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Why was that?

Because it was the tail wagging the dog.  It was not an innovation created by creative people—it was an innovation made by manufacturers who wanted to sell equipment. You had to go in and do a new mix, and there was nothing creative about it. Producers didn’t want to have anything to do with it, either, because they’d already made their stereo mix and used up all their creative juices doing that.

So it just never felt natural to me. I never wanted to be in the middle of an orchestra—I just wanted to have the orchestra onstage in front of me, but with as much clarity as possible. 

What were your thoughts about the advent of multitrack recording?

That was super. We went from two-track to three-track at first, and that was tough because the Ampex machines didn’t provide good quality when you were playing back off the record heads. But once we changed over to four-track, the record heads sounded as good as the playback heads, so everything sounded clean even when you were overdubbing, and things got better yet when eight-track came along, and then sixteen and twenty-four. I welcomed those additional tracks because they gave me more opportunity to separate things out and change the balance afterwards if necessary. 

Multitrack allowed artists to make a recording that didn’t have a finished sound to it—they’d simply record things that you’d build on. The problem was that you never knew what the final sound was going to be until you finished mixing the record. So from an engineer’s standpoint, mostly it was boring, and boring is frustrating. When we’d do something like a [Burt] Bacharach date, for example, you got to hear the whole thing, all at once, so you knew you were involved in making music.  

What about the advent of digital recording?

Well, I have to confess that at first, I didn’t like the sound of digital, although I eventually learned how to make it sound more like tape.

What was the secret?

Mostly putting the signal through tube equalizers, which round the sound off nicely—you can actually get pretty good results that way. I was still doing projects with Phil into the eighties, including the Ramones and Leonard Cohen, but we were still going to tape; Gold Star never really got into digital other than automated mixing. It was shortly after digital technology was introduced that I started cutting back, but I never really completely retired until Phil was producing Celine Dion in the mid-90s. He had asked me to work with him but we just kept mixing and remixing the same songs over and over again. Finally, out of frustration, I said to him, “That’s it—I’m retired.”

Even then, I never completely retired. Just a few years ago, Herb Alpert called me and asked me to mix some previously unreleased tracks for a compilation album [Lost Treasures]. We had to do that digitally, of course, but I didn’t like the sound of Pro Tools, so we did it in RADAR, which I thought sounded much more like tape.

Do you think someone is born with good ears, or is that something that can be learned?

It’s only in contemplation that I’ve come to realize to my own satisfaction that, yes, I do have a genuine affinity for music. Like any art form, music has different colors and textures, and when I think about it I realize that I had to have been at one with the music in order to create some of the records I made. What I mean by that is that I knew instinctively to not hurry through the mixing process. I’d start by just listening, and I might listen to a song all the way through eight or ten or a dozen times before even moving a single fader. I was trying to create a picture in my mind of how the instruments were laid out; I’d envision myself actually in a room with all these instruments, not necessarily the way I would have physically seated the musicians if I’d recorded them in the first place—just a picture. If I could get a picture, it was terrific. That’s when I knew the mix was really good. 

So it’s a matter of being one with the music, and getting the music to what it wants to be, if that makes any sense. One of the reasons I loved working with Phil was that he would leave me alone to mix. If you’ve got someone looking over your shoulder the whole time you’re going through the process, that really can disturb your concentration. 

There’s a thing called nuance, too, and I really identify that with Herb Alpert. Herb loves to mix, and he thinks things through, and he’s obviously got a good ear. When I listen to what he’s mixed against what I’ve mixed, there isn’t a great deal of difference in balances, but there is in nuance. That nuance comes when your fingers don’t tell your ears what a good job you did—they’re divorced from it—so all you’re hearing is the music, unadorned. Mind you, it’s not easy to get to the point where your hands are not part of the sound you’re crafting. 

That’s what I realized later, in contemplation—that I had those kinds of instincts. That’s why I think it’s beneficial to spend adequate amounts of time listening before mixing, so you get to the point where you’re with the music. If you do that, the music will tell you what it wants to be, rather than you forcing it into something that it doesn’t want to be.  At the end of the day, it’s all about serving the music.

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