A Conversation with Ron Searles

The first production I had the privilege of doing with the support of Allan and Gary Slaight was Liberty Silver: Live In Session!, back in 1992. It was one of those situations where everyone recognized how talented the young woman was and wondered what direction to pursue. Liberty and I played a number of times for Allan over the years at those dynamic parties in his residence. It was always a mix of jazz and blues.

One evening Allan suggested we should do an album with the young woman and jazz was the call. I dug deep and pulled up some Etta James, Billie Holiday, Dakota Staton, Tony Bennett – a wide variety of not so overplayed material. Then settled on Manta Sound for the session. The band was supreme: Don Thompson bass, Archie Alleyne drums, Kirk MacDonald tenor sax, Kevin Turcotte trumpet, Paul Novotny bass and yours truly arranger/producer and pianist.

Behind the console was Ron Searles. It was one of those sessions when the energy and musicianship was higher ground. I’d dropped in for a quick replay then on to the next song. Nine and a half hours later and the album was done. Two track- live! No retakes, no overdubs, no "fix it in the mix”. To this day that recording sounds as fresh and impressive as the night it occurred. Much of the success goes to the engineer; it always does. It’s been many a year between. Ron and I usually pass each other in a store on the street – always in motion. This time, I got to get inside his head for a solid chat. Ron also provided some background.

Ron Searles studied Music Industry Arts at Fanshawe College (London, Ontario).  After graduating in 1979, he worked as a recording engineer at Manta Sound in Toronto for fourteen years.  Ron moved to CBC's Toronto Production Centre in 1995 where he is a Senior Post Production Audio Engineer.

While at Manta, Ron earned more than 100 album credits, which included work with some of Canada’s top producers and artists in genres as diverse as Post Punk, Pop Rock, Folk, Alternative, Country, Jazz and Classical. At CBC, Ron’s mixing credits include many award-winning documentaries, variety specials and film scores.

Ron’s score credits include the films; IMAX - Blue Planet, Sweet Hereafter, Felicia’s Journey, Ararat, Touch of Pink, St. Ralph, Child StarBeing Julia, Capote, One Week, Adoration, The Nut Job, Life of Pi, Remember and Manchester by the Sea.

Since 2004, Ron, with his company Red Maple Sound, has been doing specialized recording and mastering of chamber music, as well as live concert video recordings of solo and chamber music, working with notable artists including I Furiosi, Eybler Quartet, Gabrielle McLauglin, Lucas Harris, Gallery Players of Niagara, Teng Li, Aisslinn Nosky, Winona Zelenka, and Trio Arkel.

The album Free Flight, the Big Band, engineered, co-produced and mixed by Ron, was nominated for a Juno in Best Instrumental Jazz Album.  Ron engineered and produced Winona Zelenka’s Complete set of J.S. Bach’s Suites for Solo Cello, which was nominated for a Juno in “Best Classical Album, Instrumental Solo or Chamber Music”.

Pastimes involve violins, guitars, and sailing. Ron has been honoured with ten Gemini nominations, and three Gemini Awards.

 

You were a student at Fanshawe College during the early days of the recording/production program. This was Jack Richardson’s turf. What did you bring from this experience beyond the technical needs that are still in play today?

 I was at Fanshawe before Jack was there - although he did come and guest lecture. Tom Lodge (of Radio Caroline fame) ran the program. Bill Seddon was my first-year engineering teacher and Paul Steinhuas taught 2nd and 3rd year. Al Albert taught 1st year production and Terry McManus taught 2nd and 3rd year. Jan Greene taught music theory and ear training, and Georgi Nachoff (whose son Quinson, is now quite a well-known sax player) taught songwriting and electronic music. Tom Lodge taught a crazy course called "Perception" which warped our minds and ultimately ended up being one of the most valuable things we took away from the program. I learned many good things and made virtually all the connections that would get me into the business after graduating.

Kevin Doyle was in my year, and it was Kevin who dragged me back into the studio after about two years away from recording, after finishing at Fanshawe. That set me in motion to find a studio job. Peter Lee, a year behind me at Fanshawe - got hired at Manta, then gave me the reference that got me in the door there. 

Coincidentally, Jack's son Garth (Garth Richardson) was on my third-year three-man engineering team. I'd like to think I got him started on the right path, but I'm quite sure it's the other way around!

What was your relationship with Jack like? 

I got to know Jack better after Fanshawe. He did some work at Manta, and I spent some time at his cottage because of my friendship with Garth. Jack was a great guy. In a world where so many people think there's no "right way" to do things, Jack made it clear that when you're looking for specific results, there is a "right way" and a bunch of other ways that just won't work nearly as well. "Do you hear all that hi hat bleed in the snare mic? What were they thinking?"

Has sound always been something that has captured your attention and imagination?

I've had a fascination with sound and recording from my earliest days. My father was a pianist (among many other things) and his love of music and sound got me started.

Many come to music through a variety of soul-stirring moments. A film score, a band with a undeniable quality to their music that sets them apart, a live concert that imprinted on the mind. Was there a moment an episode that assured you that you had a place in all of this?

There were a number of things that added up to convince me that a recording career was what I wanted, but in the earlier years, my high school music teacher Charles Strimas played a big part.  He taught me violin and trumpet, and had enough confidence in my musicianship to make me concertmaster of my high school orchestra. He also encouraged me to record the orchestra for some of the rehearsals and concerts. I guess that's where it all started. 

What was the first band you recorded?

The first rock band I recorded was a band called The Features. Garth had introduced me to them at a club they were playing one night in Toronto. Andy Hermant (who owned and ran Manta Sound) encouraged the assistant engineers to bring bands in on downtime to do rehearsal sessions. The band got studio experience, and I got to sit behind a fantastic Neve console in a wonderful studio and learn my craft. We had fun and learned a lot. 

Were there mishaps along the way that actually encouraged and inspired you to go deeper into sound reproduction?

Digging deeper was a constant quest a Manta. Not born out of mishaps so much as a search for that holy grail of the "great sounding recording". Everyone who worked there was inspired, and inspiring to be around. A few of my favourite sounding albums of the day - Dan Hill, engineered by Andy Hermant, Bruce Cockburn and Rough Trade albums engineered by Gary Gray - were recorded there, and Andy, Lee, Gary, John Naslen and Hayward Parrott and freelancers like David Greene and Brian Christian were in the studio to answer any questions an aspiring young engineer might ask. 

What was the first piece of equipment that changed everything for you?

The first piece of gear that changed everything for me was a Roberts 997 reel to reel tape recorder.  My Dad bought it (second hand) for me on my thirteenth birthday. It was a semi-pro recorder that sounded and looked great. It also had sound on sound capability, and I got into doing some really fun stuff very early on.  It also broke down on a regular basis, requiring me to pull it apart, wiggle the tubes and clean the switches to get it going again.  All good training.  

Are you a gearhead? Do you collect relics from the past?

I still have my original stereo amp and turntable from high school. I'm not really a gearhead - I do most mixing "in the box" these days. But - I do have a fetish for great speakers (I have ATCs at home) great microphones, and great guitars.  I guess what interests me most are the things that are actually making and capturing the sounds. In other words, yes, I guess I'm a gearhead. (And I miss Manta's outboard gear - now mostly at Revolution!)

Manta Sound Studio was a hotbed for music and what seemed long-term residency for musicians like the late Moe Koffman. What was it like being surrounded by the country’s greatest musicians?

I think I've partly answered this, but in terms of being surrounded by great musicians, Manta was an amazing experience. Apart from the great jazz, rock and country session players that came in on a daily basis to play on all the album and jingle sessions, there were great singers coming in to sing those jingles (it was a different world back then), everyone from Cal Dodd, Bill Ledster, Johnny Rutledge, David Blamires, Lisa Dal Bello, Jackie Richardson, the “Girls” (Shawne Jackson, Colina Phillips and Sharon Lee Williams). We even had Peggy Lee sing a Labatt's Blue jingle live off the floor with Doug Riley and his rhythm section plus full orchestra. Also, many great Toronto string and wind and percussion players were in on a regular (often daily) basis to play on jingles and film and TV scores. The producing and writing talent that made Manta their home was also second to none.  Doug Riley, Jon Goldsmith and Kerry Crawford, Tony Kosinec and Jack Lenz, Marvin Dolgay, Mickey Erbe and Maribeth Solomon (who were big mentors to me) and many more.

What were some of the early projects?

Manta's bread and butter was jingle sessions and they were all top shelf - beer, soft drink and car commercials, too numerous to name.

My first album credit was on a Ronnie Hawkins album produced by Fred Mollin - I was one of the assistant engineers.  Other early projects included Hagood Hardy, Frank Mills, Graham Shaw, Rough Trade, Bruce Cockburn, Kiss... all as assistant engineer. Later, Chalk Circle, Jane Siberry, Hugh Marsh, Neo A4, Monkey Walk, Don Ross and many others. Manta's record label Duke Street Records had a roster with a lot of interesting talent, and provided me many opportunities to work with them. 

What was the first recording you were principle engineer?

My first paying gig as engineer was a live to 2 track band demo that Fred Mollin produced. At the end of the day he said to me "I knew you'd be good at this". That was a huge boost for me and helped give me the confidence I needed to "sit in the chair".  My first album as engineer was the band Chalk Circle, (Chris Tait was lead singer) produced by Chris Wardman. The first single off that was (ironically and perhaps appropriately) "April Fool."

What was the longest recording project?

At Manta, the longest project was probably Tony Kosinec's album, which was done in evening sessions spread out over the period of more than a year (I was assistant engineer on much of it). One of the shortest album sessions was with Liberty Silver, because it was live to 2 track with great players, produced by the famous jazz pianist Bill King! (an album that is still available to hear on Tidal.)

Since then, the longest project was the recording of the complete set of Bach Cello Suites, performed by Winona Zelenka.  We spent so much time together recording that album, we decided to stay together for good, and got married about a year later. 

With more than 100 album credits, is there one that still gets a replay at home?

One of my all-time favourite albums was post-punk artist Art Bergmann's eponymously titled album. Produced by Chris Wardman - we pulled out all the stops on that record.  I still love the way it turned out. It was just re-released this month with the new title Remember Her Name and it sounds as heavy, fresh and relevant today as it did in 1993.  

Film work is demanding and long hours behind the console. How do you prepare for this?

Sleep, exercise, and vitamins. Well not sleep - or exercise...

The list of films is remarkable. The latest was the Academy Award nominated Manchester By The Sea. What was your responsibilities with this?

Manchester by the Sea was scored by Lesley Barber - she wanted to do the recording here in Toronto with Toronto musicians, rather than go to a non-Canadian orchestra. We recorded the strings and woodwinds at Glenn Gould Studio in Toronto and mixed the score the same night - it was a fast turnaround because it had to be ready for the Sundance Film Festival a couple of days later. Lesley was a real trouper - we started at 7:30 a.m. for our setup, and finished the last mix at about 6 a.m. the next morning after mixing all night. I was thrilled to see the film do so well at the awards and the box office. 

For many of us who read and savored the book Life of Pi it was inconceivable this could be made into a movie. Then Toronto composer Mychael Danna won an Oscar for the soundtrack. This must have been a complicated, exhilarating project? The visuals alone are astonishing.

My role in Life of Pi was very small compared to Brad Haehnel who mixed the majority of the score (also a Manta Sound disciple). We recorded the Evergreen Gamelan on the stage at GGS, while linked via ISDN patch and Skype to Mychael, who was with director Ang Lee in LA.  It was a great film and fun to be part of. Mychael, Brad and Rebecca Morrelato (VP of music at Fox Films) brought me on board for this small part of the project because of the previous work I had done with Mychael (Sweet Hearafter, Snow Walker, Antwone Fisher, Being Julia, Capote etc.).  I was glad to see Mychael get the recognition he so richly deserved at the Golden Globes and the Oscars that year!

You have a passion for chamber music and have been recording since 2004 with your company, Red Maple Music. What’s the draw?

I became involved in chamber music recording through Margaret Gay and Pat Jordan (Gallery Players of Niagara, and Eybler Quartet), and Julia Wedman, as well as Aisslinn Nosky, Gabrielle McLaughlin and Felix Deak of I Furiosi. It's from the connected world of baroque performance. I knew Margaret through her brother John and I asked her to recommend a violin teacher for me. She introduced me to Julia Wedman, and while studying violin with Julia, the subject of recording came up. After a couple of demo sessions live to DAT, we (and other players connected to this group) went on to record over a dozen projects together. Each new recording has brought with it more technical requirements, and I've gradually built up a good equipment list, and better capabilities, both form the technical and the skill set point of view.

Manta was large enough to house a full orchestra. There’s nothing like the overwhelming sound of a resplendent string section. What would you reference to get this right? Is there a go to recording or recordings that sum up your thoughts on this?

For strings, I would always reference recordings I had of Benjamin Britten's Simple Symphony and Peter Warlock's Capriol Suite and an Angel Records recording of Brandenburg #3. For full orchestra, a few recordings were favourites - Aaron Copland's Appalachian Spring, Shostakovich's Symphony #5, and Stravinsky's Sacre du Printemps, to name just a few.

You are senior post-production audio engineer since 1995 at CBC. How is the work atmosphere and has it changed much over the years?

I began at CBC in 1995.  Back then, we were doing band pre-records for variety shows, TV and film scores, mixing variety and concert specials, Stars on Ice, arts specials with The Canadian Opera Company, the Toronto Symphony, jazz greats like Oscar Peterson..., along with mixing documentaries like The Nature of Things, Canada a People's History and many others. In those days, much of the music for these shows was recorded in house. We had amazing facilities - numerous Sony 48 track recorders, 72 input Neve consoles, dozens and dozens of great Neumann, Sennheiser and AKG and B&K mics. Wonderfully soundproofed and acoustically treated rooms with lots of space and high ceilings.  It was a great place to be. As CBC's budgets got slashed, things started to be downsized. Funding structures changed so that it became easier to fund outside productions than inside ones. Because of the way, Telefilm funding works, bigger shows all became co-productions, produced mainly in private facilities.  One CBC department was closed after another, starting with Arts and Entertainment, and ending with the in-house Documentary Unit. 

Today, we have scaled back facilities in smaller rooms, but we sport an efficiency that would never have been possible when I began at CBC. 

Everything is Avid Media Composer and Avid ProTools based. Files fly in and out of the rooms on Gigabit Ethernet and Isis servers.  

We can turn around a basic (well edited) thirty-minute documentary in a single eight-hour shift. Most of our work consists of current affairs (Fifth Estate, Market Place) and factual shows (Dragons’ Den) and comedy (Rick Mercer, Ron James Specials etc). Gradually, the CBC budget has been stabilized, thanks to the new Federal Government, and things are feeling upbeat once again. Technology is morphing faster than ever, as we retool to meet the demands of digital delivery, web based broadcast and social media. As Tom Lodge taught us years ago, nothing in this business is so constant as change...

What do you carry with you for personal listening pleasure?

I have an iPhone 6s. Generally, I listen to CBC radio 1 and 2 in the car.  I save my music listening for when I'm at home and can sit back to hear my Citation 16 driven PSB Stratus Golds in the living room, or my self-powered ATC SCM 50 ASLs in my home studio. I try to listen to HD (24/96) audio where possible, and I avoid listening to MP3s like the plague. 

You love sailing. Where do you sail and what does doing so bring in return?

I grew up sailing (from age four) with my father.  For five years (when I was in my teens) we owned and operated a sailing school out of Meaford on Georgian Bay, where I worked as a sailing instructor during the summers, teaching adults to sail on keelboats.  I'm fully addicted to sailing. 

I now have a C&C designed Viking 33 (classic Canadian 1970's racer/cruiser) which I keep at Mimico Cruising Club, about ten minutes from my house.  My serious racing days are past, but I still love the casual club racing, and gentle summer day-sailing - pure relaxation at its best. 

 

 

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