Feeling in the Music

Al Perry's old-school twang gets the treatment it deserves from legendary sound engineer Jack Miller

Sound engineer Jack Miller made his first recordings as a child during the late-1930s with a recorder that etched music into a metal plate (aka "acetate"), or even a piece of cardboard.

Miller went on to become of one of the great sound engineers of the rock era, doing most of his work in Phoenix, including engineering the immortal proto-rock instrumental "Rebel Rouser" by Duane Eddy, an early pioneer of the low, reverb-heavy guitar sound known as "twang."

One of Miller's latest recordings is the recently released seven-song disc The Three Track Sessions EP by Al Perry, a pillar of Tucson country and rock music, himself a devotee of twang.

Perry will celebrate the release of his Miller-engineered disc with a gig next Saturday, April 11, at Plush. He'll play between two other excellent local acts—Cathy Rivers, who will also be feting a new release, Gloom Cookie, and Tom Walbank and the Ambassadors.

Miller's parents were vaudeville musicians in his hometown of Chicago (they eventually settled in Phoenix) when they bought him that first recorder. It became his responsibility to record their music; he was 7 years old.

Although he took piano lessons as a child, Miller learned quickly that the studio was his instrument. "I realized at some point, I would rather be recording music than playing it," he said during a recent interview.

Miller was only in his 20s when he recorded dozens of popular singles in Phoenix, including "Rebel Rouser," a Top 10 hit in 1958, produced by the great songwriter and recording artist Lee Hazlewood.

Perry is especially fond of the material Miller recorded back then, because Perry's style of surf-rock, blues and rock-based country owes much to Eddy.

"Duane Eddy, Lee Hazlewood and Jack Miller—those three guys basically invented 'twang' guitar," Perry said recently.

Miller left Phoenix during the early-1960s to spend a few years at RCA Records in Los Angeles. During his career, he has worked on TV and movie soundtracks, as well as lots of commercials.

But the list of musicians he has recorded or worked with includes Henry Mancini, Sammy Davis Jr., The Limeliters, The Monkees, Jefferson Airplane, Herman's Hermits, The Animals, Waylon Jennings, Andy Williams and Wayne Newton.

Miller also worked on the recording of the theme song for the TV show Batman and was in the studio as a second engineer during the sessions during which The Rolling Stones recorded "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction."

Although Miller's Phoenix-based production house merged about eight years ago with Canyon Records, which releases CDs by Native American and new age artists, he has continued to work at a feverish pace. He estimated that he has engineered about 500 recordings in the last two years. These days, he often records the music of R. Carlos Nakai, a Tucson-based recording artist who plays Native American flute.

Perry said he was stoked to work with Miller, whom he has long idolized. In fact, Miller recorded Perry's session on the venerable Ampex three-track recorder (hence the EP's title) he purchased in 1957 for $3,000 and used on "Rebel Rouser."

That historic machine, unfortunately, may be on its last legs, Miller said. "The three-track was limping along (during the Perry recording). I don't know how many more sessions it has in it."

When Miller records music, he values the subtleties of "feel" over perfection.

"I am a little different from most other engineers in that I don't worry so much about the music, about what exactly is played; instead, I am always going for the feeling in the music, how the recording communicates something emotional. I am always looking for what is most interesting in the sound, not necessarily what is the most perfect in a musical sense."

While recording Perry and his band on the old Ampex, Miller wasn't concerned about physically separating musicians' sounds from each other.

"In the old days, we didn't care about leakage from the other instruments," Miller said. "The ambient sound where the recording was made adds a lot of the sound. You can feel the drive of the song as the instruments bleed into the other channels. You can get a feeling for the aggressiveness of the players."

One of Miller's pet peeves, by the way, is the tendency of record-industry types to assert that a poor recording can be "fixed" by multi-track mixing later.

"A lot of engineers today, they think that if even you don't capture a good performance initially, you can give the song that magic by manipulating the recording during the mix. It's either there, or it isn't, and that's not something you can add in during the mixing process."