Audeze interviews veteran recording and mix engineer Ron Saint Germain
July 29, 2020
Ron St. Germain isn't exactly a household name, but if the world were a fair place he would be. Ron’s work has amassed over 100 gold and platinum awards, selling well over a quarter billion units, garnering 19 Grammy nominations with 14 wins and numerous American Music and MTV Awards for the artists he has worked with. He’s also mixed live and recorded in venues from CBGB’s to the 1980 Winter Olympics, Ronald Reagan’s Inauguration Ceremonies, and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
We convinced Saint (as he's known to friends) to take a break from his tireless work schedule and rattle off a few stories laced with a massive slew of names for us. Here is the interview:
Can you pick out any favorites from your work that you're particularly proud of?
Since this year marks my first 50 years as a professional in the business of music, I find it extremely difficult to pick just one or two standouts. Being a music junkie, I thrive on variety because I feel that music is part of the very fabric of our DNA and inseparable from the human experience. As such, ALL music that is honest, inspired and played by musicians who are Masters of their craft, is compelling, beautiful and worthy of immersing oneself in to the point where you find yourself in that ‘splace’ (my portmanteau for space & place) that only music can take us… away from our earthly bounds to that heavenly musical Neverland. So I shall endeavor to put my pen to the page and fill in some of those musical journeys... I have amassed countless ‘frequent in-studio flyer miles’ that float to the top (like the 'cream of the crop’) in 'stream of consciousness’ manner!
Going way back to my beginnings in the early 70’s while at Media Sound Studios, NYC, I would say that the three posthumous Jimi Hendrix albums I worked on with Alan Douglas and Tony Bongiovi, “Crash Landing”, “Midnight Lightning” and “9 To The Universe”, were not only incredible learning experiences, but I also consider them to be among my career’s most unexpected and treasured blessings. Of countless albums I was 'gifted' to assist on during that vital time in music, among the most memorable of them were the recording of Stevie Wonder and his group, ‘Wonderlove’ of his “Innervisions” album. There were way too many amazing Artists and albums (I have been told to write a book & maybe I might one day) that I want to mention, but will keep it brief out of respect for the space it would take, ha!). “Wildflowers (The New York Loft Jazz Sessions)” recorded live in the East Village loft of Sam Rivers (at his legendary, 'Studio RivBea’) was a true groundbreaker of the decade and subsequently launched careers for a dozen or more amazing improvisational jazz giants!
The 80’s were equally exciting, because by then, the business and recording technology had evolved greatly from the vestiges from the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s into very large frame analog consoles with 48 to 180 faders with computer assisted mixing, and the former business model of ‘Staff Engineers’ at studios and ‘Staff Producers’ for the Record Labels was being replaced by independent engineers, producers and mixers. The ‘Computer Age’ was the ice breaker, plowing us into the world of ‘Digital’ music production, yet still very much married to ‘analog technology' in most aspects. It was an incredibly vital time in the music business remixing singles, extended club/dance mixes; a few standouts of the decade being the Duran Duran offshoot, Arcadia, “So Red The Rose”, Whitney Houston, “How Will I Know”, Ashford & Simpson, “Solid as a Rock”, Diana Ross & Michael Jackson, “Eaten Alive”, Aretha Franklin, “Jimmy Lee”, Nona Hendryx, “I Sweat”, Kraftwerk, “Electric Cafe”, Jan Hammer’s, “Miami Vice Theme”, Mick Jagger, “Lucky at Love” & “Just Another Night”, and of course I have to mention, “Bad” by U2. On the jazz side, Paquito D'Rivera, Ronald Shannon Jackson, “Mandance”, McCoy Tyner, The Art Farmer/Benny Golson Jazztet were amazing memories as was Ornette Coleman's, “Of Human Feelings”, the first “live to two-track all digital" recording in NYC! It was also the decade for developing production chops; another of my ‘Personal Top 10’ favorites of ALL time, the Bad Brains, "I Against I” and the follow up album, “Quickness”.
The start of the 21st Century, gave Creed their first #1 hit, “With Arms Wide Open”, Mos Def, “The New Danger” (actually prefer the ruff mixes to the album), 311, “Amber”, Breed 77, “In My Blood”, Streetkind, “Medicine Man” were favs from the decade. On the Jazz tip: Paul Motian, “Windmills of My Mind”, Nels Cline, “Initiate 1 & 2”, and “Dirty Baby” were stand outs.
This current decade is off to an amazing start with four very different but compelling albums already completed and more booked into 2021!
What's the best place for those new to your work to become familiar with what you do?
I am not a ‘social media’ type guy nor do I have a website, so you are left to just ‘search the net’ and you will be able to find out enough to get an idea. NONE of the credits sites like AllMusic or Discogs get it right, but between them you will find plenty, certainly more than I can remember, ha!
How would you define your main role on most of the projects you work on?
The first decade was learning my craft and going from assistant to engineer to mixing and doing both, then evolving in the early 80’s into the producer, engineer, and/or mixer/re-mixer categories thereafter, and there I have hovered for the last four decades. I rarely do club re-mixes anymore, and the “producer” work has thinned out more this last decade, mainly because of a lack of labels, budgets and demand. I get more recording & mixing assignments recently, although I love them all (and listen to demos constantly) I consider everything and take the work as it comes! My hours are as long and hard as they were in the 70’s so no complaints!
How did you get started in your area of the business?
I played drums and guitar as a boy and was in bands through High School & College. After I got tired of bands breaking up all the time and having to waste so much time waiting for musicians to commit, come to rehearsal on time and simply having to depend on 4 to 6 other guys to do what I loved, I decided to learn how to make records. I knew from reading the credits on the back of my records what the top studios were in NYC so I went back to NYC, let my “fingers do the walking through the Yellow Pages…” and wrote down the top 4 or 5 and started ‘blind calling’ them. (No such thing as a ‘school’ for recording in those days; you learned by DOING (the same way you do now…). My first call was to Record Plant & I scored an interview immediately off that call. I went there, did the interview with the Studio Manager Mitch Plotkin, and was working an hour later as a ‘GA’ (General Assistant). On my way IN the door of the studio I (literally) bumped into John Lennon & Yoko Ono (who were on their way out after a string over dub for their “Elephant’s Memory” project), introduced myself to them (I already knew who they were) and decided that was a BIG sign that I had made the right decision! Haven’t been OUT of a studio for more than a couple weeks or so ever since that first unforgettable meeting either.
Can you briefly describe a moment of frustration from your past work, and what you may have done to overcome the obstacles? Would you approach it differently now?
Frustration is a part of life we all have to deal with from time to time. Most of mine stems from being 'too straight' with people. I am a “what you see is what you get” kind of guy; not known for ‘beating around the bush’, which I have learned is not always the best policy… Over the years, I have gotten much better with that, but I have also learned that is just me and I am sure it is how I always was even as a kid, which, come to think of it, I still feel like I am!
Is there any gear you find yourself turning to most when working on a project?
Yes! Ever since I have owned a NEVE/AMEK 9098i (I bought mine in 2003) I will not mix on any other large frame analog console! I still record all over the world, but I bring everything home to my studio, Saint's Place, to mix. I have a few racks of ‘go to’ vintage analog gear I have accumulated over the many years that I use as well, but I find that (especially if I have tracked the music I am mixing) I rarely, if ever need to “plug in” to them. My Bricasti reverb and my two Lexicon 200’s have made many of my engineer friends ask which “EMT Plates” I have… ha! Also, LOVE my E.A.R. Compressor, Mark Levinson Cello amplifiers and Transparent Audio 'Reference Cables' driving my ProAc Studio 100’s. Since I recorded and mixed Kris Davis and Craig Taborn’s live album “Octopus” directly to 2-Track using the closed back Audeze EL-8 Headphones, I have NOT been able to work without them or their open back LCD-X’s. Both are inseparable from my work flow. My most recent addition has been to include a dedicated Headphone DAC/Amplifier, the incredible Chord Hugo TT2! Hard to believe that the Audeze Headphones could sound even better than they already do 'out of the box', but since acquiring this device, I now listen in absolute 'Audio Heaven’!
Do you have any words of wisdom for people who might aspire to get where you are in their own careers?
I would say unless you are 'absitively, posilutey' compelled to become a recording Engineer, Producer &/or Mixer… DON’T DO IT! Most of our jobs will most likely evaporate and be taken over by ‘AI Computers’ as mankind gets more deeply submerged into the ‘Digital Age’. Music, of course, will NEVER disappear; however, to make a career of it will become more & more difficult with fewer & fewer job opportunities, so be DAMN sure you are willing to ‘stick to it’! IF you go for it, go all the way, be prepared to NOT have a ‘life’ as most people know it because days, weeks, months and years disappear, family time is rare, holidays almost non-existant, and the work days are insanely long. Expect to go hungry for a long time, expect to not be able to hold a relationship together without losing a couple ‘keepers’ along the way, not expect to get paid on time and certainly do not expect to hear “thank you” as much as you probably should. Remember it is a business of LISTENING… so keep your comments to yourself, especially until you have achieved some sort of success that will ‘speak for you’ because then, and almost only then, will others actually hear you.
How long have you been working with headphones, and what inspired you to start including them in your workflow?
As a kid growing up, headphones were ‘cool' and made listening to vinyl possible without driving the family crazy. In the studios, headphones have always been an inseparable part of this work; for tracking and listening to the musicians mixes ‘in the cans’ both in the control room as well as in the studio at their cue boxes to figure out what the problem is or to simply hear what they are hearing to be able to adjust cue sends accordingly; or during the mixing phase to just hear how your mixes sound in headphones! For me, I never liked to judge mixes by headphones during the process of mixing because the sound was SO different than the speakers I was used to that any changes I based on what I heard in headphones turned out to be wrong (Mastering is not the time to discover that!). In the late 80’s and into the mid 90’s I had a great pair of “Top of the Line”, open back, Grado headphones that had phase flip toggle switches in the center of each earpiece that would enable you to listen with headphones AND your studio monitors on without canceling out the lower frequencies! It was excellent to be able to still really “feel” the low end of the music while having incredible detail of higher frequencies right ‘in your head’ and to not have to listen at “welding volume”! They also came with a matching Grado amplifier (DC Powered) for direct listening to just the headphones. Alas, those headphones were discontinued shortly after Jim Grado passed and critical parts were not available so they are retired. I tried for years to find headphones thereafter, but cold never find anything that worked as well as those did, so I simply gave up looking. When clients would ask why I didn’t use headphones as another way to check mixes I said "because they lie. If a mix sounds great when you are done THEN its ok to listen on them, but NEVER use them to make mix decisions with, because you will always be disappointed."
Years later I was able to listen to some amazing new technology, ($5,000 ‘Electrostatic’ headphones”), but they sounded so foreign to me I could not get used to them. They were FUN, but not a tool I would want to use while mixing. It wasn’t until 2016 when I needed to record and mix the Kris Davis & Craig Taborn “Octopus" live album that I really did my homework on what was going on in the headphone world because I HAD to find something that wouldn’t LIE to me sonically. I knew that I would have only ONE chance to capture these two truly incredible pianists and did not want to 'screw the pooch’. I read everything I could and searched for months (giving me ample time to try a few if necessary). The Planar Magnetic technology that Audeze employs in their headphones got my attention and I bought a pair of their closed back EL-8’s. I had already run through several of the ‘old tech’ high end well known brands and was not ‘sold’ for one reason or another. When the EL-8s arrived I listened to them for a couple weeks playing many of my own projects through them to hear how they handled my mixes over many genres (rock, funk, hard core, pop, techno, jazz, classical, etc) and was truly blown away! Ever since then they have been a “Cruzential” part of my work flow.
As it turned out, it was because of the fact that I was using those headphones so much in the studio after Kris’s record, that the cables became intermittent. I contacted Chris Berens at Audeze to get a replacement and told him the story of how Kris Davis and David Breskin (the producer of “Octopus”) had decided to go with my live 2-track mixes (instead of the multitrack recording I had made of the entire 2 week tour) because “it wasn’t broke”! I jokingly told him that Audeze cut me out of several days of work as a result of their headphones sounding so accurate, and also said how I was now addicted and could not work without them. I take my Audezes with me to every session I track and let all the musicians listen to their music through them; ALL are blown away! My favorite comment so far came from a well known musician whose only comment to me as he was taking the LCD-X’s off his head was, “these are absolutely pornographic sounding”! The whole control room cracked up and now many of the musicians and others I work with are proud (and HAPPY) to be listening to their own Audeze headphones with HUGE smiles on their faces!
Do yourself a favor, give yourself a REAL treat that will give you many years of listening (and miles of smiles while doing so) and get a pair of these truly amazing headphones, you will be GLAD you did!!
Addendum of April 2022: Saint sent an email after we got him some LCD-XCs for a live recording:
Wanted to drop you a line to thank you again for making the time to hook up at the Big Ears festival in Knoxville, TN while I was out on the road recording the Ambrose Akinmusire trio, TREFOIL (with Kris Davis and Gerald Cleaver). As you know my trusty EL-8 Closed backs have been ‘rode hard and put away wet' countless times since 2016 for me and their better days are well behind them. I know them so intimately and was so attached to them from literally hundreds (if not thousands) of hours over the years both on the road and in the studio for ‘forensic listens’; I had to permanently 'Gaff Tape’ both cables to their plug sockets and was constantly distracted by having to push one side or the other back in to maintain a stereo playback. When you pulled the LCD-XC headphones out backstage as we were just getting ready for sound check, my chin dropped, your timing could not have been better! I was as excited as I have ever been to get my ears under anything Audeze and was so relieved to not have to worry about a side dropping out again, especially troublesome when mixing live on a small portable location recorder with small ("to the right is louder”) knobs, ha!
The best thing, though was the improvement in the sound! OMG! I also have hundreds of hours on my LCD-X’s since 2017 and know and love their legendary 'open sound' as well as I do my studio monitors, and the transition to the closed back version was like going home again except for the impressive lack of intrusion from the ambient distractions, which the open backs would never have been able to get loud enough to overpower safely (fact is, either my ears or the drivers would have blown at such a high level). I was located right behind upstage left about 8 feet from the drums with a thin velvet curtain separating us and I was perfectly able to hear clearly at a very safe monitoring level. My familiarity with the LCD soundstage and with the elimination of the ambient competition was like Olympic runners handing off the torch in a cross country 'torch race’; absolutely smooth and seamless! I can’t thank you enough for saving me 'in the nick’. You sat out front for both shows while I recorded and mixed the last two shows so you know exactly how uncanny and inspired their performances were. I felt as if I was out front watching with you and when you hear the mixes, I have absolutely no doubt that you and anyone else who has the chance to hear that recording with a pair of the LCD-XC’s will experience it right in my seat as if they were there, too! Eternal gratitude to you and the entire AUDEZE team for creating such an amazing and enjoyable tool with which I feel humbled and blessed to ‘work’!