Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Jason Corsaro

I started out my audio career doing live sound and lights on the Western Canadian bar band circuit. The request from nearly every drummer at the time ( late '70's, early '80's) was to make their drums sound big, powerful, and live like the sound of John Bonham's drums, Led Zeppelin's drummer. I agreed with that direction and always aimed for the Bonham drum sound for rock drummers.

In the mid-80's I found myself back in Western Canada after having attended the Institute of Audio Research for a year in New York City. I was hoping to transition into a job at a recording studio. As luck would have it, there was only 1 professional studio in Calgary, Alberta, where I lived, and they didn't employ a full-time staff. So back on the road I went. Drummers still wanted the Bonham drum sound, and I hadn't heard anything better to aim for. The last band I went out with before moving back to New York was a top 40, some hard rock, cover band called Bladerunner. They were named after the same movie that's based on the Philip K. Dick novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? I disliked Bladerunner's (the cover band) music so much that I wouldn't see the movie for a long time thinking it must be equally as bad - wrong about that! However, their version of Highway to Hell did turn me into a bit of an AC/DC appreciator.

It was while working with Bladerunner that a drummer first requested a rock drum sound other than John Bonham's. He was really into the drum sound from a new group called the Power Station, named after the legendary New York recording studio. I'd remember the big radio hit they'd had with their cover of the T-Rex song Get It On ( Bang A Gong) and the drum sound did stand out as being huge, powerful, and contemporary without sounding electronic or unnaturally processed. Tony Thompson, formerly of the R&B band Chic, played drums for Power Station but his sound was largely the result of the brilliant and innovative recording and mixing techniques by engineer Jason Corsaro. The drum sound that Jason got was so powerful that Thompson was asked to join Led Zeppelin as a replacement for John Bonham after his untimely death.

I was fortune to assist Jason on about a half dozen or so projects in the early 1990's. Working with him was like being in graduate school. I regard him as a mentor. By that time I'd been working at a busy, top New York recording studio called Platinum Island for a couple of years and had worked with a number of the industry's top professionals. I knew my way around a state-of -the-art recording studio and an SSL mix room. I already was successfully engineering projects on my own. Jason took it over the top. He was my guide and doorway to the next level of recording studio wizardry.

Jason seemed liked Bill Laswell's secret weapon. His intial introduction to me was not in person, but through a mix of the song Cold Metal by Iggy Pop. This was from Iggy's Instinct album which Bill was producing. The plan was to mix half the album at the Power Station with Jason, and half at Platinum Island with Robert Musso. Bill arrived at Platinum Island for the first day of mixing with a mix Jason had done of the song Cold Metal to play as a reference. The track literally jumped out of the speakers, it sounded AMAZING!! and still does. So much so that Bob Musso became visibly nervous. After Bill left us to set-up the first track, Bob was lamenting that Jason had all these great live chambers (to use as natural reverb) available at the Power Station. I mentioned that we could use Platinum Island's studio East live room as a reverb chamber and proceeded to set it up as such. It worked quite well for that purpose and marked the first time I'd ever used such a technique. Now, live natural reverb is something I try to incorporate whenever possible. It sounds so much better than digital reverbs. To Bob's credit, he was able to get mixes powerful and intense enough to live side by side with Jason's on the Instinct record.

Platinum Island passed the mixing test resulting in Bill Laswell bringing Jason Corsaro in to mix his next major label production, The Swan's cd titled The Burning World. The first track we mixed is the first one on the cd, The River that Runs with Love Won't Run Dry. This uplifting and anthemic ode to love under will has a timeless sounding quality partially due to its Eastern flavor from Trilok Gurtu's tablas and L. Shankar's electrified classical Indian violin stylings.

For the first two sessions 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 something drastically wrong was occurring. I was amazed at Jason's use of effects. He would compress, eq, sometimes gate them, and run effects into other effects like chorusing a reverb, etc. I told him how nice the Studio East live room sounded as a reverb chamber. He wasted no time taking advantage of it, using it, in some instances, as the snare drum reverb, sometimes running the live room through a flanger, sometimes pitching it down, and timing the SSL gates just right for maximum effect.

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.

Here's a review from Amazon on the first record Jason and I mixed together with Bill Laswell producing:

5.0 out of 5 stars Simply one of the greats
One of the greatest rock cds ever released, this little-known gem is stunningly packed with brooding, hopeless lyrics that tell us that nothing is left, nothing matters, and there is no release.
God Damn the Sun and (She's A) Universal Emptiness are two of the most desolate, powerful songs I've ever heard.
Outstanding cd without a weak track.
The review implies a nihilist slant to the subject matter but I also find redemptive aspects alongside the bleakness especially in the 6th track, Saved which has the lyrics:

When Sunlight Falls On Your Shoulder
You Look Like A Creature From Heaven

You're Holy When You Open Your Eyes

And Look Up Inside That Sheltering Sky

You're An Angel, I'll Never Betray You

But I'll Always Be A Lonely Child

Perhaps writer Michael Gira or the character portrayed will always be a lonely child but his heart is in the right place as he evokes the same kind of ecstatic adoration James Joyce brings to Anna Livia Plurabelle in Finnegans Wake, and then majestically declares himself Saved in the choruses.

The last couple of tracks to mix were acoustic alternates to two of the album tracks, just acoustic guitar and a lead vocal. Jason told me to go ahead and mix them. He stood beside me as I mixed and critiqued what I was doing. This brief mixing lesson from him felt like a direct transmission from a master as if something more than the basic instructions he was giving me was being passed on.

At the very end of the last Swan's session Jason pointed to me and said " You're going to be a Star." I was wearing a black t-shirt with a white, upright pentagram on it, a five-pointed star - the same shirt mentioned in the Danzig post. I thought that he must mean the shirt and that's what he was pointing at whereupon he said, " I'm not talking about your shirt."