Musicians gung-ho for sound man: 'He made it more of what we wanted'

Musicians gung-ho for sound man: 'He made it more of what we wanted' »Play Video
Billy Barnett and fellow sound engineer Denny Conn discuss options on where to play each microphone. (Photo by Stacey Katlain)

EUGENE, Ore. - Often overshadowed by trendy cousins Portland and Seattle, Eugene isn’t widely known for its music scene.

Yet, tucked away in a quiet corner of rolling farmland lies one of the most sought-after sanctuaries for musicians of local and national acclaim.

Tori Amos, Thomas Mapfumo and the Blacks Unlimited, Cherry Poppin’ Daddies, Zoot Horn Rollo and Yo-Yo Ma are just a few to have graced Eugene’s Gung-Ho Studio.

For most musicians, Gung-Ho’s draw isn’t only its extensive array of instruments or vintage microphones from every decade, but largely the genius of its owner, sound enthusiast Billy Barnett.

Barnett, a musician turned self-taught sound engineer, knows music inside and out. In his illustrious 40-year career he has managed to generate award-winning records and has worked with almost every well-known artist in Eugene. He is also in his 20th year as the Eugene Symphony Orchestra’s recording engineer.

Outside the studio, he keeps himself artistically content as the lead guitarist in local band Mood Area 52.

“I’m kind of a jack of all trades,” he says. “I can’t separate myself from any part of the work that I do in here from my musicianship.”

Barnett’s producing success lies in his ability to relate to a range of personalities and solve a multitude of technical problems. He works to meet the structural and aesthetic needs of every artist without losing sight of the project’s original vision.

“Billy is like salt,” says Jason Cowsill, ringleader of local band Troupe Carnivàle. “Used correctly, salt doesn't make a meal salty; it enhances the natural flavor of the food.”

Barnett produced the band’s first album, “Skaal Krush,” at Gung-Ho in 2012.

“He created and produced without us losing what we came in with,” says Cowsill. “He made it more of what we wanted as opposed to turning it into something else.”

During recording sessions, Barnett is known to use experimental methods to capture specific sounds. In his session with Troupe Carnivàle, he came up with the idea to drop an old-fashioned suitcase filled with various percussion instruments to create a chaotic clash of sounds. The instrument the band calls “concussion” is featured on the track “Driving Me Crazy.”

When he isn’t inventing new instruments in his backyard studio, Barnett can sometimes be found meticulously stringing microphones from the ceiling of the Hult Center in preparation for a Eugene Symphony performance. During the show, he sits in front of his mixing board in a small control room high behind the audience and follows along with the classical score to ensure that every instrument in the orchestra is recorded with precision.

“I work with everything from hard core punk rock to classical music professionally and I love it all,” he says.

Pinpointing his clients’ desired sound is easy compared to defining the music he plays in Eugene band Mood Area 52.

“I just call it Americano because it’s somewhere between Americana and Tango, I guess,” he says.

The band’s latest record, “Company Town,” channels rockabilly, surf rock, blues, jazz and even Middle Eastern wedding music. “As we play music that’s less and less easier to categorize and pigeonhole, the more fun it is.”

Just like the hit records he helps create, Billy Barnett, the man behind the music, is a little bit of everything. A producer, an engineer, a musician, and a creative mind, he continues to exude the same enthusiasm that he named his studio for.
 

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