tom eaton : music producer
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Northeast Performer, January 2008


What's the story behind Thomas Eaton Recording?


My focus is on producing and recording folk, roots (alt-country), and acoustic music and acoustic/electric and pop variations on those themes. I typically help solo artists take projects from concept to completion, acting as a co-conspirator for each step along the way. My job varies from record to record-- sometimes I help develop lyrics, sometimes I'm creating hooks, sometimes I'm guiding arrangement choices and form, and sometimes I'm simply hiring the right players. My job is always in service to the song, which to some degree is in service to the record being made. I like making "concept" records... records that have a through-line and a curve to them.

How'd you get involved in recording?

I started recording about 20 years ago as a computer-music guy, composing electronic music. I ended up making lots of unreleased electronica, and doing sound design for theatre, music for dance companies and that kind of thing. About 13 years ago my personal composing studio outgrew my living space and I built a small recording space and a control room in a warehouse on the North Shore. After two years there I moved the studio to a much bigger space in its current location in downtown Newburyport.


2007 was the most successful year in the studio's history. What do you attribute the success to?


Luck, or the fact that I'm pretty much totally a niche guy. In your mind, what keeps clients coming back and spreading the good word? I guess that I am trying to help each artist make an end product that they can be proud of, not just another recording. I have a pretty specific philosophy about record making and I guess that works for some folks.

What's your general recording philosophy? How big of a role do you like to play in shaping a band's sound?

Well, I can count on one hand the number of band projects I've done in the last 13 years. That having been said, I'm often pretty responsible for the "bands" that people hear on records I make, because I'm frequently the one who chooses the right session players for each record. I get as involved as each artist needs, and every situation is different. Sometimes I'm wrangling sounds, sometimes helping with lyrics. I get very involved with arrangements and with the backing band tracks on songs that I'm producing. I think my general recording philosophy is to try to identify why the record is being made, and what purpose it will be asked to serve when it's done. Once those things are on the table, the record that you have to make becomes a series of steps to achieve the desired end, rather than an open ended drive without a map. The amount of money that can be saved by having a clue where you're going is pretty considerable!


Who are your sonic influences?


Kevin Killen is a terrific engineer who has had a huge sonic influence on me, and then David Sylvian, Tim Story, Peter Gabriel, Jane Siberry, and Kate Bush showed me that pop music, and songs in general, could be beautifully textural without losing the soul of the song in the layers.


Where do you think the essence of a band's song lies - live or on record?


To me, the essence of most songs is in the lyric and melody, not in any particular performance. An a capella version of a song can easily be as moving as version that has been fully orchestrated. My job is to try to frame each song in the best way to get the intended message across, and then to put that in the context of the artist and the entire record that's being made. I try to get as much "live" in the records I make as is humanly possible and financially prudent.


What equipment is at the studio's core?


Equipment makes recordings the same way a guitar plays itself. I think the results one gets from any studio have far more to do with the operator than the equipment; beyond that, the way the producer and engineer relate to the artist, and the way the artist feels in the studio environment, can have more impact on a given recording than the equipment used. People have to feel comfortable and free to create without fear of judgment. That said, I think my favorite musical things here are my Hammond, Wurlitzer, Rhodes, accordions, and Yamaha baby grand. I have a bunch of nice guitars, two drum kits, really good cymbals and a pretty wide assortment of hand percussion. I have around 100 microphones in house, a big analog console with moving faders, and a good selection of serious outboard gear. I really like speakers, and have a pretty great monitoring situation that I've tweaked to suit my specific needs.


Who are some artists you're most proud of having worked with?


Susan Levine, Rob Laurens, Vance Gilbert, Ellis Paul, Mark Erelli, Harvey Reid, Joyce Andersen, Kristen Cifelli, and Kristen Miller. I've also done quite a bit of work for NPR, the BBC, ABC News, Bravo, and a number of other corporate clients.



The Wire, January 2006

The Value of a Good Ear

Written by Dave Surette


Thomas Eaton's Newburyport recording studio is a busy place. One wonders how a full-time studio can thrive outside of the mainstream, especially in these days of affordable, accessible home recording gear. Over the past 10 years, Eaton has seen many changes in the recording industry, including the rise in quality (and drop in price) of home and computer-based recording technology. Yet there's been no drop-off in demand for his services. In fact, he is finding himself busier than ever. "Strangely, the changes in the recording world have caused me to work on more records," Eaton says. "More folks are doing pre-production work at home, some are doing overdubs, and some are tracking the bulk of their own parts. I end up tracking more complicated things for people, or things that need extra detail, or things people don't have access to. I also end up mixing more records that I didn't start, and mastering records that I didn't mix."


Good ears will always be valuable to someone, no matter what changes in recording technology come down the road. A number of hotspots scattered throughout New England have cemented the region's reputation in the folk world as a songwriter's mecca. One such spot is Eaton's full-service recording, mixing and mastering facility. Notables like Lori McKenna, Joyce Anderson, Vance Gilbert, and Melissa Ferrick have all benefited from Eaton's services. Other recent projects include a new CD from local cello whiz Kristen Miller and sessions for author Peter Guralnick, who recorded interviews for his recent biography of Sam Cooke, and celebrity life coach Cheryl Richardson, who is preparing an upcoming multi-disc recording. Eaton says he has been "making records day in and day out for 13 years, and making my own music for 19 years."


"I have an electronic music background," he says. "MIDI, sequencing, working inside loops. I generally play bit parts on records: piano, accordion, Hammond organ, percussion, bass, some guitar. I should not be allowed to sing." Modesty about his vocal talents aside, he sees his niche as being a part of the singer/songwriter world, but not as an acoustic purist. "I do lots of electric overdubs on things that are in the folk realm," he says. "Electric guitars, Hammond, keys, loops, etc. all have places they can fit in the pop/folk/acoustic hybrid world." Yet this technical background should not lead one to assume that Eaton is overly enamored of studio wizardry at the expense of the organic core of acoustic folk music. The capacity of a modern studio equipped with digital editing to eliminate problems of tuning, timing and even taste is impressive. Yet the relentless use of "let's fix it in the mix" can suck the soul right out of a session. Eaton seems keenly aware of this and comes down squarely on the side of a strong performance from the heart. "I like records to sound good, but human. I like people playing music together," he says. "It's far more interesting and interactive than making a record overdub by overdub. I think studio folks are hip to what badly used autotune sounds like, but I don't know if the general public hears it, or cares. There's plenty of great music that contains moments of questionable pitch ... records made by folks that understand that the emotional content of the performance is the thing that really matters."


For singer/songwriter and fiddler Joyce Andersen, the experience of working with Eaton on her latest CD, Love and Thirst, was totally positive. Working with a crack group of session players (guitarist Duke Levine, drummer Dave Mattacks, and bassist John Troy), Andersen was able to create a more expansive sound than her own home studio would allow, yet was also able to record some parts at home, "off the clock." "I recorded basic tracks with the band direct to my own hard drive, and then I did overdubs on my fiddle at home," she says. "Tom was great at letting me be really hands on throughout the whole process."


"It's hard to capture your best version of a song in the studio," Andersen says. "You have to relax, but you also have to reach down deep and deliver something special even though you're not in front of a crowd. Knowing Tom Eaton is at the soundboard, knowing he has customized his gear to best suit me and the song I'm playing, well, it makes me relax about the sound but it also puts the pressure on to give a great performance. There's no reason to get a great recording of a mediocre take."


As an owner/engineer working on lots of smaller and self-produced projects, Eaton also gets ample opportunity to wear an producer's hat. For those less familiar with the roles in the studio, the engineer is responsible for the technical aspects of recording the music, while the producer's role can range from hiring musicians, writing arrangements and orchestrating the session to just making sure the artist shows up at the studio, going out for sandwiches and coffee and providing the an objective perspective. For Eaton, the additional challenge of having input in this area is a welcome one. "I'm always willing to have an honest discussion with folks about the kind of record they want to make, and how I think I can help get them to that end," he says. "In session, my idea hat is always on, and if people seem receptive, I'll throw things in. Some people really like that give and take and I end up co-producing those records. An experienced engineer gets good sounds without getting in the way of the music and is flexible enough both ear-wise and in skill set to help each client get the sound he or she is looking for." Eaton is also aware of some of the other advantages of working in a non-home studio environment. "Any studio is only as good as the person behind the board, regardless of the space, gear, or recording medium," he says. "But, as for the more physical things: my space has 10 foot ceilings, three recording rooms filled with instruments, a lounge, two cafes in the building, unlimited track count (I've never gone beyond 60, though) and a 48 input moving fader analog console with total recall of every knob on its surface. It also has a tuned listening environment and phenomenal monitors."


"And access to some of the best session players in New England is valuable, too," he adds. Eaton will likely keep busy, no matter what sort of new recording technology comes. "More folks are recording, period," he says. "And many of those find the kind of thing that I do meshes well with what they're up to. Some folks are interested enough to get good sounds at home and some aren't. A good song is a good song, regardless."