An interview with
Kent Heckman
(Red Rock Recording Studios)

By Beppe Colli
Oct. 25, 2007

I had hoped for the new Nellie McKay's album, Obligatory Villagers, to be at least very good - and very good it was. But I have to say I was pleasantly surprised when I noticed how good it sounded. Which was especially noteworthy, when one considered how many "difficult-sounding" instruments - winds, strings, percussion - were featured alongside guitar, bass, drums, and vocals - lotsa vocals.

I noticed that the engineer for the album was Kent Heckman, working at Red Rock Recording Studios. Having never heard of either, I did the usual Web search, and yes, here they were.

I thought about asking a few questions about the whole thing. Kent Heckman agreed, and here it is.

The conversation was conducted via e-mail, last week.

Provided I understood correctly, Red Rock Recording Studios are located in Saylorsburg, PA, in the region called Poconos. I'm afraid this is the first time I've heard of the Poconos. Would you mind talking about this?

Yes, it's nice former resort community. Only an hour and a half from NYC and Philadelphia.

I understand that Red Rock Recording Studios have been in existence for quite a while now, and I guess they have a long history, which I wouldn't mind hearing.

I started the studio 26 years ago, after my wife and I had a horrible recording experience at another studio. I decided I could certainly do better than they did. I bought an eight track reel to reel and set it up in our rented farm house with some PA equipment. I kept buying gear and I guess it got out of hand! In 1988, we built, from the ground up, the building we have today.

I had a look at the website of the studio, saw that quite a few people of some renown have recorded there. A few anecdotes?

I have had the pleasure of recording a lot of great musicians. I like this story, because it shows how crazy things can get. In 1998, I recorded a project with David Liebman and Pat Metheny. We were scheduled to record basic tracks on Saturday and Sunday. Monday was scheduled for fixes and overdubs. Mixing was to be done at a later date. By mid-afternoon on Sunday, we were done with the basic tracks and started overdubbing. At dinner, Pat asked Dave if he ever mixed a project here. Dave replied "Many". Pat said "Well let's get it done". Everyone agreed. We worked some more that night and continued at 10AM the next day. By 1 o'clock we were done with the overdubs. We started mixing and finished at 4 in the morning! And that was the record!

I'm almost sure I read somewhere that Nellie McKay once lived in the Poconos, but I'm really curious to hear about the real reasons why she chose this particular studio.

She went to high school in the Poconos and took lessons with some of the great musicians on OV who live here. Over the years, I've recorded all of them. So I guess it made sense to do it here. I'm sure she must have checked out some of my work at some time!

I saw the pictures that appear on the CD cover and the booklet of Obligatory Villagers. I'd like to know about the actual recording sessions - like, was the music recorded piecemeal, how much overdubbing, etc. You get the idea.

We recorded the bass, drums and guitar for songs 2-7 in four hours on Tuesday. Nellie spent a lot of time conducting, so she couldn't do a lot of piano. The next afternoon we did the strings in 3 hours and the horns in 3 hours in the evening. The following days were filled with Nellie doing her piano, vocals, xylophone, timpani, chimes, gongs and other percussion and some other overdubs. Bob Dorough, Nancy Reed and Phil Woods stopped by to do their thing. That part of the album was all recorded by Sunday. We did some additional overdubbing and the first and last song at a later date.

Were there any peculiar problems that occurred during the recording sessions for Obligatory Villagers?

No, things went quite smoothly.

Who did the mixing? The credits don't say.

Except for the mastering, which was done in NYC, it was done here from start to finish. You could say it was never mixed! Ever since I've been using digital consoles, and now, Protools, my approach is always to be mixing. At the end of every session, I would make a CD of the album, in order, with the correct spacing between each song. She would take it home and listen. Most artists I've worked with only take rough mixes of the particular songs they worked on. She was very interested in the flow of the whole record. The next time we would get together, she might have some comments like, turn the bass up or my vocal's too loud. So, I guess another way to say it would be, we were always mixing. There is very little EQ or compression on the whole album, like the jazz albums I do.

Just personal curiosity: Is that a true Hammond + Leslie we hear on Zombie?

Yes, that is a real 1957 Hammond B-3 that I bought from a little old lady for $200! It's on a few other songs as well. Nellie never played one before. She did pretty good!

All of the instruments on the CD are real. Got to love that!

Digital vs. analogue: please discuss.

Oh no not this!!!! As far as tape goes, I learned on analog, I worked analog and I never liked it. I never liked that it sounded different on playback and the more you use it, the less high frequencies you have. I don't miss the feel, smell or the environmental impact that goes in to producing it. I still have my 2" 24 track and two 2-tracks, so I'm not saying this because I don't have the tools available. That said, I use plenty of high quality analog on the way into Protools. Nellie's voice was recorded through a vintage U-47 tube mic then into a D. W. Fearn tube pre-amp. Plenty of ribbon mics on the horns. That's analog!

If I didn't record this into Protools, or "in the box", we would have had to actually mix it!

To the "have to have tape" people I say: "If you can't make a great recording without tape, then you can't make a great recording".

We've recently seen a lot of historical US studios going down,  with more and more records done "in the box". (Though yesterday I read about a new big studio in Nashville - George  Massenburg has a room there.) Your perspective on this.

A lot of the major studios that went under were in NYC and LA. It was the increasing rents that killed them. Of course, the state of the music industry and home studios didn't help. In this country, I think you will see a lot more of the music business moving to Nashville.

Hopefully there will always be people who will want to make real sounding recordings with real instruments, and studios with nice sounding rooms, like mine, will still be needed.

Nowadays, music is increasingly consumed on personal systems of "limited fidelity". And it looks like people don't really care about sound quality, when compared to "practicality". Do you see this as having a negative impact on the way records are made?

Ah yes, part of the dumbing down of society! I'm not going to let that happen to me. I'll still make the best quality recordings I can. What happens to it after it leaves here is out of my control.

There will be engineers who start not caring and they will be out of work.

Is there anything you'd like to add?

Just that it was a joy to work on this record. Nellie is an amazing musician and singer. I  hope we get to have more fun in the future.

Beppe Colli 2007 | Oct. 25, 2007