Industry professionals from all corners of the globe descended on New York City in early October for the 2013 Audio Engineering Society (AES) convention, and we were right there with them.
In addition to the networking and showcasing that took place, we further explored the inner-sanctum of audio engineering by interviewing some heavy-hitting experts with accomplished resumes during our “Ask Me Anything” interviews. We took questions from the crowd in our booth and from Twitter followers online, with the only direction from our pros being “Ask Me Anything.” In this installment, we’ll focus on the highlights from our interview with Jimmy Douglass.
Also known as The Senator, Mr. Douglass is a four-time Grammy Award-winning recording engineer/ and record producer whose prolific career has spanned four decades. In the early 1970s at Atlantic Records in New York, he started his studio career as a part-time tape duplicator while still in high school. He learned how to operate the studio’s custom-made 16-channel console, as well as being observed by, trained by and working with some of their greatest engineers, producers and recording moguls, including Tom Dowd, Arif Mardin, Jerry Wexler and Ahmet Ertegun.
For his first time behind the faders, he was encouraged by Wexler to engineer the session recording for a demo of a new band. He went on to work with Aretha Franklin, Hall & Oates, Roberta Flack, Donny Hathaway, Foreigner, Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, Rolling Stones, Slave, Odyssey, Roxy Music, Gang of Four, Aaliyah, Missy Elliott, Ginuwine, Jay-Z, Snoop Dogg, Bjork, Rob Thomas, Sean Paul, Kayne West, Ludacris, Al Green, John Legend and Duran Duran. He’s also done Grammy-winning albums with Justin Timberlake, and served as Timbaland’s main engineer for more than a decade.
A-T: I love the idea of “throw out the rules.” I’d love to hear about something you did where right of out left field you came up with a great sound, or something that just sounded perfect for the song, but it’s like “whoa, you’re going to do that?”
JD: One thing that stands out, there was a group called Slave, and I was engineering them and producing them. This was a time when the first Eventide harmonizer came out. And up until that moment you couldn’t put a harmonizer on anything. It didn’t exist. So they had this box, and the studio had money, so they bought this box. This group was really dynamic and they had this amazing guitar solo that went on for quite a while. So this box came in and I just stuck this guitar through it, and it became harmony, though there was only guitar playing. The band had no idea how I did it, and I had no idea how I did it. The box did it, and it was one of those things that actually worked really, really well for the record.
A-T: Where did your nickname come from, Senator?
JD: Timbaland gave me the nickname actually. My career has spanned a bunch of decades. And when I met Timbaland and we were about to come out, he was saying that I should dust off my whole legend. He said, “You can’t just be Jimmy Douglass still!”
A big part of this business is the politics of it. And the Senator is just good at running in and out of this kind of stuff.
A-T: How do you still keep that pureness in the digital age? What can you keep?
JD: I don’t think I relate it to sound as much as I relate it to a method. The sound I don’t know, because the sound is better, wider. It’s a little different. I’ve always been a minimalist, even back then. And I try not to get too bogged down. I try not to get too into it because this digital stuff, you can be there a whole year with a record if you want to. So I just try to maintain the old days when we had limited tracks, and you had to make decisions early and keep on moving. So hopefully that’s what I’ve brought with me.
A-T: What advice do you give to young producers that aren’t trying to fit the mold, but are trying to reinvent the mold?
JD: Well, with what you just described it sounds like you actually know what to do, which is to maintain yourself and be you. And if you continue doing that— if you continue doing anything, you’re gonna get good at it. If you continue doing anything, eventually you will win. If you continue doing anything, you will never fail at it. So the things that you said, understanding that the music does sound the same, I take my cap off to that because that’s the way to be a leader, but sometimes you may want to take a peek into the real world to see what they’re doing – to see where the success is.
A-T: Why do you push artists to transcend genres?
JD: I wouldn’t really push them to do that. I think an artist is an artist and they should be doing what makes them feel right about being them, what really gives them the best look for the talent that they have.
A-T: What advice do you have for young people who are going to school for engineering/recording, etc.?
JD: Honestly, if you want my honest opinion, you can own all this equipment and you can read all those books and read the manuals – guys that come out of those schools and come to work with me, I have to “unlearn” them everything they learned in those schools because it has nothing to do with doing it for real.
When you’re sitting there just learning it for the sake of learning, it’s great but it has no real relevance to what it’s for. And I’m not saying you shouldn’t go to school because many people would not be motivated to do it by themselves. Many people could not do that. But a lot of that stuff – I learn it because I have it, because I open it up and I figure it out.
I really believe that people who really, really, really have the talent, they’ll always find a way, school or not. And I mean that, if I can make an analogy, a lot of your successful entrepreneurs in many, many businesses never went to school. Those who really want to do it, they will do it.
A-T: What would you suggest to a young producer, who is in college who’s trying to get his foot in the door as a producer, as an engineer?
JD: I’m going to suggest that in your music school there are people like yourself, people who are trying to do the same thing. You are sitting around the next basic well of talent. You guys are the new talent. If you’re really that ambitious, you’ll find the talent in there. You will find that singer that can make songs for you, you’ll find that musician that can do the beats if you can’t do them yourself, you’ll find that writer that can write the songs if you can’t write them. When you come out of college, you’ll come out with a package. What makes you different is the initiative if you come to me and you already have something. You have something? I want something. We can talk.
Thanks again to Mr. Douglass for sharing his experience and wisdom with us! Dare to be different, and don’t be afraid to take risks in the studio. With a body of work like the Senator’s, he knows what he’s talking about.