Paul Wickliffe

On His Own Terms

Paul Wickliffe (seated, front) with Special EFX members Chieli Minucci (L) and George Jinda (R), working in Room 3 at Skyline Studios in 1994

by Gary Eskow

Paul Wickliffe has a lot to say, but don't expect a lot of sweet talk coming down the data stream--he has been around the studio business for more than two decades. A New Jersey native, Wickliffe currently resides in the central portion of the Garden state with his wife, the highly regarded jazz diva Roseanna Vitro, and their 14-year-old daughter, Sarah.

Wickliffe originally studied filmmaking at NYU's film school, where he made films with classmates Joel Silver (producer of 48 Hours and Die Hard), Robert Colesbury (producer of Mississippi Burning) and Amy Heckerling (writer/ director of Look Who's Talking and Clueless). He had played guitar, piano and drums since grade school and continued to be drawn to music throughout college. Eventually, Wickliffe opened his own project studio, Studio 28, in New York.

Studio 28 started by attracting a jazz and folk clientele, plus jingle and publishing demo work. After three years, it became apparent that the Otari 8-track room would have to yield to a larger multitrack space and, in 1979, Wickliffe opened Skyline Studios. Skyline began attracting "A" clients from the jump, and Meat Loaf, Pat Benatar and Kashif, plus ad agencies and top-shelf industrial shows regularly tracked there.

Things really took off when Wickliffe installed an SSL console in 1985. Within two months, Nile Rodgers, then riding a wave of success with Madonna's Like a Virgin, came by to check out the facility. Rodgers must have liked what he saw and heard; he booked the single-room studio for five days a week, 50 weeks a year, for seven years.

Rodgers brought with him many fabled clients, including Sheena Easton, Al Jarreau, Duran Duran, the Vaughn Brothers and the B-52's, who recorded "Love Shack" at Skyline. Rodgers also brought James Farber, his personal engineer, and Skyline's technical staff was already in place. Work was flowing, and Wickliffe was the proud papa of a one-year-old girl; he felt that it was time to step back, and he took a two-year break.

What did you do in your two-year hiatus?

I engineered weekend gigs and got back to my roots. I was able to pick and choose the clients I wanted to work with more selectively than I would if I was struggling to make a living. I picked up Special EFX as a client, and the first record I engineered for them resulted in a Grammy nomination for Best Engineering in 1986.

I focused on the design and construction of the second 48-track SSL room [added in 1987] and a MIDI production suite in 1988. By then, it was time for me to get back to full-time engineering.

Eric Clapton recorded at Skyline during this period, and Mariah Carey's first two albums were recorded there as well. The New York studio scene was extremely competitive at that time. What made Skyline so attractive to this level of clientele?

First and foremost, we were known for impeccable maintenance. I had three full-time maintenance techs working around the clock--literally. That adds bucks onto the rate, because the best techs get paid well. Reliability is a most prized commodity in the studio business.

Why did you decide to close Skyline when it had been so successful?

In 1994, the MIDI/ADAT revolution was eroding the dominance of the full-service studio and rate wars were common. I spent more time sweating the business than making records. I either had to downsize and offer lower-quality service or go out of the business on top!

Mix readers had nominated us for five consecutive TEC Awards as one of the top facilities from 1989 to 1993. While I didn't relish the thought of leaving New York, the idea of compromising what we had achieved was totally unacceptable.

I would like clear up the false impression that Nile Rodgers' decision to leave Skyline was the reason I closed the studio. The fact is, an unscrupulous New York studio owner--who will remain unnamed--made Nile an offer he couldn't refuse, selling him studio time below their cost, not because he wanted Nile as a client, but simply because he didn't want me to have him. Nile took the offer, but he only stayed at this facility for a few months, nothing like the seven years he spent at Skyline.

When things were really smoking at Skyline, you were able to take some time off and you built a small studio in your New Jersey home. This actually worked out quite well for you in the long run, didn't it?

Absolutely. Back in '85, when I got locked out of my own room, I put in a studio in my house and continued to work in it. I found out that with a staff of one and no rent, I could make as much money as I was running Skyline with 15 employees and a million a year in overhead!

How would you distinguish the roles of engineer and producer?

The producer gets involved in the creative process, making decisions about the content of the music itself, whereas the engineer, at least in theory, makes decisions that affect only the resulting sound coloration of the music, not its content.

But, most engineers will tell you that they start producing as soon as they've mastered engineering to a degree. An engineer can't help but become part of the creative process. Lots of artists can't afford to hire producers, and so the engineer becomes a default producer--although he or she is rarely given credit for it later on.

Compare working at home to tracking in an "A" facility like Skyline.

One obvious distinction is that the time/money equation favors the well-equipped home studio. It's a lot more relaxed of an atmosphere for everyone to work in. When you work in a large room in the city, the producer really has to work out time tables specifically, as far as union schedules go. Out here, you're generally booking players by the tune, so things are looser.

Still, you had SSLs and any piece of gear a producer could ask for at Skyline. Is it hard to work in more modest circumstances?

My console here is the Amek 2500 that came from Skyline's MIDI room. I gutted it, repotted it, put in all new capacitors and modified the routing so that it behaves like an SSL.

I use Optifile Tetra Automation, which is great. It's an add-on package to the 2500 that emulates SSL VCA automation or Flying Fader-style automation. The EQ on this board is fabulous: four-band full parametric that's very musical-sounding. So, as far as the console goes, I don't feel shortchanged as a producer working this room one bit.

Now my take on gear is this: I hear some guys whine that they can't get a sound on anything but a Class A Neve and the "box du jour." I believe a good engineer can get a great sound on a Mackie, if he knows what he's doing. High-priced toys are great but not essential. I hate those gear snobs who quote the hype out of magazines but can't learn how to make the most out of less!

What's your monitoring setup?

I use a pair of Tannoy DMT8s and a pair of Yamaha NS-10's. The DMT8s emulate your warm and sparkly hi-fi speakers, while the NS-10's are the polar opposite. If you have a mix that works on both extremes, it works.

Your listening area is fine, but there's no way it can compare to the acoustic environment you created at Skyline. How do you deal with that?

Paul Wickliffe in Skyline Studio 6.
I stay relatively close inside the listening triangle, about four feet equilaterally, when I'm judging a mix. Near-field monitoring makes the acoustics outside less of a factor. I don't back speakers up against the wall and have about 20 feet of dispersion room behind me, which really helps the standing waves. I made sure that all parallel reflective surfaces were damped or broken up.

At Skyline, I designed rooms that were large enough to record modest orchestral dates. The control rooms had to be spacious enough to handle a flood of ad clientele or large pop acts with their entourage. A much larger area had to sound good, so you needed to pay closer attention to acoustic accuracy and design.

As a studio owner, if you're lusting after the biggest names in the biz, you have to have all the details working as perfectly as possible. In truth, you can make great-sounding records with far less resources.

You seem to favor live playing. How do you feel about the state of MIDI in pop music these days?

MIDI has made musicians lazier! Players become insulated in their own home studio environments, and that's bad. As powerful as sequencers are, they have little soul and no collective consciousness. A band is more than just the sum of its parts; compare the Lennon-McCartney tunes to any work written by them as individuals.

If you're sitting and programming a sequencer all day, for God's sake go out and play with people at night or on weekends. When sequences came into vogue in pop music is when I made my move to jazz. Unfortunately, now most contemporary jazz is sequenced. I find myself "unquantizing" tracks before they are laid down to make them more believable as performances. I hate quantized horn and string patches; no section ever played like that.

How important is it for music producers and artists to be market-savvy from the get go?

Essential! The term "music business" is an oxymoron. What is good for music, like innovation, virtuosity and uniqueness, is bad for marketing, and what's good for marketing, like imitation, predictability and the lowest common denominator, is bad for music. The role of a successful producer is to find the balance between the two concepts. As a producer of contemporary jazz records, if I produced what I like musically, it would be fusion, funk and acid jazz. Unfortunately, the radio doesn't play those records; they play only "smooth jazz," because they care more about selling more advertising than playing what's hip.

There is a format consulting service known as Broadcast Architecture that puts together a test audience based on the demographics of black females between the ages of 25 and 35 to audition contemporary jazz records. They control the play lists for most stations in this format nationwide. They've discovered that if you put Kenny G., George Benson and Marvin Gaye's "Sexual Healing" into a blender, what comes out is "smooth jazz," and if you don't taste like that, you're the wrong flavor. Record companies know that if there is no air play, there are no sales, so they have to force their artists to conform to the unwritten rules of the format.

Artists don't want to hear from rules, but until the de Medicis take over the record business, we're stuck with them. The artists who wish to produce themselves may have the technical skills, but without the marketing savvy, they could end up with a lot of digital coasters.

Well, if musicians don't want to make records that fit into neat little categories, they can put out their own CDs, right?

Since everyone has the technology to make their own records, there are tens of thousands of artists who wouldn't ordinarily have had record deals who now have their own records. The market is flooded with product, and retail is choking on it. There is such a glut of product that most retail chains require you to cough up a product placement fee of several grand to, in essence, "rent" shelf space from them at your own risk.

It is possible to bend the rules. I produced a record for traditional jazz vocalist Roseanna Vitro called Catchin' Some Rays--The Music of Ray Charles last year. Her label, Telarc, didn't want a second "traditional" jazz record because the sales demographic for straight ahead was too small.

The problem was if she made a contemporary jazz record, her traditional jazz audience would shun her as a "sell-out" and blackball the record. We solved the problem by doing "Unchain My Heart" in a quasi-Miles/Tutu kinda way and made most of the rest of the record straight ahead. We convinced New York's CD 101 to test it, and the record got a very high score. It was added to the daily rotation in February, six months after its initial release.

Any advice for the musician who is an aspiring producer?

A common fault for most beginners in the studio is that they want to record every idea they ever had on a certain piece! The end result is "Where's Waldo?--The Musical," with Waldo playing the melody. "Less is more" is more than a trite catch phrase; it's the mantra. Focus on what is the most important element for the listener to hear from moment to moment and get the other stuff out of the way.

Find a balance between technical perfection on one hand and raw emotional spontaneity on the other. Most jazz musicians are out to show off their chops and technical prowess. I try to point out that if you're out to make records to impress other musicians, you'll go broke. Most people who will buy your records won't know Phrygian mode from a Frigidaire. I go for the emotional connection, flaws and all. To me, that's the key to making a record that will make people want to hear it often enough to buy it. Sometimes I have to fight the artist for the flaws. Imagine standing awe-struck before the Venus de Milo and the sculptor is screaming, "What's the matter with you people? Can't you see she's got no arms!"


A discography of Paul Wickliffe's work can be found at his Web site:

Gary Eskow is a New Jersey-based freelance writer and producer.

These materials copyright ©1998 by Intertec Publishing