The Inside Track: Veteran music producer Eddie Ashworth reveals the art of recording and engineering rock and roll
By Jim Phillips
It's a chill gray afternoon and the sidewalks of uptown Athens are nearly empty. Inside the snug, softly lit confines of Ohio University's MDIA Sound studio Eddie Ashworth, veteran music producer turned associate professor of media arts and studies, is just warming up for a long evening's work.
West Virginia singer-songwriter Jeff Ellis has come to MDIA to put finishing touches on his latest album, with Ashworth's guidance. As they prepare to overdub a rhythm track, they're debating whether percussionist Tom Berry should play congas or shakers.
"Congas is what I heard, but I'm up for anything," Ellis says.
"Maybe some (finger) snaps on the choruses?" Ashworth suggests.
They settle on congas, and Ashworth tells Berry, "We're just going to do two or three passes, and then we can mix and match." From behind the recording booth's glass partition he gives a count-off, and Ellis's acoustic guitar and vocal tracks come up in the speakers. Berry drops in cleanly, laying down a rhythm that's crisp but fluid.
Student Lorenzo Quiroga shows up with the take in progress; Ashworth quickly fills him in and seats him at a computer monitor, where the audio signal on each track is shown as a lengthening squiggle like the reading on a seismograph.
The first take finished, Berry seems uneasy. "There are things I did I'm not too happy with," he admits.
"We'll keep that one, and do another," Ashworth reassures him.
"Should I just keep it simple?" Berry asks.
"Just do what you feel," Ashworth advises. "Everything you're playing is just really tasteful and fits in the groove."
This is Ashworth doing what he did exceedingly well for years as a West Coast music producer: creatively partnering with musicians to bring out the best in their work. He's still an active studio wizard, but when he works the sound board these days, he's usually surrounded by students from an audio production class.
In a career of more than two decades, Ashworth handled production, engineering, or mixing chores for major rock and pop acts including ska-punks Sublime, heavy-metal headliners Dokken, hard-rockers Great White, keyboardist Gary Wright of "Dream Weaver" fame, former Guns 'N' Roses guitarist Izzy Stradlin, and Tommy Shaw of the arena-rock band Styx.
When Ohio University offered him a faculty position in 2003, one factor that sold him on the job was that he was urged to keep working as a recording pro. "They all wanted me to maintain a professional profile," he says. "Teaching and producing now go hand-in-hand for me."
As producer-cum-professor, he gets to seek out regional artists he wants to work with, and use their albums as teaching projects. Though he's recorded big-name acts, he's more drawn to helping a creative indie group develop its own sound.
"I'm a big fan of scrappy little rock bands," he admits. |
Ashworth imparts not only the ins and outs of mics and mixers, but also a career's worth of insights on the care and handling of artists—how to steer them gently toward the best results, without stepping on their egos or grabbing the creative reins.
Ellis, who has worked with Ashworth since 2007, called this one of his greatest strengths.
"The first thing that struck me about Eddie was that he was just so laid back and easy-going, but he always got the result he was looking for, without kind of coming out and telling us what to do," the songwriter says. "He lets you make the mistakes you need to get there. And another cool thing about him is he admits it when he's wrong—which isn't very often."
A member of Columbus world music outfit Maza Blaska says accepting Ashworth's invitation to work with him was one of the best decisions her band ever made.
"It was our first time in a professional studio, and there's no way we could have done what we were able to do without him," recalls Sam Corlett. "And beyond the first recording experience, we've continued to work with him. We've really become close friends with him." Ashworth's creative input, she says, even extended to writing a keyboard part.
Not only did he shepherd the band through a record Corlett calls "the best thing that I had ever been involved with," he also helped hone their collective songwriting skills, and even threw in some career advice.
"He's like a mentor," Corlett explains. "He's helped us in kind of brainstorming where we want to be, and how to get there."
Ashworth insists on professionalism in the studio, even (or especially) when working with hard-partying rock-and-rollers. "No matter what kind of fun your clients are having, you have to be the 'designated driver,'" he advises. He also tries to impress on students the need for producers to place their talents at the service of the artist.
Sound technicians, in his view, are creative midwives, not co-stars—and should give each project their best whether or not they personally favor its style of music. (Ashworth admitted that for him, working on a million-selling heavy-metal record can't match the thrill of one of his earliest assignments, folk-rocker John Stewart's 1979 "Bombs Away Dream Babies.")
"The thing I tell my students is, we have to keep our egos in check," he explains. "It's not about us. Our creativity is derived from the artists achieving what they do. That's the job description … You have to find something to like in any kind of music that you do."
To Ashworth, an engineer is a "mediator" between musicians and technology, helping artists "get the sound that's in their head onto their finished recording." Using microphones, compressors, equalizers, and various other tools, the engineer makes recording decisions that subtly affect the sound, and help create the appropriate "sonic landscape" to put each song's meaning across.
A producer is even more involved in the creative process, he says, and is responsible for the "big picture" of how the album should turn out. This can include picking the studio and engineer, choosing which songs should be on the record, spotting material that needs more work, and even co-writing tunes. A producer often will suggest changes to songs, Ashworth noted, such as which key to play in, and will advise on arrangements and instrumentation.
What drew Ashworth to this line of work was a love of popular music and a lifelong fascination with the recording process.
A devoted record collector, he used to tinker with tape recorders in his youth on the West Coast, and while studying English at UCLA, performed with an acoustic act.
"I would say that probably most producers, and most engineers, start out with this fascination for the media," he speculates.
After graduation, Ashworth set out in "somewhat naïve" fashion to break into the industry: He wrote out his resume in ballpoint pen on notebook paper, made a stack of copies, and began knocking on the door of every Los Angeles-area studio he could find.
That innocence paid off when he landed a job at West Hollywood's Larabee Sound; his time there gave him a grounding in the nuts and bolts of recording, and in doing his best with a record, whatever its style.
"Fortunately or unfortunately, I started working there at the height of the disco era," he recalls diplomatically. "But I feel pretty fortunate, because I got to learn from some of the top producers and engineers in the business."
In a period he remembers as "a blur," Ashworth worked 100-hour weeks cranking out records in an often wild atmosphere. "It was character-building," he jokes. "I appreciate it more now than I did then."
After suffering a bout of burnout during which he left the industry and Los Angeles for a while, Ashworth ended up back on the coast a few years later, working with a studio called Total Access, where he waxed some of his biggest-selling albums.
Finally, after a couple of decades in the business, Ashworth wanted a change. He still loved recording, but saw the Los Angeles rock-and-roll world stretching out endlessly before him, and it didn't look appealing. So he answered an ad for a faculty position at Ohio University, where he joined an audio production program that featured Emmy Award-winning associate professor Jeff Redefer, a former musician and engineer with the Pure Prairie League.
He likes that academia lets him take "a more scholarly approach to what I do." It's his ability to convey what he learned as a studio pro, however, that makes students rave about him as a teacher.
Christy Illius, who graduated in 2011, works mixing sound in New York for TV networks including the Food Network, the Cartoon Network, and VH1. She has no doubt that Ashworth's training got her the job. While she had a background in music, she initially had little interest in the technology of recording, she recalls.
"(Ashworth) took the time to drill all of that into me, and show me 100 times over if I needed it," she says.
Illius still carries a fat notebook, crammed with all the tips she got from Ashworth in her college days. "I call it my bible," she says. "Every little chunk of information I've gotten from Eddie is in that notebook … and it applies every single day."
Josh Antonuccio, who co-owns an Athens recording studio and teaches in the School of Media Arts and Studies, says one thing that sets Ashworth apart is that while he's a "fantastic" technician, he's also a musician and unabashed fan. (In addition to audio production, he also teaches a course about the history and practices of the recording industry, which also covers popular music history.)
"He's a genuine music nerd, a music geek, and it really shows in his work," Antonuccio says, adding that having worked with big-name rock stars definitely doesn't hurt Ashworth's cachet as a professor.
"The students get the benefit of working with someone who is still in the industry, and is continuing to have an impact on the national and regional music scene," he notes. "He's worked in some of the biggest studios in the world, and he can bring that into the classroom."
Illius recalled that for one project, Ashworth handed her class the original unmixed tracks of a Sublime record, and let them season it to their sonic taste.
"How many people get to say, 'I learned how to mix a Sublime album?'" she marvels. "We got to open up the session—that's huge."
Ashworth can also give students an inside track on how the business is changing, and how they need to adapt their career strategies to work in it.
In the 2000s, he recalls, there was a big shift toward low-tech recording where musicians handled the sound themselves. "A lot of artists were really going DIY," he says, which triggered an outpouring of fresh new talent. The music scene in America now, he suggests, is as rich as it's ever been.
The DIY ethos meant a drop in prestige for the professional studio hand. But, Ashworth adds, as time has gone on, more bands have come to appreciate the value an empathetic producer can bring to a project.
"They recognize how important it is to have a sounding board in the studio," he explains.
For a graduate looking to build a career in the field, Ashworth suggests, the best advice is to reach out to bands, work a lot to get experience, develop a reputation, and market yourself to acts you want to work with. A 2013 grad is unlikely to repeat his trick of landing a studio job with a cold call; engineer/producers of today, he says, need to see themselves as bosses of their own small businesses.
"You have to be much more of an entrepreneur than you were 15 years ago," he advises.
Sidebar: Audio experts seek to preserve a nation's recorded heritage
Eddie Ashworth learned his skills recording American pop music. But a project funded by an Ohio University 1804 Fund grant will let him use them to preserve a South American nation's recorded heritage.
The project aims to digitize a large quantity of historically significant analog recordings (tape or even older formats), archived by Guyana's National Communication Network (NCN).
Emeritus Professor Vibert Cambridge, who helped organize the project, says the collection, with an estimated 11,000 items, is a treasure trove of music, history, and more.
"This is phenomenal material," he says. He cited recordings of Bill Rogers, a Guyanese musician who was "part of the first calypso wave in the United States in the 1940s," and speeches by Guyanese leaders and British royalty on the occasion of the country's independence in 1966.
Ohio University has a relationship with the University of Guyana dating back nearly three decades. When one of Ashworth's students, Ricky Chilcott—now technology and facilities manager for Scripps College of Communication—traveled to Georgetown in 2008 with a student team to provide tech support for Carifesta, a Guyanese festival, he learned of the NCN collection.
Given Guyana's tropical climate, "he was concerned about its stability," Cambridge explains. Chilcott told Ashworth, who shares his interest in preserving analog audio, and the project was born.
In May Ashworth, Cambridge, Chilcott, and five graduate students traveled to Georgetown, where they collaborated with Guyanese archivists and media professionals to inventory and assess a cross-section of analog media in the public sector at several sites around the city.
The teams confirmed the presence of many historically and culturally significant recordings, including an entire collection of multicultural music and spoken word recordings previously thought to have been discarded. They were also able to demonstrate that 40 percent of these recordings were rapidly deteriorating.
A final report with recommendations regarding the stabilization and future disposition of the materials was presented to the Minister of Culture, who now has made preservation of the collection a national priority.
The team next will seek further funding for "a full-scale, multi-year effort" to digitize the material, Ashworth says. Once it's done, it will be available to scholars and students. Cambridge predicted some of it will be "of immense interest to our Contemporary History Institute," as Guyana has played an important part in American and European history for centuries, including the Cold War.
This article appears in the Spring/Summer 2013 issue of Perspectives magazine, which covers Ohio University research, scholarship and creative activity.