Joe Tortorici [Audio Engineer/Mixer]

One of the few pleasures of an otherwise arduous college life was to enroll in Audio I and II classes, which allowed my interest in music to briefly overlap with academics. The teaching of those classes was provided by Joe Tortorici. With an extensive resume of contributions to the jazz world, as an engineer and mixer for the likes of legends like Ella Fitzgerald and Whitney Houston, my former Professor has quite been quite prolific over the years, so I felt compelled to reach out for a chat.

Can you tell about how you got into audio work and what experiences served as the motivation  for that?

In my youth, I was an okay guitar player doing occasional session work, and I always had an interest in the process of recording. On the occasion of fatherhood, I made a conscious decision to stabilize my life style and pursue studio work from the other side of the glass. Little did I know that an actual career would still be a long time off. But having a musical foundation served me well throughout my audio career.

Your resume is very much characterized by work in the jazz world. Why did jazz become your genre of preference for most of the work you did and still do? Was it a favorite genre for you, or did it have something to do with lending itself to easy mixing/engineering?

My work in jazz evolved over time. At the outset, the bulk of my sessions were R&B, soul, and rock. I miss those days. I think, perhaps in part, it was the love of recording acoustic instruments that influenced me. The relationship between the instrument, the environment, and the mic defines the art for me. While it may look easier than other types of sessions, it’s actually far more detailed. The good, bad, and ugly are revealed.

Is your expertise more in the area of live engineering, mixing of live performances, or mixing studio records?

I’m a studio guy. The live shows that I have recorded were always supported by a separate system and recording platform. Sound reinforcement is a skill all on its own.

Tell me about working in Chicago places like Streeterville, Paragon, and Chicago Trax. What led to your transition between those places, and what were some of the notable projects you were involved in during those times?

Trax was a very popular little place that worked 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It was my first gig and the best education I could ask for. I never slept. My talented friend, Bob Kearney, was working at Paragon and I started getting some of his overflow, which involved doing voice work for the advertising industry.

Streeterville was like a high-tech recording factory. It had multiple rooms on several floors in the heart of River North and served the advertising industry almost exclusively. The equipment was state-of-the-art. Neve and SSL consoles, top of the line mic’s…everything. Once again, it was an education unduplicated in modern times. We often did three sessions a day, from tracking to mix.

What prompted the move to LA, and how did you come to work at places like Capitol Studios, MCA Music Publishing, and Westlake Recording Studios? Can you contrast what working on the West Coast was like from being in the Mid-West? Did the difference in culture affect your work ethic? 

During that time, Chicago was not a media hub. Other than some exceptional local talent (DJ International Records, Wax Trax Records), a national advertising campaign was a big job. I felt I had the skills to do other things. I packed up my family and moved to the Los Angeles area. With the help of some other Chicago expatriates, I started working immediately. Legendary music publisher, Leeds Levy, had a studio in the MCA/Universal building. There I met Grammy-winning engineer, Francis Buckley. It was a songwriter’s studio, and we saw many luminaries come through the door. I later moved to Group IV Studios, one of the biggest off-lot rooms in Hollywood, and there began my education with scoring and movie work. Down the street was Capitol Records and for the next ten years or so, I worked the neighborhood; Kevin Eubanks at Capitol, Ella Fitzgerald at Group IV, Japanese rocker Yoshiki at Westlake, and so on. I worked as much as I ever had in Chicago. The stakes were higher in Los Angeles.

What prompted the move back to Chicago?

Circumstances converged and the opportunity to assist with care of an aging parent took priority. I did everything I set out to do in Los Angeles, and much more than I ever anticipated. There are absolutely no regrets.

You mentioned Ella Fitzgerald, and I’ve seen Whitney Houston as one of the artists associated with your past work. Can you tell me about some of your most memorable sessions with such notable artists, as well as any other favorites you might have?

It always amazed me that the higher you worked in the success chain, the nicer the artists became. For the most part, they are normal people in extraordinary circumstances. There is far more rancor for everyone on the way up. I cannot think of any contentious situations among the elite of jazz. Ella was a total sweetheart. She was the only person in the room able to tell Joe Pass to “turn down.” Kevin Eubanks was under-exposed on the Tonight Show, so it was a joy to hear his brilliance. I met Cheryl Crow at MCA long before she was a star and her sessions were a riot of fun. My personal favorites were the big orchestras. With all of the people and details involved, it was like the launch of a space shuttle…very exciting stuff.

Tell me about your work with on TV shows and networks like Arsenio Hall, PBS, and The History Channel. Did this involve doing live sound?

Arsenio was great and knew his stuff when it came to music. His on-air staff was the best in television production. My involvement was the theme and incidental music for the “after-show”, Party Machine (Arsenio played bass). This was during my tenure at Group IV. The studio had a long relationship with the television world and shows of every kind frequented the building, news programming to Star Trek. Quite often, we would finish the gig and hear our work on air the next day.

Each genre of music requires a mixer to emphasize different elements of the mix. Today’s rock and pop music aims for loudness and sharp transients, music for film tends to emphasize dynamic range, whilst dance music pushes the low-end and sidechain compresson as far as possible. What’s the biggest challenge in mixing jazz, and how have those challenges evolved over the years as music and tastes change?

A great question. Look deeper for the answer. All of these things exist because of the incremental control of dynamics processing. Without the digital revolution in audio, none of these sub-cultures of production would be so stark. However, the results are both constructive and questionable. Putting a trowel to dynamics is good for streaming, but very unmusical. I did some work with Ministry early in my career. It was extreme recording in every way, but the ultimate lesson was that there is no “right” or “wrong”; there is only cause and effect. You get what you need. With jazz, it starts and ends with the initial recording. The efforts involved in the set-up pay dividends at the mix. In jazz, good performance renders its own dynamics.

Though it would differ from artist to artist, in general, how does recording live jazz differ from live rock music? Inexperience might have one believe that the similarity in instruments would have the recording process for both be identical. Is that the case?

You’re correct. At the point of recording, it’s all the same beast. Issues of electrical interference are the primary concern. You operate in an uncontrolled environment with a ton of AC current everywhere.

The best-selling jazz albums of all time span from the 60s to 80s, with the 21st century having offered up very little in the way of multi-platinum certifications. Do you feel like there’s been a decline in jazz on the commercial frontier, as the music industry goes through its rhythms of investing more in pop, rock and hip-hop?

Everyone is getting their ass kicked though. The industry will never be at that level again. Much of it was gross excess and rendered a false reality. We should consider a part of what is perceived as decline as actually being a leveling of expectations. Digital issues changed a great deal, but not the market demographics. Everybody likes some sort of music and therefore demand will be present to one degree or another.

Given the technological and cultural advances in music and technology, such as tape becoming redundant or costly, what were some changes that occurred that affected you, and how did you adapt? Are there practices that you’ve retained from decades ago?

I mix in my living room. This is both a blessing and curse. I may start working at 8:00 a.m., and by 1:00 p.m. I’m still in my robe. I always track in a legitimate studio environment and use a quality array of mic’s and pre-amps. Once again, doing it right in the beginning prevents grief later. A thinking recordist doesn’t become dogmatic about mic usage. Every instrument and player is different and adaptibility is the key to success.

What was some of the gear typical to that 80s and 90s for jazz? Was there a preference for certain ranges of mixing desks, tape machines, microphones or monitors? Have those been replaced by new industry favorites?

My recording combination of choice was a Neve V (Vector) console with Flying Faders automation, and a Studer Mark III tape machine. It rocked. I used a variety of monitors but favored Tannoy for near-field and Urei for mains. Monitoring, in general, is tricky because amplification is always an issue. I’ve learned to appreciate diversity in pre-amps, as is the case in most new studios. Mic’s either work for the application or they don’t. You simply have to listen.

At home in my living room, I have a Pro Tools platform and an ancient pair of powered monitors. It works just fine.

Wrapping up, can I ask what projects you have in the works and planned for the future? Do you intend to continue doing both freelance work and teaching classes? 

I’m happy to say that my latest jazz project with the Chris Greene Quartet (Music Appreciation) made the first nomination cut for this year’s Grammy Awards. It’s proof that great recordings start with talented people playing quality music. Everything else is incidental. I try to keep my session work within those parameters. I love teaching and hope to always continue. The recording business is for the young. It pleases me greatly to see you moving forward.