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Recording engineer Neal Cappellino ’87 shepherds sound in Music City

Where the Voice Resides

Neal Cappelino

Neal Cappellino gives the same advice to all the artists he records as they wrestle with the multiple takes of the creative process: “keep going, we’ll hear it when it comes.” He says his job as a sound engineer is to play welcoming host to the birth of a song—or when recording a vocalist, to create a space for the voice to reside in.

He works in Nashville, where the five-time Grammy winner owns and operates a recording studio called The Doghouse. A recording engineer and producer by trade, at the studio he wears all the hats—owner/operator, technician, business manager, salesperson, you name it. “It’s a small business operation, so you do what’s needed,” he says.

Tech skills notwithstanding, he says the most important part of his interaction with creative (and sometimes famous) people involves psychology and personal chemistry. “The studio is a sanctuary, where artists feel safe to show up unmasked, vulnerable, experimenting, failing … all without fear of judgment or interruption. We’re here to shepherd that process, support it … to be neutral, funny, quick, patient, and competent.”

Cappellino loves the work and the collaborative vibe of Music City. “It’s a great time recording live in the studio, there’s nothing like it. I’ve been fortunate to ride shotgun to a lot of special sessions—Alison Krauss, Vince Gill, Dolly Parton, Joan Osborne, Brad Paisley … and a whole lot of important people that nobody knows.”

Growing up in Rochester, N.Y., he caught the music bug early. His grandfather was a musical savant; Cappellino started on violin at age 3, then piano at 5. He played in bands through high school. “My parents allowed our bands to practice in the house,” he says. “Only now, as a parent, can I relate to the selfless devotion they demonstrated, because we were loud, and not very awesome to listen to for hours at a stretch.”

⚡️Techie from the Get-Go  ⚡️

Auguring what was to come later, he also used to build DIY projects from Heathkit electronics—one of which was an audio mixer he used for homemade recordings. Math came naturally to him, and he took programming courses in high school. “Computers and electronics were the way forward, so it made sense to apply myself in that direction,” he says. “I was encouraged by my father that this would be a valuable path in education.”

WPI was a simple choice. “It offered a combination of everything I viewed as valuable in higher education,” he says. “I preferred the smaller engineering college experience. The project-based learning format of the Qualifying Projects resonated with me. The opportunity to combine work experience through the Co-op Program turned out to be extremely valuable. And the Humanities and Arts Department having a music studies program was essential; being able to do the Sufficiency project in jazz was a big bonus.”

He cites one faculty member’s influence in particular. “I can’t say enough about Rich Falco, as both an enthusiastic music educator and a willing mentor. I had an instinct to blaze another path professionally, but I wasn’t sure what to do with it. I went to Rich to confess my sins and he let me bend his ear. That was a pivotal conversation.”

More than 30 years later, the mentor remembers the mentee. Falco is director of jazz studies and an assistant teaching professor of music at WPI. “Neal was the perfect WPI student—enthusiastic, curious, engaged, and brilliant—and his obvious musical gifts were a perfect fit for the WPI Jazz Ensemble,” Falco says. “With his love of sound—what jazzers call ‘big ears’—and his knowledge of technology, he seemed destined to become a world-class recording engineer, and I was proud to introduce him to associates in the field who could bring him real- life experience.”

Falco opened a significant door for him, introducing him to the studio manager at Long View Farm recording studio in North Brookfield, Mass., where the likes of Aerosmith, Mos Def, and the J. Geils Band recorded, and where the Rolling Stones rehearsed and recorded “Tatoo You” during a six-month residency.

“They hired me as a full-time assistant engineer solely on Rich’s recommendation and the fact that I had a BSEE—they figured, well, if he’s no good at recording maybe he can fix stuff,” Cappellino says. “I never looked back. Somehow, I was completely at peace with a job paying $5.35 an hour.”

 He still fixes stuff at The Doghouse, where analog multitrack tape machines and vintage vacuum tube technology sit side-by-side with digital hardware and software. “You have to be fluent in all of it,” he says. “Understanding signal flow is of paramount importance to an audio engineer. It’s also valuable to understand things at the component level, whether for operating equipment or troubleshooting and repair. I’ve saved many sessions from going dark by being able to wield a multimeter and soldering iron.”

This microphone is the very first production model of the requisite L7 microphone inspired by and custom made for Alison Krauss by Danny “Sage” Mckinney of Requisite Audio.

⚡️Variety Is the Spice  ⚡️

Cappellino says there is no typical day in the studio. His activities range from the solitary process of mixing an album, where he’s cocooned in the control room for days on end, to the energy of working with a roomful of musicians in a live recording session. The variety suits him just fine. “The most priceless learning I took from my co-op experience was the realization I was not cut out to participate in the mainstream job marketplace.”

He takes a traditional approach to his craft, mostly recording real instruments played by real people in a room together. He and the artists learn the song or arrangement, agree on an approach, and hit the record button; the process is called tracking. After the bulk of the instruments are captured, he moves into overdubs. “This is where you layer in sounds on top of what you’ve recorded—strings, vocals, soloists, percussion, programmed sounds, etc.,” he says. “When you’ve finished adding things—and probably taking away some things—you go into the mixing phase, where you balance all the instruments, adjust their volume, tone, and placement in the stereo field, and print to a stereo master.”

Then comes the real test. “We have the odd ritual of taking a copy of the mix to listen to in the car, to see if it sounds like it should. After spending thousands of dollars to get an acoustically proper studio environment, we still defer to the brutal litmus test of the car … it’s funny.”

⚡️Life Happens  ⚡️

Cappellino says that what drives him has changed over time. Initially it was pure enjoyment, and participation in the music community. Then it became a business, being in service to the creative goals of the artist. Next came supporting a family.

“In every layer, there was always a desire to be recognized by your peers and the people you do work for,” he says. “You want to know that you’ve done your best, that you care, and experience the pride and fulfillment of being associated with something that is lasting and meaningful. Later on, success meant achieving a sustainable balance between work and non-work, because you can lose yourself in it and leave things behind that really matter, like being there for your children.”

He’s learned to deal with tough times along the way. In 2008/2009 the economy tanked at the same time the music industry was undergoing its own disruption. “We lost everything but our house, and you really question the viability of your career,” he says. “I had made peace, though, with the idea of material things being secondary to the health and well-being of my family. It was difficult and liberating at the same time. But we survived the war of attrition, and I rebuilt and revitalized my career, and I’m very thankful for the studio and the clients that I have now, and that continue to come.”

⚡️Art VS. Clicks  ⚡️

Post-disruption, today’s music industry is a democratized landscape, with low barriers to entry. The trick is getting heard. “The music business is using social media metrics to find new talent, and there are thresholds to be attained before you get the attention of a label, publisher, or booking agent,” he says. “You have to achieve a certain amount of success on your own before you can solicit actionable interest from a company.”

Cappellino says that doesn’t measure creativity. “Rather, it tends to indicate someone who can multitask and has well-rounded skills, and who maybe has the time and resources to engage in such relentless tasks as self-branding and advertising.”

It doesn’t do justice to the artist. “Being an artist is something one is captured by; an urge, a compulsion to pursue a certain way of life,” he says. “Can you imagine if we imposed the modern concepts of social media branding and self-advertising on the great artists from years ago? Who would’ve been left out? Most everyone.”

⚡️Screening Out Life ⚡️

Cappellino tempers his embrace of technology, both as parent and recording engineer. He limits his teenage daughters’ screen time, and urges recording professionals to stop “looking” at sound and start listening to it. “With the advent of music on computers, we became fascinated with how we could manipulate music on-screen. That’s sometimes necessary, and very creative things happen this way. The trouble comes when we can’t divorce ourselves from the screen when we need to focus on listening.”

He says when some perceptual capacity is taken up visually, you don’t give full attention to the experience of listening; you’re not fully “there,” to feel what might be evoked at a deeper level. When you see music represented on screen—its color and amplitude, or the song arrangement—you’re looking at the math of it.

“You can actually see what’s coming on screen before you hear it, so you’re prejudging based on visual math,” he says. “It’s detrimental to enjoying, or especially judging, a musical performance, which is what engineers and producers are tasked with doing—making decisions based on what they’re hearing and how it makes them feel.”

In recent years Cappellino has taken an interest in the healing arts: alternative therapies and energy medicine. “I’m certified as a Reiki Master practitioner,” he says, “and as a natural extension of my music career, I integrate sound with the energy work.” ⚡️

TEACHING I created a mentorship program called your~Sound as a solution to the many requests from aspiring engineers to shadow me in session. Unfortunately, I always had to decline in consideration of my clients, but recognized the need for a hands-on learning experience. There are many schools and resources available now, but none address the unique challenges someone has in their own work environment, on their own projects, and within the limitations of their equipment. I offer a service where, locally, I’ll go to someone’s studio or workspace, help them work through whatever problems they’re struggling with, and get their skills to the next level. Outside the area, we still work within their setup and on their material, but it’s facilitated through Skype.

GIVING The Melodic Caring Project is a nonprofit organization based in Seattle; it was founded by dear friends Levi and Stephanie Ware. MCP brings the virtual experience of a live-streamed concert performance into the hospital rooms of infirm children. I sat on its board for several years, and still avail myself where I can. This is one of the most giving, service-oriented examples of music as medicine that I’ve ever come across. The shows are curated to address the kids as very special guests of the artist: the artists are fully complicit in giving the children the spotlight, identifying them during the show with song dedications, shout-outs, audience support, a chat room feature onscreen, etc. The results have been tangible for so many young lives, many of them cancer patients with difficult diagnoses and awaiting treatments or surgery. It gives them hope and the strength to hold on and fight through their next stage. The parents of these courageous children are no less affected. —Neal Cappellino

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