If Erik Zobler was a person to name drop then it would sound like a pile of pans falling down a concrete staircase. His credits include Michael Jackson, Miles Davis, George Duke, Donna Summer and The Brecker Brothers, to name just a few. Truth is, Zobler is more likely to crack a joke than play the name game. In fact within seconds of the interview starting he is quoting lines from Steve Martin movies.
We remind him of the purpose of the interview, he composes himself.
“Where did it start? Actually, my dad played the ukulele and used to listen to Nat King Cole on his…what were those big cabinets called? Consoles. He would put a stack of 12” vinyl albums in there and would walk around the house and sing and strum his ukulele. My mom played piano and so everybody in our family played music, but my parents, were never professional musicians. I have two brothers and we all grew up playing various instruments. We were in bands in and out of school. But I was always interested in sound. Ever since the age of nine, I always had a job and I saved up my money to buy a small FM radio/record player combo, with a plastic tinted cover and two detachable small speakers. I was the first kid in my neighborhood (back in the 60’s) who had a stereo in my bedroom and I used to stay up ’til 3 in the morning listening to music. I had stereo sound coming out of each side of my bed and just thought I was in heaven, and I was!
So, where did it go to then? How was the transition from that kid-like phase, the stereo speakers and fiddling around with electronics to make a full-time career of it? That's pretty serious stuff.
“I went to one year of electrical engineering school at the University of Colorado and absolutely hated it. I couldn't relate to anybody who was in that school. They all walked around with slide rules and pocket calculators and their top buttons buttoned, rarely laughing or laughing at things that I didn't understand. I was studying calculus and physics, and I couldn’t grasp that those classes were just laying the groundwork for what I thought I wanted to do, which was design audio equipment. At the same time, all of my friends were in the Theater Arts department. They were all actors and musicians and I was still playing in bands, so I changed my major from Engineering to a Communication and Theatre Arts. I did that for a year, but I knew that I didn’t want to be an actor, and even though I found the study of the theory of communication fascinating, I didn’t know how I could realistically make a living at it. I did know that I always loved music and since most of the music I had heard was via radio, I thought I could make that a career, and so I transferred to San Francisco State University to study broadcasting. I remember taking a basic audio class and after the class was done, I stood up on a chair and looked through a window that had some drapes covering the glass. It was a high window in a room that was a tie lined recording area that was being used as a classroom. When I looked through the window, I saw an AMPEX 4 track recorder and a Langevin console, it's going to sound funny, but it's almost like angels started singing and I was hit with this sudden epiphany that that was what I wanted to do. I wanted to be the person in that room running all that gear that I saw: It was, of course, all analog gear: UREI equalizers and compressors, Ampex 2 and 4-track tape machines, Altec speakers mounted on the walls. So that became my mission and I did whatever I had to do to get in there as much possible. I applied for, and became the radio station’s news director, not because I love the news, but because as the news director I was given a key to the whole department, including the recording studio. I brought my band in, I brought my brother's band in, I brought my friends in, Every spare minute that I had, I spent in there. I eventually ended up being a teaching assistant and teaching and helping run a recording workshop for about 2 1/2 years.
From High School To Old School
But then we fast forward you maybe three or four years later and you're working with some of the biggest names in disco, in funk, in pop - you've got George Duke, Donna Summer, Stanley Clark, you must've thought you'd died and gone to heaven - Michael Jackson "Off the Wall". It was just like, was it pinch yourself time?
“It still is, by the way. I did a session just a week ago where I was at a studio called Megatracks in North Hollywood. Jimmy Haslip and Russell Ferrante of the Yellowjackets, Mike Landau, and Gary Novak were playing and Marilyn Scott was singing for a new album she is making. They were recording a song and I looked at the other engineers in the room and said "guys, it doesn't get better than this. We're getting paid for doing this. We're having a private concert.” It was just great. I am incredibly lucky to have worked with the caliber of musicians who have crossed my path.
Very early in your career, you're working on "Off the Wall" which is one of the most iconic albums of that decade and perhaps still is today. "Off the Wall" is that classic Michael Jackson moment. I know people talk about "Thriller" and all those other albums but "Off the Wall" was a very special album. You must have thought "what was that all about?" How did you feel on that album?
“Well let me be clear that I did work on that album, but I don’t like to take credit unless I deserve it.”
Have I got this wrong?
“No, you've got it right, but let me go back. I did work on it, but as an assistant. To be honest, just to walk in the room and deliver a cup of coffee would have done me. But of course I did more than that. “Off The Wall” was recorded at Westlake Studios. At that time Ed Cherney, Dave Rideau and I were the three main engineers at Westlake. We did 90% of the sessions that came through the studios. “Off The Wall” was mostly Ed's gig and I filled when he couldn’t make it.”
Was it Bruce on that album or was it Quincy?
“Both. Quincy Jones produced it and Bruce Swedien engineered.”
One memory that sticks out from that album was the session we did with Sheila E. We were doing a percussion overdub session at the original Westlake Studio, which was in the back of the Westlake Audio sales office. It was a small control room with a small recording area that you had to walk through to get to the control room. I think it was originally built as a showcase and listening area for all the gear and products that they sold and manufactured, like the ‘Hidley Lip’ speakers. At that time Tom Hidley and Glenn Phoenix were also designing and building studios. I clearly remember Sheila setting up a table with about 6 small Perrier bottles. She poured different amount of water in each one to get different tones out of each bottle. That’s the sound of the tinkly percussion on ‘Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough’ ”.
Looking at the creds of Westlake, it sounds like it was a factory, and I don't mean that as a derogatory term. It was prolific; you were churning out some of the best stuff of the era. How was that possible?
“I’ll tell you how it was possible: I was very fortunate. And I guess I did a good job and people must have liked me. I suppose that didn’t hurt!”
“I hate clicks, turn them off. I’d rather have the band slow up and speed down.”
“Let me back up a little bit to when I got my first ‘real’ job. It was at CBS Studios in San Francisco, one of the last ‘owned and operated’ recording studios in the United States, which means that it was owned by a record company. It was still a union shop at a time when most music studios were becoming non-union. People in the 70’s were rebelling against all the rules. The Beatles kind of started a lot of that by pushing their engineers to do things they weren't supposed to do. That's another tangent we could go on. Anyway, I loved the Bay Area and I didn't want to leave, but there were only so many studios up there. When CBS ceased operating the studio in 1978, David Rubinson took it over and reopened the studio as The Automat. Artists like Herbie Hancock and Carlos Santana worked there. When CBS closed the studio, I didn't want to leave the Bay Area. I wanted to stay there. So I knocked on every door: Fantasy Records, Record Plant, Wally Heider’s, A Different Fur… but there was only a small number of studios in the San Francisco area and it was a very, very tight clique. I didn’t understand why, after working 2 1/2 years at a major studio, I couldn’t land a job at any of the other studios. There just weren’t any openings. So I said to myself ‘it's time to go to L.A’, it was an eventuality.”
“I went to L.A. and within 2 weeks I was hired at Westlake Studios which was one of the top studios at the time. There were a lot of great studios in LA, and Westlake was definitely way up there. They had an amazing clientele list. You’re right, it seemed like a factory, and in a way it was. We had all kinds of projects. R&B, Rock, Funk, Jazz, TV, Movies… It was Bruce and Quincey’s home for many years. For the next 2-3 years, I worked mostly as an assistant, and I had some first engineering gigs there too. But for me, the great thing about working there was that I got to work with the best of the best of everything. I worked with a lot of L.A. studio musicians who blew my mind with the ease and proficiency of their playing. Top producers booked the rooms. It was an amazing learning opportunity for me as an engineer because I got to work with engineers like Bruce Swedien, Mick Guzauski and George Massenburg. Since Westlake was also an audio equipment retailer, the studios always had great gear. On top of that, the owner Glenn Phoenix, was busy doing some pioneering work on monitor speakers. Glenn taught me what it meant to ‘time align’ speakers. Everybody who was tops, came through those doors. (Of course, there were some who weren’t but who wants to hear about those stories?) Anyway, that was the beginning of my introduction to a lot of the people who I ended up working with, including George Duke. My first session with George at Westlake -- I think it was on a Flora Purim album. It earmarked the beginning of a long career with George.
I was going to say, almost to the end wasn't it?
“Yes, absolutely, I was his dude for 34 years.”
A huge loss.
“A huge loss. All of us expected him to live another 30 years or so. He was 67. He was great, everybody loved him. He was the type of person that lights up a room. Sounds like a cliché, but he did. I saw it many times. He'd walk in a room and everyone would get happy.”
Catching The Performance
It seems an appropriate time to move from people to recording philosophy, how does Zobler feel about modern recording advancements?
Erik Zobler in the Studio
“Well first of all, I think all of the advances are fantastic. I think perhaps the most important aspect of modern recording is that you never have to erase anything. In my mind that means: record everything. As soon as I have signal, and a musician is running something down, I hit record. How many times have you heard, ‘what was that I was playing 5 minutes ago?’ I have a term for this new capability… I call it A.I.R. Always In Record.
However, I do think that some modern tools are over used. Like compression or for instance, Auto Tune. I think you could credit Cher as the artist who put Auto Tune on the map. It was used to great effect on ‘Believe’. It’s also called the‘T-Pain’ effect. And that effect is now kind of necessary on every pop record. I don’t personally like it, but I do understand its place in music production. My opinion on pitch correction is that I never want to hear it, unless I want to hear it! Before there were plug-ins to do it, the old school method was to run the signal through a piece of hardware like the Eventide Harmonizer and in real-time, turn the knob while re-recording to another track. That’s how we USED to do it, until samplers came along, and then it was game on. Sample the vocal (or instrument) and then ‘pitch wheel it’ in tune. We could have used midi to fine-tune the amount of correction, but it was too cumbersome. It was just easier to keep punching it in until we were happy. Pitch correction algorithms are a godsend. There wasn't a single artist who George produced who didn't get corrected at some point and it’s the same with me. When I work with artists, when I'm producing or sometimes just mixing, I do the same thing. But I'm very careful. Tuning vocals is an art, and in fact no two people will do tuning the same way. This subject could easily expand into beat correction and quantization. If you ask me, I hate clicks. They're great for post-production. I'm not going to argue that. Nothing like a click for post-production. But when it comes to feel and music, I hate clicks. Turn them off. I'd rather have the band slow down and speed up, as long as it feels right.”
“ I think the problem with some modern recordings is that people are starting all the bits of patchwork and making a quilt. Do you know what I mean? Rather than trying to weave a beautiful piece of fabric they’re trying to just stick bits together.”
“I like all the new techniques. I think they're great. But I’m not crazy about sending files to everybody, who then add their parts and then you bring them back into the master session file and digest them. What's missing in that formula is the instant feedback of ‘that's really great what you just played there. Just change it a little bit and I'm totally happy’. What often happens is you get files back and they'll be really close to what you want or like, but there's just something about it that, if you had been there, you would have made a slight modification. Then you would have been, shall we say, 100% happy. Well, here's another one for you… George Duke used to say, ‘perfection is over-rated’. As an engineer and even as a producer, that's part of your job, trying to strive for perfection. But it is over-rated, not to mention that it's kind of like reaching the speed of light.
“But that's the point, the stuff that we obsess over. I think George was right. Perfection is over-rated. Basically, we've confused two words: Excellence and Perfection. Excellence is what you strive for, desperately trying to get that the best you can possibly get by giving your blood, sweat & tears. But perfection is probably never going to happen. So we strive for what we believe is the ultimate best. Wisdom is knowing when you are close enough to perfection to move on.”
So you don’t think that online collaboration can do it?
“I was going to say that. You were talking about this whole thing of sending files to everybody and getting them back. Don’t get me wrong, it is a great way to get work done, but the really great thing about having a band and tracking a band together is that the bass player and the drummer will just look at one another and drop at the same time. And the pocket... There’s a feel thing that happens when all the musicians are playing together. You just can't do that with online collaboration, can you? At least not until we change the laws of physics! You're just not there to be able to have instantaneous interaction. I think the problem with some modern recordings is that people are starting all the bits of patchwork and working somewhat in a vacuum. Do you know what I mean? Rather than trying to weave a beautiful piece of fabric together, they're trying to just stick externally fabricated bits together. It’s not necessarily bad – hey I do it all the time – but it is not my preferred way to make music.”
Erik And Exponential Reverbs
We move on to the multitude of reverbs that Zobler must have used throughout his career.
“My seminal reverb moments… probably the first reverb I got to play with when I was a student at San Francisco State was a BX10, an AKG spring reverb. That was my first real professional artificial reverb. And man was that box ‘boingy!’ I guess before that, my only experience with reverbs was the cheesy springs on guitar amps, so the BX-10 actually sounded pretty good. Let’s see, what else did we use back then? I think that's about it-- that was our reverb at SF State. I don't think we had anything else. When I moved to Los Angeles and went to work at Westlake Studios, my exposure to reverbs was fantastic because they were an audio dealer. We had everything that was current, like EMT 140 plates, EMT 240 gold foil reverbs, and of course the EMT 250 digital reverb. Oh that's not true, I'm leaving out when I worked at the San Francisco CBS studios. There we had acoustic chambers and I remember going in to the chambers and moving speakers around and moving diffusers and absorbers to adjust decay times. It was an incredibly valuable experience that kind of set my bar for what a natural sounding echo chamber sounded like. When you hear a really nice chamber, there's nothing like it. It’s real, it’s analog. There's no digital artifacts, so when the sound decays, it just smoothly decays into nothing. It's just a beautiful thing. So that's my background. I was fortunate enough to experience real acoustic echo chambers. I was also able to audition all of the latest digital reverbs.”
“Then we're into the 80s and we've got everything from AMS to Lexicon and Yamaha, and the world of digital reverb arrives.”
“All of those units were at Westlake Studios, and more. I used the crap out of AMS and Yamaha and Lexicon. I think the 80’s was the “Digital Reverb” Decade…
‘… And this year’s award for the best use of reverb on a snare goes to….’
I remember when the Lexicon 224 came out and I thought that was pretty great except I hated it on drums and anything that had sharp attacks. It was just too grainy and I could hear all the separate delays. The algorithm was not complex enough for my tastes, but if you put it on something like strings or something smooth, it sounded great. Then the 480 came out and I became a huge fan of the 480. I almost bought one at one point, but didn't because all the studios had one. So I just needed a card. I would bring in my presets and I would use the studio's 480s. The Lexicon 960 was another major improvement in sonic quality. I do own a Lexicon PCM 96 and love it. I use it all the time. I've been using it for years”
So you've heard the best. How did you hear about Exponential Audio? Were you just buddies with Michael Carnes from the Lexicon days?
“I was buddies through Casey Young [session player who toured with Yes and spent many years with both TC and Lexicon]. He introduced me to Michael. I didn't know Michael had left Lexicon and I didn't know he was making his own reverb so I was curious to hear what he was doing. I wasn’t surprised that he had once again taken reverb to another level. I don't know if he's completely redesigned the engine or what he's done technically, but I can tell you as a user, this reverb is the closest I've heard to a natural acoustic decay of a real space. It's got such a creamy, smooth quality to it. I love it. Recently I was working on a mix where I set up some reverbs using the Lexicon reverbs. Then I set up a couple of Exponential verbs. I preferred the Exponential verb every time I did a comparison. I don't want to bag the Lexicon 96 or the plug-ins, I still think it's a great reverb, but when I put Michael's on, I just sighed. It was a sigh of ‘wow, that’s nice!’ When I'm working, I try not to be too technical even though I can go there. I want to get an emotional reaction from my gear and plug-ins and that's what happened when switched over to his reverb… I kind of just sighed and said, ‘That sounds really nice!.’ When I hear equipment or a plug-in that makes everything sound better, I have to have it.
This is a great product and when I have it in my tool box, it makes me a better craftsman.
“He said ‘Erik, Second Engineers are a dime a dozen’ I said “f....this guy, I don’t care what he says, I’m not a dime a dozen guy, I’m going to make this happen because this is what I am, this is who I am, this is what I’m going to do”
Advice For The New Generation
Craftsman is a world less used in modern music production. This may be an appropriate moment to ask Zobler what he would say to the new generation of aspiring engineers.
“I’m just going to repeat a story that happened to me when I was still in school and I was apprenticing at Wally Heider Studios in San Francisco. I went up to a rather famous engineer who was playing pinball, having a break from his work, I think they were doing a Carlos Santana album, and I asked him pretty much the same question, ‘what can I do to be a really good Second Engineer?’ He looked up from his game and said ‘Erik, Second Engineers are a dime a dozen’. That was his advice to me. I was taken aback. There's two ways you can take that - one is give up, the other one is to batten down the hatches. I chose to batten down the hatches. I said ‘f....this guy, I don't care what he says, I'm not a dime a dozen guy. I'm going to make this happen because this is what I am, this is who I am, this is what I'm going to do’. That actually is the most important thing that you can do in any endeavor. I don't care if you want to be an engineer, mechanic, or whatever. It’s your attitude that what will make you successful. That being said, as the nugget of knowledge where all success comes from, you do need to know a lot. So anyone wanting to get into this business has to just dive in and learn in as much as you can, however you can. The web is an amazing resource, (as you know), but that only goes so far. Web and reading knowledge will take you to a certain place. But at a certain point you have to get hands on. So my advice is to do whatever you can to be in a working environment in every audio situation that you can. Try them all. If you have the opportunity to go out on tour, or work with a live sound company, do that. If you can work at a mastering facility, do that. If you can go to somebody's home studio that's running Pro Tools, Logic, or whatever, and learn from them, do that. Whatever it takes, just do it. Go see a lot of bands. Just immerse yourself in that world and eventually you'll get your shot at doing something. And then you need to perform. I always say… and pardon me… if you don’t get the baseball analogy… that you don't need to hit a home run, but you do need to get on base.”
It seems that Zobler is a living example of that attitude: When you find yourself in the right place then work as hard as you can to make the opportunity count.
Zobler may be a man with a joke for every occasion. But when it comes to making hit albums there aren’t that many people as serious as him.