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Steve Marcantonio: KEEPING IT REAL

Engineering country music is a special balancing act. Take a roomful of musicians, then double or maybe triple the guitars, add piano, stacks of keyboards,

Engineering country music is a special balancing act. Take a roomful of musicians, then double or maybe triple the guitars, add piano, stacks of keyboards, some strings, high-profile background vocals, a pedal steel, and perhaps even some electronic percussion. There’s almost always a lot going on, but somehow you have to make it all sound simple. And, you still have to hear the bass and keep that all-important lead vocal way out front.

Steve Marcantonio is a master at the task. Given his trademark punchy drums, well-placed guitars and tastefully present lead vocals, it’s no surprise that the client list of this former Jersey boy reads like a who’s who of country. His work encompasses classic Nashville as well as the edgier side of the genre, including projects for Rodney Crowell, Deana Carter, Billy Falcon, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, George Strait, Alabama, the Warren Brothers and Vince Gill, among others.

It wasn’t easy to catch up with Marcantonio. There are a lot of good studios in Nashville, and he seems to be spending time in most of them, juggling projects and producers. We finally caught up with Marcantonio on his cell and arranged to talk between mixes for Montgomery Gentry at Ocean Way Nashville and Deana Carter’s latest at Sound Kitchen. It’s a noteworthy comment on Marcantonio’s personality and vibe that, even though our conversations were by phone, his enthusiasm and honest enjoyment of his work came clearly over the land lines.

So how does an Italian guy from Jersey end up as one of the busiest engineers in Nashville?

I grew up at New York Record Plant; I started there in ’78. But really, it was pretty much a fluke the way I got started in the business. I come from a musical family, and one of my cousins, who lived with us, was in the Four Seasons. I used to go to a lot of concerts when I was a kid, and I always read the backs of album covers. So I knew about engineers, and I said, “I want to do that.” Then, when I was a junior in high school, I took a course in record engineering. But during that course, I realized I was in way over my head. Everybody else in the class was already either a technical engineer or a musician. They were a lot older, and they were asking questions that I didn’t know anything about; I just wanted to make music. I didn’t play an instrument, but I listened to records and radio all the time. I would key in on certain instruments and just really get into their sound.

Anyway, I pretty much gave up on the idea of being an engineer after that class, although I kept on being into music. After high school, I went to work at the General Motors assembly plant.

God, that’s so Jersey.

[Laughs] Yeah. Well, at the plant there was a time each year while they changed over to make the new models, and everybody got laid off for a few months. During that layoff time in ’78, my cousin Joey happened to get on the phone with Roy Cicala, who owned the Record Plant. I’d read Roy’s name on albums and I knew who he was. I guess that impressed Joey, because he said, “Let me see what I can do for you.” Long story short, Roy took me under his wing, and I worked there until ’84 when I became freelance.

Who did you work with at Record Plant?

Just the staff. But the staff at that time was like, Dave Thoener, Thom Panunzio, Jay Messina… Jimmy Iovine was still there then, and I got to do a couple of sessions with him and Shelly Yakus. It was a great time to be there. I didn’t know a thing about recording when I started, but Roy wanted people like that because he liked to teach them his way. You came up through the ranks; you paid your dues-it was a great school. I was addicted to that place. I was there all the time; I slept there. I truly loved it. As tired as I was, every time that I went there I felt rejuvenated.

How did you move up to engineering?

I worked with Dave Thoener a bunch, and he really helped me out a lot. He was working with Rodney Crowell and he used to let me do overdubs for him.

One day I did an overdub for Rodney where I had to match a vocal sound. It was a bit difficult, but I did it, and he was really impressed. A year or two later, out of the blue, he called me up in New Jersey, to come down here [to Nashville] to work with Rosanne Cash, who he was married to at the time. So I came down to do a record, which was called King’s Record Shop.

I did Rodney’s record after that, with Tony Brown producing, and I started meeting people. Back then, it seemed like I was like the only person from New York around here. So I think I was looked at as having a different sort of attitude and a different sort of sound.

What was the difference?

When I first came here, they were doing things like recording drums direct. I’ll never forget walking into Sound Stage Studios where they were recording Russ Kunkel and he was playing pads! That seemed so bizarre to me. They did it, I think, because the control room was not isolated from the studio. There was no wall, so, in order to record drums, you had to either listen on headphones or record direct.

But, overall, I think that at that time, in Nashville, the sound was a little bit more tame than it is now. And my sound, coming from New York, was a little bit rougher than what they were used to. I think, in general, my drums were a little louder, my guitars were a little louder, and there was more ‘verb on the drums. People seemed to like it, and that’s how I got started. Then I met Josh Leo, who’d moved here from California at around the same time. We’re both Italian, and we hit it off immediately. I worked with him for about eight years. We did Alabama and a bunch of other stuff…and here I am.

Some people specialize in tracking or mixing, but you seem to do both equally.

[Laughs] Well, there are fewer acts now, and a lot more engineers, so it’s a good thing I like to do both! I always love to mix, but tracking is sort of why I started engineering in the first place.

If you get it down really good on tape, then mixing is that much easier; that’s my philosophy. When I track a record, if I know I’m going to mix it, I assume that what I’m hearing in my basic tracks is going to be the record-just maybe a bit more polished or fine-tuned. A lot of people have told me that my rough track mixes sound like records, and I take pride in that. It’s the birth of the song right there in tracking, and that’s really exciting for me.

If you know you’re going to mix a record, do you prefer to cut the tracks?

Absolutely. Even the best tracks that you get, you always say, “I wish I could have done this or that.” I just feel more comfortable with my tracks. I think most every engineer would probably feel the same way, don’t you?

Can you describe your day today?

It’s funny you ask that, because I just came back from mixing in New York, and on my way to work today I was thinking about how good we have it here in Nashville. It’s so easy to drive to this studio [Sound Kitchen]. It’s easy to park; it’s easy to get in and out. I live 10 minutes away from where I’m working today. This morning, I was reading the paper at home at quarter after 9, and I knew that the producer was getting in at about 10. I’d been thinking about a couple of changes to make in the mix, so I threw on my clothes and came over to do them before he got here.

I usually like to get a mix to a certain point at night and then close it out the next day. I don’t see how these guys do two, three songs in a day. I’m kind of jealous of them, I guess, but for me, I like to spread it out a bit. I can’t stay in the control room too long; I like to get up and walk around and stuff like that.

So, I had this mix up last night, and I was able to do a few things to it this morning before he got there. In like 10 or 15 minutes, I was able to do a dozen rides, and within an hour the mix was done.

When you listened to your ref CD at home, you made some notes about what things you’d like to change.

Right. I used to write stuff down, but now I usually don’t. [Laughs] As bad as my memory is sometimes about other things, I can always remember that in the fourth bar of the first chorus I need to raise that one snare hit.

So that’s what it was like today. I got up and went to the studio; I did my changes. I came home, I showered and I went back. By that time, my assistant had put down the multiple versions. I don’t know what they do in California, but here we put down a lot of versions of the mixes.

You mean like vocal up, backgrounds up, bass up? Doesn’t everybody do that?

Well, certain guys I know don’t. But here, you can do anywhere from six to 20 different versions. I stay to make sure it goes down right for the first master, but after that usually the second engineer will cover it because it’s just a matter of running it onto tape. The second engineers down here are really good; they’ve got it together. That way you get about a two-hour break in between each mix.

What consoles do you prefer to work on?I go back and forth. When I came here to town I’d never worked on an SSL. But now that I’ve worked on SSLs, I like them a lot, especially the G Series. And I like Ultimation a lot. Which is good, because this is very much an SSL town.

On the other hand, I really love the [Neve] VR console. There’s something about the VRs-to me, those consoles are more rock ‘n’ roll, and the bottom end sounds bigger. The SSL is a little bit more pop. Like I said, I go back and forth, because the SSL can sound more punchy. Just a little. It can sound like there’s more attack on everything in general. I know it’s kind of a vague statement to make, but that’s the way I feel.

The 80-input VR at Ocean Way Nashville I totally love. I also like Trident 80Bs. And I’m excited about the new APIs. Sound Kitchen is putting in an 80-input inline Legacy; I know the sound of those consoles, and I’m sure it’s going to sound great.

I love the old Neve [80-in 8078] at Ocean Way; it’s one of the best sounding consoles I’ve ever worked on. When you lift up the fader to get a sound on something, it’s almost as if you don’t have to do anything to it. Old Neves can be like that. Sometimes your tracks sound better just running through them. I guess lately that’s my console of choice. Also, since I do a lot of recording, I own a few API preamps. I also rent things. There’s a cartage company down here called Underground Sound, which has a 12-input Neve sidecar that I use to record my drums through.

I hear you’re a wizard on the Sony 3348.

I love the machine. There are some Studers around town, but I demand the Sony. It’s just so much easier to use. I do a lot of flying, and I’m pretty quick at it.

To me the 3348 sounds great. And it’s great on country records when you’re recording eight or nine musicians, and you’re gonna be using 30 tracks, and you’re gonna be punching in-it’s not uncommon that I’m punching in a whole band. I can rehearse the punch, then do auto-punch-you can’t beat it. [Otari] RADARs are becoming popular here, and they sound pretty good, I must admit. They’re easy to use. But I love the 48. You get great, punchy drums.

When you’re recording, what mics do you like to use on them?

I use a lot of the same mics all the time on the drums. A Neumann 47 FET on the kick, and I might use an AKG D12 or D112 with that. I’ll put the 47 outside and a D112 a little bit inside. I stay away from using gates. A lot of guys don’t like any leakage on the kick, but I like the sound of the area around the kick drum, and I use the 47 to get a little of that air in there. I usually don’t gate any drums in tracking. If I gate, I’ll send it in a mult in mixing so I have an additional gated track to mix in.

With the snare, I go with a 57 in general, but it depends on what studio I’m at. I’ll find out what kind of mics they have there. I’ve used 414s on the snare, and one time, the drummer brought in a Beta 57 that sounded great.

Do you mic top and bottom?

Yes, I do. When I first started doing the bottom, I got in trouble, because I had too much bottom-too much rattle. Now I tend to use just a little bit of the bottom or put it on another track.

On toms, I go back and forth. I’ve used 421s in the past, and at Ocean Way, they have Sennheiser 409s, which are great. Recently I bought these really tiny Sennheiser MD-504s and I’ve been using them. Even with those, though, I try to place the tom mics a little farther away, maybe 8 inches off the head, once again to get in a little of the air.

On hi-hat, usually a KM84. On cymbals, KM84s sometimes. Or 414s, 67s…I treat my overheads sort of like a stereo drum mix; there are a lot of cymbals in them. I try to get the sound of the drum kit in the overheads. Sometimes I’ll start with those mics and build my drum sound from that.

Then, depending on where I’m working, I’ll use some room mics-M49s or 67s. Over at Ocean Way, they’ve got RCA77s, the old ribbon mics; I like those for the room. And also I’ve used the Coles. At Sound Kitchen, they have four Audio-Technica mics wired into the ceiling that come up in the patchbay. They sound incredible, sort of like a nonlin-type room [setting]-a tight, short decay that’s good for rock ‘n’ roll.

Sometimes I’ll also put a center room mic down low, or sometimes I’ll put a mic behind the drummer. I’ll print them on separate tracks. If I have the tracks, I like to print three or even four tracks of room, to be able to blend them later.

You compress the room mics.

Definitely. I love the 1178s and the Fairchilds for that. If I can get hold of a nice set of Fairchilds, I’m happy. I also love using the Distressor on room mics. Actually, I’ll use a Distressor on almost anything.

When you get to mixing, what’s the first thing you do?

I’ll listen to the overheads, blend stuff into them and try to get back what we had when we were tracking. Then what I’ll usually do is run a submix of the drums through a Fairchild or an 1178 and bring that back on two faders to make it real punchy.

What settings would you be likely to use on compressors?

It depends on the song, the rhythm of the song. With the 1178, sometimes I’ll press all the buttons in, and it does “infinity” or something like that; that can be really cool. Generally, I’ll use the slowest attack and then a quick release, which gets them pumping. But it does depend on the tempo of the song. I’ll mess with the attack mostly; the release I’ll keep quick.

With the Fairchild, there’s only one knob, and I usually tend to keep it on one, which I think is the quickest. If I use Distressors, I usually put them on Nuke or Opto.

What mics do you use on guitars?

I like 57s. Coles are cool, but sometimes they almost sound like the compressor is in already, giving a real attacky kind of sound. Royers are good on guitars, and I also like using an 87 a little farther away, in conjunction with the close mics. A FET 47 also sounds great on electric guitar.

If I’m recording a straight-ahead guitar sound through an amp I’ll either put an 1176 on it at four to one, with the attack about medium and the release on quick, or the Distressor at about six to one, or maybe the Fairchild. Sometimes on certain guitars, if you put the Fairchild on three, they’ll sound really smooth. When I cut tracks, I usually run the acoustic guitar through a Fairchild. I like mixing it up and trying different things. If I go to a studio I’ve never worked at before, I’ll ask the guys who work there what they have that’s cool. Some guys don’t like to do that, but I do.

What do you usually mix to?

I always mix to half-inch.

Do you prefer a Studer or an Ampex?

I use an [Ampex] ATR, although if there’s a Studer available I’ll use it. Sound Kitchen just purchased two of the older Studers-I don’t know the model, with the scissors and the little speaker. I just did my first mix yesterday on one of them, and it sounded great. I really prefer using half-inch when I mix, although I’ll always run a DAT as a safety. And you never know-if the mastering engineer prefers to use the DAT tape, you will. But most of the time it’s half-inch.

What kind of tape?

Quantegy 499, at plus-5 over 250. And I put some hefty level onto the tape.

Do you carry your own speakers around?

I have Genelec 1031As. Lately, I’ve been going back to NS-10s, too; I go through different speakers when I’m mixing. Like today, I have the big KRKs, I’ve got the Genelecs, and I’ve got NS-10s. The other thing I rely heavily on is my old Sony jam box.

How long have you had it?

It’s 14 years old, and I must’ve put a few hundred dollars into it, just fixing it. It sounds great. There are many times during the day I’ll have it on, in front of the console or somewhere behind me. It does wonders. I mean, you can’t really judge a mix on it, because there’s a lot of high-end stuff that sounds really loud on it.

But it’s like the radio.

Yeah. We used to do that at the Record Plant. There was an engineer I worked with a lot, Bill Whitman, and he used to crank up his compressors and listen to it on a radio speaker. So I took that idea.

What else do you own?

When I first came here, everyone had their own gear, but back in New York no one owned anything. So I fought it for years, but now I finally have a rack. It’s a low-tech kind of rack, though. I’ve got some TC gear-the M2000 and 3000. I like them because they have two engines. I’ve got this BSS dynamic EQ. And I bought an 1178. I love an 1178. I’d like to get a couple of 1176s too. Oh, I also own two Distressors. To me, they work similarly to almost every kind of limiter. A Distressor can be like an 1176, or, at times an LA2 or a dbx. I’ll use them on everything-drums, vocals, bass. I’ve got some [API] 560s as well. And I’ve got a Space Station-I picked that up real cheap years ago.

Why do you think the engineer/manager thing, which is so ubiquitous in L.A., doesn’t seem to exist in Nashville?

I think it’s just smaller and more personal here. For example, Tony Brown is the president of MCA Records and he produces a lot of major acts. I can call him up tomorrow, and if he can’t take my call then, he’ll call me back in five minutes. You have personal relationships with everybody in town-the producers, the production assistants…It’s more one-on-one in Nashville; it’s more of a community. Here, I think, you go by your reputation and by word of mouth.

Do you have any theories on what makes a good-sounding record?

Well, I’m old school. When I listen to music on the radio, I try to picture the band actually playing. I listen a lot to oldies, and when you hear those records, you can almost see them in the studio. Nowadays, often you hear records and it sounds like, that guitar is “here” and something else is “over there”-it almost sounds like it’s pasted. It doesn’t sound real. I take pride in getting stuff on tape as good as possible, in just capturing the performance of the musicians without messing with it. And then, putting it out in its rawness. To me, that makes a good-sounding record. I don’t care if there’s a mistake or if you can hear a car going by outside. You need to fix some mistakes, but if it sounds natural and real, that’s a good-sounding record.

Alabama: Pass It Down (1990), American Pride (1992)

Suzy Bogguss: Give Me Some Wheels (1996)

Deana Carter: Did I Shave My Legs for This? (1995)

Rosanne Cash: King’s Record Shop (1988)

Mark Chestnutt: Thank God for Believers (1997)

Rodney Crowell: Street Language (1986); Keys to the Highway (1989); Jewel of the South (1995)

The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band: Bang Bang Bang (1998)

Randy Scruggs: Crown of Jewels (1998)

George Strait: Lead On (1994); Carrying Your Love With Me (1997)

Hank Williams Jr.: Stormy (1999)

Trisha Yearwood: Where Your Road Leads (1998)