Carl H Beatty in interview

Carl Beatty interviewed by Mike Thorne

Behind the board. All photos taken at TMF studios, New York City, during the BETTY Carnival sessions in October 1999.

Those mysterious credits on the last page of the CD booklet are often hard to understand. Just what exactly does a producer, an engineer, a mixer or (help us) an executive producer actually do?

Enter Carl Beatty, a recording and mixing engineer with more than 25 years' experience in the trenches, including work with the Stereo Society. How does he explain what he does for a living at parties? What is it that makes him tick? This is a non-nerd interview, asking the questions you never dared to, because of course everybody knows what is a producer, engineer etc etc.

Carl was interviewed by Mike Thorne on January 9, 2001

Carl Beatty at the Stereo Society:
To Carl's discography

Streaming audio of Carl's answers can be heard by clicking on the player alongside each question. For help in playing music, see our Playing Audio page in the Big Help Desk.

How do you explain what you do at parties?

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I'm the guy who sets up the microphones and operates the console that resembles the cockpit of a 747. I record lots of things and then mix it all down to two tracks, stereo, which is what you get on your CDs or your cassettes. Actually, at parties I try to avoid the subject--we engineer types being traditionally behind-the-scenes personnel. The music business has that "moth to the flame" effect.

That sounds pretty boring.

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Well, it actually is. Haven't you ever had your friends beg you to come down to a session? They find out that you're going to be working with somebody famous and ask, "Can I come down?" You finally find a way to get them there, they show up, and then you're busy at work listening to a song for the fifteenth or twentieth time that day. They're by the door grinning, then they've listened to the song twice and they say, "So, what's going to happen now?" Well, that's kind of it, and then about five minutes later they go, "Well, we have to go now." I think it is pretty boring work to the uninitiated. I don't find it boring, but I think because of those others’ experiences I have a powerful sense of how others might find it boring.

How did you come to be involved in engineering?

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I took a very strange route. I enjoyed tinkering with things when I was growing up. I wasn't one of these engineer types. I was more of a gears, wheels, pulleys and rope kind of a guy. Speakers made sound but they also they gave good magnets. My move into sound was very roundabout. I was debating which major to take in college, but I really had no clue. All I knew was liberal arts and archaeology, and things I wasn't interested in. My sister was an entertainer. She's five years older than I and had some experience singing and recording. She mentioned, "What about recording engineer." I said. "What’s that?" She described him as the guy who gets the microphone and he sits at this big board with lots of knobs. That sounded way cool to me. And, I said okay. In about five minutes I decided that's what I want to do.

When I went to college there were no programs offering any kind of instruction in recording engineering. So I took courses in radio. I guess my sister picked up on the tinkering the sound thing because at some point I became an audiophile—I began to hang out in stereo stores, intrigued by how my limited record collection would unfold itself before me. As they changed different components, I would hear new and better detail in my four or five records I was listening to. As you can see, it certainly wasn’t for the love of music. Although, I have to say I've gained a lot of understanding and love of music by being involved with it, which was the unseen benefit. I am really excited about that aspect of it because I never saw it coming.

Surely you liked music?

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Yes, I like music, but I wasn't a record collector. I wasn't a big fan. I was pretty eclectic. You know: Led Zeppelin, Steppenwolf, Jimi Hendrix, Beatles. It was kind of all over the map, certainly not diehard. I didn't have to buy every album that came out, just a few things that I liked and I'd listen to them a lot. I knew them as well as I could within the limited scope of what I was listening on. When I changed a speaker or amplifier, I heard something different. It was very intriguing and interesting. My love of music developed along with my interest for audio and turning knobs.

Is shaping sound for you similar to shaping wood for a carpenter?

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No. I think sound is a lot more subjective and forgiving than wood. With wood, size matters. With sound, the smallest unit can really make the record or make the day. I guess as I've done this through the years. I seem to be arriving at a point where I don't feel so much that I am shaping sound, rather that I am yielding to the shape of sound. I spend more time trying to move a microphone or capture what I am hearing rather than just turning a knob and applying an equalizer or compressor (unless that becomes part and parcel of the mangling of the sound). I've never been "the sound makes the record" kind of guy. I'm more of a balance kind of guy. I think that sounds are so broad and variable, and they can work in so many different contexts that balance seems to be the thing that displays the sound best.

We're still circling the issue of what matters in sound and why you like it.

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I think it comes from some emotional quality. When somebody buys a record or hears something on the radio, they listen to it and love it. That's based on some emotional response to the sound. I don't think it is based just on a snare drum sound or a particular guitar chord. It's a culmination of events. Perhaps I've heard too many records. The defining moment for me was Kisses on My Lips by Hall and Oates. That was a great record; a big Top Ten hit for them. I went out and got the record. This was actually after I had begun to become an audiophile, so I had my good speakers and all my good sounding stuff. I put this record on. It was one of the most horrible records I had ever heard in my life.

I was in the beginning stages of working in a studio and learning engineering. I entered the business with this kind of audiophile sensibility of 20 Hertz or 20,000 Hertz. I wanted to assure a pristine frequency response and get all the sounds. Then I heard this record which sounded really horrible and tiny. But it didn't diminish its appeal and its effect. In some way it became its character. I also think that somehow a sound intricately becomes a part of a recording, a part of its emotion. I think many people can sympathize with that idea now that we have many re-mastered albums and CDs. Re-mastered by the artist or re-mastered after the fact: people go out and buy and listen to them and somehow they're just different.

What’s lost is the relevance—the point or relevance has been removed with the sound—the point you enjoy and fell in love with now sounds totally different. The artist and the mastering engineer might have very lofty goals, but they are maybe losing part of that moment in time for a lot of people. I don't know if they realize that, and record companies can care less, but as we get older we have less high frequency response. So, generally, these things just get brighter, and that wasn't necessarily part of the original. There was something about that dull record playing through the scratches and whatever else was coming out of the grooves. But now that you can hear everything, in some way it's all there but its just not quite as organic. I do think that sound enhances mood and emotion, and that's the tricky thing with balancing. And that's one of the reasons I find sound more intriguing than video.

Video has a story line which I often find kind of flat. You're essentially being told what you should hear by your eyes, and I think it is much more intriguing to try and create three-dimensional space with just two speakers, and also to trigger that elusive emotional response. Its a challenge to try and figure out how I can create a response in somebody, and I don't think it's to do with good or bad sound. I think it is how the sounds are balanced and presented that matters.

Carl Beatty with BETTY's Elizabeth Ziff
on the Carnival recording sessions

How much experience does it take to react instinctively to sounds and their needs?

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Well, the seasoned veteran in me says, "Sure." Because I've done lots of triage and resuscitation, I can treat them in recording formats so that things fit together nicely, because I can anticipate how they are going to change as we add more tracks and more instruments. But with that I also learn to ask a lot of questions about what is to come, and how it plays in the vision of the piece the producer might have. Experience has taught me not to work in a vacuum. There have times when I did that, playing to the little voice in my head until the producer says, "I don't like that," and I go, "Okay, we'll try this." I think that dialogue is really important. So, yeah, I think it takes some experience, but on the other hand, I think there are too many good records made by inexperienced people. So, I don't think it takes any experience to react instinctively.

Lately, I've been trying to evaluate sounds subjectively, and balances in terms of the ‘distraction factor’. If something isn't distracting, then it is good on some level. Of course, I can spend a lot of time making each sound perfect., I don't think the average listener is buying a record for the snare sound or the cool reverb (or even returning a CD because it wasn't mixed in a particular console). My mentors taught me: "never forget your audience." I believe that is a good caveat. You can work in a room for hours, essentially be making a record for yourself but ultimately—if you are forgetting how people are when they buy and listen to it, those first four bars or first minute of what happens when they put it on—if you're forgetting that, then you're really making the record for yourself.

I tell my students [at Berklee College of Music] not to be crippled by their knowledge, for they are competing with people who haven't gone to school, but have the ability to know when to stop when it sounds or feels good. Whether the meters are pinned or whether it is the right ‘way’ or not, they know when to stop. You have to be aware of where your knowledge can become a liability. Very often you are also carrying people along with you. People are waiting for you and very often don't share that kind of quest for fire, don't want to go down that road with you. They just want to get it done. They're musicians and, for the most part, working in a very spontaneous place, and time is of the essence. It's a tricky balance, making sure it's all going to be okay by the time you are ready to put it all together, but also trying to get a sound. I think soemtimes, "if we tweak this sound some more, it can be really special and kind of a centerpiece." Then there are times when somebody says, "it's good enough," Your ears have to be open to hear that when somebody says, "good enough," they really mean it—it’s good enough.

Do you ever feel that you're stuck for too long in the same room with the music slipping away?

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That's a tough question for me. I burn out people. I'm a workaholic. I can easily sit in a room for eighteen hours. I have assistants coming up to me, "Can I get you something to drink?" or "Can I go to the bathroom for you?" That's just one of those tricky things I've become very keenly aware of. To me, there is always an elusive quantity of just being on the heels of something but also knowing when to walk away. If it's a ten-minute break, it equals a thirty-minute break, for everybody else disappears and then we have to wait for them to get back. I think that part of my higher ethic is to have a good time, and in some way that just cobbles the work along. We might be spending a lot of time, but it doesn't feel like work, and it doesn't feel like we're spending a lot of time and when people feel like they need to take a break, they take a break.

I have been fortunate enough to do a lot of work with bands I really like, and I've done a lot of kind of session work—you know, hired gun, you're sitting in, basically, waiting for people to come in for their two hour stint. For example, we might be going to do the percussion overdubs, then in two hours we're going to do horns and then after that we're going to do strings and after that we're going to try lead vocal. Things are more tightly scheduled. When things are scheduled, by nature, they are broken up for the producer, and certainly for the cast of characters who are coming in, but certainly not for the engineer or for the assistant. The engineer always has a task at hand—different mics, different goals sure, but you're always operating the console, getting sound to the tape, making sure everything goes okay.

With a band, it tends to be much more fluid and forgiving. At any given moment somebody may decide they want to hear rough, or they want to go into a different room and put a different part on while we're working on something else or just stop and have dinner. It's so much more of a social thing. There tend to be brief and intense relationships. There's not a lot of room when you are working with a band to be fake or to not. You should be the best person you can because in three or four weeks of making a record, everybody gets to know each other. You're all there for the same reason, so some sort of dynamic begins to show how to break out of the mode and how not to be so insular. So the downtime, the time when you are not obviously working, is as important to making the record because you are all still sharing.

You have an unusually broad range of styles that you have recorded, from pure pop through rock&roll, R&B and rap. Are there any differences in the mood and conduct of different session styles?

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We could make some really broad and crass observations. In general, in a rock session, they do more different kinds of drugs. I guess with R&B sessions, the things that I've seen (and in some ways bothers me) is that there really doesn't seem to be much separation between life and art. A session is just an extension of a hang—lots of people, lots of hangers-on, lots of women, lots of posing and not very much realization of the work ethic. We're there to get this done. Studios are expensive, and personnel are expensive. It would be to your benefit to spend your money wisely. A rock session tends to be a little more focused. There's work time, and there's playtime, and a more powerful sense of how tenuous the whole thing is.

Such experiences have informed how I deal with everything else, including the odd country record (I don't do country). But I have found myself in rooms doing country records (and I won't be doing many of them) but I know how to get through them. And then there are children's records and books on tape and orchestras, things like that. There's always an agenda. With all of them, I'm still trying to have a good time at keeping time in this very sterile, stilted environment down to a minimum. The less people waiting for me, the easier it is for them to work.

As a fan, I find it very intriguing how musicians do what they do. I am not a player; I am a good listener and am very thankful for what I have learned by listening really hard, but I play with something using the console—the console is my instrument. They are not all that different. It really comes down to personality, and I think it's important to be confident in who you are. That's one of the things I keep telling my students. You can't be somebody who you think they want you to be, because people can sense that falseness. You're in a room with somebody for eight or ten hours, things come to the surface pretty quickly.

You're a Berklee professor as well as a practical engineer and producer. What are the advantages and disadvantages of learning in an academic or commercial environment?

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In general, it has certainly been proven that one doesn't need to have an academic background for success. I can only speak for Berklee’s program and the kind of students we get. The business is changing so much that I think that in a lot of ways the two routes are about even. If you had asked me that question five years ago, I would have said you could easily get away with never having gone to some sort of academic program and do very well, but I think now it doesn't hurt, and it can help. We kind of force the students to work together, getting them to develop interpersonal skills. Don't forget, Berklee is really an unusual place. They are all musicians here.

There's a common thread that runs through this place. I would say that musicians, traditionally, are non-verbal people. To get them to work together and develop a sense of diplomacy, cooperation and collaboration (particularly in light of the way the technology is going, which is more and more single user either workstation or computer kind of thing). I think that is one of those things that separates our students from a lot of the other schools. However, the danger is that they go through this four-year program, and then assume (whether they are from Berklee or some other school) that they are engineers and they know it. They graduate with an attitude that no one wants to deal with. We go to great lengths to make sure they know they are not so arrogant, and I think we have been very successful.

How has the availability of cheap home recording equipment affected your profession?

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In general, there's less work. It has caused people to diversify. There are lots of great engineers out there, but because of the prevalence of cheap home recording equipment, work has become more specific. Someone might track at home and then call me to mix it. Formerly, I might do the whole thing. I did a project recently (for Martin Sexton, his newest album). I recorded his first record which did pretty well. It was on an independent label and his fans really loved it, kind of acknowledging that it was his best record. The producer of that record hired me to record it. We did it very quickly.

The second record was done by Danny Kortchmar somewhere in Connecticut. Martin got permission to produce his last record, his third, on his own. He hired the producer of the first record to engineer it because the producer has his own little home-recording studio setup, but considers himself a producer not an engineer. The producer called me and asked me to set him up to engineer this record up in Bearsville, New York. So he hired me for a couple of days to consult. That is what I mean. I've had to diversify, and was happy to do that. I am always glad to be in there. I'm a fan and happy to be involved.

I went up there, set up the mics, walked them through it, and gave them some templates—just some patterns to work (such as ‘keep the board in this mode’). I tried to see how much he could handle and gave him some simple ways to deal with it. It was just the strangest thing for me to be leaving after two days; I mean I've just never done that. I ended up getting an Assistant Engineer credit. That's a record: after so many years of Engineering [20] I move back to Assistant. (Some of my most famous credits are for non-Engineering. I got a credit for being in the horn section on a B-52s record—I really liked that one.)

The session was just getting going when I left. It was Martin, Tony Levin on bass, Joe Bellisano on drums. The first two days were spent just getting to know everybody and hanging out in Bearsville, which is a residential studio. Then two days into it, it was, "well, see you guys! Have a great record!" I'm still happy to be involved in whatever capacity I can. The guy who mixed it, Nick De Dea out in LA, was commenting how well recorded it was. That's nice to hear.

I've long ago gotten over the issue of credits. So the cheap equipment has definitely affected the work. It doesn't necessarily imply that it's bad. People are making really good sounding records. I think the parallel is often with film-making and using Super8. Everyone bought a video camera or a Super8 camera and became a film maker. That's kind of where we are in music recording. It should be as democratic as that.

How do good records surface when anyone can do it?

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There was a record I did called The Smurf. It was a huge dance record. It was when I actually started to do a lot of my work with you [Mike Thorne] in England. To my surprise, it became a huge record that everybody knew over there, and it did moderately okay in New York and dance markets, but this was a huge cult record over there. I would walk in the streets, and hear it on the radio, and it was just bizarre. The Smurfs were dolls that came out of Belgium, and they had a cartoon, like the Teletubbies. It was the flavor of the moment, and there were a lot of records that came out called The Smurfs because it was a dance. I was working with Tyrone Bronson. He was on CBS, he was going to do a Smurf record, and he went to the Legal Division and asked if it was okay to name his record The Smurf, and they said, "yeah, sure." And, he made this record. It became the biggest of the dance records, until The Smurfs people came after him and sued. They took him to court, and they trumped up charges. They brought in people saying that he brought Smurf dolls on-stage and did things to them, naughty things (which he never did). The settlement was that they pulled the record. You can't buy his biggest record.

I have no idea what comes to the top which is why I continue to take on such an eclectic range of work. To me, the challenge is to work on stuff that I don't know (and you just never know). I have two recordings which are presently nominated for Grammy's [2001], incidental orchestral music recorded for Books on Tape. One was narrated by Liam Nieson and one by James Earl Jones (but they won't win because they are up against Harry Potter). Who could have guessed that something as fun as a seventeen-piece orchestral recording would surface--wow, I haven't done something this big in a long time. I loved doing this, and somehow it got noticed. Often, you sweat and take a lot of care over some trio rock record and yet nobody ever gets to hear it. So, I don't know; you're asking the wrong guy.

So the Grammy Awards are not the pinnacle of achievement for you? Is challenge the key?

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What gives me the most charge is when the clients are happy, when the producer and artist are happy. When I set up a mix, and they walk in and go, "That sounds great! That's exactly the way we heard it." That really makes my day, particularly when I don't like it. One of the things that's very liberating is suddenly finding myself in a studio in the middle of a rock record doing a rock band out of Austin, Texas, with the producer knowing I don't do country music. I work very hard on music I don't necessarily like because I think that every music has a core balance to find. You don't have to like it to balance it. I don't necessarily say I don't like something. I have conversations with people. Where did you hear this going? Do you want to give me some examples of what you want this to sound like? I'm not afraid to do that.

I specifically said to this guy from Texas, "this isn't a country record because I don't do country. Then I'm mixing this rock record and suddenly I'm mixing a country song. It is very liberating going, "you know I really hate this crap." I just can't stand this kind of music and then to have to adhere to the value set that he wanted to mix it. He goes, "that sounds exactly the way I heard it."

I tell this story to my students a lot. Way back, I was working in a shipping room of a studio--I started at Mediasound in New York (the sequence of events was that you started in shipping and worked your way up shipping to kind of a junior assistant, then assistant and then second engineer, and engineer). Hopefully, you didn't deviate from that path. When I arrived there were five guys ahead of me. I knew that there was going to be a certain amount of time before I got out, so I was just trying to figure out how to approach it. I would always hear these guys talking: "I want to mix; all I want to do is mix. I love mixing; recording is boring, and I don't want to do that." And I figured, well, I'll do the recording they don't want to do. I just set my sights on being good all-around and so that was settled. I'll do whatever comes my way. I'll give good all-around.

What it really came down to is I like working. I like pushing faders, I like making sound, I like having control over it, and I like being asked to interpret. Somebody is going to say to me "can you make it sound brighter; can you do this?" Yeah, I'm very happy to do this. To me that's how I see my role.

I've learned from five great engineers. There were five great engineers on Media's staff, and you could pick and chose what you wanted from each one of those experts. The flow of information was very free and I learned that five guys could tell you the same way to do something and yet would be all different because it's down to your ears. It's down to the way you interpret. So I am not that possessive about "it's my sound and I'm the guy who owns it." I don't think it comes down to that. To me it gets back to that challenge that if somebody asks me for something, and I can turn a knob and make an interpretation of it and they can go, "yeah, that's it," Then I feel that I have learned something, but I have also achieved something. For me, that's the pleasure. That's where I get my thrills.

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