LEARN - Everest 701
Interview with TOMOO SUZUKI (TOM SUZUKI)
We were fortunate enough to have the opportunity of interviewing the Grammy Award-winning, legendary recording engineer Tomoo Suzuki about his career and how he felt about the Everest 701 Audio Master Clock.
I started out as a fledgling engineer at CBS/Sony in Japan and my breakthrough came when a producer, James William Guercio brought over a Russian-American Engineer by the name of Wayne Tarnowski to record a live stage in Japan by rock band Chicago. I was appointed as the engineer to mix down the recordings, which later went on sale as their live album ‘Live in Japan’. The album got a very positive response from both the band members and producer, with them agreeing that it sounded a lot better than their previous live album, ‘Live at Carnegie Hall’.
A short while later, I was put in charge of recording Beck, Bogert & Appice’s ‘Live in Japan’, which ended up becoming the band’s only ever live album. There were two other recordings of their gigs from London and New York City but Jeff Beck only approved the Japan version for release while the other two were never allowed to go on sale. My heavy involvement in these two ‘Live in Japan’ albums got me a lot of attention and I ended up with receiving the honor of being appointed to record and mix down Santana’s gig in Japan which eventually became their live album ‘Lotus’. The album was originally intended to go on sale only in Japan, but ended up going on sale worldwide via CBS international. Apparently, my BB&A ‘Live in Japan’ was selling really well at very steep prices on the black market, and word of mouth had spread that live recordings from Japan are usually of very high quality. It was not long after that I began teaming up with big-name artists such as Miles Davis, Freddie Hubbard, and Bob Dylan for a series of ‘Live in Japan’ albums. This is when I really started to become in-demand and was probably recording up to one live album per month during my busiest times.
Overseas artist live recordings in Japan very typically ended up having this distinct “Japanese” vibe, with the sound not coming to the artist’s liking. My first job after joining CBS/Sony was to check the condition of the overseas CBS analog master tapes that had been shipped over to Japan. One of these tapes was a Simon and Garfunkel album and I had to decide whether the sound of a match being lit up at the beginning of the master tape was intended to be there or not. Through this particular job, I listened to album after album of so many different music genres from classical, to rock and jazz. I particularly took a liking to classical music where you could find so much of the fundamental aspects of today’s music. This experience certainly enhanced my audio-listening prowess, although I am also aware that there was a certain amount of luck involved as I was given the opportunity to work with some of the biggest names around the world.
Let me tell you how I got to record Santana’s ‘Lotus’. At the beginning of the 70s, there were hardly any “genuine” recording studios in Japan to be perfectly blunt and most record companies or labels would simply bring in their own recording gear to music halls and record there. At CBS/Sony, we typically used a Sony custom-built 8-track tape recorder for recording music around this time. The thing was, Santana had specifically requested that they would only record their album with a 16-track tape recorder, and at the time there was only one imported 16-track recorder in the entire country. I asked the company president, Mr. Oga in person if I could get my hands on this 16-track recorder and perform an operation check. I was able to somehow convince him and get the recorder shipped to Osaka so we could record Santana’s live performance back in a period when shipping heavy and precious recording devices was definitely not as easy as it is today to say the least. I even assembled a team of staff whose sole job was to try and exchange 16-track tapes as quickly and precisely as a Formula One team pit crew could exchange tires. This team, which also included people outside of CBS/Sony, had such a great synergy and supported each other to no end in order to achieve the desired results.
A while later, I met the head of CBS International who genuinely felt happy to see me, telling me how he was looking very forward to finally meeting the “World-famous Suzuki”. Our initial discussion quickly turned into talking about why artists were only giving production approvals to my work. We then paid a visit to the Tower Records store in Los Angeles in which I told him I had recorded a certain Bob Dylan live album that was on display in the store. He then promptly decided to make an in-store public announcement that recording engineer Tom Suzuki was present today. Quite a few people came up to me after this announcement and I was more than happy to sign a few autographs.
One of the few regrets I have regarding my recording career is the opportunity I almost had but ultimately wasn’t able to fulfill; recording for Paul McCartney when his band Wings came over to Japan. Paul had initially asked Bob Dylan whether there were any engineers in Japan he would recommend, and Bob specifically named me. Although I received the official request from Paul shortly after, things didn’t come to fruition as he was arrested and the Wing’s Japan tour got cancelled as a result.
The CBS/Sony Shinanomachi Studio, completed in 1978, was the first studio in Japan with a Neve 8078 console and STUDER 24-track recorder. Around this time, recording artist Fred Catero and producer David Rubinson of San Francisco’s Automatt Studio had decided that they wanted to do a recording for Herbie Hancock at the Shinanomachi Studio as an unveiling presentation. They recorded a quartet at the “A” studio on their first day in Shinanomachi and a trio at the “B”studio on the next with me assisting them the whole time both days. During the recording session on the second day, Fred Catero asked me on the spot if I could recall all the recording settings of the previous day’s recordings and in particular the module settings for Herbie’s Neve 31105. I had actually literally pulled out and brought over the entire module of Herbie’s piano recordings the day before at the “A”studio. This slightly unorthodox tactic was highly appreciated by them, and I quickly became their recording artist of choice whenever they came over to Japan for recording sessions.
For V.S.O.P. recording sessions in Japan, David Rubinson would fly over and I would do the recordings with him initially taking care of the mixing part. One day David was so exhausted from jetlag that he actually fell asleep while his fingers were still laying on the faders. I decided that perhaps I could take care of the mixing part as well, which I did a few days later. I mailed the finished tape over the Pacific Ocean to David because I wanted to know what he would think of it. It turned out that he really liked it and even went as far as saying that it was better than his own mixes. I was then put in charge of mixing V.S.O.P’s 1979 live recording in Japan, ‘Live Under the Sky’.
Since then, I did all the recordings Herbie made in Japan and almost all of CBS/SONY artists from abroad, as well as tons of Japanese hit songs.
The two albums that you are referring to are ‘A Tribute to Miles’ released in 1984, and Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter’s duet album ‘1+1’released in 1997. For ‘1+1’, I was invited over to Herbie’s home in Los Angeles and actually recorded the songs in his living room. All we did was put two Sony-800 microphones in front of Herbie’s piano and two Neumann M-269 microphones in front of Wayne’s saxophone, although I must stress we put a lot of thought and effort into positioning the instruments and microphones in a way that would create a perfect synergy and ambience for the sound. Also, not far away from Herbie’s actual home was a full-fledged studio equipped with a Euphionix mixing console, Pro Tools recorder, and Studer tape recorder. I personally felt the analog Studer recorder sounded a lot better, but we used the Pro Tools recorder in tandem as the two artists felt that editing with an analog console might be too much hassle. Now bear in mind this is in the 90’s, and barely anyone knew how to properly utilize Pro Tools and Herbie’s editing crew was struggling in coming up with the desired results. I had all the editing points memorized in my head, so I decided to chop up the original tapes and create the songs in good old analog fashion. They ended up liking my version so much that my accommodation swiftly got upgraded from a run-of-the-mill motel to a luxury hotel in Beverly Hills! Herbie and Wayne already knew how good I was, but from that day on his entire crew got to see my skills first hand as well. Up until then, I suspect at least a few of them were wondering what this unknown guy from Japan was invited for in the first place!
Later on I remember asking Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter why they chose me instead of any of the dozens and dozens of other sound engineers who would jump at the chance of being able to do a recording session with two of the most renowned Jazz artists in the world. I found out that when they had literally created a list of potential engineers, they both pointed to my name as their first choice after a “Ready, Steady Go”. Although I will admit that their main reasoning in wanting me was that they recognized I was a hard working individual who never stirred up any trouble! This was probably also one of the main reasons of being appointed to work on ‘A Tribute to Miles’, which involved so many top artists, as they recognized my ability to be able to work and get along with anyone without holding any grudges or displaying any favoritism.
To describe the effects in as short a description as possible, I would say “crisp and clear, yet rich and expansive sound of the highest quality”. The results changed dramatically once I connected the Everest 701 to the equipment in the studio, as all my crew members immediately reacted to how much “better” the sound had just become. They were all in awe at just how clear and transparent the sound actually was. Someone even said that it was as if all the dust had just disappeared from the air. We didn’t even feel the need to technically compare the sound to anything else as we just knew that the quality was so much more than it ever was. We did eventually end up doing a comparison test by performing a mix down using an internal clock, but the results turned out to be just as we had anticipated and typical of what we have come to expect from a digital recording environment; not clear, not transparent, and a stiff sound field. The Everest 701 left a huge impression on our mastering engineers as well and the entire recording process ended up being done with the Everest 701.
The designers of the Everest 701 had stressed to me about the impact to sound created by timing defects and imbalance in phasing information and I must say I tend to agree with them. I now firmly believe that under perfect conditions, digital sound can be perpetually the same from my own experience. The industry response to using a combination of Pro Tools and an external master clock device was quite positive shortly after Pro Tools was first launched, and I also gave it a try to see if the hype was actually justified. However everyone's intial enthusiasm quickly wore off as for some reason we ironically found ourselves getting bored of the "high quality" sound Pro Tools produced - A sound that I personally couldn't justify paying even 1,000 US Dollars for. I always felt that the sound coming out of classic Sony 3348 digital multi-track recorder tapes were always consistently good. Today’s Pro Tools may have much higher standard specifications, but in terms of the actual sound it produces I can never make a claim for it to be of higher quality than the Sony 3348. It may sound technical and scientific when I say how an imbalance in phasing is one of the main reasons that perhaps causes less transparent sound, but it is all rather intuitive and not something that can be easily solved with higher standards and specifications “on paper”.
The change of sound is such a sensitive element and can change dramatically due to even the smallest of changes in the environment such as the quality of the instrument, the musician, the placing or positioning of the instruments or microphone stands, or even the materials used for the floor. A master clock operates as the root of all digital equipment that rely on sampling frequency. I really felt the difference the Everest 701 created as this “root” and I am sure that I can never go back to the days trying to convince myself to simply settle for an internal clock.