When I Was Just A Kid
Ever have an epiphany? I was lucky enough to, at age 13, when my brother Courtney, who was working as an engineer in a recording studio/production company in Manhattan called Mark Century, was kind enough (Court was always very nice to his little brother, and still is) to arrange a free recording session for me and my rock band “Stanley”. I was the drummer and co-lead singer (yes, I still have the tapes). Basically, I walked into the studio, which was very modest by modern standards (3-track, 2 -track and mono tube-based Ampex 300 tape machines, a very early solid-state console [unfortunately, early solid state = really bad sounding, but I was blissfully unaware of that], Altec 604 speakers and some great Neumann mics), and realized, all in a flash, that this was where I wanted to be “when I grew up”. Court repeated the favor a couple of years later for a recording of my high school era blues band, which included two trumpets and a sax, and was thus, so cleverly, called “The Brass Blues Band”. Incidentally, our lead guitarist was a very young Marc Shulman, who has been a great friend ever since and has become a world class professional musician, performing with the likes of Suzanne Vega, Chris Botti, Jonatha Brooke and many other great artists.
Anyway, I found just loved being in the studio. When college time came around though, there were no accredited schools that had programs for anything like studio sound recording (there are many now). So, after running the “maybe I don’t really need to go to college, dad” idea past my father (a career academic, who wisely convinced me otherwise), I applied to and was accepted at the University Of Cincinnati’s College of Design Art and Architecture as a graphic design major. Art had always been my other great love, following in the footsteps of my mom and her father, who had been a professional commercial artist. After 3 1/2 years of the five year program though, including two semesters spent working in actual design companies, I decided I’d learned enough to know that I didn’t want to be a graphic designer. I definitely still did want to become a recording engineer though. I’d also kept playing music as much as possible, picking up the guitar along the way, and a Tascam 1/4” 4 track, a 2340, which I was using to develop song ideas.
My First Gig: All The Thrills And None Of The Money!
So I left college and started looking for studio jobs in the Cincinnati area. No luck there, but someone told me about a guy named Carl Edmondson, who had built a small studio next to his house in Hamilton Ohio, just a few miles away from where I lived. I looked him up, and sure enough, he’d converted an old chicken coop on his farm into a studio, dividing it into a control room, live area and drum room. He’d equipped it with the then brand-new Tascam model 10 console and a model 70 1/2” 4 track recorder, a couple of 2 track decks, a homemade plate reverb, a pair of JBL 4310 speakers, a compressor and a few other things. He jokingly called the studio “The Four Track Chicken Shack”, but the official name was “The Driving Wind Production Studio”, named after his band. His “mic locker” was a bit weak in retrospect; there were only a few of them, and the “best” was a lowly Electro-Voice RE-10! In fairness though, the RE-10 is an excellent $100 mic - I bought two of them for my studio years ago based on the good results with Carl’s. They still see fairly frequent use.
I learned a lot from Carl. He let me pretty much engineer his stuff right from the git-go and I recorded and mixed several projects by him and others during the year and a half or so that I worked there. Then my dad took a new job that required a move to St. Charles Missouri. I decided that was my cue to pack up everything and move back to New York. So I did. I managed to cram every last thing I owned into my little Datsun, and drove back to Scarsdale, NY, where I grew up, having arranged to stay for a few weeks at my friend Bob Elliott’s parents’ house (Bob was the Brass Blues Band’s singer and harmonica and keyboard player) and later at Marc Shulman’s, while I found a job and a place of my own to live. I pretty quickly got a job at a local record store (where my two co-workers happened to be singer/songwriter Rich Meyer and pedal steel guitarist Tom Camp, both of whom are still playing music professionally).
Bob and Marc and I started putting a band together again, soon adding our old friend Andy Kreeger on bass, to complete the reunion of the original rhythm section of The Brass Blues Band. Marc quit soon after though, probably because we pretty much sucked (except him), and we found a new guitarist who quickly got us into the local music club/restaurant scene, playing six nights a week at places like “Steak & Brew”. For a short time, believe it or not, saxophonist Bob Mintzer was in the band. He was way beyond the rest of us in his ability, but never made us feel inferior. I haven’t seen Bob since, but of course The Bob Mintzer Big Band has become hugely successful, and it couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.
The Hit Factory
I was working my tail off, days at the record store and nights with the band, but still hadn’t forgotten the original plan to get into the studio scene. I’d gone into Manhattan and given resumes to as many studios as I could, and one day it paid off. I got a call from Jerry Ragovoy, then (and originally) the owner of The Hit Factory. Jim McCurdy, a great engineer and co-worker of my brother Courtney’s in the Mark Century days, was on staff there and put in a good word for me. I got the interview, and the job. My first day was December 14th, 1974, and I was immediately put on as a second assistant on a Jim Dawson album project session, produced by Cashman and West (they also produced Jim Croce, among others). David Henson was the first assistant that day, and I’ll never forget his immediate kindness, patience and encouragement.
Things were going along just great until a mere three months later, when Jerry dropped a bomb: he had sold the studio to Eddie Germano, the former manager of the New York Record Plant Studios. About half the staff was fired, including me. I was pretty forgiving of Eddie when he fired me though, telling him “I understand”, which evidently was not exactly what some of the other soon to be ex-staff had said. My reward for that, unbeknownst to me at the time, was going to be a call from him a week later. Referring to the short time I’d worked there, he said “you never had a chance”. I was rehired!
I should say here that my feelings about Eddie (who recently passed away) and his business practices, are pretty mixed, to put it kindly. Many who know me well know exactly what that implies. But he clearly had a side to him that was caring, and I do thank him for giving me back my “big break”, as well as other nice things he did for me. ‘Nuff said...
Getting back to the story, within a year or so I was getting requested quite often by our staff engineers to assist them, and by increasing numbers of clients as well. It was an incredibly richly educational period in my career, of a kind that pretty much no longer exists in the “studio-as-commodity” era that we’ve been in since the early 80s, when all the studios dropped their engineering staffs, letting them go freelance (as I did at the time as well). Before that time, when senior engineers were almost always attached as staff members to a particular studio (Shelly Yakus at Record Plant, Elliott Scheiner at A&R, Harry Maslin at Hit Factory, etc.), the coordination of engineers and assistants and the consequently required level of training for the assistants was far higher than it’s been since. I had the benefit of learning during this period, and it was an education in professional techniques and conduct that is pretty much unavailable anywhere today.
Promoted To The Big Chair
After three years as an assistant, in 1978, I was promoted to recording and mixing engineer. I had the great fortune during these years, as I did when I was an assistant, due to the Hit Factory’s prominence, to work with some of the biggest stars in the music business. I’ve compiled a career-long list of names here, many of which were from that period.
Even though so many technological revolutions have taken place since; midi sequencing, affordable multitrack recorders, digital gear, computer based recording systems and even software emulations of entire studios, the fundamental training I received in those early years still serves me every day and informs the creative choices I make using the gear I have at at hand, old and new.
Ted Spencer Recording Was Born, But Didn’t Know It Just Yet
Speaking of affordable multitracks, I made a fateful decision in the fall of 1977, one that I could never have imagined the eventual impact of: I bought a Tascam 80-8 1/2” recorder, a Tascam model 5 console, an Orban reverb, a DBX compressor, two Neumann U87s, two Sennheiser 421s, a Shure SM 57 and a few other things. My plan was to use it to develop my songwriting and singing ability, an aspiration that had grown a great deal since I first learned to play the guitar in college.
Well, my musical efforts didn’t altogether catch fire right away, but after moving into my present location on west 72nd street in 1978, with singer songwriter Michael Kenny as my roommate, things began to take an interesting turn. Michael and his brother Bernard had become a singer/songwriter duo of sorts, and with my new gear in hand, I had begun to record them as “The Kenny Brothers”, even joining in myself to play bass on a few tracks. I introduced them to some other musician friends of mine including Marc Shulman, Bob Riley and Rafael Goldfeld, and we began making some cool recordings. These two brothers are very talented guys (Michael has gone on to huge success as a jingle writer and singer), and when people heard what we were doing, they wanted to record here too. Initially I was reluctant, still wanting to consider the gear as my personal music playground, and also still very much involved with my new promotion as a Hit Factory engineer. But people kept asking, and eventually I came up with a plan and started doing limited sessions for clients at my “home studio”. As time went on, and particularly as the cost/profit structure of large studios continued to deteriorate over many years, my initially unintentional “business model” began to look better and better. I started taking the idea more seriously, and in 1990, when I acquired a 2” 24 track analog tape machine, I was ready to declare Ted Spencer Recording as a full-fledged (though admittedly compact) studio business. As time went on I continued to add new features like midi production and CD mastering, and kept the gear up to date as technologies evolved into Adats, DA-88s, Pro Tools and so on. I also tried to add value in areas that don’t change as much, like high end microphones, outboard gear and fine musical instruments. At the same time, I continued to actively pursue freelance work, doing it mostly in large studios that can handle sessions involving more musicians than my studio could comfortably accommodate
Back To The Present
So here we are, cruising into the new millennium. Where it all stands for me today is about bringing years of experience in making recordings with world-class performers, and time-tested techniques and gear from the “old school” past and cutting edge present, into the future. It’s been quite a ride!