In Search of True Artists
Ari Judah graduated from Recording Connection in 2011, and has spent the last 12 years amassing an impressive career. Multiple platinum records, a Latin Grammy nomination, and a new state-of-the-art studio in Los Angeles are all jewels in his ever-growing crown. I sat down with Ari to discuss his career, artistry, AI, and his new studio.
How did you get into sound engineering and music, originally?
I was in college majoring in cinema, and I wanted to learn to do music for movies. I [tried out a program] called LARS, but that was a waste of time and money. Then I found Recording Connection, and I got placed at Swing House, which is a studio in Los Angeles. I basically went in there knowing nothing, and inside of about a year I became head engineer because the other engineer left. Everything was kind of thrust on my shoulders. I ended up working on a bunch of projects. It kept going well. I did a couple festivals for the studio– they’d do South by Southwest and other things. Got into live sound and ran the recording side. Many [artists and projects] came through there: Aerosmith, Everlast, Magic, Matisyahu, Moby, Cheap Trick…over 300 artists. I’ve worked on several platinum albums. [One project] got a Latin Grammy nomination. Ultimately, Recording Connection is what got me in the door, and I’ve spent [every day since] being the first in and the last out. [I’ve been able] to keep learning and growing and doing stuff.
Who was your mentor at Recording Connection?
Warren Huart, he produced The Pro Series, which is huge on Youtube. He’s gotten tech awards at NAMM and all that stuff. Recording Connection put me in contact with so many great people. Through Warren I met Jack Douglas who is one of the godfathers of recording. The community is not that large. If you work on the right project, you can really open a lot of doors, as long as you focus.
What do you think were the biggest benefits of the program?
The best thing about it was the fact that it’s vocational. [The program] puts you way ahead of starting as a regular intern. You’re guaranteed to get the attention from the person who is supposed to be teaching you. Tactile learning in engineering is important.
I hear you have an amazing setup, and you clearly love Recording Connection; are you a mentor too?
I am not currently a mentor, [but I’m interested], I’d be happy to be a mentor for the program. This studio is as good or even possibly a greater opportunity than the studio I started out at.
I took a look at your catalog, there’s some awesome stuff in there! I loved the Monophonics album, The Sage Motel, especially.
I didn’t write any of it, but thanks. I’m so glad you like that album! That guy Kelly Finnigan is a genius. That is the first record to come out of my new studio. It was in the top three in vinyl sales across the country. [For not being] hip-hop or pop, that was very impressive. We love that record, [The Sage Motel]. Kelly Finnigan is one of the most sampled guys out there. His drums always get sampled. He makes that old-school heartfelt grooves kinda vibe. The stuff’s great.
It reminded me a bit of Roger Waters–one long continuous song broken up into separate thoughts, but totally interconnected.
It’s a concept record. Every song is a different story inside the Sage Motel. Book ends on either side of the record. It’s really cool.
You alluded to the fact that you’ve recently opened your own studio. Can you speak on the process of opening a studio?
It was quite a process. We have this place in Gardena, which is near LAX. It used to be an open warehouse space– we built it out. [We have state-of-the-art equipment] –George Augspurger, who built some of the greatest control rooms in the world, came out of retirement and built our control room for us. We have a remarkable-sounding control room. I purchased an SSO from Switzerland that I had airlifted over here. We have so much stuff. Easily half a million dollars or more in microphones alone. Literally everything. It’s a great workhorse studio. Great artists coming through. Big movie studios. It’s exciting.
Oh, so your dream of doing music for film has come true!
Yea, it’s fun! It was what I originally wanted to do, but that’s not where things took me. The fact that I stuck it out this long, and it came full circle, and now I do get to work on [films]… it’s pretty cool.
What are your favorite musical genres to work in?
The easiest thing to do technically is hip-hop. The most fun thing to do is anything that has a band. In the box stuff is easy and cool, but you don’t really have to think of engineering the same way. In the analog world you have to stretch your brain a little more. It can be very challenging and fun. Rock, big band, latin music. Really, I enjoy all of it. It’s an amazing experience to find and work with a true artist.
It sounds like you like working from scratch from an analog perspective. You enjoy problem-solving. As technology progresses, do you worry there will be less appetite for complicated live sound recording?
There’s a freedom and an expression that exists in the real world that doesn’t exist in the box. Commodity wise nobody gives a s#!t. It doesn’t matter if you did the big band in the box. Ultimately, this is an artisanal pursuit. You can make cupcakes at home or you can get cupcakes at a convenience store or you can get [gourmet] cupcakes. There’s a bunch of different avenues, and [this is the one I think is best].
Do you think AI could get to the point to replace the role of the traditional artist?
The other day, this crazy tech guy I was working with brought in an AI. He started playing me this artist, and I was like, “who is this?!” He goes, “this artist isn’t real.” I was like, “what the f#@k?” It sounded so real, so close, it blew my mind. He told me that this [artificial] artist has around 200,000 followers in Japan. Eventually, AI could maybe sort of, get to the point where it can “create,” but at this point it’s just imitation. But, what you get from a lot of artists is also a kind of “initiation.” But can they replace a unique true artist? I don’t think so.
What qualities do you look for in a musician that might designate a true artist?
You look for someone who is genuine and focused. Those are two broad-stroke terms, but Kelly Finnigan, [who we talked about], is a great example. I’ve worked with over 1000 artists, and that guy is 1 in a million. He’s just a genius. You can see his brain turning, he’s insanely focused. He is one of the few artists I’ve met– regardless of medium, painting, sculpture, film, whatever— that is so [simultaneously] focused and talented. It blew my mind. A true original and great case for the argument against AI replacing real artists. If anything, that might be why AI takes over, just because of consistency.
You seem to really love going mano a mano with artists you admire, ever think about producing full-time?
Producing is great. I’ve been moving towards it [more and more recently]. When I first started out, I was so focused on making sure [everything was perfect]. I used to be terrified. I thought it was the holiest thing, being the person responsible for manifesting someone else’s creative ideas and vision into a tangible form. It was like handling somebody’s baby. Eventually you work with enough clients [who are ecstatic with your work], that you get more reinforcement. In the beginning I focused on engineering [as it scared me less]. If [as a producer] you don’t capture the moment, [all is lost]. As music has become second nature, I’ve started producing. It’s a lot of fun.