Walter Sear's Analog Rules

The first thing you notice about Walter Sear's legendary Manhattan studio is that it feels so darn comfortable. Sear Sound doesn't have a wall of gold records, gleaming million-dollar consoles, or the latest high-resolution digital workstations, but a quick stroll around the three studios reveals a treasure trove of tube and analog professional gear: a pair of Sgt. Pepper–era Studer recorders plucked from EMI's Abbey Road studios; an early Modular Moog synthesizer Sear built with Bob Moog; and a collection of 250 new and classic microphones.

Sear Sound's clientele runs the gamut, from Paul McCartney to Wilco, Patti Smith, Phish, David Bowie, Steely Dan, Wynton Marsalis, and Norah Jones. Starting out as a tuba player, Sear also designed and manufactured tubas, which led to stops along the way as producer, engineer, filmmaker, composer, arranger, and technician—but I tried to focus on his current domain, Sear Sound. The studio's motto reflects its founder's disarmingly frank outlook: "The recorded sound sucks—we're trying to make it better."

Steve Guttenberg: Walter, you started out as a tuba player and now you're a big-shot studio owner—what a long, strange trip it's been.

Walter Sear: I was brought up to expect things to fail or change, so I'm always developing backstops, many of which became primary sources of income. I originally fell into the studio business because I needed a showroom to sell Moog synthesizers, and while I was doing that I was arranging music for commercials and films. Bob Fine [of Mercury Records] mentored me a little bit, and I built my first studio with Russ Hamm in 1970.

Guttenberg: When did you first meet Robert Moog?

Sear: Doctor Moog. We started floating in and out of each other's lives in the late '50s—I was building my first Theremin, and he sold me some transformers.

Guttenberg: It seems that the creative potential of the Doctor's invention was never utilized.

Sear: No, it was used to eliminate musicians and save money. I sold synths to music-production houses that I had worked for as a musician. The trouble with the instrument was that you really had to invest a year or two learning what it could do. But it had a marvelous quality that no other instrument, before or since, has had—you could tune the harmonics above the fundamental to non–whole-number ratios. You could make sounds no one ever heard before—that was the purpose of the instrument. In the early '70s I scored a bunch of films, including Blue Water, White Death, and Let's Scare Jessica to Death, on a Moog.

Guttenberg: You also played on the Midnight Cowboy soundtrack.

Sear: That's a sad story. John Barry came around to hear what I could do on the Moog, so I played a few things. He was so impressed he asked to use my phone, called the studio where he was working on the score, and sent the musicians home. It was the beginning of the end.

Guttenberg: So you were part of the problem...

Sear: The producers didn't understand the capabilities of the instrument—and they still don't. It takes imagination to think of a sound no one has ever heard before. The Moog could have been a contender, but I didn't sell what it could do hard enough. Then again, it all started in the 13th century, with the invention of the hurdy-gurdy, the first instrument designed to eliminate musicians.

Guttenberg: And you did some pop stuff too?

Sear: I played the bass line on Simon & Garfunkel's tune "Save the Life of My Child"—it does a glissando and a crescendo at the same time. Listen to it, and you'll see no acoustic instrument can do that. Okay, maybe I could have faked it on tuba if I'd worked hard enough.

Guttenberg: Why does it seem as if most of the "advances" in recording technology have had a negative effect on musical values?

Sear: The level of pop musicianship has gone down—they can't play anymore. That's why multitrack was invented, which in some ways further destroyed music.

Guttenberg: How's that?

Sear: People wanted perfect recordings. Listen, I earned my living as a professional musician for 45 years in New York, and I occasionally cracked a note, and busted a number of good ones in my career. But the musicality was there. Somewhere along the way, the audiences wanted live performances to sound like recordings. So I learned not to try to hit those triple-forte notes anymore, I played it safe, and the music suffered for it. Same thing applied to recording sessions—the producer wouldn't hire you again unless you played it safe. With multitrack you can record one instrument at a time, and you just keep punching in until you make it perfect. But after 28 takes, what have you got? And now, with digital editing systems, you can pitch-correct an out-of-tune vocal, but that always diminishes the performance. Lose that, and you've lost the music.