Why New Orleans?
I don’t know, to be honest with you. I knew that I couldn’t afford to live in LA any longer, so I had to move somewhere, and I’m not crazy about big cities, so New York was out too.
It wasn’t because of the music scene there; something just came into my head one night and said, “You’re going to New Orleans.”
I was so broke, I stayed in a transient hotel at first. I applied to every studio in town and eventually got a job at Ultrasonic—but as a maid, not as an engineer. But it was through that gig that I started making the rounds of the studios and ran into the [Daniel] Lanois crowd.
Dan taught me so much. He and Mark Howard and Malcolm Burn essentially provided my career to me. I worked like a dog, but they were the ones who showed me how to make records, and they didn’t hold back.
Mind you, they made me pay for that knowledge with blood, sweat, and tears! [laughs] Dan was rough, but he was a genius. He could be a real taskmaster, but then we would be listening to five takes of something and he’d turn to me and ask, “What’s the edit?” and he’d allow me to cut the tape.
He’d entrust me with those kinds of decisions, so he really built me up . . . but then, if I’d done something to piss him off, he’d retaliate by doing something really heinous. [laughs] It was always this up and down thing, but what that taught me was that nobody can psych me out in a studio—you cannot frighten me in there. I simply won’t panic, and I guess he taught me that too.
Why do you think he hired you?
Well, truth be told, I was very ballsy and very mouthy, and I think Dan kind of dug that. I wasn’t afraid to speak my mind, and you need to be able to do that in the studio—but then, having made your point, you also need to be able to sit back and shut up.
And I had two skills that were invaluable in those days: I could fearlessly punch in—and I never missed a punch—and I could cut tape like a surgeon. Those two skills are no longer valid, but they’re the reasons I got the job at Kingsway, and also the reasons why Sheryl Crow asked me to work with her.
I could get good sounds, too, but that’s easy, and that’s not why Sheryl hired me. From her point of view, she could just keep singing and be confident that I wouldn’t erase something good.
Do you really feel that getting good sounds is easier, or less important, than developing other studio skills?
Yes, I do. How hard is it to put a mic in front of an instrument and turn on a preamp? People have trouble getting good sounds because they mess with it. They get it in their head that they have to change it some way—they’ve got to roll something out, or add something in.
Just put a microphone in front of a guitar amp, walk into the control room and turn the preamp up good and loud, shove it through a compressor if you want some extra gain—don’t compress it, just use it to get some extra gain—and send it to the recorder. Done.
But surely the art is knowing which mic to put up, and where to put it.
Right. But, again, that’s not something you have to spend your entire career figuring out. Ask somebody, or do a little experimenting. You’ll find out that a [Shure SM] 57 and a Royer [ribbon mic] sounds great together on a guitar amp.
Truthfully, any mic is going to sound great if you place it in front of a great amp getting signal from a great guitar being played by a great guitar player. It’s not about getting the great sound; it’s about capturing a great sound that’s already there, which means simply recording without interfering with it.