Armin Steiner is a self-described survivor, having achieved the kind of career longevity that, in the music business, eludes all but a select few. A gracious man with a polite, almost courtly style, he's also highly opinionated, offering an educated and well-articulated point of view that stems from both his past experiences in the recording industry and his current commercial recording work.
Steiner's pop engineering credits include more than 100 Gold and Platinum albums with major artists starting in the mid-’60s and including hits for Glen Campbell, Neil Diamond, the Fifth Dimension, Bread, Heart, Dolly Parton, Johnny Rivers, Hall & Oates, Helen Reddy, Barbra Streisand and many more. In recent years, he's returned to his youthful roots as a classical violinist and has become an in-demand scoring engineer, recording orchestral soundtracks for such films as Silverado, Home Alone, Born on the Fourth of July, JFK, A League of Their Own, Witches of Eastwick and Cocoon, and for television shows from Dynasty and Star Trek: The Next Generation to Beauty and the Beast and King of the Hill.
We met for this interview at the Newman Stage on the Fox Studios lot, where Steiner was recording a series of orchestral cues for upcoming episodes of King of the Hill. Afterward, we adjourned to the Fox dining room, where, seated beneath historic wall murals harkening back to the 1930s, we settled in for lunch and a long chat.
You're one of the very few engineers who started out to be a classical violinist.
Yes, Phil Ramone is the only other one I know of. And I hear he was pretty good! It's true that I went quite far with my music, to the point where I played with symphony orchestras and was a Columbia artist, all while I was very young.
Then I got serious about this end of the business. I decided I wanted more of a normal life, that I didn't want to live out of a suitcase as I thought I'd have to do if I stayed in the classical scene as a soloist or a concertmaster.
Somehow, with all those hours you'd spent practicing your instrument, you still found time to develop some technical skills.
I always had this technical thing going. I was 11 when my father bought me a tape recorder. He was an international chess master, and he traveled all over the world. But his hobby was disc recording. We're Hungarian, and my father used to record gypsy music directly to disc in our living room.
I used to record myself and my mother, who was a concert pianist and who played accompaniment for me. And it used to drive me crazy that I couldn't record my violin properly, because that old recorder had so much wow and flutter — there was always wavering in the background.
What formal training did you have to be an engineer?
My first job was at Electrovox Recording Studios, when I was 15 or 16 years old. I was actually told after two weeks that I didn't have any talent for the business and should really give up.
After that, I went to City College here in L.A. for two years studying music, and also engineering and physics and chemistry. There I became friendly with the man who was head of the intercampus radio station. He took me under his wing, and pretty soon I was recording big bands and opera — all of that at 17 years old.
I went from there to UCLA, where I was in the music department. I played a lot, and I also took engineering classes. And I did the same thing there but for a different reason. Even back then, UCLA was an impossible place to park. So in order to get a parking pass, I offered to do recording for them — at Royce Hall, all over campus. I had a big heavy Magnacord machine, and I was carrying this stuff everywhere, but I had my parking pass! Meanwhile, I had also gotten a job at Radio Recorders, which was one of the first independent studios.
It wasn't long before you opened your own studio. Actually, you were way ahead of your time, because your first commercial studio, which you built in about 1960, was in your house.
Yes. A bedroom over the garage, which was 10 by 14, became the control room. The studio, in the garage, was 25 by 15, with 14-foot ceilings. I soundproofed and air-conditioned it with a flow-through system. I took the air from the basement, which was cold, and built it so it went through the pipes at a very low velocity and therefore was quiet. My uncle helped me, and although my mother thought I was nuts, she supported me in every way.
I also put an iso booth in. Studios didn't really have iso rooms then, just portable ones that they moved around. But I actually made a little room that was very bright. It was lined with masonite, which was very shiny and reflective — an acoustical equalizer. It was wonderful for all the R&B vocals that we did in there. I also built the recording console.
Yes, of course. You couldn't go out and buy a lot of things back then; you had to build them. The console was stereo and had six faders, three on each side. Later, I added three more faders on each side without preamps to use with high-output microphones like the U47. Especially with close-miking, there was sufficient gain structure with those mics so that it worked pretty well, and I got cleaner sound that way. We also added a center-channel mixer, made up of Langevin modules that had three mic inputs, one line input and reverb sends. It was designed by Sherwood “Bert” Sax, the brother of Doug Sax of The Mastering Lab. He's a brilliant engineer who designed most of the electronics and put it all together.
One thing that was really significant to that studio, and part of the reason our sound was so good, was that we developed a phase-correcting network that we used on every channel of our tape machines.
Using tape, as opposed to recording direct to disc, made phase shift properties more apparent. When the fundamental and its overtones don't arrive at the same place at the same time, and the sound is a little bit spread, you don't hear it coming back exactly like you do in the room. What Bert did was design a device we called a “scrambler.” So if we had a 3-track recorder, we would have a scrambling device for each of the three channels, and they would be tuned to the characteristic of the tape track. We'd come out of the bus, into the scrambler, out of the scrambler, into the tape machine. And it would decode itself better. It was a compromise between shifting the high end and the low end at the same time, and it created better transients. We were the only ones who had that.
What other equipment did you have?
When 3-track came out, I had two 3-track machines, Ampex 350-3s, two Ampex 350 2-track machines and one that was mono, an Ampex 200 — a great big machine. It was a well-equipped place. I even had reverb. One was a combination of three spring devices that I'd made and hung on the wall, and one was a wonderful-sounding live chamber that I'd built underneath the house.
Your mother let you build an echo chamber in the basement? And run cables through the walls?
Yes. She even let me use her Thunderbird to haul the trailer full of tile that I needed for it. My mother was quite amazing. She also let me use her piano, on which we ended up cutting several hit records.
You had no background in pop music before you built the studio. How did you learn about it?
Two people who were very influential in the commercial rock ’n’ roll business helped me and actually went into business with me: Lincoln Mayorga, who is a great pianist and the arranger for the Four Preps, among many artists, and Eddie Cobb, who was the bass voice in the Four Preps. They were producing records for other people, and they taught me. I had never really paid attention to commercial music before, only classical.
How did you get clients to come to you?
After the studio was all built, I did a couple of demo sessions, and we thought it sounded pretty good. Then one afternoon I got a call from the Wilder Brothers, two very nice and crazy men who had heard I had a studio. They came over with a little group called Dick and Dee Dee. We cut a demo, and three or four weeks later it was a Number One record called “The Mountain's High.”
From that moment on, word started traveling. Motown got interested, and I was busy all the time. I had Glen Campbell, Billy Strange, Tommy Tedesco, Dennis Budamir, all these guitar players sitting there at my house. There was Ray Pohlman, one of the truly great Fender bass players and the first man to actually build a distortion device. Hal Blaine, Earl Palmer, Joe Osborne, Larry Knechtal, Bill Pittman, Mike Deasy and, of course, Carol Kaye. I'd get a call at three in the morning from Herb Alpert saying, “I've got to overdub a tambourine on this piece.” I'd be in my pajamas and I'd walk up there and we'd do it — that was that. I used to have The Supremes up there, Marvin Gaye — my mother used to cook for them. Stevie Wonder was in when he was 9 years old. People think I'm making this stuff up, but it's true. As a matter of fact, I did a film session with Stevie awhile back, and he remembered both me and my studio.
It was a different time, a different place. You couldn't do that kind of thing now, the city wouldn't allow it. I mean, it was all illegal. And there was a lot of activity.
Why did you finally move your studio out of the house?
Really, I would have to blame it on the Watts riots — that very tragic happening in Los Angeles that made many people really paranoid. I was recording a lot of black acts there — mostly for Motown. And we would have lots of cars and people outside the house. Most of my neighbors didn't mind, but one who lived across the street called the city.
I was off working at Radio Recorders one day, and my brother called to say that a city inspector was there, telling him that I had to have the business out within 24 hours. So I did. I'd operated it for a good seven years, and probably had 10 or 11 Top 10 records, but I disassembled the whole thing, took all the equipment over to Radio Recorders and never looked back.
You built two more studios after that.
Yes, I had Sound Recorders from ’65 to ’71, then I moved across the street where I built Sound Labs, which I operated until 1980. Then I was at Evergreen in Burbank for a year-and-a-half, then Lionel Newman hired me here at Fox.
You've said that out of all the pop music that you've recorded, the Richard Harris epic, “MacArthur Park,” is probably your favorite.
That's a subject all in itself. It was 7 minutes and 20 seconds long, and we recorded the music at my studio, Sound Recorders. I think that [songwriter] Jimmy Webb was inspired to do an epic by The Beatles' “Hey Jude.” The way Jimmy conceives a song is that he sees the whole thing, then goes back and does it. He's one of the few people who can see the whole picture at one time. And that was an extraordinary piece of music, because it had chord progressions and melodies that were far more reaching than your average pop record, to say nothing of a great lyric.
So it was conceived as a whole and he wanted to record it as a whole, with absolutely no edits and no stopping, not even within the movement structure. If you remember, it was a three-movement piece. He wanted to do the whole thing as a complete piece of music, because he wanted to capture the whole inspiration.
What was the session like?
It was our usual rhythm setup. Hal Blaine on drums, Joe Osborne on bass, Mike Deasy on guitar, Larry Knechtal and Jimmy himself on piano and harpsichord — I can't remember which one did what, they were playing in unison.
We started rehearsing at 10 in the morning. We rehearsed and rehearsed, changed and rehearsed, because it was very complicated, especially the rhythms. The slow section had to be a certain mood… it was like a mini movie.
They rehearsed the same piece for six hours, then put the music down and played the entire piece of music from memory in one take. And that was the magic. Anybody else would have taken it and edited — chopped it up in little sections — and it wouldn't have worked.
What did you record to?
Eight-track. Sound Recorders was one of the first commercial studios to have an 8-track. Columbia had done it, as I recall, by running two 4-track machines together, not even with a synchronizer — it was kind of all makeshift. But we actually built one. We took an Ampex 200 deck, that huge thing with big motors, built as a monaural machine, and, as I recall, we used Ampex PR10 electronics. The PR10 was two channels in one box, so we didn't have to have so many amplifiers hanging around. So, we added together four packages of Ampex 2-track electronics.
Then we needed heads. We had the idea to take the specs from a 4-track head and use the same geometry to make one that was 8-track. We found a company called IEM, in Chicago, whose chief engineer, John Pretto, was building 7-channel data heads for telemetry for satellites, and we had them build it for us.
We didn't even have automatic tape lifters on this thing, so we had to pull the head gate back by hand when we did the rewind, which was difficult to do with 1-inch tape. There was a lot of resistance there, but we made it work.
Of course [laughs], after the rhythm section was done, they took the tape to London to record Richard Harris, and they had to go through a similar process. At Landsdowne Studios, they built an 8-track machine out of Scully parts in order to put his voice on.
Do you recall how you miked the band?
I'm a creature of tremendous habit, so I know that, probably, I used two Sony C-37 microphones over the drums. There may not have been a snare mic, but if there was, it was a Sony C-500. On the bass drum, probably an Electro-Voice 666 — you could hammer nails with it. Piano: always a single mic, a U47. The harpsichord would have been an AKG 451E, taped to the stick of the harpsichord. We always took the bass direct. On the guitar, just a single mic — an AKG 451E — I had a series of those, and I liked them because I could put a pad in them to take down the level so that we wouldn't have any distortion.
And, always, of course, I'd set it up to have everyone sitting close together. That's very important. If the rhythm section can hear well and feel well together and have eye contact, it's going to be much better for the ensemble and for whatever magic you're going to get from that ensemble.
Would you have compressed the bass?
No, I very seldom use compressors, except for the bass on rhythm and blues records. I rarely even use them on vocals. I always feel like I can ride the level myself better. Once I hear the melody, I've memorized it, and I'd rather deal with it that way.
The only limiters that I ever used were LA-2As, LA-3As, 1176s and, later, the Inovonics. I still like the Inovonics if I have to use one — I think it's the most “unlimiter” limiter that I know. And, of course, in the early days we had the old Fairchild tube job, that brute-force, heat-producing monster that adds so much distortion along with its limiting that it creates a “sound.”
Mastering a 45 rpm record of that length, which you also did at Sound Recorders, must have been another story unto itself.
We had to get 7:20 on a 45 rpm record. The only other record that had been done that way was “Hey Jude.” Cal Frisk, who worked for me and was a super-great engineer, did the mastering. It was done manually; we didn't use variable pitch — we opened and closed the grooves manually.
I knew the music so well, you see, that we could maximize cutting it by doing it by hand. When the music gets very quiet, you can close the grooves, because it doesn't take up much space.
When you have louder sound and deeper bass, you need more land between the grooves in order to reproduce it. Knowing the music, you pretty much know your limits.
In those days, don't forget, it was a real battle of levels with 45 rpm records. It was always about trying to make the loudest disc and defeat all the stuff in the transmitters and the radio stations so that you could produce the loudest single over the air.
There were two factors to consider: the amount of space that is technically allowed — up to so many centimeters from the center — and the distortion factor. As you get toward the inside of the record, you have greater distortion. It was art and science at the same time; that was the romance of the business in those days. And, since the masters were all cut by hand, maybe there was a slight difference between each of them. Maybe I made a better one the second time!
These days, the bulk of your work is orchestral recording. How do you prepare for a large scoring date?
The most important thing is to know what it's going to sound like beforehand. You must get a mental picture of that by knowing your composers and their style.
I also try very hard to go over the details before we ever get into the studio. A lot of composers will discuss with me beforehand the kind of texture they're looking for. To me, that's absolutely the most valuable information.
Normally, our actual setups are going to be pretty much the same, unless you want something special. Like on the Witches of Eastwick score, John Williams wanted me to put the tubas next to the French horns, because they all played together. Now that isn't something that you would normally do, but it worked marvelously well. He was 100 percent right, as usual. Those are the kinds of things that create a sound. When I did Silverado with Bruce Broughton, another magnificent composer, there were times when it was so loud in the room that it was impossible. We had a very small string section, so I decided to put the strings over to one side of the room and then let the brass and the winds have all the space. Then we put up three microphones for them and came in a little closer with the microphones on the strings. And it worked. Really, it's about letting the music be your guide.
On the Newman Stage, where you often work, the console is an SSL 9000. You also like working on the large API console at O'Henry Studios. (See this month's “On the Cover” on page 14.)
Yes. O'Henry's is an all-custom board, with API equalizers, a marvelous-sounding console that was a great product of love and very precise engineering. I do like the SSL 9000, and I work also on the Neve V Series.
You're not a fan of tube mics for scoring dates.
It depends on the maintenance of the microphone. You don't want a breakdown, because it will always come at the wrong time. It will always happen when you're ready to make a take, or you're in the middle of something that is beginning to come together in a most unique manner, and there you fall on your face. Plus, the fact that none of these [tube] mics are even. They don't sound similar, and if you're going to use them across the front of an orchestra, with peculiarities and artifacts different for each microphone, you've got problems.
What mics do you prefer then?
There are great mics by Sennheiser, which I think are the best modern microphones made, and that's the MKH Series. Their characteristics are extraordinarily musical, and that's what's important to me — how musical they sound, how real they sound. The reason they sound so good is because their off-axis response is totally linear. In a Neumann microphone, for example an M50, the off-axis response is very jagged, very unlinear. Remember, any leakage you get in the room must combine. That's why it's very important many times to use the same type of microphone, so that the characteristics of the leakage will be the same. It's just logical. Practical physics.
I rarely do any close-miking. For TV, we do go in a little closer, but for scoring motion pictures, you want the sound of an orchestra, and you cannot get it by sticking a microphone in front of somebody's face. It will just sound small.
Therefore, almost everything is coming from the overheads, which would be MKH 80s or 800s. I use five across the front. I also use either MKH 20s or the solid-state M50s for the two surrounds, which are placed overhead back from the orchestra. Then, I'll maybe put a couple of MKH 40s over the woodwinds, just in case I need to accentuate a solo or change the balances. For the most part, for a brass section I'll stick up a couple of TLM170s at a great distance, and I might open them up just a bit and use just five percent of those mics.
What about the percussion?
Perhaps a TLM170 over the timpani for some accentuation, and perhaps some high over the overall percussion. I would always rather pick things up in a natural balance. I want to get what you would really hear if you were in a fine concert hall.
You use very little processing when you record.
The only thing I use is a little reverb.
You monitor with reverb.
No, I record with it. Absolutely. I have a favorite that I've used for the last 12 years or better, the Roland R-880. I have a very special program that we developed the algorithm for, on a card that I burned at the factory about 10 years ago.
What new equipment have you been impressed with lately?
Nothing, really. At the risk of sounding dated, I'll state that nothing much has really changed in 40 or so years. You still have to get from microphone to line-level, and what we've done in the intervening years is merely to put a lot of garbage in between them, which serves to degrade the sound.
Okay, then, is there any old equipment that you can't live without?
No. I use what I have. I don't want to make a big deal out of it. I just need to get the signal properly, and then the proper balance, the sonority. I like to preserve dynamics. If something is quiet, it should be extremely quiet. If something is loud, it should be earthshaking. If the music is exciting, it should come off as excitement, not as something the engineer tries to interpret.
We are not interpreters. We are servants of the music, and all we're doing is taking what the composer did and, hopefully, putting it down in the perspective that they heard.
What advice do you have for someone who wants to become a scoring engineer?
I think he or she should come and listen. Listen to what the orchestra is doing, and after they have that in their heads, they should go in and listen with somebody who has some years of experience.
That's how I learned. When I was 14 or 15 years old, I sat with Thorn Nogar at Radio Recorders, who would be doing an Elvis Presley session in the morning and then Henry Mancini in the evening. I saw what he did and learned why he did it. I learned from all of the wonderful staff engineers at Radio Recorders. You can learn so much from observation, if you have a keen ear.
Your job is to try to create the excitement that the artist intended to have in the music. When it gets exciting, your fundamental obligation is to be able to capture that dynamic. It's not only loud or soft, it's all that intensity that happens. It doesn't matter if it's rock ’n’ roll, big band, operatic or symphonic, the most important thing is to let the music be your guide. No matter what you're recording, if you let the music be your guide, you will never go wrong.
Maureen Droney is Mix's L.A. editor.
E: Engineering; M: Mixing; R: Remixing
Bread: Best of Bread (1972, E)
Glen Campbell: Southern Nights (1977, E)
Judy Collins: Hard Times for Lovers (1979, E/R)
Neil Diamond: Hot August Night (1972, E)
Danny Elfman: Music for a Darkened Theatre, Vol. 1: Film & Television Music (1990, E)
Hall & Oates: Daryl Hall & John Oates (1976, E)
Heart: Dog & Butterfly (1978, E)
The Nitty Gritty Band: Nitty Gritty Dirt Band [Liberty] (1967, E)
Helen Reddy: I am Woman (1972, E)
The Simpsons: Songs in the Key of Springfield (1997, E)
The Turtles: Happy Together (1967, E)
Empire of the Sun original soundtrack (1987, R)
Die Hard 2: Die Harder original soundtrack (1990, E/M)
A League of Their Own original soundtrack (1992, E)
Robin Hood: Men in Tights original soundtrack (1994, M)
Cocoon original soundtrack (1997, E)
Way of the Gun original soundtrack (2000, M)