Legendary New Orleans audio engineer Cosimo Matassa recorded many of the great early rock and roll, R&B, and soul hits by the likes of Little Richard, Fats Domino, Professor Longhair, Ray Charles, Allen Toussaint, Dr. John and recorded arguably the first rock and roll record “The Fat Man” by Fats Domino. He helped create a sound that was distinct to New Orleans. It is a very long list of important artists and records that Matassa was involved with that shaped the music we all have heard and love. The following is an interview on May 4, 2007.
Interview took place at his office above Matassa’s store in the French Quarter of New Orleans at the corner of Dauphine and St. Philip.
TC: How long has the store been here? This (office) is part of the store?
Cosimo; Yeah. My father opened this up before I was born and I’m 81. It’s a real family business. Fifth generation.
TC: You did work in the store when you were a kid?
COS: Sure. Remember my childhood was through the depression. Everybody that could, worked. When I came home from school when I was small, I would put stuff down at the bottom. When I got bigger I put stuff on shelves there and bigger I put stuff even better. (laughter) But I worked you know. It was our life. You may think of it as getting along. You were glad you had the opportunity to do something.
TC: You went to school. Did you go to Tulane? Is that where you went to school?
COS: Yeah I went to Tulane University two years, and then I dropped out and got into my father’s jukebox business on the side. Jukeboxes in bars and restaurants on a commissioned basis. And what happened was I was studying to be a chemist and it took me about two years to figure out that I didn’t want to be a chemist.
So I was coming up on my 18th birthday in April so I said well, in January can I drop out of school and hang for awhile cause then I would probably get drafted World War II you know. He said alright you know. I got a hammer toe and bad eyes so I’m going to get drafted? He said you’ve got to back to school or go to work, one of the two. You’re not gonna you know. Since was disenchanted with the damn chemistry thing. I went to work in his jukebox business. From that at the end the war we used to…during the war _____ 78’s. And the quality was terrible. Popular records, every week we had to put a new one on cause it was worn really bad you know? So we started off at our office selling the used records. And customers there said well what about this new record and that new record. We were buying records for the machines so we just bought extra ones and started selling those. So when the war ended we fixed up the little store on Rampart and Dumaine. Sold records and appliances which hadn’t been available for years. Figured it would be a good thing to do. And put a little room in the back for people to record. It was thought of as a place where people could come and make personal recordings. You know somebody would bring his daughter in and record what she was going to play for her recital tomorrow. That kind of thing or personal thing from one to another. It started off that way of course and then people started coming in to make demo records for their bands. Trying to get a record contract or whatever. You know things like that. Probably used in place of a rotten live performance. So it just gradually grew and within a short time, that was all I was doing. It was really busy.
TC: You didn’t have any experience in audio, as an audio engineer prior to that?
COS: None at all. OJT. On the Job Training. (laughter) Now I did, well I had a lot of technical training from my going to school. I’ve always been technically oriented as a youngster. I joined the Audio Engineering Society.
COS: And that helped me immediately. I got back issues of the journals and stuff like that. I got myself oriented really easily. Going to conventions and talking to and meeting with people who were doing anything I was starting to do was a big help too. If your students can do it, they should get into AES if they are serious about what they’re doing.
TC: Do you know a fellow by the name of Claire Kreps?
TC: I just interviewed Claire Kreps. He lives near me. He was one of the founding fathers of AES.
TC: Once you got the studio up and going, did you build a control room and then a live space? How was the design of it?
COS: The place was small. The control room was the size of my four fingers. The studio was 15×16. So it wasn’t large at all. Back then they still had bands with 12 pieces.
TC: So you crammed everybody in there? You just packed them in.
COS: Yeah. Had to. Had no choice. Now there were times if I had like a chorus or something like that to record, there was a high school here in New Orleans. Booker T. Washington had a large theater. With a proscenium and a stage with a space for flies for the sceneries. The stage itself was big. So I bring them over there, pull the curtains, and use the stage like a big recording room.
TC: And you would haul your gear over there?
COS: Yeah well by then I had an Ampex 300. Which was portable 2 men and a boy. A boy to open the door and two guys to carry the damn thing. It was the only way you could do it. We did it. And did some on location stuff. Not a lot.
TC: What gear did you have when you first started recording?
COS: That was direct to disc. Presto 28N. Which was a dual disc recorder. What we did back then was we cut what were “wild tracks” on a large 16 inch disc. Or you cut directly to disc the master. And when you did that, then you did two. You did a master and a safety at the same time. You played the safety but didn’t play the master so not to damage the grooves and such. And then a few years later a guy, I’m trying to think of his name. He invented a very light weight, very low needle resistance pick-up. And when that came along, then you could actually play a master and not damage it. So you could then do like I said the “wild tracks” and make a transfer. It was fun.
TC: What types of mics were you using then?
COS: Fortunately I was steered well on the microphones. I was using Western Electric 639, the big bird cage. 77 or 44 ribbon mics from RCA. And a couple of dynamic mics. I had a good layout. Now I didn’t have a big mixer. The mixer that came with my Presto had only three inputs. As soon as I could I got a small portable 4 input mixer that you could take on location. What I did was, I use the 3 channels on the original system into one of the channels on that thing. So I had a sub-master of 3 mics and that could be my rhythm. OK? And then three others for whatever way you could do it. And I did a lot of mic sharing where. (pause) Oh I had an Altec 21-B. It looks like baseball (bat) kind of thing you know? Omnidirectional condenser. Really good microphone. So I had it on a stand, and a baby boom. It was looking near the snare drum at the thing. But because it was on a baby boom you just swing it out, put it back. So the sax player standing next to him, when he had to do a solo would swing that 21-B around, play his solo and shove it back. (laughter) You made do. You had to.
TC: Wow I never heard that before.
COS: Yeah I don’t think of telling people that since it ‘s what you are interested in is the technique as much as anything else.
TC: Was there a particular mic that you liked using for vocals?
COS: Well short on from when I had that mic set up I told you about, a very dear friend of mine in a very conservative Jewish synagogue told me he had a present for me. I said what on earth are you talking about? Well the local synagogues here sorta unofficial competition who’s got the best cantor. So they bought a Telefunken, the original Neumann 47. OK? No sooner they started using it when some of the Jewish people in the thing said what are we doing using a German microphone? Insisted that he get rid of it. So my friend that they sold it half of what they thought was back then. The regular price of the thing was probably $300 bucs or so. So I got a Telefunken microphone for $150 bucs. Man it really makes a difference. Until today you’ve got to go to something. In fact you’ve seen scenes in studios, that mic or one of it’s successors is in front of a vocalist.
TC: Yeah, a fantastic mic.
COS: Yeah they’re crisp. They got that little bump in the mid range. That helps you know.
TC: What did J&M stand for?
COS: Oh my father’s initials. John Matassa
TC: Ah. You moved from there down to Governor Nichols?
TC: Mid ‘50’s?
COS: Late near mid ‘50’s. I’m bad about dates. By then I was doing 3 track I think. At the Gov. Nichols location I went up to 4 track and then 8 track. That’s as much as I ever did. I was doing 8 track while other people were doing 24. It never was quote state of the art.
TC: Yeah but the quality of what was coming out…
COS: Fortunately I had good equipment. You know. I was very careful about keeping it maintained and things like that. Speaking of maintenance. I bought a fantastic limiter. I’m trying to think of what the company was. Anyway it used 4 6L6’s (tubes) to drive the clamping volt cause it could wrap and dump a lot of current real easily. You could imagine, that’s enough for like 110 watts. It was dumping voltage into a controlled circuit. Anyway, you had to keep the thing absolutely balanced. For instance, if you changed one of the tubes, you spent an hour getting it all balanced again because the current from that tube was different than the new ones. Sometimes I would change them in pairs. Because it was push pull, two on each side. If one side, on my 1, 2 died. Things like that. Trying to keep it technically working best I could. So you know you watch things like voltage condensers, coupling condensers, and remember I’m talking tubes and things like that. You really try and watch it because that was the whole of your show if everything is screwed so to speak. You wanted it big as possible to be working better. So I watched that real carefully. It was important and I’m glad I did because it made a difference.
TC: Were you using limiters up on Rampart?
TC: Or did you start using them at Gov. Nichols.
COS: The first limiter I got was, I tell you what. I bought a book called Motion Picture Sound Engineering by some guy something like that. Remember I’m talking a long time ago. It turned out, that once the movie industry had talkies, they were at the forefront. Them and the telephone company were at the forefront of development. So things like equalizers, limiters, compressors, those kinds of things, and gates. One of the things that the motion picture industry was using gates on microphones. If there wasn’t any sound that originated there, that mic was shut off so you wouldn’t get that extra noise into the mix. So that book kind of opened my eyes to what was going on. What was the guy who had the fantastic studio in Chicago? (Bill Putnam – Universal Recorders studio) Cause I learned a lot from him. He became a good friend. He taught me a lot. And then he moved to the west coast started manufacturing equipment. Equalizers and things like that. I should know his name. Anyway him, Tom Dowd at Atlantic were really big helps to me. Even after a while we’d call each other once or twice a month, once a week chat about what new was done and all that. I can’t think of his name but the studio thing in Chicago, he was the first person to use reverberation theatrically. He did a thing with a, well first of all the musicians union had a strike against the record companies. You know money. So you couldn’t record musicians for a year. But harmonica players weren’t considered musicians. (laughter) Yeah! So he recorded a group called the Harmonicats. Did a record called Peg of My Heart. Look that sucker up if you can and listen to it. And think about how long ago he used this reverberation for theatrical purposes. The harmonica with those big swimming reverbs sounded like an organ. (laughter) You know. And I looked forward to things like that. It was really nice. And like I said, he was kind enough to help me a lot and benefited from his expertise.
That was the one thing he told me, it had nothing to do with technology but it’s the kind of thing for your students to think about. If they’re going to be in this as a job or occupation, they better think about the business side of it. The first time I went to Chicago to visit my friend at his studio, the gal at the front was about a 6 foot 2 Swedish girl. Looked like a goddess. And I told him, man I said, don’t tell me there ain’t something happening with that girl. He said man they gone out and hired a chick. I do a lot of advertising here. Commercials, jingles, and stuff like that. He says guys don’t call in their bookings. They come IN to make their bookings. (laughter) And I got a big kick out of that. Yeah he said, they don’t call them in, they come in and make their bookings. (imperceptible)
TC: Yesterday we were speaking briefly and you made a really good point. The engineer needs to capture the sound of that band.
COS: That’s your job.
COS: And today sadly, a lot of engineers seem like they’re producers. Now if you’re a producer fine. You do what you want. But if you’re an engineer somebody else is the producer, you do what he wants. And what he wants is the performance. So if you were transparent, you did your job. How else to put it?
TC: Sessions like jazz sessions, you need to be transparent anyway.
COS: You don’t want to curb the creativity.
TC: What types of sessions were you doing, let’s say when you were at J&M up on Rampart?
COS: Well, in those days I was doing mostly small groups. Dixieland, Cajun, country, gospel.
COS: Yeah. And they were just a lot of fun. Most of them were good.
TC: It didn’t matter. You weren’t saying I am just going to do this one genre.
COS: No, no.
TC: You had to make a living.
COS: Yeah right. In fact I did a talk at some students at one of the local universities about three years ago and I made this point. Suppose you were a photographer. And you buy some equipment and you rent a place and you set yourself. Joe the photographer. And in comes an ugly sonofabitch. (laughter) You don’t tell him to leave. You use every bit of power you got in your equipment. Everything you ever learned in your craft, to make him look as good as possible. You know. When it’s through, you give him his stuff, take his money and thank him. That’s the process. And you use. That’s why you need to know your craft. But when you get a tough job, you need to deal with it the best you can. And I told them, I said if a guy comes in and he’s ugly you don’t tell them to go away. You do the best you can and take his money. He’s still going to be ugly but you going to give him a good looking photograph.
TC: Yeah some students think they are going to record one style of music. I really try to drive that home.
COS: Let me tell you. Just as an aside. A lot of the guys that play in the local clubs and recorded in the studio. Really the better players. All almost without exception love jazz. But they’re making money from playing for the people who are paying the money. Now they get together after hours and jam somewhere you know. Or maybe they take a gig for one or two nights and get together and play some really nice jazz. But they understood. Most of them of course that the fact that you liked it didn’t have anything to do with it, how you made your living. You sell people what they want, the best you can do it. And the other part is your life that you want to enjoy. Jam then. You can’t, cause you like jazz I’m only going to work on jazz. You better be one helluva expert. You’re not going to find a whole lot to do.
TC: What was the first big success that you had? The first big successful recording that came out of J&M?
COS: Probably from Rampart Street “Good Rockin’ Tonight” by Roy Brown. Cause that, if you listen to that thing it’s got gospel, big band sound, multiple rhythm things going on and a shouting bluesy vocal. It was fun to do. (laughter) Nobody knew it was going to sell. Well you never know. I say it and it’s true. Nobody goes into the studio to make “B” sides. They happen. You know? You don’t go in there, everything you do man this is it. These are the four best songs I can possibly do. And three of them are per_____. You don’t know until you do them.
TC: It must have been really exciting to hear these people coming through.
COS: It was a fun way to make a living let me tell you. And you can tell your students that too. I had to do the mundane and the pedestrian but that’s all apart of making that living. Oh yeah you got the opportunity to really enjoy yourself.
TC: Was there ever any problem racially?
COS: Not for me. I was born here in the French Quarter which was an integrated neighborhood. Blacks, whites, French, German, Italians. It was a mixed blue collar ghetto when I was a small kid. All working people. You didn’t hear that problem. We lived next door to a wonderful black lady that would pass food over the fence to us and us to her. Things like that. And she really loved my three kids, my youngest daughter Louie. She just loved and liked to be with her. Like my child almost. As kids we played mixed teams of stickball. You know when you roll up the newspaper and tie it with string, and use a broomstick for a bat. In the street you playing ball. But when the government got involved and when we go to school, I went to white schools and black friends they had to go to black schools. Even had the unions! There was a black union and a white union.
TC: I heard about that, yeah. What kind of hours did you keep at the studio?
COS: 24-7. Anytime they want that. We did a lot of sessions started at like two in the morning. They’d get off their night club gigs, and come down to the studio. It was like a guy in an orchestra was doing something at 5:00. Cause that’s their off time. So we’d be going until daylight.
TC: Did you have help then?
COS: Off and on, yeah. In fact after when I got real busy I had one or two sometimes three people were also doing sessions. Cause we were just going round the clock.
TC: When did you move from Governor Nichols?
COS: Early ‘60’s. Yes ’63, ’64.
TC: Then you went up to Camp?
COS: Camp Street yeah. Now on Governor Nichols I had two different studios. Started off with a small one at 523 Gov. Nichols. I was there a short while when the place next door to me towards the river, which was a cold storage warehouse for avocados closed up as an avocado storage warehouse. It was a natural to buy as a studio. Here’s this room 35 feet wide, 60 feet long you know? 16 foot ceiling and 4 inch caulking on the walls and everywhere. The insulation for the cold.
TC: So you had a nice natural reverb?
COS: No, there wasn’t much natural reverb in that room. If you did, it would be too delayed and that smeared. Here’s something to tell your students that’s something to watch out for. Is delay time on reverb. You make it too long it smears things. So you have to watch. Now you can use it theatrically the way that Peg of My Heart thing opened up the doors or you better know what you’re doing and pay attention.
TC: What type of reverb were you using then?
COS: I wound up using the EMT plate. Which for me was a whole step toward heaven compared to what I had the spring thing. The spring thing before that. It was terrible. And you had to really be careful if you overdrove it the least little bit, harsh. So you had to be real careful how much you drove it.
Speaking of driving things. When I started making disc masters myself, on a Neumann lathe. The guy that was here in the United States selling Grampian cutter heads, which was a moving iron cutter head. And the driver amplifier that was custom made to go with it. Steve Kendall was his name. Electronics supply company in New York. Anyway he was asking something for the pair, now back then like $8 or 900 dollars. Well hell, that was a lot of money back then. And while I’m pondering do I buy that, a friend of mine who was an engineer on an Esso tanker, was going to England. He said when I get there I’ll buy the Grampian cutter head for you. I said fine buy three. (laughter) When he brought them back I think I paid $125 a piece for those and again my friend in Chicago. I sold one to him for what I paid for it. And he gave me a circuit to use a 50 W 2 power amplifier. And the circuit that he gave me was to do the bass roll-off and high frequency bump to do disc recording. And we used that. Steve Kendall was furious but you know I saved hundreds of dollars. And actually I think that 50 W 2 amplifier was as good or better than the one he had got. But that’s another argument for another day kind of thing. So I was able to do disc…Oh so incidentally that moving iron cutter head, if you overdrove it. That magnetic circuit saturated it and you’d get a terrible bump in the third harmonic distortion. So you had to be really careful about that. And jukebox hombres wanted loud records. So you were borderline, borderline always on that. And a couple of times when I made a mistake overdrove something and have to redo it. I noticed how much just a slight increase in drive made some of it feel better. And again talking to my buddy in Chicago, we realized it was creating third harmonic distortion. Just enough to fatten the thing without harming it you know? So if you carefully overdrive it, you get a little louder record and it sounded better because it sounded fat. So it’s all that third harmonic distortion in the bottom end. (laughter) Terrible but people liked it.
TC: And that’s the sound. I’m not going to keep you much longer. How many labels did you start?
COS: I didn’t start but two labels. Rex and Dover which later changed to White Cliffs.
TC: Oh you see that’s the one I’m thinking of. Rex…what came first?
COS: Rex I think. Cause Dover came a little later. But I recorded for hundreds.
TC: That I know but I was curious about your own little labels. Just the business side of it, was it difficult?
COS: I didn’t have the right orientation to be in it. Because once when I moved to Camp Street I went into the record business. I started leasing things for people I did. Others around the country in fact. And I was selling records as a manufacturer. So those were records and I had all these labels I was selling. All of them were product of some other people. I even built a record plant. I was pressing records. I had a 6 press record plant. I was doing a lot of business but the mistake I made was what I needed was a mean sonofabitch sitting in the corner with a green eye shade. When anybody who gave me an order, said well you didn’t pay the last one off. I didn’t do that. I was shucking records. I was in good ooooo. Then I couldn’t collect and I went busted. It was really bad. It was my own fault. Looking back at it. I could have been so dumb, I don’t know.
TC: What happened to all of your recording gear?
COS: Over the years I bought something new and got rid of the old thing whatever. You know sell it. And then the last stuff I had that I saved got lost in the flood when Katrina came. I had it in a warehouse at my sons had in mid-city and they had seven feet of water. Well everything was below seven feet so it all drowned. What are you going to do? When something like that happens. Still had some them good equalizers that I had bought originally. They sell at a premium today. Those circuits were Bell Lab circuits. Heat licensed and built… really great stuff. And there was a company called Cinema that made gear for the film business. They made hi/low pass filters. Dialogue filters to give you bumps where you want them. Make the voice crystaler. Roll off sometimes that bottom end when people groan. Or get too close to the mic, a lot of mics that proximity effect sounds too bassy. And then you can roll that off if you have the right curve built-in. So Cinema was a big help with all that help.
You have to think about it. It’s your job it’s your craft it’s your life. Do it well. And that’s important too. I think… one thing you can tell your guys is take pride in their work. And when they’re finished, ain’t nobody gonna do nothing better than that. And if somebody does it better, find out what he’s doing.
TC: And that also you know, word gets around of the quality of the work you are doing. And that’s how you will get more business.
COS: You know, I don’t want to brag but you play my stuff now and still comes through clean. For today.
TC: But it just shows your standards, your ears you know that’s what it really…
COS: Oh you got have good ears I agree. You got to want to do as well as you can. That forces you to think about it. You know? It’s progressive. You do something. Oh I could have done such and such. Next time you try that and it’s better.
The one thing I was careful about because I learned the hard way about it was how you tell people suggestions to do what they do better. You got to be really careful not to… I developed what I call the “bad dog” rule. And it works like this for me. If I make a suggestion, you know why don’t you try such and such or maybe do the second verse first and the first verse second because the progression of the story is better things like that. When you tell somebody something like that, gee thanks and they try it. But if they say I’m doing it the way I do it. Well I developed a thing that if a dog bites you he’s a dog. If he bites you twice he’s a bad dog. OK? So if you tell them something and they ignore you and you tell them something later and they ignore you, you’ve been bitten twice. That client’s a bad dog. Watch out. Let them alone. Let them do their thing. When they’re through, you don’t take money for nothing. And that I think is crucial. You’ve got to be really careful how you interact with people in the studio.
TC: Some artists have huge egos and are very delicate.
COS: Yeah right. Also what I found because I recorded several really primitive country blues singers. And we had this one guy. They brought him in from this one farm up in central Louisiana into the studio to record and he was terrible. He never been to New Orleans to begin with. And he’s in this studio with the lights and the machinery and all. So we put the lights out in the studio. We sat him with his back to the controlroom window. We set the Fender cabinet in front of him. So he’s playing to his buddy. You’ve got to make the studio go away. It worked because he could play. We maybe could have done better if we gone to his place and recorded. It was…just had to do it. He was absolutely terrified.
TC: Where there any string bands in New Orleans during the ‘40’s and the ‘50’s that played jazz and blues? Mandolin?
COS: Oh yeah. We had a guy on the north shore. I can’t think of his name now. He was a fantastic mandolin player! Absolutely fantastic! It was his life’s hobby. He worked for a bank over there. But he played magnificently. I mean, number one he had an excellent instrument made in Europe somewhere. He paid a lot of money for it I guess. Again that syndrome you know I want to be the best kind of thing. He bought a really good one and he played We did several things. In the process, I learned that the face of that instrument is crucial. If it’s facing the mic flat on you know the mic is looking at it 90 degrees. As it changes you get a different sound. And so we had to be real careful with that. Face on it’s crisp but it smears. It gets fuzzy or something, I don’t know how to describe it. But it’s not the same crispiness. Same thing with the, back then guys were playing what they called steel guitars. With that metal plate on the front, man. Talk about recording a can thing.
TC: Yeah it is. Harsh sound. (laughter)
COS: So the fun of doing it. And you had to not upset the guy you’re recording while you’re doing it. You don’t want him to get the idea this sonofabitch doesn’t know what he’s doing. (Laughter)
TC: Cos I really appreciate your time. This has been fantastic for me.
COS: Like I say, if I have to give you guys a message it’s develop your craft if you love to do it. If you don’t love it get in another line.
TC: Find something else. You have been so successful with what you have done. You have made classic recordings one after the other.
COS: You’ve got to remember a lot of good musicians made me look good.
TD: Yeah but you were the guy that captured them.
COS: Yeah well. I appreciate different players.
TC: We all appreciate what you have done. A pioneer…
COS: Pioneer. That’s the guy with an ass full of arrows. (laughter)