greg norman --> intern --> musician --> repair tech --> engineer --> greg norman
Greg Norman has worn many hats. For 15 years he's worked for Steve Albini, helping build and run Chicago's Electrical Audio, but he also records at his home and takes on many other projects.
And he's a nice guy.
Did you grow up in Chicago?
Yeah, in the 'burbs. Northfield, north of Chicago.
So, how did you end up recording music?
I went to a pretty big high school and there was a music department that had a radio station with a sound production club. They recorded the jazz concerts and whatever else that was going on in school. They had an ADAT machine from when they first came out. That's where I started getting interested in sound and recording. The guy who was running the program was really nice — he would let me borrow microphones. I bought a cheap mixer and I would go to garage shows and record the bands on cassette. That was the most fun for me. It was fun to mix live and give them a tape at the end. I'd record bands' demos in my dad's basement too.
What did he think of that?
He was more thrilled that I was home and not out doing drugs. [laughter] I'd have bands come out on the weekends. I saved up a bunch of money and eventually bought a Fostex 1/4-inch 8-track just after graduating high school. I went to Montana to go to college. I did sound a few times while I was out there. Every time I'd come back into town I'd get together with my friends to record.
You played music as well?
Yes, just a little bit; it was more goofing around with friends. I think I found that the two months back in Chicago was more fun than the rest of the year for me. One time I was in town over the winter and I snuck in to see a show. I bumped into Al Johnson, from Shorty and U.S. Maple. He asked me what I wanted to do and I said I wanted to get an internship at a studio. He wrote Steve's [Albini] number on a napkin and handed it to me! When I went back to Montana, I called Steve up randomly. I was totally nervous. He was like, "Yeah, sure. When can you come out? Are you doing this for school?" After I hung up with him, I immediately looked into transferring to Columbia College for their recording program in Chicago. When I came back from school and started the internship, Steve was back at his old house. It was a little bungalow. Basically everything that's now in Studio B was crammed into that house. I would just try to hang out at the house as much as possible and help on sessions. They'd just bought the building Electrical Audio is in now and were starting to do the demolition and cleaning out. Tom Zaluckyj, the old studio manager/building contractor, asked me if I needed any work for the summer. That started me working here. Any day that I wasn't interning at the house, I'd come to the studio and tear down walls and do construction. I had an intense routine for two straight years. One day Steve asked me if I liked working here and I said yes. He asked me if I wanted to stick on and actually work at the studio. Of course I said yes! I was the only intern at that time that had an interest in recording and was doing recording. All during this time I was still recording friend's bands. There were interns that were just doing it for school and weren't really asking any questions. They weren't really curious about stuff. We had some random people come through. I'd try to stay out of the way and be helpful.
Was it a really good experience to watch Steve work?
Oh, yeah! Definitely. I'd never seen the equipment before. I'd never heard what good microphones sounded like. Or had access to a tape machine that sounded better than a cassette deck. Another intern got a job here as well. His name was Rob Bochnik and he was instrumental in building this place as well. He and I would goof around, recording each other in the basement of the old house. We learned how to use the console and the tape machine. That translated immediately. Steve was really generous with letting me borrow mics to record these bands. That was invaluable. I took advantage of the "breaking in period" of the studio. Studio B opened before Studio A. We needed to suss out all the problems. I'd be dragging bands here after shows and recording until 6 a.m. I recorded random stuff from friends' bands that were coming through on tour. I'd grab them after shows and say, "I don't know if you're up for it, but I've got the opportunity to record..."
Who's going to say no?
Yes, it was great. It's fun to record until you see the sun come through the windows. We'd grab breakfast and then they'd be off on the rest of their tour. A lot of the people I was recording at that time obviously couldn't afford to come here and do a whole record. I always wanted to be recording, so I'd build and maintain my own setup. I'd record people for cheap, or free. It's the typical way to get started in recording. There are people who think they can just graduate and jump right in. [I think it's better to] volunteer to learn while doing it. If you make a mistake, work through the mistake. Be honest about everything. As long as you are courteous, honest and good with people — even if you made a terrible record, no one will hate you for it because you tried so hard. Unless you charged them a ton of money, did a terrible job and were spiteful; in which case no one will be very interested in talking to you again.
That makes sense!
I learned that through working here and seeing Steve, Bob [Weston], John McEntire and Brian Paulson — a bunch of people have come through and they're just the most generous and courteous. Just be good to the band and make a go of it. It's not your life's dream work; it's theirs. You're trying to help them fulfill their fantasy.
How did you end up getting a full-time job at Electrical?
I kind of made myself handy. Whenever there was some free time and I was hanging out here, I would sit by the old technician, Soren Wittrup, who used to work here. He was a Danish technician that Steve had hired before I showed up. As you might imagine, there was a lot of stuff to do. Ten Ampex 351s had just shown up. Bob had made a prototype and it worked. Steve was like, "Let's make a bunch of them and fill the two studios." So it was a big project. A lot of braindead work, like cleaning of circuit boards. I started to get into the idea of building stuff myself. I got an audio electronics magazine and they had a kit for a mic preamp using a Burr-Brown chip so I just built it myself. This was after making a tone generator, noisemaker and all that kind of stuff. I built it because I wanted to have a nice preamp for my own recording scenario. When I got a semi-permanent role here, I would do tech work — of which there was a ton. I also assisted on sessions.
So, if there was an outside engineer, you would be the guy who would help get things rolling?
Exactly. That happened quite a bit in the first year. Everyone had heard about the studio and was excited to check it out. They would come and record in this big room. I'd show them how to get the best out of the room. Occasionally sessions would trickle in where they just needed an engineer. They'd get a hold of me. It would usually be a band that was working on their first record. There were just a ton of things to do around here!
Are you working by the hour?
It's been a salaried job since 1998. I used to joke that I was taking a pay cut by going on salary. It was hourly before that and there would be a lot of long days! Especially when we were still working on construction.
Obviously the studio is a labor of love for more than just Steve.
Yeah. We all had ideas about how to make things slightly better or more interesting. That's kind of what I've done throughout the years with the electronic stuff as well, tinkering with things and adding things to microphones. For everyone who worked here, we've all loved the place. It's been fun to watch it grow and materialize into a real place. You'll bump into people who've heard about this place — Electrical Audio and Steve Albini might as well be the same name! It is his studio and his vision, but there's a lot of stuff that goes on that's not Steve Albini.
I would think that someone could have the misconception that he's helming every session.
Yeah, he can't record in two different studios at the same time! Not so much anymore, but I used to bump into bands who would say, "So, what do we have to do to record there? Does Steve have to listen to the bands and prescreen?" No, it's a place where anyone can record! I've always wondered if there are a fair amount of bands that don't record here because they believe Steve wouldn't let them. It is weird. As you can imagine, the fact that it's Steve Albini's place comes into play for bands and their PR. I recorded the Tren Brothers, a side project of The Dirty Three, in studio B. There was a review of the album that read, "Recorded by Steve Albini, who jokingly referred to himself as Greg Norman." It can be annoying. Of course, I could've branched off and done my own thing. Certainly by staying here it's kept me under the umbrella of Steve for a lot of projects. It's funny; we generally don't interact with each other at all regarding each other's sessions. Steve records about 60 to 70 percent of the stuff that we book here. The rest of the time it is me, freelance engineers, part-time engineers or others that work here. It really varies.
You guys even have a shop here where things can get repaired. That's pretty unusual these days.
At Electrical, I try to make sure everything is working in the studio and the control room. You don't want to have clients or guest engineers even have to have that thought enter their minds. It costs a lot to do. We spend a lot on gear and tech support. It's important for any studio. Not everyone can be at the level of Abbey Road, but it's important to do what you can. Soren Wittrup did nothing else but tech work. I sort of filled in that position, but I'm also doing recording as well. You have to have different parts to your job. I happen to be an engineer who knows how to do some tech stuff. But I don't mess with a microphone that can still be fixed by the manufacturer. It'll cost $200, but it'll come back in better condition versus me tinkering around with it and wasting time. However, I do have to know about tape machines.
What do you see in your future?
I don't know. I'm rolling up on 15 years here. It's mind boggling for me. I thought I would eventually drift away from here, but I realized I like doing what I'm doing. I like the people I work with and bump into. There are people coming from overseas all the time. If I went totally freelance, I'd miss out on a lot of that stuff. I'd miss the social-ness of it. I don't get paid much here. I make half my money outside of here. The low payroll is what keeps the studio as cheap as it is. I go back and forth as to whether I want to leave here, go into manufacturing, recording or both. I'm kind of schizophrenic!
You have to be a Jack of many trades to do this.
Yes. I played in this band called Bitter Tears for five or six years. We had all kinds of grammar school orchestra instruments that we played. I was the extra dude who played all the crap on the records that we couldn't play live because there were only five of us. A lot of the bands I record are heavier. It was good because the Bitter Tears were more melodic and it kept that part of my brain alive. I can also apply that experience to when I record bands. I have a good ear for pitch. The electronic side is important as well for running a session. I try to pass that on to the interns as much as possible. Grasp as much as you can so you have all the problem solving skills. I've worked with people who don't have those skills. They were a part of a famous album somehow and they never had to look back after that. It's rare, but I do encounter those people sometimes. I always wonder how they have work.
I think the artists we work with are always looking for the greener pasture or the new thing.
You can't blame them. If you're in the band and you want to work with other people — I can understand that mentality.
Do you do other things besides music?
I'm a social being. I like visiting with friends as much as possible. I live way on the other side of town. I bought a house I can make noise in. It's a difficult commute. It's given me a chance to continue recording at my house, but I'm thinking of moving to the north part of the city.
Why is your studio called Studio Greg Studios II?
When I thought about naming my studio, I couldn't take something like Trident Studios seriously and then have someone come over to my house and see broken tape decks everywhere. I thought I'd go the other way and go with something silly. Not that the expectations are low work-wise, but the space is not serious. I'm conscious about not dragging business from here [Electrical]. I don't have a website for that reason. It's really just for people who know me. I don't try to take business away by making my rates too low. I used to be self-conscious about not affecting the business here, but the cross pollination has been beneficial. I used to be around here all the time because there was always something to do. Now I'm more conscious of my free time and I have other things to do. I do a lot of recording at my house. I end up booking myself pretty full. I also have a wife that I've been diligent about spending time with!