Over the past 20 years, the audio industry has gone through well-documented changes in technology and in business models. What has not changed however, is the value of of preparation, simplicity, ears and taste.
Multiple GRAMMY award-winner Alex Venguer honed those traits as an assistant and then engineer at some of New York City’s biggest and most iconic studios, engineering for a wide range of artists from 50 Cent to Aretha Franklin to Sting.
Among the last—and possibly final—generation to come up through the through the big recording studio model that dominated the 20th century, he is equally as competent with an old-school analog console as he is with a modern compact digital workstation.
Venguer’s successes, both on staff at some of the biggest studios in the world, and now as an independent, proves that engineering is really about adaptability and knowledge of the fundamentals of sound and acoustics, not just the ability to pull up lengthy plugin chains.
You were born and raised in Mexico before becoming a staple of the New York City recording scene. Can you talk a bit about your journey?
Like for so many engineers, it started playing an instrument and obsessing over the records I loved. That, plus the experience of recording an album with my band in high school and being able to see how creative you could be in the studio, made me decide that’s what I wanted to do.
From there I went straight to Berklee College of Music where I majored in Music Production & Engineering. I came into it thinking engineering would be secondary to my main interest which was production, so I combined that major with a lot of classes from the Arranging and Composition majors. Eventually I realized I was a better engineer than producer, arranger or composer and little by little I started to drift more towards engineering as my main interest.
After college I moved to NYC and started working as a general assistant at Sound On Sound Studios. By the time that I was promoted to assistant the plan to merge Sound On Sound and Right Track started to come together, so most of my assisting years happened at Legacy Studios. [The Right Track Recording rooms operated under the name Legacy, and then MSR, before closing earlier this year].
After two-and-a-half years as a GA and two- and-a-half as an assistant, I figured I was tired of assisting and ready to go freelance, especially since I had also been engineering a lot for the studio and on my own during those five years. And so I jumped into the freelance world where I had absolutely no work for the first month. And then, as I was starting to really freak out, stuff started picking up and luckily has not slowed down.
You followed what was once a pretty traditional career path for an engineer: Move to New York, get a job as a GA or ”runner”, and work your way up the ladder, and now you’re mixing for Sting. Can you discuss your path versus the more modern path of getting a DAW and some plugins and learning on your own?
I’d say that what you really get out of the traditional path is the discipline for being an engineer. That’s not to say you can’t be disciplined and do it on your own, but being a runner and assistant is like going to school for it.
It shows you the tools as others use them, and then you can use them in your own ways.
This goes hand-in-hand with learning and being influenced by many engineers over the course of your time as an assistant. So in a way, it makes it easier to find your own workflow from seeing so many others’.
Again, it doesn’t mean that you can’t learn that on your own—it might just take more detours. I’m going to totally generalize here just to make a point, but an example could be to see how so many engineers I know that were assistants keep their tracking and mixing pretty simple and straight ahead, and then you read online how so many engineers who learned on their own with their DAW and plugins have such convoluted routing and how much they process everything.
In the end, as long as it sounds good and it works for you, it doesn’t matter how complicated it is or how much processing you do, but learning in a traditional assistant setting you find simpler ways to do things. Then again, who knows… I might be wrong!
You’ve been in NY long enough to have worked in some of the finest studios here— many that are unfortunately gone now, like Right Track, Sound On Sound and Avatar. Which of those do you miss the most, and it is there anything about those places that can’t easily be reproduced?
Well luckily, it looks like we won’t have to miss Avatar, so I’ll take that out of the list. [Berklee College of Music now has plans to continue to operate Avatar in some capacity.]
Each one of the rooms from Right Track and Sound On Sound were special in their own way. Obviously because they were great rooms but there’s also the “nostalgia” factor for each of them. But if I had to choose one room [as exemplary], it would be Right Track’s a509 which was the last dedicated orchestral room in New York. That room was beautifully built, was extremely comfortable to work in, was very well thought out in terms of the tech layout, and could be used to record everything from a large orchestra to a small jazz trio.
The other room that would make the list for me would be MSR’s Studio B, which for years was my favorite room in the city. Even though it was a smaller space, it just had this beautiful wooden tone to it that I always loved. Many of my favorite records I’ve done were either done there, or at least had strings and or horns done there.
I think there are two big things that are hard to replicate: The obvious one is the acoustics. And by this I don’t mean that it sounded good or had no acoustical problems. More importantly, what you’re talking about here is the character of the room. You went into Studio B and it just had that tone and texture that no other room has. Avatar A is the same way— there’s this top end and low mids to that room that just scream “that’s Avatar A!”
Abbey Road is the same way. You record in Studio 2 and there’s a roundness to the top end that is found nowhere else. You get tracks from Studio 1 and it just has that heft and thickness that the room imparts as it’s personality.
The second thing is the comfort and options that a room of that level gives you. In other words, the isolation, sight lines, gear and staff that come with the room. This lets you use the room creatively and as a great problem solving tool.
While you still work in a number of rooms around the city, I know you’ve also got your own impressive setup at home with a Slate Raven and Burl converters and everything. Can you tell me a bit about your home workflow and how you approach it differently from working on a console?