Tracks of the Trade: Alby Cohen

At that point, a major transition occurred in the shift from musician to engineer. “I started writing again,” Alby remembers. “I had writer’s block after the band broke up, but I finally started recording my own stuff – only this time I would essentially fire myself from my own songs. I knew enough musicians to play them. It was such a catharsis. That’s when I became an engineer and a producer.”

From there, he continued to book as many gigs as he could, often times working for free to build up a resume of credits. In retrospect, it all seems obvious, but it goes to show how sometimes it takes a few misfortunes for people to find their true direction. “I’m not that prolific of a songwriter, but I know that I can add colors to albums being that sixth man off the bench,” Alby comments. “I’ve always loved making albums, and I’ve always thought I’d rather force myself to make a thousand albums than force myself to write my own albums. I was a musician, but I really feel my musicals skills are best on the other side of the glass. Adam Deitch keeps telling me to keep playing, but I find more passion in the recording.”

Production is not the application of tools to materials, but logic to work – Peter Drucker (writer)

In the years since, Cohen has become the house engineer at Rough Magic studios in Greenpoint, Brooklyn – the studio best known for being the home base of Eric Krasno and Adam Deitch’s production company Fyre Department – where he has really begun to define his sound while engineering for some of the major names of hip hop and jazz funk like Soulive, The Slip, Talib Kweliand Jean Grae. “My goal for the stuff that I produce is that you hear a certain sort of sound,” Alby explains. “I work with lush harmonies whenever at all possible. I like adding vocals. It’s the Beatles all over again. I definitely celebrate that, and I think vocals are an extremely important part of a song. It shouldn’t always be just one main voice, depending on the project, sometimes it should be blends.”

Hunters, Run! –  Life of Crime (Produced, recorded by and background vocals by Alby Cohen)

[audio:https://glidemag.wpengine.com/hiddentrack/wp-content/uploads/2011/08/01-Life-Of-Crime.mp3]

As a vocalist himself, Alby understands the nuances and tricks of making vocals sound locked in. “When you listen to pop music, it sounds like it might be one vocalist, but those hooks, you are talking about people that might have recorded 40 times over even though it’s mixed well an sounds like one voice.”

He takes a similar harmonic approach to building depth to the guitar and drums. “I love putting two amps on one guitar as opposed to overdubbing guitars,” Alby continues. “I think you can get more out of one take and a couple of mics, as opposed to the same amp and same mic playing the same thing over and over again. I also love Glyn Johns, who was the engineer for Led Zeppelin. I love his overhead drum miking method, although he used two overheads, a kick and a snare whereas I use thirteen mics. I start with that overhead and build the rest of the kit around that sound. Eric Krasno taught me that. He really taught me a lot of those little tricks.”

In the end, there lies a common sense philosophy behind the way Alby approaches different songs and sections. It’s all about listening to what the song calls for and responding to that. “Ultimately, I let the song tell me what needs to be done,” Alby articulates. “By that, I mean I close my eyes and if I hear an orchestra behind it, I say, ‘Hey, I got some string players if you want to have them come in?’ It’s sort of a sign of the times with digital workstations, record sales and budgets that engineers are becoming producers. I sort of represent where this industry is going in a sense. You have people like me who know how to record the music, but can also help guide bands and help them through the process.”

The value of a dollar is social, as it is created by society – Ralph Waldo Emerson

As much as the advertising game was not the right career path for Cohen, the skills he learned there have played a key role in his success. As anyone who spends a fair amount of time in and around the New York City music scene can attest, Alby knows everybody. Specifically, he’s a master at networking, introducing himself to musicians and taking advantage of social media.

“It’s part of what I do,” Alby says matter-of-factly. “It’s part of music to me and it always has been, whether it’s going to Camp Creek in ’96 or the Clifford Ball all the way through. I love gatherings and I love when musicians come together and do things. I love watching it all come together and happen. It’s living vicariously through these musicians. So, part of it is just making friends and letting people know who I am and how I can help them; talking about how much I enjoyed the show, basically all the things you ever want to tell your musician friends. I have the fortune of being able to go up to them and say, ‘I loved that riff or that fill.’ Relationships build at some point if they need a studio and they call. That’s when I get the chance to prove them my value.”

The Kobolds – The Grind (Produced, Recorded by, background vocals by Alby Cohen)

[audio:https://glidemag.wpengine.com/hiddentrack/wp-content/uploads/2011/08/The-Grind-ARIMASTERED1.3.mp3]

Furthermore, a huge part of being a successful engineer is not being afraid to take risks. Music production requires a certain level of confidence, being comfortable flying by the seat of your pants and pushing aside the nerves to show your ideas and skills to major artists. “I’m not afraid to try things, but I try not to go too far out of what I know,” Alby explains. “The tracking process is a lot easier. If you know how to set up a mic and you know how to get a good signal, then you can really focus on the arrangement. Then you have the post production side, which is actually adding effects and colorations that aren’t actually part of the music. To me it’s natural; I’ve always heard a symphony in my head. I have always said that I find musicians to have a slight form of schizophrenia, only it’s not voices, it’s notes. Some people would define that as crazy. I have that instinct in me, only the instrument for me is channeling other musicians to get to the symphony.”

I want kids of this generation to see that everything is cool – Missy Elliot

Despite a long history with jambands, a number of Alby’s big breaks came in the hip hop and jazz-funk genres, not the least of which was Talib Kweli. The hip hop focus was hardly by choice. Rather, it came as a stroke of luck in a sense. Talib Kweli needed to come into the studio and his colleagues were on the road. “It’s not by design, the hip hop thing,” Alby explains. “I had been working with Deitch for two years, at some point he and Eric [Krasno] were on the road and Talib needed to come in. Over time, we built a relationship. It was perfect timing for me, because Eric showed me a lot about engineering, how to handle a session and about how to make a client feel comfortable, and to bend over backward for them.”

“For me, it’s rewarding,” Alby continues, “because in the corporate world you have to run after the client, but I take pleasure in being that guy who goes above and beyond the call of duty as an engineer and producer. I like the musicians to feel comfortable and the vibe to be right. Eric and Adam taught me that, and that’s sort of how I developed the relationship with Talib and Pharoahe Monch and Jean Grae. They took to my enthusiasm and my love, and they probably knew I wasn’t a huge hip hop person, but I think they saw that I see music for music and if it’s good, that just because I haven’t explored it, that doesn’t mean I won’t be open to it. I’m blessed that my lesson in hip hop came from such amazing teachers.”

Alternatively, the jazz-funk genre falls right into Cohen’s wheelhouse given his jazz studies and penchant for complexity and improvisation. “The jazz funk thing, that’s natural for me,” Alby conveys. “As an engineer, that’s what you want. You want really tight players, because they have really great tone and they know how to play right. You don’t have to do any nudging or mixing. You get to mix for sound, not mix for correction. Precision-wide, I love getting up drum mics for funk, because it takes a lot of work, but when you get a good sound, there’s nothing better than Adam Deitch playing on a kit with 13 mics.”

In closing, there’s one project that Cohen would really like to see on the horizon. He wants to make a great jamband record. “It’s something I might not say on all avenues, but I’ll say it because it’s Hidden Track: I love jambands,” he laughs. “Well, I shouldn’t say I love all jambands, but I love Phish and I have always celebrated the jamband mentality. I really love that more of the jazz-funk guys that have pervaded the jamband scene since. I’m really glad that they are the ones getting the most longevity like Soulive, Lettuce and these other bands that are still doing it, because the music is undeniably that great.”

“I’ve always wanted to help jambands out in the sense that if you listen to your typical jamband album, it always tends to fall short of the live show,” he continues. “So, I’ve always wanted to work with a really tight jamband and say, ‘You guys know how to play, why don’t you just make an album? Your live show is going to be great anyway.’ Most people, they come in and make a great album, but they don’t know how to play a live show. So, the juxtaposition that I think a lot of jambands haven’t embraced is, ‘Why don’t you go be the Beatles in the studio?’ You can go be the prog rockers on stage, and it would make you that much better to have these two lives, and really celebrate the album for what it is. So, one of my goals in the future would be to produce some really tight jambands and take them to the next level. My ultimate dream job, though? That would be to produce a Phish album.”

In the end, the genre doesn’t matter as long as the talent, the drive, and the ability to collaborate are all there. “The main thing that should come across is that I am here to make albums,” Cohen concludes. “By the time I am dead and gone, I want there to be a library of music that will be the soundtrack of people’s lives. That’s what matters to me.”

Tracks of the Trade is a Hidden Track column whereby we swap stories with some of the more interesting, yet elusive, folks in the music industry, the producers and engineers. These folks are the sonic equivalent of surgeons; charged not only with the careful dissection of dozens of tiny interactive pieces and ensuring their cohesive functionality, but also developing strong emotional bonds with their patients (often mental), offering varying degrees of bedside manner, and providing critical advice.

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One Response

  1. As a Goddard Grad its awesome to see Alby Cohen getting some serious love from Hidden Track. Goddard was a hot bed for the talented and still is. Nice going Alby keep up the amazing work.

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