Friday, September 1, 2017

Jason Corsaro - High Fidelity Sound Engineer

A Poet makes himself a visionary through a long, boundless, and systematized disorganization of all the senses. All forms of love, of suffering, of madness; he searches himself, he exhausts within himself all poisons and preserves their quintessence's. Unspeakable torment, where he will need the greatest faith, a superhuman strength, where he becomes among all men the great invalid, the great criminal, the great accursed--and the Supreme Scientist!
-  Arthur Rimbaud

The Starlight Lounge, that plane of existence where the best musicians and comedians hang out apr├Ęs-vie, finally got their recording and mix engineer of equal calibre.  Jason Corsaro left his planetary body two weeks ago at the criminally young age of 58, and he is sorely missed.  Jason was to the recording studio what Hendrix was to the guitar, or what Coltrane, Coleman and Davis were to the horn, an innovator of the instrument.  In Jason's case, he used the recording studio to produce and invent new means of musical expression.  This may sound like hyperbole, but it's not, you can check other testimonials around the web where he's getting similar acclaim (" best engineer ever," says one).  The honorific, High Fidelity, doesn't refer to its conventional sense.  Jason created his own fidelity, that of an extremely original, high musical aesthetic that evolved and sometimes devolved, but was always different.  He had a unique sound that always changed.



Jason was larger than life.  Whenever he entered a room, life expanded to accommodate his presence.  That was the first thing I learned from him when we met.  Jason had the natural, unassuming aura of a star. I didn't spend all that much time with him during a short apprenticeship, but I came away from it loving him like a brother.  The longer projects we worked together on, each about a week to ten days, included: The Swans, The Ramones, Ginger Baker, Ronald Shannon Jackson and Stevie Salas.  There were some one-offs: a song by L.A. Guns that never saw the light of day, and a few songs by the French group FFF.  For FFF, he mixed the most important tracks and I took over the rest.  The torch was finally passed on that project and it did very well for the band in France. I also had the great fortune to assist him recording Tony Williams and a group of jazz luminaries.that included Elvin Jones, Sonny Sharrock, Pharoah Saunders and Charnette Moffat.  Each and every of these brief tenures is at the top of my list of most intense life experiences.

In a beautiful tribute to his friend and former collaborator, Nile Rodgers writes to Jason: "In some way you changed the world."  Yes he did.  For instance, it was Jason's mixing skills that temporarily promoted drummer Tony Thompson to a job with Led Zeppelin.

Mixing live sound for bar bands in the early and mid 1980s, every drummer, without exception, would ask me to make the drums sound like Led Zeppelin's John Bonham's kit.  Until, one day in late 1985, the drummer for the bar band Blade Runner requested that his drums sound like the Corsaro engineered Power Station record.  This became my first encounter with Jason's influence and ability to change the music industry.  With Bonham, you could hang one mic in a stairwell (When the Levee Breaks) and get a huge, powerful, drum sound.  The drum sound on the Power Station album started with a powerful hitting drummer but was reached through studio manipulation with Corsaro reportedly punching in and out every reverb move on the drums.  After Bonham died, Zeppelin hired Tony Thompson for their Live Aid reunion.  You can get a good idea of Jason's drum sound on Robert Palmer's hit Addicted to Love, another Thompson/Corsaro sonic collaboration:


 Thompson on that recording experience:

The engineer, Jason Corsaro, took a tube the size of my bass drum and built this tunnel from my bass drum all the way out into the hall and up the stairs. It was this weird thing he hooked up. And it worked.

Another major contribution Jason made towards changing the world, for better or for worse depending upon your perspective, was recording and mixing Madonna's Like A Virgin album, the record that made her a star.  He never once mentioned that to me. 

My second encounter with Jason was also virtual occurring when Bill Laswell played Cold Metal, the first track off of Iggy Pop's Instinct album, in Platinum Island's Studio East control room.  Half of this Laswell produced record was mixed by Corsaro at the Power Station while the other half was mixed by Robert Musso at Platinum Island with yours truly assisting.  From the opening chord the mix of Cold Metal jumped out of the speakers with its energy, intensity, and excitement and made Musso visibly nervous about reaching that standard.  After Bill and company left, as Bob and I began working on the song Easy Rider, Musso lamented that the Power Station studio had beautiful sounding live chambers, how could he match that?  I pointed out that we could set up the recording room in our studio as a live chamber and proceeded to do so.  A live chamber is any acoustic space configured with amplified speakers fed by an auxiliary send from the mixing desk.  This space is miced, often with the mics in a cardiod pattern aimed away from the speakers.  These microphones are routed to return channels on the board to make for a natural reverberation chamber that sounds significantly better than even the most expensive digital reverb devices.

This was the first time Platinum Island's studio was utilized in this way and the room sounded great as a live chamber. I continue to use this mixing technique to this day.  In fact, first on the agenda today when I start mixing the MaMuse record in a couple of hours, is to set up and process tracks through the live chamber at Prairie Sun known as the Waits Room, named for its discoverer as a recording space.  It makes for one of the best small live chambers in the world. This room is another studio on the property that's booked up beginning tomorrow so I'll go through all the songs to send the tracks I want processed through the chamber and record them back into the Pro Tools session.  I inadvertently rediscovered this "old school" method in response to Musso's concern over matching the intensity of Jason's Iggy Pop's mixes.  When Jason started mixing at Platinum Island he used that live chamber all the time.

Bob Musso rose to the occasion and produced comparably powerful mixes on his half of Instinct.  Corsaro's work motivated Musso to reach a higher level in a similar way that Hendrix's guitar virtuosity spurred Noel Redding and Mitch Mitchell to play beyond their capacity in the early Jimi Hendrix Experience.

Jason didn't seem particularly keen about sharing his engineering techniques with anyone outside of the sessions yet, as others have also observed, he was very generous about passing on his knowledge and taking proteges under his wing.  The last day of the first project we worked together, The Swans -  The Burning World,  Jason turned me loose to mix the two alternate acoustic tracks giving a short mixing lesson in the process.  I feel it's historically important to the recording community to share some of his techniques and approaches to sound engineering in the same way as it is examining the methodology of any great musician.  No one can take his place and achieve the same results, you would have to be Jason to do that, however, his mixing style can inspire creative, outside-the-box sonic artistry.

Here's a few things I learned from him.  In retrospect, some of these appear quite obvious, but they were revelations to me at the time, and in this day and age where a high percentage of musicians are also amateur engineers, I expect these tips will be useful.

1.  Remember who you are and what you can do.  Bring your full presence of attention and confidence in your ability into the space.  Radiate this confidence like a star.  If you don't feel confident, fake it.

2. Process effects.  Most, nearly all, engineers I assisted prior to Jason would return their reverbs, delays etc. straight back into the board.  On a regular basis, Corsaro would  EQ, compress, gate and route effects into other effects sometimes daisy chaining four or five different processors together to come up with something previously unheard of in this space/time continuum; detune the live drum chamber, add a dash of chorus, flange or phase shifting to a reverb, etc.  Something as simple as low passing a reverb return (i.e. rolling off the high frequencies) can make a big difference.  Darker reverbs sound more natural.  I wish I had saved all the recall notes for Jason's sessions to give specific examples.

3.  Be fully present in the moment.  The moment that the mix is being printed is when the invocation is landing into a corporeal form; when it assumes a morphology taking a material shape.  As much as possible, Jason would make the creation of the mix a live event.  After getting all the sounds and setting up a balance of the tracks, he would assign all the major food groups (drums, bass, keys guitars, vocals etc.) to the eight subgroup faders in the middle of the SSL console.  Then he'd mix the song in one pass as a live performance.  He might do a few or several passes, like a guitar player trying to nail the perfect solo, but, in my experience with him, it was always the whole song in one go.  He wasn't the type of mixer to work on tweaking a section one fader at a time before moving to the next section. Not to say that he wouldn't embellish and tweak this first basic pass, but the idea was to do the whole thing at once, to create a live mix performance in the studio.

A great example to hear that is the aforementioned Iggy Pop song, Cold Metal.  Jason told me that just when that track was going to print, the SSL computer automation broke down and wouldn't work.  All the sounds were set, everything was routed to the central subgroup faders so Jason mixed it live to the two track mixdown recorder.  When working in this fashion, you are mixing from the heart and soul - intuitively and on  the fly.  There isn't time to mentally think about getting everything in its "proper" place.  Any great artistic creation bypasses the rational mind and its worries, concerns and editorial censorship.  The guitar solo in Cold Metal is slightly inside the track, a little lower in volume level than where you'd commonly place a solo, but the energy and excitement of the track is undeniable.  It's the only song from Instinct that made it onto an Iggy Pop Greatest Hits compilation.  Contrast that with the guitar solo level in another Corsaro mixed song from Instinct, Strong Girl which sounds a little louder than your average solo.  There's a couple of syncrhonicities going on here.  First of all, the album is called Instinct; Jason mixed from instinct and intuition - heart and soul, not from his rational mind.  The first line in Cold Metal is: "I play tag in the auto graveyard..." - the SSL computer automation was in the graveyard when Jason materialized that mix into the world.

4. Mix as if it's life or death. This seems the difference between an artist attempting to create something that's never been seen or heard before and a craftsperson producing a socially and culturally accepted artifact according to a standard formula.  Quoting from a much earlier post: "One thing I really picked up from Jason was his intensity, focus and commitment to the work. He aimed for mixes that broke barriers and reached for new levels of sonic expression. It's hard to get across just how intense the space was when he was working. You had to be at your highest degree of presence and attention, more so than you ever thought possible because that's where he was at. He was going for sounds, especially in the low end, that would present ground-breaking music, such as the Ginger Baker album, Middle Passage, more powerfully than ever before; to strike a Universal Chord, create a vibrational pattern that could and would, perhaps, resonate throughout the planet. At times it would seem that Jason would mix as if the fate of the World hung in the balance. He intensely loved what he was doing which probably contributed significantly to the success his work enjoyed."

Suggested listening:  I haven't had the chance to listen Jason's to entire oeuvre, but I do intend to catch up with some of his classic mixes as points of study.  Here is a selection of tracks that I know about with a few comments:

1. Public Image Limited, the entire generic Album.  Jason once relayed a story of recording Ginger Baker's drums for this album.  One Sunday at the Power Station recording studio, when most of the staff wasn't around, he somehow managed to stop the elevator, place a sheet of thick plywood for a platform on top of the elevator and set up the drums in the elevator shaft.  Later on he got in a lot of trouble from the Power Station management.  If anyone got hurt, insurance wouldn't have covered it and they would have been liable for any potential lawsuits.

2.  Swans - The Burning World.  In particular, the tracks The River That Runs with Love Won't Run Dry, Let It Come Down, Can't Find My Way Home,(She's A) Universal Emptiness, and Saved. From the earlier post:

"For the first two sessions (of this project) I did the standard assistant's job of patching, keeping notes, etc while also hanging back, staying out of Jason's way and not saying much, which was the politically correct way of working as an assistant - not offering any input or opinion unless asked or if something drastically wrong was occurring.

At the end of the second night, Corsaro had, a 'let's get real' talk with me that was kind of a kick in the ass. I don't remember exactly what he said, but something to the effect that I could either continue working as any other stay-in-the-lines assistant engineer jerk or I could seriously help him mix the record as a co-pilot. From then on I was right beside him at the board watching his every move like a hawk, making suggestions when appropriate, even helping with automation moves when his hands were full."

From another post about this recording:

"One example of how strong the mood became for me was during the mix of the Swans cover of Can't Find My Way Home written by Steve Winwood and originally performed by Blind Faith, the 'super-group' with Winwood, Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker and Ric Grech.

Come down off your throne and leave your body alone
Somebody must change

You are the reason I've been waiting so long

Somebody holds the key

Well I'm near the end and I just ain't got the time

And I'm wasted and I can't find my way home...


Somehow, the combination of the way Jarboe sang it, the music, and the fact of living the song from the inside out by helping Jason set-up the mix and hearing it over and over again, put me in a mood where, within the confines of the control room, it really felt like a life or death situation. I was mindful of the song's context and history, and the self-destructive excesses it was obviously addressing. I really felt it could go either way, toward life or to death. Trilok's pitch bending, slower tabla rhythm helped produce this effect. Karl Berger, founder of the influential Woodstock based Creative Music Studio, had added a nice bell like counter line on a xylophone that seemed to draw in an angelic presence to guard the vulnerability of balancing on the edge that came through Jarboe's vocal delivery. Even as the lyrics look hopeless, the music, the performance, and the haunting dreamy nature of the audio space Jason created, gave the effect of seeing a distant light at the end of a long dark tunnel suggesting the possibility of transformation, redemption and change."

3.  Ginger Baker - Middle Passage.  This remains one of the most sonically powerful  recording expressions I've ever been a part of.  Quoting about the drum solo:

"The peak of watching Jason work occurred during the mix of the 5th track, Basil, a 4:21 drum solo by Baker. Through extreme, but parallel processing, he created radically different textures in the drum sound which he then, using the SSL automation, brought in and out to create different dynamic sections. I'm hesitant to be more specific about the effects used but I can say that when Jason worked the automation to create or emphasize the different sections, it was like watching a virtuoso musical performance. Both Bill Laswell and I were sitting with Jason at the SSL while he made multiple passes to get the automation just right. I had the feeling that Bill was equally aware that we were watching a master at the top of his game. It's a memory that I'll never forget. I highly recommend checking out Basil, it's some of the most powerful drumming you'll ever hear. It's about the only drum recording I know of that musically and sonically compares with John Bonham's Moby Dick for a powerfully melodic drum composition, brought to the forefront through Jason's mix."

I do remember one of the effects he used for it - a triggered flanged autopan program from the Eventide H3000 SE which he ran the tom toms through.

Bill Laswell and Yoko Yamabe put this together to honor his memory:






To the being of Jason Corsaro: bon voyage, mon ami, you changed my life. Your work and legacy live on.

1 comment:

  1. Very nice reflections about Jason. He truly was the most adventurous and had incredible abilities and imagination as an engineer that no one could ever match.

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