With Catherine Vericolli
Interview 4-25-2015, Published 6-2-2015
Cookie Marenco is an engineer/producer/composer with more than 20 years experience in the music industry. She is the founder of OTR Studios and Blue Coast Records, and has engineered or produced five Grammy-nominated records, several Gold records and an Academy Award-winning documentary. Marenco, along with French engineer Jean Claude Reynaud, developed Extended Sound Environment (E.S.E.), a proprietary recording technique. She mostly works with 2″ analog tape with Dolby SR as a multi-track format, but also has expertise in the latest digital recording technologies, and is at the cutting edge of the hi-res digital movement.
So why make records?
When you ask that question, do you mean records in the sense of an album length piece, or pieces of music?
I mean records in a broader sense. Not particularly in reference to any specific length or type of recording, but as in why do you personally choose to make records, or why record music in the first place?
Well the reason I started recording music is different than why I’m doing it now. I started back in the early 80’s perhaps for the same reason as many other people, in that I had been a performing musician in a band that was in need of a demo. At the time I also had a place that everyone in the band thought would make a great recording studio, so my partner (also the band’s drummer) and I decided to get some gear together and do it. That was back in 1981 when there weren’t any recording schools really, so we had a lot to learn. About six months into it, we pooled our money and decided to open it up for commercial purposes. I’d say within another six months after we’d opened up commercially, we spent about the same amount of money we had initially- about $40,000.00. It was a lot of money especially if you compare it to today’s dollars, and I owed a lot of money. So in a sense, I had to be successful or give up the studio. I never really aspired to be an audio engineer. I always looked towards being a film composer or performing musician. My partner didn’t have any engineering aspirations either, so again we had to learn a lot in the first two years. Luckily I had a general understanding of sales since I had been teaching piano since I was 14 years old. About 15 years later, or around the end of the 1990’s, my reasons for making records became more about preserving great musicianship. By then my aspirations of being a musician were long gone. I really felt at this point that I had so many friends that were such great musicians, and that there was extreme talent coming through the studio. It wasn’t commercial pop music. It was just great acoustic instrumentalists that I felt needed to be recorded and kept for historic purposes.
Can you compare the process of recordmaking currently to that of the 1990’s?
What I think has happened now is that the cost of audio gear has come down so much, that the industry has had to change completely as to how people are generating revenue. I watched it progressively change over thirty years, and it’s become less and less about going into a commercial facility where there are experts who actually know the gear and how to make great sounding records. Towards the end of the 90’s, ADATs became more affordable and recording budgets started to go down. I think you can pretty much measure the direct relationship between the decrease of those budgets at the time, and the number of musicians who were recording at home. It almost became a necessity. Sadly it’s been a slow spiral downhill in sonic quality. Currently, buying recording gear is similar to buying a Polaroid camera 20 years ago. Anyone could buy a Polaroid camera and take a picture.
Do you think recordmaking is a politically and/or socially significant art form today?
I do. I see a future for music that divides into two categories. One is the home recording movement- similar to what happened to photography when the Polaroid camera was made available. Recording has moved onto things like the iPhone, the iPad, etc., and these types of things are going to be more and more accessible for passion or hobby recordists who don’t necessarily want to build a career. There will be a lot more people recording at home who don’t have any musical background or don’t need to have a musical background. In a way, it will be similar to what happens in sports where you have those who are professionals, and those who are casuals who watch the professionals perform. The second category will be a much smaller group of trained musicians and technicians, almost like professional golf. There will be a few great golfers.. Which is really kind of sad. What I’ve seen over the years and from what I’ve learned as a recording and mix engineer, is that the job has become an art form. Similar to professional photographers who are still using film, there will be a group that will still use great gear at a whole other level of quality and skill. Those in this group will be considered artists. We are going to have artists who are also producers and engineers. It’s going to be a new art form that I think hasn’t been entirely recognized yet today.
What is your take on the current social discord regarding high resolution audio recording, delivery and playback systems amongst professionals in the audio industry?
Well I think if you look historically at any change, there’s going to be a lot of resistance. I’ve been around long enough to watch vinyl move to CD, CD to mp3, mp3 downloads to streaming, and finally the current movement into Hi-Res. I was involved in the mp3 change over back in 1997, which was about 7 years before iTunes really made it’s mark. One of my roles was to talk to independent artists and labels about the possibilities that existed for mp3s. At the time, we were thinking it was going to be a really great promotional tool, and not a replacement for the CD due to the mp3’s lack of quality. For 7 years, I was fought with resistance by everyone. In fact, the only people who really adopted the mp3 in the beginning were a very geeky kind of market. Also at the time, Sony’s patent on the CD was expiring (somewhere around 1998) and they had started development of the SACD or Super Audio CD, which was also something that I was really interested in. So in a way, I was kind of leading a double life. I was involved in the DSD format and SACD development, while simultaneously doing the first ever live recorded mp3 concert that was to be distributed immediately for sale. In the beginning it didn’t seem that strange to me, but it became a battle because I started to question if the loss of quality would be detrimental to the acceptance of the mp3. There were also a ton of marketing dollars that weren’t taken advantage of. There was a lot of excitement built around the mp3 that didn’t become noticeable until much later when Steve Jobs came on the market with the iPod.
When I look at that parallel today, the same kind of thing has happened. The difference I see with high resolution audio is that it’s no longer controlled by any one company, but by the people. It’s controlled by the geeks. It’s controlled by the engineers who care like myself and several others who have said: ‘We don’t care if anybody adopts this or not- this is what we’re gonna do!’ So regardless of what happens, we are not going to stop. I have watched some really great technology reporters do terrible audio comparison tests which are then reiterated by bloggers and technology writers directly into the mainstream. It’s just sad. It’s sad that the technology writers aren’t open enough and so resistant to change because Hi-Res is coming regardless of weather they want it to or not!
What do you imagine recordmaking will be like in 100 years?
I think easily within 20 years we’ll all be on DSD or some kind of format that has that kind of resolution- if not better, partly because the bandwidth, speed, and pipelines are getting bigger and bigger. The storage is getting bigger. I think within 10 years, we won’t even be talking about high quality. I think what we’ll be talking about is a format. A reduction format of some kind or variation of DSD that will be much like the mp3 is today, mostly for streaming and home use. There will be a point where it’s just too easy, accessible and affordable for us to not record in high quality. It won’t even be discussed. Much like earlier when I mentioned a division between the skilled professional and home hobbyist, I think in the future there are going to be two different industries. A parallel example today would be something like YouTube vs. cable television, where anybody can make a film or a video, but there are those skilled people making more professional things that are broadcast on networks such as HBO. In the next 10 years there will be ‘channels’ similar to the way programs are set up on cable where there are bundles of viewing options available in separate packets. In the future, all of it will come through one device that will accept lots of different kinds of streams. In 100 years, everything will be streaming and wireless, and there won’t be much of anything stored on servers.
Why do you think so few women are recordmakers and audioworkers?
That’s a good question. It’s something that I wonder about. Interestingly enough, my new assistant is a woman, and she’s probably the most talented person who’s come through these doors in the last thirty years. She’s twenty-three and has learned everything so fast without any barriers around what she can and can’t learn.
I think music in general is kind of an interesting subject for women. When I was in A&R at Windham Hill Records, I noticed that about one demo came in from a woman for every twenty demos that we got from a man. I thought there was something inherently wrong with that picture! I started thinking: Why do more men want to send in demos? What motivates them to get a record contract? Why are they more willing to take the risk to become an artist? I think the situation is similar in regards to becoming a recording engineer or producer. I don’t think women were shown then, nor are they shown now, examples of other women in those positions. I’m not sure if it’s perhaps easier for men to take that kind of risk? Or maybe that women are just more pragmatic about making a decent living? As an engineer, it is extremely hard to generate a regular income, and you have to be willing to accept that kind of financial risk. Sometimes I think that women might just be smarter or more realistic about earning a living!
It’s interesting because I think that where things are currently headed, in ten years there’s going to be a complete switch. One of the reasons is because I believe that women have always been the majority purchasers of music. I think it skews just a little over 50%. They’ve also skewed for a while over 50% as purchasers of electronic gadgets, which is really fascinating! What I’m seeing now in Silicon Valley, is that the risk taking and general interest is shifting from musical careers to startup software companies. Kind of like ‘the stars in their eyes’ to become the next rock star has moved to ‘the stars in their eyes’ to become the next developer of another Facebook or Twitter. I see a lot of young men learning how to code instead of picking up a guitar, and the software industry is experiencing the same kind of gender inequality. It’s been a big topic out here in software production as the men are moving more and more away from creative things like music. I would almost suspect that there might be more women buying instruments now than ever before. I also feel like there are more women taking on creative roles musically with other women! They see other women as role models, and they’re hearing more songs recorded or played by women. I mean look at all the women in hip hop and pop who are really on top of those genres! I think in 10 years we’re going to see more women as artists, and as we see more women as artists, we will see more women in the studio as engineers and producers.
Do you feel that being a woman in a control room in the early 80’s was more challenging than it is currently?
I suspect that it really hasn’t changed much. I think that we face the same challenges because it’s always been sort of a boy’s club when you get into a control room. As a musician I’d always played with men, so I was kind of used to the boy’s club. I grew up playing lots of sports, and when you’re in a recording studio, it’s a team sport. Everybody’s working together on the same project. So I think perhaps it’s a little easier in an environment where it’s all men where they can maybe joke about the same things? I feel like sometimes if there’s a woman in there, it’s a little bit like being a woman on a ship. You kind of have to play almost like one of the guys.
I was just telling this story to my new assistant because I wanted to give her some insight into some things that she may come across, and it’s a story that I generally don’t talk about publicly. When I was in my thirties, I did a kind of informal study of what I wore to meet a client for the first time, and whether or not I got the gig. What I discovered was that if I was wearing a skirt or a dress when I met a client to pitch them on my services, I had a 25% chance of getting the job. If I wore jeans, a casual shirt and tennis shoes, and just kind of looked ‘nice’ – or basically genderless – I got the gig 95% of the time. When I was in my twenties, I didn’t realize that clothing had any effect on anything! I really hadn’t started dressing more fashionably until after I worked at a record label. When I was at Windham Hill, I suddenly had enough money to buy all kinds of new clothes. It was a different job role, I was expected to dress a little differently. When I left the label, I kind of liked having this new sense of fashion, and as a woman I thought if I’m making a record, what difference does it make if I’m wearing a skirt or not? When I’d had the studio, I was wearing jeans and I played in bands etc., and I never had any trouble getting a session. It should make no difference, but I found that it had negatively affected my income.
If you could change one thing about the field of recordmaking, what would you change?
I mean if there was one thing I would change, it would be to get rid of all the plugins. Things like pitch correction and timing correction tools, and things that are “supposed to sound just like an 1176”, or “just like this particular microphone.” I mean come on, it doesn’t really. It comes close, but it will never replace the real thing! For instance I’m never going to replace my Fender Rhodes. Unfortunately it’s a small sonic difference, and most people don’t hear it. There’s an apathy that my professional buddies have towards this because they want something easy. I got rid of my protools system a while ago. I just went back to working with musicians who actually learned how to be musicians.
When you got rid of your ProTools rig, what did you replace it with or revert back to?
We use both both tape and Direct Stream Digital. We’re using a Sonoma System and we just got a Pyramix System as well. We don’t use plugins, so we use the digital medium more like tape, and we run it though an analog console. What it’s done, is required musicians to step it up. We want to work with better musicians. So the quality then starts with the musician and not letting them get away with things that we could just pitch correct, because for me that’s when all the emotion and the passion – all those things that we were really in tune with 20 years ago that kept getting dampened by things like automation and plugins – are lost. I have to say that even working with protools when I did, it was never faster than tape. It just allowed musicians to be perfectionists and try to achieve something that they thought in their minds helped their ego. A record doesn’t sell better just because it has been pitch corrected.
When I got rid of my protools system and went back to tape, all of my friends who still owned studios said: “But Cookie, how are are you gonna make any money? We sell 5 times more studio time on ProTools than we ever did on tape!” But, when you have the ability to work towards perfectionism, it just eats up time. At some point the artist realizes that the session is going cost more money in the long run, and that they could just do it themselves at home. That’s when studios started to go down.
That sounds like maybe the opposite of what the industry thought ProTools was going to do for studios in the long term.
Exactly. I’ve got the same 2” tape machine I bought in 1986. I’ve changed consoles once. I’ve got the same microphones and even some of the same boom stands that I bought back in the 80’s, and that’s because they didn’t really make cheap stuff back then. Any boom stands that I bought later on that were cheaper didn’t last a year! So the idea is that if you invest in quality, it’s going to last a lot longer. Quality adds value! If you advertise the cost of that tape machine I bought back in 86’ over the amount of years I’ve had it, it’s much less than the equivalent of somebody that’s purchased ProTools and made the investments for the upgrades to their computer, software and plugins. Every couple of years they’ve got to drop a huge chunk of money.
You once said in an interview for Audio Stream that “The professional audio world has not embraced making good quality recordings.” Can you expand on this?
The way I see things happening in the world of professional audio is sad. It’s sad that so many of those folks are bitter. Bitter about what’s happened in the industry in terms of people losing their jobs and having to go find other kinds of work, recording engineers specifically. I hear so many of my peers who just complain about the situation rather than try and do something about it, and what’s interesting is that the guys (and mostly guys) that have been around for as long as I have, haven’t been willing to change. In fact the only way they did change, was that as things got cheaper and cheaper and they allowed things to become seemingly easier.
What was the last record you heard that truly blew your mind or touched your heart? How so?
Well my answer relates to the ESE process, or Extended Sound Environment. This is when we use a particular kind and quality of gear and the musicians are performing live without any headphones or overdubs. Our first concern is to get the musicians situated in a room where they can hear each other well enough to interact and perform together. This differs from other live recording situations, where people are positioned around a microphone to optimize the sound for recording, because it’s first about optimizing the musicians to hear one another almost like a rehearsal. It was actually a rehearsal that first stimulated the ESE process. I was producing a record and I remember hearing all the musicians including the drummer rehearsing together in a circle. The more I heard musicians assembled in this fashion, the more I realized that was always what I wanted to hear on a recording. That’s what I took into ESE. So essentially before I set up a single microphone, I get the musicians performing and situated where they want to play and then it’s my challenge to set up the microphones so that I can get enough distinction between them in order to get a good sound. It’s some of the hardest recording I’ve ever done. But, the result is that the passion and dynamic levels that come out of those recordings (which have so much to do with what makes an emotional performance) just blow me away.
I don’t really know which is my favorite, and I hate to say it, but it’s some of my own recordings. I’m just so happy once they’re done, I don’t even relate to ever having recorded them. I just get to sit back and listen and it’s brilliant. The one that comes to mind is a fella that you’ve never heard of. His name is Julian Müller. He came in wanting to record 5 songs and we ended up doing 10. He did it all in one afternoon in ESE and it blew me away. I just couldn’t stop listening to this record.
What are some of your fears when making a record?
Oh man. Sometimes a thunderstorm’s rolling through and you wonder if the electricity is going to shut off in the middle of something… Most of my fears during a record have to do with power.
Yes! Electrical power. I’ve been monitoring this stuff for 20 years now, and correlating how power fluctuates during the daytime. In California we get a lot of earthquakes, and an earthquake that happens in Southern California can send a surge up to us in the North and cause these terrible pops in a great performance. They’ll go through the entire system. Those have been my scariest moments for fear of loss of data strictly due to issues with electricity. Working digitally, the odds of losing something are unexpectedly greater. I mean we keep 3 backups of everything and even then there are times where that doesn’t seem like enough! I also remember a session I was on once down in LA that was live to two track. The musicians had flown in from all over the world and we had one afternoon to get everything done. For some reason the [tape] machine would not go out of record. Here I was thinking about the record budget, etc. and trying to keep the musicians calm, but really all I was concerned with was where we were going to get another machine before these guys had to jump on a plane!! We found another machine and everything ended up fine, but sometimes you’re just lying through your teeth.
What are your greatest joys when making a record?
I love the team feeling. I love working with the musicians and my crew when we reach a level where we’re just listening to the music and the musicians are performing at their best. Especially when they’re performing at levels that they didn’t even think were possible. Nobody knows quite why it happens, but it’s that magic moment in the studio when everybody’s working towards the same goal. It’s like winning The World Series. For me recording is a team sport. I’ve often thought about online collaboration for those who are hobby musicians and such. For them, collaborating is a whole different thing than for those of us who have experienced being in a studio with other human bodies! It’s really about the fun you have. When I think about my thirty years of recording, the times that I really remember are those moments when we were all laughing so hard about something. There were times where we literally fell off of our chairs and were rolling on the floor! And to this day, I can’t even tell you why. I just remember laughing so hard we couldn’t stop.