The Studio Rat – “We’re Rolling”


by Joe Tortorici

An enduring memory of my father is an open-ended, almost passive/aggressive code for life. “I don’t care what profession you choose. Whatever that is, be the best. Don’t screw around.”

After knocking about for years, I found myself attracted to the marriage of music and technology, the recording studio. I think it was all the blinking lights that drew me in. The era was the 70’s and institutional education for recording engineers was mostly non-existent. The only way through the door was internship and self-motivation. The learning curve was steep; the culture unforgiving; road-kill was common.

soundcraft console
Soundcraft Console – Chicago Trax

My first gig in a recording studio was an exercise in personal degradation. The owners presided over the busiest one-room studio on the north side of Chicago. The business partner would sell his mother for a dime; the operational partner was a diminutive Italian fellow with delusions of grandeur and a colossal Napoleonic complex. The physical space was one-half of a residential townhouse, slapped together with two-by-fours, carpeting, and foam sound treatment. It worked if you knew how to hide the acoustic shortcomings. We were booked constantly, every day, all day. I often questioned my sanity.

Still, there was the process. Unlike the computer driven excess of today, documenting music was a complex undertaking. A love of minutiae had to be religious. Only the most refined Obsessive Compulsive Disorder could survive. The operator must exhibit an ability to embrace the abstract concept of magnetic flux, measured in nanoWeber per meter (nWb/m) increments (the prefix “nano” signifies one-billionth). This is not something one can see, but rather measure in reference to established standards for magnetic recording tape. It was insane detail.

Microphones are a separate science. Their evolution dates back to Alexander Graham Bell and continues to this day. Terms like “common mode rejection” and “phantom power” were quickly added to your personal lexicon. Without a firm grasp of signal-flow and the ability to read a block diagram, you were lost. All too often the notion of “input overload” was not confined to an electrical circuit… it was your brain. An effective studio person NEVER stops taking on new input. It is the nature of the beast and remains with me today, in every aspect of my life.

One rare Sunday free of work, I got a call before 9 A.M. from “Buster”, the engineering partner. He needed me there right away, it was an emergency. When Buster called, there was no acceptable response but “sure.” Upon arrival, he met me at the door visibly flustered. “You have to go upstairs and clean it up, right now!” The second floor of the townhouse doubled as an office and client lounge. This was quizzical. We normally closed the door and left it for another time. 

“Somebody had their dog in here last night and it shit on the floor. I can’t stand the smell…go clean it up.” 

This was a test and we both knew it. I was now faced with a choice: clean it, or tell Buster to go have sex with himself. If I didn’t follow his command, my days in his studio were over. I took a deep breath, walked up the stairs and removed the foulness, then did my best to restore a neutral odor, and went home without another word. At that moment, I crossed the Rubicon.

I understood the greater tactic at work. There would be occasions of great stress and abuse by clients or musicians in the future. It was up to each individual to find the resources of control and calm execution in order to do the gig. As the years passed, it proved true. I have volumes of studio war-stories with some deeply enigmatic characters.

In Buster’s case, it was more complicated. For all of his bravado, he was bad at it. His mixes were akin to marbles rolling around on a cookie sheet. His temper was legendary. More than once, he lost it and had to be restrained. For all of the love and devotion I felt for the craft, that Sunday morning galvanized my mind to give every ounce of will and become the best recording engineer I could.

I moved to Los Angeles and lived my dream. I went to L.A. to work the big gigs in the best studios, and so I did. It was a graduate education. Large and small format scores for film, Disney Imagineering, Universal Music Publishing, network television, jazz with the very best in the idiom, Capitol, Westlake, Sunset Sound… on and on. I’m gratified to have been there and performed at the highest levels of my profession. So many of the excellent people I met remain in my circle of friends and each of them taught me to be better. There are innumerable memories and yes, I have a bit of an elitist “attitude” remaining.

neve v60
Neve V60 Recording Console – Group IV Studios, Hollywood

I find name-dropping to be a bad habit and, for the most part, refuse to participate. One gig that will always stay with me was for the legendary producer Norman Granz. It was Ella. My wonderful boss thought it would be a good fit and I was giddy. After sweating through a set-up for the band including Joe Pass and Ray Brown, I needed to take a break. In the restroom, I leaned on the sink and stared into the mirror. “Happy?” I asked myself. “Don’t fuck up.”

Ella called me “dear.” The world was good.

I left Los Angeles around  the millennium and returned to Chicago, fully prepared to retire from the audio business and live a “normal” life. Then I met Chris Greene and his quartet. It never crossed my mind to do this again. Since 2011, the arc of success for these talented men has risen beyond my every expectation… a Grammy nomination, yearly accolades from Downbeat Magazine, the “best of” this and that poll. I am indeed a lucky guy to know them and could not ask for a better bookend to my professional life.

Now I grow old. (Yes, it happens.) This is a young man’s environment and I have no more “shits” to give. Columbia College and Flashpoint Academy churn out a class of graduates twice a year and they rarely show any promise beyond the same grandiose obsessions of themselves that I once had. This is as it should be… it’s time for young, fresh minds to take over.