When veteran recording engineer David Amlen opened his first commercial studio, Sound on Sound Recording, in 1987 on West 45th Street in New York, one of its first big sessions was with the band Living Colour, which was recording its debut album, Vivid.
Amlen first heard the band’s guitarist and founder Vernon Reid perform in Ronald Shannon Jackson’s avant-garde jazz band The Decoding Society at Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio, when Amlen was a student in the early ’80s. It was a thrill to then assist Reid’s recording engineers on Vivid, said Amlen.
“This was a big production with lots of label visits,” he said. “The biggest name to stop by was Mick Jagger, who was producing two of the songs on the album.”
When the studio was still in that Times Square location, Amlen oversaw the production of more than 75 gold and platinum records. It shut down in 2016.
In 2018, he reopened Sound on Sound in Montclair because of the artistic vibe and more affordable rents in the area, relative to New York. His state-of-the-art studios, with a combined 1800 square feet and Neve VR and Euphonix S5 consoles, have welcomed Darryl “DMC” McDaniels of Run-DMC, The Goo Goo Dolls, Christian McBride and others.
Amlen said the success of his studio recordings is due to “our combination of equipment, the sound of our live rooms and the consistency of the control rooms.”
His experience in the industry is supported by studio manager Tony Drootin, whom Amlen has known since the mid-1980s. “We have amassed a lot of knowledge about what clients and artists expect and, most importantly, how to make this happen,” Amlen said. “Drootin was the studio manager for a few prominent New York facilities including Unique Studios, Sony Studios and Daddy’s House (Puff Daddy’s recording studio). He is also a trained percussionist and drummer.”
Amlen started recording in his Manhattan apartment in 1986. He remembers recording a musical project for actress Sean Young there.
“I was still very green and trying my best to do a good job,” he said. “After working at home for the first few years, I learned about what really matters when you’re creating a project. Sometimes you need to be invisible and that isn’t always the easiest thing to be.
“In the studio environment, artists need to feel free, feel safe and need to shed inhibitions and try different approaches. They shouldn’t be judged if what they try is not good. And it takes a special kind of sensitivity to make artists feel comfortable so they can create art that they have not originally envisioned.”
Amlen worked as a recording engineer on a variety of projects for producer and musician Tony Visconti, including band recordings and orchestra overdubs, starting in the early 1990s.
One of his most memorable projects with Visconti involved recording two tracks with David Bowie in 1997. Bowie “was also one of the very few superstars I have worked with where I was a little starstruck,” said Amlen. “He was a total pro, nailing his parts in one to two takes.”
One of the two songs that Amlen recorded was a stunning rendition of John Lennon’s haunting “Mother” (listen below). Visconti produced the track as well as playing bass and singing harmony vocals on it. Richard Barone joined the production on harmony vocals, Jordan Rudess of Dream Theater played keyboards and Andy Newmark played drums.
“It was shelved and finally released last year as a single in 2021 by the Bowie estate,” said Amlen. “One of the highlights of this track was when Tony decided to replace the bass parts and had me plug his bass into the board and just went for it. One take. Done.”
They also recorded two versions of a song titled “(Safe in This) Skylife.” It was intended for The Rugrats Movie but it got shelved and a new version, titled “Safe,” was included as a bonus track on some editions of Bowie’s 2002 Heathen album and as a B-side on some editions of the “Everyone Says Hi” single.
The songs reunited Bowie and Visconti for the first time since 1981. They previously had worked together on classic Bowie albums such as Young Americans, Low, “Heroes”, Lodger and Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps).
Amlen said that as starstruck as he was, he kept his distance from Bowie during the recording session because he “knew the rules.”
Amlen recalls fondly his mid-1990s session with jazz artist Bob James. “We were doing regular work with GRP (Grusin-Rosen Productions) records during this period,” he said, “and I was thrilled to be the engineer on these sessions. Bob was as consummate a pro as one could be — polite, professional and an incredible talent.”
Once Amlen opened Sound on Sound studio in Montclair, he said, “we had a lot of our old clients eager to come in and record.” One of these was legendary jazz bassist and Montclair resident Christian McBride, who recorded and mixed his 2020 Grammy-nominated Christian McBride Big Band album For Jimmy, Wes and Oliver there.
“This was a major league project and utilized both studios together in order to provide better isolation of certain instruments for the final mixes,” said Amlen. “Christian exudes much warmth and made all the musicians totally at ease, which helped them create incredible tracks.
“The album was notable because of the combination of Christian on upright bass and Joey DeFrancesco on Hammond organ. In most jazz groups with Hammond organ, no bass player is needed, as the Hammond can provide deep bass notes.”
COVID created additional burdens on recording studios, including Sound on Sound. Amlen recorded the soundtrack for “Diana: The Musical” during the pandemic.
“The band came in over a few days and then the singers came in to do three separate shifts each day for their parts,” said Amlen, adding that “during the singers’ recording dates, no one was allowed in the entire facility except the singers actually singing, the recording engineer hired by the production company and our assistant engineer.
“I remember meeting the engineer and assistant out in the parking lot before they began fine tuning the setup for the singers. We were observing strict protocols so we could not be in the facility at the same time. Interesting times indeed.”
Amlen has recorded, produced and performed on other Montclair artists’ albums, including singer-songwriter Meg Patrick, who released her album onemegofmemory in 2020, during the height of the pandemic. Amlen played piano, bass and guitar on her evocative tunes.
He also recorded, produced and played piano on the Montclair-based Lily Vakili Band’s fierce album, Walking Sideways, released in February.
Multi-instrumentalist Eric Goletz, of Madison, recorded two albums at Sound on Sound: Into the Night (2021) and A New Light (2022).
Amlen, who lives with his wife Sheri Kagan and their family in Little Falls, says being a musician is “my first love.” He started playing in bands before high school and credits his mother, who was an opera singer and classical pianist, with instilling in him an appreciation for classical music.
“I also found my way to jazz, blues and other forms of non-classical music and became a huge progressive rock and jazz fusion fan in high school and it has never left me,” he said.
“I was always interested in music production and bought a four-track cassette recorder when I was a sophomore. I learned a lot trying to capture my band with limited equipment … Here I am, 40 years later and still learning new things.”
The recording industry has changed over the years, Amlen said, as many artists use home studios. “The technical experience became less necessary as more and more recording relied on computer-based workstation technology,” he said, adding that “this also resulted in the perceptual loss of the need for building and equipping better facilities, which has resulted in many inferior recordings.”
Amlen is hopeful but concerned about the future of music business. He’s optimistic “because the industry has been on an upward trajectory for the last three years after almost 20 years of decline,” he said.
However, he criticized streaming because it “doesn’t pay much to the people who create their product,” and said that downloading largely “uses data reduction, which affects the quality of the product.
“The optimist in me believes that, ultimately, a better business model will emerge that addresses these issues.”
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