LAST WORD: ED CHERNEY
with Ed Cherney
Ed Cherney has learnt from the best — Quincy Jones, Bruce Swedien, Don Was and Phil Ramone — and engineered the best — Rolling Stones, Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton… even Spinal Tap. In his time he’s been a six-time Grammy nominee and won three times. Ed (in the ’salmon’ shirt) is pictured with Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt and Quincy Jones.
I never thought of music as a career. Instead, I was on the road to go to law school. After I graduated from college, some friends in a band asked if I knew how to drive their truck when they were on the road. I did, so I started moving their gear.
About a month in, the sound engineer didn’t show up — he got fired or he was drunk — and the band said, “You’re mixing tonight.” It probably wasn’t great but the band had a lot of vocal harmonies and I just had an ear for balancing vocals. I started doing it more, until I was mixing every night.
Towards the end of the summer, the band went into the studio to record an album. I walked into the studio and it was like a shot went off in the middle of my soul — I knew what I wanted to do with my life. Instead of going to law school, I enrolled in a technical school to learn electronics for a few months while I worked on getting a job in a Chicago studio. Chicago was really happening at that time — jingles, rock records, RnB records.
I made it my quest to get an entry-level job in a Chicago studio. You know how it’s hard to get a job in a studio now? Well, that hasn’t changed. Once a month, for three years, I rang the bell of every studio and was turned down for a job.
One day I rang the bell at a place called Paragon Studios. They were doing Styx, Tyrone Davis, the Chi-lites, and jingles every morning. They hired me that day as an apprentice engineer, in November of 1976. I was supposed to start the next day at 5am to help clean up from the night sessions and set up for the morning.
I saw a lot of apprentices get fired at Paragon. You had to excel at everything — from cleaning headphones, to cleaning the bathroom, to getting food orders right, to moving microphones and folding cables.
Over the course of a year or two, you’d work your way up. But you had to know everything — the operation of every piece of gear — and they’d test you on it. I eventually worked my way up to assistant engineer.
People who are born with the desire to be a recording engineer or producer aren’t necessarily born with the ability. I don’t know of a recording engineer that was any good the first time out, or the first hundred times.
You have to be willing to fail. Get fired for what you’re trying. If you have a desire and you’re persistent, things are eventually going to figure themselves out. You’ll find your style and a way to make your statement.
At some point in 1978 my girlfriend and I got in the car and moved to California, mostly because I was hearing some records coming out that were knocking my socks off. I think I had $120 in my pocket. Later that day I knocked on the door of Westlake Studios and got hired as an assistant engineer.
Within a few weeks, Bruce Swedien came in with Quincy Jones to work on Michael Jackson’s Off The Wall record, and I was assigned to be their assistant. Bruce was one of my mentors back in Chicago who’d done everything from Duke Ellington to the Chicago Symphony. It was just coincidence he happened to come in there and that I ended up working with him. As it turned out, I assisted he and Quincy for about six years at Westlake. Spending time with them was like getting a PhD in music and the music business.
Sitting behind them, my entire soul and consciousness paid attention to every knob Bruce turned, and every arrangement change Quincy made. The musical parts, the arrangements, the performances, the quality of the song, the quality of the audio, the way Quincy treated people, the way people treated each other. I paid very close attention to all those things. I was born to be there, I knew it, I had a feel for it. I was the best assistant in the world. I could see 10 seconds into the future, and if you’re going to be a great assistant engineer, that’s what you need to be able to do — to anticipate what’s coming next, to anticipate a problem.
Moving from Chicago to Los Angeles was like going from the Farm Team to the Big Leagues. It was spectacular. All the greatest musicians in the world came through the studio working with Quincy. The truth is, what makes a great recording engineer are great musicians, without a doubt. It’s hard to make somebody sound great if they can’t play.
On to the present, I’ve got a room at Village Studios in LA, and it’s set up for mixing. It works out just great. I would love to be sitting behind an old Neve but economics just don’t allow us to do that anymore. You still do it if the budget has come in to do it.
The way we mix now, you often don’t even see your client in person. You’re going back and forth over the interwebs. Still, having a great set of speakers makes it worthwhile when you can turn it up and excite yourself. I’ve got the new ATC 45s — I’ve gotta say, I really like them. It’s nice having a three-way when you’re mixing. The vocal sits in one component and makes it easier to balance.
There’s a Solomon Burke quote on my website that says, “The secret was to just be cool, stay in God’s graces and work it out.” A lot of the time we’re faced with dilemmas, problems, and emotions running high. Just stay cool, believe in yourself, believe in the universe, stay cool with God, just do the best you can and be open, honest and giving. It’ll work itself out if you can do that. Get your ego out of the way, and just serve the music; serve the song. I think by doing that, that’s how you stay in God’s grace.