An interview with John Tabacco by Kelsey McGarrigal
01 01 11
KM: How did you become involved in your field?
JT: Back in 1977 I played with two tape recorders. One was a stand alone cheap mono Norelco cassette recorder. The other was a built in tape recorder lodged in the family’s Conn Prelude Strummer Organ. I would record a drum beat on the Norelco machine. Then the cassette of that beat I’d put into the organ’s cassette player. As that cassette played through the organ speaker I put the Norelco recorder into record (with a new blank cassette) and played some chords on the organ to the drum beat. You could do this about three times before it became too noisy (tape hiss build up) to listen to repeatedly. I did this primitive kind of overdubbing for about a year and a half. Then in late1979 a friend of mind introduced me to a more sophisticated reel to reel tape recorder (an Akai GX4000D) where you could do five or six overdubs and still maintain some kind of audio fidelity. It still had it’s limitations. The biggest one being once you overdubbed a sound you could not erase it two or three overdubs later. Thus I really learned how to record instruments and how to achieve a decent balance in the final mix. Around 1984 I bought a small mixing console and a 1/2 inch tape, reel to reel Tascam 38, 8 track recorder. With that and some keyboards and an Atari computer (thanks to two of my musical associates at the time, Nick DiMauro and Paul Michael Barkan) I was able to make better sounding recordings with a lot more instruments and a lot less tape hiss! I finally had the ability to erase any track and replace it with a new take. This allowed me to hone my production skills. Around 1987 I visited Chris Pati who had introduced me to the Akai reel to reel. He was running Backdoor Studios, a professional 24 track facility – working with major labels. I played him some of my 8 track recordings and he liked what heard. His assistant engineer had just left to work for another studio, so he offered me a job to help with the sessions. I immediately said ,"Yes" and I’ve been recording, producing and composing professionally ever since.
KM: What sort of work environment do you enjoy the most?
JT: A comfortable, clean, smoke free environment devoid of extraneous noises that could interrupt the recording process.
KM: Take me through your typical day on the job.
JT: A client comes in with a basic idea. Usually it’s a song written on guitar or keyboard. They play it for me or just sing me the melody and I map out the measures, form and tempo of the tune in my computer. Then I have them play the song it into the computer. Sometimes to a groove I make up. From there if the client knows what they want I just record their performance ideas and mix it accordingly. Often though, I’m asked to come up with production ideas that will support the song and make it that much more interesting. This could take a few hours depending on the kind of sound or style the client is looking for. Once the parts are recorded and we are happy with the lead vocal I give them a rough mix to go home and listen to. After they leave I fine tune the mix (maybe an hour or so) making sure all the levels and equalization are balanced. Then I back up all the data on to DVD Rom or CD Rom discs and various hard drives. I then send the client (over the internet) my refined mix in a high fidelity mp3 file. If they like it. I master the final mix and put it on a CD for them.
KM: How often do you travel for your job? How do you balance travel and your personal life?
JT: I do not travel often unless it’s a live gig I’m asked to record. Most times the work is done in house. Writing music, digitally editing music and recording is my life. That’s basically all I do. Fortunately, my significant other loves to record and sing and most of my friends are musicians or creative types who understand where I’m coming from. It’s a relatively hassle free life. Funerals are usually the biggest interruption.
KM: Tell me about a project that you are currently working on.
JT: I am currently working on my 34th CD of original music. This one is called Audio Artifacts For The Dubious Cloud. It is a mix of varied pieces that never quite had a home on CD. Now they do. The CD asks the questions: What will happen to all our data (home movies, music, art work, books etc..) once it is in some far off server they call the "Cloud"? Who will have access to that information? How can we trust that the data will be backed up securely if all of a sudden we are unable to burn it to discs or hard drives or even tape? What if something happens to the cloud? Do we lose everything? Who decides what is considered proper data for the cloud? Will there be censorship? What happens to my data if I can’t afford to pay the Cloud? The CLOUD is a real thing happening now and it’s scary.
KM: Do you do more work by yourself or with a team? What are the benefits of working this way?
JT: I tend to work by myself unless I need a specialist to come in and play a certain instrument I am not skilled on. Working by yourself is good because you can focus on a project and get it done. Too many chefs can spoil the broth. However, working with another person or persons has it’s benefits. They may introduce ideas you may not have thought of and they can bring some mistakes to the table that actually add to the life of the song.
KM: What education or skills are required for this job?
JT: You do not need any formal education to record and write music. You need to be self motivated and allow yourself to get involved with others who are in the field. Get an internship at a studio or join a band and play everywhere. However, going to collage for music or recording is not necessarily a bad thing. College can teach you how to organize your ideas, how to communicate those ideas more clearly to other musicians and show you the many sides of music you may not be aware of. Music / recording has a lot of history behind it. Sometimes you need to have a teacher to show you why knowing different music from different cultures is a great thing, And of course there are some good business skills that can be taught in college in regards to how to market yourself and sell your music.
KM: Did you have any mentors or influences in your career? If so, who or what were they and how did they affect you?
JT: I grew up listening to mostly popular music and I enjoyed singing to records. As I got older my tastes and musical skills broadened, and I began to take making a life in music more of a reality. My mentors were The Beatles, Frank Zappa, Steely Dan, The Firesign Theatre, and a bunch of other artists. Too many to mention. These artists spoke to me in a way that made my world make sense. By the time I was fourteen I knew that I’d be involved in music and factions thereof. In my mid to late twentys I began co-writing with Nick DiMauro, Gian DiMauro, Meryl Mathews, Marci Geller, Donna Bach-Heitner, Jim Dexter and later Susan DeVita to name a few. All of them have had an impact on my songwriting skills.
KM: What artists do you enjoy working with the most?
JT: Artists who have a direction and a great sense of humor.
KM: What sort of music do you enjoy working with the most?
JT: I enjoy working with pop/rock music with jazz over tones and a sense of irony and resign. I also enjoy Musique concrète and cartoon type instrumental music with an absurd sense of humor.
KM: How has the industry evolved since you began working in it?
JT: Before household computer recording you had to have a lot of skill to make a recording. Not everyone could do it or afford it. Now a days anyone can record and distribute their music right from their bedroom. The playing field is level. You don’t need any special talent. You can make lousy sounding recordings of lousy songs and have them displayed right next to the biggest, most talent artists in the world, right there on iTunes.
KM: How do you think the music industry will change with in the next ten years?
JT: No one will be able to own music any more. You will just rent it and pay for it continually. You will not be able to make copies of music and you will pay a fee for creating your own music because in order for people to hear it (other than playing out) you will have to have it uploaded to the "Cloud". No more CDs only ipod / iphone type devices. The computers we have now (like the one I’m typing on) will be slowly phased out and made illegal.
KM: How difficult is it to become a part of the industry and why? Was it difficult for you?
JT: The music industry is a social one. Thus, it is to your benefit to hobnob with people who you might not like and network like crazy until you find someone who is in the position to help you. Unfortunately, there is so much nepotism going on these days it is hard to break into the business. There are a lot of untalented people in high places making big decisions who should not be in that position. They are just there because their successful mommy and daddy (who inherited their wealth from their hard working relatives) gave them a job. Also, there is so much material floating in the digital retail music stores it’s hard to get noticed unless you do something completely outrageous on youtube and it becomes viral. Usually, that involves something where the music takes a back seat. t was not difficult for me to be part of the industry because I was fortunate to know someone (Chris Pati) who had their foot in the music door already and who did not mind helping me out so long as I pulled my weight. To be honest, I never wanted to be involved in the music industry. That just sort of happened. For the most part I ignore it and just drum up my own business. I have my own musical agenda. I got into music and recording because I love it. It’s a way of life.
KM: Do you work with artists that create music that you don’t enjoy listening to? If so, how do you handle that?
JT : Nowadays I pick and choose the artists I work with. If someone comes in with something I do not like, I tell them that it’s not my kind of thing and suggest someone else to help them out. In the past I have engineered for artists I do not like. I put aside my feelings (ego) and just try to give them what they want. It’s just a job and I know how to get things done. Maybe once or twice in my life I’ve had some issues with a client but it’s rare. I’m able to be diplomatic about issues and work things out. That’s not something I think I learned, that’s just my personality. I’m not head strong.
KM: When choosing a career path in general, what is the most important thing to keep in mind?
JT : Keep in mind that who you are today and what seems important may change a few years down the road due to the circumstances in your life. However, if you are true to yourself and believe in what you do, you will probably attract like minded people and this will allow you to pursue what you started. But who knows what the future brings? I suppose you should always be open to new possibilities and remain flexible.
KM: Do you have any advice for young people aspiring to be a part of the industry?
JT : Not really. If you love music and you want it to be your entire life, no one can tell you otherwise. You’re gonna do it. That is unless the CLOUD has something to say about it.