George Petit is a multiple-threat artist of the highest order. A superb guitarist, his original compositions are deft and intriguing. He’s also a skilled mix engineer who produces his own recordings. Emergence, Petit’s latest release, was recorded at Applehead Recording in Woodstock, N.Y. The CD features Petit’s guitar work and the playing of several close friends, including bassist Phil Palombi and keyboardist Matthew Fries. Justin Flynn contributed horn work, and Mark Dodge played drums, percussion and marimba. Petit tracked and mixed the entire album.
If you’re a fan of the guitar, music that sways gently at times and burns elsewhere, you need to check this guy out. Petit’s bio, and examples of his music, can be found on his Website, petitjazz.com. We spoke about his playing and engineering philosophy.
Can you tell us about some of your main influences? I hear a lot of Larry Carlton, particularly the work he did with Steely Dan in your playing and sound. I also hear some Chet Atkins, some Cornell Dupree…
I’ve been listening to countless players since I was about five—stuff seeps in through the cracks and finds a place to hang out. I have always been a big fan of Steely Dan; the playing and writing, of course, but also the production. Elliot Scheiner is one of my favorite engineers based on the clarity, the perfect balances, and the way he avoids “ornamental” effects. But a lot of the Steely Dan sound is Fagen and Becker’s writing and in-studio arranging—what goes “to tape.”
Carlton? You bet. A master of the guitar who delivers the right part for the right tune. He has taste, sound and touch. Larry has a special place in my heart, not only his work with Steely Dan, but with Joni and others. He’s a master’s Master. Then again, I know there is a lot of Metheny, Stern, Duane Allman and many others in what I do. Someone once told me that if you are a jazz guitarist over 50 and you say you are not influenced by Wes, you’re a liar. So whether it’s Wes, or Jim Hall, or Pat or Benson...or Frisell or Sco...it’s all in there!
Chet? Love me some Chester. One of my tunes from the previous release [End of August], “Aldo,” was actually written for an Alitalia Airlines advertising campaign. And yet, most folks hear it and suggest that I wrote a tribute to Chet.
How would you describe your overall skill set?
Well, I started out as a musician, then started writing music and working with bands in London pubs at the age of 13 or 14. I’ve played in reggae bands, jazz big bands and trios, rock bands, country bands, done solo jazz festival concerts, tours with my own groups, and I continue to gig and play at festivals in the U.S. and abroad. I just returned from 11 gigs in 10 days at the Discover Jazz Festival, and I have a rock gig in New York City tomorrow night!
I became interested in engineering in 1978 as a way to try to get what I was hearing recorded. I started out using 4-tracks with two reel-to-reel Tascam machines, with “push the buttons sync quick!” Then moved onto 8-track, 16, 24, 48 analog, to digital ADAT and DASH formats to Pro Tools the first year it arrived. My love of engineering and arranging goes hand-in-glove. As I got deeper into engineering, I researched the sounds of great engineers; how they did their thing and how not to do their thing! I listen way deep into a recording; it’s something I love. How was this tracked? What is the overall style of the mix and how does it support the music? How does it take what the artists are doing and get them to realize their goals...and then some? Communication and listening are so important in production, easily as important as technical skills. The lines between all the skills tend to vanish. I love everything I do and I draw from all the decades as a musician, guitarist, bassist, writer, engineer, mixer and producer each day, on each project. I am lucky to speak the many languages needed in our industry, and I am constantly learning.
What is your signal path today, including amplifier, for your main electric guitar?
I tend to think of every link in the chain as a means to an end. So if I am after a certain Telecaster vibe, I’ll try to think in terms of the right guitar and amplifier followed by the right mics and pre’s, and then sculpt everything to find that certain sound I need on a track. Could be an old Fender Vibroverb; or, these days, my amazing Fuchs ODS 100 amp, which I adore. That said, I also turn to direct recording at times if the song calls for that. Direct has a purity and immediacy that is compelling and useful at times. My recent favorite DI has to be the Rupert Neve Designs RNDI. Amazing box. As we know, different mic preamps will or will not color a sound, so I try to think of that link in the chain, as well. I guess I tend to visualize or hear the sound first and then choose the right instrument and signal path to get close to what I am hearing in my head. And then the tweaking begins!”
Do you have a favorite electric guitar for tracking?
I love too many to pick a fave, but Gibson’s L-5 CT and ES-335 are go-to instruments, as well as the Sadowsky LS-17 and Semi-Hollow, which are magnificent. I also play three LsL Instruments Solidbody guitars, much in the old Fender tradition; certainly the best for those particular sounds to me. My acoustics are all Santa Cruz. The Sadowsky Nylon is my go-to for anything Brazilian or “gentle.” That’s a particularly wonderful instrument. I like LDC mics on acoustic instruments, or the occasional Schoeps. Amps get SM57s or MD 421s, plus a Royer 121 ribbon as the first setup choice. Then I change things up with other mics as needs be.
Some make room for the guitar by simply pushing up the assigned stereo fader, or adding EQ. You seem to have arrangements that leave space for the instrument.
I think I carve out spaces with “rooms,” ambience and placement more than EQ or levels. EQ to me should be correction, and subtractive in nature, somewhat subtle. If one is careful to capture a great performance with quality sounds that are well thought out, EQ should be something that is subtle. I also don’t EQ to tape. A microphone placement change, preamp change or in fact a mic change should do the trick. My arrangements come to my mind throughout the entire process of producing a record. It’s all a part of the painting in sound. Again, the way Joe Ferla, Elliott Scheiner and Al Schmitt approach a mix have had great impact on what I go for. A tiny splash cymbal, well placed and subtle, can truly create a great moment in a song. Or a subtle hand shaker tucked into the panorama and just given the right level. One hears these things subconsciously;
without them, the mix would be lacking. Same with guitars: The arrangement and right part played well and then put into the right place in a mix. It’s all part of creating an end result that is three-dimensional, emotional, serves the composition and the intentions of the artist.
George Petit at the console in Clubhouse Studios in Rhinebeck, N.Y., with Conor Milton assisting in the background.
Photo: Julia Jordan.
Can you describe your basic approach to the recording process and tell us about some of your favorite studio tools?
I like to track as full a band as possible with the end result in mind, hearing a mix direction from the start of tracking. My favorite studio in the East for doing this sort of recording is The Clubhouse in Rhinebeck, N.Y. It’s a true laboratory with fantastic-sounding spaces, a super great desk, and every piece of gear your imagination can ask for, all in great shape, and an owner who cares. Plus, it’s in the countryside. I love working in a country setting! I mix these days in my own mix room, alone. Having tracked, I know where the artist is going. I don’t like to work with a clock ticking, so I tend to sit with the music and try things. This takes time, my time. I send mixes to clients for revisions; usually minimal stuff is requested.
Favorite studio tools? Depends on the material, of course, but Neve or SSL desks, a wide range of mic and mic pre choices, instruments that are well maintained in rooms that complement their sound, a great headphone system to enhance my artist’s performance and monitors that I “know.” I love Dynaudio, HotHouse and ATC. Following that, ProAc Studio 100s, although the HotHouse have a better low end. I also use headphones a lot—Grado only, with SPL Phonitor 2 as my choice amp. I mix now only in the box, mostly in my barn in northern Vermont.
You’re now in Vermont? Is that where you mix?
My wife and I recently made a big move north, to Stowe, Vermont. We’re really excited about it; we met here about 20 years ago. The mix room is up and running, as is evident by the early morning I just had doing rough mixes for Bill Block’s new project. I won’t be building a tracking studio here, though, just the mixing end of things in a lovely barn. There are a couple of studios that I really love to track work in here. I just visited a lovely new studio called Meadowlark a couple of days ago. Fantastic piano and live room, a couple of isos, all Walters-Storyk designed. The owner, Yasmin Tayeby and I have had a great meeting of the minds. She is really cool and gets it; I’m bound to be bringing my clients to her studio and probably will be doing some freelance engineering for her clients, as well. It’s such a great room. With a bunkhouse for clients as well!