Working in the Studio With a Legendary Engineer
David Thoener works at Ocean Way Recording Studios of Nashville, Tennessee. Image-- courtesy of Mr. David Thoener.
Having the opportunity work with an engineer like David Thoener is a once in a lifetime experience for those of us who have had the honor and the privilege of having worked in a recording studio environment. There are only a small number of engineers throughout the history of music recording since the end of the Second World War in 1945 who have been awarded both popular and critical acclaim for their work and have the respect and admiration of their peers in the professional music recording industry, and David Thoener is one of them. In 1998, while working as an assistant recording studio engineer, I had the opportunity to work on pair of tracking sessions with David Thoener as my lead engineer. I think that it is important to be able to understand what it was like to work as a member of a team during a recording session under the leadership of a master recording studio engineer such as David Thoener in a major recording studio facility prior to the current era of digital audio workstations where so much of the process of music recording is being conducted in home recording studio environments.
By 1998, he was an engineer whose knowledge, skills, and talent could take an act from obtaining a recording contract to becoming a hit-maker. After having major hits with Leanne Rimes, Hank Williams Jr. and John Berry, my boss, record producer, Chuck Howard, who was the Vice-President of A&R at Curb Records at the time, booked him to engineer a pair of tracking sessions with a young artist who had just obtained a recording contract, named Lesley McDaniel. I found out on a Friday afternoon that I would be an assistant engineer working with the legendary David Thoener, along with another assistant engineer, the more experienced and incredibly talented, Chris Davie. The sessions with David Thoener at the helm as the lead engineer would take place at Seventeen Grand Recording Studios in Studio A, which featured a Neve VR60 Legend console on the upcoming Monday, but, moving the equipment and materials into the studio for the sessions began the very next morning, which was a Saturday. I was told by the assistant engineer that I normally worked with as a member of Chuck Howard’s production staff, Jeff Watkins, that this was a great opportunity to learn from a master— he knew David Thoener’s storied history as an engineer, but I did not. To say the least, I was excited to have the opportunity, but disappointed that I would have a more experienced assistant working with the team, as I had hoped to be able to work in the control room as an assistant on the sessions. At that time in Nashville, most of the major tracking sessions featured an engineering team of three persons— the lead engineer, such as David Thoener, in this case, and two assistant engineers, one of which would work in the control room, patch in all of the gear that was used on the session, and use the tape machine to record the actual session— all under the supervision of the lead engineer— while the other assistant really spent the majority of their time in the studio setting-up instruments, placing microphones, and making sure that the needs of the musicians were taken care of during the session.
David Thoener is an excellent teacher, a fantastic listener and a leader who brings tremendous charisma to any recording session. Image courtesy-- Mr. David Thoener.
As I opened the door to the control room to Studio A, I could hear familiar music— it was the song, “Freezeframe,” by the J. Geils Band. Sitting at the console was none other than David Thoener, who promptly asked whether I was Chris, or John, and after I told him that I was John Long, he introduced himself. A few minutes later, Chris Davie, came into the studio and then as an engineering team, we had a brief meeting. It was decided that Chris would work in the control room with David, and I would work in the studio assisting the musicians. Despite knowing what the outcome would be beforehand, I was still somehow hoping that I could work in the control room, because I knew that I would soon be engineering my own sessions and it was my hope that I could learn some invaluable lessons that I could carry forward with me into those upcoming solo sessions. Somehow, David, must have sensed my personal disappointment because he pulled me to the side for a moment and told me, “I need you to set-up the microphones for the session, you have a very important job this evening and I am going to be right here with you helping you each step of the way.” It made all of the difference in the world to me, then, and now as I write this article. It is from this point forward that the tremendous learning experience of working with David Thoener began.
I had access to the stellar microphone collection at Curb Recording Studio and offered to bring over a Telefunken ELAM 251, a pair of Neumann U67s, or whatever he, may either want or need, for the session. I will never forget what happened next. We opened-up the mic locker and after just looking at it for a minute or two with me, we both went back into the control room and he sat down with a yellow legal pad and a pencil and started listing out all of the instruments and which microphones he would want placed on each one of them. After he completed his list— in just a few minutes, he said, “We have everything we need right here, if you can just make certain that the vocal chain and microphone for the artist can be brought here, so that we can set it up here in a few minutes. We will not need anything else for this session.” I was stunned. I had never seen any engineer turn away an opportunity to use any of the vintage microphones or incredible pieces of gear that we had access to at the time at Curb Studio— but, as I would soon learn, he did not need them to cut amazing tracks. It was a fabulous experience. I went to Curb Studio— grabbed the Hardy M-1 preamp, the Tubetech CL-1B, and the Manley Gold Reference tube microphone that was the vocal chain for Lesley McDaniel and then made my way back to Seventeen Grand Recording Studios. When I arrived back at the studio, David and Chris had just completed the set-up of his small rack of gear— a series of Neve modules (microphone preamps, equalizers, and compressors) and had also completed the set-up of the tape machine which was ready to go. We cut the session on a 24-track analog tape machine. In just a minute or two, we had the vocal chain for Lesley McDaniel patched-in and ready to go. David Thoener turned to me and said, “Alright, John it’s your turn to get everything in the studio set-up for the session.” What happened next, I will never forget for the rest of my life.
Up until this moment in time, every engineer I had ever worked with had left the studio for the evening to get rested for the next day of sessions, and left the work of setting-up each of the microphones and the testing of all of the signal chains for the recording process up to the two assistant engineers, but not David Thoener. I told him, “I have never seen a lead engineer come in and help set-up a session before.” He then said, “When I started working as an engineer, I had to do all of this work without an assistant. I am used to doing the work and I enjoy it.” And as we worked, he taught both Chris and I lessons about both microphone placement and the microphones themselves— it was as if, as Chris told me later that evening, we were taking a master class that provided us with intimate knowledge that we could not have learned from anyone else. I was used to setting-up maybe as many as sixteen microphones on a drum kit, but with this session, we placed thirteen on the drum kit. We had the following instruments to mic— drums, bass (went direct, or through a DI), electric guitar, piano, steel guitar, and the lead vocal. It took about ninety minutes to set-up and test each signal chain. I had never completed a full set-up for a tracking session, so quickly.
He called us into the control room for a brief meeting after we completed the set-up in the studio and gave us the following rules for the next day, “If you have any questions, please ask them, but, wait until the end of the session, so that I have the time to explain my answer. He then said, “Tomorrow, we are going to make mistakes. If you make a mistake, fix it. If you cannot fix it, let me know immediately, so that we can fix it before it becomes a problem during the session. It’s always okay to say “no,” especially if you know that you are not ready for the responsibility of taking care of something for us.” Due to my prior experiences, I was afraid of being scolded in front of the musicians or the artist, but I learned quickly that David Thoener was a man of tremendous character and integrity and that that would never be an issue— no matter the situation. He then said something that has stuck with me for the rest of my life, “I may be the lead engineer, but it’s my job to help you be your best.” I had never heard anyone in a position of leadership ever tell me that before. And to this day, as I type these words, it still resonates with me emotionally, more than twenty years later. Any nervousness that I may have felt evaporated immediately, and from that point forward, I learned so much from the recording sessions that were still to come the very next day. He then asked us, “Are you guys hungry? Do you know a good burger joint?” Chris and I suggested a great hamburger place that was near the Vanderbilt University campus for us to be able to visit and have dinner together as a team. He treated us to dinner. We were extraordinarily lucky. He is a great storyteller. We learned about how his career began at the Record Plant in New York City, and some about his formative years as a young engineer working with the J. Geils Band, but he also spent a great deal of the evening learning more about us, too. I looked at my watch that evening before we left the restaurant, and it was not yet ten o’clock. Never before had I been able to have so much rest prior to a tracking session. The next day of sessions were both an enjoyable learning experience and a masterclass in how to cut great tracks as an engineer.
If you have never had the opportunity to experience a major recording session in a large recording studio facility in Nashville prior to the age of digital-audio-workstations and home recording studio environments, you missed-out on what was truly a team-based process from start to finish. Typically, sessions ran from 9-12 AM-PM in the morning and then again from 1-4 PM in the afternoon, and sometimes from 6-9 PM in the evening. In the morning, as an engineering team, we would show-up at 7:30 AM to test and re-check all of the equipment and signal chains, and about an hour later, the musicians would show up and you would start getting sounds— prior to recording. On every single Nashville session, session musicians would play— basically the same twenty-five fabulous musicians on almost every single record, so we had the opportunity as assistant engineers in particular, to get to know many of them very well. Once you have sounds on each of the musicians, the producer then brings in the artist and normally they would play a demo of the song to be recorded for the musicians and engineers to listen to. It would give the engineering team ideas about how to proceed with our work. On the other end of the spectrum, the musicians would chart the song, and then it was the role of an assistant (usually me) to take the charts and to make sure that there were enough copies for each of the musicians and to keep the time on the charts as the song was being recorded just in case there were any fixes (punch-ins) that had to be made by a musician for a particular part of a song. I would also transcribe lyrics during the recording process, as well, for all of us to be able to follow with the music charts. Usually an actual session would start around 10:15 AM with the musicians actually at their instruments in the studio space ready to record a take. The Nashville session musicians are some of the greatest to ever pick up their instruments, and so for them to perfect a take and have a song in the can might only mean one or two takes— in over 250 tracking sessions, I never experienced a song that took them more than four takes to have a master— they were just such incredible musicians. In a session, prior to lunch, we might knock out two, or sometimes three songs and then come back in the afternoon and knock out three more songs and this, of course, included fixes. It was magical to experience. If you were fortunate to have David Thoener as your lead engineer, it was even more productive. His presence inspired Chris and I to give our very best during each moment of the session, and we could tell that even the venerable Nashville session musicians were much-more business-like and were, too, inspired to give their best work when he was sitting behind the console.
How does David Thoener work behind the console? Prior to working the sessions with David Thoener, I had started engineering overdub sessions on my own once in awhile, and had engineered a songwriting demo session or two in-full on my own. At the time, I had more than 150 A-list tracking sessions under my belt. With Chris Davie, taking the tape machine operations role, it gave me the opportunity to both watch and listen to one of the greatest engineers to ever sit behind a console work. He works quickly and uses both equalization and compression with subtlety. In fact, his microphone placement is so good, while watching him achieve sounds prior to recording, he hardly touched any of the outboard gear in any of the signal chains and when he did so, it was for subtle tweaks. He used equalization to cut for subtle clarity and applied gentle compression for a subtle smoothness in the tracks. I never heard or even saw him add equalization or use compression that was overtly noticeable. We were ready to record by 9:35 AM which was the fastest time I had ever experienced for achieving sounds. In fact, we were ready for recording so quickly, that our producer (my boss) did not arrive for another twenty minutes and this is what delayed the start until 9:55 AM which again, was much earlier than usual. Let’s just put it this way— we nailed three songs and then we had an early lunch. His tracks had a smoothness and a fullness to them that I had not heard before in a recording session. He has a legendary reputation as a mix engineer, and it is my feeling that this has made him an equally incomparable tracking engineer. A great mix engineer is used to working with great tracks in their sessions. A mix is not where any problem was ever fixed in the process of creating music. Problems were fixed before they ever reached the tape machine to be recorded. He was in full command of the sessions from the beginning to the end, and was one of the very few engineers that I ever saw the Nashville musicians compliment during a session. It was perhaps the greatest compliment to his work on those sessions that each successive engineer who would work with the material that we tracked was highly complimentary of it— it was a master class in what to do in a recording session. I was amazed, but, after being there to hear it and see it happen for myself, I was not surprised.
David Thoener achieves superb sounds quickly. The tracks that are cut during his sessions are both full and rich in detail. Image courtesy-- Mr. David Thoener.
Chris and I had such a great time learning from and working with David Thoener. We had enjoyed working together as a team and it was difficult to come to the realization that it would end after just three days of work in the studio together. I was fortunate, in that, I would work with Chris Davie again, this time with another great engineer who I also enjoyed working with a great deal and who also, had both a tremendous and positive impact on my life and career, as well. Ironically, the other great engineer was also a future Grammy-Award winning engineer, who had also started his career at the Record Plant in New York City, and as a young assistant engineer had once assisted David Thoener on some of the early projects in his career— Steve Marcantonio. The last time I saw David Thoener in person, I was helping him load his rack of gear into the back of his car in the parking lot at Seventeen Grand Recording Studios— a place which no longer exists in the Nashville, Tennessee, Music Row of today. He was on his way home to rest because the very next day he would have a flight that would take him to New York City. What is your next project, I asked? He replied, “I am working with Aerosmith. It’s for a film soundtrack.” As I shut the door to his car, and waved to him as he drove away, I could not help but think that he was about to use his incomparable skills and talents to engineer another classic hit song. But this classic hit song would be special— for Aerosmith, for sure, but, also, for every single person who would listen to it, time and time, again. This classic hit song was— “I Don’t Wanna Miss a Thing,” and it would propel Aerosmith to new heights and David Thoener into a new phase in his storied career. It is in this phase that he would finally achieve both universal recognition and critical acclaim for his work and win three Grammy-Awards.
In reflection, I believe it is important to understand the great leadership that David Thoener provided for our sessions as the lead engineer. He was wonderful to work with in the recording studio environment and he inspired each of us as members of his team, and each of the musicians, as well, to give their very best during the sessions. He was supportive, diligent, and conscientious— but, also, honorable, in that he treated each of us as members of his team with the same respect that we accorded him. He always tried to find a way to teach each of us who worked with him more about the process of recording great music and at the same time, he was able to make the work seem like a lot of fun for each of us. It is incredibly difficult to take a situation in which perfection is the expectation at each second with every move that you make, and find a way to make it a fun process for everyone, but David Thoener was able to do that on our sessions. As an engineer, he made the process look like it was second-nature to him. He was able to work so quickly that he made everything look so easy, but in looking back at those sessions, I had a remarkable front row seat and could both see and listen to each and every move that he made with the tape machine, outboard gear, and the console. His excellence in utilizing microphones was what gave us such a solid start for the sessions. It enabled every other component of the recording process to become so much more fluid. His work is extremely smooth— every move has a calculated purpose behind the console, and not only does he possess tremendous charisma as a lead engineer, but his knowledge and his willingness to share it, sets him apart and makes him a legendary engineer that you want to be fortunate enough to work with on a recording studio session. Working with him-- is, in a way-- like watching a great professional athlete score a lot of points in a basketball game, because this athlete is so great on one end of the court, you might not notice that he or she is also phenomenal on the other end of it, too. I was extremely lucky. In fact, he helped inspire me to have a highly successful career both as an assistant recording studio engineer and as a professional educator and I carried his essence of desiring to make my students both more knowledgeable and better people with me throughout my career.
David Thoener has both recorded and mixed some of the greatest artists in the history of popular music. Pictured above are track sheets from a mixing session with Peter Frampton that was recorded and mixed on a 24-track analog machine. Image courtesy-- Mr. David Thoener.
David Thoener has worked in Pro-Tools from the beginning of the platform and has used it to track and mix some of the greatest hit songs in the history of popular music. Pictured above is a mixing session in Pro-Tools with the iconic and talented Japanese artist, Miyuki Nakajima. Image courtesy-- Mr. David Thoener.
Enjoy the Music from the Articles About the Life and Career of Legendary Recording Studio Engineer
With our Apple Music, Spotify or YouTube playlists, you can listen to the music from the groups and artists who were listed in the articles that have been written about the life and career of the legendary recording studio engineer, David Thoener. From 1973- to the present, he has engineered some of the greatest and most memorable songs in the history of popular music. This playlist features the songs that were discussed in the articles about his life and career as a legendary recording studio engineer and producer. On the Engineering Legend webpage, there is a much more extensive playlist on Apple Music, Spotify and YouTube that was composed by David Thoener himself for you to check-out and enjoy.