James Taylor: an American Standard Page 2

Micallef: Your Warner Brothers and early Columbia records are so comfy and warm, yet also punchy and dynamic. How have you thought about the sound of your albums and capturing that sound?

Taylor: The sound of my records, I leave that up to my engineer. I've worked with so many great soundsmiths; Frank Filipetti, certainly Dave O'Donnell, James Farber—really wonderful technicians with remarkable ears. I don't have any particular love for or feel the need to hold on to a certain classical sound. I'm willing to experiment with echo, with EQ, with signal-processing things, with doing all kinds of things to my voice, and to the sounds that we're making.

I'm very hands-on. I don't just pick the key to a tune, have someone cut the track, put an orchestral arrangement on it, and then just show up at the studio and put down five or six vocals. I'm involved in each and every step along the way with making these albums, because I consider it my métier, I consider it my art, my medium, and recorded sound is just fascinating to me, and I've learned over the years how to record and I've also learned how to write. So, yeah, I'm very aware of the process and I'm very hands-on, but I trust my engineer. I trust Dave O'Donnell.

Micallef: What sound did you seek when designing The Barn? It looks like a naturally warm-sounding room with wooden beams and such. Is it a mix of analog and digital equipment?

Taylor: We built The Barn in 2003 to be a studio, an acoustic space in which we could rehearse the whole band. It's basically 50' × 40'. We made modular panels that we can assemble as isolation booths. Our control area is pretty much permanently sealed off now, with a door in it. It's all wood, it's sheathed on the inside with plywood, the beams that support it are an engineered-wood product that has a very reliable load-bearing capacity, so you know what you're building with: You don't have to overbuild with that stuff. We have some acoustical panels, big sheets, about 6' × 12', that are hung up in the ceiling, which is what they call a cathedral ceiling. Again, all wood, a lot of it is rough-cut pine, and a lot of it is plywood sheathing, but it's like an instrument itself, that room.


The echo chamber that we built—we built an actual echo chamber—it was a very interesting project, which took us a lot of time. We basically wanted to see if we could turn one of these cargo containers, which are 8' × 8'× 40', if we could turn one of those into a good echo chamber. We did work to make sure there were no standing waves or hot spots, or frequencies in the room. There are some, there's an E-flat that we get at a certain point in the room, and we just avoid putting our microphones or speakers there. We played with the placement of the speakers and the volume at which we push our signal through, but it's turned out to be a very satisfactory little echo chamber.

The echo chamber is my favorite piece of equipment. And, of course, my instruments; and that Neumann 67 microphone from the mid-'70s, I love to work with that.

Wieslaw Woszczyk, the James McGill Professor Research Chair of Music Technology at McGill University's School of Music in Montreal, came to The Barn a few years back and recorded the acoustic signature of the room using a special array of microphones and a sweeping signal that they pump into the place, and when they read it back, they can tell what the room is doing to the original signal. So, among a small group of people, The Barn is recognized as a great-sounding room, and we're just lucky there.

Micallef: I noticed ProAc monitors in one shot.

Taylor: Yeah, you probably saw the ProAc monitors Dave was using. The monitor speaker is a very funny phenomenon; for a while, these Yamaha NS-10 speakers were de rigueur; you were expected to use these, because that's what everybody used as a reference. Those Yamaha speakers were what people used forever, and now people use Genelec or these ProAcs, and it's really often you're not listening to the best speaker you can find; you're listening to something that is consistent and known throughout the industry.

Micallef: How does the idea of sound and sonics correlate to music playback at home? Can you give me an idea of your home hi-fi?


Taylor: This question is a little embarrassing for me; I think it's a case of the cobbler's children have no shoes. My family [decides] what's playing in the house at any given point.

When I need to do references, I'll play back through a McIntosh system that I've had for a long, long time (footnote 2); I know what it does, what it sounds like. But I actually listen to music more over my automobile sound system than anywhere else, to tell you the truth. I drive a little Fiat 500 automobile with a really nice sound system in it, and that's how I like to listen.

I don't have a turntable at home; it's been something I've wanted to do for a long time, to get a new turntable and a good cartridge and listen to some of the records we're putting out on vinyl, because that's an audiophile phenomenon now, and I'm sure you're very aware of it.

I listen over headphones a fair amount, but I just haven't put a whole lot of thought into my speakers and my system. I like that McIntosh power amplifier, the receiver, that whole McIntosh rig is great, and I'd like to put it through some high-end B&W speakers; they make such beautiful ones, with also a good B&W subwoofer, and I'm hoping to put that together with a good turntable in the near future.

Micallef: You remarked in the Broken Record podcast with Malcolm Gladwell that your last five albums constitute your best work. What do you believe makes them better than your classic albums of the '70s and '80s?

Taylor: I actually think that's right. As time has gone by, two things have happened; one is that I'm a better writer than I was, and although I'm known for my early catalog of work, I do think that I've written some of my best songs in the recent past, which for me reaches back into the '90s and late '80s. Another thing that happened was I got sober, and I wasn't so distracted by being an addict. As I settled into the life that I've lived ever since then, I think that I've just gotten my marbles together a little bit better.


I do think that there is a certain energy and a certain urgency, and a certain je ne sais quoi to the earlier stuff that I wrote, because I was so desperate to communicate, to get it out there, to make music. So, it came fast, but often it was pretty shabby, and I basically threw everything at the wall and saw what would stick. And then as time went by, my pace slowed down a little bit, I got a little bit more aware of what I was doing and started learning to record and to write.

I'm very proud of the last [six] albums I've done, starting with That's Why I'm Here, New Moon Shine, Never Die Young, Hourglass, October Road, Before This World—that's the stuff that I'm feeling proud of these days. And to be honest with you, listening back to the first Apple album that Peter Asher and I made, which was such a remarkable break—it's hard for me to listen to that album because I was so raw, I was so new at it, and I think Peter was learning, too. We came to the States and made Sweet Baby James, which I think was a much better record. So, the very early stuff can be a little bit painful to listen to.

Micallef: Also, in that podcast, you mentioned that "beyond my mangled eye" you've largely led a blessed life. Do you credit that to hard work, luck, grace, talent?

Taylor: I do think a huge amount of it is luck, but it's also what you do with your luck, good and bad. I think I'm consistently working at it. I think having an accurate idea of what my work and my job actually is; I'm a touring musician and a singer, a songwriter and a recording artist. Then beyond that, I'm a husband, and a father, a sibling, and have many friends. I'm grateful for all of this stuff.

I think it's important to focus on the fact that at the base of it, I'm a musician with a musical ear. I'm a member of a band, a great community of musicians with whom I work on a regular and ongoing basis, and really ignore and don't trust the people who say you're the greatest thing since sliced bread, because they'll change their mind about that in a second if that spins well.


So, it's good to try to be right-sized and have an accurate view of what the world is and your place in it. I do tend to be defensive and anxious about things, but ever since I got sober—I think that, and meeting my wife Kim, and the life that we've been able to establish together, and the family that we've founded—that and recovery are why I'm here, really. That started in 1983, I think.

I think my great blessing is that I'm able to make my living and find a place for myself in the world that also supports a family, and a marriage, by making music. I didn't really have any alternative plan. I'm sure something would have presented itself, but I was really lucky at a couple of junctures, also unlucky at quite a few junctures as well. You just have to keep at it, and luckily, I do something that feeds my soul. I'm a lucky guy.

Footnote 2: According to JT's publicist, his amplification chain is an MC-2105 solid-state power amplifier and a C 28 stereo preamplifier.—Editor


Bogolu Haranath's picture

James Taylor was born in the same year as JA1 :-) ........

John Atkinson's picture
Bogolu Haranath wrote:
James Taylor was born in the same year as JA1 :-)

Not just me. Bob Stuart (Meridian & MQA), Paul McGowan (PS Audio), Peter McGrath (Wilson), and I were all born within 3 months of each other in 1948.

John Atkinson
Technical Editor, Stereophile

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Prince Charles of Wales was also born in the same year :-) ......

Bogolu Haranath's picture

The 'inconvenient truth' is Al Gore was also born in the same year :-) .......

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Best selling albums .......
1) Eagles ..... Greatest hits 36 million .....
2) Michael Jackson ...... Thriller 33 million ....
3) Eagles ...... Hotel California 26 million :-) ......

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Adele ..... Adele21 14million ....
Britney Spears ....... Baby one more time 14 million :-) .....

georgehifi's picture

Wasn't it older muso's like James Taylor and Neil Young or similar that started the "Dynamic Range Data Base" loudness wars? http://dr.loudness-war.info/
It's my go to bible for the least compressed version of any CD album, and usually it's the first release, then I just get a used one on ebay.

BTW Adele 21 is the worst, bought it new, took it back for a refund, all versions are compressed. Great album though, but in the car where compression is a good thing

Cheers George

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Lot of vinyl these days is made from 24-bit recordings ...... May be that is the reason why both of them have high DR :-) .......

Lars Bo's picture

Thanks, Ken.

"Greatest" is one of my favorite Americana-records. The remake of "Carolina", though all songs are great, makes it very special, and to me it's one of JT's very finest moments, as well as making the record feel almost more "album" than "compilation".

Thanks again

georgehifi's picture

Only on a couple of tracks though, (click on it) track 6 the only one to hit 13 on the DR scale which is not that great as it can go to 18

Cheers George

Bogolu Haranath's picture

I was referring to all different recordings in general ..... Not just Adele21 :-) ......

georgehifi's picture

But it still has pathetic channel separation and noise compared to similar DR measured CD's if available also.

Cheers George

Bogolu Haranath's picture

AnalogPlanet recently published reviews of several direct to disc vinyl pressings ....... There is a good chance, many of them could have high dynamic range :-) ........

georgehifi's picture

Wrong terminology, should be:
"many of them could have wide dynamic range :-"

Cheers George

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Wiide dynamic range to make the listeners smile wide :-) ......

Charles E Flynn's picture

James Taylor Looks Back (video: 8 min. 33 sec.)