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The Studio Owner: Paul Wickliffe

The Studio Owner: Paul Wickliffe
B.D. Lenz By

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It is possible to engineer the humanity out of a recording. With all the tools available to fine-tune a performance, knowing when to stop is a learned skill.... just because you can doesn't mean you should. —Paul Wickliffe
I remember a period of time around ten to fifteen years ago when I was constantly being propositioned by musician friends and audio wannabes to do some recording in their basements. It seemed that with the advent of home recording software, overnight, everyone had become an audio engineer. But after many recording sessions over the years, in studios of all types, I've come to truly value the opportunities to work with experienced professionals and have come to appreciate the art that is recording and mixing. A top level engineer "plays" their studio like a master musician plays their instrument and, undoubtedly, it makes a difference in the quality of a recording.

Paul Wickliffe is one of those master engineers who can turn his technical knowledge of acoustics and physics into art. He's Grammy-nominated and has worked on thousands of recordings in all genres, but has become particularly sought after in the jazz world. I had the opportunity to interview Paul and get his perspective on a field that has changed dramatically in the many years that he's been a part of it. He shared with me insights into making great sounding recordings as well as how musicians can capture that perfect take.

About Paul Wickliffe

A graduate of NYU film school, Paul Wickliffe has been an audio engineer since 1975. He was the President, Chief Engineer, and Founder of Skyline Studios in New York from 1979 to 1994 where he earned over a thousand commercial recording credits in all genres of music. He later sold Skyline Studios to open Skyline Productions in Warren New Jersey but continued to partner with other studios. He's designed eight commercial studios, was nominated for a Grammy for Best Engineered Recording in 1985 for Modern Manners by Special EFX, and was a five-time TEC Award nominee for Outstanding Institutional Achievement for Skyline Studios.

All About Jazz: How did you get into audio engineering?

Paul Wickliffe: I started buying records at age nine with money from a paper route. In sixth grade, the Beatles landed and naturally I started playing drums in a band. My father was a microwave engineer for Bell Laboratories: he was on the crew that set up the coast-to-coast TV networks and Telstar. Most of our relationship was discussing electronics over dinner. Before long, I had gotten a tape recorder, built a crude mixer from parts, bought some cheap mics out of the Allied catalogue, and started recording area bands in the basement. Needless to say, that didn't go over well with the folks and they sent me off to boarding school where the only making of music was singing hymns in chapel. I dropped music for a while and took up photography instead. Fast forward to finishing NYU Film School and living in the Greenwich Village, I got bit by the bug again. I moved to 28th St, built an eight track room in a loft, and starting doing publishing demos for Brill Building songwriters, among other things. Although I went to college to learn filmmaking, audio was self-taught. I adapted the aesthetic production concepts I learned at NYU in my work to this day.

AAJ: You opened up Skyline Studios in NYC in the '70s. What was the scene like at that time?

PW: It was the golden age of the studio musician. Those who were successful were not the brilliant soloists, but the team players, who were adaptable, knew many genres, could read the charts, and tell the best jokes. The eight-track room (Studio 28) had a house band. Songwriters wrote tunes to order in a Brill Building cubicle in the morning, would play the song to the band at lunch, and we would crank out a record in the genre like the artist who initially requested the tune by end of day. This was way before MIDI and the only sweetening keys around were an Arp String Ensemble and a Prophet 5. We also did jingle demos, music for Sesame Street and Nickelodeon, and jazz nights and weekends.

Soon there was plenty of work, so in 1979 we moved up to 37th St. and built Skyline Studios, which started as a sixteen-track and went to twenty-four track a year later. Then we started doing more straight up pop records, disco, punk, jazz, whatever. Everyone we hired had to play an instrument and understand the teamwork in both making a band work and making records. There were no audio schools. We trained all employees from their path as interns to full engineers. The most vital parts of the trade can't be learned in a classroom, which is why the demise of the studio system is a great loss to the art.

AAJ: Why did you eventually leave Skyline and New York City to work out of your home?

PW: By 1994, Skyline had grown into a three-room studio occupying ten thousand square feet off of Fifth Avenue, with a full time staff of eighteen with benefits, and bank notes on gear over a million dollars. Between rent, payroll, loans, insurance, and so on, my monthly nut was $90,000. before I got paid. In the '80s, musicians made records in the studio with large budgets, advertising made their own jingles, and I had a client who booked one of the rooms fifty weeks a year for seven years, Nile Rogers. By 1993, the suits at the label realized they could make hip-hop records for a fraction of traditional pop record budgets, advertisers realized they could license old pop songs to sell their products instead of making jingles, and Nile built a studio in his house in Connecticut, not to mention there was a recession. There were also rate wars and those who only needed "two turntables and a microphone" sought out the cheapest rates. I saw the direction of the industry and I was faced with the choice of lowering my level of service or going out on top. I chose the latter, and Power Station, the top studio in NYC at the time followed my lead a year later.

AAJ: You've worked in nearly all genres of music. Is there a reason you've done so much work in the jazz world?

PW: I've always loved jazz. When I was a kid, I would listen to Dr. Billy Taylor when he was a DJ on WLIB-FM in New York in the '60s. He would play Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Modern Jazz Quartet, Cal Tjader, Sergio Mendes. Twenty years later, I got to record a Billy Taylor record for GRP and thank him personally for being my music professor. At about the mid-'80s, pop music was getting more mechanized (MIDI) and much of the interaction and camaraderie among musicians I enjoyed in the production process devolved into one guy at a time staring at a screen. I had received an Engineering Grammy Nomination in 1985 for a jazz fusion record with the band Special EFX. So I started getting and accepting more calls for jazz records. I got into recording because I loved watching the band play, the interaction of the creative process, and creating the optimum environment for capturing lightning in a bottle. The sophistication of the music, the interaction of the players, and the spontaneity of the performance was way more stimulating than cranking out a formula pop tune. When I started doing dates where the player's hair was better than their chops, I left pop behind.

AAJ: Are there any peculiarities you've found in making jazz records?

PW: If anything, they are more "normal" to me. Jazz done right is everyone listening to each other and being in the moment, where as pop production was turning into a one at a time collaboration. There are some consistencies with multiple takes that as the heads get better, the blowing gets worse. Very often I will carve the heads from the later takes on the blowing sections of the first takes. Players feel compelled not to repeat their solos so they drift away from their first instincts and start thinking too much.

In a live environment, a soloist swings for the fences and if they strike out, they will likely get another turn at bat. On a record, the pressure is on and "red light syndrome" can be a problem. The trick is for players to learn to stay out of their own way. It takes a tremendous amount of intellectual horsepower to solo over changes. You have a constantly evolving harmonic structure at tempo, yet you have to free-associate over this moving structure and coordinate limbs, lips, and fingers to pull it off. The last thing you need to do is divide your attention by critiquing your own solo as you play. If you hit the wrong semitone, turn it into a passing tone and move on. Free your mind and feel the flow. If you can't do that, write out a solo and master it.

But whatever you do, go for the emotional content of the music, not the intellectual. Music is the international language that crosses all tongues, because of its ability to express emotion. It's the most powerful tool in the toolbox. I can always tell a younger player who is determined to impress with his technical prowess verses the seasoned player who can say more with one note than sixteen. I've often said, "A politician uses many words to say nothing and a poet uses a few words to say everything. Decide who you want to be."

AAJ: How do you approach mixing?

PW: What I learned in film school is that you have to create depth on a flat screen to make the image believable. You shoot into corners with a vanishing point, you light the subject from behind to separate them from the background, you force perspective with depth of field, etc. So since jazz is real instruments played in real space, I visualize the staging when I mix: who is center stage with the white spot and who is upstage in the blue wash. So how does a blind man see with sound? There are four characteristics that define acoustic space.

First is the inverse square law of acoustics meaning basically, the closer you are to a sound source, the louder it is. The second is the damping effect of air, meaning high frequencies are absorbed by air first so the farther away you get from a sound source, the darker it sounds. Third is which ear hears the sound first or louder, which will determine the location in the panorama. Lastly, is the influence of room acoustics, the closer the sound source is, the dryer or less reverb you will hear as reverb creates distance.

By manipulating, these four characteristics, you can create a natural environment for the musicians to play in when you stage a mix realistically. Making wide stereo images like sticking your head inside the piano or acoustic guitar may work well for a solo recording, but doesn't help the imaging of a band playing together on stage. Jazz is real and deserves to be recorded that way. As far as dynamics, if players are truly listening to each other, they control their own dynamics and I don't need to do much. Active mixing is more prominent in over- active arrangements. Like in film, an arranger or conductor should direct the listener to the most vital parts of the story. If they don't, the engineer has to help. Successful orchestration should sound like a conversation, not an argument or a crowded party.

Lastly there is the concept of spectral balance. If an arranger writes a tune for tuba, acoustic bass, bass clarinet, and timpani, it's not the engineer's fault if it sounds muddy, but the engineer has to find ways to enhance the overtone series to make the recording work. Learning which instruments stick out in the best places of the audio spectrum is a vital part of mixing. Given that middle C is 262 Hz, there will be a lot of build-up of tonal fundamentals in that area. Some instruments need the warmth that area provides and some may sound muddy. This is where equalization can help by creating spectral balance to the recording overall and when done correctly, EQ should be used to cut problem areas first before amplifying the good areas for the best results. There is a great deal to learn about acoustics and the physics of sound that musicians should study before attempting to engineer their own recordings.

AAJ: Many engineers and audiophiles still swear by analog and tape. What's your opinion about the digital revolution?

PW: I love it. I recorded analog for twenty-five years. I know what analog does and can recreate it digitally. The characteristics of non-linear tape saturation is that high frequencies get compressed first; therefore as the sound gets louder, it gets warmer, not harsher. Analog also rounds out impulse peaks, which raw digital cannot. However, if you pass the mix through a tape-saturation simulator, an analog buss compressor, and a five-pound iron-matching transformer, voila -you get the same sonic hysteresis as analog tape without the tape expense and maintenance headaches. In 2000, I walked away from consoles and tape machines and do everything "in the box." The band walks in, I pull up a template, and they are ready for the first take in fifteen minutes.

But thanks to Covid, most of my gigs now are mixing and being able to do remote mixing has been a life-saver. My last gig was mixing and mastering a septet record recorded in the Ukraine for trumpet player Dennis Adu, mixed entirely over email. Since everything is stored in software, making subtle modifications to mixes is remarkably easy compared to resetting analog hardware. When it comes to the power of editing, there is no comparison. Ultimately for the musicians, they are getting better results faster for a fraction of the cost and if you can't make digital sound good, you're doing it wrong.

AAJ: With so many musicians having studios and workstations at home, what has that meant for you?

PW: Well, you can't order forty years of experience from Sweetwater. Like all aspects of music, engineering and producing takes study and chops and that doesn't come in the box with the instructions. Most of the time, home recording musicians take the work as far as they can, then hand it to me to make it sound like a record. Even when they mix and they want me to master it, I will initially consult on mix tweaks before I master. Mastering can only do so much; I can make improvements, but not walk on water. Most folks doing their own recordings have no producer and they need a second set of ears to catch the things they're not listening for.

AAJ: Do you have any advice to musicians with regards to the recording process that you've learned over the years?

PW: It is possible to engineer the humanity out of a recording. With all the tools available to fine-tune a performance, knowing when to stop is a learned skill. My most often used phrase in the studio is "just because you can, doesn't mean you should." In other words, focus on the soul and emotional content of the performance, not on its flaws. Imagine you are standing before the Venus de Milo statue in the Louvre and up walks the sculptor Alexandros of Antioch. You tell him how beautiful it is and all he can say is, "Can't you see, she's got no arms!"

Also, learn about mic placement. For every instrument, there is a sweet spot that will produce the most balanced sound and a soul-mate microphone that will enhance the good parts and minimize the bad parts. People made great sounding recording for decades without equalizers, just by putting the right mics in the right places. Be consistent; if you are going to mic drums inches away, don't mic cymbals feet away. Watch the phase and imaging. If you are going to "stereo mic" something, make sure you get a center image of the instrument. I can't tell you how many times I've gotten a recording of an acoustic piano where you hear low notes left and high notes right, but the center disappears. That is not what you hear when you sit at the piano!

If you don't know what a phase meter is, avoid mixing instruments in stereo until you find one. Those of us who made vinyl records might have learned about phase the hard way as out of phase content can make the record skip and cause the mastering engineer to put a curse on you!

AAJ: Is it hard to work on a project when you don't like the music much?

PW: I usually try to turn it down. I explain to the client, I'm not the right guy for the job. If I know the client is high maintenance, my calendar "fills up quickly." I try to be professional, not insulting.

AAJ: What project(s) are you most proud of?

PW: I've made well over a thousand LPs/CDs so it's hard to pick one. I've been blessed to work with my musical heroes, media celebrities, and outstanding unknowns. I'm at the stage in my life where I'm looking to give back. I recently worked with arranger Kim Scharnberg on project to help the victims of the Parkland, Florida mass shooting. The Parkland kids wrote a song of hope to channel their grief and had the taken brass bullet casings to build a trumpet out of them. We organized seventy musicians on both coasts to feature the trumpet played by the best in the business.

I also recently did a video with the Lao Tizer Band, all live at Conway Studios in Los Angeles; it's the essence of my thrill, capturing lightning in a bottle.

AAJ: How do you feel about music today and what's your prognosis for the future of audio recording?

PW: It's mixed. The internet and streaming services have made it so that producing recorded music is no longer profitable. The industry has been in depression for more than two decades because of it. There was once a basic screening process with production that limited the amount of marginal material that made it to market. Now with audio technology being ubiquitous, "anyone" can make a record, even those who would be better off staying in the shed for a while. I had a discussion with Dave Liebman a while back when he was complaining that ProTools is making musicians lazy, as it is so easy to fix things. In defense, I said that back in the day, the band could do two weeks at The Five Spot and get their shit tight, then hit hard in the studio. Now, everyone hears the music for the first time in one rehearsal and then has to knock out the record in six hours because they're paying for the recording themselves.

I'm knocked out by some of the young musicians I see and worry they will have a much harder time making a living at it. As far as pop music is concerned, if it doesn't have a melody and at least three chord changes, it ain't music and a turntable is for playing other people's music. There is some clever stuff in EDM, but it is largely as formula as disco was. There is no absence of talent, Jacob Collier comes to mind.

I'm working on a new studio project that will incorporate video seamlessly into the recording process, so clients will be able to stream their session with live six camera video and walk out with an edited video with their rough mixes at the end of the day. With live venues under tremendous stress, this seems to be where it might have to go.

Photo: Courtesy of Paul Wickliffe

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