Producer/Engineer Susana Baca, Fryed Bros with Willie Neslon, Omar Sosa, Sistema Bomb, Maldita Vecindad…
Greg Landau interview by Will Kahn, 2012
Greg, please give me a brief background of your work.
I’ve been a musician and producer since the late 70’s. I began working in Latin rock bands in San Francisco and toured with the singer from the group Malo with the Wilson Pickett review. I started playing with Salsa bands in the Bay Area. We played with all the top Salsa groups that would come from New York and Puerto Rico. Eddie Palmieri, Willie Colón, Ray Baretto, and others… I began recording in local studios in the Bay Area, then moved to Nicaragua in 1979, and began working in the Ministry of Culture and in the Folkloric Research Department. Later I worked as the producer at Radio Sandino where we recorded popular folk groups.
Let me just pause there a bit… I remember you telling me that it was a real crazy set up and a quick set up and turnaround. Tell me about those recordings on the radio and what would go into each of them.
At Radio Sandino we recorded to a two track Otari. We would then have another two track and sometimes bounce two tracks to one track then do another pass, mixing it between two tracks and adding vocals and effects. We had old Neuman and AKG microphones from the 70’s and we did hundreds of recordings. I then worked at the Ministry of Culture studio where we had an eight track, one inch Ampex tape machine, and we did recordings in one day, also bouncing things to make room for more tracks.
How long were you taking to set up for bands?
We took minutes to set up. We had really good assistants, and all the bands had the same format, mostly guitar, vocals, and sometimes bass. We could set up to record vocals and instruments all at the same time. The bands weren’t playing new songs, they were very well rehearsed, and we would play the recordings on the radio. Later when I went to the Ministry of Culture, they had a recording studio that had been confiscated from the National Guard after the revolution. They moved into a studio with the new ministry of culture, which was in Somoza’s (Nicaragua’s dictator) mistresses’ house. The recording studio was where the horse stables were, which was more luxurious than the houses! We treated the walls with compressed cotton bails with burlap over them and the studio sounded really good. We recorded over two hundred records there.
I also remember hearing stories of the flatbed trucks, the Sandinistas, and the revolution. Can you tell me a little about that?
Well, we used to tour all over the country in East German army trucks. We would carry a generator, all our instruments, and a small (practically home made) sound system. We would go out in the countryside, and when there is no noise the sound travels a long way. We toured in areas where there was no electricity, where people had never really heard amplified music before. (Laughs…) We played in the mountains, for the coffee harvest, and all over the countryside. Many times, we did live recordings, which we broadcasted on local radio stations. We recorded with a little cassette recorder, but the bands were so tight and so mixed, everything was blended so well, that the recordings came out really good! It was a war zone, and frequently we ended up in combat areas or combat would break out where we were. War was spread all over the countryside. The idea was to raise the morale of the troops. We were artists on salary and we played for the people that really needed to hear this music, the people that needed the moral reinforcement and to know that we were sacrificing to be with them. Nicaragua was the center of revolutionary culture at that time. People came from all over the world to perform and to observe what was going on, because it was a unique social experiment. The government built an amphitheater inside the crater of a volcano in Managua. There was a stage that floated on a lake with an amphitheater around it, with a little bridge from the land to the stage. It was a beautiful place. We performed there a lot with natural, beautiful acoustics.
You have also done recordings in Cuba. Would you like to go into that?
In 1968 my father made a film in Cuba. He took our family and they sent me to the national music school, which was a boarding school, where I studied for almost a year and made a lot of musician friends there. I’ve gone back 30 times. I’ve recorded 7 CD’s there, and worked with Cuba’s top musicians, especially in the folk music styles. I worked with Juan De Marcos Gonzalez of the Afro Cuban All Stars, who produced the Buena Vista Social Club and Ibrahim Ferrer, and many other top Cuban groups. I’ve recorded Rumba and Jazz with many of Cuba’s top musicians. When I came back from Nicaragua I heard about ADAT. I bought the first ADAT that came to SF at Leo’s. I bought one ADAT and a Mackie mixer. The first day I got it I did my first recording at La Peña (in Berkeley, CA) with that set up and did my first digital record of a live performance. I mixed it on the Mackie and we put it out on CD. I began working with Redwood Records in Oakland with my ADAT, Mackie and 1 mic. I bought an AKG T-1000 and a pair of headphones, and recorded Duo Guardabarranco in my living room with that set up. We later mixed it at Jackson Brown’s studio Groove Masters in LA on his Neve console. Then I began doing a lot of other recordings on ADAT. I eventually acquired 3 of them for 24 tracks and began recording a lot of records. Then I took the ADAT to Cuba and recorded three CD’s in Cuba in a ten-day period. I rented a house and we set up a recording studio in the living room. I recorded three records there that were well received and included on maybe 15 compilations of Cuban music. I went to Peru the next year in ‘96, hired by David Byrne and recorded Susana Baca’s debut record in Lima.
I’m curious how was the switch for you to go from analog tape to ADAT sonically? How was that for you?
It was great! I loved the ADAT because, while everyone was nostalgic for analog tape, I only had bad memories of it. In most of the studios that I worked in, there was always something wrong with the machines, or problems with calibrating them. Everything always took a long time, and it was hard to work quickly. Take two was practically impossible because tape was expensive, and studios were expensive. So ADAT was very liberating because I didn’t even need a studio anymore. I began acquiring microphones so I could set up my studio anywhere. I realized that my ADAT/Mackie set up had some drawbacks, right? That it had it’s own sound… it’s own particular sound. But the thing was to work with it; the way we positioned the microphones, we took our time to set up and tweak the instruments trying to get the right vibe. For the most part we recorded the whole group at once, since it was the way people were used to playing. We didn’t do a lot of overdubbing because the groups weren’t used to playing that way. And we weren’t set up to really isolate things that well, so we kind of worked with the bleed. For some of the recordings we only had the musicians for one day, and it was raining. You could hear the rain, so we just incorporated it into the sound, which meant we couldn’t splice between takes because the sound of the rain changed. But the sound of the rain became part of the recording. Another time when we were recording in Cuba, we had to isolate the flute. That was the only instrument that needed it’s own space. So we put the flute player outside on a little patio and passed the cables through the window. But next door was a bike repair shop. We made a deal with the bike mechanic, we gave him some rum and coffee, and whenever we were going to record, the flute player would give a signal and they would freeze until they stopped playing or he showed the coast was clear. And on the reviews of the record people commented on the “airy” sound of the flute. (Laughter)…
I also remember you talking about working in Peru with Susana Baca and had her set up in the room and she wasn’t feeling the vibe, so you set her up in the kitchen?
That was later in 1996…. We recorded in Lima and David Byrne insisted on using analog tape. He was morally opposed to digital recording and insisted on analog and no digital… but at that time in Peru they had already made the switch and all the studios used ADAT. Except for one. They had an Otari 24 track 2-inch machine, so I brought huge spools of tape from the United States. We tried to calibrate the machine and found out it was impossible to calibrate; it wouldn’t even read it and all the screws to calibrate it were stripped. So all I could do was go forward. We recorded there, a small studio in a market place with an air conditioner in the control room right above the Allen & Heath mixing board. They had a little bowl to catch the air conditioning liquid up on top of the board. The air conditioner made a lot of noise. I asked the engineer, “Could you turn the AC off when were recording?” I asked the engineer “You are really going to regret that,” he said. “okay, I can’t really hear,” He turned it off and it turned into a sauna bath in a matter of minutes. So we had to keep the air conditioner on. That record came out really well. We found another compatible machine in San Francisco and found a way to un-calibrate the machine to match the one we recorded tones on, which was a big hassle. We mixed it down and that one was a big success. That record came out in 1997 and is still selling to this day and is still in print with a lot tape hiss.
What is the name of that record?
“Susana Baca”. From there I started with Act 2, my ADAT recording and again they were very liberating because we could take them anywhere. They weren’t very robust. They would break all the time, but I had someone who would come and fix them. We recorded Quetzal, a Chicano group from LA that was very popular in 2000… and we went to Chick Corea’s Mad Hatter Studios in Los Angeles because, again, they insisted on analog tape. Mad Hatter is as good as it gets, all the top analog gear in perfect condition, everything working perfectly, tuned rooms, beautiful studio! But the band really wasn’t up to playing all together, even though we had great sounds, the performance wasn’t up to it. I transferred the analog tape to a Mackie hard disc recorder, and we ended up finishing it on the Mackie, going back to overdub all the parts, get it in order, and use Pro Tools where we finished mixing it. We did get a lot of good analog sound. We noticed the Mackie had a certain sound that wasn’t really as digital, as some of the computer recordings. It had it’s own sound somewhere between analog and digital. I can’t really describe it, it had it’s own vibe. In 2000 I switched to Pro Tools and did a bunch of recordings using tube preamps as the front end, and developing a technique to get a warm airy sound.
What kind of preamps were you using?
The Avalon 727, two of those, a Manley, a Summit and an old Neve from Dan Alexander. I began recording a lot at my house and in other studios, and began finishing them in my house. In 2009 Susana Baca’s contract was up with Luaka bop and I went back to Peru to record an album dedicated to her mother. Her husband had built a studio in their garage which was a really big, big garage. Lima is on the coast and is really humid with wet, sea air, and Susana is asthmatic and really didn’t like recording in her studio. I noticed her kitchen was big and airy and dry, and she liked to sing and dance there. So we brought the equipment up and recorded in her kitchen. She had her dog with her and she felt very calm and comfortable. Lima is also very noisy so we had to wait ‘til midnight. She had to take a nap and then wake up at midnight and we would record from midnight to four in the morning.
You are a B2 Bomber owner. Would you like to talk a little bit about your experience putting that in your chain?
Yeah, so I work frequently with John Greenham. We partnered in the year 2000 or 2001 and began mixing and mastering. Over the years we did about forty records together. One day Rich (Williams) came over to the studio at the Music Annex in Palo Alto and brought these converters and left them there. We really liked the sound. So we began using it on all the recording for the mastering and for mixing. Rich also built a summing mixer that we used on a bunch of recordings, (the B32 Vancouver prototype) and the B2 sound became part of our bag of tricks to get a really punchy master and it was especially kind to the percussion and the drums. And now I’ve acquired my own B2 ADC that I’m using in my home studio so I frequently track through it when I do my overdubs, and usually put the kick and snare through it and use it as a summing mixer. I take the output of Pro Tools and send it through the Manly tube pre into the B2 and back into the Pro Tools and that is how I get my mix. So I can hear it, and it really makes a big difference, to kind of sharpen the corners on each instrument so you can hear the definition of the instrument. It doesn’t blur so much into others. I notice that with the bass and it has a little more airy top high end. So it’s become part of my arsenal and I’m saving my pennies to get the Mothership. When I was just recently mixing a cd for a Filipina jazz singer named Raquel, she kept saying the bass sounds too boomy and too blurry, she couldn’t really hear the notes so we just passed the bass track through the B2 and it tightened it up and pulled it all together. So kind of a success story there.
What about the SambaDá records? That’s how I started working with you.
So when was it? 2006? We recorded SambaDa’. Our experience was similar to several of the records that I’ve done with a lot of local groups where we would record the band all at once, then realize we had to go back and redo most of the record. We recorded it at Coast Recorders (San Francisco) through the Neve board using analog Millennia and Universal Audio preamps. And later we realized we needed to go back and study the arrangements. Pro Tools became an important arrangement tool, to figure it out, and then overdub the parts and redo the parts. We began working that way, piecing it together. That was mastered through the B2 also, which gave it really a clear punchy sound because most of it was recorded in my garage in Bernal Heights. So it helped out some of the sonic problems that we had in the space and then the second SambaDá record ‘Gente’ was recorded at Rich Williams’ studio, Paradise Recording (also ground zero for Burl Audio) using a lot of Burl gear and we were able to get a really deep and nice percussion sound through that.
Compare tracking with the B2 to the Digi 192’s? How much closer are you getting to your mix in that stage?
Especially with the bass, I notice a big difference recording the bass. It gives it a little more air, and a little more boom to the bass recording the bass directly through an Avalon preamp. That worked out really well. Also, we notice that with the kick drum and the snare made a big difference helping to try to correct some of the problems that we had. It just gave it more definition to hear it better, more punch. More air.
Thanks to Greg for his time and congratulations on the 2 new Grammy Nominations for 2013, Systema Bomb’s “Electro Jarocho” for Best Latin Alternative Album, and Los Cojolites’ “Sembrando Flores” for Best Regional Mexican Music Album (Including Tejano).