Recording the Genius

Terry Howard spent almost 20 years working as Ray Charles's engineer, winning three Grammy Awards in the process and getting an insider's view of Charles's

Terry Howard spent almost 20 years working as Ray Charles's engineer, winning three Grammy Awards in the process and getting an insider's view of Charles's musical brilliance. Although his work with Charles is clearly the centerpiece of any narrative of Howard's career, it would be wrong to assume that Charles's death marked the end of Howard's professional life. Indeed, he's now in a new career phase, working as an independent engineer and producer. He's got a state-of-the-art 64-bit Cakewalk Sonar system in his studio, along with a Digidesign Pro Tools|HD system. The technically savvy Howard has vast experience in both the analog and digital realms, and has no shortage of opinions on today's recording technology.

Howard's post-Charles career did not get off to an auspicious start, however. In February 2005, Charles's management, with whom Howard had never gotten along, accused him of stealing the artist's master tapes. Howard was arrested and charged with theft. He protested his innocence, saying that the tapes he had in his possession had been given to him by Charles for safekeeping. The judge agreed with Howard and threw out the charges.

Hailing originally from the Cleveland area, Howard started his musical career in his teens, recording bands on a Sony 2-track reel-to-reel with sound-on-sound. He later joined the air force, where he worked on Doppler radar and electronic countermeasures for airplanes. “I was working with a lot of high-end electronics,” recalls Howard, “which really developed my electronics skills, and ironically, Doppler radar has a lot to do with the physics of sound. That helped build my acoustics skills.”

In the late 1970s, Howard left the air force and moved to Santa Cruz, California. He studied recording arts at nearby Cabrillo College, continued recording bands, and subsequently took a job as a technician at Otari, which was developing its line of 24-track multitrack tape recorders. Howard's job put him in contact with artists such as Frank Zappa, Neil Young, and many others. He worked on Otari machines at many of the major studios in San Francisco at that time. In 1983 he decided to move to Los Angeles to try his luck in that city's thriving recording scene. From that point on, his career really started to blossom.

Howard spoke to me recently on the phone from Los Angeles, and he filled in the details of how he started working for Charles and what Charles was like in the studio. Howard also offered some cogent technical observations about digital recording technology, and talked about his Sonar rig and a lot more.

So you first met Ray after you moved to Los Angeles?

Yes. I was doing independent work for a lot of the Otari customers, and spent my first two years in L.A. working with Fleetwood Mac on the album Tango in the Night. I befriended this guy, Ike Benoun at a company called Audio Industries, who was the local distributor for MCI, so I got hooked up with MCI tape recorders and consoles. I worked as the tech for his distribution company. And that's where I started meeting people like Christopher Cross, started working for Tom Jones, and that's when Ike introduced me to Ray Charles.

Left to right: Ellis Hall, Howard and Willie Nelson.

When did you actually start working for Ray?

Almost immediately on a part-time basis. Then in 1988 I started working on more of a full-time basis.

Did you engineer all of his albums from then on?

I did a lot of engineering with his vocals. By that time, when Ray was doing albums — he was signed to CBS at the time — the various studios would do their recording in Nashville, or other studios in L.A., and they'd send Ray pretty much a finished tape, and I'd help Ray put his vocal tracks on.

So he wasn't involved in recording the basic tracks?

Not at that point. He was doing a lot of stuff in his own studio that was not for those record labels. We would bring the band in and we would record the orchestra, and stuff like that. Ray never stopped recording. If he wasn't doing it for a record label, he was doing it for himself.

What happened to those recordings?

They're still in his vault. They're still with the estate.

FIG. 1: Charles recorded with several different vocal mics over his career, including the ADK Area 51 TT tube condenser mic, which he used for much of the vocal recording during the sessions for Genius Loves Company.

Talk about recording Ray's vocals. What kind of mics did he like?

It varied with the song, with the way he felt at the time, or with the way I felt. Sometimes I would suggest he use a different mic and he'd go along with it. But typically we used a Milab mic; I believe it was from Sweden. During the recording of Genius Loves Company, he started using an ADK Area 51 TT tube mic [see Fig. 1]. It was the last mic Ray fell in love with.

I've heard that Ray also used a Neumann M149 a lot for vocals.

Yes, the new one they made. See, I'm not into model numbers like a lot of these other engineers are. I know what it is when I look at it, but I don't remember the numbers [laughs].

Do you remember if you used a particular preamp after the mic in Ray's vocal chain?

Yeah. Typically, for vocals, we would use a Universal Audio LA-2A. We'd use the mic pre off the mixing board. By that time, when I was doing most of his engineering, we'd switched from a Sound Workshop console to a Quad/Eight console. And the Quad/Eight had some improved mic pres that Ray really liked. Ike would always bring over mic pres to Ray, to try and have him switch over to an outboard mic pre, and we would A/B them, and the mic pre in the Quad/Eight board was always, as Ray would say, “Good enough.” In other words, the outboard pre wasn't spectacular enough to make him change. There was a difference between the Sound Workshop model and the Quad/Eight, because the Quad/Eight had 56 inputs. That's when we went into a 48-track digital recorder. We bought one of the first Studer digital tape recorders.

So he'd go from the mic into the Quad/Eight's preamp and then through the LA-2A?


Did you have to use much compression to tape with Ray's vocals?

When we recorded to analog, I'd use less compression. When we recorded to digital, I had to use more because, especially with the way Ray sang, it was so easy for him to “go over the top” and clip. We got into digital when Studer developed their 48-track, because Ray heard the difference between the Sony and the Studer, and loved the sound of the Studer. That was one thing with Ray, we always A/B'd stuff when he would purchase something. He would get the one he thought was the best sounding. But the thing that we always hated about digital was the distortion you got once it [the level] went over.

How did that affect the way you recorded him?

It caused us to change our thinking when recording. We couldn't just push the button and fly; we had to sit back and do a rough take, and this was something that always would aggravate Ray: we had to do a rough take to make sure that we got the level. He couldn't just sit there and “one-take” it. And that's what he usually loved to do. As a matter of fact, when we first got the digital machine, we were still recording on the 2-inch [analog] machine, because of that forgiving sound that the 2-inch has — we didn't have to worry about clipping — and then we would bounce it to the 48-track digital with all the other instruments and everything else to do the mix.

The problems he had with distortion and going over, were those because of his vocal style?

Yeah, he had a lot of dynamics, and he knew how to work a microphone. That's the whole thing: when you get into working a microphone with the proximity effect and knowing when to get close and far and how it changes the sound, you're not necessarily paying attention to the level. And the other problem, when everything was 16-bit you could not go that low [with the recording level]. Once you got down to a certain level, the resolution started to change and the sonic quality was not as good as analog. At 24-bit, you can record stuff down 20 dB, and have that headroom. People forget that.


When those tape machines were developed, they were developed with unity gain at -18 dB or -14 dB. But everyone started slamming them to the top because 16-bit didn't have the resolution at lower decibel levels. When 24-bit came about, with the computer systems and Pro Tools, I was able to back off, because the resolution was there. You could now go back down with the level, have that headroom like you had with an analog tape, and you wouldn't lose that resolution.

So the extra headroom of 24-bit recording is a real help.

It's got 130 dB of dynamic range. The math is very simple: 16-bit is 96 dB of your dynamic range. You got an extra 30-plus dB going to 24-bit, that means you don't have to stay at the top to keep the resolution there. You try to explain this to a record label and they don't know. All they know is that the last guy came in with everything at the top and made a hit record.

According to Howard, Charles had "golden ears" and was quite particular about what he wanted in the studio.

The labels would complain that the levels were too low?

Yes. I'm talking about a multitrack, a Pro Tools session, or whatever digital system we were using. On the 48-track — they would sometimes complain, but especially on computers they were complaining. I had to say, “Look, you guys have got to understand resolution,” and that's the problem with a lot of things today. People only know what they see, they don't know the technical side. They see everybody else hitting it to the top, and they think the top is where it's got to be.

What was Ray like to work with? Was he easygoing in the studio?

If you could keep up with him. Ray had very good ears, and it wasn't because he was blind. He had a true engineer's golden ears. He could listen into the music and hear the nuance. That's what makes Doug Sax at the Mastering Lab such a great engineer, and the same with Bernie Grundman [at Bernie Grundman Mastering]. They can hear the nuance. They can hear the fly walking across the speaker. And Ray had that same ability. I had it, too. Because whenever Ray would say, “Listen,” I would hear it.

Can you think of a story that demonstrates Ray's hearing abilities?

One of the first things that got me in tight as an engineer with Ray was when he called me into the studio one night, it was about 8 p.m., and he was complaining that the left speaker wasn't playing the kick drum right. He said it was too soft. So I listened, and I said, “It sounds pretty damn balanced to me.” And Ray would do this thing, that he would stand in front of one speaker and then sidestep over to the other speaker. He kept sidestepping in front of each speaker, stopping in the middle each time. And he said, “No, I'm telling you, the left speaker isn't right on the kick.” So I said, “Well, let me do an alignment.” I took an MRL [Magnetic Reference Laboratory] tape, put it up on the machine. He was doing a mix, so it was a 2-track tape we were working on.

On the left channel, at 100 Hz, it was .25 dB down. Now in college I was taught that the average person is able to hear a 3 dB difference and a trained ear can hear 1.5 dB to 1 dB, and below that it's supposed to sound the same. And I knew that I could hear a .5 dB difference, from tweaking machines most of my life and all the work I did being a factory tech when they were designing 24-track recorders. I had to learn what .03 distortion sounded like. I had to start listening and hearing those things. Like I said, I always felt comfortable that I could hear a .5 dB difference. Here's Ray telling me it's .25 dB. So I'm going, “This guy is testing me. Somebody came in this room and tweaked it .25 dB. He's not hearing it, he's testing me.”

So what happened?

I put the screwdriver into the alignment, I had just barely tweaked it, and Ray started jumping up yelling, “That's it, that's it, put the music back on. You got it!” I knew he wasn't testing me [laughs]. Whenever Ray loves something and things fell into place, he'd start dancing to the music. And now he was dancing, he was slapping his hand on his chest with the kick drum, and he was saying, “That's it, Mr. T, you got it, you got it.”

He called you “Mr. T.”?

Yeah, that was the nickname he gave me.

Was Ray technically knowledgeable?

Yeah. When he was in his late teens, he was a ham radio operator. And was a ham radio relay operator during World War II. Veterans overseas would work in relaying messages back to the families from soldiers over in Europe. And he was part of this organization that did that. And he also would do Morse code. A lot of times, for the longer-distance messages, he would use Morse code instead of talking. It was so funny, because Ray would often mimic Morse code; he'd go, “Did did did dit did did did did did! And I'll tell you what that word was.” And he was right. Ray could mimic that sound. He did have a good ear.

Considering that he adopted digital recording after all those years on analog, it sounds as if Ray was not averse to new technology.

He was in the later years. He really hated recording into the computer.


Because he was old and set in his ways. A lot of it was that the programmers would not design DAWs for a blind man. Here's a man who's got a computer, because he had his laptop. And he used a program called Windows-Eyes.

Is that the one that speaks the keys when you hit them?

No. This is one where you have certain parameters, it's like a hot-key scenario. And it will talk back to you when you're doing certain things. It will repeat your functions. And there are levels of integrity that you have depending on how you are used to using it. You can use it where it will tell you everything you do, or it will tell you items you're doing. Instead of telling you every stroke you do, it will tell you what the finished stroke that you did related to.

He didn't like using that system?

We never got fully into it, because Ray's health started to deteriorate. Cakewalk, along with another company, had worked and developed something called Caketalk. And several other blind artists were using it. And we were getting Ray into that, and we just didn't get him fully into that because his health was going. But he was using the Caketalk and other things. He was running Sibelius for writing and arranging music on his laptop.

What was your feeling about the movie Ray [Universal Studios, 2004]?

They did a great, great job on it. I think it was one of the better movies made, because it showed the real struggle and strife of a musician. It showed how his drug problems were sometimes a help and sometimes a problem, and the fact that he got over his drug problem because of his love of music.

Can you talk a little about your legal hassles regarding Ray's tapes?

Ray had asked me to take care of his music after he died, and that's not being done, and that's all that I can say.

Can you tell me where things stand with it?

I can talk about that. The case was thrown out of court. The judge basically said, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that I had permission from Ray Charles to have the copies I had, and what masters I did have I had under his permission. And nobody asked for me to return these tapes in the proper manner that labels and other people are supposed to.

What was the reaction from your associates in the music business to your arrest?

There were a lot of people from the industry that really believed in me. A lot of people put up money for my defense, and a lot of people showed up in court in my defense. A lot of important people, who will remain nameless. Those are the ones I really want to thank, because they're the ones that kept me going through the whole ordeal.

FIG. 2: Howard''s digital audio sequencer of choice is the 64-bit version of Cakewalk Sonar 5, which he says has sound quality superior to its competitors''.

Let's talk about your current recording work. What kind of setup do you have in your studio?

I've got a Quad/Eight board, and I've got a couple of Otari tape machines. I also have a Pro Tools|HD system, because I have to have it for the labels. My DAW of choice is Sonar [see Fig. 2]. Cakewalk was the first company to come up with a true 64-bit program to run. And you can hear that difference.

You talked earlier about the differences in headroom between 16-bit and 24-bit recordings. What about high-resolution recordings that use sampling rates higher than 48 kHz?

You've got to look at the trade-offs. Your file size is large, and you're asking the computer to do a lot more work, especially when you're doing multitrack recording.

Do you mix in the box [totally within the computer]?

I do all my rough mixes in the box, but I never do the real mix in the box. I do all my editing, get my balance, what I want left, what I want right, all that done in the DAW. When I'm ready to really mix it, then I go to one of the studios, like the Village, the Record Plant, or any of the major studios. At that point, my DAW is now working like a tape recorder or a tape player. I run through a real mixing board.

What don't you like about in-the-box mixes?

I have noticed that no matter what the program — and Sonar is the most forgiving on this, but I don't care if it's Pro Tools, Nuendo — the moment you start mixing more than 32 channels in the box, the stereo image starts to collapse. You start getting a bottleneck sound, where it's now starting to sound like it's compressing itself. It only makes sense; you're trying to throw so much data down a pipe. When you start listening to it, you start hearing the stereo image collapsing. The next thing you know, everything must be panned hard left and hard right to get a stereo image.

But if you don't have that many tracks, then the computer has enough horsepower to deal with it.

Yes, and so does the software program.

But once you get over a certain amount of tracks, you start to have problems?

To give you an idea: back when they began designing boards for multitrack recording — because of the laws of physics and analog — when adding channels without putting buffer amps in each channel, you could only get up to 16 channels of analog before it would start to bottleneck. That's why they started putting buffer amps and other things to get in more than 16 channels on a mixing console.

With analog, what causes that bottleneck?

It's a function of the laws of physics. Every time you add a channel, you're adding that noise to it. The same thing happens in digital. You're adding noise — it's not like a dither — it's digital noise. We use dithering to cover this artifact noise. And all dither really is, is about 20 dB of noise injected into the signal so the computer has something to chew on when there's nothing there [laughs].

Do you think that a strong tech background makes a significant difference for someone recording in their own studio?

The technical background made me realize how important my ears are. You don't necessarily need to know how to build circuits, or what makes the music go round and round inside. But it does help to learn how to hear distortion. What the true sound of dynamic range is. What headroom is. Learning frequencies.

Do you have any advice for people who are recording in their own studios?

The main thing is start listening. Start using your ears. I find more and more people just do what so-and-so says, or what they saw so-and-so do. Here's a quote from Ray Charles: “I don't care what it does, how does it sound?” I think the engineering would get a lot better if engineers could start listening. Don't worry about throwing that thing up to that red line on the digital, and having just 3 dB of dynamic range left when you're doing a mixdown. Pay attention: dynamics are good, and if you know how to do dynamics right, the mix can still sound loud.

Mike Levine is an EM senior editor. Thanks to Ike Benoun for additional information.


Ray Charles, Genius and Friends (Rhino, 2005); engineer

Johnny Mathis, Isn't It Romantic (Columbia, 2005); engineer

Ray Charles, Genius Loves Company (Concord/Hear Music, 2004); producer, engineer

Ellis Hall, Straight Ahead (Crossover, 2004); engineer

Percy Mayfield, His Tangerine and Atlantic Sides (Rhino, 2004); remastering engineer

Duran Duran, Encore Series (Encore Music, 2003); engineer

Ray Charles, Live at the Montreaux Jazz Festival (Pioneer, 2002); producer

Ray Charles, Ray Charles Sings for America (Rhino, 2002); arranger, producer, engineer, mastering engineer

Ray Charles, The Definitive Ray Charles (WEA International, 2001); remastering engineer

Ray Charles, The Very Best of Ray Charles, vol. 2 (Rhino, 2000); engineer, remastering engineer

Ray Charles, Love Songs (Rhino, 1999); remastering engineer

Ray Charles, Ultimate Hits Collection (Rhino/WEA, 1999); remastering engineer

Ray Charles, Standards (Rhino, 1998); remastering engineer

Ray Charles and Betty Carter, Dedicated to You (Rhino, 1998); engineer, remastering engineer

Fleetwood Mac, Tango in the Night (Warner Brothers, 1986); technical engineer

Merle Haggard, The Epic Collection (Recorded Live) (Epic, 1983); technical engineer


Working with Ray Charles and others, Howard has often been called upon to mic a piano for recording. His basic method is a 3-mic stereo configuration that utilizes large-diaphragm condensers (see Fig. A).

He centers this configuration around the back mic, which he generally puts in omni mode. “That picks up the full sound,” he explains. “I've noticed that when a lot of people mic pianos, they tend to get a left-right sound — they mic it the way a keyboard sampler would play it back. Too much is hard left and right.”

He places the other two mics, typically both cardioid, over the bass strings and the treble strings, respectively, each back from the hammers, with the bass mic the farther back of the two. “I do it a little different than a lot of people,” he says. “Most people, when they use the triangular configuration, tend to put the left and right mics right around the hammer area.”

FIG. A: This shows Howard''s basic 3-mic, stereo-piano-miking configuration, which he often used with Charles.

Howard tilts the treble-string mic slightly off-axis. “I have it off-axis so that it doesn't pick up the percussion of the hammers,” he says. The left and right mics are typically about a foot over the strings, and the omni mic in the back is lower to pick up some of the reflections from the piano's cabinet.

His rule of thumb for avoiding phase problems is to keep all mics at least nine inches from each other and from the source. “With the microphones themselves being more than nine inches away — you're at a minimum optimum distance for phase,” he says. “Further apart is even better.”

When possible, he will open the piano's top completely, but if there are other instruments playing in the room, the top is necessary for isolation. In that circumstance, Howard will also throw a moving blanket over the strings and mics for additional separation from the room sound.

Each mic feeds a separate track. When mixing them, Howard likes to bring up the center mic first, and then supplement it with the left and right cardioids to give it a wide stereo image.

Although he'll sometimes vary this miking scheme — such as by setting the rear mic to a figure-8 pattern and maybe substituting a hypercardioid mic for the treble-string mic — he says it's hard to go wrong with his standard 3-mic configuration. “You'll make the producer happy and the band happy. Nine times out of ten it will work.”