Tuesday Sep 23 2008
By: Paul Cambra The Press-Tribune
Veteran producer, session man mixes musical magic in Downtown Roseville recording studio
Richie Ayres can remember buying his first guitar. He was 6 years old and his folks drove from their home in Lodi to his aunt and uncle’s pawn shop in Roseville. “Chester’s on Vernon Street,” Ayres said. “They still own it.” For that he is fortunate. Fast forward 33 years, after he parlayed that $60 guitar and amp into a musical career – first as part of a guitar and vocal duo, then work as a session musician in Los Angeles and finally as a recording engineer – and Ayres found himself back at Chester’s. “My uncle knows a bit about jewelry,” said Ayres, who was shopping for an engagement ring at the time. “I came seeking his advice.” While his uncle was busy helping a customer, Ayres wandered around the corner to Lincoln Street Music, where he discovered half of the building would soon be for lease. In January of 2008, Ayres moved his River City Recording Studio from its Sacramento home to Downtown Roseville. Now, with the help of some state-of-the-art technology, Ayres creates musical magic from the ground up. Accomplished on guitar, bass and drums – as well as vocal harmonies – he is able to offer his services as musician, engineer and producer. As for the instruments he hasn’t mastered, Ayres’ years in the business have left him well connected. Need a little trumpet on your song? He’ll bring in Mic Gillette, from Tower of Power’s original horn section. Some sax? How about Marc Russo, of the Doobie Brothers? There’s Amy Ruff for vocals, both lead and backing; and he can recommend a few good bass players, one of them a real live Waborita. He knows plenty of percussionists to pick from, including Johnny Barbata, who drummed for Jefferson Starship and CSNY, to Keith Edwards, who made his name in Nashville, keeping time for the likes of Amy Grant and Pam Tillis. “In the old days, when you were working with tape, it was necessary to play along with other musicians,” said Edwards, who was in studio doing percussion overdubs. “With today’s technology, you could be in another state and lay down your tracks.” But even with the Solid State Logic compressors and Apogee converters and Neumann U87 microphones River City has to work with, it’s experience behind the board that counts. Ayres’ ability to advise his clients from both an artistic and technical perspective gives the client more bang for their studio buck. Edwards was working on tracks for Roseville singer/ songwriter Gary LaMark, who initially played the songs on an acoustic guitar in the studio. Ayres then offered suggestions and recommendations. “I might play along to give the artist an idea of what their song would sound like with more instrumentation,” Ayres said. “Once they hear their music produced with additional instruments they get the full picture.” LaMark admits he relies a lot on Ayres’ expertise. He is using River City Recording to produce a 12-song CD of original material. “I love the melting of the talent,” LaMark said, “Watching it all come together then hearing the finished product. I try to be here for all of the sessions.” When Marc Russo was adding saxophone licks, LaMark watched quietly, handing Ayres chord charts when needed. There is a sense of isolation to the whole process. The musician, behind glass, listens to music through earphones that the observer is oblivious to. Small pieces of conversation float between producer and player. All that’s heard are out-of-context solos. “Sometimes a musician might put down three good solos and you can’t decide which one to use,” Ayres said. “I’ve gone in and picked a piece from this one and a bit from that one and put it all together to make a solo, and the musician will hear it and say, ‘I don’t remember playing that.’” Ayres’ own musical journey began not long after he came home from Chester’s with that guitar. He first played professionally at age 14, and by 18 was opening for Willie Nelson at a festival in Clements, Calif. He teamed up with Steven Hensley in the ’90s to form the aptly-named Hensley/-Ayres, a guitar and harmony duo. They managed to get a CD released, though as Ayres said, “The studios were looking for the next Nirvana, and we were more like the Eagles.” Working in recording studios in Mendocino and Los Angeles, Ayres learned from some of the best engineers and musicians, fine-tuning his skills as a producer, song developer and arranger. His musicianship and talent for complex vocal harmonies gained him a reputation as a valued session man. His ability to both produce and play on tracks makes River City Recording a valuable asset to the local music scene, offering more-than-competitive rates and the latest in recording technology. His advice to young bands itching to get that first CD under their belt? “Come prepared,” Ayres said. “If I feel a group isn’t quite ready, I’ll give them advice to help them get ready. I don’t want them to waste their money.” There will be plenty of time for that when they hit the big time. Until that day comes, they can learn from Ayres that honing one’s craft and learning from the best can lead to a rewarding musical career.