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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...

By Robert Carr June 5, 2014

Val Garay (All photos by Kathy Cotter)

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.

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