Tom Lubin has engineered in some of the worlds greatest studios, taught sound, edited a magazine, had a rock and roll hotel, toured the US for Fostex, made instructional videos on recording that are required viewing at many universities… all the while still making records! In ’87 he moved to Oz, and was increasingly involved in film, TV, games, and digital media.
“Deep inside I’m still just a rock and roller that likes to turn the speakers up…” Tom Lubin.
As part of my studio class when I was getting a degree in music, Tom’s instructional videos “Shaping Your Sound” were required viewing. We had to write assignments on the videos just to make sure we had understood all the material Tom covered! If you have ever seen his instructional videos you would know what a huge amount of information and enlightenment Tom gives in just under two hours of footage. He really is a deity in the world of sound. Getting a chance to ask Tom some questions is something I’ve always wanted to do. So here are the questions and the answers!
Thanks again Tom for taking the time to do the interview and making the difference in timezones work for us both!
Interview with Tom Lubin
PILM: How did you get into the music and entertainment business?
T: I’ve always liked sound. When I was 7 or 8, I spent a lot of time with my uncle, and his hobby was fixing up radio’s, and I found it just fascinating; I was really ‘tech-y’ as a kid, always trying to take things apart and figure out how they work. I couldn’t tell you when I first learned to solder two wires together, I just spent lots of time tinkering and trying things out, making stuff. Back then too you could buy kits to build various devices, like an oscilloscope from Hewlett Packard, so I would spend time on projects like that. My uncle also had a wire recorder that I would play with, and he eventually gave it to me. Back then wire recording was more popular, as magnetic recording was only in professional studios and broadcast facilities. So I had this recorder, and I had the patience when the wire would break, I would unravel the ‘fishing line’, tie a knot, and edit that way.
A bit later, the same uncle gave me a record cutter. So I had a record cutter by the age of 10, and once I got into high school, I was working with the tech and communication crews, and the civil defense people of the high school. I had a high school teacher that encouraged me. I accidentally blew up an amplifier at the back of his classroom. Tube amps needed big supplies, so the transformer was one that had oil in it to cool it. It filled the classroom with smoke and it was weeks before the smell went away. He threw me out of his class until I had fixed the amp. It took me a week. I lived near Hollywood so once I was old enough I began calling various studios and asking if I could come by and hang out. And you could back then! There’s so much security now a days. I was pretty fortunate to be able to hang in these studios, and after a little bit of time I started making cables and headphones, and that’s pretty much how it started.
PILM: Was it because of that experience that you foresaw a career in this field?
T: No, I knew pretty much right from the very beginning when I was a kid that I was going to do something with sound and ‘tech’ stuff. Even when I was going to University, I would always look forward to working lights or a sound board for local coffee house gigs or small productions around the campus. Around this time the Vietnam war was going on, and there were a lot of artists that were playing protest type music in the coffee houses. There were many but a couple still exist like the Ice House in Pasadena and the Troubador in Hollywood. I got to see a fair number of bigger name musicians and people just starting out like Jose Feliciano, and Steve Stills. One of the nights, Wally Hieder, a famous recording engineer, came in and recorded a band and I was able to hang out and talk with him, which led to a job driving his truck. I did that for a while, and that was another stepping stone. I never really have gotten any job by application, its all through meeting people and volunteering. Being able to fix and make headphones and cables really really helped also.
I think its very arrogant and naive for someone to come out of school and say “I’m trained as an engineer, so hire me” ; I believe you have to prove yourself to be useful, and show that you love what you do and will work tirelessly to get the best possible results. Knowing how to fix things is also good. But mainly, its knowing that it isn’t a knock off at 5 I’m done kinda job, you stay until its finished! Pretty much anybody can make a recording, and hit records can be made by relatively inexperienced people but top engineers have a depth of understanding of the process, they know how records sounded in years past as well as how they sound today and when someone asks for that they can conjure it up. They understand at some level that they are capturing magic, soul, an emotional connect ion, something that once captured moves the listener everytime they hear that recording. That’s a hit record, something people want to hear over and over again and tells others about. Gifted engineers know how to take all the fragments of multi-track and sampling and make something that is more than the sum of its parts. Schools are good because technically things are so much more complicated then when I began and it’s almost impossible to land a studio assistant’s job. But graduates are impatient to start mixing. They seldom if ever have been able to watch, listen and learn while a senior engineer constructs a recording, and equally important, run sessions. Listening to a completed recording provides little indication of the technical process and personnel dynamics of the sessions that made that recording. Without seeing how experienced people run sessions they never quite become highly professional. Nuance, and bed side manner, is everything when you’re dealing with creative people working in the pressure cooker of a session.
PILM: I know what you mean, it seems a lot more emphasis is put on the digital aspect of creating those sounds, like using pre-set reverb that emulates a certain room or size. What do you think about the digital age of music?
T: I think its one more tool in the process, but it also requires an engineer who knows the history of what is being recreated. A lot of students or young enthusiasts don’t know what plate reverb is, for example. I do think its great that we have access to all of these instant pre-sets because you can make some really neat stuff that wouldn’t normally be possible (or it would take you forever to create). But, there still needs to be someone behind the helm who knows how to utilize these sounds, know where they came from, and what the really thing sounds like. In one of my lectures I talk about how sounds have become commodities; think a wah wah pedal or fuzz tone pedal when they first came out. Knowing the historical value of those commodities, and understanding the heritage behind it, after all the music business is really a fashion industry.
PILM: What do you think about the way music is listened to and purchased now, like just buying or downloading a single song as opposed to buying an entire record or cd?
T: Well, for the most part, the people who go about buying and listening to music that way don’t really give a toss beyond that song. The people who do care will buy records, cd’s, and albums. This is a big part of why vinyl records are making a bit of a comeback. Many feel they sound better, well different, warmer. Equally important was the album, its concept, its cover art, the lyric sheet, the liner notes that enriched the experience of the album. People would get together to share the first playing of an album they just bought. The producer had painstakingly sequenced each side. To play an album and just listen to it was an evening with friends.
Then again, most people just don’t care as much and just like to blast it in their car, and use speakers that doof doof down the block. But none of that’s new. This isn’t that new though, back when Hi-fi first came out it was the same idea, just not quite as ‘tech-y’ as today.
PILM: Very true. What do you think the future of music holds in that regard, with this current younger generation so used to over compressed, super loud disposable music? How are we going to keep music having the dynamics that it used to have?
T: I understand what you’re saying…but it comes back to the listener. Some of them just want that loud ‘doof doof’ music that blows up subwoofers, they don’t really care that much. I think it also has a lot to do with the production value; some of it is made with this disposable intention, chewing gum for the ears, other times not. The compression of music isn’t that new either, back in the 50’s there was tons of compression for AM radio and 45s. Some producers just firmly believe that unless the signal is in the red and pinned the whole time, the music just isn’t loud enough. All in all though, these are all creative decisions. Some just really, really like loud! (laughs). Loud is not loud when you turn it down. In fact loud is only loud if you have quiet to compare it to. But let’s really look at this. My generation brought the public Blue Cheer and many other less memorable eleven on the knob bands.
PILM: Do you think that this has affected the performance side of recording music? As in, the ‘lets just fix it in the mix’ attitude?
T: I think there is so much possibility of perfecting each little detail in the studio, that the soul of the music can die if everything is over analyzed and microcosm’d. When music is recorded, live or in the studio, its kind of hard to explain but I feel that the soul of the music is being recorded and captured, and that hopefully it can be relayed to the listener. When people get goosebumps listening to music maybe that’s a small part of the soul of the recording speaking to them; when there is emotional attachment with the listener with a given recording. What is it about Joplin, or Hendrix, or Billie Holiday, or even further back Robert Johnson, that continues to move people? It is something that transcends time and space and just continues to hit home with the listener. Coming back to the perfection of the recording studio, many inexperienced producers and engineers don’t have the smarts to stop! They keep going for perfection, and there is no soul in perfection. What makes a good record is the ability to capture that elusive feeling that a band can make. The first take, the guide track vocal may not be perfect, but it could be more emotionally moving then the perfect final vocal. Always go back to where you started to make sure you’ve still got that thing that moved you when you first heard the song, the performance.
PILM: What is your feeling about the emergence of the home recording revolution, with this new access to inexpensive high quality recording gear?
T: Home recording allows access; it basically makes the recording process an extension of the musicians artform. I think this is a good thing, because there are amazing musicians out there who know exactly what sound and energy they want for them. They don’t need a bunch of Hollywood suits making their music for them. Hit artists can come from anywhere, and with all that on-line has to offer, a few can break out through community recognition and a fan base. But I still feel for most artists are diamonds in the rough that can grow and be their best by working with experienced people. People working by their self don’t interrogate what they do, a producer asks questions, and provides a second opinion. But everyone interested in recording having their own studio is a desirable goal. It gives the potential for an musical artist to create their own music and get it out there. The dream is a hit, and for a few that happens. The music world needs that potential, everyone deserves a go if they want it.
PILM: What do you think it takes for that to happen, for that big break, get heard above the noise?
T: Ah jeez I dunno Aaron! (laughs). I think you need to be able to do it all, the web site, the marketing, the commerce side of it….but at the end of the day, you have to have that unique quality or x-factor as well; that part hasn’t changed since way back in the day. But the speed that tastes can change now is crazy, so many tunes and groups can sound the same, but only a very small percentage make it beyond they’re garage. The notion of what a hit song is has really changed, and continues to change a lot. But you must be a video star these days if you really want to make it. Everyone doing music has a video on YouTube, from million dollar productions to very simple “high concept” efforts. Single artists can pop out of nothing, but there are no successful bands anymore where someone just “finds” them… a band tours, writes good songs, works a good fan base, and keeps at it. And staying humble…too many bands fall victim to their friends pumping them up a bit too much. Overall they have to remain professional, and treat it like a business, respecting themselves and being serious about it.
PILM: That is some great advice. Anything you’d like to add?
T: If you make a career of recording you’ll sometimes find boredom will set in. For days and months (and maybe even longer), you’ll go along recording songs with different artists and making the best recordings you can make (with the raw and sometimes woeful talent you have to work with). Then one day there is a moment when you push up the fader on a vocalist, and it brings goose bumps. No one says anything for fear of breaking the spell of whatever is happening, but those in the control room give each other knowing glances—but not too much, for fear of jinxing what’s happening. Often the singer is in the moment and unaware of the effect he/she is having on the other side of the control-room glass. For the next few minutes, hours, and days, you’ll be the first to hear what tens of millions will soon hear. When the session is over, you’ll play it one more time, then again and again. The singer’s song demands to be played one more time and is an addiction that stretches until the dawn. That amazing, indescribable feeling that you’re part of a hit record is like nothing I know, and it is why you do what you do. This hit will change people’s lives, including yours.
When the masters are sent to the label and all of what everyone did is reduced to an album credit, you’ll never lose the rush of hearing that record playing on the radio. Even someday 30 years from now, as background music in a shopping mall, the sound of that record will return you to that moment when you first pushed up the fader labeled Ld Voc and there was that magic.
My wife and I were in France recently. Walking past a shop she saw a pair of shoes she fancied. We went in. I sat down, she found the shoes. The music in the shop caught my attention. My wife’s request for my opinion was suddenly lost in the distraction of something familiar in the music. Then recognition. I blurted I worked on that record.
She’d been there before, took a beat, listened a moment and quizzically answered Santana? I nodded still somewhere in my memory four decades back in that studio. Then she added, but what about the shoes? As we continued through the Latin Quarter that day we both had a warm glow. She from her prize purchase of her Paris pumps, and me in the memory of when I was part of a moment of musical magic still heard 40 years on. It was a good day on an amazing journey I had taken.
Oh and please buy my book http://www.amazon.com/Getting-Great-Sounds-Microphone-Book/dp/1598635700
What am I doing now? Who’da thought a kid who was only interested in getting a great drum sound would end up at 64 still being feed and needed writing movie scripts in Australia.
For more information on Tom you can visit his blog here