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MP Interview: Phil O'Keefe

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Since I don't run a personal or articles website anymore, I've decided to post the MusicPlayer member interviews here for archival. I do plan on interviewing more MP members though, maybe even by voice so you'll have something to LISTEN to!



Phil O'Keefe

Sound Sanctuary Recording studios



Website: http://www.ssrstudio.com


Phil O'Keefe is a "producer by choice and inclination, an engineer by training, a musician by nature" and owns 'Sound Sanctuary Recording' studio. Here I interview him about his work and what goes on behind all those titles.


What first drew you to music, and what affiliations with music did you develop?

Well, just hearing music on the radio and on records. While I was the oldest child, I was lucky to have a couple of uncles and an aunt that were close in age (4 to 10 years older) who lived right next door for a large percentage of my childhood, so I was exposed to a lot of cool 1960's and 1970's era stuff at an early age. And my grandparents had their favorites - big band and country, and my mom and dad had their favorites - 50's stuff as well as some other cool things, so I had a lot of exposure to a lot of different genres at an early age. I'm very thankful for that.


The BIG one was probably, like a lot of people my age, the Beatles. I just loved their stuff. They certainly had an influence.


The opportunity to play in the school band came up when I was in 6th or 7th grade and I jumped on it. Clarinet first, followed quickly by sax. I started messing around with guitar in 9th grade and got fairly serious about it by age 16. Took a few months of piano around age 16 too. Started playing bass as a sophomore in high school. Added various other things along the way - a bit of banjo and mandolin, stuff like that. I can play a lot of things, but I'd hardly consider myself world class on any of them.


Is anyone in your family involved in music?

No, not really. I had a great grandmother who wrote some lyrics for big band stuff back in the day, and a couple of people dabbled in piano a bit, but nothing serious. Everyone scratches their heads in my family and wonders where I got it from. Like it was a disease or something. Maybe it is. Or maybe "addiction" would be a better term. I consider myself a "musician", which to my way of thinking is something you "are" as opposed to something you "do". A lot of people play better than I do, but they can take it or leave it. Not me. Playing music is a part of who I am, not just something I can do.


Please elaborate on the history of Sound Sanctuary Recording for us, and your motive for starting the studio.

Well, it's a long story. I've had personal recording setups of one sort or another since I was a teenager and was bouncing back and forth between two tape decks. And I've been adding to and upgrading my own gear for well over 20 years now. The biggest reason for having a studio for me is access. Any time - day or night, I have a place I can work on things. It's definitely my "sanctuary", a place where I can develop ideas, work on projects I'm involved in, etc. I have no desire to be a studio mogul - it's simply a lab full of the tools of my profession.


Were there any troubles in getting SSR started and built?

Well, I had a pretty serious accident back in the early / mid 1990's, when I had been working on some of the Blonde Vinyl (large indie Alt CCM label) stuff and setting up my own room. That put me back a year or two. By the time I was ready to go back to work, BV was no more - the distribution company had gone belly up and left Mike Knott (the label owner) holding the bag. Mike's a great guy, and he did everything he could to make it right by everyone. Anyway, I needed a gig, and a local studio was looking for a CE and I got the call.


About a year later, they got robbed at gunpoint. Fortunately, I wasn't there that day, but it was a nightmare for everyone. The owner of the studio decided to get into another line of work, and we took over the lease and brought in our stuff from our home studio - a Fostex 16 track, and then quickly converted over to ADAT's.


The old studio was in the basement of a former YMCA building, and the gym was directly overhead. Not long after we took over, the building management started using the gym for wedding recceptions and other events, and it got to the point where it was restricting our work, so we knew we needed a new location. And when they decided to put a Gold's Gym into the basement, we had no choice. So we started looking around. We decided that leasing another place wasn't a great idea - I hated the thought of pumping all that money into a place just to have the lease rates increased in a few years or have to move again. So we found a house in a multi-zoned area of the County that had a 1,200 sq. ft. cinderblock barn in the back that we could convert. It took a while to design and build it, but we've been very happy with it.


What favorite pieces of gear do you own?

There's a lot of stuff I have that I'd really not want to part with. You may have seen me quoted in some of the ADAM ads, and I stand behnd what I said 100% - I absolutely love these S3-A's. They really made a big difference for me. This business is all about hearing, and if you can't trust the accuracy of what you're hearing, you're incredibly handicapped. I consider great monitors to be probably the single most essential tool you can have, and the ADAM S3-A's are probably the single best gear purchase I've ever made.


Beyond that, my mic collection is pretty important to me. Actually, I consider the "front end" another good area to invest a significant portion of your gear budget into. My Soundelux ELUX 251 into my Vintech Dual 72 is a great vocal chain - I love it.


A lot of people are not wild about digital boards, but I love the recall ability - it beats the heck out of "polaroid automation" - and I'm a big fan of the new Yamaha digital boards. They sound good, are easy to use and pack a lot of functionality into a compact space. Full automation was another "life changing" experience for me.


My guitar collection is also pretty important to me - especially my Taylor 510. It was a present from my wife, and it's irreplaceable.


And while I resisted drinking the kool-aid for as long as I could, I have to admit I really like Pro Tools, although I probably slice and dice with it less than a lot of people do.


What artists have you worked with outside and/or inside of SSR?

A lot of people you've probably never heard of, and a few that maybe you have. I've done a few things with Voodoo Glow Skulls, Jeff Fenholt and Craig Goldie, Alien Ant Farm, the BV stuff - Mike Knott, Breakfast With Amy, LSU, some commercial stuff for Campus Crusade and Kaiser, a bit of live sound - Fernando Ortega, Chuck Girard, Randy Stonehill, etc. And like I said, a lot of local bands. I just finished a rap / rock record with Missing Pieces ( www.therealmusic.net ). I'm working on my second record with Alexa's Wish ( www.alexawish.com) it's going to be their fourth release. Cool stuff. I'm also really proud of John McGill's record ( www.johnmcgill.com ) - it's honest and has great songs on it. I'm currently doing a lot of work with John's partner, a guy named Ralph Torres, who writes just incredible pop stuff. I'm talking old school powerpop. I'm in heaven, since I dig that stuff so much. Working with John and Ralph has definitely given me some of the most musically satisfying moments of my life.


Are there any amusing stories or memories from SSR you may share?

Like just about anyone who has done this for a while, I've got lots of stories, but I normally don't share them - especially not in an interview. I'd rather keep working, and the quickest way to kill yourself is to break the sanctity of the confessional, er, I mean, the code of silence of the studio.


What artists/producers/engineers throughout your life have become influential?

The Beatles, obviously. Sir George Martin and Geoff Emerick. Brian Wilson's work on the Beach Boys records - especially Pet Sounds. Roy Thomas Baker. Jack Joseph Puig's work on the old Jellyfish stuff - I love the sounds he got. George Massenburg's work has always blown me away - he's the master. I also really like some of Brendan O'Brien's work, especially with Matthew Sweet. Mitch Froom and Tchad Blake do cool records too. Tom Dowd, Phil Ramone and Les Paul - the pioneers. As for artists, there's just too many to list.


For those who don't understand the job of a producer and engineer, please give us your insight.

I like the thought of "first do no harm". If it sounds great when you throw up the mic, you probably shouldn't mess with it. If the arrangements and performances are there, then my job is infinitely easier as both a producer and an engineer. Also, the effect of the quality of the instruments you're recording shouldn't be underestimated, nor should the importance of a good acoustical environment.


From a production standpoint, I try to remember that it's the artist's record and it's their picture on the cover - I'm just a name in little type on the credits.


I like the "facilitator" approach, the teamwork approach. I don't think anyone has a lock on good ideas, and I think it's a producer's job to try to get the best out of the musicians while trying to facilitate their vision for the record. Of course, there's always budget concerns, and while you'd like to do more, sometimes the money or time just isn't there, so you have to prioritize and make it work somehow. People skills are crucial - knowing when to push, knowing how to make people comfortable and relaxed.


But to me, the single most important thing is a good song. All the production chops in the world are not going to save the day if the song is weak to begin with. Everything a producer and engineer does should be in support of the artist and the song, with the objective being to get the best out of the artists and make the most of the material that you possibly can while working within the time, financial and other limitations that are part of every record you'll ever make.


Have there been any unexpected responsibilities or consequences to your roles in your studio?

No, not really. I went into this with my eyes pretty wide open.


Do you see the role of the producer and engineer evolving in the future, and if so - how?

Well, the proliferation of home studios and low cost recording equipment has definitely made the process of making records more democratic and nearly anyone with a gold card can get the gear these days. I imagine that's going to continue, and it's definitely having an impact on the studio business. With more artists doing more of their stuff in their home and project studios, the amount of work available to mid level and large commercial studios has been dropping. But the skills involved in making a cool record is still something that usually takes years of dedication and study to accumulate. And it's a never ending process - hopefully, you never stop growing and improving.


I think a lot of people, after attempting to do it all themselves at home, realize that it can be extremely difficult to "wear all the hats at once" - producing and remaining objective about your own stuff, worrying about the technical considerations that the engineers normally handle AND being artistic / creative and concentrating on playing and being musical - not a lot of people can excel at all of those at the same time. So while budgets are dropping and projects are moving more into smaller facilities, I think there's going to still be a place for people who are really good at what they do for the forseeable future, although conditions, working environments and revenue streams are bound to change.


Of course, the record industry is in an extreme state of flux at the moment. File sharing has to be addressed somehow so that people have easy to search access to a variety of music at fair prices, but they need to realize that paying for the stuff they like and keep is important or the cow's going to quit giving milk. I think music has become "devalued" in a lot of people's minds, and that needs to change. I also think the monopoly of the major labels is starting to come to an end. There's some incredibly cool indie stuff out there, like some of the United Musicians stuff - have you heard the latest Aimee Mann CD? Very cool! I definitely see niche marketing and indie labels playing a bigger role in the years to come.


For those aspiring to be music producers, engineers, or studio owners - what advice can you share?

Get some counseling and reconsider. I'm being serious. It's an extremely hard and competitive business. However, it's something that, if it's really in your heart, you're going to do anyway - regardless of what anyone else tells you. The people who have no choice but to do it because they're driven by something deep inside, those are the people who have the best shot at making a go of it because they won't take no for an answer and they'll work hard at it. If you're considering getting into it just for the money or for fame, then you should consider another career path.


Which do you feel is the better educational path for those aspiring: school or a hands-on entry level studio job?

It would depend on the individual. Some people are dedicated and will work their butts off with either approach. Some people do well in a traditional educational environment while others prefer to learn on their own. But I would definitely consider it to be important to learn from those who came before you, no matter which avenue you picked. Otherwise, you're going to spend too much unproductive time drifting and trying to reinvent the wheel.


What are your personal goals? Also, your goals for SSR in the near future and for the long term?

Again, I see the studio strictly as a toolbox - a means to an end. It allows me to do what I love - produce and engineer recordings. Of course, I'll continue to add to it, to modify it and hopefully improve it as time goes by, but it's not really my main focus.


Nearly everyone's got a studio now, so my goal is to just keep improving and trying to get better at the craft of making records. In the future, I think it's going to be a situation where people are going to become less interested in the gear than they are with the capabilities of the people who are running it, and I want to be ready for that. It would be great to get to work on more of the upscale stuff, with even better musicians, songwriters and other team members - either here and / or at other studios.


Ralph and John and I have been discussing doing a "microlabel" and we're just getting started with it - www.lurkermusic.com - but I don't want to get too caught up in the business side of running a label - I prefer being in the studio and working on that part of things. But I am excited about Lurker.


I'd just like to continue to improve, make enough money to provide a comfortable living for my family and get to work on some really cool records. And eventually earn the respect of the people who I've admired for so many years. Anything beyond that is not worth even thinking about.


The infamous question: if you were stranded on an island, what 3 items would you wish to have with you?

I always laugh at this question whenever I see it in an interview. How are you going to power it? What and who are you going to record? So I'll take a different and more practical approach - I want a firearm wth a removeable bayonet and lots of ammo. I'm assuming the island has a water supply, so we'll forget about that for a minute. Some fishing gear would be nice. I have fairly good survival skills and can start my own fires, so we'll ignore that one too. Probably the single most important thing I'd want to have with me would be a means of communication - a radio or cell phone - so that I could call the SAR folks for a lift home.


Any memorable quote that has stuck with you, become something to live or work by?

And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.


Be excellent to each other.


Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.


There's a bunch more, but those three came immediately to mind.


How do you wish yourself and your work to be remembered?

Remembered? It would be nice to just be remembered! Seriously, I'd like to be known as someone who cared about people and tried to do his best to make some good music. I'd love the respect of my peers, but if I worked on something that touched someone the way that many records have touched me, I'd consider that to be even more satisfying. If at the end of my life, I can look back on it and feel I gave it my best, and did what I could to overcome the obstacles and trials and despite my many failings, really did better than I had any right to expect, then I'll be happy. And if the people who knew me, by and large thought I was a decent guy, that would make it even better.


Any other comments?

Thanks for asking me the questions - it's been fun. And for those who have "no choice", just never give up and never stop learning. Oh, and check out the project studio forum online at MusicPlayer.com - I'm pretty excited about that, and honored to be moderating a forum on the same site that some of my heroes have their forums at.


Thanks Phil!

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