A Musical Balancing Act
Former "Balanceman" Jeremy Goody shifts gears to keep pace with a changing industry.
Sound engineering is the ultimate man-behind-the-curtain job. You need an ear sufficiently fine-tuned to tell if a mic needs adjusting or pitch correcting, but you don't have the glamour of a rock star. And unless you're a mega-hit man like Bruce Swedien (the guy behind Michael Jackson's records) or Rudy Van Gelder (of Blue Note fame), your name has limited currency outside the world of audio geeks. Take it from Oakland engineer Jeremy Goody. A wannabe Depeche Moder turned accidental rap producer turned improbable Latin jazzman, he's become a figurehead in the local recording industry, without ever getting real name recognition. The 36-year-old engineer has simply grown his business by rolling with the punches, and adapting to whatever genre was hot at the moment. Now he's built one of the East Bay's premier recording studios, at a time when his line of work is once again about to shift drastically.
Goody comes from a musical family whose members all ditched their instruments to become entrepreneurs. A trained trumpeter with a side interest in gadgetry, he followed suit. In the '90s, he played in punk bands, but also served as de facto beat-maker for a spate of local rap albums that never quite made it. A decade later he moved on to jazz and world music, and became the unlikely go-to guy in a burgeoning Latin band scene.
But the times they are a-changin', Goody explained during a recent interview at his new Temescal studio, an oblong building with low ceilings and sharp, angular walls, formerly home to a mortgage and investment firm. After buying the place in January, Goody and designer Chris Pelonis installed triple layers of drywall, put in custom-made bass traps, and added a kitchen, control room, and isolation room. The idea, Goody said, was "good ol'-fashioned acoustic building techniques of mass and isolation." He calls the place Megasonic, a name originally attached to the West Oakland warehouse studio he rented for five years, which was actually a complex of 12-by-14 cement bank vaults with huge heavy doors.
On a sweltering Saturday afternoon, the engineer had just wrapped up a session with Latin bandleader Edgardo Cambón from the salsa group Candela. "I see guys like Eddie — he's spending a ton of money on his record," Goody said. "But he's from the old school. He might not be paying attention to the fact that records aren't selling anywhere anymore." Goody explained that right now more industry money is going toward licensing than recording, so the goal is not to sell the most albums, but to get your song aired in commercials. It's a more prudent approach, he said. "Probably half the bands I'm working with now, they want to put out their CD, but they don't really care about selling it, because they know they can't. You know what I mean? They're like, 'Look, we just want to have a CD at gigs.'"
Recording engineers have to change along with the times, which is something Goody's long been accustomed to doing. He taught himself how to chop up samples shortly after purchasing his first keyboard at age thirteen, so his skills developed parallel to the technology. He learned how to engineer by playing with tape decks in his bedroom, went through five weeks of trade school, and quit his video store job in 1990 to help local producer Bryan Matheson build Skyline Studios. There, Goody worked with everyone from AFI to Shock G of Digital Underground, though a good portion of his clientele consisted of teenage rappers who would rent out the studio, and then draft him to make beats for them. "I learned how to improperly abuse equipment — just kinda push it to its limits," he said. "There'd be like a wall of synthesizers and drum modules and kids would kinda like sing parts to me." He compared it to a touch-typing course.
Working at Skyline, Goody learned all the stuff that makes him employable to hip-hop artists and electronic music guys. At a subsequent job at Berkeley's Bay Records — where he's worked since 1996 — he learned about microphones and proper recording techniques, which helped endear him to jazz and Latin artists like Cambón, Serbian pianist Larry Vukovich, and percussionist John Santos. He also started making his own music — down tempo, glitchy, electronica stuff packaged under the alias "Balanceman." He now goes by the handle "Sal Goody." For his next album, Goody is recruiting female jazz vocalists to sing over programmed drum beats. The vibe he's going for is completely disarming: the industrial, dryly orchestrated sound of drum samples against the lilting vibrato of a lounge or cabaret singer, who should have been recording with her nine-piece swing band but accidently popped into the wrong studio. He's already convinced singer Maria Marquez to do a version of the Latin ballad "Perfidia," which may be the absolute pinnacle of anachronistic-but-easily-repackagable pop tunes.
But he's not expecting to cash out on this album, or any other. "Making records is cool and fun and stuff but it's kind of a treading water situation," he explained. "There's not big budgets, so you can't really crawl out from the investment so easily, and we're trying to figure out other ways to make money." Once again, Goody's evolving to keep pace with changes in the market. Getting into hip-hop and electronic music was a by-product of making beats at Skyline. The engineer's newfound interest in Latin music precipitated from projects with Santos and Cambón.
Now the game is different. You can do the heavy lifting part of making a record on your computer, so most of the artists who rent out Megasonic come in for shorter periods of time, and with very specific recording needs. Goody has reconceptualized his business accordingly: He's focused less on recording than on mastering albums, the final stage of album creation, in which recorded tracks are equalized, edited, compressed, and have any hiss removed. And he's found other streams of income through voice-over work and animation (he's even trying to launch a bilingual animated kids' show called Baby Bongo). "If you look at it as a business model, I put myself at the end of the food chain," Goody explained, adding that he has little emotional investment in the albums that leave his studio. At that point, said the engineer, it's out of his hands.