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Washatka Produces Stellar Sound, Results

stellarBY George Halas

Given that most loyal Inquisitors are highly intelligent and well-educated in addition to having great taste, it is a fair assumption that you are familiar with the Latin phrase, caveat emptor, “buyer beware.” The Inquisition hopes that you are also an accutus emptor, a “smart buyer.”

The Inquisition is painfully aware of many instances where great musicians have gone into the recording studio with great expectations, only to emerge unsatisfied and unhappy with the results.

“It’s not so much knowing how to get a good sound but what a good sound is,” said Dave Pensado recording-engineer-producer-mixer.
“As an experienced engineer, who works both sides of the microphone, I should know what a good sound is and know how to get it,” adds Tom Washatka.

Washatka is the owner of Oshkosh-based Steel Moon Recording, as well as an accomplished saxophonist, composer, arranger, producer, and recording engineer.

”I do all these things because of an insatiable curiosity and desire and also because I love what I do,” he said.

He speaks from experience. He has produced/recorded over 20 albums in the last 20 years on Stellar Records, a record label he started in 1994 with his wife, vocalist Janet Planet. He has a WAMI for engineering and owns an award-winning music production company, Narrator Tracks, producing music for video producers world-wide. Washatka has produced more than 100 CDs and written 650-plus tracks for the company.

His music can be heard on cable TV, PBS, internet audiovisual and has been used in documentaries and video productions all around the globe from Argentina to Switzerland, and the United Kingdom as well as throughout the United States.

Hollywood has used his music, most notably in the motion picture “The Bucket List,” starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman. All of the above has been produced at Steel Moon Recording.

As musician, composer/producer and recording engineer, Washatka has recorded sessions in Nashville, Indianapolis, Milwaukee, at Smart Studio in Madison (when Butch Vig was producing Garbage) as well as area studios. He also records for Hal Leonard Publishing, one of the largest music publishers in the country.

“I have worked with some great engineers,” Washatka said. “There are some wonderful engineers right here in this area. I worked with engineer-producer-mixer John Gibson for five years producing over 20 recordings and learned a ton just watching him work. Mark Lamar is another engineer, producer-mixer whose work is fantastic. I’ve also had the good fortune to work long distance with Darryl John Kennedy who produces up and coming pop stars in Cairo, Egypt. My early work with Grammy-nominated composer-instrumentalist Chris Swansen compelled me to pursue the technology, Chris helped Robert Moog develop the original synthesizer. His musical vision as a jazz composer was financially and logistically unattainable until his meeting with Moog, where he was house composer.”

Washatka has “carried the torch” and developed the tools to realize the stylistic and compositional vision of not only his own music but the music of any artist with whom he works. He has been on the ground level as a beta tester and developer of technology that allows him as a composer and producer to realize the final outcome of any given musical project.

Through his understanding of the music and technology, he helps others to realize their musical heights, from singer/songwriter solo acts to young composers of symphonic works.

“I worked with one of my Lawrence University students, Andrew Cardiasmenos, realizing an orchestral score he had written to a short film which led to his acceptance into the New York Film Academy and The Los Angeles Film School,” Washatka said. “And I’m currently working with an amazing young singer/songwriter, Madie VandenHeuvel, producing her songs. She’s also been working with Janet for the past three years and has just been accepted into the Berklee School of Music. You’ll be able to preview the before and after on the studio website.”

Washatka’s goal as an engineer and producer is simple.

“To serve the musician and the music. That’s paramount. Am I realizing their music the way they hear it?”
He provides sheet music as well.

“In the case of musicians building their books,” he said “I can deliver lead sheets or individual parts I’ve arranged for the entire band so they have written music when they need it.”

More than thirty years in the recording biz has taught him plenty.

“I’m committed to impart that knowledge to each client giving them musical and production options as well as a studio environment that is supportive while listening with ‘musicians ears,’ so the artist gets the best performance captured by quality sound.”

He has presented software clinics at the NAMM show in Los Angeles.

“When I initially meet with musicians wanting to record it’s very important that they understand the process and know what to expect,” he said. “And, just as importantly, that I understand what their needs will be. These folks have invested their time, resources and emotion in their music and I owe it to them to give them what they envision. On the production side, I’ve learned if a mix doesn’t sound good to me it’s because the mix isn’t done, and the years of the ‘mix-terious’ process manifests in the artistic projects that I embrace literally on a daily basis. My advice to musicians interested in recording is to ask questions when they’re checking out a studio.”

According to Washatka the right questions should ensure that a recording studio provides:

1) Separate headphone mixes for each musician. It’s critical that each musician can hear the way they need to when recording.

2) Automation, which is a simple way of recording changes in mix parameters. This is arguably one of the most important studio tools.

3) Remixes, i.e., the ability to return to the studio for a remix in case you’re not happy with the mix you’re given or want some changes. He normally gives a client two remixes.
4) Examples of recording projects done at the studio to give an idea of the sound of the studio and quality of the work. He provides examples of his work in as many different contexts as possible.

“My emphasis is on results. I’m not as concerned as much with how I arrive at a mix as how it sounds,” he said. “Are my tracks, whether with a full band or soloist, providing the energy and sound the way the artist wants and the industry demands. I’ve collected some amazing tools but most importantly have learned how to use them. I continue to be a student of the technology. Every project teaches me something new. Learning keeps me vital and keeps me upping my game. It’s not so much about ‘hearing’ as it is about ‘listening.’ How to listen and what to listen for. This may be cliche, but the two most important tools I have are my ears.”

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