RE/P Files: An Interview With Noted Engineer/Producer Val Garay
Circa 1983, a discussion on approaches with top artists, running a studio, and more...

June 05, 2014, by Robert Carr

recording engineer producer

From the archives of the late, great Recording Engineer/Producer (RE/P) magazine, enjoy this in-depth discussion with engineer/ producer Val Garay, conducted by Robert Carr. This article dates back to the October 1983 issue.

As a natural extension to his career as a musician during the early Sixties, Val Garay’s love for music lead him to pursue the art and science of audio engineering. Starting in 1969, he apprenticed at the Sound Factory, Hollywood, under rock-recording legend Dave Hassinger (Rolling Stones, Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Seals and Crofts).

After turning independent, Garay formed an alliance with another ex-musician, Britisher Peter Asher. The association produced monster hits for Asher’s clients Linda Ronstadt (Heart Like a Wheel, Prisoner in Disguise, Hasten Down the Wind, Simple Dreams, Living in the USA, Mad Love) and James Taylor (J.T., Flag, Dad Loves His Work).

Garay eventually became dissatisfied at the Sound Factory, and the inconsistencies attendant with moving from one studio to another, at which point he decided the best course of action was to open his own facility, Record One, located in Sherman Oaks, just north of Los Angeles, and which now serves as his recording home.

The following interview took place among the dozens of Gold and Platinum albums lining the walls in Garay’s private office. After a few words on his recent accomplishments as producer/engineer with Kim Carnes (Mistaken Identity; 1981 “Record of the Year” Grammy Winner for “Bette Davis Eyes”), Randy Meisner (One More Song), Joan Armatrading (The Key), and the Motels (All Four One), a band that Garay also manages, the conversation turned to the opportunities and advantages to an engineer/producer owning one’s own personal-use studio.


Robert Carr: It must be particularly convenient to have your own studio, which enables you to take the time to perfect each project you work on?

Val Garay: It is and it isn’t. Sometimes it’s a pain in the ass, because you have to deal with the business end of owning a studio, which I’m not terribly fond of. I don’t like to sit there with calculators and figure out the plus and minus side of the operation. I like to make records, which is a lot more creative, and pretty soon I’ll start making a film. [A feature film based in part on Motels’ lead singer Martha Davis’ life currently is in its development stages.]

Owning your own facility is kind of a necessary evil in the sense that if you subject yourself to a commercially rented studio, you subject yourself to someone else’s tastes—not only in terms of equipment and design, but also maintenance and other things. I was fortunate to spend the first eight or nine years of my engineering career in one recording studio [Record Factory in Hollywood] and the rest of the time here [Record One]. I wasn’t subjected to going from one studio to another. It’s too unsettling for me.

RC: Is stability of that nature necessary for you to make a good product?

VG: I think you perform better when you have familiar surroundings and equipment that you’re used to working with. If you were a “body-and-fender” man, to put it on a mundane level, and you were wondering around the streets doing your work every day using tools in different areas, I’m sure you wouldn’t be as proficient as if you had your own body shop. It’s basically the same thing here.

The only problem is that this is a two-million-dollar operation, so it requires a lot of attention. And I’m not the only one who uses this studio. We rent the studio to a lot of clients, and I’m constantly having to book around other people. In all fairness, if I decided to work tomorrow, I couldn’t bump Toto out of the studio. I’m basically a customer here, too; that can be frustrating at times.

RC: Couldn’t you divest yourself of the day-to-day running of the studio, and put someone else in charge?

VG: No, I can’t. It’s the same way that I make records. I have to concern myself with every fragment, or something starts to dissipate or disintegrate. If you’re not in contact with what’s going on, you can’t catch it before it gets too bad.

RC: I assume that kind of philosophy is what motivated you to become involved with both engineering and producing the projects you take on?

VG: I’ve been working this way for 15 years. I just wasn’t successful as [only] a producer. But it’s very difficult to try and hire somebody to engineer records when, in my mind, and I don’t mean this egotistically, I’m one of the best engineers I know. How could I hire somebody else? All the really good up and coming engineers that I know are people I taught. And you know that you teach them everything they know, not everything you know.

Greg Ladanyi won a Grammy last year for the Toto IV record, and I taught him. I was just reading an article in Re/p on Gabe Veltri [April 1983 issue Ed.]. When I got perturbed at the Sound Factory at one time in my career and went over to Richard’s [Perry] studio for about a year and worked, Gabe was my go-fer. Now I see him in his sweater and tinted glasses behind the console.

It would be very difficult for me to hire someone as my engineer, unless I worked with someone in my peer group. I could work with [Bill] Schnee, because we came out of the same school in the same time frame. But when you have somebody else to deal with, you have another personality, another X-Factor in the formula. That tends to dilute the process sometimes. Whereas right now, I don’t have a whole lot of conversation with my engineer about how I want to do something, because he knows how I want to do it, since he is me.

RC: A lot of producers don’t like to handle both functions for the same project, because they feel they’ll be missing some production aspect while they’re working with the equipment, or vice versa.

VG: It can be hard. But here’s how I do it, which is actually pretty easy, because I’ve figured out a method that works. I spend an immense amount of time rehearsing, which is why I built a rehearsal studio in here [Record One]. That’s when I sort out the musical part of the record-making process—the instrumentation; the arrangements; the basic architecture of the song [see accompanying sidebar].

The ratio of rehearsal-to-recording time is about two-to-one. If we spent eight months making a record, two-thirds of that was rehearsing, and the other third recording. We figure everything out in absolute detail and make cassettes at each juncture as we go along. I could play you cassettes of the Motels’ album [All Four One] that shows one song passing through four stages of arrangement.

Sometimes we’ll get into the studio, cut the tracks, not get it, come back to rehearsal, and work on the arrangement even more. By the time we get to the studio, I’m thoroughly familiar with the song. There are so few changes made while we’re recording that I can become an engineer and get a sound that I like.

Once I’ve accomplished that, there’s really nothing more to laying it down than cutting a vocal, and I can do that without even thinking about it; my hands respond unconsciously to how my ear wants to hear the vocal track. I don’t even look at VU meters anymore. I’m totally conscious of the music when it’s going down, and I can tell a great take from a bad one instantly.

I also make notes. I keep a loose-leaf notebook for every group I work with. Here’s the Motels’; this book represents the last album we did. [Holds up a black binder and opens to a page about halfway into the book.] If you look at “Only the Lonely,” for example: this is the lyric sheet [flips page]; I have the date on the top of each sheet. These are the fixes we did on the vocal; the numbers of the takes with little one- and two-word descriptions after each one.

As the track is going down I make notes: “CT” equals complete take; “FS” equals false start, etc. [Sample comments: “bad sax”; “good take”; “the run-through was good in spots”; “still some mistakes”; “end is not tight”; “magnificent from solo on”; “the last hit was perfect.”] Here is my star system, actually stolen from Peter Asher: two or more stars means that the take was really good.

I keep pretty accurate notes of everything that I’ve done on every record. Sometimes the notes get more excessive or less depending on how hard it is to cut.

Here’s Kim’s album, Mistaken Identity. [Garay pulls out another binder from the pile, and opens to a page.] “Bette Davis Eyes”—that was the first complete take. Then in the back is usually the songs that didn’t make it. “The Lover” didn’t make it, obviously. Neither did “New Orleans Ladies,” “Here Comes the Bad One,” “Good Friend,” “Games,” “If You Don’t Want My Love”; these are songs that never made it as we were working on the album.

RC: Did you spend time pre-producing all these songs that didn’t make it?

VG: We rehearsed them. The ratio I’ve found in the past is usually three or four to one, meaning 30 to 40 songs to get 10 finished ones. For every three or four songs, you’ll get one that not only suits the artist, but is also strong enough to use on the album.

RC: Do you keep those rejected songs for use in the future?

VG: It’s a nice idea, but unfortunately it never works. If they are not good enough for this album, usually they won’t be strong enough for anyone.

RC: You’re really playing the numbers. You start with a lot of songs, and slowly weed them out until the good ones turn up?

VG: Not necessarily. When I started the new Motels’ album in January 1983, we had three songs. Three became one; one became none. Then we started over again. We have all 10 songs now [July 1983].

RC: If you do spend six to eight months or a year on an album, is it cost-effective to do everything yourself, assuming that your time is worth quite a bit of money?

VG: Hiring someone else to do those things would not change the time frame at all. We’d have to rehearse just as long, and it wouldn’t change the engineering. I originally did all the pre-production out of fear of not being prepared in the studio, and not being able to make things sound good. But, in reality, that kind of time is required to do a good job, regardless of whether you’re engineering or not. One sort of facilitates the other anyway.

I make most of my records live with very few overdubs. I think that records are better that way, especially if you’re working with great singers, which I have had the great fortune to do.

Yet certain singers thrive on the overdubbing process. I’ve never seen a great singer, who overdubs his vocal, sing a part from top to bottom, and use 98 percent of it. The minute they get into the overdub design of doing vocals, they’ll do eight takes and comp (compile or combine) eight to one track, and then do eight more and comp them. Basically what they do is use their ear as a singer to pick what they sing best, and sort of assemble the finished vocal track mechanically. In the end, it usually sounds like they sang it from top to bottom.

Don Henley does that very well—although I don’t know why he does it, because he’s a great singer. In fact, all the Eagles did it that way for years. Jackson Browne does it the same way. They go as far as comping syllables. “Well, the t-h-e of that word is a little flat.” So they’ll switch at that point to another vocal track that has that syllable a little more in tune. The layman can’t really hear all these comps. I did that with Randy Meisner’s album; there were a million switches in that.

With the Eagles, (Meisner) was used to singing in only one register, which was really high. But for a solo record, where you’re the lead singer, you have to cover all the areas. His lower ranges were a little more tentative, and he would sing out of tune more often. In order to get it in tune, we had to do the vocal tracks that way.

But when you have a singer like Martha (Davis, of the Motels), Kim Carnes, Linda Ronstadt, or James Taylor, those people are great singers. They have great intonation. The best vocal performances I ever recorded with Linda were the live ones with a few fixes—you fix one word here, and one word there. “Blue Bayou” was live; “Ooh, Baby Baby” was live. In fact, that whole record was. Also, “Bette Davis Eyes” by Kim was totally live.

RC: I remember reading a couple of reviews about Linda Ronstadt’s album to the effect that, because the recording sounded so perfect, the critics thought it had been “produced to death.” How do you react to such comments.?

VG: The pre-production was really good. The interesting thing is that Linda never learned the songs until she got in the studio. She would sort of sluff her way through the rehearsals. The band would learn the songs, but she wouldn’t even know the lyrics most of the time—she’d be reading from a sheet! But she’s such a great singer that she can evoke emotions that sound like she’s torn. She’d usually learn the lyrics in a couple of run-downs in the studio.

Martha (Davis) is a great singer. When you have someone that sings as well as she does, and a band that’s got the tune down—and they’re interacting in a live-performance situation, even on a record—it’s much more real and emotional, and more moving, when it’s all going down at once, and one person is playing off the other. If you have a strong drummer that doesn’t move if the singer rushes or drags, then the track stays steady; the singer is singing and the band is following the singer, instead of a singer following a music track that’s [already] laid. It’s a whole different method. That’s why Elvis Presley records made in the Fifties still hold up; they were done Iive.

RC: You work with these artists for such a long time during pre-production and recording. It must be inevitable that you develop a close friendship with them after a while. In a way, doesn’t it become harder to be critical of their work?

VG: It becomes easier, the more familiar you get with them, because the barriers and defenses go down. It’s easier for me to be frank with Martha three years later, than it was the first month, because: A, I was afraid of hurting her feelings; and, B, afraid of what she was going to think of me. Is she going to think I’m a tyrant?

No, the more familiar you become, the more open the lines of communication. You’re more comfortable with the person, and there is less and less need for dialog. She knows what I want from her as a performer; I know, hopefully, what she wants, and we get to the point a lot quicker.

RC: I would also think that it provides you with an insight into knowing when to kick them forward, and when to dangle the carrot in front to get them going.

VG: Absolutely. I’ve known her so long that I know when to say it’s over; go home. Sometimes it’s five o’clock at night; sometimes it’s three o’clock in the morning. I know when the productivity level has peaked. That’s when I go, “Good night. See you tomorrow.”

RC: I noticed that you tend to rely on the same session players for most of your dates. Does that stem from the same sort of philosophy . . . that you know them so well there’s an extra efficiency?

VG: Sort of, but I think it has to do with more than that—a love affair with a great player. I’m sure that just as directors fall in love with actors and actresses, producers fall in love with musicians. I don’t mean in a sexual connotation, but on an emotional level. When I first heard Russ Kunkel play drums, I was in awe.

And he was a young man just starting out. But he had that thing that when you hear a great drummer, whether it’s in the early raw form, or the finished polished form, you just know when you hear it. At least I do. So I worked with basically the same 10 musicians for 10 years.

When it came time for me to make a break with [producer] Peter[Asher], and start producing on my own, I knew it was imperative that I build my own little group of musicians, as opposed to using his. His were used to his method of operation. Although I learned a lot from the man, I wasn’t going to do it the same way. That’s when I started looking for the guys I wanted to use.

It’s hard, too, because when you’ve dealt with the Waddy Wachtels, and the Leland Sklars and Russ Kunkels of rock and roll, you’ve set a standard that is pretty hard to duplicate. But I did, although I still go back and use Waddy from time to time.

RC: What do you look for when selecting musicians for a session?

VG: I guess my own taste in musicianship. I know very few musicians who are feverish readers—playing noted parts that are written out. They can read their way through a rough chart, because most of the stuff we write out is just chord charts to give the people a guide to follow. I look basically for the feel they have for playing.

RC: Many producers and engineers prefer not to work with the same people most of the time, because they feel that they reach a certain point in their careers where it’s difficult to remain creative.

VG: That happened with the old group of musicians I worked with when I was with Peter Asher all those years. But [deciding] when it happens is not that clear cut. It’s not that suddenly they don’t become creative anymore, because their wonderful talent doesn’t go away.

It’s just that you fall into a rut. It’s like Steve Garvey playing for the [LA] Dodgers all those years, and last year he wasn’t playing that well. Then he goes to San Diego, and he’s killing them.

The same thing happens with musicians—familiarity breeds contempt. The temptation is to start getting lackadaisical. I know I can get a good drum sound on Russ Kunkel without turning up the speakers. I could leave them shut off, EQ them, balance them on VU meters, and know it would sound great, because I’ve worked with him that long. When you get to that point, you lose the fear.

When I make records, I operate under a fear premise that this project won’t sound good enough, won’t feel good enough, won’t something good enough. It’s fear. If I sit there and kick back, knowing I can get a great sound on these guys, because they’re all going to play great, I’ve lost that hungry, street-level edge that got me here. That’s what becomes difficult in terms of creativity.

Here’s the difference; you’ve got the Phoenix Sun Devils and the New York Yankees. I’m sure there are days when the New York Yankees do not feel like playing baseball, but they do, because they’re professionals. The same thing holds true in this business. When you’re a professional, and you’re good, you’re respected, and you’ve reached a certain level of proficiency, you then have to figure out how to motivate yourself day after day. I have trouble with it.

I’ve been sitting in a control room for 15 years looking at a pair of speakers. It’s hard for me sometimes to go in there when I would rather be out in the sun sailing to Catalina, or playing gold at Riviera. I have other interests. But I have to get that fear of, “Is this going to be a hit record?” Well, it’s not going to be a hit record if I don’t work on it. And it’s not going to be a hit record if I don’t put into it what I put into the last one.

You have to motivate yourself. That’s how I do it—with fear. There’s that guy right behind me; he’s right on my heels. Until I decide to move into another area, I have to keep motivated. I have to keep up with the technology; keep my ears and eyes open all the time.

RC: Other than the fear, are there other little games that you play to persuade yourself to look at the project a little bit differently, and to uncover new avenues?

VG: Yes. There’s pressure…

RC: Under pressure, wouldn’t you fall back on the proven techniques and tricks you know work to get the job done?

VG: No. Well, there is a certain formula that is ingrained in all of that—what I call the basic foundation—that I live with. I never get rid of that. When my foundation was assembled in terms of making records, it was concrete—it was solid. I know what works. I also know the key to any record is a song. So if l do my homework in the song department, I can produce it in terms of the “production.”

Maybe not as well as the last record; I can sluff off in terms of the arrangement. But if it’s “Every Breath You Take,” I don’t care if you cut it on a cassette machine in a phone booth in Tahiti; it’s a hit. So most of the work I do is basically in the song line-up.

For the rest of the job, I’m fortunate. I learned from a great teacher how to make records; I know how to make them sound great. I can do R&B; I can do rock and roll; I can do country music ... pop music. I’ve done all of them successftdly. I’ve had a well-rounded career doing acts like that, so it’s just a matter of finding things that I’m comfortable with.

RC: Up until now, we’ve been discussing primarily rock projects. Do you feel you’ve become something of a rock specialist?

VG: I think that was done out of self-defense. By the time I was done with eight or nine years of Linda and James, I was stamped as the engineer for country-pop—the “California, surfboards, and tuna-fish” engineer. Oddly enough, my roots were always in rock and roll long before I ever did anything with Linda and James. So, out of self defense, I went after projects with more of a raw, rock and-roll edge to them, to prove to people that I could do that type of music. That’s sort of where I’ve been for a while.

RC: Do you really feel that you’ve gotten stuck there?

VG: No. Not at all. I like it. I like to take acts that are slightly off-center - not mainstream pop acts, but slightly off-center, rock-and-roll acts—and make them mass-appealable. All the acts I’ve worked with since I started as a producer had not turned the corner and become big, successful recording acts before I worked with them. They were all a little bit off in terms of their style, or their singing, or their sound, or whatever. I figured out a way to make them acceptable to the masses.

Kim Carnes had made six albums before I started working with her. She had gone from the beautiful, southern California singer/songwriter, to the woman with the raspy “Rod Stewart” voice doing a song called “Bette Davis Eyes,” which is about as off the wall as anything you can ever write.

Martha [Davis] had made two albums before I worked with her—neither were successful. Everybody knew she had the potential. She was sort of the “Los Angeles, New-Wave hope.” People had assigned her the slot of heir apparent to the throne of the female, LA, rock and roll star. It hadn’t happened. Again, I think I helped figure out a way to make it work.

RC: Of all the albums I listened to, Kim Carnes’ Mistaken Identity sounded the most commercial. It had a Top-40 sound to the album, whereas the others—the Motels, Joan Armatrading, and Randy Meisner—didn’t.

VG: Joan’s record is pretty avant garde. I only did two tracks on that [album], and those two were probably the most commercial. The Motels’ album sounds really commercial to me, and considering how well it did sales-wise ... “Only the Lonely” is, to me, the classic cheek-to-cheek tune. I don’t really know what you mean. “Mission of Mercy” was a great AOR rock tune.

RC: I can describe it more in terms of colors. Mistaken Identity had a very light color to it, in the sense that you might hear it on a middle-of-the-road station. The other material comprised darker shades of colors.

VG: Right. Martha is a very dark writer. Kim has a lighter side to her that is really pleasing. To me, her real strength as a singer lies in the fact that she has this wonderful sensitivity. A song like “Mistaken Identity,” or “Bette Davis Eyes,” is amazingly captivating, because she can evoke both of those emotions out of you. Whereas, you listen to a song like “Break the Rules Tonight,” which is her screaming her ass off, and the guitars going “gggrrrk, ggrrk, ggrrk,” that’s good, but it’s not as believable to me as the other side of her.

RC: So part of your job is to establish a direction and identity for the artist, and have them remain credible within that identity?

VG: Absolutely. The toughest part of the job is to have them not lose credibility in their minds and, at the same time, be accessible to the masses. You don’t want them to feel like you are selling them out. You have to show them you’re on their side and, at the same time, strike a happy medium between the absolute avant garde side and the mainstream, pop medium, which sometimes tends to be a little bland.

Critics talk about an artist selling out when they rthe artists] get successful. The reason that all the avant garde, hard-core people think you are selling out, is because you appeal to the masses.

RC: You’re no longer something that they discovered?

VG: Right. I watched Hoyt Axton completely berate and belittle Linda for selling out when she made “Heart Like a Wheel,” because he was this hard-core country singer. She worked her ass off thinking that she was making a sound, artistic endeavor. Because it sold 2 1/2 million records does not mean she sold out. But, to him it did, because she was no longer his discovery.

RC: Is there a process that you go through to define an artist’s personality, or is that a difficult concept to put into words?

VG: It’s not that nebulous; it’s pretty real. The quickest and most efficient way of doing it is through songs. If the artist is a writer, they write great songs, and not as great songs. But they are not always the best judge of which ones are the great ones! My job is to find the great ones.

It’s a funny kind of “push-and-pull” process where I’ll listen to five tunes and say, “This is a good song; these four aren’t.” They’ll go, “Well, I really love this one, too.” And I tell them it’s not really that good, but we’ll work on it. Then we work on it, and it’s still not good, and I say, “Forget it. Let’s off it.” And they come back with, “No I really love it. We have to keep working on it!”

So we keep working on it. Sometimes you keep going over and over and over and finally you have to say, “Forget it! It stinks! Next tune!” Or you may get it. Suddenly it all comes together. We had a tune like that on this album with Martha. We started cutting in February and finally got it in . . . [flips through notebook of Motels’ sessions].

That’s a good note, huh? [Garay points to a qualitative note about a take on one of the pages.]

RC: Horrible! [Laughter] Do you show the artists this book as you go along?

VG: It sits in the control room next to me. They always come in and look to see what I said. That’s the first thing they do to find out if they got a take or not. [Continues to flip through pages.] Here you go. We started it 4/14/83. This is the first time we cut the song, so we know they’ve been rehearsing it for a week or two weeks in front of this. And we cut it on the 15th [flips through pages]. That version sat around for a while, and then we realized that it wasn’t right.

Then, the 24th of May: a new version. That didn’t fly. We changed the arrangement and we cut it again on 6/6/83. Then 617/83; that’s when we got it. The eighth take. Figure that’s almost two months on that one song to get a recorded version we liked.

RC: Did the song change that much during those eight weeks?

VG: Drastically. Four completely different versions. I still have them on cassettes.

RC: Would you say that a lot of artists really don’t know who they are? Or don’t have a really clear picture of themselves?

VG: Always.

RC: So the whole idea during production is to cut through the illusion of who the artist thinks they are, and find the real self?

VG: I don’t tell them anything. I just help them find what they feel comfortable with, and what I think is an acceptable mode to the general masses, as opposed to a select few. The Motels were successful previously on an underground basis, because they made albums that were an avant garde kind of collector’s item. That’s about all they were. They had some great songs on there, but they just didn’t come out.

RC: There’s only a finite number of things you can do with a song…

VG: ... it’s endless. To give you an example: you have 10 songs on an album. When you go to sequence that album, what are the multiple number of ways that you can arrange those songs? Millions; about 3,856,000 and change. Yet if you gave me 10 songs and asked me to sequence them, after I became familiar enough with them I would say that every time I would get that sequence into four or five logical combinations.

RC: The songs tell you where they want to go?

VG: Kind of, but you also have an endless supply of options. And you never get to a point where you have exact figures. The technology changes so fast; the styles of music change so fast. Basically we’re looking at the parameters of tone and time. Time based on ... this year it’s more of a mechanical sound with mechanical drummers; synthesizers synchronized to the mechanical drummers with sequencers. Five years ago it was something else.

And song form has changed, too. It’s no longer verse-chorus-verse-chorus. That’s changed drastically, based on the boredom of familiarity. I can see Martha’s writing style change from the way John Phillips would write a song for the Mamas and Papas, which is classic Gershwin or Hammerstein kind of verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-etc.

RC: What about putting the arrangement together? Let’s say on a chorus, where the harmony comes in for the first line, solo voice for the second line, harmony again on the third line…

VG: Well, that’s pretty much not going to change a lot, because that’s basic song architecture. You want the beginning to be intriguing, and draw you in, but you want it to get bigger as it goes down the road.

Now there are a lot of “no music solos,” which five years ago you didn’t hear. I think I produced the first big hit with the first no·music solo in “Bette Davis Eyes.” That had no noted music in the solo; it was just a riff rolling over and over. That’s happening a lot. The Police record [“Every Breath You Take”] has almost no solo in it. A couple of tunes on Martha’s new album have no solos.

RC: Obviously there’s a constant striving to throw at least one new thing in every song?

VG: I think that happens by itself. Every time I’ve ever said, “Okay, this time we’re going to come up with the great new sound,” it turns out to be junk. The Synare [drum machine] that I used on “Bette Davis Eyes” and everybody copies now, is a good example. It was a complete accident on my part.; these are songs that never made it as we were working on the album.

Nobody went, “Let’s come up with this great sound that everybody will copy.”

[Drummer] Craig Krampf went out and bought one of these little things that you hit and it goes [Garay does a Synare impression with his mouth]. He’s sitting there trying to put it in every song we rehearsed for two weeks. Finally I told him, “Will you throw that thing away?
It sounds like a garbage can lid.” Then we started working on “Bette Davis Eyes,” and he played it in that. I went, “Wait a minute! That works!” You’ve got to be ready to try things.

I worked on the Summer Breeze album with Seals and Crofts and [engineer] David [Hassinger] at the Sound Factory. About eight months later they did a live show where the actual live take of “Summer Breeze” wasn’t that good. Louis Shelton said, “Why don’t we cut to the down beat ofthe studio 24-track, and to the last beat of the live tape? That way we’ll be using the original 24-track for the song.” I said, “No way. It’ll never work in a million years. Forget it. You can’t do that.” “Try it,” he said. “No!” “Try it!” “Okay!” Cut. Perfect. Worked great.

Never say never—you have to try everything. I can say no after I’ve tried it. But all the time I’m in the studio I’ll say, “Why don’t you try this thing?” and I’ll get resistance. Working with an artist is the hardest thing to do. It’s like raising children. I don’t have any, but I’ve been around enough of them in my lifetime to know that when you’re a parent, the hardest thing to do is not to impart your values and your personal judgment on the child, who is very impressionable and wants to learn.

You want them to be themselves a little bit. You don’t want to keep saying, “No. You can’t put your pants on that way. No, don’t sit that way on the couch.” Pretty soon, they become a puppet to you, and your feelings and values. But when you let them be themselves, they are amazingly honest. That’s because they aren’t inhibited; they have their own method of thinking and operating.

It’s the same thing with an artist. They are lovable little children in a lot of ways—that’s what makes them so vulnerable. So the hardest thing is to try and help them out of the womb, but not smother them. You’ve got to let them grow on their own, and it’s hard; it’s painful a lot of times. I put a lot of work into an artist and a project and a career and, as they grow and become less and less dependent on me, it hurts. I’ve nurtured them, held their hand, put the band-aids on their knees ... all the things you go through as a parent.

When they become independent, it becomes difficult. But at the same time, there is the satisfaction of being the proud parent standing there at graduation when they’re accepting their cum laude award. It’s mixed emotion.

RC: If one of your artists came to you, expressing the wish to work with another producer, how would you react?

VG: Actually, that sort of happened with Kim. I made a really good record with her that sold [in] unbelieveable amounts, and she decided after we made the second record—which didn’t sell in unbelievable amounts—that she would rather work with someone else. I have absolutely no animosity whatsoever.

RC: We talked about Kim Carnes’ sensitivity before. She seems to have a delicate voice, because of the raspiness. Is that difficult to mike, and get it to cut through the track?

VG: No. If an artist’s voice doesn’t cut through the track, it’s the arrangement that’s crowded. That’s usually the case.

RC: Is there a procedure you go through for selecting a mike for a particular vocalist?

VG: No. I’ve used pretty much the same mike for the last 15 years: a Neumann U-67 tube.

RC: Does the U-67 have a special sound for you?

VG: Not really; they’re just a great microphone for singers, and I’ve gotten really good vocal sounds on all the vocalists I’ve ever worked with. You can get things that will sound different—have more edge to it or harshness, or whatever—but you won’t get anything that sounds better. In some cases I might want something that sounds different than that, and then I’ve used other microphones. But for the most part, I stick with the Neumann.

RC: So you’re going for the accurate representation of the source?

VG: Usually. I use hardly any EQ at all on the vocalist. I must be getting pretty close to the way they sound, because they’ve never complained that it didn’t sound like them when they heard the record!

RC: Which brings up an interesting point about Joan Armatrading. Her voice has a cutting edge to it. Is that the quality of her voice, or was the mike chosen to enhance that edge?

VG: I only did two songs. I used a U-67 for those two tracks. There was no attempt to tone down her voice, or make it more cutting. [Steve Lillywhite produced the remaining nine songs on The Key.]

RC: Why did you re-cut those two tracks?

VG: I didn’t re-cut them; they didn’t exist before I did them. It was like her sixth or seventh album, and A&M felt there wasn’t a single on it for the United States. They approached me and asked if I would be interested in cutting a couple of tracks with her for the purpose of making a more commercial release for America. I had enough time to do just a couple of tracks, so I said, “Sure.” She’s really a fabulously good artist.

RC: Did you pick those two songs, or were they already worked out?

VG: She played me three or four tunes, and we picked those two [“What Do Boys Dream,” and “(I Love It When You) Call Me Names”]. We worked on the arrangements a lot. She wasn’t used to that. The person she worked with before, Steve Lillywhite, was terribly
uninvolved in the musical aspect of her record. He didn’t discuss arrangement changes, key changes, or bar changes. I was a musician long before anything else, so I have to be involved in that.

I have opinions and feelings; you don’t have to use them, or listen to them. But to not allow me to say them is sort of cheating oneself, because I have good ideas. Obviously, that’s been proven. Peter [Asher] listened to my ideas for enough years, so I figure if he’s as smart as he is, somebody else should listen, too!

RC: Speaking of Peter Asher, he brought you Linda’s last album to mix, didn’t he?

VG: No. Not actually, I was contracted to do that album based on the kind of deals we made in years previous. I started recording that album about two years ago. We cut five or six tunes. Then I got in the middle of another album - I can’t remember who it was at the time—and Linda got into the Broadway play [Pirates of Penzance], then into the movie. Before we knew it, a year had gone by.

At that point, I was unavailable, and they needed to finish the album. So we all talked about it when they got back to LA. They came up with the idea of doing it with [engineer] George [Massenburg], who is a very close friend of mine, and a marvelous engineer.

RC: So you were familiar with the album when the time came for you to mix it?

VG: No. They spent another seven or eight months recording more material and, out of the five or six tracks that I recorded, I think they kept three. When it came time to mix the record, George, having worked with Earth, Wind and Fire for all those years, had his style of mixing with those people, and Peter and Linda had gotten very used to my style of mixing.

They started mixing with George, and weren’t happy with the results—I believe based mainly on the fact that Peter liked my style of mixing. Not because I’m a better mixer, because I think George is every bit as good as I am as a mixer. They then approached me on the basis of: “We’re old friends; would you do us a favor?” I was right in the middle of another project. “Just give us five days of your time, and try to mix some of this album for us.” So I said, “Sure.”

I mixed about five or six tracks, and they played them for George so he could get his bearings, because I mixed some of the things that he’d recorded. Now, when you’re a good engineer, you hear things—balance, levels, EQ, etc.—a certain way. And when somebody else changes that, it’s instantly apparent what they’ve changed.

So, when I mixed a couple of his tunes he became aware of what Peter and Linda were looking for, and remixed again the tracks that I had mixed. The tracks were even more to their [Peter and Linda’s] liking. George ended up mixing better than half the album, and I did the rest.

RC: Can you define what was different about your two mixing styles?

VG: Of his initial mixes that I heard, I used more vocal and drums than [George] did. The rest of it is all subtleties. But when you get somebody as good as George is, the subtleties are equally good either way. Do you like Chocolate or Vanilla ice cream? They’re both ice cream; it’s that sort of thing.

RC: Just one final fact that I was curious about. Capitol chose the Motels’ last album, All Four One, as the first cassette tape to release using its XDR system, which is supposed to improve the quality of pre-recorded cassettes. What do you think of the system?

VG: I think cassettes are virtually headed for the land of doom, and I’m glad. I think the next realistic avenue is the Compact Disc.

RC: But you can’t record on CD.

VG: That’s what is realistic about it. Piracy is the only problem we have, and it drives me crazy. I understand on one level, and I don’t on another. My 14- and 15-year-old nephews—my sister has eight children—were over at my house one day, and we’re talking about music.

They asked me if I like so and so, and I go, “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” And Kenny, the next to the oldest says, “Well, I always go over to my friend’s house and tape the albums.” And I said, “Don’t you know that’s piracy. You’re stealing from me, your Uncle, who you love dearly.”
Copy a tape, go to prison!

And they go, “Yeah, but the quality of the cassettes in the stores is terrible.” And they’re right. The cassettes are horrible. Because they are high-speed duplicated, the reproduction is [lousy)—the top·end disappears; the transparency disappears. But the tape duplicators have no choice; that’s the only way they can make them. If they made one-to-one copies at normal speed, they’d be there forever, and have to charge $20 to $40 a cassette. It’s unfortunate, but it’s true.

And we [the people who derive their living from records] are losing billions of dollars a year to illegal taping. The Compact Disc will eliminate that. The reproduction is phenomenal. It’s small, easy to use; you can drive over the disk with your car; punch a hole in it up to
1 mm and it still plays fine, because it’s a laser disk. It’s almost completely idiot proof.

Albums will eventually become Compact Discs, because the vinyl disk, as we know it, is an antiquated piece of junk. They were designed to operate at 78 RPM. You have to deal with warped records, groove noise, dust, needles. The Compact Disc is the answer. Good-bye to piracy! It will take years, but that’s where it will be.

Editor’s Note: This is a series of articles from Recording Engineer/Producer (RE/P) magazine, which began publishing in 1970 under the direction of Publisher/Editor Martin Gallay. After a great run, RE/P ceased publishing in the early 1990s, yet its content is still much revered in the professional audio community. RE/P also published the first issues of Live Sound International magazine as a quarterly supplement, beginning in the late 1980s, and LSI has grown to a monthly publication that continues to thrive to this day.

Take the PSW Photo Gallery Tour of audio equipment ads appearing in RE/P magazine, circa 1970.

Our sincere thanks to Mark Gander of JBL Professional for his considerable support on this archive project.

The Transition From Pre-Production To Studio Sessions

“Pre-production starts with the set-up.” Garay considers. “I let the band choose whatever makes them comfortable Their rehearsal arrangement doesn’t necessarily have to duplicate their normal stage or recording studio locations. As a rule of thumb, the drummer usually sets up in the center of the room, because everybody is listening to him. Then the bass player puts his amp near the drummer, so they can play easy, together. From there it’s pretty much up to the band members. A semi-circle seems to work, but the rehearsal room is small, so we could put anybody anywhere.

“As (ar as levels go, the band pretty much figures that out (or themselves too, because there’s an instant relationship among the members of a professional band. To hear each other in the room, there has to be a balance. If the guitar player is six times too loud, then all you hear is guitar and the other players tell him to turn down. But once you get the balance, you can stick one mike in there, open it up, and you’re ready to make a work tape.

“I like to make recordings of each arrangement as we go along. I use just one little cassette machine, with one little microphone. I could play you work cassettes of almost every song on every record I’ve made so far. You’d be amazed at how much you can hear on those tapes. It’s very close to the actual recordmg in the studio.

“The cassette tells you whether an arrangement works or not, because you can listen to it over and over. It tells you whether parts, rhythms, and everything else are the way they should be. The great test is how the song wears, and for that you have to keep listening to it over and over. The old adage is: ‘If it has legs, It will walk.’ What they mean by that is if everything about the song is comfortable, It will keep going If not, it starts to grate. And it’s either the arrangement or the song that grates on you. Once that happens, you have queries. And once you have queries, you start delving back into the song to find out why. I say that either the arrangement goes away immediately, or the song goes away in a period of time.

“When we go into the studio, I like to cut live—everything at once. I mike everything close for isolation, and also put very loud instruments, like distortion guitar parts, in separate rooms. (Record One features three acoustically treated recording areas—a main
studio, and two smaller adjacent rooms—as well as the control booth, and various live rooms throughout the complex that are pressed into service when needed.] To make the separate tracks blend back together, I run feeds to two PA speakers in the rehearsal studio, I have two Neumann U·67s that I can move anywhere in the room, or right next to the cabinets, for any desired effect. I just open the microphones up, and add them to the original sound at the board.

“I don’t really use a lot of effects other than the natural room ambiance, when I want to change something. I like to get nice, big, warm, fat, punchy sounds. If you want an effect, you can warp anything with outboard gear, but you can’t make anything sound big, fat, warm and punchy if it doesn’t start that way,

“I guess you could say I’m a purist, but don’t confuse that with traditionalism; a traditionalist I’m not. If there’s a sound out there in the studio, that’s the sound I want to get on tape. I would prefer to play with the guitar player’s amp and get the sound al his station, rather than attempt to manufacture what’s needed in the control room. All I try to do is capture what he’s got. In essence, the secret is that the studio and all the equipment must remain transparent to the overall process of recording.

“When we go into the studio, I like to cut live—everything at once. I mike everything close for isolation, and also put very loud instruments, like distortion guitar parts, in separate rooms. (Record One features three acoustically treated recording areas—a main studio, and two smaller adjacent rooms—as well as the control booth, and various live rooms throughout the complex that are pressed into service when needed.) To make the separate tracks blend back together, I run feeds to two PA speakers in the rehearsal studio, I have two Neumann U-67s that I can move anywhere in the room, or right next to the cabinets, for any desired effect. I just open the microphones up, and add them to the original sound at the board.



Return to articleReturn to article
RE/P Files: An Interview With Noted Engineer/Producer Val Garay