Mick Guzauski: Why Daft Punk's 'Random Access Memories' Was Geek Heaven
Mix engineer Mick Guzauski unveiled a surprise during his intimate GRAMMY SoundTables event at Chicago’s Old Town School Of Folk Music on Nov 8. As part of his two-hour-long onstage conversation with fellow engineer Matt Hennessey, the studio legend presented a few of his mix sessions on a projection screen. That demonstration itself showed why he has a shelf of GRAMMY Awards spanning jazz, rock, R&B and electronic dance music. As Guzauski called up Pro Tools to analyze the layers of Barry Gibb’s “Gray Ghost” — detailing how much reverb on the lead vocals, the exact amount of processing on the drums — he distilled his approach.
“I try to be a minimalist,” Guzauski said. “If it sounds good, I don’t mess with it.”
California-based Guzauski’s affable and low-key statements throughout the night showed how far his humble devotion to helping create high-quality sound has taken him throughout a career that has spanned nearly 50 years. As Hennessey questioned him about his work with the likes of Dionne Warwick, Daft Punk and Earth, Wind & Fire, Guzauski discussed how he adapted to evolving studio technology, but also showed that his key tools have always been an extraordinary pair of ears.
For Guzauski, a life in engineering recordings came from being a child who loved listening to albums and looking at hi-fi catalogs. That turned into a teenage employment in a sound equipment and record store in Rochester, N.Y., during the late 1960s where he obtained an Ampex tape recorder, a Shure mixer and Neumann U 67 tube microphones (valued vintage equipment nowadays; frequently discarded back then). Despite Hennessey’s enthusiasm, Guzauski laughs at the mixed results of his initial forays. Still, with the Eastman School Of Music nearby, his city had a thriving jazz scene and one musician he befriended was Chuck Mangione. They worked together on live dates during the early and mid-1970s and the trumpeter offered an invitation to record him in a Los Angeles studio. The particular challenges for the young engineer included that it was to tape Mangione’s 45-piece orchestra.
“It was scary,” Guzauski said. “He liked to do everything live. But we pulled it off and went from there.”
Still, it took a little while for Guzauski to help craft a hit record for Mangione. That came in 1978 with the smash “Feels So Good.” After Hennessey played the famous track, he asked Guzauski if they knew at the time how big it would become.
“It was one of those records where we knew something would happen,” Guzauski said. “And I got to experiment a little bit on it—I’m proud of the way I used reverb.”
Such success opened doors and Guzauski found himself increasingly busy in Los Angeles’ studio scene during the latter 1970s and early 1980s. He referred to working with Earth, Wind And Fire as well as its longtime engineer George Massenburg as, “a great experience—all of their consoles were built from the ground up.” After Hennessey played the band’s 1981 post-disco hit, “Let’s Groove,” Guzauski detailed how they used compression and other techniques to make the handclaps sound distinctive. Still, he had a lighter anecdote about the recording of Warwick’s 1985 “That’s What Friends Are For.”
"Stevie Wonder did his vocals at the very end,” Guzauski said. “And he snuck in the line, ‘Can I borrow some money?’”
After Tommy Mottola became head of Sony Music, he brought Guzauski back to New York in the 1990s to work on such star projects as Mariah Carey’s albums. Using his favored Solid State Logic consoles, he built his own studio in Mount Kisco, N.Y. At this time, Guzauski recorded more Latin artists, like Alejandro Sanz, and Hennessey added how adept he was at also shifting into synthesizer-based R&B.
“It was interesting,” Guzauski responded. “But it didn’t take me long to miss real, live music.”
Most of their discussion centered on his lengthy successes, but the conversation also touched on difficult times that Guzauski endured not long ago. He mentioned that with the ascent of Internet-based streaming services, “budgets just dropped.” A timespan between 2004 and 2013 yielded little work opportunities.
But Guzauski eventually triumphed when Daft Punk hired him to mix its wildly popular 2013 electronic dance album Random Access Memories. After Hennessey asked about who would pay for an expensive session “in a post-Napster era,” Guzauski said the group funded the recording, which brought in a multi-layered range of live dates tracked to Pro Tools and analog consoles. He could also go back to his love for the sound of half-inch tape.
"This was geek heaven,” Guzauski said of the session. The engineers, producers, musicians and audiophiles in his GRAMMY audience at the Old Town School applauded in affirmation.