Photo: Jesse Wild/Future Music Magazine: Getty Images
The basic, age-old creative hierarchy in the recording studio usually goes something like this, starting at the top: artist, producer, engineer, assistant engineer, runner/intern. While these roles often blur, combine, overlap or vary, each person plays an integral part in serving the music and making the session a success. But can you imagine being mistaken for any of these roles based on your gender?
"I would walk into a session, six years ago maybe, and I would be the engineer, and they would say, 'Where's the engineer? Can you go get us coffee?' I'd say, 'I can get you coffee, and I can also record you,'" says young superstar producer/engineer Suzy Shinn. "Now, even in the past year, I've met other female engineers or producers. I think that's because a conversation has been opened up to say, 'It's cool, we can do this.'"
Shinn's anecdote is a familiar one among many women working in recording studios, and it stings with the sexism that runs through the nerves of our culture. But before it's through, it also weaves a thread of hope and progress.
Although other women have won GRAMMY Awards in the category for engineering, Emily Lazar became the first woman mastering engineer to win Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical for her work on Beck's Colors at the 61st GRAMMY Awards on Feb. 10.
"I am so grateful to get to be one of the people...that young women see and they can say, 'I can see it. I can be it," Lazar said of her GRAMMY win. "'That's a cool career, I want to go do that.'" In a later interview, she reflected, "That quote really speaks to a big part of the problem – if you don’t even know a career exists how can you aspire to do it?"
Just last year, a report by the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative on gender balance—or rather, imbalance—in recording studios sent a message to the music industry, stating just 2 percent of producers and 3 percent of engineers/mixers across popular music are women. While a glance at these figures creates plenty of concern, a deeper look at the women currently crushing it provides inspiration, optimism and perspective.
"I think the latest Annenberg study… has sparked an amazing discussion across the world about the actual number of women that are in this industry," says mastering engineer Piper Payne. "And not only has it given those women, myself included, [not only has it] shined a light on them and their careers, but it has opened the eyes of those who didn't know it was a problem, or it maybe never occurred to them."
Make no mistake, women have crafted countless timeless recordings in the past, women are growing successful careers in the studio right now, and, even though many have put up with a metric ton of adversity, discrimination and sexism, new conversations around gender diversity are bringing about visible change. The narrative of absence is shifting to that of an undeniable presence of great women in this field, and their new normal is changing the game.
Take Shinn, for example, a wildly versatile producer/engineer, musician and songwriter. Even if you haven't heard her name, you've no doubt heard her work with Katy Perry, Dua Lipa, Panic! At The Disco, Fall Out Boy, Weezer and many more. Her path to a career in the studio traversed a series of realizations about the craft—and eventually the industry—behind the music she loved.
"Growing up as a kid, all I knew was the artists. I didn't know the songwriters. I didn't know the producers or the engineers or mixers," says Shinn. "Then I went to this music camp and discovered that, 'duh,' they have to record, they have to get [their music] into a format. All of a sudden, I went home at age 12 or 13, I got my first microKORG synth. I got my first computer, I was using GarageBand and Logic to make terrible demos and put them up on MySpace."
Shinn went on to major in producing and engineering at Berklee College of Music in Boston, where she recalls being, "one of maybe three girls in the whole class," before moving to Los Angeles to break into the studio scene. She worked her way from intern to assistant engineer, but her musical creativity as a songwriter also shined through.
"I had casually written a song with one of [a publishing company's] writers. They said, 'Wait, you do this other stuff? What?,'" says Shinn. "Eventually it led to a publishing deal… That was very helpful and motivating, to think, 'Someone else sees something in me that they're willing to bet on.' That was a pretty pivotal moment for me."
Her success story is a reminder that the cornerstone of making progress is providing opportunity. In this spirit the Recording Academy Task Force on Inclusion and Diversity launched the Producer and Engineer Inclusion Initiative earlier this year. Aimed at making an industry-wide change, the initiative asks, "That at least two women are identified and therefore considered as part of the selection process every time a music producer or engineer is hired."
In a resounding swell of support, hundreds of producers, labels, artists, managers and agencies have joined, and there is a deeper reason to be optimistic.
"One of the amazing things about this Diversity and Inclusion Task Force is that it is an independent body," explains Payne. "We're able to get real, honest advice that is unbiased and fearless, and that's something that not a lot of other organizations are able to do."
The initiative marked a massive statement to those in control of hiring at all levels of the industry, from producers to executives. No doubt this will take a team effort, and it remains to be seen who might be the most powerful tide turners.
"Someone mentioned recently to me that a lot of this is in the artist's hands, because they know who they want to work with," says Shinn. "It's up to them to voice their opinions on what they want. I think it will just take time. I think in 10 years it's going to be a very different statistic, women in music."
But what is the reality of enacting this change? Acclaimed producer/engineer Sylvia Massy, who has worked with everyone from Prince to Tool to Johnny Cash to Red Hot Chili Peppers, offers her unwavering support of the initiative while acknowledging some of the real-world challenges of its implementation.
"I support it wholeheartedly," Massy says. "I have mixed feelings on whether or not it's right to push [or] to force people hire female engineers. I believe they should be hired on their own merits. But I am excited about this."
Massy's mix of enthusiasm and trepidation is not only common among forward-thinking supporters of such change, but also valid. But perhaps the solution rests in the heart of a time-honored studio tradition: mentorship. According to Shinn, this practice of experienced professionals taking a nascent studio apprentices under their wing is still alive, though it's evolving.
"It's not necessarily [happening] within the big commercial recording studios," says Shinn, "but it's these independent producers, writers that don't want to or can't do it all on their own, but who bring people up with them and who are positive people, are helpful and really just exceptional."
"I've hired and trained lots of women. I've hired and trained lots of men. And they've both been great through the years. Some of them have been terrible, some of them have been fabulous, and it has not been related to their gender." –Emily Lazar
In addition to thoughtful guidance, it takes a single-mindedness toward your dream to push through the uncertainty of a music career, according to Shinn.
"I think not having a backup plan," she says, when asked about the biggest lesson she's learned in her career. "The music industry is so unstable and unpredictable. If you're going for it, that's the only thing that you can do or can envision. If you have a backup plan, it gets really, really hard sometimes. You will fall on that backup plan."
Under any circumstances, the road to studio success has never been an easy one. Long hours on top of long hours, void of exercise and vitamin D, the stress of catering to the egos and of artists and producers – it can pile up. But the magic of a recording session can change not only the lives of those in its trenches, but the lives of those outside who are moved by its results. It takes teamwork, ingenuity and endurance, and the last thing anyone in that environment needs is additional challenges based on their background.
"When I walk into the studio, I don't think about myself as a female mastering engineer, I just think of myself as a mastering engineer," says Lazar, before catching herself and going one step further. "Actually… I just think of myself as a person, and I'm relating to my clients, and I'm relating to the world around me. I just don't view it in that way."
This notion pulls back the curtain for a peek at what a truly respectful, dynamic and equal studio environment might look like, one where each professional, regardless of their creative role, enters the session as a person first.
So, how do we get there? One possible solution starts with connection, the concept that the community can help build the individual, who can in turn help the community.
The Recording Academy's Producers & Engineers Wing Steering Committee for 2018-2019 stands at 60 percent women, compared to the 2 percent industry index. This number's relation to the greater industry norm demonstrates something meaningful, that progress can come from the inside of the industry, and that community is key.
"I think with the conversations that have been opened up and the statistics that I've read and stuff like that, it really has made it eye-opening to say, 'Oh wait, yeah, I guess there's not a lot of females doing that. Maybe we should, give them a chance,'" says Shinn.
"A lot of people have asked me these kinds of questions through the years about, 'What is it like to be a woman in the studio? I'm like, 'Well, I can tell you what it's like to be me in the studio and the experiences I've had.' But I'm not quite sure, I don't really know how to answer. I don't view it that way," says Lazar. "However, I do realize there is a big problem, I do realize we need to fix it, and I really realize that I would like to be part of the solution and use my platform as much as I possibly can to help show girls that if they can see it they can be it."
Setting the example of excellence and inclusivity for young aspiring music professionals is not only crucial, it sets off a chain of influence in a young person's life. And while this phenomenon is easiest to observe on the individual level, being specific and deliberate about progress can grow to a potentially limitless influence once larger communities and organizations lock step.
"The one cool thing is that that fearlessness and that bravery of the Academy to step forward and say we are going to help solve this problem, and here's how we're going to do it, and this is when we're going to do it, and this is what we're doing," says Payne. "That has sparked other organizations like the AES [Audio Engineering Society] and lots of educational institutions and other broadcast groups to really take a hard look at what their demographics are and what they're doing to be more welcoming and inclusive to all types of people, not just women in the industry."
The numbers are alarming, and the industry has a long way to go, but be sure it is on the move. Right now represents a turning point of unprecedented awareness, the kind of policy awareness Payne points out as it makes ripples across industry institutions, the kind of self-awareness Lazar feels when she walks into a session as a person first, the kind of awareness Massy describes when an artist or label must decide who is most-qualified and best-suited to hire for a gig, the kind of awareness that sharpens action and directs change.
And for someone as multi-talented, accomplished, and hard-working as Shinn, it is an awareness of her own professional and personal progress.
"I'm getting to produce some records that, a few years ago, I would've been engineering," she says. "I'm getting called in to do more creative roles on with artists and bands that I really admire and look up to, and still doing writing sessions and engineering, too. Tomorrow I'm doing drums, which is always fun. We don't get to record live drums that often anymore. Yeah, every day is a new day. It's going really great."
Photo: Gie Knaeps/Getty Images
Before Tool became cult-rock icons with their own wing in the house of heavy music; before they conceived their groundbreaking second and third releases, Ænima and Lateralus — winning consecutive GRAMMYs for Best Metal Performance with album tracks "Ænima" and "Schism" — and before they splintered off to create genre-bending side projects such as A Perfect Circle, Puscifer and Pigmy Love Circus and then disappeared on a mysterious hiatus amid hints that they were in the process or writing and recording process for what is now one of the most anticipated rock albums in years — before all of that came Undertow. The band's 1993 trend-defying debut album unleashed their sound on to the world and, like it or not, announced their arrival into pop music's periphery.
In an era where labels were signing alternative flannel bands in droves and mainstream metal had clawed its way onto the daytime airwaves, Tool were decidedly neither. Los Angeles-based singer Maynard James Keenan, guitarist Adam Jones, bassist Paul D'Amour, and drummer Danny Carey didn't fit into any of the big early '90s cliques. Eschewing the rock caricatures of Singles, the grime of Seattle, the crust of thrash metal, and the sheen of radio rock, Tool's Undertow was inventive yet accessible, intellectual yet juvenile, quirky yet intense, and very, very good.
"It was a heavy album, but it was also smart," Henry Rollins tells us. "And that's one of the things that distinguished it from a lot of other heavy music that was around at the time. I can't think of any record that sounds like Undertow."
Many factors play into the way a band sounds on a given recording, and the roles largely responsible for that sonic outcome are the album's producer and engineer. Enter Sylvia Massy. A pioneer of unconventional and creative recording, Massy has worked with the likes of Johnny Cash, Tom Petty, Prince, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, along the way building a reputation for capturing authentic, human moments of honest fragility, unhinged aggression and brilliant imperfection. Massy fostered many such moments from behind the board on Undertow. According to her, the project — and her career that followed — began with a hearty helping of happenstance.
"Without my mundane job at a record store in L.A., I may have never connected to Tool," says Massy. "In the late '80s, I was a fresh transplant from San Francisco where I had spent several years working in Bay Area recording studios with musicians like the Adolescents, Tuxedo Moon, Exodus, and a very young Kirk Hammett from Metallica. One of my first Los Angeles jobs was working at Tower Records on Sunset in West Hollywood. Not the glamorous studio job I hoped for, but I was willing to pay my dues to get a chance in the L.A. scene."
It was at Tower she met a group of recent L.A. transplants from Buffalo, N.Y., from the band Green Jellö. They hit it off and Massy recorded an album with them in a garage on an 8-track in one weekend.
"They released the album on vinyl and it got attention from Lou Maglia from Zoo [Entertainment]/BMG, who decided to put money into a proper major label release to promote their song 'Three Little Pigs,'" says Massy.
"Another local band named Tool had been playing at a Hollywood dive bar called Raji's and labels were starting to take notice. They were raw and exciting with progressive arrangements and intense polyrhythms," Massy explains. "As it turned out, both Green Jellö and Tool had the same drummer: Danny Carey."
By that time, Massy had graduated from Tower, progressing to assistant engineer at Larrabee Sound Studios. When she heard Maglia had also signed Tool to the Zoo roster, she offered to record both bands' drum tracks at the same time, effectively saving the label a heap of time and money, and ultimately earning her the gig as producer/engineer for both albums.
"To start, we recorded live tracks at the Green Jellö loft in Hollywood — both bands [were] playing a wild New Year's party," says Massy. "Then we tracked the rest of the initial recordings at Sound City Studios in Van Nuys. Tool's  Opiate EP had songs from both the studio recordings and the live show, some intercut."
These early recordings echo with the makings of something different — something special. In the year that followed, Green Jellö renamed themselves Green Jellÿ following a lawsuit from makers of the dessert product by the same name (sans umlaut), "Three Little Pigs" climbed to No. 17 on the Billboard Hot 100, and Opiate began to create a buzz around Tool. Both the label and the band approached Massy to work on Tool's full-length debut album, to be called Undertow. In light of her budding career, she now had a big decision to make.
"I had been working with Prince during that year and he had just offered me a job at Paisley Park, but I wanted to do the Tool record. I had to make a choice, so I turned Prince down. I knew Tool was an important band, and the album Undertow would be their big breakthrough." — Sylvia Massy
But for a producer, shaping the sound of a wildly creative band of self-driven artists can be tricky. Massy joined Tool for pre-production and, with her carefully positioned help, the album's silhouette started to grow features.
"Tool was a fantastic live band, and my biggest challenge was to capture the live energy in a studio setting, so generally during the first recordings I was just letting them do their thing," says Massy. "However, on Undertow as we started pre-production in rehearsals, I could see them getting stuck with some songwriting challenges so I stepped in as a tie-breaker. They knew I was not there to change their music, just enhance it. Some of my suggestions were accepted and some were rejected, and I am always OK with that.
"I suggested using a Leslie speaker for the guitar on the song '4°' — they went for that. I suggested we record a transient Peruvian flute band and hide it subliminally in a song, they went for that. I suggested we keep and use all of Maynard's heavy breathing. They went for that. I even suggested we buy two old upright pianos and record them while they were being destroyed with sledgehammers and a shotgun. They went for that [in a song called 'Disgustipated']. But when I suggested they trim some excess time off the front of 'Intolerance,' they told me to 'f*** off.' Hah!"
Undertow was recorded in two separate chunks as not all the songs had been written when the project began. Massy chose to start tracking the album at L.A.'s Grandmaster Recorders because its Neve 8020 console was similar to the one at Sound City, where they had done parts of Opiate and where Undertow would ultimately be completed.
"The drums were set up in a small but very tall drum room. Two guitar amps were set up with a splitter in the wood room [and] the bass speaker was isolated on the back stage of the studio," says Massy. "We dug in there for two solid months, recording several live takes of each song, then taking pieces of songs and editing the best parts together. It was tedious work on analog tape. The drums were recorded with mics on the top and bottom of each tom, and there were 5 toms, two snares and an assortment of roto toms. [It was] a heavy load for that little Neve console, but we made it work. I had the toms tuned to the key for each song, and we changed tom heads after every take!"
Not wanting to chain the band to a programmed click, Massy developed a new system — out of necessity — for integrating the click track into Tool's signature tempo changes. But it wasn't easy, especially given the technical limitations of the equipment of the era.
"I developed a way to use a drum machine to manually start, stop, change tempo, and start again on the fly," she recalls. "It was an exciting way of working and it was my way of performing with the band, with the click as my 'instrument.' Then after recording on the masters I literally measured the distance between the kick and the snare hits on the 2-inch machine and edited tempo fluctuations out of the drum tracks. Today, this type of drum editing is relatively easy to do digitally, but in 1993 I was editing the 2-inch tape with a razor blade [and] taping the pieces back together manually. The masters were full of these cuts, and when the tape was rewound you could hear the flitter of all the drum edits passing through the tape guides."
After recording the first half of the record, the band took several months off to finish writing before returning to the A room at Sound City Studios to complete the album. It was here that "Flood" was recorded, which Massy names as one of her favorite songs on Undertow.
Despite the dark, heavy nature of its music, the vibe of the Undertow sessions was often light, playing on the band's innate dichotomy between intellectual and puerile. Keenan, in particular, seemed to make it his duty to never allow a dull moment in the studio. This clash of thoughtful and goofy is a key ingredient in Tool's intoxicating cocktail.
"Maynard brought his pet African Grey parrot to the sessions, and it was a very friendly bird," Massy remembers. "Maynard loves animals. He had an aviary in his home at the time with birds and lizards and scorpions and a whole menagerie of critters. What a character. Maynard was also doing stand-up comedy during off nights. He is really a funny guy, but you wouldn't think so just listening to the music. But to know Tool is to realize all the lyrics have hidden double meanings, usually not what you'd expect."
"My job was to put a frame on a very unique and innovative musical 'painting.' The piece of art that Tool made was worthy of the finest gilded frame, and I tried very hard, and was well rewarded. But the art was theirs." — Sylvia Massy
One of the hardest elements of Tool's sound to define is Jones' guitar playing. While Carey's drumming flexes prowess and taste, and has inspired a generation of timekeepers, Jones' fretwork casts the brushstroke of Tool's sonic painting with a sort of neon grey hue, at times full and round, then funky and chopped, or shimmering and haunted — but all original.
In fact, Jones' creativity was not bound to the music. He is also an accomplished video director, animator, makeup artist and set designer, and has worked on household-name films such as Jurassic Park and Terminator 2.
"Adam, who is an amazing artist, showed me the technique of scribbling on Polaroids while they are developing to get unique colors and designs," says Massy. "We took dozens of Polaroids during the sessions, and I continued to make these types of Polaroid art portraits during my later sessions with Johnny Cash, Tom Petty, Rick Rubin, and System Of A Down. The Polaroid documents from these sessions are some of my greatest personal treasures."
One of the most transfixing and intense moments on Undertow comes in the middle of the song "Bottom" where a new voice enters like a new inmate in your cell — the unmistakable voice of Rollins.
"[Rollins Band] had done shows with Tool in America in 1992. Later that year, Maynard asked me to write something and put it on the song 'Bottom,' which I did," recalls Rollins. "It was a few takes and then I was out of there."
"Henry's performance was hair-raising, and every vein popped out of his neck as he barked his poetry into the floor," says Massy. "That's how he and Maynard both perform — bending over and facing the floor, basically spewing words into the microphone. Using a handheld mic is the only way to capture the great performances from these guys. The illustration of the "De-evolution Of Vocals" that I drew for my Recording Unhinged book describes Henry's vomitus singing technique."
Illustration: Courtesy of Sylvia Massy
In a way, Rollins' appearance on the album also symbolized Tool's baptism into the fires of the public eye, as within a year both Rollins Band and Tool would have popular videos on MTV. The stop-motion videos for "Sober" and "Prison Sex," both directed by Jones, left an inescapable and disturbing imprint on the fresh eyes and ears stumbling upon Tool for the first time.
A quarter-century later, the horror of these videos may not ignite the same shock level in modern viewers, considering how far the extreme genres of music and film have taken the art form. But the cohesive imagery still perfectly expresses the music's frustration and volatility. As is the case with any tried-and-true classic album, one wonders if Undertow sounded just as urgent, as powerful and as timeless upon initial completion.
"At the time the album was finished and mixed, we listened back and thought, 'Well, it doesn't sound like anything else, but we like it,'" says Massy. "Undertow was made without trying to follow anyone else's lead. That is why it endures to this day. And for me it was a milestone in my career. It was when people started knocking on my door, instead of the other way around. It's been 25 years since Tool's Undertow was released, yet I still get messages from Tool fans about it. It made an impact on a lot of people."
One could argue that Undertow did as much to push the craft of recording forward as it did to make household names out of the band. As Rollins put it, "It's a perfect record." For Massy, it marked the birth of a new approach to what's possible in the recording studio.
"It was there in those sessions that the idea of 'Recording Unhinged' began, when we destroyed the pianos and dragged in street musicians to play on the record," says Massy. "I resolved to break the rules on every recording session from that point on, and I have kept my word."
Photo: Keith Baugh/Getty Images
How meaningful must an album be to resurrect and redefine a career as big as Bob Dylan's? How well-crafted must it be to best Paul McCartney, Babyface and Radiohead for the Album Of The Year GRAMMY, spawn hits for Garth Brooks and Adele in the decade to come, and set the sonic bar for modern classics? Time Out Of Mind accomplished all of this.
From early in his career, the mere concept of a new Dylan album had become akin to the old paradoxical riddle: Could God create a stone so heavy that he cannot lift it?
Yet Dylan painted a masterpiece with Time Out Of Mind, an astonishing feat considering how much darkness found its way into this shining moment in his career, how much magic came out in moments of chaotic mishap and given the fact that the album almost didn't come out at all.
"The first time I heard Time Out Of Mind it annoyed me that somebody as exalted as Bob Dylan should parade his misery so blatantly," admits singer/songwriter Robyn Hitchcock, a devout Dylan disciple "Was his life really that wretched, after all he'd achieved, and all the adulation that had come his way?"
By 1997, Dylan hadn't released an album of new original songs in seven years, an unprecedented span for such a prolific artist. His career had already weathered several commercial and critical lulls and resurgences, all the while the man himself continued his "Never Ending Tour," perpetually placing him in front of audiences that so revered him, yet became increasingly fickle as Dylan's perceived heyday distanced.
"Dylan has a way of making his misery connect with your misery, no matter how remote his life may be from most people's," says Hitchcock. "After hearing the record a couple of times, it began to manifest as his latest meditation on loss. To me, loss has always been Dylan's motor: from 'Girl From The North Country' to 'Visions Of Johanna' to 'You're A Big Girl Now' to 'Ring Them Bells' —the terrible acknowledgement that all we love must drain away from us like sand in an hour glass."
At that time, his last successful stint in the studio was for 1989's Oh Mercy, a comeback in its own right. Produced by Daniel Lanois (U2, Peter Gabriel, Robbie Robertson) and engineered by Mark Howard (Tom Waits, Johnny Cash, Neil Young), Oh Mercy had a "two guys on a back porch … kind of vibe," as Lanois described it in a 2011 interview.
That team had worked well together, and in August 1996 Dylan returned to Lanois and Howard to mix a live recording from the House of Blues in Atlanta. Dylan came by to oversee the final mixes at a studio installation they'd built in Oxnard, Calif., called Teatro. There Dylan began to share song ideas with Lanois and shape new sounds at the mixing board next to Howard.
As is the case many times in the studio, a small experiment led to the happy accident that provided one of the most important ingredients to the sonic stew of Time Out Of Mind: Dylan's gritty vocal tone.
"I finished this House of Blues recording and I was on the last mix of that when Bob said, 'I play harmonica on this next track. … Is there any way you can make it sound electric?'" recalls Howard. "I said, 'Yes.' So I pumped it through a little [Ibanez] Tube Screamer distortion pedal and then, bam, ran it through a little amp and when the harmonica came on it sounded amazing. Like this old, dirty, Little Walter kind of blues sound."
"Then right after the harmonica stuff," Howard says, "his voice came through the mic and then he heard his voice come through with this distortion all over it. He said, 'I love it.'"
That heavily distorted vocal tone became the signature sound of Time Out Of Mind, and it matched the material perfectly.
"So we were ready to start and then Bob said, 'You know, I can't work this close to home, with the family here. I get distracted,'" says Howard. "'Want to go somewhere else? Let's go to Miami.' Miami was the furthest point away."
Miami's legendary Criteria Studios was promptly booked, the site that housed such landmark recordings as Derek & The Dominos' "Layla," Bob Marley's "Could You Be Loved," the Eagles' "Hotel California," and even the Bee Gees, "Stayin' Alive."
The stage was set to cut a classic, but something was not right.
"I packed up a truck and I brought all the preamps and little neat side consoles and all the gear I was using," Howard says. "Unfortunately, Criteria, it didn't sound good in there, where at the Teatro I was getting this amazing sound. … So I got spooked at the time. I said, 'Bob, it just doesn't sound good here.'
"So I called the Bee Gees and see if they would let us use their studio and they came back with, 'No.'"
Criteria was ultimately bought two years after the making of Time Out Of Mind, revamped and reopened as the Hit Factory Criteria Miami. But Howard had to think and act quickly.
"I ended up building a studio like a little apartment in there, for Bob where … he could retreat to write lyrics and that was in the main room," Howard continued. "He refused to wear headphones, so he just heard his voice coming out of that little amp while recording … and then the band in the room. So that's how it was tracked."
"Every day, 4 o'clock. There was like 15 people pulling in the room all at once," says Howard. Many great players contributed, from drummers Jim Keltner and Brian Blade to multi-instrumentalists Augie Meyers and Jim Dickinson, plus the other road-tested musicians in Dylan's band.
But this many creative forces in one room can create challenges. The engineer's seat behind the console often provides a pragmatic vantage point to reign it all in, but that view can also accentuate the chaos, the way racecars blur by from a fixed front-row seat in the grandstand.
"It was kind of scary because Bob writes on typewriter," Howard recalls. "So on every take he would change the key. So for a musician to change the key, right into the next take, sometimes it's like relearning the whole song. People would be strumming and missing chords and it was quite messy."
According to Howard, some of the takes got pretty far out, but once the musicians gelled, it was up to him to work quickly to get a mix together.
"On a song like 'Love Sick' I put a little flange on Bob's voice with the delay and with the distortion amp so his voice came back and it sounded amazing in the control room, in the playback. So I would print my mix every time I would play it back, because I play it back for the band it's kind of a performance I'm doing for the band, and I'm making moves and doing all the solo rises and stuff like that. … And that song, 'Love Sick', that's the mix that's on the record from that playback. It was one or two of those tracks that I could never better. They just went on the record like that. They were mixed on the spot."
"I don't even remember what I came here to get away from," Dylan sings in the album's dark, truthful centerpiece, "Not Dark Yet," a song that grieves, ponders and moans, transmitting its confessions across the most fundamental frequencies of the heart.
Hitchcock performed his own haunting version in 2005 at a Dylan-themed event with Led Zeppelin's John Paul Jones Joining him on mandolin.
"'Not Dark Yet' was the song that drew me into the record as I sat in my hotel room in Seattle at dusk in August 1997 and watched 50 TV networks announce that Princess Diana had died," says Hitchcock. "It pinpoints on the map where you are between what you have already lost and what you still have to lose; set in an airless, transient desert town where you keep finding yourself but where nobody belongs."
Indeed, the painful gravity of "Not Dark Yet" is both some of Dylan's finest and bleakest work. Or as Hitchcock puts it, "From the man who wrote 'The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll' and 'Chimes Of Freedom,' the line 'My sense of humanity has gone down the drain' is a stark confession."
Back when Lanois and Howard were still working at Teatro, "Can't Wait" was one of the first songs Dylan brought in. "He plays it on piano in this gospel-type of arrangement, Howard says. "Tony Mangurian, who was there helping out, [with] kinda more drum loop type stuff, he played like a hip-hop beat against it. … It was this mixture of hip-hop and gospel and it was amazing. Made the hair on my arms go up."
But by the time they got to Criteria, that vibe was gone. The song became the album's greatest challenge, according to Howard. The onset of "demo-itis," mixed with a cast of musicians all trying their hand at capturing the right feel, made finishing "Can't Wait" an illusive task.
"We ended up cutting different versions of it," says Howard. "There was one called 'the Ragdoll version' and there was one called 'the Pink Floyd version' and then there was yet another version."
Then disaster struck.
"We were moving at a fast pace and we kept on going back and forth and … I was working on analog tape. I hit the locator on the tape machine and it located to where I thought was clean tape but it was actually the beginning of take two, so I punched record and just erased slightly over the intro. So they listen to it and say, 'No, that's not it.' And they went up to do more takes and they came back in and said, 'Let's hear that take two again.' And I'm like, 'Oh, s***.'"
Naturally, this did not go over well. Though Lanois was not happy, Howard quickly came up with a workable solution.
"I said, 'OK, everybody out of the control room.' And what I did is I took the top of 'the Pink Floyd version' and stuck it on the body of 'the Ragdoll version' and it ended up Bob loved that a lot better. … It was just one of those things where you think your career is over, then it's the best thing in the world."
The album's marathon finale, "Highlands," a 16-minute-plus reverie in which Dylan goes "drifting scene to scene," saw another brush with happenstance — a moment where the song, the album, the studio, the equipment, and the story all seemed to become one.
"It was 2-inch 24-track" Howard recalls. "Usually on a single a reel, you only can only get 12 or 14 minutes, but I had these big, 14-inch reels, so I could get 16 minutes."
This was crucial as "Highlands" turned out to be the longest song in Dylan's catalog at 16:31.
"The band's playing on top of the loop … right at the very end the tape ran out, right at the right second, so it was unbelievable. … [Dylan] was just always flying by the seat of his pants. I'm not sure if he was expecting the roll to run out or whatever. But he just kept going 'til it ended."
The poetic drone of "Highlands" serves as a fitting end to an album that holds the listener in a reflective trance just long enough to, as Dylan sings, "feel further away than ever before."
"There's actually two takes of 'Highlands,'" says Howard, who is plotting a book of his tales in the studio with the likes of Dylan, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, and Neil Young. "So this was the one that went on the record but there's also another one floating out there that I'm sure will be put out another time on a Bob bootleg record somewhere."
Even with an album like Time Out Of Mind in the can, Dylan seemed unsatisfied, and the album's fate was uncertain.
"Once everybody left Miami, Bob took a cassette with him and Lanois didn't even want to hear it," Howard reveals. "I didn't think the record was gonna come out. And then months later, I get a phone call from Bob in the middle of the night, he goes, 'Hey Mark, what do you think? Do we got a record here?' [I said,] 'Yeah, let's finish it.' He goes, 'Ah, I don't know.'
"So I don't hear from him again for another month or so and then he calls me back up and he goes, 'Mark, you know, I was playing the record for my friend in his apartment building and the weirdest thing happened where the guy from downstairs, he came upstairs and he knocked on the door. And my friend answers the door and he goes, 'What are you guys listening to?' He goes, 'My friend's music, his work.' 'Can I buy it? I gotta have this, this is amazing.' "So essentially this guy's neighbor convinced him to go back there and finish the record. Otherwise, the record may have never came out."
Fortunately, Time Out Of Mind was released on Sept. 30, 1997. Although this was before the Recording Academy awarded a GRAMMY to the lead engineer in the Album Of The Year category, Dylan thanked Howard by name in his acceptance speech, saying, "We got a particular type of sound on this record, which you don't get every day."
"I think because it was mostly just me and Bob at the console," Howard says with the warm modesty of faithful teammate. "I put in a lot of elbow grease on it and saw it to the end."
Howard continues to get calls from artists such as Tom Waits and Marianne Faithful because of his work on Time Out Of Mind and his ability to adapt various spaces for recording. "I'm the great floating installation guy," he said,. "This AirBnb thing has become an amazing asset because I just rent big houses... I just finished a record with this guy from Israel, his name is Asaf Avidan and he's the Bob Dylan of Israel. He's an amazing writer."
Producer/engineer Mark Howard
That the world was ready enough for Time Out Of Mind in 1997 to shower it with critical praise and accolades is a testament to Dylan's dexterity for handling even the most cynical and broken of his emotions through song.
"Beneath his cruelty, his hilarity, his timing, and the words that spring to his mouth lie loss, and a sadness inconsolable," says Hitchcock. "Which keeps him true, whether your heart's broken or the end of the world is back on the cards again."
"It's kind of like a wine. It gets better with age," says Howard. "In the beginning I was very embarrassed by it. Before it even won any GRAMMYs or whatever, I felt technically that the record was not up to par … but now when I listen to it, it sounds like a masterpiece. Beautiful, the songs are incredible."
For all of Time Out Of Mind's rough edges and dark corners, Dylan lets in enough light to lift these timeless songs from the bottomless despair, or as he puts it best in lyric form: "Behind every beautiful thing, there's been some kind of pain."
And what about Dylan himself — the man who said at the end of 1965 when he'd released "Like A Rolling Stone" that it was "the best song I wrote" — how did he feel these songs stacked up?
"While we were working down there," says Howard, "and I was trying to get songs out of him, he goes, 'Well I've got the good songs at home, I'm not gonna give you those.'"
For Keith Abrahamsson, A&R of Brooklyn-based indie music label Mexican Summer, music and surf go hand-in-hand.
Music colliding with visuals of epic surf left an impression on him from an early age as a fan of '70s and '80s heavily scored surf films like Crystal Voyager, the Australian film that follows surfer George Greenough on his quest in search of the perfect surf spot. "I think there's always been a really crucial marriage," he says on a phone call with the Recording Academy. "Music was such a crucial driving force to those moving images."
In a new feature film, Abrahamsson, who founded Mexican Summer with Andres Santo Domingo in 2008, wants you to escape to the place where surf and music intrinsically meet: the ocean.
Inspired by the spirit of the films he grew up watching, Abrahamsson's label joined forces with New York based surf shop Pilgrim Surf + Supply, owned by Abrahamsson's friend and film director Chris Gentile, to embark on a journey with eight surfers and 16 musicians. Filmed in Mexico, the Maldives, Iceland, Brooklyn and Los Angeles, the film captures how surfers find their epic wave and interact with local culture, and how musicians, Mexican Summer artists and friends, including Allah-Las, Connan Mockasin, Andrew VanWyngarden of MGMT and Peaking Lights, score the real-time surf.
Poetically narrarated by the late avant-garde filmmaker Jonas Mekas, the film aims to "Really capture the essence of that location with the music and the way in which it was shot," Abrahamsson says. At the same time the film expands some of the genres that may be associated with surf: "We didn't really take much inspiration from that particular aesthetic of surf rock. I think we wanted to expand it a little bit."
Before the film premieres in Los Angeles at The Palace Theatre on June 15 and the original soundtrack is released on June 14, the Recording Academy spoke with Abrahamsson, about the film's concept, surf music, environmentalism and more.
How did this project come about? And why surfing?
I skated a lot coming up as a kid. I never really surfed when I was younger, but I was always turned on by the surf aesthetic, specifically the soundtracks. You know, a lot of the more classic films that were coming out in the '70s and '80s, those soundtracks had a lot of appeal to me. Then I started surfing probably about five or so years ago. So I'm a fairly new surfer, but the music had always resonated with me from those films. I worked with a lot of artists who are also surfers. Then I became friends with Chris Gentile who directed the film and also owns his own surf company called Pilgrim.
[The idea for the film] kind of just organically happened. I had taken a trip to Nicaragua with a bunch of musicians and some surfers with the idea of making a film. This trip didn't end up being part of what ended up being this self-discovery film. We took this inaugural trip to Nicaragua, it was kind of disaster. It ended up being ... one disaster after the next while we were down there. We didn't end up really using any of that footage ... We knew we wanted to still make the film, so we just decided that we had to recalibrate things a little bit. I talked to Chris, he knew about the project. We talked a little bit more about it and decided that it would be great for him to get involved in it. Then we really ... rejigged the concept. We just expanded the idea a bunch more together and it became this bigger, more ambitious project once he got involved.
You mentioned you got into surfing and you also really liked the music. Can you talk about some of the soundtracks or songs that really spoke to you?
We've actually reissued a bunch of these soundtracks on our anthology. But a lot of the usual suspects that people who are surfing would know about: Morning Of The Earth, Five Summer Stories, Pacific Vibrations, Crystal Voyager. I mean, I could go on and on.
I wanted to talk about surf rock because I feel like that's what a lot of people think of when they think of surfing and music. Did it inspire it or did it inform the film at all?
Not really, no. I would say surf rock —in the more traditional way people think of it like when they think of adventures or music that you might have heard in Endless Summer which is incredible music, and we love Bruce Brown and everything that he did—we didn't really take much inspiration from that particular aesthetic of surf rock. I think we wanted to expand it a little bit. I think one of the bands that contributes to the soundtrack, the Allah-Las, they have a little bit more of a classic sound. More instrumental. More jangly kind of stuff. But it goes much further out, I would say. There's a lot of more ambient music. There's stuff that's more adventurous, more experimental pop writing, more traditional dance-oriented stuff with Peaking Lights. So it's a mixed bag of styles that we incorporate across the film. I would say we tried to step away from the more traditional surf rock thing.
For people that aren't familiar with surf culture and its relationship to music, how big of presence is music in surfing?
It's crucial. It's the same thing with like skate videos or classic skiing movies or snowboarding videos. When I was a kid a lot of the music I got into was through skateboarding videos. A lot of the punk rock and record labels that I found out about were really via [skate] ... I mean obviously this was pre-internet, too ... that culture was pretty instrumental in introducing me to a lot of music that I may not have otherwise come across. I think the same thing for surf movies throughout the '70s and '80s. One really helps feel the other, I think. There's not that many surf films that were like Endless Summer where there was an actual narrative with dialogue and a narrator. I mean, there was music that was part of that film, but it wasn't as integral a part of it as some of the later more mid-70's and later '70s. And then when you got into the '80s music was such a crucial driving force to those moving images. I guess as a long-winded way of explaining it to you, I think there's always been a really crucial marriage of the audio-visual with those kind of action-sports films. If that's what you want to call them.
The film is about the relationship between music and the waves. I'm wondering what that relationship means to you.
That's kind of a hard one to answer. I think it's an extension of what I was just saying before more than anything. I feel like when I see surfing or see skateboarding often times I will associate some of those things with music that I've heard in a film in the past. I always ... music is pretty intrinsically tied to these things for me. It always has been since I was a kid. I don't know if that exactly answers what the relationship means to me, but they just seem very ... like they're married. They're like one. One entity almost.
Is it kind of like the soundtrack to what you're doing type of thing?
Yeah, I guess so. I think a lot of people who grew up either skating or surfing or whatever would probably say the same thing. Maybe you even, if you're out there, you might even think of part of movie that you might have grown up watching. Or a certain song or something. I feel it just becomes part of you in a way.
You went to Mexico, you went to the Maldives, and Iceland in the film . Why these places?
We wanted to really strike some pretty distinct environmental differences with each of the places. I think a lot of people think when they think of surf locations, you kind of think like beautiful beaches ... like Windex color waves breaking. That's cool, the Maldives definitely had that vibe, but I think we were really interested in having a different flavor every trip. That kind of translated across everything. I think we wanted the environment and the waves to feel specific. We wanted the music for that particular location to feel specific. The camera shots. The edits. Everything ... So there's three vignettes in the film, and I think each vignette we wanted to just really give it a very distinct film that matched that particular location. When we were in Iceland it was very by design that we went there. We used a lot of drone footage. A lot of wide-panning crazy shots of the landscape. It's a little bit more bleak because Iceland the time of year we were there, that's just what it was, it was cold. It was kind of rainy a lot of the time. I think Connan Mockasin and Andrew VanWyngarden's soundtrack really reflects that feeling. I think we wanted to mirror that across all three vignettes. Really capture the essence of that location with the music and the way in which it was shot.
I went to Puerto Rico recently and as I was landing there was a whole bunch of plastic in the water. Is there any message you wanted to send involving environmentalism and taking care of the water with the film?
We saw the same kind of conditions pretty much everywhere we went. The same thing that you're talking about in Puerto Rico. It's just incredibly upsetting. I think there are a lot of foundations out there doing great things like Save the Waves and Conservation International. We're involved with some of those people on deeper levels, but also they're involved in supporting the film. At its screening and in general we're going to be working with Save the Waves to show the film during their festivals. They're very deeply involved in the conservation of shorelines, trying to do clean up with plastic ... It's not even really a surfing issue, right? It's a human issue. So I think anyone that's involved in ... just alive should care about it, you know? Which I know is not the case across the board but ... It's of course and obviously a very important issue for all of us.
In the film, footage of surfers is shown while the musicians are recording music. Tell me more about that setup.
The intention of that, that's a classic way for people to do scoring. We would go on these trips, you know the musicians came on the trips as well. Afterwards we'd go right into the studio. What we would do, we kind of whipped together this extremely rough cut for them. There was no real sequence, it was just a bunch of rough footage that we through together that could be projected in their space while they were composing material. That's what you're seeing is just them watching the footage and writing. Really the goal was to have him be really immersed in the trip and inspired by that experience, and then take that back with him to the studio. Being able to project the footage was just a way to try to keep them in that moment a little bit.
You wanted each vignette to represent each place you went to. Did you say, "Hey, this is kind of the vibe we had in Mexico, can you bring this out?" Or did you let the artists, the musicians, do their thing?
It was very free. I think we didn't want to bog anybody down with too many parameters. We just wanted the trip to do its work and then let them write whatever felt natural after that, you know?
You've got Peaking Lights involved. Andrew from MGMT. How did all these artists get involved in the documentary?
The majority of them we work with already. Peaking Lights, we worked with them in the past. We've put records out with them before. Connan is on the label. Andrew is ... Allah-Las are on the label. Andrew is just a really close friend of ours. He's played and collaborated with a lot of people on the label. And he's a really avid surfer. It just felt really natural to have him involved. And he and Connan are super close friends, so pairing them together as a writing pair felt pretty natural.
How did Jonas Mekas get involved in the film?
So we have a publishing and print here where we do books as well. It's called Anthology Editions, and we had done a book with him earlier that year. Well, we had been working on it with him for a couple of years. So we kind of had this connection to him. It didn't really occur to us that he would be good for the piece, and then I thought to myself, [to have him involved] would ... add this kind of ... I mean, he's such a legend in his own right in avant-garde cinema ... I think we really wanted to add this extra layer of, "What the f***? This is so weird." And I think it does add that. It just adds this really surreal layer to the film that we were hoping it would. He's got this thick Lithuanian accent and ... I don't know it feels like it fit perfectly. It was always meant to be. It was kind of an eleventh hour thing to be honest.
The film is called Self Discovery For Social Survival. How did you come up with the name?
It's kind of a mouthful, isn't it? Yeah. I just call it "Self Discovery", I never say the whole thing ... It just felt appropriate giving the times that we live in. I think given the times, not like we're trying to make some grand political statement because that is not what we're about, but I think we wanted to give people something escapist. Something that they could watch and hopefully attach themselves to. And see some of these waves and feel inspired and be like, "Oh, maybe I could do that. That doesn't look totally life threatening and crazy." That was a big part of what we wanted to do, and I think ... Yeah, giving people just a little piece of escapism in this time we live in.
What do you hope viewers get out of the documentary?
The trips themselves were taken in such small windows. The way in which surf films are made, obviously, you're at the mercy of nature to cooperate and deliver you good conditions. I think we were really lucky to walk into each of these situations with ten-day windows, basically, with each of the trips and to get usable footage. So I think what we really wanted in the end was to create something that was going to moving and that would make us feel like we accomplished what we set out to do. I think also important to note that having Jonas Mekas narrate the project was very surreal and a dream. It was one of the last projects he worked on before he passed away, so that was amazing. I think all around we just wanted it to be a very collaborative and creatively fulfilling project, and I think that we got that for sure.
Self Discovery For Social Survival is out digitally on June 18 and available for pre-order now at iTunes.