For those not in the know, George Massenburg is a massive figure in the recording
world. He’s a wonderful engineer and producer, as well as genius gear designer
and manufacturer. He is the inventor of the fully parametric equalizer, something
we now take for granted in the studio. His brilliant mathematical mind was also behind the design of Studio C at Blackbird Studios in Nashville. On top of that, he is a professor at McGill University in Montreal.
As a producer he has been responsible for seminal works by Little Feat, Emmylou Harris, and Linda Ronstadt just to name a few. George’s sound and style are super clean and detailed. The Highest of Fidelity, coupled with musicality, seem to always be his goal. This is sort of the opposite of his personality. He’s kind of gruff, and somewhat abrasive, but REALLY FUNNY. He’s whip smart, and rather quick-witted.
The first time I met George was at a Tape Op Conference in New Orleans. I was
standing in the lunch line and noticed that George was behind me with who I would later learn was his son. I’ve had a long association with Tape Op Magazine
(tapeop.com), writing for the magazine and moderating sections of their web
forum. I’ve loved presenting at and attending the long-gone Tape Op Con.
Part of what is so great about those types of conferences is that these huge figures (like George Massenburg) are hanging out with everyone and are usually happy to chat. We had a really interesting conversation about Lyle Lovett’s album, “Joshua Judges Ruth” which George produced. I also had the chance to ask him if it was true that his Neumann U67 microphone was truly being willed to Linda Ronstadt (it is his signature mic for her). He told me it was. [I wonder if that has changed now that illness has rendered Ms Ronstadt’s lovely singing voice mute].
Like most of the cats at industry conventions and events, I had a demo reel (a
CD, not an actual reel of tape) of various songs I had worked on up to that point.
I asked George if he was willing to take a listen. He told me his policy was to listen to just one song, and asked which track number I wanted him to hear.
I decided to have him listen to a song called “Notes” from Backyard Tire Fire’s first record. (I did 4 full length and 2 EPs with BTF before they called it quits). I chose that song specifically because it was the most unlike anything George was known for. The song itself is kind of odd, and I really went nuts on it, using distorted drums, odd delays, and filters on the backing vocals. Here it is:
My thought process in asking George to listen to this particular song was partially based on a Tape Op interview with Bob Weston. Bob’s pretty known for heavy and out-there music, both as a producer and as a member of the band Shellac. During the interview he talked about how people assumed he only worked on (or liked) that type of music, but said that wasn’t the case and mentioned being a Sheryl Crow fan. I was hoping Massenburg would think it was cool and interesting, though nothing like what he does.
He did not.
About a week after Tape Op Con I got a two sentence email from George. The actual email has been lost in the internet ether, but it went something like this:
Wow, distorted drums. This really is not my world.
I think this response is both hilarious and wonderful. First, I’m happy because he took the time to listen and get back to me. He’s quite an in-demand guy. Second, he was
completely honest, which I truly appreciate.