The Legend Behind the Console and the Music
The studio was dark that evening, but as I peered through the glass after setting-up for an upcoming recording session, I could see the engineer sitting behind the console in the control room. He was asking his second engineer to patch in a pair of vintage Fairchild 670 compressor/limiters. But, this was no ordinary engineer making an ordinary request. He was already a legendary engineer— one of the very best in the business and for me, he was the reason that I was there in the studio that evening in the first place. I had just completed my work, when the second engineer on the session asked a question that would change my life forever. “Do you want to help me with the documentation of the mix? We are just about done.” My answer was, “Oh yeah, I’d love to do that.” It was then that I was able, for the very first time, to meet one of the greatest engineers to ever sit behind a console and the one whose work had influenced me to have the desire to work in a recording studio. The music that he had engineered had been a very important part of the soundtrack of my teenage years while growing up in a small town in Northeast Texas.
Steve Marcantonio is pictured in his home studio with the 2016 Grammy-Award for engineering which he received for his tremendous contributions to the Glen Campbell documentary, "I'll Be Me. Image courtesy of Steve Marcantonio.
Of course, his work— the amazing music that he has engineered throughout his legendary career, needs no introduction. He started his career in 1978 at The Record Plant in New York City, New York, as an assistant engineer. He learned his craft from the legendary engineers of the 1960s and 1970s, who had recorded and mixed some of the greatest hits in popular music of all-time. During his stint as an assistant engineer, he had the opportunity to work on formative projects with John Lennon and The J. Geils Band and on the soundtrack for the popular feature film, The Blues Brothers. As he worked his way up the ranks at The Record Plant, he honed his own unique style of engineering while working on classic pop and rock album projects for The J. Geils Band, Roberta Flack and Peabo Bryson and Scandal. By 1986, he was engineering his first critically acclaimed country music albums for Rodney Crowell and Rosanne Cash. By 1989, he was working on a series of chart-topping classic hits in country music for such acts as Alabama, Restless Heart and Vince Gill. In 1992, he moved to Nashville, Tennessee, and helped bring country music into a new golden age— as his engineering work would help to launch the careers of such artists as Faith Hill, Tim McGraw, Clay Walker, Tracey Lawrence, David Lee Murphy and Deana Carter. He would also engineer classic hit albums for such country music luminaries as George Strait and Reba McEntire. By the early 2000s, he was one of the most sought-after engineers in the world and continued to engineer hit albums, but this time for a new generation of country music stars, including: Taylor Swift, Blake Shelton, Rascal Flatts, and Montgomery Gentry. In 2016, he would win a Grammy-Award for his engineering work on the soundtrack of the final album, “I’ll Be Me,” for the legendary Glen Campbell. And even at this moment, he remains an engineer in-demand, whose work continues to dazzle us— each and every single time that he sits behind the console.
Though his work needs no introduction, let me take a moment to introduce you to a man who is generous with his time, loves to teach and through his engineering work, has given us some of the greatest hits in the history of popular music. To be able to work with him is both an honor and a learning experience. From the moment a session starts, until it is concluded to his extremely high standards, he is always instructing, always insightful and always a joy to work with. He takes the time to make certain that everyone who works with him can do their job successfully, and have fun doing so along the way. When I entered the control room of Curb Studio that evening, I met one of my true heroes in the world of music recording. He introduced himself and made me feel like a valuable member of the team that evening from the moment I walked through the door. I learned so much from him— by watching and listening. I had never seen an engineer quite like him, and yet, it was a true joy to watch a true master craft a song for the very first time. It is true. His work needs no introduction. But, I want to take this opportunity, to introduce you to the legend behind the console and to a man who has truly changed the face of popular music. He is my friend, the legendary— Steve Marcantonio.
From the moment his family arrived in America from Italy, they would make tremendous contributions to the growth and development of popular music. In this image which was taken in 1910, his grandfather and great-uncle are shown with their band. Image courtesy of Steve Marcantonio.
Before I introduce you to Steve Marcantonio— there are truly two very important aspects of his amazing life and remarkable career that you need to know that help to define him as a legendary recording studio engineer. First, he is extremely proud of his Italian heritage— which means that he loves meeting and welcoming people into his ever-expanding circle of friends, who he truly treats as if they are a part of his extended family. The second, of course, is that great music has always been an important component of his life and you might even say that it was in his blood from the very beginning. Steve Marcantonio was born in 1957 and raised in Elizabeth, New Jersey. His family had immigrated to the United States during the early twentieth century from Naples, Italy and had carried their love of great music and the desire to build a great life for themselves and the people in their communities to America with them. Just after the arrival of the family in America, his grandfather became a leader in a band that played popular music. From an early age, great music was in his home. His older brothers played in bands. In fact, his two cousins who lived upstairs were both musicians, and one of them— his cousin, Joey would later become a member of one of the most popular groups of the 1960s, Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. As a child, he would listen to a small transistor radio and on it, he heard every genre of popular music— big band, swing, country, pop, jazz, blues and of course, the growing sounds of rock and roll. It was the 1960s.
His loving family is such an important component of his life. In this image, Steve Marcantonio, who is on the far left, is pictured with his two wonderful brothers and his amazing mother and father. Image courtesy of Steve Marcantonio.
In 1964, the Beatles took popular music by storm and it was their music which would have such a profound impact on the young boy from New Jersey. It was a Golden Age in music and for him, it was the opportunity to both listen and learn during a revolution in pop culture that defined the 1960s and the early 1970s. He grew-up listening to and would be influenced by the music of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, The Beatles, The Beach Boys, Jackie Wilson, The Rolling Stones, The Jackson Five, Led Zeppelin, Todd Rundgren and John Lennon. When the opportunity arose, he would go to a local record store and after purchasing an album, he would look to see who the engineers were that had recorded it. For him, one name and one place kept coming up time and time again, as he listened to the great music of the period— Roy Cicala and The Record Plant— the owner and the leading recording studio engineer at one of the hottest recording studio facilities in the world.
After graduating from high school in 1975, a young Steve Marcantonio went straight to work. However, one of his first jobs was actually with General Motors where he actually earned a very nice wage for himself. At the time, he fancied the idea of spending the summer after being furloughed from the company on the Jersey Shore. But, he never lost sight of the dream of wanting to work in a recording studio and in the spring of 1978, he would get a shot at his dream job. It turned out that The Record Plant was looking to hire an assistant engineer and the manager of the studio facility and its chief engineer, Roy Cicala, knew his cousin, Joey, who had been a member of the group, Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. He put in a good word with Roy Cicala about him and in turn, it gave him the opportunity to land a job working at the studio. It was the launching pad for one of the most storied careers in the history of professional music recording.
In 1978, there were no such entities as recording schools or college degree programs for aspiring young engineers. If you wanted to work in a recording studio, you just simply worked as hard as you possibly could to land a job in a recording studio facility. You learned on the job. You learned through working with other assistant engineers, but also by working on sessions and more importantly, by listening to the work of the master engineers who worked on major album projects in a facility. From the moment he was hired, Roy Cicala took him under his wing. It was a process and at The Record Plant it would often take two to three years for an assistant to make the leap from working on sessions to beginning the process of engineering them. But, at The Record Plant, some of the best engineers— legends behind the console— worked there on album projects or were even members of the staff, such as Roy Cicala, Jack Douglas, Shelly Yakus, Jay Messina, William Whitman (who worked on projects at the studio, but was not on the staff) and David Thoener. At one point or another, Steve had the opportunity to work with each of these legendary engineers and producers and to learn from them. And, a friend who was a fellow assistant engineer, Gray Russell, would also help him learn the ropes. It would give him the opportunity to work with fabulous engineering minds, and also on amazing projects as well. He also learned how to work with artists and to build the relationships that would be crucial for his future success. In the summer of 1980, he earned the opportunity to work on the soundtrack for the blockbuster feature film, The Blues Brothers. At the time, he could use a special machine— the BTX, which was a small white console that held two tape machines together. His ability to use the BTX made him invaluable and even though he wanted to have the opportunity to work with one of his heroes in music, John Lennon, who had booked time in the studio later that summer, it also taught him a valuable lesson, as his boss and mentor at The Record Plant, Roy Cicala, would say, “Never worry about the next project or the name of the artist, always take care of the project that you are working on.” But, he would soon earn the opportunity to work with John Lennon and Yoko Ono on another project and the memories of doing so would last a lifetime for him.
Steve Marcantonio learned about the process of recording great music from the master engineers and fabulous assistant engineers who were on the staff at The Record Plant in New York City. Image courtesy of Steve Marcantonio.
Steve Marcantonio would have the opportunity to work with both John Lennon and Yoko Ono on the song, "Walking On Thin Ice." The young assistant engineer in the background behind John Lennon and Yoko Ono in this photograph is none other than, Steve Marcantonio. Image courtesy of Steve Marcantonio.
Though the album, Double Fantasy, had already been completed at a rival studio, The Hit Factory, John Lennon and Yoko Ono had come to The Record Plant to work on a new single, “Walking On Thin Ice,” in the fall of 1980. As an assistant, he would work with John Lennon throughout the process of creating the song, and for him, it was not just a learning experience— it was a true joy. One evening, while the session was on hiatus, he said, “I am going to take a break and go for a walk for a moment.” From behind him, a voice said, “Hold on, I’ll go with you.” It was John Lennon. It was a moment and a time that he would never forget— having the opportunity to take a walk and visit with one of his true heroes in music. The next day, while working on a session, John and Yoko were interested in obtaining a clap track box, so they gave him the money to go to New Jersey to find a machine for them. He never had the opportunity to do it. The next day was December 8, 1980. The day that John Lennon was murdered was a difficult one for everyone who loves popular music, but for a young Steve Marcantonio, it was a little different. He had just worked with John and Yoko and was preparing to do so again at some point in the near future when the news struck him and the rest of the world like a thunderbolt. He took the money the very next morning and gave it back to Roy Cicala, who in turn, gave it back to Yoko Ono. The very next week, Yoko was back in the studio to finish the work that she and her husband had started, but with a detachment of bodyguards that were heavily armed. She never forgot his sense of honor, dignity and grace. After the album, Double Fantasy was certified platinum, she gave him a beautiful, fully-encased copy of the platinum album, even though he had only worked on the single, and not on the album itself. Later, the single, “Walking On Thin Ice,” would come to be released as a bonus track on subsequent versions of the album. But, working with John Lennon and Yoko Ono was just one of the steps that he would take on his way to becoming one of the very best engineers in the world. The next year he would begin working on a series of groundbreaking projects that would change the course of the musical landscape of the 1980s. It would also provide him with the experience that he would need to begin shaping his own fabulous career as one of the greatest engineers in the world. He was just twenty-four years old.
From 1981-1985, a young Steve Marcantonio would work at The Record Plant on a series of groundbreaking projects as an assistant and later, as a recording studio engineer that would begin the process of shaping his career for the future. The first of these major projects was the album, Freeze Frame, by The J. Geils Band. The album was produced by the keyboardist, Seth Justmann, and engineered by David Thoener. Throughout the process of mixing the album at The Record Plant, he would assist David Thoener, who mentored him and gave him an opportunity to learn while working with him on the project. While mixing the songs for the album— which took almost two months to complete— he would perform the moves on the console with David Thoener, and the other assistants to make certain that the moving parts of each song were correctly choreographed and completed, one at a time, on a Trident console. The project was mixed before the availability of automation. It was a painstaking, but fun process. He also assisted David Thoener in the creation of the novel sounds that you would hear on this groundbreaking record, such as the gated snare sound— a sound that would come to define the larger-than-life drum sounds of the music of the 1980s. He remembered locking two tape machines together, working on new sounds with the mix and all of the thought that was put into making a legendary record. Two singles from the album— the title track, “Freeze Frame,” and “Centerfold,” were both smash hits. It gave him the opportunity, not just to learn, but to also step into working on his own sessions— and this time as an engineer. His first major project was the album, Born to Love, which was a series of duets featuring the legendary singers, Roberta Flack and Peabo Bryson. The song, “Tonight, I Celebrate My Love,” became one of the greatest hit songs of all-time. It was a romantic ballad that did not just light up the charts, but became one of the most heavily requested songs at weddings and dances throughout the world. It also gave him the opportunity to work with another influential engineer in his career, Jay Messina. His next major project was a classic album for Scandal, Warrior, which featured the classic hit song, “The Warrior.” During the creation of this groundbreaking project, he had the opportunity to work with another influential engineer in his life, William (Bill) Whitman, who would become famous the very same year for his work producing and engineering the hit album, She’s So Unusual, for Cyndi Lauper, which contained the classic hit songs, “Time After Time,” and “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.” By 1985, Steve Marcantonio, had worked with three highly influential engineers— David Thoener, Jay Messina and Bill Whitman— each of whom helped to influence the trademark sound that he would carry with him throughout his legendary career. But, on the horizon was another major groundbreaking project— this time in country music that was about to change his world forever. And in turn, he would become one of the legendary engineers who would turn country music during this period into America’s Music. He would also become one of the most sought-after and influential engineers in the world.
Steve Marcantonio would be the assistant engineer to the legendary recording studio engineer David Thoener during the mixing of the classic album, Freezeframe, for The J. Geils Band in 1981. Image courtesy of Steve Marcantonio.
In 1985, Roseann Cash would release perhaps one of the most successful and influential albums of her career, Rhythm and Romance, which contained four smash hit singles. Engineered by David Thoener, the album brought both Rosanne Cash and her husband and producer at the time, Rodney Crowell, to work at The Record Plant in New York City on their new albums rather than in Nashville, Tennessee. While working on the next album, Street Language, for Rodney Crowell, David Thoener, who was engineering the project, asked Steve if he could match and fix a vocal track for the artist. Of course, Steve had the task completed in just a few short minutes. It impressed Rodney Crowell so deeply that when David Thoener was not available to engineer the next album for Roseann Cash— King’s Record Shop, they selected Steve Marcantonio to engineer what would become his first critically-acclaimed country music record in 1987. From that point forward, he began working on an album project with Rodney Crowell over the course of the next year, Diamonds and Dirt which was critically acclaimed and commercially successful and featured an amazing five number-one hit singles, including: “It’s Such a Small World (a duet with Rosanne Cash)”, “I Couldn’t Leave You If I Tried”, “She’s Crazy for Leavin,” “After All This Time,” and “Above and Beyond (The Call of Love).” The song, “After All This Time,” would garner Crowell a Grammy-Award in 1990. It was the album, Diamonds and Dirt, released in 1988, that would put Steve Marcantonio on the map as one of the most sought-after engineers in the music business.
In 1989, he would engineer Rodney Crowell’s follow-up album, Keys to the Highway, and then work on three albums that year that would showcase his masterful work behind the console. The first album was for pop star sensation, Belinda Carlisle. Her album, Runaway Horses, was a hit. But, it would be one of the final albums outside of the orbit of Nashville, Tennessee, that he would work on as his connections in Music City USA began to grow and he became— more and more— a hitmaking engineer in demand. His second major album project was with Alabama, a group that was looking to define itself in a new decade and to continue its string of chart-topping singles. After making a connection with their producers, Josh Leo and Larry Michael Lee, his work behind the console on the album Southern Star would help usher the group into the country music boom of the 1990s as it would contain the hit singles: “Song of the South,” “High Cotton,” “If I Had You,” and the title track, “Southern Star.” He would make another key connection in Nashville that would allow him to have the ability to work on a third hit album that year, Tony Brown, who was slowly taking over the role at MCA Records that was being vacated by Jimmy Bowen. It was an album project with Vince Gill. The album, When I Call Your Name, would become the first major hit album for Vince Gill and it would put him on the pathway to a prolific hitmaking solo career. The title track became an instant sensation and the album would sell over a million copies upon its release. It would be the first of many hitmaking collaborations between Vince Gill and the legendary recording studio engineer, Steve Marcantonio. As the decade of the 1990s opened, it was becoming clear that country music artists and producers were seeking his amazing talents behind the console. And through his work, the sounds of country music were changing. And as a form of popular music, country music was becoming much more popular. Eventually, the desire of major artists and producers in country music to have him behind the console on their projects would bring him to move to Nashville, Tennessee— to Music City, USA. It was a major change for Steve Marcantonio, who had always lived and worked in the Northeast. However, the impact that he would make in country music as an engineer is immeasurable and with his work, and that of other great engineers who would also make the move to the Nashville metro area during this period, it became America’s music during the decade of the 1990s and beyond. But, it did not happen overnight.
From the moment he began working with country music acts in Nashville, Tennessee, he became an agent of change and it was not just because he was from New York. The Nashville studio scene of the 1980s had been dominated by producers who were slowly bringing both engineers from studios in Los Angeles and New York City and technologies— such as Solid State Logic (SSL) consoles and 32-track (PD) digital tape machines such as the units made by both Mittsubishi and Otari from there, as well. Coming from one of the hottest recording studio facilities in New York City, gave him a different perspective, not just about the process of making music, but also about the technologies that were being used. He brought with him, more than just a New York sensibility, but, also, gear— bringing the sound of API, at least in module-form, with him. Right away, after first arriving in the town, he noticed that there were some engineers who were using drum samples and not bothering, for example, to record the drums using room mics. He brought clean, rich, smooth and organic sounding tracks to the music that he both recorded and mixed and in the process, it helped usher in a recording revolution— in both the sound of the music and also, the success that it would enjoy as audiences began gravitating from pop and rock music in the late 1980s to country music by the early to mid-1990s. But, he also brought something so much more important to country music and to the Nashville studio scene than just new gear, new recording techniques and a new perspective in the control room— he also brought his larger-than-life personality and his love and passion for bringing out the very best in everyone around him. It would make him not just one of the most sought-after engineers in the town, but also a person who has commanded the deep respect of the musicians, artists, producers and fellow engineers and assistants with whom he has worked with in the Music Row community now for more than three decades. And, it would not take long for his new brand of engineering to find success on the charts.
Steve Marcantonio worked with and learned from the master engineers and producers who came to work on their album projects at The Record Plant in New York City. In the image above-- he is pictured with the legendary engineers and producers, William Wittman and Mike Chapman. In the image below-- he is pictured with Clarence Clemons, Ralph Schuckett and William Wittman. Image courtesy of Steve Marcantonio.
From 1990-1992, he engineered a series of major hit albums for Alabama, Restless Heart and Little Texas. These albums contained a number of hit songs within them and firmly established him as one of the very best engineers in the world. The 1990 Alabama album, Pass It On Down, contained the hit singles, “Forever’s As Far As I’ll Go,” “Jukebox In My Mind, “ and “Down Home,” each of which went to number-one on the charts. His early work with Alabama established his presence and style in engineering country music— clean, rich, smooth and organic, and also, his uncanny ability as an engineer to make the listener feel the emotions of the lyrics of a song— something only the very best engineers can do. His work gave country music a much-needed renaissance and helped the genre capture a much larger audience that was so used to hearing the same sounds in the pop and rock music of the 1980s. With his work behind the console, gone were the digitized country music sounds of the 1980s. He would tailor the sounds of the instruments to the songs— to their lyrics and to the meaning behind their arrangements. Through his work, there was not a Nashville sound, there was the sound of great music— just as the producers, artists and audiences intended for it to be heard. In 1992, he would engineer another major hit album for the country music group, Alabama, and this album, American Pride, would contain the number-one hit single, “I’m In a Hurry (And Don’t Know Why),” and three other top-five hits, including: “Take a Little Trip,” “Hometown Honeymoon,” and “Once Upon a Lifetime.” Another country music group, known for their smooth sounding music and their wonderful harmonies, Restless Heart, would have him behind the console for their album, Big Iron Horses. A year earlier he had worked on a few songs that would be released from their album, The Best of Restless Heart. The album, Big Iron Horses, would feature the hit singles, “When She Cries,” and “Mending Fences.” He would also make a contribution to the first album, First Time for Everything, which was released by a new group, Little Texas. The album would contain four hit singles. It also led to something else that was a milestone in the development of the renaissance in country music— one of the greatest engineering minds in the history of country music was now here to stay— quite literally. After traveling back and forth from New York City to Nashville for almost five years to work on album projects, in 1992, Steve Marcantonio and his family finally took the plunge and moved to the Nashville, Tennessee, metro area.
At first, there had been the sense that he was the “New York Guy,” but that sentiment in the business of country music in Nashville was one that Steve Marcantonio embraced from the beginning. He was authentic and his love and passion for good music, good food and good friendships, made him a person who was not just in-demand as a master recording studio engineer, but a person who was deeply respected and indeed, revered in the Nashville music community. His wife stepped into the community as a deeply respected musical genius in her own right— working for many years as the program manager for the Nashville Symphony. (She is now the program manager for the Cleveland Symphony.) Despite the intense hours and tremendous effort that he has put into engineering amazing music projects throughout his career, he has dedicated even more of his time and effort into being both a great husband and an incredible father. His children have also become highly successful in both the entertainment and the food service industries. His love of family was instilled in him from an early age by his loving parents who gave him and his siblings the love and support that they would need to succeed in life. Throughout his life, he has also passed these values on to his children and to the assistant engineers that he has had the opportunity to teach and to mentor. He is not just one of the greatest engineers to ever sit behind a console, but also one of the very best people to have the opportunity to be able to work with, too. His family has made tremendous contributions to the Nashville community and continue to do so to this very day. It was at this juncture in his career after making the move to Nashville that he would begin the process of not only engineering amazing music— but, helping to launch the careers of some of the greatest artists in the history of country music during the boom that the genre was experiencing in the mid-1990s.
From 1993-2001, Steve Marcantonio would engineer an unprecedented number of hit songs and albums for a wide range of clientele in country music, at a time when the genre was at the height of its popularity and on its way to becoming America’s music. In 1993, he would record the album Alibis, for Tracy Lawrence, which contained the number-one hit singles, “Can’t Break It to My Heart,” “Alibis,” “My Second Home,” and “If The Good Die Young.” It was a smash hit and established Tracy Lawrence as one of the preeminent artists of the decade, as it gave him a successful follow-up to his debut album, Sticks and Stones. He would also work on the hit album, Walking Away a Winner, for Kathy Mattea. But, he would open the next year with his work on three major album projects— for Clay Walker, George Strait and Tim McGraw. He would make a contribution to the Clay Walker album, If I Could Make a Living, by working on the overdubs for the project. He would also work on the album, Not a Moment Too Soon, which was the breakout album project for Tim McGraw. Both of those albums would contain a pair of number-one hit singles. However, he would record the album, Lead On, for George Strait, and his work on this album would showcase the fact that Steve Marcantonio was not just an amazing mix engineer, but also one of the very best tracking engineers in the business. The clean and organic piano, acoustic guitar, steel guitar and fiddle sounds that were ever present throughout the hits on this album which included the number-one songs, “The Big One,” and “You Can’t Make Heart Love Somebody,” showcased his amazing work behind the console, as he was able to bring the traditional sound of George Strait’s music to a new and younger audience in the mid-1990s. His tracks have such a rich and smooth fullness to them, that they are a mixing engineer’s dream. With his work on the album, Lead On, he had proven that he would have a tremendous influence on both the introduction of new and established stars in country music to the renaissance that the genre was experiencing. It also proved something else— something extraordinary, in the world of professional audio engineering. At a time when engineers were becoming known, or gaining reputations as being either a great mixing engineer or a fabulous tracking engineer, he was proving that he was one of the very best in the world at doing both, and in the process, not only continued to be an engineer in-demand, but a trendsetter, too. In fact, over the next two years he would actually both record (track) and or mix three major projects that would launch three artists to stardom— and two of those projects became classic masterpiece works of engineering.
If you want to hear one of the most beautiful songs from the golden age of country music in the 1990s, you should give the second album released by Faith Hill, It Matters to Me, a listen— especially the title track, which was a number-one hit single in the Billboard Charts in the fall of 1995. While this magnificent album contained five hit singles, including: “Let’s Go to Vegas,” “Someone Else’s Dream,” You Can’t Lose Me,” and “I Can’t Do That Anymore,” it was the title track that was a masterwork of engineering and one the best mixed country music songs of this era— without exception. “It Matters to Me,” is a beautiful ballad which begins with a dramatic opening featuring a piano and a steel guitar which are both tailored to the desperation of the lyrics to perfection. The beautiful vocals of Faith Hill and of the background singers, all sit with perfection in the mix and give you the feeling of both time, space and also of the intensity of the lyrics of the song. In the mix, he masterfully handles the drum tracks— giving them the smoothness to sit within the story of the first verse and then allowing them to drive the desperation of the narrative in the lyrics while marrying them first with the electric guitar and then to the steel guitar as the song progresses to its denouement, or conclusion. First, it is his masterful use of compression— which allows the drums to transition from the sidestick of the first verse, to the explosiveness that we hear from those tracks as they drive the first chorus and then the balance of the narrative of the rest of the song— all, while not overpowering the shimmering beauty of Faith Hill’s incomparable vocal performance. His use of equalization accomplishes two goals— allowing the kick drum to have the sound of a desperate heartbeat, while the snare has a pop to it that drives the narrative of the song. It is also a masterful use of panning to have the steel guitar and then the electric guitar become such an important focus of the progression of the song and its mood— both answer the vocalist perfectly and compliment her brilliance throughout the song. The song also features a rich bass track which allows the rest of the tracks to sit perfectly in the mix— it’s also what allows the panning of the guitars (electric and steel) to have such a dramatic effect and for the drums to have their rich and complimentary explosiveness, as well. His use of reverb allows for us to have the sense of time, space and drama with the piano, drum, guitar (steel and electric) and vocal tracks throughout the song. It is the perfect mix to teach to anyone who is a student of professional audio and of music theory. But, it is also a great example of the pure genius behind the console of the legendary Steve Marcantonio, too. And, it is just one shining example of the sheer brilliance of his work.
In 1995 and 1996, he would engineer a pair of masterful hit albums for David Lee Murphy. The first album, Out With a Bang, featured the number-one smash hit song, “Dust on the Bottle,” and another fun-loving hit song, “Party Crowd,” which was the most played song on country music radio in 1995. The album was both recorded and mixed by Steve Marcantonio. It features his work in a unique sense— the clean, organic and rich tracks and also, a mix which places the listener into the lyrics and the emotion of the songs. Interestingly enough, neither of the two songs, “Dust on the Bottle,” or “Party Crowd,” are romantic ballads, as “What Matters to Me,” had been, as both are up-tempo songs that have both an edge and a bite to them. But, with these two songs, you should give the drum tracks and the electric guitar tracks a listen. The kick drum is rich and smooth, but it's the snare drum that shines— it has a crack to it in both songs that drives the narrative of each. Also, you can hear his masterful use of room mics in recording the tracks, as the entire drum kit has a fullness to it that was often absent from the country music records of a decade earlier. He is a master at recording and mixing drum overheads— and on both of these songs, it shows. His drum tracks sound both rich and organic. Also, give the bass guitar a listen, it’s just so smooth. Give the song, “Party Crowd,” a listen, it’s how a great country music song should sound. Again, his use of panning showcases the handling of the electric guitar and the steel guitar tracks. His songs have a “live” feel to them that we just do not hear often in popular music. You not only enjoyed listening to these songs, but you felt like you were experiencing them the way that the artist and the producer would intend for you to do so. His next album, Getting Out The Good Stuff, contained the hit singles, “Everytime I Get Around You,” and “The Road You Leave Behind.” The first song is an uptempo and enjoyable ballad, and once again— it is engineered to perfection. Again, when you listen to the bass, drum and electric guitar tracks you hear the rich fullness and the perfect use of compression and panning. But, it’s the song, “The Road You Leave Behind,” a ballad that tells a beautiful story of what it means to help other people and how doing so can teach you valuable life lessons that is another perfect example of the mastery of his work behind the console. It is another perfect country music song, recorded and mixed by Steve Marcantonio. His work allows the instruments to compliment the vocal in the process of telling the story of the song and it puts you in the place and time in your life when you needed help and someone who you had helped reached back out to help you— and, as a listener, once again, you become a part of the story. Only the best engineers to sit behind a console can do this with a song. If you have ever met Steve Marcantonio in person, he is an amazing storyteller and as an engineer, this song is such a great example of how he brings this quality to his work. He is also a great teacher and a wonderful mentor, as well. These qualities also shine in his engineering work. But, in 1996 he was not done— and another album which would showcase his engineering brilliance to country music fans around the world lay ahead of him. He knew it would be a hit from the moment he first heard it.
In the summer and fall of 1996, he would work on another pair of hit albums— one of which would be a defining moment for the country music renaissance of the 1990s. The first album was Measure of a Man, for the artist, Kevin Sharp, and it would contain the number-one hit single, “Nobody Knows,” and two other hit singles, “She’s Sure Taking It Well,” and “If You Love Somebody.” But, it was the final album of the year that he would engineer that would leave country music fans with an indelible classic— the album, Did I Shave My Legs For This? from Deana Carter and produced by Chris Farren. Much like the David Lee Murphy albums, each of the hit songs would be both recorded and mixed by Steve Marcantonio. It would contain three number-one hit songs: “Strawberry Wine,” “We Danced Anyway,” and “How Do I Get There?” It is another masterpiece, too. In our interview session, he remembered hearing, “Strawberry Wine,” for the first time and knowing that it was just destined to be a classic smash hit song. But, it was his legendary work behind the console that would help the album deliver. All of the classic elements that you would hear in his earlier work was showcased here, but it is his handling of the album, as an entire unit that is unique. Most of the country albums of the period before had a sound to them— Did I Shave My Legs For This?— however, was quite different. Three of the songs on the album had been cut with an earlier pair of producers, but the balance of the album would be cut later and mixed by Steve Marcantonio, which included all of the hit songs on this classic work. He had not only brought his previous work into play with this masterpiece of engineering, but you could also hear his desire to push new boundaries as a master engineer, which gave each of the amazing songs— classical works of engineering— a distinctive flavor on the album. It may well have been the greatest album of the country music renaissance and it certainly featured one of the greatest songs of the period, “Strawberry Wine.” But, it also featured some of the greatest engineering of the period, too, and the credit for it must go to the man behind the console for the hit songs on this classic album— Steve Marcantonio. For most engineers, the pinnacle of their career would come here, but not for Steve Marcantonio. He would continue being a hitmaker and an engineer in-demand and the next album that he would record would be another classic album for one of country music’s greatest performers— George Strait.
During the late 1990s, Steve Marcantonio would remain one of the top engineers in-demand in the world, but, the country music scene that he was working in was slowly beginning to transition to more of a pop-oriented sound— such that, by 2008 no one could tell the difference between some of the country music stars and some of the great pop stars of the moment. As a trend that was beginning at this time, one can look back and see that many of today’s pop music stars were actually being marketed in country music during the early 2000s and a few of them are still being marketed in the genre today. Despite the slow shift in the style of country music and the focus that many of the artists and producers would have by the end of a decade of tremendous success for the genre— the hits kept coming, even for the more traditional artists. One of those successful traditional artists was George Strait. In 1997, Steve Marcantonio would record the tracks for another major hit album for George Strait, who is one of the most prolific hitmakers in the history of country music. The album, Carrying Your Love With Me, would feature three number-one hit singles, “Carrying Your Love With Me,” “One Night At a Time,” and “Round About Way.”
It was during this time in 1998 and 1999, that Steve Marcantonio would work on a number of projects for producer Chuck Howard, who had become one of the hottest producers in Nashville after his work on album projects with Billy Dean, Jeff Carson, Perfect Stranger, John Berry, Hank Williams Jr., and especially, teenage singing sensation, Leeann Rimes. I had the opportunity to work on a pair of projects that Steve Marcantonio also worked on during this time— including the albums, I Saw The Light, for Hal Ketchum, and Stormy, for Hank Williams Jr. While I will dedicate a full article to what it is like to work with Steve Marcantonio, one of the true legends behind the console, I was so fortunate during this time to be able to work with him on both mixing sessions for the Hal Ketchum album, I Saw The Light, and also on the tracking sessions for another artist, Rodney Atkins. He was such a joy to work with, such a wonderful teacher and of course, an amazing session leader for each of us who had the blessing and fortune during this time to be able to work with him. As a new century unfolded, he would continue to work with the clients who had been prolific artists throughout the 1990s, but, he would also make an important shift, too, as both the technologies and the business of music recording were undergoing a major transformation from 2000-2007. Not only would Steve Marcantonio still remain one of the true legends behind the console during this period of transformation, but because of his embrace of the changes that occurred— he would thrive and finally receive the recognition that he had long deserved as one of the greatest engineers to ever sit behind a console.
Steve Marcantonio began his career as an assistant engineer at The Record Plant working with analog equipment, but throughout his life he has both mastered and embraced each of the major technological changes that have shaped the process of recording great music. Image courtesy of Steve Marcantonio.
The period from 2000-2008, was one of major transformations in the professional music recording industry, as digital audio workstations slowly supplanted the more traditional recording mediums. During this period, large format consoles, digital tape machines and even recording studios themselves began to slowly disappear. For anyone who had been working in the professional recording industry since the 1990s, let alone in the decades prior— it was a major shift that was slowly occurring and it was only the beginning. Older engineers— many of whom had been tremendous hitmakers since the 1970s started finding themselves out of work— not due to a new generation of engineers, but rather to the tremendous technological shift that was brought on by the rise of digital audio workstations. While some older engineers were struggling with the shift, Steve Marcatonio embraced the changes and mastered them. It would allow him to continue to be one of the top engineers in the world and a legend behind the console who is still sought after at this very moment by top clients in country music and their producers.
During this period, as many high-profile country music performers switched into the pop music category, Steve Marcantonio continued to engineer country music hits and in turn, would help to introduce country music listeners to a new generation of artists. He would engineer or make engineering contributions to high-profile album releases for the following acts during this period: Montgomery Gentry, Keith Urban, Rascal Flatts, Gretchen Wilson and Carrie Underwood. In 1999, he worked on an album that would open the new century with a new generation of hitmakers, the country music duo, Montgomery Gentry who were produced by Joe Scaife and Jim Cotton. Their debut album, Tattoos and Scars, would contain five charting singles and signaled a sign of the times and that new artists would come to define a new decade in country music. Their next album, Carrying On, would produce two hit singles in 2001. Steve Marcantonio would record and mix both of their successful opening albums. He would engineer hit albums for country music star Keith Urban during this period, including his self-titled debut album, which contained the number-one hit song, “But For the Grace of God.” He would also contribute to the Keith Urban album, The Ranch. His engineering work would also appear on the compilation album for Keith Urban entitled, Keith Urban/Golden Road. He would also bring his engineering touch as a tracking engineer to albums for Rascal Flatts during this period— including the album, Still Feels Good, in 2007. This album, produced by Dan Huff, would contain two number-one hit singles, “Take Me There,” and “Here.” He would also mix the new songs that would be contained on their Greatest Hits- Volume 1, album release in 2008. Steve Marcantonio would also work on hit albums for another newcomer to country music, Gretchen Wilson in both 2004 and 2005. Her debut album was entitled, Here For the Party, and contained a number-one hit single. He would also work on her second album, All Jacked Up, in 2005 which would debut as the number-one album on the country charts that year. And, he brought his engineering touch to a newcomer who was destined to be one of the greatest hitmakers of the decade to come, Carrie Underwood, on her debut album, Some Hearts, which was also released in 2005. The album, Some Hearts, would contain three number one hit singles. Throughout the period, he also continued working with such traditional country music hitmakers such as George Strait, Reba McEntire and Faith Hill and he also engineered a number of country music parody albums with the comedic performer, Cledus T. Judd. It was also during this time that Steve Marcantonio would first receive an award for his amazing engineering work behind the console, as he would garner the Audio Engineer of the Year Award from the Academy of Country Music in 2006. His amazing work behind the console would continue and through it, he would help to introduce some of the greatest hitmakers of the current generation to audiences around the world.
After 2008, a recession hit the nation and across it, a trend that had already been underway— the slow replacement of traditional recording studio technologies with digital audio workstations and software plugins, accelerated rapidly and it led to the closing of major recording studio facilities. Nashville was not immune to the trend that was occurring and in the years to come a number of major recording studio facilities simply began to disappear. The introduction of streaming music and its supplanting compact discs and other physical mediums also led to the acceleration of this process and as record companies began to lose their major streams of revenue— budgets for album projects began to dry up, too. It was a difficult time for the professional recording industry. But, one legendary engineer continued creating hit music and despite the fact that a number of great country music stars were making the transition to pop, he was still as busy as ever, engineering some of the greatest hits of the past few years. He would also win a Grammy-Award for his work with another legendary figure in the history of popular music in 2016. For Steve Marcantonio, it was another decade of success, but he was transitioning too— from becoming one of the very best engineers to ever sit behind a console to becoming a legend.
From 2009-2018, Steve Marcantonio would engineer hit albums for two of the greatest stars of the past decade— Taylor Swift and Blake Shelton. In 2010, he would be a tracking engineer for the Taylor Swift album, Speak Now. The album would contain six hit singles, and would spend six weeks in the number-one slot. It was a smash sensation. Two years later, in 2012, he would work on another smash hit album for Taylor Swift, entitled, Red, this album would also feature his work as a tracking engineer on the project. Once again, it was a huge success for Taylor Swift. But beginning in 2008, he started an association of working on albums for another country music hitmaker, Blake Shelton. His first engineering work for Blake Shelton was as a tracking engineer for the album, Startin’ Fires in 2008, which contained the hit-singles, “She Wouldn’t Be Gone,” and “I’ll Just Hold On.” This led to Steve Marcantonio working on a series of albums for the hitmaker. In 2010, he would work on the hit albums, Hillbilly Bone, and All About Tonight, both of which were albums laden with hits for Blake Shelton and helped establish the star as a household name in country music. But, it was the 2011 album, Red River Blue, that would light up the charts that year and become the first number one album for the prolific hitmaker. Once again, on Red River Blue, Steve Marcantonio, was behind the console as a tracking engineer. The album would contain the number-one hit singles: “Honeybee,” “God Gave Me You,” “Drink On It,” and “Over.” Throughout this period, it was often Steve Marcantonio tracking a hit album for an up and coming artist or act, such as Lady A, Kellie Pickler, Big and Rich, or O.A.R. But, he also was tracking and or mixing albums for such country and pop veterans as Kenny Rogers, Lionel Richie, Dolly Parton, Hank Williams Jr. and Vince Gill. However, it was his work with a legend in the world of popular music whose career had begun in 1960, that would come to provide him with the accolades that are only reserved for the greatest engineers to ever sit behind a console. And though it was a long time in coming, it was his work with producer Julian Raymond and the legendary Glen Campbell on his final album project and the soundtrack for the documentary, I’ll Be Me, that would earn Steve Marcantonio, a Grammy-Award for his engineering work in 2016. By 2018, Steve Marcantonio, was a legendary engineer behind the console and still one of the most sought-after engineers in the world— but, no one could have predicted what would happen next as a global pandemic crippled the world and even the entertainment world came to a standstill. Through it all, Steve Marcantonio, would handle it with the class and grace that he had always shown through difficult times in his career and would emerge on the other side, as he always has— being a living legend behind the console who is one of the most sought after engineers in the world that artists, musicians and producers come to when they want to make the very best music in the world.
Throughout his life and career, Steve Marcantonio has not just made a tremendous impact on the growth and development of popular music, he has also developed the respect of every artist, musician, engineer and producer that has had the opportunity to work with him, too. He is pictured in this image with the legendary, Sir Cliff Richard. Image courtesy of Steve Marcantonio.
Despite the coronavirus pandemic, Steve Marcantonio remains one of the most sought-after engineers in the world. He has established a recording studio facility in his own home— the Music House, in which he works on songs on a regular basis for album projects. He can still be found working in Nashville’s large-scale recording studio facilities on major album projects on a regular basis. When he is not working on a major album project, he can also be found teaching the next generation of engineers at The Blackbird Recording Academy at Blackbird Recording Studios. He has done numerous interviews throughout his long and storied career and loves to help other people learn the craft of recording great music. But, for certain, there are two aspects about him that have never changed— and that is the magic that he brings to every single recording session, each time he sits down behind the console and his wonderful— larger-than-life personality that everyone has come to know and to deeply appreciate.
Throughout his career, he has enjoyed both the success and accolades that have been reserved for only the very best engineers in the world, but he carries himself the same way that he did when he was coming up through the ranks at The Record Plant. He is always learning, always growing and always enjoying the fact that he has the opportunity to work on great projects with wonderful people. He is always thankful— for his family, his friends, his mentors and for the artists and producers who have called upon his immense talents time and time again. He is thankful for the young assistant engineers who have assisted him on major recording sessions throughout his long and storied career. He has received the greatest honor that an engineer can receive and yet, not only does he remain humble about it and modest about his own career and all that he has accomplished— he will spend most of his time telling you how optimistic he is about the future of music recording and the wonderful young people that he has the opportunity to mentor. But, perhaps what makes him so special is that in a business and in a world that changes every second, he is a constant. When he first arrived in Nashville, he brought his love for making friends and taking care of people with him— in fact, almost everyone he meets, he considers to be family and treats them accordingly. If you are fortunate enough, you might just have the opportunity to sample some of his authentic Italian cuisine. He is an excellent cook— and he comes by it honestly, as his mother was a legendary cook in her own right. While working on the soundtrack for the film, The Blues Brothers, even John Belushi stopped by just to get a bite of her famous chicken parmesan. In fact, if he were not one of the greatest engineers in the world, he truly could have been one of the very best chefs in the world, as well. His cooking skills are just amazing. He has always loved taking care of others. He has always been someone that everyone has always enjoyed working with throughout his career. Truly, his larger-than-life heart and personality have never changed and it has made him truly an authentic character that musicians, artists and producers have come to love, respect and even revere for more than forty years in a business where only a select few are able to survive more than a decade on the average. He has never shied away from showing his feelings and his passion for the work that he has been able to do. Each day, he still brings the same love and passion that he has since 1978 to working with the musicians, coaching the assistant engineers and assisting the artists and producers of a new generation of music in their quest to make their vision a reality.
And despite the changes in the technologies and even in the music itself, he still feels the magic that the process can impart. The music still touches him and he still has the desire to make sure that it can touch the lives of those who are able to listen to it, as well. Despite the great accolades he has received throughout his career, it remains his mission to bring the gift of great music to each listener. He remains the man for whom family and friendships matter deeply and music still touches him to his core. While recording the song, “Things I Wish I’d Said,” for the album, Keys to The Highway, when the artist, Rodney Crowell choked-up during the session while singing about his father, Steve, himself, had to go to the restroom to choke back the tears, too. In fact, for him, one of the true highlights of his career was having the ability to have a song that he had engineered, “When You Are Old,” by Gretchen Peters played at his mother’s funeral— being able to fulfill one of her wishes. He truly felt the emotion of every song and the journey that each of them has given him during his career. His work has made us laugh, cry, fall in love and also, to consider how we can help one another to be better— just as he has done throughout his life for everyone that he has had the opportunity to work with during his career.
I knew that I was fortunate that evening, to have the opportunity to meet Steve Marcantonio, and in some small way become a part of his story and the remarkable legacy that he has created in popular music as a legendary engineer behind the console. He gave me the opportunity to work and to learn from him— about more than just engineering great music from behind the console. He taught each of us how to be the very best that we could be, to treat one another with grace, dignity and respect and to never, ever stop learning and growing. He taught us to care about not just the music, but also for the amazing people who create it. He taught us how to fall in love with music and to be passionate about our role in the process of creating it— no matter how great, or small it may have seemed to us at the time. He took the time to make each of us better. He made us each feel like we were a valuable member of the family.
It is truly a privilege and an honor for me to able to write this essay— to honor both him and his career in music and to be able to say thank you, not just from me— but, from the millions of us that he has given the gift of wonderful music to from behind the console for more than four decades. It is an honor to be able to take this moment at this time to honor him— our friend, Steve Marcantonio— who is truly the legend of our time behind the console.
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, Steve Marcantonio. From 1978 to the present, he has engineered some of the greatest and most memorable songs in the history of popular music. Each playlist features the songs that were discussed in the articles about his life and career as a legendary recording studio engineer.
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Special Thanks and Acknowledgement
I would like to take a moment to thank Mr. Steve Marcantonio for his time, energy and immense contributions to the development of popular music over the course of his life and career. It is an honor to be able to take the time to honor him.