Geoff Gray on Transmitting the Legacy and Learning from Les Paul
So much of what it takes to be a great audio engineer just can’t be learned from books. It takes doing it, seeing it, and talking about it with those who know. Geoff Gray, President of Far & Away Studios, Inc., (Bill Perry, Richie Furay, Sonny Sharrock, Cass Clayton, Brian Tarquin) understands the legacy of which he’s proud to be a part. Back in the early 70s, engineer Larry Alexander (David Bowie, Mary J. Blige, Bon Jovi, Eric Clapton) took Geoff under his wing and showed him the ins-and-outs of audio engineering and recording. And it was none other than the legendary Les Paul who solidified Geoff’s propensity to think outside of the box, ask questions, and consistently push the boundaries of what’s sonically possible.
As a Recording Connection mentor, Geoff is busy transmitting the wealth of knowledge he’s attained through working with the greats onto the next wave of audio engineers and producers, who will continue on with the legacy that’s come down from mentor to protégé, generation after generation.
For Geoff, it all started with a love of music and a fascination with sound. Such things were just a given in his home when he was growing up. His earliest memories include being “enamored with music and listening to Les Paul on the radio. My mother used to have AM radio on, and I think I was just attracted to the bizarre sounds that he was able to make by speeding things up and using echo… I was kind of infected at a really, really early age, like 5 or 6.”
Geoff went on to play guitar in bands throughout high school and college. Shortly after graduating with a degree in Fine Arts, then seen as a more practical option, he returned to his hometown in New City, New York, knowing his love for music hadn’t faded one bit. He walked into 914 Recording Studios with a friend who was working on a few radio commercials for Louis Lahav, who was then in the midst of recording Bruce Springsteen’s album, Born to Run. “I didn’t even know who Bruce was,” Geoff says laughing at his former naïveté.
Nevertheless, he knew he liked being in the studio and quickly “became hooked.” Having brought his band in to record at 914 Recording Studios, led up to the moment that sealed Geoff’s fate. This being the early 70s, recording to tape was nothing short of arduous. Mess it up and an entire song could be irreparably damaged:
“At one point we were doing a mix and Larry said ‘I kind of ran out of hands here. I need somebody to move these two faders at some point in the song. Geoff, do you know what the chorus is?’…So he hits record on the quarter inch machine and hits play on the two inch machine, and my heart rate must have been about 130 beats per minute! I was just so afraid of screwing this up in the presence of somebody as good as Larry Alexander. So we got to the chorus, I pushed the faders up, I pulled them down at the right point. I think I had to do it a of couple times in the song.
When the song was over, I was just completely exhausted. It was the most thrilling thing I had ever experienced in my life. At that point I realized that I shouldn’t be playing guitar on the other side of the glass: ‘I want to be doing this and I want to emulate Larry, I want to have Larry’s sense of humor, and I want to be at the helm of The Enterprise, and I think I could do that and be good at that, and not be a mediocre guitar player who’s going to have to have a day job.’”
In the years that followed, Geoff set himself on course to learn as much as he could from Larry. When he wasn’t working in the studio, he was researching various recording techniques, reading S.O.S. Magazine on his lunch breaks and basically living and breathing audio.
Fate stepped in a second time. Geoff met his second major life luminary when he ran an ad for a Gibson guitar he was selling. The phone rang and it was none other than Les Paul on the other line:
“He invited me to come to the house, and I was like, ‘This can’t be real,’ you know? It was before his career had kind of relaunched itself. So there was a big gap in time in there, probably like 1963 or 1964 up to the early 70s where Les was pretty much retired and not doing anything except inventing awesome things that I got to help work on and be part of when I was at his house.
Les taught me the solution to a problem is always the simplest one. If you distill it down to, here’s the issue, here’s what’s happening, here’s how you fix it. People tend to panic when something happens but that’s often not the smartest way to approach things. He had this mid-western mechanical aptitude for problem solving.”
When we ask Geoff to share his insight on what students need to do to make sure they’re “absorbing” as much as they can he says, “I love the word ‘absorbing.’ Absorbing is what all the students should be doing. The level of absorption is directly proportionate to your aptitude and desire to do this… I’d be at work, and at lunch I would be reading Sound on Sound Magazine or something, then I’d come back to the studio at night and I would try different ideas.”
Nowadays, Geoff takes mostly a hybridized approach that combines the best of analog and digital:
“We have a two inch tape machine and we’ve figured out a way that we can track through that and have it simultaneously go into Pro Tools, and then we selectively keep and reject what we don’t want. I mean, cymbals are really bright and kind of grainy and high-end-y, and digital makes that better, because it’s the nature of the beast. I don’t really need them warmed up. I want them to kind of slash through a big, fat kick that’s been recorded at plus six on a two inch machine. Now I’ve got the best of both worlds. I have the extremities of punch and sonics, you know, from one to the other… we also mix to half inch tape a lot of times.”
Geoff is passing on his hard-earned knowhow to his current Recording Connection student Alex Stricker who’s soaking it up day-by-day and who he says is ‘completely capable of doing everything in the studio that I can do.’”
He also brags on Ben Fausch, his former Recording Connection extern who got hired at the world-renowned Avatar (formerly known as Power Station) shortly after graduating the program. Geoff laughs as he relates the situation his past apprentice found himself in right on day one:
“I got a text from Ben that said, ‘Well, I had my first day,’ and I texted back saying, ‘How was it?’ and he said, ‘The hardest day of my life.’ And I said, ‘Why?’ He said, ‘Not throwing up on Paul McCartney when I was taking his lunch order was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I was so nervous. I was ready to just die.’”
The stakes can get high fast when you’re preparing tomorrow’s engineers with the skills and insight it takes to work with artists of every stripe, including the legends.
For Geoff, excelling in audio engineering and music production requires tremendous drive and a sense of discovery. The nature of recording back in the day, having to tackle technical feats with hairline accuracy, such as “punching in” upwards of two to three hundred times a day, engendered a work ethic he thinks up-and-comers would be wise to emulate:
“It created really talented people who were forced to work under unbelievably hard circumstances, and know music because you couldn’t just look at the screen and go, ‘I think I’m going to punch sort of around here.’ The need for accuracy built one’s engineering chops in a way that’s not possible now.
I just think it’s kind of boring to sit down with students and tell them what hell I went through recording on a 4-track half inch Apex machine. They kind of glaze over because, and they should, because why would anybody even worry about that now?
But it was absolute hell to not have Undo!”