Have you ever listened to one of your favorite songs or albums and wondered what it would have been like to be there for the recording process? Geoff Sanoff has that highly coveted job, doing his part to make artists sound their best. For the last fourteen years he’s been Chief Engineer at New York City’s Stratosphere Sound, lending his talent and sensibilities to recording artists and picking a Grammy up along the way. (He was honored in 2010 for his work on Stephen Colbert’s, A Colbert Christmas). Sanoff confessed to us something he’s never had the chance to say publicly: “Stephen Colbert is one of the coolest people you will ever work with. He is a genuinely great human being who treats people with a degree of respect I have almost never witnessed in the entertainment business. He is such a good guy that everybody he works with, he pulls up everyone. He’s the guy that makes everyone act their nicest and work the hardest. It’s a lesson in how to run an organization.” High praise considering Sanoff’s resume also includes: Green Day, Nada Surf, Televsion, Cat Power, A Perfect Circle, and Keith Urban.
Having been in the business for over two decades, it’s no surprise he has a wealth of great inside stories. Case in point, while engineering for Michael Stipe for a benefit album, the former lead singer of R.E.M. surprised Sanoff by enlisting him to sing harmony. “We got to a point where we’d done all the vocals, and somebody needed to do backing vocals and nobody on the project could sing or had the confidence.” Sanoff quickly impresses; he’s a smart guy with a quirky sense of humor and is genuinely self-effacing, so when he says, “I don’t have a good voice,” he’s not just throwing out the pseudo-modesty card. Turns out, Stipe liked his suggestion to add harmony to the track and asked him to sing it with him. “I was so effing nervous, but I did it.” The result can be heard on Ciao My Shining Star: The Songs of Mark Mulcahy.
As has happened throughout the music industry, recording-related jobs have experienced downsizing. Sanoff says it’s a mixed bag; although artists have smaller budgets to make music, they now have greater access to technology allowing them to record in home studios, which offers the freedom to steer their own careers.
The downside: it puts people like him in precarious situations; Stratosphere Sound recently closed its doors. Along with the harsh realities of the financial side, Sanoff says there’s also a loss of oral history. “The thing which happens much less frequently now, is there would be people in the studio that had more experience than you did. It might just be the assistant would become your buddy. You’d talk with him and see him every day and he might tell you about a Depeche Mode record he was working on or something.” Sanoff says those face-to-face conversations would often lead to an exchange of studio tricks, knowledge, and ideas unlikely to be passed along when everyone is working alone in their home studios.
Sanoff’s success as an engineer and producer has been enhanced by the fact that he’s also a musician. He played in Edsel, an acclaimed Washington, D.C. band that released five albums over the course of a decade, eventually breaking up in 1997. They reformed last year to play select shows in New York, and were asked to play SXSW last month. “I never thought we’d play SXSW again,” he says, adding, “our singer Sohrab gets to play every day because he’s in Obits, and our guitar player Steve Raksin does electronic music, he’s in Fort Knox Five, and Alexis Fleisig, who plays drums with us, now plays in a million bands. I don’t get to do it every day, so for me it’s just a thrill to go out and play and to look down the stage and see my slightly grayer-haired friends from back in the day, bopping up and down. I hope we get to do that again.”
Listen to our full conversation with Geoff Sanoff for lots of great details and stories about some of his favorite engineering projects, behind the scenes reflections on recording with Stephen Colbert, insight on the pros and cons of Pro Tools, why 14-hour days in the studio don’t necessarily yield good results, and on working with platinum producer Eli Janney on their highly entertaining and informative “Input Output” podcast.