country music to hard rock, R&B and soul. A short list from his 400+ titles includes 10,000 Maniacs, Aaron Neville, Arthur Conley, Billy Joel, Bonnie Raitt, Carly Simon, Cher, David Lindley, David Sanborn, The Dixie Chicks, Dolly Parton, Earth, Wind & Fire, Emmylou Harris, Frank Sinatra, Gordon Lightfoot, The Grateful Dead, Herbie Hancock, James Taylor, Jennifer Warnes, Jimmy Webb, Journey, Kenny Loggins, Linda Ronstadt, Little Feat, Lyle Lovett, Phil Collins, Philip Glass, Ramsey Lewis, Randy Newman and Ry Cooder. But wait... there's more! George is also a gifted electronics designer. He invented parametric EQ and his company, GML, makes some of the most highly respected recording equipment in the world. In fact, he is the only person that has won Grammies for both technical achievement and for his recordings.
In addition to working in the studio and at GML, George is active as a teacher of recording arts at McGill University (Canada), UCLA, USC, MTSU, and The Berklee College of Music. He is a pioneer in 5.1 music mixes, and he is working within the industry to try to create viable standards for digital formats including delivery recommendations for master recordings. He has designed, built and managed several recording studios, and is currently working on an amazing state-of-the-art facility called Blackbird Studios, just outside of Nashville. George's motto is "Never give up" and he refuses to waste time, yet he retains the dignified and approachable manners of a true southern gentlemen.
With all this to his credit, you might think that his early years were spent training at the feet of the masters, but that's not how it was. George had a DIY attitude from the beginning. He dropped out of an electrical engineering program when he realized that his professors wouldn't seriously consider innovative design ideas. At one point, a professor told him that the circuit he was working on (a gyrator) could not be realized. That circuit was already in his prototype of the first parametric equalizer — and it worked just fine. After that encounter, George could see the writing on the wall, so he put together a couple of prototype boxes and headed to France. By the time he returned, he was widely recognized as both a designer and recording engineer. The rest is audio history.
What's the most important thing for a young engineer to have in their studio?
It all comes down to listening and what best supports listening is a reliable monitoring system. What's "reliable"? Reliable means that you can rely on its balance, its consistency, its relate-ability to a set of outside-world circumstances, meaning everything from listening to stuff on... well, I don't know. What do people listen to stuff on?
Well it's a fact that having headphones is a second choice. And the other option is to have speakers and a good set of headphones. Not 7506s, which is to say not to use phones that are hyped up too much.
Is there a set of phones that you use?
Yes, Grado RS-1s. That having been said, you will hear a different "answer" to the monitor question during any particular period of time — and that answer to that question is the "Flavor of the Month". A couple of years ago it was the Mackie 824. Currently, the Adams are being pushed very heavily. But the answer to the monitor question is not the flavor-of-the- month, it's not the 824s, and it's not the Adams.
Are far-field monitors, large monitors, just dead?
No, they're fine as long as you can absolutely, precisely define the monitor and the room together. That is, the boundary and what people who are building large monitors into their rooms should realize is that if you can't do that, then you're much better off, not a little better off, with near or mid-fields. But that's the first thing, good monitoring. Then, the next thing is to confirm your work with known references, known musical references. Get your favorite recordings up in the room and [adjust] the monitoring until you hear what you loved in the music that made you want to do this. Because everything really should follow from listening and decisions need to take listening into more account than we have.
Are there listening "exercises"? Ways to improve your ability to hear?
One of the most important processes is the "client process". A client comes in and gives you something and says "this sounds like shit" or "this sounds wrong to me" and he doesn't know why, and I like that confrontation because you're not only confronting the client, you're also confronting what you hear. And what you have been hearing has been wrong and you need to understand what's wrong about it and this gives you the motivation to sit up and to listen more carefully. 'Well, what's REALLY happening here? Why does my client hear the vocal as being not loud enough, why does he hear the mix as not being punchy or loud?" And then, to deconstruct the sound — to learn how to deconstruct the sound — but I think it's better to understand how important it is to do that under pressure, to really motivate yourself.
What's the most important thing that you would to say to beginning engineers?
To have a big life, to learn how to do a lot of things, and to bring that to the art of music and audio. We learn very quickly at the stereophile shows that a lot of the guys there, although they're deeply into some arcane aspect of hi-fi, they're not very interesting to talk to. Certainly the wives don't want to sit down and talk to them. The other thing is that when you hear something, the most important thing is to tell the truth. Telling the truth is tough because you want to be passionate and your passions can carry you past accuracy — mine do — and also to be reliable, to be reliable as a person, and these are not necessarily things that have anything to do with audio. They have to do with being a good person. I think that's much more important than good audio. Good audio — you're not going to be able to avoid it. You keep doing it and you're persistent — Ah! That's what I would tell them — the most important thing is persistence. Persistence and enthusiasm. Bruce Swedien [Tape Op #91], when asked, "What should I do?" by a young engineer said, "Well, be enthusiastic about something." Always keep your ear open for a positive answer. What it comes down to in a client situation is be enthusiastic and participate.
Should a person try hard to get a job as an intern or second engineer, or, in these days of inexpensive gear, should they try to start their own studio and go for it the hard way?
Well, that's hard to say. Ultimately, Joseph Campbell's advice is the guiding principle — "Follow your bliss" — whatever brings you bliss, whatever brings you great happiness. I think that works. Then, at the end of the day, you can't say that you did the wrong thing, not really. And we have to remind everybody that at the end of one's life not many people are going to regret that they didn't spend more time at the job ("Damn, I should have spent more time with my co- workers!"). You can't chase something that's chimerical, and the idea of the modern hit record is a chimera.
Would you talk a little about hit records?
Well, I think that something one has to observe is the difference between the public's perception of a "hit" and the process that leads up to a yet-to-be-vetted "hit". It never ceases to amaze me how small the future hit record appears on the creation side of the mirror... when the song is still being written... when it's still in production, because that sense... that knowledge of what a hit record is before it's a hit and after it's a hit, well, those are two different universes. On one side of that line are the people in the studios, doing their best with every song... with every track of a CD. On the other side is a public whose perception is invariably, distinctly different from the reality of "who the artist is" and often of "what the song is saying". The "hit" becomes who or what the public needs to "see" and "hear" and, afterwards, that public is pressuring the artist to be the person that made that hit record: Alanis Morrisette after Jagged Little Pill, Michael Jackson after Thriller, Sheryl Crow after Tuesday Night Music Club, Maurice White [of Earth Wind & Fire] after That's The Way Of The World. The more venerable artists, like David Bowie or Cliff Richard, reinvent themselves with regularity. Bowie was right up there as far as innovation goes too. He was on the net years ago. Peter Gabriel [Tape Op #63] is certainly right there at the edge of innovation, too. He may not be making huge radio hits right now but that record he made last year, the one that he spent ten years on, is brilliant. Yes, it's a little hard to listen to because, among other things, there's a new idea to digest every couple of beats. You can't listen to it quite the same way as you normally would, but boy, you just stagger with how good it is. But in the public's perception, he isn't the same artist who made "Sledgehammer". Not at all. In the '60s, '70s and the early '80s there were record guys, and hit records were made by record guys. There was Doug Morris, and Mo Ostin, Bob Krasnow, Clive [Davis], Bruce Lundvall — what a record guy Bruce Lundvall is! Bruce Lundvall was the VP at Sony when we did Earth, Wind, & Fire, and he was a tenor player and a great guy, and look at the arc of his career. He had big hits from the '70s all the way through to Mariah Carey. That's a record guy! What differentiated those guys from other guys were three things, in my mind. One is leadership; that they had a vision in their eye and their ear, and their brain and their heart. Two, that they were good marketing guys — salesmen — that they were able to light people up with the possibilities of this thing that they had heard — because they did have an ear. And three, that they were good enough business people so that they didn't get into a lot of trouble. The way those guys made hits was deploying those tools. Find a great act — you know? The thing about hit records is that, for the most part, there are very few natural hits. "Fast Car" by Tracy Chapman was not a natural hit in the sense that it was such a nightmare getting it done and they really had to push to get it out there. That song wouldn't have made it if you just laid it by the side of the road and expected it to be a hit. You have to do more than that. There have been some natural hits, like "Red Red Wine" (UB40), which was played over and over by a DJ at some station in Phoenix, and the rest is history. Yes' "Owner Of A Lonely Heart". Michael Jackson's "Beat It", which I think would have been a hit without x number of millions in promotion. You get the idea. But they can only be seen, I think, in the context of the twenty-year view, the long view.
It sounds like people need to learn something about business.
That's a good point. I'd have been a lot better off if I'd learned to read a balance sheet thirty years earlier, because I run a company now and I have to follow the dollars with my brain as well as my heart. Some kind of business education or some kind of business smarts is crucial.
In addition to business smarts, you have an extensive reputation for technical savvy. How much technical understanding is a minimum? Is there such a thing?
I don't think so, but it's hard to draw the line on a minimum knowledge base. I mean, you have to learn how to plug something in and make it work. And that means that the signal levels, or maybe the impedances have to be in the ballpark. And although that's less and less critical, still... you've gotta know how to plug in a mic. But if the most important thing to you is transparency, and it is to me — transparency of the process as well as transparency of the technology. Then you start asking the question, "How do I keep my own choices from smudging the project? How do I keep the project appropriate to the artistic context?" That's how I'm hoping the Jon Randall project will turn out, but it isn't quite there yet. So a hundred times a day I think, "What does it need and what can I do to improve it?"
Are there other projects you can point to that have that transparent quality?
Yeah, I think the Aaron Neville [Warm Your Heart] has it. That CD is very close to the ideal that we set out to establish and to how we agreed Aaron should be perceived as an artist. That's a very good record and the old Thelma Huston/Mastering Lab disks and the new Steely Dan Everything Must Go are each brilliant works.
What's the most dangerous thing, or range of things, that new engineers, producers, or artists fall into?
That's hard to say. The biggest danger is not learning who you are when you're young enough to take advantage of it. I mean, the biggest dangers are all personal: not knowing yourself and not being authentically you. 'Cause the guys that are the most unhappy, and there are many well known professionals who are unhappy, don't know who they were when they had successful records and now they're trying to fulfill somebody else's expectations. You've got to be yourself, and that's really hard when you live in a culture that worships things that are bigger, a lot bigger, than what you think you're able to deliver. I've had more fuck-ups than most, because I try to do something new whenever I have the opportunity. For me, the scariest thing about the "hit-making machine" was the expectation that every new work was supposed to be not only bigger, but much bigger than the last one. The people surrounding Earth, Wind & Fire had that... Maurice sitting down with me and we're about to start new tracks and he says, "Now this one, this one's going to be really big!" And I've already risked my marriage, I've stayed away from home for a year, I've already done everything I can do and he sits there and says, "That one wasn't shit. Now this one is really gonna be big!" And then he starts out with the same old "boom, chak, ka-boom boom chak..." So, I've got to be really big, but he can do the same shit, the same boring shit that he's always done. But I've got to be really BIG. And, by the way, since he robbed all the writers for a third of their publishing we didn't have any good songs because they wouldn't write for him anymore. God! I had to get out of there. I worked with Jeff Beck once. We were going to do a second Philip Bailey record. We all went to London, got into the studio, and had George Duke [on keys], Jeff on guitar, Phil playing drums and Nathan East playing bass. Here we are, we land in the studio and look around and I said, "Okay, who's the producer?" Phillip turned to me and he says, "You are." So I said, "Okay, where's the song?" and he says "Oh, we're gonna write one". And, my god, did we ever fall on our faces. It was just hopeless. I think Nile Rogers resurrected something out of it, but he's a miracle-worker.
Is that a practice you generally recommend against... writing in the studio?
Yeah, it doesn't have a high payoff. I mean, here's Jeff Beck noodling around on guitar and he didn't even bother to show up the next day.
What's the best way to prepare for a session?
Be healthy. Exercise and be healthy. The way that I learned to prepare for a session from Linda [Ronstadt] is to immerse myself in where we're trying to go culturally with the thing... to try to get some cultural sense of where the songs are. When we did Afro-Cuban, we listened to a lot of Afro-Cuban records. When we did the mariachi stuff, we listened to a pile of mariachi. When we did the Christmas record, [we listened to the classic Christmas records.] I went out and found the best versions of things and we dug pretty deeply into all these different cultures to see if we could find some direction for how we might approach it... to get a real feeling for what the context was. Of course, if you don't have songs, maybe it's better if you do something else for a while. You've gotta have songs. You can't only have songs, but you've got to have songs. In any case, you want to do a lot of listening. For any question, whether it's about monitoring, EQ, or how to prepare for a session, the answer is always about listening — except for that business thing, where you have to learn to read a contract. Ah — that's a good piece of advice, always read contracts! If you don't understand it, then go get someone to explain it to you, but go over it. Take the time to read it word-by-word.
Should people go to lawyers?
You need lawyers. We wish we didn't, but lawyers are there for a reason. If you need to sign a contract, you should know someone that can read the contract and interpret the law. Most often, that's a lawyer.
What's the most rewarding thing about being in this business after this much time and exposure?
You know, what's really great is when something I thought wasn't good because I never heard back from the record company... you know, the Randy Newman didn't sell very well [the 5.1 remix on DVD]. So I just had to sit with no feedback, not knowing whether I did good or bad. Then I had a guy come up to me in Paris and say that it's the best DVD he owns. And that made my day! I mean, it's not the best that's out there, but for him it was, and that was really rewarding.