Val Garay

Sharing the studio secrets behind some of music’s best vocal performances

By Michael Gallant

Even among top-tier producer-engineers, Val Garay’s credentials are impressive: more than 125 million worldwide record sales and over 200 gold and platinum albums, spread across a vast array of artists that include Bonnie Raitt, James Taylor, Dolly Parton, Neil Diamond, Santana, Ringo Starr, Linda Ronstadt and many more. Garay’s talents have earned him nine Grammy nominations, as well as Record of the Year honors in 1982 for his work on Kim Carnes’ hit “Bette Davis Eyes.”

Music has always been in Garay’s life, from an uncle who taught him guitar to his father, an accomplished singer and actor. “My father sang in a movie with Clark Gable and performed at every major nightclub in America through the 1930s and ’40s,” says Garay. “We were always listening to music together.” Garay’s aunt Margie was Cole Porter’s longtime personal assistant. “I used to hang out with all of them, and I guess it rubbed off,” he continues.

But not right away. Despite Garay’s musical roots, he enrolled at Stanford University’s School of Medicine—but he soon dropped out because he’d joined a band and “started not showing up for 8 a.m. lab classes.” Playing in bands throughout the ’60s, Garay met legendary recording engineer Dave Hassinger, who took Garay under his wing as an apprentice. That association brought him together with Linda Ronstadt, which jump-started his career. “Dave was 55, had spent millions of hours in the studio, and wasn’t really interested in doing more,” recalls Garay. “He told Peter Asher and Linda, ‘I’ve got this hot new young guy. You should work with him.’ I started doing rough mixes, and the next thing I knew, I was doing the whole album.” Ronstadt’s Heart Like a Wheel went on to great success, catapulting Garay in the process. He went on to work six more of Ronstadt’s hit records while expanding his hit-making resume to include other stars. Garay now produces and engineers for a number of different artists while also focusing on developing a new generation of artists.

Who are you working with now?

I have been developing Nikki Lang—a 21-year-old singer-songwriter from L.A.—for a while now. She recently did a Google+ Artists in the Plus show, and she’s headlining a festival that’s being broadcast around the world. I’ve been working with her on her songwriting and live performance, and we’re starting to get to where she’s ready to take on the world.

What’s happened to artist development? 

Too many don’t want to spend the time. They just want signed acts they think they can take to the marketplace right away and be successful. The industry has scaled down so much that major labels basically don’t do any artist development. But artist development has to happen somewhere. I’ve been developing Nikki for two years and want to make sure this project sees the light of day.

What qualities do you look for?

When I started producing, I was looking for songs to record with an artist. A friend had signed a duo, so I listened to their songs and cut one. They were called Longbranch Pennywhistle—J.D. Souther and Glenn Frey. So I’ve always had that kind of ear for songwriters all through the years. While I was working with Linda Ronstadt, she would choose writers nobody knew. Nobody had heard of Warren Zevon. Nobody knew who Elvis Costello was. I’ve always been a song person, and Nikki has that interesting ability to turn a phrase. That’s what got me interested.

What was it like producing vocals for Linda Ronstadt?

You really don’t have to do much, because she can sing as well as anyone I’ve ever worked with. What I did do, because it was analog tape back in those days, was assign the output of her vocal to three separate tracks at once. The idea was that, in the event that we needed to fix a phrase and I missed, I’d have backups. We were punching in blind—sometimes I would splice the tape and insert paper to ensure I didn’t run into the next line. That said, I can’t recall ever having to fix a phrase with her. I think

J.D. Souther brought her Roy Orbison’s “Blue Bayou,” and she pretty much learned the song while we were getting the track down in the studio. And she performed it like she’d been singing it since she was 8. That’s just the way she’s able to do things.

Recall the vocal chain?

It’s the same vocal chain I use today. We recorded in a studio that had API consoles, so I used an API 312 preamp, 525 compressor, and 550A EQ. I’ve used the same microphone—a Neumann U67 tube mic—on every artist I’ve recorded since 1971, and I still have that mic. I’ve tried others—like the Telefunken 251, which is very close—but I always come back to the Neumann. I have the Neumann pop screen, which is this round thing with a hole in it where you can see the pattern switch on the mic. I get artists to stick their noses right in that hole, which gets them very close. No matter how hard or loud they sing, they can’t fold that capsule. That’s really the only mic you can do that with.

It doesn’t distort?

Listen to Linda’s vocals, do they sound distorted? They do sound like they’re in your face, which allows you to stick the vocals into a track where you keep the band pretty wrapped around the singer and you never lose the voice. James Taylor, Kim Carnes, the Motels—everybody sang into that mic.

Do you prefer vintage gear?

Oh, I love cutting-edge technology. I love testing out beta versions of new audio products. I do it for Apogee, Avid and Waves. I actually designed a plug-in for Waves called the Apex Aural Exciter, which I pioneered in the ’70s. I’m probably more on the cutting edge than a lot of kids who are 25. When Avid started coming out with beta Pro Tools stuff, I had an Apogee converter that wouldn’t talk with the Pro Tools software, so there I was sitting in the Apogee workshop with their head tech trying to figure out how to make it work. It’s funny, because I work with a lot of young guys who look at what I’m doing and go, “Wow, I’ve never tried that.” They try it and then don’t go away from it.

What’s an example?

The vocal chain I use is a good one. A lot of young kids never heard of an API 525, even though API still makes them. They use plug-ins a lot, and they’ll use the Universal Audio 1176s and LA2As with vocals. Those were invented in the ’60s, and they’re really not fast enough, especially if you have somebody who really chugs along and changes volume a lot. To me, the 1176 is a guitar limiter, not a tool for vocals.

So, will you be recording and mixing on an iPad anytime soon?

No. (laughs) I have a good-sized studio at my house with a D-Command, 24 faders, and lots of outboard gear. If you need to go somewhere to record a vocal, an iPad could be a great way to do it, but I grew up with a console. I need a fader in my hand.

Recall a memorable experiment?

In the ’70s I was working at the Sound Factory in Hollywood. And they had a really wide selection of mics, including five Telefunken 251s—which were normally used for orchestras and are worth about $15,000 each today. I pulled them out of the mic locker one day and put them on the drum kit as tom and overhead mics—and that’s how I developed a particular drum sound that was very warm and fat. I did all of James Taylor’s drum sounds that way. If you were going to try that today, you’re talking about spending a huge amount of money—AKG manufactures newer versions, but they’re still upwards of $8,000 each.

You worked with the Rolling Stones.

I did some vocals with Mick at the Sound Factory. When he was in the studio he was very quiet, sitting with a little spiral-bound notebook with his lyrics, just writing. But when he went out to sing, he was a maniac. It was like he turned into a completely different person. What has amazed me is just how much singers have to give it up at the microphone to make the vocals really happen. Linda was the same way, and James Taylor, too. It’s also a quality I saw in Dolly Parton. Artists like that have this ability to give it up like nothing you can imagine. Just being able to let it go, not be afraid, not hold back. That’s a hard thing to teach somebody.

What was it like working with Santana?

My idea for Santana was to get some guest vocalists, which he really didn’t want to do, because he had two great singers in the band. It’s funny, because a few years later, Clive Davis talked him into doing just that—and his whole career resurfaced. That guy can play, and it was a lot of fun to collaborate with him. One thing that separates him from other guitar players is when he solos, he stays on top of the beat, which gives him that kind of edge. He’s not like Eric Clapton who lays back. I’d never realized that—but after working with him it became apparent.

Advice for aspiring producers?

Trust your ears and believe in yourself, because nobody else will. It’s a learning process for everybody. I find that people who are successful, whether it’s Bruno Mars or Max Martin, believe in what they’re doing.

You’ve sold more than 100,000,000 records. What’s left to accomplish?

I love what I do. I’m never going to stop until they make me.


comment closed

Copyright © 2013 M Music & Musicians Magazine ·