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Engineer/Producer Glenn Rosenstein Adds His Golden Touch to Talking Heads, U2, Ziggy Marley, and More

Glenn Rosenstein
Nashville-Based Engineer and Producer Glenn Rosenstein

Glenn Rosenstein is one of those powerhouse engineer/producers who cut his teeth at NYC’s Sigma Sound in the ‘80s. Madonna, U2, Talking Heads, and Ziggy Marley are just some of the artists whose records received Rosenstein’s golden touch. These days, he is producing hits in his own studio in Nashville. Rosenstein invited Universal Audio inside to see his tricked-out Pro Tools System and Icon Console that seamlessly runs UAD Powered Plug-ins.

Let's start at the beginning. You were born and raised in New York City?

That's correct. And, like many of my peers, I always had a deep interest in music. It was prevalent in my household as a child growing up. I had fairly young parents who were aware of what the trends in popular music were. So I had a good education from my mom and dad about the contemporary music of the time, which would have been the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Jimi Hendrix, all of that kind of thing.

It was great, because rather than having to rebel, they spoon-fed me a lot of really good music. They made certain that I was up late to watch the Ed Sullivan show.

Did you play any instruments growing up, or study music?

Yes, I did. I still am a guitarist, although there's an asterisk next to that, because I live in a city, Nashville, where your waiter is likely to be a far better guitarist than you'll ever be. [Laughs.] I knew early on that while I love playing, I probably would stand a far better chance making a living on the production side of music than as a semi-talented guitarist.

I do think that having the background in music was a big benefit, because it's just good to know the language. I started off as a guitarist, and gradually made my way up and through the music world as an engineer, then both engineering and producing, and inevitably producing full time.

How did you learn engineering? On the job?

Yes, pretty much so. In my early years, technology didn't exist that allowed people to have computers and all that recording gear in their home. The home stuff was mainly 4-track, or less.

There weren’t many recording schools, or any of that kind of thing. In those days, there was an infrastructure within recording studios that allowed for tutelage. There was a real mentoring system.

Very early on, I learned as much as I could by going to the library, or trying to hang out at a local recording studio. Inevitably, I got hired at Power Station as the weekend night receptionist. And through the generosity of many of the really fine engineers at Power Station, I was shown the ropes.

It was one step above an internship, and in many ways, one step below. It was a bit of toilet cleaning, scoring drugs for some musicians' girlfriends, picking up laundry, and all of that kind of thing. So that was my school.

"But there is a true reason, there's a very specific reason why pieces of gear like an 1176 or an LA-2A or an LA-3 became ubiquitous. They were reliable, sonically beautiful, had signature tone to them, and really did become the go-to gear across the board. Every pro studio that I worked in 20 or 30 years ago had to have at least a couple of those pieces."

How long were you at The Power Station?

I was at there for a little bit over a year. Then I moved over to Sigma Sound. At the time, there was a Sigma Sound in Philadelphia, and also one in New York City. That was a wonderful experience.

I went from being an assistant engineer to an engineer and a mixer over at Sigma; again, the music business being very different than it is right now. In those days, many of the artists would look more to the studio itself, and less to the individual mixer. At that time, Sigma specialized in dance remixing.

The great dance remixers of that era, guys like Shep Pettibone, John “Jellybean” Benitez, Francois Kevorkian and a host of others, would pretty much pick the studio, as opposed to the engineer.

So long story short, I got a lot more work than I was probably justified in getting [laughs], because the studio was my employer. And it just snowballed from there.

How did you make your way to Nashville?

I came down in 1988 to produce an album for MCA Records. While the record that we produced was not very successful, I fell in love with the place. I haven't done a lot in the country-music scene, but I find Nashville a very comfortable place to live. My wife and I enjoy raising our daughter here.

I think that at the time I had left, I had had enough of New York. Even though I was born and raised in New York City, and had lived there up until the time I was 32, I was ready for a change.

One of the things I enjoyed about Nashville back then was that the city had such fine recording studios, reasonable places to record, very well equipped and staffed. At the time, Nashville wasn’t quite as popular as it would become in later years. It was kind of like America's best-kept recording secret.

But again, we're talking about 1988, prior to the big push forward for country music. At that time, it was a cool secret. It was fun to be here, and to watch the growth of Nashville as a recording Mecca. It was a unique opportunity to see that scene develop.

It seems like there's a really deep sense of community there in Nashville.

There is a very deep sense of community. I think it's because, unlike New York City and LA at the time, Nashville was a very small town. The bulk of the work that was being done was in an area called Music Row, which was really only about ten square blocks, so you would invariably run into a lot of people, the same engineers, producers, musicians, songwriters.

I got a sense, when I was working in New York, and certainly in LA that things were a bit more spread out, and the opportunity for creative interaction just wasn't there. So I think Nashville, just by virtue of the fact that it's a smaller town, makes the community a little bit more reliant on each other. Everybody knows everybody. Marsha, you can't get away with anything here. [Laughs.]

Glenn Rosenstein
Glenn Rosenstein, Pro Tools, Icon Console, and UAD Powered
Plug-Ins all playing nicely together in the studio.
So Skylight Studio is your own personal studio. Is that a part of your home or a separate facility?

It is built into my home. When we built our home down here, we added that studio to it. It is not a commercial facility. It's fairly well equipped, because we put it together specifically with the idea of being able to work in a way that we were used to working in commercial facilities. But we're not in competition with any commercial room. It's only for our clients and myself.

Do you still work in other facilities as well?

Oh yes, quite often.

Probably for tracking.

Yes, mostly tracking, some mixing. Then, there are other studios we just really enjoy working in.

Over the course of the last few years, the industry has changed remarkably. Business is different, and what's different is that budgets have dropped. In order to stay competitive, to continue working, and to work with bands that you genuinely love but may not have the kind of budget that would allow them to work in a more expensive commercial facility, you have to be able to provide something that at one time might have been unique.

But now, virtually every producer I know has some form of studio that is theirs, their space, and their own place to work. Whether it's as well equipped as what we have here, or just a simple digital audio workstation in a bedroom. It's not even that it's an option any more.

That said, I'm continuously working at some of my favorite studios here in town as well as in New York, Toronto, LA. I still travel some. The commercial recording facility, while on a certain level may be disappearing, and that's regrettable, on another level, nothing will replace it.

I know you are a Pro Tools guy. Were you an early adopter of the DAW?

Well, initially I was an analog guy, and the transition from analog to digital recording was not something that I was particularly fond of or pleased with. I had some initial misgivings about the sonics involved in digital recording.

I recall working on projects using the early 32-track 3M machines. In those days, 3M had to supply a technician to sit in the control room with you, because the machines were simply not that reliable. And sonically, it was debatable as to how good they sounded.

Was going digital a difficult transition to make?

It took a long time for me to go, hey, this is the transition. But one of the things that did happen is, in my move from engineering to producing, and relinquishing a lot of the engineering chores, some of the engineers that I worked with were very pleased with the sound of RADAR. I listened and thought hey, this is actually acceptable; sonically pleasing, with a lot of the same elements that I liked about analog.

Having worked with a lot of different engineers who had very different musical perspectives, I always contend that it's the engineer, not the storage medium. A great engineer is going to make just about anything sound great. Some of the talented engineers that I was working with made that transition into digital easier for me, because, of course, they were going to get great sounds. The RADAR system is very analogous to analog in the way that it functions. So that was a relatively easy transition, my first transition into digital.

After that, it was the natural progression that I think everybody has dealt with. The Digidesign 888 interfaces were problematic for me, sonically. But once Digi got the 192s up and running, we did some shoot-outs, and I was quite pleased with the way those sounded. So that was kind of the next step.

But if you do look at my studio, we have Pro Tools, we have RADAR, we have Digital Performer, and we have Logic. And the reason why is that many of the artists I work with are so astute technologically, that when they come in, if one of the artists in the band is a programmer, odds are we have access to exactly the gear he or she is familiar with.

Do you have experience with vintage Universal Audio gear?

Well, I guess I am vintage now. I'm older than most of the UA gear that I use. [Laughs.]

That was new technology to us. It just happened to be wonderful technology. I don't think that while we were using it, we sat there and thought twenty, thirty years from now people are going to look at what is commonplace in this room and go, "Oh my gosh, this is the reason why these records sound so phenomenal."

But there is a true reason, there's a very specific reason why pieces of gear like an 1176 or an LA-2A or an LA-3A became ubiquitous. They were reliable, sonically beautiful, had signature tone to them, and really did become the go-to gear across the board. Every pro studio that I worked in 20 or 30 years ago had to have at least a couple of those pieces.

"UA makes some of the best hardware, and some of the best software available. No doubt about it. Universal Audio is making great tools for great professionals."

You’re running a UAD-2 QUAD DSP Accelerator Card now on your system.

I do. It's fully pimped. [Laughs.]

How is that working out with your Icon systems?

It works seamlessly. I had heard the UAD plugs on a number of my friends' rigs and I was familiar with all of the great UA stuff—and was really lusting after one. I wanted to get a lot of that tonality. I figured, who better than UA to emulate their existing hardware? But I wasn't certain how it would work out, because we were pretty maxed out with Accel cards. We were already running six Accel cards on a Magma PE6R4i expansion chassis.

So the final capper was, OK, are all of these things going to run together harmoniously? And the good news is, yes, they did. It all works seamlessly, transparently, unbelievably well. No tweaking that needed to be done. Did the normal install, and everything just worked.

What are some of your favorite plug-ins?

Needless to say, the 1176, both the LN and the SE, they're definitely go-to plug-ins for me. Now I've got a rack full of 1176s, I have virtually as many iterations of them as I need.

I'm very fond of the Neve plugs, the 1073 and the 1081s. I've got some hardware that emulates those Neves, and these particular plugs are very dead on. My favorite console is a Neve 8068, and the UA Neve EQ plugs are very precise. They make me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. [Laughs.]

And then there’s the new Trident A-Range EQ plug-in. There was a great Trident A-Range in a studio here that unfortunately went out of business, called the Bennett House. I did a bunch of records over there. Their Trident was something that I was so fond of. Another studio here in town got rid of their A-Range; there was nothing here in town. And as soon as UA came out with this nice little Trident plug-in, I was like, “Ah! Here we are! Glee!” [Laughs.] Now we’ve got a very workable emulation of a Trident A-Range. It sounds really nice, and is very useable.

One plug I’m particularly happy with is the EMT 250 reverb. I used to use the hardware version when I was doing a lot more engineering, and certainly a lot more mixing. When UA came out with the EMT 250 plug-in, I thought, "Oh my gosh, this is great! I get to rediscover an old friend." And they got it right. I mean spot on.

So those are the plugs I'm particularly fond of.

But you know, Universal is really doing some breakthrough stuff. The fact that they are the creators of many of these pieces of gear to begin with, and have the technology in place to emulate this hardware in a very thorough way, it shows in its use. All the plug-ins that we’ve used sound very credible.

We recently used the UAD-2 QUAD on a record I produced for Livingston Taylor, and we had quite a few guest artists on it. James Taylor was involved, Carly Simon was involved. Members of Union Station played on it. The guys in Take 6. It was fairly well populated. Steve Gadd, Leland Sklar, all of those guys were involved in it.

That was mixed by George Massenburg.

It was mixed by George Massenburg. George is my go-to mixer. He, with few exceptions, mixes most of my productions.

Not bad. He’s such a brilliant engineer.

George is not only a phenomenal talent, but a good friend as well. I also work with Steve Marcantonio quite a bit.

"But you know, Universal [Audio] is really doing some breakthrough stuff. The fact that they are the creators of many of these pieces of gear to begin with, and have the technology in place to emulate this hardware in a very thorough way, it shows in its use. All the plug-ins that we’ve used sound very credible."

Oh, yes, he also endorses UA gear.

He’s great, very talented, and very musical. I think it was perhaps two years ago, he won the ACM Engineer of the Year.

I also occasionally work with Chuck Ainlay, with Gary Paczosa and John ‘Yosh’ Jaszcz. I just started working with Lij Shaw, who is a very talented young engineer. He’s part of this whole East Nashville alternative music scene.

So those are kind of the guys that I get to knock around with. All great engineers, great mixers. Guys who bring a lot to the game. And all of them big fans of UA.

We love that! So what was the approach to this Livingston Taylor project?

George's approach to mixing that record was, of course, very organic. The tracks were very well recorded in a traditional sense. Compared to most current pop productions, it was quite vintage—and I hate the word "vintage." But for lack of a better word, it was a very organic record. There were no synthesized electronics used, no pitch correction, no loops. We used the DAW as a tape machine.

And it wasn't like Livingston and I created a mandate that this was to be the approach. It just kind of created itself. But when we did go to mix, naturally there were discussions about how we were going to approach the mixes, and how true to the original tracks we wanted to be. Of course, we wanted to be very true to the original tracks. We didn't want a lot of flash, or a lot of effects. We wanted it to sound natural.

So when we started getting involved in the mix, you know, George has a lot of his own equipment that he likes to use; he invented all of these important audio tools. But when we started going outside of his box, the first thing he picked up was UA’s FATSO Jr. plug-in. And we were very pleased with the contribution that it made to our record.

We used it on background vocals, and also on the horns. And it did what a FATSO should. [Laughs.] It beefed them up, warmed them up. It did all of the neat little things that the hardware would have done.

Do you have any tricks or a secret technique, you could share with us?

Well Marsha, my secret technique and my special trick is George Massenburg, Steve Marcantonio, Lij Shaw. [Laughs.] But that's the truth. The reality is there is no trick to any of this. There is no singular special setting, no little unthought-of way that people are using the equipment that has never been done before.

You and I both know that using really well crafted gear, whether that is a piece of UA hardware, or one of their emulations, that's really the trick. Learning how to use that gear, that's what makes a great engineer, that's what makes a piece of hardware sing. That's also what makes a piece of software sing.

I think that the ultimate trick is a well recorded, compelling vocal; a really cool song; a great engineer; hopefully a decent producer; and implementing what is already really good equipment in that environment. That to me is the trick.

UA makes some of the best hardware, and some of the best software available. No doubt about it. Universal Audio is making great tools for great professionals. But the emphasis is, you know, that a great professional is going to know how to use them.

— Marsha Vdovin

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