I’ve had the good fortune to work with some incredible recording engineers. Anyone who has served untold hours inside the “electronic womb” understands the necessity of always standing on the side of those who make your project far better than imagined. Canterbury Music Co.'s Jeremy Darby is one such gem.
Darby has a rich and diverse history. Tony Bennett, U2, the late jazz great, Ella Fitzgerald, Lou Reed, David Bowie – Pavarotti – have all come under the magic of his keen ears and remarkable skills at capturing the performance.
Darby works forty to fifty records a year in all genres. He has garnered Grammy nods for record of the year and this year alone he’s worked on six Juno nominated recordings and still feels every day is a learning experience. Darby is first in my series of conversations with recording engineers. Do enjoy!
Was Joe Jackson the first major artist you worked with?
Actually, no, Joe wasn't the first I worked with. I worked with many prog rock bands in the 70s - also with the 3 Degrees band, the R&B group from Philadelphia. I worked with Squeeze, Elvis Costello, Steve Hackett from Genesis and U2, as well as various jazz artists, including Cleo Laine, Johnny Dankworth, Kenny Wheeler’s big band, John Surman and Tony Coe. I didn't really do that much work with Joe Jackson until 1983.
Were you that kid at home rigging the television to the icebox and phone line, trying to capture communications from beyond our galaxy?
Not really. I got my first tape recorder at age eleven and started the school radio station at age twelve. I became a theatre assistant/electrician at fifteen at the Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury. I chose sound effects - sound and assistant lighting design. My mother had a history of being a concert pianist and during the war, working with radio and radar for the war effort. I guess some of that got into my blood. I moved to another theatre in Canterbury at the university and I had access to a beautiful Bechstein grand piano. Because of the hours, I worked mostly with my friends, who turned out to be musicians. So, at night we would record at the theatre.
Were you chasing after the hot British bands of the day?
I had a small studio with a friend of mine in Hearn Bay near Canterbury. We recorded a lot of the local prog and jazz groups. Someone from a very powerful sound company in the UK heard some of my work and asked if I knew about live sound? I had done some in the theatre for different artists; but of course, I said yes; I could. It snowballed out of control and I found myself on tour as a live sound engineer. I never looked back.
The backside of LPs was a feast for the eyes. Liner notes – who played what and who was in charge of recording. What got your pulse pumping?
Ha ha. While all my friends were listening to The Who, I was listening to more experimental composers like Stockhausen. Of course, I did have my share of Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin.
London had a great studio scene and the most innovative recording engineers of the time. Did you invite yourself to those studios?
I assisted at a great reggae studio in London; Chalk Farm studios. I also did time in London at Oxford Circus where I met George Martin. I was also lucky enough to work at Richard Branson's Manor Studios in Oxfordshire.
Who sitting at the big recording consul most influenced you?
Tough question. George Martin, Alan Parsons, Ken Scott and Nick Lowe.
Was there much of a difference between the British way of recording and that in North America?
Yes, but not as much as you would think. At least from my perspective. We drink more tea.
What was your first session in America?
I first came to America on tour with a group called Squeeze in 1981 and we were supposed to do a live recording in Boston with the Record Plant remote truck, and I was soon to be mentored by David Hewitt. He was very impressed with my knowledge of studio equipment and my ability to work live sound. He subsequently hired me as his assistant for his personal company remote recording services. Together we did such artists as Eric Clapton, Prince, Live Aid, Pink Floyd, The Grammys, and the list goes on and on. My first real studio gig in America was with Joe Jackson in New York.
How did you hook up with Lou Reed?
My manager arranged for me to do a live sound installation in a church in Brooklyn for Lou Reed and John Cale, to perform a tribute to Andy Warhol; Songs for Drella. I also recorded the concert direct to digital audio tape. Lou asked me to play back the tape in the venue, a church, which I did and he was stunned at how clear everything sounded in every part of the church. After our series of concerts, he called me back to the dressing room after the show. The dressing room was full of his management and band. He asked if I’d like to be his permanent sound engineer? My reply was, "well Lou, I don't know much about your solo music, but I hated the Velvet Underground!"
You could've heard a pin drop in that room. I don't think any of his yes-men had ever been that truthful. "Hmmm. Do you still want the job?" He asked. We worked together when needed from 1988 to 2006. Albums, touring, and studio design. We remained in contact until three days before his death.
When did you come to Toronto and how long until you set up your own studio?
I came here about twenty-two years ago, 1995. I married a Canadian woman from Montreal and we had moved from Nashville where I had another studio in the early 90s. She wanted to be closer to her ailing parents. I opened a small studio in the East End of Toronto, mainly for me to bring my US clients up to work. I did a session for a company called Duke Street Records at that studio. I was stunned at the ability and musicianship here in Toronto in all styles of music. It was then I decided, this is where I wanted to put down my roots and stay. I'm still in touch with most of those musicians till this day. The diversity of music and talent in this town is absolutely amazing. We are very blessed in this town.
You began with analogue and moved over to digital. Was this a big learning curve for you?
The early days of digital recording were with a digital audio tape, so it wasn't that much different from going from analogue tape, just quieter. But going to a digital audio workstation like ProTools, the industry standard, took a little longer for me to understand and embrace.
You certainly keep up with the demands of our times. You seem to get big joy out of purchasing vintage equipment – from recording devices to band equipment. Old is new for those who missed the first run?
Partially, but mainly because most of the sounds that we aspire to record are made with vintage equipment and good vintage microphones are still unavailable. I record to ProTools digital audio workstation, but I have recently interfaced analogue 48 track tape recorders with Pro Tools. I believe this gives us the best of both worlds. I find a lot of newer recordings to be thin and lifeless and tiring on the ears. Studios spend a lot of money buying digital processing to make the recording sound like tape. I thought why not buy the tape.
I always see you as the Captain Kirk of your recording spacecraft – rarely leave the commander’s chair. Is this where you feel most at home?
Pretty much. I will listen to an instrument, place microphones where I think they should and sound the best and sit in my chair in the control room and try and capture reality. It sounds easy, but it's actually quite hard.
How do you protect your hearing and retain your judgement working long hours?
I'm lucky I get to make the rules in my own studio. I try not to work more than 10 to 12 hours a day. Once I have the initial sounds that I want up - I listen and turn down the speakers. When mixing, I’m setting the relative levels of the instruments - what sort of space they should be in. I tend to work at a very very, low volume. Sometimes I mix in good old mono! And I usually leave the room when the band comes in for a loud playback.
Here’s a short list of some outstanding Canadian artists you’re helped along: Elizabeth Shepherd, Lindi Ortega, The Barenaked Ladies, Blackie & The Rodeo Kings, Johnny Reid, - jazz, blues, alt-country, pop, roots – nothing seems to discourage you. Are there times you feel you’re not getting something right and ready to bolt?
I usually find a redeeming factor in just about everything I record, even if I don't like the song. As far as genre is concerned, I don't relate to hip-hop or new R&B rap music. I discourage people from booking me to do that sort of music. I just don't have a connection. Some of my colleagues, however, are amazing at it.
What are some of your most memorable sessions and why?
I had a great time with Keith Richards. He's in my top three employers. I also really enjoyed working with Pink Floyd on the live record. Another landmark would be Ella Fitzgerald. Mixing her live at Radio City Music Hall with Louis Bellson and his big band. And then later with Clark Terry and his band.
What has been the most disturbing session you could write a book about?
You will have to wait for the book.
Have you ever told a client, save your money?
Yes!! After an agonizing hour of trying to do Elvis Presley covers with a singer who didn't know what key the songs were in or how to sing them. I pressed stop on the recorder, asked the client to come into the control room and told him, no charge for today. Go home, learn the tune and come back again when you know how the song goes.
You have a child that brings big Joy. What's life like at home?
It's pretty awesome being a dad again at age 60. My three-year-old boy keeps me even more immature than my lifestyle already does. I have a wonderful partner and an older son too.
When are you the happiest?
Apart from when I'm spending time with my family, I love recording music it's not a job, it’s a vocation.
It's the best work anyone could have. I get up in the morning come to work and make people's dreams come true! How bad is that?