In Memory of Jason Corsaro

jason-corsaro-sonic-circus

Last August we lost Jason Corsaro. He was 58. His boundless enthusiasm for making records, and love for others was immeasurable. Although Jason had endless experience he was never afraid to take chances in the studio. He loved telling stories about his time working at the Power Station on 48th St. (also Hit Factory and A&M) Jason Corsaro’s credits include, Motorhead, Cars, Chic/Nile Rodgers, the Power Station/Robert Palmer, the Rolling Stones Tattoo You (1981), Soundgarden, Queen, David Bowie, Foreigner, INXS, Duran Duran, Madonna “Like A Virgin”, Ozzy Osborne, Jeff Beck, Deep Purple, Tony Williams, The Ramones and countless others.  Jason could explain getting sounds in ways that were unexplainable.  He helped great artists make great records, as well as influenced the success of countless others.

According to Bill Laswell, “Jason Corsaro. He’s a beast of an engineer and really famous for mixing drums. He pretty much defined the 80’s with bands like the The Power Station and Robert Palmer. He created that sound. He came out of the Bob Clearmountain school. He was Bob’s assistant. But he was more of an animal and still is. His sound has more of an impact and I wanted Elvin (Jones) to have that. And they got along very well. Later on we did the same thing with Ginger Baker and Tony Williams.”1*

Joe Barresi adds “Jason Corsaro, who I think is one of the greatest engineers in the world. He’s done everything from Soundgarden’s Superunknown, which to me is sonically light years above all their other stuff, to the first Power Station record. Also Madonna’s “Like A Virgin”…” 2* ”He was one of the guys who gave me my start–and he also taught me that there were no boundaries or rules when making records. He always sought after the biggest, wildest, craziest sounds–yet he could fit it into something beautifully commercial as well. I learned a lot by watching him, and he never ceased to amaze me when he spoke about music and creating it with such passion. He was an innovator…till the very end.”

Oz Fritz on assisting with Jason. ”I was amazed at Jason’s use of effects. He would compress, eq, sometimes gate them, and run effects into other effects like chorusing a reverb, etc. I told him how nice the Studio East live room sounded as a reverb chamber. He wasted no time taking advantage of it, using it, in some instances, as the snare drum reverb, sometimes running the live room through a flanger, sometimes pitching it down, and timing the SSL gates just right for maximum effect.” 3*

In 2007, then VP of Sonic Circus, Producer Engineer Brian Charles interviewed Jason.  We thought we would share it with you.

BC: How did you get your start in the recording industry?

Jason Corsaro: I had a friend in high school, and I went to see him and he said “Would you like to take a day off from school, cut class and go to the Village and check out this place called the Institute of Audio Research.” and I was like “cut class… Village… New York… sure.” So I went to see it and I watched and listened to what they had to say and it seemed to be exactly what I was interested in. If you take everyone else’s talent and ability, and join them, mix them all together, you can come out with a song in the end; a mix of music without actually having to play, write, create, or perform. I said, “This is what I like.” I’d had enough of the practice. Never been one into practicing. So after I saw it, and saw what was going on, I ended up going to the school and my friend didn’t.

When I went to school I didn’t have enough money to get through, so to supplement I worked at the school and got friendly with everyone and they placed me at a studio called Secret Sound, originally owned by Todd Rundgren and I started working my way up and I eventually got into Power Station. I got on every session I could and had all the best people. At that point of time Power Station had amazing people coming through. Tony Visconti, Roy Thomas Baker, Jimmy Iovine and Shelly Yackus and Chic. I worked with amazing people on amazing records, sometimes two a day. I did that for years. I took little bits of all of their best techniques and styles and melted them into my own and watched and listened to all these great records being done.

BC: So, were you assisting in those early years?

Jason Corsaro: Oh yes. I assisted for a very long time. It wasn’t like it is now; it was very hard to break in. Now everybody is attracted to youth. At that point experience was everything. It’s kind of flip-flopped, but it was really good, because I’ve stored away all those little things that I saw and I’ve pulled them out like a little bag of tricks and it really helps.

BC: I bet that learning from those guys was great, but also the technology that surrounded you at the time, made you have to learn things that people don’t necessarily need to know or they think they don’t need to know these-days.

Jason Corsaro: Well, it helps because instead of having to rely on quick fixes, you had to do things to make it work. You didn’t have options. Even a simple thing as just punching in on a tape machine, if you did something wrong it was gone. You made an edit, it was wrong, it was gone. You didn’t have another copy, you didn’t have backups or safeties. Now you can do anything and it’s pretty hard to screw up, but it’s even harder to actually do it right, keeping your focus on what’s important and not just on handling the technology. It was interesting to see. I’ll give you one quick example of one thing that sticks out as being as amazing. Tony Visconte was producing a John Hyatt record; the drummer couldn’t get the song the way he wanted. He wanted to drop the song and Tony experimented and got him to overdub the drums on top of each other ten times. First the whole drum kit, then just down to three or four tracks, then down to stereo, down to mono and kept doing it and doing it until the whole event worked and it became the drummer’s favorite song on the record. So he took what was a problem and found a solution and made it work musically, not based on technology. Now you can do that same thing so much easier in Pro Tools and you’ll get the same result.

BC: You know, what we’re talking about now reminds me of something I wanted to ask you that I thought of earlier. I’ve talked to a couple of other engineers that have done some work on stuff that you’ve tracked, maybe they’ve mixed or whatever, and every one of them that I’ve talked to said that there is something about the tracks that you record. They seem to mix very easily, and I just wondered what your aesthetic is when you’re tracking a band. How does that happen? How do you make that happen?

Jason Corsaro:: I think it’s because it’s easier for me to envision what it’s going to sound like at the end. I worked with people like Shelly Yakus who could get perfect, amazing sounds on things. I could never do that. I never really aspired to that. There’s already a Shelly Yakus. I didn’t want to try to do that. So, I tried to record into a mix situation and imagine what it was going to sound like, to draw out contrasts and effects and perspectives from the beginning, so that all you have to do is put the faders up and just make it more exciting. You didn’t have to make it into something, which makes it harder to record and also a little harder to deal with (for) people because they get scared. Sometimes you do things that they haven’t seen. Always try to see what doesn’t work to understand what does, and what comes out in the end it just seems like it’s easier. I did a track for Duran Duran, “View to a Kill”, the first thing that I ever produced, and someone got to do a dance mix of it. They said, ” All I had to do was push the faders up and it was mixed.” I’d say that was a little nice, but it wasn’t that far off because it was all figured out, arranged, and recorded the way I wanted it to be in the end. I actually know some people who just set it up so you put all the faders even and get a mix. It’s not quite like that, but I take the chances on the record(ing) side rather than on the mix side.

BC: Yeah it seems that people I talk to said that they could tell that you committed to sounds very early in the process. Do you find yourself printing effects often?

Jason Corsaro: Yes. Recording with effects- sometimes I don’t even actually give you the choice of not using them because I don’t have the original clear sound, it’s just the way that it’s supposed to be, the way the performance comes across. If it doesn’t have a DI or a flat one… I’ve just never done that. I put it up and it works and you don’t have to think about it.

BC: I know that you have been asked about this for years but there is a new crop of engineers that may not be as acclimated to this music as we are. So…how did you get the drum sound on “Addicted to Love”?

Jason Corsaro: Well a lot of that was Tony Thompson, he’s an amazing drummer, and then it was also Donny Wenn who played on some of it. We were down in a studio in the Bahamas and it didn’t have much of a sound. It was a dead room and I didn’t know how to record in a dead room after being in Power Station. So I recorded the drums in the dead room and created like a horn that blew the sound out into the hallway, which was very live, I think it was cement, and I put a series of room mics up in the hall and recorded that with these booming room mics. And then when I mixed it, I used to use this effect with a Publison where I’d pitch shift the room down and then I would feed it back to itself so that it would keep going lower and lower, sort of the way a drum rings out, the high end dissipates and the low energy lasts longer. I tried to do that with the room sound and just had it bigger and lower and longer. When it got to long I would just cut it on the SSL. I would write cuts in it. Actually I think on some of the songs I even used a Sony digital tape machine to print the cuts. I could make a digital safety and then write the cuts in for each beat exactly where I wanted. Because it wasn’t as much what was happening it was the space between what was happening that was important.

BC: Amazing.

Jason Corsaro: Actually it was a lot of silliness that a lot of people didn’t understand and thought was wrong, but it actually helped make it a little different and a little bit more exciting. Just always trying to find another perspective.

BC: Well you seem to be good at finding that perspective. When I look at your discography you’ve had quite a career and you’re still going…

Jason Corsaro: Yeah the new stuff actually is scaring me even more. The studio that I’m working at now, The Barber Shop has amazing gear, an amazingly designed room by Fran Manzella. Every aspect of it sounds good so I’m actually trying to make it sound bad- because it sounds so good it’s too easy to get you stopped. You put up a great mic and a great mic pre and say I don’t need to do anymore, but we’re doing other things that I used to do to try and save sounds and it’s coming out great. I should play you some of the new stuff it’s really over the top.

BC: Speaking of new stuff, when you came up it was all 2-inch tape. Right?

Jason Corsaro: Yes.

BC: Now it’s pretty much Pro Tools. Do you change your approach to the way you track sounds now that you’re using Pro Tools, or do you still use analog sometimes?

Jason Corsaro: I like to use analog. A lot of people don’t want to use it and it hasn’t been easy to get tape. It’s my preference, but there are things that you can do in Pro Tools which you can’t possibly do in analog. I would imagine the best would be a hybrid between the two, not dumping from tape to Pro Tools, but locking the two up. Tape still has a very big warm sound. Pro Tools has a very aggressive, sharp, powerful sound, and with some of the new plug-ins, by itself it’s one thing, but with the plug-ins you can use, you can do things that you could only imagine years ago and it’s easy to duplicate. I used to dream about having a situation where you could have all different EQs on different channels for whatever instrument you wanted to put them on, like a special snare drum EQ or compressor you liked, and then a separate for the bass, and a separate for a guitar track or a separate thing for the hi-hat or the tom. You can do that now very easily and still use all the mic pres and EQs for Pro Tools that you can dream of because we have so many here- Neves and Helios and Spectrosonics, all sorts of amazing things. So you have no end to the infinite amount of variables that you could use, which is a great thing.

BC: So, the format has changed and you’ve adapted…

Jason Corsaro: Yeah, everyone thought it would make it easier, but it actually makes it more difficult because there are so many things to try and so many things that sound good. I think the trick is just deciding on “this already sounds good, I don’t need to go any further.”

BC: Knowing when it sounds good enough, right?

Jason Corsaro: Yeah, yeah exactly.

BC: Speaking of sounding good, I remember being in my car a long time ago when Stevie Winwood’s “Higher Love “came on the radio, and it made even my crappy little car stereo sound great, sound huge.

Jason Corsaro: Yeah, there are amazing musicians on the record and again back in the time when tape was big it was one of the last scenes like that. It’s not like that any more. It was great, it was a great moment and a great record. Stevie (is an) amazing talent. I didn’t see too many people in my life before him, do a vocal take from beginning to end without stopping and it was amazing.

BC: That recording is sonically stellar, and the stereo spread on that stuff … it sound’s larger than life.

Jason Corsaro: Yeah it’s a great record. That whole time, there was a moment where everything was popping. That, and Robert Palmer and lots of things, the “PiL” record I did with Bill Lazwell. Just really interesting stuff. All different, all great musicians, all trying to do interesting and new things. There are changes a little bit now, the scope is a little narrower, but still a lot of interesting things happening.

BC: So, how do you feel about the industry these days… you’ve seen the record industry go from something that was very strong and healthy to something that pretty much on its knees right now?

Jason Corsaro: I think the reason for that, in my opinion, is just a bad choice of music to be able to listen to. It’s very narrow, the scope is very, very narrow. Where years ago there was many different styles, many different things, it was interesting, it was daring. There were a lot of records you would hate, but there were some people that would love absolutely them. Now everyone is very much the same. It if was me, I’m bored. I find it very hard to buy new records, but there’s a lot of great music. It’s just that people don’t give the great music a chance. They want the music that’s only going to sell and that only has a short shelf life for me.

BC: Yeah, I would agree with you there.

Jason Corsaro: But I think it’s all going to change because I think that people who are really interested in making a great expression and great music are going to find a different avenue to go. They’re not going to go to the same old place, especially if they are turned away, and people are going to go to a different place, they’re not going to go listen to the same cheese sandwich everyday.

BC: Speaking of the “same cheese sandwich”, do you find that you get into a routine when you’re recording?

Jason Corsaro: I can’t- I get bored really easily. The first record that got me attention was The Power Station and all these people came seeking that drum sound and I was like “Why do you want that, it was only good for that situation, it doesn’t fit in anything, we’ll get a different drum sound that will work.” They said “I want that one”. I said “I’m sorry that was a moment in time and its passed, we’ll come up with a new one.” And it’s happened many times in different ways. It’s just a drum sound, it’s just a beat, it’s just a rhythm. People put importance on the craziest things.

BC: So you still seem to keep your perspective regarding what other people want…

Jason Corsaro: I just search for what’s wrong, and I think in the end- you’re left with what’s right.

BC: That’s very good advice.

Jason Corsaro: Otherwise you just end up doing the same thing everyday. It’s got to be boring. Mixing the same song- to sound the same way everyday year after year- how could your heart be in that?

BC: Good point. I’m going to ask you one last question. It seems that you still have so much enthusiasm for what you do, even after the amount of time you’ve been doing it. Looking at your discography I can see all of the work that you’ve done and I’ve heard a lot of the work that you’ve done. How do you manage to retain that energy after all this time and still be at the top of your game like you are?

Jason: I think what happens is that every once in a while you get on a project and you get a magic moment. I can remember one vividly. I mixed a Ron Wood record and we cut a track called “Breath on Me” all live- all acoustic. And it was amazing. Moments like that come and they fill the tank for a long time. This record that I’m doing right now with Vaeda is the same way. There are so many situations I can think of that are just phenomenal that I’m just so lucky to be around and to experience that it just makes it great. If I was doing the same thing day in and day out by myself I don’t think I could take it. But being involved and interacting with great musicians and great writers and great performers is lucky. That’s the greatest thing about the music business.

If you have a Jason Corsaro story or experience and are interested in contributing to this blog please leave a reply or contact us a images@soniccircus.com

Resources
1* courtesy of SFSNIC https://sfsonic.com/interviews/interview-bassistproducer-bill-laswell/
2* courtesy of Tape Op https://tapeop.com/interviews/23/joe-baressi/
3* courtesy of Oz Fritz http://oz-mix.blogspot.com/2010/09/jason-corsaro.html

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