After we interviewed Eric "Roscoe" Ambel for Tape Op [issue 13, 1999, book Vol II], he'd kept in touch with us (plus I've gotten to see him play a few times!). Along the way he noted that he and a friend had started a studio space (and concept) called Cowboy Technical Services. Eric's partner in this venture is the languid and talented Tim Hatfield, an engineer/producer/songwriter with a wealth of background and a talent for making the best of any recording scenario. Check out the varied credits: The Damnwells, Ann Klein, The Yayhoos, Death Cab For Cutie, Marshall Crenshaw, The Misfits, Steve Earle, Freedy Johnston, Bottle Rockets (including a new CD with Roscoe producing), Butthole Surfers, PiL, ScrAppalachia (some all star New York players goin' acoustic), Popa Chubby and an upcoming Ace Frehely CD. He even shows up as one of the engineers on Keith Richards' Main Offender solo LP; working with Nico Bolas, Joe Blaney and Don Smith. Tim and Eric's space is currently housed in several modest basement rooms in a Brooklyn, NY, building. Their open studio consists of one main room with some isolation spaces. It has a perfectly casual feel with tons of instruments all over the place and NYC artist Steve Keene's fabulous paintings adorning racks of gear as well as the nearby wall space. Tim catches some great recordings in the comfortable space, and he also uses the studio to bring to life his alter ego, Cap'n Pappy, of whom you'll read...
Do you guys do a lot of projects together?
Who owns the space?
Both of us.
When you're buying equipment for the studio, do you buy it as a partnership or does one of you say, "I want to buy that. You buy the next thing."?
It works both ways. We each had a lot of gear to start with. When there are things we really need, like Pro Tools HD, the studio buys that. Then there are certain things I just want. I went to an AES show and I came back thinking, "I can't live without one of those [Chandler] TG1 limiters." So I bought the TG1. Eric is constantly buying instruments.
Tim, give us some of your history. What lead up to Cowboy Technical Services?
I started work in the eighties at Media Sound, which was on 57th Street. In those days you were an assistant and before that you were what we called a "shipper". A lot of people call them interns. You were a shipper, and then after a while you got to go in and help set up these huge sessions. Some of them would be forty to fifty piece orchestras — things like that. Then there would be rock 'n' roll going on downstairs. I became an assistant and then an engineer. Then MIDI kind of took over and tracking rooms started fading away. Jingle companies used to do demos [at studios] all the time but then they started doing them all in- house. That had been the bread and butter of the larger studios. Someone started putting up a huge building next door and that ended up closing the doors of Media Sound, because of the construction. I got out of Media and started going freelance. I met Eric [Ambel] at Media when he was with the Del Lords. Then I ended up living down the street from him. We'd stop and talk about anything but drum machines, so we thought maybe we should work together. "Man, you actually play guitar and I could move some air with this signal?" In those days a lot of people would come in to do a session and it would consist of a drum machine and four racks of synthesizers and they gave you a patch cord. I didn't really think of it too much as engineering.
Did you keep working during that period?
I did keep working. For a while I got into this place that was doing karaoke. Other than being an assistant to engineers like Mike Barbiero and Michael Brauer at Media, karaoke was one of the best learning experiences I've ever had. A guitar player sits at home, listens to a CD and says, "Okay, what did he play there?" He can back it up, play the lick over and over and figure it out. As an engineer you don't really get to do that. However, imagine if someone gives you a Neve console, two 24-track machines, a CD player and says, "Match that drum sound. Here's a ton of vintage mics to do it with." That's basically what I did. I matched drum sounds. I did it from ten to six. If I was in the middle of a record at six o'clock, my co-worker would take over the session and I would tell him, "You better punch out at the chorus." I did that for a year. It started getting boring after a while.
Were there revelations for you too, as an engineer, trying to match sounds of different eras?
Yeah, it was really cool. I loved trying to do the old Motown stuff and then doing some '80's hit by Bon Jovi. By this time it was probably 1990 or something. There were records that I probably never would have listened to, but I did learn something. For the majority of time that I worked there, I got pigeonholed as the guy who did the drums or anything that required more than one microphone. I always loved to track a band playing — that's the exciting thing to me — so I was always better at it than most. Some of the guys knew how to program...