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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...
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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.

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