By Alison Richter
As a renowned voice teacher, Peter Strobl has recently gained notoriety for his work with Wolfgang Van Halen, taking him from teenage vocalist to professional singer through intensive preparation for road and studio.
However, Strobl’s longstanding career in the music industry spans an interesting and unique array of skills. In addition to teaching, he also is a musician, luthier and producer, and years ago was studio manager at the legendary Shangri La studio in Malibu, California, where Mark Knopfler recorded his 2004 album of the same name.
We recently interviewed Strobl at length about his work in the music industry. Following are some excerpts about his work with Knopfler and his take on the current state of recorded music and vocals.
GUITAR AFICIONADO: How many students are you presently teaching?
I have people who come to me weekly, when they need it, or just when they’re doing a project. I’m pretty shy about taking younger kids. The only ones I’ll work with are ones I think might have a shot at doing something meaningful down the road. The parents can sometimes be so adamant about giving them lessons that they’re going to end up with somebody, and I’d rather they end up with me than with one of these nuts that thinks a pre-teen bellowing “The Sun’ll Come Up Tomorrow” is cute.
In a lot of cases, especially with singing students, kids who are in their early teen years, it’s like working with a clarinet where they haven’t put all the screws in it yet. The instrument isn’t finished. So to approach vocal technique in any meaningful way can be premature. I’ll do a lot of basic music training. I’ll teach them how to do some simple reading, parts singing in classical music, I’ll have them do different parts in madrigals, record them, let them hear how they sound, and take them on a musical journey.
I’ve got some kids who are crossing the gap, getting into high school and doing really well. Sometimes I get kids who are in local theater groups and they might not get the parts they audition for because they’re not showing off as much as the next kid. But two years later they’re singing well and their voices are developing at the right pace. I’ve got a guy that just started with me that’s working on a self-produced record and looking to get the most out of himself. And I’m always working with a producer pal in Holland over the Internet. I’m not teaching so much as coaching English diction and getting into the mechanics of the differences in the language. So there’s all that stuff going on. It’s really a mixed bag.
You also repair instruments.
I do basically guitars and basses. I was playing in a Top 40 band in nightclubs in Southern California when Jaco Pastorius’ first album came out. I wanted to be just like Jaco, so I took my Fender bass, ripped the frets out and went to work that night. Unfortunately, I had to stare down at my hands because I was playing so out of tune. I had to put a new neck on my bass the next day because the band wanted to stone me, and not in a good way. That got me started working with instruments. That, and sending instruments out for repair and they’re not right, or they’re not exactly what you want.
I got into the details and I had some really good help. I get a lot of great tips from a guy in Santa Barbara named Jamie Shane, an older cat who played in Canned Heat, who is a burning blues guitar player. His motto is, “If you know I’ve been there, I didn’t do a good job.” When he does stuff on a guitar, it’s like nothing ever happened, but everything works really well. With vintage instruments it’s really important that you fix whatever needs to be fixed, but you don’t alter anything.
I just finished a 1930 National Dobro, and right now I’ve got a Gibson 56 Super 400 with Alnico pickups that’s similar to the one Elvis played on the comeback concert, and an ES-5, which is a triple-pickup guitar that T-Bone Walker was known for playing. It’s an old blues-dog guitar; it’s just fantastic. I’m just doing maintenance on these. I’ve got an old plectrum guitar with a split neck that will be with me for a while. I’ve got to figure out how to put that one back together.
These are all the same owner, a collector friend of mine who used to own Shangri La studio. I’ve been taking care of these guitars for years. There’s a Gretsch Sierra acoustic. The top is kind of stoved in and the binding is popping off, but I’m going to figure out how to bring that one back to life. I have to improvise with that. It’s not something you read in a book. It’s “Let me stare at this long enough and see if I can get this guy to play another song.”
You were the studio manager at Shangri La. What did that involve?
I was working with an artist named Beej [Blaine John] Chaney, who was the lead singer of a Minneapolis band called The Suburbs. He had come out here to do a solo career. We had taken this little storefront place in North Hollywood and turned it into a 16-track recording studio. I was helping [producer] Jim Nipar put the last screws in the walls to mount the speakers and Beej walks in and says, “How would you guys like to go to Malibu and work?” He acquired Shangri La and saved it from the wrecking ball. The former owner was going to sell it to developers and they were going to put up condos or something.
We went out there and the place was a shambles. There was no equipment, the integrity of the studio room was compromised, the vocal booth was only half built. We went bumper to bumper, tore out everything and completely rebuilt it. We went to the Sound Factory and pretended to be mixing while we measured the speaker sofits and copied the measurements and angles because that’s the vibe that Jim wanted. We gradually brought the place back to life.
We did a couple of benefits up there to draw attention to the place again. That’s when we realized we had to completely redo the electrical service, because you’d listen to music really loud and the lights would dim every time the refrigerator kicked in. I was there from about 1993 or 1994. It took a good year to get the place up and running, get a console, get some tape machines, and then in 2004, Beej asked me to be studio manager. What that meant was that I was the studio manager —and the staff. It was basically a one-horse operation and turned out to be a lot more work than just hanging around with musicians.
Mark Knopfler came out to do the Shangri-La album, and everything you would imagine about Mark is true — the good stuff, at least. The first night, we unpacked his guitars, looked them over and tuned them up. He is such a lover of nice guitars, and it was really cool to hear him talk about each one as we got them ready for the sessions. You would have thought they were all old pals of his, which, when you think about it, I guess they were.
The next day, we started organizing Chuck Ainlay’s recording equipment and integrating it into the control room. Suddenly nothing worked. The fault was that we had wired the room to be a vintage old-school downtown Hollywood room in the days when everything was Pin 3 hot, which is out of phase with everything since the Civil War. So we were plugging in tape machines, outboard gear and mic pre’s, and everything was out of phase. Nothing was working.
That night, I was up with a soldering iron re-soldering two tape machines worth of harnesses, which is two 24-track snakes per, as many of the outboard snakes as I could manage, and going through and retesting all the mic panels in the room. It was a nightmare at the start, but eventually we got it organized and everyone had a great time. I think Mark and the band enjoyed the vibe of the place and recorded a wonderful album.
I understand that he still records on tape.
I can’t say what he does now, but the Shangri La album was sort of a hybrid process, so to speak. You’d have to talk to Chuck to get the complete details. What a lot of guys do is record to tape, but the signal from the tape machine goes right to Pro Tools, so you have the tape saturation, but you’re not scuffing the tape over and over again. In the old days, by the time you got to mixing, every time you roll the tape over the heads you’re losing high end, which is why they invented equalizers.
So with the new technology, which has become pretty damn amazing, you run a microphone output, or guitar, or whatever it is, through the tape machine, record it and take the output of that tape machine to Pro Tools so you have the first pass across the tape head recorded permanently in its pristine quality. In the old days of doing a recording, every time you did an overdub or fast-forward or play or rewind, you’d wear the tape down just a little bit. A lot of times the rough mixes of songs had more sonic punch than the finished mix because there was more information left on the tape. It was an interesting conundrum.
As we speak about technology and correction, some singers may think, Why go to a voice teacher when everything can be fixed with Auto Tune and pitch correction? Does this upset you?
It does when I listen to untalented people do things that sound amazingly similar to actual singing. Every step of the way, new technology comes on to the scene and we don’t really know what to do with it. It hasn’t really sifted down into, “Here’s where that belongs.” It’s different for everyone who uses that stuff. I happen to like using Melodyne to create background vocals when I’m working alone. It saves me the time of having to pull out pencil and paper and writing them. Now I can actually hear what they sound like. I can play them for singers and say, “Sing that,” so that’s a cool use of technology for me.
As an effect, you never know. You might come up with something that has a new sound, but that’s not really my thing. To replace actual singing in tune and on time with pitch correction and that kind of stuff is a bit disrespectful to singers who have put a lot of time and effort into learning how to do those things as a matter of technique. I’ve been in sessions where a really well-known producer spent all day getting a drum sound, spent all day with a famous studio guitarist, kissing his ass and making him happy and making sure that the parts are right and the cappuccino is warm. Then he put the singer in the booth, took one pass and said, “Yeah, honey, that was just great.” I heard myself think out loud, “That was horrible!” But time being money, he was probably thinking, “Yeah, but I got the words. It’s close enough, I can fix it all.” Jesus, what’s going on here? If I were a singer, I’d want to take another crack at it. Wouldn’t you?
You take the time to produce and craft this, only to know that people are listening on earbuds and phones.
It’s got to come back around. Van Halen put out a vinyl edition of one of their tracks — you can’t listen to that unless you have a record player, which has a whole different frequency response than listening to a laser reading a hard drive. Somewhere along the line, someone is going to listen to a needle riding a groove, which has to be played on analog stuff, which many people say draws a different response from human beings.
There are studies about music therapy indicating that there’s a difference between how people respond physically to CDs as opposed to LPs. Who knows how meaningful that is, but there is a difference. Which one you prefer is another question. I don’t believe that all old things are better than all new things. I think you have to take it on a case by case basis. Use what works for you, and learn how to make it do what you want it to do, rather than just float around in a wave of technology, pushing buttons to see what happens.
Read more of Peter Strobl’s interview, including some of the techniques he used while working with Wolfgang Van Halen, right here.
— Alison Richter
Alison Richter interviews artists, producers, engineers and other music industry professionals for print and online publications. Read more of her interviews right here.