On “the take”

Michael Caplan, left, and Vic Steffens. Photo by Hank Hoffman.

Recording engineer Vic Steffens listens for the emotion in the music
By Hank Hoffman

Where recording engineer Vic Steffens’ Elm City Music record label partner Michael Caplan can say, “See you later,” if he’s not taken with a band or their songs, Steffens doesn’t have that luxury. If they’re running through their material in his Horizon Recording studio in West Haven, “I have to deal with the issue of how to make a good record. I have to create something no matter what,” Steffens says, interviewed along with Caplan in his studio control room the day after the first Elm City Music album has been released.

In his three decades of recording, Steffens has worked with national acts like the Blues Brothers, Lita Ford of the Runaways, and Sly Stone, as well as engineering recordings for many of the most prominent local performers — “Beehive Queen” Christine Ohlman (Steffens’ sister), Mighty Purple, James Velvet, Anne Marie Menta, and others. But it’s not always seasoned professionals walking through the doors.

Steffens tries to “listen to the totality of it” while looking for weak spots that need to be shored up.

“I look for how well the bass player and drummer play together. Do they listen to each other? Is the guitar player playing in tune? Is he playing too much or too little? How does the rhythm section in general work because you have to get all these basic elements of the band to sound really good and make sure they’re not smothering the singer and the song,” says Steffens.

All too often, according to Steffens, bands spend seven and a half hours of their eight-hour recording sessions “messing around with drum fills and guitar fills. They throw the singer out with 15 minutes and tell him to do the song and the poor guy is just floundering out there.”

“I want them to feel like they’re on a gig and it’s one of the better gigs they ever had,” explains Steffens. “I want them to think I’m the audience and I’m here to love them, not to hate them.”

Steffens knows about being on gigs. In the 1970s, he was the drummer for the Scratch Band, one of Connecticut’s most popular groups. The Scratch Band also featured guitarist G.E. Smith of Saturday Night Live fame and Steffens’ sister, Ohlman. Steffens started dabbling in recording at Trod Nossel Studios in Wallingford; Trod Nossel owner Doc Cavalier managed the Scratch Band.

After his stint with the Scratch Band ended, Steffens took a weekend course at the Business Academy of Music, run by Marty Kugel, the producer of the Five Satins’ doo-wop hit “In the Still of the Night.” Kugel introduced Steffens to Paul Leka, owner of Connecticut Recording studio in Bridgeport. A songwriter, producer, and arranger, Leka — who died last year — had hits with “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye” (Steam) and “Green Tambourine” (Lemon Pipers). Steffens worked at Connecticut Recording for a couple of years as engineer and eventually studio manager before founding Horizon Recording in 1988. Originally in Wilton, Horizon moved to its current West Haven location in 1990.

“I’ve had the benefit of working with people who’ve sold millions and millions of records,” Steffens says, referring to Leka and producer and songwriter Michael Chapman (Blondie, The Knack, and many more). “The experience of being around these guys and watching how they do what they do is irreplaceable.”

When Steffens started, he was recording to tape. He transitioned to digital formats gradually starting in the mid-1990s. Steffens still has a working tape machine. But most musicians — even if they rhapsodize in poetic terms about the glories of analog sound — don’t want to spring for the $200 cost of a reel of two-inch tape, nor do they want to forego the editing perks of working in the digital realm. It’s possible in a recording program like the industry standard Pro Tools to cut and paste parts of several different takes together to get one song. But that’s not Steffens’ preferred working method.

“I always try as much as possible to have them play it right. It doesn’t mean there won’t be a flaw here or there that we fix but I’m not a big one for ‘We’ll record it four times and slap pieces of it together.’ I just don’t believe in it,” says Steffens.

Steffens tailors his approach to the needs and musical temperaments of the performers he’s recording. One hot-button issue is recording to a “click track” — essentially a metronome.

“Some bands sound horrible when you ask them to play to a click track. Some bands really need to record to a click. If the drummer can’t play to a click track, the last thing you want to do at a recording session is ask him to learn. The time to learn that is when you’re at home, not here,” says Steffens.

“Keith Richards won’t record to a click track. (Drummer) Steve Jordan says, ‘I am the click track and if I’m not good enough, hire somebody else,’ continues Steffens. “I like that attitude. I’m sure he’s not perfect every minute of every day but I bet it sounds perfect.”

Steffens’ partner, Caplan, interjects to note that sometimes variations in tempo can improve a song.

“Sometimes I like the sound of organic speed-up. On the first Radiators album is a song ‘Doctor Doctor’ where it just speeds up and it feels so good,” says Caplan.

Steffens concurs: “It could be the magic of the record. Who said everything has to be perfectly in time? I never made that rule.”

It’s human nature, Steffens, says, for people to use the tools at hand. Caplan notes that a singer, knowing the recording engineer has pitch-correction software, may “just sing it and go, ‘Okay, fix it.’ As a matter of fact, it’s even worse because being able to hear pitch correction in a recording is so popular — the T-Pain effect (after R&B singer T-Pain who featured the effect prominently) — that they just get close and then fix it.”

“They didn’t do that in a Frank Sinatra session,” says Steffens. “They had three mics recording 45 or 50 musicians including vocalists and if it wasn’t great, they didn’t even think about using it.”

Usually, Steffens records three or four takes of a song with an emphasis on getting a solid drums and bass foundation. But when he worked on his sister’s record The Deep End, “We tracked the whole thing and that was basically the record,” says Steffens. “It just so happened we had a singer who could deliver that. When she walks up to a mic, it’s a take. She doesn’t know how not to do a take.

“Which, honestly, is the way it used to be. When you were doing Frank Sinatra, Sinatra did not know how to not do a take, or Ella Fitzgerald or any of those people,” says Steffens. “There is an inverse curve between recording technology and musician competence. The more technology we have, it seems, the less competent the musicians are.

“But a great take — if you get a little buzz and the hairs on your neck stand up — it doesn’t hurt,” declares Steffens.

“I don’t have a problem with using the technology. I have a problem with it replacing competence. What happens is people get lazy in their performances and think you’re going to fix that,” contends Steffens. “But that laziness not only affects the technique of the performance but affects the emotional content as well. People give a lackluster performance and think you can inject emotion.

“They haven’t made that plug-in — the Aretha Franklin plug-in that suddenly makes everything in tune. But Aretha’s not always in tune. But you don’t mess with it because it’s Aretha Franklin. I have heard an awful lot of great vocals that had some out-of-tune notes in them — The Beatles, Rod Stewart,” opines Steffens.
He lays some blame for the current fetish for perfectly in-tune vocals at the feet of American Idol host Simon Cowell.

“His sense, which he tries to impose on the world, of what makes a vocalist is just horrible,” declares Steffens. “We used to call those people ‘lounge singers.’ We never would have heard Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, or Neil Young if Simon Cowell had his way.”

While technology has moved to the point where professional recording tools are widely affordable, Steffens still emphasizes, “It comes down to your ability more than ever because you still have to have the ears and the insight. You can’t buy that at Guitar Center.”

Encouraging performers to get great takes is just part of it. On his end, Steffens has to make the right technical choices.

“Everything is dependent on what you hear. You’ve got two ears stuck on the sides of your head. They’re there for a purpose,” says Steffens.

Experience has taught Steffens there no hard and fast rules. He has heard some singers “sound horrible” vocalizing into expensive mics like the Neumann U47, which is considered one of the “holy grails” of vocal microphones. And some rock singers, Steffens says, “knock it out of the park” when wailing through a relatively inexpensive Shure SM57 or SM58.

“You listen to it first, get a little feeling, think ‘this will work for this.’ Follow your heart. If that doesn’t work out, you have to be intelligent enough to say that didn’t work and punt and do something else,” says Steffens.

Among the highlights of his studio experience, Steffens mentions working with rock and soul legend Sly Stone in the late 1980s. At one point, Stone started singing an impromptu version of his hit song “Family Affair.”

“I almost melted. It was so ridiculously soulful I didn’t know what to do. Well, I did know enough to record it,” Steffens recalls. “Everybody knows how troubled Sly is, and he was every bit that troubled in that period of time. But still, on any given moment he could knock you across the planet with something so great that you wondered where it came from.”

Recording The Deep End in 2009 with his sister was another high point. The record was cut mostly live in the studio.

“Listening to the whole thing laid out before you without any real technological intervention, it was like the old days. And that really affected me because it reminded me that no matter what people hand you to do there is still a certain core group of essentials that affect us, at the top of the list being the general emotion of the take,” says Steffens.

“A lot of days in the studio, people don’t play all that emotionally because they’re trying to execute parts. I’m really against that,” says Steffens. “To me, it’s all about playing music, not executing parts. You can execute parts flawlessly and it might not add up to music.”

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