Erik Zobler is a veteran and versatile studio professional. Seasoned within mixing, mastering, engineering, producing and everything in between, Erik has a credit list spanding six decades. A list which includes collaborations with top talent such as Celine Dion, Whitney Houston, Miles Davis, Donna Summer, Bill Withers, Michael Jackson, George Benson and Al Jarreau, leaving no doubts of the proficiency of the experienced engineer.
Notably, Erik was the go-to engineer for legendary (and equally versatile) artist, George Duke, over the course of 34 years. The successful collaboration accounts for two Grammy wins for Best Vocal Jazz Album with "In The Moment - Live In Concert" in 2000 and "The Calling" in 2001.
Erik Zobler is a keen shortcut keyboard user and has shared his thoughts on music, engineering and the value of instruments in an interview with Logickeyboard.
It all starts with the love of music
I grew up playing various instruments, mostly trombone in school bands. But as a teenager in the 60’s I was experiencing the explosion of Rock and Roll music and wanted to be part of that. So I switched to bass, and when I realized it was really hard to get girls at campfire gatherings with just a bass, I switched again - to guitar. At the same time I was always attracted to the quality of sound. I was building amplifiers from kits and I remember being the first kid on my block with a Panasonic stereo. I put two small speakers, one on each side of my bed and would stay up late listening to FM radio (in stereo) because it sounded so much better than my crappy AM clock radio. I was not only interested in the music, I was equally interested in the sound and the process of making the music.
Conquering the engine room of music
I played music throughout high school and university, but after I graduated from San Francisco State with a degree in broadcasting (with an “emphasis in audio”), I landed the Apprentice Engineer position at the CBS Network owned and operated recording studio in San Francisco. Two years later, CBS sold that studio and I decided it was time to move to Los Angeles. I ended up working at Westlake Studios, one of the top studios in LA. The level of musicians who came through those doors was incredibly high. I would listen to the players I was recording and think to myself, “man I can play a little, but I don’t play like that!” I decided at that moment, that I could hang with the best of them if I focused on my audio background and my ears rather than my musical chops. Fortunately, I have been told I have “golden ears”. But that’s another topic.
I have worked on hundreds of albums, but I am best known for the work I did as George Duke’s engineer for 34 years. Many people have told me that they often use records I have made to listen to and test their audio systems and speakers. We worked with amazingly talented artists like Miles Davis, Anita Baker, Al Jarreau and many more.
I will say, however that I think the work I did on Jeffrey Osborne’s album, “A Time For Love”, is some of my best engineering work. I did some unconventional things, like putting the microphone preamps in the studio in order to send a line level signal rather than a microphone level signal into the control room. I did other things too, and the album sounds really good. That being said, I just finished an album with a new artist, Michael Hayez, a singer/songwriter whom I produced, recorded, mixed and mastered. I am quite proud of this project. It was recently released on all streaming platforms.
Every project is an unique opportunity
Every project - and for that matter, every song in every project - should dictate the approach. I never try to put my “stamp” on any particular project, although that stamp does ultimately reveal itself during the creative process. I have worked in many types of music from hip hop to orchestral and I always try to work in ways that are appropriate to the format. That being said, I also love to take chances and do things in one format that may not be considered “normal” in another format. For instance, I have done a lot of R&B music and I really love the bottom end of R&B records. I usually try, when appropriate, to incorporate that type of bottom end in my projects, no matter what the type of music.
Ultimately the comments I often get about my work are “clarity”, “you can hear everything”, “King of smooth”. I hate harsh sounds - they literally hurt my ears - and my feelings. I like music to be very clear, so while I like high-end articulation, I never want to have a sound that hurts my ears. I guess you could call me old school with a modern approach.
There are producers and engineers and artists who I admire and would love to work with. Two examples are Bill Bottrell (his production and mixing chops always impress me) and John Leventhal (a master producer especially when painting audio pictures with layers of stringed instruments).
Do you have any studio preferences?
Call me old school if you want, but I am inspired by music made with musicians rather than pre-recorded loops and programming. Within reason, I have a no copy and paste rule when I am producing. I say within reason because I’d be lying to say that I never do it, but whenever possible I want a musical take from top to bottom. I think the flow of a natural performance is important. I have no problem combining multiple takes into a master take, but I don’t like recording line by line. Or note by note. Don’t get me wrong as I will do it when necessary, but it is not my preference. On the other hand, if a song’s bones are based on a drum machine, then that’s fine. It fits a certain genre. But give me a live drummer any day, and that is a good day for me (as long as they groove).
Mixing is kind of the top of the food chain, and of course I love it, but engineering live sessions with multiple musicians in a good size studio is still the most enjoyable. I have been doing more production as of late and that too is very satisfying because I am more involved in the musical decision making aspect of creating music than when I am only responsible for the sonics.
The importance of keyboard shortcuts
I use shortcuts all the time. But sometimes I forget some of the less used shortcuts. It’s especially easy to do when you work on multiple computer operating systems and on multiple DAW’s, all with their own unique set of shortcuts. A quick glance at the Logickeyboard keys gets me back on track. In general, gear does matter, but ultimately it is the EAR not the GEAR that makes great recordings.
John have worked with many different people over the years shooting different genres. He has done business with Thomas Cook, Queen, David Bowie, AC/DC, Black Sabbath, and many others both live and studio.
I never remember shortcuts, I'm terrible. After 16 years, I know about 7 shortcuts in all of the Adobe applications. I have really longed, not just for a keyboard to give me those shortcuts, - but for a keyboard that has the right kind of feel.