Somewhere in a Burst of Glory

Photo By Robbie Jeffers

Tyler Chester was headed south on the I-5 to San Diego, where he would join indie-rock eminence Andrew Bird's road band for a brief tour. Touring is an activity Los Angeles–based Chester pursues with decreasing frequency, he told me in a recent phone chat. After years as a busy sideman and recording-session musician—he is equally proficient on bass, guitar, and keyboards—Chester finds himself spending less and less time as a player and more as a producer. His rapidly expanding clientele includes Sara Bareilles, with whom he produced the album More Love in 2020, and Madison Cunningham, whom he nurtured from a teenage neophyte to a budding, twice-Grammy-nominated star.

Chester is a teacher by inclination. "These days," he says, "in the world of Pro Tools and GarageBand, musicians need a lot of help just getting a song to function. Getting ideas to coalesce. I'm a big fan of trying to find the inflection point," the lightbulb moment when a performance jells—when, as Paul Simon put it, Somewhere in a burst of glory/Sound becomes a song.

For Chester, recording is not merely a matter of flying in snippets from here and there but, rather, of something mysterious and magical. "Producers and engineers around my age," he says—"and I turned 40 last summer—are the last generation to come up on tape, and once you see that light, it really sticks with you." Chester is talking not about working with analog tape per se but about a mindset he acquired in the first studio he worked in, a converted garage with a 2" tape machine and an aging Trident console. For Chester, to record a song is to focus intently on shaping an organic unity, a living, breathing piece of craftsmanship, maybe even a piece of art. It is to get to the end of the song regardless of, inclusive of, whatever (short of a disaster) happens along the way.

"With Pro Tools, you're just not as focused," Chester says. "If you're working with a singer, they won't sing as well. If you say, 'Sing the first verse five times, and we'll take a break, and then you'll sing the second verse,' instead of, 'OK, we're gonna nail it in one take,' you're in danger of losing the throughline of the song, certainly the story of the song. I like to be in the mindset of 'This is the take.' And in my experience, it either comes together pretty quickly—three takes is a lot for me—or there's a problem with the song."

Chester is confident he can retain the diamond cutter's concentration he aspires to even—and the day will come—when tape is rarely if ever used. "I mean, there are no new tape machines," he says. "The last ones were made in the late '90s or early 2000s. At some point, they're going to stop working. But I record to Pro Tools the same way I record to tape. When I do a session to Pro Tools, I tell people, 'No, we're not going to go back and fix everything. Pretend the computer's not there.' There are a lot of reasons to use Pro Tools. Cost is a big one—it's expensive to record to tape. The sweet spot for me is recording to tape, running it into Pro Tools, and mixing it there. We mixed Madi Cunningham's first album, Who Are You Now, on tape and it cost an extra $6000 in studio time."

Splicing tape, a craft [that] engineers swore by in the 20th century, often out loud, is virtually a lost art. On the song "Dry As Sand" on Who Are You Now, David Boucher, an engineer Chester admires and often works with, "actually spliced tape," Chester marvels. "Splicing tape is not a challenge for David. He came up under [legendary engineer/mixer] Bob Clearmountain. David spliced a bridge in from another take. We stood there watching like we were in an operating room. It was scary to watch. It looked so destructive! David did the splice, rewound the tape, and played it. You could hear a click where the splice was. I was like, 'I can hear it. It's not gonna work!' David said, 'Just listen. Tape heals itself.' He rewound it, played it again, and the click was gone."

Somewhere in a burst of glory, with a minimum of grabbing, scrubbing, or flying in, sound becomes a song. "I've been chasing those moments my whole life," Chester says. "I'm still chasing them, that thing, that transcendence, when something happens that's completely unexpected and so cool and so interesting." Recalling the 2017 sessions with Joan Baez for her final studio album, Whistle Down the Wind, on which he played piano and organ, Chester said, "Joan was having trouble with her voice. It was clear that she was going to sing these songs once or twice and that's it. One song we cut, 'The President Sang Amazing Grace,' was a sort of gospel arrangement, where she would sing and there'd be a musical response. You were hanging on her every breath, every syllable, listening really hard for the first sound out of her mouth, and you'd hit the first chord. That sort of experience is so exciting, when it only comes together because there's so much attention being paid."

But Chester is of the last generation to absorb the ethos that working to tape fosters, or anyway it did for him. What happens when every producer and engineer, every musician, comes of age in a universe of digital workstations? Chester is guardedly optimistic. "There is something intrinsic to playing music together, just like when you were in a high school band, or you learned how to play guitar with your friends. There's a connection there that will always ring true, will always exist. Regardless of the medium."

I hope he's not whistling in the dark.

Jack L's picture


So what is "A Burst of Glory" appeared to Tyler Chester when he first auditioned his master-taped first album of Madi Cunningham , which cost "an extra $6,000 in studio time" ????

Surprised such crucial sonic report was not seen in the above review !

As a die-hard analogue connoisseur, a classical music reference CD I own, titled: "The Tube". an 1999 TACET music production in Germany using tubes only throughout signal chain, from Neumann mics to 1950s Telefunken mono-upgraded-stereo tape mastering recorder to custom-designed A/D converter with no solid-state devices throughout !!!!!

I just want to compare notes on the tape-mastered sonic aspect !

Listening is believing

Jack L

monetschemist's picture

Thank you Tony Scherman for writing this and (I hope) much more for Stereophile. This kind of work, part conversation, part narration (la palabra "relato" me sirve pero dejemos esto al lado por ahora) is an invigorating change from, and a great counterbalance to, the more technical content of the magazine. Seeing behind the curtain. Seeing the music from the performer's and producer's and engineer's perspective.

Great, great stuff.