Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Public Enemy, Phish, A Tribe Called Quest, Super Furry Animals, Lou Reed, Jeff Buckley, Derek Trucks, Elvis Perkins, Bad Brains, Weezer, Ween and Wilco. These are just some of the seminal artists and bands whose music has passed through the formidable ears and brilliant mind of Chris Shaw. In his 20 years as a professional producer/mixer/engineer, he has worked on five of Rolling Stone's "500 Greatest Albums of All Time." His discography is monstrous, but anyone who has ever had the pleasure of meeting the man knows he is one of the sweetest and most unassuming gentlemen in the industry. He may have gotten far for his talents, but his lack of ego may be what defines him. With a boyish lisp and a sack full of stories, he instantly makes you feel welcome and on his level through his excitement and enthusiasm. I caught up with him in his Brooklyn apartment, exploring the life and career of the man who went from playing bass on LL Cool J's MTV Unplugged special to mixing Weezer's smash debut to becoming the man that Bob Dylan calls his engineer.
How often do you find bands looking at the Pro Tools screen with you?
I love Pro Tools, but I'm tired of looking at the screen! [laughs] Some of them obsess over it, especially if you've got a band that does their own demos. I have no problem with bands knowing how to use Pro Tools. If a guitar player wants to sit down and edit his solo, then go for it; although I usually do it a little bit better. But when they obsess and look at kick drums and make sure they're lining up with the basses and the click, it gets to be a bit much. Just close your eyes and listen to the music! Have you seen the Massey "Listen" plug-in?
Check out the Massey website. He [Steven] has some experimental plug-ins there-a lot of good, utilitarian plug-ins. But he's got this one called Listen. You put it in the track, you click on it and the window for the plug-in literally opens up and occupies the entire Pro Tools window. It's a big blue screen and it just says, "Listen." [laughs] It doesn't do anything to the audio; it just passes the sound right through. It's an extremely valid point. No one listens to records anymore. They all look at them.
Yeah like, "Why is the wave form smaller than that one?"
Exactly. "Why is my vocal quieter looking in that take?" It's like we're looking at music rather than listening to it. I'm am engin-ear, not an engin-eye! I think Ed Cherney said that. My favorite one is, "Back in the day, I used to be a recording engineer. Now I'm a waveform specialist." [laughs] You get a bunch of engineers together in a room now and they don't talk about, "Oh, I used this really great mic the other day" or "I used this great compressor." It's, "Hey, have you tried this plug-in?" or "Do you know this quick trick?" Enough of that! What about the band you're working with? Tell me what the music is like!
Do you see yourself falling victim to that behavior sometimes?
Oh, yeah. Everybody does. It all depends on the band you're working with. Sometimes you hit a point with a band that isn't really great, so you fall victim to those things. "Okay guys. I'll make you sound good, because I can do THIS." I'm tired of not being able to tell who the drummer is the past few times I've listened to radio. Everything is gridded and sounds replaced. John Bonham sounds like John Bonham because he had that feel. When was the last time you picked up on a new drummer on a record, just by the way he plays? You can't really tell if the singer is singing anymore. I'm trying to get back to Pro Tools and not Pro Crutches. There're times when you get a really great take and the drummer was a late on that one hit. But it was a really great take, so you go in and move that one snare. But unfortunately with most people, myself included, it's like potato chips. You can't have just one. You can't do just one edit. You have to do 25. The next thing you know, you've edited every quarter note on the drum track. And about a week into the overdub process, you realize, "This doesn't feel the same as when we tracked it." I was working the other day on this Massive Attack cover with Civil Twilight and they played the whole thing live. We chopped out eight bars from the middle, but that was it.
And you could've done that with tape just as easily.
I actually miss editing on tape. I miss the physicality of editing, as well as the handling of tape. The whole ceremony of breaking out a new piece of tape, placing it on the machine and the smell it has. I remember years ago I was at the Sony archive. The assistant took me in there and said, "I have to show you something." It was the original master of Miles Davis' Kind of Blue. The first thing I did, I opened up the box and... [big inhalation]... Ampex 406...Scotch...whatever it was...the good vintage!
What about CLASP?
If somebody had the foresight to build that 10 years ago, there would still be lots of analog recording today. The inconvenience of always having to transfer everything to Pro Tools when you're working analog is what killed analog. I just hope CLASP catches on, as I'm realizing the Pro Tools mistress is leaving a bad taste in my mouth. Pro Tools can be a wonderful tool; however it seems to be hurting everything. Everyone has access to the tools, which is a wonderful thing — I'm all for that. But what was great about the '70s was that not everyone could have access to those tools. And if you had access to those tools, you had to prove that you were worthy as an artist to actually do that! I'm not trying to defend the old record company way of doing things, how artists were mistreated and such. But the whole coming-up through the ranks and developing an artist... the only people who made records were the ones who were really good! It was the people who could play! The Beatles did their first record in a day!
Your man, Bob Dylan, recorded his first 15 records in 50 days...
Do you feel bad for engineers coming up in my generation?
I really do. Sometimes I feel like I'm one of the last people who knows. I shouldn't say I'm the last guy, but guys in my generation and a little bit younger than me are the last ones who know what all that gear did. Aligning a tape machine is a pain in the ass, but the joys of analog are so great. Just the awesome palettes of sound! Growing up in the studio system and watching other engineers record, you start learning all the tricks. "If I hit the tape this hard, I'll get this sound. If I get the machine to this operating level, I'll get that sound." The electronics in a Studer will get me a different sound than on an MCI. All that stuff is just going away! I'm doing everything through email and iChat and it gets lonely. I miss multi-room facilities. There's nothing better than coming out of a session, running into engineer who's working on something else, checking out their band and interacting with people! All the stuff that went on is just not there anymore. You can go to recording school for a few semesters, buy your Pro Tools rig and then that's it. Where are you gonna learn? You can listen to records all day long and try to figure out how they did that, but until you see someone doing it there's just no way of learning. With Walter Sear's passing, an invaluable resource is gone. Nobody expected him to go that soon.
What I really loved about Walter was how at home you felt at Sear, but also how he wasn't precious about things. Although he took serious care of his gear, he smoked constantly around it...
Walter was very proud of all his gear. But any time he insisted he had the best maintenance of any studio in New York, sure enough, within an hour, something broke! [laughs]
Teenage Homemade Frippertronics
I couldn't really ask my mom and dad to buy me a pair of Studers, so I figured out how to do it with two cassette decks. I took a pair of Maxell cassettes, unscrewed them, took the tape out of one, threw it out and drilled a hole on the left side of one cassette and the right of the other. I then ran the tape out of one cassette into the side-hole of the other and put them into two table-top cassette-decks. I had this really crappy Kustom guitar amp that had a line out. I took the line out and put it into the first machine, put it in record, took the output of the second machine, stuck it in one of the jacks in the guitar amp, and then played my guitar, and it was awesome... The problem was that I never had a pair of matching tape machines. Over the course of a minute, it would totally drift out of tune. [laughs] I had to make sure the take-up deck ran slower than the record-deck; otherwise the tape would tighten up and snap. I spent full days in my bedroom working on this; that was how I started getting into engineering.