25th Anniversary Special Feature!
Cookie Marenco In Her Studio For A BBC Interview
How did Cookie get her start as a recording engineer?
My career as a recording engineer started by accident. I had been teaching classical piano and oboe since I was 14 years old. When I entered college, I wanted to study film composing and jazz — neither of those were offered in colleges back when I was in school. So, with 80 piano students, taking tests to pass the first two years of music (which turned me into a ceramics major), and playing in two improvisation ensembles, I dropped out of school to pursue a career in music.
Somewhere along the line, I had developed an interest to learn about tuning systems, overtones, and the physics of music. I wanted to build synthesizers. What also interested me was how other cultures created their music around tuning systems that us "western music" folks were never really taught. The rhythms of South Africa, the ragas of North India, and the instruments that had been used for centuries that we in the USA had no idea existed — all interested me. And it interested the people who I was in bands with.
The View Outside Of OTR Studios At Sunset
I had the great fortune to study with Art Lande for jazz and improvisation, who encouraged me to explore my wildest dreams in composition. Art Lande had just become an ECM artist back then. My first improvisations mimicked Debussy more than Oscar Peterson. For the first four years, none of my compositions were in 4/4. I was addicted to odd meters. I then studied with Allaudin Bill Matthieu who was Art's teacher and also taught at Mills College (where many experimental synthesizer / classical musicians taught). Allaudin taught composition from a unique perspective. My education after I left college was far from normal, which was to my liking.
The band and I were listening to Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Cecil Taylor, Nikhil Banergee, Ravi Shankar, music from Africa, electronic experimental music and new classical improvisations. The drummer and I had the opportunity to study North Indian Classical music with Krishna Bhatt. Me on sitar and him on the tablas. For three years, every week, we drove to Berkeley for these lessons. My world of sound was expanded.
A few years later, I played keyboards and toured in bands with Sonny Simmons (who played with Eric Dolphy and John Coltrane), Pete Escovedo, and Carter Jefferson (Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers). Thirty years later, that experience would position me to record the last album that Max Roach would perform.
But the weekly band I played in and where my soul came to life, was very extreme and improvisational. J.A. Deane (a.k.a. Dino, one of the first sampling artists who also played with Jon Hassell and Brian Eno) was in the band we called, Out There Orchestra. We were so far out, famous musicians wanted to come but remain secret just to have some fun at our rehearsals. At the same time, we all had our rock, funk, and new wave bands we played in.
After one really bad experience with a rock poet, myself and the drummer (Bob — we lived together at the time) had to quit the band just before leaving for a European tour. The situation was too crazy. We didn't know what to do. At that point, Dino said, "your house would be a great place for a studio. You could put an elevator right where the fireplace is." What band doesn't dream of recording their own demos?
Cookie Splicing Leader Tape On The Otari MTR-90 2"
So, in 1981, Bob and I each put $10,000 in and bought a lot of recording gear. I remember I did a little research contacting people we had recorded with or had experience to get an idea of what gear to buy but really, I had no experience or previous desire to be a recording engineer. I walked into Sound Genesis and famously said, "Okay, who wants my money"... and one of the sales guys came to spend it for me. He did a great job, too. I'm still using everything from the stands to the compressors to this day. Dave Angress, owner of Sound Genesis at the time, was also encouraging me as it seemed I was in their store three times a week just to hang out and ask questions. We are still great friends on our professional music journey. (Note: I just got a Beecaster USB mic from him for zoom :) ).
Before I accepted my fate as a recording engineer, there was one other thing that happened to change my career forever. When I had purchased all the gear, we dropped it off in the studio to be. My relatives from Italy had just arrived and I was gone for two weeks enjoying them for the first time. I never set foot in the studio after the gear was delivered. When I returned to the studio, I found everything setup. I was relieved to not have to do that part. I remember Dino looking up and saying, "you weren't here to set it up so you're going to learn this shit." Apparently, the band was not all that happy I wasn't around for setup.
Cookie Working Within The Control Room
I spent five to eight hours a day, every day for six months learning how to use the gear. We invited friends over to record. About three months in, we realized we needed to spend another $20,000 to make a real studio. That put us into debt and we had to start a commercial business. Fortunately, my experience as a piano teacher gave me a heads up on how to book sessions. My experience as a musician provided the empathy needed to get a good performance. Learning the gear came last, but eventually I did.
Brian Mantia (Drummer In Red) Working With Gregory James (Valence Records, Far Right) While OTR Crew Looks On With Computers
Now, nearly 40 years later, we are still recording, worked on more than 500 albums, have five Grammy nominations, trained hundreds of aspiring young engineers, have a high-resolution label (Blue Coast Records) and were the first to deliver DSD downloads through the Blue Coast Music store.
Blue Coast Records SACD Posed With JMR Offrandes, Tannoy And NHT Speakers In OTR Control Room
We called the studio Out There Recording with a nod to the band that started it all. Forty years later, we're still known as OTR Studios.
The Successes And Pitfalls
Alex de Grassi Performing In The Piano Room Of OTR Studios For Blue Coast Records
In the late 1980's I was asked to be a producer and A&R representative at Windham Hill Records. During those years, I kept the studio and had trained an engineer, Randy Sellgren, to do the sessions. I hired my best friend, Amy Yamamoto, to be the studio manager. They kept things rolling along while I was not allowed to record in my studio (conflict of interest and all). During the early 1990's I left Windham Hill (still have a lot of friends from that period) and found myself sidestepping from new age music to the world of Americana and bluegrass. The 1990's were filled with sessions and starting people's careers. Plus it provided the opportunity to travel and do remote recordings.
Artists In PS Audio Room Waiting To Record Live.
I recorded many jazz artists live like Christian McBride, Abbey Lincoln, and more. There were live jazz radio broadcasts as well — like the Monterey Jazz Festival. Also had become good friends with the owners of the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. I recorded Charlie Haden at Capitol Recording in LA (two Grammy-nominated albums), was sent to London to record Ladysmith Black Mambazo (also Grammy-nominated), and went to Massachusetts to record a band of luminaries that included Levon Helm.
In 1997 I was asked to consult with Liquid Audio — a company that created the first paid digital downloads. I became their main recording engineer and traveled the world doing live recording and uploads for worldwide distribution. In my world, it was like being the first to land on the moon.
In The OTR Piano Room With Jeff Coffin (Dave Matthews Band / Bela Fleck), Derek Jones (Cirque du Soleil), And Cookie Marenco (Producing)
But, after 20 years of recording non-stop, I hardly had time to think or appreciate what was happening. I needed a break. So in June 2000, after 20 years of engineering, I fired myself and told the crew they could leave or stay, but I wasn't coming into work for a while. I took a break in search of my next adventure. It's another chapter to talk about how I started Blue Coast Records with Jean Claude Reynaud, so I'll pause here.
What Makes Recording So Special?
Recent Photo Of OTR Control Room With Accordion, Flashing Lights, And OTARI MTR-90 2" Tape Machine Remote Control
Blue Coast Records