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In The Studio: An Interview With Legendary Engineer Shelly Yakus

Recorded John Lennon, Blue Oyster Cult, Alice Cooper, and many more

By Bruce Borgerson November 13, 2013

Shelly behind the legendary API (originally from Sunset Sound) at Tongue and Groove Studios, Philadelphia.

BB: Now that we’re waxing philosophical, I wonder if you could back up and talk some more about how you learned to listen at your dad’s studio.

Learning to listen for what? How?

SY: Everyone hears, but not everyone listens. By that I mean, one day I’m doing some tape copies for a client of my dad’s, some 50 copies that are going to a radio station.

They wanted fifty of them. I bring out the fifty, and my dad spot checked them. He had this little Wollensak machine, and I was sitting there—this was when I was about sixteen—and he takes tapes out to spot check them, plays a few, then on one he says, “Did you hear that?”

I said, no. He rewinds it, plays it again. Still didn’t hear it. This went on for about ten minutes, but then finally he points his finger when it happens. Still didn’t hear it. All of a sudden I hear this dropout, very subtle and minute, but it was there.

It didn’t go away, but just for a moment it dropped in volume. At that moment, it all changed for me. After that, I listened to everything. In that ten minutes, I went from a person who couldn’t hear a dropout to one who did. It was the foundation of everything to come. Before that, I was hearing but I was not listening.

BB: So, when you started listening, what did you hear?

SY: Everything. It was amazing. For example, when we were doing four and eight track, I could listen to records done in New York and tell you which studio it was done at.

When we went to sixteen track, it was tougher, and when we went to twenty-four I couldn’t tell anymore. The studios in New York all had distinctive sounds, a combination of the rooms and the equipment, the main engineers who were doing them.

I learned the sound of Bell, of A&R, of Media Sound, or Mirror Sound. You could hear it on the radio. But it all went out the window with 24-track. Sixteen tracks on two-inch tape was as far as you could go and still maintain the personality of a room.

The twenty-four track machines started to eat up the clarity of the instruments.

BB: Let’s talk some about one of the landmark albums of the late sixties, the Band’s Music from Big Pink.

SY: That was recorded between A&R, four track, and a studio in LA, where they did it eight track. When it was mixed, they had a lot of difficulty getting the eight track to come together the same way as the four track.

For example, on the four track songs, if Levon sang while playing the drums, then the vocal and drums went on the same track, with some echo. Whatever he sang as lead vocal, that was on the drum track. Also, the bass and piano were on a track, but the organ was separate.

So you have to get that combination right, and the only way to do it is to listen in mono. You need the masking of the instruments to get the EQ right.

Remember, if you put them together on a track, you had to get a great bass drum sound right off, you had to work on that until it would stick out enough to work with the bass, but still the snare and the hi-hat had to be there.

When it went to 24-track, that’s one reason it didn’t’ sound as good. When you had to EQ something live off the floor…EQ’ing something twice, a little twice, is better than EQ’ing it a lot once, and much better than EQ’ing it a lot twice.

Those equalizers, if you touch them just a little, get a gentle slope, it works. But if you crank it up, it gets harsh sounding. With 24-track, those decisions were left to later, so they didn’t get THE bass drum sound or THE snare sound. Then they’d EQ to try to fix it.

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