by Johnny Martin
Billy Oskay is a serious professional with a good attitude and a ton of musical experience in all facets of the industry. The sounds coming out of Big Red studio are nothing short of amazing. There are plenty of good studios in Portland, but you’ll have to drive 30 minutes or so to reach this location, where world-class artists record and musical ideas become bigger than life. It’s obvious right away that huge hits have emanated from this Trident console, and that Billy’s experience keeps those faders moving.
”Thanks for letting me come out Billy. How long have been making your services available here at Big Red?
Big Red opened in 2000, but I’ve been recording in the Portland area since the early eighties. I had a small studio when it was fashionable to go to the big studio to make recordings.
Did you name it?
It was called Night Noise Studio, after the band I was in on the Windam Hill label. The studio kind of grew out of the band and the band out of the studio.
We were doing acoustic music and the first recording I made actually turned out to be a gold record.
Really? Wow, congratulations !
Yeah, pretty wild. Our first album was called Night Noise, and then we named the band after that.
Good move! Now was that world music?
You might say, we had kind of a jazzy Irish-flavored chamber music, and nobody could quite put their finger on it. It had it’s own niche, it’s own feel, it’s own vibe. And I try to carry that on here at Big Red, in that I’ve never felt like following trends, I’d much rather create them.
Oh that’s good, because one of my questions was – what’s your approach here at the studio, but I think that answers that.
Yeah, we have sort of a blend. It’s interesting now because I’m working more with independent engineers. Some independent engineers just love using this as a tracking room and come and rent the room, basically because we have a wonderful room with great acoustics and wonderful gear. So what happens is we have anything from a classic sound , using tube electronics- to the latest virtual instruments and Pro Tools.
Would you say you capture more of a natural sound as opposed to pristine?
Pristine I think of as extremely clean, and natural is what sounds like the real thing. There’s two ways you might look at a singer-songwriter. One is you can follow the trends which is a highly compressed sound and very compressed reverb, or you can go for the sound where the artist is actually “there” for example.
Do you feel that some mic pre’s have an artificial top etc?
I would put it that with pre’s, there’s a clean or a colored. Sometimes a pristine preamp is sterile, in that it might be measurable by equipment, but may not sound very nice to our ears, which are not flat instruments.
When we hear sound there’s an emotional response. A recording may sound like a recording, and a live performance has that visual connected to the sound.
Oh yes, and people listen with their eyes
Yeah, there is sort of a psycho-acoustic property to it.
How did you come up with the funds to build Big Red?
I put myself in debt for the rest of my life. (laughter)
The goal of the studio?
We want to either be classic, or create trends.
I guess your gold record was sort of ahead of the curve and…?
Yeah- I like to be ahead of the curve, but at the same time we have the ability to get natural, real and warm with the Studer 2” 24 track, that’s a huge, huge sound. But then we also have full-on Pro Tools, and sometimes do a blend.
Do you ever listen to your first demo reel?
Well, yeah cause my first demo reel ended up going to 28 countries. But I do listen to my early recordings.
Do you have time for experimentation?
Yes, depending on the project. It really is up to the client.
Do you have a morning routine?
(laughter)Try to sleep as long as I can.
Are you still learning something every session?
What did you learn on your last session?
How to mix something on the Pro Tools full-on HD XL system. I’ve done maybe 20 or 30 albums live to 2 track, but then we were using DP (digital performer) at the time. We’ve gone further by getting exotic converters, some of the best in the world.
You went beyond Apogee?
Yeah, we have Mytek, and they are just wonderful converters.
We have a couple by Digidesign. Their D/A’s are quite good.
As an aside, about once a month I’ll get together with other engineers and producers and have a listening night.
Now does that happen here at Big Red?
And is it only guys that work here or is it Bob Stark and cats like that?
Exactly, we’ll have different people come out and do a shoot-out.
It’s a good way to check all these positive reviews you read.
Studios are under pressure because everyone’s gear-driven and you’re not sure what to get etc. What you need are good performances and someone with experience behind the board. Someone efficient, who can guide an artist or actually produce if needed. We also have well-known acts come thru on tour and use the room.
Do you find that forums can be good for that? Because guys sometimes list their gear, and you get a sense of their level of knowledge?
It’s getting better- yeah. You’ve got to do a lot of research. I’ve been looking for a pair of Neumann 88 mics for three years. They’re one of the fastest mics ever built and beauty of the sound that comes out of them is unbeatable.
It’s a precursor to the 84?
No, it was a different kind of microphone.
What type of music have you yet to record? You have a lot of experience so this might be interesting…
Hmm… I’ve never recorded heavy metal.
Wow, that’s great! That’s a surprise.
It’s interesting because there’s been, over the last seven years, I’ve had people come in and say even though you may not have recorded our genre, we love the room. So I’ll study up on the engineering style and that will work.
Yeah you have great ears.
Well, the other thing is I’m working with Nick Moon, a wonderful young producer and Craig Brock, who will come up from Austin and work as well.
He cut his teeth at the Record Plant. I also have a young engineer Zack Myers, who is very edgy and if you need a hip-hop track he’s your man.
He builds beats etc. and is “ahead of the curve”?
Very much so.
Do you have current favorite preamp that you’re really digging right now?
Yeah, my favorite right now is a sidecar I just bought which is a hand-wired clone of api 550 eq’s and preamps. It was taken out of an old hand made console from 1980.
Will you be using that for everything or mainly drums or…?
No, certain things. Vocals and possibly drums. My classic Trident board here has 40 fantastic mic pres. It came out of the Automat in San Francisco, and has a history of hits from Starship, Santana, Herbie Hancock, Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston.
So the pres are good. It must be a really clean board too, how old is it?
1980. To me the best sounding preamp over-all are the ones from the Neve-Api-Trident category. They’re warm, they’re fat, they’re big and punchy.
But there are times that I will want a more clean preamp like a Millenia.
All preamps are colors, all microphones are colors. It comes down to, if you have a great performance and you have somebody who’s putting their heart and soul into the engineering, you’re gonna have something pretty cool.
What do you monitor on?
Right now I’m using a KRK sub. An Audix Nile 5 and I just upgraded my
amp to Crown Studio Reference 2. And then I have Auratones powered by Hafler.
Unlike what I read- I love my Auratones. Do you find yourself using them a lot?
Yeah, I can’t tell you how many mixes I’ve done on them. I still balance my mixes on Auratones. I look to the larger monitors for eq etc.
That was my next question- what do look for in each?
If I’m mixing I’m going between Auratones, my main monitors and headphones. I’m looking for different things. If I’m going for details of images left to right, I may go to headphones. Monitors are a big area. There’s no answer to that. You just have to get to know your monitor and how it translates to the real world.
Can you share a moment that elevated your engineering skills?
Hmmm…I never went to engineering school, so I’d say I’ve learned by doing, reading and working with other engineers. There are accidents along the way because you’re always experimenting.
There’s something about recording that’s intangible in that you can have the same mic set up for eight tunes and one of the tunes doesn’t sound as good and you haven’t moved a mic.
Oh, key of the song?
It could be the key of the song, yes. There are sessions where money is no object, in terms of spending a day getting a snare sound etc. But those sessions are more rare with the internet and the labels hurting a bit.
Some bands can spend a day just getting levels and sounds, and other bands need to get all 12 rhythm tracks done the first day.
In the end it’s the performance. It’s a luxury to come to a studio like this because then your chances of giving a great performance and having the palette available to really capture and do something with it increase.
Do you find, obviously the better you capture it – the more options you have?
Is there a part of your studio that you’re hoping to upgrade soon?
It’s a constant process like the new amplifier and the sidecar. In November it was ProTools…before that the Studer 2”. My wish list is a mile long. I’d like to have a fairly dead iso-room for vocals and/or amps. I’m going to paint the main room this summer, I’m getting tired of the color.
Are there a few engineers you hold in esteem?
Clearmountain, Scheiner, there’s probably 5 or 6 maybe.
Name a recording that just kills you.
My favorite recording of all time is still Sgt. Pepper. I’m a member of NARAS (Grammy) Academy and they had a summit and brought in Geoff Emerick who was the main engineer for the Beatles. Not once did he mention what kind of mic or pre used. But he was using things in new ways, and was experimenting each and every session.
How did you arrive at this location?
I lived in Portland from 1976 till 1992. In the late eighties I started meeting people that lived out here east of Portland. Around 1991 I met Klaus Heyne, who is the top restorer and modifier of vintage microphones in the world. We became friends and I started looking for property out here. In ‘92 I quit my band and remarried, and the next year bought this space.
Have you remodeled the studio at all?
No. This Russ Berger design sounded amazing from the first day.
Name two pieces of gear you’ve got your eye on.
(laughter) I would like an AMS classic reverberator RMX 16 for the “ambience” preset. I’d like another eight tracks of Mytek converters.
Where do you like to purchase gear from?
Anything from Ebay to local owner-owned. I don’t care for the corporate chain stores etc.
Can you recommend any websites for information?
I follow a microphone forum that Klaus has. Rec-forums.prosoundweb.com
Klaus Heyne interview is there as well.
What’s your headphone mix system?
I have two. One is when we can get a compromise mix I have a Rane, and when everyone needs individual mixes a Furman system.
Can you recommend any closed or open headphones?
I’ve been a fan of the AKG 240 for years. Sometimes a drummer will bring in a closed pair or use earplugs and headphones.
It’s probably wise to have the same style pair through out the studio.
I have about 15 pair, yes. Most of the top studios I’ve been in have them.
What’s your oldest piece of gear?
Probably the EMT plate.
Does your studio have flexible hours?
Is there a mic you reach for quite often?
Probably the standard microphone that is the most versatile over the years is the U87.
You started out recording just yourself or friends?
Just myself. I had a sound on sound Ampex ¼” reel to reel deck that you could bounce one track at a time with.
What made you want to be an engineer?
I never wanted to be an engineer! (laughter) I was a violin picker, I went to music school, got a masters degree. After that I taught college for a couple years, then I ended up wanting to be a recording artist and I toured all over the world. While the band was at it’s height, I was spending a third of the year recording my own band, a third of the year touring, and a third of the year recording other people. This was in my small project studio.
When I left the band I had all the gear and I wanted to improve how I was recording. I could record acoustic instruments and maybe drums, so when I got Big Red built in 2000, I was a rookie engineer with three gold records.
I had produced some albums with other engineers at studios with large consoles and I loved that. Then I out grew my space with all my gear etc.
And now I’m here with a classic console and the sound is absolutely beautiful. Throw in a world class rapper, reggae, rock, jazz and independent producers, and the studio takes on this dynamic vibe.
It keeps me moving and striving. Stretching is what it’s all about.
It looks like you could do Neumann’s fairly high for capture?
Yeah the ceilings go to up to 17 feet. By the way you’re pretty well prepared, that’s cool.
Oh thank you. I love this stuff. I love recording.
Can you name a couple tracks that you use for comparative listening?
It depends on what I’m listening for. If it’s speakers, I might pull out Duets by Rob Wasserman. Very sparse tracks, some are live.. Good for depth and imaging, and it gives me an idea where the bass is. If it’s bluegrass I would listen to Alison Krause. If I’m judging someone else’s control room I’d use Wasserman and my own productions.
What’s your current back-up system?
I back up to multiple drives for each project, then also DVD.
Have you had luck with any local mastering houses?
I use four or five mastering engineers, Bernie, Stubblebine, David Glasser etc.
Whatever is going to translate to the most systems. Freq Mastering in town is good, Ryan has done some great work.
Any favorite plug-ins?
DP has Masterworks EQ which is great. It’s an RTA five band EQ.
I think the AltiVerb is great.
How do you approach mixing? Are you a build-the-drums kind of guy, or do you pick the most important track?
You mean mixing a whole album?
Yeah- let’s say your tracking is done and…
Ok. Your best mixes are when you get into them. I might not take the best tune, I’ll start with a more sparse track, something I can really get into the detail of the bass & drums. I have an idea of my gain structure, but I’ll have to have an image of what the mix should sound like. It has to do with the artist, whether they want to create something new or go with a classic sound. What parameters do you have to start with? That’s how you approach a mix. I tend to go for bigger-than-life, rather than real.
So you might capture real, but then in the mix you create right? You’re an actual player.
I let the sound hit me emotionally, and go from there.
In a session, do you find yourself being drawn into a producer role halfway through?
I’ve done more projects as a producer and engineer than just an engineer.
So right from the get-go I’ll be involved, unless there’s a producer then my roll is to please that person. At mix time I have to adjust my ears to what they are after.
So then during tracking you’re keeping your mouth shut?
I hardly ever keep my mouth shut. But I generally have great relationships with the people I work with, and excellent luck with the artistry that’s come thru here. A lot of good friendships have been forged here.
Well you give them something back that they are always grateful to you for. But still, it’s a touchy thing- it’s very personal “this is my song man!”
Absolutely, absolutely. there’s a great deal of psychology that goes into it.
Big Red Studios is a great tracking room for independent engineers or musicians who are studio-savvy. They also provide a service for smaller studios and an excellent room for young engineers to hone their chops.