ZioMusic magazine interviews Rob Griffin
Translated from the original Italian interview at: http://www.ziomusic.it/2018/05/21/intervista-a-rob-griffin/ by Luca Rossi
Rob Griffin, whom we met on the Schertler booth at the Frankfurt Musikmesse, is one of the audio world’s living legends. The self-taught sound engineer and guitarist (first rock, then acoustic and folk), lover of experimentation and new technologies, has won numerous Grammys for his recordings with artists such as Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Michael Hedges, Chick Corea and others. His life is an extraordinary story and Rob, like a river in full flow, did not disappoint us with an interview full of intriguing anecdotes and lessons told with enviable spirit.
ZioMusic: You have become a point of reference in the field of audio recording and live sound management, but you immediately admit that you are not the “classic” sound engineer. Does the secret of your success, of knowing how to enhance music, perhaps come from not starting life as a technician, but as a professional musician?
Rob Griffin: Yes, probably. I started as a musician, grew up as a musician, playing the electric guitar in a lucky period for rock and roll, which was the genre I played. I started in 1967, when every week in the record stores, a new record by the Rolling Stones, the Beatles or the Doors was released, so it was a great time to do that kind of music. The guitars were going all over the house because my brother was already playing in a local band and he let me play them, as long as I didn’t ruin them.The first Crosby, Stills and Nash album came out and that incredible acoustic sound took me off to buy my first acoustic. So I entered the world of “acoustics” for many years: I started to play the mandolin and go on tour with bands of a certain level. Even though I did not come from the country world, I became very interested in bluegrass and the great technique of those musicians. So I practised and became very fast and good at playing. And within six months, I was a kid who played this difficult music around the United States with great artists. By doing this I grew up and lived in New York for some time, then Nashville and then San Francisco.
ZM: When did you start moving towards what would later become your main profession as a sound engineer that has brought you so much success?
RG: In 1968 my brother, who was six years older than me, started in a recording studio in Columbus, Ohio. I was 13 years old and I found myself there on weekends listening and learning, and experimenting with moving the microphones. So I learned a lot of things; how to position musicians, how to get separate sounds or use returns in the right way to create the feeling of space, without them fighting, and to use them to my advantage.
ZM: You told me that there was an episode that changed your life and made you choose to stay behind the mixer instead of being on stage.
RG: Yes. When I was in San Francisco, my wife advised me to go to the gym to get fitter. And it was lifting weights that seriously injured my right wrist. The irony of fate was that just at that time I was about to sign a fantastic record contract, the kind you have been waiting for all your life. I was about 32 years old, I was playing for almost twenty years and it broke my heart seeing my dream shatter.A friend of mine, a great French acoustic guitarist Pier Bensusan, asked me to go on tour with him. This is also because I was experimenting with the technology as a musician, using loops before looper pedals existed, collaborating with Lexicon and succeeding in having one of the first looper prototypes - a novelty with which I managed to go on tours in Europe.
ZM: So your career started with a love of technology and experimentation in the audio field.
RG: Exactly. In the period when I was a musician, I was on tour in France and took a train to meet the founders of TC Electronic, Kim and John Rishøj. I was just starting out and I found myself working together with them to develop their first digital delay, the TC2290. I made them expand its memory: I remember it was very expensive as a fixture. A single memory chip cost $ 60 and I needed 32! Almost two thousand dollars for 16 MB to make a looper. I also contacted Eventide for their Harmonizer because I wanted to use these live technologies, voices and instruments based on looping, harmonization, absurd octaves etc.
I was traveling by train to Europe with all this equipment and a huge rack of processors. For years I did it live, playing with artists at quite a high level. For example, I played as a solo guitarist with Mark O'Connor, a violinist also for Steve Morse's Dixie Dregs. Shortly afterwards, I had the injury I was talking about and Pier Bensusan asked me to be his engineer.
ZM: So you started as a live sound engineer bringing live experimental technologies to the recording studio?
RG: I took all the stuff that I used on stage to Front of House and started to use it both on stage, controlled by Pier, and behind the mixer, controlled by me. I was freezing the chords, I used the reverse effect on the acoustic guitar, creating arpeggios and special sounds that I used to create a carpet on which Pier could play solos. And it went well, people started to notice what I was doing.
ZM: And then you were able to solve the problem on your wrist?
RG: It's a very strange story, which involves the paranormal. I tell you that for about five years I could not move my wrist well. Then one day in Genoa, I met this woman, Maria Capossiana, a pranotherapist who healed me in a second. It was crazy, almost mystical, but my wrist was better.
ZM: So you came back to play?
RG: It was years ago, I lived in California and in the meantime I had built a career mixing, both live and for recording. I did a lot of recordings with ADAT and in the past I learned a lot about microphones. So I became an independent engineer, working in many large studios in San Francisco. One of the biggest was Mobius Recording where there was a Neve 8068 desk, a large collection of microphones, beautiful pianos and great musicians. I made a lot of recordings for acoustic instruments, but always trying to explore future technologies. I always tried to meet the inventors of these technologies and give them ideas, because they were often experts in electronics but not musicians.
ZM: Can you tell us which of your records have changed your career?
RG: It will surely be the first record for which I won a Grammy, "Oracle", a New Age acoustic guitar record made with Michael Hedges in 1996 for Windham Hill Records. A forerunner of tapping on acoustic guitar, but with a rock and roll mentality. It was an exciting experience, a great satisfaction. But the joy melted into sadness with Michael's sudden death in a car accident. We already had the deal and were about to record another of his duo records with Bonnie Raitt, and Crosby and Nash on vocal harmonies. The Grammy came after his death - he really deserved it, a great record.
I think I've always been very lucky. I feel grateful to have always started things from a very high level. The first jazz artist for whom I recorded was Wayne Shorter. I have been working on all his records and live concerts for 23 years. The second jazz artist was Herbie Hancock. It seems absurd but it is so, and with Herbie I have won other Grammys. My third jazz musician was Michael Brecker. I received two Grammys for the live album "Directions in Music" with Herbie Hancock, Roy Hargrove and Michael Brecker. I also had a couple of Grammys for live records with Wayne Shorter, soon to be released with the new Orpheus Orchestra, which I consider the best chamber orchestra in the world.
ZM: From what you mentioned, this last record you are talking about is interesting because it was recorded with a very special technique that required a huge amount of work.
RG: The disk will be called "Emanon", which is "No Name" written in reverse. I used an iZ Technology Radar recorder, one of the best recorders in the world, recording digitally but playing analog. The sound is more like a Studer than I’ve ever heard. I used over 80 microphones and recorded the live orchestra in the Avatar Studio in New York, perhaps the best of the Big Apple that owns my favorite console on the east coast of the States, a Neve 8088. We recorded everything through this console and then to Pro Tools. So I brought everything into my studio. I re-recorded every track, taking two tracks at a time, all analog except the digital control for faders and pan automations. I exit the Radar recorder and then go to a CM Labs Sixty Four patchbay router, digitally controlled, to which all my analog hardware is wired in order to change routing and have ready presets as I like. Everything is then re-recorded through my hardware, all really hi-end material. This way, I can align the phase of each channel, which is very important for an orchestra so that each element can be aligned with the main panoramic microphones. Each track is then optimized with little compression and EQ if necessary. It takes a lot of time but the result is magnificent. At this point the recording returns to the magnificent converters of the Radar recorder and everything is aligned and without latency, ready to mix. I can then do all the fader and pan movements and if I need to do a few small bits of EQ I can use the digital plug-ins. For this I use a Sony DMX R100 console, an old fully automated console well ahead of its time, already working with flash drives and 32-bit in 2000.
ZM: We meet here at the Schertler stand because you have known Stephan Schertler for a long time and have worked with him. From two such visionary people the impossible is to be expected ...
RG: I’ve known Stephan for more than twenty years, introduced by my friends at Vovox (a company that produces excellent cables) as the best designer of audio electronics in Switzerland. When I met him I understood that he had my same passion. For both of us, very good quality is never good enough, but if it is the best we can do today, maybe tomorrow we will do better.
Stephan involved me in the Arthur project, showing me the first prototypes he had built. He had probably built the best analog summation, without negative feedback. When I heard it, I was simply amazed at the quality of the preamps and transients. Being mainly devoted to acoustic instruments, I know how important transients are. They have done an exceptional job, producing fantastic preamps at about $ 350 each, a very low price if we look at products of this level. For me there is nothing at the same price that sounds like that and in addition we have EQ, fader, routing and all that is needed for a mixer. Not to mention modularity - no one had ever thought of a mixer that would fit like Lego!
ZM: I saw a picture of you with the Arthur mixer. What do you use it for mainly?
RG: I use it in live shows and live recordings. Last year I did a five month tour with Chick Corea and Steve Gadd. I showed the Arthur mixer to Chick and he wanted to mix all the monitors on stage. He was amazed at the dynamics this mixer returns. Coming from decades of recordings and analog consoles like the great Neve, Chick, Steve and I immediately felt the difference.
ZM: To finish, seeing your life so full of incredible stories, I cannot help but ask you to leave us with a particular anecdote.
RG: They look incredible to me too, but they are true stories. This is the story of how I managed to get Sting to buy microphones that a microphone manufacturer wanted to give him. DPA had never given anyone an endorsement for a group. They told me they wanted to give me this endorsement but that they had first thought of Sting and could only give it to one of us. Sting against a much less known sound engineer.
At that moment I was in Columbus, where I live, and was in a grocery store buying some bread when I hear a voice asking me if I'm a sound engineer. When I turn around I see Eric Clapton and answer him: “Yes, we met at the Michael Brecker concert in Tokyo, you work for him, right?" He told me: "I married a woman who has a house just two minutes from here on the river." He invited me to his house and so I got an idea. I asked him if he had Sting's number, sure he would answer. "Of course, let's call him," Eric said. After a couple of minutes I’m passed the phone and I introduce myself as Rob Griffin, telling him for whom I work as an engineer. Then I take out this endorsement speech and I blatantly ask him if he could maybe buy the microphones. "Yes, no problem," Sting replied. And so I got the endorsement!