Steeped in the past, looking to the future.
In the 1950s, Joe Tarsia was a young man with a natural knack for tech wizardry and a young wife to support. Legend has it that one day, while working in the research department for Philco. and moonlighting at night as a television repairman, Tarsia was called to fix a tape recorder in a studio from where, so the story goes, he never left. He went to become chief engineer at Cameo-Parkway Records before founding Sigma Sound Studios in 1968, where he manned the console for the majority of signature Gamble & Huff and Thom Bell studio sessions.
Fifty years and over 150 gold and platinum records later, a 75-year-old Tarsia has hung up his headphones (“I blew my ears out”). He sold Sigma Sound in 2003. He helped set up the recording studio for his son Michael Tarsia, who carries the torch of the recording arts on.
PW recently sat down with Tarsia to chat with him about session players, the subject of our Music Issue, and how ludicrous-speed changes in recording technology is transforming how records are made.
(Side note: We couldn’t help but stare at the gold records and the hand-signed thank-you note from the Jackson 5 to Tarsia’s daughter, who baked brownies for them when they came over for dinner while recording one of their Tarsia-engineered records. Turns out MJ hand-delivered her 16th birthday cake. Jealous.)
How do you think the switch in recording technology from analog to digital affects session musicians and the music?
You win some you lose some. The ability and convenience that the individual musician has is greater than ever, but I think that the listener loses the energy and emotion that comes from live musicians playing together… A lot of the flavor in music came from it not being perfect. The tempo used to change a little bit and went into a break because it was part of the emotion. When you got to the emotion, the drummer speeded up a bit and that added to it. Today, with a computer, every note is perfect. If it isn’t, you fix it. I was talking to a group one time and I said that dancing to electronic music could be compared to making love to a plastic doll, so…
The computer age has really made arranging much better because a guy can really get the string parts and the horn parts and synthesize them and see what they sound like. And it’s a great tool for a songwriter to develop a song and not have to go into a studio to cut a demo, but I do think the end product that the consumer buys is hurt by the fact that it’s no longer the emotion of musicians feeding off of each other.
How did sessions generally work at Sigma Sound?
The two key producers who brought many people to Philadelphia to capture the magic were Gamble and Huff and Tom Bell. Gamble & Huff would come in with a song and a chord chart, the framework, and they would run down the material with the rhythm section and develop an arrangement, and each musician contributed to the arrangement. The bass player would play different lines and when Kenny [Gamble] or Leon [Huff] heard something they liked, they’d say “Yeah Baker, yeah Baker, play that!”
With drum patterns, they would search and find what fit the song best. Kenny would hum the vocal and Huff would play the piano, and the musicians would fill in. At the extreme opposite of that is Thom Bell, where there was very little off the cuff. Every note was written, and the musicians played every note how it was written.
What’s the difference between a great musician and a great session player?
A session player is a cooperative thing. Remember this: a great musician is a mechanic. I can think of musicians, jazz musicians and so forth, that are expert in knowing and manipulating their instrument, but that’s different than having a feel and soul. It’s entirely different. You can be a maestro in the articulation of the violin, and yet not be able to give emotion or feeling.
We were very fortunate in Philadelphia. I think that the stars aligned for me. What would a studio in Philadelphia have been if there wasn’t a driving force like Gamble & Huff and Thom Bell? I’d like to think I was important to them but it’s immeasurable, you never know. But certainly the rhythm section that developed--with Normal Harris on guitar, Ronnie Baker on bass and Earl Young on drums--they were the core with Huff on piano, or Bell on piano in Bell sessions.
And then it was augmented by guys like Vince Montana who played vibes, timpani and percussion. And there were other guitar players. We sometimes had rhythm sections with eleven people… They were called session musicians. What did they do in another life? They played clubs wherever they could get a gig, wherever they could earn a dollar. But they became the core of MFSB. Session players are born out of opportunity. The fact is that there are still probably as-qualified musicians, but finding them and giving them the gig to do isn’t there.
How do you see the studio landscape today?
I sold the [Sigma Sound] studio because number one, the business changed so much. A lot of the things you went to a studio for, you can now do at home. The technology changed—I appreciate it, but I don’t understand hip-hop. I believe everyone’s connected. Most people’s favorite music is whatever they danced to in high school. I respect that each generation has their music. But the landscape in Philadelphia changed… Studios aren’t getting today what I got in 1979. I mean, I was charging $165/hour and a studio today is happy to get $75. I mean, how do you do it? I don’t know how they do it.
Why is that?
The labels don’t have it to give because of downloading. Look at newspapers, look at Kodak film. The one lesson in life is that the only constant is change--except creativity. Technology, the way you deliver it changes, but creativity doesn’t. That’s why I tell a guy who wants to go into the studio business, become a producer, don’t become a studio owner, become a producer instead.
You’ll go broke buying the equipment. They’ll always come out with a new box, a new computer. If you’re a producer, the longevity is in creativity.
I was curious. What would happen if I pulled six local session players -- the handsome crew featured in this week’s Music Issue -- together in a studio, tossed in a guy I met at a wedding the night before who claimed to be a musician, and instructed them to create a new song from scratch in record time?
This is a story about the unsung heroes of the record business, the workhorses who tighten, rave up and otherwise trick out countless records with no expectations of fame or glory. And Philly's got some of the best.
Time for a big Bang breakthrough?