Mackncheeze: What inspired you to become an audio engineer?
Steve: I love listening to music, that’s what got it started. When I was going to Central I didn’t have a lot of money, I always had to work, going home on weekends to teach lessons. I also had bands; to have a band you need a P.A. I had worked at Hanford, I saved my money, and so I bought a P.A.
My mom would freak out because I was always bringing home some piece of new gear……
Mackncheeze: Oh, it started early?
Steve: Very early. My mom would tell me that I could not afford another piece of gear. My response was, “It’s worth it. It’s going to help me.” She didn’t believe it. She wanted me to have a job with a health insurer.
It got to the point where I bought a bigger Yamaha Mixing Console and put it right in the middle of the family room. “Here Mom, look what I got.”
We also needed transport so I bought a van.
Mackncheeze: This is sounding familiar.
Steve: We needed a place to rehearse so I would get the house with a basement. We would have to have a demo.
Mackncheeze: How many band houses were you in?
Steve: 4 or 5, 6 or 10, I don’t know.
I bought a stereo tape deck, we would set up in the rehearsal space and then I would try to record. I had two mics, trying constantly to get the demos to sound like an album; constantly experimenting with placement. Then I bought a four track and the possibilities blew my mind. I just got hooked.
I graduated to an 8 track cassette recorder, a Tascam 688. That thing was killer; ended up recording a demo of Kristy’s and my band, Billy Moon. My former student, Bill Rieflin, drummer for R.E.M., heard a copy of that session and he thought it sounded really good. I ended up using that demo for a Disc Makers unsigned band contest. Out of 508 bands in five states we scored the highest, made it to the finals.
I love recording, love learning from it.
Mackncheeze: When did you buy your first outboard processor?
Steve: That was in 1996.
Mackncheeze: That’s 20 years of recording before you bought a compressor.
Steve: With the recording contract we had after the Disc Makers contest, I picked up 2 ADATs, and two Empirical Labs Distressors, we recorded tracks off my 16 channel Studio Master Console. The record label brought in Don Gilmore to mix the single at Stepping Stone studios, on an SSL 4000 G Plus. He spent ten and a half hours remixing our single. On play back I asked him a lot of questions, then we put up the original track and everyone was blown out. Don thought there was no reason to remix the tune.
We took that original track and remixed it in our studio, using my recently acquired knowledge from Don, two days later presenting it to our A and R person. I said to him, ” If I had a few choice pieces of gear I would be really good at this.” He told me to make a list and they would tack it on to the producers advance. That financed a lot of the really good gear I own. The mics, pre-amps and what not, including a Crane Song STC8. A lot of that gear is now on loan to Robert Lang Studios.
I am so blessed. I have put together another studio here at the Drum School. I get to record my wife, Kristy, who is an amazing singer/song writer, my band The 350’s, which are unreal, Danny Godinez and the stuff we have worked up with him. So blessed to be able to work with this caliber of people.
Mackncheeze: With all that background, how did you come up with your Physics Analogies applied to your teaching methods?
Steve: It’s more of an intuitive understanding that I represent through music and rhythm. Frequencies and vibrations; everything is vibrating. There are no real particles; there are only particles when they are observed. Everything comes from waves and waves are basically constant frequencies.
In terms of music, you make rhythms that intersect with each other and create patterns. Like a 3/4 measure against a 4/4 measure. What is interpreted as a particle isn’t actually a particle until it is measured. You can measure 2 against 3, or 3 against 4, and those patterns become drum parts. They both come from the intersection of points. The concept is metaphoric, its poetry.
I read stuff about quantum physics, which I will reread 30 times. I’ll sit down to practice and I consider how form and matter relate to music. It can be argued that the same mathematical ratios that constitute music are the same ratios that constitute form and matter. It’s how things fit together.
There are certain things people say about music, if you think about it literally, people would say it is odd. “That drummer is solid.” Yeah, right. If you touch that person you can’t penetrate their skin. “The arrangement is solid.” What does that mean? To me that means the way the song is structured, the length of the verse and the chorus, the amplitude of each part and how it relates to the other parts, and the bridge, how all this fits together mathematically is how this all comes together as a pattern, or patterns, that all have order, with a magical musical contour that makes them work.
It’s like reading a great book; how much tension is there, when, how much conflict is there, and at what part of the story.
Two notes that are an octave apart; for every vibration of the bottom of the octave, the top is vibrating twice. That’s a two to one ratio, that’s the most harmonic interval in music. In matter, what is the most abundant compound on the planet? Water: H2O, two hydrogen atoms to one oxygen atom. What’s the most abundant compound gas on the planet? Carbon Dioxide: CO2, one part carbon to two parts oxygen. In molecules, the most common have the lowest ratios.
In music, the next most harmonic ratio is the perfect fifth. That’s a 2 against 3 ratio. The next is a perfect fourth, that’s a 4 against 3 ratio. In music, there are two kinds of meter: compound meter, which are groups of threes, and simple meter based on twos and fours and eights. Odd time signatures are combinations of both. These are defined by vibrating objects. Rhythm, drum set, everything I play, I can reduce down to these patterns.
The wave form that started the whole concept for my upcoming book, Keys To The City, I play 5 against 4 against 3 against 2 simultaneously, and it creates a chord. At 59 plus BPM, the chord is an A minor 7 , 2nd inversion, 8 octaves below middle C. When you slow down chords they become rhythms. These references are to mathematical frequencies. Rhythm turns into pitch.
My system of teaching drums is to show people how to understand time as hearing rhythm in tune. The most common thing people do when trying to get their time together is to tense up and rush. Basically what they are doing is playing sharp.
As well, I introduce the concept of singing these rhythms with their voice.
I have people play and sing in a continuum, as in a wave form. Similar to tuning a guitar with out a tuner. The strings are in tune when the wobbliness goes away; the strings are vibrating in sympathy with one another because they are in tune. With drums; playing rhythms that are in sympathy with one another. I teach people how to understand, from every point of view, what it is they are doing, all based on repetition.
Jonny: Oh, Man. I’m a human man. I’m a person who has always just loved music, it’s one of the things in this world that has made sense to me. As I grow older, I’m starting to see other things that are contributing to my existence.
I was more cynical as a kid; it was about the money and the system and the Man, man. As I grew up I realized it’s actually not so bad. For me, as a teenager, music was really the only thing that held it together. It was pure and made sense and gave me this emotional rush and vibe. Songs would pop into my head. Dreams would come up a lot.
When I was a kid I wanted to be an inventor or a scientist. I was one of those geeky kids studying lasers, magnets and holograms; taking stuff apart. It’s in my blood. My Grandpa was that way. He was the old man equivalent to me, representing part of the industrial revolution. His shop full of old Model T parts, wood working vices and all this crazy stuff. I got this bug from him.
Mackncheeze: Where did you learn all that you know about vintage equipment?
Jonny: It started as a kid. You have to have a pretty decent foundation in science, in general, and a foundation in how things work. I had a book called How Things Work. I would go through the book to see how gears and pulleys would work and all this different stuff. That really helps when you start layering those abstractions to higher levels, like electrons and stuff like that. A lot of You Tube videos. Lots of trial and error and fucking stuff up. When the magic smoke appears, I conclude my understanding wasn’t correct.
Mackncheeze: You’re not joking about the magic smoke?
Jonny: In the world of electroninics: you can think you understand it, but there is no subjectivity, it’s not like politics or social media. When there is magic smoke, you have been proved that you are wrong, and when you are wrong , you have to go back and figure it out. You have to figure out what electrons want to do, where they want to go.
Mackncheeze: The level you are at, there are absolutes….
Jonny: Yeah, definitely. If you got something blowing up, or you get zapped, or your circuit doesn’t work, that’s that.
Mackncheeze: Is that a comforting place?
Jonny: Yeah. I like the world of logic and rationality. That world has intrinsic beauty. Like mathmatics. It’s counter intuitive to the music thing.
Mackncheeze: What is your educational background?
Jonny: Basic High School.
Mackncheeze: You studied music, didn’t you?
Jonny: Not really. I literally stayed at home and played guitar for six to eight hours a day; obsessed, laser vision. I was sixteen and this was the time before You Tube tutorials. The best you could hope for would be finding some tablature, most of it inaccurate.
I had a CD player boom box. I would put on Stevie Ray Vaughn or B.B. King. It had a rewind feature with play/pause, one note at a time, learn it, move to the next note. For a while, I also took Flamenco Guitar lessons.
When I went to school for digital audio engineering, they made us take pretty basic keyboard theory which was really helpful, especially with writing. Afterward, I started thinking about taking it a lot deeper and almost went to Berklee in Boston. That involved a lot of money and a lot of debt. I saw the trap coming down the horizon.
Mackncheeze: The Fat Kids have been a big part of your life and you have toured with them.
Jonny: Yep. Its been seven or eight years ago. We decided to go on tour, no recording contract, just mainly for fun.
Our drummer is a pilot. We flew down to Portland looking for a bus, ended up buying one from a Mega Church in Kirkland. We put a lot of work in, creating sleeping quarters, bathroom and kitchen.
We did two and half tours with that thing, it finally broke down in Weed, California.
The Fat Kids is a great band, but I’m really pumped on a concept that could play all genres, from Rap to Heavy Metal to Flamenco to Surf Music to Gospel, you name it. There is merit to almost every style of music.
The way I write songs, they just pop in to my head, full verse, chorus, bridge, lyrics, melody, harmony, it’s all there. With the Fat Kids I couldn’t do old schoool country or old school gospel or hard rock songs.
With this base , I want to get the studio up and running. A real legit studio with digital and analog, with a lot of different rooms, video capabilities, different audio capabilities. One day I might be doing a modern pop song and the next doing a vintage thirties style jazz recording.
You’ll notice with the studio’s gear, I have modern designed gear as well as vintage old school counter parts.
Really looking forward to working more with the studio and getting away from the touring , as much as I like it.
Mackncheeze: Whats the vision for the MOB?
Jonny: First and foremost, we really want to have cool stuff coming out. We have a good team; paying the bills, staying in the black. The dream would be to have a Motown style of thing, recording, writing, creating hits.
Mackncheeze: What are the top sites you hit.
Jonny: A lot of time on You Tube, geeking out on electrical videos, applied science, prototyping stuff, how to build different things, philosophy, random podcasts.
Mackncheze: Is that firing you up?
Jonny: Yeah, a lot of audio books. Going through some pretty cool stuff.
Mackncheeze: What books and authors do you recommend?
Jonny: Hunter S. Thompson; David Goggins’ book, You Can’t Hurt Me, great stuff; a huge fan of Ayn Rand; The 50th Law; The 7 Habits of Highly Effective people has some useful stuff in it; Jordan Peterson’s The 12 Rules For Life; The Greater Courses; a lot of geeky stuff.
Mackncheeze: What’s your biggest struggle?
Jonny: Overcoming the results of depression. Since I was a kid I have been manic depressive. I went to a shrink for a while and tried Zoloft, Wellbutrin, Prozac. That shit would make me way worse; I would go from a two week cycle to a one hour cycle. It’s what got me into philosophy; trying to make sense of the world without completely changing my psychology with pills.
It’s quite a challenge to overcome: Going to the gym and being healthy, using philosophy, taking on as much personal responsibilty as I can and not making excuses for anything. The David Goggins’ book helped a whole lot.
Exercise is essential; one single factor that will change your outlook.
Mackncheeze: Whats the most exciting thing you have ever encountered?
Jonny: The first tour we did with the band. It was like so many great things wrapped into one. A little miniature Jack Kerouac adventure, but you’re with your friends, playing music, travelling, seeing new cities, that was awesome.
If there is a junky high in music that I’m trying to chase, that’s it.
Mackncheeze: What’s your greatest association?
Jonny: In some ways its like apples and oranges. My Dad, Zech Valette, Josh Menache. I have spent the last 10 to 20 years weeding out those who are not compatible with me. The folks who are in my circle of friends are good people who I actually connect with.
Mackncheeze: The most important thing you want to say?
Jonny: The world is very divided. I wish people could genuinely put themselves in other’s shoes. Most people in the world do not wake up in the morning and say to themselves, “I am going to be as shitty as I can today.” Most people are trying to get by and do a good job and put food on their table and not be dirt bags. If people could put themselves in other’s shoes with that in mind, it would lead to much better things coming out of the world.