March 04, 2005

PERSONAL PLAYBACK

Talking studios, stars and sound with Ed Stasium

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Early success can jump-start a career, and Ed Stasium hit the ground running thanks in part to "Midnight Train to Georgia," which became a No. 1 Billboard pop and R&B single and a Grammy winner for Gladys Knight and the Pips.

In the 30-plus years since he recorded and mixed that song, the New Jersey-raised producer/mixer/engineer has racked up many other assignments. Serving in one capacity or another, he put his stamp on albums by such artists as The Ramones, Talking Heads, Mick Jagger and Living Colour, just to name a few. Working mostly from his Colorado home these days, Stasium counts Let It Out, the recently released debut album by the Danish duo Super Galore, among his latest projects.

Stasium recently discussed the early days at New Jersey's Venture Sound Studios (working with Tony Camillo and Tony Bongiovi), his stint at New York's Power Station, plus the working habits of particular artists and the advances in studio technology.

Medleyville.us: Where did the 1972 "chance meeting," as described on your Web site, with fellow New Jerseyans Tony Camillo and Tony Bongiovi take place?
Ed Stasium: "Let's see. When I was a kid playing in garage bands -- I was from Green Brook, N.J. -- we were rehearsing at my friend's house. I was about 15, and this [other kid] lived across the street, Michael Bonagura [who later played in the country act Baillie and the Boys]. He used to come over and watch us, and I showed him how to play guitar a little.

"Through the years [we played in bands together and kept in touch after that]. I was still living in Green Brook and bumped into him while riding a bicycle. Michael said to me, 'Hey, Eddie, a friend of my father's is building a recording studio in Hillsborough . . . [the friend Tony Camillo] has a partner, Tony Bongiovi, who's a really good engineer [and had been working at New York's Mediasound]. They said to me that if I put a band together, they'll record us down there.' I said, 'Cool, let's go visit,' and I just started hanging out down there.

"[At that time] Venture Sound Studios was not put together . . . [there was an Ampex recorder] sitting in the corner, the console was on the floor, there were no windows or floor. It was a work in progress.

"We went back like three times, and I mentioned [to Camillo and Bongiovi], 'Hey, if you want me to help out here, I'll help out -- whatever you need.' "

What was the first nonfriend-related session you worked on at Venture Sound Studios?
Stasium: "I guess it was a band from Newark, N.J., called the Skull Snaps. The recording of that band came out years later, and when I was meeting with Vernon Reid about producing the first Living Colour record, the mention of the Skull Snaps and that I recorded the first album clinched the deal for me. It was really bizarre. He learned how to play guitar by listening to that record."

Was there anything memorable about the mixing session for Gladys Knight and the Pips' "Midnight Train to Georgia"?
Stasium: "Mixing? I think I fell asleep (laughs)."

Were you that tired, or was the song that boring to you?
Stasium: "No, we were on deadline. There's a technical note [worth mentioning] -- I had to remix it because I really knew nothing about what I was doing. I did a stereo mix of 'Midnight Train to Georgia,' and there was a tom-tom on the one and the three [beats] in some of the parts. I had it on the right side of the speaker, and of course I knew nothing about phase cancellation, but it actually interfered with some of the bass notes. It was impossible to actually cut the disc, so I had to go back and remix it before we released that.

"That was the first big hit [out of Venture], and mine, too -- I had only been there about a year. . . . It was the most bizarre place to have a studio. Nobody had home studios back then. Now everybody and their grandma has home studios. Actually, the home studios are ruining the recording studio industry because [commercial recording studios are] closing up left and right."

One studio that's still open in New York is Avatar, but it was previously the Power Station, and your stint there was kind of short. What was it like during the early years of that facility?
Stasium: "Well, it was [through] another meeting with Tony Bongiovi. He left the Venture Sound scene shortly after I got in there, and I actually took over as engineer. . . . I worked at Venture Sound for about three years, then I did a stint at a studio up in Montreal.

"I came back from Montreal [around September 1976] to [be the sound consultant for] Geraldo Rivera's TV telethons. So when I came down [to do that], lo and behold, there's Tony Bongiovi, who said, 'Hey Eddie, me and Bob Walters [from Mediasound], we're going to build a new studio. . . . We're looking for a building, [and] we want you to be the chief engineer.' So I left Montreal; I gave my notice. I was actually the first person on staff at Power Station before there was a building.

"We knew [who] the crew [was going to be]. [Bob] Clearmountain was still working over at Mediasound with Tony; Ed Evans, the tech guy, was still working over at Mediasound with Tony. We all got together and had our meetings for designing the place [while] we were looking for a building. And during this interim session, I ended up doing Talking Heads stuff and Ramones stuff while I was actually getting paid by Tony and Bob. I was on salary as soon as I got back [from Montreal], something like $300 a week.

"I'm sure Tony Bongiovi would always take credit for it, but I was the one who came up with the name Power Station. And if it wasn't for me, that room never would have existed. Tony wanted to put another floor in there and build studios with 12-foot ceilings. I came up with the concept -- as a matter of fact, I still have my original drawings . . . I said, "Tony, why don't we build a huge room with some isolation rooms in the back?' He went on with the idea. So, it was in fact my concept to make it a large room -- it was never Tonyís concept, although I do credit Tony with tagging onto that concept and then designing the room."

What was it like once things were up and running?
Stasium: "Well, you know, Tony was doing some of that Meco stuff there. We built the control room and [an] isolation booth first while they were doing construction around us. There was nothing else in that building. . . . The first session that I did in there was mixing [The Ramones'] Rocket to Russia. I also did some background vocals there for [the album]. It was kind of bizarre because they were doing construction on the outside, building the actual studio while we were in the control room, all sealed up in there. . . . There was no reverb; this was [around] 1977 . . . and so we used the hallway, one of the stairwells, for a reverb chamber. We put a couple of JBL speakers out there and a couple of Neumann microphones, and we sent the sound out there. So any reverb that you actually hear on Rocket to Russia is that stairwell.

"I basically worked on Rocket to Russia there, and then there was a band from New York called Riff Raff. Chris Blackwell signed them to Island Records. [A friend of mine who was in Riff Raff] wanted me to engineer the record. . . . They were doing commercials and some R&B stuff at Power Station; I wasnít into the R&B stuff. Riff Raff wanted to work at Power Station, but the band's producer wanted to lock out the room. Bob Walters didnít want to do that yet.

"So at this point, I had to make a decision. I was either going to stay at Power Station on staff, or I was going to do the Riff Raff record. And I decided to go independent. I talked to Tony and Bob, and it was an amicable breakup, so to speak, because I had been working for them for over a year."

Aside from having that Riff Raff record to do, what other steps did you take to get your freelance career going?
Stasium: "I did some mixes with the Fatback band and some stuff for Talking Heads and The Ramones. I did a band called Silverado."

So you were pretty busy -- there were no long stretches of inactivity.
Stasium: "No, I've always been busy. There's never been a time in my entire career [when I wasn't]. I've been very lucky."

You've worked with some big names through the years. Let's talk about a few of them, starting with Mick Jagger. Did he piece together his vocal tracks from various takes, or did he usually keep one entire take?
Stasium: "He was kind of a one-take guy. We did do a couple of comps, but I particularly remember him doing a bunch of takes, and then just saying, 'That one's the one.' I remember the song 'Shoot Off Your Mouth' on that record [Primitive Cool]: We set up a PA in the studio for him, and he just went out with a Shure SM-57 [microphone] and started singing and dancing along to the monitors. It was great."

Is David Byrne a down-to-earth guy or the quirky artist he came across as in those Talking Heads videos?
Stasium: "I remember David being very inquisitive about the recording process. He's a very intelligent guy; he didnít seem quirky at all. . . . He was very easy to work with, but he couldn't stand Tony Bongiovi. He couldn't even sing if Tony was in the room. Tony would try to make him sing like a singer -- that was Tonyís approach to working with David Byrne. And David Byrne is not that type [of singer]. So Tony would split. He'd be in the back reading Airplane magazine."

Did The Ramones cut their tracks live in the same room, or did they record their parts separately?
Stasium: "The Ramones, live in the studio? Oh yeah. On Rocket to Russia and Leave Home, the tracks were cut live, and I think on Leave Home, we double-tracked everything."

Do you subscribe to the theory that analog recordings sound better than digital recordings? Or do you think the so-called warmth of analog can be achieved by using digital recording equipment?
Stasium: "I record things to make them sound the way I think they should sound. That's a matter of personal taste and judgment, and I enjoy working in the digital realm.

"As far as being one of those proponents of digital or analog, I can't really say that I would ever go back to analog again, just because of the convenience of digital at this point [and the] convenience of being able to work at home and the convenience of working within the files instead of working on tape. I like the sound of digital, personally. Maybe I had a problem with it in the beginning, but now I do not have any problem with it whatsoever.

"I've been tape-free since 2001. . . . I must have spent five years of my life rewinding and fast forwarding tape. Now I can do five takes of drums and get to each one of them instantaneously. I still like to retain the band feel. I don't go into the grid and put everything into perfect time. I use Pro Tools as a big giant tape recorder. I use a lot of my philosophies of analog recording in Pro Tools, and on the front end, I usually use old gear -- I have a bunch of tube pre-amps here at the house that I use. When you get that warmth going in, it stays there."

What have been the greatest technological advances in audio recording since youíve been in the business?
Stasium: "Pro Tools. . . . Iím actually teaching Pro Tools to a high school class here on Wednesdays. Itís changed so much. Now I have at my fingertips here in my home studio a hundred times more power than what I had at Tony Camillo's place."

One of your more recent projects was remixing the debut album by Super Galore. How did that assignment come about?
Stasium: "I had put an ad on my Web site . . . and I just started getting work. [Super Galore's A&R rep] sent me an e-mail one day asking if I'd be interested in mastering the record. When I got the CD and listened to it, I thought, 'I bet I can make this better.' And instead of responding with 'Yeah, I'll master this and make it sound really good for you,' [I offered to remix it and remaster it]. We worked out a deal, and they decided they wanted to do that.

"I really enjoyed doing it, and I enjoy doing everything at home. I can sit here in my little forest home. I donít have a nicotine-stained window; I have a bay window that looks upon a beautiful frozen lake right now with pine trees. I can do everything here, and I do everything 'in a box.' I donít use any outboard gear. I use all the plug-ins in Pro Tools and I mix in the box.

"I send MP3s to my clients, and they'll send me e-mails [with comments and changes]. Then I'll send [a copy of the reworked file] back to them again. We'll go back and forth until they're happy with it. [Working at home] also allows me to work on as many projects as I want at the same time."

Being able to do what you do at home, is there something lost by not having a lot of face-to-face contact with the artists youíre technically working with?
Stasium: "I can say I do miss the camaraderie. When I produce something, that's still there. I actually don't mind being by myself when I'm mixing because -- and this is an exaggeration -- youíll have the band with you in the room, and the bass player is going to want more bass, and the vocalist is going to want more vocals, and the drummer is going to want more snare drum and the guitar player is going to want his guitar louder. . . . I'm working with people who want to work with me. There's no pressure from the A&R people [about] whether [a project] is going to be a hit or not. I didn't really get into this for the commerce. I got into it because I love recording and music. I'm getting by out here in the woods, and I just love it. I'm very lucky."

-- Introduction and interview by Chris M. Junior

Official Ed Stasium site:
ed stasium

Posted by medleyville at March 4, 2005 09:10 PM
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