Think about this, Tito Puente has
recorded over one hundred albums. An incredible feat. Now imagine this,
Jon Fausty has recorded, mixed, or mastered between 3,000 and 4,000 albums.
Now that's unbelievable! Jon Fausty is the man that makes or breaks the
band. He can make the weak sound strong and the strong sound tough. This
artist can make three singers sound like three hundred distinctly different
singers. It's no wonder that everyone from David Byrne to Gilberto Santa
Rosa has sought him out. Jon Fausty is truly one of Salsa's "unsung
Q&A: A CONVERSATION WITH JON FAUSTY
GR: Why don't you begin by telling us how long you've been involved in the recording industry.
JF: I've been recording professionally since 1964. That's thirty-two years.
GR: Do you remember the very first record you worked on?
JF: Yes, I do. The first record I recorded was with a duo, Charlie and Inez Fox, and it was titled "Mocking Bird". If that mocking bird don't sing, I'm gonna buy you a diamond ring.
GR: Not the original?
JF: No, it was a cover.
GR: How did you come to get involved in the Latin music field?
JF: Now that's a funny story. The first Latin thing I recorded was in 1968 or '69 I believe. It was a big Latin band by the name of the Cesta All-Stars. It was for Al Santiago. That was the very first time I saw a set of timbales. I had no idea how to approach it. I'm sorry to say that it was a tremendous disaster in the studio. In those days I was recording on one inch eight track. I had no concept on how it was supposed to sound. I think I ended up with a bass and piano track. The baritone sax somewhere else. It was just horrible.
GR: A nightmare to mix?
JF: Definitely! It was also a nightmare to record. It was just so loud, so many cowbells. I just didn't have a concept. Later, in 1969, I started working in a relatively inexpensive recording studio by the name of Delta Recording. Since it was so inexpensive, all the Latin promoters would go in there and record these groups. It was really a fly-by-night business in those days. I was the chief engineer there. Because of the price, we had a large Latin clientele. That's really where I got my chops. I learned about Latin music and the mathematics involved in the music. That was my introduction to the world of Latin music. In the end of 1971 I started my relationship with Fania Records. That is where it all developed and I blossomed. I started working with the real heavyweights.
GR: Nowadays there is much discourse about the origins of salsa, not the label itself, but the music. People say that during the tail-end of the boogaloo some of its elements, along with some elements of jazz start to seep into the music and "salsa" was created. What is your view on that issue?
JF: My view is pretty simple. It deals with the definition of salsa. I define salsa as the hot Latin music of the day. There was salsa in the 1930's, 1940's, 1950's. The hot bands, the popular bands of the day that were playing mambo, rumba, chachacha, were playing salsa in their day.
GR: So you're saying that salsa is just Latin music?
JF: The hot, danceable music of the day. To say that salsa started with Fania is a matter of semantics. I don't believe you can narrow it down to them, even though Jerry Masucci has a trademark on the word "salsa" as a result of the film SALSA that we did in, I believe, 1974. That doesn't mean that he invented salsa. By no means did he start it all. Salsa started in the 1930's and 40's back in Cuba.
GR: With that out of the way, how many albums have you worked on?
GR: Come on now, give us an estimate.
JF: I would have to say between three and four thousand.
GR: How about the movies? People don't realize that you have also worked on movies.
JF: Well, I played myself in CROSSOVER DREAMS with Ruben Blades. Just before that I played another engineer in another movie titled THE LAST FIGHT, again with Ruben Blades. When Manolo Arce came to me and asked me to be in his movie CROSSOVER DREAMS, I asked if he wanted me to play the engineer I played in THE LAST FIGHT, or a different engineer? He said "no, look, here in the script it's written as Jon Fausty." I ended up playing myself!
GR: You were also involved in the sound for SALSA and OUR LATIN THING, as well as the other Fania All-Star videos.
JF: I worked on both OUR LATIN THING and SALSA. In SALSA I not only mixed the music, but, I also did the actual film mix which was a new experience for me, mixing to picture. It's a whole different use of your senses. I mean, when you normally mix an album you just use your ears. To have to distribute your senses to use your visual senses as well as your audio senses at the same time is a completely different thing to get used to. It was a different thing to get used to and to learn about.
GR: You also did the FANIA ALL-STARS LIVE IN PUERTO RICO video, right?
JF: Yes. It was the thirtieth anniversary of the Fania All-Stars. We went with the band to the Hiram Bithorn Stadium in San Juan, Puerto Rico to record the occasion. I got some equipment in Puerto Rico and a little truck with some DA88's, which is not the greatest format, but it is digital. I locked five of them together. I think I had forty tracks. We had seven or eight cameras all synchronized to the audio. Larry Harlow was the producer. We did a great album and interesting video.
GR: It was a pretty good package, the album and video.
JF: If I can add to that, it was all I learned in mixing the movie SALSA, not to be confused with the other SALSA, which I didn't like very much. I felt like walking out in the middle of it. It was very pretentious and inaccurate. That's the one with Celia Cruz and Tito Puente. It was kind of embarrassing for me to watch that film after being in the salsa market for so long. To see how they were trying to present it to the public was very embarrassing to me. As I was saying, the training and way of thinking in mixing this picture to film, translated itself in me to be able to, I think, be very efficient at mixing to picture, so hence, concert films. I really enjoyed mixing the Fania All-Star videos as well as the Tropijazz All-Stars, which we recorded earlier this year live at Manhattan Center Studios. Like I said, it's different when you have to use both your visual and audio senses. You have to make one unit out of both of them. It's a lot of fun mixing both than just audio.
GR: Since you mentioned the Tropijazz All-Stars, is there going to be a video released?
JF: Yes. The video will contain the music from the first release. I just finished the lay-backs last week.
GR: Explain "lay-backs" for the benefit of our readers.
JF: It means that I added edit material that Eddie Harris filmed to the final mix of the video. It's practically ready.
GR: For the benefit of our readers, when you say edit material that Eddie Harris filmed, are you saying it's not going to be the actual performance?
JF: It is going to be the actual performance. Eddie did a montage of video edits to the sound track I recorded
GR: Sounds very interesting.
JF: It should be out soon.
GR: The sound you captured on the Tropijazz All-Star record blew me away. I was there that night and I could not believe the work you did. I did not believe that you could capture that sound.
JF: There are a lot of things that enter into that. When you're in the audience, depending on where your sitting, there are things that come into play such as the PA system in the venue. If you don't have someone that is acquainted with that genre of music, which that evening we really didn't have, I couldn't be two places at the same time, I was in a full blown forty-eight track digital control room backstage recording what was going on in the stage, of course it sounded a lot different for me than it did for you, but if you don't have the technical personnel you won't get the right sound. There were a lot of errors also made on stage. Let me say this, that show was primarily to record an album, not a concert. There was a disclaimer announced by Felipe Luciano before we started recording and started the show that it was a recording and that you may have seen them stop in the middle of a song and start all over again just as if it were in the studio. No one was prepared for it to go until 3:30 in the morning! When I took the masters into post-production, by that I mean to mix, Dave Valentin and I noticed that we needed to fix a lot of stuff. Especially the horns. I brought in Barry Donelian, the trumpet player, and between Dave Valentin on flute and Barry on trumpet we were able to "salvage" the tracks. To make them acceptable from a quality standpoint. Considering all the mistakes that were done we did a very good job. There were some parts that we were not able to salvage which I edited out.
GR: Since the seventies, what innovations have you seen in the development of this music? I mean, you have been involved in over three thousand recordings. You have seen this music take shape from its beginnings in the studio.
JF: You know, that's a pretty tough question George. I can talk to you about the technology for hours and hours because that's what I deal with. I think that the listener has become more sophisticated. They are more appreciative of the modern arrangements and concepts musically speaking. They want more detail than a basic conjunto style, such as Pacheco or Conjunto Clasico, has to offer. Although Conjunto Clasico is a little more refined than say Pacheco. I think that Conjunto Clasico took the conjunto style and elevated it, thanks to Ramon Rodriguez, with a more innovative use of the tres and the keyboards. People caught on to that. Now you don't have a salsa record that does not include the keyboards, strings, funny sounding synthesizers, even programmed drums, a computer generated set of drums.
GR: Like Gilberto Santa Rosa's "Para Vivir"?
JF: Right, a lot of Gilberto's stuff was programmed. I think that it's influenced by...if you listen to the new Cuban music, which in my opinion is a little too sophisticated for the market here, in Havana the music is more jazz, rock, latin oriented. The new Cuban salsa is not just dance music. It's also listening music. Maybe that's the key. You sit down and listen and you catch yourself saying, "wow, listen to what they did!" There is so much integration in the new Cuban music of drums, let's call them American drums, or traps. Of course the Cubans always had congas, timbales, and bongo. In the conjunto setting it was just conga and bongo. Before that there were the bata drums. Now you find the Cuban bands putting it all together and playing some hot jazz and rock oriented music, while still paying attention to the clave, but with a back beat. I mean fast. The women are all doing that dance. I don't even know what it's called.
GR: The despolete.
JF: The dance is amazing. I mean they dance in quadruple time with their stomachs going and going. I can't even imagine myself trying to do that. I'd get a hernia!
GR: I've had the pleasure of watching you work in the studio. You're an artist and the studio is your canvass. I've seen producers take your advice. They just don't hire Jon Fausty the engineer. They hire Jon Fausty the artist that hears what others don't. With that in mind, how do you go about creating the Jon Fausty sound? What do you listen for? Is there something in particular that you look for? If so, what is it?
JF: That's a really good question. I think that my interpretational values, as far as music is concerned, is what guides me technologically on an approach for a particular song. Conceptually for a group, I'll say, before I even start, to the producer or whoever the musical director is "what do you have in mind for this?" I can always do it my way, but, it's not my record. I would rather be influenced by the person in conceptual control. I'll then listen to the music and do my own psycho-acoustic interpretation, or just see how the music makes me feel. Then I'll make the translation into technological terms and see how I'll make it sound. That's why my mixes, even though the instrumentation may be the same, always sound different. Each group sounds different because it's a matter of interpretation. I may use on one conga player say three distinctive types of microphones. For another conga player, or maybe even the same guy playing on a different song, I may use totally different microphones in a different ambiance. You could have a band with the same instrumentation as the next but they are not going to sound the same because the material, mood, and the interpretational values of the music are different. That's the way I like to look at it because I don't get bored in that manner. It's true that it's my interpretation in the long run. I'd like to think that the listener at home will enjoy my interpretation and say "wow that's different than that flat old approach of recorded latin music." It more sophisticated.
GR: One of the complaints that I hear a lot involves the use of the fender bass. A lot of the recordings nowadays lack a full punchy bass sound. Even if you bring up the bass at home it's still lacking.
JF: Yeah, but if it's a fender bass you'll never get that punch because the baby bass, which is like an acoustic bass except that it's electric, has a much punchier sound in the instrument. It's not something that I do. It's the innate sound of that instrument. You just can't get that thump. It's a short, quick envelope of the sound where a fender bass, unless the player hits the string and stops it, won't get it because naturally the fender bass strings sustain the sound a lot more than the baby bass. That's the difference. You get a punchier sound with the baby bass. You can get that sound on the fender bass , but the envelope is a much broader envelope of the sound.
GR: Do you ever recommend that the baby bass be used instead of the fender?
JF: I have. It depends on the material. It depends on the song. Sometimes the song would sound better with the fender. Now if you take a guy like Sal Cuevas, who really is one of the innovators and developers of the slap sound through the early Ruben Blades and Willie Colon years, he got this punch from his fender bass that he also got from his baby bass. It was a new and distinctive sound, but it still had the punch that the baby bass delivered. Unfortunately a lot of the bass players that use the fender in salsa don't have that kind of concept of getting that kind of punch.
GR: You have been in the studio for over thirty years. During those years you have had the opportunity to work with just about every major Latin music artist. You have done it all, the actual recording, the mixing, and the mastering. Who would be in the Jon Fausty All-Star band?
JF: Oh my God, that's a good one!
GR: I'm not trying to put you on a spot. I'm asking because I've seen you work and I know that you know the music.
JF: I'll give you an example. The Jon Fausty All-Star band would definitely depend on one given particular song versus another. In other words, in one song my band would be completely different than the next song. It would depend on how the song makes me feel which would determine what musicians I would use to deliver that feeling. I'll give you an example that has already been recorded in 1989, David Byrne and REI MOMO. If you listen to that record and you read the liner notes you'll notice that every song has a different band. That's because when David had the concept for that album he sought me out. He called me and asked me to meet with him at his house. He asked me "what do you think about these song?" And he played me this little demo from his four track porter-studio. We were sitting together for a few hours and I said "gee David, that might sound nice as a charanga, and that other one, well, that might sound nice as like a bata ensemble, this might sound nice as a mozambique or the other one as a guaracha." He said "I'll tell you what Jon, why don't you put together a bunch of musicians and contract these musicians on how you feel each song, and you contract all the cats for the record." So I did , and Milton Cardona and I worked very close together on this project. The basic group of musicians was Milton, who was playing timbales...it was Jose Mangual on bongos, I forget the timbalero, it may have been Johnny Almendra. Around that, each song had a different band. For example, for the merengue we used Wilfredo Vargas's band. For this Brazilian thing we used Cafe and Chocolate and I think the bass player, if I'm not mistaken, was Sergio...what his name, the Brazilian bass player...
JF: Sergio Brindao. For this old merengue we brought in this old accordian player, one of the original guys that has that real funky campesino sound. Each song had a different band basically. Even though the root of the stable was Milton, Mangual, and Almendra. I think I brought back...oh, I got Andy Gonzalez on bass and Andy was playing either baby bass or acoustic bass. The piano player was Paquito Pastor. For the charanga stuff I had Charlie Santiago because that's the man for the abanico, for charanga. You know, that's the guy. That's why Johnny Almendra was not on the charanga charts because of Charlie Santiago. His feeling, you know, his laid back abanico. It's laid back but it ends on the beat. It's the Cuban style abanico. You know, I don't want to get into too much detail about that. To answer your question about the Jon Fausty All-Star record there would be like one hundred musicians on it because it would depend on the charts. That would dictate who would have to play them.
GR: Good answer. I thought I would stump you on that one! You know how people don't like to answer questions like that so as not to risk hurting someone.
JF: You know, all my friends, all the musicians here, there, and everywhere know how much respect I have for everyone. I don't ever worry about hurting anybody's feelings because everybody knows where I'm coming from. We all love each other, you know.
GR: Yes I do. Now, you have some pretty big things in the can that should be coming out soon. Would you like to speak about some of them.
JF: Like Gilberto Santa Rosa?
GR: Vocal Sampling.
JF: Vocal Sampling is quite an amazing album. It's much hipper and I think much better done than the last one that was released last year or the year before last. I don't even know the name of it. It'll probably be out in a month or so. It's a pretty amazing record. We cut the tracks in Belgium in a studio about an hour and a half south of Brussels by the name of Galaxy. I mixed it there and this project is totally digital. Even to the point...the console is one of the newer digital consoles called the Neve Capricorn. This is the first project that I know of in any part of the industry that started out as a twenty-four bit recording. Twenty-four bit digital recording, and we retained the dithers, the twenty-four bit format, right up until the very last minute before it went to the cd which is sixteen bit. So, all the processing, mixing, all the reverbs, everything was all twenty-four bit and you're going to hear a difference in how clean and smooth the sound of this record is.
GR: Have they mastered it onto cd format yet?
JF: Its been mastered. I haven't heard any of the production copies. I do have a cd-r from mastering. It sounds amazing. It sounds a lot clearer than any other kind of cd.
GR: With Vocal Sampling being a vocal group, I mean you have to see these guys live to really hear how amazing they really are, do you approach the recording the same as any other?
JF: There is no difference. Each guy is doing his instrument. I approach that instrument, even though it's generated through his vocal cords, the way I would a real set of congas or timbales. That's why it's really totally hard to believe that this is an a capella group, only using their vocal cords for these instruments. You heard it, I played it for you?
GR: Yes. It's amazing. I got to see them live and I could not believe it.
JF: In the studio, I treat it just like it's a real instrument. I'll be influenced the same way as I referred to before, through interpretational values of the music and I'll go for it through the same channels of my way of thinking for a presentation to the public.
GR: You also did the first album for them, right?
JF: I don't know if it was their first. I did the previous one.
GR: That was a tremendous job also.
JF: It was the first time I worked with them.
GR: What else do you have in the can?
JF: A Gilberto Santa Rosa project, ESENCIA, which I did the final mix for, along with Rei Pena, a good old friend, and Jose M. Lugo as producer. Hilton Ruiz has a new one which we cut a few months ago which should be released shortly. The Tropijazz All-Stars "Vol. II". What else?
JF: Paquito D'Rivera? The CUBA JAZZ record? Well that one is just coming out now but that one I did about eight or nine month's ago in California with Chucho Valdes and most of the Irakere band.
GR: That was done live, right?
JF: We recorded everyone together, but, it was in the studio.
GR: What I mean is that it's live as opposed to by section.
JF: Right, we recorded everybody together.
GR: From your prospective as an engineer, do you prefer to record live or by section?
JF: Oh, absolutely live because the feeling that is generated by each member of the band being able to hear his fellow bandmates, playing all together, you get a much more spontaneous feeling. It's not so contrived and pretentious as these records that start out with a click track and then you put the congas on, then you put the timbales on, then you put the bongos on, then the drums, and then the piano, then the bass, and then the horn section, then the keyboards, then the vocals, then the coros, and then the vocals. I mean there are a great deal of producers that really know how to do that well, but, it never has the same snap, the same feeling of togetherness that a record has when it's recorded together. Now, if you're worried about perfection go ahead and record everyone together and if somebody makes an error you just go ahead and fix the errors. That way you can still retain that feeling of togetherness. More times than not, let's say 97% of the time, you're going to have a more believable sound and feeling having done the whole group together.
GR: So if a producer came to you for advice you would recommend that they do it live?
JF: Sure. Even to the point that you have enough isolation booths to do some vocals live too. Because the vocals ultimately are going to influence the players. Even doing horns live. The idea though is to have enough isolation so if somebody makes a mistake it does not bleed into another track. That way you have the feeling of the horn section playing live with the band, but, you can clean up any c-fu's or mistakes that occur.
GR: Explain c-fu's for the benefit of our readers.
JF: It's Pacheco's term. It means that say a trombone is supposed to play say an E flat and ends up playing somewhere between E flat and D.
GR: Most of the Fania records were recorded live, right?
JF: All of it. We did everybody live.
GR: There came a time when they started to do it by section, right?
JF: I think that Papo Lucca started that. He would do the rhythm tracks and then overdub the horns. All the old stuff like Willie and Hector, Ernie Agosto and La Conspiracion, Pacheco, Pacheco and Celia, that whole series, we did all that stuff live, with the trumpets live with the band, or Willie's three trombones, it was two trombones at first and then he graduated to three trombones. All of Ruben's stuff is live. I did it in such a way that we could repair stuff that needed repairing.
GR: Nowadays you don't see that. Nowadays that's the exception.
JF: That's because most of the producers are accustomed to recording things in a produced fashion.
GR: Isn't it more expensive that way also?
GR: Because of the studio time involved, right?
JF: Sure, it can be more expensive.
GR: The technology is available so that the live recordings can be done where the bleeding and mistakes can be repaired, right?
JF: Yes, and we would prefer that method.
GR: What do you think about the state of Latin music in today's market?
JF: I think it's coming back. I mean, maybe five years ago things in the industry, I prefer to stay out of the politics involved in the industry because I have to make music everyday or else I'm not happy, but, I think that five years ago everybody was saying "salsa is dead and merengue is in." Now you don't hear any real merengue that's making it. It's all hiphop merengue. Its still got the basic tempo and the tambora-guira thing happening, but with this very modern, punk approach to hiphop. As a result I believe that things are moving back towards danceable salsa. Especially with Marc Anthony, Tito Nieves, India, Tony Vega, and Gilberto Santa Rosa just to name a few that are using the traditional feelings of salsa and people are digging it. It's becoming more than just dance music and people are buying the albums just to listen to them. And I hope they keep on buying them.
GR: Of the over three thousand albums you have worked on, how many were Grammy nominees?
JF: Nominees, I don't know. A lot of them were. I have three Grammys.
GR: You don't remember how many were nominees?
JF: I think about ten or fifteen.
GR: Now, of the over three thousand albums, if you had to pick one...
JF: Don't do this to me...
GR: Sorry pal. Answer up.
JF: My favorite record?
GR: No, the record that you feel best exemplifies your body of work.
JF: As far as innovations, by that I mean dealing with concepts where I had to
invent technology to accommodate the concept, I would say MAESTRA VIDA VOL. I & VOL. II.
JF: Because with Ruben's concept of the record, which was a thirty year anthology of a family, with Willie Colon's idea as producer on how to put this on record, and my job having to translate Ruben's story and Willie's concepts, I had to come up with all these inventions in the studio that didn't exist before we did that record. We invented ways of doing things right there in the studio. For example on one song there were church bells that sound like...Willie brought in this big, old cast iron bell to imitate the sound of a church bell because there were supposed to be approximately three hundred monks singing. In reality there were only three singers. I had to make it sound like three hundred singers. I experimented with changing the speed of the tape and had the background singers sing it at different speeds so that when it was played on normal speed it would sound like different people of all different ages, as well as different voices. I did the same thing with the bells. We used some studio chimes we had in the studio as well as that old clunky cast iron bell that Willie brought in. We recorded them at different speeds, ambiances, and textures. When we played it back in the normal speed it sounded like a real belfry in some old church. Almost like the Hunchback of Notre Dame, only much more complex wave forms. It was an amazing production for those days. It's a great record to listen to. It was one of my favorite records to record.
GR: Is there anything you'd like to leave us with?
JF: Just keep on listening. I'm really happy that people are appreciating the level of technology and quality that we have been able to bring to this very old style of music. We have been able to equal the quality of the mainstream American market. We have been able to raise the budgets of these recordings as a result. We can now record a band on forty-eight track digital as opposed to contending with twenty-four track analog, not that there is anything wrong with it, but it's an advantage.
GR: If that's it, let me say that it has been a pleasure. It is not often that people get a look at what goes on behind the scenes. I think that you have provided the reader with a good look at what transpires and as a result I think that the listener will be more appreciative of the recordings. After all you are one of the unsung heroes of salsa.
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