Every once in a while, nice guys really do finish first. Don Gehman
is one of those people. I had the pleasure of working with Don at Criteria
Studios in Miami when I first began my career. Don was an engineer's
engineer. He was meticulous, knowledgeable, and most of all, he was
All of us
who worked with Don found it easy to respect him. Not only was he great
at what he did, he was also very humble about it. I haven't spoken with
him in more years than either of us would care to remember, but even
after having worked with such diverse acts as John Mellencamp, Barbara
Streisand, REM, and now Hootie And The Blowfish, Don is still a gentleman.
Where did you grow up?
How old were you when you first knew that you wanted to go into the
What was it that got you interested in being in the business?
I was learning how to play electric bass in a rock band that I had just
joined. I was the only guy in the band that could figure out how to
run the PA system, and gradually worked my way into the whole electronics
thing, and figured out what makes sound systems work.
What was your first real job in the business?
I was Sound Engineer for Claire Brothers Audio.
How long were you with them?
What kind of gigs did you do for them?
I did live sound for pretty much everyone of that era (circa early 70's).
The Four Seasons, The Supremes, the Four Tops, the Temptations, James
Brown, Loggins and Messina, Stephen Stills, Crosby, Stills, Nash, and
Young, Blood, Sweat and Tears, Chicago...
That's pretty substantial. Did you ever work with anybody famous,
(laughter) I'll have to work on that.
How did you make the transition from live sound guy to studio engineer?
Stephen Stills was very instrumental in that. I had been on the road
for about seven yearsoff and on. Well, actually, quite consistently
for about three years, I and was getting pretty burned out. The conditions
working on the road in the seventies were really horrible. Nothing like
it is today. I just felt that if I was going to live, I'd better find
myself another job. I started asking around. Stephen mentioned he was
working at Caribou Studios in Colorado on a new solo album, and needed
What was the name of that album?
I remember it well. A jar of home brew on the cover, right?
If I remember correctly, Stephen took you in the studio and kind
of locked the door and the two of you didn't emerge for a week or something,
is the story?
That's pretty much the way it happened.
How did you make the transition from engineer to producer?
Actually, it was more of a transition from producer to engineer, 'cause
the first thing that I did, he (Stills) actually gave me a co-production
credit on. Quite frankly, the quality of that record was so poor that
it scared me right out of the producing business, and into the engineering
business. The engineering thing was actually something that was pretty
easy for me, because that's what I had been doing for years. I didn't
know how to make a record, but I knew how to run that equipment from
being on the road.
I put the producing
business on the back shelf, and decided I'd better work with people
that knew what they were doing, as much as possible. That's kind of
what the next few years were. I'd gotten a job at Criteria Studios in
Miami as an engineer. I didn't have to work my way up through the ranks,
per se, because of my experience on the road. I was also bringing in
clients, and that gave me little bit of clout. But I really didn't know
what I was doing. I learned whatever I could from every producer who
came into the studio. Some of them were the best in the businessTom
Dowd, Phil Ramone, and Bill Sczymczyk, just to name a few.
Have you seen a shift in the producer's role in the last decade?
Yeah! Actually I have. It's kind of been back to the way it used to
be. Especially in the last few years. The idea that a producer and engineer
all rolled into one person is once again considered to be a good package.
That's what I've been doing for the last few years. Before that, I used
to try and market myself strictly as a producer. I was trying to break
out of the mold of being known only as an engineer. I think the alternative
"movement" and it's smaller budgets and indie labels have probably helped
bring the producer/engineer back to the fore.
Do you spend more time in pre-production and less time in the studio
these days than in the past?
Probably. I don't spend too much time in pre-production, but I think
that's mostly a function of me choosing projects that are pretty much
ready to go. It's not so much that I wouldn't spend the time on pre-production
work, but frequently much of it's already been done. And yes, I used
to spend three to four months on average making a record, and now I
spend about five to seven weeks making a record.
How much of that time is spent on cutting tracks, how much on overdubs
and how much on mixing, in general?
I spend about a day per song making the records, and about a day per
Do you work on arrangements with the bands?
It depends. I'm capable. Yeah, I mean . . . well, with Hootie, we worked
on arrangements. We made things shorter. . . Yeah. I do. It just depends.
My style has always been to fix what needs fixing, and If things are
working, I usually leave them alone. If I see a song hidden inside of
something, I'll re-arrange it. But I'll tell you, within the confines
of time that we all have to work in these days, things are more and
more frequently taken on face value. I select projects 'cause I like
the songs, and that usually means I like the way they are. So I don't
change things that much.
With a new band or artist, does the producer or the label call more
shots these days regarding which songs are going to get cut? Or is it
I'd say it's a joint decision.
Are bands today better prepared when they go into the studio because
they have access to home studios for prep work?
That probably helpsit certainly doesn't hurt. Everybody that's a songwriter
has a home studio... a four-track or whatever. I'm sure they play a
role in writing tunes and making demos.
You mentioned earlier that you choose projects that are fairly close
to being ready to go. How do you choose a band? How do people find you?
Can you elaborate on that for our readers?
A couple of different ways. My manager, Sandy Roberton sees just about
everything that there is to see. Whether it's signed or unsigned. He
knows the kind of things that we might be looking for. We try to keep
a balance in the type of projects I work on... things that we think
are commercial, versus things that we think might be interesting creatively.
Or acts that are established that would be good for me to be involved
in, like the Tracy Chapman record I just finished. A little bit of all
of those things. Every now and then, established artists will request
me because of my reputation.
They just don't know you all that well, right?
That's right. (laughter) But I squeak by. (more laughter)
I'll leave that out of the interview. What are some key elements
your dream home studio might consist of?
That's a tough one. I don't have a dream home studio, Michael. It's
not exactly something that I'd want to have.
I don't mean to bring bands into your life at home, but if you were
going to fire up a room for you as a writer , what kind of console would
you buy? What kind of tape machine? Your six favorite mics? That sort
Well, in a perfect world, I'd have a barn, with a live room, and four
iso booths. I already have a collection of tube mics, that are pretty
much my work horses. I want to use a Euphonics console. Probably a Studer
2" analog tape machine. Oh yeah, and a rack of old Pultec MEQ's.
Hmmm... a man with expensive, but good, taste. When a label's considering
signing a new band, will they call you first to see if you're interested
in producing the band? Or do they sign them and then track you down?
Usually, it's the latter. I have people who call me that want me to
be part of a "package", but I try to avoid those situations. It's not
a good thing for me to be part of the band's signability. I don't think
it's good for anybody. I'm very interested in working with new acts,
but I find it's best to work with acts that have full commitment from
the record label. This is a gray area.
I want people
to know that I'm very accessible to new bands. In fact, I prefer working
with new acts to existing ones. In some ways, an existing act is a liability
in this world today. We've all pretty much seen the industry turn right
upside down on it's head. Where Bruce Springsteen and John Mellencamp
are not having the success that they once did, and there's a new bunch
of kids on the block.
How involved does the A & R person get with the actual sessions?
Usually very little. There are different styles of A & R'ing. I'd like
to take whatever I can from any and all sides. A & R people definitely
have opinions, and they're involved in the choice of material, but they
usually don't get very involved in the recording process other than
maybe bouncing ideas around for a particular track....whether this version
is the right one or not. That's about it.
Is it a lot more work to engineer and produce, than just being a
producer, or do you find that wearing both hats is more efficient and
gives you more control?
Second one. I'll take "B" please.
Are aspiring artists better off trying to get their tapes to an A
& R person or to a producer that they would like to work with?
I'd say neither. You're better off looking for probably a lawyer or
Why is that?
Because, it's gotten to the point now where the A & R people are so
inundated with unsolicited material, that they just ignore it all. In
order to for you to get anybody to listen to it, it needs to have an
invitation. People who have invitations are people who already know
the person that you might want to get it to. In most cases those are
lawyers or managers... people who already are connected with the A &
R community and know how to place bands with particular A & R people.
That's where I see the most success.
Do you personally accept unsolicited tapes, or does your manager
accept unsolicited tapes on your behalf?
I don't know.
Is it safe to say that virtually every tape that you get, comes from
your manager or somebody you know well in the industry?
Pretty much. I don't publish my address. Let's put it that way.
Okay, I won't publish your phone number. (laughter)
How did you end up working with Hootie? Can you elaborate on the
process of how Sandy found out about that?
Well, my career was kind of in a slump. I was looking for a way to work
into this whole alternative, new band movement. Figuring it was not
much different than what I had been doing for a long time. I was making
the rounds of new A & R people, that I had yet to meet. One of them
was Tim Sommer, who had just signed Hootie to Atlantic. He wasn't sure
yet if they wanted to remix an existing CD the band had made, or make
a new one. He thought that I might be interested in the band. The band
had already expressed an interest in me. He played me the tape, and
I liked it. They sent me off to meet with the band.
Did you see the band perform live at all before you worked with them.
What did you think of them?
I thought they were really good. I heard a lot more songs which showed
me that there was good songwriting there. Seeing a band live is a great
way to get to know the personalities involved. That's what that whole
experience is usually all about. As you're working with young talent,
it's pretty raw. And what you're seeing is whether or not the personalities
are such that you feel you can all work together. You're seeing if the
chemistry is right. You might see another element that you didn't get
by just listening to the music on a demo tape. In Hootie's case, it
was all there. A really nice bunch of guys. In fact, an excellent bunch
of guys. Just as good as it gets.
Is it easier to work with a self-contained band than it is to work
with a solo artist?
A little bit, yeah.
For what reasons?
When you're working with a solo artist, you're working with someone's
supreme vision. Therefore, there's very little room for your own vision.
When you work with a band, the supreme vision is the one which is the
collective consciousness of the band. It's not anyone's total vision.
It's a vision of a group of people together. A producer in that role
actually has more freedom to interpret the collective vision than he
has with an individual vision. So yes, working with a band is more fun.
Are there any common mistakes that you see young bands make all too
They work too hard. I find that with young bands, it's often just like
the neurotic energy of a first child. It's very similar. You tend, through
your nervousness and fear, to overlook the charm of the first performance.
If they relax and allow all that "stuff" to happen, and if they're talented,
a lot great stuff can come through. But young bands have a tendency
to think that nothing's any good. They want to do it over and over.
They work too hard. Consequently things get destroyed that are worth
a great deal. I spend more time with new bands, taking first performances,
and making them come together by just patching them up.
Do you think it's easier or harder now for a new producer to break
into the business than it has been in the past?
Probably easier. I would say easier, because there are more opportunities.
There's more going on in this business than there was when I started.
There's more money. There are more labels. There are more records.
Still only 100 slots on the chart.
But that's not really true! There are a lot more charts. There are more
radio stations. There are more format. We didn't have R & B, Country,
Alternative, Triple-A, CHR, and College. We just had Rock.
Is it true that Hootie did about 300 dates a year for several years
before Atlantic signed them?
What advice would you pass along to the fledgling producers who will
read this interview?
Just keep working at it. That's really all it takes. That stick-to-it'iveness.
Some people in this world are lucky, and they get there quicker, but
if you keep on hammering away at it, and you're talented, sooner or
later something will crack.
What advice would you give to a fledgling band trying to get themselves
Find a good manager.
Where should they start looking?
That's a good question. I don't know. Maybe I should change my advice.
Write good songs, and then find a good manager.
Any sage advice for songwriters?
Write from your heart.
If you had it all to do over again. Is there anything you'd do differently
in your career?
I don't think so. You know. I'm sure that things could have been different
if I had maybe grown up quicker. But I've got to believe that life is
what it is, and we all come through life in an order as it should be.
It's all a growth process. That's really what we're all here for anyhow.
The rest of the stuff is kind of an excuse for being around.
Wanna publish this article on your website? Click here to find out how.