Studio engineer Peter Doell has worked with an impressive roster of artists, from Frank Sinatra to the Grateful Dead and from George Benson to Babyface. Peter also worked on the album Tutu and was involved in the recording of the initial tracks brought in by Marcus Miller – “Tutu,” “Portia” and “Splatch.” These recordings took place at Capitol Studio B in Los Angeles. He also worked on the overdub sessions for George Duke’s “Backyard Ritual” and the Prince tune “Can I Play With U?”
In an exclusive interview with Peter, TheLastMiles.com got to hear more about the background to how the album was put together and how Miles and Marcus Miller worked together in the studio.
Tutu album cover
TheLastMiles.com: Peter, could you tell us a little about your background and how you got involved in the music business?
Peter Doell: I grew up in Rochester, New York in 1950. It was one of those places which only had three seasons – June, July and Winter, and so it’s a good place to stay in doors and practice! It was a really good creative place to grow up in – there was a lot of great music there. One thing I remember was the Eastman School of Music was there. The Eastman used to have a summer concert series, called the “The Arrangers Holiday” and they gave these concerts and you’d hear all these great pieces of music. The guy who was doing the recording of all these show was called Phil Ramone [for those who don’t know, Phil is a legendary recording engineer and producer who has worked with many artists including, Burt Bacharach, Tony Bennett, Bono, Ray Charles, Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, Billy Joel, Elton John, Quincy Jones, BB King, Madonna, Paul McCartney, Liza Minnelli, Luciano Pavarotti, Andre Previn, Paul Simon, Frank Sinatra, Rod Stewart, Sting, The Rolling Stones and Barbra Streisand]. I remember being fascinated by seeing Phil Ramone run around.
It was year or two after The Beatles came on the scene and I was already a fan of radio and somewhere in the pre-pubescent moment there was the Gestalt that if you knew what you were recording, you could have a less than great song and less than great band and still have a hit on your hands!
Peter Doell © copyright and courtesy Peter Doell
[Later on, Peter played bass and guitar and put together bands in high school and at college, where he started out studying biology with the view of having a career in medicine. But he changed courses and studied music].
TLM: How did you get from biology to music?!
PD: When I was in college I had a drummer in the band who was in the music department. One day, I was in the music building and this door opened and I saw all these multi-track Scully tape recorders and I said: “Excuse me, what class do you have to be in to get into this room?” It was an electronic music composition department and had the biggest Moog synthesiser. I shifted gears and became an electronic music composer. I worked with a lot of great, whacky people like John Cage and Lejaren Hiller, people who were big names in that style of music, so that was a lot of fun in that period of my life. Of course you graduate with a degree in electronic music composition, so where do you go from that?”
TLM: So what happened next?
PD: I moved to Boston in 1974 ostensibly to hang around with a lot of musician friends of mine and play music. As luck would have it, I stumbled into a recording studio that no longer exists called Dimension Sound and I cut my teeth doing sessions there. I had some background in recording from my college days and kinda fell into a job where I could work in a studio by day and play music at night. I did that until about 1980 and moved out to Los Angeles and did the same thing. I was uncertain whether I was going to be a bass player or an engineer. Bass playing sounded like more fun, but there was so much crap to wade through. But in my first year, I met a guy who managed to get me a job at Wally Heider Recording, where I did a lot of great stuff – the first record I worked on was an Eddie Money record with Tom Dowd [another great engineer/producer, whose artist resume included Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonius Monk and Cream]. It was a fantastic experience to work with him. [Peter worked at Wally Heider for about a year and went to another studio, Sunset Sound, where he worked for around 18 months.]
TLM: Any interesting sessions there?
PD: Lots! One of the guys I worked with was insanely talented – he was called Prince. When he first showed up, he was in all-purple and no one could figure out what the heck he was up to. A guy called David Leonard and his wife Peggy used to do his sessions and I got to work on a couple. The guy was so incredibly creative. I remember days when Prince would come into the studio at like 9am, kick you out of the room for about twenty minutes, then he’d write a song – “1999” was a day like that. Then he’d come back into the [recording] room and you’d better have the drums tuned up and ready because he’s going to play the daylights out of the drums – he was an incredible drummer. Then he’d go on and do the bass, keyboards and by one o’clock you’re mixing it and by four o’clock you run off and have it mastered. So from nine-to-five, you went from not having even written the song to having it mastered. He was an unbelievable cottage industry. [From here, Peter went to Capitol Studios in 1983]
Two sketches by Miles for Peter. Photo © copyright and courtesy Peter Doell
TLM: How did you get to work on Tutu?
PD: I was doing a movie with [film composer] James Newton Howard and he was kind enough to recommend me to Tommy LiPuma, when Tommy needed an engineer. I think Tommy’s regular engineer Al Schmitt had had an accident and couldn’t work. Anyway, I’m working with Tommy on a George Benson record and Tommy says ‘Next week, we got a date with Miles.’ And I’m thinking ‘Who? He can’t be talking about Miles Davis!’ but Tommy said ‘yes.’ I was just aghast at the opportunity to work with the guy. I was very trepidatious about because I’d heard he didn’t like white people – and I’m pretty white. Tommy had only worked with him at his home when he was trying to figure out what material to record. So neither of us really knew what it was going to be like, so it was very interesting getting into the sessions.
TLM: What was it like the first time you met Miles?
PD: The first day he shows up and takes off his coat and he looks around and says: ‘Usually I get a round of applause when I do this.’ Tommy and I look at each other kinda nervously ‘okay, here we go. Is this what it’s going to be like working with this cat?’ And he was just trying to bust our balls, which he did with great relish. He was so much fun to work with. I also remember from those sessions how like the godfather he was. He’d come in and hand me his horn and say ‘Keep it warm for me when I’m not playing.’ It was so fantastic. He was always drawing on these big Capitol recording pads and he was constantly doodling when he was on the phone or listening to a playback. I got a couple of these. One is of me and he wrote ‘Peter’ on it and it’s of a person running around, which was kinda what I was doing, because I didn’t even have an assistant. Miles never came to the studio with an entourage. The first day, he came in with Tommy LiPuma and every other day he came in by himself, except one day when his wife at time Cicely Tyson came down.
One of the Tutu shots of Miles
TLM: What was it like when you first met Marcus?
PD: He was really quiet and introverted. He’s an amazingly studious guy – he’s a unique cat. I was a bass player and once I heard this guy play, it was like “Oh my God!” He’s a phenomenal player and he had just tore it up in New York doing all these R&B records. I didn’t recognise his name but when I heard him play it was like “Wait a moment. You must be the guy in this record and that record.”
TLM: How did Marcus Miller work in the studio?
PD: Marcus had been a woodwind player, so to play these melodies and show Miles these things, he whipped out a soprano sax and Miles would say ‘get over here and stand next to me’ and suddenly the two of them are playing on the record. Marcus was really scared, because he hadn’t played the instrument for years, but that guy is an insane talent. I remember the thing he loved to play the most was the bass clarinet and that’s got to be one of the hardest things to play. He really inspired Miles on that record.
TLM: What was the studio set-up like?
PD: Marcus brought in his Linn [drum] machine where he had basically written the grooves for the tunes. I had never seen anyone go so radical in terms of programming the drum machine [Marcus worked with Jason Miles on the programming in New York. Jason Miles did not attend the LA sessions, so Peter did not meet him]. So we would lay down the rhythmic stuff and then he’d play the bass. Sometimes he’d play three basses – a fretless, some popping stuff and synth bass. It was so creative how he heard all these basses. There would be this incredible density and yet the impression of all this space. He had amazing insight into recording.
TLM: That would take the best part of a day to lay down?
PD: Oh no – it was really quick with him. In this era [1980s], drum samplers and alternative sources were just coming on-board. The ride cymbal sample we had on “Portia” was incredible. You could have two different samples for two different attacks, a loud one and soft one and you’d pitch them slightly differently. Then we would record with a real snare drum and Marcus would go out [into the studio] and do some drag strokes. So you’d have these two machine sounds and then he’d make it swing with these drag strokes that he’d go out and play – the cat was so clever.
TLM: Then Miles would come in and record on top?
PD: A lot of it was going on with Marcus standing next to him and play the melodies. The trust Miles and Marcus had – they really liked and respected each other. So Miles would do this amazing shit before he knew what the tune was about, but maybe it wasn’t in the best place. But Marcus just saw it all as putty. He’d take it and we’d sample it and move it around. Miles was like: “No problem, do whatever you want.”
TLM: So there was a lot of editing?
PD: Yes, but that’s nothing new in jazz. I knew Tom Dowd had cut a lot of jazz records. He did a couple of John Coltrane records that are arguably the most important ones – he did “Giant Steps” and “A Love Supreme.” And he was talking then how John would say “I like the way I play here but can you put it over there?” Tom said he edited a lot of those things and I said: “I know guys who would slit their throats when they hear this.’ They had shredded [practised] these solos for years only to discover that Coltrane really didn’t play it like that – they were edited together. I’m sure they were fantastic in their raw state, but they were enhanced compositionally with a razor blade. So some of that we did with sampling and moving it around on the 24-track tape – it was really marvellous to see.
TLM: What kind of hours did you work?
PD: It was pretty civilised, late morning, early afternoon. We certainly didn’t do any marathon hours. I remember going out to eat a couple of times – Tommy LiPuma likes to eat and knows good wine and good restaurants – with Tommy and Miles and hearing stories about the Los Angeles Jazz scene from Miles, who was here in the 40s – there were some great stories.
Miles sketch of Peter rushing about. Photo © copyright and courtesy Peter Doell
TLM: What was Tommy’s role?
PD: He was more of the conduit, a director. Since there was already a nice flow going on between Miles and Marcus, he was more about jogging things along or reinforcing a direction rather than having to steer anybody in any direction. These guys [Miles and Marcus Miller] were tremendously creative and really didn’t need any prodding to come up with something interesting. Miles was very good at knowing what he wanted. It wasn’t like some people who have to look at something for six months to know whether they like it or not.
TLM: Keyboardist and programmer Adam Holzman was also involved in the sessions, wasn’t he?
PD: I’d never heard of this guy, but oh my God, what a creative spark this guy had – he was amazing. I do remember learning a very valuable lesson there. Marcus and Adam were working out some solo Marcus wanted, so they were just screwing around with something and Marcus says: ‘Just roll this section, but don’t record it,’ and Adam played this incredible thing and Marcus said ‘That was amazing! Let’s hear that back!’ and I said ‘You told me not to record it!” Ever since then, whenever anybody tells you not to record, you gotta record it!
TLM: How easy was Miles to record? Some engineers say he liked to move around.
PD: I don’t remember that being a problem. I know from recording some tenor guys they like to swing around and so you have to compress the sound to make it right, but I don’t remember having to do that with Miles.
TLM: What was you reaction when Tutu came out and what was your feeling about the album now?
PD: I was a Miles Davis fan back in the 1960s, but I had to admit that the Jack Johnson was the last record that I felt was great. There were a lot of records after that I thought were kinda garbage. They just didn’t appeal to me musically. I always admired Miles, bringing to the fore these unheard of young cats, but musically it didn’t rev my motor. So this was the best record since Jack Johnson for me. When we were doing it, I was just thrilled as a Miles fan to hear him go this way and of course you have to take your hat off to Marcus. This record had such a backbone to it and such integrity. I also think I was fortunate to get involved in the first half, because compositionally, the stuff that we did was much better than the other stuff in New York.
TLM: You’ve worked on so many amazing projects and with so many monumental musicians, so where does Tutu stand?
PD: I have to say that bar none, this album was the greatest of them all. I never in my wildest dreams thought I would be working with Miles. It was an incredible once-in-a-lifetime experience.