Walter Sear's Analog Rules Page 2
Sear: Starting around 1980, it started slipping away; we forgot what it's all about. The engineers had all of these new knobs and toys, so they were distracted. Either through ignorance or necessity, recording has become a separate art, no longer related to music. We further lost it when CDs came in 20 years ago and the audience stopped listening.
Guttenberg: Tell it, Brother Sear!
Sear: There's a big commercial juggernaut plowing through the industry—and killing it. The traditions should be passed down through the culture, but since they're no longer economically viable, we're losing them. I've been screaming about this stuff for years.
Guttenberg: It wasn't always this way.
Sear: When I came into the industry, we did an album's worth of music in three to six hours—the musicians played, we recorded the music, and it sounded great.
Guttenberg: You recorded entire albums, without a digital workstation, in a few hours—imagine that! Can your engineers balance the levels of the instruments and vocals without compressors?
Sear: I teach my guys, "Keep your fingers on the faders and your eyes on the meters. You should know when the singer is going to run out of air at the end of the phrase; you'll push the fader up to compensate. When the drummer's hitting the cymbals a little too hard, you nudge the fader down." Fact is, I can be a much better "compressor" than a piece of equipment.
Guttenberg: Norah Jones did both of her records here, and her engineers never ran her voice through a compressor?
Sear: Not that I know of—it didn't require it. Listen, those were very quick sessions, and her producer, Arif Mardin, he is of my generation, so he doesn't piss money away. Funny, Norah never sent me a CD of that first recording, but when she came back to record her second record she gave me a 200gm LP of the first record. I took it home and listened to it four times! It's magnificent!
Guttenberg: So there are hopeful signs.
Sear: Can we get back on track? I don't know. But at least I can say my studio is eminently successful, so it seems like there are enough people out there who can hear a difference and care about good sound. Look at our client list. We just did Wilco's new record, A Ghost Is Born, here—they initially booked the studio for three weeks and stayed three months.
Guttenberg: I can see why. It's so comfortable in here.
Sear: That's because I know the feel is critical, and it's 99% of getting good performances. They play better when they feel good. Sure, the other studios have $900,000 consoles and the most up-to-date editing software, but I don't have any of that because I only buy decent-sounding stuff. The big studios forgot the point of it all—the sound. They're intrigued with new technology, which, let's face it, has mostly to do with fixing bad performances. But if it's not happening on the other side of the glass, if the spark isn't there, technology can't save you. It will never be right. If you can't play, you shouldn't be in a recording studio.
Guttenberg: What can you provide to help get the best possible performances from the musicians?
Sear: Food. You want to keep that blood sugar up, so we always make sure there's something to munch on. It's essential. We do everything we can to avoid technical delays—they're deadly, and kill inspiration. And I have competent personnel—you pay peanuts, you get monkeys. The studio should pay its employees a decent wage. Always have a smile. And the boss—that's me—meets them at the door when they arrive, and the boss says "Good night" when they leave at 2am. They know I'm here to make sure they get what they need.
Guttenberg: Of all the different microphone types, your favorites are all omnidirectionals.
Sear: Oh yes, if you're not worried about leakage and you're not going to replace tracks, omnis are the way to go. The natural pattern of any capacitive microphone is omni; the way you get it directional is by putting a DC charge on the backplate, but then it's not as linear. That's why most mikes sound better in omni. We live in a world of reflections and echoes, and if they aren't there, the recording doesn't sound real.
Guttenberg: A lot of engineers are spending fortunes on old Neumann mikes.
Sear: Because the musicality is there—and sure, the damn thing's frequency response looks like the Swiss Alps, but who cares? Just remember, it was designed to record orchestras from 12' up, and 12' back from the proscenium arch. But now they're shoving the same microphone against the singer's tonsils and expect it to sound good. I usually put a dummy mike right up to the singer, and the live mike back 3' or 4'.
Guttenberg: Sear Sound is an all-analog enclave?
Sear: Yes, but I don't tell the client what to do. They can bring in any equipment they want, and I never interfere artistically. It's not what I'm here for. What can I say? We're always booked, and we have clients coming back for the fourth or fifth time.
Guttenberg: Like Lou Reed?
Sear: He's a real professional, but he can be a little quick-tempered at times. I'll tell you, he doesn't come here to experiment—he knows what he wants, and gets the job done. He's serious, like the Beatles' bass player.
Guttenberg: Sir Paul...
Sear: He does his job, boom boom boom, and goes home. It's the way a professional works. Of course, I also see a lot of producers who don't know much about recording or music, but I shouldn't complain—the longer they stay, the more money I make.
Guttenberg: Any other big stars you care to mention?
Sear: The guy from New Jersey, what's-his-name...his wife, Patti Scialfa, did her first record here.
Guttenberg: Springsteen's wife?
Sear: Yeah, but he mostly napped on the couch.
Guttenberg: Which reminds me—is there any hope for digital?
Sear: SACD sounds pretty good, but the decisions about the future of the format are being made on the corporate level, and those guys are even less competent than the underlings who make records. Now that we have blue lasers, I'm hopeful digital will get a lot better.
Guttenberg: I suppose you're not a huge supporter of surround sound.
Sear: Under ideal conditions, maybe. It's a shame that the industry puts so much energy into subverting musical values. Surround is mostly used as a distraction, but if you record great music you'll appeal to the heart and soul of people. If you get chills and the hair on the back of your neck stands up, you're there.
Guttenberg: What are you working on now?
Sear: I'm going to start my own, vinyl-only label, and I'd like to start with Mozart quintets. We'll do a day of rehearsing, followed by a six-hour session, and that's it. I'll repeat the performances on the flip side of the record, recorded with different equipment. Side 1 gets a pair of AKG microphones into my Ampex 300 tube recorder, the other side will feature a pair of Neumanns into my tube Studer—and that's it. No edits, no consoles, only complete, honest performances of each movement. That's my master plan, but all of my friends think I'm nuts.
Guttenberg: Why not record direct to disc?
Sear: Too expensive, and the master should be plated within 12 hours of the session. And it's not realistic to expect the instruments to stay in tune through four movements. Direct to disc is too difficult.
Guttenberg: So why not also release CDs and make a little money?
Sear: Never! I don't want to make money, I just want to make good recordings. I'm doing this because I hope people will realize what they've been missing. I've had a pretty full life—I've played tuba, made a bunch of films, manufactured tubas and guitar amplifiers, sold Moogs. I've been married 52 years and had two kids. I did all of these things because I get bored easily. That's why I'm always on to something new.