Given the calibre of artists he mixes with, his Grammy awards, Emmy nominations and his enviable roll-call of multi-platinum work across several decades, Mick Guzauski really is someone deserving of the label ‘at the top of his game’. But travel back in time to the 16-year-old Guzauski building a makeshift studio in his parents’ basement and he would have been amazed had you told him of his success, let alone the technological advances in recording he’d witness – and influence - across his career.
But perhaps he shouldn’t be that amazed, as it is clear from talking to him that he was both single-minded and enterprising from the beginning:
“When I was in high school I really liked music, and had a real interest in electronics and sound. I wanted to build a studio in my parents' basement. This was back in the late 60s when pro-equipment wasn't readily available at reasonable prices so I got a job in a hi-fi store, fixing things like turntables, and old stuff would come through that I'd get cheap. I had a couple of old two-track machines - I think one was a ReVax G36, an old tube-type 15 inch two-track machine. I would get local bands to come down to record demos, using one two-track machine then copying it through the mixer to over-dub the vocals - that's how we recorded back then.”
Guzauski’s is an inspiring story of a youngster with a passion that many a Hollywood script writer would kill for… Determined to make his recording dreams a reality, after building his kit from scratch he got himself a place on a prestigious summer school at the Eastman School of Music in his home town of Rochester, New York.
“They had one of the first recording workshop courses in the country [across] several weeks in the summer…I was very lucky to go there as Phil Ramone was the teacher and it was just a great experience, it got me more and more interested. I learnt a lot of techniques and also the big thing I took away from it was dealing with running a session - dealing with clients and keeping things smooth. That was something that Phil was great at, and learning from him was wonderful.”
“In the early 70s I got a four-track 1/2 inch machine, then I went in with a few other guys on a studio that was eight-track for a while, then sixteen-track”. At the same time he was cutting his teeth on sound reinforcement for Chuck Mangione: “I started doing all his recording and when he signed with A&M in 1975 he asked if I'd like to do the recordings out here in LA. So I went out with him and we did my first session in a real studio.”
Recording with a forty-five piece orchestra in a professional studio in LA was a big step up that he remembers vividly, and gave him the break he needed.
“I was scared out of my pants doing it but it worked out! I had a lot of help from people there. I got to know more people around LA and ended up moving there in 1978. I worked as a tech for a little while, until I was known a bit more as an engineer and started getting more gigs, getting better gigs, and it grew from there”.
Bringing Things Full Circle
Fast forward to the 90s and Guzauski was drawn back to New York, tempted there with a great offer from Tommy Mottola at Sony, to work with his artists. A game-changing period of his career, but Guzauski prefers to reflect on his return to LA in 2013 bringing himself full circle back to recording in a home studio:
“I stayed [in New York] about ten years too long and moved back here to LA two years ago, back to the home studio where everybody's working now, using Pro Tools. I have an Avid S6 console and do most of my work at home.”
He might well pinch himself looking at the equipment he has at home now compared to when he started out in his family basement. Considering the contrast he agrees, “sometimes I wish I could go back then and show myself what happened in the future.”
For somebody who worked so hard to build up his gear from nothing as a teenager, and who in a sense represents almost the whole history of modern recording since the 1960s, it comes as no surprise that Guzauski gets truly fired up discussing hardware he has known and loved, in particular reverb.
His first love, EMT140 plates, might not have featured in his teenage basement empire, but he remembers fondly the reverb hardware that did. “I had this old thing that people who were around in the 60s would remember, it was called the Fischer Space Expander. It was basically a hammond spring, the same reverb used in the hammond organs and fender guitar amps, and it had its own little set of electronics. Those sounded very springy.” Not happy with this sound, the resourceful Guzauski experimented: “I took the unit that had the spring and suspended it and found a position where it was less boingy and put a a little bit of foam rubber under the springs to damp it a little bit and shorten it, and it made it sound a little better, so that was my first reverb.”
“Then when I started working in those other guys' studios in Rochester, we had an AKGBX20 which was also a spring reverb but a much more sophisticated one. That was a pretty good sounding reverb except it really didn't have any top end, you really couldn't get it more deep and accentuated on the low frequencies, and then we got an EMT Gold Foil Plate there, an EMT240, that was a nice sounding reverb”.
His first experience of digital reverbs came in LA. “The EMT250 was just coming in, and that to this day is still a really nice sounding unit - although technically if you look at the specs, it's noisy, it's only 10-bit resolution but there's something about it that just sounds great.”
He continues, with infectious enthusiasm: “Some studios had nice live chambers, it's always fun to do a session at Capitol and use the live chambers. Then in 1983 I think, Eventide came out with this unit called the SP20-16, it was a general purpose signal processor but it had a couple of reverb programmes, which aside from being very noisy, I think are incredible.”
Delving Into digital
Fortunately for the world, his love of hardware didn’t stop Guzauski realising the exciting potential of software. He describes himself as a bit of a pioneer of digital recording and recalls how he experimented– fittingly in what is beginning to feel like a hallmark of his – in another basement studio, back in New York while working for Sony in the late 80s and early 90s.
“I got hold of an AT&T Digital Mixer Corp - I don't know if anyone remembers them. AT&T had a bunch of these computers surplus that had a lot of DSP chips, for some sonar system that was decommissioned. Russ Ham from Audio Techniques was involved with a project with AT&T where their engineers were designing audio software to run on this DSP rack, setting it up so that the DSP rack was controlled by the automation and either an SSL or a Neve console. So we had this in my basement, along with a 56 input SSL 4000 series. The faders and mutes controlled the SSL Total Recall system when you were using this. It forced this on and all the EQ parts and sends and everything would control this DSP rack. And I had a Sony 3348. “ He laughs – “when I moved, I left them in the basement because nobody wanted them!”.
Alongside this set-up, Guzauski had an early Pro Tools system which became an invaluable friend. “This was in ‘95, ‘96, around then - just when the home recording revolution was starting.” He recalls how session projects would come in needing a lot of mixing work: “Sometimes when things wouldn't synch up, I'd use Pro Tools to slide stuff around, to get it to work, to just build the master.”
Later on he made great use of the Sony Oxford console OXFR3 (“a really nice control surface, huge rack of DSP”), and remembering this we take another time-travel trip: “Back then in the late 80s, early 90s, it would take a whole rack to have the power of a modern I7 processor but it was a nice system: I had the 48 tracks and that. Back then, I did have an EMT140 plate in the garage, I had my Eventide 2016s, I had an AMS RMS 16, Lexicon 300s, some Sony reverb”…
Eventually the Oxford console became outdated and the experienced digital mixer transitioned in New York to working almost entirely in the box using Avid Pro Tools S6 and Pro Tools HD software.
“I still have a bunch of outboard gear that I even have hooked up but I just used it less and less, and it just stays in the box now pretty much.” Guzauski says he came across Exponential through friend Rick Jacobsohn, a classical engineer recording the Baltimore Symphony.
“He asked if I'd ever heard of Phoenix reverb and I said "no" and he said "you should check it out, it's a very natural sounding reverb, I use it all the time". I wanted to check out a reverb that would be very natural to use on orchestral pop music and just generally, so I tried it out and I ended up really liking it. It is very natural. The thing I really like about it is you can expand the space of something without it really having "this reverb has a character of its own", it just sits there very nicely.”
With Pro Tools he finds there’s no need for DSP as the tools have such a low processor overhead on them, and he echoes a sentiment we’ve heard before, that Exponential is a reverb you don’t have to fight with, no need for EQs and sound field processes, “it just works”.
He also waxes lyrical about R2 - marking himself out as one of a select band to have figured out the difference between R2 and Phoenix. “I love R2 because I'm finding on keyboard tracks and synthesised stuff, I'm in control over the chorusing which is really nice, and on percussions if you want a really high density it falls off in time and the gating is great. I use other reverbs, but these ones are really powerful plug-ins that I use all the time now.
An Eclectic Mix
Conversation turns to Guzauski’s work itself. As even the briefest glance at his resume shows, the enterprising young sound engineer grew to become one of the hottest names in the business, and it’s not just the calibre of the artists that strikes you, but the eclectic mix of styles. Impossible to pigeon-hole, his repertoire spans jazz, rock, pop, R&B, funk, hip hop, and Grammy award-winning Latin, working with everyone from Michael Bolton to Daft Punk to Britney Spears. Guzauski could name-drop relentlessly, but modestly avoids adding to this list and claims the variety was no conscious decision: “I think it's the way it worked its way out because I don't gravitate really to any one style of music. I like anything that's creative and well played and well done. What gets me excited is if something's quality to work on.”
With this workload, you could wonder whether Guzauski’s day job has affected his pure enjoyment of music. He is matter-of-fact: “I usually can listen to a record as a record. If I get really interested in it, then I get into deconstructing but I try to enjoy it first.”
Listen To Everything
With this life story and experience, and having worked his way through most of the who’s who of the music industry, there are many who would leap on any pearls of wisdom Guzauski could offer as to what got him where he is today. The key, he advises, is listening.
“Listen to everything. I think that pretty much every genre of music, if it's a good example and done well, as far as mixing and recording it, has elements that can be used in other situations”. Develop a broad spectrum of experience and a knack for sound, he believes, and that can take you far. “Especially in the early days, I just listened to everything, then a lot of [my successes] came out of frustration. I could hear these great records and look at my really archaic gear and think "how do I get this sound?", "how do I even get close to it? I guess it just made me work harder.”
Wise words indeed from this hard-working master of mixing who started with the basics in a basement, experimented with reverb and pioneering digital techniques, has spent three decades working with virtually every ‘great’ worth mentioning across numerous genres, and become one of the most sought-after engineers in the business. The 16-year-old Guzauski would be pretty darn proud.