Ep. 132 Transcript

Disclaimer: This is transcribed using AI. Expect (funny) errors.

Mindy Peterson: [00:00:00] I’m Mindy Peterson. And this is Enhance Life with Music, a holistic look at the power of music in our everyday lives. My guest today is John Long, who is joining me from the Houston area of Texas. John is the creator of a brand new educational website that is dedicated to telling the stories of the engineers, studio facilities and technologies behind the development of post-World War Two pop music. John’s website project is called The Recording Session Vault. It’s found at RecordingSessionVault.com. John is a former assistant recording studio engineer who worked with Grammy Award winning artists and engineers in recording studio facilities in Austin, LA and the Nashville metro area. Welcome to Enhance Life with Music, John.

John Long: [00:00:49] Thank you, Mindy. Glad to be here. It’s a pleasure to be with you.

Mindy Peterson: [00:00:52] Well, John, I was really intrigued to see your website project, because I’ll admit, when I see the term recording studio engineer, I don’t really have any idea what that means or what that person does. And when I was looking at that, it kind of reminded me of this comic that I saw in one of my early jobs that I had. I was working my way through college. I was doing office work in an engineering consulting firm. I was working in the civil engineering department and incidentally met my husband there and also another friend who’s become a dear friend and is like a big sister to me. But I was in the civil engineering department. One of the one of the civil engineers had a comic tacked onto her cubicle right by your nameplate. And the title of the comic was the public’s image of. And then it had four squares and the first square was a teacher and it had a picture of a teacher in front of a blackboard or a classroom. And the second square was a doctor, and it had a picture of a doctor with a stethoscope. And then the third box had some other common vocation. I don’t remember if it was a chef or a judge or a police officer and had a picture of that person, that vocation. And then the fourth square was a civil engineer. What’s the public’s image of a civil engineer? And the square was completely blank. Like there was nothing. Like, people just don’t really know. You know, you tell them you’re a civil engineer and they’re kind of like, Oh, okay, great. I have no idea what that means. So that’s where I’m coming from. When it comes to the recording studio engineers, I’m looking forward to our conversation today so you can enlighten us. But starting out, how do you describe what a recording studio engineer does to somebody who’s not in the industry and isn’t familiar with that role?

John Long: [00:02:42] Right. I think that the common perception is if we were to fill in a picture of a recording studio engineer, that we would put somebody behind a console sitting at a console in that picture frame if you were to draw it as a comic. But what a recording studio engineer really is, is this is someone who takes the vision of a producer or an artist and really turns that musical vision into a musical reality for people to be able to hear. So in other words, they do more than just record the music that you were able to listen to. They also really shape and sculpt that music into exactly what you were able to hear. A perfect example of that would be with with David Turner. All of us know what a drum, a snare drum, for example, normally sounds like. If you walk into a music store and you see a kid pull out a pair of drumsticks and hit a snare drum, we all sort of know what that normally sounds like. But if you listen to the AC DC song for those about to rock, a snare drum doesn’t normally sound like that. An engineer made it in this case, David Conner took what someone else had recorded, and while mixing that song, he made that drum sound like that. And so what a recording studio engineer does. Again, going back to that definition, they take the vision that the artist has, the producer has, this team of people have for what their music should sound like. Whenever you hear it on the radio or your streaming service or whatever your mode of listening to it may be, they take that music and they shape it, sculpt it, and develop it into what you’re eventually going to hear.

Mindy Peterson: [00:04:45] So as you’re talking, I’m coming. I come from a marketing background, so I’m picturing sort of the sonic equivalent of putting together an ad campaign or a promotional piece or an. Ad, something like that, where you’re meeting with a client and they’re saying this is the vibe that we want this campaign to have and this is where the ad is going. It’s going in this magazine or whatever. This is the clientele who’s going to be reading this magazine. And then you have maybe a graphic artist who’s creating that piece. And that’s kind of what I’m picturing. But the sonic version of that, is that an accurate metaphor?

John Long: [00:05:26] That’s pretty close. There’s the creative component that you’ve addressed with the graphic artist, for example, but there’s also the technical component of understanding how to use the gear and today how to use the software plug ins that emulate that gear, how to use the microphones and to they have to know the instruments and the musicians. There’s a lot of relationship building that goes on here and they have to know the artist and what the artist wants and be able to shape and channel all of those desires that the production team has into a finished product, a finished reality. One of the things that I do want to say about this is that engineers are also specialists to a degree. There are people who are tracking engineers who are going to record the band. For example, there are people who do the overdubs who are going to record the vocals. They’ll record any additional instrumentation parts that go into the song that you’re listening to. And then there are people who do what David Conner did for much of the second half of his career and still in the present, which is they are a mix engineer. In other words, they take all of the things that have been recorded and they really are those people that you’re talking about.

John Long: [00:06:45] He he’s really not just an engineer. He’s also an artist. And that he takes all of the things that have been recorded shapes and sculpts them into what you’re actually going to be able to hear. And then there’s a mastering engineer that comes behind the mix, engineer who’s going to take what someone like David has done, and then they’re going to create it. A sonic picture of leveling for that song. And what I mean by that is simply this they’re going to take that mix that the mix engineer is created and they’re going to enable it to be heard. A perfect volume on every device that you’re going to listen to this song on. So there are different engineers who work at different stages of the process, but all of them go back to that original definition of taking the vision that the artist and producer have for that song and making it a reality through every stage of the process so that by the end of it, by the time it’s mastered that, whoever the audience member that they’re targeting for this particular song may be is going to hear it exactly as they intend for it to be heard.

Mindy Peterson: [00:07:59] Wow. I mean, there’s so much that obviously goes on behind the scenes that none of us have any clue is happening. I mean, it’s a lot different than just shooting a picture of your friend doing a tick tock dance recording and then just putting it out there.

John Long: [00:08:13] Right. It’s nothing like that at all. It’s becoming more like that, unfortunately, which is why it’s really the reason why whenever we look at people who are listening to music, they’re listening to older music because the process of creating older music was so much more of an involved one to a degree with the artist, with the production team, and with the engineering team, of course, who are a major part of that production process. This is kind of why I wanted to start the website project to begin with. It was one of the major reasons for starting it is because the vast majority of the people who listen to popular music, no matter what genre we’re talking about or who love it, really do have no idea who the people are who actually create it for them to be able to listen to alongside the artist and the producer.

Mindy Peterson: [00:09:08] Yeah, well, on your website, when you were talking about David Thorne or your first podcast episode is featuring him and I wasn’t familiar with his name, but I sure was familiar with the names that you mentioned that he’s worked with AC, DC, Aerosmith, Bon Jovi, Brooks Dunn. I mean, there’s a whole Matchbox 20, Michael Bolton, you know, there’s this whole list of people and I know every name on that list, but I hadn’t heard of him. So I think it’s great that you’re featuring these people and telling their stories.

John Long: [00:09:38] Right? You would have to really dig to be able to find the people who create the music that you’re actually listening to, working with the artist and the producer to be able to accomplish that reality in today’s world. Because when you and I were growing up, you’d go buy an album or you’d go buy a cassette or you’d. Go buy a CD and you could open up the case or the jacket for any of those mediums and you could pull out and they would normally have song lyrics and you would have the musicians write, the musicians that were in the credits, the people who played on the album and below that is a part of the credits you would find at that time. The engineering team, the people who people like David, for example, and you would find the studios where it was recorded or where it was mastered, for example. And in today’s streaming world, that’s something that’s really almost gone completely by the wayside. You know, people listen to music today and you can’t find who the people are who are behind it is easily as you could.

Mindy Peterson: [00:10:48] Then when you mentioned that the producer and artist had this vision and the engineers make it a reality. Can you give us some examples of what that vision might involve? Like, do artists and producers say, I want this to appeal to this age group, or I want it to be edgy or I want it to be more conservative? What are some examples of the vision that they may have?

John Long: [00:11:14] Well, it’s a musical vision. It’s not really a vision in terms of audience. That’s a vision that’s actually done with the producer and the people at the record company. That’s more of a marketing end of it. I think for you, it’s thrilling to know that whenever it comes to the engineering component of that vision, it’s all about the music. It’s all about the sound of that music, making sure that you have the proper drum sounds to make this an edgier this song Have an edge, your rock feel to it. Or maybe the artist wants more of a retro feel to a particular song. So the engineer is going to set this recording up to sound like something that came out of the late 1950s or early 1960s. There really is a creative, technical component that is part musical and part technical that are married together with what the engineer will ultimately do and what role they ultimately will play in creating what you’re able to hear.

Mindy Peterson: [00:12:17] Okay, so that vision may be something like retro or edgy or what are some other other examples, right?

John Long: [00:12:24] Maybe the artist wants a song that is a part of their album to have more of a pop oriented feel to it, for example. Or they may want to have more of a live feel to the song. Ultimately, it’s going to be an engineer that’s going to provide that type of sonic experience that the listener is ultimately going to hear.

Mindy Peterson: [00:12:48] Well, I imagine these roles have really changed since the days of post World War Two. You’re talking about tremendous mid to late forties until today. I mean, that’s 80 years basically. So we’ve had an explosion of technology in that time period. Tell us about some of those changes that have happened for this role with technology and maybe other things. I know you sort of alluded earlier to the fact that music today isn’t maybe being engineered quite the same way it was before.

John Long: [00:13:21] All of those things are true. In fact, what I would love to do and I’m going to do it, I can do it very quickly, is I’m going to go through the major changes from basically the mid 1950s until until where we are right now. One of the interesting things that that you find the further back that you go, if you were looking at engineers, for example, from the mid 1950s to the mid 1960s, one of the things that I think would interest you is that the technical component at that time was so much more important. In other words, engineers not only recorded the music that you were hearing at that time, but in a lot of cases they also built the gear that enabled that process to be done.

Mindy Peterson: [00:14:07] They built it themselves. Themselves, yes. Oh, and is that because it wasn’t readily available to purchase?

John Long: [00:14:15] Right. It wasn’t available. And this is what is so fascinating. They wanted certain sounds, but they couldn’t achieve them, so they had to find a way to achieve them. And in doing so, they created so many of the great technologies that we still use today, everything from microphones to consoles to outboard gear that are being used to record artists, even at this very moment in major recording studio facilities they built. Just to be able to do that. If you look at the process of recording music from 1955 to 1970, just as an example that 15 year slice that a lot of us would refer to as truly a golden age of music or even. We could extend that to a 20 year period from 55 to 75. Throughout that period, engineers were not just recording music, but they were inventing things to to be able to do that. And I find that period particularly to be fascinating, because what happened during that period was so many of the technologies that people use today, whether they be hardware technologies that are used in a rack or even the console that an engineer may be sitting behind today were really created or in their infancy during that period, and so many are still in use today. I think one of the things that would amaze people who are not a part of this business would be to know how many components of the technical chain of recording music are still with us. From that thin slice of time from 1955 to 1975, from microphones to consoles to outboard gear. And what would interest you, Mindy, and maybe bring a smile to your face? Is that even within the last 10 to 15 years, much of the software component of being used to record music today is designed to emulate those microphones, consoles and outboard gear that were created during that 20 year slice of of history. And so what’s changed? And this this is what’s going I think it’s going to interest both you and your listeners. What has changed dramatically about the role of an engineer is that engineers have become more musical and have become less technical.

Mindy Peterson: [00:16:48] Far more musical in terms of their training.

John Long: [00:16:51] More musical in terms of their training and background and working with the music and less having to build gear, less having to create things because those things that sound so good are already there. And so now the role of the engineer since 1975 has really steadily shifted to become more about working with music, because the technical gear to be able to do that is already in place.

Mindy Peterson: [00:17:24] Well, imagine a lot of those engineers probably pioneered the whole technology gear industry that has exploded since then. Is that.

John Long: [00:17:33] Right? Yes. Yes, that’s true. In fact. And we have to have to make a caveat here. There are great engineers who built things and then there are great engineers who recorded music and built things. And then there are great engineers, of course, even that came out of that period who just recorded music. But during that 20 year slice of time, we saw that shift slowly occur. And by 1975, the vast majority of the people that we would call a recording engineer were engineering music, not so much people who were engineering new technologies as a part of the process of doing it.

Mindy Peterson: [00:18:15] Okay. Any big changes between, say, 1975 and today?

John Long: [00:18:20] Yeah, well, the the obvious change has been the transition from tape to the use of digital audio workstations. And that change, Mindi, has changed the entire industry, much like, in fact, the greatest analogy is just like you and I, when we were little growing up, a computer could be the size of the house I’m sitting in right now. And then by the time we were probably in elementary school, you could see a computer on the desktop for the first time. The same thing is happening in the recording industry where nowadays, because of digital audio workstations, the role of the recording studio and the recording engineer are changing dramatically because of the portability, you know, and therefore people can record at home, they can record on the road in a way they never could before, because all of the the huge consoles, the huge tape machines, all the gear. Now, you can fit so much of that on to a laptop or just a very powerful computing system. And so so therefore it’s really it’s changed the nature of really two things. Mindi It’s changed the nature of where people are recording for certain because a lot of people, artists who can afford it can now record at home or producers who can afford it are now recording at home.

John Long: [00:19:49] But the other thing that it’s done is that and this is probably the negative is that. It’s it’s also well, I say it’s a negative. There are positives to it as well. But how would that couch this? Not everybody is an expert in anything just because everybody can do everything, you know? We have a piano in here and I can go and play it, but I cannot play it like you can play it. And so if somebody says, Can you play a piano? I would say, What do you mean by play it? Actually, am I actually good at it? The answer to that would be no. But that’s sort of what’s happening in engineering is this idea that anybody can be one because there’s so much more access to the tools to be able to do that. Sure. Than there ever were before. Sure. And so what what essentially is happening is access hasn’t always meant better quality in terms of the products that you’re able to see on the one hand. But on the other hand, it’s also given people who are incredibly talented, who may never have stepped into a job like this, an opportunity to do it. So there are there are positives and negatives in looking at what direction engineering has has gone into.

John Long: [00:21:15] But the days of working the way that I did are probably numbered. Where you’re in a major studio, you’re working with a lot of session musicians and you’re going from place to place. You’re working with all this tremendous hardware and gear. So much of that now has changed dramatically. Hence, again, why I’m doing this project is to is to bring back the idea of what was it like to record the music that you grew up listening to? And the other thing, Mindy A part of that too is a lot of the young engineers, the vast majority of them do not know about that process at all. And one of the interesting the things that may interest you and bring a smile to your face is the major audience for my website is young engineers or young musicians. It’s people between the ages of literally 18 and 34 and what they all want to know. And some of them are fabulous engineers. Like, for example, I received an email from the he he’s the engineer who works with Ed Sheeran on all of his music. Really. And he told me, he said, I’m so glad that you’re doing this because I’m learning so much that will help me make the music that I am making better.

Mindy Peterson: [00:22:34] Oh, wow, that is fascinating.

John Long: [00:22:36] And it’s because for the first time, they’re learning about what they have only seen as a piece of software, that it was actually a piece of hardware that somebody invented. And so they’re learning about where what they’re working with came from. And of course, that helps them do their job for their clients better, sir. Well, that’s the goal. Yeah, you know.

Mindy Peterson: [00:23:01] Well, I know your website is mostly focused on education of the historical background of this role, but what do you think the future looks like for this role? Do you have any predictions on how it will continue to evolve and change moving forward?

John Long: [00:23:16] You know, I think that we’re seeing the future right now in a lot of respects. I think that what’s going to happen and, you know, I’m just obviously I’m spending a crystal ball and I don’t know where it’s going to land, but I think that we’re kind of going back to where we were in the 1950s. There were just a few large recording studios. And, you know, an artist literally could walk into a radio station somewhere and cut a song. And so there were a lot of small places where people could record. But then there were these huge places that recorded all these major projects, mostly for soundtracks, for films and things of that nature. Well, I think we’re kind of stepping back into something that was sort of like that. You know, this idea, Mindy, of an artist having their own studio is nothing new. Artists and producers have always had an interest in having more control and more flex creative control. And so I see two things happening, and these are pretty simplistic, but I think that this is where it’s going is that the large, major studio facilities are going to survive.

John Long: [00:24:28] And that’s because think about it this way, Mindy. If you wanted to record an orchestra, you’re never going to do that and somebody’s home. And and for you, if you wanted to record your piano performance or recital performance, and then you have a large choir, that’s a part of that performance, but you wanted to record it in a facility that had perfect acoustics. Well, the major recording studios are the only place in the world where you can really do that outside of a live venue. So. Studios like that are going to survive. But the small to medium sized studios, I think, are really going to be in trouble because, again, there’s so much that can be done in the home and with the money that producers and artists have at their disposal, they can create small facilities that can rival those small to medium facilities that they may have used at one point or another. And so I think that those studio facilities are a they’re probably the most problematic areas of the business right now.

Mindy Peterson: [00:25:31] Well, your website project, you have the website, there’s a blog series that’s a part of that. There’s a podcast. So you have some different elements to that educational website project. If a listener is listening to this and thinking, This sounds really interesting as a career path, I’d like to learn more besides some of these elements on your website. What are some other recommendations that you would have for a listener who wants to see if they would be a good fit for this role and just learn some more about it?

John Long: [00:26:02] Well, with the website, primarily, the articles are about people, places and technologies. It’s it’s really where the history and educational component actually lies to an extent. With the blog series. Mindy, what I’m doing is actually taking questions that people have about the process and answering them and what the podcast is. Essentially what I’m trying to do is make the articles more accessible to people who maybe don’t have the time to read them all the way through. But they do want to listen to them and they do want to have some engagement with them. So really the podcasts are an extension of the articles on the website. I have to tell a funny story here because I’ve had students come up to me in the past and ask me, I’m fascinated by what you did before you became an educator, and I want to do that. And I really think that this is something that I would like to do for the rest of my life. And, you know, and I’m always like, oh, you know, hold on just a moment. You know, let’s it’s not a glamorous job. You’re going to be working about 80 to 90 hours a week. You’re going to work every Saturday and most Sundays. You’re not going to have much of a so you’re going to get to meet and work with a lot of fascinating people, but you’re not going to have much of a social life. It’s not the kind of job. When I was working in the business where it was easy to have a family, to raise a family, and you’re going to be traveling a lot. Not only are you going to be working a lot, but the people that you’re going to be working with are going to demand perfection with every single move that you make, with the job that you are doing. And I said, I want you to know that before you make a decision about thinking about this as a career pathway that you want to potentially go down.

Mindy Peterson: [00:28:01] And you’re saying that the way you just described that atmosphere, that’s still the case.

John Long: [00:28:07] It’s changed somewhat and that’s because of the nature of home recording. Again, it’s a different business than when I was in it. But that demand for perfection and the amount of time that people put in to making a project sound phenomenal is still there. So it’s a lot of work.

Mindy Peterson: [00:28:30] And for not much recognition in the sense that nobody knows your name.

John Long: [00:28:35] Well, again, it depends upon why you’re there. If you’re there to make great music, it doesn’t matter and it shouldn’t. So it’s like with anything, I mean, if you’re going to, you know, if you’re going to be a teacher, you’re not getting into it for the recognition. You’re getting into it because you love the job. And that’s the major thing that I tell young people who are interested in going into recording is that you have to have a love for two things. You have to have a love for music. And the other thing is you have to have a love for working with the people that you’re going to be working with because you have to be dedicated to making again, making their vision become a reality.

Mindy Peterson: [00:29:12] Mm hmm. Well, it was interesting. Before we hit record, you were telling me a little bit about the typical, quote, typical career path for someone going into this field, and that there isn’t necessarily really a typical career path. But it’s often a lot of people who love music, they love being around music. Maybe they weren’t necessarily highly trained and making music themselves, but they just love being in that world. Talk to us more about how people tend to end up in this job.

John Long: [00:29:41] Well, and it’s really interesting because now there are recording schools. Whenever I was in college in the in the early to mid 1990s, they didn’t exist, you know. And so now people can get a degree in recording and. People can go to a technical school that does nothing but train you for the job. And I’ve listened to different interviews with some of the older engineers who are still working, and they all say the same thing that I’m going to say right now, and that is that getting a top flight education doesn’t mean that you’re going to be working immediately as an engineer anywhere. It doesn’t even really get your foot in the door anywhere, for that matter. In fact, whenever I stepped into the business and even today, there are a lot of places where the recording studio would rather you have no experience at all. They’re looking at you as a person. Do you as a person have the drive, the dedication and the creative energy that it takes to do this job? You literally learn on the job, and that’s something that hasn’t really changed tremendously. The most important quality that you have to have in becoming a great engineer is you have to be a great listener. It’s what you hear and can you take what you hear and translate it into what people want to hear based on the vision of that artist and producer?

Mindy Peterson: [00:31:15] Well, after hearing everything that you said, it would be really fascinating, I think, to listen to some raw recording.

John Long: [00:31:23] Oh, yeah.

Mindy Peterson: [00:31:23] And then listen to the finished product after the engineers have had their way with it on all their stuff. Kind of. Kind of like you take a photo occasionally. I’ve seen these down through the years where there’s an original photo of a model and you see the original photo next to the airbrushed version that’s eventually included in AD. And so it’s just fun to see those differences.

John Long: [00:31:48] Great analogy for the process. You know, I wanted to touch on one of the questions that you had in the list. And it was like it said, you worked with Grammy Award winning artists and engineers. And what was it like to work with some of these people? Yeah, and I want to address that for just a moment real quickly.

Mindy Peterson: [00:32:08] Sure.

John Long: [00:32:09] It’s it’s fantastic. The best thing about working in the music business is twofold. It’s working with great music. That’s the obvious thing. But the second thing is working with wonderful people. I will tell you, David Thunder is an incredible human being. You will never meet another human being just like him. I think that is the most valuable component other than the amazing music that you get to work with each and every day is that you get to work with just absolutely wonderful people. I have never worked with an artist that I didn’t enjoy working with, and I have certainly never worked with an engineer who was not someone who not only cared about the music, but they cared about you.

Mindy Peterson: [00:32:57] Well, your very first podcast is about David, the owner, and you did a great job of summarizing his work and really kind of fleshing out who he is as a person, too, and giving that glimpse of his personal life and just his heart for giving back. And I really liked that full picture that you give of him. It was really inspiring to listen to. Well, I’ll definitely include lots of links in the show notes for people to find your website and your blog and podcast. John I ask all my guests to close out our conversation with a musical ending a coda by sharing a song or story about a moment that music enhanced your life. Do you have a song or a story that you can share with us in closing today?

John Long: [00:33:40] Yeah, I thought about that for a long time. And you know, Mindy, I’m first of all, honored to be a guest on your show. It’s an honor to be able to talk about this process and the wonderful people who are a part of it. And that’s really what the website is about. The process of of stepping into music for me, really. You know, it’s hard not to be emotional and talk about, but it really started with my with my my grandfather and my dad when I was a kid. I loved listening to our local radio station, which in Sulphur Springs was KSTX. It was Local AM Station and Mindy, they played everything country, jazz, rock, classical, because it was I mean, it was the only game in town in a very small town in northeast Texas and Sulphur Springs. And so you heard everything. I’m not here. The Eagles one minute, Michael Jackson the next, and then George Strait, you know, three songs later. But I wanted to be able to listen to the songs that I wanted to hear. So my dad took me to a place called Unclaimed Freight. Unclaimed freight is a place where I guess today they would call it a B stock place, where thing, you know, where there’s something got. Damaged in the shipping and the person didn’t really want it. Well, they would send it to unclaimed freight and then people would go and buy it. And I’m going to date myself a little bit. There was a jam box that was there, you know, an AM FM radio that also had a cassette player and recorder.

Mindy Peterson: [00:35:17] Yeah, we call them a boom box. Yeah, but probably the same thing.

John Long: [00:35:21] Same thing. So they had one available and my dad bought one for me. And I was telling my wife the story yesterday. I said, you know, I sat I can remember distinctly sitting, we were going to see my grandparents and I was listening to a song on it. It was Come Together by the Beatles, and I remembered pressing play and record. I had a blank cassette tape in that boom box, as you say. Right. And it was the first time that I recorded anything. And I realized from that point forward, you know what, I could go for just a few dollars and buy a blink cassettes, and I could make my own compilations of music, and I can record all this stuff. And and to be honest with you, Mindy, that’s where I really started in this business. I just started recording everything that I wanted to hear so that I could listen to it when I wanted to listen to it. And that’s how that process started for me. It started with my dad recognizing that I had a love for it and really giving me the opportunity to make it into a very, very important part of my life. And through doing so, be able to make it an important part of the lives of other people as well.

Transcribed by Sonix.ai