Perfect Sound Forever


photo by Catherine Rankovic

Interview by Iara Lee

Working as a producer for more than three decades, Teo Macero is probably best known for his work with Miles Davis. This is of course justified but sells short all of the other work that he's done. Starting out a saxophonist himself and recording with Charlie Mingus, he went on to do a broad range of studio work that included Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Tony Bennett, Johnny Mathis, Thelonious Monk, Simon and Garfunkel, Ella Fitzgerald, Glenn Miller and Lionel Hampton. Later, he would work his magic with the Lounge Lizards, Vernon Reid and Robert Palmer among many others. It wasn't just the fact that Macero did such a wide range of work that's earned him his legend. Especially with Miles in the '70's and late '60's, he turned the studio into his own workshop, editting and reshapping Miles' groundbreaking music. Hordes of engineers and studio mavens would later take up his charge in this area but none of it would have meant anything without his pioneering work to proceed it.

Iara Lee conducted this interview for the film MODULATIONS- cinema for the ear in September of 1997 at his home in NYC.

2008 update: Teo Macero died on February 19th. We have a small tribute to him from author Catherine Rankovic.

Q. Do you think that the studios that you had been working in early on were in any way comparable to the studios today?

A. I had a studio available to me for thirty years. And I had access to guys who could create a piece of equipment that I needed. In the '50's and '60's we didn't have anything like a digital delay. We had to manufacture a digital delay. Now when you want a digital delay, you turn your machine half a step or whatever it is. To me, that doesn't really make the difference. It was the crudeness of all the things that we did.

Q. You were talking about the crudeness being important.

A. Yeah, it was a very inventive period in the '50's and '60's and the late '40's. When I was at Juilliard, for instance, I experimented quite a bit with electronic effects. I had access to the studio and I had access to recording, so I had time to maneuver. Then when I went to CBS in '56, '57 I had a whole engineering department and research department at my beck and call. If I wanted something particular for Miles, I would call them up and say, "I got this kind of crazy idea, can you invent or bring me back a piece of equipment that will do this?" So they did. And many times we used a lot of electronic effects on Miles which Miles really didn't have anything to do with except in the final analysis, whether he liked it or disliked it.

I think that the effects that we created in those days were much more real. Everything today, with electronics is synthetic. You turn a button here, you get it a half step higher, turn a button there you get it half a step lower, or you stretch it out. But they're not doing it correctly. I don't think they're doing it the right way- there are no highs and no lows. There's just a bunch of noises. We always had direction. When we were doing it, there was always a pivot point and then you moved on from that and then created these sounds. And that brought them back to simplicity again. Now everybody gets out there and they want to play that stuff ,I do it myself, but after fifteen minutes your mind starts to wander and the players start to wander and there's no definition. I mean music has to have lines, has to have dynamics, has to have emotion, all the elements that make it in music. But today, with the synthetic stuff, you got a gimmick here and a gimmick there, that's still not going to make it.

In the old times, we would take two tapes, put them together on two different machines, record on the third one and try to sort of sync them up. But not sync them up exactly, it's just a fraction off, so that you wonder when you listen back to some of the Miles things, for instance, you wonder how this sound was created. Now, I did all that in the studio. I said to Miles, "Do you like it? If you like it we'll leave it in. If you don't like it I'll remix it again." And we used to do that with a lot of other artists. And then there was a way of mixing it too, because we mixed it differently. I don't know how they do it today." I mean for instance, I used a limiter with Miles for certain things, the early records in the late '60's, early '70's. I would take all that stuff, take it back to the studio and rework it. And then maybe use some of it and create a whole different texture. And then what I would do in terms of the mix, which is also an electronic device, I would take the two track masters, feed the 2-track masters into the board, take another two outputs and feed them into separate channels, left and right, and bring it up into the center. So you have in essence four parts, but really three. Then you can maneuver the bass, or you could maneuver the drums, and you could equalize the one that's in the middle, that's why his records, and a lot of the records that I mixed sound good.

I mean this remixing of today, it's like taking it back 50 years and to me, I don't think that's right. Because it was created with love and understanding of the artistry, because the artist wanted to progress, I wanted to progress. I mean I'm a composer myself, got a couple of Guggenheims, won all kinds of prizes. So I understood. I mean my first obligation was to create these massive sonorities. You can hear where we were back in 1951. What we does was write out a part, and then you'd play it back. Then you add another part and play those parts back. Then add another part and another part. That, to me is, electronic. The engineer, thought at the time that we were crazy. But working with Mingus was another matter. He liked those kinds of things, but he always came to the editing room. That's the downfall. I mean Miles never came to the editing room. In 25 or 30 years he was there maybe four or five times. So I had a carte blanche to maneuver, do things with his music that I couldn't do with other people's.

They would come and they would sit and, you know, give us time. We're creating. I mean, "You've done your work. Let me do mine." And then we'd get with a good engineer and if I needed something in a hurry, I'd get some loop machines which created a lot of illusions for Miles. They were made, one of them is in here. I got another one in the studio. But they were all sort of electronic pieces that were made that I finally bought from CBS because I thought they were so great. I mean you can't duplicate this today because they have movable heads on it. That was very crude. I mean today you turn a button and you might get the digital delay on one track and not on the other. But we had a lot of fun experimenting.

Q. Talk about cutting and splicing in In A Silent Way.

A. That was one of the rare times that Miles came to the studio. I called Miles up and I said, "Look, I mixed two stacks of tapes, about 15 or 20 reels each, I can make the cuts, I can do the edit..." [As Miles] "I'll come down. I'll be there." So he came down and we cut each side down to 8 1/2 minutes and I think the other side was 9 1/2 and he said he was leaving in four-letter words, he's going to get out of there, and that would be his album. I said, "Look you really can't do that. I mean CBS will fire you, suspend you, fire me. But give me a couple of days, I'll think about it." And then a couple of days later I sent him up a tape and that was it. What I did, I copied a lot of it. You wouldn't know where the splices are. And Joe Zawinul should give us half of his money for fixing it all up. Because, at the end, I didn't know, I thought it was all Miles' music. But apparently Joe Zawinul claimed it was his. So we paid him all the royalties.

But there again, when you cut and you edit you can do it in such a way that no one will ever know. And those days we still were doing it with a razor blade. I mean it's not like digital recording now where you got the 24 tracks and all kinds of equipment. You can put it on the computer. You can do all the things you want to do. If you want to move that thing over, I mean not one beat but maybe a beat and a half or beat and a 1/6. So you create a wash. There's a lot of things that you can do today that we didn't have the techniques to do in the late '50's and early '60's. But I think In A Silent Way is really a remarkable record for what it is. I mean for a little bit of music it's turned into a classic. And we did that with a lot of other records of his where we would use bits and pieces of cassettes that he would send me and say, "Put this in that new album we're working on." I would really shudder. I'd say, "Look, where the hell is it going to go? I don't know". He says, "Oh, you know".

So he sends me the tape, I listen to it, and I say, "Oh yeah, maybe we can stick that in here." And there were a lot of times in my career with Miles that I would do that. Put the cassette right from the stage into the Master tape. And we did a lot of electronic effects when we did Sketches of Spain. I mean if you listen to it very carefully you'll hear that in one spot on the record the band comes up center and splits, goes around and comes up again. We had all kinds of boxes and one engineer would be monitoring one box and I'll be monitoring the other to make this effect. I mean not many people really have heard that record the way it should be. But they've put it back out again. CBS and the Miles Davis collection. And it's not the same. I mean there was a wealth of love to make this music boil. I mean Miles' music, that's the way it is anyway. But to highlight it, to give it a 21st Century feel to it, is what I always wanted to do in my own music, and I still do. And I wanted to do it with my artists because it made for a better record, for an unusual one. That's why we got a gold and platinum record. There are so many records Miles has that have gone gold and platinum.

Q. When you were splicing, did you realize you were doing something revolutionary, not just getting the work done?

A. Well, what I would do is take it for what it's worth and I didn't think anything about it myself. I just tried to use my imagination. "How can I make this better? It's good, but electronically can we do something to give it more impact?". And we did. We had another machine invented when we were doing a record called Get Up With It by Miles. We were dedicating a number to Duke Ellington ("He Loved Him Madly"). And I put this track through this piece of equipment. I called Miles up and I says, "Look, something unusual happened here. I can't figure it out. I don't know what it is, but I hear the Duke Ellington band. Not your band, the Duke Ellington band, coming through the speakers." Holy Christ, mean it was traumatic and exciting at the same time. I couldn't believe what I was hearing.

The instruments, whatever they were, it sounded like the rhythm section. I mean the soloists and the brass and saxophones came right straight through. The next day we tried to duplicate it, but couldn't do it. We didn't touch the machines. It's like somebody had pushed a button, and out came Duke. Because, it was a tribute to Duke Ellington. I mean that sounds kind of scary to me but that's what happened. I've used it since and it hasn't created the same kind of illusion. But I think Duke was there in that room that day.

Q. Talk about the influence when you started in the '40's, and nowadays, with electronic music.

A. I started at Juilliard, studying and working in the engineering department for 50 cents an hour to try to pay my way through. But then I got interested in it because of Edgar Varese. He was like my second father. There are some pictures here of the two of us and some scores I had. I mean, I was there when he was doing the "Poème Electronique" in Paris. He would show me all the pieces, all of the elements. But he was creating sounds from other sources other than electronica sounds. He was making his own, which to me is very creative. Much more so than just putting it through a filter. He created all kinds of things for that "Poème Electronique" and I was fascinated by it. We used to see each other for lunch. We'd talk on Saturdays and Sundays on the phone and he'd come to all the concerts that I gave. He was like a second father, with a tremendous amount of knowledge. He was a sweet man but very creative. I mean they haven't realized how great he was. It took I think 25 years before the Philharmonic played one of his pieces. He had to be 75 yrs old. I think that's disgusting and discouraging for contemporary composers to try to write music and have to wait 25 years to hear it done right.

But with Varese at the helm, everybody else seemed to follow suit. But they had done it superficially. I think of people creating it from buzz saws - like two individuals from up at Columbia University, Otto Luenning and Ussachevsky. They were doing a lot of electronic effects and I was fascinated with what they were doing. And I used to listen to all of that stuff and talk to them about it because they were friends of mine. I mean they were much older than I was at the time. But they encouraged me to do a lot of different things. So, when I have the opportunity I just do it. I have a device called "the switcher", and it takes this program and moves it. We have one record out there with that. I put it on the drums, it sounds like the drummer has got 8 hands and 8 feet. It goes (imitates sound) and it all was done on one track. So I said, you know, the drums come out the center and Miles out the left and something out the right, to me it wasn't the way to do it.

So the way I did it, I got Miles in the center. I put this drum track on this fancy switcher so it created the stereo versions. And then I had the bass and the sax. It's an interesting concept. In fact, we used it just recently on a couple of albums and it works beautifully. I mean those were the kind of electronic things sort of hand-made. They're not very fancy but they do what you cannot do with the synthesizers and electronics at the moment. I don't know of another machine doing that. Sure, they have a digital delay, it goes (sound). This doesn't do that. It goes (sound). You can slow it down, you can speed it up, you can move it. It's terrific. I mean if you want electronic effects, that's what you have to rely on. In fact, a lot of guys, when I make records, I say "Do you like this sound?". They go nuts. They go ape. There was a new record just came out in England called Contemporary Music and it's filled with a lot of jazz people. I thought I'd have a copy of it, I don't. And it's got a lot of electronic effects all the way through it. And there's one piece of mine that is in there that's part of the ballet. And they used one movement. You have to listen to that one because it's interesting in terms of electronics. It was done on a 3-track.

Q. Contemporary digital equipment doesn't create funky music anymore?

A. Contemporary music, electronically... no. Because what happens is it's too beat-oriented, it's locked in, there's no emotion. We never did that. We always played very loose, but we had a direction to go to. We had some simple things, I have a piece, I don't have it here, that Varese wrote and gave it to me back in the '60's. And it's all lines and graphs. And if you want to call that electronic music, yes, you can do that. But it creates a different image. So all these things that we were using, you really need a studio. You need 2-tracks or 4-tracks, 3-tracks, 8-tracks, so you can take these tapes and manipulate them. Now what I try to do in some of the things, go back and remix, if I'm allowed to, go back and remix a particular track. Like Miles' Jack Johnson. I want to go back and remix it and bring it up to the 21st century. They said, "NO, you can't do that." I said, "Well, the original record is out there. This is just another version of that, we'll add something to it." Because I was going to put the various tracks through speakers, put them on a loop or something , and then take the program and put in another 2 tracks and come up with a Master. You could equalize the bass you could take the bass, you could take the drums, you can do so many things. But the higher-ups (at the record company) have a very narrow span, they can't think long term they can only think of the bottom line and short term and they have no idea what the hell is going on. I mean they should just leave it up to the creative people to do all the experimental things, because this is how music is developed. It happened with Bebop. It happened with the good music, Glenn Miller, Duke Ellington, etc.. But if they were left alone to their own ideas they could have created a hell of a lot more. But you get locked in with record companies and they'd like to chop your head off.

You know, it's a funny thing, but after all these years, after 40 years, what is CBS and Sony putting out? They're reissuing every record I ever made! And in some cases trying to remix it. Those things would be impossible to do. And I've really been fighting them tooth and nail about it because I said, "This is not really right those records were gold. It would sound very contemporary, if I were to do it. If they were to do it, it would sound like an old record. And you can go get the Miles set, the new set with Gil Evans, and you'll hear it. If you had the original record you could hear the differences. The original had a life to it, had a quality to it. The new ones, when they mix it, they lose some of the elements. I mean I didn't lose any of the elements that I had because, I wanted to make sure this came out, that came out, try this on that, try this equalization, try this digital delay on it, try this echo, a delayed echo. So I wanted to do my own editing in the studio. I've got a lot of electronic equipment around. I'd make loops. And I say, "Look, I'm pleasing myself first. And if the record company wants to do something about it, then I'll change".

But I'm proud of the things that we made. I made about 98% of them at Columbia for 20 or 30 years. They didn't put out anything new. I mean what did they put out? They put out these two box sets and reissues of some of the early records of Miles. Big deal! I mean the whole thing is to have that input and have the artist make what he wants to make along with the producer to create the image. I mean they're using these things that were made 35 or 40 years ago, and reaping the benefits. At the time we were doing it, I wanted to do that with Duke Ellington. Wanted to do it with Monk, with Dave Brubeck and with Miles. And I was turned down. They said, "Oh we don't want another album". I said, "This has nothing to do with that. Even though the material might possibly be the same, if we do it correctly and let them play live, in concerts, whatever, I can take those tapes back and put them together". "Oh, we can't do that. We can't do that". I said, "Who do you think okayed it for 35 years?". I said Miles will listen to it, but he never rejected anything in all that time, from '56, '57 right straight through till he left CBS, I think it was in '83. I was contracted to be involved in a Miles Davis reissue without any real input or editing or mixing control. The record company wouldn't listen to me so I told them where to go.

Q. Talk about the process- he would jam, and you would edit?

A. His stuff was mostly written down. I mean it was worked on in the studio. But I would record from the time he got there, which was usually on time, until he left. I'd record everything. And then when I'd go back to the editing room, I would edit everything. I listened to everything back. Miles would say, "You remember that thing in the second take?" I said "yeah." And I would maybe make a loop and create it. That's why those records were so good. Maybe people will say it didn't sound authentic. It is authentic because you're acting like a writer for a book, like an editor. I mean you can't pan the book if the material is great. I'm just there to make sure that everything is in order. Sometimes those first 2 or 3 takes that Miles makes, or the first one in some cases, is dynamite. And you just don't touch that. So I made these three pieces. And they're three suites. And they're just gorgeous. And they would have been three more big pieces, instead of throwing it out the window like they did with this set. And I tried to talk them into it and at that point, I just gave up. I said, "Maybe you know more than I do. But I'm not interested."

I did a thing called "Sweet Sue" for Leonard Bernstein. I wrote the introduction for it and Miles was at the session so he played it, and he said, "Well, I'll take this introduction". There was enough takes in the recording session to put it together as a suite. He plays the mute, and all of a sudden, a little passage goes by, and he plays an open horn. Then I pick it up somewhere along the line, maybe with the mute again, and then followed by an open horn. And it's really terrific. I mean when you listen to it you think, "Gee, that's a piece of music". Isn't that what we're supposed to do? Arrangers? I mean we have to arrange something. I did that for all my artists, the ones that wanted it. Some of them were more difficult than others. I mean if I wanted to make a cut with Monk's record, I cut it. If I wanted to make an edit with somebody else... Brubeck, you couldn't. Brubeck was so fussy about one note. I said, "Dave, that's not going to make the difference." I think they've remixed all of his things too. But I don't think they're as good as the original mixes.

Q. Talk about the idea of the studio as a musical instrument?

A. Absolutely. I find that isolation is now on the way out. When they come into the studio they want to put the band together so the musicians would feel better. That's the way we recorded Miles, Monk, Brubeck. See, there's air around it. I mean with the new so-called "plug in here, plug in there, go directly to the board", it doesn't have that air around it. Even though you add the echo, you need that sort of sheen. When you listen to some of the records we made over the years you'll hear that sheen. I mean it's there. I consider the studio a musical instrument. I tour with them all the time. I mean there were things I keep asking them to do: "No, we can't do this. We can' do that.". I said "I don't want to hear 'we can't do that', let's go do it." They say "this is limiting and this is peaking." I said, "I don't want to hear that, I don't know anything about that." I'm stupid when it comes to that. But I said, "I hear it in my head and I think I can feel that it should be something else." And you strive for that.

I have my own work that I'm working on now. I haven't quite finished with it yet. But it's something like that. We're going to take them back into the studio. I was in the studio last week where I did a lot of, I wouldn't say "overdubs." I did some overdubs but I'm going to make a lot of edits, because sometimes when you listen to a record, I know the record is good the way it is, but I'd like it to be better than the way it is because I know how people are. Critics, they get something and if it's boring to them the first minute and a half, they start to criticize it. Although if you played it through, time and time again you'll hear the logic of it. So I'm just going to go direct, right to the main theme or whatever it is, and create a different kind of thing. So you've got to be able to take that stuff out. I mean if something doesn't please me I take it out and I do it myself. And with Mingus, I did the same thing. If it didn't please him, didn't please me, out it went. There were many times in Miles' records that something didn't please Miles. So we cut them out. That's why those records are so tight. They're all Miles. And you get your money's worth. I said we're not selling somebody else. There are a lot of times in a record, as you're editing it, cutting it in the studio that it just sort of falls dead. Especially when a bass plays by itself. Or the drummer plays by itself. And you say, "What is that?". I mean the rhythm, the bass, the drummer are our rhythm instruments so therefore they should be just pumping away. We don't need 94 bars for solos and the drummer to take 2 1/2 minutes to do his schtick, because he's doing it all along anyway. I mean you have to be creative. You let them play, that's what I do, I let them play. And if I like the take I say, "That's a good take", but when I get it back I can just take out the few things that I want out to tighten it all up that's what we did with Miles.

See part two of the Teo Macero interview

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