RSR046 – Steve Marcantonio – John Lennon At The Record Plant - Recording Studio Rockstars

RSR046 – Steve Marcantonio – John Lennon At The Record Plant

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RSR007 - David Glenn - The Mix Academy

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RSR046 – Steve Marcantonio - John Lennon at the Record Plant

My guest today is Steve Marcantonio, a Grammy winning producer, recording engineer, and teacher from Nashville TN. He is also a member of NARAS, a Leadership Music alumnus, and winner of the ACM Engineer of the year award.

Steve Marcantonio started his career at the Record Plant Studios in New York City in 1978.

While at the Record Plant he worked with such artists as The J. Geils Band, Aerosmith, Kiss, Heart, Graham Parker, The Blues Bros and John Lennon.

One remarkable and heart breaking story is that Steve spent 8 days in the studio in December of 1980 with John and Yoko. After they left on the night of the 8th John was killed. Quite a shock for a 21 year old who just started in the business 2 years prior.

Steve’s credentials include Rosanne Cash, Rodney Crowell, Vince Gill, Reba, George Strait, Alabama, Restless Heart and Deana Carter. And In recent years Steve has done records with Brantley Gilbert, Thomas Rhett, Band Perry, Taylor Swift, Hank Jr, Steven Tyler and Cheap Trick.

And though he didn’t include it in his bio I know Steve is also dead serious about cooking real Italian food!

For those of you out there that are listening to this either just starting out wanting to be an engineer, maybe working on a session, or just an intern the best quote that I have which was ingrained in me when I first started out is, “As a second engineer you’re to be seen and not heard.” You might be in a session and someone might say something that you know is wrong, don’t come right out and say it. There’s certain ways of going about that, but you should just keep it to yourself. Don’t show up your engineer. When you’re in a session, it’s not about you and what you’re engineering and the gear you’re using. It’s not about the problems you’re having or you may not like the studio, you may hate the studio. It’s about the artist; it’s about the song you’re recording

Steve Marcantonio

“My cousin Joey was the bass player in the Four Seasons” - Steve Marcantonio

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Keep Your Promises

Roy Cicala hired me off the street. I didn’t know anything, so he wanted to teach me his way. I learned a lot of valuable lessons from him. One of which is when you’re booking time with someone you have to keep your promise that you’ll work with them, even if you get booked by someone else who’s a much bigger name. You don’t go by the name, you go by the booking. I was actually involved in a project with the Blues Brothers. I worked on the soundtrack of the Blue’s Brothers movie. It went on for about 6-7 months. I don’t think there was a budget because we spent a heck of a lot of money, a lot of time, and a lot of other things. Along the way I got to learn about a very valuable piece of equipment back then it was called the BTX. It was this white little console that held two tape machines together. Well in September of that year Jonny and Yoko were working on Double Fantasy and they booked the studio and they wanted me because I knew how to use the BTX. I thought for sure that the producer of the Blues Brothers having worked with me for 5-6 months would have said oh sure. He said, “No, I need you here with me.” At the time John Belushi was very famous, the Blues Brother’s movie was going to be huge, but I’m thinking to myself man I have the chance to work with John Lennon. I didn't make any fuss, and as it turns out I missed that chance, but I got my chance late afterwards. You can’t get too bent out of shape with names, you have to keep to whoever it is you’re working with.

“I was known as Roy’s boy” - Steve Marcantonio

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John Lennon at the Record Plant

In 1980 I hadn’t been at the Record Plant for two years and I’m working with John Lennon. It was december that year and they had recorded enough songs on double fantasy to make two records Milk and Honey was the next one. This particular song they brought in was not on Double Fantasy and they wanted to release it as the next single for Yoko. It was a song called Walking on Thin Ice. If you listen to it, it’s sort of like a dance record. I remember the first day, I didn’t even want to look at him because I didn’t know what he was like and I didn’t want him to think that I was [judging him]. So that day I was just really concentrating on what I had to do to keep it together and he had a guy from the BBC there and the one thing I remember him talking about was love me do. When he said that I was like, “Holy Shit! That’s a member of the Beatles sitting 10 ft from me!” It blew me away! By the second day the ice was broken and he was one of the nicest guys I’ve ever, ever worked with. Very down to earth. You know he walked around NYC without any bodyguards. He was such a cool guy and time that was the pinnacle of my career.

                      Yoko Ono - Walking on Thin Ice

I remember the night before he passed it was a Sunday night early Monday morning which is the most desolate NYC night. We were on 44th and 8th about a block away from times square and it was about 3 in the morning and I had already been there close to 20 hours. The producer said let’s take a break and I was fading so I went for a walk. I started to put on my jacket and he said, “Hold on I’ll come with you!” And it was just me and him walking outside and no one was there. No one was there to see me and him, that was so intense for me. Also, the day before he had given me two crisp $100 bills to buy him a clap track because he was collecting studio gear. That night we heard he was shot and I didn’t believe it. I said no way because he just left. But sure enough it turned out to be true. The following day I came into the studio and handed the money back to Roy who then got it back to Yoko.

“Holy Shit! That’s a member of the Beatles sitting 10ft from me!” - Steve Marcantonio

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Gretchen Peters

I would say my number one highlight besides working with John Lennon is I got to record a song with Gretchen Peters. She’s probably one of the most amazing artists I’ve ever worked with. Great singer, great songwriter, she doesn’t write with anyone except for Brian Adams. She had a song she wrote called, “When You Are Old,” and it’s about getting old and tired and grey. My mom had been getting old and she was into music and said, “I want bridge over troubled waters to be played at my funeral.” I gave her this song and she said, “That’s the one I want played.” So sure enough in the funeral home, we played that song and there was not a dry eye in there. That’s one of my major accomplishments besides the grammy. Having that song played for my mom that I recorded was incredible.

                    Gretchen Peters - When You Are Old

Running a Great Recording Session

Obviously you have to pick the right mics to go with whatever instruments you’re using. In order to get a good mix you have to have good sounding tracks. You’d be amazed at some of the stuff I have to mix, I’m not sure where the producer was when they were recording it. In order to get a good sound, you have to have a good sound on the floor whatever instrument you’re recording. Is it in tune? Are the heads changed on the drums? Are they in tune? Does the drummer hit the drums with the right velocity to get a good sound? These are all elements that you’re dealing with as a engineer. I have go-to mics for certain things, but I’m not opposed to trying new things. I have to keep up with the times. I realized in order to stay current I have to try these things. And I love it, I think it’s great!

Secret for Mixing Great Vocals

Country and pop vocals tend to be louder than rock records. What I use mostly in ProTools is RVox, it kind of evens out the vocal. A lot of times too I’ll mult the vocal into where there’s different EQ or compression on it and I’ll use it in different spots in the chorus or verse. And also most female vocalists have an EQ point somewhere around 1k-2k that really hurts your ears during specific spots and a multiband compressor can take care of that or you can just scoop out that EQ. As far as recording vocals, my favorite go to vocal mic is an SM7. It has everything you need. There’s no real, real lows or sparkling highs and the artist can get right up on it. The best thing about’s cheap. When a vocalist says big, most of the time it means a lot of reverb. I tend to use delay most all the time on anything instead of reverb just to give it that width. On a vocal the delay has to be used differently in the verses than the choruses. Instead of sending it to a delay, I duplicate the vocal and I put the plugin right on the vocal. So instead of having the send go up and down, I’ll just clip gain the vocal up or down. I think you have better control over an effect

Tips for Stereo Bussing

When I first started, we never put anything on a stereo bus. These days I start with my slate mix rack which has the meter on it so that I can see, and then I use the virtual console, then depending on the song I go to API or Neve. You can strap the virtual console on groups like all the drums and you can just affect it with just one plugin so they all see the same thing. I don’t use individual faders these days, I’ll bus all of my drums to a master subgroup and on those busses I put my virtual console and I also use a compressor. Sometimes The SSL compressor but lately I’ve been using the Slate virtual bus compressor. When you put a plugin on in protools at first you should always bypass in and out to make sure you’re just not hearing it louder because whenever you hear something louder you instantly think it sounds better, so you should always set your unity gain on a plugin. Having said that with virtual bus compressor its louder because its compressing and limiting and what have you. The last thing I put in the chain in a tape machine.

“Go with your gut and your soul” - Steve Marcantonio

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Jam Session 

Q- Share with us a recording tip, hack, or secret sauce.
A -  There’s not a session that I do that I don’t record acoustic guitars and your listeners might be rock and rollers that have never receded acoustic. I got to work with Rick Nielsen from Cheap Trick and he’s a trip. He played the guitar sitting right next to me while I’m engineering. I asked him if he had any acoustics he looks at me and goes, “Acoustic?! I’m a rock guitar player why should I play acoustic?!” Just last week I was working with Dan Huff who’s a great producer and incredible guitar player and we were doing acoustic on this one song and he wanted a really distressed sound so we went into a distressor mode on the acoustic. After 35 years, I never thought of putting that on an acoustic! In addition to that we also had another mic that was clean. Its nice to commit to doing something, but it also nice to have a fallback. I would never think about distorting an acoustic or a drum, but try it once in awhile, you never know! For distressors, if you don’t have the UA the Waves Eddie Kramer tape machine is cool.

Q - Share a favorite hardware tool for the studio
 Drums are my favorite thing to record. I think a lot of people hire me because they love my drum sounds. When I’m recording a room sound, the UREI 1178 is my go-to. I hit the bottom button and the top button and I just slam it. I get it to where it’s blended in a little bit, but I love having heavy duty compression on my drums. Another thing I’ll do is take a mic, the Buyer 160 or any other kind of ribbon mic or maybe even a 57 and I’ll put it right above the kick drum facing the toms and the snare and just compress the snot out of that too. It really adds a nice effect to the overall drum sound so those are my go-to things in recording.

“Go by your ears, don’t go by your eyes. We listen to music we don’t read music” - Steve Marcantonio

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Q - Share a favorite software tool for the studio

A -As far as plugins go the UA plugins, I can do records only using them. All their plugins sound pretty close to what they’re emulating, slate plugins and soundtoys..those are my three favorite brands. I would say amongst all of them echoboy is one I use all the time. I use that in delays and I always go through all the different modes whether its tape or transmitter or am radio, that’s one of my favorite plugins. As far as software, those are my three go-tos. 

Q -Share with us a tip for the business side of the recording studio

A - My wife keeps reminding me I’m a businessman and I’m sure your listeners will hear this and go, “I’m not a businessman, I’m an engineer!” But you’re running your own business and I guarantee you in the course of my career, I’m probably shy $10,000 of bills that I didn’t send. It’s difficult to just go in there and send a bill right away, so I got a guy. Every now and then you gotta call a guy, there’s a guy for everything nowadays. I got a production guy here who does all my billing. He knows every studio here, every record company person. I've waited sometimes for 3 months for a check. You can’t make too much of a big deal with these labels because they might get tired of you and say, “Steve’s a pain in the ass, I don’t want to work with him anymore.” You just have to stay on top of it. I pay Mike Griffith a small percentage to take care of my bills.

"I would hope that engineers get very involved into the song or the track they’re recording” - Steve Marcantonio

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Q -If you had to start over what gear would you need? How would you find people to record? And how would you make ends meet while you got started?

A - Well the first thing I would say is go wherever the music scene is. Go to clubs and get to know musicians in the area. You might have to work online if you still have clients from where you moved from. Otherwise you just have to scratch and claw your way and find out where the music is and go from there. So I have almost the identical setup you have, but of course nowadays you can just get a laptop and some kind of UA hardware and do it that way. If you want to find a place to record you just have to find someone to go in with you. One of the most important things to do in this business is network. You have to get around and get your name out there, meet people, you never know where they are going to be in a week or year or month from now. Be really nice to people and network.

“Be really nice to people and network” - Steve Marcantonio

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Q - What is the single most important thing a listener can do to become a rockstar of the recording studio?

A - I would say to go with your gut and your soul, listen before you speak, and use your ears not your eyes, especially nowadays there’s too many people coming into the control room going “let me see it.”


Big Thanks to Tyler Cuidon & Merissa Marx for this week's episode!!