Tazu Marshall Doesn’t Want You to Know What He Does
When we think about the creation of art—audio, visual or both—we think often about a person standing at an easel, holding a camera, scribbling notes on a page, plucking or bowing strings. These are actions, the results of which are obvious—a painting, a song, a film. Something to be seen or heard, a thing we can experience. Is that not the function of art: an expression of an idea, emotion or message, communicated to others through the lens of metaphor and creativity?
These are generally highly visible; after all, the goal is to communicate. But there can be a multitude of creative layers beyond the initial making of a work. Music especially has much opportunity for the expression and input of others beyond the original songwriter. Often the creativity of others is even necessary to the realization of a piece of music. Ask any classical musician, and they will tell you that no two performances of the same piece are the same. Interpretations can vary dramatically in both obvious and nuanced ways. This is perhaps the clearest example of the art being found in more than just notes on a page.
Engineer and producer Tazu Marshall has been recording artists from St. Louis and beyond for more than two decades, most recently at Utopia Studios in Botanical Heights and the recently renovated Clayton Studios in Clayton. His client list is a who’s who of local scene bands—The Helium Tapes, Yowie, The Vigilettes, Travelling Sound Machine and Sorry, Scout, to name a very few—as well as more broadly known artists like John Patitucci and Ptah Williams. He is also part of the sound crew for Lo-Fi Cherokee. His work is about documenting the creative fruits of others—but, as we will find out, there is far more to the process than putting a microphone in someone’s face and pressing the “record” button.
Unlike artists as we traditionally think of them, Marshall seeks to go entirely unnoticed on the records he works on. “If you’re doing it right as an engineer, nobody notices you. People think about who’s producing it when it sounds wrong,” he points out. But, as anyone who has ever made a record can tell you, going unnoticed is exceedingly difficult.
Recording music has always been about trying to capture a sound that’s natural and balanced, as though the listener is in the room with the artist, but maybe even a little better than that. Most people would agree that a concert hall rarely offers the most balanced representation of a group, at least as it applies to popular styles of music. Perhaps it is, as Marshall says, “a somewhat idealized version of [the music].” In other words, something that sounds balanced and natural, but with all parts and nuances of the music audible and reasonably well-performed.
To some, this may seem a fairly controversial claim, but there can be such a thing as too perfect. Absolute harmonic and rhythmic perfection, while often the stated goal, in reality usually makes for something of a musical uncanny valley—every constituent element sounds right but the whole of the thing is robotic and inhuman; it lacks anima. In a time when every note can be nudged and quantized because of sophisticated software available to anyone, perfection of a sort isn’t terribly difficult. This is largely where the craft of audio engineering and production comes in—the editorial wherewithal to determine what imperfections are acceptable and which require correction.
Now, without going too deep into the myriad techniques and equipment required, a short production lesson may be beneficial here.
Marshall with musician Tony Carosella.
The problem is that when you put a microphone in front of a singer or an instrument and hit “record,” there is no buffer of the natural acoustics of a physical space. The unprocessed sound is like having your ear in the position of the microphone for every pop of “P” sounds or hiss of “S” sounds, at both loud and quiet volumes. These sounds are jarring without softening to add the perception of spatial depth. If the track were left as is, once more instruments and/or voices were added, the sound would be downright cacophonous.
Effects are used to create that auditory depth. The most common are reverb (aka reverberation, but no one actually says that), which is sort of a natural echo; compression, which regulates volume; and EQ, the equalization of frequency. These are like the seasoning in a recipe—too much is overpowering; not enough leaves something noticeably absent. Also, like seasoning, the layperson may not be able to identify what that missing element is, but too much is surely detectable. “Generally, I try to do as much as I can right up until I start to hear it, and then I duck it back a little bit,” Marshall explains. “Because I don’t really want you to notice the effect.”
The Mercs in the recording studio.
Marshall often finds himself in something of a producer role as well, nudging the stylistic elements or helping to hone a performance. Like many engineers, he has an ear tuned for performance. He pushes his clients to bring in their best performance or try new things. He points out, “For every hour you spend on pre-production [practicing], you save at least two hours of editing.”
None of this is more apparent than in the prevalent use of pitch correction. “If you listen to old records, it’s astonishing how out of tune a lot of those singers are, but also how in tune they were without having that extra aid. What that means is that people were practicing. A lot.”
Much of this is second nature to Marshall because of his experience. Most recently, he’s known for his work with The Mercs and The R6 Implant. Within the last year, The R6 Implant released its first album after almost a decade of anticipation. Both of these groups are known for their stylistic and technical sophistication, tools that Marshall brings to his work in the studio. “I don’t know how anybody could do [this] without [being a musician],” he says when asked if this informs his engineering. “You need to know music to produce music.”
All of this is not to say that Marshall and others in similar documenting or production roles have thankless jobs. Most albums will credit those who turned the knobs, pushed the faders and made the subtle editorial decisions that make something sound natural or pleasant. It’s likely reasonable to assume the average music consumer doesn’t understand the nuance that has been brought to bear on the products they consume, but in this case, often the musicians—the people who are perhaps closest to the music—aren’t even aware of the time and craft of the process. That process is not only responsible for bringing us the sounds of our favorite artists, but informs how music is presented to us and how we experience it.
Images courtesy of Tazu Marshall.