I was honored to talk to Mike Tarsia about the legendary Sigma Sound Studio that his father Joseph Tarsia founded. I’d also like to thank my guest contributor (and travel partner that day), Paul Girard. Questions with the * were asked by him. Enjoy!
You and your family have a rich, musical history in Philadelphia with your father, Joseph Tarsia, being the founder of Sigma Sound Studio. When did he start Sigma?
“He had worked at Cameo Parkway and finally became chief engineer over there. Then Cameo Parkway was getting sold to Allen Klein, you know the Beatles, Stones, Allen Klein (they have the catalog now). Allen’s son is administrating Cameo now. There was a studio called Reco Art Studios that a man called Emil Corson owned. They did a lot of work in the city and Emil was really well-known. My dad said he was one of the best engineers he ever heard. He could throw a microphone up and the stuff would sound good. Emil sold the studio to two Italian guys that had a small studio, I just got this from my father cause nobody really knows it, up in the northeast. I always thought Dad bought the studio from Emil. But Emil sold it to those two guys. Whatever happened, they didn’t use it. My father bought it. The original studio sat on top of, I think what was a sewing machine store, on the first floor. It was one room on the first floor. I remember I was 11 and it was during the summer or weekends, but I remember tearing up carpet and taking things off the wall, scraping. We had our whole family there, my cousins and my dad and Vince Montana came from the South Soul Orchestra (Vince recently passed two years ago). He came because he had power tools that my dad didn’t have and they rebuilt around what Emil had.”
What background did your dad have to make him decide to open his own studio?
“He started about a block down from the Melrose Diner at a recording studio called AMS Studios. [Prior to that] My dad had worked at Philco. He worked on bar coding [as a tech guy] which were concentric circles which made more sense, cause originally you had to read left to right. Now they have all these lasers. At night, he would moonlight, repairing televisions. After he went to Temple for electronics. Somebody called him up from AMS Studios and asked him to fix a tape recorder and I guess he figured if he could fix TV’s, what’s a tape recorder? He went over there and got the “bug”, I guess, of being in a recording studio. So he started at AMS and moved to Cameo Parkway. At Cameo, he did “Meet Me On South Street” by The Orlons, “Expressway to Your Heart”. They didn’t have those, at least for music…in film they probably had…effects libraries. So the car honking horn was Broad Street, cause they hung a microphone out the window and it was rush hour. So on that song (Expressway), that’s where the sound comes from.”
Where did the name Sigma Sound come from?
“That’s a really good one there too. These are good questions. Actually, it was originally called Quaker Sound Studios. And then there was a, and I hate to say this cause I’m not into it, but there was a woman who did astrology and charts and stuff for the Bulletin or the Inquirer, Daily News, I’m not sure. She said something like that he needed something with a letter S, or that he needed to duplicate a letter. So Sigma Sound Studios…SSS. We were actually Quaker Sound Studios trading as Sigma Sound Studios. So that was a good question cause nobody actually knew that except the people who got the checks.”
Did you get to spend a lot of time with him at the studio? It sounds like it was a family affair.
“No. That’s why I engineer like I do. I was the worst assistant that they had there, which I said in the Drexel interview too. I used to get high and fall asleep. If it was setting up for a rhythm date, I was engaged. You had to run. You can wait for a musician, but a musician should never wait for you. I just knew that from the onset. So setting up a rhythm date, seeing my friends like TJ Tindell or this guy or that guy playing guitar, hanging out…great. Sitting there and taking notes like “bass drum on track one”, this and that… I wasn’t really into it. I got my style basically, from not paying attention because everyone was kind of a clone of my dad. He had his way, which was the “Sigma way” of doing things and I saw it and understood it. But the only time I really assisted in earnest was when outside engineers would come in because I’d be like a sponge trying to suck up how they do things different cause I didn’t wanna be the “normal” Sigma engineer. I didn’t wanna be (and this is not detrimental) a one trick pony, being known for one style or one approach to things. When I work, I try to be a chameleon. I wanna be an art forger. Manet, Monet, Jackson Pollock. Whatever you throw at me, I wanna be able to know how to do the brush strokes, how to layer the colors and depth and painting but for sound. Rather than having one way of doing things, that I just come in and I’m like an automaton and push buttons and go through the motions. I always ask what THEY want. I ask my clients, “If your record came on, what record would be before and after it and you would fit in?” And you would fit holistically, the whole production has this “vibe”. And I make them give me a couple of records. I pop them in my mix, back and forth, cause that’s an empirical way of judging something. It’s a very subjective business except when you put a benchmark up and this song is this loud, there’s this much bottom in it, the vocals are wet with repeats like Perry Farrell, or if they’re totally bone dry with no effects like a punk rock record. The minute somebody gives you “here’s what I wanna sound like”, all of a sudden it’s not subjective anymore, it’s objective and I have to deconstruct what the other person did and then twist it, move it, and change it to the song and arrangement I’m working on with the band I’m working with. That’s kind of my approach when I work.”
I imagine it keeps the work a lot more interesting for you too?
“Absolutely. Otherwise I’d go nuts. It’s funny cause all the records on the walls are all R&B stuff, mostly drum machines because Stevie Wonder (I was assistant on Secret Life of Plants) gave Dexter Wansel a Linn drum. That was the beginning of “hey, I assisted for two and a half years and had to set drum kits up, now it’s direct boxes and a drum machine.” So, I work with drum machines, but now I’m doing a lot of “Alt” music, jazz, blues, gospel, I have a country western song I’m gonna be working on, and a dance tune. Right now, I’m doing Cedric Napoleon, which is a jazz project. I’m working with a guy, Tracy Nelson that I just hooked back up with that’s doing like a “trans dance” type thing. I’m working with a new artist, Greg Sover, on a blues/rock project. And I’m working on some punk stuff. So I’m always engaged and I’m never bored because it isn’t a job. As you noticed when you came in my house, it’s my life. It’s hard to relate money to what I do. I’m a bad business person cause I’m not good with money, collecting money. At Sigma, the assistant had the client sign the bill. I would just glance over it, cause I said to associate money with art is the wrong way to approach anything. You can’t put a dollar value on creativity. People try to, but I don’t think you really can.”
If you get to make a living out of doing something you love, that’s fantastic!
“That’s why when I go to the 7-11, I’m “yes sir and yes ma’am” to 18-year-old kids. Cause I figure, they’re doing a job that, 8 hours of the day, I’m sure they don’t wanna be…sitting at the cash register at the 7-11. I don’t know who would enjoy doing that. But I appreciate that they’re there and I always try to treat them with respect cause I don’t feel like I worked a day in my life. I feel like I had a protracted party my whole life (laughter).”
When did you become active in the studio and when did you decide that this was what you wanted to do?
“At 11, I helped tear down and construct. At 13, Todd (Rundgren) was coming in and we were doing the first ‘MMR (WMMR) radio broadcast. The console wasn’t built. They were still building the console the day that Todd was coming in so people were working around the clock. I was emptying ashtrays because you could smoke in the studio back then. I graduated high school at 17 (I started early) and started hanging out (at the studio) right after high school. I took a year off before college and I went to one semester at Villanova and took Philosophy and English and I thought, “what the frig am I gonna get from Philosophy and English?” And I decided to work in the studio. So I was a gopher. Basically, I drove a van which had no air conditioning, it did have heat, and it had no radio and it had vinyl seats cause my father said, “No gopher is gonna drive around looking at girls in the city while they’re picking up stuff. It’s gonna be uncomfortable. There’s gonna be no radio and no A/C so you’re gonna wanna get in the truck, go where ya gotta go, and get back.” I mean, that’s an Italian father. And I had to start from the bottom which was great because: A. I learned every facet of the business. B. Nepotism doesn’t come in. I say this all the time to people: nepotism may have gotten me in the chair but a client keeps you there. I always say to people “What’s the difference between an assistant engineer and an engineer?” A lot of the assistants knew more than me, technically. I’m creative. I’m like, “this is a paintbrush. I’ll use it. I feel it.” Some of these guys go to schools and know electronics and all this stuff. That’s really wonderful but the bottom line is the client says whether you’re an engineer or an assistant. The client pays you and they ask for you. So getting in that chair, I had to prove that I could do the job, that I could interface with a vast amount of people cause you have all different clients. You have to have a personality that’s conducive to working with minds that may not think like yours. You have to be adaptive to your client and what your client needs and also have the technical ability to pull it off. There are people that are jealous and say “He got in cause of his father”. It’s like “so?” You get in, but do you have clients? My dad can’t force clients. Either people wanna work with me or they don’t. And within a few years, I was the most requested person there. In fact, I stopped doing tracking dates and I got so busy just mixing that I just became a mix engineer because they couldn’t get me for the tracking dates. So I would, for special people like Patti LaBelle or Tina Marie or Gerald Lavert, cut their vocals and mix. But most of the time I was mixing.”
*Did your dad ever give you static when you were becoming what you wanted to be and not the cookie cutter of the other people that worked there?
“It was the end of the PIR (Philadelphia International Records) era. The album up there (on the wall) “Father and Son”, is Eddie Lavert from the O’Jays and Gerald. My father did the O’Jays albums, I did Gerald’s albums. But there was the “Father and Son” album that I did and before that there was an O’Jays and Tommy Bell worked with me and Kenny worked with my father and we each did half the album. I had already been doing a bunch of stuff but that was when my dad was really getting into more production. He did some stuff with Taylor Swift. Taylor’s family has a summer home in Stone Harbor and somehow my dad met her father and they did demos before she got a deal together. He got more of the production side of stuff. So he was moving in another direction and we didn’t really interact that way. And I was so different from him, stylistically, anyway. I made it a point not to listen. I didn’t see him before I worked at the studio and I hardly saw him when I was at the studio. When you’re at the studio you’re in a room for 10 hours, he was in his office. I always chose night work too.”
Are there ever times where an artist wants it mixed one way and you’d really like to do it another way?
“Well, no. Because my job, and this is what I teach (I’ve even lectured at some universities), is to get what’s inside the producers or artists heads, out. My job is not to lineate the photograph or painting in their mind. My job is to get as close inside of them through playing me a record, giving me a vibe, talking to the person about what musical influences they have. I’ll ask bands “What do you sound like?” They’ll say “We don’t sound like anybody. We’re unique.” And then I’ll listen and I start naming bands and they’ll either have a little look of chagrin on their face or they’ll go “oh, I love that band”. That way I can start finding out what they can’t articulate. In a perfect world, if they could articulate well, they could mix their own stuff. But to me, that takes away from the artist. There are people that can be an auteur, like Orson Wells. But for 99.9% of the population! that isn’t true. That’s why you need specialists like me and what I do.”
Sigma Sound Studio was the base for Philadelphia International which was the legendary label that was founded by Gambel and Huff?
“That’s another misnomer which I’d like to correct. The studio at 309 was not Gambel and Huff’s studio. It was Sigma. Philly International was housed in the building that Cameo Parkway was in. There was a small studio, the B studio, and there was a big A studio. The A studio became offices and everything else. The B studio we tore apart, retro fitted. That was our studio operating in their building. Our staff had the keys, it was our gear. It was not Philadelphia International studio. It was one of many “Sigma’s” because eventually we opened up, in the late 70’s, in New York. So we had 11 studios in 2 states in 3 buildings. The studio in New York was at 53rd and Broadway. Studio 54 was around the corner, so we used to go over there cause we were a “disco” studio. And the Hit Factory was next to Studio 54. We were in the studio district up there and we had 2 floors in the Ed Sullivan building.”
How have recording studios changed over the years?
“There were a few small studios [years ago], but the amount of money and technology involved it isn’t like today. You see my room. I can do more. The last install I did was a $750,000 console, a million dollar upgrade retrofit to our main studio in Philly. And I can do more with a 12 core Mac and 3 PCIE cards and a control surface, a bunch of software than I could ever do in the studio with all the gear we had. You still need space to cut a band so I’ll rent rooms to cut bands and stuff. But for the most part, they all have computers too. They’re all working on computers. Consoles are very expensive to buy and keep cool cause they run a lot of heat. They’re expensive to maintain cause you need a maintenance guy. So there are costs you can’t advertise today in the market because record labels aren’t really record labels anymore. They cater to the crem della crem and there’s no middle class of music. There’s super rich musicians and then there’s everyone else that just makes their way through, generally.”
So you do all your work now from here (home based studio)?
“I do vocals in here (a sound booth). Bobby Rydell was in here doing some stuff. Billy Paul was over here a little while ago. And then I had a rock band in. But basically I built it. It’s a studio in a home, not a home studio. This is double wall construction; it’s double walls with 3 panels on each wall so we’re talking about…I mean you can probably kill somebody in here and you’re not gonna hear a gunshot. (Laughter)”
So much music is now made digitally…
“It’s recorded digitally. There’s a difference between doing dance tracks or machine tracks from mini keyboards and drum machines as opposed to live. The recording process is digital. Music still runs the gamut. I was doing wobble base stuff from England. English based wobble base a few years ago, of course that’s all machine stuff…sampled sounds, machine stuff. But everything except the dance rack I just had is all live drums, live bass, guitars, bands…”
Do you feel something gets lost on people recording together “virtually” as opposed to the old-fashioned way of sitting together in a studio?
“I think there’s something that’s lost but I think there’s something that you gain. This project that I’m working on with Cedric: Joey DeFranceso, I don’t know what state he’s in or where he’s at, but he lays down his organ part and you use a program like Wii transfer and send 2 gigs of information in less than 10 minutes and boom! I can be on Skype and the guy’s sending me the file. I pop it in and “Hey I love it!” or “Do this or that”. I wasn’t there with Joey’s stuff but, Joey’s such a great musician…and they laid their track down. I know people that want a pedal steel player, and Tom Hampton isn’t around in Philly and they’ll call up somebody in Nashville and boom! In a day or two you have three pedal steel players to choose from. It’s quicker and cool cause you’re collaborating on a global scale. I was working with a band from Madagascar! I did (worked with) a band from Germany. They wound up flying in. It was two drum sets, the singers mother was an opera singer in the US. The guy I worked with, the drummer, was from Romania but he moved to this place called Würzburg, Germany. Beautiful town. And I worked for a month by myself and when the mixes got really close, they flew in for five days, stayed over my house and we had a great time. They didn’t really have to but they wanted to visit and we made a friendship. Generally, it’s weird because friends and clients is a fuzzy wall because usually your clients become your friends. It’s a very intimate level to work on…with your clothes on. Really. It touches your heart. It touches your insides. And if you’re really into what you do, which I am, I don’t telephone anything in. If I’m working with an A list person or a kid that’s just learning to play, I still give them the same level of professionalism because that kid has the same heart and drive as the other person, hopefully. I judge people by the heart they put in, not necessarily the product that comes out. We’re all supposed to be trying to get better at our craft.”
*Is there any one type of music that really lights the fire within you?
“No. I always liked my CD collection which I’m transferring. (People don’t understand, CDs have a shelf life. After 20 some years, they start to get little pits in the plastic which oxidizes the foil coding underneath them. You get drop-outs. 20-25 years.) I have about 1000 CDs. My first two records were 45s from the Acme on Oregon Avenue in south Philly. One was, I don’t even know what the “A” side was, but “I am the Walrus” was the “B” side. The other record I got was Johnny Taylor, “Who’s Making Love to Your Old Lady” which was Stax Records. I always had kind of eclectic taste. I can go from Black Sabbath and Cream to listening to Coltrane and Johnny Hartman. Or listening to Beethoven’s third, fifth or ninth symphony and which version, when. The way the conductors in the orchestras did the ninth, the whole third movement, the “Ode to Joy”, it’s amazing how people approached it so differently. All different types of music.”
*Do you find yourself analyzing music instead of just listening to it?
“These are good questions cause they’re subjects that I actually bring up. There was a point in my career where I realized that I, what I call “over analyzing (pronounced: anal izing)”. I over analyzed so much that I couldn’t get sucked in to the music cause I was hearing things that I’d be doing while I was providing a service to my clients. But then I hit this wall where that went away and I can separate the two. But there was a number of years where it was like you gotta give to get. I just figured, one of the things that I lost was the immediacy of listening and trying to deconstruct rather than just listening to the performance.”
Do you talk with other studio “people” or feel a community with them?
“We have a Philadelphia recording community on Facebook. We’re at 3,938 members, I looked yesterday. We talk about everything that’s Germaine to our regions music; musically, technically. It’s great. People are on there constantly. People come out and we meet every two months at different studios so people can pitch their studio. Musicians can go in and network. Our last meeting was one of the places I track sometimes, down the street. It was during the big snow storm and there was ice everywhere and still, 30 people came out. It’s (the group) been 4 1/2 years. We had our fourth anniversary at the “Legendary” Dobbs. They were generous enough to give us the venue. We had bands come up and do an open mic night, people hung out. I think we had about 180 people there or something. It was good, before the mic went on, just talking about Philadelphia, the tertiary market, New York, the attitude of the scene here.”
What is it like to win a Grammy?
“This is what people get wrong. Unless you actually win it, like a singer wins it, there’s only one category I could win, potentially, and that would be “Best recording, non-classical.” I’m Grammy “recognized”. I worked on Grammy winning albums. But I didn’t win a Grammy. There’s a difference. Some people that do the same stuff say they won a Grammy, but it’s not. You’re Grammy recognized. I think those awards over there say “in recognition of working on”. They give you a little plaque with the embossed sticker or something.”
That’s still a huge accomplishment. Does that mean anything to you?
“I don’t know if your site is G rated, but it’s “shut the fuck up”, STFU I say. This (the awards on the wall) is for clients to feel at ease, not for me. This is totally for clients. First of all, I don’t listen to any of these songs. They were drum machines, so maybe I can cut good vocals and I did good mixes and whatever, but I like cutting live instruments. Getting something out of a machine is not the same as live instruments. Basically, this is here for the trust factor. People walk in and people can trust if I say something. People (like that EF Hutton commercial) listen. I generally mix alone. I started mixing alone with Gerald Lavert. After the first album or two he knew that he didn’t need to be there. So he would come in and do drops (that’s taking out the stuff you don’t wanna use). So I have the structure. [It’s like] We’re at Home Depot and he’s pulling all the stuff off the shelves that we’re gonna use. Now it’s all on the floor and I’m gonna build whatever we’re gonna build. So he’d go to the hotel or do whatever he would do, and 4 or 5 in the morning, or 6 (I like working nights cause there’s a longer time to work), and I’d call in the mix. He’d listen over the phone and “the vocal’s a little too wet” or “bring the snare down a hair”, and that would be it. If it was really super, super important that he had to be there, he might be there an hour at the end and I’ll be working ten hours alone. A lot of people that don’t have my experience, the client sits with in the room the minute they get a kick drum up, which would drive me insane. And this (the awards) kind of helps that. Most of my stuff (business) is referrals. You don’t advertise in the newspaper. I mean, if you look, who’s in the yellow pages for studios? There’s probably 1000 studios in Philly, you’ll see video house and things like that, but not music studios. It’s word of mouth.”
What’s one of your fondest memories, so far, of your career?
“Well, I appreciate my time with Gerald Lavert. And the minute I started working with Patti (LaBelle) and Budd and Crockett. I was the only person that Budd, given his choices…[would have work with Patti]. I was Patti’s engineer. Patti would fly me out to L.A. I did her live show at the Apollo. Stuff like that. So having an artist have that much faith and trust in what you do was heartfelt.
Even spending all those years with Patti (I think I spent 15-20 years), Gerald Lavert (from his first album till I guess about 1998, so I guess about a decade and a half at least)…the most feeling I had was with Tina Marie, which didn’t go gold. She put her own album out herself cause when she sued Motown (and won the lawsuit), she lost the war cause nobody would sign her. So she put her own records out. But Tina, to me…she could do a vocal in one take! I was telling a story online and someone asked “what was your ‘moment’?” I said how I’d forgotten to hit the stop button, to get out of record because I thought I was listening to a playback. There are some artists that take 16 hours to do one lead vocal on a 3 minute song, which is a reason to never have your girlfriend ever ask to come to the studio. You let them sit and they go “this is what you do?” And you’re spending 10 hours doing pieces of a 3 minute song and they’re ready to pull their hair out at the roots. But that moment with Tina….And instead of taking vacations, just to show you that it is my life and not a job, I used to take my vacation and fly to L.A. because then I wouldn’t be competing with my father here on the east coast. I used to do sessions in L.A. or in England. The minute I met Tina, either her or Penny (her manager) would come to LAX and pick me up. She lived in Pasadena and I would stay at her place. She was just like an angel. She called me up for tickets to her last show here and I had made a promise to escort an old girlfriend, who I hadn’t seen in years (but I made the promise), to a wedding. To me when you make a promise, you keep it. So I had to tell Tina I couldn’t attend. Then I heard she passed a couple of months later. I still have her last phone message, leaving me the tickets. I had sent her a dozen white roses and she called me up and thanked me and I have the message that she left. I took it off my phone (recorded it) cause I couldn’t get rid of it cause she was such a real person and such a talent. One of the greatest singers I ever heard in my life. But gold record? I did two albums with her. God knows what they sold cause she released them herself. But I’m more proud of that than most of the stuff on the walls. Absolutely.”
As a spectator what was/is your favorite venue in Philly?
“Well, I saw the most shows at the Spectrum, but for sound, the Tower. The intimacy, the stage and everything, I’d rather see a show at the Tower than the Spectrum. But from high school (starting at 13) I saw the Chicago Transit Authority (aka Chicago) as my first concert, till my 20’s, I was there (at the Spectrum) almost every weekend. I’ve seen every Yes show up to “Relayer”. I saw them open up for Emerson, Lake and Palmer. I saw John McLaughlin open up for T. Rex and Mark Allman. I saw John with Frank Zappa. Pink Floyd, who was supposed to do Meddle, and did, they did all “Dark Side”, but it wasn’t released yet. When they couldn’t fill the whole spectrum, they’d cut it in half and called it the Spectrum Theatre. They (Pink Floyd) couldn’t fill a 10,000 seat venue. They did “Dark Side”, Meddle (version) and part of “Ummagumma” and after that tour, I never saw them again cause I thought “Dark Side” was a sell out. I liked the trippy, acidy, early albums. The flying pigs and all the theatrics and stuff turned me off. But I believe the next year they did two or three nights at the spectrum. They went from less than 10,000 seats to 60,000 in one venue over three nights at the spectrum.”
Has your career kept you from having a personal life?
“I’m gonna die young and I’m not married. Luckily, I’ve never had a girl ask me “Where are you?” My ex-fiancé said this, and it’s the truth and the reason I was gonna marry her, “you’re married to your music and I’m your mistress.” And I go, “she gets me”. There’s a lot of divorces in our business. First of all, the temptations. The sex, drugs and rock and roll. It’s not a misnomer there. It does exist, the groupies, the whole music scene is this excellerated….look at artists like Hendrix. How many years, other than Jimmy James and the Isley brothers was Jimi Hendrix around? Three albums right? And a live album. So what did he have? Two and a half, three years? But he’s a legend for all time. All that you hear about the parties and stuff was compressed into a smaller period. I’m sure he wasn’t backing the R&B bands doing the stuff he was doing when he was doing his Jimi thing.
It’s crazy hours and sleep patterns. That’s the job. But I’m 120% in. I can’t express more, the fact that it’s not my job. It’s my life. I wanna make the most of my life that I can and the only way I can do that is making my clients happy. Even when they’re happy, I’m still not happy.”
Do you see yourself doing this forever?
“Stanford University announced two years ago that there’s a collective of scientists that are developing a Rogaine for your inner ear hair. You know when you get that whiny noise, you’re losing the ciliary in your ear, your hearing, your frequency response? They’re basically making a Rogaine for it so you can restore your hearing. So between that and tympanic advances they made with other hearing issues…
I hope to be working till the day I die. I hope I’m working when I die. Either that or in bed with a pretty woman. Or asleep. I’ll take one of the three.”