...introducing The Don Was & Gary Gold Show

Detroit native Don Was emerged as the Was-part of the duo Was (Not Was). By 1989 he’d produced Bonnie Raitt’s Grammys-sweeping album Nick of Time. He also won the 1994 Grammy for Producer of the Year. More? Don recently produced the 2005 Stones release, as well as an R&B tribute to Hank Williams entitled Forever Is a Long Long Time by his group Orchestra Was.Drummer Gary Gold played with John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Steely Dan, the Chambers Brothers, Al Kooper, Robben Ford, and Chuck Berry. As a producer or engineer, Gary’s worked with the Neville Brothers, Bonnie Raitt, and Keith Richards, and he is just completing two albums with Smokey Robinson. His song “Ode to 5am,” co-written with Ivan Neville, won the 2002 Prism Award.

EQ invited you guys here because you both tend to turn your backs on traditional recording studios, often in favor of sound stages. You guys can record anywhere you want . . . why a sound stage?
Gary Gold: It’s in between recording your stuff at home and having the budget to record at, say, Ocean Way — when, say, you want to record strings, or need a lotta air. . . .

So you have a choice between a $3,000/day recording studio and a $3,000/week sound stage — so it is a money issue, right?
GG: It’s not just the money. If I can free the artist up to just do — and keep the tape rolling, in a big space, I feel like my job is getting done. It’s like setting up camp, eight weeks in a big room, with a couch over here, a piano over there.

It seems like this approach needs a producer who’s an engineer, a Pro Tools operator, Logic Pro expert, a computer geek. . . . Does this work if a producer doesn’t have all those skill sets?
Don Was: I don’t think it requires a different skill set at all. . . . I’ve made records where I’m the Pro Tools operator and they’re unmitigated disasters. The more I delegate the more I can get back to creating a mood conducive to making a record. You can go into Ocean Way and hire a guy to do Pro Tools — or not. I was in there the other night. They have a wall of photos, like a decade of my life. That’s a lot of time to spend in one place. It’s nice — especially if you’re working with an artist for the second or third time, to just do something different — and a sound stage — especially these rooms at Centerstaging, happen to sound great, so you really can make records. I’ve tried a lot of places — in a loft, out of an Airstream — trying to throw people off balance so they do something new.

GG: I fell in love with the idea right away, I walked into Studio 1 here and it immediately brought me back to the first place I ever recorded — RCA Studio A in New York — 48th Street studio — the same dimensions. Big, padded room — wooden floors.

DW: It’s so weird you say that . . . the first time I came in here it reminded me of this old show from the ’50s called The Sound of Jazz, with Count Basie and Thelonious Monk and Billie Holiday, just an unadorned sound stage and I remember thinking that’s where I want to be.

Working at a sound stage you have more time —
DW: Just because you take the time, that doesn’t mean you make a better record. The danger of getting out of the conventional recording studio where you’re paying by the day is the likelihood that you will overcook the soup. It took me years to learn that because Pro Tools seduces you into thinking ‘wow, if I just keep messing with this, it’ll be Sgt. Pepper.’ No — if you keep messing with it, it’ll be a mess. But what you can do — is spend less money for the same amount of time. Get in there — make your record — get out. Don’t start second-guessing yourself. Like Allen Ginsberg used to say: “First idea, best idea.” When you rehearse something and it’s really good, and you get it on tape, there’s a real good chance that you’re not going to beat it. Re-creation and creation are two very different neurological activities. So — that’s the beauty of having equipment going while you’re writing — you capture stuff that’s spontaneous. How many times do people take the songwriter’s demo and use that to build the master? Because if you pick the demo there must be something going on in the songs that you liked — and it’s hard work to recapture that — and sometimes futile.

This is a quote from Trey Gunn of King Crimson, from the October ’05 issue of EQ: “there’s something about knocking it out quickly, desperately, and dangerously. Where there’s a certain amount of desperation, you just go to a higher level. We miss so much today with Pro Tools and related means of recording. If you know that you can do 30 takes then you don’t necessarily pour 100% into each one of them.”
If people feel that way, then as producers we’re not doing our jobs. It doesn’t matter what the situation is, you should have people inspired to give 110%. I have worked with guys who go out and play 300 shows a year and sing great and come into the studio and insist on doing 75 tracks and in the 75 never get the high note, whereas if they had one shot to get it, they’d get it. So yes, I’ve seen that happen — but that’s my fault, not theirs. Pressure can definitely be a good thing. “This counts” — that’s a good thing. I once heard Marshall Crenshaw say that he’d never written a song that he didn’t have a deadline for.

How much quality, if any, do you lose outside a recording studio?
DW: After doing a lot of remote sessions, last summer I went back to the now-defunct Cello Studio 2 and set-up a two-inch tape and we made a live Solomon Burke record. Don’t kid yourself — it sounds better. I don’t mean just the room — the board, that little Neve in there, the two-inch tape, all of it. Now — does that matter? That’s the question. If you’re making records for Al Schmittt, maybe, but he gets it free. The reality is, other records that I made in slightly less ideal situations recording-wise have sold much better than Solomon Burke — it’s no guarantee that you got a hit. After you do all that recording, you go mix with some guy who puts some new drum samples in, you master with a guy who’s under pressure from the record company to make a loud record, and you get some digital compression, so the sound has changed, then you go into a pressing plant — the quality control is “yes there’s data on the disk,” so there’s a wide variance in the manufacturing, then you sell it to someone who’s driving a Volvo with the left speaker off for three years. So the question is — does it matter that you’ve gotten this extra 10% of better sound? No — I don’t think so. We just made a Stones record at Jagger’s house in France. In an untreated room, the computer was right in the room and it sounds better than records we made where we spent a couple million dollars on studios. The important things — writing better songs, giving better performances — aren’t governed by tape compression.

On a sound stage the producer is usually right in the midst. Is it sometimes intrusive FOR the artist?
GG: Creating a vibe . . . I heard that Clint Eastwood never says “ACTION.” You feel all that out from artist to artist and from tune to tune. Essentially for me the music always comes from “is it a good song?” or “is it a good performance?” The most important thing is to capture the moment and hope there’s some magic there.

DW: I worked with David Crosby at Ocean Way, I sat in the room, that’s just how I work. Or you could go out and sit in the truck, if you felt more comfortable. I think it’s better to be in the room.

What varies technically — like miking, etc. — when you’re working on a sound stage?
GG: Fewer assistants. There’s no cats in the room, who, like, that’s their studio and they know every wire in the patch bay — it’s not slick like that. It’s really more homespun.

DW: There’s a learning curve — four-five days. I hire an engineer who’s great and I trust him. If I’m working with Ed Cherney or Rik Pekkonen or Krish Sharma who did the Stones record, a great engineer, I don’t tell these guys what microphones to use. If something’s off, I‘ll say “can we do something about that snare drum sound?” It’s just like with the instruments. I could take the bass from a guy and say “no — here’s what I want you to play.” I’ve never done that. You hire a guy who’s appropriate for the work. You might offer some comments. And it’s the same thing with the engineers.

Classic recording studios have lore — especially to young musicians. Do you find something’s lost in not trading on that excitement with the musicians?
GG: There’re certain studios where I feel the “Stevie recorded here” or “Jimi Hendrix whatever” vibe, where I feel this sense of gratitude and honor.

DW: But that’s not going to make a shitty song a good song. You should remember that the godfather of all rock ’n’ roll records — the Robert Johnson records — were made in a hotel room. So maybe we should all go the Chateau Marmont.

And Big Pink. . . ?
GG: . . .in a musty basement.

DW: And The Band album — the brown one? Everyone thinks that was done in Woodstock, but it was made in Sammy Davis Jr.’s pool house in Beverly Hills. That picture, with all the wires hanging — that really had a profound influence on me.

You guys want to talk about what kind of gear you work on?
DW: I can tell you what I have at home. I have a couple of old 1078s, Neves, a couple modules like that. I have a couple of AKG C12s and dbx160s, the wooden ones, no “over-easy.” I got these JBL speakers the ones with the equalizers — and I’ve got a Digi-02.

GG: At home I have a Brent Averill Neve 1073 pre, an old ART Pro Mic pre (with the Chinese tubes replaced with some dead stock 6L6’s, a box of about 25 of my favorite mics collected over the years . . . which I always bring to sessions . . . including a Neumann U87, AKG 414s, AKG 451s. I Use Logic Pro with a MOTU 828 Mk2 Firewire interface on a Mac dual 2GHz G5 with 2 megs of RAM. My 1.25GHz PowerBook is outfitted with the same software and is a mirror of anything done at home. I use Logic Control as a control surface. Line mixing is routed through a Mackie 1604 and monitoring is a pair of KRK V8 powered speakers. I have a 250 gig Lacie Drive with samples and several 250 gig drives for audio. Finally my trusty Sony MD 7506 headphones. I have spent half my life in those cans. I can mix a record in those things.

The mobile rig I use is Pro Tools and Logic on a Mac G5 2GHz with 2 megs of RAM. Plus 32 channels of Pro Tools HD fed by four Presonus Digimax 8-channel 96k digital pres . . . and all clocked by an Apogee Big Ben. KRK V8s (the gray “farmer” models, not the purple metal flack hot rod ones) with a KRK V12s Sub for Monitors. I use a Presonus Central Station for monitor and input control and a Digidesign Command 8 (page 72) as a control surface/MIDI interface. Lots of Lacie 250 gig drives for audio and back up.

I am a big fan of as little in the signal path as possible — and as little as possible in the signal path coming back to the ear.

And that’s because of your musician background?
GG: Because I’m a drummer I never had any opportunity to put a reverb on. I play an acoustic instrument. So my experience of the music was always uncompressed and very dynamic.

So you don’t use overhead mics with de-essers, or. . . ?
GG: I like the most natural sound, the most dynamic range. And I like the high-hat on the left.

DW: I think we’re from the same school, which is don’t put a de-esser on the overhead — if it’s too brittle, change the cymbal — right? They put warning labels on cigarettes, they should put warning labels on plug-ins. Because it’s easy to fall into the abyss — sitting there all night trying these things out. Plug-ins are great and they make some incredible ones, and the way you get good is by experimenting, but you really gotta watch it.

Not everybody wants to be William Orbit. . . ?
DW: I, ahhh, I suppose, err, not.

GG: I call it data smog.

DW: Time stretching algorithms, yes — that’s a very big deal. That’s one of the nice things Pro Tools will do for you . . . if you’re trying to combine takes. If you have a song that you cut two weeks earlier and the first half was great and then you go back and the second half is great — like the Strawberry Fields thing. You want to combine the two but one is much slower. Or you have a guitar lick that’s great but now it’s too long. . . .

Let’s hope we can do that with this interview . . . Do you ever want to run your gear with super-hot chips or super-cool chips?
DW: I know the hot ones burn my legs.

GG: Quality RAM is way better than cheap RAM. I ran into this problem where low-quality RAM causes instability.

DW: Really?

GG: I’ll pay the extra money and buy the RAM from the Mac store . . . I pay top dollar. I go straight to Apple; they have quality control. It makes a big difference.

Do you feel today’s digital producer/engineers are more secretive about their techniques than traditional guys?
DW: Hell no. I remember guys in the ’70s would have all sorts of stuff stashed under the consoles. I’d wonder how they’d get that sound to gel, but they wouldn’t show their shit. Nah, it’s just new secrets. In fact, nowadays it’s the exact same plug-ins on the exact same gear — it’s easier to identify. . . .

GG: You can always identify a poor job with Auto-Tune.

DW: I think kids now accept an Auto-Tune artifact as being part of a good vocal, and if you don’t have that, it’s like, unfinished. It’s now part of the vocabulary of record-making.

GG: There’s also an intolerance for being off-pitch whereas half the emotion in a Smokey Robinson or James Brown thing is that slight sharpness.

DW: I was working with Brian Wilson once and he picked up a digital tuner and said, “This device ruined music.” I said “Oh come on.” He said, “Seriously, when people had to tune by ear, they were off a bit. If you get 11 guys in the room and they’re all off, you’re creating your own tempering — a warmth — so now everything sounds real thin.” So Brian’d play a part on the piano and then have us drop the vso down a hair and he’d play the identical part a bit out of tune.

Assuming you have this added period of development, are there tricks you have to use because artists wallow in their creativity?
DW: I’m not sharing that secret [laughs]. That’s a good question. The best artist management trick is to respect the artist — if they want to go on some journey that may end up wasting three or four days, you follow the journey. Just don’t work with someone you don’t respect enough to take that trip with — that’s the trick. . . . You just have to be committed to chasing an idea down. You want to provide possibilities for people. You don’t have to come up with the idea, just help them implement their idea — help them interpret the wildest idea. . . . What’s that Eddie Kramer story? Hendrix wanted to hear what a Leslie would sound like underwater . . . So they put it underwater and tried it. You just have to try stuff. Time isn’t always your enemy. Sometimes you really come up with better things. I remember working with Bob Dylan in ’89, and we just had some jams, one 4/5 chord progression, it was a cool band with Stevie Ray Vaughn and Jimmy Vaughn. It was a cool day, Bob was playing piano, and this thing was 20 minutes and we were trying to make a song out of it. There was no digital editing but we cut the two-inch and got it down to three and a half minutes and he marveled at it and loved the fact that you could play without having to worry about the arrangement, that you could go over the cliff and recover but just cut that part out. He said he saw Miles Davis record in the ’60s and he loved that Miles would just play and Teo Macero would carve it up into something that would hold water.

GG: Some guys just don’t conform musically or time-wise in any way. On an Ivan Neville record I went to record Keith Richards at his house, so we brought Pro Tools up there. It started out he was going to play on one track. He heard the record and decided he wanted to play on every tune. The next thing I know we’re jamming for an hour. . . . I think we were there about two days straight. That’s his process, sometimes you just have to give in to that and let it happen.

DW: We spent the better part of a year working on a Stones record that turned out to be 16 songs. A lot of that was just playing until they were ready. There’s no short cut. And the Rolling Stones are entitled to not have to have enforced short cuts. They just go with it.

But they have more or less an unlimited budget.
DW: But they’re conscious of the budget. We’ve spent $5,000,000 making a record — although most of that’s the wine at dinner. It cost more than analog tape. But on this record they were very conscious of it. On Bridges to Babylon, we had to hire two clerks to keep track of all the 2" tapes. They worked shifts — day and night — on call all the time. We spent more than I usually spend making a whole album just buying that tape. This time we’re down to $2,000 a hard drive. If that works for the Rolling Stones, think of what it does for people who would not be able to get the budgets to record . . . now they can make records. That’s why this sound stage thing is so great. Because all of a sudden rock ’n’ roll has gone back to being folk music again — music of the people — not of some corporation. Really — you can’t blame the record labels for holding you down. Whether you can sell it in stores, that’s another matter. But you can’t use the excuse “I need a record deal.”