The Sound of Music
David Thoener works at Ocean Way Recording Studios of Nashville, Tennessee. Image-- courtesy of Mr. David Thoener.
Steve Marcantonio broke the mold for how we think about the role of a legendary recording studio engineer. Most of the legendary engineers of the past were well known by reputation as either a great tracking or mixing engineer. Steve Marcantonio is both a legendary tracking and mixing engineer. Image courtesy of Steve Marcantonio.
If you grew-up listening, as I did, to country music from the late 1970s to the present, you have heard definitive periods of great change in the sound of the genre from 1988-2003 and then again, from 2008 to the present. Though there were a number of great engineers and producers who made their stamp upon those periods in the growth and development of the genre of country music and its popularity, it is undeniable to say that Steve Marcantonio and his brilliance behind the console throughout both of those periods of time in the genre, and still to this day, has made a tremendous impact upon the sound of country music. His engineering style was instrumental in launching three separate, but important processes during those periods of time— first, and foremost, the sound of country music itself, changed; second, his work and that of other great engineers and producers during the period, let to a renaissance in country music and a seismic shift in the popular music landscape and finally, his embrace of both new artists and new technologies helped lead to another boom and shift in the popularity of country music despite the fact that the professional music recording industry itself was experience a series of major changes, as well. It is important to analyze what Steve Marcantonio, as a legendary recording studio engineer, brought into this period and his tremendous impact upon it.
Through his engineering work, he brought the following that would have a tremendous influence upon the growth and development of the popularity of country music: a new process of recording that came from the legendary pop and rock producers who had worked at The Record Plant in New York City during the formative years of his career, a new sound that would bring country music much closer to the pop, rock and country music of the late 1960s and early 1970s, new technologies that would have an influence upon the sound of country music into the foreseeable future, and legendary engineering work that would tailor songs to the meaning behind their lyrics and arrangements and albums which did not feature a single sound, but rather songs which would distinctive flavors just the way that the artist and the producer would intend for the audience to be able to hear them. He has also achieved a rare status as an engineer, in that he is known both for his brilliant skills as a tracking engineer and also for his amazing abilities as a mix engineer, as well— and he did so, at a time, when it was not uncommon, even for his peers to tend to specialize in one aspect of the recording process or the other to showcase their skills and talents. His work is legendary and his remarkable credits which include: Alabama, Blake Shelton, Taylor Swift, Vince Gill, Deana Carter, Faith Hill, George Strait, David Lee Murphy, Restless Heart, Rodney Crowell, Rosanne Cash, Montgomery Gentry, Rascal Flatts and so many other amazing artists and performers throughout his long and storied career.
As the author of this article, I am in a unique position, in that, I have worked with the legendary Steve Marcantonio, in both tracking and mixing sessions and will use my experiences and the knowledge gleaned from interviews with him to give you a picture of how he has created some of the great sounds of some of the amazing music of the past forty years in his remarkable career. While this article will provide insight into the technologies and techniques behind the music— a separate article will also examine and discuss what it is like to work with the legendary, Steve Marcantonio, in the recording studio environment.
I worked on a pair of tracking sessions assisting Steve Marcantonio in the 1990s— one was at Emerald Recording Studios (a favorite place of his to work, though it no longer exists) and Javelina Recording Studio (now RCA Studio A, and the haunt of Nashville producer, Dave Cobb). The artist for those tracking sessions with Steve Marcantonio at the helm was Rodney Atkins who was signed to Curb Records at the time. He is a master at cutting tracks. When you are listening to a song like “Party Crowd,” by David Lee Murphy or even, “Strawberry Wine,” by Deana Carter, you are listening to a master at cutting tracks. He has cut the tracks (recorded them) for such artists as classical country performers as Alabama, George Strait, and Vince Gill, but he has also cut the tracks for recent hit songs for such artists as Taylor Swift and Blake Shelton, too. His drum sounds are legendary, his electric guitar and steel sounds have become the staple of country music and he gives a mixing engineer easily the best vocal and bass tracks to work with from the tracking process. His tracks are rich, smooth and full— there is an organic clarity to his work. His acoustic guitar tracks are clean and clear, but have a depth to them that is best described as magnificent. As I set-up the sessions with him and the other assistant engineer, Chris Davie, that I worked on with Steve Marcantonio— here are some key insights. He is a master at both selecting and placing microphones. He will tell you that great recordings start with this process. What is interesting is that he does not always use the most expensive or most renowned piece of gear that can be found in the rack of a fabulous or historic recording studio facility.
He used what the studio had available to him— in terms of microphones, gear and the console to their fullest extent. On the drums, we used an Audio-Technica AT-25M on the kick, a Shure SM-57 on the snare (top and bottom), a Neumann KM-84 on the hi-hat, and AKG-414s on the overheads. For the toms, he brought his own mics— Sennheiser 504s (4 of them) and though these mics were the size of my thumb, they sounded larger than life on the drum tracks. He brought gear with him— a rack of API 500-series modules (long before it was ever a popular trend) that he loved to use on the kick and snare drum tracks (it included both equalization (550b) and compressor (525) modules) and he likes to use API preamps on the drums, if they are available— such as the API 3124 or API 312s. On both the steel and electric guitar tracks, he used a Shure SM-57 on the amp cabinets. The bass track went direct, using a Countryman DI-Box. His acoustic guitar tracks were recorded using an Audio-Technica 4033. In fact, with the exception of the pair of AKG-414s, the Neumann KM-84 and the vocal mic (which he did not bring to the session, or use from the studio mic locker) none of the microphones that he used to cut the tracks that day with would have a street value of over $500— but, it’s his use of these microphones— their placement his incomparable ability to listen that makes his work— a genuine work of art. We used a Neumann U67 on the lead vocal that day— and the signal chain went through a John Hardy M-1 dual-preamp unit and into a TubeTech CL-1B compressor. For the acoustic, electric and steel guitar tracks, he used the console (a vintage API console) preamps. For the piano, he used a pair of vintage Neumann U87s and once again, the console preamps. He used very little equalization and only subtle compression (UREI 1176s and DBX 160s) to send the tracks to tape and there were no effects— just clean, smooth, rich and larger-than-life sounding tracks. It may be interesting to some, but he used the console quite a bit throughout the tracking process. In other interviews, he has said in the past that he doesn’t mind using a Shure SM7B on vocals (a mic which has a street value of $400) and that when he is mixing one of his greatest complaints is that sometimes tracking engineers— especially in country music, sometimes tend to record vocal tracks that are way too hot. While he is completely at home with any console brand and has probably spent more time working in studios that have SSL or Neve consoles, he also loves API consoles and the older Trident consoles (such as the Trident 80B), as well. He also loves KRK monitors (speakers), though earlier in his career when I worked with him, he was carrying a pair of Genelec monitors with him to his sessions. His tracks sound amazing and it is one reason why he is one of the greatest engineers in the world and a legend behind the console, but what is so remarkable about him is quite simply that it is not the only reason for it, either. He is also a master at mixing great songs, as well.
Steve Marcantonio is famed for the amazing tracks that he has cut for some of the greatest artists and producers in the history of popular music. But, he has also mixed some of the greatest songs in the history of popular music, as well, throughout his legendary career. He is pictured in this image with the legendary engineers and producers William Wittman and Mike Chapman. Image courtesy of Steve Marcantonio.
I had the golden opportunity to work on a series of mixing sessions with the legendary Steve Marcantonio at the helm in the late 1990s, as well— for artists at Curb Studio such as Hal Ketchum, Rodney Atkins and Blake and Brian— each of whom were produced by my boss at the time, Chuck Howard, and were signed to Curb Records. Though not the second engineer on any of those sessions, I assisted Craig White (who was the second engineer) with the mix documentation on each of those sessions and gave the second engineer breaks on occasion which allowed me to both watch and so much more importantly to be able to listen to Steve Marcantonio, at work. Since, I helped set-up for each of those sessions, as well, it was notable to me that he used Genelec monitors. (I always thought that they were the greatest sounding speakers I had ever heard in my life, not realizing until he switched to listening to our main monitors momentarily, that it was him that I was listening to— not the speakers— a classic rookie mistake on my part, for sure. His mixes sound so smooth and so rich that you just want to keep listening to them.) My job during his mixing sessions was to assist with the documentation for his mixes. At the time, what that meant was that I would write down exactly how he had used each piece of gear in a signal chain on a notepad or on sheets that had templates (or diagrams) for each piece of gear in the studio racks. I enjoyed this part of my job because it gave me a lot of insight into how a legendary engineer both approached the process of mixing and how each piece of gear was used by them in the process.
As I have done in describing the tracking process with Steve Marcantonio, I am going to give you some general rules of thumb and ideas— but, not the state secrets (those are for the engineers to give to you, not me) and there are two reasons for this as I see it. First, no two songs or the tracks contained in them are alike, so with each session, he was working on another song which had different requirements. And also, because each piece of music is very different from one another and so is what you may be doing in comparison, as well, it is better to understand a process and a philosophy than it is— say for example, the settings that he would use on a Lexicon 480 (which is a vintage digital reverb unit). It is also important to note that most of the engineers at that time, carried racks of studio gear with them into every session, whether it was a tracking or a mixing session. Steve carried two things with him at the time— the aforementioned rack of API modules (equalization units and compressors) and a pair of sweet-sounding Genelec monitors (by the way, he is using KRKs at the Music House, his home recording studio venue at present).
In working with him on those sessions, there are some general impressions that I gained from his work. First, he does not monitor very loudly. If you are sitting in a control room with him, he listens critically and intentionally at a very comfortable volume— which is one of the reasons why he has been one of the top recording studio engineers in the world for the past forty-plus years. Second, he never used the same piece of gear the same way twice. He has mixed some of the greatest hits in the history of popular music— including some of my favorite country music songs like, “I’m In a Hurry (And Don’t Know Why)” and “Forever’s As Far As I’ll Go,” for Alabama, “It Matters to Me,” for Faith Hill, and one of my wife’s all-time personal favorite songs, “Strawberry Wine,” for Deana Carter— and so many other songs that you will have to check-out and listen to in his playlist which accompanies the article set that is about his life and career. In our mixing sessions, he used the following pieces of gear as a general rule of thumb (remember no two songs or mixes were alike— which make the albums and songs that he has mixed have their own unique flavor and character to them). On the bass, he often used a TubeTech CL-1B and API equalization units. His drum tracks are legendary— think API equalization units (550b and 560 modules), vintage UREI compressor/limiters (LA-3As, 1176s and the 1178 units) and it was the first time that I ever saw anyone use the classical Fairchild 670 compressor/limiters for this purpose. As far as reverbs were concerned— he would use the AMS RMX-16 and the Lexicon 480. For guitars, (electric and or steel) he would often reach for the Neve equalization units (such as the 1073s or 1081s) and compressors (Neve 2264), but I also saw him use the UREI (LA-3As and 1176s), as well— it depended on the song and also, on the instruments, as well as the sound that he was trying to achieve. He seemed to like the Focusrite ISA215 equalization unit on the piano tracks for example, but he did not use it on each song. On vocal tracks, he would use the UREI 1176 or LA-3A units— but, I also saw him use the Tubetech CL-1B and on one occasion, and a DBX 902 de-esser as well for this purpose. He would use reverb units such as the Lexicon 480, EMT-250 and the Yamaha Rev-5 on vocal tracks as well. For buss compression, or for compression across the mix he would use the Neve 2254 or the Neve 33609 units, quite often.
As a general rule of thumb, but, depending upon the song, he rarely used anything— equalization units, compression or reverb to extremes— as some engineers brag about using in their mixes (for some reason). He is one of the greatest tracking engineers in the world— so, he approaches each mix already having great tracks to work with, especially if he cuts them. But, in the case of the songs that he mixed while I was assisting him, he did not cut the tracks, but he still did not use any piece of gear in an extreme manner for any reason while in the process of mixing. His work sounds legendary, not because of the gear being used, but for the following reasons: he is an excellent listener, he is a master at understanding the use of gear and he is amazing at being able to translate the vision of both the producer and the artist, so that each song sounds as it was intended for the audience to be able to listen to it. His mixes are very smooth, rich and organic— it would be like sitting in a theater and listening to a song in a comfortable and relaxed manner with the instruments being played and the song being performed to perfection. It is also important to put this work into context— it was being done in the late 1990s and for the most part, each of the pieces of gear that he would have used in the studio at that time are now fully available to engineers in the form of software plugins, as well.
It is his amazing skills, listening abilities, talent and wisdom that sets him apart from other engineers when he sits behind the console. In an era, when most of the people in the professional engineering world were either considered to be world-class tracking or mixing engineers, he was actually a legend at doing both of them at the same time. What sets him apart is his ability to translate the vision of what artists and producers wish for the audiences to be able to hear from the moment a song is recorded until the audience is able to listen to it in a comfortable environment. If you had to pick just one engineer to complete an album project from start to finish, he would be the legendary and ideal candidate for just such a job. But, he is also fun to work with in the recording studio environment and a great teacher, as well. His personality makes him a joy for clients to be able to work with in fashioning their great music. He brought the sounds of the pop and rock music of the 1970s and 1980s into country music and in turn, gave us a revolution and an explosion of popularity in the genre in the 1990s and beyond. His work helped launch the careers of some of the greatest artists in the history of country music and to revitalize the careers of artists so that their music could be heard by future audiences. His work has helped launch some of the greatest music of the past few years and without a doubt, he is still doing this remarkable work as I type these sentences. His work is legendary.
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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Coming soon! When it is available, you can click on the button below to listen to our podcast episode about the life and career of Steve Marcantonio, the legendary recording studio engineer in the spotlight on The Recording Session Vault educational website project. You can find our podcast episodes on Amazon Music, Apple Podcasts, Spotify or iHeart Radio.
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.