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Val Garay on the Hits of the '70s and '80s

Feb 21, 2011

Producer/engineer Val Garay worked on many of the biggest recordings of the ‘70s and ‘80s, including a slew of soft rock classics by the likes of James Taylor, Seals & Crofts, Linda Ronstadt, and Jackson Browne. Currently wrapping up production on the new CD by Katrina, the first release on his new Red Red Records label, Val recently spoke to us about his illustrious career and how the Aphex Aural Exciter® fit into it.


How did you get your start in audio engineering?

I was trying to become a producer, working out of Hollywood’s famous Sound Factory with the then world-renowned engineer Dave Hassinger. He was a staff engineer for RCA for many years and did some amazing records there: most of the early Rolling Stones, the first two Jefferson Airplane albums, the early Grateful Dead records, Sam Cooke and on and on.

So I was producing an act for Neil Bogart’s Buddah Records, and I realized that I needed a better hook to get into bigger artists. I didn’t know what that hook was, but at one point Hassinger said, “You have great ears. Why don’t you let me teach you to be an engineer?” At the time I was a starving young musician/songwriter, so I thought “That’s a great idea.”

So under his tutelage, during that first year I recorded and mixed Linda Ronstadt’s first multi platinum album, Heart Like a Wheel, which had two #1 singles and went to #1 on all the charts at the time. That was the beginning of my career as an engineer/producer.

Did the recording process differ back then?

A lot of what we recorded throughout the ’70s was live in the studio with minimal overdubs. We used to do a Linda Ronstadt record or a James Taylor record from start to finish in about six weeks.

What are some of the memorable records you had the pleasure of working on?

I was so very fortunate to have an extremely diverse career and got to work with many amazing artists. These are a few of my favorites:

  • James Taylor, JT
  • Kim Carnes, Mistaken Identity featuring “Bette Davis Eyes” which won Grammy® awards for Record of the Year and Song of the Year.
  • Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons, Who Loves You featuring "December 1963 (Oh, What A Night)", which went on to become the backbone of the play The Jersey Boys.
  • Santana, Beyond Appearances
  • Elton John, "Philadelphia Freedom"
  • The Motels, All Four One featuring the hit single “Only the Lonely”
  • Seals & Crofts, Summer Breeze and Diamond Girl
  • Jackson Browne, The Pretender

Does your mixing approach change according to musical style?

No, it’s not about style as much as I always wanted to make anything I did bigger, fatter and punchier than anything they had done before while still keeping it within the artist’s realm.

You’ve worked with many legendary artists. Do you have any interesting stories from back in the day?

I was extremely fortunate to come up through the ranks with some amazing musicians who were, very much like me, just getting started in the business. We were all very young, but so very committed to our craft. There were many times I ended up sleeping on the couch in the control room of the Sound Factory and was woken up by the cleaning lady, so much so that we became good friends.

I also remember sitting in the control room at the Sound Factory and we had just started recording James Taylor’s first Columbia album, JT. James and (guitarist) Danny Kortchmar were sitting in the studio and I had James all mic’d up. We were taking a break when he and Danny started playing “Handyman.” I remember looking at (producer) Peter Asher and he looked at me, and huge smiles came over our faces. We went running in to tell James what a great idea that song was and James said flatly, “I’m not going to record another oldie on my new record.” Of course, “Handyman” went on to become one of his biggest hits.


How did you first find out about the Aphex Aural Exciter®?

At the time, I was working with Peter Asher and Andrew Gold. We decided to go see Paul McCartney and Wings at the Forum, and after the show we went backstage. Peter knew Paul fairly well because he was the head of A&R for Apple Records in the UK and his sister Jane Asher had been Paul’s girlfriend.

The piano sound in the Forum was just spectacular, so I asked how they got it. Paul mentioned the Aphex Aural Exciter and a gentleman name Curt Knoppel. So, I went and met Kurt, and we hit it off right away. The next thing I knew, I was mixing the first record ever using the Aphex Aural Exciter. Eventually, Kurt would sometimes come to me with modifications and ask me to try them.

What was special about the Aural Exciter?

What I noticed was the ability to get the stereo image much wider. There was also a silky high-end effect that you could get, depending on how much you added to each track, which is basically how I used it adding it to a track at a time.

I was also taken aback by how easy it was to use the device, which I used as a send/return because it seemed like a piece of stereo hardware. I remember first trying it strapped across the stereo buss like an LA-3A, but I couldn't control it as well, which is why I always had it in Mix mode with the knob at 10; I wanted the output of the device to be just the Aphex.

What were the first records you used it on?

The first album I used the Aural Exciter on was Linda Ronstadt’s Hasten Down The Wind in 1976. After that, I used it on Bonnie Raitt, James Taylor, Neil Diamond, Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons, Andrew Gold, Orleans, and others. After the huge success of the multi-Platinum, Grammy® award-winning Linda Ronstadt album Simple Dreams, it became a recording industry standard.

It was very interesting back in the day how much mystery there was surrounding the Aural Exciter, especially since we always credited it in the liner notes of the records: "This album was mixed using the Aphex Aural Exciter system.”

People whom I spoke to years later in New York thought it was a big hoax, that there wasn't really a device at all. They thought the engineers out here on the West Coast just made it all up. I thought that was very funny!

Did you use the original limited-run tube version or the solid-state version?

I always used the tube unit. Toward the end, I was using the heavily-developed Aphex 712.

So what do you think of the new Vintage Aural Exciter® plugin?

Amazing; you guys really nailed it. I did the final testing on the plugin, and it sounds exactly the same as the hardware version. It’s great being able to use this piece of gear again after so many years; I love the sparkle it adds to everything.

Tell us about the presets you did for the plugin.

In all, I did eight presets (acoustic guitar, electric guitar, kick, snare, strings, synths, and vocals) which were done using the individual channel insert version of the plugin. That’s something I could never do with the hardware version, yet somehow they managed to achieve the same effect, using it as an insert on an individual track, just as if it was a send/return device.

In closing: Any words of advice for young producer/engineers?

All I can say is work very hard, believe in what you do, and never look back!