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Tim O’Heir | Ultimate Ears Stories from the Field

by Erica Lomotan

Tim O’Heir has worked with a wide variety of bands over the years. From New England indie rock legends like Buffalo Tom and Juliana Hatfield to mainstream success with All American Rejects to Broadway with Hedwig and the Angry Inch, it’s been an incredible ride. We got a chance to chat with Tim about his history, and what it was like to bring rock and roll to broadway the right way. I’m sure you’ll agree it’s a great read.

Can you tell us a little about your background?

I began my career like most of us, in the basement. I was lucky enough to come up during the original Punk/New Wave years. Bowie and the Stones were the bait followed by a steady diet of Clash, Pistols, Elvis Costello, Devo, Jam etc. I grew up in Lowell MA and it was like pulling teeth trying to get other kids to play. Sports ruled, not guitar, bass and drums. After High School I went to Mass Art in the hopes of finding likeminded people, which I did and got together with some classmates and started gigging. We idolized people like Devo who had more of a multi media hold on what they were doing with films and outfits etc. this didn’t last long as egos clashed and I found myself using a student loan to buy a few pieces of gear to record in the loft I was living in. I no longer really wanted to play in a band but play the musicians themselves.

How did you get your start in recording?

I met a guy on the day Blue Monday came out [1983] and we both were really excited about that. He told me he worked in a recording studio and invited me to come by. I had only been in one once before (RadioBeat in boston) and was dying to get back in. We got to fuck around at night and I was hooked. A few months later I moved into a 5000sq ft warehouse and built a small rehearsal/recording studio using gear I borrowed and bought with the student loan. I was still in school but hardly went, spending most of my time either working odd jobs or tinkering in my studio. I started doing live sound for a few bands and even recording a few. I had a girlfriend at the time that worked at a video production house and she informed me that the assistant audio engineer was leaving and that I should apply for the position. I must’ve been pretty convincing because I got an internship there! I was psyched until he told me the hours. 8:30 to 6PM EVERY DAY. I told him that I had a month left of college and he said ”make up your mind”. I did and waved goodbye to Mass Art. I worked at Video One for about a year as the assistant and then moved on to another commercial facility called Polymedia. After about 9 months there as the 2nd the chief engineer passed due to complications from AIDS. I was devastated as he was a great friend and mentor but that left me as the sole engineer. We had a few big clients and I learned allot but was only making $6.25 an hour as the chief engineer! My compensation was that I could use the studio on nights and weekends which I did until they longer wanted to come.

You’ve worked with some seminal indie bands and you also have made the leap with some records that had mainstream success can you tell us a little about the journey?

When a group I was recording cancelled a date I asked them why, after all it only cost them beer and a pizza. They told me they were going to a new studio called Fort Apache. I had heard about the Fort and I said “but they’re only 8 track!” and they said , “yeah, but they’ve got a ton of gear”. Later that day I contacted a guy named Gary Smith who had just come to Fort Apache as the manager. (His drummer was dating my Ex so I figured I had some connection right?) Gary had come to the studio with a band and said he would record there if they upgraded to 16 track. The band was the Pixies and The Fort was now 16tk. After the success of the Pixies and Throwing Muses, (another Smith band) the studio was tops in Boston albeit still a shithole that smelled like rotting fish in one of the city’s most dangerous neighborhoods with no proper heat or AC. The owner got the offer to take over Rounder Records studio that they had built a few years before for George Thorogood and they thought they may need someone with commercial experience to fill the calendar if the rock couldn’t keep it afloat. My call came at the perfect time and they brought me in. It wasn’t rosey in the beginning. I was the junior partner in a group of guys who’d known each other for years and I was a 23 year old punk from art school. We were a bit different. I didn’t get much work at first and when I did it was usually with the band with a terrible name that none of the others wanted to do. These other guys were Paul Kolderie, Sean Slade and Lou Giordano. As the other guy’s careers started to take off, calling them out of town, I was left to work most of the sessions when they were gone. We had two studios going most of the time but if all of us were in town working that meant that I had to go elsewhere to work. I’ve worked in most of the studios around the Boston and New England area that were happening at the time and soon I was being called out of town to make records. Fort Apache closed in 2001 as we had all gone our separate ways and we never had to do even one commercial session.

You’ve been getting a lot of recent attention and accolades for your work on Hedwig’s broadway show. How did that gig come about?

I was working abroad and around the country when the show started Off Broadway. I was still living in Boston but spent allot of time in NYC. I remember seeing a xerox flyer in the East Village touting some “Punk/Drag show with a picture of a horrible drag queen called Hedwig and the Angry Inch and I said “that’s for me!” but I never got the opportunity to see the show as I was always away working. In the summer of ‘99 I got a call from Stephen Trask to engineer an album he was producing for a band called Nancyboy. Now, I was after that record too but the member I was courting had left the band so I lost touch. I said yes, not knowing that Stephen had written the music and lyrics for this horrible/awesome looking drag show Hedwig. We hit it off immediately and he asked me to record the Motion Picture soundtrack with him. I of course said yes and we’ve been working together for the last 15 years. Discussions for the Broadway production had been in the works for around 6 years and when they finally secured Neil Patrick Harris for the lead it was on. Stephen did not want this show to wound “Broadway” and he told me I needed to be involved. He wanted me for sound designer and although I’d never done it before, as long as I had a good associate I was in. Kai Harada agreed to do the technical work leaving me to the creative. It worked out perfectly and the show was and still is a hit winning 4 Tonys! ( I got a nomination for best Sound Design)

I haven’t seen the show but I understand the backing band are actually playing throughout the performances, what some of the unique challenges in presenting a rock show sound to a broadway audience?

The biggest challenge was giving the audience a “Rock Concert” experience without chasing them out with their fingers in their ears. We had toyed with using electronic drums and amp simulators but in the end it wouldn’t have sounded right. The Angry Inch is a band of Eastern European illegals, they know not of technology, they only know rock. We couldn’t have a screen in front of the drums and all the amps etc are part of the set. The key is arrangement and dynamics, we couldn’t be pulling the music down to make the vocals clear. That doesn’t happen during a rock concert. I worked with the whole crew to makes sure we chose the right instruments and gear to make this thing full and clear without jeopardizing the experience. There are some secrets I cannot give away…

Did you have to get Broadway people thinking like a rock band in terms of performance or technique? Can you tell us about some of the key differences, especially in presenting the sound?

What Broadway people? Stephen brought in Justin Craig as the MD. Stephen met Justin in Lexington KY where he lives and began using him on numerous film scores, Justin brings it all. Peter Yanowitz (Jayhawks, Natalie Merchant, Morningwood) is a frequent writing collaborator with Stephen and he was brought in for drums. Justin brought in Tim Mislock who left the Antlers to do the show and Stephen and Justin brought Matt Duncan up from Lexington for bass. The band are all real band guys with only Justin having any Broadway experience. (He played gtr in Spiderman). Lena Hall is an incredible talent who left Kinky Boots to be Yitzak but she also fronts a rock band here as well. Only our first star, NPH was non-rock but it didn’t take him long to figure it out. I believe he’s capable of just about anything.

How do you deal with having loud guitar amps on stage?

The guitarists are using Vox AC30s and Blackstar amps to go from clean(ish) to beefy and the amps are in stage but the speakers are not. I had four iso boxes built to house a cabinet for each amp leaving full control on stage without all the mess. We removed the actual speakers from the AC30s and replaced them with small powered monitors so the monitor mixer feeds the processed signal of the guitars back through the onstage cabs allowing us to mix the guitars with the acoustics of the drums on stage so it doesn’t sound like the guitars are only coming from the house. At the last minute I decided that I didn’t need to have an SVT rig on stage for bass but I needed the look and I wanted the bass player to be able to “feel” the bass onstage so we feed his signal through a Sub and it takes care of the visual and audio dilemma. If you sit in the first few rows you get the full effect of a live band.

Does the cast or crew use IEMs?

Everyone onstage as well as John Sibley our monitor mixer has IEMs

Can you tell us about some other projects you are working on?

I don’t think Broadway takes kindly to record people, it’s a tight group so I don’t have any shows on the horizon but I’m always doing records and film stuff and whatever else comes my way.

Do you have one word of advice to folks who are looking to get started in the audio production field?

Be willing to work for free in the beginning (and for the rest of your life occasionally). You can go to school and learn the basics but nothing prepares you for the real world like the real world. Don’t be afraid to experiment and always listen. Waveforms are pretty but you can’t hear them.

Thanks Tim! That is really great advice and a totally fascinating career arc. I appreciate you taking to the time to chat with us at UE University. Can’t wait to see where you head next!

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