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Gene Paul... A Stickler For Imperfection

As one of the behind-the-scenes professionals in the recording industry, Gene Paul has spent almost 40 years working with some of the best-known names in music-names as divergent as The Rolling Stones and Rahsaan Roland Kirk. In the past decade, Paul has spent countless hours restoring the recordings of forgotten live performances, thereby expanding the discography of some jazz legends. Through years of experience, he has developed strong opinions about the desirability of the use of audio technology for musical enhancement. In contrast to his father’s, Les Paul’s, lifelong pursuit of sonic perfection, Gene believes that some imperfection is necessary to retain the human element in jazz recordings.

JazzReview: You’ve worked with Joel Dorn for a long time.

Gene Paul: Yes, I’ve done work for Joel for years. Wherever he goes, I’m there. I first worked with him in the sixties and seventies at Atlantic Records. Even the owner of DB Digital Plus [a mastering house], Joel Kerr, is from Atlantic. Sometimes Joel does recording dates on the outside, and when he does that, I work with him on those projects too. I work with him exclusively on the mastering.

In the 1980’s, Joel and I started re-mastering live concerts. Part of the problem in dealing with board tapes--tapes that people had just put into the machines to record things--is that a certain amount of equipment is needed to handle them. We use two pieces of equipment for that purpose. One is the Atari 5050 two-track, which handles the quarter-inch tape. In other words, it’s the home consumer’s best professional deck for handling that type of tape. The other unit we use is a Nakamichi Dragon, a cassette unit with an automatic seeking azimuth. That means that the heads are on a motor. The Dragon says, "Feed me any tape, and I will align the heads to fit that tape automatically." That provides the best resolution of the sound that you can get from a cassette. We’ve had several collections that consist of thousands of cassettes. The Dragon is exquisite for getting the music off the tapes with the best fidelity.

Ray Bryant’s album, Somewhere in France, fell into that category of audiocassette. Somebody had just slipped the tape in a deck and recorded it. Working on that recording was a delightful experience. Normally, when a person says, "I have a pillowcase full of tapes," I immediately think, "Is it good? Bad? Ugly?" But Ray’s tape was a special find. If the listener didn’t know that it was recorded on audiocassette, he would think, "Wow! What sound truck did they use?" The audience was phenomenal. Ray played as if he were in Avery Fisher Hall. His speaking on the tape was just perfect. At the end of the concert, the technician must have said, "Hey, Ray. Before you leave, take these." Ray basically came home, threw the tapes in a drawer and never listened to them. Initially, Joel had said to Ray, "You don’t have to listen to your tapes. Many people just collect them and don’t want to be bothered. We’ll take care of it." Ray said, "No, I’ll listen to them." Ray was astonished when he finally heard them. He called Joel a couple days later and said, "The find was incredible." When Joel and I heard the tape in the studio, we both fell over. Technically speaking, that tape was one of those we’re-never-going-to-find-another-one-like-that.

JazzReview: Aren’t the tapes from [Baltimore’s] Left Jazz Bank Society of lower quality?

Gene Paul: Yes, those are rough. One problem is that the performances were recorded on a seven-inch reel-to-reel Mylar® tape. When you stretch Mylar tape, it becomes a rubber band. There’s no bringing it back after it’s stretched. Also, Mylar is half mil, which means it’s extremely thin. When acetate tape breaks, you can pick up the pieces and put it back together. But the minute that Mylar tape stretches, it has to be cut because it’s gone. So, a half-mil tape means that more tape can be put on a reel and therefore record for a longer length of time. Also, Mylar tape is quarter-track, which means that it goes stereo in one direction and, when the tape is turned over, it goes stereo in the other direction. To boot, the Mylar tape is at three-and-three-quarter and seven-and-a-half RPM, very slow speeds for music. The Left Bank Jazz Society put the band on one side and the featured horn on the other side. That means that for all intents and purposes, they created a big mono.

For someone who thinks, "I happen to love Getz," the Left Bank Jazz Society’s tape [My Foolish Heart: "Live" At The Left Bank] makes it a privilege to be able to revisit that night he played there. The listener of the CD can sit there and say, "Wow. That’s spectacular." But when we sent the original rough, which was a copy of the original tape, for the Getz estate to hear, they said, "Can you fix any of this?" They were stunned at how bad the tape sounded. But Joel wanted to hear if the estate was interested in going to the next phase so that we could present an improved tape to them. They did notice that Getz was playing incredibly, but they were concerned about the quality of the sound. The tape did need some tender loving care.

If I went into a club and sat at a table that didn’t quite give me a great balance, and if Getz were playing the way he did on the Left Bank Jazz Society tape, I wouldn’t get up and leave! Great musicians are great musicians. That’s how Joel and I look at these tapes. We make the recordings as good as they can be, considering the environment where the tapes were recorded. It’s wonderful to hear that people enjoyed the recordings after they were enhanced.

The environment in the studio is very controlled, even during a free-spirited jam session. The spirit in a club became, "Oh, there’s no producer. Oh, I don’t have to sell this; people only have to hear it once." But when the audience goes crazy during a performance, it’s like a bookmark for Joel and me. Even though we may not hear the performance properly, there’s a flag that something exciting is happening, and we should stay with the music. The audience’s reaction energizes the artist to go to a higher place. A live performance rises to a level that’s just marvelous.

If I were a student of saxophone, I would love to have access to Getz’s performance since I wouldn’t be able to go to a club to see him. Those Left Bank Jazz Society recordings become a learning tool and an important part of history.

JazzReview: The Cedar Walton recording [Three Sundays In The Seventies: "Live" At The Left Bank] sounds rougher than Getz’s.

Gene Paul: Absolutely. His piano was a little out of tune. Getz shined on his CD because when he performed, the horn was on one side and the band was on the other. So we could play with the tape. But we struggled to improve the recording of Cedar’s tape because it didn’t have that separation of sound. Pianos are never miked as well as horns are. Recordings of pianos are driven by questions like "Is it a good piano? Is it tuned well? Is it miked well?"

So, some of these tapes are very rough. However, our technical equipment and our involvement in reissuing old tapes for twenty years help us. Joel has one ear. He’s one big mono guy anyway. With the Coltrane box set, Joel included the out-takes that led up to the final recordings. When you listen to the recorded progression, you can actually hear the tunes being developed.

JazzReview: What’s your role in the process?

Gene Paul: I do the hands-on work. When the process gets to particulars like no-noising or some type of polished editing, I supervise the work. If the work is just a matter of EQ [equalization] and taking top end off, then we keep the work simple.

In most cases, the work is simpler than one would think. For example, you could take noise out and divide Basie’s band if you want to. But there’s a level where noise and music share the same ground. When the noise is removed to the extent that the sound is too clean, we lose what music--to me--is expressing. The sound of music is best when one note bleeds into the next one after it is struck. They share the same territory. When too much noise is removed, it spoils what the musicians try to do. In my mind, music is sacrificed to achieve no-noise. Therefore, I would rather hear a little noise so that the music is performed correctly. A lot of the old tapes that I’ve enhanced have a certain expression to them as if a person sat down in a club. Sometimes the air conditioning, the bottles clicking or the people talking can be heard. Those sounds should never be removed completely because they are as much a part of the event as the smoke in the room.

Joel has said many times that truly the most important thing is what you don’t do that makes a recording work. We have the ability today to do too much. You could put a divider between each musician in Basie’s band and totally clean up the recording so that you can hear every player. But Basie’s band was never thought of that way. It was a unit.

Years ago, I was fortunate to hear Wes Montgomery and Jimmy Smith in a club in Harlem. The room was dark and foggy. But the music just melded together. There was no division. Hearing the pedal of the organ hit the floor did something to the audience. When you remove that feeling to make a quote-unquote "clean" record, you lose the basis for the music.

So technically, while we have the ability to make performances "perfect," I choose to stay with the raw sense of the music. Joel spent a good part of his life in clubs, and sometimes he asks me, "Why is the recording so clean? It doesn’t sound like a club." Sometimes we say, "Wow. We feel like we’re in the environment." If the music doesn’t make the listener feel as if he were in the club, then we’re doing something wrong.

From an engineering perspective, jazz is no different than classical music. If you had thirty-five or forty musicians playing a symphony, would you put a mike on everybody? No. It’s the same situation with jazz, except that putting the mike on every musician in a band is possible. Therefore, it’s done. To me, jazz consists of notes bleeding together. The minute they separate, it’s not the same. In the middle eighties, engineers crossed over to become the artists. That was a major mistake.

JazzReview: Was that related to fusion?

Gene Paul: It resulted from fusion. It resulted from the fact that albums could be made from four bars. It resulted from the thought that "if the technology is doable, why don’t we do it?" The minute they did it, it changed music. It’s not that I don’t like the [electronically enhanced music]. It’s that when Aretha Franklin, and people of her stature, record an album with musicians, it’s one thing. The minute that the music is overdubbed and sampled, you lose that connection to the human element in the music. If you could take an old vinyl record and compare it to what’s happening today, the same magic isn’t there. I remember that when I worked at Atlantic Records, the engineer became someone who captured something. Ray Charles was not made by Tommy Dowd. Tommy Dowd captured Ray Charles.

JazzReview: So you think that the engineers have too much control today.

Gene Paul: Yes, way too much control. I remember working on a Mongo Santamaria album that consisted of twenty-eight musicians in a single room. That’s devastating for an engineer. I remember that, after everything became stable, the producer hit the key and said, "Let’s run this tune down." After it was performed, he said, "That’s a take. We’re done." The ability to hear a finished record while it was being performed was marvelous. That process started to become obsolete when I began my career in the late sixties. But having experienced a couple dozen sessions of that type, I found that process to be one that shouldn’t have been allowed to die. Today, an engineer plugs a unit into the wall, and fifteen things play. No human being has any input or changes the process to accommodate the artist. The same music comes out of the processor every time. The more that engineers keep going in that direction, the more I’m hearing a coldness in the music. The result is so perfect that no human being could play like that in real life. I’ve heard mistakes that lead to a wonderful take.

When I started at Atlantic, it was so hard to me. I was brought up on the belief that, "Oh, we’ll punch that in. We’ll fix that." But at Atlantic, it was, "No! That’s an honest mistake. That’s the take!" Today, if a musician begins to think about a mistake, the engineer corrects it. That kind of correcting has nothing to do with the human connection.

JazzReview: Do you think the technological approach will overtake the human approach?

Gene Paul: We have the ability to do a lot of things. It’s up to us to say if we want them or not. Or whether we use them intelligently.

JazzReview: A better question may be, Do you think that the record-buying public will buy more of the "perfect sound" recordings than the "human sound" approach?

Gene Paul: Over a long period of time, if the public is fed enhanced music, they will become more aware that they’re listening to it.

For example, we mastered Otis Redding’s Dock Of The Bay. I tell you, that album could be a learning tool for anyone who records. When they made the album, the engineers had nothing but door springs and cheap mikes. Everything was wrong. Yet, it’s the most balanced, well-done, phenomenal album ever made. All of today’s technology couldn’t have produced an album like that. The producers needed the ability to deal with what they had on hand, and they pulled it off. On Sexual Healing, Marvin Gaye combined technology with raw music, and the listener could accept the combination because the human element was involved.

Today, I think the public realizes that the human element has to be involved in creating the music. The minute that people are returned to the equation, human feeling will override synthetic enhancement every time.

JazzReview: Earlier, you said that you were brought up to make recordings perfect until you joined Atlantic. Why did you think that recordings had to be perfect until then?

Gene Paul: Well, I was working with my dad [Les Paul] in his studio. His work involved perfection. Today, there are microphones that are awesome. But when I was a kid, I asked my dad, "What kind of a mike would you use on a trumpet?" And he asked, "What’s the frequency range of the trumpet?" Then he said, "This is the mike I would use." When he showed it to me, I asked, "Why wouldn’t you use a mike with a wider range?" And he answered, "There’s no reason to. The frequencies aren’t there. It becomes annoying. You want the essence of the instrument." He proved that to me, and that’s how I was educated.

Today’s studios use microphones that have a frequency response with nothing in common with the instrument. That’s why you hear cymbals four octaves higher when you listen to a recording of a drum. Then you think, "Gee, when a drummer hits a cymbal like that in a club, the sound is different." Because the engineer is in control, the sounds become strange.

Also, I don’t know what’s happening in the community of mastering, but levels keep getting louder. There’s no reason for it. Years ago, there used to be a slight reason because the vinyl rumble and hiss were annoying. A louder record diverted the listener’s attention from that noise. But the digital technology eliminates the reason for loudness, even as the music keeps getting louder. To make the music louder, the music must be squeezed. Instead of letting a vocal express itself and breathe, it must be condensed to the point where it stands still. The result is a different kind of music.

When the music leaves the studio, it’s right. It’s when the music goes to the mastering house that it changes. When you listen to the two versions, the studio mixes breathe. But the final product is squeezed so hard that the finesse of the performance sounds different.

JazzReview: Have you always been involved in sound engineering, or have you had other types of jobs?

Gene Paul: I played drums with my dad when I was a kid. I went on the road with him for six to eight years. It was just wonderful. I wasn’t great at playing drums, but I was good enough that I could fit into the band. Actually, that’s where I got my "college education."

JazzReview: Who else was in the band?

Gene Paul: It was just my dad, Mary [Ford] and myself. They utilized whatever band happened to be in the city where we played. Without even knowing it, I was being taught about presenting music, which was a great experience. I worked on putting the shows together with dad. I watched him record his own music as well as groups’. If he said, "Do you want to know about this?" I’d say, "Yes." And I’d go set up a mike. By the time I grew up, I knew how to record.

JazzReview: Whom did your father record?

Gene Paul: In the early days, out on the West Coast, Bing Crosby came over to the house to be recorded. Sometimes they tried out ideas on a project there were interested in. If their work turned out good enough, sometimes Bing said, "Let me use this."

Dad’s development of the multi-track recorder came out of that period. Oddly enough, he never made one hit record on the multi-track. His recordings were all done on a mono tape machine with a fourth head. That means he played his part, recorded it, played it back and recorded the new part.

The older I became, the more I appreciated what Dad did. He used to record the sixth vocal part first. Mary used to sing the fifth, the fourth and the third parts. The last vocal part he recorded was the lead. He completed the recording with the bass. He did the same thing with the guitar parts: He recorded all of the parts and then the lead. He had the ability to hear pitch and to project what the finished recording would sound like as he worked on the twelve parts. That was overwhelming. And then he did it on a mono tape machine.

JazzReview: Did he do that all in his head, or did he write it?

Gene Paul: No, he can’t read a note. But that was how he made the hit records. After I learned how he recorded those kinds of records, I used to think, "Everybody records like this."

Later, I went into the studio and heard Aretha Franklin, Cissy Houston and Roberta Flack sing over back-up parts. Then I thought to myself, "My gosh! Mary used to sing the six parts herself.

JazzReview: So you realized how much work that was.

Gene Paul: Not only how much work it was, but also how good you had to be. Mary’s pitch had to be perfect on the first recording. Otherwise, it would throw off all the other recordings on top of it. If that happened, those recordings would have had to be done all over again!

JazzReview: That technique was your father’s idea, but what did Mary think of it?

Gene Paul: It was a lot of work, but she had perfect pitch. If Dad could so much as hear a glass clink, she could hit the note. He knew which note it was before he picked up the guitar.

After I worked in this industry for thirty years, I thought to myself, "My gosh! Dad really had to be on the button with that technique." Then he went on to create the solid-body guitar and the multi-track. Thirty years ago, when my dad had invented the multi-track, not one multi-track hit was made.

All of Dad’s records were done in his head before he recorded. I remember my dad’s stories about how he and Mary toured. They played in the club at night, and then at three o’clock in the morning, she would be singing under a blanket while he played guitar. That’s how they made their records.

The level of my dad’s playing is what made his music so great. That’s the same level of excellence that Otis Redding had and which made his music exciting. When an artist reaches a certain point, something more happens than just clean sound. In my opinion, that’s the element that’s missing in today’s music.

JazzReview: How did you get your job at Atlantic?

Gene Paul: Dad knew the studio manager there, Phil Tehle. Dad sat down with me and said, "I can get you in, but you’re on your own." I worked there for three or four years before I was given any real opportunities. Working with Tommy Dowd, the Erteguns, Jerry Wexler and Joel Dorn, of course, I soaked up the experience. Also, I worked in many of the outside sessions for people like Diana Ross and Gladys Knight. One day, we would be working with Aretha, and the next day we would be working with the Rolling Stones. I would have paid to work there! It was like being in a dream.

JazzReview: Which record was the first one you were responsible for?

Gene Paul: I forget the name of the record, but it was for Wilson Pickett. He got mad at me. He said the record sounded like a 78. I spent a lot of time with Tom Dowd to grow with the craft and do as well as I could.

That was a wonderful period of time in the recording business. There were so many brilliant musicians then. I remember that I had to make a mike change for Mingus once. When I walked up to Mingus, I said, "Mingus, that sounds great." After I went into the control room and turned up the mike, I could hear [snoring sound].

There was a certain affinity between Joel and Rahsaan Roland Kirk that’s still there. Joel was amazed by what he heard Rahsaan play. I mean, if he finds a tape that Rahsaan recorded, Joel puts it away. For the most part, we released Rahsaan tapes that someone found somewhere.

We had a collection of four hundred of Rahsaan’s cassettes. By the time we were done listening to cassettes, we "knew what this guy eats every day." We could come out with some delightful results that include a pristine sound, or we could get all kinds of variations from that. It’s no different than hunting for treasure under the water. We have to keep looking.

Some of these people are one of a kind. Rahsaan definitely fits into that category. I must have worked on fifteen albums with him. It’s remarkable that he can play so far out and still stay inside. I was amazed at how he could create so much music with all of his horns. Rahsaan used to play hoses, gongs and anything else, and Joel would tell him, "Go ahead and do it." Rahsaan was a marvel, but he used to be upset that people didn’t take his music seriously. He led a short life for a guy who contributed so much.

JazzReview: I understand that Joel wanted to revive interest in the careers of three musicians while he was at 32 Jazz: Pat Martino, Woody Shaw and Rahsaan Roland Kirk.

Gene Paul: Joel’s love for music is so strong. He’s finding so much music that’s wonderful because he didn’t go with a major label. It’s good that he didn’t do that. If he had, he would be reissuing that type of music, instead of finding older tapes to release for the first time.

JazzReview: What type of music do you prefer?

Gene Paul: I like anything, although classical music gets a little bit away from me. Jazz in the far-out sense gets me a little nervous, but I enjoy jazz in the commercial sense. Rahsaan is as crazy as you can get, and he’ll really leave the planet. Yet, he’ll come back to visit enough that he won’t lose you. Any of Rahsaan’s albums are collectibles. Sometimes Joel and I receive some music that’s far out, and we look at each other because we want to present friendly jazz. But good music is good music, whether it’s banjo, saxophone or spoons.

We’re working on a Buddy Rich album now. Buddy has to be one of the top three drummers, if not the greatest. Buddy Rich’s music wasn’t exactly warm and soothing. But when I listen to his music, I think, "My God! He was so accurate and his sound was so big." When I played drums as a kid, the two drummers my old man took me to see were Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich. We listened to them play, and Dad said, "They’re what a drummer’s about."

JazzReview: Did you father ever perform with them?

Gene Paul: I don’t think so. Dad wasn’t a jazz guy. He was more commercial. Plus, he didn’t like a drum. The drum got in his way. Back then, the drum was a silent partner.

Sometimes people speak of jazz as if it’s a dirty word. Some of jazz was self-indulgent, and the public wasn’t involved in it. I remember that Dad took me to see jazz at The Village Gate. I said, "Who’s this?" And he said, "Billie Holiday. She’s good." I was a young kid, and I didn’t know anything. And I said, "Gee, Dad. Why is her back toward us? Shouldn’t she turn around?" And he said, "Just listen to her!" I’ll never forget that. So even though she didn’t face the audience, she still connected with it.

JazzReview: Do you think you’re an innovator in remastering?

Gene Paul: I don’t look at it that way. If enough people say they like the recordings, I’m happy--especially if they think the CD’s came out well. And if I can make the listener and the artist satisfied, to me that’s fulfillment. Sometimes, Joel gets on the Internet and fishes for comments about the CD’s he produces. Then he tells me, "A lot of people this week say that the music sounds like vinyl." And I say, "That’s good."

Joel always said that a CD has to feel a certain way when it’s in your hands. He used to like the look of the old vinyl jackets. He tried to transfer the old vinyl package into a little CD box. How can that be done to make the listeners feel good when they pick it up? He’s very concerned about the total effect, even involving the liner notes. He likes to personalize the notes.

The other day, we were working on some Freddie Hubbard projects, and Joel picked up the phone: "Hey, Freddie. You’ll never guess what I just heard." Everybody is in the loop right away. That’s the kind of spirit that you see in the box and the booklet and that you hear in the music Joel produces. He believes in everything he produces.

We have the same ideas about the sound. Perfection is for somebody else. All that we want is to make sure that people can enjoy the music. It’s wonderful when people like you hear some of our recordings and say, "Hey, this sounds good."

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Gene Paul
  • Interview Date: 3/1/2005
  • Subtitle: Audio Engineer Gene Paul Talks About Some Recordings He Has Known
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