Working in the Studio With a Legendary Engineer
Though he is pictured on the far right in this image, Steve Marcantonio has always been a joy to work with for artists, producers, and assistant engineers. He is not just great to work with in the studio environment, he is also an excellent teacher and a friend to everyone that he has the opportunity to meet. He is pictured in this image with the legendary engineers and producers William Wittman and Mike Chapman. Image courtesy of Steve Marcantonio.
To have the opportunity to work with a legendary recording studio engineer is both a blessing and an honor. I was privileged to have had the opportunity to have worked as an assistant engineer under the legendary Steve Marcantonio during both mixing and tracking sessions. I had the opportunity assist with the mix documentation which is the record-keeping for a mixing session from the past and being able to do so gives us a great deal of insight into not just how a legendary recording studio engineer works, but also how this person thinks and of course, also, approaches their work. I assisted Steve Marcantonio’s second engineer, Craig White, on three different occasions while he was mixing projects for Hal Ketchum, Blake and Brian and Rodney Atkins— each of whom was an artist at Curb Records, produced by my former boss, Mr. Chuck Howard. I was also very fortunate to have assisted Steve Marcantonio and the second engineer, Chris Davie, on a pair of tracking sessions for the artist, Rodney Atkins, who also was produced by my boss, Chuck Howard at Curb Records. The mixing sessions each took place at Curb Studio in Nashville, Tennessee, while the tracking sessions occurred at two different recording studio venues— Emerald Recording Studios and Javelina Recording Studio— both, at the time, were also located in Nashville, Tennessee, and ironically, neither of these amazing and legendary facilities exist today (Javelina does live on as RCA Studio A and is now operated by the fantastic producer and engineer, Dave Cobb— but, it is owned by Mike Curb).
My first opportunity to work with Steve Marcantonio came during the mixing sessions for the Hal Ketchum album, I Saw The Light. I was actually setting-up for a tracking session for another artist, when I was first introduced to him. He is one of the friendliest engineers that you will ever have the opportunity to work or to meet in the professional music industry. While setting-up for this tracking session, I had just completed my work and was fortunate enough to have my good friend and the second engineer on the session, Craig White, working with Steve. It was then that Craig invited me to be able to help him with the mix documentation. The documentation for a mixing session was the final step in the mixing process and very critical. Documenting a mix involved taking notes about how each piece of gear was used by the engineer to create the mix for a particular song. The mix for a particular song was the next to last step in truly creating the product that audiences would be able to hear on the radio or to purchase through a streaming service— of course, the final step of the process occurs when the song is mastered. By the time, I came into the control room that first evening, Steve Marcantonio, was putting the finishing touches on the mix for the song, “When Love Looks Back at You.” I could tell that he was a bit tired— having worked for probably four hours at that point to create a masterpiece, but he was incredibly friendly and very welcoming to me. I, of course, was not only delighted to have the invitation, but because he was one of my heroes in the professional audio world, it was a true honor for me. When I first met him, my first impression was the he quite a serious and very thoughtful guy who was both brilliant on the one hand and down to Earth on the other. I was only in the control room with him for a few minutes or basically long enough to have the opportunity to meet him and to develop a first impression. I was endlessly fascinated by his work, as he had both recorded (tracked) and mixed some of my favorite hit songs in country music of all-time. I spent that evening documenting his fabulous mix for the song and learning from the brilliant work that he had just completed. However, my experience each evening for the next three nights only involved me being around him for about ten to fifteen minutes. But, about six weeks later he would be called upon to mix a song for a country music duo— Blake and Brian who been signed by Curb Records, produced by my boss, Mr. Chuck Howard, and were looking to score their first hit single. It was the first, but, not the last time that I saw Steve Marcantonio deal with a difficult and intense situation— but, he is more than just a legendary recording studio engineer, he is also a great leader who instills confidence in everyone who works with him, too.
The song, “I’ll Live to Love Again,” performed by the country music duo, Blake and Brian, was a selection that was tracked and the overdubs had been completed before I joined the team at Curb Studio. Earlier that very same day, Steve Marcantonio, had mixed a song for another artist and was working on his second mix later that afternoon. I had been working on a demo recording at the personal studio of my boss— recording vocal overdubs and completing a rough mix with the wonderful people at Curb Publishing throughout the day and was hoping to have an early evening off from work. It would not happen. Upstairs, all throughout the afternoon, another assistant engineer, Jeff Watkins, had been working on comping, editing and tuning the vocals for the song, “I’ll Live to Love Again,” for Blake and Brian. At another studio across town, another assistant engineer, David Boyer, was also comping, editing and tuning vocals on the same song. It was a gargantuan effort and as I understood it, we were in a rush to complete this song so that it could be released for radio the very next day, so those two assistant engineers were truly under the gun. To make matters worse, a hard drive had crashed on David Boyer and at the time, Pro-Tools, was nowhere near the rock-solid standard for recording that it is today and the program— was giving him problems. I was thankful that I was not a part of what was going on at that moment in time and quietly finished my work. But, then I received a phone call and when I picked-up the receiver, I could hear the urgency in the voice of our production coordinator, Lesley Albert, who immediately asked me, “What’s going on over there?” Not quite sure what she was asking about, it was then that I walked upstairs and discovered that Jeff Watkins and David Boyer (who had just arrived) were really working in a pressure-filled situation. Then it occurred to me, it would have to be transferred from Pro-Tools to 32-track digital tape and we were nowhere close to doing that— that, I could see.
I drove over to Curb Studio to see what was happening over there and Steve Marcantonio and Craig White were just wrapping-up on a mix and I stopped to check-in with them. Steve was ready to go home and Craig was just wrapping-up on the documentation for the mix. At that moment, Lesley booked Steve for another session at the request of Chuck, who turned and asked me,” What’s going over there?” I explained that Jeff and David were wrapping-up on the vocals for the song. No one was happy with the situation. I was then told, “When you finish transferring the vocals to tape, it needs to go to Steve and Craig immediately.” I remember looking at my watch. It was 6:11 PM and Craig and Steve both went to grab a bite to eat. I went back over to Chuck’s studio and the situation had not improved. They were still trying to finish the work. An hour later, I got a call, it was from Lesley, “Do you have the tape? Steve and Craig are waiting on it.” I replied, “No, they are still working on it.” I watched while they continued working for another hour, and then we got another phone call. It was Chuck. “Where is the tape?” At that moment, I saw Jeff Watkins and he was haggardly walking over to the tape machine to make the transfer. He was so exhausted and David Boyer was both tired and apologetic, too. For them, a rough day was coming to an end. I took the tape to Curb and Craig White immediately put it onto the Mitsubishi X-850 tape machine. It was 9:06 PM. Steve then went over to the desk and made a phone call. It was to tell his son, who must have been quite young at the time, goodnight. After he put the receiver down to end the call, he turned and told me, “I love my (kids) so very much. No matter what I may be doing, I always try to tell them goodnight and how much I love them. One day, you will understand it and it will be important you, too.” Now that I am a father myself, his words still ring true to me this very day. At first, I thought that he might be angry. He was not— not at all. A moment, later, he said, “I know that you have had a very long day, but, you’re free to stay and hangout with us. I am so glad that I accepted the invitation. Before it, I had just helped document his mixes— now I had the opportunity to see this beautiful song come together at the hands of a legendary master behind the console.
While tracking sessions are intense— as you are taking care of the musicians and the artists and you are constantly troubleshooting issues during the process of music recording. Mixing sessions are focused, but if you are an assistant engineer you really have three roles: to support the lead engineer by patching-in gear for them to use to craft the mix for the song, to make sure that the mixing engineer has a comfortable working environment in the studio and to be a critical and attentive listener. In the process of mixing a song, Steve Marcantonio is highly-focused. Although he will stop and take breaks, for the most part, he is silent and listening attentively to his work. But, when is asking you to patch in a piece of gear, unlike most of the engineers that I had been around, he will actually tell you what he wants and will explain why he using it, too (which is rare). He had the television on that evening at times and we watched the NBA Finals. He would turn it on to check the score in the game and to take a break and visit with us, as well. Despite the intensity of the middle of the day, he put everything at ease. It was as if he was saying, “I’ve got this— don’t worry, I will take care of it.” And, he did. He had been one of my true heroes in engineering and had inspired me to have the desire to work in the recording studio environment. My respect for him grew quite a bit that evening, as I watched him diffuse a difficult situation and restore order to the process. Quite literally, he took a tough day and made it a great one— for all of us. And his mix— was golden that evening. I sat and took notes most of the evening. I learned quite a bit. He taught me so much and gave me the opportunity to learn. But, two days later while mixing another great song for our team, he took the time to give a group of high school students from my hometown the opportunity and experience of a lifetime. It was a remarkable act of kindness and it came from the legendary Steve Marcantonio.
Just two days later, Steve Marcantonio was back working for us again. This time he was mixing a single song for an artist that had been mixed by a cadre of amazing engineers, but had yet to become a hit for an and up and coming artist at Curb Records— Rodney Atkins. At that moment, I was working at Chuck’s studio across town when I received a call from my parents that morning to see if I could maybe give the high school students who were coming into Nashville for an honor society— the prestigious Beta Club— who was having their national convention in Music City USA. I am from a small rural farming community in Hopkins County, which is in Northeast Texas. Even though Dallas, Texas, a major metro area is a mere ninety miles away, there are a number of students at the school who rarely had the opportunity to even travel that far— especially at that time in the late 1990s. It was a trip that was a real treat for the students. Upon learning that they had arrived in town and had the opportunity to come and spend some time on Music Row for the day, I made a phone call to our production coordinator, Lesley Albert, to inquire about the possibility of the students being able to visit Curb Studio and to be able to take a small tour. She told me that it would be up to the engineer who was working in the studio at the time. It was Steve Marcantonio and he was mixing a song and Craig White (once again) was the assistant engineer. I knew that I would need to talk to Craig about it, because I did not know Steve anywhere near as well as he did. When Craig asked him, Steve turned to me and asked, “How much time do you need? Would thirty minutes be enough?” I replied, “Yes, I’m sure it would be.” He then said, “Let’s take a 30-45 minute break, so that John can give the kids the opportunity to see the studio.” The timing could not have been more perfect, as the leaders of the student group— who, incidentally, had been my teachers and or fellow students in high school, as well, had made it to Music Row and were trying to find the studio. A few minutes later, they were greeted by our tape services coordinator, Aaron Bowlin, who showed them into the studio. I gave them a tour which lasted for about 25-30 minutes and Craig White stayed to help me with the process of showing them around. But, the students did not know it, and I did not either, that Steve had also arrived back at the studio after taking a break and had the opportunity to be present for the conclusion of the tour and was the one who held the door open and greeted each of them personally as they left the studio that day for activities at their convention which was being held at The Gaylord Opryland Hotel and Convention Center. The students and their sponsors (teachers and coaches) truly enjoyed it and it was the opportunity of a lifetime and none of have them have forgotten it, either. But, it was Steve’s call to make it happen for all of us that day as the lead engineer for the session that was occurring in the studio. After the students left, he told me, “You did something good today. I respect what you did for those kids. You did a good job.” He then added, “You know, you would be the kind of person who would be good working with kids.” He then returned to the brilliant work that he had started that day.
What he may not have known was that had given a number of kids the opportunity of a lifetime and that many of them— fans of George Strait, Alabama, Restless Heart, Vince Gill, Faith Hill and Deana Carter— had just had the opportunity to meet the legendary recording studio engineer who had either recorded or had mixed some of their favorite songs from some of their favorite aforementioned artists. I could tell that he was so appreciative that he had helped to give them the opportunity to make their day just a little brighter. And I learned, too, that it was a reflection of the man— the legend behind the console— that he was both authentic and genuine and that he also had a passion for making others (no matter their background) feel right at home. But, he also inspired something else, too. He helped inspire me to become an educator and to bring the lessons that I had learned from both him and the other legendary recording studio engineers that I would have the opportunity to either meet or work with into a career of helping students in the Texas public school system to reach their fullest potential in what would become award-winning history, science, multimedia and athletics programs throughout my twenty-year career in education. And in turn, while he has helped to inspire perhaps a billion people or more around the world who have found tremendous joy each and everyday from listening to his work, he has also continued to inspire through those of us who worked with him and were influenced by him to give our lives to help to also inspire others, too. It was not the last time that I would work him, however, as a pair of tracking sessions with Rodney Atkins loomed over the horizon and I would continue to learn more important life lessons from the legend behind the console, as I watched Steve Marcantonio handle another crisis with grace, class and character and in the end, he would make what could have been a very bad day for everyone into a day filled with the joy of making great music for all of us.
I knew that it would be troublesome from the start. There was a frustration that Rodney Atkins had not had a hit single by the summer of 1998. Was it the songs? Was it the engineers? Was it the studio? Was it the producer? Each of these questions swirled around the work environment that I was involved in at the time. So much so, that I could tell that the artist was beginning to demand a change in scenery. At the time, I had a good relationship with both the artist and the producer and for that reason, I was scheduled to be the assistant on a new session in which two new songs would be tracked— at a time when studio rental space was incredibly expensive. I knew it was a big deal. The artist wanted the engineering team that had produced the hits of Alabama from the late 1980s and early 1990s. He wanted Steve Marcantonio to engineer the sessions and my boss wanted him, too. I felt relieved, knowing the next day that I had been booked to work with Chris Davie as the second engineer and with Steve Marcantonio as our lead engineer on the session. The session was booked to be recorded at Emerald Recording Studios. I arrived early that Sunday afternoon to begin the process of setting-up for it. Chris Davie arrived a few minutes later. I remember explaining the situation to Chris— whose reaction was predictable— as he said sarcastically, “Wonderful.” He then said, “You should tell Steve.” I did. His reaction told me everything I needed to know about how the session would go, as he said, “I have dealt with plenty of angry artists. It will be just fine. Don’t worry about it. I will take care of it.” He did.
Setting-up for a tracking session with Steve Marcantonio was so much fun. He was the first lead engineer to actually come out into the studio to help me throughout the process of setting-up for the session— (When I worked with one of his mentors, David Thoener, he worked much the same way. Both were so wonderful to work with and gave me the opportunity to learn so much about the process of recording great music.) He (along with Chris Davie) helped me lay each cable, and set-up and place each microphone on each instrument, after they had completed their set-up of the control room for the session. It was the very first time that I saw a lead engineer help set-up for a recording session (David Thoener, also helped us set-up and like Steve, put on a clinic for each step of the process, too.) and explain each step of the process— from how to lay the cables to why he selected and placed each mic in a given position. It was a clinic in how to record amazing music and it was given to me by one of my true heroes in engineering. I could not been more fortunate or blessed for that matter to have had the opportunity to have worked on that session. How I had felt about it prior to us setting-up for it, had almost evaporated by that time. We finished early and Steve took us to grab dinner at a nice sandwich shop and it was then that I had the opportunity to really be able to visit with both him and Chris for about an hour. We then went back to the studio and closed-up the shop for the evening. It was 8:15 PM and I was about to head home. I had never had that much rest prior to a tracking session and I was looking so forward to the very next day. However, when I arrived at Emerald Recording Studios the next morning, the studio was empty. No one was there except for the person at the front desk and an intern. Steve and Chris arrived just a few minutes later. It was eight o’clock in the morning. We sat in the control room and visited for just a few minutes, waiting on the drummer and the other musicians to arrive, but, no came. After half and hour, a phone call confirmed our suspicions. The session was cancelled by the artist and was re-booked with the same team (Steve, Chris and I) at Javelina Recording Studio (across Music Row) for two weeks to the day, later. I knew it. It was a mess. I helped Steve and Chris take down and put up everything that we had prepared for the session and went back to Chuck’s studio where my suspicions were confirmed. It was a situation that grew even uglier in the two weeks in between the sessions. But, I looked so forward to working with both Chris and Steve. At the end of the week, Chris and I worked a pair of sessions together with David Thoener— which gave us the opportunity to get to know one another and even, Steve, a little bit better. Now, I was really looking forward to working the session at Javelina and it did not disappoint. It was awesome!
The session at Javelina Recording Studio was unforgettable— it was a great experience. The set-up for it went very, very quickly. Javelina had a staff assistant engineer, Steven Crowder, who was extremely helpful and also, a pair of interns who were very helpful, too. In fact, after Steve, Steven and Chris set-up the control room, I had already set-up the mics for the drum kit and the direct box for the bass. The interns had placed the mics for the electric and steel guitar cabinets and were moving the piano into place whenever the control room set-up had been completed. Chris and Steven placed the mics on the piano. Steve, insisted on taking care of the artist and his vocal mic and while doing so, it taught me a simple, but important lesson— always take care of the star and in this case, the major issue for this session first. We finished the set-up for the entire session in about an hour and all went our separate ways for the evening. The next morning, Steve demonstrated why is one of the greatest engineers to ever sit behind a console. His tracks are amazing— every sound that he sculpts is done with a purpose. In fact, he uses very little equalization or compression on his tracks— instead, he uses excellent microphone techniques. Also, he works quickly, but deliberately and gets sounds that clear, clean and organic, before committing anything to the recording process. He never recorded an effect to tape. It was a seamless process that sounds amazing. Due to the unhappiness of the artist, we had a new cadre of musicians on the session, but all of the Nashville sessions musicians are some of the very best in the world and each is fantastic to work with and helped make the session run smoothly. If you have never had the experience of seeing or reading about how the great recording sessions of the past worked. The drummer would arrive first and we would get sounds. It would normally take about half an hour. With Steve Marcantonio, it took about 15-20 minutes, or about half the time to get amazing drum sounds, as he had such perfect microphone technique and placement. Electric guitar, steel guitar, bass and piano sounds came quickly, too. What normally took about ninety minutes to complete, only took about an hour. The artist was late, but getting a great sound for him only took a few minutes. If a recording session takes ninety minutes to get underway, it would take another two hours to get two or three songs completed or, in the can. The Nashville session musicians are just that amazing. We recorded just two songs that morning, and Steve Marcantonio, working from behind the API console was amazing and his work and his incredible leadership of the session— diffused the tensions. That day, he proved why is a legend behind the console and one of the greatest recording studio engineers in the world. He truly took a situation which could have been an ugly one and instead, led a recording session like a maestro that was flawless from beginning to end and produced two great songs. Throughout it, he put on a master class for how to take care of an artist and a producer and also, how to manage a situation. He made it a fun learning and music-making experience for everyone. As we were cleaning-up the session after its conclusion, I asked him how he had done it— diffused a series of problems, put everyone on an even keel and through it all, engineered an amazing session of great music. He answered, “It’s our job to turn anger and frustration into joy and happiness.” He did.
Steve Marcantonio is not just well-known in the professional music recording industry as one of the best engineers to ever sit behind a console. He is also known as one of the very best people to be able to have the opportunity to work with, too. He is pictured in this image with the legendary Sir Cliff Richard. Image courtesy of Steve Marcantonio.
Having the opportunity to work with Steve Marcantonio is both an honor and a privilege. I am very fortunate that I had the opportunity work with him on both a series of tracking and mixing sessions. I also very fortunate to have had the opportunity to have learned from him during a time in which becoming an assistant engineer meant learning, not from a class or a course, or through trial and error alone— but, from a true master who had engineered so many of the great hit songs that I had enjoyed listening to while growing-up as a young man in rural Northeast Texas. He taught me quite a bit— not just about engineering, but about teaching, leadership and what it means to build relationships with other people. He is truly a master at each of those facets of being a great engineer. I was so excited and so happy to hear that he had been named the Academy of Country Music’s Audio Engineer of the Year for 2006 and had also won a Grammy-Award for his amazing engineering work in 2016. There are so many engineers who have been behind some of the truly great music of the past who never received the accolades that they truly deserved, but I am so happy to see that Steve is not one of those people— and that he finally was able to receive the recognition for his work that he had truly deserved for so long. And none of this even speaks of the greatest qualities that he truly possesses— his personality and his character. He loves working with other people and making them better. He loves solving problems and taking a difficult situation and making it a success— in today’s world, that is becoming increasingly rare. He also loves making friends and beyond that— keeping them for a lifetime. It is such an honor for me to be able to tell my stories of having the opportunity to work with a living legend behind the console. It is an honor and a privilege to have had the opportunity to have worked with Steve Marcantonio— the legend of our time behind the console.
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