Glenn Rosenstein: Old School Values With A Modern Approach To Music Production

One of America’s top producers and engineers, Glenn Rosenstein cut his teeth in the ‘golden age’ of music in New York City. Through a potent mix of competitiveness, broad-mindedness and mastering networking (before networking was a science), he built an astronomical career working with household names from Madonna, and U2 to The Ramones and James Brown. He grew into producing music for TV shows from The Sopranos to Buffy the Vampire Slayer - creaming up Grammy awards, Golden Globes and an Oscar along the way.

Rosenstein may see himself in some ways as one of the ‘old school’, having started out in a very different industry and witness to huge changes through the decades. But this sonic maestro is far from old-fashioned, being an ardent fan of contemporary recording techniques, modern plug-ins and their potential – in particular the magic of Exponential Audio. We catch up with him to talk gear, and just what his recipe for success might have been.

The mystique of the other side of the glass

Rosenstein grew up in New York City at a time of great musical excitement: “In the late 60s and early 70s, there was an exciting musical revolution going on. In the diversity and variety of the New York City environment there was just so much coming at us as children.” The teenage world he harks back to was a very different place to cut your musical teeth: “The role and the function that music played in those days was more active than the passive listening that goes on today. It was very engaging and very appealing - and it got a lot of girls’ attention!” So his first musical ambitions were motivated by the best of teenage desires: “like a lot of my peers, we wanted to get the attention of gals.”

Rosenstein learned to play guitar, slowly discovering that he did not possess the greatest talent for the instrument. But he became convinced that “I loved music and I wanted to find a way to participate. In high school, some friends of mine and I purchased a 4-track recorder when 8-track was the actual pro standard.  We began recording bands locally, just for the fun of it. I only had a vague notion that there was such a thing as record production or recording engineers, or the possibility you could make a career out of it - all of this of course was way pre-internet and somewhat before they’d put recording engineers’ credits on records; we were just having a blast. Later I discovered you could actually make a living, and that you didn’t have to be a great musician to get involved on the other side of the glass. That’s what ultimately compelled me to want to go down that road.”

With Jimmy Johnson - co-producing Wes Sheffield for Glenn's label at Jimmy's studio in Muscle Shoals

With Jimmy Johnson - co-producing Wes Sheffield for Glenn's label at Jimmy's studio in Muscle Shoals

He recalls the magic the studios of 70’s Manhattan conjured for his teenage self: “There was something about the mystique of getting on a subway and going to Manhattan from Brooklyn, walking by Electric Lady studio, looking at that very iconic front of the building (which unfortunately is no longer there) and wondering just what goes on behind those walls. I knew there was some relationship between people playing the music we were hearing on the radio, and that portal - the doors of Electric Lady, Record Plant, A&R, and Hit Factory. My buddies and I would skip school, travel into the city, and stand around in front of these studios. I don’t know what we were hoping to get a glimpse of, but there was some palpable magic that was going on behind those doors and we wanted in.”

Cold-calling his way in

So compelling was this magic that Rosenstein became determined to get through the doors to the studio beyond. “I was bold. I graduated college (with parents who were insistent I completed my college education as a fall-back option). I went on the road with a cover band to hone my chops. I did live sound and got a rudimentary understanding of how that worked, in addition to learning by recording bands locally.”

Then came the audacious move that set his whole career in motion: “I got a Yellow Pages phone directory, I looked up recording studios and I literally cold-called every single recording studio in Manhattan. Eventually I was able to get through to a woman named Lourdes Keene, the manager of Power Station. She said ‘Look, things are slow right now, we really can’t take anyone on’. And I said ‘Lourdes, you don’t believe things are going to be like that forever - at some point soon work is going to pick up and then you’ll have a fully-trained person...’ There was dead silence on the phone. Then she said ‘Come in on Monday’ And that was the start.”

Not that he walked straight in at the top: “My first job was as weekend night receptionist – so it wasn’t like I jumped right into the studio. I jumped right into the receptionist’s chair, and learned some of the best lessons about how to be subserviant, how to interact with musicians, managers, A&R people, attorneys, you name it. I had to take food orders, relay messages, rent gear, look after all of these musicians. I learned an enormous amount about the music industry and about production simply from having to serve people as the lowest man on the totem pole. I got to understand that even in that lowly function, my job was important. It got me in the mind-set of being organized, accountable, and feeling like I was doing something well, even if it was a really small thing.” 

From receptionist to recording pro

From the formative position of receptionist at the legendary Power Station, Rosenstein soon rose through the ranks, moving to the famed Sigma Sound Studios to assist some of the top engineers and producers in the business. He puts some of his opportunities down to the different way studios operated in the 80s and 90s. “Multi-roomed facilities were attracting artists, rather than the names of the engineers. You did have the Bob Clearmountain’s , the Neil Dorfsman’s who were a big draw. But many people went to Power Station based on the studio name and reputation. And on the remix dance tip, Sigma was very much that. There was a load of music and work to be done, and it wasn’t like ‘let’s use such-and-such and engineer’. People were booking the studio.” Ever the opportunist, Rosenstein managed to get himself booked onto the best bands on the schedule: “The weasel that I am, I would see the schedule the studio manager would have the night before and see what bands were coming in and I would get myself booked on the ones I thought were the best – there was a little subterfuge going on there - I was trying very hard.”

Subterfuge or not, the ambitious young Rosenstein got to work with some of the biggest emerging names of the time: “I had friends over at Island Records and was very aware of U2, but they had not yet really broken in the States; I went to see them in a club in Manhattan and I was one of maybe twelve people in the audience if can you believe that. This was right when their first record was released. And when they showed up on our schedule for remixing, the traffic manager wrote them in as ‘You Too’ - but I got my name down for the session because I knew who they were.”

Those at Sigma realized they could maneuver to work on singles for artists as well as their contracted remix versions, and as a result Rosenstein found himself engineering for the likes of Tears for Fears, Talking Heads and Madonna. “We would not only do the remix as contracted, but listen to the single and try beating it - it was very easy once we had the tapes, to AB to what already existed. So in addition to doing the remix versions we would wind up getting the single releases as well.”

Networking before networking existed

As if producing such caliber of music artists wasn’t enough, it wasn’t long before Rosenstein found himself bagging TV work, making a respected name for himself producing music for film & TV shows including The Sopranos, Beverley Hills 90210 and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. His success in crossing over to the small screen was due in part as ever to chance and opportunism, but also increasingly to his emerging realization of the power of personal relationships.

“If it were a master game plan, I think I would have really f**cked it up. I think there was a lot of being in the right place at the right time, and maybe having the right attitude.  Whether it was at Power Station or Sigma or other places I went onto on my own, we were all very competitive.  But crucially, I understood that relationships were important: getting involved with the A&R people, the managers, the attorneys. I focused on networking before networking was a science - before social media, that didn’t exist.  I became friendly with a number of A&R people, and you ultimately tend to work with people that you like.”

This networking, combined with a broad-minded approach to genre, is what made the difference. “TV and film were just a natural progression, because I pretty much would not say no to anything (laughs). I didn’t perceive myself as confined to a certain genre of music; I was able to work with James Brown and Ziggy Marley and this ever-widening variety of music. Some of it I came to me, some of it I pursued, and some of it was, quite frankly, the luck of the draw. The Sopranos opportunity came to me through a friend of mine who was Senior VP of Programming at NBC - he was very good friends with a woman who was guiding a lot of the music choices at HBO. It was relational - it was about personal relationships & the confidence that the deliverable would be of high quality, on time and on budget.”

A regular gear hound

But personal relationships haven’t been the only thing to shape Rosenstein’s career. Also molding his experiences, his approach and his success have been the pivotal pieces of gear he’s mastered along the way. He recalls with real passion several of the milestone pieces which have had perhaps the most impact: “The first was working on a Neve 8068. Going from TASCAM, TEAC, TAPCO - gear which was considered ‘pro-sumer’, to working with an 8068, that was a huge deal for me.  Suddenly my sonic influences were now able to be played out. I was no longer limited by the equipment, but instead by my own abilities. You don’t have any excuses - you either thrive and survive or you find out that you’re not really capable of being in the driver’s seat. The first SSL in New York was at Power Station; a 4000 B Series. Making the jump to pro gear and understanding computing was an incredible opportunity. Primitive in comparison with where we are now, but learning how to use the automation on an SSL was huge, not only for myself but for pretty much everybody who worked in the industry.  It allowed us to go much further in terms of recall, to fine-tune and go far deeper in detail. That was a huge turning point - it gave me access to the actual tools the pros were using – and an opportunity to see whether or not my work could stand up professionally.”

Another revolutionary gear milestone came with the advent of digital: “I was a fan of RADAR. It fundamentally changed the way I worked. I wasn’t quite as fond of the early Sony 3348s and Mitsubishi’s; some people thrived on them, but for me they were problematic. RADAR was the first standalone DAW that was capable of keeping up and was great sonically. It blew me away because I loved the idea - having been used to hand flying or using two 24-track recorders that were synced up using SMPTE to fly background vocals around and all of that – I loved the ability to hit a couple of keystrokes and all of a sudden find things that had been arduous, tedious work become simple - that was a huge breakthrough.”

More recently, Rosenstein has been struck by the endless possibilities of plug-ins. “The plug-in environment, how we create hybrids of in-the-box and out-of-the-box, this from my perspective really is the golden age of recording. I think people don’t realize it because there’s not as much money in the business as there once was. But in terms of available technology I don’t think there’s ever been a time quite like this.”

Not dwelling on nostalgia -  with Whitney Woerz who Glenn produced on his label 600 Volt/Sony at Capitol Studios in LA

Not dwelling on nostalgia -  with Whitney Woerz who Glenn produced on his label 600 Volt/Sony at Capitol Studios in LA

The artistry of Exponential

When it comes to the possibilities of plug-ins, it’s clear that Exponential Audio comes high up Rosenstein’s list, the plug-in magic of Michael Carnes and his products having transformed Rosenstein’s work. “I was aware of Michael’s role at Lexicon, and had the pleasure of meeting him at AES about 6 years ago; we were introduced by a mutual friend and it kind of took off from there. He is one very bright man - an unsung legend in my mind. There are so many ‘guy behind the guy’ type people, and Michael is certainly one of those. He created a sonic footprint that nobody ties back to him specifically, but when you think about the product design that he was involved with and how much that influenced the Lexicon sound and how much THAT influenced record making… impressive, to say the least.  When we met I was not only immediately captivated by his personality but intrigued by his products. Like any other gear-hound, I already had tons of reverb plugs. But there was nothing in my wheelhouse that did exactly what the R2 and now the R4 is doing. To say I’m fond of the R4 would be an understatement. While it’s quite a deep and complex, you can jump right in - there are more presets than there are days in a year. But you can still get in there and tweak to your heart’s content; you can get very detailed, there are some major league things it does that I am quite fond of.

And while Exponential plug-ins play well into the view of music that Rosenstein experienced, he is keen to stress that he doesn’t use the plug-ins purely for their retro feel, valuing their very modern applications: “The right tool for the right application.  I don’t necessarily categorize the R4 as something that would only meet the needs if we were doing something retro; there are a bunch of modern features that are tucked away deep inside the R4 pedigree that are very applicable to any modern record-making application. The Freeze feature is one that I’m finding myself over-using (laughs) and some necessary things they’ve put in like timing the pre-delay through tempos is a good little tweak. Also tail suppression, that’s unbelievable on vocals, a very cool effect. But then you get into the fact that underneath it all there is this reverb engine that is remarkably pleasing to the ear. Michael did a remarkable job. Whatever numbers he tweaked, whatever algorithms he played around with, it just sounds natural and it’s just a really great reverb.”

On top of this he also appreciates the efficiency of the R4. “If I’m working on a rig that is tight for bandwidth, knowing that the R4 is very efficient for use of that space and multiple iterations, that’s great. For people that are making modern records on home rigs, they are going to look at those multiple iterations and go ‘hey, some plug-ins you get one or two iterations, here you can squeeze way more’. So again, very thoughtful in the way that Exponential Audio put it together.”

The broader your mind, the more opportunity comes to you

As we wrap up this trip through the decades, Rosenstein reflects on what the years have taught him. His most valuable lesson: “be as broad-minded as you possibly can be.” To young people starting out now he would counsel “less reading about it, more time in creating it; less time-wasting, more time in the studio behind your rig.” He reflects: “When I look at younger people who are carving out a certain kind of segment for themselves – “I only do this but I don’t do that” or “I only like this kind of music, I don’t like that kind of music”  - it's sad. The more broad-minded you are, the more opportunity comes to you. Try to recognize your passion in other people and meet those people half way - that would be my advice. It’s the best way you can go.”