Recording and Producing: Interview with Joe Connors at Paragon
Interview by Susan Basko, Esq.
Today's blog guest is Joseph Christian Connors, known to most as Joe Connors. Joe is the Chief Engineer at Paragon Studios in Chicago. He is also a Producer and Composer. Joe attended the University of Montana in Missoula, studying Music Composition and Linguistics. He speaks English, Brazilian Portuguese, and Russian. He plays upright bass, cello, piano, and other instruments. Joe is a Gemini, and has that Gemini vibe of clear-thinking dreaminess.
Since 2007, Joe has worked as a Recording Engineer and Producer at Paragon Studios in Chicago. Paragon is an interesting place with a colorful history. The studio has had various incarnations in different locations. Today it is located in Chicago's Fulton Market District, just northwest of the Loop, an area of loading docks and warehouse type buildings that have mostly been turned into fancy loft apartments and overpriced bistros. Indeed, a sandwich counter type restaurant down the street sells an order of French Fries for $8.
The building in which Paragon resides is still rather warehouse district spooky. It has one of those incognito entries where you get buzzed in and take a freight elevator up to the studio. Upon entering, you are in a massive living room area, with old couches and Persian rugs. There are old organs, a grand piano, an aluminum standing bass (from a ship, I am told), lots of items that look like they would do well on the Antiques Road Show.
The studio is a warren of rooms and spaces, large and small. There is a huge recording room, with enough space to spread out. There is a vocals room with a purple Indian print fabric on the wall. There is a soundproofed drum room. There are other smaller studio rooms, a kitchen, space for classes, a fix-it shop, a room that might one day be used to shoot video. And on and on. Interesting people -- men mostly -- are here and there, recording a session, teaching a class, playing a guitar, talking, sipping tea in the kitchen. Everywhere is a hush, an intensity. I love this place and these people.
In the darkened control room for the big studio, standing in softly glowing light is The Board. A sign on the wall says this board was used to record Pink Floyd's The Wall. The Board is Joe's altar of music -- the place where he creates aural offerings for the gods of music. And most days and nights, Joe is at The Board, creating delightful sounds.
I have some questions for Joe. He says it is hard to talk about himself, yet he does a remarkable job:
You have the board used for Pink Floyd's The Wall. It is your baby and no one is allowed to dis the board. Tell me about it.
It is a beautiful thing. The sound is incredible. I just found out that Dark Horse Studios in Nashville has two of these boards as their main consoles. This is impressive because the “sound” of Country Music has always meant, to me at least, while still being rock, having that really clean sound.
Our Trident TSM is, well, clean would not be the word. More like electric! The board needs lots of TLC due to the all- analog design. We go in monthly and clean IC chips, replace bad capacitors, clean and lube up faders and pots. I think the board was used mainly as a tracking console in the studio before ours. Someone had disconnected the stereo buss. It was fun trying to find that without a schematic.
Your background is in music rather than in tech. Tell me how this enriches your skills as a producer.
The only reason I got this job in the first place is the fact that I did not go to school for audio engineering. Then, in my beginning internship when my “mentor” decided to disappear after me being here only for a month and a half or so, I was left having to learn the hard way about how everything worked. Running sessions and not knowing what I was doing… but I had no choice.
The reason I bring this up is that while my background is in music composition, if I would not have had that “thrown into the fire” type experience, I don’t think I would ever be able to know what a snare should really sound like. The owner of Paragon, Mr. Ned Engelhart, would come in and say “That’s not the way a fucking snare should sound!!” In other words, I learned by making mistakes.
On my first two real projects, I was also a producer. I can relate to a lot of different musical styles, because I always found myself out of my element. For instance, I was pretty much hardcore into prog rock and metal, until I moved to the Southern states when I was 15 and found that my peers did not listen to my style of music. So, I got a dose of jam band and jazz in high school.
Then, I met some kids and started up a hip-hop band. We toured around a bit. Then, I moved again to go to college in Montana. I got really into classical music there. Heavy into classical!! Then, I joined a punky/bluegrass band. So, I’m sure you can see where I’m going with this and how it could “enrich” my already mad crazy producer skillz…. I jest -- but this industry is essentially music-based, so my background is perfect for the job.
When I am at Paragon, I feel like I am in a Monastery of Music -- all these quietly passionate music men lurking about. What is it like devoting this portion of your life to this place?
It is exactly that. A crazy, mad devotion to this place. This entity. When I first came here, I was blown away. It was like this studio was, and still is, a big ball of potential energy. Ever heard of the Fulton Market Vortex?
Anyway, in reality, it is a serious sacrifice given how much it takes to create a stable and get past the initial lack of monetary compensation. We have some really talented musicians and producers that rent productions rooms here now. Their dynamic, it seems, is perfect.
MTV was just here shooting video for Max-a-million. He just did a remake of a couple of The Drifters songs with the original members. Max technically works out of 40 Hz Productions with Terry “Trademark” Martin, but they have a production room in our facility, so I consider them family.
Other studios brag about their facility or their equipment. The main thing you seem to have going is deep creativity. Please talk about the drums in the staircase and other recording adventures.
We have a large space. It’s easy to get ideas about how cool it would be to record the drums in the bathroom or Studio C, which is all concrete and meant more for video work. So then it is just taking control and saying “Okay, lets run the cables to the stairwell and track some drums.”
It’s really quite nice, the reverb in our stairwell. We are on the forth floor of a meat distribution company. The third floor is wide open and the stairwell is quiet for the most part. We’ll throw the drums on the second landing and have a mic overhead and another one about 2 floors up. Huge drum sound. I like to double track the drums but you better be able to play to a click track!! We have a few rooms that can act as cool “effects” for drums or others as well.
We have been lucky to have some excellent musicians working here, be they interns or employees. When writing for clients, I like to get as many versions on the song as possible. “Lets do it rock. Now lets do it like Dave Mathews. Now how about the way MGMT would play.” It adds to the dynamic of the song when you have multiple options.
You teach some classes. What and for whom?
We teach for the Recording Connection in LA. It has served both parties well, I believe. We get free labor and an authentic bond between student and teacher and the student gets an excellent education based on real world applications. This industry is a lot about what you make of it. We give the students a chance to stick on board and work out of our studio. They also get the knowledge it takes to take their career anywhere in the world.
Tell me about interns at the studio.
Without interns, there would be no studio!! Lol, once again I jest, but at the same time I’m dead serious. There is only so much a single person can do before time starts becoming an issue.
Interns come and go. It seems that if you have the drive and abilities, then we have the space. Paragon has been around for a long time. We are not going anywhere anytime soon. We have a new label and a publishing company is in the works. The reason we are able to do this is through interns. Research can be time consuming. Starting these endeavors is excellent on-the-job training for our interns. The opportunity to carry through and become employees is an option and also is welcomed. We are growing and good talent is always appreciated.
Tell me about collaborating on musical compositions there with clients.
I love it.
Influences. Musical and otherwise. What are yours?
My influences really are across the board. Younger years, my dad listened to a lot of Pink Floyd, Beatles and Frank Zappa. My Mother was into Joni Mitchell, Suzanne Vega and Bonnie Raitt.
I got this game as a kid called something like “the game of great composers.” I remember taking the cd and listening to it over and over again. Never did play the actual game. It had Bach, Mozart, Debussy, etc. Seriously, I would sit by the speaker and listen for hours and hours. I have lots of odd, but interesting, stories about music as a child. For another time maybe.
I think, though, that the moment of truth was when I was in a musical, playing bass, and one of the actors gave me a lift home. He was driving my favorite car of all time and listening to this haunting music. I fell in love. I found out it was Danny Elfman. The man had a Danny Elfman cd. Well, a few months later I received a package in the mail. Turns out it was from this guy and it contained “Music for a Darkened Theater” by Mr Elfman himself. Just a compilation of all his movie scores, but it changed my life. Too much to say on influences, so one day I’ll write a book, haha.
Tell me about world energy forces and how those relate to music production.
Oh boy… You are asking for it now. Energy is a seriously powerful thing. God… is energy. You are energy. Music is energy. It’s what life is. When I meet people, I usually get a vibe. I know whether or not we will be friends, lovers or enemies, for the most part at least.
The clients that I write music for get a bit of my energy and influence, as to be expected. But it really is a beautiful thing. Music is intimate. I usually will not rest until I know that the music I write will be able to be felt as well as heard.
What is your favorite meal?
Mmmmm. Osso Bucco with polenta is an all time favorite and so is Eggplant Parmesan. I like healthy food.
Can music improve the world? If so, what are some examples- real, theoretical, hypothetical, or dreamlike?
Music brings people together. It always has and always will. That is one of its powers. It helps out you as an individual also. So just by saying that, we have answered the question in a nutshell at least!
What is your favorite microphone and why?
Every mic has its place.
This is a dream. You are dancing. It is very freeing, cleansing. What is the music?
Anything that grooves.
Photo Credits: Top to bottom: Joe at The Board: Shannon Anastasia Page. Joe at the Board and Trevor Hougardy: Shannon Anastasia Page. Vocals Room: Sue Basko. Joe standing at The Board: Lindsey Major. Joe at piano: Shannon Anastasia Page. Joe and Bob Picha do a mic set-up in the main recording room: Ryan Diemer. Joe doing complex mic set-up: Lindsey Major. Black and white - Joe Connors, Trevor Hougardy, John Marino: unsure who took picture. Joe in brown hoodie at The Board: Ryan Diemer. Joe on aluminum bass: Shannon Anastasia Page. Joe conquers French Toast: Shannon Anastasia Page.